At 6440m (21,140ft) Menthosa is the 2nd highest summit in the Lahaul-Spiti Province of the State of Himachel Pradesh in Northern India. (Highest summit is Mulkila 6517m – 80km further to the southeast – page to follow). It was first climbed in 1970 by a British Service Team led by Capt S. Bembrose. Royal Marine Lt S. Rae and R.E.M.E Capt R. Cape were the only two members of the team to reach the summit.
The mountain had been reconnoitred the year before by an Anglo-Indian expedition co-led by Dave Challis, who subsequently became my mentor so far as mountains are concerned. Dave led another and very large British expedition to the area in 1978 composed of staff and students from Kings School Ely. They climbed 11 peaks – including making a 2nd ascent of Menthosa.
Dave himself wasn’t with the team that made this ascent – and he returned to the area for a 3rd time in 1983, hoping to fulfil his personal ambition to summit. This was a much smaller team composed of himself as leader, Barry & Rob White – and myself, aged 22, as newly qualified ‘climbing doctor’ (thankfully nobody was ill!).
Barry & Rob dropped out due to difficulties acclimatising, having reached around 5250m. After a few days of bad weather and having had to move Camp 1 to a more optimum position on the Urgos Pass, Dave and I set out to make a single upward push for the summit. We camped at 5650m and then at 6000m before making our summit bid. Conditions at last were good and we reached a high point of around 6250m on the summit ridge. But sadly it was not to be: wearing my new ‘1st generation’ double plastics, I was unable to warm my feet. With frostbite threatening and believing we still had over 300m of ascent Dave insisted on retreat. We were just barely acclimatised to the altitude and he felt not unreasonably that we would take several hours more to reach the summit – by which time I may have suffered serious damage. In the event I suffered some minor damage – but having later established that we were much closer to the summit than we had thought, it still rankles 28 years later that we hadn’t pushed on.
Over the years Menthosa has had a fair number of further successful ascents, but a few failures too. All of the ascents I have heard of have been via the original route – from the Miyah Nullah and via Urgos pass at 5100m. Undoubtedly other routes are possible – but may be more difficult both in terms of access and technical difficulty.
Tragically Dave Challis died back in the mid 1990’s.
Base Camp looking back towards mountains on the other side of the Miyah Nullah.
Base Camp with Menthosa in background
The walk in along the Miyah Nullah is exceptionally pretty and should take 2 days if partially acclimatised and 3 days if not – with an altitude gain from around 2600m to 4400m. The Base Camp is in a delightful location set on grass, next to a stream and in the narrow ablation valley between lateral moraine of the north bank of the main glacier and steep mountainside – and finally; with the commanding view of the objective towering overhead.
From base camp the route continues along the northern bank of the glacier and then climbs steep slopes up to the Urgos Pass at around 5100m. In 1983 it was possible to ascend the glacier or the shaley slopes to the side. Note that the pass is divided by a 5250m ‘hump’ – and it is desirable to site Camp 1 on the southwest ‘Menthosa side’ of this hump… in poor visibility in 1983, we pitched on the wrong side – and were then faced with the tedious business of moving the camp when the clouds lifted!
From the Urgos Pass, the route ascends initially gradually steepening slopes culminating in an abrupt wide snowy bulge on north east flank. In 1983 this provided a few pitches of snow angled at 50-55 degrees. The gradient then relented, but there were a few large crevasses to contend with at the transition, in one of which we situated Camp 2 at around 5650m. Again in 1983, to exit this area and reach a wide glaciated plateau at the foot of the summit cone, there was one further short pitch of steep climbing at around 60 degrees
Camp 3, at 6000m.
Camp 2 at 5650m with steep exit behind.
Camp 1 at Urgos Pass at 5100m – steep slopes of the east flank in the background.
The glaciated ‘plateau’ area rises at a gentle gradient towards the east ridge of Menthosa and the summit cone. At around 6000m there is a small level area, where in 1983 we sited Camp 3. The setting of this camp is extraordinarily dramatic – with the summit cone of Menthosa in one direction and a feast of remote 5-6000m peaks in the other, stretching to a very distant horizon. As I recall in the very furthest distance there stood two particularly high peaks, which I suspect may have been the two seven thousanders Nun and Kun.
Dave Challis and the view at Camp 3
From Camp 3 there was an apparent choice of routes: facing the summit cone, it would be possible to angle right and reach a northern approach to the summit. But this have involved dipping into a moderately crevassed zone under seracs, so the obvious choice was to carry on towards the crest of the east ridge, joining it at around 6200m at the base of a hump on the ridge, similar to the ‘Grande Bosse’ close to the summit of Mont Blanc.
In 1983 surmounting this ‘Grande Bosse’ would have involved 1-2 pitches of steepish ice, before the gradient relented briefly – before rising for the final crest to the summit. In the event my feet were becoming frost nipped in my ‘1st generation’ double plastics – and sadly we turned back just part way up the 1st pitch of the ‘Bosse’.
NOTE: I have described this route as it was in 1983. Given that the entire route between the Urgos Col and the crest of the summit ridge is glaciated terrain, considerable variations are likely year to year. If you want more up to date information I recommend a trawl through The Himalayan Journal (see link below), which seems to give the most up to date accounts of recent attempts.
