Adventure Pulse expedition to Tharkot, November 2020: Expedition report
Adventure Pulse with a team of 6 climbers attempted to climb Tharkot ( 6100 meters) in November 2020. Even though not officially, for all practical purposes, this was a winter expedition as we had heavy snowfall and winter weather throughout the 12-day expedition. Part of this team was me, Samir Patham & Vikas Dimri, the three of us had climbed Everest together in 2018 and with us were Rahul Oak, Suchit Bawa ( our colleague at Adventure Pulse) and Zeeba Khan, all three are qualified mountaineers with experience in climbing 6000-meter peaks. We had a strong support team comprising of some local boys from the region and our trekking guide who was from the village of Jatoli. Dinesh was not only a good trekking guide but also a great climber. In fact, his father also has been credited for leading expeditions to Tharkot and surrounding peaks in the earlier years.
Before the expedition, our team spent 3 days at the Binsar Adventure camp, just at the outskirts of the Binsar wildlife sanctuary sorting out the equipment and doing some acclimatization hikes in the Binsar sanctuary. We drove from Binsar to Bhageshwar (approximately an hour’s drive ) and did some last-minute shopping in the town for fresh vegetables and supplies and continued onwards to the start point of the trek – Kharkiya. This is the spot where the classic Pindari glacier trek also starts from.
Till a few years back, the road was only till Loharkhet which is about a 2-hour drive from the town of Bhageshwar, but recently the road has been extended up to Kharkiya which is now the road head. After a quick lunch, we started our trek through a beautiful forest enjoying our first views of Panwali Dwar. Within an hour we reached just below the village of Khati, located at the banks of the Pindari river, and instead of going straight towards the Pindari glacier, we went left towards the Sunderdunga valley.
Our destination of the day was the village of Jatoli, a village truly in the wilderness with about 25 odd houses and a population of 120-140 people. The village still doesn’t have any electricity from the state and mostly runs on solar power aided by a private NGO. Surprisingly, it has a KMVN guest house (Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam) and is somehow maintained by the local caretaker and the villagers. Since we’d started after lunch and took a lot of picture breaks on the way, we reached Jatoli after dark ( around 6.30 pm ) and quickly settled down in the KMVN guest house. Our expedition manager – Prakash Kandpal and our trekking guide were making sure that no ponies got left behind and all the loads reached Jatoli. From here onwards, the loads will be carried by porters from Khati and Jatoli and the ponies were only allowed till Jatoli. Some kind of a local agreement that the villagers have within themselves to generate employment for everyone.
The morning at Jatoli was beautiful. The quaint village away from civilization without electricity and any phone coverage is surrounded by mountains on all sides and has thick green forest cover. It felt as if we were 3-4 days away from civilization even though Jatoli is only a 5-hour walk from the road head at Kharkiya. As we finished breakfast, an army of about 20 men entered the compound of the Guesthouse, suddenly reminding us of the difficult mountain that lay ahead, they were all porters who would help us ferry loads to base camp.
Our team immediately got to work, the agenda was to make loads of 18-20 Kg’s each and distribute them to the porters for the coming few days come. We ended up with 24 porters carrying almost 18 kg’s each, the total expedition load was amounting to almost 450 Kgs. On the one hand, one feels a little bad looking at these guys carrying such heavyweights, but on the other hand, it also feels fulfilling generating some form of employment for these men, who literally have had no work given the trekking & climbing season was a washout because of the Pandemic.
Our team had a late start from Jatoli, the destination of the day was – Katheliya. The altitude jump was significant ( from 2400 meters to 3200 meters). The first 3 – 4 hours were in a beautiful dense forest until we descended to the river bed. After crossing some huge boulders and landslide zones, we finally found a beautiful spot next to the river for lunch. After a good relaxing lunch break, we steadily started climbing up and down some more landslide zones, it was almost like a moraine parallel to the river bed until we entered the forest again. There was a 1-hour steep climb before we finally reached Katheliya. It was a total of 13 km and took us about 7 – 8 hours of trekking. Katheliya is just a clearing in the forest with a water source, a wooden hut enough for 8-10 climbers to spend a night and a kitchen structure next to it.
