THE sky had not cleared for the last few days. 9 August was again a cloudy day, but this time the clouds could not me postpone my programme. Along with three porters I left Phura village flanking the right bank of river Chenab in the Lahoul-Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh. It was nearly 9 a.m. when we set out on our journey. There was enough time to that day's destination, about 10 km. from the Chenab. Our ascended the Kugti nala which has its source in the Kugti glacier It was 4 p.m., and the Alias was also not far off—only a couple of kilometres further. (Alias is a local name for rock shelteif on either side of the passes.) It was then that a young lad unexpectedly appeared from behind a mound of glacial debris. He appeared not less amazed than I was by our sudden and unexpected confrontation. He wore a heavy woollen cloak fastened to waist by a black cord, and flowing down to his ankles like a skirt, and white turban on his head. It was not difficult to guess that he belonged to the Gaddi tribe of Chamba. (The Gaddis rear sheep and migrate to high altitudes with their flocks in the summer.) He convinced us that camping near his hut could be as good as camping at an Alias. On his persuasion we dropped our idea of going further and instead decided to camp at his place. Hardly had he led us some distance, when I could see his dwel which from afar looked like a heap of stone slabs. A cluster white specks that was his flock of sheep stood prominently against a shadowy background, beside his hut. But as I drew nearer I found his shelter good enough an enclosure for one man to cook and sleep. My host took out a few blankets, that was his bedding, from his room and spread them outside for us to sit. He then treated us with a 'hukka' which passed amongst us for quite some time. Dinner that night turned out to be a memorable event. A leg of mutton offered by our host and an empty stomach after a tiring journey linked well to make it a grand feast.
Next morning saw me unusually early out of bed. As I drew open the flap of my tent, my host was framed in view. He was holding in his two hands a slab of stone on which was fuming profusely a variety of incense, and was making rotations about himself, at the same time droning to himself some time Finally he brought the slab close to his forehead, and laid it at the top of a cylindrically paved structure of stone. The Gaddis came to know later, while making their summer huts, make it obligatory to install such cairns in the vicinity in reverence to their deities. This, they believe, helps ward off the catastrophes that could befall them in the difficult terrains.
Finishing our breakfast early, we hurried on our way at about 8 a.m. It was a cloudy day, and we were only praying that the weather should not worsen, for this was the day to cross the pass. Working our way through the glacial terrain for a few hours, we reached a spot from where glimpses could be had of the Kugti Pass (16,536 ft.)—a slight depression on a crescent- shaped snowy ridge. But before we could step upon the terminal glacier that showed our route up the final ascent, thick clouds came hurrying over our heads, and in no time it started drizzling. Sup¬posing hopefully that it would not rain long, we preferred to trudge on steadily. But our surmise proved wrong ; and rain did not cease. Completely drenched and dripping we went on defying the rain, and covered 700 ft. up the glacier. But later it became impossible to proceed further when it started snowing, the fierce icy wind making our limbs numb. We had but to stop and search for some temporary shelter. There was no such place in the vicinity that could accommodate us all together. So we scattered to find individual spots. As for me, I crouched under a small rock ledge nearby that could protect me from the strong wind if not from the rain completely. Those were the moments of suspense, my eyes frequently fixing on my watch as well as on the pass. Time was limited, and the top not in sight due to heavy snowfall. We had been waiting there shivering for the last one hour, and there was no let-up in the weather. Finally, disappointed, we had to retreat down. But this time we preferred to halt at an Alias, where nature has carved out a few rectangular rooms, open on two sides though, but with the natural roofs of rock. It was spacious enough to accommodate us all together.
Next morning we left our camp at about 6 a.m. reaching the base of the glacier at about 8 o'clock. As bad luck would have it, it started pouring again. We had enough experience of it, the previous day; and now once again the time had come to take the crucial decision. Either we had to abandon our attempt or try our luck in bad weather. We chose the latter. Braving the weather we covered half the climb to the glacier, slightly more than what had been done the previous day. Rain drops then gave way to snow eddies, but fortunately it was all without a strong wind. On the higher reaches, however, the fresh snow completely covered the track and thick mist and clouds obscured everything beyond a couple of metres. There was no guarantee that we were heading in the right direction. A wrong turn could land us in some serious trouble, and the snow storm at that juncture made it still worse. Our confidence was shaken easily since we were without proper mountaineering equipment, with not so much as an ice axe to come to our rescue in difficulty. In the midst of these apprehensions, we went on dragging ourselves up. And then came the time when we suddenly found ourselves at a place, which was the top of the ridge—the Kugti Pass. Therealization at this difficult time, brought to me one of the finest moments of my life. Each one of us heaved a sigh of relief. One of the local porters who was conversant with the religious con-ventions usually observed on high passes, hurried a few steps off the route. It was a small, a few feet tall wooden structure, that had attracted his attention. It was obscured by rags of gaudy cloth and innumerable iron rods, apart from the fresh snow, which half buried the structure. We all followed him and bowed to the deity of the pass for bringing us up safely.
