Mid-2015, I went looking for a certain café in Leh.
It wasn’t there anymore.
That café had provided a post script for an expedition.
Fresh from the trip, Punit and I were enjoying a cup of coffee there, when a group of young Indian climbers walked in. Seeing our sun burnt faces, they asked which mountain we had been on. “ Chamser Kangri,’’ I said enthusiastically. “ Oh, that one – that is an easy walk,’’ one of them said dismissively. The youngsters took their seats and huddled in talk, wrapped in a blanket of their youth. We looked at each other and sipped our coffee quietly. I licked my wounds.
Sometimes we find ourselves at a sweet spot, an intersection in universe crisscrossed by possibilities, which on given day works supportively for a person called you. The word for it is – luck. I had a lucky trip in 2011. Lucky not because I was in trouble and got saved or something like that but because, except for one unsavory incident three quarters into the whole trip, there was no trouble at all. The universe stood by me. I was right person passing through a right intersection at the right time. That year, when I decided to attempt Chamser Kangri, the correct approach wasn’t hard to guess. The then 43 year-old seaside dweller had best start with the less high Stok Kangri. I had climbed this 20,300ft high-peak in July 2009 and repeating it seemed a good way to acclimatize. It was a mountain often rubbished by Mumbai’s mountaineering circles for being a trekking peak, a non-technical ascent. I told nobody in Mumbai about my Stok Kangri plan. I climbed the peak with two Ladakhi friends for who the mountains are a way of life and debates of technical / non-technical ascents, a distant urban affliction. That was two years before.
Early August 2011, at Leh airport, the first thing I did was look toward Stok Kangri. Then I headed for guest house and work reporting La Ultra: The High, the ultra marathon held in Ladakh. This work gave me days in Leh, getting used to the altitude. As luck would have it, the ultra marathon story also took me across and back over the Khardung La pass, something useful when a Stok Kangri-climb is due. Ultra marathon work done, I joined a commercial trip to Stok Kangri. Of particular relevance to me was that the climb had been merged to a preceding multi-day trek starting near Leh, going up the Stok La pass and on to Stok Kangri Base Camp. This would help team members acclimatize. At my age and predominant existence as chair bound-journalist, acclimatization is everything. While that was a pleasant departure from my 2009 experience of hitting Base Camp straight with the climb thereafter, there was a shocking change in store.
In July 2009, the base camp had three to four tents – a large parachute tent for canteen and probably three small ones, including mine, belonging to climbers. This time, it was a minor township of tents, big enough for us to designate a team member as ` Mayor of Stok Kangri.’ Unfortunately the town planning improvements he contemplated were frustrated by a steady stream of fresh arrivals compounding the township-look. Somewhere in the middle of that displaced urbanization, we left one midnight for the summit. Again unlike in 2009, there were many headlamps that night on the mountain and as dawn broke, climbers could be seen like segmented ant columns. Thanks to a spell of bad weather earlier, there was much unsettled snow near the summit and verglas (thin ice on rock) all along. In that condition it was tricky progress on the summit slopes. With the summit visible very close-by the team turned back to stay safe. I couldn’t agree more. On a commercial expedition, safety is paramount. Besides if you ask me, a summit that close, isn’t summit lost.
Back in Leh, I found that one of my Ladakhi friends from the 2009 Stok Kangri trip, who had agreed to accompany me to the 21,800ft high-Chamser Kangri, had backed out. He had personal work to attend to. The expedition seemed a non-starter because I don’t feel comfortable yet, hiking and climbing alone. There is always that thought of how to manage an emergency should anything go wrong. I prefer agreeable company. However ` agreeable’ is increasingly difficult to find. I sensed Chamser Kangri slipping away.
Then out of the blue, a call came. Punit Mehta, who I knew was trekking to Ladakh from Himachal Pradesh, was in town. His next trip was with a group from Bengaluru led by Dinesh K.S. Both Punit and Dinesh have worked as instructors at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), an organization I am familiar with. Dinesh’s expedition had a two pronged agenda – to partly go up the approach to Chamser Kangri and install a plaque in memory of a friend who died there on a previous expedition and then attempt the 20,600ft high-Mentok Kangri, a peak on the opposite side of the Tso-mo-ri-ri lake. It was soon obvious that a more efficient expedition would be one that continued up Chamser Kangri and attempted that peak instead of Mentok Kangri. Suddenly my plans appeared salvaged. The team was kind enough to count me in. I will always remember this meet-up with Punit and Dinesh as a miracle of sorts. In the countdown to leaving Leh for Tso-mo-ri-ri in south eastern Ladakh, Punit and I cycled to stay fit. It was my first taste of cycling at altitude and within days I knew, I had found a new interest.
