9/22/2009 to 10/16/2009 | India , Uttarakhand

Milam Glacier and Nanda Devi East

Descending from Kinnaur via Shimla, I passed through Delhi, on my way back up to the mountains of western Uttarakhand.  Not the most direct route when viewed on a map but the quickest and easiest when the topography of the region, roads, and bus quality is taken into account.  A stop over that was brief, but long enough to lose the tent my sister had brought me in Ladakh, off the back of my backpack. During an early morning arrival at Delhi’s Kashmir Gate interstate bus terminus as I fought through a crowd of crooked rickshaw drivers en route the metro station, either my tent had fallen off my pack or was taken off.  In any case, I retraced my steps once I realized it was gone to no avail.  I hoped that the tent had gone to some poor pavement dweller but more than likely it ended up in the hands of some “scum of the earth” Delhi rickshaw wallah.  Now tent-less I headed back to the Himalayas to hike the Milam Glacier trail.  A trail which skirts the western edge of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary, the mountainous wall surrounding the highest peak solely contained within India’s boundaries.   Fortunately this was a trek which can be done without a tent, relying on a network of basic accommodation in and en route to the villages of the valley.

During the two day journey from Delhi to the Munsyari the weather was less than comforting, torrential rain hammered the Himalayan foothills as I switched from train to bus to bus to jeep.  I spent a night in the hill station town of Almora and then after a slow bus ride to Thal, hindered by a couple of landslides, I ended up staying a night there as well.  It was in Thal that I met a friendly forest department worker originally from Pithoragarh but presently based in Munsyari.  The next day I traveled with him to Munsyari where he helped me find a reasonably priced room.  A rather difficult feat considering it was the Bengali Holiday period surrounding Durga Puja, a time when large numbers of Bengalis leave the hot flat plains surrounding Calcutta for the cool air of Himalayas.  In the process of this annual migration they inflate room rates across the region.  More so than any other one group in India Bengalis seem to love the mountains.  I think I’ve met more Indian trekkers from Calcutta than all the other major cities combined.

Accommodation secured I set about to secure the necessary permits for the trek.  A task which was typically Indian and therefore unnecessarily cumbersome, involving filling out forms in duplicate, numerous photocopies, and hiking to the army post across town for a signature and to deliver a copy of the permit.  At least there were no fees, and it was easy to obtain the permit independently, not always the case with Indian bureaucracy.  In the evening I had dinner with my new forest department friend and some of his government employed colleagues.

The weather was now looking more promising.  The last two days had been sunny and clear revealing the impressive five symmetrical peaks of Pachanchuli Massif opposite the valley from Munsyari, one of the finest views from any hill station in India. The trend towards clearer days had increased my optimism for the weather during my coming trek, and satisfied me that a good amount of the snow that had undoubtedly fallen during the recent storm would now be melting.

I reached Martoli on my second day of trekking.  Martoli is a beautifully situated village on a plateau high above the valley floor.  Although it had become a ghost town by the time I had reached it with all of its population retiring to lower altitude for the upcoming winter.  That is all but one hardy sole who was keeping his home turned lodge open for the trickle of a few last trekkers like myself.  I met Aruna in Martoli, the rarest of rare in the Indian trekking world, an Indian woman trekking on her own, all be it with the help of a local guide.  Indian trekkers are relatively rare to begin with (considering a country with population of over a billion you see vary few), Indian women trekkers are even rarer, and Indian women trekking on their own is almost unheard of, in fact Aruna was and remains the only one I’ve ever met.  Originally from Delhi with roots in Andhra Pradesh,  Aruna had fallen in love with the Himalayas and specifically the region of eastern Uttarakhand known as Kumaun, a place she has often returned to over the years.  This was her second trip up the Milam Valley and she had intended to make it two the Nanda Devi East base camp via Martoli.  Unfortunately the rain that had plagued my journey up from Delhi had dumped copious amounts of snow on the upper regions of the Himalaya.  An exploratory hike earlier that day had left her and her guide cold and wet after wading through waste high snow.

I did a bit of exploring around Martoli the next morning hiking up the hillside behind the village to enjoy the fine views of the distinctive double peak of Nanda Devi and down the Milam Valley.  A view which consists of four peaks over 7000 m (both of Nanda Devi’s, as well as Trisul, and Hardeel).  Aruna was still waiting for her guide to stir when I left for Milam wanting to make the best use of the clear morning.

The village of Milam the highest non-military settlement in the valley, situated at the junction of two valleys one which leads up the traditional trading route to Tibet, off limits to trekkers, the other up towards the cascading ice and rock of Milam Glaicer.  The town was also almost deserted with only a handful of people remaining, one of which was operating a small lodge out of his home where I would stay.  Marring the fine setting of Milam is the adjacent Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) camp, a camp that seem to be constructed to appeal to aesthetic taste of a blind man.  I was required to show my permit and check in at the camp.  They seemed particularly concerned with photographs of the architectural monstrosity that is the ITBP camp leaking out to the Chinese.  I guess they did not realize that by constructing the camp in a style that could not have clashed more vehemently with the graceful stone and wood architecture of Milam village, they had ensured that a five year old child could point out the various buildings of the camp on even a low resolution google earth image of the region much less a military grade Chinese satellite image.  All logic aside, a phase which can uttered often when dealing with Indian bureaucracy, the junior officer wanted me to leave my camera at the camp during my stay at Milam.  A request to which I replied, “No.”  By which I meant, no way in hell, and you’ll have to pry it from my cold dead hand to paraphrase the late Charlton Hesston.  I was introduced to the commanding officer who spoke more than the cave man English of the junior officer which consisted of “you give camera, stay, here.”  The commanding officer was a tall jovial Rajasthani man with an affinity for whiskey.  I sat down with him in his private quarters and he agreed to let me keep my camera, on the condition I would not take any pictures of the camp and would show him the pictures I had taken before leaving.  He did insist that someone go with me when I hiked up to the glacier the next day.  A task he would delegate to the proprietor of the house I was staying at in Milam.  A few glasses of whisky later I left the camp with the man whose house I would stay and who had less than willingly been drafted to be my guide.  But before I left, the commanding officer invited me to return for dinner at the camp.

