Saturday, August 15, 2009

Shwet Digant (Part 1)-Twin Passes Trek- Nalgan and Lamkhaga Pass

She was watching eagerly as Jaisingh helped the last of the members hop across to the other bank of the angry river. Did I notice a sense of despair in those innocent eyes?

I realised all of a sudden, that the entire group of 30 Men (and women), who had by now crossed over already, were watching her with equal eagerness. For a moment, the sound of the roaring waters ceased to exist as my mind went numb with helplessness!

The lady in question was Sherry, our four legged 9th Member. She had joined the team 2 days back and had walked 25 Kms of fairly difficult terrain to be there that afternoon. This was the first tempestuous river we were crossing, aiding each other. But there was little we could do to help that little black bitch who was watching the turbulent waters, somewhere lost in that deafening roar.

Was she going to be left behind? How will she go back all that distance? How will she spend the night? Why did we encourage her to come along ...such were the questions gnawing at my conscience.
Then she rose, and yawned and stretched. She went back a little and looked back at the river in all its ferocity. It wasn’t a resolve or determination, rather a spark of excitement and fun that I saw in her eyes as she measured up the distance. Then she leaped forward. In three easy hops she crossed the river and cantered up along the bank to reach us, still wagging her heavy tail, seeking approval and a pat on her head.

That moment on, she was to lead us in most trying of circumstances, inspiring the last of us to brave on as we entered the most challenging part of the longest walk I have ever done in the Himalayas.

“Nalgan Pass”- The name stood out while I was carefully marking out the position of “Rupin Pass” on the Google Earth referring to the British Army Map(1937) of Garhwaal Himalayas. The name sounded a bit odd but was clearly mentioned, just a few kilometers east of what is known as the “Rupin Pass”, on the same extended ridge. It definitely looked and sounded interesting, in fact, strangely mystical.

Months later the same name popped up in a thread at Some adventurous westerner wished to travel across this “less travelled” pass and was seeking information about some capable guides. The allure to see this mystical valley strengthened ever more.

The twist to the tale was added with another name,
“Lamkhaga” –that had been playing upon the mind for quite sometime, ever since someone from GMVN bunglow in Harsil mentioned it several years back. During those long discussions around the campfire with the local staff, I was taught the existence of the Lamkhaga and Chhotkhaga Passes that connect the Bhagirathi Valley and the Kinnaur Valley of Himachal Pradesh. They did narrate this interesting aside, how Lamkhaga is a long but relatively easier route and the Chhotkhaga- the shorter but relatively difficult one.

Having romanced both names for long, it occurred to me at once that both these interesting objectives could be attempted in one go! When I posted the thread for the
“Twin Passes-Triple Valley Trek” on the Internet, I had little idea of the ultimate form it was going to take. By the time it ended, I was marvelling yet again at the wondrous ways in which the Grand Mountain enriches the experience of living; the myriad manners He always chose to teach new lessons.

View Nalgan Lamkhaga Actual Track in a larger map


It was a “first” for me in many respects. It was the first time I was going to walk 150 Kms and the first time I was crossing two passes in a sequence. Never earlier had I led a team of ten and that too with a mix of genders. We were to assist our navigation with GPS(
Nalgan Pass has an unfrequented and sparsely documented route) and it was the first time I was ever to trek in the valleys and passes of Himachal Pradesh.

With so many firsts, the natural starting point of preparation was the team itself. The challenge was to create a team that’s closely-knit and strongly aligned to the common purpose, within the constraints of time and resources. The variety in the physical and mental faculties of the members must be the least. We could not afford a failure that would cause an individual to pull down the team performance or compromise the objective.

It took me two rounds of “Thread Launching” in both Indiamike and Orkut community forums to get the team built at all. The team finally came together by March.. and God! What a team! It’s indeed rare to have the opportunity of being in the midst of such an unique group of individuals.

We had the IT Geeks in form of Ritesh & Ravin and representation from Dalal Street in form of Krushi and Pramod.

Raji came with her globe trotting telecom experience and Rachit was the high flying corporate marketer and team CFO.

Seema is in the noble profession of teaching special children when she is not counselling people in matters of mind and psychology.

Prabhjot came from a completely different background – managing a multiplex theater. Her exquisite finesse in managing team HR and logistics was a pleasant surprise.

Hardik was a freshly graduated technocrat who was to soon leave the shores of India for pursuing higher studies.

Suma, the team physio for a brief period, excelled in national rock climbing competitions.
Background, education, location, profession, age and gender- in every possible way the team represented diversity!

Such diversity and size of the team presents both opportunities and challenges to anyone who is even trying to anchor a collective effort let alone lead it, as I was soon to discover. Both in preparation as well as execution, the challenges appeared to outweigh any benefit of the numbers –(essentially some advantage in the per head cost). On the one hand we had a Ritesh and Suma- veteran of many treks and winner of laurels in professional circuits while on the other, were the vast majority of members with couple of brief outdoor experience with the Himalayas. The line was divided plonk in the middle when it came to experience in extremely high altitude - altitudes in excess of 15000 ft. Seema, Hardik, Pramod and Raji had barely touched that altitude till then, let alone cross it. Similar variety presented in matters of age and physical fitness.

In spite of the collaborative effort to make sure that all were well prepared in all respects, we did end up with few issues just in the week preceding the trek.

