Exploring the Debsa ... and beyond

Gerry Galligan

In June 2008 four of us Irish mountaineers visited Spiti, with the aim of making a first ascent of Peak 6135 in the Debsa valley and exploring some little known tributaries and cols nearby.

It was a long haul up to the valley. Travelling first to Shimla where we got inner line permits, then Kalpa, where we stayed overnight. A visit to the monastery complex at Tabo the following day was a must, and we were very impressed with the colourful thankas, the 1000 year old frescoes and the rich Buddhist heritage there.

It was late at night when we reached Sagnam, a village west of the Spiti river at the mouth of the Parahio valley, so we obtained lodgings in the village's rest house.

20 Nepalese porters arrived from Kaja and Manali the next morning and our caravan departed for the Debsa valley shortly after. We camped in the village of Kaho Dogri that night. Earlier we discovered some of our porters were overloaded, carrying in excess of 25 kgs, so we hired five donkeys and a herdsman to compensate. That aside, it was a magnificent sight to see the spearheaded form of Ratang Dru from Kaho Dogri, stretching to the heavens. It reminded us of the aiguilles we'd climbed in France.

Two days later we reached Thwak Debsa, where a spring was located for fresh water supply and our camp was assembled. We encountered two rivers on the way which may have posed problems, one flowing from the Ratang area with a broken bridge to cross, the other near Thwak Debsa at Bauli Khad, but both were overcome by man and most animals.

I was interested to discover Thwak Debsa means 'a place of stony summits among glaciers'. We were all fascinated to see how the Spitians harnessed their barren landscape to create fertile oases in which to grow their crops of potatoes, barley, peas and mustard seed - purely with their ingenious system of irrigation and river control. We found these a friendly, frugal and happy people with plenty of time to salute us strangers with a smiling Jule. a chat and an offer of help if we needed it - wonderful folk.

Our trek in to BC allowed us to gently acclimatise, going from 3600 m at Sagnam to 4250 m at Thwak Debsa. Nevertheless, further acclimatisation was essential prior to tackling any peaks.

After a rest and organising day at BC (12 June) myself, Mitchell, Scarlett and our LO did a recce halfway up the east upper Debsa and deposited two ABC tents at the base of the SW ridge of our intended peak. An examination of the ridge indicated that it would be a feasible climb - but not without difficulty. A steep tower halfway up at 5500 m would pose a problem with three potential options, and the summit snowfield appeared steep in places. But of greater concern to us was the approach to the ridge which necessitated two river crossings: one at our BC confluence, crossing the west Debsa nala; the other a 150 m waterfall feeding the east Debsa nala at the base of the ridge. As we were to find and practice over the coming weeks, river crossings were best done in the early morning, before any snowmelt from feeding glaciers increases water volume and velocity. We also rigged a tyrolean traverse across the west upper nala confluence in order to be able to retreat from the east upper valley in the evenings when returning to BC.

On 14 June, myself, O'Murchu, Mitchell and Scarlett set out on our first objective - that of the first potential crossing of the two heads of the Debsa valley, from west to east, and back to BC. The col lies adjacent to the Kullu-Spiti mountain divide and next to the Parvati valley. An English explorer, Kenneth Snelson, had ascended this col from the same side in 1952, but had never crossed it. He was mainly busy tackling the peaks of the nearby unknown Dibibokri valley. So we thought it might be an idea to finish his business.

Travelling light we progressed two-thirds of the way up the west upperDebsato an altitude of 5100 m. Howevertwo nights of rain and cold plus our inferior bivvy bag shelters and the uncertain weather outlook put paid to our chances of a col crossing. Owing to his waterlogged bag, Mitchell fell particularly foul of the cold, wet conditions. We ended this pursuit and beat a path back to BC, retracing our steps. All was not lost however. Greater acclimatisation was achieved, and the distinct paw prints of two snow leopards were discovered as parallel tracks across the glacier as we padded back to camp. They were obviously hunting during the night. They might have smelt us, took pity and absconded. They would have been right.

