Walking Off The Map
Cdr Satyabrata Dam
Rambles Through Remote Himalayan Valleys
The menu was simple - a small team of novices for starters, unknown trails with at least three passes over 5000 m for the main course, within 20 days for salads, few glaciers tossed in for garnishing and heavy back packs for dessert - all wrapped up in 'true expedition' style, where we would rely completely on maps, compasses and mountain instinct. Finding cuisine to suit the menu proved simple. All through my life, I have been trying to connect the length and breadth of the Himalaya on foot. Over the years though I have visited many valleys, glaciers and trails, there are still many regions where I had not been. While journeying through Sikkim in the first half of 2007, I zeroed in on the upper reaches of Lahaul in Himachal, where a magical valley had been enticing me since I had been there first on a climbing expedition.
The plan formed in my mind's eye, even as the mighty Kangchenjunga dazzled my vision. Getting an inexperienced, but tough and eager team from the Navy, was not a problem and the rest, the Himalaya would provide.
One wet morning in early August 2007, my team and I were sitting in the tourist bungalow at Manali admiring the rushing Beas, with reverence. It took us less than a day to ransack the crowded markets of Manali and get all our food and stores in order. It took all night and another day to pack them in some semblance to order. We had assembled at the deserted bus station by 4 am on 10 August, to find the bus to Udaipur locked from within with no sign of either the driver or conductor. This was not entirely surprising as it was not scheduled to leave for another hour and half. By 4.30 a.m., one of our wily porters had wriggled through one of the windows and opened the door for the rest of us. He locked it again to ensure that no one else got in. It is an entirely different story that by the time the bus finally lurched out of Manali, I had one crying child on my lap and another screaming into my left ear, while hanging from the hair of the porter seated next to me, and I barely had room to flex my toes. But then any Himalayan odyssey, done in true expedition style, must have such humble and cacophonous beginnings.
The rickety bus groaned and creaked as it wound its way up towards the Rohtang pass. As the green valley faded below, many of the passengers turned green and blue, as their stomachs churned. As expected, the Rohtang pass was littered with the city filth we were hoping to leave behind - a sorry state of affairs for a place so intrinsically beautiful and so easily accessible. We rapidly descended onto the other side. At Koksar, the foreigners had to show their passports and register at the police station. The bridge ahead that crossed the Chandrabhaga river had collapsed, and a long train of vehicles stood mutedly on either side. We strolled down to the river and joined the army men in setting up a temporary bridge. We reached Key long a little after noon. A light lunch, a bus change and an hour later we left for Udaipur. The road conditions were atrocious and we grabbed onto anything within reach to keep ourselves from falling out of the overcrowded bus. From Udaipur a pack road goes further on to Tingret, where the road truly ends. Though a bus was scheduled for 5:30 p.m., it did not show up so we hired two utility vehicles (open hood pick up vans that can accommodate six people standing with ten goats). If the earlier road was bad, this one was pure hell. But then, no one said it was a road. We hadn't even set foot on the trail and my body was already groaning in places I did not know existed. As we left Udaipur and headed into the gathering dusk, pea fields opened all around with gaily dancing children waving for no particular reason. I took a deep breath and savoured the fresh whip of air. This was my kind of place and I was happy to be back. The two- hour journey from Udaipur to Tingret passed without any hitch. It was dark by the time we reached so we decided to camp at the monastery ground. By the time I reached the clearing behind the monastery, the tents were up and the kitchen had started emitting enticing fragrances. We were at 3390 m and the sky glittered with stars.
Next morning, our campsite buzzed with activity as we made trek loads and found that we had eight loads without anyone to carry them. All the porters grumbled about excessive loads - another sign of a classical expedition, I reassured my team-mates, who seemed rather overwhelmed at such inauspicious beginnings. Filling our stomachs with potato curry and paranthas, we reduced the load by half and I agreed to pay an extra day's wages to any porter who volunteered to carry them. This yielded the desired result and off we went into one of the greenest and loveliest valleys in the entire western Himalaya. Village children and women gathered around, bidding us goodbye and the men folk offered us fresh peas and potatoes. The trail accompanied the Miyar nala on its right bank. We had to cross the nala on a rope trolley, which carried only two people at a time. We decided to have one man and two loads per trip. The entire operation took nearly two hours. On the other side, we climbed steeply on to the pea fields of Chilling and then on to the tiny hamlet of Khanjar. The final climb to the grassy camping meadow above Khanjar proved to be an easy ramble. Surrounded by mighty rock walls to the east and fed by two streams, the camping ground was an ideal place to rest and recuperate. By the time we pitched our tents, the wind had built up and clouds rushed in, obfuscating the sun into a boundary-less blob of light. We were now at 3850 m and a light drizzle fell through the night.
