Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Great Gig In Thin Air

Post-trek August 30th, 2007

Sitting here in Mumbai, the mountains seem so far away. Although juicy burgers and clean clothes are fine, the toot of the ever-present horn and the seductions of email and electronic entertainments simply cannot compare to the simplicity of suns gleaming impartially on ice falls, wild rivers, kitchen boys and bedraggled travelers. Conversations with strangers can re-awaken the wonders of moving water, but the manners required at the meal table require efforts more tiring than those necessitated by ice axes and endless moraines. For the last few days I have slept poorly and woken depressed, filled with sadness. In the mountains the puzzle of the first noble truth - suffering - lay in its absence. In the city the conundrum lies in the roots of the self-sown weed.

The team

Kudrat Pardiwala – Leader

Sneha Sathe - Deputy Leader

Jigna Modh

Meenaz Lala


Bandra Terminus before boarding Laloo's gift to the Indian junta - The Garib Rath

The beginning

The urge to taste a “good climbing skill required” mountain and quench the thirst of reaching higher than ever gave birth to our first expedition. After months of brain storming, book worming and chasing experts, Kudrat, Sneha, Jigna, Meenaz and I found a peak to match our dreams.

It was none other than the great Chandra Bhgaga 13, a technically challenging peak cradled in the womb of Lahul-Spiti valley in Himachal Pradesh. It stands tallest among the Chandra Bhaga range at 6264mts with a combination of rock, ice, glacial moraines, ice fields, rapidly flowing “Pagla Nalas” and loads of monstrous crevasses waiting to engulf.

From my journal

At Delhi, Vimal’s place has become a regular stopover before any Himalayan endevour. He’s is one guy who’s heart is as big as his ever increasing tummy. Both of us had started our careers at O&M. Both of us losers. Now wonder, we ended up talking to each other over chicken and fried rice about how other incompetent people are making so much more money than us.

Having previously endured numerous drives between Delhi and the Himalayan foothills, there were not many surprises in store. Not far from the cities, the older India appears. And the width of the road changed almost instantly. From a massive 4 lane highway to a more believable 2 lane to an unbelievably thin single lane highway. The bus ride was nothing to write home about. But then for 550 bucks I don’t think one can complain. Beg borrow steal, but do take the Volvo. It’s worth it.

It was business usual at the bus stand. We got surrounded by touts who were promising us the moon. Thankfully Dharama, our guide’s brother recognized me. We were on board the Kabul Express, with our all our sacks. I don’t have a picture, but the Kabul Express is a showstopper of sorts in Manali. It’s a heavily done up Bolero Camper pick up. The hotel was just about 20 mins away. Thanks to our package with Neelchand (the guide), we dint have the pleasure of hotel hunting.

View from Hotel Himkash

Later in the day, Dharma introduced us to Vinod Kumar Thakur. According to Meenaz, Vinod looked more like a Punjabi than a Himchali. We all agreed to it. Vinod was our guide cum cook. Since Neelchand was busy with a Japanese Expedition on CB 53, Vinod took us around for a small walk. Well small by Himchali standards but certainly not by ours.

Directorate of Mountaineering and Allied Sports - Manali

First stop was at DMAS (Directorate of Mountaineering and Allied Sports), locally known as the institute. According to the girls, NIM (Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, Utarkashi) looked much better. Well maybe, Prashant and I were just relived to be there in the shades of the tall deodhar trees. Kudrat and Meenaz did the honours of finishing the formalities with the authorities, while I along with Prashant, Sneha and Jigna hit the bar….err…the apple juice bar i.e.

Vasisth Temple - few birds

Few birds more

Next stop Vasisth hot water springs – a 4 km walk. Had the ever smiling and lost in weed Dharama was not standing out, we would have surely missed Neel Chand’s office “Above Snowline Adventures”. Over tea he asked us to sign some “no objection certificates”.

