Himalayan Journal vol.43
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

Soli S. Mehta
    (MAL DUFF)
  6. DHAULAGIRI 1984-85
    (P. M. DAS)
  13. BASPA AND ROPA, 1986
  16. SIA KANGRI, 1986
    (S. P. CHAMOLI)



WE DID NOT REACH THE SUMMIT, but that aside, Menthosa. will always remain a fine memory: of sparkling mountain days in an enchanted valley with an occasional chill wind to temper the hyperbole. The climbing was superb, the scenery gorgeous and the flowers almost justifying human existence.

Looking back now, I cannot really pinpoint exactly when Menthosa crept into our plans. Last year, Bir Singh, who lives in the Miyar valley, saw me taking pictures of the very few willow-herbs that grew in the Bara Shigri area and commented that if I really wanted to see flowery meadows, I should visit the Miyar valley in July-August. So we came to smell the flowers, and to make the venture a little more respectable, I decided to combine it into a climbing holiday as well - to the Gumba basin at the upper reaches of the Miyar nala. Little did I foresee that lurking round the corner from Urgus was Menthosa, at 21,140 ft (6444 m), the second highest peak in the area. Only Mulkila, 21,380 ft (6517 m), is higher in that part of Lahul. Menthosa was climbed for the first time only as late as 1970, which, for a peak of such modest height, was saying a lot.

The Manali-Tindi bus dumped us and our gear unceremoniously in the field adjoining the school at Udaipur on 17 August. We dossed down in the school verandah for the night while Bir Singh and Rinzing melted away into the moonlit darkness to look for porters. They were back at 6 in the morning with 8 PWD men working on a landslide near the village of Shakoli, barely 2 hours up the road being constructed up the Miyar valley. Getting across the landslide bit was a hair-raising affair; the rest of the day we spent camped at Shakoli, the cynosure of all the toddlers' eyes. The PWD men went back to their regular work on the road and again Bir Singh melted away, this time into the noon day heat and up the valley to his village Gompha to recruit our next lot of porters. The next day he was back at ten with 8 sturdy men from the Gompha-Urgus area and we walked up the valley, via Chimrat, Karpat, Churgut, Churput, and Timrat to the three-house hamlet of Gompha. The trek was very beautiful, going through cultivated fields and paths lined with pines and wild flowers. The villages too were neat and very compact and consisted of very few houses, re-enforcing Schumacher's 'small is beautiful' concept.

We spent the night in Bir Singh's house, picked up fresh tumipsr radish and peas from his garden, and the next day we slogged up to base camp, walking about eight hours up the steep Urgus nala. Base camp at 15,000 ft was a lovely spot; a clear running brook, meadow-like patches of grass spangled with a riotous palette of flowers, a kitchen shelter under a huge boulder and a panoramic view of Menthosa; in fact, we had everything you want at a base camp but are afraid to expect!

Photos 13-14
The mists cleared in the late evening and we were treated to our first sight of the mountain. We were looking at the steep east face, and to its left the giant rock tooth of its east peak, lower than the main summit and separated from il by a wide gulf. The east peak still awaits its Hist ascent, definitely a job for those who like steep rock cliinhini; al high altitude. Ours, however, was a pede-strian hi>|>fnc-li: we planned to go up to the Urgus pass at 16,000 ft, then tackle the 2iHHi ft snow and ice slope to the huge snow-plate m this slope was considered to be the main difficulty on the mountain. David Challis, who had recceed Menthosa in 1969 returned in 1978 with the Kings School Ely Expedition1 and attempted it in 1983 had written about this bit: '. . . the climbing was exposed and technical, requiring the use of front-points and ice-hammer and axe techniques with ice-screws for belays and protection in some sections. (Extract from report lodged with the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, New Delhi). Farookh and I, who would be alone above Camp 1 on the Urgus pass, were a little apprehensive of this.

But all this was still to come. Meanwhile, we had a pleasant little holiday, eating, sleeping, playing Scrabble, listening to music, going for short acclimatisation walks above base camp and taking up a little light-hearted bouldering, at which both Rinzing and Bir Singh proved very strong. One day, five of us (Rinzing, Bir Singh, Franklyn, Farookh and I) did a load carry to Camp 1. Above the flowery meadows of base camp, a path lay to the right over a boulder-strewn slope to the glacier emanating from the icefall which tumbled down in an impressive display of seracs and crevasses. As we gasped for breath like landed fish under our loads, a cluster of Himalayan Blue Poppies smiled sunnily from under a rock. We were to see a lot of this beautiful flower and a host of other alpine beauties right up to the moment we stepped on to the ice of the glacier. At first we tackled the icefall head-on, but after gaining a little height we were forced off to the rock and scree wall on the right by a succession of inter-connected crevasses. While Bir Singh made short work of the scree and was soon high above on the rock, Rinzing and Farookh were back on the ice and threading their way around the cracks to a short snow-gully overlooked by an impressive ice-tower. The gully in turn led to the final snow-slopes to the pass. Meanwhile, Franklyn and I were stranded half way up the rocks so I took time off to photograph some very pretty yellow flowers while I considered howr to get back in the game. Finally, we managed to climb down and follow in the footsteps of Rinzing and Farookh.
  1. H.J. Vol. XXIX, p. 122 and Vol. 36, p. 113
It was bright and sunny and very windy on the pass and we could see the Pangi valley and may be a hundred peaks of Kishtwar, Zanskar and Lahul. We dumped our loads, grinned for the camera, and hurried down to base camp. It had taken us five hours and twenty minutes to go up and two hours and fifteen minutes to come down.

