J.T. M . Gibson
The ski-ing slopes above the Hrki Doon.
J.T. M . Gibson
The Black Peak below Banderpunch in the right background.
The Harki Doon has long been known to shikaris and I have seen a painting belonging to Mrs. Quarry of Dehra Dun done there by her brother well back in the nineteenth century and very similar in composition and colour to a photograph I took last year. I was credited by the local press with having discovered the Harki Doon, which amused Mrs. Quarry, who produced this picture as evidence that I had not. Her father came to India in a sailing ship with his regiment, marched with them from Calcutta to Ambala, and then up to what is now Chakrata, which he built. I have read his diary with the account of the voyage and march, and you feel as you talk to people like Mrs. Quarry of what they remember of their early life in India that you are almost living in history. I had often been told what a wonderful place the Harki Doon was, but it was not until 1948 that I was first able to visit it. Then I had been trekking with Gurdial Singh in the hills round the Bhagirathi valley and we had come to Harsil. From there he had to return so I went on with some local porters, over the Lamkhaga pass, down the Baspa valley to Chitkal, and then back over the Borasu into the Harki Doon. It was on this trip that I found my porters gambling one evening and using as counters some curious coins. I examined these and found written on them 'F. Wilson. Hursil. One Rupee'. As far as I can find out, Wilson was at one time a soldier. He then became a forest contractor in Tehri State. He is said to have had a number of wives and built himself, among other houses, part of what is now used as the Dehra Dun Club, and a fine wooden bungalow in Harsil. I believe there is still a descendant of the family living in Mussoorie. He must have been a romantic character, issuing his own coinage and scattering his progeny across the hills of northern India, and I wonder that no researcher into social history or seeker after plots for a period novel has found out and made use of his story.
My second visit to the Harki Doon was made in 1952 with John Martyn, Vimal Bhagat, Cheema, and Raghu Slier Singh of the Doon school, and Laroia and Jagjit Singh, then at the National Defence Academy. In 1953 I went again with seven boys from the school: Cheema, Manebendra Deb, Raman, Mahtab, Narendra Singh, Adi Guzdar, and Krishnayya. On the first occasion we took three Sherpas with us and on the second two, of whom Pemba was an outstanding success and young Chembe, on his first expedition, showed great promise. Both times we also took Kalam Singh, a cook from the Doon school. A Garhwali, he was at home with all the villagers we met and was of great assistance with local porters; and a hill-man, he enjoyed the climbing, and showed no keenness to stay at base camp.
It takes seven days to reach the Harki Doon from Chakrata where you can hire mules at Rs. 3 a day. The march is a pleasant one, at first along the Jumna-Tons watershed at heights of about 8,000 feet, through Mandali, Ringali, and Jarmola where there are comfortable forest rest-houses. Ringali has one of the most beautifully sited bungalows I know with a wonderful view of the snows, but is apt to be inhabited by bees and great green-eyed horse-flies. From Jarmola you descend into the Tons valley and through Naitwar, Datmir, and Oshla follow it up to its source. The forest rest-house near Datmir was burned down in 1952 and has not yet been rebuilt, and the rest- house it is planned to build in the Harki Doon has so far got no further than a foundation stone; so above Naitwar tents are necessary. If the journey has to be made in the rains, when the ridge road may be dangerous for mules, there is a good, but hotter route, in the Tons valley. Oshla is a village high above the right bank of the Tons and a good place to engage porters if further progress by mules is impossible. There is a permanent bridge a mile or so down river and a temporary one just above it. The latter is liable to be washed away or removed when the rains start and cannot be relied upon. As the river has to be crossed here if you are going to the Harki Doon, and as the track through Oshla is too difficult for laden mules, and the baggage has to be manhandled, it is well to be prepared for a delay at this place. Above Oshla the two main source streams of the Tons join, one from the Harki Doon, the track to which is passable for mules and runs above its right bank, and the other from the northern glaciers of Banderpunch. Up this valley there is no mule track. Both these valleys are excellent centres for climbing and skiing and both are full of wonderful sites for a comfortable low- altitude base camp between 11,000 and 13,000 feet, with plentiful water and wood.
