FROM SANGLA TO NETWAR OVER THE RUPIN
WILLIAM McKAY AITKEN
WITH INNER LINE restrictions on tourists being lifted in 1992 for Kinnaur I jumped at the chance to accompany a group from Delhi's St. Stephen's College hiking club led by Romesh Bhattacharjee.
I was puzzled why Bhattoo should be chosen to lead India's future economists when his role in life*is to come down with a heavy hand on fiscal inventiveness. 'Don't be late' he told me and 1 leapt out of a taxi at 5 in the morning of 4 October 1992 to pick up Bhattoo and Chetan, father and son. They were both tucking Into a breakfast of fried eggs which seemed a bad omen to one who always finishes his trek with ovarious fare. I should have remembered that the lean and hungry look on Bhattoo's face denoted the agony of the only man in the entire length of the Himalaya who does not eat dal-bhat, our staple for the next ten days.
The Himalayan Queen whisked us to Kalka where, on finding the narrow-gauge link train bulging with Dushera passengers, we had to take the bus to Shimla. Our party of a dozen yielded a rare mix of types and regions and some were on their first Himalayan outing. Norden was the strong-man of the group and our public relations spokesman in view of his father's seniority in Shimla's charmed circle of bureaucrats. Shah was equally muscular and stoutly maintained the expedition accounts against daily anarchic suggestions. Next morning there was no bus to Sangla and we had to debate financing a taxi to assure our waiting porters that we were on our way. As the taxi drove up it got a flat. Commending its chagrined driver to St Michelin (the patron saint of the deflated) we unscrupulously piled on to a bus going to Tapri within striking distance of Sangla. Our bad karma caught up with us at Rampur Bushair as the bus swerved wildly on beholding the Satluj. Not one but two punctures stalled our plans and worse was to follow on the third morning out of Delhi when we eventually made it to Sangla but with our porters nowhere to be seen.
We put up in the forest bungalow which overlooked the river, and faced the splendid march of cedar-timbered houses that gave Sangla so much character. Behind, the grey polished pinnacles of the Kinner Kailash clamoured for attention though I noted the younger male trekkers in the group - Mylin, Gaurav and Vivek - preferred the equally daunting challenge of overcoming the indifference of the three ladies in the party Ruchika, Delicia and Diane. We managed, after a lot of haggling (caused by the apple season) to hire two Nepali porters but they were not properly equipped for the Rupin. The temples at Sangla were ablaze with colour at the big annual phuletch fair .ind architecturally the village was a great joy.
Owing to a late start we moved up to spend the night at Kanda Dogri where the villagers tend seasonal plots. The views of the Kinnaur pinnacles grew more spectacular but shepherds we spoke to urged us to get over the Rupin before tbc present dusting of snow turned to winter's snuffing out of the route. Progress to the crest of the range that in theory divides Himachal from Uttar Pradesh - in practice the border lies a long way down the Rupin valley and must reflect the boundary of an earlier hill fiefdom - was slow owing to the newcomers finding their hill legs and the ustads (Ranu and Bill) running everyone else off theirs in false trails. When a porter decided he could go no further, we all said Amen and found a camp site well under the lee of the pass but near enough to hope for a group photograph on top at lunch next day, 9 October.
The camping arrangements among such a mixed group, confounded by the absence of a tried cook, could have led to a lot of friction but not once did anyone blame or blow his top.
Possibly Bhattoo's bold hairstyle had foreclosed that option. Remarkably, in view of the setbacks, slow progress and doomsday predictions about the inadvisability of bringing freshers on demanding trails, the group gelled magnificently. Bhattoo forever brought up the rear and magnanimously shepherded the struggling girls over the pass exactly as scheduled. Ranu had to get back to Chandigarh in two days for an exam and I also planned a brisk return to Mussoorie. The easy sweeping approach to the head of the Rukti gad which we had followed all the way from Sangla steepened for the final pull. The climax yielded a steep drop southwards where the Rupin rose in a dried up lake surrounded by a saucer of tortuous terrain, unappetisingly rugged and snowswept. Eastwards from the cairns on the pass the ridge angled up steeply and settled any doubts that the Nalgan ghati a neighbouring pass lay close at hand. Westwards the ridge did not run so high but seemed just as loathe to allow easy passages. The shepherds warned against straying towards the Buran pass leading to the Pabbar valley since in the tangle of options it was easy to end up back in Sangla.
