Mountains

Bali Pass – saunter up and tumble down… 

Bali Pass, Uttarakhand, India

Bali pass might have never featured on my bucket list, but for the third year running, the plan to undertake one of the longer hikes in the Gangotri region was foiled, not directly by the weather this time, although it did have a part to play as nine trekkers succumbed to a sudden blizzard in the region, giving the authorities an excuse to slink away and delay giving permits… so off to Bali pass it was, the silver lining being that this’d be my first time exploring this region…

The overnight bus ride to Dehradun was followed by a day long journey to Sankri… the route to Yamunotri is the most tedious of the four Char Dhams of Uttarakhand in my opinion, the highway is narrow, the vegetation sparse… ‘tis only when one branches off from towards Sankri from Naugaon that the farming valleys come, leading into the pines and mixed forests thereafter…

Sankri is a quintessential trekking village placed into limelight by the numerous easy to medium grade treks that emanate from here… although with the road being extended, it could soon be overtaken by villages higher up… it started pouring as soon as we reached, a trend that’d continue through the week, the clouds courteous enough to wait till we arrived at our destinations before pouring down…

Next morning saw us driving till the point where the jeep would not be able to bear the weight of twenty people and their luggage… getting down, we walked along the dirt road for around five miles, crossing Dhatmeer village before taking a short jungle trail to reach the village of Gangaad, where the road ended… being a large group of eighteen meant frequent and long breaks, which was understandable from an operations perspective but exasperating nevertheless… we spent more time resting than walking, though it did occur me that a positive offshoot of climbing slower may be better acclimatization…

We halted at a homestay in Gangaad… I spent a couple of hours going back and forth on a trail next to the roaring Supin river looking for birds, managing to catch some yuhinas, woodpeckers, forktails, and a grey bushchat that was adamant about its perch near the homestay… in the evening we took a short stroll up to the village square, which had an old traditional temple made of stone and wood… a goat had been sacrificed beseeching the powers above for a good harvest, but at that moment there was pandemonium all around as the villagers squabbled over their share of meat, pulling out past grudges in the process… almost sounded like the parliament out there…

From Gangaad the trail meandered up the river, the way to Har ki Doon bifurcating at Osla… there were at least sixty odd people heading up to there, bound to turn the tranquil valley of gods into a raucous picnic spot… but they bring precious revenue for the supposedly cash strapped forest department, who would then want to visit Yellowstone or the likes and wax lyrical about the best practices out there… apathy and vivacity are strange bedfellows, yet our conservators manage to embody both with a remarkable alacrity… what piqued this thought were a couple of watermills that could have been restored and embellished to attract the curious wayfarer, but there’s more continuous and recurring gratification from repairing trails that are bound to wash away every monsoon, one surmises…

The trail climbed gradually, with only a few steep sections, the last of which brought us to the meadows at Devsu… it started drizzling as soon as we put the rucksacks down inside the dining tent and within a few minutes we were looking at a hailstorm… the precipitation lasted for about an hour, the clouds shedding their load in a jiffy before going to pick up another consignment from the snows above…

It remained overcast the entire day thereafter… I took a few short walks in the lush green environs, in particular enchanted by a patch of dark brooding forest growing above a rockfall, chasing a thrush and a woodpecker as they were eking out food from the velvety moss, otherwise the canopy was too dark for photography… a little before dusk a flock of sheep returning from higher pastures surrounded me as they feasted on flowers yellow and purple… there was a wee bit of alarm as the accompanying sheepdog came charging towards my sitting-on-the-ground self, but ‘twas purely in a playful mood as I pet it around the traditional predator-proof neck collar and slowly stood up… rest of the group played some cricket with a cloth ball… the outdoors have different allure for different folk… some want to recreate the home they’ve left behind while others want to shun it all…

The weather cleared up overnight as the clouds went away to sleep on mountaintops and we woke up to a bright morning… starting out, we left the meadows and descended back into the treeline for a couple of hundred metres to cross the river over a sturdy pedestrian village and recrossed it on the other side… the views had opened up now with the snow-clad peaks mounted firmly upon the horizon… the clouds started rolling in after eleven in the morning… part comforting as one walked in their shade and part worrying for the camp was still some distance away…   

