Sunday, June 8, 2008

Pay homage to the Caribbean Monk Seal

Further from home, one of the first things I read when I got back was that the Caribbean Monk Seals are officially extict. According to a report in Time magazine,

(HONOLULU) — Federal officials have confirmed what biologists have long thought: The Caribbean monk seal has gone the way of the dodo.

Humans hunting the docile creatures for research, food and blubber left the population unsustainable, say biologists who warn that Hawaiian and Mediterranean monk seals could be the next to go.

The last confirmed sighting of a Caribbean monk seal was in 1952 between Jamaica and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service confirmed Friday that the species is extinct.

Kyle Baker, a biologist for NOAA's Fisheries Service southeast region, said the species is the only seal to become extinct from human causes.

The seals were first classified as endangered in 1967, and wildlife experts investigated several reported sightings over the past few decades. But officials determined they were other seal types.

The federal agency says there are fewer than 1,200 Hawaiian and 500 Mediterranean monk seals remaining, and their populations are declining.

"We hope we've learned from the extinction of Caribbean monk seals, and can provide stronger protection for their Hawaiian and Mediterranean relatives," Baker said.

The Hawaiian monk seal population, protected by NOAA, is declining at a rate of about 4 percent annually, according to NOAA. The agency predicts the population could fall below 1,000 in the next three to four years, placing the mammal among the world's most endangered marine species.

"When populations get very small, they become very unstable," Baker said. "They become more vulnerable to threats like disease and predation by sharks."

Vicki Cornish, a wildlife expert at the Ocean Conservancy, said the fate of the Caribbean monk seal is a "wake-up call" to protect the remaining seal populations.

"We must act now to reduce threats to existing monk seal populations before it's too late," she said. "These animals are important to the balance and health of the ocean. We can't afford to wait."

Monk seals are particularly sensitive to human disturbance. And the sea creatures have been losing their food supply and beaches, officials say.

"Once Hawaii, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean were teeming with fish, but these are areas under severe fishing pressure," Cornish said. "They'll eat almost anything — shellfish or finned fish — but their food supply is waning and they're in competition with man."

The Caribbean monk seal, first discovered during Christopher Columbus' second voyage in 1494, once had a population of more than 250,000. But they became easy game for hunters because they often rested, gave birth or nursed their pups on beaches.

From the 1700s to 1900s, the seals were killed mainly for their blubber, which was processed into oils, used for lubrication and coating the bottom of boats. Their skins were used for trunk linings, clothing, straps and bags.

The endangered Hawaiian monk seals face different types of challenges, including entanglement in marine debris, climate change and coastal development.

About 80 to 100 live in the main Hawaiian Islands and 1,100 in the largely uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, a marine national monument.

Biologist Bud Antonelis said NOAA's Fisheries Service has developed a monk seal recovery plan for the Hawaiian monk seals.
"But we need continued support from organizations and the public if we are to have a chance at saving it from extinction," he said. "Time is running out."

As for the Caribbean monk seal, NOAA said it is working to have them removed from the endangered species list. Species are removed from the list when their populations are no longer threatened or endangered, or when they are declared extinct.

Makes one wonder, will we along with the Tatas do the Olive Ridleys what the Hawaiians did to the Monk Seals?

The first trek

There is always a charm about the first trek of the season. After more than 6 months of hibernation, we emerge from our feather jackets and heater-warmed homes and head out to high passes, valleys and sometimes even an early climb. This year, the first trek was to the Tosh Valley.

A tributary of the Parvati, the Tosh Nullah has the distinction of perhaps having as much water, if not more than the main river. It winds its ferocious way through Tosh village, Budhaban (a fabulous, idyllic meadow at 2800m surrounded by forests on all sides, Shiadi (another lovely meadow that was spotted with the first flowers of the season, Sharm Thach (at 3500m but still in the grip of cold with few flowers and regular sleet) and Shamshi Thach (a flat piece of land that will turn green only later in the season with fabulous views of peaks - Papusa, White Sail, Kullu Makalu and passes - Sara Umga and the trail to Animal Pass).

The most exciting part of the trek for me was that Tikam Dai - a 65-year-old Nepali who works with me regularly and has been around most areas in Western Himalayas for nearly 50 years - and I went upto Animal Pass. It connects the Tosh valley to Malana Glacier from where you can either choose to come out at Malana near Manikaran or at Jagatsukh near Manali. At 4500m its more challenging, remote and prettier than the Chanderkhani Pass. And for some reason hasn't been high on trekking schedules till date. The route is sparsely used and seems like Gaddis are the only ones who use it.

