Trekking in Himalaya – Animal Pass and Sara Umga Pass

October 13, 2013

The ascent is hard on lungs, the descent is painful for knees,
the thin air at the altitude is unforgiving,
living out of tents in the mountains with minimal facilities is certainly
not enjoyable,
the time spent on the peak or pass is hardly a few minutes.
Why do men come back to mountains again and again ?

I had just reached the snowline at 4300m, barely 200m below the Thamser Pass on 7th October 2012. The going was tough and I whispered to Naren – “Mate, We have done enough of Himalayas, guess it’s time to say goodbye”. Naren echoed along the similar lines while fully agreeing with me. Back from the successful trek to Bara Bhangal in Oct 2012, our outlook gradually changed and by beginning of 2013 we had both decided to give another try to some other pass in the High Himalaya. All the pains were forgotten and we were actively planning for our next visit – that’s the lure of the Himalaya! As usual we contacted Kaushal Desai from above14000ft who suggested Animal Pass trek which he was running for Sharada and Saravanan (Saro) and their group. Since Kaushal mentioned that Animal Pass is like a family trek in terms of difficulty level, we pushed him to give us another alternative which is more challenging. As a result it was decided that we will do Animal Pass along with Saro’s group. While they return via the same path, our group will continue ahead, cross Sara Umga Pass and reach the other side at Chota Dhara. Since horses couldn’t cross Sara Umga, we had to depend on porters which increased the cost of expedition considerably. Last minute drop out of a member from our group didn’t help us and resulted in further escalation of costs. The desire to be on the mountains and also to cross a challenging pass was so high that we were silently ignoring the insane amount of money being spent to realize our Himalayan dreams this year. Thus we had two groups doing Animal Pass together and our 2 member group continuing with Sara Umga Pass. Animal Pass group included Sharada, Saro who had accompanied us to Roopkund trek earlier, Dr Sreekumar (SK) and Dr Pradeep (both basically dentists), Venu who had accompanied me on one of my beach treks earlier and Preeti my colleague who was venturing into Himalayas and also into serious trekking for the first time. Sara Umga group included Naren and I.

Our trek started on the 3rd weekend of September 2013. We joined Saro’ group at Delhi airport and proceeded to Himachal Bhavan in a metro train. Unlike last year, we had booked tickets to Manali in HP tourism’s volvo bus. The bus service turned out to be much organized and left Delhi on time and the journey itself was much comfortable.

Day 0: Acclimatization in Manikaran

We got down 50km before Manali at  Bhuntar(1080m) from where we took a local taxi to Manikaran which was the base for our trek. After an hour’s drive in the winding roads beside the River Parvati we reached Manikaran(1650m) at 8AM.

Manikaran town

Manikaran town

Manikaran is a place of religious significance for both Hindus and Sikhs. There is a Gurudwara here and a temple complex dedicated to Rama, Shiva and Hanuman. Numerous hot water springs present here are a major attraction.

Hot sulpher water joining the cold waters of River Parvati at Manikaran

Hot sulpher water joining the cold waters of River Parvati at Manikaran

We had a full day ahead of us since the trek was starting only the next day. Morning was spent doing a small acclimatization trek to a hill adjacent to the river bank. Naren, SK, Preeti and I climbed up to the top of the steep hill and gained around 300m altitude while Pradeep could do half of the distance. Post lunch, we spent some time relaxing in the well maintained hot water sulphur spring behind the Rama temple. This was supposedly an off-season in Manikaran and less crowd in such places makes the stay a bit more enjoyable since there is so much less competition for space and resources in such a small town. We had breakfast and lunch in a small eatery run by a family and the ambiance was such that we felt being treated as guests rather than as customers.

Day 1: Manikaran to Tosh to Buddhaban

While we were having our breakfast, Kaushal arrived from Manali with his support staff which included the guide Chander, a mountaineer himself, a cook and 3 porters. We started in a couple of taxis, drove for an hour and reached Tosh village (2380m). As we approach Tosh, we can see a major Hydro electric power project under construction, which I understand would have a capacity of 2000MW! The trek started at 9.45AM in very sunny and bright conditions. The initial walk is via the Tosh village itself. Tosh has a shrine dedicated to Jamadagni Rishi. Tosh also boasts of many facilities for tourist accommodation and we could see quite a bit Israelis who apparently come to Kasol (which is called Mini-Israel), Manikaran and even up till Tosh in search of greener pastures of Marijuana.

Starting of the trek at Tosh village

Starting of the trek at Tosh village

At 11AM we had left the village behind and reached a stream crossing point (2500m) which was supposed to be our 1st camping site as per Kaushal. Camping just after an hour’s walk on the first day of trek didn’t look too appealing to us given that the next day’s campsite Buddhaban was just 2 hours walk from here. So we convinced Kaushal to take us to Buddhaban directly. So an oversight by Kaushal in his itinerary had given us an extra day, only time would tell if that would help us or harm us.

Kutla

Kutla

The ascent is gradual and mainly through the pine forest. We reached the last village along the route called Kutla (2675m) which can serve as a potential campsite. While most of our group members were carrying walking sticks I borrowed a nice stick from the shopkeeper at Kutla. Through out the trail we could see survey stones installed by the ongoing hydro power project which suggested that this trail is going to be a proper motor-able road in near future. We reached Buddhaban (2725m) at 1PM.

Buddhaban campsite

Buddhaban campsite

The campsite was right on the bank of Tosh river which appeared milky white, but had too much soil particles to be consumed directly. We had to depend upon a tiny stream of freshwater that trickled down from the mountains. There was another team from Mumbai camping in Buddhaban already. Lunch was prepared and served within an hour. Kaushal’s treks are known for good and tasty food and Saro had made special request to Kaushal to get the same cook they had got during their Miyar Valley trek. But going by what we got from this new cook, we were doubtful if food is going to the highlight of this trek.

There was enough time in the day to play cricket in the makeshift pitch prepared by SK. In the evening SK, Pradeep, Preeti, Venu, Naren and I did do a small acclimatization walk for an hour, but couldn’t gain much height as the clouds closed in threatening to rain. However the night sky was very clear and the stars were out in their full glory. I was having a slight headache which indicated that I was still acclimatizing to this height.

