‘ Yes, there is a campsite ahead, near Bushaheri nala’- Tilak Raj was answering my query about his intended destination.
The youthful spirit and the weather-beaten skin formed a perfect contrast in this shepherd who had become our neighbour for the evening. His 300 sheep flock was unwilling to cross the engorged stream so the poor chap was forced to bivouac for the night near our camp.
The shepherd had just mentioned the local name for the watercourse along which lay our plotted GPS track. There must have been a historical reason why the shepherds associated a particular tributary of Chor gad with ’Bushaher‘ – the wealthiest kingdom in Himachal Pradesh in the pre-colonial and post-Mughal era.
Our terrain research on Google Earth had been correct. The double depression on the bounding ridgeline of Kalapani glacier of Chor gad was indeed the ancient connect between Bushaher and Nelang valleys.
History and Etymology of Chunsa Khaga
Three separate accounts of European explorers, in the first half of the 1800s, indicate the existence of an ancient pass establishing direct contact between Bushaher and Nelang.
‘Chunsa Khago, from Chitkul to Nelang… a lofty pass not under 18000 ft’ – wrote Alexander Gerard in his famous narrative on Kinnaur during his visit around 1820. He captured the oral history around the pass and mentioned armed tax collectors of the Kingdom of Bushaher going to Nelang area over the pass. He also described how the pass had been in disuse after a caravan1, met with an accident and lost few lives.
Fredrick Wilson, the British-born agent of Tehri State for Harsil area, emerged in the scene about couple of decades later. ‘Changso Khaga’2 he wrote in his 1860 book, ‘..the pass that connects Nelang and Bushaher.’
Around the same time, the schlagintweit brothers published their detailed research of Central himalaya. the Nelang - Chitkul route3 is described in fair amount of detail in it. the confusion in the name of the pass can be easily settled by putting few more facts together.
Fraser4, Hodgson5 & Herbert, have reported as far back as 1815-1820 that the alternate name of Nelang village, where the Jadh Bhotias lived, was ‘Chunsa’, ‘Chungsa’ or ‘Chounsah’.
Similarly Khaga6’, as Wilson describes, is a high pass of permanent snow; as opposed to ‘Kanda’/ ‘Kanta’ or ‘Khal’ which is a lower pass. Thus lexically ‘Chunsa Khaga’ made sense - ‘the high pass to Nelang’, rather than ‘Chungsa khago’ as mentioned by Gerard.
One can only conjecture as to who discovered Chunsa Khaga and when it actually came to use. Given the descriptions of the terrain and near-xenophobia of the Jadhs, its usage by Bushaheris could only have been mandated by reasons driven by political economy.7
It appears that, the Bushaheri influence on the Nelang tract, only possible through a passage over Chunsa Khaga, started around the reign of the king Kehri Singh around mid 17th century after he signed a trade treaty with Tibet. But weak governance in the state in subsequent years and the Gurkha attack in 1800 rapidly decreased the Bushaheri influence.
The political fortunes dramatically altered after the Gurkha Invasion8 around 1803 and the subsequent Anglo-Nepalese war of 1815. With ascendance of British power in the hills after the Gurkha war, the influence of Tehri State, backed by the British, steadily increased in Nelang. This coincided precisely with a period of rapid political decline in the Kingdom of Bushaher.
Around 1850, just when the Bushaheri kingdom was at the verge of bankruptcy; Wilson was appointed at Harsil by Tehri Durbar to handle the border affairs of the Nelang-Jadhs, their trade and taxes; a calculated move by the British to safeguard the imperial interests. This changed the political landscape of the area. Wilson seems to have used his envisaged role, to gain a close connect with the Nelang, in the back drop of the Great (Anglo-Russian) Game unfolding in high Tibet. Access to Nelang also gave Wilson a much wider area of operation for his business interests in Timber and Game Hunting.
By 1878, the Tehri Durbar already had its customs post9 at Nelang and the Jadhs of Nelang had already established a summer settlement at Dundanear Uttarkashi in the Bhagirathi valley. The Jadhs started integrating with Garhwal in more ways than one. The Bushaheri influence on the area waned, changing the fortunes of Chunsa Khaga forever.
Out of the available accounts of this ancient pass, the following common points emerged.
