Himalayan Journal vol.41
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

Harish Kapadia
    (S. K. BERRY)
  13. UJA TIRCHE, 1984
    (G. K. SHARMA)



WE WERE just a jump ahead of the curfew clamped on Punjab on 3 June. Missing it all in the early confusion of enforcing it, our Kalka Mail reached its destination peacefully. From Kalka we left in an open truck on a 476 km, 4 day journey to Kibar (14,460 ft) the highest inhabited village in India. There we spent two days in acclimatising climbs and practising ice-craft and most essential of all, locating a guide. He was Tshering, a man of few words and looking like a dehydrated Anthony Quinn. He had used this route twice to smuggle horses from Hurling in Spiti into Tibet.

The area that we were venturing into is very close to Tibet, yet no important trade routes passed through it. It was used as an alternative route if the popular ones had marauders there.

On the 10th our colourful caravan left Kibar. The route had a pleasant start but after a km we found ourselves descending sharply to the Parilungbi 1000 ft below. As it was morning, crossing it was not much of a problem. The climb out of the gorge was short and gentle, up a tributary. We passed a water mill being constructed where a lady stood by offering us Aconitums. We crossed the fields of Kirkim and started climbing up a steep slope. The area was now uniformly barren and as we rose we could see the summits of Mulkilas across Kunzum la peeping out. Down to the south we could see where a 3 MW hydro-electric power station is coming up just 3 km from the glacier. Towards Kunzum la we could see a massive flat ground large enough for an STOL plane. Its called Lagudarsai where in happier times a fair used to be held in August that was attended by people from Tibet, Ladakh, Lahul, Kulu and merchants from Ropar and Hardwar etc. We crossed a col and then descended 1500 ft to a green and peaceful place called Thalda (15,000 ft). In this area there's grass in plenty but the mules are fussy. They can't munch the grass here. There are very few places that such grass can be had. Thalda is one. So we halted here after having walked 15 km. Our camp site was beautiful, dominated by a pyramid peak about 20,500 ft and deep in a recess of mad spurs and jagged ridges.

Next day, under a glowering sky, we switch-backed down a precarious dusty and rocky path to meet the Parilungbi all over again. This gorge was narrower than the earlier one and the river's roar more furious. We moved from the true right to the time left back over an avalanche bridge after 4 km and after traversing plummeting hillsides above a white foaming river we reached Jugtha (8000 ft) a very small camping ground near the river which was here frozen in places. The track spirals upwards, past a grazing ground, then on to schist and horrible debris. We struggled through to a height of about 17,000 ft to a camp site called Borogen. The next day a snowfall gave us a delightfully refreshing rest on the 13th it was snowing again but there was a wind and we moved on, hoping that it would drive the clouds away.

Tshering knew his way around these parts. Unerringly he brought us to the bowl below Parang la (18,300 ft) and then took us over snow and ice up a narrow cleft to the pass where there were a couple of cairns and some tattered streamers. On the eastern side of the pass there was a lot more snow. We crossed a 4 km long glacier which had most of its crevasses safely covered. Icefalls, bergschrunds and striking peaks frowned down on us under a leaden sky. Far down the Pare Chu, which starts from this glacier, the sun could be seen shining warmly on the barren hills. Apart from a couple of somersaults the mules came down this glacier quite gracefully. At the lip of the glacier on the true right bank is a small clearing called Kharsa gompa on the map. We could see no sign of any gompa ever having been here. Apparently, here names are given to stages, where a clearing is made and very seldom did we come across a place which looked as if it deserved a name. 9 km of an easy walk later we reached the improbably named place of Nyima Tiktiki where on a shelf above the river Pare Chu and opposite a striking tooth shaped rock peak was a kind of a meadow. The view was splendid. Attractive peaks glinted in the setting sun,

