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Confusion in the Damodar

Looking north at part of the Lugula Range from Pokharkan in the Damodar
Himal, Nepal. (A) Pt 6358m, (B) Pt 6337m, (C) Bhrikuti Sail (6361m), (D) Pt
6285m) and (E) Lugula (6899m). It’s possible that A, B and D have been
climbed from the far side, each one perhaps mistakenly as Bhrikuti. E is
officially unclimbed. Bhrikuti has been climbed twice from the south,
following the snow/ice tongue that descends west of the summit, and then
slanting up right to reach the upper section of the west ridge. [Photo] Martin Scott

Lindsay Abbotts, Mick Chapman and Bryan Fruish from the UK, Australians Peter Allen, Liz Armitage and Bett Koch, and Sherpas Pasang, Mingba and Lhakpa have made an ascent of Bhrikuti Sail (6361m) in the remote Damodar Himal. The peak lies in one of the least-visited mountain regions of Nepal, north of Annapurna and very close to the Tibet border. It is one of many summits of a similar height in the Lugula range, situated on a long ridge that runs approximately west-northwest from Lugula itself, and ending with the various 6300m tops of the Kumlun Himal.

The team approached from Manang, leaving the Marsyandi River at Koto and following the Phu Khola north through the villages of Phu and Nogaru to a base camp south of Chako (6704m, climbed last year by Japanese). From here all climbers reached the summit via the south face to upper west ridge–a second ascent, certainly of the route but quite possibly of the mountain. Was this peak first climbed as long ago as 1982 (and maybe on several occasions since), or did it have to wait until 2005 for an ascent?

This area of Nepal was only open to climbers in 1982, and in the spring of that year a permit to climb Bhrikuti Sail was gained by Karuo Kikuchi for a joint Japanese-Nepalese expedition. A reconnaissance had convinced the Japanese that an approach from Manang to the south was impractical, so they took a much longer approach, coming in from the west and establishing base camp to the north of the range close to the Damodar Kunda, a collection of small lakes that form a notable pilgrimage site. Noting that the maps were completely wrong, they placed two camps on what they deemed to be Bhrikuti and summited via the west ridge. The peak was described as the last in a group of many of around the same height. They are also thought to have climbed several other summits on the same ridge.

In the autumn an Austrian team under the famous mountaineer Wolfgang Axt also tried Bhrikuti, believing, like the Japanese, it had an altitude of 6720m: older maps gave the impression that Bhrikuti was the highest peak in the group, a mountain now referred to as Lugula (6899m) on the Nepal-Tibet frontier. The Austrians climbed a couple of peaks nearby of 6300m, and Axt soloed to the north summit of “Bhrikuti,” which he estimated at 6600m. The Austrians were quick to point out that the Japanese had not climbed Bhrikuti but a far lower subsidiary summit, but if Axt is remotely accurate about his heights he may well have been further east on one of the Lugula summits. Several other expeditions, including one led by the British female Elaine Brook attempted the peak from the north unsuccessfully in the intervening years until 1991. One of these, a French team, which had seen the 1982 Japanese photos, was certain the Japanese had not reached the highest point. But in the autumn of 1991 Brook returned with a joint expedition and after placing base camp east of the Damodar Kunda, her Sherpa husband, Lhakpa, and two fellow Nepalese summited “Bhrikuti” via the southeast ridge. They were followed shortly after by a French expedition, the leader of whom, Bertrand Doligez, came back in 1992 and climbed the same mountain again, only this time via the southwest ridge. The next “successful” team summited in 1998, though these Spanish climbers confirmed that all maps were wrong about basic locations such as Damodar Kunda and felt that they had most likely climbed a virgin peak, because previous route descriptions did not match their mountain. In 1999 a Japanese team claimed to have repeated the 1982 route from the west, and a Belgium team summited in 2002. All these teams, with seven claiming summit success, approached the mountain from the north.

In the late ’90s the launch of the HGM-Finn maps, the most up-to-date survey of the country’s mountainous regions and generally considered the official cartographic reference to the Nepal Himalaya, kept up the confusion. Bhrikuti Sail is now officially designated on the ridge west of Lugula, but Damodar Kunda is still inaccurately marked about nine kilometers to the north of its true location. Referencing mountains to these lakes has continued to cause confusion, leading both Australian and Spanish parties to climb an unnamed peak in 2003 in mistake for a 6110m peak named Gaugiri on the Tibetan border further north.

In 2005 Paolo Grobel’s French expedition approached Bhrikuti from the south via Phu. They may well be the first expedition to have attempted the peak from this direction. They pioneered the route that was followed by the British-Australian-Nepalese team in 2008 and found the climbing moderately difficult; steep snow slopes but no more than Alpine PD in standard. Later, Grobel claimed the first ascent of Bhrikuti, a claim now supported by Abbotts.

Both Abbotts and Chapman planned to attempt the mountain in 2005 but were turned back before base camp by the huge snowfall that killed nearly all members of a French expedition on Kangguru. Abbotts has now been on both sides of the Bhrikuti-Lugula range and can see that it would be very easy to attempt the wrong summit from the Damodar Kunda.

So how many ascents has this enigmatic mountain received? The general feeling now is that most parties coming from the north attempted the wrong peak. If true, this turns the Damodar Range into one of the most mysterious in Nepal, with nobody, to date, at all certain about what has, or has not, been climbed.