IN 1977, Odd Eliassen, from Asker in Norway, and I completed a journey on skis across the length of the Zagros mountains in Iran. The experiences of that journey and personal knowledge following visits to Himachal Pradesh in northern India in 1970 and 1976 convinced us that a similar journey through the western Himalaya was possible. Indeed the idea was conceived whilst on the journey in Iran and the intervening years were devoted to expanding the original plan not only in scope but also to include a third person — Erik Boehlke an established lawyer from Oslo. After much discussion, most of which was taking place by post across the North Sea, and during several visits to Norway, our concept was evolved. Conscious of the distances and heights involved, we decided on an ultra lightweight journey; we were even more conscious of our intention to enjoy the skiing without the distraction of oversized and overweight rucksacks.
Early in the planning the 3 of us had agreed that we would not depend for food on local people in the high valleys through which we would pass. We agreed this for 3 reasons: we wished to maintain our physical performance by having a carefully chosen diet, we wished to avoid the probability of debilitating stomach disorders which local food would cause and more importantly, we wished to avoid having to rely for food on local people who were at a subsistence level existence during the long winter months. Thus our commitment dictated a summer visit to the area to place dumps of food, fuel and spare equipment. This would also serve the purpose of confirming the actual route we were to ski and the high passes we were to cross.
Easter 1980 found the 3 of us in the Jotunheimen Mountains making our final decisions on ski equipment, ski waxes and the composition of our food packs. Thus in late August 1980, we flew out to Srinagar in Kashmir with all our food and equipment pre-packed and ready for placing out on our route.
The Summer Reconnaissance
Our 3 weeks summer holiday was barely long enough to complete the many things we had to do. We agreed that the 5 of us (we had been joined by Erik's brother Knut and Douglas Keelan, a brother officer in the Royal Marines) would, in very simple terms, go by truck to a point near the centre of our route in the Suru valley where we would split into 2 groups. The Norwegians would head We crossing 3 high passes, placing out one dump of food and eventually arrive at' Srinagar which was to be the start point of the winter journey. Meanwhile, Douglas Keelan and I would continue by truck to Padam in Zanskar placing 2 dumps of food on the way, and then walk S to cross a little known pass at 5600 m to get into the top of the Miyar nullah. This would lead us down to the Lahul-Spiti area finally ending up in Manali and a rendezvous with the Norwegians in Delhi before flying home hopefully in time for work.
Coincidentally, another Royal Marine, David Nicholls, was going to be in the Miyar nullah for his attempt on the NW face of Phabrang, and he very kindly agreed to place our final dump of food at Karpat, the small village where he sited his base camp.
In short, the summer reconnaissance was very successful and 40 days food and fuel, spare skis, sticks and other vital equipment were safely deposited to await our return in the winter. The Norwegians reported that we would have to modify our route to avoid the extremely steep and, in winter, dangerous slopes, between Baltal and the Amarnath Cave and the Gulol Gali pass. Apart from this, our original plan needed no further changes and our finalised route was agreed as Srinagar, Sonmarg, Zoji La pass (3500 m), Dras, Umba La pass (4400 m), Sankho, Ringdom Gompa. Pensi La pass (4600 m), Padum, Tema Shah Nala, Kang La pass (5600 m) , Miyar nullah, Udaipur, Tandi, Rhotang pass (4000 m) and Manali—-a distance of nearly 800 km.
The Winter Journey
During the summer reconnaissance we had attempted to find out from people along the length of the route the conditions of weather and snow during- January, February and March. Commensurate with our lightweight concept was the need to have settled weather and good snow conditions. Our original plan was to begin the journey at the end of January but the information we had gleaned about the snow conditions likely at this time suggested deep powder with little effect from the sun and very cold temperatures. We eventually decided that the end of February would provide the most settled time in Kashmir for our start and that as we progressed SE it would get warmer and good snow conditions would prevail. Thus we got a taxi in Srinagar on 27 February to take us up to the end of the road near Gund which, at 2200 m, was the lowest that snow lay in sufficient depth to allow us to ski.
