WE MUST have looked a helpless lot. Sitting there near a small broken bridge with all our luggage we hardly looked like a team going on an expedition. A bus had deposited us here and we had to wait for any mode of transport from the other side. At last an army truck arrived. All of us, our luggage and many other passengers clambered in. The Subedar-major in charge was furious.
'Get down all of you. Or else 111 have your luggage thrown in Sutlej.'
Reluctantly we all climbed down. At the same time Shekhar who is a Flight-lieutenant with the Indian Air Force introduced himself to the Subedar-major. Magic worked. He saluted with respect, 'Sir, you come in the front’ and with a filthy glance to us added, 'and ask your porters to get in,’ We all saluted Shekharsab and clambered up again. Thus we had to manoeuvre many times, but we were always on the move to Spiti.
But in a way we were lucky. The early travellers had to walk all the way. We had a bus ride from Simla to Rampur-Bushair and now along Sutlej across Kinnaur. We passed Khab where we left Sutlej, to Sumdo where Parang Chu re-enters India and meets Spiti river. Technically we enter Spiti at Sumdo. The road climbed up 'Koh Loops' to reach Yangthang and we were in the barren Transhimalaya. Everything happened suddenly. Next day we were at Tabo. Here almost the total population of Spiti was camping to have a darshan of Dalai Lama. The old monastery was deserted and a new one constructed like most of the Spiti monasteries. In 1975 a giant earthquake has caused wide-scale destruction.
Tabo nala, 2 km ahead, was flooded and we had to tranship our luggage once again. By evening we sat on a loaded bus with three times the number of passengers allowed. All of us were depressed and surrendering to a change of plans. But Muslim stood firm amidst the ruins. 'A bloody bus ride is not going to decide which mountain we are going to climb/ he quipped.
By late evening police had to be called in. They emptied the bus by force and filled it up again with the same number! But now it was done in some orderly manner and with those favoured, including us. At about 10 p.m. we started on our last journey. We hoped that it was not so in the most literal sense. The road was bad, bus in poor condition and it required great patience to tolerate those ladies of Spiti who chattered loudly next to us. Anyway at midnight we were deposited at Lingti village (11,350 ft), our road-head, having covered 394 km from Simla. Next day was spent resting, arranging khotas (donkeys) and yaks to carry our luggage.
A Peep into History
Lingti valley which we were about to penetrate had no history of any visitors. There are no passes leading to Tibet from the valley. One pass in the east led to Giu nala and Tabo. Other, Chaksachan la in the northwest, led to Ladakh. On the north is Rupshu district of Ladakh, on the east is Tibet, west Kulu and in the south Kinnaur. At Spiti the Tibetan and Indian worlds met for centuries. Now a motorable road connects Kaza to Simla and Manali (over Kumzum la and Rohthang pass) with a daily bus service for 8 months in the year.
Two of the earliest known travellers to Spiti were Captain Alexander Gerard and Dr J. G. Gerard. They explored 'Bashair, Spiti and Kanwar' (Kinnaur) in 1817 (Abode of Snow, p. 68). The other visitors were H. Paidar and Ludwig Schmaderer in 1945. who escaped from Tibet.
'In July 1945 when still wandering aimlessly and not knowing that war was over. L. Schmaderer was brutally robbed and murdered at or near the little village of Tabo in Spiti. H. Paider returned to Poo on the Sutlej and followed the river down to Saharan where he gave himself up and made a full report to the police. The murderers were arrested/ (Abode of Snow, p. 286). It was after 40 years that such a crime was committed at all in Spiti (For details see H.J. Vol. XV, p. 69).
Parang la, an important pass which led from Spiti to Rupshu, was'crossed by Europeans. (H.J. Vol. I, p. 77 and Vol. VIII, p. 118).
The first climber in the area was J. O. M. Roberts in 1939. He climbed Chau Chau Kang Nilda (Guan Nelda) 20,680 ft (H.J. Vol. XII, p. 129). J. de.V. Graaff and K. E. Snelson recceed peaks in 1952, while P. F. Holmes and T. H. Braham made a number of fine ascents in Ratang nala and of Chau Chau Kang Nilda (CCKN).1 Indian expeditions climbed Shilla, CCKN and Kanikma2 in 1966 and again CCKN in 1981.3 Thus for a wide valley such as Spiti, a lot of climbing and exploration is still left for the future and we were to tackle one valley out of the many.
