Spiti, the Forbidden Land

(by Michael Scott, from an IMC Newsletter, 1999)
A reconnaissance trip to the Indian Himalayas.

When Paddy O’Leary suggested a reconnaissance trip to the Indian Himalayas in preparation for a club expedition, I jumped at the chance. Paddy spoke glowingly about Spiti and Kinnaur and, as these were areas that I had never heard of, a little research had to be done to find out where I was going. It turned out to be the state of Himachal Pradesh in the north west of India. Known also as the abode of the gods it did indeed turn out to be land full of shrines and Gompas to local deities. Until recently Spiti had been closed to travellers due to its closeness to Tibet and one of the attractions for the mountaineer is the possibility of being the first to explore some of the remoter valleys and of course the possibility of unclimbed peaks, of which there are many.

I flew to Delhi via Amsterdam and, with a two-hour delay and two hours extra on the flight to avoid Pakistan’s air space because of their war over Kashmir, did not, arrive until 2.45am. Needing to change some money and knowing that we were going to a remote region I changed $400. I was staggered by the enormous pile of currency placed in front of me. The very helpful teller filled a paper carrier bag to the brim for me but unfortunately also helped himself to some of it as I found out later. Paddy was waiting for me and whisked me off in a typical Indian taxi, a 1950’s Morris Cowley, to the luxury of the air-conditioned Oberoi Maidens for what proved to be a very pleasant introduction to India.

We did a small amount of sightseeing around the Mashid Mosque area and I got a taste of the crowded streets of Delhi, the markets and the heat, then it was off to Connaught Square and the coolness of Narulas restaurant. There would be time enough for hardship later in the trip. That night we took an overnight train and sleeper to Kalka with my first introduction to bargaining with porters. Between them two porters took four large rucksacks at great speed through the massed throngs of Old Delhi station to our pre-booked carriage. We shared a compartment with a very chatty Indian with definite views on religion and life but eventually he ran out of steam and we got some sleep. In the early morning we transferred to the mountain railway for the 58 mile, 5 hour journey on the mountain railway to Shimla. You can travel by road and get there more quickly but Paddy, wisely, was giving me a gentle and civilised introduction to travel in India, so I enjoyed the old world charm of this leisurely train with its waiter service of breakfast, tea at regular intervals and complimentary paper.

Shimla or Simla is a picturesque hill town and was once the summer capital of British administration in India. It is now the capital of Himachal Pradesh. After the usual haggling with porters we booked into the Classic hotel. It seemed very basic after our previous luxury. The Mall or main street of Shimla is situated on a ridge and is traffic-free and kept very clean and has nice views and buildings dating from British times. At a lower level there is the Bazaar, a bustling line of shops selling all manner of goods; below this again was a warren of streets and dwellings getting increasingly shabby, grubby and full of litter.

Supplies had to be bought and arrangements made for porters for our trip into the mountains which kept us busy over the next few days. We did most of our shopping in a small grocery store on the mall and our shopping list must have seemed a bit outlandish. Did we really buy 50 bars of chocolate? (and eat them all), 6 jars of porridge, tea, jam, etc. etc. The list was endless and soon filled a large kit bag to add to our already large store of baggage. We bought 2 kerosene stoves, pressure cooker, pots and pans, fuel. Our small two-man expedition had now accumulated six large sacks of equipment and food and more to come.

We arranged to hire a jeep and driver to transport ourselves and our luggage to Kaza, the regional capital of Spiti. This was one of our major expenses along with the hire of porters and a large tent for cooking and porter accommodation. We broke our journey in a number of places to allow for altitude acclimatisation.

The journey to Spiti can be done in two long days, weather, landslides, breakdowns, and traffic jams permitting. It is a spectacular trip following two major rivers, the Sutlej and then the Spiti. The roads are mostly appalling but the views vary from the spectacular to terrifying, from narrow overhanging gorges to vast endless panoramas. The over-riding impression is of churning, boiling, water, brown and muddy and flecked with foam sometimes at road level and sometimes dizzying death-defying distances below.

