The main marg of Sonamarg is to the south of the Sind river. It is divided into a series of sickle-moon shaped, undulating grassy meadows, terraced and interspersed with fast flowing mountain streams. As one nears the township, the ethereal surrounding beauty stuns the visitor with its gentle lush green meadows and a few birch trees against the back drop of the majestically towering Thajahwas peak.
In the vale of Kashmir, 87 km northeast of Srinagar, lie the golden meadows or ‘Sonamarg’ (sona means gold and marg means meadow). A beautiful alpine valley, situated on the banks of the Sind river at an altitude of 2800 m, Sonamarg is located amidst a backdrop of exceptional scenic grandeur, perhaps unmatched anywhere else in the mountain world. Today, this buzzing little Himalayan township is not only a popular tourist spot en route to Ladakh, but is also an excellent destination for numerous climbs and treks, for the aspiring climber and the keen trekker.
The Gazetteer of Kashmir1 describes Sonamarg
A small village in the Sind valley, situated on the right bank of the river, at a distance of 58 miles northeast of Srinagar. There are four houses in the village, and three others in the ravine about it. Sonamarg, a beautiful undulating grassy plain, lies to the west, stretching for about 3 miles along the left bank of the river. The marg, which is triangular in shape, with the apex towards the east, is encompassed by lofty mountains, which are usually robed in snow, a magnificent grey peak of limestone at the northeast end rising far above the other mountains in its vicinity.
Sonamarg : Kashmir
The journey to Sonamarg through the picturesque Sind valley is fascinating.
Dr E. F. Neve2 describes the approach to Sonamarg
Even the approach to Sonamarg by the Sind valley is most impressive. The pony-track runs along the side of the river, sometimes by the water’s edge, at others, crossing precipitous spurs. Right and left the grey cliffs tower up, in tiers, to a height of five to eight thousand feet above the river, which, during the melting of the snows, is a mighty torrent, descending in foaming rapids, intensified by the rocky walls between which it is pent. There can be but few places in the world where there is an almost vertical rise of one and a half miles sheer above a river.
He further writes
As we emerge from the Gagangiyer gorge, the beautiful glacier valley, the Thajawas Nar, comes into view. Sonamarg is an immense moraine fan at the entrance to this valley, and four hundred feet above the Sind river. The marg consists of a series of crescent-shaped terraces and ridges, the outer of which are nearly a mile across. These are the successive terminal moraines of the immense glacier which once filled the Thajawas valley above. Between the curved ridges there are now grassy meadows, spangled with alpine flowers.
Chinese Traveller Huen Tsang3 after viewing Sonamarg valley from the mighty Zoji La remarked, “If there is a paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here ...”
Sonamarg lies in the upper Sind valley4. It was earlier reached after four marches on foot from Ganderbal, but today, courtesy the NH 1D to Ladakh, it can be reached in 2 ½ hours from Srinagar. As the visitor crosses the Gagangir gorge and enters the Sonamarg valley short of the village of Shitkari, he is greeted by the Ganj forest and the milky, pristine waters of Thajahwas Nar.
To the north, Sonamarg is dominated by the Ludarhwas high ground and the Sogput Dhar, which emanates from the great Himalayan range. To the south lies the Thajahwas valley and the Zasabnar. To the west, the Kachgambur ridge rises over the Nichinai valley, while to the east stands the Amarnath massif at the base of which lies Baltal. Sonamarg town extends in a linear fashion, running nearly parallel to the gushing Sind river, for nearly three km in a south easterly manner. The bustling township towards the west ends in an extended market, with the village of Sonamarg located across the Sind river on the northern bank. The main marg of Sonamarg is to the south of the Sind river. It is divided into a series of sickle-moon shaped, undulating grassy meadows, terraced and interspersed with fast flowing mountain streams. As one nears the township, the ethereal surrounding beauty stuns the visitor with its gentle lush green meadows and a few birch trees against the back drop of the majestically towering Thajahwas peak.
