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    Way Off the Map in NE India

    Way Off the Map in NE India

    by Matt Zia

    We were way off the map and everything felt like shooting from the hip.

    Spencer Gray and Rushad Nanavatty texted me in April with a photo of one of the most beautiful mountain faces I’ve seen and a cryptic, “expedition this fall?” Until recently, the peaks of Sikkim in NE India have been largely closed to foreign expeditions thanks to a convergence of Chinese border posturing, staunch Lepche culture, and local politics. On the most recent list of open and unclimbed peaks from the IMF, Kirat Chuli goes by the Western name of “Tent Peak'' and is seemingly another 7362m metamorphic peak on the long ridge north of Khangchendzonga. Thankfully, Spencer is better at mountain research than anyone else I know, and after finding a geologic analysis of the Eastern Himalaya and Khangchendzonga massif, and contacting the photographer from the 1993 Japanese expedition, he was confident the north buttress had a band of leukogranite worth flying halfway around the world to attempt a climb.

    To even get our permit approved, Spencer had to cross reference both the IMF and Sikkimese list of open peaks. Without accurate mapping, I had to find satellite imagery and DEM models to supplement a set of 1:150,000 scale Swiss-made maps from the 70s. Even after getting all the correct papers and permits, I got my passport and visa back from the consulate less than 24 hours before my flight after the consulate mistakenly tried to give me a “missionary” instead of “mountaineering” visa, and Rushad (and 29 others) missed his flight from Amsterdam to Delhi after standing in a security line for over four hours due to only 3 out of 12 working x-ray machines.

    Map of flight path on airplane seat back monitor
    Detoured flight path between Amsterdam and Delhi Photo: Matt Zia

    In a reminder of geopolitical forces at play, the flight path from Amsterdam to Delhi wove between combat zones. Rather than the smooth Great Circle arc typically traced by international flights, the flight made a giant s-turn between Europe and India, detoured south to avoid Ukraine and the Russian invasion and then back north to skirt Afghanistan. Insulated from active war zones by two oceans, a desert, and a steady stream of click bait headlines, it’s too easy to pretend in America that authoritarianism ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall. While international travel for exploratory alpinism is a luxury, experiences around the world remind us how precious freedom of thought and movement really are, and how easily they come under attack, both at home and abroad. Climbing itself won’t save the world, but the experiences with different cultures, the closeness we develop with our partners, and the shared desire to protect wild places just might. If we can relay just a fraction of the humanity we learn from the people with whom we share these experiences in the mountains, maybe we can sprinkle that into the rest of our lives and create a positive ripple effect in our communities.

    After a few more grey hairs resulting from the visa and permit stress, and subsequent 30+ hours of airplane and airport purgatory, I wasn’t sure if I had walked out the door of the Delhi airport or straight into a wall. Even at 4am the heaviness of the humidity was overpowering. Used to melting at a high of 85F in Montana, the 100F and 90% humidity just about knocked me on my ass, right in front of a crowd of Indian taxi drivers yelling in Hindi and trying to load my bags into their car before I was able get a ride to our friend Aftab’s house where we all commenced unpacking and repacking for the first of many times.

    Like most alpine climbing teams, we skipped town out of Delhi as fast as possible once our required IMF meeting was finished. Another flight and sweaty SUV ride brought us to Gangtok, capital of Sikkim, a city of 100,000 people perched on a mountainside where every road carries on in a series of impossibly steep switchbacks, drivers expertly shifting gears through the maze of people, motorcycles, stray dogs, and overloaded trucks. After meeting with Tshering Dorjee Bhutia, our local logistics and tour operator, and spending a day checking every shop in Gangtok for batteries, fuel cans, and peanut butter, we were up until after midnight carefully repackaging our food and expedition gear. With a crew of mostly Rai porters from Darjeeling, six weeks of food, and a vague sense of how far we could drive, we caravanned north from Gangtok along roads cut into mountain sides so steep we couldn’t see the bottom of the river valley. Prayer flags worn white from a thousand years of inhabitation marked the path, the road following ancient travel routes the Lepche used moving down-valley as we climbed from the low point of Sikkim at 920’ towards the town of Lachen at 8,838’ and finally crested a pass above Thengdu at more than 18,000’.

