This is a modified version of an old expedition report of mine entitled BACKDOOR TO SPITI : DEBSA 1992-1995, written in October 1995. The reason for putting this piece up at this late date is two-fold. Firstly, I consider it important from a mountaineering point of view, the Debsa Pass having amply fulfilled my hopes of becoming a recognized and well-used route. Secondly, my original report, the only complete document covering three forays into the upper Parvati valley, is not available except in the archives of the Alpine Club, London and the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, New Delhi.
I had originally sent BACKDOOR TO SPITI to the Himalayan Club, Bombay, and had received informal assurances that it would be duly published by them, but due to reasons unknown the editor of the Himalayan Journal chose instead to publish an abbreviated report crudely plagiarised from my article by another member of our team. The incident aroused in me grave doubts about the editorial ethics of the Himalayan Journal, and compelled me to sever all connections with the Himalayan Club as well as the aforesaid team-member.
I dedicate this piece to the memory of Thaillu Ram Thakur of Buruwa village, above Manali, the diminutive but lion-hearted guide on all our Parvati trips whose skills ensured our safety and our eventual success. Thelu, as we used to call him, was a delightful rogue and beloved of all teams who had the good fortune to employ him. He died as he had lived, a hero, throwing himself into the racing waters of a mountain torrent in an unsuccessful bid to save the life of a stranger. I count myself lucky to have known him.
The districts of Kullu and Lahul-Spiti of Himachal Pradesh enjoy a long common border, but this runs along a crestline that seldom drops below 4000 metres. Access from Kullu to Lahul is comparatively easy, there being a number of passes like the motorable Rohtang, the Hamta and the Sara Umga. But direct access from Kullu to Spiti is provided by only one pass, the famous Pin Parvati Pass (5319 metres) connecting the heads of the Parvati Valley in Kullu to the Pin Valley in Spiti. This pass is not easy and can be tricky to locate – Jimmy Roberts missed it in 1939 and landed up in Bushahr – but it has been the traditional direct route between Kullu and Spiti for a long time. It normally takes around two weeks to travel from Manikaran in Kullu to Kaza in Spiti by this route.
In 1952, Kenneth Snelson, J. de V. Graaff and others visited the Parvati, and after climbing in the Dibibokri area Snelson reached two cols on the Eastern watershed ridge of the Parvati that forms the Kullu-Spiti divide, and looked into 'the upper basin of the Parahio River' in Spiti. He did not descend the Spiti side, but it is likely that he may have looked down upon what I have called the West Debsa Glacier. [Himalayan Journal no. 18, p.110]
Four years after Snelson, Peter Holmes entered the upper Parahio over a pass from the Ratang, and exited into the Dibibokri by a difficult col that is now known as 'Holmes' Col'. This col, therefore, is the only other direct route connecting Spiti and Kullu, but a glance at Holmes' description of the crossing is enough to explain why it has failed to gain popularity.[Himalayan Journal no. 20, p.79]
In 1978 I had proposed to Nitai Ray, who was then the Hony. Secretary of the Himalayan Club in Calcutta, an expedition to point 6507 metres on the Kullu-Spiti divide and/or to the then-unexplored Lingti Valley in Spiti. The plan was sent to the Himalayan Club headquarters in Bombay for approval, but nothing came of it. However, the Lingti Valley was thereafter visited by teams from Bombay led by a prominent member of the Himalayan Club in 1983 and 1985.
In studying the problem of gaining access to Point 6507, I had considered crossing from the Parvati to the Parahio by a col leading to the to the Debsa. Even though the expedition failed to materialize, this unknown part of Spiti stayed at the back of my mind.
Circumstances dictated that fourteen years were to pass before I was in a position to do anything about the Debsa, but luckily no one else had turned their eyes on this remote corner of Spiti although many teams had travelled to the upper Parvati, mostly to cross Pin-Parvati Pass. Our 1992 trip was a light-weight two-man foray which abjured all sponsorship and institutional support. Moreover, we faced constraints of time and equipment. It was clear to me from the outset that climbing one of the many 6000-metre summits in the Debsa area was beyond our capability, and it would be better to concentrate on gaining and exploring the Debsa. After our 1992 trip it became clear that getting to the Debsa itself was going to be a trickier proposition than we had thought.
