Kuari Pass Journal
May 18-26, 1989
A journal I wrote on my first Himalayan trek, over Kuari Pass in Garhwal region. We were a team of four, my companions were AB, CR, RS.
Sunday May 21, 17:00
So, at last I am beginning the journal. Actually I have lost all sense of time. I asked a kid why he hasn’t gone to school today and he said – aaj itwaar hai! That’s how it is.
We sighted the first snow peak (turned out to be Ansuya Devi) from the bus between Karnaprayag and Nandaprayag. A truly exhilarating moment. All the hassles of the journey, heat in Delhi etc, were immediately forgotten and with a new enthusiasm we looked forward to the trek.
About the trek. Up to Ghat was absolutely no problem and in fact we made it to Ghat before schedule. The taxi from Nandaprayag to Ghat was quite a ride! It was indeed a marvel how that contraption moved. Every time we went over a nasty patch on the road, the entire body of the taxi would shudder and make an awful rattling noise. But it remained in one piece and got us to Ghat, around 11:30. We had a good lunch (hot chapatti, daal and simla mirch) at the only restaurant (!) in town, actually a roadside dhaba. But the food was great, and that chap spoke English and took pride in it. Around 12:30 we set out from Ghat, crossed Nandakini, and set northwards on the ‘road’ (that’s what the locals call this stone laid path) to Ramni. It was pretty smooth trek for the first two hours and at 14:30, RS and I (we were a bit ahead) stopped on the side of the stream. That place was really beautiful. Green pine forested slopes and a frothing rapid in its lap. A log thrown across as a bridge. The pines were higher on the slopes while along the stream there were other non-coniferous (sorry, my knowledge of trees is not worth writing about) trees, giving a cosy shade. AB and CR joined us and we lazed around there in the water till 15:20. Then we set off again and encountered some stiff slope, a terrific ascent and then I realized that one should not take such long rests. It sort of relaxes you too much and then the next stretch of climbing seems almost like torture. So we snacked on groundnuts (high calorie!) while walking and proceeded further. All along the route we got glimpses of snow peaks in the distance, about two – three ranges away. These we later identified as Nanda Devi, Ganesha, Trishul range. The weather all along was quite warm, must be around 30C at least. Walking with the sun falling directly on us felt hot. But we couldn’t help it, so we continued, with 3-5 minute interval every 20-30 minutes. Then around 17:00 we reached a chai shop, which is at the base of a severe 1000m climb, on the route to Bethal Kundali, about 3 kms this side of Ramni. We had two chais at the shop. While we were waiting there, we saw a wedding procession arrive. Two kids in the front, with huge drums, making a racket. Followed by a girl (looked 20 years) on a horse. And then a small crowd of 5-6 behind her. It seems she got married at Ghat the previous day and was going back to her (or her in-law’s) village, at Vaksi, on a path which branches off from this Ramni route at the chai shop. The girl was very shy and declined when I asked her for a photo. Pretty. We had some Thriptin bisuit with chai. There was a rusted mail box on the pillar of the chai shop, and they said it is cleared every day. So I dashed off a letter sitting there. Hope it reaches.
One villager (Kundan) joined us at the shop and we started off on the phenomenal climb. Absolutely unrelenting. Goes on and on. Very soon the sun went behind the mountains and it started getting dark and cooler. Kundan kept pace with us, he probably felt that we would need help to do the full 1000m today and he better stick with us. We can’t even pitch a tent on this steep slope, so we had to continue. At one point, I felt so tired (first day!) that I gave my rucksack to AB and took his, which was lighter. That apart, my sack had some packing problem with a convex bulge against my spine. Even after this exchange, climbing was not easy and we had to halt every two-three turns. Around 18:30, CR said he will go ahead, keep his sack at the top and come back to help AB with the sack (mine). Soon it was dark, we could barely see the path, but we kept going. Rather at a snail’s pace. Kundan too went ahead, and then we heard CR coming back. He brought with him two young guys, who started insisting on carrying our sacks. But we carried them ourselves and around 20:00 we reached Bethal Kundali.
