I.A.F. Expedition to Kulu


' Great things are done when men and mountains meet, This is not done by jostling in the street.'

Gromic Verses

OUR objective—Papsura, an attractive mountain 21,165 ft., the third highest peak in the Kulu/Lahul/Spiti divide of the Punjab Himalaya, lies at a point where the Pir Panjal Range branches off from the great Himalayan divide. Its co-ordmates on the Survey of India Map Sheet No. 52/H are 77 -32 E and 32°-13' N Proceeding along Tos nal, keeping the famous Sara Umea La on the left, the southern face of Papsura is some 96 km. north-east of Manikaran. Not disputing the legend Papsura (peak of evil) reigns over its nearest rival Dharmsura (peak of good) or 'White Sail' (21,148 ft.) just as evil prevails oyer good in the world. Regarded with awe and avoided by the locals as one of the thrones of the devil, Papsura remained unknown to mountaineers until quite late. It was on 3 June 1967 that a successful assault was made on it by two members of a British Expedition led by Robert Pettigrew. Ours was the first Indian attempt on the peak.

Preliminary Arrangements

Though sponsored and mainly financed by Air Force Trekking and Mountaineering Association, the expedition received substantial financial assistance from the Indian Mountaineering Foundation. Definite preparations were set afoot towards the end of January 1971. Of the many tasks that have to be undertaken during the initial phase of an expedition, one of the most difficult and laborious things is the selection of the various items of equipment and foodstuffs making due concessions to ldio- syncracies of the various members. It is a question not only of carefully choosing the type of materials but also of calculating the exact quantities. To order more than is necessary would, in fact mean a greater initial investment and because of extra weight, higher cost of transportation. On the contrary, if one were to order less than was needed, one would confront even graver difficulties.

The twelve-member expedition team comprised of Fit. Li D. K. Dhingra (Deputy Leader), Fg. Offr. A. K. Bhattacharyya, Fg. Offir. R. P. S. Chonkar, Fg. Offr. P. Singh, Cpt. A. L. Sadh- wani, Fit. Lt. V. Ganapathi (Medical Officer) from the Air Force, Capt. O. P. Sharma, Hav. Lopsang and Hav. Kewal Ram from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, G. S. Malia (Northern Railways), Naresh Bedi (TV Cameraman) and myself. I was fortunate enough to have been selected to lead an experienced and well balanced team. Besides, there were twelve high altitude porters to assist us on higher camps.

An advance party comprising of Malia and Bedi left New Delhi on 19 May to assist Sharma and Lopsang in making prior arrangements before the arrival of the main party.

Itinerary till Advance Base Camp

The date was 22 May, the weather gods were a little unkind for it had been raining profusely since early that morning. Hopefully we reached Palam Airport at 7 a.m. in a 3-tonner packed with crates, kit-bags, steel trunks, etc. At 8.05 a.m. I climbed aboard an IAF Dakota with six others of the team. And out of the hazy sky overcast with clouds into light our ‘Dak’ flew northwards for Bhuntar—from the rain-washed Indian Capital into the sun of Kulu Himalaya. There were mountains as jagged as a row of broken bottles arranged in an endless panorama. When we finally touched down at 10.30 a.m. at Bhuntar airfield, it was like stepping into another world. From the familiar hustle and bustle of the Capital, we were suddenly transported into the relaxed atmosphere of Kulu lands.

Malia and Bedi were amongst the few who welcomed us ; for, a mountaineering expedition is not an attractive liability to the inhabitants of this remote hill station. We disembowelled the ‘Dak’ on to a 3-tonner and wound our way through Kulu to Babeli. some 8 km. away, where Col. Grewal of ITBP had already fixed up our board and lodging in the Officers' Mess on i In greensward of the river Beas. Without wasting time we moved to Manali to procure our mountaineering equipment from the Himalayan Institute of Mountaineering.

One could never forget the scenic beauty and natural splendour up the road from Kulu to Manali lying at the head of the valley. We reached H.I.M. around 5 p.m. and were back at Babeli by ‘lights off' time.

