Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Dibibokri Dreaming - Part 2. Icing on the Birthday Cake.

Paradise has its perils, of course, as Adam and Eve found out a long time ago. I held the apple cupped in the palm of my left hand, using my thumb and forefinger to brace it. With my right hand I aimed the point of the Swiss knife squarely in the middle of the fruit and plunged it home. The blade sliced through the crunchy flesh of the apple and the momentum carried it through until it hit my thumb. There was a moment of pain, I winced, the now halved apple dropped to the ground, and a thick, crimson, viscous ooze spurted from my thumb. I held my left hand way up above my head to stop the flow of blood while Harsha picked up the pieces of apple. To take my mind off the painful thumb, I gazed at the wonderful scenery all around us.

Kulu Makalu ( 6349 m ) and Rubal Kang from our first camp on the West Glacier.
Away to the north, at the head of the glacier, the sun glistened off the great hump of snow that was Rubal Kang ( 6150 m / 20,172 ft ), its turtle-head rocky summit almost merging into the rock monolith that was Kulu Makalu - 6349 m / 20,825 ft. Paulo Consiglio ( "Italian Expedition to the Punjab Himalayas, 1961", Himalayan Journal Vol XXIV ) had suggested the name "Lal Kila" (Red Fort, after the famous monument in Delhi ), "because of its bastion-like appearance and the beauty of the red granite". Unfortunately, in all the time that we spent in the West Glacier, not once did the cliffs of Kulu Makalu glow any shade of red!

Sketch map by the late Arun Samant for The Himalayan Journal ( Vol 49 )
My immediate concern was to stem the flow of red fluids from my thumb before attending to other camp chores. Harsha and I had left Franklyn alone at the Advance Base Camp on 22 September, to take up residence in our first camp on the West Glacier. The route wound its way up on the left of the ice fall and was comfortably accomplished in a pair of sneakers; on an earlier foray, my feet shod in plastic climbing boots, the constant boulder hopping had proved to be excruciating. However, the boots came in useful when one day we decided to climb the ice fall as a form of diversion.

Opposite our glacier camp, on the true left bank, rose an attractive summit of 6250 metres, or 20,500 ft. An earlier Italian expedition which climbed Mt. Parvati ( 6633 m ) from the Main Glacier, named it Ice Sail, though from our perspective, it resembled the black sail that a pirate ship might hoist! Perhaps it did have a different appearance from the other side. Black or white, Ice Sail tempted us. It had no previous climbing history, the route we were contemplating seemed well within our modest skills and we reckoned that we might be able to reach its pointed summit in one push from our glacier camp at just under 17,000 ft.

Ice Sail ( 6250 m / 20,500 ft ) from glacier camp
Believing firmly in the benefits of seeing the bigger picture, we decided first to ascend a small peak on our left hand side. We were sure that this little vantage point would give us the perspective needed to attempt Ice Sail which was on the opposite side of the glacier.

Our little lookout peak as seen from Rubal Kang
Leaving the tent in freezing conditions at a little after 5 am with a flask of tea as sustenance, we worked our way up the fourth tributary ice fall on the left of the West Glacier, crossed over a bergschrund to access the summit ridge and clambered up the summit rocks a little after 10:30 in the morning. Though of little consequence as a peak in its own right, it gave us an enjoyable day out with some stupendous views up the glacier. We also got a better perspective of the upper half of Ice Sail. The highlight of the morning, however, was seeing some fresh paw marks on the snow as we walked up the lower part of the mountain. I have always found it fascinating that animals can live at these heights and in these apparently barren landscapes, coming and going without the benefit of all the paraphernalia that we humans have to lug along wherever we go!

The West Glacier curves up towards Rubal Kang and Kulu Makalu

Ice Sail
The alarm went off at 02:30 am and I wriggled myself into a sitting position, my torso and legs still warm in the lower half of my down sleeping bag. I positioned myself at the entrance of the tent and lit the stove under the canopy entrance and began to melt the snow we had collected the evening before. As usual, it took almost 45 minutes to produce two mugs of sweet, milky tea. As I handed over the mug to Harsha, still cocooned in his sleeping bag, he pulled out an envelope and handed it over to me.

"Happy Birthday, Aloke," he said. "Here is a little something......Margaret made me promise that I should wait for your birthday before I gave this to you." Margaret, my wife, and my son Sanal were far away in Mumbai but as I opened the envelope and looked at the birthday card, they were as real as sitting in this warm tent on this frigid glacier. There was a letter enclosed with the card, and it was written as if it came directly from my 19 month old son. My wife had done a wonderful job of tugging at the heart strings : "Darling dada," the letter began, "I cannot figure out where you've gone. Sometimes when I see a plane in the sky, I think of you....."

