Saturday, 14 July 2012

Sara Umga Pass - Manikaran to Shamshi Thach

Everything reeked of ghee! The tent, my clothes and the food were all plastered in a sticky film of clarified butter. The ghee container had come apart inside the kit bag in which it was packed, spilling its contents liberally over everything that was inside. The kit bag had been loaded by Bir Singh on top of the Manali - Manikaran bus and had succumbed to pressure from the assorted luggage of all the passengers crammed into that tiny bus.

We had boarded the bus at 1:15 in the afternoon at Manali. The 40 km drive to Kullu along the Beas river was very picturesque and I revelled in watching stretches of this wonderfully ice blue torrent as it hurtled along this green valley. It was almost 7 pm by the time we arrived in Manikaran in the Parvati valley. Manikaran struck me as a dirty, nondescript little village. We found accommodation for the night in a little tea shop. We opened up the kit bag with the spilt ghee and proceeded to clean up the mess in the little den that had been allotted to us as our sleeping quarters. The place was full of, for want of a better word, "hippies". I use that term rather loosely to describe an undistinguished assortment of westerners (mainly from Italy and Israel) who seemed to be drawn to Pulga in the Parvati valley for its cheap and abundant supply of marijuana. Even as far back as 1985 this influx of pot smoking rebels was having a negative effect both on the economy and the mores of this Himalayan valley.

Our concern however was not so much the supply of weed as the supply of fuel for our little expedition. We had failed to find any kerosene for sale in Manali and Bir Singh had assured me that we would have no trouble finding some in Manikaran. Alas, it was not to be so. With the prospect of perhaps not being able to have any hot foods or, more importantly, hot chai on the trip we set off posthaste up the trail towards Burshaini. It was hot at first because of Manikaran's low altitude (around 4000 ft) but improved as we proceeded up the valley.

 I was impressed by how green everything was here: my eyes had become accustomed to the rocky vistas of Lahul. In contrast, the evergreens clothed the steep slopes here on all sides, waterfalls gushed out of rocky clefts high up on the mountainsides and cascaded down in energetic displays of  aquatic energy; sometimes the sunlight caught the spray at the right angle and behold, a rainbow was born! All these sensory delights could be better appreciated when we finally managed to buy 2 litres of kerosene from Thakur Beli Ram in the village of Tahuk. This kind gentleman also offered us tea and apples which we gladly accepted; in return all he wanted was that we take a photograph of him with his family.

Bir Singh with Thakur Beli Ram and his family who sold us kerosene in the village of Tahuk
In those pre-digital camera days one often came across folk in remote villages in the hills for whom a photograph was a great document, to be treasured and shown to family and friends. I always made it a point that if I took any pictures of kind and hospitable people in the mountains I would write down their postal addresses and mail them a copy of the photo once I returned to Mumbai. I have no idea if all of them ever received my photos, I know some of them did and they would happily pull out the prints and show it to me if I was ever to revisit their village at a future date. I would like to think that most of them did receive the packets I sent them, sometimes by registered mail if that was an option available in their neck of the woods. Small gestures can make a big difference to people's lives...

We made another small halt at Burshaini, the last permanent village in the Parvati valley, to stock up on some rice, sugar and onions. A little while later we turned left up the valley of the Tos river which drains the high glaciers of the Kullu - Lahul divide in this part of the range. Half an hour up the valley we found the ideal campsite and decided to stop for the night. My journal for Sat 7 Sept 1985 reads:

"We are camped on a beautiful grassy patch with pine trees around us and a clear stream flowing by next door....Looking out of the tent door I can see some goats and sheep which some gaddis have brought down from the higher pastures. Incredibly, they have lit a fire in the middle of a small ploughed field even as it is drizzling continuously...Am feeling very smug inside the tent : the temperature is a very comfortable 19.8 deg C and my tummy is full of a huge helping of rice and potatoes and onions which we fried together in the pressure cooker with mustard seeds, jeera, and pepper powder and eaten with red chilli pickle. Before that we had tomato soup...and before we pitched the tent we had tea and hot (as in chilli hot) banana chips."

Bir Singh ensured we were well fed at all times!

I justified this sumptuous repast by reminding myself that it had indeed been a long haul from Manikaran with our heavy loads and, what the hell, I owed it to myself to regain some of the weight I had lost on the Lion climb! When it comes to food, Ravi is a frugal soul. Now, free from his critical gaze, I could indulge myself!

Later in the evening we had a visitor : a gaddi coming down from the pastures above dropped in to say hello and it transpired that Bir Singh and he had some common friends in Bhuntar, near Kullu. Perhaps this prompted the gaddi to gift us some more potatoes which we accepted gracefully. He told us that there were around 10 people camped at Shamshi Thach whither we were bound.

