Monday, 15 November 2010

A change in Scene!

Dear all, My blog Carry a Compass has shifted to a new place in a better, shinier, friendlier avatar. Do drop by and follow me there. My posts will be more regular as well. Don't forget to say what you think! Enjoy, Beq.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Up and Down the Dhauladhar Day 3

(...continued from Up and Down the Dahuladhar Day 2)
We slept well, and were very thankful for it. Today we were going to tackle unfamiliar terrain and unpredictable weather, and it would be in effect our first proper day of trekking. I knew as much of this area as one could without actually visiting it, and I was nervous with anticipation.
Our group had been swelled by one more member the previous night. It had been raining hard outside and we had huddled around the hearth gulping down our dinner when there was a knock on the outer door. Jagdish went to investigate and we could hear an American voice say, "Is there any fire? Awesome!" It was a young kid called Devon looking for some warmth and food. At 9 pm, Triund was effectively shut and as he had heard of us from the tea shops, he'd come to investigate.
A typical New Age Californian Golden Boy if there ever was one- all big grins and 'oh gosh' amazement- Devon had set off earlier that evening from the upper Bhagsu hippie ghetto for Triund. Armed with an axe, a compact rucksack, lots of biscuits and Maggi noodles, he was looking to spend a few days 'in the wilderness' and maybe trek to Indrahar if he could. The boy had guts alright, but had severely underestimated his surroundings, and his approach march to Triund late in the day in pouring rain had been a chastising experience. Now he was just happy to have someplace warm and dry to rest. 
I must admit that I was a bit annoyed with his sudden appearance. I was far too keyed up about the next day to bear his inquisitiveness, and retired to our room. 
I was hoping that he wouldn't come with us, but as it is totally against the policy of trekking parties to disallow a willing trier, I left it to Jagdish to take the call. Devon had his way with people, and Jagdish was intrigued enough to allow him to come with us. Anyway, we figured that the hike to Lahesh would make up Devon's mind for him. But I was adamant that we were not going to pay for his passage and told Jagdish to have a chat with Devon and figure out their terms.
But all this was minor. We were all very anxious that morning, packing our sacks in as compact a way as possible and keeping our water-proof stuff as close at hand as possible. Thankfuly it wasn't raining, and there was no mist, although the sky was heavily overcast. The Kangra valley was largely clear of clouds and in the sharp, rain-washed light of the morning, the valley floor looked beautifully three dimensional, a patchwork of low undulating ridges and green fields and clumps of forests. I made a run to a tea shop, woke up the owner and stocked up on cigarettes and biris. Jagdish, Gulab and KP were hanging about, finishing their tea, while Devon and Oli were busy checking their bags. Presently we were off, and I came last, as is my wont, looking back at the dear little outhouse, which we rapidly left behind. The great shaggy dog followed us for a while, then stopped upon a rock and stared after us. He stayed there a long while, receding into a dot in the distance. It was, in many ways, a touching farewell.
We came up past the point we had stopped the earlier day, when Jagdish stopped us and asked us to listen. In the relative silence, we could hear a steady, distant roar. Rock avalanches high up the range. The feeling of stepping into the unknown intensified with every step I took. Most of the track was fairly steep, and I was releaved to see that I was going much better than two days ago. The others were doing well too, and soon after we'd started traversing the Laka ridge, we stopped at a little shrine where Jagdish and Gulab lay a few offerings of flowers and food. 
As we smoked our biris, Devon was excitedly surveying all. Everything he saw filled him with glee. He loved the biris and the fact that he was actually trekking in the Himalaya pleased him no end. He was of the opinion that if any natural disaster ever befell the world, this would be the place to be. I couldn't refrain from pointing out to him that we were currently travelling through one of the most seismically active areas of the Hmalaya. The lower ranges of Western Himalaya are rocked by one big earthquake every century. The last one in 1905 was so severe- it had a magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter scale- that much of old Dharamshala was leveled and over 23,000 people and 50,000 animals were killed. The Dhauladhar roughly marked the subduction zone of the lower Himalayan thrust fault, the line along which the Indian sub-continent iss pushing and going under the Eurasian plate with the greatest force. As I told Devon that, he looked a little troubled, then his eyes cleared up again as he grinned and whooped at the thought of what a great adventure he was having. I became a little uneasy myself, and looked around at all the massive boulders arranged in mad jumbles on the slopes all around. The overcast sky which hid the main range added to this faint feeling of menace. 
We were traversing along the side of the Laka ridge, gaining height gradually. Below us lay the green vales of the Chauran nala and the lower forests, while above us ran another band of rhododendron and pine forests, thick at first, but inevitably straggling towards the tree-line. The weather was fine and the sky clear, and after the last couple of days, this was really heartening. The giant hump of Triund lay below us, and further down lay Kangra stretched out like a beautiful green carpet. 

Pic: Triund and the Kangra valley resplendent in the sunshine. Picture by Amrita Dhar

The air was alive with birdsong, and we were moving at a steady clip.
Slowly the steep ridge started levelling out as we climbed up to the traditional Gaddi pasturage of Laka Got. Green meadows like the one below at Triund, only with more large boulders around as we were almost right up against the rocky face of the Dhauladhar proper. The cool grass of Laka was littered with the copious cattle dung, so I had to keep my eyes peeled to avoid them. Sometimes, of course, you can't, so you step right into it and hope that the all the water on the trail will wash it away.
A final turn of the ridge and we were on the pleasant level stretch of Laka, with a make-shift Gaddi-shelter/ tea-shop called Snow-line Cafe. Appropriately enough, as it turns out, because the Got- a Gaddi word for any clearing where cattle can rest and eat- did roughly mark the tree-line. Before us lay the awesome main wall of the Dhauladhar, all craggy rock-face and massive boulders, the top lost in the grim cloud-blanket. We could even see the various streams barreling down the face.
We stopped for tea and rest. While Gulab and Jagdish lit up their biris and Devon bought yet more biscuits, KP gambolled with the resident furry dog of the Got, a sweet, bouncy fellow who was so happy to see more people it was difficult for him to sit still with any one person. Eventually he settled down near KP and looked at him adoringly.

