Saturday, August 27, 2011

Annapurna Sanctuary: Don Whillans and the Yeti

About one and a half hours walk from the south base camp of Annapurna I, lies the base camp of Machapuchare, the fish tail mountain. Nowadays, more than twenty five thousand trekkers make their way every year to the Base Camp popularly known as "ABC".   In a hurry to reach their final destination many of them walk from Deorali in the valley to ABC in one day.  I have watched many of them speeding past the avalanche prone Bagar, climbing up to Machapuchare Base Camp (MBC) for a quick cup of tea and then onto ABC by nightfall. On every occasion that I have been to ABC, I have stayed the night at the Machapuchare Base Camp and each and every time I have ruminated over the happenings there one March evening in the year 1970. 

Around that time most of the great walls of the Himalaya were unclimbed. The British under the leadership of Chris Bonington mounted an expedition to attempt the enormous south face of Annapurna I. Bonington had with him a crack team of British climbers including Don Whillans, his comrade-in-arms from the Eigerwand days. Whillans had been sent up ahead along with Mike Thompson to reconnoitre the face as Bonnington was anxious to know if "it would go", a mountaineering phrase meaning “it could be climbed".

In 1970 there were no lodges at MBC or ABC and Whillans and his team had pitched a camp at MBC for the night.   Around five o clock in the evening as Whillans was about to pitch his tent one of his Sherpas Pemba Tharkey said in a matter of fact way, “Yeti coming".  Whillans turned around but was able to see only a shadow disappearing behind a ridge. 

The next day Mike Thompson and Whillans on a reconnaissance trip spotted a set of tracks around the same spot where Whillans had seen the "creature" drop down behind the ridge. Thompson dismissed the tracks saying “It’s a bear” but Whillans was not so sure. 

Thompson left MBC that evening to meet the main party further down the valley but Whillans remained up at MBC with his sherpas.  It was one of those bright moonlit nights in the Himalaya when it is possible to read a book outside. Whillans comments that “it was fantastically cold" even in two sleeping bags. Across the valley he could clearly see the snow slope and the ridge where the creature had been spotted the previous evening.  Despite the cold, Whillans kept putting his head outside the tent right through the evening to scan the hillside from time to time. One can well imagine the excitement and tension on that cold winter's night below the shadow of unclimbed Machapuchare lit up in the moonlight.  Suddenly, Whillans could clearly see a powerful animal which he described as an ape or ape like creature “bounding along on all fours”. From the shadowy portion of the hillside it came out into the moonlight “bounding very quickly across the snow, heading for the shelter of the cliffs.”

As Whillans watched this incredible sight, the creature disappeared into the shadows and was gone.  Whillans never saw it again.

The next morning Whillans walked up the hillside where he saw the tracks in the snow. Interestingly the two sherpas who were with him just ignored the tracks and pretended that they did not exist!

Whillans was convinced that he had seen the Yeti but the mystery still remained unresolved. 

On one occasion in autumn, on a  similar moonlit night, I stood outside a lodge at MBC and scanned the  opposite hillside for quite some time.   I could imagine Whillan's tent in the snow very close to where the lodges are situated. It was still and silent.  Nothing stirred or moved. With the cold getting to me I went inside to my warm sleeping bag. The Annapurna Sanctuary held on to it's secrets.  

Reference Reading:
  • Annapurna South Face by Chris Bonington
  • High in the Cold Thin Air by Ed Hillary and Desmond Doig
  • My  Quest for the Yeti by Reinhold Messner 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Mountain Photography: Tips and Tricks Part II

After my last post on tips and tricks for mountain photography, I responded to a lot of e-mails covering specific queries from fellow photographers. As many of them are interesting I am including them in this list.

Tip 1: When your camera is on a tripod switch VR off
This is something that in the spur of the moment many of us forget. When we put a camera on a tripod the tripod is supposed to keep the camera rock-steady and thus we don’t need VR as well to compensate for camera shake. Those who are using Canon will have IS to be switched off.

Tip 2: When shooting mountain landscapes reduce the aperture for maximum depth of field
We need to be at F11 or even F16 to get maximum depth of field when shooting a landscape, especially if we want sharpness from say three feet to infinity. The only way to achieve this is to stop down the lens and adjust the shutter speed. If the ISO is low say around 200, then in low light the speed may even be 1/15 or 1/8 of a second. A tripod is often called for unless you have very steady hands!

