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Copp-Dash Inspired: Tino Villanueva & Alan Rousseau’s Himalayan First Ascent

Tuesday, November 28, 2017
At Black Diamond, we’re passionate about empowering climbers to not only push their limits in the mountains, but to also share their stories of inspiration when they come home. That’s why we sponsor the Copp-Dash Inspire Award. Established in the memory of Jonny Copp and Micah Dash—two leading alpinists, BD brothers and storytellers who lost their lives in the mountains in 2009—the award is a way to keep their vision alive. Tino Villanueva and Alan Rousseau, two IFMGA guides who have been climbing together for 10 years, were recently granted the award for an exploratory mission to the Indian Himalayas. The mountains, as usual, did not disappoint. What they found was a remote, unclimbed peak begging for a first ascent.

Over the summer of 2017, I was working as a mountain guide in the Alps, based out of Chamonix, France. In a place where civilization is a mere stone’s throw from big mountains and glaciers, I stood out with my beard growing ever longer and rattier. Earlier in the year, I had received the good news that my climbing partner, Alan Rousseau, and I received the Copp-Dash Inspire Award and Mugs Stump Award (both supported by Black Diamond) to attempt an unclimbed peak in Northern India. Knowing that there had been a recent uptick in terrorist activity in Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian state we would be traveling through, I promised to grow out my facial hair so as to better blend in to the local population. I cannot say for certain whether it worked or not, but nobody messed with us so I can only conclude I assimilated perfectly.

Post send of the north ridge, Alan and I work on our best Jim Bridwell meadow poses in our base camp meadow. Facial hair camouflage in full effect. Rungofarka is the middle of three peaks in the background. Photo: Tino Villanueva

The state of Jammu and Kashmir is a clash of cultures. Upon arriving in Leh, in the region of Ladakh, you are thrust into a little Tibet. Prayer flags flutter in the wind and monasteries line the highway. We were to travel west, toward the Pakistan border, where the religious majority changes from Buddhist to Muslim and the maps (which we could not obtain) still have data gaps being filled in by people exploring the remote regions of the country. Our peak objective, the 6,495-meter Rungofarka, was in one of these areas.

Alan post-holing up steep snow to access runnels on the north face. Our first attempt on the peak up the north face, in mediocre weather, was abandoned after climbing half the face via sustained AI5+ M5 and finding no ledge options to rest - not even a foot ledge to shake out our pumped calves. Photo: Tino Villanueva

In 2009, the India Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) opened over 100 peaks for climbing—this coming after years of conflict in the area and large areas either closed, or flat out too dangerous for tourism or climbing. Rungofarka was one of the peaks on the IMF’s list and from the few photos we found on the internet we concluded that: (a) the mountain looked steep and the climbing quite technical, (b) there was a general lack of information available, and (c) difficult climbing and no information likely meant the peak had never been climbed.

An aerated, cauliflowered ice pitch on the north face. Photo: Tino Villanueva

Alan and I were immediately struck by Rungofarka’s north aspect. The north face is comprised of a web of ice runnels connecting the steep face to the summit headwall. In contrast, the north ridge shoots up in a series of vertical steps to the same headwall that guards the summit slopes. An ice cliff looms above the headwall, with seracs hanging down the west side—our planned route of descent. If either route provided passage it would be a proud line; it would also spit us right back into the fire on the way back down.

Alan leads a pitch half way up the north ridge. The climbing was primarily mixed and we used a lot of rock gear on route. The BD Camalot Ultralights are game changers for being able to carry a substantial rack with less weight penalty. Photo: Tino Villanueva

After acclimatizing, hiking loads, dealing with behind the scenes expedition activities (i.e. recuperating from GI distress), and recovering from a false start on the north face, Alan and I were ready to attempt the north ridge. We departed basecamp on September 30. On October 1, we climbed 9 pitches of AI3 up a beautifully fluted snow face to gain the ridge. A prominent col provided a comfortable, if very narrow, bivy platform. The next day presented the first crux—a few hundred meters of vertical rock that shot up overhead.

A video walk-through of our pimped-out crib. We found this incredible cave to spend our second night on route. Video: Tino Villanueva

Over the course of the day on October 2, we climbed 10 pitches of mixed climbing up to M6 with mostly good belays but some poor gear, loose rock and runout sections. The climbing was steep, slow, tenuous and if the climbing above was similar there was no way we would summit in the time we had allotted. As the sun set and we scrambled for a place to spend the night, we lucked into finding a cave behind a curtain of water ice. In terrain that otherwise provided no reprieve from the vertical, the cave was an incredible windfall.

One of the more scary pitches of the route was this 6-inch offwidth crack. Alan ditched his pack and inched his way up. I removed his 2 knifeblades with fingertip pressure. That was the only protection, along with one tipped-out #00 C3, on the 40 meter pitch. Photo: Alan Rousseau

October 3 was the make or break day. We either needed to cover a lot of ground or start rappelling. Fortunately, the climbing was not as difficult, mostly in the M4 range. Still, there were hard pitches, including an unprotected six-inch offwidth and an M6 vertical finger-sized crack. This day is a blur for me. We climbed around 20 pitches and put ourselves in position to summit. As the sun set, we settled in for one more bivy high on the mountain. Unfortunately, we were only able to chop a ledge half as wide as the tent. I spent most of the night sitting up, bracing the tent from sliding off the sloping ledge and falling 1,000 meters down the north face.

Tino leading the final pitch to top out the summit headwall. Above this 200 meters of simul-climbing led to the summit ridge. Photo: Alan Rousseau

The morning of October 4, two more pitches of hard climbing guarded the summit slopes. Upon negotiating the final serious pitch, we knew the top was within our grasp. Then, after 200 meters of 60-degree ice and some ridge traversing, we finally stood on top of Rungofarka (VI M6 WI4+ 1200m)—five days and 50 pitches after leaving base camp.

Route topo: the descent line actually peeks out of frame to the right. However, we were deposited very near the bottom arrow point, near the blackened ice, where debris from the ice fall above regularly raked through. Photo: Tino Villnueva

In our exploration of this little valley, we noticed some discrepancies in the information the IMF had provided about Rungofarka. Peak names, elevations and coordinates did not match up to ground truths. When we returned to Delhi and met with the IMF they could not definitively tell us the name of the mountain we climbed, even after looking over their maps and inspecting our photos and GPS waypoints. Much is still unknown about the mountains in the remote areas of India and that makes for exploratory alpine climbing at its finest.

—Tino Villanueva

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