Category Archives: Nanda Devi

Secret Garden

Dharansi. A hanging valley. I savour those two words. What a delicious idea! I close my eyes and try to remember if I’ve seen one before. There was that small hanging plateau on the northern marches of the Indrahar pass in the Dhauladhar. But this was massive. I was sitting in the middle of a large smooth bowl, covered in turf and little splashes of tiny alpine flowers. Running through the grassy side were long, shallow gullies, filled with the rubble of boulders—the giant moraines of winter snowfields. Right in the middle of the bowl, where our camp was pitched, lay the longest and widest of the moraines. It was also the lowest point in the curve of the valley, almost a hollow. It continued for a little way below the tent. Then, from a cutoff, the valley dropped a couple of hundred feet into another bowl, less wide, more hemmed in by serrated cliffs. The valley then wound down gradually, like a lazily flowing river, then it suddenly ended, as if someone had sliced it off with a very large knife. A tortured, broken precipice plunged dramatically for 5,000ft into the spectacular gorge of the Rishi Ganga. The Bhotias believe that demons live here, and none but holy men may pass through. Thus the river gets its name.

The hanging valley of Dharansi. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

It was up this gorge, in 1934, that two English mountaineers and three of the greatest Sherpas of the day forced the only—and till then uncharted—passage into one of the most unique mountain fastnesses in the world. Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman’s adventure was an improbable one, one of the last heroic journeys into the unknown. Shipton’s elegantly romantic book, Nanda Devi, had warmed my heart for many years. Here at Dharansi, the furthest I could get into Nanda’s secret garden after days of incessant rain, landslides and storms, I could hardly believe my luck.

I’ve always been big on hidden paradises. Right from the lonely little lake in a mango grove in my native Bihar where I spent many solitary afternoons to Dung Lung Dor and Oz; I wanted to see them all, if only a glimpse. These places had their rules. It would have to be a perilous realm; you’d endure many hardships trying to get there; and you could never hope to reach without a large helping of grace. Over the years I’d been to some unimaginably lovely places, and lonely places, but I had yet to see a place like Dharansi.

Above me, the bugyal stretched upwards at a gentle incline. Directly above the rim of the bowl lurked Hanuman, a prickly black mass of heavily compacted rocks, leering down at me like a nightmare fortress. A modest 19,931ft high, it is best known as one of the standard climbing peaks for trainee mountaineers. But the mountain has a local reputation that is somewhat more sinister. The villagers of the Niti valley, especially those of Dunagiri village, don’t take too kindly to the monkey god. In fact, many despise him, and consider him a thief. When Hanuman flew to the Himalaya to find the magic herb that would cure Lakshman, this is where he is said to have come. Not knowing which the correct herb was, Hanuman hedged his bets and made off with an entire mountain

A little way up the slope, a herd of bharal, the famous Himalayan blue sheep, stood watching us. There were nine individuals. Three sprightly youngsters pranced about unsurely on the massed jumble of boulders. Three ewes, their long black eyes watchful, were licking salt off a large table-shaped boulder. One of them had a single short horn, making her look uncannily like a unicorn. Last of all were the three rams, aloof and sporting impressive curving horns, extremely skittish and keeping their distance. When Shipton and Tilman had broken through to the inner sanctuary, they had been pleasantly surprised to find large herds of bharal grazing on the meadows of the sanctuary, absolutely unperturbed by their presence. That was seventy-eight years ago. By the time all entry into the sanctuary was banned in 1982, the widespread hunting of these beautiful animals to provide meat for mountaineering expeditions had resulted in a near wipe-out. That had also affected the bharal’s chief predator, the snow leopard. I’m sure there was one around, but of course I’d never be able to see this Himalayan ghost unless he wished to be seen.

I had met another such famously shy animal a couple of days ago on the upper slopes of the meadow of Lata Kharak. I’d gone walking to the adjoining ridge of Saini Kharak to get my first glimpse of the legendary Rishi gorge and, if lucky, Nanda herself. We were traversing the cliffs of the junction of these two ridges when Raghubir Singh, one of our porters, clutched my jacket and pointed to a massive rock face and said “Kasturi!” I had to focus before I could make out the distinct brown shape of the musk deer, surprisingly close, looking at us with some alarm, twitching his black nose. It looked like a cross between a deer and a kangaroo, the startling feature being the animal’s vampiric canines. In a few seconds he was off, bounding straight down the sheer cliffs with dizzying speed.

