The Trekking Route:
- Day 1: Lata village to Kanook camp (6 km)
- Day 2: Kanook to Lata Kharak (6 km)
- Day 3: Acclimatisation at Lata Kharak with walks to the ridgetop at Saini Kharak.
- Day 4: Lata Kharak to Dharansi (13 km)
- Day 5: Dharansi to Kadi Chaun jungle camp (13 km)
- Day 6: Kadi Chaun to Tolma (5 km). From Tolma, it’s a 3 km-walk to Suraithota.
Note: It’s also rewarding to walk to Saini Kharak and then either retracing the path back to Lata or through some beautiful jungle to Tolma. Rishikesh is a day’s bus or taxi ride to Joshimath. The roadhead at Lata village is 30 km from Joshimath.
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A sun-kissed morning, the second of our Nanda Devi outer sanctuary trek, finds us taking a breather at the edge of a jungle path. Bijju, our guide, expertly points out the Himalayan black bear footprints and leopard scats. Only the occasional bird cry distracts him. The Koklass pheasant, Himalayan monal, Rose finch, names right out of Inskipp’s Birds of India. As our gazes wander upwards, there, momentarily framed between the jutting rock face and the golden beam of sunlight, is the slightly shimmering figure of a musk deer. It radiates all the mystique of the surrounding jungle, holds us in thralldom and vanishes as quickly as it appeared. The yin of her movement seamlessly merges into the yang of shiny rock.
The forest gives way to verdant slopes, punctuated every so often by statuesque trees, as we make for that last steep climb through Jyuri Gali. The treeline ends, one more turn and, hey presto, the log hut of Lata Kharak is upon us. Trekkers stay here for two nights to get acclimatised to the altitude and explore the surrounding area. It takes two days from the roadhead at Lata (2,317 m) to reach this wonderful vantage point at 3,800 m. To the north, full of menace, jagged rock pinnacles bar us from the Valley of Flowers. Westwards, the Dhauli Valley lies in all its multi-hued glory. To the south lies the huge Devistan icefield, followed by Bethartoli’s spine-tingling hollow and culminating in the white domes of the Nandaghunti, Trishul and Ronty.
This hamlet is the playground of the famous HAPS, the ‘High Altitude Porters’, of Lata. During the ’60s and ’70s, this area was a mecca for mountaineers drawn by the stunning landscape and the formidable peaks: the Dronagiri, Changabang, Kalanka, Devistan, Bethartoli, Trishul and Nanda Devi. As befits the Goddess Supreme, Nanda Devi at 7,817 m is enthroned in the middle, a queen in her fortress, surrounded by her high court. Since the late 19th century, explorers sought to breach her formidable watch-towers and fall at her feet. It was only in the mid-’30s that Eric Shipton and Bill Tillman forged a route through the Rishi Ganga gorge.
Nanda Devi’s geographical inaccessibility resulted in an endemic ecosystem with a distinctive flora and fauna. Large climbing parties threatened to kill the fragile community and in 1982, the area was declared a National Park. Subsequently, in 1988, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Access to the park was prohibited: a double blow for the local villagers. They lost the income from international climbing groups and their traditional grazing rights to the sanctuary. It is a poignant irony that this was the area wherefrom sprung, in the early ’70s, the Chipko tree-hugging campaign to protect the forest from loggers. The iconic grassroots movement was founded at Renee village, near Lata.
The ecosystem has since bounced back and over the last few years, some restrictions have been lifted. Trekkers can go in as far as Dibrugheta, the edge of the inner sanctuary. The small rock portal near Dharansi, through which only one sheep can pass at a time—making it possible for shepherds to count their flock—is a mute reminder of days past.
The march to Dharansi (4,200 m) traverses the jagged slate slabs of Satkhula. A series of ups and downs through narrow ledges of vertigo-inducing heights, a mad scramble on all fours on slippery ice and we reach our camp in Dharansi. Around the corner, Nanda Devi, soaked in the prismata of the setting sun. Can it get any closer to perfection?
Next morning, we spot a bharal (blue sheep) on the ridge, silhouetted against dawn’s soft light. Higher still, the explosion of white cirrus clouds perfectly balance the preponderant dome of Bethartoli. To the far west, parts of the Chaukhamba massif.
The way back to Jhandi Dhar, it starts to snow. It is downhill going thereafter, through gnarly rhododendron forests, a band of birches and tall pines. The sinuous road is carpeted with fallen leaves and wispy snow. An enchanted jungle not of this world. The sound of our footsteps, the only tenuous connection to our ordinary lives. It’s only two hours to Tolma, our destination.
“Life in these little mountain villages is delightfully simple, and the inhabitants are almost entirely self-supporting”: the words ring as true today as they did when Shipton wrote them on his arrival at Tolma in the ’30s. Amen, it goes unspoken. A silent prayer.
This story was published in print with a different photograph and caption which were changed online on March 24.