The Zanskar Odyssey: High Alpine Bouldering in the Hidden Himalayas - PART 1/3

This past fall, Colorado climbers Pete Takeda, Abbey Smith, Jason Kehl and Mick Follari journeyed to that lofty crossroads where continents meet, ancient cultures mingle, and great religions clash — the kingdom of Zanskar in the Indian Himalayas. They were looking for adventure, a fresh perspective, and the most aesthetic boulders in the world's greatest mountain range. It's a postmodern blend of traditional expedition climbing and new school bouldering, it's a search for the highest hardest climbing moves in the world.

          Read on for the first of three travelogues by Pete Takeda.


"Delhi's monsoon heat is smothering. We avoid the usual hassle of climbing permits and mountains of equipment and plan a year in advance. Our sponsor, Marmot, shipped tents, sleeping bags, and other gear. Indian customs is a Byzantine operation. I spend my first three days in the country making sure we get our crash pads. Jet-lagged, wilting in the humidity, I take up chain smoking to deal with the boredom of standing in the dirt for hours on end, and the stress of squeezing through the heaving frantic mob as we compete for the attention of deputy this or commissioner that.

We're all eager to reach the mountains. By the time our chartered van groans over the 13,000 foot high Rhotang Pass into the Himalayan kingdom of Zanskar, we've been in India over a week. We're growing used to the kaleidoscope of elephants, snake charmers, and touts, not to mention the smells: sweet incense, rank diesel, and foul ever-lurking shit-stench.

Featured on The History Channel's Deadliest Roads, Rhotang provides three-season access to the high Himalayan valleys. Narrow switchbacks and the occasional rusting truck skeleton in the bottom of vertical ravines lend credence to Rhotang La's Tibetan translation of, "Pile of Corpses Pass." Above Manali, the jagged peaks and alpine meadows are straight out of The Sound of Music. The ramshackle tea stalls, soot blackened gangs of Bihari road workers, and blaring traffic horns: Slumdog Millionaire. Zanskar was closed to foreigners until 1974. These days, it's is still a sparsely peopled land averaging 10,000 feet in elevation.

We are an expedition in the truest sense – exploratory, committing, and maybe even a first in the world of climbing. Previous expeditions have certainly taken advantage of surrounding base camp boulders during downtime from climbing the famous summits (I've myself have spent many days bouldering while waiting out weather), but ours is probably the first ever to blend a traditional expedition and new school bouldering.

The legendary father of modern bouldering, John Gill was first to view rock climbing with a gymnast's eye. Famous for his one-armed pull-ups from pencil-width door jambs, Gill might not have anticipated a trip such as ours. He wrote in 1969, "If one places large-scale expeditionary mountaineering with it's drawn out treks and exasperating logistics at one end of the spectrum, then at the other end may be found the more immediately gratifying, or perhaps frustrating, minor sport of bouldering. See: johngill's website - Perhaps our trip is the new face of Himalayan climbing."

Pete Takeda

 

 

 

More information

- Become a fan of the Zanskar Odyssey Facebook page
- Pick up the March 2011 issue of Men's Journal (US) to read Pete's feature on the trip.
- Watch their videos:

PART 1 - Into the Unknown

 

 

PART 2 - Destination Basecamp

   

 

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