While planning for the 1993 trip it dawned on me that gaining the Debsa glacier would offer the chance to follow the outflow stream to the Thwak Debsa campsite marked on the map (from whose name I later derived the names of the Debsa Nala, the East and West Debsa Glaciers and the Debsa Pass). From that campsite a dotted track led down to the Parahio, and thence to villages in Spiti. As such, we would be opening up a new route between Kullu and Spiti, an alternative to the Pin-Parvati Pass. This seemed to be an eminently worthwhile objective by itself, much more so than the ascent of an unnamed peak. Since our new pass had to be negotiable by laden porters without specialized climbing gear if it was to be of any utility to the local people, it was imperative to find the easiest route possible.
In 1993 we believed such a pass had been found, but we did not dare to try completing the route by exiting through Spiti as we did not have Inner Line Permits : we were stupidly unaware that Spiti was no longer inside the colonial 'Inner Line', a fact we discovered only after returning to Delhi.
In 1994 a vehicular recce of the Spiti approaches showed our labours would be much reduced if we opted to attempt from the Spiti side as the height to be gained would be less by 5000 feet or so, but our 1995 plan to try this approach and have a bash at a handy summit before exiting through the Parvati Valley fell through because of destructive floods in Kullu in early September. By persistence and good fortune we managed to complete the transit from Manikaran in Kullu to Kaza in Spiti across Debsa Pass. Practicability for locals was demonstrated convincingly by our young Nepalese porter Shanti Prasad, who did the entire route wearing Hunters while carrying a substantial load.
T H E P A R A H I O
June 4 Rendezvous in the morning at Manali with our guide Thelu, a small man who is beginning to build a big reputation. Thelu needs an assistant, and we finally pick Lal Chand Thakur, though he lacks high-altitude experience.
June 7 We hire valley porters at Manali, reach Manikaran by bus, and walk to Barsheni and doss down on the verandah of the Primary School.
June 8 Khirganga is full of foreigners inhaling deeply of the fumes of prime Malana charas, something Thelu is a connoisseur of ( and also a known smuggler!)
June 9 Tundabhuj Cave is actually a long rock arch!
June 10 We avoid the mauvais pas of Patraghat by crossing and recrossing the Parvati over lingering snow-bridges, and get to the rock overhang and spring of Thakurkuan. It rains hard and our tent floor leaks and soaks some stuff.
June 11 Across a snow bridge next to the Pandava Bridges to Jauli Thach, a partly boggy plain with tiny round hillocks and lots of birds – rosefinches, snow-pigeons, redstarts, river chats etc. We camp and let the valley porters go a bit further and dump their loads at the Dwari caves. A high peak visible up the nullah opposite turns out to be Point 6248 metres.
June 12 About an hour after leaving Jauli Thach we pass an igloo-shaped shepherd hut made of rock, and heavy snow begins moments later. We shelter in the rock hut. It snows till near noon, and at 12.45 Thelu and Lalchand go down to Dwari to ferry up supplies. Snow starts again, driven horizontally from West to East by the wind which tries to remove the tent outer we have weighed down with rocks on the leaky roof of our rock hut. Thelu and co. return at 3 p.m. after the snow stops. The night is clear but the temperature is sub-zero.
June 13 After ferrying up more stuff, we put on boots and start on a recce up the slope to our left following the true right bank of the nullah coming down just beyond our camp. It's steep and a slippery combination of mud,stones,grass and snow on which our worn soles slip badly. After about ninety minutes we realize it won't go, and turn back after going up another 200 metres.
June 14 30 minutes after we start up-valley, we see a wedge-shaped peak flanked by a set of rocky pinnacles on the skyline to our left with a gully leading up towards it. The ridges bounding the gully look gentle-ish, and I send Thelu up the right-hand ridge to recce. He returns after nearly two hours to report possible exit routes towards the Debsa, and acceptable campsites. We decide to camp where we are, a boggy flat Thelu says is Kachh. He is wrong, but I find that out later. Supplies are ferried up from our dump in preparation for the morrow.
June 15 We climb up the left-hand ridge for three hours to reach a campsite at c.4480 metres, which has to be dug out to be made level. Kulu Eiger bears 183 deg. Magnetic, and South Parbati 209 degrees. Afternoon white-out.
June 16 Delayed by the lateness of the sun in reaching us, Thelu and Gupi leave only at 8.20 am, followed somewhat leisurely by Lalchand and me. They head up a big rock rib towards point 5680 metres, the triangular peak that fills the head of the gully we are in. We watch them rest, then rope up to go diagonally up a steep snow ramp towards the left, where we think there may be a col. They go out of sight at 12.15 pm and reach the col some ten minutes later. A steep snow slope falls away at their feet to a snow basin dotted with turquoise-colored meltwater pools. Formidable ramparts of snow-laden rock rise opposite. The backside of point 5680 looks as bad as the front – can't be climbed in a rush. There's no alternative to turning back.
