Sunday, April 5, 2020

In the shadow of Shipton and Tilman - Part II

Nanda Devi from Saini Kharak sunrise
This is  the second and concluding part of this essay. Readers are advised to read the first part at before reading this final part.

We started climbing again heading for the camp site of Jhandidhar (4200 metres) and reached it by 2 pm. It was a small clearing at the edge of a cliff commanding a view of Dunagiri to the north east and looking down into the Dhauli Ganga valley far below us. The tents were quickly set up and Prem and Monu left to get water from Lata Kharak, 3 km away. While we waited we received our first visitor. A forest guard returning on his beat from Dibrugheta stopped for a drink of water. We asked him about the bharal (blue sheep) which was to be seen in the sanctuary. "“The lack of water on these craggy cliffs has pushed the bharal down near the river”, he said “you will not be able to see them at this time”. However, close to camp we spotted a marmot and an alpine marten gazing at us from behind the rocks with great curiosity.

The evening at Jhandidhar was perfect. The clouds dropped at sunset. The snowy peaks stood above the clouds burnished copper by the setting sun, in sharp contrast to the grey valleys below as night fast approached.  I photographed Dunagiri changing color every moment in the falling light.

It was close to full moon. Before the cold set in we had dinner and retired to our tents. I switched on the radio and heard a Delhi FM channel playing the latest Bollywood numbers!

 Around 2 am in the morning Srijit woke me up. ” If you want to shoot Dunagiri in moonlight you better step out now” he said.

It was an effort to leave the warm sleeping bag, don all my down clothing and step out into the freezing Himalayan night. The valley was bathed in moonlight. It was so bright that it was possible to read outside. I balanced my trusted Nikon F3 on my table top tripod on a rock, set a long exposure and jumped back into the sleeping bag. For an hour I was in and out of the tent and after taking a number of photographs decided to call it a day.

The morning found us on the trail to the Dharansi pass- the gateway to the inner sanctuary. Monu had been left to look after the camp and Prem led the way. We had planned to camp for the night at Dharansi but could not do so as the water source near the pass had dried up. So we decided on a day trip and planned to descent to Lata Kharak for the night. For the last three days we had not seen Nanda Devi- perhaps today we would be lucky.

The route was difficult to say the least.  It climbed up and down crossing huge rocky buttresses. For a part it climbed on stone steps and then descended to cross a ledge perhaps less than a foot wide. Suddenly, the trail narrowed down to almost nothing and a chimney appeared which would take the trekker up or down to the next fragment of the trail. This carried on for about two hours. Suddenly on the trail I found Prem looking intently at the ground.

 “Snow leopard droppings” he said and as if by instinct looked up to see if he could spot the near mythical animal of the high Himalaya. All around us there were jagged cliffs with the noise of the Rishi Ganga roaring through the gorge far below. It was a wild though wonderful spot. Finally the path crossed a cliff and ahead of us was the pass of Dharansi surrounded by grassy maidans. It seemed to be totally cut off from the outside world.

Nanda Devi from Dharansi Pass above Dibrugheta
“Nanda Devi” I shouted down to Srijit who was still ascending. Finally, the Goddess of the Garhwal was before us basking in the mellow autumn sunshine.  Her majestic summit seemed to look down at us from some extraordinary height far removed from earth. Her attendant peaks – Dunagiri, Kalanka, Bethartoli Himal, Trishul, Mrigthuni, and Nanda Ghunti amongst others - completed the sanctuary curtain.   Behind us I could see part of the  Kamet and the Badrinath peaks.  I searched in vain for Changabang’s West wall, which had been climbed alpine style by Boardman and Tasker in 1976, but the peak was blocked by the huge mass of Dunagiri. This” white wave” stood above the Rishi Ganga gorge in an amphitheater of more than 180 degrees.  It was one of the grandest views in the Himalaya, a viewpoint concealed to all but the most intrepid.

Bethartoli Himal and sister peaks from below Dharansi Pass
Srijit who had a problem knee decided not to go ahead to the pass as the path ahead continued to climb over cliffs and rocky outcrops and looked extremely treacherous.  Prem and I left for Dharansi promising to be back by noon. It took us an hour and a half to reach the pass. The path finally climbed up on a grassy saddle west of the pass from where the east ridge of Nanda Devi was clearly visible. We looked down – there seemed to be a very steep descent to meadows of Dibrugheta covered in pine forest before the trail plunged again into the depths of the Rishi Gorge and the inner sanctuary.

“A horizontal oasis in a vertical desert” Tilman had spoken of Dibrugheta and at this moment the description seemed very apt.

Prem Rawat prayed at the small altar to Nanda Devi at Dharansi.  I placed a coin as an offering to the Goddess. This was the furthest point of our trek – the inner sanctuary was not open and we would have to wait for another day.

As I sat on the grassy knoll, I thought of the pioneering attempts of Graham (1883) and Longstaff (1907) who tried in vain to find a route to the Inner Sanctuary more than a hundred years ago.  As I mulled over the history of the mountain, Shipton’s words came to mind as he entered the inner sanctuary for the first time:

“Each corner held some thrilling secret to be revealed for the trouble of looking. My most blissful dream as a child was to be in some such valley, free to wander where I liked, and to discover for myself some hitherto unrevealed glory of Nature. Now the reality was no less wonderful that that half forgotten dream; and of how many childish fancies can that be said, in this age of disillusionment?”

Prem Rawat shook me out of my reverie. It was time to go. As I looked towards the inner sanctuary with longing, clouds began to funnel their way up the valley.

“The weather will break,” said Prem, “maybe snow,” he added.

As I watched, a wave of mist curled up and covered the lower face of Nanda Devi, her summit still floated above the clouds. After so many years and so many expeditions, it seemed to me that the Goddess still retained her secrets.


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1 comment:

  1. Very nicely written and superb images. It seems you have a very enjoyable trip.



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