Indo New Zealand Himalayan Traverse Expedition, 1981.
I SEARCH my heart, as I have done many times before, especially when I pant and sweat profusely under the unbearable burden of my rucksack, during our long trek of Himalaya in the process of traversing it from Darjeeling in the east to Karakoram in the west, as to why I have undertaken such a long and hazardous trek and pitted myself against the gigantic mountains—the Himalaya? Similar' queries have been asked by many mountaineers and adventurers and yet remain unanswered. Was it for satisfying my ego, or a trial of physical stamina and endurance or a sense of triumph, or was it a fascination of enchanting view of Himalaya and the quest of knowing the unknown? But time and again, I recollect the odyssey of this treacherous long march having sweet memory and a feeling of deep pleasure within myself. T still remember the steep climbs of distant high passes which used to hold the promise of a fascinating view of another valley below or a phalanx of snow-covered ranges across it. In spite of unbearable fatigue and tiredness, we used to feel jubilant and happy and forgot the physical torture within minutes. This was some kind of undiagnosed mania that has affected our entire traverse team enabling us to trek more than 5000- km of Himalayan journey after crossing 106 difficult high passes between 10,000 ft to 20,000 ft in 250 days and fulfilled our cherished desire of traversing the Himalaya from Kangehenjunga in the east to Karakoram in the west.
The main idea of our Indo-New Zealand Himalayan Traverse Expedition was to trek the Himalaya from one end to the other, keeping as close as possible and permissible to the greater Himalaya range. Our team consisted of 8 members, 5 New Zealanders and 3 Indians.
Our traverse began from Yoksum, southern flanks of Kangehenjunga. On 17 February 1981, we started trekking towards Bakhim over Dzongri ridge, Dzongri La, HMI base camp up to Rathong La (17,000 ft) towards the Indo-Nepal border. This was early spring, when the high ridges were still covered with snow. The small flowers were blooming and sprouting side by side with the melting of snow, While walking over Dzongri ridge, in western Sikkim, we could see the mighty Kangehenjunga glittering in the north with other peaks of Kabru and Kokthang in the northwest and Pandim in the east.
Our team had to walk over snow, above 12,000 ft to 16,000 ft and after completing this circuity western Sikkim up to Rathong glacier and along Singalila ridge, we all crossed the Nepal "border at Kakar- bita on 6 March.
The team then was divided in two groups, Tashi, Graeme Dingle and Peter Hillary comprised as traverse group started traversing from 111am, in eastern Nepal, following the Miike ridge towards Barun valley and Makalu base camp.1 Douglas Wilson and myself had gone to Kathmandu, from where, along with Ann Louise and Corrina Gage, comprising the support group, we trekked from Kathmandu to Solu Khumbu area with essential provisions like dehydrated foodstuffs, medicines, mail and other replenishment and reached Namche Bazar on 22 March in the Everest region. Trekking through this area was equally fascinating when the spring was in full bloom and the forests were covered with red rhododendrons and white magnolias, the ground was carpeted with blue iris flowers. We also trekked to the Everest base camp, Kala Pathar and Gokyo areas.
Camp 3 on Saltoro glacier. (1) Singhi Kangri (2) Teram Kangri III (3) Teram Kangri I (4) Teram Kangri II
Standing on Indira Col. Urdok glacier and Shaksgam valley in the background.
Gasherbrum I as seen from summit of Sia Kangri.
Kondus glacier from the summit plateau of Sia Kangri,
The traverse team had to encounter heavy snow and bad weather on the Miike ridge. They were lost for about a week on this ridge due to poor visibility, fending for their survival when they had been ascending and descending through deep snow-covered ridges and valleys with thick bamboo undergrowth, shivering' with cold and camping in rock caves and open snow. With the weather improving, the trio headed towards Makalu base camp, where they enjoyed 'hospitality of Japanese and German climbers. Since the traverse team was to cross over the East Col to enter into Everest region via Tmja glacier they had to open the route towards Baruntse up to Camp 2 which was being climbed by the German team. After crossing over 3 very high passes namely Sherpani col (20,500' ft), East Col (20,500 ft) and Amphulapcha (20,000 ft), they entered Imja glacier in the Everest region and reached Kunde on 6 April and met the support- team.