For various reasons we begin withdrawal the next day, following the true right bank of the Parvati from Pandava Bridge to Tundabhuj. A beautiful snowy crest peeks above the bounding ridge of the opposite bank – a horse-owner at the thach above the Dibi-Parvati junction says it's locally called Ganesh. Later I identify it as Point 5810 standing well South of the Parvati : it can be approached through a stream that falls into the Parvati just before the Pandava Bridges.
We cross the Dibi nullah over a superb natural rock bridge and the Parvati over the worn snow bridge below Tundabhuj to reach Khirganga on the 19th.
Our hope of at least having glimpsed the Debsa vanishes as soon as I see the pictures taken from the highest point reached. It is not the Debsa but a small snow-basin lying on the Parvati side of the watershed ridge. Further analysis reveals to me that our last valley camp was far short of where we needed to be if we were to get to what looked like the best bet for a pass.
Next year I am transferred to Bombay as we plan for a post-monsoon return, but this handicap is more than compensated by the addition of Sanju, a veteran trekker, to our team. We rendezvous at Centre Point Hotel, Manali on September 26th at 6pm. The next day is spent finding a partner for Thelu (finally Hem Chand is recruited), valley porters and buying stuff. There's a crisis regarding kerosene and the problem is not solved till I run down the Protocol Officer at the Circuit House at 5 pm and brass it out with a faux permit – a narrow shave.
September 28 Thelu is not with us when we board the 8.45 bus to Manikaran, reached only at 3 pm after a big boulder blocking the road is dynamited. This delay helps Thelu catch up with us at 4pm and I move off. The moonlight helps, and Sanju and I reach Barsheni at 7.30 pm. It looks unfamiliar and our old tea-stall is gone – apparently most of the village got burned down in a fire three or four months ago. We stumble around in the dark till Sanju finds an old woman who gives us deliciously sweet cow's milk, tea and dinner. We move to the Primary School to sleep on the verandah. Around 10pm Gupi, Thelu and Hem turn up. The porters refused to move after reaching Tauk at 8pm, and they had wasted a lot of time at Tauk unavailingly trying to persuade them. All shops are shut, so the trio have to make a scratch meal off whatever hard rations we are carrying.
September 29 The porters arrive from Tauk early enough and begin to cook. The reunited party reaches Khirganga at around 2.50pm .
September 30 Reach Tundabhuj around 2.35pm. Chough and Blue Rock Thrush seen.
October 1 No snow bridges this time, and as we work our way towards Thakurkuan we see a white dragonfly precariously perched on a steep slope falling straight to the Parvati. Closer approach reveals it to be a crashed civilian Chetak helicopter(VT-EHM). The Nepalese fellow posted to guard it tells us it was summoned to rescue a foreign lady who fell and broke her leg at Patraghat, but it crashed while trying to pick her up from a small semi-level patch on the slope. Subsequently the lady and the crew of the chopper were picked up by a second helicopter. Immediately after photographing the Chetak we encounter the two slabs of the infamous Patraghat – the difficulty is more due to exposure than anything else. We camp at Thakurkuan. Weather turns cloudy with intermittent rain/snow. Men coming down from above are talking about a dead man, supposedly the victim of a bear attack.
October 2 At Pandava Bridges we are told the dead man is lying in a nearby cave shelter – from the empty packets of tranquillizers strewn about, he was clearly an addict, and the cause of death is not bear attack as was rumored but probably drug overdose. We push on and camp at the Dwari caves. A sawtooth ridge of black rock coming down from the left forms a distinctive feature of the upper valley.
October 3 Temp. 4 degrees C. at 6 am. Porters are paid off at Dwari. We retain one man, Sher Bahadur, to help with the loads. After moving from 9.15 am to 10.40 am I find I am near Beli, well beyond where we need to camp: in my anxiety not to repeat last year's mistake of camping too early, I have erred in the opposite direction and gone too far ! We retrace our steps and pitch camp at c.3960 metres on the wide river plain between Kachh and Kharadwar, below the sawtooth ridge of Point 5160 . Two streams from the snows between 5160 and Point 5267 fall steeply down the cliffs on our left.
