Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Janhavi Exploration III- The Chor Gad Baspa Traverse-(Part 3/3)

(This expedition won the IMF Award for "Outstanding Exploratory Civilian Expedition" in 2014)

Traversing the Chunsa Khaga

Continued from Part II

Stage II- Snow Trudge through Glacier Kingdom

Kalapani 4350M- Base Camp 4950M (6 Km)- Advanced Base Camp 5250 M(2.5 km)- Chunsa Khaga 5500M (1.5 Km) -Baspa Glacier 5000 M(5 Km)- Gaundar 4250M (14 Km)
(Route ahead of Kalapani Camp on right moraine)

We made rapid progress next day along the right lateral moraine. After about a kilometer we entered the massive glacial amphitheater of the Kalapani glacier at the middle of which gurgled the baby stream of Kalapani Nala (Bushaheri Nala as Tilak would say). Getting into the amphitheater required some step cutting to ensure safety for the laden porters. 
(Exposed slope before entry to main Kalapani Glacier area)

Though there was no crevasse danger in the area, the snow covered boulders made our progress rather slow.

Crossing the Busheheri Nala required only a hop-over. Though the stream currently looked quite innocent, at some point in time it must have carried enormous power. As we had observed the previous day, just a couple of kilometers from where we stood now, this little river has gouged out a relatively new looking gorge almost 300 feet deep, right through the middle of the glacial fan of Kalapani.
(The snow trudge on Kalapani Glacier)

The progress was slow yet steady through the ever rising, steep and virgin snow slopes on the left bank of the Nala. In another hour we gained the tabletop of the left lateral moraine of the Kalapani glacier. As expected a small blue tarn  greeted us at the entrance to the table top. We had noticed this tarn earlier in the Sat-recee.

Located at the very end of the left lateral moraine, it is almost a permanent water body that collects snow-melt from the glacier on the plateau above all year round.
(Base Camp at beginning of the left moraine)

We had found our Base Camp. With fully laden porters, we had managed the 6 Km trudge and the altitude gain of 600 Meters in just over 4 Hours.The weather turned for the worse as soon as we pitched camp and remained so till about midnight. 

A bright morning next day beaconed us to move station to the Advance Base Camp, which we had planned to have at the head of the lateral moraine and at the foot of the pass.
(The steady ascent up the left moraine)

Even though we were a short scramble of three kilometers away from the Advanced Base Camp, we had not yet had a glimpse of our objective. We were just pushing on blindly following GPS and the landmarks.

After about an hour of steady climb on the lateral moraine ridge we came to the head of it where it merged into a minor buttress coming out of the bounding ridge to our right. The left moraine thinned out into a bottleneck at this point as visible from a distance.
(Looking towards head of the valley on the way up)

We had no option but to go over it following a steep zigzag across an exposed slope of virgin snow. Another hour and half a kilometer of frustrating climb later, we finally gained the top of the buttress; a huge convex hilltop. Right ahead to the West was the Chunsa Khaga. Its twin sister, the Chunsa Khaga (South) was nestled prettily to its left beyond a rocky pinnacle.
(Route ahead to ABC at end of moraine)

Technology had delivered yet again. We had almost blindly navigated through the whole of the Upper Chor Gad and Kalapani valleys, our only eyes being the Garmin handheld, and here we were standing right at the feet of a rather friendly looking objective! We were seeing it for the first time even as we almost emerged from under its little toe!!
(ABC on the convex hilltop at base of the Pass)

The weather predictions had been correct, the terrain monitors had been correct, the sat images and landmarks had been correct and the GPS had tracked geo-data with absolute accuracy in all weather conditions.  These were signs that the mountain was in a mood to let us in.

What all would the likes of Gerard, Hodgson, Herbert, Shipton and Tillman have achieved if they would have had access to such mind-numbing technologies?! I reflected for a moment. It was a humbling thought.
(Finally! The Chunsa Khaga shows up)

That evening we set up the prayer flag that the Old Jadh at Uttarkashi had handed over to us. Negi, Nitin and few others laboriously secured anchors for the flag and set it up upon a conspicuous hollow with a steady traffic of wind. It felt nice, keeping our promise to the old man.

The scene around was surreal. Giant 6000ers of the Nelang and adjoining valleys dotted the east and southeast horizon. Pk Nakurche (6010M), our objective of the previous year, dominated the skyline being the closest. Towards the west, the twin passes of Chunsa Khaga North and South were looking glorious, their surfaces shining a metallic gold as the snow-melt deflected the setting sun.
(Keeping the promise made to the Jadh Bhotia at Uttarkashi)

As soon as the sun went down the moon shone bright but the intense cold drew us into the warmth of the sleeping bag.

Sleep was not easy in all that cold and anxiety….

The pass had yet to be crossed and the descent on the other side was still an unknown factor. But the weather was good and the spirits were fine. “In any case we should be able to handle a technical descent if push came to a shove”…  I went to sleep ruminating over all different permutations of possibilities.

(Started off from ABC- long trudge to the top)

The ascent to the pass involves a sharp climb first till a place where the Kalapani North Glacier takes a sharp tumble down. Then the ascent tapers off to an easy gradient. This inflection point where the gradients change was an important part of our route plan since this is where we expected the few crevasses on this side of the pass. Thankfully the potential danger areas were well marked on the GPS and visually confirmed the previous day.
(Actual GPS Plot of the ascent -
Sat Imagery of  Sept 2013 with easier snow conditions)

We thus planned a route keeping close to the left of the glacier at the foot of the bounding ridge to north. Near the point of inflection we steered diagonally to the middle of the glacier so as to avoid potential crevasses. Ahead was an easy incline along a valley-trough about half a kilometer wide.

