The drive from Sangla to Chitkul is over a paved road that is maintained regularly. The only valley that had etched an image vividly in the mind so far was the Harsil valley.
But, as I followed the meandering course of the Baspa upstream, along the highway in that Jeep, I became aware that I had met Harsil’s match. The beauty was glorious in a different way, and the dimensions were greater several times!
No wonder this is the valley, which produces the best and the most apples in the country. Nestled at the foot of the Kinnaur Kailash range, it’s a place blessed, beautiful, and blissful- a piece of paradise accidentally left behind.
The dreamy drive ends abruptly in about an hour. The road comes to an end as it makes a gentle turn to the left.
“Hindustan Ka Akhiri Dhaba- Breakfast* Lunch*Dinner” – a board atop a closed dhaba proudly announces.
As the entire Upper Baspa Valley opens up, it presents a grand vista without compare. The tall peaks half asleep in the clouds and the gently dancing waters coursing through the twists and turns of the Baspa fill one’s being with sublime joy.
The team soon got busy with activities of gleeful abandon. Some were inquiring about the food, some clicking pictures atop the village granary, and some slurping on succulent pieces of Mango.
I got busy seeking to know if the much required Inner Line Permit had arrived at the local ITBP Post. No such intimation had been received, but we could go ahead and talk to the station commander at Nagasthi Camp—informed the Jawan manning the ITBP post. I was positively uncomfortable with this news.
Meanwhile, a busload of young women arrived, all donning colorful attire and all in the best of spirited chatter. Rachit and Krushi were strangely found missing for the next half an hour. Later they described the glorious compliments they received from the young ladies.
They had a rock-star welcome accorded to them, and they had to tear themselves off with much pain from the adoring attention of the women.
There had been several discussions in the internet thread, with copious contributions from various members, about the need for an Inner Line Permit in the Lamkhaga Pass route.
The opinion varied. While everyone was convinced that formal permission was necessary when one attempted it from the Harsil side, there was no agreement on the fact that it’s equally necessary from the Chitkul side.
“At least not required for Indians I think. It’s our country, why should an Indian citizen require a permit?” Opined Mr Shukla, over the telephone.
He happens to be a serving, senior bureaucrat with the Government of Himachal Pradesh. It is his high office I had turned to, for a smooth passage.
Presently, having obtained no positive confirmation that a message had been formally conveyed from the district administration, we decided to take a chance and proceeded for our intended destination; Ranikanda camp.
Just as we approached the Chitkul school, a prominent feature visible on Google Earth, we noticed a black dog following us. I had lavished a packet of biscuits on him already, but he would not relent! We did not mind, he was in good company!
Soon enough, we came across an ITBP picket, incidentally led by the local station commander.
“Kahan ja rahe hain?” He enquired.
“Trek kar rahe hain. Lamkhaga Pass cross kar ke Harsil jana hai” I said.
“Permission hai aap ke pass? Written permission?” he asked.
“Nahin. Lekin humen kaha gaya tha ki ITBP headquarter se message bhej diya gaya hai!”– I was genuinely surprised! Mr Shukla had assured me that very morning that the district administration had passed on the message.
“There is no written permission required. DC- Kinnaur already has had a word with Commandant ITBP” he said.
“Bina permission ka hum allow nahin kar sakte.” –Said the station commander with an air of finality.
He was, however, kind enough to allow the party to camp outside the premises of the ITBP post, while he sorts out the permission issue with me back at Chitkul.
Thus we parted, the team and I, that evening on the 14th of June. The team was to proceed and camp on the helipad outside the Nagasthi camp of ITBP and I had to proceed back to Chitkul. I would have to be in telephone contact to influence the process of Inner Line Permit.
There was nothing I could do that evening, for it was a Sunday. Nothing in the official machinery would have moved on a weekend. I witnessed the procurement in progress as Chandan arrived with more supplies from Uttarkashi.
Porters carried them on further to our camp at Nagasthi. With nothing else to do, I spent the few hours in the evening regaling an old couple from Israel with tales from the Himalayas. It was good fun!
Day 1- Nagasthi Camp- Ranikanda Camp
The next morning was the first lazy one I enjoyed in over a week. There was nothing that could be done before 1000 Hrs, when the government offices opened.
At 1000, however, I could contact Mr Shukla and narrate to him the predicament we were in. Action was smooth afterwards. In about two hours time, I was messaged over the radio from the camp at Nagasthi– “Permission has been verbally received over the wireless.” I was about to rush to the camp when I met with the station commander.