For the group, Vikas and gang of 11 from Nagpur and Mumbai, the high point of the trek was to go to the mouth of the Tosh glacier. Of course, for those seeing a glacier for the first time, it is difficult to imagine that all that mud and rock hide so much ice beneath.

The route itself is popular with only climbers and those who want to attempt the Sara Umga pass, that is challenging even without all the snow to complicate it. Ideal for those who want to trek early in the season and yet dont want to do a beaten trail.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Ok, Tata, bye-bye

Greenpeace has been trying to convince the Tatas that building the Dhamra port will essentially make sure that we wipe out the highly-endangered Olive Ridley turtles that come to nest close to the proposed port site. With Ratan Tata busy buying up exclusive international companies, maybe he has forgotten what he had promised - that the port would not be developed if there was definite proof that the Olive Ridleys will be affected. As an attempt to jog his memory, Greenpeace has now roped in the voices of Sholay.

Make sure you also check out some of the cool facts that they have put up about the turtles at the bottom of the box. I hate spam but unlike prayer chains and luck chains, I think one mail that might save the turtles or atleast inform you of their plight is OK to receive:

Sunday, April 20, 2008

What you love, you won't destroy

We had a viewing of An Inconvenient Truth for the kids at the camp. Without the media overkill of Al Gore-George Bush-Florida fiasco and with just his movie to concentrate on, Al Gore proved very popular. For a change, the evening pre-dinner talks were not about what they had done for the day but on the deforestation that is evident in the mountains around Manali. And of the erratic weather and winds for this time of the year. They are all 15/16-year-olds and still have the confidence that they can and will change the world. Thank God for that!

Someone who checked out the images of the camp on the blog said that it is a good idea because what children love, they won't destroy. So true! Because as each set of kids come and go, we are doing more than just conducting 'programs'. We are showing them what is possible without destroying, how beautiful a life you can have if you know to conserve / appreciate and adventure as a lifestyle rather than a 15-day annual break. In turn, the camp is doing things to us too. All of us have turned nostalgic, remembering our first camps / treks, our first gilmpse of snow or the mist over the valley and our first tentative infatuation with nature that has now turned to solid love.

We hope that like how someone else introduced us to the greatest passion of our lives, we can introduce these kids. That atleast a few of the group will develop an everlasting bond that will make a difference to their lives and to the planet. It gives a sense of passing on the baton... hope we are not being too idealistic.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Camp 14000ft Finally!

Yes, the camp is up and running. All 6 bighas (an acre approximately) of it, complete with loos (that we made ourselves), a mess 50-person mess tent (that we made ourselves as well) and electricity (well, we didn't make it, but we strung the cable ourselves) and tents spread in between the oak and deodar trees.

The first group is here as well, a 27-strong group of school children from Nagpur. Thanks to the fabulous views from the campsite of the mountains on the entire left bank of the Beas and that we are close to the bazaar - barely 5 km - they are enjoying their stay. Also helps that we managed to get a piece of land adjoining the forest of Manali Wildlife Sanctuary and we get sightings of blackbirds, magpies, hoopoes and lots of other birds.

The current cook, from Nagpur has also been feeding us good, spicy Maharashtrian fare. Spicy food on chilly spring nights is an irresistible combination.

To do list for the next few days: Add the cosmetic touches like wooden sign boards, get a scrapbook in place for suggestions etc and of course, get more groups to come to the camp. It is ideal for those who don't want to trek but want a part of the outdoors...

Here are some images of the camp and of a fabulous sunset that we caught a few days ago from the camp:

The lake and a quirky Gypsy

Does high altitude sickness hit vehicles too? I wonder after my Gypsy behaved most peculiarly when we drove to Chandertal

There is something special about the first trip of the season. The snow has been cleared on the 13000ft Rohtang Pass and the Other Side is finally connected. The Other Side – Lahaul and Spiti are closed, inaccessible for nearly 7 months in a year from late October to late May or even June. The snow that is so popular with the tourists in Manali, isolates the two regions from the rest of the world, save for a helicopter or two every week that bring in essential supplies.

