Next day to Namche. We start early, before the sun has found us, and we begin our walk in the shadow of Kwangde’s sheer granite east face as it stands out against a clear blue sky. Just outside Phakding, we cross the first of the famous suspension bridges. Bouncing alarmingly some 100ft over the raging river, Sonam assures me that these lifelines come with a fifty-year guarantee from the engineers, and the engineers are men who are held in high esteem. Watching a big herd of dzopkyos (yak-cow hybrids) crossing the bridge, I can see why.
The track crosses and re-crosses the river quite a few times, as the river narrows into a gorge, through the villages of TocToc, Benkar and finally Chumoaa, where Sonam lives with his young wife Lakhpa, and tiny daughter Tenzing.
Refreshed by a powerful bowl of Sherpa broth courtesy the lovely Lakhpa we cross a small bridge over the Chumoaa Khola that comes down from the silvery heights of Thamserku- the tower of gold- and stop for lunch at the Monjo Yeti Mountain Home, just before the entrance to the Sagarmatha National Park. Tuna sandwiches! In Monjo! I still couldn’t get used to the shock of such everyday luxuries.
Just outside the village is the entry post of the National Park where you register yourself, and then across another suspension bridge to the tiny village of Jorsale or Thumbug where an army post checks your papers. This is one of the many times on this trip that I thank my lucky stars that I’m from a SAARC country, as we’re casually waved through without any real check. Apart from the fact that it costs me only NPR100 a day to be in the national park, there seems to be great goodwill in the fact that me and Puneet are Indians. And I can see why as a few days later when I come across an incredibly high and ambitious water pipeline project financed by the Indian government. Add to that the fact that we are the only Indians in all of Solu Khumbu, and no wonder we get wide disbelieving grins everywhere, often mistaken for Nepalis. Despite the joys of Visa-less travel and our currency actually being stronger (if only 1.6 times so), rarely do Indians- apart from army climbing expeditions- venture here for their holidays. As a result, even Africans are considered less exotic than Indians in Khumbu, even if many generations of Sherpas have had close relations with Indians in havens like Darjeeling.
Out of Jorsale, after a pleasant walk beside the river as it passed through a heavily forested gorge, we come to the most famous suspension bridge of them all- the Larja Dobhan bridge. Hanging precariously from one rock face to another rock face almost a kilometre above the junction of the Dudh and Bhote Kosi rivers, it’s a scary, windy place, especially when the bridge starts bouncing under the hurried stride of nervous tourists rushing to get to the other side. Huge numbers of kathas (blessed scarves) and prayer flags flutter in the breeze, despite the fifty-year guarantee, as spiritual, just in case. From here the track climbs a steep and dusty 1600ft through pine forests to Namche.
As we climb over the deep gorge of the Bhote Kosi, Thamserku and Kusum Kankharu get bigger behind us, and in front, the three peaks of Kwangde. But the pride of place on this trail is reserved for the Big E, viewed through the pines on a little spur halfway up the climb. When we got there, a gaggle of British and Japanese pensioners were oohing and aahing at the sight of their lives while a no-nonsense Sherpani sold oranges at NPR 80 a piece. There was Everest, it’s black summit pyramid looking like glass in the harsh noonday sun, smoking behind the stupendous curtain of the Nuptse ridge, with Lhotse for company. It is quite a sight. Just below the crest I could see the Hillary Step, that famous rock outcrop which is the gateway to the summit ridge. In less than a month, it would be the site of major traffic jams as scores of would-be summiteers paid through their nose to be hauled up to the patch of snow and rock that was the highest point on earth. On May 23, 2010, 169 climbers reached the summit of Everest.
An hour and some later we’re up in Namche, the horsehoe-shaped metropolis of the Sherpas, in the loving arms of the Yeti Mountain Home. Along with us are a Dutch couple who’ve been haring around the region for a while and a French group on their way to Gokyo. We have our customary round of the reviving hot lemonade and coffee and cookies in a wood panelled lounge that is a joy for mountain lovers. Full of books on Nepal’s mountains and surrounded by old pictures of the region, one could spend hours here. But we had the sunset to catch. So we rush to our room, this time blessed with bay windows overlooking Namche the towering Kwangde Ri (Ri means peaks) beyond.
Another (hot) bath later, we head out to the view-point a short way above the lodge inside the headquarters of the Sagarmatha National Park. And here I see the mountain I’ve been longing to see the most- the eerie Ama Dablam.
The classic South West view of the peak has to be one of the most beautiful and aesthetically pleasing mountain profiles in the world, alongside Matterhorn in the Alps and Changabhang in the Nanda Devi sanctuary. Although much lower than the Everest-Lhotse group at the head of the valley, Ama Dablam’s (which means ‘mother’s blessed pendant’) proximity to the viewer make it appear larger than life. It appears bathed in the soft orange glow of sunset, its famed hanging glaciers looking much like the congealed flourishes of an oil painting.
Right above us hung the twin peaks of Thamserku, looking like a gigantic Viking helmet, and far to the north, yet so close it took my breath away, there was Chomolungma, ‘Mother Goddess of the Earth.’
Although it is now the most visited region in the entire Himalaya, until 1949, Nepal and by extension the Khumbu region was closed to the outside world. Whatever little information existed about this wonderful land enclosed by some of the highest peaks in the world came from the prolific Sherpas. From the turn of the twentieth century, the Sherpas had been arriving at Darjeeling in search for work. At first as labourers and then increasingly as high altitude porters working under successive British Everest expeditions, by the 1930s they had distinguished themselves as climbers of real skill. Naturally acclimatised and used to the rigours of harsh terrain, the people soon became synonymous with the elite of Himalayan mountaineering. If you take a look at the significant early milestones of Himalayan mountaineering- the ascent of Kamet in 1933, the German attempt on Nanga Parbat in 1934, the ascent of Nanda Devi in 1936, the ascent of Annapurna in 1950 or the ascent of Everest itself in 1953- and you will find a bunch of renowned Sherpas at the heart of it all.
The Sherpa people follow Tibetan Buddhism and soon after we start our walk there’s ample evidence of this in the intricately carved mani walls and chortens that litter the trail. Taking care to pass them on the left, we leave the upper ridges and start descending to the valley, passing through fields of wheat and barley, with the young river flowing swiftly to our left.
Crossing a subsidiary stream coming down from a deep valley to the east, we passed under the soaring Kusum Kankharu towering some nine and a half thousand feet over us.
Phakding is a short, two-hour walk from Lukla. We arrive a little before eleven, after a slow walk in the blazing sun, with much of the rest of the day remaining. And a good thing that was too. The first day’s walk is always the hardest. My legs feel like lead, and my much-abused sea level lungs gasp for breath at every little rise. Usually by the next day the situation improves. So I feel extremely glad when the red roofs of the Phakding Yeti Mountain Home swing into view under a rocky outcrop beside the river. Two smiling Sherpanis welcome us with warm glasses of lemonade and unending mugs of coffee and tea. Well, one could get used to this sort of thing.
