Ice Field Sersank La

The Sersank La Pass (5130 m) Expedition|Great Himalayan Saga Part 1

So forbidding was this snowy range regarded in former times of princely regime, that every State Official proceeding to Pangi on duty was granted a special allowance, under the head of ‘funeral expenses‘, as his return alive or dead, was not taken at all to be a matter of certainty or even high expectation.

Chamba, Himachal Pradesh District Gazetteers, 1963 – Thakur Sen Negi (IAS)

That was the general description of Pangi Valley in the past.  Things haven’t changed much since then except for (relatively) better roads. Pangi Valley is one of the remotest regions of the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh till date.

So you got the basic idea.

Heading into the remote Pangi Valley has always had its charms and risks. But as they say in the trekking fraternity, “The reward in the Himalayas is always greater than the risk”, and that alone was our driving force during the treacherous beautiful Pangi Zanskar expedition.

And to sum up Pangi in one line, nothing goes better than this local folk song.

“Pangi pakki thangi, Lahoul pakka zeera lo,man mera rahi go Pangi ho”.

We had decided to club the Pangi-Zanskar expedition with Darati Pass expedition but the flash floods at Darati base camp got the better of us and we had to abandon this audacious plan of ours.

Braving the Rain Havoc- Into Pangi Valley

But the mountains keep calling you over and over again. Ours second chance came not too late. Within 15 days after somehow completing successfully completing the Darati Yatra, we were again headed into the land of love, dance, and magic; Chamba.

The plan was simple. Pangi Valley (H.P.) to Dharlang Valley (J&K) via Sersank La and then Dharlang to Zanskar Valley over Pot La Pass. The backup plan was to try the mighty Kang La Pass and exit via Udaipur in Lahaul. Little did we know that we were headed into the unseen vastness of Great Himalayan Ranges, a whole new world in itself.

The start was ominous. Heavy rains cut off Chamba from rest of the world. We were stranded as roads leading to Chamba were blocked from all sides. We calculated the risk-reward ratio and decided to go ahead, despite everybody around us telling us to drop the idea.

The journey started from Chamba bus stand at 5 A.M. in the morning and within no time, we were standing atop the Sach Pass, which serves as a gateway to the Pangi Valley.

It took us 12 hours to reach Pangi (170km) and our next destination was Sural Bhatori, which was going to serve as our base station for guide hunting and inquiring about more trekking possibilities in the valley.

Sural is a beautiful village, which is a sub valley of Pangi. The glistering blue waters of Sural Nallah, originating from the foot of Shiv Shankar Peak passes through the village. Bhatori happens to be the last village of this valley and here you will find many little gompas and Buddhist bhots inhabiting the valley since the times of Padamsmbhava.

Shiv Shankar Peak
Shiv Shankar Peak

The Curious Case of a Drunk Guide

Heavy rains had damaged the road leading to the last village Bhatori and we had to walk on foot to reach this village. It was late by the time we reached in the village and we had to seek refuge in an old deserted home.

Now that we had landed in Pangi, the most important item on our agenda was to find a guide. Luckily we found Sonam Ji who had been across these passes many times and quickly we engaged his services as our guide.

After hiring a local porter and gathering ration supplies for 8 days, we offered prayers at the ancient Sural Gompa. It was only in the evening that we set out for our trek. The Shiv Sankar Peak somehow realized that we had started our journey and it came out of the clouds to bless us.

The target was to reach at Tiaso campsite (7-8 km) by the end of the day. But Sonam Ji had other plans. He got drunk and simply refused to continue with this trek and also declared us unfit.

We decided not to say a word and kept cajoling him to walk towards the campsite. He kept blabbering and we kept walking ahead of him. It was almost midnight when we reached at Tiaso campsite. Having traveled all the way from Delhi to Pangi after braving the devastating rains, the only way out of this situation was to look forward.

A drunk guide. Empty stomach. Bad weather. With uncertainty looming large, we were still hopeful.

