Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Our Tryst with the Snows: Expedition to Rudragaira Peak, June 2010

Rudragaira: OUR mountain!!

It was probably 20 more vertical feet to the top, I guessed. At the most twenty steps more, but my body was refusing to move. I tugged on the rope that bound me to Shivraj. He turned back, his face a question mark. I signalled with my hand that I needed to rest. I breathed deeply, trying to gulp down a few lungfuls of the thin air before kicking into the powdery snow slope again. Step after tired step, now onto broken, sliding rocks bare of snow. Suddenly there was no more climbing left and I saw Shivraj before me, smiling broadly. “Aapka pehla summit!” he declared. I paused, knelt down and touched my forehead to the flat, snow-covered platform of the summit and as I stepped on to the destination that I had toiled so hard for, my eyes were swimming with tears. Embarrassed, I was thankful for the dark goggles that I wore to protect my eyes from the fierce reflection from the snow. At least my two companions would not be witness to this sudden surge of emotions I felt atop the summit of Rudragaira Peak, 5820m above mean sea level.

Me and Dinesh - nearing the top

The summit was a longish platform of snow, maybe ten feet wide and 40 or 45 feet long. The view to the north and north-west was obscured by dense clouds that were fast approaching us. To the south were the magnificent Gangotri peaks – all over 6000m high. To the west was a fearsome drop. All the fatigue I felt dropped away as I took in the fantastic mountain scenery that surrounded me. Yes, I had made it! My first ever really high summit… Shivraj and Dinesh, my companions, took turns to hug me and thump me on my back. We then set to the task of taking pictures – of ourselves and of the view towards all directions. It was 1pm when we had reached the summit – 2 hours behind schedule. We had to leave soon; the thick white cloud that was bearing down onto the summit heralded the bad weather that would overtake us in minutes. At 1:15pm, we began the descent, after Dinesh did a small puja at the makeshift temple of a few stones that earlier summiteers had erected at the summit.

Me and Shivraj at the summit of Rudragaira

The summit of our dreams!!
We were still roped up – Shivraj in the lead, me in the middle and Dinesh bringing up the rear. While descending on snow slopes, one has to use heel kicking – walking on one’s heels and leaning backwards. I must have got it wrong, for suddenly I was falling, scrabbling desperately at snow that came away beneath my clawing fingers. Dinesh was caught by surprise and he too was dragged down and in a matter of moments we were both sliding out of control on the snow. Thankfully, Shivraj – the most experienced climber among us, calmly drove in the shaft of his ice axe into the slope and arrested the fall. Shakily, we got up and edged our way across to firmer snow, and then on to rock.

My first Himalayan summit!!
We had to follow the ridge of the mountain, which led in four stretches to below the snow-line, and then climb down a steep, rocky face to reach the safety of our camp at 4748m. It was now snowing fairly heavily, a south-easterly wind blowing the flakes into our faces. It was a whiteout, with visibility down to a few feet. Thankfully, the mountain had only one long ridge on the route we were following, so there was no fear of losing our way… About midway down to camp, we were suddenly aware of a crackling noise in the air. “It’s lightning; about to strike.” yelled Shivraj, “Let’s get down fast.” We were now getting shocks from our ice axes, and even the rope, from the static electricity due to the storm! Shivraj decided that it was best to abandon equipment and flee and we did so. Inexperienced on snow, I fell no less than thirty times on the way back to camp and finally, when we reached camp at 4pm – 11 hours after we had set out early that morning for the summit, I was too exhausted to eat. My friends Kailash and Sudhakar – who had turned back at 5200m, helped me into my sleeping bag inside the tent, where I lay racked by waves of nausea and headache.

By next morning, I was fine. It was 23 June, 12 days after we had started out on our journey from Manipal – near Udupi in Karnataka, where Sudhakar Adiga, Kailash Rao and I work as teachers. It was our 3rd summer in the Garhwal Himalaya in 3 years – earlier we had been to Darwa Top (4140m) and Gaumukh-Tapovan (where we attained a height of 4600m on the lower slopes of Mount Shivling). This year, we wanted to do something more ambitious and had chosen Rudragaira Peak on the advice of our mountaineer friend Shivraj Singh Panwar. Shivraj is a young climber from a village called Dharali near Gangotri and he had been our instructor on our trek to Darwa which was organised by the Tata Steel Adventure Foundation. We had become good friends and now do climbs together in the Himalaya.

