Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh, India
Ancient languages of India refer to it as Prana. In Chinese, it’s Chi and in Japanese, it’s Ki. It’s a difficult word to translate into English. “Life force” comes close, but Prana also means “energy,” the cosmic vibrations that make up your being.
In India, many believe that places have energy–which is why we believe Meru is the center of the world and that the Ganga purifies us.
It is rare that mortals stumble into a place where their energy is perfectly in sync with that of the landscape. I am one of the fortunate. I first felt that connection with the soul of the Earth almost twenty years ago, in the remote, barren, cold and deeply spiritual Spiti Valley.
Spiti Valley is in the northeast corner of Himachal Pradesh. It is an extension of the Tibetan plateau, and part of the Trans-Himalaya. There is only one major road through the region. North from Shimla, it rises until it’s just a narrow dirt track carved into the mountainsides–with no guardrails. One icy slip will send a car hurtling hundreds of meters into the Spiti River. Beyond Kaza, the capital of the region, the passes are all above 4500 meters and snowed over for half the year.
I first visited Kaza at the age of sixteen or seventeen. Back then, in the outdoor industry, training and experience weren’t as valuable as the willingness to work for free. I was willing, and I had a keen eye for birds. These qualities got me a gig leading a group of wildlife enthusiasts into Spiti.
I was born close to the Western Ghats, an old, low mountain range, 2000 kilometers south of the Himalaya, made up almost entirely of basalt. I was used to a wilderness filled with trees, deer, wild boar, leopards–and millions of tiny insects. In Spiti, we saw no mammals. We saw no trees. There were no bugs to swat. The land, from afar, appeared barren. The average altitude of the valley was 3600 meters. It seemed unlikely that anything could survive in this hypoxic desert. The sun shone through the rarified sky, burning my skin and leaving scars on the slopes.
Far overhead, a lammergeier vulture soared. One of the world’s largest birds, it drops carcass bones onto rocks so it can eat the marrow, leaving the meat to lesser scavengers. This harbinger of death showed me there was life. Over time, my eyes began to attune themselves to this brown world. I learned to see the moving forms of bharal, or blue sheep, on steep, rocky slopes. I noticed the pugmarks of a big cat on the sandy ground–it had to be a snow leopard. The shrill screams of marmots alerted me to the struggles of predators and prey. The human-like gobbling noise of snow cocks stopped scaring me. As I stayed longer, I observed the blooming of tiny flowers that lived just a few days and coincided with clouds of small butterflies.
Hidden high in the muddy peaks, I saw little caves used by aging Buddhist monks in search of liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Cut off from the distractions of city life, I began to look inward. The vastness of the place, for reasons I could not understand, forced introspection.
I also climbed the first hills I saw. Panting in the thin air, I concentrated on every breath, in and out. Later, I learned that this is the basic Buddhist meditation practice, Anapanasati. This was how I fell in love with summits–as I realized that when you climb to the top of a Himalayan peak, you look out on a colossal landscape, filled with even more summits. Climbing is an exercise in the destruction of ego.
At age twenty-five, longing for the mountains, I quit my job as a journalist on the crime beat, and I hitchhiked back into the valley. I found myself at the Ki Gompa, an old monastery perched above 4000 meters, its walls built into the contours of the land. The monks invited me in, and I ended up staying for a few weeks. Everyday, they packed me lunch, and I walked in the hills. One day, as I scrambled up a stony trail to the village of Tashigang, I tried to go as fast as I could. At the top, I lay down, struggling to breathe. I pulled my hat over my eyes and began to doze off. I felt a shadow glide over me. I opened my eyes: two massive lammergeiers were circling just overhead. I scampered. I didn’t want to be a feast for vultures.
GRADUALLY, I took on harder challenges, which drew me away from Spiti. The valley had few peaks that required technical skill. Kanamo is only a 6000-meter hill, which a fit walker can climb in a day. Chau Chau Kang Nilda is a sharp 6303-meter pyramid of rock and snow, but local residents believe that climbing it brings rain that ruins their crops, so you can only make an ascent during a tiny window after the summer harvest and before the winter freeze.
