Saturday, October 29, 2011

EXPEDITION ' UMBA ' - 1973 ( a retrospection )

“My courses are set on the storm winds, 
I sail on the lightening stream“

Umba or ‘Amba’  is a mythological name given to the tallest  peak in the Sankoo Valley of Kargil District , Ladhak. The peak hails its name from the Umba Village which lies at its foot hills. The peak towers haughtily at 5970 m/19600 ft above mean sea level and offers a challenging sight to any mountaineer. She is snow-laden for most of the year. The peak is protected by glaciers from all sides, which dissuades even the keenest climber. The peak for the first time was assaulted by a team led by a westerner in year 1948. The success of the expedition is not known as he returned an insane without his team. Many an expeditions were launched ever since but all had to beat a retreat. The superstition goes with the villagers that ‘no living being can ever reach the Summit’. High Altitude Warfare School Sonamarg (HAWS) took up the challenge and launched a foiled Expedition in 1971. This is the story of yet another attempt by the School in year 1973.

The Expedition UMBA, strength of forty - a conglomeration of signal and medical detachments, porters, ponies and of course us - the climbers- the students and instructors of Mountain Warfare Advanced Course, set forth from HAWS in an auspicious hour on 2nd Aug 1973. Every one was in high spirits with the prospects of reaching the summit. Major Pushkar Chand of Para Commandos- our Expedition Leader and instructor, had least doubts left on the success of the mission. Success of his previous commando missions had lent him enough egos that he planned and desired to convert this expedition in to a commando raid. Captain SC Thakkan of Grenadiers - his Deputy, was not all that bright with the idea of his boss, as his long tenure in HAWS trekking and climbing the mountains had taught him enough to take such ventures with a pinch of salt. Our mountaineer doctor, Captain Shetty was in his usual form- calm and confident that his mules would accompany him with his medical satchels and oxygen cylinders to his forward medical station. The students came, some in high spirits and some with their morale in their boots.

We were at Kargil after crossing Daras by mid day. The journey thenceforth was a test of endurance of ones bowels. Traversing many a hamlets with nondescript names, which appeared and disappeared like oasis in the Sankoo Valley, the road was still ahead of us like a brownish tape winding through the barren slopes of the massifs. Settlements kept on appearing and disappearing. Their bit of greenery and the expressionless mongoloid faces staring at us were the only interludes. By evening the road took a sharp turn and our vehicles pulled up before an old school building which stood out due to its tin roof and white washed walls in sharp contrast to mud plastered  hutments around. We had reached Village Sankoo and end of the road.

After a clear days rest and recuperation at Sankoo, we were off to our Base Camp at Vakoza village with a retinue of mules and yaks loaded with our 15 days rations and the climbing equipments. Traversing a series of settlements called in vivid names we reached our destination just before darkness fell. We immediately pitched our tents and were off to a long deserved slumber. The peculiarity of the villages which struck me was their irrigational ingenuity. Every plot of cultivable land was irrigated by indigenous drainage systems. A sprinkle of water mills with their wooden funnels gaping like dragon mouths were an inevitable scene in every village.

At dawn, streaks of sunrays were pouring on us through the massifs around us. The hanging clouds of the previous day had cleared and by now we could see the Umba Peak majestically towering over other peaks. It offered us a stately challenging sight. The gruesome realisation of our dream was in sight.

The Assault Party left in the morning, on 5th August to establish the assault camp No1. By now the party was divided in to two. The Assault Party consisting of two Instructors and six students and the Admin party which formed the rest. The Admin party was to assist the assault party in lessening their burden and maintaining the Line of Communication to the assault camps intact. 

Ferrying of stores commenced from next day. The humping had to be done man pack, as the ponies, yaks and their handlers just refused to go ahead of base camp.  Unwieldy loads of 30 to 40 Kgs were packed on man pack carriers and had to be carried piggyback. The climb to Assault camp was gradual with intermittent steep features coming in between. It was drizzling most of the days. This made going all the more difficult. Soft mud had turned in to slush and one step ahead showed us two steps down. The chiding wind that blew at fifty knots an hour made the voyage a saga of miseries.

