Expedition Airaavat- In the Shadow of The Celestial Elephant

Expedition Airaavat- In the Shadow of The Celestial Elephant

(Explorations in the Haathi Parvat Valley)

Time: 1230 Hrs 5th Nov 2009

“Woh nahin Sir, yeh pass cross karna hai”. Subhan said, his voice partially garbled in the radio transmission. Subhan, Vinod and Kundu were looking like three tiny specks at the feet of an imposing mountain.
“What???” I could not believe what he was saying. From where we were, this pass looked perched on top of a vertical wall of snow!

“Yeh to technical lag raha hai. Isse kaise cross karenge?”- Arun asked, his eyes still examining the objective carefully.
“Yehi Rasta hai Sir, hum kai baar aye hain. Doosra raasta me ek gulley hai. Bahut danger hai rock-fall ka”- One of the senior porters replied.
“Lagta hai rope lagana padega. Oopar thodasa technical climb lag raha hai”- The veteran –Jaisingh offered his assessment.

“Sahi bataoon? Yeh Pass mujhe bula raha hai. Chalo karte hain” Shahid said

All of us looked at him with utter incredulity. “Sheer Madness!! Let them take the call. Why are we suggesting?” exclaimed Rajesh not quite appreciating the enthusiasm.

“Sir yahan pass ka base main aa jao, phir decision lete hain” Vinod’s voice crackled over the radio. He was already half a kilometer away conferring animatedly with Subhan.

“Shahid bhai, map nikalo”- I asked of Shahid and he promptly obliged, with the the Google Earth printouts, neatly filed in a plastic folder.


Seven heads pored over the little printout anxiously to find any opportunity to avoid the sinister looking wall of rock, snow and ice.
Half an hour later, having not found any possible alternative,we decided to get a closer look at the wall. Meanwhile, Jaisingh had modified his views partially.

“Lagta hai, woh rock band ka niche se approach hai”- He said.

With reluctant feet dragging our tired bodies on that treacherously slippery slope of dry grass, we proceeded towards where the trio of Vinod, Subhan and Kundu sat huddled. Just behind them was the wall, which they called as Barmai Pass, the only reasonably safe passage from Kagbhushandi Taal to Alakananda Valley.
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Time 1300 hrs- 5th Nov 2009
“So guys, are we ready for the pass?” I was asking Negi and Bharat leading ahead of me along the already steepening slope.

“Kind of”- someone replied
“When you commit yourself to a difficult route, you don’t say kind of. You say, ‘I will do it’!” I said, thinking about the need for focus for the task at hand.
“We don’t have an option right?” – says Bharat
“Since we don’t have an option, we gotta say and believe, we are going to do it!” I was bit concerned about the team morale.
“We will do it” – shouted out Shahid, coming up few steps behind me.

So the team plodded on with mixed emotions and apprehensions.

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Time: 1530 Hrs, 5th Nov 2009
“Yaar pata hai kya? …hum mission pe mission accomplish kiye ja rahe hain,,,,,,,” Rajesh was jest fully serious saying this

“Aur har din naya mission khada ho jata hai”… I filled in and the team burst out into a hearty laughter. Bharat and Venky had just reached the top. Rajesh, Shahid, Negi and I had reached minutes before and had our fill of shooting majestic pictures from that high vantage point.

The laughter masked the great relief all of us felt after the tense moments few hours ago when we were committing ourselves to the route to the top.

Resting briefly on the top of Barmai Pass , we saw a bright orange glow of a sun was about to set- lighting up the snow-scape around for 270 degrees. Haathi Parvat stood gloriously tall with all its 6700 Meters, ruling over everything that was in our view North.

Shivering slightly with the onset of cold, these were the reigning thoughts in our minds -relief and disbelief.
We had just negotiated a pass, whose apparent degree of difficulty had sprung up as a nasty surprise in an otherwise pleasant Himalayan afternoon.

The mystical emerald lake Kagbhushandi Taal wasn’t yet finished with all the surprises it could throw at us, as we would find out soon.

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Searching for the list of high altitude lakes in Garhwal Mountains, this tongue twister of a name pops up all the time quite innocuously, “Kagbhushandi Taal”. For the un-initiated there is added confusion since there is a peak by the same name located not very far from the Haathi Parvat valley. To add to it all, the very lake is named as “Kankul Taal” in the British Army map that many of us use (freely available at University of Texas website), probably named after the Pass one uses to reach the emerald lake from the Haathi Parvat valley.

I went through all that a few years back in a frenzied December evening of Google Earth browsing, in the hope of a possible exploration of the route sometime in future.


View Kagbhushandi Route in a larger map to see this actual GPS Plot

The route plotted after the research veers off East from the famous Hemkund Sahib- Valley of Flowers Trail, first done by M/s Frank Smythe and party almost a century back, at Bhyunder village. It then meanders up along a small river till the head of the Haathi Parvat valley until it reaches the terminal Cwm presided by the 6700 mtrs high Haathi Parvat and another smaller peak “Oti Ka Danda”. From there the route turns south over the Kankul Pass and descends into the little boulder-strewn recess where the Kagbhushandi Taal is located. The route forth to Joshimath looked first a little unsure in the contour maps, at least for the first few kilometers, and then proceeded onwards along a ridge down to Vishnuprayag and Joshimath.

As it happens always, The Mountain bade its time and finally allowed me to go for it at last in the November of 2009. I was fresh from the Lamkhaga- Nalgan pass trek done in June, but still this one happened, barely four months later!!! To make it special two additional features were added to the itinerary.

  1. It was to be done in early winter (The usual season is in the mid and late monsoon)
  2. We were to explore deep into the head of the Haathi Parvat- Oti Ka Danda Cwm and locate an unmapped lake which was so clearly visible in the satellite pictures

As has been the practice in the last few years, a thread was floated duly in the Orkut and Indiamike community threads (lately I have had very high opinion of teams made out of the internet community- one gets to meet new friends and more often than not highly capable and enthusiastic ones). In due course of time a whole new team was formed (somehow all members of previous treks were in-disposed to join in)-another youthful team with widely varied backgrounds and profiles.

Arun Negi and Bharat Tomar came from the IT fraternity. Both fit, energetic and willing to brave it if the situation so demanded. Arun, the Handsome Brute-force of a Pahadi proved to be a solid anchor in the middle later on. Bharat- Loveguru- Tomar proved his mettle in his maiden trek. The Rajput from Haryana carried on his role, be it for team entertainment or bringing up the rear in a tough climb, with equal aplomb.

Ananda Kundu from Kolkata was the silent and gentle giant. A last moment joinee in his maiden trek, he fared well. The Robotics engineer-entrepreneur swore to take time out for exploring the mountains many times more, by the time we ended.

I had met Anand Venkat the first time browsing through some blogs, scanning some discussion thread on Kailash Darshan. Although we had interacted during some discussions on Mount Kailash, this was the first time we were going to be trekking together. I was shocked out of my mind when I saw the smiling young lad for the first time! Barely a facial hair on him, he looked the youngest. By the time we ended the trek, my respect for the Youngman had grown several fold. A tireless campaigner and silent worker, he works magic when behind his Nikon lenses.

Rajesh‘s hearty laughter and animated comments rang in the ears weeks after we ended the trek. The maverick ex-banker- Outrageous- NGO activist who is also husband to my ex colleague went out for the first time with me on a trek. Although we had exchanged notes several times on various trekking experiences, this was the first time we were together on one. He was the other senior citizen in the team (other than me).

Shahid Ali had earlier interacted in Orkut when he was planning his solo trek to EBC (Everest Base Camp). The Audiologist from Bangalore donned a commando look when in the mountains. Always willing to take up a challenge he proved good in all roles- Lead, Middle or bringing up the rear. No wonder he had earlier survived serious weather conditions in the foothills of the highest mountain peak on earth.


The Support team was interestingly structured as well. A 4-member core team was hired from Crystal of Uttarkashi (Old and trusted friends as Vinod, Jaisingh, Praveen and Anil) who then arranged the rest of the resources locally from Joshimath.
The porters were hired from a porter agency at Joshimath who also provided a local route expert in form of Subhan and the necessary permissions from the forest department. Subhan claimed to have done the route couple of times himself.

Day 0- Delhi- Joshimath ( 480 Kms drive)

I remember the long drive to Joshimath from Delhi as one that was tiring and draining but funny as hell!! One advantage of not having ladies in the team is, as a driver, you really don’t have to plan stoppages for such matters as relieving oneself. One could just stop anywhere you liked and felt like :-). I was happy.
Bharat, however, took some opportunistic advantages of that fact. “Dada, ek minute ek photo”, “Dada kuchh khate hain na”, “Dada thoda pani lete hain”, “Dada this and Dada that!!” Thankfully some of the many stopovers he proposed, allowed me to steal few winks of sleep. It is an additional fact that some fabulous shots have been shot during those myriad stopovers for toilet, food and just plain nature watching.


We started off from Delhi at about 0400 Hrs and were in Rishikesh by 0930 Hrs after some undue delays on the way due to fog and poor visibility. After taking a short power nap and some hasty South Indian breakfast, we were past Devprayag by 1300 and were in Srinagar for lunch by 1430 Hrs. Amidst some hilarious lectures and banters of M/s Bharat and Shahid, we were at Joshimath by 2000 Hrs. It was interesting to listen to the “Do-it-yourself course” for “50 dates in 10 days” by Baba Bharat. Anyways, happy ending for a grueling 16 hrs drive with no sleep in the previous night. Phew!

Once settled in the hotel, it was time to party!! Next day onwards it was walk all the way for 80 Kms!!

Day 1- Joshimath- Bhyunder Village (25 Kms drive and 9 Kms Trek)

Next day Vinod woke us up early at 0700. By the time we were lazily ready, it was 0930. It took another two and a half hour to actually begin the trek from Govindghat. Learning point!! It is better to stay at Govindghat than at Joshimath so that one can start trekking early. It is downright depressing to start a trek with the sun beating down harsh on your head.

After filling up water bottles at the Gurdwara at Govindghat, it was time to hit the trail. Old memories came flooding back as I started off across the suspension bridge over Alakananda, her waters bearing the turquoise hue, so typical of all Himalayan Rivers at this time of the year.

For someone who would have visited Hemkund Sahib and Valley of Flowers (the trail that we were on), the solitude and calm would immediately be apparent. In season, these very routes shall be teeming with thousands of pilgrims of all age and origin, the route would be lined with shops, trade would be brisk, the air filled with the smell of human beings and mule-dung, the chants of the people and the neighing of the horses filling the ears; I liked the change.
In the tough climb out of Govindghat, there was a funny interlude when w
e saw a signboard put up by the local managing committee, exhorting tourists and pilgrims to write their suggestions in the “Suggestion Rock”! Probably a minor error on part of the painter, but in that mountainous locale, with several utterly funny interpretations and visualizations.

By the time we reached the pretty Pulna village, we were suddenly aware that Vinod and the party of porters are far behind and faintly within radio contact.

Meanwhile I was enjoying the almost forgotten memories of a trek done 16 years back. The whole trail had changed so much since 1992 that it was like doing the trek anew. The colors of the fall added on to the novelty. Pulna village was probably a cluster of few houses when I visited the place a decade and half ago. Now it was a bustling settlement with a prominent concrete arch welcoming the passers-by. The sparse population of the village was merely a reminder of the season. Colorful Marigolds, Sunflowers and Dahlias adorned the area near the welcome arch. Bright red fields of “Chaulai (an edible “saag” which also bears flour bearing seeds)” lined the narrow dirt-road leading into the village.


We had not realized till then that this was only a trailer of the spectacle that the Mountain was going to unfold; a Himalayan Autumn surprise! The forest ahead wore various hues of red, yellow, purple, green, brown and a multitude of other shades; so vivid and colorful, one is reminded of flipping through the pages of a comic book.

Soon it was lunchtime and we stopped under a small cluster of sheds, which might have been serving as refueling point for hungry and thirsty pilgrims during the season. Now of course they were all deserted. Chomping through Paranthas and Pickles we had another hilarious discourse by Loveguru- Bharat about some theory on Chocolates and Women.

The only nagging issue in the mind was the slow progress of the Porters’ Team. They were yet to be contacted over radio!! It was 1500 Hrs and we were already half way through!! At that rate, we would be at the designated campsite by 1700 and wait for the porters to arrive by 1900!

“Not a nice idea”, I mused. For a moment I regretted not getting porters from Uttarkashi, who were familiar and whom I trusted not to turn their back at the middle of the trek. We decided to wait for the porters for the simple reason that we needed to be sure that the porters were coming after all! No point waiting for them at Bhyunder village without a fall back option for the shelter for the night.


The problem resolved itself 45 minutes later when the porter team finally came up. After a sharp and pointed communication with the Porter Sirdar-Dalbir and Subhan the local guide, we proceeded towards Bhyunder, relieved and hopeful.

Just as we were witnessing the first views of Snow over the Nar Parvat, part of the sky clouded up. It can be mesmerizing to see the reddish-yellow hues of the setting sun juxtaposed with the grayish rain bearing clouds, walking on the picket-fenced boulevard at Bhyunder Mall 🙂

It is difficult to put to words, the subliminally divine experience. The gentle drizzle, the whispering susurration of the breeze carrying colorful leaves of the fall, the baby goats calling out animatedly for their returning mothers, the patches of snows and clouds in the high mountains difficult to tell one from the other- all of it just whisked one off to another world.


By the time we reached the village the rain had increased intensity and we found some of our members in the advance party resting on the verandah of the village temple. Praveen was already cleaning up the Verandah for camping there for the night. This is one characteristic of our support team I have never been able to understand. Even when there is a perfect campsite, so close to water and a relatively friendly weather with plenty of firewood for a grand campfire, they would always rush to the nearest concrete shelter! For us citi-breds, dying for a camping experience, it becomes slightly incomprehensible at that moment. (Of course we conveniently ignore the labor they have to put in to pitch the tents in and then pack all of it back in the morning before starting the day’s walk ;-))

We insisted upon camping down on the little field across the bridge over Laxman Ganga. This is where we were to veer off from the VoF route and catch the robustly constructed trail into the Haathi Parvat Valley. In about an hour everybody assembled at the camping ground. By the time tents were pitched, it was already dark. Price paid for starting off late.

The first day had taken its toll. The tired limbs, however, were soon forgotten as soon as Vinod and Jaisingh got a massive campfire going. After fervent experimentation with night shooting by the light of the campfire, it was time for dinner. There was some jesting talk by Jaisingh about possible visit of bears from the nearby Jungle. I was almost about to scream in the middle of the night when a restless Rajesh went looking for a suitable place to relieve himself. Thankfully I did not 🙂

Day 2- Bhyunder- Semartoli Bugyal- Dang Kharak Glacier Camp (8 Kms Trek)

The larger the village, the eerier it looks when deserted. Watching the silent outlines of the Bhyunder village, still shivering by the small campfire, I was thinking of the day ahead. The small camp was stirring lazily to life. We knew we had a long walk ahead. We had targeted reaching the head of the valley, if we were to spend any meaningful time exploring the glacier and looking for the small un-mapped lake.
After some easy idle talk, we were all ready in a hurry and had hit the trail by 8:30 AM. Good show! I thought, we all had been regretting the late start, the previous day.
Not long after the Bhyunder camp, the jungle grows even denser. The well made Chhe-phuti (6 Ft wide) trail twists its way through the abundance of conifers, all of them rich with their zillion colors of the fall.

Dry maple leaves with their shades of red, brown and yellow carpeted the track amidst faint piercing calls of crickets. Not a bird to be heard or a call of a monkey. It was a silent pleasure walk with a colorful canopy overhead through which the sun pierced in with numerous needles. One could hear a distant gurgle of the river we were following up east. Who would not treasure those moments of total immersion and silent reverence for a force so powerful yet so eloquent and pretty!

 

After an hour of walk one reaches a small opening (probably can serve as a camping ground for a small party) from where the mighty bulk of the Haathi Parvat reveals itself over the tree line.
Shortly thereafter one crosses a concrete bridge to cross over to the river’s true left. Just after crossing the bridge the route seemed to disappear beneath the thick undergrowth. Watchful eyes tracked the route back and soon we were over another makeshift bridge back to the true right of the river. From now on, we would remain on the true right till we cross it over at its origin near the Chainyal Kharak camp.


That’s when Shahid Ali declared, he has lost his newly-purchased-highly-admired-Singapore-sourced-Casio Protrek watch somewhere on the way. As usual, the “lost-and-found” service of Praveen Negi was employed. Commando Shahid insisted upon accompanying him in the adventure. Thankfully both of them returned successful and tired after one long hour. To cut a long story short, this little accident set us back by 90 minutes against the planned timelines.


The trek resumed with several necessary halts on the way. The view was so breathtaking, one had to stop to shoot the pictures. Timelines could wait for a while J. At Kabassi Udiar, about 2 kms from the bridge, one could see several large rocks that might be used for shelter (for humans as well as bears). Here Jaisingh did some digging around for medicinal herbs (He called it Chaura- used for cold and flu apparently). After this lovely meadow, one crosses three dried up nullahs and a dense jungle to reach the next camping site. These streams were bone dry, even in the month of November.


After about 6 Kms from Bhyunder camp, one reaches a large undulating meadow through which a highly meandering trail passes (one wondered if the route surveyor was following the proverbial path of the calf) to lead on to a beautiful campsite. On a good day, if the team plans well enough, it is possible to reach this campsite, Semartoli, in one-day form Govindghat.

The camping ground is a dream of a campsite for any size of the group. A lone ashram of a Baba looks over the twisting course of the river from the gentle slopes that lead further east towards the head of the valley. The Ashram was deserted however. Waiting for the rest of the party to arrive, I lit up a small fire. The sun was faint with wisps of clouds filling up the sky and it was becoming cold waiting in a half-hearted Sun.


Even as we had our lunch I could overhear the porter team grumbling yet again about the distance and the load. We had barely crossed 6 Kms and they were at it again!! I had to do some essential hard-talk.
“Aap log agar aise hi karte rahenge, ya to hum tour cancel karenge ya phir apna load khud carry karenge. Yeh kya mazak hai?”- The anger was presumably a manifestation of the helplessness inside. ” Aage char kilometer aur chalna hai camp ke liye.” I warned.

“Koi baat nahin Sir. Chal lenge.”- The Porter Sirdar Dalbir said.

They all nodded and carried on. The valley after Semartoli widens up quite a bit and in about 2 Kilometers enters a rocky flat. The PWD trail disappears into the boulder-filled riverbed once too often, the route barely marked by parallel lines of outlining rocks. From a distance we could see the denuded ridges of the Dang Kharak glacier. The Google Earth print-out and the GPS position locator were once again deadly accurate in navigation.

We were soon standing beneath the giant wall of the Dang Kharak glacier even as the pregnant clouds overhead hinted of a snowstorm. The wind powered up and little flakes of snow came floating down.


“Abe kya kar raha hai? Direct snow kha raha hai aasmaan se?” I asked Arun Negi

He had his mouth wide open, skywards, trying to catch the falling snowflakes.
Subhan was following closely behind. Looking at the weather and the gloomy outline of the Cwm area ahead I decided to camp.

“Yehin camp karte hain Subhan”. The GPS readings said we were short by 2 Kms from our designated target. But looking at the condition of the team, especially the porters and the weather condition, a call had to be taken.
“Lekin sir, yahan koi campsite to dikh nahin raha hai” Subhan said, scanning the boulder-strewn riverbed.
“Koi baat nahin bana lenge!”- I said.


I was hopeful; we should indeed find some leveled patches where we could pitch the tents. The waters of the river gurgled nearby and a birch forest was not too far away. Water and fire and some level ground! That’s what we needed for a camp in any case. Soon after the tents were pitched, all of us spent considerable time gathering firewood. By the time the sunset, we had gathered at least a quintal of fuel for our campfire.


As the clouds dispersed and darkness fell, the glorious view of the Haathi Parvat revealed slowly. The giant mountain and its less lofty subordinates were completely awash with the gentle brightness of a full moon. The -6 degree cold did not deter us from trying out night-shoots in our respective cameras from different angles. Far away in the West, the pinnacle of Mt. Neelkanth peeked from over the ridgelines of the Khuliaghata ridge. Talking late into the night, gathered around the campfire, the imposing walls of the glacier almost behind us, the whiteness of the snow kingdom visible ahead and all that moonlight magic!! It was another world.
In the maps, Chainyal Kharak (also called Raj Kharak by some local tour operators) is indicated as the final camping ground before reaching the Kankul Pass. We aimed to camp there or any other suitable camping site closest to the base of the pass and then spend the day exploring till the end of the medial moraine of the glacier. By all estimates, the campsite would not be more than 4 Kms, I reckoned.

Day 3- Dang Kharak- Kankul Pass Base Camp (5 Kms)


We lifted camp a little late at about 0930. The day was sunny as usual. Thanked The Mountain for one more day of blessing. The peaks shone gloriously to the North almost over our heads. The Dang Kharak Glacier was a stone’s throw away. Negi, Bharat and Kundu had decided to team up together and keep equal speed. Rajesh and I led ahead quickly along with Vinod and Jaisingh. We had to reconnoiter a suitable campsite that can help us launch our exploration into the Cwm and serve as a base camp for the pass at the same time.

The steep climb over the moraine ridge on the true left of Dang Kharak glacier, leaves one with bit of a shock. By the time we regained our breath on top of the rise, it was already 1100 Hrs. For some reason, we were having quite a leisurely walk. I wasn’t quite sure if it was the altitude or the anticipation of an early camp or just plain laziness.

The route, expectedly broken around the glacier snout requires a bit of exploration. In the monsoons it can be a bit of a task crossing the river there. The team spent quite some time shooting pictures near the snout.


I was beginning to have bit of a problem with the eyes. A combination of snow and altitude does it to me always. However, this time around there was help at hand in form of the little vial of “Lubrex” that Rajesh was carrying. We stopped several times to administer numerous drops of the magic lotion in my eyes. This shall be a necessary item in my medicine chest from now on.
“Lagta hai koi party aa rahi hai udhar se”- Vinod said squinting against the sun looking at the few people coming towards us from the opposite direction.


“Kahan se aa rahe hain?” I asked the couple of men who came near. They were loaded heavily and also armed with shovels and axe. For a moment, several unsavory thoughts popped in the mind about possible snow conditions ahead.
“Aage se aa rahe hain. Raasta bana rahe the. Snow zyada hai. Wapas jaa rahe hain.” One of them said.

We soon gathered that they were PWD workers, who were calling off work for the season due to heavy snow conditions. The PWD has done some excellent work in building this trail right till the base of the Kankul Pass. One might wonder why, given the virgin-ness of the valley.


“May be the Government wants to popularize the trail for tourists”, I thought.

This group of workers had another gift for us in form of a well-stocked and well managed camp at Chainyal Kharak as we were to discover pretty soon. The campsite is at the right edge of the medial moraine across a small stream. The team regrouped slowly, a little after midday. Kundu suffered a minor and unnecessary fall into the waters while crossing the stream, rendering the trousers and the shoes completely wet.

From the campsite, a little depression is visible due south over a bounding ridgeline. That was the first view of the Kankul Pass. Even in the bright sunshine, the tall and jagged outline was awe-inspiring.
After a quick lunch it was time to go exploring the head of the valley in the hope of locating that little lake, yet unmapped but visible from the manmade eyes in the skies. Kundu decided to stay back, still trying to dry up his shoes and clothes.

With Dalbir in the lead and Subhan and Jaisingh as assistants, the team started up towards the valley-head flanking the true right of the medial moraine of the Kankul Glacier.

This glacier emanates from the feet of “Oti Ka Danda”, the dominant peak guarding the Eastern extreme of the Haathi Parvat valley. The lake was expected to be seen somewhere at the base of that peak, slightly to the west.
Countless boulders numerously punctuated the laborious climb up (a feature that would be our companion for next couple of days, we were yet unaware). Finally the group reached a moraine mound blocking the way ahead. Rajesh and Bharat had decided against the late-afternoon-boulder-hopping.
“Reached back camp buddy! Best of luck! Not feeling too well. Bharat is also with me, he had bit of a stomach problem”- Rajesh radioed in.

“Dalbir ko bhejo aage Subhan. Is chadhai ke baad lake mil sakta hai” I told Subhan. The GPS mapping showed, we were very close to the edge of the lake.
Dalbir and Jaisingh went ahead following two different routes. The climb up was in knee-deep snow, probably for about a hundred vertical meters.
By 1520 Hrs Dalbir shouted back- “Lake mil gaya sir!!” Jaisingh also radioed back the sighting of the lake 10 minutes later.

Arun, Venkat and Shahid had gathered by then at the base of the mound, all of them raring to go for the top. I stayed back behind overseeing the respective routes up and coordinating messages through the radio.
“It’s okay guys. Go ahead, but do start back the moment it is 1600 Hrs, whether you have seen the lake or not” I was worried about the clouds gathering up above.

“Aye aye Sir!!” said Arun. They took a sip each from my hydration pack and up they went.

