We exited our jeep taxi at the end of cleared snow about a third of the way towards the pass. The Indian Army’s road crew had begun the multi-month task of clearing snow off the road over Rohtang Pass, a critical connector north to the contested state of Kashmir. The road is a remarkable feat of engineering as just this south side gains about 5500’ in twenty-five miles of steep eroded switchbacks. Here at about mile nine, we began our manpowered ascent marching past the road crew’s morning blessing ritual. We were unsure if they were blessing the heavy equipment that they hoped would cut through meters of wind-packed snow or blessing themselves that they may live through another day of high altitude work in avalanche-prone areas where spring weather can change to winter in minutes. Soon we were off the road with skins on, making our way through the thinning trees towards the alpine.
Emily, Joe, and I had viewed this huge expanse of whiteness many times from our seasonal home down in Solang and were finally able to access the moderately angled playground. The Gulaba area consists of big open terrain spreading from one round ridgeline to another. Our approach ridge provided a great up route and we were covering ground quickly under blue skies. Soon, we angled right off the predominant ridge and onto a few short faces. Above these pitches was a gentle ridge that divided the lower terrain from a massive alpine basin. Our objective was to set camp at this transition and explore the high country with hopes of adding sinusoidal signatures down a few of the many big lines we had viewed so often.
Working our way through the short faces, the western skyline grew dark. Minutes later we were in clouds and snow began to fall. Almost to our intended campsite, whiteout conditions set in and visibility reduced to almost nothing. We were forced to set up the Megamid and hunker down until conditions allowed for safer travel.
The storm only intensified and we accepted that we were there for the night. Groping around outside and recollecting earlier glimpses of the local topography, I felt comfortable that we were camped safe from any avalanche hazard.
The Megamid shelter has many advantages and I continue to be a strong believer in it. However, it is not meant to be exposed to high mountain storms. We secured the shelter and dug a large moat-like trench around the tent to alleviate shedding snow from building up against the tent walls. Feeling satisfied with our efforts, we settled into the comforts of our sleeping bags to play cards, eat dinner, and hope for sunny powder turns in the morning.
Even with large gusts of wind violently shaking the Megamid, we began to drift into a state of slumber. Half asleep, I thought I saw flashes of light penetrate through my closed eyelids. Finally, I kept my eyes open long enough to recognize the outside illumination as lightning. Shortly after, we all heard far-away rumbles of thunder. We lay silent in our bags, watching and listening to Mother Nature’s roar. Thunder crackled louder and rumbled longer, time between lightning and thunder shrank, and the flashes grew brighter. The gusts of wind gave way to a continuous battering of the tent. I found myself holding onto the center pole of the Megamid hoping this extra bit of reinforcement might help prevent the shelter from collapsing.
You could sense the growing uncertainty inside the tent as we perceived the lightning was about to pass directly overhead. I started to have second thoughts about holding a metal pole in a lightning storm,”Hmm, which is worse: getting struck with lightning or our shelter collapsing?” During it all, Joe kept his composure and we had yet to hear even a curse word in his posh British accent. A snow camping virgin a month prior, this cordial Brit was now camped high in the Indian Himalaya in the middle of an aggressive winter storm and carrying on with his normal cheer.
The first episode of overhead lightning was followed by more throughout the night, and morning did not bring the sunshine we all hoped for. Our deep moat was now full and snow was building up against the walls of the Megamid. We cleared the white stuff away and dug another moat, but the consistent snowfall and never-ending plume from the steeper section below us erased our efforts within minutes.
Our day consisted of sipping hot beverages and playing cards in between sessions of shoveling snow. One of us would periodically poke our head outside the shelter with hopes to catch a peek of the alpine wonder we had gawked at so often from Solang, or at least see some features of our immediate surroundings. Nada. Each time the vision was limited to about fifteen feet of blowing whiteness. Joe and I built a snow wall intended to block the drifting snow, which may or may not have helped. While it succeeded in trapping snow, the wind moved snow from the top of the wall to our camp, and our battle with the snow continued.
Just before dark we conducted one huge shovel-fest hoping our labors would reward us with some time to sleep. I was amazed at how deep the Megamid was sitting. As the blowing snow continued to pile up, our shelter looked vulnerable to a complete burial. I slithered into bed hoping this storm would end.
