Monday, 11 June 2012

Lion Peak : The Seed is Sown

I licked my wounds for 3 months after the Dudha debacle. The doctor in Bandra whom Margaret (my wife) and I roused from his Sunday afternoon siesta at his house took a cursory look at my bleeding head, prescribed a few painkillers, and told me I would be all right.

Well, he was quite wrong! I stayed home for a week, calling in sick, doing a post mortem of the accident. I knew I was lucky to be alive : if my skull had struck the rock at a different point, I would not be narrating this story. Needless to say, I was not wearing a climbing helmet - I did not even own one. Ah, those halcyon days of amateur rock climbing!

When my wound showed no signs of healing after a week, I trotted off to the medical clinic at Air India where I worked and showed it to the company doctor. He was horrified that the Bandra doctor had not put in a few stitches and closed the wound : that would have had me on the right track and enroute to healing. Now the wound was infected. This resulted in a portion of my head being shaved off and the proper medication applied. I was granted rest for another 3 weeks!

I had plenty of time now to not only critically examine my fall but also to ask myself certain searching questions :

  • At age 29, was I too old to start rock climbing? Even though I had completed the Basic Mountaineering Course at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering 7 years earlier in 1978, I had not really taken up rock climbing after that...I had stuck to hiking in the Sahyadri and trekking in the Himalaya.
  • Was I going to risk life and limb and a livelihood by pursuing this sport?
  • Was this fair to my spouse?
The questions were resolved 3 months later when I stood alone below the Classic route at the Dudha slabs. Though this small 3 pitch climb was the easiest on the slabs, I felt nervous. I knew I was trying to prove something to myself. A couple of weeks after the accident, I had successfully climbed the Table Top route with Ravi and Faruk and this had purged my fear. Faruk was to become my regular climbing partner in the next couple of years and we would spend many happy hours wandering up the cliffs.



Faruk on the first pitch of Table Top


But right now, as I looked up at the sloping rock, I realized I had no back up. I could not afford to make a mistake. Any error could prove fatal. Banishing all negative thoughts, I began to climb. The first pitch went smoothly, to the shallow cave-like feature where there was a bolt hammered into the rock for a belay. I paused here for a while, looking out over the dammed Dudha lake at the smoky pall that hovered over this part of industrial Thane. I thought about the little Himalayan climb that Ravi and I had been planning now over our last few meetings. I would take the short train ride from Bandra to Matunga Road station and sit in Ravi's shop (called Avi Industries after his eldest son Avinash) and shoot the breeze with him. Though Ravi was about 15 years older than me we got along well. Ravi had not been to the Himalaya for a long time, so when I mooted the idea that we should go and climb a mountain, he readily agreed!

Since I was not really a mountaineer (merely doing a course at an institution does not make you a climber), I had to be careful that we did not bite off more than we could chew. I found the perfect peak after going through a couple of old issues of the Himalayan Journal.

Lion peak in the Bara Shigri glacier happened to have a decent altitude of a little over 20,000 feet (6187 metres), did not involve any technical climbing, and was situated in the rain shadow area in Lahul. This last factor was important, because it was easier to get off work in the monsoons than at any other time of year! The peak had been first ascended in 1961 by the Kulu Women's Expedition - Josephine Scarr and Barbara Spark had driven a Land Rover all the way from England and spent a couple of weeks climbing in Lahul and Spiti.

It had been almost 2 years since my last visit to the Himalaya - a trek in the Langtang Valley of Nepal - and I longed for those high mountain valleys and glaciers.

A few fat raindrops suddenly brought me back to the present; a pre-monsoon thundershower pelted me with rain, a heady smell of sizzling rock and earth being suddenly cooled came to me like a heady perfume, and I scurried up to the top of the route, through the crack on a boulder which heralded the top of the hill. I was safe now and enjoyed the walk back down to Mumbra. The monsoons would soon drench Mumbai but I would escape to the high ground in Lahul.

On Independence Day - 15th August - Ravi and I boarded the Paschim Express at Bombay Central railway station and headed for the freedom of the hills - or so we thought. Thirty six hours later, we had exchanged the warm and moist humidity of Mumbai for the cold rain of Manali. Accompanying us was Arvind Thakker, a young lad foisted onto us by Paresh Daru, an old friend of Ravi's. Paresh had told Ravi that Arvind was just coming along for the ride, he was keen on a little hike in the Himalaya and promised that he would be no burden on us. He was in his late teens and had never been in the Himalaya.

The three of us checked into a poky little "hotel" where Satish Patki was holed up. This was the same Satish who had held my fall at Dudha...now he was on his way back from a climbing expedition himself. On his reccomendation, we engaged two porters to help us lug our loads to a base camp on the Bara Shigri glacier.