I got a job at a climbing gym in Ladakh, and I guided easy 6000-meter peaks. In my free time, I began attempting alpine routes beyond my ability and worked to raise my skills. But I kept returning to Spiti. I followed the trails above Kaza all the way to Ladakh over the Parang La. I took tourists there, watching as they bought marine fossils from an old meymey (grandfather), stone remnants of the ancient Tethys Sea. I told them it was my attraction to the Buddhist culture that brought me back, because I couldn’t explain that I felt a pull.
The land called to me. And as my identity slowly became that of a climber, I became more aware that the brown desert was drawing me to it, though I still wasn’t sure why. On each visit, I looked for climbs. But, scoured by sun and winds for eons, the rock had crumbled. The mountains were made of sand.
IN DECEMBER 2014, for the first time, I visited the United States, and I became aware of my place as an Indian person in the world. At a Black Lives Matter march in Brooklyn, I grew conscious of the color of my skin. And in the North American ranges, I realized how different concepts of wilderness could be. Maps were easily available in the US, though you could walk for days in the mountains without passing a village. In India, the people who live in remote regions are an integral part of the land, but there less effort to aid recreation in wild spaces.
In the North Cascades, I found that I could fall in love with a peak outside of the Himalaya: Mt. Shuksan, which jutted like a tooth above the dense forests.
In New England, I learned to climb waterfall ice.
Before then, I’d climbed miles of ice, but all of it was glacier ice. In the Adirondack Mountains of New York, a legendary local climber, Ian Osteyee, decided to teach me on a twenty-foot patch of frozen water on the side of the road. By the end of the day, we’d climbed Positive Thinking, a 420-foot classic climb that started out too thin to place ice screws and went up a steep pillar. I’d never seen such formations before.
On glaciers, I could almost always expect a perfect axe placement on the first swing. The surface was often smooth and even, with plenty of room to build comfortable anchors and almost no fear of ruining an ice screw by hitting rock. On frozen waterfalls, the ice was sometimes only a few centimeters thick, interspersed with brittle waves and bulges. I had to fight for every ice screw. My axe bounced off if I didn’t aim it perfectly. And even when I did, the ice frequently shattered.
I was always afraid, sometimes of dying.
But I found I could adapt. I learned to be gentler, tapping instead of swinging where the ice was delicate, striving for precision and moderation instead of pure force. Ian taught me that keeping a calm mind was crucial. To quiet my thoughts, I had to concentrate on my breathing. This awareness was enough to slow my rapid, panicked gasps, and as I stayed focused, I came closer to the Buddhist ideal of Shunyata. Emptiness. Oneness. I began to feel that I was part of the landscape, no longer connected to the earth only by points of metal, but from the center of my being. This was what I’d sensed when I first walked up the hills of Spiti. This was why I loved climbing.
Back in Ian’s warm house, the connection with my breath and the earth broken, I dreamed of establishing such climbs in the Indian Himalaya. During the early days of mountaineering on our subcontinent, Western climbers, often working for the British Raj, established many of the first ascents, claiming summits like a form of conquest and filling history books with their names. Today, our generation of Indian alpinists has access to some of the same resources and equipment as our foreign counterparts, but it is hard to break free of that colonial past–there are fewer unclimbed peaks left. Perhaps the steep, hidden waterfalls could be bastions where we could make our stand. Some of the last first ascents.
But, first, I had to find them.
IN THE UNITED STATES, I encountered solid ice at only 500 meters above sea level. But India is largely a tropical country. In the hills where I grew up, winter temperatures rarely fall below 10?C. Snow and ice coat the big peaks of the Himalaya, yet the inner parts of the range are difficult to access during the cold months of the year, when blizzards cover the roads and the high passes close. Mountain villages empty as the residents head to warmer places lower down the hills. Hotels shutter their doors. I’d heard of frozen waterfalls near the resort town of Manali, at around only 2000 meters, but they generally melted after a few days.
I’d seen waterfalls in Spiti in the summer, however, and I knew that daytime temperatures in winter could fall to -20?C. Back in India at the end of January, I called my climbing partner Bharat Bhushan. “We’ve got to go to Spiti now,” I said. Bharat has never said “No” to me. This time was no different.
Bharat grew up in a Himalayan village, herding his goats in the mountains, and he’d taught himself climbing techniques from YouTube videos. We’d met during a government-organized mountaineering camp. After establishing a new route on 6360-meter Khang Shilling, we’d fixed ropes for another government team on an unclimbed peak, where we’d barely escaped catastrophic rockfall. Although Bharat had since worked as a mountaineering instructor for NOLS in Alaska, he didn’t own his own ice tools or crampons. Back in India, he rented gear from Delhi, and he wore the white, Army surplus, plastic boots so familiar to Indian mountaineers.
