Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Spring Turns, Showers, and Flowers
We had been planning five days of camping up on Gulaba, and had our bags packed and a taxi hired for the morning of the 20th. Morning dawned with another snowstorm, so we scratched that idea. The next day was sunny, but we didn’t think the road to Gulaba would be open, so Trevor and I walked to Manali. We took the scenic route through the villages and orchards on the west bank of the Beas, and enjoyed friendly faces, plentiful bird life, and greening fields set against a backdrop of freshly snow-covered mountains.
With the clock ticking on Joe’s time in Solang (he had a ticket for the 1-day cricket match in Delhi the 28th) we decided we’d better get him up into the mountains one more time. Our bags were still packed, so we set out for Dhundi and Beas Kund on the morning of the 22nd. We planned to set camp further up the valley than on our last trip. There comes a point in the tour when the valley narrows, and a choice needs to be made between touring up the river bed, or taking a high route over some benches to the right. Our choice to take the high route didn’t work out particularly well. Several harrowing hours, nasty gullies, and difficult-to-traverse debris fields later, we set camp well short of our intended destination. It’s hard to complain about the site, though. Trevor and I agreed that it might be the most beautiful spot we’ve ever camped, with sheer rock cliffs, hanging glaciers, the river below, and Hanuman Tiba presiding at the head of the valley.
Morning brought bluebird skies and the sun on our tent at 7am. We set out for Beas Kund, but topography and avy considerations taken into account, we decided we were not in a position to make the tour. So we did a quick lap of the slope above us on some nice spring snow, and went back to camp for some serious lounging. We dug an L-shaped couch (complete with coffee table) and added the sleeping pads. Sunny, snacking, card-playing perfection, with an incredible view.
At dusk we were just finished eating dinner in the tent (protein nuggets in soup with pasta – yummy!) when we heard very strange noises coming from outside the tent, near the cliffs above our campsite. Somewhere between a goat, a hawk, and a dying crow…a repeated bleating/cawing that we didn’t know what to think of. Trevor made the excellent point that it would be better to check it out while there was still enough light to see, so I headed outside. I saw motion a few hundred feet up the hill – what looked like a fox. Joe and Trevor got outside the tent in time to see it make its way – stopping several times to look back at us – across the hillside and away from us. A few hours later we heard the same strange noise again. (A Google search has since revealed that foxes do make noise exactly like what we heard - who knew?) Overcast skies and a chilly wind convinced us the next morning that we should head home, and we had an interesting and enjoyable exit ski along the river. By the time we got home, it had gone from drizzling to raining, and it rained, snowed, and hailed for the next three days.
This afternoon we took a hike to a lovely waterfall just across the valley. We didn’t even know it was there until our friend Dev recommended we check it out. We started out after lunch, spotting one of the most interesting birds I’ve seen here before we even crossed the Beas - the hoopoe has eye-catching black stripes on its wings and back, and an impressive fan-shaped crest on its head. We continued on over the bouncy wooden bridge and through the boulder field of the river bed. The falls are not far from Old Solang, but even though you get a glimpse of them on the trail to the village, they are not exactly easy to get to. We tried the direct route first – following the stream up into a fantastic gorge, with ferns and flowers growing out of the overhanging rock walls. As the gorge narrowed, we couldn’t go any further. We retraced our steps, going around up through the village and over the ridge above. Views of Friendship peak over blooming yellow mustard crops, flocks of mountain finches performing synchronized aerials, and purple wildflowers clustered around every stream we crossed would have made the route worthwhile regardless, but we eventually rounded a corner to see the falls tucked back in a narrow valley, with sheer rock walls behind. We displaced a couple of kestrels, likely there in pursuit of the flock of snow pigeons cautiously foraging at the edge of a few patches of snow on the hillside. Two piles of pigeon-colored feathers (one in the lower gorge, one right by the falls) attested to the kestrels’ success. After sunning ourselves on a rock just outside the spray of the falls, we headed home for dinner.
Tomorrow we hope to head up to Gulaba again… wish us luck for better weather than the last two times!
