I WAS FIRST INTRODUCED to the Garhwal Himalaya October last year in leading a trek over the Kuari pass (Kuari Khal), and then into the Valley of the Flowers. At 4000 m the pass provides a superb view of this section of the Himalaya, the very best in Frank Smythe's opinion. The trek inspired me to find out more about the story, to see if any parts had been or could be revisited. What had happened to that jungle valley, over the last 64 years, in this age of rapidly expanding population ? Were its forests still intact? What was the col like, and had anyone else repeated the descent? As I was booked to come and lead another trek in the Garhwal, I had the ideal opportunity at hand to answer these questions. On getting home I immediately read my father's book Nanda Devi (1934), and especially the chapter the Second Watershed Crossing which tells this story. It turned out to be one the most exciting pieces of pure adventure I have read. The crossing itself sounded terrifying. but I felt that I could at least explore the valley from below. My initial enquiries into the later history of area soon indicated that astonishingly little had changed since 1934, and a repeat of the route over the col at the head of the Satopanth glacier had not been attempted. It is a testament to my father's very special approach to mountains that, with the Himalaya crawling with climbers of ever increasing technical ability, not one in the 64 years since Nanda Devi has even looked at the possibilities of mountain reconnaissance in this area. Indeed as far as we know the Panpatia glacier and other possible routes to connect Badrinath and Kedarnath are still untouched.
At least this remained true until last year. My research had lead me to Harish Kapadia in Bombay, and I was bowled over by his reply to my letter. He had, just last year, made an attempt to emulate Shipton and Tilman and connect Badrinath and Kedarnath, but this time by the Panpatia glacier, believing this the more likely route of the legendary priest. They failed to get anywhere on this occasion, , but the coincidence was compounded by his note telling me of Martin Moran's expedition to complete the Second Watershed for the first time in 64 years. I immediately called Martin and was honoured to be asked to come along. I was extremely lucky in my timing. The Satopanth glacier is beyond the inner line, and closed to foreigners. Martin, had spent a lot of effort getting permission to cross the line at Mana. I would be able to accompany some of the best climbers of the day up to the col, including Martin himself and the indomitable Brede Arkless, as well as three accomplished Welsh cavers Pete Francis, John Harvey and Ben Lovett.
As a plantsman the trek offered more opportunities to observe Himalayan flora, in the late spring/early summer pre-monsoon season. My observations would be helped by my reading of Smythe's Valley of the Flowers. As well as my father, here was another new found hero for me. Smythe, must still be fairly unusual in having been a keen plantsman, making botanical observations, whilst at the same time being engaged in very serious climbing. His Valley of the Flowers describes an attempt on Nilkanth, as well as a list of species collected in 1937. It would be interesting to compare notes, on the botany at least. To Martin's horror I also proposed to take Polunin's Himalayan Flora over the col. The weight represented two days food. This is still the only serious field guide to Himalayan flora, difficult to find in the UK, it is available at all the small bookshops on the Janpath in Delhi.
Four days from Delhi our bus left us to camp outside the great pilgrim centre of Badrinath. At over 3000 m, Badrinath is above the tree line and set in alpine meadows surrounded by great peaks all having mythological significance, the most prominent being the Matterhorn like Nilkanth an embodiment of Shiva whose presence here has been a bone of contention with the devotees of Vishnu to which Badrinath is dedicated. In flower at our first campsite by the road to Mana, were the low growing purple flowered Iris kemaonensis, and lots of the Thyme, Thymus linearis.
Early next morning we were blessed by the Rawal (High Priest) of Badrinath, who had told us of the possibility of a long forgotten tunnel under the mountains. Picking up our army of porters we trailed through the checkpoint in the pretty Garhwali village of Mana, and set off west towards the Satopanth glacier. The alpine meadows at this point had only recently been covered with snow, but already the plants were recovering and things beginning to flower. After moving away from our Irises and thyme, we soon started coming across the tiny brilliant blue flower of the annual Gentian, Gentiana argentea. We next crossed the Alaknanda by a huge snow bridge. Almost immediately, where the snow had melted, we started finding primula foliage, and emerging onto a beautiful area of flat ground which we made our next campsite at 3500 m, found this and the ground beyond full of Primula denticulata. Above our campsite, in the damper grass, as a bulb fanatic I was very excited to find masses of Gagea elegans, both in flower, and coming into seed. I am sure this is the Gagea Smythe mentions hoiking out with his ice axe, and not G.lutea he records it as.
