Nanda Devi Sanctuary Trek: Acclimatising At Gorson


The skies were still overcast as I stood on the steps of the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam guesthouse in Auli contemplating the trail that lay in front of me. It looked steep… very steep. The steepness of the trail was further compounded by the rotundity of my mortal body. Thus began a conflict that was to play out every moment for the next few days – the battle between the steep slopes and my heavy self. It was under these circumstances that the unstoppable force of my enthusiasm (for what I lack in physical fitness, I make up for in sheer drive) met the immovable Himalayas.

The morning had begun on a pleasant note though. The sky was still overcast, which meant that Nanda Devi was still out of sight, but there were no aches and pains from the ride from Rishikesh the previous day. Went out for a pre-breakfast walk, and promptly ran into a Khaleej Pheasant. Even though the forests in Auli are rich in bird-life, the overcast skies and the constant drizzle meant the bird activity was low. And then we were to start for the trek to Gorson and we did not have the time to lie in wait for the few birds that did decide to brave the damp weather.

A scuttling Khaleej Pheasant.

The 3.5 km trek from Auli GMVN to our campsite on the Gorson Meadows can roughly be broken down into two halves. The first part of the trek follows the ski slopes (complete with ski lifts and the ropeway), all the way to an ancient forest. The next half of the trek takes you through the silent forest that opens up suddenly into the meadows.

The climb starts right from the GMVN itself and continues uphill for a quarter of a kilometre to a tea shop and a luxury hotel before plateauing out for about half a kilometre or so. Here, to your left is an artificial reservoir, used to store water to make snow for the ski slopes during winters. On a clear day, the waters of the reservoir reflect the surrounding peaks.

The artificial reservoir at Auli. (Click for a larger view)

A few hundred metres from the reservoir, the trail starts climbing again towards the last point on the Joshimath-Auli ropeway. This terminal has a small tea shop where you can, if you find yourself huffing and puffing, recharge yourself with a cup or four of super sweet tea. This is also where you leave all forms of human construction behind. The trail continues upwards behind the terminal, and after another few hundred metres, you find yourself standing at the edge of Mirkwood an ancient forest populated by tall trees.

On the forest floor grows a million little flowers, only to be trodden on by crusty trekkers.

The forest stands tall, solemn and sentient – like an army of mythical giants. These are ancient trees and every one of them is covered with ferns and moss. As the trail snakes through the forest, you come across the occasional fallen tree; but even in death, it is teeming with life, in the form of colonies of mushroom feeding on the carcass of the fallen giant. In this forest, nothing goes to waste. Also, did I mention the silence? Apart from the deafening chorus of the cicadas, that is.

The forest suddenly opens up into a clearing and at one end of a paved courtyard, stands an old temple. My guide tells me that when the bakharwals or the nomadic sheepherders take their flock to graze on the meadows, they generally make an offering of a red flag and some cash at the temple. Apart from the occasional shepherd, the temple also offers salvation to the tired, out-of-shape trekker as it signals the end of the trek.
The temple in the forest.

Just a hundred metres beyond the temple, the trees suddenly give way to a grassy avenue, at the end of which lies the undulating expanse of Gorson. The meadows form a part of the popular Kuari Pass trek, frequented by the teeming patrons of IndiaHikes. Our guide had one clear instruction: to pitch our tent as far away from the IndiaHikes campsite as possible. As soon as I emerged from the forest, the IH campsite came to view. With at least a dozen double tents and the accompanying kitchen, dining and toilet tents, the site looked less like a campsite and more like a small village.

We had chosen to camp about 200m uphill from the IH village, on the edge of the forest, next to a small water body.  As we were approaching our tents, the rain picked up again. Thankfully, it was only a steady drizzle – enough to keep the IH crowd in their tents and not enough to keep us in ours.

Our home for the night.
Another view of our tents. In the background is the highest point in the Gorson Meadows.

It was getting colder every minute and thankfully the kitchen tent was up. The cook was quick to brew up some strong tea. Anoraks on and for-tea-fied against the drizzle, we set out to explore the meadows. The entire expanse of the meadows was empty except a couple of shepherds, their dogs and their sizable flock.  Dark clouds were sweeping across the upper reaches of the meadows creating a magical landscape that sent one’s imagination into a tizzy. This is the sort of setting, one imagined, where a dragon suddenly emerged out of the mist.

Reality check: There were only sheep.

Our tent and the kitchen tent
Gorson Meadows
Clouds shroud the higher reaches of the meadows rendering a magical quality to the surroundings.
Madhur Upadhyay – my partner in this trek and lover of sheep. (Click to expand. In the top right corner, you can see our campsite)
Wet, cold, and loving it.
Gorson Panorama. Click to expand.
Wild berries.
Returning to our camp.
Sheep grazing on the meadows, like tiny balls of cloud at ground level.
Magnificent little beasts.