My other climbing partner, Prerna Dangi, is a Pahadi–a person from the mountains–but she grew up in the capital. She began rock climbing in college and became one of the few Indian women who practice alpine-style mountaineering.
She’d worked hard, reaching out to her college’s elite alumni network, to fund her recent expedition to Denali, and she’d used part of the money to outfit herself in the latest gear. So Bharat left his clunky boots at home, deciding that it would be better to take turns using Prerna’s lighter pair.
Soon the three of us found ourselves driving toward Spiti–our first foray into the winters of the deep Himalaya. After much struggling with snow-chains, we reached Kaza. In a mud house belonging to a friend of a friend, we huddled around a blazing wood stove. Outside, the diesel in our car froze, and the engine didn’t start again until 9 a.m.
When the local residents heard we were looking for frozen waterfalls, they told us, “Just go down to the river,” referring to the stream that ran through Kaza. Unfortunately for us, the only vertical section was two feet high. We tried explaining that we were looking for long, steep waterfalls. “But why?” they said.
After much shaking of heads, they agreed that the closest waterfall was Shela Nala. Formed from an overflowing aqueduct, it was steep and narrow at the top and fanned out at the bottom. The sight of it filled me with excitement: some eighty meters high, the white bulges gleamed opalescent against the pale gold rock.
Since Bharat and Prerna shared one pair of boots, there was no question of the three of us climbing to the top. Instead, we toproped and practiced techniques on the lower sections, while I repeated Ian’s lessons verbatim to my friends. Used to running up glacier ice, Bharat seemed surprised each time his feet skittered off. Much fitter than I, he made his own adjustments, slamming his crampons in harder and relying more on his strength.
Prerna, primarily a rock climber, adjusted even more quickly: for her, it was like learning a new kind of climbing, not relearning what was second nature. She took smaller steps than Bharat, looking for balance and safety, but still progressing upward.
A small avalanche submerged Bharat while he was climbing. “Are you OK?” I shouted. “Yes” came the reply as he reappeared, still hanging on to his tools, now dusted with snow. As usual, Bharat was unfazed. Nonetheless, we got off the ice fast. Later, we theorized that a group of bharal or ibex set off the slide. In terms of history, we had achieved nothing. But I considered that day to be a success. We had taken “climbing” to where it had probably never been before: the winter of Spiti.
BY THE NEXT WINTER, I had failed on multiple big mountain routes, and I was running out of money. I mulled giving up trying to climb full time. Instead of going back to Spiti, I spent time with my partner as she completed a PhD, and I got a dog.
Meanwhile, Bharat returned to the valley with a small group of explorers to hone his skills, soloing twenty- to thirty-foot waterfalls until he improved his confidence and his footwork. Two other climbing teams visited Spiti that winter. Among them, the photographer Abhijeet Singh and the apple farmer Pranav Rawat completed the first ascent of Shela Nala. In the film they made, The Fall, the ice morphed from thick blue flows to a silken grey strands near the top, where water ran loud beneath the surface. They spoke of their fear and of how they’d pushed past it. All I saw, though, was a climb that I felt should have belonged to me. My desire had transformed into something selfish.
In February 2016 Bharat took the bus into Spiti before the first snowfall. I followed a few days later, with Argos, my new dog, and Nishit Shah, a boulderer who had a fear of ropes. For the past couple of years, Nishit had to work in his family’s ceramics factory, and he had only climbed indoors. Now, he hoped that by trying something new that scared him he could get back to the adventurous life he loved.
This time, when the car refused to start, a local mechanic rigged a pressure cooker to blow steam into my tank. Nonetheless, we still couldn’t get the engine warm enough to run before 9 a.m., and we knew we had to get back to Kaza before the sun set and the car stalled again. This winter had been unusually dry. The waterfalls had formed as isolated white strips in a desert of brown mud. For hours, we practiced on short bits of ice, and then we drove to a small hydroelectric project at Lingti Nala, where frozen spray caked the sides of a canyon, creating strange, bulbous shapes. Bharat and I considered it unsafe to lead: the main stream was still wet and there was a high possibility of finding ourselves in a huge, flowing waterfall, so we took turns toproping again. Nishit shouted, dangled and thrashed as he overcame his anxieties. Even Argos learned how to slide on the ice and to use his claws for traction.
