Tuesday, July 22, 2008

High Adventure At Cloud's End: Dhumdharkandi Pass, Monsoon 2008

They were appearing like two fist sized blots amongst rock debris, on that huge white canvas of a snow wall. Jaisingh and Dalbahadur were slowly proceeding across the snow slope, carefully stomping hard with each step. The wall rose a few hundred meters above us. Below, was a massive bowl of a snow field. We were standing on a rocky platform, ahead of which opened this vast amphitheatre. As I looked back over to the ridge from which we came, Krushi was watching the receding shapes of the "Route Breakers" with silent bewilderment.

"Pradeep..Tum sure ho? yehi route hai?"

"Haan Sir, Teen baar cross kiye hain hum isi route se. Oopar se rock girta hai na..isiliye thoda niche se jana hota hai. Phir woh oopar jahan se rock-slabs hai..wahan se rope lagega"- Pradeep replied..still watching the duo making painstaking progress through the final snow challenge in the ascent.

I somehow found the entire matter utterly incredulous. "How could anybody walk across and head straight heaven wards? However packed the snow might be?" I was asking myself.

"Route theek hai Sir! Ek ek karke aa jao... Baraf theek hai. Oopar se rock girta hai. Thoda dekh ke araam se aana.." crackled Jaisingh over the Walkie Talkie. He and Dalbahadur were appearing like two tiny dots now almost near the overhanging rock ledges near top of the ridge.

Several more minutes of pleading with him to explore another alternate route over the rocky slopes yielded no result.

Karan, who was watching this whole display of indecisive confusion impatiently, started off on the route freshly broken by Jaisingh's heavy Koflach snow boots. And I followed....

We committed ourselves to the final climb to the top, a long single file of the four of us. A confident Karan was leading, Krushi and I in the middle following in silent yet careful steps and Rachit following last - whimpering badly from an Asthma attack that was increasing in intensity.
In the next three hours, the Grand Mountain would put us all through one of it's more serious tests of grit, determination and tencaity and make Rachit laud Jaisingh's arms to be the strongest in the world... :-)
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I came across this wild sounding multi-syllable name almost a decade back when I was searching the internet for a list of passes in Uttaranchal that are over 5000 mtrs. My intention at that time was to find a high altitude challenge that I intended to take up in the monsoons of 1998. Amongst all names this one stood out- "Dhumdharkandi Pass", a name that had me intrigued and fascinated for several years to come.

Dhumdharkandi- which we shall call DDK in short- for the simple purpose of easier narration here, is on the route connecting the Bhagirathi Valley with the Ruinsara('Rasoda' in local dialect) Valley. The 5300 M pass is formed by a depression on the rocky ramparts of the Eastern periphery of the Banderpunch Massif. This Massif is the largest watershed area that feeds the mighty Yamuna; the twin sister to her more famous counterpart- Ganga.


View Larger Map
One essentially follows Sian Gaad stream to reach the head of the valley where the pass is located. Sian Gaad is a decent sized tributary of the Bhagirathi and confluences with it near Jhala village. It's a village located exactly where the NH 108 crosses a bridge over Bhagirathi, to lead on towards Harsil, just after descending from Sukhi Top. After crossing the pass, the descent is into the Kalanag Icefall and further down till a point where it confluences with the Banderpunch Glacier. One goes further onwards to the Ruinsara Valley, Ruinsara Taal, Har Ki Dun valley and finally into the Tons Valley at Sankri and Mori.

Since the upper most parts of the route are above the permanent snowline and along the banks of an icefall, the recommended period of trekking is from monsoons till autumn when there is no cover of powdery snow and the crevasses are visible.
The name and the very place somehow lend an air of eeriness to the whole trek. We were to experience that first hand, a decade after I read about it the first time.
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The "We" formed pretty uniquely at the "Trekking in Himalayas" community forum in Orkut. After my first posting of a thread in the forum in the month of April 2008, several people opted in and out and finally a team of 5 remained. All six of us, having queried, debated and discussed all various aspects of the trek, eventually agreed on a start date of 12th June. We were an interesting band of six. Apart from me in my late thirties, the others were:
Pramod Dangi – Finance whiz kid, marathon runner, Sahyadri Veteran and doting father- Late Twenties
Krushi Parekh- Finance whiz kid II, Wanna-be marathon runner, Sahyadri Veteran II with an excellent sense of humour- Mid Twenties
Karan Deshmukh- Fresh from Basic Mountaineering Course at HMI Darjeeling after his final year engineering- Early Twenties
Chirag – The Class X board examinee with an innocent cherubic face and enough grit to target DDK Pass as his maiden trek- Teenager
Rachit Mangal- The ever smiling Haryanvi with a NRI touch in his late twenties was the Corpo Guy in the team, who, as I realised later during the trek, was also this incredible romantic!!:-)
This motley gang of guys varied widely (I am tempted to say 'Wildly') in age, profession, build, height, weight and general level of fitness. We were to all arrive from different parts of the country at different times and all were to meet together as a team for the first time while boarding my car to begin our journey!! However, given the Bali Pass experience and my initial interaction with most of the members, I was reasonably confident that we shall rock together as a team!
Day 0 and 1- Delhi- Uttarkashi- Jhala
"Tee Off "
There certainly was a palpable air of preparation in the couple of weeks that led up to the start. Rachit, Pramod, Krushi and I met separately, at Delhi and at Mumbai over several occasions. Rachit rendered a fair bit of shopping assistance for every one during his trips to the US and to "Stikage" in Delhi.
The day and the night before the appointed zero hour was bit of a mess, with Chirag missing his scheduled flight and Krushi's train (Rajdhani Express!!) running 5 hours late. But somehow we all managed to pack ourselves into my Scorpio at 0515 Hrs and off we went, hoping to reach Uttarkashi by lunchtime.
I had discovered the utility of "Stugeron-25" while handling my father's violent journey- sickness during the Dayara Bugyal trip few months earlier. With advice from my Physician uncle Krushi and Chirag took those and were perfectly fine without a sign of journey-sickness during the 10 Hour dash to Uttarkashi. Chirag spent all that time in relative discomfort at the back. I think we kinda bullied him into the agony of the rear seats, which he managed by way of sleeping throughout the route from Delhi till Uttarkashi. He woke up enough to manage time for breakfast, a leak, a photo-shoot and about 5 precise minutes of conversation.
By the time we settled around the first floor lunch-table at GMVN Uttarkashi, it was 1600 hrs and the Restaurant Chef had to be cajoled and coaxed to prepare the lunch spread. By 1730 we were ready to go, in two Jeeps that were to take us till Jhala. Chandan ensured safekeeping of my Scorpio. In what sounded like a neat arrangement to me, he also offered to get the vehicle sent till Barkot -our planned end point of the trek.
After some tedious and agonisingly slow progress through the repeatedly broken highway (all because of the NTPC Hydel project in the area) we reached Jhala at 2100, all of us eager to end the day long drive.
The walk from the Jeep-stand till the camp, located in the school compound, was for about a kilometre. Within a couple of minutes of walk I found myself by the wide open banks of Bhagirathi- that characteristic signature of the Harsil Valley. I stood for a moment looking at the shimmering waters in the faint rays of moonlight... took a deep breath and sucked the air in.... I was home!!!!
Day 2- Jhala – Jadunga Camp
"Testing Day"
All of the previous evening, Chirag had been complaining of a troubling throat and tonsillitis. He had a history of the ailment and it was bothering him now. The problem was, he had run out of the few antibiotics he had got with him . Although he was a bit better in the morning, it was decided to send an advance team with Pramod and Chirag to the Harsil Military Hospital from where they could get a physician's advice and also some extra strips of the antibiotic.

