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The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.

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Expeditions

Jul 29, 2019

Trans Himalaya 2019: Breathless in the Himalaya

In an unprecedented Himalayan snowfall, ultra-runner Peter Van Geit breaks out his ice axe to access undocumented passes in the High Himalayas.

WRITTEN BY

Davey Braun

Last month, The Outdoor Journal received the first contact from Peter Van Geit on his 2,500 km self-supported journey across 100+ Himalayan high passes in Himachal, Ladakh, and Uttarakhand, accompanied by filmmaker Neil D’Souza. In his latest update, Peter navigates unpassable verticle cliffs and holy glacial lakes along his spellbinding adventure.

After completing the entire length of Uttarakhand in 17 passes, I entered the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh. I had been doing 600-700 km ultra runs through this beautiful state in previous years on lesser-traveled roads in remote valleys. This time I was targetting several passes across the high mountains in three major sections: the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) a wildlife sanctuary and protected biosphere, the Dhauladhar range separating the Kangra plains and Chamba valley, and the Pir Panjal range separating Chamba from Lahaul. As of mid-July, I completed 45 high altitude passes touching 4,600 meters and heavy snow due to unprecedented snowfall this winter.

Shepherds from Barmour descending from the snow-covered Chaurasi pass at 4700m in Chamba valley on their way to graze their herds in the high altitude meadows around the Chaurasi Ka Dal lake.
Panoramic view from the Gaj pass at 4100m from the Dhauladhar high range onto the snow-covered Lam Dal Lake in the upper range of the Chamba valley. Late summer after the snow melts tens of thousands of pilgrims visit this holy lake.

Climbing above 4,000 meters in early summer meant cutting through steep, frozen snow gullies with my ice axe, opening several passes not yet traversed by anyone or following the fresh trail of the shepherds who had just migrated across some passes. With the Northeast monsoon setting in soon, I’ll be moving next to the high altitude deserts of Lahaul and Zanskar to complete several 5,000-meter plus passes and come back down to Garhwal in Uttarakhand in September once the rains in the lower Himalayas subside.

Read next on TOJ: Alpine-Style, Ultra-Challenge in the Himalayan High Passes

GHNP is cornered between the high ranges of the Parvati National Park and Kinnaur. Three major rivers flow through this national reserve: the Tirthan, Sainj and Jiwa Nala separated by sharp, steep rising ridges. With no accurate trail info available on the Internet (no blog references meant few people or none have hiked here) I explored all three valleys using a very rough PDF sketch map made available by the tourism office and crossed over through three steep passes. The park has some of the steepest and most inaccessible rock cliffs I have encountered. Losing the trail here meant getting stuck inside near-vertical cliffs.

Sharing a cup of tea beneath the onset of the monsoon clouds with these shepherds while climbing up to the Waru pass at 3870m while crossing over the Dhauladhar range from Chamba valley to the Kangra plains.
Hospitality in the mountains. Night stay and dinner with these two shepherds on a ridge above the Jalsu pass in the Dhauladhar range of Himachal. Beautiful views on the snow-covered Mani Mahesh in the background, one of the seven Holi shrines of lord Shiva.

Once the snow melts on the higher ranges, many young men in Uttarakhand and Himachal go out in search for the “Jungli Nalla”, a high altitude medicinal root which is smuggled across the border from Tibet into China. One kilogram fetches 20 thousand rupees ($300 USD). Spending one and a half months in the mountains provides sufficient income for the rest of the year. While hiking deep inside the GHNP, I came across several villagers digging for both roots as well as large, beautiful rock quartz crystals.

Dhauladhar is a 4,000-meter plus mountain range which rises up steeply from the Kangra plains between Dharamsala and Palampur. Several passes cross over to the beautiful Chamba valley fed by the Ravi river which flows down from the high ranges separating Kullu-Chamba-Lahaul districts. There are several high altitude glacial lakes in the Dhauladhar which are considered holy and visited during an annual late summer pilgrimage by the local people. Most of the lakes were still covered under a thick sheet of frozen snow when I passed by.