The next morning, our guide was normal again . We woke up fresh and it was nice to see our guide all geared up for the trek ahead. We started on an empty stomach and we had our first meal after almost 13 hours at a beautiful meadow named Kunthang.

For the next few hours, the trail meandered along the Sural Nallah under the shadow of Shiv Shankar Peak. The peak that appeared too close the other day seemed to only get farther and farther from us.

This trail was once the only connection between the Zanskar and Sural valleys. Gradually people started moving out and these days Shiv Shankar Pass is rarely visited by locals or mountaineers. Salt Trade was a blossoming business here once but now things have changed drastically.

Kuthang Camping Ground
Kunthang Camping Ground
Sher Sank La -- V depression towards right half
Sher Sank La — V depression towards right half

Unlike trekking in Dhauladhar Ranges, GHR ranges pose serious threat of walking over huge crevasses. And with no visible trail marks, it was even more difficult to walk at a uniform pace. A drunk guide can’t be relied upon and we kept thinking about his claims of knowing the area inside out.

After hours of aimless walking, we finally reached at the base of the pass. The ascent to the pass from the base camp seemed theoretically impossible. It was very high vertical wall with a glacier that lead to the top of this pass. We could clearly see the cairns marking the top of this pass. Finding sleep that night was out of the question.

The next morning, we were out of our tents by 5 A.M. It was not a clear day but the pass was visible.

After a gradual ascent for half an hour the GHR terrain got the better of us. Within half an hour, we were on our fours, in the crawl mode. If the climb was less taxing, a steep glacier crossing made things worse. The pass appeared having gone a few hundred meters up in the sky and with every stroke of ice-axe, it only moved a few notches up.

We had been waking for almost 4 hours now .The weather cleared up in the meantime and we could see the Sural Valley behind us. Sonam Ji and his nephew who were way ahead started chanting the sacred mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum“.

We knew that they had reached the top of this pass and we were also a few steps away from the top. Finally after walking for more than five hours from the base, we made it to the top.

Sersank La is the mountain divide between Himachal and J&K. The GHR mountains presented themselves in absolute glory. The mountains appeared running in all the directions, as if playing the game of hide-n-seek with us.

We had our much deserved rest at the top. We sang and celebrated our climb. We thought that the difficult part of our trek was over but little did we know about challenges awaiting us ahead.

Shiv Shankar Jot (Sersank Pass) 5130 meters
Shiv Shankar Jot (Sersank Pass) 5130 meters
Rijul, Porter, Sonam Ji (R to L)
Rijul, Porter, Sonam Ji (R to L)

After resting for an hour we started descending and soon we found ourselves bang in the middle of a huge glacier which was highly crevassed. After much deliberation we decided to cut steps and started treading cautiously. These bottomless pits looked scary to say the least.

We had minor falls but we laughed them off because that’s the best we could do in a huge ice-field. Next we were back in the boulder zone. And afterwards followed another huge glacial field. Ice axes were out again and with our fatigued arms, we started cutting steps in hard ice one more time.

Our guide held us by his hand at times and guided across the vast ice-field.  It was a blinder. Those 15 minutes were pure adrenaline. Finally we were back on the slope and greener patches were visible now.

Descent from Ser Sank La
Descent from Ser Sank La
Dharlang Vallley, J&K
Dharlang Vallley, J&K
Ice Field Sersank La
Ice Field Sersank La

We pitched our tents on a slope with a small stream nearby. The glacier we had crossed a few moments ago looked threatening.

Some of the world’s best mountaineers and trekkers had to turn back from the base of Sersank La because of innumerable reasons. We were among those lucky souls blessed by the Mountain Gods.

Pot La; the next challenge was right in front of our eyes. The clouds dancing above a mountain ridge looked inviting yet threatening at the same time.

continued in second part…..

Distance Calculator (approximate)

Sural-Tiaso (8km) – Tiaso-Base Camp (15km) – Base Camp – Sersank La Top (5km) – Tarla Camp Site (7km)

P.S. If ever you get a chance to stay in Chamba for a day, do try delicious Chambyali Dham at Maame Da Dhaba at Sultanpur Chowk.

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