On 18 June we began our attempt on Peak 6135 m, with the four of us ferrying loads up the west upper Debsa to the base of the peak. However this exertion and that of the col attempt had tired us all and so the next day was declared a rest day. The day after, with everyone

refreshed we continued man hauling loads up to ABC at 4800 m, to the top of the waterfall flowing down into the east upper nala. Weather and mountain conditions were promising.

On 21 June we left ABC and began ascending the peak via the south face of the ridge, up tons of rust-red scree. We found a rib and gully and scrambled 150 m onto the ridge crest. It was tough going, with each man hauling 18-20 kgs, the heat building up and the loose unpredictable ground underfoot. Overall the rock quality in Spiti is poor - a sedimentary mix of shattered slate and crumbing shale - dreadful stuff. Often we pined for the Ann familiar granite of the Wicklow hills. Nevertheless we moved up the ridge, scrambling over tors andslipping regularly. Our ears became accustomed to the distant roar of the Debsa nala and the constant clatter of tumbling rock underfoot, like delph[1] falling off a kitchen table. It was unpleasant, slow and breathless climbing. The only encouraging aspect was the settled spell of weather. That said, we made progress and edged closer to the crux at 5600 m - a 100 m tower of unknown difficulty. We had hoped to scale this obstacle. Our plan had been to scale this problem or traverse around it by its right hand side and then make camp on a safe flat section above it. But it was getting late, mid-afternoon and our bodies were tired. So we opted to make camp on a small saddle below it.

Dibibokri Pyramid. (Gerry Galligan)

Dibibokri Pyramid. (Gerry Galligan)

A 3 a.m. start the next morning saw three of us continue. Scarlett was understandably exhausted from the previous day and bravely decided to forego a summit attempt. Thus we re-assessed our plan, reduced our equipment needs and pressed on. With the three of us operating a running belay, Mitchell led an intricate line to the right of the tower. Up we went over crumbling ledges and snowy breaches. Sling cast around spikes and attached to the rope via cold, tinkling karabiners. We moved together and came to a chimney. Awkward moments were had as one by one, each man ascended it, boots slipping on either wall sending cascades of loose rock down on the next man. Later we navigated upwards over steps, a snow runnel and awkward ledges. 140 m later saw Mitchell anchor on a flake and belay us in. We had overcome the tower.

After a rest we rejoined the ridge, curving left and then to the right. More scrambling over poor, sharp rock was called for. Halfway up the ridge we passed a needle, about 8 m high and 1.5 m wide. It was strange to see such an odd, isolated structure sticking out of an otherwise predictable form.

Finally we came to the last hurdle, the summit snowfield; it was a 45-50 degree incline, approximately 300 m high, about the size of a football stadium in height and breadth. By the time we reached it, it was 10 a. m. and each man was flagging. Luckily the snow was reasonably firm. But we knew this last problem would demand the last vestiges of energy from us. Some caution was thrown to the wind. To lighten our loads, Mitchell and I jettisoned all non-essential clothes and gear. Only rope and water was carried. We nibbled some chocolate and nuts, steeled ourselves and faced the field. Up we went, duck walking and front-pointing, axes in one hand, poles in the other, me leading, slowly and breathlessly. A pattern unfolded - 30 steps and then stop - a brief rest, several deep breaths, then move on. Halfway up, the steps reduced to 20, and then 12, before resting. The summit ridge was clearly visible, but a niggling thought kept bothering me. What if that was a false summit and we had more work to do beyond it? But I needn't have worried. At exactly 12 noon I set foot on it and looked down the sweeping chasm of the NE face. We'd made the top. There was no more mountain and we were oveijoyed.