From Katheliya, One can branch off almost on a 2-hour vertical climb to “ Balooni Top “ a famous viewpoint for the Sunderdhunga valley. This place offers almost a 360-degree view of some of the highest peaks in the region. Bhanoti, Durgakot, Tharkot, Maiktoli, Panwali Dwar, Baljuri & Nandakot are some of the prominent peaks seen from the Balooni top. Most trekkers go up to the Balooni top from Katheliya, spend a night and head down. This is part of the famous Sunderdhunga valley trek. Our staff immediately got cracking in the kitchen and we had some snacks and tea before lighting a fire and settling around it for the night.
The team was well rested and the next day was another long and hard climb to our base camp – Sukhram cave. From Katheliya, just after a 15 min walk, we descended again in the river bed. The views opened up completely, we were now deep in the Sunderdhunga valley with the majestic Panwali Dwar towering in front of us connecting to Maiktoli with a huge gigantic and long wall of ice, personally, I’ve never seen such gigantic ice walls before, even at 8000-meter peaks. We started negotiating boulders and trekking up the river for about 2 hours. There were some precarious landslide sections from the mountains above, but the team stuck together and we finally managed to cross the river towards Sukhram caves. The caves are about a 30-minute climb after crossing the river.
The team, including the porters, were here by 1 pm and we decided to push for another 30 minutes to set up base camp instead of setting our tents at Sukhram caves. The porters who were supposed to carry the loads only till Sukhram caves weren’t very happy with this decision and decided to dump loads at Sukhram caves only and go back to Katheliya to spend the night and then subsequently head down to Jatoli. They would now come back on a pre-decided date to Sukhram caves to pick up the loads again. From here on, the team became much smaller. We were now 6 climbers, an expedition manager, a Guide and 6 High altitude porters ( HAP ), one of whom would also double up as a cook. We all relayed loads for 30 mins ahead of Sukhram caves and finally established our base camp. We were now at approximately 3800 meters.
The expedition plan was clear – the following day, everyone would do a load ferry to advance base camp at approximately 4800 mts. The advance base camp was located at the mouth of a glacier and all the advance planning for load ferry, route opening and summiting would be done from here. The next morning, we woke up to a mild storm and a cloudy sky. The weather was not looking good and it already felt as we are in the middle of winter, even though it was still the first week of November. The movement plan was delayed and we all sneaked back in our sleeping bags and enjoyed a couple of extra hours of rest. By about 10 am, the weather started clearing up and according to our calculations, the Advance base camp would not be more than a 4-hour climb. Our HAP’s ( High altitude porters ) were feeling strong and decided to dump some ration and fuel directly to camp 1, under the slopes of Tharkot rather than at advance base camp. So the two parties left independent of each other, 6 climbers with a load of 10 kg’s each for a load ferry and acclimatization rotation to advance base camp and 6 high altitude porters for camp 1. Our cook stayed back at base camp to keep a watch and start preparing lunch and dinner. The weather was still not the best, but all of us pushed and reached the mouth of the glacier in about 3.5 hours.
It was a terribly cold day with high winds and low visibility , we could not see any of the higher peaks towering over us , but just the massive glacier right in front of us . We looked for some secure spot and dumped loads at advance base camp (mostly technical equipment ) and headed back down to base camp for some afternoon tea and snacks. The HAP’s had a long and tiring day and almost covered double the distance as compared to what we did and got back only by 5 pm . A stark reminder of the fact again that the locals are the real heroes in these tough terrains and its practically impossible to climb any mountain without their support. In spite of bad weather, we were satisfied by our efforts as the objectives set for the day were met . The plan next day was to move base to Advance base camp .
The next morning we woke up to reasonable weather conditions. We could tell that we may have good weather only till the afternoon and the clouds will come in sooner or later, resulting in snowfall. We started packing up camp and sorting out resources. The idea was to take minimum resources up and leave some stuff behind. By 1 pm, all of us were at advance base camp and were settling in with a quick hot lunch. We rested and acclimatized at the advance base camp, luckily the weather cleared up and all of us enjoyed some stunning views of a golden sunset over Maiktoli. The following day, the team of HAP’s made another load ferry to camp 1 and we went towards the glacier for some height gain and training. Unfortunately, bad weather struck again and it prevented us from doing much. We had to turn back to camp within an hour because of heavy snowfall. Back at the camp, we were worried about our team doing a load ferry at camp 1. The route had changed quite a bit from the previous day and a lot of them experienced rockfall and crevasses. The poor visibility made it even more difficult for them to negotiate the route and they were finally back by 5 pm, completely exhausted. In the team meeting that day, they warned us against going towards camp 1 because of the unstable conditions of the route. Our expedition manager – Prakash and lead guide – Dinesh also advised the same. The 6 of us huddled up and discussed it, since everyone had a good experience in the mountains, everyone understood the situation, the consensus was – that we will head to camp 1 the following day ( given the weather is good ) till where we deem it safe. If we feel that any part of the route may pose an unnecessary risk, we would not compromise on anyone’s safety and would turn back. We all thought it was a fair decision keeping the risks in mind.
