Your springboard for hardcore mountaineering - with all the features and challenges of an expedition at a comfortably lower altitude, Friendship Peak is perfect if you want to up your trekking game by a notch or three! Situated at the convergence of two major ranges in the Lesser Himalayas - Dhauladhar and Pir Panjal - near the Beas Kund glacier, Friendship Peak is one of the most popular treks for its accessibility and jaw-dropping views. Standing at an altitude of 5,289M, its smooth slopes and craggy ridges have been a magnet for adventurers who see this as an initiation into high-altitude climbing.
Apart from its magical landscape, mountain enthusiasts find their evenings on the trail filled with the infamous name-the-peak game. No matter in which direction you point, your finger is likely to land on a revered peak. Apart from being an amphitheater for some of the greatest peaks, we get especially excited about its various features which prove to be a delight for alpine-style climbing - temperature shifts, glacial moraines, heaps of ice and snow, steep climbs, crevasses, slippery slopes, harsh climate - you name it, you got it! It has all the features of a high altitude climb with all of the risks, at a comfortably lesser altitude.
We took it upon ourselves to dig into our experiences from the trail and distill the expedition down to all its major highlights.
Highlight 1: Easy Access and Drive to Dhundi
If you live away from the North of India, travelling to the Himalayas comes with an enormous cost in terms of time getting to and from the mountain. The Friendship Peak trek starts from Manali – which is a popular tourist destination. Outside of the time on the mountain, you get to start and finish your trek in a place which is well-connected from all major cities - cutting down on extra travel. What’s even better is that the trail keeps you off the grid the entire week but puts you back on at just the right moments so you can share the most beautiful parts of the trail with your loved ones. While there is no network on any of the campsites, you get network on the col and on the peak as a reward for your achievement.
The trailhead is an hour’s drive away from Manali and takes you through some of the most expansive and picturesque landscapes. Snaking through smooth mountain roads, the short drive takes you through Solang Valley which, in all its glory, is a haven for various adventure sports like paragliding when the weather and winds are kind. In extreme winters it provides for very tempting ski slopes.
With the playful Beas River running alongside the whole time, you will reach the start point of the trek, Dhundi (3,150 M) before you can blink twice! The journey is a curious mix of bustling towns and silent empty stretches until we hit another town with shops and hotels and all the shebang. The sight of locals going about their business and the peculiar stone-structured houses are a pleasing sight - giving us a tiny glimpse into the social and economic make-up of mountain living.
Highlight 2: Assortment of Landscape
You are in the midst of beauty as soon as you begin. Just like Santa’s stockings, there are all kinds of surprises waiting to be found along the way. With every step forward, it’s hard to imagine that the landscape could get any better, but better it does get! The changing terrain trumps your imagination every time, almost with the zeal of winning a challenge. Once at Dhundi, you can actually taste the river that had been playing touch and go for almost the entire length of the drive from Manali to Dhundi. Walking alongside the roaring gush of the self-assured Beas river in itself has the quality to instill a burst of sparkle in your demeanor and a spring in your step. Not too long into the trek, it has already started unpacking some of the surprises it had promised. If you can manage to take your eye away from the icy water swooshing over and around the defenseless boulders, crisscrossing its way along the path, you will see the Seven Sisters looking right at you from above.
It is justified then that you would want to sit in silence and admire the beauty in front of you, as it presents itself, but there’s solace in the knowledge that it only gets better from here.
A walk from this relatively easy muddy path slowly turns into an upward incline in high grass. The trail gets narrower, the slopes get steeper and the winds grow a new set of teeth. As you continue your climb, from wide-open spaces, you find yourself walking farther and farther away from the sounds of civilization to an assortment of howling winds and soothing chirps of the birds - sometimes even screaming silence with the rustle of dry leaves crushing under your footsteps as you walk. Tall ferns, taller trees, and the ground stapled with pine needles – you have now entered the enchanting forest. It is not a difficult climb but it has a sense of elasticity – it seems to stretch on because there is just so much for the brain to process and store. Once above the treeline, you are invited to open lands with mountains covered with all shades of green. From this height, you get a glorious view of the entire valley below. Take the time to absorb the sights, the sounds, and the taste of the air from this beautiful part of the world because you are now about to enter the zone where your senses are likely to surrender part of their efficiency to the cold.
To reach our first campsite, you have to do something peculiar. Take your shoes and your socks off, tie them together – hang them around your neck, roll up your pants and dip your feet in icy cold glacial water to cross the stream. If you are fearful or in doubt, there’s plenty of mountain sheep who’d lead the way to show you how it’s done!
The trail has some of the most beautiful campsites waiting to be wandered and explored. This one, in particular, is littered with hundreds of baying sheep, curious dogs, and unfettered horses all taking turns to come sniffing your necks like gentle lovers. The campsite also opens up a show of even bigger peaks and gives you the first sight of your target – Friendship Peak.
The next campsite, Lady Leg – which is curiously shaped like a leg and hence the name, is three hours away from here. You get a front-row seat to a dramatic cloud show, bursting colors, and of course grand mountain peaks at this campsite. Friendship peak looks really accessible from here – in fact, it looks like it’s a stone-throw away (of course that’s only if you are Hercules). As you sit there squinting your eyes and twisting your neck in all directions to figure out the obscure shape of the leg, the toilet seats have gotten a bit chillier but the bathroom views are all the rage.
We know it’s hard with the cold, but do try to get up early in the morning to witness the sun showering its golden light on the icy dome of the mighty Hanuman Tibba to one side and a gradual show of colors on the Pir Panjal range on the distant mountains on the other side.