Thelu goes up on recce at 1.35 pm following the slope between the stream and 5160's distinctive black sawtooth ridge. He reappears at 4.45 pm, coming down a scree fan further up the valley. He says this scree slope gives an easy and safe approach to a snow basin, and there are good campsites on top. Looking at the map, I am almost certain that he has been looking at the snow basin lying South of Point 5845, which will not serve our purpose as it is cut off from the Debsa.
October 4 Despite Thelu's advocacy of the route he recced yesterday, I opt for another route a little further to the left. Thelu, Hem and Gupi pick up loads for Camp 1, and Thelu leads off up a steep and unsafe slope next to the two waterfalls. This is clearly not a route for laden porters, so I set off with Sanju to look for a safer if more circuitous path. Backtracking down valley we come to a big rock with a shepherd cave on the river-bank, flushing en route a big snipe, which I later identify as a Solitary Snipe (Gallinago Solitaria). I think this shepherd cave is the true Kachh (approx. 3960 metres). We then follow a faint track going up the slopes and screes behind it.
After a two-hour climb we meet Thelu & co. Their direct route had to be negotiated with care and took time. I rest as I am feeling bushed, while Sanju joins the others. They climb another 30 minutes to dump stuff at an alp surrounded by boulders which gives some shelter from the wind. The only disadvantage is that water is a bit distant.
October 5 Cold morning – temp. was 0 deg inside the tent at 7.30 am – but sparkling weather. We move up and occupy Camp 1 (c. 4520 metres), which bears signs of gaddi visits. Wind starts blowing up-valley at 10.30 am and becomes cutting at 11.30 am. Clouds come up at 4 pm but clears by midnight.
October 6 We decide to push for the pass rather than set up another camp. Thelu, Hem and Gupi set off with the boots and climbing gear at 8.20 am, and I follow with Sanju about 20 minutes later. There is a succession of boulder and scree slopes, and we tend to the right. I am slow, and it's 10am when we reach a big muddy pool shaped like the figure 8 with a fine campsite nearby. We keep it on the left and go up a scree slope partly covered with snow. There is no sight of Thelu or the others. We finish on a snow flat which leads to a col visible in front. There are footprints on the snowy gully to our right which lead to the col. We tackle the steepening snow-slope, but about 20 metres below the col the snow becomes too steep for us to climb in Hunters. Our climbing boots are in Thelu's sack, so we are hopelessly stuck. Our high point is about level with pt.5160, so we are around the 5000 metre mark. Sanju and I get back to camp at 1 pm.
Gupi, Thelu and Hem return at 4 pm. They have made it to the col overlooking the Debsa! When I hear their narrative I realize our routes were different and the footsteps we saw were those made by Thelu on the 3rd. Today they had kept to the left on the slopes below pt. 5267 whereas we had gone up the right side below 5160. They saw the big pool only after they had passed high above it. Keeping left, they came to the steepening snows rising to the Parvati-Debsa boundary ridge. Here they stopped to put on boots, and found they had taken mismatched pairs due to not checking kit before leaving camp. Luckily my boots fitted Thelu, so the tangle was somehow sorted out. They made a further blunder in deciding to leave their crampons down below as the slope looked easy – when they came to the final rise to the col it was quite steep. Despite these hiccups they reached the col, which is 5360 metres as per the Survey of India map, then traversed left (West) to the c.5520 metre peak whose WSW ridge descends to point 5267.
Hearing their narrative, it dawns on me that Sanju and I had strayed towards the col leading to the next snow basin on the Parvati side, the one crossed by Thelu on the 3rd, and it was his footsteps we had followed to near the col.
October 7 The temperature drops sharply – its minus 14 degrees at 7.30 am! Crossing the col and descending to Kaza is out of the question : we are not equipped for it, and we have no Inner Line Permits, needed for entering Spiti. We pack up and descend to the shepherd cave on the river bank.
October 8 Feeling lazy, we move late from camp and stop at a rock-studded alp just before the Pandava Bridges.
October 9 For some unknown reason Thelu does not want to move off with us but insists that we go ahead, and he and Sher will follow and catch us up. Despite my reluctance at splitting the team the three of us and Hem finally move off at 9.30 am. We wait 45 minutes at Thakurkuan for Thelu and Sher to appear, but they don't. By then I am feeling really annoyed with Thelu. After negotiating the mauvais pas of Patraghat safely we finish a long day at an alp past Tundabhuj : I force the others to continue beyond Tundabhuj to teach Thelu a lesson. Plenty of bear signs about.
