Nanda Devi is the presiding citadel of Uttarakhand. Her buttressed twin summits dominate the encircling entourage of lower peaks in the image of a graceful goddess surrounded by her acolytes. She is, by universal assent, India’s greatest mountain. Since the Government’s closure of her Sanctuary in 1982 the only way to approach close to her throne is to trek the Gori Ganga valley north from Munsiari in Kumaun, then turn left at Martoli and follow the Lawan valley westwards for 18 km to the base of the eastern summit.
Mountaineers are now only allowed to climb on Nanda Devi East (7434 m) and the 7816 m main summit remains gloriously inviolate and inaccessible. Nanda Devi East was first ascended by a four-man Polish team in 1939, who took the long and pinnacled southeast ridge to create what is now acknowledged as the hardest Himalayan climb to be achieved prior to World War II. Many large expeditions, equipped with thousands of metres of fixed rope, have tried and failed due to the length and insecurity of this prodigious route.
Our team of six British climbers arrived in Delhi on 15 May 2009 with ambitions to repeat the Polish route on Nanda Devi East. We hoped to climb largely in Alpine-style and took only 400 m of fixed line for the hardest sections as opposed to the 3000 m taken by some recent international teams. As a beautiful sacred mountain Nanda Devi deserves to be courted and not raped. This ethical code was tempered with the knowledge that only one successful Alpinestyle ascent has ever been recorded of the east summit, a fine effort by Julie-Ann Clyma and Roger Payne in 1994. Whatever the outcome of our attempt we looked forward to a month exploring the country to the east of Nanda, a reputedly magnificent hinterland of shining peaks and flowered valleys.
As we trekked along the gorge from Munsiari to Martoli we could see a survey for several dams being conducted. This will change face of this valley forever. (See Note at the end of this article.)
From Martoli our route to Nanda Devi cut off up the Lawan valley, a tight cleft clad with rhododendron and birch. We camped at a levelling in the jaws of the canyon and I woke at dawn to witness a searing sunrise light the chiselled rock tiers and ice ridges of Nanda Devi East, which was framed massively in the valley head, although still 10 km away. After this brief revelation she drew cloud veils to her bosom and disappeared.
The Lawan valley opened out at 3900 m and the rhododendron were replaced by fields of globe-headed primula denticulata, millions of bright pink flowers nodding in the midday breeze. An array of peaks encircled the valley head. Unclimbed Kuchela was besieged by seracs. Nanda Kot’s huge northern wall was capped by the unmistakable chisel-headed summit. Changuch appeared as a mass of fluted ice ribs and cornices, Nanda Khat a distant sweep of snow arêtes. Finally, the banded south eastern wall of Nanda Devi East took our gaze, nearly 3000 m in vertical height and wreathed by tormented clouds. A few squat stone huts, built by the shepherds for their summer sojourn were the only structures in the open flats of the valley, yet lent the scale required to appreciate the vastness of the scene.
As we sat spellbound, my companion Rob was perplexed:
‘I just can’t understand it. How can this side of Nanda Devi have no environmental protection? Anywhere else in the world this whole valley system would be a national park.’
Humans cannot help but be humbled by such natural grandeur. Maybe the hydro-developers should go up and take a closer look!
One other expedition was encamped at the valley head, a Polish team attempting to climb the southeast ridge in celebration of the 70th anniversary of the first ascent. The team was led by Jan Lenczowski. Jan was the grandson of Jakub Bujak who with Janusz Klarner reached the summit on 2 July 1939.
Next afternoon we sat in the Polish mess tent, swapping our malt whisky for their tales of struggle. They had been on the mountain for three weeks, fixing ropes on every exposed or technical section, yet had only reached 6500 m. Their team of grizzled veterans had climbed all over the world and their accomplishments included a clutch of 8000 m peaks, many climbed without oxygen. Yet here they were gratefully sipping our malt whisky and looking exhausted, nay even demoralised, by the succession of difficulties. First they had encountered an unrelenting 1000 m ascent to gain Longstaff col at 5910 m. Exposure to the morning sun meant that this climb could only be made at night. One member had carried seven loads to the col.