    As we passed through Thengdu, the landscape changed from the lush jungle to the arid Tibetan plateau. Steep water carved walls gave way to broad glacial valleys, the landscape opened up and the deep blue Tibetan sky dominated the field of view. Cloud banks scuffled across the ridge lines, concealing the jagged maw of cirques as we wound our way up a newly built Indian Army road. Patches of fresh pavement were interspersed with long stretches that hadnt ever seen the blade of a grader. Our hearts leapt and we all got a shot of adrenaline as we caught a glimpse of Kirat Chuli on the western horizon, after so many months of planning, training, and preparation, none of us were quite ready to believe that we were on the way, let alone seeing the mountain with our own eyes. Spencer’s hunch was right - a buttress of grey leukogranite soared above the Changsang Glacier, plastered with tendrils of ice and snow, flaked on each side by seracs but itself mercifully sheltered by the convexity of the face

    The team in front of Kirat Chuli Photo: Spencer Gray

    A week later, after a snow leopard sighting and shuttling several hundred pounds of food and equipment over a raging glacial creek and up the Changsang Valley, the porters left for Gangtok and we were alone, blinking in the raging Himalayan sun in basecamp at 17,500’ on the last patch of grass before the valley turned to a shattered moonscape of receding glacier. With an opportunity to ground-truth the digital maps we relied on, we quickly discovered the rate of glacial recession and formation of glacial lakes far outstripped even the maps and satellite imagery we had used to plan our trip. Where our maps showed flat glacier we found a mile-long lake, deep turquoise and filled with ice bergs calved off the receding edge of the glacier.

    My friend CJ lent us a dome tent which proved to be key for morale in the coming weeks while storm-bound and restless, but in the post-monsoon sun, we were just excited for the shade and a chance to see each other without sunglasses. Motivated, we dove into climbing prep, eagerly scanning the ice-plastered North Buttress of Kirat Chuli for a climbable line and debating what and how much gear to bring. At 17,500’ basecamp, acclimatization and recovery were long, leaving plenty of time for books and music and I blasted through my downloaded collection in our first week. Thirty years after Mark Twight decreed it was bad style to run out of walkman batteries, I was thankful for lightweight solar panels and battery banks to keep my phone running through repeated rounds of the Rolling Stones. Gimme Shelter is still the best alpine climbing song ever recorded. Which version specifically is open for debate.

    Expedition base camp life settled into the rhythm of the day; wake up, pound cups of strong black coffee through the black kerosene smoke in the cook tent, walk, slowly, uphill with a load, gasp for breath, descend, repeat. Left with a 10 pound bag of atta flour, I experimented to make roti and crepes. Rushad proclaimed the roti excellent, and we devoured it daily with a daal recipe received via inReach from his mom.


    We spent almost four weeks traveling up and down the glacier and moraine, finding a path to a tarn at almost 19,000’ for advanced base camp. Each trip stole a bit more of our fitness, boulder hopping for hours through the fresh talus, gingerly testing every step while we waxed about the place of alpine climbing in our lives, our risk tolerance for big alpine routes, and friends lost too soon to the mountains. Heavy for an expedition, but balanced by the levity of days spent lounging in fields of Himalayan wildflowers, drinking straight from mountain springs, and sightings of a Tibetan Griffon and a flock of Himalayan Snowcocks that seemed to waver between curiosity of the strange beings and enormous yellow dome suddenly inhabiting their meadow and sheer terror of these unknown lifeforms.

    By mid-October we ran out of books and it was time to launch. Our hoped-for weather window was fleetingly small. Six days, at most, of clear and cold before the jet stream descended south over the Himalaya and, in all likelihood, slammed the door shut on the autumn climbing season. We repacked one final time and zipped the tents behind us. Rushad’s and my packs weighed 30 pounds. Spencer, at over 6 feet tall with size large and XL layers jokingly cursed us under his breath as his flirted with 35. Launching on an unclimbed aspect of a 7362m peak with such a tiny pack feels ludicrous.

    Rushad launching on the first pitch of the N Buttress, Kirat Chuli Photo: Matt Zia

    At dawn of the next day, we fought soul-destroying snow conditions across the Changsang Glacier, knee to thigh deep facets with a double breakable crust. A pitch above the bergschrund, the crust abated, only for two feet of dry facets to take its place. The early winter storms that trapped us in basecamp deposited a sheen of sugar across the face, unconsolidated and rotten in the frigid Himalayan night and untouched by the warmth of the sun. By twilight, Rushad gracefully tapped his way up a delicate, delaminating slab of ice. He told us later that was the hardest pitch of ice he’s climbed in his life.

    climbing alpine ice

    Rushad leading an ice pitch on day one, N. Buttress, Kirat Chuli Photo: Spencer Gray

    I led into the night, searching for any semblance of a bivy. With few options in range of my headlamp, I found a patch of workable ice, built a nest of our remaining ice screws and brought Spencer and Rushad up. Hours of digging on the snow cone and backfilling our homemade ice hammock resulted in a miserable half seated bivy ledge. We crawled into the tent and tried to sleep, feet dangling in space and backs against a stream of spindrift. 