A musk deer in the distance preparing to leap off and away. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Raghubir Singh of Lata is a legend from a legendary village rife with legends. He and his friend Dhan Singh Rana, my guide Narendra’s father, were highly feted high-altitude guides and porters during the heyday of mountaineering in the sanctuary in the 1970s. Even earlier, from the time Shipton first came to Nanda Devi, the people of Lata have featured prominently in the history of mountaineering in this area. The villagers of Lata are Bhotias, like the rest of the denizens of the Niti valley who live by the banks of the trans-Himalayan Dhauli Ganga river. Of mixed Tibetan stock, these tribal people of upper Uttarakhand had been successful traders, carrying on a millennia-old summer trade with Tibet. The 1962 war put an end to that. Later, when the national park came into being and all entry was closed, even the local people who’d led a symbiotic relationship with Nanda Devi and her valleys and grazing grounds, found the way barred, and their rights superceded.

It was in Lata, and nearby Reni, that the famous Chipko movement began in 1974 to prevent the decimation of sacred deodar groves around these two villages. In the late 1990s, these same villagers fought a long-drawn-out campaign for community participation in the management of the national park. Dhan Singh was a part of both these efforts. In the former he was a defiant boy standing up to forest contractors. During the latter, he was the village sarpanch who cannily organised the villages into a formidable body of activists. An offshoot of this movement was the opening and maintenance of certain trails within the park where local men could act as guides.

The Dhauli Ganga valley with Lata village in the distance. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Narendra is a shy, soft-spoken man in his mid-twenties. However, the last few days in the wilderness seemed to have wrought a subtle change in him. In addition to the deepening stubble on his angular face, there was a flashing brightness in his eyes, a sharpness of sight. He was beaming as he hid behind a rock and took pictures of the bharal. He loved being here, back after many years. He mostly works in Dehradun now. The last time he’d come this way, he was accompanying a scientific expedition to the inner sanctuary. He still hadn’t forgotten the awe he felt in the presence of Nanda Devi, a mountain that was also a goddess.

And with good reason. My companion Parth and I had arrived in Lata five days before, on a sunny day in early September. It was the last day of the annual Nandashtami celebrations. The devi’s origins lie in ancient nature cults. Indeed, in the older temples of Kumaon, her image is that of a tribal woman. Today, to outsiders she is just another reincarnation of Parvati or Durga, but to the Bhotias Nanda is herself, the powerful queen of her mountain realm, the bliss-giving goddess. Sitting in front of Nanda’s medieval temple, studded with brahma-kamals to mark the occasion, I felt as if I was watching something unfamilar, something special. This wasn’t Hinduism as I knew it. Women in Tibetan-style long black robes and white cloth headscarves danced slowly in a circle while chanting a plaintive song of regeneration and permanence. Then Nanda herself entered the body of her priest, who, dressed in her ceremonial regalia, blessed the villagers and two large rams brought as offering. These were then summarily sacrificed. The sun gradually sank to the west, and the puja was over. The children of the village who’d been waiting patiently all this while swarmed up the walls of the temple, clambering up with the agility of sure-footed cragsmen to get at their prize—a brahma-kamal.

The Nanda Devi puja in progress in Lata village. photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

The Nanda Devi Sanctuary lies across the Great Himalayan Range in the form of a ring of high mountains. Bang in the middle of the eastern curve of this cirque sit the twin peaks of Nanda Devi, looming over some 380 sq km of ice and snow. Nowhere in its 110km length is this mountain wall less than 18,000ft high except at a single point in this chain, where the Rishi cuts through the barrier and flows west to meet the larger Dhauli. The only practicable route into the inner reaches of the sanctuary is by outflanking the precipitous outer gorge of the Rishi Ganga and crossing the 13,950ft Dharansi pass to Dharansi and then down over the Malathuni Pass to the upper Rishi Ganga gorge.

