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The climb started harmlessly enough. A soft and sandy path bordered with round white stones winding through shaded pine groves and over streams running with clear water. It felt more like a city park promenade than a Himalayan mountain trek.
The night before in Urgos, under a lantern’s glow, we had huddled over the maps and decided on the Gangpo Valley for our approach route. There was little information available about Mount Phabrang and only several photographs. We chose Phabrang because of its elevation at 6372 metres and its proximity to the Miyar Valley. Taking the Gangpo route seemed like even more of an adventure because it hadn’t been used by climbers in decades. It also saved us several days compared to the southern approach.
Our ‘promenade’, however, quickly turned into a set of dusty switchbacks cut out of a steep slope. Once out of the trees, we realized Gangpo was also another word for sore knees. In the lower areas, it was all moraine mash, nothing but rocks, boulders and the river. No shortage of rocks in these mountains. Homes, aqueducts, fences, barns, huts are all built with rocks and for good reason…there’s plenty around.
Two ‘Grumpy Men’ were ahead of me, barely visible through the horse’s dust trail. Out front, as usual, Martin Jones, a veterinarian from the UK, our medic and the team’s ‘Grunt Master’. Always in front, always with the heaviest pack. Just imagine Charles Bronson with a British accent and chapped lips.
Not far behind him, my good friend Oscar Jacobs who’d offered me this journey with free passage to India. After postings at Canadian embassies in London, Tehran, Beirut and now New Delhi, Oscar was hoping to return home to Ottawa next. But, for now though, he was the team’s appointed leader and token white guy Buddhist.
Arriving at first camp, we dumped our packs and literally hit the ground to clear rocks for tent pads. Martin, who happened to be the son of a Welsh miner, dug into the grunt of quarry life like a Special Ops sergeant. At 3300 metres, our camp sat at the base of the valley, hemmed in on both sides by mountains. In the higher reaches, sheep trails formed lines across the slopes. Not far away, you could hear the rapids of the Gangpo River, its water murky grey with glacial silt. Above us, the valley narrowed to a thin bank along the river and then took a turn out of sight.
After a day for acclimatization, we climbed further up the valley. Moraine is tricky business. Bouncing from rock to rock, there’s always the risk of a fractured ankle or a bruised rib. As we climbed higher, the air thinned and occasionally, I’d stop to catch my breath. It was also a chance to take in the spectacular views of this remote place. The porters, carrying the heavier gear, made it look easy. Young to middle aged men with grizzled faces, they smiled easily, and always offered friendly waves and warm greetings of “Nameste”.
Basecamp was on a rocky plateau overlooking the river at 4000 metres. A steep glacial ridge blocked our view further up the valley. This wasn’t a picturesque ivory white type of glacier, more of a dirty grey wall of ice, mud and, of course, rocks. Looking down, towards the Miyar, we sipped tea in the morning and watched the sun’s first light warm a panorama of jagged peaks. Nights were cold, but once the sun hit camp, it was just base layers or a fleece. Regular scans with the binoculars showed no signs of the Golden Eagles or Griffon Vultures that fly these skies.
No sign of Mount Phabrang either. It was higher up, with the glaciers and snow capped peaks. Two days later, we headed up the valley for reconnaissance and to cache gear for an advanced basecamp. No porters this time, just our backs.
We climbed the ridge to where it leveled out and widened into a barren landscape dotted with granite boulders. When the valley took a sharp turn south to the right, Mount Phabrang finally appeared. With a glacier at its base, Phabrang’s rocky peak reached above the other mountains and dominated the skyline.
When it came into view, Oscar’s awestruck and somewhat disappointed expression looked like I felt. We both saw the long thin ridge of jagged rocks, like a shark’s fin, leading to Phabrang’s summit. After we sat down as a group and talked it over, we agreed the mountain was beyond our abilities. It wasn’t so much the crevasses or camping in the west col. It was that shark’s fin.
In the end, all of us chose to walk away and climb another day. We had all agreed earlier in Delhi that “nobody dies on a mountain”. Sometimes, there’s a very fine line between adventure and extreme danger. It was just a matter of throwing our egos away and admitting our limits.
Certainly, I was disappointed. But nothing was really lost in the greater scheme of things. We had seen much by climbing up the Gangpo. Oscar had pinned a line of Tibetan prayer flags up high between rocks stacked on a boulder to let the wind release prayers for goodness and peace into the world. Besides, it meant more time to climb and explore further up the Miyar Valley.
They’re not just for birdwatchers. A pair of lightweight binoculars makes the surroundings so much more interesting by letting you look at the details up close and see creatures. On this trip, binoculars were a godsend for reconnaissance. They come light these days; there are powerful models that won’t feel like a brick around your neck.
If you’re getting around on your feet, there’s no reason to sell yourself short on footwear. In the mountains, especially, investing in a solid pair of hiking boots can make all the difference. Try on a few brands to find the best fit and use a good hiking sock. If you’re in the market for footwear, you can check out my earlier blog on hiking boots.
When you’re in the mountains, sunglasses cut out the glare and protect your eyes. They can also make you look cool which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you go too cheap, consider bringing a second pair along as replacements. A retainer strap has saved me from loosing sunglasses many times by keeping them around my neck when I’m not using them.