Sulah – Sulah

A relaxed expedition in Spiti

Divyesh Muni

Chemma Peak

Chemma Peak (Rajesh Gadgil)

By afternoon we were camped at Batal. We met the famous Chacha – Chachi (uncle and aunt) couple who ran a dhaba of the same name. I was blown away by their enthusiasm and warm hospitality which included lodging, boarding, parental advice and assistance to all travellers who dropped by.

Although we love to travel, trek and climb in the mountains, we tend to apply ‘urban’ yardsticks as deadlines, schedules and targets bind us—friends plan mountaineering expeditions in this way—Stok Kangri in one week, Satopanth in three weeks, Nun in 20 days and so on. A pilgrimage to Manasarovar and Kailash Yatra is done in 10 days by helicopter and Everest Base Camp in five days (with a helicopter visit to base camp for 20 minutes). I always thought pilgrimages are for spiritual upliftment, reflection etc. and treks and climbing trips are to enjoy the mountains, and experience the solitude and grandeur of the hills. Then why the hurry?

We planned to explore and climb in Spiti this year, and we decided that our expedition motto would be ‘Sulah – Sulah’ which in Himachali language means take it easy.

Our six-member team from The Himalayan Club consisted of Rajesh Gadgil, Vineeta Muni, Ashish Prabhu, Ratnesh Javeri, Imran Pathan and yours truly.

Our plan was to enter the Karcha nala from Batal on the Manali – Gramphu – Kaja road. It was interesting to read the accounts by P. F. Holmes (1956) and J. P. O’F Lynam (1958) who had visited the area. Subsequently, several teams had visited the Karcha nala and climbed peaks in its various glaciers.

The Karcha nala has five major subsidiary valleys/glaciers. For our convenience we will name them 1 to 5 starting from east to west.

Valley 1 leads towards Karcha Parvat and Fluted Peak. At the head of Valley 2 is a beautiful peak with twin summits. The Tokai section of the Japanese Alpine Club named this peak Chemma after they made the first ascent of the east summit (6105 m) in 2011. Chemma means twin. They followed Valley 2 to the base of the peak and climbed the east summit from its north ridge.

Chandra tal

Chandra tal

At the head of Valley 3 lies the Chemma peak on the east and a beautiful dome shaped peak on the west. Holmes climbed the dome shaped peak in 1956 from the col between the peak and Chemma. The Tokai Section of the Japanese Alpine Club climbed the peak from the north east ridge in 2009 and named it ‘Ache’ meaning daughter.

Valley 4 goes towards the Bara Shigri glacier and Valley 5 leads to Gunther peak and a possible exit to Spiti valley from the Karcha nala.

We were keen to visit the Holmes col and locate a route into the Gyundi nala that lay to the south of the col. We decided to head up Valley 3.

On 10 July we flew to Chandigarh and were on the road to Manali. By the time we reached Manali, it was raining heavily, as if to set the mood for the rest of the expedition. We spent the next few days re- packing ration and equipment. A short excursion to Patalsu peak helped us acclimatize and get to know our support staff. We had with us Pemba Norboo Sherpa (aka King Kong), Sangbu Sherpa, Vipin Sharma, Rakesh Kumar (Keshu), Devinder Kumar (Shiva) and Ajeet.

On 18 July, we were on the road to Batal on the Manali – Gramphu – Kaja road. That night, we travelled further on to the Chandra Tal camping ground. A short walk next morning to the lake helped us to acclimatize. By afternoon we were camped at Batal. We met the famous Chacha – Chachi (uncle and aunt) couple who ran a dhaba of the same name. I was blown away by their enthusiasm and warm hospitality which included lodging, boarding, parental advice and assistance to all travellers who dropped by. Paper clippings and news articles stuck on the walls by their admirers told stories of the invaluable support they provided to anyone and everyone passing by. They have a terrific sense of humour and food and bed is provided with beaming smiles, regardless of the time of day or night; a not-to- be-missed experience for anyone visiting Batal.

