Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Changtang Silence - June 2017

Changtang Peaks notes. 
There is something beyond what I have seen. I am in Delhi now after completing the 2017 Changtang Peaks Exploratory. It was a well rounded trip complete with cultural interaction with the Changpa nomads, a 6000 meter remote summit climb, an introduction to multi-pitch rock climbing (for those that were interested), and a downhill mountain bike trip from the 5300 meter Khardung pass.
Phuntsok, Kunsang, and Gomba trekking to base camp. We have worked together as a team continuously for four years now.

Approaching base camp with thunderstorm skies one afternoon.

Making Italian bruschetta with freshly made bread, yak cheese, olive oil, tomatoes, and sauteed garlic.

Peak objectives that still await for future seasons.

A snowy morning at base camp.

Pema and Gyatso. It is our second season working with them and their team of twelve horses. Sometimes we work with Ram Lal and Sanjay from Kullu.

The team celebrating with a glass of wine at the end of the expedition in our simple dining tent.

The horsemen stay in their own parachute tent. Here they are getting ready to walk towards the start of our next trek in the Stok range.

Beautiful mountains to the East of Lake Tsomoriri, with Changpa nomads camping with their flocks in the foreground. This is Peldo, one of our camps while on the Changtang Peaks Exploratory.

Loading up camp to head back to Leh. Here you can see our gear truck, the green tents that each trekker gets on our summer lightweight trips in Ladakh, and views of Lake Tsomoriri in the background.

Chris Trafford making friends with shepherds.

An introductory rock climbing day during one of the trip days.

Mountain biking from the Khardung La (5300m)

Our interim camp on the way to base camp.

I saw the following species during the trip:

Tibetan Sand Grouse
Citrine Wagtail
Common Tern
Common Raven
Ladakh Pika
Horned Lark
Plain-backed Snow finch
Black-headed Gull
Ruddy Shelduck
Bar headed Goose
Rock Pigeon
Wooly Hare
White crowned redstart
Kiang (Tibetan Wild Ass)

Peldo, Tsomoriri, Ladakh | 4544m | 6:36PM |

The wind is kicking this afternoon. Yesterday, the Tibetan Buddhist monks that passed through our camp said the wind would persist for another ten days. I recall over the years in this same spot how the wind persisted in October. Most people visit Tsomoriri and the Changtang in July and August. We are early. There is more snow in the mountains, yet not too much. It is giving definition to the ridgelines, showing off the true climbing around this massive high altitude lake. I'm enjoying seeing Tsomoriri with such snows in this cold desert, this perhaps my tenth visit to the region.
       Today is purposeful. Acclimatization. My guests arrived three days ago to Leh, Ladakh at 3477 meters. They spent two nights there, trekking with Gomba Sherpa on their second day over a nearby pass to acclimatize. Next we drove here, a massive jump to 4544 meters. Everyone in the team feels fine, and this is the fourth trip we've run this way, always taking the textbook rest day after such a large gain in altitude. Today we spotted 8 bird species, including the rare Tibetan sand grouse and the Plain-backed snow finch. Being a climber and skier, I've learned to enjoy Himalayan expeditions because of their variety.
One day I'm viewing rare bird species, the next we're boulder hopping up a perennial stream to base camp, and then we're climbing unclimbed faces, seeking out new experiences, yet everyday just high quality in a pristine environment.
Tomorrow we'll walk into the Lublung river valley, closer to climbing objectives and have higher ground. :/:

Lublung Nala Camp, Tsomoriri, Ladakh | 5272m | 4:33pm

Underpromise, Overdeliver. Chris Trafford says today. Storm clouds pass by overhead, some threatening to drop rain and snow on us, yet it remains dry here in camp. The Lublung creek we are next to was dry until about half a kilometer below us. If you haven't been here before, it gets you thinking. 14kms from our lake camp in Peldo to here. Locals pronounce Peldo (Beldo). It's early summer here, there are many nomad camps around, white canvas with blue trim and the classic brown yak hair tents stretched between poplar poles worn smooth from the years of movement, of storms, of the hands of work.
     The winter snows are starting to melt during the warming days, yet it still isn't full summer here on the high plateau. Two days prior I noticed the monsoon has arrived to Rishikesh, an Instagram photo posted by a friend.