As the downpour had not abated by morning, we delayed our departure by an hour. From the campsite, the trail was on level ground till Patam from where it dipped across a stream with a bridge. Two more stream crossings later, it opened out to a vast meadow, decked with red and tawny flowers and a smattering of sheep. To our east, a faint trail snaked along a hanging glacier towards the Tarsalamu pass (5358 m).
Ambling for an hour across the meadow, we spied the Gumba nala to the northeast. Crossing the nala over a log bridge we walked by the banks of a pair of limpid lakes. A little further north, we camped on yet another enchanting meadow, a vast pasture dotted with sheep, yaks and cows. To the south a glacier tumbled over seracs and steep rocky cliffs. Wide grassy slopes rose to our northeast and clouds poured out from the Gumba nala gorge. Small finch, sparrows, ravens and wild geese fed in the lake. To the east and west, steep rock faces climbed into the azure sky. Our colourful tents unfolded like beach umbrellas amidst the green. We had barely gained any altitude through the day and we camped at 3980 m. Though the ground seemed parched with brown grass, a tiny stream close by provided sufficient fresh water. This is peculiar of the Himalaya. Even in the driest places, I have often found streams and fresh water puddles beneath stones and within rocks.
The sun greeted us the next morning. In true naval tradition, we left camp at 8 a.m. (each day at this precise hour, all units of the Indian Navy follow a custom called 'Colours', where the naval ensign is hoisted). An easy trail followed the left bank of the Miyar nala, keeping rather close to the water. The ground was abloom with blue iris, petunias and red flowers we did not recognise. Three hours later we crossed the Takdung nala with our trousers rolled up as the bridge had been washed away. Soon we came across Chhudong nala where some of the team decided to walk across a slippery plank. A porter wobbled across, but the person who followed slipped and fell into the turbulent water. Two team members who were behind him managed to pull him out, but not before he had gulped some water and lost his shoes. He was thoroughly shaken and stirringly wet. We had to get him into dry clothes immediately as he had begun to shiver. It took us almost an hour to cross the nala downstream from where we cut across diagonally towards rock and boulder strewn slopes. Soon we walked across a grassy meadow with a huge cairn and reached our campsite that sprawled across a sandy ground with a stream flowing by. We were camped just ahead of a point marked Dali Got on the map, which was practically the snout of the Miyar glacier. We were now at 3900 m. A jagged rocky peak jutted out to our south, which had a fine line of rock that I was sure was yet to be attempted.
We set off early the next morning, heading for the jumbled medial moraine of the Miyar glacier. We came across a series of red arrows, which were misleading as the glacial structure was drastically altered. After few hundred metres we came to a point where we had to decide whether to go left or right. While the porters, led by the Sirdar, claimed to have been on this route two years earlier, headed for the right bank. Scrambling over a column of tottering boulders, I headed for the left bank. Finding an easy trail, I climbed onto the ridge and strode ahead keeping my feet purposefully on each stone. Far below, the porters were walking through the maze of boulders and moraines, trying to find a path to climb to the ridge on their side. The team followed me at a considerable distance. It was a narrow glacier and as we all knew where we were headed, there was only a remote chance of anyone getting lost. The high ridge kept me above the moraine and I made good progress. I was roughly following the 4100 m contour. Point 5755 m loomed to my right. By now the porters appeared like colourful dots on the other side as they appeared intermittently through the moraine and rocks. Soon the clouds descended and a drizzle started.
