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Posted on: March 1, 2003
John Millar some distance from good ice on the west face of Swachand (VI M6 WI5, 1500m). [Photo] Guy Edwards
Swachand (6721m) is a tantalizing peak, visible from a well-frequented trekking route, in a side valley of the Gangotri Glacier in the Garhwal Himalaya. It had only been climbed once, via the snowy southeast side, by Austrians T. Messner and L. Spannraft in 1938. The much steeper west face was first attempted by Malcolm Bass and Julian Camp (U.K.) in 1998, but they were thwarted by weird weather and stone fall. In October John Millar and I managed to make the first ascent of the west face (VI M6 WI5, 1500m).
We left our advanced base camp at 5150 meters on October 3. A fair bit of snow, followed by an ice shield, and we were at the base of the first rock band. A series of mixed pitches (M5+) and a big fall with a heavy pack (I pulled off a huge block and took quite a ride while following the second pitch) saw us to the first snow patch and a protected spot, where we hacked out a ledge for our bivy tent.
The nights were chilly (down to -25 degrees C), and the sun didn't hit the face until midday. On the second morning John led a beautiful WI5 pitch to access the key ice ramp, which took us to a left-trending weakness. I was hit in the foot by a grapefruit-sized rock in the only significant cannonade we experienced. It hurt like a bugger: even with tape reinforcement, I couldn't frontpoint for a day and a half. John got all the leads for that afternoon and the next morning.
The bivy ledge for the second night was fairly narrow and required much chopping of ice and chipping of extruding rock spikes. I poisoned the water we had melted with fuel, so we had to start cooking all over again. The last two days on the face became more trying; we hadn't been eating or drinking enough while climbing, and the cold was getting to us. John had a brilliant lead on what was certainly the crux of the route: a sixty-meter WI5 pitch with an M6 section at the top. I had a heck of a time following with the heavier second pack.
Numerous pitches of hard dinner-plating ice put us on the summit ridge. The exposure was incredible, but the wind was too chilling to make it enjoyable. We simulclimbed up the ridge on firm corniced snow with one fiddly rock bit at a rate of two breaths per step, and arrived on the summit around 4 p.m. We spent a couple of minutes on top. It was a sharp summit, dropping steeply in all directions, and I was worried about the descent (never underestimate 1938 climbers).
The first 300 meters down the sharp south ridge required focused concentration. We pretended that snow pickets T-slotted in powder snow would hold us and moved slowly. Finally, we got to safer terrain, did a few rappels and bivied.
On the fifth day we ran out of food after breakfast. We were detoured by crevasses on the upper Maiandi Glacier, slogged back uphill to the col south of the peak, then dropped down to the Swachand Glacier. After a few rappels, some down climbing and lots of plunge stepping, we finally completed the circle, found our tracks and returned to advanced base camp.
— Guy Edwards, Canada
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