Back Mount Shitidhar: Winter Expedition 2013

Mount Shitidhar: Winter Expedition 2013

Hanuman Tibba on left and Shitidhar on the right

Picture: View of Solang Valley from camp Bakkarthatch 

This year, Trek The Himalayas decided to start the New Year by attempting a challenging task, that is, to climb Mount Shitidhar (17,100 feet) located in the Dhaula Dhar Range of Himachal Pradesh.

Mount Shitidhar is basically a trekking peak and thus needs no clearance from the Indian Mountaineering Federation (IMF) to climb it. However in the winter, the peaks demands technical skills of climbing from the climber in order to manipulate one’s way to its summit. The trek, to Shitidhar, however starts from Solang Valley, which is located at a distance of 17kms from Manali. Solang Valley is famous for its ski resorts and is filled with tourists from all over the world during the peak season (March-May). As one continues his way to the top of Shitidhar, he will pass by the famous Beas Kund (high altitude lake) where Sage Vyas, the author of the great epic Mahabharata was believed to bathe. In contrast to Mount Shitidhar’s popularity, Beas Kund is an extremely famous site for trekkers and devout pilgrims. But it is important to note that these visits are during the summer season when the snow starts melting and eventually disappears as the snow line recedes significantly.

    View of Solang Valley from camp Bakkarthatch1

Picture: Hanuman Tibba on left and Shitidhar on the right

A fit trekker with good mental and physical capacity and endurance can comfortably complete the trek from the Solang Valley base camp right up to the summit of Mount Shitidhar and back within a mere 4-5 days. The ascent follows the River Beas up to Beas Kund and then continues up the slopes of Shitidhar. Thus there is no issue of water as the camps of Bakkarthatch and Beas Kund are set up right next to the river.

Sandeep opening the route in 4 feet deep snow3

In this picture: Sandeep opening the route in 4 feet deep snow

A steep slope meanders its way from Beas Kund to the top of Shitidhar (5210 mts) from where one can get beautiful views of the neighboring peaks such as the Hanuman Tibba, Deo Tibba, Manali Peak and the Pir Panjal Range that is adjacent to the Dhaula Dhar Range. Therefore, it is not a big deal to climb Mount Shitidhar and how tough could it be to climb it in the winter? But we were slightly mistaken when we decided to attempt it during this January 2013. Trek The Himalayas organized a four-member expedition on a cost-to-cost basis and I considered myself fortunate to be one of the members alongside experienced climbers and the proprietors of Trek The Himalayas Rakesh pant and Sandeep Rawat. Another good friend and mountaineer Sunil from Manali joined us. On reaching Manali, after a brief equipment check and repacking, we stocked ourselves with ration that consisted of ready-to-eat food packets, milk packets for tea and some chocolates. We were well equipped for a short expedition with a single tent that would be shared by the four of us, appropriate clothing and some technical equipment like descenders, a rope and jumars. It was an alpine style climb. We were well aware of the extreme temperatures we would be encountering as the weather forecast for the duration our climb was known to us. The maximum temperature would be 3 degree Celsius and minimum temperature would be a freezing -20 degree Celsius. Fortunately no snowfall was to be predicted till the 16th night, after which the forecast said heavy snowfall. Here was our plan of the Mount Shitidhar climb:

12th January 2013: – Day 1: Assemble at IMF Delhi and equipment distribution and drive to Manali by VOLOVO bus.
13th January 2013: – Day 2: Arrive Manali after breakfast drive to Solangnala and Trek to Dhundi (6 km. walk).
14th January 2013: – Day 3: Dhundi to Beas Kund through Bakkarthatch.
15th January 2013: – Day 4: Beas Kund to Summit Attempt.
16th January 2013: – Day 5: Reserve Day.
17th January 2013: – Day 6: Back to Beas Kund.
18th January 2013: – Day 7: Back to Manali (Night Bus to Delhi).
19th January 2013: – Day 8: Manali to Delhi.

