Friday, 4 April 2014

Bagini Bouquet

Saf Minal (6911m) dominates the Base Camp, Bagini Glacier

Like all my near disasters, I did not see this one coming.

A day after arriving at the spectacularly situated village of Dunagiri in mid May 2001, Kum Kum and I had set off on a leisurely acclimatisation walk up the valley, while her husband Jayant and 11 year old son Kunal opted to savour the comforts of the open veranda of the primary school building where we were camped. Kunal was already a veteran of 11 Himalayan treks since Kum and Jayant and had been hauling him up into the mountains every year since his birth.

Kunal Khadalia, 11 yrs old in 2001, and already a veteran of 11 Himalayan treks.
After an hour of walking up a path we turned right and followed some tracks beside the moraine of the Dunagiri glacier. A little after mid day, Kum Kum decided to turn back and I continued on up, relishing the energy rich air of this glacial valley. It was a partly overcast day and when the clouds parted briefly, there were tantalising glimpses of snowfields and hanging glaciers glistening in the sun. An impressive rocky peak drew me ever upwards, hoping to get an eyeful of what lay at the head of the glacier.

View up the Dunagiri glacier
I took a couple of pictures and scouted around for likely places to camp and was satisfied that we could base ourselves here for a couple of days and explore the high country ahead.

Sketch map of area by the late Arun Samant for "Exploring the Hidden Himalaya"(1990) by Soli Mehta and Harish Kapadia, published by The Himalayan Club
Leaving my little day pack with the camera, water bottle and some snacks under a huge boulder and marking the spot with a small cairn, I hurried on upwards, scrambling over the terrain in my haste to go as high as possible before the light failed. I paused and looked down on the chaos of the upper glacier and was satisfied that going any further would not really add to my knowledge of the terrain. I turned around and began hastening down as snow began to fall in the form of little white pellets. Clouds scurried up the valley, obscuring my surroundings. I began to navigate by instinct to try and locate the boulder where I had left my pack, without success. What I succeeded in was suddenly loosing my footing at the edge of a rather big boulder coated in moss, sliding down and almost detaching my left leg at the groin before hitting the turf with my knee at the bottom. I rose painfully to my feet, glad that I could still walk, and began to hobble down the slope to rejoin the trail.

Dunagiri village
The next day Jayant and Kum miraculously retrieved my camera and back pack while I nursed my swollen knee and groin. Kunal and I boiled potatoes all day and prepared a delicious meal.When the couple returned they opined that there was no wisdom in camping where I had suggested since the prospects of clambering up any of the summits bordered on a full scale climbing expedition and was clearly beyond our capabilities and resources.

Instead we pitched our two tents at the base of a valley south west of Dunagiri village from where it seemed possible for Kunal and us to climb a small summit of around 5087 m , accessed up a broad sloping snow field. Two days of rain put a damper on those plans and we retreated to the comforts of the Prathmik Vidyalaya to spend our 8th day in Dunagiri.

Another little foray found us hiking up to the Tarak Khal pass to the south east of the village to take a look at Nandi Kund. The initial stretch of the trail wound its way through a thick and gorgeous cluster of rhododendron bushes in full bloom before ascending up to the pass. Nandi Kund itself proved to be a disappointing little body of water and the pass was wrapped in swirling mists, robbing us of any view that might have existed.

Wild rhododendrons en route to Nandi Kund
Nandi Kund
Our laid back attitude ensured that we camped one more day en route to the traditional Base Camp site of the Bagini Glacier. The trail slowly ascended through a series of verdant meadows split with gurgling brooks and splattered with mauve irises, yellow dandelions and buttercups. Dominating the head of the valley, Saf Minal thrust its triangular majesty into the heavens. This is at the head of the ablation valley on the true right bank of the Bagini Glacier. Beyond this point the glacier forks into two branches, the left hand one going towards the Tirsuli massif while the right hand one stretches away to the Bagini col, the high retaining wall topped off with the impressive summits of Saf Minal and Kalanka, ending in a flourish with the North Face of Changabang.

