Summer Splitboarding the Indian Trans-Himalayas
A Glimpse of the Karakoram Range
Words: Simone Le Grand
The land of high passes (also called Little Tibet) fascinated me straight away when I first visited Ladakh and Zanskar for trekking in 2013. I was sure to return one day. The stunning landscapes, well-preserved culture, spirit and monasteries, and friendly, open and humble people had immediately a strong attraction on me. This unique and still-remote place had caught my attention.
On one of my first treks back then, when climbing over a very remote pass from Sabu to Digar, I came closer to the impressive Karakoram range. The path from Sabu, a village close from Leh leading to Nubra Valley, used to be the official way for trading (the well-known silk road) until they started building a road over Kardung La which is today the highest motorable pass in India, 5302m. Since then, it seems as if Digar La (La means pass) has been forgotten.
The breathtaking mountains made me think of my Karakoram splitboard bindings. Also it made me more aware to look at the many peaks and faces around me in a different way. How amazing would it be to shred these faces when there would be winter and they would be covered in snow? But to my disappointment the villagers said that there is not enough snow in winter to ski on. No one would ski here or come along to do so, and above all, winter would be extremely cold. So I immediately forgot about the idea to come back here in winter time, let alone with my splitboard.
It took me 5 years to finally come back here again, to the northernmost region in the indian Trans – Himalayas. Again in summertime (early june 2018) but this time with my splitboard, a little more experience in mountaineering and the dream of aiming for higher peaks and getting another high altitude challenge.
I never thought this would be possible, but when connecting with Luke Smithwick from Himalayan Alpine Guides, he convinced me to join for an adventure – exploring the Kang Yatse Massif with splitboard and skis and riding some first descents from high peaks.
I guess not many skiers and splitboarders have made their way here so far, which is reasonable, as earning the turn is especially hard here. A great effort, a long journey, very long access, patience, time and acclimatization is needed to ride here.
Ladakh deserves its name; it literally means “the land of high passes”. A tibetan proverb says: If the valley is reached by a high pass, only the best of friends and worst of enemies are its visitors. So we came, of course as friends and also as friends of skiing and splitboarding. The shared passion brought us here together for an expedition to ride in Ladakh and find some peaks which have never been skied yet.
So there we were. At the beginning of our journey to the Kang Yatse Massif. All of our gear ready and packed on horses. Skis, splitboard, tents, toothbrush, food – a lot of food as there is no possibility to get something on the way. Neither chocolate, power, reception nor rescue.
Walking several days in a desert-like surrounding, we were still far away from any snow. The first few days the snow could not even be seen from the distance. Of course we could have shortened the expedition by many days to get to one of the basecamps straight away but our bodies had to get slowly acclimated to the high altitude.
Hiking through the valley of Markah, from Chilling to Nimaling was therefore perfect. It was very quiet this time of the year. The path has a long history and a lot of the Ladakhis’ well-preserved cultural heritage to offer. Among passing a few villages one comes along stupas, monasteries and, remarkably, a lot of Mani Walls (prayer walls). Those are passed clockwise while chanting a mantra, mostly „Om Mani Padme Hum“ and one, also the animals, will be rewarded with good luck.
The villagers living here are very tough people. It is impressive how they make a living in the harsh conditions this area has to offer. Only rarely and very little does the rain fall. It’s a very dry climate with hard, very cold winters. It has extremely hot but short summers. Of course, all of this is at a very high altitude. The few villages are far away from everything, without access to power let alone streets, healthcare or schools.
By realizing this it felt out of place to be here for pleasure, exploring and splitboarding. But then, on the other hand, we are also supporting the local people, as tourism is an important income to many of the people here. And we left no waste but our footprints and tracks in the snow.
The villagers are always very welcoming and friendly – also very curious what we were going to do with that gear. Those skis and the splitboard, carried by one of the horses– were probably the first they’d ever seen.
While walking, we often shared the path with herdsmen. They were on their way with their animals to find better grass in a different area. Some of the donkeys, horses, goats, sheep or cows were just born a few days ago, still tiny and insecure on their legs. Out there we also spotted some wild Tibetan donkeys, a fox and many different birds and some impressive huge eagles, marmots, pikas and blue sheep hanging in the steep rocky walls.
We got to see, at least from far away, the higher mountains covered with glaciers, ice and snow. It finally felt like it made sense to have all the gear with us and to have the goal we had.
But there was still quite a long way to go. And to be honest – once in a while I asked myself what I was thinking I am going to do here. Coming from a country with countless peaks and lots of snow and glaciers. Now walking in Ladakh through the very dry valley to get a few runs down form a high peak – would it finally make some sense?
