Sunday, March 9, 2014

2013 Upper Zanskar Traverse

The traditional Tibetan village of Kargyak, settled amongst the orange, purple, and ochre peaks and passes of wild Zanskar.
2013 Upper Zanskar Traverse

This past July, having just escaped disaster in the Garwhal, I set my sites on the next Indian Himalaya project with bleary eyes and still in a bit of shock from our recent experience.  I fortunately had a week to rest and recover
in Manali, before heading into Zanskar.  Our objective for this year’s trip to the area carried a hint of peak climbing focus, with Polish mountaineer Agnieszka Pilarczyk joining us for this years journey, and her arrival lauding, “let’s climb something if it appeals.”  With rules from the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, we could climb peaks less than 6000 meters, but those above that magic number would require a permit.  With this knowledge in mind, we returned to the region and accomplished our goal: having fun while exploring peaks and passes in the Himalaya.  After all, that’s what we do.

En route to Manali, I’d met and befriended French canyoning pioneer Jean Luc Jubert.  Jubert invited me to stay at his house in a village above Manali, and I was treated to warm hospitality from his host family, with huge meals each night in their warm social room, and time to learn from locals about their ways and customs.  The friendly local owners, Shyam and Namula, brought us fresh milk each morning for our espresso coffee, and also provided rather comfortable beds, and nice hot showers.  We were content, and enjoying the peace and quiet of village life, timely for arriving and unwinding from the long travel days to get here to Manali.

India airlines now offers flights to Manali, and as the drama continues to unfold over when they will shut down this operation annually for the summer monsoon months, we will continue to operate our Indian Himalaya treks in the region in June and September, well within the safety window of when they will stop flights. 

Meeting with the crew, we did a final double check of personal and group equipment, and then loaded the jeep and headed for the mid-point stop in Keylong (3110m), where we would have a spirited walk through the Lahauli capital, locals walking through town in their finery, a daily custom.  The friendly owners at the Tashi Delek guest house put us up for the night, Kunsang’s sister (manager) giving us the nicest rooms in the hotel.  After a fine meal, we called it a night with clear skies and excitement for the morning drive into the Himalaya.  

A last minute stop for lungta(k) prayer flags for our pass crossings brought us to the local monastery, where we were had our prayer flags blessed, “charging them up” for setting them to fly above and between the slate gray stones of the Shingo and Phirtse La.  It was an excellent visit, and we knew we were now prepared to move into the range.

Our secret camp near Zanskar Sumdo, with wild mountain views and Gaddi shepherds to visit with.
The afternoon brought us to Zanskar Sumdo, the horses waiting for us at the junction. In Tibetan, “Sum” means three, and “do” means place.  So, “sumdo” means, “place of three” or more explicative, junction.  There are junctions all over the Himalaya, and this particular junction (sumdo), is the launching point for accessing the upper Zanskar region. From here, a keyhole route leads through the vast Great Himalaya range, via the 5000m Shingo La, the only weakness in this steep and difficult section of the range.

Most often, trekkers coming to start a Zanskar trip will camp for the night here.  For the past couple years, we’ve located a camp about an hour up river from Zanskar sumdo that allows for a more “wild” feel, with fresh water flowing through, a pond to relax next to, and a grassy meadow that the horses really enjoy rolling in after completing their days work, along with a little grazing. This isn’t to mention the phenomenal beginner rock climbing right out in front of your tent.  We went for a small introductory multi-pitch rock climb in the evening twilight before soup and dinner, a nice way to complete the day and allow ourselves to acclimatize.

Starry skies hinted that the coming day would bring clear weather, and we prepared our equipment and clothing to go for a reconnaissance in the valley of Gangsthang, a sharp and spectacular 6000 meter peak in a wild side valley.  Rising early, we made our way through the granite stones and boulders, waving hello to the local Gaddi shepherds as they readied their goats, sheep, and yaks for the grazing day.  Without a trail, we made our way through interspersed grassy meadows and up the side of the Gangsthang river for a lunch and time to snooze on a monolithic slate boulder next to the icy river with views of Gangsthang. From what we could see, it appeared that the northeast ridge could allow for an alpine style assault, making a camp at 5800 meters beneath the ridge.

