Friday, September 28, 2012

Auden's Trail through Shiva's Matted Locks-II

Continued from Part I

Day 7- Upper Ghora Gad Valley Entrance (4600M)- Basisi Bend (5050M) (5 Km)

The skies were finally clearing up. We were looking forward to a great day of long-march that could potentially put us close to the snout of the Basisi Glacier- the farthest and Eastern-most glacier of the Nelang watershed.

(Shepherd shelter ahead of campsite, before Suraji Nala)
Our plan was to explore the inner sanctum of the Basisi (W) Glacier and go over the southern ridge wall to enter the Saraswati valley almost near the Mana Pass- the International Border. We needed to get close to this glacier as early as possible, before the weather turned for the worse.

The climb ahead of the campsite was a biting one involving many scrambles over boulders. About 2 Kms later we came upon a lovely campsite. There was a shepherd shelter there which looked un-visited for a long time; perhaps, ever since the1962 Chinese aggression.

(The frozen Suraji nala coming from Suraji Bamak)
Another hour of scrambling over loose rocks, getting to the river bed and crossing over the not-so-deep Ghora Gaad we gained the right bank that led us to another green meadow. Towards one edge of the meadow was a little rock structure that shepherds usually use for shelter.

On the other side was the long valley-entrance of Suraji Glacier. The waters of the Suraji Nala coming from there had a thick cover of snow. The skies inside the little enclosed valley looked fogged out. If we went directly into the Suraji area in the southerly direction, we would have to cross the 6000 mtr high ridge and then drop down to Tara Glacier and New Jagraon Post. This was a short cut to where we wanted to reach 5 days later.

(Stinger of a climb ahead of Suraji confluence on right bank)
The climb was a stinger after the quick lunch at Suraji shepherd-camp grounds. The route ahead is on the right bank (the side we were in) over a rocky boulder strewn area. By now the landscape looks decidedly Tibetian; massive but easy angles of brown rock-slopes and random patches of snow on them.

Far ahead to the East I could now see the bounding ridge that defined the eastern extremity of Basisi E Glacier. Beyond that was Tibet! We were having the first views of the IB (International Boundary). We were reaching the very edge of our nation’s frontiers! Still gives me Goosebumps, just recalling that feeling.
(Meadow on right bank after climb- 5000M)

The route soon lost some altitude and landed us onto a rocky meadow. We were leveling close to the river now. The valley widened out and seemed to be veering rightwards to the south, about a kilometer ahead. We were looking at the “Basisi Bend”- that sharp turn to the south at the eastern extreme of the Ghora Gad valley. This is where the shapely Basisi Glacier gurgles out its waters from its forked formation- The Basisi West and the Basisi East Glaciers

(Basisi bend camp by riverside- 5050M)

The route on ground was following our well-researched GPS plot with an accuracy of about 5 odd meters. Few hundred yards further ahead, a lovely campsite was visible on the far bank. We decided to make a beeline for that lovely meadow by the riverside after a easy crossover of the Ghora Gaad river.

Today was one of our longest walks; of about 6 Kms. We were back to the true-left, the altitude was now 5050M and we were within striking distance of the Basisi W Glacier.

Day 8- Basisi Bend (5050M)- Basisi W Glacier Snout (5350M) (3 Km)

As one takes the sweeping turn to the right, going upriver at Basisi Bend, one is suddenly made aware of the relative puniness of one’s own being against the Himalayan dimensions all around. The valley walk had ended. It was time to scale some height rapidly.
Army LRP route to the left of the hill
Our route to the right of the hill

Straight ahead to the east we could see the cairn set by the Army-men. That would lead to the Basisi East Glacier- whose eastern extreme was the International border with China.  The Long Range Patrol teams of the ITBP follow that route to directly descend upon the Mana Pass.

(Crossing the Basisi Bend)
Diplomatically, ours was a slightly less adventurous route. We were to follow the valley floor turning right towards the south and enter the undocumented Basisi W Glacier. At its southern extremity lay the imposing walls of the Mana Dhar with a spur leading to its very top. We hoped that it would offer an easy non-technical climb and help us crossover the mighty obstacle. If weather, time and team health supported us, we may even be able to scale the Twin Peaks of the Blue Mountain (On the eastern extremity of the Mana Dhar). From the top of the Mana Dhar ridge, it would be an easy snow-trudge.

Within an hour we began a steep climb on the heaps of the boulders that defined the terminal moraine of the Basisi W Glacier. The glacier snout was somewhere high above. No one was talking. All the chirpiness of the team was gone. The sharp climb was forcing us all to focus hard on the task at hand.

(Terminal moraine of Basisi W Glacier)
Looking at the pace of the porter team, I wasn’t quite sure if we would be able to reach our intended base camp, The Basisi Kund. The route ahead was un-explored, we had no idea what to expect. We chose to remain on the right-lateral moraine ridge rather than getting down to the glacier floor.

By about noontime we reached a small meadow, which would perhaps be 100 meters on each side. A small stream flowed silently in the middle emanating from a small field of melting snow pinnacles – each not more than a foot high. The porters’ train was moving up laboriously, the Basisi Bend area looking far and deep below them.
(Reaching Bugyal Camp at 5350 near Basisi snout)

The GPS showed the Basisi Kund to be still 3 Kms away. After compensating the ground aberrations, I assumed the actual distance to be close to 3.5 Kms. The route ahead was full of loose scree and was looking to be forever winding heavenwards.