15 kilometers
4 hours 26 minutes of walking
6 hours of travel 

Lublung Nala Base Camp, Tsomoriri, Ladakh | 5592m | 5:41pm

The snow showers come and go, in pulses throughout an otherwise mild day. Yesterday, we acclimatized at a lower camp, and shifted up here today, 1046 feet higher. The weather continues to appear unstable, yet tomorrow morning we will start at 4 am, for a nearby 6000 meter summit. Everyone feels healthy, and some of us will climb to 6000 meters for the first time in their life tomorrow. That's exciting.

Lublung Nala Base Camp, Tsomoriri, Ladakh | 5592m | 6:03pm

We all reached a 6200m Himalayan summit this morning.  Guests say it was fulfilling. Gomba, Chris, and Chuck climbed together on a large ridge. Will wasn't feeling well last night so we planned a rest day today. He woke up feeling strong and we went for a walk into a nearby cirque to scout new climbing routes. Halfway up the valley, with clouds covering the peaks we'd planned to scout, I asked him, "what do you want to do today Will?" There was a clear route straight to the summit of the peak the others were already climbing. I gave that option, and he was up for it. We began climbing, reaching the group an hour later. We all summited together in brilliant sunshine, descending to camp for lunch. Evening, we'll shift our base camp tomorrow, and climb another 6000 meter peak in the coming days. Snow showers and marginal weather continue.

There is something heavily comforting to all in the room. No one had much to eat for  dinner tonight, and silence is our moniker. Yet I can tell that something is in the air. And everyone seems ready for sleep.

We are down from the high mountains. A monk came by, asking for the fee to sleep on his monasteries land. We paid it politely, opening a bottle of South Australian Cabernet to share amongst ourselves. We are nine, two horsemen, Phuntsok, Gomba, and Kunsang.

Back to Leh, we have gone multi-pitch rock climbing and downhill mountain biking the past two days. A great trip. We will return to this region in 2018.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Tibet - Lhakpa Ri Base Camp and Acclimatization - Lhakpa Ri Expedition - May 2017

Rongbuk Valley, Tibet | 0916 | 5144m/16,820ft | 12 May, 2017 | Lhakpa Ri Expedition

    Hello from our base camp. We arrived here on the morning of 9 May, using the first day to review multi-pitch alpine climbing skills. We will be climbing 7045m/23,037ft Lhakpa Ri in alpine style as a team of 5. I will be leading the pitches where it is needed and otherwise we will be traveling as a roped team with running belays.  We are Luke Smithwick, Gomba Sherpa, Charles De Courval, Wilmars Mikelsons, and Francis Lawrence.  Charles and I are also carrying skis on our backs to the summit, with intentions to ski from the summit.  Over the past days the weather has continually changed throughout each day. Cloudy mornings, clear afternoons, snow showers, sunny skies. Continually changing. This forecast will continue while we are here. It is manageable and we will be climbing in this weather. We have not had the opportunity to look at Lhakpa Ri this season, but I do know from Kyajo Ri a few weeks ago that we need snow. The snow showers we are getting will help in the icy sections of the route up to the summit of Lhakpa Ri, and may enable a complete ski descent.
    Everyone finally got a good nights sleep last night. It’s a big jump to drive directly into a 5100 meter base camp. For most other base camps you take a slow approach to reach such an altitude.  Each day we’ve made forays onto the hills around base camp here, reaching 5700 meters as a high point.  Tomorrow we will walk to an Interim camp on the Far East Fork of the Rongbuk glacier, and then onwards to our Advanced Base Camp at 6200 meters, very near Everest Advanced Base Camp.  We will have several days to acclimatize around Lhakpa Ri ABC, with plans to ski tour and walk up to the Rapiu La for views of the Kangshung Face of Everest and a walk up to Everest ABC.  When we feel ready and the time is right with the weather, we will walk over to a camp 1 on Lhakpa Ri, and then climb the following morning to the summit. The purpose of a camp is to ensure we have time to deal with in difficulties on the summit day.  Gomba and I will carry tents and some equipment over to the camp 1, giving us an opportunity to check out the upper mountain before we bring the team over for the summit day. Wish us luck. I’ll send an update when we return to base camp, likely on 22 May 2017.