A quick shimmy up a 7 m natural rock stack ensured we were at its zenith. And what marvellous views we were rewarded with. To the north, the icy slopes of Kangla Tarbo and the leviathan peaks of the Dibibokri, Khamengar and the Bara Shigri. To the east and south, serpentine ridges of our massif and some spectacular technical peaks and cols and to the west plenty of lovely peaks still awaiting a first ascent - altogether a heavenly sight.

With celebrations and formalities completed the three of us scrambled back onto the snow and started back down the snowfield. Our happiness had instilled a fresh sense of energy and alacrity among us. As is so often the case in mountains, perseverance and hardship almost always pays off - this day being no exception.

We made it back to the tower and carefully retraced our steps down. By 5 p.m. we made high camp to be congratulated by Craig. We were exceptionally tired, but very content.

The following two days saw us descend from the mountain and move back to BC laden with gear. Our triumph was celebrated with a small bottle of Jameson and a cake that our cook Raj Kumar baked. High spirits prevailed!

It was interesting to note both before and after our climb that many of the peaks around the Debsa are quite technical. Not as high as other parts of the Indian Himalaya, but challenging nevertheless to any rock climber or mountaineer. The poor rock quality being additionally challenging.

During our rest days at BC two Rampur gaddis brought their flock of 400 sheep and Kashmir goats into the valley. It was a strange but wonderful sight, seeing so many fine animals milling around BC. Considering the occasional hardship we mountaineers face, without question these men and their animals endure more prolonged discomfort, having crossed many mountain passes and glaciers during a 25-day journey, fighting off predators, living rough and constantly dealing with the elements. They would remain in the Debsa for two months, prospering on the high grasses, after which they would return to Rampur, another epic journey, for the winter. It is a long, hard, lonely existence but a healthy one. We can only admire them.

Peak 6135 (Ramabang) - view from Bauli Khad. (Gerry Galligan)

Peak 6135 (Ramabang) - view from Bauli Khad. (Gerry Galligan)

Bauli Khad valley head and col. Peak 6507 m on right. (Gerry Galligan)

Bauli Khad valley head and col. Peak 6507 m on right. (Gerry Galligan)

From peak 6135m (Ramabang) - summit view SSW. (Gerry Galligan)

From peak 6135m (Ramabang) - summit view SSW. (Gerry Galligan)

From peak 6135m (Ramabang) - summit view NNW. (Gerry Galligan)

From peak 6135m (Ramabang) - summit view NNW. (Gerry Galligan)

Having made the first ascent of our peak, we agreed to propose the name 'Ramabang' for it, meaning 'place of Rama'. This for two reasons; I could find no other mountain in the Indian Himalaya dedicated to Rama, one of the great characters of Hindu lore, hero of the Ramayana. Also because the peak is the highest point of a large massif of some 30 square kilometres. Wouldn't it be good to imagine this land might have once been the idyllic forest he and Sita were exiled to in their happy youth, long before the Himalayas were formed?

We were all delighted at having made the first ascent of our chosen peak. The expedition was indeed a success. But there was still one more challenge to take on and plenty of time to do it, namely an exploration of the Bauli khad - a side valley joining the Debsa. No one to our knowledge had explored this valley, let alone reached the head of it to cross into its bigger, neighbouring Dibibokri valley. Only Snelson, again in 1952 ascended the col from the Dibibokri side. But again like the Debsa col, he never crossed it. Would we be the first to do it?

On 28 June O'Murchu and myself left BC for a recce of the area. Mitchell was immersed in solving the many bouldering problems around Thwak Debsa as was not to be moved, and Scarlett rested up with a swollen toe. Our excursion began badly with intermittent showers of rain forcing us to take cover under our tent fly sheet. Later that afternoon we realised we took a high route on the west wall of the valley mouth directly from Thwak Debsa, unexpectedly forcing us to descend 100 m to the valley floor. What with the poor weather, the misdirection and the poor endless rock, we frequently had reservations about continuing. But we managed to get some of the way up the valley by evening and make camp at the snout of the glacier. Once the weather had cleared we were immediately enchanted by the sight to the south.. .the high conical summit and fine lines of a snow tinged peak, rising majestically from a massif. Ramabang. A mountain well named and fit for a king. We were chuffed. Our mountain - standing tall and proud in the evening light. An unforgettable sight.

