The elusive Mt. Gya

Print edition : November 15, 1997

A mountaineering team from Delhi that included seven Everest summiteers and a host of other talented and strong climbers discovered that conquering Mt. Gya was not an easy task after all.

Text & pictures: VASANT SABERWAL SANJAY BARNELA VINEET SABHARWAL

IN August, a team set out from Delhi to climb an unclimbed peak, Mount Gya, at 6,833 metres (22,420 feet) the highest peak in Himachal Pradesh. A number of attempts have been made to climb the peak, the most notable being three attempts made by Yousuf Zaheer and other rock climbers from Delhi and a British expedition in 1996.

This most recent attempt in August-September was interesting for a number of reasons. For one, Colonel H.S. Chauhan, the leader of the expedition, had assembled a team, one that included seven Everest summiteers and a host of other talented and strong climbers, representing the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, the Indian Army, and mountaineering institutes in Manali and Darjeeling. A SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) team with members from Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan (Pakistan declined to participate) complemented the Indian contingent. (The three of us were invited to join the expedition to photograph and film the climb. This report is based on nightly interviews with climbers and our own, often futile, efforts to keep up with some of India's best climbers.)

The expedition mule train moving down the Parechu river.-

Mt. Gya is located at the tri-junction of Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir, Spiti in Himachal Pradesh, and Tibet. There are two possible approaches to the peak. One can drive to Chumur village, approximately 250 km east of Leh, and then walk up the Hurrung Nallah to a base camp. Alternatively, one can drive to Kibber village in Spiti, 20 km west of Kaza, cross the Parang La Pass into Ladakh, and walk up the Parechu river to a point just short of Chumur, before turning into the Hurrung Nallah to make base camp. For complex diplomatic reasons we took the latter, longer route, and it involved a seven to eight-day walk from Kibber to the base camp.

Spirits were high on August 7, as we walked out of the Directorate of Mountaineering and Allied Sports in Manali, and started our long trek. As it turned out, we faced the prospect of walking from Manali to Kibber, an additional distance of almost 200 km, owing to flood damage to the Manali-Rohtang Pass road. Eventually, we had to walk some stretches of the Manali-Kibber road although we managed to hitch rides in trucks, tractors, jeeps and buses. But what was expected to be a two-day bus ride followed by a week-long trek to base camp had suddenly become a 14 to 15-day trip.

Rafting down the Parechu.-

On the second day, we crossed the Rohtang Pass, at 4,115m, starting the climb at Ralha, 2,440m, and coming up the grassy mountainside. It is a spectacular climb and far more pleasurable than the bus ride that whips you through this beautiful section of the Beas Valley. We should have taken another look at the meadows and forests that we came across as we crossed over into Lahaul, for the Rohtang Pass separates the green Beas Valley from the arid trans-Himalayan region that we were entering and were to grow tired of over the next month.

It took us another three days to get to Kaza, parts of the trip involving a deadening walk along the Khoksar-Kaza road under a searing sun, with little by way of shade or shelter. Lahaul, in particular the stretch between Khoksar and the Kunzam Pass (5,030m), is uninspiring owing to the monotony of the narrow valley. There is little that interrupts the arid and dusty brown landscape - no water bodies, except the Chandra river we were walking along, no natural vegetation, no expanse of cultivated field.

Kibber, believed to be the highest permanently inhabited village in Asia.-

Once over the Kunzam Pass, however, one enters beautiful Spiti - wider and greener, particularly around the human settlements. Even the rocks appeared to take on a greater variety of hues, with reds, oranges and wonderful shades of purple reminiscent of parts of Ladakh.

We spent a couple of days in Kaza, partly to attend the festival that is held every three years at Tabo, a small town that last year celebrated the 1,000th year of the Tabo monastery. We were treated to some spectacular dance by troupes from Lahaul, Spiti and Kinnaur.

THE following morning we prepared to welcome to our camp the Speaker of the Himachal Pradesh Assembly who was in the area and had been invited by Col. Chauhan to speak to the team. In true military style, all the tents were lined up on either side of two rows of ice axes, strung together with 11mm climbing rope. I half expected a guard of honour to present arms (read ice axes) to the Speaker, particularly when Palden Negi (an armyman) began to say something about our being sons of the Indian soil. His cap, however, bore the insignia of the United States Postal Service, while other caps proclaimed support for the New York Knicks, the Dallas Cowboys, the Chicago Bulls and sundry other U.S. basketball teams, reducing somewhat the militaristic imagery of the moment.

The team encountered bad weather at Camp 1.-

With the Speaker's blessings we caught the only bus of the day to Kibber village, at 4,420m. Local folklore has it that this is the highest permanently inhabited village in Asia. Kibber is also the last village in Spiti along the ancient Simla-Tibet trade route. We followed this route over the following week, first crossing the 5,580m Parang La Pass that links Spiti with Ladakh, and then following the Parechu river until we were just short of Chumur on the India-Tibet border.