A virgin wall at the confluence of ZK and Dharlang glaciers. (Cdr Satyabrata Dam )
Peaks of the Dharlang glaciers. (Cdr Satyabrata Dam )
Icefall leading to Sersank la. The peak is in the centre. (Cdr Satyabrata Dam )
Peak 6294 above the Tidu glacier. (Cdr Satyabrata Dam )
I soon lost the animal trail and walked consulting the map. Occasional cairns cropped up as suddenly as they disappeared. Gradually I left all remnants of green and entered the world of rock and ice. Tip-toeing across slippery rocks lodged into hard ice, I traversed far above the glacier where several glacial lakes reflected the dull sky. It was tricky and time consuming as the rocks kept sliding over the hard ice. I dislodged several rocks that plummeted out of sight. I had absolutely no foothold and barely any handhold since all the rocks were loosely perched atop the ice. I crossed the junction with the Jangpar glacier and headed further into the jumbled mass of ice and rock. It was more trapeze than trek as I jumped from one rock to another, while dodging those that fell from above. Nearly seven hours into the day, I stopped at a clearing for the rest of the team to catch up. Though they were tough, they found it hard going on such ground. Soon we descended to the main glacier and crossed it to join our porters on the other side. Only the fastest of the lot had reached while the rest still struggled behind. We camped for the night on bullet-hard ice at about 4400 m. Unable to dig our pegs into the ice, we used rocks to anchor the tents. As the twilight settled in, I looked back at the Jangpar glacier and saw several virgin peaks of varying technical difficulty rearing up from the valley.
The next morning we headed north keeping to the centre of the Miyar glacier. The cloud base was low. The lower edges of several hanging glaciers from nameless ridges gaped at us from either side. We climbed steadily and, several hours later, scrambled on to the central moraine to avoid stepping into the innumerable glacial streams. A magnificent icefall joined the glacier to our right. Several virgin peaks, 6000 m or above, opened up on both sides. Eventually the glacier careened to its right and we saw the Kang la, 3 km further up. We camped on the ice at approximately 5100 m near the ice flank of the 6141 m peak. While we pitched our tents, the sun shone briefly and the wind picked up. Our boots sank into the soft snow. Dusk rolled in silently and we retired for the night.
We were excited as we got ready for the day's march as it would see us cross our first big pass, the Kang la. The sun shone brilliantly in the stark blue sky. Stripping to our base layers, we marched across the vast expanse of the glacier, after stuffing ourselves with rice, dal and fried eggs. A huge crevasse field tumbled to our right, so we kept to the left and zigzagged over the steep ice wall that led up to the pass. The numerous crevasses did not hinder our progress as they were exposed and it was easy to circumvent these deadly traps. At precisely 10.55 a.m. we topped Kang la (5468 m). The panoramic view from the top was fabulous as we looked down into Zanskar. We posed and took pictures along side prayer flags. The Kang la is crossed by trekkers going from Miyar to Padum and we saw a group ascending from the other side. The pass was rather windy and we quickly descended over soft snow. This pass took us right across the Great Himalayan Axis, into the Zanskar range. Far below lay the confluence of two streams, one emanating from the Kang la icefall and the other from the Tidu glacier. We headed there, as it would be our campsite for the day. From there we would leave from the normal trail and head toward Kishtwar across the Poat la. Leaving the icefall, we again entered moraine and finally reached a sand dune covered campsite sandwiched between the two streams. The path going to our right (NE) headed for Padum. While in the opposite direction, almost due west, the Tidu glacier moraine and ice ramps rose into the setting sun. Located at the junction of two valleys and streams, the campsite was unusually windy and sandy. We must have ingested plenty of silica with our dinner that evening.
Approaching Kang la. We had come from the far horizon. (Cdr Satyabrata Dam)
Climbing to Kang la. The pass is on extreme left. (Cdr Satyabrata Dam)
Right from our campsite we climbed through the medial moraine of Tidu glacier and headed straight up. It was pointless to look for a trail since none would be found. As we moved up and down, in and out of moraines and ridges, rocks crashed around us alarmingly, perhaps the result of a warm and windy day. I walked steadily but slowly, as it was very hot. The team was spread all across the glacier, everyone walking at his own pace. As I continued deeper into the glacier, my eyes remained riveted on a trio of peaks at 5995 m, 6294 m and 5935 m (from west to east), which girdled the glacier. Each was virgin and could give even the best climber some difficulty. The icefall below peak at 6294 m was horrifyingly rotten. The glacier turned right and far above, where the flank of peak 5995 m met a snow-covered rocky ridge, I spotted cairns silhouetted sharply against the blue sky. This was the Poat la, our next major objective. We pushed ahead to the moraine and pitched tents at various levels as there was no level ground in the maze of ice. We made tent bases by placing flat rocks (that were hard to come by) together and filling the gaps with smaller ones. From here we would veer west towards the pass. Up towards the cwm of the glacier lay two superb peaks of 5609 m and 5763 m, both virgin.
