A Review of “Eight Years in Tibet”

We all know of Heinrich Harrer’s escape-to-refuge story, Seven Years in Tibet. It’s one of the West’s classic reads for the land beyond the Himalaya, turned into a famous movie. But do we know that it was his partner, Peter Aufschnaiter, who really made their escape through Tibet possible, and that he too wrote a book?

Only by the grace of inter-library loan could I track down a rare copy of Eight Years in Tibet. It’s arguably our most accurate general reading portrait of Tibet around the time of the Chinese takeover, and an interesting vista into the unusual man who found his destiny there.

Aufschnaiter was a climber, geographer and agricultural scientist from Kitzbühel. Biographies tell that he joined the Nazi party in 1933, but his life and words tell that his love was to work apart from politics and ego, and engage wild terrain and down-to-earth people. When he took expeditions to Kangchenjunga and Nanga Parbat in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s he started studying the geography, languages, and traditions of the Himalaya and Tibet. This fluency and the natural rapport he found with the Tibetans and the land is what carried him and Harrer across the Changtang in winter. So “without the use of any kind of trickery we…arrived, just like that, in the middle of the so-called ‘forbidden city’”–Lhasa.

Tibetans walking Barkhor, 1987

Tibetans walk the Barkhor, the circuit street around the Jokhang temple, 1987

Acutally they were half starved and in rags. This is typical of how Aufschnaiter mostly writes his adventures, ordeals, and amazing transformations of fate out of his book, and gets right to what he sees as the main point–observing and describing the land and people. Anyone who has visited the Tibetan hinterlands in recent times will recognize how the territories ring with high mountain light and the people are thoroughly charming. He also inserts some of the extensive and mutually admiring correspondence he shared with Sven Hedin, the previous generation’s most accomplished Tibet explorer. IMG_0311

Aufschnaiter does give us an insider’s summary of the politics in Tibet at the time, showing how the nation was indeed run in a feudal way. The regions of Ü and Tsang apparently were perennial rivals. In Lhasa the Reting Rinpoche regent and the office of the Dalai Lama were at a near civil war, and the regent himself came to pay the ultimate price. Two regions to the west went to battle over a sacred statue. And many a harmonious-looking village was actually a serfdom under a corrupt hierarchy reigning down from the Lhasa government through absentee nobles through hired managers. In Shekar (the district just north of Mt. Everest) taxation exacted to Lhasa amounted to 40,000 slaughtered sheep a year. Of course this was just the sort of thing feudal Europe did too. As today so then too it was practically a mystery how Tibetans could find their abundant smiles. Lest anyone take this as justification for the Chinese takeover, Aufschnaiter despaired to see the Chinese making claims on Tibet, and he shares an anecdote of a local Chinese trying to bully the truth. When he is commissioned to create a dam and irrigation system near Lhasa he unearths prehistoric artifacts and remains that are distinctly Tibetan, and—because this supports the notion that Tibetans have been in Tibet for millennia—a Chinese schoolteacher accuses him of being “an agent of the Americans or Indians.”

Tibetan nomad and children, Lhasa, 1987

Nomad woman and children, Lhasa, 1987

For most of the book we see Aufschnaiter taking up public work projects, mapping ranges, visiting outposts, and exploring personalities and places. Scholars of Everest will enjoy the research that he put into seeking the peak’s original name. We also see his special admiration for Milarepa, the 12th-century yogi whose story and poetry are celebrated foundations of Tibetan identity.

Nomad ca. Kailas

Nomad and yaks, 1999

When Chinese troops marched toward Lhasa, Harrer fled south across the border, and Aufschnaiter went west, to map and explore in Tibet for another year. He makes it clear that that’s where he wished he could stay. Not until late in life did he write this memoir, and he died before he could finish. Thus Eight Years in Tibet was collected and published by his friend Paul Bauer and scholar Martin Brauen.

Andy Selters and nomads ca. Kailas, 1999

Myself with Tibetan nomads, ca. Kang Rinpoche, 1999 Photo courtesy Barbara Cameron

T’ai-Ski

The basic movements of skate skiing are more similar to T’ai-chi than any other activity I know. It’s no coincidence that skate skiing is one of the most efficient forms of movement we can do. I will explain the basic similarity here.

In both skate skiing and in most basic T’ai-chi movements we start with our weight on a rear leg set in one direction, and we press off that foundation onto a forward leg set or going in a different direction, usually about 50-80 degrees offset. The fundamental force to transfer from one leg and one direction to the next is a spiral emanating from our center, springing us forward onto the front leg. When we gather and settle on that front leg we then sink a bit (loading the “spring”) and then spring to the next leg.