Thelu fails to arrive, and four of us have to squeeze into the Fairydown Sting tent and subsist on the dry rations I am carrying. We later discover that Sher had slipped on a rock section near Patraghat and hurt his knee, and after taking loads across Patraghat in four ferries Thelu had brought Sher across and slept at Tundabhuj.
October 10 I send off Hem at 8 am to look for Thelu – he returns at 9.15 to report Thelu and Sher are at Tundabhuj. Thelu comes in at 10.30 with the Nepalese chowkidar guarding the fallen helicopter whom we had met earlier. The chowkidar asks for Rs.400 to carry part of Sher's load – we agree on 300 plus chai/pani. We finish the day at Rudranag. I give Thelu a bit of a lecture : yesterday's problems arose because Thelu didn't move off along with us. Once a team gets widely separated it is difficult to come to each other's support.
Meet Thierry, a Frenchman from Gap who is training to be a ski instructor.
October 11 Leaving Rudranag at 8.30 am, we follow the new low-level route bypassing Barsheni and Tauk, have lunch at the Purna Dhaba at Ghanti Gad, at reach Manikaran in time to catch the 3.25 bus to Manali.
I am unable to go in 1994. Amit and Gupi make a vehicular trip to Spiti and report good roads and a regular bus service up to the bus-head at Gulling in the Pin Valley. Gulling to Thango or Thidim would be a two day walk, and from there to Thwak Debsa another two days or so, and the height to be gained is much less as compared to the Parvati side, so it makes sense to attempt from the Spiti side.
D E B S A P A S S
Original plan to go in July or August through Spiti has to be changed because of Thelu's prior commitments etc., so finally it was settled we would move in September. Rendezvous was fixed for Sept. 11 at Manali.
September 11 Starting from Bombay, I reach Chandigarh bus stand at dawn to find the Manali ticket counter shut, and on enquiry am informed that devastation caused by heavy rain and floods have severed all links to Manali. I get into the 5.20 am Kullu bus and reach the new bus stand there at 1.55pm to find no trace of Sanju or Gupi, who were supposed to arrive a day earlier. Doubtful that they could have gone beyond Kullu, I visit nearby guest houses and leave a message at State Bank of India, Kullu. About to start off for Manali, I make a last visit to the bus stand and run into Gupi! The sods had been belting rum, and had foolishly put up at a joint near the old bus stand rather than the new one.
After discussion we decide to repeat our 1993 route, as roads are in bad shape everywhere, and getting to Gulling on wheels could involve unbearable delays.
September 12 An early start sees us get to Ramshila by bus. We negotiate two big slide areas and cross the damaged footbridge near Seobag to the true left bank, whence a bus takes us to Jagatsukh. We cross the damaged bridge on foot, get a ride on a Gypsy, cross another broken section and reach Manali. Town's empty of tourists and food supplies are short.
No trace of Thelu, so after a visit to Rinzing's equipment store at the Gompa and a thukpa lunch we set off for Buruwa on foot. The road's gone in many places and the damage is huge – only the front wall of the Bashist telephone exchange is standing and the Beas has carved a new channel through the Army camp beyond it. A big MIL chopper comes in to unload rations. Sometimes we are forced to climb high on the muddy flank of the road, and a big,evil sheep once tries his best to knock me off my insecure footing as the herd swirls past, but eventually we get to Nehru Kund and cross the bridge to Buruwa. Thelu is greatly surprised, for he had assumed we weren't coming because of the floods. Anyway, he promises to come on the morrow with one more HAP. We return to Manali for the night.
That night the radio carries news of a big slide at Seobag that happened after we had come through – many people killed.
September 13 We reach Kullu with Thelu, his partner HAP Tej Ram Thakur, and six Nepali porters from Manali. We finish marketing and packing that night.
September 14 We reach Manikaran by 11.45am, and I am at Barsheni by 4pm. Sanju and Gupi appear a little later. There is no trace of Thelu or the porters that night, which we spend in some anxiety. Tension develops in the team.
September 15 No trace of porters in the morning. We go to Tauk, are reassured by two local men that our porters are coming up, and return to Barsheni. When the porters fail to turn up till 3pm our moods are distinctly sour and tension has grown – there is angry talk of abandoning the expedition. We shoulder sacks and set off for Manikaran, convinced some disaster has taken place. About one and a half kilometres past Tauk we come to the point where the lower and upper road forks, and there at last get accurate news of our missing porters : the tea-stall owner tells us that at about 6pm last evening our porters had taken the new lower road that bypasses Tauk and Barsheni!