Trying to stick to the plan as much as possible, the team left Manali by afternoon (12.00 hrs) on 13th January to Solang Valley by car from where we were dropped and so our trek started. While walking along the road head, a small modification was made to our plan and under the adrenaline rush; we contemplated reaching Beas Kund camp on the very same day. On leaving the road head, as we started to climb leaving civilization behind, we found ourselves plodding through 2 feet of powder snow and immediately knew what we had in store for us ahead. We started out at about 1 pm and after plodding the weary way through 3-4 feet of snow (the snow thickness kept on increasing along the route) for about 2.5 hours, at 3.30 pm we realized it was only a kilometer and a half that we had covered.

Slow progress due to deep snow

Picture: Slow progress due to deep snow

Progress was not good and at this rate we feared that we would have to think twice about our itinerary precisely because we were speculating a quick summit that would take just a day or two more than what it was likely to take in summers. It was a herculean task to walk through the 4 feet deep snow and especially with the snow being fresh; one could not tell how thick it was. At places between or above the rocks or in hollow place, the cover of snow just be superficial and one would go right through and get stuck up to the waist or even more. At the crossing of a stream that was only partially frozen, we put on our gaiters on and lower shells over the Millet shoes we were wearing. As we continued the cold caught up soon and the snow was just making it even tougher. Taking 20 steps at a time and stopping to catch breath was the strategy adopted or rather we had no choice but to do that. Crossing the stream was a bit of an adventure too where one of us had to make a stepping stone route to cross it while the prospect of getting our shoes wet was unimaginable as it would mean the end of the climb with possible hypothermia. But that was just a case one has to avoid and be careful about anyway. So we move on making very slow progress and at 5.40 pm when we realize the temperature is dipping fast, we stop to pitch camp. We are a kilometer from Bakkarthatch and to think we were aiming to reach Beas Kund that is a 2-hour walk for a fast trekker in summer. It was time to think about our plan of action tomorrow and the decisions we had to take including going back if necessary. However, after choosing a campsite on the same layer of snow safe from an possible avalanche we let those serious and mind boggling thoughts slip at the back of our heads and retreated to the coziness of our tent (temperature in the tent was 3 degree Celsius). We were famished so Rakesh made some soup. At dinner we had some dry fruits and more soup since everyone was tired. We were soon snoring away to glory despite the bumpy and snowy ground. Sleeping bags were warm enough but it was freezing at night.

Sandeep, Rakesh and Sunil pitching tent

Picture: Sandeep, Rakesh and Sunil pitching tent

I was the first one to get up at 5 am. There is a saying, If you are feeling uncomfortable or cannot sleep, make sure no one does. Nevertheless, it is just a saying. However, as I started to move after waking up, the rest of the three guys were up. It was too cold to venture out, so we somehow controlled the nature’s call and Rakesh made some tea for us. After making ourselves warm enough, we went out one by one but only for a couple of minutes at the most. Fortunately, it hadn’t snowed in the night but the snow was still fresh and powdery and 3-4 feet deep. Putting on the snow boots itself took us about 20 minutes as they were frozen rock solid (we were wearing single layered ones and thus had this problem which otherwise would not have been the case had we worn double layer boots). Our breakfast was muslee and milk, some dry fruits added to it. It was only when the sunrays struck our tent that we decided to pack and continue upwards. It was 9.15 then. Completely geared to walk through waist deep snow, we set out. The glare of the sun and the vastness of white were overwhelming. The 2nd day was even more tiring than the first, but it was with sheer grit and conviction that we walked and that made us all feel much better. A challenge is always welcomed by adventurers. It was the climb and the majestic display of nature clad in white that had me going and I could not resist it. Slowly and wearily, we crossed Bakkarthatch, and by 2.30 pm we were a couple of hours from Beas Kund. Horribly behind schedule, it was time to think twice about continuing the climb. We regrouped before heading into a small bowl of snow that we had to manipulate to head towards Beas Kund, and refueled ourselves with some Mars bars and water. The previous day, through Rakesh’s phone, constant updates about the temperatures and the progress including photos were being shared online on Facebook, so that people could track our progress. As we were discussing about our plan of action while resting a fellow mountaineer Manish and friend of Rakesh from Delhi who was supposed to be a part of the expedition initially, confirmed our apprehensions. Rakesh got a call at the very moment (thanks to BSNL’s coverage) from Mr. Manish and was told that it was not safe to carry on as weather forecast predicted heavy snowfall on 15th night that would continue till 18th evening. The mountain had taken the decision for us that had to be followed with utmost respect and humility. Since it was already past 3pm, we bivouacked nearby below Bakkarthatch safe from any possible avalanche. It was going to be really cold that day. After pitching the tent and arranging all the necessities at a hand’s distance in the tent, each one of us attended nature’s call and huddled inside the tent. It was at around 5 pm that the temperature started dropping. The cooking gas flame was burning throughout. After a light lunch, we started talking amongst ourselves; I heard a great many stories about my mountaineer friends experiences as climbers, the adventures in the mountains, close to death experiences, sad demises of fellow climbers and at the same time the fun and elated form of spirit and adventure in the course of mountaineering.

