NANDA DEVI: The second to last trekking

A sentimental journey

In 2011, the now 75-year-old Francisco Po Egea revisited Nanda Devi, 33 years after first visiting the region. This remarkable return voyage, facilitated by Mountain Shepherds, is detailed below.

“The mountain is not a bet, its an emotion” – Walter Bonatti


Half-way through the month of October of 1978, when I was treking across the Himalaya for five months, from Kashmir and Ladakh to Sikkim, crossing through the north of India and Nepal, a strong snow storm forced us to retaliate (my porter and I) when we where about to get to the sanctuary of the Nanda Devi (Goddess Nanda), the highest (7.816 meters), most sacred and beautiful mountain of the Indian Himalayas. A sanctuary -in the sense of a place of protection and refuge – which had not been violated till 1934. We where situated in what was called the external part of the Sanctuary, a ring of mountains rising up to 7000 meters which we had accessed two days before through a challenging port of 4.600 meters of altitude, the only access to the mentioned sanctuary. If it continued to snow, the port would be inaccessible and so we would be trapped for the whole winter, and so forever. I have beautiful and exciting memories from that trekking, in part a failure, through one of the most gorgeous and mysterious parts of Asia.

Last October, on the 25th, I became 75 years old, incredible but true!, and to celebrate it, I went to India few days before to re-live the trip and trek up to that cave in the Sanctuary where I slept the night before to the snow storm. However, this time one porter was not enough, but two, a guide and a cook; because I was forced to by the authorities that control the National Reserve of the Biosphere of the Nanda Devi and also to ensure my security.

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Photos courtesy Francisco Po Egea

From Delhi to Josimath

I have just arrived in Delhi, eight o’clock in the morning, stop in Doha, Qatar airlines. Multiracial crew. Excellent service from the pretty air hostesses, ranging from Thai to Swedish. But I am not distracted, I can only think of the goddess Nanda lap, she is the reason for my trip.

Barbara is worried, so much that for the first time in so many trips I have taken, she has accompanied me to the airport. Cristina as well. She has phoned me from Stirling, where she is studying, to wish me a safe flight and adding at the end “Dad, I love you” which means “be very careful and please come back!”. Don’t worry girls, I am not thinking of abandoning you just yet.
In my first trip to India in 1977 -this is already the fifteenth-, from the airport to the capital everything was fields, cows, carts, some Ambassador taxis and families installed in the ditches of the narrow road. Now its motorways full of barriers and policemen, bridges and a super modern express subway tearing through waste grounds half way through urbanization and buildings constructed by the local, more or less honest, developers.

I’ve got a ticket for the 11.30 train to Haridwar, but only on the waiting list, number 18. My Indian neighbor on the plane assured me though that I would definitely get a seat with that number. Many seats are reserved for politicians, the military or other VIPs. A young and half crazy taxi driver leaves me at the old Delhi train station with my big, fat backpack: sleeping bag, inflatable mat, minimal clothing (another pair of trousers, two shirts, two pieces of underwear, a jumper and gloves and knee caps for the down hills), a lot of medicines (high blood pressure, infections, vertigo, arthritis, diarrheas, etc.), a bar of black chocolate and 200 grs. of Iberian ham: only 12 kg in total. In my small bag I carry both my cameras, accessories, pen and paper and the 100 pages, from the more than 1500 from the Footprint guide, dedicated to Delhi and the area I am going to trek through; in my money belt, passport, credit cards and money. Together with this and at 35º centigrade’s, the real goose feathers anorak held against my chest. The heat it gives is unbearable.

“Namaste”. “No problem”. I have a seat. But I am exhausted from climbing the stairs with all my luggage. Now I need to change money. After asking the half a dozen Indians which have surrounded me since I got out of the taxi, I understand that the lockers are on the other side of the tracks which I go to with a porter to leave my backpack. I get the quickest taxi driver and head towards the market where there is a bank, but just as we have started the journey he cheekily adds: “But today is Sunday, bank is closed.”

