8/17/2009 to 8/21/2009 | India , Ladakh

Nun, Kun and the Suru Circuit

I arrived in Panikhar from Sanko in time to hike up the ridge behind the village, catching the setting sun illuminate Nun and Kun for my first of what would many impressive views of the twin 7000 m peaks.  I also found a nice family run guesthouse in Panikhar serving up diner, a hot bucket shower, and a room for the bargain price of 150 rupees (~$3-4).

The next day I set off in the morning with the intention of hiking past Parkachik, which is on the other end of the “U” from Panikhar on the U-shaped bend in the Suru River.  Parkachik is connected to Panikhar via a road that follows the river around the “U” and by a hiking trail, via the Parkachik La, which passes over the ridge that divides the two sides of the “U.”  As I hiked over the ridge I was so impressed by the potential for the view, but disappointed by the current cloudy weather that I decided to spend the night on top of the ridge.  I was hoping the weather would improve for what would hopefully be a spectacular sunset and sunrise.  Unfortunately this spur of the moment decision left me without enough water to last through the night, or the rest of the day for that matter.  I was nearly out of water by the time I reached the top of the ridge, and there was no source of water on the ridge. The only option was to hike 2 hours round trip back down to a spring halfway up the slope to get enough water to last me the rest of the day and the night.  Regrettably the weather got worse rather than better, and I spent the early afternoon hunkered down in my tent avoiding the onslaught of hail that was coming down outside.  In the late afternoon it did clear up enough to warrant a hike to the high point along the ridge, but ridge of high peaks surrounding Nun an Kun did not clear completely.  My conciliation was that the at least the peak of Nun itself cleared in addition to an impressive view back down the Suru Valley towards Panikhar, but the view was a shadow of what it might have been.  Morning was a disappointment as well and I scrapped my plans for a morning ridge walk and headed down towards Parkachik instead.

The villages in the area are very picturesque from a distance with fields surrounding the grey flat roofed dwellings clustered together around the village mosque, but up close I was turned off by the “one-pen-idice” that has infected them.  Unfortunately being on the route between Zanskar and Leh they get enough jeep tourists passing through to create all the negatives that come with tourism without any of the financial benefits.  Most people who pass through rarely spend more time than it takes to gaze at the mountains, tour a village or two, and apparently throw out a few pens before heading on to Zanskar.  These Muslim villages were much poorer than there Buddhist neighbors around Leh and in Zanskar.  The parents don’t help either, holding up kids who can’t even talk yet saying “one pen, one biscuit” while pointing at their bewildered child.  If I saw someone giving out pens I might have taken a swing at them, fortunately I didn’t, or any other tourist for that matter.

Working off the Leoman series Indian Himalaya Map of the Kargil region, generally the best maps for trekking I’ve found in India (which is not saying a lot), there was suppose to be a trail that followed the side the Parkachik glacier.  There was no such trail.  I’m waiting for the day when India realizes that in addition to developing nuclear weapons Pakistan and China have most likely mastered the much simpler tasks of map making and high resolution satellite imagery, so that only making only lousy maps available under the guise of national security concerns is just stupid.   But then again they haven’t figured out that banning photography of Howrah Bridge makes pretty much no sense when you can search google images and get over a 1000 hits of previously taken images of the bridge. Forgive my rant.  Anyway the lack of a trail didn’t deter me.  Following herders’ trails at times and choosing my own way at others, I made my way up the valley.  I hiked up a very steep grassy slope to the top of the ridge that separated the Suru valley from the flow of the Parkachik Glacier.  Atop this ridge I managed to find an amazing campsite amidst wildflowers with a jaw-dropping view over Parkachik glacier towards the icefalls that descend from Nun’s north face in one direction, and down the Suru Valley in the other.  Again there was no water, but this time I had stocked up in anticipation of the possibility.  Unfortunately the weather was still not cooperating and I could not even see the 7000 m mountain that was so near.  I went to sleep without ever seen the full grandeur of the view that undoubtedly surrounded me.  The next morning I awoke to clear skies and an unrivaled view of the 7000 m peak of Nun. I was not yet content I wanted to stand at the base of this awesome peak.  I decided to hike further up the valley from my campsite.  Leaving most of my gear at my camp I walked along the edge of the glacier (still no trail).  It was tough going climbing over the loose rocks and debris that sat on top of the ice, but it was the safest option.  The debris had also filled up the large crevasses which were visible towards the center.  I preferred to risk a turned ankle over a slip into the abyss below the glacier.   After my excursion I returned to the campsite and packed up.  My plan was to continue to traverse the ridge I was on with the hope of eventually meeting up with the trail from Tongol (the village at the bend in the U) to the traditional base camp on the western side of Nun.  The problem was there was no trail for this route.  On my morning excursion to the northern base of Nun I had noted that the glacier side of the ridge was blocked by a large cliff and ice fall.   If I was to reach the western side of the mountain, I would have to traverse around the Suru side of the ridge.  To add to my difficulties I was low on both water and food.  My food stocks were down to a 1/3 container of peanut butter, two small candy bars, and half a pound of a homemade trail mix of nuts, raisins and musely.  This would have to last me for at least 4 more meals.  As I descended back down the Suru Vally side of the ridge, to traverse around to the next side valley, I wondered what I would do about water.  The sky was clear, the sun was hot, and I had just a few sips left in my water bottle.  The nearest water I could see, a stream descending from the ridge, looked at least 2 hours away.  An even more pressing concern was the route down.  The only feasible route was very steep and forcing constant concentration.  At one point I thought I was stuck reaching a drop that seemed initially impassable without the aid of ropes and harnesses.  I really wanted to avoid having to hike all the way back up without water to find another way down. Fortunately I managed to find a point where I could get around the steep cliff.  I climbed down to one side eventually reaching a point that only required me to scale down about an 8 foot rock face. A climb that despite its short length was still impossible while carrying a heavily loaded backpack.  I set my pack on a rock ledge above the face with the strap hanging over the edge and climbed down the shear face.  Once down I reached back up reached back up and grabbed my bag and continued down.