About face again, and we get caught in a smart shower and have to dry off in the tea-shop at Tauk. Resuming our march at 5pm, we run into Thelu a little beyond Barsheni. Mindful of our injunction about pushing the porters on, he had got them to Rudranag by the low road at 8pm yesterday! On his own initiative he had sent them off to Khirganga before coming back to look for us. The blunder had been ours – we had not remembered the lower road that saves considerable leg wear, and searched behind rather than ahead – but Thelu had saved the day and kept the porters going on schedule.
We reach Nakthan at 6.45pm as darkness falls, and sleep in the verandah of a building.
September 16 We make up for our blunder by doing a good march. Starting from Nakthan at 7.05 am, we reach Khirganga in two hours,have early lunch there,and set off again at 10.40am. We catch up our porters at Tundabhuj, pass the cave at 3.30pm, and go on for another twenty minutes to stay at the new PWD bungalow erected in preparation for the multi-stage hydel project planned for the Parvati. I realize sadly that the beautiful valley is about to become a victim of progress. Lots of timber is already being extracted all round.
September 17 We cross Patraghat in fine style – there's a new jhula before it, and people are bypassing Patraghat by crossing it to the opposite bank, and re-crossing back at the Thakurkuan jhula. We pass Thakurkuan, which has now become populous, with 5/6 tents and a PWD hut a bit beyond. The porters need a little persuasion to continue for another hour or a little more to the first large bugial with a rock hut big enough to accommodate them.
In the evening there is lots of excitement among our carnivorous Nepali porters at the sight of a strayed sheep on the opposite bank of the Parvati. Thelu makes an idiotic bid to ford the river with the help of our climbing rope, but luckily comes to no harm. Then he runs off to Pandava Bridges in an attempt to capture it, but returns empty-handed after dark.
September 18 Thelu sets off in the morning after the lost sheep, crosses the river by the Dibi jhula, comes back and captures the animal. This adventure delays our departure. Tej takes Thelu's sack, and we finally move off at 10.05am. We move rather lazily, take a long lunch break, and I reach the Dwari caves just after 3pm, well ahead of the others and rather pleased at my performance.
The owner of the strayed sheep lands up a little later, and after some bargaining the price is settled at 250 rupees, half to be paid by us and half by the porters.
September 19 Investing in the porter's goodwill in the form of sheep-flesh proves to be a wise decision, for Thelu and three porters shoulder loads and set off at 9.30am direct for our 1993 Camp 1 site. We leave at 10.25am after paying off the porters ( 7 days up + 3.5 days down @ 110/- per day per head). Shanti Prasad, a strong young lad with a nice temperament, is retained by us as a makeshift HAP @125/- per day from today. We start the climb up from Kachh at noon and meet the descending porters at 1pm. I find the climb tiring and have to rest after every 5/10 steps – my companions are in similar straits. We finally get to the campsite (approx. 4520 metres) at 2.50pm .
Temperature at 6pm is down to 6 degrees C, but the cutting wind made it feel much colder.
September 20 Temp. inside tent at 7.30am is 4 degrees C. We move off at 10.50am and the HAPs at 11.30am. Mindful of my mistake in 1993, I keep to the left. After crossing a number of humps we wait for Thelu and co. to catch up, then go on, skirting the screes at the base of point 5267metres. The glacial pool I saw in 1993 becomes visible below us after we had passed it – it looks a little shrunken. We finally camp at c.5120 metres on a snow flat, below a prominent big black rhomboid rock. I check that we are not in any avalanche hazard. The pass is clearly visible.
September 21 We are inexcusably late in getting ready to move – selecting items to abandon to lighten loads and repacking takes a lot of time, and the apparent proximity of the pass adds to the sense of lack of urgency. It is 12.15pm when we get going. We zigzag across a succession of snow humps – firm crust, but there is some balling on the crampons. The last slope to the pass is over 45 degrees – Thelu and Tej charge up it and drop a rope from the rocks just below the pass. I haul myself up it and find it surprisingly hard because of the 'give' in the rope ! From the rocks a short, steep (60 degrees plus) slope leads to the actual pass, reached at 4pm.
