Friday, 27 July 2012

Menthosa - An Idea Takes Root

Our kit bags hit the ground with a dull thud as they were dropped unceremoniously from the top of the Manali - Tindi bus. Our rucksacks followed a little more gently as Bir Singh and Rinzing helped unload our baggage. It was a warm August afternoon in 1986 and the field next to the school at Udaipur was deserted.  I stretched my cramped legs and looked around at the hills overlooking this little hill town perched above the Chandra river in Lahul. The air here at almost 9000 feet was crisp and dry and I was filled with the tingling expectation of being on the brink of another great mountain adventure. The planning and the travel was over. We were at the mouth of the Miyar valley as it merged into the Chandra. The peak of Menthosa beckoned. At 21,140 feet it was the second highest peak (after Mulkila, 21,380 ft.) in the district of Lahul and had been first climbed only as recently as 1970.

I had mulled over Bir Singh's invitation the previous year to come to his native Miyar valley during its flowering season which traditionally occurred in July and August. He had watched bemusedly as I trained my lenses at the few ragged stands of pink willow herb struggling to exist amidst the barren moraine of the Bara Shigri glacier. His remark had goaded me to do some research at the Himalayan Club when I returned to Mumbai. The more I read about the Miyar valley, the more I wanted to go there. The Miyar valley dropped down from the Kangla Jot which led into fabled Zanskar and as it lost altitude it was joined by many feeder streams at the head of which lay scores of unclimbed peaks and high glacier cirques ringed by soaring granite towers. The Gumba Basin, one such valley, had been visited by my friend Satish Patki - the same Satish who had held my near-fatal fall on the cliffs of Mumbra in Feb 1985! Since I did not rate myself very high as a rock climber, I deleted the Gumba Basin from my list of likely destinations. Harish Kapadia, then the honorary assistant editor of the Himalayan Journal, suggested the twin peaks of Dhupao Jot and Baihali Jot. When I looked at the map, Menthosa, just a valley away, caught my eye. This was perfect! Here was a high peak, not technically hard if attempted via its First Ascent route, and its approach would lead me up the garden path (or so Bir Singh insisted) to his village of Gompha. From Gompha, a day's strenuous walk up the Urgus Nala would bring us to the perfect Base Camp below Menthosa.

The glaciers of Menthosa gave birth to the Urgus torrent which hurtled down from about 15,000 ft. and joined the Miyar valley at Gompha, Bir Singh's village. The mention of a trek through meadows blooming with exotic wildflowers was enough to convince my wife Margaret, my sister Ipi and my long time hiking friend Franklyn to join me. All I needed now was a companion to climb with. Faruk fitted the bill perfectly.

Faruk and I had been rock climbing regularly in the cliffs around Mumbai and had formed an easygoing and fun partnership. He was younger and much stronger and fitter than I. My reasoning was simple: if I were to slip on the mountain, he was capable of breaking my fall!

Faruk bouldering at Turalli in Bangalore.

Rounding up our support team were Bir Singh and Rinzing, whose acquaintance I had made the year before in the Bara Shigri glacier. I despatched two letters the old fashioned way : one to Rinzing in the care of the trekking agency that he worked for in Manali and the other to Bir Singh's village, a few days' march up the valley of the Miyar river. The fact that Bir Singh met us at the bus stand in Manali when we arrived was a testimony to the sterling work and efficiency of the Indian Postal Service: I had heard legendary tales of intrepid mail workers fording rivers and climbing mountains to deliver just one letter to a hamlet far beyond modern means of communication and was willing to wager that this was indeed true. I had once seen inscribed on the Post Office building facade on 8th Avenue in Manhattan, New York city, the following creed : "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds". This applied equally to the mailmen of the Indian Postal Service, I thought.

As the dust settled around us, we unpacked the few things we would need to spend the night on the floor of the veranda bordering the classrooms. It was a pleasant evening and we were soon eating the dinner we had picked up before we boarded the bus in Manali. The moon rose into a clear sky and Bir Singh and Rinzing melted away into the gloaming. They were bound for the village of Shakoli to round up some porters. Since Shakoli was about two hours walk up the Miyar valley, they would return in the morning, hopefully with the required number of men. Bir Singh, whose backyard this was, had assured me that he would certainly find the men. Trusting in his word, I snuggled into my sleeping bag and thought of the last few days that we had spent in Manali, buying supplies for this trip and also reconnecting with Nalini whom I had first met just 11 months ago. Nalini played the gracious hostess when I introduced my wife, sister and friends Faruk and Franklyn. We were treated to a round of tea and a walk around her little orchard...this helped to erase the unpleasant memories of the journey from Delhi.

