Photos from India

Monday, September 8, 2008

A morning in Manali

It is cold this morning, colder than it has been since I arrived in Manali. I am still in my sleeping bag but I can tell something is different today. The window as always was open all night and when the first light of the day came in, I began to awake. I pull the sleeping bag over my head and cans see through a crack in the curtains that the sky is gray today. Yesterday, it had begun to rain in the afternoon canceling my plans to follow a nearby river up to the snow line on a nearby mountain. Now, I emerge from my room to find a stunning scene before me. Mist is rising off the pine trees that surround the steep slopes of this narrow valley that I am in. The clouds are high enough to reveal the peaks of the mountain tops flanking the valley that are freshly dusted with snow. It is cold today and the shorts and jacket I am wearing are nowhere near enough to keep me warm. For some reason I decide not to change into something warmer and I pick up my book, sip on my cup of coffee and enjoy the brisk air along with the beautiful mountain views.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Leh to Manali (unbelieveable!)

I have been trying to sleep now for a couple of hours. My warm fuzzy hat is pulled down over my eyes to keep out any light even though it was three in the morning when I boarded this bus. I am wearing the same clothing I wear snow boarding and yet I am still cold. The bumps on the road and the freezing cold are keeping me from sleeping but I continue to close my eyes and try. Finally I give up. I can sense something different and my curiosity leads me to figure out what has changed. We have definitely begun to descend as the engine is not straining the same way it was for the first two hours of the journey. I open my eyes but everything is dark. My hat is still pulled down over my eyes. As I roll the soft edge of my hat back I find it is still night time but light is beginning to appear in the sky. Everything is white. There is a thick blanket of snow covering everything that surrounds me. Suddenly I realize how dangerous this is, driving in a small bus over a mountain in the snow and I sit up in my seat to take a closer look.

I had crossed the highest and the third highest mountain passes that were just down the road from where we were now and neither looked like this. One had bits of snow here and there and was tucked in between a few glaciers while the other was engulfed in a blizzard while I was there causing me to nearly freeze to death on the motorcycle I was riding. Seeing as how I was trapped in that snow storm just a few hours back, that is most likely the same snow storm that caused all the snow to cover the ground here. As I look out the window and observe the skills of the bus driver, I begin to relax as there are tire tracks embedded in the road from other vehicles that have passed before us. We are driving slow and the road doesn't seem to be covered in ice so I begin to relax.

The sun never rises but the sky begins to lighten. We take a break by stopping the vehicle in the middle of the snow on this one lane winding mountain road. I am grateful as I have been staring out the window at one of the most photographic opportunities I have ever seen. There are snow covered mountains everywhere and down the valley in the direction we are heading, you can see the snow line on a mountain with the blackness of the unlit portion of it's base supporting a graceful transition to the snow covered top. There is enough light to see everything clearly and the cloudy sky is lit by the early morning light. I jump out of the bus and take one of my favorite photos from my entire trip. Even though I am nervous about the twenty hour bus drive I have ahead of me, it looks like the endless scenery provided by the Himalayas is going to make up for the difficulty of the journey.

We transition from snow back down into a valley where the stark desert scenery of the Northern Himalayas returns. The road winds back and forth for hours at a time and actual sections of pavement are rare. We cross streams, mud, fields of boulders and road construction sites yet we do not break down. Not only can I not believe the condition of the roads but I can't believe that this is the most popular journey to do by motorcycle in the area. It takes three to four bone crushing days to make the journey on motorcycle and I had actually considered doing it. After learning that the cost to rent one for the journey was almost the same as buying a bike, I thankfully elected to travel by bus. There isn't much for roads here and we are averaging about twenty kilometers an hour. I don't sleep for the entire journey as the road is so rocky and bumpy that my whole body is being tossed around in my seat. Thank God I am not on a motorcycle!

The day winds on and the scenery continues to be as incredible as ever. I can't even believe the things I am seeing out of my window. How can there be so many enormous mountains and endless valleys with no one living in them and it not be named some sort of National Park. This is one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen and could possibly exist in the world and yet so few people outside of India even know about it. I think about how lucky I am to be here, smile and open my window fighting the bitter cold wind every chance I get trying to take just one photograph that will come close to telling the story of the epic journey I am making on the highway from Leh to Manali.

