I have of late lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory…
Just three days had passed since our return from Nanda Devi East, and I’d found a soul mate in Hamlet! The first day back at base camp passed in soporific relief when every taste and sensation was a delight. Day two was the hangover day. The body was still racked with fatigue, but our ultimate failure began to rankle in the conscience. The sun beat down without mercy through the third day. Our cook’s offering of pizza and apple pie produced no more than a temporary revival. I faced another four days of idleness before our porters arrived for the return journey. In the absence of commitment the valley was beginning to feel like a prison.
Some small spark of motivation was needed. ‘What about trying a direct return to our roadhead town of Munsiari?’ I thought. A high glacial col linking the Shalang and Poting valleys was the key passage. Our 1:150000 map showed gentle contours on the Poting side but there were no records of any exploration. I couldn’t walk 64 km in my high-altitude boots, but reckoned that my Scarpa trekking boots might just suffice for the crossing of this 5500 m col. I reckoned they could take a strap-on pair of walking crampons. I commandeered our liaison officer’s crampons, removed the clip bindings and substituted repair wire to provide strap attachments on the heels. Five days of lightweight roaming over unknown mountains - what could be better? The venture was up and running.
My partner, Mark, needed no persuasion to join the cause. He wanted an extra day at base camp to make a solo ascent of Nanda Lapak so I left alone next morning to scout the route. I marched down the Lwan valley and for 10 km of steady descent felt healthy and free. Then, within the space of an hour, my 20 kg load began to chafe and strain, my right knee became sore, and all my vigour drained away. The tiny deserted village of Lwan marks the corner between the Lwan and Shalang valleys. I wearily descended to the Shalang river and crossed the wooden bridge left by the summer inhabitants. A thick matting of juniper, azalea, thorn-bush and tussocks of rye grass clothed the far slopes. I was reduced to a deadened crawl. Clearly, my enthusiasm had run beyond my physical capacities.
Bankatia from Poting
I planned to camp at the first available levelling where Mark could easily find me, but the lower valley was a V-trench. Side-canyons cut across the shepherds’ trods, necessitating perilous traverses on 60° gravel. The dirty glacier snout was a mile upstream and the lateral moraine ridges soared hundreds of metres above. On the point of exhaustion I found a tiny shelf in the fallen debris from conglomerate cliffs which offered a postage-stamp of level grass on which to pitch the tent. A side-stream lay five minutes beyond. The altitude was 3700 m. I plundered more than my share of our five-day rations, and, as night fell, dropped into an unbroken 10-hour sleep.
I awoke with a serious reassessment of the task ahead. The Shalang valley was 12 km in length and utterly deserted. The height gain to the col was a mouth-watering 1800 m. The autumn nights had become barren with frost. We couldn’t simply blunder up there and hope to find our way. A reconnoitre was essential. I left at 7:00 a.m. in frosted shadow and climbed 400 m up steep ridges to gain the lateral moraines. The transition in landscape at this point was remarkable. The moraine ridges harboured a vast grassy plateau, perfect for sheep grazing, with a network of meandering freshwater streams, all fed by the snows of 5674 m Shalang Dhura.
Chaudhara and Rajrambha from Poting col
All day I was plagued by hunger. There was an undeniable temptation to give up and descend to Martoli village, but to get a clear view of the col I needed to get beyond Shalang Dhura and out on to the Shalang glacier. The valley curved slowly leftwards. Nothing was revealed until I rounded the bend and got up on to the final moraine crest. There was a simple descent out on to the dry glacier at 4550 m altitude. After four hours on the go I could finally see the col, which lay on the left side of complex glacier slopes, replete with séracs and crevasses, on the north flank of 6050 m Dangthal. I pieced together a likely zig-zag line and returned to camp in reasonable confidence, but, oh my goodness, this was big country!
