Upper Mustang-Phu Valley Traverse Via Saribung La:  Day 13 – Over Saribung La To Moraine Camp Below Bhrikuti Shail

Previous Post: Day 12 – Japanese Base Camp To Khumjungar  High Camp

  • time: 6:45 to 3:00
  • the high point of the day: Saribung La (6040)
  • campsite: moraine camp below Bhrikuti Shail High Camp (5000)
  • Maps: Himalayan Map House Upper Mustang Trek Map.  
  • Nepal Govt 1:50000 topo maps:  2884 01 Damodar Himal.

the route from our Khumjungar High Camp to Saribung La and down the other side

The temperature had dipped to -15ºC overnight;  my half-full water bottle was frozen solid. The agency-provided down sleeping bag  – as bulky as it was – kept me warm through the night. I also had on a Polartec fleece base layer,  as well as a synthetic mid-layer jacket, wool socks, and hat!  To cap it off, I had zipped up the down jacket – also provided – and then slipped it over the bottom third of the sleeping bag.  I had a good night’s sleep!

Wake-up time was 5:30 and by 6:15 we were having breakfast. No dining tent at this campsite!  It would be delivered to our tent door by Tsering and Kamansang; the trip leader Judda also dropped by to see how each one of us was doing. The answer was “Great!”.  We got going by about 6:45; it would be a while before we felt the sun since we were on the west side of the Kumlung Himal massif. Only when we turned the corner at the south end of Sonam Himal did the sun brighten things up.

a look down the Khumjungar moraine at where our campsite was

The photos above and below were taken within seconds of each other. First I looked down the glacier to where our camp had been just two hours before. Now I watched the last of the porters coming up the moraine! Then I turned around and took the shot below – it shows where we were headed this morning – i.e. further up the moraine and then around the corner towards the literal high point of our trek, the 6040-meter Saribung La.

a brighter view of where it is we were headed for the day – up to Saribung

It was another sunny and windless morning; we would have more great weather all morning as we put in probably our longest single day of the trek. We set off about 6:45 and would reach the Pass between 9:30 and 10 and then spend the next five hours or so walking down the lateral moraine of the Bhatchauk Glacier to the third and last of the regularly used campsites, the one about 1000 meters below Saribung La.  But first – getting to the pass!

We followed the thin strip of moraine you see in the images above and below to the base of the rock face.

a moraine highway leads us to Saribung La

The first notable landmark we passed is De Hults Pass, the gap you see in the image below between the Kumlung Himal massif and Sonam Himal (6225). Given the presence of this one European name in this corner of Nepal, I wondered who De Hults was and how his name got to be chosen.  An American Alpine Journal article by Paulo Grobel and translated by Todd Miller answered the question – and more!

a view of De Hults Pass from the Khumjungar Glacier

an early morning view of De Hults Pass from the Khumjungar Glacier

During a previous trip to Phu, I learned an amazing story about Alfred de Hults, a passionate hunter who visited Nepal in the early 1950s. Later, thanks to de Hults’s grandson Luc-Emmannuel, we were able to get in touch with Alfred and his family in Belgium. Here is what he told us.

After having searched for snow leopards deep inside the Kingdom of Lo, de Hults made his way back through the Phu valley. Not wanting to return empty-handed, he used his boundless energy to climb a beautiful, snowy peak of more than 6,000m, which he named Bhrikuti. At the time he was constantly occupied with thoughts of a woman, with whom he had fallen deeply in love. He even had problems sleeping at night. This young Nepali woman possessed a radiant, almost divine beauty. But he had to keep his feelings to himself, because Bhrikuti was also the daughter of King Thribuvan.

Once back in the king’s court, he told of his adventures in the mountains between Mustang and Phu, his random summit climb, and the name he gave to the mountain. The old king was no fool, well aware that his daughter had appeared particularly happy ever since Alfred returned. Far from condemning this improbable relationship, the king congratulated the young couple and offered them his blessing.

Alfred married Bhrikuti in a formal ceremony, which must have been kept discreet, because we couldn’t find any record of this marriage in the royal archives. The young couple settled in India, where de Hults became a successful businessman. Later, they relocated to Belgium, where the beautiful princess converted to her husband’s religion, as was the norm. They lived there happily and had several children, enjoying a humble existence.

This correspondence with our new Belgian friend allowed us to lift any doubts regarding the first ascent of Bhrikuti. It had indeed taken place on April 18, 1952 via the south face by Alfred de Hults, solo. Alfred told us that he arrived at the summit at 11:25 a.m. after no great difficulty. He stayed there under sunny skies for more than half an hour, admiring the view and thinking about his distant Bhrikuti. There is only one photo, now in very poor condition, which attests to his story. In 2005 we had simply repeated Alfred’s route. (See here for the source.)