The weather is magnificent, bright sun, no wind. At our feet the West Debsa Glacier , rising from a cirque of mountains to our right, flows to the left curving around a dense knot of rocky peaks around point 6055 metres. Directly opposite us are two cols separated by a small rocky point : the left col looks easier. Across these cols lies East Debsa Glacier.
We stay on top for an hour before beginning to descend the steep snow-slope directly below, Thelu dropping a doubled rope from an ice-axe anchor. He goes down and sees everyone across the bergschrund before rejoining me at the pass. Knowing this is my last mountain adventure, that these moments will never come again, I stay on top savouring the bittersweet taste of success till blue shadows engulf the glacier. Then I go down using a carabiner as a makeshift brake, traverse sideways, and jump the schrund at the narrowest point.
Our camp in the middle of the glacier is at around 5160 metres. Point 5805 metres bears 317 deg. magnetic and point 6243 metres bears 355 degrees.
September 22 At 8am it's -5 degrees C inside the tent. Beautiful weather, and we dawdle and drink tea and have brunch before finally moving off at 12.15 pm, walking easily on the firm snow down to a small meltwater stream before getting on to the left lateral moraine. Boulder-bashing gets us to a 'gomukh'-like snout at about 3 pm. A small glacial pool comes up half-an-hour later. I am going well when Gupi requests me to drop back because Sanju is lagging a bit. The way down is a tiresome succession of small boulder humps and gullies, and I tell Gupi to camp at the first reasonable site.
Gupi and the porters soon outdistance us, and as the shadows lengthen I discover to my surprised consternation that my photochromic glasses do not lighten in tint as they normally do, presumably because they received a terrific light bombardment on the glacier during the day. Taking them off does not improve the situation as I am fairly short-sighted. This makes bouldering rather a shaky business, and my mood worsens when I find Gupi has disobeyed my instruction and gone past an adequate campsite, a boulder-strewn alp located just before the place where the West Debsa stream curves sharply. It's 5.45 pm, and I decide I am not going to risk injury trying to move across boulders wearing dark glasses in rapidly fading light. I persuade Sanju to bivouac in the lee of a boulder as we have sleeping bags and duvets and food – I suppose the real reason was that I wanted to add a bivvy to my mountain experience.
Anyway, just as we make things shipshape for the night we hear Tej and Shanti whistling for us – they come with torches and take us to camp, only about 30 minutes away, which I reach after some careful, myopic bouldering at 7.20 pm.
In hindsight, my predicament was largely my own fault - I should have given everyone the hurry-up and started moving at nine a.m. instead of dawdling at the glacier camp till past noon.
September 23 Our campsite is an abandoned shepherd thach and has ibex signs. We leave a bit before 10 after eating the last of our cereals, some 'chire'(dried rice), and soon reach Thwak Debsa, a thach on the true left bank high above the confluence of the West and East Debsa streams, which here form the Debsa River. The East Debsa glacier looks difficult to approach as the true right bank of the Debsa River consists of high and steep rocky cliffs with no sign of a feasible track. There is, however, a substantial snow-bridge across the Debsa just downstream of the confluence which looks like it could offer a way into the East Debsa.
The way ahead is not the docile well-trodden path the map portrays, but a succession of unstable scree and shale slopes separated by nullahs like the Bauli Khad coming from the left. Luckily these streams can be crossed over boulders. I slip on a scree slope and have to do a self-arrest. There are occasional thaches, and at one where we stop for a bite Thelu finds an ibex horn for me. An empty bottle of injectable veterinary medicine attests to the modernity of Spitial gaddis.
Some distance beyond this thach the valley broadens and the track becomes markedly easy, and a little later we can see the Khamengar flowing in from the left. The Khamengar and Debsa streams unite to form the Parahio River. We find a very rickety bridge across the Khamengar, something I had devoutly hoped for ever since I realized that we had to get across that stream in order to get to Thango, and Thelu conducts us across it with a flourish. Signs of human presence are increasing, and at 5.30pm we reach Thango, the first village.
We persuade Urgyen Chhering, an elderly inhabitant of more than fifty summers, to give us some rice and potatoes for a square meal, and are treated to tea by the hospitable village-folk. We pitch our tents on a hard, flat piece of land, probably the threshing area, and have a restful evening marred only by a lack of candles.
September 24 We are roused early by Chhime Dorje, the son of Urgyen Chhering. Thango lies opposite the junction of the Killung and the Parahio streams. The well-frequented route over the Killung La or Larung La pass leads to the village of Muth, four days away from Thango. Chhime and Urgyen both confirm they have never seen anybody arriving from the Debsa. Urgyen vaguely remembers that in his childhood a team had gone towards the Debsa but not come back : I assume he is talking of Peter Holmes' expedition.
