Fireside chat with Karn Kowshik, alpinist, glacial expert and climate change explorer
Ice Climbing in Spiti
Karn Kowshik has not only been keen to explore the actions of climate change on the Himalayan glaciers, he has also been instrumental in bringing about general awareness and policy change.
In his own words, he has an ‘intimate’ relationship with glaciers, exploring glaciers in Nepal, Ladakh, Zanskar, Kumaon, Himachal, Sikkim, etc. Karn Kowshik has also published in multiple journals and has been vocal about the struggles that are still faced by the glacial experts and alpinists in the Himalayas.
We caught up with Karn Kowshik, who defines himself as a climate change explorer, and had a detailed conversation on how he is trying to change the attitude of the global population towards snow-clad mountains and glaciers. Karn’s primary aim is to study glaciers and comprehend how they have changed during our lives.
1. What inspired you to take up mountaineering, from a hobby to a sphere of life now?
“Why do you climb?” Is a question that few mountaineers have been able to answer satisfactorily.
Over time, though, I’ve realized that there are two lines of thinking as to why we climb. The first is personal, possibly spiritual. It’s also a reasoning that is wrapped up in our own privileges, and deeply tied to our personal ideas of internal and external exploration.
My journey as a climber began as a teenager. I was one of those kids who never really fit in anywhere, be it school (where I was the kid who was always picked last for any sport) or home. I never enjoyed being at home, and given the first opportunity, vanished in the hills around Pune, cycling and just wandering, most often by myself. When I was 16, I began a part-time job as an outdoor instructor, taking people hiking and birding. As I grew, and was told I need to get a “real job”, I studied communication and took up a job as a crime journalist, working for a newspaper and a TV Channel.
Three years into that job, which involved living in exciting places as varied as Srinagar and Panjim, boredom (mixed with a growing dissatisfaction with urban life) began to set in. I took a sabbatical from my job, gave away what little belongings I had, and traveled through the country by bus, unreserved train and often foot. I walked through Shimla, Nako and Tabo, and found myself in the Ki Gompa of Spiti, where I settled down for a few weeks. In those days, Spiti was not the tourist hotspot it is today, and the Monastery had no attached guest house - visitors needed to stay in the monastery and follow the monks’ routines. The days would start in the Kitchen, where I told fantastic stories of falling in love with women to my celibate friends. They would then pack me a simple lunch, and I would go exploring the mountains.
One of my first walks there was a short climb from Ki to Gete and Tashigang villages. It wasn’t a long way - a couple of hundred meters of altitude gain, but it was enough for my urban lungs. I remember walking as fast as I could, with little knowledge of how altitude works, up a steep climb to Gete village, through a hidden path in the mountains. As I reached that top, I lay down in exhaustion, panting heavily. This memory is etched in my mind because it was the first time that I felt the pull - the pull to climb up to high places. I remember closing my eyes and taking a nap in the afternoon sun, waking to a shadow covering my face. Soaring not far above me, looking straight at me, was a Lammergeier, or Lak - the biggest vulture in the world. With a start I woke up and resumed walking.
(Little did I know that I would return to Spiti many times over the years, and when I learned Ice Climbing, I would return to Ki with my friend Bharat Bhushan, and we would establish an Ice Climbing route connecting Ki and Gete Village. We called the line ‘A Feast For Vultures’.)
Once you feel the pull, though, there is no turning back. I moved on to Ladakh, where I found work in a small climbing gym (GraviT). I continued walking the mountains, and realized I needed skills I didn’t have. I got friends to teach me, and climbed Stok Kangri with them, eventually also doing a mountaineering course. I realized that as my desires became higher and harder, I also needed to make a living - and I started guiding Stok Kangri. I wasn’t a very good guide, and I didn’t get paid too much, but I was climbing.
Which brings me to the second reason as to why, and thousands of others climb mountains : Because it’s our job. Because we - Mountain Guides, Sherpas, Porters, Cooks - we provide a service that helps other people answer their ‘Why’. It is honest, hardworking labor.
