The world of Indian Hiking/Climbing Fraternity was taken by storm last month when a Belgian National, residing in India for the last 20 years, pulled off a hitherto unknown superhuman feat by walking across unexplored (in literal sense) Himalayan Passes. To make his epic journey even more incredible, he did so by doing it purely in alpine style.
That man was Peter Van Geit and I got a chance to speak with him regarding his adventure of Himalayan proportions in the truest sense. When his expedition was in the planning stage, I did get an email regarding his route from Sathya (arguably the finest trekker of our times but his story for some other time) but I couldn’t help him much because, a) I had no idea about most of the trails he intended to measure in his ultra-running style and b) I didn’t think it was practically possible to do something which Peter intended to do….
And I can’t explain how happy I am to be proved wrong this time.
Peter Van Geit pulled off a ‘Rahul Sankrityayan’ and ‘opened’ some of the routes which were literally lying obsolete since decades (for instance Himri Pass). Pin Parbati Pass, Chobia Pass, Kugti Pass, Bashleo Pass, Bhubhu Pass, Himri Pass, Pin Bhabha Pass, Sar Pass, Pratap Pass to name a few among the forty Himalayan Passes that he managed to cross.
I got a chance to speak with him and I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading through his journey as much as I did. Sit back, grab a cup of coffee or ‘Old Monk‘ and have fun reading…..
A word about yourself. About Chennai Running and Trekking Club?
I was born and raised in Belgium, came over to Chennai, India in 1998 for work and since then settled in India. Was overwhelmed with the natural beauty of the Indian subcontinent and explored the mountains (Western Ghats, Himalayas) for initial years on my Enfield bullet. In 2008 I felt Chennai was a little too boring and founded the Chennai Trekking Club to reach out to like minded adventurous souls who wanted to join me on hikes in South India. Over the years CTC grew in diversity of outdoor activities, environmental conservation and social initiatives as well as in numbers reaching 40 thousand on its tenth birthday. In recent years I became passionate about ultra running in beautiful trails in the mountains and now we have an active ultra runner community doing frequent trail runs in South.
40 passes in 75 days. That sounds ridiculously exciting even to think of. How did this all start? Was it just a whimsical decision or something that was planned over a period of long months?
During a 2 week 800km run from Shimla to Jammu through the valleys of Spiti and Pangi last year I came across a rusty board of HP Tourist near Tandi showing various trails connecting valleys through passes. As we had done several long run in Himachal in previous years on roads I was eager to try something new this year. So in June myself and a friend started reading up on hiking blogs (including yours and Sathya’s) to identify the location of passes (Himachal’s passes were totally unknown to us) through reverse engineering GPS logs, extracting hiking routes from OSM (Open Street Maps) and create a big master Google Map with some (initially) 21 target trails. Aside from being a pretty solid trail runner in lower altitudes (I ran 2000km in Vietnam earlier this year) I had no clue what to expect at these higher altitudes.
A mix of excitement and nervousness and I even spoke to Sathya over the phone for an hour on do-s and don’ts in the Himalayas.
Trails in Himachal Pradesh aren’t really marked on the Internet. What were the difficulties you faced while embarking on journeys in remote Himachal, particularly in Chamba/Lahaul?
Although there are many hiking blogs on the Himalayas very few give precise info on the exact location of the trails. Only few blogs like Sathya’s list precise GPS coordinates for passes, landmarks and sometimes entire trails. Some of the more popular trails are available on Open Street Maps and GPS logs could be exported from there. For some we checked the Oxylane 1:150K maps which provide approximate info on trails, stream crossings for many passes. For yet others I used Google Satellite maps at high zoom level to manually trace clearly visible trails, especially in Ladakh.
For yet others used only by shepherds we only had the approximate location and had to follow the foot (“poop”) steps of the gaddi’s and horseman traversing these passes. Spending 10 years in South Indian jungles as part of our Chennai Trekking Club treks also helped in grooming intuition in tracking trails. Another valuable resource are the topographic maps of the Survey of India which can be obtained from Chandigarh. These are the most detailed maps (1:25K and below) which include lot of terrain detail, trails. Scanning and georeferencing them makes another great navigation reference.