He was here in Chitkul and has not heard the message himself that was relayed to the station!! How can the message be conveyed to anybody but him? It took me the next one hour to massage his ego and pose various logic to prove our case.
Several telephone calls later to various offices of ITBP, he finally relented and radioed his personal permission for our passage. I must add here, that was the only sour experience I had with the ITBP. Once past the checkpost, they dazzled us with their magnanimous generosity.
I packed and rushed to the camp; we had daylight yet. If we could manage the 8Km trek to Ranikanda by evening, we would still be on schedule! I must have done the 3 km in less than an hour.
When I reached the campsite, it looked like it were still sleeping. Nobody believed we shall start trekking at 1500! The black dog came up to me, wagging his tail, ever so lovingly. I was happy to see him.
Friendly dogs have this surreptitious way of seeping into one’s consciousness!
It took an hour for the camp to be on its springing feet, just when the rain clouds started rolling in from the eastern sky.
The route ahead was predictably smooth, over gradually rising plateaus, moraines, and small ridges. It was a welcome change from the highly unforgiving terrain of the Nalgan Pass trail. The Baspa is a distant, gentle music all the while.
The valley sides present a wild contrast- rocks and shrubs on one side and verdant green of conifers on the other. One a gentle slope and the other, a towering presence, rising sharply to mighty pinnacles.
The weather tested us for the next three hours. The light drizzle soon matured into a downpour. The porters had not prepared well for this. All the loads soon got drenched, including the sleeping bags.
Finally, the smoking chimneys of Ranikanda camp loomed into view as the trail took a sharp turn south. A small but stout bridge needed to be crossed, with the roaring Baspa beneath.
We were now on the left bank of the river, the true left bank. We had covered the distance in less than four hours and there was plenty of daylight left, even though it was damp and rainy all around.
The ITBP camp is set inside dilapidated army bunkers that were constructed and abandoned half a century ago. It is a camp–well provisioned, for it serves as a base for the advanced camps further up the Baspa Valley.
Of the many resources well stocked, was a bunker full of livestock meant for the consumption of the Jawans– that caught one’s attention. The local Hawaldar was slightly apprehensive of Sheru– our companion dog from Chitkul. He thought, Sheru might appease his hunger with one or two of the Goats in the bunkers.
The various facilities of the camp came to our rescue. Of specific mention, was a Bukhari– a coal-powered contraption designed to provide room heating. Ninety percent of the team huddled together around that equipment for more than two hours. Campfire was impossible. By dinner time, our clothes had dried off and Suma’s trousers had been neatly burnt at the knee.
Just an hour after reaching Ranikanda, Suma called me aside and informed me of her decision to turn back. Pressing matters back home were bothering her. She had to go. There was nothing much I could do to persuade her to change her mind.
One can not possibly take on a tough physical challenge when the mind is not aligned to the task. We decided, she would leave early tomorrow morning with a local porter if we could arrange that. (Thankfully, such a willing person was found at the Ranikada camp itself who helped ferry Suma’s luggage to Chitkul.)
We spent a dark, damp night that felt strangely forbidding. It was as if, the mountains had barred us at the gateway, or at the least were testing our mettle- whether we were fit to enter the inner sanctum.
Day 2- Ranikanda Camp- Dumti Camp
The crucial decision next morning was, which route to take? There were routes on both banks of Baspa. The side that we were on, the left bank, had a route that led over several humps and spurs and boulder zones.
But it had gentler nullahs to cross, and we did not have to cross the Baspa to approach the Lamkhaga Pass. On the contrary, the gentler route on the right bank was shorter and had a less number of waterbodies to cross. However, each one of those waterbodies was powerful; one was the Baspa herself.
We chose to follow the former, primarily because we did not want to risk crossing the Baspa. Perhaps the tormenting rain of the previous evening had made the approach of the monsoons, a reality in our minds.
If the rain gods chose to break the monsoon clouds, there was no knowing how swollen the river would be and for how long!
The southerly route leading into Ranikanda takes another sharp turn further east, thus describing a giant S. One is on an east-west traverse again along the Upper Baspa Valley.
The mountains around them wore a naughty look, as if someone had sprayed a mist of snow over them. Evidently, the rain of the previous evening had converted into gentle snow later.
We were much happier with the path-profile, gaining altitude steadily, very unlike the endless ups and downs in the Nalgan Valley. The trail gently rose about 600 meters and led us to a vast camping ground.
