Birds eye view on the Hemis National Park in Ladakh as seen from the summit of Stok Kangri at 6150 m
In Volume 74, we ran an article on Peter Van Geit running across 40 Himalayan passes in 2018. He ran again in 2019 – covering 120 passes this time.
My name is Peter Van Geit. I was born in Belgium and have settled in India for the past two decades. I love spending time in nature through long endurance journeys. It’s my way of meditation; to travel to remote locations and experience lost humanity. I am a mix of an explorer, ultra runner, minimalist and alpinist. Last year I ran 2000 km solo through the remote mountains of Northeast Vietnam near the border with China. This year I planned a new challenge—to spend the entire summer in the Indian Himalaya exploring as many high passes as possible. Eventually, I ended up crossing 120 passes over 3000+km and 175000 m of elevation gain, passing through 341 remote hamlets where I experienced true humanity. The highest pass I reached was at 6150 m.
Across 120 high passes (red) and touching 341 remote hamlets (blue) across the Western Himalayas including Uttarakhand, Himachal, Ladakh and J&K
Cooking dinner in an open shelter in Bhel Tach in the Great Himalayan National Park surrounded by moonlit peaks
Fairytale hamlets of Uttarakhand - Kathi village at the lush green foothills near the entrance of the Pindari valley below the snow clad peaks of the Nanda Devi wildlife sanctuary
The journey—mostly solo—was done in exploration style—My friend Maniraj and I spent weeks analyzing various maps and blogs to locate and identify lesser known passes connected through a 3000 km Himalayan route covering Uttarakhand, Himachal and Ladakh. The journey was executed alpine style without any support, self-planned and self-navigated finding my way through virgin jungles, alpine meadows, moraines, glaciers, snow sections and wild streams. In several places I lost my way and tried to get back on track using topographic maps and modern navigation. Being a runner I also went minimalist, carrying just 5 kg of gear—to complete the journey in an ultra-pace, power hiking 12 hours each day, crossing 120 passes in four months (or roughly one per day).
Dangerous stream crossing at Shilla Kong in Ladakh on the way from Lamayuru to Kanji
I carry a basic shelter—mostly sleeping in the open with a lightweight sleeping bag, carrying a 500 gram bivvy to protect against rain and cold wind. I did not carry a stove or fuel as most passes were crossed in one to two days. I could get a resupply of fresh food in remote hamlets in between. In the vast high altitude desert of Ladakh I collected shrub and yak dung and sprinkled kerosene to cook food for five to six day sections in between villages. I had no technical gear except for an ice axe to cut through numerous frozen snow gullies while opening passes in early summer. I wear trail running shoes and light breathable clothing to climb up fast and for comfort in wet and hot weather and crossing streams. A lightweight puff and rain jacket are used to layer up and stay warm in cold and rainy conditions.
Campsite in the alpine meadows of the beautiful Dhauladar range separating Kangra and Chamba districts on the way to the lesser known Waru pass
Navigation is done using off-line contour maps on my phone. I carry an extra power bank which gives a five to six day action radius before recharging. I use Open Street Maps (OSM) as a base layer (it has numerous trails, villages, campsites...) overlaid with my own GPS routes for lesser known passes taken from Himalayan hiking blogs and self-marked using satellite maps. The exact location of all 120 passes and 341 hamlets passes were marked in OSM and documented using geo-tagged photos, daily blogs and maps on my blog ultrajourneys.org in an effort to create a central repository on passes in the Indian Himalaya which is currently absent.
Putting together a realistic four-month multi-season 3000 km long Himalayan route had to take into account various key factors: altitude (high passes close in spring), seasons (July-monsoon in lower Himalayas), glacial melt water (unpassable streams, dangerous currents) and shepherd migration over open snow-covered passes. All 120 passes were looped together minimizing in-between travel. The journey started with crossing the entire length of Uttarakhand through 30 sub-4000 m passes in May, exploring several deeper valleys and ancient trade routes near the border with Tibet like Dharma, Milam and Pindari. The state has many beautiful undocumented cobbled and dirt paths connecting remote, tribal hamlets (some taken straight out of a fairy tale) through virgin forests and passes connecting neighbouring valleys. I experienced unseen hospitality in most villages minimizing the need to carry food or even shelter.