We are getting closer to Manali, I can feel it. The desert environment is gone and grass and trees are beginning to cover the hillside. There is a small river flowing through the valley we are in now and the air isn't as cold or dry anymore. I can't imagine that we have any more mountain passes to cross before I arrive and then I realize I am wrong. We begin going up the hill on a rocky and muddy stretch of road. The bus continues to climb and I continue to hang my head out the window to photograph the snowy peaks that the clouds are slowly exposing on the opposite side of the valley. Up and up we continue to climb and I can't see the top of the mountain, only the craziness of the winding road that lurks beneath us. Some parts of the road are washed out by the streams that flow over them and there is barely enough room for our bus to cross over yet we continue to press on. Our climb continues toward yet another pass. Two hours after we begin our ascent from the valley floor, the road levels out and we accelerate up to at least forty kilometers an hour. This lasts for about four minutes before we get to the other side of the ridge and I look down to see an endless snake of road ahead coiling around itself trying to keep it's grip on the near vertical cliffs that tumble far down below to Manali.

This seems to be the worst stretch of road yet and to make matters worse, there is an endless stream of trucks, buses and jeeps making their way up the hill. Uphill traffic has the right away on this single lane mountain road and we are continually tucking onto the edge of the cliff with the wheels nearly falling off the side to let the traffic pass. We are traveling slow, as slow as we have been traveling for the entire journey. I can see Manali up ahead and the last sign I saw put us only thirty five kilometers away. It is now dark again and our headlight barely light up the road ahead. Fortunately the lights of the endless stream of vehicles ahead continues to light the way for us. Down we continue for another two hours. Again I am looking at the road and feeling every bump and the bus slip and slide through the mud and wondering why anyone would want to make this journey on a motorcycle which is made to travel on smooth pavement.

Buildings begin to appear on the sides of the road and I can tell we are close. The last sign I saw put us just a five kilometers away from Manali. The journey is almost over and while I am happy that it is nearly over, I am sad that it is ending. It has been one of the most amazing trips I have taken, crossing the Himalayan mountain range on a slow bus over some of the worst roads I have ever seen. I am tired and stiff from the journey. It is nearly nine o' clock at night and I have not had dinner. A warm meal before crawling into my sleeping bag is the only plans I retain for the evening followed by a deep deep sleep. I am here, I am in Manali.

Blizzard Conditions on motorcycle!

I have my permits in hand to visit Pangong Lake which straddles the border of Tibet and Kashmir and with a solid motorcycle I am heading up the third highest road in the world. It is a bit cold but I am riding in the sunshine. There are clouds in all directions hovering on the mountains and I can see the precipitation coming down in different areas. Somehow, the weather is holding out for me other than the occasional sprinkle. Up the mountain I continue enjoying the views along the way.

Finally I reach the top and take a couple of pictures. There is a military base that provides free tea and coffee to warm up the weary travelers that make the journey over the pass to Pangong Lake. I take in the views while I sip my coffee. Everything is incredible except for the threatening clouds that loom on the horizon and mountain tops. I thank the army official for the coffee, kick start my motorcycle and begin the bumpy journey down.

The views and the road continue to become even more amazing. I am weaving through a narrow canyon where boulders the size of homes have fallen by the road side. As I exit the canyon, I am in a steep valley riding alongside a small stream on a fairly decent road. I must be close to the lake. There are creeks crossing the road which come up out of nowhere causing me to have to slow down rapidly but the brakes are good on my bike and there are no problems at all. I round another corner and get my first view of the lake. Though it is cloudy, I can see the rich color of the water and the mountains that surround it. I can't wait to explore!

The road disappears into a rocky off road vehicle path. I begin to wonder where in the hell I am and start to wish that there was someone else in the area. It is just me and the rocky road ahead. I cross a small river on the motorcycle and somehow avoid falling over into the freezing cold water. My spark plugs get water on them from the river and my bike won't make it up the hill. I am pushing the bike and running the engine at the same time trying to get it going again. What if it is broken and I am stuck here in the middle of nowhere? What the hell am I doing here anyway?

The bike begins to work again but the road continues to deteriorate and I even consider turning around. A bit of pavement appears but only briefly and I realize that this must actually lead to the lake. Another few turns and there it is! The end of an incredible mountain lake sitting at 4500 meters in the heart of the Himalayan mountains! The colors are stunning and the mountains that surround it are absolutely beautiful. I can't believe how wonderful this place is, more than worth the six hour ride over the mountain.