Next two days we walked for more than 30 km, and crossed Dutung, Dakar Kuru, Thukrote and Umlung where there is an Old cairn and ruins. Our route was on the true right bank of the IWift flowing Pare Chu even though it flowed in a very wide river bid, which was also the best place to camp, either bank being f 100 steep for pitching tents. Towering granite walls humbled us, Ofttmbling loose debris tripped us and numerous tributaries kept out our boots wet. Beautiful peaks rising serenely in stark contrast to the fractured sterile mass below held us spellbound. In this stretch there was no grass that the mules could gorge on. At last at a place where the Pare Chu spreads itself into numerous fingers and makes a 70° bend to the south, we crossed it. We climbed to get to the top of a shelf where there are ruins of an old fort of Senge Namgyal, and came from long shadows into light and from narrow confines to a broad windswept plain, which was marshy where we camped. This was Narbu Sumdo (15,300 ft).1
The Pare Chu flows 25 kms, later into Tibet where after another 160 km, its way blocked by the Drongmar range, it hammers its way into India to meet the Spiti river at Sumdo where there is a fine natural rock bridge over it.

At Narbu Sumdo there was plenty of life. Thousands of sheep and pashmina goats, yaks including a few big ones that are more common in Tibet, dogs and birds, and some Drokpas, who had never heard of Delhi or even Simla. Some had never even seen a looking glass.

We are in a region which is almost on the cross roads of primarily pilgrim and shepherd routes. From Narbu Sumdo to the southwestern end of Tso Morari is a distance of about 18 km and if one is thirsty, which one is bound to be if one carries only 1 litre bottle, one covers this distance in 5 hours, albeit in agony. In the distance we can see the flat 20,000 ft high icefields of the Rupshu ice-cap, which have not yet been explored, and before that an easy looking ice-peak called Mata, though none of the nomads and lamas we met could recognize that name. Just 6 km from Narbu Sumdo is a stream called Kumlungrah, which seems to emerge from the very bowels of an arid contorted, twisted rocky feature set far back to the west. A camping spot called Chumik Shtal is nearby. Here we meet some Drokpas who pressed salted lassi to all of us who were willing to drink it. Few drank and those were not thirsty at all. To our right loomed many orange and brown, ochre mountains and to our west and left was a spectre of hideous barrenness emphasized by sombre colours like blue and black. A few tortuous hours later we gratefully drank deep from the cold, clear waters of the Phirse Fu, a river which rises 60 km away in the Zanskar and flows 2 km later into the Tso Morari. Along this river merge 3 tracks from Zanskar and Lahul via the Hanyer la (17,700 ft), Pangpa la (17,200 ft) and Telekon la (16,900 ft). At the SW end to Tso Morari we camped (15,000 ft) near a place called Chung Tung. Place is a pseudonym. There was nothing here but a flattened heap of prayer stones, and ruins of an old hut. There were alkaline deposits all around. Each grass shoot was separated from its neighbour by about 8 inches. In between was sand and when the wind blew, which was for 20 hours in a day the sand stung sharply. The deep blue of the vast lake set against the ochre of the mountains lit by the declining sun made us forget all other sights.

1. Note on Rupshu:
As we reach tie Narbu Sumdo plain after crossing the Pare Chu, which from here is also known as the Rupshu, we enter Ladakh's southeast district of Rupshu. This excessively dry district stretches from Tunglung la to the north, to Chamar in the south to Manechtm Sump in the west and Hanle in the east encompassing an area of about 15,000 sq km. In all this expanse of high deserts, nowhere it is below 15,000 ft, there are only 3 places where there are permanent dwellings. They are at Karzok, Chamir and Hanle. The surface of the hills is chiefly disintegrated rock and that of the valleys sand or gravel. In 1881 Girdlestone had written that the 'population is not over five hundred, and with the exception of the Karzok villagers, consists wholly o: Champas, nomadic Tibetan shepherds. Their tents are of a black hair-cloth, there being about 100 in the whole district, one per family.' Things have not changed mudi since then. In 1984 the nomads are now recognized as Drokpas, have 80 tents ir this district, the population still being around 500.