There is only one building there, belongs to Jal Nigam and chowkidar L.P. Pandey is the caretaker. He promptly gave us the bungalow. Pandeyji was sick, with dysentery for the last two days, and was very weak. I have him some medicines and told him to drink some water with salt and sugar. I hope he recovers fast.
These Garhwalis are such fantastic people, absolutely hospitable. Pandeyji gave us water from his house, since the water hole is about half km away and it is too dark for us to go fetch water. He kept on enquiring about our needs as we cooked and ate dinner. We shared the khichidi with him. We crashed late, around 10:40. The moon was out by then and was bathing the entire valley with a silvery light. In the distance we could see Nanda Devi, Ganesha, Trishul range.
This morning began quite late. AB and CR got up and went to fetch water, while RS and I found our sleeping bags irresistible. We got up around 06:30 and started cooking after a wash. We had porridge for breakfast and made MTR upma for lunch and packed that. We took lots of photos of Pandeyji and his kids. He has two kids – Rakesh and Indira. Indira, it seems, was born three days after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. She is cute, very shy initially, but kept telling her father that she wanted a photo with her puppy. So finally she came and posed with her puppy. She can count up to ten and then, after a pause, continue to tell her address.
We set off from Bethal Kundali at 10:00 and the going was quite smooth – lots of villagers on the route. After a bit of climb, we reached Ramni at 13:30. Lots of flowing water, green meadows, a fantastic view of the valley below, and absolutely sweet people who talked us into pitching tent on a pleasant green meadow. Soon the kids, and some elders, collected around us as we started yapping. It seems about a week ago a lone foreigner went this way to Kuari Pass, he was the first for this season. We decided to take rest for the day in this beautiful place and continue the trek to Jinjhi via Chirchni tomorrow.
So we had out upma around 15:00 and then onwards we have been lazing around. Playing gulli-danda and cricket with the kids, and taking photos. There is no dhaba in this village, we have to cook our dinner tonight.
Boy, this place is fantastic! It is really worth the hassle, coming here from Bombay. The cowbells tied to horses and sheep grazing in the meadow is simply music. So soothing.
Monday May 22
We started off from Ramni today. Woke up at 04:30 (alarm) and started the proceedings. (Writing aborted here since CR has turned off the candle in the tent.)
Continued on …
Tuesday May 23, 16:00
Cooking on May 21 night was quite nice and the khichidi was enjoyed by all of us. We got up early and then packed and started off at 06:30. Beginning with a gentle climb, the path went up steadily, through thick rhododendron forests and flattened out on pleasant meadows. From one spot we got a clear view of the valley below and the snow peaks rising majestically on the other side. Climbing further up through the forest, at 10:00 we
came upon a herd of sheep and a couple of shepherds cooking their lunch while tending to the sheep. They told us we are almost at Chirchni Binaik, the peak visibile in front. They said Chirchni is the last water stop till Jinjhi. So we decided to have our lunch (MTR rawa idli) here and then proceed straight to Jinjhi. Just before we started we saw a lone trekker coming up the path, introduced himself as Vishal from Dehra Dun. He had joined three others from Delhi, who were still behind. They had two porters. Another shepherd joined, he was severely hurt on his forehead. He told a story that the previous afternoon around 3-4pm he was tending to his sheep when a tiger (!) attacked his sheep. His dog (these shepherds have two-three well built Alsatian like dogs, they look ferocious and bark their heads off when they see strangers and animals) as usual made a racket and the tiger ran away. The shepherd meanwhile panicked and tripped on stones and hurt his head on a stone. That is his story. Anyway, I pulled out some antiseptic and bandaid on his forehead. He was quite thrilled and thanked me profusely. So, duly cautioned, we proceed into ‘tiger country’.