We left our first camp site to negotiate the Sind river gorge at 5.30 a.m. on 28 February so as to be clear of the dangers of avalanches in its 8 km length at the coldest time of the morning. It began to snow and became mild, and after crossing some enormous avalanche cones we were safely through by 8.00 a.m. Many of the avalanches had completely filled the gorge which in places was so narrow that they were 30-50 m deep. With heavy snow now falling and the temper a lure barely on 0°C, we were thankful to be clear of our first obstacle and into the safer valley of Sonmarg. It snowed for another 36 hours and-when it stopped. 75 cm of heavy new snow made pro- gress up the valley slow and exhausting. At dawn on 2 March, it was —-18° C and beautifully clear and from Baltal we were able to observe the Zoji La, our first pass. We needed 2 clear hot days to allow such a heavy fall of snow to avalanche off; the pass which we knew to be dangerous. The alternative to climbing straight up over the pass was to follow a gorge, 11 km long with sides up to 300 m high and a width of only 30-50 m. This was a death trap and while we waited, a gale blew up from the ME and prevented us from moving at all. A depression now overcame the 3 of us and we were confronted with a decision to either sit out the gale and go short on rations till we reached the next dump or to retreat and get round this particular obstacle by flying to Leh, the capital of Ladakh, and getting a jeep to take us to a point near Bras, about 50 km from the other side of the pass. As time and food were precious we opted for a retreat and skied back down the Sind river gorge in failing weather and fearful of the wet snow avalanches crashing down about us.
We had to wait in Srinagar for 2 days before we got a flight to Leh on 9 March. The next morning we took a jeep over the bare Ladakhi mountains to the Suru valley and we were able to start skiing again from a point that was only about 60 km from the Zoji La. We reasoned that to have missed this short distance of our journey was a better price to have paid than to have faced the enormous dangers confronting 'us on that pass. Our spirits were high, as was the barometer, and on 11 March in —11°C, we set off on our first day of proper skiing. We passed Nun and Kun, those lovely mountains at the bend in the Suru valley, and in the evening of 15 March arrived at Kingdom Gompa where we had a dump of food and fuel. The snow conditions were appalling but in the 100 km we had covered we had gained altitude from 3120 m to 4190 m and all in clear weather. The snow conditions had prompted me to write in my diary on 14 March. "They (snow conditions) have meant trail breaking changing round every. 1 km and too often the snow seems to be baseless— the poor fellow up front going in it up to the thigh. Rhythm is lost and it is exhausting getting going again. All this does not help Erik's back either and today Odd and I have shared most of the work so as to give Erik a break.' Erik had jarred his back and seemed to have resurrected an old spinal injury during our retreat down the Sind river on 4 March. This was a cause of concern not only for Odd and me who would have to think of how to get him out if it got worse, but also for Erik himself who had set aside so much for this ski journey. Our stock of pain killers helped him get through each day but it was a worry that went with us throughout the journey.
On 16 March we were at the foot of the Pensi La pass and at dawn it was —24°C. The snow conditions, were better at the greater altitude and we were able to cover 25 km. We had our first stretch of downhill skiing from the top of the pass down on to the Burn Brung Glacier but, regrettably, it was all too short and not on very good snow. On 17 March it was —30°C at 6.00 a.m, but having lost a little height we were back on bad snow which continued all the way to Padam which we reached at lunchtime on 19 March. Padam was the middle of our journey and we had originally intended to spend 4 days skiing around the central Zanskar valley visiting the monasteries and villages. Our dump of food and fuel was sufficient for this period of rest and change and included a bottle of malt whisky to help us sleep soundly. However, the 5 days we had lost as a result of our false start, dictated that we must change our plans, finish the whisky in one and at 6.00 a.m. on 20 March we departed. We had come nearly 250 km and had over 350 km ahead of us.
I wrote in my diary on 20 March: 'The snow conditions got worse and after a few km from Padam we dropped down steep slopes to the river. Here we were able to walk on the ice on the side and occasionally had to cross to avoid the places where the ice had gone with the current'. In this manner we passed Burdum Gompa perched high on a knuckle of rock and seemingly barring further progress up the valley. We stopped for lunch having only covered 12 km in 6 hours and the last 1 km in over an hour. Again my diary reveals our anxiety: 'Not one of us can recall skiing in such terrible snow and we are changing the lead every 100 m. You break through the thin crust, which suddenly collapses, and you sink up to the thigh in sugar. It is physically impossible to push your way through the crust and the only way forward is to lift the ski completely clear and move it forward to gain in a metre. It is exhausting and our spirits were low when at lunchtime we discussed abandoning the journey if the same conditions continued for a further day or two.' Happily, shortly after that lunch stop we gained height and with that came better snow and faster progress. At that same lunch stop, I had to manufacture a black eye patch for my left eye which was being snow-blinded by sunlight getting through the gap in between the glasses and my cheek. Judging distance for 3 days thereafter was not easy.
