Nanda Devi Sanctuary Trek: A Tale of Two Latas


Our first destination of the day was the village of Winter Lata, 30 kms from Auli on the road that leads to the Chinese border. In this region, every village is split in two. A set of houses are located high up in the mountains where the villagers farm terraced plots of land for beans, rajma, potatoes and vegetables. This part of the village is inhabited during the summers and monsoons – the growing season in the Himalayas. After Diwali, which comes right after harvest season, villagers pack up their essentials and move to another set of houses closer to the road below. This is where they wait out the winters and the snow takes over the higher village.

After we climbed down from Gorson, we took a small break at Auli, before continuing to the village of Lata, located about 40 kms from Auli, on the road to Malari (Map with directions). Where we actually stopped was the village of Winter Lata , which comprises of a series of houses on the right side of the road. To the left of the road is a small drop, a couple of levels of terraced fields and then the Dhauliganga river.

READ THE PREVIOUS PART OF THE JOURNEY HERE

A zoomed in shot of Nanda Devi from Dhak, on the way to Lata.

IMPORTANT: The Nanda Devi Outer Sanctuary (NDOS) is a restricted area, even for resident Indians. Entry into NDOS is restricted to 5 people per day and not more than 20 persons per week. For the permit, you will need to furnish one photograph along with a copy of a government issued photo identity card as such PAN Card, Voters’ Card, Driving Licence, Aadhar Card, etc. The entry fee per person is Rs 150 and on top of that, you will need to pay a trail management fee. You will also need to pay for your guide and porters. If you go with a local guide, he can get the necessary paperwork done for you in advance. 

The trek starts from the edge of the road in the winter Lata village, at an altitude of 2,200 m, following a concrete pathway that leads to the Summer Lata village (2400m). The Ultimate destination was the log huts at Lata Khadak at 3,800 m, almost 13 kms away. The trek is doable in one day if one starts from the road at dawn. But since we were camping the previous night at Gorson, by the time we left the roadhead, it was around 3 in the afternoon. 

Looking down at the road and the Dhauliganga river.

 

Stepping into the otherworldly beauty of the Nanda Devi National Park. On the left in the gorge cut by the Dhauliganga river.

For trekkers who are not at their fittest, it is best to break the trek from Winter Lata to Lata Khadak into two days. If you so choose to do so, you have Two possible camping options:

Bhelta: Deep inside the forest, this campsite comprises two narrow ledges to pitch your tent and a natural cave which can serve as the kitchen. Damp, dark and claustrophobic, Bhelta has that one thing trekkers and mountain travellers cannot do without – a water source.  

Kanook: Kanook, also called Kanook Khadak is about 400 m above the Bhelta campsite and is a small meadow with a view of the Dhauliganga valley. While this clearly does not suffer from the claustrophobia of Bhelta, it does not have a water source. Since we had started the trek late and we were short of water, we chose to camp at Bhelta.

Looking back at the end of the day – on the bottom right is the Dhauligamga, to its left is the road from where we started the trek three hours ago. Slightly higher up is the village of Summer Lata.
Bhelta Campsite. It was right after the monsoons and the vegetation was so overgrown that our tents and the kitchen cave were totally hidden.

The 13 km long trek from Summer Lata to Lata Khadak can be largely divided into three section. The first part of the journey, one we had just completed, ends at the Bhelta campsite and is a gradual climb through dense forests. The next part of the trek is the actual steep climb that starts immediately after Bhelta and continues all the way to the treeline. The last and the third part of the trek continues steeply uphill above the treeline, all the way to the Lata Khadak log hut. In the rarified air and lacking the shade of the forest, sunburn is a real possibility here.

The Nanda Devi Sanctuary in general and this trail, in particular, is off the beaten track and we were the first group attempting this trail this particular year. This meant that in places, the trail was swallowed up by the forest and we could rely only on the directions of our guide and at times, some clever guesswork.

State of the trail.

This was going to be a tough day for me as the climb looked almost vertical. In my mind, I had calculated that it would take me a better part of 8 hours to complete the 8 km stretch. We set off around 7:30 am from Bhelta and maintained a slow but steady pace. Every now and then the forest would thin out along a ledge and offer spectacular views of the Dhauliganga Valley and even the Gorson Meadows some 40 kms away, where we had camped to acclimatise ourselves to the altitude.

