Mountains are always associated with all that is holy and sometimes also of things supernatural. The rarefied air and dizzying heights permeate an unworldly atmosphere which easily drives away a person’s atheistic beliefs and skepticism which may be the unshakable core of his beliefs while living in the plains. The mountains unsettle you and you begin to feel that perhaps it may be wise to believe just this once, for awhile, at least until one returns safely to civilisation. Events and chance coincidence may reinforce this belief. But as always the mountains return you to civilisation a little humbler and more understanding of your own miniscule standing in the cosmos.
As part of the celebrations of the Golden Jubilee of our College in 1993, the Corps of Engineers of the Indian Army decided to try their hand at Nandadevi, 7817 metres high, located in a protected valley between Garhwal and Kumaon, close to the Tibetan border. Nandadevi, that most beautiful of peaks, outshining in splendour all other Himalayan mounts of greater height. Nandadevi, that holy mountain, second only in holiness to Kailas, the abode of the Gods. Nandadevi which resisted every attempt to find a path from the Milam road to her feet for over fifty years, from the first attempt in 1883, right until Shipton and Tilman reached it in 1934. Two years later Tilman and Odell climbed the mountain for the first time. Tilman served with the Bengal Sappers in World War II.
In the fifties, an American mountaineer, Willi Unsoeld, awestruck at his first glimpse of the magnificient Goddess, had vowed to name his then yet unborn daughter after this most beautiful of mountains. He returned in 1976 with his daughter, Nandadevi Unsoeld, and the Goddess had taken her for her own. The last time in 1980, when the Sappers had attempted to climb the peak, the Goddess had denied them her blessings and they had returned safe but unsuccessful, thwarted from an altitude of 7600 metres. As that grand old mountaineer, Mr GK Sharma of the MES, told me, “we could not have defied the obvious signs of bad weather, since the Goddess, who is a manifestation of Shiva’s consort, Parvati, is not known to take kindly to defiance.” A couple of years after that, the paratroopers had climbed Nandadevi, but not a single summitter returned alive.
Nandadevi, is surrounded by a cohort of supplicants, the lesser peaks of Dunagiri, Changabang, Rishipatthar, Trisul, Nandaghunti, Nandakhat, Mrugthuni and Maiktoli, who form a more or less an impenetrable ring around her. Too many expeditions into the catchment of the Rishiganga, which arises from the bosom of Nandadevi peak, had ravaged the fragile ecology and as a result in 1988 the govt had declared Nandadevi off limits by making it a National Park with the mountain in the core zone and had also designated the area around the National Park as a Biosphere reserve. And so Nandadevi had been left severely alone for five years by mountaineer, forester and poacher alike. It was obvious to the team right from the beginning that success would depend greatly upon luck, as you may call it, or the Goddess’ blessings as we called it. We hoped she would give her blessings since we were not only climbing, but also carrying out a complete ecological study and also cleaning all the trash left by previous expeditions. Yours truly was put in charge of the wildlife and ecologicy guys, but that’s another story.
Nandadevi is served by only one entry point – a high altitude track leading from the bugyals of Lata Khadak and Belta Khadak, on the outer slope of the watershed in the west, across a precarious track to the Dharansi pass and to the first campsite – a picturesque vale called Dibrughetta. A pioneering effort to enter the sanctuary by Capt Vivek Gupta, found the Dharansi pass was snowbound and impenetrable in late April forcing Maj VK Bhatt, our expedition leader, to enter the sanctuary through the Rishiganga gorge; we would need to cross the Rishiganga five times before we hit the traditional beaten trail at Dibrughetta.
After much wangling and a lot of luck, the expedition got the vitally important clearance required from the State Govt and the team moved from, where it had arranged its administrative loads and rendezvoused at the Bengal Sappers Centre at Roorkee. After much feting by the Bengal Sappers, the team moved off to Joshimath, in time for the traditional opening of the Badrinath road and the blessings of that deity were obtained by all. Daily training treks now began to Auli to toughen the members who received as a daily reward the ‘darshan’ of the mountain from the ski slopes of that famous winter resort.
In the last week of April, the team staged forward to Lata village, for all practical purposes, the gateway to Nandadevi. Lata village stands poised on the western slope above the Malari road on the western slope. The track to the high altitude bugyals of Lata and Belta Khadak begins here. Very importantly, the temple of Lata village is consecrated to the goddess Nandadevi herself, so the team came here first of all to propitiate the Goddess. The prayers were accompanied by vows of abstinence by the complete team of liquor and cigarettes. The entire team felt that it was on a pilgrimage to pay homage to the this holy devisthan. We prayed that the Goddess had accepted our offerings. Since the roadhead was Lata, a couple of jawans remained there throughout the expedition as a radiolink. More about them later.
The expedition began on 01 May 93 with a stiff march up the Rishiganga along steep pine slopes of the Raunthi forest on the southern bank. On the morning of our third day, we had our first river crossing. A few logs felled zig zag across the river between rockfalls in the stream bed, with a single horizontal rope for help in balancing, was all the support one got to cross the river. Balancing precariously the team began to cross carefully. At mid-morning however, a porter carrying a gas cylinder, slipped and fell into the torrent. The body could not be recovered. Naturally, a grim mood settled on the team. While writing the sitrep, Maj Bhatt asked the porter’s mate as to what name this crossing place was known by. He replied ‘Kalikona’ (Corner of Goddess Kali).
There was pin drop silence as both the expeditioon members and the villager porters realised that no propitiation had been done before crossing at that spot to Goddess Kali who signifies the destructive aspects of Shakti. This was invariably the practice in the past, but since the sanctuary had been closed so many years hence, even the porters who belonged to that area had forgotten about it! It looked as if the Goddess Kali had taken a ‘jivdaan’ herself when it appeared that she had been forgotten. The performing of the puja accompanied by a ritual sacrifice of a goat lifted everybody’s spirits and returned the previous vigour and enthusiasm to all concerned. And true to reputation, this and all subsequent river crossings were attempted successfully without untoward incident. Coincidence or divine intervention – this was the first manifestation of the supernatural.
As one penetrated deeper into the sanctuary, the landscape and mountain light took on a unreal clarity and brightness. The air was fresher, the breeze colder, the morning sunlight sparkled off the dew drops and glistening streams bubbled between rocks. As we climbed higher – the vegetation changed. Oak and deodhar forests were replaced by stands of pine and birch and later by hedges of dwarf rhododendron and finally by large meadows of wild flowers. Ghorals, which populated the cliffs above the Rishiganga, were replaced first by musk deer at Dibrughetta and the next few marches and then by Bharal or Blue Sheep above the tree line. The ravens at the roadhead vanished and that ubiquitous companion of high altitude, the yellow-billed chough made its presence felt. On the alpine meadow of Sarson Patal, rare snow apollo butterflies flew amongst the myriad wild flowers. Everywhere old skulls of bharal interspersed with dried scats spoke of the mysterious and elusive snow leopard.
Reaching Sarson Patal requires two days of stiff climbing. The first day, we ascended Swarg Sidi (Ladder to Heaven), a razor-thin path skirting steep cliffs over deep gorges which had just enough space to place your boot and where fixed rope and pitons had to be placed for us to climb. This lethal path is one of the most dangerous spots in the Himalayas. However, we felt the Goddess’ favour on a number of occasions. No matter how carefully you traverse, a slip on rubble or overbalancing while crossing a bush protruding from the rock-face may become a headlong descent into a turbulent river deep below. Yet each time, there was a timely hand of support or jerk of the rope or an icepick extended in anticipation and our large column of mountaineers and porters climbed the stairway to heaven safely. I was myself saved on more than one such occasion. The second day we stepped around a veritable devil’s maze of sharp rocks and chasms, as we crossed Patal Khan, the mine of slate. Again, we negotiated this obstacle with supreme confidence and more importantly without injuries. None of us could deny that divine favour shone upon us.