Day 2 – Rohtang pass and back

From Manali, Rohtang isn’t far – 50 odd kms or so – but it takes 3 hours to drive the curving mountain roads. And it took us almost 8 hours. Thanks to Gulabo. No sir, she is not some pretty village belle, who bought the traffic to a standstill. Gulabo is the name of a place where a mud slide washed away the tar road.

Bumper to bumper

Despite the best efforts of the wise driver to scare us, we went ahead and reached Rohtang at around 4.30 pm. I wandered away, partly to pee and partly to play around with the camera. We climbed a small hill and caught the first, tantalizing glimpse of snow on top of a distance peak.

Rohtang Pass

Kudrat’s mobile rang on the way back. It was a Dharma on the other end. He informed us that, all the stuff for the expedition was ready. We complained to him about the Gulabo traffic jam. His reply was quite expected though – thora bahut traffic jam to hoga hi ji

Once back in our hotel rooms at around 8, Vinod walked in with another guide - Om Prakash aka Omi. Omi informed us that our bus to Batal would leave early morning at 5.00 am (damn).

Day 3 Manali to Batal

So here we were - 5 bleary eyed people along with Omi, Fateh Singh and Chunni Lal (these two were porters cum helpers cum cooks) in the Himachal Parivahan bus. We were expected to reach Batal, 200 kms away at around lunch time. But the traffic jam at Gulabo delayed us by 4 hours or so.

The bus finally rolled over Rohtang Pass and then began a fantastic ride through the rugged Spiti landscape. The road is almost non existent. But with stunning views all around no one really complained. The bum numbing ride ended at 5 pm, as the driver slammed the brakes near a lone dhabha. This was Batal we were told. After dropping us here the bus headed straight towards Kaza via Kunjum La.

Tents were pitched. Food was cooked. Legs were stretched. Snaps madly clicked. All in mind-blowing windy conditions. Some 200 meters away from us was a big army team camp complete with a generator. These guys were on a search mission for the bodies of soldiers who died in a plane crash in 1968. The ill fated AN-12 was on its way to Chandigarh from Leh with 102 army personel on board.

Day 4 Chandra Tal

It was our first day on the trail. And Vinod tossed up an excellent break fast of eggs, parathas, loads of cheese and butter with unlimited cups of tea. With aloo paranthas, apples and a frooti as packed lunch, 8 (including Omi, Vinod and Chunni Lal) of us started our small trek to the mystical lake of Chandra Tal. It was not all that short, 17 km one way. So 34 kms both way! The trail is a wide jeepable track and is gradual for most of the part, with some pleasant ups and downs. Every time a Sumo packed with firangs passed, we had a fine dust bath. One such vehicle passed us when we were almost on the verge of reaching Chandratal. It was none other than the always high on weed Dharma along with his friends on Kabul Express!

After waving them good bye, we reached the fabled moon lake in 30 mins. Crystal clear turquoise water, super bright skies, few tents on the shore and a wide expanse of brown hills all around - Chandratal is simply fabulous.

Comparatively the return was lightning quick. A rally driver on a gypsy, most probably practicing for the Raid de Himalayas gave us a lift till Batal. The ride was so wild that couple of times we felt walking would have been better!

Day 5 – Batal to Base camp

We woke up to the sounds of bells. The mules had arrived to ferry our load to base camp on the South Dhaka glacier. A six hour walk along the Chandra River according to Omi ji. Today we were on the left bank of the river and followed a thin trail marked out by the local gaddis. In between there were a couple of glacial feed streams that had to be negotiated. One of them had the infamous name of Pagal Nala. As we walked forward, we met a group of Army guys from Dogra Scouts. They were returning form their search mission on the South Dhaka glacier of the remains of the 1960 air cash. Subedar Ashok Negi, informed us that this year they found parts of 2 dead bodies and next year they will be back again.