Here’s a little time-lapse video I made of the sheep grazing on the meadows:

That night, the skies opened up with an unprecedented fury. Lying in my glorified nylon bag, I was at one point of time even worried about the tent collapsing under the sheer weight of the rain. Thankfully the rain fury soon subsided and settled into the steady drizzle. The gentle rhythm of raindrops on the nylon dome of the tent soon soothed me to a deep sleep.
I opened my eyes to tent awash in bright blue light and stepped outside into a sparkling morning. There were still clouds in the sky, but there were also big blue patches… and they were getting bigger! The promise of a bright day and the downhill trek added a much-needed dose of energy to my aching body.  By the time we had finished breakfast and packed up, the sun was out in all its glory. Gorson Meadows is known for its stunning view of Nanda Devi, Trishuli, Hathi and Ghoda mountains, Dunagiri, etc, but that side of the sky was still covered with clouds.
Blue skies and promises of a better day.
Jagged mountain and the dappled sunlight.
Different day, different light.

Once we emerged from the forest on the open ground above the Auli ropeway, the entire landscape looked completely different from the previous day! The slopes were bathed in bright sunlight while on the opposite side the jagged, toothy mountains looked less sinister now that they were being viewed through the ‘dappled sunlight’ filter. The grey of the previous day was replaced by a thousand shades of green and blue. Mordor had suddenly turned into the Shire.

True to this change, the birds were up and going about their business. We had particular luck with a kestrel that was hopping from bush to bush in hope for a scurrying Pika or two. Further down, we also emcountered a Himalayan Griffon vulture waiting at the edge of the cliff for the thermals to rise.

Kestrel looks at me.
Kestrel poses with flowers.
The huge Himalayan Griffon Vulture waits for the thermals at the edge of a cliff.

The trek to Gorson had one purpose: to acclimatise us to the altitude before we push deep into the Nanda Devi National Park. In my younger days (I can officially use this term now), the altitude had little or no effect on me, but during my ride to Ladakh in the summer of 2016, AMS hit me like the holy ghost. Memories of a sleepless night in a carelessly erected tent in the middle of the windswept plain of Sarchu (13850 ft) prompted me to visit the doctor and medicate myself in advance. Cannot be going through that agony again!

A car would be waiting for us at Auli, ready to take us to the village of Lata, from where the trek to Nanda Devi National Park actually began.  Unlike the well-trodden Kuari Pass trail, this route is off the beaten track. In fact, if your guide is to be believed, we were the first person to venture on that route in 2017.

Saying goodbye to Auli.

 

PART 1: Rishikesh to Auli

Ladakh: A Journey in Photos


For years now I have been delaying my plans to embark upon a road trip to the Mecca of Indian bikers – Ladakh. But then the most unexpected of things happened. Royal Enfield offered to take me on a ride from Delhi to Ladakh to test ride the Himalayan. I would be a fool to turn down the offer of a lifetime.

This would be my first road trip in three years. There were doubts. many, many doubts. Do I still have it in me to travel these long distances? What if I get mountain sickness? What if the bad roads and the strain of the saddle trigger my dormant sciatica? Strangely enough, all these doubts dissipated the moment I swung my legs over the rugged Himalayan on a sweltering July morning at India Gate.

What followed was a week of riding, riding, and then riding some more. Fine, I did fall off a couple of times, but in my defence, it was only while I was trying to show off. So anyway, while I battle my laziness and contemplate how to document the journey in this blog, here’s a teaser of the journey; Through some photographs from the phone. Hopefully someday soon I will manage to get off my ass and write a travelogue and post photos from the ‘proper’ camera.

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My ride, the Royal Enfield Himalayan. Tough as the rocks behind it.

CHAPTER I: THE HIMALAYAN

I worship my Royal Enfield, a 2008 Machismo 5oo. But the Himalayan was a different beast altogether. For starters, it is purpose-built to take on the rough roads and then carry on when even these ‘roads’ ended. This is not a review of the motorcycle, but let me tell you this, the chassis and suspension are on point. What I loved most was the positioning of the foot pegs; it allows you to stand up and ride. Specially designed indentations along the fuel tanks help you lock in your knees and just glide over the rough patches.

I have always admired motorcycles for their simplicity and ruggedness. After 6 days and close to 2,000 kms on this motorcycle, I can report that not one panel on the bike exists for aesthetic purposes. Everything is rugged and everything is functional. This is what, in my mind, makes the Himalayan beautiful. There is a lot of bite in the brakes, at times, a bit too much, but this is something you will get used to.

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Just before Bilaspur, where we regrouped before resuming the ride towards Manali.

All these improvements on the Himalayan meant that it was really hard for me to get off the saddle. As a result, the 320-odd kilometres between Chandigarh and Manali was covered with just one butt break (not counting the photo stops). The previous day we rode into Chandigarh from Delhi, a distance of some 260 kms. This was good because it gave me time to get used to the bike before hitting the hills.