After completing the traverse of Everest region, on 18 April the team was again divided in two groups. The support team comprising Douglas Wilson, Ann Louise Mitcalfe and myself, trekked down to Kathmandu through eastern Nepal via Paphlu, Salari, Okhaldhunga, Takshilaghat and Katari.
The traverse team at the same time headed westward and crossed the dangerous Tashi Lapcha pass (18,500 ft) and then entered into beautiful Rolwaling valley north of Gauri Shankar Himal full of coniferous forests of pine, deodar and birch trees. The inhabitants are Sherpas similar to Khumbu region. After continuous trekking nearly for 2 months, the traverse team for the first time touched road-head at Lamasangu on Kodari-Kathmandu highway, constructed by the Chinese.
For covering the Jugal Himal they traversed via high route from Jalberi, Flamsangu, Tembathong following the Balepikhola inhabited by Tamangs having agriculture and cattle-grazing as their main source of living. This valley is still untouched by foreign tourists.
Simultaneously, the support party members had also trekked from Kathmandu through Lamjung Himal and Manag valley and after crossing over Thorang La (17,770 ft) entered Kali Gandaki region via Muktinath and awaited the arrival of traverse team to replenish the essential foodstuffs. The Muktinath valley is dry and barren north of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri Himals. Area above Muktinath (13,300 ft), appears like a Tibetan plateau and is well known as Mustang bhot area. Muktinath is a good example of amalgamation of Hinduism and Buddhism where Muktinath (Krishna temple), Narsinga (gompa) and Jwala Mai (both gompa and temple) are a good admixture of both religions and example of harmonious existence of these two great religions.
After comfortable stay in Jomsom, the team was again divided to traverse Western Nepal. On 31 May, the traverse team consisting of Graeme Dingle, Peter Hillary and C. Tashi started trekking along Kali Gandaki gorge and then went westward south of Dhaulagiri range to Dhorpatan and then they headed northward upto remote border area of Dolpa. The support team flew out to Pokhara and Kathmandu. Western Nepal is comparatively a food-scarcity area and considered a difficult region of Nepal. Therefore, supply of essential dehydrated food was required at Jumla to cover this last stretch of traverse of Western Nepal. Accordingly, I went to Jumla with all these provisions and then joined the team for traversing the western Nepal Himalaya to Pithoragarh. We were very hard pressed for time, and wanted to cover this section before the first onslaught of monsoon in mid June, resulting in flooding of rivers which might be a great hindrance in this remote part of Nepal where one gets completely cut off from the rest of the world without any communication system. Therefore, we intended to move as fast as possible to complete the traverse of western Nepal before monsoons.
14 May onwards, Graeme Dingle, Peter Hillary, C. Tashi and myself, started traversing west from Jumla. After crossing over 2 passes within 10,000 ft to 12,000 ft high, we reached the beautiful Rara lake situated at a height of approximately 10,500 ft surrounded by gentle mountain slopes in all sides with thick green alpine forests of deodar and juniper trees, having rich flora and fauna.2
The team members rejoiced when we finally reached Jhulaghat via Baitadi on 24 June, and entered India. We had completed the traverse of Nepal from east to west. On our arrival at Pithoragarh, we were joined by 3rd Indian member S. K. Roy. Now our strength had increased to 8 members. 5 New Zealanders and 3 Indians.
The Kumaon Himalaya were now fully lashed by the first onslaught of monsoons and there were road blocks and flooded rivers. The mountains were under the veil of thick clouds even so much so that we were deprived of view of Nanda Devi and Panchachuli.
We wanted to enter Nanda Devi sanctuary via Milam valley and Munsiari after crossing Longstaff Col. But permission had not come through to cross the inner line, and as a result we planned to take alternate route via Sunderdhunga Khal to enter the Nanda Devi sanctuary.3
I started trekking from Joshimath Nanda Devi Sanctuary on 18 July to arrange support for the traverse team from the inside of Nanda Devi sanctuary. Monsoons were fully active in the Garhwal Himalaya and the rivers were flooded. While trekking through the dangerous track of Rishiganga gorge we found that the fixed ropes from dangerous places had been removed by the porters which made our move much more risky. On 21 July when we were camping at Patalkhan (14,000 ft) the entrance point of the sanctuary, we had an unusual clear blue sky and the mighty Nanda Devi glittering with silver white snow just in front of us rewarding us with its magnificent view. In the west, we could see right up to Chaukhamba and mighty Neelkantha. The first sun rays were glittering over the snow-clad peaks and then gradually spreading over the green alpine meadows and forests, whereas deep down the valleys were covered with a thick sea of clouds as if these mountain peaks were floating over them.