The dense pine forests of the Nanda Devi sanctuary. The top of the ridge in the background is the Gorson Meadows.
Zoomed in view of the Gorson Meadows from somewhere between Bhelta and Lata Khadak.

This trail has a unique way of reminding you how high you have climbed. Every now and then Summer Lata village would spring to view, growing increasingly smaller. Ditto with the Dhauliganga river. And this works strange magic on the tired body of the trekker. All of a sudden, you have a real sense of achievement. If I can climb this far, surely I can climb a little further…

Looking down at the distant valley through the colourful tangle of the forest foliage.
Lata grows increasingly smaller. The Dhauliganga is a mere ribbon.
PANORAMA: Click to expand. See if you can locate Lata village.

What these photos do not capture, however, is the silence of the forest. This is one of the reasons I chose to get away to the mountains. There is something pure and therapeutic about this silence.

After a couple of hours of climbing through the forest, we found ourself suddenly above the treeline. The path now snaked through ankle length grass swaying merrily in the wind. This was the last stage of the trek to Lata Khadak. The trail, however, was still unforgivingly steep. At this point, our guide, irritated by my slow pace had decided to abandon me. ‘Ab toh asaan hai‘, he said. ‘Just look out for the laal jhanda (red flag)’, he said. On and on I went till a red flag mercifully revealed itself at the top of a hill. As I climbed towards it with a zombie-like intensity, a long, green, timber structure revealed itself.

At last, I was in Lata Khadak (3,800 m), our destination for the day, and shelter for the next three.

View of Lata Village and Dhauliganga valley from above the treeline.
Out there… in the distance is a red speck of a flag. Out there is our destination for the day.
At long last… the Lata Khadak cottage.
View from the balcony.
Sharp edges of the mountain lit by the afternoon sun.
Clouds obscure the Bethartoli Himal.

Lata Khadak is located on a high plateau, surrounded by even higher mountains. One of my favourite travel bloggers, Sadanand Kamath describes the location best:

 On the south-west side is the Dhauliganga valley from where our climb started. Further left to the Dhauliganga valley is the Rishiganga gorge followed by Ronti nala. On the south side, we could see our trekking route – Gorson bugyal-Talli-Khullara-Kuari Pass and a part of descend to Dhak road head. A small ridge connects Lata Kharak with Saini Kharak and Jhandidar. On the north-eastern side, the prominent peak visible is Dunagiri (7,066 m) and some distanced peaks on the Indo-Tibet border. The closest peaks to see from Lata Kharak are Bethartoli Himal, Nanda Ghunti (south face), Ronti, and Hathi Parvat . Nanda Devi, Devisthan I and II peaks are not visible from Lata Kharak as their views are blocked by Jhandidar ridge. These peaks can be viewed only from Saini Kharak.

One of the best things about Lata Khadak is the stunning view of Dunagiri. When we arrived the northeast sky was covered by scattered clouds, but within about an hour, the clouds were gone and there stood the mountain, seeming almost an arm’s reach away.

Dunagiri looms of Lata Khadak.

Once my battered body was coaxed back to life with a gallon and a half of steaming tea, it was time to explore the immediate surroundings. Just behind the cottage a narrow pathway leads to the ridge that connects Lata Khadak with Jhandi Dhar and Saini Khadak. The late September sun was at its golden best, colouring the already spectacular surroundings in a shade of honey.

Golden light on mossy rocks. Dunagiri on the left.
Looking back at Lata Khadak from the ridge.
Looking towards Jhandi Dhar and Saini Khadak.

After two days of hard walking, it felt great to just sit soak up the last rays of the sun from such a spectacular spot. Not a sound was to be heard save the chirping of the crickets. In front of us lay a great big icy wall, the kind that would put the great northern wall of Westeros to shame. This formidable wall was made of mountains including Bethartoli Himal (6,352 m), Nanda Ghunti (6,309 m), Ronti (6,023 m), and Hathi Parvat (6,727 m).