It is a climb up past Chirchni Binaik and then a very steep descent to Jinjhi. The vegetation was thick here, and looked like tiger country. The shepherds told us there would be very few villagers along this route. It was fun walking through thick jungle. Often the path had a steep 300m fall on one side. Periodically we came across small meadows (bhugial), with sheep, horses, and shepherds sunbathing. The trek descends down steadily, with breaks at meadows about every km. From one such meadow we got a clear view of Trishul, and then the clouds moved over it. Finally around 14:00 we went over Chirchni Binaik pass and got a fantastic view of Trishul, Nanda Devi range. Clouds on top, but the lower reaches, covered in snow, looked majestic with snow streaks and ridges. To the left, we saw some intermediate altitude range and on one of the notches we guessed is Kuari Pass. We stopped for half hour here, took lots of photos and then continued. The slope down became increasingly steep and rocky. It was quite difficult descent. The descent is harder then ascent. The path is quite steep and the stones and rocks are often loose, forcing you to watch and be careful in the footwork. This requires concentration, particularly if you have to maintain good speed. Also, I noticed if I came down heavily on my heels, my knees were at times not holding straight. It is better to land on the toes, like a cat. However, this taxes my calf muscles and as I got tired I started landing on my heels. This puts lot more stress on the knees, and my knees started hurting. Crazy, but can’t stop. Lots of flowing water along the way. Tributaries to Birhai Ganga. As we descended the vegetation changed, rhododendrons, then bamboo and conifers, and at lower altitude back to big leaves. It got warm too. We went across a few very beautiful bridges. The descent continued, and we started taking a few shortcuts. At one point the Delhi group caught up with us. These guys were spaced quarter-half km apart and did not seem to care much for each other. Anyway, they crossed and went ahead of us. They had very little weight on their backs. Their porters carried much of the load.
After watching the sun set from a forested slope, we reached Jinjhi at 18:30. We were told that after Ramni till Gaigarh (across Kuari Pass) there are no villages. But that turned out to be false. As we entered Jinjhi village, we saw some trekkers sitting on the path, by the only water tap. These guys turned out to be a Bengali from Calcutta. They had made it here the previous day from Gwaldam and were relaxing in Jinjhi the whole day. Four guys with six porters and a guide. One of them, a veteran of sorts (Biswas, 53 years) had done Nanda Ghunti, Kamet, and Mana. He seemed very experienced and calm. Another guy was Sarkar, is the owner of Anand Bazar group of publications. He finances all these expeditions. This group had already occupied the only room in the chowkidar’s house. So we decided to pitch our tents in the yard. Fast work, we were getting really experienced and swift at this. Started cooking dinner at 19:00 and finished, including washing, at 21:00. The weather was not very cold, since Jinjhi is lower in elevation (probably 1500m) on the bank of Birhai Ganga. We slept off peacefully, but were bothered by barking dogs through the night. CR started snoring.
Morning started early at 04:30. After fast cooking (porridge for breakfast and upmae for lunch) and washing, we were ready to leave. I had a bath at the village tap. Absolutely cold water, good fun. We packed and set off at 07:00. A half hour descent put us on the bank of Birhai Ganga. Quite a fast flowing and steep stream, with a suspension bridge across it, overlooking snow peaks to the east. Quite scenic. The Bengali group had started half hour earlier and we could see them ascending on the other side. We too started the ascent and soon caught up with the Bengalis. There was very scant vegetation and the slope was steep. We all were glad that we started early today. The sun was not too warm till we reached the top. This is about 1000m ascent, which we climbed on one end, circled around and traversed on the ridge. We could see Pana in the distance, on the next range. A handful of huts. So Pana too turned out to be a small village. When we set out in the morning, adter consultation with the guide of Bengali group, we decided to go beyond Pana over that range to Semartoli, reportedly a beautiful meadow with lots of water and a spectacular view of Kuari range. However, though we started the ascent on Pana range, we gave it up after half hour and decided to camp in Pana for the night. Before Pana, we had crossed a bridge over a stream, at Kalia Ghat. So our camp options were Pana or back to Kalia Ghat. The vote was for Pana village. So CR and I went down to the village and looked for a campsite. After some looking and asking, we finally decided to camp at the school building. The lone masterji had gone to Irani (between Pana and Jinjhi) for the day. So we just encroached into the school yard. The Delhi group joined us here soon. The school building had an open room and a verandah. We took the verandah with the tent on the ground in front. The Delhi guys took the room. A tap had a trickle of water. RS and I went into the village to borrow a bucket. A woman obliged us with a big brass pitcher. I like these Garhwali people, very helpful. We sat there chatting with the Delhi guys and some locals. It started to rain. A light drizzle, but this brought down the temperature drastically and it became quite chilly. The rain stopped in an hour and the sky cleared. AB and CR started cooking dinner at 17:45. We want to crash early today, and get up early tomorrow to reach Semartoli as quickly as possible, so we get some views before the clouds roll in.