At 1:00 a.m. I rolled over towards Emily and noticed a large mass of snow resting on the now horizontal tent wall just inches above her cheek. Time to shovel again. I got back into a bunch of frozen stiff gear and out into the whirlwind of freezing precipitation. Feeling inferior to the storm’s relentless intensity, I crawled back into my sleeping bag realizing that we needed to get out of there the next day. If the conditions wouldn’t allow for a safe exit, we would at least need to redefine camp.
Then things got even worse. My stomach began rumbling, cramping, and emitting the fateful mutton burps. The Nasty was back. We had been in India long enough to endure varying stomach discomforts but had picked up one particular bug that totally defeated us. I have succeeded plenty through mental strength and “putting things aside until you can afford to deal with them,” but The Nasty allowed no such negotiations. I warned Joe that he may soon become more closely acquainted with me than desired. I secured an empty Ziploc for sudden vomiting but could not find a safe space inside the shelter for uncontrollable releases from the other end. Knowing it took time to get into frozen gear, especially plastic ski boots, the outlook was grim.
I hung in there until about 4:30 a.m. when the body demanded relief. I hastily threw clothing on and got most of the soles of my feet into my Garmonts just in time to unzip the tent, step outside, and free the insides. I returned to the tent relieved for a couple reasons. While taking care of business, I noticed that not only had it stopped snowing, but the sky was full of stars. The storm was over!
Only an hour or so later, The Nasty forced me to exit the shelter again. This time I took one step outside and then re-entered to grab the closest camera. What I saw outside the tent was one of the most beautiful mountain landscapes of my life. The sky was indigo blue bordering against jagged peaks caked in whiteness. Every bit of exposed earth radiated white except for the southeast faces of Hanuman Tibba and Makerbah (the highest peaks in the panorama) which were glowing pink from the rising sun. The new snow deepened the silent environment into a divine state of quietude. Amazing! What a sensational contrast I was experiencing: one moment wretched over in agony, the next absorbing this scene of mountain magic.
I proceeded to take photos and bask in the beauty. Looking down to the valley floor, I was amazed that the new snowline stretched below the village of Solang (~5000’ below our camp). I was equally stunned at the beauty of the snow-packed ridges around us, particularly the low-angled basin right above camp. I knew we had to go ski and I knew we had to start immediately.
Emily and Joe were a little shocked when I came back with the morning itinerary. They were just hoping to get back to Solang safely and completely confused that my brain shares the same body as my intestines and still wanted to climb and ski. After I talked them out of the tent and they got a look at our powder-laden surroundings, they quickly agreed that we had no choice but to ski.
We set off immediately to enjoy the surreal conditions before the sun turned the deep layer of weightless powder into a thick blanket of concrete. Even at 13,000’ in late February, the Indian sun wreaks havoc on south facing aspects. It was hard to believe this fact as we moved our frozen limbs uphill eagerly awaiting the sun to crest the eastern ridgeline. When the sun finally hit our surroundings, it amplified the virginity of this new medium we traveled on.
With the avalanche hazard high, we stayed to low angle terrain as we worked our way higher up the alpine basin. I ventured from a safe point onto a face slightly steeper than the previous terrain, still only about 23 degrees. About thirty feet onto the slope, there was a huge whumph that I felt and Emily heard back on the safe point. I was still unsure if the slope was steep enough to slide but the loud whumph was a disturbance from our zone of quietude that demanded attention. I dug a quick pit and found consistent results indicating an easy release of the top ten inches of snow. We were at our high point.
Even though the terrain back to camp was fairly mellow, the low density snowfall allowed for high speed turns in effortless powder. As Emily took off down the hill, each turn emitted a long rooster tail that lingered in the air seconds afterward. We cherished the hero conditions back to camp. Looking back up at our tracks amongst vast amounts of whiteness, we shared permagrins and uncontrollable bursts of laughter. It was an easy decision to skin up and enjoy another lap of bliss.
Back at camp as we dried our gear and refueled, my adrenaline diminished and my body reminded me I was sick. We filled the packs and descended to the road.
We found a taxi back to Solang and as we wound our way down the switchbacks, I relished in what was one of the most memorable trips of my life: most of which was quite miserable, some of which was pure ecstasy, and that tiny bit of which was simultaneously both.