Pic: KP and bouncy dog get friendly at Laka. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

Oli and I went off to take pictures. There wasn't much of a view as a copse of rhododendron hid the views lower down the valley, and that impenetrable blanket hung over the higher reaches. Not for the first time in the trek was I reminded of the Lord of the Rings. That forbidding wall in front could so easily have been the forbidding mountains of Mordor, and the gentlemen sitting in the tea-shop puffing on their 'pipe-weed', Hobbits. Ah well, an idle fancy, but I was thrilled to be here. In fact I was looking forward to the next bit of the climb, up to Lahesh Cave.
The southern approach to the Dhauladhar is nothing if not abrupt. The change from the alpine meadows at around 3,000 m and the final rise is pretty stark. Soon after we lifted our loads and started trudging towards the thin strip of land that connected the Laka ridge with the main range. The clouds moved in almost as soon as we made off from the tea-shop. Soon we were going up and down steep tracks through impossibly verdant pasture lands dotted with a canopy of white flowers. Occasionally the odd fallen tree barred our way and we had to either crawl under or clamber over them to regain the track. With the deepening mist it also began to get pretty cold.
I would've ideally liked to have a clearer view of the terrain we were passing through, but the mist did manage to infuse the scene with a lot of atmosphere, as the continuous roar of the nalas grew ever closer and a cold wind began to blow. 
This is a very important part of the trail up to the pass, a boulder maze where a wrong turn would lead you up a blind alley, and, on an overcast day like today, to worse grief. Soon after, the rain started falling, and the difficulty of a monsoon trek became all too apparent. At that height, rain doesn't simply fall, it comes at you at an angle. My meagre hood wasn't doing too well, so I would have to adjust the ear-flap depending on the direction from which the rain was blowing in. Thankfully yesterday's acclimatisation was bearing fruit, but I was getting very cold, and quite weary. Perhaps sensing my plight, Oli fell back, bringing up the rear. Every now and then she would entice me with thoughts of Hide n Seek biscuits as she insisted that I keep moving. 
The roaring torrent that we must cross sounded pretty close, and once we were withing sight of it, the cold redoubled, thanks to the chilling spray from the water as it madly galloped downhill. Soon after leaving Laka, the trail had perceptively steepened, and the terrain with it. We were climbing up the face of the Dhauladhar now, and the gradient must have been about 45 degrees, forcing us to use our hands to haul ourselves up. The rucksacks never seemed heavier, and with an almost boring sense of inevitability, we were soaked to the bone. This meant we were chilled to the bone, as well, and the cold spray cut like a knife. Soon I could feel my hands growing numb. Oli wryly observed that they were growing blue as well, and probably for the only time in the entire trek, I suffered something close to a panic attack. Although I knew that frost bite at this height- and also without any actual frost- was laughable, I was hysterically thinking of finger amputations, or an earthquake, or both. All I could do was to beat my hands on my legs, and keep on trudging. 
Soon we came to the nala, one of about three that come down from the vicinity of the pass. In other times of the year, these are frozen snow-tongues (which the day trippers fancifully term glaciers), but now they were raging torrents. Trying to cross with the backpack in the blinding, cold spray, I looked towards the helpful face of Jagdish who was standing dramatically poised on two rocks in the middle of the stream. I grabbed his outstretched hands and leaped into the swirling mist, and landed on a little bare patch in the middle of a maze of rocks.
Once on the true right of the nala, we began climbing in earnest towards the cave, now apparently somewhere 200 feet above us in the steep rock staircase that we were struggling over. Gulab and KP were up ahead, but were pretty invisible. Every now and then I would squint up and catch a bit of bright fabric far above. I would lower my face, stare at my boots, close my eyes, sigh, and stagger on. Now the gradient seemed to be closer to 60 degrees than 45. 
I don't remember how much longer we climbed- it couldn't have been too long in real time- but it seemed like we were going on forever. To our left the massive, tangled rock-fall that is the Dhauladhar and to our right, steeply falling away for a few hundred feet below us, the torrent- a waterfall in places- leaping down into the mist with heightened ferocity. Following up the channel, through my half-closed eyes I could make out patches of rotten snow clinging to the rock-face. Beyond this pretty inhuman scene, half-guessed in the dark mist, lay a larger, blacker shadow. I figured that this must be one of the massive ribs of rock that form the serrated south face of the Mon. I was proved right later. Drawing some degree of happiness with my relative knowledge of the land, I resumed climbing. 
And suddenly, we were there. But where was 'there'? All I could see were the gigantic boulders that dominated this wonderland of thrusting rock, pouring rain and swirling mists. Following directions, we climbed out of the channel and onto the other side of the face we were following. Immediately the wind hit us with renewed vigour, but I could see the cave, 50 feet above me. Imagine a gigantic boulder crashing down from a great height and suddenly stop, poised over some nameless abyss. Then imagine the upper face of that boulder to resemble some sort of an out-thrust lower lip. Now imagine an even bigger boulder wedged atop the first, the two forming something like a highly sexualised mouth open and moaning with ecstasy. Climbing up the last few stones up onto the mouth, we paused  for a second, and plunged down into this giant mouth.
Oli describes the cave well. "Imagine a huge, huge, massive rockfall – perhaps when the Dhauladhar shift, or shift their weight from one foot to the other, or something. Anyway, something big enough to drop down boulders the size of small houses. And one of these, with a remarkably even surface, had come to rest on a huge pile of (gradually) compacted rocks. And the other boulder, of about the same size, had come to rest on top of it, with its own wedge giving it an upward slope. The two boulders being sort of like the roof and floor of a mouth, and the mouth open. Lahesh is often called a cave – and it does feel like one, when you are in it. But it is really this massive rockfall. And the Gaddis – the local shepherds and goatherds and the masters of the wind and water of the place, so well do they understand the landscape and the elements in it – had spotted the thing with their impeccable sight, walled up the exposed sides of the ‘cave’ with smaller rocks, and turned it into this marvel of a shelter. When I got to the entrance to the cave myself did I realize the amazing architecture of the thing. In spite of the abundant... er, ventilation at the sides and entrance to the cave, the inside was perfectly dry. What rain did come through to any inside surface was allowed to run back using the natural slope of the ‘roof’ boulder into a little ‘canal’ dug at the back of the cave to give the water free channel to the outside. And though you could not stand upright in the cave at any spot, the entire thing was big enough to shelter possibly up to 25 or even 30 people." Lahesh is just one among the myriad examples we got of the Gaddi's resourcefulness. It also gave me a sense of how well the know these mountains. The trouble with cave, though, was that you had to squat at all times, as at its highest, its only about 3.5 to 5 feet. Gulab had already gotten the stove running, and tea was in order. It had mercifully stopped raining, and shivering woefully, I took off my dripping boots and socks, put on some woolen ones- along with wool mitts- and took the wet stuff out to dry. The wind was very strong, so we had to find small rocks to use as weights to keep the wet clothes from blowing away. 
The ORS solution that Oli had forced down my throat when I'd staggered into the cave had revived me somewhat, and the warmth and hot lunch completed the job. It was pretty early in the afternoon still, but we were all dog-tired and KP was feeling the effects of altitude. So we promptly got into our sleeping bags, maneuvered ourselves along the ground sheets, and with bags and rocks for pillows, drifted off.

