"I just don't know where I've put them…” For 20 minutes Lynne has misplaced her over-trousers and the summit climb will be in doubt if she doesn’t get her head together soon. Dave and I stand outside shivering in the damp night air. “Are you sure you’re not wearing them?” I quip.
Then I think more rationally. “Why not borrow Anita’s pair?” I suggest. “But she’s too tall…” comes the reply. “But you can just stuff the leg-ends down your gaiters.” Lynne is a bag of nerves and apprehension, but this suggestion seems to solve the issue.
1 Summit Camp (photo: Sue Pugh)
2 Brumkhangse route-diagram (photo: Julie-Ann Clyma)
3 Route map to Brumkhangse (Google Earth)
4 The team on Yumthang bridge
5 Load-ferry to Summit Camp with Dave and Dawa
Lynne emerges at 2am and we set off, following the trail that we had made yesterday, while Anita and Sue, unable to make the final climb, go back to bed. The tracks are firm and frozen and lead us to the col between Brumkhangse north and south summits at 5370m. At first there is a cloying mist and we fear the weather may be turning back to the soup of drizzle that plagued the early days of the trip, but as we gain height stars appear through the mist veil. Today, we might get lucky!
The darkness is still complete when we reach the limit of our tracks and move off towards the steep north arête of 5635m South Peak, but the strategy is working. Assuming a repeat of the fickle weather conditions of recent days, we need to summit soon after dawn to pre-empt the onset of morning fog. The arête steepens from 45 to 58°. The pristine snow forms a sharp edge a few feet to our left.
A hundred metres up the snow turns to ice. I have brought two ice screws and place the longer of these to make a belay. Within minutes the night gives way to a lurid dawn. Beneath an indigo layer of high cloud a brilliant flush of light catches the east face of Kangchendzonga, 30 miles away. The summit sports a double lenticular capping. This is something really special. I think Dave and Lynne are oblivious to the spectacle. I haven’t prepared for the revelation. My camera is in my sack and when I pull it out the lens is jammed with ice. Balancing half-way up the ice slope I grab the lens housing and drag the zoom out manually until the motor works. With seconds to spare before the mountain lapses back to shaded slumber I get my precious shots.
1 On the steep initial arete at 5450m
2 Climbing the glacier above summit camp
3 6362m Chombu appears above the cloud
4 Dawn view of border peaks from Brumkhangse
5 Lynne and dave reach the summit
6 Martin leads up the summit crest
7 The White Rose flies on Brumkhangse summit
At 6am we top out from the arête and get our first view the summit ramparts. The final ridge is defended by a steep wall perhaps 40 metres in height and every fold has a ghostly cloak of powder snow.
Rarely in the Himalaya is the summit climb shorter than expected. I am feeling strong and happy, inspired to see not just Kangchendzonga but all the border peaks of North Sikkim, most of them unclimbed and inaccessible due to the restrictions of the Indian Army. After the trials of previous days we deserve this break.
Down at advance base at 4540m we endured three days of drizzling snowfall. During that stay 69 year-old Dave, porter Dawa and I made the crucial load-carry up the Brumkhangse Glacier to the site of summit camp. That was a big day – 10 hours in knee-deep snow and white-out. The next morning in the first sunshine of the trip we moved camp with Sue, Anita and Lynne. En-route Carl was beset with breathing difficulty and forced to retreat back to base in the Yumthang valley. Yesterday we’d ploughed the trail to the col, gaining high points for Sue and Anita. An ordered Himalayan climb is a job of work within the strict rules of altitude, as much as feat of patience as stamina, but at last, after six days of effort, we could enjoy our hours of freedom.
Belayed from another ice screw I surmount a vertical step and plough a line to the foot of the summit crest. A few visps of fog drift past but the sun still burns hot in our faces as we break the trail to the top. The ridge is coated in a foot of aerated powder snow, so light that little effort is needed to plug the steps. Oh, for a pair of skis up here! Soon after 8am we reach the top. Summit celebrations, for once, need not be rushed. The Yorkshire White Rose flag is unfurled, followed by a string of local prayer flags. Dave’s face is burning and his beard is beginning to straggle but he still looks like a man ten years his younger. After the midnight panic at camp, Lynne has belied both her tiny frame and a long-term blood disorder with a plucky performance. I am thrilled and proud of their achievement.
I stare west down the gorges and over clusters of lower peaks to the Lachen valley, then back east over the border to the peaks of Bhutan. To our north 6362m Chombu and the 6889m Kangchengyao massif fill the skyline. Their southern faces are plastered in monsoon snow, but paradoxically their north sides, dropping to the Tibetan plateau, are dry and rocky.
Our descent proceeds smoothly with help of a little hectoring on the need for speed. By 12.30pm we are back at the tents with Sue and Anita. There feels no urgency. We can drink , eat and relax the remainder of the day knowing that tomorrow our only task is to get kit and bodies down off the glacier and back to base…….
05.00hr 11th October: A pale light filters through the tent wall. I stir from a deep sleep feeling remarkably warm and insulated despite spending the night alone in our single-skin bivi tent. The explanation soon dawns. Snow is falling and there is a two-inch accumulation on the tent roof. Peeking outside I estimate there is 6” fresh snow on the ground. The enveloping white-out promises more of the same. We’ve had our window of glory. Safety lies a thousand metres down in the forests of Yumthang. Will the porters come up to the glacier snout to help us? We can but hope.
I work out a way to dress, boot-up, pack sack and then dismantle my tent from the inside. Dave produces a mug of hot Tang. The usual cheery Yorkshire gossip dwindles when the girls deflate their airbeds. Reality strikes and a grim day begins. We are on our own until we get off the glacier – five wayward sexagenarians with 20 kilo loads wallowing and occasionally tumbling in knee-deep snow for nigh on three hours. Above the snout I yell into the mist and faint voices reply. Our three porters have come!
Five hours later we lay down sacks down at the road and share hugs of happiness with Carl, our porters, cook Naveen and LO Bhinodh. Mugs of chai are followed by a late lunch of paneer curry, rice and chips. Then we are bundled into jeeps for an evening drive down to the bright lights and hot water of Lachung. How sweet are the moments of homecoming!