Very pretty and very virgin. The highly regulated area does not see much shepherd traffic. This place was marked as Shakuli and Sanchu camping grounds on the Old British Army Maps. These names have been lost in the current day.
Probably they are known only to the shepherds, who have lived here for ages. I marveled for a moment, at the feats of those intrepid adventurers of yesteryears of the Trigonometrical Survey of India, that mapped these terrains decades ago.
A wide and handsome valley opens up from hence, just beyond the red rock band. Beneath that rock band are scattered a million boulders, another feature caught in the cameras of Google Earth. Something told me that the day’s objective was not far.
After a brief stop for lunch, which happened on the rocky bed of a stream, the team sped forward. In about half an hour, we met the first Nullah.
For the first time we had to take our shoes off and wade across with great caution, on a route carefully navigated by Jaisingh.
This is where our hearts skipped several beats in anticipation of the fate of the little black dog. As I have mentioned elsewhere, the irreverent ease with which he crossed the river, brought us much comfort.
He was not meek and frightened. He was at home here, riding with the forces of Mother Nature. A new respect for the lovely creature dawned that moment.
The rock band was a landslide zone, which posed great difficulty. Thankfully, it was not very long. On the opposite side of the river, a similar area is called “Lal Dhang”– literally “The zone of Red Rocks”.
Ravin, in his typical regalia of “Lawrence of Arabia” tried a bit of adventure here, quite inadvertently.
He took on some trail that started leading him towards the nearest peak. If he had not spotted one of the porters walking way below, he might just have scaled one of those unnamed peaks, quite unwittingly, if I may add.
The trail soon dropped down another boulder zone and started creeping towards the river. Far ahead I could see white hutments on the opposite bank.
The valley appeared bounded on three sides by majestic snow ranges. We were approaching Dumti Camping Grounds.
We camped almost opposite the ITBP post, just by the riverside. A couple of ITBP jawans strolled up to the other side of the river and exchanged pleasantries.
It was an interesting exercise, competing with the roar of the Baspa to exchange pleasantries!
They inquired if we needed any help. We were mightily tempted to request them for some chicken. That would have been too much to ask. 🙂
We were in juniper country now, well above 4000 meters. The only firewood we would get would be bushes of Juniper. They demand some pain and effort to be collected.
But once made into a fire, they burn like paraffin wax. The porters gathered a large mound of juniper bushes and made a huge campfire.
The team was reasonably buoyed with a good walk and good weather. Discussions in the tents went on for long hours into the night. The topic was the very same as it was at Sewa riverside camp- Love, Relationships, and Matrimony.
Just when the discussion would show tapering vitality, Rachit would stoke it back to bubbling energy by saying- ” Accha ek baat batao…“.
My heart went out for the dog who chose to curl up outside one of the tents. He would refuse to come in.
Day 3- Dumti Camp- Baspa Glacier Camp
The east-west orientation of the valley and the distance of the tall peaks allowed for a very early morning at the camp. Never did we have Sun at the camp at 0600 Hrs. As the first rays of the Sun hit the frosted tents, the camp woke up to life.
It is a different experience to witness the transforming abilities of the sun. The brightness takes the sleep away; the numbing cold of the night disappears slowly–one can actually see it happening as the frost on the tent roof slowly starts vaporizing.
It is almost as if it begins the reign of a new powerful force, much stronger than the terrible cold of the night.
These must have been the reasons the Sun was worshiped as the first God in many ancient civilizations and cultures. Hence, the primordial Vedic chant; the Gayatri Mantra, is a salutation for the Sun; a eulogisation of its life-giving powers.
For the little time that was available while we were getting ready for the day’s walk, the black dog, who we were now calling Sheru, stole a few winks.
Curled up in a ball of fur, he was basking in the warmth of the Sun. For the whole of the previous night he had kept his presence felt with the regular and periodic barks, probably a way to work away the cold.
The day’s walk presented yet another grand vista. It was as if, the King of the Mountains was unravelling its beauty, gradually, getting us ready for a grand climax. A couple of kilometers away from the camp was another Nullah, in the midst of a boulder zone.
Afterwards, the river took a slight turn to the left, as we traveled upstream, and then straightened out east-bound. On the opposite bank was a small temple with a red canopy.
It was apparently the grave of an ITBP Hawalar, who is worshiped as the guardian angel of the area.
