Archive for the ‘expeditions’ category

Sarson Patal!

11 March 2009

My bruised hands hurt as I pulled myself up the rock-face. I was hot and sweaty. As I came above the natural windbreak that a line of high rocks had provided, the cold wind cut through my jacket and left me shivering uncontrollably. We were tired but we could not stop or even rest. This morning, our group of the Corps of Engineers Scientific and Ecological Expedition had had just negotiated the Stairway to Heaven and we were now on a razor-sharp jigsaw puzzle of rocks, some five feet high, some fifty. The rocks were layered and cracked on end, here they offered good grips; there they were crumpled and had nothing to offer but rocky slides and yawning chasms. All of us moved carefully – it would not do twist an ankle here. For this hell hole was Patal Khan, the slate mine and today’s destination was beyond this.

But my nerves were still on edge. The Stairway had been a nightmare – five hundred metres of insubstantial fixed rope.  The path was but a series of indentations slanting across a steep rock slope; each just large enough to place the pad of a foot or a heel but not both. One had to lean onto the rock face at the right because the left hand stretched straight out and over the abyss.  If one slipped, the rope would serve not to save us, but to doom us all as we would careen off into space and thud and splash thousands of feet below.

Far below out of sight, flowed the Rishiganga which eternally reminded us with its roar that we, mere mortals, had dared to venture into hallowed ground – the inner sanctuary of the Valley of the Lost Horizon, the path through which took 37 years after it had been first glimpsed to discover.

Between two rocks, bending down to ease the strain of my overfilled rucksack, I glimpsed a smidgen of green through the boulders. Yet the porter guided us unerringly through this stony maze.  Before I realised it, my feet trod no longer on hard rock but on soil layered with a thick carpet of grass and herbs. We had reached our destination, the bugyal of our dreams, Sarson Patal.

But crossing the rock maze, it is not the picturesque high altitude meadow which intrigues you but the feature towering over all of us high up into the sky, the most beautiful mountain in the world – NandaDevi.


Shock and awe!

That’s what I felt – the first time I saw her up close, in the flesh. She towered up above us until it seemed she would touch the very roof of the world!

Words failed me. ..

Magnificent, strong, eternal, immobile – all these seemed inadequate. ..

She was truly a Goddess.

The sun shone low over the Western sky and the face of the mountain was covered in a blue shadow. Eerily hypnotic, I realised that for the last thirteen years or so, no man had stepped on this earth till our expedition thrust through the Rishiganga gorge in the early summer of 1993 and made its way to the mountain’s threshold. A nudge from a passing mate – I think it was Samant – woke from me from my reverie and I trudged wearily on.

Bill Tilman. Alongwith Eric Shipton, he was the first to find his way into Shangri La!

Bill Tilman. Alongwith Eric Shipton, he was the first to find his way into Shangri La!

The day’s march was not yet over. We still had to march right across the alpine meadow to reach the campsite at its western end. As the sun lowered itself in the sky, we crossed a number of small ridges, most of them rocky with patches of scrub and grass lining the streams between them and dwarf junipers on their crests. Dog tired, we splashed through the streams and struggled up the slopes, unable to enjoy the rosy edges of the western crest-lines which told us where the sun had slipped below to give way to the twilight. It became darker, but an early moon illuminated our path across a never-ending series of billowing grassy slopes. All at once we plunged down a steep slope into a draw and there, nestled amongst a twisted skein of small streams, were the four white army arctic tents of the advance party. We had reached home!

The next morning, as we had reached our destination, our predecessors allowed us to sleep on, but they packed their belongings and moved ahead as soon as we woke. Wide awake in the cold morning. Ice cold water for ablutions. A mist hovered high above the draw but hugging Sarson Patal above us. The foot-slopes of  Nandadevi were barely visible ahead.

We spent a couple of hours doing all those things that need to be done to get a camp in shape. By then, the mist had cleared and the sun shone on Sarson Patal. I clambered up the slope back to the alpine meadow, and what a sight it was.

The cold wind greeted me once again as I cleared the crest. A perennial chilly breeze blows across Sarson Patal, though you disregard it on a sunny day as I did. My eyes swept across the verdant swathes of the bugyal, which lay at the base of Nandadevi separated from her by the Rishiganga which flowed in between; a dangerous torrent even though we were so close to its source. The alpine meadow extended across the river as a narrow strip at the base of the mountain, topped by a rocky slope, boulder-strewn which climbed up and away to the Southern face of the mountain.