The more or less gradual trail, took a sharp left turn and the incline of the ascent increased significantly. Another 2 hours and we were sipping juice on a high ridge and starring at the South Dhaka glacier, which was right below. Neelchand our main guide, meet us here. He came here directly from the CB 53 base camp. He sumitted this difficult peak with a Japanese expedition.

Our Base camp was set up close to the snout. The place was just perfect. Rocky mountains all around, a wild glacial stream, bright sunshine and clear view of snow peaks. CB 12 was straight ahead and CB 14 kept peeping out every once in a while through the clouds. We soaked in the spectacle with a mingled sense of awe and satisfaction at having reached this deserted area. Mountains somehow bring out pride in one's efforts while simultaneously helping you realize how miniscule those efforts are in the greater scheme of things. After a sumptuous dinner of pulao and eggs, it's time to hit the sack. All of us were looking forward to the rest day next day. A good sleep with the sound of the water cascading was a true pleasure.

Day 6 – Rest day

Good morning sir – chai! It was Fateh Singh, our guide cum helper cum everything rolled into one. In short he was a Himachali version of Jeeves. Terrifically competent, efficient and polite. It's amazing how often an agreed-upon 7:00 am wake-up occurred half hour earlier, thanks to his bed tea.

Everyone sorting out gear

As the sun went up, we decided to go for a small acclimatization hike. Walking in our Koflach, we reached the top of a viewpoint. CB14 seemed just a ridge away. Once down at the base camp we separated all the gear. Loads were prepared for the next day – a load ferry to camp 1. Overall it was a relatively easy and rewarding day; plenty of time to click pictures, fool around, listen to music and have supper. It's cold, but this is part of the excitement of having gotten a toehold in the high Himalayas.

Day 7 – Rains

I was snugly snoring inside my sleeping bag, hoping the waking up tea would come late. But it never came. It was raining. It rained all night. A light drizzle according to Mumbai standards. And continued to pour till about lunchtime.

Most of our time was spent in the kitchen tent eating, drinking, chatting about any subject under the sun and listening to Vinod’s and Neelchand’s wild expedition tales. Their humbleness, curiosity, and sincerity were wonderful. I had a few good discussions about mountaineering with them and how they view it as a job and we view it as a sport. Over the course of the expedition, we found ourselves talking casually, but meaningfully, about our lives: our relationships, our hopes, and frustrations.

Something really worth mentioning was the speed at which the pakoras kept disappearing from the plate. A bonus rest day!

Day 8 Load ferry to camp 1

Sack packed. Koflachs strapped. Windproof zipped. We are ready to set off for camp 1. It was a moraine walk right from the word go. Omi led the way through the maze of glacial debris and rock. We walked on the true left side of the glacier, till about a place where the near constant ups and downs eased out a bit. Few glugs of water and the route took a sharp left turn. There was this huge scree slope in front of us.

"Bus yeh ek ridge aur phir camp 1, Sirji", said Omi taking a treasured drag from a cigarette. Our final ridge climb of the day, with packed loads took quite an effort. It was on lose rocks. But once on top we're more than rewarded by the views. On our right was a drop down to the South Dhaka glacier. Smaller peaks are on our left. And straight ahead of us was CB 13 – an absolute stunner of a mountain.

The base of CB 13 is a sheer wall rising up out of the glacier, in perpetual shadow cast by itself and its sister peaks; the summit is lit from behind by the sun, illuminating spumes of snow-spray cast into a deep blue sky by a capricious wind. Quite an intimidating yet awe inspiring sight. Most of us were rendered speechless, till Omi said it was time to go back to base camp

Getting down was a scramble on loose rocks toward the glacier and its river. It's a bit messy. However the walk on the glacier was great. It felt like walking inside a cold storage. Phew a hard day's work. Dinner along with generous helpings of custard was well deserved.

Day 9 Shift camp to Camp 1

Today we had a familiar terrain to walk on, so we took some time in the morning, oversleeping. It's lovely after our exertions yesterday to just enjoy the early morning: the sound of the stream next to camp, the crisp wind and a delicious breakfast of poori and dum aloo.

