IN QUEST OF A LEGENDARY ROUTE
PRABHAT KUMAR GANGULI
DURING MY FIRST VISIT TO BADRINATH in early Sixties I learnt from the local Pandas (guides for pilgrims) about a belief handed down from generations-that a priest used to commute daily between Badrinath and Kedarnath. Since then, I nourished a strong desire to trace the route personally and marked time for a suitable opportunity.
In August 1934, the noted mountaineers Eric Shipton and H. W. Tilman accompanied by three Sherpa, made an attempt to reach Kedarnath from Badrinath. They traversed Satopanth glacier and forced a passage through a Col (5608 m) at its head. Negotiating a series of icefalls, they could arrive at Gondar village, below Madhyamaheshwar with much difficulty. Not having time to visit Kedarnath they pushed towards Joshimath for their 'second trip to Nanda Devi.'
In August 1980, Manas Basu with his two friends Amitava Dutta and Kalyan Das left Ransi, a hamlet enroute to Madhyamaheshwar with Jananand Bhatt, a local priest as guide. They were successful in exploring the high altitude route and arrived Kedarnath in seven days.
In June 1981, Abinash C. Mitter repeated the route in four days only.
In September 1982, I decided to find a direct route from reverse direction i.e. from Kedarnath to Badrinath. So on September 14, along with Barun Ghosh, I began to trek north east from Kedarnath temple. We crossed Mahapanth Khal (4602 m)-a col between Hanuman Top and Swet Parbat. Then moving eastwards through Bishali bamak (glacier) and avoiding the crevasses we crossed Bishali col (4755 m) on the divide between the two glaciers and camped on Kaleon bamak (glacier). We then climbed up the steep slopes of ice and scree and made Yeonbuk col (4694 m). It is on the ridge extending south from Yeonbuk peak. From the col we descended through steep slopes of boulders for an hour. We forded Nag ganga (stream) several times and traversed the long Mandani valley to arrive at the famous temple of Goddess Mahamaya. We crossed Mandani ganga, climbed up a meadow and headed southwards to Kulwani (3840 m) - a land of brahmakamals with a sprinkling of fenkamals. We gradually climbed up through ocean of boulders (Saila samudra) to Duara khal (4176 m), a pass at the junction of two ridges - Dobrakhal dhar and Chopargala dhar. Descending cautiously to Thauli (3901 m) on SE, we continued through Kanara Udiar Sanera (2743 m) and finally arrived at Ransi in four days.
We lodged comfortably in the house of Jananand Bhatt, the priest of Rakeswari temple who was our guide (since deceased) during this first phase of our trek.
At Ransi we participated in a religious fair and bought provisions and fuel for the next phase of our trek. Shivraj Singh joined with us here as porter.
Then we trekked to Madhyamaheshwar. On 21st we pushed NE through dense forest and difficult terrains to gain Kachni khal (4115 m) at the end of the day. It involved a lot of scrambling as there was hardly any foot track in those days.
From Kachni khal camp, we moved north for Kachni Tal (lake). Surprisingly the local porters and even Janananda who had accompanied us, had neither seen the lake nor were aware of its exact location. We discovered it just below the ridge running east from Nand Barari Danda (4650 m). The ridge forms the northern boundary of upper Madmaheshwar valley. We intended to move east along this ridge to reach the head of Panpatia glacier which extends west to east below the southern slopes of Parvati (6257 m) and Nilkantha (6596 m) to the southwest of Badrinath.
We climbed up the ridge and glimpsed Gondharpongi valley (1524 m) below. I was thrilled by the magnificent view of Chaukhamba IV (6854 m) and III (6974 m). Their gigantic south faces, festooned with hanging glaciers and icefalls, dropped down steeply from its icy summits to the green valley which separated us. For obvious reasons we had to give up the idea of descending steeply to the valley and then climbing up several thousand feet through a maze of icefalls and hanging glaciers. Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman, aided by three strong Sherpas, had abseiled down this route with great difficulty in 1934.