Day 2: Buddhaban to Sharam Thach

I had good night’s sleep but was woken up at 4.45AM by the heavy rains and thunderstorms. We had noted down the 10 days’ Accuweather weather prediction for Manikaran and as per that, today it was thunderstorms. Fortunately the rain stopped in an hour and it was 9°C at 5.45AM. For most part of the trek we would be following the Tosh river which ran down from North to South in the valley and hence it took a while before the morning Sun from the East could reach our campsite. After the breakfast which consisted of Bread, Oats and Cornflakes, we started the day’s trek at 8.30AM.

The pace of rest of the group was a bit too slow for us and hence Naren and I soon moved ahead and reached a small waterfalls area (2780m) at 9AM. This waterfalls was formed by the water gushing down the slopes into Tosh river. A dog had joined us by now and it was leading us on the right path. Dog’s pace was much better than us and every now and then it would wait for us, ascertain that we are coming and would proceed ahead. We continued the ascent through the forests and by 9.30AM we were at 2885m from where we could see a few tents of the labourers from hydroelectric project pitched on the right bank of Tosh river. At 10AM we reached Shiyadi Thach (3000m) campsite. This place had a wide opening in the canopy and we settled down on a huge boulder beside the cultivated Marijuana field and waited for the rest of the group to catch up. While we were using hats to protect ourselves from the Sun, the dog was lying down beside us in our shade.

Shiyadi Thach

Shiyadi Thach

By 10.30AM the entire group was at Shiyadi Thach and we started back on trail. The next stretch involved a few ascents and descents in the forest and we crossed a stream and reached 3215m at 11.30AM.  Next we walked past a few trees which looked like fig trees and they stood out in the company of pine trees. Here the dog was joined by a similar looking bitch and they continued the march together. At 12.50PM we crossed a stream over a stone bridge laid out on a pair of log woods and reached Sharam Thach (3345m) campsite at 1PM. We ate the packed lunch consisting of an Aloo Parata.

Sharam Thach campsite

Sharam Thach campsite

The porters and horses had reached just before us and had only pitched kitchen tent and a couple of tents when the sleet shower started. Soon it turned into a heavy rain and we ran around and got all the bags, sleeping bags and mats into the tents before settling down in our tent. As per weather report, thunder storms were predicted for Manikaran today and we were always walking with good pace to escape any showers. We had managed to do that, but rest of the group was caught up in the rains and by the time the last of the group members arrived at Sharam Thach, it was 3.15PM. Most of them had arrived completely wet. There was no respite from the rains and it continued to pour down till 8PM in the night. We had some minor irritants like water condensing inside the tent as well as coming into the tent via window opening due to winds.

The day ended pretty early and the night was cold. The old sleeping bags without the chord to tighten the hood didn’t help in retaining the body heat.

Day 3: Sharam Thach to Shamshi Thach

I got up at 5.30AM and the temperature was 5°C. Yesterday’s rain had completely washed off the clouds and the sky was clear. The weather was perfect to try out some breathing exercises. We started the day’s trek at 8.30AM. Today we were out of the tree line and were supposed to walk on the left bank of River Tosh and cross multiple ridges on our way to Shamshi Thach.

Though Accuweather predicted sunny and clear weather for next 3 days, Preeti, based on her yesterday’s ordeal decided to join me and Naren in today’s trek. Unfortunately for her, we soon lost our way and couldn’t locate the trail. There was a huge mountain running alongside the river on our left with multiple ridges and the river itself was to the right of us. We could see a fairly big ridge at a distance running down and tapering towards the river. We knew if we reach that ridge, further progress of the trail will be visible, but Naren and I differed on how to approach that ridge. While I preferred to not lose height and walk along the mountain face, Naren preferred to descend and walk on the river bed. Finally we decided to stick to the middle ground and ended up being neither here nor there. But this had it’s own share of thrills especially for Preeti as we negotiated stretches of boulders. Finally at 10.30AM after a steep climb we finally reached the ridge (3600m) and caught up with the trail as well. Unfortunately the entire team followed us even when we signaled them to maintain height and not to loose the trail. So everyone including Kaushal had to go through the effort of the steep climb to re-join the trail on the ridge.

The next stretch was mostly easy without any major descent or ascent. At 11.30AM two snow capped peaks became visible, with one of them looking like a tooth of a carnivore!

Tiger tooth! as seen enroute Shamshi Thach

Tiger tooth! as seen enroute Shamshi Thach

An unnamed peak as seen enroute Shamshi Thach

An unnamed peak as seen enroute Shamshi Thach

By 12PM were were able to see the campsite but a bunch of streams separated us and the campsite. Nowhere we could find a suitable place to cross with our shoes on and followed the stream up on it’s course to see if it offered any easy crossover points. But it was already midday and the streams were running full and we had to retreat and cross the streams with barefoot. We finally reached the Shamshi Thach (3680m) campsite at 12.20PM.

Shamshi Thach campsite

Shamshi Thach campsite

The settings of Shamsi campsite was spectacular to say the least. To the East, the River Tosh flowed in all its majesty. Even though the width of the river was fairly small, the sandy shore was unusually wide for a mountain river.  Behind the river was a pyramid shaped peak. To the West of the campsite, a few streams dropped down the rocks to form waterfalls and a multitude of streams that eventually joined Tosh. Towards North, at the end of Tosh valley, we could see the Sara Umga Pass. While SK, Venu, Preeti and I were exploring the sandy shores of Tosh river, I could see Sharada and Saro walking up the streams towards the waterfalls to figure out a crossover point. Eventually I had to go and show them where to cross the streams.

Sara Umga Pass as seen from Shamshi Thach

Sara Umga Pass as seen from Shamshi Thach

There was an Italian climbing team of 3 men who were already camping at Shamshi. Kaushal was providing logistical support for them too. They had a full fledged kitchen and a much experienced cook. We had Pakodas followed by rice bath for lunch. Naren, Preeti and I did a small evening walk too. By 4PM all the streams that were running down from the mountain become muddy and non-potable. However there was one tiny stream which remained good throughout the day which became our source of water in this camp. By 4.30PM itself, the meadow lost the last direct rays of Sun after which it started becoming pretty cold.

