Defining the southwest corner of the Nanda Devi sanctuary in the Indian Himalaya, the Trisul group forms a formidable trident of peaks towering over 7000 metres above the Nandakini Valley. The main summit, Trisul 1, was the first 7000 metre mountain in the world ever climbed, by a team led by British explorer T. G. Longstaff, who reached the south summit back in 1907. Here, Jöttnar Pro Team member Mark Thomas recounts the second ascent this autumn of the West Ridge to the true summit of Trisul 1 (7145m)
My nerves can take no more, and I sit bolt upright from the warmth of my sleeping bag. No words are needed as I turn to Ian, just to make sure we’re not over-reacting. As the canvas of our fragile tent bellows and contracts in the roaring maelstrom engulfing us, every gust threatens to whip us into the midnight hour, down the West Face, and into the jaws of the Nandakini Valley over two thousand meters below.
“Shall we gear up?” Ian suggests. The ice is broken. No longer are our thoughts kept in check. “Defo. We’ll need the snow shovel” I reply. “I spied a great place for a snow hole just a hundred metres down the ridge”.
The team load-ferrying in the rain and sleet
We spring into action like school kids at the final bell, but we’re not going home, not yet; there are still many lessons to be learnt here on the West Ridge of Trisul. For now we hold our nerve, and sit it out till daybreak in the hope of better weather and a shot at the summit.
Trisul is one of the great peaks of the Uttarakhand region of the Indian Himalaya, forming a giant shield around the western rim of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary. Combined with its two subsidiary peaks along its South Ridge, Trisul cuts the skyline as a supremely graceful trident of summits, representing the Hindu god Shiva’s symbol of power: the destroyer and transformer of worlds. The mountain became the first 7000m peak in the world to be climbed back in 1907, and has a reputation for attracting extreme weather.
Hunkering down in high winds at Camp 3
Our trek up the Nandakini – one of the six main tributaries of the Ganges - runs smoothly. After four days in deep forest, we pierce the undergrowth to be greeted by the pristine snow covered west ridge: our home for the next 3 weeks. Trisul looks stunning, and we arrive at base camp 4400m, full of excitement and anticipation of the adventure ahead. All around us, the peaks are lost in the afternoon fog and the heavens open for the first time in a week, signalling the beginning of a three day storm. The dry stream beds around camp suddenly explode into life and are soon torrents of grey, silty runoff. Between banks of thick fog, there’s a sneaky peep at the west wall of the Ronti Ice Shelf and the descending of the snow line, as the storm takes hold and temperatures begin to plummet.
"Trisul is one of the great peaks of the Uttarakhand region of the Indian Himalaya, forming a giant shield around the western rim of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary"
The best we can manage on the first day of climbing is a recce up to the base of the initial cliffs of the West Ridge. The first difficulties are a steep couloir, with deep snow from about half way up; but the crux for today is just finding it. In thick fog and pouring rain, we navigate through the boulders and moraine and find what appears to be the correct gully. Reaching a high point at an impressive rock buttress at 4700m, we pop it into the GPS for tomorrow’s load ferry.
Camp 4 at 6400 metres: 'the windy camp'
Soaked to the skin, it’s back down and to the welcome warmth of the mess tent and a feast of warm food before retiring. A sleepless night then ensues, mopping the floor of my leaking tent, but luckily my sleeping bag is on a high point in the centre of the ground sheet: the water settles all around me, like the moat of a medieval castle.
The next couple of days are filled with heavy loads, getting drenched, breaking trail, and fixing static line up some gnarly climbing near the rim of the couloir. But the effort is rewarded: the fog finally clears and the views up the Ronti Glacier to the West Face of Trisul are jaw dropping. Finally, it looks like the weather is on the turn and the first loads are dropped at Camp 1, at 5300m: we are now really climbing this thing, and it feels good.
Furtemba following the author's lead up a large icefield, on day 18 of climbing above camp 4 at 6500m
Moving across the snow crust a bit like standing on a thick sheet of polystyrene, but with no support beneath. Place your foot carefully on top, apply bodyweight, start to stand up, then plunge through as it caves in. Add about two feet of powder beneath and a fully laden pack above: this is trail breaking on a breakable crust, and it’s nothing short of brutal.
Climbing up to camp 3 at 6000m is a haze of heavy breathing, suffering, and toil. But in a beautiful setting now high on the mountain, we busy ourselves with load ferrying, setting up the camps and acclimatising.
Steep ice climbing at over 6000m, just below Camp 4
On Thursday the 28th of September, after thirteen days of climbing, myself, Ian and Furtemba - with frozen toes and frost-nipped fingers - arrive at the base of the 500m ice wall, armed with 500m of rope and a tonne of ice screws and snow stakes. The conditions on these upper pitches are stellar: I swing my axes into perfect, squeaky ice. The views across the West Face and the overhanging seracs to my left are out of this world, with the grey of the glacier below contrasting against the Nandikini forest thousands of metres beyond; an explosion of brilliant white on luscious green.
"the grey of the glacier below contrasts against the Nandikini forest thousands of metres beyond; an explosion of brilliant white on luscious green"
The day grows cold as the sun sinks lazily behind the ice cliffs of Nanda Ghunti, and we start to suffer from the sudden dip in temperatures and the rattling wind from the west. We abseil back down from the ice wall and rustle into our sleeping bags for our first night at 6000m: sleepless, windy, and cold. The night is spent perched on our packed rucksacks as the full impact of gale force winds threaten to rip us off the mountain. We’re fully kitted up, ready to retreat to a snow hole, or to navigate back down to camp 2; we simply sit and wait.