On 21 March it was —8°C, snowing and blowing hard. We gained height all day gradually progressing up the Tema Shah nala until we turned off the main valley to strike up a glacier which leads to the Kang La. We camped that night at 4776 m at the snout of the glacier. The pass is little known and even less used, although it is relatively straightforward glacier approach all the way to 5600 m. However, it is very remote and not possible to find from the 1: 250000 map. Ram Seeger, a friend from England, had been over it 2 years previously and reported its feasibility as a ski route and I had covered the ground the summer before. On that occasion, Ram's directions to me were: 'Turn left at a bluff that looks like the Buachaille and you will come to the pass.' I was glad of this knowledge gained on the summer trip and it boosted my confidence as navigator for this stretch. We crossed the pass at noon on 22 March in a temperature of —16°C.
Ahead and below us lay the Miyar nullah, the top of which is a great amphitheatre of peaks rising to 6400 m. It was a magnificent and immensely beautiful place and we had to stop to admire it all. Down below us the glacier snaked away to the S and out of sight behind a spur. Where we were, the glacier was 3-4 km wide and it seemed to maintain a width of about 2 km as far as the eye could see. At its edges, great icefalls and peaks rose precipitously to heights well over 6000 m. Regrettably, it was too cold to stay long in this beautiful place but we really did relish the fact that this was virgin skiing, and that for 80 km gravity would take us from 5600 m to 2600 m. We camped a little way down the glacier at 5200 m and while we cooked our food the thermometer dropped from —16°C at 6.30 p.m. to —20°C at 7.00 p.m. and —24°C at 7.30 p.m. It was chilly and a 30 knot wind made the impact greater.
We covered 35 km on 23 March and it was quite the most exhilarating skiing I had ever experienced. The final 7 km of the glacier is a wildly turbulent mass of moraine and ice which was the devil to negotiate in the summer. Now with 2 m of snow safely covering the unstable moraines and the bare steep section of ice, we were able to take a straight line down and through it.
It was all too short and we were soon on the level valley at 4000 m. Here in the summer we had camped in a sea of edelweiss but now we were on good hard crusty snow and going strong. We covered the same distance on 24 March with gravity doing much more work for us—what a refreshing change it was after so much uphill. We used the river gorge as our line of descent because it was cold and we were early enough to get through before the sun gained sufficient warmth to spring avalanches from the steep slopes to the W. It was exciting skiing with a fall or a late turn certain to pitch you into the river. Odd broke a ski stick which was mended by splinting a fibre- glass tent pole to the break with fibre glass tape. Not long after this, we arrived at the tiny village of Khanjar, the highest habitation in the nullah. Odd was wearing a face mask to protect his nose and lips which had been badly burned by the sun and as he schussed to a stop in the village, the people took to their heels having never seen skis, nor foreigners before at this time of year. It was sometime before they plucked up courage to come out and see who these strange people were.
We skied down through juniper forest, past tiny little villages and isolated houses, their roofs creaking under the weight of the necessities of winter—hay, firewood and dried dung—and as we passed, their owners clambered up on to the roofs to watch us glide by. We glided on down past Gumba where the route up to Menthosa, the highest peak in the area, leaves the main valley and on to Karpat where we picked up our last dump of food and fuel. At these lower altitudes, for we were now at 3000 m, the snow was soupy by noon and the S facing slopes were often free of it. Nevertheless, we were able to ski down to Shakoli, a small hamlet that guards the entrance to the final gorge of the Miyar nullah. We had a walk down this impressive gorge for 8 km to Udaipur because it was too steep and dangerous to ski. We stayed the night of 25 March in the attractive little PWD rest house which had been kept open throughout the winter by an Indian Army doctor and an engineer. They were extremely pleased to see us and we were privileged to enjoy Indian Army beer for the rest of the day.
By noon on 28 March, we had covered the 110 km to the top of the Rhotang pass and all that remained of our journey was a 2000 m descent to Manali. It was not easy choosing a line down which to ski from the pass; it was very steep and it was mid-afternoon. We had decided to ski down in the afternoon when the snow was soft because we had reasoned that to ski down in the early morning would be foolhardy for a fall would result in an uncontrollable and dangerous slide down bone hard neve with no chance of stopping. While we therefore accepted that there would be a greater risk of avalanches, we calculated that the risk would be worth taking. After a thrilling descent we got down safely to the snow line at the Kothi rest house. We thumbed a lift in a PWD lorry full of workers who had been working on clearing the road of snow, and arrived in Manali as dusk was falling.