After a bit of a struggle in the snow, the team reached the narrow bank of that little un-spoilt beauty.
“Ashu Sir!! Lake sighted and conquered!!”
Shahid was loud and clear on the radio in what can be termed as his characteristic “Victory Cry” upon attainment of an objective 🙂
As agreed, they all started back in time and the team was back at the camp by 1800. Rajesh and Bharat had set up an ingenious hearth as campfire, inspired by some description in the book that Rajesh was reading. It was indeed, a fine contraption in that windy and flat place.

“Dada maza aya na campfire me?” Bharat would have asked me the same question at least three times that evening. Obviously he was happy with his Joint Venture handiwork with Rajesh.

Happy conferencing followed, sipping on tasty Daal borrowed from the Porters’ kitchen around The Campfire. Everyone was discussing the interesting little excursion and exploration of the unmapped lake. We decided unanimously to call it the Haathi Taal- named after the presiding peak of the valley.

The salient aspect of the evening was, however, the delicious Jacket Potatoes that Bharat produced from the campfire. The barbecue, suitably interspersed with jewels of wisdom about women and love, lasted late into the night.


“Yeh ladkiyan jo hoti hain na dada…” and another long discourse from Bharat Tomar would follow.
That was the first of the many times that Bharat’s culinary expertise was to be tested, with resounding success, if I may add.
“Age se, bade bade alu layenge, agle trek ke liye” that was the final decision that night J Bigger potatoes made better jacket potatoes 🙂

Day 4- Over Kankul Pass to Kagbhushandi Taal (8 Kms)


Thankfully the skies opened bright and clear, the next morning. That is a piece of luck every trekker prays for in the high mountains, especially in the winter. Any precipitation in this season means heavy snows in the high passes, which makes even a hundred feet look like a mile of ordeal. All in high spirits, the morale high with the exploration of the previous evening, the team set out for the Pass.

We were to cross the pass and camp near the Kagbhushandi Taal by the end of the day. The distance wasn’t much, but the difficult terrain would take up much of the time. “Difficult Terrain” was an understatement, as we would realize not long after.
The trail to Kankul Pass from the Chainyal Kharak campsite winds up in a confusingly serpentine fashion towards the general direction of the pass. Since Kundu was suffering a bit from exhaustion, it was decided to send him ahead with Jaisingh an hour before rests of us were to start. Just when the duo vanished ahead of the last visible bend on the trail, Rajesh and I started off.

About a kilometer later the faithful and well made Chhe Phuti, which had been our companion since Govindghat, just trailed off; probably a result of the abandonment of work by the group of PWD workers whom we had met the previous day. Jaisingh and Kundu were nowhere to be seen. We decided to follow the general direction where the trail was headed last and found ourselves standing on the left edge of the medial moraine.
Beyond a ravine below, the tall ramparts of the ridge rose several hundred meters above us, due south. A gentler slope leading to the top could be seen further east; in fact Subhan had indicated that to be the route the previous evening. We failed to notice Jaisingh and Kundu trying to follow a shepherd trail directly due South where the forbidding wall of the ridge rising above us. We decided to move east towards the slope.

The entire team was on the move now, following different trails, generally guiding each other over voice and radio calls. Just then someone pointed out Jaisingh and Kundu trying to negotiate an alternate trail that looked fairly challenging from where we stood. Upon our repeated calls to come back and join the route we were following, Jaisingh radioed back his confidence about the route he was following with characteristic nonchalance.

“Poora rasta bana hua hai sir idhar se. Bakri wala rasta hai. Boulder aur snow bhi kam milega.” – His voice came over the radio.

“Ooper difficult lag raha hai Jaisingh.” I radioed back anxiously.
“Maine dekha hai Sir. Kuch problem nahin hai.” – He replied. I could imagine the impact this conversation might be having on Kundu’s morale and decided to trust the instincts of the veteran.


There was a quick consultation among Vinod, Subhan and I. We decided to proceed fast and be at the top, where the two routes appeared to converge, as soon as possible. In case any help was required in terms of fixed rope, Vinod could then go down and help Jaisingh. We should have known the old man better, as we would realize later.
The real ordeal started after that. Soon we were to realize, how true and correct Jaisingh’s gut-feel was!

“These sherpas have a way with smelling their way through. This bugger Jaisingh practically sniffs his way out!” we would discuss later that evening.

Where the rock and shrubs of the medial moraine ends and the snow & grass covered bouldered slope starts to the top, there is a small glacial tarn. I noted it for future reference. It could be used as a bivouac site or for setting a small base camp for the Pass. The immediate increase in the steepness knocked the wind out of us. Soon we were boulder hopping, each hop becoming longer as we proceeded ahead.

At one point, Rajesh stopped. Huffing and puffing heavily he put his trekking pole between two boulders, which clearly indicated the gap to be close to 6 feet.

“Yeh saale porters load ke saath jump maar ke jaa rahe hain kya?” said Rajesh, he had that familiar look of exaggerated disbelief J

In that section of the climb we were basically following the porters, who appeared to be flying across the boulders. Vinod and Subhan were much further ahead aiming to reach the junction point from where they could oversee progress on both the routes, one that we were following and the one that Jaisingh was following with Kundu.

By the time we reached the junction point, all of us were totally exhausted, frustrated with the snow, run out of drinking water and hungry. We had not had a morsel of food since morning and it was already midday. The saving grace was the clear sky and the blazing sun overhead.

We tried having some chocolate bars and some ice-melt for drinking. I still remember stuffing my hydration pack with powder snow, desperate to have some water for the climb ahead. Soon Jaisingh and Kundu appeared. Kundu was exhausted too from the steep climb. They however, did not have to go through the painful and risky boulder hopping that we had to do. The mountain had a different challenge for everyone.

Little had we realized that we were only half way through the climb! We still had to cover 400 more vertical meters. The climb was divided into three distinct stages, each stage visible directly ahead from where we stood. The first two stages were through brown and dried grass over a steep slope. The final stage was along a wall, the track made of rock and snow. We had to hurry, if we were to cross the top before the iffy mountain weather played truant in the afternoon.

Rajesh and I took the lead again. The steep climb ahead was on slippery dried grass. Far below on our left lay an angry bed of boulders awash with brilliant-white snow. Hungry bodies and thirsty throats struggled for balance. On such slopes essentially one walks on the sides of one’s feet. Prolonged exercise of this nature become agonizing for anyone. The porters seemed to be forever ahead of us. They were now showing their true mettle after all the grumbling in the previous days.

Resting under a rock after the first step I chanced to take a look around. The proud Hathi Parvat stood tall directly North of us. The Kankul Glacier lay below its feet with a East-West orientation, looking like a wide highway constructed with great care. The surrounding peaks at the head of the valley, due East stood encircling the head of the glacier as if blessing it with silent magnanimity. Small crevasses on the glacier and its medial moraine were visible from where I stood.

I could make out the small depression where the Haathi Taal (one that we had explored the previous evening) might be located. The Taal, however, was not visible. It wasn’t visible the entire way till the top; one of the possible reasons why it might have been uncharted in the British Army Map (1937).

Soon the rest of the team caught up and we had to plod on. After a long, tedious, highly punctuated and exhausting hour we finally caught the summit slope.

“Wo raha pass”- Subhan said. “Dalbir pahunch gaya hai do porters ke saath.”

Seeing the small cairn from that distance, our morale perked up. With Subhan cutting the route through knee-deep snow I finally reached the top at 1430 hrs. The altitude reading had beaten my calculations. We were well over 4700 mtrs at the top of the pass, 4713 meters to be precise.

Beyond lay the Kagbhushand Gaad valley leading on to Alaknanda. The comparatively low-lying Shivalik mountains appeared ghostly on the horizon with their faint purple-blue outlines. Looking back one could see the Haathi Parvat valley and the slope leading to where I stood. I could see our team snaking its way up. A large, lazy and struggling snake :-).

Rajesh reached up soon. As he reached the top his hands folded in salutation to the great Mountain, as if he was seeking blessings and was thanking the King of Mountains for have ended the trying part of the day. In the next one hour all of the team members arrived one by one- first Shahid and then Arun, Venkat and Bharat Tomar. Kundu was much far behind struggling his way through the deep snow.


“Kundu! We have reached the Pass.” – Shahid was shouting at the top of his voice into the radio, exhorting his tent-mate to come on.

“Aa raha hoon main” came the disinterested reply. He obviously had more pressing matters at hand to deal with, all that rock and snow and slippery ground J.

After waiting a while, we decided to leave Subhan behind to wait for Kundu and started for the camp. Some porters had gone ahead to look for campsite near the Kagbhushandi Taal. We were eager to join them. All we needed was water to drink and the warmth of a sleeping bag.

(We had earlier planned to camp much below the Taal. The time of the day, body conditions and the ever increasing thirst forced us to abandon plan and we had decided to camp near the Taal for the night, even if it was cold. It was going to be our highest camp at 4350 mtrs.)

The boulder hopping started again, albeit for a much shorter duration. With the mind divided between the boulders and the safe arrival of Kundu, we finally reached the end of the platform from where one could see the emerald jewel- Kagbhushandi Taal.

Soon the tents were visible, pitched right near the West bank of the lake. The team morale shot up again and we all were at the camp by about 1600 hrs. Just when we were about to rest in the dying rays of the setting sun, Subhan appeared informing us that Kundu had crossed the Pass 15 minutes back.

I think, the sun set the fastest that evening. By the time we had finished clicking couple of snaps of the beautiful lake, darkness was descending with cold ferocity. Before long, the temperature began dipping below the zero mark.

With the headlight glowing on his head, Kundu finally appeared. I was waiting for him outside the Kitchen tent. He rested on the rock alongside and almost collapsed. The gentle giant had been drained off his last ounce of strength.

No campfire that night. Food was served inside the tent as members refused to brave the cold outside. Shahid was heard discussing the day with Kundu late into the night. By now, it was habitual to hear Shahid giving a motivational spiel to his tent mate for several hours. I was happy they had bonded well. All that bonding was going to be necessary for the challenge ahead, challenges I was not yet aware of.

Day 5- Kagbhushandi Taal – Barmai Pass (4513 Mtrs) – Upper Barmai Camping Ground (6 Kms)

It was a visual treat next morning.

The large water body of Kagbhushandi Taal appears emerald green during most part of the day, possibly due to the immense depth. When you combine that large emerald with its lightly shimmering tranquil waters, with the snow covered mountainsides, the thin morning mist that hangs above it and the early rays of the rising sun that light up the lofty peaks around, you are transported to a different dimension. Even for the non-believer there would be a moment of silent gratitude for all that sublime beauty.

A small river emerges from the Southwestern corner of the lake, the point well marked with a cairn. The route to Joshimath touches this point, rises over a mound to its south and descends further ahead. We watched Subhan and Kundu disappear down that route around 0730 hrs that morning.

To reduce variability in arrival at the evening camp we had again requested Kundu to start early, for which he sportingly obliged. In fact he had slept with his shoes on, the previous night to reduce start-up time in the morning. Dedicated lad he was!!

With the bright sun beating overhead, we proceeded down to the very edge of the waters of Kagbhushandi Taal and then over across the steep contours of the mound to the south. The view beyond opened up into a huge bowl of a valley. Further south a wall of high ridges blocked the way.

Seeing this on Google Earth I had earlier charted a possible route along the riverside down the South West. Subhan, Kundu and few porters were well ahead of us. Vinod and Jaisingh, new in the area were leading us across the mountain face locating distant cairn marks. Till then I was thinking that the route was across a n easy looking pass to the South East. However, all doubts were put to rest when Subhan said it over the radio.

“Sir, woh samne raha pass.”

“Kaun sa Subhan ? Woh bayen wala? Jo boulders dikh rahe hain?” I asked to clarify.

“Woh nahin Sir, yeh pass cross karna hai. Dahine wala..jo wall dikh raha hai”.

What happened after that is narrated as the opening scene of this article. We were stunned for a moment looking at the obstacle. It was forbidding in the strictest sense- The Barmai Pass.


This must be one reason why not too many successful accounts one reads of about the crossover to the lake from Joshimath and back. There is this most imposing wall of a pass that stands in between the leading ridge to Joshimath and the emerald lake.

Few hours later, marveling at the 360-degree view around we looked down into the other side of the watershed. While the climb up to the pass was a struggle in powdery, unstable snow, the other side looked frustratingly boulder-strewn. No one amongst us liked the remembrance of the toil of the previous day. However, a camp had to be reached, before sundown.

“Mera jute ne dhokha de diya dada” said Bharat, he wasn’t looking too happy with the experience of treading through powdery snow on that 60 degree slope.

This time around we waited for Kundu to reach the top at 1600 hrs and later proceeded down together. I also recall, quite fondly if I might add, the animated conversation Arun and Bharat had with some lady friend ( the GSM phones were suddenly detecting telecom traffic once we were atop the Barmai pass) and how Bharat forgot the name of his tent-mate Arun while handing over the phone.


