Indian Himalayan Trek: Nanda Devi April - May 2004
I booked a 4-week trip to India in 2004 involving an exploratory trek off the beaten track.
I arrived in Delhi late one night and made my way through the masses to find my lift to the hotel. First impressions of Delhi... dusty, dirty and smelly! Having been to Nepal before, it wasn't too much of a shock, just a lot more crowded. There was a whole range of vehicles on the road, from trucks down to entire families on a single motorbike; cows and camels made appearances as well.
Met the fellow trekkers the following morning, quickly packed and hopped on the bus for a 2 day drive up to the start of our walk. Delhi by daylight was a different matter, now I could see the surroundings. Homeless beggars at every street corner, people sleeping in the middle of busy roundabouts. It heated up quite quickly, here on the Indian plains it regularly reached 40C this time of year.
Our second day on the road produced a flat tyre which took a few hours to find a fix. The road got very narrow very quickly due to the rough terrain but we had a great driver who somehow fitted the bus around sharp corners with trucks heading in both directions. The plains of india were very crowded around the main road, but up here the Himalayan foothills made things a little more difficult. It was well after dark when we wound our way up a 2,000m pass. Fortunately we couldn't see the road which was very narrow and there were sharp drops and landslips everywhere. We were in thatched huts that night - sleeping required moving the beds to the middle of the room away from the walls which had plenty of critters and spiders nesting in them.
Our porters and guides appeared the next morning and we left the bus and were on the road down to the Gori Ganga river. This river is fed by a glacier on the Chinese border. Not many westerners come up this valley so we drew plenty of interest from the locals as we walked through some small villages. It also drew the attention of Indian army soldiers who were patrolling the valley. China tried to invade India through this valley back in the 1960's so the defence force patrols this area. It is a little disconcerting approaching an army outpost full of fully armed soldiers when our only form of defence was our trekking poles and ignorance. But we drew plenty of smiles and handshakes from the soldiers who were clearly on a boring post.
The valley became steeper as we headed into the Gori Ganga Gorge. It had rock walls thousands of metres high on either side, and steep side valleys feeding waterfalls into the main river. Our path we followed was an old trading route which is only used in summer. Previously the Indians used this valley to trade with the Tibetans. It is a relatively "easy" valley to access Tibet (China), with three 5000m passes around the border. There are deserted trade villages along the way which are now only populated by shepherds in summer.
It was relatively warm in the valley but got steadily colder the higher we climbed. Our days weren't too long, but with 5am starts it was nice to be in camp mid-afternoon. As we climbed out of the gorge we could see more of the higher mountains surrounding us. The sheer scale of them all was amazing, especially for a WA girl. All of the other trekkers were from the eastern states who had at least some snow experience. The group was an incredible bunch who had each travelled far and wide so it was a great delight to share this amazing place with them.
We headed up a side valley towards Nanda Kot and to a base camp to be used for the next couple of days. There was a snow storm overnight but the next morning we were treated to a clear view of the surrounding mountains covered in fresh snow. A few hours were spent playing in the snow with our ice axes and crampons in preparation for our 5800m mountain climb the following day. It was actually night since we were climbing at 1am the next morning. We saw the most amazing view of stars alongside bright shooting stars. The first signs of daylight were welcomed a few hours later. Climbing certainally got harder as we climbed well above 5000m. But the day remained clear as we made our way to the top and a great view up the valley and into Tibet and Nepal. Some people brought their skis and tried out the slopes which probably had never been skied upon before.
The next part of the trip was up another side valley towards Nanda Devi, the highest mountain in India. Next to it was Longstaff Col, made famous by the Himalayan explorers of the early 20th century. Now we were off the path and made our own tracks up the valley. One fellow trekker had an unfortunate slip and sliced open the palm of his hand on an extremely sharp rock. Fortunately there was a surgeon on the trip who stitched it up on the spot. But it was a serious injury which required him to get "proper" medical treatment as soon as possible. The satellite phone was called into action and we arranged to meet the helicopter in a couple of days at a good landing site - Nanda Devi base camp.
Indians are mad about cricket so all the porters took delight in playing cricket at high altitude. They all know Australian cricketers, so they love any mention of Ricky Ponting or Adam Gilchrist. At base camp, we made a cricket bat out of all things, an ice axe. An unfortunate slip sent it flying and into the head of an unlucky porter. Fortunately it was only a glance rather than an implant and required a couple of stitches. So no more ice axe cricket for a few days. It snowed all the next day which stopped any more cricket.
We moved on from base camp and headed up to Trail's Pass which would provide access to the Pindari Glacier and the next valley. All the fresh snow was making slippery climbing and before I knew it, I'd slipped on some ice and smashed my knee on a sharp rock. Seeing blood coming through my trousers was not a good sign and tearing them open revealed a large gash right across the front of my knee. I saw a nice display of my kneecap and tendons. Looking at the injury I realised this would be the end of the trip for me.