But the winter had passed and Rohtang was ready to let people venture beyond. We were headed to the most beautiful (at least in my opinion) lake in the Himalayas, Chandertal. It was an interesting prospect. The previous two times that I had been there, I had taken a local bus to windy Batal and hiked the 14 km to the lake. This time around, we would be breaking in our brand new Gypsy to the mountains. Well, it was new to us but was really a second hand 2002 model that we had fallen in love with, mostly for its massive alloys and jazzy headlights.

Unfortunately, like all vehicles that have stayed with one owner for too long, it had its quirks. It enjoyed throwing in a surprise at us atleast once a week – an oil leak here, a broken bearing there. It had just returned from the Maruti service station in Mandi where it had been for a good two-weeks. And we were confident that most of the faults had been fixed and it did seem eager to head out.

The idea was that three of us – two friends and me – would drive with my three dogs to Chattru, a “town” of tent-dhabas, populated only in seasons where we would pick up my husband. We stocked up the Gypsy with sleeping bags and tents and food. Winter had just passed and the lake, at 14000 ft would be much colder.

We started out early, at 6 and climbed the 51 km to Rohtang. There was very little traffic with only the early trucks attempting to get to Ladakh. Past Kothi, as the climb got steep and the road got worse, it became impossible to shift into the third gear. I juggled between first and second and occasionally into the 4WD to negotiate the really bad patches. It was the first time in the Himalayas for my friends, so they were awed by the first sunrays touching the mountain tops. And even for someone who lives there, each day that you catch the sight, is special. So we stopped a couple of times to take in the sunrise, walk the dogs, grab a chai before we reached Rohtang.

The pass was still snowbound and bitterly cold but already the honeymooners were there. In their fur coats and gumboots, they were busy playing in the snow. The snow, thankfully was still a brilliant white, a colour that it would lose in two weeks once regular traffic started. Beyond the pass, the road got worse, but because we were descending, driving was easy. All the Gypsy’s minor problems seemed to be fixed and I was glad that it had not given up on us on the climb up.

The road was pretty much a dirt track with bits of long-ago-tarmac on the corners. Once we turned on the Spiti road from Gramphoo, surprisingly enough, the road got worse. We bumped along, crossing streams, leaving the road a couple of times to drive almost over the edge, passing shepherds with their flock on their way to summer pastures. It was an ideal day to be out in the mountains.

At Chattru, my husband got on and took over the wheel. Maybe the Gypsy particularly felt cheeky with him but barely 15 minutes out of Chattru, the engine was heating up and we had to stop at a stream to pour some cold water over it. The coolant was full and there didn’t seem to be any problems in its flow. We started again, but 10 mins later, we had to stop. We drove the remaining 40 odd km with breaks every 15 minutes or so to pour water from streams onto the engine. Going back wasn’t an option. The only thing we could do was drive to the lake and take a good look under the hood.

To make matters more interesting, one of the front tyres burst on the last 14 km stretch to Chandertal from Batal. Being a tubeless tyre, the huge rip it got meant that we would have to junk it once we got back to Manali. For now, the spare would do the job. When we finally reached a lake, the Gypsy seemed to be as relieved as us. It was late afternoon and we decided to give the engine heating a night’s rest. The blue waters of the lake were inviting and within half an hour had almost made us forget the problems we had had to get there.

Over the next two days, we idled on the lake shore, took long walks, even baked a cake. Occasionally other tourists joined us for a cup of tea. A trio from Mumbai who had driven up in their Ford Endeavour had had a tyre burst as well and joined us in venting over tubeless tyres. On the second day we took another look at the coolant, the tube and the engine and everything seemed in good order. We ran the vehicle for a while and it didn’t seem to be heating up. We figured that it might have been a temporary block – probably caused by an air bubble.

On the third day, we set out. After three days in pure mountain air with no one else for company, we were in great spirits and got into travel song mode. From Kishore to Rafi to Shankar Mahadevan, we sang all our favourite songs and before we knew it we were back in Chattru. And the most surprising bit, the Gypsy hadn’t heated up even once. Maybe it was happy to get back as well.

We were concerned on the climb to Rohtang Pass, but even there it was perfectly behaved. We got to Manali, called our mechanic and told him about the erratic behaviour of the Gypsy. But like how your computer miraculously starts working the minute you call the technician, the Gypsy refused to heat up for the mechanic. It purred contentedly, drove smoothly, cooled perfectly… Nearly a year later, we are still wondering what it was that made it heat up on the way to Chandertal. Maybe we have our own version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with a mind of its own?