The lump forming in my throat made it difficult to swallow the tea. There were the details of his daily routine and it ended thus : "....take care dada....11th of October seems very far off - say hi to Franky, Harsha and Aneeta.....have a good trip and you must take me with you the next time.....mama sends you her love and hopes she will hear from you by and by......"

Our route to the north col on Ice Sail. Thereafter the route followed the ridge on the other, eastern side, all the way to the top.
I finished drinking my tea, geared up and stumbled out into the bitter cold outside. It was Friday, 27 Sept. and the stars twinkled frostily from a clear sky. I stamped my feet to keep warm while packing up my rucksack and waiting for Harsha to emerge. At 04:00, we began to walk across the glacier towards the base of Ice Sail which loomed out of the darkness, menacing in its blackness. We walked in complete silence, the only sounds the crunching of ice underfoot and the occasional sound of rocks groaning in the grip of frost. Once at the foot of the mountain, we stopped for another cup of tea from our flask before setting off up the left hand branch of the ice fall descending from the west face of Ice Sail. After four hours of climbing, at 08:00, we broke through into the sunlight on the col at the base of the north ridge. The blinding sunshine and the views took our breath away. Another welcome halt was in order to appreciate the scenery.

Climbing into the sunlight on the north col
Mt Parvati ( 6633 m ), left and Dibibokri Pyramid ( 6408 m ) from the col
While it felt great to feel the warmth of the sun on our frozen limbs, we realised that if we lingered too long here, we ran the risk of the snow becoming softer the longer we tarried. The route now forced us to climb on the east side of the mountain, the west being overhung consistently with cornices. The crux of the climb was getting across a bergschrund which split the face higher up. Thereafter we did not experience any more hurdles and, a few hours later, were striding along the summit ridge leading to a very unstable boulder perched at the very top of the mountain. It was three o'clock in the afternoon, eleven hours since we left our camp. Harsha graciously let me be the first to step on to the summit, me being the birthday boy. I could barely conceal my pleasure: this was awesome, a First Ascent of an unclimbed peak of 20,500 ft. in the Kullu Himalaya as a birthday present! The gods had been indulgent, and I felt truly blessed.

Harsha high on Ice Sail.

I stop to admire some of the peaks of the Upper Parvati basin

Harsha with Mt.Parvati in the background

I take the final steps to the summit
We spent perhaps half an hour on the summit before beginning our descent, leaving a token red nylon sling draped round a rock a few feet below the top. We hurried on down as a mist began to envelop us and snow began to fall from the sky. By the time we had regained the glacier it was dark and we had to locate our tent with our headlamps and instinct. It was 7 pm and we were exhausted. I heated up some soup and leftover khichri and we were in our sleeping bags by nine o'clock. I closed my eyes in utter bliss and drifted off to a deep and satisfying slumber.

Heading to the base of Rubal Kang
Rest is for the wicked, they say. Therefore, since we considered ourselves still untainted by evil, we packed up our camp the next day and moved on up the glacier to pitch the tent at the base of Rubal Kang, which we intended to tackle next. Since the mountain seemed to be a fairly simple climb via its normal route, we decided to do a variant by trying to access the upper half of the long snow ridge which drops down from the summit via the gap between two clusters of rock which adorned the south east aspect of the peak.

But first my clothes had to dry! (see http://taccidental.blogspot.ca/2013/09/dibibokri-dreaming-part-1-freedom-of.html ). We spent two extremely cold days as the weather worsened, making use of the time by using the stove to dry our inner boots, our gloves and socks - all of them had taken a severe beating in the relentless snowfall.

We set the alarm for 02:30 am but could not get going for almost three hours as the wind howled outside our tent. Finally, when it subsided around a quarter to six, we threw caution to the (what else!?) winds and headed out. The sky was clear and we were freezing, but made reasonable progress on our intended route, enjoying the exposure and the beauty of the ice.