In T’ai-chi we learn that a spiral is the most balanced, stable, and effective way to transfer energy. A spiral is a combination of both directional and rotational energy, a combination of both yang and yin. In T’ai-chi we also learn to move from our center, a point deep within us just below our navel, and near the front of the spine. I have drawn spirals in the accompanying photos of myself both skating and doing T’ai-chi to illustrate the key force we like to cultivate. If you can operate mindfully with this spiral at the center of your body, you can skate, you can do T’ai-chi, you can do a lot of things a lot more effectively.

When we compare skate skiing with “classic” cross-country stride-skiing, we shouldn’t be surprised that skating is dramatically faster and more efficient. By comparison, when we’re striding in-line, we still want to have a spiral force operating from our center down the power leg, but with the legs both going in the same direction the spiral force is restrained. To use a martial comparison, you wouldn’t want to punch someone or deflect someone’s punch with both your feet facing the same way. I figure that in skating I can go about 15% faster than I can in classic striding, even though my skis are traveling significantly farther, because they’re angling across the track as well as in the direction of travel.

I hope this helps build some more awareness of how our bodies like to work.

© 2016 by Andy Selters

My Son Plays Baseball

Ace Selters throwing a 2-seamer.

Ace Selters throwing a 2-seamer.

My son Ace plays baseball. When he was eight I told him I didn’t care if he climbed and did mountain sports like me or not, but he had to find something outdoors he liked and get after it. “You’re not going to sit around in front of screens all the time,” I said. He chose baseball. Now he’s fairly obsessed with every corner of the national pastime, and I’ve been helping coach his teams.

I can still remember some of the homers and line drives I hit when I was his age, and I can still feel some of the hot-corner catches I gloved. Now I’m one of many adults bringing 12-year olds into the sport.

Ace at Dodger Stadium

Ace at Dodger Stadium

A lot of times the kids goof off. They show up to practice talking kid gossip and throwing the ball randomly toward one another, basically practicing poor throws and potentially hitting each other. Then during structured practice some of them sometimes compete for attention by clowning. Maybe they dance around and taunt on a base, maybe they call for the ball at any throw regardless of the play, or maybe they get tagged out but keep running like a jester all the way to home anyway. This kid-crap on the field pisses me off, but I try to discipline them back into learning the game without showing anger. I don’t always succeed, but I know they’re just kids. They have plenty of disciplined hours in school, they’ve got various stresses in their lives they’re often not ready for, and it’s important for kids to play.

But by age 12 baseball is not child’s play any more. The bigger kids (like Ace) are hurling that little white ball across the infield like a bullet, and they bat with shocking force. You gotta be ready or else. And they want to be cool like major leaguers, they want to win. It’s us mentors’ job to teach them how to win and play as hard as they can with sportsmanlike respect for the game and their opponents. I tell the kids with all my sincerity that it doesn’t matter if they win or lose, the real tragedy would be to go through life without finding what you can play your heart out to, and get it done. The real triumph is the honor to play.

Last month Ace hit a three-run homer to take the lead against our toughest rivals. Everyone on our side roared, myself coaching first base too, of course. As he rounded first I high-fived him as we watched the ball sail over the fence and bounce into a parking lot. Around second he trotted basking in triumph, and around third he headed toward home where his teammates were gathered and bouncing like popcorn to welcome him. The other team kicked at the dirt, waiting glumly in their positions. That was a great moment he and I will remember forever.

Ace about to send a double to the opposite field.

Ace about to send a double to the opposite field.

Yet it’s not all innocent glory watching our kids turn into jocks. The whole process starts, of course, when friends and peers are divvied up pretty arbitrarily into opposing sides. We put them in uniforms and line them up on their respective baselines and sanctify it all with pledges of allegiance to the flag and to fair play, and if there’s musicians “…the home of the brave!” echoes across the outfield. When the game gets going the parents and friends and coaches and everyone important to them watch and shout as the kids hurl their pitches and the other side protects home and hits with high-performance composite bats, and everyone keeps score while we all cheer when they do well and remind them when they screw up. We teach baseball, but the real message they hear is that play is no longer free-form, you don’t get to goof around as you like. There’s rules and especially there’s consequences. If you want to win you have a lot to learn. That’s all well and good, let’s bring them into real life, but it gives me pause when I hear how our little darlings in the dugout have learned to say things like, “I really want to beat the crap out of these guys!” or “C’mon ___ don’t suck!”

Ace now has a new, adult-sized bat (at age 12 he’s 6 feet tall!). He practices swinging it in the living room, hitting air-homers from different parts of the strike zone just like I did. As I caution him to keep it calm and away from the lamp, I recall that shot he sent into the parking lot. That moment was rich in allegory. Within the arena the ball is a triumphant missile, but past the fence it bounces harmlessly, there’s no consequences except perhaps a broken windshield.