Soon clouds started rolling in from the south.

Rather than risking a mis-adventure I decided to camp for the day. We had already gained 300 meters, we had a decent campsite, the weather was turning for the worse and the porters had not yet arrived!
(The trickle of a stream and Basisi Bend far below)

Kalyani suffered a minor injury that day while helping to setup camp. Jaisingh and Janak went ahead to do a recee till Basisi Kund area even as a mild snowfall started recoloring everything around to a drab Black-and-White.

The only prayer that went up silently that night was for the weather gods. If we had a few bad days now, all our plans shall be up in smokes.

climbing towards Basisi Kund in Asia

Day 9- Basisi W Glacier Snout (5350M)- Basisi Kund (5585M) (3 Km)

(En route Basisi Kund)
Although the route along the right lateral moraine rises up constantly, the climb was not the challenge. It was the loose scree on highly exposed slopes that we had to face soon thereafter!

After an hour’s snow trudge from the previous camp we arrived at a rocky platform where the view of the Basisi W Glacier opened up in front of us- a massive virgin snowfield, spread over about 6 Sq Kms. We were on its Eastern side. The Western ridge wall that separates it from Suraji Glacier was appearing close to our right. What a view that was!

Another hour of arduous labor brought us to a high platform at about 5650 M. The view of the Southern Ridge wall now opened up. That was the Mana Dhar; our ultimate objective. Beyond that, was the Saraswati Valley and our exit route to Badrinath.

(View of Basisi Kund area, ridge at centre frame was
planned route. Actual was to the right)
Few more meters of walk opened up the view of large water body, nestled right below the ridge wall that we were gawking at so far. Google Earth proved correct yet again. The frozen pond was indeed looking like 160 Meters long and 60 meters wide. We were having the first glimpses of the Basisi Kund. The altitude read just below 5600M.

As we went about setting up the camp, three men went ahead to carry out a recee for the next day. One of our porters was complaining of stomach pain, bringing back horrendous memories of the Guptkhal trek.

“कुछ नहीं होगा सर, इसको गैस हो गया है। अज्वैन और जड़ी बूटी वाली चाय पिलाता हूँ इसे। थोड़ी  ही देर में  ठीक हो जायेगा।” Said Jaisingh.

(Praying for good weather and team health - Basisi Kund)
I only hoped and prayed. We did have a backup plan though. If the guy falls really ill, we could send back some of the porters to Nilapani. They could perhaps handle the downhill march in a single day.

By evening, all worries were put to rest. Vinod and party came back reporting that they have found a reasonably easy route that led up from the glacier floor. By late evening, Jaisingh reported that the porter had recovered from his flatulence. 

Day 10- Basisi Kund (5585M)- Basisi Col (5900M)- Blue Mountain Hollow( 5750M) (3 Km)

The morning broke sunny and nice; just the kind of weather one hopes for on the summit day. The route plan was discussed as we geared up for the tough climb ahead.
(Route to Basisi Col)

We had to get down to the glacier floor to about 5600 M and then march up till the foot of the Mana Dhar at about 5700M. From there we would attempt a diagonal ascent to the top of the prominent saddle that was plotted at about 5900M. Everything looked fine except for the problem of loose scree.

Imagine putting your foot on any large looking rock on that slope only to find it sliding down; taking down few other rocks along with it!  Every single rock out there seemed ready to be loosened just as one touched it.
(View before getting down to Glacier floor)

The Cwm of the Basisi W Glacier has a lovely layout. It is not too large, gently undulating and all covered with a thick layer of virgin snow. On the one side are the brown rocky walls of Mana Dhar and on the other side, the lovely snow capped peaks. It was a small snow kingdom of its own; a typical cranny of the majestic Himalayas.

We needed to reach the top as soon as possible, before the afternoon weather took over. In spite of the terrible obstacle of the loose scree, we did manage to reach the top in the nick of time. The clouds were beginning to roll in when we stood on top of “Basisi Col”- 5900M.
(Loose Scree all the way till top)

We had achieved the objective. Our hands folded in prayer to the Great Mountain for having allowed us this far. This was a personal pilgrimage for me. I had promised myself this difficult objective as a way of praying to the mountain to for the well being of my father. Standing there at the summit ridge I mumbled something to the camera, some prayer perhaps even as the eyes clouded out.

Ahead to the East we could see the brown hills of Tibet- totally devoid of snow; a sharp contrast with the view south towards the Saraswati Valley. The Mana Pass area looked so far below.
(Basisi Col 5900 M- ridge leading to Tara Peaks behind))

A large glacier led away into the Tibet plateau near the pass. On its left bank would be the century old trade route that went to Guge and Toling Math in Tibet. Invariably, in all travel writings about this area, one finds the mention of the treasures of gold that used to be in this monastery at Toling.

One wonders, if the association of Kuber- the God of wealth, with the upper Alaknanda valley had anything to do with the priceless treasures of Toling in the olden days! A point worth noting is that, the Kinnaur valley too is just about 30 odd kilometers away westwards from Toling Math. “Kinners” or “Kinnaurs” according to the Hindu mythology are the attendant army of Kuber- The God of Wealth. He rules over the mythical city “Alakapuri” – the name of the glacier from which river Alakananda emanates in the current day.
(The Border and Mana Pass- Left is Tibet, Right is India)

Was it possible that Kuber was a real character?  Did he have any connect with this historically prosperous City of Gold at Toling? Were the people of Kinnaur valley at sometime part of this prosperous Kingdom?  I was lost in such thoughts looking at the far away northeastern horizons where the fabled city lay.

