Sheer Bliss

The Maharaja of Tehri Garhwal is an important man. His kingdom is not necessarily one of great riches or political significance; but one more profound—a regency of stories,  culture and myth. The Maharaja’s palace is spectacularly located at Narendra Nagar, about 18 km above Rishikesh, overlooking the Ganga and the lush spread of the Doon valley. The Rawals, or hereditary priests of the Kedar-Badri shrines, high up in the Garhwal Himalayas, gather here every spring to decide the date on which the temples will be reopened after their winter hibernation, making this palace central to the mythos of the area. The building is itself of relatively new vintage, dating back to 1895, when Maharaja Narendra Shah shifted his capital from the high Himalayas to this outcrop overlooking Rishikesh and the Terai forests. The nearby village of Odathali was at this time rechristened Narendra Nagar.

Looking across the main lawn of Ananda. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

Once a favourite of the Viceroys, Indian royalty and other social elites, the palace and its surrounding grounds are today the property of the world-class luxury spa destination—Ananda in the Himalayas. The current Maharaja Manujendra Shah still owns the main palace precincts, with Ananda managing the palace annexe, including the magnificent Viceregal Suite and the sprawling green grounds.

I arrived there late at night after a gruelling seven-hour drive from Delhi, feeling that I could use all the rejuvenation I could possibly get.The plan was to savour the delights of Ananda, as well as to explore the fascinating lower Himalayan foothills of Tehri Garhwal; often passed over by the average mountaingoer in favour of the more glamorous scenery of the Greater Himalayan Range further north.

The location couldn’t have been better chosen. Ananda stands on a spur of the first wave of thickly forested ridges directly above Rishikesh. By virtue of its position, you get a panoramic view of not only the Ganga as it winds languorously towards the northern plains, but also of the hazy ridges stretching away to the west and east. A few thousand feet below lies the immense carpet-like spread of Rajaji National Park, itself a part of the northern Terai forests that stretch from the foothills of HimachalPradesh in the west, to the plains of Assam in the east. Far to the west, you can see Dehradun, jewel of the Doon valley, and even the lights of Mussoorie on a clear night.

The Ganges winds out of the foothills from Rishikesh. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

Of all the luxury hotels and resorts that I have visited, Ananda ranks among the best. The staff exudes a genuine warmth and consideration, and will go quite far out of their way to ensure that you have a comfortable stay. The spa has an extensive range of arrangements for different tastes, and I had no trouble at all getting help to do the things that I wanted to do. Ananda is designed to be a holistic retreat, and it fulfills these goals admirably with an excellent staff of masseurs, yoga and Ayurveda experts. What’s more, there’s delectable food to be had that can be made to suit you. Depending on the packages that one would like to avail, as well as any sightseeing one would like to do, the resort makes a detailed itinerary for its patrons.

I set out one morning with my guide Dinesh, to hike to the local temple of Kunjapuri, an old Shakti Peeth (Centre of Power). According to legend, it is here that the breasts of Parvati landed when the god Vishnu cut down her corpse to stop Shiva’s cataclysmic dance of rage. The temple of Kunjapuri is located on a peak looming some 6,000 feet above the Ganges valley, a six to seven km walk from Narendra Nagar. Trekking up through the forests and occasional villages early in the morning is an invigorating experience. Although I have reasonably good mountain feet, I was soon cursing my general lack of fitness and my thoughts were straying to Ananda’s massage centre. But, as Dinesh said, mountains are the best elliptical cross trainers in the world, and soon I was breathing regularly and my thigh muscles gradually ceased screaming.

Rent by the gorge that the Ganga cuts through, The foothills march on. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

Coming out of the green cover at the top is an exhilarating experience. Rounding the steepest bend of the ridge directly below the temple steps, you are greeted by a mountain panorama of the kind only Uttarakhand can provide. Behind and below lay the Doon valley, and the North Indian plains under a thick haze. To the west stretched out the unending roll of the lower Himalayas. I could see the gorge that the Ganges sculpts for itself on its way down from Devprayag, the confluence of the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda rivers. In front, going north, lay the waves of ridges that make up the middle Himalayas, rising in a steep gradient until finally the view was arrested by the glittering white wall of the Great Himalayan Range; massive jagged peaks and glacier systems stretching from the borders of Himachal Pradesh in the misty west to the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand in the east.

Panorama of the eastern Garhwal peaks of the Himalayan range including (l-r) Kharchakund, the Satopanth Group, Satopanth, Sumeru Parbat, Mandani Parbat, Chaukhamba, and Neelkanth from Ranichouri forest in Tehri-Garhwal. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

I have passed through Rishikesh countless times in my travels into the mountains, but never had I imagined that such views existed a mere hour from the town! The temple is a pretty structure painted in warm white and orange. Though the outer structure was built in the early eighties, the inner sanctum and idol look immensely old.