Reconnaissance accomplished, we lazily made our way down valley as the half moon rose in the late afternoon sky.  We were now tolerably acclimatized to the elevation and ready to go for our first traverse, the Shingo la.  We would rise early the following morning, and move up into the Zanskar chu (Zanskar creek), which ultimately leads up and over to Zanskar proper.  Enroute, I kept my binoculars, as always, along so peaks and wild life could be scoped along the way.  After about three hours, we came in view of Ramjak, a 6200m peak with a very menacing yet appealing southeast face. 

One look, and Agnieszka wanted to know.  She’d climbed several other peaks with us in the past few Himalayan seasons, and was really looking for a steeper, more aesthetic challenge.  Ramjak was it.  Without a permit, we wouldn’t be legally allowed to climb the peak, so we opted to go for a climb on the face, and leave the summit slopes alone.  Our plan was hatched.

We quickly made camp in the grassy meadow below, a prominent and popular site aptly called Ramjak, and set to sorting the gear we would need for the climb, and what food and bivouac gear we would bring along for safety measures.  Wanting to decide on a rock or steep snow line when we got up into the cirque, we decided to bring a light rock rack, and a couple ice screws in case we could scrape out some ice from the gullies in the higher slopes.

It was a perfect moonlit night, and we ate early to get to resting for an early start at 0100.  Morning camp quickly, and we did the groggy half awake zombie walk to the kitchen tent for strong Italian espresso coffee and some omelettes and bread.  Fueled, we shouldered our sizable packs, loaded with two Beal twin ice lines, rock and ice gear, cans of tuna and packages of cookies, and some warm gear in case we were benighted while out on the climb.

The approach, wow, what an approach. Moving through several torrential river crossings (the melt water from the hanging glacier above was peaking in flow, as most do in the midnight hour), with Agnieszka soaking her soft shells and us finding ourselves into the cirque, quiet, no rock or ice fall.  Silence, only the sounds of our boots gaining purchase in the thin sediments beneath the shale. More than once I wondered if anyone had ever gone into this area.

As humans, we seek familiarity and similarity in places that are foreign to us.  I started to think how the climb reminded me of climbs I’ve done in the Rockies, or the Alps even, but we weren’t even at the base of the route and were above the height of the highest mountain in both ranges.  Feeling the thin air, we set into an approach rhythm, slowly ticking off the vertical to gain frozen snow, crampons on, and climbing as the first light of day hinted on the horizon.

Helmets on and resting for a quick Jetboil brew, we peeked from underneath our shale overhang perch to view the 1000 meters of vertical reeling above us.  This was not the splitter granite that defines the beautiful Miyar valley 14 kilometers away as the crow flies, this was shale, and rock that had appeared fairly solid through binoculars below revealed on closer inspection steep snow ramps interspersed with rock that would take a cam or a wire, but that simply held too many potentially loose objective hazards.  A descent in afternoon temperatures would not score high on the fun factor scale. 

Climbing on Ramjak.
A pebble zoomed by, bounding the icy predawn slopes.  We opted for the snow route, keeping us well out of the way of the hanging summit icecap (which held a few toothy seracs), any potential falling rock, and it truly being the most aesthetic line on the face, albeit not direct.  Decision made, we began switch backing up the hardened avalanche cone of the face. We were happy we had gotten a 1300 start, as this would quickly become mush in the afternoon temps, nice for descending in a plunge step, but not desirable for upward struggle.

Making our way across the avalanche cone, we roped up and began climbing, traversing actually with interesting ramps and rock gullies linking us closer and closer to our couloir of choice.  We gained 100 meters, 200, 300, and then rested.   It had been a good solid 2 hours, and we were happy with our upward progress, having moved through some challenging real estate, distance, and also gaining a fair amount of altitude considered we were acclimatized to 5000 meters, were climbing on unknown terrain with route finding, and weren’t ascending directly up the face. 