Camp at the base of Poat la. (Cdr Satyabrata Dam)
Looking back from Poat la. (Cdr Satyabrata Dam)
On 18 August, we left as soon as the sun cleared the ridge and climbed steeply over rock and ice flutings, toward the Poat la, which looked deceptively close. I walked at the end of the group. Avoiding the crevasse field to our left, we climbed through shingles and lose slab rocks that proved to be tough going. Though the leading porter reached the pass in about an hour and half, I took another hour to reach the top. At 5500 m, the Poat la was perched dangerously atop a sharp ridge with sheer drops on either side. The drop to where we had to descend was dizzyingly steep and extremely broken. The magnificent view drove all other thoughts from my mind. Row upon row of unclimbed peaks decked the southern horizon. The pass ridge itself led to a few very difficult peaks. The trail on the other side dropped so suddenly and steeply to the ice cwm, that we did not see the trail till we had started descending. It was hard to imagine yaks crossing this pass, as one of the porters declared to no one in particular. Keeping several climbing ropes handy, we started going down. Even the otherwise nimble footed and loud mouthed porters quietened down and used all fours whenever necessary. It was a difficult pass and a tricky descent. One slip and death would surely follow. Several times, the ones in the lead had to take shelter from flying rock missiles that the others dislodged from above. After the steep descent, we reached the glacier basin of moraines and huge rocks. Navigating these colossal obstacles we finally reached the little known Zanskari Kanthang glacier. On the other side, two rock walls reared up like sentinels, a rock climber's delight.
Approximately 15 km long and 1 km wide, the Zanskari Kanthang (ZK) glacier had numerous rocks and ice pinnacles strewn from one end to the other. Many were near the 6000 m mark, all unclimbed and never photographed from close quarters. One among them could easily be the mini Trango Tower. If we had climbing gear, I don't think I would have gone on ahead. One could easily spend a month on this small glacier, and climb more than dozen adrenalin-pumping peaks in true alpine style.
A virgin peak on the ZK glacier. (Cdr Satyabrata Dam)
On stepping onto the ZK glacier, we climbed onto the right lateral moraine as the glacier itself was composed of hard ice and countless streams. Rohit had been struggling since we had crossed the Poat la and I had stayed behind for him. While I watched the others disappear toward the next glacier, I looked back and saw a tiny dot staggering down the slopes. I had asked the others to go ahead and find a campsite. It had been a long, hard day and rest was paramount. By the time Rohit joined me, he was at the limit of his endurance. I took his pack, yet he could not move a couple of steps at a time. The sun had set by now and darkness descended rapidly. We were deep inside the towering moraine blocks, which was dotted with pools and streams. None of the others were in sight. I blew my whistle several times but got no reply.
The situation was fast becoming critical. We had no tents or sleeping bags. No food, no gas or burners. No sign of any drinkable water. Soon the darkness deepened into an impregnable black wall, which seemed to imprison us from all sides. Rohit refused to move. He dropped to the ground and pleaded with me to go ahead and get help. I had no idea where the others were. Just then, I spotted a few faint blobs of light. It was impossible to judge how far away they were. Rohit's headlamp had broken so I gave him mine, and deposited him atop a big solidly placed rock, which I hoped I would remember in the dark. I stepped completely sightless into the black wall. Purely by feel and using all my mountain instincts, I stepped and hopped from one rock to another as I climbed higher out of the moraine and to the slope so that I might have a better chance of spotting someone and vice versa. I blew my whistle periodically.
