Some High Passes in Kumaun
Sometime in late September of 1994, sitting on Longstaff col at 5790 m, I wished that I could descend into the Nanda Devi sanctuary and reverse the footsteps of the legendary explorer Dr Tom Longstaff. While that particular wish is yet to bear fruit, I have been able to cross a few other passes in the past decade. Back then, I was at Longstaff col as the leader of an Indo - American expedition that was attempting Nanda Devi east. After persuing 'mountaineering' as a hobby for more than two decades, I have been reluctantly converted into a trekker. The one aspect of trekking that excites me the most is that very rarely do you have to retrace your steps. I have been lucky that most of my crossings have been successful, done with minimal porter support. The fact that these passes are relatively high and involves some amount of technical manoeuvring, gives me immense satisfaction.
Kafni Col - Danu Dhura (5180 m and 5580 m): September 1996.
Arriving at Song via Bageshwar and starting out on the Pindari glacier trek was the easiest part. Song is in the Saryu valley and a typical road head town with about two dozen shops. Characterless, dusty and drunken brawls after dark highlight this remote town. The next day's walk to Dhakuri via Dhakuri Khal (2900 m) was torturous, partly because most of the trail is an unrelentingly uphill one. The Saryu valley is also very hot and humid, possibly because it has more agriculture and less of forested land. The temperature and landscape change dramatically at Dhakuri Khal descending into the Pindari valley. A night halt at Dhakuri is highly recommended because of the sheer beauty of its location. On a clear morning, you see Maiktoli towers nearby, supported by Cream Roll and Panwali Dwar. A few hours walk brought us to Khati which is the last village in the Pindari valley. It is here that the Sunderdhunga drains into the Pindari.
A visit to Pratap Singh's house was the highlight of our stay in the village. After endless cups of chai, I requested him to show us the 'register' that he proudly owns. It has letters of appreciation written by early travellers from the 1920s in appreciation of the help and services of Malak
Singh Buda, Pratap Singh's grandfather. Malak Singh is credited with guiding George Traill through the Pindari valley and crossing a pass into the Lavan gad valley. This pass was later named Traill's pass. The next day we reached Dwali where the Kafni drainage meets the Pindari. We imagined what it would be like to be on top of the Kafni glacier many days from now. Our last day of walking on a trail took us past Phurkia which is the last point where one can find rest houses, and reached Zero Point.
We camped close to the Babaji's cave and temple which is about half a km before trail end. After a couple of days of acclimatisation that was fuelled by the simple, yet sumptuous meals cooked by Babaji (the holy man who lives there for about 10 months of the year) we were energised to make our way up towards Camp 1 and 2 on the Changuch glacier. In the post monsoon season, Camp 1 is on an alpine meadow and offers the most breathtaking views of Longstaff col and the Nanda Devi massif. Camp 2 is on the crevassed Changuch glacier. Our goal of getting to the top of Kafni col was achieved after a few hours of plodding through knee deep snow. The pass is spectacular because the ridge connects Nanda Kot in the north and towards Lamchir in the southwest direction. We descended into the Kafni glacier plateau that resembles the size of many football fields put together. Setting up camp just before the ice fall at the base of Laspa Dhura, the next day we continued towards the pass at Danu Dhura (5580 m).
The view that greeted us was one of shock and awe. We were treated to the beautiful expanse of the Shalang glacier below us, and looking into the horizon further east, we could see the peaks of Api and Nampa in Nepal. There was no obvious descent that we could see and after a bit of scouting, we climbed on the ridge going north for half an hour and then descended into the Shalang valley. Tricky route finding and about 60 m of rappelling brought us to our 'shoulder camp' at around 4575 m. Here we were out of danger from rock fall and avalanches. The next day we descended onto the Shalang glacier and crossed it diagonally to a Shepard's hut marked as Karbasya on the map. Karbasya is an alpine meadow and the trail goes through it in a northeast direction for a few hours where it meets the Martoli - Nanda Devi East base camp trail. We turned east towards Martoli and spent a day here resting and soaking in the views. We reached Munsiari via Rilkot and Bugdiar to end what was truly a spectacular trek.
Birjeganj Dhura (4700 m) : November 1999
Two friends each from Mumbai and Bangalore, and I arrived at Munsiari in early November 1999, with the intention of checking out the area above Munsiari and crossing Kagudi Bhel. Two local porters were hired who acted as friends, guides and philosophers. Our walk towards Khalia Top which is pretty much straight above the town of Munsiari began in earnest but ended in a whimper. By the end of that hot and exhausting day, one of us decided that walking uphill with a pack was way too difficult and that he would rather spend a few days sipping chai at Munsiari. His departure the next day along with a porter gave us the flexibility and advantage of being a smaller group. We abandoned our quest to get to Khalia Top and instead walked towards Sudam Khan. This pass straddles the divide between the Ram ganga and Gori ganga drainages. Our intention was to get to Sudam Khan and then continue along the ridge towards Kagudi Bhel.