The Mountain Homes certainly are lavish. In Phakding, the buildings are clustered around a wide courtyard. Inside the cosy drawing room, the walls are adorned with lovely portraits of Sherpa families and pretty decent paintings of some of Nepal’s famous peaks. Our room overlooking the river offers more luxury. Not least of which are a top-notch bathroom with a glass shower cubicle running hot water! I think the gratuitous bath and shampoo I enjoyed here has to be the first I’ve ever had on a trek. The electrically heated bed with its generous pile of blankets were beckoning, but we decide to go for a little acclimatisation walk instead in the forests on the other side of the river. But first lunch. And what a spread that is! Chicken sweet corn soup followed by spaghetti and fries and then a lovely buckwheat cake and coffee. If this is how one eats here, I might actually return fatter from the trek.
An hour’s happy scramble past a lower secondary school guarded by the eyes of all-seeing Buddhahood and Rimijung village’s potato farms brought us to Pemachoeling monastery, one of the oldest in the region. Surrounded by an old growth pine and birch forest, I hear the monastery before I see it.
A prayer meeting was in progress and the deep thud of drums reverberated through the hillside. Inside, a young trainee abbot conducted the rituals under the watchful eyes of the head lama of the village of Nurning in front of a huge stern statue of Padmasambhava (the patron saint and guru of the Nyingmapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism). Around the prayer hall lit up by lamps and surrounded by bright vivid murals of Bodhisattvas, local deities and row upon row of old manuscripts, monks chanted in rising and falling cadences, every now and then pausing to blow on the sandung and gyaling, or clash large hand cymbals, while a crumpled, ancient nun blew powerfully on a huge conch shell. The old couple from Rimijung who had requested the prayer were also present, sipping glasses of tea with their eyes fixed on the Buddha.
We wandered around for another hour in the forest under lowering skies, while far to the north floated the temple-like spire of Tawecho. Later that evening as we sit around the wood fired oven in the lounge and sip our ‘happy hour’ drinks of hot rum toddy and leaf through mountaineering books, Sonam explains out how camping has died a painful death in the Khumbu region. If the Yeti Mountain Home is on the upper end even for the wealthy Europeans who make up the bulk of the tourists in this area, lodges with perfectly good facilities now stretch all the way up to Gorakshep, the last settlement of any kind on the Everest trail at a height of 16,942ft. No one wants the rough and tumble of camping any more, certainly not the guides. And since the trekking establishment of the region only promotes lodges, camping has actually become a more expensive option. Retiring to my electrically heated furnace of a bed, later that night, I shed a quiet tear.
The road to Shu is hard, harder than climbing to the sky.
Leaning, I stare into the west and utter a long sigh…
Swift rapids, wrestling cataracts descend in roaring spasms,
Pound cliffs, boil over rocks, and thunder through ten thousand chasms.
– Li Bai
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 in Satyajit Ray’s Eko Shringo Abhijan (The Unicorn Expedition) to Oz and El Dorado; I wanted to see them all, if only a glimpse. These places had their rules. You would never find them on a map, at least not a real one; you’d have to endure many hardships; and you could never hope to reach there without a large amount of grace. Over the years I’d been to some unimaginably lovely places, and lonely places, and places that could well have been Faerie. But then, last year, I went to Nanda Devi.
The goddess’s secret garden has held sway over me for what seems like forever. A few years ago I’d chanced upon an excellent book by the journalist Hugh Thomson called Nanda Devi: A Journey to the Last Sanctuary. This led me to Eric Shipton’s classic Nanda Devi, an extraordinary book that has to be one of the most romantic mountain travel books ever. In 1934 Shipton along with his partner Bill Tilman and three of the best sherpas of the day spent the summer, monsoon and autumn wandering about central Garhwal, living off the land and accomplishing some unbelievable mountaineering feats, the biggest of which involved finding a way into the Nanda Devi sanctuary, an impenetrable mountain fastness that had repelled all earlier attempts by locals and mountaineers alike. I’d been dreaming ever since, and through a convenient coming together of luck and circumstance, I was finally going there, to pay my respects to a great mountain.
The Nanda Devi Sanctuary lies across the Great Himalayan Range in the form of a cirque of high mountains in the centre of which sit the twin peaks of Nanda Devi, looming over some 380 sq km of ice and snow. Nowhere, in its 110 km length, is this mountain wall less than 18,000ft high. At a single point in this chain, the Rishi Ganga cuts a frighteningly deep gorge through the mountain barrier and flows west to meet the larger trans-Himalayan Dhauli Ganga. The only practicable route into the inner reaches of the sanctuary is by outflanking the outer gorge of the Rishi Ganga by crossing the 4252m Dharansi pass to the hanging valley of Dharansi and then down to the upper Rishi Ganga gorge.
My friend Parth and I arrived at Lata on a sunny day in early September- the final day of the annual Nandashtami festivities. Originally a tribal nature cult, to outsiders Nanda is just a stand-in for Parvati, but to the Bhotias, just as to the rest of Garhwal and Kumaon, Nanda is herself, the powerful queen of her mountain realm, the bliss-giving goddess. In an old temple in Kumaon, Nanda’s image is that of a tribal woman. Many are her legends, too numerous to put down here, but the entire area is consecrated to her- the forests and the animals are her children, as are the Bhotias, who celebrate the end of the monsoon harvest season with nine days of songs and dancing, ending in the ritual sacrifice of rams in honour of the devi who inhabits the body of her priest to bless the day with her presence.
We caught the final day’s rituals before Nanda was carried back to her temple from an antechamber where she had been residing the past few days amidst great fanfare and rejoicing. It was one of the few truly animist rituals I’d ever seen. The stone Nanda temple dominated a courtyard, studded with bramha-kamals to mark the occasion. Women in Tibetan-looking long black robes and white cloth headgear danced slowly in a circle while chanting a plaintive song of regeneration and permanence. Then the spirit of Nanda’s deputy, the trickster god Latu, invaded the body of a designated medium. Latu lurched around the compound to frenetic drumming, tasting all the fruits of Nanda’s bounty- from sheep’s heads to barley. Then he flung the rest of the prasad into the delighted crowd, who took what they could. 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 bramha-kamal.
Narendra of Mountain Shepherds, my guide, is a charming young man in his mid-twenties. We stayed at a modest home-stay that he runs for his father Dhan Singh, the former village sarpanch. Dhan Singh and his friend Raghubir Singh were much-feted guides in the hey-day of mountaineering in the sanctuary in the 1970s. It was in Lata and the nearby village of Reni that the famous Chipko movement began in 1974 to prevent the felling of sacred deodhar groves by forestry contractors. Since the closure of the sanctuary in 1982 for environmental reasons, a generation of Lata men had lost out on a lucrative source of income, especially since the 1962 war had terminated their earlier trade with Tibet. Dhan Singh, who was a young man during the Chipko movement, organised the villagers of this area into an effective body of activists during the Jhapto Cheeno movement in the late Nineties in an effort to get back their land that was shut to them with the advent of the National Park and it’s subsequent notification as a World Heritage Site. Its success led to more elbow room for the Bhotias, and now a few trails were allowed to be kept open in the national park for small groups of trekkers with permits. Men from Lata and the enarby village of Suraithota acted as guides. We were to leave the next day, with Raghubir Singh and Narendra acting as our guides.
