Saturday, April 23, 2011

Hipti La? Not Possible

24 feet is the distance at which, if a human were to fall, they would have a fifty percent chance of survival. I mulled over this fact as I took a break to catch my breath and peer down to Hipti, a town maybe 2,400ft bellow. Then I picked up a numb foot and drove it into the snowy slope ahead of me, slowly making my way across the expansive bowl which separates the Mangyu la (a 14,000ft pass) from the Hipti la (another 14,000 ft pass). It was day two on a five day trek from Alchi to Lama yuru.

Mike, my trekking partner, was a 43 year young sailor, surfer and music enthusiast from Philly. He carried in his backpack: a sat phone, GPS, topo maps, cliff bars, wet wipes, etc. I carried: a non-functioning water purifier (you did test it before we started right?) and several novels. But I spoke 30 words of Ladakhi, so I considered it an even partnership.

The trip began in Alchi, a tiny village on the banks of the Indus dotted with 11th century Buddhist temples and the pinkish-white blossoms of apricot trees in full bloom.


The man who ran our homestay smiled patiently and with a dismissing wave, shook his head “Mangyu la, Hipti La, not possible”. In our defense, this is the kind of pittying, you-helpless-foreigner reply that often greets such modest and wholly accomplishable tasks such as walking into town (not possible), digging a hole (not possible), or doing anything for yourself ( definitely not possible). In retrospect, I wish he had jumped to his feet, pointed his finger at us ominously, and declared in a mysteriously amplified vibrato “You are idiots! If you attempt such a feat of ignorant naivate, your future holds naught but endless scree slopes and icy butresses, each foot-fall will be more uncertain than the last, your bones will ache and your head will spin, you will go through many high calorie energy bars without reaping sustained levels of capability so advertised on the packaging! DOOM, DOOM, DOOOOOOOOMMMM!!!!”. But he didn’t…and so the next morning we set off bright and early for Mangyu.

At about 12,000 feet or so, Mike and I found a tiny spring, sending forth what we assumed was a miniature stream of pure Himalayan glacier melt. Pleased with our good luck, we filled our water bottles, and despite the out of order water purifier, toasted to the fresh taste of clear clean mountain waters. Just around the next bend we discovered the partially buried pipe from which our “mountain spring” had flowed out through a leak. When we reached the opening of the pipe, two dzhos (half cow half yak) stood perfectly content, munching hay and relieving themselves gratuitously into the little stream. When Mike got sick two days later we blamed it on the chow Mein.

The Mangyu La

We finally proved our host in Alchi wrong by reaching the Hipti La at about six thirty in the evening.

The Hipti La

Cold and stunned by how exhausted we were, we descended towards the village of Tar at a reckless pace. It was pure luck that the first house we came to in Tar happened to be a homestay. That night, as we drank chaang by the cooking stove, Mike looked over at me, and with a silly grin he muttered “That was one of the hardest things I have ever done”. I nodded sagely and allowed my cup of chaang to be filled again.

Changshul blessing

In the morning, planting began. Thus, we were privilege to the planting ceremony which is supposed to bring good luck in the coming season. Mixing Tsampa (barley flour) with chang, the family made an offering of several large dough cones, each topped with a bit of butter. Then, every person (including Mike and I) was anointed with a dab of this chang-shul, and sprinkled with Tsampa. The son was adorned with a full face mask of changshul, and after being coated with an auspiciously exorbitant cloud of tsampa, led the team of Dzho’s around the field as they pulled the plow behind them.


Later that morning we climbed out of the canyon which separates Tar from the Indus, and pulled ourselves across the fat green river in a basket suspended from a cable. Then it was on to Lama Yuru, another pastoral village with yet another 11th century monastery perched on cliffs above. Naropa came through here on his travels and meditated in a cave, still preserved within the monastery’s walls.

Monastery at Lama Yuru

Here, Mike got sick, so instead of hiking over the Prinkiti La, we caught a cab to Wanla, which, surprise surprise, is a picturesque little town with an 11th century Gompa high up on a spire overlooking the valley. The next morning Mike recovered, so we set off up the Prinkiti La, a barren labrynth of tight canyons, pock marked with the tracks of goats and snow leapords.

Exhausted but happy, I am back in Leh for the day. Lassi's are on the menu. More to come the next time I can get an internet connection.


  1. FANTASTIC! Max, I love the pictures and the stories that go with them. Thank you for sharing. You are living the dream I have carried for decades: journeying in the world's highest mountain range, meeting all kinds of folk and even seeing snow leopard SO cool.
    Stay warm dear boy.
    love & kisses

  2. Hi Max,

    Wow! Your photos, descriptions, stories and energy to keep moving keep experiencing are just astounding. When pulling yourself across a river in a basket rates merely one sentence because everything else is so huge, that's something magnificent. Continuing to send love and all best wishes for safe travels, Jean

  3. Nice pictures.Seems you guys had a great time. I remember the weather being a bit nasty the day we left to pangong and u guys to lamayuru.
    Pangong was completely frozen btw.

    Hows Mike? Does he have a blog too?

    Ravi - (we met at SECMOL) :D