The lure of a forbidding mountain, with its sheets of deceptively beautiful snow, is a powerful draw for adventurers. Over the ages, countless explorers have heeded that primal call, scaling the treacherous ranges of the Himalayas. Still, there a few virgin peaks in the mountains – though no one knows how many.
Japanese and British climbers were the first to organise expeditions to challenging peaks of the hill state, but in the absence of official records of explorers’ and mountaineers’ routes, the words “first ascent” and “unclimbed peak” become controversial.
Easy approach to base camp and the relatively hassle-free procedure of obtaining permit make climbing expeditions in Himachal cheap and highly popular. A few peaks are more difficult to conquer than Mt Everest, a few have been scaled repeatedly and a few remain unexplored. While many peaks have good success rates, scaling attempts have remained unsuccessful for the most part on a few.
Senior climber Rajeev Sharma, retired deputy director from Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports (ABVIMAS), says there are many virgin peaks in the Mulkila and Dhauladhar ranges of Himachal.
“The Akela-kela near Rohtang is a virgin peak. Many have been attempted and a few are still to be explored. Some are more challenging than the Everest. A large number of peaks in Himachal were explored by the British in the 1930s and 40s. These include White Sail, Ladakhi, Hanuman Tibba and Deo Tibba. Over 100 peaks are still virgin and unnamed,” he said.
Rajeev, who has scaled the Everest twice, now organises climbing expeditions. His Japanese expedition teams have scaled seven virgin peaks in Karcha Nullah and Parang-La over the past decade. The Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) coordinator for Himachal says, “The IMF is creating a database of all the peaks with details of first ascents.”
As it is, there is no dearth of explorers who want to go down in history as the first to scale invincible summits.
Take Kaushal Bhardwaj, a professional mountaineer from Manali for instance. Every time he scales a peak, the desire to try his mettle on treacherous terrain intensifies.
“I and my friends started with regular peaks. But now we want to tame challenging or virgin peaks which have been rarely or never attempted. A mountaineer cannot explain why he courts danger but I have learnt life lessons from this profession. We need not go abroad to find the most challenging peaks. There are more than 100 peaks in Himachal. Passion apart, I know that if I summit a virgin peak, it will strengthen my career as a mountaineer. Many come here with the same motive,” he said.
Height is not all that matters
Experts say peaks may remain unscaled due to many reasons, including technical factors. Harsh Thakur, who scaled the 6,160m Indrasan, which is also known to be one of the toughest peaks, said many summits are still hidden. “The process of charting routes takes time and increases the cost of the expedition. So climbers prefer other peaks.”
Ravi Thakur, another climber, said height is not the only thing that makes a peak difficult to climb. “We have a few peaks under 6,000mts which have a steep, icy summit. Most climbers concentrate on high-altitude peaks and do not care about smaller peaks. We have heard of many claims of the first ascent by the Army, paramilitary forces and civilians. But these could not be proved due to the absence of sufficient evidence and the peaks are still termed as unclimbed peaks,” he said. He feels the passion for mountaineering is increasing in the country and with rapid improvement in climbing techniques, there will not be many unclimbed peaks in the next few decades.
Conquering and naming a peak
Scaling a virgin peak and giving it their name is the ultimate ambition of both foreign and domestic mountaineers. Climbers need to obtain a permit from IMF and follow the procedure before scaling a peak. If they choose an unscaled peak and produce adequate evidence like photos and videos establishing a successful climb, they are recorded in the database and can request a name of their choice. If approved, the peak will be called by that name then onwards. All Himalayan peaks have received names this way.
A five-member Bengali group climbed a 6,070mts high unnamed virgin peak near Lakang, Spiti this October. The group has submitted evidence of being the first to scale the summit. If their claim is approved, they shall give the peak a name of their choice.
Rajeev Sharma, who was member of an expedition team of SAARC nations to the 6,794m high Gya, which is technically a tough summit and the second highest peak in Himachal, mistakenly conquered a peak close to Gya. Still, they were the first to scale the peak and named it Gya-II.
The motivation for mountaineers remains unchanged over the years. The thrill of adventure and the desire to prove themselves in their own eyes and to the world drive many to the icy heights.
Most scaled technical peaks
Friendship (5,289mts), Shetidhar (5,340mts), Ladakhi (5,536mts), Manali peak (5,735 mts), Deo Tibba (6,001 mts), Hanuman Tibba (5,940 mts), Makar Beh (6,070 mts) and Shikar Beh (6,200 mts) are the most popular peaks, especially among Indian climbers.
Chandrabhaga (CB) Range (6,264m high CB-13 peak is the highest peak of range), Mulkila Range (6,520mts high M4 is the highest peak in this range), Papsura (6,440 mts), Dharamsura (6,420 mts) and Shigri Parbat (6,645 mts) are popular among foreign climbers.
Spotlight on popular peaks
In Himachal, most professional climbers pay special attention to Reo Purgyil, Gya and Leo Purgyil, the first, second and third highest peaks in the state respectively. CB-13, CB-14, which are the highest peaks in the Chandrabhaga range, M-4 and M-5, highest peaks of the Mulkila range, Deo Tibba and Indrasan in Pir Panjal and Hanuman Tibba in Dhauladhar are favourite peaks of professionals. They are so popular that other peaks remained unscaled.
Up against the elements
A few peaks are extremely difficult to climb. Senior mountaineer Gautam Thakur says a few, such as Reo Purgyil (6,816m), have a sliding, rocky tip. It is the highest peak in Himachal. There are also a few peaks which can be approached only after climbing one or more peaks. “Makar Beh (6,070m) and Shikar Beh (6,200m) are extremely difficult to climb because they can be reached after climbing Ladakhi (5,536m) and then Manali peak (5,735m). The Gupt peak behind Shikar Beh is even more difficult to reach. Reo Purgyil is situated close to the Chinese border and the complication in obtaining inner-line permit is another problem. One can see the Chinese military from the top of this peak,” Thakur said.