Nobody seems to agree on the position or height of the Rupin and while our objective bore all the right credentials its height couldn't be much above 4300 m, if that. Confirmation that it probably was the real Rupin pass came from W.E. Buchanan's acount in the second issue of the Himalayan Journal,1 vouched for by H. M. Grover a senior forest officer familiar with the area. Buchanan chose the harder part and crossed from the south in mid-September. It was from the miseries of his party's steep ascent where the porters had to let their hair fall over their eyes to prevent snow-blindness that convinced Ranu and I of the sameness of our route. We left the main party on the pass and it was a truly, testing descent with no question of our hair being in any state to fall over our eyes. Most of the time it was standing on end! From the cairn a sheer chute of splintered rock had to be negotiated that led to the flats where the river Rupin took birth, Ranu and I fairly flogged our way down steep narrow passages bypassing some of the most gorgeous fanned-out waterfalls it has been our privilege to see. Snow-bridges of surprising girth considering the lateness of the season stalled our impatient progress. Neither of us was shod very sensibly for the occasion, having totally underestimated the seriousness of the trek.
1. H.J., Vol. II, P. 74.
Many expenditions climb this peak every year. There are various routes, the southwest ridge being the most popular . Here it is the route of the Spanish expedition of Carlos Goni Mendibill in 1991.
Two member German team of Helmut Muller and Mathias Rau Climbed the peak via the southwest ridge on 7 November 1991.
Unsuccesful attempt on the Dutch route on the north by the Austraian team led by Arthur Haid in April 1991.
We puzzled over how the hell Lady Canning, the vicereine had managed to glissade down these slopes to the astonishment of Queen Victoria who kept her letters - now in Harewood House. Charles Allen's book about Lady Canning's tours fails to convey that she was in fact rather vague about her route. The ladies of our party were convinced she had crossed by an easier pass and they should know because behind us, the main party was forced to camp around the incipient lake, a howlingly bleak choice brought on by nightfall and made more miserable when neither of the expedition stoves worked. Meanwhile down in the spectacular valley which swung drunkenly from the perpendicular to a long run of meadow before plunging us into ri tangle of autumnal forest, Ranu and 1 were still legging it like mad into the gloaming. To avoid further embarrassment on the snow-bridges we skirted them by soul-numbing river crossings, a horrible way to prepare for bed.
Darkness, a disintegrating path and a close pounding river forced us to take one risk too many and quaking with fear at the close shave we bivouacked, optimistically draped around a willowy shrub to prevent us rolling down the sheer conifer hillside. We even managed to sleep though we took turns to wake up to let out maniacal groans <it our immaculate absurdity in lacking a box of matches between us. According to Ranu this therapy would deter bears - as if any wild animal would be so rash as to set foot on our impressive .ingle of incline.
Next morning we zapped down the dessicated river bank to arrive In the first village of Jhaku by 10. Marvellously sited deodar village houses overlooked riotously red hanging valleys of Ramdhana, the ripening cereal crop of these inaccessible villages. Below, the Rupin ft peerless jade, purled with enough benevolence to make us overlook our devastated knees and purple toe-nails. Down and down we jerked until we came to a startlingly expensive temple of opulent cedar logs nt the first village in Uttar Pradesh - Seva Dogri. Civilisation announced itself when we turned a corner and saw the feudal equation updated. The focal bigwig was flaying the bowling of half a dozen tiny-tot minions who were queueing up to send down full tosses so he could score a century in three overs.
Astoundingly we learned at the teashop that the sale of illicit opium had paid for the cost of the temple - and the cricket bat. Amusingly, Bhattoo who is supposed to prevent such things walked through the village two days later (after roping up the party to get them off the dicey passages), unaware the dope scene was so rampant. Ranu was given a few complimentary shavings of raw poppy gum as a conversational gambit for Delhi drawing rooms. Also best-quality charas could be had for a song. The flip side to these junkie encounters was to arrive at the teashop at Peesa for the night and roam around for half an hour (again getting our feet wet) bawling for help. The owner sat watching us from 50 yards away thinking we were a narcotics raiding party.
The final day along this sumptuously endowed river with its appallingly vertical trail was aided by some mules. From Netwar which we hit by midday we caught a bus to Naugaon in the Yamuna valley. The gods smiled and an empty taxi returning to Mussoorie whisked me home by 7 p.m. This enabled Ranu to meet his deadline. The rest of the group also managed to report back at St. Stephens by the due date, with a delightful quotation attributed to Delicia, the most petite of the party. She had shied away at the sight of some white pack horses and Bhattoo had queried her violent reaction. Did she associate them with the classic climbing archetype 'Dream of white horses ?' Disconcertingly her reply referred to a different ball-game. She said they reminded her of Boris Becker!
Summary: A trek across the Rupin ghati pass, in October 1992.