The Kunjapuri temple, ten km from Narendra Nagar in Tehri-Garhwal. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

From the highest point to the low, I made my way down Rishikesh. Of great religious interest to the Hindus, as well as the main hub for trekking and rafting in the area, Rishikesh is a fascinating town. Dotted with ashrams belonging to various sects, the Ganges winds its way down from the gorge and flows out onto the plains here. An ancient centre for yoga and Ayurveda, as well as for foreign backpackers looking for a simplified Indian spiritual experience, Rishikesh is a complex melange of sights and sounds that threaten to overwhelm you with sheer detail, until you sit down by the Ganges, close your eyes, and realise that it’s all maya.

From BT MORE April 2010


Free as a Bird

Winding down the twisting roads through the highlands of the Kangra valley, the sight that greets you about an hour before Kangra town is breathtaking. Up north, the gentle swell of the rolling uplands suddenly come up smack against an incredibly high jagged wall that dominates the horizon. The wall it seems, goes on forever, running in a long unbroken stretch from the east to the west, like a mythical barrier guarding some forbidden paradise.

At an average height of 14,000 feet, the Dhauladhar range isn’t as large as the other Himalayan sub-ranges of Himachal Pradesh, but it is certainly one of the most dramatic. Rising 12,000 feet from valley floor to ridge-top, this serrated range looms over the landscape, clad in a thick coat of snow and ice that only relents in the rainy months.

The Dhauladhar wall rearing up over Triund. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

Monsoon is hardly the best time to go for this trek, and with the abnormally heavy rains this year, we were told roundly by all comers that it was madness. However, two things were in our favour. One, our guides were of local Gaddi stock, the dominant community of much of the Chamba and Kangra region. Mostly traditional shepherds, they know every valley and pass around the Dhauladhar and Mani Mahesh ranges, which form their old homeland of Gadderan. The second was that one of my companions, Amrita, was a trained mountaineer who had participated in several big expeditions. Brought together, these two factors played a big part in assuaging any fears I might have had.

As we limbered into McLeodganj one Monday morning, the signs were not encouraging. The Dhauladhar was cloaked in thick clouds and it was raining hard. In a way, it was better this way. Once you’re soaked through, you pretty soon get used to the idea.

The first thing to do was to meet Jagdish and Gulab, our companions for the next 10 days. Jagdish, a stocky, solid man with a shy and retiring nature had been guiding in the area since 1979. His compatriot Gulab was a wiry 26-year-old father of two with ankles of steel, an irresistible charmer and an ardent believer in the powers of direttissimo-the most direct route over any obstacle.

Gulab (left) and Jagdish. Picture by Amrita Dhar

Although we had planned to stay an entire day at McLeodganj and re-pack our sacks and shop for fresh vegetables and other foodstuffs, Jagdish was of the opinion that we shouldn’t waste any time in the prevailing weather and make directly for Triund, some 10 km and 3,000 feet above us. We scattered in different directions for one last burst of provision shopping. A hearty breakfast, numerous cups of tea and some ruthless repacking later-in which we discarded most of our surplus clothes and trekking luxuries-we were off climbing steep country tracks through the resinscented pine forest of Dharamkot.

By the time we reached Triund a few hours later, the unique agony of carrying a 12 kg rucksack on my back was beginning to tell. We huffed and puffed our way over the final rise and collapsed, dripping with sweat and rain, at one of the four tea-shops that are a fixture here. We quickly took over an old colonial-era forest hut and made copious cups of tea and struggled to get our things dry. It was raining as hard as ever, and there wasn’t much else to do but cook a quick dinner and fall asleep hoping fervently for a clear dawn.

This was not to be. We woke up to what has to be the most dispiriting sight while on a trek-thick clouds and driving rain. So much for our hopes to get an early start to Lahesh cave higher up the range. If it kept raining like this we wouldn’t even be able to start later during the day, as the ferocious nalas higher up would be in full spate, making any crossing a treacherous business. With not much to do, we decided to concentrate on acclimatising our bodies to the high altitude of Triund, following the mantra of eat, drink, sleep, move. To ensure that the brain adjusts itself quickly to the rigours of rarefied air, it is essential to drink lots of water, take short naps, and climb to a height higher than that of the camp before returning to it for hot food. The rain had subsided for a bit, and so after a quick shut-eye, we started out climbing halfway up to Lahesh.

Amrita, a rock climbing teacher, took me and KP, my other companion, up rock faces of varying difficulty, giving us tips on how to make the best use of even a tiny finger-hold. By the time we returned to the hut a few hours later, exhausted and exhilarated, the Dhauladhar revealed itself after being lost in clouds for two whole days. High up into the sky climbed the rocky pinnacle of Mon peak and I could just about see the Indrahar Pass as a tiny notch high up on the forbidding ridge. We went to sleep that night fervently praying for a cloudless morning.

