EARLY ON THE MORNING of 28 June. 1983, our group of twelve treking members, five porters and a guide left Harsil, to climb steeply, following the path along the Jelandri gad. There had been much rain the night before but the dawn was clear and the air cool. The track, which is very well defined, runs along the eastern bank of the Jelandri gad. The climb, though steep, is easy and winds its way through forests of pine, deodar, maple and walnut. As we climb we leave the river far below and make for the pasture land at the head of the gorge. We pass a few shepherds. At the end of the climb we come to an open valley having a beautiful meadow. A short walk ahead brought us to an open glade surrounded by trees of birch and willow and few deodar. A crystal clear stream happily bounced its way through Ilils glade. We make camp here and named it 'Gangnani Woods'. We reached this spot at midday and as the clouds were building up, we quickly made camp and preparations were soon under way for our first meal of the day. Luckily the weather held and we spent a relaxed day al this beautiful spot. Here our party took on another member, Jango, Bhotia dog, who was our companion and guard until the pass.
29 June — We woke to another fine day. There was a light breeze and the sun warmed us enough to make us feel lightly toasted. A kilometer from our Gangnani camp we crossed a log bridge. This is over a tributary of the Jelandari gad and not over the main river which at this time was a rushing torrent of melting snow. The walk was a pleasant one, undulating over hill sides, meadows and ice chimneys. Soli Mehta's account in volume XXVIII of the Himalayan Journal (p. 55) is very graphic. We did not use his camp site on the ledge but went down to the meadows and camped there. Fortunately there were very few shepherds around, but may be the damage has already been done as we only came across a very few alpine flowers, Portentilla, erica, wild Geraniums and Gentiana oxnata Primula macrophylla and Primula denticulata. There was no dead wood In this area at all and we had to bring a few loads from across the ridge
The nala which had to be followed, to the bamak, can be seen clearly from here. There was much snow about. Soli Mehta mentions there was wnv to cross the Jelandri gad to the left, but our route had to be on the left as the right was impossible.
Crossing Lamkhaga pass to Baspa valley.
30 June — We left early for the Lamkhaga bamak. The initial part of the track was along the left of the river. The going was slow and difficult. The snow was soft and many times some of the party would flounder waist deep in a pot hole; finding a way over the terminal moraine was tiring and our loads were heavy too. At one point we crossed over to the right of the river over a still remaining ice-bridge. We noticed a frozen lake to our left. The ice in and around it was rapidly melting. We trudged slowly upwards and at an out-cropping of rocks stopped to brew a cup of tea. We were tired and very hungry, our feet were numb with the cold and our boots completely wet. This rest was much needed to recoup our strength and dry out our wet socks on the hot rocks. We had been struggling with the soft snow for five hours. Strapping on loads again we continued upwards and at about 2 p.m. we decided to do the next bump and no more. Some of the boys had developed headaches and were feeling the effects of altitude. Our guide told us that we were at the foot of the pass and it was now just over the top. We were elated as we had covered more ground than we had planned. If there had been less snow may be the going would have taken longer. It was lovely and warm on the rocks and the feeling that we had successfully completed another part of the route relaxed us all and all tiredness seemed to vanish. This idyll did not last long as at 5 p.m. the sun went behind a ridge, a cold breeze sprang up and night was on us. We quickly put up our tents on the ridge and adjoining snowfield and preparations for a meal were under way. Because of the wind it was very difficult to get the stove lit, in spite of making the kitchen in a pit. We eventually had our meal, the first one in the day, at 7 p.m. and tumbled into our sleeping bags. Surprisingly it was not too cold at night, but sleep would* not come. All through the night I could hear the roar of avalanches rushing down the steep slopes around us. Jango was curled up in the kitchen pit and refused to share a tent with any of us. These dogs are truly remarkable. Their thick coats protect Ihcm from the freezing cold and very often by morning they are completely under a blanket of snow and have to be dug out none the worse for wear. They don't seem to suffer from snow blindness too. I read that their cornea is thicker than that of the human eye and this is to their advantage in the snow.
1 July — Vinod Bhatia woke us up at 3 a.m. and very reluctantly we emerged from our sleeping bags. Our stove too seemed to be suffering the effect of fatigue and with great difficulty we managed a cup of luke warm cocoa accompanied by a frozen slice of bread. We struck camp, donned our rucksacks and started for the steep slope ahead of us. The going was slow as there was much verglas on the rocks. Up and over the first bump we went only to be confronted by another slope and .mother and another. Each time we thought we were at the pass there was another steep slope ahead of us. Where was this elusive pass ? Finally we came to a large open bowl and there at one end was our pass; no gentle hollow between towering slopes; but a wall rearing up 150 m ahead of us. We cut steps diagonally across it and very slowly made our way upwards. By this time the altitude was affecting some of the party. More than half the party had never been to this height before. One by one we slowly got to the top, which was just a narrow lodge. All thoughts of an easier descent were soon put out of our minds when to our horrow we found we had to go down a straight 150 m. According to previous reports our descent should have been over boulders but at this time all were covered under soft treacherous snow. Luckily we had brought two ropes along and after a short rest we anchored the ropes and Baldev was over and down without too much trouble, Inspite of the snow being deep. I followed next and experienced a great sense of achievement and a big thrill to be abseiling down such a length of sheer snow. It was only when 1 was safely down that the thought struck me that I was most probably the first woman over the Lamkhaga Pass.
