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Zanskar Spring - the Snowy way

by Susan and Peter

The Zanskar Spring trek 2002, except that spring didn't arrive this season.

 

We would like to to thank you and Joel for 'persuading' us and getting us onto the India trip, for the flexibility of you and the other participants in bringing the start date forward (so we could get our return flight to UK) and for all your and particularly Joel's hard work in making the trek such a success for us. We know it can't have been easy at times, with all the snow, but we loved it and we hope to come back one day.

Have a great rest of the year,

Peter and Susan

 

On the 2nd May we (Louise, Joel, Susan and Peter, and 17 bags) left Kathmandu and flew into a 40 degree Delhi. Wow was that a shock to the system! We stayed in the Tibetan colony and spent the next day there going from one air conditioned place to another and then very early the following day – wake up call 4am (this turned out to be a taste of things to come but more on that later) – by jeep to Manali in the foothills of the Himalaya. Manali is a buzzing little town and has the same tuktuks as in Kathmandu (3-wheeler little motorized vehicles) running around the place but far more dangerously as there is a very steep hill between the new town and the old town and they whiz down the hill in neutral and you only hear them coming if they beep you! The main buzz in Manali comes from the Indian tourist i ndustry – it is a summer retreat for the Indian middle classes from the hot lowlands and it is also a popular honeymoon place – picture Susan being asked by a very smart looking Sikh man to take a photo of him handing a rose to his extremely beautiful wife!

We stayed in Manali for 2 days, with gradually more itchy feet to be in the mountains. One afternoon we took a walk to a gompa, but missed the gompa and ended up walking out of town into the ‘countryside where we came across a goat and shepherd with a flock of over 50 and then walked further along a small narrow path which was only a shoe width at times and quite steep down to the river on one side. When it started to thunder we traced our steps back as being caught there in the rain would have been very slippy and dangerous.

It turned out that this walk was a precursor of things to come. The morning we left for the mountains we had to be up at 3am (yes you did read that right!) as it was expected that there would be snow on the road and we would need to have cold hard snow to get over the pass. We were in three jeeps, the ‘tourists’ in one, and the staff, including 17 porters (more about this later), in the other two. We arrived nearish the top to discover that the road was indeed not open and we had to get out and walk. The sight was an amazing one as there were also about 30 other Zanskari men and women returning home from Leh after the winter as well as Nepalis going across the pass to get work in the tourist industry. The Rohtang pass is just under 4,000m and was a lovely snowy walk up to reach the pass, which took about 2 hrs. Then another 2hrs down the other side, sliding down steep snow slopes and walking down others we made our way in a hot sun until we reached the cleared road on the other side. We have been told by many village people we met on this trek that the snow fall this winter has been the heaviest for 12 years a nd as we were also trekking early in the season we did have a lot more snow than normal for this trek (normally a group would go over the Rotang pass in a jeep and spend the night at a small place called Darcha). We only reached a place called Keylong that day, and were lucky because we were able to get a jeep to take us there when they came up to drop off some people that were heading to Manali.

For another 5 days we walked mostly in snow (though day two did not have too much snow) and it was a really amazing experience. Even with dark glasses and slapping factor 35 suncream on all the time our eyes got tired and our faces and hands deep brown (some people got quite burnt but we were lucky to avoid that) as the sun burnt down on us and reflected from the snow to cause additional glare. The mountains took on a special beauty and the walking was tough but okay. Don kept finding the hidden streams and always seemed to have wet feet. Peter managed to find one on the 6th day when he went up to his middle in the soft snow and discovered he was up to his mid-calves in water.

We had to make lots of early starts to take advantage of the crisp early morning snow. The day (5) we went over the Shingo La pass (nearly 5100m) was amazing – we got up at 3am and left at about 5am with head-torches and the scrunch of the snow under our boots. There was a cold wind blowing and I think I have never been so cold in my life. The effects of altitude and no breakfast (others had some but somehow Peter and I didn't feel too hungry at that time in the morning!) began to take their toll and it was hard work getting up the last few snow slopes. About 15 minutes before the top, we caught up with the sun and even though the cold wind still blew we had a bit more warmth. The pass was decorated with prayer flags and we added a few more before heading down the other side. That day was a long one, we didn’t make camp until 3pm or so, but it was fantastic and when we came over the pass we started to see the Zanskar mountains and all the amazing colours that the rocks hold.

We had to take porters for the first 6 days because the horses could not manage heavy loads and deep snow. They followed us a day or two behind and when they arrived at a beautiful village called Kargyak, the horsemen told tales of the horses up to their necks in snow and of one nearly buried in an avalanche. We were very glad to see them though as they really make the trek special and a campsite gets a bit crowded (especially trying to find a loo spot) with so many people around. In fact we had 4 horses and 6 mules. The mules are the stronger and less sensitive of the two and tend to lead the caravan unless one of the horsemen is leading by hand and then he leads a horse.

