Freerangers - Nanda Devi Western Flank

Martin Moran

Final ascent to Ronti Saddle

Final ascent to Ronti Saddle

A sandpiper and her chick foraged round the shoreline, their clucks and cries the only blemishes on the enveloping silence. A foray to the crest of the pass brought a view of sharp shale ridges and plunging talus slopes, with a stony path cutting through the debris.

Whatever the thrills of the high ascent, the quiet joys of travel in the mountains are perhaps more enduring and revealing of the landscape we love. Explorations round the western edge of the Nanda Devi range are compromised by the ban on access to the inner sanctuary but starting from the Dronagiri valley an open route can be traced over the linked passes of Nandi Kund Khal and Tarak Khal and ending with the passage of the Ronti saddle to gain the pastures of the lower Garhwal.

In September 2017 I posted a climbing team to the west ridge of Trishul. While they toiled in the snows I co-opted three British and Irish enthusiasts plus Mangal Singh of Uttarkashi to attempt this trek route. We scheduled a finish at Trishul base camp on 1 October. Even with the energetic debate and data-sharing that now occurs on social media for Indian trekkers we could glean little information about our route. We didn’t seek a tea-house procession, but did expect a beaten trail where a few like-minded trekkers might be encountered.

The journey began in the insalubrious vaults of the government- run resort complex at Auli on a wet Sunday evening. We went up there for initial acclimatization after a long bus journey from Delhi to Joshimath. My companions, Dr Pat Harborow, computer engineer Gary Motyer and accountant Mike Timar, love India enough to accept the damp cottage lodgings and the Stalinist labyrinth of corridors with wry humour. Even the food tasted mouldy. Discovery of the après-ski Buggyal bar was a surprise. We briefly peered into the dingy confines. A few locals propped up the counter. Here were possibly the only licenced premises in the whole of the Alaknanda valley, yet we passed up the chance for a final beer. The failings of a socialist India were laid bare. Renovation or demolition? I think the latter!

We were joined by four lads from the Nandakini valley – Laxman, Manoj, Harish and Madan – and by local man Nandan from Lata. Supplies were apportioned to give us between 18 kg and 25 kg each plus one spare for a horse and we jumped a couple of jeeps for the dusty drive up the Dhauli Ganga to Jumma. A new box girder bridge was under construction to span the river and allow motor-vehicle access to Ruing village. We walked the road through groves of elderly deodars and set camp at the designated site below the houses on the brink of the Dhauli gorge.

Bagini Map

Bagini Map

Dronagiri village

Dronagiri village

Rishi Pahar and Saf Minal

Rishi Pahar and Saf Minal from Bagini camp

Our first trek phase to the Bagini glacier and Changabang base camp was well-peopled. Considerable and thoughtful investment has been made in the facilities. The trail from Ruing at 2805 m to Dronagiri village at 3600 m was well maintained with balustraded balconies for intermediate halts. We were welcomed at Dronagiri by a tea-tent, large group tents for accommodation and a row of toilet tents, all fed by a fresh-water stream. By contrast the old village appeared in a state of progressive decay. Only a few houses were occupied and most fields were overgrown, in stark contrast with the vibrant community encountered by Bill Murray during the 1950 Scottish Himalayan expedition. I wondered whether any of the school children that he had photographed were still alive. Weathered old ladies brought in hay bundles, and scratched at the soil for a meagre potato harvest. Maybe an eco-tourism initiative could halt the decline and bring the young folk back, but outside investment is needed.

