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Saturday 8 February 2014

The Chango Chronicles - 1998 : Third Time Lucky

It was a relief to take the bulky double plastic boots off, peel the socks off my feet, make myself comfortable on the flat boulder and admire the silver glint of the quartz crystals embedded in the rocks around me. The orange glow from the late afternoon sun lent a magical quality to our campsite which helped me to ignore the fact that I had just broken a cardinal rule of the outdoors : never leave your feet vulnerable!

With camera in hand, I hopped around from boulder to boulder like an excited rabbit, trying to avoid the deep snow drifts in between, in pursuit of the perfect picture. All it took was a split second of inattention - my right foot slipped, a sharp edge sliced through the inside edge of my ankle, missing the vein by a couple of millimetres. The blood stained the snow red where the heel had landed.

 I rest my injured foot on a boulder at the camp below Pt.6484m.
Leo Pargial (left) and Corner Peak form the backdrop 
The peaks around us - Leo Pargial, Granite Peak, Corner Peak, even the peak we had come to climb - were indifferent to my plight. They continued to bask in their stony isolation. Fortunately, Ramgopal and Ravi who had accompanied me on our little jaunt above Base Camp were more sympathetic.

Three years had gone by since my last visit to the Chango Glacier (see http://taccidental.blogspot.ca/2014/01/the-chango-chronicles-1995-grip-on.html ), three years in which I had certainly grown older but not necessarily wiser, as the above incident amply illustrates. With the defeat at the hands of Granite Peak in 1995 still vivid in my mind, I decided that a scaling down of ambition was in order. I now had my sights set on a peak with no name which was suspected to be 6484 metres high. It is the very first summit that comes into view as one labours up the Chango nala towards Lake Camp and is the first prominent peak on the true right bank of the glacier.

Pt. 6484 m from Base Camp (Photo by late Arun Samant)
Arun Samant and Anil Chavan had set their sights considerably higher - they wanted to climb the tallest peak of the glacier, Leo Pargial. Though it had seen many ascents, none had been made from the Chango glacier. All the parties had approached the mountain from Nako. I could understand why the altitude appealed so much to Arun and Anil. You could call the four of us (excluding Ramgopal who was a local 22 year old lad from Chango) "The Everest Rejects". Let me explain.

In 1997, Hrishikesh Jadhav was planning a civilian expedition from Maharashtra to climb Mount Everest in May of the following year. The climb would be funded largely by a corporate sponsor. Arun convinced me to try for a spot on the team, together with himself, Anil and Ravi Wadaskar. The funds needed for the expedition amounted to at least ten million rupees, a sum which could easily have paid for ten apartments of the size that I was living in! Who could resist the temptation of an opportunity to climb the highest peak in the world by having to spend only a token personal amount? In 1996, individual clients from the western countries were already forking out as much as US$ 60,000/- to commercial operators for the opportunity to climb Everest. Like everything else, mountain climbing had been packaged, promoted and sold as one more product the consumer might like to buy!
Map by late Arun Samant for The Himalayan Journal
Fortunately, we did not make the team, and decided to go off on a private little adventure of our own.When Arun asked for suggestions, I threw the Chango bait at him, making out a very convincing case : the area would be empty, without the hordes that invade Everest and the popular peaks in India, there were fine climbs to be attempted on virgin summits, I knew the glacier quite well after my two previous visits and we could go in the monsoon months when travel arrangements and getting time off from work was so much easier than in the summer when almost everyone in India was going somewhere. Arun was hooked and with his usual efficiency began the planning process. He was a structural engineer by profession and brought his talent for meticulous execution to the table.

But the monsoon has other perils lurking to waylay the unwary traveller. Our original plan to arrive at Chango from Spiti (via Kullu and Kaza) had to be jettisoned when the road to Kullu was blocked by a landslide. This resulted in the four of us being dropped off at Shimla's "Lakkad (literally Wood) Bazaar" bus stand by the two vans we had hired in Ambala. It was close to 1 am and raining. With a plastic sheet covering our 30 pieces of baggage, we stood shivering in the cold under our umbrellas, waiting for the bus.

The bus to Thangi pulled in at 4:30 am and by the time we had loaded our luggage we were thoroughly soaked. Two days later it was a relief to finally check into the now familiar Rest House in Chango. However, we still had a few hiccups to overcome : Chokdup Negi, Our Man in Chango, was away in Tibet on a trading trip and had not returned home. This gave us time to thoroughly dry out all our equipment on the sunny compound of the Rest House.