The broken jagged precipices of Satkula cunningly hide the valley. The only way through is over an exceedingly steep goat track. From that initial notch, it descends right down to a gully before trudging back laboriously up to the next cliff face to another notch in the skyline before plunging down the next gully. It’s beastly hard in the rain, especially in the middle of a heavy fog; one misstep will send you hurtling some 8,000ft into the Rishi gorge. The pass itself is the last link in this chain of convenient notches in the broken ridge-system. But to me, the true entrance was the impressive stone goat arch of Ranikhola, one that the writer Bill Aitken memorably described as a goat’s Arc de Triomphe. It is said that when the shepherds brought their charges to Dharansi, a Bhotia maiden dedicated to Nanda would stand guard here, counting each goat and sheep as it passed through the gateway.

Traversing the Satkula ridge to Dharansi. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

That evening in Dharansi proved to be the first thawing of Nanda’s suspicion of this motley group of out-of-season trespassers. Along with the shockingly tame bharal came a spectacular sunset. The sky had cleared in the direction of the Dhauli valley and the sun was setting above the distant peaks of Chaukhamba, painting the film of clouds on the western horizon an angry red. Steady streams of thick vapours were flowing down over the strangely shaped pinnacles overhanging the Rishi gorge. Other clouds formed impossibly long banners that draped themselves over the prominent peaks to the south—Bethartoli Himal and Ronti. Up east the sanctuary was still cloaked in heavy clouds. But as I looked up the slope I was mystified to see what looked like a luminous mist playing on the uppermost reaches of the bugyal. Glowing orange and yellow, the mist was the last to disappear, leaving us with a dark night so still and silent I could hear my own heart beat.

The Rishi Ganga gorge from Dharansi at sunset. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

I rose early, only for my jaw to drop as soon as I stepped outside the tent. Everything was unbelievably clear. Beyond the Dharansi cutoff the distant Dhauli and Alaknanda valleys were drowning in a low layer of clouds. But above that all was clear. Far to the northwest ran a set of peaks I was very familiar with—the Kedarnath group and the Chaukhamba massif that contain the Gangotri glacier. A little to their right rose the triangular southeast face of Neelkanth, the peak that towers over Badrinath.

Dunagiri from Dharansi. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

To my right, the delicate ice flutings of Bethartoli Himal were a blushing pink in the diffused light of the rising sun. Even the Devistan peaks that formed the dividing ridge between the inner and outer sanctuary were out. Would Nanda be revealed at last? Her peak couldn’t be seen from camp so Narendra and I ran around to the southern enclosing wall of the valley. We drew up to Malathuni pass, panting, with our boots soaked by the heavy dew. There she was, Nanda Devi, her west face in shadow, but her pinnacle proud and true, sailing through the heavens without any wind. The people of Lata were right. She was herself and no other. Looking at her strange, fearful symmetry it is no wonder that Nanda Devi the mountain and Nanda the goddess are considered one and the same, indivisible.

Nanda Devi from Dharansi. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

At the lovely alp of Dibrughati, 2,000ft below us, it was still night. Yet, across the gorge, the green side valley of Dudh Ganga—that descends from the combined snows of Trisul and Bethartoli—looked exactly like a sun-kissed CGI valley. To my left Dunagiri’s peak was lost in a maelstrom. But the majestic shoulders of this giant stood out, the snow glinting in the sunshine. The sun started peeking out from behind Hanuman, and slowly the Dharansi alp started shining a bright emerald green, of a kind I don’t remember seeing before. Lammergeiers flew overhead in slow arcs while tiny swallows leapt down into this amazing scene of wild gorges and snow peaks. A mouse hare emerged to sun himself. I sat there for hours, staring, until swirling mists from the Rishi slowly hid the world again.

-Bibek Bhattacharya

This article appeared in the January 2012 issue of Outlook Traveller.


The Hills Are Alive

There are two ways to drink nectar from a rhododendron flower. The first is to break open the lily-like buds and slurp it up. The other way is to gently pull out one of the buds, place the stalk on your lips and suck up the delicate drop of sweet liquid. It might not seem to be very different, but to the people of the Almora valley, it is as important as the correct way to hold a champagne flute. And why not? Even paradise has its rules.

A rhododendron flower. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

I was told this by Govind Singh, a one-time forest ranger and now the caretaker of the forest Guest House in Binsar, a forest spread over 47 sq. km, which has been converted into a sanctuary under the aegis of the Corbett National Park. The cool breeze of the forest was a relief after a hot and dusty drive up through the Uttar Pradesh heartland. Less than 500 km from Delhi, the drive to Binsar is like a 10-hour geography lesson, as you rise from the Indo-Gangetic plain and up through the terai forests and the foothills of Kumaon till you reach the Almora valley in Uttarakhand, dominated by the shaggy bear-like mountain of Binsar.