Changabang and Kalanka

Changabang and Kalanka

A boisterous and loving village puppy, who we affectionately named Rosie, joined our onward trek and slept under our tent flysheet. The grand symmetrical hulks of 6911 m Saf Minal and 6977 m Rishi Pahar filled the head of the valley. We shared the lower Bagini base camp with a trek group from Mumbai, who for all their inexperience showed an admirable resolve to push on to the Changabang viewpoint. We left camp at 4:00 am in a stuffy humid night to make the mini yatra up the grassy moraine valleys to a promontory above the junction of the Bagini glacier where the ghostly shrouds of Kalanka and Changabang swung into view. High clouds, harbingers of a storm, had deadened the dawn light and lent a deathly hue to the pale granite walls. The triangular tarn of Rishi Kund lay 100 m below. As we scrambled over boulder slopes to reach the shore, we discovered a nest of rampant Brahma’s lotus plants (Saussurea obvallata) in a rock crevice. The lake’s water was limpid and reflected the image of the peaks in unruffled perfection. I marked my respect by taking a brief swim, which, at 4700 m altitude, was an invigorating experience. Yet I emerged with the awareness that I had sullied the waters. What stains, what bacteria would grow if hundreds did the same? We humans seem eternally cursed to taint whatever perfection God has created for us.

We passed the Mumbai trekkers on our way back and descended to Longartoli camp at 3875 m where a steady drizzle pattered through the night. The tenor of the enterprise now completely changed. From the conviviality of the Changabang trail we were to break out over two wild 4500 m passes, bound for the Tolma valley with a possible detour to Dharansi pass where we might gain the western view the Goddess herself, Nanda Devi. Two of our five porters – Harish and Madan – read the portents and defected. Remarkably, their friends, Laxman and Manoj were keen to stay with us, as was the diminutive Nandan. Without their loyalty we could not have continued. We off- loaded surplus food and possessions at Dronagiri camp yet struggled under loads close on 25 kg. Rosie was caught and tethered lest she join the onward push.

Tarak Khal-Tolma Gad map

Tarak Khal-Tolma Gad map

With a tingle of adventurous anticipation and a tinge of foreboding we left the misted fields of Dronagiri and plodded up whaleback grassy slopes, ascending 800 m to reach the twin tarns of Nandi Kund. This peaceful place doubtless offers spectacular views of 7066 m Dronagiri peak in clear weather, but we could only imagine such a scene as a mournful afternoon faded. A sandpiper and her chick foraged round the shoreline, their clucks and cries the only blemishes on the enveloping silence. A foray to the crest of the pass brought a view of sharp shale ridges and plunging talus slopes, with a stony path cutting through the debris. The next obstacle, the Gannakhui glacier, lay hidden in the cloud 500 m below. The onset of heavier drizzle drove us back into the mess tent where Mangal produced platefuls of fried poppadums and a dal-bhat to cheer our spirits. We bedded down burdened with doubts for the morrow.

Dawn brought renewed drizzle and we whiled away the morning in prevarication. Should we risk a commitment or abort the trek? A drying and brightening of the clouds around midday triggered decisive action. Marching under the banner of ‘Fortune Favours the Bold’ we crossed the pass and descended zigzag to meet the lateral moraine of the Gannakhui glacier at 4000 m. Our map indicated that the track traversed the stone-covered lower glacier and indeed we found traces of a trail above the ice wall of the snout. The voices of girls drifted up from the fogs below, their shrieks, chatter and laughter calling to us like the Sirens to Odysseus. The clouds parted briefly to reveal their brightly-clad figures down in the jaws of the lower valley. Nandan reckoned that they were collecting medicinal roots.

Leaving the medicine maids to their labours we descended the far moraine bank, thrashing through sopping vegetation to reach the confluence of two streams which ran down from Dronagiri’s western wall. Our altitude was 3750 m. The way to Tarak Khal and the Tolma valley lay beyond. Fifty years ago the crossing of these rivers may have been a relatively simple matter, but time does not stand still in the Himalaya. We were confronted by freshly-eroded canyons with vertical walls of conglomerate. Ice melt and monsoon floods were carving new landscape here. We scrambled 200 m upstream to find a way over the first stream and the second was an impassable torrent swollen with brown sediment.

