Papsura: A Peak So Near Yet So Far
AVM Apurba Kumar Bhattacharyya (Retd)
Starting from Kolkata on 4 September, we travelled to Manikaran, via Bhuntar (Kullu). On the way, the driver, Ram Singh , a hyper-energetic and colourful young fellow briefed me about the Parvati valley. According to him, Kasol, Manikaran and the villages of the Parvati valley follow their own laws and don't bother much about that of the country! When I asked whether he had ever cast his vote during Assembly and Lok Sabha polls, he said that he, his family and the whole village cast its vote 'with gusto' at election time. At least, I thought, Ram Singh and the villagers were not separatists! He then went on to announce proudly that the economy of the region was thriving on tourism and drug trafficking! While I understood tourism based economy, I asked him whether he thought that drug trafficking was legal? He said that of course it was legal since ministers and the administration encourage cultivation of Cannabis Sativa, that produces in turn a couple of potent drugs and fetches the farmers a substantial amount of money from cultivation. He didn't quite understand why the process was being termed 'illegal' and I, in turn, was wiser on why they preferred following their own laws!
I had visited this place way back in 1971 with an IAF expedition to Papsura when we had to walk from Kasol to Manikaran and all the way up to base camp. Today, the road from Bhuntar goes past Manikaran right up to Barseni, 10 kms from Manikaran into the Tos valley. There used to be a temple then with a slated roof and local architecture which housed the shrine to Lord Shiva, as well as one to the holy Guru Granth Sahib, within the same complex and under one roof. The hot spring was located a couple of steps below where pilgrims used to dip rice packets and cook the rice suspended by a string. There were very few shops then near the temples. Apart from the main temple, there were two/three ancient temple structures which retain yet their shape. Today, the original temple has been dismantled and two new temples in crude modern architecture stand side by side. While the Shiva temple is a small one, the Gurudwara is a huge multi-storied complex which can accommodate and feed more than 2000 pilgrims at any given point of time. There is no conservancy service in Manikaran and the simplest way to dispose garbage is to roll it over the slope into the torrent of the river below. Whatever garbage is left behind,
it is consumed by the large number of cattle (holy cows!) that roam the area. A sewer system is non-existent and the 'holy Parvati' river absorbs that function. With such an abuse of the environment all round , one may wonder how faith prevails over filth! With the disappearance of the serene spiritual ambience that once existed, Manikaran has been transformed into a place of unholy chaos, a drug joint to boot with a select band of foreigners operating freely in the valley, with their local accomplices, for ill-gotten gain. Who knows, maybe even Lord Shiva, known for his ritual use of Ganja, may now have become unwittingly a patron saint of these peddlers!
Our contact Chaman, met us in the evening. In his mid fifties, he is tall, fair and well built with a cheerful disposition. We shifted our load to the roadside on the morning of the 8th and boarded the bus for Barseni. That evening, we took a stroll around the Barseni market. The old Barseni village had changed beyond recognition. The village huts were missing and the old trail having given way to a broad road capable of carrying ten-ton trucks and bulldozers. These transformations are as a result of the HP Government's initiative to construct a huge 800 MW Hydel Power Station by harnessing the Parvati and Tos rivers and linking them through long tunnels. Also as a result, more alien faces than the local inhabitants of Barseni were in evidence. With vehicles plying and construction work in progress, the village of Barseni remains awake throughout the night. The tunnelling work in the hills continues all through the day. Blasting with high explosives is carried out all day and the entire area within a range of 5 km vibrates with each blast. The State of Himachal Pradesh lies in the seismic zone V in the Himalayan belt. With such regular blasting, the consequences are unknown in this earthquake prone area.
The morning of 9 September was clear, though the southern sky appeared red. I was reminded of the mariner's quote and apprehended bad weather during the later part of the day. The muleteers arrived with 13 mules and after an gentle trek we were at Tos village before noon. Most of the houses were surrounded by apple trees and there was no restriction to plucking apples and we had our fill of the delicious fruit. The local children were not interested in apples though and expressed a preference for candies and chocolates. In the village there was another sight which was rather unusual. A number of Israeli restaurants had mushroomed, proudly announcing their fare in Hebrew ! Hippy looking, unclean boys and girls in their 20s and 30s were roaming freely about the village. There
appears to be no conflict of interest between the villagers and these foreigners. The villagers did not speak of the commonality of their purposes, though the common interest was apparent to see. The Israelis (and also Italians) were not here for apples, plums nor apricots, and the money from the cultivation of 'cannabis' kept the villagers quiet !
