The Barmal Khal

Exploration of Dhauli ganga - Alaknanda Valley

Partha Pratim Mitra

Something hidden, go and find it
Go and look behind the Ranges.
Something lost behind the Ranges
Lost and waiting for you. Go!

Rudyard Kipling: The Explorer

From the ancient times, the dignity of the mighty Himalaya has been enhanced by the presence of the most sacred river of India, i.e. the river Ganges. The name Ganges, Ganga, appears to be Sanskritized from an ancient Austric word meaning a flowing holy stream. The most significant of the three prime tributaries of Ganga, the Alaknanda, emerges from the conjunction of Bhagirath Kharak and Satopanth glacier and flows towards Mana village.

Vishnuganga, emerges from Niti pass (5069 m) and is reincarnated as Dhauli ganga. Alaknanda flows southwards to join Dhauli ganga at Vishnuprayag, some four kilometres away from Joshimath. The significance of Alaknanda and Dhauliganga rivers in the geography and mythology is unparalleled.

The history, mythology and the mountaineering annals of these two pristine valleys have fascinated me forever. The adventures of pioneers like W. W. Graham, C.F. Meade, Frank Smythe, R. L. Holdsworth, J. Birnie, Dr. T. G. Longstaff, Andre Roch, Eric Shipton, H. W. Tilman attracted me to the area.

After studying the terrain around the Dhauli ganga and Alaknanda valleys, I observed a solitary watershed that separates both valleys. I was also interested in the untrodden upper plateau, lying upstream of Dhauli ganga. I thought about the possibility of a virgin pass that would link the Dhauli ganga and Alaknanda valley.

This idea a crossover was partially created by Andre Roch about 74 years ago in his climbing expedition – an attempt to cross over the impregnable watershed from Dhauli valley into Alaknanda valley by finding a passage between Hathi and Ghori Parbat. But he could not do so.

In early 2013 I wrote to Harish Kapadia of the Himalayan Club and Derek R. Buckle of the Alpine Club. They encouraged us to explore and cross the blank on the map of eastern Garhwal.

It was surprising that no expeditions had ventured to find out a link between these two valleys during 74 years following Andre Roch’s attempt.

So Baisakhi Mitra and I reached Joshimath on 24 September, 2013 and drove up to the quaint little village of Suraithota (2161 m) the next day.

At Suraithota our old comrade Mukesh Singh Power helped us to find Hukum Singh Bhat; the oldest shepherd of Suki who would be our local guide. At a ripe old age of 72, Hukum Singh was excited to visit the meadows he roamed in his early days.

Thus we started off and reached the left bank after crossing the bridge of Dhauli ganga. Then we pushed upwards taking the north-western side and finally entered Suki valley where there are three villages – Balgaon, Suki and Malgaon.

We chose an unconventional short but steep route. Our six members’ caravan marched through a forest of pine, deodar, bhoj and finally reached Malgaon at 4 p.m. where Hukum Singh arranged for us to stay in one of his relative’s house. At tea time a few curious villagers visited Us. They were quite surprised to discover a woman in our team. We talked about our plans, leaving them bewildered! They told us about a path, usually taken by shepherds in past, leading up to Rishi kund. But beyond it they had no idea.

On 26 September, we started at 6.30 a.m. leaving behind the sleepy village with Suki nala on the right side. On the eastern side, emerged the dense forest of the Totma village. After an hour, we entered the forest and soon left it behind to reach a sloping grass land. Thus we moved towards the glacial valley leaving behind tidal basin.

After a steep climb of 400 m we reached on the top of the ridge. The trail zigzags up the grassy juniper filled steep path. From the top we observed Kuntibhanar (5895 m), Lampak II (6181 m), Kalanka (6931 m), Purbi Dunagiri (6459 m), Dunagiri (7066 m), Nanda Ghunti (6309 m), Ronti (6063 m) and many other named and unnamed peaks. But the weather started to deteriorate with vaporous clouds emerging from the lower valley floor. We quickly started to descend and finally reached Kantela Kharak.

Leaving Kantela Kharak early we walked along the grassy rock and rhododendron filled steep path finally reaching the bottom of a rock wall. We negotiated the rock wall. Then we turned west and in dense mist, traversed the 700 gradient face of the ridge to reach a high point at 2 p.m. at Saidhar (4470 m).

