Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Shining Mountain

At this sort of time every year I find my thoughts turning to the mountains, and today for no particular reason I wanted to write a little about a particular favourite of mine. There are a few peaks around that are sometimes claimed to be the most beautiful, inspiring or aesthetically pleasing in some way — the Matterhorn and Ama Dablam are ones that are mentioned very often — but for me, nothing quite matches up to Changabang in the Garhwal Himalaya.

Instead of attempting to describe the mountain myself, let me quote from the description in a book called Scottish Himalayan Expedition, written by the mountaineer and author W. H. Murray in 1950. By all accounts, Murray was a wonderful man with a deep love of mountains, and an ability to express that love in the written word that I've never found with any other writer. This little paragraph itself is one of the main reasons that Changabang features at the top of my personal list of favourite mountains:
The nearest of the great peaks, Rishi Kot, turned to us an edge like a cutlass but black as gun-metal, whereas Changabang, its neighbour, by day the most like a vast eye-tooth fang, both in shape and colour — for its rock was a milk-white granite — Changabang in the moonlight shone tenderly as though veiled in bridal lace; at ten miles' distance seemingly as fragile as an icicle; a product of earth and sky rare and fantastic, and of liveliness unparalleled, so that unawares one's pulse leapt and the heart gave thanks — that this mountain should be as it is.
Murray's description of the entire expedition sitting out in the freezing night air, wordlessly eating their dinner while staring transfixed at this glorious summit above them, has stayed with me ever since I first read it as a teenager. In fact the entire book is excellent; if you can find it anywhere, you should read it.

Murray and his companions would have been looking at Changabang from the south-west, its most spectacular profile. Here's a photograph of it from the same angle, taken by Doug Scott in 1974:

Bonington, Haston, Hankinson and Scott admiring Changabang, 1974. Photo by Doug Scott.

The ridge on the right drops down to Shipton's Col, named after the great mountaineer and explorer who first crossed it while mapping the Nanda Devi Sanctuary in 1936. (Shipton's connection with the name of this blog was explained here.) This photo is from the expedition by a team of British and Indian climbers who made the first ascent of Changabang in 1974, by the south-east face. I recently found Doug Scott's original report of the climb in the Alpine Journal online here. It contains several other beautiful black-and-white photographs of Changabang and the surrounding peaks. Here's yet another photograph with a slightly different view:

The most beautiful mountain in the world
Dougal Haston in front of the West Wall. Photo by Doug Scott.

Towering above the climber, Dougal Haston — who, you'll notice, is carefully rehydrating himself in the medically recommended manner — is the famous West Wall of Changabang, with the left skyline dropping down to the Bagini Pass (apparently that's not the real Bagini Pass; see the correction in the comments below). Despite appearances, the West Wall is actually mostly too steep for any great quantities of snow to remain on it; its colour in the photo is due, as Murray noted, to the whiteness of the granite.

The West Wall played an important role in mountaineering history: in 1976, a two-man British team — Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker — made a dramatic and revolutionary ascent of it using 'big wall' techniques that no one had previously thought were possible in the high Himalaya. It took them 25 days. Part of their training for the route in England involved spending nights hanging in hammocks inside industrial meat freezers. Boardman's book about the ascent, The Shining Mountain, is one of the all-time classics of mountaineering literature — again, if you get your hands on it, read it. In some ways Boardman was not a dissimilar writer to Murray, his passion and the simple poetry of his language shining through (please excuse the pun) on every page. After their disappearance on Everest in 1982, the Boardman-Tasker prize has been awarded every year for outstanding mountain literature.

Viewed from the north, Changabang is in some ways less impressive, as at 6864 metres high it is somewhat lower than its immediate neighbour Kalanka (6931 m). This is what it looks like from the Bagini glacier:

Changabang and Kalanka north faces
Kalanka (L) and Changabang (R) from the north, the Bagini Pass on the right (not quite, see the comments below!). Photo: unknown.

Less impressive in some ways maybe, but from a mountaineer's perspective the grandeur of that sweeping vertical north face is awe-inspiring. Frank Smythe described it as "a peak that falls from crest to glacier in a wall that might have been sliced in a single cut of a knife." That north face was first climbed — Alpine-style, no less! — by Andy Cave and Brendan Murphy in 1997, though Murphy sadly died in an avalanche on the descent. In a neat symmetry, Andy Cave won the Boardman-Tasker award in 2005.