The next morning, the weather turned really bad, there was heavy snowfall and we all woke up to a complete whiteout. Tents were damp and sleeping bags were wet, it was a tough cold night but everyone survived and did well. Given these conditions, we had to cancel our move to camp 1 and had no choice but to stay at the Advance base camp, mostly in our tents. As the day progressed, the weather improved but the heavy snowfall had made the approach to camp 1 even more dangerous. We were now in a tight spot, most of our ration and fuel was at camp 1 and were stuck at the advance base camp. After several rounds of team discussion, we came to the conclusion that we will have to cancel our bid to climb Tharkot, the heavy snowfall in the last couple of days would make it practically impossible for us to try. The mountain was completely unknown and possibly had not been climbed in winter for many many years ( or maybe never).
The reasons were many – Unstable route, Rockfall, hidden crevasses, heavy snowfall, getting stuck at camp 1 with absolutely no communication with the outside world, avalanches. Given all this, it seemed like the right decision to call off the climb to Tharkot. It’s never easy to turn back from a mountain like this, after all, one spends months training and working towards it. Even though we’ve been in this situation a few times before, it doesn’t make it any easy. It’s always a difficult decision to make, In 2017, Samir, Vikas and I were in a similar situation at Camp 4 of Everest and after spending 50 days on the mountain, we had decided to turn back just 800 meters short of the Summit. This time again, I am glad that Samir & Vikas took the right call putting the team’s safety as a top priority. Rahul, Zeeba and Suchit, though disappointed understood the situation and accepted it with grace and showed very high levels of maturity and teamwork.
Now that the plan to climb Tharkot was pretty much out of the window, we all reconvened to discuss the options we had. There were primarily two choices, either we descend to base camp or try another peak in the vicinity where we don’t have to set up a camp 1 and it could be attempted from our existing advance base camp. Bhanoti at 5645 mts, came up as a reasonable option and everyone agreed to make an attempt on Bhanoti the following day. In either case, some High altitude porters would have to try and reach camp 1 and retrieve some fuel and ration for us to survive for the next few days. A plan was formulated, the team will leave early in the morning by 2 am for an attempt on Bhanoti and some of our members will retrieve supplies from camp 1.
Fortunately, the weather was in favour and we pushed towards Bhanoti as planned. It was clear starry night with half a dozen lofty peaks towering above us. Since we’d not established any interim camp, the approach march was long and treacherous. By 6 am, we were on the slopes of Bhanoti, my estimate is that at this point, we would be at roughly around 5100 meters and had another 550 mts to go. We could see a gradual slope going up for about 200 meters and then a steep snow wall for about 300 meters leading up to the final summit ridge. We all kept a steady pace but slowed down as the sun came out dehydrating us and melting the snow making it difficult to climb. After several breaks, we reached the final slope by about 11 am, to our tough luck, the weather also started deteriorating by this time, we knew we possibly had a 3-4 hour window to make it to the summit and back. Prakash, Dinesh, Samir and a couple of other boys took a lead on rope fixing and we followed. The climb was tough as it was knee-deep snow and rope fixing took a little time. One by one, we clipped on our Jumars and started pulling ourselves up on the fixed rope. By approximately 1 pm, everyone was up on the final summit ridge ( possibly at 5550 mts ). Zeeba and I were the last ones of the fixed rope about 50 meters short of the ridge when we saw Samir climbing down towards us. He informed us that the ridge is very narrow and dangerous, literally a 2 feet ledge with no place to stand. It will be very difficult to balance and put fixed ropes going towards the summit, given that the weather window is closing in, it would be best that we all turn back. Samir, Zeeba and I were hanging on a 300-meter vertical wall with no footholds having this conversation.