We boarded the Kulu - Kaza bus at 6:15 am on Sunday, 18 August. It was already quite full, but we did manage to grab seats for ourselves after loading our kitbags onto the roof of the bus. As the bus groaned up the twisting mountain roads through the villages of Pulcharn, Kothi, Gulaba and Marhi, the rain came down hard and cold. The driver of this public service bus was kind enough to let us get down at Rohtang Pass and take some photos. At 13,050 ft. the Rohtang Pass is the gateway to the districts of Lahul and Spiti and is the defining demarcation between the moist and lush valleys to its south and the arid landscapes to the north which eventually merge into the high deserts of Ladakh.



Left to Right : Ravi Kamath, Arvind Thakker and our 2 porters pose on the crest of Rohtang Pass.
 As we descended towards Gramphoo, the rain ceased and the sun came out briefly. More people piled in and I was sharing my seat with a Spitian lady and her 6 month old baby. The bus grunted on its winding way; the road was now unpaved and some of the hairpin bends had such a steep gradient that the driver could not risk negotiating them without asking some passengers to get off and walk a couple of hundred yards and then reboard. When the young mother got off to lighten the load, I was literally left holding the baby!



The road into Lahul after the descent from Rohtang

With a sigh of relief, we heaved ourselves off the bus at Batal, at the base of the Kunzum La which separates Lahul from Spiti. Batal, at that time, consisted of one teashop where we refreshed ourselves before crossing the suspension bridge to the south bank of the Chandra river. We walked downstream on the wide floodplain of this river for perhaps half an hour to be confronted with the turbulent little Karcha nala which debouched onto the valley, bringing snowmelt from glaciers hidden high above. It was already late in the afternoon and the rising water level and the speed of the current made it inadvisable to ford the river. We were extremely mindful of the incident a couple of years earlier when 6 people had been drowned and washed away when fording this stream in spate: we had seen the little stone memorial erected in their honour. We would have to wait overnight and cross early in the morning when the flow would have diminished by the nightly freeze in the high mountains.

We pitched our three little tents on the banks of the Karcha and settled down, glad of the respite after 4 days of travelling from sea level at Mumbai. We were now at around 11,000 feet and were not feeling our best, especially Arvind who had a splitting headache and nausea, classic signs of mountain sickness. The porters elected to cook for us and the potato pulao they produced was delicious. We washed it down with a warm and soothing malt drink (Ovaltine). Arvind barely ate, another bad sign.


Dusk falls at our camp on the banks of the Karcha Nala

I slept fitfully, still reeling from the sudden change in altitude. We packed up early next morning and were ready to move. The flow of the Karcha had eased a little, we could even see that the water level was lower than the evening before. But things can be deceptive : the porters took a few tentative steps into the river and pronounced it unfordable. We spotted a little island of sorts in the middle of the stream and suggested that we could break up the crossing into two halves. With a belay from Ravi, I ventured out into the cold, fast flowing water and  waded across gingerly, making sure that the current did not sweep me off my feet. At the deepest portion the water came up to my thighs, but I made the ford successfully. Now it was the turn of Arvind and Ravi. With me hauling in the rope, they too joined me on the island.

Our two porters had been watching the proceedings rather sceptically and obviously thought we had taken leave of our senses: they were local hillmen and chose caution as the better option. They refused to budge. All our baggage was on their side. After a little discussion with my friends, I decided to cross back to the porters; then I walked a long way upstream, hoping I could spot another, easier, shallower, crossing with a reduced flow. I was out of luck.

As a last resort, we ended up stringing a rope across and hauling all our luggage to the island with a rudimentary contraption fashioned from a carabiner and a short sling : this basic "pulley" method actually worked. Arvind joined me and Ravi remained on the island. To their credit, the porters did help in this operation. I paid them off for their short time with us and saw their backs disappear towards Batal : 2 tiny dots in the vast floodplain of the Chandra valley.


Ravi (left) hauls one of the pieces of our luggage to the island while Arvind (right) anchors the rope
at the other end.

Arvind and I hurried across to the little island before the waters rose again for the day. We pitched our tents and settled. We were still in a state of shock that our little expedition had become shipwrecked on this little piece of turf in the middle of the Karcha Nala. Surrounded by our heavy backpacks and 5 kitbags, we assessed our situation. The good news was that  we were now being compelled to spend a second night at this altitude: this was good for our acclimatisation. The bad news had many components: if there was a flash flood, the island would be submerged and we would be swept away down the river and deposited (probably as corpses) into the bigger Chandra river; how were we to get ourselves and our stuff to the camp (three marches away) where the Lion glacier flows into the Bara Shigri glacier? How and where should we look for resources?

As always in such situations, it helps to attend to the little tasks at hand; it clears the head of confusion and gives you time to address the problem. Both Arvind and Ravi had taken a dunking in the frigid water as they had neared the shore of the island that morning and were in need of drying out, which they proceeded to do. I devoted my time to organizing the campsite and brewing some tea, a process guaranteed to calm the mind!
As we sipped from our cups and watched the late afternoon light throw a veil of warm ochre over the surrounding slopes, we felt contented that at least for the moment we were safe, had food and fuel, and were about to spend a second night in this stark and gorgeous landscape. We had some plans forming in our heads and would put them into place at the crack of dawn.






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