Our horsemen were to join us on the 19th, but there was no sign of them. There was no communication facility in Batal so we sent one of our staff to Gramphu to enquire. While we waited for the horses, our porters made a light ferry of loads to base camp. There was no update on the horses but we were fortunate to meet a horseman with 12 horses who was passing through. He agreed to carry our loads to base camp from Batal. It was only a day’s walk so he could drop us and be on his way for his assignment. With 12 horses loaded, we set off to cross the Karcha nala just about two kms from Batal. Fortunately, the water level was not too high in the morning which allowed us an easy crossing. The route then goes along the true left bank of the river. It was a steady climb on easy ground for the next four hours. We reached altitude of 4500 m. We had to put up a temporary camp just across the nala from base camp since the river was in spate by afternoon. The expedition started on a sombre note. There was a shepherd across the Karcha nala with his flock grazing on the slopes of the valley. For some inexplicable reason his dog decided to swim across the river to visit our camp. But in seconds he was swept away leaving our entire team in shock and grief.

Base camp in Karcha nala (Ashish Prabhu)

Base camp in Karcha nala

Base camp could be established next morning on 22 July. We were at the junction where Valley 4 meets the main Karcha nala.

Climbing the ice wall to Holmes col (Rajesh Gadgil)

Climbing the ice wall to Holmes col
Climbing to summit of Chemma peak

Climbing to summit of Chemma peak (Ashish Prabhu)

Next morning, after a small puja at base camp, we recced a route to advance base camp. The route went along the true left bank of the Karcha nala. It was a steady but gradual height gain for the next few kms on the lateral moraine of the valley. We were soon at the junction where Valleys 2 and 3 meet. We left Karcha nala and turned right to continue about one km further up Valley 3. The main difficulty was to find a water source on the glacier. The main nala was too muddy with silt. We finally found a small glacier melt and reasonably even terrain for the campsite. The camp was among boulders and scree of the glacier at an altitude of 4900 m.We stocked up advance base camp next day before shifting on 25 July.

We stocked up advance base camp next day before shifting on 25 July.

The weather remained unstable. It did not feel like Spiti. It rained heavily, like it would in Mumbai at this time!! We kept an eye on the slopes behind our camp. With this torrential downpour, there was high risk of landslides. Fortunately, we were in a safe location. Although a huge landslide took down a large chunk of the slopes of the valley and there was continuous rock fall in most gullies, we were safe.

We had to spend the next day in our tents, enjoying hot cups of tea while catching up on our reading. This was a good time to relax and do what we would otherwise not be able to do – nothing. Evenings were spent exchanging stories and having hearty laughs at all our escapades over the years.

Karcha map 2018

Karcha map 2018

summit of Chemma peak

Ashish Prabhu, Divyesh Muni, Vineeta Muni and Rajesh Gadgil on summit of Chemma peak

Climbing the summit ridge of Ache peak

Climbing the summit ridge of Ache peak (Ashish Prabhu)

We got an opportunity on the 27th to recce the route to camp 1. We found a way along the true left of the glacier. The glacier takes a sharp bend at its head before it merges with the ridgeline that divides the Karcha valley with the Gyundi valley. We stashed our loads just before the bend on a strip of medial moraine which appeared to be the safest spot for the camp.

Ratnesh and Imran had run out of time, so they started their journey back on 28 July from ABC.

On 30 July, we shifted to camp 1 at 5400 m with the rest of our loads. The lead party found an excellent spot to camp on the true right of the glacier on a fairly even slope of lateral moraine. With a good source of water, it was at a reasonable distance from the rock and scree slopes.

The head of the glacier was hidden behind the sharp turn behind the ridge of Chemma peak (6130 m). We walked up the glacier for a good look at what lay ahead of us, so we could plan our adventures ahead. We saw promising routes to the high col between Chemma peak and Ache peak (6075 m) and a possible route to approach the west ridge of Chemma peak. Both would need closer inspection later.

On 1 August, one team went for a look at the Holmes col and the other towards Chemma peak. The route to Holmes col involved negotiating a 100 m ice wall to reach the col. We fixed rope on the col and were rewarded with good views towards Gyundi as well as Ache peak. While the route to the peak looked straightforward, the route down towards Gyundi looked horrific. The snow had receded from the southern slope of the col towards Gyundi. The entire slope below the col was exposed to rockfall. The second team found an easy route to the west ridge of Chemma. They came back very happy with the location of the proposed summit camp and the route to the summit.