The Forest Rest House at Binsar. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

Almora is a wonder. One of the greenest regions in the Kumaon Himalayas, its slopes are dotted with picture perfect little villages among the chir pine and rhododendron forests. Binsar used to be a summer retreat of the kings of the local Chand dynasty till the British annexed their kingdom. Many of their erstwhile properties are now charming little tourist bungalows within the sanctuary. I was staying in the Raj-era Forest Guest House, a huge bungalow within a cedar grove, built by the British in 1902. Home to leopards, mountain goats, martens and wild boars, as well as countless species of birds, Binsar has one of the richest ecologies in the Himalayas. But it’s not just the forest and its inhabitants that draw visitors. There’s also the little matter of the view.

The view from Binsar, with Trishul on the left, Nanda Devi's twin peaks in the middle and Nanda Kot to the right. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

At just over 7,500 feet, Binsar commands a panoramic view of the Great Himalayan Range, spanning the horizon from left to right like a surreal painting. There are massive ramparts of three-pronged Trishul, the peaks of the outer wall of the Nanda Devi biosphere reserve and then Nanda Deviitself, at 25,600 feet, looking like an outsized cathedral. From the watchtower of Binsar’s quaintly named “Zero Point”, you can see some 300 km of snow peaks, from the Chaukhamba and other peaks of the Garhwal on the left to the jagged Annapurna Range in Nepal to the right. Quite a sight, first thing in the morning.

Nanda Devi's twin peaks rear up behind Panwali Dwar. Picture by Priyodorshi Bannerjee

Binsar’s old forest teems with legends. As I trekked to the ancient temple town of Bageshwar, some 20 km away, Govind told me of the old Shiva temple where an old woman hermit used to live. Every full moon, a leopard would come to her for a bowl of milk and would lick her toes in gratitude. Since she passed away, a spectral shroud of mystery hangs over the place. Then there’s the 108-year-old Sitaram baba, a Hanuman worshipper and mystic, who looks a youthful 60. Legend has it that even the bullets of Kashmiri militants couldn’t slow him down.

En route to Jageshwar, we walked along the high ridges of the Almora valley, through forests and terraced farms, pine groves and past small animistic temples. Govind taught me how to evade a charging wild boar and detect the hunting patterns of leopards. There are plenty of these magnificent animals in the region, though all we could find were some leopard tracks and the carcass of a deer that it had killed the previous night. Jageshwar itself is a temple town at the bottom of a deep, narrow gorge best-known for the 1,000-year-old stone temples built between 7th and 14th century A.D. And from the ridge-top, you can see the eternal snows of the mighty Himalayas, sometimes shrouded in clouds and sometimes gleaming in the sunshine.

A temple in the old temple complex of Jageshwar. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

It should be noted, though, that this is a fragile paradise. As climate change continues, the delicate ecological balance of the region is burdened by the drying up of perennial water sources and deforestation. At one point, Govind closed his eyes in holy dread and told me how, a few days earlier, the Himalayas had turned black due to a lack of adequate snowfall, for the first time in centuries.

So enjoy the views, but tread lightly.

Good Day Sunshine!

Jumping out of bed at the cold, unearthly hour of 4:30 am I stepped out into the freezing night only to have my breath taken away by the galactic arm of the Milky Way stretching over me. But I hadn’t much time to lose, as I had to get to the peak of Chandrashila above Tunganath by 6 am or miss the fabled sunrise. So I ran in the lightening darkness, my lungs heaving with the effort in the rarefied air and my head spinning with the cold and the exertion. Behind me the Chaukhamba and Kedar peaks brightened in the fast-approaching dawn. Ahead of me, on the ridge-line the silhouettes of other sunrise-spotters intent on their goal, trudging up. One by one I overtook them. Below and behind, I could see a torchlight in the darkness- Debo and Biru coming up behind me.
A loud yell of exhilaration escaped my throat as I rounded the last hump and came up in front of the temple of the moon atop Chandrashila. The sky had cleared behind me, though Chaukhamba and the other giants had yet to catch fire. I made my way through the gaggle of people on the peak to the farthest point on the ridge. This is what I saw, over a half hour that lasted forever. Night below me and daybreak at 3,800 m. My ancient camera had stopped working in the cold the previous day, so I had to borrow a friend’s cell phone, cursing my luck. But I forgot all that once the sun came out slowly, with impeccable timing, behind the beautiful spire of Nanda Devi.
Right to left, main peaks: Trishul, Bethartoli Himal, the Devitan peaks, Nanda Devi, Changabang, Dunagiri, Rishi Pahar, Tirsuli group, Kamet. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya

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…

Map Woes Part 1

Trying to find good trekking and topographical maps in India is somewhat like the proverbial head meeting the proverbial wall. My year of looking for the perfect set of maps- primarily of the Indian Himalaya, but also of other places- has yielded very interesting results.

I love travelogues, especially those dealing with mountains, specifically the Himalaya. Now due to the range’s monumental hold on generations of visitors, there’s no short supply of great books or essays on this subject. But for an obsessive like me, what’s the fun in reading about these grand places without a good map to locate them on?

The most commonly available maps of Uttarakhand and Himachal are the Nest and Wings maps, which are a combination of various sources, including the Survey of India trekking and topographical maps, and others. Now, these are generally quite good, with towns, cities, villages, passes, roads, lakes, trails etc mentioned in impressive detail. For the longest time, they were enough for my needs.

Pic: A section of the Nest&Wings map of Uttarakhand

But with a deepening interest came the urge to collect better maps, which would chart out valley systems, topographical features, ridge lines, peaks and approaches better. Now, this isn’t an unfair thing to expect. Look up any mountainous region in the world where travelers are wont to venture, and you’ll find some excellent trekking maps- not the meagre ones that our government issues, but more on that later.

My search began in earnest last summer, after a visit to Tunganath and Chandrashila in the high Garhwal Himalaya, a place with views that make you want to sink to your knees and weep with rapture. Faced with the dramatic panorama of the Himalayan crest on the northern horizon, and the lower hills and then the plains far away, I was burning to lend nomenclature to all that I was seeing. Thanks to Nest and Wings, I had a general idea of the regions I was looking at- e.g. I could trace roughly the line from Bedni bugiyal via the high distant ridge of Kuari Pass in the west and below it, the deep cleft of the Alaknanda gorge. Where mid-day clouds covered the horizon, I expected the western arm of the Great Himalaya, containing the likes of Trishul, Nanda Devi, Dunagiri, Hathi Parbat, Ghori Parbat and Kamet, to name a few.

Pic: Nanda Devi looking west from Chandrashila (Bibek Bhattacharya)

In front of me, just beyond the end of the ridge running north from where I was, the cairn strewn summit of Chandrashila, loomed Chaukhamba. It is also known as Badrinath, after the Dham, and these four pillars of snow, ice and granite held sway over the imagination of Garhwal.

Pic: Chaukhamba looking north from Chandrashila (Bibek Bhattacharya)

On its northern face it formed a cirque of peaks at whose feet arose the Gangotri glacier. Further north west ran the line of the southern faces of a host of well known peaks that cluster around the Gangotri Glacier.

It was impossible, however, to be sure of the names of the peaks- apart from those of Kedarnath and Chaukhamba- at least for me. Having recently discovered Google Earth, however, I was hopeful of finding out the names.

Pic: An overhead screenshot of Uttarakhand Himalaya

Google Earth was quite brilliant, visualizing the peaks for me, but they weren’t named, at least the vast majority weren’t. In this case, Nest and Wings was useless.

(to be continued)

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I sat beside a cairn atop Chandrashila watching clouds rise. Freezing in Sujaan’s choti at Tunganath, a combination of sleep deprivation and oxygen depletion had effectively ruled out my much cherished ambition of making it to the peak before sunrise that day. Feeling a little better as the day wore on, I decided to make a try for it. After all, it was a beautiful sunny day.
At Tunganath, the weather changes every ten minutes. This a local saying, and absolutely true. I definitely didn’t want to tempt the weather while the sun was still shining. So I told Biru to wait a bit for Sujoy and Debo- the friends I was travelling with- to wake up and struck off on my own. I had last climbed it in May this year. I was way fitter then, so I had very little hopes of making it up there without huffing and puffing my lungs out. As it turned out, the mountain paid me a huge compliment. Probably because I was a lot better used to breathing on this altitude, even with stops to make calls to people (high up the peak I was getting a signal from Gopeshwar on the other side of Chandrashila!) and admire the scenery, I still managed to get up there in half an hour. I was about to ring the bell at the tiny temple of the moon, when I happened to look beyond, and time literally stood still. Far away, yet strangely near, on the North Eastern horizon rose a gaggle of sharp peaks.