In another day we shall be on that path which many a traders, armies and bandits have followed in the heydays of business between the Mana- Badrinath region and the Kingdom of Guge at Toling.
(Begining descent for high camp)

Jaisingh had already identified a possible route of descent- the trickiest part in any expeditionary trek. The route looked comparatively easy and led us directly to the hollow at the bottom of the Blue Mountain on whose West-shoulder we were now standing at Basisi Col. The two tarns predicted by Google Earth were clearly visible. They could help set up a camp nearby.

In another hour we set up the highest camp of the trek – at 5750 M. This was even higher than our Guptkhal base camp!

The team was a little apprehensive about the proximity of the Chinese border.
(High camp at 5750M- Blue Mountain hollow)

रात को कोई China वाले बन्दुक ले कर तो नहीं आ जायेंगे?”- said Vinod
“भाई, no one in the team knows the route ahead. What if we enter China by mistake?” – said Bunty
“Did you think, anyone knew the route till now?”- I asked back with a smile.
“The only guy who knows the route in this team is this little device- this Garmin 62 S- handheld”- It was fun to pull his leg.

We were surely a chirpier lot that evening in spite of the biting cold. Climatically Nelang and Saraswati valley are entirely different- all because of the rain shadow that Mana Dhar creates.

Nelang is dry, comparatively grassier and slightly warmer too compared to what we were experiencing now. The Saraswati valley sees lot more snow and rain and the terrain is lot more devoid of life compared to the Nelang side at similar altitudes. The mercury dropped below -10 that night. It felt nice to imagine that Delhi was reeling under a 40-degree heat wave in the nights at that time.

Day 11- Blue Mountain Hollow( 5750M)- ITBP New Jagraon (5000 M) (12 Km)

Now we were homeward bound. The only little issue was about finding out the road. We knew that we were very close to the fair weather road that the BRO maintains till Mana Pass, may be just about 2 Kilometers.
(Panorama of snowfield leading to Saraswati Valley Balcony. The valley depression ahead is not visible from here)

A gentle slope led us to a raised snowfield from where the view opened up. Majestic looking Mt Saraswati and Mt Balbala were glistening in the sun with many subsidiary peaks in their attendance. The taller stalwarts of the area- MukutKamet and Mana were hidden behind towering outlines of these immediate neighbors.
(First view of Deo Taal and Roadhead)

What was appearing to be a flat snowfield slowly revealed the depression of the valley it was hiding. We arrived at a balcony sort of a platform from where we could now have the unobstructed view of the Saraswati valley to our right and the small bowl of a frozen lake that looked perfectly circular- Deo Taal, the glacial lake that gives birth to River Saraswati.

Dev-Saras” – mentions Sri Swami Tapovananam in his book, “Wanderings in The Himalayas”.

(Deo Taal from 200 Mtrs above)
He writes in that famous travelogue- “… There are few places in the Himalayas where one can enjoy the beauty of snow and ice as here. At that great height of 18000ft, on the shore of that celestial lake, surrounded by never-melting snow on all sides, I entered into a deep Samadhi induced by natural beauty, forgetting Kailash, forgetting the pilgrimage, forgetting the world and forgetting the body itself. ….”

I remembered the Dy Commandant of ITBP 12th Battallion telling us an interesting anecdote about this lake

“Do you know that people have done sail-boating in this lake Deo Taal that you will see on the way? You should also carry some sail boating stuff”- He said with a twinkle in his eyes.
(View towards Saraswati Valley and Badrinath from 5700M)

“ I know I know…one Mr Gautam Dutta I think”. I remembered the only picture of Deo Taal available in Google Earth during the days of expedition-research the previous year.

I was lost in those thoughts looking absentmindedly at the gorgeous view of Deo Taal and the Saraswati Valley further south. Compared to that, the area towards Tibet was looking a drab brown and purple.

“My country is beautiful!” I could not but help thinking out loud :-).
(Volley Ball on the shores of Deo Taal)

Soon the team gathered at the shores of Deo Taal where we caught up with the motor road that leads to Mana Pass. The Pass was about a Kilometer away from where we stood. After touching the motor road many of us kneeled down and kissed the earth in thanksgiving.

The hike downhill was almost in double fast forward. The landscape was a total contrast to what we had seen in the Nelang valley. Except for the motor road, almost everything else was snow covered. The only other colors were from the beautiful cerulean sky and the brown rocks.
(The winding road from Deo Taal to Jagraon)

We marched for another three hours and 10 Kilometers to reach the Army FRP hut at ITBP-New Jagraon Post. We weren’t going to pitch tents tonight; we had managed to find few well maintained Army  barracks that could provide shelter to the teamThe distant reflections from solar panels of the Rattakona ITBP Post were visible from there- 5 Kilometers away perhaps, we reckoned.

बस गाडी मिल जाये रत्ताकोना से …” the team was discussing animatedly. Now that the challenge was over, we were eager to get back home to our families.

Day 12-ITBP New Jagraon (5000 M)- Ghastoli (23 Km)- Badrinath

(Road to Badrinath snow bound)
The road ahead of Jagraon towards Badrinath would be a dream to drive on during better times of the season. At this point in time it was heavily snow covered.

Plodding through snow, just about a kilometer from Jagraon, we saw a team of ITBP Jawans coming up.