If one looked straight ahead where our trail led, a wide valley opened up, guarded by snow-tipped mountains on both sides. The boulder zones on both sides were patterned with small patches of meadows, on which we could see herds grazing.
The river bed was almost a kilometer wide; a stark contrast to the form we had seen in the previous couple of days.
In the middle of it all was the calm and playful Baspa lying lazy in a serpentine web. This stretch of the trail- probably 6 kilometers long, reminds one so vividly of Tibet and Laddakh!
The trek was easy and gradual. In about three hours time the white huts of the ITBP post at Nithal Thatch loomed into view, just as we took the southerly bend at the head of the valley.
We covered 8 kilometers. From here, the valley pointed south with another wave of snow ridges defining the horizon.
The GPS indicated the distance of the ITBP post from where we were standing to be 1.5 kilometers. This is the interesting feature here. For some reason, the tributary coming in from the true right at Nithal Thatch has created an immense riverbed.
Probably, sometime in the past, there would have been enormous drainage of water which would have carried all those rocks with it!! It is a feature, easily identified in the Google Earth imagery.
We were still on the left bank of Baspa and a steep hike up a rock hump was necessary now to avoid getting into the Baspa waters. Probably, one could have taken the course along the river-bed, had it been less swollen.
The climb along the steep sided rock hump is a bit tricky. From the top, the huge expanse of the river bed is seen in its entirety, extending all the way to the far bank.
Putting the last obstacle behind us, we proceeded on another easy and gradual trek towards what appeared as the southerly horizon. We had to cross another Nullah which required us to take off our shoes yet again.
Sheru, however, crossed over with the customary ease. No river was wide enough or deep enough. He seemed so much at home in the chilly waters!
By 1500 Hrs, we reached the end of the flowing Baspa. Up ahead was the snout of the Baspa glacier. The dark mass of debris and icewalls disappeared into the valley ahead, a valley dominated by snow ridges on both sides.
Ahead and right, an opening was visible to a branch valley, from which another Nullah emanated and joined the Baspa almost at its origin. Vinod and I consulted the Google Earth printout and the GPS track to confirm, that was indeed the gateway to Lamkhaga Pass.
We decided to camp there. We made good progress for the day and had covered 14 km without a hitch, and now stood ready at the gateway of the Pass. If the GPS was correct, the Pass would be just about 8 km away.
If we had a good day, the next day, we would still be on schedule. The camp soon got busy with a group activity aimed at collecting Juniper bushes. The worsening weather did not deter us.
We ended up collecting a cart-load of Juniper bushes in light snow conditions. They helped fuel a rather long camp-fire that burnt brightly until late into the night.
Since we had camped relatively earlier, the evening was slightly longer than usual. Ritesh and Rachit, followed by Seema sometime later, decided to take a short walk till the snout of the Baspa Glacier.
As they reported later, the apparent nearness of the snout was an illusion.
It took them the better part of the evening to hike up and back after a photo session at the glacier snout.
It was an eerie world – The dark glacier visible up ahead, the avalanche-prone faces with hanging glaciers; the rolling clouds from the east; the sinister rock faces, the boulder strewn camping ground and the distant view of the gateway to Lamkhaga pass.
In the midst of it all were these tiny colored dots of the tents and even tinier dots of us, diminutive human beings.
Sleep won’t come easy. I still don’t know if it was the towering presence all around, the bitter cold, the howling winds, or the impending adventure that made the heart thump loud in the ears in the darkness of the tent.
Day 4- Baspa Glacier – Lamkhaga Pass- Bivouac at Snowfield
We started early for the summit, early by our previous standards. By 0800 Hrs we had begun the trek.
The idea was to cross the pass by lunchtime and proceed to the foot of the Lamkhaga Glacier so that the walk to Kyarkoti the next day would be an easier one. That would also help in avoiding an inordinately long trek on the last day.
About an hour from the camp, one takes the turn to the right, halfway over the rock tower that stands as a silent sentinel at the gateway to Lamkhaga Pass.
From this point, the bounded valley of the Lamkhaga Ridge opens up and the Pass becomes visible for the first time.
As one looks in the westerly direction, towards the head of this valley, at 10 O Clock (due South West) is the steep snow-face that leads to the corniced ridge of the Chhotkhaga Pass.
If one could attempt that steepness, the journey to Kyarkoti gets shortened by a good 10 kilometers.