Rediscovering Central India

Nawegaon, Pachmarhi, Bhimbetka, Sanchi… Central India was a revelation

Day 1
We set out from Bangalore on the return journey to Manali. The plan was to stretch the 2500 km journey by at least another 1500 km and visit some national parks and explore the tribal areas of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Chattisgarh. We were sure of two things – that we wanted avoid the cities as far as possible and that we use the road trip to discover places that would be inaccessible otherwise. The rest – where we would halt, stay, food, internet access – were all pretty much open ended.

The Gypsy would be adapted as a mini caravan for the six of us – Kaushal, my husband, Deepika, my sister, our three dogs and me. The vehicle had been spruced up and thoroughly worked on by the Mandovi guys in Bangalore and it seemed rid of its perennial problems of overheating, leaking coolant and blank starts. We had loaded it up with food, water, warm wear, cassettes of Kishore and Mohd Rafi, doggie kit, tent, sleeping bags and even a paraglider (just incase Kaushal had an urge to glide enroute).

The drive was mostly monotonous, the weather changing every couple of hours from pleasant to hot. As we entered Andhra, the heat got intense. The minimal insulation in a Gypsy made the inertia of the afternoon heat worse. Thankfully, NH7 that we were on was relatively empty and we were doing good time. By evening we were about 70 km from Hyderabad but the heat had taken its toll and we decided to pull up on the side of the road and go to sleep.

Day 2
All of us awoke geared up to head to Hyderabad. But first, we stopped at one of the highly handy Reliance A1 outlets. Complete with shower stalls and excellent food, they would be our staple stops for the next two days. Then it was time to discover the magnificent Golconda fort. It was the first trip to Hyderabad for all of us and the fort was a great introduction. It numerous levels of architecture and history kept us enthralled for a good five hours. Thankfully, we were spared the famous Hyderabad heat with little spells of rain.

Post the best Andhra meal (in a small obscure restaurant in Old Hyderabad) that any of us had, we started out to the Salarjung Museum. If the weather had been kind to us, the city traffic definitely wasn’t. What was a 45 minute drive took a good three hours and when we reached the museum we had only a couple hours left. The Gypsy loves the open roads and felt awkward in the city traffic and almost reluctant. After rushing through the main gallery, we took our time in the Sculpture and Western sections. The only regret was we didn’t have more time or patience to appreciate the Salarjung.

We couldn’t wait to get back on the highway after the horrendous traffic in Hyderabad and once on it, we desperately wanted to put distance between us and the city. Pretty soon, we were driving past some forest stretches and about 200 km out of Hyderabad, we parked in yet another Reliance bunk for the night.

Day 3
Today we were to head to the cargo hub of the country, Nagpur. Visions of a hot bath and being able to sleep with our legs stretched out had us going without too many stops. We passed a longish ghat section that would tested the Gypsy in the afternoon heat, but Maruti had done the job well and we did not have to worry about overheating.

Nagpur was everything that we had heard – wide roads, lots of greenery and peak hour traffic like the early morning traffic in Delhi or Bangalore. The Gypsy finally felt like it could even adapt to city traffic if it was like Nagpur’s. But we were staying in the city but 30 km out on the banks of the Zipli lake. For the first time since we had set out, the four-wheel of the Gypsy came into play on the unmetalled road. After the incident of the broken shaft on our drive down to Bangalore (see the last issue), the one comfort was that this time around we were close to the city incase it gave problems again.

Day 4,5,6
Much-needed rest days for the next couple of days with walks around the lake and in the forest around the area. Thanks to the almost nonexistent pollution, we caught some excellent bird life – pied kingfishers, woolly-necked stork, wagtails, egrets, ibises. We caught up with work and civilized things like baths and washing, the Gypsy took a break from the daily run of 500 km and the dogs got to stretch their legs running after birds and other dogs.

On the couple of trips that we took into town, our jazzed up Gypsy with fog lights and massive alloys got looks and questions about mileage and how we manage to drive such long distances in a Gypsy.

One excursion from the campsite was interesting though. About an hour out of Nagpur on the Hyderabad road is a private farm of Nikhil Mundle whose family has been associated with community service and education in Nagpur. As a tribute to Shivaji, the Mundle family has constructed miniature models in stone of six of his best forts, accurate to the last detail. The forts are laid out around a 5-storey-high statue of Sant Gyaneshwar. Entry is free but only those who are genuinely interested are allowed inside.

