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Sunday 19 January 2014

The Chango Chronicles - 1993 : First Encounter

A handshake is a wonderful thing: you can use it to say hello or to bid goodbye. I was about to say farewell to Raghu who was leaving Base Camp. As I leveraged my buttocks off the rock an excruciating pain shot up my spine from the lower back and I froze in a semi upright position. I lowered myself gingerly back onto the ground and remained there for the next couple of hours. Ajay propped me up with a sleeping bag and some clothes and I simmered in the sun at 16,500 feet on the moraine of the Chango Glacier in the north east corner of Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh.

If I moved as much as a muscle, the pain would return. Later in the afternoon when the chill wind began to blow, Ajay and Harsha succeeded in moving me back inside the tent where I remained for the next 24 hours. This was not a propitious beginning for our little expedition to this little visited glacier.

An article by Romesh Bhattacharya in the Indian Mountaineer had first piqued my interest in the Chango Glacier. The attractions were obvious: the village of Chango nestled at 10,000 feet on the banks of the Spiti river and was accessible by public transport! Rising steeply above the green oasis of the village, the Chango torrent provided access to a glacier ringed by a host of attractive summits, none below 20,000 feet. Dominating the head of the glacier was a monolithic bastion of steep rock, unclimbed and unnamed. It had the silhouette of Batman, the caped crusader of comic book fame; we referred to it as such, though Bhattacharya preferred the term Granite Peak. The exact height of the peak was a mystery to us since the Survey of India topographical sheets of the area belonged in the "restricted" category and not available to ordinary mortals. It was surely way above 21,000 feet, second only in height to its more famous neighbour to the right, Leo Pargial.

Leo Pargial ( 6791m) from the Chango Glacier
Granite Peak (6685 m)  (Telephoto from Base Camp)
Convincing Ajay Tambe and Harsha ( who had shared the Brahmma - http://taccidental.blogspot.ca/2013/04/brahmmah-man-proposes-god-disposes.html and Dibibokri - http://taccidental.blogspot.ca/2013/10/dibibokri-dreaming-part-2-icing-on.html adventures with me ) was a cinch. Franklyn Silveira as usual opted to take care of things at Base Camp, and Raghu Iyer planned to spend a couple of days in the initial stages before heading back home.

A brief correspondence with Yousuf Zaheer who had climbed in the Chango glacier provided us with useful information on the approach walk. Harsha's friend Chetan Shah generously provided us with free truck transport up to the PWD (Irrigation) Rest House at Chango. We arrived here late in the afternoon at the end of the second week of  August, fresh from a brief trek to the meadows of Lalanti near Kalpa -  http://accidentaltrekker.blogspot.ca/2014/01/tiny-tots-in-tirung.html. It was quiet and peaceful as the dying sun played its luminous brush strokes on a canvas of soaring scree slopes that cradled Chango. The muted roar of the Spiti river filtered through the stand of willow trees that lined the road, now totally bereft of any traffic.

At 10,000 ft. the village of Chango is bordered on its sides by the Chango and Kuru Tokpo streams, both of which drop down almost 8000 feet from their glacier origins. They provide this oasis of green with a rich harvest of peas (the sweetest I have ever tasted in my life!), apples and apricots. Wholesale fruit and vegetable traders come from as far away as Chandigarh to buy the produce.

We picked up a modest supply of vegetables for our Base Camp and with the help of mules our little party of would be adventurers toiled their way four and a half thousand feet to camp among tussocks of grass which had a little seasonal stream running through.

...and the mule said, "Why can't you guys carry your own junk?". Approach Camp I
Day two found us ascending a little higher to what Yousuf had referred to as Lake Camp. The lake in question was really a little pond formed by snow melt at the base of a cliff and would dry up a month later. This would be home for the next couple of days while we shifted loads to a rather cheerless Base Camp site at approximately 16,500 ft on the true left lateral moraine of the glacier. On the plus side, we had access to a tarn for our water supply and relentlessly gorgeous sunsets when the chill of the afternoon winds died down.

Lake Camp
In a couple of days of near perfect weather we had scouted up the glacier, decided on a site to pitch an Advance Base Camp, transferred some loads and were optimistic that our new camp would put us in a position to explore the climbing possibilities on Granite Peak and the west face of Ninjeri. Our resident cook Raj Kumar kept us well nourished from his kitchen tent and the days went by in a happy kaleidoscope of physical effort, savage and stunning mountain vistas, the camaraderie in the big Wild Country Super Nova tent where the five of us would squeeze in for long sessions of card games and Scrabble fuelled by an endless supply of chai. And then the Curious Case of Aloke's Ailment took place, throwing a small spanner in the works.

