"To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive," wrote Robert Louis Stevenson. The Scottish writer had obviously not sampled the delights of road travel in the Himalaya. Stuck in a traffic jam on National Highway 22 below Rekong Peo, I could only hope that we would arrive at Chango the same day. A collision between a lorry loaded with rocks and a bus operated by the Himachal Roadways Transport Corporation had effectively sealed off the narrow road. The respective drivers had gone to Peo to summon the police while all manner of wayfarers emerged from jeeps, buses, lorries, cars and vans to inspect the damage and use the opportunity to urinate into the gorge of the Sutlej, flowing in a sparkling, flat, muddy ribbon far below to our right. Rajesh Thakur, whom we were paying Rs.3800/- to transport Franklyn and me from Shimla to Chango in his blue Maruti van, chattered inconsequentially with his buddy Om Prakash.
Three days earlier our flight from Mumbai had landed into the 41 deg C oven known as Delhi. We transferred to the Old Delhi railway station, baking for a couple of hours before diving into the air- conditioned bliss of the Howrah-Kalka Mail. The narrow gauge train from Kalka to Shimla was a sheer delight, its 103 tunnels spanning 95.5 km providing us with five and a half hours of travel bliss. At Rs.143 per head for First Class seats and no extra charge for our considerable luggage, it was a steal. (Railway addicts will love this BBC documentary http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZFHw3L1FXvw on the Kalka - Shimla Hill Railway)
|Kalka - Shimla train at Barog station|
My journal from 7 July 1995 reads - "It feels good to be back in this wonderful village. The air is balmy, the roar of the Spiti river is in the background....the temperature is a pleasant 23 deg C.....a half moon in the sky and the orange glow on the rocky peaks....exquisite." The locals, as always, welcomed us with a smile.
A generous lunch was in store for us at Chokdup Negi's house the next day, comprised of peas, onions, radishes, rice, dal and potatoes supplemented by meat brought all the way from Kaza in Spiti and accompanied by a chutney made from fresh green chillies and mint. Luckily, we had completed all the expedition shopping and the arrangements for the mules before this rich repast, because we could barely stagger back to the Rest House where we collapsed for a refreshing siesta. Chokdup, who was Our Man In Chango was already up in the glacier with the advance team but had instructed his brother to organise our move up into the mountains.
|Moonrise from Base Camp|
I had met Jishnu for the first time a couple of months earlier through a common friend, Mohit Oberoi, at the sandstone climbing pit in the front lawn of the building housing the Indian Mountaineering Foundation in Delhi. A keen rock climber, he was looking for an opportunity to tackle steep rock at altitude. His climbing acquaintance, Pyar Singh, who lived in a village near Uttarkashi in the mountains of Uttarakhand, would also come along. Jishnu was almost two decades younger than me and Pyar Singh could not have been more than thirty, just like Harsha. At almost forty, I was decidedly the old fart of the team! Franklyn was the same age as me but fortunately he harboured no silly ambitions like trying to climb Granite Peak.
|Lake Camp had considerably more water than in 1993|
|To the north east, the east face of Ninjeri plunged in an impressive sweep down to the glacier|
|Advance Base at the foot of Granite Peak (6585 m)|
|To the south towered Leo Pargial, 6791 metres - the highest in Chango Glacier|
|Further east, the attractive rocky summits of Pt.6180 metres pierced the sky|
|Sketch map of area|
In just twelve days, I had moved from the enervating heat and humidity of Mumbai at sea level to the crisp cold air (on the first night at Advance Base the temperature plunged to minus 17 deg C) beneath Granite Peak. Up here, it was not the heat, but the altitude which made me move slower. Things improved as the days went by and I hoped I would be able to keep pace with the young lads. None of us had ever done any serious rock climbing above 18,000 feet before, so this was going to be an interesting experiment. As for me, I was considered an average climber even at sea level!