Day 4: Animal Pass

The temperature at 6.15AM was 4°C. The breakfast was good for the first time, thanks to the cook Kishen from the Italian camp.  The plan for the day was to reach Animal Pass and be back at the camp by evening. Pradeep hadn’t acclimatized and hence he decided to skip the trek. Saro too had mild altitude effect and moreover was suffering from stomach upset. So he also decided to skip the Pass. Sharada decided to stay with Saro. Thus the group attempting the Animal Pass had Naren, SK, Venu, Preeti and I. Kaushal, Chander and Bhagwan Das, the guide from the Italian camp were leading us. We started at around 8AM. The trial was fully uphill and we were making steady progress and reached 3775m at 8.30AM. By this time, Naren who was suffering from altitude sickness was lagging behind with a lone porter with him. In fact Naren had fixed a turn around time of 12PM and do as much as possible by that time and return back.

Extreme left - Devachan, Snow peak around center - Papsura, Extreme right - Dharamsura or White Sail

Extreme left – Devachan, Snow peak around center – Papsura, Extreme right – Dharamsura or White Sail

By 9AM we had reached 3915m and now the view to the Tosh Glacier was slowly opening up. By now we had lost Naren completely at the back. We were now able to see  three peaks in the Sara Umga range clearly. Devachan peak (6200m), Papsura Peak (6451m) and Dharamsura peak (6446m) also called White sail were all visible. Harish Kapadia in his book “Across Peaks & Passes in Himachal Pradesh” writes: “The legend has it that the two mountains gain ascendency over each other according to whether the forces of evil (Pap) or those of good (Dharm) happen to prevail over the world at that time. So now we know!”

Tosh river

Tosh river

As is typical in such climbs, we were reaching the top of a ridge only to see the next higher ridge in our path. At 9.30AM we reached 4000m. At 10AM were were at 4100m from where the vegetation became less and less and it was mostly boulders on our way. We reached 4200m at 10.35AM and 4300m at 11.10AM from where we could see a bearded vulture or Lammergeier in flight.

Tosh Glacier

Tosh Glacier

The ascent continued over rocks and rubble and we reached a lake (4340m) at 11.25AM.

The lake near Animal Pass

The lake near Animal Pass

On the other side of the lake was the Animal Pass. The blue coloured lake was very beautiful and the 360° view around the lake was breathtaking. While Venu preferred to stay put at the lake, the rest of us continued towards the Pass. First we had to reach the other end of the fairly big lake by negotiating the boulders. Next it was a steep climb over loose soil and small rocks. Kaushal and Bhagwan were leading and it was difficult to climb in their pace. Towards the end, I lost them both in the front and also Preeti and SK being led by Chander at the back. I reached Animal Pass (4500m) at 12.40PM.

The Animal Pass as seen from the lake below it

The Animal Pass as seen from the lake below it

While Kaushal and Bhagwan proceeded further up towards the right of the Pass to check out the views from there, I was satisfied to catch a glimpse of Deo Tibba (6001m) from Animal Pass and remained there.

Deo Tibba as seen from Animal Pass

Deo Tibba as seen from Animal Pass

To the left of the Animal Pass, raises a rocky peak called Ali Ratni peak (5490m) as per Kaushal.

Ali Ratni Tibba in the background of Animal Pass

Ali Ratni Tibba in the background of Animal Pass

After a few minutes Preeti with her hand firmly in the able hands of the guide Chander arrived followed by SK. Preeti didn’t let loose of guide’s hand till she reached back the campsite safely! Another member who reached the Pass without much fuss was our dog which even stepped onto the snow and rolled over it to cool itself down.

We started back at 1.40PM and took the left bank of the lake while we had ascended on the right bank. When we reached the end of the lake where we had started out from, we had done one circumambulation (parikrama) of the lake! We joined Venu near the lake at 2.30PM. For the descent we took a slightly different path and did a steep descent of a huge grassy mountain face to reach the Tosh river bed instead of taking the original route which had many ridges to negotiate. The clouds were coming pretty down sometimes and walking in the midst of the clouds was some experience.

The final descent from Animal Pass

The final descent from Animal Pass

Naren had returned back with the porter after having reached 4200m. He hadn’t acclimatized fully yet and Kaushal indicated that it will be risky to ask him cross Sara Umga. Naren and I deliberated over our next course of action. While Naren said he is willing to return back the next day with Saro’s team, I suggested that he could try coming till next campsite Kuta Thach and remain there while I try to reach Sara Umga and come back. So crossing Sara Umga plan was thus dropped.

Day 5: Shamshi Thach to Kuta Thach

Saro’s team’s mission was accomplished and they were ready to return today. They had decided to cross Sharam and reach Buddhaban in a day and reach Tosh/Manikaran/Manali on the next day itself. In the morning Naren appeared quite OK and he said he can make it to Kuta Thach but at his own slow pace.

At 8.30AM we bid goodbye to Saro’s team members who were on their way back. At 9.45AM Naren and I along with Kaushal, Chander and two porters started towards Kuta Thach. The Mumbai team had arrived at Shamshi yesterday evening and were also moving up to Kuta today. The trail had an initial climb just after Shamshi. The Mumbai group members who were carrying their day packs themselves were struggling on this stretch and so was Naren. However Naren was able to overtake the Mumbai group and make progress.

The full glory of Tosh glacier

The full glory of Tosh glacier

Ice ends and the water begins - The origin of Tosh river

Ice ends and the water begins – The origin of Tosh river

At around 11.30AM we were very close to Tosh glacier and we could see the snout of the glacier from a short distance. At 12.30PM we touched 4000m and from here it was mostly a walk on the level ground without much of an ascent. At 1.15PM we reached 4045m where we finished our packed lunch which consisted of 2 chapatis. At 1.50PM we walked past a possible campsite which had no water source at this time of the year.

At 2.10PM, we could see the campsite and Kaushal went ahead while I waited for Naren to catch up. At 2.30PM we crossed multiple streams which included a major one which needed assistance from the guide for crossing. We reached the Kuta Thach campsite (4065m) at 2.30PM. What could be attained in less than 2hours was done in 4.45hours since Naren’s was struggling a bit.

Kuta Thach campsite

Kuta Thach campsite

Kuta Thach wasn’t as pleasant a campsite as Shamshi. It was in the middle of a rubble and looked like a place unfit for human habitation. A tiny stream flowed beside of our campsite which now consisted of 2 dome tents and 1 pyramid shaped tent for porters. The stream water had to be sieve-filtered since it had too many organic floating matter. The campsite was right beside the glacier and a 50m descent towards our right would have landed us straight on the moraines of the glacier.

Minimal kitchen supplies were being carried and we had to be content with half-cooked MTR pulao. Naren wasn’t doing good and I was hoping a night’s rest would serve him good. Naren had by now developed diarrhea for which he took some medicines from a doctor who was present with the Mumbai group.

Clouds started closing in around the campsite by 3.30PM. Maggie noodles was served as snacks and Rice and Sambhar were cooked for dinner.

Day 6: Kuta Thach to Shamshi Thach

The noise inside the tent when it rains doesn’t usually bring in a good feeling. This noise started during the later half of the night and continued well into the morning. We had planned to start the hike to Sara Umga pretty early in the day at 7.30AM since it would take at least 8-10 hours from Kuta to reach the Pass and come back. Any hopes of doing Sara Umga today were all washed down when it started snowing and the visibility was reduced to a few meters. It was as if the entire Kuta camp was engulfed in the clouds. The Mumbai group started to descend even while it was raining. Naren’s diarrhea had turned into stomach pain by now and the doctor suggested him to take antacids before he left.

Snow at Kuta Thach

Snow at Kuta Thach

We had an extra day and we could have stayed at Kuta today to see if the weather clears tomorrow. But Naren’s condition needed immediate descent and his body had failed to acclimatize. As soon as the weather cleared, we started the descent at 11.30PM. The descent back to Shamshi turned out to be very long since Naren was finding it difficult to walk even 10 steps continuously without a break. Kaushal and I would walk ahead, then wait for Chander and Naren to catchup. In the middle of the descent, after looking at Naren’s condition, I decided to stick with him.  His progress was painfully slow while he was having regular painful stomach spasms. With continuous pushing and encouragement, I managed to get Naren to the campsite at 4PM.  Naren’s condition was very similar to what he had undergone last year when crossing Kalihani Pass.

We had a good lunch, thanks to the cook Kishen at the Italian camp. It started raining at 5.15PM.

Day 7. Rest day at Shamshi Thach

Since we had enough days left and since Naren was yet to recover fully, we decided to spend a day at Shamshi. I got up leisurely at 6.30AM to find the sky mostly clear. The Sara Umga pass visible at a distance was slowly getting covered by clouds and became completely invisible by 8AM. So even if we had stayed back at Kuta yesterday, in all probability we couldn’t have made it to the Pass given the weather.

We had planned for a minor hike in the surrounding hills, but I could only do a bit of ascent to the waterfalls area. This waterfalls was the source of all the streams near the Shamshi campsite. The weather turned dull and was pretty fickle. It would be sunny one moment, only to become cloudy and drizzly the next moment. All we could do was to sit inside our tent and go to kitchen tent at regular intervals for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The train of cloud as seen from Shamshi

The train of cloud as seen from Shamshi

One has to spend an idle day in the mountains to really understand how boring it can be in the mountains with nothing to do for the day! Here is a quote from Eric Shipton’s Upon that Mountain that best describes our mood on this day:

I doubt if anyone would claim to enjoy life at high altitudes — enjoy,
that is, in the ordinary sense of the word.

There is a certain grim satisfaction to be derived from struggling
upwards, however slowly; but
the bulk of one’s time is necessarily spent
in the extreme squalor of a high camp,
when even this solace is
lacking…… except for the briefest moments, during which one is not
usually in the mood for aesthetic enjoyment, there is nothing to look
at but the bleak confusion inside the tent
and the scaly, bearded
countenance of one’s companion — fortunately the noise of the wind
usually drowns out his stuffy breathing; worst of all is the feeling of
complete helplessness and inability to deal with any
emergency that
might arise. I used to try to console myself with the thought that a year
ago I would have been thrilled by the very idea of taking part in
our present adventure, a prospect that had been seemed like
an impossible dream; but altitude has the same effect on the
mind as upon the body, one’s intellect becomes dull and unresponsive,
and my only desire was to finish the wretched job and to get down
to a more reasonable clime.

Day 8. Shamshi Thach to Tosh to Manikaran

The morning was extremely cold and the surroundings had turned slightly whitish with bits of snow and ice all around. The first thing I told Naren in the morning was “Naren, I think …”, the rest was filled in by Naren himself when he said “‘… we should attempt to reach Manikaran today”.

So we started at 8.30AM and made some good progress. While I was accompanying Kaushal, Chander was coming with Naren. As we descended more, Naren’s condition improved dramatically. We reached Sharam Thach at 10AM, Shiyadi Thach at 11.50AM, Buddhaban at 12.45PM, Kulta at 1.20PM and Tosh at 2.15PM. I met the Kutla’s shopkeeper from whom I had borrowed the walking stick and promptly returned it to him. He was impressed that this walking stick had reached Animal Pass!

From Tosh, we took a taxi and come to Manikaran at 3.15PM. The first thing we did in Manikaran was to take a dip in the hot water springs. The sulphur springs had such a soothing effect that we came up from the Kund with no pain in the body whatsoever!

Apparently the Goddess scorned our softness. She also rammed home
the message that success does not depend on money. This was my
most costly expedition and it proved to be the least fulfilling.
My financial graph showed clearly that the tighter the funds,
the more memorable the outcome. Nothing in Nanda’s domain is
won easily.

                                                                          Bill Aitken
The Nandadevi Affair

And I couldn’t agree more with Bill – nothing in Himalaya’s domain comes easily.