It was just a chance discovery while verifying our previous year’s expedition to Jadung11 on Google Earth. We located a little twin-depression on the ridge at the head of the Kalapani glacier - one of the tributary valleys in the Upper Chor gad basin. The classic saddle on the ridge led into the head of Baspa glacier. It appeared to have an easy angle of ascent and descent, albeit through a crevassed snowfield on the Baspa side; a friendly, straightforward and logical connection between the Baspa and the Chor gad. Almost every feature described earlier matched.
The high quality satellite imagery of the area and the 3D data in Google Earth helped us to plot a detailed route with potential campsites. The inputs from Tapan Pandit’s account12 of 2009 helped.
We reached Uttarkashi on 7 June 2014 by midday. Having procured the necessary permits, the evening was spent in a nice chat with the senior officials of the ITBP Battalion that looks after the Nelang area.
Then we went down to the campsite beside the bridge over the confluence of Chor gad and Jadh ganga.
The vertical granite-faces around the Dumku-bridge camp make for some interesting observations. For almost a hundred feet up on these, one can see clear signs of water erosion. The Chor gad seemed to have gouged her course through those hundreds of feet of Granite layers - ballads many million years old etched deep on those rocks!
The walk up the left bank of the Kalapani glacier towards the top of the left lateral moraine - selected area for BC (Arun Negi)
Stage I - Shepherds’ Trail to Bushaheri Nala
Dumku 3300 m - Misosa 3700 m (12 km) - Thandapani 4050 m (12 km) - Kalapani 4350 m (6 km)
We started off as the sun shone gloriously upon the eastern bounding ridge of the Chor gad valley. The route snaked its way along the true left of the river for the initial kilometre or so and then across a metal bridge to the true right. Another hour took us past the Lal Devta camping ground. An easy walk along the right bank slowly came close to the Chaling gad confluence area. A faintly visible trail was, running along the true right of the Chaling gad and soon saw the sturdy log bridge laid across the river.
After gaining the opposite bank, a short scramble of about 100 m brought us onto a table top upon a small densely wooded hillock. The dense pine-grove around which shepherds call the Lal Devta rock provided the much-needed shade for resting as we regrouped. When we started off after a two-hour break, we made a navigational blunder. About 200 m down the visible trail leading to the north, there is a bifurcation, one trail moving upstream and the other downstream towards the right. We chose the former wrongly and lost considerable time and distance trying to locate the bridge across the Chor gad, located half a kilometre downstream.
Half an hour after gaining the left bank we entered the gentle yet frustrating slope of the Misosa grounds. Within another hour we had crossed over the Misosa stream coming from the glacier fields high above our right. Camp was set up on the right bank of Misosa stream, which was clear compared to the muddy waters of Chor gad below.
Tilak Raj, a shepherd camping nearby, fondly recalled Tapan Pandit’s visit in 2009. He mentioned other groups of shepherds in the valley who were camped ahead and later mentioned about the beautiful Kalapani campsite by the side of ‘Bushaheri nala’. We were happy; our research seemed to be in complete alignment with the legends of the valley.
The picturesque trail next day led us along the riverside over a kilometre and then rose sharply for about 200 m as we emerged upon a boulder field. The field was separated from the high bank of the river by a grassy ledge about 100 m wide. We had reached ‘Singmoche camping ground’. A little ahead beyond a fast flowing stream was a large rock with the usual red pennant on a tall flagpole indicating Lal Devta. Up ahead the vast Changdum plains opened up; a luxurious pasture, dotted with pretty yellow flowers.
Just about two km ahead of Changdum, where the course of the Chor gad takes a wide sweeping turn towards far left, we went past Misora camping ground sprinkled with floral dots of yellow and purple. The flowers were getting ready to bloom - perhaps by the end of June the place would be a mini Valley of Flowers. A massive scree slope was now looming closer upon which the trail led diagonally westwards. High above, a sizeable herd of Bharals grazed about merrily threatening our passage with potential rock fall. The passage went smoothly as we entered level ground now, heading north again.
The trail now ran by the riverside where the Demoche gad confluences with the Chor gad. The river is not difficult to cross here and on the far side we could see groves of Birch, many potential camping spots and an abundance of pastures for grazing. Lost in that ethereal beauty of the pretty valley, we were unaware about the terrain that was about to hit our trail. After the Demoche gad the trail suddenly winds nastily upwards to the crest of a spur coming out of the Nakurche complex, a spur that pushes the bed of the Chor gad sharply due west.
