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


  1. Superb! Aloke you should seriously consider publishing a book of short stories on your climbs & hikes in the Himalayas. Cheers!

    1. Thank you Nishith for always encouraging me...... perhaps some day that book might come to life!

  2. wondeful aloke, i just spoke to rajesh abt ur wonderful narration- u are the real baba- baba of words

    1. Great to hear from you, Shatrugna, after a long long silence.....hope all is well with you and your family; say a big Hello to your mom!

  3. Great story in your usual compelling mountain - speak - narrative !
    Wonder if the Baba is still around ?

    1. Anil, I wouldn't be surprised if the Baba has opened branch ashrams in some other parts of the Himalaya...!

  4. I think the time has come to make a trip back to Pindari again!

    1. Yes, I think the Pindari trek can safely be classified as one of those "Go Anytime" treks, for the bounty that it offers! And there is always the Kafni and Sunderdhunga valleys close at hand as well!

  5. Lovely reading about this, Aloke. Thanks to Jayanti for sharing...

  6. Enjoyed reading again ; more so after my November 2015 bumpy SUV ride to Kharkiya the road head and back as I was short pressed for time and had to return to Delhi ASAP !!

  7. Enjoyed reading again ; more so after my November 2015 bumpy SUV ride to Kharkiya the road head and back as I was short pressed for time and had to return to Delhi ASAP !!