JOSHIMATH, 18 Oct, 2006: This past weekend, the last of three international teams departed for Dharansi Pass in the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve as part of the Inaugural Nanda Devi Women’s Trek. Stopping over at eminent journalist Harish Chandola’s guest house near Auli, the group of four women including two Americans, a Canadian, and an Indian, acclimatized themselves to the high altitude before joining the second team at Lata, the traditional gateway village to the Nanda Devi peak.
Marking the thirtieth anniversary of the ill-fated 1976 Indo-American expedition that saw Nanda Devi Unsoeld, the twenty-two-year-old daughter of legendary mountaineer Willi Unsoeld perish on the peak that bore her name, the trek itself made history as the first venture of the wholly community-owned and operated Mountain Shepherds Initiative. Itself an outgrowth of the Nanda Devi Campaign, a five-year-old movement that had arisen out of even earlier environmental justice struggles by the people of the Nanda Devi Biosphere for their forest rights, the initiative hopes to set a model for socially conscious ecotourism in the entire Himalayan region.
To underline these goals, this first trek was organized as an exercise in mutual learning and exchange. Unlike the typical high end holiday package to the Himalayas, the participatory nature of the tour was emphasized, so that the newly trained guides and organizers could learn as much from the trekkers as they could themselves impart about the history, geography, and ecology of the Nanda Devi region.
The selection process itself for the all expenses-paid trip (barring cost of travel to and from Lata) was an international affair with long-time campaign associates Keith Bosak in the US, Khila Bisht in the UK, and Pratibha Naithani in Mumbai interviewing candidates. Final choices out of over 60 applicants were made according to criteria that included interest and experience in women’s issues, mountain environments, and social justice.
It may be recalled that 40 youth from the upper reaches of Uttarakhand were enrolled in the basic training course at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering this past August and September (Garhwal Post, 26 Sept.). Funded by the Winterline Foundation and organized through SPECS, the course was tailored specifically to prepare the boys for the Mountain Shepherds Initiative. Organizers including Janadhaar activist Sunil Kainthola and Dhan Singh Rana, himself a porter on the 1976 expedition, consider this trek an extension of that training, as a first opportunity to interact with international visitors.
Cleary, limited English skills posed a challenge, especially with the mainly North American teams. Moreover, the self-confidence of the guides needed to be nurtured by gaining experience through treks such as this one. However, despite their shyness, the trekkers did note that the boys were well-mannered, sweet, and extremely helpful.
Kainthola further adds that Mountain Shepherds will eventually plan trips directly from arrival in Delhi to Nanda Devi. This is to ensure that no trip is marred by the incidental horrors that often beset travelers to India, whether in being overcharged in Delhi to facing harassment in Hardwar, to transportation chaos on the roads. The specific experiences and critical input of the women trekkers will thus prove useful to evaluating future needs as they may arise.
— Garhwal Post
19 October 2006