Pangi Valley, Lahaul

Another Trip With Kapadia, 2004


We're off again on another Kapadia adventure, this time to some little visited valleys in Lahaul.

The English contingent arrived at a hotel near Delhi airport late on 3 July to drink some good Indian beer, before sliding off to bed and a short sleep. Up early to catch the eight o'clock train to Kalpa. Burjor Banaji and his son Ryan arrived just in time to complete our team of eleven, seven of us from Britain and four from India. Harish savours the rail experience and treated us to a delightful diversion in the Viceroy's Railcar up the wonderful, winding and tunnelled track to Shimla. The following day a long drive took us to a rain drenched Manali, and then the next, over the Rohtang pass beyond the reach of the monsoon into a sunny Lahaul.

As we drove up the Chenab river valley, the peaks on either side got higher and the road got worse, until we were forced to stop for the night at the small town of Udaipur. The road was now little more than a track with a series of raging torrents to cross on the way. Our confidence was not raised when a large lorry travelling just in front of us was toppled over onto its side by the force of the river. But it was a short day and we reached our objective at Sach Khas by midday, just as well for me, for I had gone down with a sore throat and squitters, and was feeling very sorry for my self. It was just as well we had three doctors in the team. Charlie Clarke, one of my oldest friends is a consultant neurologist and has been expedition doctor on many of my expeditions. Kate Keohane, our next-door neighbour and family doctor is a GP, while Burjor Banaji is a world-renowned ophthalmic surgeon based at Mumbai. Kate and Charlie were sympathetic but told me to let my minor ailment run it's course, but Burjor was much more pro-active, producing a large plastic box filled with multi coloured pills. He gave me a large grey one and assured me I'd be fine in a couple of hours. It worked and I put him at the top of my favourite doctors list.

And what of the rest of the team? Louise had been my secretary for twenty-five years, helping to steer me through all my major expeditions.

Pangi Valley

Pangi Valley

Menthosa peak and Urgus pass (left).

29. Menthosa peak and Urgus pass (left). (Chris Bonington)

Shiva peak.

30. Shiva peak. (Chris Bonington)

She and her husband Gerry had been with us the previous year in Kullu. Rebecca, Charlie's daughter, a dynamic young executive, blond and beautiful, was on her first trek, while Ryan, at sixteen was the youngest member of the team. Suman Dubey was an old friend, who had been at Cambridge with Charlie and had been on two previous treks with Harish and myself. Finally, Julian Davey, Kate's partner, had taken early retirement from the British Council and was a regular climbing partner on our Lakeland hills.

We were certainly a heterogeneous team. There was the Yoga group, comprising Rebecca, Louise and Kate, supervised by Harish, with Julian and Burjor as casual participants — then there were the 'Anoraks', comprising Louise, Gerry, Suman and Charlie who photographed every flower they saw, the short-wave radio junkies, Harish and Suman who had their radios glued to their ears listening, in Harish's case to the news and cricket, while Suman, the Wall Street Journal's representative in India, was following the national election. Finally there was the Bridge School, comprising Suman — the expert — Charlie, Louise, Kate, Bec, playing for the first time and myself, who played on every expedition.

We had a pleasant surprise the following day and a vivid illustration of the speed with which roads are spreading throughout the Indian Himalaya when we learnt it stretched all the way to Sainchu, which would have been our first day's walk. We stopped there, none the less, camping by a forest rest house a few hundred feet above the valley, in a terraced clearing amongst tall mature pine trees. Three days walk up this magnificent valley, past prosperous little villages, though pine and then birch woods carpeted with glorious flowers with glimpses of high peaks up the side valleys, took us to a camp site below what we hoped would be our first climbing objective, Mund Jot, a peak, probably unclimbed, of 5250 m. That day we had seen a Himalayan Red bear on the other side of the river. Sadly Burjor had to leave us the following day.