Tip 3: Shooting at night
The half light between dusk and darkness offers some interesting possibilities in the mountains.  There is still some light in the sky but there is also some foreground lights which are interesting like the lights of a village. Often if you are close enough and it is a clear evening you can see mountains as well. I try to avoid cranking up the ISO to more than 800 and then setting up the camera on a tripod or support take a series of four or five photographs bracketed around a central exposure. Invariably one of them works the best. It is advised to keep long exposure noise reduction (NR) on for these types of shots. An example of this type of a shot is here

Tip 4: Panning motion
Sometimes in the mountains we also need to shoot an event e.g. the masked dances at Hemis monastery in Ladakh. Along with the regular shots of the dancers pirouetting around the monastery courtyard, it is interesting to cut back on the shutter speed, say 1/8 or 1/15th of a second and then pan the camera along with the movement of the dancers to capture motion. An example of this sort of a  photograph is  here   

Tip 5: The Polarizing Filter
This filter can often help in bright mountain landscapes to saturate skies and increase contrast to give “more punch” to a photograph. It usually adds two stops to the exposure so a PL filter will require an aperture of say F4 if a non PL needed F8, speed being the same. You can rotate the PL filter once it is mounted on the lens to adjust the level of saturation that you want.

Tip 6: A splash of color in a monochrome landscape
 Very often when it snows in the mountains or when a storm is brewing, the landscape is almost monochrome, white snow, grey black clouds, gushing streams etc. In this scenario a very effective technique is to add a splash of color to bring the landscape to life e.g. a red umbrella, or a trekker with a bright jacket walking through the rain or snow. The contrast often creates a photograph which is out of the ordinary.

The monsoon will soon be over and it will be autumn in the mountains in another six weeks. Happy shooting to all of you!

My outfit, South Col Expeditions, is running a five day trek cum photo workshop in the Annapurna hills of Nepal in December 2012. Those of you who may be interested please do visit  or e-mail me at for more information.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Great Himalaya Trail: Interview with Robin Boustead

Sujoy Das in conversation with Robin Boustead, the man behind the Great Himalayan Trail

SD:  What is the Great Himalayan Trail (GHT)?
RB: The Great Himalaya Trail is as much a concept as  a walking route. The idea is to have a trail network along the great Himalaya range that offers trekkers and adventure tourists a range of route options to suit the sort of experience they seek and, at the same time, to bring sustainable, responsible tourism to remote communities. The GHT therefore requires a unique combination of skills, knowledge and experience - that's why so many people are involved and passionate about the idea.

SD:  How long is it?
RB: The highest feasible route (upto 6200m) along the entire Great Himalaya Range is about 4500km and runs from near Namche Barwa to Nanga Parbat. However, the documented trail network will be more than double that by the end of 2012, so there are many route options!

SD: Has the GHT been created and conceived by you?
RB: No, the idea of a trans-Himalayan trail along the length of the range has been around since the 1970s. But it is only recently that many of the individual himals (ranges) have opened to tourists, thus making trans-country routes possible. My dream is see a trans-boundary route so trekkers can cross country borders in the mountains with ease.

SD: Were you inspired at all by other great trails like the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail etc?
RB: The trail that has influenced me most is the Camino network in Europe. The concept there is that your trek begins with making the decision to go to Santiago and your journey begins with your first step from home. I really like the idea of people developing their own agendas, itineraries and priorities in the Himalaya... there is just so much to see and do!

SD:  How much of the GHT has been mapped and what is remaining?
RB: I published (through Himalayan Map House) a range of comprehensive maps for the central third, Nepal, earlier this year and I am now working on Bhutan and India which should see some results next year. I have also approached Pakistan about making some GHT maps so the last major section undone is Tibet.

SD: Can the GHT be done in parts only as the whole trail must take months/years to complete?
RB: As the GHT is a trail network it easily lends itself to being trekked in sections, for example Nepal can be broken into ten treks from two to four weeks. This means that trekkers can 'grow' into the trail by developing fitness, skills and field-craft over time. Of course, if you have both time and money then trekking long sections is a fantastic way to really experience the vastness of the Himalaya!

SD: Is the GHT meant for experienced climbers and trekkers only or can first timers also try some parts of the trail?
RB: Some sections of the trail are very easy and ideal for novice trekkers, for example, the Tamang Heritage Trail in Nepal or the Darma Valley in India. The higher routes tend to be more technical and some require serious mountaineering skills, for example the high route between the Makalu and Everest regions. What appeals most to me is that the GHT allows the trekker to 'evolve' their expertise over time.

SD: Where can one find more information on the GHT?
RB: A Dutch NGO has made a general information website about the GHT in Nepal ( and I have been building a website with trekking information for the entire trail ( I have also written a guide book to the trail in Nepal (, a coffee table picture book on the GHT in Nepal and produced a range of GHT Nepal maps ( India and Bhutan are in progress. I should add that all my royalties from products contribute directly to a GHT Alliance training program that is designed to make trekking more professional and safer throughout the Himalaya

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Gokyo Trek in the Everest Region: April 2012

The trek to the view point of Gokyo Lakes and Gokyo Ri  is the "dream trip" for most trekkers and rivals the trek to Kala Pattar. 
The fourteen day trip from Kathmandu run by South Col Expeditions has been carefully designed to provide proper acclimatization so as to ensure the least discomfort for the trekker. On many days we walk only 3-4 hours and rest in the afternoon to ensure that we do not gain altitude too quickly. The cost of this trek is Indian Rs 30,000 for SAARC country residents and USD $ 850 for others (Exclusions apply). For further details please do visit 


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