"Its not advisable to do this trek alone."
"Its too steep"
"Its too dangerous"
"Its easy to lose your way, even our guides lost the trail for a while last year"
"We were roped up last year, how can you do it alone ?"
In retrospect i should have probably heeded to those warnings, but i was so intent on doing the Rupin Pass trek solo that although i wavered for a while, in the end i set off alone. For me the trek was not about crossing the pass but more about seeing how far i could go, seeing how i'd react when faced with difficult situations in the mountains. Alone.
It was to be a journey of self discovery. To measure myself, not against the mountains or against anyone else but against my inner demons, more specifically my fears and self doubts.
Would i face my fears and push on or Would i give up and turn back ?. Would i be reckless with my safety driven by the desire to reach my goals or would i play it safe, taking calculated risks and taking care not to over reach my limits and cross some line of no return?. These questions were in my mind for a long time ever since i decided to spend this year trekking in the mountains. There was only one way to find out and that was to put myself in the very situations i was anxious about and seeing firsthand how i would react.
The Rupin pass trek was the perfect start to get some of my answers. It is a 8 day trek over a 4650m pass with numerous obstacles thrown in between. Steep trails, slippery snow bridges and a 400m waterfall bar your path before you reach the pass itself. A steep icy chute cut into the ridge line of the Dhauladhar range reachable only by traversing a even steeper flanking slope leading up to the base of the pass. Both the pass and the flanking slope hang over a glacial cirque and any slip would mean that you'll fall sliding a thousand feet down the steep snow slopes to the base of the cirque.
It was also perfect in the other sense, there were no dangerous glaciers to fall into, no tricky streams/rivers to be swept away by and the trail seemed pretty straight forward with minimal chances of getting lost in the wilderness. To my mind it was a calculated risk well worth taking.
One could still fault me for being reckless but at least i cannot be faulted for not being prepared. I spent over a month in Uttarakhand, doing some short hikes in the mountains over 3000m, getting acclimatized to the high altitudes and practice carrying a heavy (~30kg) backpack. I also learnt some ice skills climbing over snow and ice in my crampons whenever the chance presented itself. It was a pity that i did not have my ice axe with me at that time to practice the vital skill of self-arresting a fall down a ice/snow slope. But in the end it did not matter much as i instinctively knew how to self-arrest my fall when i took a couple of tumbles down snow slopes. On ice it would've been a different story but that a worry for a different day and a different trek.
Without much further ado, here's an account on what happened on the trek.
The trek started harmlessly enough. On the first three days i was walking slowly, passing through remote but beautiful villages in Uttarakhand & Himachal Pradesh staying in homestays as much as possible and eating excellent home cooked Rajma Chawal. I especially loved the villages of Jiksun & Jakha in Himachal Pradesh.
Jakha is the last village on this trek, the last place to replenish on your supplies (they do have well stocked stores) and maybe even hire a Guide/Porter (400Rs/day) if you are feeling a bit uneasy about doing the trek alone. After Jakha the wilderness started and thats where the real excitement began.
Jun 7, 2012
The very first snow bridge on the trail was located just a few kilometers outside of the village of Jakha. The sight of it made me gasp, not because it was located at an unexpected low altitude of around 2800-2900meters, but because there were 2 yawning crevasses running across its length. The larger crevasse had a couple of logs over it to help people cross, leaving you to jump over the narrow section of the other one.
Thankfully the snow bridge had a flat profile. I gingerly stepped on it and found that there was good grip, thanks to all the accumulated dirt. Once i was on, it was not as scary as it looked from above and i easily made my way across.
The other snow bridges on the route were not as flat as the first one nor as dirty. The first few steps on a snow bridge were always scary as its steep and a slip would take you sliding all the way down to the river, not to drown but to get wet and sprain a few muscles here and there. The going gets easier once you are on the middle section of the bridge and continues to be so till you reach the other side.