It seems that time stands still in Sarson Patal. These timeless words described the view I saw before me perfectly…

The camp site was a delicious change after the cramped asperity of the quarters to which we had now been long accustomed and it was difficult to say what gave most pleasure, the space, the flatness or the absence of rock. Below our little hollow, the rounded slope curved gently down to the southern bank of the Rishi and the contrast between the opposite bank and ours was as great as it might well be, and could be adequately summed up in the words ‘frowning cliffs’ and ‘smiling downs’. On our side, wide slopes of short sweet grass extended in all directions; a herd of cattle grazing on some distant rise or a flock of sheep coming over the hill would have caused no surprise, so peaceful was the scene. But across the river, presenting a seemly unbroken alteration of buttress and gully along four straight miles of river frontage; and beyond these the snow and rock of the western ridge of Nandadevi loomed vaguely in the swirling mists.

That was Bill Tilman’s description of Sarson Patal in 1936. They were still a valid and vivid description of Sarson Patal, more than half a century later.

As I stood there, at the heart of the Inner Sanctuary, I could see a ring of high mountains all around, each a grand behemoth in its own regard. These majestic peaks form a rim surrounding Nandadevi and are known as the Sanctuary Wall.

On the eastern edge of the Sanctuary stands the impressive Mrigthuni (22,500ft), Devtoli (22,300ft) and Maiktoli (22,300ft). At the eastward end, Longstaff’s Col connects the snow-capped heights to Nandadevi East, out of sight from Sarson Patal. Nandadevi East connects to Nandadevi itself. The North Sanctuary Wall includes the peaks Latu Dhura (21,000ft), Rishi Pahar (22,900ft), Deo Damla (21,700ft), and Mangroan (21,500ft). On the west flank of the Sanctuary wall, Kalanka (22,900ft) Changabang (22,500ft), and Dunagiri (23,000ft) keep the rest of the world at bay. On the south side of the Sanctuary Wall rises Bethartoli Himal & South (20,800 & 20,700ft respectively) and Trisul (23,400ft). Yet others are echeloned nearby, Nandaghunti, Nandakhat,…..there they stood in the bright, clear sunlight, imposing sentinels who protected the Goddess.

Sketch-map of Nandadevi Biosphere Reserve (Image credit- Rajiv Rawat at

Sketch-map of Nandadevi Biosphere Reserve (Image credit- Rajiv Rawat at

Sarson Patal was a carpet of grasses, herbs and shrubs. In those days I could not identify any wild flowers, unless I had Polunin and Stainton’s ‘Wildflowers of the Himalayas’ jammed in front of me and someone to guide me as I leafed through the hundreds of illustrations therein. The flowers were still few and far between because summer had yet to catch up with us at this altitude. In between the grass stalks flew small white butterflies with rounded wings having small red and blue markings.

The Common Blue Apollo, the commonest snow apollo on Sarson Patal.

The Common Blue Apollo, the commonest snow apollo on Sarson Patal.

”Snow Apollos!”, I cried. This was the very first time in my life that I had seen them. Ethereal, lightly drifting like snowflakes, they flew low on the bugyal. Amidst them also flew swift, brown Indian Tortoiseshell butterflies.

In the hollows where there was less wind, Queen Of Spain Fritillaries could be found. And everywhere, oblivious of wind, flew Dark Clouded Yellows and Common Yellow Swallowtails, sometimes zipping wind-aided across the meadows. Sometimes they were clinging precariously onto grass stalks with wings slanted at an angle to the vertical and horizontal planes; whether their aim was to reduce exposure to wind and minimise moisture loss, or, to maximize sunlight absorption, I could not tell.

"Bharal" or Himalayan Blue Sheep (Pseudois nayaur)

Without packs on our shoulders, walking felt more like floating. Strewn across the meadow were desiccated skulls of Blue Sheep or Bharal interspersed amongst white fibrous scats of Snow Leopard. This evidence of predator and prey reminded us that just by being here, we were changing the dynamics of animal populations.

