In the summer of 1934 I first crossed the main Himalayan range, in Lahul. As a result of that journey I realized two facts which will not be news to the majority of the readers of the Himalayan Journal, but were so at that time to me. The first is that in the absence of deep snow there are few recognized tracks in that part of the world which will defeat hill ponies; the second is that, given a reasonable degree of comfort, there is no reason why the average woman in good health should not follow any route on which her riding pony can move.
On this basis my wife and I set about making the necessary arrangements for a tour through Spiti, Rupshu, and Lahul, starting from and ending in Kulu, to be carried out in August and September 1935.
Having carried out that tour, our main excuse for breaking into print about it must lie in the fact that there are many people who dismiss such touring as 'All very difficult'. That it is not so, at a suitable time of the year, we hope to show. At the same time, there were more departures than one from the normal in our final route, which may perhaps be of interest to those whose experience of the Himalaya exceeds our own.
We arranged for men and ponies (a headman, three coolies, one riding and six pack ponies) to be collected in Lahul, and to be sent to meet us at Manali in Kulu (52H). This system did not prove altogether satisfactory. It resulted in our being faced with a collection of ponies in very poor condition. We had consequently to move very slowly during the first stage of our journey, through Spiti, to enable them to pick up. The system had another disadvantage. The headman who collected the ponies was from the first in possession of full information about the proposed route. From subsequent events we are convinced that he believed himself able to influence us into restricting our movements to easy routes in Spiti and Lahul. It was, we feel, on an understanding to that effect that the pony owners accepted service. We had consequently a certain amount of intrigue to contend with. Admittedly, that intrigue merely took the form of frequent misrepresentation of the difficulties ahead, but it was none the less annoying. It ceased entirely after we had passed the Parang La, when Rupshu provided the easiest route back to Lahul.
We consider, then, that it is far better to collect and select one's own men and transport, assuring oneself that each man thoroughly realizes before starting exactly what he is being called upon to do.
In our outfit we were much more fortunate. We had learnt from experience that the secret of true comfort lies in the elimination of the unessential rather than in the collection of masses of material. Every item was carefully selected, as giving the best value for its size and weight, at a low cost. This selection proved a fascinating occupation. As a result of it, the complete outfit for ourselves and bearer, including six weeks' supplies, weighed 740 lb., our expenditure on items of which we were not already in possession amounting to some Rs. 200. I hasten to add that our standard of food and warmth was high.
The following are some of the items which proved particularly useful: Lilo mattresses, saving camp-beds and one or two blankets per bed; Gilgit boots; windproof suits; Petromax lamp—a godsend of considerable effect, not only in substitution of the usual gurgling hurricane lantern, but also for warming our 80-lb. tent; ration boxes, used as table and chairs; eggs greased with butter, which kept extraordinarily well, but looked better scrambled than boiled during the last few days; soup tablets; sun-dried apples and apricots bought in Kulu, of which we never tired and which proved extremely good for the body.
The only thing which failed us was bacon. Bacon prepared on cold-storage methods appears to be useless on tour. That which we took cried to high heaven before we had been out a week. However, we were always able to get mutton—a sheep lasted from twelve to fourteen days, largely because we dry-salted a portion of each. Salting greatly improved the flavour of the meat when cold, thus to some extent counterbalancing its toughness.
We had originally intended to travel by the Hamtah pass (52H), the Chandra valley, Kanzam pass, Kibar (52L), Parang La, Karzok Gompa, on Tso Morari, the Polakonka La (52K), then back by the main Leh route to Kulu through Lahul over the Lachalung La (52G), the Bara Lacha, and Rohtang passes (52H). We arrived in Kulu, however, on the 17th August, in a period of pouring rain, and were met by our headman with a tale of woe: So-and-so, he said, had just tried to get over the Hamtah with ponies, and had had to give up the attempt and to go over with coolies;1 there was a fine new revasse in the Shigri glacier, and the stream from its snout was too big to be forded this summer; did we not think that it would be a good idea to go round by the Bara Lacha La and down the Chandra?