I learnt how to cut steps using my ice axe and that made the going a lot easier and safer, and on the downside a bit slower. I always used to fear crossing the snow bridges and that fear kept me alert watching my every step and i'am happy to say that i didn't put a foot wrong crossing the number snow bridges that were on the way.
Climbing the Rupin Waterfall
Jun 8, 2012
Reading about the waterfall and seeing it in person were totally different things. I got my first real good look at the waterfall when i arrived at Danderas Thach, the vast green meadows located at the base of the waterfall.
My heart sank looking at it. It was monstrous. Thundering down from below snow capped peaks high above, the waterfall fell down in 3 stages. Its roar ever present, day or night, sounding ominous and made even more sinister by the booming thunder that rolled across the mountains during the evening storms.
Most books and online guides i referred to pegged the height of the waterfall at around 200m (~660ft) but it seemed much higher. Infact the altitude difference between the meadows right at the base of the waterfall (Danderas Thach) where i camped and at the top of the waterfall (where i camped the next day) was around 430 meters (~1430ft) and that was a long steep climb.
Another worrying factor for me was the big blocks of ice and snow that kept falling down from a temporary glacier high above the slope on the right (orthographic left) bank of the waterfall. The very same slope i had to climb the next day to get to the top of the bottom waterfall. I decided to start climbing early before the warmth of the sun triggers more such mini-avalanches over my head.
The next day i started climbing. The climb, was to be done in 4 stages.
First, staying on the right (orthographic left) bank of the river, i climbed the snow slope that led to the top of the first waterfall. It was slow going on the long steep slope, even with my crampons on. I had climb almost straight up for most of the distance and then cut across the slope to reach the firm ground on top of the first waterfall.
The second stage was probably the most dangerous. I had to traverse across two steep snowfields which then gave me access to firm ground leading to the top of the middle waterfall. This traverse was dangerous because any uncontrolled slip would take me straight down the icy slope to the top of the bottom waterfall and there was a good chance that i would continue falling down into the waterfall never to emerge again. But nothing untoward happened as i had my crampons on and slowly but surely made my way across the snow slopes.
The third stage was the most fun. Crossing a large snow bridge at the top of the middle waterfall to get to the opposite bank of the river. Its an easy and safe crossing and it felt wonderful to stand in the middle of the snow bridge to watch the waterfall cascade down from dizzying heights above (there's still a long way to climb to get to the top of the waterfall) and disappear into the depths below my feet.
Lost in the white wilderness.
Jun 9, 2012
It was a white world. Everything around me was buried under deep snow with only the biggest boulders sticking out. The trail had disappeared under the snow and i was totally at a loss on which way to go next.
The deep snow also worried me as i've never walked on it before and images of Mongol hunters driving herds of deer into deep snow pits flashed in my mind. Lost and worried i had no where to go but down.
As i stood there contemplating my next move, i saw a tiny figure in the depths below walking towards the waterfall. I breathed a sigh of relief. He was moving fast, climbing sure footed over the snow slopes flanking the waterfall. He would be my savior and show me the way.
Turns out that he had set off from Jakha at 8am and had walked non-stop to be here at the top of the waterfall by 12pm. The same journey took me 3 days to complete. He offered to take me all the way to the pass, but i just wanted to get as far as Rathi Peri, the camping grounds located some 400 meters above waterfall.
I followed him. He told me that he was also a bit stumped by the lack of the trail and soon started climbing a steep slope by the side of a ridge. I on the other hand was convinced that i had to follow the river and then cut across to the left going around the ridge he was climbing. At at least thats how i imagined the route would be when i poured over the topographic maps on Google. As it turned out (obviously), i was wrong and he was right. But the time i corrected my course and followed him he had climbed much higher. He waited for me a for a while but then lost his patience and left telling me to follow his tracks.
I followed him, started climbing the ridge and found little traces of the trail here and there. His footprints were clear in the snow but as soon i got on to a rocky area both the trail and his tracks disappeared. I left my backpack and searched around in vain trying to find his tracks. It was around 2pm and i knew that pretty soon bad weather would move in. I had to set up camp and fast.
