India 1982: Pleasures of Nanda Devi



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Changabang (6864 m) is a striking white granite peak in Nanda Devi National Park. The branches of the Himalayan birch (Betula utilis) in the foreground are draped with old man’s beard lichens (Usnea). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



In 1980, in Corbett National Park, northern India, I get acquainted with a young Indian, Ajai Saxena, who shares my interest in nature. Among many other issues, we talk about a hike, his uncle once made to a nature reserve in the Himalaya, called Nanda Devi Wildlife Sanctuary*, named after the highest mountain in Garhwal, Nanda Devi (7816 m). To visit this sanctuary, you have to make a very interesting hike up the Rishi Ganga Valley.

Ajai has planned to go there himself, and he kindly invites me to join him. I believe this would be an interesting hike for an American friend of mine, John Burke, so I write a letter to him. After doing some library research John decides to join us, and in October 1982 we all meet in Delhi.


*Today, this area is called Nanda Devi National Park and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.



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John arrived in India with two enormous boxes, filled with all sorts of food and equipment. In this picture, a porter is struggling to bring one of the boxes onto the roof-rack of a bus. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



“Vitamin E!!”
John has brought two enormous boxes, filled with all sorts of food, besides rope and other climbing equipment. Ajai and I had counted on buying food in the local villages, but according to John’s library research there are no villages inside the sanctuary.

We hire a taxi, struggling to lift the heavy boxes onto the roof rack. We then take our seats, and off we go towards the small town of Joshimath, deep in the Himalaya. The following day, we board a local bus to the village of Lata, where our hike is going to start. It is impossible for us to lift the two heavy boxes onto the roof-rack of the bus, so we hire a local porter to do the job. He squats beside one of the boxes, tying a rope around it and then around his forehead. Muscles taut and sweat pouring down his face, he gets up, proceeding to climb up the ladder to the roof of the bus, first with one box, then the other. We pay him the handsome sum of 10 Rupees (1 US $), and he is very pleased indeed.

We stay a few days in Lata, where we hire a number of porters and buy more provisions. Lata is a typical Himalayan village, with two- or three-storey wooden houses, each supplied with a second-floor balcony all the way around the house. A dominating feature in the village is a Hindu temple, outside which grows an enormous Himalayan hemlock (Tsuga dumosa). Branches of this tree are used as decoration during festivals. Cultivated plants in this area include rice, buckwheat, and amaranth. After being harvested, the crops are spread out on the roofs to dry.

Our camp is on a plateau near the Rishi Ganga River, and when we are not busy with preparations for our hike, we study the bird life in the river, which includes blue whistling-thrush (Myophonus caeruleus), white-capped river-chat (Phoenicurus leucocephalus), and brown dipper (Cinclus pallasii). Shrubs along the river harbour birds like green-backed tit (Parus monticolus), red-headed bushtit (Aegithalos concinnus), and yellow-breasted greenfinch (Carduelis spinoides).

From Lata, we follow a trail along fields to Belta, from where the trail heads up through lovely forest with a number of tree species, including Himalayan cedar (Cedrus deodara), Himalayan yew (Taxus wallichiana), walnut (Juglans regia), and whitebeam (Sorbus). John has been walking a little distance behind Ajai and me, and when he catches up with us, he relates a strange encounter he had on the trail. As he was struggling along with his heavy backpack, he noticed one of our porters, an elderly man, lying beside the trail, utterly exhausted. When he saw the white sahib, he opened his mouth, pointed down his throat and exclaimed: “Vitamin E!! Vitamin E!!”

We continue our hike up a steep trail through the forest, which is now dominated by fir (Abies) and shrubs of Rhododendron campanulatum. Our porters have made camp on a ridge named Lata Kharak, from where we have a wonderful view towards the surrounding mountains, among others Dunagiri (7066 m), Trisul (7120 m), and Hathi Parbat (6727 m).



