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Friday, 21 February 2014

Mantalai Magic - Part II : The Climbs

The chili pepper used in some recipes for the South Indian dish of sambar is a stubby little fruit about the size of a thumbnail. Its dark maroon skin is glossy and the inside is filled with seeds that form the ammunition. Our stock of half-cooked "khichri" mix had a liberal helping of the little devils to satisfy the Indian craving for hot and spicy dinners. Ever since I had discovered this tasty mixture from my friends Kum Kum and Jayant Khadalia ( see http://taccidental.blogspot.ca/2013/01/panch-chuli-part-ii-lessons-in-humility.html ) on a trip to Panch Chuli in 1988 I had been sold on the idea. I begged them for the recipe and tweaked it to my own radical tastes - and that included the addition of the pepper. My wife Margaret had been persuaded to prepare an adequate amount to last the entire trip and I was grateful to her.

We were sitting around on the moraine rocks at Advance Base at the head of Glacier IV of the upper Parvati valley. The fading sunlight played with the snows on the peaks around us and created a chiaroscuro on a giant scale. We glowed with the satisfaction of having moved up the 7.5 km stretch from Base Camp to here and having established a fairly comfortable and well stocked hub from where to operate. This had been accomplished with the help of Chaman and 5 SLAPs (Super Low Altitude Porters!). Steve and Bally had suffered a moment of embarrassment when they sank up to their waists in soft black mud and had to be hauled out by Chaman.

L to R : Chaman, Bally, Steve.
Inder, the resident cook, went around ladling the hot and steaming khichri into our plates. Conversation ebbed as the focus shifted to the food.

Suddenly the quiet mountain ambience was shattered by an almighty scream and we saw Natala jump to her feet as if she had stepped on hot coals. Her mouth was open and she was trying to cool her tongue by sticking it out; then she grabbed her water bottle and tried to douse the flame that she thought was blazing inside her mouth.

"I thought it was a raisin!" she finally managed to gasp. In between fits of laughter, we sympathised: a couple of years in India was not really enough to teach anyone how to differentiate between a raisin and a Madras Chili Pepper.

While Natala was agonising over whether she would get ulcers in her mouth from the chili, I was concerned that I would end up being Inder's assistant if I didn't do something about my climbing boots. It was a plastic pair sporting the Asolo logo and had served me well over the last 5 years. But the storage in Mumbai's legendary humidity in between mountain trips had been progressively eating away at its sole. Now it was ready to part company with the rest of the body and a desperate remedy was needed. It turned up in the guise of a tube of Superglue that we carried as part of our repair kit.

I sat down on the rocks and diligently cleaned the boots before applying the adhesive. But the healing process would take a day and that excluded me from the first climb of the expedition.

Advance Base
The location of our camp was such that both the northwest and the southwest branches of the glacier could be easily accessed. By 22 September, all the members and Bally and Inder had settled in. We had an open ended plan which allowed different people to climb different peaks with the partners they chose according to their inclination and this system worked rather well. There was no point in crowding the summits.

Detail from Survey of India map ( Sheet 53 E 13, 1: 50,000 ) showing our movements on Glacier IV
We found this 1962 survey quite accurate. All heights in meters.
BC = Base Camp. ABC = Advance Base Camp


SNOW PEAK - 5605 m / 18,384 ft

This peak was climbed on 23 September via a line on the east face and the northwest ridge near the corniced summit. Since I was busy that day putting body and sole (of my boots) together, the description of the climb is best left to Karen and Ajay :

"We chose a route directly up the east face, just right of centre making our way through various crevasse fields on the lower slope leading to the base of the face. On the east face proper we encountered several crevasses, steep slopes up to 50 degrees and knee deep unconsolidated snow which made progress slow and arduous. Step kicking was rotated between Ajay, Karen, Howard and Jim with Shridhar receiving ongoing instruction in snow climbing techniques as this was his first ever climb.