At sunset, the clouds briefly break giving me the opportunity to snap a few good photos in the cold evening light. It is not just cold but freezing. I ask a man running a camp nearby how cold it will get tonight and he says -7 (Celcius). Brrr! It is going to be a cold night in the tent! I eat a dinner consisting of several packs of instant noodles and a chocolate bar. It is still early so wrapped up in my sleeping bag I spend an hour or so reading before falling asleep. The rain begins. I don't know how long I have been sleeping but I think it is a good thing that it is raining now rather than tomorrow. Maybe all the clouds will be gone when I awake. I fall asleep again but the rain and wind continues to wake me up throughout the night.

It is morning and I don't hear rain. I feel the sunrise coming through the tent so I put on some warm clothes and crawl out of my tent. Outside I find a sliver a sunshine has penetrated the cloud cover. The light shines in my face blocking out the views of the lake. It is cold and the weather looks much worse than the day before. It begins to sprinkle and snow at the same time. I take shelter in a nearby parachute tent where I find some coffee. The rain and snow picks up and continues for several hours. There is nothing more to do than try and stay warm by holding a cup of coffee so I drink four cups of coffee this morning. Every time the rain and snow eases, I step outside only to see more coming our way, straight out of the valley from which I came and which I will need to leave by in a few hours if I want to make the bus I have already paid for that is leaving tonight.

A break in the weather finally appears and I spend a half hour struggling with my cold motorcycle engine trying to get it started. Finally the choke begins to work and the carburetor warms up a bit and the engine starts. I let the bike run and my weather window continues to look wonderful. The valley I am heading up has a small window of blue sky above even though there is a thick layer of clouds covering the mountains not far over head. I can see the snow coming down on the mountains but this is my only chance so I take it.

I pass over the obstacles I crossed the day before without any problems and the weather continues to hold out on me. Occasionally it rains a bit but quickly stops not causing any problems for my drive. I begin to make my way up the mountain back towards the pass I must cross to return to Leh. It keeps getting colder and there is no sign of blue in the sky anymore. The clouds are looming just above and I can see the snow covering all of the mountains hovering just below the clouds. I continue on up the mountain.

Oh my God I am freezing! I can't believe the situation I have gotten myself into this time! I am on a motorcycle, it is snowing as hard as I have ever seen and I can't see but a few feet in front of me. The snow hitting me in the eyes hurts and is making it difficult to even keep my eyes open. My face is frozen to the point that when I touch it I can't even feel my hand rubbing upon it. There isn't much left of the road anymore, just a series of puddles and rocks. I can't turn back because the weather is now just as bad where I came from and I have to catch a bus tonight. I press on in the freezing cold wondering where the mountain pass is and hoping that I arrive at the top where I know there is a warm drink and some shelter waiting.

Where is that damn pass! I don't know how much more of this I can take. Should I stop and wait? Will this end in an hour? A day? A week? There is no choice, I must keep going. I have to be close, I can feel it. The snow is easing just enough that I can now see a little further. It must be near. I see something, a building maybe? No, it is an army truck. It passes me along with several others. There are more but they aren't moving. The road is now flat, a few small buildings appear! I am there, I am at the top! I am alive and not yet frozen. I quickly park my motorcycle and with my entire body trembling, I make my way into the small shack to warm up. The coffee is warm and sweet and warms my entire body with each sip I take. The blood is beginning to flow again to my extremities and the I am beginning to feel my face again. I am not going to die, I am not going to freeze to death.

Back outside, the weather is clear now. Was it like that when I arrive? I didn't notice but I can feel a bit of sun upon my face. I easily kick start my motorcycle and begin the rugged journey down expecting to have good weather for a while. Five minutes later, it is snowing again and I can't see anything. The remnants of the cliff side road are shaking every bone in my body though I can't see how much further down I must go to get out of the snow. I am shaking again but there is no option now, the only way to warm up and get out of the snow is to continue on down.