When I place myself in this context, as a professional climber, I find myself as part of a deeper, more meaningful community. Don’t misunderstand me, socio-economic reasons, and personal-philosophical reasons to climb are not mutually exclusive. Tenzing Norgay, for instance, had strong socio-economic reasons to climb Mount Everest, but was also driven by personal desire.
As a professional climber, I see it as my responsibility to engage with, and work with, my community. Be in training or climbing for fun, the community is a big driver in everything I do as a climber. My reasons for beginning climbing may have been completely self-serving, but community is my driver now.
2. Can you please tell us about your first mountaineering expedition?
It wasn’t an expedition, as such. It was some friends looking for an adventure! In 2007, I was living in Leh. One night, my friends Mandeep Nandal (who was also guiding in Leh) and Pierre-Luigi Banco (an intern at the hospital) decided over beer that we would climb Kang Yatse 1. We had no idea what to expect, and honestly, had never even seen the Peak. But we still set off a few days later, backpacks loaded with 30+ kilos of weight. I remember walking up to the top of the Kongmaru La, where a grizzled old horseman asked us why we were coming up the steep side of the pass!? “You have cleared out your Karma by doing this the wrong way!” He said. If only it were that easy.
Guiding in Markha Valley
We made a high camp on the slopes of KY1, after which Mandeep needed to get back to work. Pierre and I continued. From our summit camp at 5000 meters, we made the summit in a single push. We climbed up to a ridge, traversed it to the steep north-west face, and climbed to the summit. Once there, we realized that we could not descend the way we came up. We made an almost-disastrous attempt to traverse the knife ridge to KY2, and were forced to descend along the backside of the mountain. Far away from BC, with only a couple of chocolate bars, we bivouacked on a rock, stuffing our feet into our sleeping bags and using our dying stove to warm our toes. Tired, we decided to rest a few minutes before fetching water, but to our dismay, the water froze before we could get to it!
We spent a psychedelic night on that rock, with both of us having the same dream and sharing notes later. As soon as the sun rose, we began camping, sucking water out of a trickling stream and crossing another 5000+ meter pass before re-entering the Nimaling Valley. Our single push summit had taken us over 48 hours.
When we got back down, we went straight to Hero Namgyal in Leh to record our ascent, and he refused to do it until he brought in other mountain guides to quiz us. Satisfied, he gave us both a large bear hug and shook our tiny hands with his massive ones!
3. Out of all the treks and climbs, which one have you found to be the toughest in your lifetime and why?
Every climb is tough. I’ve found myself at a summit camp time after time, asking myself why I do this, and thinking of alternate careers (ghost writer, management coach, dog whisperer, fake Babaji).
Ice Climbing in Spiti area
I do think there is a particularly difficult trek, though - it's the Johar valley from Munsiyari to Milam glacier. Of course, these days it’s a lot easier with roads being built, but I remember when it was a long, long walk that took many days. Of all the treks I’ve done, I've found a few treks where one fall can mean death. In this trek, the route up to Minsung top is one such, where a slip can send you free falling hundreds of meters into the Gauri Gangi. What's worse is that you have to share this narrow path with ignorant mules, with barely any space to pass!
4. How do you generally prepare yourself before any mission?
I drink single malt whiskey and eat a lot of ice cream. It may sound like a flippant answer, but it really isn’t. Keep in mind that the one concession death-row inmates are given is a choice of last meal!
Of course, I don’t really want to die on any mission, and because of this, I’ve come to the realization that only constant training can make you better. Mountaineers or Alpinists (and, in fact, all athletes) can, and do, have event specific training, but it is based on a bed of Base-conditioning.
I constantly work on this Base. I train all year round and begin to specialize when I have an upcoming project, which may not be a mountain at all. For instance, I’m currently training to onsight 7b rock routes, and the training is different and far more intense than training for mountaineering. To train, I swear by a book called, “Training for the New Alpinism” by Steve House and Scott Johnston.