Dr EF Neve has given an interesting explanation with regard to the name of Sonamarg5
Sonamarg may have derived its name from the sheets of golden ragwort, the widespread orange-coloured wild wall- flower, or the troops of yellow mullein. But many of the slopes are brilliant with pink balsam or gloriously blue with forget-me-nots and other varieties of the boragince. The glacier streams fall in tumultuous rapids and cataracts to join the Sind river just below the Shitkari bridge. The steep hill-sides are clothed with magnificent Himalayan spruce, some of which attain a height of hundred and fifty feet. The swiftly-rushing stream is overhung by grey rock, half- masked by moss and ferns, jutting through the dark masses of firs. Above, the crests are clothed with birch, with here and there a clinging bush of pink rhododendron.
The 12 x 5 km Thajahwas valley of Sonamarg is the heart of the climbing activity in and around Sonamarg. Christened as the Valley of Glaciers and easily accessible, it was extensively explored and used for climbing by active members of the Himalayan Club. Royal Air Force personnel also trained at the Air Crew Mountain Centre established here till 19446. Since 1963, the High Altitude Warfare School, an elite training establishment of the Indian Army has been regularly conducting training in the Sonamarg valley.
The Thajahwas valley, starting from west to east has three prominent valley glaciers, comprising firm rock. Lt Col NNL Watts describes the valley glaciers7.
All the glaciers in the valley are of the ‘hanging’ variety. The glacier nearest to Thajawas was very easily ascended. The next two glaciers up the valley, though steep, are not difficult in their lower sections, but both are intricate and much crevassed higher up, though their uppermost sections are again quite easy. In every case these glaciers should be tackled by their western edges, as difficulties greatly increase towards their eastern flanks. They are composed of a series of convex slopes separated by narrow shelves, with the result that when on them one’s view upward is extremely restricted, and falling blocks of ice are apt to appear quite suddenly at close range. These, in the afternoon, constitute a distinct danger, as when descending, the climber has his back to the falling ice and the blocks come down almost silently.
From the climbing perspective, Sonamarg has a variety to offer to the intrepid climber. The valley amply exemplifies the adage ‘small is beautiful’. While the heights in and around Sonamarg rise to a maximum of 5700 m or so, the area offers a good variation in terms of difficulty and multiple choices to the climber. Due to heavy precipitation in winters, the valley is cut off from Srinagar. Further, owing to the aspect of slope, the upper reaches are heavily avalanche prone and therefore unsuitable for any climbing activity in winters. Of late, heli-skiing has become popular in Sonamarg.
To the south of Sonamarg lies the Thajahwas peak (4853 m) on glacier One, which dominates the Sonamarg cirque. Undoubtedly, the most impressive peak of the Sonamarg valley, the mountain was first climbed by James Waller in 19378, he approached it from glacier One to the north of the peak. He bivouaced at about 4000 m, on the base of the Great Couloir. After ascending the Great Couloir he climbed the face of the peak reaching the summit by the final Rock Pyramid. He then descended to glacier Two, to the southeast, thus traversing both faces of the mountain. Later, an attempt from the northeast ridge was made by AJM Smith and Dr Graham. The mountain was reconnoitered in 2013 and attempted in post monsoon 2014 (late September) by Instructors of the High Altitude Warfare School (including Brigadier Ashok Abbey), but the attempt was given up due to falling stones from the Great Couloir on to the glacier. Earlier, instructors of the High Altitude Warfare School in 1963 (including Major John Dias) climbed the Ganj peak or the lesser Thajahwas peak (3905 m), ascending directly up the Thajahwas glacier One. Suman Dubey, former President of the Himalayan Club was also a member of that team.
Further southeast of Thajahwas glacier One are glaciers Two and Three. Dominated by a world of fluted peaks, arêtes and broken crags, climbs here are on firm rock and range between Very Difficult (VD) to Severe to Hard Very Severe (HVS) standard. Umbrella peak (approx. 5233 m), approached from glacier Three was first climbed in Oct 1944 by CWF Noyce and A Jones. Valehead peak (approx. 5142 m) which lies in glacier Three was first climbed earlier in 1933 by L Watts. Valehead peak, because of its distinct shape, is clearly visible from the base of the Thajahwas valley and has four prominent, routes of ascent. High Altitude Warfare School has regularly been using this area for conducting training.
