The two lower pitches (of three) on the mighty Dhankar fall, 2018 (Vinay Chandra)
We hope we can safely introduce more people to this sport. Local authorities in both Spiti and Lahaul have taken keen interest in ice climbing as an activity and seem interested in promoting it to drive winter tourism.
Ice climbing is one of the fastest growing extreme sports in the world. Although the sport is more popular in the West, it is becoming a salient part of winter in the Himalaya. One would imagine Himalaya to be the biggest provider of ice but logistical reasons and lack of winter access maybe reasons for the late start of this sport in India. The other reason could be the binary between mountaineering and rock climbing, a space that is beginning to fill up slowly with dedicated efforts by small cohorts of climbers and alpinists.
Over the last seven years various events and exploratory trips are taking place across the Himalayan states, from Lahaul-Spiti and Solang valleys of Himachal Pradesh, Pahalgam in J&K to Nubra valley that divides the Karakoram and Ladakh ranges as well as parts of Gangtok. These forays have shone light on the scope of ice climbing. It’s important to note that all these locations are accessible by road in winter. (Lahaul has become accessible 2020 onwards with the Atal Tunnel opening).
Each year from November through March as the cold sets in these high altitude and low precipitation mountain regions, waterfalls flowing down the flanks of ravines and gorges turn into curtains of ice. The colder it is and the less sun it gets, the better the quality of ice. We found some of the highest and quality ice lines in Spiti and Nubra valleys with Lahaul right behind. It is safe to say that the potential for big water ice is huge in India and so far what has been identified is just the tip of the iceberg. This is mainly because the pool of ice climbers who are working to tap the potential of this mighty playground is only just beginning to expand.
The first time I climbed ice was on a trip in January 2015 with my friends and climbing partners Karn Kowshik and Bharat Bhushan.
Karn, who had spent many summers in Spiti travelling and working as a guide, was certain we would find frozen waterfalls to climb. We had the intention but we had very little gear, even less experience and as luck would have it, a lot of snow that particular year. We relied heavily on YouTube videos and Karn’s fresh ice climbing lessons from his US trip for that short vertical escapade. Out of a total of eight days, we climbed for a total of one and a half days (the latter cut short by a mini avalanche). The rest were spent in getting there, finding the crag (Shillah nala) and a warm shelter, waiting out bad weather and driving back before getting trapped in a ten day storm that was to come.
A lot of what we managed to do was courtesy the guiding hand of Tsering Bodh, owner of the Sakya Abode, the only homestay that was open in winters. His home was going to become our winter sanctuary for many seasons to come. That was a great first lesson from Spiti and we knew that we had to come back but with more time and in a Gypsy, the only car with an engine that kicks off in the frigid Kaza mornings. Ever since that trip, ice climbing became a seasonal thing and at least one of us has spent one–two months there each winter. Although shortlived, the eight-day trip gave us an itch that grew into a desire to return better prepared—it continues to grow each year.
Rigzin Tsewang and Steve Robitshek warming up in the Lingti nala, Spiti valley 2020 (Praveen Jayakaran)
En route to Kaza town from Lingti nala, Spiti valley, 2019 (Ashish Sharma)
That year in December I participated in two winter events that helped me understand the element of ice better. First was an ice climbing training in Kirov, Russia and the second was the BMC Winter Climbing Meet in the Scottish Highlands. The biggest lesson from these events was the importance of training in the specifie element that you want to climb in. I had to embrace the cold in order to thrive in it.
I then returned to Spiti in January 2018 to ice climb and also to shoot a segment for the movie project Wild Women where I was being documented for the ice climbing segment. Bharat, who usually spends his time ahead of the season scouting lines, more than anyone else I know, steered me in the direction of the mighty Dhankar fall. My third lead climb ever on water ice turned out to be one of the tallest (180 m) and steepest lines in the region! I had previously only top roped a few pitches in Gulaba and Lingti nala. It obviously helped to have a good lead head thanks to my extensive rock climbing background but climbing a HWI 6+ route at 4000 m I wasn’t prepared for. Yet, when I reached under it, I knew I had to attempt it. Looking back though, it was and still remains the sketchiest ice I have climbed so far in terms of both quality and protection. I have climbed it thrice now and it doesn’t fail to drain me physically and mentally at every attempt!