Although the traverse team made hard efforts to cross over Sunderdhunga Khal from Pindari glacier and reached the top of the pass with great struggle, after establishing 3 camps and negotiating a steep rocky cliff and heavily crevassed neve, when they peeped inside the sanctuary they saw a sheer drop of hundreds of feet down which could not be guessed due to thick mist. It appeared to be very dangerous and not negotiable without endangering their lives. So they decided to abandon the idea of crossing the pass and came back and followed the track via Kuwari Khal and reached Joshimath on 29 July where other support team members were anxiously awaiting them.
We decided to traverse from Joshimath to Uttarkashi by following the old pilgrim track as it was no use simply trekking through the high-altitude areas in heavy rainy season though we were deprived of the beautiful scenic view of this area. So the traverse team in this section comprised 6 members following the pilgrim route touching sacred temples, like Rudranath, Kedarnath, Tungnath and via Budha Kedar and Kush Kalyan, and reached Uttarkashi on 16 August. The team was disappointed. Due to heavy downpours of rain and low clouds the view remained completely restricted, even passing very close to the gigantic mountains of Garhwal Himalaya. The only pleasure was to trek through the alpine meadows which were in full bloom with multicoloured flowers, and the entire landscape was covered with thick vegetation and greenery.
We resumed trekking for the next section on 29 August. Now our traverse team, consisting of Graeme Dingle, Peter Hillary, C. Tashi and myself, left Uttarkashi in the bright post-monsoon sunshine. The other 4 members constituted the support party and had left by bus for Manali with the support kit and essential supplies. There was a post- monsoon brightness in the sky and greenery all around. We trekked through the beautiful valley of Uttarkashi, and crossed over Aineha pass (11,000 ft) above Dodital and entered Yamuna valley. The view of Bandarpunch was fascinating in the north and trekking was pleasant through the carpeted meadows. We descended to Hanuman Chatti and followed Yamuna valley along the pilgrim route and reached Yamnotri (11,000 ft) where the sulphur hot-water baths charged with the religious fervour, gave us immense pleasure. But the climb above Yamnotri through the thick forests and steep cliff was equally tiring up to Yamnotri pass (17,000 ft) and then we entered into the beautiful Tons valley on the other side. We were amply rewarded for our sweat when we had a fascinating panoramic view of Swargarohini and Bandarpunch from this pass. Trekking through the green Tons valley with its thick green deodar and juniper forests and meadows of Har-ki-Dun was a pleasure beyond description. Walking along the Tons river with its crystal-clear blue water and well maintained forest tracks, passing through pine forests, gave us a feeling as if we were enjoying beauty of nature in a well developed sanctuary.
We entered Himachal from Dodar and crossed over Changsil pass (12,000 ft). In spite of the remoteness of this area, the people were very frank, hospitable, with helping attitude towards us. The economic resources of the people have been greatly enhanced by large- scale plantation of apple orchards and other fruits in this area. For entering into Sutlej valley, we followed the Roal valley and crossed over the difficult Shuttle pass (18,000 ft). We had to negotiate the heavily crevassed glacier on the other side of the pass and then trekked through the steep cliffs of Sutlej towards Wangtu and Nachar. The lower valleys of Himachal were full of apple orchards and the fruits were in abundance being peak season of apples and as such we enjoyed the luxury of fruits all through our trek.
Trekking down along the glaciers and cliffs of Parvati valley we enjoyed the beautiful view of the white-clad enormous unclimbed mountain peaks when the valley opens up and makes flat alpine meadows which were still unknown. We reached Manikaran on 13 September,4 and had the luxury of hot sulphur-water bath, good food, and comfortable stay at this historical and religious shrine of Hindus and Sikhs. Then we followed the Malana valley known for its oldest democracy in the country. We crossed over Chandrakhani pass (11,500 ft) for entering into the lush green beautiful Kulu valley. From Nagar we walked over the road on the right side of Beas river through beautiful apple orchards and cultivated paddy fields and reached Manali on 17 September.
The monsoon was now over, there was brightness of autumn, Kulu valley was beautifully carpeted with golden apple and paddy fields. In the serene atmosphere of this small Manali township, we all recuperated with good food and fruits to eat and were getting ready for the last stage of our joint traverse up to Leh.