By college age I no longer rated good enough to play baseball. I began air-practicing with ice climbing tools, reaching skyward into the frozen realms. I’d taken up athletic endeavors in the mountains wildernesses. Out there your whole game is outside the fences, and there are no rules except what terrain and gravity and your will to live declare. Ultimately the mountains taught me that in the authentic big world beyond our defined games you’d best keep focus on the tasks at hand, because the consequences are not winning and losing, but life and death. Out under the skies and stars, competition and keeping score are distractions.

Dave Watson playing with consequences near Broad Peak basecamp, K2 behind.

Dave Watson playing with consequences near Broad Peak basecamp, K2 behind.

As best we can we bring our children up in a safe world where they bloom with friends and collaborators, and then we contrive conflict and send them into it. Any parent can tell you that if we don’t give them structured competition with guidelines most kids bring it on by themselves, probably in part because it’s in the genes we pass on, and probably also because they see what they need in the world they’re growing up into. The Lord of the Flies story haunts us.

What I fear is that when we train our kids to know life by winning and losing they take that game past the fences. Games are wonderful when our missiles land in a glove or a parking lot. But out there on the highways and battlefields, in the markets and the mountains, we are all one, breathing from the same sky, drinking from the same global water supply, chasing the same currencies. We need friends more than opponents. Nevertheless we still divide into groups hardly less arbitrary than baseball teams, and we mark our lives by winning or not. Our missiles and our money and power have consequences of a whole new order in games we can’t hope to keep score in much less referee, and because we are all fundamentally undivided we wield the weapons essentially against ourselves.

Breaching the Park Boundaries

As part of commemorating the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Inyo County has suggested that we rethink the National Park idea and read Uncertain Path by retired park historian Bill Tweed. The county invited me to contribute an illustrated lecture. As I prepared my presentation, what most occurred to me is that the parks are “Experiments in Boundaries,” so that’s what I subtitled my talk. I started by recalling how, when I researched and wrote my first book, a hiking and natural history guide to a bunch of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, the park naturalists talked about two things: First, how they wanted people to make the world a better place by taking park ideals such as recycling and respect for nature back home. And second, they were tired of answering the question, “Where’s the tree you can drive through?” That tree of course was in Yosemite not Sequoia, and weakening effects of the tunnel and traffic had felled it many years previous.

America indeed invented the idea of national parks, and it arose out of our mythic belief that pioneers came upon a wilderness continent. Nowadays we’re becoming more aware just how much of an illusion that myth has been. Books including 1491 by Charles C. Mann and Tending the Wild by M. Kat Anderson bring out archaeological and historical information on: 1) how European diseases had spread to wipe out an estimated 90% of many Indian tribes decades before pioneers even arrived out West, and 2) the extent to which Indians actively managed so much of the continent. After California’s Mariposa Battalion of 1851 brutally exiled the Ahwaneechee Indians from Yosemite Valley, the immigrants flooding in to the new Golden State (including John Muir), conveniently forgot, weren’t told, and didn’t imagine that the valley’s meadows, for instance, were a function of the Indians’ fire management for oaks and deer.

The world’s first national parks bill was presented in 1864 for Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove by California senator John Conness, a rare progressive at that time who it is said was later voted out of office for supporting the rights of Chinese immigrants. The bill passed without discussion during the Civil War, carrying the irony that had Southern states not seceded they would have likely blocked the precedent of the federal government getting involved in land protection.

Conness

Senator John Conness, author of the 1864 Yosemite park bill

When John Muir arrived in Yosemite he heard like no one else ineffable music that rang through the valley and the whole Sierra. America was thrilled to hear that their Western outback could provide not only new prosperity and new independence but spiritual renewal as well. As immigrants to the West swarmed into the Sierra in a free-for-all of monitor mining, overgrazing, ethnic cleansing, gunfighting and rapacious logging, the lofty idea of experiencing original wonder in spectacular landscapes allied with tourism entrepreneurs to generate preservation as a balancing priority. In the early 20th century President Theodore Roosevelt, Stephen Mather, and Bishop’s own Horace Albright (the first two directors of the NPS) dedicated so much to that priority.

HIker and waterfall rainbow, Yosemite

Darla Heil at Cascades below Vernal Falls

In line with Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous proclamation that Western frontiering ran out of frontier in about 1890, America’s mainstream moved on from the landscape ideals. In this era Mather and Albright were especially brilliant at expanding constituency for the parks by encouraging motor touring and car camping. New park territories were established, inevitably after intense political fights versus those who wanted the freedom to make use of material resources therein. Essentially there has been a race to prevent the destruction of landscapes yet to be appreciated by most of the nation.