Lunch was had on the trail, followed by a forty-five-minute stroll to the camp just below Ruinsara Tal, which, looking at the amount of water for a lake, one could say was actually in ruins… in fairness though, it looked more like a wetland termed as a lake for the want of a better term in Hindi, fed by underground springs rather than thundering streams that make up for those well-rounded, muscular lakes adorning the walls of travel agencies and tourist offices…

Despite the clouds, I had an amazing three hours of birding here, the arms quite sore after running up and down the rocky meadows with that Goliath of a lens… breeding season was in full bloom as finches and flycatchers were flitting about and chirping out aloud animatedly, their beaks stuffed with worms to serenade the females… bribery is not just a cultural, but a genetic trait as well it seems, though both would claim that ‘tis for the sake of posterity…

The camp was located a few metres below the lake, next to a stream emerging from it, as dusk rolled in, the clouds rolled out, covering the Bandarpoonch massif… the evening turned into silhouettes, burbling brooks and buzzing bugs, a pall of tranquillity over the meadow… two vagrant canines had accompanied us since Gangaad, determined to make the crossing too, and Ruinsara onwards, were forced to rely on human appendages including the tents to escape the cold, sniffing out empty spaces between the tent’s shell and fly to park themselves… twice I had the honour, the one on this night with the younger of the two dogs was rather peaceful, the other one a couple of nights later rather vexing… 

Another clear morning, and we started the day with a Tyrolean traverse of the stream below the camp, a rather efficient way to get a large group across safely… the canines were in a fix here, but the older one finally manages to muster up the courage to creep through the tiny log bridge, while the younger one, whom we’d given up on, managed to swim across somehow… it is intriguing to observe these canines, for they have no owners yet they are domesticated, and by accompanying us they’d more or less bought a one way ticket… nomads in the true sense of the word, or maybe ascetics of the animal kingdom…

A short walk up through a patch of birch forest found us on the ridge opposite Ruinsara Tal, with the Swargarohini massif, which is the pièce de resistance of this trek, and a stairway to heaven if one were to pore over its mythological significance, finally coming into view… Swargarohini 1 is not visible from this angle, only the second and third summits, which give it a resemblance to Machhapuchhare… we climbed up a gentle ridge through the meadows, which carried signs of bears in the form of dig marks and scat, to reach the campsite at Odari, finally entering glacial realms… rock, ice, water and dust… ‘twas another short walk today… barring the day when we crossed the pass, all other days didn’t involve too much walking…

I spent a lot of time just sitting outside and gazing… the intimidating Swargarohini massif with its convex façade and stark relief, steep drops everywhere as far as one could see, ice rolling down its veins till it broke down into water… and Bali pass on the opposite side, hidden from sight by a ridge… ‘tis advisable not to sleep too much at these altitudes as it might hamper acclimatization, but I just couldn’t resist taking a few catnaps after lunch, soaking in the sun over a large boulder… opening the eyes to such barren yet beautiful vistas that one hoped for their last sleep to be like this… just the elements for a requiem to life… for these are places where ‘tis easy to come to terms with one’s own transience, a blip in the canvas of deep time and geology… the barrenness of glacial landscapes makes them intellectually provoking I feel… there is so little life and consequentially external distractions here that one is forced to compensate for them through internal ruminations…

Evening saw the clouds firmly embosom Swargarohini, dismissing any hope of catching the sunset on its spires, and laying my two-hour attempt at a timelapse to waste… it started rained as darkness fell but the wind made sure that it was a temporary episode… the camp was shielded from the ice and water by a small ridge, so the night was spent in relative comfort…

The sun came out all hale and hearty the next morning, beaming right next to Swargarohini so all we could get were washed out images… ‘twas the shortest walk today of all the days… following the Narmakandi ridge up from the camp at Odari, a bit steep in places but completely devoid of snow, so there weren’t any major challenges… the situation was opposite for the porters though, who kept slipping and skidding in the loose mud and after a while hopped on to the ice for better grip… a decent walk as the sun kept climbing with us… flanked by glaciers on both sides, Bali pass up ahead looking in a rather jovial mood, no surprises drooling off its face…

Today was the only day camping on ice, and everyone settled down after lunch… I’d had no luck with any sort of avifauna after Ruinsara, just a few choughs and snow buntings waiting in the distance to raid the broken campsites… the absence of any other wildlife is a factor of the anthropogenic pressure I felt… too many people around, event for those gregarious or curious enough to want to take a peek… at this camp it didn’t matter though, for the emptiness of the glacier was enough to keep one occupied… filling a blank slate with trepidation and optimism in equal measure…