With Nalini in her backyard.
Left to Right : Franklyn, Margaret, Ipi, Nalini, and Faruk.

The night bus journey from the Interstate Bus Terminus (always referred to as just ISBT) in Old Delhi to Manali had been eventful.

We were outmanoeuvred in the seat selection process, so ended up sitting in the last row of seats which  always provides its occupants with the most bumpy of rides, being perched aft of the rear axle. As the bus pulled out of Delhi, some young men who appeared to be college students began to imbibe liquor from a collection of bottles they carried and were soon very very drunk. They were getting more and more boisterous by the mile. The bus conductor appealed to them to keep it down and to stop drinking, but to no avail. One of them eventually could not contain his liquor any more. He got up from his seat, leaned over the head of the mild mannered pahari (hill man from Himachal Pradesh), and began to vomit all over the poor guy. This was the last straw. Faruk leaped up from his seat and almost punched the perpetrator. Everyone in the bus was hopping mad at the breach of decent behaviour and was ready to lynch the young men! I was truly surprised that the victim could keep a cool (albeit filthy!) head during the proceedings. I was certain that he was an enlightened soul who lived by Hemingway's "Grace under pressure" motto!

The driver swerved into a roadside dhaba just beyond Ambala where we helped the pahari to wash the muck from his hair. The rest of the night passed in relative peace. The drunks soon passed out and lay in a heap over each other as the bus groaned up the foothills to Sundernagar and on to Mandi, Kullu and Manali, where we arrived the next morning.

I love steep and winding mountain roads. I just cannot close my eyes when I am in a bus or other vehicle which is gaining altitude hairpin bend by hairpin bend. This is in stark contrast to Margaret, who would rather complete such journeys with her eyes closed. I had to nudge her each time an eye-popping vista unfolded through the small windows of the Himachal Roadways bus as it made its slow way from Manali up to the Rohtang Pass, down to Gramphoo in Lahul, and halted for a brief lunch at Keylong.

The mandatory photo op on the Rohtang pass.
Left to Right : Aloke, Bir Singh, Margaret, and Ipi.

The peak of Gepang Goh (5870 m) as seen from Rohtang Pass

Keylong exuded the true mountain vibes!

Glaciers and peaks above Keylong

True to his word, Bir Singh was back at 6 am with 8 men who were working on a PWD (Public Works Department) project to clear a landslide near the village of Shakoli. By the time we were packed up and ready to go, the morning was far advanced. Getting past the landslide was a hair raising affair, and we were soon camped in the stone shell of a schoolhouse under construction in Shakoli. The porters had to go back to their regular duties, so we would have to spend the remainder of the day at this spot while Bir Singh headed up the valley to his village to recruit our next lot of porters!

A motorable road was being blasted up the gorge of the Miyar river

PWD workers can be seen above the landslide area which wiped out the track

Old compacted snow forms a convenient bridge over the little nala
We spent a pleasant afternoon in Shakoli, the cynosure of all eyes. We were constantly surrounded by friendly little children whose innocent curiosity about strangers in their world was hard to satisfy. Late in the evening we retired to our tents to play Scrabble and finally drifted off to sleep, waiting for the morrow. It was going to be a long day but we looked forward to it...

Welcome to the Shakoli Sheraton!

Shakoli gentleman spinning wool

Scrabble by candlelight

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Sara Umga La : Follow the sheep!

Two days of idyll followed a night of sporadic rain. I dried out my shoes in the sunshine that bathed these high (approx 13,500ft) pastures at 7 am. Bir Singh had woken me up much before sunrise with a welcome cup of chai. Commander Sood and one of the Brits, "Moose", went down to Tos village to replenish their dwindling supplies of food. Ravi Chandra, the LO with the Australian expedition, told me sotto voce that the food position in the British camp was rather sad and he blamed it on Alan Hinkes, their leader, being rather "tightfisted". I listened politely to the gossip, not realizing that this was the same Alan Hinkes who was later to become a rather big name in British mountaineering circles! The Brits were attempting to climb Dharamsura ( 6446 m / 21,148 ft), also known as White Sail, first ascended in 1941 by J.O.M.Roberts. Apparently they were trying to attempt a new route up the west face of the mountain.

