On June 5, deep in the Garhwal Himalayas in the far north of India, nearly fifty miles from the nearest vestige of civilization and 6,300 meters (20,669 feet) up the remote Janhukot peak, British climbers Malcolm Bass, Paul Figg and Guy Buckingham were stranded on a ridgeline as a mass of thunderheads approached. “We were faced with the option of either digging into the exposed and unprotected ridge,” Figg later wrote in a press release, “or carrying on along a 300 meter horizontal knife edge, in the hope of safety at a dimly-seen rock tower beyond.”
The three men had begun their trek up the Gangotri glacier towards the southwest buttress of Janhukot four days prior. They would go on to summit the 6,805 meter/22,326 foot peak, claiming it’s first ascent and capping the efforts of daring teams from across the world dating back to the 1980s.
Janhukot, which lies at the head of the Gangotri glacier beyond the difficult and widely-known mountain Shivling (6,543 meters/21,467 feet) in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, is neighbors with an unnamed peak and the four Chaukhambas (Chaukhamba I, II, III and IV are all around 7,000 meters/22,966 feet).
“Only three routes have been established up these mountains from the Gangotri side,” Bass wrote in an email exchange with Rock and Ice. “You can’t see the Gangotri side of the cirque from anywhere in the foothills, you have to march all the way up the Gangotri glacier to see that view. It is a wild and remote place in which to climb, and for us that adds to its allure. And there is something about the fact that snow falling on the flanks of these mountains is the ultimate source of the Ganga (Ganges), a river that supports, and is sacred to, so many millions of people. The approach follows the Ganga across the plains of northern India to Rishikesh, then up into the mountains, then onto and up the ice of the immense Gangotri glacier to its origin from the icefalls of Janhukot and Chaukhamba.”
Janhukot fell to the climbers via a route up its southwest buttress, from where they continued up its southern ridge. The route clocks in at 3,000 meters (9,843 feet), over half of which is vertical climbing.
The peak was reportedly first attempted by an Indian team in the 1980s and then an Austrian team in 2002. The first attempt that made significant progress, however, was made up of Bass and Figg, who reached 6,000 meters on the southwest buttress in 2004, along with teammate Andy Brown. On the same expedition, New Zealanders Pat Deavoll and Marty Beare climbed the main couloir on the peak’s west face to reach 6,400 meters.
In 2014, Bass returned again with Simon Yearsley and climbed the southwest buttress, reaching the crest of the south ridge at 6,640 meters. The pair named this area “The Castle.” Unfortunately, they were forced to turn back by “strong, cold winds.” Their attempt was the highest to date, prior to the June 6th summit.
The approach to Janhukot is arduous, involving around 18 kilometers (11 miles) of trekking up the Gangotri glacier to reach the base of the southwest buttress. This year, the trek took Bass, Figg and Buckingham, who were accompanied to this point by a photographer, Hamish Frost, and a HAP [High Altitude Porter] Pemba Sherpa, two days, “due to the awkward nature of the terrain,” according to the release authored by Figg. After setting up basecamp, the three men “set off around 0030 the following morning,” Figg wrote, “nervous, silent and moving at what felt like a snail’s pace towards the bergschrund that we crossed to get onto the SW buttress.” The team made good progress once they began climbing, however, and by dawn the three men were close to 5,900 meters, where they bivvied. “So far, the climbing had been easy, but consequential,” Figg wrote, “so we were glad to tie in and let down our guard a little.”
From their bivvy, the climbing began to get more technical. Figg described this pitch—the first roped one—as “hard ice buried under a covering of snow.” The trio swapped leads and climbed short pitches, using only 50 meter ropes, and by the end of the day they had only gained 300 meters. Thus, they decided to break for the night on what Figg described as “an overly narrow ledge that we tried unsuccessfully to widen on the outside with rocks.” He wrote of their night, “Guy had the unfortunate ‘pleasure’ of sleeping on this bed of nails. Paul consolidated his snoring reputation, and Malcolm discovered that his ear plugs had been amongst the fallen” [Bass had elected to shuck some of his personal gear after their first day].
On their third day of climbing, the team gained the top of the southwest buttress and continued three pitches along the south ridge, at which point a storm began to roll in. A distant rock tower 300 meters across a knife edge offered the nearest potential vestige of safety. “It was either a case of push on and hope we could find a good bivvy spot along the ridge,” Figg wrote in an email exchange with Rock and Ice, “or dig out a platform for the tent … and almost hope for the best. The clouds were fairly threatening, so we weren’t too keen on just sitting it put where we were.”
Fortunately, the team elected to push on, and soon found what Figg described as “the best bivvy spot on the whole route.” Just below the tower, the men arrived at a “large snow bowl, a safe haven where we could take off our harnesses and strew gear around. As we slurped soup and dehydrated stodge we felt almost confident.”
Early the next day, their planned summit day, the team encountered more foul weather, “light but wet snow that intermittently turned to rain.” The trio deliberated for some time, but eventually “decided it was just like Scotland … made a coffee, ate a cereal bar and set off into the fog.” At this point they strayed from Bass and Yearsley’s 2014 route: they hoped to traverse below The Castle, then climb back onto the south ridge—once safely past it—via a gully. Succeeding in this detour, thanks partially to a long range shot from Buckingham’s camera, which helped the team scope out of the ridge and choose the correct feature to ascend back up, “all that separated us from the summit was 400 meters of knife-edged ridge.”
Halfway across this ridge Bass experienced what Figg described as “probably the scariest moment on the trip.”
“We were high on the knife edge south ridge,” Bass wrote. “Guy was in the lead and I was in the middle. Guy had successfully walked the razors edge, and I was following in his steps when the crest gave way beneath me.” Bass fell a ways down the east side of the ridge, “but somehow found myself with my tools planted on the west side of the fracture, legs and body dangling free.” Nearly a mile of exposure was below him, rocketing away down the East face. “It didn’t seem to weight the rope, so the others were oblivious,” Bass wrote. “I was feeling a bit tired and jaded before that though, so the adrenaline shot was useful.”
Figg wrote that Bass, unperturbed, decided “to record a selfie video moments after, to talk about his ‘near miss.’” He went on to lead the final pitch.
On his third attempt on the mountain, nearly 14 years after first attempting it, he reached the summit. Soon all three were atop Janhukot, at 5:00 p.m. on June 6th. Figg described the feeling as, “A mix of exhilaration and relief that all the hard work and planning had paid off. After my 2nd and Malcolms 3rd attempt, it was in the bag. I knew we still had to get down, but was confident about this because of the knowledge from the 2014 trip.”
Save for a “small, but unnerving fall” Figg took into the snow bowl bergschrund, the team made it down unscathed, reaching their base camp below the southwest buttress on June 7th. Then they began their long walk back across the glacier. “We were, however, delighted to be met part way back by a rescue team from BC,” Figg wrote, “with roti, potatoes, and chocolate … fresh food never tasted so good.”
When asked about any future goals, Figg responded, “Not so far, I think we’re all adjusting to normality after 5 weeks away. I’m only looking as far as trying to get some strength back to have a good trad climbing season in the Lake District.” -Owen Clarke