It was time for a feed, 10 hours of climbing and we needed to refuel.  The climb above looked feasible, a diagonal snow ramp leading into a 300 meter dogleg couloir.  We questioned all possibilities, trying to prove ourselves wrong in our decision and desire to climb further.  We had the necessary gear to wait out the afternoon heat, and begin climbing in the dark, but what did we want in the coming days.  Agnieszka mentioned her birthday coming up in two days and how she would like to go for another climb then.  We knew if we waited out the afternoon heat, and climbed on through the night and back to camp the next morning, that it would wipe us and we wouldn’t be staged for the next climb.

We bailed.  A quick decision after some food and drink, we had gotten a nice climb under our belts, and knew the added effort would pay off in coming days as we focused on exploring new areas.  Descent was clean and smooth, if not tiring, we were glad to get back to camp for some excellent pizza.  A rest under clear skies brought our moving to the Shingo la base camp, where we’d stage a climb on Agnieszka’s birthday the following day. This time, it would be peak 6130m, a horseshoe-shaped cirque peak with two protruding “arms” that could potentially hold some nice routes.

The horse team crossing a small pass in remote Zanskar.
The night came and went, and we rose again for an alpine start, this time the weather didn’t allow, and we went back to our bags “chomping at the bit”.  We would have to wait.  Planning for specific summit days on a three-week traverse trip isn’t the best idea due to variables. It’s best to have several objectives planned, and go with the one that best fits each particular experience.  Weather, climber health, and other unmentionables can change, even wreck, the most methodically constructed expedition plan, it’s best to go with the flow and build your focus on a peak when the time is right.  This especially applies to exploratory expedition climbing; be it in the Alaska range, Himalaya, or Karakoram.

Trekking in beautiful Zanskar.
Rising late, Agnieszka was served crepes for her birthday breakfast with fresh fruit.  A treat, we made sure to also have espresso coffee and start the day right. We truly make each trip special for every climber or trekker.  Starting off, we made quick time across the 5000 meter Shingo la, descending into Zanskar proper by mid-morning, the Zanskar characteristic orange, purple, and red hues of the valley stone showing in the sharp yet cloudy calm. We were in, having safely crossed the Himalaya and now in a wild valley with all of Zanskar at our fingertips, excited to be moving in country that I loved.

Crossing the Surichun La, with numerous 6000 meter peaks in the distance.
We’d decided to talk to locals in Kargyak this year, getting beta on crossing into the locally famous Lingti valley via a new pass for us, the Surichan La, at  5760m (18,900ft), it was no small pass, and the horses would be feeling it as we crested it and made our way to our second objective, exploring the Khamerap Chu valley in search of new alpine objectives. Locals reporting easy passing, we made our way the following morning, a little slow from enjoying some chang with our local friend Singge the evening before aside the babbling Kargyak Chu.  Kunsang and Mamoo took their time getting camp finished up as we made our way up the switchbacks to a short pass that would leave our morning’s crossing, after a night next to a clear and clean snow melt pond, base camp for the Surichun La.  A clear night bode for an even sharper morning, as the day started with some stream jumping and rock hopping to get us in sight of the pass, snow patched and rocky. 

The Khamerap river valley.
A view to the wild peaks of the Gyambal Chu valley, and Stok Kangri and the distant Aksai Chin followed the crossing of the pass, and we made our way into the green yak pasture lands of the Lingti, excited to see the locals at their yak hair tent summer pastoral grounds. All quiet, we scanned around that afternoon in search of wolf, or sign that gave reason to the absence of the usual flocks.  Walking on, we decided to get into Khamerap, excited to see what we could find in a glaciated valley full of new route potential.

Morning brought questionable weather, with the forecast not calling for any precipitation, we stuck to our plan and made the ford of the Khamerap river, but not before freezing ourselves and doing some serious leg rubbing to get the feeling back, an icy river so close to its glacial source.  Boots on, we tramped into our objective, an unclimbed 6000 meter peak with a nice glacial cake right on its summit.  We made a nice reccy of the area the following day, with some overnight snow, and then made our way down the Lingti valley and back to Manali, full circle in the Zanskar Himalaya. We can’t wait to get back. Our next trip is in June 2014: