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.
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).
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.
(To be continued...)