By Joel Schone

Yes, well, we didn't know that there would be the worst snow for 20 years...

 

Once you are over the Shingo la, of course, it will be all blue skies and green fields, of course. Am I not a guide? Trust me.

In Padum local people shook their heads and refused to believe what we had done. Three days later on the Hanuma la we were thrashing around in soft snow, but only for an hour or so. Locals said the Singge la would be impossible, "too much snow" but with little Singge, the homeless Zanskari waif we had adopted and who we were getting to school, laughing about "his pass" delayed, as usual by a couple of tardy trekkers (write it down, shout it, whisper it sweetly as I tried, they were always an hour late) we plodded up steep snow, through a trail broken by yaks... We hit the pass in Scottish winter conditions (basically, I wouldn't go to the corner shop for a packet of fags in winter without tent, stove, Scottish language guide and enough to survive a week in polar conditions).

Before the pass Tsarap had done his stuntman bit ,holding onto a horse as it tumbled end over end.. and we are talking BIG fu*ck off horse, fully loaded. They went down over 200m towards the river gully on a 45 degree plus slope, blood from Tsarap's ripped hand staining the snow. Finally he got the release off and luggage, and Tsarap, ponyman, rum drinker, and Tenpa's Bollywood dance partner the best ponyman in the western Himalayas, lived.

The guys gathered on the pass to look at the ice cliff below the pass, and Lobsang passed out the bidis, even me taking one, looking and talking about it. Around the cliff ran a path that our trekkers-just-got down. Loaded horses, absolutely not, so while we wondered what to do, we dropped the loads down the slope, Singge screaming with delight as they plunged and bounced down the Hill. I took Singge down on my back, and climbed up to see.

Lobsang and Tenpa laid our large Kitchen Tarp on the snow and Tsarap gently coaxed our lead mule onto it. The thought entered my altitude addled mind that they were going to wrap it up and simply shove it down, hoping for the best. No. We all held the tarp and slowly dragged the mule like a float in some Easter parade down the crazy slope, and the other horses-seeing is believing-started to follow, down that insane slope.

By now it was nearly noon, despite the 4am start, and another km of soft snow. While the horses went another way, we loaded all the gear on two tarps, and twisting ice axes around the corners to get some grip, dragged it over the snow, the gear floating (with Singge on top of all the kitchen gear shouting encouragement). Sometimes waist, sometimes chest deep...

I think Evelyn Waugh had it when he said,

"the experience is still fresh in my mind from recurrent nightmares"

Definitely, Zanskar the hard way.

 

Joel

We can’t say enough in praise of those mules and horses and the horsemen that trained and led them. We had so many hairy moments with them because of course the snow we had just come from was not the last and it turned out that we were the first group and the first caravan over this trekking route. Several times villagers said there was no way a caravan could get over one pass or one route or the other and yet the horsemen and their animals did it. They had to negotiate (as did we), scree slopes that the snow had washed so steep that there was no path any more. They had to get across steep snow slopes cutting across the path (on one occasion we were across the other side of the valley on a different route, by Ichar, and saw the horses crossing a steep snow field dropping down to a ravine where the river flowed. Suddenly one of the horses (or mules) slipped onto its side and started sliding down the slope. We really thought it was a gonner, but the horseman rushed down to it as if he were walking on the horizontal, pulled the slip knot on the load and the horse stopped and made its way off the snow slope and back up on to the path. The horsemen collected all the baggage, reloaded the horse and off they all went again. Just amazing! They also had to negotiate two more very snowy passes, the Hanuma La (day 16) and the Sengi La (day 18). Both passes were exciting descents, particularly for the horses, but the Sengi La held a particular drama for us.

This pass was at about 5,000m and was covered in snow. We camped just below the snowline the night before and at 4.30am set off with our headlamps shinning. It was light within half an hour (well dim light but enough to see by) and as we turned a corner of the mountain we came onto a narrower and steeper snow-covered path with a steep snow drop down to a gulley below and the wind picked up and came rushing down the mountain at us. Peter was feeling the cold because he wasn’t well so he needed his thick down gloves at this point. Susan turned round and he opened the rucksack and had to get a few things out to get his thick gloves. Because of the cold and all the things he was trying to hold he lost his grip and everything fell from his grasp. One of those things was his camera case with his SLR and extra lens inside. It fell on the path, slipped on the icy snow and started to bounce down the mountainside. There was nothing we could do. We could only watch it as it bounced about 10 times or more down the 150 m or so to the bottom where we could not see it any more. This bouncing camera case kept replaying in my mind for the rest of the day as we climbed to the pass (2.5 hrs of puffing and resting and puffing again) and then descended in the snow for two hours and then walked through a half desert with a steep gorge to the river on one side and the most beautiful patterned mountains in all colours to our right and reddy mountains away to our left to reach another small pass at 4,500m and then descend to a campsite by the village of Photoksar (set under some amazing cliffs and hanging over the river valley).

