Wednesday, April 8, 2009

To the green pastures beyond!

Five steps and I again stopped to catch my breath. Panting I looked back; Sushil followed a few steps behind. Kalzang and Thukten were nowhere to be seen.”Lets rest while they catch up with us” I said to sushil and we sat down. I could see huge snow plumes rising from the summit and summit ridges of Kuwa (a 6000 meter high mountain). This was a signal that the winds were picking up and the weather was soon to deteriorate. Sushil and I faced our backs to the wind which by now must have been over 40 km/hr. We did not speak; our parched throats forbid that. A little later I could hear hard snow crumble under footsteps. Finally kalzang and Thukten had arrived. I turned back to face them. White lips, snow covered eyebrows; both of them just dropped next to us. I don’t remember how long we sat in silence. I looked around and only white glare reflecting from the snow met my eyes. Visibility had drastically dropped because of the snow drift being carried around by the hurricane forced winds. The four of us just remained silent. A thin sheet of snow covered our backs but no one bothered about it; we had bigger things to worry about.

A cold night under a overhanging cliff

Our hands were cold; throats dry, all the water we were carrying had frozen in our rucksacks; we were exhausted; dark storm clouds had built up and in within the next few minutes we lost the sunlight. With the wind picking up the temperature plummeted 30 below zero. I checked my GPS altimeter it read 5550 meters above sea level. We were almost there. The Shilla pass stands at 5670 meters above sea level. I could see the prayer flag of the pass rattle in the howling wind. Just 120 meter of the climb left and across lay the green pastures that we came hunting for.

I was surveying Spiti to help prepare the management plan for the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary and the surrounding landscape. This time the Himachal Pradesh forest department had invited NCF to help prepare the management plan. This time the plan was to be prepared through participatory process and action. I was to interview villagers, examine their resource use patterns and the distribution of wildlife and assess human wildlife interaction relevant for the management plan. Since the study area contained many unexplored region of the Spiti Himalaya the work was both exiting and difficult.


One such completely unexplored region was the Lingti valley. Lingti is a tributary of the Spiti. It meets the Spiti very close to the junction of the Spiti and Pin rivers. Although wildlife in most other parts of the Spiti valley has been studied to an appreciable degree (4 PhD’s and a few smaller projects) almost nothing was know about the wildlife of Lingti valley. I was to be the lucky one to get the opportunity to explore this hidden valley.

Although Spiti is very sparsely populated the livestock density in this region is relative much higher. Previous research has shown this to be the single biggest threat to the wild ungulate population in the region. Overgrazing by seven different species of livestock over the last three millennia is also theorized to have competitively exterminated other species of wild herbivores such as the Tibetan Argali, Kiang, Tibetan Gazelle, Tibetan Antelope, Wild yak and marmots from this region. During my earlier survey I had confirmed a last remaining population of Marmots at the source of the Spiti River. But this hadn’t satisfied me. I was looking for something bigger, even if it could be a new population of the bharal or ibex; the two species of ungulates commonly found in Spiti. And I was very sure to find something big in the Lingti river valley. Not only are there no villages in this valley but also no herded livestock in this valley. Only about seventy domestic yaks use this over 250 km^2 of pastureland. The last wildlife surveyor to come here had visited this place in the 60’s and reported presence of wild yak from this region. This was an exciting piece in the literature but I was a little skeptic about this report because the habitat in the valley was completely different from that of the flat Tibetan plateau where the wild yak are know to be commonly occurring.