These plans were short lived when the early afternoon snowfall ended up being a blizzard that lasted for a few hours and dumped about 12 inches of snow. Camp was hurriedly set up and over dinner, our philosopher porter declared that he was heading downhill the next day, with or without us! Quiet persuasion that included monetary benefits failed to change his mind. Reluctantly, we decided to head downhill the next day. After what seemed like an eternity of slipping and sliding through thick bamboo, we came upon terraced fields and eventually in partial darkness we reached the village of Kuri Jimi. We unceremoniously dumped our porter and hired another lad who could lead us towards Birjeganj Dhura.
Now our plan was changed to enter the Ralam valley and cross Birjeganj Dhura that would bring us back into the Milam valley. Crossing the pucca bridge at Lilam, we ascended the trail towards Paton village and on to the top of the ridge. Many hours of uphill and a bit of traversing on a well laid out trail which finally dropped down to the Ralam gad, brought us to a camp called Lingnani. Thankfully the bridge over the Ralam gad was in place and the next morning we walked towards Bhujani and Ralam village. Since our intention was to Birjeganj Dhura., we camped an hour short of Ralam village and the next day walked up to the pass. If there was ever a difference between night and day, the top of the pass was it! While we had ambled along on a trail that was dry and grassy at patches, the entire descent route was covered with about 1 m of snow. The view of Nanda Devi East from here was breathtaking.
With approaching dark clouds, we began our plunge step and glissade down towards an area marked as Sumdo on the map. Our camp was set up on a wonderful bugial, and we were treated to a very picturesque sight of the Gori ganga flowing in all its might and the tiny hamlet of Rilkot on the opposite bank. The next day we continued towards
Tola and Burphu where we caught up with the main Milam - Munsiari trail. Our return was uneventful with stops at Martoli, Bugdiar and Jimi Ghat.
Kagudi Bhel (4790 m) : November 2001
In early November, three friends from Bangalore and I crossed Kagudi Bhel that sits on the divide between the Ram ganga and Gori ganga drainages. It was one of those treks where you tell yourself, 'I know the mountains are there in the horizon', but you just don't see them because of heavy clouds.
Our departure from Ranikhet was pretty straight forward. By the time we reached Kausani, we got a sign of what was waiting to hit us. Ominous clouds were gathering on the horizon. We reached the road head village of Liti at dusk and plodded along the trail for an hour to the ramshackle hotel and chai shop at Satgarh (2100 m). The next day we walked passed Gogina till we reached the bridge over the Ram ganga. To say that the bridge looked scary would be an understatement. The rickety and swaying bridge was missing many of its cross planks. With prayers under our breath and determination in our minds, we made it across, only to realise that there was another long hour of an uphill climb to our camp above the village of Namik (2200 m). We choose the village playing field to set up camp so as to be away from the blaring radios of the village.
The next day, we passed the trail that leads to Munsiari via Rur Khan and choose the trail to Thaltok (3385 m) which is basically a one hut destination. Two rooms with a tin roof in the middle of nowhere is a short description of Thaltok. Here, the trail goes north towards Sudam Khan and southeast towards Rur Khan. We were blessed with moderate weather till Namik village. But from Thaltok, we walked in the clouds for the next four days. We walked towards Sudam Khan pass (4000 m) where the trail splits again. East and downhill goes to Kuri Jimi village in the Milam valley. We went north towards Kagudi Bhel. Visibility was about 10 m and had it not been for the obvious trail, we would have been forced to camp. Many hours later we arrived at what surely must be a breathtaking bugyal camp site at Runa (4050 m). I say 'must have been' because for two days we camped in white - out conditions. There is a small stream that meanders through this high alpine meadow. We had about six inches of snowfall and this created a picture postcard image of the stream with tall grass sprinkled with snow. After a day of acclimatisation we decided to attempt the crossing of Kagudi Bhel (4790 m). The trail disappeared very quickly
once we entered the rocky area. After gaining height by traversing and zig-zagging multiple gullies, we reached a point from where the pass was within a few hundred feet of us. However, there was no obvious way to get to it from where we were.
We scouted the area for almost half an hour with no success. While a retreat was definitely possible, we would have needed to take that decision very quickly. The thought of walking back through loose rock and down climbing a few patches was just not appealing. We decided to make a 'dyno move' over a very exposed section that was the crux of the route. Again with prayers on our lips and determination in our minds we made the move and got to the top of the pass. In hindsight, had it not snowed six inches the previous day, we would have not been so stressed out in route finding. Standing on the pass totally exhausted, we had one collective ambition, 'Let's get down as soon as possible'. The weather was dismal, views were non existent and darkness was fast approaching.
We began the descent towards Poting village in hip deep snow and pot holed most of the way till dusk. We set up camp in freezing conditions at Rakasthal (3660 m), wet, and quite exhausted. The next morning we had to wait for the sun to hit us and thaw out our boots and gloves. By mid morning we were on our way down, taking a 'as the crow flies' approach as we could not see the trail buried under snow. About three hours later, we bumped into the trail again and followed it to the only bridge that gets you out of the Poting drainage. By dusk we reached Bugdiar and shocked the folks at the ITBP post who demanded to know where we had come from. Endless cups of chai and bonhomie, saw us sleeping under the stars that night, the first starry night since we left Ranikhet. The next day we reached Munsiari and travelled back to Ranikhet.
Crossing of some passes across the valleys of Kumaun.