Sunday, July 18, 2010

Trek to Kalimath, Kedarnath-Vasuki Tal, Tungnath-Chandrashila, October 1998

As I occasionally go through our somewhat faded pictures of our October 1998 trek, I ponder as to why we could not decide on any regular trekking destination and instead chose some assorted treks. A couple of possible reasons : First, we could not meet and decide on our trekking destination for 1998 probably due to some more pressing family commitments. Second, the August 1998 massive landslides – both in Garhwal and Kumaon may have put a dampener on our trekking plan. But the mountain bugs in each of us compelled to plan at least some short treks. With each of us having our own preferred short treks in mind, we decided to meet everyone’s aspirations by planning some short treks around Kedarnath route. This time, we did not draw a detailed itinerary of treks as we usually do but kept it flexible except that Mumbai-Delhi-Mumbai train tickets were booked with couple of extra days to take care of our flexible schedule..
I was keen on visiting Kalimath this time as in 1992, I had missed it while trekking to Madmaheshwar as part of our Panch-Kedar trek. The Head Priest of Ukhimath had then convinced me to trek to Ransi on way to Madmaheshwar via Mansuna as it was connected by a mud road where share-jeeps plied. Krishnamurthy was keen on Kedarnath as he had not yet visited the place. Jambukeswaran had no particular preference except that he was keen to visit the Himalaya. Deshpande could not join us for the trek for some personal reason and instead Jumbukeswaran’s office collegue ( co-incidentally he was also a Deshpande) joined us. It was his first trek.
On a warm and humid October night, we boarded Golden Temple Mail from Borivali and reached New Delhi the next day late evening. On the same night, we took Mussoorie Express which left about 2 hous late from Delhi Jn. We reached Haridwar at 8.30 a.m. A bus from the Haridwar station took us to Rishikesh in about an hour. We stayed at a hotel close to the GMOA bus station. An early morning GMOA bus to Gaurikund dropped us at Guptakashi around 12.00 noon. We checked into a newly opened Hotel Shubham Basera near the bus stand. Obviously, the room was neat; the bed sheets, pillows and blankets were fresh and the toilet was clean too and all these at good bargain price of Rs.200/- for a four-bedded room.

Guptakashi temple. Water flowing from Gaumukhs on either side of the platform is believed to be from Ganga and Yamuna rivers.

Guptakashi-Kalimath-Guptakashi (6+6 Kms trek)
After a light breakfast, we left our hotel room by 7.00 a.m. We had already decided that we would trek to Kalimath instead of taking share jeep. Incidentally, we did not find any jeep going to Kaliimath probably the road damaged by the massive landslides two months back was not yet ready for vehicular traffic. After descending from the road side, the trek was mostly through forest. After crossing a narrow iron bridge, we reached to a cluster of houses on an open place and at this point we witnessed the damages caused to almost all terraced farms which were totally covered with rocks and rubbles without leaving any trace of a farm land. It was unbelievable to see a big hillock sitting pretty on a farm which, at first, we thought that it was really a hill in its natural setting. It was only when a villager told us that the hillock had slid from the top during cloud burst and settled on this farm that we got to know of the reality.

Trekking route to Kalimath passes through forests.

At the starting point of the trekking path to Kalimath.

Me on a damaged bridge over a stream on to Kalimath.

Since it was an easy walk, we could reach Kalimath village by 9.30 a.m. We went straight to the bank of Kaliganga. Though the water in the river was cold, the strong sun made the bath refreshing. After a few climbs, we reached the Kali temple. There were no visitors in the temple complex when we were there for about an hour or so. The priest did some pujas ( or some rituals?) for us. The Kali temple did not have any idol but Kali in the form of a Yantra was worshipped. On either sides of the Kali temple were Laxmi and Sarswati temples. It was amazing to note that while we had witnessed the extensive damages in areas very close to Kalimath, the temple complex was spared from the damages except a partly collapsed residential house.

Kalimath village on the bank of Kali Ganga river. In the background is Kedarnath peak (faintly visible).

Kali temple complex. The temple complex was saved from a series of massive landslides in Kalimath-Kotma areas, about two months before our visit. A part of a house on the left was, however, destroyed by the landslides.

We left Kalimath at 12.00 noon. While passing through the same open place where landslides had inflicted maximum damages to farm land, a villager came running and told us of his woes about his farm being destroyed by landslides and his banker, State Bank of India at Guptkashi insisting on repayment of loan instalments. It appeared to me that he had taken a short term loan for raising rainy season crops and the loan was to be repaid after harvesting the crops. Since his entire crops were damaged and he was not in position to repay the loan, he was in a quandary as to how he could come out of this situation. Furthermore, he was not in a position to raise winter crops and repay loan though belated as his farm was damaged beyond redemption. From what I could also guess from his talk, he seemed to be disturbed by the frequent visits by the bank official to his house for recovery of the loan.

Kali temple complex seen from Ransi road. In the foreground is Kali Ganga river.

A school around Kali temple complex.

Kali temple.

After listening to his predicament, I suggested him to write a letter to the branch manager giving the circumstances under which he was not in a position to repay the loan in time and request him to convert his short-term loan to medium term loan as has been practice when there is a natural calamity such as drought or flood. As none of us carried any blank paper or note book, the poor farmer had to rush back to his house and bring the paper to write the application. I wrote the application for him on the lines suggested to him earlier and told him to sign the application and give it to SBI after taking a copy of the same. I hoped that the SBI branch manager would not create any further problem for this farmer after submission of application it was a reasonable request. But I was really dismayed by the branch manager’s attitude toward this farmer in the background of a natural calamity. In fact, he should have proactively guided this farmer about the alternative options. Most of the small farmers are simple and honest and in normal circumstances, they will be eager to repay the loan as early as possible as they feel that their honour in the society is at stake when the bank official visits their house for recovery of loans.

Ukhimath temple complex.