When you are used to riding the older generation Royal Enfields (and in this, I am including the models with the ‘new’ UC engines), you become so accustomed to vibrations at high revs that when you come across a motorcycle with no vibes whatsoever, it seems rather unreal. This is exactly what happened to me between Delhi and Chandigarh; on top gear at 110-120 kmph, I felt no vibrations whatsoever, at neither the handlebars nor the footpegs.

This also brings us very neatly to what is the biggest downside of the Himalayan – the rather unimpressive power delivery on the higher rev ranges. This is felt the most on long stretches of empty roads where you might want to give it some beans. Irrespective of how well you shift or how wide the throttle, the higher reaches remain annoyingly flat. This motorcycle needs and deserves 10 more horses. The day Royal Enfield makes this happen is the day I put down my deposit on one.

CHAPTER II: THE RIDE, OH THE RIDE

The flat Delhi-Chandigarh and the twisty Chandigarh-Manali stretches ensured that by the time we left Manali towards Rohtang and beyond, I had gotten the hang of the Himalayan. The Himalayan Odyssey is a group ride and this year there were close to 80 riders. In addition to this, there were us, a handful of riders from the media. I am not that much of a group rider; in fact, i ride alone and ride to get away from people. So, the mornings were usually slightly stressful for me.

 

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Meditating upon a mountain: A man sits by the edge at Rohtang, watching the world roll on by.

But where there is anxiety, there is also a solution. I planned ahead and parked the bike closest to the exit spot so that in the mornings I am one of the first riders to leave. Upon leaving, I picked up some speed (it was relatively easy as I am a paced rider by nature) which allowed me and a couple of experienced riders get a considerable headstart over the rest of the group.  Once you cross Rohtang and descend into the otherworldly Lahaul-Spiti valley, you need to be in your own skin to enjoy the ride and this strategy allowed me to do so.

 

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The road to Jispa

CHAPTER III: ON THE BANKS OF THE BHAGA

Our destination on the third day of the ride was the tiny mountain village of Jispa. At barely 110 kms, this was the shortest riding day of the trip. Coupled with my riding strategy, this meant that I was able to reach Jispa well before the rest of the gang arrived. Jispa is but a small hamlet located at the widest part of the Bhaga valley. The river here is wide, shallow and full of pebbled banks and a much-needed refuge to worshippers of solitude. Spend some time here, amid the relative greenery before you venture into the land of the high passes, the sparse, stark cold desert.

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This was once the bottom of a primordial ocean. Then came the uplift and the earth folded into curious rocks. Now they reside some 3 kms above the sea level. Nature, you beast.
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…but if you know the right people your bike can have a drink along the way.

 

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The tiny cluster of buildings in the distance, that is Jispa
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And quiet flows the Bhaga as the golden light paints a thousand shades on the mountain slopes.

CHAPTER IV: MOONLANDIA

The word ‘Ladakh’ translates to ‘the land of high passes’. The first of these, Baralacha La, lay but a few kms from Jispa. The previous night was spent in the throes of a myriad of impossible dreams – an obvious effect of the high altitude. So as I swung my legs over the Himalayan’s saddle, I was acutely aware of the fact that on this particular day, we would end up camping at Sarchu, about a kilometre higher than Jispa. I had been previously under the impression that altitude-sickness would not affect me – what with all the trips across Spiti and a couple of high-altitude treks under my belt – but boy, was I about to be proven wrong.

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A crisp morning in Jispa

 

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Bikes and bikers stop for a laboured breath at Bharatpur (No, not the one with all the birds)

Altitude is a great leveller and pride comes before Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Avoiding the precautionary dosage of Diamox was a bad idea. Baralacha La came and went, but what remained was a constant throbbing in the head and a strange tingling on the lips. Every breath was laboured and progress was hard. There was barely any strength left to stand on the footpegs and let the lovely Himalayan (which, at this point was faring better than the rider) loose over the gravel and the occasional water crossing. Your appetite goes for a toss, but you need to keep a full stomach to fuel the body and keep the situation from getting worse. Luckily, the lovely tented restaurants along the way dish out many a delicacy from their makeshift kitchens.

Sarchu is cold, windy but impossibly picturesque. It is also a nightmare for those staying overnight. There are no permanent structures, only tents offering varying degrees of ‘luxury’. Gasping for breath, we reached our encampment, neatly lined up in the middle of the windswept plains against the background of the stark, craggy hills.

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Our campsite at Sarchu

 

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Motorcycles and tents… life on the high plains of Sarchu
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A game of thrones.

 

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As the sun sets on yet another day on the road, it leaves us with this gift, a million earthy shades on the mountains of Sarchu.

CHAPTER V: RIDING INTO HEAVEN