The traverse team left Manali on 22 September and trekked towards Hamta pass on the right of Hohtang pass. The climb was steep and passed over rough tracks full of rocks and boulders. The view from Hamta pass (14,000 ft) was magnificent: on both sides in the northwest, Lahul valley was a vast stretch of dry naked mountains and tops covered with snow, whereas in the southwest there was a green valley of Kulu with deodar and juniper forests. The descent was steep towards Chandra valley up to Chhotandanda. After crossing the Chandra river the party followed the motor road for a few km towards north along this river. The landscape of Lahul valley was full of big rocks with barren and dry mountains all above 10,000 ft. Gusty wind was a regular feature, blowing with high speed of 60 to 70 kms per hour. After reaching Batal, the party left the motor road and trekked towards Chandra Tal, (14,000 ft), which is a beautiful lake east of Kumzum. All around, there were rocky mountains with rare patches of dry grass, and the barrenness made the whole landscape look like the Tibetan plateau. The party had to start early in the morning on 26 September to cross Baralacha La (15,250 ft) which was covered with fresh snow. The climb was gradual but tiring with a long walk. The pass was windy and cold. The view from the pass was open and the party could see the large span of Zanskar Himalayan ranges. The team trekked down to Sarchu and camped under the rock overhangs normally used by shepherds. The team had to cross over a series of passes in this area. Bacha La (14,000 ft), Kumbe La (16,700 ft) and then reached Mansu, which was the first village which they touched after Manali. The inhabitants are the followers of Buddhism and speak a dialect similar to Ladakhi. The main crops grown in this area are barley, potatoes and buckwheat. People are poor and mainly depend on sheep and yak grazing and comparatively poorer than their counterparts in Lahul valley, but they are hospitable and friendly to outsiders. The party then trekked towards Thanta Gompa and crossed over Thunda La (16,000 ft) and reached Lhunde village. They followed the track via Zangt La, Yulchung, Nerak La (15,900 ft), Shingi La (16,600 ft) and reached Phutoksar village. After crossing Sirsir La (16,300 ft), they reached Ilanupatta. The path runs along the sheer cliffs by the side of the fairly deep and gusty river, which is dangerous, but the view of this wonderful gorge is certainly fascinating. Wanla is a pretty village having a beautiful monastery, People have constructed fine water prayer-wheels in the village which day and night turn round to bene fit the community. The whole area is a symbol of Tibetan culture and having great impact of lamaism. The area is sparsely populated, but the people have interesting customs. The locals are very much aware about nature conservation and protecting the vegetation and trees with very much care to keep the greenery alive. Although firewood is in great demand, yet cutting the branches and twigs of trees is considered to be irreligious, so that the greenery is protected. This was the end of Zanskar valley and on 9 October morning after crossing over Prinkit La, the team finally reached Lama Yuru and completed the joint traverse. On reaching the metalled road at Lama Yuru the traverse team reached Leh happily in vehicles the same day where they met the support group members who were anxiously waiting for their arrival.
Our Joint Expedition had ended at Leh and then only we three Indian members trekked from Leh to Karakoram Pass whereas after a short stay of two days in Leh town the New Zealand members were finally seen off at Leh airport. These five New Zealand members were to go to Pakistan via Rawalpindi to cover the traverse from Skardu opposite Nubra valley to trek up to K2 base in Pakistan.
The route to Karakoram pass was known as the old 'Silk route', which passes through the villages of Tirit, Lughzhung, Sumur, Teggar, Panamik and Sasoma. One can see the clear impact of Central Asian culture in this area which has been influenced by the old silk traders of Yarkand coming to this valley with their big caravans. Even the important places have been named in Yarkandi language like Chungtash, Murgo, Kazilanagar, Daulat Beg Oldi.
On 20 October morning, we left Skyangpoche early at 6 a.m. after our breakfast to negotiate Saser La (15,800 ft) which was covered with fresh snow. It was so cold that even our breath was freezing instantaneously on our moustaches and formed solid crystals. The view on the other side of the La was impressive with different landscape having brown and black mountains spreading across the Shyok river up to a far distance. There was complete barrenness all round except for n few patches of white snow on mountain tops. Murgo (14,600 ft), 'Gateway of Death', is probably correctly named as the track from Murgo onwards follows through completely treacherous barren, inhospitable and freezing cold Karakoram ranges, which used to be death traps for the old caravans due to frequent snow blizzards and the track still displays reminders of bones and skeletons throughout the trail up to the pass. Not even a blade of grass grows in this area. The landscape is full of barren, naked, black and brown mountains nil around.