Next to it, at 12 o’ clock is a moderate sized icefall, behind which is the saddle of a possible pass to the Jalandhari Gaad valley. Next to it is the Peak of Lamkhaga at 1PM and next to it at 2PM is the Lamkhaga Pass.
The pass appeared to be in a touchable distance. The vast moraine bed ahead and the waves of snowfields above appeared quite easy- some magic of optical illusion, perhaps.
“Kitna time lagega Jaisingh?”
Jaisingh’s answer was punctuated by pregnant pauses. Measuring up the Pass with the eye of a seasoned veteran that he is, he said:
“Chaar ya Paanch Ghanta lagenge Saab”.
“So far so good!” – I was happy with the fact that we would be able to do the crossing well before nightfall; if Jaisingh’s prediction held good.
After crossing a tough stretch of loose rocky moraine, that rose 500 meters above the valley floor, we hit snow for the first time. We were over 4800 meters by now.
If the maps were right, from here on, we would have to climb another 500 odd meters before reaching the summit ridge and all of that would be in packed snow!
Thankfully, it was packed snow and not the powdery variety that increases the toil several fold. On the down side, the tightly packed snow was slippery quite often, requiring us to take extreme care before treading the next step.
On a particularly steep and exposed stretch, rope had to be fixed to assist members that were lagging behind. Seema was having a particularly difficult time.
When the limbs are exerting their last ounces of energy and the terrain becomes that unfriendly, it is not surprising that one loses one’s footing often. Jaisingh was now assigned to take special care of Seema and Rachit.
Though the old man much preferred breaking routes in the snow, he accepted the task gleefully, being the most seasoned campaigner.
The near-vertical slopes seemed unending. Every now and then one of us would slip into some unseen hole in the snow. Strangely, Sherry rarely suffered from this consternation. The porters decided to take a slightly more precipitous but rocky route.
On one occasion, I found myself walking right behind Raji, who was taking a breather almost every minute. I prodded her from behind with my trekking pole:
“Chalo chalo Madam! Kya ho gaya?”– I was trying to nudge her ahead and cheer her up at the same time.
“Ruk jao abhi. Mujhe Dada, Nani, Pardada, Parnani sab yaad aa rahe hain.” She said, trying to catch her breath.
I hadn’t seen her in that state in the entire trek. She was one of the fitter members of the team. That’s when I realized, the altitude had begun taking its toll. We were closing in on the 5000 meter mark.
A sudden snowfall accosted us at the penultimate snowfield. We decided to hurry through our lunch there over a heap of boulders, hoping that the snow would subside by the time we finished.
The snow did ease a little within 15 minutes, and we started our trek ahead to the final snowfield and then the slight bend to the right as we reached the cirque bounded by the Lamkhaga Pass Ridge.
The view was right out of a Polar documentary by Nat Geo. The landscape was now vividly Antarctic. Thin veils of clouds looked as if they emanated from the snow on the ground, taking the mountains in their loose embrace.
The mistiness was heightened with the falling snow, adding on a dreamy feel. The porters filed out on the newly broken trail in the snow, heads bent low, the loads heavy on their backs, and yet a smile on their faces as they caught me rolling the video film of them.
Those were the children of the mountains; happy in her lap, even with the hardest toil and a respect deep within for her colossal powers.
All worries about our canine friend had vanished from the mind. Sheru (we were still calling her by that name) was in her element. Having proven her expertise in fording angry rivers, she was now demonstrating her expertise in snow-walking and route finding through snow.
For a dog, walking on snow is probably twice as difficult since the weight per square inch on the paw is much more than that of a man. She was handling that handicap with surprising ease by way of navigating her way through invisible tracks on the snow.
One could only feel jealous of her, the spontaneous dances and rolls on the snow, the constant happy wag of the tail, and her fondness for playing the lead guide of the team.
“Beep…beep…..beeep” the proximity sensor of the GPS rang out loud. We were now struggling along a trail with a huge snow face on our left.
“Vinod! Yeh GPS bata raha hai ki Pass a gaya. Ye kya bata raha hai?” .. I yelled out for Vinod over the radio.
I could see him breaking trail far ahead, almost half way up the rock and snow face at the extreme end of the cwm.
“Theek bata raha hai Sir! Aapke bilkul Sar ke upar hai Pass. Woh jo Cairn dikh raha hai”– He pointed at a barely visible cairn on top of the ridge almost over my head.
Yet again, the combined technology of Google Earth and GPS took me by surprise. We were attempting an alternative route over the ridge because the traditional route to the pass appeared broken and intractable.