I had just made it safely out of the rock shoot, and was thanking my lucky stars I didn’t get stuck and have to climb back out the way I had gone down or slip into serious injury, when another of my prayers were answered.  I ran into a family that was out collecting branches from a small scrub bush which grew on the side of the mountain for firewood.  They offered me water, some Ladakhi bread with boiled spinach and salt tea with tsampa.  Ordinarily not my favorite meal but under the circumstances it was a heaven sent feast, solving both my food and my water problems.

I traversed to the next valley but was then forced again to climb up a very seep grassy slope with no trail.  The main trail to Nun base camp lay on the other side of an impassable cascading river, my only choice was to head further up stream and hope for a easier place to ford the river.  I found myself in the same situation I had been the previous day.

It was late in the day, I was tired, and I was climbing up a very steep slope not sure of what lie ahead.  As I climbed, I remember thinking there better be either an amazing view at the top of this, or a great grassy meadow with a spring right next to it, preferably both.  When I reached the top just before sunset, to my jubilation it was both.  What lay before me was a beautiful soft grassy wildflower strewn meadow crisscrossed by a small stream that emerged from a nearby spring with crisp clear great tasting water.  Further down the valley a row of jagged snowy peaks provided a picture perfect backdrop to this pleasant oasis.

The following day I woke at sunrise to hike to Nun base camp, and was thankful for the second morning in a row with clear skies.  I hiked passed the base camp and an upper camp until my only options were to navigate a crevasse ridden glacier, climb a shear 50 foot rock face, or head back down.  Yes, I choose the latter option, and headed back down.  Had I not, I probably wouldn’t be writing this either being a splattered stain on some rocks, or a frozen corpse at the bottom of a crevasse.  Fortunately I do know my limits, even if I like to test them at times.  It started to snow as I began to head back, but a least the weather gods were nice enough to let me get my pictures first this time.  I had one last task on my mind as I hiked down along the right bank of the river.  I had to find a place to cross the river in order to reach the trail down to Tangol.  The thought of finally hiking on a trail again after a day an a half of cross-country trekking was tantalizing.  I scouted the river for the best slowest and widest place to cross.  At most places it was swifter and deeper than I preferred, but I managed to find a place that looked crossable.  Assuming I would fall, I repacked my stuff so that stuff I couldn’t get wet (camera, lenses, passport), wouldn’t.  Then I stripped down to my underwear, and crossed the icy river.  The crossing wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, and I made it across without falling in the very cold water.  I had chosen a good spot to cross and the water only came up to slightly above my knees.  The main issue was the cold; my feet were instantly numb from the stinging cold water.  Fortunately the snow flurries had passed and the sun had reappeared.  Having crossed successfully I thawed my feet for a few minutes in the intense high altitude sun.  Tired and hungry, I had planned on staying at Tongol, but when I arrived I learned there was no bus the next day to Kargil from there.  I would have to go to Panikhar to catch a bus anyway. Since I didn’t find any particularly pleasant accommodation options in Tongol anyway, I decided to continue the two more hours along the road back to Panikhar to the place I had stayed before.  I was now getting very hungry as well as tired.  I had the last remaining handful of nuts and raisins for my lunch, and started walking down the road.  I was hoping to hitch a ride, but I didn’t get one, and had to walk the full distance to Panikhar.  I did make it to Panikhar before dark, just barely.  After devouring a package of biscuits, two juices, and a candy bar at the local shop in Panikhar, I put down three plates of rice, vegetables, and dhal, for dinner at the guesthouse.  I had a very good night’s rest.  My Suru Valley adventure was over.

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