View of Snow Peak from Advance Base (Photo by Howard Weaver)
Slab avalanche conditions were encountered at one point halfway up the face, but thankfully no avalanche occurred ( two loud "whumps" were heard while traversing below an ice cliff, which caused us a great deal of worry). The fine ridge (north west) was approximately 150 feet of 60 degree snow, increasing to 70 to 80 below a vertical cornice approximately 3-4 feet high. We crossed over the cornice, then traversed the steep south ridge approx 30 feet to just below the summit cornice which appeared to be approximately 15 ft of overhanging (to the north) ice and snow. Reached the summit at 1:30pm. Little time was spent on the summit due to tenuous footing on the steep soft snow over ice; we descended rapidly by the same route, plunge stepping and glissading...a difficult but enjoyable climb in mostly sunny conditions."

They had left Advance Camp at 05:15 am and were back at approximately 4:30 pm.

Summiteers : Karen Close, Ajay Tambe, Shridhar Nivas, Howard Weaver, Jim Tweedie.

Howard on the summit ridge on Snow Peak (Photo by Ajay Tambe)

Karen waits below the summit cornice as Shridhar  kicks his way up (Photo by Ajay Tambe)

TWIN PEAK - 5470 m/17,941 ft

This modest peak is the first one to swing into view as one turns the corner into Glacier IV. It looks deceptively steep when viewed at a distance.

Twin Peak from the lower moraine of Glacier IV
After checking that my boots would hold up to the ordeal, I joined the Goodmans, Si Lin and Bally on 24th September to ascend the elegant J shaped east-north-east ridge which we called The Birdwalk as there were some large footprints of a bird all the way to the summit! Though we claimed this as a First Ascent for the records, I am sure the birds didn't give a flutter......so much for human egos!

Twin Peak from Advance Base
The Goodmans and Bally forge ahead while Si Lin waits for me
Dinker, our most mature member made a brave effort to climb this peak as well, but turned around when he felt that he was compromising his health. Prabodh, who had been shepherding him along, very unselfishly decided to stay by him and escorted him all the way back to the Advance Base, giving up an opportunity to add another summit to his Himalayan tally.

Size matters! Si Lin and Bally hold the Indian tricolour while the Goodmans unfurl the compact version of the Stars and Stripes.
The imposing ramparts of Parvati South (6127 m)  dominate the left skyline
The view east from Twin Peak
The view south

Karen, Ajay, Jim and Howard repeated the ascent on 25th September via the same route.

Pt.5360 m/17,580 ft

While we were busy on Twin Peak, Steve and Mike moved up the southwestern arm of the glacier and were bivouacked at 4878 m / 16,000 ft to the north east of Snow Peak. From here they climbed Pt.5360 m the next day, 25th Sept. Their account describes their attempt best:

"The route ascended around bergschrunds and through slide paths to the deep col (between Snow Peak and Pt.5360m) at 5182m/17,000 ft. The route continued up from the col, taking the direct route up snow aretes and passing over an 8 ft high cornice on the summit slopes of the northwest face...summited at 12 pm under clear but building skies...descended the east north east ridge...steep snow and bergschrunds....back to the bivi...."

Mike wanted to christen this peak "Point Susan" to flatter his girlfriend back in the USA. We told him that the Survey of India frowned on assigning personal names to mountains unless they were of divine origin like Mount Parvati. Moreover, how would it work if he changed girlfriends?

Pt 5360m from Advance Base.
The climb of Pt.5360m seemed to have satisfied their appetites, for very soon Steve and Mike decided to go back down all the way to Base Camp and explore some other options from there. They were joined by Raghu, Franklyn, Prabodh, Dinker and Inder.

The rest of us moved up the northwestern branch of the glacier to camp at a little over 17,000 ft, under the shadow of the very imposing cliffs of Parvati South, certainly the plum of the area in terms of technical difficulty. The prize had been plucked in 1973 by a very strong party led by Rob Collister.

My old friend Ravi Kamath (see http://taccidental.blogspot.ca/2012/06/lion-peak-lion-tamers-or-tame-lion.html ) had also led an attempt in  Oct 1980 in extremely cold conditions but they had to retreat after one of the climbers took a fall at about 120m up the couloir which gives access to the south face route, the line of the original ascent.

Camp below Parvati South

RIDGE PEAK, 5805 m/ 19040 ft

While Karen and Ajay prepared for their attempt on Parvati South, the rest of us decided to have a go at climbing Ridge Peak, certainly an easier proposition, lying across the vast snowfield opposite the rocky monolith.

