Himachal Pradesh / Northern India / 16th Oct Nov. 2003
Our mission had been on hold for a number of years because of the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and the normal unstable situation in Kashmir. Then, word came from a friend in Jammu that things were relatively calm, so the job was on! Once the whole team was gathered in Manali, Himachal Pradesh, we hired a jeep, loaded five boats and headed north over the Rotang Pass towards the Chenab Valley. Our aim: to descend the 290 kms of the Chenab River, down to Kistware. (Kistware was the starting point of a raft expedition lead by Ken Warren in 1988.)
The Rotang La (Pass) is the first of 4 passes on the road to Leh, to the north in Ladhak. This trade route through the Great Himalayan Ranges crosses four 4-5000 meter passes between numerous 6000 meter+ peaks and takes you into the Himalayan Rain Shadow. As you travel north, the landscape changes from the lush alpine forests surrounding Manali to the arid moonscape of Ladhak. The Chenab river source is the glaciers surrounding the second pass, the Baralarcha La.
The two rivers that form the Chenab start their journeys as the Bharga and Chandra. Legend has it that these two rivers were Gods and partners, male and female. For some reason they had a domestic, the Female (Chandra) ran off to the southeast in a huff, probably hoping the Male (Bharga) would give chase. Bharga sat on his laurels hoping that Chandra would return but then, realizing Chandra was not coming back, he went racing south on a short cut to try and make up. They met at Tandi and continued the rest of their journey in the same bed, so to speak.
On the descent from the Rotang La our first views of the Chandra confirmed that we had hit the low water window: it was running low and clear, around 30 - 40 Cumecs. 8 years ago we had seen this at summer flows, probably around a very scary 300 cumecs. Following the Chandra downstream we reached Tandi and the confluence with the Bhaga. By the time we reached Keylong 7kms up the Bhaga everyone was on edge, but the Bhaga was also running very low, which was great news as my memory of thumping cataracts I had seen last time was far from my the agenda for kayaking. If there were more hours in the day I am sure we would have had a paddle to release the frustration that several days of traveling around India builds up when you are on a mission. But we had escaped the bustle of Delhi, done the bus journey to Manali: it was like heaven to be amongst desolate peaks with only the river sound in the air. We found a hotel and planed our approach to the river for the following day: we would head up to Darcha in the morning, this is where the melted glacial streams become the Bharga, scouting on the way up and maybe even start our descent. This was to be the style for the rest of our journey, researching the next destination, work out how to get there, get to that point and then work out the next bit from there. In India, especially in more remote areas this is the way to explore as you can find the information rather vague. Often several different versions of the same story leads to an average, which may or may not work out.
We decided to start our journey at Gemur where the braids combined. Here the river had amassed 20-30 Cumecs and started winding through tight bedrock and boulder rapids; sweet and not too challenging. Eventually things got steeper and more intense and as the gorge deepened, the road strayed off up the mountainside but it was still read and run fun. The most dangerous point was when we passed fresh rock blasting; they managed to shower some rocks down just as we passed below - fortunately no one was hit.
Just above Keylong we came to a bedrock gorge we had spotted on the drive up, a few runnable drops and an easy portage around a 15m deep narrow bedrock slot of doom, and we continued, passing Keylong. More narrow bedrock gorges, dark and slimy, eventually delivered us to Tandi just before sunset. We met Prakesh at the bridge, stashed the boats in a teahouse and headed back to the luxury of the guesthouse in Keylong.
22 Oct. Tandi to Udaipour
On the morning of the second day of paddling we woke to a bluebird sky with sun creeping over the mountains warming the valley. After breakfast and a few interviews with officialdom we headed down to Tandi and the first section of the combined Bhaga and Chandra rivers, the Chenab proper. With more than double the flow and damn cold, those of us who brought gloves or pogies were pretty happy with the decision. A few harder rapids kept us on our toes and eventually lead us to a new bridge and a teahouse. It would be rude not to stop, so we stopped for a quick cuppa despite having 20 km still to paddle to get to the planned destination for that day.