I twisted my ankle during some stupid mad rush down a flight of stairs. Raji had begun complaining about a troubling knee. Her enthusiastic participation in marathon races and training was not without side effects. Rachit had begun looking for the local “Pahalwan” to provide some Desi treatment for his nagging back pain. Prabhjot was almost sure by then that her leaves for the scheduled trek were not going to be granted. Suma was to confirm only in the last few days, if she would be able to come.

Finally, it appeared by the beginning of June that the trek was going to materialise after all. We seemed to be sustaining the collective interest and were seemingly prepared for what we were about to endure.

Rachit and Prabhjot acted as the Delhi Hosts. The duo displayed exemplary collective leadership in handling logistics, coordination and hospitality of all the outstation members.

The itinerary we were to follow had evolved out of pain staking research and constant inputs from well wishers and experienced members of the Orkut community. The trek was divided into 2 stages of 6 days each with a rest day planned in between to take care of unforeseen eventualities, on account of weather.

The first stage was to take us from Netwar in Yamuna watershed to the Baspa Valley at Sangla, crossing over the relatively un-travelled Nalgan Pass. The second stage was to bring us back from Upper Baspa Valley into the Bhagirathi Watershed at Harsil crossing over the equally less travelled Lamkhaga Pass. The total distance between Netwar and Harsil was estimated at 185 kms of which Jeepable track was of 40 Kms (12 Kms between Netwar and Dhaula, 28 Kms between Sangla and Chitkul) and the rest was to be covered on foot.

Nalgan Pass- A Caravan Through Wilderness

Day 0- Delhi- Netwar

Of the several unique achievements of this trek, one of the dubious ones was the journey to and back from the mountains. On both occasions we took almost 24 hrs to cover the distance of approximately 450 Kms from the city to the laps of the mountain.

On the way up, it was a sleepless ordeal of 23 hours ably aided by a succession of four tyre punctures, a traffic jam at Kempty Falls near Mussorie, a hold up by drunk youth in the dense jungles of Purola and a driver who fell asleep on the wheels with alarming regularity.
Reaching Netwar almost at midnight, we were feeling lost for the moment when we noticed a vehicle parked in the middle of the now-closed-market. Jaisingh and Bisht-The driver were inside the jeep waiting for us to escort us till the Forest Guest House. The welcome sight of the Forest Guest House finally loomed into view at 2315 hrs. The support team had been waiting for us there the entire evening. Tents had been pitched and the dinner table had been laid in the FRH compound out in the open.

One could feel the welcoming embrace. The fresh forest
air, the faint bark of a dog in the distance, dim light of the few candles in the kitchen, the shadows of the almond trees playing randomly under the cool moonlight and that sound of a gurgling stream. The all too familiar rush of a different reality!

Quick gulps of Vodka washed away the fatigue, followed by a sumptuous spread of dinner. Team members were insistent upon sitting around the campfire late into the night. When I woke up later at about 0300 Hrs in the morning to shoot the glory of the moonlight, the embers in the campfire were still glowing.

Day 1- Netwar to Sewa (Riverside) Camp

There was mixed emotion in the camp in the morning. The usual eager enthusiasm was tinged with sadness upon the exit of one of the most affable members of the group. Prabhjot had to leave for Delhi for she could not manage leaves during the scheduled window for the trek. She had, however, taken the trouble of coming all the way to Netwar to see us all off, braving that marathon drive.

She had to now go all the way back to Delhi in the singular company of the cab-driver. There was nothing much we could do about it other than masking the feeling of sadness with spirited and playful banter. We missed her presence on several occasions afterwards, specifically during times that we needed to cheer ourselves up!

Soon enough team colors were distributed to the entire support team. The red T-Shirts had been designed and printed after much debate and discussions over the Internet. The designs were our own. We intended to wear the uniform when we stood atop the highest point of our trek- Lamkhaga Pass.

These T-Shirts were a powerful idea which started with an innocent sharing of thought by Rachit, nurtured carefully by every one of the team members and fine tuned by many contributors in the “Trekking in Himalaya” community of Orkut. In a way, it physically symbolised unity of the team in thought and action.

Prabhjot did share the first team breakfast before bidding us goodbye. Immediately afterwards we set off on our journey into the inviting laps of the mountains.

After Netwar the road follows the Rupin on its true left Bank for about 12 Kms till the village of Dhola. I was excited with my new GPS device. The actual route it was tracking was surprisingly close to the Google Earth data that was pre-fed in it. That added some comfort to the apprehensive mind.

By the time we reached Dhola, the heat was beginning to take a toll. I so dearly wished to take a dip in the flowing waters of Rupin, few hundred feet below! That dip, I did take, after crossing the suspension bridge at Dhola.

From here on, the team started off following a trail on the true right bank. I had thought, I shall catch up with them quickly. However, by the time I emerged fresh after the bath in the chilling waters of Rupin, I could barely see them, almost a kilometer away!It took me an entire hour before I finally caught up with all of them.

A kilometer after Dhola, as one travels upstream, the Rupin fans out wide in its course; a feature clearly visible in the Google Earth images. One could see from there, the new road being constructed from Dhola to Doni village on the far bank. Occasional explosions of dynamite indicated life in the road construction activity.