In my experience only mountains, and the Himalayas, in particular, can make you feel so utterly insignificant that it shakes you out of the self-centric bubble we tend to live in.  This is the ultimate surrender – knowing how powerless you are against the sheer force of nature. You come back a grounded and a more rounded individual. 

The long day, which began deep in the forests of Bhelta, was slowly coming to an end on a sunny rock overlooking some of the deepest valleys in Garhwal. The golden light had, by now reached the icy wall of Himalayan pinnacles. The stunning Bethartoli, now bathed in the yellow light resembled a mountain made of gold. The tiredness of the body was forgotten… pain in the limbs suddenly felt very inconsequential. All we could think of were the promises of the next day.

Golden light on the Saini Khadak ridge
Madhur in the Golden light
Mountain of Gold – Bethartoli Himal.

 

READ MORE:

PART 1: From Delhi to Auli

PART 2: Trek to the Gorson Meadows

Nanda Devi Sanctuary Trek: Reaching Auli


A strange darkness had started to creep in. I had always counted myself rich with an exciting job, a best friend of a wife, three of the cutest cats a person could have ever wished for – yet, there was this big gaping hole in the soul. It was as if I had been kissed by a dementor, a kiss that had sucked all the joy out of my life.

A chance conversation with the wife helped me reach the root of the problem. Partly it had to do with the phenomenon called ‘adulthood’. Over the last three years, I had landed myself an exciting, albeit stressful job, gotten married, and like Jude of the song, had taken upon my (not so) slender shoulders, all the weight of the world. Unlike my pre-adult life, there were no mountains; no rides on my trusty ‘Dope’, and barely time to be alone with the voices in my head. And it was this absence of this connection with myself, that had made me liken my then existence to a dementor’s kiss.

Coming to this realisation was a massive change in itself. It was as if a weight had lifted off my chest… I could breathe easy… the fog of despair had lifted. Now that I knew what to do, I needed to move on to the next step: where to go? Easier said than done. Every road called out to me. Every Himalayan valley seemed to sing a siren song trying to lure me into their deepest recesses. A week’s plan soon became 10 days, and finally grew to two whole weeks. It was settled then: I would do a trek inside the Nanda Devi National Park. To do that I would need to first get to Auli, near Joshimath. This is where my motorcycle, Dope comes in.

I have been on this route a few times, and from the very beginning, it was clear that Joshimath / Auli could not be reached in one day. So I decided to set off from Delhi around noon on the D-Day. The plan was to reach Rishikesh by the evening, rest up and start for Auli the next day at first light.

Credit: @Manasi Saxena

The road till Meerut was chaotic as usual, but once the by-pass starts, it is a clean six lane cruising all the way till Roorkee. I took to the saddle after four years with a lot of apprehension. Would I be able to ride for long? Will my back give up? Would I have to turn back with my tail between my legs? Turns out nothing of that sort was going to happen. It was like fish in the water. The miles just started tumbling and the first and only break of the day came after 216 kms of riding. Once a biker, always a biker.

I had booked myself into Hotel Green Hills in Rishikesh. A secure parking was absolutely essential for me and this establishment had it. I also got an airconditioned room for the night at Rs 700. Another advantage of the hotel was its location right on the highway. All I needed to do in the morning was tie down my luggage and leave.

Morning view from the hotel porch. The hills are just a touching distance away.

Within ten minutes of leaving the hotel, I found myself finally in the hills. The monsoons had just about ended and the mountains were carpeted in a million shades of green. On my right was the young Ganga – green and eager and utterly oblivious to the abuse that lies ahead. With every turn of the road, I could feel the mortal energy return to the husk of a being I had let myself turn into. The roads were blissfully empty and the metronome-like engine note of the large single-cylinder benignly threatened to transport me to a meditative state.

The infant Ganga takes her first few steps out of the Himalayan cradle.

 

As we leave the Ganga far below and slowly climb higher, the sun finally comes out.

 

Dope – my companion on this and many more memorable journeys. May your chrome never lose its glint!