Descending the Ama Dablam (Image by Tsewang Namgyal)
The physical ability needed for alpinism is almost a perfect mix between Endurance, Power and Technical skill. Examples of Endurance only sports are Ultra-Marathons. Olympic powerlifting relies largely on raw power and Golf is almost purely technique. Alpinism needs a balance of all three.
My training is split between strength training, aerobic endurance and movement skills (the technical part of it). For strength, I train in a CrossFit gym in Bhimtal. I have a personal trainer work with me, and I focus on large, complex upper body and full body movements. Weighted pull ups and muscle ups are my favorite!
I do not train like other people in a cross fit gym, and do not do any powerlifting, as this is prone to injury which an industrial athlete cannot afford. For aerobic training, I run about 5-10 km and hike about 500 vertical meters with a full-sized pack (admittedly, this is the part I slack off the most with). Of course, for any climber, the technical training part is the most fun - Climbing! I try to rock climb at least twice a week when I’m not on an expedition or traveling. Right now, I’m climbing 3-4 days a week, incorporating training techniques and working with my climbing partners to increase my on-sight level.
From February, I will change the specialization of my training to a more alpinism focused approach, where I will incorporate more low intensity, zone 1 aerobic activity and also begin more classic weightlifting exercises to train the muscles to work anaerobically.
5. What are some of the challenges you have faced while mountaineering? How would you advise prospective adventurers to stay fit throughout their journey?
The challenges I face (and in fact, all other climbers face) are always the same. These are the same challenges all of us learn about in the Basic Mountaineering Course, in the session titled “Mountain Hazards”. There are, essentially, three main reasons why any mountaineering expedition fails. These are - 1) Inclement Weather Conditions, 2) Difficulty of Terrain, and 3) Health. A large number of Indian expeditions fail for reasons like, “snow was too deep” or “Ice wall was too steep”.
The first is Inclement Weather. Over the last few years, those of us who work in the mountains have clearly seen how the climate is changing. The Indian Himalaya had a clear pre and post-monsoon climbing season, but this does not hold true anymore. I can offer no advice on how to tackle climate change.
My advice on dealing with the other two challenges - the terrain and health, is to train, and to train constantly. Training for the mountains must be training for life. Recreational climbers often have a shortage of time in their lives, but they must make time to train regularly. Training must be gradual, consistent, and as much as possible, planned, recorded and evaluated regularly.
Training should not be purely physical; mountaineers must train their terrain skills as well. For instance, in the Indian Himalaya, we are witnessing more and more avalanche related events. You can’t control avalanches, but you can take a class on avalanches. Or do a Wilderness Medicine course. Or work on your climbing skills so there isn’t a thing as ‘too steep’!
Of all the training a beginner climber can do to get better, the single most significant thing they can do is rock climbing. Indian mountaineering has always held itself somewhat aloof from rock climbing, seeing it as a sort of wayward stepsister of mountaineering. But as the focus of the world’s mountaineering shifts to hard, technical routes in the large mountains, rock climbing’s position at the very core of alpinism becomes evident. You need to climb rocks well to climb hard stuff in the mountains! The proliferation of climbing gyms, mountaineering trips and climbing crags across the country means it's more accessible than ever - so my advice is to make rock climbing a regular part of your training!
6. Which is the next adventure/expedition you wish to embark on and why?
Post Covid - I set myself a focus to climb the peaks of the Kumaon Himalaya. I’m a relatively new Kumaon Resident, having moved to Bhimtal (Nainital District) about 8 years ago. Since then, I’ve spent time traveling and climbing in the Darma, Johar and Pinder valleys. In small, alpine style expeditions, I’ve made recce trips and attempts on Latu Dhura, Panchachuli 3, Nanda Kot, Baljuri and Tharkot. None of them have been successful (See question 5: challenges!), but I believe I’ve learned how to crack the code to climb these peaks with the logistical and technical limitations I have.
In 2023, I have climbing and guiding objectives in Garhwal, Kumaon, Zanskar and Nepal, but my overarching ambition is to climb Nanda Devi East in a pure alpine style.
As told to Gourab Majumder, freelance content developer and adventure writer with Reccy.