As I climbed higher and further away from Rohit, his headlamp also disappeared. I was walking on extremely slippery and treacherous ground, completely blind with no idea of where I was or where I was going. From a mental map, I knew the general area and the glacier orientation. Though I had no doubt that we would not get lost and nothing untoward would happen, I knew that if I slipped and fell into a crevasse, my bones would be crushed like matchsticks and I would disappear forever. No one knew where I was and finding a body in that vast amphitheatre would be impossible. The night was unbearably cold and I was worried about Rohit. Though I had wrapped him with all the layers we had, I was worried that he was immobile, starving and severely dehydrated. After what seemed an eternity, I saw a pair of lights rather close by, seemingly coming in my direction. I screamed and blew the whistle with all might. The answering whistle sounded like the sweet lullaby of Eden. Soon I met Padam (our head porter) and his assistant and led them back to Rohit. He could not move and it was impossible to carry him to camp, which was still two km ahead. The porters had gone ahead, following a gaddi track and had camped on a narrow grassy patch. Padam informed me that a group of porters and members had descended into the Dharlang glacier and were now separated from them. Luckily Padam had carried a sleeping bag, water and food. We left Rohit on the rock and moved ahead.
I spent a restless night. We were deep within one of the most magnificent but least visited valleys in the entire Himalaya and I did not know the exact whereabouts of nearly half my team. One officer was benighted 2 km back, and here I was with eight porters and two cooks, counting stars. There was nothing more that could be done that night. The morning came with a fresh breath of life and hope. I looked out of my tent and simply forgot for a moment where I was or the situation we were in.
If I had ever seen a more beautiful sight in the Himalaya, I could not recall it at that moment. We were perched precariously on a tiny grassy ledge at about 4800 m on the right bank of Dharlang glacier, at the junction with ZK glacier and another icefall. To my south, peaks of 6072 m, 5698 m and 5615 m (east to west and all unclimbed) spread out like a Japanese fan, coming down to the glacier in outrageously oversized falls of ice and rock. It was an unusually narrow gorge, filled with glacier ice, rocks and frozen pools with towering rock and ice walls rearing into the azure that was now painted gold and orange and all aglow with a brilliance that simply took my breath away. Sheep droppings confirmed that we had found a shepherd trail. We were on the right track. Padum and a few others went to look for the team that had descended into the Dharlang glacier, while I went back for Rohit, who, despite his night in the open, was much better. This was his first ever outing in the mountains and I knew he must have been having a difficult time but he was his cheerful self and looked none the worse. In fact he seemed rested and ready to go. The rest of the team joined us shortly before noon. We regrouped and moved on after a heavy brunch. We would do a short stretch that day and then rest. Our line of porters and members spread across the trail and I brought up the rear with the ever-smiling Tien Singh. He had been in this valley as a child with his uncle, and he kept pointing out peaks and other sights he remembered from then.
We lost altitude gradually, almost following the contours. Successive ridges opened up more streams, adjoining glaciers and icefalls. We waded through the Bodh nala and descended to a grassy meadow. Sheep and yaks dotted the green field and few horses loitered around. There was no sign of any humans though. The mountain slopes on either side bustled with violet, yellow and red flowers as they danced in the breeze. Butterflies fluttered, honeybees buzzed from one bloom to another. Birds twittered, hopping over the ground looking for food. It was paradise after so many days of rock and ice. We camped next to a stream that weaved through and around our tents. I could stretch my hand out of my tent and find the freshest water in the world. High above us, we saw a sheep and few men. Soon a few gaddis came down to greet us. We chatted with them and got as much information as possible about the route ahead and also our next objective, the dreaded 5239 m Sersank pass. What I learned was not encouraging. The glacier leading to the pass was totally broken, with steep icefalls and huge crevasses opening up. It would be next to impossible for such a large group to cross the pass, particularly without climbing equipment. The weather was again closing in with dark clouds plastering the sky. For the Sersank la we would need perfect weather.