There were of course many genuine inheritors of Muir’s legacy of passion for being embedded in nature. Among them Charles and Enid Michael stand out. Through the 1920s Charles was assistant postmaster of Yosemite, and he and his wife Enid were an inseparable pair in scrambling all over the valley precipices and High Sierra peaks. Enid wrote hundreds of “Nature Notes” articles with a passion and style not unlike Muir’s. But as America moved away from finding hope in nature and on to feverish things like wars, the Dust Bowl, and economic inflations and the Depression, the Michaels’ enchantments were catalogued as quaint curiosities. Americans came to regard the parks as designated vacation refuges that gave the appearance that nature and the nation were alive and well and entertaining. The parks fostered constituents and enchanted visitors with creative attractions such as the Wawona Tunnel Tree, the firefall, and bear feedings.

Chas&Enid

George Melendez Wright was a seasonal ranger in Yosemite who saw how the park’s animals and their habitats needed to be treated as wild. He took up the task of inventorying wildlife, and Horace Albright elevated him to head a new Wildlife Division of the parks. To Wright we owe a lot toward our modern expectation that the parks should serve as living ecosystems.

So many Americans, myself included, owe a lot of personal development to national park experiences. And the national park idea, “America’s Best Idea,” has spread around the globe. We owe ample gratitude to the people who established the boundaries and maintain the parks. But I can’t help but point out how the boundaries’ limitations and illusions have come clear. This is essentially what Uncertain Path is about. Bill Tweed emphasizes that the basic premise of preserving park “resources” unchanged in perpetuity is impossible. Put another way, the modern dichotomy of enabling extraction and consumption as best we can across most of the world and ascribing nature to parks where we can look but not touch has gross repercussions. In the parks it is as if we see the land through a window, a windshield actually. I’ve played around with one of my photos in Photoshop to portray this.

YosFalls1art2

Yosemite Falls; Digital photograph montage

And this is where climbing comes in. When we start up a peak or a wall we get out from behind the windshield and take ourself body and soul into the very structure of the landscape. The Indians engaged the land of course even more intimately, and I would never claim symmetry between what I find as a climber and how they lived. But climbing, to the degree that it’s a personal journey into the terrain, is one of the better immersions we’ve got.

elcapme

Here’s me following the Great Roof pitch on El Capitan’s Nose route, 1989. Photo by Dave Turner

I think of many seminal figures; Muir, the Michaels, David Brower, Yvon Chouinard; these people took themselves directly into Yosemite’s terrain, and they carried what they found outside the park boundaries to say, “whoa,” we need to respect life on both sides of the boundaries. If we have developed a taste for quiet places where we try to keep our hard presence out of certain landscapes (as well as the imagery of them) it’s because we have overwritten so many places with our frenzies to succeed.

Bird Lew descending Mt. Gilbert

Bird Lew below the summit of Mt. Gilbert, looking west from the boundary of Kings Canyon National Park

National parks may indeed be “America’s Best Idea;” how much poorer we would be today without them! Along with industrial development the parks idea has spread to most every country. Nevertheless our situation tells us we need to revise our ideas. Like the dams at Hetch Hetchy and Glen Canyon, like the forests that have grown thick from decades of fire prevention, we cannot wall off change with park boundaries. The dams are filling with silt and eventually they will cease to function, and the forests of course are going up in flames too big to manage. Parks cannot be the nation’s sole repositories of native plants and animals, and drive-by video shootings of designated scenes on summer holidays cannot be the sum of our acquaintance with nature.

selterssummer59b

Summer Sky, Sierra

The under-appreciated half of any landscape is the sky, where things are ever-changing and there are no boundaries. The land itself and our own ways of living are little different, just slower to change. As global warming threatens the sequoias at Sequoia, the roads at Rainier, the glaciers at Glacier, the meadows at Tuolumne and so many more “park resources,” the director of the National Park Service has said that “climate change is the greatest threat to the integrity of our national parks we have ever experienced.” Changes at every level are forcing us to see that no matter how much we want to keep parks unchanged, on either side of the boundaries we are agents of change embedded in the flow of nature. At some point along this way we need to huck off what doesn’t make us healthy and realize we’ve already jumped in.

Seltersslide1

Mother and daughter at pool, Yosemite National Park

The Recipe for Climbing Success

Millions of us have marveled at Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson completing their epic free-climb journey up El Cap’s Dawn Wall. It’s amazing, impressive, and interesting. Here’s some thoughts on it from beneath my hat of climbing historian (see http://www.alpinist.com/doc/ALP39/39-wired,  and http://www.andyselters.com/way.html).

What we witnessed was a pair of guys pulling off a challenge at the current edges of extended technical climbing. They dug deep into elite talent and epic determination. What’s especially unique though is how well suited this climb was for fans and spectacle. Dawn Wall free went from Caldwell’s next vision for El Cap to a live-feed super-climb that fascinated climbing fans and climbing media, to an international news event. The ascent applied sport-climbing tactics to a new scale, and it set a new standard for rock climbing publicity. As much as I congratulate and admire those guys I also hope against hope that this doesn’t set new popular expectations for what climbing is about.

