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Tuesday 28 January 2014

The Chango Chronicles - 1995 : A Grip on Granite Peak

"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
An hour later, the police turned up, with an official photographer in tow who began to take pictures with his vintage Rolleiflex Twin Lens Reflex camera. The formalities over, the two vehicles involved reversed and went on their individual journeys. We followed in the wake of the lorry, stopped at Yangthang for a late lunch, and reached the haven of the Rest House at Chango at 5 pm to find it locked. Franklyn went into the village to look for Gimmet, the caretaker, and returned instead with Gimmet's wife who opened the doors for us. We moved the seven kit bags, two totes and two rucksacks indoors.

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
We were a full eight weeks earlier in the season than in 1993 ( for that story see http://taccidental.blogspot.ca/2014/01/the-chango-chronicles-1993-first.html  ) and hoped that this would give us the right weather window to make an attempt on Granite Peak. Jishnu Das and Pyar Singh had arrived more than two weeks earlier with a group of students from St.Stephen's College in Delhi whom they were ostensibly introducing to the joys of Himalayan climbing up in the glacier. This would give the pair a head start as far as acclimatization was concerned and they could therefore, by default, spearhead the first moves on Granite Peak. Harsha (who was trailing a couple of days behind) and I would form the support team. It was a complicated arrangement, and was to affect how the game played out in the end.

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
Our arrival at Lake Camp coincided with the departure of Neha and Girish, the last of the students, going down to Chango. With the help of Chokdup, who would remain with us for the remainder of the trip, we quickly established an Advance Base at around 18,200 ft. below the towering ramparts of Granite Peak. It was an impressive location. Situated at the centre of what could be termed the Chango Ice Cap, it commanded gorgeous views of Leo Pargial, Ninjeri, the two rocky summits of Pt.6180m (between which hung a steep ice field like a bed sheet hung out to dry), Corner Peak (6370m), and away to the west the sweeping curve of the glacier receded into the horizon. Marco Pallis, who had made the first ascent of Leo Pargial in 1933, had come up from the village of Nako to the west col of the mountain and was so impressed with what he saw that he wrote - "I can imagine nothing better than a season's climbing with a base camp well up on the Chango glacier.There is an abundance of suitable sites and every variety of climb within easy reach." (Himalayan Journal Vol VI page 124). Looking around me, I agreed wholeheartedly.
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
Pyar Singh, Jishnu and I hiked up in 20 minutes to the start of the climb. Shod in rock climbing shoes, Jishnu set off on the first pitch with aplomb while Pyar Singh belayed him. I was content to watch the proceedings, take photos and enjoy the sunshine. After a while I dumped my load of extra ropes and equipment and went down the glacier to where we had cached some spare ropes and food two years earlier, near our 1993 Advance Base. I also managed to dig out 3 tins of milk powder and a couple of noodle packets buried for two years in the moraine. The sky had darkened by the time I returned to our present camp at 5 pm. and soft snowflakes began to fall. It snowed for four hours before letting up.

Jishnu leads up the first pitch, trailing a rope to fix. This was a rock climber's dream - perfect rock, blue skies, sunshine.
The next day, 18 July, was my turn at the sharp end of the rope. While Jishnu relaxed at Advance Base, Pyar and I jumared up to the top of the ropes and took it in turn to lead the next couple of pitches. I wrote in my diary that night - "The climbing was ...... delightful, up easy angled rock, the sun came out and it was warm. Except for gasping at altitude, everything seemed under control".

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 
On the third day of climbing, we arrived finally at the base of the Tower. Chokdup now augmented our team and his tremendous strength helped us carry all the gear up the fairly steep ice field to the band of very broken ledges from which soared the Tower. While Chokdup and I lolled in the sun soaking in the gorgeous views, Pyar and Jishnu went to work and by the end of the day they had climbed and fixed rope to within 10 metres of the top of the Tower. The climbing was quite exposed and there were a couple of really tricky sections : I could tell by the way Jishnu remained stationary for a long time, contemplating his next move. Finally, it took Pyar's greater strength, agility and boldness to complete the section. By late afternoon the clouds had moved in and a cold wind was stirring.

Climbing on The Tower : Pyar Singh leads
Glowing with satisfaction, we came down to the tents at 6:30 pm to find that Harsha and Franklyn had arrived from Base and pitched another tent. The next day was declared a rest day by common consensus, the rationale being that now since we had a safety line all the way to the Tower, our next move would involve packing a couple of days' supplies, make the broken ledges our base and then try and move further up the mountain without having to descend to Advance Base. Chokdup took the opportunity to go down to Base to pick up more food and goodies while Jishnu, Harsha and I took a stroll towards Pt.6180 m and the north west face of Granite Peak.

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
The next day we stood at the bottom of the fixed rope. Chokdup (who had descended to his village to attend to an eye infection) had been replaced by Harsha who would be stepping on to Granite Peak for the first time. Electing to go first, I jumared up the initial section just when snowflakes began to fall. By the time I was halfway up the next pitch, the weather had deteriorated even further, the snow falling thick and fast, soon maturing into a full blown storm. We retreated back into the tents.