The next morning saw blue skies and the col at the head of the valley was crystal clear. To the right adjoining it lay a huge 6507 m unclimbed tower, of many serrated ridges and steep snow-filled gullies. On the opposite side lies a smaller peak of 6130 m, and adjoining that, a high wall of treacherous hanging glaciers and crumbling rock guarding the valley basin. An impressive, contrasting amphitheatre. A gradual snow slope leads to the col, which we plodded up. It was hard, slow going, particularly given the reflected heat of the morning sun. By 11 a.m. we made the col and ascended it. It wasn't technical and placed us at 5600 m. A lovely sweeping view of the Dibibokri with its many large peaks revealed itself. We took it all in. Descending to this valley was feasible. An axe, a pole and the comfort of a rope would do. Metaphysically we were now eye to eye with Snelson.

After two days rest back at BC, O'Murchu, Mitchell and I set out to cross this col and trek down the Parvati. We were lucky with good weather. On our second day out at 10 a.m. we crossed the col without difficulty and entered the Dibibokri. Several crevasses had to be negotiated prior to reaching the main valley. Hot and tired we took a rest below the giant wall of the Kullu-Spiti divide. However our slumber was interrupted by a rock the size of a television set tumbling off the wall towards us. We were lucky. It narrowly missed Paulie. I never saw him move so quickly.

As we marched down the valley we examined the fortress that is the Kullu-Spiti divide, between unclimbed peak 6507 m and the Dibibokri Pyramid. It is a high impenetrable bastion. I couldn't help recalling the 1956 expedition of British climbers Peter Holmes and Garret Walker, and how they managed to descend this wall from the Khamengar valley. They had been climbing and exploring the nearby Ratang valley and were hoping to follow Snelson's route from the head of the west upper Debsa to the Parvati. But without a map, they were well off track, in fact two valleys off track. But they managed to get to the Parvati, despite not having eaten for days. It was quite a feat - descending the divide without food and only primitive gear - nerve wracking in the extreme. We could only take our hats off to them, and be thankful for our knowledge and in not having to follow them. They were desperate and brave men indeed.

There must be 100 square kilometres of moraine waste in the Dibibokri - hundreds of thousands of rough red boulders and stones - and it felt like we trampled over every one of them as we made our way south to the Dibi ka nala. It was hard, knee-rattling work and the loads on our backs didn't help. But our toil was rewarded once we reached the Ratiruni nala confluence and the lush greenery and abundance of sweet smelling flowers lifted our spirits. From here to the Parvati was a pleasure as we followed an easy gaddis track and admired the wonderful array of buttercups, forget-me-nots, poppies and juniper bushes, in full bloom under our feet. It was quite a change from the harsh rocks and glaciers of the previous weeks we had been accustomed to. A veritable magic green carpet and a feast for the senses.

Two days later we reached Khirganga and immersed ourselves in the hot sulphur baths there. Our expedition was over. We were delighted with what we had seen and what we had achieved - a first ascent and a new route over a pass from the Debsa to the Parvati. Our cups had been filled to overflowing. Certainly Spiti and Kullu, it's people and mountains had been kind to us .... to four lads who had never been to the Himalaya before. Most definitely our experiences would rest in our hearts for many years to come.

And something tells me it won't be long before we make a return trip to the region again


The first ascent of Peak 6135 m in the upper Debsa valley, Spiti, on 22 June 2008. The name 'Ramabang' has been suggested for this peak. The party crossed a high pass from the Debsa to the Parvati valley.

[1] Glazed earthen-ware made in Delf, Holland

[1] Kim, by Rudyard Kipling. (Macmillan and co, London, 1901)