            On 7th the Assault Party set out for reconnaissance. As the Camp No1 was ahead of Shanshila Pass, our first hazard was negotiating the pass. It was a sheer vertical climb of nearly 2500 ft. The approach was through screed slopes and it took us nearly three to four  hours to traverse that distance. Soon we were negotiating the glazier which loomed in front of us. The glazier seemed quite untamed. Deep crevices were plenty. The sight of multi coloured layers of ice disappearing to fathomless depths of the crevices, each hue denoting the residual condensation of centuries in the formation of the glazier itself, was really awesome.

All the way we went pitching flags. Now and then big chunks of ice came hurtling down bringing down an avalanche of soft snow. To keep the eyes on the murderous slopes and the glazier was a tiring task. There were steep slopes to be traversed by cutting steps. In places were it was dangerous pitons with fixed ropes had to be laid and left for our return trip. By mid day the weather started getting packed. Thick fog came floating down and one could hardly see the man in front. A hailstorm was bruin. Now it became all the more dangerous and risky. The murderous crevices could be detected only on close proximity. Still we moved on like phantoms. Aim was to reconnoitre the route to the saddle that joined with the summit of the peak. The last stretch to the saddle was perilous. It took 3 hours of step cutting in the rock hard snow which took Major Chand’s rope to the saddle. Our fingers with inadequate protection of mittens and snow gloves refused to function. It was all blue and black. But the initial success was giving Chand ideas. He wanted us to scale the summit the same day.  But empty stomachs and sullen faces of his rope mates dissuaded him. Now with help of the route marking flags we groped half glissading our way to the camp.

Chand was all in laughs narrating his story of falling in to a crevice hanging upside down by his rope like a spider in its web. Some started suffering from the proverbial hallucinations. Naik Heera, one of his rope mates heard someone calling him from behind. He kept on hearing it. And Chand had to literally slap him to keep cool and keep his eyes on the man ahead. By the time the Assault team reached camp it started snowing heavy. Snow had built up two to three feet and it had no intension to recede. All made a dash for the base camp.

Next two days it was pouring and snowing heavy. There was no progress on the mission. Was the superstition working? Till the day of the reconnaissance, the days were bright and clear that men had to crawl under shade of scraggy rhododendron bushes to escape the heat. Now that the attempt has begun and the nature had turned vicious. The second night ie night of 9/10 showed signs of improvement. While on sentry duty at night I could see few stars vainly trying to peep out of the scattered clouds.

The dawn showed all signs of a clear day. All available hands were immediately rushed up to the abandoned assault camp for its maintenance. After a climb of an hour, fresh snow started appearing. If during rains it was the slush, now it was the fresh snow. Suddenly we saw ourselves off the mist and fog. The snow ahead of us was glittering throwing out ultra violet rays. We felt ourselves like ants crawling on a silver platter. There was a double rainbow in the clear sky. This amazing marvel of nature is to be seen to be believed. We had to strain and screw our eyes to get used to the newly gained brightness. No one had snow goggles with them. We reached the Assault camp and it was difficult to say that such a camp existed there. The tents had to be dugout and re pitched. By evening we were back and ten of us had fallen victims to snow blindness. The eyelids could neither be closed nor opened. And it kept watering through out. People preferred to crawl out of their pup tents and walk up and down in the hail and snow outside expectant of the dawn.

11th day was again bright. To take the max advantage of this the climbers again scrambled back to their perch. On 12th Assault Camp 2 was established ahead of Shanshila.

On 13th morning at 4 AM, four ropes set out with packed brunch, fruit juice tins, and plenty of Cadbury Chocolate bars. The flags we had left during the reconnaissance were no more to be seen. Again we had to reconnoitre and progress. One Party of two ropes under Captain Thakkan proceeded to try out the Right approach and the rest of the ropes the Left approach. The glazier had not changed a bit. With the sun coming out, the loose snow accumulated on the slopes started coming down. Blocks of ice weighing several tons broke away from its mother face and kept falling with deafening roar. We could hear the frequent changing courses of subterranean water channels and streams emanating from the glazier. The earth was trembling and it sounded as if demons were dragging gargantuan chains beneath our feet. Some times the sound was frightening. The  topography of the untamed glazier was ever changing Soon we got used to this phenomenon. But for the Grace of God it was a testing day.