And so it proved! The sky was as overcast as ever, but for a change it wasn’t raining and we could see far up the main range. A quick breakfast and we were soon making our steady progress up the ridge, keeping our fingers crossed for good weather. After a couple of hours we reached the treeline at the grazing ground of Laka Got. We were roughly half-way up to the cave, and from here, the trail led over steep boulders. The mist was closing in again and we figured that we had barely an hour of dry weather. So, resting long enough to have a cup of tea, we went on through intricate boulder mazes occasionally lit up by bright splashes of alpine flowers. The rain started, moving from a light drizzle to a downpour, but we had no choice but to keep moving. After jumping over a torrential nala, and climbing over ever-steep and now slippery boulders, we finally crawled into Lahesh, a large, low natural cave formed by two massive overhanging boulders. It was only early afternoon and soon after we finished lunch, our elusive friend the sun finally shone through. It was a pleasure to go through our acclimatisation routine in bright sunshine, surrounded by massive, sombre boulders. Hanging over our heads, like a petrified wave almost a thousand feet above, lay the massive Mon peak and the tiny Indrahar pass.

The next day was crucial, as we would be constantly exposed to wind and rain and possible rock falls the entire length of the day’s trek, till we reached the camping ground of Chhata Parao on the other side of the pass. Although misty, there was no rain, so thanking our lucky stars we set off in semi-darkness at 6 am. The enterprising Gaddi shepherds have since time immemorial built and maintained a vertical stairway of boulders up to the pass. Although it took every bit of our strength and stamina, we were finally upon the Indrahar pass (4350 m) five hours later, just as the sun was breaking through the clouds to shine upon the Triund ridge, now far below us.

Jagdish descending the norhtern face of the Indrahar Pass. Picture by Amrita Dhar

The jagged Dhauladhar ridge marched off into the clouds on either side and below us was our steep descent skirting rotting glaciers into the Ravi river valley, a two day long march away. My exhilaration knew no bounds as I gazed upon the distant panorama of the soaring Pir Panjal range, extending all the way to the west, right into Kashmir.

However, you don’t stop for too long at a place this exposed in inclement weather, and our long knee-shattering descent into the Kuarsi valley began. At first over steep rocks, and then hopping over boulders, we descended towards a patch of green some 3,000 feet below us in the valley. Around us were the rocky peaks of the Dhauladhar with quaint titles like Arthur’s Seat, Two-Gun and the Coolins, named by old British armymen who first climbed them.

Soon we were jumping over ever widening side-streams coming down to join the main Kuarsi nala. The weather, which had behaved itself up till now, proceeded to unravel. A thick mist soon surrounded us and loud thunder reverberated around the cirque of rocky peaks that we’d just left, while we floundered our way through waisthigh weeds and stinging nettles. Flogging our path with an ice axe we reached camp late in the day.

Looking down the Kuarsi valley. Picture by Amrita Dhar

The next morning was gloriously fine, and we immediately took the opportunity to try and dry our things. We still had to leave quickly since the main Kuarsi nala had to be crossed before it swelled with ice-melts from the glaciers upstream. When we reached it, the river was thundering down, and the main channel was too deep and swift for us to wade through. So Gulab and Jagdish cut up two fallen pine tree trunks and lashed them together as a temporary bridge. We edged carefully across the swiftly moving water, conscious that the slightest misstep would create a very difficult situation for the whole group. It was veritable heart-inmouth stuff. Next came landslide zones-mushy vertical slopes which continued to slide slowly down the mountain as we walked as fast as possible across them, plunging our feet deep into the gooey earth to find stable purchase.

Thankfully, this too passed without mishap, and soon we were having a hearty lunch by a beautiful brook amidst pine groves and rolling meadows. We were reminded of the land’s wildness when we came across the carcass of a cow stripped clean by a bear. It was the final lap before reaching the village of Kuarsi an old hometown of the Gaddis who first came here in the 12th and 13th centuries. We camped for the night in the wooden temple of Indru Naga which dominates the village.

The Naga temple at Kuarsi. Picture by Amrita Dhar

My only grouch had been that the peak of the Mani Mahesh Kailash had been hidden from us by the monsoon clouds. One of Shiva’s five abodes in the Himalayas-the holiest of which is Mt Kailash in Tibet-it is a beautiful peak of stern majesty. Imagine my glee then, as I peered out from the temple window the next morning and saw the Kailash standing tall, its pinnacle seemingly floating over the boiling clouds as a spectral sun shone through the vapours.

It had been a hard trek, with many knocks and quite a few scares. But, bathed in that early morning glow, it seemed like we were living in a state of grace, surrounded by these incredible people and their old culture.