 Note: The peak referred to as Bhrikuti in Grobel’s account appears on the Himalayan Map House map as Bhrikuti Shail.  There is another peak named Bhrikuti (6476) on the other (i.e. west) side of Saribung La.  The Nepal Govt topo only has Bhrikuti Shail which it labels as such. Not labelled is the Bhrikuti on the west side of the Khumjungar Glacier.

the two Bhrikuti peaks near Saribung La

As we continued, the vistas to the south and east opened up and some of the peaks south of Saribung La came into view.  Below are views of what I think are Chhib Himal, Alfred’s Belvedere and Khumjungar Himal Peak (6759). And yes, the “Alfred” refers to  Alfred de Hults!  Now I need to find out who the “Julie” in Julie Himal is!

a view of what I think is Chhib Himal to the south of Saribung Peak

In the image above you can see some porters on the bottom left.  They are at the base of Sonam Himal and coming up is Saribung La!

a view of what I think is Alfred’s Belvedere (6226) on the left  and Khumjungar Himal Peak (6759 )in the clouds in the center of the image

After I rounded the corner at the base of Sonam Himal, I started the upward climb in the tracks laid down by our lead sherpa Tsering and a couple of my fellow trekkers, Bill and Rob.  The snow may have been twenty centimeters deep. Stopping for a brief rest, I looked back at a couple of porters coming up behind me.   In the background on the west side of Khumjungar Glacier is what the Himalayan Map House map labels as Bhrikuti (6476).

our porters ascending to Saribung La – Bhrikuti (6476) in the background

In the photo below Saribung Peak is to the right of our sherpa Tsering Lama with my fellow trekker Bill following right behind.  The snow-covered dome can be “climbed” via a moderate 30º slope from the pass that we were approaching. (It is not a technical climb and would probably be rated an F for Facil. The altitude is the single biggest objective danger. However,  ropes, harness, ice axe, and crampons may be required. See here for an article on grading systems.)

our sherpa Tsering and fellow trekker Bill set the path up to Saribung La

A Tangent On Required Mountaineering Equipment!

Mountaineering boots are required on DAY 15 of this itinerary only. Because of this we recommend you hire boots in Kathmandu for about US$3/day. You can however bring your own pair of boots to ensure proper fit and comfort if you wish.

The World Expeditions gear list included mandatory mountaineering boots for this one day of our trek. At $60. U.S.  for rentals for a half day’s use, I figured I’d bring a pair of my own.  But which ones? I had two to choose from, neither considered “modern”!

  1. the Scarpa Invernos – the classic poor man’s  double plastic boot weighing 6.3 lbs (3 kg.) or

  2. the Salomon Super Mountain 8’s, an older pair of single leather boots that were still in good shape and had last taken me up 6032- meter Tocllaraju in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca in a pre-dawn climb. They weigh 2 kg.,  almost a  kilogram less than the double plastics!

On the advice of the WE sales person in Ottawa, I initially went with the Scarpas.  However, the night before departure I reconsidered the situation.  We would not be doing a 2 a.m. ascent but rather would be setting off after dawn. We would also not be at altitude for an extended period of time.  The Salomons would keep my feet warm until the morning sun kicked in and we started peeling off layers of clothes.

Then a surprise!  In Kathmandu at our pre-trip meeting, the guide (and trip leader)  told us that mountaineering boots were not necessary,  that our trekking boots would be fine. My leather hiking boots –  the Zamberlan Vioz  – had already done an ice climb with steel crampons in Chile so, having arrived in Kathmandu with the Salomons,  I was happy to leave 2 kilograms behind!

I also saved another 500 grams with my choice of crampons! While dismissing the need for mountaineering boots, the trip leader did recommend crampons for possible ice on the glacier.  He had a few inexpensive pairs to sell to those who were still without. They were urban crampons like the Yaktrax you see some people wearing in a Canadian city in icy conditions.  It would save them a trip to Thamel to a gear rental store.  The consensus at the end of the day’s use was that they were pretty much useless!

The night before I left home I had also taken the steel Grivel G-10’s out of my duffel and replaced them with my pair of Grivel Air Tech Lite which weigh 455 grams, almost 400 grams less since they are made of aluminum.  I decided that the G-10’s were overkill for what we were doing.  As for the Air Tech Lites, I had worn them on an ascent of Mt. Blanc where they had clearly been inadequate. The ice climb up Tacul de Mt. Blanc’s 45º slope was a challenge with crampons that were only meant for lite glacier traversing. They would, however, be perfect for the glacier traverse and moderately sloped pass that we were doing at Saribung.

On this day I would wear the crampons a total of one hour and, given the conditions we had, I could have done without them.  Of course, had the conditions been different,  they may well have been essential. In that sense,  it was good to have them in my pack.