We identified many peaks from that high point such as Lampak I (6325 m), Lampak II, Tirsuli West (7035 m), Tirsuli North (7074 m), Hardeol (7151 m), Purbi Dunagiri (6459 m), unnamed peak (6523 m), Dunagiri (7066 m), Unnamed Peak (6029m), Hanuman (6075 m), Devistan I (6678 m), Devistan II (6529 m), Trisul I (7120 m), Bethartoli (6352 m), Nanda Ghunti and Ronti. And just like a central gem, making herself conspicuous with her eternal radiant beauty, stood the ever mystical Goddess Nanda Devi (7816 m).

We started to descend on the other side of the ridge. After walking one hour in bad weather we kept moving up west along upper Suki plateau. A steep climb of approximately 300 m through grassy zone led to the top of a moraine wall followed by a right sided delicate traverse for one kilometre. At the end of it we descended through a treacherous grass and boulder mixed zone and finally reached a grass land girdled by rocks on all around. This was Rishi Kund (4150 m) camp site.

On 28 September, the weather did not improve, but we started climbing through a steep slope that led to the top of a moraine wall. Then we descended to a grassy zone full of gravel. We kept moving and negotiated a few humps in quick succession followed by a right side traverse to the bottom of a cliff. We climbed and traversed the cliff to reach the top of the ridge. In incessant rain and snowfall, we were forced to pitch camp on the almost hanging dangerous southern side of the ridge, beyond the spine-chilling and unfathomable pit. Scarcity of water, bad weather, cramped space, the sudden sickness of one of the porters – all compelled me to name the campsite as ‘crisis camp’ (c. 4995 m).

On 29 September, the canopy of dark clouds had not subsided. We were on the ledge of the eastern ridge and on our west stretching till north stood the impregnable watershed with its grandeur. Our map suggested that what we saw was unnamed peak (5236 m), Barmal, Oti ka Danda and Danesh Parvat. I scanned the distant watershed for a promising passage. We started to climb towards the northern side of the ridge and negotiated a slippery rock wall to reach the ledge of the ridge where the gradient eased. Then we turned left and traversed a highly exposed steep moraine wall. After three hours of ceaseless descent to the wide grassy zone of Songhangra (4788 m), we found a stream flowing down the western ridge to finally meet Dhauli ganga further south. We called the stream as ‘Songhangra nala’.

Expedition Route

Expedition Route

We decided to move to our right side up along the horrible scree-filled zone. After two and half hours we reached at the terminal point of the narrow gully. Here we were encompassed by the northeast and west ridges. We tried to find a negotiable route but could not so we returned to Songhangra. We finally decided to cross the Songhangra nala and move towards the western side ridge. Then we pushed up a terrible steep boulder filled grassy zone followed by a right side traverse and reached the broad gravel mixed moraine zone. This is the western terminal part of upper Songhangra plateau. Everyone was exhausted so I decided to call it a day and pitched tents on the plateau. It began to drizzle and a fierce wind blew throughout the night.

On 30 September, the weather remained gloomy, restricting our visibility from the plateau. The drizzle continued by afternoon turned into the thunder shower. On 1 October, the weather did not improve but we had to get moving. Thus we started climbing a 750 gradient rock face and reached the high point of a subsidiary ridge.

Thereafter we kept moving through the horrible snow covered boulders and gravel. As we moved higher the southern part of the watershed along with unnamed peak (5236 m) became slightly visible. Our contour map suggested that a depression that looked like a pass would be seen on that southern ridge floor of the watershed.

There was a bit of indication of a Col between Barmal and unnamed Peak (5236 m). But scanning through the telephoto lens, I realised that negotiating of this Col was impossible. Thus we decided to move ahead to find the pass.

The wind was blowing rapidly and it started to snow. In these conditions, navigation was really difficult. However after some time, as the snowfall receded, the pass peered out for a moment and disappeared once again under the veil of cloud. We traversed the treacherous rockfall to reach at the base of the pass. But there was a steep and exposed rock cliff to cross before the final ascent. With mixed feeling of hope and despair we finally reached the top of the cliff. Then we carefully negotiated the horrible blackish moraine mixed rock slope and moved ahead towards the solitary pass.

At about 2 p.m. we were atop the narrow pass. It was a special moment because we were standing on the only gap in the impregnable watershed of the legendary Dhauli ganga and Alaknanda valleys. We proudly placed our national flag where perhaps no human being had ever set foot and congratulated each other. Dark cloud continued to gather around us. On our west we could observe the expanse of Barmal glacier. We also observed the distant view of the untrodden mystical territory of Maiman (3197 m) in mist and cloud. From our maps and compass, we knew this would lead us towards northwest side of Barmal glacier emerging from Barmal peak. I decided to propose the name of the pass ‘Barmal Khal’ which is at c. 5195 m.