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Harvested buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum), drying on a house roof, Lata. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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An elderly Lata resident with his grandson, guarded by a huge dog. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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Ajai (3rd from right), John (4th from left), and myself (right) in Lata, with local foresters and some of our porters, among these Gabar Singh (far left). In front of us lie provisions for our hike into the Nanda Devi Sanctuary. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



A tough day
From Lata Kharak, the trail follows a fairly level ridge, and then, quite abruptly, it becomes tremendously steep, leading up to the formidable Dharansi Pass (4250 m). On our way, we observe birds like snow partridge (Lerwa lerwa) and Tibetan snowcock (Tetraogallus tibetanus). From the pass, a narrow trail runs across a stony plateau. Our porters are already far ahead, with the exception of a nice fellow named Gabar Singh, who is waiting for us and now leads the way.

Ajai, who is a student and maybe not so fit, is now very tired, lagging behind. When he sits down on a rock, we go back to find out what’s wrong. Ajai refuses to move, saying: “Just leave me here. I’ll spend the night here, I can’t go on.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, if you stay here, you’ll freeze to death!”

“Oh no, I can’t go on,” he insists.

A snow storm is looming on the horizon, so we decide that I walk in front of Ajai, while John walks behind him, pushing him forward, every time he tends to slow down. To do this, John has to abuse him, calling him nasty names, which makes Ajai angry, and the produced adrenalin somehow makes him able to continue. Darkness is falling, and we still have to negotiate a steep, muddy slope down to our campsite. On our way, we must often cling to branches. John slips, tearing his trousers on a rock.

In the very last light of the day we struggle into camp near a big rock, under which our porters have decided to spend the night. Gosh, what a day! Ten hours of hiking – the toughest walk we have ever made. We get company from an Indian climbing expedition, one of the climbers being this gorgeous girl from Calcutta. Ajai immediately forgets his tiredness and babbles away with the girl for an hour or more. That night we sleep like logs. The following morning, we find fresh tracks of leopard (Panthera pardus) outside the camp.

The trail now heads through a lovely forest, where various species of whitebeam display their red and yellow autumn foliage. Here and there, the path is very narrow, and we have to inch along the rock wall to avoid falling into the abyss, which is several hundred metres deep.



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John on his way up the steep, grueling trail towards the Dharansi Pass. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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Illuminated by the morning sun, trees with yellow and reddish-brown autumn foliage cover a mountain ridge. The white trees to the right are Himalayan birches (Betula utilis), which have already shed their leaves. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Wildlife around the Bethartoli Glacier
We thought that we could make it into a circular valley, called ‘The Sanctuary’, which is surrounded on all sides by tall mountains. However, we soon get wiser. Two members of an expedition, who have just climbed a spectacular white granite mountain named Changabang (6864 m), inform us that to enter ‘The Sanctuary’ we have to deal with “treacherous snow on treacherous ice on treacherous rock,” as they vividly express themselves. This scares us off, and, following the advice from our porters, we decide to camp a few days near the great Bethartoli Glacier, situated in a side valley, which leads up to Trisul Base Camp.

Leaving a part of our equipment and food in a crack between two rocks at Deodi, we continue our hike through a lush birch forest, where we observe passerines like Himalayan red-flanked bush-robin (Tarsiger rufilatus) and spot-winged tit (Periparus melanolophus). The branches of the gnarled and twisted trees are covered in old man’s beard lichens (Usnea). (You may read a fascinating account of these lichens on the page Quotes on Nature.)

Our staff has made camp near a huge, slanting rock, not far from the Bethartoli Glacier, establishing our kitchen beneath the rock. A short distance from the camp, we have a marvellous view towards the impressive glacier, criss-crossed by large and small cracks, and partly covered in brown moraine. In the evening, we all gather beneath the slanting rock, our staff singing Garhwal songs, which I record on my tape recorder. I place my hand in hot ashes, but a large blister is the only harm done.

During the night there is heavy snowfall. A Queen of Spain fritillary (Issoria issaea) is sitting on the snow, and near the glacier we find pugmarks of a snow leopard (Uncia uncia). This superb cat, which is only found in mountains of Central Asia, has diminished drastically in most areas, and today the total number may be less than 5,000.