Soon we were all safely over and as we were collecting our stores we noticed a strange phenomenon — there was a large dark circle round the sun and this in turn was edged by the colours of the rainbow. In a very short time we were finding our way down a continuous slope. There was a lot of snow which made the going easy. There was bit of apprehension regarding crevasses as these were criss-crossing the area ahead of us. At some places where the slope was steep we glissaded down on our bottoms not caring about the consequences. It had been a long day in the snow and we wanted to get to our next camp as soon as possible. But this was not to be. The way seemed unending. All around us were steep jagged peaks. We could see Nela pass on our right. Our guide Limbu says it can be crossed in May, and has done so twice. This was further confirmed by the villagers at Chitkul who used to cross over every three years on a pilgrimage to Gangotri. The slope soon became gentler and we reached the safety of the moraine and broken scree at the confluence of a glacial stream with the Baspa gad, and our camp for the day — Gunda Thach. On our right and slightly behind us stretches the glacier from which the Baspa rises; miles and miles of mountainous blocks of grey, dirty ice.
We went on to find a slightly more open area for our camp. We had been walking for hours with nothing to sustain us but that long forgotten and digested cup of cocoa. We were ready to eat anything. Fuel was scarce and we used the dried dung of the local semi-wild cattle; a cross between a cow and a yak. A quick lunch of noodles and never had the world seemed better.
Plans for the next day were made. Our guide Jai Singh, had been a pillar of strength. His experience had helped us through many difficult areas. He was to leave back for Uttarkashi the next morning. No one envied him the long trudge back over the pass. Our porters who had behaved marvellously were to go back with him. We were on our own from here on. I would like to mention here for interest sake that Soli Mehta paid his porters Rs. 3/- a day, with food and clothes. Twenty years later we were paying Rs. 25/- a day along with food and clothes. As 'extras' we could get temperamental natures thrown in for good measure along with our stores if the porters decided they had had enough adventure and did not want to come any further.
2 July — After a restful night we were away by 7 a.m. We crossed the Baspa via an ice-bridge and made tracks for Nithal Thach. There was no way we were to know that the next twenty seven kilometers were to be the most harrowing. Ahead of us were five angry torrents of melting snow that we had to cross. As there were no bridges we just had to get in and wade across, upto our waists in freezing water. In retrospect the only thing that kept us from being swept away were our heavy rucksacks. Once over the water obstacles we stopped to brew some tea and to dry out. Near by were a few dzos and yaks grazing. Our thought was 'tea with fresh milk', but as hard as we tried to catch one of the dzos they just had us running after them in circles. Finally they were fed up with our antics and gave us chase and saw us off. Where had these animals come from and how had they survived the winter was a mystery. There was no sign of any goat-herds, no hamlets and as we were to find out, no road ahead.
Shanchya Thach followed Nithal Thach and as the crossing of the rivers had not dampened out enthusiasm we pushed on to the next point on the map. By midday we were at Viladunti, an I.T.B.P. post, but no one was there. We rested here and had our lunch. A light drizzle started and it became cold. Fortunately the rain soon stopped and we pushed on. We soon noticed that the track was getting narrower and narrower. Most of the path from here onwards had been obliterated by the snows.
Very soon we were like flies on the wall, with rock falls above and the raging Baspa river below. Very, very carefully we went on and just when we thought we were out of the woods, another obstacle presented Itself. This time it was another raging torrent, the first of many, which we still had to cross. It was now a continuous hazardous crawl across Ihf mountain face to our next stream. This time the cutting was so deep that it took our breath away and lowered our morale. Once again tin- track on the other side seemed to disappear and it was Baldev who cut out steps and saw us safely across. We hardly had time to breathe when up ahead the track just vanished and there seemed no wny across the gorge. The rope was again fixed and we slid down a sheer face of rock and loose scree to the edge of the river, crossed II on sheer will power or may be through fright, and clawed our way Upto where we thought the path should be. It was only when we were on the other side did we realize, on looking back, that we had been balanced on 'nothing' and where we were now standing was comparatively indv Talk about the trials of Atlas, we had out-recorded him long ago. How much more of this were we going to be able to take. There seemed In be no opening in the gorge, no flat area to camp and no herdsman, Very naturally, to guide us. On we trudged for a few more hours and tl 6 p.m. met a shepherd who told usPthere was a bridge further on Ind across the bridge another I.T.B.P. post. We hurried on and in the falling light saw the bridge and the vacant post. On the last 200 m, a common unspoken thought had been to just unroll sleeping bags irrespective el the shelter for the night. We were really and truly tired after a most Inhospitable 27 km route. Like robots, some of us pitched tents while the others got a hot meal ready. We needed a fire, our boots, socks and feet had been wet all day and our feet were in a terrible state. Luckily there was dead wood lying around and we soon had a blazing fire, which did wonders to our flagging spirits and wornout feet.