Sketch map showing location Of Kugti and Chobia Passes and the route followed.
It was not difficult to descend on the other side of the pass. There was enough of time at our disposal, and the rain too had stopped in the meantime. It took us four hours to reach a suitable camping site at an Alias on the southern slopes of the Kugti P'ass, about 15 km. from the previous one.
Kugti village was our next day's destination about 12 km. from the Alias camp). Next morning it was raining. When the rain stopped at about 9 a.m., we hurried from our camp. Hardly had we gone a couple of furlongs when it started pouring again.
There was no shelter worth its name in the vicinity, and we were left with no alternative but to keep ourselves warm while walking in the rain. It was four hours that we remained in dripping clothes, till a spacious wooden temple fell our way, a few kilo¬metres short of Kugti village. There was no scarcity of fuel and food in the precincts of the temple; and a good amount of each was consumed till our clothes were dry and the steaming hot lunch was eaten. We left the temple at 2 p.m. It rained again but only when we had reached Kugti. In this village lodging was no problem. A Forest Inspection hut which looked haunted and lonely, a little way from the village, got our company for the night.
Next day (13 August) rain did not trouble us any more, but the path was narrow and exposed to the risks of landslides and falling rock boulders from slopes higher up. By evening we were at the Forest Inspection hut near Harsar, about 10 km. from Kugti.
From Harsar one can easily pick out at a distance a cluster of red roofed buildings which are the Government constructions at Bharmour, the tehsil headquarter of Chamba district. A matter of 10 km. from Harsar, we reached Bharmour at 3 p.m. Bharmour attracts tourists for its centuries old magnificent temples. But what was important to me the moment we landed at Bharmour was a small tea shop. We had two cups each with a lavish share of biscuits before we made for the P.W.D. rest house.
The following day I relaxed my tired limbs and made arrange¬ments for my departure from Bharmour next morning.
We started from Bharmour at about 9 a.m. on 16 August. After walking a few kilometres from Bharmour on the Bhar- mour-Kugti path we crossed over to the western bank of the Budil nala. After a short climb of about 1,500 ft., at about 2 p.m., we were in Chobia village. Before dusk we were at village Kao, the last village on this route. A villager there was courteous enough to let us pass the night on the verandah of his house.
Next day was more cloudy than clear. We started from Kao at about 9 a.m. A slight drizzle started. We were completely drenched by the time we reached Chobia nala. A huge rocky slope invited us to its fold. Fire wood was around in plenty to make a fire. It was not long before our clothes were dried and our bodies warmed sufficiently to look forward to our destina¬tion. In the mean time the rain had stopped and the sun peeped from behind the clouds. From there we followed the Chobia nala upstream. This day's march could have delighted any flower lover. There were so many of them, of different types and different shapes all along the route. By evening we reached a temple where we passed the night. A wooden structure open from three sides but with a roof all the same.
Next morning (18 August) we took things a bit leisurely. One day would have been too short a time to cross the Chobia Pass and more than enough to reach an Alias. In the after¬noon at about 3 p.m. we were at the Alias. A relatively gentle sloping ground protected us from rain and wind by a huge rock ledge.
Next day (on 19 August) we got up very early and started off towards the Chobia Pass (16,441 ft.). It was not raining as was the previous night, but the clouds overhead could have poured their contents any time, the earlier the better. A long way (about 25 km.) had to be journeyed and the pass to be nego¬tiated. From the Alias it took us three hours to be at the top. A narrow passage with vertical rock walls on both sides on the snow clad ridge—that is how it looks like. We had our quick lunch at the top before descending down the other side. The first few kilometres saw us walking down a sloping snow field. This was probably the path about which our companions at Alias had warned us to be cautious about regarding its treacherous crevasses. About two hours after we left the pass, we reached a gentler ground of the glaciated valley, where light bluish ice formed the floor as hard as a rock, with numerous glacial streams flowing over it. This was the place where we met a shepherd along with his flock on his way home in the Ravi valley. He pointed towards a crevasse a little further down into which one of his goats had slipped. He asked us to try, if we could, to rescue it. He had no time to attempt it, as he was in a hurry to cross the pass before the weather worsened. We too were running short of time, but since the crevasse fell on our way we did not mind casually looking into it. The poor animal was readily spotted, stuck between the vertical ice-walls. One of the porters volunteered to go down. We lowered him down, releasing the rope steadily. We reached our destination on the banks of the Chenab river just before dusk. They say there is always a fear of loss of life while crossing such passes. But see our case. Three of us went but came back four!