Pic: Post-lunch nap inside Lahesh cave. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

As usual, Oli was soon kicking me out of bed. It was time for acclimatising, and though KP promptly rolled over, ignored her pleas and went back to sleep, I squatted out of the cave, eager to get out of the cramped cave and stretch my legs a little. Gulab and Jagdish were already up, washing dishes, preparing for dinner and smoking biris. Devon was fast asleep. Oli had claimed that the sun was out, but all I could see was impenetrable grey all around us. My legs were very woozy, and I was feeling a little dizzy. We walked around on the 'courtyard' boulder, looking at the hilarious graffiti of trekkers past on the cave walls and trying to get KP out. He did emerge, looking very harassed, and stood around with eyes half shut, as we waited for the sun to appear. It didn't for a while, so KP made some excuse, and went back in. 
It was around 4 pm now, and the the thick clouds were clearing a little, blown up and away by the strong wind. Soon a dull, round searchlight made its appearance through the mist and little by little revealed itself to be the sun. Suddenly, the mountain was clear of clouds, and we were basking in the merciful warmth of the late sun. Oli and I decided to climb a little higher to get a better view. 
Clambering over rocks the size of people at that steepness should never be attempted in socks and hawaii chappals, but that was what I was forced to do in the absence of a dry pair of boots. Oli was wearing her rock climbing boots, so she was extremely well equipped. Now with the clouds reduced to the occasional wispy feather floating up the Dhauladhar, we could get a bearing of our surroundings. We were basically standing inbetween two massive;y steep ridges rising up to the shadowy peaks above. To our North east was the one which led up to the Mon, and there was another one to our right, in the north west. And the boulders! They came in all shapes and sizes, from those as small and round as a football to others as big as cathedral spires. It really did look like this vast theatre of rock. Following the Mon face was our nala. At this height it wasn't a stream but a tongue of rotted snow with a surface like fish-scales. As we climbed from one rock ledge to another, aiming for a vast cluster of boulders above us, I gaped at the beauty around me. 
What appeared as sterile, steep rock-faces from Triund, now revealed long swards of the greenest grass, flecked with tiny flowers of various colours. As I made my tortuous progress from ledge to ledge, moving very slowly so as not to lose my slippers, I felt like a little old man pottering about in a dressing gown looking for some tobacco. The huge tufts of clouds floating in the distance really did look like puffs of smoke anyway; it seemed that the Kangra valley, some 10,000 feet below, was steaming.

Pic: Alpine blooms rear their pretty heads amidst the desolation of boulders. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

We were in the middle of a cloud garden- gleaming spires and puffy balls of cotton; inhuman faces and sailing ships- they made their stately progression from east to west, flowing along detached from the world of rock and boulders. Occasionally they would bump against a huge outcrop and simply flow over them. Far below me I could see the top of the Laka ridge, and if I looked carefully I could also make out the tiny pin-prick of blue that is the "Snow-Line cafe". Triund was further below. It obviously felt strange, looking down at the landmarks that I'd been looking up at for the last two years. These ridges would vanish slowly under a fresh cloud, looking like a dense Chinese painting, only to reveal themselves slowly a little later. This dance of presence/absence was absolutely fascinating. To my extreme right, down to the south-west lay the green terrace fields of Kareri, which we hoped to reach a week from now. In a straight line with the cave directly to the south lay the tiny village of Naddi. 
And then there was the sky. A cloud-garden of overpowering beauty, the swirling mists made a halo around the sun until I wasn't sure what planet I was on. I'm a sentimental type, and I swear I felt like crying at the beauty of it all. 

Pic: The sun comes out at the end of the day. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya.

KP had finally emerged with the sun, and now he was a red dot dramatically framed by the immense boulder landscape, contemplating the void, as is his wont. Devon was pottering about in his multi-coloured rags, hopping with a lithe grace from boulder to boulder and occasionally flashing his big smile. On the "courtyard" rock in front of the cave, old hand Jagdish was giving young 'un Gulab a crash course in the lay of the land.

Pic: Gulab and Jagdish relax in the sunshine on the "courtyard" rock. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

Suddenly they looked up beyond me and started speaking loudly and pointing. I jumped around, thinking of all those black bears I had heard of. What they were pointing at was far more dramatic.

Pic: Mon peak (to the right) and Indrahar Pass (tiny notch on the left) tower over Lahesh. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

The cloud curtain over the pass and Mon peak had finally cleared in the light of the evening sun. There it was, the ridge top, looming over us like a frozen wave with millions of tons of bare rock held upright in space by what seemed like a miracle. Still about 500 m above us, the pass was a tiny depression and the peaks of Cairn and especially Mon two massive behemoths glinting gold in the sun. We'd have a long way to climb tomorrow to the top, and then that would be just half the day's walk done.