After two more days of trekking, we arrived at the base camp of Reponi Mallai Ri 1. A snowstorm including thunder and lightning welcomed us to 5500 meters. After quickly pitching tents and laying down, waiting for the storm to pass, the snow drizzling on the roof, hoping everything is going to stay dry – including myself– I thought, “Gosh, what madness made me come here.”
I guess from madness to passion there is a fine line, and passion has an endless and very strong power.
Finally it was time to get the dust removed from my board, taking it for a walk over the glacier. Skinning up on this high altitude, let alone bootpacking and climbing over loose rocks until finally reaching the top, is exhausting. On top of Reponi Mallai Ri 1, at 6100 m, one gets an incredible, humble feeling from having been able to reach this very remote and high peak. Never has earning the turn been so hard but also so valued. I have never had to grasp for air so much, even on the way down!
After having hung up some prayer flags on the summit it was finally time to ride down. How exciting to ride in the Himalayas!
We made some first lines down Reponi Mallai Ri (Ri meaning mountain). Not only that, but also some first descents from a rather unknown peak. To get a first descent was an exciting new feeling for me.
The next days we had some snowy weather. It was a winter feeling in June. I would not mind snow. Not at all– how would I! But when sleeping in a tiny tent it‘s a different story. Also, it would be nice to be able to climb another summit and therefore stable weather is required.
I need to admit that I had a few moments leaving my comfort zone during this trip. Due to the unstable weather, the snow fall and sleeping on a high altitude in the very cold, I asked myself how I got myself into this.
But then I reminded myself that the best memories captured are often the ones where I have been out of my comfort zone. Those kind of moments, one does not forget. They stay in the heart and I believe they form one’s personality. In the end, all you really have is memories.
For the following two days we moved to another beautifully located basecamp. It was snowing again, making everything look really nice with a little sugar on top. The weather here changes quickly. By the time the horses arrived with our equipment, the sun was shining again.
Early in the morning we started another tour to another unknown 6000m peak. The beginning was hard: carrying the gear again over many loose rocks until we finally had snow under our feet and could start skinning. We followed some fox tracks up to the ridge where a wonderful scenery opened up in front of us.
Earning the turn was again challenging at this altitude, and again it was long and steep boot packing to the top- but we were rewarded with an amazing view from the summit of Shaldoe Ri. There it was again: the Karakoram range. Seen from the distance but still very clear with its impressive, high and white peaks! For a mountain lover like me, this was really a special moment. To see some of the highest peaks in the Himalayas, even from the distance was an indescribable feeling. We enjoyed a steep and therefore really nice descent in perfect spring snow conditions. We could ride to the very end of the glacier. From there it took time to get back to the basecamp but the scenery of the turquoise lake and the glacier itself payed off, making the journey worthwhile.
The following day I had to learn to listen to my body, say no and return to the basecamp earlier than I would have loved to. The goal was to reach another 6000 m peak but my body felt so bad. I felt ill and without power. I had to accept that it was time to stop and go back. It was of no help that my mind is usually very strong– stronger than my body. This time my body told me where to go. At least I made it up to the glacier and saw another beautiful valley and an impressive glacier.
On the way down I started to think about what it is– what makes me want to go high? Reaching peaks? Exploring? Is it the feeling one gets on the top? That breathtaking view which surprises you when you are finally up there and watch down the other valley? A view unfolding endless more mountain peaks; more possibilities what to explore next?
Is it to test and observe the boarder of ones capacity? What one is able to do with its own power? From my experience we are mostly stronger than we think we are. If the motivation is there and the mind and will is strong, I believe we are able to reach most of ot our goals and dreams.
I am very happy and grateful that my body and I have been able to reach some 6000m peaks with the extra weight of a splitboard on the back and all the gear which was needed to climb. I had my doubts before the trip whether I would be able to do this. I had climbed other 6000 m peaks before, but only without my board. And that was challenging enough already.
Every one of us returned safe and climbed successfully at least two high peaks. We all had some great fun riding, surrounded by the most amazing Himalayan scenery. There were no incidents, no broken equipment or legs. Time to cheer with a beer I would say – and about time for a hot shower!
Everyone from the expedition left Leh (main city in Ladakh) except me. I still have some more months here to explore more peaks and areas by foot, and maybe even again on my board.
In the meantime I met many locals and guides. When telling them about our adventure, they confirmed that there were only very few people skiing and touring here. They also told me that the peaks we reached did not even have names until recently, and there are still many more peaks out there without a name.
I realized how unimportant the name of a peak is, how high one climbs, whether it‘s first line or first decent, or in what country I am riding. It is more about who you share your day with– how much fun you have. Snowboarding feels always great, whether I am here, at home, or elsewhere. I also realized how many friends I made due to my passion, how many places I have visited that I would not have seen if it weren’t for snowboarding. The passion for snowboarding and the mountains opened many doors for me and I am excited for every other place, moment and person I will meet on my way. I wonder where it is leading me to next.