I left my heart at zero point
Pindari glacier trek, 13-21 June 2003
In June 2003, we decided to do the Pindari glacier trek. This was our first hiking trip into the Himalayas. This trek is fairly well known in Delhi, and many people have done it. We opted for the 'package tour' trek offered by Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam. Broadly speaking, in the package trek, they do the trip planning, they setup porters to carry stuff, so you just have to bring yourself and be able to walk.
As the name suggests, the idea of the Pindari Glacier trek is to go up to the Pindari glacier, which is at the edge of Nanda Devi. Nanda Devi! She is one of the world's great peaks (7816 metres). It sounded like a grand idea, to even get to within 10 kilometres of Nanda Devi.
There is a elevated `platform' of circumference 110 kilometres, consisting of high mountains, which Nanda Devi is at the centre of. Pindari glacier is at the lower edge of this `platform'. Here is an overall map of the trip. Click on the map and you'll get a high-res version.
The road part of the trip goes through Bageshwar till `Song' or till Loharkhet. From there, the trek goes till a place poetically named `Zero Point', and back. So ordinary hikers go till zero point, and not all the way to Pindari Glacier itself. From Song to Zero Point and back works out to roughly 90 kilometres of a walk.
In the map, the 'blue house' icon stands for a "hut" which is run by KMVN. These are excellent facilities. They have fixed structures (i.e. not tents), enclosed rooms (i.e. no windchill), beds with thin mattresses and clean sheets, and they will cook dinner for you. KMVN package treks are designed around nights at these places, but you can easily make your own plans based on using them.
Kaushik Krishnan did a similar trek, and has made a nice GPX file that you can feed to Google Earth or feed into your GPS so that you have a guide for the route. This gives an excellent picture of the trip:
The google earth view is great because the waypoints and tracks are in the .gpx file, and you can engage further with the route through the software. Or, you can have some instant gratification looking at this region on google maps:
View Larger Map
New Delhi to Bageshwar
We drove from Delhi to Bageshwar. This is a 16 hour drive. The route is straightforward: Head east out of Delhi on NH 24, and then go north towards Kathgodam. Go on to Almora, and head north beyond Almora.
To cram the Pindari glacier trip into a week, KMVN's trip design was a six-day trek. This was a bit hectic and tiring. But it takes 16 hours in and out of Delhi, so it's hard to do much more than six days of trekking if people can only skip work for a Monday..Friday. There are alternative trip designs which cover our identical route in much more time (e.g. 11 days).
The Uttaranchal government has some strange concepts whereby some roads close down at 8 PM. Apparently they consider the roads unsafe, and their idea of coping with this is to close the roads down. In practice, there was no show stopper on this regard, even though we did significant night driving. Ila studying a map at a dhaba
The chaps running the dhaba
Bageshwar is the last nontrivial town on this route. It is the last place with STD booths. It's the last place with a gas station. They have BSNL cell cover, but no other carriers work. Driving till here is straightforward, but from here onwards, the roads narrow significantly.
You drop quite a bit in the drive that leads to Bageswhar, which is in a valley. Hence, Bageshwar is unusually low for this region - only 975 metres of altitude.
At Bageshwar, KMVN has a guest house, which charges the princely sum of Rs.300 per night for a fairly clean room. There is also a dorm where you can rent beds, but this is best avoided.
The KMVN outpost at Bageshwar is also where the trip (contracted in Delhi) commences as far as KMVN is concerned. In their package treks, you are supposed to find your way to Bageshwar, and hook up with the KMVN crowd.
In general, you don't need the KMVN package treks. It's quite feasible for you to just get yourself to Bageshwar, and then line up the pieces required. Here, you can sign up porter(s), a pony, staying at any of the KMVN huts on the way, etc.
Early in the morning, the KMVN people took us by jeep to the next town, called Song. We wasted a lot of time in the morning on this day. If you do it, try hard to be efficient and really leave Bageshwar at 5:30 AM; this helps.
This was a distance of 38 kilometres, and takes roughly 1.5 hours. If you can get motion sickness, it could happen on this ride. The rental cost for a jeep was Rs.500. This was a narrow road, but not insuperable. In principle, you could take your car to Song.
Song is the last place on this trip with nontrivial shops. I seem to remember that Song is at an altitude of 1300 m.
