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.”