The three gentlemen gawked at the sight before them. “Himaloy!!” they exclaimed in their chaste Bengali at the spectacular sight before them. The sight before them would have left anyone spellbound, but I could not help but smile a bit at their naiveté.
All three were similarly clad in PJ bottoms with a shirt on top and a thin sweater. They covered themselves in a shawl and wore slippers and a wooly hat, and thankfully, not a “monkey cap”, the ubiquitous balaclava worn by every brave Bengali traveler from “Bhest Bengol”! It was a small matter that the temperature was sub-zero, the altitude was 8000 ft, and the location was a Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam (KMVN) government guest house deep inside the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary with no electricity during the day and only, as all three gentlemen exclaimed, three hours of power in the evening! Perfect!
It had rained heavily the previous night and this location even saw some snow. Water that collected on the plastic patio chairs had frozen overnight and the ground was slippery with ice. The weather in March is unpredictable but this year’s unseasonal rain showers around Holi promised unparalleled views, as the rain would drive the spring haze away.
The vista in front of me from the guesthouse terrace took my breath away! I have been traveling to the Himalayas for over two decades but nothing prepared me for the sight before my eyes. Directly in front of me rose the unique tri-peaked Trishul massif, all 22,970 ft of her rising like an impregnable wall. Next to her just a few hundred feet lower but looming like a great ginormous wall of snow, ice and rock was the flat ribbed ridge of Mt. Mriguthani. Immediately next to Mriguthani and seemingly attached to her was the sharper pointed peak of Mt Maiktoli. But what came next was what drew me to this remote location, about 85 Kms from Almora. The object of my Himalayan obsession, Mt. Nanda Devi, at 25,623 ft, stood taller, than the rest by a good distance even though she was set many kilometers further back. Her beautiful twin peaks in profile silhouetted against the morning sun, she was, simply put, magnificent!
The light was too bright at 8:00 AM as the sun rose higher and I was feverishly making adjustments to my camera settings trying to get the best exposure. The Bengali ladies joined their menfolk on the terrace all clad in saris, socks on their feet, wrapped in shawls, glasses falling off their noses, and thoroughly out of place with their surroundings. They grumbled that they had no electricity since the previous evening to whoever was willing to listen! The hotel staff merely shrugged their shoulders and disappeared.
The group collectively decided to follow my cue and capture the beauty in front of their eyes. Out came their DVD camcorder, holding it with unsteady hands, shivering in the cold and desperately trying to film the mountains. Seriously??? To the best of my knowledge the Himalayas hadn’t moved in nearly 500 million years. So why film them?? “What peaks are these?” one of the ladies asked her husband. “Nanda Devi” he whispered and pointing at me, “he told me”. “Ah, Nanda Devi, haven’t we heard about this peak so much?” she exclaimed. He nodded in agreement, but his face betrayed the fact that he had heard no such thing!
They continued fiddling with their camcorder after realizing that the light was too bright and they could see nothing on the LCD screen. Then one of the ladies realized their folly and whispered in Bengali to her husband angrily “I told you to bring your Konica! See, look at that man photographing the mountains. A camera is what you should have brought, and not your silly bhideo camera!” Then a bright idea struck her “Why don’t you give him your email ID and he will email you the pictures he is clicking so we can see them later!” she exclaimed triumphantly, albeit in a louder whisper.
I hurried away.
I was told Auli would be a “good place” to view “Her”. I scoured the pages of Flickr to see many images captured by famous photographers. I read from Hugh Thomson’s account that the Sanctuary was closed off for trekkers due to environmental reasons. There were several other tales of why the Sanctuary was off limits, one in particular that involved the CIA and the Indian Intelligence agency, RAW. The true story about a father, Willi Unsoeld, and his obsession with the beautiful mountain, and how he named his daughter, Nanda Devi Unsoeld or “Devi” after the bliss-giving Goddess, and how Devi died on the mountain in her father’s lap after falling seriously ill while climbing. Fascinating stories, but the only thing I was interested in was that the Sanctuary was pristine and untouched by humans for more than two decades. That, when I finally saw “Her”, I would be satisfied in the knowledge that humans were not treading anywhere close to her cradle.
It took us two days to reach Joshimath from Delhi. We wanted to introduce my daughter to the beauty of the Himalayas and instill in her the same sense of adventure that my parents had so successfully done to me. It was a gift I wanted to share. The Tata Indigo, a small three box sedan, we rented to take us wasn’t the best car for the Himalayan adventure, but it had to do. More importantly our driver said that he had been to Auli before and was “familiar” with the road. What he failed to tell us was that he had last driven in a larger Innova and not a three box sedan.
The first sign of trouble hit us when we started the very steep climb from Joshimath, at 7000 ft, to Auli, which is at 10,500 ft, all in a distance of only 14 kms. The tarmac road leading through the Indo-Tibetan Border Police Cantonment quickly changed to a rocky path more suitable for a horse! The car struggled and half way up the mountain blew a hose after a rock that was jutting out hit the underside of our car. A quick inspection told the driver that we were leaking coolant but would still manage to reach our hotel, The Cliff Top. As the car bumped on higher the weather set in. It suddenly got windy and the clouds got heavier. We could no longer see the craggy Himalayan peaks around us. Rain started to fall.
I wasn’t prepared for the oxygen deficiency. As the car came to a halt in front of the quaint red tin-roofed hotel I jumped out of the car and then walked briskly up to the hotel steps. By now it was cold and very windy, with sleet, not the most bracing climate we expected in May-end. Before I reached the hotel steps I had to stop three times. Breathing was getting difficult at this altitude and that caught me by surprise. From my past experience in the Himalayas oxygen-deficiency was usually experienced at altitudes above 12,000 ft. I was wrong! By the time I reached the hotel lobby I no longer had the energy to go back to the car to pick my bags. The hotel staff were understanding and send a couple of men to assist with our bags. My driver sent a message that he would be returning to Joshimath the same day to get the hose repaired. One could not take any risks in the mountains.
We remained cocooned in our room for the rest of the afternoon. The mist had enveloped the mountains by now and visibility was down to a few meters. None of the peaks around us could be seen. I asked one of the hotel staff whether we had a good view of the mountain Goddess from our location and he gestured vaguely towards the East that “she is out there”. “How close is she?” The casual response was ‘Quite close”, and that’s was it! No emotion, nothing. The rain stopped sometime later that afternoon and by early evening we received the first reports that it had snowed heavily through the entire passage from Auli to Badrinath. I was to later learn that a group of 11 trekkers taking the path from The Valley of Flowers to Badrinath over the high Himalayan ridges were completely stranded due to heavy snow that fell through the day. They could only be rescued after two days!
Around 5:00 PM, the rain stopped altogether and the heavy clouds began to clear. We caught the first sight of some of our surrounding peaks like Hathi Parbat and Nilgiri. It was very cold and damp as we ventured out onto the patio but the wind had stopped so we sat and waited, hoping the clouds would clear some more. And then we saw Her. She was close enough for us to feel we could reach out to touch her. And she was massive! I had never been so close to a major Himalayan peak and the sheer size came as a shock! As the Goddess revealed more of herself I could make out her base, probably the size of a small city! Rising from the massive base was a craggy near-vertical climb, partly covered by cloud, tapering towards a massive wall, best described by Hugh Thomson in his book “Nanda Devi- A Journey to the Last Sanctuary”
“Directly in front of me was the sheer West Face of Nanda Devi, all 10,000 feet of it still unclimbed, sometimes described as one of the last great challenges of modern mountaineering. Looking up, with the eagles circling high above, I felt I was staring at the walls of Mordor. Someone would undoubtedly die trying to climb it.”