We reached Guptkashi around 3.00 p.m. as almost one hour was taken for dealing with the farmer’s problem. After taking a tea break at the bus stand, we took a share jeep for a 14 kms drive to Ukhimath as Krishnamurthy was keen to visit the temple. We return to Guptkashi by evening. After fixing with the share jeep for the next day’s early morning journey to Gaurikund, we returned to our hotel.

Kedarnath temple.

We stayed for two days at Maharashtra Mandal in Kedarnath.

Guptkashi-Gauikund-Kedarnath ( 31 kms by share jeep and 14 kms by trek)
The share jeep left at 5.30 a.m. and reached Gaurikund at 7.00 a.m. After a hurried breakfast, we commenced trekking to Kedarnath. There were not many pilgrims on the route so the mule nuisance was minimal. The weather was pleasant throughout the trek. After a lunch break at Rambara, we reached Kedarnath at 2.00 p.m. We got accommodation at Maharashtra Mandal. I had stayed here on two earlier occasions.
The Maharashtra Mandal guest house was planned by one Karnataki ( surname in Maharashtra though surname gives an impression that the person is from Karanatak) a businessman from Yeola ( Nashik district) when he first visited Kedarnath in early 1900 when he noticed that there were not many shelters for pilgrims. Later, he set up a make-shift house to accommodate pilgrims. Over a period of time, the NextGen of Karanataki family who had made Guptakashi as their permanent residence, improved the quality of accommodation which was possible by donations received, mostly from Maharashtra. When I last stayed in September 1999, it was managed by 3rd generation Karnataki brothers who were finding difficult to speak Marathi.
We could see from our room the path to Vasuki Tal. With our flexible schedule, this was our chance to do this trek as it has been eluding me despite the fact that this was my fourth trip to Kedarnath. When I talked to Satish Karantaki of Maharashtra Mandal about the feasibility of doing a day trek to Vasuki Tal the next day, he said that it was possible to this trek in a day to return to Kedarnath. He then arranged a guide for us. Satisfied with this development, we went out for a stroll around Kedarnath. As we were near the temple, a light shower with strong cold breeze forced us to take a shelter in a shop just adjunct to the temple complex. It was after a while when we decided to rush to temple as it was getting dark. There was not much rush inside the temple and we could sit very close to the ling for sometime. Krishnamurthy was overwhelmed by such a nice darshan of Kedarnath.
On to Vasuki Tal. After a steep climb across Mandakini river, some rest on the top. Kedarnath peak and Kedar Dome in the background.

Rustic landscape on way to Vasuki Tal.

After a short easy walk, the path became stony as can be seen on the curve.

Kedarnath-Vasuki Tal-Kedarnath (6+6 kms)
We had a quick breakfast at a make-shift dabha in front of Maharashtra Mandal and had also arranged for pack lunch of alu paratha from the same place. It was 7.30 a.m., when we left the place for Vasuki Tal. After crossing river Mandakini, we were on a steep climb of about 1 km after which we reached on a hill top. From here, we get good views of Kedarnath temple below and peaks around the temple. From here onwards, the landscape changes from greenery to barren mountains with stones and rocks strewn all over the place. It was in this context that a guide was necessary as at many places there was no way to know where the path will lead.. The rocky and boulder ridden path with climbs and descents with lack of oxygen on such a high altitude made the progress very slow as we had to take frequent rests. The last one km to the lake was a steep descent in a relatively better path.

Some rest on the rocky climbs.

Way down to Vasuki Tal.

Some isolated patches of snow as we descent to Vasuki Tal.

At last emerald green Vasuki Tal.

We with Vasuki Tal in the background.

The emerald green Vasuki Tal lies as a bowl surrounded by stone-filled banks with snow-clad mountains as backdrop. But clouds and mists deprived us of the pleasure of enjoying what could be beautiful scenery. We spent about 30 minutes near the lake. After finishing our packed lunch, we started the return trek at 1.30 p.m. by which time the weather had turned cloudy. Luckily, it did not rain as we reached Kedarnath by 5.30 p.m.
Kedarnath-Gaurikund-Guptakashi (14kms by trek, 31 kms by share jeep)
We started leisurely from Kedarnath at 10.15 a.m. reached Gaurikund comfortably by 3.00 p.m. After taking a lunch break, we got a share jeep for Guptkashi. With previous day’s tough trek still giving some discomfort, it was decided to take rest at our familiar hotel at Guptkashi instead of moving to Chopta, our next destination.

Guptakashi-Chopta-Tungnath-Chandrashila-Chopta (44 kms by bus, 5+5 kms by trek)
We got 6.45 a.m. Bhookh Hartal bus at Guptkashi and reached Chopta at 9.15 a.m. After taking breakfast at a dabha located at the starting point of Tungnath trek, we proceeded for Tungnath. After a gradual climb on a stone-paved path, the climb became steeper. On the right side of the slope was Chopta bugyal with some shepherds’ huts. Other than handful of pilgrims, the trek path was almost deserted. We reached Tungnath at 12.00 noon. By this time, the clouds and mists had already covered the peaks.
Chopta bugyal on way to Tungnath.

Shepherds' huts at Chopta bugyal.

Climb to Tungnath.

Tea break on way to Tungnath.

A research centre seen from Tungnath.

Tungnath temple.

Stone idol of Ganesh outside Tungnath temple.

Tungnath temple viewed from an adjoining hillock.

After taking a round of the temple, we met a Sadhu who was resting in an open place in the sun near the priest’s residence. He stayed in a cave about one km from the temple. When I asked him as to how he managed to stay in a extreme winter, expecting that he would give me the familiar reply of sadhus’ control over their nerves and senses, I was pleasantly surprised to get a rationale answer to my query. He said that the slope above the cave’s entrance was very steep making it impossible for snow to get accumulated. The South facing entrance in winter will ensure that during sunny days, sun rays will fall on the cave almost throughout the day due to sun moving in southern solstice, making the cave relatively warm.
A Sadhu in pranayam pose. He said that he stayed around Tungnath temple all through the year.