Sandeep, Rakesh and Sunil ahead of Bakkarthatch camp6

Picture: Sandeep, Rakesh and Sunil ahead of Bakkarthatch camp; Shitidhar can be seen at the top right corner.

Despite the cold outside and the discomfort that accompanies it, it was an amazing evening where so much knowledge and experiences were exchanged. It was enriching indeed, precisely because when first hand experience or knowledge about technical or any other aspect of mountaineering is obtained from a fellow climber and friend as well, it is beyond the level of a lecture on the same.
We did not have a complete dinner that night; instead we ate some nutri bars and drank some milk. For me, the night was a sleepless one. For some reason I was feeling uncomfortable and thus couldn’t sleep. The next morning, the same routine as the previous morning was followed where we did breakfast (some tea and muslee and a slice of cheese), talked to glory until it was warm enough to set out. Soon we found ourselves in 4 feet snow heading down towards Solangnala. It was tiring to trek down too due to deep snow. The one opening the route while cutting across our old route would go down right up to the chest in the snow at times. About 3 hours later, we reached the stream that we had to cross by hopping and jumping while climbing up. However, this time there was no chance of doing the same. The flow had increased maybe because of the melting snow. An attempt to cross involved the risk of getting your feet wet. Therefore it was not an option since wet shoes in cold climate increases the chances of hypothermia and possible frostbite.
Trying to find a safe place to cross the stream we walked along its bank climbing up and down snow cornices, which at places collapsed right into the stream itself. We also jumped from a good 2.5 mts during our attempt cross over to the other bank.
It felt like a true expedition that day. It felt good.
Sunil found a possible crossing and we did not hesitate to try it. It had already been 2 hours in vain trying to cross over. A little bit of hopping with backpacks and heavy snow boots, we were across. It was a true expedition feeling. As we walked towards the road head, I am sure each one of us felt that we were leaving not only the expanse of white but also a part of us behind. It had been only three days that we were in the mountains but it felt like a long time. I was lost in the laps of the mountains. The expedition on the overall was an incredible experience, especially for a beginner like me and the deep snow that made it difficult to traverse the slopes and climb, was an icing on the cake. I am glad to have been a part of it.

Our expedition had an interesting ending. On reaching the road head, we climbed on to a truck meant for carrying cement. Up to Solangnala where the truck driver dropped us, we were dancing about from one end to the other in the bucket like structure of the truck. A night stay in Manali followed and the next day, we were off to Delhi by bus.

A special thanks to Trek The Himalayas

We make a living by what we get, But we make a life by what we give.

Written By: Rahul Prabhudesai