Historically the peak Shilla had attracted plenty of attention due to a wrongly attributed height, which now is firmly settled (see the note at the end).
An advance party of ours, consisting of two members, had visited Lingti valley between 25 May and 20 June 1983. They trekked in for 4 days and climbed an 18,701 ft peak, 'Sibu’ The information and photographs they brought back were useful. One of the members had also trekked towards Parang la (18,300 ft) though he missed reaching it by a few hundred feet due to the bad snow condition.
Slowly up the Lingti 27 July 1983
It was drizzling when our khotas arrived to carry the luggage to Lalung. We passed Rama and reached Lalung (12,000 ft) comfortably in 4 hrs (14 km). We trooped into the local Pradhan's house and requested a room to stay. The lady of the house seemed rather reluctant to oblige. As it was just the first day's trek we looked clean and welcome without beards. But she had four pretty daughters! So we understood her reluctance! Instead she arranged our stay in another house with another company — bugs! It was a terrible night and even the dreams of those four lovely damsels could not console us!
We met Dr Bhargav of the Geological Survey of India. He enlightened us about the geology of the area. Lalung system in the Lingti valley is almost a complete 'library' of geology. It is well preserved with its volumes intact. It covers about 250 million years of geological history. Nowhere can one find specimens so easily. Of course research has already been undertaken by earlier expeditions on Spiti shales and fossils which are well known all over the world. Perhaps the largest collection of ammonites and belemnites at present is at Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge, collected in 1955 by Dr Richard Hey. A little west of Kaza lies Kyoto which is well known for its limestone. Now the mines there are exhausted but the brand name remains. All agencies are active here to investigate the different aspects of Spiti.
Among others we met a party from the Botanical Survey of India. According to them the plants and many species in Spiti have travelled from Tibet and Central Asia. Particularly the crops here are of very high-yielding variety. This allows the population to subsist despite the small period of cultivation and poor farming methods. Their study was to transplant, if possible, these varieties to the Indian plains. If successful it will be most beneficial. Many irrigation canals now feed every village. Some canals, like one above Langja, start almost from the glacier. This with plantation of poplar trees has given Spiti a much greener look. Road-building activity is also in full swing. Apart from the main artery road, many side valleys like Pin, Shilla,;Ratang or our Lingti has a road connection. To our surprise the post is still carried by mules and runners once it enters Spiti at Sumdo, though telegrams reach Simla within hours. Amongst all these invasions of modernity Pitoons carry on their traditional living, face the winter and carry on trade with the plains instead of the Tibetan highlands. They have a lot to offer just as they gain a lot.
We looked around the village next morning. People were very friendly. They all seemed well content and self-sufficient. They arranged yaks for our journey ahead. It was raining heavily on the 28th also. Alexander Cunningham in his book Ladakh includes Spiti and writes that rainfall is scarce and rarely above 4 inches in a year in these Transhimalayan areas. All of it seems to be falling on one day! We spent the morning visiting Lalung gorripai It was ancient with many unusual frescoes and a beautiful location. The lama was informative. There are 5 major monasteries in Spiti. Tabo, Dankhar, Ki, Pin and Tanghut. Moreover most villages have their own gompa. Lamaism is still practised but the gompas have far less control than the government officials over the villager. This was purposely achieved simply by withholding any assistance to the monasteries and to the lamas. Every family still sends a child to become a lama but now he can return to work as often as required and many leave the monastic life without much fuss. Some elderly lamas had stayed in Lhasa for education. Most of the present lot has travelled in South India to the Tibetan settlements. They are educated in modern schools or at Dharamsala. Religion is no longer an absolute way of life here, for locals or for the lamas as in the past.