On the Chandrashila peak.

Weather turned foggy and windy when we started return journey from Chandrashila.

Tungnath temple seen from the way to Chandrashila peak.

As we proceeded to Chandrashila peak, there was a light drizzle on the way but it was manageable. There were some scary moments when thick mist covered the trek path making it invisible. At the peak, there was a small stone temple which acted as the final point on Chandrashila peak. It was apparent from the beginning itself that we would not be able to get any view of the peaks as they were already covered by clouds. We returned to Chopta via Tungnath by 4.30 p.m. We stayed in a dabha for the night.

Chopta bugyal.

GMVN Rest House, Chopta with peaks in the background. At left is Ukhimath-Gopeshwar Road.

Peak view from Chopta.

Chopta-Joshimath (90 kms by bus)
We were to get the same Bhookh Hartal bus to Joshimath which dropped us at Chopta the previous day. We could see the bus coming from Kund about 30 minutes before it reached Chopta at 9.30 a.m. Being the only bus connecting Gaurikund with Badrinath on Ukhimath-Chamoli road, this bus was full of mostly local villagers to whom this bus was a lifeline. So we had to travel standing up to Gopeshwar after which we got the seats. The bus reached Joshimath at 3.30 p.m. We stayed in GMVN.
Joshimath-Auli-Joshimath (14 kms by share jeep, returned by trek, 6 kms)
Although, I had passed through Joshimath four times for Badrinath, I had never been to Auli. In fact none of us had ever visited Auli. With our flexible schedule, it was possible to fit in Auli while going to Badrinath. We got a share jeep at 8.30 a.m. for Auli and reached Auli at 9.30 a.m. We got into a Cable Chair Car and got down at Tower No.8 for grand views of peaks such as Hathi, Ghori, Nanda Devi, Dunagiri, Trishul. We walked on a vast expanse of bugyal which within a couple of months would turn into one of a skiing slope. We ended our walk at a place from where the trek to Gorson started. On our return to the road head at Auli, we visited an impressive looking Hanuman temple located on a small hillock.

Chairlift for Tower-10 in Auli.

Cows grazing in Auli bugyal with Himalayan peaks in the background.

Ghori and Hathi parvats seen from Auli.

Nanda Devi from Auli.

From left to right : Dunagiri, Nanda Devi and Trishul.

Nanda Devi and Trishul from Auli.

After a light refreshment at the GMVN restaurant, we came to the road for trying our luck in getting a share jeep to Joshimath. On a second thought, we decided to trek down to Joshimath as we were not sure of getting share jeep. We got down from the road and walked through the forest. Thereafter it was downhill cutting across Auli-Joshimath road at many places. The last one km was a descent through cemented path which ended at Malari end of Joshimath. It took us one hour to reach Joshimath from Auli – the same time which the share jeep took to drop us to Auli from Joshimath. In the evening, we visited Jyothirmath and Narsinha Temple Complex.

A priest inside Hanuman temple, Auli.

Auli bugyal with Hathi and Ghori parvats in the background.

GMVN, Auli.

Our trip concluded with a visit to Badrinath the next day.


Monday, July 12, 2010

Trek to Nanda Devi Outer Sanctuary (Dharansi Pass) - June 2010

Back in Joshimath from Kuari Pass Trek

Our unscheduled stay at Joshimath ostensibly to be present at the time of getting NDOS permit, was a blessing in disguise as it provided the required rest in the comfort of the hotel room after a continuous steep descend from Khullara to Dhak. At least our calf muscles and toes recovered from nagging pain. In the evening, we went to Grand Adventure's Office to access internet for mails where I noticed that most of the visitors to the office looking for some trekking assignments appears to be bhotias. This was not surprising as Joshimath and its neighbouring villages have sizeable population of bhotias due to its proximity to bhotia dominated villages in Niti Valley.

Our guide, Sonu's Parasari village, 7 kms from Joshimath on Malari road.

But what came as news to me was that there were many bhotia people who had migrated from Johar Valley and made Joshimath and its neighbourhood villages as their permanent homes. As I learnt later, Sonu’s grandfather migrated from Munsiary many years back and settled in Parasari village, 7 kms from Joshimath towards Badagaon. Similarly, forefathers of Rajendra Singh (Raju), MD of Grand Adventures belonged to Martoli. I will not be surprised if many of his staff as also the staff of trekking agencies in Joshimath have lineage from Johar Valley.

But why Johar bhotias chose villages around Joshimath for settlement ? The answers lie in the fact that prior to 1962, Johar bhotias used to regularly travel to Malari from Milam via Untadhura for business and in that process over a period of time they developed family ties with bhotias of Niti Valley. It is also said that many Johar bhotias had grazing rights in around Malari. Post 1962 Chinese war made the movement on Milam-Malari route almost impossible. Also many bhotias of Johar valley were in search of alternative employment as their flourishing business with Tibet came to a halt with the Chinese war of 1962. The family ties with Niti Valley and also the relatively better employment opportunity in around Joshimath due to it being on the pilgrimage route ( Badrinath and Hemkund) made some of Johar Valley bhotias to migrate to in around Joshimath villages. Lastly, the bliss giving goddess Nanda Devi seems to be the another common bonding factor between bhotias of Johar and Niti valley.