One of our stops was in Kalpa in Kinnaur. The view from our accommodation the following morning of the famous Kinner Kailash and other snowy mountains was stunning. This region experiences the monsoon and is generally more lush and green, with orchards and fruits and forests in contrast to the dry barren desert-like landscape that was to come in Spiti.

At Kalpa we picked up two passengers which made conditions in the jeep a bit cramped and I picked up the inevitable stomach bug which lasted on and off for about ten days which made travel and life in general a bit uncomfortable while it lasted. Prem Nagi one of our passengers was to arrange porters for us and Meher Chand was one of two porters we would be hiring for about twenty days while we were in the mountains.

The road continues following the river. An abiding memory are the endless road gangs, men, women and children, poorly dressed, breaking stones by hand, boiling huge vats of black poisonous tar and living by the roadside in plastic-covered shelters. It is an endless and almost impossible task with the roads being constantly washed away by floods and landslides but throughout the region roads are being carved into the most inaccessible valleys. Delays are frequent especially at the bridges which can accommodate only one vehicle at a time and as there is usually no traffic management it is he who dares wins, with the resultant chaos. Travelling by jeep seemed relatively safe on these single lane roads compared to our later travel on buses as they manoeuvred to allow traffic to pass.

As one approaches Spiti the landscape becomes harsher and drier, there is a notable absence of trees and vegetation and there is a great clarity in all the views. At the southern end of the Spiti valley there is the very impressive Manirang but otherwise the higher mountains seem distant and hidden behind the nearer rocky ridges.

We reached Kaza or Kaja after a twelve-hour journey from Kalpa and booked in to the Milarepa guest house. At first sight it seemed very basic but proved very comfortable. The rooms have a nice shaded area in front of them where one can sit and watch the comings and goings, the facilities are clean and the family friendly and helpful. We had two days here before heading off into the mountains.

A small local taxi took Paddy me and our many large bags to the road head in the Pin valley at Mechim where we met up with our porters, six, and two donkeys. There was the usual haggling over prices before we set off. It was a beautiful and spectacular walk and with only a light pack I enjoyed the walk and took many photographs. I had my first experience of a ‘Jula'( dula ) crossing the Parahia river. These are single strands of wire suspended over the river. In this case there was a cage attached which could be pulled across by hand. Paddy and I both crossed safely but as the connecting rope broke on the next trip there was considerable delay in getting the rest of the bags and porters . The donkeys were let go. Help had to be sought from a local villager. We camped for the night at a small settlement used as summer residences for herders engaged in transhumance. (summer pasturing ) There were mainly older people in residence and some small children.

The next days trek took us to our base camp in the Debsa Gad. This time we had to cross the Kamengar river using the simple Jula of a single wire strand. Both Paddy and I clipped into our climbing harnesses before hauling ourselves across. The porters used simple webbing and wire hooks which were attached to the cable. The bags had to be carefully tied on and hauled with our climbing rope. Base camp was established where a small stream gave some drinking water. The site itself was rocky and dusty but the location was lovely. We paid off all but the two porters we had engaged for twenty days and settled in.

The pattern for the next eighteen days or so was to be up at sunrise, six am. It got hot fairly quickly during the day. Darkness fell about seven and it could get quite chilly. Our plan was to explore as far up the valley as we could and perhaps cross the main Himalayan divide. This proved too ambitious but we established a camp further up the valley and did another long day’s trek as far up as we could before we had to turn back. Distances were deceptive and progress slow over the loose slopes of huge moraines. There were many tributary rivers difficult to cross and involving long detours and steep descents and ascents. Often our only option was to use a snow bridge which on our return had seriously deteriorated. At our high point in the Debsa Gad we looked down into a camp of nomadic herders or Gadi but due to the lateness of the day could not descend to them. Our explorations show that the map is inaccurate at this point and the upper reaches have still to be explored. Our views of the Kullu / Spiti divide showed that the mountains were worth climbing.