This year, we had started out from Udupi for Delhi and reached Uttarkashi via Haridwar. We met up with Shivraj there and hired a cook – Dinesh Kumar, who was also a climber. Dinesh organized the supplies and we moved to Gangotri, where we hired 3 porters – Bhagat, Suresh Bahadur and Khadak Bahadur. We started our trek from Gangotri to Rudragaira, which is situated south-west of Gangotri, on 18 June. We moved in through the forest-clad slopes of the Rudragaira Gad, establishing 4 camps at successively higher altitudes. Forests of deodar, oak, maple, rhododendron and chir pine gave way to mostly birch near the tree-line beyond which only bushes of rhododendron and juniper flourished on grassy meadows sprinkled with mountain flowers. Though many climbers attempt Rudragaira with only 2 camps along the way, we decided to let our bodies get more acclimatized to the high altitude. Acclimatization is very important since the body needs time to get used to the thin air of the high Himalaya. In fact, we took short acclimatization treks at even Uttarkashi and near Gangotri before our actual trek to the base of the mountain.

Before we started on our way back to Gangotri, we felt we had to do our bit to honour the mountain that had given us the experience of a lifetime. We built a small shrine facing the peak and made offerings. Maybe later travellers to this majestic mountain will pause to offer prayers at our shrine for a successful summit! As I shouldered my backpack and stepped on to the mountain trail that would lead me away, I turned and feasted my eyes on the rounded contours of Rudragaira. The summit was playing hide-and-seek among the mists. Our tracks of the day before were faintly visible on the snow. I recalled those brief magical moments on the summit and a swarm of emotions overwhelmed me – the glow of satisfaction that I had successfully summitted was shadowed by the relief of the safe return through the frightening storm.

The view from the summit

I muttered a prayer of thanks to Rudragaira and started down the trail that led through lovely alpine meadows to the forests and then to Gangotri, where a cosy room, hot baths and plenty of hot tea awaited me!

Our Shrine to Rudragaira

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A climb in the monsoon

A climb in the incessant rains

In hills and vales far above the plains.

Splashing thru’ innumerable streams

Clouds and fog and misty realms…

Roar of a mighty waterfall

As it plunges down a rocky wall.

Lifting now the cloud reveals

The rocky summit thru’ wispy veils

A soaring cliff of black basalt

Outlined against a dull grey vault

Sailing in a sea of white

And now the clouds hide it from sight…

Trudging among the weeping trees

In pelting rain and whipping breeze

Steeply, the track winds on and on…

Just when our minds of hope are shorn,

There looms ahead the final ridge.

Hundred feet more to the top, we judge.

Gripping the glistening wet basalt,

We launch into the tough assault

With taut muscles and strained sinew,

And for once not bothered of the view,

Climbing steadily in a single row

Till there’s no more left to go….

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Wind Pictures...

Icy breath from Realms of Snow,
Carry these prayers high above
Those soaring spires where no bird flies
'Cross passes bound in snow and ice.
Sustain my soul weary and worn
'Til I to your Kingdom return...

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Mission Rudragaira - interlude at Uttarkashi...

On the way from Hardwar to Uttarkashi, near Chamba

Reached Uttarkashi at evening on 14th June, rather tired and weary from the longish drive from Hardwar. Got our old room no. 2 at Hotel Bhandary and Restaurant - that favourite haunt of mountain lovers. Shivraj turned up there and there was a joyful reunion with our old friend and instructor. After initial thumps on the back and catching up on his exploits - he had summited Satopanth (7071m), Gangotri I (6672m) and Rudragaira (5820m) in the one year that had elapsed since our last adventure together.