The trek along the mighty Tos nala was enjoyable. The slopes on either side of the river were covered with beautiful conifers like deodars, pines, spruce and fir trees and on the ground alpine flowers grew on either side of the trail. The rare contrast in growth of vegetation in Himachal Pradesh makes it a unique state in the country. While south of the Rohtang pass is rich in foliage, fruits and flowers, the northern land mass beyond Rohtang is totally dry, barren and devoid of foliage. The mighty outer Himalaya stands here as a monsoon barrier. We reached Budhaban at about 1430 hrs for our first camping halt. Close to our campsite, there were a number of gujjar families who had set up their huts. A couple of decades back these same gujjars would use wooden logs and thatched roof for their huts. However, today their make-shift abodes are of plastic sheets and nylon ropes. Also instead of metallic milk containers, they now use plastic jerry cans. The gujjars have switched their preference gradually to plastics - and when the utility of the material is over, they dump it at their camp site. Plastic being non bio-degradable, it will remain in the mountains for eternity. Dear God, forgive them, for they do not know, nor care, what they do!
Engrossed, as I was, thinking of the gujjars and plastics, Chaman came with the news that two of the muleteers with eight mules had turned back 'on grounds of other commitments'. I was surprised and disturbed, as the thought of sudden commitments cropping up at remote Budhaban sounded unreal? I sent Chaman to Tos village to retrieve the mules. Chaman disappeared into the woods to fetch the mules from Tos. We struck our tents and packed rucksacks. The drizzle converted to rain and I pushed the team towards the next camp since the march to Saram was long. Subrata, and our two young Sherpas Pemba and Dabba whom we had brought with us from Darjeeling, stayed back to help in loading the mules, if and when they arrived. Around 1040 hrs though I was relieved to see Chaman coming out of the wooded jungle with all eight mules. No reason was given for the sudden disappearance and I felt it prudent in not making an issue of it.
Within half an hour the mules were loaded and we moved. The track was slushy and slippery and the mules dropped load several times delaying our onward movement. On one occasion, one of the mules slipped and fell down the slope. Fortunately it got stuck between boulders and it took more than half an hour to retrieve it and its load.
On our way to Saram, conifers gave way to birch, rhododendron and juniper. Few potentilas and buttercups were still in bloom. Short of the camp site at Saram, a fast flowing stream had to be crossed over a makeshift bridge. As we reached the campsite on a meadow, the rain intensified and it was a struggle to pitch the already wet tents. However, all the team, and Sherpas including Chaman, scrambled to pitch tents and get our rucksacks in. The rain accompanied by strong wind brought the temperature down to freezing at 3350 m.
The next morning was no better as it continued to pour and there was some suggestion to rest for the day at Saram. I decided against it since we were squeezed for time. It was only a three hours trek from Saram to Samsi with shallow climb and traverse. But for the rain, the trek would have been most enjoyable since the slopes were full of alpine flowers of various species. A couple of fast flowing nalas had to be crossed before reaching the vast plain land of Samsi and in the process, our boots, socks and trousers were all wet with no scope to dry them. Samsi is a huge flat ground with two small runnels flowing through it. The ground was covered with spongy grass and alpine flowers. As the weather started clearing, Santo took out the football he had brought with him and we began playing at an altitude above 3650 m ! Just before sunset, the cloud lifted further giving us a glimpse of the long summit ridge of Papsura, fully covered in snow. We hoped that the weather would hold after continuous rain for past three days, but the sound of raindrops on the tent at mid-night dashed all hope and I began hating it .
On the 12th, we moved for base camp along the west bank of the Tos glacier, and the never ending rain followed us all the way. The trek takes about four hours in fair weather on a comfortable gradient, but in the white-out condition that we were in, it took us much longer as visibility was reduced to less than five metres. A big fast flowing stream had to be crossed just before reaching the base camp site and for safety, Chaman had anticipated and fixed a rope across the stream. The water level was
waist deep and there was no escape from the wetness. While all of us managed to cross the river, Biswarup slipped and fell into the icy water, but managed to hold on to the rope firmly till we reached him. It could have been a disaster. We were all bone drenched during our trek right from road head to the base camp and weather-wise it couldn't have been worse.
