Tuesday, December 23, 2014

December Madness - A trek to Kuari Pass - Part 1

7th Dec, 2014 - Sunday

Four men ambled in to a hotel in Rishikesh at 1 AM in the morning on the 7th of December. They took comfort in the fact that nine of their kinsmen had checked in to the same place the previous afternoon. That said, our knocks, yells, and phone calls were in vain. Our kinsmen must have been really tired after all the hard work they put in Rishikesh till late in the night. 

The "What did I do?" look. @Jamshid (Blue Tee)
First signs of horizontal altitude sickness on the bench in front of him. :D

This picture of the holy city of Rishikesh, caressed by the Ganges, was taken by our lensman on that cold evening in December, when color pictures were much in vogue.
To be continued...

6th Dec, 2014 - Saturday (Flashback)

We were supposed to reach Rishi by lunch after the flight from BLR to Dehradun via Delhi, but ended up at Delhi at 4 in the evening and had to take a cab to spend 11 hours in its cozy confines, relishing the best of traffic snarls that Delhi, Noida, and Gaziabad had to offer. All thanks to Spicejet, the airline that made sure our plans blew up in the hangar. Read more about what transpired, here.

At BLR airport, we visited the Spicejet counter to enquire about refunds. We were promptly promised refunds in a few days (which are yet to arrive, btw). While waiting for the refund thingie to be processed, we overheard a conversation between an airline staff and a stranded passenger. This fellow had been dropped at the airport and had no idea that his flight had been rescheduled to the next day. He insisted that the airline do something about his accommodation, or else he would have to spend the next 24 hours at the airport. He was blind. The livid Spice Girl left him with a "I'll see what I can do, Sir" statement.

I'm sorry, I digress. This is not about Spicejet, but about our trip.

A trek in December before the onslaught of the Great Himalayan Snow Fest was a long cherished dream. A couple of people were interested from the word go. Before we knew it, a couple became a handful, and a handful became a dozen - mostly friends from college days. The bookings were made well in advance, with people straightening out their work calendars all the way from Bangalore and Kochi to the Middle East and the US. We zeroed in on Kuari Pass, an easy/moderate trek at around 3800 metres max altitude. Early December had the allure of some of the cleanest skylines in the mountains. Days before the trek, the dozen became thirteen, thanks to a last-minute addition.

The trip was christened December Madness - in honor of the expected decadence, the under-prepared team, the biting cold, the alumni warmth and frolic - all set up at a decent altitude, a mercury in the negative teens, and a weather system that is unpredictable at best. Our guide was Shiv Singh (a.k.a Shibu), a native of Joshimath, who was to make all the necessary arrangements, but I insisted that Mr. Kishen Singh Pawar (a friend, guide, and guide from multiple treks) accompany us on the trek for reassurance.

7th Dec, 2014 - Sunday (Continued)

Not to be let down by our snoring friends, we downed a few, and managed to dig into the pre-ordered sumptuous dinner before hitting the sack by around 3 AM. It helped that Hotel Shivansh Inn is owned and operated by a friend, Mr. Bijendra Pawar.

Our 250 km uphill journey to Joshimath was supposed to start by 8 in the morning. But people woke up pretty late. By around 9.30, all of us packed up and trooped into the 27-seater bus that would carry the 13 of us to Joshimath. Why the 27-seater for 13 people? So that we will have enough room to move around, and in the process, avoid the dreaded jumping-jack seats in the back row.

Just a small problem though, the clutch cable of the bus broke before it could even roll out of the parking lot. #WaitandChill. All said, we moved out of Tapovan, Rishikesh by around 10.45, most of us having downed anti-nauseate Avomine pills, among other nasheeli padarths.

The first jewel on the path - Devprayag, 70 kilometers from Rishikesh. The confluence of two Himalayan rivers - Alaknanda on the right (coming all the way from Badrinath after having acquired the Mandakini river originating from Kedarnath, at Rudraprayag) and the Bhagirathi on the left (from Gangotri/Gowmukh).

