My journal entry for Monday 19 August 1985 does not offer much hope : “Today has been a disastrous day”, I wrote back then, “our two porters have abandoned us in the middle of an island in the Karcha Nala. We are stuck here for the night. The streams are flowing swift and deep on either side of us, our tents are flapping as if they’ll take off at any time. I’m trying to boil a little water in my tent to make soup for all of us, this wind is truly frightening.”
And yet, ten days later, on Thursday 29 August I jotted down at 8:15pm : “Rather late to be writing my diary today, but then today is an exceptional day. At 2:35 pm Ravi and I stood on the summit of Lion, 20,100 feet above sea level.” How could this be? And all this for less than US$ 200 per head (the exchange rate at that time was US$1= Rupees 12). As the bard said, thereby hangs a tale!
The story began 6 months earlier almost at sea level.
I hung suspended from a climbing rope – the same rope that I would be using six months later in the Himalaya – spinning lifeless for almost a minute as I blacked out and started bleeding from my scalp. Satish Patki, who was belaying me up that second pitch of a route called Table Top at Mumbra near Mumbai, did a splendid job in holding my fall as a hold broke off under my foot and I peeled off the cliff, swinging and hitting my head against the rock. When consciousness returned I could hear voices yelling out my name from above. There were other voices mixed with Satish’s, voices I did not immediately recognize. They belonged to Ravi and Harsha who had finished their climb and were chit chatting with Satish from the top of the cliff when the accident occurred. After an exchange of words which reassured them that I was still alive, Satish lowered me to the nearest ledge I could place my feet on. Once I was more or less stable Ravi rappelled down to where I was perched, set up another anchor, and I abseiled down the cliff to safety. And that was the beginning of our friendship.
Ravi Kamath had an easy going personality and I began to spend many afternoons at his shop in Matunga over the next few months. He was an avid rock climber almost 15 years older than me, had been on a few climbing trips to the Himalaya including leading one in 1978 which made the only Indian ascent of Ali Ratni Tibba, a technically challenging peak of a modest height (18,013 ft). Though I had completed the Basic Course in Mountaineering in 1978 from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarkashi, I spent the next few years focused on hiking extensively in the Sahyadri ranges near Mumbai and doing a few high altitude treks in the Nepal Himalaya. My interest in climbing was rekindled when I met Satish Patki who worked for the same organization (Air India) that I did.
After I had recovered from my injuries I went climbing with Ravi and Harsha and Faruk, another of Ravi’s friends. The idea of climbing a Himalayan peak germinated while I was thumbing through past issues of the Himalayan Journal and came across an article by Josephine Scarr on the first ascent of Lion peak in the Bara Shigri glacier, located in the Lahul district of Himachal Pradesh. Theoretically this region lay in what geographers love to call the “rain shadow” and therefore out of reach of the havoc that the monsoon can play on peaks on the southern side of the divide. The time frame suited us perfectly : I would have no difficulty in getting time off during the rainy season and for Ravi too the monsoon was a slack period for his business.
15 August marks Independence Day in India. For Ravi and I, the day released us from the bonds of a humdrum life and catapulted us into an adventure that would change my life forever. A third person had joined our team. He was Arvind, a young man related to Paresh Daru, a friend of Ravi. Paresh had asked us if we would take Arvind along to give him some exposure to the Himalaya. The Frontier Mail trundled out of Bombay Central station and we waved our goodbyes to the few friends that had come to see us off.
Three days later we were camped at 11,000 feet on the shores of the Karcha Nala which originates in the glacier of that name and flows into the Chandra river a little downstream from Batal. We had traveled on the Kulu to Kaza bus which took almost 8 hours to get to Batal. A 30 minute walk had brought us to the Karcha Nala as evening fell. We pitched our tents and settled in for the night, hoping to ford the Karcha Nala at low water early the next morning before the sun increased the snow melt higher up the stream. The two porters that we had hired in Manali made a delicious potato pulao and we downed it with some hot Ovaltine. Life was looking good, even though sleep was hard to come by that night. We had ascended from sea level in Mumbai to 11,000 feet in a span of 5 days so obviously our lack of acclimatization was manifesting itself.
The next morning I managed to cross one channel of the Karcha Nala while belayed by Ravi on a 6 mm nylon line. The current was swift and the water was chilly. Arvind and Ravi soon followed with this safety line in place, though both received a dunking from the rapidly rising waters as they neared my shore. Seeing how wet the two had become our porters refused outright to follow with the loads. I walked upstream for quite a distance to see if there was a better place to ford the river but returned unsuccessful. I waded back in and returned to the porters’ side of the river and told them that they should bring all our loads to the shore. Ravi and I rigged up a pulley system with some carabiners and managed to haul all our loads to the island where we pitched our tents and heated up some instant minestrone soup with croutons and followed that up with shrimp flavored noodles. We went to sleep not knowing what the morrow would bring and whether our little expedition was doomed to failure even before we had set foot on the Bara Shigri Glacier!
