MANALI HAS BEEN a favourite place of mine for some time now; nestled high in the Kullu valley, surrounded by beautiful snow-capped peaks. I always look forward to returning, but have never before felt such a sense of achievement on arrival as that felt on 21 April, 1991. Reaching Manali, our team of four had completed possibly the longest ever traverse on skis through the Indian Himalaya. A journey of 32 days, covering 600 km and crossing five high mountain passes, and meeting some remarkable people in their snow-bound villages along the way.

For the past few days our minds had been straying to thoughts of 'when we get to Manali...' Even normally mundane activities assumed enormous appeal after a month of deprivation. Imagine the delight of having a bath when you had not washed for four weeks! It was sheer luxury to sit in a restaurant and eat anything you liked — especially as you didn't have to light the stove and cook it yourself huddled in a tent!

For most of the trip we had been too involved with more immediate considerations to even think about Manali. It seemed a long way off, and almost too far removed from our present situation to contemplate. Instead we would look forward to reaching certain points along the route, particularly the two villages where we had placed food depots the previous summer.

The traverse began in Lehinwan, a tiny village in the Kashmir valley. The local people were somewhat surprised by the arrival of four brightly clad foreigners in their village. They had seen a few trekkers in the summer, but now winter was only just ending, and there was still snow down to the houses. We were told that we shouldn't attempt to cross the Margan pass (3700 m) as there was 'too much snow'. We tried to explain that 'too much snow' was exactly what was wanted, but they found it very difficult to understand, and shook their heads as we started climbing away from the village.

The weather didn't allow us very long to settle in to our new lifestyle. The very next day, on reaching the top of the Margan pass, snow started falling and the cloud closed in reducing visibility to only a few metres. Such conditions test navigation skills and skiing technique to the limit. In retrospect it would have perhaps been wiser to have pitched camp at that stage and waited for the weather to improve, however, at the llmr our decision was to continue. We skied over the pass in white-out conditions where land and sky become one, with the occasional slight thinning of the cloud giving fleeting glimpses of rocks, lending form to An otherwise all-enveloping white sameness. It's hard to keep the imagination under check; I was convinced there was a huge peak looming in front of us, where in fact the land dropped away.

Chong Kumdan II (7004 m) seen enroute to peak I.

26. Chong Kumdan II (7004 m) seen enroute to peak I. Article 13 (Dave Wilkinson)

Chong Kumdan group from Landay (6180 m)..

27. Chong Kumdan group from Landay (6180 m). Chogam 1 glacier on left. Chong Kumdan glacier running across. North and Central Kumdan glaciers on right. Article 13 (Neil McAdie)

Kashmir to Kullu Ski Traverse 1991

Kashmir to Kullu Ski Traverse 1991

As we skied down, the visibility gradually improved and our situation became clear. We were where we intended being, but what wasn't clear from the maps (which are notoriously inaccurate at the best of times) was that we were heading into a deep valley. The steep sides were heavily laden with fresh snow, making them likely to avalanche. Being already' committed to this route there was nothing we could do except ski down as quickly as possible and hope to reach a safe spot before any avalanches came down. It took four hours of non-stop skiing over difficult terrain before we reached a place protected by trees. Although not 100% safe, it was the best we could hope for, so a platform was dug, the tents were pitched, and a sleepless night spent by all four of us, listening to avalanches up and down the valley.

The next day dawned bright and clear, but we stayed put to allow the snow time to settle and any avalanches chance to come down. A very early start was made the morning after, as we attempted to escape from what we later christened 'the valley of death'. It was with a huge sense of relief that we finally emerged into the wide, open haven of the Warvan valley, and were welcomed by the residents of the village of Inshin. Time for us to recover and amuse the locals by our unsuccessful attempts to light a fire in the rest house.

From Inshin our route followed the Warvan valley to the final village of Sukhnoi, and then passed through some more steep sided valleys with icy sections above the river requiring nerves of steel to safely negotiate. One false step would result in a slide to the river below, which soon disappeared back below its snowy mantle. Several times skis were removed and strapped to packs as we used ice axes and a rope for added security. Progress was frustratingly slow, but then we reached the flat, open Kaintal valley, which was sheer delight to ski along. Nothing but snow and mountains — a pure white wilderness.

From here we skied over the Lonvilad pass (4500 m) thereby crossing the main Himalayan range for the first time, and enjoyed a downhill run, dropping 2000 m to Panniker where we retrieved the food box which Huw and I had left 8 months ago whilst trekking in the area. An enjoyable day was spent here, washing a few clothes at the village tap — a small, muddy oasis in the snow, making a few running repairs to the gear and generally relaxing. What a luxury it was to have a lie in! Our normal routine was to wake around 4.30 a.m. then try to start skiing soon after six, just as the sunlight appeared on the high peaks. This was the coldest part of the day, so we would keep skiing until the sun's rays reached us, and then sit and soak up the warmth before continuing.