The GPS, however, was oblivious to all this and did point out the exact location of the pass.
It is difficult to remember how each one of us fought our way through that slippery snow and a final patch of loose rocks that rose upwards forever. Every few seconds someone would shout “Rock! Rock! Rock!” to warn the members following below.
Between 1645 and 1745 all members reached the top even as the snow fall became heavier, the air becoming dense and invisible in a white-out. Ropes were fixed for the sharp descent on the other side.
We needed to be in the snowfield a hundred and fifty meters below as soon as possible. It was a near vertical descent with patches of hard ice. Thankfully, the way down was without incidents.
By 1900, the bivouac camp was set up. It was our highest camp yet, my highest camp yet–at 5200 Meters.
The scene from Bali pass flashed by in the mind–pitching tents with trekking poles instead of pegs, melting water from snow and ice; the howling winds at midnight, and the mind-numbing cold.
Rachit was sharing the tent with me that night. It must be nearing midnight when he said
“Boss ek baat batao.” He started with his characteristic style
“Puchho” I said
“Yaar, main soch raha tha, Ek spare bottle nahin mil sakta?” he said with that typical sheepish look
“Matlab? Plastic bottle?”
“Itni thand main kaise toilet jayaenge boss”– comes the rejoinder with a naughty laughter.
A few seconds later we heard a rustle outside. Someone had come out of a tent.
“Arre..kitna sunder lag raha hai nahin? All these stars in the sky?” – It was Krushi’s voice. He was imploring Raji to come out of the tent to admire the midnight sky. I am certain, the ambient temperature at that time was much below -10 degrees.
Rachit and I exchanged a glance and a smile to conceal our astonishment. ☺.
Surprisingly, we slept well that night, even at that altitude. The combined power of several days of ingestion of Diamox was at play. None of the members suffered from any symptoms of altitude sickness.
Day 5- Lamkhaga Pass- Upper Kyarkoti
As the altitude increases, the morning breaks earlier. It was well lit all around, by the time it was 0500 hrs in the morning. We needed to exit the inner sanctums of the mountains quickly.
She had been allowed refuge for a night, but might not be pleased if we misused her generosity.
A snowfield can be surprisingly warm, especially when the Sun overhead is bright and bearing down in full force.
All that we had to dry was dried in an hour. Krushi and I watched the going-abouts in the camp silently when we saw our four-legged companion cavorting around.
In a moment he stopped—Our Sheru, smelled around a particular patch, and bent both her hind legs to take a leak. That’s when it struck me; she was a bitch—not a dog!! Why were we calling her Sheru then?
“Yaar yeh to bitch hai?! Hum isse Sheru kyon bula rahe hain?” I was posing the question at Krushi
“Sahi mein” He said
“Should we not call her Sherry?”
“Yeah, why not? Let’s call her Sherry”– Thus happened the final christening of our lovely canine friend.
By the time we started at 0830, it was definitely warm. The snow field looked innocuously innocent, even though Jaisingh warned us not to be too experimental with the trail.
“Crevasse kahin bhi ho sakta hai. Aap log idhar udhar mat jana. Mere pichhe pichhe ana.”– He was still intently detecting any possible sound of flowing water which might indicate the presence of a crevasse nearby.
From the apex snowfield at the base of the pass, the trail drops in not-so-difficult stages by about 500 meters down to the medial moraine of the Lamkhaga Glacier.
As we proceeded down with careful steps, it became apparent that we would have to do something really different to speed up our descent. The danger of crevasses were also receding gradually as the terrain changed.
Looking at the easy slopes ahead, some of us tried a few short glissades. Jaisingh thought for a while and then let go.
“Main jidhar se aa raha hoon, udhar se glissade karo. Aram se karna.”
With that, all the floodgates broke loose. In half an hour, the whole face of the mountain was riddled with glissade marks as the entire team tried various stretches of glissade, members, and porters alike.
All of us were having the time of our lives, loosening the nerves that had closed tight under the trying conditions that the mountains had inflicted upon us.
A team of adolescents having fun with gay abandon. For a brief period, those series of snowfields wore the look of a winter resort.
There is a bit of a tricky patch just before landing on the medial moraine of the Lamkhaga Glacier where one has to negotiate a 75 degree slope with loose rocks.
One particularly wayward piece of rock went frighteningly close to the hind legs of Sherry, even as she was watching our descent with innocent and eager eyes. My heart skipped a beat.