The surgeon was called into action again and no anaesthetic meant things were a little painful. He was excited to see my knee insides but I had enough of the anatomy lesson and asked him to hurry up and stitch it up. We had to get down to base camp where I hoped to get on the helicopter which was already on order. A couple of the trekkers helped me on the way down as I was on one leg in the snow & ice. The rest of the group headed up to the pass so it was a very difficult and rushed goodbye - one minute I'm climbing up the mountain and the next I'm due for helicopter evacuation. One of the leaders helped me out and we talked things through since I'd never been in a situation like this before, let alone so far from home.
A couple of very boring days in an amazing place at the base of Nanda Devi waiting for the chopper. A good time for reflection since I was incapacitated, something I'm definitely not used to. A relief to hear the chopper heading up the valley after a long wait. I'd never been in a helicopter before so was quite apprehensive. But it was a perfectly clear day and I forgot about being scared as soon as the helicopter left the ground. Unbelievable views of the mountains which can't be put into words. I hoped to be back one day but knew that it might be a long wait. I just made the most of this flight.
We landed at a small base right next to the Nepalese border and got into a larger chopper which took us to a town at the base of the Himalaya which offered a large hospital. I'd rather be back in the mountains for treatment after being admitted here. It was so dirty compared with the western hospitals we are very lucky to have. About 15 doctors were excited to see us and keen to operate on my knee. I refused, pointed out it was already stitched up and they were a little disappointed. But looking at the stitching needles on offer, I wasn't!
A drive to Delhi and a few days' recouperation in a hotel. And a culture shock having seen no-one other than the trekking party for at least a week, now I was stuck in a city of over 10 million people! Even then, I felt very alone. I hadn't planned on being here alone which made facing up to India very daunting. I received a phone call from the Australian High Commission after Indian newspaper reports of Australian mountaineers "lost and seriously injured" who were rescued by the Indian Army. I cleared up the story, no serious injuries and we were far from lost. He warned me not to go outside alone in Delhi at night being a single female in foreign culture.
I had to decide what to do next - go back to Australia now or do some sight-seeing around here until my original end date. Then another option crept in my head - have a few quiet days around Delhi and drive back to the mountains to try and meet up with the group I didn't have a proper chance to say goodbye to. The doctors had said that I'd only need a week of rest before starting exercise again. The third option took priority ñ I would probably never get a chance like this again. I arranged with the tour operator to spend a couple of days in Agra before driving for a couple more days back to Munsyari.
The Taj Mahal provided some much needed spirit. Anyone who has been there will know what I mean ñ there is a very special aura around it. Then I literally bumped into an old friend, Claire, at breakfast after seeing the Taj Mahal. I hadn't seen her for a couple of years since she'd been working in Africa. It was a great surprise seeing a friend having seen no one but strangers for a few days. She was sight seeing on the way back to Australia and had tours around the same attractions as well.
A drive back to Delhi, a short rest. Tried out some stair climbing to check out my fitness and the hotel staff thought I was mad. Off in a taxi the next morning and I couldn't wait to be back in the mountains and seeing the group I'd left. It was quite hot down here, had been up to 45C. Still a couple of days on my own but this seemed worthwhile considering the goal at the end. Had a nice stay in a campsite near a lake. It was good to be out of hotels and under the stars.
I got to know the road to Munsyari very well. I was hoping we'd picked the right place to meet up since we'd heard nothing from the group of their progress. Also I wasn't sure how I'd go walking up the valley by myself. I just made sure I got up there as soon as I could for the best chance of meeting the group.
We were almost at Munsyari when I saw one of the trip leaders on the side of the road. The group was camping right nearby! It was a great surprise since I didn't think I'd see them for at least a couple more days. So I raced up the hill to the campsite and there were smiles all around. They'd radioed in earlier that day and only found out then I'd be back. So they knew to keep an eye out for me on the nearby road. What amazing luck.
We traded stories of the last week which seemed like a lot longer than only seven days. The weather had turned very bad after the helicopter evacuation and they couldn't get over Trail's Pass. They'd been running from the weather for the past week back down the Gori Ganga. There was certainally a lot more snow around here than the start of the trek.
The next morning we were up at 3am for one last climb. It was a nice ridge top climb to a 4000m peak. The weather was the clearest it had been for at least a week. There was an amazing view of Nanda Devi and the surrounding mountains we were immersed in earlier in the trek. It was a special moment considering I was choppered out only a week before.
Things wound down after that. We had a couple of days camping in the mountains and slowly made our way back to Delhi over a few more days. We had a civilised stay in a mountain resort town. Our hotel must have been the Indian equivalent of Fawlty Towers but no one minded having experienced the past few weeks in the tough Himalaya.
This was one amazing trip. Plenty of people have asked if the knee injury spoiled the trip, but I got a lot more out of the trip having gone through that experience. India is one incredible place which has literally left its mark on me. Whenever I look at my scar I'll remember the incredible people I met and the mountains that made me feel right at home. I know I'll be back in the Himalaya sometime soon.
See a full selection of the photos in my gallery.