Of course, there was no time for a discussion and without wasting any time, we started descending, the other followed soon and by 2.30 pm, we all were down on the slopes again. We all took a break, had something to eat and drink and also digested the fact that our Bhanoti expedition is over. It was twice in two days that we had to make a call to retreat keeping safety as our top priority, they may not have seemed the best decisions at that point, but in hindsight, they were very good decisions and I am glad that were taken at the right time. We stuck together as a team and made the long march back to the advance base camp in bad weather conditions. We reached camp by 5 pm, it was a long 15 hour day at 5000 meters but absolutely worth it. Tired and exhausted, we all had an early dinner and crashed for the night in our damp tents and wet sleeping bags. The next morning, we woke up to even worse weather, it had snowed through the night dumping about 3-4 inches of snow at the camp. After a good breakfast, we decided to pack and immediately head down to our base camp at Sukhram cave.
The weather started improving as started descending. We made a stop at base camp where we all had left some stuff. We packed up the camp completely and walked down another 30 mins to Sukhram Cave to establish a camp for the night, it was 5 pm by the time we reached. It was a flat spot with a lot of tall dry grass, we all took our ice axes and got to work, since there was ample space available we made enough clearings and everyone finally had their own tent. Once everyone settled down, we had another important decision to make. The team of high altitude porters could not retrieve much from camp 1 and we were running low on fuel and food. Probably enough for 2 meals. We weighed our options and everyone luckily had enough dry ration to skip a meal if required. The other option was to have an early start and cover a distance of 2 days in a single day. That would mean Sukhram Cave to Katheliya and onwards another 13 Km’s to Jatoli. Like most evenings, we discussed the options with the team around a Bonfire and some Chinese dinner our cook had prepared. It was going to be a long and tiring ordeal but everyone was up for it. The idea of a wholesome meal and running water was appealing enough for everyone and we decided to leave at 5 am for Katheliya and onwards to Jatoli.
A few of our support team members would stay back to wrap up and wait for the Army of porters to come and help with the loads. 6 of us, our climbing guide Dinesh and our expedition manager Prakash, started by 5.30 am. Instead of climbing down parallel to the river bed ( the route we’d taken to come up ), we crossed the river and climbed up about 45 mins to approach Balooni top, it was a beautiful walk and with gorgeous views of the sunrise over this massif of mountains that we only hoped to climb one day. We reached the Balooni top ( or the Baluni Bugyal as the locals refer it ) and took a short break to enjoy the view one last time. After a steep 45 mins descend, we reached the familiar territory of Katheliya by 11.30 am. After another short and refreshing break, we pressed on towards Jatoli, we knew it would get quite late by the time reach the village but we all were doing well and walked together as a team.
We hit the dense forest by about 4 pm and still had about 3 hours to go. It would soon start getting dark and we all had read enough Jim Corbett books not to imagine spotting a bear or a big cat, even the villagers had warned us enough not to venture in the forest after 5.30. We all picked up the pace and walked in very close formation. Unfortunately, Zeeba had hurt her foot, but she braved it and walked at a good pace even though her toes were hurting a lot. Prakash led the way with a big stick in his hand and Suchit swept the rear with call signs every 30 seconds to confirm his presence. Soon our torchlights were on and we had the last 1 hour to go. Everyone walked at a good pace, guessing and fantasizing about a good dinner. By 7 pm finally, we reached Jatoli and settled down in the KMVN guest house. Dinesh, our climbing guide had taken a lead after lunch and had reached Jatoli in advance to make arrangements for stay and dinner. He didn’t disappoint us and organized a hot fresh meal of Rajma, chicken curry and rice. The most fulfilling and delicious meals we‘d had in days.
The next morning was the final home run, a 3-4 hour walk to the road head at Kharkiya. We all finally got back into our summer clothes and enjoyed our walk back through the lush green forest. Dinesh very graciously came halfway to drop us before heading back up to his village. We hugged and said our goodbye’s. He’d been an excellent guide and true pillar of strength to the team. We reached Kharkiya by 1 pm, had a quick lunch, loaded our bags on the jeep and were ready to head back to our home away from home – The Binsar Adventure camp. We reached camp by 7 am and Zeeba, being the only lady took dibs on having a hot water bath first. We all finally settled down around a Bonfire with a glass of whisky already reminiscing about the last ten days and the crazy experience all of us had. Was the expedition a success? No doubt, there was a slight sense of disappointment of missing the Summit, but the team was somewhere content and happy, everyone was back safe and had given their hundred per cent. For us, the expedition was certainly a success. We would probably someday go back and try to climb Tharkot again, but for now, we are grateful to the mountains God’s to give us the opportunity and bless us with good weather & safe passage. Cheers!