From BT MORE October 2010

Binsar Diary

Binsar, 7,913 feet
8:10 am, 27.2.2009
KMVN lodge
Woke up an hour and a half ago from a deep, deep sleep. The windows of our wood-panelled room face east, and there was bright sunshine streaming in. As the people at the KMVN brought us tea, I looked out of the window and there was the sun, a ball of fire rising over the misty lower ranges towards Pithoragarh. From this height it almost seemed that the sun was shining below me! Priyo was up as well, and peering north through a corner of our garden-facing window he exclaimed that he could see a couple of indistinct peaks.
Right! We quickly rushed out to the terrace, shivering slightly in the early morning nip. Wish I could describe the sight. The lower ridges of Kumaon lay spread out below us, the mountain of Binsar being higher than anything in its immediate vicinity. Up north, the ridges gradually swelled up gradually until my eyes leaped up in one breathtaking sweep to a fantastic 180 degree arc of snow peaks. I can’t describe the thrill I felt. My first sight of the Great Himalayan range in exactly a decade! From the west to east ran a fabled line of peaks- Trishul, Nanda Ghunti, Sunderdhunga Col, the Maikitoli ridge and the peak of Panwali Dwar on the outer curtain ridge of the Nanda Devi sanctuary; and rising like a cathedral spire behind Panwali Dwar, the majestic twin peaks of Nanda Devi. It is the view to end all views. The peaks were slowly turning from mysterious silhouettes to jagged teeth of white and gold as the sunlight crept over them.

The main Kumaoni peaks; from left to right: Trisul, Maikitoli ridge, Sunderdungha Col, Panwali Dwar, and rearing up behind Panwali Dwar- Nanda Devi. Picture by Priyodorshi Banerjee

To the east of Nanda Devi lay other great peaks- the Nanda Gond, Changuch, Rajrambha and the peaks of the Milam glacier; and then the beautiful five peaks of the Panchachuli (actually you can see only four of the five peaks). The peaks further east in Nepal were indistinct in the golden morning haze. From Binsar, the Greater Himalayan range is a mere 25 km as the crow flies, the closest point being Trishul.
As we watched, a sudden plume of snow started blowing from the 7,900m peak of Nanda Devi. The patron goddess of Garhwal and Kumaon must be making breakfast, as the local people believe. The immense size and scope of the range really hits you from a vantage point like this. All sleep faded from my eyes.
The KMVN guest-house is wonderfully basic. The rooms have no electricity- in keeping with the forest department’s norms- and are candle-lit by night. The people have just brought us two steaming buckets of water.

The KMVN guest-house at Binsar. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

9:30 AM. A quick note at the Forest Rest House. After that vision at dawn, we freshened up and went down for breakfast. Thankfully there was just us, along with a couple of other scattered people. Not many people come to Binsar at this time of the year, as the weather’s still predominantly cold, especially in the evenings. The real deluge comes in the summer months, as battalions of cars from as near as Almora and as far away as Delhi disgorge tourists here. Whatever people were there stay at the resorts outside the forest limits, where amenities such as electricity and cable tv could be enjoyed. Despite the lack of people, The KMVN guys had set out a large breakfast of toast, butter, alu paratha and coffee and tea.

Priyo and I ate quickly as we were anxious to check out our reservation at the Forest Rest House. I was happy enough with KMVN, but Priyo was adamant about utilise his booking, and I agreed with him that if we had the chance for greater solitude, we should actively court it. So we set off up from the clearing where KMVN was situated and headed off into the forest. Ignoring a wide path that branched off to our right we continued down the tarred road, until it got us to the FRH a few minutes later.

The Forest Rest House in Binsar. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

The FRH occupies a large clearing in the forests on a south east spur of the range, overlooking the road to Almora. New outhouses, and additional accomodation dot the path that leads to the old Rest House, a large, magnificent bungalow with a red sloping corrugated iron roof. Set to one side are four huge deodhars, truly gods among trees. At first we didn’t find anyone there. Then we saw a man sleeping on a grassy sward below one of the outhouses, with a towel on his face to block the sun. We called to him. A wizened old man emerged, from behind the towel. He greeted us in a lackadaisically cheerful way. Priyo then proceeded to explain to him in atrocious hindi of the booking he had made with the Corbett National Park head-office in Ramnagar for this guest-house. The man seemed doubtful. But as Priyo explained the procedure he had undergone to book it, from the many phone calls to the faxes, the man- who was evidently the caretaker- became more interested.

We introduced ourselves. The man was called Govind, a wildlife warden and caretaker of the FRH. He first tried to get us to accept one of the newer bungalows. It looked very comfortable, but we obviously wanted the old one- the real deal. Govind was a little doubtful as he was expecting a Forestry big-wig the next day, and hadn’t recieved any news of our booking from Ramnagar. I guess we looked sincere enough, and pleading, so he told us to get some lunch, and come back in the afternoon while he got one of the two rooms at the old bungalow cleaned. Then he would try and reach Ramnagar on the wireless to confirm our booking. Meanwhile, we could stay at the main bungalow till the Forestry guy arrived, whenever that was. We could always shift to the newer bungalow.