This campsite is your last chance to soak in the freshness of the glow of rolled-up ferns and the morning dew from the green grass. From here on, we will be making our way into a snowy wonderland. If white had 50 shades, here is where you will find all of them. It’s a wide expanse of monochrome with little glimpses of brown from the exposed rocks. What it lacks in variety of color, it makes up for in its interesting, almost galactic landscape. Random snow blocks jutting out from the ground in various shapes make your climb anything but easy and everything but boring. The formations in the snow, the colors when it interacts with the light and all its heights and depressions, it is a whole different world.
The beauty of the trail is that each terrain you encounter needs special skills and getting used to. Green meadows, tall forests, mushy ground, prickly trees, high boulders, deep snow, pushy streams, and violent winds, it’s got it all. Each time you find yourself getting comfortable with a specific terrain, it’s time to move on to the next phase – it is almost like the mountain is teasing you to push you out of your comfort zone – are you up for the game?
Highlight 3: It has an Elite Circle of Neighbours
We are sure it is humble about this but Friendship Peak runs in some influential circles. The climb along the way presents surprises in the form of glimpses of the highest peaks in the Pir Panjal and Dhauladhar ranges.
(Disclaimer: some major-name dropping is now about to begin.)
This 6,001M challenging peak which lies in the Pir Panjal Range gives you a balmy smile from your far right on the Advance Base Camp. It is also one of the peaks you witness the sun rising over when you are at the col during Summit Push. This peak finds its acclaim in being highly technical and fairly elusive in the sense that it is very rare to find favorable circumstances to be able to scale the mountain all the way to the summit.
At the height of 6,221M, Mt. Indrasan is considered the most perilous mountain to climb in the Pir Panjal range. Apart from that, legend has it that this peak makes the landing strip for Lord Indra whenever he makes his way down to Earth.
This imposing peak stands at an altitude of 5,250M.
With an altitude of 5,982M, this is the highest peak in the Dhauladhar Range. Its silent gaze is a constant guide from the time you reach ABC to the time you summit. It gives you some of the best morning visuals as the golden sundew slowly settles in on the icy dome of the peak each morning.
This sacred pond which is believed to be the origin of the holy Beas River is a two-hour trek from Advance Base Camp. If you do not want to go all the way down to the pond, an easy 20-minute hike from your camping site at Lady Leg (ABC) will get you some brilliant bird’s eye views of this pond housed in an igloo-like structure sitting in the heart of the valley – who knows, the vibe of the place may bring an epic out of you too!
Highlight 4: Midnight climb
There’s something about waking up in the middle of the night, suited with all your gears, and lined up with a white trail of head torches in the light of the moon in freezing temperature that gives you the feeling of a professional mountaineer and hence all the drive of one too. Summit Day is a test of your grit and a firm reminder of the fact that ‘a lot can happen in a day’
A continuous climb on wide icy slopes and the achievement of making it to the summit come with bragging rights. The entire journey takes you about 16 hours of walking, all within a span of one single day. Let no one convince you that this is a small feat for the height of the mountain – climbing this ‘little’ peak is nothing to throw a stick at. Navigating the large snowy boulders and all kinds of textures of the snow in the thick of the night comes with its own level of exhilaration. You are likely to experience a tiny tinge of a halo around you for having attempted this deed which is a complete test of your mettle.
Highlight 5: Sunrise from the Col
Halfway into the continuous vertical climb on the wide, icy slopes of Friendship Peak on Summit Day, you are met with the most splendid sight - sunrise from the col!
After starting out at 12 AM with little food and barely any sleep, the visual that awaits you at 5 AM is sure to swallow the weariness of 5 hours of steep climbing and glimmers with greater intensity in your mind than others.
There is something about its warm ascend beside you that feels like an embrace after a chilly night. The snowy peaks reflecting the scarlet sun and the play of oranges and purples across distant peaks – its radiance can survive the frailties of memory.
The recollection of witnessed glories sure makes the rest of the climb easier and persists within you long after you are off the mountain and back to the grind of general existence. The memory is likely to burn within you as hot as faith.
Highlight 6: A springboard for hardcore mountaineering
Like we mentioned before, Friendship Peak is seen as the bridge between trekking and mountaineering. Although identified by IMF as a trekking peak, it has all the features of an expedition. The peak, as small as it may be, does not allow you to cut corners.
Along with the difficult climb and an even more trying terrain, the peak forces you to learn some hardcore mountaineering techniques such as roping up, ascend and descend in snow, the use of snow boots and crampons, and of course physical and mental endurance. The difference between trek and expedition hits you the hardest when you have to take your hands out of your gloves to be able to put your metal crampons on during a night climb, in sub-zero temperature; all while standing on a narrow ledge on the face of the mountain with a heavy sack on your back.
Another factor that brings it closer in nature to an expedition is load ferry. You can offload your bag on all other days except for Summit Day. Once you are at Summit Camp, the motto is ‘you bring-you carry’. At such an altitude, with killer temperature and fierce winds, every gram in your sack feels like a kilogram. Well, if nothing else, the mountain will teach you how to travel light – tell you the difference between essential and dispensable. By the time you are on your way back from the summit, you will realize you already have a wider vocabulary and a better handle on mountaineering lingo – you would be able to name all types of terrain, be adept at using technical equipment, and would have learned about most of the climbing techniques.
Climb this peak for much more than a view from the top; it has an awful lot to offer!