There is a cash machine at the station but it doesn’t work: another one on the other side. It only gives 2000 rupees = 30 Euros. I tell the security guide and he, very nicely, shows me how to get out 13.000. He obviously gets a tip. After the hassle it is now time to catch the train. I get my bag but panic when I realize that in the departures panel there is no Haridwar. However I get help, it is the Indore express, where it comes from; on my ticket it says Dehra Dun ex.

Second class, bunk beds. Four in each compartment and two more between window and corridor. I have the one at the bottom. The train has been travelling for two days which is noticeable by the rests of food, broken glass, dirty and destroyed curtains. It looks worse than thirty years ago, it was the same trains so they are now very much older. I try to sleep but it is impossible due to the children who are travelling in the opposite compartment, they don´t stop screaming, running and playing. Oh! Lovely India!

Rani, my taxi driver hired through Internet, is waiting for me in Haridwar, today to go to Rishikesh; tomorrow to go to Josimath, the base of my trekking. He looks exactly like the Gandhi from the movie and seems to be as bright and kind. Rishikesh is the supermarket of spirituality since the Beatles came here to take a course on meditation with a famous guru of the time. Yoga classes, meditation and sacred dances for Indians as well as westerners looking for their lost soul in a variety of ashrams, half hotels half temples, full of Shivas, tigers and spirals at the borders of the sacred Ganges, newly born from the Himalayas. And in the last years, it has also become the Indian capital for rafting. My hotel is next to the river, but protected from the noise. I haven’t stopped for 32 hours, nothing compared to what awaits me up in the mountains!

Next day I go for a walk and take only a few pictures, I am going to spend a whole day here on my way back. At eight I am on my way to Josimath. The landscape is stunning, the road on the border of steep mountains and at three hundred meters over the river. Forests, monkeys and cows -or road inspectors as the Indian drivers call them- roaming along the middle of the road. There are various little colorful villages bordering the road and white temples crowning the mountain tops. Also, a lot of traffic. It is the time of the Yatra, an annual pilgrimage to the four temples situated at the start of the four rivers that form the Ganges. Soon enough we arrive to the first landslide which blocks the road. The monsoons have just about ended and the torrents have eroded the terrain. A massive power shovel works its way clearing the road while we wait. Then, chaos. Everybody wants to go through first. Lorries, buses, cars bump into each other and steal each others places with the sound of their horns. But nobody gets angry.

Josimath looks the same after 30 years: disorderly and half a km down to the river bank. The road is its main street, however it has tripled its length. Shops at each side, one out of four selling mobile phones like in the rest of India, while lorries, collective taxis and the rest make their way through with hooting and shouts. All very peacefully though.

The next day I take a collective taxi, room for five people but there are ten of us squashed into it. I am allowed the seat next to the window, thankfully. I am going to Badrinath, one of the four most sacred temples of India, at the foot of the sharp Nilkhanta, where one of the four rivers, the Alaknanda, erupts from the mountains. After a visit to the colorful and busy temple and ringing the bell to shoo away evil spirits, I throw myself up the mountain to try out my resistance. So many hours by plane, train and car, I am now in my element. I meet some shadus (nomad monks) living in huts or under rocks next to the trail. We exchange greetings as I pass by. I still feel young but I have to say, It is harder than before. Like Picasso pointed out ” When I am told I can´t do something because I am too old, I try to do it immediately”.

In the afternoon, Nandu, my guide for the trek, comes to see me to the hotel. Young, smiling, modern and polite, with perfect English. He creates a very good impression. He gives me the details of our trekking. I still need to get used to the altitude, therefore the next day I go up to Auli (3000 m), a collection of fields over Josimath recently converted into a skiing station. Thirty years ago I did it by foot, this time though, I prefer to get a taxi and I stay there for the night in the hotel which is situated the highest. From it, I trek up through a magnificent and solitary forest, which seems enchanted, till I get to a big clearing where I can take pictures of the Nanda Devi. “The Eternal White Divine Queen of Kumaon” looks gorgeous and radiant.