Mark found me at 5:00 p.m. On 7 October we moved our tent and loads up to the top of the moraine at 4450 m ready for the assault on the col that night. With addition of a 60 m rope, small climbing rack and extra food, our loads were close to tipping point. How I rued bringing a change of clothing for Munsiari and a solar panel. Why on earth had I brought two books? I completed Voltaire’s Candide that afternoon, wrapped it up and left it as a gift to the shepherds, saving 300 grams on the back.
In the dead of the following night we passed my high point and strode on to the dry white ice of the glacier. Our pace was steady and purposeful. After three km of walking and at 4800 m a steeper tongue of ice appeared in the pre-dawn murk, signalling the way to the col. Mark moved ahead. So long as I placed my feet flat on the ice my crampons seemed to work. We skipped over a few small crevasses and at 5100 m the glacier became snow-covered, so we put on the rope. Behind us dawn rose over the rectilinear south face of 6861 m Nanda Kot.
The snow became deep and drifted, and crevasse fields, unseen in the view from below, complicated onward progress. Soon we were traversing the edges of giant chasms and crawling over a series of tenuous snow bridges. The col lay up to our left and was guarded by steeper slopes of harder névé snow. With Mark in the lead I kicked in my front-points and the crampon instantly fell off. I kicked in the other toe with the same result and fell on to my axe pick while Mark took a belay. My footwear improvisations had their limitations.
I got up the remainder of the slope by flat-footing, and at 10.15 a.m. after seven hours on the go we walked on to the crest of the col on a firm crust of sparkling snow. The altitude was 5595 m. On all sides the possibilities were exciting. To our south the final snow crest to Dangthal offered a tempting 6000 m tick. Directly ahead a virgin rock peak of 5631 m called Bankatia sported a striated face of alternate black and white rock bands. We could have camped where we were and had a most marvellous time, but we had to consider the small matter of descending the Poting glacier.
Suddenly, this no longer looked so simple. The glacier dropped away in a big step to a lower shelf then disappeared from view. This was nothing like the gentle stroll we had envisaged. The next spot height on our map was 3610 m down at the snout. A descent of 2000 m is not to be taken lightly, yet we hoped we might be camping down in thicker air on a green and pleasant moraine that evening.
Chaudhara, Rajrambha and Panch Chuli II from the col
The first big step materialized as a major icefall. We descended diagonally to its lower left edge and made two abseils from ice threads to gain an escape corridor. Down on the shelf we scanned our options through the midday haze. The glacier swung outwards to the left under Bankatia. With purposeful stride we descended another 300 m out to the leftmost extremity of the ice, multiplying our commitment to whatever lay below.
The brink of the next icefall arrived abruptly. This was no temporary hitch in progress but a gigantic plunge. The glacier simply collapsed from pleasant convexity into a savage melee of séracs. We could see about 400 m down to a levelling whereupon the ice took off again on a second downward thrust into a bath of boiling cloud. I made an ice screw belay, and Mark lowered down to inspect the corridor on the left side which was our only hope of salvation.
He reported emphatically that there was no sane way down. The afternoon cloud blotted any clear view of the terrain on the right side of the glacier. We could see some open screes and jagged grass-covered spurs. A large lake nestled in a hollow in between1. To get over to that side we had to climb back up to 5150 m and traverse the glacier shelf above the icefall. There is no worse trial than being forced to retrace downward steps, especially in sloppy snow with a heavy load.
Shalang glacier, Dangthal and the col
Lawan village and Chiring We
We shouldered our sacks and with grim determination plodded back uphill, then traversed across to a promontory on the far right side. Now we were wrapped in mist and forced to camp where we stood at 5120 m. The night was tense. A single packet of cous-cous sufficed for dinner. We pondered our predicament. The col was 500 m above and behind us. If we went on we could go much further down and still get stopped. Would we then have the energy and time to climb back over the col and back down the Shalang? There was no food left to sustain another night up high. What if the weather turned and we had to get back over in a white-out? Our porters were now on their way back to Munsiari by the sensible route. We would be pushed to catch them up. We had gotten ourselves into a proper adventure.