Down I continue fighting the snow traveling as slow as possible without falling off the motorcycle. An hour passes and the fog thins. It is still snowing but I can see smooth sections of road down below and the snow line on the mountain is now almost parallel with my position. The snow is breaking. My entire body is covered in ice but now I can see! There is no pain in my eyes from the snow and ice crystals hitting me while I try to see the way ahead. I am alive and have survived! It has been the most intense motorcycle ride I have ever taken and I am happy to be alive. To have ridden through a blizzard in the Himalayas is an amazing event. It is a perfect example of a trip where it wasn't so much about the destination as it was about the journey. Though I am still cold and covered in ice I am smiling and happy. I have completed an amazing ride facing difficult obstacles and persevered through the face of adversity. It is an incredible feeling that is not easily obtained and I have a story I can tell for all the years to come. I would do it all again without a doubt.

Ascending Stok Kangri

Having finally recovered from the atrocious stomach virus I have been battling, I decided I was feeling strong enough to set off with an American friend named Rick to climb a nearby peak, Stok Kangri. Stok Kangri is a beautiful site to see from the town of Leh. Amongst the snow covered peaks of the Himalayas, it's steep snow covered summit protrudes up higher than all the others visible in the area, all the way up to 6,130 meters or over 20,000 feet! Rick had been doing some trekking in the area and I had spent a few afternoons doing some short treks up to about 4300 meters so I thought the task at hand would be difficult but surely not impossible.

After spending a day in Leh organizing permits, renting crampons and ice axes along with figuring out what kind of food we could take along for the journey, Rick and I boarded an early morning bus across the valley to the village of Stok where the mountain ascent would begin. The bus ride in itself was a cultural experience filled with local minority culture farmers, traditionally dressed, turban bearing Indians, children on their way to school and a few Buddhist monks heading to the monastery that stands guard over the small village of Stok. At the end of the line on the bus stop, Rick and I climbed up onto the roof of the bus to retrieve our backpacks which would provide us with all our food, shelter and clothing for the journey up the mountain. No porters or mules for us, we were going to be self sufficient!

Now, I should mention that this trek is typically done in four to five days. We were accounting for this same time period for our trek when we rented some of the gear we would be taking as well as when we purchased all our food for the trip. Rick had even made the comment to someone who asked what all we were taking, “We aren't going to go hungry, that is for sure!” For now, let's just say that Rick and I decided to do things a bit differently than you typically would.

The first half of our first days trek up the mountain went quite well. The path followed a small river through steep and jagged canyon lands. At times, the trail crossed the river so we had to gently hop across small stones to follow along. The weather was beautiful and the altitude hadn't started to affect either of us. Our only breaks were for food and to take the strain of the heavy packs we were carrying off of our shoulders. We were making great progress and began to discuss our options where to camp that night.

Typically, you would camp about half way up to base camp on the first day at an altitude of around 4300 meters. We had already passed that point and feeling that we were both pretty acclimatized, we decided to go ahead and make the trek all the way up to base camp (4900 meters) on that first day. After a lunch of tuna fish sandwiches, we headed on up the hill towards base camp. The trail became steeper and the altitude began to affect us both. It was slow going with lots of stops for rest but we pressed on and eventually we could see the snowy summit, the tip of the glacier we would need to cross and the prayer flags flying in the wind at base camp. Step by step, base camp became closer and after a hard day of trekking, we finally arrived.

While you are supposed to spend a night at base camp acclimatizing, followed by a day of rest before departing for the summit at 1:00 in the morning, Rick and I decided that we should just eat a big dinner, get some sleep and press on to the summit that night. I wasn't feeling 100% but I thought it sounded like a good idea. We ate a big dinner and realized that throughout the day we had eaten nearly all the food we brought along and decided our decision to climb that night made plenty of sense.

At 8:00 we wrapped up in our little tent wearing plenty of warm clothing and kept the zippers tight on our sleeping bags. I don't think either of us slept much as I only recall the sound of Rick trying to breathe in the thin air and rolling around all night. One o' clock a.m. finally rolled around and we gathered up a few things in the dark freezing cold night, put on our headlamps and set off for the final push up up to the summit.

The first part of this leg of our trip led us straight up to a ridge. In the first half hour of our slow paced trudging up the mountain we ascended 300 meters putting us just 900 meters from the top! Rick said he felt like he was going to throw up but other than feeling a bit short of breath, I was feeling pretty good. We continued on our way and as Rick began to feel better, I started to feel worse. The higher we climbed, it was like someone was putting rocks in my boots, my pockets and my backpack. Our pace became slower but we expected this delay and we pressed on. With just a crescent moon and the light of our headlamps lighting up the landscape before us, the reflections of the snow stood out from the rocky landscape guiding us to where we needed to be. We had made it to the glacier that we would eventually need to cross and the sounds that it made were quite eerie to hear in the middle of the night. Knowing the dangers of crevasses and wash outs I have to admit that the sounds being emitted from the glacier in the darkness began to intimidate me and made me second guess what the hell I was doing here in the middle of the night trying to climb a mountain.