Day 7,8,9
Precisely how remote can it get within a 100 km from a city? We discovered the answer when we decided to visit a national park that few people know about, Nawegaon National Park. To our luck, we were hosted and personally guided by the Patil father and son duo – Narayanrao and Bhimsen – who are singularly responsible for the pristine condition of the wildlife and forests there. The Patil family’s home is a huge old-style wadi with a courtyard complete with rare white palash trees, a peacock and guinea fowl. Compared to forests like Kanha where animals are used to human movement, the wildlife that we got to see at Nawegaon were shy and wary like how they are meant to be.

The forest itself is one of the best, untouched mixed forests of central India. There are no large teak or sal plantations and almost no human intervention in the core areas. We caught a glimpse of a leopard, peafowl and some rare birds – changeable hawk eagle, sarus cranes and steppe eagle. The one drawback of the area is that it is high on the naxal movement map, though in the three days we were in the forest, we didn’t come across one. Like all national parks, only petrol 4x4 vehicles were allowed inside the forest and thankfully our Gypsy was just what was needed. At the end of three days of near isolation from civilsation, we were reluctant to leave, but we had to make our way to Delhi over many more places.

Day 10, 11
Easily the most scenic route till date, over the next two days we drove through some remote tribal settlements, continuous stretches of forests and the unique Satpura table-top hills on our way to the hill station of Pachmarhi and the Satpura National Park. Interestingly, these are areas where we got to see old Rajdoot bikes in sizeable numbers. Some had been tinkered with by the local mechanics that they were hardly recognizable, but most were beautifully maintained. For those who complain that big, old bikes aren’t to be found anywhere must visit the area.

The Pench National Park that is enroute is one of those gaining recent publicity for tiger sighting. As the number of tigers dwindle, there are few forests where their sighting is guaranteed and Pench is one of them. Driving through, you are reminded of what Captain Forsyth, one of the first British explorers in the region, had written about Central India:

Day 12, 13, 14
Pachmarhi was lazy, like it was meant to be. An ideal hill town, it has been made better by the government ban on any new construction. So all you see are old Raj buildings that transport you a century earlier. Having your morning cuppa, soaking in the sun in the garden you cannot be blamed if you feel like an erstwhile gora sahib or memsahib.

We did the customary visits to the caves, but it is really the canyons that are the stars of Pachmarhi. Knowing that some of them are more than a kilometer deep and there are parts where the sun has never penetrated, we wanted to try our hand at canyoneering. Unfortunately, the three days that we had were just not enough.

The Gypsy chose Pachmarhi to have its first and only breakdown – the wiring of the fog lamps had loosened. But to our surprise, Pachmarhi is a Gypsy paradise where it was easily fixed. From ‘95 to ’04, you find Gypsies of all models, colours and modifications. For a change, our Gypsy didn’t stand out like a Jeep on steroids among the sedans and small cars. For that reason alone, Pachmarhi is a must-visit for Gypsy owners.

Day 15
A four hour drive took us back 12,000 years. We visited the amazing Bhimbetika caves, 40 km short of Bhopal. The amazing rock formations with their perfectly preserved early paintings testify man’s transformation from 10,000 BC to 3,000 BC – from a cave-dweller to a civilized being with communal and religious conscious. Later in the day, we headed to another world heritage monument, the Sanchi Stupa.

Built around the time when the last of the Bhimbetka paintings were executed, the Stupa proved the contrast between the two places beautifully. While one had stick figures and horses made of two conjoined triangles, the other had intricate carvings and interlocked blocks that are still an architectural wonder.

Day 16
The Gypsy is happy on two kinds of roads – really good ones like the 4-lane North-South Corridor or the muddy, slushy off-roads. It’s hard suspensions are really evident only on roads that are in between the two, which make up most of our roads. The next day we subjected our spines to some jarring when we drove out very early in the morning to the Udaygiri caves that date back to the Gupta period.

An entire hill with caves where fabulous figures have been chiseled in the rock. Visiting the place at sunrise, it turned out was a great idea since many of the caves are designed such that the first rays of the sun hit the statues. On the downside, we were horrified to see that the village at the base of the hill uses the hill as a community toilet. Men walking with mugs of water in between such magnificent carvings was the worst that we had seen. Is the otherwise vigilant Madhya Pradesh Tourism aware of this, one wonders.

Day 17, 18
After a fortnight of traveling to the most unlikely places, our holiday was coming to an end. We still had 1500 km to go before we reached Manali, but we would be on the main highway leading to Delhi now and there was nothing more to expect other than the Madhav National Park at Shivpuri which, we had heard was a great place for Chinkaras.