The situation didn't look too good for our attempt on Baby Shivling just now - recently he had taken a French couple to Tapovan and had scouted the region well. First of all, the Bengali Mataji who had looked after us so well last time had been evicted by the forest department from Tapovan. which meant that hiring a cook, porters etc. would jack up the costs of the trip markedly when added to the charges that the forest dept. would levy for persons, tents etc. That, coupled with the bad weather still prevailing at Tapovan, tilted the balance in favour of Rudragaira. So Rudragaira it would be that we attempt this summer... A good 200m or more higher than Baby Shivling, technically it would be less demanding than the rocky cliffs of Shivling Junior, though. At the back of my mind, I wondered if it was the lack of belief in our technical abilities that made Shivraj change plans, actually...

Sudhakara Sir, Shivraj and Kailash on the way to Nachiketa Tal

We spent the next day on an acclimatization trek to Nachiketa Tal. A beautiful mountain lake in the midst of pine and rhododendron forests, it can be reached by a trek of 3km on foot from Chaurangi Khal, itself a drive of about 18km from Uttarkashi. It was an easy hike and we caught up with Shivraj on the various happenings in his life and in the mountains.

Nachiketa Tal

At the lake, we came across some pahari girls cutting fodder for their livestock. The tough girls were clambering up steep slopes and even tall trees to chop down the leaves. Their songs were extremely melodious and Sudhakara Sir recorded the sweet strains with their permission. A Eurasian jay and a yellow-billed blue magpie kept us amused with their antics, too. We then went to pay our respects to the Baba who lived in an ashram on the banks of the lake, only to find that the holy man was rather miffed with us that our first attention had gone to the damsels singing among the trees! However, we soon placated him and before long he was regaling us with his dramatic narration of the Nachiketa legend related to the lake. He even made us tea and advised us to visit the Yam Dwar (Portal to the nether world that young Nachiketa visited to parley with Yama - the God of Death himself).

A young pahari girl at work collecting fodder

The baba at Nachiketa Tal

We visited the Yam Dwar and spent some more time at the lake before hiking back to Chaurangi Khal and our waiting vehicle. Back at Uttarkashi, we met our cook-to-be for the expedition - Dinesh Kumar, a fine climber himself who was the veteran of many treks (including the arduous hike to Auden's Col) despite his young age.

Dinesh checking supplies at Uttarkashi

Now we started feeling the excitement of the trek, with Dinesh shopping for supplies and going over the logistics of how many porters to hire etc. with Shivraj. We also stocked up on last minute purchases of essentials like warm clothing, waterproof gloves etc. I remember going to sleep with the feverish excitement of anticipation.

(To be continued...)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Rudragaira - the beginning of the adventure

Well, the time had come...

Mount Shivling and Baby Shivling

After a year of gazing at a picture of Mount Shivling and Baby Shivling that adorns my table at my workplace and fantasising about climbing Shivling Junior, June finally came around. Following the tensions of examination duties and corrections and what not had come depressing news about developments at work. We were impatient to get among the mountains and shake off the baggage that tends to accumulate during work.

A source of worry was that our mountaineer friend from Dharali - Shivraj Singh Panwar, was not reachable by phone for quite a while now... However, when he contacts, he contacts on all fronts - messages by email, on Orkut and Facebook, followed by a phone call! Anyway, we were relieved to be in touch with him again. However, he had some dampening news. He was just back from Tapovan where he had gone with a French couple and had the opportunity to study Baby Shivling from all sides. The weather was bad, he said. It had been snowing heavily at Tapovan and the gullies on the mountain of our dreams were full of unconsolidated snow. Treacherous conditions to climb, especially for us inexperienced climbers. How about Rudragaira, he asked.

I was unwilling to give up on the mountain that had given me a dream to hang on to for a year now. "Let's take a final call when we reach Uttarkashi." I replied, hoping wildly that the weather would clear miraculously, as it is perfectly possible in the Himalaya. And that the Sun would melt away all the troublesome snow by the time we reached.

Thus we set out on the morning of June 11 to Margao, where we stayed for a day, moving about in the market, window shopping for fishing tackles and such stuff. Later, Kailash and I could not resist the lure of the spirits in Goa. Poor Sudhakara Sir - a teetotaller vegetarian stuck with two most unscrupulous elements! He caught up on his reading while we both struck a spiritual high.

Kailash insisted we walk everywhere in Goa - preparation for the trek, apparently!

