Nanda Devi: The second to last trek. A sentimental journey

Posted: Feb 03, 2013 11:51 am EST

(Newsdesk) "Growing old is like climbing one of these mountains: on the way up, one’s strength diminishes, but at the top the gaze is clearer, and the view, wider and more serene," says Francisco Po Egea after retracing his own footsteps at 75 years.

Some start early in life with adventures, like 13-year-old Max Keene whom we met last week, preparing for his sledge-hauling expedition on Baffin Island. Others carry on despite "diminishing strength". Francisco Po Egea wrote a debrief for ExplorersWeb about a trek he did at age 75; retracing his own footsteps when he was 33 years old. Back then he trekked from Kashmir to Sikkim, crossing the north of India and Nepal, and was forced to retreat because of a snowstorm.

Here goes Francisco Po Egea's celebration of his "sentimental journey":

Half-way through the month of October of 1978, when I was trekking across the Himalaya for five months, from Kashmir to Sikkim, crossing the north of India and Nepal, a snowstorm forced us (my porter and I) to retreat when we were about to get to the sanctuary of the Nanda Devi (7,817 m), most sacred and beautiful mountain of India.

We were in what was called the external Sanctuary, a ring of mountains which we had accessed two days before through the only access, a challenging 4,600 m. Pass. If it continued to snow, we would be trapped forever. I have beautiful memories from that trek, part a failure. In October 2011, I became 75 years old. To celebrate it, I went to India to re-live the trip and trek up to that cave in the Sanctuary where I slept the night before the snow storm.

This time I had a guide, Nandu (imposed by the authorities) and two porters. We went by car and foot (one hour) to Lata (2,370 m), the starting point for all the trek. Stone houses with wooden galleries all painted in blue. The chief has accompanied trekkers and expeditions for forty years. I ask the whereabouts of Udai Singh, my porter in 1978. An amazing man. “He was swallowed by the river when trying to cross it in 1998”. I feel really sad. I would have loved to see him again.

The beauty, the solitude and that aura of mystery

At half past eight the real trek begins. The path is easy, crossing a gorgeous forest of oaks, conifers and rhododendrons. It however gets much harder as the way gets steeper; big steps made of massive rocks, placed so as to stop erosion of the ground by the monsoonal rains. I am not bothered. I am surrounded by my beloved mountains and I rejoice in the beauty, the solitude and that aura of mystery which wild and old forests project; the mixture of light and shadow, the silence broken by unexpected and strange sounds.

We get to our first campsite at around noon, after crossing a wide torrent with stepping stones. We could have been there earlier but I had stopped for a chat with two Belgians, mid 50s. They have not gone further than Lata Kharak – my objective for the next day – and they had found their last hour of trekking uphill very hard. My team has pitched my tent on a rise which offers a gorgeous view over the river, 1,000 m below, the village and a wide semi-circle of mountains. I take my blood pressure: 16.7/10.6. I should be on my way to hospital! I take a pill and do 20 minutes of breathing exercises. It goes down to 13/8.

Freezing temperatures and no path

I wake up at around six o’clock. My blood pressure has gone up again: pill and exercises. I don't get out of my sleeping bag till seven, when I am brought breakfast. Scrambled eggs, uneatable by the amount of salt, cereal with milk, chapatis with jam and two bananas. The climb is very tough – very, very steep even though we continue through the forest. After a while I need to stop every 50 m to catch my breath. I am starting to feel the altitude. My blood pressure is still high and I start to get worried. At 2 pm, after innumerable hairpins in the path, we arrive at Lata Kharak, 3.800 m. I have climbed 900 m in four hours, not bad at all.

We spent the night in a very habitable wooden cabin, courtesy of the Forestry Service, situated just at the tree line. After an hour of rest, and my exercises, I check my blood pressure. To my surprise and relief it has gone down considerably to 12/7. I think I am getting much better acclimatized to the altitude. Before supper, I chat with three young Indians from Bangalore who are also staying in the cabin. Only one of them has managed to reach Dharansi with his guide; the others turned back earlier, at the gorges of the Satkhula. It seemed too dangerous and they were tired. It is absolutely freezing; therefore I sleep inside the sleeping bag with my anorak on, and I would continue that practice during the following nights.

The next day, I do an excursion with Nandu up to Shaini Kharak, the edge of the external sanctuary. From there is a brilliant view of the deep gorge of the Rishi Ganga down below and the peaks that surround it. During more than half the distance, there is no path. I have to climb over and between rocks and stones. Amen to the breathtaking views, the white summits, covered with snow, of the Bethartoli Himal, the three summits of the Trisul and the pyramids of Nanda Devi, powerful mistress dominating them all. In total, five hours of hard walking at 4000 m. We return to the cabin to spend the night.

In the middle of both everything and nothing

My memories of the next day from 1978 couldn't be more wrong. The forest now left behind, the path ploughs between tall reddish grass and uneven ground and rocks, accompanying us to the Jhandidar pass. I am in the heart of the mountains, as if I were in the middle of both everything and nothing. I feel so small, alone with sky and earth, at the point where both meet. I take several pictures, against the light so that the sunbeams create semi-transparencies on the petals of the Himalayan lotus flowers growing by the path. Also my porters at the top of the slope, their black silhouettes contrasting with the deep blue.

