Indian Himalayas have endless opportunities for the mountaineers. One reason for large areas remaining unexplored is because of accessibility issues, and weather conditions.
Apart from regular climbing and hiking, adventure lovers can test their mettle on remote waterfalls which freeze and form ice walls. These vertical, mostly 90-degree frozen waterfalls can be as high as 100 m or more and are mixed with icicles and hard icy towers.
Climbing these falls requires skill sets completely different from conventional mountaineering.
At the end of 2022, we decided to go for a frozen waterfall climb in Spiti valley.
We started our journey on 14 Jan 2023 and drove to Kaza town in two days from Delhi. We planned to do an initial climb in Lingti gorge.
Brijeshwar had climbed in Lingti back in 2019, when it was beautifully frozen. There were multiple ice towers that offered different levels of difficulty for climbers to negotiate. We were excited to see ice formations like that this season as well.
So, on the way to Kaza, we stopped at Lingti and went deep inside the gorge following the water-stream looking for the frozen falls. It turned out to be a disappointment.
There were hardly two half frozen falls, and they did not look appropriate for climbing as water flowed at their base. This was the result of less snowfall in the region.
Recce for frozen falls
We reached our guest house in Kaza, deciding to keep the next day for reconnaissance. A local person, Sunil Negi, volunteered to help us find some hidden frozen falls. As he worked in Jal Shakti Vibhag of the Government of Himachal Pradesh, he knew all the streams and rivers in the vicinity.
Sunil was fun-loving and helpful, and we were thankful that he had agreed to explore the valley with us. He had seen some good frozen falls in Sheela Nala, a tributary of Spiti river, not more than five kilometers from the place where we were staying.
The water is distributed to the residents of Kaza town from Sheela Nala stream.
The Nala had rocky slopes and a small water discharge. Sunil was surprised and disappointed as he had seen huge frozen waterfalls in earlier seasons. We were still hopeful as Sheela Nala was a narrow valley, unexposed to sun and had a water stream flowing through it.
We climbed the moraine route for almost 300-400 m and reached the man-made water channel. Last night there was a fresh snowfall in the region. Soon after starting the walk on the water channel, we spotted fresh snow leopard paw marks and scat.
A couple of kilometers inside the valley, we spotted a 60 m high but narrow frozen fall. The route was to climb down from the point where we were standing, reach the water stream and start climbing.
Continuing further, we found another 25-30 m high frozen fall, which had a base almost 200 feet (60.96 m) above the main water stream. We assessed the ice formation and strength and different climbing routes.
There was a 200-foot drop from the start of the climb. It looked tough, but not as tough as the first fall we had spotted. Sometime in the late afternoon, we returned to the road head. We were happy with our discovery and excited to start our climb on those falls.
Brijeshwar had a photograph on his phone with one frozen waterfall that was close to the Rangrik village, six kms from Kaza. Sunil took us to a point from where the entire Rangrik village was visible. In a few minutes, we were able to spot the frozen waterfall.
Bingo! We had three frozen waterfalls, offering different levels of climbing. We had taken several photographs to prepare ourselves for the climb. After returning to the guest house, we went through each photograph and graded them according to the difficulty of the climb.
On Day 2, the plan was to climb the fall we had spotted in Rangrik. The approach was easy as we just had to walk on a flat field. After climbing down a bit towards the Spiti river, we reached the front face of the waterfall. We were amazed to see the formation as it was bigger than we expected.
I decided to go first. Brijeshwar was on belay while Sunil was watching and taking photographs. While I was climbing, Brijeshwar realized that the rope had crossed the half mark of 40 m.
Belay—To keep a climber from falling too far by using friction on the rope. The system that stops a climber’s fall. It includes the rope, anchors, belay device and the belayer.REI
If I continued climbing, there would not be enough rope to descend. At around 20 feet (6.1 m) below the top, I had to return due to insufficient rope.
It was snowing lightly and was frigid cold. It was an easy climb with about 60-70° slope till I reached the base of an ice tower. There were a lot of icicles with water dripping from them.
I realized that I needed to traverse to the other side of the tower to continue climbing. It was a unique experience for me as this was the first time that I was climbing a frozen waterfall.
I placed tubular pitons as I climbed and kept passing the belay rope through them. An ice chimney had formed between the back of the fall and frozen water on the surface of the rock over which water had been flowing before it froze.
I made full use of it and climbed astride the chimney.
I got into an L-shape with my back towards the rock and both legs pressed against the back of the fall to place pitons on the fall. This way I could use both my hands to place pitons and manipulate other equipment and rope easily. I was about seven m from the top when I heard a faint call from Brijeshwar that half the rope was over. I placed a piton at that point and descended on belay.
It was Brijeshwar’s turn now. He decided to use a 60 m rope to climb straight up instead of going behind the tower. As soon as he reached the base of the tower, he found that water was dripping badly from that section.