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Trekking in Himalayas – Bara Bhangal expedition

October 16, 2012

After my last Himalayan trek to Auden’s Col in 2008, the only next opportunity came in 2012 when everything looked set for another sojourn to Himalayas. Naren and I started checking out the possible routes in the beginning of the year and Mayali pass trek excited us. Kaushal Desai from Above 1400ft who had taken us to Roopkund trek in 2006 was ready to arrange this trek, but he also suggested an equally challenging Bara Bhangal Trek in Himachal Pradesh Himalayas. Bara Bhangal trek looked very interesting to us since it involved an ascent to cross one pass, then a descent and a 2nd ascent to cross another pass. Given that Kaushal had already done this trek earlier, we decided to settle for Bara Bhangal. The trek was scheduled for end of September and beginning of Oct 2012. Given that this was the last trek of the season, we were assured of snow and extreme cold weather during the trek. Initially 6 of us planned to do this trek, but eventually only 4 made it. In addition to me, the group had Naren whose last trek to Himalayas was to Roopkund in 2006, Pradeep – my cousin for whom this was the first Himalayan experience and Vijay – Naren’s friend who had done Roopkund two years back.

We had a morning flight from Bangalore to Delhi and hence had to start quite early from home. Most of us had been busy with work lately and had stretched well into the night the previous day. We had a 5PM Dev Travels volvo bus from Delhi to Manali whose place of departure wasn’t fixed. We were told to board the bus from Sri Lanka Bhavan, Cannaught Place after we landed in Delhi. Accordingly, we proceeded to Cannaught Place, finished lunch in a restaurant and spent most of the afternoon in AC indoors rather than in dusty and hot Delhi outdoors. Coming from Bangalore, where both public and private bus transports operate very methodically, we were prepared for some chaos in the bus arrangements in Delhi, where double booking of seats seem to be the order of the day. The only improvement I observed this time was that the bus didn’t have any seat numbering and hence there was no scope for any claim and quarrel! We had to settle for one row backwards. On routes such as this (Delhi-Manali) where typically there are no repeat travelers, the bus operators rule the roost with utter disregard to customer quality of service. We reached Manali at 8AM the next day  and checked into Taj Palace Hotel.

Day 0 (29Sep). Acclimatization in Manali

Manali is at an altitude of 1850m, as per my altimeter watch. The Mall road in Manali is very inviting and we spent a few hours shopping warm clothing for our families. Next as part of acclimatization plan, we walked for around 2km and gained 150m altitude to reach Hadima temple. Hadimba temple is dedicated to Bheema’s Rakshasi-wife Hidimba. The temple has an interesting architecture and is made completely out of wood.

Hadimba Temple, Manali

Hadimba Temple, Manali

After lunch we met Kaushal who briefed us about the trek. We were a bit disappointed to know that he wasn’t accompanying us but his friend would be guiding us on the trek.  In the evening, we visited the Vashist temple at 2000m. There is a hot sulphur spring behind this temple where one could take bath. We prayed for a smooth trek in the adjoining Rama temple and decided to reach Manali by walk (around 2km). Shop keepers kept pestering us to visit them and have a look at “Chingu”, but none of them was ready to explain what chingu is. As per them, chingu can’t be explained but should be experienced by seeing! Finally out of curiosity we decided to checkout chingu and entered a shop. Chingu is essentially a blanket made of high quality wool (Pashmina goat’s probably) and it is apparently so expensive and valued that its not sold, but is instead rented out! The shop keeper went on and on about chingu and showed us all the valuable gifts we get if we were to rent out an expensive chingu. He was ready with address and contact details of hundreds of Indians and foreigners who had bought chingu on rent. Unwilling to be part of his fooled-buyers’ list, we came out.

Tension-free shop, Manali

No discount, no bargaining, no tension!

Late evening was spent in the gullies of Manali. The night turned to be nightmare for us when Naren and I discovered hundreds of bed bugs in our room. We were promptly shifted to an adjoining hotel at 11PM in the night while Pradeep and Vijay were having sound sleep in the next room!

Day 1 (30Sep). Manali to Lama Dugh

Lalith, Kaushal’s friend and our guide to Bara Bhangal trek, picked us up from the Hotel in the morning and we reached Kaushal’s house which is near the Hadimba temple. Lalith hails from Jibhi, Himachal Pradesh and is an accomplished mountaineer. He runs his own adventure treks and climbs too. We met our cook Hansraj and Horseman Shyam at Kaushal’s place. So totally we were a group of 7 with 4 members, 3 support staff and 1 horse and 8 mules. After tea at Kaushal’s house we hit the trail (2000m) at 10AM. The trail starts right in front of Kaushal’s house and proceeds into the pine forest. Thanks to our mini acclimatization expeditions yesterday, all of us felt comfortable in negotiating the initial steep uphill climb. At 11AM we reached a landmark called Bada Pathar (2260m) which was in the midst of a tiny forest clearing. Good views of Manali city can be obtained from this point. Indrasan peak was visible from here.

Trail leading to pine forest

Next part of the trail was again steep ascent in the pine forest and we reached 2800m at 1.15PM. From here, the trail is along the water pipeline that runs from above till Kaushal’s place. As we reached higher, the pine trees mostly gave way to plants which were head-high. We reached Lama Dugh camp site (2900m) at 2PM.

Campsite at Lama Dugh

The camp site had a small stream that served as our water source. The camp site was beautiful with greenery all around. Horses reached shortly afterwards. The tents were pitched and lunch (Biryani Rice) was provided at 3.45PM. After lunch we did a small uphill climb of 150m to help us acclimatize better. We could still get mobile signals from here. 150m above our campsite, there was a shepherd camping with his sheep. A shepherd dog followed us on the trail and even returned to our camp site.