We had missed out on Chattisgarh, Kanha and Badhavgarh from our original list but Pachmarhi’s canyons, Bhimbetka’s caves and the virgin forests of Nawegaon had more than made up for it. The Gypsy that had seemed like such a bad idea on our way to Bangalore had been thoroughly well-behaved on our way up. Encouraged, we are now planning our next road trip to Arunach Pradesh.

Saturday, March 22, 2008


I found this interesting article on

The summit pyramid of Chong Kumdan I (7071m) in India's East Karakoram, as seen from the southeast. Until recently this was a highly restricted area: only Indian or foreign mountaineers forming joint expeditions with Indians were allowed to climb in this area, and even then permits were difficult to obtain. A recent government annoucement may have changed all this. The 2007 second ascent of Chong Kumdan I is believed to have followed the right skyline. [Photo] Lindsay Griffin

On September 13 the Government of India announced a full opening of the Siachen Glacier to climbers and trekkers. Even "tourists" will be able to travel as far as the traditional Army Base Camp. It is assumed that foreigners will no longer need to form joint expeditions with Indian nationals to climb in this region, and trekking will be allowed on the glacier. The previously war-torn Siachen has been an area long disputed by Pakistan and India: hopefully, there will be no adverse reaction from Pakistan to this news.

Indian nationals have been very active in the area this summer, climbing some major peaks, in at least one case by a new route.A joint Indo-American expedition has made the second ascent of Chong Kumdam I (7071m) via a new route up the east-northeast ridge. In 1991 an Indo-British expedition, jointly led by Harish Kapadia and Dave Wilkinson, gained a permit to visit the Chong Kumdan Glacier in the East Karakoram, making the long trek from the Sasoma Army Camp below the Siachen, a journey that follows an historic trade route to China over the Saser La (5395m) and along the banks of the Shyok River. After warming up with a mass first ascent of Chong Kumdam V (6520m), south east of the main peak, Bill Church and Wilkinson inspected the east-northeast ridge of CKI from the Chogam I Glacier. During this foray they made the first ascent of CK4 (6520m) at the base of the ridge. While they were resting, most of the remaining climbers made an exploratory two-day trek, first west and then north to reach the head of the Chogam III Glacier immediately below the west side of CKI. From here two of the team, Lindsay Griffin and Paul Nunn, decided to try the subsidiary Kichik Kumdan (6640m) just west of the main summit. The successful ascent took considerably longer and proved rather more demanding than appearances had suggested, so the two were forced to rest while Church and Wilkinson, with Neil McAdie and John Porter, returned to climb a ramp on the west face of CKI, where they reached the upper northwest ridge and continued to the summit. From here they enjoyed splendid views northwest to the Rimo Group, west to the unclimbed Chong Kumdan II (7004m), the remaining virgin 7000m peak in this region, and south to the Mamostong Group. A subsequent attempt by Nunn and Griffin found changed conditions on this route and the pair retreated from 6640m. However, the expedition was successful in climbing several more peaks in the area, and inspecting the approach to CK II, with a conclusion that it looked straightforward but very lengthy.

The 2007 Indo-American team was the first to visit the Chong Kumdan Glacier for sixteen years. The main aim was the first ascent of Chong Kumdan II but they appear to have been stopped by the lengthy glacier approach from the south. It appears the condition of the glacier may have changed substantially since 1991. It is believed the eventual second ascent of Chong Kumdan I followed the route inspected by Church and Wilkinson. Unfortunately, it is also reported that the expedition was beset by tragedy: one porter died and an experienced Sherpa became very ill and was evacuated by helicopter.

Mamostong Kangri (7516m), south of the Chong Kumdan Massif in the Indian East Karakoram. Seen here the north face is over 2000-meters high and must be one of the greatest unclimbed snow and ice walls in the Indian Himalaya. However, finding a safe line is another matter. While camped nearly a mile from the bottom of this face in 1991, a British team was heavily buffeted by spindrift from a large serac avalanche, originating from high on the wall. The mountain was recently climbed again from the far side by an Indo-French team. [Photo] Lindsay Griffin

Mamostong Kangri (7516m)--which has an awesome ca. 2000-meter north wall that will become a super-route of the future, if a safe line can be discovered—was climbed again in 2007 by an Indo-French expedition. They repeated the original route via the southeast ridge to the upper northeast ridge, first climbed in 1984 by an Indo-Japanese expedition led by Balwant Sandhu (who made the first ascent of Changabang). This was a very strong team with experienced Japanese such as Ogata and Yamada, and Indians like Chauhan, PM Das and Rajiv Sharma. This high mountain now has received around half a dozen ascents by several different routes, but this apepars to be the first since 1992.

