Shanti Shepherd

 Living up in Chota Dara is hard sometimes. The fox may eat your porridge and the bearded mouse will search for sweet treats. But it’s worth it. Climbing boulder problems here in this part of the Chandra valley means one thing more than any other area I’ve seen in India. Slopers!  Which means friction is of the upmost importance. How fortunate then that it’s in one of the colder places in the country and not somewhere like Karnataka or Andhra. The Gods in India are looking out for boulderers it seems. They gave us a lot of positive crimps in the hot South and a lot of slopers in the cold Himalayas. Correct!

  My second year in the Chandra valley and I’d come better prepared for the whole season this time. Fresh from Castle hill New Zealand so with warm gear and what I thought was a lot of chalk. After 2 weeks in Chattru I decide to see what I could do with this Chotadara place. Somehow the knowledge I’d gained from wandering around a deserted Castlehill for weeks without a guide book had given me a fresh understanding. It would help to fully exploit the Chotadara boulders which are very similar in a way. 

 Big red 6c                                   

 Just like Castle hill it was a bewildering boulderfield full of interesting slippery slopey blobs. But here they were all different shades of red, yellow and beautiful white or grey and as far as I could see nobody had cleaned or climbed even a single boulder problem. 100 metres from the dabba and 20 metres from the road down a little slope was a natural bay with built up goofas at every boulder. I’d never seen so many goofas in the same place. The first hard problem right next to my cave in what I called ‘goofa city’ was an absolute cracker. Starting on an unusual finger pocket up to a undercling side pull and then ‘ultimate sloper moves' to pull through the crux to the top.

  I quickly made friends with the Spitians in the dabba, Kesan and Lama G and told them I wanted to spend some time here. Lama G was an ex monk who at sunset time would always start quietly chanting Buddhist mantras. As time passed the quiet mumbles of  ‘Om mane padme hum, Om mane padme hum’ would grow in volume with every sip of barley wine. He became a great friend. A real hard old character and he quite often came to watch the climbing action during the day. That’s why I thought to name the first quality problem in Chotadara after him; MumbleOM 7b. 

  MumbleOm featuring Oscar in Chotadara 2011(Jibbinibbi)

 After that I was wandering around picking the best looking problems but the more things I climbed the more I realized how much potential the place has. Another great early one was the two arêtes set at perfect angles to squeeze through the steepness and rock onto a slab. An absolute classic named after the herbal contents of my medical kit; ‘Positive Medicine’ 7a+. I was starting to use ‘Silagit’ and ‘Ashwaghanda’ amongst other things and it seemed to work for energy and heat at this altitude.

 Some of the boulders already had dead goats on top. Still not tempted I would stick to just dhal and rice everyday.

 6C Bloodstone thirsty vegetarians were lurking here.

  It was difficult to manage my time between all the new boulders without getting confused. Which one next? This one, that one, no, yes or the other one?  I knew some friends were coming up soon so everything with high topouts I could leave for the ‘two pads time’ when and if they arrived. In the meantime I would keep on with the ‘Infinite mind’ approach which seemed to be almost serving me well up here and now in this place. That first season in Chota dara was destined to be special. Only gratification and quick 6c,7a and 7b classics all the time without stressing about harder projects or being weak. One special line I had kept for ages and it was finally time to try.

  It was a ‘hanging corner’ only just accessible with hard looking moves from a big hold down and right. After the obligitary ‘afternoon tea’ in the dabba I went down there fully psyched to try and 'on sight' it. Unbelievably there was a shepherd sitting under the overhang making a fire and setting up the camp. What could I do? He was sitting cooking just where I would jump off the crux! I could hardly believe it and went to the side to roll a joint and chill.

 He was an old guy with a really nice face and happy vibe also; I liked him a lot already and gave him half of the joint which he took and smoked happily. When I thought about the shepherd life up here it seemed great. Apart from worrying about the weather they don’t have a care in the world and just sell a goat or two when they needed to get some money. They put all their luggage on horses so don't need cars, bikes or petrol only grass which is free. No banks, no debts, no phones, no TV, no facebook or twitter just the mountains and the animals. They would only come down from the high hills to the dabba sometimes and then they would make the very most of it! But even when they were utterly legless and paraletic they would never become stupid like so many Indian men. I always tried to secretly copy them to have that ‘happy go lucky’ but respectful attitude and after time I became similar in some ways.  Like them I was so dirty and never washed properly but that didn’t matter. Nobody cared and we were never going to look in a mirror here anyway! Everytime I stayed at a new area I looked for the best ‘goofa’ caves they had stayed in then stayed there myself. Like them I had never used a proper tent just carrying a 6x6ft plastic sheet or tarp in case there was no waterproof cave. They would even share caves with me happily and showed me how to cook ‘shepherd style’ using horseshit and how to make special ‘shepherd chapatis’ and goat chai. 

Lama G looks on while Squib tries for the sloper. 

 That night I thought to become a shepherd would be great and live just like that, shanti though, just a few goats and a couple of horses. I told Lama G in the dabba who laughed and said he would get me some goats and sell me some 'atta' to make chapatis. Shanti, yeah I would be a such a shanti shepherd that’s for sure. Just make sure to keep on grazing only to bouldering valleys! Grazing on boulders while the goats grazed on the finest Himalayan grass.

 Next day he was gone from the camp and the climb would go 2nd try. It was a classic 7a+ and I thought to call the problem after him ‘Shanti shepherd’. Now I had to do the much harder sitstart and two more problems on the front roadside face which I thought should be possible. The shepherd boulder was destined to have a lot of hard problems but not yet while I was still ticking classics.

Shanti Shepherd 7a+

  After I’d been there a few weeks some more climbers came in the form of German Hari and Squib from the Isle of Man who was fresh from Thailand with an injured finger tendon. There could be no better place to climb on a tweaked tendon than Chotadara as it’s so easy to avoid the crimped finger position just staying with open handed slopers. I’d raved about the place to them in Hampi the year before so they had made the effort. It was their first time in the valley and they were loving the climbing and the place generally. Near Shanti shepherd Hari found a great roof problem which he called Dirty shepherd 7a+. Squib would grab the excellent Chota wala 6C and Chocochaichino named after the triple cocktail hot power drink we had invented in the cave. Round the corner on the same boulder was a severely overhanging arête; I was excited. It gave me the classic and tricky problem which summed up how I was starting to feel Thee Infinite mind 7b+.  We were all having a good time developing Chota dara boulders with all these unknown things to go at. 
  HARI on Thee infinite mind   Finnish Sami is spotter.


It was getting colder as we moved into September and Hari had checked out to head slowly down Hampi way. Squib and I decided to check what looked like a huge area of boulders 4 km back down the road. I'd looked while trekking passed and was sure it was a brilliant area. We trekked down there with all our gear and food for a few days and headed into the maze of boulders. So excited we quickly found a good cave to stay right in the centre of all the blocks so dumped the luggage. Then we had a great plan as we were directly in the centre of the long area. You check that way and I’ll check this way, finders keepers type thing. That avoids the I saw it first, me me me syndrome!  Whoever would catch the best projects first but of course we both found brilliant things both ways. 

Funk the world 7b 

 We just had one terrible looming issue, we were getting dangerously low on chalk even though it was only mid September. I'd been more than three months climbing in Chotadara and had used more than usual because of the winds but Squib had not brought enough with him from Thailand. Still we managed some good problems but the crunch point was getting closer and closer and we both had projects we needed to complete. After 3 days in what we first called the ‘4km area’ we were sat in the goofa looking sadly at each other and the last marble sized piece of white magic. I wanted to grab it and run to my project but we shared it exactly and each went to finish our climbs.

 Squibs project being a series of desperate smooth slopers would definitely require white hands and mine was also on quite smooth rock with massive moves between rounded things then a slippery slopey topout. We both went alone to avoid ‘chalkfights’ and would meet back at the cave afterwards. I got so close but just when I thought it would go I fell after the crux and that was it; no more chalk. I was absolutely gutted. No matter how hard I smashed the bag I couldn’t get anything on my hands, it was over. What a terrible way to end the trip, failing just because of this! I went back to the goofa with my tail between my legs and Squib was messing around with horseshit already. “Two or three tries then all the chalk was gone” he was saying sadly. I thought he was going to use the horseshit instead for a second but he was just making chai. “No sendage!” he said. What an absolute bummer. Even worse Squib said he would have done it that day if he’d had more chalk.  It was hard to believe and even harder to come to terms with but we had both failed on our projects and would have to leave the valley now back to Manali.  It was so pathetic to be almost a joke though and we had to laugh.

  When we got back to Manali I had only one thing in my mind! Squib had other plans but my only thought was to get chalk and get the last possible weeks up in the valley. I knew from the year before I would never get it in Manali so started emailing and arranged to get some sent from the UK. Now I just had to sit around and wait in Vashist before going ‘ooper’. Squib would go ‘downer’ in a couple of days and I couldn’t persuade him to go back ooper which he wasn’t really equipped for anyway. “I’m going to send your project as well” I told him. "I feel like I'm on a downer now" he said. I was only joking though of course I would leave it for him really, or so I imagined.

 After a few days waiting desperately the special powder arrived and I was getting my stuff together and shopping. Oopar going. It was the 6th of October now so would be really cold at night in the goofa. The bus had stopped running for the season already and I arranged for a jeep to take me back not to Chattru or Chotadara but exactly back to the '4 km area'. On the way up to Rohtang pass we stopped at the wood yard and I filled the boot with the chunky pieces of warmth. I didn’t know exactly how cold it would get so I bought a quintell (100kg) for 1200 rupees. That would last me at least a couple of weeks I thought. 

  It started snowing at Rohtang so just a quick stop at Laloos dabba for lunch as the driver seemed in a hurry. Then I was dumped at the 4km area with all my shopping and a hundred kilos of wood in the snow. The driver helped me get the wood out and put it under a plastic sheet as I explained that my goofa was ‘just over there.’ He looked over at the boulders then up to the sky then at me and started shaking his head in disbelief. Then he made a ‘what the hell are you doing here now you idiot?’ type face shaking his head some more before jumping in the car to get back to Manali before snow blocked the pass. After a few trips I had every last scrap of wood and all my stuff in the goofa which was 200 metres over the flat area from the road. 

 It stopped snowing an hour later and It felt amazing to be there with chalk at that cold time in this amazing new area. The weather was good almost every day and because of the cold the friction was excellent. ‘Mind Extension’ the project was a superb 7c problem and other great things like The seventh sky 7b, The seventh pie 7a+, Never come down 7a, Mind on fire 7b, Roadside warrior 7b+ were from that time. Even though it’s 200 metres from the road it feels like the middle of nowhere and is a more quiet and beautiful place without any dabba or people. I didn’t know the name if it even had one so I gave it my own but later I found out from some passing shepherds - KYARA, The seventh sky. Pure meditation.  
  Cruxy crucifix moves on The seventh sky 7b in the central area of Kyara

 One day I found myself walking around wondering what to do next and before I knew it was standing in front of Squibs project. It just looked amazing, such a beautiful line with a perfect flat sidehold for the sitstart leading to slopers on an arete. I was so tempted to try it. Then I thought to myself; well, he probably might not come back next year anyway and how long can I leave one of the special problems unclimbed like that only! Probably someone else would come and do It anyway if I didn't. That was it, I was getting my shoes on and thinking about the moves. It was colourful and technical in a powerful way so I gave it the name  Psychedelicate 7b. Not sure if it was PSYCHE then be DELICATE or perhaps we just ATE too many Psychedelics.

 Above - Psychedelicate

When I ran out of almost everything to eat and smoke I walked the 4km up to Chotadara but I wanted to stay longer and climb more. I’d been 5 months in the valley and still didn’t want it to end just yet. The people in the dabba have to stay till the road closes so I ate with them and kept on climbing more new problems. Then one day in the dabba a jeep with a mixed group of travellers stopped for snacks and I started talking with them. One was a friendly and nice looking Dutch girl and when they were almost ready to go she said in a very authoritative and Dutch type of way, “You had better come with us don’t you think so Mr Pil” Oh well never mind I thought if I can sit with you. She said the road is going to close soon and well I guess it is finally time to go back to Manali - the ‘real world.' Downer! Get some barley wine for the Rohtang pass!

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