From my vantage spot up above i spotted a flat piece of snow covered land next to small sheep pen above the waterfall. I setup my camp there, melted some snow to cook my lunch and waited for the bad weather to move in. The weather gods didn't disappoint. By 4pm dark clouds moved in. First it started drizzling, then the drizzle turned into hail and soon after that it turned into a full blown snow storm with strong winds and heavy snow falling. It snowed for maybe 2 hours straight and then the weather cleared up for a bit. Only to turn bad soon after.
The Rupin Pass scare. The biggest of them all.
Jun 10, 2012
I set off early (6:30am) in the morning while the snow was still hard. I was able to follow the trail for a while and then it disappeared, just like the day before. But now i had an idea of which direction to go towards and i kept walking, traversing snowfields and climbing over boulders and rock faces. It was hard going, especially carrying my backpack, and for the first time on this trek i wished i had hired a guide who could've shown me the way. In retrospect it was a fun adventure trying to find my own way up and across the ridge and i was elated when i finally did.
I reached the meadows of Rathi Pehri to find myself surrounded by a winter wonderland. A vast expanse of open snow covered undulating hills stretching all the way to the ridge line of the Dhauladhar range. The snow was deep and it made the going slow, but i didn't it mind one bit. It was a glorious day, the sun was shining and there was not a single cloud in the sky. After the tense climb of the morning i was enjoying myself in the open snowfields and i even managed to find the tracks of the villager whom i had met the previous day and his tracks would lead me all the way to the pass.
I was stomping along the snowfields when suddenly i heard someone whistle behind me. I turned around to see one of the most amazing sights of my life. A group of herdsmen were leading their huge flock of sheep over the snowfields towards the Rupin pass. The were hundreds of sheep and their line stretched for a very long distance behind the lead herdsman. The herdsmen were taking their sheep over the pass to Chitkul and the rich pastures of the Baspa valley. They would stay there for many months till the Dussera festival in October when they'll sell most of their herd and then head back home over the pass. It is a journey herdsmen like this have been undertaking for hundreds of years and i felt privileged to be witnessing it.
It was turning out to be the best day of the trek so far. The herdsmen would lead me to the pass and i won't be climbing it alone. Also the stomping sheep had made a very wide and prominent trail on the snow for me to follow. It was almost like walking on a paved highway.
My euphoria did not last long though. By now the sun was blistering in the sky and i had run out of water long back and there was no other water source along the way. Everything was either frozen or buried under deep snow. My pace slowed down significantly and the herd had already opened up a long gap in front of me.
Worse still, the paved trail the sheep made was turning out to be treacherous as the snow was compacted and made slick by by the blistering sun. Pretty soon i was slipping and sliding all over the place. At one particularly steep banking curve of the trail i fell and would've slid all the way down to the bottom of the slope if not for my ice axe. I had somehow managed to arrest my fall using the ice axe and managed to get back on to my feet again. My enjoyment stopped and doubts started creeping in.
By now the herdsmen were already at the bottom of the flanking slope leading to the Rupin pass gully. They waited at its base taking a breather and i waited holding my breath to see how they'll manage the steep climb to reach and then cross the Rupin pass gully.
The Rupin pass gully was a steep snow chute cut in the ridge line of the Dhauladhar range, some estimates put it at 200 meters long and i'am not about to argue with that. To reach the steep gully you'll have to climb up a even steeper flanking slope of the mountain leading up to the pass. Both the pass and its approach slope hung over a glacial cirque whose bottom was a long way down below both. Any unarrested fall would take the climber sliding down at least a couple of hundred meters to the base of the cirque.
Then the herd started climbing and my heart sank. The lead herder were struggling up the slope, slipping and sliding in the deep snow. He was breaking a trail for the herd to follow and they followed him reluctantly. Pushed and prodded by the remaining herdsmen they started moving gingerly up the trail. It was then i realized how steep the climb actually was and the stomping sheep would've compacted the snow making slippery and treacherous for anyone following them.