Ridge Peak as seen from Twin Peak
On 26th September we headed for the col between Parvati South and Ridge Peak, to give us an access to the north east ridge. The attempt petered out at 5555 metres when we met with continuously deep and unconsolidated snow on a sharp and steep ridge where the only protection was psychological. We were in agreement that it was too dangerous to continue and the decision to retreat in a cold afternoon wind was welcomed with relief by everyone.

Three days later, Jim Tweedie, who had not been part of the attempt, decided to finish off the job in a bold solo effort. He set off in the pre-dawn darkness, before the snow had time to soften, and proved that the rest of us were really wimps!

En route to the col between Parvati South and Ridge Peak

Shridhar follows Don and Si Lin

Don in knee deep snow on the north east ridge
Don at the turnaround point on Ridge Peak

Parvati South from the col. The still unclimbed (till 1996) west face on the left

PARVATI SOUTH - 6127 m / 20,096 ft

This story belongs to Karen and Ajay. Here is their account :

"28 September 1996 was spent at high camp organising supplies and equipment with a view to minimising weight and planning the route with the aid of binoculars.

29 September 1996

Woke early to enjoy a hearty breakfast then set off from camp about 4 am. We reached the base of the couloir by 5 am after an easy walk by the lightly crevassed snow ramp, crossed the bergschrund on an avalanche cone and worked our way up the 50-60 degree consolidated snow and ice. We exited the couloir just below a prominent black bulge at around 5548 m/18,200 ft. The initial pitch traversed a loose and slabby down-sloping ledge with patchy verglas to a large ledge on the face consisting of snow, verglas and loose rock. We initially attempted a line directly up and angling leftward from this point. However, we abandoned this line after a couple of pitches and rappelled back to the ledge to look for an easier and quicker route. After working our way leftwards and up on the ledge a couple hundred feet we chose another line which looked more promising. At this point the weather began to change, from sunshine to a light snowfall. Ajay led up a pitch without difficulty, however as Karen started up with the rucksack, water began seeping down the route, becoming a steady flow by mid pitch and soaking glove, jacket, rucksack etc.

Hanging icicles above the lower terrace (Photo courtesy Ajay Tambe)
The ropes began to freeze within a very short period of time, causing considerable difficulty with ropework and by the time Karen reached the belay ledge both ropes were quite stiff and crusted with ice. A lengthy discussion ensued regarding the best course of action, ultimately concluding that descent on frozen ropes would be difficult and dangerous and so finding a bivvy spot was our only option. Karen found a suitable sheltered location after only one more pitch of careful scrambling across and up icy ledges. A small bivvy spot was chopped out of a snow cone piled against a rock wall and we quickly got to work getting warmed up with the sleeping bag and hot brews. Our altitude at this point was estimated at 5640 m / 18,500 ft.

Karen on the rock band between middle and lower terrace
(Photo courtesy Ajay Tambe)

30th September 1996

We discussed continuing up, however by the time our ropes had thawed clouds were gathering over the surrounding ridges - a change from the previous weather pattern of clear mornings and cloudy afternoons. Having no desire to repeat our experience of the previous day and with weather apparently deteriorating, we decided to retreat. The rest of the day (and into the night) was spent in careful down-climbing and multiple rappels. One rappel and some down-climbing was required to reach the lower ledge. We traversed back towards the couloir and located what appeared to be a series of ledges providing a suitable rappel route ending near the base of the couloir (the couloir itself was avoided due to observation of frequent rockfall during the day). Five rappels down the face allowed us to reach the edge of the glacier below. A bit of route finding was required to cross the bergschrund, and we finally arrived back at camp around 11pm."

Ajay descending the middle terrace
(Photo courtesy Ajay Tambe)
They told us later that they had narrowly missed a near fatal accident when the apparently stable block of rock they were using as one of their rappel anchors came loose while they were preparing to launch off into the void. They had averted disaster in the nick of time.

As we made room for Karen and Ajay in our tent, we were relieved that they had returned safely. The previous night I had seen one of their headlamps bobbing erratically high on the cliff and I had been worried for their safety. The steep rock of Parvati South was no place to be caught out when the weather turns bad.

While Karen and Ajay were busy descending Parvati South, Si Lin had found his own little lodestone in the form of a pinnacle of rock that cried out to be climbed. It was located near the camp, and close to the right hand edge of the couloir up which Karen and Ajay had gone. He insisted on hauling me up a couple of pitches and considered the time well spent. The climbing was exhilarating in rock shoes and some of the overhangs felt ferocious at the altitude!