As we followed alongside the glacier, the creaking and popping became louder and sometimes was loud enough to make you jump. We put our first footsteps on the crunchy snow that covered the glacier and slowly made our way across. Along the way we came across several large crevasses and small streams that were slowly eating their way through the glacier. We walked up and down the obstacles that were blocking our path and managed to find places where we could leap across. It took about an hour but we finally made it safely across the glacier to the scree covered slope up to the final mountain ridge.

At this point, I was definitely feeling short of breath and trying everything I could to control my heart rate when I walked but it seemed that with every few steps, my heart would accelerate to the speed of a heart attack! This is pretty typical for extreme physical activity but the idea is that you simply slow down and keep the pace just under the red zone. No matter what I did, I couldn't go slow enough. Every step made my heart pound continuously and I would have to rest for a minute or two until things slowed down. Rick was cold and didn't want to stop moving so he pressed on ahead as he was now feeling much better than I was. I continued up the mountain towards the final ridge at my slow pace, resting continuously and starting to feel like I was going to eventually have to turn back.

Rick was now a good ways ahead of me and rightfully so having a good bit of mountaineering experience and being much more acclimated from his treks in Leh while I was trying to recover from my stomach virus. I knew I would not see him again until we either crossed paths on his way down and my way up or back at base camp.

I went to take a sip of my water that I had been carrying and found it to be frozen. Just a half hour before however, I had filled up an extra water bottle on the glacier but I quickly discovered that it too had frozen. The lack of water stressed me out a bit but looking up towards the ridge I needed to get to that was now so close at hand, I knew that I had to try to keep moving. I continued the steep climb resting continuously with my heart still racing and I knew there was going to be no way I could make it to the top. I should have spent that day at base camp to acclimatize and not made the assumption that I could make it to the top without that stop! At about 5700 meters, just 400 meters from the summit, I sat down for a break to control my heart rate and decided it was time to turn back. I was cold, I had no water and I felt as if I would throw up the snickers bar I had recently eaten.

It took me a half hour of resting before I felt good enough to descend to base camp. I slowly made my way down the mountain, back across the glacier and down the final hill to our tent. By now, I felt horrible. My head hurt, I was nauseated, dehydrated and tired. Inside my tent, I found a bottle of water that wasn't completely frozen and took a big gulp before lying down in the early morning sunlight for a rest.

Rick returned around ten o' clock in the morning having made it to the summit but not feeling so great himself. He followed in my footsteps and climbed into the tent for some much needed rest. A few hours later, we both awoke, not feeling anywhere near 100% but we knew we did not want to spend another night sleeping at 4900 meters. We packed up our gear and ate a small bit of food as we had now consumed almost all of the food we brought along for the journey. As we made our way down, the headaches began to disappear and though neither of us really felt like eating much, we forced the last of our food down for lunch. The food made all the difference in the world and at that point we were feeling up to making the journey all the way back to town.

The rest of our trip down the mountain turned into a hell of an adventure on it's own. The river had risen and crossing became difficult including a solid hour where Rick and I managed to get ourselves stranded high up on a cliff side trying to find a way around the river. We were at the point where we were going to pitch our packs down in order to allow us to make the climb down when we managed to figure out a reasonable way to down climb the steep cliff we had ascended carrying all of our gear.

Less than 36 hours after we began our four or five day journey, we were back in town. We both felt better and after a hot shower, we headed out for a much needed recovery dinner. Though I didn't make it to the summit, I thoroughly enjoyed the adventure both up and down and saw some of the most striking scenery imaginable along with a sunrise that lit up the mountains like fire. Even though I was too weak to even take a photo of it, the memory of that sunrise will last me a lifetime. 5700 meters was the highest point I had ever made it to in my life and considering how sick I had been before hand, I felt pretty good about making it that far. I am going to be in the Himalayas for at least another two and a half months and with plenty of 6000 meter peaks in the area, I should have the opportunity to climb yet another!