Kalanka - 6931m

The North Face of Changabang ( 6864 m )
A team of 8 climbers, sponsored by the German Alpine Club (DAV - Deutscher Alpenverein) was active in the area, trying to reach the elusive summit of one of the then last unclimbed 7000 metre peaks in India outside of the Eastern Karakoram - Tirsuli West (7035m). While I waited for Kheem Singh and Bagh Singh and the two other porters with the Khadalias to arrive, I chatted with George who was busy measuring out lengths of shiny new rope to be used on the mountain. He told me that the rest of the climbers were up at Advance Base Camp and above.

Tirsuli West - 7035 m
A row of four green tents with the insignia of India Outdoors were pitched neatly near the big kitchen and mess tents, which had folding chairs and tables. The toilet tent was located a discreet distance away. The four kitchen staff (three from Manali and one from Lumbini in Nepal) offered me a tetra pack fruit drink which I gratefully accepted and sank into one of the chairs to savour with a slice of cake! Reluctantly, I then went back to our humbler quarters which consisted of one single skin North Face tent and a home made shelter designed on the Black Diamond "Pyramid" concept - the whole structure supported by one centre pole and devoid of  the luxury of a groundsheet! The Khadalia family, great believers in the minimalist concept, slept in the Pyramid (which also acted as the kitchen and dining tent) while I had the luxury of the Goretex North Face all to myself.

Saf Minal - 6911 m
Rishi Pahar - 6992 m
The next day Lt.Amit Pandey of the Indian Navy dropped in to say hello. He was the liaison officer attached to the German expedition and while conversing we discovered that we had a common friend in Lt.Cmdr. Satyabrata Dam with whom I had climbed two years earlier in Kumaon. Amit had climbed fairly high with the Germans on their attempt on Tirsuli West and three years later he would be part of the Indian Navy's successful ascent of Everest from the north, led by Satya. Amit was a little surprised to see how small and basic our little party was and seemed embarrassed to accept the tea that I brewed quickly for him. When he learnt that we might even venture out on a small climb, he was even more surprised.... I guess his experience of mountain climbing had been restricted to large well organised affairs and the thought that three laid back civilians with an eleven year old boy in tow, and with no support staff in attendance, might actually strap on crampons and head up a slope was alien to his thinking!

"Snow Dome" location (added by me) on Swiss map
Even though this trip was supposed to be strictly limited to trekking, we had packed some basic climbing gear, just in case the spirit moved us to reach for higher ground.

Once again, Kunal refused to part with his dad, so it was left to Kum Kum and I to try and reach a little bump in the ridge which dropped a long way south from the summit of Peak 6635m. In the summer of 1995, Julie Ann Clyma and her husband Roger Payne, had climbed this point over two days from the valley (referred to as "Silent Valley" by Julie in her report) immediately in front of and above the Base Camp. They gave it a height of 5820m and called it Snow Dome, though on the Swiss contour map it is shown as 6000m. and Google Earth satellite imagery concurs with the latter.

Snow Dome from bivouac
We decided to approach the peak directly from the south. Picking our way up to the ridge at the eastern end of the ablation valley on 26th May, we traversed an extensive boulder field to reach a spot below Snow Dome where we fashioned two spaces to spend the night in. I built a small wall of stones to keep the wind from blowing out the stove while I churned out tea, soup, Wai Wai noodles and Bournvita before turning in for the night. It was only 7:30 pm so we chatted as we gazed at the stars from our bivouac sacks.

Kum Kum enjoys the afternoon sun. Saf Minal forms the perfect backdrop for our bivouac site
Thirteen years earlier,  Kum Kum, Jayant and I had shared the Panch Chuli adventures further east in the Kumaon (see ). At that time I had noticed she loved to break into song at the drop of a hat. Now, in between humming old tunes from Hindi movies of the sixties and seventies, she chatted animatedly about her climbing experiences on Nanda Devi and Mana and talked about her colleagues and work at the hospital in Mumbai where she worked as a plastic surgeon.