“Human beings at last!” exclaimed someone.
आप लोगों से मिल के बहुत ख़ुशी हुई। 10 दिन बाद कोई आदमी देखने को मिला। …” Bunty was shaking the hand of the lead ITBP guy effusively.
“आप लोगों का आने का messageकल ही पहुँच गया था हमें। आप लोग रत्ताकोना मैं  wait करें; वहां से हमारे ट्रक मैं आप को लिफ्ट मिल जायेगा ”.. said their team leader.
(Negotiating the icewalls en route Rattakona)

Our excitement doubled. If we did manage to get a lift in the ITBP truck, we surely shall be in Badrinath by evening.

The route now leveled us close to the riverbed as we approached the vast snowplains of Rattakona. In couple of places runaway glaciers from adjacent slopes invaded the fair-weather road, the ice slabs thicker than 20 feet in some places, that required us to rely on some ice-craft.

जय हिंद !” – I greeted an oncoming soldier.
जय हिंद  Sir. कहाँ से आ रहे हैं। ” – He asked
Nelang- Nilapani और फिर  Mana Pass होते हुए।”- I replied as I noticed some incredulity in the eyes of the young soldier and my chest swelled in pride :-).
(Snow plains of Rattakona)

The team soon grouped at the post and was overjoyed to see the lone PCO at the post. While the members queued up at the PCO to talk back home, the porters dumped their loads on the waiting ITBP truck and started off on foot for Ghastoli, 18 Kms away; there wasn’t enough room in the truck to carry the entire party.

After a simple yet tasty lunch at the ITBP post we hitched a ride on their personnel carrier that was waiting for us. On the way we met a bikers’ group from Delhi that was attempting a bike ride till Mana Pass. The invading glaciers on the motor road beyond Rattakona now hampered their expedition and they were on their way back.
(Team at Mana Village with ITBP Driver Prahlad Singh)

It was a pleasant surprise to find that the walking porters reached us at Ghastoli just after a gap of half an hour. They were on foot and we were on a 150bhp Truck!

Thus ended an epic odyssey through a land rich in history, legends and parables.

But as we drove back home, the long road leading to Tirpani area flashed before the eyes and also the small bridge at Dumku leading to Chor Gad valley. Thoughts engaged the  mind as to how would Muling La look like and why it went to disuse. The interesting satellite imagery of clear blue lakes ahead in the valley of Jadung  beaconed for the next adventure. 

But the very thoughts warned of the redtape-wranglings ahead; the complex labyrinth of passage through the corridors of bureaucracy to obtain the ILP. All this, to explore the corners of my motherland!

There is much to explore here only if someone high up understood few things.
  • That there is nothing to hide as strategic information for map-making in the days of Google Earth. We perhaps had a much more accurate contour map than any possessed by the authorities.
  • That civilian activity in sensitive areas only increases our sovereignty over the lands we have. 
  • That greater civilian interaction in such areas is not only helpful for local economy but also a morale booster for the brave soldiers that guard that frontier.
  • That an easier method of allowing exploration in such areas would actually serve the interest of the nation economically,  politically, diplomatically and militarily. 
The movie trailer of this journey can be seen here:

The link to the Captioned Facebook Album here:

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Auden's Trail through Shiva's Matted Locks- I

Forbidden” and “Impossible” are the two words that have perhaps been the cause of most adventure, exploration and discovery. Such is the nature of the human mind.

Loving the drive on the winding road ahead of Bhaironghati, on my maiden venture to Gangotri, in the summer of 2000, one of those words had caught my attention.

Just when we were half an hour away from finishing the long drive from Delhi, a blue and red board on our left announced,

"नेलोंग , प्रतिबंधित क्षेत्र में जाना वर्जित है"
(Nelang, Restricted area, Entry Forbidden)
(The Road to Nelang)

That left a mark in the mind though we neither had the time nor the inclination to dwell upon it further on that occasion. For a new visitor, the Bhagirathi valley has enough on offer to keep one’s eyes, mind and camera busy.

The words kept coming back much after we were back home.
“The place has history!” I realized, when I researched the Nelang area.

Giving rise to one of the largest tributaries of the Bhagirathi, the Nelang area lies to the North of the Bhagirathi Valley.  It forms a buffer between the China-controlled Tibet and the valley that gives rise to the holiest river of India. The tributary that comes in from this watershed actually bears a name, that’s a Vedic Synonym of The GangesThe Jahnavi or The Jadh Ganga.

The story of the Holy Ganga's descent from the heavens  describes, the tribulations that the Great King Bhagiratha went through. Many of us may think that the story ended when Lord Shiva opened his matted locks and the mighty Ganga landed on earth at the Gaumukh Glacier. But the puranic story does not stop there.
(The mythological story of Ganga's descent)

Apparently, King Bhagiratha still had a job to do; he had to lead the river-mother to the area that were to later become ocean. As he did so, he came upon the hermitage of the great sage Jahnu. The tempestuous flow of the river inundated and damaged the sage’s hermitage inviting the wrath of the learned one. In a feat of anger, the sage swallowed the entire river in a single gulp. King Bhagiratha was crestfallen with his luck, yet again, and started praying to the Great Sage to release the river-mother.

Pleased with the King’s humility and devotion, the sage released the river from his body. Since she emanated from his body, she became, theoretically, the daughter of Sage Jahnu.  Thus she got an additional name- Jahnavi; The daughter of Jahnu.  The river in the Nelang Valley watershed carries this ancient name.

