‘Martin Little Kailash is exceedingly beautiful trekking; the country here is most unspoilt. You must come and bring a large party.' With that charming mixture of overstatement and optimism my Indian friend C.S. Pandey sowed the seeds of a new Himalayan adventure.
My first reaction? Where on earth is Little Kailash? There is a glorious thrill in being told of a hitherto unknown destination, perhaps a new Shangrila. The peak was not named on the 1:200,000 topographic maps of the Indian Himalaya. I delved into past journals and finally found its location wedged between the borders of Nepal and Tibet in Eastern Kumaon, the former kingdom of the Bhotia people. Harish Kapadia, the guru of Indian mountains, had trekked there in 1982 and his account included a picture of a pyramidal peak sliced by horizontal rock bands so as to give distinct resemblance to Tibet's Holy Mount Kailash, which in fact lies 110 km to the north.
Little Kailash was thought to be 6321m (20,740ft) high, and could alternatively be called Adi (first) Kailash or Baba (Holy) Kailash. It looked attractive and not entirely unclimbable, whilst Kapadia's account of the snowbound passes, sacred lakes and sumptuous valley gorges of the area set my pulse racing.
Then came the aftershock. How do we get access? The region has been closed to foreign visitors since the Chinese border incursions of 1962. We would have to apply for inner line permits and even if successful we'd surely be subject to demoralising bureaucratic protocol and military supervision throughout our visit.
But things have changed in the last few years. Border permits are issued with less fuss, especially to joint foreign-Indian expeditions, and photographic restrictions eased. Indeed, the Indian authorities have an interest in promoting these valleys for trekking and pilgrimage so as to weaken any territorial claim that China might yet pursue.
Photos 9 to 15
With the enthusiastic endorsement of Pandey, and his assurance that all necessary strings could be pulled, the trip to Little Kailash took shape as a historic pioneering opportunity. Not since Bill Murray's Scottish expedition of 1950 had a Western team penetrated these valleys, and so far as we knew peak in the range had been climbed.1
Journey through Paradise
On 20th September 2002 our expedition bus left the Indian plains at Kathgodam for the winding journey through the hills of Kumaun, our destination the town of Dharchula on the Kali ganga river, which forms the Indo-Nepalese border. We were tightly squeezed with 18 members — 12 British and 6 Indian — plus all kit and food for our three-week trip right down to the last cabbage.
The mountains had suffered an intense monsoon deluge through the first half of the month but now the peaceful calm of early autumn reigned over the swathe of forested ridges. Passing over the 6000 foot top of Almora town, the snow giants of the high Himalaya appeared on the northern skyline, first Trisul and then 7817 m Nanda Devi herself, the presiding Goddess of the Kumaun hills. The drive passed into a sylvan wonderland of spacious long-needled pines through which shafts of diffused sunlight lit the ground mosses to a brilliant emerald. Scattered villages and terraced cultivations blended timelessly into the dips and curves of the landscape. Through Binsar forest, Shera Ghat, where we crossed the clear-flowing Sarju river, Chaukori, Didihat and Ogla the journey unfolded like a dream and I felt the ultimate serenity that even should this day be my last all would be well with the world.
Chaukori was the overnight stop, a quiet hill-station with a single resthouse just 50 km from the high peaks, which tonight were bathed in the pale light of a full moon. The 'five cooking pots' of the Panch chuli range were laid bare in symmetrical splendour while further east the Nepalese massif of Api bulked the horizon. Lying somewhere between the two, the Little Kailash range was hidden and so would remain until we were under its nose a week later.
The Darma Valley
Arrival at Dharchula was a free-fall from heaven. For five years past and ten years to come the town will be overwhelmed by the construction works for a major hydro-electric power scheme sited 15 km upstream at the foot of the Darma valley, just before it spills into the Kali ganga.
A 52 m dam, 8 km tunnel and massive turbine house are being installed, creating power for millions of homes down on the Gangetic plains. The site itself was a real-life vision of a 'Sim-City' computer game — hundreds of stone-breaking labourers, dozens of earth-movers, giant rock-crushers — all working in seeming chaos but doubtless controlled by a logistical mastermind somewhere among the ghastly ranks of tin huts.