Soon we reached a point where the river takes a sharp bend towards the left as one looks upstream. We had a quick lunch-break in a roadside house there. With couple of hours of trek already under the belt, the team seemed to be fighting fit!
People were almost jostling with each other to take the lead and I seemed to be the only one lagging behind! For such a large team, it was a remarkable performance and augured well for the challenges lying ahead.

Ritesh, Raji, Krushi, Rachit and Pramod were still involved in an animated discussion even as the lunch got served. It appeared, Rachit and his matrimonial preferences were the object of discussion. I tried to record bits and pieces of that conversation, but Rachit refused to go on record.

The walk after the lunch break was through a slightly different landscape. The relative barrenness had given way to lush greenery and little farmlands on the side. The ladies were leading the pack and had gained a considerable distance ahead. Rachit, Hardik and I trailed behind.

There was a minor incident of Rachit proceeding on a wrong trail just before approaching Sewa village, with his noise-cancelling ear-phones firmly plugged in. No amount of shouting would deter his rythmic gait. It was not until we started throwing rocks at him that he stopped and took notice. That surely gave us some anxious moments!!

Far away, the hutments and houses of Sewa village were visible. The trail eased up considerably and we were at the temple compound of Sewa by 1600 Hrs. The wooden temple at Sewa is an ancient looking structure. It has been there ever since the village has been there (and the village is mentioned very clearly in 19th Century British Army maps). The fine carvings and artwork on the temple walls are amazingly breathtaking. For some reason one could see various Trophies being displayed on the temple gates. We could not get to understand what these trophies were for and why they were displayed there?!! Perhaps, the temple also served up as the community Town-hall and hence was the most apt place for public display of all laurels won.

By then Seema announced over the radio
“Campsite pahunch gaye hum! Bahut sundar campsite hai. Seedha aate raho, thoda hi door hai.”

The trail ahead went steadily downhill to finally enter the river bed after couple of kilometers. A hundred meters away was a confluence with a river coming from our left (true right of the river) and just beyond was our campsite, bang in the middle of the riverbed, by the side of the softly singing Rupin.

We had covered 13 Kilometers in reasonable time, none of the members were hurt in any way and our spirits were high! All in all a fine performance for the starting day! The rocks in the middle of the riverbed served well as the lounging area.
It took us an hour of idle chat and constant flow of Rupin waters over our limbs to wash away the tiredness.

News came in late in the evening that Prabhjot has reached home safe and in record time! The evening sped past around the campfire even as the team got busy discussing their favorite topics- all relating to matters of love, relationships and matrimony. Little did I know at that time, that same discussions were going to rule all camp fires during the trek, ably stirred by Mr Question Bank- Rachit Mangal.

Before calling it a day, Ritesh and I managed to capture the majesty of the full moon shimmering over the river waters.

Day 2 -Sewa Riverside Camp- Pandhar Riverside Camp

We all knew, it was a crucial day for us when we shall turn off the beaten track of Rupin Pass and head into the scantly explored trails of Nargani Valley. We had to make crucial choices of routes and bridges so that we would be in a position to attempt the pass two days later.

We were on the true right of Rupin. A few kilometers hence the Nargani Gaad joins with Rupin from the true left. The Nalgan Pass is on the true right of Nargani Gaad. If we crossed Rupin before the confluence, we would land on the true left of Nargani and would have to cross her again to approach the pass. This is the shorter route.

However, if we chose to walk far ahead of the confluence and then cross the Rupin, we would land on the true right of Nargani and then we would not have to do any river crossing to approach the Pass. This was obviously a longer route with less obstacles.

We decided to risk the shorter option which required us to find two bridges, one over the Rupin and another over Nargani. Rajmohan, our guide for this leg of the trek, was okay with idea though he did not know the exact location and condition of the only bridge over Nargani Gaad. Anyways, there was little choice given the constraints of time and the fast approaching monsoon.

After about an hour of walk that morning we soon emerged into a widening valley floor. The view was interesting- there was a bridge visible at a distance, a confluence with a river coming in from true right and a gang of labourers with some huge machines building a road.

The tranquil surrounds were suddenly abuzz with human activity. It was difficult to guess where such a wide road was going in that remote a valley. Its later that we learnt, it was all part of the grand design for building a Hydel project in the very valley that we were headed for.

Another kilometre of walk brought us to the bridge of Kimwali. Here the road led across the Rupin to its left bank, towards Dodra-Kwar village- a major settlement in the area. We, however, were to cross the river and go North to our left on the trail to Katol village.

We had some moments of fun at the lone Dhaba situated at one end of the bridge. Much time was spent asking directions and taking time estimates in consultation with the locals there. Interestingly my GPS here read a distance covered of 8 Kms. The dhabawallah argued vehemently that it would not have been more than 4 Kms from our riverside camp.

(Moments later I stood corrected as I realised that the GPS does add on few kilometres to the odometer if one did not switch it off during the night, something to do with the change of guards in the GPS satellites up above.)

I am certain, the poor Dhabawallah at Kimwali had no idea how to react, when Rachit accidentally dropped the earthen hookah and rendered it completely useless. Of course we were sorry and were ready to pay up the economic compensation. However, his fervent refusal for compensation of any nature did not bewilder us, at least not me; mountain folks have forever dazzled me with their good-naturedness.