Drying Day in the compound of the Chango Rest House
The tinkling of the bells round the necks of the mules announced our departure on the 5th of July and the slog up to the first approach camp wasn't made any easier because of familiarity. A few stray bushes of wild roses stuck out from the stony earth and provided welcome relief to eyes squinting in the harsh sunlight that bounced off the browns and ochres of the surrounding rocks. Stands of turmeric yellow corydalis, pink primulas and the large red veined leaves of wild rhubarb lent colour to the landscape as we stepped on to the grass of Lake Camp the next day. A brief rain squall drove us into our tents. We listened contentedly to the patter of the rain drops on the tent fly as we sipped chai . Then there was an excited shout outside. One of the muleteers yelled, "Indradhanush!" and we emerged just in time to witness the magic a rainbow can perform anywhere in the world and bring out the child in us. Perhaps it was a good omen.

Dorji and Ramgopal shelling the justly famous Chango peas at Lake Camp 
Finally, ten days after having left Mumbai, we established and occupied Base Camp on the 8th of July at exactly the same spot that we had used in 1995. It felt great to be hopping around the same boulders and stones again, and to see that the cairns we had erected three years earlier were still intact. Even the little shrine that Harsha had lovingly constructed to house his little idol of Ganesha was undisturbed. Perhaps the gods would relent this time and allow our supplications to bear fruit.

Base Camp. L to R : Ramgopal, Aloke, Ravi, Anil, Dorji, Arun
Chokdup makes fresh rotis at Base Camp
Up at the high camp for Peak 6484 m where I now cleaned and bandaged the wound, the only thing that resembled a ripening fruit was my ankle. I cursed my stupidity when my foot would not even fit into my boots. The throbbing pain persisted in spite of swallowing a pain killer, and the anti inflammatory drug that I popped seemed to have very little effect on the swelling. Five days had already elapsed since we arrived at Base Camp, the weather was great, and the time to climb the peak was now! Ravi and Ramgopal seemed content to give my foot time to heal, hoping we could all climb this mountain together.

Ravi (left) and Ramgopal at the camp below 6484m

However, that was not to be. On 17th July, Ramgopal and Ravi set off at just after 6 am and reached the top in five hours. Traversing the slopes of the south west face, they came to the bottom of the rocky south ridge which they followed all the way to the summit. We were thrilled that the expedition had achieved its first success, and that too a First Ascent. It was time to head back to Base Camp.

Ramgopal on the summit of 6484m
Leaving behind the tent, some food and the gas stove with a couple of cylinders, we made our way down. Tying the laces on my boots very lightly, I was able to walk slowly. I was exempted from carrying any load: Ramgopal and Ravi took my sleeping bag and a few personal effects and gallantly escorted me back the next day to the Base Camp where I immediately washed my wound with Dettol and warm water. I began to feel the curative powers of a lower altitude almost immediately.

While I had been feeling sorry for myself and reaping the harvest of my folly, the others had been busy. Arun, Anil and Dorji had set off to climb Leo Pargial. Dorji had been helping Chokdup do some building work around his house when he was persuaded to join our motley group. Packing enough food and fuel for five days, they had gone to the head of the glacier, made a right turn and camped below the mountain. From another camp at 6300 metres above the west col, they reached the summit on 18th July, a day after Ramgopal and Ravi's ascent of Pt.6484m. It had been a magnificent effort under very trying conditions and a wicked wind chilled them to the bone at the top. Dorji, instead of being elated at having climbed his first Himalayan summit, was dejected because the view into Tibet that he had been promised by Arun was snatched away by clouds, robbing them of the splendid panorama that they might have otherwise enjoyed from the top of Chango's highest peak.

Anil Chavan high on Leo Pargial (Photo by late Arun Samant)

The view north from Leo Pargial (Photo by late Arun Samant)
The three of them staggered into Base Camp on the 19th, exhausted but victorious. We gathered in the kitchen tent to listen to their story and bask in the glow of supreme satisfaction that emanated from the trio.

Anil (left), Arun (centre) and Dorji are all smiles after climbing Leo Pargial
Four days later, Arun, Anil and Ravi left to attempt to climb Ningmari (Flat Top), leaving me alone with Chokdup. I kept busy cleaning up the tent, washing the dishes, attending to my wound which was showing some signs of healing but still not robust enough to shove my ankle into my climbing boots. The weather had been as close to perfection as I had ever seen in my three trips to the glacier. Now, with barely ten days remaining before our stint at Base Camp would end, I was beginning to get a little anxious. Though the expedition as a whole could justly be classified as having been already successful, it felt like salt had been firmly rubbed into my wounded pride. I needed to stand on top of one of the peaks to rehabilitate my ego.