Higher up was masses of the old Himalayan favourite, Bergenia stacheyi, which perks up immediately the snow melts from it, and very soon comes into flower attracting butterflies, which make a wonderful sight in a background of snow. The last time I had seen B.stacheyi was in Pete Francis' garden in Llanelli just before we came away. Almost the last plant encountered was a jungle of the dwarf willow Salix karelini, heavily impeding our progress along the top of the very steep lateral moraine. In the next three days we climbed to the head of the Satopanth glacier, as we climbed the areas of ground not covered with snow disappeared, but in the fine weather we had butterflies fluttering across the snow, searching for the odd patch becoming uncovered where a primula could spring up.
The col at the end of the glacier, a great jagged icefall, flanked by the giant buttresses of Chaukhamba, and the unclimbed peaks to the south looked such an obvious goal in the clear blue skies we were getting, that it seemed all the more incredible that no one else had been lured over it since 1934. It proved to be as technically difficult as my father's description, so with regret Peter who was having problems with the altitude, and I turned back with Naveen and Hera, two of our porters, while the climbers hopefully made the difficult ascent and the even more daunting 2500 m descent on the other side. We intended to go back down the glacier and make the long journey by road to Kalimath in order to make a supporting trek to Kedarnath on the other side of the col. By the time we reached Mana two days later we had been on the glacier a week. The snow having receded significantly, the small pink flowers of the Primula relative Androsace sarmentosa had become a common sight on the moist banks.
Our journey round to Kalimath was much quicker than I had imagined. Bus travel in India can be an uncomfortable and agonisingly slow business. However in this area, fleets of Tata jeeps are available for hire, driver and all for, to us Europeans at least, amazingly low prices. Via the delightful provincial capital of Gopeshwar we were dropped off in Kalimath after a breathtaking ride, along the narrow pilgrims' Badrinath to Kedarnath road. This took us through subtropical forest, then up 2000 m into temperate forest and over a pass with a stunning view of the Himalaya, then down into the sub-tropics again in the Mandakini valley.
Kalimath was significant to this trip as it is where Shipton and Tilman emerged into civilisation after their struggles in the lost valley. Having discovered the mystery of the watershed they did not need to complete the route to Kedarnath as we now proposed to do. Kalimath proved to be a delightful place, surrounded by rich sub-tropical forest on the banks of the rushing Kali ganga , it is a small village of a few houses clustered around an ancient temple to Kali, the fearsome manifestation of the mother goddess as destroyer of demons. The valley is of great significance to her since 1000 m directly above us was the lonely temple of Kalisila where she was born. This, our first objective, we reached by a 4 hour climb up an ancient stone path through the lovely Garhwali village of Byorki, where boys played cricket on a near vertical pitch.
For the first part of our trek we followed the sharp Chorpagala ridge. This leads up eventually to the great Chaukhamba to Kedarnath Peak range, and is directly above the valley in which my father and Tilman toiled in 1934. Starting in thick mosquito infested forest, it climbs above the tree line to the steep pass called Douara Khal from where we got our perfect panoramic views of the other side of the col and the whole route down the ice falls into the head of the Ghandarpongi river and the forest below.
The temple at Kalishila is positioned right at the end of the ridge, with the holy spot itself reached by a hair raising scramble onto a rocky eyrie positioned above the final plunge into the valleys below. At the temple, we found a very friendly resident priest and companion yogi, as well as a playful puppy called Kouroupoulou, who let us camp for the night. It soon became apparent that water was going to be a serious problem. The steepness of the ridge and the nature of the rock meant a complete lack of running water on the ridge. The temple, although hours from the nearest water, had it pumped up from below. Presumably in earlier times it was carried up by devotees. However this meant that we had at least a day's hard trekking without water before we could at least get beyond the tree line and onto snow as a water supply. Luckily the next morning some shepherds were walking the ridge, and being well versed in this problem knew the points where a quick descent could be made to get water. The shepherds are the key to the area, being responsible for the forest paths, as they take their sheep and goats up to the pastures above the tree line in the summer, as the snows melt. Over time they have made clearings in the forest on the lower slopes, which have become, often named, wayside pastures. Jabri Kharak is one such which my father could see from the col, and which was partly responsible for giving the lost valley its impression of paradisical ease.