A small cloud cluster emerged over the dip in the ridgeline ahead clearly demarcating the pass saddle. For a moment my mind wandered off to a fleeting visual of a packed caravan of royal soldiers heading down from that top – dressed in thick woollens and leading down a train of Yaks.
(Little crown of cloud over the saddle)

“That’s how it would have looked like in those days. Would they be looking spirited or saggy? Would they be freebooters looking forward to adventure and plunder or just duty-bound employees“. I was trying to keep my mind busy recreating the romance of a bygone era, perhaps to avoid focusing on the toil that was taking my breath out easily every few steps. Before long we reached the top of the saddle.
(The final ascent to the top- entering mid glacier area)

Within about two hours of the commencement of the climb, the entire team was atop the Chunsa Khaga-5500M; just under 18000 ft (17900ft to be precise) as described by all previous accounts. We had made good time and still had at least 2 to 3 hours of walk left before the unstable afternoon weathers of the extreme altitudes start threatening our plans. The route looked good for the 5 Kms of descent coming up ahead through the snowfield. We could already see a bad patch of gaping crevasses about a kilometer away. It didn't look too big.
(Sprawling panorama of Baspa Glacier from atop the Chunsa Khaga,
Old Joshi getting ready to do 'pooja' of the newly built cairn)

From where we came, the Mt Nakurche shone bright on the horizon bidding us adieu. Farther one could make out the faint outlines of Sri Kailash and Kamet. As we looked ahead across the saddle of the pass we could see the sprawling expanse of the Head of the Baspa Glacier. The complex knot of ridges of the Gundar and Arsomang tributaries of the glacier were directly ahead and the westerly flow of the wide glacier was visible for at least five miles.
(Team with Tricolor atop the Pass
L to R- Ashu, Arun, Vinod, Sanjit, Bharat, Venkat- Nitin on camera)

“उतराई ठीक है  Sir” said Vinod coming up from below the brown ridge on the far side of the saddle. He had finished the initial reconnaissance for the descent as the team slowly regrouped at the summit point. We had set up a large cairn on the brow of the brown patch of rocks that defined the Baspa end of the saddle. The little ridge we were standing on was actually the beginning of the 10-mile long  East-West ridge that acted as the division of the water partings between Baspa and its neighboring valleys to the south. 

It was interesting to observe that the waters of the Chor Gad joined the Bay of Bengal whereas the waters of the Baspa eventually joined the Arabian Sea.  The bed of virgin white snows on each side of declivity of the saddle were going to send out their waters to destinations that were going to be spaced apart by the entire width of the Indian sub-continent.
(Roped descent into the Baspa through crevassed field)

The descent was not as difficult as we expected immediately after the pass. About a kilometer later we could sense a change in the profile of the glacier bed indicating imminent danger of crevasses. The team got organized into two ropes and followed a rib to the flat snowfields of the glacier down below. A couple of sinister looking glacial tarns with greenish-blue waters passed us by on both sides. The sun was beating down mercilessly and the ambient temperatures read a high 44deg Celsius!

After another hour we un-roped having reached stable grounds. After 5 kilometers of traverse from the pass we finally reached the place where the Glacier bends away in a northwesterly direction. The waypoint on my GPS read “Baspa Glacier Bend”!
(Baspa Gl Camp- Tributary glacier in background.
tarn just beyond the dark tent in extreme right)

A little tarn was located nearby where a tributary glacier joined in from the true right of the Baspa headwaters. The glow of the setting sun upon that sloping tributary glacier created the perfect dreamy canvas for the camping of the triumphant team.

We had pushed non-stop for the past 6 days and here we were past the biggest objective and obstacle. Only one last bit remained- that of traversing the length of the uncharted Baspa glacier with its steep avalanche prone sides, without any incident.

Panorama at the head of the Baspa Glacier


Stage III- Out of the mountains along The Baspa


Gaundar CG 4250M- Nithal 4200M(6 Km)- Dumti CG 4000 M (10 Km)- Ranikanda 3700M (12 Km)- Nagasthi 3500M (6 Km)- Chitkul 3400M(3 Km)- Delhi (500 Km Drive)
(Leaving behind Baspa camp,
stream from the camp tarn flows on left)

While designing the route we knew that the right bank of Baspa Glacier was our safest bet for it had the longest unbroken surface, almost till one reached the snout of the glacier. In contrast, the left side was not only close to avalanche prone sides but also was heavily broken for the last 2 kilometers of the glacier’s length. Also the right bank being a south facing side was likely to be more free from snow than the left. After 3 full days in snow we were itching to get back to normal grounds.
(Baby Baspa- 2 Kms from the camp site, 12 Kms to go to the snout!) 

About a hundred meters from the camp we saw the beginning of the little stream of Baspa, which slowly but steadily increased in its girth as we walked along. It went subterranean after a while where the mile long prominent medial moraine became visible. Within about 3 hours of our march we could see the outline of the Lamkhaga ridge junction indicating that the snout area was coming near.
(Beginning of the long medial moraine of Baspa
The course of Baspa stream to its right)

In the last 2 kilometers we could see the death throes of the Baspa Glacier as massive patches of open and broken glacier surfaces revealed the flow of Baspa beneath it. We could see the river fully exposed at least two kilometers above what is formally known as the snout of the glacier. In the last one kilometer or so it looked like a row of massive broken ice slabs standing in reverence on the two sides as the proud Baspa flowed in the middle in her erratic and confounding course.

The day the two transverse ice barriers defining the snout melt away, the source of Baspa will suddenly recede by at least half a kilometer in one stroke!
(The broken terminal moraine area of Baspa Gl
It took us 3 hrs to reach the snout area from here)

After the 14 Km long trudge over snow, rock and boulders we reached the snout around 1500 Hrs. A kilometer ahead was the Gaundar camping grounds; our objective for the day.

The dry shrubs of the area allowed us a modest but nice camp fire that lasted late into the night. We were a relieved bunch having blazed our way through the icy regions in a single push without using any resting time.