Two glasses of tea later, after trying our hands at painting the girder bridge, we set off for the Katol village. The route rises steeply over a hillside after the bridge towards the Katol village. An hour and half later we found ourselves resting under a bridge just beyond Katol. Water supplies were running low which we replenished along with copious refill of savoury dates, dry fruits and snacks. The lunch site was still half an hour away.

Soon enough, another bridge was visible with a log cabin on our side of the river bank. By the time I arrived at the Jiskon bridge, it was already busy with photographic activity. Team mates were busy shooting pictures of each other and the sorrounds.

Of particular interest was an event, when Raji tried putting on a load of cattle feed that the local women folk were carrying home. The entire group of locals were soon found cheering Raji up as she struggled under the load. We spent an entire hour shooting pictures and having lunch.

Another half an hour brought us to the
confluence of Nargani Gaad and Rupin. As one looked above to the West, the village of Jiskon was barely visible above the tree line. From here on, the route followed to our right, following the left bank of Nargani Gaad.

We were now in the valley that hardly sees any tourists or trekkers. It does not have any well built trail other than the ones used by the shepherds, which appeared broken, in the most confusing situations. The river bed appeared almost half a kilometre wide as we merrily proceeded along the heavily forested trail.

Although we knew that we were generally proceeding in the correct direction, it was a great solace to find a shepherd just near the bridge that spanned the Nargani. We were in two minds whether to cross the bridge, when the shepherd took great pain in explaining to us the exact route ahead and convinced us that we need not take to the Right Bank of Nargani just then.

In his own language spiced with abundant emotion, he explained the route ahead and the various Odars- Cave shelters, that one expects to find for spending nights.

“ Pehle Jakuti Odar, phir Foot Odar…Nadi nahin taapna abhi. Nadi ka is side ko hi rahna. Kal main nadi ko taapna pool ke oopar se…” He went on giving a detailed route plan ahead and Rajmohan absorbed every bit of data diligently.

He reeled out the names of as many as four such Odars to the base camp of Nalgan Pass.

According to him, we were going to find at least three cave shelters before a bridge takes us to the right bank another 5 Kilometers or so ahead. He also assured us of the generally good condition of the route and of the fact that he and his colleagues regularly used it every year.

The route afterwards was a bit confusing. We had to get down to the wide rocky riverbed here. Looking back, one could see the flock of sheep crossing over the bridge and heading towards Pandhar village somewhere up above in the mountains on the right bank. After about a kilometer the trail gets back to the forest on the left bank.

“Jaisingh, Ashu ..this is Pramod here, Over.” I heard Pramod’s anxious voice over the radio.

“Humen yahan par Rasta nahin mil raha hai”. Pramod, Seema and some other members were lost in the middle of the forest. The trail was so hidden under the carpet of pine needles, our team lost the nerves for the moment.

Luckily I spotted a couple of shepherds passing by.

“Boss, humare kuch saathiyon ko rasta nahin mil raha hai picche. Zara unhen Rasta bata dijiyega” I was enlisting their support. “Theek hai Saab” they replied. The mountain never fails in springing helpful surprises!

Just about ten minutes later, Pramod’s voice crackled over the radio again, informing us that they have caught the trail back again.

After some more walk on mixed terrain, some on rocky river bed, some through invisible trails in thickly carpeted jungle and some through steep hill sides, we finally approached a tributary coming in from the true left of the Nargani Gaad. A lone shepherd sat cooking his evening meal under a tree. He confirmed, this was the location for campsite- directly opposite the village Pandhar, perched high on the far bank of Nargani Gaad.

Camp was set near the cave shelter. The saving grace of the otherwise cramped campsite was the abundant supply of firewood. The camp staff set up a huge campfire. Warm saline water-bath was prepared to treat Hardik’s ankle, he had twisted it badly. The team ruminated over the day’s event around the yellow glow of that massive campfire. We were all doing fine- a tightly knit team of sprightly men and women. Not bad for Day 2!

Day 3- Pandhar Camp- Lower Suriwas Thatch

The dominating thought that morning was that of finding the next bridge over Nargani river. We had left a bridge behind and if by any chance the bridge ahead was unserviceable, we were sure to lose a couple of days. We could not afford that.

The track immediately after the campsite knocked the wind out of everyone with its steep gradient, extending forever skywards. Everyone did put up a brave front feeling glad inside that we were finally gaining some altitude. Soon the track levelled out and started as sharp a descent to the river bed. This was the beginning of a series of such stretches that shall eventually make us climb a total of 2000 metres and climb down almost as many meters by the end of the day.

In about an hour from the camp, the trail disappeared into a wooded clearing dense with a carpet of grass. I lost few anxious moments hollering out at Jaisingh over the Walkie-Talkie.

Thankfully I spotted few of the team members sitting on a log that hung precariously over the waters of Nargani. A few photo-shoots later the team regrouped and we set off again on the faintly visible trail.

The bridge was visible from a distance of almost 500 meters spanning a narrow stretch of the river just ahead of a time-worn Odar. These Odars have been home to countless shepherds travelling the ancient path in the Nargani Valley. There is no definitive record of who traversed these routes for the first time. If the soot blackened walls of the Odars were any indication, it would have happened aeons ago.