What could I say? There’s only so much camel I can take, and I’d been catching myself staring at these strange, disdainful beasts all day. I can’t think of any other animal that carries off such studied insouciance, even when doing nothing more demonstrative than chewing cud. But I definitely had no intention of riding one.
I had never been to Pushkar before, and at the risk of sounding gauche, I have to admit that nothing had prepared me for this. Despite being one of India’s prime tourist magnets, Pushkar has a strange feeling of isolation. This may be purely geographic- the town is situated in a valley between parallel rows of the Aravalli range, cut off from it’s larger neighbour, Ajmer, and indeed from the rest of the world. The Aravalli are, of course far older than the Himalaya, and it’s fascinating to imagine how these mountains must have looked in their pomp in the depths of geologic time. Secluded in the desert, Pushkar and its cosmic lake are indeed timeless.
This is in part due to a self-reinforcing alliance between the medieval architecture of the town and an even older religio-cultural tradition. Pushkar has to be one of the oldest holy towns in the country, second only to Varanasi. Yet it’s different too. Bramha is worshipped here, as is well known, but his wives also get precedence. The Bramhin Savitri and the tribal Gayatri, both boon-granting goddesses, occupy two prominent hill-top shrines on either side of the lake, keeping a watchful eye on their husband. Even in the context of the pantheon, this is Hinduism at its most basic: Bramha and the holy cow- rather, the cow’s purifying mouth- get the two main ghats by Pushkar lake.
The 52 whitewashed ghats rise up from the lake in that familiar cluster of layered balconies, chattris and terraces that is common to many old pilgrim towns around the country. These provide enough nooks and crannies for bathers to preserve their modesty, or for the bahurupiya to don his make-up while he transforms into Hanuman or Shiva.
Photography is understandably banned here, considering the number of people in states of casual nudity as they dip themselves repeatedly in the lake’s sacred waters. Every day brings more anxious pilgrims, clutching single carry-bags, the women with the ends of their saris firmly tucked into their mouth, and looking for a dharamshala to stay. Of these there are plenty, some of which specify caste affiliations, providing their patrons ‘full service’ – lodging, food and ease of worship. When the waxing moon reaches its zenith on the night of Kartik Purnima, in a re-enactment of Bramha’s mythical yagna attended by all the gods of the pantheon, thousands of people from around the country jostle here for just that one, cathartic dip in the lake’s sacred waters.
Apart from the pilgrims who come here to wash off their sins, there are as many reasons to visit Pushkar as there are people. Take Marie, a fifty-something Frenchwoman I met in a charming old haveli next to the lake. Now a converted guest-house and restaurant, its frayed grandeur matches Marie, who looks like an evacuee from one of Lou Reed’s songs of the fading demi-monde. Once an actress, Marie has been making an annual trip to India for the past three years, and she invariably finds herself in Pushkar. Did she ever visit when she was younger? “No, I used to think my hippie friends were stupid, babbling on about spiritual India.” She pauses to take a deep drag on her cigarette before spreading her spidery fingers open as if she’s trying to grasp some elusive thing. “But now,” she says, exhaling, “I get it.”
It’s easy to see how the intensity of an exotic faith and the sheer physical splendour of a landscape can combine to such effect on a jaded, urban mind. But while those like Marie are in search of the ineffable, others are here for more tangible reasons. I’d been noticing a young man in a keffiyeh all day, wandering about town, his sharp eyes darting; his bulging arsenal of lenses on the ready to capture the colourful and the serendipitous. I finally corner him at one of the large dining tents for camel-herders, while he’s shoving his camera into the impressive moustache of a peanut vendor. His name is Vikram, and he’s from Mumbai.
“Are you on an assignment?”
“No man, I’m here to shoot my portfolio.”
“Yeah man. Your portfolio is incomplete without Pushkar. Look around man, isn’t this place great?”
Yes it is, I agree, and he lopes off towards the make–shift tent city that sprouts up every year in the wilderness just outside town. It houses the camels, horses and cows, as well as their grooms, minders and sellers. Its carnival time for the local tribal people; busily chewing sugarcane, buying farm implements, hukkas and kitchen utensils while an army of photographers shadow their every move, shooting fifteen frames a second. If you discount the camels and the holy city vibe, Pushkar is curiously like Shantiniketan’s Poush Mela– essentially an annual local fair that politely ignores its well-heeled city patrons.
In another category are the ‘Pushkarites’- decidedly more urban than their nomadic brethren- who go about their day in the cheerful knowledge that it’s one long holiday. When the slanting sun paints everything gold late in the afternoon, they emerge in finery to ride the ferris wheels, eat whatever junk they can get their hands on, visit the temples and the ghats and generally have a good time.
However, to many jaded Pushkar hands, there aren’t any real ‘Pushkarites’, just nomads and tourists. It’s a highly reductive world-view. Walking through the surging throng of pilgrims down the Badi Basti road next to the lake, I bump into a tall young American Hare Krishna proselytiser. He grabs my hand and says, “Hey there my man, where’re you from?”
“Um, here,” I say.
“Oh cool, a genuine Pushkarite! There aren’t many left you know!”
“Um, no, I meant I’m Indian.”
“Oh, from where?” says he, while trying to push a Bhagwad Gita into my hand.
“Calcutta, and I don’t want this.”
“Really? Cool, I live in Mayapur. You must take it.”
“I’ve been there a few times. I really don’t want it, I have one at home.”
“You must visit again, ciao.”
The serious business is transacted at the camel fair. The camel is to the Rajasthani nomad what the yak is to a Tibetan- support system, a source of sustenance as well as a principal mode of transport. So buying a good camel makes everyone happy. Everywhere I stop for a cup of tea or a smoke, there’s invariably a gaggle of wiry, weather-beaten men in dusty white shirts and large colourful pagdis conspiratorially discussing camels. And in this regard, the notorious Rajasthani preference for all things male seems to fall through. “A female camel or a male, what difference does it make? I want a good camel,” admonishes a bidi-smoking elder to a harried flunkey, who rushes off to seal the deal.
But if camels constitute the bulk of the business, horses fetch the higher prices. Pushkar Mela is the place to buy and sell thoroughbreds, especially the Sindhi and Marwari varieties. The horse enclosures are usually peopled by minor Rajput potentates or their agents dressed sharply in riding breeches, jodhpurs and sporting royal crests on their stylish jeeps. A hub for both race and polo horses, some desirable animals can fetch really high prices, going up to anywhere between Rs 3 and 5 lakhs. Mohar Singh of Kherla village was busy brushing the coat of his dashing brown horse, Badal. Is it true, I asked him, that apparently a horse had sold the previous day for 95 lakh rupees? He hadn’t heard of such a thing, but he asked me to beware the sellers of non-Marwari horses. They were spreading misinformation. How much was Badal for? He studied my face a full five seconds and said, “four lakh.”