The District Magistrate who authorised our inner line permits at Dharchula was so pleased with our gift of Glenmorangie whisky that he was found fast asleep when the crucial documents were ready for his signature. We also reported to the local Army unit, who radioed our itinerary to all Border Police posts in the area. Whilst we received warm and courteous welcome from all officials we certainly could not travel incognito.
The first 12 km of our trek up the Darma valley followed a bulldozed jeep road, broken in several places by landslips. Modernity comes with a heavy levy on the environment. On turning a sharp bend to the north just past the Dar village, the gorge dropped away into an incised trench 400 m deep and the road was replaced by a rock walkway carved into a sheer face. We were back in paradise and ambled up 10 km of forested gorge to Sela village, gazing open-jawed at dancing waterfalls which crossed the path.
Sela's folk provided memorable hospitality with tea, rice spirit and a visit to their Shiva temple. Nestled under huge chestnut trees this open enclosure was adorned with hundreds of bells. After we had paid due homage to Shiva's trident, the local boys grinned furtively and pointed to a large round boulder in the temple courtyard. Apparently all visitors are challenged to lift this 120 kg monster. After a demonstration from the local experts, we tried in vain, making excuses of slipped discs and weak knees. Humiliation loomed when our most senior member, 60 year old Mike Freeman, got his hands locked under the stone and hauled it off the deck.
From Sela at 2550 m we walked 19 km up the valley to Duktu village at 3200 m, sensing a subtle change in vegetation and scenery to the drier starker terrain more typical of Tibet than India. Below Duktu the Darma river carved a precipitous gorge through soft glacial sediments fringed by broad terraces sown with red-headed kultu, the local wheat crop. Thus far we had gained no more than the odd glimpse of snow peaks, but at Duktu a broad side-valley swept in from the west to reveal the 6904 m Panch Chuli range in full glory. It was by this Meola valley that Murray and Weir's Scottish expedition had made the first abortive attempt on these peaks back in 1950.
Article 10 (Martin Moran)
13. Jolingkong lake and Little Kailash.
Article 10 (Martin Moran)
14. Shin la, with ridge leading up to Rajula peak.
Article 10 (Martin Moran)
15. Panch Chuli peaks from Dantu in Darma valley.
Little Kailash Expedition - Route of Trek
Little has changed in Duktu. The Bhotia population only stay between May and early November, moving down to villages near Dharchula for the winter. Crops of root vegetables, medicinal herbs and hallucinatory plants supplement a healthy trade in goats and mules. Remarkably, the post is collected every day, but the absence of medical facilities condemns anyone suffering serious illness to a 30 km ride by mule to the roadhead.
Morning on 26th September came with peerless clarity, the Panch Chulis arrayed with such brilliance that it was hard to leave the scene and rejoin the main valley. The Darma forked north-eastwards and a mule trail contoured high above golden birch woods, then climbed steadily to the campground of Bidang at 3900 m. Bidang was an important market for Tibetan traders before the border was closed. Above here vast fields of scree adorned the slopes and the valley headed inexorably north into the wastes of Tibet.
Bidang became our base camp while we reconnoitred the western approaches to Little Kailash. The absence from view of any peak remotely resembling the banded and isolated tooth of Kapadia's photograph was worrying. Other peaks, possibly higher, were blocking access and the shortcomings of a 1:200,000 map were now apparent. To find Little Kailash we should have to cross the Shin la pass due east of Bidang to reach Jolingkong lake in the upper Kuthi Yankti valley.
Over the Shin La
The Shin la is given an altitude of 5500 m and was defended by a 900 m wall of cliffs broken here and there by gullies and ramps. On closer inspection it looked potentially frightful and Mike warned me that there were some seriously worried people in the party. Next morning as we carried loads to an advance camp at 4500 m below the pass, I spied a herd of bharal (wild sheep) trotting in file towards the access gully. To our amazement they turned up into the couloir and ten minutes later we spotted them over half-way up the crucial ramp, ambling without concern on slopes that we had estimated as 50 degrees in angle. Instantly the spell of apprehension was broken.
