Sunday, January 26, 2003

Ah, yes, the mountains of India -- and the promise of skiing the Himalayas. We are full into winter here, but the longitude means snow is spare even at 7,000 meters. (Dharchula is not that high, but the surrounding hills are.) Following reports of storms in the Himalayas, we had thought returning from Delhi we might catch some of the white stuff with our Xmas memories intact. A few patches lingered in the shade along the mountain passes, but Kumaon more or less is bare of snow. Instead, despite the coldness of the nights and the barren deciduous trees that have dropped their leaves in the past couple of weeks, bright red rhododendrons in the upper valley forests are coming into bloom.

Nonetheless, my interest in snow has been more than academic. This past week, I departed the far reaches of Dharchula for Josimath and the Auli ski area. Nibbles from stateside magazines provided impetus for a preplanned trip out of Kumaon and into neighboring Garhwal, known far and wide as "Paradise for Trekkers." Its relative distance from the border region where we live has allowed a greater tourism industry to crop up in this nearby region, but all the same you wouldn't know it from the backroads and byways that we covered, avoiding the edge of the Indian plains in exchange for a dubious "shortcut" over a variety of mountain passes well within view of the Nanda Devi range. Nanda Devi itself is the second highest peak in the country (and apparently a climb more challenging than Everest in neighboring Nepal despite being not quite as tall).

So leaving dearheart C to her linguistics, I packed up my sleeping bag, journal, ski gloves, gaitors and camera and headed out.... I should have guessed something was amiss when my guide, Jithu, a local fellow with limited English who has led us on our hikes out of Dharchula, started puking out the bus window. An inauspicious beginning to our somewhat suspect challenge of finding snow; keep in mind that Indians don't really know from winter, and they're given to exageration and face-saving ruses. So, despite consistent reports that there might be snow in Auli, I had my doubts before hitting the road. As we approached, tracing beautiful river valleys and hopscotching through small towns well off the beaten path, it became even more apparent that this might be a fool's errand. And Jithu losing his breakfast just a couple of hours into our two-day trip wasn't inspiring much confidence either.

Lo and behold, at our halfway stop in Gualdam, a small village at the crossroads to famed Rishikesh, a famous "energy center" and yoga resort, we met a van driver who insisted that the snow had gone missing since New Years. This was echoed by the manager of the government-sponsored inn, where we found bargain beds for approx. $1/night. But there were kilometers to go, and we would from then-out be headed due north, where any precipitation that had wafted across the Subcontinent might still be intact. A gruelling haul began the following morning at 6, featuring a bus breakdown and rickety jeep rides over some of the longest mountain roads I have EVER traveled (and I've made the run from Seattle to Missoula more times than I can count) soon dropped us at the "resort" town of Josimath.

A few patches of ice were to be found at 2,000 meters. Meanwhile, Auli itself remained a few KM in the future, at near 4,000 meters in elevation. I could have trusted my intuitions (or by this time my eyes) but the following morning we resolutely caught the tramway up the hill. Clearly, I was having my doubts, but we were seeing bowls with snow in the 6,000-m mountains surrounding Josimath. I made a small offering at the local temple, even, seeing as how mountains and gods are considered one in Hindu practice. And with the icy wind coming off the slopes, I still felt ridiculous optmistic. Resisting my prayers, the top of the ropeway and chairlift were dry as dirt. In fact, minus a patchwork of lingering snow, all that was evident was dirt -- not that I was going to be dissuaded from my now questlike efforts to ski the Himalaya.

We rented a single pair of slightly warn skis; they were in relatively good shape, given the realm of possibility. Shouldering this new burden with somewhat heavy hearts, Jithu and I trekked to Gorson Point, a hill about a mile above the last chair, where local guides indicated any snow that might be left from the December storm could be found. (Suffice it to say that snowmaking equipment has not been installed at Auli....) Our lungs bursting in the thin air, our faces barren to the alpine sun, we huffed and puffed past the school groups practicing their snowplow turns in the shade, finally emerging from the forest in a boulder garden high above Josimath and the inns of Auli itself. The snow was still patchy, but a few football fields worth of well crusted snow was intact between the rocky outcroppings.

Nanda Devi peak and Trishul gleamed in the afternoon sunlight. This is it, I thought, gobbling a few cashews and raisens packed for the occasion. I took a swig of water, repositioned my sunglasses and stepped into my bindings. I nodded at my guide, who back on solid ground had made a full recovery, and took off: I made my first three or four consecutive turns with relative grace, though I was out of practice and struggled with trusting my repaired knee. I suffered my first wipeout only when the soft crust turned to a windswept shield of ice, bouncing me back on my skis. I surveyed the damage, feeling optimistic now, and skittered across a patch of grass with my skis still on -- an advantage of rental gear! I hit the second patch of snow, visualizing my turns and making each one with aplomb.

But as I came to edge of this small snowfield in seconds flat, disaster struck.

My size-too-large rental boots were more clapped out than I suspected, and as I pushed to avoid a group of jutting rocks and keep aimed at the spit of snow that would carry me to the next patch of ice, the bindings stretched and the cables loosened under the strain. Now my body was twisted in one direction, but my gear continued to follow the fall line of the slope towards the dastardly rocks! Their points emerging just below me, I couldn't take a baseball slide to counter my momentum and saw that my only chance was to straighten out and fly right. Not that I could clear the 10-meter gap in a million years, but it was better than the horror of slicing myself to shreds on the outcropping. Then I was airborne -- extreme skiing in the Himalayas -- as Jithu looked on in amused terror as I came down hard on my left ski and stopped violently bouncing off the frozen ground in a full yard sale.

Bruised but in one piece, I had mastered what snow there was in Auli. For good measure, we also trudged to the Indian Army training slope, and another 200 yards of snow, where I made my final turns. Then, with the sun setting, we headed back to the GMVN (government-run) lodge where I lucked into a recovery whisky with an optistic Indian yuppie up from Delhi, who thought he might try his hand at Gorson too, followed by a good night's sleep in the cheap dorm bed.

It's been a couple of hard days of travel since then, stopping in the excellent holy Shiva city of Bageshwar, and my foot is still a little achy. Now, again, we return to Dharchula, with Jithu in tow, with stories to tell and Auli under my belt. The author-monologuist Spalding Grey has written in "Swimming to Cambodia" about those perfect traveler moments, when the world seems to be balanced at the point of perception. After nearly three months, these are stacking up. Hopefully, I'll get around to recording more in the near future.