An elder lady preparing lunch for a starved traveller near the remote hamlet of Darsaun
Fluffy wood fried rotis above the clouds hosted by a shepherd in the Kaliheni Nalla valley near Bara Bangal, the most remote settlement in Himachal
A long line of sheep and goat crossing the Pir Panjal range at 5000 m altitude over the treacherous Kalicho pass while migrating from Chamba to Lahaul in spring
With the snow line retreating early June, I moved on to the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) a wildlife sanctuary and protected biosphere in Kullu, Himachal tucked between the high ranges of the Pin National Park and Kinnaur. I explored the valleys of Tirthan, Sainj rivers and Jiwa nala connected by 4000 m high passes. With little info available online on trails in GHNP I navigated using a rough schematic diagram downloaded from the tourism website. The park has some of the steepest and most inaccessible rock cliffs I encountered. Losing the less used trail here meant getting stuck in near-vertical cliffs. I encountered tribal people collecting jungli nalla - a highly valued medicinal root smuggled to China and large, beautiful quartz rock crystals found in these high ranges.
Semi nomadic tribes migrating across the Pudhong La to the remote settlement of Dibling along the Orna river in the high altitude desert of Zanskar
The blue glacial waters of the holy Lam Dal lake reveal itself from beneath the winter snow at the start of summer at 4000 m in the Dhauladar range
In mid June I moved on to 4000+m passes across the Dhauladhar range separating the Kangra plains and the Chamba valley. I opened several passes above Dharamsala with my ice axe cutting through numerous frozen snow gullies. These mountains rise up sharply from the plains and gradually descend into Chamba leading to holy pilgrim lakes which were still covered below ice and snow due to unprecedented snowfall last winter. On the Palampur / eastern side of the Dhauladhar several lesser known passes (like Waru) are used by shepherds to migrate from the plains to Chamba. Several times I lost track of these unmarked trails dropping steeply into the Kangra plains and partly covered by snow ending up in free solo moments trying to climb down near-vertical rock faces before setting firm foothold again in the frozen snow gullies below.
At the end of June I followed the footsteps of the gaddis in their annual migration from the Chamba valley across the 5000+m Pir Panjal ranges to the high ranges of Lahaul and Pangi. Their herds graze the alpine meadows during the entire summer to produce better quality milk and meat. Many of these high passes like Darati, Marhu, Kalichu are gradual on one side but very steep (some 1000+m near vertical drops) climbing through a labyrinth of narrow passages up these steep rock faces. Combined with landslide prone slopes, large moraines on melting ice and crevassed glaciers several animals do not survive the journey. The experience of crossing these undocumented, virgin passes along with kilometre long herds of thousands of sheep and goats is life memorable experience.
Hospitality in these remote and inaccessible corners of the Himalayas is beyond words. Completely disconnected from modern society, living in a self-sustained way, in harmony with nature, one encounters the gujjars (nomadic tribes) in the forests of Chamba. They treat you as a royal guest, especially if travelling solo in these untouched places. A friendly face, a cup of fresh buffalo milk, followed by a sumptuous dinner of fluffy rotis over a wood fire and fresh ghee poured over dal sabji mixed with sheep milk before dreaming off beneath the stardust of milky way in the dark night skies above, on a warm goat skin in a mud home with the soothing sound of the nearby stream—this is real. This hospitality is standard procedure with the semi-nomadic shepherds who will offer you—without expectation—fresh food and shelter for the night. We find humanity in these places of untouched natural beauty which we have lost in modern society, where we sell our souls to money and greed.