Next day we were on the Rajdhani to Delhi. The journey was made enjoyable by the presence of a little Sardarji - Indermeet Singh, in our coupe, whose antics kept us amused. At Delhi we were welcomed by Shri. Duggal - Kailash's classmate from B. Arch. and a most endearing character. We freshened up at his house and went to the Qutb complex and Ba'hai temple. There we discovered the dangers of travelling with a Professor of Islamic History. He didn't spare anybody - including poor Duggal and Prof. Sudhakara the mathematician!

The Qutb complex

KR didn't even spare the poor mathematician

Duggal gets even with his former classmate finally!
After another session of spirits and non-veg at "Rajinder da Dhaba" (with Sudhakara Sir forced to sit in the car with his Paneer Tikka and coke), Duggal dropped us at Nizamuddin station, where we caught the Dehradun Express to Haridwar. We arrived at Haridwar at the unearthly hour of 5am, and as we picked our way among the several hundred prone bodies of people sleeping at the station, it struck me for the first time that our journey had really begun! But I simply could not wait to be away from the crowded pilgrim centre to travel deep into the Himalaya.

Breakfast at Hardwar


We checked into a hotel near the station to catch a few hours of sleep and had our breakfast. Next was to take a taxi to Uttarkashi, where we would meet up with Shivraj.

(To be continued...)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Crocodile...

I love this poem by Roald Dahl... But I also love the crocodile!

My Crocodile!

"The Crocodile"

by Roald Dahl

"No animal is half as vile
As Crocky–Wock, the crocodile.
On Saturdays he likes to crunch
Six juicy children for his lunch
And he especially enjoys
Just three of each, three girls, three boys.
He smears the boys (to make them hot)
With mustard from the mustard pot.
But mustard doesn't go with girls,
It tastes all wrong with plaits and curls.
With them, what goes extremely well
Is butterscotch and caramel.
It's such a super marvelous treat
When boys are hot and girls are sweet.
At least that's Crocky's point of view
He ought to know. He's had a few.
That's all for now. It's time for bed.
Lie down and rest your sleepy head.
Ssh. Listen. What is that I hear,
Galumphing softly up the stair?

Go lock the door and fetch my gun!
Go on child, hurry! Quickly run!
No stop! Stand back! He's coming in!
Oh, look, that greasy greenish skin!
The shining teeth, the greedy smile!
It's Crocky–Wock, the Crocodile!"

Sunday, March 21, 2010

In the land of the Mountain Monarchs...

A Mountain Monarch surveys his territory near Chirwasa!

I paused for a moment on the steep hillside, gasping for breath. I had been resting in my tent after the long trek from Gangotri to Bhojwasa, fighting a mild sensation of nausea when Shivraj burst into the tent shouting "Bharal! Lots of them, come let's go..." In a trice I had (rather unwisely!) forgotten my weariness and my altitude sickness and raced out behind my mountaineer friend, who started up the 60-degree slope of the nearby mountain with an agility better suited to creatures that we were racing to see... I followed, more clumsily but steadily, my whole attention focused on the 90-odd tiny figures high up the hillside, till the rude jolt of reality that we were at altitude made me pause for a while. Looking back down the slope I'd just climbed, I felt a faint glow of achievement when I saw the tents of the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN) rest house tiny in the valley below.

The herd of bharal on the slopes above Bhojwasa

Shivraj on the slopes above the facilities at Bhojwasa (in the backdrop)

The bharal had spooked seeing us climb and had all stood up and were watching us keenly. One or two of them sneezed - a way of showing alarm. We let them calm down by remaining still, Shivraj even sitting down and moving sideways on the slope, pretending to be least interested in them. This suited me just fine, ample time to rest and catch my breath. Then we slowly approached them. I stopped at about 200m away, while Shivraj approached even closer. He even whistled to them, which somehow seemed to calm them! Soon, as light ebbed away, we reluctantly left the bharal to their evening engagements and climbed down to the rest house and dinner.