The sun shone ceaselessly from cloudless skies on 23 May and we were to have a long and hectic day ahead. We crossed the river Beas at Bhuntar, a kilometre away from the confluence of the Beas and Parbati. Despite the fast current and large flow in them the two rivers can be easily distinguished from a distance Beas losing its clear green character slowly to the brown and muddy waters of Parbati. We commenced our journey at 12 30 pm. along the dirt road running parallel to the right bank of the Parbati and reached the roadhead at Manikaran in three hours.

Manikaran (6,000 ft.), washed by the Parbati waters lies in the middle of a boatlike valley between two lush green hills. Here one comes across seven temples, a gurdwara, hot water tanks and the noisy Parbati flowing 100 ft. below the village level.

With the efforts of Lopsang we were able to entice over 75 local porters through their porter-mates Khemi Ram of Manikaran and Dulla Ram of Lohgaon.

On the morning of 24 May, after starting the caravan, Bhattu, Malia, Sharma, Lopsang and I had a puja performed and a vak taken from the Granth Sahib by the head priest for the success and safe return of our expedition. We had good reasons for doing so. None of us knew what was in store on the mountains. Would I be able to cope with the vagaries of nature? Would we reach the summit? These and a host of other questions flashed across my mind as, finally, at 11.30 a.m. Bhattu, Sharma and I started for Barsheni.

After an hour or so, we were caught up in torrential ram while helping a young porter who was left behind with a soaked load. Negotiating steep slopes at places with no shelter around we had to force our way in rain even while sweating profusely inside our clothing, It was 5.30 p.m. and we were drenched to the skin when we were greeted with a hot cup of tea at the Approach Camp I (7,200 ft.) about a kilometre ahead of Barsheni. After an early dinner we slipped into our sleeping bags. It drizzled throughout the night.

Next morning, I had my complete body aching whereas Sharma was down with fever. The loads were distributed to the porters and the caravan moved again. It started drizzling and a short walk brought us to the last inhabited village which was silent in the damp May morning. Its name is Tos and it has sat undisturbed for decades in great lazy loop of the Tos valley. For years, people merely passed through it on their way to the high pastures either for collecting herbs or for grazing the cattle. But now the village has attained a distinction of another kind. For a Vishnu' temple is being built by the village panchayat. As we entered the village, we were greeted by dirty children and foul smell coming out of decaying cow-dung and churned up mud littered in the village streets. Perhaps the cow dung cakes as a source of fuel are superfluous due to the abundance of firewood.2 Surprisingly houses were either closed or appeared empty. No womenfolk were seen around. The wall8 of houses are built by using a log of wood between alternate layer of stones and dull coloured stone slabs are used for the roof..


  1. No, please no ; abundance of firewood means indiscriminate denud^a" tion of the forest—there is already too much of that in Kulu, resulting in heavy erosion.-ED.


Camp II established at 18,000 ft. Ali Ratna Tibba can be seen protruding out in the centre

Camp II established at 18,000 ft. Ali Ratna Tibba can be seen protruding out in the centre

White sail (21,148 ft.) in the right background. Camp I was established at 17,000 ft.

White sail (21,148 ft.) in the right background. Camp I was established at 17,000 ft.

Papsura from a close angle

Papsura from a close angle

(Photo: Charles Clarke, 1971) Brammah (p. 6,416 m.) south-east ridge Kishtwar Himalaya, Henry Edmunson and David Gundry a few yards above camp II, about 19,000 feet

Photo: Charles Clarke, 1971

Brammah (p. 6,416 m.) south-east ridge Kishtwar Himalaya, Henry Edmunson and David Gundry a few yards above camp II, about 19,000 feet

After crossing a nal, a kilometre from Tos, some further seven kilometres of steep climb through conifer trees was an arduous proposition which culminated into a large grazing area know as Budhaban. Approach Camp II (9,100 ft.) was located here. The countryside was dominated by three colours—the yellowish green of wild plants in the foreground, the green of conifer trees and the pale blue of the mountains with their perennial mantle of ice.

Morning of 26 May was bright, continuing the trek at 7.30 a.m. crossing a midway camp at Sari we established Approach Camp III (11,200 ft.) at Sharam by lunch time. Here we suffered our first casualties. P. Singh was continually vomiting and violently sick, Sharma had fever and a splitting headache whereas Sadhwani and Kewal Ram suffered from a mild attach of high altitude sickness. Most of the time they were confined to their tents.

