Thursday, 10 July 2014

Burphu Dhura - Part 1. Dancing with the Devi

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 
Suddenly, an old woman was possessed by the Devi. She began to whirl and sway recklessly to the now heightened drum beats. Infected by the same spirit, a much younger woman who an hour earlier had been suckling an infant, went into full turbo charged mode. Her head spun, her hair wrapped itself round her face and she began to scream indecipherable oaths. She hurled herself into the air, landed on her feet, spat vigorously at the men who now surrounded her. She yelled at them, they yelled back. In the brisk pandemonium that ensued, questions were hurled at the woman. What was the harvest going to be like? Would the winter snows come early? Was the Devi happy with the residents of Ralam? Will my gout stop tormenting me? Will I have any more children? Will these crazy people succeed in climbing Burphu Dhura?

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.

Narinder Chouhan

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.

Bhupinder Pant
Jinendra Maibam had travelled all the way from Manipur to join the expedition. He was the youngest member of the team and eager to learn from the veterans.

Jinendra Maibam

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.

Divyesh Muni
But even the Fearless Leader could not bypass the requirement of permits to climb in the area we had chosen. Lacking the necessary passport size photographs that the District Magistrate's office required, we went on a hunt for a photographer who could do this in the least possible time in Munsiari, the little town we arrived in on 13 September 1999.

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!
We spent two days in Munsiari organising the 39 porter loads with the help of Harsingh Sr. and his three friends from the village of Kapkot. Munsiari's claim to fame is of course the spectacular view of all the five peaks of the Panch Chuli group and it did not disappoint in this regard.

The Panch Chuli peaks at dawn from Munsiari
Four days of walking through an interesting mix of terrain, with overnight halts at Paton, Liungrani and Kiltam, brought us to the summer settlement of Ralam at 3600 metres. Our timing was perfect, we arrived on the day of the festival of Nanda Devi and the inhabitants were in a convivial mood.

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
The rituals ended as dusk fell and everyone retreated to the few stone houses to continue the celebrations indoors with more singing and drinking. I walked a little way beyond the village to sit on a rock and update my journal when a clod of mud the size of a golf ball landed on my lap. I looked up to see a little girl, not more than 6 years old and wearing a thin cotton dress. She disarmed me with an innocent smile and said, "Which village do you come from?"

"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.
Next day, we established a Base Camp at the foot of the Shankalpa glacier, barely two and a half hours upstream from Ralam, in a barren and windy spot by a small pool of water. Burphu Dhura, the virgin summit we had come to attempt to climb, was not even visible from here. For that, we had to negotiate another seven kilometres over the moraine of the Shankalpa, turn left where it joined the Yankchar - Kalabaland systems, and finally place an Advance Base Camp on the true right bank of the latter, at the foot of the second tributary glacier which fed the Kalabaland.

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
For a glacier so spectacular and bristling with so much climbing potential, it had not received many visits. The plum of the area had been plucked in 1979 by Harish Kapadia's second determined visit to the area. Lakhpa Tsering, Kami Tsering, Zerksis Boga and Nayankumar Katira stood on the summit of Chiring We on 10 June 1979. That left Burphu Dhura as the sole virgin in the cluster of summits at the head of the Kalabaland glacier. A team from the Mumbai IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) had sought to climb the mountain from the north, approaching it from the head of the Kalabaland Glacier, but their attempts were thwarted by avalanches.

Sketch Map of area, from "Mountain of Long Life" by Harish Kapadia (Himalayan Journal Vol 36)
For a peak with a fairly modest altitude, Burphu Dhura boasted a complex architecture. The spine of the mountain ran in a roughly north-south axis with a long summit ridge punctuated by a couple of humps. To the west the peak fell away very steeply to the Burphu gad. The East face bristled with unfriendly hanging glaciers and seracs.

Detail of area from 1:150000 Swiss map of Garhwal East 
Since the mountain had already been attempted from the north by other parties without success, we considered it worthwhile exploring the southern approaches for a weakness. Our initial foray led us into a gully which was blocked at the top by an icefall. We extricated ourselves from this dead end by a horrid crossover on a crumbling couloir of shale into the adjacent gully which is where we wanted to be. This involved some steep rock climbing by Narinder who then fixed a rope for us to follow, during the course of which Satya was pummelled by falling rock. Fortunately the only damage was to the GPS instrument that he was carrying. Our intrepid leader was unperturbed : after all, he told us, the ancient mariners had navigated the vast oceans for thousands of years before the first compass was invented, so the loss of this gadget was something we could definitely live with! The next day Divyesh and Narinder discovered that we could actually enter our desired gully right at its foot from a little further west. This gully enabled us to place a camp on the snowfield at the eastern foot of a ridge which rose up to a minor summit which we referred to as Burphu South.

Coming up the gully to Camp 1
With invaluable help from our Kumaoni staff, this Camp 1 (as we referred to it) was stocked and we agreed that this would become the actual hub of our activities for our tryst with Burphu Dhura.

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
We spent the next day in a leisurely fashion, enveloped in cloud for most of the time, preparing a couple of tent platforms for the rest of the team who were expected in the afternoon. We organised the loads and dived into our tent for food and intellectual sustenance : Satya buried his nose in Agatha Christie's Thirteen Problems while I sampled Roald Dahl's twisted short stories.

Satya looks for clues to solve the Burphu Riddle!
Our four Kumaoni staff - Balwant, Duryodhan, Laloo and Soop Singh - arrived first, followed by Narinder, Bhupinder and Divyesh in that order. After a brief halt, Laloo and Soop Singh descended to Advance Base where they would hold the fort with Harsingh Sr. while the rest of us would test our mettle on the flanks of Burphu Dhura.

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.

Cadonopsis convolulacea

Lady of Ralam

This goat voices disapproval at our arrival in Ralam!


  1. Enjoyed every moment reading it... Keep writing Aloke!!

    1. Thanks Dev! With your encouragement, I am sure I will keep writing!

  2. It is a wonderful account - thks Aloke. This is an area which I am yet to visit!
    Thanks very much Sujoy

    1. Thanks Sujoy.... do go there sometime, you will not regret it!

  3. As usual Aloke, you titillate the reader with your brand of 'mountain-speak ' and full closure but 'not on our first date please' kinds ! Compliments to your writing skills and await the next 'date' !

    1. Thanks Anil! Your continued support and encouragement is always welcome.