The path along the ridge is still quite a struggle, entailing a lot of scrambling up and down through thick forest dominated by various species of oak and Rhododendron. The latter had mostly just finished flowering. Scattered in the undergrowth of relative clearings were the wild strawberry, Fragaria nubicola, the fruit a welcome source of moisture, and that hardy member of the ginger family the purple flowered Roscoea purpurea. Towards the end of the day as we approached the shepherds' flocks, and near one of the grazed clearings, we started finding masses of Anemone rivularis, and its companion the blue Anemone obtusiloba. Then, in shade, the Trillium like Trillidium govanianum and the pink flowered Smilacina purpurea. Despite my aversion to sheep and goats, on account of the damage they do to the flora in many parts of the world, it is quite obvious that in this case many of these herbaceous plants are positively encouraged by the grazing, and in the case of the Anemone indicative of a grazed area. We camped with the shepherds, having to make a laborious half hour trek down to find water.
It was a relief the next day to start emerging above the tree line. At this 3000 m level, the Rhodendron was still in flower, interspersed with Clematis montana. Underneath we found the Solomon's Seal Polygonatum cirrhifolium, and soon after we started coming across Anemone tetrasepala and then the Himalayan version of Caltha palustris. Although this is classed as the same species as our Kingcup, its habitat is dramatically different. Whereas ours enjoys densely shaded marshland, this Himalayan variety thrives on high open slopes, admittedly on the damper areas, covered in thick snow in winter. As we climbed up the ridge the forest abruptly gave way to alpine meadow covered with Anemone and Caltha, and the tiny yellow Celandine like flowers of Oxygraphis polypetala.
By midday we reached the snow covered, steep slopes of the pass Douara Khal about 4000 m, and had got our great views towards Chaukhamba, the col itself, and to the right Nilkanth in the distance, and the peaks that must overlook the untravelled Panpatia glacier. From here the descent from these mountains looked like fine mountain trekking, as opposed to the terrifying looking icefalls from the col. Exploration of this area would be a wonderful project. Below was the Markanda ganga, and opposite the slopes of the hill hiding the Madhyamaheshwar temple, that intriguingly overlooks the valley from the east. We were lucky with our timing. Just after we had taken our fill of the view, wondering what had happened to the others, thunderstorms and snow showers with icy winds rolled in from the west, and we had to take shelter under a rock. As the weather eased we climbed 300 m further up the ridge before skirting round the peak of Tholi to get into the upper reaches of the Mandani ganga. This is the route the shepherds take to get to the pastures around the deserted Kali temple of Mandani, below the great peak of the same name. We were early in the season however, and on the western slopes of Tholi, we had to cross tricky snow filles gulleys, and on emerging round the corner to the north, found the path buried under snow slopes. By this time thick snowfall had reduced visibility dramatically, and the compass had to be brought out to negotiate a near white out. On losing altitude I made out, several hundred metres below, a flat area with a stream, the first water since Kalimath, which we headed for as a camp.
The next morning was glorious. The great peaks, including Mandani Parvat stood at the head of the valley. Our goal for the day on the other side of the 1500 m plunge into the uninhabited jungle of the Mandani ganga, was the inviting slopes of the ridge opposite Simtoli dhar. After drying out from the day before, we had a delightful alpine walk in the morning to the head of the valley, keeping our 3500 m height. The slopes were covered with flowers. The bright blue Corydalis kashmeriana was flowering everywhere, and in amongst thick tufts of grass was the spiderwort Lloydia longiscapa, the relative of our Snowdon Lily. Smythe only records this (L.serotina), and not L.longiscapa, which is tinged with brown at the base of the flower. Further along together with the Oxygraphis and Caltha, the meadows were full of Trollius acaulis the Himalayan version of the Globe flower. In damper sites we passed the small pink flowered Primula P.involucrata to go with the ubiquitous P. denticulata, and P. macrophylla. In thick grass I found one specimen of a Fritillary, probably F. roylei. Unfortunately the flower came away in my hand in my enthusiasm to examine it, and I hope I made amends by offering this to the Goddess Kali at her temple. All this wealth of flora had me straggling behind the others.