Before he could decide on the route, he was wet. Brijeswar immediately moved ahead and went to the back side of the fall. By this point, three ice screws were already in place. Slowly he made it to the top, placed an ice screw and took some rest on it before building a station. He built a two-point anchor, passed the climbing rope through and started descending. While descending, he recovered all the ice screws which were placed during the climb.
After reaching the base, Brijeshwar got back on the belay and I got ready to climb again. This time I climbed on top rope as there was an anchor built on the top. In no time, I reached the top of the fall and called Brijeshwar to prepare for my descent.
All this while, Sunil was watching us climb. We insisted that he must climb, not all the way up but the lower section. I gave my climbing boots to Sunil. We built an anchor at the lower section and made him climb on the top rope.
We taught him some basic footwork, ice-axe handling, and placement. He really enjoyed it and went back and forth a couple of times. It was such a fulfilling and joyful day that we couldn’t have asked for more. We reached the guest house and had an interactive debriefing.
Knowing your partner’s observation is very important, as your partner is the only person watching your movements closely while you are busy climbing.
Sheela Nala waterfall climb
On day 3, we had to climb our first fall in Sheela Nala, a 90-minute hike from the road-head. We reached the base with heavy backpacks laden with climbing gear. This fall was at a tricky location, starting from the water-channel. Also, the formation of the fall was such that it was difficult compared to the one we had climbed the previous day.
We had to cross the run-off of the waterfall which had formed verglas on the path. We had to drive a piton on our side and belay each other to cross over to the other side of the fall.
Belaying here was hard as there was very little space in the front of the fall and slippery verglas for the belayer to stand on.
We realized that belaying would have to be done from one side and not along the fall line.
Brijeshwar decided to climb first today. He took 10 ice screws along with some quickdraws, carabiners and sling ropes. Today we decided to use both 60 m and 40 m ropes. 60 m rope was the belay rope to which I attached 40 m rope as tail rope to be used later for rope retrieval.
The place and formation of the ice was so awkward that with every swing of the ice axe, big chunks of ice started breaking. While I was belaying from a safe position, some ice chunks fell close to me.
Brijeshwar was taking it very easy, as the approach was long and complicated. While he started climbing straight up, at one stage he took a detour and climbed sideways.
He was almost 10 m above the starting point, hanging at a 90° vertical wall and fully exposed to a 200 m deep valley. It was very exhausting to climb sideways, and there was no way he could have placed an ice screw there.
Brijeshwar had no choice but to climb to the other side. With all the strength he managed to negotiate the horizontal patch and reached the other side where ice was good.
But here it was impossible to drive an ice screw into the wall. He struggled with the ice screw for 10–15 minutes. He took a small pause to calm himself and took out another ice screw.
The second ice screw was able to go inside the ice easily. Immediately, he passed the climbing rope through it and called me to tighten the belay for much-needed rest.
Brijeshwar rested for 10–15 minutes, relaxed his muscles and started climbing. Soon he made it to the top of the fall. After building a station, he joined the tail rope with the climbing rope and descended, recovering all ice screws.
Then he came back on belay and I climbed very efficiently. The climb looked like a cakewalk to someone watching from outside. After a break, we geared up for the next attempt.
Brijeshwar was already extremely content with his first climb that there was no desire left in him to climb it again on top rope. But we had to retrieve the ice screws from the top, which were placed there to build the anchor.
One of us would have to climb all the way up, prepare a V-thread anchor, recover all the tools and descend while climbing ropes were passed through the V-thread.
Initially, Brijeshwar volunteered to retrieve the tools, but I expressed my interest to go up and clear everything. Brijeshwar knew what I was getting into as it was going to be my first descent on V-thread.
I made a perfect V-thread without struggling and performed the rope drill which I was going to perform on the top like my safety anchor, passing the climbing rope, clearing the station etc.
Soon I was climbing up the fall on top rope like a mountain goat. I took around 20 minutes on the top and started descending.
Once I reached the top, there was a small rock surrounded by dry grass. Snow had sloughed off the surface due to the steepness and sunshine.
I was in a meditative state as I was all alone at that point without any noise except the faint soothing sound of the river flowing much below me while I was hanging from a piton.
I took some time to calm myself as my heart was racing due to the effort of the climb and the excitement I felt. I had rehearsed the entire sequence of preparing a V-thread for descent.
I almost jumped off the slope with joy when the tiny tunnels formed by driving the pitons met each other, forming a perfect “V” through which I passed the chord.
After reaching down, we hugged each other for what felt like an eternity. It was a fulfilling day for us. Post de-briefing, we decided to take a break the next day. We wanted to be fully energized before making the attempt last fall, which was the tallest and graded as ‘Most Difficult’.