If ever one visits this area one can realize that there may be some geographical credence to this age-old story. The deep gorges that define the Bhagirathi for the entire length of 20 Kms from Harsil till Bhairon Ghati do indicate that there would have been a time when tremendous force of water would have cut through those walls of rock. It may be that, the river was stopped or dammed due to natural causes at some ancient time, which would have caused water to accumulate and then burst forth with great fury cutting away all those gorges! Who knows?

History of the Nelang Valley Watershed

1962 के बाद यह एरिया बंद हो गया सर। यहाँ अन्दर "जादुंग" गाँव था। उस गाँव के लोग अब हरसिल के पास बसते हैं। अन्दर खाली मिलिटरी वाले जाते हैं। ”. I remember listening to Chandan Singh Bisht’s narrative almost a decade back.

The place came knocking back at the consciousness on many occasions thereafter.

Reading up Heinrich Harrer in his book “7 Years in Tibet” (The Character played by Brad Pitt in the Hollywood movie titled by the same name) I realized it’s that forbidding valley through which Harrer escaped to Tibet from the British prison at Dehradun.

J B Auden in his famous exploration of the tributaries of Bhagirathi landed up in this valley in 1939. He wished to cross over from the Nelang area to the Alakananda watershed but did not succeed. He returned to the Bhagirathi and explored the left bank crossing over an unnamed col into the Khatling Glacier and Kedarnath area. That col still bears his name (Auden’s Col) but the extraordinary explorations he did a couple of month’s before that remained relatively unnoticed.

 Mr Harish Kapadia and Mr Romesh Bhattacharjee from the Himalayan Club repeated Auden’s explorations in the late eighties and documented their experiences with great detail. In fact it was one of those late evening browse-throughs of Mr Kapadia’s writing that I saw the first glimmer of possibility to explore this forbidden area. The experience of struggling through the bureaucracy to enter the Girthi Valley in the previous year added to that budding confidence.

 The Nelang Watershed was famous for many centuries for the massive trade traffic between South Western TibetGarhwal and Rampur-Bushaher. With Tibet to its North, Rampur to its West and Garhwal to its Southwest, it was the Himalayan Singapore in those days.  The wide trans Himalayan watershed had few villages- Nelang and Jadung; and one market- “The Pidiya Mandi”  (Mendi- as mentioned in old British Maps), which used to attract traders from far and wide. Old inhabitants of Uttarkashi still remember the weird habits and looks of the Tibetian traders that came in to trade from the Nelang area.
(The Jahnavi Watershed)

Ridges that have an average altitude of about 6000 Meters bind the entire Nelang Valley. To the North is the Thag La ridge, to the West are the high ridges of Garhwal Himalayas, to the East is the Muling Ridge and to the South and South-East is the Mana Dhar Ridge.

Three major streams come together to form the Jahnavi or the Jadh Ganga river in the Nelang or Jadh area. The one on the Western extreme is called Chor Gaad, The one in the middle is called Tirpani Gaad and the one to the South-east (bordering the Alaknanda Valley) is called the Mana Gaad. Each one of these streams has a bit of history behind.

The Tirpani Gaad valley saw most of the trading activities for eons. The two passes at the head of this valley- The Tsang-chok-La and The Thag-La were the favorite routes of many Tibetian traders because of the easy passage they offered. In fact, Harrer in his famous escape to Tibet used the Tsang- Chok-LaThag La, the other pass also used to see much traffic of Tibetian Traders headed towards Pidiya Mandi in Nelang.

The Chor Gaad valley helped the not-so-scrupulous traders to carry out tax evasion (and hence the name).  In fact tax was the bane of the inhabitants and traders of Nelang. All the three political entities surrounding it claimed taxation rights- The nearest Tibetian Djong-PenThe Raja of Rampur-Bushaher and the Raja of Garhwal.  The Chor Gaad valley was used by the traders to escape the Tax collectors and establish an alternate route between the Nelang Trading Zone and the kingdom of Rampur-Bushaher over a lesser-known pass called Chungsakhago La (An Account of Kunawoor in Himalaya- Capt Alexander Gerard – PP 17/48/49, 1840- James Madden & Co) at the head of the Chor Gaad valley. Crossing the Chungsa-khago, brought one to the Baspa Valley and then on to ChitkulSangla and Rampur.

The Mana Gaad valley saw relatively less action except for a trading pass called Muling La which lies at the head of on of its tributaries- The Nilapani GaadAuden in his 1939 exploration reported that this pass had been in disuse for close to a hundred years at that time. This means, it has been in disuse for close to at least two centuries as I write this in 2012. Perhaps comparatively more action has been seen in this valley in the last 50 years, after establishment of permanent posts by the Indian Army and the ITBP after the 1962 Chinese Aggression.


The interest in the area re-kindled after finishing the Girthi Ganga exploration in 2011. Browsing through Google Earth and the threads of in one of those lazy evenings I chanced upon 2 things.

A series of pictures posted in the Nelang region by R Bhattacharjee (which he had shot during his explorations in 1985) and an announcement by a team from Bangalore to cross the Arwa Col from Alaknanda valley into the Nelang Valley.
(John Bicknell Auden)

Arwa Col was first christened and referred to by J B Auden (Younger brother of famous poet W H Auden) during his 1939 explorations (Himalayan Journal Vol 12, A Season's Work in Central Himalaya), which he wished to locate and cross for finding an easy passage to the Alaknanda valley and Arwa glacier. He did not succeed in locating it. Mr Harish Kapadia from Himalayan Club Mumbai followed Auden’s route almost 50 years later and landed up at an alternate pass – Saraswati Col, which allowed a look into the Alaknanda watershed.