A stiff breeze flapped at our tent porch through the early hours. My boots were frozen even though I had used them as a pillow. I took them into my bag for an hour to thaw them out. We breakfasted at 4:00 a.m, heartened to see clear skies, but had to wait until 6:00 a.m. for the dawn before we could leave. The next two hours were critical. The sunrise heralded a vista of 5000 m summits ahead of us, laced with mini-glaciers and snow-fields. Our own glacier shelf sloped off into steeper ground, but ended on a rocky spur, an island of hope. I went first on a belay, slapping my crampons flat on the bare ice.
Poting icefall - 900 m
We reached the spur, removed crampons and headed down on a short rope. The ridge steepened into a vertical buttress. Deep gullies, raked by stone-fall, flanked the crest. The drop to the next rock shelf was at least 200 m. With a rack consisting of just two cams, six wired nuts and one peg we couldn’t risk abseiling for fear of running out of kit. Instead, we opted to try and down-climb into the gully on our right. This was the effective point of no return. We climbed in pitches placing runners all the way. The overall angle was 70°, but a weaving line materialized down shelves of frozen gravel and rock steps. We were heartened to find the ground easing the further we climbed. Two large rocks flew down one branch of the gully as we arrived. The icicle fringe of the glacier shelf was directly overhead. This was a place to quit at once. We un-roped and bounded down the gully, riding shifting gravels and rolling boulders to the safety of the rock shelf.
Sunlit lateral moraines made an alluring frame to the lower valley. Our altimeter put us at 4650 m, still 800 m above their sanctuary. We now traversed rightwards away from the main glacier towards the lake that we had spotted the previous day. The first downward gully disappeared into bare slabs and shaded depths. We crossed a rock spur in search of something more palatable. Here Mark found a second canyon, broader and easier-angled. In a single knee-wrecking hour this led us down to the brink of vertical moraine walls at the base of the main glacier.
Shalang valley and Nanda Kot
The main icefall swung into view. High above, we spotted the level perch from which I had lowered Mark the previous afternoon and gasped at the scale and brutality of the terrain beneath. The icefall was close on 1000 m in total height, and completely inescapable. I’ve never seen a glacier quite so frightful anywhere in the world. To have embarked on that descent, with or without working crampons, would have been suicidal.
Even now just 100 m above the flat lower glacier we feared a sting in the tail, but remarkably our canyon cut through the wall of conglomerate and offered a stairway of boulders down to safety. We ploughed through acres of pulverized silt and perched boulders to a ramp in the far moraine. With a couple of skips up the gravel walls I grasped tufts of warm grass and pulled over the crest. Mark sat ten m away by the edge of a tranquil little lake, surrounded by autumnal shrubbery. In an instant we were home and dry. We kicked off shoes, paddled our feet, and brewed a celebratory coffee.
The Poting valley dropped a further 1200 m to Bugdiyar on the main Munsiari trekking route. The descent took three more hours of thrashing through bear-infested forest on an intermittent trail. We arrived at nightfall and at last could realize our dreams of rice and dal. The woes of Hamlet were long forgotten. Life was once more vibrant, no longer melancholic. When the archway of adventure opens all we have to do is move.
Only back home in the UK did I find that the col had been crossed before by Dr Tom Longstaff and his Swiss guides Alexis and Henri Brocherel as a sequel to their 1905 Nanda Devi explorations. Their adventure is described in Longstaff’s autobiography This My Voyage. The glaciers may have been easier back then, but one can only bow in admiration to the amazing courage and commitment of Kumaun’s earliest climbing pioneers. For future reference the traverse should definitely be undertaken in the opposite direction from Poting to Shalang, allowing the route up the south side of the Poting glacier to be scouted from below. Spring would be the best time when snow-cover will allow faster and safer progress.
A traverse of the Shalang-Poting col (5595 m) in the Kumaun Himalaya by Martin Moran and Mark Thomas, 5 – 9 October 2015.
Read about Martin Moran on Page 53.