In 1952 we went straight up to the Harki Doon. Just below Oshla we had been able to watch work going on in the forest. There is any amount of timber in these parts, but the cost of getting it down to the plains is enormous. Once felled, the trees have to be cut on the spot into beams that can be handled by a man. These are then carried to wooden log-chutes; the building of which is an engineering feat. Sometimes several thousand feet long, they lead down the mountain side into the Tons or a tributary large enough to float the logs. Water is run into the chutes and the beams slide down at a great rate sending up spray that reflects the sunlight in rainbow colours. Beside the Tons, below the village of Oshla, there is a pleasant grove of walnut trees with a little wooden temple and a stream of clear water on the left bank of the river. Here we camped and engaged porters to carry the loads across the bridge, for it was not secure enough to send the mules across it loaded. From there we reached our base camp in the Harki Doon by lunch, and pitched our tents in a veritable fairyland at 11,600 feet.
Harki Doon means the valley of Har, one of the names of the god Shiv. To the south it is enclosed by a ridge some ten miles long from which rise the peaks of Sugnalin, the highest of which is 20,521 feet. Sugnalin is a corruption of Swargarohini, meaning 'The Path to Heaven5, a fine name for a fine mountain. In the valley meet three mountain torrents draining a basin of some 60 square miles surrounded by peaks of up to nearly 21,000 feet in height and separated by ridges which offer wonderful climbing between 16,000 and 19,000 feet. The main torrent rises from the Jamdar Bamak, the glacier of the door to the God of the Dead. In the centre is the Hata ki Gad, and from the Barasu Pass in the north descends the Morinda Gad. In 1952 we had set out with the idea that we might attempt to climb Swargarohini, but closer inspection convinced us that it was more than we could manage. We therefore restricted ourselves to exploring up the three valleys to passes at their heads and to skiing and smaller climbs and scrambles. I quote from the diary I kept to give an idea of the sort of holiday this area offers to those not greatly experienced in mountaineering. For the experts there is any amount of more difficult and interesting country.
17.6.52. We all got up with the sun this morning and were off by 0630. We were soon across the river flowing from the Jamdar Bamak, crossing it by a natural bridge of great boulders. We had to jump from one to another, and those with rubber soles were well off, but those with nailed boots, which were apt to slip, had to be assisted. We walked up the left side of the torrent for about a mile through silver birches, rhododendrons, and grassy swamps bright with king-cups. Then we turned to our right to climb to the western ridge of Swargarohini. On the way we disturbed several monal pheasants which flew down past us uttering their high-pitched cries and displaying their wonderful plumage. At 1200 we came to an alp at the foot of snowfields and dumped our loads and left the Sherpas to pitch the tents. After lunch we climbed to the ridge and the boys and John went on to a little peak of 15,600. On the way back to camp we all had some pleasant glissading. Gheema learned how to do this very quickly and looks like making a mountaineer.
18th. Moved tents for Jagjit; Vimal, Gyalchan, and myself onto the ridge, going up myself on skis, while John and the rest went down to bring up more skis. The view of the Harki Doon is magnificient a great basin with a single narrow opening to the west, split into long narrow valleys by ridges that come down from the surrounding rim.
19th. Brewed tea from melted snow by 0500 and set out to explore along the ridge after breakfast. First along a snow ridge, always rather romantic walking, and then up a rock ridge with interesting scrambling and one or two pitches of good rock climbing, though the rock was very rotten in many places and we had to take care not to dislodge boulders. The boys went very well apart from always thinking they could see a better way than the one I was leading. I like going straight up the arete. Eventually we were turned back at something over 16,000 feet by rock that was too rotten and exposed for safety. Back to camp for an early lunch when we met the survey party now working in the area. (It had first been planned that we should join and help in this work, but the school holidays come only just before the rains, and the surveyors had to go ahead of us.) After lunch moved down to rejoin the others for skiing. I went down on ski with 60 lb. on my back and only fell once. Rather pleased with myself! Skied all the afternoon—tremendous fun—but we need more skis, so went down to base to bring up another pair.
20th. Back to camp at 13,400 with a monal shot on the way up.
Midsummer day. We all spent the morning skiing. It was tremendous fun, though we had to keep changing boots and skis so that everyone should get a turn. All did a run of about 1,000 feet from 14,800, the boys getting the hang very quickly. They must be almost the first party to learn at such a height.