By 0900 we were all through with our breakfast and ready to go. The sky was clear, the sun blazing overhead and the thin mist that veiled the waters of the Bhagirathi earlier in the morning was beginning to lift.
The track leading out from the school compound winds leisurely along the right bank of Bhagirathi and passes through the Jhala village. We were still checking out the functioning of the Walkie -Talkie radio sets and passing general words of advice to each other. In about half an hour we had reached the wide confluence of Sian Gaad and Bhagirathi when Rathore's radio crackled alive informing us that the porters had lifted camp.
Team "Re-structuring" at 9000 feet..!!
Jaisingh guided the team carefully across two different log bridges to get us to the left bank of this relatively unknown tributary of the Bhagirathi. One look at the furiously flowing waters got me thinking awhile on what lies ahead, for this was the very river we were to re-cross after three days, closer to its point of origin.
Soon we were walking up the left bank along a steeply rising bridle path. With several switchbacks. The trail steadily gained altitude and all of us felt the exhausting "first knock" that one usually feels on the opening hours of a trek. After about three hundred meters of rise the trail eased out a bit. We had our first casualty by that time.
Chirag had had enough of the "First Knock". The tonsil problem of the previous night probably aggravated the impact and he was in no mind to proceed ahead. We all evaluated the issue and decided that it was probably best for the team that Chirag went back to base at Jhala. Pradeep, after hectic parleys with Chandan at Uttarkashi (BSNL signal was available at that rock platform) informed that Chirag can indeed be taken on a parallel trek to Tapovan after a day's rest. The collateral damage in this process was Pramod since he had to be with Chirag else the youngman would be all alone outside the group, having started together with all that enthusiasm from Mumbai.
We surely weren't happy because we had begun bonding together as a team. After a quick lunch and several minutes of emotional speeches by almost all members in turn (carefully recorded in the camcorder) Pramod and Chirag turned back with Pradeep and Dalbahadur. The plan was, they shall be escorted back to Jhala with luggage where Chandan would pick them up and then the Pradeep-Dalbahadur duo would start early next day to catch us at Jadunga camp by 0800. I gave a radio set to Pradeep so that we could coordinate with us on his way back to the camp next morning.
The post lunch trek was grim to say the least. Each one was to himself during that quiet walk thru that lovely valley of greens. The river was coursing away few hundred feet below with violent ferocity. I saw Krushi and Chirag clicking pictures of a small glacier with child-like enthusiasm; After all it was the first view of (dirty) ice!! Little beyond that place one could see the course of Sian Gaad taking a turn towards the true right. Here, the river with all its mass of waters, tumbles down few hundred feet in not-so-easy stages (A sure grade 6 rafting course) causing the illusions of a mini Niagra.
Trapeze artist of Bin Thatch..
There was a log bridge perched between two high rock pillars, leading a trail to the right bank.
"Isko Bin Thatch bolte hain Sir"..informed Jaisingh.."Yahan se us paar jo rasta jaa raha hai, woh oopar Bugyal mein jata hai. Kanataal naam ka Taal hai wahan".
I had researched earlier that there are three such bugyals on the right bank till one reaches the head of the Sian Gaad valley. Each of those is nestled in the vast bowls of small valleys created by leading ridges from the ramparts of Banderpunch massif. The one Jaisingh was mentioning was the first of them.
There was a herd of goats scattered around the slope. The most interesting sight was that of a baby goat perched on thin branches of a tree which was growing horizontally out of the vertical high bank. I still wonder how on earth can a goat manage to do that!! Delicately balanced on a thin branch with its four pairs of toes, 500 feet above a raging river and munching greens, jangling bells!! We watched the baby trapeze artist with amazement, for a while.
Soon we came to a landslide zone that tested our grits, particularly because of the close proximity to the fast flowing and roaring currents of the Sian Gaad. A while later the trail began to rise again, gently. Rachit was feeling sick now because of some stomach problem. While I was eagerly picking strawberries he relieved himself behind the rocks.
"Loose motion hai boss. Khana suit nahin kiya shayad". Said Rachit. He looked a bit worried. I wasn't too perturbed though, reminded me of Ritesh's problems during the first day trek of Bali Pass.
Shortly thereafter we saw some porters sitting by the track and munching away some interesting looking stems of a shrub. Upon enquiry, Rathore- the Porter Sirdar, informed us that the shrub was called Brunsh. It's a thorny shrub which they uproot and skin the main stem neatly. The skinned stem is munched as food supplement while trekking. I tasted a freshly processed piece and loved it!! It tasted a bit like Cucumber...all that watery fibrous stuff. Fills the stomach and quenches thirst! Double Whammy!!
Rachit and I could now see the entire party assembling ahead of us on an almost-flat ground carpeted with green grass and Brunsh!! We had arrived at the destination for the day, we were on the Jadunga Camping Grounds. The camp overlooked the valley extending beneath East wards where the skyline remained cloud covered. After a quick dinner we spent some time setting up the camera tripods to shoot the glorious Moon rising over the ridge-top on the right bank. Soon we retired for the night. It had been a testing day alright.
Day 3- Jadunga- Kyarkoti
"At the Door Steps of Snow-kingdom"
The glorious view of the snow covered Jaonli ridge welcomed us the next morning. As would be the pattern for several days, the morning sky was a clear blue with wisps of clouds hanging randomly in the sky and the mountainsides. Sipping hot cups of coffee and chocolate we sat on the breakfast table basking in the warm sun admiring the bountiful beauty of everything around.
Couple of things bothered us. Rachit was throwing up violently and not a morsel of food remained in his stomach. It was beginning to look like a bad case of food poisoning. Pradeep and Dalbahadur, who were supposed to arrive by 0800 had still not arrived and neither were they answering the radio call. But things started falling in place. We saw the duo around the bend, just when we were thinking of lifting camp. Pradeep had fiddled with the settings and the radio was now set to a wrong channel. After a while, Rachit began feeling betterand we started off on the trek at 0900.
Shortly thereafter we crossed a glacier coming in from our right and hoping for more of those, we put on the snow goggles (sadly we didn't see another patch of ice on our track for another whole day). The track slowly winded into a heavily canopied jungle of green. This lovely jungle walk ended abruptly after a mere half a kilometre when the track rose sharply onto the slope above us. That steep climb of 300 odd meters left us breathless and panting. I was worried about Rachit who anyways had a history of Asthma and was toiling right now on an empty stomach.
Soon we reached a gully through which roared a fast flowing stream, emptying abundant amount of glacial melt from the slopes above, which cascaded down from a pretty looking waterfall. I looked into the depths of the gully and was unsure of the track, looking at the sharp drop below. Just then, I saw Jaisingh waving frantically indicating the route. The crossover point was to be near the confluence. We had to take off our shoes to cross the stream and waited in the blazing sun for the rest of the guys to regroup.
The team from Ratia..
Just then we saw some people coming in from the area upstream probably from Dhumdharkandi Pass?!! There were six of them, of which one was presumably the guide and two were the members. The three guys who came in first, looked like porters. We enquired briefly and came to know that they had abandoned the attempt of Dhumdharkandi Pass at Ratia Camp grounds (One camp short of the base camp). One of the members had been afflicted with AMS and they did not want to take any chance. Jaisingh asked about the status of the Sian Gaad river and whether they crossed it at all.
'Certainly that's the big obstacle bothering him ' I presumed.
Suddenly one of them asked "Which one of you is Ashu?"
I was a bit taken aback at the familiarity with my name, by a complete stranger, in this wilderness!! It turned out that they were also "Trekking in Himalayas" Community members at Orkut and were aware of our proposed trek to DDK Pass. Small world!!.. Thanks to The Internet- Orkut and Indiamike.
After gathering some more intelligence of the route, we shook hands bidding them goodbye and started off . The lunch stop at Chhota Kyarkoti was just about an hour away.
Soon after, we crossed a sinister looking landslide area which evoked enthusiastic admiration from Krushi!!