Song is on the banks of the Revati Ganga river. From the road, a short walk takes you to a little bridge, looking over the river. It was extremely pretty. Looking down on the Revati Ganga river, at Song
Up to Loharkhet
From Song, you walk up to Loharkhet. Loharkhet is at an altitude of 1760 metres, i.e. a rise of roughly 460 metres. It is a long, hot, dry, hard walk (this is why wasting time at Bageshwar in the morning hurts). There is a glimmer of a road where some vehicles do ply. It is a good idea to just find a vehicle at Song which will take you up to Loharkhet.
There is a KMVN hut at Loharkhet, where we had lunch. The walk got nicer from Loharkhet onwards, where it went into forest, so it wasn't so hot anymore.
Up to Dhakuri
After lunch, we went on to Dhakuri. This was a tiring, but very nice walk.
A wisp of a chai shop on the way
Looking around at the chai shop
Looking around at the chai shop
Looking around at the chai shop
Looking around at the chai shop
Looking around at the chai shop
Beyond the chai shop, there is a grave of some German chap. From there on, the path becomes a beautiful walk in a dense forest. We saw troops of langurs!
This is dense forest, at relatively low altitude. So there is a profusion of life. Looking down at moss growing on dead log
The path goes up to a pass named Dhakuri Khal, which is 2940 metres, i.e. a climb of 1180 metres up from Loharkhet. There are plans to take the glimmer of a road all the way up to Dhakuri, so that someday you'll be able to drive there.
At Dhakuri Khal, on a clear day, you can see the snow clad peaks of the southern wall of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary. It would be neat to come up to Dhakuri Khal early in the morning, when the skies are clear.
At Dhakuri Khal, there is a turnoff which takes you to a temple, which is 200 metres higher. A pity, we didn't do it; temples in the mountains are often built at gorgeous places. From Dhakuri Khal, we descend to Dhakuri (2680 metres), a walk of 2 km in very beautiful forest. This was the end of day 1. Overall, it was a height gain of 1400 metres, and a walk of 19 km. This was the hardest day of the trip - after this, you're broken in and the remaining days flow more easily.
At Dhakuri, there is a KMVN hut which is a bit of an eyesore, but it's quite functional.
When we reached there, we were simply ravenous. KMVN package treks don't plan for trail chow! Adjoining the KMVN hut, there is a sweet little dhaba, right next to the KMVN hut, which is the only place which will give you eggs. Beware of generalisations; in general KMVN huts do not come with attached dhabas. But this one was cool. We sat there and wolfed down eggs and noodles. Dhaba adjoining KMVN hut at Dhakuri
We woke up at 5 AM on Dhakuri, on day 2, hoping to climb back to Dhakuri Khal to look at the views and the temple there. We were too lazy to actually do this, but waking up early has it's advantages. In the dim light of the first dawn, we got our first glimpse of snow clad mountains. :-) First glimpse of the peaks
The pictures become stronger as the light got better. Peaks at dawn at Dhakuri
Little boy who works at the KMVN hut at Dhakuri
The next day was relatively easy, it consisted of getting to Khati. This is a descent, since Khati is 2210 metres. However, the KMVN hut is 0.5 km beyond Khati, and a steep climb. Terraced fields on descent from Dhakuri
As the map shows, Khati is the place where you'd turn off from the main path to zero point, in order to visit Sunderdhunga. Harish Kapadia's book Trekking and climbing in the Indian Himalaya recommends that trip.
This was a pretty walk. In the background, what is not visible in the picture, were dim outlines of the big mountains. A hut on the way
The path to Khati is a significant road, and this was a chai shop on the way. Chai shop en route to Khati
One striking denizen of these parts is a flower which looks like the hood of a cobra. Hunting on the net revealed that it is called cobra lily. Cobra lily
A stream for drinking water
Khati is the last village on the trip, and the last eggs. You can pay someone to run a generator and recharge batteries! This was the only place with electricity (albeit from a generator) anywhere on the trip. Last dhaba at Khati
When we leave this dhaba, the KMVN hut is 0.5 km beyond Khati town. The last 0.5 km was extremely hot, and we used an umbrella! This is an illustration of the range of temperatures that can easily happen on this hike.
From Khati to Dwali
From Khati, the path heads to Dwali. Dwali has quite a reputation as a very beautiful place, and many people like to stay over there (we had no such luck, with KMVN's hectic trip design). Leaving the KMVN hut at Khati
When we walked on the path out of Khati, at first things seemed to be going swimmingly, and then all of a sudden the path ended in a huge fall! (It reminded me of Harrison Ford jumping out of a pipe with Tommy Lee Jones holding a gun at him). What had happened was that a big avalanche had taken place, and the path was just left dangling at the edge. We backtracked around the avalanche and got back on the path some distance ahead.
