“Once on his feet, though, man does not stay where he is. ”
― Frédéric Gros, A Philosophy of Walking
Musings from the Mountains: Postcard from Kuari Pass Pangarchulla Peak. I was first introduced to the Himalaya in 1992 when I was merely 5 years old and as part of our annual summer sojourn we had moved to Himachal Pradesh for about a month to stay at my uncle’s place in Shimla. Shimla back then was relatively quiet town compared to the mad rush of tourists you see there nowadays!
The infamous ghost stories from the British era, usually associated with hill stations were still relevant. The Lady with moon face near the graveyard and the unicorn powered chariot at night with the Grim-reaper were still keeping kids like me interested and scared at the same time…
With Himalaya, it was love at first sight for me! and I guess the only one which has sustained for so long! 🙂
Back to real life, I started serious Hiking much later around 2008, when I got a job after college and was financially independent. Returning to the mountains twice a year for a hiking trip or a pilgrimage as I may call it, was becoming almost unbearable. I wanted more… I remember reading somewhere, that Ancient Hindu scriptures say: “A Lifetime is not enough to know the Himalaya”
While it’s largely true, there was so much more to explore and I certainly thought (and still think), one should aim for the moon, at least would fall among the stars. [This is scientifically false though, as none of the stars are anywhere close to the moon, in fact, millions of light years away 😀 ]
While I had been taking long breaks, 2015 was a tipping point, where I felt, I should spend some more time, knowing the mountains, seeing them from up close. Well, adding salt to injury were the fine words by enlightened one himself, Gautam Buddha: ” The trouble is you think you have time”.
In 2016, I took a longish break from work, almost 4.5 months to explore the highlands of Ladakh on a bicycle and then spending a few months walking the length and breadth of Uttarakhand and parts of Nepal.
Love for the Himalaya is almost like an addiction in my view, and a good addiction to have, is what I would like to believe. Back home, towards the end of 2016, the craving for the mountains had only exacerbated.
Sir Francis Younghusband, one of the early explorers of the Himalaya, a British Army Officer and later a spiritual writer once said in his book, the wonders of the Himalaya…
“The More you see of the Himalaya the more you want to see. Worse Still, as soon as you return you find that far more than you have seen, you missed”
So, while almost out of spending power and trying to make ends meet, I was already planning a hike in Uttarakhand along with the launch of First Pilgrim, a project close to my heart I had been discussing for a while with my Co-Founder Atul.
Kuari Pass, hidden in the Garhwal Himalaya was something, I had missed exploring on my earlier trips and it felt like a perfect hike to do in the month of April.
We also wanted to Soft Launch First Pilgrim, We already had an on-ground operations team in Ladakh, Himachal, Uttarakhand, and Nepal, led by our able on-ground lead Mohan Singh Danu. Anyone who has trekked with us has only kind words for Mohan – A Pahadi by birth and a certified Advanced Mountaineer from one of the world’s most reputed mountaineering Institute – Nehru Institute of Mountaineering. One can almost always find him sporting a smile and ever willing to go beyond his way to help trekkers not just from our group but any Trekker on the trail he finds in need of help during the treks.
Nearing our departure date, we quickly circulated a message in our close friend’s group and soon, we had few friends signing up for Kuari Pass-Pangarchulla Trek.
Kuari Pass / Pangarchulla Peak trek starts from Joshimath in Chamoli (Uttarakhand). The primary aim is, therefore, to reach Joshimath from either Haridwar or Rishikesh (especially if you are coming from Delhi)
Pangarchulla Peak and Kuari Pass, follow pretty much the same trail. There are two routes of approaching the trail though. Base camp of both start from Joshimath. Route 1 starts with Auli, through to Gorson Bugyal, Tali, Kuari Pass / Pangarchulla and back. or Route 2 via Dhak, Gulling, Khullara, Kuari Pass / Pangarchulla and back via the same route.
We did not want to come back via the same route. So we decided we will ascend via Dhak and descend from Auli side. Also done in some good faith so as to get some unobstructed view of the mountain goddess Nanda Devi from Auli and relish the panorama of Garhwal range from Gorson Bugyal and finally, of course, spent a surreal evening by the Tali Tal.
The Walk from Dhak to Tugasi is hardly a stretch but many newbies in our group felt the inertia. Which is alright especially when you are starting an uphill climb straight out of a sedentary urban life. While, they felt some lag initially, our group, was swift through most parts of the trail to our first stop for the day Gulling. We occasionally took breaks to interact with the local kids and people of the villages.
Mount Dunagiri has a unique history. Towering at, 7,066m the mountain was first climbed by Swiss Mountaineer Andre Roche in 1939. Dunagiri has a namesake village, from where one can trek to Bagini Glacier, a lesser known trek yet of great splendor and beauty. It also takes one to the base of Changabang, a mountain which still remains elusive from sight.