"The best experience so far in the trek", he opined.
Often during such cross country traverses, as one gets used to the obstacles and dangers, one begins to see the fun side of it especially after the obstacle is tackled. Krushi was still looking back at the slippery trail of loose earth with pride (and self-admirationJ) ... so tantalisingly close to the turbulent currents of Sian Gaad.
Chhota Kyarkoti- Benji's playground..
Another hour of gradually rising tracks brought us to a large and pretty grazing ground. Far ahead around the head of the valley, tall snow peaks played peek-a-boo from behind randomly moving white cloud clusters. A herd of sheep and goat were happily masticating on the juicy greens. Our attention was caught by these particularly cute looking baby goats and this shy and a pretty dog in brown furs that reminded me of the protagonist in the movie "Benji").
We had reached Chhota Kyarkoti, our lunch stop. The view around was magnificent even as the clouds were rolling in from the East. Far away to the West, towards the head of the valley the topography seemed to be changing dramatically. We were probably seeing the last of the forests and the greenery.
"Woh door jo Jungle dikh raha hai Sir? Aur use pehle jo boulders dikh rahe hain? Un dono ke beech me hai Kyarkoti ground." Jaisingh informed. It sure looked pretty from even this distance.
We got chatting with the shepherd and were taken aback to hear that they walk all the three hundred kilometres to Rishikesh and back here into the wilderness every year! And the entire flock including the Master, the dogs, the goats and the sheep walk it!
"Iska naam kya hai" I asked the shepherd pointing at the shy and pretty mixed terrier.
"Mayawati" such was the inaptness,it took me a moment to see the coincidence that the Chief Minister of the neighbouring state went by the same name.. :-)
I spent some time with Mayawati, feeding her from my lunch plate and she became quite friendly in those few minutes. Being the 10 month old mutt that she was, no amount of food could satiate her voracious appetite.
We bade the lovely meadows farewell and trod on our trail. Another landslide later we found ourselves in a massive boulder field where there were cairns to mark the route. I noticed Karan and Praveen resting on one of the boulders... the proverbial "Afternoon Siesta"; just after lunch!! :-):-)
Kiarkoti Camping Grounds (Sian Gaad side)
After the boulders came the gushing streams that were draining glacial melt from up above. Just as we hopped over the last of the streams, we glimpsed the vast expanse of the Kyarkoti meadow ahead of us. It was bounded by the boulder field below and a small little birch forest above. The sides to our left and right were bounded by Sian Gaad and Dhumdhar Mountain ranges respectively. The meadow was huge, with a slight 5 degree slant. On the other side of Sian Gaad, just opposite our campsite was the confluence of a small stream coming from the South-East face of Kalanag.
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Kiarkoti....A Note on the name..
For the unaware researcher of trails, the name Kyarkoti can spring a surprise. There are at least three places in the Banderpunch/Bhagirathi Valley area that go by the same name. There is one in the Sian Gaad valley which served as our Day 3 camp. There is one in the Ruinsara Valley that we crossed at lunch time during our Day 8 of the trek. There is another in the Jalandhari Gaad valley (neighbouring and parallel to Sian Gaad) on the route that leads to Lamkhaga Pass. I am inclined to think therefore, that Kyarkoti is some sort of generic name in the local tongue!
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Porters' Feast...
The team decided to have mutton for dinner that evening (probably a hidden bribe to the porters to put up their best face for the summit and thereafter). A suitable goat was soon bought with crisp 100 Rupee currency notes. Within minutes, the area outside the kitchen tent was made into a makeshift butchery. Karan's Khukri(which he bought for INR 350 from Darjeeling) came in handy although the cutting edge went blunt by the end of the evening.
In the mountains, when you have Nepali porters in your pack, you have two distinct advantages while planning a non-vegetarian feat.
One: You don't have to bother for skills of butchery; you give them the goat and they shall return with cleanly dressed piles of mutton pieces.
Two: You go environment friendly..There is just no trace left !. No wastage! Absolutely CLEAN! They dress and cook almost all parts of the kill! Possibly, part of the age old survival skills they learn in the mountains.
I was surprised out of my wits to see how everything other than the woollen coat of the carcass was consumed in various culinary formats. We had a hearty laughter amongst the four of us recounting how Jaisingh was extremely eager to have the Alu(Goat- Balls) and how with utter shyness he enumerated the various positive effects of such delicious dishes on the sexual health of man!
That scene would be indelible. That smoky surrounding heavy with moist air, that ever loud roar of Sian Gaad at a distance, The Giant South–East face of Kalanag overlooking from behind wispy mists, the grey clouds overhead and in the dim twilight, the area barely lit by a single candle, few men huddled over pieces of freshly cut meat. Nearby was a raging fire set against a largish boulder which was spewing coipious amounts of smoke. Over it was set a large cooking pot with steaming mutton curry. Some were sitting around the fire, the faces gleaming bronze in the light of the waving flames. For a moment it looked like an encampment of cave-men. There was an eerie feel to that time and space.
The scene was complete when we had a thunderstorm at midnight. One could see brilliant flashes of light glowing up the tent walls and a few moments later there was that inevitable crackling sound followed by a booming thunder. The outer fly of my tent gave up. We had little droplets of water dripping on the entire length of our sleeping bags. We finally covered ourselves up with Rachit's Poncho and forced ourselves to sleep. Little force was required however! :-)
Day 4- Kyarkoti- Odar Camp
"Entry into the Snow Kingdom-The day of boulders"