Later as I walked towards the car-park, I thrilled to the mystical charge of an almost-full moon in this oasis under eldritch stars, surrounded by hills over 200 million years old. Who knows maybe on kartik purnima the Old Ones themselves might descend? Pushkar would probably take it in its stride.
The big day- pass day- we awoke to a dark, chilly morning. Dawn was still a couple of hours away when I blearily opened my eyes and was informed by Oli’s disembodied voice that it was 4 am. The cave was a blur of movement as a little candle and many flash-lights threw dancing shadows on the low roof. At the risk of repeating a truism, I must say that getting up in the cold and going about your business is an easy thing to do when you don’t really have an option. So I felt around for a toilet roll, put on my slippers and started the tricky traverse to some suitably private boulder behind the cave. Just the first faint glimmers of the day all around. The sky was still overcast, though it was difficult to say how heavy the clouds were. I cold only hope that there would be no rain while we were crossing the pass later today.
Time was of the essence, and after quickly wrapping up our sacks, and swallowing the horrible nut-flecked gloop that passed for breakfast, we were off at the dot of six. I was glad to be free of the cramped environment of the cave, and walking again. I knew myself well enough to know that soon I’d be bringing up the rear, so I started out early in the wake of Gulab, who had already leaped his way up through the tangled maze of boulders, and was waiting for us to catch up with him. I looked down to see how the others were doing. Jagdish was making his way up the slope in his unhurried gait, thoughtfully puffing on a biri. KP was looking up at the ridge-line suspiciously while Devon wasn’t moving too well, thanks to an unwelcome bout of constipation. Oli was the very picture of economy, never hurrying, never stopping, slowly making her way up in measured steps.
My sack was heavy but it felt good to have it on my back, as it gave me a sense of solidity in this unstable world. We climbed out of the rock couloir that held the frozen Bhated and came out of the boulder maze just above Lahesh when the views opened up all around. It was almost getting to seven, and the sky above Indrahar was clear. The sun still hadn’t made its presence felt but behind me Kangra valley was bathed in light. Predictably enough, the others soon passed me by as I kept stopping to get my breath back and take pictures. The lower ridges of the Dhauladhar were slowly creeping into light, as the distant villages of Naddi and Kareri shone a vivid green in the slanting sunlight. Triund seemed impossibly remote, some 3,000 feet below, and I suppressed a smile to be looking down upon something that I’ve always looked up at from McLeodganj. With the mounting exertion, a part of me wanted to be down on that green alp, walking around aimlessly. But I was glad to be out on this fine day, and we were making progress.
Well, not all of us. Devon had become impossibly bogged down and had to take a toilet break. So for a change I wasn’t the last man panting. Not that it amounted to much, as I was frequently taking rests as I struggled to find a rhythm which I could keep up for at least ten minutes without tiring. Still, landscape has a way of inspiring, and even if I had the choice I wouldn’t have wanted to stop. A couple of hours into the climb, the angle of ascent had eased off a bit, but the boulder tangle was even more pronounced if anything. The sky above us was clear, and for the longest time the notch of Indrahar beckoned invitingly, before being lost to view due to fore-shortening. Oli had dutifully dropped back- as she says, its unthinkable for a tiring person to bring up the rear- while KP was above me, charging on with a will that moves mountains, the ends of his Tibetan wool cap flying in the breeze. He had hit upon a novel idea- force your way up past the obstacles in the vapour trail of Gulab, and then wait with him for us to catch up. It was a pretty ingenious ploy, as it ensured that he got the most rest. Me, I would huff and puff up to the waiting party some 10-15 minutes late only to see them set off before I’d even had the chance to down my sack. Oh well, I guess it was only fair.
We were fairly sure that the good weather wouldn’t last long, and naturally we were anxious to get over the pass and on our way down before the weather broke for the day. Even then, there was only so much we could do for our pace. Though I didn’t know it at the time, KP was feeling the altitude, and getting the beginnings of a raging headache. It says a lot about his grit and fortitude that he was still crashing ahead the way he was. Oli was patiently bringing up the rear behind me and Devon, smiling to herself.
Soon the angle steepened again as we started up a series of vertical rock stairs that the Gaddi shepherds had industriously created for easy access. This was looking even more like Lord of the Rings now. They distinctly reminded me of the exposed steps of Cirith Ungol leading up to Shelob’s Lair. Just as I had this thought, Devon stopped on a boulder, turned towards me and asked me if this didn’t remind me of the Lord of the Rings. I mouthed the words “Shelob’s Lair” at him, and he broke out in another of his 100-watt grins and started nodding his head vigorously. Oli, caught up in the traffic jam, asked us testily if we had to discuss this in such an unstable place. She was right, of course, and we resumed our upwards trudge, one moment climbing up a narrow gully and the next moment traversing a grassy shelf in the direction of a cairn that marked the beginning of another narrow stair-way. We were close to the top now and every now and then I would crane my neck up and see the massive petrified wave of the ridge looming over me, while wisps of clouds were being blown over the Mon by a pretty strong wind.
Oli was again enticing me with cream biscuits, so I figured she must be pretty worried. There was still nothing I could do about my pace, so I carried on the best I could. At least, the ascent would soon be over, and apart from the exertion I was fine. And no matter how difficult the descent from the pass into the Ravi valley, at least I wouldn’t be short of breath. I was just thankful that altitude wasn’t hampering my progress. I felt excited enough that soon I’d be bettering my altitude record, and finally see the promised land behind Indrahar Pass. Plenty of reasons, then, to keep going.
Then the weather turned. It didn’t start raining, but a thick mist descended upon us. The temperature dropped and a keen, cold wind started blowing. Stumbling up through this sudden dreamscape, we passed many false summits topped by gargoyle-shaped boulders, and each one was a blow to the morale. By now I could see nothing above me, and all around us was the monolithic mist. At least that meant that we were pretty close to the top. Another ten minutes, twenty minutes, half an hour, I had no clue about the time anymore. It was my job to go up, so go up I did, with Oli prodding me ever so gently.
Suddenly, indistinct shapes started looming up in front of me through the mist. Were those things…trishuls? Yes they were! A little shrine, and then no more dark rocks but empty space! We’d reached the pass at last. I could see Devon’s blue rucksack a little way ahead as he finally made the ridge-top. I wanted to holler but my voice had failed me for the time-being. Indrahar pass! I could weep.
The others had been waiting for a while- KP and Gulab a good 30 minutes- and were arrayed all over the steep ridge-top, grinning at us laggards. To my left the ridge climbed in a rock wall to Slab peak. To my right, the ridge extended like a massive wall to the Cairn and Mon peaks, a few hundred feet above me. The ridge itself was like being on the back of a massive stegosaurus skeleton, with a man behind every spike-like hump of the ridge. It was pretty exposed, though behind us, the mist hid what would have been spectacular views of Kangra. Ahead, the mist was breaking, and suddenly you could see for miles.