Dave Challis breaking the trail towards the ‘Grande Bosse’ and summit at about 6100m.
Judging from conditions I experienced in 1983, I would suggest the European Alpine grade of ‘Assez Difficile’ – or ‘more difficult’ – with the occasional fairly sustained snow/ice at 40-50 degrees and the odd short section a little steeper. Glacier conditions were not difficult – but this may vary considerably year to year. Altitude and cold are additional major factors. UIAA guidelines should be followed with respect to acclimatisation to altitude (see links below to UIAA website or my article on expedition medicine). In July 1983 we encountered temperatures likely in the minus 20’s centigrade above 6000m.
Gaining crest of the ridge at around 6200m looking back towards the high camp.
Steep climbing on the ‘Grande Bosse’ at over 6200m.
Steep climbing at around 5500m on east flank above Urgos Pass
The climbing season is May – September, the region being in rain shadow and not normally subject to monsoonal influences.
For most, the journey in India would start in Delhi. The next objective is Manali, the alpine resort town in the Kulu Valley, some 520km from Delhi by road. Manali is easily accessible from Delhi by rail and air as well as road. Most doing the journey would travel by bus, which as well as being relatively cheap, provides a unique opportunity to see something of India – and the extraordinary transition from endless northern plains to foothills and finally the mighty Himalayas.
Manali is a bustling, noisy Himalayan community, by all appearances like a bit of Tibet transplanted into a valley in the Swiss Alps. It is a great place to stop for a day or two just soaking up the atmosphere – or to make last minute purchases and arrangements.
From Manali, the road climbs 2000m to cross the 4000m Rhotang Pass, then drops 1400m in a series of switch-backs down to the arid Chandra valley. The start of the walk in is the village of Udhaipur 2650m and about 90km from the bottom of the pass heading northwest up the valley. Buses travel this route. Alternatively taxis can be hired in Manali. The stark contrast between the Chandra Valley and that of Kulu, just 50km away, is very apparent. There are no pine clad slopes redolent of Switzerland here – just precipitous slopes of shale and gravel stretching up miles into the sky – and with the odd tantalising glimpse of a snowy peak far above. The terrain is inhospitable – and the road vulnerable to landslides.
Udhaipur is a bit of an Oasis.
Bus in the arid Chandra Valley.
Udhaipur however is a bit of an oasis. Due to a combination of lowish altitude and irrigation, the little township is green and surrounded by a few trees. There are guest houses and a couple of hotels nowadays. If not arranged in Manali, it ought to be possible to arrange for portering here.
From Udhaipur the route is now on foot – and enters the beautiful Miyah Nullah, via a short section of gorge. The Miyah Nullah is a long fairly straight valley, slowly rising to 3250m at the hamlet of Urgus, over a distance of about 20km. There is an intermediate tiny village at Chamrat 2950m about half way. The terrain is easy and pleasant – and thanks to local irrigation, much more vegetated and green than most other parts of the region. From another village of Urgos, the route leaves the main valley heading northwest up a side valley – and climbing over 1000m up to base camp.
Dave Challis in the gorge at the entrance to the Miyah Nullah
It is essential to visit the website of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) – see link below.
All peaks of over 6000m and many 5000m peaks require application for a permit and payment of a peak fee. In addition, most expeditions to these peaks require the presence of an Indian Liaison Officer (LO), who has to be both equipped – and insured. Any porters hired require certain equipment – in addition to insurance. Administration for all these requirements is through the IMF.
Climbing Himalayan peaks is more complex and potentially more expensive than climbing Andean ones!
At the current time Peak Fees for summits of less than 6500m are of the order of US$500 for two, US$200 each for expeditions of 3-7 persons. As for peaks of over 6500m, the Lahaul-Spiti area has just the one; Mulkila at 6507m – and fees are US$700 for two, US$300 per person for an expedition of 3-7 persons. These fees do not include LO/porter insurance and equipment. If you want to climb more than one mountain, then I understand each additional peak fee is reduced by 50%.
IMF registered tour operators: a number of companies are listed on the IMF website. These can provide anything from all included guided expeditions, to ‘climber assist’ type services, tailored to individual requirements – providing help with such as application formalities, travel arrangements, portering – and advice. In the External Links section below I have provided the link to just one travel operator ‘Ibex Expeditions’ – which I used both in 1983 and 1985 – and is still going strong under the same director, Mr Mandip Singh Soin! Mandip provided a great service over 25 years ago and from the persistence and expansion of his organisation, I have every reason to suppose he is still doing the same now.
Camping is a straight forward matter in the Miyah Nullah. In 1983 we camped at the village of Chamrat, in the grounds of the local school and then bivvied half way between the final village at Urgos and Base Camp, in order to acclimatise better.
Base Camp was situated at around 4400m and then camps on the mountain: Camp 1 at 5100m on the Urgos Pass; Camp 2 at 5650m on the north-east flank of Menthosa; finally Camp 3 at 6000m, about 200m below the crest of the east ridge.