As we descended the Chenab, we were heading towards the Kashmir Border and the section of valley that we had less than our normal lack of information about. The river wound through the arid landscape presenting us with wide and open, boulder-garden rapids, but then squeezing together through a remarkable bedrock slots, the ?inner sanctum? of a river bed. We had chosen this window between summer and winter aiming to find the lowest water levels and an environment we could still survive in. In the summer the river would be running at more than 3-400 cumecs; it was now under 100 and this revealed the absolute bottom of the valley. At times the bedrock sculptures would pinch the mighty Chenab to just a few meters wide. In winter the river would be frozen
The further downstream we progressed the smaller the villages became, the further the road strayed away from the river and the more our driver was learning to use our walkie-talkie radios. We would collect as much information as we could from the villages, and so sometimes we could set a rendezvous for Prakesh, other times we proceeded on faith and hoped he would work out where we were. We had downloaded sections of topo map from the Internet, but there was a misalignment. At Udaipour we discovered we had a large section of map missing. This presented us with unknown territory, not that that really made much difference. The contours on the map were 500ft intervals, so the actual shape of the riverbed was impossible to work out.
By the time we neared Killar the river had really gone up a gear, long sections of gorge were strewn with huge boulders and filled with debris from rock falls. This was now a ?real? expedition. On a few occasions we thought we might get caught out in the dark, but after a few hard pushes the rendezvous bridges always came into sight and Prakesh would find us and whisk us off to some crazy village for shelter and food.
DAY 6. 25th - REST DAY
Exhausted we decided to drive down the valley to the Jamu
Kashmir Boarder. Jumping in the jeep we were in Prakesh?s world, a sketchy road etched into eroding mountainsides with a terminal drops to the river below. Perched on a ledge 1000ft up from the river scouting is always fun as you know if it looks hard from up there it is bound to be worse down below. At the border we found a couple of guards looking pretty bored; this was not the premium location they had hoped to be assigned to. Over a cup of tea we explained our aim and they assured us we could just pop up from the river when we passed to check through the border.
From this point down we opted for over-nighting on the river as the road was now further from the river and there were fewer villages for accommodation. This meant loaded boats, carrying sleeping bags, thermo-rests, food, pots and pans. Fortunately we had dropped into an alpine area and so there was plenty of wood to cook and warm by. The river nights were calm, peaceful and magical, far away from the bustle of India. Nights of playing cards, reliving stories of exciting lines of the day and good solid sleep. However you never turn down an opportunity to meet the locals and we ended up alternating: one night on river, the next in a village.
By the time we reached Padyanha we had spent two nights on the river, passed the town of Galabghar and our GPS said we were only around 50kms or so from Kistware. Everyone was getting tired but the constant game of gorge paddling was keeping everyone on their toes. Things were going well, then one rapid got the better of us. We all headed into the guts of a rapid, working out the line on the way down but at the bottom there was a huge hole waiting for lunch. Benji disappeared over the brink, just making it through, Andy and I headed far right and made it but looked round to see Trent get a perfect line into the pit of doom. He was taking a royal beating then Mike came flying over the lip and landed right on top of him and escaped. He pulled the plug and we fished out the pieces below.
DAY 11. 30th Oct. - Padyanha to Dam Project and gorge of doom.
After a cultural night in Padyanha we conjured up a cunning plan. We would tackle the next 5kms with empty boats; we had scouted this section from our hike out and noted there were 5 large rapids then it flattened out. Local information said that things should stay calm as far as the access road just above the Dull Hasti Dam project. At the Dam we would pick up our overnight gear then drop into the last gorge, we might make it through to Kistware in one day or we might not, either way we would be prepared?
We approach the dam site and the inlet tower loomed, a huge concrete structure, a grated chasm where the river will eventually flow. Then as we drifted towards the dam wall it was apparent the project was nearing completion, we had hoped to just paddle on by but the 30m vertical concrete walls prevented further progress. Dam workers helped us rope our boats to the road above, then security announced we were in a restricted area and would have to leave. Waving our makeshift permits around and a bit of a chat changed the tone, soon they were proud we were there and directed us back to the river below the dam. Unfortunately Prakesh was not there with our over night gear and they did not want us hanging around, so we gambled on making it through to Kistware, just 15 kms downstream. This decision was based on the dam engineers saying that the river would present no further problems once beyond the one large rapid just below the dam. Now if the engineers didn't know what the geography was like who did?