The rock tower
The slanting chimney groove on the tower

Si Lin enjoys a refreshment on a stance

HIDDEN PEAK - 5445 m / 17,859 ft.

This little gem was tucked away out of sight on the crest line running from Ridge Peak to Twin Peak. It could only be truly appreciated from our camp below Parvati South. After the disappointment on Ridge Peak, four of us set out to climb this on 1st October.

Two lost their enthusiasm when they discovered that there was a 70 m descent involved to reach the little snow bowl below the east face of the peak; after all, no one likes to lose altitude when you are trying to go up! It was left to me and Jim to gain the south east col up deep soft snow and a couple of crevasses. From the col we followed the south east ridge all the way to the summit, which gave us a great view west into the Rakti Nala which flows into the Sainj Nala lower down.

Jim powers up deep snow to the south east col
Jim Tweedie on Hidden Peak
Flying the flag on Hidden Peak
The view west into the Rakti Nala contrasted sharply with the glaciated valleys to the east
Hidden Peak was a fitting end to our perambulations in the northwest section of the glacier and it was time to head back down to Base Camp. The Goodmans had already left after the Ridge Peak attempt to conduct some very useful reconnaissance out of Base Camp. Here is their story :


29th Sept to 1st October 1996

Exploration of the first nala south of Mantalai which drains from the NE side of the Parvati valley.

Followed shepherds trail up rocky buttress on true right of drainage gaining the wide valley at 4500 m. Continued on the true right to camp at 4830 m. Next day, followed moraine then neve and rock to gain upper glacier at head of valley. Ascended light crevassing to rocky pass at 5400 m. Started towards Pt.5845 and reached 5500 m before returning to camp via the ascent route.

Next day returned to BC after scrambling to view point estimated at 5350m to the NW of our camp.

This valley was very interesting and would warrant a week or two worth of activity for someone in the future. Pt.6110 m is a spectacular pyramid with a fine N/NW snow/ice face.

Pt. 6110m . Telephoto from Magic Cirque (see next section)
Looking west across the valley. The Magic Cirque is tucked in between the glacier tumbling down from Pyramid Peak on the left and Pt.5605m. (Photo by Don Goodman)
2nd to 5th October 1996

Exploration of true left bank of Parvati valley down to Glacier II outlet stream. Recce towards Pt.5414m. Camped three nights amongst wonderful huge granitic boulders opposite Kach Thach on river bank (3900m).

Our recce to 4700m showed that it was possible to reach the col between 5414m and the 5400+m point immediately to its south. This is a rugged valley with very little camping or running water. I believe an ascent of Pt.5414m would be possible from the above col (ascending the south ridge). Alternatively, an ascending traverse may be possible beneath the east face of Pt.5414m at approximately 5200m to reach the col north of Pt.5414 (between 5414 and Kullu Eiger 5664m). From the latter col it looks feasible to ascend both Pt.5414's north ridge and Kullu Eiger's southeast ridge.


This was the phrase that had immediately sprung to my mind when, in the early days at Base Camp, I had wandered alone up the steep grassy turf bounding a stream barely a kilometre south of our tents on the true left bank of the valley. As I finally left the shepherds' tracks behind and soldiered on, grass gave way to rock, patches of snow appeared and suddenly I was at the bottom of the glacier which swept up to the shapely mass of Pyramid Peak (6036m). Across on the northern side of the glacier rose the lower defences of Pt.5605, whose rocky castle-like summit could just be glimpsed from Base Camp. It was very quiet as I took in the view and the cosy intimacy of this place whispered seductively,"Come back and camp here! There is so much potential! And barely a stone's throw from Base Camp!"

I took some pictures and left, reluctantly. This was certainly a little vale of enchantment that I would love to come back to.

Now, at the tail end of the expedition, I convinced Karen, Ajay, Si Lin and Franklyn to move up with a supply of food for 3 days, because that was all the time we had before the porters arrived to evacuate Base Camp.