As for the mountaineering boots, the thing I came to realize is that none of the guides or the porters had a pair.  If all 25 of us – 5 trekkers and 20 staff – had a pair of mountaineering boots at, let’s say,  2.5 kg. a pair,  that would have been over 60 kilograms of boots to carry.  All that for one morning’s use!

Two extra porters would have been needed just to carry the mountaineering boots!

a panorama shot from Saribung La looking east – mega downhill coming up!

Somewhere on our way up to the pass, I walked by three porters sitting there. They seemed to be struggling and they had no water!   I asked them if they wanted a drink and passed my Nalgene bottle over to them. I hadn’t intended for them to drink almost the rest of the contents but the bottle came back close to empty!  It was about 9:30; for the next four hours, I would go without. Sometime before 2 p.m. I caught up to Rob, one of the trekkers ahead of me. He poured a half-liter from his water bag and The Great Thirst was over!  Soon after I walked into camp.  More water!

A Brief Pause At Saribung La:

The photo immediately above was taken just before I started walking down the other side. Once we left the pass we would no longer be in Mustang, the pass being the border between Mustang and Manang districts. To the right of the image is Saribung Peak, looking like a mere pimple as opposed to a serious mountaineering objective. However, it is another hour and 300 meters of altitude gain to get to the top and I am sure the views are stupendous, given how great they were from the pass!

Some well-acclimatized mountaineering groups actually camp on the pass, spending the rest of the day there after coming down from Saribung Peak. They then continue on towards Phu the next day. On this day we would not be lingering at the pass!

the snow trail to the Bhatchauk Glacier and our moraine camp at 5000 m

It was down, down, down…we would lose 1000 meters of altitude by the end of the day’s walk.  Ahead of me were some of the porters and the cook, as well as our sherpa Tsering and a two of my fellow trekkers. Behind me were the other porters and the other two trekkers with the trek leader. I would stop often to enjoy the view and snap a photo or two and eat a bit of snow to keep my tongue wet!

on the way down the Bhatchauk Glacier – following the snow trail

To no surprise, it was the two hours or so walking up to the pass and then walking down the first two or three kilometers on the other side that came closest to giving me that “I’m in the Himalayas” feeling.  Stupendous views all around and a dozen climbing possibilities in the 6000 meter + range.  Even Saribung Peak looked more serious from the east side!   That is it in the two images immediately below with a bit of exposed rock face below the peak.

porter and guide descending from Saribung La – Saribung Peak on the left (south)

a look back at Saribung Peak from the east side – looking more impressive!

coming up ahead – some altitude loss on the Bhatchauk Glacier

We had traded the Khumjungar Glacier on one side of Saribung La for the Bhatchauk Glacier on the east side.  Now we followed it down on the north – i.e. the left side. From reading a few trip reports I already knew that the walk down was going to feel like it would never end. Now I got to experience it for myself!

a Himalayan dreamscape – the Bhatchauk Glacier descent

11:30 a.m. – passing by what looks like a small glacial pond on Bhatchauk Glacier

The weather had also changed from sunny and clear to cloudy with occasional snowflakes.  The “trail” down the moraine was usually obvious thanks to the cairns that marked the way.  And if there was a doubt,  then a porter would appear up ahead or come up from behind and I would be reassured!  In the image below I am behind four porters as we make our way down.

For the next 2 1/2 hours, my sole focus was on getting to the campsite.  So – between the above shot and one below, no photos! I would eventually catch up to Rob and ask him for some water.   It may have had a slight smell of kerosene but I didn’t notice as I drank my first few sips.

2 p.m -. and we are still heading down the Bhatchauk Glacier moraine to our camp at 5000

I would only take two more photos this day. The first was of a cairn ahead.  Given its size, I figured it might indicate something significant coming up.  Little did I know!

the cairn above the Bhatchauk moraine camp at 5000 m

Hidden behind a ridge in the image above was our campsite!  It was a well-used site if the bits of garbage I noticed later while walking around were any indication.  Tsering, Bill, and Rob and a few porters and the cook were there already and the cook tent was up.  The day was done and I was pretty much done too!

I took the photo below and then put my camera and my brain to rest, happy that the epic day of Saribung La was over. That night I would not take my 1/2 Diamox tablet!

from Kumlung to Saribung to Camp at 5000 m – see 2884 01 Damodar Himal

On the Nepal Govt Survey Dept map, our Day 13 campsite is somewhere on the moraine on the bottom right.

Below is a shot of the campsite the next morning. My tent is on the left, red duffel bag sitting there, and everyone is feeling great and ready to go.  We had come down to 5000 meters on Saribung La day; now we would lose another 1000 meters of altitude and stay in the village of Phu.  We were heading back to where people lived – Tibetan style!

moraine campsite below Bhrikuti Shail  – a morning after shot!

Next Post: Day 14 – Moraine Camp Below Bhrikuti Shail To Phu

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