The last challenges of the Baspa valley remained to be tackled now- the swollen rivers all the way and the exposed slopes between Dumti and Ranikanda. Our immediate concerns were the two sizeable streams that were to be forded the next day- first the Gaundar Nala and then the bigger and more tempestuous Arsomang Nala. Beyond that lay the Nithal ITBP post- the deepest post in the Baspa valley and the first that we were to see on our way down.


Thankfully a snow bridge over Gaundar Nala and a well-engineered bridge over the Arsomang Nala saw us through to Nithal Post in no time. Twenty odd men from the Army and ITBP greeted us on the high right bank of Baspa.
(With Jawans at ITBP-Nithal
First human habitation after 8 days)

The post staffing was relatively thin since a large detachment of troops had left for military-exercise near the Yamrang La, we were told. After the paperwork and reporting we had the customary photo-op with the jawans before we left for the ten kilometers of onward march to Dumti post.

The river bed fans out wide after the Nithal post, the distance between the two banks gradually increasing to about two kilometers very soon. 
(Wide expanse of Sunthi meadows ahead of Nithal)

The massive flat in between is filled with grass, shrubs and rocks. Numerous springs emerge here on the riverbed and combine to form the clear blue waters of the Nithal Nadi, which merges with the Baspa with in about a kilometer.

Before long we crossed the green meadows heralding the approach of Dumti as the Baspa narrowed down again before taking a giant sweeping turn to skirt the remains of a long dead glacial fan coming down from the Rangrik Rang massif. Upon this flat glacial fan the Dumti post is located.
(Walking along the Nithal Nadi en route Dumti)

Across a stream we saw a small group of people who seemed to be waiting for us. It looked like we had a welcome party from the ITBP ready with ‘chai’ refreshments (tea and biscuits). Nearby was the Karu Devta temple – the presiding deity of the Dumti area.

Legend goes that once Fredrick Wilson of Harsil had travelled to Dumti around circa 1881 and here he fell seriously ill[i]. A goat then had to be offered to Karu Devta before he instantly recovered- writes S J Stone in his 1891 memoir[ii].

“बकरीवाले इधर से आगे जाने से पहले बलि चढ़ाते हैं”
(The very old Karu Devta temple in the shadows of Rangrik Rang)
“ अगर न चढ़ाएं तो ?”
“श्रद्धा की बात है जी.  उनकी पार्टी भी हो जाती है शायद” replied the senior looking tall man in the welcome party with a heavy Haryanvi accent.

Looked like Karu Devta had pretty sanguine tastes and everyone seemed to be convinced about the morality of it.

We had a reasonably high-powered welcome committee comprising of the #1 and the #2 officers in-charge of the post, two very amiable gentlemen full of stories of their exploits. They were the epitome of hospitality during the next 18 Hours of our stay there.

(The commander of Dumti leading us towards the post)
We were ushered into a “Guest House” of the post, which has been a recent addition. Two well-carpeted rooms with beds, a Siachen-sleeping Bag and an attached western-toilet completed the do. We even had choice of hot water for washing! It was Star-luxury for us after more than a week of camping in high snows.

All the food that came our way from the Langar was hounded off swiftly. The simple “dal- chawal- sabzi” fare suddenly tasted amazingly delicious!   We were evidently bored out of the repetitive taste of the camp kitchen. Dillip, the camp cook, did not look very amused with our zesty enthusiasm.
(Chatting up with friends from ITBP- Dumti Guest House)

During the idle discussions in the evening, the familiar sadness of having to go back to the fleshpot of the city had begun welling up inside. We were targeting a long march to Chitkul next day; a gradual descent with couple of tricky patches over 21 kilometers. Some of us grumbled a bit about the march but eventually came round to the fact that there was no point camping in Ranikanda with the road head of Chitkul just 2 hours away.

(Tricky patch between Dumti and Ranikanda)

Immediately after Dumti, the trail winds along some exposed and broken slopes of loose scree, which require extreme care. The view of the angry waters of the Baspa, foaming almost vertically below, is not a comfortable sight.

About two kilometers before Ranikanda one crosses the craggy and exposed sides of mountain of red-rocks, famously known as “Lal Dhang”- The Red Hill. The rusting slabs on the trail confirm our suspicion that it is actually a mountain of red hematite- iron ore!
(The famous Lal Dhang area)

Couple of ITBP Jawans were waiting with tea as we approached the point where a bridge across the river leads one over to the left bank where the Ranikanda post is located. The post is at one end of a massive meadow that extends for about two miles upstream.

As we approached the Doaria CG, the lovely meadow on right bank opposite the valley coming from Borasu Pass, we saw a large number of ITBP and Army men moving into the valley for exercise. Soldiers and shepherds alike gave us the look of utter incredulity when we told them where we were coming from.
(Soldiers moving in for exercise as we approach Doaria)

“ हाँ चूंसा खागा! हमने भी सुना है. कैसा रास्ता है?” said one of the Chitkul shepherds as he fell into step with me on the winding trail from Doaria Meadows to Nagasthi.

After a final regrouping, refreshments and photo-op with jawans of ITBP Nagasthi we set off one our last leg to Chitkul.  It was 1530, seven straight hours and 21 Kilometers of hard march out of Dumti, when we reached the Chitkul Bus Stand.

(Horses grazing at the lovely meadow of Doaria)

The drive down to Sangla and then the long drive back to Delhi the next day, were largely uneventful. What I do remember vividly though is the spectacular course of the Satluj and the marvellous road engineering at the scary Taranda gorge on the drive down the district of Kinnaur.

The valley of Satluj is spectacular and awe inspiring. Her torrents are way ferocious compared to the fiercest form of the Ganga or the Yamuna. The volume, turbulence and muddiness of her waters tell the story of her long descent from the arid Trans-Himlayas. I made a mental note for future explorations along her valleys- perhaps The Tedong? Or the Gymthing ? The allure of many ancient trails,  of  Shimdong La and Khimokul La, beacon strong as I read more about this wild river.