When I interviewed Tommy Caldwell for my article in Alpinist 39, he was quick to say that “95% of my climbing is private, just me and a partner, and I never want to give that up.” To emphasize his point, his success as a sponsored climber is rooted in thousands of hours and millions of feet of climbing he’s done simply because he’s wanted to do it. What’s more difficult to know is how much the ensuing pulse of publicity and money into the climbing world may draw both new and established climbers into climbing as a spectator sport. Money and attention are necessary ingredients to anyone’s life, and celebrity is nothing new. When celebrity becomes the game though, anyone is wise to watch out for the inversion of value, where the sponsors and audience who pay the piper call the tune.

This was the biggest and blankest granite free route yet conceived, and the strategy for success had to be about breaking the project into manageable bites, and accessing the most demanding sections when all ducks were lined up. Over a period of eight years since Caldwell’s first foray they explored, defined, practiced, protected, fell, refined, fell again many times, and redefined and re-practiced and honed themselves to get each move on each series on each section of each of the 32 pitches. Just managing ropes and anchors to safely access over 3000 feet of stone was a feat in itself. To their enormous credit, they paid attention to not inhibit other climbs or climbers. As best I know they pulled their ropes when they weren’t on the wall, they took care to not place anchors that would notably change the character of the original Wall of The Early Morning Light aid line, and they directed their access lines away from other routes.

I’ve climbed the Nose and the Salathé Wall, and I’ve rapped off The Captain as a photographer, and I can vouch that both climbing and photographing take an impressive amount of brute work, mettle, and safety management. (By the way, the single act of letting myself off from the top was momentarily more heart-thumping and pants-wetting than any moment climbing the routes.)

The inspiration to find our climbing potential can take as many paths as there are climbers, styles, mountains, boulders and crags. But climbs that attract an audience often tip the scales—as has happened for far too long on overloaded Mt. Everest. The Dawn Wall free has been a unique confluence of elite climber vision and character, and route prominence and accessibility. Plenty of other climbs over the years stand out as just as noteworthy or more, especially if you measure with metrics of taking on climbs in a single push into uncertainty and adventurous terrain. Even Caldwell himself on El Cap; his 2005 free ascent of both the Nose and Freerider in a single day still sets the bar up there, and his traverse of the Fitz Roy group of spires in Patagonia with Alex Honnold last year makes the Dawn Wall seem like a gym membership. There’s room in the world for all these types of climbs, but there’s a lot more money and recognition in the Dawn Wall. In general I suppose only Tommy Caldwell can say which of his climbs has more heart. But there will now be even greater temptation for climbers and sponsors to assume that worthwhile climbing is a search for technical difficulty achieved with extensive rehearsal.

Tommy Caldwell’s Dawn Wall Path shows the way to climbing success. It starts with private connections between climber, partners, and terrain. Climb what has meaning for you in the style that challenges you, and make it more about the route transforming you than you transforming the route. When you’re ready to take on a climb that sets a new world standard, the means will open up for you, and the world will pay attention.

Kurt Smith climbing Zenyata Mondata solo, an aid route El Cap's east face.

Kurt Smith climbing Zenyata Mondata solo, an aid route El Cap’s east face.

2014 Ladakh Trek and Climb Report

In August and September three of us pulled off a fascinating trekking and climbing trip to the northernmost reaches of Ladakh. Here’s the story and some select pictures:
The first of many ironic twists in this story is that the bureaucratic struggles came up, not in India, but here in the U.S.: getting a visa. To climb a peak in this region we foreigners need a special “X” visa, and though our whole team received several authorization letters for that from Delhi a new visa contractor here in the U.S. was essentially clueless about issuing that type of visa. Two committed members were unable to go because of this, and the remaining three of us were delayed by 3 weeks. This is a problem we voiced loud and clear at various levels, and I’m keeping an ear to the ground as to whether this frustrating situation is improving for next year.
Once in Delhi everything went smoothly, and the Indian Mountaineering Foundation made a special pre-briefing appointment with us on a national holiday to speed us to Leh and into the mountains. John Anton and I met our assigned Liaison Officer, a young man nicknamed “Hapi” from Dharamsala. On the flight to Leh I was surprised to see a lot of clouds and new snow on the few peaks visible. We would learn that one day previous the weather had switched from the usual blue skies to chilly and stormy.
Chuck Boyd was already in Leh, having gotten his visa earlier than us. He had by serendipity met up with a commercial British team, and in debilitating and almost dangerously rapid time several of them made the first ascent of a 6000m peak near where I’d intended for us all to climb. We met Chuck after he also cycled up and down the 17,582-foot high Khardung La. After a couple of days acclimatization we drove over that pass to acclimatize more with some fabulous trekking up the Rongdo valley, where I had explored and climbed in 2010.
Because I knew many of the villagers at Rongdo we were enthusiastically welcomed and we shared small gifts and bits of news from over the last couple of years. These villagers live in one of the most remote corners of Ladakh, and it was fascinating for us to see how they get along quite well with ancient ways and skilled techniques. For them it’s fascinating to meet curious and respectful people from the modern world. Watching one of the men shape local willow into a water-tight tea churn was particularly impressive.
While his daughter watches, this Rongdo man shapes water tight tea churns using only a plane on local willow.