11:30 AM.  Sitting on the watchtower at Zero Point in Binsar.This sadly isn’t the rickety, tall iron watchtower of old. That one finally collapsed a couple of years ago, to be replaced by this sturdy brick and mortar one. This one though doesn’t clear the canopy and the trees cut off the views to the north-west towards Garhwal. But the Kumaoni panorama is quite stunning.

The clouds are rising up the face of Nanda Devi. Of the entire range actually. Dense battalions of fluffy cirrus clouds march upon the snow giants on the horizon.Looking towards Nepal…heh, just saying so seems so strange. Nepal. Well, when you’re standing on your terrace, you will see other houses, neighbours. Anyway, towards Nepal, beyond the horizon, I can make out ghosts of peaks, Dhaulagiri and the Annapurna group.  Right under me lies the wide valleys and deep gorges of Kumaon, shimmering greens and browns, rivers far away glinting in the clear daylight. Its a marvellous sight, the ridges ebbing and and swelling in n unbroken chain to the north and east. The farthest ridges fade into the intense sun-haze that lies across the waist of the great range Its like looking at some distant magical land from the forest at its doorway.

The ridges and valleys of Kumaon sloping off into the early morning sun-haze. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

A wonderful light plays on everything from the dense forest around me- buzzing with bees, no, flies; large, slothful monsters- to the distant peaks. Your sight deepens as your eyes try to adjust to the depth and distance of the scene.

to be continued…

Up and Down the Dhauladhar Day 3

(…continued from Up and Down the Dahuladhar Day 2)

We slept well, and were very thankful for it. Today we were going to tackle unfamiliar terrain and unpredictable weather, and it would be in effect our first proper day of trekking. I knew as much of this area as one could without actually visiting it, and I was nervous with anticipation.
Our group had been swelled by one more member the previous night. It had been raining hard outside and we had huddled around the hearth gulping down our dinner when there was a knock on the outer door. Jagdish went to investigate and we could hear an American voice say, “Is there any fire? Awesome!” It was a young kid called Devon looking for some warmth and food. At 9 pm, Triund was effectively shut and as he had heard of us from the tea shops, he’d come to investigate.
A typical New Age Californian Golden Boy if there ever was one- all big grins and ‘oh gosh’ amazement- Devon had set off earlier that evening from the upper Bhagsu hippie ghetto for Triund. Armed with an axe, a compact rucksack, lots of biscuits and Maggi noodles, he was looking to spend a few days ‘in the wilderness’ and maybe trek to Indrahar if he could. The boy had guts alright, but had severely underestimated his surroundings, and his approach march to Triund late in the day in pouring rain had been a chastising experience. Now he was just happy to have someplace warm and dry to rest.
I must admit that I was a bit annoyed with his sudden appearance. I was far too keyed up about the next day to bear his inquisitiveness, and retired to our room.
I was hoping that he wouldn’t come with us, but as it is totally against the policy of trekking parties to disallow a willing trier, I left it to Jagdish to take the call. Devon had his way with people, and Jagdish was intrigued enough to allow him to come with us. Anyway, we figured that the hike to Lahesh would make up Devon’s mind for him. But I was adamant that we were not going to pay for his passage and told Jagdish to have a chat with Devon and figure out their terms.
But all this was minor. We were all very anxious that morning, packing our sacks in as compact a way as possible and keeping our water-proof stuff as close at hand as possible. Thankfuly it wasn’t raining, and there was no mist, although the sky was heavily overcast. The Kangra valley was largely clear of clouds and in the sharp, rain-washed light of the morning, the valley floor looked beautifully three dimensional, a patchwork of low undulating ridges and green fields and clumps of forests. I made a run to a tea shop, woke up the owner and stocked up on cigarettes and biris. Jagdish, Gulab and KP were hanging about, finishing their tea, while Devon and Oli were busy checking their bags. Presently we were off, and I came last, as is my wont, looking back at the dear little outhouse, which we rapidly left behind. The great shaggy dog followed us for a while, then stopped upon a rock and stared after us. He stayed there a long while, receding into a dot in the distance. It was, in many ways, a touching farewell.
We came up past the point we had stopped the earlier day, when Jagdish stopped us and asked us to listen. In the relative silence, we could hear a steady, distant roar. Rock avalanches high up the range. The feeling of stepping into the unknown intensified with every step I took. Most of the track was fairly steep, and I was releaved to see that I was going much better than two days ago. The others were doing well too, and soon after we’d started traversing the Laka ridge, we stopped at a little shrine where Jagdish and Gulab lay a few offerings of flowers and food.
As we smoked our biris, Devon was excitedly surveying all. Everything he saw filled him with glee. He loved the biris and the fact that he was actually trekking in the Himalaya pleased him no end. He was of the opinion that if any natural disaster ever befell the world, this would be the place to be. I couldn’t refrain from pointing out to him that we were currently travelling through one of the most seismically active areas of the Hmalaya. The lower ranges of Western Himalaya are rocked by one big earthquake every century. The last one in 1905 was so severe- it had a magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter scale- that much of old Dharamshala was leveled and over 23,000 people and 50,000 animals were killed. The Dhauladhar roughly marked the subduction zone of the lower Himalayan thrust fault, the line along which the Indian sub-continent iss pushing and going under the Eurasian plate with the greatest force. As I told Devon that, he looked a little troubled, then his eyes cleared up again as he grinned and whooped at the thought of what a great adventure he was having. I became a little uneasy myself, and looked around at all the massive boulders arranged in mad jumbles on the slopes all around. The overcast sky which hid the main range added to this faint feeling of menace.
We were traversing along the side of the Laka ridge, gaining height gradually. Below us lay the green vales of the Chauran nala and the lower forests, while above us ran another band of rhododendron and pine forests, thick at first, but inevitably straggling towards the tree-line. The weather was fine and the sky clear, and after the last couple of days, this was really heartening. The giant hump of Triund lay below us, and further down lay Kangra stretched out like a beautiful green carpet.