Saturday, March 18, 2006
We had a surprisingly good authentic Korean meal in Old Manali with our Tibetan friend Peter a while back and continue to be impressed with his stories and optimistic outlook on life. Besides a most adventurous tale of him trying to get into Tibet, he entertained us with a tale of his first, and only, visit to the ocean. Some friends brought him fishing south of Calcutta where he experienced "low elevation sickness." He hadn't been on the water 10 minutes before he got queezy and experienced "low elevation sickness." Classic. The adventurous one, he attempted to go back out to sea the next day, this time fighting off the lowland bug by going into the cabin and sleeping. He awoke later to step on the deck in complete confusion..."where are the houses, what is going on, where are the houses." Peter was then taught how to cook lobster, which was almost as painful for him. When the captain instructed him to drop the lobster in the boiling water, Peter frieked. "Hell, I can not put that thing in hell." Yes, in Tibet, boiling water is considered part of the devil's playground and it is considered extremely bad luck to put any living thing in boiling water or fire. While there was much laughter, we also learned some more sobering things about Peter's family and other Tibetans living in India. Although Peter and his daughters were born in India, they have no passports, must check in with the police if they travel out of their district, and yet are all very appreciative of the freedoms they do have. It definitely made me ponder how we could help him out. I don't know if he would ever want to leave the Manali area as he does have good family and friends here, but his work ethic and personality would thrive in the great USA.
Joe and I attended a local festival last Sunday with the friends we've met from that village. Em chose to miss out as her stomach was a little questionable and we thought we might be treated to lots of local food and drink. This thought was correct. With our contacts not exactly the religous types, I can not explain much about the tradition or purpose of the festival. But we did visit the temple to watch the "he-devil" and "she-devil" dance around. After that we went to a friend's home for some dal and rice wine. We were escorted into a cozy living room with blankets and pads set up around the walls where we would all sit with the rice wine and local food circling in the center. This trend was consistent at the next five houses we visited and our hosts did a good job to make sure the westerners always had something to eat and drink. After about five full dinners, we fortunately were relieved of food from the kitchen. Then the singing and dancing began. It was especially cool because the ringleader of the singer was consistently Hira La - the GS skier who represented Indian in Turino a month ago.
Then came the Holi festival on March 14. This festival consists of colors - throwing colors on anyone or thing that moves. We were in Solang and nervous we didn't have any paints to throw. Well, to our great surprise, the gods delivered us our favorite color - WHITE. The morning rain turned to snow midday and it then snowed for the next day and a a half. Turns out Solang was pretty dead as far as any color throwing went and we sat in the Iceland, playing cards, and getting excited that we just may be skiing from our front door again.
So, the last three mornings have been skiing. There is over 3' of new just a few hundred feet above Solang. Yesterday, we found some cold smoke on a steep north aspect early morning and then spent the afternoon on the patio in short sleeves and sandals. Ya, life is OK.
Friday, March 10, 2006
It's All About Patalsu
We were planning to set out on the 5th, but put off our departure after looking at the weather forecast. We have three different sources for online weather here, and the three rarely agree, and only occasionally reflect reality. But our interpretation paid off, and we ended up with a very nice weather window leaving on the 6th. The first part of the trip was on dirt until well after Old Solang. Joe came along for the hike to the snowline, and was kind enough to carry my ski boots up, and our hiking boots back down, which made the hike much nicer. Skinning up through the trees is really beautiful – what we think they call oak here is actually an interesting broadleaf evergreen tree, with small, round, leathery leaves that are dark green on top and yellow underneath. This forest provides winter cover for a number of larger pheasants, grouse-like birds and quail. My first encounter with the HP state bird – the Himalayan Monal – reminded me a lot of running into a grouse at home. A bird about the size of a chicken exploded out of some low cover 5 feet in front of me, making a high screaming call at the same time. When my heart started beating again, I noticed that it was a beautiful bird flying away, though all of their iridescent purples, blues and greens are much more dramatic in the sun.
We set camp above most of the trees at about 3300 meters, which put us into excellent position for summitting the next day. It started snowing lightly just after dinner, and I had a sense of Gulaba-vu, hoping we wouldn’t end up snowed in the next day instead of skiing off the summit. We woke up to only a couple of inches of “dust on crust”, and took off skinning at 8. It was tough going with the new snow slipping over the firm layer underneath on every traverse, but we had a gorgeous bluebird morning. We crossed over several sets of fox tracks, and saw tracks that were probably snowcocks. At about 11, with the snow getting sticky on our skins but still slipping, and the altitude taking its toll, I thought seriously about whether or not I would make it to the top. We had a break 600 meters below the summit for some water and one of our carefully rationed Clif bars, and then decided to continue. I made a mental bargain that it couldn’t possibly be more than 1000 steps more to the summit, and sticky snow or not, I could surely manage that. With Trevor behind me trying not to laugh at the extra 5 pounds of snow stuck to the bottom of each of my skis, I made it to the summit one step at a time. 896 (more) steps, to be exact.