Hanuman Parbat is synonymous with the story of Hanuman, who took away a big chunk of rock face from this mountain massif during Ram’s war with Ravana in which Laxman was badly injured. It is here that the Sanjeevani Booty (magic herb) was found!
Finally, after walking for about 4 hours, we reached our first campsite of the Day, Gulling. Still very much in the treeline. Gulling is an excellent campsite if you just want to spend the evening, watching the sun go down on Mount Dunagiri while sipping a cup of tea, and maybe connect with your inner self.
“Nature is one of the most underutilized treasures in life. It has the power to unburden hearts and reconnect to that inner place of peace.”
We spent the next few hours, taking a walk around the campsite, shooting some videos for our documentary and talking about anything and everything.
Day 2, of the trek, involves walking to the meadows of Khullara, one of the most beautiful campsites, in this part of the world. One would almost immediately fall in love with the place owing to the grand views of the Garhwal range. The walk to Khullara is pleasant although, the presence of snow made it a little difficult for fellow trekkers. Yet they enjoyed it and reached Khullara by afternoon. Our support staff had already setup the camp and were cooking something nice for Lunch.
Day 2, We spent rest of our day, Shooting for our Documentary, capturing time-lapse and pictures. Mohan and support staff prepared some tasty warm lunch at this altitude which is certainly more than what one could ask for. As the sun set over Dunagiri around 7 pm, we had our dinners and slipped into our sleeping bags/tents. Day 3 was going to be a long day to Pangarchulla summit and we were supposed to be ready by 5 am.
Day 3, was unusually cold in the morning. The 5 am morning Tea prepared by Mohan was a welcome respite although my will to wake up and walk was next to nil merely because of the cold. I somehow gathered willpower to step out of my tent. The Water streams were all frozen… The sky was clear which eventually meant that as the sun rises, we would have a welcome break from the dip in mercury. We finally made a move for Pangarchulla around 6 am.
When you are leading a group of trekkers in the mountain, you constantly have to ensure that everyone is doing good and they aren’t facing any difficulties. Pangarchulla being at an altitude of 4550m is still high altitude by most standards and if proper acclimatization is not taken then it could lead to Acute Mountain Sickness which can worsen to HAPE/HACE.
Therefore, Managing a trek is a full-time activity. You have to constantly see that everyone is eating properly on time and they are well hydrated, not wobbling or having any breathing difficulties. Apart from the trekkers, you need to ensure that your staff is not having any challenges too, ensure they are getting proper sleep and are not over-stressed. You are more like a Project Manager ensuring stakeholders are taken care off, to ensure a success of the project.
On the flip-side it takes away some of your freedom, you hardly get time for yourself. That book you carry for reading in the wilderness remains but a dream, which is why going on a trek and managing a trek are very different activities. Trek Leadership is a full-time activity.
All these thoughts hovered in my head and then quickly swept away by the gentle breeze blowing at Khullara as we headed up towards Kuari Pass. At which moment we decided that we would attempt Pangarchulla first and go to Kuari Pass if time permits. As the snow begins to melt and soften in the afternoon, it would be tough to descend if we are late.
I was slowly lost in my own thoughts as we ascended. I had done multiple treks in Uttarakhand both easy and hardcore, but Pangarchulla was definitely one of the most scenic. It doesn’t let you rub your nose in this legendary mountain upclose, but gives you ample grandeur views of the Garhwali Himalayan peaks and keeps you hooked.
I was still thinking, how things would change as I get back to city life after yet another stint in the mountains. I still had a month to get back home, so I let that thought pass.
“Returning home is the most difficult part of long-distance hiking; You have grown outside the puzzle and your piece no longer fits.”
― Cindy Ross
Climbing Further, the views to the North open up. With Chaukhamba (I-IV), Alka Puri Glacier, and Nilkanth are visible in their full glory
I had seen the grand views of Chaukhamba massif from many places including Chopta/ Chandrasila, Bedni, yet none was as grand and in continuum with the rest of the Mountain Range as it was visible from here.
Certainly, I could not think of any other place. Yes, Tapovan gives you majestic views of Shivling, Bhagirathi, Kedar Dome and Meru. Yes, Nanda Devi East base camp is an excellent trek, Of-course Sunderdhunga is one of the most beautiful trails, but this one just stands right there above all, if I have to rate.
Especially for youngsters! Pangarchulla is a perfect place for having a grandeur experience and holistic exposure of this wonderful Himalayan theater.
Grander Views of the northern Garhwal Range
Coming to the mountains is always that feeling of coming home. You can be yourself, your folks don’t judge you and you can be a child again amidst the motherly love of the mountains.