The stars leave their tracks over Ningmari
Chokdup readily agreed to help me find my lost self esteem. The two of us returned to the high camp below Pt.6484m and reoccupied the tent which had been left there. In the twelve days since I had come up here the first time, most of the snow en route had melted and we had to negotiate a terrain characterised mostly by boulders and scree. It took me six hours to reach with my newly healed (I hoped!) wound and even though I carried a light load I was exhausted by the time I reached the tent. My inactivity over the last ten days had surely contributed to my lack of fitness. Chokdup, who had arrived half an hour earlier, welcomed me with a cup of tea.

The snow at this campsite had melted away 
We spent the next morning going up to the col from where we could peek into the Cholo Tokpo glacier with its unclimbed peaks. After a brew and breakfast, Chokdup scampered up to the top of the right hand rock pinnacle with the ease of an ibex. I was impressed and took comfort in the thought that I had chosen the right companion for our climb the next day. Satisfied with our little foray, we returned to the camp to spend the rest of the day sunning ourselves and enjoying the gorgeous vistas.

Chokdup making chai on the col
Chokdup waves from the top of the pinnacle
The Cholo Tokpo glacier from the col
At 3:25 am on Monday 27 July the starry night sky sparkled with the brilliance of diamonds, but we still needed our headlamps as we left the tent. In an hour and a half we had crunched up to the col and by 6:30 had arrived at the two big rocks that jutted out from the south west face. It was extremely cold, which was a good thing. Here was an opportunity to climb the peak in a direct line on the face on ice. I quickly demonstrated the basics of belaying off ice screws to Chokdup who nodded. Lesson over, we set off up the face, taking almost three hours to climb 6 pitches. Only once did I feel really vulnerable, when a rock the size of a large pumpkin whistled by a few feet from my head like an artillery shell and sent a shiver up my spine. I looked up and saw the sunlight creeping over the top of the mountain and knew that we would be targets in a shooting gallery of loosened rocks very soon.

The view across the SW face to Granite Peak and Leo Pargial 
Chokdup near the exit gully

When the sun flooded the face in a blinding halo of light we were already on top of the exit gully and out of harm's way. At 10:30 am we stood on the same summit rocks that Ravi and Ramgopal had been on exactly ten days earlier. Chokdup had come equipped with a bunch of small prayer flags which he proceeded to release into the wind. They floated away soundlessly into the Cholo Tokpo. I was content. My prayers had been answered, and with a vengeance. This was unarguably the clearest day we had seen on the glacier thus far. Needless to say, I went berserk with the film advance lever and shutter release of my trusty Nikon FM2 camera! I could look into Tibet and its brown hills in the distance. It was a view that Dorji would have certainly appreciated.

The mountains of Tibet form the horizon behind Granite Peak

Ninjeri as seen from the summit of Pt.6484m
Looking across the steep upper pyramid of Ninjeri I could see our old adversary - Granite Peak. Seeing the upper portion of that mountain from this perspective was daunting : how on earth did I imagine that I had the skill and capability to reach the summit? It demanded climbers more competent than I, surely, to tackle its challenges.

Chokdup and I took the blue route whilst Ravi and Ramgopal had taken the red route
Corner Peak, on the other hand, looked like it could be climbed by an amateur like me. It appeared much lower as well, from the vantage point of Pt.6484m.

I hold on to the Indian flag on top of Pt.6484m
With that objective in mind, Ravi, Chokdup, Ramgopal and I trudged up happily three days later to pitch our tents on a broad snow shelf below the northwest face of the mountain. It was the same shelf where Ajay, Harsha and I had camped five years earlier (see http://taccidental.blogspot.ca/2014/01/the-chango-chronicles-1993-first.html ) in our abortive attempt to climb the peak. The snow conditions were perfect and we were in a buoyant mood; so much so that Ramgopal had tied a lock of his sister's hair as a pennant to a long wooden staff that he carried. The sister had recently had her head shaved before joining a Buddhist nunnery and Ramgopal intended to plant her hair on the summit of Corner Peak as an offering to the gods!

However, the gods appeared not too pleased with these plans, for as soon as I lit the gas stove to brew some chai for the four of us the whole contraption exploded in a ball of flame and I just about managed to pitch it out of harm's way into the snow. In spite of the "Fire Retardant" label on our tent, I knew that the nylon fabric could easily have been reduced to a small pile of fused polyester fibers, rendering us homeless. When the stove had cooled, I examined the unit. An irreparable leak in the sheathed metal cable connecting the cylinder to the burner was the cause of the near disaster.

