“Too much snow.” Accompanied by a slow shaking of the head, this seems to be the mantra of the people of northern Himachal Pradesh, for this spring of 2011. The past winter is already gaining legendary status, as residents of the Kullu recount the fierce winds that scoured up and down the valley. The dormant orchards of Old Manali, at 6000’, were buried in numerous snowfalls, while further up valley, above 9000’, the snow depths were prodigious. People would just point up above the first stories of many buildings, to indicate the height of snow in places such as Solang Nala.
For our group of five skiers from the east side of the Washington Cascades, the repeated reports of “too much snow” are received with skeptical optimism. Like an over-hyped Seattle weather forecast, the correlations to reality in the mountains, from a valley dweller’s perspective, could be minimal. Or, conversely, we could be blessed with the good fortune of a prime season for spring ski mountaineering in the high peaks.
One certainty, however, is that the Rohtang Pass will remain closed to vehicles for quite some time. Having seen the massive drifts and intimidating fans of avalanche debris from nearby peaks, we cannot imagine a plow punching a navigable route through anytime soon.
The Rohtang (“death plain” in Tibetan) is, ironically, by far the friendliest pass over the Pir Panjal, a sort of Himalayan front-range, well known for deep snow, big vertical relief, and amazing backcountry skiing. Beyond the Rohtang La, north of the Pir Panjal, there are still more mountains, filling the horizon on all sides with a jagged sea of peaks. Prominent in the apparent chaos, and occupying the skyline immediately north, across the beautiful Chandra River Valley, is a knot of mountains called the Central Lahaul Massif. This is really just a name for a small segment of the Great Himalaya Range, which happens to lie in the region known as Lahaul. Distinct from much of Himachal Pradesh geographically, climatologically, and culturally, Lahaul, along with the neighboring region of Spiti to the east, exists in a sort of transition zone between the high precipitation mountains of the Kullu Valley, and the high desert of Ladakh. It is a stunning place of high, arid valleys and intense winter cold. The ice on the big rivers can form shelves many meters in thickness and the valleys can be buried in dry, cold snow. The people tend to be Buddhist. Most villages lie at an altitude above 10,000’, with nearby peaks rising to over 20,000’. In late autumn, the passes accessing these regions, both to the north, with the Baralacha La and Tanglang La from Ladakh, and to the south, with the Rohtang La from the Kullu, begin their sequential closing. Thus ensues the seclusion of the local people, who will be cut off from supplies and the flow of travelers for many months.
Since our intent is to make a ski traverse of the Central Lahaul Massif, it becomes clear that, in order to even reach the start of our trip, we will have to first cross the Pir Panjal on skis. Supplies will be an issue. While the people of Lahaul are known for their generosity, we are not comfortable with the idea of demanding too much from people who have just weathered a hard winter with very basic food. We will gladly pay for simple meals of rice and dal, if available, but provisions for the mountains will be difficult to obtain. Thus, all of our supplies will come from the abundant markets of the Kullu. Our svelt packs will swell to bloated hogs, which will be carried up and over the 13,000’ Rohtang La.
While the pass will not open for vehicles until June, with the settlement of the spring snowpack, and prevailing freeze / thaw conditions, the precedent has been set for passage over the Rohtang La in the form of human foot traffic.
The neverending task of maintaining and improving the roads of northern India provides work for a large force of migrant laborers. In the lowlands, many of the hard jobs are held by Bihari people, originating from India’s most impoverished state. But here in the mountains, much of the road work will be done by Nepali migrants, who get to job sites early, crossing high, snowy passes on foot, with little food and inadequate clothing. “Many people die every year”, a local friend tells us.
Compared to the Nepalis, walking on frozen snow in plastic sandals, with wooden walking sticks and wool blankets, my friends and I are ridiculously over-equipped. We are carrying twenty days worth of supplies on our backs in addition to the normal gear and clothing that white folks like to bring into the mountains for extended stays in glaciated, high-altitude terrain. We move slowly, finding a point of balance and appropriate pace for packs that the locals say must exceed 100 lbs. We move self-sufficiently, employing no porters, but fascinated people insist on feeling the weight of our packs, hefting them with a groan and a chuckle. “Too heavy. I think more than 45kg.”
Although a cold, incessant wind funnels through the pass from the north, the travel is straightforward and gorgeous, with good snow underfoot. To ease the suffering, and assist with acclimatization, we make double carries to the pass. This allows time for quick and beautiful ski descents of Rohtang Ri and Dashaur, two 15,000+’ peaks that stand on either side of the pass. We camp in the lee of a rock outcrop, on the crest of the range, trying to make sense of the profusion of peaks that unfurls to the north.