Wednesday May 24, 18:20
The day began early at 04:30 once again. I am now writing this at Dakwani. We have made it! I can see Kuari Pass to my left, rising 300-400m above this meadow. There is
snow and ice in the notch leading up, and signs of landslide, so the path is not well defined. But we will make it tomorrow morning.
Last night we slept early at 20:30 intending to wake up early. During the night, it rained for about an hour around 02:30. The tent, which we had pitched in the school yard, was supposed to be water proof. But it started letting some water in. Either that, or the moisture inside the tent was condensing on the cold walls of the tent. Eventually the rain stopped but the inside of our tent was damp, and the sleeping bag felt wet on the outside. But we did not bother to get up and relocate.
After a fast meal (breakfast of noodle – yuck!) and upma for lunch, we started off at 07:15. I went and returned the pitcher to the family. Nice people.
Last evening after I finished writing my journal, an old man walked into the school yard. Just sat and watched us for a while. Bhaktawar Singh, 78 years old. His grand children have grand children. Very knowledgeable and alert. He kept telling us incidents of village life and was curious about our lives too. He said he has been over Kuari Pass often. Has been to Niti Pass also.
Starting from Pana at 07:15 our immediate objective as Semartoli, some call it Sartoli. A good 600m climb, and then a traverse. The weather was excellent, few clouds, but no rain. We made pretty good progress. I was feeling a bit weak, possible because I could not eat much for dinner or for breakfast. Loss of appetite due to the altitude. But I tried to keep pace with others. Towards the top, we met a shepherd with a flock of sheep and two huge dogs keeping watch over the sheep. These dogs had a strange collar, a heavy metal band studded with sharp spikes and blades. The shepherd said the collar is to protect the dog when it fights tigers! RS again got a bit panicky and started looking furtively into the bushes. The path goes winding up the Pana range and then traverses the ridge to Sartoli on top on the other side. A plush green meadow overlooking the valley on the other side. The meadow itself is very spectacular. Conifer slopes leveling off to a gentle rock slope. Small yellow flowers strewn on the green meadow. Superb. It looked so idyllic. There were a few shepherds and sheep. The place looked so peaceful and serene, we did not feel like moving out. The view from Sartoli across the valley was magnificent. We could see Dakwani meadow and Kuari Pass on the range across the valley. And rising above both were the towering peaks – Pangar Chulia et al. But the path looked impossibly hard. From Sartoli on one lip of the valley to Dakwani on the other lip meant we descend all the way down and then back up again! The shepherd told us descent is very steep, then across Pui Gandhara, and a climb. We left Sartoli at 10:30, eager to reach Dakwani by evening, so we can climb up Kuari Khal tomorrow morning.
We set a brisk no nonsense pace to the descent. The path meandered down through thick bamboo forests, ideal tiger country. After crossing a minor stream and descending further, always traveling east, we reached the final descent to Pui Gandhara, at a place called Doma Bhiti. It is an almost vertical descent on loose rocks to a deep gorge, into which the water is falling from about 200m. We did the descent slowly and reached the bottom at 13:00. We had lunch there by Pui Gandhara. Looking up, from the depths of that deep gorge, is an terrifying, somewhat claustrophobic sight. The walls of the gorge seem to close above you. But the water fall was nice and the the water felt really cold and fresh. Immediately after lunch, we started the ascent. A 1000m climb over loose rock and exposed to the afternoon sun. Quite grueling. But we managed it in good time. The path goes back west to the point opposite Sartoli, then over a stream coming down from Kuari and Pangar Chulia (a glacier). After this crossing, there is a short steep ascent to Dakwani meadow. In this ascent, once again I felt very tied and exhausted. We finished the climb and were at the base of Kuari Pass at 17:45. A good day’s trek and am looking forward to an equally (or more) enjoyable trek tomorrow up the Pass and beyond.