The Trekking

Next afternoon, Nandu’s brother took us in his little car up to Winter Lata: a dozen of houses on the road near the frontier with Tibet. From there, an hour and a half up to Summer Lata, where supposedly its habitants spend the majority of the year. Stone houses with wooden galleries all painted in blue. The chief of the village receives us in a courtyard surrounded by these houses. For forty years he has accompanied trekkers, as a guide or as a porter through the mountains of the area. This village, at an altitude of 2.370 meters is the starting point for all trekkings.

I ask the whereabouts of Udai Singh, my porter that guided me in my trekking of 1978. An amazing man. “He was swallowed by the river when he was trying to cross it in 1998”. I am surprised and mortified. I would have loved to see him again. I feel really sad about the news. I show him the pictures I took so many years ago: a woman with crops on her shoulder; a child carrying wood. The pictures go from hand to hand, a few woman have joined us at this point. The woman in the picture died a few years ago from a heart attack. They recognize the child as well, “He lives near here”. We go to visit him and receives us, amazed at the picture from when he was five years old. He has changed very much, he was very cute back then. The most dangerous moment of the day is going back after dinner, steps of half a meter and in the darkness, down to the hut which belongs to the chief and where I am going to stay the night.

At 8,30 the real trekking begins, after a visit to the local temple obviously dedicated to the goddess Nanda. Three porters accompany us, a bit excessive I think. I later changed my mind as I realized the amount of food and other weight they carried. They want to treat me like a king. One of them is the cook. The way is easy, crossing a gorgeous forest of oaks, confers and rhododendrons, it however gets much harder as the road gets steeper; big steps made of massive rocks, done so to stop the 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 that wild and old forests give, the mixture of lights and shadows, the silence and its unexpected and strange sounds.

We get to our first camping site at around 12 h., after crossing a wide torrent with rocks facilitating the way. We could have gotten there earlier but I had stopped for a chat with two Belgians, around 55 years old, that live in Laos. They have not gone further than Lata Kharak -my stage for the next day- and that their last hour of trekking uphill had been very hard for them. They did not dare to go up to Dharansi as one of them had a high blood pressure.

My team has arranged my tent on a rise which offers a gorgeous view over the river, a 1000 m below, the village and a wide semi-circle of mountains. They will sleep in a semi ruined sheppard hut. I take my blood pressure: 16,7/10,6, like the afternoon before. I should be on my way to hospital. I take a Tarka and do 20 minutes of breathing exercises. It goes down to 13/8.

I wake up at around 6 am. My blood pressure has gone up again: Tarka and exercises but it does not go down. I don’t get out of my sleeping bag till 7, when I am brought breakfast. Scrambled eggs, uneatable by the amount of salt the cook has used, cereal with milk, chapatis with jam and two bananas. The climb is a disaster, very very steep even though we continue through the forest. After a while I need to stop every 50 meters to catch my breath. I am starting to feel the altitude. We stop for an hour to have lunch, chapatis with some ham and some juice. My blood pressure is still high and I start to get worried. Just after 2 pm, after the innumerable zigs-zags of the road, we arrive at Lata Kharak, 3.800 m. I have climbed 900 meters in four hours, not bad at all.

We spent the night in a very habitable wooden cabin, with four very barren rooms, courtesy of the Forrestal Services, situated below the crest just at the upper limit of the forest level. I manage to even talk to Cristina and Barbara on the phone, how incredible that there is signal at these altitudes. After an hour of rest and doing 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 very well acclimatized to the altitude. Before dinner 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 before, at the gorges of the Satkhula. It seemed too dangerous and they where tired. It is absolutely freezing, therefore I sleep with anorak on inside the sleeping bag, and I would continue to do so during the following nights.