-Luke Smithwick, guide, Himalaya Alpine Guides (

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Tibet, Progress and Ancient Tracks - Lhakpa Ri Expedition - May 2017

Xegar (New Tingri), Tibet | 2147 | 4330m / 14,210 feet | 7 May, 2017

Views of the end of the Himalayas and the start of the Changtang plateau on the flight from Kathmandu to Lhasa.

Greetings from Tibet. Over the past whirlwind days we’ve been traveling overland on the Changtang plateau in an expedition van provided by the China Tibet Mountaineering Association.  We have a permit to climb 7045 meter Lhakpa Ri on the Far East Fork of the Rongbuk glacier. During this Spring season, foreigners are required to enter Tibet by flying into Lhasa, hence why we are approaching the peak by such an indirect route. Gomba and Karma Sherpa are driving to base camp from Kathmandu over the Tibetan border and we will meet them there in two days time. Then we will be a team, of six, all together. Nepalis are the only people allowed to enter Tibet through the Nepal border. This Autumn foreigners will be allowed to enter through Nepal again, yet only Cho Oyu will be open for climbing this Autumn. All peaks will return to Open status for 2018, and foreigners will be allowed to enter through Nepal.  Permit fees have increased this season in Tibet. Foreigners are required to pay US$200/day to be in Lhasa in addition to their peak permit cost. Permit holders are required to pay for their meals while traveling to base camp now as well, which was covered by the permit in the past. All of the information above is from a meeting I had with the China Tibet Mountaineering Association two days ago in Lhasa, Tibet, China. It is fact. Moving on..
    We are Luke Smithwick (USA) - leader and lead guide , Charles De Courval (Canada) - climber, Francis Lawrence (France and now Australia) - climber, Wilmars Mikelsons (Australia) - climber, Gomba Sherpa (Nepal) - assistant guide, Karma Gyelje Sherpa (Nepal) - cook. I’ve climbed with Charles and Francis previously, this is Wilmars first trip with me. Gomba and I have worked together for four years now. Karma I’ve worked with since 2012, although he does work at Mount Kailas in the summers as a cook with mostly Indian tour groups on yatra.
Locals walk the daily kora (circle) around the Potala Palace, notice the snowy mountains in the background.

Views of modernising Lhasa from the steps of the Potala Palace.
     So let's begin in Lhasa, first impressions. I'd always envisioned Lhasa to be a place that time forgot. Tumbleweeds (not literally, but figuratively), ancient monuments, a place for one's imagination to run with thoughts of the past. While that is still very present, the modern world is quickly coming to Lhasa. Cranes work 24 hours a day, expensive SUVs ply the spotless streets, and the city is timely and efficient. Amongst this, there is the Potala Palace

The Potala Palace.
towering over the growing metro area.  Lhasa is the upscale Tibet, Tibetan couture, everyone dressed in their best. Within the Potala Palace, I presumed a museum, yet there is life. Monks pray and chant in each room, shukpa juniper incense wafts through the hallways and catacombs, and it is still bustling with the life of the Tibetan people. We were not accompanied by hoards and throngs of foreign tourists as we passed through the Potala, yet people from Amdo, from Shigatse, and from all over Tibet who were there to pay homage to this center for Tibetans.  It was an excellent experience, and the palace is so well preserved and respected.
A father and son from Amdo province enter the Potala.

Granite crags outside of Lhasa. There is a lot of cragging to be done around town on clean granite cracks.

Modern Lhasa, clean streets and new vehicles.

Tibetan locals converse under Chinese street lamps. An amalgamation of culture can be seen everywhere in Tibet now.

