Last year SCARPA Athlete Callum Johnson headed to the Himalayas to explore some untouched peaks – with the trip culminating in the First Ascent of Barnaj II East.
Here is Callum’s report on an epic trip.
In Autumn 2022 I went with four friends to the Indian Himalaya, to the Kishtwar region and to a valley full of unclimbed 6000m peaks. After getting shut down on an attempt to climb a new route on an unclimbed mountain because of heavy snowfall we rested and re-focussed. The expedition culminated in the first ascent of Barnaj II East (6303m) by a new route on the north face
The air hostess see’s my bright red rucksack with yellow climbing helmet attached; “Are you going to climb Everest?” I smile and reply that I don’t have that kind of money and that what we’re going to attempt to climb hasn’t been climbed before. My first expedition to the greater ranges has begun, the duffle shuffle is in full swing, I am nervously excited for what the next month will hold in store. I meet the team in Delhi; Dave Sharpe, Will Harris, Matt Glenn and Tom Seccombe. The experience and strength of these guys gives me confidence that I would learn, be humbled and hopefully manage to climb something.
Delhi feels like a busy smelly sauna, we negotiate the chaotic roads, somehow rickshaw, bicycle and truck do not collide as three lanes merge to one without warning. Our accommodation offers curry for breakfast, curry for lunch and, curry for dinner. Love it or hate it, that’s what’s on the menu. The formalities of visiting the Indian Mountaineering Federation to receive our permit to climb Barnaj II are completed with the exchange of 1000’s of dollars for seemingly nothing… not even a piece of paper. But all appears to be well and our expedition is allowed to continue.
A short flight takes us to the mountain town of Leh, the capital of Ladakh, at 3500m the air is cool and clear, a couple of nights here feel like more useful acclimatisation than the humid depths of Delhi. Exploring the market stalls we buy dried fruit, peanut butter and pillows. The latter for basecamp comfort, the former as mountain snacks. Overland we bounce along dirt roads for 12 hours in the Force Traveller minibus, somehow, thankfully maintaining contact with the road around countless switchback bends above precipitous drops. Crossing the Indus River and then the Zanskar, we have travelled south over several mountain passes to another watershed, we are in the Kishtwar region. Impressive pointy peaks dominate every vista.
In the final small village of rustic houses each with their own patch of arid land to work, we meet our horsemen. Our bags, the loads, are debated over, sized up and in what seems like a heated discussion of five simultaneous conversations in Ladakhi they are finally divided up for each shepherd to load onto their animal. We watch on, letting them do their thing, in amazement that anything is being progressed.
The procession of shepherds, yaks and donkeys, is strung out along the trail, we round the hillside and get our first view up the Hagshu valley, the peak in the distance is striking, it is Chiring, and is unclimbed. Despite being at 4400m our basecamp (BC) is only a day’s walk from the road – a certain luxury for an expedition. The camp itself is tucked behind a moraine bank, on a flat grassy area islanded by the small stream of clear mountain water. The trail of animals and our bags slowly arrives, we gradually pitch camp, our home for the next three weeks.
Snow falls continuously overnight, laying 30cm at BC by the next morning, spirits are still high, we need to acclimatise here for a day or two anyway! Gear is unpacked and checked, the expedition chess tournament kicks off and our cook, Naveen, and BC helper, Mangal, deliver the first of many excellent feasts (Curry of course).
Sorting gear at basecamp, charging battery packs and keeping on top of personal admin – breaking in my new Phantom 6000’s (photo Matt Glenn).
The mandatory acclimatisation – mandatory suffering – must commence, the inevitable slog uphill breathing hard with a heavy rucksack pulling you back. The bright warm sun is melting the snow, gradually turning it to a sticky slop. We walk slowly, as a team, up to a 5000m camp. I stay three nights, with gradual improvement in sleep each night. The weather is still good, but for how long? There is a keenness and slight sense of urgency to start moving towards the main objective. On one of my days at the acclimatisation camp I manage to drag myself to 5600m, the views are staggering but brief before a squally afternoon snow shower comes in. I sit for a minute, head spinning, breathing heavy, I think my vision is going funny and I’m seeing stars before I realise it is the snowflakes swirling on an updraft.