The cliffs rearing up to the peak were steep and raked constantly by rockfall; one day I saw a block the size of a grand piano detach itself from the south face and come hurtling down. Our only hope was to access the south west buttress (which formed one corner) from the right, negotiate a hanging ice field on its flanks, and try to ascend what we instinctively called The Tower, a vertical pillar which appeared to relent in angle after it merged with the upper sections of the cliff. We thought that it might be possible to ascend these sections and gain the crenellated ridge that swept up to the summit. The summit block was separated from the ridge by a significant notch. Almost 3,500 vertical feet of rock armed with hidden surprises and always protected by the unpredictable weather lay between us and the top. Nowhere was there any level ground to pitch tents. The plan was to progressively fix rope as much as we could, then move quickly up these and bivouac at some suitable point, try and reach the top from there and then descend as rapidly as we could. Even in theory, this seemed like a crazy idea; buoyed by the optimism that always accompanies the start of any venture, we sorted out the gear and prepared for our first step on the granite.
|Jishnu and Pyar Singh (foreground) reach the base of the climb|
|Jishnu leads up the first pitch, trailing a rope to fix. This was a rock climber's dream - perfect rock, blue skies, sunshine.|
|Pyar Singh (left) and Jishnu enjoy the view and the sunshine on a ledge. The tents of Advance Base can be seen inside the circle.|
|The snowy whiteness of Leo Pargial was in stark contrast to our mountain|
|Climbing on The Tower : Pyar Singh leads|
|Pt. 6180 m|
|The upper portion of the north west face of Granite Peak as seen en route to the col that separates it from Pt.6180m.|
The actual summit cannot be seen from here. The high point in this photo is the northwest shoulder of the peak
Two days later as we moved up again, while I was climbing up what I called The Grey Slabs, the expedition fell apart. Pyar Singh's reluctance to continue with the climb had become increasingly apparent. He voiced his fears about the weather and about our rather less than ideal speed. He said that we did not have much of a chance of reaching the top under the circumstances and suggested we call off the climb. His concerns were of course justified. We were heavily laden and were forced to move slowly, we were no match for his level of fitness and skill, we were a long way from the summit and there could be any number of serious obstacles further up our route. Jishnu opined that if Pyar was pulling out, then he would do the same. With Harsha still trying to acclimatize to the altitude, I was left with no choice. The dull grey weather matched my mood.
A howling wind greeted us at the base of Granite Peak and we crawled into the shelter of the big North Face VE25 tent that we had left standing. An hour later it had subsided enough for us to venture out and pitch Jishnu's little Tadpole tent which he had been kind enough to leave behind for our use. For the next 5 days Granite Peak remained shrouded in mist and cloud, appearing totally hostile. To make matters worse, I caught a bad cold and nursed an irritating sore throat. Snow fell intermittently. To kill time, we walked around on the glacier all the way to the Kuru Tokpo Gap below the west col of Leo Pargial and climbed a steep snow gully on Pt. 6180 m to see if it could reasonably lead to the big hanging ice field that separated its two prominent summits. The gully branched to the right and led to a rather enjoyable traverse to the right, all the way to the top of a waterfall which drained the ice field. We filed this away in our memory as we had a backup plan to attempt to climb this attractive mountain if we didn't go back to Granite Peak.
|The Ninjeri Gap and the gully on Pt. 6180m|
Two days later, Chokdup returned, completing the over eight thousand feet ascent from Chango to Advance Base in one single push! He was absolutely exhausted by the time he staggered into camp. If it had been any of us, we would probably have died from such a superhuman effort. He had the ice screws with him. We had no time to lose, with only 5 days left before we had to start withdrawing from the glacier. Our vacation was coming to an end, we had families and jobs to go back to.
