Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Just as some men are breast men, some love legs, and others admire T&A, so too do outdoorsmen gravitate towards a favored landscape. Some are fans of high peaks and snowy passes, others like the rolling hills and dales of the plains, and yet others fall for the rushing rivers and moist gorges of remote valleys. As I traversed the opening section of the trail to Milam Glacier last week, following a rocky and rough trade route alongside the turbulent Gori River (or "ganga" in Hindi) I concluded that I belong myself to this last group.

Determined to make it to opening day at Milam Glacier, I had headed out with my trusted guide Jithu, who earlier had come with great confidence to let me know the path to the snow fields preceding the Tibetan Plateau was clear and ready for hikers. The first step was to hail one of Kumaon’s infamous shared jeeps, crammed in with a family of five, various old timers, and a middle-aged woman with a twinkle in her eye who I suspect was flirting with me. From Dharchula we rode down to a busted bridge on the lower Gori Ganga, some 30-40 kilometers from our starting point, then en masse, we hopped, skipped and jumped, following a stony footpath and hand-tooled trestles across the river. After some time, Jithu and I climbed aboard yet another jeep, loaded like a clown car with 17 bodies. That evening we spent in Munsyari, a hill station far from civilization primarily known as being the stepping off point for Milam, now feeling a little disheartened by the rumors that the glacier trail was in fact still closed.

Early the next morning, we set off on our hike, followed by the calls of local children looking for sweets. Our pockets were in fact filled with toffee -- brand name Shakti, or "power" -- and after the first encounters, whereas I had been feeling a mite miserly, I began to freely dispense our energy food to every little Dick and Jane (or Ganesh and Pavarti, if you like) who crossed our path. The day was sunny, but the immense Panchachuli Peaks, a range of mountains averaging some 21,000 feet, remained hidden behind their own wall of clouds.

It didn’t take long for the thunder to start, however. As we took the first tea break of many, we were told that a couple days earlier a troop of Americans and Indians had passed through with the same goal in mind -- Milam Glacier. Since they had yet to return, I assumed with unlikely optimism that the trail, as Jithu had first indicated, was open; in fact, I thought if we could catch them, it might be fun to have some company. And catch them we did! Unfortunately, that’s because glaciers and the threat of landslide had turned them back, and the "foreigners," as the locals insisted on calling the mixed group, were on the retreat. My hopes of a clean getaway dashed, I wasn't surprised that the rain soon started spitting down. the clouds frothing as though Lord Shiva was intent on brewing a perfect cappuccino from his hiding place in the Himalayas.

Before noon, we took shelter in the first major stopping point on the trail, Lilam, a speck of a town that made Munsyari look like a thriving metropolis. The trail-clearing team from the state Department of Public Works was hunkered down, huffing local tobacco from a hookah. Cheshire cat was nowhere to be found. Rain and more rain appeared to be the order of the day; the chances of making it to Milam Glacier dwindled with every drop and every crash of thunder sounded like the hillsides crumbling.

After a midday nap, we decided once again to charge up the trail. The team we’d passed on their way out said that the first snow bridge could be crossed with ease (despite the fact that they’d apparently turned back at that point). Jithu, who I later gathered was suffering from some congestion and a touch of flu, struck me as uncharacteristically reluctant to tackle the next couple miles, but I was eager to see what would be available up the road. Not much, it would turn out.

That night, exhausted from nearly a dozen miles hiking with sizeable packs, we found ourselves a little trailside respite, and fell asleep to the rhythms of the Gori Ganga, which had accompanied us along the wet chasms leading away from Lilam and the DPW lay-a-bouts. The night was calm, and the black-faced monkeys we’d seen above the path, chattering in the trees kept their distance. Water falls dove to the river in the distance, carrying the glacial melt along gravity’s path while the moon eventually emerged over our notch in the mountains, casting bright light everywhere. The following night it would be full.

But here’s the thing of it: I met with perfect bliss as I lay listening to the running river hammering stones and singing a chant whose language I could barely decipher. I didn’t care the following day when we turned back below Sumi Glacier, a small tongue of snow that dropped from unseen heights -- the American team had allowed that it was crossable, but Jithu remained planted on the solid ground and refused to advance onto the ice even as I tried to cut steps across to the trail visible on the other side. Just being in that valley, alongside the booming Gori Ganga, enjoying the echo of occasional thunder passing overhead made me quite content, and the fact that we wouldn’t reach any great altitudes (and were even being deprived of some world-class views) didn’t matter a whit.

Ultimately, we double-timed it back to Lilam, and slept in a chai stall beneath a grass hut that muffled the late-night rain. In the meantime, the full moon eased over the horizon, an emissary of ancient times, which would have guided us with its gentle light as far as we cared to go. The few local workers came to check out the additional "foreigner" -- that would be me -- and the following morning, after three nights out, we returned to the town of Munsyari.

Addendum: If the mountains thought they were rid of me after throwing down hail and thunder, and blocking my path with the tail of some glacier, they were sadly mistaken. Jithu and I recouped (and he finally confessed that he was feeling, quite literally, under the weather) and made a final assault to mount Kulia-Top, a 10,000-foot peak that can be reached by hiking a mere 6-plus-miles from the main road in Munsyari. Beware those who with to try such a feat that a local guide will be in order, as there is no true path, just a scattering of goat trails up the hillside. We reached the ridge after four-and-a-half hours of steady climbing, and then topped the final knob of Kulia by scrambling along a rocky spine and finally skirting the snow-laden southern face of the hill.

From on high, we enjoyed a 360-degree panorama of Kumaon, looking across to the great peaks of Panchachuli, the Nanda Devi range (as I may have mentioned in previous entries Nanda Devi itself is a height of some 24,000 feet or so, and allegedly harder to climb than Everest) as well as the hill stations of Almora and Pithoragarh. In the distance, I could see into Nepal and the peak of great Annapurna. I even felt the urge for the first time ever to try my hand at climbing a mountain over 20,000 feet. What can I say? I may love the river gorges, but I daresay it’s a man with no heart who wouldn’t find such mountains gorgeous.

Next up… back in Delhi.