On 25 August, my wife Margaret and sister Ipilan, accompanied hj Rinzing, bade us farewell and made their way down to Gompha on their way to Udaipur and Manali. The next day Farookh, Bir Singh and I went up to Camp 1 and pitched the two-man tent in driving snow on a patch of rock. Bir Singh went down and the same evening he and Franklyn quit base camp for Gompha and left the tents with a 'No Admission' sign tacked on.

Up at Camp 1 it snowed all afternoon, all evening and well into the night. In the morning after we had thawed out with breakfast, the two of us put on our crampons and went to have a look at our route. It was an easy angled plod far about 200 m, then the snow steepened and rose in an ever increasing angle to a mushroom-tiered top and beyond that we could not see. I traversed the slope to the right but this soon fell away into the Pangi valley and since I did not fancy a flying visit to that enchanted vale, I retreated and followed Farookh who was working on an upward traverse to the left. This soon brought us to the bottom of a steep couloir threatened with seracs high up on the left. I presumed that this must be the area where Bob Steward, a member of the British Army team from Singapore which made the first ascent of Men-thosa in 1970, was hit on the head by falling ice and had to be evacuated by hellicopter from the base camp. Such antecedents not withstanding, the couloir seemed to offer the only access to the upper reaches of Menthosa. Having unanimously concluded that the route would 'go', we retreated.

On 28 August we packed some food and fuel to leave at a higher camp and climbed to the top of the couloir, then did a rising traverse to the right over the top of the first mushroom and climbed the exposed snow of the upper mushrooms till we crested onto a small troigh of hard snow cradled between two crevasses and backed bj an icy wall of about 70 ft festooned with glittering icicles. "V'e decided to leave our loads here. The wall above hopefully gave way to the big snow-plateau, but we had neitlier the inclination nor the time to find out. On the way down, we fixed 300 ft of I mm rope in the steeper section of the couloir and after rappeling to the botton of this Farookh discovered that he had lost his dark glasses. Fatigue, cold, frustration and anger at himself all combined to make him feel utterly miserable, so he took the only sane outlet: he sat down on the ice and wept. Feeling much better after this cathartic discharge, he jumared up the rope and searched every inch of the slope hoping the glasses would have lodged among the hard ice-crystals. A whoop of delight told me that he had found (hem. Thus, all passion spent, (not to mention calories) we look on the last diagonal traverse where over a patch of hard Inckj ice we had also fixed a 120 ft line to make the passage easiei villi loads. We were happy as we settled in thai inghi Ihe day's climbing had been utterly satisfying, it had given us n lull gamul of snow and ice-climbing and in places the exposure was truly electrifying.

The next day we pitched our Camp 2 tent, again in driving snow, at the same spot where we had left our loads the previous day. It was a long hard day and in places we had to resort to hauling our awkward frame rucksacks with jumars in a sort of one way pulley system. The views from the camp site were really sensational, it felt like an eyrie. Framed by the icicles was a stunning view into the Kishtwar and Zanskar ranges and away to the southeast the great comb of Phabrang, 20,250 ft (6172 m), bared its vertical northwest face and the airy lines of its north ridge. In the east two very beautiful and steep peaks reared their icy heads above the Khanjar nala. And away in the northeast reared the impressive triangle of a peak of 20,500 ft.2
In the morning, we climbed the ice-wall above and were almost swept off our feet by the stiff wind that was blowing across the vast plateau that now came into view. At its other end was the summit pyramid, enclosed by the left hand east ridge and the right hand west ridge in horse-shoe formation. At first3 we were so disoriented that we didn't realise we were looking at the summit. As we plodded on in the deep soft snow, to get a closer look, and after we had crossed a few intervening humps, we realised it was the summit and that we were looking at the north face of the summit bordered by the east and west ridges.

Our recce over we went back to the camp, abseiling down the wall where we fixed a rope anchored to a deadman in the snow at the edge of the plateau.

