Climbing Mount Kanamo
Rashmi Singh trekked up Mount Kanamo, the third- highest peak in the Spiti Valley of Himachal Pradesh. After reaching the peak at 5.964 m., she felt both accomplished and blessed to be treated to the unique vistas of snow and forested beauty.
Photo: Rashmi Singh.
It had been two months since I had last been home to Delhi, but I had not missed home much. How could I when I had spent the time in the heartbreakingly beautiful Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh? I stayed at Kibber village, perched atop a rocky ridge offering a splendid view of the surrounding peaks. These ranges support a variety of wildlife including wild ungulates such as the ibex and bharal, small mammals like the mountain hare and carnivores including the red fox, wolf and the charismatic snow leopard. The boundaries between people and wildlife, if any, are blurred as wildlife is pervasive throughout the landscape, so is the sparse human use of the mountains, primarily in the form of livestock grazing. The small village of Kibber, located at 4,200 m. also hosts the Nature Conservation Foundation’s (NCF) field research station where researchers often spend weeks camping out. At the end of two months of conducting interviews in the villages as part of my internship, I was now looking forward to some real adventure in the mountains.
The opportunity arrived at my door when Saloni, an NCF researcher proposed that we climb Mount Kanamo, the third highest peak in Spiti and the only one that can be done without hardcore mountain gear. I was excited but of two minds. I wanted to climb, but was I actually fit enough? Would I be able to tackle the dangers? In the event, I decided to go and spent the next three days preparing to ascend to the summit, which would involve a two-day climb.
THE FIRST STEPS
We assembled at the NCF base camp at nine a.m., where three donkeys were loaded with tents and provisions. Donkeys are the beasts of burden in this landscape and though I wished that I could share some of their burden, I knew that I would barely be able to walk with any additional load than that of my daypack and in an unfortunate event of me collapsing, they would have an additional 45 kg. to carry.
It took us roughly two hours to reach Chomoling, a beautiful meadow where an NCF nature awareness camp for local school children was underway. Chomoling itself looked like the finalist of some beauty pageant, dotted with the lovely, colourful tents of the school students. This camp teaches students the importance of the unique wildlife around them, as there have been many retaliatory killings of snow leopards on account of livestock attacks. To reduce this conflict, NCF has also started an insurance programme wherein the owner of the animal killed by a snow leopard is compensated. After resting at Chomoling for an hour and downing some refreshing nimbu pani, we started out again, this time joined by our friend Siddharth, a student from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune, who was in Spiti for his Master’s dissertation field work. Our group of eight included local guides, and we got along very well indeed… a critical factor on long treks!
After about four hours of continuous trekking with small rest breaks, the first patches of snow appeared. This was the first time I had ever even touched snow and I marvelled as it melted and then disappeared in my hands. On the way I also saw some really interesting fossils, probably ammonites. Millions of years ago, the collision between the Indo-Australian and Eurasian plates had resulted in the Himalayan mountain chain rising out of the Tethys Sea. The fossils were the remains of ancient sea creatures lodged in sedimentary rocks.
The base camp for Kanamo where we were to halt for the night was a distance away. Two of our local friends Dhamaal and Kamaal had moved far ahead of us. Born and brought up in these mountains, they were hardy and fast. By the time I reached the base, they had already pitched the tents at an altitude of 4,500 m. Grateful for some rest, I looked at the breathtaking beauty all around us. It was like nature was being extra kind and rewarding me with its finest landscapes.
Throughout the trek one thought refused to leave me. Snow leopard! I was gratified to see its scat, but was unable to sight an animal. Little wonder it is referred to as the grey ghost of the mountains. It was seriously cold. A quick glance at the thermometer outside my tent, showed it was 120 C below zero. I had made it thus far and a sense of contentment washed over me. I looked further up towards the snow-white Kanamo mountain peaks, which appeared to be gentle and alluring. But I knew enough about mountains to pray for good weather the next morning. Huddled in my warm sleeping bag, I was out for the count almost before my head hit the pillow.
Photo: Ranjana Pal.
After some tea and a quick breakfast of noodles, we set out just as the rising sun cast its rays on the snow-capped mountains to usher in a new day. The peaks seemed to exude a luminous glow. We started on our ascent to Kanamo after wishing Saloni happy birthday and all of us wanted to make it extra special by celebrating it at the very top. We maintained a slow but regular pace over the gradual ascent. The peak was literally shrouded in a huge blanket of snow and I was eager to reach it, touch it, savour its splendour. That was when we detected a slight movement near the peak to my left. Quickly taking out my binoculars I scoured the slopes for a snow leopard. It turned out to be a dog! At the astounding height of 5,300 m. Heavens! Feral dogs are a huge problem in Spiti, as they attack livestock as well as wildlife. During my stay in Kibber, there were several incidents of killing of livestock and even of blue sheep by the dogs. On one day they killed as many as five sheep.
Lubzang was the first amongst our group and the first Spitian lady to climb Kanamo. I was surprised that none of the local women who work so hard in the mountains had attempted the climb. I could see Dhamaal standing gleefully on the peak about 200 m. away, but I had to use every last ounce of energy to complete the last leg.
Standing at approximately 6,000 m., contemplating the fact that I had actually made it, my exhaustion began to seep away and I turned 3600 to take in the overwhelming Himalayan vistas. The ranges were a never-ending vista of snow and when a strong wind began to blow, reminding us not to tarry, I smiled at the thought that even the wind seemed to be thumping my back for successfully making the climb. Ranjana and Saloni soon joined us and we held hands in prayer and in deference to the Kanamo peak she had allowed us all to climb.
Photo: Ranjana Pal.
On our return I slipped on some loose rocks and injured my legs, and somehow managed it to base camp where we lit yak-dung fire. The pain and exhaustion forgotten, the feelings of accomplishment and happiness kept me in good cheer.
May Kanamo and other beautiful peaks that we are blessed with always be a beacon for human spirit.
The Middle Land
Spiti is known as a cold desert with average temperatures of between -30 to 30 C in the winter and 1 to 280 C in summer. The Spiti region of Lahual and Spiti district spans an area of more than 12,000 sq. km. The local community is agro-pastoral and largely Buddhist. They cultivate traditional crops of barley and black pea and a cash crop of green peas. The livestock they rear includes yak, dzo and dzomo (hybrids of yak and cow), cow, goat, sheep and donkey.
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 2, April 2014.