Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Menthosa - Base Camp or Garden of Eden?

Bir Singh kept his promise and was back in the morning at ten o'clock with 8 sturdy men from the Gompha-Urgus area. We walked up the valley as if hitting the notes in a rising musical scale through the small villages of Chimrat, Karpat, Churgut and Timrat, finally sounding the crescendo late in the evening at the three house hamlet of Gompha. The walking had been lovely, the trail meandering through cultivated fields and paths lined with wild flowers. The villages were neat and compact and everywhere we were greeted by friendly locals. I wondered how much of this warm reception we owed to Bir Singh as he was the young lad from the valley who was escorting these strangers to his home!

Margaret with her fan following...

Not to be outdone, Faruk winning little hearts by distributing candy!

Bridge across the Miyar river

We spent the night in Bir Singh's house. In the 11 months since I had last seen him, he had got married! He was about 17 years old and his bride Saraswati was even younger. He insisted that we meet her as well as all his family. There was a congenial air of jollity all round and even though the hour was late, Faruk, Franklyn and I were expected to join in sipping the local brew from the communal bamboo dispenser. There was a lot of laughter, dinner was served by Bir Singh's family who ensured that we did not hesitate to tuck into second and third helpings. We somehow managed to stagger into our sleeping bags and passed out. Ah, the incomparable joys of Indian hospitality; I wouldn't have it any other way!

Looking down the Miyar valley from the hamlet of Gompha

Bir Singh and his wife Saraswati anchor the left side of this happy group!

In the morning we supplemented our food stock with fresh turnips, radishes and peas from his garden and began the long uphill slog up the Urgus Nala to our Base Camp. The track soon climbed up above the treeline and we walked high above the torrent on the true left bank. We crossed a little makeshift bridge made of stones laid over a couple of logs. Some of the children from Gompha and Urgus had decided to join us and they were scampering happily up the meadows flushed with the mauve of some flowering herbs. One of them offered to carry Ipi's little rucksack and she was only too happy to part with her load! This was her very first Himalayan trek and she had never been this high before. It took us 8 hours to reach our Base Camp site, but when we pitched our tents and looked around we realised that the climb to 15,000 ft. had been worth every gasping of breath as our bodies adjusted to the rising altitude. There was a clear brook running through the small patch of meadow outside our tents, all kinds of wild alpine flowers were tucked away artfully as if in a random rock garden, a huge boulder  formed the back of our kitchen and, best of all, a stunning view of the whole massif of Menthosa filled our eyes each time we looked up, with nothing else to detract from the vista.

Bir Singh lends a helping hand to Ipi

Gompha kids race towards Base Camp. The last one carries Ipi's rucksack.

Menthosa from Base Camp. The Urgus Pass is at the bottom of the snow slope dropping down from the right edge of the mountain. The main summit is the snow dome left of centre. A huge cleft separates the rocky aiguille of the East peak from the main summit. As far as I know, the East peak still awaits a First Ascent.

The eight men from Gompha - Urgus. Without their support, we would never have made it to Base Camp.

For the next couple of days we proceeded to extract every ounce of happiness from this mountain idyll in such a perfect setting. With Bir Singh and Rinzing manning the kitchen, food and chai was in constant supply. In between we found the time to go for short acclimatisation walks and listening to music on the one Sony Walkman that I had graduated to since my last trip a year ago with Ravi to the Bara Shigri - two of us would stick one earpiece each into our ears and thus everyone shared in the good times! Faruk's favourite track was Maneater, the great song by Daryl Hall and John Oates. He would get really charged up after listening to this number and would challenge Bir Singh and Rinzing to a round of bouldering on some of the crags scattered around the slopes. All three excelled at executing gymnastic moves on barely discernible holds. I chose to take a backseat in these competitions, knowing I would be totally obliterated by their talents. I preferred to take on Faruk at Scrabble, where I had a fair advantage!