As the rain did not abate by afternoon we left with our porters to camp at Upper Zingu (14,200 ft — 8 km). Next day we crossed Zingu top (14,400 ft) and entered the Lingti gorge. It was a tortuous place to be in. Boga and I pushed ahead on a scree slope. From a distance no route seemed possible. But it solved itself over the boulders and the scree was remarkably firm. 'How in all these immortal cliffs we ordinary mortals dare to travel? It surely comes from within', quoted Boga, our official philosopher. After a camp in the gorge we reached Shijbang pass (15,800 ft). From the pass we had the first view of Gyah (6794 m — 22,291 ft). It looked lovely and serene, full of snow. It was at the junction of Ladakh, Tibet and Spiti. After the latest survey Gyah is the highest point in Himachal Pradesh. The gorges leading to its base seemed very formidable. But once at its base, it should be easy to reach the top.
On the 31st we waited for the yaks to catch up. Bhupesh attempted Shijbang peak c. 17,200 ft and came within 200 ft of the summit before retreating. But the rest could not help Gaurang. He felt too sick to continue and had to be sent back.
Around Shijbang were two magnificent rocky towers, both nearing 20,000 ft. One towards Lalung was locally called 'Chokula' and the other 'Cholung', both names of local gods with a legend attached to them.
From Shijbang ('grassy land' — which it was) we descended down to Shijbang nala and climbed up to Sanesa ('where the grass grows*). Traversing high over Sibu we again went down to cross Sheru nala. There were two routes from here. One was to cross the Lingti river to Lashitanga and go over Chaksachan la to the base of Gyah. Or proceed up to Detto-Numa in the east above us and then follow the Tangmor gorge to the Lingti river and proceed along it. We selected the latter as it gave us a chance to attempt the other peaks and it was nearer.
On 2 August we were deposited at our base camp (16,000 ft). A strong hail-storm and wind lashed us that evening. That night it was cold. We could hear the sounds of our Garhwali porters singing to ward off the strong Transhimalayan wind and cold. They were old companions. It was strange for them to see the barrenness and the Buddhist culture but they adapted well. It was fortuitous that we had them along. A man of Spiti is a poor load-carrier and considers it below his dignity. Even when he agrees, his charges are heavy and he is most troublesome. On 3-4 August we recceed and moved to ABC. Boga who had been unwell for some time had to be sent home as he further deteriorated. Thus the Transhimalayan inhospitable terrain had seriously depleted our strength.
5 August brought us our first peak. In two ropes we climbed Lagma (18,901 ft). It was an easy climb with a fabulous view from the top. From the summit we could see Handgompa, a peak in Tibet. As the legend goes it had a gompa on its top and a lama climbed up to worship. We could also observe that the best route to the base of Gyah may be along the Lingti river itself as followed by a Survey party. The peaks of Parchokula also looked impressive.
On 6 August, Muslim, Sher Singh and myself descended into the Tangmor gorge to try and find out an exit to Lingti. We went down 2500 ft and proceeded for 6 km. We soon knew that it was a gorgeous mistake. The gorge narrowed with cliffs on both sides. We were stopped by rock-walls. After trying a few false leads we had to retrace our steps and climb up all the way back to ABC. However, it confirmed that there is no route to Gyah from this side of the Lingti river.
On 8 August all of us left to attempt the peak Tangmor (19,360 ft). After an initial push a corniced ridge which offered no protection stopped us. We retreated to ABC. With this we decided to withdraw from Lingti and retraced our route to Lalung over the gorge. Our stay in Lingti was brief but we had penetrated 3/4th way up and photographed all the upper reaches. Plenty of climbing is around here for the future.
From Lalung we made a small foray to Dankhar gompa. The old gompa was magnificently perched on a hillock. But now it has been reconstructed a little way away on flat ground, far less dramatic but safer. We went down to Sichling and took a lift in a lorry to arrive at Kaza, the capital of Spiti, at midnight.
World of Spiti
Kaza is a small town in a way. The local population of about 200 is supplemented by administration and defence staff of 2000! It is situated on a huge plain on the bank of Spiti river and strong winds make it a very cold place. The small bazaar has few things to offer. And surprise of suprises — it has two video theatres showing the latest movies! It gives you a queer feeling to watch a movie extravaganza sitting with simple Pitoons. Little ahead near Rangrik village a gian hydro-electric project is; being, constructed in the Ratang valley. While Holmes and Braham had great difficulty in penetrating its gorge in 1955, a 1.0 km motorable road is blasted out and giant trucks ply on the Spiti and Ratang river-beds.