This biggest winter in anyone’s recent memory has left the high valleys of Lahaul deeply snowbound. Our original intent is to attempt a west to east traverse of the Central Lahaul Massif. However, this would set us up to emerge from the mountains with perhaps a solid week of slogging, over unplowed roads and through interminable avalanche debris, in order to return to a starting point. Instead, we consider a north to south traverse. North of the Rohtang, slightly less snowy, more livable terrain trends west, along the lower Chandra Valley from the village of Khoksar, and then north, up the Bhaga River Valley, towards the regional hub of Keylong. These sections of valley hold much of the regions year-round population and are served by a local bus. Plows do battle with formidable avalanche paths in order to keep this small stretch of road open. By utilizing this local bus service, we will be able to start our traverse on the north side of the range, at a small village of 60 people called Darcha, and end-up in the Chandra River Valley, back at the village of Khoksar.
We enjoy a casual morning on the crest of the Pir Panjal, hoping that the eastern sun will soften the 3000’ descent into Khoksar into something manageable with our huge, angry pigs. A 9:30 am departure proves perfect, and we are fortunate to carve corn all the way down into the magical valley of the Chandra, at about 10,000’.
On the edge of town, on the roof of a snowed-in dhaba, a “police-wallah” sits in a broken plastic chair, surrounded by a lazy pack of mongrel dogs. He wears a somewhat scary looking cotton mask, to protect from the incessant sunshine. His job is to record the passport number and nationality of all travelers as they pass through this outpost, drawing nearer to sensitive borders with Pakistan and China. A glimpse at the wrinkled pages of his haggard looking book reveals a string of Nepali passports, but no others. In Khoksar, most of the town is still buried in several meters of snow, but a single dhaba is open for business, serving rice, dal, and chai to travelers passing through on foot. We step down through the cave-like opening in the snow and sit down for a few plates of hot food and several glasses of chai. We eat as much as we can, grateful for the opportunity to conserve our own supplies for the mountains.
A ski of a few kilometers on the river ice brings us to a plowed turn-around for the local bus. Amid the normal stares and questions, we load our gear onto the roof of the bus. The scenery is mind-blowing but the ride short lived, as a mudslide has crossed the road and the bus comes to a stop. It is decided that another bus will come pick everybody up across the slide, so with luggage held high overhead, all passengers wade the mud and suspended rocks. Soaked and slathered to the knees, we await the arrival of the next bus, as more and more locals seem to filter-in from the surrounding hillsides. By the time the bus arrives, the crowd has swollen. “You, you, you, on roof!”, shouts the ticket checker and we are somewhat relieved to have the chance for fresh air, unobstructed views, and the slight sense of exposure by riding on the roof. With perhaps 20 others on the roof, and the inside totally packed beyond standing room, it is a true circus act. The mood is light, with local people singing songs and faces absorbing warm afternoon sun, as the bus groans slowly through the valley. The Pir Panjal loom to the south and the Lahaul Range to the east and north, formidable and fluted.
After a stop in the beautiful and friendly regional “capital” of Keylong, we arrive in the gravel plains of Darcha. The landscape has grown more arid, even in the short trip north. This is a place where junipers cling to the dry lower slopes of glacier-clad 20,000’ peaks. The smell in the air is reminiscent of eastern Oregon, but the strings of weathered prayer flags and Buddhist stupas outside of town remind us that we are in a very different part of the world. More Ladakhi than Himachal, the local greeting of “Joolay!” has replaced the more subdued “Namaste” with the journey north.
In this harsh place, the local people’s greeting is emblematic of their relationship with the land, and with each other. This is not a place of mossy Zen understatement or shadowed ambiguity, but rather a treeless convergence of four powerful mountain valleys, where alpine sun blazes down on shattered, red sedimentary rock. In the absence of sun, there is ice and snow. The people gather in sunny pastures with their livestock. Women knit gorgeous woolens while lounging in large groups, smiling and giggling at blond beards and burned faces. Never is “Joolay!” uttered in distraction, but always with intent, always with a smile and a shout. Even after a hard winter, rather than garnering suspicion or a sense of clinging to what little remains, the people extend themselves with hospitality, offering tea and a chance to stay in their homes. They seem to embody the beliefs of the Boddhisattva, working for the wellness of all beings, offering us sincere blessings for a safe journey in their local mountains.
A few kilometers of walking on river gravel yields to solid snow cover as we enter the valley of the Milang Nala. With a subtle change in aspect, the snowpack is once again deep, at an altitude of 11,000’. Glad to have skis underfoot instead of on our backs, we ski south, further into the heart of the Central Lahaul Massif. The potentially raging and sizeable river is quiescent beneath our skis, muffled into a soothing background noise. In places, where avalanche paths have converged from both sides of the valley, the Milang Nala is bridged with over 100’ of frozen snow. It seems that the timing is fortuitous for a ski traverse up this amazing valley, as either an avalanche cycle or a lack of snow bridges over the river could render the travel impossible or at least much less pleasant. With the current conditions, deep snow, stable on the mountainsides and solid underfoot, the Milang Nala feels like a gift from the ski gods. In a region known for heinous, barely navigable canyons, this valley is wide, aesthetic, and welcoming. The biggest obstacle to progress lies in the fact that every step reveals a new and inspiring ski line. For perhaps 30 km, along the continuous 17,000+’ west ridgeline of the north-south trending valley, there are countless 5000’ northeast facing ski runs. With kind camping, amidst warm gravel washes and huge boulders, we stop to ski and eat some of our substantial food weight. We enjoy the freedom of open bivies and perfect weather. Bare feet in sunshine and the ease of good, flowing water.