Pic: Oli limbers up for a spot of rock climbing. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

I didn't want to think about it right then. In the late sunlight of the dying day, the world was as peaceful as it could possibly be. Me and KP accompanied Oli to an overhanging cluster of boulders and sat down to ruminate, as she set off for a climb and was soon lost to view.

to be continued...

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Up and Down the Dhauladhar Day 2

(...continued from Up and Down the Dhauladhar Day 1)
Rain fell in violent gusts all night. It had become quite cold. I was more or less comfortable in my foam sleeping bag, but Oli was shivering in her flimsy sack, and KP was positively suffering. He'd caught a cold and the previous day's sudden gain in altitude had not helped either. I gave him some analgesics to help ease his headache. At some point we managed to get some sleep.

Pic: Jagdish and shaggy dog wait in vain for the rain to abate. Picture taken by Bibek Bhattacharya

The day dawned with the weather in an even worse state. Everything was dank and gloomy and heavy rain was falling in a continuous sheet of loud grey. Outside, Triund was a sight of thick clouds being tossed about the ridge. Clearly there was no hope of making an early start for Laka. Gulab and Jagdish were already up and we were greeted with lovely cups of tea. While the others got up, I lazed around in my sleeping bag and dozed for a while before making my way to the kitchen. All our wet stuff was still wet so that was another thing to get used to. Jagdish's prognosis of the weather was not too good. He was skeptical of the rain stopping anytime soon and figured that the main nala that we'd have to cross between Laka and Lahesh would be in spate even if the weather did break later in the day.
We felt quite gloomy at this turn of events. Suppose we had to call off the trek? I couldn't bear thinking of that possibility, but we couldn't wait indefinitely at Triund either, waiting for the weather to turn and eating our way through our supplies.
It was pointless to sit around in the hut and mope. After a few biris smoked in companionable silence, Jagdish and Gulab wandered off to chat with other paharis. KP wandered off to get wet. He had gotten over the night's unease and that old familiar serenity had returned to his face. Oli was driven to distraction by his behaviour, but it seemed like a perfectly normal thing for him to do.
Every now and then the rain would slacken and I'd step out in the sloshy grass to take a few pictures of stormy Triund. And it was beautiful. Above us, nothing could be seen save the ghostly outlines of the Laka ridge, across which gossamer thin strips of cloud were being hurled by a strong East wind. The forest hut itself was protected from this onslaught by the main ridge of Triund. I climbed up this and was immediately buffeted by the wind as I struggled to keep my ears warm and camera working.

Pic: The Kangra Valley drowning in a sea of clouds. Picture taken by Bibek Bhattacharya

The Dhauladhar for all intents and purposes might not even have existed, so thick was that impenetrable curtain of clouds strung across its face. It occurred to me that since a brief glimpse of the Mon early the previous morning when we were rolling in to Dharamshala, I hadn't had a single view of the range. It was dispiriting, but my surroundings didn't allow me to dwell on this for too long,
Unless you go looking for it, its difficult to come across such an elemental scene of wild beauty. Facing the Laka ridge, to my west lay the steep path we had climbed to Triund. Far below, around the edge of a spur seemingly poised on the brink of a great plunge into the tangled construction of McLeodganj, hung the tiny Magic View Cafe. It kept wavering in and out of view as banks of clouds swallowed it up momentarily, and then, driven on by the wind, moved on leaving it visible again. High above that spur ran the wall-like broken ridge-top of Laka, dotted with weirdly contorted rhododendron and pine trees amidst extensive boulder gardens. To the east lay the thickly wooded valley of the Chauran nala, some 2,000 feet below, flowing down from under the south face of Mon. Looking down the mountainside into that mysterious shifting landscape of deep mist and thick vegetation and the occasional massive rocky outcrop was a thrill in itself.

Pic: Tendrils of cloud blow up the thickly wooded Chauran nala valley. Picture taken by Bibek Bhattacharya

However it was impossible to stand for too long in that driving rain and I ducked back down under the protective curtain of the ridge-top. It was afternoon now, and though the light had improved, the weather remained as bad as ever. Oli, the eternal pragmatist, was well into her carefully rehearsed acclimatisation routine. After a hearty breakfast, she had settled down to write. I had tried keeping a journal as well, but I tired after one page, and the notepad was too soggy to write in anyway.
KP had gone off in the rain to meet Sunil, and the great, wet shaggy dog who'd been a refugee at our doorway had also tired of the inactivity and had wandered off. Leaving Oli to her writing, I went to look for KP. Little mirrors to the sky had formed on the path along the ridge and I made my way through the wet grass to Sunil's shack. KP was sitting outside the shop, rolling. The interior of the shop was occupied by an excitable gaggle of English voices discussing ephemera, so I stood outside under the flapping tarpaulin, watching the capricious clouds play on the ridge above. One of Sunil's many (apparently) ponies wandered by, dutifully grazing. Scattered groups of cows ate their way up and down the grassy slopes, resembling for all the world massive, mobile vacuum cleaners.
I stood there spacing for what seemed like a very long time. I was feeling very lethargic for some reason, so I made my way back to the hut, only to find Oli in the second stage of her steady acclimatisation process- she was lying in her sleeping bag and trying to feel warm, while reading a book on rock climbing, and trying out different knots with a wee length of rope. It felt pretty funny, hanging out with these two mountain lovers with their radically different approach to life on the heights.
Me, I'm the worrying kind, and I'd been worrying a fair bit since we'd started the day before. And one of my main worries was this matter of acclimatisation.Thanks to my two visits to Tunganath last year, I had successfully breached the 4000 m barrier, but then that was nowhere near as physically taxing as this would be. Although I'd only mildly felt the effects of altitude back then, I wanted to be absolutely sure this time around. Also, KP just had to acclimatise, as he'd never been anywhere higher than Laka, which is approximately 3,200 m. So when Oli instructed me to lie down and take a nap, I obediently crept into my sleeping bag. As I drifted off to sleep, I heard KP calling Oli out. Apparently it had stopped raining.
As soon as I'd fallen asleep, it seemed, I was rudely awakened. It was Oli of course, in that cheerfully steely voice of hers, instructing me to get up and come for a walk. It turned out that I'd been soundly asleep for a good 45 minutes or so. In that time, the weather had cleared somewhat. Most importantly, it wasn't raining. Outside, it was quite gorgeous. The Dhauladhar was still hidden. However, the overhanging cloak of clouds had receded a fair bit and was now draped over the head of the range. The snow fields, mini glaciers and the ice colouirs that can be seen pretty much all the year round had melted into forceful waterfalls and streams. Just the sheer number of waterfalls coming down from the all-pervading cloud was quite mind-boggling.
The cloud canopy stretched out from its tether on the Dhauladhar all the way to the distant Punjab plains, shimmering blue in the afternoon. Sandwiching us from below was a vast sea of blue clouds, filling up the entirety of the Kangra valley.