Woman carrying home firewood from the forest in Lug valley in Himachal Pradesh for cooking purposes. With no road access or electricity in many remote hamlets, people rely on natural resources for home building and cooking.
Two Gurjar (mountain tribe) from Mumbardar in Chamba valley of Himachal were grazing their buffaloes in the alpine meadows above the clouds and upon seeing me passing by immediately invited me over for dinner and a night stay in their mud home.

I crossed five passes in the Dhauladhar: Baleni, Minkiani, Indrahar, Waru and Gaj pass between 3,800 to 4,300 meters coming across heavy snow at the North facing (less exposure to the sun) Chamba side. The most adventurous was Waru at 3,870 meters, a lesser-known pass used only by shepherds (which means undocumented) where I lost the trail several times. Trying to get back on track, I had to scramble through dense forest and climb down through several side gullies which had cut deeply into the valley slope resulting in several “free solo” moments while climbing down 100-meter plus vertical drops. I survived several breathless and adrenaline rushing moments here until I set a foothold on firm ground again.

One of the near-vertical rock descents into a snow-covered gully which deeply cut inside the main valley while navigating my way “off-trail” to the Waru pass across the Pir Panjal in Himachal.

The Pir Panjal is a high range of 5,000meter peaks separating the Chenab river valley (geopolitically split across Pangi and Lahaul districts) and Chamba valley. Shepherds from Chamba annually migrate with large herds of 300 to 1,000 sheep and goats across several very steep 4,500 meter passes to graze the high altitude meadows of Pangi and Lahaul which produces better quality milk and meat. They return home only five months later at the end of the summer before the passes close again.

Camping below the stardust of the milky way while camping at Trakdi along the Manji Khad stream inside the beautiful Dhauladhar mountains near Dharamsala in Himachal.

I crossed the Marhu, Darati and Chaurasi passes touching 4,200 to 4,600 meters, all undocumented, following the footsteps of the Gaddis or shepherds who had just crossed over. The most adventurous and scary one is Darati, which is a sheer vertical 1,000-meter rockface that seems impossible to climb at first sight. From steep snow-covered ridges on top of the pass to a labyrinth of narrow passages through steep rock faces, one can only imagine how shepherds traverse these with 500 sheep. About 5% of the sheep do not make it alive to the other side.

Shepherds from Chamba Valley, Himachal at the base of the Darati pass waiting to cross over the steep snow-covered pass in early July across the Pir Panjal range into the high altitude meadows of Lahaul.
Women at Kalprai village in Chamba valley harvesting wheat on the rooftops of the mud separating the grains from the stem by hitting with large sticks while rhythmically rotating in a circle.

I experienced one of the most spellbinding moments in my entire journey so far while I was about to climb up the Chaurasi pass. At exactly the same moment, a massive herd of more than a thousand sheep and goats descended down the snow-covered pass displaying their natural skill to traverse these very steep slopes. They were guided by ten shepherds from Barmour district in Chamba on their way to the fairytale Chaurasi ki dal glacial lake surrounded by lush green meadows dotted with alpine flowers of all colors of the rainbow.

One thousand sheep descending from the snow-covered Chaurasi pass (4700m) in the Chamba valley in Himachal on their way from the plains to graze the high altitude meadows. They will only return home 5 months later at the onset of winter.

The most memorable moments in these remote valleys of the Himalayas have been my encounters and night stays with the Gujjars, or mountain tribes. Small, remote hamlets far beyond the last villages deep inside the forest, completely disconnected from civilization. These tribals live with their cattle in large beautiful rock and mud shelters built with huge pine tree trunks. They graze their buffaloes, horses, and sheep in the meadows which stay together with them under the same roof. Each and every encounter along my way with these native people has been one of heartwarming hospitality. After a full energy-draining pass crossing, ending up around a warm fire in a mud home eating freshly cooked food with these families who consider you as one of their own is beyond words.

Unseen hospitality with the Gujjars or mountain tribes in Chamba, Himachal who live disconnected from society deep inside the forests in mud homes grazing their cattle in high altitude meadows.
Overnight stay and dinner with the mountain tribes at Rali Dhar in Chamba, Himachal. The lady of the home is preparing yummy rottis (flat breads) on the fire with buffalo milk. They stay under one roof with their cattle.