In such ways our fortnight in the Harki Doon went by all too quickly. Twice we saw red bear at close quarters—when, of course, we had left behind the rifle. We had a day on the ridge north-west of the Morinda Gad after bhurral, but our aim at the range to which we were able to stalk was not accurate enough. We climbed to the Borasu Pass and to another rather lower at about 16,000 feet at the head of the Hata ki Gad. Clouds prevented us from seeing where this would lead to. We went up the Jamdar Bamak as far as we could get in one day, not to its end, but far enough to see that there is any amount of magnificent climbing around it. We practised rock climbing on different cliffs and great erratic boulders, and we collected a large number of different alpine flowers. Of our last day I wrote in my diary: con our way back we had a wonderful view down the valley. The area has all been glaciated in some past ice age and I have never anywhere seen finer examples of U-shaped valleys or great moraines. This evening the mist had filled up to the top of one of the steps in the valley below our camp and hung like a great curtain plainly showing the formation. These great valleys, all with live glaciers at their heads, converge near our camp and then break through the surrounding mountains in one great gorge. Each valley, at its lower end, is beautifully flat and grassy and walled in by ancient lateral moraines. In the valleys flow the glacier torrents, behind the moraines clear streams. All around are great erratic boulders, some 100 feet high, and banks bright with every flower—the blue poppy, orchids, lilies, primulas, potentillas, anemo- nies. This evening we have just had a delicious rhubarb fool gathered on the premises. It has been raining heavily lately and we have had news that our bridge below has been washed away, which will complicate our return.'
In 1953, instead of crossing the Tons at Oshla and going up to the Harki Doon, we branched right up the valley to the south-east in the direction of Banderpunch. For this we had to employ porters, as there is no mule track. Again, perhaps I can give the best picture of what we found by quoting from my diary.
13.6.53- Had a sort of feeling the 13th might not be too good a day and it was not. In spite of all last night's sorting it took a long while to get the loads distributed among the twenty-eight porters and we did not get away till 0830, and then the porters, who were obviously on the make, sat down every ten minutes for a smoke, so we made sadly slow progress. On the way we came across a bank of magnificent wild strawberries and gathered about five pints. For a while we made our way up the left side of the Tons and then descended 500 or 600 feet and crossed the torrent by a flimsy bridge. From there we rose steadily up a valley not unlike the Hanuman Ganga with occasional gentle reaches overhung with silver birch. Then the rain started. I was ahead looking for a good camping site and had to go back to hurry on the porters, but once it started to rain they made a much better pace, though we were not in camp before everything was drenched in a very heavy thunderstorm. Tents had to be pitched in belting rain and consequently leaked, and the bedding all got wet. Added to this we had to make camp on the only level ground available, and that was a field of nettles. We were all in shorts and all got well stung. Just before sunset the rain stopped and as it did so there was the most lovely rainbow I have ever seen. There was. no doubt about where it began and ended. It arched from one side of the valley to the other. The green foreground was in bright sunshine and through the bow, framed by the valley sides, were dark indigo thunder-clouds.
14.6. After allowing the sun to dry the tents we were off by 0845 and climbed steadily till 1130 when we reached a delightful spot we should really, had we known the country, have got to yesterday. The river is in a gorge some 400 feet below us and separated from us by an ancient moraine covered with silver birches and rhododendrons. Another minor moraine from a side valley meets this at right angles and encloses a little lake beside which we are encamped. A clear stream flows into the lake, its banks bright with Primula involu- crata. We are at 11,500 feet.
16.6. Moved across the river and slightly higher to 12,400 to a site in the ablation valley between the great moraine below which flows the river, and the main hill-side which just above us opens into a side valley which promises splendid skiing. Swargarohini towers above us across the main valley and the ice cavern from which the Tons issues is opposite the opening of my tent. In the evening Kirpal Singh, the local shikari, who had gone out with a gun and ten cartridges, returned with two bhurral and four snow pigeon. Wish I could do as well. We had our first skiing practice just above the camp in the afternoon.