The weather started turning around five thirty in the evening… the glacier turning into a theatre of thunder as it started snowing… lady luck was showering benevolence all week though, and ninety minutes later we were out of the tents again, looking at the extent of precipitation, which wasn’t much to our relief… what it did do was commit us to an early start the next day… the night was all about twisting and turning in the sleeping bag, trying to neutralize the frigid snow underneath…

Around one in the morning I felt a bit claustrophobic, grudgingly unzipping the sleeping bag to find out that the other dog, who must’ve been as desperate for warmth as anyone, had crept in through the tent fly and made the inner collapse… ‘twas part frustrating, part amusing to realize that what I thought was a strong gust of wind was actually this canine pushing its body against the sleeping bag to get some heat… I tried to empathize and let the poor creature be, but it kept pushing and shoving so I finally got out and shooed it away… by then it was almost three, so I started packing cursing the damn dog…

Dawn was breaking through the clouds as we headed up towards the pass… the snow conditions were perfect, just a couple in inches of soft powder over the ice… the climb was pretty easy, just one steep section of about two hundred metres that led to a ridge walk of fifty odd metres to reach the cairns signalling the end of the ascent… despite a few breaks, it took only about an hour and a half to reach…

‘Twas the usual theatrics at the top… banners and national flags and poses galore… it seems exceedingly farcical, proclaiming this sense of a special achievement for routes that has been trampled about by hundreds if not thousands… one could still justify it before internet as the only means to revisit the landscape, but photos flood social media streams these days faster than the rivers flood reclaimed lands during the monsoons, making it difficult to appreciate such self-gratification…

More than an hour was spent at the top… the valley on the other side dropped sharply, in contrast to the route we’d just climbed… and therein lay the crux of Bali pass, a descent that was excruciatingly exacting… it began with a steep rocky patch followed by some loose boulders, that had some decent exposure, which that led to a snowfield, where the soft snow had melted and we only had the ice to negotiate… some people glissaded out of choice, I did it after failing to stitch a series of ten steps together without slipping multiple times… Bali Tal was a small circle of turquoise blue sneaking out from below the ice…

The steep ice sections continued for another couple of hours, interspersed with some loose mud where it’d had melted… stepping on to the moraines, ‘twas the same rigmarole, where one pines for the ice after extended periods on rocks and vice-versa… I felt a slight throbbing in my head, maybe from all the shocks and jolts of the descent… when we hit the meadows again, the grass looking a bit tawny, ‘twas a pleasant surprise to find that ‘twas only eleven in the morning… one of the perks of starting out at an unearthly hour…

We were warned about a steep rock section that had seen a couple of mortalities from falls, and had a rope pitoned to it as well… but in all honesty ‘twas a reputation not really deserved, for there were footholds and handholds galore to wind one’s way down safely… it reminded of similar patch we’d done in Chenap valley a few years back that led to some very sore quads…

An easy ramble thereafter to the campsite at Lower Dhamani, a small clearing in the forest occupied by millions of gnats whose sole purpose in life it seemed was to exact revenge upon the humans infiltrating their tents… at one point there were so many it felt like it was drizzling… and much to my embarrassment, I realized fifteen minutes later that it was actually raining, as corroborated by loud thunderclaps that reverberated across the entire valley… the weather gods had been kind on us, always waiting for us to reach the camp before fiddling with the water cycle…

I wasn’t keen on visiting Yamunotri, but the exhaustion of the previous day had made us crash early and I woke up feeling fresh at four in the morning… half a mile or so of the jungle trail and we came up to the cement path leading up to the shrine… being early, we found no one to check pilgrim registrations et al… lacking a change of clothes, I had to contend with just dipping my feet into the thermal spring, and after a gluttonous helping of pakoras and paranthas, we raced down towards Janki Chatti, cursing the never ending congestion of people and palanquins and mules and their dung, pondering throughout on what other religions and faiths have such dirty roads to salvation… choked rivers, filthy lands… if the gods had ever descended upon these lands, one can be pretty sure they returned to the higher climes a long time back… from Janki Chatti it was back to back bus rides that transported one back to the heatwaves of North India…