On the Internet, you will find descriptions of Chamser and Lungser Kangri as easy peaks joined by a common ridge. My learning from the outdoors: don’t go by what someone else says; respect every mountain (that goes for Stok Kangri too). While most of the team headed straight to Base Camp, Punit and I elected to spend a night near Tso-mo-ri-ri and then hike along the lake’s edge before commencing the ascent to Base Camp. The night by the lake was pretty cold; my bivy sack (an all weather outer layer into which, you and sleeping bag can tuck in when camping without a tent) was covered in frost next morning.
Chamser Kangri is not an impressive-looking triangular peak. It resembles more a beached whale. The hike to Base Camp tracking the contours of Tso-mo-ri-ri’s shoreline and then climbing up, was tad tiring; during the day Ladakh’s high altitude sun can be an unforgiving orb of bright light and warm sunshine. Camp was tucked some ways up from the lake’s shore, a couple of tiers of relatively flat, open space intervened between the lake and camp. On that flat land, at various times of day, a kiang or two grazed or ran around. The animal is also called Tibetan wild ass and is the largest of the world’s wild asses. In India, you find it in Ladakh. Over the next couple of days, we made our way up the mountain. After the installation of the plaque, two expedition members who had come mainly for that ceremony, returned to Leh. Of the rest, as we gained height, two developed altitude related problems despite a strict regimen of ascending and descending the mountain that Dinesh had maintained for the team.
The last of the altitude related evacuations happened at intermediate camp. Most people left. Kul Bahadur and I stayed behind. The expedition seemed near cancelled. Neither that day nor the next seemed to indicate fine weather ahead. Dark clouds gathered. The evening sky was spectacular but ominously grey, a deep shade of grey laced with the red of the vanishing sun. Something told me that if you wanted to attempt the summit, it better be soon for the window of opportunity appeared shaky. But we didn’t want to move this way or that without some word on how the rest of the team was. Personally for me, it was turning out to be one of my best expeditions. The support staff and arrangements for the trip had been put together by Punit and Tsewang Phunchok. We had motivated support staff in the form of a cook – Kul Bahadur, helper – Ram Bahadur and a young guide called Stanzin Chosgial. In addition to this encouraging ambiance, the preceding Stok Kangri climb, the cycling that followed and Dinesh’s insistence that we not break the fundamental mountain rule of working high and sleeping low – all had me well acclimatized and tuned to climbing. Both Kul Bahadur and I would have been sad had Dinesh and Punit decided that the whole team should retreat. I was feeling good; Kul Bahadur was in no hurry to go anywhere else, his heart was right there. It was the perfect frame of mind to proceed. Then, Punit and Stanzin who had gone to escort out those who were leaving, returned to join us at high camp. They brought me an unforgettable note from Dinesh wishing me luck and reminding me to climb safely for “ the mountain will always be there.’’ That same day we moved to still higher camp at 19,000ft at the base of Chamser Kangri’s sprawling summit ridge. It was below freezing by evening.
Around 3 AM, Stanzin and I set off for the summit. Our progress was in darkness, immediate world lit by the beam from our headlamps. It was the first time on Chamser Kangri for both of us. So we followed our instinct, exploring and correcting the route as required. As the first sliver of sunlight pierced the horizon we reached the summit ridge. Measured by my very average physical fitness and technical competence, it had been a stiff ascent up rock and snow in plastic climbing boots but no crampons. A little way up the ridge the snow transformed to hard, wind-swept type. I sat down to wear crampons. This was followed by a stretch where we decided to court the well snowed-in side of the mountain, instead of the ridge. It was an engaging, snow clad mountain face. We ascended using our axes for support. The detour helped us gain height quicker than how it would have been had we stuck to the ridge. But the enjoyment was diluted by the subsequent steady plod, back on the ridge. It kept going on and on. “ When will this ridge end?’’ Stanzin asked. Amazingly when it did end after a long time, he simply called it quits. I was stunned by his decision. So near the goal and he gives up the chase?