Chetan on the true summit of Trisul (7145m)
Morning brings no reprieve from the onslaught of wind. We stumble our way down to Camp 2, where we are greeted by our team members Zac, John and Chetan, and the most welcome hot coffee imaginable. They too had a gusty night, and we all agree that we’re tired from 2 weeks of hard graft and poor sleep, and decide to descend to base camp to rest, eat, and drink, and then return for our summit push. I can see the relief in everyone’s eyes as the decision is made and we pack for the long route down. Behind us, the summit slopes of Trisul throw out plumes of spindrift, jetting up high into the deep blue Himalayan sky.
"There's relief in everyone’s eyes as the decision is made and we pack for the long route down. Behind us, the summit slopes of Trisul throw out plumes of spindrift into the deep blue Himalayan sky"
24 hours at base camp is more than enough. The shock of so much oxygen, fuelled with good food and rest, sees us keen to return for our summit climb. On Monday the 2nd of October, we set off for Camp 1. Ahead of us, there’s 2750m of climbing to the summit. We have a weather window of 4 days before the next weather front arrives.
Looking across to Nanda Devi and Nanda Devi East from the summit of Trisul. The author and fellow British mountaineer Martin Moran climbed a new route on Nanda Devi East 2 years ago, on the mountain's North West Spur, but didn't make the summit
On Thursday October 5th, after another sleepless night at camp 4 with the canvas flapping in my face, I’m glad to get moving, melt some snow and make some tea. The weather is okay as we pitch up the steep crest of the West Ridge towards a rock ‘rognon’ at 6700m; resembling the summit crest on the ’Frendo Spur’ but with a bit more to go at the top. At 6850m, I run out of rope and stop, bring up Furtemba, and are soon joined at the belay by the other team, Ian, Zac and Chetan. After some discussion, Furtemba decides the way ahead is too dangerous, and wishes to descend back to Camp 4; he also has a terrible high altitude cough which he fears will worsen if he continues. Chetan decides to descend with him, to make sure they both get down safely. Myself, Zac and Ian continue up the face alpine-style, moving together. It’s 10am. At 2pm, we are standing at 7050m on the South Summit of Trisul, just shy of the main summit at 7145m. But our decision is instantly made: this is to be our summit. The ridge ahead looks totally insane.
With a steep headwall near to the top, the ridge itself is massively corniced on its east flank, with steep, unprotectable, climbing on its west side. I take a quick photograph of the summit ridge to the North Summit, in order to study it this evening at Camp 4. I know that Chetan is still keen to make a summit attempt; I hope he is still there and hasn’t descended further down the mountain with Furtemba.
So many hopes, so much effort, so many dreams to be fulfilled. Everything hangs in the balance. Our existence up here is so fragile and our margins so small: finally we reach camp 4, totally spent. Ian feeds and waters me as I try to use up very second of rest time and crash out as best I can in the wrath of the storm outside.
The summit ridge of Trisul 1. The true summit is the second overhanging mushroom cornice on the right
Day 21 has all the same excitement as the day before, but with a bit more again. Chetan and I leave Camp 4 at 6am. It’s bitterly cold this morning and the sky is showing signs of potential changes in the weather. With high cloud, a bitter windchill combined with the spindrift makes for quite an uncomfortable climb back up to the South Summit at 7050m. From here, we climb slowly and deliberately across the first exposed section of the summit ridge, the gusts just occasionally forcing me off balance and onto my knees.
"I belay Chetan up on axe belays; we are both exhausted as we reach the headwall. There is no protection: just a 30 metre runout on 85 degree snow ice at 7100m"
I belay Chetan up on axe belays; we are both exhausted. The day is creeping away from us as we reach the headwall at 7100m. There is no protection: just a 30 metre runout on 85 degree snow ice. It feels pretty intense. But we know this is the key to the final summit - the last hurdle - and as we embrace at the top of the pitch, Chetan checks his GPS and we know we can do this. For the first time on the whole trip, I well up inside and my emotions overflow. It’s been such a brutal and emotional journey.
The author on the true summit of Trisul 1 at 7145 metres: this was only the second time the true summit of the mountain had been reached
Right up until this point, we did not know if we would make the summit, and for the first time in a month, I feel we can do it. The final summit slopes go on for an eternity, with false summits and huge cornices, until finally there is nowhere else up to go. We’ve made it to the true summit of Trisul at 7145m. The views across the Nanda Devi sanctuary towards Nanda Devi East and Nanda Devi Main bring back fond memories of my trip there with Martin Moran two years ago. For now, though, we just sit and absorb the moment. It’s times like these that everything seems so simple and so clear.
After a fair bit of down-climbing and abseiling, the little yellow bivi tents of Camp 4 are a welcome sight, in preparation for the long descent back down to Camp 1 tomorrow morning. On Sunday the 8th October we all roll into Base Camp, on day 23 of the expedition, flushed with success and full of relief: we’re all ready to go home.
The 2017 British Trisul Expedition was led by Mark Thomas, an IFMGA Mountain Guide & Jottnar Pro Team member. It was the 2nd ascent to the true summit of Trisul via the West Ridge, and the 1st British ascent of the mountain by this route. The team comprised of Jack Waters, Ian Wade, Zachary Quain, John Mclaren, Arun Mahajan, Benji Fry, Chetan, Furtemba, Martin Moran and Mark Thomas.