Thus ended our third visit into the valley of the Jahnavi. Instead of satiating the thirst, this journey only deepened it further. The watershed with her many dimensions creates some sort of a magnetic pull. Whether the mighty mountain allows that foray into the last valleys of Tirpani and Nilapani will be seen in due course of time. 

[i] He was perhaps very old at that time and was in his terminal years. He finally succumbed to ill health in 1886
[ii] pp 271, “In and Beyond The Himalayas, S J Stone 1885”, Edward Arnold 1896, Para 2

Jahnavi Exploration III- The Chor Gad- Baspa Traverse (Part 2/3)

(This expedition won the IMF Award for "Outstanding Exploratory Civilian Expedition" in 2014)

The Shepherd Trail in the Smugglers' Valley

Continued from Part I

Stage 0- The Drive In

Delhi-Uttarkashi (425 Km)- Dumku (108 Km)

We reached Uttarkashi on 7th June by the appointed time, 12 Noon. The afternoon was spent shopping for local woolens at our favorite shop near the Uttarkashi bus-stand. A Jadh family of Dunda owns this shop. Negi struck up a conversation with the old Jadh Bhotia, enquiring about the current Jadh settlements. After coming to know about our past adventures in Nelang and this year’s expedition objectives he was visibly excited.

यह prayer flag ले जाइए साब. अगर आपको वो pass मिल गया तो ऐसे जगह पे लगा दीजिये जहाँ इसे हवा लगे ” said the old man brandishing a sizeable package from under his desk.
कितने पैसे हुए इसके?” I asked.
अरे पैसे क्या साब. यह तो हमारा gift है - Jadhon का prayer flag. आप हमारे यहाँ पुराना route ढूंढने जा रहे हो . यह तो अच्छा काम है.”

We later gathered that the handcrafted prayer flag would have fetched him about a thousand Rupees in a normal transaction, which he so readily offered us free of cost. His trust on us, that the gift would be well used, added one more reason for successful completion of the expedition!
(Discussions at ITBP Matli, Mess Lawns)

The invite from Commandant Chandel was a pleasant surprise later that day when we went to pay the customary visit to the ITBP Headquarters at Matli.
“Get your entire party in the evening. Lets have a drink together.  We shall meet at the lawns of the Officer’s mess!” said the commandant putting us instantly at ease,
nipping out any apprehension that we might have had about dealing with the ITBP personnel.

The evening was spent in a nice chat with the senior officials of the ITBP Battalion that looks after the Nelang area. We fondly recounted our experiences with ITBP during our expedition to Girthi Valley a few years before when Commdnt Chandel was the CO at Joshimath.

“I really like that people like you continue to take interest in such (inaccessible) parts of the mountain..”- The commandant was all praises for trained civilians experiencing the extreme mountains.

As the discussion veered round to the route into Nelang and the interesting plank bridge near Gartang, he was quick to advise
(The 'Gallery' Bridge the Commandant was talking about)

“Do not even try walking over that bridge now. It is without maintenance for many years and the wood planks are badly rotten”- The Dy Commandant then filled us up on their recent experience of reconnaissance in that area.

“Go meet the Asst Commandant at Nelang around 1400 Hrs and he should be able to help you with a briefing about the route. You will have to meet him anyway for showing your papers. That’s the nearest post before you leave road head”- said the CO.

Few drinks and many plates of snacks later we were a happy and peppy bunch coming out of the gates of the Matli complex at about 2200Hrs in the night. Tomorrow would be our first camp on the banks of Chor Gad.


आप इतने देर कहाँ थे? CO साब ने दो बार phone कर के पूछा. आप को दो बजे आना था कह रह थे.
(The Road to 'Nelang' as seen at 'Dumku')

The post commander at Nelang was waiting for us at his snow-dome office when we arrived there to show the papers at 1530.

“थोड़ा देर हो गया Sir रास्ते में. Pagal Nala बढ़ा हुआ था” We mentioned about the half an hour delay in crossing an engorged nala about 10 Kms before Nelang.

“कोई बात नहीं. चाय लीजिये जब तक मैं आप को route बताता हूँ..” and he started off reeling out route details for the next half an hour. We absorbed as much detail as we could cross verifying with the terrain map printouts we were carrying.

After the download of local route intelligence we were much more confident of the navigation and it looked as if our pre-designed route plan and time schedule was almost 90% on target. The only thing that could damage our chances now was the weather and possible terrain challenges during the decent to the other side of Chunsa Khaga.
(Getting ready for the short walk to The Bridge Camp)

We had dropped the team off at Dumku on our way up to Nelang so that porter-loads could be made while we were completing the formalities. By the time we reached back at about 1630, the team was ready for the short march down to the Metal-bridge over the confluence of Chor Gad and Jadh Ganga

The Jeeps in which we had come left back for Uttarkashi immediately fearing further problems at the Pagal Nala. We went ahead to pitch the Bridge camp about a Kilometer away from the road head of Dumku.

The vertical rock faces of granite around the Dumku-bridge camp make for some interesting observations.  

(The Bridge Camp at Chor Gad confluence)
For almost a hundred feet up on these faces one can see clear signs of water erosion. Either the Chor Gad has gouged her course through or it is the upheaval of the mountain mass; any which way- ballads many million years old etched deep on those rock faces! One of those transcendental moments that nature allows you to peek at a different perception of space-time.
(Drift wood camp fire at bridge camp)

The team seemed to be in fine fettle even as the constant roar of the two rivers at the confluence reminded us continuously of the raw power of nature surrounding us. Driftwood was plentiful nearby. Soon we had our first campfire.

As per our discussions at ITBP-Nelang we had to target at least 12 Kilometers of march the next day to reach Helipad#3 camping ground (mentioned in the maps as Singhmoche Camping Ground).  We started off lazily around 0800 Hrs even as the sun shined gloriously upon the eastern bounding ridge of the “Chor Gad” valley: The Smugglers valley.