Immediately to the east of Thajahwas valley, lies the Durin Nar, at the base of which stands the last inhabited village of Sarbal in the Sind valley. In the Durin Nar valley, the rock composition changes to lime and sandstone. The upper reaches of this valley give access to the Lidder valley. At the head of the Durin Nar valley, to the east of the Kolahoi pass lies the imposing (approx. 5347 m) peak, which was provisionally christened as the Innominate peak. The mountain still awaits its first ascent.
To the west of Sonamarg lies the Nichinai valley, which is drained by the white waters of Nichinai Nar. Towering above the 4070 m Nichinai Bar, stands the majestic Nichinai peak at 4921 m, which, too, till date remains unclimbed.
To the north of Sonamarg, dominating the Sind valley is the Ludarhwas high ground at about 4000 m, to the north of which lies the Sogput Dhar. To the northeast of the Ludarhwas lie big walls of limestone, which tower above Sonamarg and the Sind valley, like a gigantic fortress wall. This Big Wall, which rises from Pokhribal continues unabated in a north-north-westerly manner for nearly seven km, dominating the horizon.
C.W.F Noyce describes this Big Wall9
Beneath the three great ridges, particularly on their West sides, are enormous limestone cliffs, as yet unattempted, providing a superb gymnasium for those who enjoy climbing of a very high standard on very friable rock. A wall of this character overhangs the Sonamarg Nar a mile above the village.
Peak 4760 m was climbed from the central ridge, hemmed between Ludarhwas Nar and Kainchhan Nar, by CWF Noyce and G Whittle in August 1944. To the west of Ludarhwas high ground lies Lashipathari Nar, towering above which lies the high ground of Nawaj. Peak 4750 m is the highest peak in this area. In 1944, an unsuccessful attempt to climb this mountain was made by CWF Noyce and Dr Graham. On the ridge between Ludarhwas Nar and Lashpathri Nar, lies the 4335 m high dome-shaped feature, popularly christened the ‘Sonamarg dome’. It is indeed an interesting proposition for rock climbers looking for a big wall challenge, more so as the rock formation is infirm and its stability cannot be taken for granted.
To the east of Pokhribal in the Sonamarg valley, towering above the village of Nilagrar lies another series of enormous cliffs of limestone. Nicknamed the Nilagrar spires, their shape comes into full view as one drives past the village of Nilagrar and Nilagrar Nar on NH 1D. Rising over 900 m from the valley floor, these pose a challenge to any rock climber. Further to the east of Nilgrar Nar, lies the valley of Kokrun, with its fast flowing waters draining into the Sind river. Towering above the Kokrun valley, lies the 5025 m high Sirbal peak. Although the peak is yet to be climbed, the Kokrun valley has been used regularly by students of the High Altitude Warfare School for training. This shapely, solitary mountain, which lies eight km to the northeast of Sonamarg, towers above the Sonamarg valley and can be seen from the village of Sarbal. The Kokrun valley gives access from the Sind valley to Bod Gumbur Nar across the mighty Zoji la and the Himalayan range into Ladakh.
Wedged between Ladakh, Lidder and the Kishanganga, over many passes, ridges and valleys, Sonamarg offers unlimited access for trekkers to areas seldom frequented. To the west and northwest, Nichinai Bar (4070 m) and Baibnar Bar (4455 m), give access to the Sind and the Kishanganga valleys. To the north, Pandshur Bar (4265 m) gives direct access to Gurez. In the northeast of the valley, Bot Kulan Ganj (4480 m) and Zoji la (3530 m) give access to Ladakh. To the south, Lakhath Gali (4375 m) or the Kolahoi pass gives access to the Lidder valley.