We walked hearing our crew whistling and singing, all harmonizing with the undertones of wind and stream. Up over a ridge, descending to the glacier, CB 14 appears straight in its stupendous, stark glory. More moraine to cross, more crevasse to negotiate. Standing still, we feel cold. Hiking the terrain, we warm up quickly. We repeat this over and over till we reach from where the huge scree slope stares down at us. Another 20 mins and all of us are on top of this rocky but somewhat flat land called Camp 1.

Aah…there rarified air, the shrill wind and stunning views. The tents were pitched directly facing CB 13. Teatime literally turned into a photo session, with the sun and the clouds playing with CB 13. Her snowy slopes were lit up brilliantly with the setting sun. Most of stared at the wide canvas till a zillion stars filled up the sky. The moon was incredibly bright, bright enough to illuminate the glacier below and the peaks above with a ghostly magic.

Day 9 Camp 1 to Camp 2

Today was quite a day, encompassing one of the high points of the expeditions. The climb to camp 2.

The weather was somewhat clear, but the wind was very strong. After an hour or so of steep ups and downs we reach the icy part of the glacier which resembled more like a graveyard and less of a glacier. The debris of the 1968 IAF’s plane crash was strewn all over the place.

Someone’s cap, someone’s overcoat, boots, sack, various parts of the plane – the place looked like a gigantic Hollywood set complete with the vast ice field. The fast detorating weather just added the much needed drama to it. It began to snow. And soon it was a full blown blizzard. Visibility reduced considerably. The terrain was now technical. We roped up and picked up our pace in the crevasse laden ice field. Jigna led the way, followed by Meenaz, Sneha, me and Kudrat.

Neelchand asked us if we wanted to camp here right below the ice wall, but then it would be very long climb the next day. None of us were too thrilled about camping in this godforsaken place. So the march started again. Walking with crampons on was good fun, but it was not all that funny when I almost managed to fall into one of them. Thankfully Kudrat arrested my fall. The heroic gesture was returned soon when she fell on a mixed patch of rock and ice and I had to do the needful.

Eventually we get on to the base of the ice wall. It was hard ice. Vinod and Omi by now were on top of the wall and had already fixed 2 lengths of rope. Our jummars were clipped on to rope and the front pointing began. We continued to climb up in single file ever gaining altitude, ever growing steadily more exhausted. The work was strenuous. Legs became leaden, breaths shorter and rests longer. I bent over my axe and took breath after breath, willing energy into my body before kicking the crampons into the hard ice. The way continued up towards a towering headwall of broken snow and ice that never seemed to get any closer. Frankly speaking I have never felt so tired in my life. Even though the views around were indescribably beautiful, it failed to get me going. After a relatively short time – almost 40 mins - we come over the wall. It almost seemed the top of the world.

At camp 2 the remnants of camps from years past are quite evident, stone enclosures that served as kitchen areas and a solid foundation for pitching tents. Camp 2 was a rocky. Our tents pitched on a small somewhat level space. Perhaps we've come up 1200 feet or so, somewhere around 5300 m, perhaps a bit higher. Directly opposite us is summit ridge of CB 13, with the huge CB 13 glacier stretching out below. The weather starts to change. While the sun sets, the winds pick up, we rest over a bowl of Maggi.

That night the walls of the tent were blasted with deafening gusts of winds. Its velocity seemed to be increasing, threatening the integrity of our shelter. It had the sound of a freight train, its power pounding relentlessly, stressing the fabric and twisting the poles. My sleeping bag was drawn up tight around my face exposing just enough to permit me to breath in gasps of cold, thin air. It had to be minus 15°C outside, colder with the wind perhaps. I needed to sleep; tomorrow we were to try for the summit. Would CB 13 hold open a doorway of opportunity for us? Would she let us tread on her sacred and scary slopes? More importantly would my physical condition improve? Sometime during the night the mountain fell silent, the wind stopped, and I drifted off to sleep along with Neelchand, Omi and Vinod.