As we were not sure on the route to reach the 3rd fall, we decided on a recce. We also decided to explore Kaza. It was a bright sunny day. We watched ice hockey training being conducted in Kaza, chatted with kids and instructors where we got to know their training regime.
Later we went to the ground where senior players were preparing for the upcoming National ice hockey championship in Leh.
Sheela Nala recce
After an intense ice hockey match, we started moving towards Sheela Nala. We followed the water stream to reach the ‘most difficult’ icefall. There were some sections where we had to leave the stream and walk on the sloped moraine.
In an hour we were at the base of the majestic fall. The lower section of the fall had a thin layer of ice, but the upper section had a giant ice tower. After seeing the condition of the route, we decided to approach via the man-made water channel and climb down to reach the base of the fall.
We returned, following the water stream. Since it was a beautiful sunny day, we decided to take a dip in the frozen water. It took away all the pain and fatigue and energized the body and mind. We were back in the guest house before sunset after a physically and mentally relaxing day.
Climbing the last fall
On Day 5, it was snowing at 8:00 am. It had been snowing continuously in the valley since midnight. This was the last day we had as we were headed to Delhi the following day. We assessed the situation again at around 9:30 and although it was still snowing, we moved out for the climb without any further delay.
It took us almost two hours to reach the base of the fall. We could see a flat surface just 20 m above from the base. We decided to build a station at that spot. There was enough space for the belayer to move and have the climber in his line of vision.
For the first 20 m, Brijeshwar geared up, attached a tail rope to his harness and started to free climb. As the lower section of the fall had a thin layer of ice on the rock, he was very careful with his ice-axe as he did not want to hit the rock underneath.
The ice formation was perfect at the top and there were ample flat surfaces. He built a station there and signaled me and Sunil to climb.
I sent Sunil first with his boots. Brijeshwar gave a top belay to Sunil, and he climbed easily and successfully. He took off the boots, attached them to the rope to send down. Sunil found himself a small cave to enjoy the show.
I climbed carrying all the gear, while Brijeshwar gave top belay. From this point the climb was completely vertical (90 degree) until the top of the fall, around 40-45 m above us.
I wanted to climb first. I carried 10 ice screws, quick draws, carabiners, and sling rope. We had to use both the climbing ropes where one was attached as a tail rope and the other rope was for belay. I decided to climb all the way to the top, build a V-thread and climb down while recovering all the ice-screws.
Brijeshwar could see me climbing effortlessly, and my ice axe was penetrating without much struggle. I had climbed for almost 10 feet (3.05 m). I fixed an ice screw, passed a rope through it and climbed further.
Brijeshwar had to keep an eye on falling chunks of ice. I placed the 3rd ice screw and decided to rest on it. Brijeshwar tightened the belay and advised me to rest on the rope until his body recovered.
After resting for around 10 minutes, I took a call to descend. I was content with the climb so far and had no desire to climb till the top. Placing the ice screw had drained my energy.
Brijeshwar started climbing at around 2:00 pm. He was really enjoying himself as he was fully conditioned with previous climbs. The climb up to the point where I had placed the 3rd ice screw was tough.
He looked up to see that there was almost 65% of treacherous climbing left. He spotted a small cave on the right side of the fall where I rested. Once rested, he started going upward again.
It was getting harder and harder. He was unable to see the top of the fall. He decided to keep focusing on the next step without thinking of the top or the bottom.
Not worrying about making it to the top was a very meditative experience. When tired, he would rest, hanging on the vertical fall, changing and shaking my hands. After crossing 70% he rested in another small cave. From this point he was able to see the top of the fall. It was a now or never moment.
Physically, he had very little energy left, but adrenalin and one step at a time kept him going. He was uncomfortable, breathless, and exhausted. His hands were freezing and fingers were numb.
I belayed him, standing for hours in the frozen environment; an equally painful situation. Anyhow, he pushed himself and finally found himself inside a big cave. He had made it to the top of the fall.
He went down on his knees, almost breathless, chanting a prayer, disconnected from the world. Once he caught his breath, he shouted that he had made it to the top.
It was about to get dark, so he had to descend. He safely made it to the bottom, recovering every single piece of tool used for the climb. It was a moment of celebration. We hugged and congratulated each other for making it successful.
Everything went so well in such an unplanned way right from the beginning. Starting from uncertainty of getting leave to not finding proper falls in Lingti to meeting Sunil in Kaza and finding falls for our climb. We had gone there without much expectation, but the mountains are always full of surprises and rewards. We are very humbled and full of gratitude for what we got from these mountains.
In January 2023, Wing Cdr Devidutta Panda, Brijeshwar Singh and Sunil Kumar Negi decided to go for a frozen waterfall climb in Spiti valley. This article describes their adventures, locating the frozen falls, climbing them and enjoying the experience.
- Spiti Valley’s Icy Embrace: Climbers Tale of 3 Frozen Waterfalls – December 23, 2023