Friday, 5 April 2013

Brahmmah - Return to Kishtwar

Nineteen thousand feet on the south east ridge of Brahmmah I is a pretty cool place to be. The view downwards is stupendous: the ridge plunges down in an elegant sweep of snow and ice to the col with Flat Top and when you raise your eyes upwards it is met by the impressive bulk of Brahmmah II flying a plume like a pennant from its summit pyramid. Clouds swirl amidst the crenellated ridges, lurking in the hollows between giant rock buttresses, the sun shines from an achingly blue sky and heaven seems to lie just beyond the next rise.

Brahmmah II ( 6485m ) as seen from the South East ridge of Brahmmah I ( 6416 m )

The problem was that I might reach the other world sooner than I had reckoned if I did not prise my right foot out of the hole in the rocks where it was jammed. Try as I might, my plastic climbing boots seemed to settle in further and deeper the harder I pulled. I was exhausted from the effort and appealed to Harsha who had by now come up to assist with the task. He grabbed one of the big rocks under which my boot disappeared and hauled with all his might, hoping to dislodge it just a wee bit, just enough to wiggle my foot out. The rock did not budge. We attempted it a few more times, without making any difference. Fifteen minutes had passed by. As we rested between heaves, we could see the silhouettes of Ravi and Faruk recede further upwards into the distance as they approached the first of the three rock pinnacles which guarded the upper mountain. It occurred to me that if I did not get my foot out of that hole pronto I might, like the pinnacles, become a permanent fixture on this twenty one thousand foot mountain.

Brahmmah I (6416m) from our Base Camp at the head of the Nanth Nullah

But Brahma, the God of Creation, could not conceivably be the cause of my destruction, so I was granted a divine reprieve: the next combined heave of the boulder managed to rock it slightly, giving me that window of opportunity which I grabbed as I pulled my foot free and lay panting on the snow, beads of sweat on my brow cooling rapidly in the mountain chill.

Close shaves and brushes with death had been a constant feature on this attempt to climb Brahmmah I in Sept 1989:

1. We had watched in shocked disbelief as Faruk had skittered on the ice and then shot off like an arrow down the slope towards the Kibar Nullah thousands of feet below. He had been scouting around for level ground to pitch our camp on when he suddenly encountered hard ice and his foot slipped from under him. As I watched his attempt at self arrest with his ice axe fail, an unpleasant thought raced through my mind - "What do I tell his family?" Before the answer could occur to me he was brought up short by a pile of old snow lying at the very edge of the cliff : he would live to tell the tale!

2. While descending from our col camp to Advance Base I had also taken a potentially fatal tumble. Again, I was spared.

3. On a routine ferry up the mountain I had almost collapsed with a flu like fever and had visions of dying on the slope of talus that I was resting on. While Kamlesh and Harsha had continued up I had lain supine, contemplating the scudding white clouds as my body continued to weaken. After laying there for about three hours, I decided to haul my feeble body back to our Advance Base Camp at the head of the Brahmmah glacier at the foot of the mountain.

The expedition had turned into a series of misadventures since that hot day in August when we drove out of Jammu in a Mahindra jeep on our way to Kishtwar. Harsha, who loves to drive, took the wheels from the driver of the vehicle and we roared off towards Batote on the Jammu - Srinagar highway. As always, leaving the plains behind and ascending into the cool of the hills was a welcome relief. Leaving the crowded streets of Jammu and motoring through the neat and tidy cantonment of Udhampur up towards Patnitop pointed us firmly in the direction of the peak of Brahmmah in the Kishtwar Himalaya.

Kishtwar was a name which evoked fond memories : in May 1976, the Youth Hostels Association of India (YHAI) had introduced me to the delights of Himalayan trekking as the route wound over the Margan and Synthen passes. It was the very first time in my life that I had seen and walked on snow and like all First Times, that trip remains very special. On the rapid return to Delhi that year I had succumbed to heat stroke in the capital city and had to be hospitalised for a couple of days!

Kishtwar kids in May 1976

Now, thirteen years later (there was a sign, right there!), I was heading for Kishtwar again.....this time in the company of Faruk, Harsha and Ravi - climbing friends from Mumbai. I had met Ravi and Harsha for the first time during my near-death disaster on the cliffs of Mumbra ( ). Faruk was a good friend with whom I had spent many happy hours rock climbing and we had attempted Menthosa three years earlier ( );  Ravi had been my partner on my very first Himalayan climb ( , , ).

The peaks of the Kishtwar Himalaya are stunningly beautiful, steep, and technically challenging. Though of modest height by Himalayan standards (mostly in the 6000 m - 6500 m range), they offer excellent objectives for the ambitious climber on a low budget. Brahmmah I at 6416 metres may not have been a test piece for the expert alpinist, but it was hard enough for us! It had been first ascended by the legendary Chris Bonnington and Nick Estcourt in an alpine style push in August 1973. They had come up to the south east ridge from the Kibar Nullah whilst we were planning to approach the route from the Nanth Nullah and the Brahmmah glacier.

Sketch map of area. Heights in metres

At Batote, we left the main highway to Srinagar and took the fork going to Kishtwar. The road soon deteriorated to a gravel surface and shortly thereafter we had a flat tire! At Doda, Harsha used his contacts and commandeered a Gypsy to carry us the rest of the distance to Kishtwar where we arrived late in the evening. During my previous visit more than a decade earlier, a hailstorm had greeted me as I alighted from the bus and made my way to the YHAI  campsite. Sometime in the night it had stopped and the skies cleared and the moon rose above the field where the tents had been pitched. When I emerged from the tent the hailstones had completely covered the field and now shone like a million diamonds scattered nonchalantly by some divine whim.