On north-northeast, we could see Satopanth col, through which Shipton and Tilman escaped from the head of Satopanth glacier and the easterly ridge leading to Parvati and Nilkantha.
The ridge on which we were standing was unstable and broken towards the east. It was a chaos of loose boulders covered with thin layers of ice and snow. As this was risky, we attempted to exit through an amphitheatre like basin nearby but failed. So we retraced our steps to Kachni khal camp and planned to find out a more direct route to Panpatia glacier on the following day. But it snowed heavily throughout the night and everything went under a heavy blanket of snows. The local porters became scared and refused to proceed through snows. So we had to deviate our route to Pandosera (3740 m) famous for its nearby lake Nandi Kund and returned to Madhyamaheshwar on 25 September by a lower but treacherous route.
Ranjit Lahiri and Arun Ghosh, both active members of the Himalayan Club became interested in the route after I showed my slides in a club meeting on 1st May, 1984. We were then planning to traverse the entire Gangotri glacier and recce Meade's/ Chaukhamba col (6053 m) at its head. We deed this successfully and returned to Calcutta by end June. On 1st September 1984, Lahiri and Ghosh set out from Calcutta to repeat the Shipton-Tilman route in reverse direction. They had planned to descend to Gondharpongi valley from the point we stopped in 1982. I cautioned them it could be dangerous. But the young pair moved out from Kachni khal and unfortunately never returned.
Next year (1985) I revised my plans. Now I wanted to skirt the Chaukhamba massif from the south and strike Panpatia glacier through a Col northeast of Maindagalla Tal. But I could not locate the Tal in 1982. I had an impression that it should not be very far from Kachni tal. Some locals knew about the route to Nandi Kund and beyond (upto Urgam/ Dumok), but none had any clear idea about the Maindagalla tal.
On 7 September 1985, we pitched our tents a few hundred feet above Kachni khal on a small table land (4200 m) amidst clusters to brahma kamals. On this trip, A. Banerjee had joined as the third member and we had four porters including Shivraj Singh of Ransi. Next morning Barun Ghosh went out with Shivraj and another porter for a recce. They returned by lunch time with the news that they had found Maindagalla tal and a dry lake above Luntri Khrak. On 9th I left Kachni khal camp with three porters to force a route via Maindagalla tal to Panpatia glacier.
Initially we crossed Kachni nala and gradually climbed southeast to Luntri Kharak. We turned north and then north-northeast over boulders amidst brahmakamals. The thin streamlet of Luntri was trickling under the boulders. Shivraj picked up two fenkamals also. After an hour we reached a semi dry lake, one third of the size of Kachni tal. The porters claimed this as Maindagalla tal. But I had my doubts. Maindagalla tal is a prominent landmark of this area, clearly shown in survey of India and others maps. It may have been marked at a wrong spot due to improper survey but it cannot be a semidry and shallow lake.
On the north we could see the upper section of Chaukhamba IV and III beyond the easterly ridge from Nand Barari Danda, about a km away.
To our right a subsidiary north-south ridge provided a passage to the east which we followed. We climbed through the rocky slopes for some time and found a narrow passage between two rocky points of another subsidiary ridge going south.
I was excited to find an entrance to a hidden country surrounded by high ridges on all sides except on the south. We entered through a notch like passage and moved cautiously over the boulders and rocky slopes. We dropped down about 150 m to a soft basin free from boulders and snows. There were also two tiny lakes but they were completely dry. According to map, Panore nala should have originated somewhere here. But I found no trace of water.
We climbed about 90 m to the base of a rocky dome (4870 m). The sky was already overcast and now it began to snow. So we called it a day and camped beside a huge boulder, slightly leaning like an over-hang. The area was encircled by high ridges but seemed to be near to Chaukhambas and Panpatia. Shivraj and another porter returned to Kachni khal camp with my report to Barun on the day's progress and a list of my requirements on the following day. The weather cleared up in the evening.