At the time of writing an expedition organized by the IMF is attempting Rimo I, a very difficult 7385-meter summit only climbed once previously; in 1988 by an Indo-Japanese expedition jointly led by Hukam Singh and Yoshi Ogata via the southwest ridge. Prior to the first ascent the mountain had defeated very capable climbers such as Victor Saunders and Stephen Venables (1985) and Peter Hillary (1986). Sadly, tragedy has already struck this expedition before it reached the mountain: one of the Indian team, an instructor from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, died while trying to cross the Terong River.

From Ladakh comes a report that the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) are in the process of setting up an office in Leh, allowing climbers to simply turn up and pay the required $100 for the popular "trekking peak" Stok Kangri. There were also rumours in Leh that the government may be opening many more peaks in the area for 2008.

The Rimo group from the Chong Kumdan Massif to the southeast. Rimo I (7385m) is the highest peak on the left and the only ascent to date was achieved in 1988 by an Indo-Japanese expedition via the ridge falling left from the summit. The peak is currently being attempted again by an Indian expedition. [Photo] Lindsay Griffin

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Gypsy, three dogs and me… on a journey from Manali to Bangalore

I have always believed that traveling, like climbing, is more about with whom you do it rather than the act itself. A month ago, I took a long drive, the longest that I have attempted so far – from Manali to Bangalore. And for company I had my three dogs and my Maruti Gypsy.

Maybe I should start from the beginning. Both my wife, Indu and I are from Bangalore but we live in Manali, me running treks and climbs in the Himalayas, she freelance writing from home. Winter is a time when snowfall lays siege and Manali goes on a holiday. We decided to drive down to Bangalore but due to various miscalculations I had to leave earlier while she and our dogs would join me 10 days later. Technically, Indu was to drive down to Delhi along with a hired driver (driving and managing 3 hyper canines is a master juggling act for her, she says) from where I would take over the driving myself while she flew down to Bangalore to house-sit.

They left at 6 PM on a Saturday evening. By 8 PM I had got the first call saying that there seemed some trouble with the 4WD in the Gypsy – it kept shifting from 2WD to 4WD on its own. Call it foolhardiness or plain being adamant, we decided that she could continue and get a mechanic to look at it at the next big town. Only, on a Saturday evening in winters, there are few people about, let alone mechanics. But the drive continued for nearly 250 km, with them stopping every few km to shift the gear lever back to 2WD. Then at 2.30 in the morning I got a call saying the shaft of the Gypsy had finally snapped and they were effectively stranded on a highway in Punjab.

For the next 8 hours my wife and I led parallel lives, guessing what the other was upto. Maruti had MOS vans in Ropar or Roopnagar as they call it now. But that was unavailable till about 8 in the morning. So the driver and she did the only thing they could – pushed back the seats and went to sleep.

Finally, at 7.30 AM, while I was on the flight to Delhi, she managed to track down the Maruti Service Station in Ropar and request them for a MOS van to tow them in. Then began our attempts to get the Gypsy repaired. Now, we have learnt from our experience that even though the Gypsy is a great vehicle – very few mechanics, even genuine Maruti dealers, have the spare parts for it. As I arrived in Delhi, our search for the parts that needed replacing began. Ropar didn’t have it and nor did it seem to be there in Chandigarh just 40 km away. It was a Sunday and there would be few shops in Delhi open where I could get it. After five auto rides between Kashmiri Gate, Karol Bagh, Naraina and Okhla I finally managed to get the parts, but it was past 2 PM and my family was camping out at the Maruti Service Station in Ropar. When I finally managed to reach there it was well past 9 PM, but the good guys from Maruti had decided to stay back and get our Gypsy in shape for our drive to Bangalore.

Then began the second leg of our drive, first to Delhi to drop off Indu and then to a dhaba on the Mathura road to catch some much-needed sleep after spending much of the night on the road. After about three hours, I set out and drove past Agra, Gwalior and finally reached Shivpuri by 7 in the evening. Thankfully, the roads were great and the vehicle seemed to be behaving itself.