The summit itself is pretty cool. You can skin all the way to the top, and then find yourself on a fairly narrow peninsula of snow a little over a meter across, with steep dropoffs on three sides. I was moving very, very carefully while we had our snack and took our skins off for the descent. The ski down was amazing – my legs were burning by the time we got back to camp. Trevor dug us a little snow couch, and we had a game of rummy in the sun, until a cloud settled in and made it just chilly enough to head in.
The next morning we set out to ski the ridge, and made excellent time back up the mountain with much friendlier skinning conditions. The new snow from the day before had been warmed by the sun and frozen hard with a rough surface, perfect for gripping skins. Cooler temps slowed the softening of the snow, and we relaxed for 45 minutes at our high point of 3850 meters on the ridgeline while waiting for the sun to do its work. While we were hanging out, Trevor noticed something very unfortunate: the part of my binding that locks my heel down to descend was broken. (We’ve since heard from Caley at Pro Ski that this is not an unusual problem, and they’re going to ship us a replacement heel piece ASAP. Pro Ski rocks.) We were still able to get me locked down for the descent, which was possibly even a better ski than the day before – like velvet.
After packing up camp, we had a nice descent to the treeline, and even through the trees, to our surprise. We saw the female monal (she was kind enough to make her noisy takeoff before we were right up to her) and managed to descend on snow all the way to our skins-on point from two days before. The steep hike down in ski boots was less than enjoyable, but when we finally dragged our aching feet into the Iceland (home sweet home) Trevor put in an order for chai and finger chips (french fries, freedom fries, whatever…), which were promptly delivered to our room, and the hot water was on enabling us to take scalding hot showers. Overall a very successful mission, followed by a lovely homecoming.
Speaking of the Iceland, I don’t know if we’d said much about where we’re staying. From the outside, it’s a fairly plain looking, 3-story, green-and-white concrete box. Inside, it’s really very cozy. We’ve been staying in #9, on the top floor. The rooms have red carpet, pale wood paneling set in interesting patterns cover all the walls, and the ceiling is wooden beams and paneling painted white. Our window looks down the valley at the cliff wall where the Beas river descends toward the entrance of the Rhotang Valley, so we see cliff, trees, and the goings-on and laundry at the neighbor’s house below us. Khem, the owner, has been extremely nice to us, and all of his employees have been very good as well. Singh, the cook, is a gem. The prospect of going somewhere else and having to eat our own cooking does not appeal after he’s been taking care of us. We usually get omelets in the morning (cheese for me, plain or veg for Trev) and some plain parathas (a sort of leathery flatbread that’s amazingly heavy and filling). Lemon tea is one of our morning favorites, and the regular (milk, black, or spiced masala) tea (chai) is good, but the coffee is Nescafe, so we don’t get that often. A typical day here sees at least 4 or 5 rounds of tea. Lunch is usually cheese sandwiches and fingerchips, or chowmein, or some soup. We could order specific dishes for dinner, but we usually just say dinner for however many of us there are, and they bring out some rice and chapati (different kind of flat bread – lighter than parathas) along with three different dishes – always a dal (lentil) and/or bean dish, usually something with veggies and potatoes, and then a third thing, usually a curry but varies quite a bit from peas and mushrooms, to curd, to the stuffed peppers we had the other night. All of which is ordered up and served by a small flock of young 20-something local employees referred to collectively as “the boys” (their term, not ours). The dining room is very nice, with 270 degrees of mountain views, a huge propane space heater, and satellite TV, quite often tuned to cricket, but with several English-language movie and news channels (actually way more channels that either of us are used to).