For the time being, I believe the northern perspective of Changabang is the only one available to mountaineers, since the Nanda Devi Sanctuary remains closed to expeditions (Though I may be wrong on this: it is possible that partial access to the Sanctuary has recently been allowed again, and it is also possible that Changabang can be seen from the southwest from some location outside the Sanctuary).

At some point in the future, I have promised myself a visit to Changabang. Not to climb it, which would be beyond my capabilities, but merely to see it for myself, from the Bagini glacier if the Sanctuary remains closed. Until then, I must content myself with other people's photographs, and Murray's words.


  1. Hey Seshu, if you look at the old rotting slides at home (i.e. what once used to be your home too) you will find several with the view of Kalanka and Changabang in your third picture, though taken from the far side of the glacier, the snow-covered moraine of which is visible running across the bottom of your picture. (My pictures were taken during our 1984 expedition, the year you were born.)

    Real reason for this comment is different though.

    (a)As far as I could make out then, what seems to be the summit of Changabang in that picture is not the true summit, but the "horns" below the summit. There ain't much difference in height between Kalanka (6931) and Changabang (6864).

    (b) The west wall of Changabang drops down to a well-defined col, which you identify as the Bagini Pass in the second picture (with Dougal Haston rehydrating). This col is the same as the one visible in picture (3) from the other side. It is where the great Boardman-Tasker climb started - well, "started" after they climbed to it from inside the Nanda Devi Sanctuary to the south, which alone would be hard enough for most people. But that col is NOT the one that Longstaff crossed in 1907 from the north, and which gave him the first view of the Rhamani glacier and this part of the Sanctuary. And "Bagini Pass" should be reserved for Longstaff's pass.

    In fact, referring to your third picture, as you move to the right and out of the picture, the ridge rises to a subsidiary peak, drops down again to the real Bagini Pass and then rises to Dunagiri (7066). Our 1984 expedition got to that. (To do so we had to move up another tributary glacier which meets the one descending from the wall in your picture 3.) We abandoned thoughts of getting up to the col actually visible in picture 3 because of a huge bergschrund which we couldn't have crossed given our equipment and skills, and because it looked far too steep for ditto reasons. We told ourselves that this was consolation for not being good enough to get to the "real" Bagini Pass - which, like you, we thought was the col adjacent to Changabang. But later I managed to lay my hands on Longstaff's article in the Geographical Journal, and realised that what we had got to was really the same as the pass he crossed - there is a striking picture in the GJ piece very similar to ones we took.

    Real "real" point is: why don't you make time to visit this area before my legs give out on me? It is a marvellous part of the world - I would love to revisit it - and the way we are going, not likely to survive for long.

    1. For the benefit of anyone else who is interested, the original article by Longstaff in the Geographical Journal is available online at JSTOR. Some readers may already have access to JSTOR via some library; if not I believe you can access three articles for free if you register with them.

    2. Thanks for the information about JSTOR. I have access to its mathematics archives at work, but the "Register & Read" feature will be useful to read articles on the Himalaya. As for the above article, A. L. Mumm's book Five months in the Himalaya describes his 1907 travels with Longstaff. There are two chapters in the book on the Bagini glacier and pass.

  2. Thanks for the corrections. I'm not sure I ever knew those details, but if I did I had long forgotten them. Part of the reason I have been putting things like this up on the blog is just that writing them down helps me remember them, and gives me a place to look them up in the future. My memory's not getting any better ...

    By the way, do you know whether the Sanctuary has been partially opened or not?

    1. The Nanda Devi outer sanctuary is open, that is, one can go up to Dibrugheta from either Lata or Tolma, through Dharansi Pass and Malthuni Pass. You may be interested in some pictures of a trek to Dibrugheta last month. The inner sanctuary (Deodi, Ramni, Bhuj Ghera, Patalkhan, Sarson Patal, and the Nanda Devi base camp) are out of bounds. However, there were scientific expeditions to the inner sanctuary in 1993 and 2003, and apparently the next one will be in 2013. Also, I heard that some army mountaineering expeditions were allowed through the inner sanctuary, but I haven't yet read anything about them.

  3. It is possible to see just the top of the West face of Changabang from near Kuari Pass.

    1. I really enjoyed both your sets of photographs, so thanks for posting them.

    2. Yes. It's the same view of changabang which you get from kartik swami too..