While his daughter watches, this Rongdo man shapes water tight tea churns using only a plane on local willow.

For three days we trekked up the Rongdo canyon. With ponies carrying our gear and a Nepali cook (yaay Gokul!) plus helpers and a Ladakhi partner named Desal we were well looked-after. We visited petroglyph sites, we gawked at big granite walls and icy peaks, we paid our respects at a remote Buddhist hermitage, we visited a spectacular sacred waterfall, and we arrived at a grand meadowy camp at 15,300 feet. Chuck, who is a mountain guide with experience all over the world including the summit of Everest, said that this was probably the best trekking he’d ever done. Chuck received the news of a family funeral and other business awaiting his prompt return, so because of our delayed start if we were to climb our allotted peak with him we had few days to work with.
We trekked back out from Rongdo and took a couple of days’ rest in the big Nubra Valley while the ponies walked to our next trailhead. We visited two important monasteries, and on one evening we had the treat of watching a troupe of women performing traditional dances.
This woman named Stanzin does a traditional dance as part of a performance troupe.

This woman named Stanzin does a traditional dance as part of a performance troupe.

At this time the weather was stormy for at least part of every day. We learned from Chuck’s experience that the access to the peak I had originally intended to climb would be “suicidal” during wet weather because the route travels a narrow corridor through an unusual sedimentary formation of vertical and overhanging walls of loosely cemented rubble several hundred feet high. The British leader Chuck climbed with energetically affirmed this dire assessment, and I had seen this formation elsewhere in Ladakh. With this news and bad weather we didn’t hesitate to aim for another unclimbed 6000m peak in the Ladakh Range, a peak only Desal among us had ever seen but looked accessible on the map. A new road extended from the village of Hundar that way, and we would be able to reach a basecamp below the peak with a single day’s walk.
As soon as we unloaded our gear at the roadend it began to rain, making us glad we had decided to not venture up the “canyon of death” but rather a wide and green mountain valley reminiscent of pictures of Alaska’s Brooks Range. The rain stopped by noon, and we had tea courtesy of a young mother inviting us at her flower and vegetable garden. We passed some more petroglyphs, and by late afternoon we figured out with the map that we were arriving at the base of our anointed peak. We set up a comfortable basecamp at 15,300 feet in grass 30 yards from a meandering stream. The peak looked pretty easy to climb, one rounded high point on a ring with others that had ruddy granite summits.
Chuck of course was well acclimatized by now, and of course natives Hapi and Desal were in good shape to go high, but John and I were marginally ready to climb to 20,000 feet. I felt ok though and with Chuck’s encouragement that I be one of the first to the top, I decided I’d try to climb with the acclimatized threesome. After a day of rest I’d go back up with John to summit again. We carried camping gear and ropes up to near the base of the little glacier that poured off the peak, and though clouds lowered and surrounded us in fog we found a little bench with a small stream of water nearby, at about 17,000 feet. On these slopes we saw a healthy group of ngapo, or “blue sheep.”
A small herd of wild sheep (ngapo) frequent the approach slopes to our peak.

A small herd of wild sheep (ngapo) frequent the approach slopes to our peak.

The four of us woke at 3am to go for the summit, but storminess including a couple of intense blizzards kept us from heading up. At 9am however it seemed to be clearing, and we started up. When we reached snow slopes along the edge of the glacier we found the surface to bewas powder underlain with hard ice, a common condition I’ve noticed on glaciers in these arid parts of Asia. The others climbed on the west, rocky side of the ridge. The blocks of granite were also covered in powder and treacherously slippery, so I chose to keep my crampons on and make my way up the snow-covered ice. At about 1pm another blizzard blasted us and threatened to push us back, but the squall let up and by about 2pm we made it to the top, never having roped up. Our view was nice but abbreviated by the clouds. Our altimeters read 6070 and 6080 meters. Visibility improved enough to let us see that an easier scree and talus slope could take us all the way down to a lower glacier. Along the moraines beside that glacier we found a couple of cairns, then below that evidence of a campsite. These signs suggested that a previous group might have made an unauthorized ascent of “our” peak. Nevertheless we would be credited with the first ascent, and we named the peak Lungmochey Kangri, as local shepherds referred to that side valley as Lungmochey, which I believe refers to winds and a female mountain deity or spirit.
Me and Chuck Boyd on top of Lungmochey Kangri.

