high-altitude-climbing

10

An adventurous hike to Chakar Hermitage བྱ་དཀར་རི་ཁྲོད། (White Bird Hermitage)

One of my Tibetan friends here is a keen hiker and explorer just like me, so a couple of weeks ago he suggested we go on an adventure together to reach the ruins of Chakar Hermitage, perched on a precarious rocky cliff high above the south bank of the Lhasa river. 

Beginning our hike in the Shel Valley, about 20 minutes drive south-east of Lhasa, we could see the square shape of the hermitage high above us as our goal. Any path that might have existed once was now long gone, so we had to find our own way up the steep mountainside, which meant mostly just climbing straight upwards with the occasional horizontal diversion to find gentler slopes. 

It was fairly hard work, but in no time we found we’d come quite high already and we could make out more details of the structure we were climbing to. The clouds were low and dark, and light snow fell in flurries around us as we continued to climb. 

The two hours it took us to reach the beginning of the ruins felt like so much longer because of how exhausting it was - we’d ascended 900m almost straight up, and were now at 4500m above sea level on the top of a mountain. 

Now we could see clearly the remains of the hermitage - it used to be a watchtower, originally, and a better location surely could not be found for that purpose. Built onto an easily defendable outcrop of jagged rocks, it commanded 360 degree views of the valleys below. Now, the remnants of various small buildings and a stone staircase between them cling precariously to the cliffs, looking like all that’s needed to bring them down is one strong storm. 

We carefully navigated our way around the cliffs to the staircase, which is where our hands-on vertical climbing began in earnest because many of the original steps have since fallen away into the valleys below, leaving sheer sections of rock behind them. It was terrifying, and my hands were numb from the cold, but my adrenalin was pumping so I was loving the thrill. In another five to ten years when the ruins have been weather-beaten even more, there may no longer be a way to reach the top ruin at all. 

We both breathed easier when we made it safely to the solid ground in front of the ruins, and looked around at the sight of snow falling on the mountains on every side, and the eastern edges of Lhasa city in the valley far below. 

Inside the ruins we found a small relatively recently made shelter that must be the new hermitage. Signs of life were around - blankets, candles, offering bowls - but it looked like no one had lived here for several months at least. What a location to choose to live in! 

Stepping outside once again, we saw a snowstorm moving very quickly towards us from the eastern mountains, so hurried to get down the cliff-staircase before it hit us. 

Given the rapidly deteriorating weather scenario on the mountaintop where we were, it was decided that the route we came up would be too steep to descend safely, so we ventured deeper into the valley in search of a safer, gentler route down. 

Within ten minutes of leaving the ridge line the snowstorm was upon us. It wasn’t too bad at first, so we kept going, but pretty soon it was coming in horizontally at us and we were having trouble seeing where we were going. We reached another area of ruins and some hermitage caves, so ducked into one for some shelter to have a snack and re-energise ourselves for the return journey that was becoming more and more difficult with each passing minute. 

Meanwhile the snow continued to build up outside the cave, and we knew that we should leave soon to find our way back before it continued to get deeper or darkness came. So we ventured out into the bitingly cold snowstorm and tried to guess our way down. 

We only got a little lost, I think, but never too seriously, as we carefully made our way down the now slippery mountain slopes in search of the bottom of the valley where we began our hike that afternoon. My friend fell several times, and I fell a couple of times too, but we were in good spirits and smiling and laughing at our adventure the whole way down. I think we were both enjoying the snowstorm too much to be worried or down about it. 

Finally, we found a road! We then lost it again, but at least it was a good sign that we were nearing civilisation. Soon we walked past a small house that we recognised from earlier, and then at last we spotted the village of Shel that was our starting point that afternoon. 

It’d taken us two hours of steep climbing to reach the ruined hermitage, then four hours of careful venturing through a snowstorm to get back down. We were exhausted and shivering, but still laughing about the crazy adventure we had in the snow.