Taking another shot at Devprayag.
Country roads.....take me home. I wish I had my KL-01 G-112, Suzuki Shogun - easily one of the better bikes available in India in the 90s. One of these days, brothers, one of these days!

The Alaknanda river gives you good company all the way. Azure waters and the slightly cloudy sky!

I do not condone smoking. But, for this man - Baiju CK. Even Manoj (in the left corner) can take his eyes off him.

We stopped at Srinagar for lunch. The very mention of the name Srinagar almost always elicits a response from people - Shedeey nammal Kashmir touch cheythaano pokunnathu? (Are we going via Kashmir?) For the sake of all and sundry and the geographically challenged, other than the famous Srinagar in the Kashmir valley, there is a Srinagar and it happens to be in Uttarakhand - a scenic town with a few good educational institutions, a booze outlet, ATMs, a feeble sprinkling of non-veg eateries, among others; and NO, it does not snow here - coz it's not freaking Kashmir.

Needless to say, the day was a blur. Thankfully, Avomin tablets did a fine job as no one puked on the hilly zig-zag terrain. We called up Shibu who had also made accommodation arrangements at Joshimath. It was late by the time we reached...around 8 in the night or so and crept into the SnowCrest Hotel at Joshimath. Some brave souls ventured out and got the lazy ones packed dinner. Zzzz It was the coldest night that I had ever spent in Joshimath.

8th December, 2014, Monday
Day 1 of the Kuari Pass trek

We had to travel fourteen kilometers to the base of Auli at around 2500 m in jeeps and start our trek from there. The skies were clear and so was the deadly chill firmly entrenched in the air. After a not-so-quick breakfast composed of pooris, parathas, and pakodas, we hopped in to the jeeps at around 10.30 for the 30 minute jeep ride to Auli.

Our support crew consisted of Shibu, Kishan, 3 helpers, and a solitary porter to carry some fragile cargo. And walking alongside us on 4 legs were 5 ponies to ferry our luggage. By around 11.15, we were ready to start the trek. After applying liberal doses of sunscreen and layering whatever paraphernalia we needed, we started our slow ascent onward to the slopes of Auli and then to Gorson Bugyal (3050m), the final destination for the day. It was a 4 kilometer walk, mostly up-hill.

Auli is one of India's few winter ski resorts. Snow had not yet fallen on the slopes, but we could still see ski instructors giving rudimentary sessions to what I believe to be ski-aspirants or rookie trainers on terra firma.

After the first round of elevation got over, we took a short break near a small shack next to the famous Clifftop Hotel. The views from here just got better -  including the first sighting of the mighty Nanda Devi (7,817m), the second tallest mountain in India after the 8000er Kanchen Junga. Nanda Devi is revered as the mother Goddess of Uttarakhand. Once in every 12 years, the state celebrates the Nanda Devi Raj Jat Yaatra, led by a four-horned ram, followed by tens of thousands of pilgrims from all parts of the state. The Yatra (journey) ends with a pooja  (prayer ceremony) after which the ram walks into the mountainous wilderness, never to be seen again. The last Yatra was in August this year, which I had intended to attend, but had to be canceled at the last minute. First climbed in 1936, Nanda Devi has her own share of stories, beliefs, and legends - more on those later.

Break time. The searing sun bearing down on us helped to maintain some sort of temperature balance. Heavens help those treading these paths without UV protection -  your eyes could go for a toss.

Auli has artificial  snow making machines. These, if my memory serves me right, were installed a few years ago for the SAF Winter Games that had to be postponed a couple of times due to shortage of natural snow. There is an artificial well/lake of sorts that collects water used to feed the snow-making pumps.

