Sunshine cannot bleach the snow, nor time unmake what poets know.
After the first joy in victory came a feeling of sadness that the mountain had succumbed, that the proud head of the goddess was bowed… [That night] each little incident of the climb was gone over again and again, and I remember, in the small hours when the spark of life burns lowest, the feeling which predominated over all was one of remorse at the fall of a giant. It is the same sort of contrition that one feels at the shooting of an elephant, for however thrilling and arduous the chase, however great has been the call upon skill, perseverance, and endurance, and however gratifying the weight of the ivory, when the great bulk crashes to the ground achievement seems to have been bought at the too high cost of sacrilege.
I was chewing over the pages of Jim Perrin’s research on the legendary Shipton – Tilman partnership when the urge to trek around the surrounds of Auli grew strong, add to that the Delhi winter that was simply refusing to set in making the longing for cold winds even worse… I generally prefer Himachal over Uttarakhand for outdoor sojourns simply because of the logistical ease of getting to the base…
The trail to Kuari Pass would be littered with upstarts, but this was the best we could do manage to plan with a little more than a week at hand, 4 of which would be spent driving and immediately followed by the Christmas weekend madness… but then, sometimes one simply has to compromise on solitude for the sake of reconciliation to the belles-lettres consumed…
Thus smitten, the car was packed up one fine Saturday morn as we chugged away from the smoggy woes of the metropolis. Halting in Srinagar overnight, we arrived in Joshimath on a sunny Sunday winter noon, a loudspeaker soaked in the excitement of a local cricket match washed over the hum of the market.
Leaving the GMVN guesthouse at 10:30 am the next day, a 40-minute drive on the road to Tapovan brought us near Tugasi village, the sun comfortably chewing away on the barren hills. The approach through Auli was being avoided due to more snow on that route we were informed, something which I actually hoped for, but this was supposed to be a relaxing sojourn, and considering there would be snow after the first day from any route anyway, I refrained from nitpicking. This was supposed to be a leisurely stroll where every logistical triviality would be chucked on to the operator, but at times it almost led me to the brink of impatience.
‘Twas almost 11:30 am by the time we started walking, and I was rather surprised when we reached the campsite at Samethi (~2,900 mts) in a little over two hours, negotiating a couple of small steep sections through mixed forests abounding in oak and rhododendron.
We’d overtaken about two dozen panting dispositions on our way up, so making the best of ‘first-come-first-serve’, the camp was pitched on an isolated patch below an old walnut tree, which was by far the only discernible feature of the place, apart from the panorama of higher ranges from Dunagiri to Chaukhamba. It is one thing for a hike to be a cakewalk, but this was hardly even a warm up.
However, considering the novice nature of my partner, forbearance seemed to be the more appropriate stance to take, and thus I spread out the carry mat over the grass to gloat over the panorama at hand with a pair of binoculars, chasing the flattish contours of Hathi Ghodi peaks or tracing lines over the pointed profiles of Chaukhamba massif, an unwavering submission to the idyllic which we usually long for on our staple (and harder) trails.
But winter has its own reminders lest one takes it for granted, and little after 2 pm, a faint but consistent wind set in rather unabatedly, sweeping all the warmth away with a careless disdain. This trend continued throughout the trek, probably because of the unusually warm temperatures at this time of the year. The wind would abate from early morning till a little after noon but then continue ceaselessly throughout.
The mercury dropped as expected at sun set and a fire was duly conjured, but it lacked that quintessentially cozy warmth due to the wind. This was also the beginning of the snowline, the last bout of snowfall had happened about a week before we arrived, and there would not be another for the next couple of weeks, worrying signs for the future but then, the perspective in the outdoors is no different than that of a batsman in a test match, taking it ‘one session at a time’, and we were glad enough to have the sun rather that the clouds.
Next morning also offered a comfortable start, starting around 10 am. The terrain was completely snowbound for the remainder of the trail, but it still took us only a couple of hours to reach the campsite at Khulara (~3,400 mts), punctuted only by the appearance of a Mistle Thrush in between; again taking advantage of reaching ahead of larger groups, we managed to lay claim over a small mound of grass, the only snow-free patch in the meadow, and pitched camp.
The wind started early today, though, and it was neigh impossible to stand out without layering up even with the sun at full bloom; from the optimist’s viewpoint though, one could easily dry out clothes. We idled around till dusk, save for half an hour to secure fuel wood, where I managed to get some skin on the finger burnt off, slipping on a slab of ice that contrary to my perception turned out be hard as I realized to my dismay halfway through the jump, and bled irritably for quite a while.