The summit of Dharamsura is just visible from the East Tos glacier as a little triangle beyond the white dome.

The North East face of Dhramsura - as seen from the Bara Shigri Glacier

Alan and another of his team members left for their higher camp, leaving behind Gary, a tall (  6 ft 2 in ), friendly  anaesthetist. Gary was primarily a rock climber and this was his first ever trip to 13,000 feet. He had taken a year off work to concentrate on climbing and had just finished a stint in the Picos mountains in Spain. He dropped in for a long chat with us and we passed a pleasant morning.

Phil, one of the two Australians, had left the camp at 4:30 am, before any of us had woken up. He planned to climb Papsura ( 6440 m ) solo because his partner Frank had lost interest after they had failed to climb the West Ridge on the mountain. Phil was planning to repeat the original route climbed in 1967 by the first ascensionists Colin Pritchard and Geoffrey Hill.

Telephoto of Papsura from the East Tos glacier

I had a leisurely breakfast and then set off to explore the area immediately above and to the west of Base Camp. It took me two hours to reach the cirque of rocky peaks which ringed a small glacier. Again I failed to get a glimpse of Ali Ratni Tibba and could not really tell if I could see the Pass of the Animals - so named by Robert Pettigrew whose pioneering exploration of the area had found a way from the Malana glacier to the Tos valley. This little hike without carrying any load on my shoulders was exhilarating, the sun shone bright and warm and I could see behind me a long way up the East Tos glacier. I sat down on some huge boulders and ate the dates that I had stuffed into my pockets. Suddenly, there was an ominous rumbling noise that semed to originate right under me in the bowels of the earth and I felt that the slope I was on was going to collapse. I bolted like a rabbit and skated on to the relevant safety of the hard packed ice of the glacier. This was excitement enough for a rest day, so I retreated.

Bir Singh had once again produced a culinary delight with the simple ingredients of rajma, peas, potatoes and rice. After this sumptuous repast I hopped across to chat with Ravi Chandra. His tent was palatial compared to the one I shared with Bir Singh. Ravi was loquacious, recounting his other trips as LO to the peaks of Kun and Z8 in Zanskar and the bureacratic intrigue amongst the climbing clubs in Karanataka. Some time later Gary, who was getting bored all by himself, popped in as well; then all three of us came back to my tent where Bir Singh made chai. Gary invited us both for dinner on the condition that Bir Singh would make chappaties for him!

Bir Singh rolled out the chappaties on the lid of a "dekchi" (a cooking utensil), using a bottle as a rolling pin. The dinner was a big success and we all retired to our sleeping bags, full of food and good cheer. Such was social networking at Base Camps in the Himalaya before Facebook and Twitter!

I spent the next day walking up the East Tos glacier, past the icefall that descends from Dharamsura. En route I met the Australian Phil, walking back to Base Camp: his proposed solo attempt on Papsura had come to a rather abrupt end when he fell into a crevasse and just about managed to extricate himself in one piece. The experience brought home to him just how dangerous the mountains can be and so, choosing discretion as the better part of valour, he was headed down.

I could now see the upper pyramid of Papsura and a bit later Dharamsura's summit came into view far up in the distant sky. Only the tip could be seen above the bulge of its sister peak Angdu Ri. The head of the East Tos glacier was home to a number of rugged and unknown (to me) peaks, guarding access to the Bara Shigri system of glaciers behind their high ramparts. The sensation of walking alone in such a perfect wilderness was euphoric and I savoured every moment.

Peak on the left bank of the East Tos glacier

East Tos Glacier

I was back in camp for lunch and a welcome siesta, lulled to a comfortable slumber by bouts of rain and hail outside. I was grateful for this interlude of total relaxation; the morrow would see us climbing up to the Sara Umga pass at a little over 16,000 feet and descending the Chota Shigri glacier on the other side. I rechecked my notes on this interesting little notch in the mountains :

"...the Sara Umga La, a pass with romantic associations in the long history of Indo-Tibet trade but completely unknown to European mountaineers." Thus wrote Robert Pettigrew in the Alpine Journal in 1966. He continued - "According to A.P.F.Hamilton the pass could not be less than 16,000 feet, and it was said to be difficult. Nevertheless, it carried the ancient trade route from Ladakh, formerly known as Western Tibet, to Rampur-Bashahr in the Sutlej valley of the Punjab.