I dozed off and slept quite well till about 11 pm when I woke up, anxiously scanning the skies. It alternated between star studded clarity and veils of mist obscuring the heavens.

Our route on Snow Dome
At 6 am we set off, aiming for a gully system which would give us access to the summit ridge. Our increasing altitude and the sunrise rewarded us with some fabulous views across the south fork of the Bagini Glacier. Rishi Pahar, Saf Minal, Kalanka, Changabang, Dunagiri, Purbi Dunagiri - they all rose to majestic heights in the achingly beautiful blue skies.

Looking down the gully to the south fork of the Bagini glacier. Changabang is on the left and Purbi Dunagiri on the right. In the middle is Bagini peak. The col leads to the Changabang and Ramani glaciers across the divide.
Six and a half hours later we crested on to the ridge and could suddenly look down on the other side at the German tents and my own bright yellow one. We yelled and shouted and waved our arms around in the hope that Jayant and Kunal could spot us. They later told us that they did see us briefly as two small dots in the snow before we were swallowed up in a cloud.

View west across the gully

I head for the gully exit

Kum Kum near the exit from the gully
The ridge became surprisingly steep from here onwards and after another two hours we had to admit defeat: there was no way we could reach the top and descend safely before dark. Without any hesitation, we turned around and began to climb down. The snow in the gully had turned extremely soft and we sank up to our waists and floundered and our boots found unexpected hollows which made us look like two drunks trying to find their way home after a night of serious pub hopping.

Kum Kum at our High Point

We arrived back at our bivouac spot by 5 pm and after a quick brew of chai, Kum Kum decided to descend straight through to Base Camp. I think that her maternal instincts were stronger than the fatigue that we both were suffering from and she was eager to rejoin her son and husband. With no familial ties to distract me, I luxuriated in the epic sense of solitude in such a magnificent setting, watching the glow of the setting sun on the white granite walls of Kalanka and Changabang.

My deluxe accommodation!
The next morning I walked a little further east to view the impressive bulk of Hardeol and Tirsuli West before returning to pack my bag. A sharp whistle from Jayant alerted me to his presence far down the slope. He had come up to retrieve Kum Kum's gear as she had departed very lightly laden the evening before. He told me that she had lost her way on the glacier moraine as dusk was falling and had spent the night huddled under a rock with her feet tucked into her rucksack for warmth! She had found her way back to Base Camp at dawn and dispatched Jayant to bring her stuff back.

Hardeol - 7151m
We spent another two days at Base Camp, during which time we were treated to an overnight snowfall. When the skies cleared, it was a delight to discover that the meadows of the area were carpeted with a profusion of flowers - primulas, buttercups, irises and anemone kept us company on the walk back to Dunagiri. Horses had been left to graze and they gave us bemused looks as we trotted past.

Back on the veranda of the school, we now had to share the space with three ITBP (Indo Tibet Border Police) personnel for company who were scouting the area for a location to conduct mountaineering training for their soldiers and a young couple from the Czech Republic who were on their way up to the Bagini Base Camp.

Planting potatoes at Dunagiri
After a night at Dunagiri village, we reached Juma via Ruing and were the grateful recipients of military hospitality from the small Army camp where we had left our vehicle. The soldiers offered us lunch which we reluctantly refused but willingly accepted tea and some delicious gulab jamuns from a can! I thanked the JCO (Junior Commissioned Officer) in command, reconnected the battery in the Gypsy which had been lying idle for three weeks, checked the tires, loaded up our luggage, and headed back to Joshimath.

The ten boiled eggs that we consumed at the tea shop in Suraithota helped us to regain our protein balance and the bath in the hot springs above Tapovan ensured that we arrived in Joshimath fresh and rejuvenated both in mind and body!

Hathi and Ghori Parvat as seen from Bagini Base Camp
View south from the slopes of Snow Dome
Pt.6635 m
Primula Denticulata

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

A Passage to Pindari

Collective guilt. Raghu, Ajay, Shridhar and I - we were all burdened with it after spending a great month in the mountains, away from our families (see ). Mountain climbing tends to be a rather selfish indulgence, however much its proponents try and convince the world otherwise. The biggest beneficiary of climbing is the climber himself. The spouse and children have to cope with the absence of the mountaineer and must come to terms with the fact that once again they have been left to their own devices instead of spending quality time together as a family.

