Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Springtime Walk over the Ladakh Range

Photo by Stanzin Norboo

The sun blows a steady cold wind down from high passes this morning.  The people burn dung, a little willow, build stone upon stone, and wires are strung far across the gorge.  Steep sliding sides, pigeons in new-ploughed fields, tea and chang at the start and end of Domkhar Gongma.

We walk up from apricot country, Barma, old white stones of stream bed shining in clear sun, smoothed to giant eggs by time, uncounted.  Their dark specks glisten in a crushed-rock water channel.

Questions about Lhargyap, stories of wives young gone over the pass: a day to the high pasture, another day to the town, so they say.  The old link lives, tough to travel: expect snow and crevasses.  Sun set was long, catching halos aflame around rough-cheeked shepherds -- young ones too -- with an unruly herd at a knoll-top earth house, high valley opening to the west.

A planned 'calm' in Syria, hospital destroyed in Aleppo, sharp critiques and satire of American empire on Russian, French, German news.  Snow peaks glow red, then pink.  Stanzin Norbu (Shara) speaks of a rescue, white out in Zanskar in August, looking for a crevasse-fallen lone Frenchman who cut stairs with his swiss army knife and made it out.  We speak of a farm and school to be, of plans, canoes and rivers, and the possibility of a many-month journey by foot all over Ladakh, criss-crossing the ranges.  Domkhar valley is long, the valley of the palace on a rock.


Paba thukpa (boiled bread and greens soup), intense eyes of an ama, a young bride from Changtang, and stories and directions today on the way to Lhargyap, which just means 'across the pass.'  Tharu, the village is also called.  An azhang pushing a rbat (wooden rake) -- "Don't go!" he and his wife say. "Can't do it.  No oxygen! Lots of snow!"  They've never made the crossing themselves, but the man went most of the way to the pass with a tourist group, one time.  Shara repeats the directions, again and again, drawing in the dirt.

Hiking along the stream, valley grows wide at the sumdo -- meeting of three high valleys.  Turtuk up a big valley left, to the northwest.  Angling right, but crossing to the bank to our left to escape gullies full of drifts of windblown snow.  We hear ribja (Tibetan snowcock), companions for all journeys in these high places.  Meet a grandfather, Shara's friend's brother, and he offers helpful words, guidance.  He has 70 in the herd, mostly goats.  He makes blankets in the winter time.

We are at the first pulu (high pasture summer settlement) and we curl up in a dry short-grass hollow of walls.  We found wood at the second shepherd's hut (which has wooden beams bridged by flat slabs of stone supporting the earth roof), and we stay at the third.  A few songbirds appear, one like a grackel.  Hopping along the snow surface on twiggy legs.  We fell through, socks and shoes wet as we crossed to the dry side.  There is a tale of 150 mountain goats seen all together in these valleys.


A high gentle ridgeline eases into view, its face a shining smooth white-blue belly of snow.  Shadow of a tall man, shoulders furry, walking stick pumping up and down every two steps, leading my way.  Rhythm and vast mountains, a whole world of snow and slopes.

A scramble up boulders and through pits of deep snow; weasel and fox paths crossing ours, or perhaps the small one is a zebra (a pika or mouse-hare).  A phia (marmot) sends out several streams of whistle-squeaks, listening in between, as we approach up the flat ice of the valley floor -- calling in warning to others, no doubt.  He sits on all fours, then stands up straight, then down, up, and slowly into the hole, small tail flips.  We saw his tracks in mud yesterday, metacarpal pad, four toes outstretched in front (like an otter print but toes more forward), claws showing clearly.

A lone white-winged redstart perched in the middle of a snowfield today, watching, then flitting and flying off in the hot sun.


Night of confusion and restlessness -- barely slept.  Where is the pass?

Shara's boots are soaked and frozen solid.  Finally, too late, the topo maps surface on a smart phone, with no battery left to examine them.

We head west in shining sun and snow, a full pot of maple butter sngampe porridge in my belly.  Shara doesn't eat.  I worry.  But we are high now, closer to Tharu than Domkhar, and the weather is crystal clear.

Over a false pass, a second, and up far up a third, I kick steps.  Pole plant, first, second, wait.  Again.  The dance of climbing the Ladakh Range.  A meditation.  Mara taunting at every turn of the mind.  And a steady being, in place, with each crunching step, pressed into the mountain.

We eat butter and bread we have saved.  Still three healthy days of sngampe in the packbasket.  We can camp on this snow.  We have kerosene.  The final push, but the other side of the heights we reach is a huge cornice and below, impossible cliffs.  Not the pass.

The pass we see below.  Back near our campsite.  Along ridgeline then, slow hours baking and windswept, and down a boundless snow slope, ropes tied around waists, zigzag of soft north face.  Down and across a new valley to camp, in the hollow melted out by a huge boulder, and under its roof, sun setting behind that same sharp corniced ridge atop which we stood.