Harsha heads for the rocks across a bergschrund

The view down the face to the glacier. Harsha is just visible at the bottom of photo.
My turn to head up to the ridge
We were elated when we topped out on the ridge, thinking that the summit was now only a dreary plod away. However, we had not reckoned with our friend the wind. It greeted us with fiendish intensity, sucking every ounce of heat in our bodies and threatening to blow us clean off into the Tichu Nala beyond. By 3 pm we were exhausted, depleted of body warmth and could sense the bitter taste of defeat. It was a classic illustration of the So Near and Yet So Far syndrome. Deeming retreat to be the better part of valour, we took a few last photographs and turned around, descending the ridge all the way down to its end where it met the glacier.

Harsha gazes wistfully at Kulu Makalu (left) while the rocky summit of Rubal Kang juts out tantalisingly close from the final snow slopes in the middle of the picture.

Descending the long whale back ridge of Rubal Kang. The glaciers on the peak behind drain into the Tichu Nala
We had one last desire to fulfil before heading down to Advance Base : a peek into the No.2 Glacier from the saddle below Kulu Makalu. So off we scampered on the first day of October. The visit to the col was worth it in terms of a better understanding of the terrain and some great views.

Mt. Parvati from the saddle between the West and No.2 glaciers.

On the evening of the next day, 2nd October, we staggered into Advance Base heavily laden, exactly 10 days after having left. Franklyn had seen our little dots grow bigger as we came down the final moraine slopes and had a brew of hot coffee waiting when we laid down our loads at the kitchen cave. He had been totally on his own, with no human contact whatsoever, and was overjoyed to see us. The temperamental little transistor radio was all he had if he wanted to listen to voices other than his own! As we sipped the coffee, he had a severe attack of verbal diarrhoea, the words spilling out in an uncontrolled flow, filling us in on how he had passed the time. If something had happened to us up on the glacier, he had no means of knowing, and was not really equipped to find out either. In that sense, we were all gamblers out there, taking our chances and prepared to live with the consequences.

That night we fried some corned beef and added it to our staple fare of khichri and pickles. To celebrate our modest successes and the fact that we were all alive and well and together again, Harsha produced a bottle of cognac from his secret stash. Dibibokri was now a dream come true.

Further Reading :

1) "The Dibibokri Basin....and beyond". By Kenneth Snelson, Himalayan Journal

Vol. XVIII Page 110.

2) "Italian Expedition to the Punjab Himalayas, 1961". By Paulo Consiglio, Himalayan

Journal Vol.XXIV Page 86.

3) "The first ascent of Mt.Parvati." By Tremonti M. Himalayan Journal Vol. XXX

Page 201.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Dibibokri Dreaming - Part 1. Freedom of the Hills.

The ice scraped against the stubble on my chin as I lay horizontal at the edge of the runnel. I could hear the muted roar of the water and the icy blue sides and bottom of the channel glowed dimly in the fast fading light. Clutching a bottle, I reached down with my right hand to scoop up some water. The water level remained tantalisingly close, but not near enough to be of any use. I angled the toes of my boots on the glacier ice and thrust my body forward, hoping that this would give my arms the extra reach.

Unfortunately, the thrust generated by my legs was a little too much and I was plunged unceremoniously into the crevasse! I was brought up short when my shoulders jammed against the sides and I felt ridiculous, dangling with my legs soaked up to the thighs in frigid water and wondering how long before the pressure and friction of my body would melt the ice just a tad for me to slip through and be swept away in the icy torrent, knowing full well that I was unlikely to survive the long, cold and slippery journey to the snout of the glacier.This grim prospect hastened my efforts to extricate myself and a few minutes later I was staggering back to the tent thirty yards away. I handed over the water bottle to Harsha who was crouched over the stove preparing our evening repast. I removed my wet clothes and squeezed the water out before it could freeze to ice, dried my limbs and crawled into the comfort of my sleeping bag. When I recounted my little misadventure, he chuckled and we both had a good laugh: we were in a great mood. Our little expedition had tasted the sweet fruit of success just two days earlier and we were anticipating the prospect of perhaps another little summit.

View of the West Glacier from the slopes of Rubal Kang
We were camped high up (at approximately 17,800 feet) on the West Glacier of the Dibibokri basin, at the foot of Rubal Kang (Tibetan for turtle, as it truly resembles one). Our original objective, Kulu Makalu (also called Lal Kila by some) towered at the head of the glacier, its wedge of rock flattened at the top like a broad chisel. Circumstances had reduced the climbing team of five to just two even before we left Mumbai in August 1991. The plan now was that Harsha and I would potter around the West Glacier of the Dibibokri system of the Kullu Himalaya and look for a modest summit, Franklyn would hold the fort at the foot of the glacier, and Aneeta Wadia would walk with us to the Base Camp as her introductory trek in the Himalaya.