Pic: Triund and the Kangra valley resplendent in the sunshine. Picture by Amrita Dhar

The air was alive with birdsong, and we were moving at a steady clip.
Slowly the steep ridge started levelling out as we climbed up to the traditional Gaddi pasturage of Laka Got. Green meadows like the one below at Triund, only with more large boulders around as we were almost right up against the rocky face of the Dhauladhar proper. The cool grass of Laka was littered with the copious cattle dung, so I had to keep my eyes peeled to avoid them. Sometimes, of course, you can’t, so you step right into it and hope that the all the water on the trail will wash it away.
A final turn of the ridge and we were on the pleasant level stretch of Laka, with a make-shift Gaddi-shelter/ tea-shop called Snow-line Cafe. Appropriately enough, as it turns out, because the Got- a Gaddi word for any clearing where cattle can rest and eat- did roughly mark the tree-line. Before us lay the awesome main wall of the Dhauladhar, all craggy rock-face and massive boulders, the top lost in the grim cloud-blanket. We could even see the various streams barreling down the face.
We stopped for tea and rest. While Gulab and Jagdish lit up their biris and Devon bought yet more biscuits, KP gambolled with the resident furry dog of the Got, a sweet, bouncy fellow who was so happy to see more people it was difficult for him to sit still with any one person. Eventually he settled down near KP and looked at him adoringly. 

Pic: KP and bouncy dog get friendly at Laka. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