The muleteers were dispensed with, with strict instructions to return on 25 September with 7 mules. The evening, brought with it sleet and snow and no activity was possible outside our tents. After dinner, on returning to my tent, I kept wondering of our chances on the mountain in such atrocious and wet weather. Normally the monsoon recedes from this part of Himachal by the third week of August as it is not a high density precipitation area. The villagers at Manikaran and Barseni had told us that they had experienced little rain during the monsoon itself and their crops had suffered due to the abnormal conditions. I had no answer for this strange weather pattern.
At base camp, we huddled in one of our four-man tents and discussed our strategy of climbing Papsura. After late breakfast on the 13th, four members left on a route recce carrying load for C1 and the inevitable rain for company. Their destination was the confluence of the East Tos glacier and the Papsura glacier. It took them about two and a half hours to reach the campsite where after pitching a tent, they dumped their load. Thereafter, Pemba and Dabba went ahead to have a look at the Papsura icefall and possible routes through the gully. Gautam and his team returned at 1530 hrs and told us that the route through the icefall looked formidable.
The weather on the 14th was as grim as the previous day, but the load ferry work continued. In such dismal conditions and with little to do, I decided to have a chat with our cook and his helper. Amarnath, said he came from a village 5 kms from Manikaran and owns 65 bighas of land where he grows traditional crops. He now intends to convert part of his land to an apple orchard. Ramlal, our cook, said he owned about 50 bighas near Kasol across the Parvati. Both admitted that while they owned enough land their crop harvest was poor due to unpredictable seasonal rainfall. At my suggestion that they should seek the help of the horticulture department, Ramlal repeated the oft expressed theme 'that they were weary of the Government officials who were inefficient and corrupt people and the villagers have lost all faith in them.' What an indictment of the
State machinery by people who need their support the most. The ferry team returned by 1530 hrs and I kept my discussions on hold with Ramlal and Amarnath for a later time. That evening I briefed the team by map on the route ahead, the number of camps to be established, their likely locations, the safety and weather factors to contend with, and the need to move fast on the mountain in view of the limited time available.
The morning of15 September held a surprise for us as the sun appeared beyond the Tos glacier and for once the sky was clear, with peaks visible all around us. We could see an IAF AN-32 aircraft in the distance proceeding to the drop zone in the north, flying over Sara Umga pass. Gautam suggested that he would occupy C1 along with Pemba and Dabba while others following him will ferry loads and return to base camp. This was agreed and the team left soon. With all the sunshine, the base camp became vibrant with Himalayan golden eagles, hawks, yellow billed chaffs and wagtails flying around the camp. The members returned from load ferry at 1700 hrs and confirmed the setting up of C1 with kitchen.
The 16th was yet another clear day and everyone except Surajit, Biswrup and myself left for C1 On return Ramlal took out a diary and started writing something fluently for the next 45 minutes. As he finished, I asked him what he had written and he said that he was in the habit of maintaining a daily diary of his outings, which came in handy whenever he went out with groups of tourists. His wish was to provide authentic information and said that he did not like to cut a sorry figure with them. In the course of our discussion, Ramlal said that he had been to the Kullu government college for his BA degree, but had to discontinue his studies due to family compulsion. He was employed by a central government agency doing research in herbal medicine and used to collect herbs for scientists. He said he was familiar with 20-30 varieties of local herbs and used to go from village to village creating awareness on the availability of local herbs and their medicinal value. He, however, quit his job and is presently a regular contract guide. Ramlal loved music and played a portable piano, and a Casio synthesizer at various functions. He was a folk singer and took part in village dramatics and was in demand during the Kullu festival. He took up the job of cook with us during his lean period to make some money. Amarnath, on the other hand, couldn't continue with his schooling due to family constraints and his domain is now confined to cooking with tourist groups and tending his land at home. All the same, both of them seemed to be happy with life.
With a bit of coaxing, Ramlal and Amarnath agreed to ferry some stores and to cook food at C1 on the 17th . The weather turned grey again as the two left. for C1. They returned at 1500 hrs with a note from Santo, that informed me that earlier on the 16th, a route to C2 was opened through the difficult rock gully bordering the icefall and C2 was established on the Cwm at 5500 m. The note said that they had decided to split the team into two groups; that Gautam, Subrata and Debraj with two Sherpas would form the first summit team and Jayanta, Subhasis, Santo and Debajyoti would form a support group, to help in setting the summit camp at around 6000 m. With the weather clamping down again, I was now concerned about the limited time on hand. In case of bad weather and heavy snowfall, it would be difficult and dangerous to cross the Cwm and traverse the exposed southeast face and reach the southwest ridge. The other option would be to attempt the exposed west rock face which meant a traverse to the west, thus increasing the distance between C2 and C3 considerably. It started drizzling by evening a thick cloud covered the Papsura massif. It was only a matter of time for snowfall to start. The hope that a couple of fair weather days brought in its wake was quickly blown away by yet another gloomy day.