This time we spent the night at the Tourist Rest House where we met up with the lads from Bangalore : Kamlesh, Chiddy, Niranjan and "Doc" Krishna Mohan. Kamlesh was responsible for having put the trip together and the Mumbai quartet were happy to leave all the organisational details in his able hands.

We drove the next day the short distance to Patimahal from where our walk to Base Camp would begin. Ponies were hired from Ghani Chacha ("Uncle") and our little expedition was soon on its way. Our permanent members had been boosted by the addition of Shashi, a young Nepali lad of seventeen or eighteen. I am still not clear as to how we ended up employing him as our camp cook, but he was to prove an asset to the team. If ever I had had delusions about myself being a sort of casual adventurer, Shashi's story soon put things in the correct perspective: he had run away from his home in Siliguri (at the eastern end of the Himalayan foothills) at the age of ten and had led a peripatetic life, working odd jobs like being the tea boy in roadside dhabas, finally ending up working in circuses! He had worked as a trapeze artist in the Raymond and Gemini circuses, two marquees I was familiar with when growing up. His wanderings led him to Kishtwar and when I asked him why he wanted to come along with us, he answered - "I've never been in the high Himalaya, I would just look at them from a distance all my life. This gives me an opportunity to see the snows up close!" End of interview, he was hired! To me, people like Shashi are the true adventurers in our midst, people whose life is lived like a throw of dice, who do not let mundane worries like Where is My Next Meal Coming From, or How Am I Going To Pay My Rent, bother them. They bash on regardless!

The four day approach walk to our Base Camp at the head of the Nanth Nullah was idyllic. We were briefly spared from the monsoon rains so we could appreciate the beauty of this valley. I tried to recall memories of my passage thirteen years earlier but failed. Perhaps it was all for the good: I could appreciate my stunning surroundings with fresh eyes and loved every vista that a turn in the trail presented.

The Nanth Nullah opens up to gorgeous scenery
The Mughal emperor Jahangir is said to have quoted an old Persian couplet when he saw Kashmir : "If there be a Paradise here below, this is it, this is it, this is it!"

Wading our way through meadows sprinkled with wildflowers, waterfalls cascading hundreds of feet and creating ever changing rainbow displays as the sun caught them in its rays, breathtaking glimpses of glittering snowfields perched at impossible angles high on a towering peak, breathing in the heady mountain air with each upward step, we had to admit that the emperor had a case.

The names of the settlements we passed through had poetry resonating in their names : names like Ghunghat and Sattarchin, Hawal and Haunzar, Sueda and Sonder. Kamlesh even found the time to flirt with a pretty shepherdess who was herding her flock of sheep with the help of her little sister. The girl was stunningly beautiful and totally guileless, a true child of nature. She fitted in perfectly with her fairy tale surroundings. She thought we were a pair of crazy idiots carrying our heavy rucksacks and going up to spend a couple of weeks among rocks and snow and ice. We apologised for our misguided outlook on life and  reluctantly took her leave. As she passed us by I noticed that her feet were filthy with mud.....ah well, no one is perfect! We could hear the girls' shrill voices calling out to their charges for a long time.

Village of Sonder

The tinkling of bells announced that our pack animals were catching up with us. We quickened our pace and had to stop again to admire the view ahead : the monolith of the Eiger (6000 m) dominated the skyline as we approached Mirchin, where our Base Camp was to be. On 24 August 1989 we camped on a sandy flat with a miniature lake at one end and the moraine ridge of the Brahmmah glacier on our right. The kitchen was set up under a huge boulder and Shashi got to work, passing out steaming mugs of welcome hot chai. Ghani Chacha collected his fee, rounded up his mules and ponies, and headed back down the valley. We were now alone, at the mercy of Brahma, the God of Creation.

The last lap to Base Camp

Kishtwar Eiger, 6000 m


  1. Magical! Absolutely enchanting writing, subject, and pictures! Am transported to Kashmir reading this!

  2. Really great to be part of your team, now reliving those memories again

  3. Excellent writing, one feels they are there, photos are wonderful at as I will never see that area in real life, looking forward to next episode.

  4. I am grateful that I am able to share these memories with you all...Thank You!Am working on Part II.

  5. Great story well penned.I feel as though I am going through all of this though it may never happen.Thanx for letting me be a part of this experience.
    Your blogs are so well written always and keep writing more.....

  6. Great reading about this trip that I unfortunately could not go for.

  7. The pictures are just stunning Aloke and your account is so real....

  8. Thank you Suzy D and Franklyn. You'd have loved this trip, Frank!

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  10. Great pics
    i have also visited this place in 2014, amazing experience

  11. Hi! Great post! My partner and I just arrived home after a successful trip to climb Brammah 2 and I was wondering if it might be possible to connect with you somehow to ask a few questions about some of the images you took from Brammah 1? If so, please shoot me an email?
    Thanks so much and cheers! -J

  12. Overwhelming, when you visit this place again you can find it in the same way but the difference is that people from this place is much educated. Each and every word of this blog remind me the place from where i belong. Proud to be Dachhani (Kishtwari).