From Lhasa, we drove out of town towards Shigatse after fresh snowfall the night before, the nearby mountains covered in a dusting of snow.  We could see fresh tracks in the snow from locals crossing passes with their animals just outside of town. Francis and I have kept a keen eye for birds on this trip, both of us being keen birders when there are others interested. So far we've spotted Cattle Egret, Yellow Billed Blue Magpie, Common Lora, Greater Barbet, Common Pigeon, House Crow, Scaly Breasted Munia, Oriental Dove, Himalayan Bulbul, Yellow Naped Woodpecker, Large Billed Crow, Blue Thrush, Smew, Lammergeier, Citrine Wagtail, Ruddy Shelduck, Common Goldeneye. 

A roadside lunch stop on the way to Shigatse from Lhasa. Noodle soup being prepared by the restaurant owner.

The group with our driver and local guide (Tashi - second from left) at a lunch stop yesterday near Shigatse.

    You drive along the turquoise Tsangpo river to get from Lhasa to Shigatse, and it was clean and enticing. One of my goals is to raft it someday. Shigatse is larger than Lhasa (400,000) with 700,000 people. We drove in the evening and rested before having dinner and taking an evening walk to the Tashi Lhunpo monastery.  I was also impressed with how clean and modern Shigatse was.  This evening, we are resting here in Xegar (New Tingri) at 4300 meters.  The team feels good, there have been some minor stomach issues, and one person has a mild cold, yet all will pass. Tomorrow we drive to Tingri and will stay the night, driving to base camp the following morning. I will post the next update from our base camp, which is also the base camp for Mount Everest.

-Luke Smithwick, guide, Himalaya Alpine Guides (

Sunday, December 25, 2016

2016 September Kishtwar Peaks Exploratory

The 2016 Kishtwar Peaks Exploratory never made it to Kishtwar (!).  Instead, we trekked a wild route through Zanskar, saw a Himalayan brown bear and other interesting wild life, and traversed several 5000 meter passes while exploring a steep side canyon that involved an icy swim through a small cataract.  A well rounded Himalayan adventure.
Views of the Great Himalaya range on the drive in.

A local in Agsho village, keeping the yard and holding a young of the year goat.

Nav Brah and a local in Agsho.

Donkeys carrying winter fodder to the village from the mountainsides.

Some trailside petroglyphs.

Crossing the Agsho river the easy way.

The view towards Bharnaj and the pass to Kishtwar.

Big sky.

Zanskari ponies, some of which are feral, graze near the river.

Beating a retreat further into Zanskar

The trekking group with a local in Pidmo

Blue sheep

2016 August Hagshu Expedition

Hagshu on the right in marginal weather.  The face you see here is the North face, first climbed in 2014. Our goal was a less heinous objective around the corner to the left, with more manageable slope angles and relatively less overhanging hazard. 

Hagshu Expedition.  Hagshu is a challenging peak in the central Zanskar Himalayas of northern India. It thwarted many attempts by some of the top alpine climbers of the 1980’s, finally falling to a Polish team in 1989, and a consequent successful climb by the British that was an “official IMF expedition”.  A few years ago, top British and Slovenian alpinists made successful ascents of the North and Northeast faces of Hagshu, with one team receiving a “Piolet D’or” for the ascent. 

Working the yak cheese on a sheet of drying plastic at a doksa (place of grazing).
Our plan began 4 years ago. Two of the guests on the climb wanted to climb a first ascent, around 6500 meters in height, and in the Tien Shan of China/Kyrgyzstan.  While I did do my research on the Tien Shan, even buying a few maps and putting together some tentative plans, the place just wasn’t really appealing to me. The Indian Himalaya is wild and off the map, but we do have a rescue plan, and there is definitive medical care in Delhi that is to a standard that I’m comfortable with. While I don’t plan on having to utilize such services, it is always in the back of my mind. I’m guiding, which means not that I’m to get anyone to any far flung summit, but to maximize potential enjoyment without compromising safety. Plus, there is no way I’m leaving the crew I work with. We stay together.

Hence, the 2016 Hagshu Expedition. The group arrived to Leh, and I did the expedition briefing and we did our routine gear checks.  Since we were moving to Kargil the following day, we would only be in Leh for a night.  We were a group of four climbers, with a liaison officer from Kangra, and the guys I work with (Kunsang Thakchod, Gomba Sherpa, Phuntsok Dorje).  We are the core team of Himalaya Alpine Guides. In addition, two guys from Darjeeling came along to help out, Mingma and Mingma Sherpa (the twins). The Mingma twins would assist Gomba in helping to get loads higher onto the mountain, and in fixing ropes while I climbed with the rest of the team.