Group picture with our muleteers at Base Camp
Ajay Tambe , Franklyn Silveira (second and third from left) Raghu Iyer ( standing fifth from left )
Aloke Surin (third from right, dark glasses). Raj Kumar and Harshavardhan Subbarao sitting (left and right)

The tarn near Base Camp

While I recuperated and prayed that I would be able to walk again, Ajay and Harsha made a brief foray to climb the peak right in front of us, christened Ningmari / Flat Top (6393m) by Yousuf Zaheer who had made the first ascent. With a little help from Franklyn, they made the tedious and tiring traverse across the interminable boulder strewn moraine and camped below the peak.

Ningmari / Flat Top (6393 m)
For ten days we had enjoyed an uninterrupted spell of great weather. That was about to change now. As I watched Ajay and Harsha through my binoculars the next day, they were making good progress up the slope leading to the base of the right hand skyline ridge (which in turn would lead them to the summit) when thick, menacing, black and moisture laden clouds gathered below us and rapidly advanced into the valley leading to Ningmari. In a few short hours our two friends were swallowed up in the storm that began to rage around them and they disappeared from sight.

Their first thought was to wait out the storm. When it didn't clear for a day and loosened rocks began to scream down the icy slopes, they decided to retreat to Base Camp.

In the next spell of clear weather, Ajay, Harsha and I moved our residence up to the Advance Base Camp site while Raj Kumar was told to head back down to Chango and catch a bus to Rekong Peo to see a dentist. The poor chap had been suffering from an abscess in his teeth and our stock of painkillers had failed to give him lasting relief. This left Franklyn once again the sole occupant at Base Camp - we did not worry, as he seemed to be a past master at fending for himself - on the Dibibokri trip we had left him alone at our Advance Base Camp for ten days and he hadn't gone berserk! The grazing ibex on the steep and crumbly scree slopes on the opposite bank of the glacier would keep him company.

Ajay's leap of faith across an icy runnel en route to Advance Base
The window of fair weather proved to be temporary. A bigger storm moved in and kept us incarcerated in our tents for a week. We spent the time shovelling snow off the tent, brewing endless cups of tea, playing cards, reading and jostling for the best sleeping positions. Spurred on more by boredom and ennui than any rational thought, Ajay and I made a futile attempt at trying to establish a camp at the base of Granite Peak.

Ajay (left) and I set off in the storm
Carrying heavy loads, we set off with a small measure of optimism, relieved to be vertical bipeds rather than the supine nawabs we had morphed into. Harsha preferred the horizontal mode of existence and elected to stay back. A couple of hours of battling fierce and cold winds, almost zero visibility and spindrift forcing its way into every crevice in our clothing convinced us that we were merely being idiots. We returned to the tent, thoroughly chastised and frozen to the core. It took us a couple of hours to thaw into a semblance of normality, Harsha very kindly keeping us supplied with hot soup and chai.

Advance Base after the storm
When the storm finally cleared, the granite on Granite Peak wore a liberal coating of fresh snow. We instinctively realised that we were not going to make any impression on the peak. Turning our gaze into the small subsidiary valley in front us, we agreed that an attempt to climb Ninjeri via its west face might give us something to do. Climbing into the vale, we pitched a two person tent for the three of us and dried our sleeping bags in the brief afternoon sun that found its way into this charming cul de sac. While the fabric dried, we made our way towards a small ice fall which separated the attractive rocky peak on our left from the sweeping slopes of Ninjeri's west face. We would have to either climb into the ice fall or find a way to circumvent it to gain access to our proposed route.

Ninjeri ( 6646 m) is the peak on the right
A sudden crackling sound followed by a whoosh made us glance up. Instinctively we ducked as a barrage of bricks of ice shot through the air. Ajay was hit on the hand, a piece of ice glanced off his helmet while I took three smaller hits: on my right shin, left elbow and the right side of my chest. We scampered out of harm's way, realising we were fortunate to sustain only minor injuries from the collapsing serac. Humiliated and a little shaken, we went back to the tent to pack for an early start the next day.

Ajay at Ninjeri camp
Planning to spend a night on the saddle between Ninjeri and its rocky neighbour, we packed camping supplies and climbing gear and headed for a narrow gap between the ice fall and the cliff on the left. It was dramatic squeezing through between the rock and the ice. It became even more dramatic when it began to snow and the weather seemed to be closing in again. Undaunted, we climbed a few pitches in fading visibility. The saddle appeared close but we knew that it would require three or four hours of frustrating effort to ascend the steepening ice with our loads. We had to take a decision: climbing up into another storm might not be in our best interests, as we had food and fuel to last us only for a day. We held a shouted debate on the pros and cons of proceeding upwards, the words snatched from our mouths by the freezing wind which was now howling across the ice and snow and crevasses. By a vote of two to one we decided to go down.