The trail from Kibber descends to a tributary of the Spiti river, before beginning the climb for the Parang La Pass, for the most part through arid, rocky countryside. This part of Spiti, along with the Pin Valley further east, provides spectacular evidence of the tectonic uplift that led to the formation of the Himalayas. Fossilised molluscs that are found in abundance in Kibber village are testimony to the fact that the region used to form the floor of the Tethys Sea. The mountainsides, in turn, demonstrate the uneven folding that took place as part of the uplifting process. The sedimentary rock that formed the ocean floor can clearly be seen in parallel layers, each layer cresting a wave, then descending into the trough. Millions of years after the event, one can still visualise the waves of pressure that lifted and carved the floor of the Tethys Sea.

The Parechu originates in the mountains that adjoin and comprise the Parang La Pass. It is not a large river in terms of the amount of water it carries, but it meanders through an extremely wide, boulder-strewn, river bed. We followed, or waded through, the river bed for the next three days, covering some 60 km. By lunch time on the first day we were met by guides of a rafting company (along with two rafts), who had come from Leh. We hoped to do the first-ever rafting descent of the Parechu, from around 4,880m to approximately 4,200m, short of Chumur. For two and a half days we rafted down the Parechu.

Tibetan wild asses or kiangs near the India-Tibet border.-

Actually, we tried to raft the Parechu, since the water levels were low this year. According to our guides, this was perhaps a result of poor winter snow last year. For brief stretches we would coast along in sufficiently deep water, then suddenly hear what became the familiar grinding of the raft bottom on the river bed. For long stretches, we were forced to drag the rafts over the river bed, before coming to another stretch of knee-deep rather than ankle-deep water. The river bed narrows soon after Norbu Sumdo, one of the few camping spots on the river. As a result there are two or three small stretches of grade 2 or grade 2+ rapids. On the whole, however, the excitement of rafting the Parechu was muted, barring the one instance in which the normally calm Palden Negi, a superb rock-climber, leapt from what he thought was a sinking punctured raft, to cling spider-like to the sharp rock-face above the river. However, he soon descended, realising the minimal likelihood of his drowning in the Parechu.

We were now in Changatang, the extensive plateau-like grazing grounds that characterise large parts of Tibet and Ladakh. We saw a number of Tibetan wild asses (kiang). Perhaps because the few people here are Buddhist, the animals are not hunted; in fact, they were mingling with domestic horses, close to areas of human habitation. And that is good news for this beautiful animal.

The remainder of our team, along with additional supplies and gear, joined us at the turn off for the Hurrung Nallah, a narrow gorge that empties into the Parechu. By now, there was a sense of urgency in the team, for we had been on the road for two weeks already, with little idea of how difficult the mountain was to prove. We established base camp at 4,875m at the junction of the Hurrung and the Cham Gyalmo Nallah, a small stream that originates from the Gya glacier. The following day, three-fourths of the team ferried to Camp 1, at 5,485m, carrying equipment, food and tentage that would be required on the mountain.

Another load ferry went up the following day, and then on the third day 26 members of the team occupied Camp 1, with the intention of gradually moving gear and supplies up to Camp 2, before attempting the summit. As it turned out, the evening we came into Camp 1, it clouded over and it snowed steadily through the night. There was heavy cloud cover the following morning and it snowed intermittently through the day, and once again through the following night. With the weather showing no signs of clearing, we descended to base camp the following morning.

Looking down the vertical drop to Camp 2.-

Over the next two days, the weather remained bad, and we had little choice but to wait it out. We read what little we had, the paucity of reading material eventually forcing us to read aloud, so that more than one person's mind could be distracted at any given time. Card games were interrupted only by meals and squabbles over whose turn it was to play or sleep. Entertainment for 45-odd people perched on a mound of rocks came from two packs of cards, three books, and two barely functional radios. Many chose to sleep, hour after hour, as we waited and prayed for clear weather.

The fifth day dawned cloudy, but with large patches of blue sky; the atmosphere was not quite as heavy as the preceding days. Twenty members of the team were quickly assembled and divided into two climbing teams, each of which was to attempt the peak from a different route. A cook and the three of us as photographers accompanied the team. The plan was for the group to pick up tents and supplies from Camp 1 and move straight to Camp 2 that afternoon. The following morning the climbers were to open the two routes that had been planned - the northeast ridge and the northwest face - almost all the way to the summit. By evening the rest of the team would come up from Camp 1 to complete the team at Camp 2, and the following morning the peak would be attempted by all those who were fit enough to do so.