The team from Bangalore led by JP Gupta was planning to do what had not been done yet. They were not only planning to locate the Arwa Col, but also intended to use it for crossing over from the Alaknanda watershed to the Nelang valley. If they managed to do it, they would be the first ever in the history to do so as a civilian expedition team.

Out of sheer curiosity, I started doing a Google Earth research of the possible route they could follow and soon got hooked on to doing a virtual exploration of the valley for almost the entire month of the August of 2011.

Armed with the digital elevation data and the satellite imagery of the area taken at different times of the year, so easily available with Google Earth, I managed to plot routes in the entire Nelang valley and also chanced upon three different points on the Mana Dhar which seemed like possible non-technical cross-over points from the Nelang Valley into the Saraswati Valley in the Alakananda watershed. 
(The Planned Route)

After that month-long research I was reasonably confident that an easy crossover was possible and we did stand a chance of being at least the second team in history to achieve the objective, the idea of which, was created by Sir J B Auden about 75 years back. It all depended on the success of JP’s team from Bangalore- whether we would have a chance to be the first team or the second.

Three month later, a phone call from Vishwa, my trek-mate in the Guptakhal trek, who was also part of JP’s Arwa Col team, gave me a glimmer of hope that we might have a chance of attempting to make a first-ever crossover from Nelang to Alaknanda watershed.

The Bangalore team’s attempt was hurt by unfriendly weather – The Mana Dhar remained unconquered by civilians. The trekking season for 2011 was ending soon and God willing we had a chance of an attempt in the early summers of 2012.

Thus the idea of “Auden’s Trail- 2012” was born. 
(The Actual Route taken)

In a way we wished to commemorate Auden’s idea after 75 Years. We wished to crossover from the Mana Gaad valley in the Nelang(Jahnavi) watershed into the Saraswati Valley in the Alaknanda Watershed over the 6000 Meter high Mana Dhar . We would thereby also open a new route between Gangotri area and Badrinath area; possibly an alternative to the deadly “Kalindi Khal”.

A strong and proven team was needed for the exploratory expedition and hence we could not afford too many new members. With stringent evaluation, we did manage to include a few good campaigners in the team who also later, as usual, became friends for life.

Bharat, Rajesh, Ravin, Kalyani had all been in difficult treks together and were seasoned campaigners. Bunty was trekking for the first time after a gap of 10 years, but being my first cousin and childhood-buddy I was aware of his physical resilience. But, Kuntal and Anant, the new members were the real discoveries.
(Top- Anant, Bharat, Anshuman
Middle- Ashutosh, Rajesh
Bottom- Kalyani, Kuntal, Ravin)

I wasn’t really too worried about their physical abilities, given their past experiences, but about the aspect of the teaming in together. Both surprised us all by their positive contribution and engaging spirit for achieving the mission objectives.

Kuntal was on a sabbatical from his high adrenalin job in InfoTech and Anant, the young entrepreneur and a die-hard “Crossfit” fan was de-stressing himself briefly from his business. They were interesting, funny and inspiring in their inimitable ways. Almost all the members had a minimum altitude experience of above 5500 Meters in high Himalayas, except for Bunty. He was going to change that status very soon.

Day 01- Uttarkashi- Dharali 

The Monal guesthouse made the halt at Uttarkashi taste slightly different. Perched high on the sides of the Varanavat mountain, the tall forested hill that overlooks Uttarkashi, the guesthouse has an homely and idyllic setting. The walk back and forth from that high point to the downtown area, prepped us for the trying physical exertion ahead.

After finishing the required documentation for insurance and application for ILP (Inner Line Permit) we went over to Matali, about 8 Kms away, to meet the Commandant of ITBP 12th Battalion. We had to handover a letter to him from Capt M S Kohli who had been kind enough to send in his words of recommendation. Commandant Upadhyay was highly supportive of our venture but did re-iterate the necessity to follow the official procedure.

The authority to grant permission was the office of the SDM.

“Once you get your ILP (Inner Line Permit) from the authorities, we will help and support you in whichever way we can” assured Commandant Upadhyay.

We later discovered that not only was the ITBP intimated, but the Army personnel in Garhwal Scouts were also informed about our tour.

Perhaps, a letter to the Brigade Command of Ibex brigade had helped. The Ibex brigade, an independent combat formation of the Indian Armed forces, looks after most of the International Border areas in Uttarakhand.

After such interactions, the excitement and patriotic fervor in the team raises several notches. An invisible camaraderie develops with all those men in uniform who explore and live in the mountains as part of their job.

We rode an open Tata-Ace back to the Uttarkashi town, our hearts throbbing with excitement as to what was about to unfold the next few days.

We were going to see the Chinese border :-)!  Perhaps rub shoulders with these brave young men in uniform; give them company for a few days and live few moments of pride!

“हम तो चाहते हैं की आप जैसे लोग आयें। हमारे जवानों को भी पत्थर और भरल के अलावा कुछ और भी दिख जाया करेगा। …”Commandant Upadhyay was commenting few moments back.