Our Base Camp tents were dwarfed by the moraine of the Menthosa Glacier

Bir Singh and Rinzing making rotis in the kitchen shelter

Unfortunately, we could not spend our full holiday lounging around Base Camp. We had a mountain to climb. Menthosa had first been climbed in 1970 by a British Services team based out of Singapore. We were hoping to follow the same route that they had pioneered : from Base Camp go up to the Urgus Pass at 16,000 feet, then tackle the 2000 feet snow and ice slope which led to the huge snow plateau at the eastern end of which was stacked the summit block. David Challis who had reconnoitred Menthosa in 1969 had written in a report lodged with the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, New Delhi : "...the climbing was exposed and technical, requiring the use of front points and ice hammer and axe techniques with ice screws for belays and protection in some sections." This would be a step up for me from my ascent of Lion Peak the year before. I was a little apprehensive though : I had never climbed ice or snow slopes steep enough to require front pointing and as for using ice screws for protection, both Faruk and I would be carrying them for the first time!

The Urgus Pass is shrouded in mist almost a thousand feet above.

Franklyn, Faruk, Bir Singh, Rinzing and I set off one day to gain the col of the Urgus Pass and dump some loads there. Leaving the flower strewn meadows to our left we ascended a path over a boulder slope to the glacier which emanated from an icefall which tumbled down in an impressive display of seracs and crevasses. This icefall barred the way to the pass. We went up the icefall for a bit, but were soon forced  by a series of interconnected crevasses to move towards the rock and scree on our right. Rinzing and Faruk threaded their way around the crevasses until they were at the foot of a short snow gully overhung by an impressive tower of ice. The gully was the key to gaining the pass.

Franklyn spending quality time with himself...!

Though it was bright and sunny, the wind whipped around us as we gazed at the Pangi valley and hundreds of peaks of Kishtwar and Zanskar and Lahul. We dumped our loads, took a couple of photos and then hurried down to Base Camp. It had taken us about five and a half hours to get to the pass and half that time to go down.

Rinzing arriving at Urgus Pass

On 25 August, we said our fond farewells to Margaret and Ipi who were headed back for Udaipur and Manali accompanied by Rinzing. It was time for Faruk and I to go up to the Urgus Pass and do our stuff. The next day, 26th August, Bir Singh came up with us and helped to pitch our tent on a patch of rock in driving snow. He then rushed down back to Base Camp and tacked a "No Admission" sign on the tents for whomsoever might turn up. He and Franklyn quickly packed up their personal effects and walked down to Gompha. Faruk and I were now the only two inhabitants in the whole Menthosa area. As if to emphasise our isolation, it continued to snow all afternoon, all evening, and well into the night.

Faruk collects snow for chai on Urgus Pass

We thawed out the next morning with breakfast, strapped on our crampons and went to have a closer look at the route ahead. After and easy angled plod for about 200m, the snow steepened and rose to a mushroom tiered top more than a thousand feet above us. To the right the slope fell away into the Pangi valley. Faruk worked on a rising traverse to the left. This brought him to the bottom of a steep couloir threatened with seracs high up on the left. We presumed this must be where Bob Steward, a member of the British Army team from Singapore which had made the first ascent of the mountain in 1970, was hit on the head by falling ice and had to be evacuated from Base Camp by helicopter. This route appeared to be the only logical way to the higher reaches of the peak. We agreed that this was our only option. Satisfied with our little reconnaissance, we returned to the Urgus camp to spend the rest of the afternoon resting and packing for the morrow. Our Base Camp was vacant and we had no contact with the outside world. Faruk and I would be out on a limb and beyond any help once we set foot on the upper mountain.

The 2000 ft. barrier to the upper plateau of Menthosa, from Urgus Pass.


  1. Mountains seem so alive and beckoning,wish I was there.Margaret and Ipi were lucky to be there

  2. This was another enchanting trip to the Himalayas for me.

  3. This blog is such a treasure for climbers. There's loads n loads of info, put together with an amazing write up.