Bharat trying to assess the route from Kalindi khal top
The summit is for the ego, while the journey is for the soul.
This oft heard phrase in a way encapsulated the entire driving force of the Western Himalayan Traverse. It wasn’t only joining of routes, and marking off passes in a record time that was the objective—those are just hollow ego goals. It was the ‘how’ of the journey that was more important—to travel in the most self-sufficient manner possible, having the least ecological impact, keeping the ‘Leave No Trace Principles in mind. Ultra-light backpacking forces one to be more efficient in the use of resources while enabling one to cover distance faster.
As an outdoor professional, I’ve emphasized on cultivating the right kind of trekking culture in India. General practices followed by many Indian outdoor companies and the way they manage their logistics, make clients dependent on porters and guides without developing self-sufficiency skills—this is resource intensive and has a degrading impact on the environment.
India has so far lacked long hike trail routes. The US has the Pacific Crest trail among others and Nepal has the Great Himalaya trails. Thus the idea of a Western Himalayan Traverse has finally come of age as establishing such a route enables and encourages the culture of self-sufficient, low-impact backpacking to influence the Indian outdoor community.
The planning process took over a year. The first step was identifying team members—three members seemed ideal. Each one was physically trained and equipped with sound technical mountain skills. The ability for a teammate to get help in case of an emergency increased the safety margins during those times when communication devices would be of limited use and possible mountain hazards would be the high. Pranav Rawat, Shekar Singh and I complemented each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and made for a strong cohesive team.
The initial plan of starting out from the Siachen border had to be dropped due to the additional number of days it needed. In the end, we decided to start from Markha valley so the trek was flagged off from the Chilling bridge. Dharchula on the Nepal border was our end point.
With this fixed, it was now time to fine tune the middle route. We worked with two considerations—keep it to a simple, direct route and avoid challenging and technical terrain en route as far as possible, as these would mean more effort, technical gear and time to navigate them. The Kalindi Khal pass was the only technical section as we had no option due to the nature of the route.
Certain people played a key role during the process of information gathering—I am grateful to Ravi Kumar, director of NOLS India for maps and on-ground field knowledge; Punit Mehta an independent explorer and NOLS instructor for details on Leh and Garwal; Chetan Pandey my climbing partner from Almora who helped plot the way points on the Google Earth map; Kaushal Desai and Bhagwan Singh from Manali who helped fill in the remaining gaps of local knowledge; Dhruv Joshi and Vijay Singh Rautela who connected us to people who could help with red tape, paperwork and permits that we needed.
After this long drawn out process, Pranav and I plotted all way points and eventually made a rough Google Earth map of the traverse.
Step three was choosing our lightweight technical gear and apparel.
We had contingency plans built into our itinerary. We had cell phones but having access to phone network, should misfortune strike our group at any time, was a big if. Therefore, should anything happen to any one of us, we would send a member to contact the team from the support company 4Play who were waiting at each predetermined ration re-stocking point. Also we always made sure to note the closest road head in every valley that we crossed. We realized in spite of this looking like a plan, it was an inefficient one in case of a serious injury. But unfortunately until dedicated search and rescue teams are established this is one handicap we will have to face.
It took us 47 days to complete the Western Himalayan traverse. During this journey we had four rest days—at Kaza, Chhitkul, Auli and Himni. Other than these brief respites, we walked every day, some days even 44 kms! It was by this disciplined and relentless push that we managed to cover the traverse in our scheduled time-frame.
Bharat and Pranav leading the way to Ghastoli second day after weather clears during Kalindi khal
Our camp at Kiar Koti above Harsil after crossing Lamkhaga pass
Our tent on Kalindi Khal top
Pranav and Bharat jumping in excitement after crossing first 100 kms of trail on Kaymar la
We crossed varying terrain, different eco-systems and various climate zones. Bhaba pass, Parang la and Lamkhaga pass were comparatively simple glaciers that we crossed in our normal trekking boots. But Kalindi Khal was formidable; a huge glacier with open and hidden crevasses. We needed proper equipment here. Besides, we had unexpected bad weather, limited fuel and were running out of rations. We cut down to one meal a day and collected water through unconventional means. River crossings during the traverse too turned out to be technical challenges. The biggest was the river in Norbu Sumdo on the way to Parang la from Tso Moriri lake. This year the monsoons were still on and so we had to negotiate our way through steep and slippery trails.
Pranav and Shekhar breaking trail after heavy snowfall
This extended trail was rich with wildlife, and varied flora and fauna. Spotting the elusive snow leopard near Tsokar lake is a memory that will be etched in my mind forever. We spotted blue sheep, monal, marmots, wild pheasant and so many animals and birds that we could fill an entire journal. This trek had many enriching aspects; watching these species roam in their natural habitat was definitely one of them.
Throughout the traverse we saw changing geological landscapes and also saw mirroring these, human communities and cultures that changed just as fluidly. From Ladakh to Kumaun were different belief systems and cultures, all tied together by a strong thread of love and respect for nature and the mountains.
We carried dehydrated meals, dehydrated apple slices and home- made protein bars. This was supplemented by energy gels and scoops of protein powder. Water points were ample throughout the route. We hardly generated trash during the trail and we carried unavoidable trash with us till we were able to dispose it off at trash collection points.
Since this was a new route, planning accurately in terms of rations and logistics was based on approximations. We set up seven ration stations along the route including Rumtse, Tso Moriri, Kaza, Chhitkul, Gangotri and finally Auli. From here onwards, we ate in village homes and food shacks along the way.
Rest point before Kamer la
For navigation, we started off by making trails on Google Earth and used the Gaia and View Ranger app to guide us through in real-time on ground. Our biggest navigational challenge was not having better maps and applicable local information. Ladakh was easier due to good visibility and better terrain but in Garhwal and Kumaun the trail was in bad condition. Now that we have mapped the correct position anyone can follow our trail by downloading the file and using it.
Of the 27 passes that were crossed, 11 of them were above 5000 m. We covered a total distance of 950 km and a total
ascent of 37622 m in 47 days.
Wrapping our campsite just before crossing Koste la
The Western Himalayan Traverse was our first step towards the goal of creating a continuing trail for a long hike. We hope to send proposals to the three states encompassing this trail to develop and maintain it so hikers can hike in a self-sufficient manner without the need for guides and porters. Along with words like bravery, strength, skill, self-sufficiency and sustainability also must become default terms associated with all things outdoors.
Shekhar crossing a broken bridge in Markha valley
With the goal of creating a long continuous trail, Pranav Rawat, Shekhar Singh and Bharat Bhushan planned and executed a western Himalayan traverse to encourage the culture of self-sufficient, low-impact backpacking. It took them 47 days to complete the traverse. They walked almost every day, crossing 27 passes, 11 of them were above 5000 m and covered a total distance of 950 km during 27 August–12 October 2018.
BHARAT BHUSHAN is an outdoor educator, currently working with NOLS as field instructor. His passions are rock climbing, ice climbing, hiking and alpine style mountaineering. He always looks for the unknown and uncertainty and says that the journey is more important than the outcome.