We started to descend towards the virgin territory of Alaknanda valley. We made steps with the help of an ice axe and initially descended 200 m to the rock wall dropping straight into the glacier. We had no option other than taking that route to go down for the last possible abseil to reach our destination. Next we went down some 50 m on the difficult gradient followed by a traverse 150 m of snow covered slippery rock wall to reach a rocky rib. It began to rain. We kept moving in poor visibility through huge boulders and descended towards the left lateral moraine zone. After negotiating the moraine zone we found on our right the horrible cracked part of Barmal glacier. After descending down some 350m we finally reached the mystical grassy territory of Maiman plateau in the afternoon. Here Hom gadhera emerged from the Barmal glacier flowing through the Maiman plateau where we decided to camp.

Seen from maiman plateau Bhagnyu (5706 m) and Narayan Parvat (5965 m) right

Second October, the morning was quite clear and silent unlike the previous days. We inched up to a high point of a moraine wall and were rewarded by a panoramic view on the horizon of Nilkanth (6596 m), Narayan Parvat (5965 m), Bhagnyu (5706 m) on our west, and many unnamed peaks to our northand northeast. Then keeping Hom gadhera on the left and descending for one hour, we reached the peripheral part of Maiman plateau.

On 3 October, after trekking for two hours we reached a steep slippery rock wall. Fixing a rope to a large trunk, we rappelled down into the dense Ringal forest which went on forever.

On 4 October, the weather looked depressing under a veil of dense mist. But we continued to find the way through thorny bushes and reached the bank of Hom gadhera at 11 a.m. We had to cross the nala so Mukesh plunged into the terrible current of the nala with a rope tied round his hand and crossed. We followed as he fixed the rope round a solid tree. We continued our journey through this forest camping at nightfall.

Nilkanth (6596 m) seen from maiman plateau

Nilkanth (6596 m) seen from maiman plateau

Route of descent from Barmal Khal through the rock wall

Route of descent from Barmal Khal through the rock wall

On 5 October, we started the monotonous journey through dense forest which had become a tedious affair. Everyone was exhausted but after two hours we reached the apex of a rock wall followed by some 350 m abseil to reach at the bank of the nala. Then we had crossed the nala and negotiated another dense forest. We finally reached the bank of the nala at 5 p.m. and found a cave comprised two stone slabs placed one on top of the other. This stone mill like rocky formation is locally called ‘Kohlu’. We decided to camp at the cave. Our ration was short so we had to reach the mainland as soon as possible.

On 6 October, having crossed the Hom gadhera again with rope, we surged forward. We noticed the presence of some houses on the slopes of the mountain far away. At last we were close to civilisation! The porters started hugging each other.

We had till then seen Hom gadhera sometimes lean and at other times flowing with a strong current. But from now on it seemed to mellow down meandering sensuously and finally meeting Alaknanda. Mukesh had gone ahead, informed us that the bridge connecting to Vishnuprayag had disintegrated due to the recent devastation. Thus we moved ahead to cross the river where it narrowed. At seven in the evening we finally reached Joshimath.

Thus we completed a splendid exploration crossing the untrodden Barmal Khal which linked Dhauli ganga and Alaknanda valleys.


  1. Anchor Journal, Calcutta, manotosh Kumar Bandyopadhyay, Vol.2, P.34.
  2. Approach to the Hills by C. F. meade.
  3. Nanda Devi Exploration and Ascent: a compilation of the classic mountain exploration books Nanda Devi (Eric Shipton) and The Ascent of Nanda Devi (H. W. Tilman).
  4. Valley of flowers by F.S. Smythe, 1938.
  5. This my Voyage, London 1949 by Dr. t. G. Longstaff.
  6. Alpine Journal, Vol. 24.
  7. Alpine Journal, 2008, p. 167.
  8. Indian Mountaineer VOL. 26 p.105.
  9. The Himalayan Journal; Vols.. iV p.27, xii p. 30, xV p.33, ixx p. 3, xxViii, p.174, 54 p. 72, 54 p. 76, 68 p. 97.
  10. P. 33, ‘The Mountain Provinces - Garhwal and Sirmor’ by Col R Phillimore, Historical Records of the Survey of India, Vol.3 - 1954.

Crossing of the Barmal Khal between the Dhauli ganga and Alakananda watershed in September-October 2013.

⇑ Top