The camp that night was on an ideal camping ground, the Upper Barmai camping ground. The campsite is in a deep recess with an absolutely flat ground. To the west, a deep valley leads forth. One of the senior porters showed us the deep gully coming down from the ridge to the south. That was the alternate route to Barmai Pass. It is a decent route for one or two people. But for a team of 20, it is like inviting disaster. We were happy with our decision.
The campfire was with freshly cut Juniper bushes. With the fragrance of the Juniper hanging on our jackets we retired into our sleeping bags early that night. Enough of struggle and surprises for one day!!

Day 6- Upper Barmai Camping Ground- Pharsawan Bank- Vishnu Prayag (20 Kms)


It was evident from the location, the previous evening, that the Sun would break late at the campsite. It is in fact located in a deep recess, much far down the contours of the mountainous ground around. Having finished our morning chores early, in the chilling shade of the surrounding mountains, we were off for the day’s hike by 800 Hrs.

As an interesting aside, Arun Negi reported of a stubborn bird that teased him all the way through his process of ablution. While Arun was in a sensitive and vulnerable posture (squatting on the rocks J) the bird would start calling out and stop the moment Arun turned around with much effort at balancing. We named it “Shaitani Chidiya” -The impish bird.

As usual, Subhan and Kundu had left early. After his tough experience with Jaisingh on the day of Kankul crossing, Kundu now preferred Subhan as his lead. Today we had to reach a hilltop, Pharsawan Bank, due South West. One expected to get a well-constructed Chhe Phuti after that, leading all the way down to Joshimath.

After bit of confusion in the route ahead, we finally hit a proper trail and were on the Hill top of Pharsawan Bainak ( I am yet not sure about the name, whether it is Pharsawan Bank or Binayak or Bainak- Bank would mean a glacier, there is none. Binayak would indicate a Ganesha temple, there are some deities in the little stone temples at the top, but none of Ganesha)by 1000 Hrs. Altitude reading: 4215 Mtrs.


Kundu, Rajesh and I were there almost at the same time. After a brief talk, Kundu left and we waited on enjoying the sprawling view of the Alakananda Valley with Auli and Gairson Bugyal directly ahead. One could see the white dots of the buildings detailing the Joshimath town. I wondered for a moment about the extent of descent. It is only then that I realized the challenge ahead for the day.

Assuming, the Alalknanda road-head at a minimum altitude of 1800 mtrs, we still had about 2400 mtrs of descent to do!! (It later turned out that, Vishnuprayag was, in fact, at 1600 mtrs and the total descent from Pharsawan- 2600 mtrs).

The entire troupe regrouped there by 1100 Hours. During the short stopover there, Dalbir sustained some bloody injury on his forehead. In the usual lively banter amongst the porters he had rolled down over and hit his head on a jagged stone. The crisis was quickly attended to with state of the art first aid from our medicine chest. A brief photo session thereafter it was time to start the Grand Descent.

And Boy! Was it a descent? It was the Mother of all descents I have seen in my life.!! The route undulated up and down (but generally down) till we crossed two small passes (in fact, transverse high spurs along a North- South ridge that led all the way down south).

After the second high point, there was a sharp descent of about 400 mtrs ending at a trough on the ridgeline. After reaching there we saw another gigantic descent down on the other side of the ridge. The muscles in the thigh and the calf were already protesting when we looked down at the tiny Painkha village form that high vantage point. This place was called Jabar Kharak. The first camping site if we were to attempt this route from the Joshimath side.

“Paani hai?” some one enquired. We looked at each other and were to our own thoughts for a while. We were running short of drinking water yet again.

“Jaisingh aur Praveen aage jayenge aur Paani ke pass rukenge”- Vinod said. The dreadful descent ahead of us, we trode on the path ahead, with parched throats- our minds singularly focused on getting some water.

 
We lost the count of the number of hairpin bends we negotiated. What I remember is the several near-falls I had, my shoes slipping on the thick foliage, which sometimes blocked and sometimes carpeted our track. Shahid was just ahead of me, desperately searching for water and a leveled patch of ground where he could offer his Afternoon –Friday prayers. But he would have no such luck.

Finally, the good news came around 1400 when Praveen informed the team that they have found water.

“Paani mil gaya sir.” – said Praveen over the radio

“Kahan mila, Gaon pahunch gaye?” I asked.

“Nahin sir, Gaon to nahin hai. Yahan jungle ke andar Paani ka dhar mil gaya. ” he informed.

That’s the only place we have rested during the descent. After some quick refueling of water Shahid, Rajesh and I started off again. There was a bit of confusion in the route ahead. But soon we hit a Chhe Phuti trail and we were at Painkha village by 1530 Hrs.

The village wasn’t as deserted as it was in the Laxman Ganga valley. The village was well inhabited and was looking in good economic health; probably because of the proximity to the Joshimath town.

From now on, the trail became a concrete track- much more defined and sure; but a tad difficult to walk on. The speed became faster as the black line defining the national highway loomed into view. I was at the road-head by 1630. Rajesh, Shahid and Bharat arrived within the next hour. Phew!! The final calculation showed a total descent of 2630 Mtrs. My biggest descent so far! Never ever in my life have I descended 2630 meters in one go in a single day.

There was news from the top, that Kundu is unwell and might have to be rested at Painkha village at night. None of us liked the idea. A horse owner was found hastily at Vishnuprayag and his horse was pressed into service to retrieve Kundu till road-head.

Bisht, the faithful mountain driver was waiting with his Mahindra Commander. Two ferries of his vehicle were required to evacuate the entire team, luggage and equipment to Hotel Trishul at Joshimath.

Waiting for the quorum to build for the first ferry, we witnessed the most majestic view of a family of Himalayan Thar on the right bank of Alaknanda. A whole family of Thar was grazing, the calves cavorting and the bull and the cow desperately herding them in. The Thar is an interesting cross between a wild boar and a goat and an Ibex. It is powerful yet agile. The spectacle lasted for a good half an hour.

By the time, the second ferry of the Mahindra Commander arrived at the hotel it was 1900 already. A celebratory party was hastily organized for we had to leave early next morning. Rajesh ruled the roost that evening, recalling and narrating and re-living interesting moments of the week gone by.

Saying Bye Bye…
As usual, the Mountain gifted. Yet again, not just the elevating experience but also another bunch of dear friends. As it happens always, one is tied together initially by a common purpose. The extreme life on the mountains however, lets one discover several aspects common and aspired in each other and you become friends for life, without even realizing. It was like going back to college days, in the company of these sprightly young-men (Rajesh looked younger than them all in bearing and demeanor as well). The drive back to Delhi was relatively more continuous and less time taking. After a 16-hour marathon we were back in the city well before midnight.


Apart from the team (diverse, jolly, fit and tightly knit), the trek stood out for a few more points worth remembering. The time of attempt of the route, the exploration of the glacier & Haathi Taal and the 2600 mtrs descent were all unique in their own way. Not a single soul, or an animal was sighted for better part of the way and when it was time to sight one, it was a whole family of the rare Himalayan Thar. The virginity of the route was abundantly evident the moment we headed East into the Haathi Parvat valley.

What remained, as a nagging thought, was the omniscient scarcity of water. The streams were thin and the nullahs dry. The relatively fresh moraines near glaciers indicated some fast recession. The lovely stream bed of Barmai Camping ground looked like a cobbled street.

Probably, there just wasn’t enough glacier ice to provide the melt water. The Kagbhushandi Gaad was without water. During the long descent in the last day, during that desperate hunt for water, we did cross several streams. But all of them bone dry. The entire mountainside drained into but a small stream, carrying about four faucet-full of water! Observe keenly, and it points at the dying throes of an already-fragile ecosystem.

What tragedy! Here is the highest landmass of the world, many nooks and crannies yet undiscovered and unexplored. Here is the third highest freshwater reserve in the planet (apart from the two poles) that has fed some of the fiercest and mightiest of the rivers. Yet it dies before our very eyes. Withering away slowly, even before being seen completely.

*******************************************************
The Captioned Album of the team’s Pictures at

Expedition Airaavat

Facebook Albums

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The Interested might wish to see some of the excerpts of team DVD at
 

[Published under the author’s permission ]     

[ Original publication at www.snowscapes.blogspot.com on January 23, 2010–the readers are requested to express their comments on the original Blog as mentioned above ]

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Valley of Flowers: A Day in The Valley

Garhwal Route covered:
Delhi
HaridwarRishikesh – Devprayag – Srinagar – Rudraprayag – Karnaprayag – Nandprayag – ChamoliPipalkoti JoshimathAuli GovindghatGhangaria
Valley of Flowers


 

“In my mountain wandering I have not seen
a more beautiful valley than this…
this valley of peace and perfect beauty
where the human spirit may find repose.”
– Frank Smythe

Thanks to Google

It is almost ten months since I have returned from the Valley of Flowers. As I go around grinding through my daily life far away in another country, I have a charming place called the Valley of Flowers to think about, and am delighted to have had a chance to be there.

I’ve heard from a few visitors to the Valley that it is not as beautiful as they expected it to be. I beg to differ. Perhaps it is not difficult to please me when it comes to beauty and romance of nature.

To get a better idea of how and where I’ve reached so far, you may wish to read my Introductory Post and subsequent posts on my journey through high-altitude western Himalayan towns of Govindghat and the trek to Ghangaria.

After ascending 14 kms from Govindghat to Ghangaria, it is then mostly an uphill trek of about 4 kms to reach the Valley of Flowers. From the entrance, trekkers can explore another 3-4 km of the marked trail out of the 20 square kms of the Valley. Camping in the Valley is forbidden, so the return journey to Ghangaria, the base camp, must be done the same day.

