Manali, Climbing’s Next Shangri-La?
It was a difficult decision to make, but we desperately needed to escape the punishing 44 degree C temperatures of Southern India. Though they beckoned for the snap of our quickdraws, we had to forgo Badami’s beautiful bolted lines altogether. The time had come to travel north to the land of snow capped peaks and yak cheese.
Several weary days of bus rides and train travel brought us to India’s refreshing Kullu Valley. This gorge is situated in the northwestern state of Himachal Pradesh, just below the infamous region of Kashmir, a mere 150 km west of the somewhat ‘unstable’ Pakistani border. But the area is very traveler friendly, leaving your only worries to be what to do with your day. Here, you will be ushered in by magnificent 5,000 meter Himalayan peaks that will surely bring a tear to your eye.
Among the villages that sprawl along the valley floor, Manali is the largest. It’s where the bus will dump you off and is the area you probably will not want to linger around. The air is often thick with 2-stroke exhaust fumes and the streets are packed with tourists. To make your escape, just take the bridge across the glacial river and climb north for 5km to the small village of Vashisht. The village is nestled amongst flowering apple groves, lined with hand carved stone walls and winds along a colossal granite canyon wall. Try not to drool.
Needless to say the alpine climbing opportunities in the area are nearly limitless. Sitting at a rooftop café, sipping masala chai and studying the neighboring couliers and ridges I found myself strongly compelled to move into a mountain hut and send home for my ice tools immediately. Turning in my seat, looking now at the southern valley wall I figure that my folks should probably toss in my trad rack as well. This place is that ridiculous.
If you’re looking for sport routes, you are pretty much out of luck for the time being. There are two conservatively bolted 6B lines just outside the neighboring village of Aleo, near the Directorate of Mountaineering and Allied Sports. (This facility was an amazing resource to us while trying to gather beta on the surrounding area.) As far as public sport routes go, that’s pretty much it for the Valley. Or, so we’re told.
Now if you are willing to shell out 750 rupees (approx $15 U.S.) per day to climb on some private land, head over to the day glow orange building of the Himalayan Extreme Center. Fork over your cash and they’ll take you to over seventy lines that they personally cleaned, bolted and promptly closed off from public use. And there’s no discount for bringing your own gear. Considering that our daily budget for India is $20 per day, this was not quite an option.
However, if you ready and willing to get your hands a little dirty, Dave Morahan of High Himalayan Adventure would be most supportive. Dave has a vision to put Kullu Valley on the map as an international climbing destination. He feels that keeping these routes public (as opposed to privatizing them) would increase the number of climbers seeking new lines. Naturally, this will have a very positive effect on the local economy, which is heavily based on tourism.
We joined Dave Morahan on one of his cleaning expeditions a couple km north of his home in Vashisht. And here’s what he had to say about one of the most scenic ‘would be’ crags in the world:
How long have you lived in Vashisht?I moved to Vashisht permanently at the end of summer '08. I'd been coming here for most of the previous 4 years. Just last year, I managed to get everything together to make the final move from Britain permanently.
What brought you to this place in particular?I first came here to boulder up in the Lahaul/Spiti region. A friend had told me of these amazing boulder fields surrounded by 5-6000m mountains up in the Himalayas and I was keen to go there. I stayed in Vashisht for a couple of months waiting for the roads to open and fell in love with the Alpine-like atmosphere of the place. And of course, everywhere I looked around the valley there seemed to be a new cliff or boulder field waiting to be explored.
What is the goal of High Himalayan Adventures? As an outdoor activities company, we provide access to all the various adventure sports on offer. Throughout the season we work with a whole range of clients from Indian school kids to organized foreign expeditions into the mountains. We are also heavily involved in the environmental conservation projects in the valley and operate our own monthly eco walks around the valley. As part of our commitment to climbing in the valley we are also actively promoting the sport amongst the local community and providing climbing courses to the local children. The Indian mentality towards climbing has always been about mountain climbing. This pursuit has proven to be far too expensive for the majority of locals and therefore the climbing has never been brought forward as in the west and rock climbing is still seen as 'training' for the big hills. As it's a much more affordable and accessible sport we hope to encourage and bring on some local children and maybe give them the opportunity to learn and then inspire others. Who knows, maybe one day there could be an Indian World Climbing Cup Winner.