The most interesting feature of Rupshu is the Rupshu ice-cap, a name given by IAF pilots who occasionally fly over it on their way to parts of Ladakh. This ice-cap is in Pangpo-Luigpa area of west Rupshu and consists of huge fields arranged step like, rising from a height of 16,000 ft to 20,000 ft. The only known visit to a part of this ice-cap i by Gen Strachey in June 1846 when he passed two large permanent snowfield here, 'in places 4 or 5 ft thick. They were 3 or 4 miles apart at an elevation of about 16,000 ft. The valley bottom was a mile wide, and exposed to the sun all day, and 2000 ft below the snow-line on the neighbouring mountains.' The snow limit h the eastern and drier part (as it is adjacent to Tibet) of this district is at 20,000 ft whereas on western side it can even be as low as 17,000 ft. The Rupshu icecap is an exception.

We saw two unimpressive peaks from our camp on the western side of the lake and thought that higher one ought to be Mata. Distances in these places are quite deceptive on account of the clear unpolluted air of the rarefied atmosphere. A long day's recce by Murli and Sandeep helped only in finding a path to the base of the mountain. We went along the western shore of the lake to the ruins of another village called Kharlung about 18 km from where we were camped. There were several villages around the lake but now there are none, though nomads' yurts can be seen here and there. Then we climbed 3000 ft steeply up over bare rock faces to a small bowl where there were a few tufts of grass perhaps on account of snow being allowed to stay there protected by the wind. There were 12 of us including Man Singh and Paldan. Some of the younger ones, who had not been this high earlier were worried, but once on the move their fears were dissipated and their mind was occupied by the ensuing flurry of activity. Early next morning we traversed a rock face and climbed to a col at about 19,000 ft where there were 5 ft high windswept pinnacles of ice. Here we took the northwest ridge and soon realised the mistake we had made. We were heading for the wrong peak. Mata (20,800 ft) was a fine ice-peak and hidden by the apology that we were climbing. It was too late to turn back, is the route to this peak was 900 ft down to a bowl and then another 1500 ft to the top. The only problem that we faced was the tearing numbing wind, which just would not let us be warm Jn spite of our exertions and brilliant sunshine. The terrain was loose rock steeply angled at places on the western face with snow on the eastern. We walked on the windy western face and reached the top at 10.20 a.m.

The view was stupendous. The whole of Tso Morari was spread bilow us. To the south were the impressive Gyah (22,910 ft) and its quite ferocious neighbours. To the west and east and north were peaks and peaks. A fabulous array. Above the eastern bank of Tso Morari stood a giant peak Thalda Kurmi (21,780 ft). On to its north were two more peaks in the same massif of more than 21,000 ft. However, these peaks had very little snow cover which starts in this area around 19,000 ft. The peaks to the east had less snow and the region there was much drier too. The closer western horizon was dominated by the jagged fiery peaks of the Zanskar. The eastern ranges that we could see were not part of any known or contiguous system. They were several massifs enclosed by Zanskar to the west and south and the Ladakh or Kailash range to the north and east. They were small in length having their genesis and nemesis in the deserts. Most of the few rivers that came off their flanks disappeared in marshes or were overwhelmed by the stony aridity of their environment. What struck me about these independent ranges was the parallelism. The peaks which were all between 20-22,000 ft were in each independent range, shaped similarly with snow and rock faces and ridges angled almost parallelly. What we were seeing towards the east and northeast could be classified as a cluster of small, independent ranges. Far to the east we could see a range of snow-clad peaks heading in an ENE direction, which appeared to be the Ladakh or Kailash range. The view spanned a climber's paradise. The only obstacle here being water. Getting to the peak had been a very thirsty experience as we had exhausted our water supplies over the night. This area is so dry that we were always thirsty. We had climbed to the top quenching our increasing thirst with only 3 tins of juice that were shared amongst 11.