I had prepared for this sight for years now. Straight to the north rose the tall peaks of the Pir Panjal- the Tent and Barakanda peaks the most distinctive of them, in the direction of the Kalicho and Chobia passes into the Chandrabhaga valley in Lahaul. Although the range was decked with strips of clouds, you could still make them out. Due North-East arose the closer ramparts of the Manimahesh Range, but Kailash itself was hidden by long, rolling banner clouds. Below the pass, the ground fell away spectacularly into a boulder-filled glacial wasteland- this being the warmest and most moist time of the year, the ice is mostly stale and rotten- and one of the most amazingly wild cirque of mountains I’ve ever seen.
I sat and compared the scene with all the different reports I’ve read of Indrahar. The legendary Harish Kapadia writes of this part of the Dhauladhar, which he often used to visit for a quick weekend of climbing. Some five hundred feet below me was the hanging lip of this high plateau, sheltered from the wind blowing up the Kuarsi valley by some massive boulders. That could have been the site of the base camp that he mentions from which he undertook climbing trips up the various peaks. To my right, across the glacial waste, the northern face of Mon sloped up relatively gently, an easy climb on a fine day. Its southern aspect, which I’d seen so far, is truly terrifying, and as far as I know, not many climbers have had much joy from that direction. To my left, past the immediate hump of Slab peak, lay other peaks, with quaint British names like Two-Gun, Camel, Dromedary, Rifle-horn and Arthur’s Seat. In fact I could even see Arthur’s foot-stool, a prominent rock obelisk on the ridge leading up to Arthur’s Seat.
While the Gaddis have been using the passes of the Dhauladhar for at least seven hundred years now, it was only when the British established their cantonments in Dharamshala and nearby Dalhousie at the turn of the Twentieth Century, did vacationing soldier-alpinists start climbing in this region, and naming the amazing landscape they saw. It must’ve reminded them of the Dolomites or, more likely, the Alps (there’s even a Dhauladhar Matterhorn further to the east, north of Dadh near Palampur), and with the great British push for exploring and climbing the Himalayan range in full swing, many considered the Dhauladhar a perfect little pocket-sized version of the bigger mountains in which to train. The additional fact that the range was so easily accessible from the plains must have been a big factor too. One man in particular did a fair bit to popularise the region around Indrahar, a Col. J O M Robert. Writing in the third volume of the Himalayan Journal in 1937, he says,
“The Dhaula Dhar has, I feel sure, a big future before it in the history of Himalayan mountaineering; for here is an ideal and very accessible training ground. Although there are snow-climbs in plenty before the monsoon breaks scores of first class rock-clmbs, especially on the Dharamsala side.”
That sadly never came true, but what he said then, still holds true now. I really can’t think of a more ideal training ground not just for mountaineering, but also for getting a taste of travelling in the mountains in general. Here you have mini-glaciers, mini-peaks, and as we were to find out, a mini Valley of Flowers too, especially during the monsoon months.
Jagdish pointed out our camp for the day, about 2,000 feet below in the green valley of the Kuarsi nala, called Chhata Parao. A traditional pasturage, from this distance it looked like a gentle green meadow, made all the more alluring by the clear sunlight that shone on it.
The Kuarsi nala drains the northern face of the Dhauladhar and this particular cirque of mountains, with side-streams feeding it till it becomes a raging torrent further down and ultimately merges with the Ravi near the village of Choli. After finishing our smokes, and posing for some pictures for Oli, we started our descent. I would’ve liked to have loitered here for a while, but storm-clouds were forming in earnest behind us in Kangra, and we wanted to be home and dry in our camp, still some three hours away.
The descent was a tricky one, primarily because it was a first for me, and also for KP. Now the correct way to descend rock faces is to face outward and gingerly shuffle down. Often, its just a matter of holding your nerves. I had no intention to try. So I started down like I was descending a ladder, face-to-rock and searching for toe-holds. Then I realised that to do so would be to miss the ever-changing views. So I stopped, hitched my tiny camera bag like a holster and kept it ready for a quick draw. Then I slowly descended the boulder zone, as many of them were precariously loose, and there was no way I could tell which boulder would take my weight and which one wouldn’t. So I was soon reduced to descending on my ass. While this technique is not the most elegant, its definitely effective when you’re feeling unbalanced by a rucksack on your back.
The northern face of the Dhauladhar is softer in aspect than Kangra the side, and it resembles a proper mountainscape in that it doesn’t rise with the sudden upthrust of the Kangra face. Instead, it’s a gradual descent from pass to glacial moraine to grassland, to tree-line. The Kuarsi valley though is fairly wide one, and imposing. As we headed down past some glacial lakes and traversed under the other rocky peaks, the lay of the land finally became clear to me. After descending the 500 feet to the lip of the plateau, we traversed to the west until we were on the true left of the snow-fields that fed the principal streams of the Kuarsi nala, and then started descending gradually into the valley as it opened out. It was pretty much as I’d expected from Google Earth, but of course this was in glorious three-dimension that threatened as much as inspired.
Lagging behind, taking pictures, I would often be spooked by the sheer massiveness of everything, and would hurry to meet whoever was before me- mostly an exasperated Gulab who wanted nothing better than to tear on ahead but chose to wait for this clueless tourist. Often I’d come across these extensive rock gardens resplendent with yellow and blue alpine flowers- alas I don’t know their names- and I would feel like lingering, watching the clouds drift and change over this immense landscape, the like of which I’d never seen in my life. But then I’d catch sight of the last person a good way ahead, and I’d force myself out of my reverie and rush.
The granite slabs on the Chamba side of the Dhauladhar look like immense smooth rectangular tiles, slab after slab rising up to the pinnacles. To think that so much of this rock started life somewhere in the present location of the Bara Banghal range in the North-West overlooking the Kullu valley many eons ago! Thousands of years of glaciation and rains had worn them smooth. Down these now flowed down many little streams, gathering together and forming larger flows which would then tumble down to meet other streams coming down from other snowfields in the cirque. Although we were bang in the middle of monsoon, many of these higher reaches of the Kuarsi nala was still glaciated. Jagdish told me how when travelling over this area in early summer or late autumn, you could substantially save time by following the banks of the frozen Kuarsi, sometimes even walking on the river. This area must look completely different in summer or autumn. Robert had described rolling snowfields extending up to the peaks in 1937. Kapadia describes a similar landscape in his jaunts from the 70’s and 80’s. Due to a warming climate, the Dhauladhar is no longer snow-bound all the year around, and although this creates many serious disruptions, from falling rocks to water-scarcity, the one upside is that it allows you to see what it all looks like under the snow.