Franklyn and I arrived in Manali with all the gear on 30th August, after an exhausting journey from Mumbai by train and bus. Harsha and Aneeta decided to join us a week later later, flying into Bhuntar airport on a Vayudoot flight.

The next day Franklyn and I decided to hike up to Bhrigu lake. We walked up to the village of Vashisht and continued past the hot springs.We had not reckoned with the nearly eight thousand feet height difference between Manali and the lake and this took its toll on our non-acclimatised bodies and we pitched camp late in the afternoon in mist and rain, with no sight of Bhrigu Lake yet.

Tarachand and his dog lead us to Bhrigu Lake
The next morning we followed shepherd tracks which contoured round the green hillsides, thinking that the fabled lake was just round the next turn, but no, we might as well have been walking round in circles. Just then salvation appeared in the form of Tarachand Thakur, a shepherd whose flock of sheep and goats roamed in the high pastures. He offered to show us the way and in half an hour we were at Bhrigu Lake.

Tarachand poses in front of Bhrigu Lake
I must admit that I was a little less than elated: I had expected to be greeted by a picture postcard rendition of a heavenly tarn; instead, Bhrigu Lake turned out to be a fairly nondescript body of water, the mists lifting off the surface to reveal the hundreds of votive coins that pilgrims had cast into the pond over the years. The tourism brochures touted it as a favourite place of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. As far as we were concerned, the politicians could have it all. We retreated to a little alp where Tarachand had set up shelter in a stone enclosure. He allowed us to pitch our tent a little distance away while he strode off to collect his flock and corral them for the night.

When our stove malfunctioned, we crawled into his shelter to cook our meal on the small fire he had going inside. The mists closed in once again, darkness swarmed over the mountains, the sheep and goats settled down outside. It was a good time to chat, our faces lit up in the best dramatic fashion by the flickering flames, our voices punctuated often by the comforting animal sounds emanating from the mass of four footed creatures surrounding us. Tarachand's lone pony stood sentinel with a little help from his sheep dog.

Tarachand told us his story, in between long puffs from his hookah. His home was in the Kangra hills lower down and he had adult sons minding the crops in the fields that the family owned. He had a wife and grandchildren, but he was also possessed of a restlessness that only the freedom of the hills could assuage. He had spent decades working in a government office in Dehra Dun and the Kafkaesque routine had eroded his soul. When he retired, to the shock of his family, he took up the shepherd's staff again and set off each summer for the lush grazing grounds of the upper Kullu and Lahul valleys. Up here, alone for weeks and months at a time, with his pony and dog and goats and sheep for company, he tasted true freedom. "Azaadi", he used the Urdu word, "that is what I had been missing all those years!"

During the course of the night we heard him go out many times with an old blunderbuss he had proudly showed us in the evening, to deal with any bears that might be preying on his flock.

Thus refreshed in body and soul, Franklyn and I caught the bus to Kullu on 3rd Sept to get our Inner Line Permits, for the Dibibokri basin fell into the restricted zone. Our trip couldn't have been more ill timed: the Himachal State Governor was in town and all the government machinery was fully occupied in various forms of bandobust! Nobody had the time nor the inclination to listen to our pleas. To compensate, we gorged ourselves on mutton chow mein at a small Tibetan dhaba when we returned to Manali at seven in the evening.

An afternoon trip by myself the next day to Kullu was successful in producing the permits. We reckoned that one more hike on 5th Sept with a 6000 feet ascent from the village of Aleo would do wonders for our fitness. I am not too sure about our fitness, but the deluge of rain and wind that hit us high on the slopes certainly worked its wet magic for our descent. We sloshed down muddy trails running with knee deep water and were glad to reach the little tea shop below Aleo. There were many landslides on the road back to Manali and the road itself was awash with water cascading off the sides of the hills.

There was still no sign of Aneeta and Harsha. Instead, we met up with Jayant and Kum Kum Khadalia (with whom I had shared the Panch Chuli adventure three years earlier: http://taccidental.blogspot.ca/2013/01/panch-chuli-part-ii-lessons-in-humility.html ) who were in town with their two year old son Kunal. Seeing him playing around the hotel corridor reminded me of my own 19 month old son whom I had left behind in Mumbai. The Tibetan dhaba came to our rescue again and we added an extra helping of momos to compensate for the delay in setting off for Manikaran and the Parbati valley.

