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Escape from Pangi

Not all Himalayan trips go to plan! Our resourceful team of nine, led by Mark Chadwick and Dave Sharpe, were exploring a pristine range of peaks in the Pangi region of Lahaul Himalaya when a "red-alert" storm struck. Here's Mark's diary of what followed:

Photos by Mark Chadwick, Oli Birkill, Ian Wells, Philipa Cockman, Declan Phelan, Phil Jardine and Keaton Jones

Shiva Prow Lahaul Himachal Himalaya India
Shiva peak - one of Pangi's most impressive summits

13 Sept Delhi to Manali: Did someone say 14hrs? Let’s get our heads into Indian time and Indian roads. 14 turned into 19. A bunch of zombies emerged from the minibus in Manali in the middle of the night, barely capable of making their way to their rooms.

15 Sept Over the Rohtang Pass: Today we had the excitements of gaining altitude and seeing the high mountains from the top of the Rohtang Pass at 4000m. An early arrival at Udaipur in the Chandra-Bagar valley felt positively delightful.

16 Sept: Into the Pangi valley: We boarded the bus with some trepidation as to the oncoming roads. At times there were a many white knuckles digging into seats as we crept along roads cut into the cliffs made of rubble plus gasps as we realised we needed to pass oncoming vehicles. With relief, we stepped from the minibus into Rillu, our road head village at 3000m.

17 Sept: 50kg Loads and a Log Bridge: The porters, once ready, set off at a sprint, some carrying double loads weighing in at a hefty 50kgs. Gee-whiz, I thought, these guys are remarkable. After a leisurely walk up a tree-rich valley with sneaking glimpses of far off white-topped peaks, we arrived at Chirot. A highlight of this day was crossing the planks of the temporary bridge that had been erected to get us into the Paphila nala. Once tested this three-trunk crossing proved sturdy for all. Here the mighty valleys split and we took the right approaching valley, leading us to our base camp.

Approach to base camp and exploration of the Paphila Nala (6 photos - slideshow)

18 Sept: The False Base Camp: After arriving at a grassy, luscious basecamp, there was some confusion as to whether this was our intended spot. It was idyllic as basecamps go but we still felt too far away from the mountains.

19 Sept: Gaining Height: Dave Sharpe and Chetan headed off up the valley to try and see if we were camped at the best location. The remainder of the team explored a side valley to look at a peak called Boi Ka 5510m, a good acclimatisation objective. This journey took us from BC at 3800m up to 4400m and gifted us some stunning views.

20 Sept: Moving Base Camp and Bears: Our new BC or Advanced Base Camp was almost as good as the last and was much closer to our intended watershed peaks. Over the next few days our admiration for our Indian staff would grow. To ferry one big load of 25kgs was enough for most, but Chetan, Heera, Laxman, Janic and Kedar would ferry several loads in one day, in support of our plans.

Brown bears were in the area. This both excited and concerned us. We had a month’s worth of food with us and I was sure they would be able to smell it. Both bear droppings and prints were found on todays trek, although some of the prints may prove to be fakes….. eh, Dave?

21 Sept: The Training Peak: Today we climb. This is what we came for. Our intended peak is a rather Scottish looking beast with a tempting connecting ridge between the two viewable summits. A long pull up ever-steeping grassy slopes gains height slowly but surely. We are offered some opportunities to scramble on shallow rocky ridges.

The summit ridge its is both a blessing and a curse. Enjoyable rocky slabs alternate with loose earthy scree.

On the summit, Peak 5271m, there is much shaking of hands and congratulating. This is what all the hard work is for, to stand on a virgin summit and view all around. If the rock quality wasn’t great the views made up for tenfold. Our panorama took in all of the Miyar valley peaks, all of our watershed peaks and future objectives as well as innumerable peaks as far as the eye could see.