A Note about the “Chor Gad”

How and when the valley got to bear this notorious name is still unknown.

Since the days of the early visit of Herbert in 1818, the westernmost valley of the Nelang watershed has always been indicated under this curious sounding name; Chor Gad. “Chor” in Hindi means a thief and hence the possible local legends about tax evaders using this valley.  Who were the smugglers, what did they smuggle and which tax did they evade etc. have never ever been documented. 

In the melee of Tibetan sounding names in the same watershed (Nelang/Jadhang/Sumla/ Thag La/Puling Sumdo/Chunganmu/ Tsang Chok La) how the “Chor Gad” carried its distinctive Hindustani flavor is also unknown.

One hypothesis could be- after the Bushaher-Tibet treaty[i] of 1680, the able administration of Kehri Singh would have exploited trade through Nelang Pass. For securing this interest, they would have had to assert control over Nelang Pass through the Chor Gad valley. 

Perhaps in those times, Bushaher may have played a role in christening of the valley with an overtly Hindustani name unlike others in that watershed.
(The Schlagintweit brothers, explored Himalayas in 1850s)

The alternate hypothesis could be built from the extraordinarily detailed research of the famous Schlagintweit Brothers. Their work was based on the explorations they carried out in the 1855-1858 period. They clearly mention the name of the western-most tributary of the Nelang watershed as, a very Tibetan looking, Tsor- Gad [ii]- not Chor-Gad

It may not be too far fetched to imagine that the former may have been the original Tibetan name that over a period of time could have gradually devolved into the later.  The Schlagintweits have referred to the river as Tsor Gad with out any journal reference, which would mean that the data was collected from direct oral accounts during their prolonged exploration of the area.


Stage I- Shepherds’ Trail to Bushaheri Nala

Dumku 3300 M- Misosa 3700M (12 Km)- Thandapani 4050M (12 Km)- Kalapani 4350M (6 Km)

The route snaked its way along the true left of the river for the initial kilometer or so and then across a metal bridge to the true right. Another hour of spirited walk took us past the Lal Devta  #1 camping ground and then onto another possible campsite that on our Map was indicated by the old name of Namti. The ITBP calls this camping ground Helipad #1. Though these are good grounds, accessibility of water is an issue.
(Looking upstream, the bridge before Lal Devta #1)

Dumku से तक़रीबन डेढ़  kilometer baad लाल देवता #1 ayega. अच्छा camp ground है लेकिन पानी का दिक्कत है. उसके थोड़े आगे बकरीवालों का डेरा है पानी के पास, वहां अच्छा पानी मिलेगा.” I remembered the detailed briefing by Asst Commandant Dimri of the Nelang post.
उसके थोड़े आगे हमारा winter camp-ground है - Helipad #1. वहां पानी मिलेगा main नदी से.”- His information had been detailed and accurate.
“कोई बात नहीं – आप लोग आराम से Heli #3 तक पहुँच जाओगे पहले दिन. नाले में गन्दा पानी आता है वहां. हमने चस्का बना रखा है साफ़ पानी के लिए एक पत्थर के पास..” the post commander had added.

A Note on Lal Devta(s) of the Chor Gad valley

(Lal Devta #1, Chor Gad Valley)
The entire route along the Chor Gad is dotted with as many as three Lal Devtas- each resembling a massive rock cairn. Study of various reports of Survey of India encourages one to theorize that possibly these were Survey-cairns set up by the surveyors to facilitate their work.  The absolutely straight piece of a long pole fixed to the rock of Lal Devta#2 which we saw on the apex point of Chaling jungle only re-affirmed this hypothesis of ours.

The practice of Lal Devta worship is seen frequently, in the valleys that Jadh Bhotias stay in. Both Jadung and Harsil valleys are fine examples of these. The typical Lal Devta shrine is located at a high place involving reasonable toil to reach. Such shrines are never more than one in number in a single valley and are usually identified by piles of Bharal Horns, empty bottles, dry coconuts and similar offerings.
(Lal Devta #2, Chor Gad Valley)

None of the Lal Devta shrines in the Chor Gad valley display these features. There are no offerings, neither are there the customary Bharal horn, bells and the colorful prayer flags; the “devta” status is only justified by the red pennant tied to a flag pole. But then that is precisely how Survey poles were indicated in those days – a red pennant on top so that it could be recognized several miles away through the theodolite to triangulate positions!

It may not be too much to assume that it was perhaps the surveyors like Herbert, Kinney, Ottley and Auden who might have played an influential role in introducing the concept of Lal Devta into the Chor Gad valley by way of erecting impressive survey cairns in various high points.


Soon enough we reached a camping ground, indicated on the map as the Langling Camping Ground, with signs of step cultivation nearby.  The increasing roar of the river indicated the approaching confluence where the Chaling Gad from the true right joins in with the Chor Gad.  
(The boulder field at Chaling Confluence)

The confluence is not visible from the trail but one does enter a boulder field indicating the widening of the river bed  just before the confluence. After the boulder field we recovered a faintly visible trail, running along the true right of the Chaling Gad.

We were eager to locate the log bridge over this stream.   During the half a kilometer of anxious searching, as the path wound up along the right bank of Chaling Gad through dense forests, we presently came across a group of four shepherds with as many mules heading down towards Dumku
(The forest trail where we met the muleteers)

After a brief download from them on the route features ahead, we soon saw the sturdy log bridge laid across the Chaling Gad.