Captain Todd, who climbed in Kulu with Bruce in 1912, has described the historic events in the Beas Valley, notably the seizure of key points by the Rajput warrior-chieftains in the seventeeth century which ended the Tibetan occupation of Kulu. The excessive customs duty vigorously levied and collected by the new regime on goods passing over the Rohtang La, 13,050 feet - there is a canyon still known as Customs House - eventually closed the Rohtang and forced the trade-hungry Tibetans to seek a new pass across the Divide in an environment traditionally shunned by Indians as hostile.

Sketch map....(shows)...the trade route from the famous Bara Lacha La, 16,047 feet, to the foot of the Sara Umga La, 16,025 feet, traversing uninhabited, inhospitable and difficult terrain, finally skirted the obstructive snout of the Bara Shigri Glacier on the true left bank of the Chandra River to reach Phuti Runi (the Split Rock), the rendezvous point, in the level area still known as the Plain of the Kinnauris.

The Tibetans used 'Biangis" (big sheep) as pack animals carrying salt, borax and precious stones. They were met during October by the Kinnauris, enterprising middle-men from Bashahr in the Sutlej Valley. Encamped for a week at the foot of the Chota Shigri Glacier the barter would commence. The biangis were sheared, their wool being an important commodity for trade. The barter concluded, the Tibetans would return to Ladakh carrying the famous Lahul wheat and commodities from the plains of Punjab. In the reverse direction the Kinnauris, now with their tough little Bashahr sheep as pack animals, ascended the easy angled Chota Shigri Glacier, crossed the deep notch of the Sara Umga La, descended over steep and awkward lateral moraines of the main Tos Glacier, and continued on a good track down the true right bank of the uninhabited Tos nullah to the village of Pulga in the Parbati valley."

This graphic account of the history of the Sara Umga pass had kindled in me a strong desire to see the gap for myself. This was easier said than done...

We said farewell to Ravichandra, Gary, Frank and Phil and headed west to the crest of the moraine wall of the Tos glacier. We now had to descend onto the glacier itself and cross over to the other side before climbing up to the pass. The descent down a steep unstable slope of mud, stones and scree was hair raising. Bir Singh, in true child - of - the - mountains fashion raced down it and was soon waiting for me on the ice of the glacier. I was so spooked by then that I jettisoned both my rucksack and camera bag down the slope to be expertly fielded by my young companion. Then, with the help of my ice axe I made my way gingerly and with a great deal of trepidation down to the relatively level ground of the glacier.

The head of the Tos glacier, glimpsed enroute to the Sara Umga La

Once on the other side we climbed up the side of a nala down which a waterfall cascaded down and were soon at the campsite which is traditionally used before crossing the pass. The site was very impressive, with the backdrop of the monumental buttresses of red rock that flanked the Sara Umga La above. We shared some orange flavoured Amul chocolate before heading up in increasing cloud and rain. The rain soon turned to snow as we crested the pass, so we were robbed of any kind of views that this may have offered. There was a lot of snow on the pass, even so late in the season, and for the next 3 hours we weaved our way between crevasses, hopping from one safe spot to what we deemed to be another safe spot. Bir Singh did a wonderful job probing the soft snow for crevasses with the one ice axe we had and I marvelled that he was moving so comfortably in his canvas shoes. I had given him a pair of thick blue woollen socks but even so his feet must have been cold in those freezing conditions.

The lower ramparts of Sentinel peak (approx 18,000 ft.) guard one flank of the Sara Umga La.
Bir Singh heads across the Sara Umga La

On the Sara Umga La.

I was relieved when the ice of the Chota Shigri glacier gave way to boulder strewn moraine. But my relief was short lived as hopping from one huge unstable boulder to another in the fading light and the rain was less than comforting. We decided to camp at around six in the evening, after a nine hour day. We were cold and wet and miserable. We pitched the tent in a most uncomfortable spot and brewed some milkless, sugarless tea because we were out of those items. Salt was an acceptable flavour so we we added that to the pan. It rained all night and we thought we might be incarcerated at this miserable camp the whole day. Braving the cold and the drizzle we packed up and moved down the glacier at 11:30 am. We were glad we did; the terrain soon flattened out and we were at the bottom of the Chota Shigri! It occured to me that those Bushahri sheep must have been really hardy little critters to be able to cross the Sara Umga La!