I spend the night in a small lodge while the doggies stayed in the Gypsy, guarding it and scaring away anyone who ventured within a few feet. The previous day’s drive had been peaceful, I was confident and made plans to reach Bangalore in a marathon drive over two days. But my optimism was a little premature because a hundred kilometers out of Shivpuri the Gypsy gave up on me, this time with a broken oil seal in the rear wheel. Not that I couldn’t continue driving, I just couldn’t safely go past 40 kmph on a highway where even decrepit lorries were hitting a good 70 or 80 kmph. The next 350 km were the most frustrating till I reached Indore. With the oil seal broken, the oil had leaked into the break drum and for a good 120 km, the brakes were iffy and I remember driving the entire time hoping I didn’t have to apply them suddenly. What would normally have taken about 6 or 7 hours between Shivpuri and Indore, had taken me a good 12 hours.

Once again, it was a Maruti Service Station that played host letting me camp out on their lawn for the night. New bearings were required and that could be done only in the morning. Thankfully, Madhya Pradesh seemed to be quite Gypsy friendly and the service station had the spares I needed. The next morning while waiting for the Gypsy to get done, I met Bittu Tiwari, one of the more colourful characters I have come across. A giant of a man with trademark UP accent and heavy gold jewellery, he was quite taken with my dogs (he himself had about six, he said). During our conversation, he confidently told me, “Aapko bandhook rakhni chahiye. Agar chahiye to mujhe bata dijiye.” Had me wondering for a bit there if it was actually necessary or even that easy to acquire one. I chose not to pursue it and after a few more pleasantries, we split and to my surprise Mr Tiwari did not own a Grand Vitara or even a SX4. He was driving a tiny white Zen, much unlike his own girth.

I finally managed to get the Gypsy only by 3 PM. Most of the day had gone and I still had a good 1500 km to go before I reached home. I was itching to get going, preferably with few stops. But first my stomach demanded attention and I stopped for the best biryani I have ever had at a tiny restaurant in Indore called Krishna Restaurant. A highly recommended place for anyone veggie but likes his biryanis.

A marathon drive over the next 11 hours brought me close to Ellora near Aurangabad. I was sleep-deprived and didn’t have the enthusiasm to find a hotel. I decided to park on the side of the highway and sleep in the Gypsy with my dogs. The next day was earlier scheduled for me to spend a few hours visiting Ellora. But as I approached the town I saw four buses full of kids and family tourists – not an ideal company to take in the beautiful caves. I decided to not stop and continue past Aurangabad.

Day three was a good day. I went past Aurangabad, Dhule Sholapur and finally entered Karnataka. Phew! I was eager to start speaking in Kannada again to assure myself that I was nearly home. But Bijapur being on the Maharashtra border, had most people replying in Hindi. I was eager to get past Bijapur and catch some sleep. Bangalore was 524 km away and I intended to sleep in my bed the next day.

I started early the next morning but for someone in a hurry to get home, the roads were extremely bad. Or maybe it was the Gypsy that takes on every pothole eagerly, with no consideration for the driver. Past Hospet the road got great. It was part of the Golden Quadrilateral and I gave myself another 5 hours to reach home. Once again, my optimism was bang on time because that is the exact moment my Gypsy had a short circuit and started smoking from the hood. I stopped immediately and started wondering if the only way to get to Bangalore was to get the Gypsy towed.

I was cursing myself for being optimistic too easily, the Gypsy for timing its breakdowns with my optimism and the entire what-seemed-foolhardy plan. A few minutes and a couple of cigarettes later I decided to attempt a little electrical maintenance on my own. The grounding wire had burnt out. But thankfully the guys at Maruti had left a little extra wire on one end that I could cut out and replace the damaged bit.

After that, thankfully it was a smooth drive all the way to Tumkur, 40 km before Bangalore where Indu and two friends had come to receive me and the doggies. When I finally reached home, I had been on the go over the length of the country for five whole days in a battered old Gypsy with only one night on a bed, one at the Maruti Service Station in Indore and two in the Gypsy. I had come past some of the most beautiful landscape in Madhya Pradesh and one of the harshest in Maharashtra. I had literally driven past the history of India from Agra to Gwalior to Ellora to Badami and Pattadakal. I had driven with three dogs for company and for the first time in my life, realized what great company they make.

Even with all the breakdowns, I have to accept, they were among the best five days and I can’t wait to get back on the road to drive back to Manali. We have planned a different route over Chattisgarh and lots of national parks in Madhya Pradesh. We want to take it slowly this time around – over a good 15 days before we reach home turf.