We had to shift 10 days of food, tents and climbing kit over the pass. Starting at 1.30 a.m. our first group of 12 divided into four roped teams and ventured into the gully, knowing that the place would become a death-trap from stonefall after mid-morning. Shaded from moonlight the way was far from clear and rock walls appeared to block any exit until a narrow snow shelf led to the ramp. The dawn gave due deference to Nanda Devi as the highest of the ranges to our west, casting her twin sentinels with pink glow for a precious minute before flooding the myriad of other peaks in a slightly paler rendition. We threaded a weaving line off the ramp and gained a 40 degree band of snow leading rightwards to the pass, which was guarded by a 100 m fortress of red gneiss on its north side.
To our bafflement, the expansive view did not include the least glimpse of the elusive Little Kailash. While seven members continued down to Jolingkong with bulging packs five of us returned swiftly down the gullies to the advance camp ready for a second load ferry the following morning.
The mystery of Little Kailash was solved with blinding impact 100 m down the far side of the pass. Rounding a shoulder, the full flush of the mountain's banded north face came into view, skirted by a graceful fringe of parallel glacier tongues, all powdered in fresh snow. I could hardly catch my breath so sudden was the revelation and I knelt a few minutes, camera in hand, offering the mountaineer's peculiar brand of worship. Topographically, Little Kailash was exposed as a subsidiary peak of a larger mountain which had blocked our view from Bidang, but was no less alluring for its deception.
Volleyball and Fossils
Our camp at Jolingkong lay on a huge expanse of cropped grass sprinkled here and there with boulders. At one end a few tin huts, built by the Kumaun tourist authority as a resthouse for pilgrims, made the sole blemish on a landscape of lonely intensity. On the eastern horizon lay a coxcomb of orange pinnacles known as Parvati's Crown in honour of Shiva's wife. Just 3 km beyond were the snow ridges of the Tibetan frontier.
A sociable visit from the Border Police procured an invite to visit their post and we accepted a challenge to take on the Police team at their preferred game of volleyball. The Police spend six months at a stretch up here patrolling the border wastes and catching a few Tibetans who try to get into India illegally to visit the Dalai Lama. We might have realised they would be pretty good at volleyball, but next day our tallest and most athletic members were inveigled to take the field. The result was a sound thrashing — 25-4, 25-7 — but on a sun-baked pitch with an encirclement of resplendent mountains we hardly cared.
A visit to Jolingkong temple and lake was obligatory. Also known as Parvati Kund, the lake lies at 4625 m in altitude and is a kilometre across; yet its water was surprisingly warm for a brief swim. Our Indian colleagues made offerings of fruit at the Shiva temple and while we marvelled at the montage of lake, temple and mountain we wondered why so lovely a place should be utterly deserted when Indian trekkers have relatively free access. Go to Jolingkong in the next decade while it stays thus.2
Meanwhile, the indefatigable Mike had discovered that the limestone rock strata hereabouts were crawling with fossils. These had lived 16,000 ft lower in the sea bed before the uplift of the Himalaya. Ignoring our protestations of exploitation he collected a fine selection of ammonites for shipment home.
One could happily spend a week pottering about around Jolingkong, but there were mountains aplenty in the Little Kailash group ripe for climbing, and all of them were virgin so far as we knew.
At 3 a.m. on 3rd October six of us left camp bound for a snow peak lying at the head of the side valley which feeds Jolingkong lake. The tension of night navigation was heightened in our knowledge that armed police were out on patrol in the vicinity. We had informed the commander of our planned climb but wondered if our message had been passed down to the troops.
The peak proved to be a great deal further and higher than we had believed. A trek of 5 km up snow-covered moraines led to an active glacier and steep snow face. By now we were committed, and despite the direct heat of the morning sun we pushed on up a grade I couloir of 50 degrees angle. With a final wade through powdery drifts we emerged on the main watershed between the Darma and Kuthi Yankti valleys a couple of kilometres north of the Shin la. A succession of three false summits tested resolve and patience to the limit, but brought an ever-widening panorama, including Holy Mount Kailash itself which rose unmistakably from the Tibetan plateau 70 miles away.