I looked around. Next door, Lungser Kangri resembled a giant softie; there was so much snow. Far below Tso-mo-ri-ri was a serene blue. The scene was ringed by endless snow-capped peaks. Albeit in the distance, very prominent was a snow white pyramid and close to it a large rocky massif, which I was told, was the remote peak, Gya. The 22,420ft high-peak at the tri-junction of Ladakh, Spiti and Tibet is the highest in Himachal Pradesh and until some years ago most attempts to climb it had ended up on its sub-summits, not the main peak. My mind returned to Chamser. There were two highpoints visible – ten minutes of further plodding would bring me to a cairn, usually signifying summit. On the other hand, I had been told that the real summit was not the obvious one. Closer to where we were, a high ridge took off like a Mohawk haircut for the peak; one side was a plunge. Its apex wasn’t marked by any cairn but it seemed as high, if not higher than where the cairn stood. A trick played by perspective? I don’t know. I looked toward Stanzin. He had already taken out his prayer flags and was busy putting them up. It was a humbling experience for me to see him so capable of turning his back on a summit when the majority of us won’t be happy without gaining the highest point. Although he had climbed before in the neighborhood it was his first time too up Chamser Kangri. I got as far as I reached because he was with me. I moved independently but the awareness that there was another to assist should something go wrong meant a lot. Yet, unlike me, Stanzin wasn’t chasing a milestone.
Leaving him to his work, I set out along the high ridge. Less than forty feet from its faintly corniced apex I stopped. I am a timid adventurer who likes to preserve himself for God willing, more adventures. The point where I stopped seemed the edge of safe existence by my technical skills. I had come to love Chamser Kangri and it didn’t make sense to stand on its absolute head, its ` summit.’ Plus there was Stanzin below, who was already happy. A Ladakhi with more rightful ownership of the mountain than I, he was a picture of contentment without needing to stand on Chamser Kangri’s head. What is a summit anyway? – I thought. Am I here to pass one of those board exams where 100 becomes first and 99.75, is second? Summit this is – I said, and turned back.
We returned via a snow slope above the mountain’s glacier, a portion we mistook to be firm. It was the only stretch where we roped-up because our footsteps sent weird cracking sounds all across the brittle snow. It felt like slabs snapping underneath. The sun was also up, not a good time to linger around. Looking back, that stretch of brittle snow did cause a problem. Finding it unwise to continue along that portion, we were forced to abandon the seemingly comfortable line of descent we had originally seen and pick a more precipitous rock strewn-route down. As the rocks, which were glued to the mountain side by nightly ice dislodged in the rising heat of day, we had to avoid being one above the other. It was touch and go with more than once, a bunch of rocks sliding down with man surfing on top. Eventually, we reached the bottom and walked toward camp. Punit, who has unashamedly embraced hiking over climbing, had in the mean time done his own exploratory walks in the area. That strength – the ability to turn his back on a summit despite having been a climber, is something I respect Punit for. It doesn’t come easy if you have tasted climbing. With Punit, you discover a side of the Himalaya easily overlooked in the race to climb its prized heights – the immense sprawl of the range, home to many wonderful treks.
My original plan was – climb Stok Kangri, Chamser Kangri, Ladakhi and Shetidhar. The latter two were near Manali. After Punit left for Delhi, I continued my cycling, including one trip to Stok village, where I reached in time to see another group set off for Stok Kangri. I also fell in love with a particular cycle available at Summer Holidays, the shop where I rent cycles in Leh. It had been sold to them by a foreign tourist. I sought it out every day. Some cycles just match a cyclist’s anatomy and this was my long lost soul mate.
A week later, I was in Manali and soon thereafter at Iceland Hotel in Solang, where Khem Raj Thakur, had assembled a support group for the Ladakhi-Shetidhar leg. It was a young team of guides, cook and helper; once again a good team. But we had two problems. Just before reaching Beas Kund, a bitter quarrel erupted between me and one of my friends who had come along for the trip. It was to remain a lesson because high altitude is the last place where anyone should provoke or succumb to provocation. I succumbed to provocation. In turn the incident has made me resolve that doing something one can do independently however lowly in stature it maybe, is better than chasing an achievement with folks you can’t get along with. Second, while we had initially thought of attempting the two peaks because they are linked by a common ridge, we learnt late that camping on the ridge was discouraged as it is cold and windy. So we settled for just Shetidhar.
An early morning, we climbed the 17,500ft-high peak. It was a short, stiff climb, enjoyably essayed with ice axe, boots and crampons; no roping-up. The summit was corniced. We stayed off the cantilevering snow. Five and a half hours after we began the climb, we were back at high camp. Our assessment of the 17,600ft-high Ladakhi was not wrong – although connected by a common ridge, it was rather distant from Shetidhar and the climbing route wound around the peak. Climbing both Shetidhar and Ladakhi, back to back from high camp below, would have been exhausting and I was anyway beginning to tire from having been out for so long. It was now late September.