ILP was issued the next day and we left for Harsil by afternoon. The rains had unleashed fury upon the winding switchbacks of the Sukhi Top, about 10 Kms short of HarsilBharat, Anant and I had to get involved in traffic management for a while using our team radio sets. After 4 hours of hold up in the Sukhi Top area we finally managed to reach Dharali late in the night.

The lazy stay at Uttarkashi had helped in the teaming process. The frequent laughter, teasing and story telling were reassuring. The team was bonding well.

Day 2- Dharali (2650M)- Nilapani Camp(3950M) 54 Km Drive

Driving by the Bhagirathi on the gently serpentine roads of the Harsil valley is always a pleasure- it’s almost a movie like experience. Before long we were entering the giant bends that leads one to the little Dhaba junction of Bhairon Ghati. There is an ancient Bhairon Temple there.

I paid obeisance at the temple praying for the health and well being of my father. This expedition was a personal pilgrimage for me; a prayer to the mountain gods for the safe release of my father.

The team had a nice breakfast of Paranthas and watermelon!  Kuntal and I warmed up our cameras. We were soon going to enter the road to Nelang- The forbidden road! We shall soon be capturing views that are not easily viewable to the ordinary “Civilian!” :-).

Vinod had already left with an advance team in the morning to submit documents at ITBP-Kopang and to acquire the necessary permits from the forest office at Gangotri.

We were to rendezvous with them directly at Nelang.

Soon enough we entered the forbidden area, marked by the blue and red board-
Nelang 23 Kms, Entry Prohibited

The entrance beyond that board is lined with small huts that house the families of the workmen who work on road construction projects inside the Nelang valley.

The Government has invested quite a lot of resources to make the Nelang a “permanent” post- one that is open for all 12 months in a year. Well-engineered all-weather roads have been constructed almost till one of the farthest point in the Nelang valley- till Tirpani!

Valley में घुसते ही हवा Bend आयेगा। वहां थोड़ा  रास्ता ख़राब रहता है। Otherwise roads are good. You should not have any problems” – Commandant Upadyay had informed us couple of days back.

The Hawa Bend is an area having a thin motor-track built along the vertical face of a rock wall. Several gangs of workers and few heavy machines were busy patching up damaged parts of the road. Mid way through it one can see an interesting looking wooden structure snaking across a sheer vertical rock face on the far bank of the valley.

“Pitton से बना रखा है यह ब्रिज सर।! पहले घोड़े जाते थे इस रास्ता से।” Jaisingh was continuing his running commentary.
(The ancient wooden bridge pittoned to the rock face)

Indeed! Harrer and Auden describe this part of the trail in their respective books and so do Kapadia and Bhattacharjee in their respective journals. That interesting looking wooden structure was an ancient piece of engineering- a bridge made out of logs that are literally  nailed into the walls of a sheer rock face! The trade traffic from Tibet used to depend on it!

As one looks back along the Jadh Ganga driving into Nelang, the Mt Shrikanta stands tall, guarding the exit of the valley. As one looks ahead, an array of snow ridges define the horizon. Towards the right- eastwards, the Nelang valley opens up. Straight ahead and little to the left is the Chorgad valley.
(Mt Shrikanta- 6153M, Guarding the exit of Jahnavi)

Soon the baby pines start appearing on the road side- result of some afforestation drive perhaps. The dusty road winds ahead to the Nelang Check Post. An ITBP guard examines our papers and waves us in. We were now deep into the military area.

The landscape now was a shade trans-Himalayan; shallow and brown rocky mountains with sprinklings of snow and some green dotting at places.

9 Kms ahead of Nelang is the Naga Post where the Tirpani Gaad and Mana Gaad, two of the three great tributaries in the valley, confluence together. Beyond this point our route took a more Easterly course and moved along the right bank of Mana Gaad
(View of Nelang and Jahnavi en route Naga confluence)

During the rest of our stay in the Nelang valley, we shall stay with this East-West orientation. Good for camping! One will have early mornings and early sunlight!

It was midday when we reached the Nilapani Post, where the Jeepable track ends. Supplies were unloaded and ferried across the river to a lovely campsite, just at the confluence of the Mana Gaad and the Nilapani Gaad.  

In the afternoon Vinod and I went into the ITBP camp and introduced ourselves to the local post commander- Inspector Nautiyal. After the papers formalities were over, the inspector was gracious enough to lend our team, ten additional liters of Kerosene. But they would not accept the price of that fuel; just humanitarian assistance, they would say :-).
(Nilapani camp in full moon, 3950 M)

As the evening wore on we had this beautiful view of a moonrise over the eastern skies, of a lovely full moon rising over the companion ridges of the Trimukhi Parvat. A nice campfire capped the evening. We were getting ready for the challenge that was to begin the next morning.

Day 3- Nilapani (3950M)- Trimukhi Gorge CG(4150M) (5 Km)

We took the crucial decision of following the right bank of the river. Three ITBP Jawans had told us the previous evening that the road along the right bank is ok and would easily take us all the way to Tridhara boulder field.
(Route along the right bank of Mana Gaad)

Something wasn’t ok. All the readings that I have ever done on the area, have always mentioned a river crossing at the Nilapani confluence; a crossing over to the left bank. Both Auden and Kapadia have written thus. But here we were, trudging up the right bank where the route was appearing too easy to believe!

