December 2017, Indian Himalayas
New Climb Established in Indian Himalayas by American Duo: Villanueva & Rousseau
IFMGA guides Tino Villanueva and Alan Rousseau set out for the Indian Himalayas in early September of 2017 with their eyes set on a peak called Rungofarka. The 6495 meter peak sits in a mountainous zone previously closed to the public due to a border dispute between India and Pakistan, and is thus unclimbed in documented history. Six weeks later, Villanueva and Rousseau returned to the US having recorded an alpine style first ascent of the peak. The duo made the ascent over five days from basecamp, spent four days, and three nights on route, climbing 1200 meters of vertical on technical terrain grade VI WI4+ M6.
We sat down with Villanueva to talk about the climb and his experience in these mountains.
Why did you decide to pursue this particular objective?
Alan and I both really enjoy throwing ourselves at big, unclimbed mountains in remote areas. Challenging ourselves in the mountains is what we are looking for when we plan big alpine climbing expeditions such as the India expedition we completed this fall. When looking for a mountain objective we are looking for steep, technical features – such as ice smears or rock weaknesses – with terrain that links together. In the case of the Zanskar Range we traveled to, India had recently opened around 100 peaks for climbing. Looking through the list of newly opened peaks, we were searching for a mountain that met the above criteria. We found bits of information about this mountain “Rungofarka;” a photo, Google Earth imagery, very poor topo maps. Rungofarka looked like the type of mountain we were searching for. Still, the information was very limited and we had a lot of unknowns going into the expedition.
How did you collect intel on a climb that had never been done in documented history?
Researching an area that is not well traveled is a difficult undertaking. Collecting information about a mountain nobody has ever been on is nearly impossible. You can obtain bigger picture information about the area: what peaks have been climbed, what was the rock/terrain like on nearby peaks, first-hand information from climbers that have been in the area before. Publications such as the American Alpine Journal (compiled every year by the American Alpine Club) are the best searchable resource during this stage of research. We also contacted friends and acquaintances that had climbed in the area and probed them for information. Then, as we focused in on our particular objective, we used Google Earth and topo maps (such as those available from Gaia GPS), and Google photo searches to try and estimate what the terrain we would be climbing through. The one thing I have learned about using Google Earth and topos to visualize the terrain: it is never what you imagine it will be like!
What did you do to prepare yourselves for this trip, both mentally and physically?
Alan and I are both IFMGA mountain guides and we spend our lives in the mountains. The mountains are where we work and play, so we log a lot of time preparing just by working and playing. However, we do try to engage in some specific training for big expeditions. We ice climbed together over the winter in Hyalite Canyon, MT and near SLC, UT. In the summer, while working in the Alps, Alan and I would try to sneak away, whenever possible, to scratch around with our ice tools or climb some rock as fast as possible. These types of training days often coincided with periods of poor weather. Getting out, getting cold, climbing through blowing snow, frozen hands and feet, these are experiences we can expect to have while climbing a big route and it is good to prepare for these encounters.
What is the rock/terrain like around Rungofarka?
The Zanskar Range, located in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir, is a mountainous zone with peaks rising to over 7000 meters. There are large valley glaciers, such as the Parkachik Glacier, which runs from the slopes of Nun and Kun (the highest peaks in the area) starting well over 6000m all the way to the Suru River at 3500m. Above the river valley rise mountains from the high desert-like surroundings into glacier clad slopes of rock and ice. In the distance 8000m peaks stand sentinel, raging white with wind. The rock in the area varies from bullet-hard granite on peaks like the Shafat Fortress to more metamorphic type rock like we found on Rungofarka. In the metamorphosed rock, we could see giant intrusions of white quartz. Amongst all that ice and rock was Rungofarka’s north aspect, rising over 1200m of vertical over just 0.7 km.
What was the most harrowing part of the climb? Was there ever a point where you thought you might not be able to summit?
A summit on this type of trip is very elusive. There are endless unknowns when climbing a new route. It is hard to choose the most harrowing moment because there were many challenging moments when I thought we might not be able to summit. However, the most harrowing moment stands in contrast to thoughts of success. On our final night on route, we were 300m from the summit and high above the north face of Rungofarka. In terrain as steep as what we were climbing, there are very few options for setting up a tent. Just below the final headwall, we were able to dig a tent platform into a 50 degree snow arete. Unfortunately, the platform was only half as wide as the tent when we struck rock underneath. Alan and I spent the night curled together on the uphill side of the ledge, sleeping bag draped over us, bracing the tent from gusty winds and hoping the tent did not slide off the ledge. At this point in the climb, though, we were so committed that we were either going to make the summit or spend days rappelling back down what we had just climbed. It was going to be easier to go up rather than down, so going down was not really an option. So, in contrast to the most harrowing bivy, I was pretty sure we would summit at this point.
What was the key to your success on this climb?
I think the key to success on this climb, and most climbs like this, is to take a step back and let things happen. Do not get bogged down in immediate success or failures and just solve one problem at a time. Start climbing, make smart decisions and see where it takes you. Trying to always think about the whole objective is exhausting and there are too many unknowns – it’s overwhelming.
That said, we still try to control everything we can. The harrowing bivy described above was a place we had identified as a possible camp – it just turned out to be less than ideal. On the other hand, there were areas we were not sure we would find a suitable place to camp. At the end of day two, while searching for a bivy site, we found a cave in a giant crack in the mountain. The entrance was hidden by a curtain of water ice and so narrow that we had to take our backpacks off to gain entry. Once inside, though, the floor was flat and wide enough for a tent and offered enough space to walk around in. The ceiling was ice, filled in from the snow overhead. It was a paradise, providing us a place of reprieve from the vertical terrain surrounding us and a chance to recharge for more difficult days ahead.
How does this compare to previous objectives you’ve attempted?
Rungofarka was the most sustained, difficult climbing we have accomplished at those altitudes. The complexity and duration of difficult terrain certainly notches our route on Rungofarka above other similar, high-altitude alpine climbing we have done. There were precious few opportunities for us to climb together on route. Other climbs we have done we have been able to move quickly over huge chunks of terrain while simul-climbing. 90 percent of the climbing on Rungofarka was pitched out because it was hard.
What, if anything, did you learn from this objective?
Indian food is awesome but “too much of a good thing” does exist. I have not eaten Indian food since I’ve been home. I’m saving myself and building an appetite for next year.
What’s next for you guys and how can we follow along?
We have plans for a BIG, insane looking mountain in India to climb next autumn. In the meantime, we will be climbing and skiing, playing in the mountains, and training for whatever comes next. Follow along at: