Friday, 27 July 2012

Menthosa - An Idea Takes Root

Our kit bags hit the ground with a dull thud as they were dropped unceremoniously from the top of the Manali - Tindi bus. Our rucksacks followed a little more gently as Bir Singh and Rinzing helped unload our baggage. It was a warm August afternoon in 1986 and the field next to the school at Udaipur was deserted.  I stretched my cramped legs and looked around at the hills overlooking this little hill town perched above the Chandra river in Lahul. The air here at almost 9000 feet was crisp and dry and I was filled with the tingling expectation of being on the brink of another great mountain adventure. The planning and the travel was over. We were at the mouth of the Miyar valley as it merged into the Chandra. The peak of Menthosa beckoned. At 21,140 feet it was the second highest peak (after Mulkila, 21,380 ft.) in the district of Lahul and had been first climbed only as recently as 1970.

I had mulled over Bir Singh's invitation the previous year to come to his native Miyar valley during its flowering season which traditionally occurred in July and August. He had watched bemusedly as I trained my lenses at the few ragged stands of pink willow herb struggling to exist amidst the barren moraine of the Bara Shigri glacier. His remark had goaded me to do some research at the Himalayan Club when I returned to Mumbai. The more I read about the Miyar valley, the more I wanted to go there. The Miyar valley dropped down from the Kangla Jot which led into fabled Zanskar and as it lost altitude it was joined by many feeder streams at the head of which lay scores of unclimbed peaks and high glacier cirques ringed by soaring granite towers. The Gumba Basin, one such valley, had been visited by my friend Satish Patki - the same Satish who had held my near-fatal fall on the cliffs of Mumbra in Feb 1985! Since I did not rate myself very high as a rock climber, I deleted the Gumba Basin from my list of likely destinations. Harish Kapadia, then the honorary assistant editor of the Himalayan Journal, suggested the twin peaks of Dhupao Jot and Baihali Jot. When I looked at the map, Menthosa, just a valley away, caught my eye. This was perfect! Here was a high peak, not technically hard if attempted via its First Ascent route, and its approach would lead me up the garden path (or so Bir Singh insisted) to his village of Gompha. From Gompha, a day's strenuous walk up the Urgus Nala would bring us to the perfect Base Camp below Menthosa.

The glaciers of Menthosa gave birth to the Urgus torrent which hurtled down from about 15,000 ft. and joined the Miyar valley at Gompha, Bir Singh's village. The mention of a trek through meadows blooming with exotic wildflowers was enough to convince my wife Margaret, my sister Ipi and my long time hiking friend Franklyn to join me. All I needed now was a companion to climb with. Faruk fitted the bill perfectly.

Faruk and I had been rock climbing regularly in the cliffs around Mumbai and had formed an easygoing and fun partnership. He was younger and much stronger and fitter than I. My reasoning was simple: if I were to slip on the mountain, he was capable of breaking my fall!

Faruk bouldering at Turalli in Bangalore.

Rounding up our support team were Bir Singh and Rinzing, whose acquaintance I had made the year before in the Bara Shigri glacier. I despatched two letters the old fashioned way : one to Rinzing in the care of the trekking agency that he worked for in Manali and the other to Bir Singh's village, a few days' march up the valley of the Miyar river. The fact that Bir Singh met us at the bus stand in Manali when we arrived was a testimony to the sterling work and efficiency of the Indian Postal Service: I had heard legendary tales of intrepid mail workers fording rivers and climbing mountains to deliver just one letter to a hamlet far beyond modern means of communication and was willing to wager that this was indeed true. I had once seen inscribed on the Post Office building facade on 8th Avenue in Manhattan, New York city, the following creed : "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds". This applied equally to the mailmen of the Indian Postal Service, I thought.

As the dust settled around us, we unpacked the few things we would need to spend the night on the floor of the veranda bordering the classrooms. It was a pleasant evening and we were soon eating the dinner we had picked up before we boarded the bus in Manali. The moon rose into a clear sky and Bir Singh and Rinzing melted away into the gloaming. They were bound for the village of Shakoli to round up some porters. Since Shakoli was about two hours walk up the Miyar valley, they would return in the morning, hopefully with the required number of men. Bir Singh, whose backyard this was, had assured me that he would certainly find the men. Trusting in his word, I snuggled into my sleeping bag and thought of the last few days that we had spent in Manali, buying supplies for this trip and also reconnecting with Nalini whom I had first met just 11 months ago. Nalini played the gracious hostess when I introduced my wife, sister and friends Faruk and Franklyn. We were treated to a round of tea and a walk around her little orchard...this helped to erase the unpleasant memories of the journey from Delhi.

With Nalini in her backyard.
Left to Right : Franklyn, Margaret, Ipi, Nalini, and Faruk.

The night bus journey from the Interstate Bus Terminus (always referred to as just ISBT) in Old Delhi to Manali had been eventful.

We were outmanoeuvred in the seat selection process, so ended up sitting in the last row of seats which  always provides its occupants with the most bumpy of rides, being perched aft of the rear axle. As the bus pulled out of Delhi, some young men who appeared to be college students began to imbibe liquor from a collection of bottles they carried and were soon very very drunk. They were getting more and more boisterous by the mile. The bus conductor appealed to them to keep it down and to stop drinking, but to no avail. One of them eventually could not contain his liquor any more. He got up from his seat, leaned over the head of the mild mannered pahari (hill man from Himachal Pradesh), and began to vomit all over the poor guy. This was the last straw. Faruk leaped up from his seat and almost punched the perpetrator. Everyone in the bus was hopping mad at the breach of decent behaviour and was ready to lynch the young men! I was truly surprised that the victim could keep a cool (albeit filthy!) head during the proceedings. I was certain that he was an enlightened soul who lived by Hemingway's "Grace under pressure" motto!

The driver swerved into a roadside dhaba just beyond Ambala where we helped the pahari to wash the muck from his hair. The rest of the night passed in relative peace. The drunks soon passed out and lay in a heap over each other as the bus groaned up the foothills to Sundernagar and on to Mandi, Kullu and Manali, where we arrived the next morning.

I love steep and winding mountain roads. I just cannot close my eyes when I am in a bus or other vehicle which is gaining altitude hairpin bend by hairpin bend. This is in stark contrast to Margaret, who would rather complete such journeys with her eyes closed. I had to nudge her each time an eye-popping vista unfolded through the small windows of the Himachal Roadways bus as it made its slow way from Manali up to the Rohtang Pass, down to Gramphoo in Lahul, and halted for a brief lunch at Keylong.

The mandatory photo op on the Rohtang pass.
Left to Right : Aloke, Bir Singh, Margaret, and Ipi.

The peak of Gepang Goh (5870 m) as seen from Rohtang Pass

Keylong exuded the true mountain vibes!

Glaciers and peaks above Keylong

True to his word, Bir Singh was back at 6 am with 8 men who were working on a PWD (Public Works Department) project to clear a landslide near the village of Shakoli. By the time we were packed up and ready to go, the morning was far advanced. Getting past the landslide was a hair raising affair, and we were soon camped in the stone shell of a schoolhouse under construction in Shakoli. The porters had to go back to their regular duties, so we would have to spend the remainder of the day at this spot while Bir Singh headed up the valley to his village to recruit our next lot of porters!

A motorable road was being blasted up the gorge of the Miyar river

PWD workers can be seen above the landslide area which wiped out the track

Old compacted snow forms a convenient bridge over the little nala
We spent a pleasant afternoon in Shakoli, the cynosure of all eyes. We were constantly surrounded by friendly little children whose innocent curiosity about strangers in their world was hard to satisfy. Late in the evening we retired to our tents to play Scrabble and finally drifted off to sleep, waiting for the morrow. It was going to be a long day but we looked forward to it...

Welcome to the Shakoli Sheraton!

Shakoli gentleman spinning wool

Scrabble by candlelight


  1. Sir,
    Excellent scribbling of the High Country.

    Just one concern, peak referred to as "The peak of Gepang Goh (5870 m) as seen from Rohtang Pass" above is in fact an unnamed peak. The actual Ghepan Peak is to leftmost, with summit behind a ribbon of cloud in your image.