My plan for the day was to ride non-stop (photo breaks don’t count) at least till Karnaprayag.  The annual yatra season had ended and I wasnt expecting a lot of traffic. The road itself was in remarkable shape. Except for a few landslide-affected stretches (inevitable in the Himalayas), the road was a poetry in smooth tarmac. Never had I seen a mountain road, (and a highway no less) in as good a shape.

This is no ordinary road. For thousands of years, long before humankind had mortar and asphalt, people have travelled on this road; on foot, on animal-drawn carts and even on the backs of other people, in search of the divine.  Not only does this road lead to Badrinath, one of Hinduism’s most sacred temples, along it also lie the five holy confluences, or prayags – the Panch Prayag.

Dev Prayag: Alakananda and Bhagirathi Rivers meet here, the first of the prayags, giving rise to the Ganges. In terms of riligious significance, it is second only to Allahabad, where the Yamuna and Saraswati meet the Ganga to form the holiest prayag and hence the site of the Kumbh mela.

Alakananda (right) and Bhagirathi (left) meet at Devprayag

Rudraprayag: The meeting place of the Alaknanda  and the Mandakini rivers. At Rudraprayag, one comes across a fork in the road and the two prongs each follow the rivers. I continue to follow Alaknanda towards the next prayag. I turned left on the fork here to follow the road running next to the Mandakini on a previous journey to Deoriya Taal and a trek to Chopta and Tungnath Temple.

Somewhere between Devprayag and Rudraprayag (click to expand).

Karnaprayag: 34 kms upstream of Rudraprayag, the Mandakini is joined by the Pindar river. Legend has it that Karna, one of the pivotal characters in the Mahabharata, prayed to his father Surya at the prayag here and in the process received the kavach (shield) that made him near-invincible in battle. Here, you cross the bridge over the actual prayag and continue along the left bank of the Alaknanda towards Joshimath and Auli. Another road branches off from the bridge towards Tharali and Gwaldham into Kumaon, a road I took on my way back and immediately  went on to have one of the most fun few hours of mountain riding i’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. More on that later.

Nandaprayag: 23 kms upstream, the Nandakini River meets the Alaknanda River at Nandaprayag. Unlike the other prayags, the confluence isn’t visible from the road here. What you can see is a maze of concrete structures and have your senses invaded by noxious diesel fumes emenating from the bus terminus.

The road thus far has the river for company and follows a gentle enough gradient; but as soon as you cross Nandaprayag, things get more interesting. The roads are not as wide as you have experienced before and switchbacks appear with increased frequency betraying a rather steep gain in altitude.

What a pleasure it is to ride on these roads!
A short break to appreciate the surroundings. And the companion.
… the said surroundings

Vishnuprayag: The last of the prayags was the only one I did not visit. This is where the Dhauli Ganga river (this river will make its appearence in a future post) meets the Alaknanda, a few kms upstream of Joshimath town.

During the course of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary trek, we would be hitting altitudes in excess of 4,500 m (14,700+ feet), so it is recommended to complete an one-night accimatisation trek. We had chosen the Gorson Meadows above Auli for this very purpose. To reach Auli, we had to take a small road turning right from the highway, a few kms before Joshimath town. This tiny little road snakes through thick forests and a couple of Indo Tibetan Border Police encampments for 14 kms and ends at the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN) guesthouse in Auli, at an altitude of 2,500 m.

If the sky is cear, Auli offers the visitor a clear view of the iconic Nanda Devi peak (7,816 m / 25,643 ft). But this was not to be. The sky had gotten overcast as I took the turn for Auli and by the time I was unloading my luggage, it had started drizzling. The clouds, however, did little to obscure the unique jagged-edged mountains around Joshimath and Auli.  In the dying light of the day, the dramatic mountains looked like the exposed teeth of a long dead leviathan, bared menacingly skywards upon death.

The black snake of a road slithers up the mountain at Auli.

 

Ephel Dúath

 

As a couple of plates of maggi, followed by some excellent chilli chicken whipped up by the good cook at GMVN slowly soothed the body into a state of temporary hibernation, the mind drifted across the jagged shadow mountains towards Mordor the deep Himalayas. What adventures lay ahead? Will the goddess Nanda Devi open her bounties to this humble traveller? If only I had a window into her divine mind…