As we descended to grasslands, one of our big mistakes for the day started to make itself felt. We had not had a morsel to eat since that bit of gloop at dawn and the occasional biscuit and nuts. It was past two now, and as we trudged on through a steady low drizzle in the direction of the sunlit promised land below, we were all tiring. KP seemed the worse off, as he was suffering from a raging headache. My guess is that he ascended to the pass too quickly, plus he had just bettered his altitude record by some 4,000 feet. My only hope was that now that we were losing height and descending to moist pasturage, he would be ok in a while. By now, wet vegetation was at least ankle high, and we walked in a daze for what seemed like hours down undulating tracks through a tangle of high grass and carpets of flowers, skirting little runnels of water, slipping and falling occasionally, or negotiating our way around boulder heaps. Tendrils of low-hanging clouds would flow up from the Ravi valley and over us, touching us wetly and moving on.
At one point Oli slipped and fell in a perfect sitting position, supported by her rucksack. She refused to get up and kept sitting. So I sat down beside her and smoked a biri, both of us not saying anything. This place was just too much for our puny brains to deal with. Arguably she was dealing with it a lot better than me, but a monsoon trek was a first for her as well, and she was moved beyond words. She’d have liked to set camp right here (so would’ve I), and was getting a little irritated with our tiring, relentless descent.
Devon had got a second wind and was far ahead of KP, Oli and me, just behind Gulab and Jagdish. The two of them, mightily impressed with ‘Madamji‘, had figured that she was capable of guiding the two of us down and were on their way to figure out the track. Gualb hadn’t come this way too often, and though Jagdish had, it was a while since he passed this way in the rains, and even he hadn’t expected such lush growth this high up. This profusion of vegetation is, of course, non-existent in other months, allowing for a more rapid descent and easier track-finding.
Soon, another classic problem of a monsoon trek made its presence felt, the dreaded side-streams. We were low enough now for the small ribbons of water further up to have coalesced into raging torrents leaping spectacularly down the ravines and into the nala. The flow would’ve been easier to negotiate earlier in the day before the upper snows melted, but now that it was way into the afternoon, the flow of water was pretty serious. Plus it had rained heavily last night.
The first one we had to cross wasn’t too bad. The group’s favourite word, “chhalang” (jump) was much in evidence, as we took Gulab’s hand and jumped over the fast flowing channels under the base of the waterfall. The next one, a little later, was trickier. A sizable stream came crashing down the cliffs to our left to meet the Kuarsi. To tackle this one, we descended all the way down to the Kuarsi’s bank and made our way gingerly to the meeting point of the two streams (we were going down the true left bank of the nala) . This section of the Kuarsi was heavily glaciated, forming an immense unstable ice-bridge. These we obviously couldn’t use, and the left bank of the stream was too steep to climb. So Jagdish and Gulab devised a route across.
We climbed up to the crest of the ice, skirted it and got onto a large, smooth rock-face through which the stream carved its way down. There was no way up this sheer sheet of rock sans a narrow chimney. So we edged up to it in a line, and waited for the person in front to jam their hands and feet into the crack and propel themselves up. It required some effort and strength. If I lacked the latter, I was alarmed enough to try it. And, well, it was a lot of fun. I finally felt that we were earning our right to be in this trek, not just being mere passengers. After making the head of the rock-face, we traversed across the face of the thundering waterfall, jumping gingerly over rocks jutting out in the stream, until with one final lunge we’d gained the other bank. The effort cleared my head somewhat, and the others’ too, and everyone was soon grinning widely. But the day was seriously getting late, and we’d been on the march for well nigh ten hours now. Oli was getting a little impatient with Jagdish and Gulab. For the past hour, she’d been able to spot some pretty good campsites, and she’d been getting worried on our behalf, especially the lack of a proper lunch, but the two were adamant for making it to Chhata. I was too gone to care, but a cessation in walking and something warm to drink would’ve helped.
Now we made our second big mistake. Jagdish and Gulab had gone on ahead after pointing out the general direction of Chhata, Devon hard on their heels. KP was stumbling along, and I was only too happy with the slower pace, so me and Oli hung back and walked slowly, pretty confident that either Jagdish or Gulab would be back to guide us once they’d located camp. There was a clear gap in communication and that soon caused us a world of trouble.
We were on a wide alp, riven through with rocky defiles. Above us and slightly ahead, lovely pine forests signaled the beginning of the treeline. To our right, the land sloped down gradually before plunging down some two hundred feet into the crashing nala below. But the sunlit expanse that we’d been aiming for was lost in thick clouds swarming up from the Ravi valley. We were late enough to be about to be caught in an afternoon storm. The other three were hidden in the swirling mists further below, and soon we were cold, hungry, immensely tired and more than a little alarmed. A heavy mist was upon us and the air was rumbling with the sound of thunder. And then it started raining, by the proverbial bucket-loads. This turned the soft turf under our feet into a slippery mass, and made us even slower.
We soon came to a deep ravine. I was certain that I could see what looked like people on the other side and anyway, I argued that we had to cross the ravine and gain the next ridge to get a clearer idea of where to go. So we started down, and before I knew what was happening, I was tumbling into the waiting mass of man-high weeds and brambles. I tried to check my fall by desperately clutching at the plants, and though most gave way, some held, and I ceased to topple. It was hopeless, so we slithered our way down- or crawled through the undergrowth as KP said- to a small rock overhang that functioned as a sort of single-seater cave. Into this we creeped wet and dazed, and unhappily munched on a packet of Hide n Seek, while we discussed our predicament.
Oli was worried but she was sure that even if we had become lost, we should be able to find better shelter and wait the night out. It would be hard, but it could be done. I was sure that this ravine had to be crossed and suggested that we should either go higher up the slope or lower down to the river to try and find a way around it. I was pretty sure this could be done too. KP was being stoic, and indeed, though the two of us were pretty scared, we were probably more exhilarated than we’d ever been in our lives. Now that we were in this soup, I was convinced we could find our way out of it. I kept thinking of S T Coleridge, trapped inside a rocky defile in the Lake district with a heavy storm approaching, and how he had thought himself out of his predicament.
The rain had slackened a bit and the clouds had grown thinner, so we slipped and slithered our way up the wall of the ravine and up onto the alp again. KP was alternately shouting in the general direction of Chhata and giggling hysterically. Oli was fuming, and threatening to break all ties with Jagdish and Gulab once we were rescued and go on our own. I was about to head up the slope when I caught sight of a blue thing flapping on the other side of the ravine. It slowly materialised into a person, who seemed to be Jagdish, but we couldn’t be sure. We screamed at each other across the divide, to no avail, as we couldn’t hear him and he couldn’t hear us. He was gesturing us to cut through the ravine, while we were trying to tell him that we’ve tried and failed. We’d been carrying one ice-axe for this eventuality- to clear a way through the thickets- but it was with Jagdish, so there really was no way that we could find a way through that horribly slippery vegetative mess.