The cloud cover lifts, and soon most of the snow has vanished. The yellow whitebeam leaves are covered in a layer of snow, and when this snow begins to melt, the leaves drop to the ground, where they form a brightly coloured carpet on the snow.

With great care, we cross the Bethartoli Glacier to explore the Trisul Nala Valley. Gabar Singh, who is leading the way, suddenly comes to a stop, uttering only one word: ”Bharal!” On the mountain slope across the river, a herd of 26 beautiful blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur) are feeding. This species is an evolutionary curiosity, as its behavior shows traits from goat as well as sheep. On our way back, we surprise four of them on the trail in front of us. They bolt, uttering a peculiar, bird-like call. They soon calm down, however, letting us approach quite close.



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Our camp kitchen was arranged beneath a huge, slanting rock, not far from the Bethartoli Glacier. I am sitting in the centre, Gabar Singh to the right. (Photo John Burke, copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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Watched by some of our porters, Ajai (left), John, and Gabar Singh prepare our dinner. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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John, enjoying the marvellous landscape around the impressive Bethartoli Glacier. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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An avalanche roars down the Bethartholi Glacier. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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Near the glacier we found pugmarks of a snow leopard. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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A Queen of Spain fritillary (Issoria issaea), sitting on newly fallen snow. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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Snow storm above Devistan (6,678 m), seen from the Trisul Nala Valley. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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A fruiting species of bistort, Polygonum affine, in snow. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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On the trail in front of us, we surprised four blue sheep, which bolted, uttering a peculiar, bird-like call. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



John’s dream camping spot
On our way back from Bethartoli, we camp a few days on a grassy slope, called Dibrughati. Ajai must return to his studies, and Gabar Singh will guide him down the Rishi Ganga River, but is going to return to Dibrughati four days later. Meanwhile, John and I enjoy a peaceful stay, as all our porters have now left us. Throughout our hike, I have been on the lookout to photograph the impressive lammergeier, or bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus). One day I go out to collect firewood, and to look for Himalayan musk deer (Moschus chrysogaster). Meanwhile, John is lying in the grass, reading a book. When I return, he says: “While you were away, this huge bird landed in a tree about 50 metres from me. It was reddish and had hanging, beard-like feathers around the bill. What bird is that?” – I almost want to hit him!

We return by another route out of the area, along the Rishi Ganga River. In this way, we won’t have to cross the awful Dharansi Pass, but otherwise the trek is far from easy. Descending sheer rock walls, we have to dangle on ropes, and several times we must cross the Rishi Ganga, balancing on logs. Gabar Singh, in his black, shiny ballroom shoes, just dances over these logs like nothing, but John and I are scared stiff while crossing. On a particularly nasty ‘bridge’, consisting of rather thin logs which balance precariously on larger rocks on either side of the river, John stops halfway across, clinging to another log with both hands. Gabar Singh has to go out and help both of us ashore.

Finally, we reach agricultural areas, where some sheep herders invite us for tea. Late in the afternoon, Gabar Singh points to a harvested field, saying: “This is a good place to camp.” John leaves to explore the field, but quickly returns, exclaiming: “Holy shit, we are going to camp in a marihuana field!”

When we reach Gabar Singh’s village, John hands him his sneakers, so that he’ll not have to wear his black ballroom shoes on future hikes. Later that day we meet him in the street, clad in his best finery: Super-clean clothes and John’s sneakers.



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On several spots along the Rishi Ganga River, we had to descend sheer rock walls, clinging to a rope. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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John, descending a steep slope, covered in dwarf bamboo, heading for the Rishi Ganga River. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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On several occasions, we had to cross the Rishi Ganga, balancing on logs. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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This ‘bridge’ across the Rishi Ganga consisted of rather thin logs, balancing precariously on large rocks on either side of the river. Halfway across, John stopped, clinging to another log with both hands. Gabar Singh is on his way out to help him ashore. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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Finally, when we reached agricultural areas, some sheep herders invited us for tea. Gabar Singh is smoking a hookah, a water pipe. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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John and Gabar Singh at John’s dream camping spot: a marihuana field. They are holding on to a 3-metre-tall stem of a hemp plant. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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(Latest revision April 2019)