Permit for NDOS

Entry into NDOS is restricted to not more than 5 persons per day subject to not more than 20 persons per week. For NDOS permit, we were required to give one photograph along a copy of the photo identity card as such PAN Card, Voters’ Card, Driving Licence. Since we were in the age group of 60 years plus, as advised by Sonu, we got Medical Fitness Certificate from our doctors as sometime DFO asks for the same. The entry fee for NDOS was recently raised by nearly 4-folds from Rs.40/- per head to Rs.150/- per head. The Trail Management Fee was also similarly raised. The total amount paid for our group of 6 persons (2+4 guide/porters) came to a whooping Rs.1760/- as against Rs.380/-paid for for Kuari Pass. To me it looked anomalous to charge Rs.450/-for 3 porters as Trail Management Fee. They all belonged to Lata village, which is a part of NDOS and it was not fair to charge them for moving inside their own territory. One of the interesting conditions of the NDOS permit was that the group must choose one homestay either at Lata summer village or at Tolma. Camping is not permitted in Lata and Tolma villages.

Google Earth image of our trek route as tracked by GPS. Photo courtsey: K. Srinivasan.

Joshimath-Lata-Lata summer village (2370m) [25 kms by Jeep+1.5 km by trek]

Sonu arrived with a jeep around 10.00 a.m. at our hotel and soon we were on the road to Lata. It was a bit warm as was expected during this month. As we were driving through Badagaon towards Dhak, Bethartholi Himal was partially visible to our left and as we drove further, Nanda Devi made her appearance. We stopped briefly to take quick photographs of these two peaks. The serenity of the place with these peaks looming large over Dhauliganga valley was marred by heaps of stones and mud spread over a part of Tapovan village due to the construction of a barrage and tunnels as part of hydro-electric power project. We took a tea break at Tapovan village with Dunagiri standing tall over it giving an impression of a protector of Tapovan. Incidentally, Dunagiri peak was our constant companion throughout this trek and I was reminded of a line from a popular Hindi film song of 70s: Jahan jayiyega wahan payiyega ( whereever you go, there you will find me). We passed Reni village where Rishiganga meets Dhauliganga. The village was made famous by Gaura Devi of Chipko movement.

Bethartoli Himal from Joshimath-Malari Road between Badagaon and Dhak.

A zoom shot of Nanda Devi from Joshimath-Malari Road near Dhak.

Dunagiri from Tapovan village.

We reached Lata road head just around noon. Raghuveer Singh introduced himself and his two porters one of which was his son Prem Singh who was cricket crazy. As I noted later, he used to suddenly burst into commentary in Hindi of some imaginary cricket matches between India and Pakistan or Sri Lanka ( in the background of Asia Cup matches) in which India will always win tosses, other teams will drop catches, umpires will reject appeals for LBW against Indian batsmans and finally India wins matches. He was very sorry for Mumbai Indian losing IPL title only because he was an ardent fan of Sachin Tendulkar he hated to see Sachin losing the match.

Starting point of the trek from Lata road head.

Lata winter village located by the side of the road looked sleepy as compared with other villages on this road. As we came to know later, apparently, most of the villagers have shifted to Lata summer village located about 1.5 km up. We commenced our walk on the cemented path through the terraced fields as the porters were arranging the loads. It was very warm day and we had to guzzle lots of water during our 1.5 kms of climb. It took nearly one hour to reach the periphery of the village lined up with apple, apricot and walnut orchards. A further 200m of walk through narrow alleys took us to Raghuveer’s house. We were ushered into a small room which was to be our home-stay for the night.

The alternative zigzag shorter but steeper path to Lata summer village which is mostly used by villagers.

One of the colourful houses in Lata summer village where post office is located.

The room, though small with two beds looked far better than rooms of our home stays in Darma valley last year. The wooden walls were nicely covered with huge colour posters depicting the Himalayan peaks, valleys and rivers. The toilet and bathroom were located at a lower ground. There were easy chairs kept in the veranda for relaxation. The house had electricity which was almost uninterrupted except for a brief time in the night. All in all, the room looked a neat place to spend a comfortable night. It did not take much time for us to gauge as to why the guest room has been nicely maintained. Raghuveer Singh has been the host to many VIPs in this room as he showed us his diary in which many visitors had recorded their commendations on their stay in his house. Harish Kapadia stayed in the very same room in in June 2001 on his way to Nanda Devi Inner Sanctuary as leader of the IMF sponsored expedition. Sonu Nigam ( Bollywood playback singer) and his wife too stayed in the same room in May 2006 on their visit to Lata Kharak-Saini Kharak. Then there were many high ranking government officials who stayed in this room. By the way, Raghuiveer Singh was recommended by Rajkumar for any type of assistance we may need in Lata summer village.

Nanda Devi Temple at Lata summer village.....

...and the Nanda Devi diety inside the temple.

Raghuveer Singh is in his early 50s and an expert on Nanda Devi Sanctuary as I noted while having a long chat with him during our post-lunch tete-e-tete. He recalled the pre-1982 period when hordes of visitors come to Lata during May-October as part of trekking and expedition groups and most of the male members of Lata village would be accompanying such groups as porters/cooks/guides. Sometime porters were required to be hired from adjoining villages such as Tolma to meet the increased demands during the peak season. Those were the days when porters used to earn sizeable income. With the closure of the sanctuary in 1982, cash-flow streams of the villagers were severally affected forcing them to migrate to adjoining towns for employment. Those who were educated have permanently migrated to cities and now most of inhabitants of the Lata village are old folks and children.

I got an impression from the Raghuveer Singh that villagers are not happy with a blanket ban on trekking and expeditions to inner sanctuary. They feel that a limited number of treks and expeditions can be permitted in inner sanctuary to provide employment opportunity to locals. They are also resentful of a ban on their movements in inner and outer sanctuary as they feel that it is their legitimate right to freely move in the sanctuary. I read a pahadi saying in one of the articles on this issue in a book given to me by Raghuveer Singh for reading which was apt. The saying goes like this in Hindi :

Jade mein pale ki akkadh dhup aane tak.

Aur Baratiyon ki yainth bhat khane tak.

English transliteration : In winter, frosts show their might until sun come out. Marriage guests show their ego until they eat rice.