We started in time from the picturesque camp setting in eager anticipation of the long day ahead. According to the plan we were to go till the DDK Pass Base camp after crossing the Sian Gaad at the head of the valley. According to Jaisingh and Pradeep, what we were attempting to do that day is usually done over two days. We weren't sure about water levels in the Sian Gaad, of which the prospects weren't looking too bright after the incessant rains and thunder-storm of the previous night. We had to reach the banks of Sian Gaad in the least possible time.
Ghantraro Boulder Zone..
The landscape changes completely after Kyarkoti and its adjoining birch forest. This area which is called Ghantraro, essentially is the terminal moraine of some age old glacier which must have flowed from the Head of the Sian Gaad valley. From the true left, several streams and rivulets flow in that have to be forded in regular intervals. After couple of hours we got used to all the boulder hopping and stream crossing. Around 1130 hrs or so, when the clouds closed in, there was white out all around and we were approaching a bugyal where some very large boulders were forming caves and shelters of different sizes.
The radios were of much help in the whiteout conditions. Somehow the entire team was herded together for regrouping and that's when the chilling rains started.
"Gupha Area"- Bear caves..
"Koi bhi ek gupha dekh ke shelter le lo Sir." Said Jaisingh "Lekin dekh ke jana. In gupha me bhalu bahut hote hain". We dreaded walking into the living quarters of Mama Bear and Kid Bear and hence tried the rocks nearest to the shelter where the porters and Jaisingh were huddled together.
"Yeh jagah ka naam kya hai Jaisingh?" I asked
"Gupha hi bolte hain sir, humlog", He replied.
I wasn't convinced. Later on I found out that it is actually called the Ghantraro camping grounds.
We had an early lunch. Rain waters dripping into the lunch-plate occasionally while we were desparately trying to protect ourselves from the slanting rains driven by the wind. By the time the downpour slowed to a drizzle, we were delayed by at least an hour and the porter loads were at least 20% heavier!
After this area, the route veers sharply to the left towards the true right bank of Sian Gaad. After a while we could see another valley and a river coming in from the South-West, from the true right bank of Sian Gaad.
"Woh raha Kalanag ka Nala" informed Jaisingh, "Humen uska left side ridge pakad ke jana hai" he was sharing the route plan.
We had essentially reached a fork where two rivers were joining from the two different valleys- Sian Gaad valley coming from North and DDK Valley coming from South West. We had to be on the ridge in the middle (dividing the fork) and for that to happen we had to cross the river that was nearest to us, Sian Gaad.
Road block by Sian Gaad..
When we reached the river side at 1500 after climbing few tough stretches of boulder filled grounds, it had begun to drizzle again. Krushi was complaining of a headache which I suspected was a symptom of possible AMS. The weather, the possible health concerns, the bleak rocky landscape and the roaring waters of Sian Gaad were a daunting combination. One could feel that apprehension in the sorroundings. It was as if you are in someone else's territory, can't see Him, not sure whether He is happy or angry and are uncertain about what's going to happen next.
One look at the river and we knew that she has forbidden entry, at least for that evening. If one looked long enough into that maddening flow of waters, one could feel a rush of dizziness. There was no option but to camp there, on that rock-filled-riverside camping ground. It's later that I learnt, it's called the Odar camping grounds.
That night I woke up wiping a bleeding nose. For some reason, capillaries inside the nose had burst and I bled for good few minutes. It stopped all by itself, but not before I had soiled my vest entirely with my own blood. Thankfully, that was the only episode of nose bleed during the trek.
Day 5- Odar Camp- DDK Pass Base Camp
"The Most Eventful day"
"Good Morning!" by Himalayan Brown Bear...
The next morning, e
ven as I was drifting between wakefulness and sleep, I thought I heard something like "Bhalu!!". Then I heard many voices outside the tent. Still rubbing my eyes and wondering what the commotion was all about, I crawled out of the tent to see a gloomy and overcast day-break. Several of the porters were standing on the edge of the large rock overlooking the field below. As I neared, to see what was happening, I saw the massive bulk of a large brown animal peacefully foraging, bang in the middle of the field below.