Pic: Nanda Devi and her sisters hold court on the far horizon
Two I could immediately recognise because of their distinctive shapes- the mighty Nanda Devi, and Hathi Parbat, the presiding peak of the Bhyundar Valley.
The temple was forgotten. Mindful of the fact that soon either my camera’s going to freeze or that the batteries are going to give up, I quickly took as many snaps of this magnificent scene as I could. In the not-quite-noonday sun, the distant white peaks look like translucent chalk sketches against a blue 3D sky. Needless to say, it was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, except maybe in some dream.
The immediate patch of rocky ground behind the temple (the highest point on the peak) is covered with cairns. These vertical structures of various sizes are made from slabs of stoes from the peak and seem to be constantly made and re-made. In May I had asked Biru what these structures signify and he’d said that these were memorial stones. To my fevered imagination they look more like portals into some other world. Amongst them, a Japanese man was singing.
It was a surreal sight. This middle aged man had planted his walking stick upright, slung his thick ski jacket and hat over it, and was lying in its shade reading a book, and occasionally breaking out into song. He grinned at me and went back to reading and singing.

Pic: A Japanese sun-worshipper on Chandrashila

A few feet from him, at another part of the peak behind some other cairns, another of his compatriots was sitting still in a lotus position with his face towards Nanda Devi, deep in meditation. In all there were three of them. I was to bump into them over the next few days, either meditating on tatami mats on the peak, or wandering about wearing a lost look in Tunganath, where they were staying at a different choti.
Making sure that I wasn’t disturbing them, I plonked myself down on a rock face overlooking a deep precipice. Down below, through the haze and rising wisps of clouds I could see the wooded valley that had so caught my fancy the last time I was here. In front of me, still visible clearly, rose the distant panorama.
It felt just so exhilarating to finally see Nanda Devi, unencumbered, in all her glory. The other time I’d seen her, it wasn’t this sideways view. Rather I’d seen her head on, part veiled by the Mai ki Toli ridge, but with both her twin peaks visible. This was from the Binsar sanctuary in the Almora hills of Kumaon, from where its much closer. From the peak though, she looked serene, detached from the dramatic, wild beauty of her environs. Its easy to see why people revere her so.
But my view of her and the other distant giants depended purely on the whim of the clouds. By nine thirty, the day’s heat had had its effect on the sub-tropical climate in the valleys which were giving rise to a succession of little pillow like clouds. While many dissolved in the cooler air above, many more started to form little gangs, which then became bigger gangs.

Pic: Cloud-eye view

Clouds change shape better than any con artist. Constantly forming, disintegrating, reforming, flowing into, out of, over and around ridges, they form an elaborately graceful ballet of carefully choreographed chaos. And so they roamed about me, avoiding this high peak, but erecting and dismantling teasing curtains between me and the distant peaks. So every now and then, all evidence of the far vistas would vanish, leaving me to wonder at what I’d seen. The first time Nanda Devi was cloaked, two Monal took wing, circling overhead while uttering mournful cries, as if in her memory. Then there were the giant Himalayan Gryphons, their backs glinting in the sun, gliding from one air current to another, circling the upper air. They seem totally at home, yet impervious to the beauty of the place.