The Bengali group spent the night at Sartoli and were here at Dakwani before us. The Delhi group climbed along with us.
Friday May 26, 14:00
I am sitting besides the road at Tapovan. Kuari Khal has been climbed and this trek is over.
Morning (yesterday) was early. We got up at 04:00 (though the alarm was set for 03:30). That night at Dakwani, I felt quite sick, with nausea and anorexia. I could not eat much. Sleep was also very disturbed at this altitude. Dakwani is 3500m. It rained at night. The usual, damp tent etc. The porters of the other two groups sat up all through the night by the fire singing Garhwali songs. All teams woke up around the same time. After a fast meal (porridge) and packing, we started on the final ascent at 06:40. We were the last team to break camp. The path approaches the narrow ice covered gully straight, crossing a patch of loose rocks from a landslide. This traverse was tricky. In fact we learned later that Biswas had slipped here (a straight fall is definitely fatal) and of the of the porters with remarkable reflex caught him and pulled him up, saved his life. Surprising really, Biswas being a man of much experience. However, we traversed the patch with no problem. Our rucksacks were heavy and bulky, so we had to be really cautious and slow. Particularly CR, his sack reached up above his head. At one point on the traverse we had to duck beneath a rock overhang, gripping the underside of the rock while we crawled underneath. CR had the toughest time here.
Then a path through the rocks and loose mud, going up quite steep. The altitude and low oxygen kept us very slow. The path was well defined in patches, and in between in places we were climbing over loose rocks and gravel. These were usually the steeper patches, with landslides in the past. At one of these steep patches, RS lost his sleeping (slipping!) bag. It somehow came off his rucksack and rolled down a decent 150m. It could have gone straight down the Pass, but luckily it got wedged on a jutting rock. So CR went down, without his rucksack, and got the sleeping bag. At the very top, the ascent eased up and we made it faster here. We reached the top at 08:15.
Man, what a feeling! My first experience of 4000+m. Absolutely clear and crisp air, the sun shining bright, and snow and ice around us. Stark white patches on gentle slopes with grass and rocks in between. We are well above the tree line, not much grows here, no vegetation over 6” in this wind and cold. A barren landscape. A feeling of success and achievement. We relaxed and admired the view around us. It is a great feeling. Ice and snow around us, mid summer. While down in Delhi and Bombay people are sweating in the horrid heat.
The path turns right and traverses across, eastward, on a very narrow ridge, and goes past Pangar Chulia to a flat meadow. All along this route we got beautiful views of Pangar Chulia, Rishikoth, Donagiri, Nanda Ghunti, Nanda Devi, Hathi Parbat, Ghoda Parbat, Gauri Parbat, … spanning the horizon from east to west. There were scatterd clouds over the pinnacles of some peaks. However the sky was clear above us, and very bright. The glare of sun on the snow and ice was harsh and hurting the eyes. RS developed a headache. We put on our snow goggles. After taking lots of photos at the Pass, we proceeded east on the path, sloping gently down and up, across patches of ice and rocks. The traverse on snow and ice patches was a bit tricky. A slip here will take us straight down about 300m, we were extremely cautious and crossed each of these patches slowly, digging the heel deep, making a foothold and always standing straight. One such traverse, about 150m long, as particularly tricky. It was the longest patch, and also the steepest, so we were walking along a very narrow ledge – not a real ledge but just a path of foot steps. The earlier teams had not made a good path across this patch. So AB in front and me following him had to dig deep and make strong foot holds so that others could follow easily. The Bengali group ahead of us had used ropes and ice axe on this traverse.