Oli and I went off to take pictures. There wasn’t much of a view as a copse of rhododendron hid the views lower down the valley, and that impenetrable blanket hung over the higher reaches. Not for the first time in the trek was I reminded of the Lord of the Rings. That forbidding wall in front could so easily have been the forbidding mountains of Mordor, and the gentlemen sitting in the tea-shop puffing on their ‘pipe-weed’, Hobbits. Ah well, an idle fancy, but I was thrilled to be here. In fact I was looking forward to the next bit of the climb, up to Lahesh Cave.
The southern approach to the Dhauladhar is nothing if not abrupt. The change from the alpine meadows at around 3,000 m and the final rise is pretty stark. Soon after we lifted our loads and started trudging towards the thin strip of land that connected the Laka ridge with the main range. The clouds moved in almost as soon as we made off from the tea-shop. Soon we were going up and down steep tracks through impossibly verdant pasture lands dotted with a canopy of white flowers. Occasionally the odd fallen tree barred our way and we had to either crawl under or clamber over them to regain the track. With the deepening mist it also began to get pretty cold.
I would’ve ideally liked to have a clearer view of the terrain we were passing through, but the mist did manage to infuse the scene with a lot of atmosphere, as the continuous roar of the nalas grew ever closer and a cold wind began to blow.
This is a very important part of the trail up to the pass, a boulder maze where a wrong turn would lead you up a blind alley, and, on an overcast day like today, to worse grief. Soon after, the rain started falling, and the difficulty of a monsoon trek became all too apparent. At that height, rain doesn’t simply fall, it comes at you at an angle. My meagre hood wasn’t doing too well, so I would have to adjust the ear-flap depending on the direction from which the rain was blowing in. Thankfully yesterday’s acclimatisation was bearing fruit, but I was getting very cold, and quite weary. Perhaps sensing my plight, Oli fell back, bringing up the rear. Every now and then she would entice me with thoughts of Hide n Seek biscuits as she insisted that I keep moving.
The roaring torrent that we must cross sounded pretty close, and once we were withing sight of it, the cold redoubled, thanks to the chilling spray from the water as it madly galloped downhill. Soon after leaving Laka, the trail had perceptively steepened, and the terrain with it. We were climbing up the face of the Dhauladhar now, and the gradient must have been about 45 degrees, forcing us to use our hands to haul ourselves up. The rucksacks never seemed heavier, and with an almost boring sense of inevitability, we were soaked to the bone. This meant we were chilled to the bone, as well, and the cold spray cut like a knife. Soon I could feel my hands growing numb. Oli wryly observed that they were growing blue as well, and probably for the only time in the entire trek, I suffered something close to a panic attack. Although I knew that frost bite at this height- and also without any actual frost- was laughable, I was hysterically thinking of finger amputations, or an earthquake, or both. All I could do was to beat my hands on my legs, and keep on trudging.
Soon we came to the nala, one of about three that come down from the vicinity of the pass. In other times of the year, these are frozen snow-tongues (which the day trippers fancifully term glaciers), but now they were raging torrents. Trying to cross with the backpack in the blinding, cold spray, I looked towards the helpful face of Jagdish who was standing dramatically poised on two rocks in the middle of the stream. I grabbed his outstretched hands and leaped into the swirling mist, and landed on a little bare patch in the middle of a maze of rocks.
Once on the true right of the nala, we began climbing in earnest towards the cave, now apparently somewhere 200 feet above us in the steep rock staircase that we were struggling over. Gulab and KP were up ahead, but were pretty invisible. Every now and then I would squint up and catch a bit of bright fabric far above. I would lower my face, stare at my boots, close my eyes, sigh, and stagger on. Now the gradient seemed to be closer to 60 degrees than 45.
I don’t remember how much longer we climbed- it couldn’t have been too long in real time- but it seemed like we were going on forever. To our left the massive, tangled rock-fall that is the Dhauladhar and to our right, steeply falling away for a few hundred feet below us, the torrent- a waterfall in places- leaping down into the mist with heightened ferocity. Following up the channel, through my half-closed eyes I could make out patches of rotten snow clinging to the rock-face. Beyond this pretty inhuman scene, half-guessed in the dark mist, lay a larger, blacker shadow. I figured that this must be one of the massive ribs of rock that form the serrated south face of the Mon. I was proved right later. Drawing some degree of happiness with my relative knowledge of the land, I resumed climbing.
And suddenly, we were there. But where was ‘there’? All I could see were the gigantic boulders that dominated this wonderland of thrusting rock, pouring rain and swirling mists. Following directions, we climbed out of the channel and onto the other side of the face we were following. Immediately the wind hit us with renewed vigour, but I could see the cave, 50 feet above me. Imagine a gigantic boulder crashing down from a great height and suddenly stop, poised over some nameless abyss. Then imagine the upper face of that boulder to resemble some sort of an out-thrust lower lip. Now imagine an even bigger boulder wedged atop the first, the two forming something like a highly sexualised mouth open and moaning with ecstasy. Climbing up the last few stones up onto the mouth, we paused  for a second, and plunged down into this giant mouth.
Oli describes the cave well. “Imagine a huge, huge, massive rockfall – perhaps when the Dhauladhar shift, or shift their weight from one foot to the other, or something. Anyway, something big enough to drop down boulders the size of small houses. And one of these, with a remarkably even surface, had come to rest on a huge pile of (gradually) compacted rocks. And the other boulder, of about the same size, had come to rest on top of it, with its own wedge giving it an upward slope. The two boulders being sort of like the roof and floor of a mouth, and the mouth open. Lahesh is often called a cave – and it does feel like one, when you are in it. But it is really this massive rockfall. And the Gaddis – the local shepherds and goatherds and the masters of the wind and water of the place, so well do they understand the landscape and the elements in it – had spotted the thing with their impeccable sight, walled up the exposed sides of the ‘cave’ with smaller rocks, and turned it into this marvel of a shelter. When I got to the entrance to the cave myself did I realize the amazing architecture of the thing. In spite of the abundant… er, ventilation at the sides and entrance to the cave, the inside was perfectly dry. What rain did come through to any inside surface was allowed to run back using the natural slope of the ‘roof’ boulder into a little ‘canal’ dug at the back of the cave to give the water free channel to the outside. And though you could not stand upright in the cave at any spot, the entire thing was big enough to shelter possibly up to 25 or even 30 people.” Lahesh is just one among the myriad examples we got of the Gaddi’s resourcefulness. It also gave me a sense of how well the know these mountains. The trouble with cave, though, was that you had to squat at all times, as at its highest, its only about 3.5 to 5 feet. Gulab had already gotten the stove running, and tea was in order. It had mercifully stopped raining, and shivering woefully, I took off my dripping boots and socks, put on some woolen ones- along with wool mitts- and took the wet stuff out to dry. The wind was very strong, so we had to find small rocks to use as weights to keep the wet clothes from blowing away.
The ORS solution that Oli had forced down my throat when I’d staggered into the cave had revived me somewhat, and the warmth and hot lunch completed the job. It was pretty early in the afternoon still, but we were all dog-tired and KP was feeling the effects of altitude. So we promptly got into our sleeping bags, maneuvered ourselves along the ground sheets, and with bags and rocks for pillows, drifted off.