The descent further down led us through a tough boulder zone. After the fun morning with all that glissading on snow, it took us sometime to adjust to the kilometers of rock and boulders.
I decided to change over into my trekking shoes rather than troubling my soul trying to hop boulders with my Koflach on. Sherry, of course, was in the advance party, right at the very front. She was a pro in every department.
By the time we reached the designated lunch site, the majority of the support team had already left for the campsite downstream. After the quick lunch, we set off to catch up with them.
Presently we reached a place where we had to cross the Jalandhari Gaad that emanates from the Lamkhaga Glaciers and finally offers her waters to the Bhagirathi at Harsil. It was already late afternoon and the waters had swollen, forcing us to go barefooted once again.
Jaisingh supervised the crossing with a certain disinterest having established that the waters were not dangerous after all. A funny incident happened just then.
Everyone had managed to cross except for Seema. When Pramod, who by then had already crossed, saw her brooding and hesitant countenance, he at once volunteered to steer her through.
With much effort he reached the middle of the river offering Seema one end of his trekking pole for support. For some reason, Seema took a moment in accepting the extended help, and the next moment slipped, almost sitting down in the middle of the river.
That’s when Jaisingh decided to act. He crossed over deftly and in the next few minutes guided her across.
Good Samaritan Pramod was now left behind. We had hearty laughter seeing him making all kinds of balancing gestures as he painfully waded across back through the chilly waters.
Shortly thereafter, as we took the natural easterly bend of the river, the camp site became visible. The porter team had gone ahead and pitched tents already. Sleeping bags and clothes were out for drying. The GPS still indicated Kyarkoti to be 3 km away.
“Surely they have pitched camp early”– I thought “and that makes our last day trek a marathon 22 Kms!”
Anyways, nothing could be done about it. We had to do 22 km downhill on our next and last day’s trek.
The porters came back with another huge heap of juniper bushes which helped burn a late campfire. A celebratory bottle of wine was opened and members had a swig each. A sudden bark of Sherry woke me up in the middle of the night. I thought, I heard a bear. Nothing could be ascertained though, the next morning.
Day 6- Upper Kyarkoti- Harsil and beyond
It was as if the Lord Himself took mercy upon us and poured liberal bounties of beauty all around; that was the only way we could have done 22 Kms downhill and not felt a thing. The most activity of the day revolved around photography.
Just about two kilometers from the campsite, the valley opened wide into a massive meadow. This is the famed Kyarkoti, a tiny garden of Eden, tucked away in a small cranny of the Himalaya.
All around were tall mountains, crowned with permanent snows, the gently flowing Jalandhari, and kilometers of verdant greens variously dotted with flowers of different hues.
Like all regular travelers to the mountains are aware, there are a million “Valley of Flowers” out there. It is pure chance that the meadow in Bhyundar valley was made famous by that name by the legendary Frank Smythe.
Kyarkoti is one such meadow–one of those many thousand meadows who stand a worthy chance of competition with the valley of flower (VoF).
Even in June, it was already resplendent with a riot of colors. “What would be it be like in the middle of the monsoons?” I wondered.
Apart from the accidental meeting with a patrolling picket of the Indian Army and rejoicing on the easy trail downhill, all anyone was ever doing was clicking pictures.
The patrolling picket of the Army was a mix of representations of regiments. There were officers and Jawans from Rajputana Rifles, Garhwaal Rifles and Army Medical Corps.
The women of the team spent some time eyeing and gossiping about the handsome young Captain from the Army Medical Corps. The Army team was on its way to Lamkhaga Pass and Chitkul, armed with all conceivable resources. Our tongues hung out in disbelief when we were served tea in Glass Mugs!
(The incredulity touched a new height later in the day when we saw a pack of mules carrying firewood for the army camp. The fire wood arranged in bundles were all evenly sized- four feet in length and half an inch in diameter!!)
We saved some agony for our tired limbs when the Commanding Officer of the Army picket informed us that the bridge over Jalandhari Gaad near Marohar Camping Ground was intact and was serviceable. Otherwise, we would have to do a couple of river crossings at Kyarkoti itself to catch the left bank of Jalandhari.
As we walked down the long trail, the place and the landscape were getting etched deeper and deeper into memory for its own uniqueness.
Nowhere do you find such a spectacle of scenery that changes hue and composition every hour, and that has such an abundant supply of campsites every few kilometers. It is surely one of the very few short treks that can boast of being friendly to a wide variety of fitness levels, seasons, and preparedness!