As we turned another corner and a rocky patch, one could see the bridge clearly, spanning the river. I was relieved. This would take us to the right bank. That’s where we needed to be, for the pass lay on that side of the river. Our short-cut from Kimwali had finally worked! We saved at least 10 Kms and 8 hours of trek compared to the route described by Deepak Shannan in his book, which I had referred to extensivly during the preparations for the trek.

As the last of our members crossed the bridge, I was mighty relieved, only to be troubled by some more tactical issues. Rajmohan, our guide seemed to have disappeared into the jungle exactly when there was an apparent confusion of the two paths that presented. We were like a bunch of kids lost in the jungle. Because of the deep valley we were in, I had also lost the GPS signal.

Loosing GPS signal can be a frustrating experience. When you start referring to a gadget so very often, dependence seeps into the consciousness without warning. At any lapse or failure one starts feeling exasperated and helpless.

The matter soon solved itself as Rajmohan appeared from nowhere along with Ravin and led us up the trail that was again steadily gaining altitude. Soon we saw another couple of shepherds with a flock of sheep.

“Humen to yahan se 7 ghante lagte hain saab. Abhi aap thoda tez chaloge to shaam tak pahunch jaoge base camp main. Humare saathi wahan par hain, kal hi Bakri le kar gaye hain” The shepherd was sharing his opinion about the route ahead. “Wahan se do ghanta lagta hai Pass tak. Phir seedha Sangla pahunch jaoge”.

These were people, who used this route for their existence, to trade and market articles and produce at the markets of Sangla as a matter of regular practice.

Although the estimated trekking time did not sound encouraging for the day, it was comforting to know that there were people up ahead on the track that can be relied upon for route finding.

I have lost count of the number of times we climbed up and went down steep inclines of couple of hundred meters. Suffice it to say that we were fed up with the routine by the time we reached a stream which could serve as a decent place for lunch.

As we surveyed the Google Earth printouts, by which time the GPS signals reappeared as mysteriously they had disappeared, we realised we were just about inching closer to Suriwas Thatch, our earlier designated campsite. It was unlikely, therefore, that we would reach anywhere close to the Pass base camp by the end of the day.

Hardik’s pain and trauma was much apparent by now. He was in agony with his twisted ankle. Rest of the members were also being constantly tested by the mighty mountain, but thankfully none had given in yet. The last surprise of the day was a fresh landslide which sloped directly into the furious waters of Nargani.

As we approached the campsite, the heavy and humid air converted into a gentle drizzle. Rachit, Hardik and Seema were still on the otherside of the landslide. Rest of us started collecting firewood in hope of a much needed campfire. We were on a narrow rocky bank bounded by a wall of rock on one side and the tempestuous river on the other. Few meters away there was a rock overhang- probably a Odar, as the shepherds might call it.

By the time the campfire was raging, the last of the members arrived and joined an already animated discussion about the route ahead, the campsite and the possibility of a rendezvous with bears.

Presently Hardik exclaimed- “Arre mera purse kahan hai?” fumbling frantically all over himself looking for his wallet.
“How much money was there?” I asked
“About twenty thousand odd” He replied.
I glanced in Vinod’s direction, probably with a look of unspoken request.
“Koi baat nahin Sir, main dekhta hoon abhi. Kitchen set ho jaane dijiye, phir main dekhta hoon. Mil jana chahiye”- He assured me.

In about an hour, Vinod joined us back after retracing our route for almost a kilometer, over the dangerous land slide zone. He had found it- the wallet with all its content intact!

As the sun went steadily down the western horizon, the skies threatened us with monsoon madness. As would be the pattern in next several days, the threat petered out as quickly as it had appeared. The tall mountainsides and the dense foliage created a feeling of eeriness around this campsite. I was quite convinced, this was not the Suriwas Thatch- the flowery meadow, I had researched in Google Earth; neither was the GPS agreeing with it.

The talk of presence of bears in the area only heightened the anxiety. Jaisingh claimed to have spotted bear droppings on the way and decided on a self imposed sentry duty. He would rest under the rock ledge nearby stoking campfires throughout the night. Although none of us admitted it, this did heighten the sense of adventure that evening. I remember waking up once in the night thinking, one of the hairy friends from the jungle was out on a visit outside my tent.

Day 4- Lower Suriwas Thatch – Nalgan Pass Base Camp

The air around was inviting the next morning. The sky was clear sporting a azure blue hue and the river gurgling and dancing down and the massive mountains at the head of the valley beaconing from that distance. If we could cross the pass today, we could still think of saving a day for splurging on later. But deep within something told me that the challenge was going to be a daunting one and we should consider ourselves lucky if we could break route till the pass.

So far GPS data had been tallying remarkably well with the directions provided by the local
shepherds. Question was, are we going to find many of those shepherd up ahead? It seemed as if the first of the shepherds of the season were trickling down into the valley along with us!

Having started the days walk with such apprehensions in mind, one was totally unprepared for the divine spectacle that was to greet us just a few hundred meters from the camp, each more pretty than the other.
First, there was this gushing torrent of a waterfall on the Nargani river that made the river tumble down a hundred meters in easy but sure steps.

“No wonder, they are planning that Hydel project here” I mused. The raw power of the water was hypnotic to say the least.

Then, one had to cross a boulder zone before entering a totally different vista. A huge waterfall from our left (true right of Nargani) dropped with magnificent ferocity, joining the Nargani Gaad few meters hence.

