Saturday, March 28, 2020

In the shadow of Shipton and Tilman - Part I

The Nanda Devi Sanctuary
This is the first part of a photo essay I wrote many years ago for a book on the Indian Himalaya. The book was never published and I forgot about this essay. Going through my computer files at home due to the coronavirus lock down I found it along with some other essays as well. So here it is finally published in my blog. I hope you do enjoy it!
It was an oppressive and muggy pre-monsoon afternoon in early June 2003. I was sitting in Calcutta staring blankly at the computer screen mulling over the arrival or rather the non-arrival of the monsoon. The newspapers had said that it was delayed and as usual the build up of moisture over the Bay of Bengal had lead to an unbearable combination of high humidity and scorching temperatures over the plains of India.

Suddenly a message flashed in my Inbox with the heading “Nanda Devi”. It was from a friend informing me that the Nanda Devi outer sanctuary rim, which had been closed to visitors from 1982, had been formally opened for restricted trekking regulated by permits from the Forest Department.

The e-mail jolted me out of my reverie: Nanda Devi! The very name itself conjured up visions of a mountain goddess who had safeguard her fortress so securely for so many years that it took three generation of climbers and eight attempts to penetrate her sanctuary and that too after one of the most arduous treks in the world.

Noted mountaineer Hugh Ruttledge and former Commissioner of the erstwhile United Provinces described the Nanda Devi massif as “ a seventy mile barrier ring on which stand 12 measured peaks over 21,000 feet high. The Rishi Gorge, rising at the foot of Nanda Devi and draining an area of some 250 miles of snow and ice has carved for itself what must be one of the most terrific gorges in the world. So tremendous is the aspect of the Rishi Gorge that Hindu mythology described it as the last earthly home of the Seven Rishis. Here if anywhere, their meditations might be undisturbed.”

It was finally left to two Everest veterans , Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman, travelling with three Darjeeling sherpas including the indomitable Angtharkay to break into the abode of the goddess by climbing through the Rishi Gorge in what must rank as one of the most remarkable feats of Himalayan exploration in alpine style.

I spent the next three years trekking in Nepal including a winter climb  of Kala Pattar, near the base camp of Everest in January 2004.  However, during that time the Nanda Devi sanctuary remained at the back of my mind. Finally, tired of the “tea house trekking” and crowds of the Nepal trails, I looked at India again for a trek in the autumn of 2006 and decided on Nanda Devi.

For many years, Nanda Devi at 25,640 feet high remained the highest peak in the British Empire and later in independent India until the honour passed to Kangchendzonga upon annexation of Sikkim by India in 1975.

The reopening of the sanctuary in 2003 after twenty years had limited trekkers to the outer rim of the sanctuary- the inner sanctuary penetrated by Shipton and Tilman in 1934 still remained out of bounds.

The sanctuary had in the meantime become a Unesco World Heritage site with proper staff, patrol officers and international funding to preserve what must be one of the finest wildernesses in the Himalaya.

I contacted my long time trekking partner, Srijit Dasgupta who agreed to come along and decided to place the logistics and support of our trek with Eskimo Adventures – a competent trekking outfit based in Joshimath. We asked them to provide us a cook and a porter to support us for the five-day trek.

It took us two days to reach Joshimath from Uttarkashi. The Tehri Dam had submerged the town of Tehri and a large number of roads with it so the detour to Chamba and then to Srinagar via New Tehri took the better part of one day. Back on the national highway, we left Srinagar at dawn and reached Joshimath by the afternoon and checked into the Pindar Hotel above the bus stand.

Joshimath lies 47 km from Badrinath, one of the four “dhams” and visited every year by Hindu pilgrims from all over the country. The town itself is very noisy and crowded and the cacophony of buses leaving Joshimath for Haridwar at 4 am every day woke us up at the Pindar without fail!

Vijendra Kapruwan, my contact man at Eskimo Adventures was away in Rishikesh guiding foreign groups but Manish Bhujwan was in charge of their Joshimath office. Manish handed us the forest permits and had arranged for Prem Rawat of Tolma village, which is in the buffer zone of the Nanda Devi National Park to act as guide cum cook. Prem would arrange a porter from Tolma to accompany us.

We spent the evening buying food supplies and provisions from the bazaar for our trek. We would be in the wilderness for the next five days and had to be completely self-sufficient.

We left the next morning for Suraithonta (2150 metres) about 30 km from Joshimath, which would be the start of the trek. The one and a half hour drive followed the right bank of the Dhauli Ganga, its foaming waters rushing through the gorge. Surrounding us was sheer cliffs and jagged rock faces with a flash of a snow peak piercing the clouds.

A smiling Prem Rawat met us at Suriathonta and took charge of all the equipment and provisions. He had arranged for Monu a young lad from his village to be our porter. After a quick breakfast of noodles at the local tea shop we started out for Tolma which was Prem’s village. The path to Tolma has been paved and it was extremely pleasant to walk up though the forest rich in bird life with views of the river down below. As we climbed we found that the fruit trees were full of apples ready for the harvest.

Dunagiri from the Jhandidhar camp site
We stopped at Prem’s house in Tolma (2350 metres). It was situated in an apple orchard and soon we were sitting in the sun and crunching apples. They were delicious!  Prem busied himself with lunch. After a good meal we left for our climb to Hitoli. The path now entered deep forest and was extremely overgrown. It was obvious it had not been used during the monsoon months. As we climbed the sheer southwest  face of Dunagiri came into view, one the peaks on the  north  rim of the Sanctuary. The forest was extremely thick with spruce and fir being the main species. We stopped for the night in a small clearing near a stream, as availability of water was a major problem in the sanctuary. We were hemmed in by the tallest trees and could hardly see the sky.

We started out at around 7 am the next morning.  It was a day of incredible beauty.  The forest was still in shade and damp with the morning dew. Black and yellow swallow tail butterflies flitted through the bushes. Whistling thrushes and redstarts could be spotted swooping from tree to tree.  Suddenly through the dense cover a peak could be seen white and glistening in the early morning sunshine, its summit reaching for the heavens. The spruce trees had donned their autumn colors.

The climb was relentless: as we ascended one ridge another appeared. The forest cover was thinning and the trees soon gave way to rhododendron bushes. Around 10 am we pierced the forest cover and finally found ourselves above the tree line. Our altitude must have been around 3,700 metres. Ahead of us was another peak to climb. I decided to take a hundred steps at a time and then stop for breath. The air was getting thinner. However, it was a relief to be out of the cold forest and in the warm autumn sunshine. Overhead lammegiers soared with the thermals effortlessly sweeping across the cobalt blue Himalayan sky.

The trail directions marked on a rock
It was around 11.30 am when Prem decided to stop on a ledge. “Packed lunch” he declared and took out some apples, nuts, and chappatis with jam from his pack.

 It was an idyllic spot.  To the  north east soared the peak of Dunagiri who had been our constant companion this morning as well as the peaks of Hathi Parbat and Gori Parbat. To the south west we could see the pass of Kuari and the buggyals of Gorson and Auli high above Joshimath.  Sheer cliffs soared above us to the south, the grass donning the red and russet colours of autumn.

.... To be continued in the second and final part on 5th April 2020

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