Spending a winter in Spiti

As the winter welcomed spring, and the snow started melting during the daytime, I woke up in a  small guest room at Komic monastery, 4500m above sea level. My wrist watch kept on the side table displayed -6˚C and the blue water bottle, kept right next to it was full of ice. I reached for my boots, then struggled to put them on and after 15 minutes of trying to sqeeze my feet in the shoe, I gave up. They were frozen solid as I forgot to clean the accumulated slush from yesterdays hike. Even the 9 O’ clock sun failed to melt the snow on it. The outside temperature was -17˚C that morning. With half of my feet in my boots, I somehow managed to reach the monastery kitchen and a loud ‘Julley!’ by the monks greeted me. They suggested me to use  fireplace to melt the ice and it worked.

Trying to de-freeze my boots with the 9am sun at my room in Komic Monastery village of Spiti
Trying to de-freeze my boots with the 9am sun at my room in Komic Monastery village of Spiti

Last year, I moved to Spiti for an indefinite period and ended up staying there for six months, during the coldest seasons from November till April. This was a once in a lifetime experience that will surely be repeated again.

The idea of spending a winter in Spiti came in the summers as we spent a month hiking in the region. The project was conceptualised outside the community health centre of Kaza with the help of my friend Sangram, Dr. Tenzin Norbu (Dr. Bittu) and Tsering Bodh. We named it ‘Life in Spiti’ and soon after a month the website was launched. Tsering Bodh motivated me further and offered to arrange a comfortable stay during my winters. I went back to Chandigarh and started preparing for the winters. A lot of adventure gear and gadgets were ordered online from America, Canada and China.

So, on 1st November of 2014, I reached Spiti after a 500km solo drive from Chandigarh with car full of equipment. This was going to be my best winter.

Here are some pictures. I also answered few frequently asked questions about my stay at the end of this post.

Lady carrying snow shovels passed two kids on a narrow path in Kaza on a winter in Spiti
A Spiti lady carrying snow shovels passing two kids on a narrow path in Kaza on a winter in Spiti
Women at the last day of a week long prayer singing and dancing at Kaza
Women at the last day of a week long prayer, singing and dancing at the village prayer hall of Kaza
Badminton was the favourite workout before the ski season arrived. I dislocated my shoulder twice during the winter so had to quit playing.
Badminton was the favourite workout before the ski season arrived. I dislocated my shoulder twice during the winter so had to quit playing.
As it snows heavily, Tsering Dolma reading a prayer flag as she rests after a long day of clearing rooftop snow.
As it snows heavily, my hard working host Tsering Dolma reading a prayer flag as she rests after a long day of clearing rooftop snow.
People of Hikkim and Komic have to use this dangerous route after the motor-able road closes after heavy snowfall.
People of Hikkim, Komic and Langza use this dangerous route after the motor-able road gets covered with heavy snowfall.
In early spring, the farmers throw soil on the farmland to melt the snow.
In early spring, the farmers throw soil on the farmland to melt the snow.
People carve way from the hard ice with axes for the water during the Spring season, when the water melts during the day time creating streams inside the village
People carve a path to walk by breaking the hard ice with axes during the Spring season, when the water melts during the day time creating small streams inside the village
A girl dressed in traditional attire during the wedding waves at me.
Happy Spiti girls dressed in traditional attire during the wedding.

Here are some frequently asked questions from my stay in Spiti.

Why you wanted to spend a winter in Spiti?

I wanted to experience what its like to live in -30˚C and see how the people survive such harsh conditions.

What was the biggest challenge during this whole experience? 

Getting out of the bed was the biggest challenge for me. -2˚C was the average temperature when I woke up and -4˚C was the coldest it went in my room. So getting out in sub zero environment was the most difficult part. Specially during our skiing season when we got up at 5 in the morning, the coldest time of the day.

This is where I stayed during my winter in spiti. (Chimney was on the right corner)
This is where I stayed during my winter in spiti. Chimney (removed during spring) was on the right corner.

What surprised you the most?

People living happily without what we call basic facilities. There was no electricity for 45 days and everything was normal.

Lama Jamyang reading in the light of a solar powered lamp in his room in Komic Monastery in Spiti. Spiti sometimes experiences a power failure of more than a month in the winters and people rely on solar power for light.
Lama Jamyang reading in the light of a solar powered lamp in his room in Komic Monastery in Spiti. Spiti sometimes experiences a power failure of more than a month in the winters and people rely on solar power for light.

What was the most difficult part of spending a winter in Spiti. 

Any Spitian will agree with me that clearing the snow off the rooftops was the most difficult part. You have to get up early in the morning to start cleaning. Even if its snowing. The fragile mud rooftops can’t take the load of the snow.

What all did you learn there?

I learn’t to walk on different types of snow and basics of alpine skiing and a little bit of Spitian.

This year in April, when the top layer of snow gets as hard as a rock in the mornings, we would climb up the slope opposite Kaza till 4000m and practice off-piste skiing there. I, accompanied with @vikasrowpa and Tsering Bodh (@sakyaabode) would fill our bags with water and eatables and enjoy them at a rock at around 3500m. There is no place to sit up there. Everything is covered with more than 4ft of snow. Not many know how to ski in Spiti. We were using an iPhone app with video tutorials to learn and every morning at 6am, when the temperature would be around -10C, we would get up and start climbing for hours and practice our little known skills.
iPhone picture – This year in April, when the top layer of snow gets as hard as a rock in the mornings, we would climb up the slope opposite Kaza till 4000m and practice off-piste skiing there. I, accompanied with Dr. Vikas Rowpa and Tsering Bodh would fill our bags with water and eatables and enjoy them at the slope at around 3500m. There is no place to sit up there. Everything is covered with more than 4ft of snow. Not many know how to ski in Spiti. We were using an iPhone app with video tutorials to learn and every morning at 6am, when the temperature would be around -10C, we would get up and start climbing for hours and practice our little known skills.