Pic: Oli, KP and Gulab deep in conversation. Picture taken by Bibek Bhattacharya

Oli suggested that we climb some way in the direction of Laka, and so we did, picking our way up the steep trail, trying our best to outflank the copious shit that that the cows had been depositing all day. The weather was so fine, that the three of us seriously considered making a dash for Lahesh. Even Gulab, who'd joined us for the ramble, made some noises  to that end.

Pic: Happy dogs keep watch on the Laka trail. Picture taken by Bibek Bhattacharya

Suddenly I looked up to see a grave furry face regarding us from a rocky outcrop. It was one of the Gaddi dogs- invariably called Tommy, or Johnny or Bhalu. We climbed up a bit higher till the point where the Triund spur united with its parent ridge of Laka. Oli bounded off ahead. She was obviously feeling this need to keep moving, but I, as usual, stopped to take yet another view of my surroundings. Closer now to the main range, I could get a good look at the giant flanks of the Dhauladhar. The mountainside was a jumble of massive rock falls and boulder fields. The rain-fed Chauran nala was gurgling down in the forested ravine below me. To the easte, running parallel to my Triund spur, were others much like it. Each of these ultimately lead up to the various passes that punctuate the main range. What fun it would be, I thought, to wander about these spurs, traversing the breadth of the range.
In fact, I'd been seriously thinking of turning our little project into a treeline trek, going all over the Southern face of the Dhauladhar. But that route just didn't possess the joy of crossing two passes, even if it would be a worthwhile way to explore the land. But I still held some hope that the weather and Indrahar would relent.
KP and Gulab were sitting a little way below me deep in conversation, brilliantly silhouetted by the blue cloud-sea that was the Kangra valley.

Pic: The Dhauladhar, smoking hard. Picture taken by Bibek Bhattacharya

Oli returned in a bit, looking as energetic as ever. Her exuberance is quite infectious, so we decided to climb up to the Tibetan prayer flags festooned at a point on top of the ridge that marks the area where the Triund spur merges with the Laka ridge. We'd gone a little way when we saw two figures bounding down the Laka track. They were an American hiker and his Gaddi guide. A shouted conversation with the guide ensued. They were returning from Lahesh and according to him, the trail was perfectly safe as of now. The nala that had so haunted our plans was in spate, but was crossable. According to him, we could still try for Lahesh.
This further added to Oli's restlessness and she rushed down to Triund to discuss this with Jagdish. He'd been full of doom the entire day, not trusting the weather- or was it our capability? Anyway, since it was getting on to 4 pm, and we weren't exactly travelling light, I thought it would be better to spend another night here and start tomorrow morning despite the weather.
It was a lovely afternoon to be at Triund, so me and KP sat around, chatted in fits and starts and took some pictures. Then we started down at an easy pace, while KP filled me in on Sunil's fifty horses and the envy this caused among the other paharis. A couple of years ago, when KP had first come to McLeodganj, some of his Gaddi friends had brought him up to Triund in a direct line that climbed the 3,000 feet from Bhagsu along the entire length of the Triund spur. Ridiculously steep in places, it had both enchanted and scared the living daylights out of KP. We decided to check it out.
We met Oli as she was coming up to us. She'd managed to get Jagdish to promise that we'd make an attempt to get to Lahesh the next morning. She seemed a lot calmer as a result. That particular load off our heads, we truly enjoyed ourselves for the next couple of hours, walking around on the beautiful rain soaked green turf of Triund while the world below us seemed to be drowning in an ocean of blue. Oli got me to climb some rocks too, and despite misgivings, I did fine, aided a good deal by my veteran boots which, after some eleven years of rough use, still retained a fantastic grip. KP, extremely disinterested in all this exertion, took to impersonating a human rocky outcrop. Every now and then I would see him standing on some rock, dramatically framed by the seething blue clouds, quietly contemplating the void.

Pic: KP contemplates the void. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

The wind was picking up, gently blowing tendrils of clouds from the layer below us to the one above. We sat in perfect silence, each of us lost in our own thoughts.
Before our eyes, the Mon began to do a striptease. At first only a ghostly outline, the high winds near its summit slowly blew away the clouds obscuring it from view. Presently the peak and a large portion of the summit ridge slowly revealed itself in all its stark, brooding glory.
Owing to the time of year, the snow-less Dhauladhar resembled a fortress made of tiers and tiers of black rock. Not for the last time, the scene reminded me of something out of Lord of the Rings. Indrahar was a tiny notch to the left of the peak, one that you'd easily miss if you weren't looking for it.

Pic: The Mon finally reveals itself; Indrahar Pass is the notch to the peak's left. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya 

From here the south face looked so sheer and perpendicular that the thought of actually being on it made me involuntarily shiver a bit. With the weather we were having, this looked like serious business. But instead of being freaked out, I felt a desperate urge to be on top of the damn thing. If I could've started out right then, I would have.
Meanwhile, Triund was having a regular day. After the day's 'Garbage In Garbage Out' the cows had retired. There was one standing motionless while a tourist filmed it. Young Johnson, a sweet Gaddi dog who'd been accompanying us all afternoon was trying to turf out the cow by barking furiously. The tea shops were buzzing with talk, laughter and endless cups of tea. Now that the day trippers had returned to McLeodganj, there was a fair degree of fellow feeling among those who'd stayed back.