Aneeta (right) and I on Day One of  the approach walk
Finally, on 9th Sept we left Manikaran and set off up the Parbati river, passing through the villages of Raskat, Tahuk, Burshaini and Nakthan to spend the night at Rudra Nag. Our baggage was carried by 7 porters led by Ramlal, all from the village of Raskat. Franklyn and I found the going rather pleasant, our earlier forays above Manali had certainly enhanced our relative fitness. For me personally it was interesting to see the changes along the trail six years after my last walk here ( http://taccidental.blogspot.ca/2012/07/sara-umga-pass-manikaran-to-shamshi.html ). Back then I had turned up the Tos Nala after Burshaini; now we were heading further into the valley of the Parbati river as it carved its way through rocky gorges and steep slopes clothed with evergreens, past the hot springs at Khirganga with its resident baba, up towards the open pastures of Tunda Bhuj and Thakur Kuan.

L to R : Harsha, Franklyn and Aneeta


Aneeta and Harsha opted to stay an extra day at Tunda Bhuj, our next halt, to get over their jet lag - they had flown into Bhuntar from London with just a day halt in Mumbai!. An even more convincing reason might have been the dead sheep we had bought here for Rs.200/- from a shepherd who told us that the poor beast had fallen from a cliff. There is nothing like fresh mutton to supplement the generally vegetarian diet that we were relying on to sustain us in the mountains.

Our camp at the "dwar" (arch / doorway ) formed by rocks at Tunda Bhuj

Franklyn and I were keen to get the expedition established at a suitable Base Camp in the Dibibokri Nala. Ensuring we packed some of the meat, we continued with Ramlal and four of the porters. We crossed over to the true right bank of the Parbati river on a "jhoola" ( a metal basket suspended from cables and operated by pulleys) at Thakur Kuan. Our trail began to hug the cliffs on the north side of the Dibibokri valley. Late in the afternoon we stopped for the night in a stone shelter built by local shepherds. Mutton and rotis for dinner concluded a satisfying day.

One of our porters with his load

The "Jhoola" crossing at Thakur Kuan
This striking peak ( 5810 m  / 19,057 ft on the Survey Of India map) above Thakur Kuan on the left bank of the Parbati would be an excellent technical challenge for the competent climber. This view from just below our Base Camp in the Dibibokri.
More mutton curry accompanied with rice and khichri comprised "breakfast" the next morning: thus fortified, we couldn't possibly go wrong! We crossed a turbulent little nala cascading off the cliffs on our left and were soon at the Base Camp site, just in time to say goodbye to a large party (12 members) from Bengal who were vacating the place. Eight of their members had climbed Rubal Kang, with the help of 5 High Altitude Porters (HAP). Chaman Singh, one of the HAPs, was the brother of Ramlal who was with us. Chaman Singh hailed from the village of Raskat and had shared many mountain adventures with my friend Jayant whom we had met only a couple of days earlier in Manali.....so there was much exchange of news while tea was passed around. Chaman Singh generously offered me his bivouac sack and an extra stove for Base Camp, both of which I accepted gratefully. Then, with a final wave of his hand he went down the valley with his charges. I suggested to Ramlal that he should also go down to Thakur Kuan to help Harsha and Aneeta and the two porters with them when they came up the next day, Friday 13 Sept.

Porters crossing the torrent before arriving at Base Camp
Base Camp in the Dibibokri Nala
Ramlal also helped us over the next couple of days to stock up our Advance Base Camp at the foot of the ice fall leading up to the West Glacier. Harsha, Franklyn and I occupied this camp on 17th Sept after Ramlal and Aneeta began their hike out to Manikaran. Three weeks after arriving in Manali, we were finally poised at 15,000 ft. on the threshold of our little river of ice.

A view up the Ratiruni valley, en route to our Advance Base Camp
Dibibokri Pyramid (6408 m / 21,018 ft) dominates the view up the Main Glacier
Our camp site was perfect: a clear stream flowed nearby, a cave formed under a huge boulder to shelter our kitchen, the toe of the West Glacier was ten minutes away and a grand view of the impressive ramparts of Dibibokri Pyramid completed the picture. As we draped our sleeping bags over the sunlit boulders to air and dry, we revelled in our isolation; as far as we knew, we were the only humans in an area large enough to swallow all of Mumbai. The only link we had to the outside world was a small transistor radio which had to be coaxed to pick out signals from the ether. This was paradise!

The ice fall of the West Glacier at our doorstep

Advance Base Camp