What did you eat ?

Surprisingly, everyday was a nothing less than a feast for me. Every single day we used to start planning our dinner right after the lunch.

Momo being prepared at a Spiti home. Momos stuffed with chilly sauce is quite a frequent meal in Spiti. When its stuffed with Yak meat, it becomes a delicacy.
Momo being prepared at a Spiti home. Momos stuffed with meat is quite a common meal in Spiti. When its stuffed with Yak meat, it becomes a delicacy.

How cold did it get?

The lowest outdoor temperature recorded on my pocket weather station (kept on the roof of old Kaza) was -29˚C.
The lowest indoor temperature went down to -4˚C and the average would be -2˚C. I could increase it to around 10˚C with the personal fireplace.

How did you stay warm?

In ever Spiti home, there is one room that is kept warm with a fireplace throughout the day. Mostly it is the kitchen. My room also had a fireplace, that was only used to warm up the camera batteries and laptop. My 15 inch Macbook Pro is made of aluminium and it gets really cold during -2˚C and it won’t charge in that temperature.

I don’t like wearing too many clothes, as it limits the moment and is really uncomfortable; so I wore layers of clothes. One thin thermal layer. One fleece. One thin dawn feather jacket and if its really cold, one waterproof and windproof jacket.

How did you charge your cameras?

When there was no electricity for more than a month, we used generators and solar panels to charge the gadgets.

How effective is the postal service in the winters. Did you use it? 

I had Kaju Barfi shipped from Shimla via Speed Post in four days in December. So basically the post reaches on the HRTC bus and just as an experiment, I also ordered a book and badminton shuttlecocks on Amazon when the roads were closed in January. To my surprise, it reached successfully after a month. It was the first online shopping order that reached Spiti.

Any advice for the travellers reaching there in winters? 

Yes! Don’t bargain. Be generous.  Winter is not an off-season.  People are kind enough to let you stay because they are certain that you will die outside. Locals use their limited resources to host people and keep them comfortable and that costs a lot. There is no running water and electricity in the region during winters.  They are not earning from your winter stay. They are just using that amount of resources on you. Hospitality is their culture. Don’t use this for your benefit.

I saw tourists who wanted an accommodation with food for Rs. 500 in the month of January. That is what a burger costs in the cities. Don’t be such people.

Know More

To learn more about my stay, please follow ‘Life in Spiti’ and check out its ‘Behind the Scenes’ section. Everything updates frequently. You can also follow our Instagram Page

The Project
www.lifeinspiti.com

Instagram
www.instagram.com/lifeinspiti

Behind the Scenes
www.lifeinspiti.com/spiti/behind-the-scenes/

 

17 responses to Spending a winter in Spiti

  1. kitestream says:

    I love your story and photos, I have long been fascinated with Spiti so this is a wonderful insight. Thanks

  2. Jaanki says:

    I went to Komik while on a hike in 2001. I loved it and wished I could just park myself there for several months to meditate. Congratulations on spending the winter there – I know how cold it can be in the fall let alone the winter!! Your story is inspiring and makes me want to return to Spiti, even though I was last there in 2011.

  3. Himanshu Khagta says:

    Thanks Saahil!
    Glad you liked the post. Cheers!

  4. Himanshu Khagta says:

    Hi Jaanki!
    You definitely should. It is am amazing place.

  5. Amar patel says:

    Great words 🙂

    Totally with ur words.. for ” advice for the travelers reaching there in winters ”
    have been there in 2002 in summer from Gujarat road trip. i feel this part culture and Life are more Rich then Ladakh. i have been Ladakh in Winter yet to be here one day.

  6. Raj says:

    Hi !

    I really enjoyed your article and experiences. I am planning a trip to Spiti. Would you have any idea about the Ki Gompa (Monastery) ?

  7. william van hamme says:

    great stuff , in particular like your comment on being generous when staying high up in the mountains. had a smile when reading about frozen boots in the morning which brought back memories of identical situation when crossing Larkya La Manaslu trek in early spring 2015 and stay in Zanskar for 2 months in 2008. thank heavens for momo’s .
    kind regards & keep up your new way of life.
    william

  8. sachu says:

    read all d unfolding stories of virgin land..written by u…Bravo !!!!

  9. Himanshu Khagta says:

    Hi! Thanks! It is the first place on the tourist circuit of Spiti. Check out lifeinspiti.com for more info

  10. Himanshu Khagta says:

    Thanks William!
    You have to be generous when they are doing so much for you.
    Your Zanskar stay sounds amazing.
    Greetings!
    Cheers!

  11. Himanshu Khagta says:

    Thanks a lot Sachu!
    Wait for a lot more!

  12. Neogy says:

    Nice story and lovely photos as always. Looking forward for more.

  13. Tashi Singh says:

    Thanks for visting our place and posting such good photographs.

  14. Soumitro Mukherjee says:

    If we plan a drive during the last week of the year, are there any chances of getting a clear sky?

  15. Himanshu Khagta says:

    Sky is always clear in Spiti. There are hardly any gloomy days. Just be careful of the ice and snow on the road. Don’t risk if you have never driven on Snow before.

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