17.6. A wonderful day. It dawned clear and we were off by 0730 after a leisurely breakfast in the sun, to climb to the top of the side valley at the bottom of which we are encamped. Cheema, Deb, and I went on ski, and the rest walked. On the way we saw four bhurral quite close to us and very shortly afterwards a female red bear and cub. The view of Swargarohini straight down the valley was tremendous. There is a possible way up it, but only for an expert party with ice pitons. A scimitar-shaped snow ridge, similar to that on Bander- punch, rises from a ridge that looks quite accessible. Above it are rocks that should go, but that looked nastily iced. Beyond them there seemed to be a sharp drop and then a steep ice-wall that might be impossible, led on to ;a steep snow slope that went almost to the summit, which to the south-west is a gigantic rock pinnacle. We reached the col at 15,900 feet at 1230 and climbed onto a little peak above it. The boys were all in great form and for all but Cheema this was a first ascent above 12,500 feet. Deb, who had only skied for an hour or so yesterday climbed like a veteran and came down across easy glacier slopes remarkably well. A 3,000-foot run at this height not bad for second day on skis. We all had a startlingly cold, but refreshing dip in the stream on return, and a first-class supper of roast bhurral, tinned peas, and pears.
20.6. Moved up two valleys to where we supposed the route to Jamnotri must go. Camped at only 14,000, lower than we had intended, but no place was to be found on the glacier so we put up our tents at its snout in a barren and rocky wilderness.
21.6. Another wonderful day. The weather had looked threatening, but it turned out ideal for climbing though aggravating for photography. Drifting clouds added to the beauty and mystery of the scene, but obscured things just when you wanted a picture. We went up our valley, finding it a long one turning slightly to the right at the end. A camp half-way up would be ideal for skiing—great wide glaciers, small crevasses, and broad open slopes of every degree. The pass was at 16,400, and from it, through the clouds we could see Karsali and the Jumna, and away in the far distance, across the Mussoorie ridge to the plains. After lunch Cheema, Deb, Pemba and I climbed up the ridge to a rock summit at 17,000—an excellent and exciting little bit of rock climbing. The Sherpas prefer ice. Got back to camp after nearly nine hours out and wonderful country. Issued rum and drank Krishnayya's and Adi's share myself.
On the next day we moved across the main valley again and pitched a camp on the right-hand side of the Banderpunch glacier immediately beneath Swargarohini at 14,600. Here we were stuck for two days by rain and I will refrain from quoting my diary. However, the next day I was able to record:
25.6. Before we turned in last night the sky had cleared and the snow tops were bright with an alpine glow. We were all up by 0500 this morning to a lovely day, but it was 0715 before we were off. The plan was to carry a tent and provisions for Cheema, Pemba, and myself as high as we could and for us three to try the Black Peak 20,956) the next day. All the boys carried a load. We started by skirting the south-east slopes of the Swargarohini ridge above the glacier and had some very steep scrambling, with here and there steps to cut across ice tongues which thrust their way down steep gullies across our path. All the boys went very well and showed an excellent sense of balance. Eventually we got onto the glacier and made our way upwards between groups of seracs through wild and fantastic scenery. It was not long before we were on fresh snow, and by 1100 we had reached an excellent place for a camp—rather lower than I had hoped, but the next promising looking place seemed a long way up, and I felt that at 17,000 feet the boys had carried far enough. So here we pitched our tent on the snow. The day was glorious; the Black Peak appeared invitingly near. We decided to have a crack at it there and then, and at 1130 we set off, leaving the others to climb an eminence of about 17,400, the top of the great black rock shoulder of the main peak, and return under the care of Chembe. The new snow was in excellent condition for climbing—a hard crust into which you could kick firm step-holds. Pemba and Cheema were both going faster than me, Pemba doing the kicking, and 1 told them to go ahead and only wait if they met difficulties. They were climbing 200 to 300 feet an hour faster than I could. At about 19,000 feet they came to a slope where it was necessary to cut footholds and I caught them up. We roped up. I led for a little, but found it very exhausting. We had to cross a number of crevasses by snow bridges and pass beneath seracs in places where some had fallen and carried away small avalanches. Pemba, who was in great form, took over the lead, and eventually, at about 1530 and 20,000 feet, we got onto the final ridge and saw the summit apparently easily within grasp. But here we met with a tremendous wind blowing across our path and I was horrified to find that Cheema had left his windproof trousers in the tent below us. All he had on was a pair of grey flannels. The snow was wind slab—generally firm enough to hold our weight, but here and there letting us through to the knee which made rhythmical climbing impossible. In spite of this it seemed that we should make it. Cheema said that he felt O.K. and I was going well enough. We made steady progress, Cheema going very well, and Pemba a tower of strength, but the wind was icy cold and blew stinging snow across any exposed parts of our faces. If the rope got loose it was bowed out by the wind and jerked us sideways. We ourselves were occasionally blown out of our steps. At about 1615 Cheema said he felt very tired—his first expression of doubt after a wonderful climb. The top then looked about twenty- five minutes away. We stopped for a little rest and huddled together for shelter against the wind. The sky was absolutely clear except for some clouds coming up from below and the view was magnificent. We were now looking down on Swargarohini and I tried to photograph it, but it was so cold that the film in the camera snapped as I was winding it. We went on for another ten to fifteen minutes, when Cheema said he could go no farther. The top was perhaps 100 yards ahead and 100 feet above us. Cheema was very apologetic, but unnecessarily so. Had there not been the wind, he would have made it easily—and if I could have gone faster lower down we might have beaten the wind. As it was I consider it a magnificent effort for a boy of seventeen to have climbed in one day from 14,600 to 20,800 or thereabouts. We turned down at about 1630. Gradually Swargarohini rose above us and we got clear out of the wind. Cheema recovered quickly, though we were all pretty tired when we got back to the tent at 1830. Cheema and I were both a little greedily surprised to find that Pemba enjoyed tinned asparagus as much as we did.