I had my first encounter with a Himalayan Brown Bear, albeit from a distance of a couple of hundred meters! The animal wasn't at all bothered about the activity and heightened commotion at the camp.
Soon Karan, armed with his camera, climbed down the raised platform of our camp. Probably he wanted to take a close up shot. Just when he would have gone a hundred feet down, the bear, probably unaware or unconcerned of our existence, started moving towards us. The porter team went into a panic,
"Saab! Saab!Karan Saab! Bhalu idhar aa raha hai! Oopar aa jao!" all of them screamed in unison.
The bear heard this! Stood still, cocked up its ears, looked up as if it were looking straight into our eyes, took an about turn and scampered away in the typical bearish gait. A bear in run is an interesting sight. It's not the graceful and fast flowing streamlines of a feline, rather an awkward scramble that makes the heaviness of its bulk so very obvious. But the ease with which this gentle giant maintained its pace and gait even while going up a 45 degree incline for a good 500 meters made its power apparent to all onlookers. He finally slowed down near a rock shelter at the bottom of the rising walls of the Dhumdhar ranges. I ran back into the tent to fish out the camcorder and came back in a ziffy. But he had vanished!!
By 0800, Krushi was much better, his headache had vanished. That was good news!! In the thinning mists, Jaisingh pointed towards the valley we were to follow. I could see a mountain at a distance which looked like it had the faces of two men and a dog carved on it! Or was it my over active imagination?
Crossing the Sian Gaad...


Jaisingh and Pradeep went ahead of all in the hope of doing a recee and opening the route for crossing. By the time we reached the river bank, both of them were not to be seen. They had gone upstream. We waited, watching the wild torrents bouncing and cascading down with great speed, the colour resembling that of milk-tea. Contrary to our expectation, the volume of water had not decreased an inch since the previous evening. The non-stop drizzle had ensured a steady flow of run-off throughout the night. Our heart thumping wild with anticipation we were pacing up and down that little flat ground, by the river.
Moments later, Dalbahadur came and asked us to follow him upstream. After about 200 meters we saw the riverbed fanning out wide over rocks, the intensity of flow slightly less and the sound of the cascade much louder. Way out into the middle of the river was the hazy figure of Jaisingh doing something with a rope that extended out from an anchor rock, not far away from where we stood. Pradeep was watching him; his eyes narrow with intense focus. Jaisingh was following a curious routine. He enter the waters, cross some distance, probe with his ski poles and then jump wildly back on to the rocks trying to warm up his freezing feet.
Soon ropes were fixed across the breadth in a triangular shape. The crossover was to happen in two stages. We were to follow one route of crossover till the middle. After reaching a little rock platform in the middle, one had to go downstream a few steps and then follow another rope for the second stage crossover. I touched the freezing water and my heart filled with awe and gratitude for Jaisingh. "How on earth can one recee multiple routes through these icy-cold waters?"
Utter chaos reigned for the next half an hour. Everything added up to make the backdrop weirdly fearsome- guys hollering at each other, loud crackle on the radio, the incessant noise of the turbulent currents, the rains changing pace every few minutes, the chilling wind blowing from barren snow tops, the misty whiteout limiting visibility, the occasional rumble of rocks rolling underwater and the painfully slow progress of each person crossing over, carefully, under the watchful eyes of the men from both sides of the river bank.
Just when we were thinking that all was well, I noticed one of the porters, Manbahadur, going straight from the midpoint and even as I was gesturing and screaming at him to correct course, he got stuck, unable to move. Guys from the other side were wildly shouting at him to plod on, but his ankle was stuck under a rolling rock and the chilling water was driving his limbs numb. Two guys rushed to his rescue, Pradeep rushed downstream to provide cover and after two interminable minutes he looked as if he had given up and was going to float down or go under. Miraculously, that very moment his feet got unstuck and he hobbled over to the other side.
It took us two full hours to do the crossing and we were now ready to start on the next stage at 1115 Hrs. Phew!! That was some experience for someone who doesn't exactly call himself a swimmer. Not that a swimmer could do much in that kind of water and in that course of the river!!
A silent and determined effort through the continuously rising trail brought us to a little camping ground overlooking the Cwm bound by the Barasukha Ridge on the south upon which was located the Dhumdharkandi Pass, yet invisible to us.
Ratia Cemetery- Dead man under rock slab..
"Mujhe camera do ek minute sir. Jo photo khichunga use baad me dekhna, develop karne ke baad." said Jaisingh obviously he was unaware that the camera he was taking from me was a Cannon DSLR and I could see the picture a second after he shot it.
He walked over to the large boulder at one corner of the camping ground, bent down and had few shots of the flash and came back gleefully. I quickly checked to see a gruesome looking human skull in the pictures he had shot.
"Yek kya hai Jaisingh" I asked him showing him the picture.
With a sheepish look, he was scratching his head dumbfounded, clearly surprised by digital imaging technology.

"Aadmi ka khopdi hai sir." Apparently it was a human skeleton buried under a rock slab.

"Kitne deen se hai yahan par?" I asked

"Hum to dus saal se dekh rahe hain Sir!"


'Probably some unfortunate trekker or shepherd who could not make it down to safety'- No one knows what calamity befell the poor soul. His companions obviously found this remote place to be the most practical and convenient burial ground.
We had a quick lunch and set off again still thinking of the morbid spectacle at Ratia. Jaisingh's constant commands over the radio kept us on a steadily rising on a North-Westerly path, moving away from the mountains on the right bank of Kalanag Nala. The Cwm was opening up ever wider and the ridge that bound it, on the South-Western fringe, was slowly becoming visible. Most probably that was the ridge on which was located the DDK Pass.
We made some good progress as a team although we were slowly approaching the limits of "High Altitude" and entering the "Very High Altitude" zone. After 4 continuous hours of toil Jaisingh, Karan, Praveen and I reached the designated campsite. We were truly in deep snow-kingdom where even the constant monsoon showers have not been able to dent the thick beds of snow sprawled around randomly. It took some effort to find a flat rocky bed for setting up camp.
Krushi's AMS...
Krushi, when he arrived at the camp, complained of dizzying spells, slight fever and splitting headache. We were extremely concerned. These were sure signs of onset of AMS. The saving grace was that he was already on Diamox. His acclimatisation should soon catch up, we hoped. Next few hours were spent on hectic parley between Rachit, Karan, Jaisingh and I about possible options in case Krushi didn't recover and his symptoms worsened. We were ready to retreat, but even that wasn't an easy option to contemplate. We would still have to cross the river back. The memory of that ordeal was still fresh in our minds.
The night sky brought in bright moonlight for which Pramod had so carefully planned. Our thoughts went out to our detached comrade for a moment. Karan had some wonderful time setting up the tripod and shooting some amazing stills.
Day 6- DDK Pass Base Camp
"Rest Day"
The first thing to check next morning was Krushi's health. Luckily he was up and about. His acclimatisation had caught up speed!!! I said a little prayer in my mind. Jaisingh recommended us a day of rest to revitalise our muscles and strengthen our acclimatisation. He advised us to spend the day exploring nearby high lands while he and Pradeep went out doing recee of the route ahead and we all agreed readily.
I think, secretly everyone desired to rest for a day to fight strong the next day to the summit, especially after Pradeep pointed out the approximate location of the pass that was now vaguely visible behind readily clearing clouds over the Ridge to the South.
"Dhum(smoke) dhar (Ridge) kandi(Forest)- The Smoky Ridge Forest" aptly named I thought. It was indeed a high rock ridge that was almost entirely covered with snow and was hardly ever visible throughout the entire day!! It was almost as if under permanent dominance of the clouds around. Apart from the forbidding look of the objective the fact that really took the wind out of me was the approach.