Peter will continue to share his field notes with the hope of inspiring others to explore these beautiful locations. You can read more about Peter’s experiences and motivations in his interview here – Alpine-Style, Ultra-Challenge in the Himalayan High Passes. Stay tuned on The Outdoor Journal for Peter’s next update along his 2,500 km journey.

To follow Peter’s expedition, visit his blog.
Facebook: @PeterVanGeit
Instagram: @petervangeit
Chennai Trekking Club

For more Neil Productions, visit: http://neil.dj/
Facebook: @neilb4me

Introducing The Outdoor Voyage

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Expeditions

Jul 19, 2019

Everest: Queues, Theft and Death on the Mountain Once Known as Chomolungma

Everest does not exist as it did a century ago. We have changed the way it is perceived, and should take responsibility for its numerous and consistent casualties.

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WRITTEN BY

Elijah Pittman

Everest is one of the most sacred mountains in the world, appropriately named “Holy Mother” by the people of Tibet and “goddess of the sky” by the Nepalese. The surrounding valleys permeate spiritual energy that is attested to by all the native Sherpas living near the hallowed mountain. In its indigenous context, the summit of Mount Everest is a heavenly place that humans should revere in awe at its base, envisioning the gods dancing at 8,000 meters.

The cultural significance of Everest has strayed ever since its summit was first pursued. From that point on it became known as ‘Everest,’ after a British surveyor, rather than Chomolungma, its native Tibetan name, or Sagarmatha in Sanskrit. This misappropriation in its designation is altogether too fitting to how that mountain is still pursued today.

Thomas Becker’s climbing partner Daniel Wehrly overlooking the nearby peak of Pumari. (Thomas Becker)

Every year, there are now masses of non-native tourists hiring sherpas to guide them to the covetous summit. For the most part, their intent is not to respect and experience the sanctity of the mountain, but rather to stand atop it, to “conquer” it, without consideration of its authentic nature. The crescendo of the consequences is playing out in real-time,  this crescendo has been building for the past couple of decades. As a result of this naïveté, many Westerners have attempted Everest only to never return. Once again, as happens every year as the summit window opens up, the press is fixating on the sensational photos of queues stretching down the mountain.

“There were people who should not have been on that mountain”

While traffic jams are undeniably an issue, they are not inherently causing the numerous deaths that have occurred on Everest according to Thomas Becker, who summited Everest on May 23rd, 2019. Becker instead points to the limited three possible days to summit this year, as opposed to eleven last year, as well as the number of people who are simply too inexperienced to attempt a summit.

Thomas Becker is an American human rights attorney based primarily in Bolivia and he has had experience with intensive mountaineering over the past twenty years of his life. He currently lives in La Paz, Bolivia, which sits at a little more than 3,500m, making access to peaks exceeding 6,000m less complicated. Before targeting the peak of Everest, which sits at 8,848m, Thomas’ highest summit was Pik Lenin at 7,134m along the Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border. Even with his extensive mountaineering experience, Becker saw that something was awry on Mount Everest.

“There were people who should not have been on that mountain,” Becker said, “I love that everyone wants to do it… but I want them to be prepared”.

“It only takes one person to hold sixty people back for two hours,”

With the astronomical cost of permits to summit Everest, those climbing are increasingly skewed towards those with the money to do so, rather than those who hold pure intentions and sufficient experience. Selfies atop one of the world’s most spiritually exalted peaks have been taking priority over the experience of a two-month-long collective struggle. This year 381 permits were issued to climbers, exceeding $10,000 per permit. Last year, 347 permits were issued. These numbers are not significantly different, perhaps illustrating Becker’s point. Inexperience has caused complications on the mountain, rather than just clusters of climbers headed toward the summit.

The Psychology of Summiting Everest

“It only takes one person to hold sixty people back for two hours,” Becker said. “If you removed the inexperienced people from the mountain, those lines become much quicker.” The lack of experience Thomas witnessed brought the worst out in many of the other climbers and presented an incredibly dangerous setting for those trying to summit, including Becker himself.

