A Little History
Mulkila 6517m (21,380ft) is the highest peak in the Lahaul-Spiti province of the Himachel Pradesh state of the Indian Himalayas. The mountain is one of 10 summits of the ‘M’ series – and although the highest at 6517m, it was given the title ‘M4’ when the region was first surveyed. Its immediate neighbours are M5 6428m (nick-named “the Spike” by Tony Smythe – see below) and M6 6278m. The first ascent was by an Anglo-Austrian expedition in September 1939 – just around the time the Second World War broke out. The summit was reached from a high camp at 5800m after “nine hours difficult climbing on difficult rock and ice along the southern ridge” (Himalayan Journal 1940). This expedition climbed several other unclimbed peaks in the area as well as carrying out geographical and botanical research. Their success was marred by tragedy right at the end of the trip, when Hilda Richmond was killed by a falling stone whilst washing in a stream 500m from base camp.
I have some personal knowledge of a small British expedition to the mountain in 1972. This included Tony Smythe, son of the early Everest pioneer Frank Smythe – and John Millar. Together with two Indian climbers they reached some 6400m in a gulley on the treacherous south-west face of the mountain, before turning back due to lack of time and deteriorating weather. I saw slides of the expedition as a school-boy at a talk given by Tony Smythe in 1975 and was kindly shown the same slides again 10 years later before my own attempt on the mountain in 1985.
My own attempt on Mulkila in July 1985 ground to a halt at around 6000m – endeavouring to reach the difficult south ridge of the mountain, by which the original successful ascent was made in 1939. We were defeated by rock hard and very steep ice, the likes of which I haven’t seen before – or since. Crampon points just bounced off, so I resorted to cutting steps up the dreadful stuff – only to break the adze off a brand new Charlet Moser ice-axe.
Southern aspect of Mulkila and M5 (a.k.a. ‘the Spike’) from Camp 2. Mulkilas northern side is formidable, guarded at its base by steep complex glacier.
When to go
Climbing season in Lahaul-Spiti is from June to October. The gate-way to the region is the road over the 4000m Rhotang Pass and prior to June this road may be blocked by snow. The Monsoon (rainy season) works its way up India and reaches the Himalayas July/August. However, north of the Rhotang, the area is in rain shadow and the Monsoon doesn’t normally penetrate – which is the reason why the Chandra Valley is very arid compared to the lush green of the Kulu Valley (and the township of Manali), from where the road over the Rhotang starts. Thus the climbing season continues through the monsoon, which shouldn’t have much influence on conditions. That said however, when I was there in 1985, bits of stray monsoon did actually penetrate and were responsible for some unsettled squally weather we experienced as well as a 3 day storm, which delayed descent after our unsuccessful summit bid.
Looking down on Base Camp from Camp 1 at 5000m. Base Camp on moraines of the northern bank of the Milang Glacier, up at 4400m.
Base Camp is at about 4440m on the loose moraines of the northern bank of the main Milang Glacier, at the point where it is joined by a larger southern and smaller eastern limb. The main bulk of Mulkila rises between the two and viewed from base camp the mountains northern facade is formidable, guarded at its base by steep complex glacier with massive seracs and ice cliffs. All approaches to the mountain that I have been aware of (including my own in 1985) have been via the southern glacier branch, climbing up and round to the back of the mountain, so to speak, as viewed from base camp.
In 1985 we climbed this southern glacier and sited Camp 1 at a small level area at approaching 5000m, at the eastern edge of the glacier. Route finding was a little complex round a multiplicity of exposed crevasses, but gradients not more than about 30 degrees in this section.
From Camp 1, the route ascends round a curve towards the south east and then crosses a large glacial amphitheatre headed in the same direction – across to a narrow ice fall which rises steeply from around 5300 – 5600m. With hidden and exposed crevasses route finding was slightly complex as well as hazardous here – and in 1985 we benefited on descent from having placed a few markers on the route (especially since descent was following a 3 day snow-storm!).