We stop for an hour at the pass to rest and have something to eat. The Dunagiri at our left and the enigmatic Nanda face us. Clouds are, as every day, starting to envelop them. I exhale with delight, tired but also ecstatic. Some chapatis, two half boiled potatoes and a green banana – with the cold they don't ripen. Thank god for my Iberian ham. Right here is where the seven gorges of the Satkhula are born. I did not remember them so jagged.

The joy of the mountaineer

Two hours of ups and downs at 4,600 m, rock climbing through overhangs, and crossing above precipices, with slabs of slate strategically placed by the shepherds of Lata. I remembered the joy of the mountaineer, but I had forgotten the difficulty of the terrain. Here, in the trek of 1978, I was witness to a porter falling to his death on the way back from an expedition that had attempted to climb the Dunagiri, where the two American "sahibs" had disappeared during the climb.

I remember those events with anguish. Back then, the memory of those tragedies accompanied me the whole way back through the snow. But today, my porters walk with a firm step and I am aware of my limits. I am not going to go jumping from rock to rock like one of those blue goats, bharals, that we saw on the way up.

After crossing the gorges, a gradual but long descent, again between tall grasses and crumbling rocks, leads us to the Dharansi pass. After eight hours of making a massive effort I am exhausted. The sun and the top of the mountains have long hidden behind the clouds, which also obscure the valley. The landscape has now become saddened and the exultation I felt this morning has changed to an ardent desire just to get to a blue speck: the tent which the porters have pitched near the top of the pass. The fog lifts for a moment and the sun warms my last steps.

With tea in hand I sit at the entrance of the tent. I enjoy the spectacle of the mountains and the knowledge that the worst is over. The earth is now red, like the sky at sunset. Silence surrounds us. It is borne upwards by the clouds, from the far away valleys of the world, to take root here and shade me in the luxury of solitude. I wait for supper, the night and slumber.

The cave

The morning of that 6th day, I feel well rested. My plan is to descend to Dibrugheta, at the bottom of the gorge and sleep in the cave where I slept back in 1978. However, camping in the reserve is now prohibited. I try to persuade Nandu. “We could just go down, the two of us.” He is not convinced. If we are caught, he could lose his guiding permit. So I have to make do with climbing up to the crest, and taking some pictures. A spur hides part of Nanda Devi. But I feel both awed and elated at being there, right before my dream mountain. I shall never get so close again. But you never know.

I wasn't planning on coming back when I last took this trip! At that time in 1978, I didn't really think much about my future, or about other people. I was living in the present. I had just left my "serious" job, and in no sense had I dreamed that my new profession would involve travelling the world and telling my stories with camera and pen. Then there were no strings. Now however, my wife and daughter are waiting for me. It is nice to think about them.

Growing old is like climbing one of these mountains

It is now after 9 am and we start the trail back. It is going to be quite a journey to get back to Lata Kharak. After more than an hour, when I have already been back and forth on the hairpin trail, I can’t face the eight that are still to come. Therefore, I ask Nandu whether we two can camp half-way. We can just take with us five liters of water and share the tent. The porters can continue down to the cabin in Lata Kharak as pre-arranged.

Again, after the first long ascent, we face the hard crossing of the rough gorges of the Satkhula, all enveloped in the fog. But after Jhandidar pass, it’s nearly all downhill so I decide to continue. During the final two hours I need to stop every twenty minutes, and then every ten. When I finally see the orange flags which mark the cabin I sit down for a long while, alone, to say goodbye to the great majestic mountains. Growing old is like climbing one of these mountains: on the way up, one’s strength diminishes, but at the top the gaze is clearer, and the view, wider and more serene.

Next day, and in one go, we descend trough the forest until we get to Lata and then to the road. To get there, we have a last adventure. Nandu takes a short-cut and we find ourselves at the top of a wall, the ground three meters below. He jumps, but I don't dare, my knees have suffered enough. He stands against the wall and I use him as a ladder, standing on him, up his shoulders. Farewells and hugs, tips for Nandu and his team. And I am happy, and proud of what I have just achieved. I feel much younger. Already, walking through the forest, I have begun to think of the trek for next year, or should I leave it for when I am 80?

See more of Francisco Po Egea's photos on Flickr

#Trek #topstory

Travel writer and photographer, Francisco Po Egea, with Nanda Devi in the bcakground.
Image by Francisco Po Egea courtesy Francisco Po Egea (c)
The route.
Image by Francisco Po Egea courtesy Francisco Po Egea (c)
River Ganges as seen from early on the hiking trail.
Image by Francisco Po Egea courtesy Francisco Po Egea (c)
Badrinath temple on the trail.
Image by Francisco Po Egea courtesy Francisco Po Egea (c)
Nanda Devi from Auli.
Image by Francisco Po Egea courtesy Francisco Po Egea (c)
Kamet 7.760 m.
Image by Francisco Po Egea courtesy Francisco Po Egea (c)
Shaini Karak trail.
Image by Francisco Po Egea courtesy Francisco Po Egea (c)
Jhandidar pass.
Image by Francisco Po Egea courtesy Francisco Po Egea (c)
Route from Jhandidar pass Satkula gorges and Dunagiri
Image by Francisco Po Egea courtesy Francisco Po Egea (c)
Satkula gorges.
Image by Francisco Po Egea courtesy Francisco Po Egea (c)
Porters and guide.
Image by Francisco Po Egea courtesy Francisco Po Egea (c)
Back from the trail; candles on the Ganges at Rishikesh.
Image by Francisco Po Egea courtesy Francisco Po Egea (c)

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