We then transferred to a tributary of the Kamengar valley and did some exploration with a view to climbing some peaks in the area on our expedition next year. The trek to our new camp was very enjoyable and led us through high pastures, some beautiful wild flowers, herds of grazing horses and views of distant mountains, including Shigri Parbat climbed by Joss Lynam and an I.M.C. party. As we passed back and forth through this area we stopped off each time with some herders who were looking after the horses and who always invited us in for tea. During our last day they arrived at our base camp in the rain having left their own shelter because it was leaking. This section of the trip was probably the most rewarding as we got good views of our intended objectives and other spectacular peaks and got satisfyingly high. Our bivy site at about 5000m as the sun set and later when the myriad of stars appeared was particularly memorable.

In all we spent about twenty days in the mountains and enjoyed mainly good weather. Although it normally does not rain in Spiti we did get a couple of very wet days at the end. The return from base camp took only one day and this time we returned along the left bank of the Parahio river with slightly different views. The stunning geological formations are worth seeing.

I managed to fit in a trip to Ki monastery, one of the landmarks of the area because of its spectacular location, and learned of the visit of the Dali Lama next year while I drank a welcome cup of chai with one of the monks and continued on to Kibber 4205m which according to one guide book is the highest permanently inhabited village in the world. Roundwood eat your heart out. In the same guide book it then says that Gete, a neighbouring village is the highest permanently inhabited village in Spiti ! There is plenty to interest the traveller in the area.

From Kaja we returned by bus to Kalpa. Exposure on the mountains is nothing compared to the sensations engendered from the window seat of a Himachal Pradesh bus as it backs up along an unstable road to allow a truck to pass on the inside. When you think that no more can possibly squeeze in the bus stops again and twenty more heavily laden passengers get on. Paddy travelled on the roof for a few hours in relative comfort. From Kaja to Kalpa is about twelve hours.

The monsoon had arrived in Kinnaur and a permanent mist seemed to hang over the landscape. I spent one leisurely day sightseeing locally and a second day travelling to the Sangla valley. The weather put paid to any views of the mountains but the village of Sangla and Kamru fort were worth the visit. Time was running out for me and we settled on a reconnaissance of Raldang peak and a crossing of the Haran pass. From the valley floor of the Sutlej river we toiled up for two hours, with full packs, in the wake of a local on his way home from work who took us under his wing. Fit as we were at this point it put us both to the pin of our collars to keep up. He invited us in and gave us a meal and a bed for the night. He was a postal worker in the nearby town of Rekong Peo and lived there during the week with his children. He returned at weekends to his village where his wife lived. From Barchem we continued up the steep path for about five hours and found shelter for the night in a cow shed on the high summer grazing grounds of the village. We struggled up to the col the next day at about 5000m with climbing equipment. I felt that all our altitude training had vanished and as we could not see the route on the mountain clearly due to mist decided to go no further and descended to our bivy site. That afternoon we watched the shepherds move with their flocks high under the col and down again as the sun set. The next day we crossed over the col in better weather and down to Kamru fort and Sangla, taking tea with a shepherd on the way.

The holiday was nearly over; we took the bus through the night to Shimla and the following day a luxury or tourist bus to Delhi. Our accommodation this time in the more spartan Y.M.C.A. near the city centre. We enjoyed a meal at the salad bar in Narulas and then I headed for the airport, while Paddy planned the next stage of his trip to Tibet.

Paddy O’Leary, during his travels after he left me, briefly saw a group of Indian mountaineers, while stopped at a road block, who were members of an expedition en route to climb our intended objectives. We have to fear the worst I suppose and assume that they were successful. Paddy changed his plans and has apparently reconnoitred another objective. More when he gets back in October. I hope that some of our more accomplished and experienced members will seize the opportunity afforded by our planned trip and sign up for what should be a memorable experience as mine was this year.