On 20 August we rested. The sky was partly overcast. While the others washed and dried their clothes and generally lazed around, I climbed up the neighbouring ridge to get a wider view of the Shiv Shanker glacier and the Sersank la. Sitting alone at around 4800 m, I looked across the Dharlang glacier at the huge tumbling jumble of ice and rock and knew that Sersank la was out of the question for our team. We were too large and too ill-equipped. Over the years the glacier has broken and fallen, gouging out rock bands, making it a near vertical maze of 800 - 900 m of extremely treacherous ground, through which only a strong set of experienced mountaineers with safety and ice climbing gear could climb. Moreover, our porters would not be able to do it at all. I could not see the pass from where I stood, and thus had no way of knowing what actually lay there. With a steep rocky descent on the other side, I decided to skip the Sersank la. There were now two options for exiting this narrow valley. We could walk due west, along the Dharlang nala and came out at Machel and go on by road to Kishtwar and Jammu, or we could cross the high and rarely used Dharlangwala Jot (pass) and enter the remote Huram valley of Kishtwar. From there we could loop back across the Shipu ridge to the Pangi valley of Himachal and then to Killar. As I jogged back to the camp, I took yet another look at the majestic peak of Shiv Shankar, which dwarfed the rest of the ridge. At 6002 m, it is a giant in that area. As far as I know, it was still unclimbed. This region is so rarely visited by climbers and hikers, and so little has been written about these mountains that little can be said with any degree of conviction.
While returning to camp, I met the four gaddis again and asked them about Dharlangwala Jot. I matched their description with the map and it tallied. They confirmed that an occasional shepherd did cross this 5086 m high pass from the Dharlang valley into the Hurum valley. They assured me that the trail was well marked and the pass had little ice. That would be our track. At night it rained incessantly.
Tien Singh and I started before the others, as we had to find the base of Dharlangwala Jot. We kept to the right bank of the Dharlang glacier, high above the nala, following a gaddi trail. After a kilometre, we started descending towards the nala. We walked fast, leaving the Sersank la behind. Large wide pastures, with grazing horses and sheep, opened up. We crossed a side stream, with a rickety wooden plank as a bridge, hugging the steep rock cliff for support. At several places, side streams came down and widened before joining the main stream that we were following. We hopped, skipped and jumped from stone to stone to avoid wetting our feet. Then we came across a group of nomads comprising very severe looking women, a few unruly and dirty kids and one very old man. They spoke pure Kashmiri and we barely understood a word. The inevitable dog bared its teeth at us, straining at the leash. We took pictures and walked on. 1.5 km ahead, we came across a solitary mud hut. Tended by one woman and her son and daughter, it had three of the fiercest dogs I had ever seen in the Himalaya. She offered us buttermilk that we gulped down. We handed over sweets and chocolate to the kids and then sped ahead. The son wanted to come along with us to the pass.
Around another cliff, we saw a rickety bridge filling the chasm over the rushing waters of the Dharlang nala. We had to go across it to reach the base of the pass. Two small gaddi huts were a welcome sight. We literally ran across the bridge that seemed to be on the verge of collapse, askew as it was. A lone gaddi came down to greet us. He was Gaffur and in a mix of the local dialect and Hindi told us it would take us about five hours to reach the pass. We were on a perfect camping ground. Red flowers sprouted around through the lush green grass. We quickly pitched our tents and waited for the others to catch up. Soon everyone arrived and we camped for the night.
Dusk came sweeping down the valley with a magic wand, painting the glaciers red. A gendarme outcrop atop a rocky peak on the opposite side of the nala looked straight out of Harry Potter's world. Who knows, there might indeed be a witch or a fairy godmother residing in that rocky castle. We were at around 3740 m and it had been an easy day. I chatted late into the night with Gaffur, and learned a lot about the gaddi way of life. A gentle rain pattered through the night.
The next morning, Gaffur's uncle, Khursheed Alam came to meet me. He was an affable, well-travelled man. He had been to Delhi once and had fond memories of the Red Fort and Jama Masjid. He offered to show us the start of the trail up to the pass which was 1400 m of vertical ascent over very slippery ground. A heavy fog had descended and visibility was almost zero. It was wet, cold and rather windy. We started around half past eight. After crossing a stream we climbed straight up into a steep and slippery boulder-strewn field. People disappeared, appeared and disappeared, in and out of sight like a conjurer's trick. It was tough going and no one spoke. Our heavy breathing filled in the air. We followed sheep-droppings, as there was no trail. Far below, the Dharlang nala fell away rapidly. We could see the entire length and curve of the Dharlang nala as the sun played hide and seek through the dark clouds. Almost three hours later, we reached a gorge filled with a misty waterfall. Leaving the waterfall to our left, we discovered a trail through a grass covered rock gully that led straight up into the sky. It was so steep in places that we had to use all fours. After emerging from the narrow gully, we met another massive boulder strewn slope that took us above and across a hanging glacier toward the pass. After we topped the glacier, we saw the pass on the horizon. The cairns were sharply outlined against the darkening sky. The pass was the lowermost point on the ridge connecting two high and very steep pointed rocky spires. The approach to the pass was totally iced up under a tiny glacier with huge crevasses. We climbed to the pass with great care, as loose rocks and slab ice bombarded and crashed from the top continuously. A rock hit one of the porters and left a deep gash on his hand. He was immediately given first aid. We resorted to step-cutting at few places. The porters used rocks to crush the ice and also scattered mud in places where the ice was too hard. I slipped at one point and went down several metres, braking hard with my bare hands. I escaped with superficial injuries and a bruised palm. By now it was snowing heavily and the shifting sandy ground that led up to the pass was wet and sinking. We kept sliding and slipping and dodging stones all the time. My bruised hand was caked in mud and small pieces of rock and the open wounds were painful. We reached the pass at round 4 pm. It had been a long and challenging climb.