After a sudden rise the trail levels out and enters the wide fan of the moraine of the Nakurche glacier coming in from the right. Immediately thereafter we came across a shepherd shelter perched on top of a precipice, directly looking down at the Chor gad, about 100 m below.
Just ahead was the bad patch of about a furlong had myriad rainwater gullies running through a broken bank of loose scree. The Chor gad, releasing itself from the icy confines of its upper valleys, was foaming below us. Steps had to be cut for the laden porters and we had a cautious passage. The trail now leveled out with the river and a passage had to be found to the right bank over a crevassed snow bridge. We slowly rose up the right bank and within about half an hour we were resting on a little flattish delta on the southern edge of a confluence. A small stone hut with ramshackle roofing dominated the scene. Some firewood was littered around. We had reached Thandapani camp.
I walked up to the edge of the tabletop and had a look at the confluence. The Thandapani stream was discharging a respectable volume of muddy brown water into the relatively clear Chor gad. Over the furious flow of the Thandapani was a small natural rock bridge, which had been reinforced by rock masonry, as Tilak had mentioned earlier. The trail hence wound steadily up for about 200 m till the crest of the spur that bisects the right bank of Chor gad between Thandapani and Dudhpani valleys. We had already crossed the 4200 m mark and the exertion was telling. On the far bank we saw scree slopes dropping in sheer precipices from Nakurche ridge about 1000 m above us. Soon the trail leveled and dropped down to the lovely valley of Dudhpani. True to its name the water was clear as spring water although it was coming from glacial melts.
After a quick regrouping we started ascending the trail leading to the crest of the next ridge. We followed a diagonal ascent from the hollow of the Dudhpani stream as Tilak had advised. He had assured us that the route was good enough for mules.
The sharp descent to the bed of Chor gad, the subsequent river crossings over the network of snow bridges and final climb to the terminal flats of the Kalapani glacier added at least an hour of delay to the day’s work. Future parties are well advised to take the high bridle path from Dudhpani to Kalapani. Kalapani was the most picturesque camping ground we had settled into since the beginning of the expedition.
Team getting ready to descend to the Baspa glacier area from the Chunsa Khaga pass. A cairn set up by the team is visible on the left (Anand Venkat)
Stage II- The Traverse
Kalapani 4350 m - Base Camp 4950 m (6 km) - Advanced base camp 5250 m (2.5 km) - Chunsa Khaga 5500 m (1.5 km) - Baspa glacier 5000 m(5 km) - Gaundar 4250 m (14 km)
We made rapid progress next day along the right lateral moraine that soon entered the massive glacial amphitheatre of the Kalapani glacier at the middle of which gurgled the baby stream of Bushaheri nala as the shepherds would call it. Though there was no crevasse danger in the area, the boulders made progress rather slow. Crossing the Busheheri nala required only a hop-over.
After another couple of hours of toil through the, steep and virgin snow slopes we gained the tabletop of the left lateral moraine of the glacier. As expected a small blue tarn greeted us at the entrance to the moraine ridge. We had found our base camp. With fully laden porters, we had managed the six km trudge and the altitude gain of 600 m in just over four hours.
A bright morning next day beckoned us to move station to advance base camp, at the head of the lateral moraine and at the foot of the pass. Even though we were a short scramble of three kilometres away from the ABC, we had not yet had a glimpse of our objective. We were just pushing on blindly following GPS and the landmarks.
After about an hour of climb on the lateral moraine ridge we came to where it merged into a minor buttress coming out of the bounding ridge to our right. We had to go over it following a steep zigzag across an exposed slope and finally gained the top of the buttress; a huge convex hilltop. Right ahead to the west was Chunsa Khaga. Its twin sister, the Chunsa Khaga(South) was nestled prettily to its left beyond a rocky pinnacle. The scene around was surreal.
Giant 6000ers of the Nelang and adjoining valleys dotted the east and southeast horizon. Peak Nakurche (6010 m), our objective of the previous year, dominated the skyline being the closest. Towards the west, the twin passes of Chunsa Khaga North and South were bathed in the golden rays of the setting sun, their surfaces shining a metallic gold as the snow-melt deflected the setting sun.