In the morning Arvind announced that he had decided to go back to Manali and home as he was not acclimatizing well. He generously offered to look for porters at Batal. So off he went, crossing the nala once again, and to our surprise and delight he was back in a little over an hour with two men – Gautam and Raju – who said they were willing to carry for us. We reassessed our loads and sent back what we thought was not essential with Arvind and the two men. They came back in a little while, we finally managed to cross the other channel of the nala and began our walk towards the snout of the Bara Shigri. The porters concealed the 6 kg of atta flour that we had and some packets of theplas up a gully to be collected on their return.
The valley of the Chandra here is wide and extensive and very rocky, made up of small and big boulders, but progress was not difficult. The braided streams of the river flowed away in the distance to our right while the jagged rocky peaks that stand like sentinels near the snout of the glacier loomed ever closer as we hiked. We soon began to enjoy the rhythm that movement in a grand setting always induces. We stopped for some time and chatted with some shepherds from the Palampur area in Kangra who, with their dogs, were grazing their sheep in the high pastures of Lahul and slept in stone shelters.
Four and a half hours after leaving the Karcha Nala we arrived at the snout of the Bara Shigri and found a spot to pitch our tents. There was a little grass growing in the sandy clearing that we chose. It was appreciably cold and a little windy, the sky was overcast and our surroundings quite bleak. We were glad that we were now at least on the moraine highway which would lead us to the peak we had chosen to climb.
Lion Peak had received its first ascent in 1961. Two young ladies from Britain – Josephine Scarr and Barbara Spark – had driven overland in their Land Rover and climbed three peaks of the Bara Shigri system, all over 20,000 feet and all being First Ascents. In the 24 years since the glacier had seen quite a few parties and further climbs. However, it was a fairly large system comprised of many feeder glaciers, side valleys, rugged summits of snow, ice and rock, and would provide us with all the ingredients of a true Himalayan adventure.
Without the right equipment a mountaineering jaunt is doomed to failure. In 1985, getting hold of good gear was the first hurdle for Indian wannabe climbers who, like us, were not backed by the resources of a mountaineering club or the Indian Mountaineering Foundation or the armed forces – traditionally Indian mountaineering had been nurtured in these environments.
Fortunately for Ravi and I, my job in Air India as a flight attendant had given me the opportunity to slowly buy some good gear during my layovers in cities like London, New York and Frankfurt. These things were expensive and I had had to sacrifice a significant portion of my allowances to invest in them. In sum I owned a pair of Kofflach plastic mountaineering boots, a 50m coil of 9mm Edelrid climbing rope, a basic climbing harness, a Figure of Eight descender, a few carabiners, a three season trekking tent and a Joe Brown helmet. Though strictly not an essential item, I had invested a considerable sum of money in photographic equipment : an Olympus OM1N SLR camera with the standard Zuiko 50mm F1.8 lens as well as a Sigma 28mm F2.8 wide angle and a Vivitar 70-150mm zoom lens with a 2X multiplier. Buying a stock of Kodachrome slide film had also set me back quite a bit; but then, I told myself that people spend as much money drinking liquor and smoking cigarettes over a few years, at least my investment would be giving me priceless returns for a long time! I thank my lucky stars that I carried the camera gear all the way to the summit camp – without it I would not have the precious bank of photos to illustrate this article with.
The slog up the lower portion of the Bara Shigri glacier took us a day and a half, the first day being the worst. At this point the glacier is really more like a chaotic slag heap of boulders, rubble, dirty underlying ice and even sand. Mr.A.E.Gunther of the Alpine Club (UK) had described it in the 1950s as “an endless wilderness of rubble and blocks, oiled by mud sludge, all in potential movement on an ice surface crossed by gaping crevasses”. The high rocky walls of the valley turn this detritus into an oven on a sunny day and I recorded a temperature of 51.6 deg Celsius in the sun when we stopped to camp (referred to as Center Camp in some accounts) in a small clearing amidst the boulders. We had taken four hours to cover the distance with a lot of boulder hopping involved. The place was forbidding and bleak, though a glimpse of the steep northeast face of White Sail was adequate recompense for our labors. We were happy to laze around in the sun from mid day till dinner time which was around 5:30 pm. We justified our laziness with the thought that it was better for us to move slowly for our bodies to acclimatize better!