Next day, I decided to leave behind P. Singh and Sharma with the doctor for a day to rest and acclimatize whereas the remaining party trekked out in a bid to establish Base Camp at a suitable place on the middle moraine of the main Tos glacier.

The most bewitching portion of the Tos valley lies between the lush green tree lined meadows of Budhaban and Sari and the sparse and delicate tundra of Shamsi. Every hour or so the hills on either side of the Tos nal were changing in configuration with the valley narrowing down almost to a gorge and again widening into green meadows. There was a transformation in vegetation also as we moved higher and higher. The conifers gave way to a stunt growth of leafy plants. The forest grew gradually and even from a distance we could discern the Shamsi Camp site (12,500 ft.) at the foot of a formidable moraine. It was a sort of island traversed by numerous sparkling, crystal clear water streamlets with the Tos nal roaring down on its extreme right.

The morning of 28 May saw an advance party, consisting of Bhattu, Lopsang, ten high altitude porters, ten local porters, leaving Shamsi in a bid to recce a route up the moraine and select a suitable site for Advance Base Camp. It was cloudy that morning. Hav. Kewal Ram was having a headache and giddiness ; leaving him there the five of us got into the jungle of the Tos moraine to carry out an acclimatization programme.

P. Singh, Sharma and Doc arrived at Shamsi by lunch time and they were a little better than before. In the evening our recce party, braving through bad weather, gave the heartening news that they had dumped their loads at a suitable site meant for Advance Base Camp.

29 May dawned bright and clear. Kewal Ram reported to me in his full dress of a mountaineer and requested my permission to go to Advance Base Camp. He told me that he was fighting fit and could make it to Advance Base Camp. Doc told me that Kewal Ram had not complained of anything and that he must be fit. Leaving behind P. Singh, Sharma and Doc with a cook we left Shamsi at 7.30 a.m.

In the beginning it was great fun going up and down the boulders with streamlets flowing underneath. Soon we were lost in the myriads of boulders of all sizes and shapes; maintaining one's balance while hopping from one unstable boulder to another became a drudgery.

As we had with us Lopsang, Malia and Bedi—old hands of last year's White Sail' experience—there was hardly any time wasted in recognizing either the peaks or their icefalls. After a seven hour clambering up and down the hollows of the moraine we had a refreshing and much needed cup of tea at Advance Base Camp (14,500 ft.) near the Papsura icefall on the Tos (East) glacier. As everyone was pretty tired, an early dinner forced us to our sleeping bags and soon we were transported to a different world.

After a late breakfast on 30 May, we were lying idly in the sun and I was reminded of Wordsworth:

'Not seldom clad in radiant vest
Deceitfully goes forth the morn!'

The next two lines

Not seldom evening in the west
Sinks smilingly forsworn,

did not much concern me since we had few clear evenings to forswear themselves. Around noon a sausage of thick cloud streamed over Indrasan, the dominant feature to the west. Worst was still to come when with great concern Lopsang reported to me that Kewal Ram was in a pretty bad shape. Immediately we rushed to his tent and observed his breath short and fast; his mouth, his tongue, cheeks, lip§ and nails were bluish and besides his incoherent speech he showed lack of response to questions. 4 Could be a case of anoxiaI thought. Fortunately, Dhingra had received a medical briefing from Doc before leaving Sharma. Accordingly, he administered antibiotics and brought him in the improvised shade outside the tent. In the morning and the previous night Kewal Ram had taken his food without giving any clear indication of the gravity of his illness.

It was late afternoon and it was not advisable to send him 12 km. down the moraine, instead we crossed our fingers and prayed for a trouble-free night. However, I sent word to Doc by two porters to receive the patient half-way through the moraine the next day. The weather was becoming harsh, Kewal Ram became progressively weaker and had to be dragged into his tent. Soon he became delirious.

Dhingra shifted his air mattress and sleeping bag to Kewal Ram’s tent and looked after him with meticulous care through- out the night. A violent storm buffeted our tents. Our hearts were heavy and it was the worry rather than the storm and the altitude that kept us awake. I could imagine that his occasional cough and breathlessness hurt like knife thrusts between his ribs, I had forgotten the peak and my sincere prayers were for our friend’s life.