I always spent enough time in the villages gathering local information around the places to be surveyed. When we interacted with people from around the Lingti valley they told us that there are extensive plateaus inside the valley. Lush green pastures covered these plateaus from end to end. People told us about the ruin of ‘Yulshokpo’ an ancient village located inside the valley. The people of the village, as I was told, abandoned it because of its remoteness. People also believed that one could cross this valley and the mountains beyond and reach Ladakh. Many years ago a yak crossed the mountains and this valley and came into their village. It turned out that this yak was a domestic yak probably belonging to the ‘Changpa’ nomads of the ChangThang (Ladakh). And if a domestic yak could cross these barriers so could a wild yak, but the local people strongly believed that there were no wild yak in this valley. When I asked them about blue sheep and ibex they told me that there were no ibex in the valley but the numbers of blue sheep were huge. Some said that they had seen herds of as many as 120 blue sheep. But then they added that the blue sheep of the Lingti valley were not grey or blue, as many people see them, but ‘red’ in colour!!! I ignored the story of the red sheep the first time I heard it but I kept hearing the same story in all the villages that surround this valley. Sushil and I reasoned that these could be female ibex that people confused for blue sheep. This explanation for the story seemed reasonable as female and young male ibex are of the same size as the blue sheep, they don’t have noticeable curved horns and their coat colour is reddish brown. After discussing the matter over a few nights Sushil and I were convinced about the presence of ibex inside the Lingti valley.

Now the question was how to get into this valley. One way was to follow the Lingti river upstream but the current was very strong and thus crossing the river was almost impossible. To take this route we would have to wait till the river froze completely during peak winter and then walk over the sheet of ice. This ice sheet had started to build up but was yet too thin to walk over. The only other choice was to climb over one of the ridges that flank the valley and climb down into the valley. The lowest point on these ridges was at 5670 meter a place called the Shilla Jot. We would have to climb into this pass,an ascend of over 1400 meters from its base and descend into the valley beyond in one day. A difficult task but possible. I spoke to the elders of the village and asked for advice to climb this pass. They unanimously agreed that it was too late into the winter to climb a pass that high. But also agreed that this was my only chance to see the Lingti valley because according to them it would be suicidal to try to walk over the ice along the semi-frozen Lingti river. It was up to me to decide whether to walk the river or to climb into the pass.

I wanted to see this hidden valley badly and I decided to climb into the Shilla Jot and go across. I needed a small but strong team to do this. My plan was simple; a team of three or four strong climbers with every thing they need to survive in the high altitudes (ration, clothing, climbing equipment) on their backs should camp at the base of the pass on the first day. Then on the second they were to cross the Shilla Jot. Next seven days they were to survey the Lingti valley and finally come out the same way. I was aware that it was a ambitious plan; I was asking this team to carry rations for over ten days and climb mountains that need mountaineering expeditions to scale. But I knew that we were a team that could pull this with a little help from the weather gods.

‘Sushil’ the eldest and the strongest of us all was the first to volunteer for the team. ‘Kalzang’ a young wildlife enthusiast who was helping with the education program to spread the word of wildlife conservation amongst school kids jumped into the immediately after Sushil. ‘Thukten’ a local guy, had climbed to this pass many years ago, also wanted to come. The four of us made a good team with a strong chance of making it across and coming back.

And, after over six hours of climbing here we were 5550 meters up into the thin air; cold, exhausted and dehydrated. But, we were only 120 meters from the top of the pass. On the other side I did not expect such strong wind because that was the leeward slope. The top of the pass promised and end to all our miseries. But I was not sure if we had the strength left in us to reach the top. The last 120 meters was also relatively a difficult climb. Our backpacks were top heavy and did not have the same strength that we had in the morning. The chilly wind was sucking out every bit of strength out of us. These last few meters were also much more wind exposed.