Pic: Evening clouds climb ominously, with the Pong reservoir in the background. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

It was getting cold and windy, so we went back to our little hut. I was getting pretty fond of this little place, it felt like home. Gulab got some tea going while KP and Oli pottered about doing nothing in particular. I sat on a rock next to a blasted tree and spaced, looking out to the far distance where the massively swollen Pong reservoir was glittering blue. Then the thick clouds covering Kangra slowly started climbing up, ominously obliterating everything in their path. Spooky. Another evening of desultory conversation, dinner and early to bed. We would make an attempt to get to Lahesh cave the next day.
To be continued...

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Up and Down the Dhauladhar Day 1

Winding down the twisting roads through the highlands of the Kangra valley, the sight that greets you about an hour before you hit Kangra town is breathtaking. Up north, the gentle swell of the rolling uplands suddenly come up smack against a high jagged wall that dominates the horizon. And it goes on forever, running in a long unbroken stretch from the east to the west, like a mythical barrier guarding some forbidden paradise.
At an average height of 14,000 feet, the Dhauladhar range isn’t as big as the other Himalayan sub-ranges of Himachal Pradesh, but it is certainly one of the most dramatic. Rising up some 12,000 feet from valley floor to ridge-top, this serrated range looms over everything, clad in a thick coat of snow and ice that only relents in the monsoon months.
It’s a sight that has enticed me for many a year, due to my frequent trips to McLeodganj, which has to be one of the nicest hill-towns within reach from Delhi. Hiking up to Triund, a grassy meadow high up on a subsidiary spur of the main range is something that everyone does, and a great hike though it is, its just the approach march to a great trek that leads you over the Dhauladhar range to the Ravi river valley in the Chamba district. Triund is where my fascination with this trek was born some two years ago, and it was only this year that I had the chance of going there.
Monsoon is hardly the best time to go for this trek, and with the heavier than normal rains this year, we were told roundly by all comers that it was madness. However, two things were in my favour. My guides were of local Gaddi stock, the dominant community of much of the Chamba and Kangra region. Mostly traditional shepherds, they know every valley and pass around the Dhauladhar and Mani Mahesh ranges, which form their old homeland of Gadderan. The second was that one of my companions, Oli, was a trained mountaineer who had the experience of quite a few big expeditions. Brought together, these two factors played a big part in assuaging any fears I might have had.
As we limbered into McLeodganj on a Monday morning, the signs were not encouraging. The Dhauladhar was cloaked in thick clouds and it was raining hard. In a way, it was better this way- once you’re soaked through, you pretty soon get used to the idea. The first thing to do was to meet Jagdish and Gulab, our companions for the next 10 days, so we quickly boarded an auto to Bhagsu, which lies a couple of kilometres above McLeodganj.
Pic: Gulab (left) and Jagdish (right). Picture taken by Amrita Dhar
Jagdish, a stocky, solid man with a shy, retiring nature and a faraway look in his eyes had been guiding in the area since 1979. His compatriot Gulab was a wiry 26-year-old father of two with ankles of steel; an irresistible charmer and an ardent believer in the powers of direttissimo- the most direct route over any obstacle. Although we had planned to stay an entire day at McLeodganj and re-pack our sacks and shop for fresh vegetables and other foodstuffs, Jagdish was of the opinion that in weather like this, we shouldn’t waste any time and make for Triund immediately, some 10 km and around 3,000 feet above us. We scattered in different directions for a last burst of provision shopping. A breakfast, numerous cups of tea and ruthless repacking later- where we discarded most of our extra clothes and other luxuries- we were off climbing steep country tracks through the resin-scented pine forest of Dharamkot. 
Pic: Walking up through the pine forests of Dharamkot. Picture taken by Bibek Bhattacharya
Since we could only start off at noon, the high sun had slowed the rain to a steady drizzle, although a thick ceiling of clouds still hung over the range like a shroud. 
Pic: Runaway monsoon vegetation on the Triund trail. Picture taken by Amrita Dhar
The path to Triund is one I’m very well acquainted with, but it was still a pleasure to walk up this steep trail, heavily laden though we were with 10-12 kg rucksacks and stopping occasionally for breath. To get to Triund, you climb up the Dharamkot spur above Bhagsu and then traverse the Laka ridge onto the Triund ridge, rising steadily all the time. The southern slopes of the Dhauladhar are beautiful, but the mist and rain of the monsoon add just that right hint of mystery and elusiveness that makes the surroundings seem positively magical. 
Picture taken by Amrita Dhar
Although I was a bit worried about weather conditions on the pass, I was certain that this approach march would be the most exhausting one, as our bodies got used to the steep gradient and the extra weight. We met familiar faces along the way. Anil owned a tea- shop aptly titled ‘Magic View CafĂ©’- though there was hardly any view to speak of right then- and welcomed me and KP (my other companion and another McLeodganj veteran) although he was a bit downcast. One of his cows had fallen awkwardly and had broken her back. A couple of cups of tea, a quick goodbye and we carried on through the deepening mist and intermittent rain up the final steep1000 feet to Triund. The track wound up between massive boulders and landslide zones, around and through carcasses of massive pines and rhododendron trees. 
Pic: KP trudges up through the rain. Picture taken by Bibek Bhattacharya
Occasionally we'd have to jump over little rivulets, or wade through some mushy ground. I really struggled the final kilometre, stumbling up through the oppressive mist, struggling with the weight on my back and sweating profusely. Gulab, predictably, had reached a good while ago and came down to relieve me of my rucksack as I huffed and puffed my way up the final rise onto the green alp of Triund. The tremendous backdrop of the rocky south face of Mon peak was invisible in the threatening clouds, but as always, the soft springy turf of Triund gladdened my heart. The four tea shops that are a fixture here were busy with day-trippers and foreign tourists, though, thanks to the rain, the crowds that normally ascend everyday to Triund were absent.
All I could think of was my intense sugar craving; I was lusting after sweet biscuits, anything really, to satisfy my sweet tooth and get some much needed energy. So while KP trudged off in the rain to say hi to Sunil, who owned the tea-shop on the southern end of the ridge, and Oli went off with Gulab to secure the old forest hut and get some tea going, I rushed into the nearest tea-shop and promptly devoured a packet of Hide’n’Seek. Feeling human again, I sloshed my way to the hut. The Forest department runs a new bungalow on the saddle of the ridge which one needs to book from Dharamshala. However, just behind it is an old British-built log hut which is open for any happy camper that chooses to pass through. That's where we camped for the day, glad to be finally dry, sipping hot mugs of tea around a smoky hearth-fire, while Gulab and Jagdish got busy preparing an early dinner.                                           
Thick clouds were passing over the ridge as daylight faded and it was raining incessantly. Below us, the Kangra valley was overrun with heavy blue clouds, though far away out in the valley, I could make out sundry Dhauladhar rivers like the Bhated nala making their way to the Beas. Above us was an unmoving blanket of dark pregnant clouds. 
Pic: The rain lashed Triund ridge. Picture taken by Bibek Bhattacharya
Our plan was to leave the next morning for Lahesh cave on the main range if the weather cleared for a bit. There were, of course, many factors that we had to take into consideration. The first was acclimatization. If we hoped to do the Indrahar crossing the day after, then it was of paramount importance that we acclimatised as quickly as possible. At a height of 4350 m, the pass was one of the highest in this pass-riddled range, and to try and cross this very exposed ridge in this treacherous weather without acclimatizing was unthinkable. The second most important factor was the weather itself. We could expect a lot of boulder scrambles over the next two days and to do so in the rain wouldn’t be a good idea. So we had to move whenever the rains let off a bit. Accounting for this, we had kept a couple of days in hand for unforeseen breaks, but now that we were on the move, I didn’t really wish to rest. We turned in quite early after a hearty meal of khichdi and prayed for a clear dawn.