What was it like at the top? Lonely? Satisfying? Mystical? Tiring?
Every pass crossing in “Ultra” mode (read: power hiking, doing these 2-3 faster than the usual hiker) burns some 6 to 8000 kilo calories and can be very draining at times. The technicalities of the terrain: vast moraines, walking on steep, slippery landslides, crossing crevassed glaciers, climbing up steep rock slopes holding on to your life, cold wind and wetness near passes during bad weather, crossing ferocious streams, always moving against the clock to cross the pass early before weather turns and descend again to lower altitudes to pitch up camp.
Add to this the factor of being alone most of the time, the unknown (never stepped on a glacier before or had not done much high altitude hiking), moments where you lose the trail, where you stand in front of a vertical rock wall or glacier unable to see a way forward. All these can be both physically and mentally exhausting and require a strong mental determination (more than physical fitness) to push forward.
Still, once you reach the top / pass immersed by stunning views all 360 degrees, a feeling of euphoria takes over subduing all the physical exertion you have gone through. The complete silence (except for wind) on the top, the feeling of being alone in this vast, overwhelming and sometimes unearthly landscape, far away from any living soul can be – at first – scary, but eventually makes way for a deep internal peacefulness and deeper connection with the natural beauty of these virgin remote places untouched by human hand. In Ladakh, Zanskar the gradient and shades of the high altitude desert makes you wonder sometimes whether you are on a different planet. Some passes are gateways between barren rock landscapes of Lahaul & Spiti / Pangi and the lush green valleys of Kully / Chamba / Kinnaur and feel like stepping between different worlds.
Was there ever a moment of doubt?
There were moments of “holding on to my life” trying to balance while traversing landslides high above the valley floor while rocks were falling down with every step, walking across uneven boulders being pushed by hip deep stream currents trying not to get flushed away, climbing up steep rock faces holding on to whatever little was protruding. Those moments the human senses and reflexes become sharper switching into survival mode.
There were moments of doubt having completely lost track of the trail getting stuck in dense vegetation or steep drops, standing in front of a 500m vertical rock wall, getting whitened out in dense fog, standing in front of a snow or ice wall unable to figure out a way forward.
There were days when we ran short on food, stranded hungry in the middle of nowhere. Moments when you get stuck on a ferocious glacial stream hearing the sound of boulders crushed against each other. During those moments you need to sit down, physically and mentally relax and take a moment to reflect and find a way forward through the seeming impossible. At times you also have to make a tough call realizing that the particular situation is too dangerous / risky and be mature enough to overcome disappointment and take a U-turn.
Tell us about your gear? I couldn’t see much in the photographs or was that all you were carrying?
Being an ultra runner there is one simple rule “less is better”.
Having run 2000km through the mountains of Northeast Vietnam with 4kg backpack (mostly shelter for the winter nights) you know that every extra 100 grams adds significant impact. This would even be more so while climbing steeper trails and seeking higher altitudes in the Himalayas. You basically have to make a fine call between comfort during the day (less luggage) while hiking vs. night comfort (more shelter/clothes) while camping in cold nights. So eventually we ended up with a compromise of 4kg + another 2kg for a Quecha T2 tent + 1kg of food ration for a typical 2-3 day crossing.
The basic clothing layer is dry-fit, breathable shorts / tees / sport shoes which are perfect for both hot (Ladakh) and wet (monsoon Chamba) climate allowing sufficient ventilation while sweating it out pushing steep uphill. On top of that you carry a rain jacket to break out the cold wind and rains at higher altitudes. While camping you add a lightweight fleece + rain jacket + S15 sleeping bag + thermocoil mat + T2 tent to stay surprisingly warm 90% of the nights.
The rest of the weight goes to electronics: phone, power bank, power cables required for navigation and photography. A pair of lightweight fiber hiking poles to cross streams and glaciers / snow. And all of that packed up nicely in ziplocks and plastics to stay dry during rains. That’s pretty much it. Sport shoes of course don’t last long on the sharp rocky terrain, I wore out some 3 pairs over 2.5 months.
