January 12, 2024
In October 2023, an international team of six young mountaineers made three first ascents in a little-explored region of the Eastern Himalaya. Dire weather and regional flooding made for a challenging trip, but all returned safely with an exciting story to tell. We sat down with Tom Davis-Merry to chat about his most recent adventure.
Breakfast time at Lake Camp (4500m) below the Brumkhangse glacial system
in the Eastern Himalaya, India. October 2023.
Expedition Foods (EF): Please could you summarise your expedition – what was your objective?
Tom: For most of us this was our first time in the Himalaya and our first time in India. It was important this expedition had a big exploratory element, as well as the potential for exciting climbing. We first established a basecamp at nearly 4000m in the Yumthang Valley of Sikkim, the easternmost state of India. An advanced basecamp was then placed on the Brumkhangse Glacier at 5100m, which gave us access to several unclimbed peaks in the region.
Our main objective was Pk 5842, the highest summit of this small group of unexplored mountains. Although our progress was hampered by poor weather and constant snowfall, as a team we achieved first ascents of three peaks in good Alpine style.
Unfortunately, during the expedition the region was hit by severe flooding which destroyed roads, bridges, and many of the smaller settlements in the area. We stayed for as long as we could to continue climbing, before packing up basecamp a few days early as the devastating weather continued.
EF: Sounds like a real adventure, who was on the team and how did you all meet?
Tom: The team consisted of Ula and Kasia, Sam and Elie, and Thomas and me. Through the Alpine Club I met Kasia, who introduced me to Ula, and I knew right away they were perfect for the team. Sam was also introduced to me through the Alpine Club, who then invited Elie to join as his climbing partner. Thomas and I had both climbed together during a previous expedition to Kyrgyzstan, so I was delighted that he was available to join me again in India.
We all met for the first time in the Italian Valle d’Aosta for a few days of climbing together as a team before the expedition. Everyone hit it off straight away and it was great to see this super group of new friends start to bond so quickly.
EF: What were your highlights of the expedition?
Tom: Simply living up on the glacier was an incredible experience. It’s when you truly appreciate how remote you are, in such an astounding and isolated landscape which you have all to yourself. It’s also the time when everything really comes together. All the planning and preparation, frustrations and successes, have ultimately led to this precious window of opportunity during which you can mount a summit attempt.
Summits are no doubt highlights, but they are also a bonus. For me the best part of the expedition was watching the team come together and keeping positive when the conditions really came in.
EF: What were the biggest challenges you had to overcome?
Tom: It rained, a lot. Basecamp quickly became a quagmire, as we dug a complex web of drainage channels to prevent the tents from becoming flooded. Drying wet clothing became impossible and wearing any down garments was out of the question.
Higher up we experienced near constant snowfall and collapsed tents needing to be dug out of snowdrifts. Most afternoons on the glacier were spent tent bound, which can get pretty frustrating.
EF: If you were to do it all again, what would you do differently?
Tom: I did not fully appreciate how bad the weather in North Sikkim can be, and I did not expect it to be so warm at lower altitudes. We had prepared for snow at basecamp, and not rain, so our down clothing quickly became useless. Keeping down sleeping bags dry was also a constant challenge.
If I were to visit the same region again, I would take more synthetic and less down insulation, refine my layering system, and take a larger single-skin tent for use as an advanced base camp.
EF: You were well-stocked with Expedition Foods meals for the expedition – could you give us a quick review?
Tom: The Chicken, Parmesan and Basil Risotto is definitely one of my favourites. Super tasty, it rehydrates really well, and is perfectly seasoned. Amazing how they achieve the calorie-to-weight ratio too, so it’s ideal for times when weight saving really matters but you still want a delicious dinner!
EF: What are your biggest learning points from the trip, and has the experience shaped you as a climber?
Tom: I now have a much better appreciation for the diversity of climate and geography across the Indian Himalaya. When selecting new climbing regions to explore, I would gain a better understanding of factors such as average snowfall, temperature, and humidity much earlier in the planning process.
Setting a basecamp that could be reached by vehicle really changed the way I felt about the expedition. Until we established advanced basecamp higher up on the glacier, I felt like I could never truly disconnect from the outside world.
I have much refinement and development to do in the Alps. I can be lighter, faster, and more technically proficient, but this takes time and practice. I know I have the potential to climb much harder in the Himalaya, but only by first broadening and deepening my existing foundation in Alpinism.
EF: What advice would you give for anyone planning an expedition such as this?
Tom: Prioritise having an adventure. Success should focus on staying safe, making good decisions, enjoying the experience (even being tent bound in a snowstorm can be enjoyable!), and all coming back as friends.
Learn all the time. I keep a little notebook of development points for each expedition, it covers everything from layering systems that don’t work, to which type of tea I prefer to drink at altitude. That way there is no right or wrong, rather a continuous process of refinement as you build experience.
Tom Simpson and Kasia Piatek. The rocky summit of ‘Thoda Peak’ (Pk 5604) comes into view, rising above the upper sections of the Brumkhangse glacier. Eastern Himalaya, India. October 2023.
EF: You seem to be enjoying these big trips, what are your plans for the future?
Tom: I can’t wait to return to the Andes as it’s the perfect place for big accessible peaks and an ideal place to build high-altitude experience. Having been to Peru this year Bolivia is now on the cards for 2024. For a big expedition Pakistan has a huge amount of appeal. We have a few 6000m objectives in mind, and we will make good use of everything we learnt in India this year.
Sitting down to refuel at the end of a long day. Snow clouds have gathered outside the tent, as we welcome a hot meal. Eastern Himalaya, India. October 2023.
The International North Sikkim Expedition 2023 was supported by the Mount Everest Foundation, Alpine Club, British Mountaineering Council, Austrian Alpine Club (UK), and the Grit & Rock Grant Award for pioneering Alpine ascents by female climbers. Along with Expedition Foods, we are supported by Montane, FATMAP, Precision Fuel & Hydration, Powertraveller, MSR, and LifeJacket Skin.
New Delhi, India. November 2023
Copyright © 2023 Tom Davis-Merry / Follow Tom on Instagram - @dm_expedition_climbing
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