This was rather a poser. Fortunately, we were then advised locally to try a route, over the Rohtang pass and up the Chandra valley to (Ihhatoru, which was apparently used regularly before the route over the Hamtah was developed. This we did. We found it perfectly practicable and very pleasant. The Chhatoru stream, running down from the Hamtah pass (52H), we crossed by fording at its mouth, a light but strong 8o-foot rope proving very useful.
Parts of Kulu, Spiti, Rupshu, and Lahul
We tried that rope again when we arrived at the Shigri stream, but this time the current was too much for it. The stream was certainly high. Two coolies and I got across, but it was obvious that loaded ponies could not. Further, while we were deliberating on the matter the stream rose higher. In attempting to return I got two thoroughly good duckings, and failed. My wife then took the remainder of the party, with the ponies, across the glacier, and we met them at the far side. She reported that she found no particular difficulty in the actual glacier, which was like ordinary rough ground. Nevertheless, it could have been no easy task, as no track could be found, and no one in the party had been across before. Three ponies fell, but without damage to themselves or to their loads. My wife is of the opinion that they would not have fallen had they been led.
The real difficulty in the Shigri glacier appears to lie in its eastern approach. Here is an almost vertical bank about 200 feet high which has to be climbed if the glacier itself is to be crossed. Ponies can wriggle up it. Ours did so, but the heavy portions of their loads had to be carried—a difficult task, which entailed two or three trips for each available man. The descent past the snout of the glacier looks the easiest, but at that time stones were coming down rather frequently at that spot.
We feel, then, that any one intending to ford the stream should camp near the glacier the previous evening, so that the attempt can be made early in the morning and before the daily rise of the stream, and not at Puti Runi, as appears to be the general custom. Also, in case crossing the glacier should prove necessary, there should be a proportion of one man per pony. Men surplus to normal requirements can be discharged after the glacier has been crossed.
Here I would say more of our headman. At the making of a bandobast he was hopeless. Further, he never bothered about getting reliable information, and appeared to prefer telling a fib to telling the truth. When faced with a definite job of work, however, he was a marvel; he then worked like three men himself, and could, and did, make the other men pull their weight cheerfully.
We reached Jughta (52L), preparatory to going over the Parang La, on the 4th September.
Up to this time the climate had been perfect. We had had no troubles, except for sunburn and a peculiar little sore which made its appearance on cracked lips, and which was very difficult to get rid of. Grass had been abundant for the ponies at each stage. Except at Ghhatoru, Puti Runi, and Shigri, there had been any amount of the prickly shrub called Charma, which makes a good fuel, and our Primus stove had had to be used once only. The altitude had not worried us. We had got away from the monsoon, found neither flies, mosquitoes, nor less drawing-room insects, and we had enjoyed ourselves immensely. Incidentally, though shikar held a secondary place in our tour, I bagged a nice bharal at Jughta on the 5th.
From the time we tackled the Parang La, however, we found ourselves up against sterner realities. The trip still remained very interesting and enjoyable. But the autumn had definitely set in, though exceptionally early, we understand, with its occasional bitter winds. These worried us till we reached Lahul, and made us congratulate ourselves on the preparations we had made to meet them. Also, the altitude in Rupshu, about 15,000 feet in the valleys, affected our sleep to some extent, and made my wife feel limp in the early mornings.
My wife crossed the Parang La on a yak, which we sent back at the summit. We had been told that the ice of the glacier on the far side could be crossed only early in the morning, before it had become too slippery, and that we must therefore camp for a night just on the near side of the summit. This we did, and consider that we faced a very cold night at about 17,200 feet and a very early start next morning for nothing. There had been a slight fall of snow two days before which should have given a good grip on the ice at any time of the day while it lasted. The crossing should in such circumstances be completed in the one day from Jughta. For the ponies the only difficulty lay in the stiff descent from Jughta, before the climb began.
The valley of the Pare Chu proved, for its length, the most barren part of our whole route. It gave no pleasure, either to our eyes or to our ponies' stomachs, and, for lack of information on that point, we had taken only sufficient grain to cover the period of crossing the Parang La itself. The Pare river proved no obstacle at all to fording anywhere.
After the Pare Chu it was a great relief to reach the marshy plain of Nurbu Sumdo, and the ponies made the most of the ample grass. There for the first time we saw kiang, the wild, but very inquisitive, ass of Ladakh. Farther on, the Tso Morari, in a setting of hills as barren as those of the Pare Chu, carried hundreds of geese. The water of this lake, while it is marked on the map as brackish, we found to be sweet half-way up the western side.