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.

Over the next couple of days we helped Jishnu and Pyar move all their stuff down to the Lake Camp, lured by the prospect of eating the eggs that were still available there. Franklyn stayed back at Base, nursing a deep gash below his right thumb, sustained when he fell on the moraine. The 26th of July was the clearest day since we had fixed rope on The Tower and the sense of regret was partly alleviated by the smell of frying eggs and tea, wafting on the decidedly more oxygenated air as we sat on the turf next to the water. I wrote a letter to my wife and handed it over to Jishnu to post when he got to Delhi. To complete our diet, Chokdup suddenly appeared from below, bearing  a gift of fresh apricots from the village. His eyes were much better and he accompanied Harsha and me back to the Base Camp late in the evening. Even though reduced in numbers, we were not yet ready to throw in the towel. We moved back up the glacier once again.

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
Discovering that Jishnu had somehow mistakenly taken all our ice screws and some of the rock hardware down to Chango, we dispatched Chokdup in the hope of intercepting him before he left the village for Delhi. Ever obliging, Chokdup disappeared into the cauldron of cloud that constantly swept up the valley. Harsha and I went up the first two sections of fixed rope on Granite Peak, straightening it out and reinforcing the anchors on which our lives would depend. After an absorbing day on the rocks we returned to enjoy the tea that Franklyn had waiting for us.

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
In the morning we could look down at Advance Base. We saw two tiny figures moving around the tents. We hollered and waved our hands and made signs that we were going to move upwards. One of the figures seemed to have seen us and waved his hands in return. I rappelled down two rope lengths to retrieve some gear that we had left on one of the ledges and was back at our bivouac spot to relish a breakfast of Tarla Dalal's moong dal halwa which Harsha had been preparing. Thus fortified, we packed up and were preparing to get on with the business of moving on when the ropes below us tightened and a grinning Chokdup appeared over the lip of the cliff! We let out whoops of joy, thinking that reinforcements had arrived. Our cheer turned to despair when we saw that he was carrying an empty sack.

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
When the morning came and the weather continued in the same vein, we knew we were beaten. But being the cussed souls that we are, we were not going to give up without a token fight.

"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.
I certainly felt out of my comfort zone. In fact, if I somehow managed to progress beyond Pyar Singh's high point - which was highly unlikely - I would be putting us firmly in the disaster zone. Being married with a five year old son positively helps when taking critical decisions in the mountains. Adopting as my guiding principle the sound motto - "He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day!" - I decided to call it a day and rappelled off the Tower even as the storm increased in intensity. By the time we descended to our last bivouac spot our hands were numb.

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!
In the next couple of days we stripped the mountain of all the fixed rope except the ones on the Tower. We left only a few pitons and some slings which might bear mute witness to our passage many years hence. Chokdup's brother Gimtey and his friend brought the mules up to Base Camp and helped us move down to Chango.

Gimtey (left) and his friend don all the hardware as we prepare to leave Base Camp
At Lake Camp we revelled in the smell of grass and the colour of the myriad wildflowers that were sprouting from unexpected crevices and cracks around the boulders that dotted the landscape. A cold rain squall did not dampen our spirits as we raced down to Chokdup's house for a hot and welcome meal.

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
With never a dull moment during the entire trip, I had no doubt that I would return to travel up National Highway 22 to Chango again!

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


  1. Very nicely written. I felt as if I was on this trip with u guys.

  2. Outstanding and what a siege on an impressive wall of granite peak. You my senior friend are a legend in my book.

  3. Amazing Aloke - you guys have done some unbelievable stuff - again the pics are fantastic, more more more


    1. Thank you Sue.... Part 3 of the Chango Trilogy is under preparation!

  4. What are you doing in Canada, you are needed here , my friend !! we need you to guide us to the mountains!.......

    1. All in good time, Prabha! Meanwhile, just follow the directions and the maps!!

  5. gracefully written ... an inspiring account of a daring attempt
    I want to go there !

    1. Thank you Jayant! Yes, Chango Glacier is definitely worth a visit!

  6. What a journey, Aloke. You guys sure had a ball of a time. Waiting for Part 3. Cheers!

    1. Thanks Nishith. Yes, it was a good trip. Part 3 coming up soon....

  7. Lovely account.. re read this a few times.. I guess is missed all the fun !

    1. Thank you Mohit! Yes, I wish you had been there on the trip as well... you would have loved the rock! Cheers.

  8. Amazing. I am from chango but don't know about chango glacier before reading this blog.

  9. That is truly unbelievable, Kelis! I suggest you hike up to the glacier one of these days, there is a wonderful world there....By the way, do you know Chokdup Negi in the village? If so, I'd really appreciate it if you could get hold of his telephone/mobile number so I can speak with him after all these years! Thanks.

  10. I also wants to join the part 3 chango....bcz chango is itslf like a brand....�� nowdays

  11. I am from chango and wants to be in your team in next summit

    1. Hi Dorjee, I am too old (65 years!) now to attempt to climb Granite Peak! Since you live in Chango or hail from there perhaps you should organize your own expedition to climb the peak!