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Frozen in Spiti: A look at India's first frozen waterfall-climbing film

India's first frozen waterfall-climbing film releases its trailer next week. Here's the gritty story of how it was made

On January 16, as the mighty, snow-capped Himalayan peaks glistened in the daylight, two 31-year-old mountaineers, Abhijeet Singh and Pranav Rawat, began their ascent to the 260-feet high frozen Shela waterfall.

Pranav Rawat uses an ice axe to gain foothold
Pranav Rawat uses an ice axe to gain foothold

Located 13,000 feet above sea level, the waterfall is formed by a tributary of the Spiti River passing through the Shela peak in Kaza, the headquarters of the cold and remote Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh. With temperatures swinging between minus 10 to minus 35 degrees Celsius during winter, the fall freezes.

Tracking the duo was a film crew, headed by Anchit Thukral, filmmaker and co-owner of Delhi-based production house, The Morpheus Productions. The idea: to make India's first frozen waterfall-climbing documentary.

Rawat ascends the frozen waterfall in Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh. Pics Courtesy/The Morpheus Productions
Rawat ascends the frozen waterfall in Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh. Pics Courtesy/The Morpheus Productions

"The team was excited but scared, as a single mistake could prove lethal. According to international standards in waterfall climbing, 260 feet is normal but the altitude makes it dangerous and difficult," recalls the 29-year-old director, who had already marked the vantage points for the crew along the steep terrain, based on a recce conducted four days prior.

Armed with five cameras, the team comprised 26-year-old Ankur Phougat (DOP and co-owner of the production house), an assistant director, three camerapersons (in mid-20s), three professional climbers and terrain experts and 23-year-old Sonica Rana, drone operator and the only woman on the team. The mountaineers wore GoPros, crampon-fixed shoes and carried ice axes.

The climbers (spot the dots) ascend the 260-feet high frozen Shela waterfall
The climbers (spot the dots) ascend the 260-feet high frozen Shela waterfall

"The ice was so thick, the axe, which could have otherwise cut through glacial ice, couldn't penetrate the wall even. Somehow, the climbers managed but their hands were swollen," says Thukral. Yet, the battle had just begun. As the sun set, temperatures dipped further. After a six-and-half-hour ascent, the duo spotted water flowing behind the thin ice at the peak of the waterfall.

"One wrong move would lead to the collapse of the ice slab and result in deaths. Calculating the risk, Pranav told Abhijeet not to climb ahead, but he was determined to. So, Pranav belayed him from below while standing on the wall," says the filmmaker. After Singh finished the climb, he belayed Rawat and the latter, ran the last few steps over the frozen waterfall, leading to India's first successful frozen waterfall ascent. And the crew had just filmed a major chunk of the footage for their upcoming documentary, The Fall.

An aerial view of the expedition
An aerial view of the expedition

Circa 2014
The idea of the film was born two years ago when Thukral, with five years of filmmaking experience, met Singh through a common friend. An MBA graduate from MICA in Gujarat, Singh is an adventure photographer, who has been on solo and group expeditions with the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF). Meanwhile, Rawat is an apple farmer from Himachal Pradesh, and also an adventure sports instructor.

Pranav Rawat and Abhijeet Singh
Pranav Rawat and Abhijeet Singh

"At that time, we planned a Zanskar trek to Ladakh, which has a 60 feet waterfall. We had booked for the trip too, but then, a landslide occurred and we had to defer our plan till the next season. Meanwhile, Singh made a trip to Spiti Valley and found that there are more waterfalls there that freeze during winters. These would be bigger and more challenging to climb," shares Thukral.

Pranav Rawat and Abhijeet Singh

The second climb
Post a successful ascent of Shela, the climbers also took on the 180-feet high Lingti waterfall (in the tiny hamlet of Lingti), formed due to an overflow from a small hydroelectric project in the Valley. However, the ice began to melt when Rawat was in the middle of his ascent on January 21.

"A gush of water and ice particles landed on him. In such a situation, it's dangerous to balance yourself with ice tools and crampons, so we cancelled the climb," says Thukral. The next day, a more confident Singh gave it a try and accomplished the ascent successfully. Invigorated, Rawat started again, but met the same fate.

"He was drenched, frustrated and angry. He descended, changed his gear, and once the water stopped flowing, returned to the waterfall to successfully finish his climb."

Abhijeet Singh and Pranav Rawat

Behind-the-scenes
With the overall budget of the film estimated at '35 lakh, it was put up for crowdfunding on TheHotStart. The team now needs '5 lakh to complete the post-production.

Abhijeet Singh and Pranav Rawat
Abhijeet Singh and Pranav Rawat

While they found a travel and production partner, IMF aided them with essential equipment. They have also certified it as India's first official ascent on a frozen waterfall. The indie Rock band, The Local Train has created the film's background score. The trailer is set to launch next week and the director intends to travel with the film on the world's adventure film festival circuit.

Watch out for the trailer of the fall on facebook.com/TheMorpheusProductions
To contribute to the project, Log on to www.thehotstart.com

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