A family trek to the Pindari glacier in Kumaon was the peace offering we came up with. For years I had heard and read about this wonderful trek and had formed a picture in my head of a trail peppered with hikers at every turn and the destination, Zero Point, crowded with the tents and chatter of hundreds of people, perhaps akin to the hordes at Everest Base Camp. If I was looking for a sea of humanity, the Kumbh Mela is where I would go, and not the Himalaya. I am not a misanthrope, but I detest crowds! To ensure that we would not be bumping into others of our ilk also seeking the solitude of the hills, we chose the period during the festival of Diwali, a time when most people in India prefer to spend with their families in their hometowns.

Saung, the road head for the Pindari trek in 1997, was a fair distance from our hometowns. The minibus we had hired to transport us from Kathgodam reached Saung a little before midnight on 29th October in complete darkness. With headlamps bobbing like fireflies our little band of moms and dads and kids and two bachelors stumbled up the 3 km path to the Rest House at Loharkhet. Raghu was accompanied by his wife Ajanta and his twelve year old son Siddhartha. Ajay and Jayanti Tambe had brought their  7 year old son Akshay, who was just a month older than my son  Sanal. The Tambe threesome had been with Margaret, Sanal and I four years earlier, when we had trekked to the pastures of Lalanti, below the Charang Ghati pass in Kinnaur - see . Shyama and Shridhar had both their kids in tow : little Shruti, who at five years old was the youngest member of our troupe, and Shreyas who was six months older than Akshay. For Shyama, this would be her very first Himalayan trek and she was as excited as her young daughter Shruti. Rajesh and Kiran made up the bachelor duo and were charged with keeping the kids entertained and out of trouble!

Rajesh had prepared an altitude chart for the trek: we had been warned!
The hike up to the Dhakuri khal from Loharkhet is a fairly steep haul of more than a thousand meters and quite stiff for the introductory day of a trek. A cold rain, mixed occasionally with snow, fell as we climbed up to the pass and kept us diving into the wayside tea shops for some respite. The kids performed magnificently, with nary a complaint. The Rest House at Dhakuri was a welcome stop for the night.

Jayanti spinning a yarn for the kids
With the flames licking the stones of the old fireplace in one of the rooms, Jayanti gathered the children around her and proceeded to tell them a little ghost story, in keeping with the ambience. Shruti and Sanal listened with rapt attention while Akshay's face clearly said,"Oh come on, mom, I've heard this one before!"

The wet socks drying over the fire gave off an aroma quite appropriate to a horror story, though that did not stop us from drifting off into a blissful slumber after the hard day's walk.

A sudden loud commotion in the middle of the night made me hurry into the next room. Shyama was lying very still, her body extremely cold, eyelids heavy as if drugged, and not responding to Shridhar's calls. Shyama is a petite woman blessed with many talents, including those of a Drama Queen if she chooses to; but this time she was not play acting. Seeing her mother in such a helpless state,  Shruti had begun sobbing. Jayanti immediately whisked her away to the other room.

We bundled Shyama into three sleeping bags, rubbed her feet and hands and Shridhar slapped her cheeks gently till she began to speak incoherently, and mumbled that she was freezing. Shridhar takes a very scientific approach to the problems that he is faced with - in this case, he stripped off his clothes, wriggled into the sleeping bag with Shyama and applied the principle of Direct Heat Transfer. It worked! The peak of the crisis had passed, we were relieved. She had been extremely exhausted and dehydrated while climbing up to Dhakuri and the damp cold of the rain and snow had apparently taken a heavy toll on her resources. She had eaten very poorly in the night and was probably very low on reserves.

The Rest House at Dhakuri is surely one of the most fabulously located stops anywhere in the Himalaya, commanding a head on ringside view of the peak of Maiktoli and the graceful spire of Panwali Dwar anchoring the long ridges extending east wards to the right.