Here I must pause and say: I liked Shetidhar. The area where it stands is dominated by the immense rock wall and ice fortification of the 19,560ft high-Hanuman Tibba. Given its modest height Shetidhar does not receive the attention Stok Kangri gets. The latter is India’s busiest trekking peak and a money spinner for authorities because a lot of people come for the comparatively easy shot at 20,000ft it promises. Shetidhar on the other hand, packs into a small, sharp punch, a much better challenge – it has an evolved walk-in to high camp which you can make harder by carrying your full rucksack; its summit attempt is a swift affair but the snow slope is quite inclined and familiarity with climbing, therefore an asset. Compared to that Stok Kangri is a much longer haul on summit day with little else for challenge except climbing conditions and altitude. But like Everest, best known mountain and yet not the most difficult peak around, Stok Kangri’s height and accessibility attracts more people than Shetidhar. In Leh, veteran mountaineer Sonam Wangyal, who administers climbing permits in the area, had pointed out that nobody has any curiosity for Stok Kangri. It is plain request for permission to touch 20,000ft. Nothing illustrates the public’s obsession with height more than Stok Kangri’s neighbor, Golep Kangri, which is less than 20,000ft and unlike Stok Kangri, slightly technical at the top. Very few go there although both peaks share the same base camp. For most of us from the plains, our pursuit in the mountains too, is a distinction. It has only got worse in the age of high population and media. The two – population and media – has made the need for distinction, a contagion, highlighting saleable statistic at the expense of savoring an experience.
Few days after Shetidhar, we hired cycles in Manali for a final piece of action – cycling up the Rohtang Pass. It wasn’t our aim when we started out that morning but gradually we realized the pass was achievable. Unfortunately I had to stop six kilometers ahead of the pass because the road, which was being widened, was in terrible shape. There were bulldozers at work, too many waterlogged portions, plenty of mud and reckless traffic. I will try again another time.
The good fortune of the 2011 trip didn’t visit me again. While I have no control over luck, the more tangible reason was that I didn’t anymore have the money for extended trips. Mountains entail cost. I am no foreigner or Non Resident Indian with dollars in the bank; I am no rich Indian either. As my freelance journalism continued with matching shortage of resources to frequent the mountains, I have often looked at the 2011 trip – Three Peaks and a Pass, as I call it – as treasured memory. I have this sense amid resource crunch that it is as far as I will ever reach. Within that, the Chamser Kangri expedition was clear highpoint for the way in which things converged well for me. Two other instances from the outdoors have provided similar happiness – the time I ran from Munsyari to Kalamuni Pass and back and the occasion I was part of a cycle trip from Ranikhet to Lansdowne and beyond .
On subsequent visits to Leh, I learnt that Stanzin Chosgial had joined the security forces. Leh is growing, changing. Mid-2015, I went looking for a particular café; it wasn’t there anymore. That café had provided a post script for the Chamser Kangri expedition. Fresh from the trip and happy for it, Punit and I were enjoying a cup of coffee there, when a group of young Indian climbers walked in. Seeing our sun burnt faces, they asked which mountain we had been on. “ Chamser Kangri,’’ I said enthusiastically. “ Oh, that one – that is an easy walk,’’ one of them said dismissively. The youngsters took their seats and huddled in talk, wrapped in a blanket of their youth. We looked at each other and sipped our coffee quietly. As you age, you realize that happiness is an escape from human habits. I had the joy of the universe coursing through my veins, till measurement by human cluster busted the illusion. A mountain was climbed but it wasn’t hard enough to make the cut in the cluster. I licked my wounds. I wondered what the young climber would think of Stanzin. He grew up with the mountains in his backyard and when he got to the top of one, didn’t feel anything remarkably different for it. Stanzin, I suspect, could sense universe. The youngster at the cafe breathed verticality, physical strain and climbing’s grades. Maybe, he sensed universe in an utterly difficult climb. Are you blessed if you have to bloody yourself to sense universe or can do the same much earlier, on gentler terrain? I don’t know. All I know is that I prefer universe to people. For some time after his quip I wished that young man had spared me my freedom to exist, self esteem intact, in my own fantasy as mountaineer. Then something about my age, ageing and the pleasure of seeing the mountains differently each passing year, spoke to me. I was pretty fine a while later.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. An abridged version of this article appeared in MW magazine. For more on the 2009 trip please visit https://shyamgopan.wordpress.com/2014/12/23/twenty-thousand-feet/. For more on La Ultra: The High, please visit https://shyamgopan.wordpress.com/2013/10/19/an-ultra-marathon-from-the-sidelines/. For more on the run from Munsyari to Kalamuni Pass, please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.wordpress.com/2014/12/11/running-in-the-hills/; for more on the cycle trip in Kumaon please visit https://shyamgopan.wordpress.com/2014/12/31/the-ghost-who-writes/)