Saturday, 15 February 2014

Mantalai Magic - Part I : Getting There

"Are you serious, Si Lin?" I looked down at the vertical cascade of hard ice squeezed in between the tottering seracs and crevasses on our right and the rocky cliff dislodging the occasional rock like an artillery shell on our left.

Si Lin's face erupted in a huge grin. "Don't worry, Aloke, we'll be down and up in a jiffy."

Hu Si Lin
He struck me as an irrational optimist. It was bright and sunny and the frost was already loosing its grip on the loose rock. Even a small barrage of stones hurtling down the chute would kill us instantly. Si Lin was a dentist from Vasai near Mumbai and I was confident that he could easily extract my teeth, but would he be able to extricate himself (and me, for that matter) if a couple of hundred tonnes of rock and ice buried us? I should have stood my ground and gone the long way round to retrieve the load that he had dumped a couple of days earlier on the northwest branch of Glacier IV at the head of the Parvati Valley in the Kullu Himalaya.

The next 30 minutes were perhaps the most frightening I have ever spent in the mountains, rappelling off a couple of ice screws into the labyrinth, expecting any moment to be flattened by a boulder on its way down the cliff. I belayed Si Lin on the last section as he finally emerged from the ice fall onto the gentler snow slope and found his cache. He then insisted that we return the same way to the camp below the peak of Parvati South where the rest of the team were enjoying their late breakfast.

We had just taken a decision which by no stretch of the imagination could be classified as a Calculated Risk. I told myself that I should recommend Si Lin for a course in Risk Management in the Mountains. In the meantime I was stuck with him as my climbing partner on the Parvati-96 Indo-American Himalayan Expedition. Though the title was quite a mouthful, with 15 members it wasn't hard to swallow!

The team at Base Camp
Standing L to R : Raghu Iyer, Prakash (cook), Inder (cook), Jaspal Chauhan (Liaison Officer), Steve Cox, Natala Goodman (holding on to the dog Blackie), Franklyn Silveira, Ajay Tambe, Donald Goodman, Prabodh Ganguly, Howard Weaver, Shridhar Nivas.
Sitting L to R : Jim Tweedie, Dinker Shah, Mike Burns, Aloke Surin, Karen Close, Hu Si Lin
When I  returned from Chango in 1995 (see ) I found a letter from the Himalayan Club enquiring if I was interested in being part of a joint expedition with The Mountaineers of Seattle. Little did I suspect that the unenviable task of "Leader" would be foisted on me. Don Goodman, a long standing member of The Mountaineers, was living in Mumbai at the time and had suggested to the Himalayan Club that an Indo-American expedition might be a good idea. I had first seen Don when he was giving an illustrated talk at the Himalayan Club about a hardcore ascent of Mt.Foraker in Alaska. I also knew that he had been to Everest and some seriously high peaks around the world, lived in Seattle and had hiked and climbed extensively in the Cascades, Alaska and Canada. He was eminently more suited than me to head the team, but due to the bureaucratic requirements of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation for joint expeditions, I became the Accidental Leader! 

Steve Cox

Steve Cox from Seattle would function as Joint Leader. Since Steve and I were separated by a couple of continents and an ocean, it fell to Don and me in Mumbai to co-ordinate the arrangements in India. Don and his wife Natala were easy to get along with. Both were so imbued with the spirit of adventure that in their very first few months in Mumbai they had ventured to drive out to Khireshwar at the base of Harishchandragadh, knowing not a word of Marathi or even Hindi and hiked up to pitch their tent on the vast plateau on the fort in the midst of the monsoon!

Don is a man of a rather generous build matched by an equally generous nature. He is armed with a great sense of humour and a loud, infectious laughter. We chose the Parvati valley in Kullu because it did not require the reams of paperwork that areas designated within the Inner Line demanded. Glacier IV at the head of the valley had been well documented by a few pioneering teams and provided access to a number of peaks with modest heights and varying degrees of difficulty and we agreed that it would provide the perfect playground for our mixed bag of members.

The whole team, barring Prabodh Ganguly, gathered at the Indian Mountaineering Foundation's complex in New Delhi and after the appropriate meetings, briefings and much handshaking with the Director we loaded up the bus that had been hired to transport us and our baggage to Manikaran, the road head.

During the stop at Kullu, while the rest were enjoying brunch, Don, Steve, Jaspal Chauhan (the Liaison Officer) and I went to pay our respects to the District Magistrate. This courtesy was not only formal, but ensured that the local authorities were in the loop if a mountain rescue had to be organised.