The sky was speckless on the 10th morning. The first rays of the sun kissed the campsite at 7:30 a.m. Along with the porter, I set off immediately following the ridge going west from the rocky dome. It descends a bit to give a wide passage to move into the other side. Then it rises up towards north and then NE. As we reached the wide gap, a vast panorama opened up - the Chaukhamba massif, Satopanth col and its adjacent Peak (5758 m). A ridge from this peak goes east and then NE to Milkhantha and forms the north wall of Panpatia glacier. Another ridge from this peak goes SE towards the extended east ridge of NB Danda. The ridge then continued ESE and becomes the south wall of Panpatia. This glacier flows from west to east, giving birth to Khir Ganga stream. It joins with Alaknanda at Hanuman Chatti, just south of Badrinath.
We went down over loose boulders and ice patches and were delighted to find a turquoise blue lake at our feet. Chaukhamba IV and III reflected in its crystal clear waters. It was rectangular and undoubtedly the most spectacular lake found in this region. I realized that this must be the actual Maindagalla tal close to Panpatia and overlooked by Chaukhambas. I could find no record of its visit by any climber or trekker and it was so long hidden from the eyes of even the locals.
I moved further north. The south ridge of Chaukhamba IV obscured Peak (6638 m) on its NW. But on my NW, I could see Mandani (6196 m) and unnamed peaks towards Yeonbuk (5953 m). Gondharpongi valley, down the southern slopes of Chaukhamba, was not visible. But I could identify Shipton-Tilman route of 1934 from Satopanth col and the icefalls bellow it. It appeared to me that instead of south or south-west route taken by them, it could have been easier for them to push south-east. In that case, they would have passed through a much easier terrain to upper Madhyamaheswar valley instead of a valley 'choked with almost impenetrable growth of thorn bush and bramble and ... chaos of boulders'.
On the east, the boulder-slopes dropped down in % stages to a narrow glaciated field, just below the slopes of the ESE ridge. As mentioned earlier, Panpatia glacier flows on its other side. My immediate objective was to find an access to the glacier and then proceed towards Badrinath. According to the map, the SE ridge from the peak (5758 m) above Satopanth col, turns ESE beyond peak (5600 m) to a col at the head of Panpatia glacier. It was noticed by Tilman. It is technically difficult as there are a maze of crevasses and an icefall at the upper reaches of the glacier. I gave up the idea of gaining this col as it cannot be on the regular route of a priest however strong he may be. I refrained from repeating the Shipton-Tilman route which also calls for technical climbing and use of artificial aids.
I turned my attention to ESE ridge, looking for a suitable passage. The ridge begins from a conical point and culminates at a crown shaped rocky peak (5614 m), with longish spurs on either side. At the far end of the ridge were two peaks facing each other. The ridge continued east to form Vishnugarh dhar. But it was not visible from where I stood.
So we descended to the glaciated field to take a closer look at the ridge. The narrow glacier had receded towards the west by a km leaving two mini glacial pools behind. The first one was a greenish tarn and another was dry. Negotiating difficult terrains at places and crossing a few crevassed areas we found out a better point where we crossed the glacier diagonally. At the base of the ridge there was a long bergschrund which we negotiated where it became narrow. We carried on the recce and were rewarded shortly finding a passage to Panpatia. We returned to camp at 3 p.m. with a sense of satisfaction.
Meanwhile Shivraj and the other porter had arrived with loads and cooked our meals. At 4 p.m. I shifted the camp to a better site (4752 m) only 30 m above Maindagalla tal. As it was closer to the lake, we could use its waters without melting the snows. A nearby small cave served as the kitchen. Shivraj and his fellow porter erected a massive cairn and returned to Kachni khal camp with my message that all should occupy Maindagalla tal camp on the following day.
