Last August, climbers Abbey Smith, Pete Takeda, Jason Kehl, and Mick Follari went to northern India on a unique bouldering trip. For two months, the quartet traveled through the Himalayas, establishing dozens of new problems on often-overlooked blocks at the feet of some of the world's most iconic mountains. To get to the remote crags, the climbers structured their journey like a traditional mountain expedition, working through an agency to arrange for pack horses, transportation, and a cook.
I caught up with Abbey Smith to talk about the expedition and the challenges of bouldering in the Himalayas. A documentary about the trip, The Zanskar Odyssey, is set for release this fall.
Why India? You all live in Colorado, you have plenty of boulders to climb. What was it that drew you to the Himalayas?
The idea really came from my good friends Jonny Copp and Micah Dash. In 2007, they went to Shafat Fortress, up in the Kashmir region of India. Jonny was a photographer, and he just had photos of these orange, pristine granite blocks sitting in a grassy meadow, surrounded by jagged 6,000-meter peaks. From that point forward, I was like, I've got to get a trip together.
It took about a year of preparation, cross-referencing Google Earth with topographical maps, doing research at the American Alpine Club library and in old Himalayan journals. We were just hoping someone would tip their camera down and show us boulders in the foreground. It was definitely like looking for a needle in a haystack in some ways.
How were the logistics different from other climbing trips you've done? I understand you had porters for part of the trip.
We hired an agency based in Delhi, their name is Ruck Sack Tours. We had talked to a couple other agencies before them, but they couldn't really grasp the idea of going bouldering. They kept asking for peak permits; they thought we were actually using bouldering to go poach peaks.
You flew into Delhi. Where did you go from there? Where was your first destination?
We drove to our first bouldering destination, which was this area called Chota Dara. In our research, Pete had come across this British guy [Pil] who something like ten years ago had left his homeland and come to India. He has a blog, he details these different areas where he's established boulder problems. Since this was kind of on our route, we figured we would get out of the car, stretch our legs, and get some climbing in. The boulders were gorgeous, but they turned out to be as slick as glass.
So we moved on to a place called Chattru. It's just down the road, you actually pass it as you're going to Chota Dara. It was a little more pedestrian than we were looking for. It's kind of at a crossroads where all these trucks are coming through. It seemed like there was a lot of potential beyond a 15-minute walk, but we were looking for somewhere a little more remote.
We had thought about going to this place called Dali. That was another full-day drive, and we arrived at this place called Palamo. It was just this horrible construction zone. They were actually building a road through this pass. The campground was next to rock grinders and diesel trucks, floodlights, barking dogs, and kind of grungy road crew.
We ended up sleeping there that night, and the next morning went on a recon to see if [Dali] was where we wanted to set up base camp. We ended up hiking about ten miles in. It was a very deserted, arid, dry valley, not a place you'd really want to hang out, and still all day we hadn't seen any boulders. It would take a lot of exploration to find the good stuff, and it wasn't going to be high concentration. So we had a long walk back, pretty bummed out.
Then we got a tip from a local about this area we had been researching before called the Miyar Valley. In the early nineties, climbers became aware of that area, which is littered with unclimbed 5,000, 6,000-meter peaks; it was actually written up in a French climbing magazine, Vertical. We got a tip from a man from the Miyar Valley who said there were boulders there the size of houses.
Was he a climber himself?
No, he was a friend of one of the guys who runs Ruck Sack Tours. It was a place they call Zardo, another full day drive. [The bus] left us with our cook and his assistant on the side of the road. The next day, we packed up a dozen horses and hiked 20 miles in.
We arrived in the night, and woke up in the morning to this big valley of unclimbed granite blocks. It looked like a peak had exploded and just spilled out these granite boulders. It was pretty unique.
Tell me a little about the bouldering there. How would you characterize it?
We basically just picked the plumb lines. They were black and orange-striped boulders, anywhere up to five-story-apartment-building-sized. The boulders we focused on were anywhere from 10 feet to 25 feet. The blocks had perfect lines of blocky edges, some were incut edges, compression aretes, there was some steep roof climbing. It was all that we wanted. We counted about 36 first ascents in 34 days.
Did you meet many local climbers around there?
Because we were with an agency and had a plan, we didn't meet many locals. We did end up getting our cook and his assistant [into bouldering]. At first they would sit outside of their cook tent and just kind of watch us. The next thing, they joined us, but they refused to use chalk and shoes. And slowly they warmed up to the idea. They actually wore the same size as Pete, so we loaned them some La Sportiva Solutions. By the end, they had caught the first ascent fever and were putting up their own lines. They were super-psyched.
It seems like on every trip I go on, there are moments where things go hilariously wrong. Did you have any moments like that?
Yeah, that moment where we were expecting Dali to be our base camp and it didn't pan out. We didn't have a plan, didn't know where to go in a place as big as the Himalayas.
Other than that, we ran out of whiskey pretty quickly, like half-way through. And one of our chickens mysteriously disappeared. I think it might have been the yeti.
Photo credit: Jason Kehl