Local Climbers Take On Unclimbed Zanskar Peaks

Still relatively wild and lonely, Ladakh offers a long summer climbing season and plenty of potential for exploration both for international teams and for young local climbers.

Recently, we posted about a new route up Jamyang Ri in the Rangtik Topko Valley. And an Italian team led by Francesco Ratti is currently climbing a new route in the Miyar Valley. Between them, in August, four friends from different parts of India undertook a climbing trip to Zanskar.

They originally aimed to climb Ubarak Kangri, near Padum village, but ended up on the summit of two unnamed and (likely) unclimbed peaks. Theirs is not a story of highly difficult climbs or conquering the highest summits. It was just a vacation in their home mountains, pushing their limits, honing their skills, and making their own decisions.

They provided a complete report, including an expedition diary, pictures, GPS tracks, and coordinates of the peaks and points reached. Equal thoroughness would be welcome from many professional expedition teams.

The clibmers roped up on a flat snowy summit, with ropes, helmets and headlamps, in a partially cloudy day.

Vikas Kaushik, Harsh, Kanishk, and Tashi Phunchok on the summit of Shakti Kangri. Photo: Vikas Anantha Kaushik

Four friends, one peak

Thirty-four-year-old Tashi Phunchok was born and raised in Zanskar and led the group. He is the oldest and most experienced of the group, an accredited mountain guide with a resumé that includes several first ascents in the area. The other three climbers were in their twenties: Harsh and Kanishk (their full names) are from Manali, in the Himachal Pradesh. Vikas Anantha Kaushik comes from Bangalore. Harsh has trained as a ski and mountain instructor, while Kanishk and Vikas Kaushik (who recounted the expedition for us) were relative newbies.

Vikas, Harsh, and Kanishk at the Kang La pass.

Left to right: Vikas Kaushik, Harsh, and Kanishk at the Kang La.

This was neither a guided expedition nor a sponsored project. They approached Base Camp carrying all their gear along a 100km route that combined some sections in 4x4s and quite a lot of trekking.

“Harsh, Kanishk, and I entered Zanskar by crossing the Kang La (a 5,450m col) on foot. We were told it was the first time in several years that the rarely attempted Kang La has been crossed successfully,” Kaushik said. They also noted that the Kang La is on the route to the Neverseen Tower, a potential goal for the Italian team currently in the area.

3D map of the are, showing parallel valleys.

Map of the area with one of the previously unclimbed peaks marked. Photo: Google Earth


The three climbers met up with Tashi Phunchok at Padum village, rested at Sani (the last village in the valley), and started on August 14, the first day of their climbing permit.

Unfortunately, conditions on the northeast ridge of Ubarak Kangri were too exposed to serac and rockfall. The ridge included “at least 1,500m of exposed, poorly protected, technical mixed climbing. An endeavor for the future,” they decided.

An alternative route

“Then we noticed two unnamed, unclimbed peaks. The first one was covered in ice and snow, and the second was bare rock,” Kaushik said.

They believed that the second peak, to the northwest of Ubarak Kangri, could provide an alternative (although longer) route to the peak. “We were wrong,” he said. They only found this out after they were well into the climb.

“The crux of the icy peak is a steep, sustained ice wall (60°-80°) that offered safe conditions only when it was not in the sunlight,” Kaushik said. “The ice wall was layered, and the fragile upper layers had to be cleaned to unveil the hard, blue ice at the bottom. Also, the approach to the ice wall was challenging because of the extreme danger of rockfall around it.”

The ice wall and the two unclimbed peaks: Shakti Kangri covered in snow and Mukti Kangri bare rock.

The ice wall and the two unclimbed peaks: Shakti Kangri covered in snow and Mukti Kangri bare rock.


The climbers observed the conditions for two days and then started on a colder-than-usual morning, hoping the clouds would cover the sun. They moved fast on the steep moraine and then stepped onto the ice wall.

“Tashi opened the route while placing protection,” Kaushik wrote. “Harsh followed, fixing the rope. I followed Harsh by climbing the wall with my safety anchor following the rope, and in turn, was followed by Kanishk on jumar.”

Close call

There was a scary moment for Kaushik when he was hit by a chunk of ice.

I deftly dodged a fist-sized ice block which went whizzing past my left cheek, but got knocked out by a second large ice block. I blacked out on the wall for a second or two before regaining my composure.
Fortunately, my stance was stable and my focus sharp when the lights turned on again. I let my team know I was fine and continued climbing to the top of the ice wall with no further incident. I later found out my carbon fiber helmet had a clean crack and signs of abrasion at the point of impact. I live to climb another ice wall another day.
The clibmer on a steep snow slope with an ice-axe.

Kaushik at the ice wall.


But the top of the ice wall, at 5,402m, was as far as the young climbers got.

“We saw that our planned approach included several other points separated by cracks and cliffs which would have required long rappels and to climb again along fractured jagged ridgelines,” they explained. “It would have taken another 10 to 15 days and more equipment than we had.”

Instead, they decided to target two peaks that rose in front of them from ABC (on top of the ice wall).  They went for them both in a single push, planning to rest for a few hours near the summit so they could descend in the early hours of the morning when conditions were safest.

Plan B

“We began our summit push from ABC (at 5,070m) at 1 am, topped out on a snowy peak (which we named Shakti Kangri, 5,700m+) at 5:40 am, and summited a second rocky peak (Mukti Kangri, 5,800-5,900m+) at 6:30 am. The summit wall of Shakti Kangri is a 100m, 45°-55° snow slope, separated from the second peak by a 125m-long corniced ridgeline. The summit wall of Mukti Kangri is 70-80m of large, sharp rock slate embedded in firm snow,” the team wrote.

After the second summit, they descended a few meters and set up a bivy camp at 5,500m to rest until 1 am, when they returned to ABC.

The climbers near the summit of Mukti Kangri.

The climbers near the summit of Mukti Kangri.


“Please note my team did not step on the absolute pinnacle of Mukti Kangri out of respect,” Kaushik said.

Cosmic energy

The team then descended to Ubarak Phu, clearing Base Camp along the way.

“We were each loaded with 25-40kg on our way down, including equipment, cooking gas, rations, and garbage,” Vikas said. “We left no garbage, not even a square of plastic, on our mountain.”

Kaushik explained how they came up with names for the peaks.

“Shakti embodies feminine cosmic energy and is said to drive the potential that resides in each of us. Mukti refers to liberation or enlightenment in a Buddhist sense. Kang means several things: icy, snowy, provider of water, purest, supreme. Ri means mountain.”

Naming peaks involves a long process, since first of all the local villagers must accept the proposed names. Then the Indian Mountaineering Foundation will decide whether to register the names, once they have sufficient proof of a successful ascent.

“The process takes six to eight months,” said Kaushik.

In their case, however, the locals are happy with the name, the climbers said, because the concept of Shakti and Mukti is somewhat related to Buddhism.

The next time, the four will attempt higher peaks in the area. “Something like Menthosa (6,400m), Papsura (6,500m), or Parvati Peak(6,600m),” they said.

Angela Benavides

Angela Benavides graduated university in journalism and specializes in high-altitude mountaineering and expedition news. She has been writing about climbing and mountaineering, adventure and outdoor sports for 20+ years.

Prior to that, Angela Benavides spent time at/worked at a number of local and international media. She is also experienced in outdoor-sport consultancy for sponsoring corporations, press manager and communication executive, and a published author.