Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Skiing in the Himalayas!

Whew, what an excellent few days. With the ski trip keeping me outdoors and away from my computer I'm still a little behind on the blog, but I am trying to catch up. As I write this I am actually sitting in Kathmandu. The ride out of Manali was interesting and I met a local guy who I stayed with before flying to Nepal, but you can read about all that in my next post, for now, mountains!

At 8am I went to the Old Manali branch of the Himalayan Extreme Center and it was there that I met one of the two other people going on the trip, Niklas from Germany. We hopped in a taxi and headed over to the other branch of the shop on the other side of the valley, because that is where the third member of the group was, Sylvain from France, all the gear and the route out of town.

We headed up the valley towards Rohtang Pass which is also the way to the Solang Nullah ski area, what I believe is one of the only two in India. I thought briefly about giving it a try but obviously this trip was going to be better than anything the ski area had to offer, with its short and dirty slope and a single gondola and rope-tow. On the way up you pass all these tiny tin shacks that are renting skis and ski cloths to Indians. It was pretty hilarious seeing signs for 'snow dress on rent' and seeing rows upon rows of old straight-skis and a mixture of both neon and fur one-piece snow suits that were probably being used in America circa 1982.

Once we got out of town we started heading up the snowy switchback road that was only now being opened. I guess it had been an unusually strong winter and the road was still being dug out by hand in some places. We got stuck once, but were easily freed and sent on our way in short order.

Not too much further we reached a point in the road where we unloaded all our gear and began to hike to what would be our camp. Niklas is the one in white, in red is our guide Raju and in the purple is Sylvain. I was skiing so I put skins on and began hiking, the other two were snowboarding so they made the hike in snowshoes. Because it is an all included outing, we had a few porters carrying all the equipment up to base camp, which they did by strapping metal boxes to their heads and walking up in rubber boots.

After a rather brief hike, we stopped at where camp would be made, dropped what few extra bits we were actually carrying ourselves and began to hike up for our first run. We hiked up, reaching better views with every step, for about two and a half hours. I forgot all the elevations of this, but the town of Manali itself is at 2050 meters, to give some reference.

Everywhere you look it is amazing mountains and untouched snow. We hiked up for about two and a half hours and I felt great, totally pumped to be on some real snow, in some real mountains, with skis on my feet! Sunny, blue skies, fresh air, what more can you ask for?

And a shot of me in the amazing surroundings. This is literally my first time on skis since last winter, I was a little worried about how rusty I'd be, but I was defiantly caught up in the excitement of the moment and within three or four turns from the top I was in a tuck and catching air off bumps!

The conditions were very much like spring skiing back home, only with much bigger mountains and fewer trees. I think the last time the area saw fresh snow was maybe a week or two ago so it was far from powder, but after hiking up slightly bumpy and sun-cupped frozen snow on the way up, by the return trip it was soft enough to make some nice turns in. Of course the weather was perfect, if I wasn't worried about sunburn I'd have been wearing a t-shirt. I put SPF 50 on three times, and chapstick with sunscreen on my lips, but my lips still got burned a bit, and the inside of my nose got sunburned. Arrgh!

Either way the skiing was huge fun, and it was a little hard for me to believe that here I was making first tracks in the freaking HIMALAYAS!

By about 3pm we were back from our short little hike and ski, and we returned to the setup camp, with the big cook tent and two done tents for the three of us. Hot tea was brought out to us as we arrived, and we moved into our tents, then decided what to do with the rest of the day.

The obvious thing to do was build a jump on the hill above the camp! This lead to more than a few wipe-outs at the beginning, but once we had the angle of the ramp fixed and the landing area had gotten beaten in a bit we were all flying through the air. Eventually, we all got tired and decided best not to hurt ourselves before tomorrow anyways, and called it a day.

Our two sleeping tents as the sun goes down.

Dinner in the evening was very good: rice, beans, chicken, mixed veggies, soup and tea. We all sat crammed in the cook tent eating our fill, chatting, looking at pictures and called it an early night since we had a big day ahead of us. I woke up once at night to pee, and the moon and the stairs were amazing. If I wasn't cold and if I didn't have a long day ahead, I would have loved to sit out and stare at the sky for a good while.

Another perfect day in the mountains, not a single cloud and the moon still high above in the sky. Naturally, we were woken in the morning by cups of hot tea brought to our tents.