The person did turn out to be Jagdish, and he soon tired of trying to argue, and started across the ravine. We started descending down the track he wanted us to follow, and met him as he was coming up. Our faces must’ve worn that same stony look of anger and relief, so Jagdish didn’t argue or try to explain himself. For our part, we were just too relieved to see him. As he cut a way through the desperately tangled undergrowth, we crossed the ravine and up onto the next ridge, only to find that we had to descend down another ravine and then do a couple of sharp switchbacks before we arrived at the camp.
I call it a camp, and I’m sure it’s a great camp in other seasons, but I’ve never seen a spot so ill-suited for the time of year than this. A rock cave formed the kitchen and sleeping quarters of Jagdish, Gulab and Devon; and they’d been home and dry for a while now. Meanwhile our tent was pitched at an angle on some rocks in the middle of thick, high grass which made it impossible to spot from even fifty feet, let alone from the ridge-top that we had been aiming for. Being on the slope it also ensured that any rain water would flow right past us.
We could’ve been very angry, but we were just happy to be out of the rain. Gulab, sensing something amiss immediately got us a round of tea. That, and getting out of our wet clothes took the edge off a bit; and when warm food followed a little while later, I had recovered my peace of mind. We decided to have a conversation with the erring duo the next day, and left it at that. Meanwhile there were biris and other things to smoke, pictures to go over, things to be dried and much excited conversation to be had.
My last memory of that camp is a sight of the Kuarsi, just down the slope, completely glaciated, shimmering spectrally in the half-light and lowering mist. We had walked for 12 hours, and all things considered, I wouldn’t change a single detail.
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.
(…continued from Up and Down the Dhauladhar Day 1)
Rain fell in violent gusts all night. It had become quite cold. I was more or less comfortable in my foam sleeping bag, but Oli was shivering in her flimsy sack, and KP was positively suffering. He’d caught a cold and the previous day’s sudden gain in altitude had not helped either. I gave him some analgesics to help ease his headache. At some point we managed to get some sleep.
Pic: Jagdish and shaggy dog wait in vain for the rain to abate. Picture taken by Bibek Bhattacharya
The day dawned with the weather in an even worse state. Everything was dank and gloomy and heavy rain was falling in a continuous sheet of loud grey. Outside, Triund was a sight of thick clouds being tossed about the ridge. Clearly there was no hope of making an early start for Laka. Gulab and Jagdish were already up and we were greeted with lovely cups of tea. While the others got up, I lazed around in my sleeping bag and dozed for a while before making my way to the kitchen. All our wet stuff was still wet so that was another thing to get used to. Jagdish’s prognosis of the weather was not too good. He was skeptical of the rain stopping anytime soon and figured that the main nala that we’d have to cross between Laka and Lahesh would be in spate even if the weather did break later in the day.
We felt quite gloomy at this turn of events. Suppose we had to call off the trek? I couldn’t bear thinking of that possibility, but we couldn’t wait indefinitely at Triund either, waiting for the weather to turn and eating our way through our supplies.
It was pointless to sit around in the hut and mope. After a few biris smoked in companionable silence, Jagdish and Gulab wandered off to chat with other paharis. KP wandered off to get wet. He had gotten over the night’s unease and that old familiar serenity had returned to his face. Oli was driven to distraction by his behaviour, but it seemed like a perfectly normal thing for him to do.
Every now and then the rain would slacken and I’d step out in the sloshy grass to take a few pictures of stormy Triund. And it was beautiful. Above us, nothing could be seen save the ghostly outlines of the Laka ridge, across which gossamer thin strips of cloud were being hurled by a strong East wind. The forest hut itself was protected from this onslaught by the main ridge of Triund. I climbed up this and was immediately buffeted by the wind as I struggled to keep my ears warm and camera working.
Pic: The Kangra Valley drowning in a sea of clouds. Picture taken by Bibek Bhattacharya
The Dhauladhar for all intents and purposes might not even have existed, so thick was that impenetrable curtain of clouds strung across its face. It occurred to me that since a brief glimpse of the Mon early the previous morning when we were rolling in to Dharamshala, I hadn’t had a single view of the range. It was dispiriting, but my surroundings didn’t allow me to dwell on this for too long,
Unless you go looking for it, its difficult to come across such an elemental scene of wild beauty. Facing the Laka ridge, to my west lay the steep path we had climbed to Triund. Far below, around the edge of a spur seemingly poised on the brink of a great plunge into the tangled construction of McLeodganj, hung the tiny Magic View Cafe. It kept wavering in and out of view as banks of clouds swallowed it up momentarily, and then, driven on by the wind, moved on leaving it visible again. High above that spur ran the wall-like broken ridge-top of Laka, dotted with weirdly contorted rhododendron and pine trees amidst extensive boulder gardens. To the east lay the thickly wooded valley of the Chauran nala, some 2,000 feet below, flowing down from under the south face of Mon. Looking down the mountainside into that mysterious shifting landscape of deep mist and thick vegetation and the occasional massive rocky outcrop was a thrill in itself.
Pic: Tendrils of cloud blow up the thickly wooded Chauran nala valley. Picture taken by Bibek Bhattacharya
However it was impossible to stand for too long in that driving rain and I ducked back down under the protective curtain of the ridge-top. It was afternoon now, and though the light had improved, the weather remained as bad as ever. Oli, the eternal pragmatist, was well into her carefully rehearsed acclimatisation routine. After a hearty breakfast, she had settled down to write. I had tried keeping a journal as well, but I tired after one page, and the notepad was too soggy to write in anyway.
KP had gone off in the rain to meet Sunil, and the great, wet shaggy dog who’d been a refugee at our doorway had also tired of the inactivity and had wandered off. Leaving Oli to her writing, I went to look for KP. Little mirrors to the sky had formed on the path along the ridge and I made my way through the wet grass to Sunil’s shack. KP was sitting outside the shop, rolling. The interior of the shop was occupied by an excitable gaggle of English voices discussing ephemera, so I stood outside under the flapping tarpaulin, watching the capricious clouds play on the ridge above. One of Sunil’s many (apparently) ponies wandered by, dutifully grazing. Scattered groups of cows ate their way up and down the grassy slopes, resembling for all the world massive, mobile vacuum cleaners.
I stood there spacing for what seemed like a very long time. I was feeling very lethargic for some reason, so I made my way back to the hut, only to find Oli in the second stage of her steady acclimatisation process- she was lying in her sleeping bag and trying to feel warm, while reading a book on rock climbing, and trying out different knots with a wee length of rope. It felt pretty funny, hanging out with these two mountain lovers with their radically different approach to life on the heights.
Me, I’m the worrying kind, and I’d been worrying a fair bit since we’d started the day before. And one of my main worries was this matter of acclimatisation.Thanks to my two visits to Tunganath last year, I had successfully breached the 4000 m barrier, but then that was nowhere near as physically taxing as this would be. Although I’d only mildly felt the effects of altitude back then, I wanted to be absolutely sure this time around. Also, KP just had to acclimatise, as he’d never been anywhere higher than Laka, which is approximately 3,200 m. So when Oli instructed me to lie down and take a nap, I obediently crept into my sleeping bag. As I drifted off to sleep, I heard KP calling Oli out. Apparently it had stopped raining.