What’s the balance for you with climbing and running?
There is fine balance between both mainly dictated by steepness and amount of luggage you carry. Most uphills and steep downhills you power hike / climb up / down. Flats and gradual downhills you can run at an easy pace although it is challenging with 7kg on the back. Running at higher altitudes adds to the challenge given the thin air to fuel your oxygen craving body while running. Running on technical trails gives a certain high / rush, while hiking at a slower pace allows one to take in / experience his beautiful surroundings more intensely. Being a passionate photographer I frequently interrupt my run / walk to capture the perfect frame and carrying back beautiful moments to inspire others in my footsteps.
A word about your fitness regime? How did you prepare for this epic expedition?
Workout frequently. Diet nothing.
I am not a gym person but prefer to sweat it out in the outdoors. I run 3-4 times during weekday mornings in trails, hills, beaches of Chennai city. Most calories get burned however during the weekends when we usually go for a 100km trail run somewhere in the hills of South with some 15-30 like minded souls. Running uphill and downhill in uneven trails gives the best strengthening for legs, core and the heart. With an annual hill trail running mileage of some 3 to 4000 km and 1 lakh of elevation gain physical fitness is in place. Again, more than physical it’s a mental game up there in the Himalayas so a tough mindset is as important. Part of this has grown over the years during hundreds of wilderness hiking expeditions as part of the Chennai Trekking Club overcoming natural and other obstacles in South Indian jungles.
The hot humid climate in the Eastern ghats of South squeeze you more and toughen you for more challenging climate. I ve been biking, cycling and running in the Himalayas for quite a few years and acclimatization usually goes quite fast. Even hopping across Hampta pass from Kullu to Lahaul in 1.5 days did not seem a roadblock. With respect to braving cold weather in higher altitudes, after 20 years soaking in hot Chennai, I still seem to have a little bit of the cold childhood winters left in my Belgian DNA to survive the cold nights with minimal gears.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Have a regular fitness regime – twice a week 10k hill run near the city or a longer one in the weekends really helps to strengthen the muscles and increase the lung capacity for the huge elevation gain and higher altitudes in the Himalayas. Secondly, get used to walking on rocky uneven trails – I see many newbies struggling to balance while walking on loose rocks in Himalayas. Ensure to have done sufficient hiking in lower altitudes before moving up.
Thirdly spent some time in bad weather – cold rains in hill stations, cold nights in mountains with limited clothing to toughen up for the cold climate. Many South Indians really struggle braving the colder climate up there.
Fourth – and most important – minimize your luggage – I’ve seen so many hikers struggling trying to push up their 60 liters / 25kg backpacks while climbing up. More than the trails, steepness and altitude they are fighting their own baggage while hiking struggling rather than enjoying the journey.
As a self supported hiker it’s also important to possess a basic understanding of topographic maps and navigation to find your way in no man’s land. Over the years I’ve put together a nice practical navigation bootcamp which can be found on our web site chennaitrekkers.org. Finally, proceed step by step – start with some of the easier or moderate passes before moving onto the more challenging ones. I detailed lot of info on each of the 40 passes crossed on my website ultrajourneys.org so pick out the right ones first.
Commander Satyabrata Dam once casually remarked about ‘stitching the passes of Dhauladhars, climb from on, descend from another and thus trek all the way from Dharmshala to Kullu”. Can we see Peter doing something like this in the future?
If you check my hiking route on ultrajourneys.org you can actually see that I touched quite a few of the known passes across the Dhauladhars range between Kullu and Dharamshala including Kaliheni, Thamsar, Jalsu and Indrahar. Bad weather and fresh snow in mid September prevented me from crossing more giving me a reason to return next year.
Similarly, I covered many passes across the Pin Panjal range separating Chamba from Pangi and Lahaul including the Chaini, Darati, Chobia and Kugti passes, mainly used by shepherds. The toughest one among all – Kalicho – is waiting for next summer.