We hiked up the 800 meters to pitch two tents at 4900m on the 3rd Oct. The evening was clear and we looked forward to the next day in eager anticipation. However, later on the weather took a turn for the worse. It began to snow at around 10 pm and continued relentlessly for the next 26 hours. We passed the time playing cards, brewing tea and eating. When we emerged from our tents on the 5th, it became very clear that the vale of enchantment was now rapidly turning into a vale of tears.

L to R : Ajay, Karen and Franklyn
Since we had to justify our stay and somehow clear our consciences, Karen and Ajay went off on a 5 hour recce to a notch on the east side giving access to the ramparts of Pt.5605m. Si Lin and I managed to squeeze in about 5 pitches of enjoyable climbing, mostly on rock, to a high point of approximately 5200m on the long pinnacled ridge which drops down from the east side of Pt.5605.

Si Lin gets to grips with the rock....
.....While The Accidental Climber.....
....gazes wistfully across the valley to the Pin - Parvati Pass leading into Spiti
We then packed up and made our way back to Base Camp. The snowfall had made the grassy slopes below us treacherous and we stumbled and slithered on our way down, finally reaching the security of the Base at 8:30pm by the light of our headlamps.

Steve, Mike and Bally had already left for Manikaran a couple of days earlier. The rest of us met in the kitchen tent and exchanged stories and laughter over food and chai. Even at Base Camp it was getting chilly and we knew that the time had come to wrap up the expedition and descend to our humdrum urban lives.

Clockwise from left : Porter, Franklyn, Natala, Howard, Si Lin, Karen, Ajay, Don, Jim. Chaman with back to camera.
Our two indispensable cooks without whom  we could not have done so much.
During any return from the mountains, I tend to be the last one on the trail, reluctant to leave the high country. And so it was a few days later. A sudden squall of snow caught me just below Uri Thach and I took shelter under a boulder for some time. When the skies began to clear, I emerged to see Kullu Eiger slowly appear like a sublime apparition. Perhaps it was the veiled goddess herself who was bestowing her blessings on the Parvati 96 Indo-American Himalayan Expedition!


1. AJAY TAMBE  ( 1964 - 2006 )
2. JIM TWEEDIE ( 1953 - 2000 ) 


1. South Parbati, 1970 by Charles Ainger. Himalayan Journal Vol 30
2. Parbati South, 1972 by Jon Prosser. Alpine Journal Vol 79
3. South Parbati, 1973 by Rob Collister. Himalayan Journal Vol 33
4. Parbati South, 1973 by Rob Collister. Alpine Journal Vol 79
5. Himalayan Grande Course by Rob Collister. Mountain 39, Oct 1974
6. Report of the Climbers Club (Bombay) Expedition to Parvati South, 1980
7. Report of the Imperial College (London) Expedition to the area, 1994
8. No picnic in Parvati - The First Ascent of Kullu Eiger by Graham E.Little. Himalayan Journal Vol 53
9. Cowboys and Indians, by Aloke Surin. Himalayan Journal Vol 53

NOTE : In 1970 Ainger named the glaciers I to IV, northwest to southeast and it is still convenient to retain this nomenclature.


  1. This is wonderful. Mindboggling!

  2. It is unbelievable, you guys are miracle. Hats off to sir....

  3. We crossed Pin Parbati Pass (Barshaini to Mudh) on 21st June 2019 (0830 hours), I was amazed to gaze the cluster of Peaks behind South Parbati, as we camped for a night above Mantalai. Being from Shimla, many of these peaks are clearly visible to us from the town. While writing about our trek, was amazed as I came across your great blog. Reading about your great feat offers us immense pleasure and much required knowledge and enthusiasm.

  4. I wonder why Parvati South is mentioned as a trekking peak of 5800 mt in IMF website! Is it really just a marching peak by any face?

    1. I checked the map on the link given in the IMF. What they are calling Parvati South is not the peak referred to in my blog and by other climbers who have attempted the mountain. If you scroll to the right on the IMF map you will see a point above the 6000 meter contour line : that is the Parvati South that Rob Collister and other mountaineers refer to and that is the peak shown in the pictures in my blog. This true Parvati South is by no means a "trekking peak"! Very skilled, technical and experienced climbers have failed on it and some have succeeded. Hope this clarifies the issue. I have no idea why the IMF is calling the 5800m summit Parvati South when the really majestic peak of that name lies further to its right!!