Then came the shock - that there are no flat camping places, either on the col or along the succession of three rock pinnacles that followed, save for tiny platforms that must be cut out of the ice. Beyond the pinnacles, a series of rock steps were linked by exposed snow crests, climbing slowly to an eventual easement at 6500 m. As they climbed higher they were plagued by strong winds and the ridge was plastered in spring snow.
If the Polish experience was making our own plans look stupidly presumptuous; then we were all sobered by the consideration that this whole route was ascended with primitive equipment on the eve of the Second World War.
Jan told us of the harrowing fates that befell the four Polish engineers after their heroic ascent in 1939. The two climbers who had supported the summit bid, Bernadzikewicz and team leader Adam Karpinski, died two weeks later in an avalanche while attempting the first ascent of Tirsuli at the head of the Milam valley. Bujak and Klarner were then prevented from returning to Poland by the German invasion and start of the war. Bujak worked with the British until 1945 then vanished without trace during a day’s rock-climbing on the Cornish sea-cliffs. His body was never found but he was presumed drowned. Klarner got home after the war and wrote a manuscript for a book of the Nanda Devi expedition. However, he fell foul of Stalin’s regime and disappeared in 1949, presumably in one of the gulag camps. His daughter finally managed to get the book published in 1956, and Jan had brought a copy with him to the Himalaya.
Feeling somewhat dwarfed by the scale of the challenge, our first reaction was to build our confidence with the ascent of a training peak. The 5782 m Nanda Lapak lies 4 km along the lateral ridge east of Nanda Devi. The summit is a shapely snow-cap, buttressed by a short bulging ice wall.
We forded the Lawan river and ascended a long rib of grass and scree to gain a comfortable tent platform under the south ridge at 5100 m. Our team of seven comprised my fellow-guide Rob Jarvis, Jim Finnie, Paul Guest, Leon Winchester, John Venier, our liaison officer Ludar Sain and me. Built like a whippet, 27-year-old Ludar was a bundle of enthusiasm, eager to participate in any of our climbs or else help with load-ferrying.
We departed for the summit at 3 a.m. on a cold clear night and climbed a broken gully towards the ice bulge at 5500 m. Just after 5 a.m. the dawn broke with a pale pink flush over Nanda Devi. The obelisk of the main summit now appeared behind its eastern twin. Sinuous ribs of snow plunged from the summits like the pleats of a swirling skirt. The whole assemblage exuded an aura of unattainable virginal splendour. We were immensely privileged to have a grandstand view of the Goddess in this precious morning hour.
The angle rose to 55, then 60° at the bulge. We took belays on ice screws and climbed three rope lengths to easier ground. After a generous rest we completed the last 120 m climb to the summit snow ridge where a new view broke forth eastward to the lofty massif of Chiring We. We descended by the same route, abseiling over the ice bulge. The overall climb rated Alpine AD (Assez Difficile) and served as an excellent warm-up to be recommended to any future parties who visit this valley.
Back at base camp we learnt that the Poles had abandoned their attempt at 6900 m, when one of their lead climbers started coughing blood. They were now packing for home and gave us permission to use the fixed ropes that they had left in place across the pinnacles. Our time had come to experience the harsher side of Nanda’s power.
The gateway to Nanda Devi East is a remarkable snow couloir that climbs from the valley-head to a col on the Nanda Devi Sanctuary rim, traditionally named the Nanda Devi khal but now indelibly associated with its pioneer, Dr Tom Longstaff, as ‘Longstaff col’. In 1905 Longstaff, together with his two Swiss guides, Alexis and Henri Brocherel, climbed to the col in an attempt to reach the Nanda Devi Sanctuary and reconnoitre an ascent of the mountain. They spent two nights camped on an exiguous platform, and then climbed to the top of the 1st pinnacle on the ridge of Nanda Devi East to inspect the onward route.
In a remarkable piece of understatement, Longstaff declared that the ridge presented no insuperable difficulty but might take a little more time and resources than the team possessed! They eschewed making a descent into the Sanctuary basin when confronted with a 900 m wall of steep ice and rock. Undeterred, they later made a lightning attempt on 6861 m Nanda Kot reaching to within 350 m of the summit in a twoday climb from the grazing meadows of Naspanpatti.