In his book1 Peter Holmes had mentioned Shiring Dawa, a young boy who had revolted against the monastic life. He had great hopes from this boy and wrote; "The best hope for Spiti to progress though not, one hopes, towards Indianization, a concept as ugly as the word — seems to lie with one such as Shiring Dawa. If he is adequately trained, now before he is any older, there is no saying what changes he might accomplish for the good of his people, with the benevolent support of Delhi. He alone among the Pitoons has the ability to cope with the advances which must surely come one day.'
There is a Tibetan saying which warns of the strife and un-happiness which comes with the foreigner. Modern ways are seldom conducive to peace. But with Shiring to show the way there would be a hope that the contagious happiness which characterizes the Pitoon of today, and which we were lucky enough to experience, would not be lost.' (p. 174).
We were curious to find out what happened to him, after 28 years. He had taken up employment in P.W.D. as a storekeeper. He embezzled funds and was prosecuted. His Kaza house was taken away. He limped due to a fall and had hit the bottle hard. In June 1983 he died with a most infamous reputation as a lame drunkard. A sad end which perhaps illustrates how difficult it is to go against tradition. The present-day 'Dawas' go to school, almost all speak Hindi, and ultimately get employed in the plains or in government agencies in Spiti.
Holmes had remarked, among other things, about the impossibility of roads to Spiti. I don't blame him looking at the terrain. But they are there all right, however bad in condition. Holmes wrote; 'The proposed jeep track from Manali to the frontier, were it possible, would more than anything serve to establish a lasting bond between India and Spiti. But it is almost certainly a too ambitious scheme. When we first walked into Spiti the project seemed well on its way to completion. A year later, of the thirty miles of jeep track, so laboriously hewn out of the mountainside, barely a trace could be seen. Winter had done its devastating worst.'
Climbs in Shilla Nala
After a rest of a few days we were ready for the second part of the expedition. On 14 August 1983 all of us started for Langja (14,200 ft - 15 km). A small beautiful village with CCKN rising beautifully in the backdrop. Ladies offered flowers to welcome us but immediately spoiled it by asking for baksheesh.
We made two teams here. Arun and Muslim were to attempt CCKN. The SW ridge dropped steeply towards us by which it will, always previously climbed. Harish, Bhupesh and Gaurang were investigate the route to Shilla and climb peaks near Shilla jot
While CCKN party left next day, we went out to search for, guide. The only person who could guide us was at Tanghut gompa 4 km away for a meeting. We visited the gompa and with intervetion of Rimpoche arranged for our man to be released. Near gompa we saw the ritual of 'Yada-Tada' To cure the sick or commemorate the recent dead they offer rice and tsampa in peculiar ceremony. Now rich Pitoons who can afford to pay wood cremate the dead while others still follow the ancient tradition of hacking corpses to pieces to offer them to the vultures. We saw quite a few Lungthars — cairns for the dead.
Our guide arrived and we left on the 16th for the pass. The guid pointed out the pass from far and departed taking with him umbrella in the bargain! After a camp we reached Shilla it (18,600 ft) and stayed 500 ft on the Langja side. It led on the other side to Sharma nala in the Lingti valley. After a long descent traverse, which may take 2 days, it led to the base of Shilla. here Shilla was a gentle climb. Thus one can approach Shilla easily from Lashitanga in the Lingti valley. There is no easy approach from the west through the Shilla nala. Did the Survey khalasi traverse all these complications alone in 1860?
18 August was our *D* day. Three of us left late at 0800 hrs allow the bad weather to clear. We reached a col at 18,000 ft. we traversed to the west to climb 'Zumto' c. 19,000 ft our first pea in the valley. By 1215 hrs we were back at the col. Gaurang rippled down to the camp while Bhupesh and I waited for the bad weather to clear. 'Someone up there is unable to decide about weather’ said Bhupesh. However, we lost patience and decided climb 'Tserip' c. 19,600 ft regardless. We climbed a 200 ft gendarme and proceeded along the ridge to reach the top by 1330 hrs. weather was cloudy but still holding on, so we continued and decended 1000 ft to traverse the peak. A gentle climb led us to top of our third peak 'Kawu', c. 19,400 ft, at 1530 hrs. By this the weather was closing in with sharp hail. Someone up there made up His mind and it was time to descend. We completed high 4 km traverse to Shilla jot c. 18,600 ft and reached the ca by late evening, dehydrated, tired but satisfied.