Without any accurate means of establishing the summit altitude — our watch altimeters had not been calibrated since the roadhead — we wished ourselves to be at the magic contour of 6000 m, but prudence led to the more modest guess of 5950 m. If only the authorities had allowed us to bring a GPS device. I've seen a few mountain views in my time but never one to rival this in its expansiveness and intrigue. From 7756 m Kamet round to the Tibet's sleeping giant, 7728 m Gurla Mandhata, an array of unknowns spanned the horizon.
Back at base camp Tom Rankin, who had led much of the final climb, asked if we could call this mountain The Maiden after one of Scotland's loveliest and most remote hills A'Mhaighdean. Sadly, the nearest Hindi translation seemed to be Kuari Ladki which literally means 'unmarried woman', not quite so romantic! So maybe we'll settle for 'Rajula', The Princess, as an alternative realisation of Tom's dreams.3
Lord Shiva's Rebuff
While others climbed a delightful and easy snow peak of c.5350 m just north of Jolingkong, a team of four was readied for an attempt on Little Kailash itself, Mike, Pat, James and myself. The climb of its north face commenced just a few hundred metres from camp. In the twilight of dawn, only two hours into the ascent, our enthusiasm was fast evaporating. Three-inch plates of crust were breaking under every step depositing us knee-deep in bottomless powder snow.
After serious discussion of the practicality of continuing we continued our drunken stagger towards a steeper glacier tongue. Here, another unpleasant surprise awaited in the form of impenetrable and glassy ice. For 60 m we had to hack and swing our way with belays from our two ice screws until the angle eased. Then we reverted to the improvisation of trenching techniques in deep powder. We crawled up the steeper sections on knees and elbows, our suffering exacerbated in the knowledge that we were too late to correct our error of judgement. These northern slopes were getting only four hours of oblique sunlight a day. With air temperatures permanently in the minus 5 to 10 range no consolidation of the snow pack had occurred since the monsoon blizzards of three weeks earlier.
By midday we had ploughed ourselves to exhaustion. We set our camp at about 5650 m some 250 m before the crucial rock band. We had spied a way through the barrier at its thinnest point. The weather remained impeccable as we climbed through a second dawn. With the team safely belayed under an overhang I tackled the band. Orange gneiss gave way to disposable black shale, requiring a double-clearing operation. Before each move could be made I had first to sweep the powder snow clear and then dismantle the underlying rock in sizeable chunks. The protection in such material was sparse and dubious.
After two hours of painstaking effort I stepped on to the upper snowfields, only to be thrown off balance by an angle far steeper than we had guessed. The hip-deep snow was utterly devoid of substance and the underlying shale grated my crampons. Scattered outcrops of crackless rotten rock offered the only hope of belays. With sadness but little delay I called for retreat and, protected by a shaky piton, climbed down to rejoin the group.
I guessed that our high point was 200 m from the top. In respect to any religious sensitivity about climbing a sacred peak we had undertaken not to tread the final metres of Little Kailash. Even on the most generous interpretation of this offer we were about 190 metres short of success! Lord Shiva, whose peak this is, had made clear pronouncement upon our endeavours and it was a tired frustrated team that returned to Jolingkong that night.
High Stakes on the Nama Pass
Waking to the first breath of sunlight on our frosted tent next morning I cleared crusted eyelids and thought of a first cup of coffee. Poking my head outside, I saw Mike, up and dressed, stalking round camp and chanting a new mantra - 'Nama, Nama, Nama'; 'Anyone for the Nama Pass?' Just 12 hours after crashing in from the Little Kailash debacle, he was trying to persuade his wilting colleagues to undertake one last adventure before heading home. No quantity of Ginseng and Viagra could account for such energy at 60 years of age.