Elia Saikaly is a filmographer who has spent the last several years of his life documenting the country of Nepal, and this year summited Everest for the third time. He spent this year’s trek documenting four Arab women heading toward the penultimate summit, including the first Omani woman ever to complete the expedition.

Dreams Come True on Everest for Arab Women

There were four deceased climbers on the route on the 22nd/23rd of May, either directly fixed to the lines at an anchor point or just mere feet off the main trail,” Saikaly said. “ I do believe that had other climbers exercised such humility and honesty with themselves, most deaths could have been avoided.”

“Someone stole our oxygen in the death zone,”

“I trained for a year to make sure – could I do this on my own?” Becker said, outlining his fear of being a burden to those climbing with him, and hoping to be ready for any off-chance worse case scenarios. Saikaly similarly delineated the success of his team in terms of preparation. “I think of our own team members,” Saikaly said. “The four Arab women who all summited without issues, who were able to navigate the queues and ascend and descend safely; where did they go right? Leadership. Preparation. Strategic planning and self-responsibility.”

Climbers above the Death Zone. (Elia Saikaly)

As is possible for anyone upon Everest, nearly everything that could have gone wrong went wrong for Becker.

“Someone stole our oxygen in the death zone,” Becker said. The death zone is the area of the mountain above 8,000 meters (26,000 feet) where the oxygen level is so low that the body’s vital functions begin to slow. With the stagnant queues that have been forming before the summit, this area becomes even more precarious as climbers are forced to remain in the death zone for long stretches of time. Especially without oxygen, the body will begin to suffer; Becker obtained both frostbite and frost-blindness with the lack of oxygen and a broken oxygen regulator along his way to the summit in this zone. “With such limited oxygen, it put me in a dangerous situation, which contributed to my frostbite.”

“How you summit, in my opinion, is more important than the fact that you reach the top”

Becker was in dire conditions upon making his way back down from the summit. Due to his frost-blindness, he was forced to descend blindly from Camp 4 which is located just below the death zone. It was not until he reached Camp 3 that a popular Everest guiding company, Adventure Consultants, was able to aid him by bandaging his eyes. A few of his fingers, however, were in worse shape. Frostbitten, he had to remain in Nepal for some time after completing his total descent to ensure he did not lose any appendages.

Thomas Becker descending blind from Camp 4. (Thomas Becker)

These risky queues could be made far more effective if the people on them were properly equipped. In these lines, climbers are attached to a single rope that leads them up towards the summit. This year, due to the sheer number of people who would be attempting to summit in a limited amount of days, there was one rope that ascended to the peak, and another that descended from it. However, the ascending rope still often suffered stoppages, as an inexperienced climber would become stuck at some of the more technical aspects of the mountain.

“The ambition of some people was the sad part”

Becker was forced to face one of these dilemmas in the worst place possible, with dwindling oxygen. “I was teaching a woman how to use a jumar near the summit,” Becker said. Jumars are an ascending device that allows climbers to climb along strategically placed ropes rather than negotiate steep rocks. One of these such areas would be the Hillary Step near the summit, a practically vertical rock face at nearly 8,800 meters.

Suffice to say, it is the last place in the world a climber should be learning how to use any crucial climbing device. Becker further described the chaos the situation created, as climbers behind the struggling woman began yelling at her, only further escalating the tension that they were all under. “The ambition of some people was the sad part,” Becker said, “This Darwinistic, ‘must conquer at all costs’ mindset put people in danger.” He was patient with her, attempting to voice words of encouragement over the sea of impeding attitudes. If she were to detach from the rope, as some climbers were suggesting, she risked falling off the face of the mountain. With his help, she was eventually able to make her way along to the summit.

Saikaly himself once abandoned a summit attempt in the face of harsh conditions. Fitting, he posited that summiting Everest should be done properly. “How you summit, in my opinion, is more important than the fact that you reach the top,” Saikaly said.