"Yeh to pura ice wall hai Pradeep; Poori khadi chadhai! Yehi rasta hai?" I was half musing and half asking looking at the almost incredulous task ahead.
As he pointed out, one had to first climb along a ridge that led to this vast bowl shaped snowfield bounded by a tall wall to the south. The wall had to be then scaled to reach a rock ledge near the top from where ropes were to be fixed to take an inclined route to the ridge top. Rock debris were scattered around the face of the wall indicating regular rock fall from the heights of the ridge top.


I decided to stay back in the camp drying out wet clothes, taking advantage of the sunny day. The weather was so good till noon, for a moment I regretted not having taken advantage of it to do the summit bid. By afternoon Jaisingh, Pradeep, Rachit, Krushi and Karan were back from their various excursions.
Pradeep and Jaisingh had good news from the top. The route that we were to follow wasn't snow bound. That promised of lesser risk and a faster trek the following day. After some idle gossip and chat in the cosy confines of our tent we retired early for the night with thumping excitement in the heart, not knowing what the following day held in store for us.
Day 7- Dhumdharkandi Base- Banderpunch Glacier(Camp 1)
"Summit Day"
As it always happens, and should happen if I may add, we started the day early at 0700 hrs on the Summit Day! That was another "first" in the trek. Somehow till that day, we had never managed to break camp before 0900 in spite of our best efforts.

The idea was to cross the pass before 1200. The reason was twofold. One: We could not afford risking the usual afternoon- weather at the top of the pass and Two: That would provide us with enough time to do the long trudge required to reach our designated campsite at Kyarkoti before darkness fell.
We hit snow exactly half an hour after the start. Luckily we didn't have to go through the Bali Pass nightmare where the snow was soft and powdery. Here it was much harder. Karan went far ahead in his initial zest. It was as if he was bounding with energy and was impatient to reach the top. I was a distant third after Jaisingh. Krushi and Rachit were much farther down. Suddenly I heard Krushi call out in alarm even while I was trying to catch up on my breath.
"Ashu! Rachit ko breathing problem ho raha hai! Asthma attack lag raha hai" His voice was edgy.
"God! Please ..not now. Let him be alright." I was really bothered.
Meanwhile Rachit was gesturing that it's all okay. Presently Pradeep, who was coming from behind, caught up with them and active assistance was pressed in for Rachit. I heaved a sigh of relief when I saw Rachit taking his steps slowly. Till now I wonder about the mental grit that was at display by this man – hauling his body weight up a 45 degree slope at 17000 feet with a totally apathetic and constricted respiratory tract. To me, it was an act of valour.
All of us were at the end of the climb of that leading ridge by 1100 Hrs. We had reached the point where one had to depart from the ridge and get into that bowl of a snowfield with the near vertical South wall. Jaisingh herded everybody to a halt, took Dalbahadur along with him and plodded ahead confidently in the snow towards that daunting wall.
I was flummoxed. My head wished me to go by Jaisingh's command but my heart implored me to argue out with Pradeep and Jaisingh, to explore an alternate path over the rocky slopes much higher above. Finally I gave in and we all went attempting the final climb on that 70 degree wall of packed snow.
Surprisingly the climb was not as scary as it had appeared from the previous vantage point on the ridge. I was up there on the rock ledge near the beginning of the fixed rope stretch by 1135 Hrs. Finally Jaisingh helped me up till the top at 1144 Hrs!! Karan was there at least ten minutes earlier. The last man to arrive struggling, wheezing with face wearing grim determination was Rachit. It's later that I learnt that just at the beginning of the rope pitch he had slipped and was hanging on for dear life with his hands. Just when his knuckles were turning white, Jaisingh came to the rescue and pulled him up to the slab with his vice like grip.
"Jaisingh ka grip kya strong hai boss?! Ek pull me mujhe utha liya jab main jhool raha tha!" He shared with me later ;-)
Soon it was time to engage in the scarier second stage- getting down the other side, where an equally steep slope led to a rock ledge in the middle. The sinister looking Kalanag Icefall was barely a few meters ahead of that rock ledge.
The Rolling Sillybag.. (Thankfully)
Jaisingh went about his work diligently and soon we had the rope fixed and belayed for descent. Except for a sleeping bag that rolled out from a porter load and vanished into the deep cracks of the icefall, nothing untoward happened. But we, who saw the tumbling sleeping bag disappearing into nothingness, had a renewed perception of the deep end below. Funnily enough, the porter responsible for rolling the "Silly Bag"(that's how Jaisingh would pronounce a sleeping bag J) was extremely eager to retrieve it from the icefall while everyone was freezing and wary about the completing the descent!!!
We had to go yet another stage down to be really level with the plateau of Kalanag Glacier, the end of the descent marked by a tarn. This tarn which looked like a puddle from the top turned out to be hundred meters wide. We decided against fixing ropes and Jaisingh broke a nice path down over the snow slopes to the right and we reached the shore of the tarn in half an hour.
Atop waterfalls on 6 inch wide slippery earth!!...
After the tough traverse across the pass, the trudge on packed snow was a breeze. The last leg of this was bit of a challenge. Rachit and I went through some harrowing experiences of vertigo, crossing loose-earthed gullies of mud and snow. A look to the left of these gullies would show the direct drop into the icefall area! We were walking on the head of numerous waterfalls that stood 200 meters tall over the icefall.
Fighting inner demons in this challenging stretch for an hour we saw a lovely campsite located on a large moraine bed that rose above the right banks of the Banderpunch Glacier. It was like a massive rock-strewn viewing balcony with two lovely streams flowing through it. The campsite was called Camp 1. For ascending both Kalanag and Banderpunch Peaks, this place serves as Camp 1; hence the name! We had the objective in sight at last!
Rachit's doubt..
As we retired for the day, we were informed that we hadn't seen the last of those dreaded patches of steep drops(that we had crossed with such difficulty only few hours ago). We apparently had few more of them ahead of us, till we reached Ruinsara Taal. This bothered us significantly, especially Rachit and I, though we weren't yet making an explicit mention of it to each other.
"Ashu, mein soch raha tha.." Rachit started, with just his head peeking out of the sleeping bag
"Kya soch raha tha?" I was groggy and sleepy
"Yaar? Pagal Kutte ne kata tha mujhe? Jo main yahan aya hoon?" His face thoughtful and serious
I looked at him for few moments and then both of us burst out laughing
"Dil ki baat bata raha hoon boss....Pata nahin kaal ka char ghante kaise bitenge." :-) said he.
That night we slept like logs.
Day 8- Banderpunch Glacier(Camp 1)- Ruinsara Gaad Riverside
"Day of Longest March"
The day broke gloriously. The majesty of the view in front was heightened several times with the bright morning sun glowing against the azure skies. We watched dumbfounded from the viewing gallery, sole spectators to this most amazing panorama.