Here’s my account of my trek to the Valley of Flowers describing how the countless images of the grandeur of the majestic mountains and the Valley of Flowers have left an indelible mark on my mind. I must add this is just an attempt for, as Helen Keller said: The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen, described or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.

~~~

It is a cold and cloudy morning in Ghangaria. Packing some nuts and raisins in my daypack, I have a quick breakfast at a tiny restaurant and in reduced visibility through the mist, I set out to the Valley of Flowers. It begins to drizzle lightly and the raincoat I bought in Govindghat becomes useful again.

A few meters away from Ghangaria, the trek path bifurcates: the one on right leads to Hemkund Sahib where most of the people passing through Ghangaria head to, and fortunately for me today, it is the path to the left. At the entrance gate of the Nanda Devi National Park, there are three friendly government officials who appear pleased to see us. I guess after watching most of the visitors to Ghangaria trudging towards Hemkund on the right, they must be glad to find at least a few nature lovers heading towards their route. After a quick registration and payment of nominal fee at the check-post, I begin the ascent to the Valley of Flowers.

Soon, I cross a make shift bridge through a stream and as I continue ascending, at each turning, I see before me magnificent mountains and low clouds hovering around their peaks.

Climb to the Valley of Flowers

In the deep ravine, the roar of the River Pushpavathi can be heard. I glance back and stop to espy the beautiful mountain town of Ghangaria from a height. I know there is no chance for exhaustion on this beautiful route.

Continuing the climb, I get closer to the River Pushpavati flowing. A short descent and I cross a bridge over the gushing waters. Then the steep ascent begins. Before long, I chance upon a remnant of a fascinating Himalayan glacier. It reminds me of a decorated cake with its icing.

Part of the glacier

As I continue ambling, I find myself on a wide shelf littered with boulders. I come across a bunch of creamy yellow fungi. They seem to be reveling in the warmth of a niche in the rocks. Other rare plants flourish on these mountains. There seems to be enough nutrients in the soil of the meadow for their sustenance.

I clamber on and stop to admire a Bhojpatra tree, and think about how its bark was used in ancient times to write on. I can recognize sal and birch, and a variety of magnolia and rhododendrons among the rich vegetation. A bird darts in and out of the trees before I am able to identify it. At one spot, I come across a swarm of butterflies, and stand spellbound watching a kaleidoscope of colour fluttering around.

Very different from the bridle path to reach Ghangaria, the path leading to Valley of Flowers is free from pilgrims, guides, porters, tents, shacks, animals and dung. Unlittered and natural, the path does not show signs of abuse and has a fragrance of freshness.

I come across very few trekkers. There are two couples from Mumbai and a few more in a small group. I can’t quite describe the awesome feeling of having the entire surrounding mountains to self amongst magnificent landscape in the quietude of nature.

At the entrance of the Valley

It drizzles again and then follows the sun peeping through the clouds unexpectedly. Through the rest of the day the pattern continues: following sunlight, intermittent drizzle, mist, and more precipitation. The misty mountains through the sun rays give me glimpses of the enchanting beauty around. The continuous change in the intensity of light at that height is enthralling.

Valley view and cloud covered peaks

At every turning, there is a new surprise. The sight of the snow clad peaks particularly make my heart leap with joy. The cascading waterfalls is a sight to behold. At certain places, the path is narrow, and slippery. I see a few locals working at a spot where there has been a recent landslide because of rains. Nodding heads in acknowledgment, exchanging smiles and accepting a few word of advice from them to be cautious and to ensure an early return, I proceed further.

The treacherous path at a few spots is kinda scary. I think to myself that no one would ever find out if ever I miss my step, and fall in the deep gorge. It would then be a case of “one blunder, and six feet under.” Oh the latter, only if the body can ever be retrieved! Twice, I take help of my hands and walk on fours for a couple of metres, and feel that time like I am doing a Jane Fonda workout for pregnant women!

Part of the trek path

Yet through it all, I enjoy myself. I guess am now so hooked to mountains and trekking that these days when I hear the name “Hillary” I think of Edmund though he is long dead and gone, rather than Mrs. Clinton and white house scandals.

I continue trudging the final ascent to reach the entrance to the Valley. A variety of flowers, dominated by pink and purple Balsam fill to the brim on either side of the narrow trek path. I reach the entrance and look up, and stop abruptly, speechless at the breathtaking sight! I hear my fellow trekker gasp and whisper, “It’s heavenly!”

Rataban peak

Picturesque mountain landscape of rich vegetation with the ephemeral clouds wrapping the mountain tops is an amazing sight. The mountains are of different shades of green, some bare and the peaks of ones at a distance, snow-clad. Within the Valley itself there are different smaller valleys. Streams of water flow right down into the River below. There are areas of treeless green meadows which are as charming as the wooded areas.

Treeless meadows

Hundreds of species of wild flowers are everywhere and these fields in the misty mountains has a mesmerizing effect on me. No matter how carefully I walk along the narrow path, a few sadly get crushed under my feet. Wild buttercups, Himalayan Knotweeds, Gentians, Rhodiolas, wild daisies, and from what I recognize, varieties of Campanula, lilies (also cobra lilies), milk parsleys, primulas, potentillas and balsam are found aplenty. I recall reading the Blue Himalayan Poppy and Brahm Kamal are rare species found only at these great heights.

Himalayan Blue Poppy (Meconopsis species)
(this picture shot on the way to Hemkund next day)

I feel sheer joy amidst the variety of flowers in the enchanting Valley. Time flies in the resplendent fields of wildflowers. I watch the snow clad Rataban peak and the gleaming Nilgiri Parbat posing majestically in the distance.

Wildflowers

As I head towards the grave of Margaret Legge, the botanist who fell to her death in the Valley while collecting plant specimens, I glance back and see the trekkers from Mumbai returning to Ghangaria right from the entrance of the Valley.

Grave of Joan Margaret Legge

Nearing the grave, before crossing a stream of clear gushing waters, I sit down on a small stone at first and then I get an urge to lie down on a small patch of grass. Initially I stretch, face upwards, and watch the sky scattered with indolent clouds. Cool breeze blows. When the sunlight gets into my eyes, I turn my face sideways and see a field of flowers: Primula, Potentillas, Geraniums, Campions, Bellflowers, Rhubarbs, Whorlflowers, Balsam, and a variety of other flowers, some quivering and others gracefully swaying in the cool breeze.

Wildflowers swaying in the Valley

The picture of the Valley with its scenery of the mist on the trail, the sea of flowers, melting glaciers, streams with gushing waters, green meadows, snow-clad mountains and their peaks looming against the horizon is aesthetically stimulating. It permanently etches a deep impression on my mind. The beauty and serenity of the place captures me in a spell. I am completely connected with the surroundings. I feel then every bit of effort that I took to get to the top is well worth the endeavour and the weary feet.

The Valley and the flowers

It is now time to get back, and I remember Ruskin Bond’s words:

…the infinity of mountains, the feeling of
space – limitless space – can only be
experienced by living in the mountains…

Though I feel like staying there forever I have to return now for I am hungry. As camping in the Valley of Flowers is prohibited I have to reach the base camp before sunset. I make my return journey, stopping often on my tracks, gazing at the magnificent mountains, absorbing in its beauty and finally descend from over 12,000 feet above sea level to Ghangaria.

~~~

At twilight that evening over cups of tea with another trekker in a tiny roadside restaurant in Ghangaria, there was more silence, than talk.

“I’ve never felt anything have such a powerful impression on my psyche,” I said.