Keen observation is something army officers, especially sappers, pride themselves in, yet to me the mountain opposite looked barren. Satya gently took me aside and pointed out indistinct specks of grey dusted over the slopes.  I put the pair of binoculars to my eyes and focused on one of the specks and to my astonishment, there sprung into my field of view, a magnificent male bharal, facing away but with head turned back towards me, staring into my eyes. It was like a revelation. One moment, the mountain seemed lifeless, the next it teemed with hundreds of handsome blue sheep; graceful creatures grazing peacefully in the soft sunshine of the short summer.

All morning they would graze and as the weather takes a turn after noon, as it always does in mountains, these Bharal would climb up amongst the rocks, carelessly leaping across breathtaking near-vertical faces and slopes as if they were the great flat maidans of the Gangetic Plain. There amidst the rocks, were niches and crannies which gave protection from the weather and safety from their foe. Amongst them, Satya mentioned, were many ewes heavy with lamb and young males bounding forth with the energy of their first year as adults.

Nandadevi Unsoeld - tragic meeting with the Goddess.

Nandadevi Unsoeld - tragic meeting with the Goddess. (Image taken from www dot briarcroft dot com)

A few hundred meters from our campsite, stood a stone tablet placed by the Paratroopers in 1980 before they climbed the mountain. It tells a tragic tale, being dedicated to the late Nanda Devi Unsoeld. American mountaineer Willi Unsoeld, upon seeing Nanda Devi in the Indian Himalayas in 1949 for the first time, vowed to name his first daughter after the mountain. Twenty-seven years later he returned as co-leader of an expedition organized by his daughter to climb the peak. Nanda Devi died on her namesake mountain during the 1976 expedition which has been criticised for allowing untrained people so high up on a technically difficult, extremely high and challenging mountain. The Paras themselves had a disastrous expedition, losing all their summiters. The memorial was thus a sombre reminder that though all was idyllic in the sunshine, our expedition-mates, attempting the mountain a few kilometres away, were precariously placed.  It would take very small twist in our fortunes indeed for lives to be placed in jeopardy.

Our first task was to convert our camp into a staging point for pushing stores to the Base Camp at the top of the Nandadevi glacier. This was easily done as Capt Maharana, the member in charge of stores, and his team had made detailed systematic checklists.

The next was to make it a base for exploration by the scientists. We had Dr Ravi Sankaran of SACON, Dr S. Satyakumar of Wildlife Institute of India, Dr S.S. Samant of Pandit GB Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development, Ajay Rastogi of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Dr Bipin Balodi of the Botanical Survey of India. My good fortune was to be associated with them as the Officer-in-charge of the Ecological Team. In other words, I was the administrative support guy.  The army’s desire to return to the most beautiful mountain of India was serendipitously timed with a realisation by the Forest Department that this was a golden opportunity to survey the park. Nandadevi National Park had been closed since the early eighties. This was a pristine environment in the Himalayas, something almost unheard off today. It requires a major administrative effort even to just reach the inner sanctuary. Piggybacking on our expedition, we had a team of scientists to survey the Inner Sanctuary. The scientists swiftly chalked out their plan of action and eagerly fanned out in various directions, accompanied with a jawan or porter so as to form buddy pairs.

This is how we felt at times in the Nandadevi sanctuary.

This is how I felt at times in the Nandadevi sanctuary.

The third task was to clear up Sarson Patal campsite. We had been doing this at each camp since we entered. Collect the trash, bag it, give it porters on their way back or fly it out as a return load on mail-choppers. Sarson Patal was a major case of garbage-disposal. Most expeditions did load-breaking here, or dumped stuff on their way out which they didn’t want to pay good money to porter out. This was strewn all over in the stream-beds. The two jawans who were part of my team and I spent many hours collecting trash and ‘scrapping and bagging’ it, as Tilman would have called it. Our hands got chapped fetching discarded cans and empty oxygen cylinders from icy waters. Often we had to dig out partly buried items.

The jawans did not like this task, but as long as I was doing exactly what they were doing, uncomplainingly complied. The porters did not like it either. An occasional porter even threw away trash loads en-route even though he could have earned the same rates for the returning trash loads as he had done for carrying normal loads into the sanctuary.

I made a collection of tin-can labels from the different countries whose expeditions had dumped so much trash in our mountains. At last count, I had seventeen and these were displayed as a collage at Pirojshah Godrej House of WWF at the exhibition after the expedition.