A huge campsite opened up, as one stepped few hundred meters ahead. It was a piece of paradise -that grassy meadow full with flowers, the softly gurgling water of the Nargani, bright morning filtering through a verdant cover of the forest and that lone tent of the shepherd overlooking all these. There are times when one dearly wishes to exchange all that one has, for an opportunity; to be a part of such a paradise. How I envied that shepherd that moment! This was the Suriwas Thatch I had reconnoitred earlier. It belittled all my imagination of how pretty it could be.

A few hundred meters ahead we reached the last major confluence- this time a tributary coming in from the true left. A group of herdsmen were smoking hookah under a Odar known as Dugdi Odar. Dugdi – being a rough translation for the “Junction of Two Rivers”. It was reassuring to reconfirm the route yet again. Here again members tried their skills at smoking the hookah of the shepherds, this time without any accidents. :-).

The route forks out here and one follows the route to the left, following the right bank of the Nargani Gaad.

As one looks ahead, due east from Dugdi Odar along the main valley of Nargani, one can not but notice the alluring view of the valley on to the right. The lush green valley carries a healthy tributary on to the main stream of Nargani. A valley, so dense with coniferous flora that it lures the mind to explore. Far away, there looked to be a snow ridge which might be home to the glacial storage of waters that feed the valley. Another worthwhile exploration, I am certain!

As we set off again, an even prettier Upper Suriwas Thatch opened up with blossoms of various colours dotting the green carpet on both banks of Nargani. The snow covers of the mountains at the head of the valley showed up at a distance.

For the last several hours we had been steadily gaining altitude, the altimeter read close to 3000 meters. It looked like, we had left behind the frustrating pattern of the route in the previous days. Finally, each meter we were gaining was bringing us closer to the pass.

The Nalgan Pass is located on a ridge that flanks the northern walls of the Nargani Valley just a kilometre after it originates. From the base of it, a small stream emerges and joins the Nargani. The logical route up, would be along the banks of this stream as I had plotted in the GPS.

The reality on ground was slightly different. Although there existed a possibility of following the plotted route, the slope was highly exposed and the grassy cover on top would render it more slippery than desired. Rajmohan suggested a trail, that turned left and up about half a kilometre ahead of the stream.

It was another small stream and not too difficult to cross. But when we crossed it, there was a seed of doubt in the mind. Had Rajmohan really understood the directions provided by the shepherds? I wasn’t entirely convinced. The GPS was showing the Pass to be exactly due North at that point and we were being navigated steadfastly due East!

Just then I could hear a transaction on the Walkie Talkie. Seema seemed to have lost her radio somewhere. Most probably it was left accidentally around the area where we rested last, a heap of boulders by the side of the rapid waters of Nargani. Recalling the stellar performance earlier, Vinod’s services were called for.

The poor chap went back half a kilometer to look for the lost radio. He reported back after half an hour, unlike the previous evening, he had not succeeded in finding the gadget. Some shepherd might find it someday, if at all ☺.

After a while we regrouped again half way up the slope ahead and to our left. Rajmohan went on another reccee, this time to our left and back; in a North Westerly direction and up the slope from where we sat. Few minutes later he was signing back that he had found a trail to the top. The GPS seemed to be correct after all.

Just a look at the steep and exposed climb up above was enough to get us all thinking awhile. Thankfully the terrain was not rocky or snowy. Later we huddled for a lunch, midway thru the ascent, around a stream of clear spring water. The view of the massive peaks that gave rise to the Nargani, opened up to our east, in form of a shadowy smokey cwm. That was definitely snow kingdom; looked strangely forbidding.

That view presented itself several times over till the next afternoon. It looked possible to scale some of those snowy ridges, which definitely looked at a height higher than the ridge we were upon. If one crossed them over, one would possibly exit at Rakcham- midway between Sangla and Chitkul. It could be a new route; the thought occurred several times during those immense vignettes of that cwm, but I had to shake it off and stash away in memory.

We resumed our climb and soon found ourselves on a ridge that led North-Westerly towards a saddle, where my GPS indicated the approximate location of the pass. I could see the big Y made by the two streams issuing forth from below two different saddle points of the mountain face. Both these saddles indicated a possible route to crossover to the Kinnaur Valley on the other side. We were finally looking at the upper parts of the ridge that holds the Nalgan Pass.

Jaisingh’s voice crackled over the radio “Vinod, Vinod- Yeh Hardik sir bahut thak gaye hain. Yahan pe camp lagane ko bol rahe hain. Campsite mila kya?”
I looked below towards where my fellow team members were slowly progressing towards where I stood. Then I spotted Rachit, Hardik and Jaisingh.
“That twisted ankle must be paining awfully” I thought, for where they were, there was no way one could pitch a camp stool, let alone a tent!!

Vinod looked at me, with a mischievous twinkle and shouted back, “Ooper aa jao. Campsite mil gaya!” He was bluffing, in order to prod the team up. Rajmohan had gone ahead, looking for a campsite and had not reported any progress. It was certain that we were not going across the pass that evening. It was too far away for the entire team to cross safely before sundown.

Just then Rajmohan came on the radio- “Campsite mil gaya. Yehi ek campsite hai. Yahan Paani bhi hai. Camp lagane ke liye thoda mehnat karna padega”.