On the first day of August, Chokdup, Harsha and I set off for a last ditch attempt to climb Granite Peak. We were barely ten minutes from the tents when Chokdup began to vomit violently. His retching spewed out the dinner of the night before and he reeled with nausea. Perhaps he had come back up too quickly and needed to rest a day. We quickly redistributed our loads, told him to stay back and continued. A thundercloud, accompanied by flashes of lightning, added drama to our efforts as we hauled ourselves up the ropes. At a little after 5 pm we decided to bivouac, just below the ice field. The MSR stove behaved impeccably even as it began to snow, purring away steadily and kept us supplied with soup and noodles. The snow continued steadily halfway into the night. Tucked away in our bivouac sacks and clipped into an anchor, we spent a fairly comfortable night.
|I woke up to an indifferent dawn.|
|The view from our first bivouac|
Franklyn, seeing me going down the ropes earlier, had interpreted it as a sign that we were coming down and had asked Chokdup to go up and help us down with our loads. The black humour of the situation was further exacerbated when it began to snow in earnest. Chokdup helped us move up the ice slope to another spot to spend the night while he quickly descended into the clouds. We spent a fairly miserable day at this spot, in and out of the mist. The night was no better, the ledge on which I was perched was curved like a boat and too small for me.
|Our second bivouac|
|A piton proved useful as a spout|
"How about trying to push Pyar Singh's high point just another rope length?" I proposed to Harsha. He looked at me dubiously. Even though he knew it was going to be futile, he was sporting enough to say,"Okay, you give it a shot, I shall belay you".
Leaving everything except a rope and some basic climbing gear, we hauled ourselves up the Broken Ledges and proceeded to the base of The Tower. As we turned the corner, a wicked wind swept across the mountain and whipped the snow around our faces. With gloved hands that were numb with the cold, I climbed the Tower awkwardly in my double plastic boots. The rock was wet and slippery. Visibility kept changing, flurries of snow would blind me temporarily as I scrabbled for a toehold. I thanked God that I was clipped into the fixed rope, and I wondered how hard it would have been for us to use our ascending devices with our loaded rucksacks on our backs. I was panting with the effort as I hauled myself up another few feet to the top of the first fixed rope on the Tower.
|My futile attempt to go beyond Pyar Singh's high point.|
Packing everything up and shoving the excess gear into the empty rucksack that Chokdup had brought up, we retreated down the ice to the ledge where we had spent the first night. We left the extra sack clipped into one of the piton anchors and began the harrowing abseils down to the glacier. It was dark by the time my feet touched down on reasonably level ground and we staggered the short distance back to the tents. I slipped a couple of times in the fresh snow with the fatigue. "I was tired, thirsty, frozen cold and damp", I was to write later in my diary. Granite Peak had shrugged us off as if we were some pesky little insects.
|Our attempt on Granite Peak. This photo, taken 3 years later from the summit of Corner Peak, gave us an idea of how far we were from the top!|
|Gimtey (left) and his friend don all the hardware as we prepare to leave Base Camp|
Two days later we boarded the Shelkar - Chango - Rampur bus, to once more travel hopefully! However, our travails were not yet over. The bus went on a diversion to the village of Leo down a frightening stretch of dirt road, packed passengers in like sardines into and out of Peo, and a stout Kinnauri lady with her little baby gleefully sat down on my lap. I would have gladly offered her my seat and stood up but she would have none of it. She insisted that we could both complete the journey sitting down - by which she meant that she would be sitting on me! Franklyn and Harsha, seated on the bench seat behind me, guffawed with laughter. Fortunately, a month of going up and down on the glacier had strengthened my thighs and I survived.
All afternoon the rain had been pelting down and it was announced at Jeori that the road ahead was closed due to a landslide. We were stuck.
However, there is always a silver lining to any situation. We hired two Maruti vans for Rs. 200 each and zipped up the 17 km to Sarahan, home to the famous Bhimakali temple, and checked into the Hotel Shrikhand to spend the night. Here we proceeded to drown our sorrows in a case of beer which gave us a good night's sleep, leaving us fresh the next day to admire the flamboyant plumage of the world's first captive bred Western Horned Tragopan in the pheasantry above the village.
|Illustration by Allan Sutherland|
|View from the Broken Ledges|
|Traverse at Lake Camp : the challenge was not to fall into the water!|
|Franklyn (left), Jishnu and Harsha en route to Advance Base|