Maiktoli - 6803m
The magnificent sunrise slowly turning the peak of Maiktoli golden the next morning helped to lift everyone's spirits. Better still, we were to go downhill, at least for the first part of the day! A pony had been allotted to Ajanta, who had initially elected to ride it as she was not very confident that she could trust her own legs on the trail. However, after a couple of hours on the home made saddle, she decided that her two legs were better than the four hoofs of her ride - sore feet were preferable to a very sore butt at the end of the day!

Nandakot - 6861m

L to R : Shreyas, Sanal, Siddhartha
A strategically placed tea shop at the bottom of the descent from Dhakuri provided the perfect turning point for the trail as it now followed the valley of the Pindar river northeast  to Khati. An icy wedge of a peak, with the top almost horizontal as if carved by a carpenter's chisel, now appeared on the horizon : Nanda Kot. We arrived at the beautifully perched village of Khati in the afternoon, with plenty of time to prepare for the Diwali festivities. A modest supply of sparklers and crackers kept our kids and the local children occupied and happy while Rajesh opened the box of  besan (chick pea flour) laddoos his mother had thoughtfully packed for him. Rajesh too was experiencing his first trek in the Himalaya, so the celebration was apt.

The village of Khati. 

The stretch from Khati to Dwali was perhaps the most enchanting and least rigorous of the Pindari trail as it wound through woods of chestnut and the occasional bamboo, gaining height slowly and graced by the gurgling of brooks and streams as they wormed their way through the verdant slopes, to eventually lose themselves in the crystal clear waters of the Pindar river in its autumn avatar. We halted at another strategically placed tea shop beside the river and quickly consumed the owner's entire stock of eggs!

Shruti (left) and Sanal and the dog at the tea shop

Thus fortified, and also reinforced by the addition of a dog who had attached himself to the party, the happy hikers crossed the last bridge to the Rest House at Dwali, located at the junction of the Pindar and Kafni torrents. If the building at Dhakuri had been superlative in terms of placement, the Rest House at Dwali exuded a cosy intimacy. I could not help but think that the people who had scouted for the locations and decided to build the Rest Houses where they did were artists imbued with a great sense of the picturesque. To them the weary traveller owes a great deal, as the cottages provide sustenance for the soul as well as rest for exhausted bodies.

The Rest House at Dwali
Sanal holds on to the dog while Shruti pokes her finger at him. Siddhartha, Akshay and Shreyas  at the back. 
The second day of November dawned crisp and clear, bringing out all the trigger happy adult males with their cameras. The upper section of Nanda Devi's East peak could just be seen as an icy pyramid jutting out from behind the ridge of Nanda Khat. As we neared the Rest House of Phurkia, intermittent patches of snow began to appear on the ground and we realised that while we had been walking in the rain two days earlier, up here the precipitation had taken the form of snow.

The summit pyramid of Nanda Devi East (7434m) rises behind the long ridge of Nandakhat
We were treated to a grand display in the sky as the sun set, a massive mushroom cloud  shot through and lit by shafts of orange sunlight could easily have passed for a thermonuclear explosion as seen in the movies. The night turned cold and we debated the wisdom of proceeding with the children up to Zero Point through the snow that now covered the trail upwards. Our original plan had been to camp out in our tents at Zero Point and spend two days up there.

Phurkia. Nandakhat dominates the head of the Pindar valley
A compromise was reached by common consensus. Rajesh and Raghu volunteered to stay back at Phurkia with the wives and kids and begin the journey back to Dwali in the morning while the rest of us were determined that we just had to reach the end of the trail and meet the pasha of Pindari : the Baba who had set up shop near Zero Point. The course of action having been decided, we settled down to play Uno from the comfort of our sleeping bags.