    Our first "bivy". The ice hammock was essential. Photo: Spencer Gray

    In the middle of the night my stomach revolted against the dehydrated meal. Of course I was furthest into the tent. I unleashed a stream of profanity as I desperately lunged for the door and unloaded half my dinner into the snow outside. Valuable calories I wasn’t getting back, but without a load of rehydrated mushroom risotto, my stomach calmed and I was able to rest the remainder of the night. In the morning, Spencer and Rushad asked if I was okay. I told them I was fine, choked down a granola bar and cup of hot water, and tied into the rope. Rushad nodded and Spencer grabbed the rack and led off around a corner.

    As the second twilight caught us, it was clear we were in a bail now or bail later situation. Protection was few and far between, every move required full excavation of the faceted snow, and there was no chance of anything resembling a bivy. Between the snow, cold, a broken ice tool, and impending storm, each additional step put us closer to the edge. The decision took all of a couple seconds. We rappelled through the night, leaving a trail of naked v-threads and pins behind as we raced for flat glacier and a chance to lay down.

    The sun finally hit the glacier and our tent mid-morning the next day and we bantered about our next move. 

    Warm and flat…this is nice” 

    I hear Texas is warm and flat. Im moving there.” 

    What about San Diego?”

    With the weather window closing, Spencer and Rushad decided to make one more attempt on Langpo South (pt 6857m). Earlier we acclimated on the lower slopes in a short weather window. Now, turned around from Kirat Chuli, the two of them revisited the idea of Langpo South and packed their bags for an attempt. For myself, I elected to stay at basecamp, monitoring the inReach. In environments like alpine climbing with imperfect and incomplete information, I think all we can do is make educated decisions based on our own risk tolerance and the best information available. With Kirat Chuli off the table, Spencer and Rushad made their decision, I made mine, and having the capacity to accept without judgement the decisions of teammates is a hallmark of a quality expedition.

    The next day the temperature dropped and the winds built. At basecamp I was cold. At over 6000m, Spencer and Rushad were colder. Keeping the rope stashed to keep moving and stay warm, they followed 70° ice up the south face to the southwest ridge and the summit. The following morning, Spencer texted from the glacier that they were safely down and headed back my way after making the second known ascent of Langpo South.

    climbers with indian army soldiers

    Group photo with the local Indian Army unit. After their initial confusion about an Indo-American climbing team, the unit was insistant on shaking hands and taking group photos after dark Photo: Matt Zia Collection

    After arranging pickup with Tshering, all we had was to sit and wait for the porters to show up before the next winter storm shut the pass back to Thengdu. After a morning of hurriedly packing up camp and arranging loads, we all threw packs on our backs and raced downhill to the pair of waiting trucks as a dark cloud enveloped Kirat Chuli behind us. Night and the storm caught us before the pass, but the Indian Army unit posted in the valley still insisted on taking a group photo before they raised the gate and let our driver pick his way up the intermittent pavement. Smashed in the middle seat in back, all I could see was the road ramped up ahead of us as we climbed the pass to the top. The only time I couldnt see road is when the hillside fell away at a switchback. The old SUV strained around corners and rumbled on. I felt more than heard the shifting of gears and rush of RPMs as the driver smoothly flowed from 1-2-3-2-3-2-1-2-3 and back. At 18,000’ the angle of the SUV dropped and we all turned to make sure the second truck made it over behind us, cheering as two pairs of headlights tilted and began descending towards Thengdu, and eventually Gangtok, Delhi, and home.

    Tower Town

    By Bill Amos

    In 2011 Tyler Adams called me raving about a group of ultra-chossy towers outside of Crooked River Ranch in Central Oregon. Tyler was always psyched to climb the most rotten and unappealing rock, so a group of us headed out. That day Tyler led the second ascent of the Eagle's Claw, definitely the most aesthetic tower in the area, via a new route. The A4X route included 30 feet of small beaks pounded into diminutive seams with ground fall potential. I was able to clean most of them with a light tug. 