The gorge of the Chota Shigri can be seen across the river.

There was a movement far across the Chandra river on the other side of the valley : it was the Kaza-Kullu bus. We saw it stop at the collection of tin sheds known as Chota Dhara before moving downstream towards Chatroo, the same stop we were headed for. In spite of the rain the walk was pleasant enough as it traversed some beautiful meadows blooming with wildflowers and criss crossed with gurgling brooks and filled with the song of wagtails (Bir Singh called them "rejicha" in Lahuli) hopping from one stream to the next. When I gushed about the flowers to Bir Singh, he snorted..."Come to the Miyar Nala, saab", he said, "and I will show you meadows teeming with wildflowers like you've never seen". Little did I know, but this little statement of his was to form the seed from which would spring my next mountain adventure less than a year later - a trip to climb the peak of Menthosa in the Miyar Valley, just a day's hike up from Bir Singh's village of Urgus!

Bridge over the Chandra river at Chatroo

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Sara Umga Pass - Manikaran to Shamshi Thach

Everything reeked of ghee! The tent, my clothes and the food were all plastered in a sticky film of clarified butter. The ghee container had come apart inside the kit bag in which it was packed, spilling its contents liberally over everything that was inside. The kit bag had been loaded by Bir Singh on top of the Manali - Manikaran bus and had succumbed to pressure from the assorted luggage of all the passengers crammed into that tiny bus.

We had boarded the bus at 1:15 in the afternoon at Manali. The 40 km drive to Kullu along the Beas river was very picturesque and I revelled in watching stretches of this wonderfully ice blue torrent as it hurtled along this green valley. It was almost 7 pm by the time we arrived in Manikaran in the Parvati valley. Manikaran struck me as a dirty, nondescript little village. We found accommodation for the night in a little tea shop. We opened up the kit bag with the spilt ghee and proceeded to clean up the mess in the little den that had been allotted to us as our sleeping quarters. The place was full of, for want of a better word, "hippies". I use that term rather loosely to describe an undistinguished assortment of westerners (mainly from Italy and Israel) who seemed to be drawn to Pulga in the Parvati valley for its cheap and abundant supply of marijuana. Even as far back as 1985 this influx of pot smoking rebels was having a negative effect both on the economy and the mores of this Himalayan valley.

Our concern however was not so much the supply of weed as the supply of fuel for our little expedition. We had failed to find any kerosene for sale in Manali and Bir Singh had assured me that we would have no trouble finding some in Manikaran. Alas, it was not to be so. With the prospect of perhaps not being able to have any hot foods or, more importantly, hot chai on the trip we set off posthaste up the trail towards Burshaini. It was hot at first because of Manikaran's low altitude (around 4000 ft) but improved as we proceeded up the valley.

 I was impressed by how green everything was here: my eyes had become accustomed to the rocky vistas of Lahul. In contrast, the evergreens clothed the steep slopes here on all sides, waterfalls gushed out of rocky clefts high up on the mountainsides and cascaded down in energetic displays of  aquatic energy; sometimes the sunlight caught the spray at the right angle and behold, a rainbow was born! All these sensory delights could be better appreciated when we finally managed to buy 2 litres of kerosene from Thakur Beli Ram in the village of Tahuk. This kind gentleman also offered us tea and apples which we gladly accepted; in return all he wanted was that we take a photograph of him with his family.

Bir Singh with Thakur Beli Ram and his family who sold us kerosene in the village of Tahuk
In those pre-digital camera days one often came across folk in remote villages in the hills for whom a photograph was a great document, to be treasured and shown to family and friends. I always made it a point that if I took any pictures of kind and hospitable people in the mountains I would write down their postal addresses and mail them a copy of the photo once I returned to Mumbai. I have no idea if all of them ever received my photos, I know some of them did and they would happily pull out the prints and show it to me if I was ever to revisit their village at a future date. I would like to think that most of them did receive the packets I sent them, sometimes by registered mail if that was an option available in their neck of the woods. Small gestures can make a big difference to people's lives...