The group at Phurkia
Back Row L to R : Ajay, Jayanti, Margaret, Rajesh
Middle Row L to R : Kiran, Aloke, Siddhartha, Raghu, Ajanta, Shridhar , Maghram (our guide)
Front Row L to R : Sanal, Shruti, Shyama, Shreyas, Akshay
Suddenly set free from the natural restraints of children, Ajay, Shridhar, Kiran and I zipped up the snowbound trail in the morning and reached the little shelter of the Pindari Baba. He was a slightly built man with a friendly disposition and graciously invited us to his hearth where he insisted on making dinner for us. He showed us the stony plots where he was trying to grow potatoes in the summer. Later that evening we listened to his story.

Ajay (left) and Shridhar 
Approaching Pindari Baba's abode. Changuch peak in the background.
Originally from the state of Orissa, his pursuit of the hermit's life had led him to Gangotri where he soon realised that there was too much competition in his trade. This led him to seek greener pastures and his quest eventually led him to the moraine of the Pindari Glacier below Zero Point. He told us that he would soon retreat down the valley with the onset of winter and make his way back up towards the end of February. He said he saw many trekkers in the summer months and once a retired Army officer expressed a keen desire to be his disciple and eventually don the sacred robes of a Baba himself. Pindari Baba took him on as a neophyte and assigned some simple and menial chores as an introduction to the discipline needed to embark upon a spiritual life. The officer seemed to be doing fairly well till a succession of trekking groups with attractive and nubile maidens began showing up at the height of the season. Though under strict instructions to stay aloof, solitary and out of sight, the officer's resolve began to weaken and he began sneaking out of his meditation chamber to take delight and pleasure in the company of these young women who seemed prettier than the rhododendron blooms that lined the trails and the primulas that adorned the slopes.

Pindari Baba shook his head as he narrated this story. "I had to fire him," he said cheerfully. "I told him that he was not yet ready for sanyaas!"

Ajay appears content in the knee-deep snow...

The night was cold, clear and starry. Ajay and I spread some dry grass on the snow outside the shelter, placed our sleeping mats over them and wriggled into our sleeping bags, pulling the bivouac sacs over them. We were tired after a little excursion we had made earlier in almost waist deep snow to gain some height so we could peek over the saddle between Panwali Dwar and Baljauri in the hope of catching a glimpse of Nanda Devi East. Alas, a build up of clouds robbed us of any vision we might have been rewarded with.We chatted as we watched the stars slowly spiral in the heavens over Nandakhat and Changuch and drifted off to sleep.

Nandakhat - 6611 m

Panwali Dwar (6663 m), right and Baljauri, left
Changuch - 6322m
(Link to an excellent video on the First Ascent of this peak : )

Panwali Dwar (left) and Nandakhat (right) from the Baba's shelter
Baljauri (left) and Panwali Dwar (right)
The next day we descended all the way to Khati to catch up with the rest of the group. Our efforts were rewarded when we were treated to an invigorating oil head massage by Margaret and Rajesh, which was followed by a dinner of deep fried puris - thankfully, we did not have to use the same oil which had been rubbed into our scalps!

Shridhar enjoying the head massage by Margaret.
Jayanti frying puris!
We decided to compensate the kids for having been deprived of sleeping in tents at Zero Point as they had been promised : when we reached Dhakuri we pitched all the tents in the lawns outside the Rest House and spent an extra day enjoying the gorgeous scenery and the red billed blue magpies who sailed serenely from their perches, their long tails drawing an invisible line in the sky over which the snows of Maiktoli carved their icy sculpture.

Camping out at Dhakuri
Time out for some of the adults!
L to R : Shridhar, Aloke, Rajesh, Margaret, Shyama, Jayanti, Kiran, Ajay.
Red billed Blue Magpie
The last day saw Ajay and me scrambling up to Dhakuri Top from the notch from where we would descend back to Loharkhet. We reached the wide grassy slopes and spread out the contour map we carried. It was immensely rewarding to identify all the peaks from this excellent vantage point. We grinned with happiness as we trained our lenses in every direction, not quite sure if it was for real. The Passage to Pindari had certainly lived up to the hype!

Panwali Dwar from Dhakuri Top

Panch Chuli II from Dhakuri Top