Sonamarg is surrounded by a number of forests, primarily comprising of pines and Himalayan spruce. Laced with verdure, these alpine forests are evergreen and life-giving. Some of important forests to the south of the river are Buna Sarbal, Ichhamarg, Zasabnar, Ganj and the Thajahwas. Forests to the east and the north are Sari, Satkari, and Lashpathri. These forests comprise of Himalayan spruce, silver fir, intermingled with sycamore and silver birch.
The dense forest surrounding are rich in Himalayan fauna. The Thajahwas Wildlife Sanctuary has further ensured that animals get the required protection and fauna of the area is preserved and protected. Forests of Sonamarg, especially in their upper reaches are inhabited by the black bear, the brown bear, barasingh or the hongul - the Kashmiri stag, musk deer, snow leopard and the ibex. The monal also inhabits these forests.
The valley of Sonamarg is under great environmental threat today. This once small, serene Himalayan valley is bursting at the seams with concrete. The lowland meadows of Sonamarg have virtually disappeared. Hotels are mushrooming everywhere, that too without any planning and design. The upper meadows still survive, but are prone to excessive and unchecked grazing by ponies, cattle and sheep. The Amarnath yatra, an annual ecological disaster for the Sind river valley, pushes the carrying capacity of this valley to its limit. Rampant deforestation is another threat to this fragile environment and is slowly but surely, pushing the valley to the brink. Sustainable expansion and balanced all round development, in sync with the environment is the key to its survival.
Sonamarg at the cross roads of high Kashmir, is ideally located to be an international mountain climbing destination. As Ernest F Neve recorded,10 “Sind valley is one of the finest and most magnificent pieces of scenery in the world.” He further added, “From Sonamarg very delightful expeditions may be made.”
It is an ideal climbing centre primarily due to its location, excellent road connectivity, good cyber and mobile communication and close proximity to the mountains of varying difficulty, albeit of moderate altitude. Accommodation for mountaineers in transit is readily available in the form of numerous hotels and lodges. For those who wish to camp, the ‘golden meadows’ of Sonamarg are a delight with many natural camping options and fresh water streams. Porters and ponies are also readily available and can be organized for any climb. While there is no dedicated organized mountain rescue set up, local police and tourist officers can be contacted for assistance. In case of a medical emergency, assistance from the High Altitude Warfare School can also be sought through the Indian Mountaineering Foundation and the Indian Army. A doctor of the Government of J & K Health Services is always located at the Primary Health Centre at Sonamarg. During July and August, civil helicopters are available for casualty evacuation. Sonamarg is thus a perfect start point or an end destination, for climbs and treks. Although the basic requirement for climbing is met, a lot still needs to be achieved to further enhance the quality of infrastructure to support mountain climbing. The State and the administration can play a key role in this regard.
As Dr E. F. Neve way back in 1942 observed11
But to those whose circumstances limit their opportunities for distant travel and exploration there are many parts of Kashmir proper which can provide much interest and enjoyment to the traveler, the scientist and to the alpine climber. Sonamarg, for instance, is so situated as to be an excellent base for both tours and climbs. Within easy reach are a score of peaks which have never been ascended and upon which attempts should afford real pleasure.
C.W.F Noyce of the Himalayan Club in Jan 1945 recorded12
The reason for choosing Sonamarg has, therefore, been partly fortuitous, in that it was the centre chosen for climbing by the organizers of this scheme. The establishment of the centre has moreover meant the further possibility of a hut whose use it was hoped might be taken over later by the Himalayan Club. But it would be hard to imagine a part accessible by car which would be better suited. We hope only that conditions may continue such that it can be explored further, and that this short attempt might be the beginning of the greater popularities which this region undoubtedly deserve.
Sonamarg, the natural mountain climbing centre of Kashmir, even today supports the climber and strives to live up to that expectation!
An overview of the beautiful Sonamarg with information on climbing and trekking opportunities.
A highly experienced mountaineer, BRIGADIER ASHOK ABBEY has been climbing for more than 37 years. He has climbed extensively in the Great Ranges, namely the Himalaya, Karakoram and adjoining mountain ranges. He was President of the Himalayan Club from 2010 till 2015.