In his view, regular movements of villagers in the sanctuary would prevent illegal poaching activities in the sanctuary. He says that Lata villagers have lot of respect for maintaining the sanctity of Nanda Devi sanctuary and they will not indulge in activities which bring bad name to their village.

In the evening, Raghuveer Singh took us for a stroll in the village starting with Nanda Devi temple. He prayed on our behalf for the successful completion of our trek. . The temple complex has been renovated and a 5-room guest house has been constructed. Lata summer village has about 80 houses spill over two major settlements. The higher caste villagers stay in around the Nanda Devi temple while the lower caste villagers stay about 500m further towards Bhelta side. Raghuveer Singh tells me that the bifurcation is a legacy from the past and maintains that there is free movements of villagers from both the sides.

After an early dinner of local fares, we retired for the night. There was no need to use sleeping bags as weather was pleasant.

Artifacts on show inside Nanda Devi temple complex.

A part of Lata summer village located about 500m away from the main settlement. The path in the background goes to Bhelta.

The1.5 km trek path from Lata road head to Lata summer village.

Lata Summer Village-Bhelta (2840m) [4 kms trek]

While in Joshimath, we had a second thought on attempting Lata-Lata Kharak trek in a single day as an altitude gain of about 1500m in a single day in 9 kms of trek could be tiresome apart from altitude related problem. Hence we decided, in consultation with Sonu to do this stretch of trek in two days by camping at Bhelta. But a final call was to be taken at Lata after taking into account the suitability of place for camping and availability of water source. Raghuveer Singh confirmed that there was a perennial water source just 200m above Bhelta and a cave could accommodate porters and guide apart from acting as a make-shift kitchen. Raghuveer Singh also suggested to Sonu to leave the kitchen tent at Lata as this may not be needed any more due to availability of log huts at Lata Kharak which could be our base for trek to Saini Kharak and Jhandidar/Dharansi Pass. He also suggested that we leave much of provisions in Lata which he would carry with him the next day when he comes to Lata Kharak.

Ready for departure to Bhelta at Raghuveer's house.

After readjusting the loads as suggested by Raghuveer Singh, we left Lata summer village at 8.15 a.m. with two porters who had now light weights on their back. After walking over the cemented path for about one km, we were out of the village boundary from where a moderate climb over a well- trodden path followed by somewhat steeper climb on loose stones and scree started. The cloudy weather with sun making intermittent appearance and the dense forest cover of pines and walnut trees made the walk pleasurable.

River Dhauliganga seen from Lata summer village.

First the easy walk through pine forest.....

...then started the walk on rocks and stones until Bhelta.

It was only when we reached on an intermediate ridge we saw the magnitude of the dense forest cover. The views of Lata village, its terraced fields sloping down to the bank of Dhauliganga with Tapovan village in the background were superb. It took us about 3 hours to reach Bhelta campsite as we spent lots of time in taking pictures of many wildflowers on the way thanks to Sonu who made sure that we heard his observations about these flowers and take pictures of the same. [ For more details and pictures of wildflowers click on ]. Also there were wild strawberries all the way to Bhelta some of which we collected and ate on the way. There were many herbal plants which had medicinal value and were being used by villagers to overcome many common ailments such as cold, indigestion.

One of the many wildflowers we came across on Bhelta route.

Bhelta campsite is a small patch of flat ground located on either sides of the stone-filled trek path. From a distance of 100m or so, it was difficult to comprehend that this would be a camping site as thick growth of vegetations surrounding the campsite, thanks to almost daily afternoon/evening rains, camouflaged the place. A protruding rock over the ground acted as a natural cave where our kitchen was set up with sufficient resting space for 3 porters/guide. The place was not great from the scenic point of view but the availability of water some 200m aheadwas the only reason for this campsite. In fact, the water supply to the entire Lata village is provided by Bhelta stream through pipes.

Bhelta campsite. In the background the the cave.

The rains started in right earnest as we finished our lunch of Vegetable Pulao. The rain continued till about 5.00 p.m bringing down the temperature to 9C by evening. According to Sonu, a steep drop in temperature in the evening and night is a good sign of a clear weather the next day morning. And we observed his prediction coming out true almost all days. As usual, dinner was taken early before the light faded . KS was happy that his wish of having dry bhindi (Okra) masala was fulfilled by Sonu.

Bhelta-Lata Kharak (3790m) [5 kms trek]

We woke up to a clear blue sky as predicted by Sonu last eveing. The impending steep climb of 5 kms with a altitude gain of nearly 1000m wavered in our mind as we were finishing breakfast. I was having an allergic cold with my right nostril blocked. We were keen that we reach Lata Kharak around noon to avoid rains which, during last few days, had become routine affairs in the afternoon. So we started from Bhelta at 7.15 a.m. After a moderate climb of about one km on a stony path through pine forest, the tougher climb was waiting for us. A diversion to the left goes to the Khanook Kharak campsite which has been used as an alternative to Bhelta. However, the scarcity of water at Khanook Kharak has made the trekking groups to avoid this campsite.

River Dhauliganga gets smaller as we climb up.

Our steep climb continued on a short zigzag path of loose stones and pebbles. As we gained height, I was finding difficult to climb in my normal pace as my blocked right nostril made me to take frequent breaks to regain my normal breathing. Again this route was full of rare wildflowers and herbal plants. This gave me lots of needed break as I spent time in taking pictures of wildflowers. The shorter zigzag steep climbs were replaced by longer zigzag climbs but with lesser forest cover mostly of pine and birch trees. As soon as I saw some open trek path ahead of me, a sense of premonition came to my mind that we were nearing Lata Kharak but this was not be as we were again in the deep forest. As we reached a small plateau, I saw a deep Dhauliganga valley and Lata villages – both winter and summer villages with its cemented path looking like a white line drawn on a Google earth map. As I was admiring the scenery I was not aware that behind me a roof of a wooden structure was visible. As I turned back to continue the trek, I saw KS waving his hands some 200m above the cliff top to indicate that we have reached Lata Kharak. It was 12 noon when I reached the top. ‘What an awesome place’ was my first reaction about Lata Kharak. After about 15 minutes, Raghuveer Singh reached Lata Kharak with loads which we had left in Lata summer village. He had started from Lata at 9.00 a.m. and made to Lata Kharak with loads in 3 hours and 15 minutes - a commendable feat for a man in his early 50s.