Sushil was the first one to get up. The three of us silently followed behind him. The wind had picked up and it was carrying spindrift of snow with it. We could hardly see the man in front of us. The situation showed no sign of improvement. We would often be blown off balance by the wind and it kept getting worse. We had hardly climbed about 20 meters when all of us sat down again. It was time to reconsider our position. We were definitely not in a state to climb the last hundred meters of the climb; not in this weather. After having climbed 1300 meters we just did not have enough strength to make it to the top; and again what lay on the other side was still a surprise. Even if we crossed the pass will we find a warm place to camp? What if it is just as windy on the other side of the pass? The risk was just too great but no one was ready to say it. After another long and silent break Sushil said softly “Its time to turn back”. Every one felt relieved; the toughest decision was made. We felt sad because we could not do what we came for. After all the effort and pain we had to turn back just 100 meters short of the top. This was not the summit of just another mountain; for us it was our gateway to the hidden valley of Lingti. As we got up to leave a tear rolled down my eye and came to rest, freezing, on my cheek. I knew I would try again; we had taken the beating but we hadn’t lost yet. The mysteries of the Lingti valley would have to wait a little longer.

Even before we could climb down to the base we had chalked up a new plan of going up the frozen riverbed of Lingti. We had to find out what animals had made Lingti their home.

Winter in Spiti

This is in early December when I had just reached Kibber. The beauty of the place just swept me off my feet. I didn't stay here for long, this was just a acclimatization point for me. Already at an altitude of 4200 meters i was exited about the days to come when i would be spending 4 months at 4500 meters in the winter.

During the early days there wasn't much of snow and the alpine steppe grasslands and rolling hills were a sight. The landscape with all its wildlife and mountains is just beyond my capabilities to describe.

This was when i got lucky for the first time and saw eight wolves attack a group of bharal. This is probably the best wildlife encounter i have ever had. The sight of eight wolves charging up towards a herd of bharal is just magnificent. although I have posted a photo of the alpha of the pack there were even young cubs in the pack. I cant unfortunately post all the photos as they need to be used for professional use.
Canis lupus chanco

31st December approached and me and Takpa made a plan to climb mt Kanamo again and this time we wanted to do it on the 1st January 2008. We were aware that the temperature on the summit could be anything around -40 to -50 degree C as it was -20 at the camp itself.
The early start for mt kanamo. Cho-cho kang nilda in the background...

The early start in the early morning cold was very helpful. Near the summit both Takpa an me were badly suffering from cold and were lucky to have escaped without frost bites. Takpa proved to be an amazing mountaineering partner. We discussed every decision and his experience was worth a million bucks.

I always make big plans, alpine style etc, I have had my share of success but the peak my of climbing is yet to come. hopefully soon.
Takpa on the summit of Kanamo on the 1st of January...

after 1st January the weather showed its mood and took a turn for the worst. We faced blizzards after blizzards for the rest of January. On many occasions we got caught in . Things thankfully never went out of our control during these stormy outing but facing a head way wind with temperature dipping to -25 C was an experience in itself. soon we got used to it. but today I think of those days and a shot of adrenaline runs through my blood streams

End of the storm season the world changed for me. It turned into a place i had always dreamed of, not that it was any less earlier but i was waiting for this change.
Takpa and Kalzang, in the background is the famous Kee Monastery.

This also happened to be the breeding season of the red fox and the snow leopard and I was fortunate to witness the courtship of the Red fox.
The courting pair...
The same pair...

I always enjoyed watching foxes. Neither are they difficult to spot nor are they too shy of humans. They have a fascinating world of their own. living a life that is mainly very solitary they can often be seen playing with themselves or with their siblings (young) or partners (during the mating season). Their dark red coat and bushy tail also makes them one of the most beautiful animal of the landscape.
A lonely guy who lived near my camp...

Apart from the foxes other animal that blessed me with its sight was the snow leopard. I was luck to have been able to see the snow leopard thrice in those four months. On one of such sighting I was lucky to see three of them together.
This was the third of them. We were fortunate to be able to observe them for over three hours.
And here are two more, although they look like courting pairs in this photograph in the field they felt more like mother and her cub.
Watching a snow leopard in its natural habitat is the ultimate gift that a wildlife biologist who loves mountain can ever ask for. I had my moments.

Apart from the wildlife and mountaineering time I also enjoyed and star gazing in kibber. about which I shall post soon