Day 2 (01Oct). Lama Dugh to Riyali Thach

I got up at 5.30AM, the temperature was 7°C. We had roasted wheat bread and banana for breakfast and a hot cup of tea. One of the specialities of Roopkund trek with Kaushal was rich food and we had explicitly requested him to keep up the standards 🙂  It was 8.30AM by the time we started the day’s hike. Initial path led us up to the shepherd tent where we could see the Manalsu stream flowing down.  This stream would eventually join the Beas river. From this height, Dauladhar range was visible towards the West, Peer Panjal towards NE and Rohtang Pass was visible towards North.

Shepherd tent near Lama Dugh

We reached 3165m at 9.30AM and 3400m at 11AM. Now we were truly past the tree line. It was a continuous but gradual ascent and first glimpse of Kalihani pass was visible at 1.15PM from the height of 3565m. By now the horses went past us.  At 12.35PM we climbed on to a ridge and reached the highest point for the day at 3770m. It was extremely windy, but the surroundings were spectacular. Greater Himalayan range and Deo Tibba peak were visible from here. We spent a few minutes taking photographs from this ridge.

Next part of the trail was a continuous descent until the camp site. First we descended rapidly into a monstrous valley, crossed a stream and continued the descent. We could see our kitchen tent down below towards our right and were about to descend straight when we saw our guide waiting for us at a vantage point towards our left. Apparently he had chosen a bit more circuitous but easier route to descend. A group of Britishers led by a Nepali Sherpa had joined us by now.  All of us reached Riyali Thach camping site (3335m) together at 2.30PM. We were welcomed with a cup of juice and later tea. Naren looked tired and he attributed that to lack of lunch at the right time.

The camp site was beside a stream which served as our water source. After lunch we did a small acclimatization ascent of around 150m.

I had a sumptuous dinner of roti-subzi and dal-chawal, hit the bed at 8.30PM and had a good night’s sleep.

Day 3 (02Oct). Riyali Thach to Kalihani base

I got up at 5.45AM, the outside temperature was 3°C. It was too cold to attempt brushing of teeth. Bread, fruits and cornflakes were provided for breakfast. At 8.30AM we started the trek. First we had to cross a big herd of sheep. The initial part of the trail involved walking alongside a stream that would eventually join the Fulez Nala. At 10AM we went beyond a snow bridge and crossed over to the other side of the stream. I slipped over during river crossing resulting in both my shoes becoming completely wet. Fortunately it was very sunny and I could manage with a change over set of socks from Lalith.

Ridge enroute Kalihani base

At 11AM we reached a height of 3500m and we were on a ridge. From here it was a continuous walk along this ridge. By this time I was in a rhythm and left others behind to continue the ascent in my pace. I reached 3600m at 11.30AM and 3700m at 11.45AM. Here the ridge ended and a steep ascent over a zig-zag path started. I reached 3800m at 12PM and Pradeep joined me here for finish the packed lunch which we were carrying. Naren had finished his lunch much earlier and was experimenting with a slow pace and hence reached a few minutes late. 5min ascent further led to a flat land (plateau) from where our campsite was visible. We spent a few minutes to enjoy the sunny midday and took photographs of the surrounding mountains. We reached Kalihani base camp (3825m) after crossing a moraine at 1.30PM.

Indrasan (left) and Deo Tibba (right) as seen from Kalihani base

Day 4 (03Oct). Crossing Kalihani pass

At 3AM I was woken up by the sound of sleet shower hitting the tents. Heavy snow or shower would reduce our chances of crossing the Kalihani pass today, but fortunately it lasted only for around 30min. We got out of the tents at 4.30AM, the temperature was 2°C. The surroundings were all white, thanks to the snow. We finished early breakfast of oats and tea and got all set to hit the trail. Fortunately as per Lalith’s estimate, the clouds subsided and Sun rose behind the Deo Tibba at 6.15AM. We started the hike at 6.30AM.

First bits of snow enroute Kalihani Pass

The initial part of the trail was an ascent through moraine and I reached 4020m at 7.10AM. I spent over 20min here for rest of the group to catch up. Next stretch of the trail involved steep ascent over scree. At 9.30AM, I touched the snowline at an altitude of 4435m. I saw Lalith’s footsteps but he was nowhere to be seen. Rest of the group was far behind. I had reached a flat ground covered with snow and finally saw Lalith at a height exploring the route towards the pass. Rest of the group joined us after half an hour.

A View enroute Kalihani Pass

Mountain range seen from Kalihani Pass

The next part of the trail was through moraine with snow. I reached 4450m at 11AM. The going was tough since the altitude was making our progress slow. As we gained height, we were mostly walking over a feet of snow. Naren and Pradeep were suffering from mild altitude sickness. While Pradeep closely followed me, Naren’s progress was slow. Vijay was coming with Naren. We still had to walk 5hours on the other side of the pass to reach our designated camping ground. Horseman was keen to know if he should stop the horses at some intermediate point or should make it to the eventual camping ground at Devi Ki Marhi. After some deliberations with Lalith, we decided that we will do the full day trail today and camp at Devi Ki Marhi. Since the progress of Naren and Vijay was too slow, I decided to stick with them to motivate them to move fast.

The Kalihani Pass

At 12PM, we finally made it to Kalihani Pass at 4645m. The packed lunch was finished on the Pass. We spent around 30min on the Pass and started getting down on the other side. The initial trail was a gradual descent through the snow. We went beside 3 beautiful lakes during the descent. We had now joined Kalihani Nala and were mostly walking beside it over the moraine. It was a long and tiresome walk over the boulders. At 3.30PM we reached the place (4055m) where the British group had camped. They offered us hot tea which was badly needed by us. Devi Ki Marhi camp was still 3 more hours away and one trekker from the camp remarked that we are indeed brave to attempt that. I wasn’t sure if we were brave or stupid at that time 🙂

The descent

Next it was a long monotonous walk alongside the river. Horses were well ahead of us and Lalith was nowhere in sight. Pradeep, Vijay and I were walking together in an increased pace while Naren was trailing behind. As we progressed ahead, we completely lost both Lalith in the front and Naren at the back. Many times we would see a huge rock at a distance that would appear exactly like our kitchen tent but only to be fooled later. The walk turned a bit more challenging when sleet shower started at 5.30PM. Though we were equipped to walk in sleet shower or snow or rain, it was seriously hindering our visibility as it was turning dark quickly. We finally saw Lalith coming back in search of us. After 30min walk in the shower were came across a shepherd shelter (built of stones) where we decided to wait for Naren and Lalith.