One of many wildflowers enroute Lata Kharak.

At last just 50m short of Lata Kharak log hut.

Lata Kharak is situated on a table top surrounded from all sides by high mountains. Two important features of Lata Kharak topography are : firstly, even at an altitude of 3800m, it is located almost on tree line - a thick forest of birch and rhododendron trees. Second, we are in wilderness yet we are just 10 kms from the road head and we get fairly good BSNL signal . On the south-west side is the Dhauliganga valley from where our climb started. Further left to the Dhauliganga valley is the Rishiganga gorge followed by Ronti nala. On the south side, we could see our trekking route - Gorson bugyal-Talli-Khullara-Kuari Pass and a part of descend to Dhak road head. A small ridge connects Lata Kharak with Saini Kharak and Jhandidar. On the north-eastern side, the prominent peak visible is Dunagiri and some distanced peaks on the Indo-Tibet border. The closest peaks to see from Lata Kharak are Bethartoli Himal, Nanda Ghunti (south face), Ronti, and Hathi Parvat . Nanda Devi, Devisthan I and II peaks are not visible from Lata Kharak as their views are blocked by Jhandidar ridge. These peaks can be viewed only from Saini Kharak. I was immediately in love this place and was happy that we were going to spend three nights in this serene place.

View from Lata Kharak of some distance peaks on Indo-Tibet border.

As we were taking lunch in the log hut at around 1.30 p.m., it started raining with gusty winds. Soon it transformed into hail storm which continued till about 4.00 p.m. Although rain stopped, the sky remained cloudy and strong wind continued to hammer the place. This brought down the temperature to as low as 4C. The jawans of Gorkha Regiments who were occupying the remaining three huts were now in their full winter wear with astronaut look. These jawans were a part of a 25 member Trishul-I Expedition Team of which 17 members finally made it to the peak successfully. Unfortunately, due to 24 hour snow blizzard on June 8, 3 of its members lost the path in the white wash while descending from the peak and were found missing. After many helicopter sorties, there dead bodies were found near Camp-3. A rescue team was sent to Camp-3 to retrieve the dead bodies but due to bad weather they could not proceed beyond Camp-2. Till our return from Lata Kharak on June 20, the bad weather prevented the rescue team to trek to Camp-3 to bring the dead bodies to Camp-2. One of the jawans who accompanied the team upto Camp-3, told me that it would take a minimum of 10 hours for the rescue team to trek to Camp-3, pick up the dead bodies and trek back to camp-2 from where the helicopter will bring them to the Joshimath Army base.

A team of jawans with supporting staff were also stationed at Dharansi campsite which served as back-up base for the stores and provisions for the expedition. As stated earlier, there was already scarcity of water in Dharansi and in these circumstances, Sonu had earlier suggested a day trek to Dharansi Pass and back to Lata Kharak. So we were to spend three nights in Lata Kharak which was not a bad option as log huts were better insulated against the cold wind than the tents. As we realised later after return from Jhandidar, Lata Kharak was a more serene place to camp than Jhandidar or Dharansi.

Sunrise view of Hathi Parvat (west face) from Lata Kharak and....

....Bethartoli Himal.

Lata Kharak-Saini Kharak (3885m)-Lata Kharak [3+3 kms trek]

We woke up at 5.00 a.m. to capture the sunrise view on Bethartoli Himal, Ronti and Hathi Parvat and were a bit disappointed as a thin layer of mist partly covered these peaks. But soon the mist was evaporated as sun rose and we had a good sunrise view of these peaks. After taking pictures of these peaks, we had a quick breakfast as we were keen to visit Saini Kharak early to get clear peak views.

Nanda Ghunti (west face partly visible) and Ronti peaks from Lata Kharak.

Peak view from Lata Kharak. Bethartoli Himal on left and Ronti on the right.

We started for Saini Kharak at 6.30 a.m. with Sonu and Raghuveer Singh accompanying us. After about 1 km of moderate climb on the narrow path through the pasture ground covered with tall grasses, we reached a ‘T’ junction point. Here the path to the left goes to Jhandidar while the straight path goes towards Saini Kharak as was told to me by Raghuveer Singh. The climb continued until we reached the top of the Saini Kharak ridge (3970m). For the first time, we could see Devisthan I and II from this point. From here, it was alternate gradual descend and climbs through mound of rocks, boulders and stone slabs most of which were loose. We were to be extra careful as there were with steep slopes on both sides of the ridge.

Devisthan II & I from Saini Kharak.

Bethartoli Himal from Saini Kharak.

Bethartoli Himal with its ridge on the right which connects to Trishul (not visible.)

At last we reached a small grassy patch where we could at least stand and watch the peaks without worrying too much about balancing ourselves on the rocks. Bethartoli Himal, Nanda Ghunti (south face) and Ronti could be seen now much closer than in Lata Kharak. We had to walk another 200m or so, again on rocky patch to see the full face of Devisthan I and II and Nanda Devi. The weather was excellent with cloudless sky. We spent about one hour taking pictures, admiring the grandeur of high mountains and Rishiganga gorge while Sonu and Raghuveer Singh went one km ahead to see whether more peaks could be seen from the place. The answer was negative as they came back.

KS with his Cannon DSLR on tipod at Saini Kharak ridge.

Rishiganga gorge seen from Saini Kharak.

Nanda Devi from Saini Kharak.