“Mine too,” was the solemn response.
~~~


Previous Related Posts:

If you like this post, and wish to check out more photographs of the trek to the Valley of Flowers, click here.

 

[ Published under the author’s permission ]  

[ Original publication at http://indicaspecies.blogspot.com/ on June 05, 2009–the readers are requested to express their comments on the original Blog as mentioned above ]

Valley of Flowers: The Approach

 

Route covered so far:
DelhiHaridwarRishikesh – Devprayag – Srinagar – Rudraprayag – Karnaprayag – Nandprayag – ChamoliPipalkoti JoshimathAuli GovindghatGhangaria


Govindghat to Ghangaria:

One kilometer away from Govindghat’s main road, the zigzag mule track begins at Pulna and I notice it has a mark of being 13 kms away from Ghangaria. Journeying from Govindghat Ghangaria would mean an ascent of 1,220 metres (over 4,000 feet).

It is past 11:30 am. Filled with enthusiasm, I am so enamored with the beauty of the place that, save for a brief stop by at a roadside kiosk to buy a plastic raincoat, I begin the trek right away. The raincoat came of use as it kept drizzling on and off during the rest of the journey. Though it is cool, the looming noon sun beats down on me mercilessly, and makes me wish I had begun the trek early that morning. But then I take solace in the fact that I had a glorious time during my overnight stay at Auli.

I trek relatively easy carrying my backpack for the first two hours during which I ascend about 400 metres or so. At one point, during a steep climb, I suddenly realize that I’ve got to ascend more than 800 metres for the day and then begin to acutely feel the strain of the weight of my backpack. Then I recalled Murphy’s law that backpack strap width decreases with distance hiked. To compound that, I feel its weight miraculously kept increasing. Not just that, as if it is meant to ease my woes, its weight load kept migrating up and down my back as I continue walking. I felt at that time that 80% of its contents could have been left behind at home, but then who knows, the 20% left behind might be just what I need.

Mountain Village

Jokes aside, my backpack weighed about 7 kilograms and on hindsight, had I known that it was nothing but an upward incline all the way, even for that little weight, I’d have taken the help of one of the porters right from Govindghat itself. After trekking for 3-4 kms, I cross the beautiful Bhuyundar village, a cluster of modest houses with the backdrop of misty mountains. I chance upon a porter – who was to charge me only Rs 200 or so to carry it up to Ghangaria – and toss my backpack at him with relief. Thereafter my ascent gets easier and I am comparatively more relaxed to enjoy the rest of the journey.

Pilgrims on animals

For those who are not in the mood for trekking, there’s a choice of hiring an animal. For that matter, there are crudely assembled palanquins available for the benefit of the faint hearted (pilgrims mostly, as I believe hikers are tough); and to carry children, also pittoos. Pittoos, porters of mostly Nepali origin, carry kids of the pilgrims in cane-woven baskets on their backs.

A pilgrim being carried on a palanquin

Whether a mule is hired, or a palanquin or a pittoo, one ought to be ready to balance well, because those paths can be treacherous at times. I’d strongly suggest to trek, and enjoy the opportunity to stop at free will to absorb in the splendor and beauty of bountiful nature. It is definitely worthwhile trekking at one’s own pace to soak in the beautiful Himalayan experience.

I come across many pilgrims on their way to or returning from Hemkund Sahib. When compared, trekkers going to or returning from the Valley of Flowers are far and few. The path is, at places, strewn with mule dung. I often hear the pilgrims chanting ‘Waahe Guru’ when able to spare a breath; some of them filling palms of climbers with glucose, toffees, and to those who need it, words of encouragement to egg on. Little do they know that I am one of the few on my way to the Valley of Flowers, not Hemkund, where most seem to be obviously heading. I am quite surprised to see some of these pilgrims undertaking the arduous journey barefeet! But then I often feel the power and strength of religious sentiments is beyond my comprehension.

Brahma Kamal, a rare Himalayan plant
(it was misty when I shot this picture)

I stop often to admire the exotic flora and the many spots of cascading waterfalls from the great heights into the valley before joining the roaring waters of the flowing Lakshman Ganga. The river flows almost parallel to the trek path and gives me company most of the way. The long journey is a bit tiring but beautiful all the way.

River Lakshman Ganga flows

Twice, I take tea-breaks at shacks during the 7 hours trek. I watch pilgrims looking dreamy through the mist plodding along the steep trek path, wearing colorful raincoats. Both times, I choose a spot that has the River Lakshman Ganga running close to the shacks. The effect of the gurgling river has a soothing effect. The marvelous feeling of sipping tea in such surroundings is something that I can’t experience even in 5-star surroundings.

I continue trudging along. Tired towards the end, the journey of the last 2-3 kms only gets more steep but there is no time to rest my weary feet as I am intent on reaching Ghangaria before sunset. Then I come across a helipad area, and a cluster of tents. I know from what I had read online that this is an indication that I have almost reached.

Approaching Ghangaria

Finally after 6 pm, I am glad to reach Ghangaria. Being a base for hikers and pilgrims going to either Valley of Flowers or Hemkund, I find the place is crowded for mountain dwelling standards. I intend to stay at the GMVN accommodation, though fully aware of an unsuccessful attempt at making an advance reservation with them. Their website stating booking can be made only 3 days in advance was also of little help as I had left on my journey by then. As I head towards the GMVN quarters, I notice a major part of their building gutted by fire. Upon inquiries, I learn that their remaining wing is fully booked as their dormitory was destroyed by fire. I sincerely hope it is not a case of arson at this great height in the Himalayas!

The sun having set now, I scout around and fortunately find a damp-walled but tidy lodge with clean attached bathroom and promptly check into it. It is getting dark, and the mist enveloping the area gives me little idea initially of how actually the place looks like.

In the twilight, at one point, I watch the fog clearing up and voila..I see before me just a few feet away from the lodge a huge mountain side, like a tall wall looming right in front of me. I feel it real close like a spectacular wallpaper on my PC monitor but this is real and beautiful nature! It is an exhilarating experience spending time in the midst of these towering peaks some of which are at a height of more than 20,000 feet above sea level.

Ghangaria from a height

I cover up well to protect from the freezing weather to go out for some early dinner in anticipation of having an early night in Ghangaria. I am just one night away from the day that was to dawn when I would be in the Valley of Flowers finally. With pleasant thoughts of anticipation of that day, I fall asleep.

“Towards the end, the mountains have appeared nearby,
yet not close enough not to be in awe of them.”

To be continued…

Previous Related Posts:

[ Published under the author’s permission ]   

[ Original publication at http://indicaspecies.blogspot.com/ on May 03, 2009–the readers are requested to express their comments on the original Blog as mentioned above ]

Valley of Flowers: Reaching Govindghat

Following my Introductory Post, I shall continue to write hereinafter some more posts on the details of my journey to the Valley of Flowers.
 
Map borrowed and modified
Route covered so far:
DelhiHaridwarRishikesh – Devprayag – Srinagar – Rudraprayag – Karnaprayag – Nandprayag – ChamoliPipalkoti JoshimathAuli Govindghat
 
I take a night train from Delhi to Haridwar. Haridwar early morning is enigmatic. Then I embark on an almost 300 kms journey up the mountains that includes a morning stroll and a tuk-tuk ride to Rishikesh and a long bus journey of almost 6 hours via Devprayag and Srinagar to Rudraprayag for an overnight stay in the Government-run GMVN hotel.

The next day, in a ‘sharing taxi’ the rest of the journey from Rudraprayag through scenic Himalayan landscape keeps me spellbound through Karnaprayag and Nandprayag – at the confluences of the beautiful mountain rivers. The tributaries of the Ganges River gives company most of the journey. Reaching Chamoli, and overcoming the landslide episode, I reach Joshimath and have the choice to continue up to Govindghat. But something within me opts to stopover at Auli.

Locals chatting up – a long range shot from moving cable car
 

 

That has been a good decision I must say for the awesome experience in Auli from the time I ascend to the place in a cable car till I return through the same ropeway next morning.
 

 

Auli at 5:35 am


 

The trekking day begins on a beautiful morning from Auli. The Nanda Devi National Park is about 20 kms away from Joshimath, from where the trek to the Park can begin. A ‘sharing jeep’ that squeezed in about 10 people from Joshimath covers a distance of 21 kms to Govindghat. At each turning I feel like pulling out my camera and shooting photographs. But give up on the thought of doing so from the moving vehicle and then simply begin to enjoy the passing mountain scenery and the cool breeze.
Reaching Govindghat
 

I reach Govindghat and sit down to have some maggi noodles and tea as I am soon to commence the first leg of my journey to the Valley of Flowers by foot. From the window of the tiny roadside restaurant I can see the mesmerizing views of the majestic mountain and it is surprising to see quite a few people in this small mountain town.

Govindghat
 
 I can see most of them are pilgrims who are either: going to or returning from the Hemkund Sahib, holy to the Sikh religion; or on their way to or from Badrinath, holy for Hindus. So Govindghat is an important junction for pilgrims of Hindu and Sikh religion. A minor road branches off as the roadhead towards Ghangaria, so it is an important point also for nature loving travellers like me heading to the Valley of Flowers.

Finishing tea, I walk the one kilometre stretch ambling through shops selling souvenirs, trekking gear, colourful warm clothing and a lot of fancy items to catch the eyes of tourists. I pass through the bridge under which the Alaknanda flows churning its waters into white foam.
 
View of Govindghat from a height
 

The rest of my plan for the day is to ascend a distance of 14 kms from Govindghat to Ghangaria to reach before sunset, and after a night’s rest to trek further right into the Valley of Flowers early next morning.

 
 
To be continued…

How to Reach Govindghat:


 
By Air: The nearest airport is the Jolly Grant Airport in Dehradun at a distance of approximately 270 kms.
By Rail: Rishikesh is the nearest Railway Station to Joshimath, which is at a distance of 250 kms connecting to all the major cities of India.
By Road: Govindghat can be reached via Joshimath which is well connected by surface network with Dehradun, Haridwar, Rishikesh and Nainital.
 
  

[ Published under the author’s permission ]  

[ Original publication at http://indicaspecies.blogspot.com/ on April 27, 2009–the readers are requested to express their comments on the original Blog as mentioned above ]

Valley of Flowers: Introduction

No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars or
sailed an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway
for the human spirit. – Helen Keller

1931.
July. Frank Smythe, a mountaineer, botanist, explorer, photographer, author, romantic and much else that he is, is returning from Kamet Peak expedition with his group. They lose their way and accidentally discover an enchanting valley in full bloom.

1937.
Overwhelmed by what he had seen six years back, Frank Smythe returns to the Valley and explores it extensively together with R. L. Holdsworth, another botanist.

1938.
Smythe writes a book and titles it “Valley of Flowers”. The Valley gets christened with the name. The book is published and the world comes to know of this natural wonder of about 90 sq km situated at a height of 3,342 m – 3,658 m (10 to 12,000 feet), with one of its peaks towering up to 6,675 m (21,899 feet) above main sea level.

1982.
The Valley of Flowers is declared a national park. Many restrictions are clamped on tourists. Camping is not allowed in the Valley. Collecting plants from the Valley is banned. Grazing of animals in the Valley is banned to protect some of the rare species of plants. (That there is a controversy on the latter decision is another matter.)

1988.
The Valley of Flowers is inscribed to be on the list of
World Heritage Site.

2005.
The Valley of Flowers, one of the seven natural sites, is added to the list of the UNESCO’s World Heritage Site.
I read on
BBC‘s In Pictures website about the Valley of Flowers getting the status of world heritage site. The more I read about the Valley of Flowers, the more fascinated I get. That day, I decide to visit the Valley someday for an up close and personal experience of the natural wonder.

2008.
Online, I outline plans with fellow travelers to meet up in Delhi and spend two weeks in
Garhwal, trekking right up to the Valley of Flowers. The time that I choose is July end as July-August is supposedly the best time when the Valley blooms in full abundance while through most of the year it sleeps in a thick blanket of snow.

To be continued…

[ Published under the author’s permission ]  

[ Original publication at http://indicaspecies.blogspot.com/ on April 22, 2009–the readers are requested to express their comments on the original Blog as mentioned above ]

 

Kalindi Khal Trek

 

On way to Kalindi Pass

On way to Kalindi Pass

 Looking Back – A Trek Within

 “Nothing needs to be impossible for you. After all man is six feet taller than the mountain he climbs. Only the will resolute has to be there” — commented J. B. Auden to Swami Probodhananda. Swamiji dreamt to trek to Badrinath from Gangotri across a high pass – Kalindi Khal and came to Auden to enquire about the route and Auden encouraged him with those words. That was 1939. Six years later in 1945, six Indian Sadhus (ascetic) led by Swamiji (five half-naked and one completely naked) embarked upon this difficult trekking expedition with Dileep Singh as guide. They crossed Kalindi Pass – the highest point (5948m), on 22nd July 1945 and eventually became the first Indian team to achieve that remarkable feat.

Standing on top of Kalindi Khal, 49 years after that remarkable feat, I was reflecting on those words of Auden. Probodhananda was in a team with five other ascetics – all of them were ill prepared but with determination, courage and dream in their eyes. I, similarly, was with five trekkers but well equipped, well guided and if I might add, well fed. However, the difficulty and the toughness of the trek was nonetheless, probably more so, because unlike them, we are only trekkers, not believers.

I was also thinking of the implication of Audens’ words. Are we really six feet taller than the mountain we climb? Figuratively yes; particularly when one is on the top. Till then a mad rush of adrenalin, a sense of achievement drives us. We had a job to do and damn well complete it. But as soon as one reaches the summit, one kneels and offers prayer, to whom I am not very sure; but an overwhelming sense of satisfaction and humility engulfs us and for a moment one is at peace with his surroundings – that charming and brute nature. Probably to this sense of achievement and peace we, even the hardcore atheist among us, offers that prayer. So, are we really six feet taller than the mountain we climb? It’s a difficult one to answer.

It all started with a casual discussion and soon we realized, some of us are passionate about this route – going to Badrinath from Gangotri across the Kalindi Khal. It is a quite difficult 99 kms trek that commences at Gangotri (3048 mts), passes through Gaumukh (3892 mts), Nandanban (4500 mts), Vasuki Tal (5300 mts), Kalindi Base (5590 mts), Kalindi Khal (5948 mts) and then descends to Arwa Tal (3980 mts), Ghastoli (3600 mts) and ends at Badrinath (3100 mts). The route passes through one of the most breathtaking mountainscape under the shadow of great peaks of Garhwal – Bhagirathi II, III & I, Shiblinga, Basuki, Chandraparbat, Satopanth and so on. On this trek one can experience all kinds of trekking, as the route goes over boulders, glaciers, scree, and snow.

So on a rainy evening of August 1995, after several transshipments due to landslide, we reached Uttarkashi and booked ourselves in a hotel near the bus stand. Now began the boring but essential work like booking HAP & LAP, purchasing & packing provision, getting inner line permit from the authority1 and we reached Gangotri on the evening of 21st August.

Ganga, the holiest Indian River, said to have descended from heaven at Gangotri. The legend may have some teeth. In the distance past, the snout of Gangotri glacier, the main source of the Ganga or the Bhagirathi – as it is called till Devprayag, was at Gangotri. According to some studies by the geologists of Garhwal University (published in the Telegraph on February 26, 2001), Gangotri glacier receded 850 meter in the last 25 years. They estimated that Gangorti glacier had receded 40 km since the last ice age.

I shudder to think what will happen in the next 100 years. Probably Gangotri glacier will disappear, so will Ganga*. The mighty river will be a dry riverbed. It happened. And that too in not so distant past — Saraswati River was lost. We need conservation measures in this part of the world and need it fast. To start with, may be a massive afforestation programme to cool the atmosphere.