Views from Pk 5271: 1) The unclimbed 6000er that was the trip's most ambitious objective; 2) Unclimbed 5700m Watershed peak; 3) The great prow of Shiva peak (climbed by Mick Fowler and Paul Ramsden 6 years ago); 4) Summit team; 5) The Miyar - Jangpar peaks from the summit; 6) Other watershed peaks towards Sersank Peak

22 Sept: The Storm Gathers: “Potential torrential rain – Sat pm to Mon am; 100mm+. Take action” says the text from Martin Moran. Bad weather’s coming and we need to act. The safest option is to return to the lower base camp. All the efforts of the HRT staff carrying loads to ABC has to now be reversed. We all pack 25-30kg loads and return down the valley.

23 Sept: Sitting out the Blizzard: It snows hard and relentlessly. I’m twitchy about the building avalanche conditions; we’re sat directly under some 5000m high peaks that feed directly to us. We have pitched our tents wisely but we have no idea how much and for how long this snow will fall.

24 Sept: The Aftermath: In the afternoon the sun starts to make its return, switching on the heaters and starting to settle the snow. A metre of snow has fallen in the last 36hrs, and movement beyond the paths already trodden is near impossible.

Avalanches start but we are safe where we are. With the new coating of icing sugar white snow our climbing objectives have become somewhat less attainable.

25 Sept: Breaking the Crust: With the sun’s radiation now strong during daylight hours the snow is settling fast, so we planned our climbing rematches.

Dave leads Phil, Ian, Oli and Keaton - the “Watershed pioneers”. I lead Chetan, John, Manish, Philipa and Declan towards Mund a 5000m high peak towards the Miyar Valley.

We all return early with tails between legs having encountered tortuous trail breaking in crust. We’ll try again early tomorrow when an early start should see us skipping along the cooked snow.

Aftermath of the Storm - a winter wonderland covered in pastry crust

26 Sept: Load Retrieval: Our HAPs make another brutal journey up to ABC to retrieve technical kit that we need for our intended climb as well as the food we left up there.

27 Sept: A Post-Holing Nightmare: The moon is full and the baked snow has frozen hard. A crossing of the Tyrolean rope traverse over a fast flowing river is an exciting way to wake up. Moonlit views of Shiva Peak followed by the dawn sunburst give us cause to stop. All too soon the snow stops bearing weight and a post-holing nightmare begins. A thick crust bears weight for a moment and then breaks, dropping legs into bottomless powder and boulders. Only Philippa is light enough to make better progress but even she is sometimes seen down a hole or two.

Slowly our team dwindles; Steve, weak from his bout of illness, returns to BC leaving behind a wake of Steve-sized holes. John is soon to follow. We call a halt at 4400m; the depression sets in that this will be our last attempt to climb more peaks on this trip. We spot a herd of Moschus or Musk deer high up on the slope above, also struggling haunch deep in snow.

28 Sept: Return from the Watershed and another Warning: The Watershed team returned, their accounts of post holing enough to make you wince. They put in a seriously impressive effort, making it to 5200m.

How do you deal with the demons of defeat? Easy in our case. Add another InReach message from Martin Moran warning of destruction to roads and infrastructure down in the valleys and a possible need for a helicopter evacuation.

Briefings are held, plans are hatched - we leave first thing tomorrow morning with only the essential personal kit we can realistically carry.

We finish our final day in camp with a fire, whisky and another top dinner created by Heera and his team.

29 Sept: Hospitality at the Road-head: The walk-out is aided by the track put in by our staff team. We get an idea of the lower level destruction as we enter the valley forests. Mature trees have branches snapped like twigs. These trees have stood for hundreds of years, only now to be devastated by the snows. We passed a large team of porters heading up to our base camp as we neared the village. No way could they make it up there in a day and back down to us?

We are given a great welcome from the locals. Nothing is too much; two rooms are readied for us to sleep in. A meal is prepared in another house for us. Manish leads a motley crew of Phil, Ian, Keaton and Oli up to the local school to distract them from their lessons. They are a huge success and come back buoyed by their stories told to the kids and sweets shared. Our journey ahead sounds difficult: roads have been washed away, cliffs have collapsed and the Rohtang Pass is closed due to so much snow. A helicopter evacuation is not an option, its up to us to extract ourselves.