We made another small halt at Burshaini, the last permanent village in the Parvati valley, to stock up on some rice, sugar and onions. A little while later we turned left up the valley of the Tos river which drains the high glaciers of the Kullu - Lahul divide in this part of the range. Half an hour up the valley we found the ideal campsite and decided to stop for the night. My journal for Sat 7 Sept 1985 reads:

"We are camped on a beautiful grassy patch with pine trees around us and a clear stream flowing by next door....Looking out of the tent door I can see some goats and sheep which some gaddis have brought down from the higher pastures. Incredibly, they have lit a fire in the middle of a small ploughed field even as it is drizzling continuously...Am feeling very smug inside the tent : the temperature is a very comfortable 19.8 deg C and my tummy is full of a huge helping of rice and potatoes and onions which we fried together in the pressure cooker with mustard seeds, jeera, and pepper powder and eaten with red chilli pickle. Before that we had tomato soup...and before we pitched the tent we had tea and hot (as in chilli hot) banana chips."

Bir Singh ensured we were well fed at all times!

I justified this sumptuous repast by reminding myself that it had indeed been a long haul from Manikaran with our heavy loads and, what the hell, I owed it to myself to regain some of the weight I had lost on the Lion climb! When it comes to food, Ravi is a frugal soul. Now, free from his critical gaze, I could indulge myself!

Later in the evening we had a visitor : a gaddi coming down from the pastures above dropped in to say hello and it transpired that Bir Singh and he had some common friends in Bhuntar, near Kullu. Perhaps this prompted the gaddi to gift us some more potatoes which we accepted gracefully. He told us that there were around 10 people camped at Shamshi Thach whither we were bound.

Before turning in for the night Bir Singh asked me for the copies of the articles and maps I had made regarding the Sara Umga La and pored over them with keen interest. He seemed to be genuinely interested in seeing the topography around us depicted in the two dimensional format of sketch maps gleaned from old issues of the Himalayan Journal. I did not have any Survey of India topographic maps of the region as they were "Restricted" under the archaic regulations then in force. I translated as best I could some portions of accounts of the early explorations of the Tos glacier and climbs of Dharamsura and Papsura.

A bout of steady uphill walking in intermittent rain the next day took us through the clearing at Budhaban where some enterprising souls were growing marijuana, up through forests of pine and deodar until we came upon a settlement of buffalo herders from Mandi in the lower hills of Kullu. They leave their animals up here for the duration of the summer to graze on their own and come to collect them as the season ends. With charming ingenuousness Bir Singh asked them to give us some lassi and they were happy to oblige. The concoction tasted sour but was extremely refreshing.

The tree line soon thinned out and gave way to rhododendron bushes as we ascended the true right bank of the Tos Nala. A hailstorm broke over our heads as we waded through meadows of wildflowers carpeting the hillside and magic filled the air. Finally, six hours after starting that morning we found another lovely campsite : Phanjura Losha Thach, according to the local intelligence. There was a small stone shelter where we huddled on arrival to brew some chai: it was getting chilly and the altitude was beginning to manifest itself. A small, brown and furry pica appeared from within the gaps in the rock and looked at us quizzically and disappeared in a flash, too shy to be photographed.

Marijuana shrub at Budhaban

As I settled down in my sleeping bag after a fine repeat of the previous night's dinner menu, Bir Singh went back to studying the reference literature on the area that I was carrying. As I watched him absorbed in the print, it occurred to me that  lads like him in the Himalaya would make excellent mountaineers given the means and the opportunity.


The next day's walk was a long steady haul, not very steep but the the gradual ascent slowly introduced us to the grand mountain vistas of the Tos and East Tos glaciers unfolding before our eyes and behind us across the great gap of the Parvati valley. Bir Singh's instinct led us to the small encampment below Shamshi Thach of two gaddis from Palampur. We were greeted by Nandlal, one of the two shepherds, and his two dogs TC and Sheny. The gaddis were cooking their lunch of rotis and I suspect it was the smell of this that had led Bir Singh up here! I am sure he was hoping for an invitation, this would save him from cooking for us....his instinct proved right: we were soon enjoying rotis and goat's milk sweetened with "gur" (jaggery); it was delicious!