Before turning in for the night Bir Singh asked me for the copies of the articles and maps I had made regarding the Sara Umga La and pored over them with keen interest. He seemed to be genuinely interested in seeing the topography around us depicted in the two dimensional format of sketch maps gleaned from old issues of the Himalayan Journal. I did not have any Survey of India topographic maps of the region as they were "Restricted" under the archaic regulations then in force. I translated as best I could some portions of accounts of the early explorations of the Tos glacier and climbs of Dharamsura and Papsura.

A bout of steady uphill walking in intermittent rain the next day took us through the clearing at Budhaban where some enterprising souls were growing marijuana, up through forests of pine and deodar until we came upon a settlement of buffalo herders from Mandi in the lower hills of Kullu. They leave their animals up here for the duration of the summer to graze on their own and come to collect them as the season ends. With charming ingenuousness Bir Singh asked them to give us some lassi and they were happy to oblige. The concoction tasted sour but was extremely refreshing.

The tree line soon thinned out and gave way to rhododendron bushes as we ascended the true right bank of the Tos Nala. A hailstorm broke over our heads as we waded through meadows of wildflowers carpeting the hillside and magic filled the air. Finally, six hours after starting that morning we found another lovely campsite : Phanjura Losha Thach, according to the local intelligence. There was a small stone shelter where we huddled on arrival to brew some chai: it was getting chilly and the altitude was beginning to manifest itself. A small, brown and furry pica appeared from within the gaps in the rock and looked at us quizzically and disappeared in a flash, too shy to be photographed.

Marijuana shrub at Budhaban

As I settled down in my sleeping bag after a fine repeat of the previous night's dinner menu, Bir Singh went back to studying the reference literature on the area that I was carrying. As I watched him absorbed in the print, it occurred to me that  lads like him in the Himalaya would make excellent mountaineers given the means and the opportunity.


The next day's walk was a long steady haul, not very steep but the the gradual ascent slowly introduced us to the grand mountain vistas of the Tos and East Tos glaciers unfolding before our eyes and behind us across the great gap of the Parvati valley. Bir Singh's instinct led us to the small encampment below Shamshi Thach of two gaddis from Palampur. We were greeted by Nandlal, one of the two shepherds, and his two dogs TC and Sheny. The gaddis were cooking their lunch of rotis and I suspect it was the smell of this that had led Bir Singh up here! I am sure he was hoping for an invitation, this would save him from cooking for us....his instinct proved right: we were soon enjoying rotis and goat's milk sweetened with "gur" (jaggery); it was delicious!

Suitably fortified now, we forged ahead with renewed vigour. We hauled ourselves up the grassy ridge until suddenly the terrain opened up to a huge flat plain crisscrossed with innumerable streams: this was Shamshi Thach, the base for climbing Papsura and Dharamsura and for any forays into the nearby valleys and glaciers. We could see a couple of tents scattered around the meadows and we guessed these must belong to the two expeditions which were camped here. We identified a suitable spot and began to head towards it. A rather large stream coming in from the left barred our way, so we linked hands for stability and security and began to ford the fast flowing water. As if by magic, a couple of figures emerged from the tents and clutching cameras in hand they made a beeline for the far shore to photograph us as we wobbled in the knee to thigh deep current. I am sure they were hoping for a dramatic moment when one of us would lose a footing and get a thorough dunking! We were sorry to disappoint these folk and they cheered when we made it to their side unscathed.

Base Camp, Shamshi Thach

Shamshi Thach with the prominent stream running through. As seen from the East Tos Glacier

There were 2 Australians and 3 Britons camped here, with their respective Liaison Officers. After we had set up camp we went around to meet them. Ravi Chandra from Mysore was the LO for the Aussies while Commander Sood of the Indian Navy accompanied the Brits. The Aussies were hoping to climb Papsura while the Brits hoped to ascend Dharamsura. All I was hoping to do that evening was hike up the boulder strewn valley above the camp towards the Malana Glacier for a glimpse of the impressive peak of Ali Ratni Tibba, which Ravi had attempted in 1978 with his friends Jayant Khadalia and Ravish Puri. It was after dinner and getting dark at 7 pm when I crested the ridge, expecting to be rewarded by The View. I was sorely disappointed.

Not having seen Ali Ratni Tibba, I began to descend. The light was tricky and rapidly turning dark and I foundered around, stumbling and falling on wet patches of moss covering the boulders. It was certainly not a dignified performance and I was glad no one could see me. I soon began to lose my bearings. Fortunately, Bir Singh had lit a candle inside our orange tent and the glow from it turned out to be the beacon that led me back to safety. I was looking forward to the next 2 days at this camp which would give me ample opportunity to look around and get the lay of the land. In present day parlance, I was just gonna chill, dude!

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