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Asia, India, Lahaul-Spiti, Winter Traverse of the Indian Himalaya

Winter Traverse of the Indian Himalaya. From January 27 to February 21, Susie Patterson and Ned Gillette went from Leh to Zanskar to Manali, covering about 225 miles and crossing three mountain ranges: Zanskar, Great Himalaya and Pir Panjal. It was a very cold winter with less snow than any local could remember. This was lucky and worked to our advantage; the rivers were nicely frozen, yet the walking usually did not demand major trail breaking.

We hired a 4WD taxi and drove from Leh to Nimmu west along the Indus River, then 15 miles south up the Zanskar River to the village of Chiling. There was no snow on the ground. With three Zankari porters who we’d hired in Leh, we walked for six days up the sometimes more, sometimes less frozen Zanskar River to Padam. It was fascinating to learn to read the ice on the big, swift river and decide what was safe. We all got our feet wet at times but nobody fell in. We slept in caves. Night-time temperatures were -20° to -30°F. There is no permanent trail through most of this spectacular gorge and it is only walkable in winter. For centuries, this route has been the only way in or out of Zanskar during winter months. Although we saw several groups of Zanskaris traveling on the frozen river, we saw no other Westerners during this or any other part of the trip.

From Padam, we veered southeast up the Tsarap Lingti River, then south up the increasingly small Kargyak (Kurgiakh) River to Kargyak, the last village, at 4000 meters. All along this part, we were welcomed into houses, where we slept and ate. The great thing about being here at this time of the year was that we had the place and the people all to ourselves. It was a magical journey. Our porters turned back from Kargyak, saying, “Ahead OK in summer; never in winter.” We waited out bad weather, then the two of us continued on our own. The weather deteriorated and we had a very difficult time guessing which canyon led up toward the Shingu La (5100m). Suddenly, the snow was deep and hid all traces of the summer trail. For the first time, we strapped on our lightweight MSR snowshoes over our Sorel shoepacks.

“Crampon” teeth on the bottom of the snowshoes allowed us to climb up icy cascades. We lucked out and, at dark, stumbled upon a rock-walled shepherd’s hut that the locals had told us about. At least we knew we were going right. The storm pinned us down for two nights. We wondered if we’d get skunked this close to getting over the key pass.

On February 11, it was very cold and windy but clear. We raced through the narrow throat at the bottom of the pass, which was clogged by the debris of a huge slab avalanche that had let loose the day before. A gradual climb on windslab led us to the top of the Shingu La. We dropped down the south side and out of the wind. We figured it’d be a cake walk from here, but the snow was deep and it was hard going even downhill, with many detours to minimize the constant threat of avalanches. Temperatures now were warmer. I made a dumb mistake and fell through rotten ice into the river; Susie hauled me out. After four days, we came to Rarig, the first village, where people were wide-eyed to see us coming from the north. At Darcha, we joined the snow-covered Leh to Manali highway and followed it for several days, finishing up by crossing the Rohtang Pass at 3978 meters and descending into Manali, which looked and felt like the tropics. It was a wonderful trip for a husband and wife to do together.

Ned Gilette