During this 3 km trek, Raghuveer Singh was in great mood to apprise me about the trek route to Jhandidar and Dharansi, the difficulties of walking on the narrow rock cut path of about 1 km with vertical exposure at Satkhula (seven valleys) towards Dharansi camp site where Gorkha Regiment has fixed a rope on the exposed side to enable their expedition team to cross the path with the support of the rope, the varieties of herbal plants on this route and their use by the villagers as medicines, how Sonu Nigam sang his one of his famous songs sitting on the Saini Kharak ridge to get an echo of the song etc.etc... That he could talk non-stop while climbing and simultaneously collecting some herbal plants on the way and also cautioning me about loose rocks was a testimony to his stamina and his capability of performing multiple tasks. I, on the other hand, was not in a position to respond to him or raise queries on his commentaries as the climb and balancing act on the rocks left me almost breathless.

In the lap of Saini Kharak with peaks and Rishiganga gorge in the background.

Nanda Devi (left) and Devisthan II & I on the right from Saini Kharak.

We returned to Lata Kharak by 10.15 a.m. We had thought of a revisit to Saini Kharak in the afternoon to take pictures of Nanda Devi as sun rays reflecting on its south face will make the picture perfect. But the cloudy sky with high winds in the afternoon dampened our spirit for a revisit. As KS was resting in the afternoon, I went to Sonu to get some more information about Satkhula rock cut path with a vertical exposure to a deep valley as it was news to me from Raghuveer Singh while our way to Saini Kharak that there existed a rock cut path on way to Dharansi campsite. My discussion was more in academic nature as we were not going beyond Dharansi Pass. He said that while it was risky to some extent, any one with proper precaution such as walking slowly keeping an eye on the path while taking the hand support from the cliff side could cross this 1 km path without much difficulties. But thing was different for those who were afraid heights.

On way to Lata Kharak from Saini Kharak.

Raghuveer Singh with his collection of herbs on Saini Kharak route.

In this context, Sonu recalled leading a small french group to Dharansi campsite in July 2005. While the group walked on the Satkhula rock-cut path without realising that there existed a vertical exposure to the deep valley as the valley was covered with mist, it was towards the end of the rock-cut path when mist was lifted out of the valley that group realised the gravity of the such a walk. One of the group member who seemed to suffer from acrophobia, told Sonu empathetically that he was not going to walk on the rock-cut path anymore and he will have to take him to Tolma from an alternate path. Apparently, there was no alternative path to Tolma he walked on the rock-cut path the next day at snail's pace with the support of two porters, one leading him from the front holding his hand while the other from the back, holding his other hand.

Lata Kharak log hut. In the background is the Jhandidar ridge. Dunagiri was fully covered by the cloud.

Sunset view of Dunagiri peak from Lata Kharak log hut.

Lata Kharak-Jhandidar (4210m) -Dharansi & back [5+5 kms trek]

Today, we had once again an excellent sunrise views of peaks and they looked even better than the last morning. So we were tempted to take the pictures of sunrise views of Bethartoli Himal and Nanda Ghunti/Ronti peaks. In the Himalaya, even on the same place, each day bestows different scenes of nature and one is not tired of viewing the same thing again and again.

Morning view of Bethartoli Himal from Lata Kharak log hut.

Morning view of Nanda Ghunti and Ronti peaks from Lata Kharak log hut.

After an early breakfast, we left Lata Kharak at 7.00 a.m. for Dharansi Pass. At first, KS was not very keen to do this trek not because of tiredness or any other physical problem. He was so overwhelmed by the peak views from Lata Kharak and Saini Kharak that he did not feel that we could get better view of peaks any more. I guess his statement was more of an expression of satisfaction of what he had seen so far than for not joining the Dharansi pass trek. Each place in the Himalaya gives a different perspective of nature. Even on cloudy days while we may not see peaks, the forests, the meadows, the valleys, the wildflowers show different colours. There was no need me to tell all these observations to KS as he was ready for the trek with Sonu and Raghuveer Singh.

Lata Kharak (3790m) seen from the way to Jhandidar. Note on the right the ending of tree lines.

The first one km of trek route was the same we had covered a day before for Saini Kharak after which a diversion to the left with a gradual climb ended on a small ridge. The Ronti Nala gorge can be seen only from this ridge. After the ridge, it was more or less a level walk on stony path with a gradual slope on the right which ends at Lata Kharak. The slopes were full of dwarf rhododendron plants. We saw a pair of wild fowls strolling through dwarf rhododendron plants. After one km of a steep climb over the loose stones and slabs, we reached the cairns signalling our arrival at Jhandidar tri-junction.

A rhododendron flower in the background of Hathi parvat on way to Jhandidar.

On way to Jhandidar.

There was some thrill in reaching Jhandidar as many peaks which were eclipsed by Jhandidar ridge were suddenly visible. The massive Dunagiri was within our handshake distance metaphorically. I never realised that Dunagiri had such a wide base with snow cover all the way from peak to the base. In fact it was difficult to see Dunagiri with bear eyes as sun rays reflected strongly on the snow. We could also see Hathi and Ghodi peaks in different perspectives. As a further bonus, we saw the top portion of Chaukhambha. Jhandidar top was full of stone slabs littered all over the place. In fact, the campsite was made of some evenly spread stone slabs. The water source which was just below the Jhandidar ridge was almost dried up as we could see only drops of water coming out from the source. We had our packed lunch break at Jhandidar before we proceeded to Dharansi Pass.

Hathi parvat through Jhandidar cairns (4210m).

Jhandidar tri-junction indicator.

The closest view of Dunagiri from Jhandidar.