Instead we were presented with numerous large rapids. Darkness loomed. Mike and I were heading down a large rapid when we spotted a plume of spray in the distance. Scouting confirmed that we were in trouble; a terminal rapid with polished vertical walls all round. After some sketchy climbing we found a portage route to get round the drop, but downstream was nightmare gorge boating. In the distance stood 200m polished vertical walls narrowing to about 15 - 20m wide and an ominous mist arising from a horizon line. Beyond, the gorge walls continued, so even if we could get past the rapid below us we would be sat above a terminal looking horizon with no option to scout or portage and probably no way to get back. We were running out of options, it was getting dark, we had no food, no sleeping gear and would have to back track 5 km on a high cliff trail back to the Dam site and the only realistic route around the gorge.
DAY 12. 31st Oct - Overnight Village - Hike out - Bus to Kistware
So as darkness approached we were about to gather large amounts of wood to build a fire for the night when we spotted a small house on the hillside not far away. Crossing the river we headed to the house, hoping we might be able to find food and shelter for the night. A smiley chap directed us up the hill, saying there was a larger house better able to offer shelter there. We gathered our gear and headed off into the darkness. We reached the house: inside women and children hid behind the bared windows - we were like aliens dropping in from Mars. Soon a few men returned from working the fields; they too looked quite confused. Eventually one man arrived who had seen us that morning passing the dam. We gestured that the river was too dangerous, we had no food or sleeping gear and were completely shattered.
That night was one of those special experiences you can only find in a remote place like this and one that gives you faith in the human race. The family invited us in, warmed us by a fire and shared their food. We had only basic communication, their dialect and our little Urdu failing to match. After an amazing feed of rice with milk, sugar and chapattis they laid out a floor blanket, lined us up in a row and tucked us in with the best house blankets. There we were in the middle of the gorge of doom looked after by a family we could not converse with, warm, fed and sheltered for the night.
In the Morning we were keen to get going, we had a 4 km hike ahead of us back to the trail and then on to the dam road. From the dam we could get a bus to Kistware where we would call it a day. Beaten by the last 15kms, but after all we had encountered this did not matter. This day became quite amusing. When we eventually reached the dam site road, the security chief was amazed to see us and concerned for our safety. He explained that this area was hard-core militant zone and it was his responsibility to get us out unscathed. A security truck carried us out of the valley and out of his jurisdiction. On our arrival to Kistware the military went bananas! Not only were they astonished to find us on the doorstep, but were amazed that we had got there without them knowing. Kistware is in the heart of Kashmir Militant area, we were shown pictures of rebels that had been caught or killed in action. Just a few days before there had been a bomb in the bus station and during our gorge descent there had been 4 militants killed in nearby villages. We could understand the military's concern when 5 foreigners turn up unannounced wearing bright orange targets. Fortunately the militants are more interested in attacking the army than knocking off foreigners maybe they don't want the wrath of George Bush on their case. But for us, we definitely felt more vulnerable surrounded by gun wielding military. The Army sent us on our way back to Manali with an armed escort. Two cars and a truck with a 20mm machine gun mounted on the roof. The highway was teaming with military on the move, every km there would be a gun placement and random guards patrolling the streets of small villages.
Eventually we made it to Manali. We had completed the Chenab from as high as possible to just about where the 1988 Raft expedition had started. About 180 kms 10 river days and many adventures along the way. We understand this was not a full first descent as a group paddled parts of the Bharga and Russell Kelly has soloed the Chenab from Tandi to near Killar. That must have been one hell of a trip and our hats are off to him!
We would like to thank everyone who helped us pul this one off, not just our sponsores, but the people of the area. Some of them live in a very troubled land, but they opened themselves and their homes up to us to help us out.
This article was published in the UK BCU magazine