Trusting that the waters would drop overnight we set camp in the lee of a huge boulder on the promontory between the rivers. Our camp was a clammy affair, our tents besieged by ranks of shoulder-high Himalayan knotweed (Polygonum polystachyum). The rain petered out to leave a residual fog at dawn.

The spate had subsided. We broke camp at 8:30 am and scouted upstream. The weakest point in the ravine wall sported a five m vertical step, studded with boulders. I had brought a 15 m length of rope and one harness. I fixed the rope to a solid capstan of rock. The Indian boys went down hand over hand and we lowered their rucksacks. From the end of the line a scree run took them to the river bed and relative safety. Gary, Mike and Patrick took turns to use my harness and abseiled the headwall.

When Patrick detached from the rope the slope around him gave way. He wind-milled his arms in an effort to stay upright while substantial boulders spattered about him. The largest slapped his thigh, but he avoided a headlong tumble down to the river. Bruised and visibly shocked he crept off sideways. In this place a broken femur would have been game over.

I doubled the rope and abseiled last, pulling down the cord for further use. We were now fully committed to push on over the Tarak Khal and into the Tolma gorge. We escaped the ravine by a side nala in the far wall and climbed 300 m to Tarak grazings at 4150 m. Here we were granted a glimpse of the pass before the curtain of fog was re-drawn.

A zigzag path developed in the grassy chute under the pass. A 100 m from the top I heard a whistle and whirr from above. A fist-sized stone struck Nandan square on the upper arm. He doubled over and wailed with pain. We feared a fractured humerus. Had the rock struck a head it would have been an instant killer. Dr Patrick examined the limb. Thankfully, the bone was not broken. Perhaps a herd of bharal sheep had dislodged the stone. We redistributed Nanda’s load and ferried the packs up to the Tarak Khal.

Here, at 4605 m, there was a bleak chill in the breeze and nothing to be seen down the far side. Our hopes to make a traverse across the head of the Tolma gorge to Dharansi pass were dashed. I nestled our stove in the lee of the marker cairn and brewed mugs of sweetened masala chai. Buoyed by the brew and painkillers, both Patrick and Nandan returned to full loads.

At 1:45 pm we commenced descent, compass bearings set for the diagonal path shown on our old Survey of India map which descended 2000 m to cross the bed of the gorge near to Tolma village. You can’t wish away 2000 m – it is a monstrous descent by any standards. Immediately, we encountered a newly-cut trod and our hopes rose. The turfs were freshly turned by a mattock or hoe.

The trail traversed into steeper terrain. Slick grass is as lethal as snow in event of a slip. Small outcrops posed technical complication. The young lads, Laxman and Manoj, lumbering cumbersome 22 kg loads and skidding the slopes in plimsolls, coped majestically. This was their college vacation job. They were bright kids, full of hope for their future, and back in their village they had mothers praying for them. The import of our situation struck home. I was responsible for them but could do naught to make their passage safer.

Come 4:00 pm the mists parted and we heard a distant roar from the river in the main gorge. The terrain was improbably steep. Our saviour path weaved across a succession of ravines and spurs. We drew ice axes as the best and only protection in event of a slip. Gary was particularly gripped by the exposure and we two stayed together, dropping behind the others. I peered vainly into the shadows but failed to see any feasible way down to the gorge. The Tolma Ganga was still a 1000 m below, twisting crazily through projecting spurs of slabby schist.

The path mocked our hopes by climbing 60 m back uphill. Surely, no sane shepherd would ever bring his flocks up this serpent trail? Nandan thought the path had been reinstated by the Forest Department to allow access for keedajadi hunters in springtime. The caterpillar fungus is prized in Chinese medicine as a stimulant. We reached the rim of a more pronounced canyon. Waiting for Gary, I scanned the fading detail of the slopes below, only to see the pencil- line of the path forking back uphill and over another ridge. Any flickering hopes that we could reach the valley floor by nightfall were snuffed out.