A kind lady brings a big pan full of curd and it goes very well with rice and potato curry. We march off at 10.45am and pass Gechang around noon. Lots of time is spent in looking for fossils and pebbles and in waiting by the bank of the unbridged Kir nullah, which we finally take our shoes off and ford once Thelu arrives. We cross over to the South (true right) bank of the Parahio over a bridge, and walk almost to Sagnam before re-crossing the river over another bridge to get to Mikim. We take a long tea break before moving the last three kilometres to Gulling, the roadhead, reached a bit before 5pm.
Gulling proves a disappointment as we fail to find transport to Kaza, 33 kms away, and have to camp in the courtyard of the Pin Hotel. Shanti Prasad takes two glasses of the local brew and nearly passes out. Unidentified animal snortings and stompings in close proximity of our tent disturb our rest – I worry about being stepped upon by a stupid yak!
September 25 After breakfast we have to hire a tractor at the exorbitant charge of 400 rupees to take us to Attargu, where there is a bridge across the Spiti River. Gupi takes a jeep from Attargu to Kaza and eventually returns with a hired jeep to carry us to Kaza for 350 rupees. In the meantime we do our ablutions in the blue waters of the Spiti : I blunt my razor shaving off my white beard, and my nose peels like a boiled potato.
At Kaza we stay at the Snow Lion Hotel (125/- per day) owned by ex-SSB Havildar Palden, while the porters go to Sharma Guest House nearby. In the evening we have a gala dinner – mutton kue (pronounced Q), a Spiti dish, washed down with rum.Palden, who summitted Mani Kang with the SSB,thinks we have done a good thing in discovering Debsa Pass.
September 26 We waken early and get bus tickets to Rekong Peo with Palden's help after much shoving. Bus leaves at 6.45am. We follow the Spiti River and stop at Hurling (brunch for us), Sumdo and Chango before reaching Namgia (Khab) where the Spiti joins the Satluj coming from Tibet. Rekong Peo comes up around 6pm. Kalpa is 13kms up. The Kinnaur peaks rise across the river.
September 27 We bid farewell to Thelu, Tej and Shanti as we board the Shimla bus at 4.30 am – their bus to Mandi will leave at 5am. The expedition is over.
There has been a measure of casual discussion about the correct altitude and position of Debsa Pass, so I think I should take this opportunity to re-state the precise altitude of the pass and it's exact position as calculated by me from Survey of India 1:50,000 topo sheet no. 53 E/13 :
Altitude - 5360 metres
Latitude - 31 degrees 54 minutes 15 seconds North
Longitude - 77 degrees 48 minutes 7 seconds East
The crossing team on September 21, 1995 was J. Sircar, P.N. Ghosh(Gupi), S. Mitra(Sanju), Thaillu Ram Thakur (Guide,Buruwa), Tej Ram Thakur (HAP,Buruwa) and Shanti Prasad (porter,Nepal).
In a letter to my late friend Sambhu Nath Das, the veteran climber G.R. Patbordhan of Pune once wrote that the true explorers of the Himalaya have been the shepherds and the 'jari-butiwallahs' (herb collectors), to whom we owe our knowledge of all the useful Himalayan passes. Bearing Patbordhan's memorable remark in mind, I had hoped in 1995 that Debsa Pass would, in time, become of service to the people of Kullu and Spiti, and allow us to join that august company of pioneers. Sixteen years later, it seems that what I had hoped for has come to pass: not only is Debsa a recognised trekking route, but the locals have found it useful.
Leomann's 1: 200,000 map of Himachal Pradesh [Indian Himalaya Maps, Sheet 6, Third edition, 2005] shows a dotted route taking off from the Parvati Valley and crossing the watershed ridge at an unnamed pass next to a 5450 metre peak (actually c.5520 metres) to descend to the West Debsa glacier and follow the West Debsa stream to the Parahio Valley : it is a passable representation of the route we took in 1995. However, much else shown in the map, most notably the East Debsa glacier and stream, are horribly inaccurate. The name Debsa Pass and the altitude (5360 metres) is missing. Maybe it will be there in another ten years or so!
The name Debsa Pass itself is well accepted, and Wikimapia shows the pass with it's approximate latitude and longitude, which differs very slightly from my readings given above.
5th November 2011