The trek route slowly curves up to the terminus of the cable car from Joshimath to Auli, a 4 km enjoyable ride. We stopped there to have a bit of the packed lunch. It was then that realization hit me, that I had trekked further into this path, back in 2010, as an add-on to the Haridwar Kumbh Mela.

From here, it was a slightly uphill trudge through the forests, and it also marked the first time (and not the last) during the trek we would beg for sunshine. A chilly wind started gusting through the woods, adding to the discomfort, and I was forced to bring on my jacket early on in the trip.
Ready to walk off into the forest. Amal, Anand (the official photographer), and SreeGanesh, along with Kishen who is waiting in the background for us to move our arses. As usual, I was bringing up the rear.

View of the Brahma Kamal mountain, shaped like its namesake, the state flower of Uttarakhand.

An hour and a half of walking led us to the small temple of the Padiyar Devta. While resting there pretending to be maestros of photography, we lost track of Kishen who went further ahead. Thankfully, he came back in a few minutes and told us that the camping ground for the day was just around the corner.

I believe Kishen when he says something is just around the corner, because unlike a lot of guides who treat you like children, he means it. It took us just of few more minutes to walk in to the relative relief of our camp site. We reached by around 2.30 in the afternoon. The sight of the tents was a bit disconcerting for me, as we had requested for 4-person tents, but most of these were for 2 people, save two 3BHKs and a 4-person dining tent. 

Anyway, out came the pickles and packed stuff and we had a mini feast of sorts, before settling down for a while. Four of us decided to walk further up to see the sunset on Nanda Devi. Initially, a lot more people were interested in the hike, but their enthusiasm was soon dampened (unsurprisingly) by some other elements.

It was a short hike up, much less than a kilometre. We were soon disappointed by the fact that Nanda Devi was not visible for a good part of the hike. Some got frustrated and stayed put in one of the rocky outgrowths, while Anand and I moved on, thanks to an advice from a shepherd belonging to Gorson village, to climb up a minor hillock for better views.

Gorson village (if you can make it out in the pic above) is a settlement of thatched dwellings inhabited by shepherds from a village near Joshimath. They would move down once the snows starts falling on Gorson Bugyal. Bugyal means meadow, and these are good feeding grounds for cattle. The green cover was long gone by the time we reached, replaced by a depressing shade of brown, one that would soon give way to the cold white blanket.

We reached just in time to see the magnificence - the golden yellow of the sun hitting the high peak!

Two stories worth noting about the massif. In the mid-sixties, the CIA and the Indian Intelligence Bureau attempted to place a nuclear-powered listening device to spy on China's missile program, right on the summit of the mountain. Adverse weather conditions forced them to abandon the first attempt and they decided to leave the heavy device near the summit and come back the next year for the retrieval and installation. That device was never found despite multiple searches. Yes, you read that right, a plutonium device sitting right up there on those icy slopes. Those interested can read the book, Spies in the Himalayas: Secret Missions and Perilous Climbs.

In 1976, legendary Everest climber Willi Unsoeld came to this mountain as part of a bigger team which included his daughter, Nanda Devi Unsoeld (named after this mountain he fell in love with). She died during the expedition, with mountaineering lore taking potshots at her behavior on the mountain as the reason for the wrath of the Goddess. I wouldn't know what to make of it, but later in 1981, an Indian Army expedition placed a memorial to Nanda Devi Unsoeld on the higher meadows of the mountain, before climbing further up. The expedition was successful with the first ascent of the southwest face of Nanda Devi East, but both summitters would die during the descent along with three other members of the party.

Coming back, the failing light meant that we could not wait to picture the last few moments. In my hurry, I had also forgotten to take the headlamp with me. With a mobile torch to guide us, the four of trudged back into the campfire and party.