Next year’s todo list also includes the lesser known passes into the remote Pangi valleys of Sural, Saichu and Miyar. This year I touched Rupin and Buran across the high ranges separating Kinnaur and Shimla – another 3-4 are waiting to be covered next year. Finally, I am also eager to include many more passes in Ladakh in between Leh and Zanksar documented on the Oxylane maps. All this together, should give us at least 40-50 more for next summer between July-Sep. In Spring 2019 (Mar-June) I am eager to explore some passes in Northeast including Arunachal.
How is climbing/trekking in India different from the Western World?
I have limited hiking or climbing experience at higher altitudes in the West. When I was young however, my parents used to take me on moderate 1 day hikes in the Swiss alps during the summers. What I do remember was tons of clearly marked hiking routes and nice touristic restaurants / cafes along these routes. Hikers also respect nature – no garbage is thrown, no alpine flowers are stepped on. Hiking maps are freely available and there is a huge economic boom through influx of independent nature loving hikers.
Himachal has a huge unlocked economic potential for independent hikers if the the government / tourism department would clearly mark some of the trails with proper food & shelter along the way. Not just the tougher high altitude passes but easy trails between hundreds of hamlets in the beautiful lesser known valleys of Chamba, Barot, Pangi, Miyar, Lug, Parvati, etc. Right now there is no central organized place / maps with details available for the average citizen.
Instead of this, I see commercial groups taking out (baby sitting) thousands of (many unfit) youngsters to few popular places covering short stretches hand-holded like a line of penguins, unfit to carry their own luggage, not respecting nature and leaving a trail of garbage near the campsites. Quite the complete opposite of the independent individual hikers in the European alps.
A word about the shepherds of Himalaya?
Your best friends in the remotest corners of Chamba, Pangi, Lahaul, Kinnaur, Kullu are the shepherds.
Every summer from May to October they navigate their herds of hundreds of sheep and goats from the plains and lower Himalayas to the higher altitude meadows across various shortcuts / passes. No one knows the trails better than them. They are happy to welcome the lonely hiker with fresh tea, food and night shelter and show you in the right direction to your next destination. They are excellent hikers in plain clothing carrying their own shelter and food along with them. Some of the best moments in Himachal I spent as a guest of the shepherds who go out of their way to treat you with great hospitality. Humanity which we lost in our civilizations can still be found in the remotest places of our planet.
I saw that you were accompanied by few people on some trails. Was that a planned companionship or you’d met them on the trail?
A few friends from the Chennai Trekking Club were planning a short 1-2 week hike this year in various parts of Himachal between July and Sep. I planned my 2.5 months journey to span all the individual plans such that every 2 weeks I would pick up some of them at a planned location and date, giving a few days of acclimatization each time before heading back to higher altitudes. Tough out of 40 passes I did most of them solo as many of the guys were mentally not ready for the terrain and climate as per my observation.
Although it’s nice to have human company (preferably just 1 or 2 with same attitude) when traveling in remote places, I really enjoyed the solo moments the most giving a more independent, free and peaceful experience, defining my own pace and schedule. On most days I would anyway come across some shepherds or horsemen or cowherders in the valleys below the passes. In Zanskar, Ladakh you come across European hikers (accompanied by guides and horsemen) in many places, not seen in the lesser known valleys of Himachal.
Your future plans in Himachal Pradesh/India?
Himachal Pradesh is just a tiny part of the Indian Himalayas which stretches out from J&K all the way to Arunachal so no doubt there are hundreds of passes waiting out there to be explored. I also really want to retrace some of the more remote (off) trails documented by Sathya on his blog in his memory as a mentor.
Without inspirations like him I would not have gone where I have been this year. My heart feels heavy for the sad loss to the hiking community. I hope to hike many more years in the Himalayas and document the same on my blog to motivate others to follow my footsteps.
Additionally, I am eager to step one level up to mountaineering. Thinking of signing up for BMC and AMC and joining some of the mountaineering expeditions led by the army. Where I can go in my preferred ultra mode (light and fast) in the current trails / passes, mountaineering would be a different game scaling peaks with more technical gears and much lower pace over longer periods.
I hope Peter pulls off many more such superhuman feats in the future and keeps motivating the lesser mortals like us to climb higher.