Day 10 Summit climb

We get up at 4:30 am. It’s still snowing. I feel my head becoming heavy. My body felt unbelievably lethargic. We again get up at 6 am while it's still dark, and get ready for our climb. We get some hot tea to warm us up. I desperately hoped it would kick start my system. But it was just not my day. Deep inside I knew I was not feeling right. At the most I could have climbed 50 meters or so. There was no way I would have done this and hampered the team’s summit bid.

“Am sorry guys, there’s no way I can make it”, I said to Meenaz, Kudrat, Sneha and Jigna. Sneha too said that she dint feel well. I tried to motivate her, but this stubborn dame refused to budge. Am sure the others were a bit disappointed, especially Meenaz, since we had trained together for this particular day. The feeling of letting them down was not all that great. I helped them with their gear and cajoled them to move on and go for it.

The summit ridge

Meenaz, Jigna, Kudrat and Vinod roped up and started the climb. Clunk clunk, their crampon and axes bit into the hard ice on the steep slope which began right after our campsite. Both me and Sneha sat outside and watched them gradually gain height. Barely twenty meters up and Kudrat’s desperate voice resonated – Fall!!! Kudrat tumbled down and went on sliding down till Meenaz and Jigna arrested her fall. Damn. Her crampons had come off and she could barely get up. Not wanting to delay things further Kudrat volunteered to come down. Double damn.

Meenaz, Jigna, Neelchand, Vinod and Omi before hitting the rock gully

Meenaz and Jigna continued the climb. As they went higher they appeared tiny and soon went out of view. I contacted Neelchand on the radio. It was nice to hear that they were all fine and were on their way up.

Meenaz’s account of the final climb

The route was a mix of rock and ice. Apart from front pointing, we had to do some good rock climbing with crampons. The rocks were sharp edged & brittle, loosely bound together with snow & ice. Putting too much pressure would have surely triggered a rock fall. Battered and weathered old ropes were lying enroute. Having successfully climbed one rock patch, was not the end on the difficulties. It was just the beginning. The next patch of ice wall was even steeper close to 75 degrees where we clipped the jummar on a fixed rope. This was the only patch where the rope was fixed. The rest of the way we continued roped up.

The sun was at its mightiest & so was the wind which flew the loosely settled snow dust like a torpedo. At 11.30 am we reached the base of the last rock gully about 125 m tall before the summit. Ropes had to be fixed in this near vertical wall. In fact one had to do a chain of zig zag traverses to the top. This meant a lot of time consumption & would be dark before we got back to camp 2. Safely returning back was utmost priority. I radioed Ritz, Sneha and Kudrat about our situation. After a brief chat over the walkie, we decided to descend from that point which was around 6100+ meters. Must admit it was a tough decision to turn back after being so close to the summit. But then it was wise to live another day to climb more.

Meenaz, Jigna, Neelchand and Vinod at 6100 m. Omi clicked the pic

The view from the top

The feeling of being so high was simply spellbinding. Pictures were clicked as we proudly hoisted the national flag and our club flag in the bone chilling thin air at 6100+ m.

Vinod and Meenaz descending

Descending the steep slopes was a tricky affair. At one point the rock piton give way but Omi foresightedness saved us. He had hammered another piton for safety and it held on. We reached back to summit camp at 3 pm much to the relief of Kudrat, Sneha and Ritz, who were anxiously awaiting our arrival. They congratulated us. It felt great to be back with them again.

Back to my write up

That night the wind again began to howl, stressing the walls of the tent, as loud as a freight train. Again, it was impossible to sleep. The sight of the summit ridge and the rock gully, just wouldn’t leave my eyes. “Our time will come….”, I think as I slowly drift into slumber.