Heading towards the saddle
The storm increased in intensity as we descended and it was late in the evening when we collapsed exhausted into the tent. Soup and mashed potato put some life and warmth back into our tired bodies. We went off to sleep as the storm raged outside.

A few more days of snowfall finally convinced us that we were not going to climb anything. We retrieved some loads from below Granite Peak, packed up Advance Base and felt our way in almost whiteout conditions across the glacier. The crevasses were completely hidden and the diffused light under an overcast sky played tricks with my eyes as I led the way back. It was a nerve wracking traverse, knowing that if any of us fell into a crevasse with the massive loads on our backs, it would be a herculean task for the other two to retrieve the unfortunate victim. We found a huge flat boulder and cached our stuff. Now it would be a simple task to continue on down the moraine ridge to the safety of Base Camp. But our twisted minds had conjured up a last ditch attempt to justify the time and effort we had expended to come to the Chango Glacier.

Corner Peak ( 6370 m)
Across from the boulder, a small glacier led up to an attractive little summit we called Corner Peak. It was about 20,900 feet and was still virgin, though one attempt had been made in the past. We repacked our rucksacks and set off to pitch a camp late in the evening in extremely cold conditions. The initial approach was quite gentle, but it steepened quickly and the snow was deep and soft. A cold wind sprang up and frustrated our attempts to pitch the tent. One of the poles slipped from my hand and shot out of sight down a darkening slope. By the time we had settled in and nourished our bodies it was almost midnight.

Camp on Corner Peak
We spent the next day drying out our gear and hoping that our luck would change.

It didn't. Waking up at 03:45, we could only move at seven o'clock. It was brutally cold, my watch thermometer registered minus 20 deg C and the sun reached us at 06:30. Incredibly, the snow was soft and deep where we had expected it to freeze to a crunchy hardness and we were soon wading up to our knees in the stuff. We reached a bergschrund that split the face. Icicles radiated a cold, indifferent beauty. Above, the slope was composed of hard ice, which came as a surprise. Believing that we were not likely to encounter any ice after the huge snow dumps of the last couple of days, Ajay and I had blithely left our crampons behind. To compound matters, both Harsha and I had elected to leave our short axes out of our gear. So now we had one pair of crampons and one short axe between the three of us. We felt like the Three Stooges, a couple of dilettantes who had seriously underestimated the mountain.

Deep snow on Corner Peak
The yawning chasm loomed above us and beyond that the cold sun glinted off the blue ice. Ajay's feet were beginning to feel numb inside his double leather boots - his socks had not dried adequately the day before. Toiling up the soft and deep snow we were not feeling our best. It was not difficult to accept the fact that we should graciously accept the drubbing that the Chango glacier had meted out to us in the more than four weeks that we had spent in its folds. It was time to go home.

When we arrived at Base Camp late that day, Franklyn and Raj Kumar greeted us. Raj Kumar's teeth had been successfully attended to and Franklyn's solo sojourn had ended. It took us a few days more to evacuate Base Camp, waiting for the mules to show up. It was nearly the end of September and the nights were chilly. The blue HDPE plastic sheet that we had spread below the groundsheet of our big tent as added protection from the stones was frozen into the ground and it took a great deal of effort to wrench it out. I knew it would require an even greater force to stop me from coming back to the Chango. My heart was stuck as firmly as the blue plastic to this inhospitable waste of rock and ice and I knew would return.

The West Col of Leo Pargial as seen from the Ninjeri  valley

Children of Chango


  1. Aloke..Thanks again for taking me along on your 'tryst' with Chango,her seductive beauty and her almighty power (disdain??) which denied you your desire to conquer her, but simply reinforced your determination to 'get her' the next time.
    All good things are worth the wait Aloke. And for us mere mortals, all good, nay fascinating blogs of yours are worth waiting for too, but don't test my patience..
    Hurry up with your next exciting Accident...Break a leg, you engrossive old raconteur. ;-))
    Warm regards,
    Reza Beg

    1. Thank you Reza.... more mountain mishaps in the offing!

  2. A wonderful account to a part of the Himalaya that I am yet to explore! Look forward to your next post!

  3. oh i loved ur spirit and effort ... these are what makes ppl different from the others

  4. Superb. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

  5. Hi Aloke
    Loved reading this piece. This is what you went through while you were on expedition.. while we sat home and prayed for your safety everyday.
    Absolutely amazing.
    Chris & Gerry Bent

  6. Aloke another fascinating and amazing account of your adventurous side - the pictures are the best! Thank you for sharing...

    Sue Deeble

  7. Brave Heart Ajay Tambe is no more...... He passed away a few years back in a avalanche.

    1. Yes Shridhar, it is really tragic that he was buried in an avalanche on 01 Jan 2006 while skiing in the French Alps. He was a very good friend and is missed by his family and all who knew him....