Pic: Post-lunch nap inside Lahesh cave. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

As usual, Oli was soon kicking me out of bed. It was time for acclimatising, and though KP promptly rolled over, ignored her pleas and went back to sleep, I squatted out of the cave, eager to get out of the cramped cave and stretch my legs a little. Gulab and Jagdish were already up, washing dishes, preparing for dinner and smoking biris. Devon was fast asleep. Oli had claimed that the sun was out, but all I could see was impenetrable grey all around us. My legs were very woozy, and I was feeling a little dizzy. We walked around on the ‘courtyard’ boulder, looking at the hilarious graffiti of trekkers past on the cave walls and trying to get KP out. He did emerge, looking very harassed, and stood around with eyes half shut, as we waited for the sun to appear. It didn’t for a while, so KP made some excuse, and went back in.
It was around 4 pm now, and the the thick clouds were clearing a little, blown up and away by the strong wind. Soon a dull, round searchlight made its appearance through the mist and little by little revealed itself to be the sun. Suddenly, the mountain was clear of clouds, and we were basking in the merciful warmth of the late sun. Oli and I decided to climb a little higher to get a better view.
Clambering over rocks the size of people at that steepness should never be attempted in socks and hawaii chappals, but that was what I was forced to do in the absence of a dry pair of boots. Oli was wearing her rock climbing boots, so she was extremely well equipped. Now with the clouds reduced to the occasional wispy feather floating up the Dhauladhar, we could get a bearing of our surroundings. We were basically standing inbetween two massive;y steep ridges rising up to the shadowy peaks above. To our North east was the one which led up to the Mon, and there was another one to our right, in the north west. And the boulders! They came in all shapes and sizes, from those as small and round as a football to others as big as cathedral spires. It really did look like this vast theatre of rock. Following the Mon face was our nala. At this height it wasn’t a stream but a tongue of rotted snow with a surface like fish-scales. As we climbed from one rock ledge to another, aiming for a vast cluster of boulders above us, I gaped at the beauty around me.
What appeared as sterile, steep rock-faces from Triund, now revealed long swards of the greenest grass, flecked with tiny flowers of various colours. As I made my tortuous progress from ledge to ledge, moving very slowly so as not to lose my slippers, I felt like a little old man pottering about in a dressing gown looking for some tobacco. The huge tufts of clouds floating in the distance really did look like puffs of smoke anyway; it seemed that the Kangra valley, some 10,000 feet below, was steaming.

Pic: Alpine blooms rear their pretty heads amidst the desolation of boulders. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

We were in the middle of a cloud garden- gleaming spires and puffy balls of cotton; inhuman faces and sailing ships- they made their stately progression from east to west, flowing along detached from the world of rock and boulders. Occasionally they would bump against a huge outcrop and simply flow over them. Far below me I could see the top of the Laka ridge, and if I looked carefully I could also make out the tiny pin-prick of blue that is the “Snow-Line cafe”. Triund was further below. It obviously felt strange, looking down at the landmarks that I’d been looking up at for the last two years. These ridges would vanish slowly under a fresh cloud, looking like a dense Chinese painting, only to reveal themselves slowly a little later. This dance of presence/absence was absolutely fascinating. To my extreme right, down to the south-west lay the green terrace fields of Kareri, which we hoped to reach a week from now. In a straight line with the cave directly to the south lay the tiny village of Naddi.
And then there was the sky. A cloud-garden of overpowering beauty, the swirling mists made a halo around the sun until I wasn’t sure what planet I was on. I’m a sentimental type, and I swear I felt like crying at the beauty of it all.

Pic: The sun comes out at the end of the day. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya.

KP had finally emerged with the sun, and now he was a red dot dramatically framed by the immense boulder landscape, contemplating the void, as is his wont. Devon was pottering about in his multi-coloured rags, hopping with a lithe grace from boulder to boulder and occasionally flashing his big smile. On the “courtyard” rock in front of the cave, old hand Jagdish was giving young ‘un Gulab a crash course in the lay of the land.

Pic: Gulab and Jagdish relax in the sunshine on the “courtyard” rock. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

Suddenly they looked up beyond me and started speaking loudly and pointing. I jumped around, thinking of all those black bears I had heard of. What they were pointing at was far more dramatic.

Pic: Mon peak (to the right) and Indrahar Pass (tiny notch on the left) tower over Lahesh. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

The cloud curtain over the pass and Mon peak had finally cleared in the light of the evening sun. There it was, the ridge top, looming over us like a frozen wave with millions of tons of bare rock held upright in space by what seemed like a miracle. Still about 500 m above us, the pass was a tiny depression and the peaks of Cairn and especially Mon two massive behemoths glinting gold in the sun. We’d have a long way to climb tomorrow to the top, and then that would be just half the day’s walk done.

Pic: Oli limbers up for a spot of rock climbing. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

I didn’t want to think about it right then. In the late sunlight of the dying day, the world was as peaceful as it could possibly be. Me and KP accompanied Oli to an overhanging cluster of boulders and sat down to ruminate, as she set off for a climb and was soon lost to view.

to be continued…