On 22 August we arrived at the junction of the Lion Glacier and the Bara Shigri. A team from Bengal was already well ensconced here and they very generously offered us tea and biscuits. Thus fortified, Ravi and I decided to carry some loads to just below the snout of the Lion Glacier, a place that Josephine Scarr had referred to as “Thanda Camp”, meaning Cold Camp. We made it in about two hours and fifteen minutes and were back at the junction camp in time to be invited by our new friends to dinner. They were a large group with a cook and high altitude porters and even had a light bulb powered by a large battery illuminating the kitchen tent. We accepted their invitation with alacrity since we were both tired. We had paid off Gautam and Raju, the two porters who had helped us get here and from now on wards we would be on our own. I wolfed down the rice and chappaties and chicken curry that was offered and went back to our little tent with a full belly. We went to sleep quite late, it was almost midnight by the time I closed my eyes.
With the help of Kaliram, one of the porters with the Bengal team, Ravi and I shifted camp the next day to Thanda Camp. Walking on moraine with our plastic mountaineering boots for the first time and carrying heavy loads was sheer agony.
On 25th August Ravi and I managed to establish a camp at around 17,500 feet where the Lion glacier describes a wide arc, swinging from a south westerly orientation towards the east, around the foot of the ridges descending from the summit of Central Peak. We arrived in driving snow and it took us almost half an hour to pitch our tent. We were exhausted and cold but the fact that this was the highest I had ever been in my life was cause enough for celebration. As we brewed tea on the little gas stove, I realized that it was another reason to be grateful : thus far we had been using an old Primus paraffin stove to cook on which often meant fiddling around with the pin to unclog the burner jet as it was prone to blockages due to the poor quality of the kerosene that we were using. I had managed to purchase a few camping gas cylinders during my travels and had saved them for the trip. It was little things like this that challenged most Indians of my era when it came to mountaineering!
The next day, 26th August, we went down the glacier for a bit to pick up the remainder of the load that we had dumped during our first foray. Later in the afternoon we proceeded up the glacier on a reconnaissance to see if we could locate a suitable site for a camp from where we could launch out for the summit. We had to weave our way through innumerable crevasses with which the glacier was seamed, jumping across most of them as they were narrow enough and clearly visible – there was no soft snow blanketing the glacier and this made it a safer proposition. Ravi did an excellent job of probing the ground, poking around with his ice axe to check the firmness of the ice or hard snow. By 4:30 pm it became cloudy and a cold wind whipped across the vast expanse of the glacier, snow began to fall and we retreated without having reached the summit camp site. However in the preceding hours when the sun shone brightly we had got some wonderful views and seen the peak we intended to climb and had a better idea of the lay of the land.
Back in the tent while writing up my journal I scribbled my doubts and anxiety onto paper. Looking at those entries now, 36 years later, they reveal the nervousness and anguish that I experienced as a 30 year old on my first mountaineering jaunt – “I am still not sure if we’ll be able to climb Lion as a 2-man team. Will we have the stamina and steam to see us through to the summit?” I wrote.
The next day we found the site for the summit camp after three and a half hours of slogging up the glacier. It was a leveled space just enough for one tent, excavated on the slope, and reinforced on the downhill side with a small wall of rocks to maintain the horizontal orientation of the platform : obviously someone had gone to great lengths to create this level space and we were grateful. It was a spectacular location at almost 19,000 feet altitude at the base of the pyramid of Lion peak. We left a load of food and some equipment and hurried back down. To avoid the many crevasses of the middle of the glacier, one of which I had fallen into on the way up – thankfully only up to my knees – we decided to traverse along some icy slopes on the true left. This proved to be quite a harrowing experience and when we reached our camp at around 6 pm we found the Bengali team which had been there attempting Central Peak gone. They had left a note for us together with the piton hammer that Ravi had lent them for their successful climb. We went to sleep and I savored the humbling and exquisite feeling of real solitude and tranquillity. We were the only two humans in our world.
We moved up to the summit camp on 28 August in a little over 4 hours and lay panting in the sun, recovering from the effort of the move with all our loads. The sun set later in a clear sky and the almost full moon rose and bathed everything in a soft blue light. It was a divinely sublime environment to be eating our dinner in, even though the menu was not exactly gastronomically anything fancy – Maggi noodles (Lasagne flavor), some soup and dried fruits, followed by a couple of multivitamin tablets! With our bellies full and no more load ferrying to worry about, I felt for the first time on the expedition that we had a fighting chance to get to the summit. In my heart I prayed for decent weather for the next two days at least.