The days passed very quickly – time flies when you are having fun. Each morning, I would organise, task, communicate and arrange. After these mundane but vital duties were done and communicated, I was free to join the wild lifers or wander off on my own.

The elusive Snow Leopard, the most magnificent denizen of the mountains.

The elusive Snow Leopard, the most magnificent denizen of the mountains.

One night, there was a sound of many hooves stampeding through our camp. It was late and pitch-dark. We couldn’t see anything but morning revealed some hoof marks. We surmised later on that a predator – possibly a snow leopard, had alarmed a herd of bharal which stampeded right through the camp in desperation. The snow leopard is, of course, the holy grail of mountain wildlife biologists. The twinkle at the thought of seeing a snow leopard in Sathya’s eye was rivaled only by another twinkle when he fell for an attractive Garhwali colleague at the WII almost immediately after the expedition and married her. Sathya’s diligence was unsurpassed but his searches and trips to remote corners of the sanctuary turned up pugmarks, some fresh, more scats and more kills but never the elusive ounce itself.

One thing we always looked out for was bear and bear-sign. We had no weapons to protect ourselves and plenty of stuff to entice them. However we were disappointed to find sign of neither the black bear or its high altitude relative – the brown bear.

Ravi Sankaran was a mercurial figure, full of fun and ever ready for practical jokes. Lean, dark, with a perennial stubble, brown corduroy windcheater and a brown leather bag carrying a camera and 500mm lens which must have weighed a ton, he was the first to draw me away from the simplistic world of butterfly lists which seemed to the be-all and end-all to the amateur in those days and exposed me to the magic of living organisms.

Late Dr Ravi Sankaran - India's wildlife lovers are truly berieved. (Photo credit:Arun )

Late Dr Ravi Sankaran - India's wildlife lovers are truly berieved. (Photo credit: Arun a.k.a. envirorights on

This article has taken a long time to write because my memories of him and the thought that I had lost a good friend saw me shy away from my laptop time and again. Ravi was a towering presence, a force of nature, full of pranks and fun. He had the ignominious privilege of teaching me to play bridge.

Under the tutelage of some of India’s best ecologists, I began a small but useful study of the butterflies of Nandadevi. I selected some typical ecological zones and carried out spot counts, transects being out of the question. A later technique, taught to me by Satya which involved following the little creatures for a long time to learn more about their private lives, found me discovering some new food plants for the butterflies. The plant identifications were done by Samant whose off-hand recognition of young and growing plants confounded me. In this way, my work became the pioneering study for the butterflies of Nandadevi – not a compleat scholarly tome, but a useful beginning.

Things were not hunky-dory all the time. Once, we had a spell of bad weather. This resulted in a number of expedition mates falling prey to sniffling and small ailments. Dr Bharadwaj, our resident Doctor, soon found his time occupied examining team-members and porters. The daily duties continued but since wildlifing was not possible in the gusty rains, bridge, coffee and the telling of tall tales became our main pre-occupation. The swirling mist and howling wind led to a natural fear of a cloudburst on the mountains above our camp but thankfully this never happened. Two of our ecological team, Ajay Rastogi, an intense , bearded and spectacled ecologist with the WWF and Dr Bipin Balodi, a tall and laconic botanist were evacuated by chopper – Rastogi for bad feet and Balodi to deal with some urgent domestic developments.

Choppers! They were not just a great luxury, and a tremendous morale booster – these were our lifeline! The Army aviation boys from Bareilly with their mountain-climbing Cheetahs brought dak, goodies, news, medicines, the occasional VIP and evacuated our casualties (thankfully there were no serous cases). They once carried out some trash bags from base camp rather than return with empty loads. Flying in mountains is extremely dangerous. Flying close in support of expeditions and landing at windswept makeshift helipads even more so.

The arrival of a chopper was a great event at Sarson Patal. The pilots would arrive with the rising sun, the safest time to fly on most days. The helipad was marked with lime or ‘choona’, the wind sock was hoisted and we would wait expectantly for the sudden whirr of rotors climbing along the Rishi valley. Let a passing puff of cloud dim the sun or wall of mist drift across from the mountain and our hearts would race. Yet, sometimes despite the impenetrable thick mist on Sarson Patal, the chopper would miraculously appear from within the cloudbank and touch down like a feather. The day the chopper did not come when it was supposed to, all was dark, dreary and morose.