We also have the option of letting “the boys” do our laundry, in which case everything comes back ironed and folded, even our underwear. It is a little expensive for how we’re trying to live (10 rupees per item, 8 for a pair of socks – the dollar being worth 42 rupees at our last exchange) so we’ve just been doing our own by hand in the bucket that comes with every bathroom here. It’s a bit of work with a big load, but not too bad when the hot water is on. The hot water schedule (there is a central boiler) is baffling, but we’ve gotten used to not counting on it, so the hot showers 2 or 3 times a week when it coincides with our schedule are a nice treat. If we need to get clean and it’s not on, one of the boys brings up a bucket of hot water and pours it into the bucket in our room. There’s a little plastic 2-pint cup that comes in handy for “bucket baths” that way.
The village where we’re staying is mostly new buildings around a set of 5 or 6 concrete guest houses/hotels, while “Old Solang” sits across the river up on the hillside. Aside from a few houses scattered in between, there isn’t much going on when there aren’t many tourists around, like now. We do get bus service here a couple times a day, so the 45 minute ride to Manali is fairly easy and very cheap (10 rupees). If we miss the bus here, we can walk half an hour to Palchan and only pay 7 rupees for the bus, which comes there maybe 6 times a day. Some of the bus times are more fixed than others, though, and more than once we’ve been left wondering how we managed to miss it. Aside from the lack of chickens and goats, the buses are about what you might think. Aging, decorated with all kinds of artistic flourishes, and skillfully maneuvered around hairpin mountain turns by the drivers, who are assisted by a sort of conductor who goes around and collects the money, and signals the driver to stop and go for pickups and dropoffs through liberal use of a whistle. One whistle means someone wants off. Two means it’s ok to go. When the driver needs to back up the bus, some code of almost continuous short whistles tells the driver to keep backing (we think) and also serves to warn pedestrians (at least in our case).
Speaking of the bus, we need to get things together and catch the next one. We’re on our way into town to meet up with some friends for dinner at Chopsticks – the yummy Tibetan place. Hopefully all is well for all of you. Namaste!
Wednesday, March 01, 2006
Feeling settled (and safe)
With an unknown change in the bus schedule, we missed the last bus to Solang and headed to Himanshu’s German Bakery to get the keys to the cottage (our Manali base). There we met up with a couple others and soon were invited to Peter’s family’s home to celebrate the Tibetan New Year with them. Ya, we were glad we missed the bus. After displacing shoes, we entered the front door to a smiling grandmother repeating “Hello, Namaste” while spinning her prayer wheel. We were then guided to the “decorative” room where we shared in good luck traditions, drank rice wine, and ate various courses of food. Peter and his brother explained their parents exit from Tibet in 1959 before the Chinese invasion stripped more of their souls. They travelled by foot for one month south of Mt. Everest, through Nepal, then into India only eating grains from a local plant mixed with water. It was apparent how much love Peter had for this far away homeland that he probably has never seen. He was born in Dharamsala, went through the Indian army, and now is a mountaineering guide. Fantastic person with consistent optimism but last night did expose a deeper desire to leave exile and live in his own free country someday. Em and I better understood Peter’s frustration as we just finished a biography of the current Dalai Lama which also described the historical events of Tibet and China.
We returned to Solang today to lounge in the sunshine on the patio with only sounds of the river and young children playing next door.
O.K., now to the epic ski tour. I will prelude what’s coming by stating that any weather forecast is few and far between and the available forecasts are often wrong. With that said, it was time to get up high for a few days. The tour began with a surprise road blockade many kilometers below what was guaranteed by multiple sources in Solang and our taxi driver. With the taxi driver getting no love from the army (they wouldn’t even look at him while he was pleading to let him go further), Joe and I tried the rupee bribe to no avail (but they did look at us and respond!). Soon an army personnel of much higher authority drove by and gave us a ride to the snowline. Yeah! With a wicked wind rushing through Rohtang Pass down the gorge, we did our best to walk upright the first couple kilometers. Then with skins on, we climbed out of the wind and set camp. Joe and I explored higher for some late day turns. The next day started with clear skies but got gray as we moved camp higher. We were finally forced to throw up our shelter around 3800m as the blowing snow had reduced the visibility to under 10 meters. We played some cards, had some tea and soup, and looked forward to a break in the weather to really set camp. No break, so we called our resting place camp and did most of the reinforcing from inside the megamid.