I ran into Aruna and her guide in Milam.  They were staying at a different house.  I told the proprietor I would go with them to the glacier the following morning so he would not have to accompany me.  A plan which suited all parties involved.

I returned to the camp to have dinner with the commanding officer, accompanied by the proprietor of my homestay.  The commanding officer was well into his whiskey which seemed to have been flowing generously during the hours I had been away.  I was poured a few more glasses myself and offered a snack of chilly mutton.   Dinner was still no where to be found, but the commanding officer had decided in his drunken state that I should stay the night at the camp on the extra cot in his room.  An idea I resisted, with the excuse all my stuff was over at the house in the village.  Clearly a man used to getting his way, even when heavily inebriated, he was not deterred by my replies.  He had a subordinate come in to put on his shoes for him.  Whether it is normal to have one’s shoes put on and tied within hierarchical structure of the Indian army, I do not know, but at the current time and level of intoxication I do not think he could have managed the task himself.  He staggered along side of me leaning on a ski pole for support as we walked across camp grounds.  He barked orders at a few men who where apparently instructed to come back and retrieve my things.  The commanding officer succumbed to the effort of the walk, not a trivial task in his state, and returned towards his barracks.   The somewhat bewildered soldiers now accompanying the proprietor and I, were likely relieved when the proprietor explained they were not needed, and we returned to the house where I would spend the night, leaving the commanding officer to pass out in his room on his own.

The following morning I hiked with Aruna and her guide up to “zero point” the name given to the snout of the glaciers from which the subsequent river emerges.  The view at “zero point” was not particularly great and certainly did not, in my opinion, seem a suitable destination for the trek.  The grey rocks and grey debris covered ice obscured the surrounding mountains making for rather dreary and uninspiring sight.  I encouraged Aruna and her guide to go further.  We hiked up the eastern slope of the valley finding a trail that ran parallel to, but high above the glacier below.  I walked about an hour and a half down the valley to gain a spectacular view of the glacier cascading from the high peaks backing the valley and separating us from Tibet.  This was a suitable destination.

After returning to Milam I decided I would continue down and attempt to hike up the side valley which heads up towards the base of Nanda Devi East from Pachu.   My plan was to hike back to the village of Burphu where the bridge to the western bank of the river was.  I hoped to stay there and hike early in the morning back up along the western bank to Pachu and then further up the side valley towards Nanda Devi.  However, when I arrived in Burphu the place was completely deserted.  With no good prospective place to stay in Burphu I decided I might as well head to Pachu and sleep in an abandon house there.  In Pachu I found a suitable house with an open door and a roof that was intact and looked structurally sound enough that it had a less than 25% chance of collapsing on me as I slept.

The next morning I awoke to find the roof un-collapsed.  I hiked up to the base of Nanda Devi East, a hike which offers some the closest and best views of Nanda Devi, since the hike into the Sanctuary and the traditional Nanda Devi base camp is now prohibited by the Indian authorities.   I reached the base camp in about three hours and then returned back to Pachu collected my stuff from the abandon house and walked down to the villages of Rilkot.  There had been a place to stay open in Rilkot when I had walked up, but on my return it was now closed.  Fortunately the ITBP came to the rescue, and I managed to sleep in one of the buildings at the camp adjacent to the village.  None of officers based in Rilkot could speak much English, but they were kind and offered me some food as well, a very welcome gesture as I was nearly out of the food I had brought with me to supplement the local restaurants and homestays.

From Rilkot I made it back to Munsyari in a very long day, covering a distance of nearly 40 km (25 miles), a hike which started at 6:30 am and culminated 11 hours later when I finally reached the road and I caught a jeep to Munsyari.

A day of rest and laundry in Mujsyari and I headed south down from the mountains to the regional district headquarters of Pithoragarh.  A sprawling town covering the lower foothills of the Himalayas, whose primary economic engine is the adjacent army base.  It’s a place little visited by foreigners, and there is not much or really anything to see, but it was on my way to the western border of Nepal and I would stop to visit my recently acquired forest department friend who was back home for the Indian holiday of Diwali.  I stayed at a hotel not to far from the bus stand.  I was a source of amusement to the local kids and once they learned my name (or at least what they thought my name was “Michael”) they would yell it from the streets below my hotel room waiting for me to appear from my room like the Pope overlooking St. Peter’s square and give a wave.  On Diwali, I went over to my friend’s house on the edge of town and had lunch with him and his family.  After a pleasant couple days in Pithoragarh I was on the move again, bound for the small historical town of Champawat.

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