The bridge is about half a kilometer above its confluence with the Chor Gad. We found all the bridges in the valley in fine condition, seemingly undamaged by the unusual precipitation and disastrous flooding that gripped the whole of Garhwal in the monsoons of 2013
(the Log Bridge or Sango over Chaling Gad)

After gaining the opposite bank, a short scramble of about 100 meters brought us onto a table top upon a small densely wooded hillock. This hillock rules over the Chor Gad -Chaling Gad confluence and perhaps can be called as the Chaling Hill or Chaling Jungle. The ITBP and Shepherds however, conveniently called this the  Lal Devta hill. No real sign of Lal Devta worship exists here though, other than the remaining vestiges of, perhaps an old survey cairn and its ramrod straight 15 ft long flagpole.
(The short scramble up to Lal Devta #2,
Chor Gad valley in foreground)

The dense pines grove around the Lal Devta rock provided us the much-needed shade for resting as we waited for the team to regroup. This was the first day and the physical challenge was apparent on the face of few team members. It took us two hours to regroup and then we made a huge navigational blunder!

I had sent out Joshi, the senior-most porter and seasoned fuel carrier of the team to reconnoiter the route ahead of Lal Devta. I had assumed the route to be moving easterly, directly descending to the Chor Gad below.

Lal Devta #2 से सीधा उतराई है bridge तक . Bridge के पास भी आप camp लगा सकते हैं ”- The Nelang post commander had said earlier.

ढलान बहुत है साब . रास्ता उधर से होगा”- said Joshi, as I looked towards the northerly direction being pointed out.  A trail was snaking into the jungle on a level ground.
(The GPS Plot of blunder that cost us dear, Left=North)

We committed the blunder about 200 Meters down this trail where it bifurcates into two– one moving left upstream and the other downstream towards the right. We chose the former and lost considerable time and distance trying to locate the bridge across the Chorgad.

After an hour of anxious search and a kilometer of unnecessary trudge we finally found ourselves on the left bank of Chor Gad. Conveniently around the same time we found the muleteers we had met in the morning returning back. They slowly inched ahead of us and were soon away from our visible range within an hour.
Their trail led our way now on.
(the gentle yet frustrating slope of Misosa, this walk just never ends!)

Half an hour after gaining the left bank we entered the gentle yet frustrating slope of the Misosa grounds. Within another hour we had crossed over the Misosa stream coming from the glacier fields high above to our right.

I saw the shepherds’ mule train vanishing over a rising slope about a kilometer ahead even as we approached the sprawling Misosa camping ground with signs of few old shepherd encampments nearby. The Misosa CG is located almost on level ground with the Chor Gad flowing fast less than a hundred feet away.

The team had again grown a long tail and radio enquiries revealed that the farthest members were at least an hour behind. It was already 1430 hrs and the sun was on its way down towards the western ridges. I decided to camp rather than pushing for the additional 2 kilometers to the Singhmoche Camping Ground (Helipad #3 as the ITBP men called it).
(The Birch forested Misosa Camping Ground)

Camp was set up on the right bank of Misosa stream well above the traditional camping ground. The quality of water on the Misosa stream was much better compared to the muddy waters of Chorgad that at the campsite below.

Our fully laden porters had already covered 12 Kms on the first day and the net altitude gain was 600 Mtrs; an impressive feat by all standards. As for the six of us, our unpracticed limbs were acclimatizing to the mountain environs rapidly.

Shortly after setting up camp we had an unexpected visitor from the neighboring campground on the left bank of the Misosa stream. He was a shepherd who had started off from Dumku that morning an hour after we started and had covered all the ground with his flock of about three hundred heads of goats and sheep. The poor animals were now afraid to cross the log bridge over the Misosa stream and the poor chap was now resigned to bivouac there for the night..
(Our unexpected visitor- Tilak Raj)

Dead wood and half burnt logs were plenty in the vicinity. While the kitchen got active in preparing pakodas and tea, we setup a nice campfire and invited the shepherd over for a tete-e-tete. We had enough route intelligence already; we wished to now dig into the life and history of the men who were regular visitors into the valley.

The thirty something shepherd Tilak Raj, with weather-beaten skin and twinkle in his eyes, was enthusiastic in his narration.  At the end of an hour of chatting up we had gathered the following interesting trivia.

All the shepherds operating in the Chor Gad valley were from one geographical area in the Kangda valley of Himachal.  They were two different groups of shepherds who had well demarcated grazing rights in the upper and lower part of the valley’s rich pastures. Tilak belonged to the one with rights of the Upper Chorgad valleys. Because of the heavy snowfall in the winter, they were making a late entry hoping that by the time they reach their targeted grounds, snow conditions would more favorable.
(Govind Singh of Changdum Plains)

Another seasoned shepherd called Govind Singh whose muleteers we had met in the morning led the other group of shepherds. They had moved into the valley already and may be camping a little distance ahead at the Changdum plains (called Helipad #2 by the men from ITBP).

“दो number helipad के पास आप को shepherd मिलेगा  गोविन्द. नाक उसका थोड़ा सा टेढ़ा है … भालू ने  attack किया था उसको कभी” – the officer at Nelang had briefed us earlier.

When our discussion veered towards the objective our expedition, Tilak fondly recalled the Tapan Pandit’s visit in 2009. He narrated how he had met Tapan Da’s team near Thandapani camp. That’s when he mentioned that the Nala ahead of Thandapani and Dudhpani was called the Kalapani camp, which was also called the Bushaheri Nala by the shepherds. 

“बुशहरी नाला क्यों कहते हैं उसे? क्या बुशहर का रास्ता था वहां से?”
“हो सकता है शायद. यह तो बहुत पुरानी बात है, हमारे पुरखों के time का”
“कब से आते हो यहाँ ?”
“ बहुत पीढ़ीओं साब।  परदादा के परदादा के टाइम से भी पहले …

We were a satisfied bunch that evening. Not only because the story telling around the campfire was romantic but also because our research seemed to have been in complete alignment with the shepherd legends of the valley and our navigation plan seemed to be bang on target.

 We just needed to execute our plans swiftly and carefully.

(The Misosa Marine Drive)

The picturesque trail next day first led us along the riverside over a kilometer long marine drive. Then it rose sharply for about 200 meters as we emerged upon a boulder field. The field was separated from the high bank of the river by a grassy ledge about 100 meters wide.