We dispatched Chokdup and Ramgopal to fetch the robust MSR XGK II from Base Camp while Ravi and I settled in for a frugal dinner consisting of some theplas (a sort of long-life paratha) and dal, topped up with a mango candy. Our only stock of water was what little we had left in our bottles and we rationed out the sips.

Waiting for the other two to return the next day, we had to escape the intense heat build up inside the tent as the little cirque turned the snow into a giant reflector. We lay on our mats outside being simultaneously broiled and frozen. The heat only served to increase our thirst.We stuffed our water bottles with snow and wrapped them in black polythene bags and placed them in the sun. Even so it would be a long time before we were rewarded with a few sips of snow melt.

Ravi sunbathes while we wait for Chokdup to turn up with the stove
Eventually, Chokdup appeared with the life saving stove and some kerosene, but minus Ramgopal. The latter had begun to suffer a prolonged bout of vomiting and nausea at the bottom of the snow shelf and decided to return to Base Camp. Three days earlier he had helped Arun and Anil descend all the way back to Chango as they planned to switch to greener pastures below Raldang Tower near Kalpa after they had failed to climb Ningmari due to stone fall hazards. Perhaps his rapid return to over 18,500 feet below Corner Peak had taxed even his hill bred constitution, just as it had affected Chokdup in the same manner three years earlier below Granite Peak.

The end result was that Chokdup planned to go down immediately and chaperon Ramgopal all the way to the more conducive altitude of Lake Camp where he could convalesce before returning to Chango. We said goodbye to Chokdup and immediately began a prolonged session of hydration. It was the last day of July.

My addiction to tea generally works in favour of my climbing partners as they can slumber on a bit longer while the Chai Demon drives me to start the brew. I began the process at 2:20 am and took 45 minutes to make 6 mugs. Four mugs went into the flask for the climb while I roused Ravi with his wake-up cuppa.

We were on the move by 4 am under a starry sky, the pools of light from our headlamps helping us to solo up some steep ice. Dawn found us at the base of a vertical section where we roped up, I climbed it quickly, brought Ravi up, and found ourselves on a small shelf. We took a tea break here before tackling a horrendous vertical crevasse that split the face with a deep gash. Ravi went exploring with some trepidation, found a way in and out of it on to another steep slope of ice. We climbed this without incident and suddenly found ourselves on the lip of a huge field of ice that led gently to two summits.

A couple of soccer fields could have easily fitted on the summit ice field
Taking the rope off, we trudged in forty five minutes to the snowy hump which had appeared to be the highest point. Of course Murphy's Law was at work here as well, because when we reached it, the other rocky point appeared decisively higher. Wishing to leave nothing to chance, we went to the other one and indeed it was higher by about 5 metres! We built a cairn here and I enjoyed the privilege of indulging my passion for chai at the very summit of Corner Peak!

The view of Granite Peak from the summit was stunning
We spent almost two hours on the summit area before descending back to the tent which we reached at 4:30 pm.

Ravi on the slightly lower snowy summit
Though rather diminutive in height when compared to its more glamorous neighbours, Corner Peak had provided us with the perfect ending to a delightful holiday in the mountains. The climbing was always interesting, not too technical, it presented us with intriguing route finding problems, I never once felt out of my depth, and the reward was the second First Ascent that the expedition had achieved.

Chango 1998 marked the culmination of an affair that had simmered on and off for 5 years. Though I had been the obsessive suitor through all the three expeditions, I owe the little measure of success at the end to all who shared in the adventures around that broad ribbon of ice. Each one of them was instrumental in getting me up Pt.6484m and Corner Peak, and we all owe much more to Chokdup and his band of friends and relatives for contributing to that success. Everyone that we came into contact with in Chango made us feel so completely at home that I shall forever cherish in my heart this enchanted corner of Kinnaur.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Arun Samant 

For the official report on this expedition, please refer to "Chango 1998" by Arun Samant - Himalayan Journal 55 (1999). Page 120.

For more references please see the end of the article "Tango in Chango" by Aloke Surin - Himalayan Journal 52 (1996). Page 73.

The apricot harvest had begun as we returned to the village


  1. Aloke ...After making me addicted to all the fascinating tales of your mountain meanderings you now cruelly say ".I promise that will be all on the subject!" You leave me with withdrawal symptoms and pleading like Oliver Twist " Please Sir may I have some more". Superlative essays Aloke....Keep 'em coming. Sincerely..Reza Beg.