While the main valley of the Milang Nala is a sort of Shangri La, we are inspired to explore the true core of the range, the big glacier systems that flow from the flanks of the highest peaks. Leaving a cache in the valley, we ski east with lighter loads, up onto the forks of the Mulkilla and Taragiri Glaciers. This is big country, which could demand weeks of exploration. The highest peak in the Central Lahaul Massif, Mulkilla (called M4 on some maps) stands at over 21,000’, at the head of these glaciers. While Mulkilla itself does not appear to host a feasible ski line from its summit, the crew is stoked to ski from two 19,000+’ peaks before returning to heavy packs in the main valley.
Another day and a half of slogging delivers us to the heavily glaciated head of the Milang Nala. Located just north of the crest of the range, this appears to be an area of heavy snowfall. Inspiring peaks abound, well-slathered with a deep snowpack. Yet another zone which would require more time than we have to explore fully, we inspect our remaining food supplies and prioritize objectives. Here, we are finally forced to rest, as we weather our only “storm” day of the trip, which is really just a procession of squalls, interrupted by beautiful breaks in pearly gray clouds. Highlights of this basin include descents of Sri Lata (18,000’+) and CB 49 (19,600’+). On these peaks, we find classic ski mountaineering. Steep skiing, variable snow, and big exposure.
With the looming potential for some unstable weather ahead, we are conscious of our location, with one big pass and an unknown valley yet to travel. Fatigued from days of cramponing up big mountains, we choose to push onward, south, over the 16,000’ Tempo La. Here, on the crest of the Central Lahaul Massif, we find views down the Khoksar Nala, and over to the Pir Panjal, where afternoon clouds are building to impressive heights. We are fortunate, and the Khoksar Nala proves kind to tired legs. Consistently interesting views provide good distraction from fatigue, and pleasant glacier gliding allows for a relatively easy 5000’ descent down to the Chandra River Valley. Emerging from the mountains amidst the hardscrabble agricultural terraces of local farmers, the river seems to roar a little bit louder than before. Indeed, many big snow bridges have been washed away. Spring does not yet have a full grasp on the land, but the smell of soil and swelling of streams makes us think that it’s not far off.
Back in Khoksar, not much has changed in the past weeks. More dogshit has melted out of the snow and another dhaba is open for business. We consume massive plates of rice and dal in the afternoon sunshine, thankful for the dissipation of ominous storm clouds. We watch as locals continue the spring-long process of digging out, leaning on rusted shovels, and smoking bidis.
Exhausted, we find a massive boulder of immaculate schist, just a few minutes out of town. This will do. We spread sleeping bags amidst the tussock and lichen across the boulder’s flat top and lie down early for a long sleep. The last rays of the evening illuminate the gompa across the river before it fades into the obscurity of twilight. Distant barking of local pariah dogs infiltrates sleep, mingling with a Himalayan blanket of stars, instilling dreams of wolves unseen. Here, in the valley of the Chandra, we sleep in the open, but are wrapped in the well-being of a special place. A soft breeze moves down valley. We sleep in fullness.
Project: Central Lahaul Massif Travese
Location: Lahaul Massif, Lahaul and Spiti, North India
Participants: Drew Lovell, Phil Marino, Alan Willard, Dan Veenhuizen, Ian Mallinson
Date: Spring 2011
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Our first glimpse of the many buried switchbacks of the Rohtang road. Photo by Drew Lovell.
Phil Marino finding good powder in the Pir Panjal. Photo by Drew Lovell.
Stoked locals! Photo by Drew Lovell.
Camp in the Rohtang La, the evening before descending into the Chandra River valley. The peaks of the Central Lahaul Massif loom beyond. Photo by Drew Lovell.
Loading the bus outside of Keylong. Photo by Drew Lovell.
Alan Willard skins for another perfect 5000′ corn run in the lower Milang Nala region. Photo by Drew Lovell.
The crew outside the village of Darcha – sitting L to R: Drew, Phil Marino, Alan Willard, Dan Veenhuizen. standing: Ian Mallinson. Photo by Drew Lovell.
Our ascent up the N.Couloir of a peak called Sri Lata (18,000’+). Photo by Drew Lovell.
Dan Veenhuizen drops into the N.Couloir of Sri Lata (18,000’+). Photo by Drew Lovell.
Dan Veenhuizen carefully dropping-in on icy, tricky snow and 50 degree terrain at almost 20,000′ on Peak CB49. Photo by Drew Lovell.