Even as we were trying to locate the route over the confusing boulder field, Sanjit’s voice crackled over the radio:
“Ashu come in come in. The ITBP guys have arrived on their SRP”.

We were happy to see the post commander of Nelang with a small detachment of Jawans, INSAS Rifles slung across their shoulders. We chatted up waiting for the team to regroup as the ITBP team caught up with us. They had started that morning from Nelang and were there near our campsite by 0900 Hrs.
(Tete-e-tete with the local post Commander)

Chatting up with the post-commander I gathered, he has been posted at Nelang for the last three years and belonged to Dehradun originally.

“बच्चों का पढाई?” I asked
“बड़ा वाला IIT कर रहा है कानपूर से” he said. The father in me could almost feel the swelling of his chest in pride.

The soldier at the northern frontier had been able to see his eldest son through the one of the best technical education the country can provide; Perhaps the best in this part of the world! I was happy for him.
(Lal Devta#3 and Changdum Plains)

A little ahead beyond a fast flowing stream was a large rock with the usual red pennant on a tall flagpole indicating Lal Devta #3. Up ahead the vast Changdum plains opened up; gigantic fans of glaciers dead many years ago upon which a luxurious pasture had developed, dotted at this time of the year with pretty yellow flowers. 

Soon we saw a shepherd from a distance whistling merrily. Coming closer I could see the unique facial description of Govind Singh as I had heard earlier- remnants of his years of struggle for livelihood through the dangerous terrains of high mountains. Here was a man who had a hand-to-hand combat with a Himalayan Bear
(Our host, shepherd Govind Singh leading us all to his camp)

He went about his assumed role of the “host” merrily. Soon tea was served as the ITBP team got busy in pitching their tents and we got busy in clicking our cameras trying to pose with the gun-toting soldiers. 

They were going to camp along with their old friend Govind that night. They intended to come with us till their last patrolling point and after a night's rest at this camp, would go back to their post next day.
(Looking back from Misora camping grounds)

Just about two kilometers ahead of Changdum, where the course of the Chorgad takes a wide sweeping turn towards far left , we went past the Misora Camping ground sprinkled with floral dots of yellow and purple. The flowers were getting ready to bloom and perhaps by the end of June the place had the potential to become a mini Valley-of-Flowers.
(Exposed scree slope before Demoche Gad)

A massive scree slope was now looming ever closer at whose feet the Chor Gad flowed swiftly. The trail led diagonally over this exposed slope and high above a sizeable herd of Bharals grazed about merrily threatening our passage with potential rock fall.

The passage went smoothly as we entered level ground now, heading north again after the westerly diversion on the slope.
(The Marine Drive of Demoche Gad)

The trail now ran by the riverside causing another pretty marine-drive. We were in the Demoche pastures where the Demoche Gad confluences with the Chor Gad on its true right. The river is not difficult to cross here and on the far side we could see groves of Birch, many potential camping spots and an abundance of pastures for grazing. 

Lost in that ethereal beauty of the pretty valley, resting by the riverside we regrouped and had our lunch unaware about the terrain that was about to hit our trail.
(The stinger after the Marine Drive)

After the Demoche Gad marine drive, at the end of the pleasant walk along the left bank of Chor Gad, the trail suddenly winds nastily upwards to the crest of a spur coming out of the Nakurche complex, a spur that pushes the bed of the Chor Gad sharply due west. 

After a sudden rise of about 50 meters the trail levels out and enters the wide fan of the moraine of the Nakurche Glacier coming in from the right, from the east. The snowline of this glacier has receded much farther up; what remained on our trail was a massive boulder field.
(Shepherd shelter ahead of boulder field, looking upstream)

Immediately afterwards one comes across a shepherd shelter perched on top of a precipice directly looking down at the Chor Gad coursing through about 300 ft below. Just ahead was the bad patch everyone had referred to earlier.

मैदान के बाद थोड़ा ख़राब रास्ता है. फिसलन वाली मिटटी है थोड़ा. वैसे हम जा रहे हैं, घोड़ों के लिए रास्ता बना लेंगे.Tilak Raj had informed us during our little chat up at Misosa.
Last का 200 meter लगभग थोड़ा ख़राब है. बस उसके बाद Thandapani आ जाता है snow bridge के बाद. ऐसी कोई बात नहीं है , थोड़ा  step cut कर के और जूता मार के आराम से जाया जा सकता है”- the briefing by our friends in ITBP had been more reassuring.
(The 'Kharaab' patch before Thandapani)

This was decidedly a bad patch of about a furlong and “kharab” had been a serious understatement. There were myriad rain water gullies running through a broken bank of loose scree. The Chor Gad, releasing itself from the icy confines of its upper valleys, was foaming about 250 ft below. Steps had to be cut for the laden porters and we had a cautious passage except for the minor mishap of Nitin. He lost a footing and was found hanging on to dear life on all his fours upon that slippery slope. His ordeal was over a few minutes later when one of our Nepali porters jumped across to lend a reassuring hand.
(Thandapani area as seen from the bad-scree patch)

Soon after the patch of bad scree the trail levels out with the river and a passage has to be found to the right bank over a crevassed snow bridge. Since all local navigational instructions had depended on this snow bridge for crossing over the Chor Gad, I assumed the bridge to be of a permanent nature. It certainly appeared so, looking at the amount of deposition of snow and glacial debris.

The trail slowly rose up the right bank and with in about half an hour we were resting on a little flattish delta on the southern edge of the confluence of a stream coming in from our left. A small stone hut with ramshackle roofing dominated the scene. Some firewood was littered around. We had reached Thandapani camp.