On a return visit in 1907 Longstaff and the Brocherels examined the western approach to Nanda up the Rishi Ganga gorge and conquered Trisul, the first 7000er ever to be climbed. It was left to Shipton and Tilman to harvest the fruit sown in these earlier sorties when they reached the inner Sanctuary in 1934. In 1936, after the first ascent of Nanda Devi, Tilman with American Charles Houston crossed Longstaff col from west to east and trekked out down the Gori Ganga, a tour de force of exploratory mountaineering.
On 29 May our whole team plus high-altitude porters Heera and Mangal Singh moved up to an advance camp on the edge of the great couloir at 4875 m. We aimed to get some 100 kg of food and equipment to the col and then spend a couple of days exploring the onward route over the pinnacles. Despite steady evening snowfall we set alarms for 11 p.m. and commenced the attack at 1 a.m. under clearer skies. Our loads averaged 17 kg each and the fresh snow formed a sticky layer to slow the pace. By 4.30 a.m. we reached a prominent outcrop splitting the gully at 5400 m. This was, effectively, the point of no return. John was struggling and decided to retreat. The rest of us continued with increasing weariness, protected by a blanket of mist and a gentle snowfall that masked a direct assault by the morning sun.
The scale of the couloir was immense, even by Himalayan standards, and the angle imperceptibly increased from 40 to 50° in the last 500 m. The snow developed a pie-crust with deep granular sugar underneath. After a final scramble through a rocky outcrop we reached the col at 9.15 a.m., utterly wasted.
Just as the Poles had promised, the col was a knife-edge of ice and the exposure on the Sanctuary side induced instant giddiness. Seeing the impossibility of getting eight people lodged for the night I asked Ludar and our porters to descend. Luckily, the mist persisted and they were able to get back down without triggering any avalanches.
The rest of us chipped feebly at the ice for an hour and got a bivouac tent erected. Paul and Leon crawled inside, totally enervated by the solar heat and radiation. After brewing some hot drinks we excavated a second niche for a larger tent, staked out the tent guys and squeezed in just as the afternoon snowfall commenced.
At six the skies cleared. Golden evening light lit our tiny camp and the magic of Nanda’s inner domain took hold. Down in the Sanctuary we saw a glacier lake, over a kilometre in length, which had formed on the approximate site of the 1936 base camp at 4900 m. It is a frightening proof of global warming that such massive volumes of meltwater are being produced at this height. The peaks of the Sanctuary - Devtoli, Devi Mukut, Devistan, Bethartoli Himal and Trisul - fell into sombre silhouette as the setting sun lit a molten furnace in the boiling clouds that filled the lower basin. After a traumatic and exhausting day we suddenly felt at home in the lap of the Goddess.
On 31 May we woke to the pleasing warmth of sunlight filtering into our tent. Rob, Paul and I extricated ourselves from the tents, and completed the delicate tasks of toilet and kit retrieval. We had brought up biodegradable ‘poo’ bags plus a sealed container so that faeces could be bagged and removed to base camp. Then we set off, lightly laden, for a look at the pinnacles.
The Polish 8 mm ropes were expertly affixed to an array of big old pitons, hammered into the rotten orange rock. After a strenuous 60 metre jumar on 58° ice we reached the shoulder of the 1st pinnacle where the onward ridge unfolded in a series of spectacular snowcrusted towers. With the security of the fixed lines we romped along the crest, revelling in the wonderful exposure. After three hours of genuine Himalayan fun we reached the end of the pinnacles, stowed hardware at a 25 m rock step and returned to camp. Strangely, Longstaff col looked considerably more spacious and welcoming on our return that afternoon. All perceptions are relative!
Next day Leon joined Rob and me for a more ambitious foray. We took light loads to our high point. Then Rob and I continued up the next step, hoping to reach or at least see the next campsite at 6100 m. That would have been a big psychological boost, but the fixed lines disappeared under snow-banks after 60 m and for 50 m we traversed unstable snow overlying hard ice on the left flank, our crampons perched above an abyss over the Nanda Devi glacier. We couldn’t spot any tent site on the ridge ahead.
Suddenly, reality struck home. To cross this ground heavily-laden would be highly treacherous. In any event, only four of us were fit to climb further. Nor could we ask our porters to take extra loads up to Longstaff col without rope security. We would be pushing well beyond safe limits if we continued. A decision of critical moment to the whole expedition was made quickly and quietly, as is usually the case at the key junctures of a climb. We would retreat, regroup and think about other objectives.