Almost 200 meters upriver from the campsite, we saw the Lambi Gaad coming in from the opposite bank, from the glaciers that accumulate at the bottom of the North Face of Mt Shrikailash.  A log spanned the body of the water indicating a temporary route on the opposite bank- on the true left of Mana Gad as described in many texts.
(The nasty descent)

After negotiating a nasty descent on a rock about 150 ft high, we walked long for about 4 Kms after which the trail disappeared. The ITBP personnel who advised us to follow the right bank the previous evening had perhaps not come this far! 

The only choice we had was to cross the Mana Gaad and hope for a better route on the other bank. The topography on the far side was looking much friendlier.

After an eventful crossover we soon found ourselves on a nice campsite above the high left bank of the river.  My Google research was correct after all!
(Crossing the Mana Gaad near Trimukhi Gorge)

The satellite imagery and elevation data of Google Earth had shown a much friendlier track on the left bank. I chose to ignore that because I thought the ground intelligence of the local ITBP scout was perhaps more reliable.

It is a much better idea to make the crossing at Nilapani itself and catch the left bank. There is a trail and the route is much friendlier.
Dead Juniper wood was abundant at the campsite! We lit up a nice campfire on that grassy balcony overlooking the Mana Gaad valley. Somewhere over our heads Mt Shrikailash ruled supreme. I could only imagine. We were so near it, the mighty peak was beyond our line of vision.

Day 4/5- Trimukhi Gorge CG(4150M)- Trimukhi Nala Valley (4300M) (4 Km)

We had to reach the large boulder visible due southeast and then veer into an easterly course. Vinod had advised accordingly and that broadly agreed with the GPS plot too. I was happy to be back on my pre-plotted GPS navigated route. There were no guides here. We were self-navigating a route dangerously close to the not-so-friendly borders of our neighbor. We had to depend on the 13 satellites of Uncle Sam hovering over our heads for accurate feed back on our geographic location.
(First view of the Trimukhi Nala Plains)

After an arduous climb that lasted over couple of hours we arrived at a flat terminal moraine field of a glacier long dead. The route ahead for a very long distance looked much friendlier than what we had encountered so far.

An hour later we were looking down at a wide-open valley from our high rocky platform. The place wore almost Harsil-isque dimensions. This valley was as wide as the Bhagirathi valley is at Harsil!

Surrounded by purple wild flowers, lying on that high rocky platform, that view of the Trimukhi Nala area remains indelible in the mind. To our right, the tall summit of Trimukhi Parvat pierced the skies. Far below, the rocky bed of the Mana Gaad flattened out wide, at the middle of which, a mound of bright yellow caught our attention. 
(The camp at Trimukhi Plains- at the feet of the Trimukhi Massif)
(The yellow tarp of expedition dump seen behind the camp)

कोई expedition वाले अपना load dump किये होंगे”, said Jaisingh.

An hour later we were examining packets of tasty-sounding Army rations, all of which were beyond their stated expiry dates. That did not deter us from using the camp kitchen to cook up “expired” Halwa and Dal Makhni. However, we could not consume all of that, fearing unnecessary repercussions upon the team health.

We decided to camp here an additional day to acclimatize better and manage some load ferries. The next day, Vinod and Jaisingh went for a recce ahead with some porters and load. Another team went back to Nilapani for getting the supplies we had left back there.
(The panorama of the Trimukhi Plains. Ghoragaad valley seen to the left)

After a long lazy day inside the tents we got chatting with Jaisingh and Vinod who had just come back from the recee. All I gathered after a long discussion was that the route ahead was nice and easy.

Day 6 - Trimukhi Nala Valley- Upper Ghora Gaad Valley Entrance (4600M) (7 Km)

(Rolling meadows ahead of Trimukhi plains)
The walk next day was indeed fun. Rolling Meadows spread out unendingly. The Ghora Dhar on the far bank wore a weird black-and-white look. A thin layer of snow suddenly depresses things around; perhaps because it suppresses all natural colors in the landscape.

(Looking back at Tridhara boulder field from Ghragad entrance)
Soon enough we were in the middle of the colossal boulder-plains of the Tridhara confluence. The Mana Gaad valley led in from the south to our right, the Ghora Gaad valley was straight ahead. This is where we shall deviate from the trails of JB Auden and Harish Kapadia. We shall go deep into the Ghora Gaad valley straight ahead. Auden and Kapadia had gone south to the right from here.

The Tridhara area presents another perspective to the Himalayan dimensions. It took the average team member almost an hour to cross the massive field of boulders. the team members looking like tiny dots against a giant canvas all the while. 

Walking through Tridhara we were desparately looking for tracks of wild animals. Both Auden and Kapadia have written about existence of Leopards and Bears in the area. Not long after were lucky to find tracks of at least one leopard and one bear. The desolate terra firma has ensured conservation by its geographical remoteness.
(Leopard and Bear tracks at Tridhara)

The mouth of the Ghora Gaad valley had a nice grassy campsite. Vinod and party had dumped their loads there the previous day, well covered and protected under a tarpaulin. 

We lost 2 precious hours waiting there to regroup. The porters were walking slowly and they weren’t willing to walk much further. It required a bit of cajoling, getting them to catch up fast and proceed beyond Tridhara.

2 Kms deeper into the valley we found a nice campsite with plenty of firewood around to hope for a sound campfire. The Ghora Gaad gurgled not too far away.
(Campsite at Upper Ghoragad entrance)
The tall walls of the Suraji Glacier were faintly visible above the shallow horizon to the East. 

We had covered good ground today! With 3 more days of good weather we would be much better placed to achieve mission objectives.

We decided to call it a day.

To be continued in Part II