31 August was almost a non-starter as the clouds that liad rolled in overnight refused to blow away. Anyway we moved out at 9 a.m. and jumared up the frozen rope to the plateau. The wind and the spindrift stung our faces and it was difficult to appreciate the beauty of the golden sunrise on the summit in our numbed condition. Hoping the wind would at least pack in the snow, we pushed on. But it was a false hope. The soft powdery snow lay as deep and malicious as before and for hours we toiled up this, across a few disguised crevasses and endless humps and detours. It was a soul-destroying business in a scenario of ragged clouds whipping across the east ridge, the place we were aiming for. Finally at about 11 a.m. we gave up the unequal struggle: we had gained the ridge and also climbed a little up it but floundering around in knee deep, then waist deep soft snow ultimately broke the iron(?) in our souls. We roundly cursed the bleak weather, the wind, the soft snow, the mountain, ourselves, made some rude gestures at each other, then settled down to melt some snow to slake our throats. And that was almost the end of the Menthosa adventure. It is difficult to hazard a guess as to how high we had been, such guesstimates invariably being biased in favour of the beholder! Anyway, for what it is worth, here is my opinion recollected in tranquillity: to reach the summit, we would have taken at least another four hours of floundering up the east ridge in the mushy conditions, that day as we were a Ian away and about 800 ft lower.

1. This peak was attempted by the ladles expedition from Pinnacle Club (U.K.) ... L980. See H.J. Vol. 39, p. 71.-Ed.

To make no bones about it, we did not feel up to the task: so we floundered back to the tent and lay in a semi-torpor for the rest of the day. And in that idle state I decided to look for excuses and look what I found!

It was out of the question to put in a Camp 3 higher as the tent was malfunctioning (two days ago both of us almost gave up trying to pitch the demon tent) and hey this was a good one: Farookh had been coughing up blood for the past 10 days which had terrified both of us and his bowels seemed to have a will of their own. And me? Just good old-fashioned lack of will power!

The day continued cold, cloudy and very windy and it calmed down after sunset. I went out to admire the panorama of peaks around us and instead found another good reason to quit, A crack had appeared on the bridge over the crevasse which separated us from the steep slopes below: that bridge was our only link to Camp l and if it collapsed, we'd be eligible for a permanent change of address!

I rushed back and gave this bit of news to Farookh and was glad when he agreed we should go down first thing in the morning Instead of putting in a second summit attempt.

Next morning we rushed down to Camp 1, doing 2 abseils on the steeper sections and glissading down the final snow-slopes to the Urgus pass. Bir Singh was there and so were a host of porters who were ferrying for a team from Assam. It was a bright and sunny day with not a cloud in the sky and Menthosa towered above us, glittering, mocking. We cleared up Camp 1 and belted down to base camp - the sun, the warmth, the smell of turf, running water, the glowing rocks, the dancing flora - we revelled in this ambrosia until we ran into the village of tents that base camp had been transformed into by the arrival of the large expedition. The comfortable tunnel tent which we were hoping to sleep in was now occupied b.y Bir Singh's young wife. Bir Singh Bodh was seventeen and Saraswati Singh Bodh appropriately younger! She had come up out of sheer curiosity, wondering what on earth was he up to on these mountain lours of his!

The next afternoon we evacuated base camp and had to ford a turbulent nala because the Jong bridge had been removed by the deseendinj: caddis and concealed till their return next summer. Bir Singh did the chivalrous thing and carried his wife across on lils shoulders. Two days later we trekked up to Khanjar, the last village in the Miyar nala and picnicked 3 hours further up on the vast meadows of Than Patan, an excellent place for soaking in the sun and lotus eating. Here the Miyar nala curves to the west then north again to the Kangla Jot which leads into Zanskar. In the north, jagged yellow and red cliffs pierce the sky which is a stunning cobalt blue, giving the traveller a hint of the high desert lands beyond. In the east a rounded snow peak looks down benignly at the clear running brooks that water the meadows. Polygonum fringes the streams and the grass is dotted with poten-tilla and gentian. Grazing yaks and ponies are the only souls here, the grass is lush and they say that in the months of July and August it is literally a paradise of flowers. Even now in the first week of September, there were remnants of the summer glory. Bir Singh, in that plaintive voice that hill people use and which I imagine Wordsworth's 'Solitary Reaper' to have used, sings a few haunting lines from a Lahuli song which "begins 'Oh tell me, have the flowers bloomed yet in Than Patan . . . .?' and I feel in my heart that, summit or no summit, this has been a splendid mountain holiday.

Summary: An account of a lightweight attempt on Menthosa (21,140 ft) in August 1986.

Members: Ipilan Surin, Franklyn Silveira and Margaret Surin (trekkers) Farookh Shaikh and Aloke Surin (climbers)

North face of Menthosa. East ridge on left and west ridge on right. (Aloke Surin)

North face of Menthosa. East ridge on left and west ridge on right. (Aloke Surin)

'Urgus Phabrang' , north of Urgus pass. View from Camp 2 on Menthosa.

'Urgus Phabrang' , north of Urgus pass. View from Camp 2 on Menthosa.