We returned to the col, left 35 kg of gear for subsequent retrieval and packed the rest in huge loads. Our evening descent commenced eventfully when I triggered an extensive surface slab of wet granular snow that scoured the gully bed down to bare ice! Thereafter we teetered down facing in to the slope until the midway rock. At 10 p.m. that evening we staggered back to advance camp to be met by Heera and Mangal with mugs of hot chai. Our Nanda dreams were over and yet we sensed the joy of continuing life.
I did have another idea tucked up my sleeve when we made the withdrawl from Nanda. On the opposite side of the Lawan watershed lay the shapely pile of 6322 m Changuch, a striking peak on the western arm of Nanda Kot that was still unclimbed despite three attempts. While previous suitors had approached from the Pindari valley to the south, we were perched on the more approachable northern flank and spotted a feasible line of approach up couloirs and ramps of snow on the north face to gain a col high on the northwest ridge, which rose to the summit in a series of sharp steep steps.
Changuch from the slopes under Longstaff’s col; the first ascent climbed the north flank to gain the
NW ridge just beyond the obvious rock pinnacle and climbed the ridge direct to the top. (Martin Moran)
Our LO Ludar quickly blessed the change of plan and was delighted to be included in our summit team. John and Jim meanwhile decided to return home early. On 4 and 5 June, Rob, Paul and Leon established an advance camp and made an initial foray towards the ridge. Meanwhile Heera and I returned to Longstaff col to collect the remainder of our kit in a 16 hour nightshift from base camp. On the evening of the 6th, Rob’s team set off to make the climb to the col just as a rising moon fringed the table-top of Nanda Kot. They gained the face by a 55° snow couloir then made a tortuous rising traverse towards the notch, jumping in and out of avalanche runnels, traversing crab-like across patches of bare rock and finally kicking steps up an exit gully, to emerge at daybreak, on the col at 5750 m altitude. The notch offered a cramped site for two single-skin bivouac tents. With this vital job complete Rob’s team took a day of rest.
Ludar and I followed the following evening. As soon as we set off, the fatigue and demoralisation resultant from my efforts on Nanda Devi fell away. The stultifying torpor that plagues the spirits when stuck in a sun-baked daytime camp evaporated. Suddenly, I felt young, motivated and happy again; and was further buoyed by the infectious enthusiasm and boyish charm of my companion Ludar. Life is simple and fulfilling once a commitment is made to a climb. We breasted the col at 2.15 a.m. to be greeted by a night view of the ghostly white shrouds of the Pindari peaks. Ludar squeezed in beside Rob, and I bivouacked alongside their tent.
Our little camp offered a majestic view over the snowy wastes of Traill’s pass and down to the green trench of the Pindar valley, which I had last visited 14 years previously. I felt the strong pang of a homecoming. I had never imagined I would see the beauties of Pindari again after our ascent of Nanda Kot south face in 1995. We spent the next morning sunbathing while Rob produced a regular supply of drinks and snacks. Then the weather took an evil turn. Cumulus clouds mushroomed out of the Pindar valley at midday. Within 30 minutes we were enveloped in a blizzard, and I stayed cocooned in my bivouac bag until the onslaught eased at nightfall.
Traill’s pass with Nanda Khat and Panwali Dwar (behind) viewed from the NW of Changuch. (Martin Moran)
At 11 p.m. I shook 10 cm of fresh snow off my bivouac sack as we began preparations for the summit climb. The sky was a mass of steely stars and the frost was sharp. I roped with Ludar and Paul while Rob and Leon joined forces. Slightly damp and chilled from my bivouac I felt painfully cold even after leading the first 130 m of broken mixed ridge at my best pace. Rob took over the lead for a long exposed traverse of 55° snow-ice slopes where the ridge made a giant rightwards kink. We moved on a very short rope just a metre apart in complete mutual trust. The snow conditions were excellent and we only stopped to belay at the next upward step where the slope steepened and became icy. Rob produced a sterling lead of four long ice pitches. The stars wheeled slowly across the heavens and a rim of dawn light finally emerged over eastern Kumaun. Nanda Devi emerged from her slumber and at the rising of the sun we were advancing with rising excitement up shorter steps towards the summit.