Tsering Bodh (by the door) spreading warmth and joy as usual by making sure everyone is well fed at the Sakya Abode, Kaza 2020 (Pravin Jayakaran)
With each passing season as we gained skill and confidence navigating technical ice, we realized that we had to pass on what we were learning. Consequently, Bharat came up with the idea to start an ice climbing festival that was christened Piti-Dharr; Piti referring tthe way locals pronounce Spiti and Dharr translating to ice in the Spitian dialect.
The first installment took place in January 2019 and had some very skilled climbers and guides join us from the United States including Karsten Delap and Ari Novak. We also gained a crucial member of our core team, Anil Belwal. Together we made some significant first ascents together, watched some immaculate leads and we were able to look at our crags from a fresh perspective in terms of risk management because we were now introducing the activity to absolute beginners.
Continuing with our tradition to never stop learning and encouraging exchange of knowledge, in the 2020 edition we welcomed Swiss IFMGA guide Sussanne Meier and NOLS Instructor and EMT Steve Robitshek to the festival.
The festival is a platform seeking to promote the sport of ice climbing in India while preserving the space that became our winter oasis and involving the local community who’ve opened their homes for us. It aims to provide grounding in the technical discipline of water ice climbing by fostering a culture where climbers are aware of the opportunities around them and have the ability to pursue them. Another important objective is to boost the confidence of Indian climbers on navigating steep terrain to open technical routes and attempt new lines in the Himalaya.
Anil Belwal, Mukesh Pawan on the right and Sunil Bodh and Prerna on the right tooth of Sabertooth Wall, Keylong, 2021. (Mehul Pangtey)
In our endeavours, we also hope to identify and nurture local young talent from within the valleys by exposing the local kids to ice climbing through a programme of mentorship. This is facilitated by providing them with gear and training free of cost during the festival alongside other participants. The festival also gives an opportunity for sustainable tourism for the people of Spiti during the lean winter months.
Tsweang Namgyal leading a big, beautiful route in Nubra (Karn Kowshik)
In January 2020 while we return to Spiti, Karn took off to explore the potential in Ladakh. Alongside Tsewang Namgyal and Rigzin Tsewang, he managed to open around 20 new routes, some of which are spectacular lines. The highlight was spotting a shan, the elusive snow leopard!
In the winter of 2021, the Lahaul valley opened up for commercial traffic via the Atal Tunnel (a project that took ten long years). It is hard to imagine but previously, this valley was only accessible in winters by a chopper. We made our base in Keylong, identified a nala with a good volume of falls and spent two fulfilling months climbing water ice to our hearts content. Routes ranging from HWI 3 all the way to HWI 6, this region provided more than we could have asked for. The approach to the falls was shorter and less technical than Spiti. It was also much warmer and the little streams had running water unlike Spiti where everything but the Spiti river pretty much freezes.
Ice formed from water that escapes the turbines at the Rongthong powerhouse, 2019 (Abhijeet Singh)
Moving forward, we are excited to see how this season reveals itself. With unstable weather and rising heat, it is becoming increasingly important to stay alert when in sensitive zones such as these. We hope we can safely introduce more people to this sport. Local authorities in both Spiti and Lahaul have taken keen interest in ice climbing as an activity and seem interested in promoting it to drive winter tourism. Therefore we aim to explore opportunities for ice climbing by creating artificial ice fall setups. This is a popular practice in the West where ice parks are created by dripping water from pipes which freeze overnight.
Shan spotting (Karn Kowshik)
Prerna Dangi shares her musings and ambitions as she takes us through a frozen white wonderland of icicles and waterfalls, thus describing the new and nascent world of Himalayan ice climbing.
Prerna Dangi is a professional climber who’s pushing the limits on rock, ice and everything in between. Based out of Delhi, she works as an outdoor guide. Nine years of vertical outdoor experience has been gained in several locations across the world but for her, the ultimate goal is the Himalaya. As an aspiring alpinist she has delved in all aspects of climbing—high mountains, competitions, frozen waterfalls, and bouldering. She actively contributes to foster a strong climbing culture in India with emphasis on getting more women into the sport. She also plays a key role in the community lead initiative Piti Dharr Ice Climbing Festival. As an Ambassador to the social enterprise, Eco Femme, she advocates healthy and sustainable menstrual practices in the remote villages around places she visits for climbing.