We kept on climbing with the only aim of the summit. Each skyline gained with herculean efforts led to another skyline in front. The rarefied air of those altitudes was taking toll of our residual stamina. It was just grit and determination which goaded us forward. Avoiding crevices and avalanches, step cutting and scrambling up we inched forward. By 3 o clock we were at the base of the peak. Umba seemed within our reach. The savage wind and snow lashed relentlessly at our bodies tearing in to our garments as if searching mercilessly for any exposed skin, while trying to blow us back down the mountain whence we had come.  

Now Major Chand seeing the realisation of his dreams in hand was in full vigour. He, unmindful of the howling wind, took out his rope - the final assault team, and was cutting his way up. Each step took them nearer to the ultimate goal. By 4.30 PM they were up. But to their utter consternation they saw another peak looming before them- The real Umba. In between was a deep gorge, to traverse which would have taken another day in fair weather. Umba had deceived us. But now there was no time or choice left. The weather was again getting packed up with no sign of reprieve in the near future. Night was fast approaching with a storm brewing. The altimeter read 19500ft. All the days’ effort was wasted. It was bravado to take a chance with mountains in the prevailing circumstances. Reluctantly the mission was abandoned.

With sullen faces and sodden legs we commenced our retreat. It proved to be more perilous. Once, a complete rope of instructors went plunging down towards a deep crevice. But for the presence of mind and reflex action of Havildar Manohar, there would have been few more martyrs on the altar of mountaineering. He struck down his ice axe and dug down his crampons to belay the whole rope, thereby applying a sudden break to the headlong rush to death.

Soon the darkness enveloped the glazier. Everywhere was desolation and silence. Only the snow was real. The snow and that bone deep subzero cold that shrouded us from head to tow continuously shook our bodies in violent spasms of shivering. Like zombies we moved in the dark glare of the stars. Then the sickle of a moon came up as if to guide us out of that freezing cauldron.

By 10’ o clock night we were back at the assault camp. Our Doctor, like a good Sheppard waiting for his herds to return to pen, was there in the open with a hurricane lamp in hand and gallons of tea and brandy ready for returning heroes. 14th August saw us back at the Base Camp.

The whole course worked hectically in winding up the assault camp and base camp and was down at Sankoo Village on 15th. On 17th the expedition was back at the school, where we were given a heroes welcome.

Had the final assault camp been much ahead at the base of the peak or had we taken another approach, the climb would have been feasible.!!!

The fact remains- Umba still remains as chaste and unconquered as ever.

“In the evening of ones life,
 when one retrospect and savour such unique experiences,
one is overwhelmed with gratitude to God Almighty,
 who unflinchingly stood by and goaded one to safety and life ahead.”


  1. Dear Col Ravi

    A very honest and 'Raw' narration - can be best understood by those who have experienced such hardship.

    One could feel the cold and fatigue while reading the blog - thank you !

    Goverdhan - Your former Coy Officer, Adjutant and Coy Commander

  2. Dear Gobi,
    How true. Only those who have gone through the vagaries of high altitudes can get a feel of the narration. You too had your share at Chola, Sapat, Dogra Lake etc. !!!
    Those were the days to savor and reminiscent with a smile !!!
    Ravi Nair

  3. Sir, it's an awesome journal. Couple of spelling errors like "TOW" instead of "TOE" and "SHEPPERD" instead of "SHEPHERD". Though minor mistakes but the experience makes your feet go's scary...

    S Sawmya Kumar

  4. Awesome blog Col. Ravi!! Although I will never experience this first hand, just reading it sent shivers up my spine. Please keep writing more. I've shared this on my FB page too. Couldn't help myself :)

    Nandini Srikar

  5. Dear Sir,

    I am a publisher. We're in the process of compiling a coffee table book on Indian Mountaineering in the Himalaya, commissioned by HAWS. Would love to interact with you regarding the same. We're seeking to obtain old images and accounts of expeditions, etc. Please do get in touch with me at dosco319k [at] or cell number 9910 3956 03. We're based in New Delhi.