Rob ploughed up the last rise of soft snow at 8.30 a.m. We had feared a succession of false tops but apart from a short airy traverse across a rocky crest, the summit was exactly where we wanted it! We back-climbed most of the descent in long pitches, using ice screws and snow stakes for belays, and reached camp at 1 p.m. just as the inevitable afternoon storm commenced.
I crammed into Rob and Ludar’s tent where we sat pensively for the next four hours. The situation was delicate. We needed to get down to advance camp that night or else we would be pinned for another day. We also knew that the slopes under the col would now be laden with freshly blown snow, and ripe to avalanche. At 6 p.m. the snowfall petered out and we made our break.
We dug every bit of buried kit and rubbish out of the snow, dismantled frozen tents and meticulously repacked our sacks. I tied our two 60 m ropes together and belayed the rest of the team down to test the slopes below. Rob excavated the snow-pack and detected no dangerous slab layers, so we continued. The deep fresh snow allowed of a faster pace of descent and we crossed the bergschrund at 11 p.m. to enter a phantasmagorical moonlit world. Billions of fresh snow crystals glistened on the surface while fathomless shadows plunged into every hollow. We traversed dreamlike across curvaceous mounds of pristine powder, our silhouettes marching a hundred metres ahead of us towards the lonely black dot of our tent.
Every guidebook to Kumaun makes note of the 5312 m pass that links the Pindar and Lawan valleys, Pindari Kanda by local nomenclature but universally known as Traill’s pass in memory of its pioneer Mr George William Traill. Traill was the first British commissioner of Kumaun after defeat of the ruling Gurkhas and promoted the development of new trails and trade routes. One such was a direct route from Almora to Tibet linking the Pindari and Milam valleys. In 1830 the pass was crossed under leadership of local man Malik Singh Buda. It remains uncertain whether Traill himself was part of the party or simply the sponsor of the enterprise.
On the Traill’s pass crossing at the brink of the Pindari downfall at 5400 m with
Changuch and Nanda Kot behind. (Martin Moran)
Despite its geographic importance Traill’s pass was far too difficult to become a trade route, and its dangers only increased as the glaciers commenced their long retreat during the 20th century. Only five repeat crossings had been recorded up to 2009, the last by Almora mountaineering club in 1994.
With four days left of our expedition we were intrigued to explore the pass and see whether a crossing could be made to Pindari at a reasonable standard. So in the twilight of dawn on 14 June we five buccaneers set out once more up the Lawan headwaters in pursuit of a final adventure. The Lawan side of the pass proved to be straightforward. A 40° to 45° snow gully of 300 m vertical height led to the col at 5312 m and a simple walk down the far side landed us on vast glacial plateau that feeds the chaotic Pindar icefall. The real interest lay on the farther side of the plateau, which breaks into a mighty downfall of 1600 m to the bed of the Pindar valley.
We camped on the plateau and next morning broke a weary trail across crusted snow for a mile to gain a rock ridge above and right of the icefall. As usual cloud galleons were sailing out of the Pindar valley and had we just a few minutes to seek out a descent route down the 120 m cliff on the far side before we were encased in fog. Luckily, we spotted a narrow gully that offered a likely route and down-climbed this in four pitches of 50°-60° angle to gain a glacier shelf. Loud peals of thunder boomed in the valley announcing the onset of a wet blizzard. Working solely by instinct of the terrain we dropped right off the glacier into gullied cliffs and found a tenuous descent on loose vegetated rock.
We knew that a direct descent into the valley could be fatal. The retreating Pindar glacier has left insurmountable walls of moraine debris 100 to 200 m high. We needed to traverse until we were clear of these moraines and then descend to the shepherds huts at 3600 m on the west bank of the river. So, with grim self-discipline, we traversed under Panwali Dwar and over the lower Buria glacier, negotiating a sea of boulders and wet slabs, until we gained grass slopes with traces of sheep tracks. We were still unsure of our position relative to the moraines and to the cliff bands that broke the slopes beneath. Foregoing the temptation to make a blind downhill plunge, we opted to ascend 120 m to a ridge crest where we could ponder our options. Here the weather cleared and at last we could see straight down to the green valley 900 m below. The grass slopes beneath us were covered in wet snow and were lethally steep. With rising frustration I set off on another uphill sortie and spent an hour getting to a safe position on the next ridge 50 m lower. While the others joined me the mist rolled in once again. We followed a shepherd’s track for 300 m then lost it at the top of yet another band of crags.