The CCKN team had run into difficulties. It is surprising every team (since 1939) that attempted CCKN always had weather. This is in confirmation of the local legend. They established one high camp at 17,000 ft. Despite two separate attempts they failed.
Panorama A. The view from Lingti valley, Spiti. Looking to the Great Himalayan Divide towards the peaks of Kulu-Spiti watershed. Spiti river flows across (from NW to SE) in the centre, right to left.
Panorama B. The Shilla-Lingti watershed from ABC. Sharma nala is in the centre and Chaksachan nala on the right. Lingti river flows across (from NE to SW—right to left).
Panorama C. The ancient monastery of Tabo. This earth-mudstructure survived the strong earthquake of 1975. Few cavedwellings can be seen on the mountain side in the background. Photos: Harish Kapadia
Lingti Valley (Spiti) D.E.L. 1983
We all gathered at Kaza on 20 August, It was time to say goodbye to this world of Spiti. A spectacular bus ride led us through the western Spiti panorama to Kumzum la (14,931 ft). Traveling along the Chandra river in Lahul, the bus steadily climbed up to Rohthang pass (13,050 ft). On the pass a huge icy patch was cleared by bulldozers and the bus tilted dangerously to one side. Though scared someone murmured; 'Jane do (let it go). As long as there is a road. Who's afraid of Peter Holmes I' The bus slowly rolled down to Manali and the plains. We were back to the other world, our world.
Note on Shilla
This small peak on the divide between Lingti and Shilla nala became so famous that any mention of Spiti led to the memory of Shilla and vice versa.
It was first reported to have been climbed in 1860 by an unnamed khalasi of the Survey of India, who erected a pole on the top. This was reported in 'The Synoptical Volume XXXV of the Trigonometrical Survey of India' published in 1910. It referred to it as peak 'Parang la No. 2' and later the name was changed to Shilla in the Survey Office. The peak appears as 'Parang la No. 2 S' with height of 23,064 ft on SOI Sheet 64 SW, published August 1874 (Gyah is mentioned as GUA Snowy Peak, 22,309 ft on the same sheet). Thus Shilla remained a dubious altitude record for 47 years till Dr Longstaff climbed Trisul 23,360 ft in 1907.
First visitors to Spiti had doubts about its" height. In 19*52 Snelson and de Graaff felt that it was a much smaller peak and a high peak was observed to its NE (see letter by de Graaff in the present issue). Holmes and Braham felt the same. A letter in H.J. Vol. XXVI, p. 169 established its height at 20,050 ft. Now on the latest maps with modern methods of survey the height of Shilla is firmly established as 6132 m (20,120 ft) and Gyah as 6794 m (22,291 ft). Thus Shilla has lost 2944 ft while Gyah lost only 18 ft! One wonders where the SOI went wrong.
The Indian expedition which climbed Shilla in 1966 did not find any survey pole (but who expects it there after 106 years!) and they questioned why the climb done in 1860 was reported after 50 years (1910) by the Synoptical Volume. Did the khalasi climb it or is it a legend?
In Spiti we found that more than any other peak Shilla is the most known point to the locals. Almost every lama and villager seems to know of it, however far away. They associate it with a place for the dead leading to heaven and still believe that it is the highest point in Spiti and Ladakh from which one can see heaven It has a legendary air built around it. No one, the most elderly lama included, seems to be aware of the ascent by a khalasi, to confirm or deny it. And very few villagers in Langja knew about the route to it. Anyway according to them it is still the highest and virgin. The Shilla legend is here to stay.
Nomenclature in Spiti
When we started planning for an expedition to Spiti all the names sounded strange and meaningless. But we knew that the Pitoon language is similar to Tibetan and all the nomenclature may be based on Tibetan. Hence a list of names was sent to our friend Dorjee Lhatoo at Darjeeling. He consulted Tibetan scholars and sent us a list of interpretations. Tibetan is more of a spoken language and here we were offering names in English to interpret. Hence they suggested various meanings. In each case amazingly at least one of them was most appropriate. It may be noted that those scholars in faraway Darjeeling did not know whether the words we sent were names of peaks, people, passes, valleys, villages or areas, let alone that they are about Spiti. But the fact that the meanings they suggested are still the most appropriate and agree with local interpretations confirm that the nomenclature of Himalayan region far and wide is a serious business. The locals may be illiterate but they are scholars about their area and the early surveyors have taken this fact into consideration.