    We intended to re-visit Tower Town together and shoot some more video, but before we had the opportunity to, Tyler was killed when the small plane he was piloting crashed. We put together this short video of that day. You can read more about Tower Town on Tyler's blog.

    Still photos are courtesy of Matthew Van Biene, Michael Layton, Scott Robertson and Nate Tack. Dan Gaston gave a patient belay.

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    Chris Kalman Goes Ice Climbing

    Everything was still, and quiet save for the clinking of ice screws against one another, the grind of crampons and tools scraping on rocks, and a few birds chirping in the early morning light.  Then there was a “whooooosh” and then my head was in my hands, and I was cursing, and I still wasn’t sure why.  At the time, the seconds that ticked away felt like long drawn out minutes.  I went through a mental checklist as I reconstructed the events.  Alert and oriented?  Check.  Breathing? Check. No bleeding out of gaping head wounds?  Check.  Partner wide-eyed and concerned, asking if you are alright between expletives?  Check.

    Okay, so I was fine.  I took a baseball sized rock to the head, but I was wearing this badass helmet (this is not an ad for the Petzl Sirocco - but that is an awesome helmet), and the my head and helmet escaped unscathed.  A diligent EMT may have had me pegged for irritable and combative - standard signs of a head wound.  But in this case, I was just still in the process of adjusting to one of the harsh realities (apparently) of ice and mixed climbing.  You get hit in the head a lot.  Eventually, the rope pulled tight, and our rope gun belayed Joey and I up.  It was my third day of ice climbing, my first day of mixed climbing, and I was climbing Bird Brain Boulevard, the classic Ouray mixed climb first done by climbing heroes Charlie Fowler, Jeff Lowe, and Mark Wilford. 

    I’ve been rock climbing for round about 15 years - which doesn’t sound like that much to a lot of the older heads out there, but it’s half the time I’ve been alive, so it feels like a lot.  I’m pretty comfortable on a nice sunny wall of granite, cruxing out above totally bomber protection, clinging desperately to holds that aren’t going to break any time in the next 25,000 years or so.  I trust my risk assessment, know how to avoid dangerous objectives, and of late have begun to shake a bit of a reputation for rather ball-dropping runouts and free-solos in lieu of a reputation for headpointing and telling people to check their knots.  You get away with enough close-calls, and I think this is often inevitable.

    So it was with a mix of skepticism and caution that I originally decided to approach ice climbing.  Following the OR show in SLC, I caught a ride down to Ouray and Ridgway where I had a few friends malingering around town as ice-climbing bums.  Philippe Wheelock (badass ice-climber mountaineer best friend kinda dude), and Drew Smith (BFF, nickname: Dreamy Drew, superstrong Montana boy kinda dude), would be my rope guns for the next three days.

    First up was the ice park.  Drew ropegunned a toprope up from the summit of the icepark for me, handed me a couple tools, and told me to leanback (I was tied in).  I said “Wait, isn’t there like something I should know?”  “No, he told me.  It’s just like rock climbing except really easy.” And away I went.  About thirty seconds later I was standing on a frozen creek, and about two minutes later I was back at the top.  Turns out, it was really easy - whatever it was - but it sure as hell wasn’t anything I’d feel comfortable leading!  Yikes!  The entire time I was showered by ice crystals, and it felt like if I kicked hard enough I’d knock down the whole chosspile (I mean waterfall)!  This was crazy.  Drew assured me, however, that it gets a lot better.  The Ice park is really aerated, and would, indeed, make a harrowing lead.

    Day two Drew and I got out early to climb the world class Ames Ice Hose.  It’s kind of weird getting ropegunned up a world class route on your second day climbing.  People wanted to know was it like the coolest thing I ever climbed, and I thought it certainly was not, but I didn’t have much previous ice to compare it to… It was really pretty, very nice shades of blue and white, and it was great to catch the surreal sunrise over the San Juans.  The most notable thing about the climbing was that instead of getting showered in little chandelier crystals, I was continually showered in grapefruit sized chunks of ice.  They hurt when they hit, but didn’t cause any serious injury.  Still, Ice climbing was not starting to feel less sketchy.  If you lead, you risk falling with a ton of little sharp pointy things on you.  But if you follow, your angry leader will knock ice daggers on you all day long.  Sketchy.