(Thandapani CG, Upper Chorgad view in background) 
Thanda Pani पर हमारा डेरा है. पता नहीं छत ठीक होगा या नहीं. बहुत बर्फ पड़ी है इस बार. हम रहते हैं वहां पर महीनों तक. नाला है वहां Thandapani. नाले के ऊपर पूल बना रखा है हमने. उसी side से आगे जाना है आप को. घोड़े ले जाते हैं वहां से हम बुशहरी नाला तक” – Tilak had described earlier.

I walked up to the edge of the tabletop and had a look at the confluence. The Thandapani stream was bringing in a respectable volume of muddy brown water to merge with the relatively clear body of the Chor Gad. Over the furious flow of the Thandapani was a small natural rock bridge, which had been further reinforced by rock masonry, most probably by the local shepherds, as Tilak had mentioned.
(Navigation plan for next day, porters anxiously watching)

“The chap was right. Tomorrows trail looks to be on this right bank only!”- We were discussing, even as our anxious eyes started tracing out the trail rising rapidly up towards the crest of a spur that defines the southern boundary of the Dudhpani valley up ahead. Soon Vinod managed to engineer a little water hole on the sandy shore of the Thandapani stream, which provided bucketsful of clean water for the entire camp.

The shepherd shelter served as a warm kitchen for the evening and the bright moon heralded a feast of night photography in the coming days; we were soon to enter the kingdom of snow.
(Approaching full moon- seen from Thandapani CG)

Terrain conditions were exactly as per the imagery in the EOSDIS website. We had yet not been obstructed by snow and did not expect to be, at least till the next campsite. Weather was still holding good as per predictions and we were at the gateway of the upper Chor Gad valley covering 24 kilometers in 2 days with altitude gain of about a thousand meters.

“Not bad!” I mused “if we continue this way we should target to be over the pass in next 4 days!” – I wished dearly that the weather and team health held good. Porters looked to be in good spirits without a grumble about the two consecutive long marches carrying double-loads.

(The trail ahead of Thandapani towards Dudhpani)

The trail next day dipped down to the bridge over the Thandapani and then sharply rose up about a hundred feet to land us on another tabletop of rock and scree. The trail hence wound steadily up for about 200 meters till the crest of the spur that bisects the right bank of Chor Gad between Thandapani and Dudhpani valleys, almost plonk in the middle. We had already crossed the 14000 ft mark and the exertion was telling.

On the far bank we saw the moraine filled slopes dropping in sheer precipices from a ridge-line about a 1000 meters above us.

(Approaching Dudhpani valley)

Soon the trail levelled and dropped down to the lovely valley of Dudhpani. True to its name the water was clear as spring water although it clearly was coming from glacial melts and was passing from under snow beds and ice sheets. But what a contrast with Thandapani!! 

Our intended campsite was in the next valley by the banks of the Bushaheri Nala at Kalapani! I wondered for a moment if the name had anything to do with the color of the water source nearby. Didn’t appear to be too palatable or potable an idea!

We didn’t have time to partake of the beauty of the lovely Dudhpani valley to the fullest. It is a recommended halt for future travellers into the valley. One just has to push an additional hour after reaching Thandapani the previous evening!

(Sharp ascent ahead of Dudhpani)
After a quick regrouping we started ascending the trail leading to the crest of the next ridge. The shepherd had advised a diagonal ascent from the hollow of the Dudhpani stream and indicated that the route will gain the crest of the ridge and then drop directly down to the campsite of Kalapani. He had assured that the route was good and they do use mules on that track. (I later discovered this bridle path in Google Earth imagery after coming back from the expedition)

रास्ता ठीक नहीं है यहाँ से Sir. निचे जाना पड़ेगा नदी से. वैसे camp site दिख रहा है यहाँ से”- called out Vinod, the lead scout, on the radio.
(Beginning the sharp descent to the river bed - left frame)

Apparently our current trail headed into a massive landslide zone to skirt which we would have to climb another 1000 ft higher.

(We realized our mistake later. We should have started our diagonal climb much higher up in the valley of Dudhpani. That would have allowed us to gain the crest much above the landslide area.)

The sharp descent to the bed of Chor Gad, the subsequent river crossings over the network of snow bridges and final climb to the terminal flats of the Kalapani Glacier added at least an hour of delay to the days work. The snow conditions helped in all the crossings; otherwise it would have been a nightmare to traverse that patch along the river. Future parties shall be well advised to take the upper bridle path from Dudhpani to Kalapani.
(The Kalapani CG/Nakurche  CG)

Kalapani (As in SoI Map) or Nakurche (US Army Map-1952) was the most picturesque camping ground we had settled into since the beginning of the expedition. 

A network of streams fed a small glacial lake near the brim of the basin by the riverside. The dark color of the rocks on the stream-bed was indeed rendering a blackish hue to the otherwise clean and transparent water. It looked as if a clear stream of water was flowing through an undisturbed coalfield camouflaged under various hues of green, brown, yellow, purple and white.  

(The Kalapani stream near campsite)
We camped early at about 1300 Hrs and used the full might of the blazing sun to dry up things and charge up devices.

Rajender and I reconnoitred ahead for about a kilometer to verify the ground conditions. From now on we shall be on uncharted terrains solely dependent on features, landmarks and the GPS.

Snow conditions did not spring any surprises.

The entire valley of Kalapani was under a white sheet just about half a kilometer ahead of the camp. Some hints of brown were visible on the northern walls of the bounding ridges but not enough to serve our purpose. The long lateral ridges, which were supposed to lead us to the head of the glacier, were totally snowbound. Brown patches there would have surely helped our speed and safety. But all in all we were happy with our assessment.

Continued in Part III

[i] pp 139- “Loss of Memory and Continuity of Praxis in Rampur-Bushaher, Contemporary Visions in Tibetan Studies, Dr Georgios Halkias, Serindia Publications-2009”
[ii] pp94- Route# 153- “Results of a scientific mission to India and High Asia- Vol III”- “Hermann, Adolphe and Robert De Schlagintweit”,1860.