India 1982: Pleasures of Nanda Devi



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). (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




“Nanda Devi and the Sanctuary were made into an Indian National Park in 1982 and closed to further mountaineering and trekking. It was an intelligent move by the Indian government to prevent continued ecological destruction of the area.”


John Roskelley (born 1948), American mountain climber, in his book Nanda Devi – The Tragic Expedition, 1987




A few weeks after our hike, described below, took place, the Nanda Devi Sanctuary was closed to everybody, including local people who were grazing their goats and sheep in the area.

Thus, our journey into this beautiful area was made in the nick of time. Today, the national park is still closed to all but a few select scientists. In 1988, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.




In 1980, in Corbett National Park, northern India, I get acquainted with a young Indian, Ajai Saxena, who shares my interest in nature.

He relates a hike, which his uncle once undertook 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. I write a letter to him, and after some library research he decides to join us. In October 1982, we all meet in Delhi.


Heavy boxes
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 shoulders. Muscles taut and sweat pouring down his face, he manages to get up and then climbs up the ladder to the roof of the bus. This procedure is repeated with the other box. We pay him the handsome sum of 10 Rupees (1 US $), and he is very pleased indeed.



This porter is struggling to bring one of John’s enormous boxes onto the roof-rack of a bus. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




“Vitamin E!!”
We stay a few days in Lata to hire a number of porters and buy more provisions. This 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 situated 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 (Chloris spinoides).

When our preparations have been completed, we head out of Lata, following a trail along fields to Belta, and thence up through lovely forest of various trees, including Himalayan cedar (Cedrus deodara), West Himalayan yew (Taxus contorta), walnut (Juglans regia), and a species of 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!!”

The steep trail continues 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, including Dunagiri (7066 m), Trisul (7120 m), and Hathi Parbat (6727 m).



The village of Lata. In the lower picture, harvested buckwheat is drying on a house roof. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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



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




A tough day
From Lata Kharak, the trail follows a fairly level ridge, and then, quite abruptly, 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).

Atop 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 we notice that he is sitting on a rock, we go back to find out what’s wrong.

He 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, and we decide that I am going to 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, and one of the climbers is 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.



Flock of goats, near Lata. At the time of our hike, grazing domestic stock in the reserve was still allowed. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



John and Ajai on their way up the steep, grueling trail towards the Dharansi Pass. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Ajai has come to a stop on the Dharansi Pass, and I try to persuade him to continue. (Photo John Burke, copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Threatening snow storm, Dharansi Pass. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Our camp beneath a rock at the foot of the Dharansi Pass. I am cleaning a pot. Three of our porters are sitting to the right, in front Gabar Singh. (Photo John Burke, copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



In the morning, we found fresh tracks of leopard near our camp. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




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.

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.

We encounter two members of an expedition, who have just climbed a spectacular white granite mountain named Changabang (6864 m) (see photos at the top of this page). They 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 the branches of the gnarled and twisted trees are covered in old man’s beard lichens (Usnea). – A fascinating account of these lichens is found on the page Quotes on Nature.

Himalayan vultures (Gyps himalayensis) and lammergeiers (Gypaetus barbatus) soar above us, and in the forest we observe passerines like blue-fronted redstart (Phoenicurus frontalis) and spot-winged tit (Periparus melanolophus). A Himalayan bluestart (Tarsiger rufilatus) is feeding among the stones.



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)



On our way, we observed various birds, including Himalayan vulture and Himalayan bluestart. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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




Wildlife around the Bethartoli Glacier
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 Himalayan queen fritillary (Issoria issaea) is sitting on the fresh 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. However, they soon calm down, allowing us to approach quite close.



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)



John enjoys the marvellous landscape around the impressive Bethartoli Glacier, which is criss-crossed by large and small cracks, and partly covered in brown moraine. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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



Mountains around the glacier. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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



A Himalayan queen fritillary (Issoria issaea), sitting on newly fallen snow. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Snow storm above Devistan (6678 m), seen from the Trisul Nala Valley. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



On the trail in front of us, we surprised four blue sheep, which bolted, uttering a peculiar, bird-like call. Others were grazing on a slope across the river. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




John’s dream camping spot
On our return hike, we camp a few days on a grassy slope, named Dibrughati. Ajai must return to his studies. Gabar Singh is going to guide him down the Rishi Ganga River, but will 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. 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 yards from me. It was reddish and had hanging, beard-like feathers around the bill. What bird is that?”

I almost feel an urge to hit him!

As we now follow the Rishi Ganga River out of the area, 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 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 gives 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.



Making camp at Dibrughati on our way back, from left John, Ajai, and Gabar Singh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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



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



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



Halfway across this ‘bridge’, John came to a stop, clinging to one of the logs with both hands. Gabar Singh is on his way out to help him ashore. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Small waterfall along the Rishi Ganga. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Gorgeous autumn foliage of Himalayan grape (Parthenocissus semicordata). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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



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




(Uploaded February 2016)


(Latest update September 2023)