Me and Chuck Boyd on top of Lungmochey Kangri.

Our local guide Stanzin Desal and Liaison Officer Hapi on top of Lungmochey Kangri

Our local guide Stanzin Desal and Liaison Officer Hapi on top of Lungmochey Kangri

We continued descending and made it all the way to basecamp at dark to a grand meal from Gokul. In the morning Chuck hustled out and he was able to reach Leh that night and make his flights home the next day. John and I looked up to climb the peak again, but the unusually bad weather got even worse. With more snow falling on the heights we decided to do more exploratory trekking instead. We visited two other valleys, both with lakes reminiscent of the Sierra. Rain and snow continued, however. Desal, who has lived in Hundar all his life, said he’d never seen such weather in Ladakh in any time of year, much less late August and early September. This was my 10th visit to Ladakh and I felt the same. We would learn that the same storms were much worse on the monsoon side of the Kashmir Himalaya. The famous Kashmir Valley completely flooded, an unprecedented event. Between India and Pakistan some 500 people were killed and thousands made homeless.
This villager, Tsering Angchuk, was herding sheep up high, and he invited us into his hut for salt tea.

This villager, Tsering Angchuk, was herding sheep up high, and he invited us into his hut for salt tea.

We enjoyed leisurely trekking up canyons that few Westerners have ventured up. With daily storms adding snow up high though we started to worry about crossing the 18,000-foot high Lasermo La to get back to Leh. Our intrepid horseman Phuntsok said it should be no problem, but we remained concerned. I had expected to make good use of a solar shower on this trip, but in lieu of sun one day everyone gathered a big heap of ample yak dung and Gokul built a fire to heat us up a bath.
Making use of partly sunny periods that came most every day, we moved into position to cross the pass. At our highest camp a gazgazri (lammergeier vulture) buzzed us a few times, and we also saw some other rare birds  streaming for the pass, heading south to no doubt winter in the Gangetic plains.
Ponies carrying across the snowy Lasermo La.

Ponies carrying across the snowy Lasermo La.

To our surprise we found it pretty easy to hike over the pass because winds had left the snow pretty firm. The ponies didn’t even hesitate. Dropping down the other side it was heartening when we started seeing the Indus Valley and the peaks above Leh again. At our camp that evening we were visited twice by a beautiful red fox. The next day we reached road again above the village of Phyang, and we drove back to Leh.

Red fox near camp

Red fox near camp

There’s many more places to visit and peaks to climb in the Ladakh Range and Karakoram, and as my familiarity with the language and land continues it seems like ever more doors of interest open up. Stay tuned, I will likely be scheduling to lead another trip for 2015, and let me know if you’re interested to have me come through your town with a multi-media show on this area.

The Ladakh Marathon

Distance runners take note: one of the more scenic and fascinating marathons in the world today is held at the northern tip of India, the Ladakh Marathon. This last September 14 was the third annual celebration of distance running in the Himalayan rainshadow, terrain reminiscent of the Eastern Sierra on steroids. Rimo Expeditions, the event organizer, asked me to be the official photographer this year, so I got an up-close look at the action and the changing faces in this magnificent territory.

The event actually includes four simultaneous races: a half marathon, a 7k fun run, the showcase marathon, and a super challenging ultra: in over 40 miles the the Khardung La Challenge tours up and over a 17,582-foot high pass. We decided to make the marathon the photographic priority, so from before the 6:30am start I spent several hours riding along the 26-mile course on the back of a motorcycle. I also covered the extensive post-race festivities.

High elevation gives this marathon a fitness fascination. The start is at the race’s high point of 11,800 feet (where the air pressure is about 35% less than at sea level), and from there the course heads down, down to the “lowlands” and a breathtaking (in every way) tour through the villages and grand spaces along the Indus River at around 10,500 feet. The course then ramps back up to finish at the city of Leh at 11,150’. This is not extreme elevation, but it’s plenty high so that visiting contestants need to arrive at least a few days ahead of the race to get used to it. Four or five days should give most everyone enough acclimatization to prevent mountain sickness and allow a reasonable performance. Many visiting runners got by with just three days, but their performance must have suffered. Even better performance and more ease would come from doing a trek through the mountains for a week or two at 12-15,000 feet, as after that the marathon elevations feel pretty tame.

Runners start the section of the marathon course along the Indus River valley.

Runners start the section of the marathon course along the Indus River valley.