Approximately how many developed routes are currently in the Kullu valley?At present there are around 20-30 routes and over 150 boulder problems in the valley. The areas for both are situated at various places and every area has huge potential for more. We have a very dedicated but small team living here permanently and consequently progress is slow!! The valley is currently much more of a bouldering spot. We have three separate areas and each area has over 50 problems of all grades. The last two months we have been able to grab any passing climbers to get them to leave their mark on the valley. A visiting Spanish climber left behind two possible 8a lines and many more test pieces for the visitor. We hope that by the end of this year these boulder areas will have over 100 problems each and the cliffs will be giving the opportunity for long multi-pitch routes up to the highest level for climbers.
We hope to have the boulder areas fully developed by the end of the year. The routes will come at their own pace. Quickly hopefully. The more people we can get to visit and get their hands dirty opening up new routes the better. We are keen and committed but there's so much to do!
What is your overall plan for developing new routes in the Manali area? Initially we are working on small crags with a view to using them for beginner’s courses and school groups. As I mentioned previously, we have a plan to bring climbing to the local community and generate some enthusiasm amongst the inhabitants of the valley. By developing a variety of easier and enjoyable crags for them to use and join us on, we hope to see some locals taking up the sport and taking it to another level themselves. Alongside the development of these 'school' crags we are also scoping out and cleaning some harder cliffs with views to getting on them and opening up some quality lines. The overall plan is turn the valley into a top quality and extensive climbing destination. The rock is there, it just needs some love and attention!
Would you say that the Kullu valley has the potential to become an international climbing destination?The Kullu Valley has so much potential for every type of climbing. From bouldering in the valley floor to climbing the highest peaks in area, there's more than a lifetime fun. There's the possibility of over 1000 routes and who knows how many boulder problems. This winter was very mild but still there were 100m icefalls further up the valley and the alpine climbing is second to none. From even the 1940's, 50's and 60's it was the mountaineers choice for preparation for the bigger challenges and the tradition is carried on today by the Indian Mountaineering Federation. The whole area is surrounded by mountains that make the eyes water.
What is your opinion on the privatization of climbing routes in the area?The privatization of routes in the area is a contentious issue amongst the local outdoor community. It's a very small community and as such it tends to stick together and help each other out. Restricting certain crags to climbers and then trying to charge for their use is completely against the ethos of that community. The freedom to wander around and find new rock is one of the main reasons we are here. Then, after developing that area, we're excited and keen to get new climbers on there to see what they think. This approach will surely benefit everyone and will make climbing here a much more attractive proposition than heaving your rack across the world only to be told that you have to pay to be shown the crags!
Do you feel that open, public routes would draw more ‘serious’ climbers to the area? If so, how do you feel this will affect local industry?For sure it will bring more climbers to the area. When people hear of amazing new routes being put up in the Himalayas and that there's a local community eager and willing to share them then definitely people will want to visit. As for affecting the local industry, the impact would be highly beneficial. As is obvious to see, the traffic of climbers going through Krabi in Thailand every season has had a major beneficial effect on the local economy. The more an activity is witnessed then the more the interest grows and in a place such as the Kullu Valley there are so many people passing through that it would be impossible to miss. An 'open' climbing destination will benefit everyone I'm sure.
Guidebook in the near future?Give us time ;) There are rough topos and guides lying around my house and office of most of the climbing in the valley along with more topos and maps at friend’s places. Too much time is being spent out getting soil down our sleeves and cow shit in our hair to put it all together but eventually it will be done. There's no possibility of a timescale at the moment but it won't be that far away.
Any sage wisdom to bestow upon climbers dropping by the Valley?For the next two years don't come with expectations of climbing a thousand immaculate routes in a trip, come with the attitude to clean, open and leave your mark.
Fly to India, leave Delhi as soon as you can and head north to the mountains. Bring all the gear you can be asked to carry, including wire brushes, brooms, claws, drills, bolts, glue. Head to Vashisht and ask any of the locals where the climbers are and we'll tell you where to go. Otherwise, check our website for information on climbing in the valley and get in contact.
For more info on High Himalayan Adventure, please visit: highhimalayanadventure.com(currently under construction) Even though we did not have the opportunity to climb there, I would like to drop a word of “thanks” to Gerhard Schaar who helped pioneer 30 new lines in Badami, and 15 new ones in Ramanagaram two local crags outside the steamy city of Bangalore.