The descent back to Batal

The icewall inbetween camp 2 and camp 1

Camp 2 was not really hospitable. The 5 star comforts of the base camp were sorely missed. This accelerated our descent to Camp 1. The rope was fixed on the ice wall and we rappelled off one by one. At the bottom of the crevasse field Chunni Lal and Fateh Singh had come to carry off the extra weight that Omi, Neelchand and Vinod were carrying. I began to feel better as we lost altitude. So did Sneha. Her smile came back to normalcy. By mid afternoon we were in camp 1, sipping tang and nursing our bruises.

Next day it was another express descent to base camp over the labyrinth of moraine, rubble and a million other things that were buzzing in my head. It felt wonderful; to have a bit of soil, thin though it be, rather than the sharp rock underfoot. Vinod was back to the kitchen in no time and out came mouth watering pulao, gajar halwa and parathas, which we greedily inhaled. The mules were to come they next day and we could have had the first sip of coke at Batal. However the next day they were nowhere to be seen. It meant we had to carry everything back to Batal. Hmmm….not something we were looking forward to. But then a bonus rest day.

Base camp finally!

After a much-enjoyed rest, it felt wonderful to eat, sleep and drink well. I was getting back my energy. It's fascinating to me that something as simple as lacing my boots in altitude left me tired. Maybe it's some altitude bug working overtime.

August 20 was our last day on the trail. Almost everyone was looking forward to getting back to civilization, with its showers, beds, and ground which could be navigated without excessive ups and downs. Jigna wanted to watch Chak De, Meenaz wanted to murder me for an argument we had 2 days back and Kudrat was day dreaming about liver massala, pizza and Rahul Dravid; Sneha seemed to be always thinking of something which I couldnt guess. I however, was loathed to see the trek end, and feel rather melancholy and nostalgic.

We enjoyed the trek to Batal hiking slowly up the hillside, past pagal nalas, through big herds of sheep, savoring the experience. At around 3 pm, it was the end of a lovely walk in a moonscape like Spiti Valley and we were back to the land of never ending wind – Batal. A humble place with just one dhaba – the Chandra Dhaba. Run by an elderly Tibetan couple. Seated here you may find some real interesting people – trekkers, climbers, shepards, army men, lamas & oh yeah bikers! This place portrays a true picture of a vagabond life.

Next morning we were ready with bag and baggage to catch the lone bus to Manali. The bus came 2 hours late, saw our pile of luggage and cruised away, the driver gesturing there was no space. Some 16 cups of lemon tea, 3 packs of biscuits and 8 omelets later a truck came down rolling from Kunjum La. It was on its way to Mandi and agreed to drop us to Manali.

Driving back to Manali in a light drizzle on a truck back was fun. But the moment the truck neared the destination my antipathy to cities started to kick in. Loads of people, very busy, noisy. Though I must confess, the pizza and beer at Moon Dance café were very fine. And having a hot shower offers its own consolations. There's time to rest, and then we have a grand dinner at Mayur to mark the end of a wonderful time.

Coming back to home, it was nice to see people, but readjusting was difficult. There are mountains here too, at least for namesake. And I also have prayer flags strung across my balcony. But something was amiss. So I find myself looking at Himalayan maps, books and listen to a call. A call that has to be answered again. The call of the Himalayas.

For more pics visit

A note of thanks

On behalf of Kudrat, Sneha, Jigna and Meenaz, I would like to thank the following people who helped us plan and execute our first expedition.

Vishu and Saras for for helping us with the IMF paperwork, red tape and the dos and don’ts. Ashok Pawar Patil from Shailbhramar Club, for giving us the route details and photographs of their 1987 CB 13 expedition. Rajesh Gadgill from Himalayan Club for sharing the detailed maps and research. Rajiv Sharma and Mahavir Thakur, senior instructors at DMAS (Manali Mountaineering Institute), for guidance. Neelchand Thakur and his crew for their super service. And all who wished us luck, especially Farzin who was always there with us in spirit.
Thank you all.