The megamid is not really a tent, but rather a strong pyramid-shaped rainfly held up by a center pole and 8 corners that you anchor into the snow. It is very lightweight, provides lots of square footage underneath if willing to dig for it, and my preferred shelter for ski touring. It is also not really meant for harsh winter conditions, but with regular maintenance the megamid proved this trip it can handle even a harsh Himalayan storm.
That first night we experienced multiple sessions of lightning directly overhead and high winds. Not getting much sleep, I wandered from holding the center pole for reinforcement to not wanting to touch it as lightning might strike the pole. Ya, lovely. The next day was no better and we only left the tent to dig snow away from the walls. While we were in a very safe location as far as out of any potential avalanches, we were on a flat terrace that collected tons of windblown snow coming up the ridge. Late that day, spirits started to get tested. I was worried as our site had become a deep hole that would continue to become quickly filled with blowing snow. It needed to stop snowing. We did our best clearing of snow and provided a deep trench around the tent so snow had room to slide off the walls and not build up. But in the storm we were in, deep trenches were quickly filled.
At around 1:00 a.m., the snow had crept almost half way up the walls and I questioned how much more weight the megamid could hold. So, it was time to get into the frozen gear and do some shoveling. To make things more fun, my stomach was beginning to do a familiar rumbling followed by burps that concluded what would be coming in my near future. Yes, the nasty that I had already lived through. I strategized what I would do when the gut demanded relief and quite honestly was very concerned for my tentmates. While Em and I lived through it together, I feared for our friend Joe. I had to muster some serious mental game. Fortunatelty, the storm seemed to let up and next thing I knew it was 5:00 a.m. I awoke due to the sudden need of you know what and did my best to get into frozen pants, coat, and boots. The boots proved to take a few seconds too long and I barely got the tent zipper down before losing some stomach just outside the tent. A few minutes later I returned to the tent singing “Taking care of business” as I knew both Joe and Em had lots of empathy for me. My next statement also added to their relief as I sincerely told them my visit outside was very satisfying…not just for the intestinal relief but for the fact that the sky was clear, stars were aplentiful, and there was no wind. Very nice.
Two hours later, I awoke again to take care of more business. Rather than in a frenzy, I stepped out of the tent and immediately returned to grab the closest camera. What I saw that morning was one of the most beautiful mountain mornings I’ve seen: bluebird, tons of new snow, and the sun’s early beams adding a pink hue to only the tops of the two 6000m+ peaks across the valley. (Sorry but the camera was Joe's and not shown here). Walking over to the ridge on the west (in about 3’ of windblown snow), I saw that new snow had accumulated even below Solang (over 4500’ below our camp). This is great news for many reasons. Mainly, my mental game was on and I knew it was time to go higher for some morning turns. Our aspect was primarily windblown and I could see there were some mellow slopes that would be safe to ski. To my campmates astonishment, I returned to the tent and urged them to get up, we would climb to warm up, ski Himalayan pow, then return to a warm camp to dry gear, veg and prepare for the heavy pack descent. It was cold at first, but our friend the sun quickly appeared. Knowing what sort of storm we just experienced and that stability would not be good, we stayed to very low angle slopes. Coming to a slightly steeper slope (still under what is usually capable to slide), I dug a pit and found very unstable conditions. We called that our high point and ate up the freshies down to camp. Having too much fun leaving trails of cold smoke, we did another lap before vegging at camp. In only those couple hours and even above 12,500 feet, the sun still was surprisingly strong. I had my shirt off while melting snow, eating lunch, and letting gear dry.
We all shared in our amazement in how much better the day was than expected. I was stoked that the team happily chose to turn around due to instability and impressed with everyone’s mountain skills as we did just survive a pretty nasty storm. The cohesiveness in our team has been top notch and the English bloke continues to surprise me with his natural comfort in the mountains.
The final descent with large packs went way better than expected as even though the snow got heavier down low, its consistency allowed us to lay confident turns for over 3500’. Check out that girl in the photo…a T-shirt with a heavy pack???? Wow, that is one confident skier. You can only imagine how fortunate I feel that my life partner is quickly becoming a strong ski partner.
We skied all the way down to the circus of yaks, snowmobiles, and fake fur coats and met our planned taxi ride back to Solang. Now that is good access. Click here for photos.
Besides feeling content that we are back down in Solang after that storm, we are sincerely very happy with our overall situation as we continue to share priceless experiences.