Suitably fortified now, we forged ahead with renewed vigour. We hauled ourselves up the grassy ridge until suddenly the terrain opened up to a huge flat plain crisscrossed with innumerable streams: this was Shamshi Thach, the base for climbing Papsura and Dharamsura and for any forays into the nearby valleys and glaciers. We could see a couple of tents scattered around the meadows and we guessed these must belong to the two expeditions which were camped here. We identified a suitable spot and began to head towards it. A rather large stream coming in from the left barred our way, so we linked hands for stability and security and began to ford the fast flowing water. As if by magic, a couple of figures emerged from the tents and clutching cameras in hand they made a beeline for the far shore to photograph us as we wobbled in the knee to thigh deep current. I am sure they were hoping for a dramatic moment when one of us would lose a footing and get a thorough dunking! We were sorry to disappoint these folk and they cheered when we made it to their side unscathed.

Base Camp, Shamshi Thach

Shamshi Thach with the prominent stream running through. As seen from the East Tos Glacier

There were 2 Australians and 3 Britons camped here, with their respective Liaison Officers. After we had set up camp we went around to meet them. Ravi Chandra from Mysore was the LO for the Aussies while Commander Sood of the Indian Navy accompanied the Brits. The Aussies were hoping to climb Papsura while the Brits hoped to ascend Dharamsura. All I was hoping to do that evening was hike up the boulder strewn valley above the camp towards the Malana Glacier for a glimpse of the impressive peak of Ali Ratni Tibba, which Ravi had attempted in 1978 with his friends Jayant Khadalia and Ravish Puri. It was after dinner and getting dark at 7 pm when I crested the ridge, expecting to be rewarded by The View. I was sorely disappointed.

Not having seen Ali Ratni Tibba, I began to descend. The light was tricky and rapidly turning dark and I foundered around, stumbling and falling on wet patches of moss covering the boulders. It was certainly not a dignified performance and I was glad no one could see me. I soon began to lose my bearings. Fortunately, Bir Singh had lit a candle inside our orange tent and the glow from it turned out to be the beacon that led me back to safety. I was looking forward to the next 2 days at this camp which would give me ample opportunity to look around and get the lay of the land. In present day parlance, I was just gonna chill, dude!

Friday, 6 July 2012

Lion Peak - Retreat plus R & R

After the heady euphoria of climbing my first peak, I was eager to get back down the glacier for the simple reason that we did not have much food left! But when we woke up the next morning our little summit camp was plastered in freshly fallen snow, we were enveloped in cloud and could not see very much. Prudence dictated that we wait for the weather to clear before descending the crevasse ridden glacier. In the event, we had to wait the whole day. We brewed tea and nibbled the few almonds and other dried nuts we had left, and lay around in our sleeping bags chatting. Being stormbound in a small tent with your fellow climber offers plenty of time for conversation, especially if neither of you have your ears plugged with the ubiquitous pieces of audio devices so prevalent these days. Back in 1985, neither of us had the luxury of owning even the humble Sony Walkman, so we were oliged to converse.

Occasionally, I would poke my head out of the tent to see if the snow had stopped falling, then fall back into my siesta. We spoke of various things, none of which I can remember now....but the day passed pleasantly enough, except for the hollowness in our stomachs, which of course increased the tendency for producing flatulence: this in turn called for more incense sticks to be lit by Ravi and we inhaled a potent mixture of clean mountain air flavoured with body emissions and "aggarbatti"(joss stick) fragrance!

We spent a lot of time watching the clouds roll up the glacier

The next day, 31 August dawned not so bright but fair enough to move. We also had no choice as we had run out of food! Moving as quickly as we could with our heavy packs, we were soon at the Camp 2 site. We paused briefly here and then kept going downhill till we arrived at the Hawa Mahal camp in the afternoon. We had managed to leap across most of the crevasses unharmed, though I did slip on the ice once and took a small tumble and hurt my knuckles. You can see why I've named my blog The Accidental Climber...I seem to attract mishaps all the time! Thankfully, they are mostly minor in nature and rather embarrassing to report. As for the more serious incidents, so far I have survived to tell the tale!

Ravi strikes a farewell pose below Lion

I am ready to go down

Ravi takes the plunge!