Charlie and I set out on a recce the next morning, but first we had to cross the river, which was wide and in spate. Our local guide told us there was a bridge upstream but when we reached it, discovered that it had been swept away. There was nothing for it, we'd have to ford it. Charlie went first. He's recently taken up sailing and is bold in the water, whilst I am a complete wimp. The two porters who were accompanying us plunged in and I crept in diffidently, got about two thirds way across where the water was at thigh level and flowing strongly. I've twice nearly been drowned in fast flowing rivers — once on the upper reaches of the Blue Nile and the other time trying to cross a river in Xingiang below Mount Kongur. I froze and was immensely grateful to Charlie who waded out and gave me a friendly hand.

It was then just a matter of picking our way up a wide scrub filled valley towards where our map told us was Mund Jot. The scrub thinned into scrawny grass, boulders and moss till we reached a height of 4800 m, but still couldn't see our mountain. We had spotted a good camp site however and the going seemed fairly open and straight forward, so we returned well satisfied to our camp. Next day the entire British contingent set out for the mountain. We had found a much better place to ford the river and fixed a rope as a hand rail across it before plodding up, through a profusion of Himalayan blue poppies to the camp site at 4650 m.

Urgus peak (5932 m), northwest face from lambu nala

39-40. Urgus peak (5932 m), northwest face from lambu nala (above) and east face from Miyar nala (below). (Harish Kapadia)

Urgus peak (5932 m), northwest face from lambu nala
Unnamed rock tower in Miyar nala.

41. Unnamed rock tower in Miyar nala. (Chris Bonington)

Next morning the cloud was down and there was rain in the air but we decided to go for it anyway. It was a long plod reminiscent of the Scottish Cairngorms with a snowy mound pierced by rocks for a summit. We should have had a superb view looking into the Miyar valley and the mountains to the east, but all we could see was the swirling mist. At least we found a snow runnel on the way down that took us almost all the way to the valley bottom.

We now had a choice of spending more time in exploring the upper reaches of the Paphita nala and perhaps climbing some of the peaks at its head, or returning the way we had come, back to the village of Tuan and then following the Jambu nala towards Menthosa and the Urgus pass, with the hope of getting in some climbing around there. We chose the latter.

We had a rest day in Tuan, which enabled us to visit its Buddhist temple, looked after by an elderly nun who was bent almost double but was kind and friendly and who showed us round her temple. Throughout our trek we were greeted with nothing but kindness by the local people. Apparently the only Europeans who had been up the valley were some zoologists who had been making a study of bears several years earlier.

On 17 July we started up the Jambu nala. From the very beginning the path was tenuous a way up the steep tree clad valley. Julian and I had the great satisfaction of picking the higher path when it bifurcated and watching the others, who took the low road, struggling some hours later up through thick undergrowth from the river bed. The distances all seemed greater than indicated by the map and that day we barely got round the corner where the valley widened. At its end was a magnificent sharp and shapely peak which the map told us was Point 5932 m and Harish named 'Urgus Peak'. We also met up with a couple of shepherds whom Harish persuaded to act as our guides. They warned us that the Urgus pass had become very dangerous and that Dugal Jot, to the north was the one they now used for taking across their flocks of sheep and goats.

We decided to spend an extra day at our camp to make a further examination of the Urgus pass. While some walked up the valley towards the foot of the pass, Charlie and I opted to climb one of the peaks on the northern side of the valley to get a good view of the pass from a high level — just an excuse to reach a top. Harsingh Junior, one of the porters from Kumaun who has been accompanying Harish for years, came with us.

It made a delightful walk and scramble, the upper part over huge stacked boulders to a rocky summit at 5105 m, with superb views of the peaks around us. Menthosa, the highest peak of the group at 6443 m, was superb with its complex snow ridges and sweeping glaciers. We could also see why the Urgus pass had become so dangerous. Glacier shrinkage had exposed slopes of steep scree and talus, the likely source of stone fall.