11 September, the crucial day dawned ominously. Thick clouds covered up the entire canopy. I had to force a route to Panpatia through a feasible point of the ridge recceed on the previous day. We were ready at 7.30 a.m. But globules began to pour in which quickly matured into heavy snowfalls. We marked time but my friends failed to turn up even by noon. So I came out of my tent and within minutes sighted Barun and others on the broad gap of the ridge on south.
I was worried as the rocky slopes in the final section must have turned slippery and risky by now. I called out my only companion from the tent and rushed towards them. But over the boulders uphill, it was not easy. We got them at the midway. They were hungry and exhausted. We were escorted them down to our camp and served coffee and biscuits. The porters were settled down in the tents pitched beside ours and the dinner was ready 6.30 p.m. But the weather did not relent. Three of us passed a crammed and anxious night.
There was no improvement in weather on the following day 12 September. We checked our provisions and found that these would carry us till 15th only. Snowfalls continued unabated even on 13. A nasty gale and thick mists added to our worries. On the 14 morning we discussed and realized that Badrinath cannot be made in two days in foul weather and poor visibility particularly when no one knows the nature of the terrain lies beyond. So the painful decision to retrace our steps had to be reluctantly taken when we were at the verge of success. We only hoped that someday someone will be able to complete the trail opened by us and find a new route to Badrinath, without any mishap.
On our way back we met Tula Singh Panwar, the grand old caretaker of Bantoli Dharamsala which was built by him in the late sixties when he came in contact with Umaprosad Mookerjee, the famous Himalayan trekker and writer who roped in Kamal K. Guha (Editor, Himavanta) and Ajay Chatterjee to contribute for the two-roomed dharamsala. Tula, who passed away in 1989, was famous guide and a dependable source of information for the entire region. He crossed Kachni khal several times. According to him, the Survey of India team of Dehradun and turned back in 1937 without completing the job due to inclement weather. This probably explains the errors in half inch map (53N/NW) of that period.
Tula was confident that we were on the right track. We had entered the hidden valley through a narrow passage between two rocks. Maindagalla tal is at the other end of the valley overlooked by Chaukhamba.
He explained the word Maindagalla as - main (two horned sheep), do (two), galla (narrow passage). Then he narrated the local legend. A flock of two horned sheep came down through a narrow passage and a big rock blocked their way. One of the sheep pierced the rock with his horn and broke it into two. Then the entire flock succeeded in escaping.
Epilogue: Subsequent attempts to check the Legend:
June, 1997 A party from Mumbai (Harish Kapadia) followed the Panpatia Valley with the intention to cross the 'Panpatia Col' (situated on the south-west of upper Panpatia Bamak) which has direct access to the Madhyamaheswar temple in the Kedarnath area. But the party was stopped by the dreadful Panpatia icefall in the lower reaches.
(H.J. Vol. 54 p. 73 'Lost in the Legends')
May-June, 1998 A British team (Martin Moran) followed much of 1934 route of Shipton-Tilman but instead of being trapped in dense bamboo forest of Gondharpongi valley, they followed a high route, crossed a few ridges and dropped down to Kedarnath temple from its south-east direction (In 1982 we started from Kedarnath temple following the north-east route instead). They were the first ever successful team to complete the epic traverse initiated by Shipton and Tilman in 1934.
(H.J. Vol. 55 p. 63 'Shipton's lost Valley')
September 1999, a party from West Bengal (Anindya Mukherjee) wanted to follow our 1985 route since 1997. At last on 28 September, 1999 they could climb up to the top of the 'passage' (Panpatia Khal) where we stopped on 10 September, 1985 during our recce. They however, presumed it as 'Panpatia Col', mentioned by Harish Kapadia, which actually lay on their due west about 3 km away.
(H.J. Vol. 56 p. 190 'Panpatia Glacier Expedition, 1999')
Explorations of the legendary route between Badrinath and Kedarnath.