There was a bit of Civil Engineering work to be done, but the refuge for the night had been found. I abhorred the idea of digging up mountain ground for creating level camping space, but there wasn’t much choice we had up there. We were probably the first large team to have ever camped there. There was no sign of camping history at that site.

Over the next few hours, the entire team took turns in digging some level grounds onto the sixty degree slope of the mountain face. Even after three hours of digging, only enough ground could be prepared for pitching the member tents and the kitchen tent in that ensconced depression on the slope. The porters and camp staff had to pitch their respective tents at a distance, a little up and away from us.

About 10 meters below the campsite was a lovely field of yellow flowers. There were couple of streams nearby- the water as virgin as can be. The only issue was finding a suitable spot to relieve ourselves in the morning in that highly exposed and open slope. The gender factor brought in added complexity. The problem was resolved eventually after finding suitable number of invisible nooks and crannies.

We were at our highest camp yet, at 3900 Meters after spending the previous three nights at sub-3000 meters level. The Diamox regime that the team was following seems to have helped. No one complained of altitude issues except for a young lad from the porter's team.

I was sure it was going to be freezing cold that night. Down jackets were out even as Hardik sank deeper into his shell, refusing to come out of the tent even for dinner. No campfire that night... there was nothing to set the fire on!! Not even juniper bushes!

Day 5- Across Nalgan Pass into the Kinnaur Valley

The tents were having a frost cover when we woke next morning.

“Surely the temperature dipped below zero” Pramod and I were chatting up in the morning.
“Yeah, even the grass below has frost on it” replied Pramod. It was our first brush with freezing cold for the season. Having spent the earlier days on the valley floor, we had crossed the limits of high altitude for the first time and it was going to be like that for several more days.

There was a bit of a betting going on about when the sunlight was going to hit camp. We were desperate for the sun after that cold night up there. I remember winning the bet by a fat margin ☺, the sun shined upon our camp earlier than we expected.

The evening before, Rajmohan had reconnoitred the route for about an hour and had confirmed finding a trail over the moraine platform above the campsite. We let Hardik and Rachit start early with Jaisingh. We hoped to catch up with them so that the entire team could reach the pass around the same time. In about half an hour they appeared like little dots way above us.

We caught up with them in about an hour. Hardik was still struggling with his ankles and was able to drag himself a few meters with each gigantic effort of the mind. Thankfully, the route eased up after reaching the moraine platform.

“From now on it’s a matter of time. All of us should reach the pass without much trouble, weather permitting.” I surmised, speaking to myself.

The steadily rising trail slightly bent to the left. Beyond that was the perfect saddle of the pass indicated by a large cairn. Rajmohan was standing by its side, gesticulating and encouraging me to proceed forth.

As I reached the cairn, I checked back on the GPS again. The proximity sensor came alive, indicating, I had reached the pass. The plotted data of Google Earth in the instrument was accurate by a meter! I marvelled at the wonder of technology for a moment. Man might not ever be able to reach there; to understand perfectly the ways of Mother Nature, I strongly believe. But he sure makes a valiant attempt at getting there.

Soon Ravin arrived followed by Pramod, Ritesh, Raji, Krushi, Seema, Rachit and Hardik- in that order. Ravin and Pramod were turning out to be tough cookies, maintaining their pace and endurance all throughout. In fact, Ravin had already earned his sobriquet by then- “As Ravin Flies”. When Hardik reached the top, a spontaneous applause went out from the team.

The other side of Nalgan Pass has a north-facing slope and was thickly covered with a blanket of snow and ice. An abrupt departure from bare brown rocks and miles of verdant greenery into a world of pristine whiteness! A contrast beholden very rarely indeed!

Storm clouds were rolling in from the south east and we started off down the icy slopes towards the Kinnaur valley. Bidding farewell to the Yamuna watershed, we were now heading into the Indus watershed.

(On one side of the pass was the Nargani whose waters would finally reach the Bay of Bengal and on the other side was the Baspa who would merge with the Satluj and then the Indus and eventually drain into the Arabian Sea. A similar feat would be repeated in few days when we would cross over from Upper Baspa Valley over the Lamkhaga Pass into the Bhagirathi Valley.)

Some members did try glissading on the snowy slopes for a while before most backsides were damp and cold. Walking on the snow is exciting, especially when one sees it for after a long time. Soon, however, the excitement gives way to a more rational and measured approach especially after slipping couple of times and getting buried in unseen holes. All of us went through that process of natural maturity which cost us an interminably long time and Pramod’s new snow goggles.

The porters and the guides were waiting at a lunch site in the middle of a beautiful meadow overlooked by the Nalgan ridge. After refuelling ourselves with hardened Puris, kerosene flavoured Chhole and generous chunks of jaggery, we started off for Sangla.

The descent from Nalgan ridge to the trail of the Rupin Pass trek involves crossing the river Rukti Gaad. Thankfully the water levels were low and there was a stout looking structure of a bridge over it. I cringed for a moment looking at the sharp rise to the other bank of Rukti Gaad. After climbing up the high bank on the true left of Rukti Gaad, one comes to a little pasture. Two distinct trails are visible from here. The natural instinct was to follow the one lower. Almost immediately a rather narrow irrigation channel materialisesd on one’s left.