Trail to Duggal Jot (Pimu) (5223 m).

42. Trail to Duggal Jot (Pimu) (5223 m). (Harish Kapadia)

We trekked up to the head of the valley the following day, camping on a rocky moraine by a beautiful little lake, which Julian was brave (or foolish) enough to swim in (he swam in every lake and stream we passed in the course of the expedition). The route above took us up a series of moraine ridges to the side of the glacier onto a snow basin below the pass. This gave a steep snow slope to reach the pass at 5230 m. The way down the other side was even steeper down broken rocks and scree. It was difficult to believe that the shepherds took over a thousand sheep and goats across every year.

Charlie and I had decided to have another little climb, up a shapely rock peak to the immediate north of Dugal Jot, and so we camped on the pass itself, whilst the others made the long descent. We had just pitched our tents and were waiting for the first brew of tea, which Raj Kumar, our able Sirdar and cook, was preparing, when he came to the tent to confess he had forgotten the matches. We didn't have any and so without more ado he took off down the slope to try to catch up with the rest of the team to get some. He ended going the full thousand metres to the bottom and then raced back up to make us supper.

And yes, we did feel a bit shame-faced as we wolfed down a superbly prepared meal. Raj came with us the next morning when we set out for our peak. This was real climbing with some ice to reach the crest of the ridge and then a series of Gendarmes, getting ever steeper, towards our summit. It was the first time Raj had ever worn crampons or been rock climbing. At last we reached the summit block. A narrow ledge above a drop of around a thousand feet led to a sheer wall broken by some cracks. I started up tentatively, very glad that I had brought with me some 'nuts' for protection. It was off balance and awkward in big climbing boots. I teetered up, calling on Charlie to watch the rope, just in case I fell. I made it and the angle dropped off. A few more feet and I was up, on a wonderful pointed spike of rock. This was a summit indeed. My altimeter read 5490 m. The view was the best yet — Menthosa was at the opposite side of the valley, but Point 5900 m, the peak we had admired as we walked up, a perfect and very steep pyramid of rock and ice. To the east was a fresh view of a whole range of superb snow peaks, almost certainly unclimbed holding the camera out at arms length and then abseiled down to join the others. Two hours later we were back at the col, to enjoy a huge bowl of dal bhat (rice) before setting off down the seemingly endless slope to the glacier below. We caught up with the others at their camp site some miles down the valley.

We now dropped down into the Miyar nala. Compared to the other valley, this was a mountain motorway, wide and flat with herds of yak grazing the extensive meadows.

Here we were adopted by a very handsome and seemingly well-fed dog. There were glimpses of sheer granite walls in the side valleys. This range has become known to a select few as India's answer to Yosemite. We were nearly at the end of our trek but there was a pleasant sting in the tail, right at the end, as the river hugged a steep bluff and the path crept through a complex series of sheer buttresses to the deserted village of Patam.

From there it was all easy going, down to the first inhabited village where we were entertained with tea and chang before crossing the river in a spectacular bucket bridge. We felt we shouldn't encourage our adopted dog to come any further. He ranged up and down the river bank and then plunged into the torrent. We watched appalled, convinced he's drowned, but he got across, gave himself a shake and followed us all the way down to the village of Urgus and the end of our trek. It was here we said farewell to our porters, all of whom had become good friends and were now on their way to their next group of trekkers and climbers. Our dog seemed resigned as we clambered into our four wheel drives and we saw him heading for the camp of some Japanese trekkers, no doubt to charm his way into their company. Not a bad life for a dog and probably way better than being a shepherd.

It had been a superb trip through beautiful unspoilt mountain country and over some hard terrain, rich in unclimbed peaks. There are still countless areas like this in the Himalaya.


A trek through the Sainchu valley in the Pangi Himalaya into the Miyar nala, Lahaul by a team of Indian-British friends. Trek was undertaken in July 2004.


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