The morning was fairly relaxed, waking up around 7:15 and starting breakfast by about 7:45. Breakfast started with corn flakes and hot milk (and tea of course) to start, then as we ate that we were served toast, omelets and fruit. Yes, we were eating pretty good on this trip.

Continuing with our relaxed pace we began our long hike up to the top just after 9am. On the hike were the three of us travelers, two guides and one dog.

The pace was slower than I'm used to going with my dad when we back country ski (!) but given our time-frame, the elevation and the group it was a fine pace. See that little point at the top towards the middle? That is the summit we are headed for. It doesn't look all that far away, but it will be another four hours before we reach it!

Looking down at the rest of the group and the ever changing view as we continued our hike up.

At 2:30 we stopped for lunch. Or rather, Raju and I stopped and waited for Sylvain and Niklas to catch up, haha. They were slowing down by this point and surprisingly I felt great. I say I was surprised because I was a little sick before starting the tip and was unsure of how I'd do, but as always everything worked out and I felt fantastic. Lunch was a cheese and veggie sandwich, boiled eggs, fruit, juice and some chocolate.

After lunch we all kept hiking up, but in the end only Raju and I made it to the summit, at around 4700m (15,420 feet!!) and at about 4:15pm. It is the highest elevation I've ever been at, the previous being Mt Rainiers 14,411 back home, and I was surprised at how little I felt the altitude. I had a bit of a headache which was probably caused by it, but the air didn't feel as thin as I expected or remembered from Rainier.

A little video from the top to give a feel of the place.

Of course the views from the top were stunning, snow capped mountains in every direction, some over 6000m in height.

And looking the other direction. Man, this felt like home up in the Cascades, haha.

Having reached the top, that only left one thing to do, ski from our 15,000 foot elevation all the way back down to base camp!! What this meant was making huge turns in massive untouched snow basins all the way down. Occasionally there were nice little lips and bumps to jump, but it was mostly wide open spaces.

This little section through a stand of birch was the nicest snow on the whole way down. Nice enough that Sylvain I guess decided to roll and take a face full of it, haha!

The hike up took a bit over 7 hours, riding back down took around 40 minutes when you include stopping and waiting for each other. A lot of work for a rather short amount of riding, but 100% worth it, the hike up only makes the ride back down better!

As we returned to camp, we were all very tired and simply wanted to eat and go to bed. As always tea was waiting for us, and shortly after hot soup was in our hands and dinner was cooking. Dinner for the night was potatoes and veggies, and pasta with a very 'Indian-style' red sauce. Tasty. And as last night, we were given hot water bottles to sleep with, and sent to bed after a long day on the snow.

In the morning, we went over the same routine, waking with tea, eating omelets, and heading off for our third and last ski of the outing. We hiked for about three hours past where we had gone the first day, and took a lunch break.

The mornings up here are rather windy, which made for some fairly cold walking if you were not dressed properly. Despite the sun and fairly mild temperatures the wind made it cold, especially on my head and ears. Luckily I had bought my new rabbit fur hat, and using the ear flaps was kept perfectly comfortable!

We had another good ski down on both new slopes and slopes we had skied down the previous days, and I was just trying to make the most of my limited time skiing this winter.

In the early afternoon we arrived back in camp where another group was waiting. Sorry guys we already put turns in all the fresh slopes, better luck next time! Haha, nah. They were cool and I'm sure they will have a great time, but there is really something special about making turns on a fresh slope which they won't get to see as much as we did.

At camp, we packed up our bags, and rode back down through the trees, in what was certainly the best ride of the outing, back to the road where the van would pick us up. Always good to end on a high note!

After driving back down the mountain-side, into the valley and back to the town of Manali I returned to the same guest house, and let my things explode all over the room. It was time to do some organizing and checking up on all my things before leaving, and I quickly realized most of my cloths were dirty but I had no time to do wash! Oh well... I celebrated that night with a beer, a large dinner and even a desert (which I almost never buy).

All in all, a fantastic outing, right up there with the best things I have done on this trip no doubt. Everything was well run, the weather was perfect, the skiing was good, and it just went wonderful to be in the mountains, doing something I love.

Next up, I have to take an overnight bus from Manali to Delhi, spend a day in Delhi, and then fly to Kathmandu, Nepal!