The top was extremely windy as the adjoining valley unleashed its stock into the one from where we emerged. The breeze cut through us, and the temperature was dropping rapidly. The snow continued unabated. I put on a Gore Tex jacket. Some of our porters huddled under rocky outcrops to keep out of the wind. I watched the others coming up from the glacier. Within the next half hour everyone had been accounted for except one porter and three members. From that height we had an extremely long and wide view of the entire glacier below but there was no sign of them. Keeping Tien Singh with me, I sent the others down the other side to set up camp and start the kitchen. The sun was setting and it was getting colder. Once again things were turning dangerous. Even after a freezing two hour vigil at the top, there was no sign of the four. I decided to go back down to the glacier and start a proper search. We discovered a safer route down and reached the glacier within twenty minutes. Walking rapidly, with headlamps on, we quickly reached the lower glacier and the moraine, walking back upon the trail. Around a glacier table, we found the four, slumped on the ground. We shepherded them and literally pulled them up to the pass and down the other side. We reached camp at around 8 p.m. The sky had cleared and the half-moon sprinkled its mirth down upon us unabashedly. The stars soon joined the symphony of the night and a grand orchestra lulled us to sleep.
We spent the morning of 23 August relaxing across the slab rock strewn campsite, drying clothes and sleeping bags under the warm sun. We started off just before 10 a.m. and descended rapidly toward the
Huram glacier and the nala. Soon we were across the rocky area. To our left the Huram nala cascaded down like a timid stream. The glacier was more of an icefall. Typical of Kishtwar, the opposite ridges were all decked with gravity defying hanging glaciers and massive waterfalls. Soon we reached plush meadows and green pastures. To our left (south) was a deep gorge with overhanging glaciers and vertical rock faces, while our path was decked in green grass punctuated by myriads of yellow, red and violet flowers. Countless streams and brooks crisscrossed our trail. This was Kashmiri gaddi haven and the green was dotted with sheep, lambs, horses and cows. Further ahead, where it rapidly disappeared into the horizon, the nala dropped away, turning towards the villages of Tun and Bhatwas. I stopped often to gaze awestruck at Nature's handiwork. If this did not prove God's existence then nothing else would! Around 1.30 p.m., we were just 4 km short of Tun and I could easily have reached it that day. But I wanted to soak in the landscape for as long as possible, and finding a vantage point, we camped for the day. The expedition mood was now buoyant and boisterous. Everyone sang songs and enjoyed the views. It had been an easy and thoroughly enjoyable day. What a contrast from the previous day!
We woke to a cloudy morning. The cook, sensing that we were nearing the end of the expedition, prepared a sumptuous meal. We followed the right bank of the nala and lost altitude through the day. The valley was widening. The Huram nala had been, for the most part, a quiet stream, but after a lacustrine dam, it started tumbling ferociously. Blocks of truant ice paved bridges at places. My porter companion, Nain Bahadur Shahi, regaled me with tales of his village in Nepal and his survey work in Himachal. We finally descended to the immense grazing ground of Sanyot Adhwari, where the Billing nala unites with the Huram. Nain was an expert medicinal plant and herb collector. He showed me few Shillajit outcrops stuck on out of reach rock faces. A gaddi boy loafing nearby informed us that there used to be a pass up the Billing and Larsa nala that led to Dharlang and Machel, but was not used anymore. We crossed the Billing and had to wade through cultivated fields of potato, green peas, maize and barley. The fields were in full bloom. We were nearing the village of Tun, our first village since leaving Urgus over a fortnight ago. Soon we crossed a long mane wall and then came Tun.