The next day we moved down to the camp at 14,600 and from there with the rest of the party back to the camp beside the lake. Here we rested for a day, and then crossed the Swargarohini ridge into the Harki Doon. On a subsequent rest day I tried my hand at a verse description of this day which took us 11 ½ hours of going.
First up the steep grassed mountain sides made white
By the anemone which when the sun is down
Folds up its petals and turns white to blue;
Then by ravines and crags and jutting buttresses
Where the paraqualigia grandiflora clings
In clumps of gentlest mauve or blue, and deep green leaves,
And where a slip or foot misplaced on loosened stone
Might spell headlong descent into the depths below;
Up to the waste of boulders, glacier strewn.
Then by a little ridge onto the pass
Beyond which lies the Harki Doon, our goal.
Here we have lunch: sardines, chuppaties, cheese,
While our stout porters catch us up and smoke.
Then down into the misty depths glissade
Across some thousand feet of rotting snow,
Down to the alp where last year's ski camp was;
On through the dwarf, foot-catching rhododendron
To where the silver birch, bent by the winter's snows,
Trunk to the ground and then in a curve uprising,
Brings us to forests and deep grassy glens
Through which pour streams along whose banks
The water-loving primula stuarti grows,
And from lush grass rise spurs of heavenly blue.
Here are the tracks of bear, their yellow turds,
And you may sometimes find the musk deer's slot.
We reach the Harki Doon where the fierce torrent
Runs in a wide and shallow bed; too swift to wade
Yet freer and less angry than below
Where down a valley step it pours confined
And roars between mightly boulders.
A group of these, huge slippery rocks,
Some twelve feet high or more,
Crashed from the crags above and ice born, now
Made for the nimble footed nature's bridge.
By this we cross, not without trepitude.
Those with nailed boots remove them and bare-foot
Spring from one smooth stone to the next.
Deb slips; his arm is caught.
Adi is pushed up by his broad behind.
Up the last hundred feet or so
Of ancient, grass-grown, lateral moraine
Where the blue Himalayan poppy blooms,
We reach at last the chosen site to camp.
Here, next the milky water from Borasu Pass
Flowing between the mountain and moraine
We dump our loads. Enormous boulders
Perch on the ridge, and ancient trees
Gnarled and fantastic, garlanded with moss.
For those who like statistics I might mention that the costs of these expeditions were, in 1952, Rs. 4,215; and in 1953, Rs. 4,430. Food came to roughly Rs. 1,250 each year; Sherpas Rs. 560 (for the year in which we took two only); Porters Rs. 750 for 1953 when we used many more and Rs. 230 in 1952; and mules Rs. 1400. The area is included in the Survey of India Map Sheet 53 I/SE, but had not been properly surveyed until 1952, and the results of that survey have not yet been published. I should like to make an apology to the Survey. In an article in the Alpine Journal, No. 283, I cast doubts on the existence of a peak 18,863 there all right on the ridge running northwards from point 20,020. When I wrote this article I was under the impression that this ridge ran to the Black Peak, and what I then thought was the Black Peak was in fact Pt. 18,863.
Sketch Map of the upper Tons Basin.