“Set loose, a child would run down the paths, scramble up the rocks, lie on the earth. Grown-ups more often let their minds do the running, scrambling, and lying, but the emotion is shared. It feels good to be here.”
We returned back from about 100m short of the Pangarchulla summit, as the snow was still very hard and climbing was quite dangerous. Around 4 pm we were back at the camp. Mohan who carefully led the First Pilgrimers (our trekkers, as we like to call them) back to the camp and treated everyone with Dal-Khichdi. I think that was a decent enough reward for a trying day. Not so much because of the climb but the hot sun, difficult snow conditions when descending and the multiple falls trekkers had due to the slips on the soft snow.
Day 4, we planned to camp at Tali and spend some time by the dreamy Tali Tal. Tali is a short 2-hour walk from Khullara. Since Tali Tal does not have a safe drinking water source nearby, we decided to camp a bit further down due to the availability of potable water.
It’s very important to choose a correct campsite and one of the prerequisite I believe is availability of potable water and absence of bears 🙂
After a hearty lunch (I was sure, I wasn’t losing any weight on this trip), me and Atul, took a walk in the forest to capture some footage for our documentary and then headed with Sandesh to Tali Tal in the evening. It is here we got the first view of Nanda Devi on this trek. and Of course, what better time of the day?
The Sun, Clouds and the Mountain goddess were playing hide and seek along with the blue waters of Tali adding the heavenly touch to the whole scene. So I quickly setup a timelapse and sat down for short Sudarshan Kriya. As per Art of Living (a spiritual group run by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar), Sudarshan Kriya should be avoided in nature as it attracts animals. To an extent, I think that is correct because one time when performing Pranayama in Padmasambhava’s cave at Rewalsar a cat came by and was looking at me with trepidation. As long as I didn’t attract a Himalayan Black bear or a Leopard, I believed I was fine. I went ahead with the Kriya nonetheless.
Thinking about some of the things I read recently in the famous book – The Shining Mountain: Two men on Changabang’s West wall, Peter Boardman talks candidly about the inner conflict of someone who is madly in love with the mountains.
“It takes more endurance to work in a city than it does to climb a high mountain. It takes more endurance to crush the hopes and ambitions that were in your childhood dreams and to submit to a daily routine of work that fits into a tiny cog in the wheel of western civilization.”
I don’t think there is anything that defines the conflict inside a nature lover more than the above lines by Peter Boardman. There is always that calling from the mountains, How long do you suppress it? The question is going to stay with me for some more time I guess…
The View Of Pangarchulla peak from Tali Tal
Day 5, We left Tali for Gorson Bugyal and then further up to Auli and Joshimath.
Gorson has one of the best views you’d expect from a meadow… Right from Nanda Devi, Dunagiri, Rishi Kot, Kamet, Niligi Parbat, Neelkanth, Chaukhambha, one can spot more than 20 peaks from this place alone. What Gorson doesn’t provide is a good place to camp because of the paucity of water sources. This makes it tough to camp in some of the good places in Gorson and therefore most people going to Kuari Pass via this route, camp just above Auli where Gorson Starts. Here the Forest department has arranged for water pipes to pump water to the campsites.
We spent some time, relaxing and gazing at the Mighty mountain Goddess Nanda Devi, dreaming of being in her revered sanctuary someday. (currently entry to which is banned by the Indian Government). There have been enough stories of a nuclear-powered device being placed at Nanda Devi in the late 60s and then the loss of that device in an avalanche the following year. Is that the real reason for the closure of the sanctuary no one knows for sure! But it’s certainly unfair to the vast majority of climbing and trekking community who would love to get into the Nanda Devi inner sanctuary.
“Return to civilization was hard, but, in the sanctuary of the Blessed Goddess we had found the lasting peace which is the reward of those who seek to know high mountain places.” – Eric Shipton (on Nanda Devi)
“Trails are like that: you’re floating along in a Shakespearean Arden paradise and expect to see nymphs and flute boys, then suddenly you’re struggling in a hot broiling sun of hell in dust and nettles and poison oak…just like life.”
― Jack Kerouac,
It took us quite some time to cross Gorson Bugyal and get down to Auli. It was a pretty hot day of April and descending brought it’s set of low altitude problems. Many of us had severe sun burns and the Tan level was extreme. But isn’t that one of the rewards of those who seek to know the higher places? Just like we get rid of the duality from our lives… Don’t differentiate between the good and bad, light and dark, the highs and the lows… We are going to be just fine…
The trail teaches us to keep walking, enduring and enjoying the process as it goes on even if infinitely!
I thought it is good to also post one picture of me. The First views of Nanda Devi on the Pangarchulla Peak trek from Tali Tal
Here is the itinerary for Kuari Pass & Panagarchula Peak Trek