There was no greater happiness for me than than to see the green fuselage and bright roundels of the Army helicopters parked on Sarson Patal. I had no greater pleasure than to talk with, and ply hot coffee on the pilots in their blue or sometimes orange flying suits. There was no doubt that they risked their lives for us and we loved them for it. The best friend of the Indian soldier in the super-high picquets of the Himalayas, beside God and his arms and equipment, is the magnificent chopper pilot and his flying machine . Aside from the radio or the shots fired by the enemy, the soldier has no other link with the outside world except for the chopper which is nothing more or less than an angel in disguise.

You will find scant mention of the Corps of Engineers Scientific and Ecological Expedition 1993 in any article or book, even in the venerable tomes of the Himalayan Club on the Indian Himalayas but you will find, over and over again, the tragic tale of Nandadevi Unsoeld. This newsworthy but relatively insignificant attempt on Nandadevi in 1976 by a disparate bunch of foreigners is much reported. The Engineers expedition, a Government of India sanctioned climbing-cum-ecological mission of great import to the nation and the mountain itself, is not considered worthy of note. The first-ever ecological study of the Nandadevi Inner Sanctuary, the cleaning of the campsites, the checking of purity of water all along the course of the Rishi and from its western watershed, the close look at the lifestyle and requirements of the poor (but rich in spirit) Garhwali villagers of the Nandadevi Biosphere reserve, besides the climbing of the mountain itself, seem to carry no weight in the mountaineering fraternity, obsessed with its need to go there, climb up and get back.

Postage stamp on Nandadevi issued by Indian Posts in 1988 as part of a series on mountain peaks. This stamp had the highest monetary value in that series.

Postage stamp on Nandadevi issued by Indian Posts in 1988 as part of a series on mountain peaks. This stamp had the highest monetary value in that series.

The decision to open the sanctuary or not would be based on the report of these scientists. These reports unanimously recommended to the Government, the correctness of its decision of banning from these holy peaks of the rude hands and feet of mountaineers and the long line of destruction caused by the goats and porters which followed those expeditions. The vale of Nandadevi now blooms with protected medicinal plants, the monals explode across the forest clearings at Deodi and the musk deer find rare sanctuary in Dibrughetta. The bharal of the inner sanctuary are now as curious of man as they were in the time of Shipton and Odell.

It appears to me that I am hypocritical and not just a bit confused as far as my attitude towards mountaineers are concerned. Some friends are mountaineers, of these some, including those who went to Nandadevi, were genuinely concerned over the mountain, its beauty; they deplored the ravaging of nature and enjoyed the unmatched ambience which mother nature provides to undisturbed lands. On the other hand, some were not there with a spirit of supplication or piety of the kind advocated by Bill Aitken, they were there to ‘conquer’ the mountain and their scorn at people concerned with ‘softer’ concerns was plain to see . These then, must be clubbed with the boorish mountain climbers from abroad who desecrated these revered slopes with the specious excuse of climbing mountains because they are there. So, in my humble opinion, a good mountaineer cares about what he is doing, is knowledgeable about all around him, including nature, geology, the people and their small concerns and acts to minimise his ecological footprint in the mountains. He approaches the mountains with a sense of reverence, not with a desire to sate his ambitions. We need more Shiptons; we want no Hunts.

Lammergeier on a Indian postage stamp of 1992.

Lammergeier on a Indian postage stamp of 1992.

People like Mr Lavkumar Khacher who successfully lobbied to ban entry to the then much-ravished vale of Nandadevi can rest assured that the bharal lambs still frolic among the profusion of wild-flowers and the Himalayan Griffon still soars overhead searching for unwary marmot or pikas sunning itself in the brief blaze of summer on Sarson Patal – that most heavenly of bugyals in the Himalayas. Only the Nandadevi National Park provides true protection to its denizens – surely this is the finest blessing of the Goddess to her people.

This post is dedicated to the people of Lata, Rini, Peng and all the villages in and around the Nandadevi National Park and Biosphere Reserve, (Image

This post is dedicated to the people of Lata, Rini, Peng and all the villages in and around the Nandadevi National Park and Biosphere Reserve, (Image

Image credits

If you liked this post, dont miss – The Favours of Goddess Nandadevi.

The favours of Goddess Nandadevi

11 February 2009

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.

The majestic peak of Goddess Nandadevi

The majestic peak of Goddess Nandadevi

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.