From the top of the ice-fall, the route ascends to the east into a high glacial cwm at around 5800m. This was where we (and others before us, including the Anglo-Austrian first ascentionists and Tony Smythe) sited our Camp 2. The high cwm is a somewhat bleak place, dominated by the forbidding ‘rear’ view of Mulkila – but also M5 (a.k.a ‘the spike’) and M6. In 1985 access to all 3 of these summits involved climbing slopes of steep, in places black, ice. This would vary year to year and it is to be hoped that in some years access would be easier. But in the case of Mulkila, even if the access slopes were more straight forward, the two visible ridges to the summit both present formidable challenges, being composed of steep, loose rock and gendarmes. In 1972, Tony Smythe got to within 400ft of the summit via the face between the two ridges (south west face) – but in 1985, this face was composed of black ice, more loose rock – and it looked to be raked with stone-fall. This face would only be a viable option early season or in years where there was a heavier snow covering.
Camp 2 at 5800m looking down towards M10. Approaching the ice-fall between Camp 1 & 2.
Steep rock hard ice encountered on the attempt to reach south ridge of Mulkila.
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.
Wiki travel page Manali
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.
Crossing the Rhotang Pass on the roof of a bus. At Darcha at the start of the walk-in, a distant Mulkila in the back ground.
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, joining at Khoksar. From here the road follows the floor of the valley north-west for some 40km to Gushal. At this point the Chandra Valley continues on another 40km to Udaipur (start of the walk in to Menthosa) – but the route to Mulkila now breaks off up a side valley heading east, passing after a short distance Keylong, the District HQ. The start of the walk in to Mulkila is another 24km further on at the tiny village of Darcha at 3360m.
From Darcha to Mulkila Base Camp is a distance of around 25km with a height gain of approaching 1100m.
Crossing the Milang River in the early morning Camp on walk-in, close to river confluence.
Initially the walk in heads to the south west into the main Milang valley, passing the tiny village of Yetse and to where the valley divides at a river confluence at around 3500m. Here the route crosses the river to enter the northern branch of the Milang Valley. In 1985 this river crossing was awkward and it was appropriate to camp overnight here in order to be able to negotiate the crossing when water levels were lowest, early in the morning. Undoubtedly river channels and distributaries will have changed over the years and I would suggest seeking local advice on current conditions before setting foot in the valley.
The northern branch of the main Milang valley is like a narrow side valley and heads north-east briefly before curving to the east towards the tongue of the main Milang Glacier. The terrain is increasingly boulder strewn and loose – and care is needed as well as a little stamina, since it is also rising steadily and the altitude will be becoming apparent. In 1985, we came to call this place “the endless valley” since the scale was deceptive, progress was slow anyway due to the terrain plus altitude – and it seemed to take forever to travel any significant distance. Tony Smythe had formed a similar impression when he passed through a decade earlier.
At around 4000m the glacier tongue will be reached. Keeping to the moraines of the northern bank of the glacier the route continues to curve with the valley, such that the orientation eventually is towards the south east. The terrain continues to be loose and unstable as the route rises at a more gradual angle now between 4000m and 4400m. It is worth noting that it was hereabouts that Hilda Richmond was killed by a falling rock as she was washing by a stream, in 1939, on the Anglo-Austrian expedition that made the first ascent of Mulkila.
From here, the main glacier divides into a larger southern and smaller eastern limb. The main bulk of Mulkila rises between the two and presents a formidable bastion, towering overhead. Base Camp is appropriately sited on the moraines of the northern bank of the glacier, just before the division and at about 4440m.
In “the endless valley” at around 4000m, looking back to the river confluence.
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, Mulkila at 6507m is the only one in the area – 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.
In Manali every kind of accommodation is available from camping to hotel. At the tiny village of Darcha accommodation was very basic in 1985: the floor of a mud-walled hut. A brief look on the internet suggests there is more now – from basic camping to guest houses. On the walk in along the Milang Valley, camping is easy and pleasant anywhere along the very flat valley bottom. The main limitation is availability of potable water. There were no facilities at the tiny hamlet of Yertse, which in 1985 was not accessible by road. The logical place to camp is at the river confluence at 3500m close to where the valley divides – in order to be in position to cross the river in the early morning, before water levels rise.
Base Camp at 4440m, is situated on moraine on the northern bank of the Milang Glacier. Water was to be found in small streams running on the surface of the glacier.
On the mountain camps were at close to 5000m on the east bank of the southern branch of the Milang Glacier and then at 5800m close to the source of the glacier, in the high cwm at the southern aspect of Mulkila.
Google Earth image of Mulkila route. Google Earth image of Mulkila and approach.
Himalayan club (journal)
Expedition Medicine article