As soon as I’d fallen asleep, it seemed, I was rudely awakened. It was Oli of course, in that cheerfully steely voice of hers, instructing me to get up and come for a walk. It turned out that I’d been soundly asleep for a good 45 minutes or so. In that time, the weather had cleared somewhat. Most importantly, it wasn’t raining. Outside, it was quite gorgeous. The Dhauladhar was still hidden. However, the overhanging cloak of clouds had receded a fair bit and was now draped over the head of the range. The snow fields, mini glaciers and the ice colouirs that can be seen pretty much all the year round had melted into forceful waterfalls and streams. Just the sheer number of waterfalls coming down from the all-pervading cloud was quite mind-boggling.
The cloud canopy stretched out from its tether on the Dhauladhar all the way to the distant Punjab plains, shimmering blue in the afternoon. Sandwiching us from below was a vast sea of blue clouds, filling up the entirety of the Kangra valley.
Pic: Oli, KP and Gulab deep in conversation. Picture taken by Bibek Bhattacharya
Oli suggested that we climb some way in the direction of Laka, and so we did, picking our way up the steep trail, trying our best to outflank the copious shit that that the cows had been depositing all day. The weather was so fine, that the three of us seriously considered making a dash for Lahesh. Even Gulab, who’d joined us for the ramble, made some noises to that end.
Pic: Happy dogs keep watch on the Laka trail. Picture taken by Bibek Bhattacharya
Suddenly I looked up to see a grave furry face regarding us from a rocky outcrop. It was one of the Gaddi dogs- invariably called Tommy, or Johnny or Bhalu. We climbed up a bit higher till the point where the Triund spur united with its parent ridge of Laka. Oli bounded off ahead. She was obviously feeling this need to keep moving, but I, as usual, stopped to take yet another view of my surroundings. Closer now to the main range, I could get a good look at the giant flanks of the Dhauladhar. The mountainside was a jumble of massive rock falls and boulder fields. The rain-fed Chauran nala was gurgling down in the forested ravine below me. To the easte, running parallel to my Triund spur, were others much like it. Each of these ultimately lead up to the various passes that punctuate the main range. What fun it would be, I thought, to wander about these spurs, traversing the breadth of the range.
In fact, I’d been seriously thinking of turning our little project into a treeline trek, going all over the Southern face of the Dhauladhar. But that route just didn’t possess the joy of crossing two passes, even if it would be a worthwhile way to explore the land. But I still held some hope that the weather and Indrahar would relent.
KP and Gulab were sitting a little way below me deep in conversation, brilliantly silhouetted by the blue cloud-sea that was the Kangra valley.
Pic: The Dhauladhar, smoking hard. Picture taken by Bibek Bhattacharya
Oli returned in a bit, looking as energetic as ever. Her exuberance is quite infectious, so we decided to climb up to the Tibetan prayer flags festooned at a point on top of the ridge that marks the area where the Triund spur merges with the Laka ridge. We’d gone a little way when we saw two figures bounding down the Laka track. They were an American hiker and his Gaddi guide. A shouted conversation with the guide ensued. They were returning from Lahesh and according to him, the trail was perfectly safe as of now. The nala that had so haunted our plans was in spate, but was crossable. According to him, we could still try for Lahesh.
This further added to Oli’s restlessness and she rushed down to Triund to discuss this with Jagdish. He’d been full of doom the entire day, not trusting the weather- or was it our capability? Anyway, since it was getting on to 4 pm, and we weren’t exactly travelling light, I thought it would be better to spend another night here and start tomorrow morning despite the weather.
It was a lovely afternoon to be at Triund, so me and KP sat around, chatted in fits and starts and took some pictures. Then we started down at an easy pace, while KP filled me in on Sunil’s fifty horses and the envy this caused among the other paharis. A couple of years ago, when KP had first come to McLeodganj, some of his Gaddi friends had brought him up to Triund in a direct line that climbed the 3,000 feet from Bhagsu along the entire length of the Triund spur. Ridiculously steep in places, it had both enchanted and scared the living daylights out of KP. We decided to check it out.
We met Oli as she was coming up to us. She’d managed to get Jagdish to promise that we’d make an attempt to get to Lahesh the next morning. She seemed a lot calmer as a result. That particular load off our heads, we truly enjoyed ourselves for the next couple of hours, walking around on the beautiful rain soaked green turf of Triund while the world below us seemed to be drowning in an ocean of blue. Oli got me to climb some rocks too, and despite misgivings, I did fine, aided a good deal by my veteran boots which, after some eleven years of rough use, still retained a fantastic grip. KP, extremely disinterested in all this exertion, took to impersonating a human rocky outcrop. Every now and then I would see him standing on some rock, dramatically framed by the seething blue clouds, quietly contemplating the void.
Pic: KP contemplates the void. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya
The wind was picking up, gently blowing tendrils of clouds from the layer below us to the one above. We sat in perfect silence, each of us lost in our own thoughts.
Before our eyes, the Mon began to do a striptease. At first only a ghostly outline, the high winds near its summit slowly blew away the clouds obscuring it from view. Presently the peak and a large portion of the summit ridge slowly revealed itself in all its stark, brooding glory.
Owing to the time of year, the snow-less Dhauladhar resembled a fortress made of tiers and tiers of black rock. Not for the last time, the scene reminded me of something out of Lord of the Rings. Indrahar was a tiny notch to the left of the peak, one that you’d easily miss if you weren’t looking for it.
Pic: The Mon finally reveals itself; Indrahar Pass is the notch to the peak’s left. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya
From here the south face looked so sheer and perpendicular that the thought of actually being on it made me involuntarily shiver a bit. With the weather we were having, this looked like serious business. But instead of being freaked out, I felt a desperate urge to be on top of the damn thing. If I could’ve started out right then, I would have.
Meanwhile, Triund was having a regular day. After the day’s ‘Garbage In Garbage Out’ the cows had retired. There was one standing motionless while a tourist filmed it. Young Johnson, a sweet Gaddi dog who’d been accompanying us all afternoon was trying to turf out the cow by barking furiously. The tea shops were buzzing with talk, laughter and endless cups of tea. Now that the day trippers had returned to McLeodganj, there was a fair degree of fellow feeling among those who’d stayed back.
Pic: Evening clouds climb ominously, with the Pong reservoir in the background. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya
It was getting cold and windy, so we went back to our little hut. I was getting pretty fond of this little place, it felt like home. Gulab got some tea going while KP and Oli pottered about doing nothing in particular. I sat on a rock next to a blasted tree and spaced, looking out to the far distance where the massively swollen Pong reservoir was glittering blue. Then the thick clouds covering Kangra slowly started climbing up, ominously obliterating everything in their path. Spooky. Another evening of desultory conversation, dinner and early to bed. We would make an attempt to get to Lahesh cave the next day. To be continued…