There was a sting in the tail in the form of brief ascent to Lal Devta. It’s the name of a “Tree God” that is worshiped by the local people. Strangely, some Buddhist prayer flags can also be seen fluttering around.
The symbol or the idol that people worship here seemed to be a massive collection of Bharal Horns. There surely is a Buddhist connection because I remember seeing similar objects worshiped in Tibetian Chortens, during my visit to Holy Mount Kailash.
From Lal Devta there is a steep and steady downhill trail for about 4 Kilometers which brings one to the huge camping ground West of Wilson’s cottage at Harsil. Everyone except Pramod, Seema and Ritesh reached camp by 1600.
An hour later, the trio caught up promptly. We spent the evening roaming around the Harsil hamlet. The Manager at GMVN Bunglow, Mr Panwar was kind enough to remember me and accorded us with grand hospitality.
We had delicious Pakoras and exquisite masala tea in the Glass House at GMVN Harsil. The stroll along the sand beach took us slightly longer than expected when we got involved in an Antakshari competition with an ebullient family from Jaipur.
Rachit later reported, the cause of ebullience was probably linked to several empty bottles of Bacardi lying at a distance.
The evening ended late around a blazing campfire. Rachit, Krushi, Raji, and I stayed up late into the night. The porters were dancing away, suitably inebriated with some local brew.
The scene evoked a sense of nostalgia, kind of a farewell song for the departure from the laps of the mother.
The toughest aspect of the next morning was to say goodbye to Sherry. She had become a part of the team by then. We had earlier decided to take her to Uttarkashi where Jaisingh promised to keep her with his herd of goats.
But no amount of coaxing and bribing would get her into the Jeep. She was a free bird. Apparently, she enjoyed the free lunch when she could. Otherwise, the issue of survival was programed into her.
When we parted ways, I could not hold back my tears. She reminded me so much of Jackie! Would I leave Jackie (my Labrador Retriever – friend for a decade already) behind like that?
She was looking far away into the distance under that pine tree when we finally waved her good bye. The journey back home was dreary to say the least.
The abnormal traffic on the highway made it into a 21 hour-long ordeal yet again. The journey to and from the mountain was horribly jinxed.
As we parted ways in Delhi, it suddenly hit me. The power of this experience was not just about exploring and enjoying the bounty of nature; it was far beyond that. It was about, how strangers come together and become dear friends; friends that you count on.
It was about that adage Pramod later mentioned – “We do not meet strangers, we meet unknown friends”. Even that dog (oops Bitch!) Sherry! What a fantastic example of “connecting”- for the heck of it, for the joy of it?!
The hang-over from this incredible experience has probably been the longest. Some one commented the other day, it is a bit lonely out there in the community forum with no activity on our thread.
Probably, the natural evolution of the team was becoming an interesting thing to watch for many, including me. Point is, the ‘connecting’ and bonding was not just about the team that trekked; it was also about others like Amit, Renuka, Chitrang, Sharmishtha and many others who constantly followed and enthused us.
Even today one ruminates those incredulous memories for hours on end- The mystic mysteriousness of Nalgan, the endurance challenge for two weeks, the naughty benevolent weather, the harrowing experience of getting the ILP (Inner Line Permit), the glissading fun taking us back to play school days, the bitter cold at the highest camp and the pain of saying goodbye to Sherry.
The team-members at Delhi have already met at least thrice afterwards to see the pics and the DVD together—an excuse for the hangover, I think. Now I hear, Rachit, Krushi, Seema, Raji and Prabhjot are planning a bicycle trip from Mumbai to Goa in the winter of 2009. The team lives on.
P:S: Adding on this line 3.5 Years later. Rachit and Prabhjot finally tied the knot, putting an end to a story which perhaps started in the days of Shwet Digant and embarking on a new and long journey together. 🙂 The team lives on!!!
Ashutosh and his team did this trek in 2009. Some information mentioned in this log might not be relevant today, a lot of has changed since then. Like, Dumti camp site is connected by an unpaved road to Chitkul. Marco Pallis was the first visitor to this valley via Lamkhaga Pass in 1933. In 1948 J. T. M. Gibson followed through Nela or Chhotkhaga pass. He gave sketchy details of this route in his book Peaks and Lamas. This is the first detailed experienced of trekking on Chitkul to Harsil, Gangotri route.