The next day, I do an excursion with Nandu up to a crest, the limit of the external sanctuary. From here there is a brilliant view of the east, of the deep gorge of the Rishi Ganga down below and the peaks that surround it. During more than half the way there is no path, I have to go up and down and in between rocks and stones. It is hard but also excellent exercise. Amen to the breathtaking views, the white summits, covered with snow of the Bethartoli Himal, the three summits of the Trisul -the trident of Shiva- and the pyramids of Nanda Devi, powerful master dominating them all. In total about five hours at 4000 meters of altitude. We return to the cabin to spend the night, my blood pressure continues normal and I am looking forward to the next day’s stage.

My memory of this day couldn’t be more wrong from the reality. The forest now left behind, the path ploughs through between tall reddish grass and uneven ground and rocks, accompanying me till Jhandidar pass. I am in the heart of the mountains, as if I was in the middle of everything and nothing, I feel so small. Alone with sky and earth, at the point where they 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 three porters at the top of a crest, their black siluettes contrasting with the deep blue of the sky.

We stop for an hour at the pass to rest and have something to eat. The Dunagiri at our left and the enigmatic Nanda facing us. Clouds are, like every day, starting to envelop them. I breathe out with delight. I can still handle this. I am tired but also ecstatic. Some chapatis, two half boiled potatoes, some nuts 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 sharp. Nearly a kilometer, about 2 hours of ups and downs at 4,500/4,600 meters, through galleys, climbing rocks and crossing passes, over 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 way. Here, in the trekking of 1978, I was witness to a porters 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 moments 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 we have seen on the way up, bharales.

After crossing the gorges, a gradual but long descend, again between the tall grasses and crumbling rocks which 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, as these close the valley. The landscape has now become sad and the motivation I had in the morning is now an ardent desire to just arrive to that blue spot: the tent which the porters have put up just before the top defining the pass. The fog lifts for a moment as 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 worse is over. The earth is now red, like the sky at sunset. Slowly, silence surrounds us. Comes up, together with the clouds, from the far away valleys of the world, to take roots and stay, and with his luxuriant crown to shade this voluntary loved solitude while I wait for the dinner, the night and rest.

The morning of the 6th day I feel very 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, it is now prohibited to camp in the reserve. I try to persuade Nandu, we could just go down both of us. He is not convinced. If we are caught he could loose his guiding permit. So I have to make do with climbing up to the crest and taking some pictures. An spur hides part of the Nanda Devi. But I feel awed and great at being before my dream mountain. I will never get so close again! Although you never know, I wasn’t planning on coming back when I took the trip back then.

At this time, I didn’t really think much about my future, or in anybody. Only in the present. I had just left my “serious” job that same year and no way had I dreamed that my new profession would involve travelling the world and tell my stories with camera and pen. I had no strings attached. Now however, my wife and daughter where waiting for me. It was nice to think about it.

It is after nine when we start our way back. I feel it is going to be quite a journey to get back to Lata Kharak. More than one hour where I have already been back and forth and the eight that are still to come. Therefore, I ask Nandu whether both of us can camp half-way. We can just take with us five liters of water and share the tent. The porters can continue down the cabin in Lata Kharak as pre-arranged.

Again, after the first long ascent, the hard crossing of the rough gorges of the Satkhula, enveloped in the fog. After Jhandidar pass, its nearly all downhill so I decide to continue. During the last two hours I need to stop, first every twenty minutes, then every ten. When I finally see the orange flags which signaled 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: whilst climbing the strength diminishes, but the gaze is freer, and the view, wider and serene.

Next day, and in one go, descend trough the forest till we get to the village; then till the road. To get to it, a last adventure. Nandu takes a short-cut and we find ourselves at the top of a big 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 his shoulders and palms. A little while after, we arrive in Josimath. Farewells and hugs, tips for Nandu and his team. And me happy and proud of what I have just achieved. I feel much younger. Already walking through the forest I have begun to think of my trekking for next year, or should I leave it for when I become 80?

Francisco Po Egea / Dec. 2011.