Now after filling ourselves with the array of peaks around us we wanted water. Down we went in a hurry, broke camp, packed and kept descending till we reached the Tso Morari. There we drank. Surprise ! This water was not brackish, as we had expected it to be. It was quite drinkable. From atop the peak we had noticed that at the SE end near the ruined hamlet of Paduk, the lake appeared to have an outlet, contrary to what the map had shown. I had dismissed that observation as a mirage. Now, however, we were getting proof that it was not as brackish as Drew had found it in 1888. Just 2 km from Kharlung's ruins and 20 ft from the shore of Tso Morari are two ponds which have clear and tasty water. All this means that Tso Morari has managed to carve for itself an exit. On our return I found that the latest map of this area shows that the lake has an exit.

After a day of rest and short strolls we left for Lam Tso, a small late about 2 km in circumference. Our guide Tshering said that it would be a short march.

The route was clearly visible as the day before 8 lamas on horse back bad rode off this way to Hanle after attending the funeral of a Lama at Karzok gompa which is on the NW shore of Tso Morari. We crossed the several branches and the wide bed of the Phirse Fu. After an 8 km walk we came to the end of the plain on the SE side of Tso Morari. There were ruins of a village called Shinkpe here and a few 2-3 ft high enclosures of rock in which sheep and pashmina goats are herded at night. Here also were a few Drokpas encampments and myriad sheep. There was a shallow sluggish stream, in which mud splashes took some time to disappear and which was obviously flowing down from the Tso Morari. This water tasted like the Tso's water too.

We were now quite complacent, thinking that having covered half the distance we will not have far to go. Another 3 km and we were on the top of Uti la (17,100 ft) a wide pass with a crumbling chorten. But no Lam Tso in sight. Instead 500 ft below us extended a vast, yellow shimmering wasteland. To its north and to our left rose the massive but squat bulk of Thalda Kurmi the highest peak in this region. This peak does not find a mention in even the latest map. This name was given to us by the Drokpas and passing Lamas, who incidentally had never heard of Mata which the Survey of India map sheet claims to be 20,569 ft high. This name sounds apocryphal. Now we were beginning to get restless. Could Tshering be wrong? Tshering was right about the path but wrong about the distance. He had visited this area on horseback and he was just forgetful about the distances. We walked and walked, kicking up dust that would not rise due to the rarefied atmosphere. This plain was largely shingle strewn. One of our group was ill so the only water bottle that had water was kept for him. The path dipped and we found ourselves in a narrow bone dry river bed. Narrow is a relative word. It was about 100 m wide. There were chortens at a couple of places. These chortens here were not like the more photographed Ladakh ones, but just square blocks upto 5-6 ft high topped by horns and hoofs. The walls started hemming us in, till we were in an abominable fissure just 10 ft across and at one point there was no sky to be seen. This was the most troublesome stretch. It was stony ground. Harsh and dry. No footprints here. We just followed the bed down. These rapid changes of terrain makes Ladakh unusally attractive. After some more agonizing hours we sent Murli-a cross country runner-to get water up. We met him with water at 7 p.m.-just 3 km from our camp near Lam Tso (16,000 ft). That day we covered about 35 km. In the night the mules ran away. Next day they were located in a narrow ravine which had grass and a small strelam, which evaporated soon after it came into the desert on the far side of which we were camped. To our south, many miles away was the Pare Chu and in between every now and then rose twisters, high swivelling pillars of dust. There was a small hill near the camp, over this was Lam Tso.Just a short walk to the Garden of Eden. Here Was greenery, birds, Siberian ducks contentedly squawking, puppies, dogs, lots of sheep peacefully grazing, sheep being shorn, yaks being milked and dirty, scruffy Drokpas children playing amongst this carefree activity. This is Ladakh. Full of surprises.