Typical Tibetan houses with flat roofs and black-framed doors, with runny-nosed kids and red-cheeked women welcomed us. Sonam, our only Ladakhi member, was very pleased to find his brethen. He must have got the whiff of chhang (an intoxicating brew). Seven families of around 30 people populated Tun. They were clearly Tibetan and Ladakhi in origin. None of them knew how they reached here or when or why. We rested on the open roof of the village chiefs house before walking ahead, through the villages of Alya, Khizrauni and Muthal, Chag and finally camped on the Chaund camping ground next to the gurgling Sansari nala. A group of young Kashmiri women visited our campsite in the evening and showing none of the restraint or coyness they are normally associated with, visited each tent and even entered our kitchen tent looking for male company.
On the 25th morning, we crossed Bhatwas and then the bridge across the Sansari nala. The trail went through thick wood of pine, deodars and chinars littered with bear droppings. Soon the trail started climbing rather steeply towards the Shopu pass. We had descended to almost 2800 m and now we had to climb over 600 m straight up to the pass that would lead us across the Shopu ridge and back into Himachal's Pangi valley. Though very steep, the climb did not seem tiring. We crossed a shepherd and his flock of 100 sheep. Nain and I were much ahead of the rest of the group. The trail eventually entered a deep narrow gorge and climbed very sharply, zigzagging sharply across stones and mud and uprooted tree trunks. Climbing this through rain would have been a nightmare. At around 10.30 a.m., we topped the pass. Far below us the Sansari nala glistened. Soon we reached the village of Dharwas and from there managed a lift on a tipper to Killar, the main village of the valley. The rest of the journey to Manali would be in roadways buses and I thought that we had left all danger behind. A day later when the bus (if it could be called one) flew and literally growled around blind turns and over the largest potholes in the Himalaya, throwing us from one side to another, with babies screaming their heads off in sheer fright, cruising like a maniac on the worst road I had ever seen, I realised that our troubles were far from over. One wrong move by the driver and all 60 of us passengers would reach a watery grave in the foaming Chandrabhaga river. Respite came in the form of a massive landslide stretching nearly a kilometre. The bus shuddered and screeched to a halt, inches from the chasm. We poured out of the bus, literally climbing on top of the person in front, as if our lives depended on it. We walked the length of the landslide and got into a bus on the other side. The bus did not go far as evening swept in abruptly and we were off-loaded at the village of Shom, where we stayed in the deserted forest rest house. The next day, we caught the same bus back to Udaipur and then went on to Keylong and Manali.
We returned to Manali on the evening of 27 August, after a wonderful journey that stretched across 18 days, 156 km on foot, crossing four high and dangerous passes over four long and crevasse riddled glaciers stitching together four remote valleys of the Himalaya. We had succeeded except for the Sersank la that we were unable to cross. We hadn't done so badly after all, keeping in mind that we did it using only maps. We had managed to photograph, explore and record some of the last blank spots in the Himalaya. My only regret was that we lost one porter in the process.
Just before we reached the Shopu pass, a stone suddenly zipped out of the woods and fatally injured the young Min Bahadur Thapa. The young boy had taken leave from his apple picking job in Manali to come along with us, hoping to make some extra money for his old parents back home. There was absolutely no reason why he should die that day and at that spot. We were out of danger and were on easy ground. It was the last day of our hike. But he died. I knew that he wouldn't be the last. These lofty and gorgeous mountains would claim other lives. As long as men go out into the wild, there will be some who don't return. I wish to dedicate this expedition and article to the memory of the young man who did not return. May his soul rest in peace.
A Trek across four valleys of Himachal and Zanskar
Total walking days: 17 days, covering 156 km
Passes crossed: Kang la (5440 m), Poat la (5500 m), Dharlangwala jot (5086 m), Shopu pass (3400 m) Regions covered: Himachal (Miyar, Pangi), Zanskar, Kishtwar
Maps referred in the order: 52 C, 52 C/16, 15, 11, 12, 8 and Trekking route map of Himachal Pradesh Sheet No I