Besides, a few peaks are so steep that they are difficult to climb despite their relatively low altitude. Some peaks have huge crevasses while others have icy surface. As the peaks in the Himalayan ranges face high-velocity winds, large cornices pose another threat.
Illegal climbing by foreigners
Miyar valley in Lahaul, home to many towering peaks, is a haven for illegal foreign climbers who do not want to bother with the process of obtaining permit. The remote Miyar has many challenging peaks and draws climbers from Italy, USA, Slovenia and Spain.
A Slovenian climber, Andrej Grmovsek, writes in his travelogue, “In September 2007, I and my wife Tanja travelled to Miyar in Indian Himalaya. We decided on this destination because there are no climbing permits or bureaucracy problem that are so typical for the rest of Indian Himalayas. The area is getting more and more explored but there are still some very interesting walls (mountain faces) with no or only a few climbing routes to date.”
Peaks with maximum failed attempts
Reo Purgyil, Indrasan, Gya, Deo Tibba, Makar Beh, Shikar Beh, M-4, CB-13
Peaks with the most successful summits
Friendship, Shetidhar, CB-14
How porters turned mountaineering guides
Mountaineering expeditions offer employment and income for porters who eventually become mountaineering guides. “Japanese, England, Australian and American mountaineers scaled a large number of peaks when I was a porter and I have learnt a lot from them,” says Gupt Ram, 64, a resident of Vashisht village in Kullu.
He started working as a porter in 1970 and worked with a number of foreign groups. After learning mountaineering techniques from them, he scaled some of the remotest mountains. Now, he is a renowned mountain guide. “I have scaled White Sail (Papsura), Hanuman Tibba, Deo Tibba, Manalipeak and many others. But there is a downside. If you climb as a porter, you get no accolades.”
Lubdh Ram, Dharam Chand and many others worked as porters for decades and scaled a large number of challenging peaks. Most of the porter-turned-guides now run their own businesses.
A rough journey for Tibetans
Sandwiched between difficult history and even more difficult geography, Tibetans have been using ancient routes, including the Silk Route to travel between Tibet and Himachal. Since their circumstances forced enough adventure on them, they did not try to scale peaks. But they had to negotiate high mountain passes. The most preferred routes used by them were via Tso Moriri lake of Ladakh, the 16,050ft high Baralacha Pass and Ladarcha. Many would come via Spiti and cross the 14,000ft high Hamta Pass. Many would reach Malana village before entering Kullu valley. Tenzin Choedin, a Tibetan refugee in Manali said, “My grandfather used to tell us how he left Ngari in Tibet with his wife and moved to Himachal via Ladakh. It took days to travel and they had to cross many mountains.”
A large number of locals do not share the lust for adventure that drives thousands of people to remote peaks. Climbing mountains is a way of life for them and they are driven by necessity. A professional climbs a maximum of 2,000mts a day but locals, especially shepherds, climb more than 3,000mts in a few hours.
One of the finest climbers of Manali, Gautam Thakur, recounts: “Once, I was leading a group to Mt Hanuman Tibba. The weather was inclement and visibility was very low. After many efforts and technical climbing, few of us reached the snow-clad Tentu Pass, where we saw a person wearing foam shoes and a woolen coat. I asked him what he was doing. He said he has lost a few sheep and is searching for them. That day, I realized that there are people for whom no climb is difficult.”
A total of 1.71 crore tourists including 4.6 lakh foreigners, visited Himachal in 2016. In 2015, 1.60 crore tourists, including 3.9 lakh foreigners visited the hill state. While the government does not have a system in place to ascertain the number of tourists who come for mountaineering, sources said over 2% came for mountaineering activities like trekking and climbing.
Wrong side of adventure
The wanderlust may be glorified but it can lead a misguided adventure seeker into the jaws of death. There have been several cases of tourists who have no idea of mountaineering, geography and the hidden dangers of mountains attempting to negotiate tough terrain. Many went missing forever and others were confirmed dead. To make matters worse, police does not have figures of the mountaineering death toll. But there have been many fatalities in hiking and climbing expeditions over the last few years. As many as 22 foreign tourists went missing only in Kullu district since 1991.
Chhape Ram Negi, a veteran who has carried out more than 100 rescue operations and is the official rescue expert of Israel in the country says tourists often take the Himalayas lightly. “They think climbing and hiking is a joke. But these activities test the limits of physical and mental stamina and require extreme physical fitness besides a lot of training. One needs to undergo mountaineering courses before attempting technical peaks. One of the biggest mistakes tourists make is not hiring a local guide. Many have been lost in the mountains and many slip to death in deep gorges,” he warned.
As the use of satellite phones is illegal in India, especially close to the border, it is difficult for mountaineers to seek help in case of emergency. Helicopter rescue services are not easily available. The state government has been planning to provide satellite phones to mountaineers to cut the risk.
What govt doing to promote mountaineering
Mountaineering acquired popularity in the country in the 1950s, after the first ascent to Mt Everest by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary in 1953. The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, the country’s first mountaineering institute, was established in Darjeeling in 1954. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports (ABVIMAS), previously known as Western Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, was founded in Manali in 1961. ABVIMAS is now the largest adventure sports training institute of the country.
Former director of institute Captain Randhir Singh Salhuria said the institute has successfully conducted over 530 basic and advance mountaineering courses. “We have trained more than 1.74 lakh people from across the world. We have been promoting safe and advanced mountaineering in the country and we are conducting expeditions for our students who are now promoting eco-friendly and world-class mountaineering in their respective areas,” he said.