To be continued...

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Roerich's Himalaya

The National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi is a place I love going to, although I must also say that I don't visit it as often as I should. One of India's few- and the best by a long shot- state-owned art galleries, NGMA's collection is a medium sized but fascinating one. Leaving aside the Gallery's collection of contemporary Indian art- which is sizable- its the permanent exhibits of the Bengal School of Art and those of other artists related to it like Amrita Sher-Gil, that keep drawing me back. There's a degree of inventiveness and boldness to the work of this large body of artists that I find lacking in most of our contemporaries.
The collection that I never miss, however, is that of the Russian artist-philosopher-mystic-anthropologist-archaeologist-traveller Nicholas Roerich. His mountain paintings are unmatched in their breadth, depth and scope. Its almost like stepping into an alternate universe where mountains perform the roles of deity, habitat, scenery and a spiritual challenge all at once.

 Pic: Kuluta 1936 (courtesy

And that's just on one level. At another, they are masterful studies in light and tone.

 Pic: To Kailas, Lahul, 1932 (courtesy

Although Roerich has as distinct a style as any painter, no two mountain studies are similar, even when he's painting the same mountain from essentially the same vantage point, as these superlative studies of Kanchendzonga show.

 Pic: Kanchendzongka 1936 (courtesy

 Pic: Kanchendzongka 1944 (courtesy

In no other artist's depiction of mountains have I seen geography consistently appearing as fully fledged characters. To look at a painting like Nanda Devi is to drown in that mountain's divinity, sheer physical beauty, as well as the immense psychic power that she wields on the people who live in her shadow.

 Pic: Nanda Devi 1944 (courtesy    

The 6 prints I have from NGMA are part of Roerich's Himalayas series, which he contributed to sporadically over a period of roughly twenty years. This mammoth series alone has over 2,000 paintings- a testimony to Roerich's prolific output. All, this master painter created over 7,000 paintings over many other series, which is staggering by any standards. However, the quality of his work never suffered.

 Pic: Krishna (Spring in Kulu) 1929 (courtesy

 Pic: Sunset 1931 (courtesy

Roerich's interest in the range took many forms, each one mirroring one of his many pursuits. As a dedicated chronicler of culture both indigenous and shared, the plethora of disparate cultures and yet close cultural borrowings on both sides of the Himalayan crest fascinated him. He wrote,
"The Himalayas, in their full might, cross these uplands; behind them, rises the Kailasa, and still farther, Karakorum and the mountain kingdom crowned in the north by the Kuen Lun. Here also are the roads to the sacred Manasarowar: here are the most ancient paths of the sacred pilgrimage. In this region is also the Lake of the Nagas, and the lake Revalsar, the abode of Padma Sambhava. Here also are the caves of the Arhats, and the great abode of Siva, the Amarnath Caves; here are hot springs; here are the 360 local deities, the number of which testifies how essential are these very sites of the accumulation of human thought through many ages."
The Himalaya's greatest hold on Roerich, though, was in matters of the spirit. On completing his epic 1923-1928 expedition through Sikkim, Tibet, Kashmir, Ladakh, Siberia, Altai and Mongolia to collect and preserve cultural texts, he was so drawn to the great range that he set up both his home and his Himalayan Research Institute in Naggar in the Kulu valley. He considered the Himalaya a  symbol of humanity's inherent hunger for transcendence through beauty and knowledge, a common cultural thread that he'd observed in his wide ranging travels. He called the range the "Treasure House of the Spirit."
His paintings do justice to that claim, like his study of the Chandrabhaga river or the unforgettable Ice Sphinx.

 Pic: Chandrabhaga 1932 (courtesy

 Pic: Ice Sphinx 1938 (courtesy

People appear only at the margins of his mountain canvases, but they're an important part of the whole, both grounding the soaring majesty of the backdrop as well as well as providing context for the allusive stories that he tells through his canvases.

 Pic: Remember 1934 (courtesy

Some of them bear strong influences of his earlier Iconographic art- tropes and symbolism that he adapts marvelously for his latter paintings.

 Pic: The Messenger, 1946 (courtesy

Over the years, you can see his style change. From real, tangible geography, his paintings seem to turn inwards, as he washes the paintings more, giving more of a hint of indistinctness and interpretive haze. They become even more metaphorical, but even then they're never anything other than mountains, because that's all they need to be in Roerich's paintings. It reminds me of the Zen Buddhist saying, "You look at the Void, and the Void looks back at you."