The roaring campfire was just about managing to keep the shivers away. Shibu came in with predictions for the next day, convincing us that the walk was a slight ascent to start with, followed by a hike on even terrain. For those who listened closely, in his follow-up was the disclaimer - "even terrain, but you know what even terrain is like around the hills." He also told us that the next day's campsite, which was set inside a forest, will be warmer compared to Gorson. All that sounded alright, and we proceeded to some off-key but fun singing and mirth, before having a sumptuous dinner, spiced up in no small measure by the masalas Amal (the resident chef) had packed all the way from Bangalore.  (And yes, Sheena, we thank you for your cuisine packed nicely into Baiju's bags.)

By the time we got around to sleeping, it was 11.30 in the night, not before Anand captured this picture of our campsite. The glow at the start of the treeline in the centre of the pic is our roaring campfire.

Oh, and I forgot to mention, somewhere during the latter half of the day, we had fallen off the grid. The only connection to the outside world for the next few days would be the odd signal some would receive on their phones around a hill or a corner, provided the service provider was Tata Docomo.

9th December, 2014, Tuesday
Day 2 of the Kuari Pass trek

That night, for some strange reason, I could not get any sleep inside the tent. It was silent, making it hard to ignore the occasional snores and other less benign noises coming out of nearby tents. Flatulently speaking, the joke of the night was about a guy who escaped unharmed in the tent just because he had a blocked nose.

We were up and running by around 9.30, after an easy-to-gobble-down breakfast of warm porridge. I would rate porridge as the best breakfast for the hills (especially since fish fry and idly is not an option).

We walked up the same route we followed for the sunset capture the previous evening. The following pictures should give you an idea of the terrain during the first half of the day. Good view of the mountains, undulating grasslands ripe for snow, and a sustained elevation gain that's not too punishing. 

Walk in the clouds. Biju and Maddy.

We came across a thoroughly frozen lake; its top layer refusing to yield to the relentless rock attack from the trekkers.

Mr. Arun in a selfless pensive mode. You can see the icy lake in the background. 

About mid-way on Day 2, Nanda Devi ceased to be a spectacle and vanished from our view. This was one of the last sightings of the mountain. A much less celebrated peak was to take its place later on in the trek in a much grander fashion. You can still spot Nanda Devi in the center of the pic.

What differentiates Kuari Pass trek from a lot of the other Himalayan paths is the sheer magnetism of the views almost during the entire duration of the trek. A lot of treks are mostly about the grandeur of the view in the end, not Kuari Pass. I've been on this hobby since 1998, and I have never seen such peak OD in a single trek.

And, a closer view. Count the shades here.

We took enough breaks and also consumed our packed lunch of parthas, chocolates, and Frooti (or was it Real?). We also met a US national who overtook us and walked up like an antelope. He did not have any particular destination in mind and was just happy to walk around in the hills. At his pace, he would have easily reached the pass that day. He did have a tragic story to tell. Someone stole his belongings, which he eventually/fortunately recovered only to find that everything except his passport was missing. Even cash and other valuables were in their place. He found his passport a while later, shredded to pieces and dumped on the roadside. I would assume it to be a case of psychosis, if not some steaming-hot vengeance over some misunderstanding. Anyway, he took it in his stride, and after reporting the incident to the police, was happy to roam around the hills.

New horizons unveiled as the day wore on. You can see the Pangarchulla peak towards the right hand corner of the pic. At around 4,500 m, it is one of the easily accessible peaks around here. We had kept Pangarchulla as an optional climb for us, after reaching the Pass.

At around 1 O Clock, one of the supporting guides overtook us and complimented us on our progress, something to the effect of "Congrats, you just have a little distance to cover now". I'm always suspicious of these mountain goats and my suspicions would prove right soon enough.

Shortly after he passed us, we reached the ridge, one of the most treacherous terrains on this trek, with space just enough for a person, and a precipitous drop on one side. It wasn't a pressure cooker for most, but two of our kinsmen happened to a have a textbook case of vertigo.