The Jhandidar is a tri-junction of paths coming from Lata Kharak, Tolma and Dharansi Pass. The path to the left goes to Tolma and while more or less straight path with curvature to the right goes to Dharansi Pass. Both these paths are full of rocks and boulders. The landscape on Dharansi route, more or less, resembled that of Baguabasa on Roopkund route. The trek route to Dharansi was filled with loose rocks and slabs. The extent of loose stone slabs can be judged by the big noises they made when walking over them. As we proceeded, it was no longer a walk but jumping and hopping from one boulder to another. This went on for another km after which we felt that there was a high risk of our losing balance while jumping if we continued walking on such a horrendous path. There was also the danger of getting our ankles twisted from a wrong step which would have made walking difficult even on a plain path. Dharansi Pass was hardly 1.5 km ahead when we decided not to proceed further and return to Lata Kharak. Sonu and Raghuveer did not press for continuing the trek as they too must have felt that the trek path was too risky for us. The only reward we got from 2 kms of treacherous trek was the grand view of shining Lampak-II peak.

Hathi and Ghodi peaks with different perspectives from Jhandidar.

A group of villagers coming from Dharansi met us on the Jhandidar tri-junction.


Lampak II peak seen on way to Dharansi pass.

It was rocks and boulders all the way on route to Dharansi. Photo courtesy: K Srinivasan.

We returned from this point though Dharansi Pass ( below the hump) was about 1.5 kms from here.

By the time we returned to Jhandidar, most of the peaks were covered with clouds and mist. Since it was mostly descend after Jhandidar, we reached Lata Kharak in one hour. Jhandidar ridge was now covered with mist though it was still sunny in Lata Kharak. While we were near Lata Kharak, Raghuveer Singh revealed that Nathu Singh, a porter who had accompanied Bill Aitken, the author of book The Nanda Devi Affair and many other travel books, on his treks to Nanda Devi Inner Sanctuary in 1980 and also on other treks, was in our camp for carrying out repairs to the roof of pre-fabricated hut annexed the log hut. Since I had seen his picture in the Bill Aitken’s book, I recognised him as I entered the camp where he was relaxing after completion of some cementing work. After exchanging pleasantry, I asked him what was in his mind when he carried Bill Aitken on his shoulder to cross a torrent of stream near Dibrugheta. I was expecting a macho type of answer but instead he just smiled shyly without giving any answer. The only information he voluntarily revealed was that whenever Bill Aitken passed though Lata, he would enquired about him . “ On one occasion Bill Aitken enquired about me with myself without recognising me” he told me again with a shy smile.

Returning from Dharansi path.

Ronti Nala seen from a ridge connecting Jhandidar and Lata Kharak.

With Nathu Singh at Lata Kharak.

Lata Kharak-Tolma-Suraithota-Joshimath [ 13 kms trek+30kms by Jeep]

The overnight rains which continued till about 4.00 a.m gave us some anxious moment. Had the rain continued in the morning, we would have to drop the idea of using the jungle route to Tolma. Perhaps we would have been force to use Lata route for the road head. Luckily, weather turned fine and sunny as we were getting ready for departure. Because of the jungle route, Sonu advised us to walk together as the route was not marked and there were many sideways within the jungle.

After taking leave of jawans of the Gorkha Regiment, we left Lata Kharak at The entrance to the jungle started right behind the log hut annex. The first 200m of narrow zigzag path under the cover of rhododendron trees was comparatively smooth. But as we proceeded further, the walking become more difficult as path was strewn with loose stones and roots of rhododendron trees. At many places, the extended tree trunks and branches at various heights were to be carefully negotiated. In some places, the path was broken making it mandatory to take the support of tree branches to jump to the other side of the path. As we move further, the walking even on the plain path become risky as the heaps of accumulated rain-soaked leaves camouflaged the drops. It was one of such drops that Sonu went knee deep and had to be pulled out by Raghuveer Singh. Sonu on the front and Raghuveer Singh in the back made sure that we placed our feet at the right place for for avoiding skidding and at the same time keeping a watch from the backside to see that we were not entangled in roots or hitting our heads to extended branches while walking.

This Himalayan blue poppy gave us some respite from jungle trek.

After about 3 kms of such a dreadful walk, we were out of the jungle and felt relieved thinking that the worst was over. But it was not to be. The climb and descend over a narrow path, barely sufficient to keep one foot at a time with exposure to the steep slope on the other side was the most frightening as there was nothing to hold on except to grab the overgrown grass on the cliff side for support. Raghuveer Singh was giving me a moral support reminding me that he was behind to take care of me and directed me to hold the grass for support as it will not come out. That was true as not even a single piece of grass came out while I grabbed them. This ordeal was over in about 20 minutes and now we were on a ridge which joined the main trekking path coming from Jhandidar and going towards Tolma. After a steep descend through the forest, we reached Kadwi Chound for a lunch break. Thereafter, it was descend all the way to Tolma. Just before Tolma, Raghuveer Singh took us on a small diversion through the terraced fields to show us what he claimed to be the world’s second largest oak tree. The trunk of the tree was so wide that six of us could not fully cover it.

Kadwa Chound campsite on way to Tolma.

The second largest Cedar tree of the world at Tolma according to Raghuveer Singh.

A house in Tolma village.

From Tolma, 3 kms of descend on a wide path led us to the road head at Suraithota. Within 15 minutes, we got an empty jeep to take us to Joshimath. We bid good bye to Raghuveer Singh and other two porters at Lata. We tipped them handsomely. Raghuveer Singh initially refused to take the tip but on my insistence he reluctantly accepted the same saying that if we could send more trekkers to Lata, that would have been his greatest tip. We reached Joshimath at 3.30 p.m.

Suraithota village on the road side .

NDOS trek, though demanding, is not a difficult one, surely for younger lots. Despite the hardship of steep climbs and treacherous trek paths on some places, we enjoyed this trek much more than Kuari Pass trek. The views of numerous snow peaks, the deep valleys and gorges, high mountains, the dense forest, the wild flowers and herbal plants coupled with excellent weather conditions, a team of knowledgeable and caring guide and porters blended very well in this trek. This has prompted me to think of doing trek in other part of NDOS - the Bagini Glacier trek. But this requires a call from the mountains.