I knew immediately that i could not climb the pass that day. My crampons won't be of much help either on the soft snow under the blistering sun. I decided to wait until early next morning and attempt the climb on the hard snow with my crampons on. It was my best chance and i need to start as early as possible before the sun warms the snow and makes it soft again. It would be a race against the sun.
Thanks to the sheep, the snow on the trail was compacted and some parts of it were wide & flat enough for me to pitch my tent. So i camped there just a few hundred meters from the base of the pass. The sun was shining up until 3pm or so and then the bad weather moved in. Wave after wave of rain, hail and snow.
The bad weather darkened my mood and doubts started creeping in once again. The more i thought about the pass the more terrified i was about the prospect of climbing it. I couldn't sleep the whole night, debating with myself on whether to go ahead or go back. Both options had their dangers but i was heavily leaning towards going back down. After all safety was paramount and i was here for the experience and not for the bragging rights of climbing the pass.
By the time the first light appeared in the horizon, i had made up my mind. I would swallow my pride and head back.
One last throw of the dice.
Jun 11, 2012
But as I stepped out on the snow my mood changed. The snow under my feet was hard and crunchy perfect for my crampons to bite on. I then looked at the Rupin pass and it somehow didn't seem as steep or as scary as it seemed the previous day. I quietly told myself that having come this far i owed it to myself to go a little bit further and see how steep the trail actually was. If it proved to be too steep or too slippery then i could always turn back. Atleast i would've then attempted to climb the pass instead of turning tail just at the sight of it.
It was amazing how the new morning brought a new sense calm and quiet confidence. And the weather gods seemed to be favoring me as well. There was a thin spattering of clouds right behind me towards the east. It would block the sun for little while giving me a few extra moments in my race to climb the pass against the warmth of the rising sun.
By 6:15am i had broken camp and set off. It felt great walking on the hard snow with my crampons on and pretty soon i was on the flanking slope leading up to the Rupin pass. The slope was not very steep at first, and i could walk normally using my ice axe as a walking stick to give additional purchase on the snow.
As i climbed higher the slope got steeper and steeper. And pretty soon it got to a point where i would climb my height (~6ft) every 2 to 3 steps. Walking normally was no longer an option and neither was turning back. The slope seemed to fall almost vertically behind me and i knew that it would be safer to go up than to go down.
Without any snow i would've had to scramble on all fours up the slope. But now i had to use a different technique. Grabbing the ice axe with both hands i would drive its shaft straight down in front of me, pushing it down as deep as it would go. Once it was lodged firmly in the snow then i would move my feet up, left first and then right. And once i was convinced that my crampons had a firm grip snow I would slowly remove the ice axe and plunge it in front of me to repeat my steps.
I was to find later that this technique is called "Self Belaying on Snow" from the excellent "Movement on Snow and Ice" manual from the US military.
The last mile to Sangla. Looking back and Looking ahead.
Jun 12, 2012
The next day was the longest and one of the most scenic on the trip. The meadows above Sangla Kanda were over 3600m high and there was not a tree in sight. As far as the eye could see it was only grasslands blanketing gentle undulating hills with the Kinner Kailash range towering in the background. No wonder the herdsmen from all over the region bring their flocks to graze here on the bounties of nature.
Sangla Kanda is truly a paradise, yet untouched by tourism. It would be interesting to see how long it stays that way as a road is slowly being built connecting Sangla Kanda with the Sangla village below.
Looking back. It was without doubt one of the most exhilarating experience of my life and for a while it almost did not happen. Only a few rare moments of courage and confidence helped me push on and climb over the pass.
Courage may have pushed me to start climbing but it was fear that kept me safe. It helped me focus, stay vigilant and i did not put a foot wrong in all those stretches that i was most afraid of crossing. It is only when the terrain eased and when i started relaxing that i made mistakes and started slipping and falling down the slopes. That in itself was one of the biggest takeaways from this trek.