Resigned and weary, we crossed the canyon and began the re- ascent, clutching at tussocks and juniper roots. Dread replaced disappointment as the overriding emotion. Just as I wondered if we’d completely lost touch with the others, Mike appeared, coming back over the brow. Had there been an accident?

“We’ve found a cave 10 minutes away. It’s a good bivouac. Should we stop there?”

“You bet we should!” I replied.

The evening rain began as we checked into our haven. A sandy area several metres wide was protected from drips by an overhanging rock wall. In all the savage miles of the Tolma gorge we’d found the sole sanctuary. Within an hour we had a meal cooking and a fire ablaze. Given their Scouting pedigree I expected Mike and Gary to break into chorus of “Ging, Gang, Gooly…” Miraculous Mangal produced a platter of deep-fried pakora. Our altitude was 3820 m. We were less than half-way down, but for now we were safe, dry and thankful.

The skies brightened on the morning of 25 September. The track made a perilous traverse to a spur then plunged into steamy jungle. We ploughed down a narrow corridor cut in the ground foliage, ever fearful that we might lose the lifeline path and become stranded. The trail twisted down screes towards the bed of the gorge but stopped short at 3200 m directly above the Tolma river. Where now, we wondered? The track turned right weaving a line of genius under towering cliffs and along slim shale balconies, linking isolated promontories where we could catch our breaths. Giant blue pines and gnarled cypresses clung to the walls.

At 1:00 pm we gained our first view of Tolma fields and village 500 m lower on the far side of the valley. The track broadened out from the sensational to the merely scenic and twisted down to the river’s edge. In vain search for a bridge we became enmeshed in swamp, and were forced into another ascent but at last picked up the line of a water pipe which took us to a metal bridge at 2450 m. The trail had forced us close to submission but we strode through the gate of Tolma, inexpressibly weary but triumphant.

Mangal presented us with cups of chai and we made camp in the fields by the lower gate. With ironic timing Dronagiri peak emerged from the clouds that evening, displaying her pink tresses high above the gorge. For four days we had clung to her lower flanks, yet seen naught of her beauty.

The day lost on Tarak Khal forced to us abandon any notion of going up to Lata and Dharansi for a Nanda Devi darshan. We had six days to reach Trishul base camp, and spent the first in recovery mode, strolling eight km down the main road in the Dhauli valley and setting camp by the school at lower Lata. Nandan withdrew from the mission to nurse his arm and brought Bharat from Reni village as his replacement. At 10:00 am on 27 September we walked down to the bridge over the Rishi Ganga at 1880 m, passing gangs of road labourers, who were breaking boulders from a recent blast and loading the debris into the backs of trucks. We guessed they must be bonded workers, maybe from Bihar, and felt humbled. It’s a brutal world. After tea with Bharat’s family in Reni we tracked along the bank of the Rishi and stopped for lunch in Moranda, the last permanent settlement before our 3000 m ascent to the Ronti Saddle.

Coming this way on the first recorded crossing of the Saddle in 1936 Eric Shipton described Moranda as “basking happily in its rich self- contained isolation”. The village has 13 houses but only one family remains. The fields were rich in every imaginable vegetable resource from giant cabbage to marijuana. Mangal horrified us by adding two cabbages and several spiky green vegetables called karela to sacks that were already top-heavy. The ensuing ascent through the forests was relentless. We stopped just past a water trickle in a clearing at 3185 m. Copious quantities of karela were consumed at dinner. The Westerners stretched out with a tot of malt whisky to watch the evening light move over the shadowed depths of the Rishi gorge. The weather had settled. Dronagiri and Hanuman peaks stood proud above in cold clear air. Far below the lights came on in Paing, another tiny village which like Moranda clings to the Rishi’s lower flanks.

