Copp-Dash Inspired: Tino Villanueva & Alan Rousseau’s Himalayan First AscentTuesday, November 28, 2017
Over the summer of 2017, I was working as a mountain guide in the Alps, based out of Chamonix, France. In a place where civilization is a mere stone’s throw from big mountains and glaciers, I stood out with my beard growing ever longer and rattier. Earlier in the year, I had received the good news that my climbing partner, Alan Rousseau, and I received the Copp-Dash Inspire Award and Mugs Stump Award (both supported by Black Diamond) to attempt an unclimbed peak in Northern India. Knowing that there had been a recent uptick in terrorist activity in Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian state we would be traveling through, I promised to grow out my facial hair so as to better blend in to the local population. I cannot say for certain whether it worked or not, but nobody messed with us so I can only conclude I assimilated perfectly.
The state of Jammu and Kashmir is a clash of cultures. Upon arriving in Leh, in the region of Ladakh, you are thrust into a little Tibet. Prayer flags flutter in the wind and monasteries line the highway. We were to travel west, toward the Pakistan border, where the religious majority changes from Buddhist to Muslim and the maps (which we could not obtain) still have data gaps being filled in by people exploring the remote regions of the country. Our peak objective, the 6,495-meter Rungofarka, was in one of these areas.
In 2009, the India Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) opened over 100 peaks for climbing—this coming after years of conflict in the area and large areas either closed, or flat out too dangerous for tourism or climbing. Rungofarka was one of the peaks on the IMF’s list and from the few photos we found on the internet we concluded that: (a) the mountain looked steep and the climbing quite technical, (b) there was a general lack of information available, and (c) difficult climbing and no information likely meant the peak had never been climbed.
Alan and I were immediately struck by Rungofarka’s north aspect. The north face is comprised of a web of ice runnels connecting the steep face to the summit headwall. In contrast, the north ridge shoots up in a series of vertical steps to the same headwall that guards the summit slopes. An ice cliff looms above the headwall, with seracs hanging down the west side—our planned route of descent. If either route provided passage it would be a proud line; it would also spit us right back into the fire on the way back down.
After acclimatizing, hiking loads, dealing with behind the scenes expedition activities (i.e. recuperating from GI distress), and recovering from a false start on the north face, Alan and I were ready to attempt the north ridge. We departed basecamp on September 30. On October 1, we climbed 9 pitches of AI3 up a beautifully fluted snow face to gain the ridge. A prominent col provided a comfortable, if very narrow, bivy platform. The next day presented the first crux—a few hundred meters of vertical rock that shot up overhead.
Over the course of the day on October 2, we climbed 10 pitches of mixed climbing up to M6 with mostly good belays but some poor gear, loose rock and runout sections. The climbing was steep, slow, tenuous and if the climbing above was similar there was no way we would summit in the time we had allotted. As the sun set and we scrambled for a place to spend the night, we lucked into finding a cave behind a curtain of water ice. In terrain that otherwise provided no reprieve from the vertical, the cave was an incredible windfall.
October 3 was the make or break day. We either needed to cover a lot of ground or start rappelling. Fortunately, the climbing was not as difficult, mostly in the M4 range. Still, there were hard pitches, including an unprotected six-inch offwidth and an M6 vertical finger-sized crack. This day is a blur for me. We climbed around 20 pitches and put ourselves in position to summit. As the sun set, we settled in for one more bivy high on the mountain. Unfortunately, we were only able to chop a ledge half as wide as the tent. I spent most of the night sitting up, bracing the tent from sliding off the sloping ledge and falling 1,000 meters down the north face.
The morning of October 4, two more pitches of hard climbing guarded the summit slopes. Upon negotiating the final serious pitch, we knew the top was within our grasp. Then, after 200 meters of 60-degree ice and some ridge traversing, we finally stood on top of Rungofarka (VI M6 WI4+ 1200m)—five days and 50 pitches after leaving base camp.
In our exploration of this little valley, we noticed some discrepancies in the information the IMF had provided about Rungofarka. Peak names, elevations and coordinates did not match up to ground truths. When we returned to Delhi and met with the IMF they could not definitively tell us the name of the mountain we climbed, even after looking over their maps and inspecting our photos and GPS waypoints. Much is still unknown about the mountains in the remote areas of India and that makes for exploratory alpine climbing at its finest.