30 Sept: Homeward Journey Starts: The police have been looking for us. We all gather and have photos taken with the police to show us all safe and well. Our bags from BC have caught up with us. The local porters made it up to BC and most of the way back to the village in one day. This is a great relief to all and we are all immensely grateful. A 7k walk down a devastated hill road brings us to a village. From here we board some jeeps for a bone-shaking, dusty 50k ride to Tindi. Progress brings grimy smiles to faces.

There’s no beer anywhere in the village. It’s been drunk dry by folks trapped here during the flooding. We retire to our guesthouse, one bed between 11 is never going to work. Most sleep on their sleeping mats and in their sleeping bags on the floor. Everyone’s knackered and sleep comes easily for most.

1 Oct: An Epic Journey: Rumors are rife of clear roads and broken roads. The part-finished tunnel under Rohtang Pass is open. No it’s not, it’s closed...all this helps little with our planning.

We board our jeeps but are soon halted by a huge landslide that has taken out the road. We peer over the edge to the river below. The water volume must have been gargantuan. We back away with weakened knees. Jeeps arrive on the far side. If these guys have made it through from Udiapur then the road must be passable, but surely we can’t make it across in this beast of a minibus. The driver floors it, heads bounce off roofs, and we cling to our seats so as not to get flung to the floor. We rock through the flowing river over boulders and debris and arrive unscathed on the other side. We give the driver with a round of applause; he looks nonplussed and carries on with his drive.

In Udiapur we lay waste to a large helping of momos (chopped vegetables and spices wrapped in a dumpling).

The afternoon’s objective is to make it over the Rohtang Pass, or get through the tunnel. And off we go towards the Pass. Smashed apple orchards, the livelihoods of many, lie devastated by the snow. Diggers are constantly working to open up more sections of broken roads.

Chaos reigns at the Rohtang Pass tunnel mouth. We’ve missed the last allotted convoy through. Maybe we should have eaten less momos?

A three-hour argument ensures between our strong willed team of Chetan, Manish and other staff and the military guards that control the tunnel’s flow of traffic. There’s lots of shouting and gesticulating in the effort to let us enter the tunnel. Beaten back, we all board the bus and head for the Rohtang Pass road. Guards at the bottom stop us and again some challenging conversations are had to try and let us over the pass.

Eventually, we retreat to Sissu village for the night. We have only 48 hours to get back to Delhi!

Everyone needs a beer but we are saddened to find the village has been drunk dry by trapped drivers. Chetan comes to the rescue - for tee-totaller he can track down beer anywhere. In less than an hour he returns with two boxes. This is just the tonic everyone needs. Troubles are forgotten, tales of derring-do shared and sleep is welcomed in our first bed for two weeks.

Crossing broken roads on the homeward journey

2 Oct: The Escape!: We smell. We’ve not showered or washed properly in weeks. Beards have been grown and clothes are in much need of a wash. Today is the crux of our journey; a “no go” over the Rohtang Pass equals no flights. Please let this work out…..

We try the tunnel one more time but there is more shouting and arm waving. Then we hear that the Pass is open, with only traffic from our side being allowed through.

We crest the col at the top of the Pass and its like someone has turned off the snow machines on the south side. Behind lays a world of winter carnage and in front are the green pastures leading down to Manali and the sun-heated planes.

We have a few hours in Manali then push on to Sundernagar. Awaiting us is a fine spread of food plus beer. To top it all off, there is electricity: this means heaters, this means hot water, this means showers. OMG, its good to have a wash, not so good is then putting back on dirty clothes.

3 Oct: Delhi At Last: We depart at 7am and arrive in Delhi by 7pm. We all gather in the Taj hotel’s restaurant, drawing sideways looks from the very respectable hotel patrons; we’re certainly not the usual customers here.

We’ve made it, we’re going to make our flights home, we have all of our gear with us and we can relax totally for the first time since departing Delhi.

We eat, drink and ready ourselves for the final leg of an epic adventure.

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