We rested at the meadow, at the end of the traverse and celebrated with cashew nuts and toffees. Took lots of photographs. There were beautiful tiny flowers all over the place, yellow, purple, red, and pink ones. Nodding their heads at each other they seemed absolutely natural and perfect here.
Everything good has to come to an end. We had to begin the descent soon, if we want to reach Tapovan by evening. And so, with a parting good bye to Kuari Pass, we started the descent. We met a shepherd just at the beginning of the descent. He told us that it is a clear neat descent all the way down to Tapovan and it should take us five hours. So the decent began. The path goes neatly down, descend for a while, then cross a meadow, and continue descending again. Very soon vegetation started reappearing. Rhododendrons, conifers, bamboo, in the same sequence. The descent got steeper and my knees started bothering me again. I could not put much weight on my knees and this slowed me down. Having begun the descent at 11:30 we should have been at Tapovan by 16:30. But even at 16:00 we were no where near the river. When we sighted the river and bridge at 16:30, still 3 kms from Tapovan, I agreed to transfer some of the weight from my sack to the other three. Then my sack became quite light (6-7 kgs) and I too could move fast. A descent through a village and across the river. Sarkar from the Bengali group was having serious trouble with his knees. He could not fold his knees and their guide Narayan Singh had taken his sack and was holding Sarkar’s hand and helping him descend. A slow progress.
Across the river we met with other porters of the Bengali group, waiting for Sarkar and Narayan Singh to catch up. A very nice lot, these porters. One of them, Kamal, was especially nice. He told me that whenever I trek next in Garhwal he would like to be my porter. He gave me his address and asked me to write to him and send photos. He said he has been with several English expeditions and could read and write English, and also read maps.
When I got up after relaxing there with the porters, my knees were in terrible shape and I was walking very slow. However, the distance is not much, only 2 kms, that too after the first km we could see Tapovan, so that eased the pain. We reached Tapovan at 18:00. Walking on paved road was a very strange feeling. Not having to look down while walking felt so new. And walking alongside others felt new too. Really, only 5 days out on the trail, but everything seems so different.
Tapovan is bustling, looks civilized. Only 20 kms from Joshimath. Electricity in homes, makes the place look very modern compared to Ramni, Jinjhi and Pana. After a dinner (hot chapatti, daal, and cabbage), our first served meal since Ghat, we looked around for a room. Finally a villager showed us the Gram Panchayat building, which had a verandah. He said we could spread our sleeping bags and sleep there. However, we found one of the rooms unlocked, so we encroached. Sleep was prompt and easy. For once we had no reason to get up early.
We woke up today at 07:00. Very relaxed and slow. I had a wash at the village tap, also washed all vessels and utensils, which we had been simply wiping clean with paper towels. Then we packed and had a sumptuous breakfast of omelets and bun. What a life! Leaving our rucksacks in the chai shop, we went down to the Kali-Parbati Ma temple, which has a hot spring. We all had a relaxed and extended bath in the hot spring. My first bath since Jinjhi. It is just divine, lying down in the warm water, gazing up at the green slopes and snow capped mountains. Nobody wanted to get out of the bath. I could have just slept there in that water for a few days.
We got back to the chai shop. There we met Oliver and Paul, two English trekkers, who had just descended from Kuari Pass. They had climbed up from Gwaldam and Roop Kund, and met with the Bengali group enroute. So, here I am sitting at the chai shop at 15:20, waiting for the bus at 16:00.
We have been discussing what we do next. Options are Auli/Valley of Flowers/Hemkund/Badrinath/Vasundhara/Delhi. I am not confident that I can do any more serious trekking with this knee problem. RS wants to spend some more time around here, 5 1⁄2 days seems too short for coming this far. AB is keen on Valley of Flowers and Hemkund. CR as usual is undecided. For any of these options we have to get to Joshimath first. So here we are, waiting for the bus.
p.s. We took the bus to Joshimath, and then another bus to Badrinath. We stayed at Badrinath for 2 days and did a couple of day treks, up towards Mana and Vasundhara.