Once again, this was beautiful forest walk. We saw a racoon, and many monkeys. Path in the forest
From Khati to Dwali runs all along the Pindari river. It is a climb: Dwali is at 2575 metres. Pindari is a beautiful, perfect, mountain river.
We stopped for lunch at a "dhaba" which was just a small shack where they made tea. This dhaba goes by the exuberant name Himalayan Hotel. After this dhaba, it becomes a steep climb. This picture is taken somewhere in the steep climb out of the dhaba, looking down at the river and the dhaba that we leave behind.
Nestle should use this in an ad campaign for maggi noodles: They didn't have eggs, but they did have maggi noodles.
Note the frail looking bridge across the river. Apparently things get quite hairy in the monsoon, when the river is much more powerful, but for us it was trivial and fun.
Bridge across the River Pindari
The banks of Pindari
KMVN people helped in renting a pony for Sangita, who was extremely exhausted. Sangita riding a pony
Another cobra lily!
Moth on fern
Finally, after a long walk and height gain, we reach a second bridge on the Pindari river, right across which is Dwali. This one is much more of a well built bridge, unlike the previous one. The second bridge on the Pindari
Bridge and Pindari River
Looking down on the Pindari river
Once we finish this bridge, there is a short climb up to the KMVN hut at Dwali. This bridge seems like quite a creation - it has a wide span but seems to be only wood. Very impressive, it looks, and a big contrast to the previous tenuous creation. Looking back at Bridge 2
Dwali is the last place which has nice dense normal forest. It is at 2575 metres of altitude. Beyond this, the vegetation starts thinning out, the air feels perceptibly thin, and the entire world starts feeling different. Shortly after Dwali, the trees dwindle away. You cross the treeline, you are out of the forest, and into the big mountains.
Phurkiya is the last outpost of KMVN. They have a hut there. There is little else there, certainly no eggs. It is a marvellous place to just sit out and watch the clouds go by. But it has a hostile and arid feeling. You know at every moment that this is not your native locale. The air feels thin, it is very cold, and it feels distinctly hard to do physical exertion.
Phurkiya is at 3250 metres, so the climb out of Dwali is quite difficult. At this altitude, even in summer, there are numerous frozen streams. It is quite an amazing feeling, walking across a frozen stream. Generally, you can hear running water below the ice as you walk across the frozen stream. Crossing a frozen stream
From a distance, the frozen streams look like a puzzle. I was trying out theories like 'white rock with lichen'. When we came closer, it turned out to be ice with clumps of dirt on it! Question: Do you know why dirt agglomerates into nicely uniformly spaced lumps on the frozen stream? By default, we'd have expected dirt to be uniformly distributed. Instead, you get a regular pattern of lumps of dirt. Why?
Around here, the river becomes a mystery. At the top, you can see thick ice slab, sometimes more than a meter thick. And below it, you see water flowing. The river is a constant battle between the ice trying to choke it, and the water getting through.
The walk that leads up to Phurkiya is a beautiful one, where you are on the edge of a valley; on your left you look down at the valley and across you see the opposite end of the valley. Just before Phurkiya there is a slender, beautiful, delectable waterfall. At Phurkiya, there is serious windchill. But it makes great sense to bundle up, find chairs at the KMVN hut, and sit out and just look at the world.
To zero point and back
The Pindari glacier trip ends for most (e.g. for us) at an arbitrary point which has been designated `zero point'. Beyond this, the going gets relatively technical and ordinary hikers do not go. You don't get to see Nanda Devi, but you do get to see peaks around her.
We woke up at Phurkiya at 5:30 AM and started climbing towards zero point, which is at 3660 metres (12,000 feet). There were marvellous views on the way, but the going was hard, with height gaining and thin air. First glimpse of the peaks of Nanda Khat
On the way from Phurkiya towards Zero Point
A kilometre before Zero Point, you have the 'best seats in the house', and a Babaji has built himself a lovely place. It is like an amphitheatre, where you are ringed by snow-capped peaks. They are piercingly clear; a sight to behold. It's an amazing place, and it's possible to pitch tent here (Babaji will help). You can see the Pindari glacier from here. It is 0.5 km wide and 4 km long. Babaji's home, surrounded by peaks
Note Babaji's address!