The Nama Pass lies 10 km south of Little Kailash and provides another link between the Kuthi Yankti and Darma valleys. There was no record of a crossing by any mountaineering party.4 We had placed the Nama as an optional conclusion to the expedition, but most folk had already decided they preferred to trek out by the valley route to Gunji, where the main pilgrim route to Tibet and Holy Mount Kailash is joined, and thence down the Kali ganga to a jeep road at Mangti nala. Though 75 km in distance the trail is paved and could be done comfortably in four days.
By contrast the Nama pass route was a shorter way back to Dharchula, but involved an ascent from 3700 to 5200 m, and a 10 km stretch of unknown high mountain terrain. The arrival of storm clouds increased the sense of commitment. Any party trapped up there by storms would be unable to retreat in sufficient time to catch their flights home.
We all walked 13 km down the valley to Kuthi village that morning and arrived in a wet mournful snowfall, which increased the list of defections from the Nama plan. Mike was left with John Allott, Hari Singh and myself as the only diehards who like him wanted to squeeze the last drop of excitement from the trip.
Happily, the following day dawned clear and fresh. Kuthi was revealed as the most charming village of our trek. The doors, balustrades and window frames of its clustered houses were adorned by exquisite wood-carvings which are some two centuries old. Before leaving we questioned the locals about the pass. An Army captain said that the Border Police had only crossed the pass once in the last 11 years and a wizened local 'guide' warned of mazes of crevasses.
Bidding farewell to the rest of the team we crossed the Kuthi Yankti and headed southwest up the Nama valley into the unknown. Barely recovered from the efforts of Little Kailash I lagged behind; even so it was inspiring to see yet more new glaciers and peaks. We camped at c. 4650 m as clouds massed into an imminent storm. By a chance of fate we were spared the deluge that fell that evening in surrounding valleys. By dawn the sky was once more clear and we were marching on a solid crust of old snow towards two horns of rock which marked the watershed. All crevasses were filled or hidden.
Only on the last mile did the snow begin to give way and we trudged wearily under a hanging glacier towards the col. There was no elation such as we had felt on gaining the Shin la. The view was clouded and obstructed by intervening ridges. A steep but simple slope of neve beckoned an immediate descent of the far side and we turned briefly to bid farewell to the Nama valley. Suddenly a great crack issued from the hanging glacier and a large shard of ice plunged down the face sending its cloud of dust and splinters straight across the tracks we had made but 10 minutes previously.
We exchanged knowing looks but nobody said a word. Perhaps we were all too tired to register the shock, but now, I think, we were glad to be turning our sights to home!
Location: Eastern Kumaun, Indian Himalaya
Altitude: Little Kailash peak is variously quoted at 6321m (20,740ft) or 6191m. Having viewed the whole range we conclude that LK is the lower height.
Maps: 1:200000 AMS map sheet NH44 Nanda Devi
Access Permits: For trekking, a Restricted Areas Permit and special X visa must be obtained; applications should be made with assistance of an accredited Indian tour operator at least three months in advance. After central Government clearance is given the X visa can be obtained at Indian Consulates in the UK; the RAP is then issued by the District Magistrate at Dharchula.
For climbing any peaks over 5500 m an additional application must be made to the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (www.indmount.org) and a peak royalty is required.
Photographic Restrictions: Despite highly restrictive but outdated regulations, no practical objection is raised to discrete photography in the area so long as no pictures are taken of bridges and military installations. Our team took compact cameras so as to minimise visual intrusion. Video photography is not allowed, likewise the use of GPS devices and radio transmitters.
Trekking Seasons: Late April to late-June and mid-September to late-October are the most reliable periods for weather and suitable snow conditions.
Grades of Treks and Climbs: The circuit of the massif is called the Little Kailash Yatra and is best done clockwise starting up the Darma valley. Trails up both the Darma and Kuthi Yankti valleys are excellent and mules can be used to reach both Bidang and Jolingkong.
The ascent to the Shin la is Scottish grade I/II or Alpine PD+ and has potential stonefall danger especially in a dry season. The Nama pass crossing is PD with a long descent on 40 deg slopes; it is facilitated by a good covering of snow.
Our climb of 'Rajula' was PD+ with a long section of Scottish grade I gully. Other sub-5500 m trekking peaks can be accessed from Jolingkong and give excellent views.