Lake on the other side of Kalihani Pass

Shepherd tents are so well designed that one could easily spend a night in them in times of emergency. There was a fireplace within the shelter. Lalith started the fire and left us to find out how far our campsite was. We sustained the fire till 8.30PM when Lalith was back with Hansraj who served us much needed noodles. Naren had high fever by this time and had already vomited once. It took some amount of persuasion to get him consume food and get started towards our campsite. We left the shepherd shelter at 9PM and slowly started moving towards Devi Ki Marhi. The going was very tough since our pace was too slow for the guide and it was taking huge effort for Naren to even move a step further. He was feeling so sleepy that given to himself, he would have slept there on the trail itself. Again it took us some effort to motivate Naren and it was 11.15PM by the time we reached the camp site of Devi Ki Marhi at 3555m. The only positive aspect of the night trek was the spectacular moonrise behind a peak, the moonrise never looked more beautiful. Looking back we feel we had done 2 days or at least 1.5 days worth of hike in a single day. Kaushal’s original itinerary for this day was a bit over-optimistic.

Day 5 (04Oct). Devi Ki Marhi to Dal Marhi

Previous day had been very tough and I got up late at 6.15AM, the temperature was -5°C.  As usual our camp site was on the banks of a stream (Kalihani Nala) and I could see our horses grazing at a height across the Nala near Devi Ki Marhi temple. (Temple was just a miniature shelter for God built of stones). I could also see horseman enjoying the morning camp fire near a shepherd tent across the Nala. I quickly joined him since any fire is so inviting at such chilling temperatures.

Horseman Shyam enjoying early morning fire near a shepherd shelter

Devi Ki Marhi campsite

I was apprehensive if everyone in the group would have enough energy today to even start the day’s hike, but fortunately everyone including Naren who was still suffering from fever, agreed to continue the hike and shift our base to the next camp site Dal Marhi today. We started at 9.30AM and crossed a stream over a bridge which consisted of flat stones laid over two pine logs.

We were walking alongside this stream

The day’s trek mostly involved walking beside the river and crossing moraines every now and then. We crossed a few streams that were joining the main Kalihani Nala. At one place, I removed my shoes and crossed the river barefoot for the fear of accidentally soaking my shoes. At around 11.45AM we were atop a small hill measuring 3415m. The highlight of the day’s trek was crossing a land slide area which was so slippery since the loose soil barely provided any grip.  I crossed the 10ft stretch by sitting down while rest of the group took Lalith’s help.  At 2.15PM, I had reached the base of a ridge at 3275m which required straight ascent. It took half an hour to reach the top at 3450m. We had to immediately descend on the other side, cross a stream that required Lalith’s help and then continue the ascent. It was Naren’s turn this time to soak the shoes in the river!

Vijay negotiating the landslide area

Pradeep and I gradually increased our pace and reached the Dal Marhi camp site (3660m) at 4.15PM. Naren and Vijay came in after 30min. The camp site was beautiful with Dauladhar range behind us. We were in Himayalan Bear territory now and we could see bear excreta at many places in the campsite as well as the trail.

Day 6 (05Oct). Dal Marhi to Bara Bhangal

Naren wasn’t feeling well through out the night and finally I had to wake up the cook at 5AM to prepare hot tea for him. I couldn’t get sleep again and roamed around the campsite for a bit before settling down to do some Pranayama. I was distracted by the sound of stones falling down from the landslide area in front of our camp site. The camp site was surrounded by high-rise hills and hence sun rays didn’t hit the campsite even hours after sunrise. -1°C was recorded at 7.30AM. Nothing usually gets done until Sun is out and hence we had a delayed start at 9.45AM.

Dauladhar range as seen from Dal Marhi

The day’s hike started with a steep ascent but was mostly downhill for rest of the day. At around 11.30AM, we had reached tree line and were walking beside rhododendron, birch and pine trees. I really dislike descending since its so hard on knees. Stepping down sideways to avoid pressure on knees would eventually lead to pain in the ankles. At 3PM we had reached 3000m after which we did a 300m straight descent. Naren was doing well and was leading the group while I remained at the end.  At 4PM we had reached the outskirts of Bara Bhangal village where we could see the cultivated fields. Pradeep showed us Ganja plants and it appeared that the villagers were growing them freely everywhere. The final descent was very tough and tiring, I eventually reached Bara Bhangal village (2455m) at 4.30PM.

Shephard shelter enroute Bara Bhangal

The campsite was beside a Government school. Ravi river flowed across our campsite. Pradeep got acquainted with the teacher of the school and brought him to our camp site. Masterji was kind enough to escort us through the village by-lanes. Bara Bhangal has a population of around 750, limited power thanks to a mini-hydel project and a satellite phone that works for 3 hours a day. We could see people mainly growing Rajma and corn in the village.

Bridge across Ravi river in Bara Bhangal

To reach any village or city from Bara Bhangal one has to either go back and climb Kalihani Pass or climb and cross the Thamsar Pass. So having come till Bara Bhangal, we had no easy exit paths, we had to cross another pass to get back to civilization. This hardship came as a surprise to some of our team members but that only increased their resolve to complete the trek and get back to a safer place!

Day 7 (06Oct). Bara Bhangal to Mardh

Camping at low altitude in Bara Bhangal gave me an opportunity to brush my teeth and wash my face after a gap of 5 days!  We started the hike at 8.15AM. First we crossed the Ravi river and started ascending on the right bank of a stream. The ascent was mostly steep and all of us were doing pretty good since we had acclimatized well by now. Today our guide didn’t start with us and we were all by our own. There was a path leading down to the stream and a possible opportunity to cross over to the left bank of the stream, but we ignored it owing to the sparse usage of the path. We continued to ascend on the right bank of the stream and reached 3050m at 11AM. By now we could see a clear path on the left bank as well. Unable to decide the route, we waited for the guide. The guide and the horses appeared at 12.45PM, but on the left bank of the stream. We had lost precious 1 hour 45min in the mountains and we were on the wrong side of the river! It was impossible to cross the stream due to strong currents and we had to climb further up and cross over at a more safer point.