Highlight of my journey—the sight of one thousand sheep descending from the Chaurasi pass in the Chamba valley on their way to graze the high alpine meadows of the Chanju Nalla valley
Dreaming below the dust of the Milky Way, above the mighty Pir Panjal mountains as seen from nearby Gadasru Mahadev
With the onset of the northwest monsoon in July, I cross the Kang la, one of the largest glaciers in Himachal, moving on from Lahaul to the high altitude desert of Zanskar and Ladakh. Here one enters an entirely different world—a vast, desolate unearthly landscape of highly eroded mountains and glacial streams cutting deep canyons through rocks of unusual gradients and textures. One encounters many deserted settlements which would have once been vibrant farming ones, probably because of climate change and because younger generation prefer to leave this hardship for the comforts of the cities.
With the monsoon rains pouring down in the lower Himalayas I crossed around 30 high passes between Zanskar and Ladakh around the Hemis National Park. Changing weather patterns have also led to frequent rains in Ladakh. This has given birth to bustling green eco systems in some of the interior valleys of this barren desert.
One encounters many hikers from all corners of Europe in the touristic regions of Ladakh, most of them carrying loads of gear and comfort on horses, accompanied by horsemen, guide and cook. Few of them go alpine style but no one really goes minimalist. All seem surprised when I run past them with my five kg pack covering thrice the distance of the average hiker. Navigation is straightforward with trails clearly marked by horse dung, cairns and footsteps. As soon as I step into the lesser known passes I am on my own again with no living soul around me except for herds of wild yaks, ibex (wild mountain goats) and snow leopards. In mid-August unprecedented rains flood the lower Himalaya and cover the high ranges of Ladakh with a white blanket above 4000 m. The interior passes and canyons which I planned to explore in Hemis are out of bounds again due to dangerous stream currents.
I hitch a ride along the Manali-Leh highway which had been closed for five days due to massive landslides and continue exploring some of the lesser known passes around Bara Bangahal, a remote corner on the border of Kullu, Kangra and Lahaul. Ancient trails are destroyed in many places by fresh landslides and crossing turbulent streams remains a challenge. We manage to shortcut valleys, streams and landslides using frozen snow bridges which are still intact due to unprecedented snowfall in winter.
Our hosts and guardian angels of the Himalaya, the shepherds, are returning home early this year, expecting winter to set in soon and facing an uncertain future. They have challenges unseen in previous generations in a fast changing high altitude world due to climate change caused by unsustainable living in the cities and plains. In September I wrap up my 120th pass and decide it’s time for a short break before heading out to my next destination...
Across the Himalaya 2019 was a journey of mesmerizing natural beauty discovering unseen humanity in the remotest corners of the Indian Himalayas. The entire journey is documented through photos, videos, daily blog posts and maps on ultrajourneys.org. Special thanks to Bluebolt (bluebolt.in) minimalist gear.
In 2019, Peter Van Geit decided to spend the summer in the Indian Himalaya exploring as many high passes as possible. Eventually, he ended up crossing 120 passes over 3000+km and 175000 m of elevation gain, passing through 341 remote hamlets. The highest pass he reached was 6150 m.
Peter Van Geit is an explorer, ultra runner and alpinist. After roaming dense jungles in South India for more than a decade he quit his job in 2017 and since then has been into full time solo exploration of remote mountains. He ran 2000 km solo across the Northeastern mountains of Vietnam in 2018. Over the last two summers, he spent six months in the Indian Himalayas exploring 150 lesser known high passes in the footsteps of shepherds and mountain tribes. He is the founder of the Chennai Trekking Club (CTC), a non-profit volunteer based community active into outdoors, sports, environmental and social initiatives with 40+ thousand members. CTC was active in rescue and rehabilitation during the Chennai floods in 2015 and Gaja cyclone in 2018 saving lives and rebuilding livelihood of hundreds of affected people.