One sleepless night packing, sixteen brutal bone-jarring hours driving, a halt in seedy Joshimath sleeping and a haze covered detour to a bare dry Auli (breakfasting) later, Narayan and I arrived at two wooden chai stalls. Heads still ringing from the jolts it had received along the way, and body still wincing from number of times the underside of the little Indica had scraped boulders on what had passed for a “road” till here, we got out and looked around.
All we really had was a place, a name and a date. Two old Garhwali men sitting by looked at us in grave and determined silence. This was, apparently, the place. The chai-stall owner seemed friendlier, so I mentioned the name I had: “Is Dhan Singh hereabouts?”
“No, no, he’d gone off to the marriage, you know! But don’t worry, Raghubir was here just now – he’s just gone back up! He’ll be down soon, you’ll see”. All of a sudden, a something came flying down the hill at breakneck speed, around the corner and down to the road. I had a flash of what I perceived to be a young sun-darkened face, split by a massive grin, before he grabbed both rucksacks and sent us packing up the main trail to the village of Lata, several hundred feet above the road.
Lata is the roadhead and entry point into the Nanda Devi National Park, the greater area containing the Sanctuary and home to bharal, snow leopards, musk deer, Himalayan bear and hundreds of species of birds. Reachable only by a single, extremely difficult trek, the core sanctuary of the highest mountain completely within India is a highly protected area. Various shenanigans have taken place there, such as the ones chronicled in Kohli and Conboy's book "Spies in the Himalayas". In that series of episodes, CIA and IB agents climbed the peak to place a nuclear-powered listening device atop the mountain, to monitor Chinese missile launches. Unfortunately they lost the radioactive fuel cylinder for the device, causing the shutting of the sanctuary for years and the fear that perhaps, the Rishi Ganga (and the Ganges itself) was poisoned by it. Today, the Nanda Devi Sanctuary is a restricted area accessible with permits and permissions only.
A paved ramp led up the side of the steep hill, switchbacks carved up to the main village itself. For some reason I kept feeling like Tintin in Tibet. The massive landscape, the traditional houses with blue-painted wooden balconies and stone paved courtyards; and all of it dominated by the rugged, steep Lata Top – a roughly shorn pyramid of rock rearing its ugly head above the village (its misshapen form visible from a short distance when we were driving up the valley), the trees thinning out to nothingness as the forest approached its top. In the distance, jagged aiguilles with vestiges of winter snow and further, the glaciated heights of the “true” mountains.
Across the emaciated Dhauli Ganga below (blue-grey, weaving its way from the North, its winter-thin waters revealing white sandy shores) was another steep rocky face, walls of crumbling and compacted choss framed by tufts of wild grass. Four tiny dots, Tibetan yaks were visible on the hill, feeding at heights. From where we stood on the path, the hill across became steeper and steeper above, its face cut by narrow gullies and the occasional thousand foot waterfalls. I stared in fascination – where could the rock be climbed?! Let me see… an easy pitch here…. a wide crack through that overhang…
As we entered the village, people looked in some measure of curiosity, and I smiled politely. On the way up we’d chatted with cheeky Parvati, newlywed from Gopeshwar (and MA pass). Apparently, she found Lata interminably boring, and having far too many "inconveniences". Taking a toffee from Narayan, she promised more juicy gossip later!
The homes were built around the village temple, to Nanda Devi, She Who Brings Bliss, incarnation of Parvati-Kali. We walked on, finding Raghubir again who’d probably reached here in five minutes or something. On closer examination it turned out he was in his 40s, not 20s, and had four children, one wife and one mother. The extremely old lady, was always dressed in traditional black with a white headdress. When not smoking her hookah, she would try to converse with us in Garhwali. I would stammer back in Hindi, leaving her rather unsatisfied. In disgust she would return to her spot in the sun.
Our host, guide, HAP and general major-domo had a large house, a clean outhouse and a spare bedroom for us. Low doors and raised doorsills, as is the architecture of the hills, (mind your head - oops OUCH) with earthen floors with mats, leading to a small neat room with two cots.
The strong afternoon sun warmed the courtyard, and it was an effort to resist the temptation to unroll a pad and fall asleep there (I succumbed another day). Already various village folk (family? Friends? Drunk strangers?!) had fallen prey and were napping there. But we had things to do. Somehow, this Himalayan home-stay, this unique kind of mountain-tourism we’d arrived for, was timed perfectly for:
2. Two Weddings
3. Doing the first trek into the park, of the season.
And all of this was to be accompanied by fiery jaggery-flavoured Kacchi (‘Raw’) and the rice beer Chhang, for nothing happened here without vast quantities of both. Every house had a still and everyone drank, men, women and children (well, sort of – the latter got to taste it). Then, men loved to argue local politics. I desperately searched for escape.