Right in front was the Banderpunch glacier emanating from the laps of the mighty peaks bearing the same name. On to our left was the sinister looking Kalanag Icefall with its menacing crevasses and seracs. Much above it to the right was the gentle summit slope leading to the pro
ud peak of Kalanag. Almost behind us was the snow ridge leading to Swargarohini. Downstream of the glacier, to our right, was the Ruinsara valley adorned in bright greens. Wisps of clouds were issuing forth from the nooks of small valleys and spurs; almost as if their sleep was over and they were now stretchig, getting ready for the day!



After an extensive photo-session and a heavy breakfast we started off to handle the first challenge of the day; a traverse of the steep gullies of mud and scree, rendered slippery by the abundance of precipitation. The ordeal of the previous evening continued for the next six hours, till we were in sighting distance of Ruinsara Taal. The obstacles we were wary of, would present themselves in regular intervals even as we crossed some of the prettiest meadows bedecked with flowers. There were meadows with just yellow, white or maroon blossoms and others with all the colors of the rainbow. The clouds were hanging heavy and low, lending an ethereal air. At moments one would find oneself totally alone in the midst of a riot of colours dotted on those green slopes, a faint shape of a porter disappearing over the edge of the slope; only to be awakened from the temporary reverie by the rude crackle of the radio.


By the time we reached Ruinsara Taal the rain had picked up speed punctuated with occasional flashes of lightening up ahead at the end of the valley. I was surprised with the contrast of colours this place presented compared to the time we visited it last during the Bali Pass traverse in November of the previous year. Winter somehow makes this place wear a dreary brownish look whereas now, in monsoons, it was vibrant with the lively green.


We regrouped at the Forest Hut at Ruinsara where a fire was quickly setup with some woodstock available in that room. Our team was so far dispersed that it took us a total of 90 minutes to regroup by which time we had a full session of downpour. Krushi and Rachit were literally dragging their feet and body with exhaustion and the Praveen-Pradeep duo was at their wits end, escorting my two friends.


The Nala we had to now cross was visible from the veranda of the hut. Even from that great distance the sound of fury was distinctly audible and the tempestuous waters were clearly visible; increasing our anxiety every passing moment. We were soon relived to see a group of 6 trekkers coming in from Seema.


"Surely they have come after crossing the Nala just now"- the thought crossed my mind.


We now had the last 9 Kilometers to cross along the high banks of Ruinsara Gaad. Soon we were on our way again, this time Jaisingh playing escort to Krushi and Rachit. For some reason Rachit started picking up speed from here on. Don't know if the reason was the heavier air or our jesting taunts at the hut!!
Head to head with Ruinsara Gaad....


The Nala, though it appeared fearsome, with water pouring over the two ends of the log bridge, didn't actually cause any material danger. The sound of the Ruinsara Gaad on to our left was unusually loud, may be because of the torrential rains during the previous days. As we walked along the right bank rather uneventfully, we didn't quite expect it to throw a surprise challenge at the end. Just about two kilometres before our targeted campsite we came to a spot where the river waters had completely submerged the track. Here the track was laid just next to a rock wall and the angry course of the river had flooded it by a good two feet of water.


We somehow managed to cross without even fixing ropes, (We probably were at the end of the patience spectrum) grabbing the rock wall with finger-holds for dear life!! I still shudder at the thought of anyone of us stepping on to the wrong side of the two feet of track width, away from the rockwall. We would then have been in the direct line of fire of the raging river; in fact head porter Rajan Karki came very close to that condition.

In the last stretch, we literally dragged ourselves to the riverside camp where the forest hut is located, a kilometre before the Ruinsara Gaad and Har-Ki-Dun Gaad confluence which forms the river Supin.


Tiff with Rathore...


The camp was setup under conditions of steady drizzle from up above. It took us sometime to placate the disgruntled Porter Sirdar Rathore who refused to lend any help in setting up the camp. Later on, around the camp-fire I blew my top at his uncooperative attitude. Later on I regretted this action of mine. After all it was natural to have a bit of mood-swing when you are carrying 35 Kgs of load in that unforgiving terrain for 22 Kms!!


Rest of the evening was spent in drying the shoes and socks around the camp fire. We had another day of long walk ahead of us ..another 20 Kms of unending march!


Day 9- Ruinsara Gaad Riverside- Taluka
"Dreary March"
The bright and clear morning was a nice surprise after the nightlong rains. Somehow the river waters had gone down considerably, not appearing as forbidding as the evening before.
The trail ahead soon brought us to the wooden bridge that spans across the Ruinsara Gaad and leads one to the left bank of the river. The quick climb of 300 metres after that left us panting and brought us to Gujjar Thatch, a meadow from where the view of distant Kalanag and Banderpunch massif is breathtakingly beautiful.