Our trip to base camp was flawless, with a nice sunny drive to Kargil, a night's stay, and then onward drive to the village of Agsho in Zanskar and then trek up the valley with the village headmen, their yaks shouldering the burden of our climbing equipment and supplies for the several weeks climb.  In base camp, Gomba and the Twins quickly set to the mountain, bringing a load up to Advanced Base Camp, while we acclimatized a day and reviewed some glacier travel skills and fixed rope travel so the little details were fresh in everyone's mind when they came to execute those parts of the climb.
Approaching base camp in the Agsho valley, with Agsho (Hagshu) in the background left.

     The following morning, with heavy loads on our backs, we were off up the glacier and across a medial moraine to reach Advanced Base Camp.  Reaching camp, the skies began to darken as I pointed out the Twins and Gomba further up the glacier having a look round.  The weather was not looking good. Fortunately we had our Mountain Hardwear Trango tents, a large supply of fuel, and food to ride out the weather. We watched the night come as the rain and snow flew. Our location was on rocks on a flattish bit of medial moraine far from any avalanche run outs.  The snow continued as we brewed up hot drinks, soup, and then dinner.  I stepped out of my tent to talk with the other members of the group several times, with Gomba and the Mingmas back from the foray into route finding for the day. The route, to them, did not appear in condition.

      I moved to the other tent to speak with the other climbers. We discussed the weather and the route. Gomba Sherpa made some photographs of the upper route and had returned to camp earlier that day with them.  The route appeared possible, but not in the best condition for an ascent and we had rockfall and avalanches going on. We knew we needed perfect weather for the route.

We decided to call off the climb and shifted a few ranges to the East. The Changtang plateau holds so many places to explore. We completed the final week of the expedition climbing a lesser peak in alpine style.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

2016 September Stok Range Alpine Climbing

Will Porteous on the summit of Shuku Kangri. We were the only team on this peak.
The Stok range is the prominent skyline of peaks seen from Leh, the capital of Ladakh. The Stok range is most often visited for a climb of the popular trekking peak, Stok Kangri.  The focus of this trip was to seek out new climbing objectives on adjacent peaks and on North facing slopes.  The north facing slopes of this range hold stationary ice bodies and glaciers and do present some degree of climbing challenge, and at the 5500m+ elevation.
      From 25 September - 8 October 2016, we made our way into Stok Kangri base camp via Shang Sumdo and the Matho valley.  There are a lot of tour companies offering climbs of the standard route on Stok Kangri. It is possible to come to Leh and organize a climb of Stok Kangri for about US$400. You go into base camp, sleeping in pre-established camps, and walk up the route with a local boy, under good conditions. This trip has nothing to do with this experience. Our goal was to do alpine climbs of more aesthetic routes, including learning to climb on ice with crampons, and covering other skills for moving in technical rock and ice terrain in the mountains, with a western mountain guide teaching these skills (Luke Smithwick).
Blue sheep cross a glacial stream on approach to base camp.
     Our first day of training for these skills was in Matho Phu, where we covered ascending and descending a fixed rope in steep rock terrain, moving together in alpine style on a rope, basic knots for mountaineering, objective hazards in mountaineering, communications while traveling as a rope team, and how to transition into multi-pitch rappels from upward progress.  Each of our trips is catered to the participants involved. Mahesh wanted to trek and try climbing, Amit wanted to learn to mountain skills, and Will wanted to climb new routes and summit 6000 meter peaks. More images of the trip below. We will return to the Stok range in July 2017. Interested? Contact Luke

Himalaya Alpine Guide Luke Smithwick putting up the rope to belay guests during the ascent of Golep Kangri in alpine style.

Will Porteous on the summit of Stok Kangri.

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The team making their first multi-pitch alpine rock climb. Two of these climbers had never been rock climbing before.

Views on 5000 meter Matho La.

Looking into Matho valley from the top of Matho La.

Amit with Stocky the dog while hiking Stok Kangri.

Mahesh on trek.