|Burphu Dhura from the Kalabaland Glacier|
A cool September breeze rustled the grass on the slope above the village of Ralam. The villagers made their way up the track to the shrine of Nanda Devi, accompanied by a couple of drummers who beat their little percussion instruments with a steady and stealthily increasing tempo. There were babies and children, grown men and women, young lads and lasses, grinning old women and toothless old men - all swept up in the spirit of the festival. In fact, some locally brewed spirit had also been imbibed prior to the proceedings, to bolster the mood of cheer and goodwill.
|The Devi's influence : Dancer in a trance|
|The Dancer an hour earlier|
The whirling dervish answered in short bursts of invective which seemed to satisfy the petitioners.
The procession reached the small stone shrine which served as the temple to Nanda Devi, the omnipotent presence in this part of Kumaon. The acting priest accepted the offerings of food and flowers. In one corner of a field, great amounts of food was being cooked for everyone. A stone lifting competition was in progress. The crowd dispersed into small groups, enjoying the festive ambience of the event.
A waxing half moon rose in the skies, the clouds that had been hugging the hillsides began to disperse, and it promised to be a clear and cool night. A flock of sheep took on the appearance of little white maggots from up where we were.
The members, staff and porters of the Burphu Dhura expedition mingled with the crowd. It was a great start to a climbing expedition!
Five months earlier and about two thousand kilometres away in Mumbai, the telephone in the living room rang. My wife picked it up. "It's for you," she said. I hobbled painfully to the corded instrument.
"Hi Aloke," said a cheerful voice. "How are you?"
"Not too good, Satya," I said.
"I want you to join the team I am putting together to attempt Burphu Dhura in the Kalabaland Glacier in Kumaon," said the Lt. Cmdr.
"Satya, my Plantar Fascitis is almost killing me, I can barely walk, I don't think I am in a position to climb anything!"
"Oh, you'll be all right by September," Satya said optimistically.
It turned out that he was right. I began to look forward to seeing a part of the Himalaya I had not been to and as an added bonus the trip would be funded by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation which meant that there would be no stress on my wallet!
I joined the team at Delhi to meet the rest of the members.
Narinder Chouhan was a climbing instructor from Himachal Pradesh whom Satya knew. He lived in the village of Bhagsu above McLeodganj and was tall and strong and very fit.
Bhupinder Pant (whom we called "Panditji" due to his earnest manner) lived in Almora and for him this meant climbing in his backyard! He was soft spoken and mild and very modest.
Divyesh Muni, the ever smiling stalwart of the Himalayan Club in Mumbai, and I (once again the oldest!) completed the team. Lt.Cmdr. Satyabrata Dam would perform the role of Fearless Leader of the expedition.
A couple of enquiries led us down old cobbled pathways to the modest house of an old man with one paralysed hand. He brought out a battered old 35mm rangefinder camera loaded with ORWO ISO 125 film, made us sit on a chair in his makeshift studio, turned on two faint flood lamps, and clicked the shutter.
It had begun to rain heavily by this time, so we sat around on the little porch. The photographer came out after some time from his dark room, washed the negatives in some water and hung them up from a clothesline to dry! While we waited, he told us stories from the 1950s when he had gone on trading jaunts to Tibet via Milam in the Dhauliganga. The rain petered out to a light drizzle in a few hours and we walked back to the accommodation of the Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam, clutching our precious photographs.
|The photo that opened the sacred Inner Line for me!|
|The Panch Chuli peaks at dawn from Munsiari|
|Fearless Leader Lt.Cmdr. Satyabrata Dam (with appropriate headgear to ward off the impending rain) in serious conversation with Divyesh Muni. Soop Singh wisely does not join in. Between Paton and Liungrani|
"Mumbai," I said truthfully. She did not appear impressed in the least.
"What are you doing here?" was her next question.
"Going to Base Camp", I said.
This seemed to satisfy her and she skipped cheerfully away into the gathering darkness.
|The Goriganga on the descent from Munsiari towards Lilam|
|Lunch stop at the Pilti Nala beyond Paton|
|Camping at Kiltam|
|This Red Necked Phalarope continued feeding in spite of the camp bustle at Kiltam|
|Ralam is overlooked by Suitilla (upper right). This picture was taken on our return when the village had already been vacated for the winter.|
It was a spectacular location, providing us with an unrestricted view of Chiring We and Suli Top and if we cared to glance down towards the south, the shapely triangular pinnacle of Suitilla confronted our vision.
|Chiring We from Advance Base Camp|
|Sketch Map of area, from "Mountain of Long Life" by Harish Kapadia (Himalayan Journal Vol 36)|
|Detail of area from 1:150000 Swiss map of Garhwal East|
|Coming up the gully to Camp 1|
Deciding to lead from the front, our Fearless Leader announced that Jinendra and he would occupy Camp 1 on 28 Sept and co-opted me as his hapless second. I had taken the day off from load ferrying chores on 27th, my birthday, so I had no choice but to put up a brave front.
Very soon Jinendra dropped out of the fray as he developed signs of acute mountain sickness. I trundled on after Satya, who had already trotted on ahead. Perhaps the rest day had done me more harm than good, for I tottered into the camp site a full eight hours after leaving Advance Base and almost 2 hours behind Satya. Fortunately he had the tent already set up and I collapsed thankfully into it.
|Camp 1 gave us a grandstand view of Suli Top|
|Satya looks for clues to solve the Burphu Riddle!|
A stiff breeze sprang up in the afternoon and I seized this opportunity for a delicious siesta. A sumptuous dinner of boiled potatoes, bhel and khichri followed. The wind had cleared the night sky, now awash with stars. Satya and I stood outside, clutching mugs of hot tea and contemplating the heavens. The moon rose from behind Suli Top and the silence touched our souls.
|Lady of Ralam|
|This goat voices disapproval at our arrival in Ralam!|