Late in the evening of 11 September 1996, we arrived at Manikaran where Prabodh was waiting. He had booked a couple of rooms in the rather less than luxurious Amar Guest House whose tacky signboard announced "For comfortable stay and have a special guide if needed"! We assured the owner that we already had our "special guide" - Chaman Singh Thakur from the village of Raskat. I had met Chaman for the first time in 1991 during a trip to the Dibibokri - see and

The route from Manikaran to Mantalai
Ignoring the superstitious overtones of Friday, 13th September, the expedition crossed the wooden suspension bridge over the Parvati river and wound its way up the trail towards Raskat and Pulga. I sighed with relief as I saw the 68 people dissipate, some in groups and some alone, up into the mountains. We had 49 porters,  the 2 cooks Inder and Prakash, Chaman Singh, in charge of them, and the Liaison Officer. I had never taken to the hills with such a big team and I wondered what lay in store. Dinker Shah, a retired engineer from Ahmedabad was the oldest member at 62. Mike Burns hung around climbing walls in Seattle and was the youngest at 26. Karen Close, Jim Tweedie, Steve Cox and Natala Goodman had extensive climbing experience in the Cascades. Howard Weaver, a teacher by profession, had lost count of the number of times he had climbed Mount Rainier. Don had an enviable track record of high altitude mountaineering.

Dinker Shah
Shridhar Nivas was a Master Mariner but this was his first climbing expedition. Ajay had been on a few Himalayan trips, including our first visit to the Chango glacier in 1993 (see Raghu and Franklyn were to confine themselves to trekking up to Advance Base. Prabodh, from Calcutta, had only a few weeks earlier been climbing a peak (Kangla Tarbo II) in Spiti which was just north of the Dibibokri-Parvati divide. He had made the excellent arrangements for the Rest House at Pulga, navigating the corridors of the Forest Department to accomplish the task. Our mandatory Liaison Officer, Jaspal Chauhan (he preferred to be called Bally for some obscure reason), was a young lad from the town of Uttarkashi in Uttarakhand. He was a little surprised and offended that he had not been consulted in the hiring of the porters, a task the L.O. is normally entrusted with for foreign expeditions. I had to explain to him that since Chaman Singh was an old friend of mine, the process was already a fait accompli and he should consider himself fortunate that he had been relieved of an onerous chore.

The Parvati flows through a gorge beyond Pulga
Like any classic approach march, this one was to be enjoyed to the hilt, starting off with meeting Chaman's family at Raskat and waving to the schoolchildren, halting at the wayside tea shops, and pausing every now and then to admire the view or to take a picture. Walking unhurried in the mountains is the perfect balm for the stressed out urban soul.

Natala and Raghu at a chai stop
As each of the porters walked into the compound of the lovely Forest Rest House at Pulga, his load was ticked off on a list and he would wander off to be with his mates. They formed little groups and lit small fires to cook their evening meal while the sunlight faded from the peaks high above.

A guest entry in the register of the Pulga Rest House, 81 years before us! We were amazed that the ink and paper had survived so long...
The approach walk which can normally be accomplished comfortably in 5 days stretched out to 6 when six of the porters deserted us at Tunda Bhuj over a dispute over "double pay". It was a small lesson in the logistics of handling a large (in my limited experience) expedition. The misery of the cold rain en route to Khirganga was thankfully compensated for by a dip in the hot sulphur springs there.

Shridhar arrives at Khirganga, ready for a dip in the hot springs
The open meadows beyond Tunda Bhuj and Thakur Kuan were a welcome change from the damp forests as was the sunshine. At Uri Thach we stood around in a cold wind, holding our daily status update meeting even as the sun set in a spectacular display of orange and shades of burgundy and maroon. Across the river we could make out the tents of the Scottish expedition which was busy on the flanks of Kullu Eiger which rose in an impressive sweep of steep rock.

Kullu Eiger - 5664 m
Finally, on the 18th September we crested the moraine dam from which issued the nascent Parvati river and passed the shrine with its trident. We walked for an hour more and finally forded the now shallow Parvati stream as it flowed in the wide floodplain of Mantalai and established our Base Camp on its true left bank. The large kitchen tent went up next to a tall boulder and a pit toilet was fashioned in the middle of a group of large rocks: the Parvati 96 Indo-American Himalayan Expedition was open for business!

The last lap to Base Camp

Base Camp
A pastoral idyll en route to Khirganga

Sunset at Uri Thach


  1. Another raw diamond is unearthed from the author's 'secret' mine, only to emerge cut and polished after all these years of hibernation. Good narrative Aloke and can't wait for the story to unfold.

  2. Thank you Anil. The passage of time does lend a certain perspective!

  3. Your blog is a pleasure to read Aloke. The pictures interlay well with the writing, which is done with much candor and feeling. The sort of pieces which inspire people to get into the mountains :)

  4. Aloke..Your blogs are Hemingway, Attenborough and Hitchcock all rolled in one on a National Geographic site,,,,,,When's the next installment...Waiting to exhale. :-))

  5. Mesmerising account ! the mere sight of kullu eiger just makes me feel happy ! :))

  6. What fantastic pictures in clear sunny day I see here. Compare that to my visit of Parvati Valley it accounted for nothing as rain and landslides was the order of the day.

    1. That is rather unfortunate.....I guess we just got lucky with the weather and our timing...