We decided to attempt the west Chemma peak immediately. On 2 August, we climbed to the summit camp. Initially the route followed the glacier. After the sharp left bend on the glacier, we climbed on the lateral moraine on its true right. We then traversed on the steep scree slope to top-out on the west ridge of Chemma. A short distance along the broad ridge brought us to the summit camp. It was a delightful location with fantastic views all around. Just as we reached the camp site, we were hit by strong winds that made it very difficult to pitch our tents. It required one person to crawl into the tent to hold it down while the others anchored the tent. Fortunately, the wind subsided by evening. We enjoyed the most wonderful sunset while we lazed around our camp.

Panorama from Ache peak (Rajesh Gadgil)

Panorama from Ache peak

On 3 August, we started off for the summit at 7:00 a.m. along the northwest ridge of Chemma peak. The initial route was over steep scree and then on snow and ice slopes. The ridge has several steep sections followed by easy angled slopes. The longest steep section was 100 m. We reached the summit by 11:00 a.m. in clear weather with gorgeous views in all directions. For more than an hour we were lost in the scenery around us, taking photographs and identifying the peaks around.

We were back to summit camp by early evening and decided to stay the night. Next morning, we took it easy and left for our camp 1 by 10:00 a.m. We were down in two hours. We decided to rest a day at camp 1 before starting for Holmes col.

On 6 August, the weather took a turn for the worse with rain battering our tents through the day and night. Sometimes it would snow and sometimes rain. We were all set to shift to Holmes col but decided to wait till the weather settled. The rain and snow continued for the next three days relentlessly, showing no sign of abating. The cloud layer was thick and the rain would come down with gusts of wind. It did not look good. After several days of being confined to our tents, we ran out of patience. We decided that going across Holmes col was not advisable considering the time on hand, nature of terrain and the weather. It now appeared that we would have to abandon our attempt on Ache peak also.

Finally, on the 9th we decided to wind up the expedition. Our support staff went to bring down the equipment we had dumped for the summit attempt. But around early afternoon we were happy to see a few patches of blue sky. It raised our hopes for a last-minute attempt. We decided to take a chance from camp 1 itself, if the weather was clear early next morning.

And luck favoured us. At 2:00 a.m. on 10 August, we woke to a starry sky and quickly prepared ourselves. A couple of hours later we were off, making quick progress to Holmes col. The 100 m ice wall slowed us down but shortly we were on the east ridge that led up from the col. Most of the ridge was easy angled with a few sections of steep ground. We negotiated a steep step just before reaching the summit by 11:00 a.m. We spent a joyful hour at the top photographing the panorama around us. We found a cairn on the summit with a sealed note left behind by a team from ‘Himalay’s Bekon’ in August 2015.

Holmes Col—left is Karcha nala—right is Gyundi valley (Ashish Prabhu)

Gyundi valley
Chemma peak, Holmes col and Ache peak

L to R Chemma peak, Holmes col and Ache peak (Ashish Prabhu)

This was a wonderful end to our expedition. Over the next three days we made our way down to Batal. It rained heavily. We just managed to reach Manali and all hell broke loose. There were landslides in many places of Himachal and most roads were blocked. We were out just in time. It took a few days for the weather to clear and the roads to open. But our time was well spent, relaxing in a Manali hotel.

Sulah…Sulah it was!!

A six-member team from The Himalayan Club entered Karcha nala and made first ascent of West Chemma peak (6130 m) and an ascent of Ache peak (6075 m) during July – August 2018. They were plagued by bad weather.

About the Author

DIVYESH MUNI is a Chartered Accountant by profession and a great climber and explorer by passion. In the last 35 years of active climbing, he has climbed 32 Himalayan peaks, 20 of them being first ascents. Some of his noted climbs are: First ascent of Chamshen (7071 m.), New route on Chong Kumdan I (7071 m)), first ascent of Rangrik Rang (6656 m), Bhujang (6560 m), Sujtilla West (6273 m) etc. He is passionate about exploring and seeks out new areas to climb. In the recent years, he has concentrated on climbing in East Karakoram region.

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