3rd July — We had planned a late start, but by 6.30 a.m. our man of all work, Ganga Bahadur, had brought us a hot cup of tea and the ramp was slowly coming to life. The rain of the night before was II with us and this made our camp chores heavy going. With great difficulty we got the fire going and had our brunch, our clothes drying f.isl as we were getting wet. By 9.30 a.m. we were on the road Chhltkul. By now I knew what the animals must have felt on their to the river Jordan — for us also it was 'one more river' and t was the river to Chhitkul. After the experience of the day before, were experts on picking the right boulders for crossing and spent w time in making this decision as no one was keen on getting any Isr than we already were. We could not believe our luck when we spotted the wooden plank, but, on the other side of the raging torrent, nrc any one could volunteer to go across, Vinod took off, leaping inn boulder to boulder and was soon holding the plank aloft in triumph. This one was certainly going to be a dry crossing. Our luck seemed to have suddenly changed for the better. The track opened up, the rivers got fewer and we came across open pastures and had reached the tree line too. Juniper gave way to the birch. Across the river the birch forests are still untouched but on our side they showed the ravages of the woodcutter's axe.
On through Mujiland and Nagasti and very soon we saw the quaint village of Chitkul. Chhitkul is a nest of about 50 houses, made of wood and stone. One house looked like an oversized cuckoo clock, but later learnt it is a temple dedicated to Nag'. Chhitkul boasts of a rest house, a heaven for the weary traveller, but this modern cemented building is an eye sore all the same. Why could not the authorities have constructed this building to fit in with the prevailing architecture and ethnic design ? The villagers are friendly and helpful. The village is over a hundred years old and here both Hinduism and Buddhism flourish side by side. The people are intensely superstitious and fear their devas and devis. The houses lean drunkenly on one another and to get to the top floor or living area one has to climb up a plank of wood into which notches have been cut. Rather a hazardous venture! Much wood is used here, not only for the construction of their houses but also, hollowed out logs are used as channels to transport water from one stream to another. Large hollowed out trunks are also used as tubs in which the women wash clothes and fleece, stamping them with their feet.
4th July — The day dawned clear and after a leisurally breakfast we started for Rakcham just 9 km away. The road skirted the town and follows the river. No problems on the route. After about an hour we reached Mastrang, a pretty area set among boulders and pine trees. The good weather did not last and we got into Rakcham accompanied by heavy rain. The rest house alongwith a school and dispensary are situated near the river but away from the old town. Rakcham is a very poor village and one can just procure the bare essentials.
5th July — The sky was overcast but the rain had stopped and we now made our way to Sangla, 15 km away. The valley right from Chhitkul to Sangla is rather narrow and at certain places forests have been cut to make way for fields. It all looks very picturesque at the moment but in years to come these fields will further encroach into the forests. The crops grown are mainly wheat, potatoes and jowar. Fruit cultivation is prominent. Apricots, grapes and apples seem to do quite well here. The houses here are very pretty being made of wood and stone, the roofs are of carved slate pieces overlapping each other. The poorer people have low roofed huts of wood and stone but the roof is angled at its apex to 60 degrees so as to leave a fairly large gap for the smoke to escape. Many gompas are evident along the way and large prayer flags flutter in the breeze. Sangla is first spotted at least 3 km away from the town. The old town is perched high above the new. All these villages and old towns have a prominent cuckoo clock shaped building. The track soon gave way to the tarmac road which somehow hurt our feet! We found our way to the PWD rest house only to find we were ahead of schedule and no reservations were in our name till the 7 July! Inspite of this, the chowkidar was most helpful and allowed us to stack our rucksacks in the verandah. Our next task was to find a place to eat and we headed for the largest hotel sign. This was just a wooden shack catering tea and about one kg of pakoras a day. The proprietor really had to call on his resources to feed 12 hungry people. Fortunately our transport fetched up in the 12 o'clock convoy and we were soon on our way to Karcham by the 1 o'clock 'down gate'. This gate operates every one hour or so as the road is very narrow and not capable of taking two way traffic. The road is narrow and winding and from Sangla onwards the valley narrows down to the gorge again. The road is cut into the rock and soft earth and very often boulders come crashing down. It is a question of luck not to be hit by one of these.
Short of Karcham the muddy waters of the Satluj joins the ice blue waters of the Baspa in a tumultous mass. After a nine hour journey, wandering through this valley — we reached Kufri and onward to Shimla.
A trek across the Lamkhaga pass (5282 m) from Harsil to Baspa, in July 1983.