Babaji serves food to anyone who makes it up there. The food was excellent! You're supposed to drop off some donation, so I guess it is "to each according to his need, from each according to his ability". Somehow, in this place, you can suspend your disbelief and it makes sense. Babaji is the one serving food
Babaji is a good, sensible entrepreneur. He started out in Orissa. He first tried to work the Gangotri area, but confessed that there was too much competition from too many godmen. So he moved to Zero Point, where he's got a little monopoly. If you're credulous, he's swift to pick it up and knows to switch into mumbo jumbo. But he didn't try any of that stuff on us. He is nice. He said that he got roughly 1,000 visitors a year. Perhaps a quarter of them are locals, and three-quarters of them are trekkers. It seems like a small number.
Babaji has built himself a sweet little den, complete with a solar panel which he uses to recharge NiCd batteries that drive a CFL! His rooftop makes for a striking image, mixing solar photovoltaics with a trishul. SPV and Trident!
Mehraji, our KMVN guide
Beyond Babaji's den, there is a 1 km. walk further up to Zero Point. It is a spectacular place. It made me think of the end of Lord of the Rings; this must be what Tolkein had in mind. It is vast and grand, and cannot be photographed meaningfully. Well, my widest lens was only 35 mm, and my brain had stopped working.
All the way back to Song
From zero point, we did a tough long walk all the way back to Dwali on that very day. It was quite a day: Wake up at 4, go up to zero point, and walk back all the way beyond Phurkiya to Dwali.
After this, we began our long walk back to Song. We were battle hardened, and losing height was easier. But every time we finished an hour of descent, we simply wondered to ourselves how we had found the energy to climb this on the way up!
The way back was a nice opportunity to spend more time looking at flowers and leaves. Leaves in light
On the way back
Overall, the trip had height gain from Song (1300 m) to Zero point (3660 m), i.e. 2360 metres of 7740 feet. The linear distance of the entire trip Song - Zero Point - Song is 90 km. It was a grand trip and well worth it.
Looking back, it seems that it would have been a good idea to use KMVN facilities and support infrastructure, while not signing up for the package trek. However, from a distance, and for the uninitiated, the idea of venturing into the trek appears formidable, and it might seem that signing up for the package trek is a good idea.
A few suggestions
If you think of doing this trip, the following ideas will help:
- Get the Survey of India Trekking Map Series map of Kumaon.
- Dress in layers that are convenient to add and delete. The temperature can swing around by 10 degrees in a few minutes. It rains almost every day, so it's useful to have a raincoat or a windcheater. Gore-tex would be ideal.
- There is electricity at only one place: A generator at Khati. Carry spare charged batteries.
- You don't need the KMVN package trek. At Bageshwar, you can line up the unbundled components. The components are: Porter (can carry 30 kg, and costs Rs.200/day), beds at KMVN huts (Rs.150/night), a guide (who is voluble, unlike porters, and acts like a majordomo at the camps), transportation to and from Song, etc. This gives you more flexibility in designing your own trip, and making changes on the fly. The package treks are too restrictive; they are useful if you have never ever done a trip in the region before and have no clue about how things work.
- The maps identify all KMVN huts. You can landup at a KMVN hut without any advance warning. If they have a bed, you'll get it. If they don't, they'll spring a sleeping bag and/or a mattress and accomodate you anyway. They will make dinner for you. It's cool.
- The water is not clean when it is near human habitation.
- If you must contract with KMVN in Delhi (or anyplace other than Bageshwar), be sure to have a written definition of what you have contracted. We experienced a serious failure of communications between Delhi and Bageshwar, where the things agreed-to by KMVN staff at Delhi (verbally) were not honoured by the folks at Bageshwar.
- It is nice to have a tent, that gives choices other than the KMVN huts.
- KMVN food planning is low on trail chow and protein.
- There are leeches and flies-that-bite. Full sleeves and long pants make sense. Plan on DEET.
Felled by a leech. Notice the bloodied sock!
Here's some useful information about how things fade away, as you go deeper into the trip:
Place Is the last chance to find Bageshwar Petrol pump STD booth Electricity from the mains Song Tar roads Shops Loharkhet Dirt road Khati Village Generator Eggs Phurkiya KMVN hut Trees (mostly)
Also see: Confluence-Hunting in Uttaranchal by Abhijit Menon-Sen.
Back up to some trip reports.
ajayshah at mayin dot org