Himachal Pradesh. India. Helicopters. Himalayan powder. Soaring Peaks. It all sounds very romantic. That’s what India is, or at least, my notion of India; a combination of adventure, mayhem, mountains, colors, temples, incense.
It had been over a decade since I’d last been to India, and like everything in life, things change- people change, places change, entire countries change in that amount of time but, regardless, I loved my travels in India and I have been trying to get back there ever since. It’s the kind of place that folds itself into your memories and doesn’t let go.
The chance finally came this winter with The North Face. Every year, as athletes, we go through a fairly extensive proposal process to sort and plan expeditions for the coming year. Over the past ten years, I have submitted proposals for an expedition to India but it wasn’t until this year that the stars aligned and the trip was accepted.
My three previous trips to India have been more or less to the same area, the Himachal Pradesh. During my previous forays into these mountains a friend of mine, Hansueli Baerfuss, had shown me this incredibly beautiful peak off in the distance; White Sail. Hansueli is a pilot for the Swiss owned heli-ski company, Himachal Heli, that operates out of Manali, the main gateway to the mountains of the Himachal, and has flown in the region on and off for nearly 20 years. He gave me a 4X6 photo of the peak that he had taken from the helicopter some 12 years ago. This, White Sail, was the peak I proposed to climb and ski this winter, with only Hansueli’s single photograph as evidence of the peak’s existence.
Still sounds romantic. Obviously, I know nothing about modern day India. Idiotic, stressful and mind blowing (in a bad way) may all be better adjectives for the colossal effort involved in planning an expedition of this style to India. India is not exactly forthcoming with information about its mountains, especially when those mountains are in “potential terrorist risk zones.”
The state of Himachal Pradesh rubs up against Tibetan China to the east and Kashmir to the north; two places that have had a lot of change in the last decade. As I came to learn while planning this trip, change has greatly affected the laws and regulations in a region that, a decade ago, I would have considered fairly lawless- a place where anything goes so long as you just ask the right person or bargain in the right way. For the Himachal Pradesh those days seem to be over, and now, navigating through the new India where there seems to be a law for everything from smoking in public to using a satellite phone in the mountains, to taking pictures from a helicopter, were huge challenges for our expedition. The most frustrating part is that it is impossible to know these laws until you come across them directly. The Indian head bobble, which indicates “yes, maybe no,” is still alive and well, so you are given the impression that perhaps you can do this, that, or the other thing only to discover that is it “strictly forbidden, this is a new law that just happened three days ago.” And in an instant, the best laid plans are laid to waste.
Maps, naturally, are impossible to come by- strictly forbidden, in fact, and I was unable to track down anyone who had climbed or attempted to ski in this area before. Alas, we were left with Google Earth to help us determine our route. While this is an excellent resource, I still prefer the precision and direction only a real map can provide. Little did I know this would prove to be only the first of many hurdles faced in planning this trip.
My first mistake was to think that I had a lot of time to organize our team and plan the logistics. Nothing, absolutely nothing related to India, happens quickly. Everything takes time, a lot of time. Visas for example. One can actually get an Indian visa very quickly, but the paperwork is mind-numbing and exhaustive. Heaven forbid you try to get a visa in an unconventional way. Kris Erickson, the trip photographer and The North Face athlete, happens to live in Morocco half the year. He applied for his visa in Morocco with two months breathing room. There was a problem, but no one knows quite what that problem was, and only five days before departure he was informed that he would not be getting a visa.
By some miracle, however, our team of seven (Kris Erickson had to be replaced by long time friend and mountain photographer, Chris Figenshau, who received a visa in 4 days – go figure) managed to all secure visas, most of us only days before departure. When we stepped off the plane in Delhi, there was no longer the dirty dingy airport of a decade ago, but rather, a shiny modern day international airport signifying a new era for India. It wasn’t until we stepped out of the airport, loaded with all of our bags, that I was finally bowled over by the India I remembered- the one of horns honking and smoky air and mad scents.
My second mistake was trying to stick to a schedule, a schedule that essentially had no room for error. Not a good idea when travelling in India. My intention was to spend as little time in Delhi as possible in order to give ourselves the best chance at staying healthy. But, in hindsight, when you consider the inevitability of lost bags and delayed flights, this proved to be very difficult. While in Delhi, I had a meeting with the IMF, the Indian Mountaineering Federation, to talk about our climb and pay our peak fees, as well as meet our Liaison Officer, or LO, whose nickname was aptly Happy. We made a little headway in this department in that the IMF, for the first time in their history, were going to allow us to do our climb without our LO in tow. He would wait for us in the highest village near our planned exit off the Tos glacier. I think even the IMF had to concede that a trip of this magnitude would be akin to a suicide mission for Happy and who wants to kill someone with a nickname like Happy?
Late in the planning process, I realized I would need some help in moving our rather cumbersome group through India and navigating the complicated bureaucracy of the IMF and the Indian government. I hired a well-known trekking agency called Ibex Expeditions. They arranged all of our ground transportation and hotels, as well as our early interactions with the mountaineering federation and helped us with some of our visa issues. Thanks to them, we were able to be hustled out of Delhi in a timely manner, and made the rough road journey to Manali. Arriving on time, the next hurdle in the planning department was getting Himachal Heli on the same page as our expedition team. White Sail is so remote, especially when the Indian Himalayas are still hanging onto winter, that access via helicopter to our basecamp was necessary in order for us to complete the expedition in the timeframe of three weeks versus three months.
Again, we managed to pull it off and found ourselves nestled into basecamp at 14,000ft on the exact day we had penciled in weeks before. I suppose there is still some element of struggle to India, that if met with perseverance and an unbelievable amount of patience, can result in success. I can honestly say that just making it into the mountains was an unbelievable feat- and we still had two weeks of climbing ahead of us.
Suffice it to say, I have led and organized many expeditions over the years, and this was the most difficult and challenging trip I have ever, ever, ever put together. Planning, by Indian standards, seems to be somewhat of an oxymoron. At some point, I had to just let it go and realize that we were in for an adventure.