26 June, Dongam la (16,700 ft) is a short march of 16 km over a marsh and then over usual desert scape. To our left and north soared the Thalda Kurmi now more imposing than ever. I was amused that such a big mountain could produce only 4 streams (on its W-S) 3 of which ended up forming marshes. We crossed a track headed towards Chumar, a hamlet on the Indo-Tibet border. Here also were many long mane walls and a small cultivated field where barley was being grown. A family of Drokpas comes here to graze and farm for about 4 months. Dongam la itself was a lovely green marsh enclosed on the W by a steep, jagged, cracked rock face and on the E by a shelf of screed sand. It has a clear stream running through it. Next day we topped that shelf and were once again in an arid wilderness but of attractive colours- The dominant colour was yellow, but there were black, blue, green and brown hills and boulders too. Till just to the base of Lenak la (18,100 ft) the climb is gentle and then it becomes steep. The dryness of this area can be visualised from the fact that there was no snow at all on this high pass. The 4 peaks (all around 21,000 ft) that stretched to the south of the pass had a scanty covering of snow and that too only on their north faces. A long descent later we were at Gongra la, where the fledgeling Hanle river flows by. Here we had the last camp of our venture. Next day we followed the Hanle stream till it emerged on to a very wide plain. Near this spot we saw a deep (15 ft) and wide (circumference 40 ft) pit made of stones in which were scattered gory bits of fur and bones and claws and paws. We learnt that this is the way the nomads and residents of Hanle get rid of snow leopards. In the pit they put a sheep and wait for the leopard to kill it. Then they just stone the hapless cat to death. We were approaching civilisation. Instead of following the river in this plain we climbed a small embankment and found ourselves on an even wider plain. This was the approach to a yet bigger stretch called the Thungangeri plain (16,600 ft) which we entered by crossing a pass called Thungangeri la (16,800 ft), In this plain we saw kiangs and an area of 4-5 sq km of saltish clay-ages old remains of a lake. The aridity was striking and frightening and the sun piercingly uncomfortable. The temperature fluctuation in this legion in June must be from - 5°C to 35 °C. After about a 12 km walk we descend 2000 ft to the Hanle plain, which has a big marsh in its centre and where after Kibar we saw solid houses. Near tlie gompa here we saw the first tree, an old willow, after Kaza-30Q km away. This gompa is an imposing one, built by Senge Namgyal in the early 17th century during exile here after he had been temporarily dispossessed of Leh.

From Hanle we returned by truck across the Sango plain, then the Chumik ravine, Rhango to Dungti (13,300 ft) where we met the sluggish Indus and the Ladakh range. Crossing it we reached Tsaka la (16,200 ft) then the flats of Chushul across which was China. Then past 40 km of the 210 km long Pangong Tso (13,980 ft) we entered the gullies of Lukung, Muglib and Tankse, which is dominated by a feature called One-Less as it is 19,999 ft in height. We reached Leh on 2 July. This distance from Hanle to Leh was 376 km.

Members: Mamta Murthy, Chandana Mathur, Ruchi Ahluwalia, Atishi Pradhan, Sadhana Kaul, Dipta Bhog, Kuka Ramdas, Ajay Kapoor, Sandeep Kapoor, Sanjay Bareja, Murli Dhar, Jaideep (Students from St. Stephen's College), Ramana (Lecturer from the same college), Rajbans Talwar and Romesh Bhattacharji (leader).

A Drokpa camp in front of sand dunes in Rupshu, Ladakh. 					(Photo: R. Bhattacharji)

A Drokpa camp in front of sand dunes in Rupshu, Ladakh. (Photo: R. Bhattacharji)

Kanamo (19,600 ft), eastern Spiti.  								( Photos: R. Bhattacharji)

Kanamo (19,600 ft), eastern Spiti. ( Photos: R. Bhattacharji)

Mata Group of peaks in Rupshu, Ladakh.

Mata Group of peaks in Rupshu, Ladakh.