By now we had been on our feet with 18 kg loads for 12 hours. With my patience now exhausted I plunged blindly down to the left on primitive terrain of juniper, azalea and slippery rock outcrops. The others followed, hidden in the fog, and we communicated by distant shouts. At 6 p.m. I emerged below the mist in a noxious gully of wet slabs and screes, but, joy of joys, the chasm led us safely down to the pastures below. Huge flocks of sheep and a herd of wild horses grazed the slopes. We erected our tents on the green swards between freshwater rivulets. Ludar went over to the huts and a resident shepherd, Amar Singh, promptly invited us in to share a magnificent meal of rice and red-hot dal mixed with mutton, sitting squat-legged by his wood fire.
Having reached our promised land, we indulged the pleasure of a three-day trek down through the luxuriant forests of the Pindar valley, and over the Dhakuri pass. The valley was more prosperous than on my last visit in 1995. The flow of trekkers has increased and Khati village has a new temple, tourist cabins, several new homes with balconies and well-stocked tea-shops. The livestock economy is thriving with an estimated 5000 sheep and goats grazing the upper valley in the summer months. The local panchyat remains in control of affairs and it was a delight to meet headman Rattan Singh - now 86 years old - and his son Prakash. Yet it seems that the Government has neglected the valley. Hundreds of telegraph poles lay rusting and unused on the track over Dhakuri to the roadhead at Loharkhet, so the people are still without reliable telephone contact.
Here in Pindari there is hope of a sustainable future whereas for the people of the Gori Ganga valley the clock is ticking towards the day that the bulldozers move in and seal their fate.
‘See the Gori Ganga while you can. In 15 years it will all be gone.’
So lamented my agent, C. S. Pandey, as we trekked the verdant gorge from Munsiari to Martoli. We had spent the previous two days on the twisting cobbled path that for many centuries carried a vibrant trade in goods and animals between India and Tibet, gaining height through swathes of sub-tropical jungle to emerge in the open upper reaches where the river meandered in a vast bed of gravel above its downward plunge.
Down on the riverbank a group of labourers were operating a diesel-powered drill, testing rock hardness, at the site of the highest of four hydro dams that are proposed for this valley. They will begin at 1700 m just above the humid and sleepy village of Lilam, filling the canyon past Rupsia Bagar and Bogdiyar, and up to Mapang at 2980 m altitude. The dam walls will be between 70 and 100 m in height with underground water shafts leading to downstream powerhouses. There will be massive pollution during the construction phase with bulldozing of access roads for heavy machinery. The landscape, ecology and tranquillity of the area will be irreversibly degraded, along with the culture and traditional livelihoods of the local Bhotia and Saukhia people. All the plans and feasibility studies can be viewed at www.uttara.in/initiatives/wfw/intro.htm.
Of course it is inevitable that some of the massive hydro potential of Uttarakhand’s mountains must be harnessed. No fair-minded person could dispute the need to develop renewable sources of energy to satisfy north India’s burgeoning demand for electricity without adding significantly to global warming. The 1000 MW Tehri dam is already in operation, and several more schemes are under construction on the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda rivers. The combined generating capacity of the Gori Ganga schemes will be around 800 MW according to the engineers. Even allowing for operational inefficiency one cannot deny that the valley carries a considerable head of power.
However, State-sponsored companies are actively plotting similar exploitation of each and every mountain valley in Kumaun and Garhwal without any concern for environmental or cultural protection. Even worse, there seems to be complete lack of any co-ordinated opposition save for the plaintive cries of those helpless villagers who will be displaced. Where is the environmental protest from trekkers, mountaineers, cultural organisations, ecologists and tourism operators? A thunderous voice of protest must be raised soon or every mountain valley in Uttarakhand state will suffer the same fate within the next 50 years. And maybe there is still time to spare the Gori Ganga from complete devastation. Each of the four dams will take five to eight years to build, working upstream from Lilam. The upper valley might yet be saved.