Ronti map

Ronti map

Dronagiri peak from Tolma

Dronagiri peak from Tolma

Other teams have trekked the Ronti valley in recent years, and we might have expected a clear route as far as the glacier. Initially, all went well next morning. We climbed to Gupa at 3715 m then traversed a path out to a shoulder at 3900 m where the Ronti valley was revealed in spacious splendour. The river bed was choked by the debris of ice avalanches, and twisted upstream through a narrow defile to the Ronti glacier snout. A succession of grazing meadows, forested spurs and side nalas clothed the west flanks of the valley as far as a big rock wall under Ronti peak. We followed Bharat up the shoulder for 150 m, deferring to his local knowledge, then made a painfully rough traverse of a kilometre through knee-deep tussocks of rye grass. Hidden rocks forced me to trip and tumble. Every step was a potential ankle-breaker. For the first time on the trek I screamed and swore.

We dropped back down to find a path which cut down through a scarp. Bharat told us that there were cave bivouacs in the next side valley. The track disappeared into groves of knotweed. This invasive plant had colonized large areas of the hillside and seemed to be suffocating any nourishing grasses. I suspect that trekking these valleys may actually have been easier half a century ago. After a mile the path twisted into the nala and I spotted a chimney-like cairn with flags marking our night’s bivouac cave. Accommodation was luxurious - a choice of flat cave ledges with straw bedding. Shepherds had been here in recent weeks. As we unpacked the sun set majestically over the peaks of 6063 m Ronti and 6352 m Bethartoli Himal, while cloud bands curled round the spectacular rock spires clustered on the opposite side of the valley.

The afternoon’s trials had stressed us. We decided to have a shorter day, moving a couple of miles to the base of Ronti peak’s rock wall then scouting a route into the glacier valley. A short walk brought us to open grazing at Ronti Kharak. Here we found a puja cairn and a cricket wicket cut to the regulation 22 yards (approx 20 m) in the compacted soil. These shepherds certainly know the path to contentment! After crossing another side-stream the path disappeared in ground azalea bushes.

Though we had wolfed down two bowls of porridge and an omelette at breakfast our glucose levels plummeted after a couple of hours, and we switched to the slower more gruelling fat-burning metabolism. Our sack weights of 18-20 kg were a constant strain on our muscles and drain on energy. Perhaps it was time to admit that we were becoming old men! Simultaneous with loss of energy came a crisis of willpower.

The rough vegetation and constant uncertainty as to the onward route whittled away our self-confidence. We descended tangled scrub under the Ronti wall and at midday found a cave in the lee of a huge boulder at 3820 m altitude. While the others built sleeping ledges Mike and I set off towards the forested moraine crest to reconnoitre a way into the main Ronti gorge. Bharat followed. From the crest eroded slopes dropped sheer for 200 m to the river. Mike and I saw a feasible route off our ridge lower down. Bharat gestured that we should keep ascending. Unable to see far upslope and fearing that any climb would lead to a precipitous traverse, we overruled the Bharat option and bushwhacked through rhododendron jungle to check our preferred line. Once down at the river there were snow bridges to allow us to move to whichever side of the valley offered the simplest progress. We returned with spirits heartened.

Knowing that this would be a crucial day I was up at 5:30 am, yet our Indian contingent chose this very morning to indulge a prolonged session of gossip and chapatti-making. Something after 8:00 am we broke camp, headed back over the ridge, and down to the river. An altitude check put us at 3520 m. We had just a day and a half to ascend 1800 m! We crossed then re-crossed the river on ice bridges. Patrick missed our second crossing and forged ahead up the wrong bank for over a kilometre until stopped by a rock wall. Bharat, Mangal and the boys passed us and toiled up steep earthy slopes to reach the upper limit of vegetation. Bharat left us here to return to Reni, immediately traversing off on the high line that he had indicated during our recce. We could have saved two hours had we heeded his advice.

There was relief to get off the incessant scrub and reach the open ground of the upper Ronti valley. A wilderness of stones; what could be simpler? The gorge was a suntrap with a V-shaped profile, squeezed by the lateral buttresses of an impressive unclimbed tower of 5898 m which sits out on the eastern ridge of Ronti peak. Apart from two delicate passages across conglomerate walls at the river’s edge we progressed steadily until we spied the snout of the Ronti glacier up at 4100 m. At this point I realized that I’d left my camera a kilometre behind. Going back was less onerous than expected for I was free of the accursed load for 30 minutes. On my return I found a poke of wine gums on my sack left by Gary, a gesture that mattered much at that moment.