After leaving Panniker our route took us through several villages before Hingdom gompa was reached. The few lamas who stay here through the winter were delighted with their unexpected visitors, and were extremely hospitable. We felt most honoured to be invited to stay overnight, and shown the main prayer room with its impressive display of silk-wrapped prayer books and painted thankas. We were able in a small way to repay their kindness by acting as postmen and delivering letters to families living further along our route.

It was from one of these villages that a group of children descended towards us, moving too smoothly and too quickly to be running. As they neared us we could see that they were skiing on homemade skis. Each was fashioned by strapping together two pieces of plastic pipe and adding stiff wire for the binding. More and more children appeared, all skiing with remarkable control on their bizarre contraptions, and sharing the same sense of fun which we found quite infectious. Look out for the 'Zanskari Ski Team' in the next winter Olympics!

Our second food depot was in Padam, the 'capital' of Zanskar with a population of around 2000. Huw and I had left a box of food, a spare ski and pole here. They had been carried by the ponies with our summer trekking group the previous July, causing a great deal of curiosity among locals and Western trekkers alike! What were we doing with one ski and one pole — and in the middle of summer? In Padam we stayed with Abdul Salam and his family, who unfortunately live directly opposite the mosque, so we were frequently disturbed by the tuneless (and very loud!) wailing of the mullah calling the faithful to prayer.

On leaving Padam we felt that we were beginning the last section of our journey, and Manali was becoming almost reachable. There were still two high passes to cross, the first of which was the Kang la, at 5500 m the highest point on our traverse. Two days of changeable weather slowed our progress, and frustrated us by deteriorating just as we packed up the tents to start skiing, and clearing up whenever we'd decided to stop skiing and pitch the tents!

The climb up to the Kang la was the most physically demanding part of the whole trip. Even after 3 weeks of skiing and being fairly well acclimatized to the altitude, it was still exhausting. We were following a glacier which rose gently to begin with, but then steepened as we reached a heavily crevassed section. Jamie was out in front, and picked a safe route through, so I followed, taking care to keep precisely to his tracks. It was then a case of 'mind over matter' as you force your body to keep going when all it wants to do is sit down. Twenty steps then rest, then another twenty, and another... As the gradient eased, Jamie disappeared from view. Thoughts swim around your head: 'The top must be just over this rise' or 'perhaps I'll wait for Huw and Megan and suggest we stop for lunch'. Somehow I managed to keep plodding on until eventually I saw the tips of Jamie's skis in the air. This meant he'd taken them off which, knowing Jamie, meant he must have reached the top of the pass. I wanted to run the rest, but the body couldn't! It's hard to describe the feelings of euphoria at reaching this spot. So many emotions compete for attention, you don't know whether to laugh or cry (I think we'd have done both, but didn't have the energy for either!)

Skiing down from the pass, down the Miyar glacier, we felt we were nearly home. Only the Rohtang pass to cross, and both Huw and I had skied over it before so it felt like home territory. However, the weather hadn't finished with us yet, and produced a blizzard which kept us tent-bound high in the Miyar valley for three days. At this stage we were running very short of food, and it was with just one packet of biscuits regaining that we knew we must brave the storm and ski down the valley. We hoped to reach Khanjar, the highest village in the valley that day, but although the weather improved by midday, by 7 p.m. we still hadn't reached it. 13 hours skiing with very little food is not something I'd recommend, and we all went to sleep pretty hungry. Just a cup of coffee the next morning before skiing on and reaching Khanjar after 2 hours.

The villagers were so friendly, and provided tea and bread immediately, for which we were extremely grateful. They then produced a huge pot of rice and vegetables and proceeded to fill and refill our plates, whilst encouraging us to drink vast quantities of arrack, the local wine. It would have been nice to have stayed all day, but time was not on our side after our enforced rest-days up the valley.

From Khanjar the ski down to Udaipur took two days, and we passed through some delightful villages, and were constantly offered chai and invited to stay. If we had accepted every offer, it could have taken us two weeks! In Udaipur we saw our first vehicle since leaving Lehinwan four weeks ago. It was quite an assault on the senses: the noises and the smells were all too much. From here the road had been cleared of snow, but had been closed again by landslides in several places. We walked, hitched rides in trucks and skied our way up the Chandra valley before reaching Khoksar, the police check post for people crossing the Rohtang pass.

Although it was still deep in snow, many locals were already crossing the pass, anxious to get back to their homes in Lahul and make preparations for the all too short growing season.

Reaching any pass always takes longer than you expect, and is always higher than you think, and the Rohtang on this occasion was no exception. But as the four of us sat on the top and looked down on the green lushness of the Kullu valley, all that mattered was that we were there, and we had almost completed our journey. In many ways I didn't want it to finish. I felt that I had taken a month out of life, had spent it somewhere else, on a different plane, and now must return to the rat-race of Western civilisation. Almost as a dreamer reluctantly wakes. But this was tempered by the lure of Manali, and the prospect of making real all the dreams of beds, restaurants, baths....


An account of 1991 Kashmir to Kullu Ski traverse by a group of four Britons. The journey lasted 22 days in March-April. They covered 600 km on the skis over five major passes (Mangan, Lovilad, Pensi la, Kang la and Rohtang).


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