First Ski Descent of Mt. Yanum, a 20,000 Feet Peak
Manali is a small hill-station located in North India. The entire city is surrounded by alpine peaks, some of which are 4000mtrs tall. It ranks among the foremost heli-skiing destinations on Earth, top skiers from around the world arrive here to experience prime skiing conditions. Yearly skiing nationals are also held in the city. Due to the presence of this infrastructure, the best local skiers have an opportunity to pursue skiing as a seasonal occupation.
Praveen Sood started skiing when he was a kid. The first pair of Skis that he owned was home-made, carved from wood with a removable saw-blade attached on its base. Whenever his parents used to scold him for his academic failures, he used to tell them that, ” If nothing worked out I would work as a ski guide.” After a few years, Praveen progressed and started skiing in Solang, the nexus of skiing/snowboarding in Kullu-Manali valley. His skills helped him to make it to the national team. Another local who was drafted for the team was Ludar Thakur. In the process of competing both became good friends. After traveling, competing for multiple years both retired as athletes and came back to work in their hometown. They were offered jobs by the local Heli-Skii company and they officially started working as ski guides. In 2006 Ludar was appointed as the coach for the national skiing team. Praveen continued to work as a guide, his motivation behind working was simple; he was skiing backcountry and was learning from the best.
Heli-Ski guides have to be experts in mountain rescue, medical aid, and avalanche detection. During a Heli-ski operation, the pilot essentially drops the clients on the desired spot. From there onwards, it’s the guide’s duty to get everyone safely back. The burden of responsibility is enormous and the work is stressful, to say the least. Praveen thrived in this environment. For the next thirteen years, he worked with the best international guides and learned everything about his craft. Meanwhile, Ludar, was constantly working with raw talented youngsters. Due to the presence of this endless energy around him, he was constantly refining his own skills. Even though they weren’t in the spotlight, Praveen and Ludar were emerging as the best backcountry- skiers in the country.
In the year 2008, Praveen was traveling to ‘Leh’ with his family. They were stuck near Baralacha Pass; an avalanche had blocked the highway. A few other cars were stuck along with theirs. Due to their unfamiliarity with the surroundings, the passengers in other cars started panicking. Praveen and his family (his wife is a mountaineer) decided to keep them company. The night was cold enough to make the diesel in the engines freeze, everyone had to regularly start their engines every hour. During one of these hourly ritual, Praveen stepped outside his car to get some fresh air. That is when he saw ‘Yanum’. He spotted a few lines and concluded that they were safe for a complete ‘ski-descent. It sounded like a crazy idea at first but with years of experience under his belt, Praveen knew he was capable enough to try. He also knew he would need a partner who shared the same skillset.
Every year, Praveen worked for ‘Raid de Himalaya’s” as their Helicopter Search and Rescue Coordinator during this time he often hovered around ‘Yanum’. Every year the story remained the same, either it was due to family or his job, the stars never seemed to align. Four years passed and he couldn’t attempt his dream line. Luder who seemed most interested was unable to find time due to his constant involvement with the Indian team. Finally, in 2018, Praveen, Luder and some friends went to make a foray around ‘Baralacha’. They skied in the area for 3 days, the conditions were way better than they had been the whole winter. The decision was unanimous; they had to attempt Yanum in the same week.
It’s a different feeling when you ski down from 6000 mtrs. First, you need to reach the summit, the amount of oxygen in the air depletes with every step that you take. Your safety margin is considerably reduced. In words of ski-mountaineering pioneer Luke-Smithwick, “Ski mountaineering involves climbing mountains and then skiing from a summit or the top of a route. Stereotypically, snow quality for ski mountaineering isn’t the best and the skiing is usually challenging and not that enjoyable. At the end of the day, ski mountaineering is about achieving an overall objective as opposed to enjoying snow quality and making turns”.
There were too many unknowns associated with their plan. They had no idea about the snow condition, they would encounter high on the peak. They didn’t know how they would perform at high altitude. Acknowledging all these shortcomings they bought insurance covers before leaving Manali. They also had a backup plan in place, a standby team of friends would wait for them at Jispa. On the 15th of June, 2018, Praveen and Luder, began their journey. They drove from Manali to Bharatpur Base Camp on the Manali-Leh Highway. After a long and hard day of driving, they halted for the night.
On the 16th of June, 2018 they parked their car and started walking. As soon as they left the road they had to navigate through some rocky sections. They also had to cross the mainstream after around half an hour of hiking. After this, they reached a steep section which consisted of loose rocks. The route was steep but didn’t require any technical climbing. They stopped around 1pm to rehydrate their lunch. Around this time clouds started to gather around. They weren’t surprised; locals had informed them about the weather patterns. They decided to establish Camp 1 at 4950m near a stream. The night was cold; to conserve the heat they huddled together. Next morning around 4 am they started their summit push. They wanted to reach the summit before noon. They were slowed down by the waist-deep snow conditions.
If it wasn’t for their ski-equipment they would have never made it. They glued climbing ‘skins’ over the skis. ‘Skins’ are made up of very sticky material which enables good friction between the ski surface and snow. They were still around 5700m and had a long way to go. For the next three hours, they climbed against strong as they swam through the snow. Finally, around 9am the weather started to clear up. The sun shone above them as Paveen climbed to the top. Ludar stopped a few meters below the summit out of respect for the local mountain gods.
The view was amazing but Praveen was only thinking about the conditions. His worst fear was that the soft-snow would freeze and cause them to slip. After resting for a while they removed the skins, locked their heels and started going down. After 35mins they were back at Camp 1. Here they ate their lunch and rehydrated themselves. Around 5pm they reached their car and drove straight to Jispa. A combination of skills, luck and vision made Praveen and Ludar the first Indian’s to ski down a 6000mtr peak. Their achievement was identified by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation. More than the accolades, project Yanum broadened Praveen and Ludar’s vision. They now know what can be done in their local backcountry. They are now keen to test their skills on bigger peaks.
In Himachal Pradesh skiing wasn’t as popular as in the west and no one knew that there were some great slopes in the area that provided a rare combination of conditions to create the perfect skiing experience. In 1983, Roddy Mackenzie was caught in a storm in the mountains near Manali. The Australian climber was surprised to see the amount of snow that fell and realized that these slopes could be great for skiing.
We want to see more skiers and trekkers here. This will not This will not only promote ecotourism, but also generate livelihood for the locals but will also promote trekking and skiing in remote and extremely high Himalayan Peaks.
- Two months after the successful completion of ‘Project Yanum’. Praveen Sood was back in the ‘Baralacha’ area but this time he wasn’t completing any futuristic project. He was aiding the Indian Air Force to rescue people in Lahaul and Spiti district. Along with Joginder Thakur, Praveen rescued five people who were stuck in their vehicles at a location where even the helicopter was unable to reach. Earlier this year Praveen rescued a BRO (Border Roads Organization) jawan who was buried in an avalanche at Rohtang Pass.
- Adventure sports are generally viewed as a pursuit for adrenaline. What often remains unsaid is the fact that they are one of the best ways to conserve our natural environment. They not only help us interact with our surroundings but also prompt us to conserve them. Most of the hilly states in India are facing a problem of emigration. Adventure sports not only provide locals with employment, it enables them to dream bigger, forge their own identities and sometimes even help develop unique skillset(s). Praveen and Luder’s case is one such example.
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Author: Aditya Pande
A climber hailing from a quaint hill town of Kumaon, Uttaranchal. Focused towards staying healthy and efficient, in the mountains and in the cities.