Looking at the islands of tents around us, it was an easy decision to chuck the idea of heading out to Kuari Pass and try our hand at Pangarchulla instead, a neat little trekking peak standing at around 4,700 mts. Closing out early that night, it was the usual lullaby of wind sweeping through the tent fly that constantly punctuated the incomprehensible tapestry of dreams. But while the wind was hell bent upon researching the constituents of one’s bone marrow, winter does bring in its own rewards – the intrinsic romanticism of snow apart, we were ever so grateful for the lack of humidity and thereby dew, for no experience is as painful as that first sprinkle of moisture on the face as one struggles with the tent zippers in the morning, and then fearfully moves towards those thoroughly uninviting shoes.
Getting up at 6 am as the sun was still reluctant to crawl out, we started off at 7:30 am, into a proper snow trudge now. An empty trail inevitably leads to better speeds however, and in a little under two hours we found ourselves at the junction at Gailgarh top (~3,600 mts), from where the trails to the peak and Kuari Pass diverged. My partner was lagging behind and we expected to have a largely unbroken and steep trail with more snow, so turning him back for safety at Gailgarh, we hastened towards the summit. The panorama had expanded now as the aesthetically pleasing profile of Neelkanth came into view, but from what I was expecting, ‘twas still a bit underwhelming.
There had been one or two attempts on the peak as we could make out from footprints here and there, but they disappeared soon. Coming to the shoulder of the first ridge, the moraines to the main summit did not look like a trail that would relent to a speedy ascent, the snow not enough to glide over the rockfall. A bit disappointed, I decided to make amends by continuing up the ridge to the summit of Mini Pangarchulla (~4,300 mts) which seemed to be decently approachable. The trail was completely unbroken and largely a snow thrash, with a decent layer of loose powder on the top, but not dangerous enough to put on crampons.
The sun was already high and since I did not have any goggles, we cut down on the rest stops and made a beeline for the top. Around an hour and a half saw us at the rocky outcrop that was the summit of Mini Pangarchulla. The panorama, quite frankly, was still not quite impressive, could’ve been, had the haze been clear enough to offer a glimpse of Nanda Devi, though Changabang was peeping out just behind Dunagiri.
Spending around fifteen minutes at the top, we rushed down, the sun now bright enough to give a bad headache if one sauntered around for too long in the snow scape for albedo to play spoilsport. It took us a little more than an hour to get down, and we found ourselves back at the camp a little after noon, in good stead too as the wind started its rounds for the brand-new day.
The rest was undramatic as expected, save for a Monal we saw the next morning below Khulara, and just like that, a little over twenty-four hours we saw us back at a red light, battling the withdrawal symptoms of coming back to the throes of urbanity, the transition from snow to dust to concrete restoring the tides of time back from a stroll to a race.
- Day 1, 18 Dec, 2017: Joshimath (1,900 mts) – Tugasi (2,000 mts) 40 min drive – Samethi (~2,900 mts), 2 hrs, forest trail with moderate climbs
- Day 2, 19 Dec, 2017: Samethi (~2,900 mts) – Khulara (~3,400 mts), 2 hrs, snow trail with easy climb
- Day 3, 20 Dec 2017: Khulara (~3,400 mts) – Gailgarh (~3,600 mts) – Mini Pangarchulla (~4,300 mts) – Khulara (~3,400 mts), 5 hrs, snow trail, mostly moderate climb with steep sections near summit
- Day 4, 21 Dec 2017: Khulara (~3,400 mts) – Tugasi (2,000 mts), 3 hrs
- Weather sunny but windy for the most part
- Trail okay and well marked, a bit overcrowded to be frank
- Birds spotted: Mistle Thrush, Himalayan Griffon, Himalayan Monal (male)
- Higher Himalayan Peaks observed: Kalanka (6,931 mts), Hanuman (6,074 mts), Changabang (6,864 mts), Dunagiri (7,066 mts), Hathi (6,727 mts), Gauri (6,708 mts), Mana (7,272 mts), Chaukhamba massif, Neelkanth (6,596 mts), Kamet (7,756 mts)
In saner times, he has a keen interest in areas pertaining to tourism, history, agriculture and climate change, especially with respect to historical interpretations, emerging technologies and future livelihoods.
An avid trekker, runner, cyclist, birder and photographer, he is more often than not found gloating over anything hinterland, on foot or over computer monitors, and fantasizing solutions that can foster ‘inclusive’ growth and sustainable livelihoods for communities at the grassroots.
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