Dronagiri, Hanuman and the lower Rishi gorge from Ronti valley

Dronagiri, Hanuman and the lower Rishi gorge from Ronti valley

I caught the others at the top of the glacier above the snout. Stone-covered moraine stretched onwards towards a bend in the valley. If we pushed on there was no guarantee that we could find water or camp site in the two hours of daylight available. The only visible stream was over on the Bethartoli flank immediately to our left. We had to play safe. Mangal found a boulder with enough surrounding space for two tents and our bivouac sheet. I stretched out and gulped a protein shake followed by tea, Maggi noodles, a bowl of popcorn and a dal-bhat, this latter containing the vestiges of the Moranda cabbage crop. As evening mists dispersed we bedded down with alarms set for 3:00 am.

The next day we went for broke. Mangal ceremoniously burnt our remaining kerosene at the bivouac. I noticed with concern that he ate no breakfast. When Mangal goes on fast this usually means he is psyched and apprehensive. In place of nutrition he invoked the spirit of the gods to get us up the 1100 m ascent to the Saddle.

I led our caravan up the right side of the glacier by torchlight, linking ridges of easier ground where the boulders were of lesser dimension and praying that we wouldn’t get stopped by an impassable ice canyon. Once we rounded the final spur of Pk 5898 m we could see the 7120 m Trishul in the twilight and the glacier gradually opened to reveal the unmistakable U-shaped dip of the Ronti Saddle out to the right. With sunrise came the realization that Laxman and Manoj didn’t have sunglasses. They needed to get off the glacier as quickly as possible. The boulders subsided to gravel and sections of dry ice speeded our progress. At last we had momentum. The final slope to the Saddle is 180 m in height and 45-degrees in angle. When bare this would be a lethal climb on frozen gravel, but the snow cover was still complete.

Patrick loped off at the head of the group, his fitness at age 61 a marvel to behold. I asked him to break a trail while I roped Mangal, Laxman and Manoj. We popped out on the Saddle at 11:00 am and Mangal displayed his relief by offering a large bag of food that might have been more usefully employed several hours earlier. We could now view the full sweep of the upper Ronti glacier and Trishul west ridge and spied the tracks and figures of our expedition team plying the long slopes.

The descent to Hemkund lake hammered our joints but we had the surety of a trail and the sense of being on home ground. We continued down the moraine to the tents of Trishul base camp at 4385 m in time for lunch. Tomorrow the others would trek down the Nandakini valley as the finale to their trip. I had the excitement of joining the Trishul summit attempt over the following week. Yet I couldn’t imagine that Trishul would surpass the challenges and joys that we had shared in the past two weeks of free-ranging.

Martin Moran and his team shared an exploratory trek in the Nanda Devi region in September 2017, starting from the Dronagiri valley, tracing an open route over the linked passes of Nandi Kund Khal and Tarak Khal and ending with the passage of the Ronti Saddle to reach the Trishul base camp.

About the Author

Martin Moran is one of Britain’s most experienced mountain guides and the author of several mountain books. Martin has made 25 expeditions to the Uttarakhand, Himachal and Kashmir ranges – most of them as a mountain guide, and most with pioneering objectives. His first ascents include Nanda Kot South Face, Changuch, Nilkanth West Ridge and several peaks in the Adi Kailash range. His most recent venture was an attempt on the unclimbed NE Ridge of Nanda Devi East in September 2015. He also has a special liking for exciting unsupported crossings of high passes – most notably the Badrinath-Kedarnath route in 1998 and the Shalang-Poting traverse in 2015. Martin’s autobiography of his life as a professional guide, Higher Ground, was published in 2014.

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