FOR the most part, things went according to plan, with the advance group establishing and occupying Camp 2 on the evening of August 30. The same day, the rest of the team came up to Camp 1. The following day we (the filming crew) set out along with the rest of the climbers, who were understandably in a hurry to get to the mountain as quickly as possible. However, we were soon left behind, not surprising considering the expertise of the climbers we were with. In any case, both the routes were secured by late afternoon, when the two climbing teams descended from the mountain, and the rest of the team moved from Camp 1 to Camp 2. We had not seen much of the action, but the following day we found out just how difficult it must have been to fix that rope.

The following morning we started out at 6 a.m. All but seven members of the team were taking the ridge route, considerably easier, even if it was longer, than the rock face. As with the entire route from Camp 1 to Camp 2, much of the initial part of the climb above Camp 2 was on very loose scree - one step forward, two steps down. The fixed rope began a few hundred feet below the ridge as we entered a narrow, snow-covered gully. We turned right at the head of the gully, having to negotiate our way over 10 feet of slippery, ice-covered rock.

We clipped on to the rope as we began a long, steep traverse through knee-deep snow. We were just below the ridge and remained below it as we continued the trek for the next half hour. We took a break on the ridge, able for the first time to look across at Chumur. The lovely Tso Morari lake was in full view to the north-west, and in every direction we could see the familiar brown landscape - range upon range of brown hills and valleys, broken only by the snow-capped peaks that rose above the dry land. Above it all was a spectacular blue sky. Brown, white, blue. No reds or greens, except for the brightly coloured clothes of the climbers.

We followed the ridge for a hundred metres before descending, once again, to just below the ridge, traversing through snow for the next half hour, before beginning a gradual climb which led all the way to the summit. We reached the ridge once more, this time through some tricky rock-climbing. While we had the safety of a fixed route, the climbers had a difficult time on that patch the previous day. The top of the rocky patch coincided with the ridge line at this point, knife-like for about 4.5m, with a sheer drop on either side.

We could see that the peak had probably been climbed by all those who had preceded us. (One of the problems of trying to photograph climbers when they are of the calibre that our friends were of, is that one sees a lot of backsides, but little real action!) We were, by now, on the summit massif, with a large snowfield stretching away from us till very close to the summit, broken only by the occasional rock outcrop. The rock provided anchor points for the rope, and the fixed rope moved from one such outcrop to the next. We followed the fixed rope, in places sinking thigh-deep into the soft snow that had fallen over the previous five days. A patch of ice had to be negotiated with some care, a short traverse, and then a treacherous, steeply inclined icy stretch leading straight up to the ridge, and, we hoped, to the summit. We jummared (a jumar is an aluminium clamp that connects a climber to a fixed rope and is a safety device) up the rope, grateful to the climbers who had fixed the rope in the first place. We soon discovered that while we had reached the summit ridge, the actual summit was away to the right, separated from us by two rock pinnacles. There was fixed rope on this stretch as well, but the ridge itself was again knife-like, and the gymnastics we saw the others performing to get across those two pinnacles looked quite unappealing at this altitude. We (the photographers) decided not to go across ourselves, choosing instead to film and photograph the climbers who had reached the summit.

We descended shortly thereafter, using the rope to rappel or walk down the mountain. Less than two hours after climbing the peak we were back at Camp 2, where hot food awaited us. It was an upbeat, relaxed group that ate lunch that day. By 5 p.m., Camp 2 was dismantled and we began the descent, first to Camp 1 and then to base camp. We were carrying monstrous loads of gear and tentage, but everyone wanted to move off the mountain as quickly as possible. Storm clouds were gathering even as we walked and none of us was keen to spend more time on the mountain than was absolutely necessary.

Members of the expedition with Gya III in the background.-

THERE is not much more to tell of this story. It was raining as we left base camp the next day, the weather higher up the mountain deteriorating fast. It rained through the night, and by morning there was snow just a few hundred metres above our camp. It was difficult to believe our luck, for we had climbed and descended from the mountain during the three days of clear weather given to us, testimony to the skill and stamina of the lead climbers who opened most of the route during that single day of climbing.

We took a week to return to Delhi, driving in trucks from Chumur to Kiari, an Army cantonment where we spent the night, and then linking up with the Leh-Manali highway the following morning. After some celebrations in Manali, we were down in Delhi.

A week later we learnt some disturbing news; that we did not quite reach Gya. Climbing pundits inform us that we climbed Gya III, a peak that is a good 150 to 180 metres lower, and less technically demanding than Gya I. One can only sympathise with Palden (he seems to figure in all the stories), who had been part of an earlier expedition to Gya in 1995. On that occasion too, the team had thought they had climbed Gya, only to be informed in Delhi that they had climbed the wrong peak! Over the past couple of months, we have often seen him wearing a track suit from his earlier expedition. Maybe he'll wear the HMI-SAARC Mt. Gya tracksuit the next time he sets out to find and climb this elusive mountain.

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