From our acclimatisation highpoint there was a view of the upper north face of Barnaj II which got Dave and Matt psyched. Will, Tom and myself have our sights set on the east face of Chiring. A mountain that caught my eye, intrigued and inspired me. Being visible from a long way down the valley I couldn’t take my eyes off it so I was almost tripping over my own feet on the walk in. It is unclimbed and impressively steep, it has all the right ingredients. We set off from BC late in the morning, with bags packed for 6 days out, stopping by the ABC that Tom and Matt had established the day before to pick up a few bits of gear, leave our trainers and put on our double boots.
The approach to below Chiring although fairly flat seems to take forever, as a team of three roped together we walk up the glacier, following a set of bear tracks! An unexpected novelty, I had heard stories of there being a Himalayan brown bear in the valley, it is still here, each paw print bigger than my size 43 boot. The tracks in the soft snow weave around impressive crevasses – this is one glacier savvy bear! We continue until below what we called the Chiring icefall – a significant steepening in the glacier a few hundred meters below the east face. We made camp here and would tackle the icefall in the morning. The views of the east and north face of the mountain from our camp are equally inspiring as intimidating. Three of us top and tailing in a two person mountain tent is a cramped sleeping arrangement. I end up in the middle which has the advantage of being warm but the disadvantage of being kicked or nudged anytime Will or Tom turn over in the night.
Our camp below Chiring, the east face is on the left and north on the right. Below the east face is the Chiring icefall.
The next morning we weave our way cautiously up the icefall, along the glacier and up the lower snow slopes of Chiring east face. We spend a long time deliberating over what line to aim for, we settle on a line of (hopefully) icy corners then snow ramps and ledges to gain the NE arete higher up where it is snowy. We cut a comfortable ledge for the tent, it is only 1pm but we are content that we have put ourselves in a good position for starting climbing early tomorrow morning.
The afternoon becomes cloudy, as it often has done, snow starts to fall and does not cease, we keep an eye on it and keep an eye on the snow accumulating on the slope outside our tent. After dinner and after nightfall we check the snow again, not happy with how much has fallen and with the angle of the slopes above us. We make the decision to move our camp down 200m (vert.) to the col. It is a windy night in the tent, with as much snow being blown in through the air vents as is swirling around outside. A good soaking all round. The next morning is bright and clear again, the east face of Chiring has transformed and looks to be in good Scottish winter nick, but not 6000m peak conditions. There is another 30cm of fresh snow. The return to base camp with still heavy bags is draining, Tom did an excellent job of leading us back down the icefall, with our tracks and the crevasses now hidden under the fresh snow. This is a nervy few hours.
Matt and Dave had also turned around on their attempt to climb Barnaj II because Dave was not feeling well and struggling to breathe. The whole team is back at BC.
Whilst resting at basecamp, and waiting for the latest snowfall to consolidate, I explore the huge granite boulders in the glacial moraine. The rock quality is excellent and is some of the most idyllic bouldering I have ever done. It is a good escape from the head games of the mountains, and brought back a feeling of succeeding at something. It is nice to remind the fingers how to pull on small holds too. I convince the others to go for a morning’s bouldering the next day, we focus on hard moves close to the ground, with only a couple of thermarests in place of a bouldering mat, we decide it best not to fall awkwardly.
Basecamp bouldering, good spotting from Matt and Will. (photo Tom Seccombe).
A frosty morning at basecamp, my Sea to Summit Telos TR2 in its element.
After much deliberation it is decided that Matt, Tom and myself would attempt Barnaj II from the north and Will and Dave would attempt it from the south.
I welcome Matt’s critique of what I am packing. I hope to cut back on what I carried on our Chiring attempt where my bag felt impossibly heavy, I had taken too much food and too many clothes. With all the gear laid out on a tarpaulin, each piece is questioned before being packed into the rucksack. Again we walk round to our ABC by the moraine trapped lake, an idyllic location with intimidating views. This time our eyes are fixed on the north face of Barnaj II and its complex ridgeline.
Matt scoping out possibilities for our line on Barnaj II.
I groan as the 1 am alarm sounds, we shoulder our bags and stumble over the moraine bank and onto the glacier, the stars shine brightly and cold air nips exposed skin. Matt breaks trail up the initial snow slope, following vague remnants of tracks from his previous attempt. The snow ramp steepens to a broad icy gully, we move together and get established on the north face.