The base camp was reached and camps established smoothly. The establishment of camps and upward ascent began smoothly and on 13 Jun at 0320 hrs, the summit team, comprising Maj Amin Naik, Capt Anand Swaroop and Mr GK Sharma, was poised at Camp IV for the attempt on the summit. The Goddess gave the team one shot at success and they set off at and climbed the peak at 1710 hrs. Maj (now Maj Gen) Amin Naik recalls, ”When we reached the top, it was completely white bound. We could not see the mountains all around us. We planted the flag, thanked the Goddess, took photographs and immediately began our descent back while the weather was good. We reached back only at 2330 hrs!”
The Goddess had favoured them en route – Amin Naik had a very close call when he slipped just short of the summit but could miraculously recover on his own. On the return back, the Goddess allowed the exhausted climbers to reach back safely – a privilege she had denied the Paras in 1982.
The summit team had sent a success signal at around 1730h on the short range radio set to base camp. Base Camp in turn relayed this wonderful news to the ecological team who were at Ramani to relay it to Lata and then onto Joshimath and New Delhi. By the time, the radio message could be passed to me at Ramani through the crackle of the ether, it was dark and around 1845. After much trouble I could get through to the Lata radio detachment. On getting through, they immediately congratulated me profusely, which came as a surprise to me, but I assumed that somehow the message must have got through. Almost immediately the fog came down and our communications also snapped. I put the matter outside my mind.
The very next day the monsoon broke and since we had already climbed the mountain and finished our ecological studies, the leader called off the expedition. Since the Rishiganga was now a monstrous torrent which could not be negotiated under any circumstances, we returned via the traditional Dharansi route which was now clear of snow. On the 21st, the expedition marched into Lata and camped down at the confluence of Rishiganga and Dhauligangs on a flat bank below Rini village for rest and celebrations. The main celebration was a tremendous campfire dinner with the porters and villagers of Lata and Rini. The villagers sang Garhwali folk songs and the school children danced their traditional dance to the Goddess! I still remember them saying ,”Nandadevi <something something>, godi mein Lata Reni”.
We plied the villagers with rum while they plied us with their traditional rice-beer and rice-wine. I found myself standing next to the signal NCO who was in charge of Lata village. I remembered and asked him – how come he had come to know of the success of the exhibition before I told him.
He said ”Sahab, we were sitting in the temple courtyard that afternoon and around 5 O’clock, all at once, the bells began ringing. Since there was no one inside the temple, we were amazed. The villagers started jumping around with joy saying ‘Nandadevi Mataji ne darshan diya’. We then climbed the ridge and looked at the mountain. It was stormy, with thunder and lightning all around, as if the mountain itself was celebrating! We realised that this must be the case and hardly had I got back when your call came through!” The village patwari of Lata hastened to corroborate these events.
Divine providence? I like to think so. The Goddess had shown her favour to the team who returned safe and sound having achieved all their objectives and bringing back over a thousand kgs of garbage from the mountain.
- Image of Nandadevi – author Anirban C8. Used under Creative Commons Sharealike 3.0. See Wikimedia Commons Sourcepage
- MES – military Engineering Service, the parent organisation of Mr GK Sharma.
- darshan – audience, as that given by a religious head to his congregation.
- bugyal – high altitude meadow.
- sitrep – situation report.
- jivdaan – ritual sacrifice of a living creature.
- puja – religious worship ceremony.
- Deodhar – Himalayan Cedar (Cedrus deodara)
- ghoral – Himalayan Ghoral (Naemorhedus goral), a goat-antelope.
- bharal – Blue Sheep (Pseudois nayaur)
- patwari – village headman.
Don’t forget to read – Sarson Patal.