Next day, Kewal Ram was evacuated with the help of Lopsang, Malia and Thundop who literally carried him by turn on their backs until they handed him safely over to the doctor at almost midway to Advance Base Camp. Doc moved him straight to the base camp. Later on he told me that Kewal Ram's case was the initial stage of pulmonary oedema. As a precautionary measure against any further casualties, Sharma, P. Singh and kewal Ram were moved down to Manikaran. It snowed during the night of I June.

Higher Camps

Next day, Kewal Ram and others commenced their downward journey. The same day, the first assault party of seven members left Advance Base Camp at 7.30 a.m. in a bid to establish Camp I. Chonkar and Sadhwani were to join the second assault party and as such they were left behind to give logistic support from Advance Base Camp and liaise with Doc at Base Camp.

In spite of the gloomy weather forecast for our expedition the storm abated and we took advantage of moving our paraphernalia to Camp I. After covering 500 metres we came to the foot of a landslide with precipitous slopes leading to a rock- buttress partly covered with snow on the lower reaches and solid ice on the summit ridge. Leaving the treacherous icefall on our left we inched our way up the scree drag of the landslide. It took us over two hours to reach the foot of an ice slope with fresh snow piled on it. Here we fitted our crampons and roped up. Negotiating a couple of steep pitches with gradients varying between 40° and 50°, avoiding the treacherous crevasses now and then, we finally pitched Camp I (17,000 ft.) at the centre of an amphitheatre.

2 June, dawned bright and 10 a.m. saw us climbing westward and we were soon forcing our way up the ice slope with 50° gradient. Every member was carrying a load of 50 kg. Five hours strenuous plodding through a maize of snow and ice with the sun beating down on us brought us to Camp II site (18,000 ft.) on a plateau.

Assault Strategy

Discussing our next day's strategy, we ruled out the approach through the avalanche couloir on the south face as its lower reaches were exposed to masses of ice suspended and perched high on the face. A little disturbance was enough to trigger an artillery of avalanches. The British Expedition of 1967 had followed a shallow rib of mixed snow and rock to the true left of the couloir. The friable rocks covered with a veneer of glassy ice reaching up to the summit ridge and necessitating the use of several pitons and some thousand feet of fixed rope- not only looked uninviting but to my mind quite risky. The route to the lower reaches leads over a deep crevasse and up a snow-covered slope, followed by a second very steep slope covered with blocks of ice precipitated from the cornices immediately above.

After mature thought over a cup of tea, Bhattu and Lopsang were sent to recce a safe route along the left ridge of the east col. They did a commendable job in exploring part of the way and were back in Camp II in less than three hours!

A Start for the Summit

4 June was a pretty cold morning and far to the west hung a wall of clouds. To go for the summit sounded very well. The difficulty was to get anywhere near it. Our immediate concern was to get nearer to the east col, then traverse along the southeast ridge. My watch showed 5.15 a.m. wlien we started on two ropes—on the first there were Lopsang, Bhattu and Malia whereas the second comprised Dhingra, Bedi, Sherpa Nirath Ram and myself.

A broad compact field of snow stretched before us till we hit the foot of a steep gully. A marginal cleft formed a passage with a gradient of 60° which was quite safe from avalanches. Rope length by rope length our party of seven pushed its way up. It necessitated strenuous trail breaking; twenty steps then ;i pause—later only ten steps before a pause. We now climbed relatively quickly, for, the condition of ice was good. We took some rest by a rocky outcrop but not for long, for the weather normally deteriorated by lunch time and we wanted to make it to the summit much before that.

The terrain inclined at about 60° and was covered with hard ice. Forcing steps upwards was a strenuous job and our energy reserves were getting drained out fast. The glaring sun was a bit of a nuisance, because even through the dark glasses it dazzled our eyes.

Soon we were belaying each other on to a solitary rock protruding out of a colossal ice bulge. Here we had some half- frozen pineapple crush. We were perched on a balcony over- looking a fabulous world of snowy peaks, slopes, abysses, glaciers. The radiance of the sun reflected a thousand glacial ridges and snow fields, all agleam and sparkling with porphyry crystal. We could not afford much rest and a short plod up the slope landed us gasping and sweating at the top of the bulge proper. After clearing the inhospitable bulge we trudged to the n! i near vertical ice wall.