A peak seen from Mardh

We finished lunch and started the further ascent through moraine that consisted of huge rocks. By 2PM we were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves in the campsite of Mardh (3400m). This camping site was apparently chosen to provide grazing opportunity for the horses which wouldn’t have been possible if we had camped any higher and nearer to Thamsar pass.

Pradeep and Vijay (Right) helping Lalith (Left) to pitch the tent at Mardh

Having reached earlier than anticipated, Pradeep, Vijay and I did a small acclimatization trek to keep us in good shape for the big day tomorrow. Vijay was in mood for some talk and he described the life around the Ranganatha Temple in Srirangam, Trichy, TN and also gave us a good account of the history of Sri Ranganatha during the times of Muslim onslaught. Spirits were up in the kitchen tent too and Lalith prepared Pakodas for us!

Day 8 (07Oct). Crossing Thamsar Pass

We had a very long day when we crossed the previous Pass (Kalihani) and hence wanted to make sure that we start early this time to give us enough buffer time. I got up at 5AM, the temperature was 0°C. After breakfast that involved oats and cornflakes, we started the trek at 6.30AM. We made good progress initially and reached 3800m at 8.15AM. Next we crossed over to the other bank of the Thamsar stream and reached a shepherd tent that could have served as a campsite. Looking back I felt we should have camped here the previous night which would have given a good head start for attempting the Pass. Lalith spotted 4 grazing animals on the top of a high mountain. They were appearing as tiny black dots to the naked eye. We suspected them to be bears, but on camera they appeared more like yak than bear.

We crossed these mountains via Thamsar Pass

At 9.45AM, we had reached 4030m from where Thamsar Pass became visible clearly. Next we had to cross a tiny stretch of glacier and another 100m ascent took us to the banks of a huge lake.  We had an early lunch here and started the ascent beside the beautiful blue lake. At 12.15PM, we touched snowline at 4300m. At 12.45PM we were at the base of  Thamsar Pass with a frozen lake (4375m) separating us and the Pass. Unlike the approach to Kalihani Pass, the final approach to Thamsar Pass was easy and it involved a gradual ascent path that circled around the frozen lake.

Way to Thamsar Pass

Lalith was the first to reach Thamsar Pass (4520m) followed by me at 1.20PM. I thanked the Mountain God stationed on Thamsar Pass for allowing us the safe passage. The weather which was kind till now suddenly changed. We could spare only 20min on the Pass and sleet shower started. All of us practically rushed down on the other side. It was continuous descent from here onwards and we reached a possible campsite (3900m) at 3PM. The horseman had a better campsite in mind and we continued the descent. By now the sleet shower had turned into snow fall and was gradually getting heavier. Thanks to the snow, reaching a campsite was the only thing in our minds and hence all pain in the knees and ankles were almost forgotten! We reached an empty shepherd house (3400m) built of stones at 4PM. It had two rooms and served as good shelter for us in the night. The snowfall continued almost till 5PM. As per Kaushal’s itinerary we were supposed to reach Plachak camp site today. From Mardh, it involves an ascent of 1km and a descent of 2km which is probably too much to cover in a day.

Mountain range seen from Thamsar Pass

Clouds closing in from the other side of Thamsar Pass

We had crossed two mountain passes successfully and celebrated the achievement by lighting a huge campfire. All the firewood in the shepherd shelter was consumed in the night. The taste of piping hot ginger lemon water with honey on a moonlit night in the mountains will remain with me for years to come!

Day 9 (08Oct). Back to civilization

We started the last day of the trek at 8.30AM in the morning. As per itinerary, we were supposed to reach Billing by walk and then proceed to Bir and from there Dharamshala. But since that was too much for a day, our horseman Shyam suggested an alternative – reach Bada Gaon and from there travel on road to Dharamshala. The last day’s trek is usually tricky since there is no challenge to look forward to. When you are expecting a quick finish to the day, the long walk to the destination could mentally wear you down. This happened with us too, walk to Bada Gaon turned out to be a long one.

The proud group L2R – Hansraj the cook, Naren, Shyam the Horseman, Me, Pradeep and Lalith our guide

Its business as usual for these Bara Bhangal kids who cross Thamsar Pass every year before the winter sets in!

We had to cross 4 ice bridges over Barot Nala today and that was the only excitement to otherwise monotonous descend through pine forests. We reached Plachak (2565m) at 11.40AM. From Plachak, the route crosses over to the right bank of the river and continues further in the pine forest. At 2PM we crossed over to the left bank over a bridge and from here it was an hour’s walk to our destination. We were at Bada Gaon (2270m) at 3PM. Lalith had to hitchhike in a car to reach Barot to fetch us a taxi from Bada Gaon to Ghattasni. At Ghattasni we changed over to another taxi to reach Dharamshala at 10PM.

Views from Kalihani Pass

Views from Thamsar Pass

More photos here

Day-wise stats

Day Start time End time Start altitude End Altitude Max altitude reached
1. Manali to Lama Dugh 10AM 2PM 2000m 2900m 2900m
2. Lama Dugh to Riyali Thach 8.30AM 2.30PM 2900m 3335m 3770m
3. Riyali Thach to Kalihani base 8.30AM 1.30PM 3335m 3825m 3825m
4. Crossing Kalihani Pass 6.30AM 11.15PM (with 3hrs break) 3825m 3555m 4645m
5. Devi Ki Marhi to Dal Marhi 9.30AM 4.15PM 3555m 3660m 3660m
6. Dal Marhi to Bara Bhangal 9.45AM 4.30PM 3660m 2455m 3660m
7. Bara Bhangal to Mardh 8.15AM 2PM (with 1.45hrs break) 2455m 3400m 3400m
8. Crossing Thamsar Pass 6.30AM 4PM 3400m 3400m 4520m
9. Thamsar base to Bada Gaon 8.30AM 3PM 3400m 2270m 3400m