Baisakhi (and wedding) celebrations started a few days before and culminated on the night of the 14th. Every night were masked dances, Jhumelas and ceremonies. Priests and old women entered trances, incarnating ancestral spirits and goddesses. Like sucking off a beer bong, old men and women gulp chhang from the long snout of a kettle. Surrounded by the heavy, rhythmic reverberations of beating drums, clashing cymbals and rolling trumpets all enveloped in the thick, smoky perfume of alpine incense; this is the rural form of the drugged decadence, nightclubbing and trance-tripping entertainment of the city.
The masks were ancient wooden pieces, each a character from their history/mythology. Loki-like black Mor is roundly insulted till he gets up and runs after people. White faced Lata throws white flour on unsuspecting audience members, and validates their indignity by sticking his rear end out at them.
Each night the dances become longer and with bigger audiences, till the hedonistic revellers finished the whole thing with a banging night long party, adolescents and adults alike dancing the night away, like anyone anywhere. Unfortunately a city-slicker like me couldn’t compete, I had to stumble away too early because I had a long walk ahead.
A Padao’s a rest-stop on a trek, and in these parts the only trek of any importance is the route into the inner sanctuary. Pioneered by the legendary Shipton and Tillman in 1934, it bangs up from Lata village right up to the ridge and Dharansi Pass, before dropping straight into the Rishi Gorge – one of the world’s deepest. It takes 9 days, fixing ropes and lugging gear, to simply reach the base of the peak. For Nanda Devi is protected by a circular wall of icy ramparts over 20,000 feet in height, and through the Gorge is the only way in.
Lacking the permissions, gear and time, we went up to Lata and Saini Kharaks for a short walk and glimpse of The Mountain.
Kilometre after mountain kilometre we carried on, past the Guchhi Forest where we found a girl with a bunch of Morel mushrooms (guchhi) she’d collected. At Rs.6000 / kg, I’d probably make more money if I spent a day looking for mushrooms than writing for Outlook! The path steepened inexorably and step after burning step, thighs ached with the effort of walking up the rocky path going only uphill.
Lata village to Lata Kharak was a gain of more than 4,000 feet, in about 8.5 kilometres. Walking through pine forests, rocky gullies and then straight up the hill, at around 11,000 feet odd we hit old snow. After a little uphill step-kicking with the indefatigable Raghubir and Nandan carrying heavier loads, we past the tree-line and reached a buried refuge. Going rather slow, we had taken over 6 hours. Narayan immediately found a dry room to relax in! I looked for The Mountain, but it was still hidden. But the view was astounding. In the distance, the gentle bowl of Auli (actually, Garcon Point), Kuari Pass, Ronti’s peaks, Bethartoli’s volcanic-like crater with snow gusting off the top. Between them was Trisul. Behind, evil, tempting horns of probably unclimbed rock aiguilles, hiding Hathi Parbat. Taking a short break, and Raghubir and I geared up for a bit of a climb.
Though the knoll above seemed close by (a mere thousand or two feet), we weren’t acclimatized. In summers there’s no snow here, but right now it was covered. We waded exhaustingly through afternoon-melted thigh deep snow, climbing up to the top of the knoll. At times I broke through, finding myself buried to the waist. Then I’d have to dig in with an ice axe higher, and struggle to crawl out. The slope steepened to about 50°. Snow and ice covered peaks surrounded us in practically every direction – a truly incredible view. Nanda Devi, the physical manifestation of Parvati/Kali was still hidden -by the heights of the world. Breathing heavily, we scraped down on extremely slippery mud, snow and grass to the ridge of Saini Kharak, that joined Lata Kharak to Lata Top, the rocky top above the village. In front lay the chasm of the Rishi gorge. We stared into the abyss 6,000 feet directly below us.
Finally, I looked up for the view that had taken the entire day and nearly 6,000 feet of “climbing” to reach. Just above the slopes of Dharansi pass, in the distance, was the rocky headwall of Nanda Devi Main. Raghubir pointed carefully at a narrow line on the western edge of the wall. “That was where she fell – the girl”. The girl was Nanda Devi Unsoeld, Willi Unsoeld’s daughter. While pioneering a new route on the mountain she was named for, she had fallen to her death.
The west became orange-red, and hurriedly I pulled out the camera to record the view.
With night rapidly approaching and at least an hour of descent over treacherous snow covered mountainside, we turned around to return to the refuge for the night.
Raghubir made a little altar with shards of rock atop a boulder. "This is Devbhumi", he said. Wild juniper burned incense-like perfume in front of the natural mountain idols. He threw drops of water in every direction, towards the towering peaks of snow and ice, the alpine forests and meadows, and the sanctuaries of musk deer and snow leopards. He did this with a quiet prayer under his breath that was instantly blown away by the wind, before I could understand the words.