Despair was visible in Lopsang's eyes which gazed at the ice wall front and the snow fields stretching endlessly. An immeasuarable quiet prevailed on the scene and Lopsang simply said: ‘So, Sahib, what next?' Seeing the fast approaching dark clouds from the west, I looked at my watch which showed 11.05 a.m. Of course!' I, at last, murmured, 'It is all so unexpected and so painful. Well, I will try... I think, we better send the first rope for the target and the second rope will be a standby for emergency.' Dhingra lapsed into silence. Bedi was also silent. 4 And... shall we get a chance?' Bedi suddenly asked hoarsely. 4 Yes! of course, if the weather gods permit us and Papsura accepts us,' I replied. We watched their progress sitting 500 ft. below the summit which beckoned us irresistibly. But safety first. They say, 4 You climb on others' shoulders in the mountains.'

Malia, one of the summit trio, reports thus: 'Leaving our friends below, with mixed feelings we hazarded our way up the dicy ice wall. Lopsang, in the lead, was cutting steps for our convenience. At places we had to use only the front prongs of our crampons. Frequent creaks and groans, seemingly portending a cornice about to peel off, sent a chill down our spines. It was a very laborious process to cut steps in hard ice as well as inch our way to the upper edge of the ice wall. After that we trudged through knee-deep powder snow and it was not until 1.25 p.m. that we gained the highest point of a broad snowy summit.'

At the Summit

Great was my joy at this my second ascent in this area. We had fought for eight hours and now our destination was reached. We shook hands ardently. None of us spoke a word. Bhattu broke the ice by saying, Toil and hardship are simply unimaginable, but still this is the finest moment of my life.' His words corresponded to exactly what I felt at that moment. We hoisted the national flag, pennants of the AFTMA and the DMA. For a few short minutes the pennants fluttered in the northeasterly gale. I left my steel bangle at the summit. Apart from that, Tibetan flags, chocolates, dry fruit and juice tins were left by the members and we were on the look-out for any souvenir left by the British team. As luck would have it Lopsang did catch sight of a brass plate left by the Derbyshire Expedition, secured by wire attached to a rock piton fixed in a rock about 200 ft. below the summit. Much against mountaineering traditions the summiteers could not resist the temptation of bagging it and replacing the same by another rock piton with IAF-71' engraved on it.

It was spine chilling to look at the threatening summit cornice overhanging the north face precipitating into the Bara Shigri glacier. Most part of the west face is a sheer cliff with ice plastered on the upper reaches only. There was a breath-taking view of mountains like White Sail (21,148 ft.), Indrasan (20,410 ft.), Ali Ratni Tibba (18,013 ft.) and a cluster of peaks both in Lahul and Spiti. Low clouds cheated us a view of the Kulu mountains. Bhattu and I found it hard to stop taking ^pictures—but the summit was obviously no place to linger, for, the weather looked bad. We started climbing down at 1.45 p.m.


The descent too turned out to be extremely difficult. How should we cross the solid ice wall? Painful to relate, just as we were devising a safe means of doing so I peeled off-and in doing so we unexpectedly glissaded right over it, landing on its lower ridge. As we rolled down I lost grip of my ice axe and for a few seconds heard it bumping and clattering down into a crevasse. Lopsang wanted to retrieve it but he was not given the green signal by the leader. It was a tricky job for Bhattu and Lopsang to belay me (without an ice axe) down the steep slopes till we were hugged by the members of the second rope.

The prospect of sending the second rope to the summit became very bleak in view of the fast approaching bad weather, the time (3.00 p.m.) and Malia being without an ice axe. Some discussion ensued and we looked at the summit which was about to be engulfed in cloud. Papsura did not accept us and reluctantly we decided to beat it.

All the seven of us were on one rope. Malia was in the middle. Making our way down slope after slope, slipping, glissading at times, we reached Camp II by twilight. After a quick dinner of ' khichri’ we slipped into our sleeping bags. We had a lot of reminiscing to do. The westerly gale buffeted our tents throughout the night.

[For sketch map refer to H.J., Vol. XXVIII, p. 103. The route attacked the east col lying between Papsura and Dharm- ura, and followed the east ridge to the summit. The author has another name for this peak—‘Fabsor. The editor confers that 'Papsura' has gained sufficient currency in mountaineering circles to retain its claim on this peak.]

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