I reach the belay, Matt and Tom already looking up at the next pitch, I clip in and slump onto the sling. I breathe deeply, trying to suck some oxygen out of this 5800m thin air. My head falls forward against the ice, Tom puts a comforting hand on my shoulder whilst Matt racks up the ice screws. We are nearing the end of our first day on the north face of Barnaj II and I’m knackered already, multiple bad nights of sleep, the altitude and a diet of oily carb-heavy curries is catching up on me. We finally find a suitable bivy spot for the night, at 5900m and after 15 hours on the go, the small icy ledge looks more inviting than it probably is in reality. In an attempt to make the ledge slope slightly less towards the precipitous drop Tom chips away at the ice with the adze of his axe. I am determined to try and make up for my lack of leading during the day and contribute to this team – so I get the stove on quick and start melting snow. I fill water bottles and then cook freeze dried meals for everyone.
Breathing heavy on our first day on the north face of Barnaj II (photo Matt Glenn).
Making repairs for my trousers at our first bivvy. (photo Tom Seccombe).
The upper couloir yields slightly trickier climbing that we pitch, with some short sections of moving together. Good icy steps of around Scottish grade V, before some mixed sections before reaching the ridgeline at 6100m. We decide to camp here, tired after yesterday’s long day and keen to enjoy the morning sun from this position. Although a desirable location the notable lack of any ledge bigger than one bum cheeks is concerning. We manage to dig out the most promising area slightly more, and support the edge with some flakes of rock that had broken off – just enough but we regret not taking the snow hammock. It is to be a night sitting, three of us wrapped in the tent fabric, trying to not slide off the edge. I collect a drybag of snow and it becomes a team effort to melt snow without melting the tent and setting our sleeping bags on fire. Water doesn’t boil at 6100m so our evening meals have a certain crunch to them.
Matt in the upper couloir.
The first rays of morning sun bring a comforting warmth, melting the verglass that the cold moist wind had whipped onto us in the night. We spend more time warming up and rehydrating, slowly tidying up our camp, but conscious of our weather window we keep it efficient. Matt takes on the breakfast pitches, several rope lengths of technical mixed climbing up the ridgeline, a refreshing change of styles from the previous couple of days. We traverse the ridgeline to a 6303m peak, this gives us a view of the north summit of Barnaj II and the complex ridgeline that separates us. We stop in our tracks. With the incoming bad weather, poor snow conditions and the commitment of the ridge ahead (we calculate two days climbing over the north and south summits of Barnaj II and one day descent down south side) we decide to retrace our steps and descend the way we had climbed. We call our highpoint (the 6303m peak) Barnaj II East as it is the highest peak on the east ridgeline leading towards the north summit.
Tom nearing the summit of Barnaj II East (6303m).
Myself, Tom and Matt on the summit of Barnaj II East (6303m).
We reverse the ridgeline and then descend entirely on abalkov threads, I cleverly manage to drop my belay plate on the 2nd of 25 abseils, so descend the rest of the way using a faffy beaner block. We reach the lower snow slopes where we rope up and down climb. Being the lightest in the team I move through to the sharp end to lead us down through the icefall, in the darkness I weave through crevasses that could hide a house. We stumble back into ABC just before midnight, I’ll spare you the details but my bowels have had enough of oily curries and half-cooked freeze dried meals. I felt empty, energy drained, but content to have climbed a new route up a big north face to an unclimbed peak with a strong team. I could not have done it would Matt and Tom, cheers guys!
Matt on the descent. Our ABC is near the top of this photo on the opposite side of the glacier, some 1000m below.
Seracnaphobia ED M5 AI4 1600m. The route and bivouacs on the north face of Barnaj II (photo Matt Glenn).
I would also like to say many thanks to;
Sandra Dekker and Hamish Frost for weather reports, Mick Fowler and Tom Livingstone for beta, All previous expeditions to the area for their trip reports and photos, Himalayan Run and Trek for in country logistics, Mount Everest Foundation, Alpine Club, British Mountaineering Council and The Neil Mackenzie Trust for grants, Basecamp food for discount on freeze dried meals, Mountain Equipment, Scarpa, Grivel, Sea to Summit, Edelweiss, for equipment.
Phantom 6000 HD
For this trip Callum was one of the first to use the new Phantom 6000 HD.
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It is perfect for winter ascents in the Alps, the mountains of Alaska and South America in alpine style and technical expeditions in the Himalayas.