A trail's tale

The literary history of a Himalayan path
A trail's tale
A trail's tale

There&rsquos a trail in Garhwal that goes up hill, and down dale, through forests of giant rhododendrons and over emerald meadows through the temperate heat of low valleys and the cold of high passes. Cutting across the three river valleys of the Pindar, the Nandakini and the Birehi Ganga in central Garhwal between Gwaldam and Joshimath, the trail culminates in the high mountain pass of Kuari Khal which must boast one of the most spectacular ringside views of the Himalayan Range.

The Kuari pass trek today is a popular one, but for centuries it has been a vital trade route with Tibet over the Niti and Mana passes, and a favourite expedition trail in the 20th century. As a result, the trail received three great short biographies in three classic mountaineering books of the 1930s Eric Shipton&rsquos Nanda Devi (1936), Bill Tilman&rsquos The Ascent of Nanda Devi (1937) and Frank S. Smythe&rsquos The Valley of Flowers (1938).

The most detailed description of the trail can be found in Smythe&rsquos book. While crossing the Pindar valley, he writes, &ldquoNot even in Sikkim have I seen finer tree rhododendrons, and there was one moss-clad giant which cannot have been less than five feet in diameter&hellip&rdquo He muses that these trees must have started their life even before the East India Company&rsquos ships had reached India&rsquos shores. Little details like when Smythe observes a brown bear cub disappearing into the forest, throw a poignant light on our wild heritage. The Himalayan brown bear, which were few even in Smythe&rsquos time, have become almost mythical now, due to their&nbspvastly reduced numbers.

But the trail wasn&rsquot just a pretty stroll. Near the village of Kanol in the Nandakini valley, Shipton writes, &ldquo&hellipin my diary there is the laconic entry &lsquoflies and bulls,&rsquo&hellipthe recollection of being driven out of camp by the one and flying naked before the other, which attacked us as we were about to bathe, is still very vivid.&rdquo In Smythe&rsquos book there is also a remarkable description of a violent thunderstorm, &ldquoLightning when it strikes close&hellipdoes not make the sound we conventionally term &lsquothunder,&rsquo but a single violent explosion, a BANG like a powerful bomb&hellipI was thoroughly scared, and as I lay in my sleeping bag I could have sworn that streams of fire flickered along the ridge of the tent and down the lateral guy-rope.&rdquo

Falling into rivers was an occupational hazard. Tilman writes wryly, &lsquoThen we had trouble crossing a smaller river, where the bridge consisted of the usual two pine logs and flat stones in between. Those with experience are careful to stick to the logs, but Loomis trusted to the stones, which naturally slipped through and in he went, losing both topee and ice-axe. Pasang rescued the topee after an exciting race downstream.&rdquo 

Another problem was food. Shipton was trying out his experiment of a light-weight expedition which would live off the land. This meant that, unlike the extensive culinary bandobast that accompanied Smythe, he was constantly trying to get villagers to sell him milk, or eggs, to no avail. In the Birehi Ganga valley he laments, &ldquoBy now we should have become indifferent to rebuffs in the matter of eggs and milk (although)&hellipone could hardly throw a stone without hitting a cow, a water buffalo, or a goat.&rdquo 

Still, the authors can&rsquot get enough of the glorious freedom of walking in the high hills. In the Nandakini valley, Shipton rhapsodises about &ldquo&hellipthe freshness of the morning, the oaks, the hollies, and the chestnuts, the tapping of woodpeckers and the distant note of the cuckoo&hellip&rdquo Smythe, while admiring the beautiful purple Iris kumaonensis, mentions that, &ldquoI have one in my own garden (in England) which brings to me every spring a memory of the Himalayas.&rdquo

Finally, after crossing the three valleys, the authors reach Kuari. Tilman started out for the pass in the early morning for its fabled views but, &ldquolowering clouds and mist veiled the horizon in all directions,&rdquo and all he saw was a glimpse of Hathi Parbat. Smythe was equally unlucky on the pass, but a little way down, from a clearing in the forest, he saw the massifs of Hathi and Ghori Parbat, and &ldquoa terrific icy spire, shining and immeasurably remote, thrust itself through the clouds, Dunagiri.&rdquo Shipton struck gold. His party reached the pass at dawn and &ldquoa gigantic sweep of icy peaks confronted us, and it was difficult to refrain from gasping at the vastness of the scene&hellipthe glittering array of snowy peaks of all shapes and sizes were easier to admire and wonder than to identify.&rdquo

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