Lately, headlines regarding the perilous situations facing climbers on Mount Everest have revolved around the images of the elongated lines of people making their way to and from the summit. Over the past several climbing seasons, media outlets critique the Nepalese government for issuing too many permits. However, the focus for reformation should be to ensure the climbers are experienced, both technically and emotionally. Ambition in the wrong circumstances can be just as dangerous on Everest as inexperience. “Everyone wants to talk about the sharks,” Becker said, referring to overly-ambitious climbers, “and there definitely were sharks. But there were also experienced climbers.”

Everest is an inherently challenging climb and has been pinned with casualties for decades. Much can be done to protect the people who do decide to undergo this challenging climb, which can take two months to complete and poses a real threat of death. The spirituality that is supposed to be evoked from the mountain can turn nightmarish by the sight of dead bodies lying abandoned.

“We saw dead bodies attached to ropes,” Becker said, describing his nearly one month and a half long journey travelling up the mountain. “There was a dead body basically dangling from the Hillary Step. I tried to stay pumped seeing it [the Hillary Step], but it was hard to do that walking past a dead person on this iconic part of the mountain.”

“I saw someone’s sherpa carrying an oriental rug and artwork to base camp.”

The sight of dead bodies combined with the behavior of other climbers, which only seemed to beckon for a fatal incident to occur, gave Becker pause when considering if he would attempt the mountain again. “The mountain’s magnificent,” Becker said, “but there are other mountains all over the world. I’ve never been on a trek where I had to pass six bodies. They could have been my friends, they could have been me.”

Although the Nepalese Government continues to receive sharp criticism, their own people are making an income off of Westerns attempting Everest. It is a hazardous living, but it is one of the more stable sources of income for sherpas in a meagre economy. “Everyone pays a permit fee, and usually a poor Nepali is the one that carries all your gear onto the mountain,” Becker said. While the deaths are far more often of Westerners than of sherpas, they are still dying as well and have to deal with the fact that there are dead bodies on one of their most sacred mountains. “The people who bear the brunt are sherpas, who are literally carrying bodies down,” Becker said.

The coverage in the West, that tends to focus on blaming the government rather than focusing on individual triumphs upon Everest, lies in stark contrast to media abroad. “Sensationalism sells, and the vast majority of positive accomplishments on Everest are overlooked by the western mainstream media,” Saikaly said. “The team of four Arab women each received a great deal of positive recognition in the media in their home countries.”

Queues descending from the mountain. (Elia Saikaly)

The situation, especially in historical context, is a tragic one. For the most part, wealthy Westerners hoping to summit Everest travel to the Himalayas for that sole purpose, without much regard to the social and economic status of the sherpas they hire to support them. “I tried to push myself, not to be a burden to anyone else,” Becker said, “I saw someone’s sherpa carrying an oriental rug and artwork to base camp.” Increasingly, these people are being exploited, and since they do not have a prominent voice, Western media is able to easily place blame upon their government for the painful occurrences that consistently take place on it.

A harkening back to the spirituality of Chomolungma, Everest’s native name that had been revered for centuries, may aid all those who choose to stand in its shadow. Yet this seems unlikely, due to the sheer amount of money pouring in from outsiders who want to stand atop the literal peak of the world.

Becker suggested regulations that could be put into place to restrict those without the proper experience from attempting the climb, such as ensuring that climbers who have not climbed to at least 7,000m could not attempt Everest. “Perhaps it is experience on a higher altitude 7,000m or 8,000m peak,” Becker said, “or maybe it is training on technical 6000m mountains… This would weed out some of the people that I saw on the mountain that lacked some pretty basic skills and hopefully encourage them to get the training to keep themselves and others around them safe.” This, unfortunately, seems unlikely again due to the sheer influx of money coming into a country in need of the income and an industry that is willing to compromise the ethical values that mountain previously enjoyed before it was westernized.

Without the appreciation of Everest that it enjoyed from those indigenous to its land, we may be destined to see the same type of media coverage on the issues plaguing it each year, as the summit window opens for tourists to rabidly rush to its peak.

With thanks to Elia Saikaly and Thomas Becker for contributing. Elia can be found on Instagram here, and more details about his upcoming feature documentary “The Dream of Everest” here. Thomas can be found on Instagram here.

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