Spending two days in Gangotri for packing and acclimatization, we were off to Bhujbasa in the early morning of 24th  August. The track goes through the right bank of Bhagirathi, the snow peak of Sudarshan beckoning. We had our launch under the shade of a Chir trees at Chirbasa.

By late afternoon, we were at Bhujbasa – so named for its abundance of Bhuj trees; but all gone now, indiscriminately cut down for fuel to supply hot meal and warmth to thousands of pilgrims and trekkers who visit Gaumukh every year. Next morning, we were at Gaumukh (the cows’ mouth) – considered by the Hindus as the holiest place on earth. Well, I am not very sure about the holiness of the place but the scenic beauty is spellbinding. Gaumukh surely resembles the open mouth of a cow but then several glaciers’ snouts are gaumukh, nothing unique in that; the uniqueness is its stunning splendor. Looming large in front of us was Bhagirathi group of peaks and on the right was Shiblinga. Water with chunks of ice floating on it, was gurgling out of the dark cave. Here silence, accentuated by the gurgling water, reigns supreme; reverence abounds.

But Gaumukh is not the only source of Bhagirathi, as has been described in the religious scriptures. It is only the visible source of Bhagirathi. Above Gaumukh, I have seen numerous rivulets in Gangotri and Raktabaran glacier, running a short distance and then diving under the glacier bed, flowing underneath and emerging together at Gaumukh. Surprisingly, Kalidas had an allusion of this in his great poetic piece (Kavya) “Meghadutam” when he describe Gangas’ descend from heaven, flowing down the matted locks of Lord Shiva in numerous streams.

1. At that time permission from DM Uttarkashi was necessary.

* A recent news item (dated 15.03.2005 published in “The Telegraph”), reported, quoting WWF, that Gangotri glacier is receding at an average rate of 23 meter/year.

Indian ascetics must have visited Gaumukh before the 19th century but there were no record of those visits. The first recorded visit of Gaumukh was on 31st May 1817 by John Hodgson and James Herbert and they said, “ A most wonderful scene, the Bhagirathi or Ganges issues from under a very low arch at the foot of the grand snow bed, the river here is bounded to the right and left by high snow and rocks, but in front the mass of snow is perfectly perpendicular, and from the bed of the summit we estimated the thickness a little less than 300 feet of solid frozen snow, probably accumulation of ages”. 2

But you cannot stop and admire the scenery forever. One has to move on and we too were off to Nandanban, our next camping site.

Till Gaumukh, it was a well-defined track. But now, we were hopping from one unstable boulder to another equally unstable boulder. Like wild horses that try to throw their riders, those damn boulders, as soon as one rides it, were becoming wild horses and trying their best to throw us off. One has to watch them carefully and constantly. The trick is to transfer ones’ weight to the next boulder before that under ones’ feet go. While dancing thus through the boulders, rocks, hurtling down the mountain-wall and the occasional landslides, greeted us. It was like a quite non-eventful (!) charming evening stroll in cool breeze, though a bit tiresome! Really!

Crossing the last ridge, almost on all fours, we reached Nandanban – a small grassy valley of exquisite beauty, literally surrounded by snow peaks – Bhagirathi II, III & I, Kedar-dome, Karchakunda, and Shiblinga. Blue, orange, yellow alpine flowers at full bloom break the carpeted green monotony. At a height of 4500 mts, Nandanban (3 kms in length and 1.5 in breadth) is very near to the heaven; so I christened it Eden. 40 years ago, Umaprasad Mukhopadhyay – a great Himalayan explorer and traveler, had described Nanandanban as such when he came here on his way to Badrinath across Kalindi Khal. We planned to spend the next two nights here for acclimatization.

The most stunning peak, dominating Nandanban, is undoubtedly Shiblinga. It is hard to believe, unless one sees it, that a 6540-meter peak would be so rocky, devoid of snow and that’s why climbing Shiblinga was very difficult and after a few unsuccessful attempts, only in June 1974 a team from the Indo-Tibetan police was successful. The peak has such a forceful presence. I do not understand why Shiblinga is called Matterhorn of east; instead we should rather call Mt. Matterhorn — the Shiblinga of west.

Two nights are big enough to accommodate some reflections. So I was thinking of those early expeditions in this area. It was on 20th July 1931 when J. Birnie achieved the first recorded crossing of Kalindi Pass from the Arwa valley and descended to Chaturangi valley. On 24th July he re-crossed the pass. Marco Pallis, in course of a survey, crossed Kalindi Khal and went to

2. A sketch of the Geography and Geology of the Himalayan Mountains and Tibet: Col, S. G. Burrard and H.H. Hayden.

Tibet in 1933. Next year, in 1934, Shipton and Tilman also crossed the pass. Gordon Osmaston did most of the survey work in this region in 1935-36. Chaturangi (four colours) glacier was named such by him “because it has moraines of four colours”3 – white, black, red and yellow.

On 15th august 1947, when India achieved its freedom, a team led by Andre Roch crossed Kalindi Khal and Tenzing Norgay was in that team.

On 23rd July 1963 Ms. Bhakti Biswas became the first women to cross Kalindi Khal and reach Badrinath from Gangotri. Her team was led by Swami Sundaranand and included, among others, her husband Dr. Mani Biswas and Umaprsad Mukhopadhyay.

Our next camp would be at Basuki Tal under the shadow of Basuki Peak. The track onwards, till Kalindi glacier, lies on the left lateral moraine of Chaturangi glacier, a 16 km long colourful glacier, which emerges from the foot of Mana mountain range and converges with the Gangotri glacier. Merger of many glaciers such as Khalipet, Basuki, Sundar, Suralaya and Sweta augments Chaturangi, on its downward journey.

Since expedition parties visit Basuki Tal on their way to mountain peaks, there was a faint track mark to follow. But the slow and constant movement of a glacier frequently changes the track. So we were trekking on a track with no track at all. Walking, as such, at a height of 5300 mts itself is tough and then to cross the last ascend before Basuki Tal, we had first to slide down on a stiff descend full of loose stone and scree. One step after another, careful et al, could not prevent that fall and I found myself rolling down. Lakhsmi, our team leader, ran down the slope overtaking me, anchored himself with his ice axe and caught me. I was too afraid to notice anything except that somebody grabbed me and stopped my fall. It has shaken me quite a bit and I was disoriented & distant for the rest of the evening. I recalled an Urdu couplet “Pasina maut ka mathe pe aaya. / Aaina lao. Ham gindegi ki aakhri tasbir dekhenge”. [Smell of death on (my) head. Bring (me) a mirror. I’d see the embodiment of life].

Next morning, as I stepped out of the tent, a deep blue cloudless sky greeted me. Its blueness turned Basuki Tal blue. The blue water reflecting the image of Basukis’ snow peak (6790 mts), its hood spread like the great Puranic Serpent –Basuki — guarding forever for unwarranted intrusion. Behind Basuki, on the SE, Satopanth (7070 mts) was peeping.

It was one of those perfect, ethereal mornings but the show must go on. So we climbed on to the left lateral moraine of Chaturangi glacier. Our next camp, on the Suralaya glacier is approximately 8 kms away. Measurement of distances is not very accurate in this part of the world. There were no mileposts!

3. Himalayan Journal: Vol: X.

 By early afternoon, I was sitting on a ridge, looking down to our campsite, where porters were busy putting up tents. On the SE I can see Chandra Parvat, first climbed by an Austro-German team led by Rudolf Schwargruber in 1938. I can also see Khalipet Bamak- a symbol of mans’ scarifies and courage.

We were trekking continuously, barring a day’s rest at Nandanban, for 5 days and for the last three days at an average altitude of 4500 mts plus which had taken its toll on all of us, particularly on Saha-da and me – the two older members of the team. I was feeling totally exhausted, almost unable to move. Lying in the tent alone, I was apprehensive. I may have to return, keeping my long lasting dream of crossing Kalindi to reach Badrinath, unfulfilled. Thoughts were flying through my mind and suddenly I recalled few lines from Richard Bachs’  “Illusions”, “You are never given a wish without also given the power to make it true. You may have to work for it, however.”

From Suralaya one could go straight to Kalindi base camp site but most of us were not fit even to cover this approximately 10 kms stretch in a day and crossing a fiercely flowing stream proved to be too time consuming. Our guide had to cut steps on an ice wall so that stepping on the last step we could reach to a narrow gap over the stream and then could jump over the ferociously flowing water, crossing over to the other side landing on a slippery boulder.  A miss and one could flow with the stream. Luckily no one slipped. We put up our camp near the confluence of Chaturangi and Kalindi glaciers.

 

Confluence of Kalindi, Sweta & Chaturangi glaciers

Tribeni-Sangam: Confluence of Kalindi, Sweta & Chaturangi glaciers

Next day saw us on Kalindi glacier moving like a zombie, crunching on hard ice, towards Kalindi base campsite. We were at 5500 mts; numb and dumb, moving through a sort of haze. Only the thought that we have to move forward kept us going. Though for the first time in my life I was moving over a wide ice field, crunching hard ice under my feet; somehow that sense of adventure, the surrounding beauty, were not registering in.  All I am interested was when I’d stop and take rest. Fortunately, all road ends. We reached Kalindi base.

Next morning, Mohan – our guide, was on fire. It is mandatory to start very early to cross any pass. But till eight we could not move. Everybody was somewhat down with some ailment, especially Dipak who passed blood in urine. A small portion of the ice patch, next to the camp, was red. In the early morning, Dipak urinated on it.

We were moving in a single line on the ice field, literary following Mohans’ footsteps – stepping on the imprint of his footsteps to avoid crevasses.  After few hours of hard toiling, snaking upward and upward with wobbling knees and bent waist, we could see Kalindi and Avalanche peak. After four hours of such punishing trek, we were on top of the pass.

After taking a few shots, suddenly I could not see a thing through the viewfinder of my camera. Must have kept the lens cap on, I thought. But the cap was off. I shoot with right eye. So to check, I shut my left eye and a black curtain fell — everything became black. I tested again and again in the vain hope that some miracle may occur and I will have my sight back. But miracle does not happen any more. It must be snow blindness and temporary, I thought. Later, eye surgeons at Kolkata diagnosed that I had a coronary thrombosis attack in both the eyes and numerous blood clots formed in the eyes blocking the vision in the right eye. It is only pure luck that vision of my left eye was not blocked. In that case, I’d have been completely blind at a height of 19510 feet with at least three days march from the nearest civilization.

on-top-of-passOn Top Of Kalindi Pass

Well, reaching Kolkata and knowing what happened, I realized that I was extremely lucky but at that time, I was shaky, miserable and disoriented — full of apprehensions.

As we started to descend, the visibility dropped to 10 feet. It was a white out. We were paying dearly for the late start. Everybody was madly scampering down and suddenly with a great shake, I found myself drowning in snow; that harbinger of death was slowly swallowing me and I could not find anything under my dangling feet.

I am in a crevasse.

The realization paralyzed me. Despite the cold, I was sweating. The rucksack was preventing me from going completely under. In no time, the white death came up to my chest. At this time, Heera and Chadramohan – two of our porters, came running and pulled me out. I could not stand. I just lay down on the ice field oblivious of anything. Next our leader fell, followed by Mohan. Luckily, we could pull everybody out. It became a mad scramble to run down the snowfield. Visibility came down to almost zero. For the last few days, we were utterly fed up with boulders but now we were desperate to reach any rock band. Rocks are faithful — at least you know where you are stepping. Utterly exhausted, on the point of collapse, we reached Rajparab – the camping site. Rest of the evening and the night passed under a kind of haze.

Next morning, everybody woke late. As I came out of the tent, a few raindrops greeted me. It was one of those mornings, hazy, cloudy with chances of a few drizzles. Though not visible from the campsite but I still can visualize the pass and with it came the realization – we have crossed the pass – that sweet, heady feeling of achievement.

And this is where we erred. This heady feeling of achievement brought in a false sense of pride and security and to reach Ghastoli, the same day, we tried to cover a distance of 25 kms that too in the Arwa valley. So far, we have not attempted to cover such a long distance in a day and in this case, it is almost impossible owing to the extremely difficult terrain of Arwa valley. Even frank Smythe admitted this in his “ Valley of Flowers” while crossing Arwa valley: “ But I for one was in a thoroughly bad temper. Perhaps the stones had something to do with this, for nothing is more trying to the temper than a day spent pounding over loose stones”.  “Thoroughly bad temper” – well, understatement of the century. We should have done our homework properly before setting up such an unrealistic target.

But we had a compulsion too – to take Dipak to the ITBP camp at Ghastoli, which may offer some kind of medical help. So Mohan, Dipak and another member took off early; we were to follow. Bachchan- our cook, who has earlier traversed the route once, would be our guide for the day.

Trekking the whole day pounding boulders after boulders, under constant drizzle, without any solid food, soaked to the bone, we could not reach Ghastoli. At the end of the day with darkness falling, we realized, we were lost amidst boulders and scree. Our tents and entire provisions were gone with the porters who were somewhere far ahead of us. Where? No body had any idea. We — four members and Bachchan, our faithful but worthless guide, were stranded in a no-mans’ land somewhere in the Arwa valley and did not have the foggiest idea where we were. Still we moved ahead under torchlight but soon it became apparent that this was a suicidal effort. So we stopped in front of a small cave, which can hardly accommodate three.

We spent the night in that cave, in drench cloth, sharing four sleeping bags and with empty stomachs that rumbled through out the night. We lost all hope. We were too tired to think straight and spent the night in a stupor.

The drizzle continued in the next morning; but we had no alternative but to move ahead. Somewhere ahead lays Ghastoli – our salvation. But let alone trekking, standing upright was hardly possible. We had not eaten for the last 24 hours and the strain and the tension had sapped our resolve. So, instead of walking, we were literally crawling in a daze climbing over one hump, sliding down and then again climbing over the next hump. We became oblivious of pain and though we were slipping, falling and cutting ourselves, we were still moving ahead. A dull feeling of constant pain took over my body long back and any aggravation simply did not registered.

Suddenly, through the haze I saw somebody coming our way. It was Heera, our most able porter and behind him Mohan was running down a ridge, followed by two people in uniform. Shouting out Heeras’ name, I could only cry. We embraced each other, crying, like there would be no tomorrow. The two people accompanying them were soldiers of ITBP. They had brought food and hot tea.

Oh! Life is so beautiful!

Mohan informed, even the porters could not reach Ghastoli. They camped near Ghastoli, on the other side of the Saraswati River and waited whole of the night for us – in vain. When we did not reach even in the morning, they reported the matter to Major Subedar Mr. Puri – the in-charge of the ITBP camp and he immediately sent the rescue party to look for us. Experienced Mr. Puri knew we’d badly need some food and hot drink.

We had a rousing reception in the ITBP camp and a separate big aluminium tent was allotted to us. It had some wooden cots. After many days we did not have stone under our bed and blissful sleep followed aided by a few tin of meat – a gift from ITBP.

Small things of life, which one is used to and took for granted – a wooden cot to lay, a few pieces of meat and fish to eat, (I am a Bengali and love fish) assumes significance only when one is deprived of those.

The rest was easy going. As we near Mana village, I could see the crest of the Badrinath temple in the distance. Saha-da, our eldest member at 52 years, asked me, “Tell me Chakrabarti since you are the philosopher type; despite enduring such pain, such exhaustion, why did we come in the first place.”

