There’s a trail in Garhwal that goes up hill, and down dale, through forests of giant rhododendrons and over emerald meadows; through the temperate heat of low valleys and the cold of high passes. Cutting across the three river valleys of the Pindar, the Nandakini and the Birehi Ganga in central Garhwal between Gwaldam and Joshimath, the trail culminates in the high mountain pass of Kuari Khal which must boast one of the most spectacular ringside views of the Himalayan Range.

The Kuari pass trek today is a popular one, but for centuries it has been a vital trade route with Tibet over the Niti and Mana passes, and a favourite expedition trail in the 20th century. As a result, the trail received three great short biographies in three classic mountaineering books of the 1930s: Eric Shipton’s Nanda Devi (1936), Bill Tilman’s The Ascent of Nanda Devi (1937) and Frank S. Smythe’s The Valley of Flowers (1938).

The most detailed description of the trail can be found in Smythe’s book. While crossing the Pindar valley, he writes, “Not even in Sikkim have I seen finer tree rhododendrons, and there was one moss-clad giant which cannot have been less than five feet in diameter…” He muses that these trees must have started their life even before the East India Company’s ships had reached India’s shores. Little details like when Smythe observes a brown bear cub disappearing into the forest, throw a poignant light on our wild heritage. The Himalayan brown bear, which were few even in Smythe’s time, have become almost mythical now, due to their  vastly reduced numbers.

But the trail wasn’t just a pretty stroll. Near the village of Kanol in the Nandakini valley, Shipton writes, “…in my diary there is the laconic entry ‘flies and bulls,’…the recollection of being driven out of camp by the one and flying naked before the other, which attacked us as we were about to bathe, is still very vivid.” In Smythe’s book there is also a remarkable description of a violent thunderstorm, “Lightning when it strikes close…does not make the sound we conventionally term ‘thunder,’ but a single violent explosion, a BANG like a powerful bomb…I was thoroughly scared, and as I lay in my sleeping bag I could have sworn that streams of fire flickered along the ridge of the tent and down the lateral guy-rope.”

Falling into rivers was an occupational hazard. Tilman writes wryly, ‘Then we had trouble crossing a smaller river, where the bridge consisted of the usual two pine logs and flat stones in between. Those with experience are careful to stick to the logs, but Loomis trusted to the stones, which naturally slipped through and in he went, losing both topee and ice-axe. Pasang rescued the topee after an exciting race downstream.” 

Another problem was food. Shipton was trying out his experiment of a light-weight expedition which would live off the land. This meant that, unlike the extensive culinary bandobast that accompanied Smythe, he was constantly trying to get villagers to sell him milk, or eggs, to no avail. In the Birehi Ganga valley he laments, “By now we should have become indifferent to rebuffs in the matter of eggs and milk…(although)…one could hardly throw a stone without hitting a cow, a water buffalo, or a goat.” 

Still, the authors can’t get enough of the glorious freedom of walking in the high hills. In the Nandakini valley, Shipton rhapsodises about “…the freshness of the morning, the oaks, the hollies, and the chestnuts, the tapping of woodpeckers and the distant note of the cuckoo…” Smythe, while admiring the beautiful purple Iris kumaonensis, mentions that, “I have one in my own garden (in England) which brings to me every spring a memory of the Himalayas.”

Finally, after crossing the three valleys, the authors reach Kuari. Tilman started out for the pass in the early morning for its fabled views but, “lowering clouds and mist veiled the horizon in all directions,” and all he saw was a glimpse of Hathi Parbat. Smythe was equally unlucky on the pass, but a little way down, from a clearing in the forest, he saw the massifs of Hathi and Ghori Parbat, and “a terrific icy spire, shining and immeasurably remote, thrust itself through the clouds, Dunagiri.” Shipton struck gold. His party reached the pass at dawn and “a gigantic sweep of icy peaks confronted us, and it was difficult to refrain from gasping at the vastness of the scene…the glittering array of snowy peaks of all shapes and sizes were easier to admire and wonder than to identify.”