Anna Pfaff Discovers a Gem in India’s Zanskar Range
by Uphill Athlete Anna Pfaff
All three of us stood on the summit of The Gem, thrilled to have finally succeeded on something after so many days of bad weather. When we started up the spire, we didn’t have any information about it—no previous knowledge, no sense of what we’d encounter the higher we climbed. There was good rock, but also a lot of chossy rock. We were really far out there, deep in India’s Zanskar Range.
I’m obsessed with the region, which is in Kashmir in northern India, near the border with Pakistan. There are all these sub-valleys with big rock spires—6,000-meter granite spires, some with really quality climbing. This North Face trip marked my third time traveling there, and our all-women trio was maybe the third documented party in the Raru Valley, the area we set out to explore.
I’ve always been drawn to exploratory climbing. You go where you want, look at the mountains, and climb what inspires you. There are no topos, no difficulty ratings, no expectations. It’s purely imaginative.
My teammates Savannah Cummins, a fellow North Face athlete, and Lindsay Fixmer, a guide in the Sierra, share this attraction to untouched lines. Together we set off for the Raru Valley in August 2017. We had a bit of information from the previous parties that had climbed there, but we were essentially on our own. We set up base camp, set up high camp, and acclimatized for what we hoped would be some epic new-routing.
The weather had other ideas. We ended up spending a lot of time in camp and doing a lot of heavy pack carrying and walking and looking and exploring. We’d figure out what we wanted to climb and would ferry the gear up there, then we’d try to climb it the next day. Like clockwork, the weather would shut us down in the afternoon, forcing us to retreat to base camp or high camp. It was a bummer not to be able to go bigger and do more things, but it was out of our control.
Despite the unfavorable conditions, we managed three new routes, including our first ascent of Peak 5400, which we dubbed “The Gem.” We made it to the top on September 13 after climbing approximately 400 meters of unknown terrain up to 5.10. It was classic alpine granite: I was fully hand-jamming in cracks formed by blocks frozen to the wall, and our third belay was a huge chockstone—the best of all the terrible options. There were no signs of previous climbers on the summit, where we got amazing views of the many peaks in the Zanskar Range. It’s always inspiring to get up high when you have been surrounded by walls for a few weeks—just to see what’s out there. We celebrated our adventure with hugs and retreated to the glacier just before sunset.
Achieving a first ascent in this remote, exploratory area made it feel like the trip had truly come together. It didn’t matter that it was the smallest spire in the Raru. We made it up and down safely, no epics.
The other rewarding aspect of the trip was that I felt really fit—far fitter than I’d been on my previous two trips to the same range. I’d been working with Uphill Athlete Master Coach Steve House since April, and after five months of structured training, I was like a machine. I had way more endurance; I didn’t have to eat as much to sustain the work and my day-to-day recovery was incredible. I was at the same altitude, doing the same style of climbing on the same terrain, just in an adjacent valley.
I was like a machine.
Before, without the benefit of Steve’s training, I’d need two rest days to recover from carrying a heavy pack up to high camp or getting our gear to the base of a climb. I’d be totally wasted. Whereas on this trip I could carry a heavy load, sleep, and then try to go climbing the next day instead of feeling completely wiped out. I had a different degree of fitness.
I also recovered way more quickly from the trip than I had in the past, which was good, because I was set to go on a North Face expedition to Antarctica, scheduled for just six weeks after my return from India. I came home depleted: I was mentally exhausted, and I’d lost weight—maybe seven pounds, a lot of it muscle mass. I was skinny, which is great for bikinis and beaches but not for the mountains. Steve prescribed a week off, and then we started rebuilding my base and my strength. I regained the muscle and got out to Yosemite, doing some big wall climbing in preparation for Antarctica.
Within three weeks, I was back to 90 percent of my base fitness level, which is now much higher than what it used to be. My training was nowhere near what it had been for India, but I was running again, I was back in the program. By the time I left for Antarctica I was feeling fit and strong.
I would love to go back to the Raru Valley and make it up something bigger. But even with the uncooperative weather, it was an amazing trip; just being able to experience that area is a gift. The failure and the success were everything.