 Pic: The Himalayas The Earth Yetis 1947 (courtesy

Even without delving too deep in his symbolism, its impossible not to come away from this huge and varied body of art without a profound sense of peace.

 Pic: Castle in Ladakh 1933 (courtesy

And to think he did all this, as well as create the Roerich's Pact, and the theatrical designs for Stravinsky's Rite of Spring!

Friday, 28 May 2010

Moving Up

It all started with a missed bus. After some two weeks of deliberating, on February 28 2009,  me and Priyo were finally out at the Anand Vihar ISBT, hoping to get one of the frequent- so we were told- buses to Almora. So we arrive bright and chirpy at 6 in the morning only to find that the bus had left at 5:45- and that there would be no other bus till the evening. While we were casting about at this unfortunate turn of events, the conductor of the Delhi-Nainital bus threw us a lifeline. Why not take the Nainital bus to Haldwani, and then take a bus to Almora in the afternoon? As the Nainital bus was just about to leave, we quickly boarded without any further invitation.
Pic: Priyo, my travelling companion (Bibek Bhattacharya)

Delhi to Haldwani, some 120 km, is a dead bore of a drive as the majority of that distance involves travelling through northern UP, which is nobody's idea of a beautiful place. 
Well, in between the horrid towns there is enough to see- like lush green fields of winter crops waiting to be harvested- but mostly your senses are overburdened with massive political posters of all hue and ideology asking for your precious vote.

Pic: The sprawl of Moradabad is symptomatic of northern UP in general (courtesy Wikipedia)

Its interesting to see the scenery change gradually. The flat green lands of the Gangetic plain gradually change into the upper Terai forests once you cross the border into Uttarakhand. I must say though, that 'developement' makes the Gangetic plain pretty difficult to spot. When we did cross the Ganga over an ancient rickety bridge chock-a-block full of traffic, all I could think of was murder as all I could see was hideous over-construction choking the river. A few hours of somnambulist travel through the dust choked landscape the bus arrived at Moradabad. It got intensely crowded in Moradabad, almost like a cliche of people jostling with chicken, and for a while it turned into a inter-city public transport.
Things started getting interesting after we crossed over into Uttarakhand at Rampur. Between Rampur and Haldwani, lies a long stretch of beautiful forests. This is a common enough feature throughout the Terai region, which stretches all the way from Himachal Pradesh, across Nepal and upper West Bengal and Sikkim

Pic: The Terai valley near Rishikesh (Bibek Bhattacharya)

Just before the Himalayan foothills begin, you're bound to pass through an upper Terai jungle of some shape or size. The entire length is criss-crossed by a number of Himalayan rivers passing through to join the two main ones, Ganga and Yamuna. Sadly, this beautiful catchment area of the subcontinent is disappearing under the combined weight of human habitat and industry. 
Soon it was around two in the afternoon and I was getting antsy as there didn't seem to be any sign of a hillock, let alone mountains. Then suddenly, hey presto, green, rolling foothills looming gently on the horizon! We were finally at Haldwani.

Pic: Haldwani (Bibek Bhattacharya)

Haldwani is one of those entry-points into the mountains, like Dehradun and Rishikesh in the west, and Siliguri in the east, which are major transport hubs, as roads fan out from these places to other towns deeper in the hills. 
Priyo happily lit a biri to celebrate our successful journey to the half-way point while I went to the ticket counter to find a bus to Almora. Here the helpful Nainital conductor turned out to be a pretty clueless bloke. He insisted that Binsar is closer from Ranikhet than from Almora, and that we should try for a bus to Ranikhet instead. I consulted  my handy Eicher road map (as well as the Nest & Wings state map) and found this claim impossible to believe. In this we were proved quite right. Everyone we asked at the bus stop was unanimous that Binsar is near Almora. It was only later that I found out that there is indeed another Binsar near Ranikhet, called Binsar Mahadev, but by no stretch is it the Binsar.
Tragedy threatened for the second time in the day when we were informed by an apologetic man in the Enquiry booth that the sole bus for Almora from Haldwani had left at 2:30 pm, and here we were, standing in the middle of a chaotic bus depot at 3 pm, wondering what to do. What we didn't know at the time was that the man was referring to just State Transport buses.
Some stray voices in the seething chaos helpfully informed us that the Delhi-Almora bus that we had missed in the morning had gotten delayed and had yet to reach Haldwani. So we rushed to the main road waiting for the  mythic bus to appear, hoping against hope that we hadn't missed it a second time. We were desperate to keep moving, reach at least Almora by the end of day. A cry went up and  sure enough, there it was, disgorging passengers. Feeling quite happy with ourselves, we parked our relieved haunches on it and breathed a sigh of relief.
Apart from the local Kumaonis, very few people actually travel the full distance from Delhi to Almora or from Delhi to Nainital by the morning bus. This suited us just fine, as the this one was just about half full with local families travelling between towns.
Beyond Kathgodam- this is as far as the train line gets in the Kumaon- the road started climbing up the foot hills and I started grinning stupidly even as my spine started tingling with anticipation. My mind was screaming "ALTITUDE!" in big capital letters. The next couple of hours passed in a blur, with me hanging out of the bus window taking pictures, or just looking at the gorgeous views. Even the humblest of shacks in the Himalaya are transformed by the majestic backdrop. There were some 20 different places along the way which I thought would be perfect for my fantasy house in the hills. A happy dream.

Pic: Winding up the road to Almora (Bibek Bhattacharya)

Winding up the deep, labyrinthine gorge of the Kosi, we finally started climbing the Almora ridge around 6, exactly 12 hours since we'd set out. The sun was setting behind some high ridges across the valley, and a dramatic sickle moon was starting its progress across the heavens. By the time the bus stopped at the Almora bus depot, it was already dark and we were debating whether to stay the night in Almora or try and get into Binsar. Priyo and I were both of the view that we should end the epic journey in Binsar itself, rather than waste the night at Almora. After fighting off a bunch of well-intentioned cab drivers, we got into the car of one Ramesh, who agreed to take us up for Rs 700, the standard rate.