The pastures at the head of the Mandani ganga valley were positively Elysian in the clear blue skies, directly under the glistening giant mountains. The snows were only just gone, and we were probably the first people this year to enter them as the shepherds were weeks behind, and no one else comes here. As we came down Hera saw a bear lumbering for cover. In the middle of these meadows is the deserted temple to Kali. It is beautifully built of dressed stone and may be very old. Whether a priest or rishi ever stayed here we don't know, but certainly it was cared for by the shepherds who leave offerings. We left a message for Martin and the others who were scheduled to pass here if successful in the col crossing.
The path from this idyllic spot, seemed from the map to be straightforward, keeping roughly to a 3500 m contour around the ridge until crossing it at the point opposite our camp that morning. We followed the obvious sheep track behind the temple, passing a wonderful stand of the purple flowered legume Themopsis barbata. After a few minutes the path disappeared and we found ourselves having to negotiate a series of precipitous gorges, having to climb or drop several hundred metres on every little ridge. Progress became very slow. If not negotiating steep snow slopes or banks, we were struggling through brambles or thickets of rhododendron. As usual the weather went bad in the afternoon. After several hours we thought we were in striking distance of a grassy ridge that turned the corner. However we were stopped by one more impossible gorge. We had to climb an indeterminate way up the mountain or find a way somewhere near the bottom. Here were shades of Shipton and Tilman in the lost valley. Either prospect was unappealing, but we tried going down first, finally crossing the gorge below the tree line. We tried forcing a way through steep thick forest, only to find more impossible gorges covered in brambles and shrubs. We were forced to cut our losses and camp on a small flat area, a long way from the pleasing slopes of Simtoli dhar.
The next day our only choice was up the gorge. In fact our impasse was easily solved. we had a steep climb for several hundred metres, passing stands of the large yellow flowered Primula stuartii. This took us in a couple of hours, onto the shoulder we had aspired to yesterday, from where we could look west to the slopes of Simtoli dhar we had seen the day before. The side of the ridge was still far from easy however, and we had several gruelling gorges to cross. Eventually we struck the sheep trail. This must have climbed from the temple, but had been made invisible by snow. By early afternoon we were at 4000 m on top of the ridge, looking down into the next valley, and the headwaters of the Kali ganga. A steep descent brought us to a snow bridge across the river. In this valley the shepherds had already arrived with their sheep and goats from the villages further down the Kali ganga. Entertaining the shepherds with tea and namkeen we confirmed the untracked route of the final stage of the trek, over the Bisoli ridge to Kedarnath.
In the usual fine morning weather the following day, we had a pleasant climb again up a steep gorge to 4000 m and the top of this final ridge. We had a rude shock at the top. We had imagined gentle slopes leading to the fleshpots of Kedarnath. Instead we were faced with an impossible looking snow gorge plunging to the valley 1500 m below at the bottom of which was the pilgrim road to Kedarnath. This is the 14 km of footpath that every Hindu aspires to walk, ride or even be carried in a basket, to reach the Shiva temple at the foot of the mighty Kedarnath peak. We could see the endless line of pilgrims going up and down and hear the drone of hundreds of voices, but could see no way down. We were just resigning ourselves to making tricky and laborious investigations, when men started appearing from below. They proved to be about a dozen Nepalis engaged in collecting hay from the empty valley we had just come from, carrying it in 60 kg bundles to the top of the ridge, then down to a point where they could hurl it down 1000 m to forage merchants below, who then supplied the mule owners carrying the pilgrims up to Kedarnath. So good was business that they could not be persuaded to show us a way down and out of the gorge, as time was pressing them to fulfil demand. The situation was starting to resemble a bizarre scene in a science fiction novel. In the event we had to gingerly negotiate our way down and out of the gorge, a nerve racking business Below us lay Kedarnath at the head of the Mandakini valley, and further west vistas of more great peaks.
We had a fine walk down , and entered Kedarnath itself in time for lunch. In the town was a teeming throng of people surging up to the temple itself, a more spacious building than Vishnu's at Badrinath. Just behind the temple we were able to pitch our tents, and I was just taking a first stroll around the temple when there, sitting in a food stall, were all the other members of the team. Extraordinarily they had arrived here just an hour after us, having successfully crossed the col, making the arduous trek out of the lost valley. Badrinath and Kedarnath were finally connected for the first time since the legendary priest, and Shipton and Tilman's diversionary second watershed finally resolved.
A trek to the Satopanth glacier and from Kalimath, Mandani temples to Kedarnath, Garhwal in May-June 1998. Author is son of the legendary mountaineer Eric Shipton.