After all that practice, however, I had even less confidence than before. The desert ice formed in wafer-thin layers that readily crumbled, and we either had to scratch the surface with our crampons, or bash them in really hard. Only Bharat appeared somewhat at ease on the vertical ice, though he, too, looked downcast. We had ruined one of the ice screws by trying it out. I felt terrible because replacing it would take a fair chunk of our income and months to order it from the United States.
I knew we hadn’t done enough to prepare for a first ascent, but our time in Spiti was limited: at any moment, blizzards might arrive to trap us in the valley. When I look back now, I realize that I didn’t even gaze around. I can say nothing of the beauty of those narrow canyons, where we were probably the only winter visitors. I didn’t pay attention to the way the snow sparkled in the bright sun or how the light created shifting hues across the mountains and the ice. I had only one thing in my mind: to establish new routes.
ONE MORNING, after a bowl of thukpa–soupy noodles with vegetables–we unwrapped the tarp we’d tied around the car and let the engine heat up; then we drove halfway to the Ki Gompa and parked by the side of the road. We hiked up a dry nala, or a water channel, for an hour. Somewhere along the way, we lost Nishit, only to see him walking back toward the car. Much yelling and some barking later, we convinced him to rejoin us, since he had our camera.
Ahead, a frozen waterfall rose in perfect steps like a giant god’s staircase. Nishit declared the altitude was too much for him, so he would focus on taking pictures of whoever climbed it. Bharat started up. After a short break on a ledge about ten meters up, he continued over a steep, ridged section. With each swing, small fragments rained down. Eventually, he returned to the ledge to rest and to gaze at the ice, as if charting a path. He placed another screw, seemingly as a placebo–since if he fell, he’d still hit the ledge. I knew he was going to power through when I saw an almost imperceptible shift in his body language, by now so familiar to me, like the faint twitch of an irritated dog’s lip, noticeable only to those who know the dog. He swung one axe with a resounding thwack, slammed his crampons, and coasted on to a dry, flat patch of scree.
After I joined him, we walked about thirty meters to another short iceflow, where he handed me the screws. As I traversed toward the center of the fall, the ice thinned. Shadows of black rock appeared behind the surface. I tried using a stone for a foothold, only to feel it shift. I moved up and down the diaphanous sheets, unable to place a screw. If I fell, I’d hit the ground hard. The only option was to trust my tools, and just go. I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself. I pulled out a tool and sunk it in again, just to be sure. I moved. The placements held.
With every step, the ice became less of a monster to fight, and I moved with more assurance. I stopped looking, continuously, for somewhere to place a screw. Instead, these few moments of flow showed me where this sort of climb can take a person–to that heightened level of awareness and consciousness, where all that exists is the current moment.
When I belayed Bharat to the top, he put his hand up for a high-five and said, “Good job. We did it,” in a monotone voice. He’s not one to speak much while climbing, but the depth of his words echoed in my mind. I whooped with joy. We found a way to walk down to the base. Nishit, his hands in his pockets, walked stiffly up to greet us. “Did you do it?” he asked. He looked nearly frozen. Argos, however, showed no sign of being cold, and he jumped on us with excitement, as if he hadn’t expected us to return.
Around the wood stove, later that night, Bharat and I named our little climb Baby Steps–to signify that we’d only just begun a journey. The idea of a perfect route lingered in our minds: a long line of ice up a steep, brown mountain, an image that embodied something of the essence of Spiti. A blend of exploration and technical skill, I also thought, where we could showcase ourselves as climbers to the world.
A Feast for Vultures
AFTER A DAY OFF, we decided to try the waterfall above the Ki Gompa. Its flow was part of an old water supply, rendered obsolete by modern plumbing. As we clambered up a rocky gully, a young monk yelled from a monastery rooftop that there was no way to go where we were headed. We responded with the false bravado of Himalayan climbers, and we struggled onward, laden with packs and boots, over steep, ice-crusted boulders. By the time we reached the start of the waterfall, only two or three hours of light remained, so we cached our gear and fixed a rope to make the approach easier.