This was the third year in a row when my original trekking plans were foiled, but these are times of magnificent and multifarious uncertainties… overall, ‘twas a nice trail, with an interesting descent that should give me good running splits for a couple of weeks… as for the why the pass is named after the king of the apes, that remains a work in progress…

Photos

  • Purola, Uttarakhand, India
  • Dhatmeer village, Bali Pass trek, Uttarakhand, India
  • Gangaad village, Uttarakhand, India
  • Whiskered Yuhina, Uttarakhand, India
  • Spotted Forktail (juvenile), Uttarakhand, India
  • Traditional Himalayan Temple, Gangaad village, Uttarakashi, Uttarakhand, India
  • Devsu meadows, Bali Pass Trek, Uttarakhand, India
  • Devsu meadows, Uttarakhand, India
  • Bali Pass trek, Uttarakhand, India
  • Ruinsara Tal, Uttarakhand, India
  • Scarlet Finch, Ruinsara Tal, Uttarakhand, India
  • Himalayan Rubythroat, Ruinsara Tal, Uttarakhand, India
  • Ruinsara Tal, Bali Pass trek, Uttarakhand, India
  • Milky Way from Ruinsara Tal, Uttarakhand, India
  • Camping below Ruinsara Tal, Bali Pass Trek, Uttarakhand, India
  • Ruinsara Tal, Uttarakhand, India
  • Bali Pass trek, Uttarakhand, India
  • Swargarohini peaks, Bali Pass trek, Uttarakhand, India
  • Bali Pass trek, Uttarakhand, India
  • Odari campsite, Bali Pass trek, Uttarakhand, India
  • Odari campsite, Bali Pass trek, Uttarakhand, India
  • Swargarohini peak from Odari, Bali Pass trek, Uttarakhand, India
  • Swargarohini peak from Odari, Bali Pass trek, Uttarakhand, India
  • Narmakandi ridge, Bali Pass, Uttarakhand, India
  • Bali Pass, Uttarakhand, India
  • Bali Pass trek, Uttarakhand, India
  • Swargarohini peak, Bali Pass trek, Uttarakhand, India
  • Bali Pass trek, Uttarakhand, India
  • Bali Pass trek, Uttarakhand, India
  • Bali Pass trek, Uttarakhand, India
  • Bali Pass, Uttarakhand, India
  • Bali Pass, Uttarakhand, India
  • Descending from Bali Pass, Uttarakhand, India
  • Bali Tal, Bali Pass trek, Uttarakhand, India
  • Descending from Bali Pass, Uttarakhand, India
  • Descending from Bali Pass, Uttarakhand, India
  • Descending from Bali Pass towards Janki Chatti, Uttarakhand, India

Itinerary

Day 1: Drive from Dehradun (500 meters) to Sankri (1,980 meters) – 200 kms, 9-hour drive

Day 2: Drive till a couple of kilometres before Dhatmeer village (2,460 meters) to Gangaad village (2,340 meters) – 15 kilometre drive (45 min), 8.5 kms hike, 4 hrs\

Day 3: Gangaad village (2,340 meters) to Devsu meadows (3,050 mts) – 8.5 kms, 4.5 hrs

Day 4: Devsu meadows (3,050 mts) to Ruinsara Tal (3,610 mts) – 10 kms, 5.5 hrs

Day 5: Ruinsara Tal (3,610 mts) to Odari (4,040 mts) – 4 kms, 4 hrs

Day 6: Odari (4,040 mts) to Base camp (4,660 mts) – 3 kms, 4 hrs

Day 7: Base camp (4,660 mts) to Bali Pass (4,930 mts) to Lower Dhamani (3,390 mts) – 7 kms, 8 hrs

Day 8: Lower Dhamani (3,390 mts) to Yamunotri (3,300 mts) to Janki Chatti (2,590 mts) – 10 kms, 3.5 hrs

Trek to Bali pass, a crossover from Sankri to Yamunotri in Uttarkashi district, Uttarakhand 

Author: Parth Joshi

Mountain lover ⛰️ | Hiker 🥾| Runner 🏃‍♂️ | Cyclist 🚴 | Photographer 📷... allured by the outdoors, the author is a quintessential lost soul craving nature while suffering in a desk job...

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