After a brief traffic jam on the track (our group and a large herd of goats being the involved parties) we reached a sunny Seema. Karan went shooting pics atop the suspension bridge over Supin, perhaps reliving his HKD trek memories. Krushi got busy with the more mundane act of drying his cell phone. After a brief rest, tea and regrouping we set off for stage II of the day's trek.
After a brief chat with the locals at the tea stall, we weren't sure whether to take the lower and the shorter one route to Taluka along the river bank after Gangaad. The close proximity to the rivers made the route condition unpredictable after the rains. On the other hand, the longer route through Dhatmir, would surely add a taxing 4 hours of toil to our laboured muscles!


I was hungry already and started collecting and eating fairly large sized strawberries all along the trail. We reached Gangaad sooner than we had planned and spent the time advantage in gathering research data for the "Route" decision.


The unanimous recommendation of the village elders was to take the lower route and that suited us just fine
An old gentleman was livid with rage and disappointment the moment I indicated a faint doubt about his recommendation
"Galat salah nahin denge hum aapko! Devtaon ka jagah hai yeh. Hum jo kehte hain dil se kehte hain aur jo sahi hai woh batate hain"- said he. So we took the call and went by the recommended path. As always, those were sincere and well meaning advice.


The slope of Dying pines..
Just before reaching Taluka we spotted a whole slope full of dying pines. We stopped there a moment wondering how a whole mountain side of pines would die just like that all together. Almost as if afflicted by some epidemic!! To me it appeared man-made. But can't really say how! Luckily there wasn't a single point where the track was in close vicinity of the massive cascading waters of Supin. By the time we reached Taluka at 1600, we were walking zombies.


Of Snakes, Desi chicken, Bikaneri Namkeen and sweet smoke..


Fortunately, we got accommodation in the pretty Forest Guest House, where we had so dearly longed to stay during our way back from Bali Pass. It's a neat little guest house nestled on a hilltop that overlooks the Taluka village on to its right and the twisting course of Supin right ahead. Far ahead are the peaks of Har-Ki-Dun valley from where the main stream of Supin emanates. The valley leading till there was made up of giant and gentle green slopes, variously dotted with tall conifers. Sitting in the canopied lounge, smoking the sweet smoke of local herbal derivatives, I dearly longed for some village brewed liquor which was hard to procure. Recent Government orders had banned operation of the village distillery, we learnt later.


We spent a nice evening together lounging around lazily, finishing a dozen packets of Bikaneri Namkeen. Apart from a stray encounter with a 24 inch snake while climbing the stairs of the veranda, which sent me flying into the air in panic, the evening was uneventful. The Chowkidar insisted later on that the snake was of the non-venomous kind and meant no harm. I was a bit surprised with the curious indifference exhibited by the old man about the incident.


The lovely evening ended with a sumptuous spread from Pradeep's kitchen. We had Desi Chicken curry after 10 long days. Plans were made for the next day to send Pradeep as an advance party to arrange for vehicular transport. By this, we hoped to lessen waiting time of transit and an early arrival at Barkot GMVN.


Day 10/11- Taluka- Sankri- Mori- Barkot- Dehradun-Delhi
"Back to Madness"
Encounter with Bear Family!!!
E
arly next morning the full strength of the Walkie Talkie sets were tested. We had reasonably clear transmission over 8 Kms distance, talking to Pradeep who had left at 0600 Hrs with Dalbahadur. They were unduly delayed for half an hour midway because of a Mother- Cub pair of Black Bear. The unconcerned bear-family finally sauntered off leaving Pradeep and Dalbahadur physically unharmed.


Even the last leg of 9 Kms to Sankri posed few minor challenges by way of a couple of river crossings and landslide traverses. Given the experience of the previous 9 days coupled with the anxiety to acquire motorised transport, it all appeared like a cake walk. Rachit ended up as the fastest walker. Had it not been for Praveen, who pleaded with him in no less than two occasions for brief rests, he would have made it to Sankri in two hours flat. He was like a man possessed. I gave up competing with him after sustained effort of well over an hour!!


The transfer over to the hired commander Jeep happened in time and by lunch time we were in Mori, waiting for the vehicle to arrive to take us till Barkot. The team parted there after a group photograph; the porters on their way to Uttarkashi and the senior members like Jaisingh, Pradeep and Praveen escorting us to Barkot.
Krushi got over his journey sickness syndrome without the help of Stugeron and we reached Barkot after a smooth and picturesque drive through lovely pine forests of Purola and Nowgaon.


I was happy to see my Scorpio waiting to take us back to Delhi next morning. After some quick phone-calls to near and dear ones we reassembled for a celebratory drink of wine which was waiting ready for us at the back of my car.


Dusky Beauty!!


There was mindless idle gossip inspired by fertile imagination about a particular dusky beauty staying in the nearby suite. After 10 days of seeing only sheep, goats and shepherds, that was a welcome change.


The team hung around the group of which the dusky beauty was a part. Meanwhile we were witness to the amazing spectacle of Moon-Flowers (Or so the Chowkidar christened it) blooming in front of our own eyes at the first kiss of moonlight.


The weather continued to hold the next day during our long drive back to Delhi from Barkot. After picking up Pramod and Chirag from Dehradun we managed to return to the wild madness of the city at 1830 Hrs. There was eager exchange of experiences on both sides of the Bhagirathi Valley. By an interesting stroke of luck the band of six who went out to trek one route had managed to do two!! Chirag had finally managed to break free and did the whole length of the Tapovan trek without a hitch.


In just 11 days we had bonded together like we were friends forever; this motley groups of people so different and diverse. I think, it's the sharing that does it. The sharing of pains, the joint elation, that feeling of few of you against something out there so gigantic and powerful- that's what does it. Never was there another trek in which I have laughed so much every evening. Even the introspective and reserved Karan would have his heartful, like a daily dose.


As for the experience that we were going through, it somehow reminded me of Roopkund, not necessarily because of the similar timing of the trek. It was that same feeling- Mother Nature in all her toughness and sternness testing you with myriad forces, posing new and different challenges every day and then rewarding you with her heavenly bounty of beauty as you pass each one. Almost every day I had my share of thumping heartbeats and joyous elation. By the end of it all, the Grand Mountains had me so intoxicated, the mighty hangover of it would have to be nursed over one whole month. That intoxication of a queer mixture of adrenaline rush and pure bliss.
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The interested might wish to see the complete captioned album at the following site


Dhumdharkandi Pass- June 2008