    Day three I rested with some awesome weather, and Ouray choss climbing with my good friend Jeff Morris who was passing through.  We climbed with our shirts off, drank beers, and ate burgers shortly after climbing.  This was an awesome day, and certainly par for the rock climbing course.  My friends sent some gnarly ice mixed climbs the same day… into the same evening… They put up some FA apparently, but by the sounds of it, they almost died on the descent.  Maybe not.  Hard to say.  Anyway, they didn’t die.  And that’s awesome.

    Day four, we got the super shralpine start for Bird Brain Boulevard.  This would be my first ever mixed climb, and my first time getting ropegunned by mountain climbing ace Philippe Wheelock.  You already caught the story with the rock: that was pitch 2.  The rest of the day went pretty much without incident with the exception of Philippe reminding me over and over again that it probably wasn’t wise to weight the anchors… Awesome news after you just got belayed up on them.  I guess Philippe really trusted my 5.7 chimneying in crampon skills, because that’s about all I did all day long.  Again, not terribly challenging technically, but mentally draining.

    At the top, I hugged Philippe and my new buddy Joey, and thanked them for a rad day.  I guess Bird Brain Boulevard was my favorite ice/mixed climbing.  I still don’t know what all these damned numbers and letters mean, but they say that one is WI5/M5.  In my mind, that means 5.7X with some C1 moves on A4 placements.  I can’t help but feel like iced/mixed climbing is far more akin to aid climbing than rock climbing - at least when you’re not clipping bolts.  When I told Philippe that I had enjoyed myself in spite of almost getting decapitated by the deathrock he trundled, he was typically stoic: “Yeah, if you’re going to be an alpinist, you have to have a pretty short memory” he grumbled, as he disappeared out of sight down the first rappel.

    I lingered there for a moment taking in the view, and the first real sunshine we’d felt all day.  I don’t know if I would call myself a converted ice climber, but there is definitely something compelling about being able to bag summits in the winter.  And oh yeah, I definitely liked looking at the ice crystals and formations.  The whole sport is very very shimmery.

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    Funeral for Another Friend

    By Nick Frazee

    This fall Bud Martin, Marko Pujic and I decided to check out a classic early season alpine mixed climb, Funeral for Another Friend in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana. This is an extension to Funeral for a Friend that Aaron Mulkey, Daniel Burson and Doug Shepherd put up in 2011.

    We left Bozeman at 4am, made the three and a half hour drive, arrived at the trailhead at first light, packed up and began the two hour approach. Six hours after leaving town we found ourselves at the base of a deep slot splitting beautiful granite towers, the aesthetics of this climb are remarkable, and we soon found that the climbing itself was incredible.

    The first pick climbed multiple steps of wet delaminating ice over and around large chockstones deep in the back of a chimney to the base of the crux ice pitch. We found steep, thin, overhanging, sticky ice pouring over more chockstones stacked above one another. Good stemming and fun overhanging moves brought me to a large chockstone I was able to tunnel behind and back out on top of, all with excellent and varied protection. Despite being soaked through my base layers by the contant shower of running water, I was psyched by the time I reached the belay cave at the top. It was one of the most fun pitches I had ever climbed. 

    The third pictch began by stepping out from below and around yet another enormous chockstone onto a thin slab of ice and continued on snow-covered rock through a large roof and up steep snow to the next belay. The fourth pitch climbed great rock with varied climbing styles including hooks, crimps, pick cracks, a short hand crack and bomber turf sticks. The protection included a bit of everything: stubby screws, a specter in turf, cams, nuts, a slung horn, and a knife blade to round out yet another classic pitch. The following 5th pitch was a gem, a full 70 meter rope stretcher of wet sticky ice in a corner ran through to a large ledge below the final headwall. The mixed terrain through the upper headwall flew by in a flurry of spicy mixed climbing and spat us out onto the rim of the bear tooth plateau just in time to catch some sun and an incredible sunset. We were all elated to have just climbed such an incredible route in such fun conditions, and basked in the sun.

    Exhausted and dehydrated we down climbed a neighboring snow couloir back to the base of the route just before dark. We made the hike back out under a star filled sky and a handful of bright shooting stars to top it all off. Twenty two hours after leaving, we pulled into Bozeman, struggling to stay awake at the wheel just a few minutes after last call had been made in the bars along main street. What a surreal sight it was as we watched the drunks loudly stumble into the streets after a long peaceful day in the mountains.

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