I could not answer. But it kept coming back like the proverbial phoenix. On the bank of Satopanth Tal I had once asked the same question to my silent ascetic. He was under a vow of silence, so he took up a pen to answer. But instead of a straight reply he shot back the same question and I replied simply, “to see the beauty around and to feel the eerie thrill.” He smiled and wrote, “me too; but also to see the beauty within and to feel the ethereal excitement.” Well, that sounded too theological to me. I’d rather recall few lines from a poem of my favourite Bengali poet, Jibanananda Das, “Babylone eka eka emni hnetechhi aami rater bhitar/ keno jano; aajo ammi janinako hazar hazar byasta bachharer par.” [I have walked in Babylon through the night, alone/ why so; I don’t know, (even) after thousands of busy years]. The journey never really ends. The aim is not to reach but to move on and on. Upanishad pronounces, “ Charan bai madhu bindati/ charan swadu muduswayam/ surjasya pashya shremanang jo na/ tandrayate charan. Charaibati.” [Motion is the nectar. Motions’ gain is the nectar. Sun always moves. His light is incessant. (So) move on.]. Radha – the lover of Lord Krishna on falling in love with the eternal soul (Krishna), realized it and exclaimed in wonder: “Ghare jaite path mor haila a-furan” (my path to home has become unending). 

 

 

 

[ Published under the author’s permission ]

[ Original publication at http://charanik.wordpress.com in November, 2008–the readers are requested to express their comments on the original Blog as mentioned above ]

 

On the bank of Satopanth

 My Silent Ascetic

 

Satopanth Taal

Satopanth Taal

 

We ran into him on the bank of Satopanth Tal – a small triangular shaped glacial lake in the deep of the Himalaya at an altitude of 14320 feet. Satopanth, literally meaning the way to the truth, a sacred lake, described in the Skanda Puran said to be guarded by the Holy Trinity—Bramha, Bishnu and Maheswar (Shiva) . At the foot of Chaukhamba group of peaks, the lake is very difficult to accessible and well protected from the casual forays of the naïve travelers. High ridges and treacherous glaciers surround it leaving only one route of access that too over razor-sharp ridges and perilous broken glaciers. Every time the trekker had a fall or is faced with a landslide and there is no escape from those, he would desperately want to run back to the safety of the Badrinath valley – amidst familiar sights and sounds, into the warmth and safety of a bed. But after traversing a considerable distance and spending one night under an overhang (a jutting rock from the mountain wall), when ultimately we comprehended the danger fully; there were simply no point in returning. To do so, we had to cross that killing field again. So we simply marched on.

Naturally, at such a godforsaken place, in the middle of nowhere, miles away from the nearest habitation, in the lap of legends and harsh reality, we least expected anyone and definitely not a half naked ascetic.

Walking for around ten hours per day over the most difficult and dangerous terrain that too for two full days and in the process almost killing ourselves, we had reached the lake. As we dragged our half dead body over the last ridge and descended on to the bank of the lake, he came out of a nearby cave with a reassuring welcome smile as if he was expecting us for a long time; holding two steaming cup (actually two coconut shells) of scented tea. He must have seen us coming down the ridge and rightly guessed; we need some hot beverage badly. The first thing that strikes one about him was his average demeanor. He was of average height, average built — with a common face.  Apart from the unkempt long beard and the moustache, there was nothing striking about him. But instinctively one feels, there were more to that deceptive appearance, as if, he was deliberately trying to keep an ordinary and low profile.

I looked closely and realized that I am looking at the most striking pair of eyes that I have ever seen. It is not the eyes itself, which were rather small but the gaze that was coming out of those eyes– full of so much compassion. It caressed me so gently and some thing ruptured inside me. I felt like crying.

Though the temperature around here was near freezing point, he was wearing a small dhoti that only fell up to his knees; the torso was exposed to the elements and his skin was burnt deep brown (at this height sunrays plays havoc with the skin). Through the long beard and moustache his white teeth flashes every time he smiles and he smiles a lot. His small and lithe body looked exceptionally fit. I had so many questions for him wailing to burst out that I was momentarily lost for word. Seeing my amazement, which must have been dangling like a red flag, he gesticulated to let me know that he would not speak; he had taken a vow of silence. That must be the proverbial last straw on the camels’ back. Seeing me crest fallen, he gave me that dazzling smile again and signaled me to rest for a while. Yes, we badly needed some rest.

As we took possession of the two nearby vacant caves– the big one for us and the small one for our guide and the porter, he went into his cave to prepare our meal. Silently, he has taken the control by allowing us to stay and by accepting us as his guest. But where from he gets his ration! The thought haunted me for the rest of the day. The Shepard of Mana (last village near Badrinath on the Indo-Tibet border) must have been supplying him with the ration on their forays into the valleys around the lake but that’s must be very occasional. Nobody would take the huge risk to come here regularly. Food is the most precious commodity here and he offering to feed us, four healthy young men, from his precious store without even batting an eyelid!

It is so frustrating when one has so many questions and no answers.

We had no prior plan to visit Satopanth Lake. We came to Badrinath for the relatively easy and well- known trek to the Valley of Flower and Hemkunda Saheb – the pilgrim centre of the Sikh. But fate had something else for us. In Badrinth we were staying in Balananda Ashram where we met Swami Darshanananda, the in-charge of the Ashram – a sort of hotel in the guise of a Dharamshala. One evening sitting snugly in his room, we were discussing the commercialization of religion and the profusion of Dosa and Chana Batora shops in Badrinath and lamenting the loss of those quiet and peaceful religiously significant places where one can spend some time meditating or just chilling; Darshananandaji gave me a long searching look and suggested that I visit Satopanth.  Though I have read about the Satopanth Lake but had not the foggiest idea how to reach it or how many days it will take us to reach, where were the paraos(the places for night rest)– these are a ‘must- know’ on any trekking expedition. Darshananandaji assured us that he would take care of everything and he did. He arranged the guide and a porter. Our newly appointed guide and porter bought our ration arranged a stove, kerosene and other essentials.

The lake, 25kms from Badrinath, could be reached after a difficult trek of two-day with night rest at Lakshmiban and Chakratirtha. Caves in those stopovers are used as the night shelter. Around Badrinath every place is steeped in legends so are Lakshmiban and Chakratirtha. It is said that goddess Lakshmi ( goddess of wealth)and her husband Narayan ( the preserver) meditated in Lakshmiban and Chakratirtha respectively and while meditating Narayan kept his famous Sudarshan Chraka on the valley which depressed by the weight of that Chakra to form a beautiful round shaped meadow surrounded by lofty mountains.

I really feel that the whole of Himalaya is not only made of stone and ice but also of legends and hearsays.

The route initially goes along the true right bank of the fiercely flowing Alakanada River. But instead of the right bank we mistakenly took the left bank – not that there are well defined ‘asphalt roads’ in this part of the world but boulders and scree with no sign of any distinct path. We paid the price of the mistake by bivouacking (open encampment) at an altitude of 13000feet. It was such a freezing experience!

 Madan Sing Bist, our guide, tried his best to dissuade us from taking the left bank trail but the ITBP constables, posted at Mana – the last village on the Indian side (we were on the Indo-Tibet border) stopped us from proceeding further. They wanted to see our permission for visiting Satopanth. We were supposed to take permission from the Sub-Divisional Magistrate of Joshimath.  We did not know that and pleaded ignorance. But ignorance is ‘no plea in eyes of Law’ and we were told to go back. Finding no way out, I had a talk with the in-charge of the ITBP camp and showed him my official identity card.  Thus convinced that we were no Chinese spy and no threat to the national security, we were mere humble government servant who could be traced easily, we were allowed to proceed.

Though lowly paid, but the government servants had some advantages!

The ITBP soldiers who were supposed to know this place like the back of their hand “enlightened (!)” us on the forthcoming broken glacier along the right bank route. They said ‘it would be very risky to cross that broken glacier’.  Feeling superior on our theoretical knowledge and paying no heed to the sage advice of our guide, we marched on along the left bank. So at the end of the first days’ trek of ten hours, we found ourselves lost amidst an ocean of rocks, boulders — without a shelter and more importantly without a source of water. We had a princely dinner with a handful of nuts and raisin.

Fortunately, we could find an overhang under which we could manage to spread our ‘royal bed’ on the rocks and could somehow squeeze together. In a way that was good, because our body-warmth would give us some heat and when your night shelter is at more than 13000ft with three sides open, you need all the warmth that you could generate. We could also identify the direction towards which to proceed. But that would be another day and we were too tired to think straight.

It was still dark, around 5 in the morning, when I woke up. As I fell asleep around 8 in the night, an early rise was obvious. Even dog-tired souls just cannot sleep more than 9 hours.  As I looked with some trepidation towards the dangerous trail that lay ahead that we have to traverse, the first few sunrays touched the snow crested peak of Balakun and the peak erupted into a blaze. Stunned, I devour the sight — a prodigious fire on a snow peak. All of yesterdays’ hassles and hardships have turned into a beautiful gift.

Himalaya takes a lot but gives back plenty; one could not hold it in ones palm, it always overflows.

The rest of the journey till we reached Chakratirtha, was somewhat boring! Clambering up the loose moraine, going two steps forward and sliding one step down, with a few water falls and snow peaks giving company; it is laborious and event less except a few land slides and rock falls that nearly killed us. But by that time, such happenings were ‘all in a days’ work’!

On the way Madan Sing showed us a valley, high up on the mountain and said, “Sir, O dekhiye Alakapuri”( See there is Alakapuri)”! Alakapuri, the abode of Kuber, the god of wealth, was immortalized by Kalidas – the great ancient poet, in his book of verse “Meghdutam.”

Eventually, on the verge of collapse, we reached our destination. As we collapsed on the last ridge – the valley laying under us, Asim, my companion uttered a full sentence of the day, he was too busy to save his life. He said wearily, “Well, we are saved.”

Surrounded by lofty snow peaks, Chakratirtha, a well shaped circular green meadow, around 2 kms in length and 1.5 kms in breath, was a relief amidst the harsh environment. A small rivulet of about three feet wide divided the meadow in two halves. We took shelter in the only cave which fortunately was wide enough to accommodate all of us but to enter in it; we had to walk on our knees.

Next day we were on to Satopanth glacier. After three hours of hard trekking on the treacherous glacier we reached under the last ridge and could see the red flag flying on top of the ridge indicating the site of the lake. We simply dragged ourselves to the top.

The first thing that struck me squarely was the strange ethereal ambience of the lake. It had such calm and soothing effect; probably because it’s an achievement of hard labour or may be the legends, ultimately got me! But I had to admit, our suicidal efforts were amply rewarded. The perfectly triangle shaped lake at the base of the snow crested Chaukhamba I peak, surrounded by lofty mountains reflected an azure sky. A small green field in its eastern side, dotted with alpine flowers accentuates the harsh surrounding. As I feasted on the spellbinding scenery, for the first time I became aware of the complete lack of sound around it. It’s eerie! Except the sound of occasional avalanches that were coming down the Chaukhamba peak, as it is already mid-day and the snow on the peak has started to melt, coming down as huge avalanches, the silence was all encompassing. In fact the sound of the avalanches – alike the sound of a thunder, only accentuates this all-embracing, all-pervading silences. The emerald green water of triangular lake mirrors the snow crested Chaukhamba I peak. The image has been repeatedly broken by the waves of the lake forming due to the pleasantly cold gentle breeze that wafted from the snow crested Chaukhamba peak. The broken image re-forms immediately only to be broken again.

I was resting on the grassy bank of the lake when Madan Singh showed me a path towards the Chaukhamba I peak and told me, that was the path traversed by the Pancha Pandavs on their last journey to the heaven. He said, even today, ascetics who want to leave this painful world to enter the other world of supreme bliss, often take that path never to return.

This practice was very much in vogue just some three hundred years ago. Then the King of Tehri used to give this permission to those ascetics who wanted to take that last journey. But before giving permission, the aspirant was provided with all the luxuries of life — well fed, well dressed, company of beautiful maids and so forth. After few days of living in utter luxury he was commanded to leave all and to return to his former ascetic-life of abstinence. If he succeeded to return, only then the permission was granted.  Later, the British government stopped that practice.

But nobody is there to keep an eye to prevent ascetics from this suicidal effort. So even today ascetics do take this last journey on this path towards the peak of Chaukhamba never to return. That’s why Chaukhamba is called ‘Swargarohini’(path to heaven) by the locals.

From the bank of the lake, I could see a clear path like trail leading to the peak of Chaukhamba. But as the sun rose high, avalanches after avalanches started to roll down that path. It’s definitely a sure path to the other world; whether that path goes to heaven or hell that I am not very sure.

The clearness of the lake-water was surprising. It’s crystal clear. Standing on its bank, I could see almost its bottom. Legends has it, whenever something falls in the water, small birds would come flying and pick it up from the water. I have heard the same story on other sacred lakes of Himalaya, Khecheopalri in Sikkim being one.

Some small grey birds were hopping around me on the bank of the Satopanth Lake. I made a small paper ball and threw it in the lake. My paper ball remained floating till the afternoon turned into the evening and I could not see it any longer. But no bird came to pick it up.

As the evening descended, my silent ascetic came and sat beside me. It seemed that he is in a mood to talk. Immediately, I started to fire my questions. Smilingly he took up a pen and started to write down his answers in my diary.

I asked, ‘why did he come to this god forsaken place?’

He simply replied, ‘to meditate’.

‘But that can be done in ones home.’

He said, ‘yes. But you know, milk comes out only from the nipples of the cow and not from its horn or hoop.’

We talked about god, religion, spirituality, laws of nature, almost on every thing under the sun except on his person. He refused to answer any personal query; not even from where he came from. He had magnificent clarity of though, deep insight, strong opinion – a bit religious may be, but nevertheless strong belief backed by logical argument.

At the end of it he asked me, ‘why did you come?’

I said, ‘to see and to experience this fantastic world of myth and reality; to see this breathtaking beauty.’

He said, ‘me too. But to see the mountain within the mountain; to see the tal

within the tal; to experience the world within this world of myth.’

The evening passed into a starry night, I have never seen so many stars in the night sky before and the night into a glorious dawn. It was time to depart from this world of splendor and legend. As we clambered up the ridge, our silent ascetic stood on the bank of lake biding us farewell. I turned back to have a last look. I, certainly, will not be coming again. Seeing me turn back, he waived. I felt his gaze on me — full of compassion and tolerance, silently caressing me like the soft touch of a caring mother. Again something wailed inside me, and again I felt like crying aloud.

We did not know anything about him. Mortals like us are not comfortable with unanswered queries and unexplained phenomena. There were so many unanswered questions– thousands of it that were never going to be answered, smothered by the omnipotent silence. Perhaps he was right to take the vow of silence. This is certainly the right place for taking such a vow.

It is said, Bramha-Bishnu-Maheswar – the holiest of the gods, the Holy Trinity, are in perpetual meditation on the three vertices of the triangular shaped Satopanth Tal (Lake). That’s why its ambience is so ethereal. Nobody dares to break the all-pervading cloak of silence around here. 

Off course, we have not seen any of the Holy Trinity; on second thought, perhaps we have seen one!

[ Published under the author’s permission ]

[ Original publication at http://charanik.wordpress.com on July 7, 2008–the readers are requested to express their comments on the original Blog as mentioned above ]