Ladakh was an inland kingdom until a few generations ago, and the main town of Leh until recently was a trade, palace, and religious center “in the middle of nowhere,” where caravans of camels and ponies came from far away to barter wares. After 1947 independence the new nation of India barely knew of its trans-Himalayan territories, and even today many or most Indians won’t recognize the word “Ladakh.” The Ladakhi people are of a mixed Tibetan, Persian, and Kashmiri heritage. A majority are Buddhist in the Tibetan tradition, almost half are Muslim, and a small percentage are Christian. Today Leh has a thriving tourism business with daily flights and dozens of guest houses and curio shops, making it reminiscent of Kathmandu 20 years ago. Most of the visitors are European “adventure-backpacker” tourists and Indians looking to experience the farthest reaches of their nation.

Two marathoners pair up along the open spaces in the Indus Valley.

Two marathoners pair up along the open spaces in the Indus Valley.

This year the four races attracted about 3000 runners, most of them Ladakhi. This evinces an interesting change compared to when I first started going to Ladakh back in the 1980s, when I was fresh out of college. At that time the overwhelming majority of Ladakhis were subsistence villagers. To hard-working families then, any idea of sports and seeking out extra exercise seemed like crazy foolishness. In fact I remember seeing a play where they poked fun at a Ladakhi character who tried to act cool and modern by wearing a sweat suit and faux-jogging around town. Today tourism, government and military work have allowed many Ladakhis to accumulate enough wealth to buy cars and winter homes in warmer parts of India. In Leh very few people still grow their own barley and wheat, though they might have vegetable and flower gardens. And the new generation of Ladakhis runs in the Marathon—especially students, young adults and soldiers, women as much as men—they are excited about it. The Ladakh Marathon has quickly become an avenue for Ladakhis to build new strengths and identities as people who are advancing into the modern world on their own terms, and staying true to their values and important traditions. Look around the globe and you see that it’s quite rare for cultures anywhere to go from village subsistence to modernity without gross disruption of some sort, but Ladakhis are doing it, and their Marathon is a case in point. Any foreign runner will be welcome, and part of any the experience will be seeing an indigenous people working out a positive future. The post-race party featured both a Ladakhi pop band and a traditional dancing troupe, and it was impressive how seamless was the mix between generations.

Traditional dancers perform for the marathon participants after the races.

Traditional dancers perform for the marathon participants after the races.

This year as before all the races were won by Ladakhis, who of course are genetically adapted to high altitude. Most of them train very little. The ones I interviewed typically said they trained for “about 10 days” to “about a month.” The winning times this year were 3:16 by Shaukat Ali for the men, and 4:10 by Sonam Chuskit among the women. There were a decent number of Indians who came up from the lowlands, as well as a few European runners. The fastest Indian lowlander ran the marathon in 4:11, and a Danish woman came in at 5:02, but I think in both cases they had a minimum of acclimatization time. It seems to me that a 3-hour foreign marathoner who acclimatizes with a couple of weeks or more at altitude could give the Ladakhis some stiff competition. But who knows?

Tsetan Doker of Lamayuru village being interviewed on national TV after coming in first place among women in the Khardung La ultra race.

Tsetan Doker of Lamayuru village being interviewed on national TV after coming in first place among women in the Khardung La ultra race.

Shaukut Ali with 100 meters to go as he wins the Ladakh Marathon.

Shaukut Ali with 100 meters to go as he wins the Ladakh Marathon.

Challenging the Ladakhis in the Khardung La race might be another story. The winner there was Shabbir Hussain, who came in at 6:35, barely a minute ahead of Rigzen Norbu. Tsetan Dolker was the fastest woman there, at 8 hours flat. Along all the courses there are numerous refueling/aid stations.

A marathon runner cruises below some Buddhist prayer flags along the Indus River.

A marathon runner cruises below some Buddhist prayer flags along the Indus River.

One of the Ladakhi women who completed the marathon, out near the Indus River.

One of the Ladakhi women who completed the marathon, out near the Indus River.

Rimo director Tsewang Motup is highly optimistic about Ladakhis’ future as runners. India does not have a great long distance running tradition, but there are other marathons around the country, and the top Ladakhis are starting to compete in Mumbai and other locations. Tenacity and a likely genetic altitude advantage tell Motup that Ladakhi runners should start aiming to represent India in a future Olympics, perhaps as early as 2020. We’ll see, we’re shopping for some inspired coaching to visit and get a training program going.

For more information check with me, and know that starting next summer I might be organizing a trek timed to cap off a great mountain holiday with the Ladakh Marathon.

Marathon runners descend past a village near the Indus River at about 10,500 feet.

Marathon runners descend past a village near the Indus River at about 10,500 feet.

Two marathoners pair up along the open spaces in the Indus Valley.

Two marathoners pair up along the open spaces in the Indus Valley.