Bir Singh and Rinzing now came up to help us and by the end of the next day we were camped at the snout of the Bara Shigri where it flows into the Chandra river. Bir Singh was a young lad of 16 from the village of Urgus in the Miyar Nala and was portering to earn some money in his school holidays. Rinzing worked out of Manali through a trekking agency. We had met them earlier with the Bengali expedition and they had agreed to help us when we were done with our climb. Both were extremely fine gentlemen and very very strong. They were also very bold, unlike the two porters we had brought out of Manali and who had rather inconveniently abandoned us in the middle of the Karcha Nala.

Thanks to Rinzing and Bir Singh, my journal for 2nd Sept reads : "This morning we left the Bara Shigri glacier snout at 6:30 am and walked quickly to the Karcha Nala which we reached at 9 am. Crossing it was a piece of cake. I brushed my teeth and had a head wash on the other side."

16 year old Bir Singh

Rinzing Lama

Ravi Kamath

Bir Singh fording the Karcha Nala

Rinzing helps Ravi across.
Dharamsura and Papsura glitter in diamantine splendour in the distance.

We walked leisurely to the tea shop at Batal which also doubled as the bus stop. Here we bumped into Ravi's old friend Tashi who was  chaperoning a group of French trekkers to Chandratal, the lake that is considered the source of the Chandra river. And so an idea was born : why don't we make a quick dash to the lake ourselves since we were running ahead of schedule in our plans? The French group left the tea shop at 10:30 am, Rinzing boarded the bus to Manali at 11:15 am with most of our luggage and the three of us settled down to lunch before boarding the bus going to Kaza at 1:50 pm. The 11 km to the Kunzum La (the pass that divides Lahul from Spiti) was covered by the bus in an hour as it grunted its way slowly up the gravel road with its short and steep switchbacks. We got off the bus at this 15,060 ft (4590m) pass, posed for a few photos and visited the little shrine, then marched for 3 hours, mostly downhill, to reach the tranquill waters of Chandratal at 6 pm.

Shrine at the Kunzum La with the peaks of the CB (Chandra Bhaga) group behind

The dry and arid landscape of Spiti from the Kunzum La

One of the CB peaks from the pass

Bir Singh with Spiti background

Unfortunately, it was cold and windy as we put up our tents on the shores of the lake, though this did not deter a couple of ducks from flying around the far shore. Bir Singh woke us up at the crack of dawn (5 am) with a welcome cup of tea and we were packed and ready to go by 6. An hour later we came across the camp of Tashi's group - they had trekked up from Batal with their mules. They offered us tea which we gladly accepted. They were an obviously well run outfit - one of them was enjoying the luxury of shaving with hot water! We thanked them for their hospitality and sped on our way, munching on puris and peas bought from Batal the day before. We soon intercepted the road descending from Kunzum La and continued at a crackling pace. We were just in time to hop onto the Kaza - Kulu bus at Batal; A nice lunch followed when the bus stopped at the Chatroo tea shop and we were in Manali by 5 pm.

The rapid transition from the serenity of Chandratal to the bustle of Manali was a little distressing, though  adequately compensated by a princely repast of mutton curry and rotis at Lakshmi Dhaba!

For Ravi this was the end of his mountain holiday. Before catching the bus back to Delhi he took me to visit his old friend Nalini. Nalini lived in the very first (at least in those days) cottage on the right hand side of the road as you drove in from Kulu. The cottage was called SNUG and was a charming structure, very traditional and very old world. Nalini herself was full of  old world charm and it was a delight to meet her. She was originally from Mumbai (then of course still Bombay), and had been the principal of a school there. She was one of the earliest women to complete a mountaineering course at the Western Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Manali. She had so fallen in love with Manali then (the early 1960s) that she decided to sell off her property in Bombay and settle down here with her two other friends Shashi and Gautam. Hence the name of the cottage SNUG : the U linked their initials together! Gautam was no more, but the name did not change.

Ravi with Nalini in her orchard

Nalini treated us to tea and biscuits and a stroll in the little apple orchard at the back of the house. She was a great storyteller and filled us in with the goings on in the little town and of course some of the gossip. It was a wonderful afternoon interlude, but we could not linger: Ravi had his bus to catch whilst I had to prepare for the next phase of my adventure : a trek across the Sara Umga Pass, where I would ascend from the Tos valley and descend into the Chota Shigri glacier. Bir Singh had agreed to accompany me on this walk and I looked forward eagerly to the delights of an unhurried stroll through gorgeous alpine scenery and to cross the challenging 16,000 ft pass...

The Hadimba Devi shrine in Old Manali