When we arrived there Lobsang, the Ladakhi/Tibetan guide came up to us and opened his rucksack and pulled out....Peter’s camera case with camera and lens intact and all still in working order. We have never been so flabbergasted in our lives. It took us a full minute before we came to our senses and thanked him and then we sat for the next half an hour just looking at it and trying it out and looking at it again and asking Lobsang how he found it. Joel had told him below the pass (on the other side to the camera) about the incident and Lobsang had returned up over the pass, down the other side on his own route through the snow, following the line of the gulley into which the camera fell and found it. In effect he had climbed the pass twice that day and still arrived at the camp before us! We really had an amazing team.

Another replay from that day was another horse falling incident in the snow. As we were coming up to the pass one of the horses slipped and actually tumbled over and over down a steep snow slope. One of the horsemen, Sherap, ever vigilant, dived straight after it, somersaulting over to the horse and getting hold of the ropes for the load, as the horse was tumbling, chose the right moment and pulled the slip knot. The load freed and the horse stopped tumbling and righted itself and they brought the horse and load back up the slope to join the others and carried on. They were so fantastic and just so cool about it afterwards. At the end of the trek when we asked them what they thought of the trek, they said it was not difficult but had been interesting!

 

 

It sounds from what I have said so far as if all our trekking was in the snow but that was not so. We had maybe a week of snow in total, most of it at the beginning. The rest of the trek was through mountain valleys at first and then in the mountains themselves, going over 7 passes in 5 days at the end. Much of the area is semi-desert or desert and it is the snow-melt that brings life to the area. We were a little early to see that in its full glory but we did see some green at the end of the trek. The place is a geologist’s dream with gorgeous rocks of all colours – greens, reds, pinks, browns, blacks, greys, purples – and formations of all kinds from little rock towers, to large kilometer wide folds, to tiny crinkles and huge boulders balanced on thin spires. We went photo mad and took so many pictures. We saw some beautiful villages which are small groups of mainly whitewashed houses with flat roofs with sticks and twigs (fuel for the winter) covering the roofs and some of them have solar panels as well which have been provided free by the government. Some of them sit in the most stunning locations, under fantastic rock faces or on the edges of river gorges. The people who lived in the villages often wore a red woven tunic with a belt around the waist and many children had pink wellie boots which we were told were prolific ‘cos they had been donated by charities! The villagers were always very curious and would come down to the campsite as we set up our tents and stand in groups staring at us and asking for face cream or something for their chapped hands. At one campsite one young girl took a fancy to Susan’s purple fleece hat and exchanged it for her stripy knitted one. Susan had to take it back in the end as she is allergic to wool and needed a warm hat for later in the trek – pity as they are well made hats which are one square of knitting with a tie, perhaps more of a scarf than a hat but the end effect is a hat.

We also visited a Buddhist monastery called Phuktal. It is in the most stunning location, set high up on a cliff face, as it has been constructed around a cave that the first Rinpoche discovered and founded the monastery from. We saw the young monks chanting from scriptures, we saw two 500 year old prayer rooms with some deities that were covered in scarves to protect them from women who are not allowed to have sight of them, we saw the sacred spring that supposedly never dries up nor freezes in winter, we saw their kitchen which looked like something from medieval times with a hole in the roof for the smoke to escape which the sun also streamed in giving an amazing (oops there it is again) effect.

We walked an average of 6-7 hours a day and when we arrived at the campsite the horses and mules had usually already arrived, the kitchen tent was set up and the cook (Temba, a real genius) would have tea, or any other hot drink you liked, ready and on the long arduous days would make vegetable pakora for us, otherwise it was a plate of biscuits. This we could eat out in the sunshine, or if it was later in the day and a bit chilly, we could eat and drink in the dining tent. Yes we were really spoiled and it was great. We usually had supper between 6.30pm and 7pm and it always started with soup, followed by a real banquet. We would have rice and sometimes also noodles or pasta and then at least 2 and sometimes 3 vegetable dishes, like palak paneer (white cheese and spinach) or aloo gobi (cauliflower and potatoes) or various other vegetable combinations that Temba concocted. Both Peter and I ate really well.... Then for dessert we had fresh fruit at the beginning of the trek and late on had chocolate cake a couple of times (after really hard days!), tinned pineapple and some days just chunks of dark chocolate. Mmmmmmm, just writing this makes me think how lucky we were with such a good cook. Breakfast was porridge or muesli or cornflakes with hot milk and then eggs done any way you want and bread freshly made by Temba. In the last week and a half of the trek we had breakfast outside nearly every day as by 7-7.30am the sun would be up and giving us some warmth already.

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