I had first read about bharal in the classic travel book "The Snow Leopard" by Peter Matthiessen, who had accompanied the celebrated field biologist George Schaller to the Shey Monastery in Nepal to study mountain ungulates and their predators (including the elusive snow leopard). Bharal (scientific name Pseudois nayaur), also called the blue sheep of the Himalaya are classified as sheep, though they exhibit many traits that belong to goats too. These "mountain monarchs" - as Schaller called the wild sheep and goats of the Himalaya, occupy a large swathe of Himalayan and trans-Himalayan ranges. The male are larger and have heavier, backward sweeping, horns than the females, which have small ones. Subsequently, I had devoured the books by Schaller - "Mountain Monarchs: Wild Sheep and Goats of the Himalaya" and my all-time favourite - "Stones of Silence: Journeys in the Himalaya". My previous experience of wild mountain ungulates was with the Nilgiri Tahr (Hemitragus hylocrius) of Eravikulam - an enigmatic mountain goat of the Western Ghats and I spent many a happy hour watching and photographing these majestic animals whenever I visited Munnar. I was thrilled to meet George Schaller himself at the world conference on mountain ungulates held at Munnar in 2006.

George Schaller at Eravikulam in September 2006

Nilgiri tahr at Eravikulam: unlike the bharal, the tahr is more goat than sheep

I knew from travel accounts that I had a good chance to spot bharal when I set out on my trek to Gaumukh and Tapovan last year and sure enough, I spotted my first one from the trail near Chirwasa on day one. I was so excited and started clicking pictures of the tiny figure on a rock in the river bed from the high trail. Shivraj laughingly told me to spare my film (I was using a film-SLR), "You'll find plenty of them at Tapovan, Sirji!" I later got a few good shots of that first bharal when it climbed up and crossed the trail in front of me. Later that day was all the excitement about the herd on the slopes near the rest house.

My first bharal (can you spot it???)!

The same bharal ram as it crossed the trail near me

Early next morning, we set out for Gaumukh, and then crossed the glacier and climbed to Tapovan. One of the first things I saw was a small herd of around 14-16 bharal on the meadows of Tapovan. We put up at the shelter of the Bengali Mataji at Tapovan. The shelter itself built under a rock was a marvel of simplicity and ingenuity. And Mataji herself, dignified and simple, was really a mother to us there - cooking, cajoling our altitude-hassled selves to eat and scolding me especially when my bharal-watching kept me away from my meals!

Mataji and Shivraj in front of her kutiya.

A bharal ram silhouetted against the skyline near Tapovan

A bharal ewe and young

The 3 days I spent at Tapovan was a mix of climbing (Shivraj and I climbed to 4600m on the lateral moraine of the Meru glacier), bharal watching and suffering the effects of altitude on our sea level-accustomed bodies. The bharal were quite confident in the vicinity of Mataji's ashram and it was touching to see the trust they had in human beings here (aided, no doubt, by the salt that Mataji and others used to sprinkle on a flat rock near the ashram). They were quite wary of me initially, though and used to keep away till they realized that I probably was harmless and allowed me to approach within ten feet of them.

The hills are alive... with bharal and their young..!

A lick of salt...

... and a drink of water...!

Towards the end of my stay, the bharal let me approach quite close...

The breeding season seemed to be over and there were several tiny lambs among the herds that frequented the ashram. The large males were mostly together in a bachelor herd, though the odd male could be spotted occasionally among the females and young, too. They were beginning to shed their winter coat and it was common to see tiny clumps of their winter fur lying around. I had a lovely time observing these magnificent creatures and felt privileged when they allowed me a window into their lives. It was with an inexplicable sadness that I bid goodbye to Mataji and her bharal...

Rock 'n bharal: a bachelor herd

A ram scratches off winter fur with his horn

An adult ram watches warily while two younger rams lick salt and an ewe preens herself

On the way back to Bhojwasa, I stumbled upon the skull of a bharal off the trail next to the rest house. Later, Shivraj found the rest of its body some way up the slope. It seemed to have been killed by a leopard (I had found leopard scat near one of the pinnacles we had climbed on the slopes of Shivling Parvat near Tapovan), or maybe, a snow leopard. Shivraj claims to have seen snow leopard several times in this region.

A skull of a bharal spotted near Bhojwasa

This year, as I prepare for my next Himalayan trek, I feel excited. What new experiences may be in store for us??? We plan to scale Baby Shivling this time around, and who knows, maybe this June we will have a darshan of the snow leopard Itself...!