It started snowing from the midnight of 17 September and after a spell of non-stop snowfall for more than 16 hrs, the cloud started lifting and blue sky was visible in small patches with a few stars showing up at night. With such heavy snow, it would be suicidal to tread on the southeast slope before further 48-72 hrs. We did not have that kind of time to spare. Gautam, therefore, took the decision of attempting the peak from the formidable west rock face with a westward traverse to set up the summit camp. The plan of splitting into two teams had to be changed and five members namely, Gautam, Subrata, Jayanta, Debraj and Subhasis were to move up along with the two Sherpas. They did a remarkable job in establishing the summit camp within a span of three days, leaving C1 on the 19th and establishing C3 (the summit camp) on the 21st evening. The weather was fine during these three days and presented a window of hope. We could only pray for a couple of more days of clear weather for an attempt on the summit. Gautam decided to attempt the summit on the 22nd despite their tiredness after three days of continuous hard climbing.
The weather was partially clear on the 22nd morning and the summit team left for it by 0700 hrs, which was a bit late in itself for a day long climb ahead on the rock face. They crossed the snowfield and reached the base
of the rock face on a small snow gully in quick time. It involved more than 360 m of steep climbing on the rock face, not attempted before, as I was told. The climbers had to fix rope on difficult patches which consumed time in moving up. From the rock face, they could see the mighty Indrasan peak far away and below. By midday, the weather became rough and wind swept the west face bringing in small powder snow avalanches onto the slope. Thick cloud developed over the Papsura massif and visibility started reducing. The party still continued with the climb since the summit ridge was visible 100 m away. The weather condition reduced the visibility to mere 50 odd meters and the climbers were short of the summit by about 40 m when suddenly there was a total white-out and the team members couldn't even see each other. After waiting a while, Gautam decided to call off the attempt at 1500 hrs, since it would take long to descend and tracing their route back to C3 at night would pose serious problems in bad weather. It was not advisable also to wait on the wind swept rock face for any length of time as chances of cold injuries could not be ruled out. They retreated to base camp on the 24th.
Meanwhile the IMF women's team for Papsura had arrived at base camp on 23 September. They requested the services of our two Sherpas which we agreed. As had been requested of us earlier, we had left behind for them our fixed ropes on the mountain. The women's team included Malabi Das, a member of The Himalayan Club at Kolkata. On the 24th, the day we came down to base camp, we invited the IMF team to a camp fun and dinner where Ramlal and Jayanta entertained us with their singing. Malabi requested Ramlal to sing the last song before dinner. Little did we knew at that time that this request would be the last in her life? On 25 September, we left base camp and crossed the stream. As we looked back we saw Malabi, standing in front of a boulder, and waving to us. I was the last one to cross the stream and as I stepped across the water, I wished her luck and told her to take care. From across the stream, I looked back and waved at her with both hands. She reciprocated and we bade goodbye, forever. Word had got to Kolkata before our return that Malabi was no more. We were shocked and could not believe our ears. We were told that after reaching the summit of Papsura, she collapsed on her way back a little short of the summit camp. A rather sad way for a life to end. We lost Malabi ,a young, happy, active and much loved member At memorial meeting Meher Mehta (VP, HC) made a moving reference to the memory of a very liked colleague. He said, 'Those whom the Gods love die young ; but so did we, and we wished, she was yet alive. Strange are the
ways of mountains. We in abysmal weather failed to reach the summit. Malabi in better conditions reached it. Where we failed, we returned in triumph. Where she succeeded, she remained behind, never to return'.
Papsura, a formidable peak by any standard, has given our young members the confidence of tackling high and technically difficult mountains in future. These young climbers are physically fit, tough, highly supportive of each other and motivated as a team, and proud members of The Himalayan Club.
Members: AVM Apurba Kumar Bhattacharyya ( Retd ),leader, Goutam Ghosh, deputy leader, Doctor Susanta Bhattacharya(Santo), Debajyoti Bhattacharya, Subrata Chakraborty, Debraj Dutta, Subhasis Roy, Surajit Biswas, Tapas Sanyal, Subrata Santra and Biswarup Ray.
An attempt on Papsura (6456 m) by a team from the Himalayan Club, (Kolkata section) in September 2005.