Some names were associated with local stories and legends (Sharma nala). We tried to gather the same. However, Himalayan nomenclature can be a serious study by itself as it combines many factors like language, location, local legends, beliefs, religion (Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim) and many others. Given below are 1he meanings of names around the area in which we operated.
Spiti: The middle country (between India and China).
Shilla: Shi = death. Shi-la = range or peak death. We could not understand what relation it has with the dead. But other meanings locally offered were 'a place of monastery' or 'a gateway to heaven’.
Chau Chau Kang Nilda: Chan Chau = Cone-shaped. Nilda = moon. This is a conical peak above Langja isolated and rising like a 'moon in the sky
Gyah: Vast, great, widespread. The most prominent usages of the word are; Gyanak = China, Gyami = Chinese, Gya = India, Gyagar = Indian. This is a vast flat peak where very prominently Indian and Chinese borders meet. In fact knowing the meaning one can easily identify the peak and not confuse it with a nearby high rocky peak.
Parilungbi: Pa = there. Ri = range or hill. Lungbi = that country. 'A mountain in other country.' This is the first peak in Ladakh as seen from Spiti.
Parang La: It may be 'Purang La' in the original. This is a name commonly given to a trade post in Tibet. It is said that after the Anglo-Tibet war such trade posts where the merchandise of both countries were bartered were established on the borders of Tibet and India. This is a pass which led from Kibar in Spiti to Chumar and Hanle in Ladakh where regular trading with Tibetans was carried on.
Kanamo: This white peaks towers over Ki gompa, the holiest in Spiti. Ka = white or auspicious word of a high Lama. Namo = hostess, a lady. So either it is 'mountain of good omen' or simply a 'white hostess'.
Sharma nala: A large side valley in Lingti. It has plenty of juniper shrubs, a rarity in Spiti. Sharma = blind. As the legend goes a woodcutter by accident was pierced by juniper in eyes and went blind. Hence the name.
Lingti: Literally it translates as 'the stone out of which the instrument to cut objects is made'. The river has cut sharply through a rocky-gorge and it has plenty of sharp stones, unlike adjoining valley which was has more scree.
Handgompa: 'Gompa on the top'. A flat topped shapely peak with a legend to match.
Zumto: 'Talkative'. The peak borders between highest villages in Lingti and Shilla nala. You can as if talk to both the villages.
Kawu: 'Strong'. Both peaks are situated on way to Shilla and on the same ridge as Chau Chau Kang Nilda. One has to be 'quiet' as moon and 'strong' to attain heaven from Shilla.
Parchokula: A tributary stream feeding Lingti. It literally means 'God of water'.
Tangmor: 'A deep gorge', which it was.
Peaks climbed by members with date (1983)
* Heights by altimeter. Names suggested by us to the Survey of India
Peaks Attempted: Tangmor (5900 m — 19,360 ft) Chau Chau Kang Nilda (6303 m — 20/680 ft) Shijbang (c. 5250 m — a 17,200 ft)*
Members: Harish Kapadia (leader), Zerksis Boga (deputy leader), Arun Samaiit, Muslim Contractor, Bhupesh Ashar, Fit. Lt. Shekhar Jay want and Gaurang Bhatia. (Advance party: K. Kutty and M. Bhagwat.)
Period: 20 July to 31 August 1983.
Sponsored by: The Mountaineers, Bombay, to celebrate the Tin-Jubilee (1973-1983).
21. Gyah (22,291 ft), the heighest peak in Spiti (dome –shaped right centre). Chaksachan la on left and the Lingti gorge in foreground. Article 16 Photo: Harish Kapadia
22. Chau Chau Kang Nilda (20,680 ft) (Gaun Nelda) rising above Langja, Spiti. On left is west ridge, on right is southwest ridge. On left is Shilla nala valley. Article 16 Photo: Harish Kapadia