After reaching on top of the wide-open Depsang plateau one feels as if he is on the roof of the world. The snow-covered high Himalayan mountains are far away in the north and south and appear to be lower than this height. The tracks from Aksai Chin, Baltistan, Central Asia and Tibet converge here from all directions increasing its Htrntegic importance. The general height of this plateau is 17,000 ft to 18,000 ft, it is covered with stones and sandy gravels. But the area is completely barren and gusty cold winds keep on blowing most of the time. This is one of the coldest places where the temperature goes down to minus 50 °C in winter.
25 October. We started from Daulat Beg Oldi at 7 a.m. on a clear day when it was very cold with freezing winds and we were fully prepared to counteract the bone-biting chill of Karakoram. Following a dry river bed towards northwest, we trekked on a gradual river bed. Both the sides of this valley were dominated by gentle mountain tops covered with white snow. Whereas at the end of this open valley snow- clad white mountain ranges were shining at the far end forming the boundary of Kashmir. One will never miss the route to Karakoram Pass if he follows the trail of bones and skeletons of dead men and animals of old caravans trapped in snow blizzards in the olden times in this area. At the end there is hardly a climb of a thousand feet when the track bifurcates towards right for about a kilometre or a gradual slope when one does not believe himself that he has reached the well known Karakoram Pass historically and strategically so important and renowned in the world. Finally we arrived at Karakoram Pass (18,605 ft) at about 12.45 p.m. and completed our traverse of Himalaya from Kangchenjunga to Karakoram Pass.
There were two small cairns on the pass at a distance of 50 yards indicating the pass and the boundaries of 2 big nations of Asia, India on one side and China on the other. The land between the two cairns (burjis) is the important 'No Man's Land'. We hugged, thumped and congratulated each other and then returned to Daulat Beg Oldi, rejoicing at the completion of this long venture.
The main interesting feature of this long traverse had been that we had come across a variety of tribal people and ethnic groups like Tibetan people of Sikkim, Rais and Limbus of Eastern Nepal, Sherpas of Solu Khumbu region, Tamangs and Thakalis of Central Nepal, orthodox and backward Jumlis of western Nepal, Bhotias, Kumaonis, Garhwalis, Ranwaltas, Kinnauris and Ladakhis etc. who are quite different from each other and have got different habits, customs, traditions, religions and different dialects, but one thing was common in all of them and that was their innocent love and hospitable gestures towards us, which made it possible to trek through these inaccessible areas and complete the venture. We were welcomed everywhere and there was not even a single case of theft or cheating noticed by us.
Himalaya is well known for its rich variety of flora and fauna. In the east there was thick vegetation with heavy undergrowth whereas the Central and Garhwal Himalaya had beautiful conifer forests with alpine meadows but the vast, barren, dry and cold region of Zanskar and Ladakh Himalaya was equally fascinating having entirely different topography. We were surely shocked to see the ruthless deforestation taking place in the entire Himalaya which will have very serious ecological implications for the future, apart from destroying the beauty of nature.
Wild animals are becoming more or less extinct and we could hardly see few animals like bharals, mountain goats, brown bears, flying foxes and a variety of beautiful birds and vultures in the Himalaya, but we did not come across any snow leopard during the entire trek.
No trace of the Abominable Snowman, Yeti, could be seen but the legends of the existence of such a creature are prevalent all over the entire Himalayan region.
The Himalaya have great potentialities for developing trekking and tourism in the future but it will certainly bring problems of environmental pollution, denudation of forests, with heavy road construction destroying the beauty of nature.
The panoramic views and scenic beauty of Himalaya will remain everlasting in our memories. I believe that, apart from enjoying the beauty of nature, this, had a tremendous spiritual impact on all of us and we all are longing to see more and more of Himalaya. But alas, could we afford to trek and fathom the beauty of each hidden valley of Himalaya, which are still zealously guarded by the lofty snow-covered peaks all round, unknown and beyond the reach of human beings?
Gasherbrum IV from Concordia.