The saddles of Chunsa Khaga North (right) and Chunsa Khaga South (left) as seen from ABC area (Ashutosh Mishra)
Next day, the ascent to the pass involved a sharp climb, which tapered off near a place where the glacier takes a sharp tumble down. This inflection point was an important part of our route plan. This is where we expected a few crevasses. Thankfully these areas were well marked on the GPS and visually confirmed the previous day. The route kept close to the left of the glacier and near the inflection point we steered diagonally to the middle of the glacier. Ahead was an easy incline to the saddle along a valley-trough about half a kilometre wide.
Within about two hours, the entire team was atop the Chunsa Khaga-(5500 m). We had made good time and still had at least two to three hours of walk left before the unstable afternoon weather of the extreme altitudes start threatening our plans. We could already see a bad patch of gaping crevasses about a kilometre away. We could see the sprawling expanse of the head of the Baspa glacier. The complex knot of Gundar and Arsomang ridges were directly ahead and the flow of the wide Baspa glacier was visible due west for at least five miles.
The descent was not as difficult as we expected. About a kilometre later we could sense a change in the profile of the glacier bed indicating imminent danger of crevasses. The team got organised into two ropes and followed a rib to the flat snowfields of the glacier down below. A couple of sinister looking glacial tarns with greenish-blue waters passed us by on both sides. The sun was beating down mercilessly and the ambient temperatures read a high 44° Celsius!
The Chunsa Khaga cairn and a view of the sprawling panorama of the head of the Baspa glacier (Nitin Joshi)
Upon reaching stable grounds we unroped, about five km from the pass. Here the Baspa glacier bends away in a northwesterly direction. A little tarn was located nearby where a tributary glacier joined in from the true right. The glow of the setting sun upon that icy slope crafted the perfect canvas for the camping of the triumphant team.
View from the Chunsa Khaga pass saddle towards the Kalapani glacier. Nakurche Dhar in the background with Nakurche Peak - 6010 m (Arun Negi)
We had pushed non-stop for the past six days and we were past the biggest obstacle. Only one last bit remained - that of traversing the length of the uncharted Baspa glacier with its steep avalanche prone sides without any incident.
Stage III - Out of the mountains along the Baspa
Gaundar CG 4250 m - Nithal 4200 m(6 km) - Dumti CG 4000 m (10 km) - Ranikanda 3700 m (12 km) - Nagasthi 3500 m (6 km) - Chhitkul 3400 m (3 km)
While planning the route we knew that the right bank of Baspa glacier was our safest bet for it had the longest unbroken surface till the snout of the glacier. In contrast, the left side was heavily broken for the last two km of the glacier’s length. Also the right bank, being a south facing side would probably have less snow than the left.
About a hundred metres from the camp we saw the beginning of the little Baspa stream, which steadily increased in its dimensions as we walked along. She went subterranean after a while where the mile long prominent medial moraine started.
Within about three hours of our march we could see the outline of the Lamkhaga ridge junction indicating that the snout area was near. Over the last two km we could see the death throes of the Baspa glacier as open and broken glacier surfaces revealed the flow of Baspa beneath it. We could see the river fully exposed at least two km above what was formally known as the snout of the glacier.
The day the two transverse ice barriers defining the snout melt away, the source of Baspa will suddenly recede by at least half a kilometre in one stroke! After the 14 km long trudge over snow, rock and boulders we reached the snout around 3.00 p.m. A kilometre ahead was the Gaundar camping grounds; our objective for the day.
The last challenges of the Baspa valley remained to be tackled now - swollen rivers and exposed slopes between Dumti and Ranikanda. Our immediate concern were two sizeable streams that had to be forded the next day - first the Gaundar nala and then the bigger and more tempestuous Arsomang nala, beyond which lay the Nithal ITBP post.
Thankfully a snow bridge over Gaundar nala and a well-engineered bridge over the Arsomang nala saw us through to Nithal post in no time. Twenty odd men from the Army and ITBP greeted us on the high right bank of Baspa.. After the paperwork and reporting we left for the 10 km of onward march to Dumti post. It was easy going after this and trail went via Ranikanda, Doaria ground, Nagasthi and to Chhitkul where transport was available.
Thus ended our third visit to the valley of Jahnavi. Instead of satiating the thirst, this journey only deepened it further. The watershed, with her many dimensions, creates some sort of a magnetic pull. Whether the mighty mountain allows that foray into the last valleys of Tirpani and Nilapani will be seen in due course of time.
An exploratory trek crossing Chunsa Khaga linking Nelang (Garhwal) and Baspa (Kinnaur) valleys.