The next morning, we set up a pulley system to haul the forty-kilo dog back up the steepest rocks. At the base, I anchored Argos to a screw for his safety and our own. Above us, trickles of water froze into elaborate flutings of thick ice. We expected it to be brittle, and it lived up to that expectation. Each kick of Bharat’s crampons sent the ice flying, until he began placing his frontpoints in the grooves between flutings with the grace of a rock climber. Just as he moved out of sight, I saw one foot, briefly, slip.
Following him, I found the ice turned to slush near the top. I raked an axe through mud and loose rock, unable to discover anything solid. All I could do was to emulate Bharat’s confident example and put all my strength into my feet.
Bharat had built an anchor in the gentle slope before the second pitch. We were above 4000 meters, now, and my breaths felt heavy. “Take your time,” Bharat said, his words slow and calm. It seemed as though he could see my nervousness. For the first time on this trip, I paused to look around. The narrow, steep gully enclosed us like a cloister. Frozen waterfalls gleamed above and below. The clouds, colder now, started to descend, taking us toward the gloaming. Far beneath us, the monks chanted Buddhist scriptures in the Ki Gompa. We were deep in the Spiti winter, playing with its hidden treasures, with the ice that would soon melt and break, seeping into the dry earth and giving birth to the grasses and flowers that sustained life through the summer. Ice is the soul of this valley, I realized. Elusive and ever-changing, it remains fundamentally unconquerable, impossible to possess.
Vultures hovered, checking us out. I felt a kinship with them: we were both looking for things hard to find, but very much present. In the dim light, the second pitch glowed smooth and bright as a mirror. Already tired, I knew I would have to climb efficiently. I slowed my breathing. That sense of flow wasn’t an experience that I could only stumble upon, I found. It was a state of mind that I could guide myself into–and as I did, I felt, once more, the mysterious call I experienced when I first came to Spiti, almost like an unseen horn, blown at a monastery puja: deep, dull, resonant, but inaudible to anybody else.
From the top of the climb, I could see the monastery again in its faded, earthy paint sprinkled with snow. Years ago, one of the monks had told me, “Tibetan Buddhism was made for isolated places like this. As monks, we are free from the attachments that most people have. We can focus on ourselves here, with no external noise.” He meant not just the noise of traffic, but also the noise of the daily routines, of love and attraction, hate and anger.
The spiritual beauty of this place is that it leaves you with no choice except to look within, I now understood. On that final pitch, any desire for ownership was absent. In its place was the endeavor to be fully present, to feel every placement and every movement so deeply that each placement and movement stops mattering. A calmness passed over me that had eluded me for the whole trip. Emptiness is fleeting, however, and it began to be replaced by baser thoughts when Bharat said, “Now we have to get down.”
For our rappel anchor, we used an old electricity pole. When we tried to pull the rope, from the bottom of the second pitch, we found it was stuck. Night was falling. Bharat volunteered to climb out of the gully and look for a longer, ice-free path to the top. He freed the rope, letting me pull it down, and shouted that he would walk back down to the monastery. I rappelled to a shivering, but deeply relieved, Nishit and Argos. We continued on to the car–only to find that Bharat had gotten there first, as nonchalant as ever. It had been dark for over an hour, and we were all triumphant–and very cold. Fortunately, the car started after just a few squeezes of the fuel pump.
SPITI NOW HAD AT LEAST THREE established ice climbs. What it still lacked was a long, legendary route, one that would attract climbers from all over the world. Yet as we talked that evening by the woodstove, we agreed that we had done all we could in a dry season. I have no doubt, next winter, more teams will arrive in search of their own treasures.
In the meantime, Bharat and I decided to look in other parts of the Himalaya and to connect with other Indians on similar quests. For a long time, in sensitive border areas, the government had avoided building roads. It will soon be possible, however, to drive into Zanskar, instead of walking for days along the frozen river. A new tunnel under the Rohtang La–the pass of the dead–will open up the Lahaul Valley in winter, a cold region filled with steep, long waterfalls.
As we approach these once seemingly inaccessible frozen walls, our mission is to put the names of our people in all the stories about the remaining ice climbs in the Indian Himalaya. This is a difficult journey, externally. As an inner journey, though, it is effortless. It is that transient moment of Shunyata, a feeling of emptiness that is also a sense of oneness. In touch with the breath that gives me life, for a brief instant, my Prana is connected to that of the earth. And on the ice, that moment is a lifetime.
–Karn Kowshik, Bhimtal, India