Pic: Massive Himalayan Gryphon flying high

As the sun climbed higher, the ever present buzzing of large , laggardly flies increased. I’m absolutely not well informed on insects, but the sheer variety I saw on this lonely peak was breathtaking. And then there were ravens. Massive black birds, graver and more ominous than your average crow. They seemed to be constantly watching, flying from one impossible rock overhang to another, squawking, and making these strange half conversational sounds. They are mysterious birds, who indeed hold parliaments when there is a quorum. I can’t think of a more appropriate word to describe a group of these birds.
When there was nothing to see, I simply closed my eyes. Immediately my ears pricked up. The wind blowing; a sensation of cool moisture on my cheeks; rustling, buzzing insects; an occasional avian cry. But above all, silence. Every now and then, a sound from a distant village, many thousands of feet below. Startling and funny, like rocks talking to each other.
After a spell, I opened my eyes, and the clouds had shifted. I could see Nanda Devi and her sisters holding court again in the bright sunshine. To my right, above the great green valley that leads to the Anusuya Devi temple in the jungle, huge plumes of clouds were forming. In front of me, due north, Neelkanth was suddenly revealed in all her glory. Further North East small tufts of clouds hung in the air between Chandrashila and the Kedar Massif, casting little shadows on the rich bugyals (high altitude meadows) below the range. At moments like these, I stared in vain at my notebook, struggling to find words evocative enough to describe this beauty. I smiled to myself, imagining the poet Coleridge on this peak, startled out of his opium haze into a fresh appreciation of the sublime. He was a staunch lover of mountains, sometimes recklessly so. One one occasion, he managed to get himself trapped in an impassable grotto in the Lake District. With dusk coming on, and risking exposure, he decided to shut his eyes, take a deep breath and will his way out of there. Opening them, he realised that there indeed was a way- through a difficult and dangerous rock scramble. Sure enough he did. A fascinating story. My guess is, he’d have loved this place.
Bang in front of me, between Chandrashila and Neelkanth, rose a bleak naked rocky ridge, which the local people refer to as kala paththar. An evocative enough name. Back in May, it was covered in snow and ice, but now there were just rocks, and the occasional huge gash signifying the path of a winter snow-field. But it says something about the enormity of the geography here that these same locals believe that there’s nothing there. Wrong. Behind and beyond that ridge lies Nandi Kund, an enormous lake from which rises the Madhyamaheshwar Ganga, as well as the huge green hanging valley of Pandosera. That way lies a high track that crosses a couple of high passes under the toe of mighty Chaukhamba to gain access to the Bansi Narayan temple on a massive ridge further to the East overlooking the Alakananda Valley. According to Biru, many sheep-herders often go that way, as do other local people to collect Bramhakamals or the huge lotuses that the high Himalayas are famous for. Someday I’ll get to see the place, I hope.

Pic: The forested river valley below Chandrashila, with a snow covered Kala Paththar in the background.
Chandrashila is the highest peak on a long, high and incredibly serrated ridge that runs south to north from the forested valley of Chopta to the highlands below Chaukhamba, running parallel to the Sari and Madhyamaheshwar ridges. Some of the other high ridge-points that I’d been climbing over the last few days with Biru now lay below me- awesome mountains in their own right, but somehow dwarfed by their magnificent setting. As I gazed, some ravens took wing, circling lazily in the morning haze.
Through all the shifting weather, the four white pillars of Chaukhamba rose imperiously, as if above human concerns, glinting severely yet reassuring in the sun. To think that just behind its massive ramparts lay the Gangotri glacier and all those fabled peaks.

Pic: Chaukhamba

Some of them I could see from there- Thalay Sagar and Shivling, beautiful spires both, are visible slightly behind the Kedar Massif. Then come the peaks of Meru, Mandani, the Bhagirathi group. Many peaks, of which I am not sure of the names. In those fabled lands had travelled both my heroes- Eric Shipton and Umaprasad Mukherjee. Both had also come here. In his journal on the 1934 Nanda Devi expedition and the subsequest crossing of the Kedar-Badri watershed under Chaukhamba, Shipton wrote about a zig-zag high altitude pass he took to get to Chamoli back on the way to Joshimath on the road to Badrinath. There it is below me, rushing down the eastern face of Chandrashila on its way down to the forests of Mandal to join the motorable road to Gopeshwar and Chamoli.

Pic: The old pilgrim trail
Mukherjee made special mention of this pass, extolling its natural beauty and bemoaning the unwillingness of pilgrims to take this harder but more enjoyable old route just because there was a tarmac road passing below through Chopta. He was writing in the early 60s. Now, it has fallen even more into disuse. While in the dry cold weather of May, I could easily make out the contours of the path, now in verdant October, just a memory of the path existed. Mukherjee was a deeply religious man, but even he acknowledged that the true reward of making the long and arduous climb to Chandrashila was this view of the high peaks. Amen.
This land is so old. It fills you with a deep awe that’s beyond simple religiosity. As I sat in that private paradise of mine, I prayed that I’d never forget it.

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