A light drizzle had enveloped the entire valley by 1500 hrs as I instructed all the advanced porters to proceed forth and wait for us at Sangla Kanda while I waited for rest of the members to arrive. It took another hour before the last of the members trickled in, an abnormally long interval in descent of just 2 kilometers! The reason became clear to me much later after seeing an apparently limping Seema at Sangla Kanda. She had sustained a bad fall on a patch of glacier on the way and had injured her back.

After confirming directions once, I proceeded down steadily. Reaching Sangla by the evening was imperative, in order to be able to stick to the schedule. But the weather gods were threatening to thwart every initiative of ours; meancing grey rain clouds had begun enveloping the skies.

An hour of brisk trek saw me at the emerald lake of Sangla Kanda, set prettily in the lap of a mountain, barely hidden away in a forest of pines and poplars. There is a little agglomeration of households, that station themselves here for part of the year. Essentially these are shepherd families with a bit of settlement and agriculture. When the snows thaw, they move in and when it covers up with the white blanket again, they move down to Sangla and beyond.

We regruped at Sangla Kanda by 1700. I think, there was a bit of despair in the team about the decision to camp at Sangla for the night. That meant an hour or two more of trek. Anyways, team moved ahead and all except for Pramod, Seema, Ravin, Jaisingh and I were at Sangla before nightfall.

The five of us proceeded at a speed that Seema could handle. There did not seem to be any bone injury, but one could not be sure. She had a grim determination on the face and would never let any internal agony show up. She along with Pramod and Ravin chatted their way down like a merry bunch of children while Jaisingh and I led ahead.

That night we almost crawled into Sangla at 2030 in the night. When the average speed decreases, the hours seem longer than they actually are and the distances seem infinite, till the mind succumbs to the appeals of the tired muscles. I was never more tired in the entire trek.

As one enters the Sangla town, the all too familiar symbols of modernity materialises almost instantaneously. Potatoe wafers and aerated drinks dominated the display racks of the small shops that were about to close business for the day. After managing one’s way through the complex maze of trails and concrete walkways, we finally climbed the steps leading to the main market on the Sangla-Chitkul highway.

The market place was half a kilometer in its length and comprised of shops on both sides. Some selling snacks and some mobile re-charge cards. There were some Tibetian eating joints and some hotels providing accommodation. At the end of the market was the stately building of the PWD guesthouse that Suma had been mentioning in many of the tele-conversations.

Thankfully, a hotel had already been arranged just opposite the PWD Guesthouse, with running hot water! Steaming dinner was getting prepared by the time we reached. After taking a refreshing bath and washing my Trek-trousers (which colored an entire bucketful of water black!), it was time to prepare for the next leg of the trek.

Suma had joined in from Bangalore and immediately enjoined upon the team effort by volunteering to examine Seema’s injury status.

Hardik had decided to leave for home from Sangla itself. After all that injury ridden experience of the previous leg of the trek, he was in no mind to continue. Suma was going to replace him as the 9th Member. Ration and other supplies had to be revictualised for the next leg of the trek.

Some Pictures from my camera:
Selected Videos of the Stage 1


Saibal Barman said...

Thrice I read it and I felt like following you all along the paths--maybe, of life, of emotions and of glory all that lead to the grave !
I fear you turn into a poet between the ridges and vales you roam in. And, I believe you won't lose your job for being so.
It had elegantly painted sketches of the souls with colours of life and collaged into oneness, and along its gentle stream of journey, the reader can sail his tiny boat to enjoy beauty so relaxingly!
Although the great poet wrote it on a different account, but those words seem the most appropriate to honour such a brilliant effort by you and all in the team--

"A being breathing thoughtful breath,
A traveller between life and death;
The reason firm, the temperate will,
Endurance, foresight, strength, and skill"

Please convey me to each one in the team.

Him-Pathik said...

Thanks Saibal

As I have mentioned elsewhere, as always, my effort has been returned many times over. I was actually looking forward to your response.

I shall surely convey your words to each member of the team. Some of the members do know you as well :-). I dont think anyone misses out on the power, even in your comments.

Thanks again

chits007 said...

Ashu , you have written this in gem like lucidity; you blog is now becomming a single point of information for all these high passes..

I am bugging you again to kindly posta article on using GPS & Google Earth before(tentative path) and after(actual path taken) the trek :)

Unknown said...

hi ashu,
your are rocking man.
your blog is simply awsome.
i along with my team were suppose to go to "kinnaur kailash"., however changed our mind.
pl. proivde details of guide/porters etc along with cost per day if possible.
our next yr plan is "lamkhaga/Nalgan pass"
Pl also let me know best season for the same
thanks in advance & hope to get "some more virtual trekking"
thanks a ton

Him-Pathik said...

Thanks Milind and (of course) Chitrang
for the compliments

Boss...will write it up...gimme sometime

The cost per day we paid was like 1700 per day per person all expenses included. We had a 18 member support team for the 8-9 members in the both legs of the trek. Of course it includes all food, equipment, guides like Jaisingh and Vinod and all that.
Best season in my opinion is late may-early june

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

This is awesome ... great travelogue with nice narration and pics.
Fan of you after reading Bali Pass....and this one is entirely breathtaking.
Hats off to u guys:)


Him-Pathik said...

Thanks Sandy for the kind words of encouragement. Thanks