It was near the Tso Morari that we first experienced the bitter autumn blast to which I have already referred. It was an experience not to be forgotten—the Khojak wind at Quetta is nothing to it.
Karzok Gompa was practically deserted at the time of our visit, the monks apparently being away at the northern end of the lake. Its sole interest to us, therefore, lay in the fact that it held the only buildings to be found along 150 miles of our route, with the exception of the rough stone shelters put up by shepherds.
We had been told, some days before, that a short cut existed from Karzok Gompa to Toze Lungpa on the Leh road, perfectly practicable for ponies. As we had plenty of time in hand and were not particularly keen on the Polakonka route we decided to try it. It proved well worth while, and took us through a wonderfully well- grassed area.
This route carries a considerable amount of traffic—ponies, yaks, and sheep—between Lahul and Karzok Gompa. It is reported to be open throughout its length as soon as, or before, the Bara Lacha. Yet a considerable portion of it is not shown on the Survey maps at all, and part of the remainder is shown as a footpath only. From Karzok Gompa to Toze Lungpa is three days' reasonable journey.
The two passes to be crossed are very easy. The altitude of each is about 17,500 feet; both can be ridden over on ponies. Of the two the second calls for the most exertion as the last 500 feet on either side are very abrupt. In this pass we found a good deal of snow, a little of which had to be crossed. Much of it was fresh, as there had been a fall the day before.
At the camp in the Shermer nala, beyond the pass, my wife fell sick through a chill, which had started at the Tso Morari and which had been aggravated by the bitter cold since. This cold snap was, as far as we can gather, very widespread. After two days in bed she was able to travel but was not really fit again for some days.
The colouring and jagged cliffs of the eastern approach to the Lachalung La were wonderful. We expended much Cine-Kodak film on that scenery, regretting only that we could not capture the varied tints. We were also fortunate enough to get a really good chance to photograph an ibex doe and kid, which stared at us from a distance of about 50 yards for some minutes.
In general, we found Survey of India quarter-inch maps of the area traversed remarkably accurate. In fact, in places where we thought the map was wrong, we nearly always ultimately realized that the mistake was ours. Nevertheless, on map 52G the road between Gian and Sumdo is shown inaccurately—and in a way liable to cause considerable disappointment to any one travelling from south to north. On that map the road is shown generally as following the nala, with a gradual rise from Gian. Actually, it rises abruptly about 1,500 or 2,000 feet above Gian, follows a track along the hill-side high above the nala, and then drops equally abruptly to Sumdo.
Before crossing the Bara Lacha La we spent nearly two days on the Sarchu river. I looked for bharal, good heads of which I had seen there in 1934. On this occasion I saw nothing, except signs of poaching. My wife baked bread and cooked meat against the woodless stretch between Kenlun and Patsio.
All the country between the Sarchu valley and Kenlun simply swarmed with marmots. We had seen many of them in Rupshu, but never before in such numbers.
For the crossing of the Bara Lacha La we had a perfect day, but on the following night snow fell, and it continued to fall for two or three days. During most of that time, however, we were rejoicing in the lower levels, warmer air, and marvellous autumn scenery of that portion of Lahul lying between Jispa and Kyelang. The flowers of Lahul in spring are lovely, but their general effect is almost surpassed by that of the autumnal tints. The blood-red patches on the hillsides, merging into the fresh snow, were particularly striking at this time.
At Jispa we first met civilization, in the shape of the P.W.D. rest- house. My wife promptly celebrated the occasion by catching a cold, from which nuisances we had both been free hitherto. We hope that the recording of this fact will not be taken as any criticism of the P.W.D., for whose hospitality we are more than grateful! We took full advantage of it during the remainder of our trip.
At Kyelang we engaged fresh ponies, as our original ones were, after traversing the eaten-out Leh road, again in poor condition. At the same time we reduced their number to five, and discharged all except one camp coolie. After dawdling along the Chandra valley we ended on a high note, moving from Khoksar R.H. to Manali in the one march, arriving there at 3.15 p.m. on the 2nd October.