There are a few short drops on this stretch, especially when you turn around the corners, and these can be tricky not just for the angle of the drop, but also for the loose sand and rocks that threaten your toehold. Thankfully Shiv and Kishen kept good company for those having trouble. I got spooked twice on this 1 kilometer stretch. Once, I turned around to see how my partners were faring and I almost tripped feeling the weight of my bag. It lasted just a second or so, but was scary enough. The other time was when Amal, who has problems with heights, held on to the the grass on the right side of the ridge and complained that everything around him was spinning. Thankfully, Shibu was right there to help him.

That said, anyone could get spooked when the mules laden with their luggage crosses their path while traversing this stretch. I almost plastered myself to the hillside when it happened.

After the ridge,  it was more or less a downhill walk for about a kilometer. Not a knee-jerker, just an easy walk. By this time, we had also shed the bulk of the altitude we had gained earlier in the day - not a very heart-warming thought. Some of us idled a bit in the hope that the trek for the day was just about to be over. We could see the Talli lake in the distance, and the campsite for the day was supposed to be just beyond it.
First sighting of the lake. 

The lake, finally! Talli would have been a great camping ground with fantastic views early in the morning when the waters are still. However, the water level was low, and our guides were of the opinion that the water would be unfit for drinking because of wild animals using it. Hey, man is an animal too, and a pretty wild one at that!

So, off we walked into the forest beyond the lake. I was getting really tired by this point, with no campsite in sight. Most of us had gone ahead, and the 4 or 5 who remained wondered if we were on the right track, since the camp was supposed to be bas, uthar hi, aaju baaju mein (just around the corner).

I could sense my frustration building with each step. The sun was setting early. As Bob Marley said, Some people feel the rain. Others just get wet. After the lake, I was not enjoying the trek, but just getting wet.

Around 3.30 in the evening, I heard something that melted my frustration in a second - the "noise" of the bells of the mules, in the woods ahead of us and I sensed we were home for the day. How much I loved the music those bells made in the wilderness that eve!

Men at work hauling dry wood for the campfire. More on firewood thoughts in part 2 of this blog.

While warming up during the campfire, Shibu told us that Day 3 can be a short affair - we would have a little under 3 kilometers to trek to reach the Khullara campsite. It meant that we could sleep late and well and start in a sophisticated fashion at around 10.30 in the morning. That thought spilled over and there was much "jollity" in the middle of the woods that night. One fellow would pay for it the next morning.

I toyed around with the idea of occupying the larger 4-person dining tent for the night. More so, because I hate cramping up while waking in the morning inside a claustrophobic 2-person tent. The sides of the dining tent were not secure and was letting cold breeze in, but we managed to "seal" them with our bags. I heard few snores that night, because sleep was much better!

Click all around here for Part 2 of the trek.


  1. Unbelievable that you can remember even the minute details... everything came alive again. Superb machu, cant wait for the second part

  2. What a trip!!
    Part 1 Kalakki now get cranking on part 2.. :-)

  3. Good write up machu. Thanks for making this trek possible and now for beautifully logging it!

  4. Visiting these places in winter must be quite a thing! I can imagine how cold it would be, and would think quite a bit before embarking in December. Looking at the clear weather you have there, it should be worth the trip. Love the images.

  5. Thanks Arun. Yes, the clear views were more than worth the cold.

  6. Thank you for your blog it helped us for the trek and an advice for the future trekkers, don't go with the guide named Narendra Singh Rawat; he is a total cheat. He made a promise to give back Rs.6000 due to his failure of service during the trek but it have been 2 months he is not returning the money and continuously giving excuses. So just avoid this person.i'm sharing all the information I've on this person.
    Name:Narendra Singh Rawat
    Mob: 09634055689/09411352137
    A/C No: 0245000100170921

  7. Whoa! well documented and your photos are beautiful. I did a virtual trek by your photos. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Good shots man, well documented. I too wrote about my First trekking experience to Kuari Pass today on my travel blog. I did it last winter. If you have the time, visit my page to provide me some inspiration