And from the top: a world of icy peaks, kang ri, melting valleys of Nubra winking around corners, above the valleys and the great Nubra river beyond and the mountains rising beyond that are the Sa Ser peaks of Karakorum, heights of the crumpled and uplifted Asian tectonic plate.  The other way, south, lies the Sham Range and, beyond that, the shining mountains of Zanskar, with Nun and Kun at over 7000 meters towering, their great flat face impossible to fathom, coming into shadow as the sun begins its descent.  Looking down, we are head and shoulders above even that high world of snow valleys below.  Banks of cloud rest away east over Changtang, and a few Gangetic Plain thunderheads spew up, far off.

Photo by Stanzin Norboo


Ridgeline fear, sheer drops.  Ice axe, heavy rope.  Shara looks over the cornice edge.  "Just catch me," he says.  Yesterday's visions swim.  It was another cold night but less sleepless.

This walk through a high snow world feels cleansing.  Far from the soft earth of fields.  The superfluous cast aside, or dropping away, unnoticed, on a packed valley of snow.

We melted ice chunks for water and packed the full bottles with my body for the night.  Burned rice and dahl -- too much, we toss it.

Today a descent across rolling packed snow meadows, down sliding the debris of kharut: snow floods.  Balls and sculptures of ice stand on immaculate surfaces, partly melted away into weird shapes by sun, trails sweeping up and around contours to deep rock clefts above.  This was a glacial pond that burst -- how many times?  Its gates are of rubble and soil, great mounds on which lean low walls of snow and ice.

Pass the valley wide on the right, see a high shoulder (does that way lead to Teya? back over passes to the long, straight valley cut down to the Indus?)  Turn the corner, and the guardians of the descent to Nubra arise one a mosaic of hard rock sharp teeth, the other unfathomable, both towering.  We could see the heights of this second kang ri even from our under-boulder camp, an intricate sculpture of orange rock and snow we first glimpsed in one fullness from above.

As we pass, its hidden steps reveal masses of ice, blue cliffs upon cliffs, ready to spill, one sharp snow-tooth above and beyond it all.  An answering ice mountain, its wave high and serene, completes the symmetry.  Under all this ice and snow is wet soil that will bear plants come June.  Two, three doksa (shepherd's huts) and we halt on a spang meadow, thousands of ice steps behind.  There is a house, round stones all tucked in corners, mortared inside, with great slabs beautifully set for shelves, caked with soot, plants hanging from the ceiling with leaves that catch my eye like sooty dried red peppers.  The house is simple and beautifully crafted.  Shara says: 'Looks like the ancients made it.'


Down, down, ice and rock.  Glacier upon glacier towering to each side.  Kang ri means the mountain, and it means the ice.  They are not separate, on the Ladakhi tongue.  Clear clear waters tumble through tight passages, where vast horizontal moiraine cones lay far into the valley, their ends cut and carried and tossed in piles of shining white, gray-blue, and rust-red.  Ice thins in spots, two feet thick next to open water, and steep now, snowy surface crunching underfoot.

A path ascends the right-hand wall of the valley above cliffs, its stones pried into place and leveled by hand, now beginning to fall apart.  There, from a perch, we see two hundred yaks, all spread amongst the fields of the village, Tharu Gongma, in the lee of whose shepherd huts we slept through the night, awaking to grey skies giving way to first drenching rays of sun, and a phantom pyramid peak huge and clear, that vanished as the light rose.

Soon we are sitting inside earth-brick walls by the hearth with an energetic, beautiful old woman with reddened, almost tearful eyes.  She praises the boldness of our crossing and refills our cups with butter tea, then a strong and tangy chang.  The yulpa (villagers) were surprised to see us.

Shara employs a strategy with which I fully concur: talk with everyone you can in these high, pass-access villages.  Learn about them, their families, children and schools, farming and herding practices, and the ways they have passed over the mountains.  It's a way to come to know them, and their place, which provides everything.

No phones here, as we try to send word to our homes that we are safely in Nubra.  A rockslide-blocked jeep road and a stranded Tata pickup are the only connection of this twenty-household village to the outside, that and legs.

As the sun sneaks behind a high dry west ridge two villages down in Patsathang later that day, we meet two small groups of boys and young men, on their way up the two hour walk to their homes, returning from school and work for the ploughing.  Piles of manure on the fields in Tharu, and the tiniest yaks I've ever seen, balls of soft black hair lying curled up in morning sun.  Their phu (high pasture) is melting out, and it will be some weeks yet before it truly greens.


Start date April 29, 2016
Day 1: Domkhar Barma (middle village) ~3700m to Porotsepa household in Kurambek village at 4150m
Day 2: to Kurambek Doksa, 4700m
Day 3: to Camp 1, 5126m, on snow
Day 4: over peak 5747m and over pass to Camp 2, 5290m, on snow under the boulder
Day 5: to Tharu Gongma Doksa, 4550m, off snow
Day 6: to Patsathang, 3611m

I realized on the trip that every piece of clothing I wore is wool.  Down sleeping bag, wool blanket, pack basket.  Three season tent.  Sheep pelt vest/sleeping mat.  Topographic maps and a 'GPS essentials' smart phone app for altitude and mapping.  Lots of talking with villagers and advice about the route beforehand.  An understanding that we may return in failure.  Two stoves, one kerosene, the other a wood-burning homemade rocket stove made from a Chinese thermos shell.  The weather was highly favorable.