The morning began on a dismal note when we discovered that the front of the inner fabric of the tent had collapsed in the night, giving a very odd shape to the structure. Nevertheless, I peeked out of the rear ventilation flap and could see sunlight stroking the summit of Lion. The climb was on! But by the time we finished our breakfast of upma and tea, the sky had clouded over. We set off at 9:40 am after stripping off the extra length of my crampon straps which were wont to flap around in an irritating manner. We carried a liter of water, some dried fruits and two bars of chocolate for sustenance and one ice screw just in case.
It took us almost two and a half hours to reach the col between Lion and Central. We had to negotiate quite a few crevasses and plod up the now slopes leading up to the col. The south ridge from the col involved three pitches of scrambling on rock which then gave way to a corniced snow arete leading to the summit. At 2:35pm we gained the summit, almost five hours after leaving our tent. In spite of the overcast conditions, the views from the summit were spectacular. I was supremely happy to have climbed my first Himalayan peak and both of us basked in the glow of satisfaction of having done it as a two person team.
Snow fell during the night and we were forced to stay another night at our summit camp because we did not want to risk falling into the innumerable crevasses of the glacier which would now be hidden under a fresh blanket of snow. We spent the day mostly lazing around in the tent, using up our last supplies of food and fuel. We saved some upma and milk for the morrow and went to bed without dinner. We packed up and left at 9:50 on 31st August – the sky still looked gloomy, but the threat of more snowfall seemed to have receded. Shouldering our heavy packs we managed to descend to our Camp II in two and a half hours. After spending half an hour and dumping some of our loads, we raced back down to “Thanda Camp” where a packet of chicken noodle soup tasted heavenly! The wind blew cold and hard at this camp and it occurred to me that perhaps we should call it “Hawa Mahal” (Palace of Winds)!
Bir Singh and Rinzing, two porters with the Bengali expedition had promised to carry for us at the end of our climb. As Ravi made tea the next morning he voiced his doubts about whether they would keep their promise. Another grey overcast sky added to the uncertainty. But we had reckoned without the sterling character of these mountain lads : they turned up precisely at 8 am, raced up the foot of the glacier and were back with all of our stuff from Camp II by noon. By 6:30 pm we were all down at Base Camp near the snout of the Bara Shigri, glad to breathe the richer air of 12,000 ft.
We crossed the Karcha Nala around 9 am the next day. This time it was easier, the water levels having gone down as autumn had already begun to cool off the glaciers above which fed the system. Once I was safely on the Batal side I brushed my teeth and washed my hair and felt like a new man, totally refreshed. At Batal we sent Rinzing off to Manali on the 11:15 bus with all our baggage. Ravi, Bir Singh and I hopped on to the Kaza us at 1:50 pm and hopped off an hour later at Kunzum La. It took us about three hours to hike to Chandratal lake where we camped for the night.
We were the only humans around and the serenity of the lake combined with the last lingering light on the summits of the peaks opposite the valley seemed a perfect end to our little mountain adventure.
EPILOGUE : RISK AND REWARD
Ravi is a businessman and keeping track of expenses comes naturally to him. He would jot down our expenses meticulously in a tiny notebook that he carried. When it came to settle accounts at the end of the expedition, he showed me proof that our three week adventure had cost each one of us around Rupees 2500. This included transportation by train and bus from Mumbai, brief accommodation in Manali, porter charges and food costs. I probably spent as much on the purchase and processing of Kodachrome slide film at the time! We paid no “peak fee”, had no accident insurance, rescue in the Indian Himalaya for small independent parties was unheard of at that time and of course the use of cellphones and satellite phones, GPS devices etc. were still in the future. Perhaps this combination of uncertainty and trepidation of venturing into hostile environments is the sort of adventure that appeals to my soul. In any case, it is a very satisfying experience and I wouldn’t have traded it for what passes for mountain adventure in today’s highly commercialized environment.
LION AND CENTRAL PEAKS : THE FIRST ASCENTS
In 2020 I happened to find a copy of Josephine Scarr’s book “Four Miles High” on the internet and promptly bought it. Even though I had read her article in the Alpine Journal about their trip to the Bara Shigri in 1961, this book was fascinating reading. In brief she and Barbara Spark drove all by themselves from the UK to Manali in a Land Rover, then trekked into the Bara Shigri over the Rohtang Pass with three Sherpas and mules. They then proceeded to make three First Ascents! I have reproduced some photos from Scarr’s book.
MY OTHER ARTICLES ON LION PEAK
In 2012 I had posted three articles about the Bara Shigri adventure which might interest some readers. Below are the links: