A simple enough plan in theory, to find a quality bouldering area in North India. People had said to me there must so much bouldering everywhere in the mountains of India. Unfortunately I knew from previous travels this was not really the case. Every valley is not full of good boulders ready to climb. Maybe a few blocks here and there but a world class destination is different. It means enough quality bouldering to keep you going for years maybe even a lifetime. Nothing I had seen in all my travels so far in the Indian Himalayas had amounted to such an extensive and quality area.
I had already spent a lot of time in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh and loved the place but no extensive bouldering had presented itself. Uttar Pradesh up around Gangotri, Gamukh, Badrinath, Uttarkashi and 6 weeks travelling in Ladakh, the Nubra valley and trekking through Zanskar. Thinking about Ladakh brought back memories of huge valleys and rock peaks but I saw only 1 or 2 rocky boulder areas the whole 2 months. One was quite good but about 25 km out from the road! I had dreamed about trying to stay for a few weeks in one of those remote villages I’d trekked through in Zanskar. Without roads it would be very relaxed and I could go bouldering every day. What tempted me were the people who are so down to earth and happy. Pure Buddhist souls almost untouched by modern life. That would be my fall back plan.
I had been dreaming about this plan for ages, especially while suffering in the heat of South India and Karnataka in the hot season. I needed to have a place for perfect cool conditions all summer when the rest of India is so humid and hot. This year I decided it was on and I was really serious about it. Yes it might take a lot of travelling, wasted bus trips and fruitless searches, that’s why no one else wanted to go but I was absolutely determined this time. At that time nobody else had released info about a real destination bouldering area in the Himalayas so if I wanted to climb boulders rather than mountains I would have to find a place. First I would get on my flight back to Bombay and make my way slowly but surely up to Delhi then Manali.
Everybody I spoke to about it then in 2002 thought it was a crazy idea, even climbers. I couldn’t get anybody to go bouldering somewhere that didn’t exist yet! It doesn’t sound like a good plan to most people even keen boulderers. Then there were the really terrible “Ha, you only do bouldering” or even worse “you came all the way to the Himalayas just to go bouldering?” sneering type of trekking judgemental people. I already realized that a lot of climbers thought it was stupid to go to the Himalayas to go bouldering. I would have dozens of people try to put me off this plan and have to be strong minded and not listen to them. The only encouraging people were actually more of the Isreali’s and travellers smoking chillums in Vashist above Manali. They were less cynical somehow and thought it’s great. To come all the way to the Himalayas just to go bouldering would never be the question for them. After all they came all the way from Israel to do nothing except smoke charas and enjoy!
So it was time to start the search properly and I had some vague clues already. A friend in Hampi had been on the bus Spiti to Manali and told me the valley in the middle of the trip where are no villages there are a lot of granite blocks and walls. First I got the bus to Manali. That was good place to start to research so I went around all the trekking offices and tried to talk to guides. I’d show them bouldering photos and get them to rack their brains and remember all the places they had been. “Where is just like this?” Of course the photos were all of Hampi so there would be nowhere ‘just like this’ but I had to try. People were telling me quite a few a few places but how would I choose the right one? Getting conclusive evidence before embarking on huge journeys was going to be hard, I realized.
Where is that rock please?
When I saw a poster of a good looking boulder in a travel agent in Manali I was desperately hassling the guy in the office, “EXACTLY where is that rock please?” After speaking with his friends he told me it’s behind the ski centre in Solang valley. I was excited even if it was probably only one boulder it's better than nothing. I headed straight up there and found some good boulders on a beautiful green plateau. I was so desperate to climb and ecstatic to actually find something! The rock needed a bit of a brush but it was quality granite underneath. Because of this I knew that nobody had bouldered here before especially as anybody I tried to talk to about it just laughed and started saying I should do “real climbing” like they do. They had never seen a crash pad and most people had no idea what it was. Now when locals or stoned tourists in Vashist asked me I would look cryptic and say “this is a special flying device” to bemuzed looks.
Solang journey sit7b+ 1st ascent june 2002
I kept on going to Solang and found some great things. The Vital force was a big 7a boulder I found on the first ‘checking day’ and did without a pad. It was a classic and to keep me going when I was alone without any positive feedback, hence the name. I felt so good sitting in Vashist that night having done my first real quality problem. The next day Solang journey from sitting was great also and after that I had a few good days. Most of the problems would have been a bit dangerous without my pad with uneven stones everywhere and I was glad to have it. But good as Solang was somehow I knew it wasn’t the real reason I’d come up to the mountains. I also wanted to escape from this touristic and polluted valley now to somewhere more quiet. Vital force, Solang journey and others had given me enough of a fix to carry on my mission but now I needed more.
Vital force 7a+ 1st ascent June 2002
One day 2 guys watching me came over to chat saying that it looked hard. I told them that quality and hard is the point rather than height. They were looking at the pad and the boulder and actually seemed to half understand that was actually going on. They were trekking guides so I started to quiz them like always. Then after I prompted them they started telling me about the Spiti/Lahaul valley half way to Kaza with much more rocks than here and higher altitude. It was that same place I was told about in Hampi which made me think there might actually be something in it..
That was it. Even though I still had no photos to inspire I packed up and got on the local bus to Spiti. We rumbled and wobbled over the mighty Rohtang pass and arrived at the junction. One way right to Spiti, one way left to Lahaul and Ladakh. We turned right onto the Spiti road which has about a tenth of the traffic than the other choice to Keylong and Ladakh. I’d been that way some years before but not this way so I was really excited. More quality boulders were appearing and the road was getting mental crossing some 'pagalnala' rivers and rockslide areas. There was suprisingly little traffic on the road even though it’s the main way from Manali to Spiti. Then we reached the first place after 17km from the turnoff. The tiny little place was called Chattru and my keen eye was seeing good rock nearby.
I left the bus and arranged to sleep in a dabba for the night. There were no real houses or anything in Chattru just 3 tent dabbas arranged around dry stone walls. They are serving up basic food and drinks for people on the way between Kaza in Spiti and Manali. I chose the first place 'Prem dhaba' which was run by a friendly down to earth family.
Kami from Prem Dhaba
The first thing I realized is that it’s a lot more cold and windy than Manali side and there are no trees but I was half prepared with some jackets and a sleeping bag. All the dabbas were run by Tibetan looking people and well, I thought, if they don’t know about bouldering in Manali, they certainly won’t know about it here.
I just needed to climb and was directly drawn to an overhanging boulder 2 minutes from the dabba. It was almost banked up with snow except for an overhanging corner at the very left edge. It was beautiful and needed almost no cleaning. When I first started to try it I realized its quality and realized when the snow melts the whole boulder could be full of things like this as it’s a really long wall. Even better than that I couldn’t even do the problem from sitting, I had a project already! I was so psyched now and went to sleep happy.
Smiling Goddess 7c July 2002
The next day after much huffing and puffing because of the 3400 meters height I climbed it with the sit and it felt like an absolute classic. It was actually the first climb in the valley apart from warm ups. The goddess is smiling today I thought and that it was at least 7b+. I was sitting in the Prem dabba (Love dabba) that night with a glass of chang so happy and thought that I’d found a brilliant place here. With such good conditions and boulders, and relatively close, only 5 or 6 hours to civilization in the form of Manali it could be my new nirvana for bouldering. The people in the dabba were picking up my good energy and being really friendly. They were always smiling and kept topping up my glass of chang, the local home made rice beer.
Jibbinibbi repeating Smiling Goddess in 2015 Read the full story of the ascent at JIBBINIBBI
DIAMONDS ARE EVERYWHERE
The next day would be a rest day and I woke up to clear skies and just wondered in awe at the raw beauty of this valley. Huge diamond shaped peaks everywhere made of bomb proof solid granite not loose shale or grass. Vertical walls, overhanging walls and slabs 1000’s of feet high. Massive gullies leading to who knows where. Glaciers coming down almost to the valley. This place seemed wild and certainly the “Greater Himalaya” as Laloo always says. The main river Chandra was an absolute monster, even the side rivers coming from the glaciers seemed big.
Chattru - looking up towards Hamta pass
I walked up the road a bit and noticed a boulder collection just 100 metres down towards the river. It looked so beautiful and very promising for climbing. Sandy or flat grassy landings, solid overhanging rock and boulders scattered everywhere. Curiously almost all the boulders were a diamond like shape just like the huge hills above. There was a perfect waterproof cave so I relocated from the dabba and started to cook myself and climb the best rocks. For some reason Pink Floyd came to mind so I started calling the climbs after some of their songs and reffered to the place as the DIAMONDS. “Shine on you crazy diamond” is a song about Syd Barret so I thought to dedicate the area to him.
Reach for the secret 7c 1st ascent August 2002
Shine, Reach for the secret ,Lost soul, Crazy diamond are classics and named after him. Hungry ghost which is an almost unrepeatable dyno for most people, The last storm, Baby diamond traverse, Riverslide were all top quality boulders. Chattru was turning out to be brilliant. Not only the mountains and rocks but also the people who run the dabbas who were all great. I knew that for 5 months in that type of place you really have to be happy to stay. After starting at Prem Dhaba Chandra dabba was my choice most of the time as the guy Laloo was an ex trekking guide and always joking no matter what…. “we can never say about weather!” he would say as its just about to chuck it down with snow or rain. One of his favourite sayings “Change is the principle of nature” he would say just as a huge landslide comes tumbling down the mountain nearby.
It's YOUR dhaba Laloo will say
I soon realized that nobody actually stays in Chattru or the whole valley except shepherds and a few road labours. In the winter the population is zero. In the summer It’s just a stop for chai, food or one night camp for some tired travelers on the way between Spiti valley and Manali. The bus would stop for lunch once a day and it always seemed like another world had come for half an hour. Laloo was so happy and surprised that somebody actually liked it, wanted to stay and was as happy as him about being in this place. He loved being up there for 5 months, “It’s too hot, busy and polluted in summer” he would say about Manali. He hadn’t a clue about bouldering and thought in the beginning I was the only one in the world doing it. I told him it’s a popular way of rock climbing in other countries and Hampi but in that first season I’m sure he didn’t believe m
OH MY GODDESS!
When I went back after a few days sleeping in the Diamonds the snow had gone from the Goddess boulder and just as I had hoped there were overhanging climbable lines all the way across the wall. Mostly medium hard with some absolute classic 6c’s like “Goddess of Love.” There would be 12 lines on that one wall so she certainly deserves her name. Not many single boulders are that good. Then I did the arête left of Smiling Goddess. I’m not sure if anybody does it now with my method which was a huge move to a finger jug then slowly sliding the other hand up the arête in a special way to avoid swinging off to grapple out a slopey mantle. For me It was the hardest thing on the boulder. “Oh my goddess!” seemed a fitting name.
Goddess of love 6c July 2002
From the diamonds I could see a lot more boulders on a slightly higher plateau a bit further up the valley but on the other side of the river. I went on a rest day checking mission and found a beautiful area with a different character again. It also had a good enough cave to stay in with superb looking lines on its side walls. It seemed like 60’s music would be the theme of this summer Himalayas bouldering voyage and this time ‘The doors’ came to mind…Actually the cave is full of beautiful crystal rock and shaped like a ship! Shepherds used the place a lot judging by the broken shoes but now it was my Crystal ship!
I got my luggage and pad from Chattru, days of food, walked up there and started cooking and climbing the easier things immediately. The routes in the Crystal Ship itself were fantastic. It felt as if everything was making sense now that I’d found this boulderfield in heaven so I called the classic hard problem ‘Crystal clear’ 7b but would have to wait to link the sitstart. Just to the right “Precious Holds’ named after a perfect orange crystal pinch. The wall opposite had friction like sandstone with nice easier climbing for warm ups.
Crystal Clear sitstart 7c+
Precious holds 7b+ August 2002
Staying alone for some weeks here my mind was becoming uncluttered. The water was also ‘Crystal clear’ and so the name of one of the best problems I’d done here so far was fitting well. It took about 4 climbing days to link it from sitting but there was no need to rush anything here. I had all the time in the world. The moves were so good that I didn’t mind having to try it again and again anyway.
Green grass, a crystal clear stream and enough horse shit to live with whilst there. That way I didn’t need a stove. I even woke up one night with 2 horses leering over me snorting. The shepherds sometimes just let them free for 2 or 3 months in the valleys and collect them on the way down. Above the plateau up a steep grass slope is an amazing vertical and massive overhanging wall with climbable lines on it meanwhile I was gearless, alone and happy with the boulders. One day the shepherd passed on the way up the valley and we all slept in the cave and cooked together which was fun.
I kept going to the Crystal Ship getting supplies from Laloo which in reality meant dhal and rice every day. I was so used to living with that diet from Hampi so it was just fine. As it was at the base of the huge gully leading towards the Hamta pass I started checking up there also. There was a glut of boulders where the valley narrows which had some great problems. Then one day, not knowing what I might find for bouldering I decided to take all my luggage with my crash pad and walk over the mighty Hamta pass. It’s a great trek and short cut so only 50 km back to Manali. Two or three days with bouldering stops and heavy luggage I thought.
Bouldering for energy?
I found some small areas of good boulders on the way and realized a curious thing. I would be feeling tired from endless walking so stop at the real quality boulders and try to climb them. Thinking it’s going to make me more tired it always did the opposite. I seemed to have more energy for trekking after trashing myself on boulders. If I sat doing nothing but resting I would feel even more tired. I tried to understand this concept and thought that maybe the bouldering is releasing some unrealized energy into my body and injecting my mind with some extra hormones therefore giving me more energy for trekking. So every time tiredness hit me again I’d have to search for another boulder to steal energy from.
Eventually I arrived in Manali which seemed like a big city after where I’d been. It was so funny walking around that day as I hadn’t had a wash for the whole 6 weeks up in the valley. My pants were black and filthy from wiping my hands on them all the time while cooking and I must have smelled also. Everywhere I went in Manali people looked at me badly so I went up to Vashist where there are natural hot springs.
In Vashist you can just strip down to your underpants and take a shower right there in the street from the hot springs so that’s what I did. When I rinsed my hair in the hot water the result was amazing. Almost totally black water came out of my hair. One Indian guy was watching me sadly and pushed something into my hand as if it was really valuable like gold or drugs. I got excited when I felt the plastic wrapping but when I looked it was only a 1 rupee sachet of shampoo! It made me laugh but he didn’t see the funny side. Indians take cleanliness very seriously I thought. Not everybody though…
In the main hot water pool just above the shower taps a shepherd who looked like he’d also just got down from Chattru was there. I knew the shepherds also never wash while up in the higher mountains and sometimes you can smell them from a few meters away. Still dressed in the same clothes even with his thick woolen jacket on and traditional Himachal hat he was lying backwards nearly totally submerged in the piping hot water and singing with a big smile on his face. You could see all the dirt emanating from him into the water. He was quite drunk but seemed so happy with life and made me feel happy and care free also. We are almost the same, I thought. People were laughing about him but nobody would go in now he was there. He was making the whole pool dirty but didn’t care. I would also leave it at least 5 minutes to go in after him so he had it all to himself.
I would now gorge myself on fresh fruits and veggies to try and replace some vitamins and minerals which I thought were probably missing from my diet up there. It was great but I got sick from eating so many different things and after a few days I had to get back up to the valley of boulders, the Chandra Valley.
It seemed like I was totally addicted to the place. To be away from the modern world completely feels great. Manali did seem hot and polluted now like Laloo said and I loved the fact that even mobile phones didn’t work in this valley so nobody can contact the world. The people in Chattru had started to see me as one of them also, like an honorary local. I was the first foreigner who had ever wanted to stay there for any length of time and I appreciated the people in the dabbas for being so supportive. I spent the whole season around Chattru but had to check the whole valley on rest days. The altitude increased and the bouldering areas continued with big groups of rocks every 2 or 3 km all the way to Barashigri 30 km up at 4000m. There would be enough rocks for years of quality boulder problems! I had to leave the mountains in October but I already had started planning how to go back the next season.