The east face of Cerro Kishtwar – or nothing!

2016 MXP Winner

In autumn 2015, Frenchman Manu Pellissier and three buddies – two Slovenians and an American – FA’d the east face of Cerro Kishtwar in India. An incredible adventure that stemmed from a terrific mix – a beautiful mountain, a complex line, favorable weather, and good companions! Story time.

Departure

10 September 2015

Arrival

16 October 2015

Duration

Duration: 36 days, from and back to New Delhi

SOME OFFERS CANNOT BE REFUSED

“When my old friend Marko Prezelj invited me to go on an expedition to India with Urban Novak and Hayden Kennedy, I asked him for a week to think it over. But then I called him an hour later, to say ‘count me in’ and ask for some more details about the east face of Cerro-thingummyjig…”.

Some offers cannot be refused – and for Manu Pellissier, this was one of them. The destination did not matter – what clinched it was his eagerness to head off on an expedition after a long hiatus!   Cerro Kishtwar is located in Kishtwar district, in the state of Jammur and Kashmir, on the border with Pakistan. Measuring 6,173 meters in altitude, it had only be scaled twice: the first time by Brits Mick Fowler and Steve Sustad in 1993; then, in 2011, by a Swiss team made up of Stephan Siegrist, David Lama and Denis Burdet. “There was also Brendan Murphy and Andy Perkins’ remarkable 1991 attempt on the incredible north face,” adds Manu. “They spent 17 days up the face, and stopped 100 meters from the top of the north face direttissima – 1,000 meters of capsule-style climbing over 28 pitches…”.

Marko had spotted this line a year earlier, while climbing in Zanskar. The Slovenian had taken a shine to this complex, incredible and fairly ephemeral climb: 1,200 meters, extremely steep, a great route of about 30 pitches, with a bit of rock to start with and a few vertical sections on ice. It was love at first sight – followed by a wild urge to climb it…

Cerro Kishtwar (6,173m) is in the state of Jammur and Kashmir, on the border with Pakistan.

TWO YOUNG GUNS, TWO OLD FARTS, ONE TARGET: THE EAST FACE

And so, on September 10, four mountaineers convened in New Delhi, all focused on the same goal: the east face, as yet unexplored, of Cerro Kishtwar. Urban and Hayden already knew each other, having climbed K7 together in 2012. Marko and Manu had shared several big Alpine adventures during their 17-year friendship. “It was an interesting team – two Slovenians, a Frenchman and an American. Two young guns with two old farts… It was soon apparent that we had good And chemistry was a must, given what lay in store…"

Reaching the Kishtwar range involves a long and perilous journey. “To begin with, you have to catch a bus to Manali, then take an SUV to Gulab Garh along the “Kishtwar killer road”, a crazy route built amid huge cliffs, some of them 200 meters above the river. The slightest mistake means certain death – the day we drove it, there were seven victims!”

They then took a four-day trek in the Darlang Valley – a real treat. “It was the most picturesque and spectacular trek any of us had ever been on. It’s only been open since 2011, and it’s extremely wild.“ The trek led them to their base camp at 3,900m altitude, at the foot of the Chomochior Glacier, the gateway to their objective: the famous east face of Cerro Kishtwar…

The Kishtwar Killer is an eye-popping road built amid huge cliffs, some of them 200 meters above the river, where the slightest mistake spells certain death.

“DON’T BE SUCH PUSSIES, WE CAN DO IT…”

“At first glance, the east face of Cerro Kishtwar was really dry. But fortunately some snow fell, so that what lay ahead was not a potentially ultra-risky, hazardous ascent but something far more reasonable, with a low risk of stonefall. The snow was a gift from the expedition gods, but it was still an ambitious objective!”

For the first part of their acclimatization, they split into two groups. Marko, Hayden and Urban climbed the western part of the ridge of Chomochior (6,278m). Manu, meanwhile, focused on several routes up nearby summits above 5,000m – “wonderful walls” – accompanied by their guide Bagual and cook Betoo.

Once their acclimatization was complete, they planned their imminent attempt on CK.

​“The plan was: take five days’ food, move ABC to the base of the face, and just climb it!”

 October 5: after a night’s snow, the face was amply plastered. It was cold, and Marko opened the route. Urban, Hayden and Manu started eyeing the left-hand side, hoping to find a more straightforward gully that would give them a better chance… “Don’t be such pussies, we can do it…”. With this pithy phrase, Marko Prezelj dispelled any doubts and got the team focused on the best possible route, which wasn’t the easiest or most comfortable, but was definitely the best: straight up the east face. “What made the climb special wasn’t a 6 or a 6b. It didn’t matter what grade the route was. We all knew which skills we needed…”.

A VICTORY CLINCHED INCH BY INCH

The quartet completed the ascent inch by inch, sharing a rope, some memorable bouts of hilarity, and… sturdy headlamps. “We climbed all day, often till very late, before we found spots for a bivy. On the second night, we even carved a ledge so we could sleep sitting down!”

October 8: the team reached the summit around 10pm. They pitched their two tents there for the night – an unhoped-for dream! “We woke up in one of the most beautiful places on this continent, with an incredible view, mountains all around us, and not even the tiniest sign of civilization in sight. Some moments are unforgettable, and that one will stay with me forever.”

The team then went back down to base camp with about 20 rappels down a gully. Then spent a day resting and packing up (“and finishing off the beer and whisky”). Before returning to civilization, their minds bursting with the memories of a truly stunning expedition.

KEEN TO CLIMB TOGETHER AGAIN!

“It was an incredible human experience. We had an ambitious target, and the chemistry between us was perfect. We were all highly motivated, we had a struggle… but succeeded, and had a great laugh!” The four mountaineers have already talked about climbing together again. They just need to find a window in their schedule!

A movie in the pipeline?

The team shot lots of footage… of the expedition, of course, but also of their discussions about mountaineering and life in general. “At base camp there were four nationalities and cultures: Slovenian, French, American and Indian. We had some really tremendous conversations. There’s definitely enough material to make a movie – and we’d like to…”. As ever, the challenge is finding the time.

The Team

Hayden Kennedy
Young, talented American climber. Aged just 26, he already has many big climbs under his belt, including K7 in Pakistan and the first enchainment of Cerro Torre in Patagonia.
Urban Novak
Aged 28. The “brains” of the team, a PhD student in biology and seasoned alpinist. Calm and very open-minded (he had already climbed with Americans...).
Marko Prezelj
Now 50, he is to mountaineering what Keith Richards is to rock ‘n’ roll – but more romantic, no drugs or womanizing, and just the odd drop of alcohol.
Manu Pellissier
Aged 41. A mountaineer close to retiring. Mountain guide and instructor. Rolling Stones fan.