Tucked away in the upper reaches of the Kumaon Himalaya, along the southeastern edge of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary, therein lies what is, probably, the most easily accessible of all Himalayan glaciers – Pindari. The source of the humble Pindari River that joins the untamed Alaknanda River system at Karnaprayag. Over 3 kilometres in length and around 1.5 kilometres wide, the Pindari glacier is neither the longest nor among the largest of Himalayan glaciers. But what it lacks in mass and size, it makes up for in some of the most dramatic scenery. Its rugged, pristine and breathtaking topography is an unapologetic showstopper.
That I was in the presence of Her Majesty couldn’t be denied. Her lure was strong and the lores knitting magic of their own. She could not be seen, except with the third eye that appears almost conveniently when you’ve spent the last two years (on and off) in Uttarakhand, admiring Her and Her Guardians from afar from different corners. I am, of course, talking about the Nanda Devi, and honouring her rightful and central place in the grand scheme of things. The patron Goddess of both Garhwal and Kumaon, two culturally divided provinces united by Her towering stature, physically, culturally and religiously. It is eventually around Her that anything and everything revolves. And here I was, all by myself, imagining how She would emerge if I were to levitate to an altitude of a thousand metres, thereby weaving fantasies of my own.
Because trekking in comparative comfort has its own set of rewards, of getting to feel and imagine the timelessness of it all rather than pushing for the last mile, bound by the ruthless hands of the clock. Which is why, this seemed like the perfect moment—amidst all the talk about ascents and descents and miles to go—to finally get to shake hands with the beatitude we had set out to seek. While others decided to touch Zero Point, getting as close to the Pindari glacier as possible without technical expertise in mountaineering, I decided to have a couple of minutes in silos to my own convenience, just a little ahead of Pilot Baba ki Kutiya. To reflect and muse about the fact that I was now sitting in the outer rim of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary, hobnobbing with some of Her Guardians. The pursuit of happiness had come to an end, if only momentarily.
And there they were, standing tall in their own rightful might, each with a distinct identity that is worthy of many a bonfire song. To my north was the axe-like and most imposing of all, ‘The Fort of Nanda’ – Nanda Kot. At 6861 metres, splitting the Gori Ganga and Pindari valleys, Nanda Kot was recceed by Dr. Longstaff in 1905 and then first climbed by a Japanese team in 1936. A peak that is physically as dramatic as the stories that are associated with it. It is known to have been climbed twice by Indo-American teams in order to install a nuclear detection device (after having failed to do so on the summit of Nanda Devi) to monitor the Chinese activity in the Tibetan region. Though the story leaked almost four decades ago, there are no published records of it except in some old newspapers and recently in some web articles.
A little to the left of Nanda Kot was the massive hump-like structure, chiselled to perfection – Changuch. Akin to the menacing giant among the army of foot-soldiers that evokes both fear and respect among the enemy at one look. At 6322 metres, standing at the head of the Pindari valley with the Pindari glacier on the west and the famous Traill’s Pass for its crown, Changuch is undoubtedly one of the more exceptional looking peaks in the Indian Himalaya. Looking further left, was what they call ‘The Bed of Nanda’ – Nanda Khat, appearing at 6611 metres, almost to be a continuation of the ridge that leads to the Pindari Glacier. And then further to its east, connected with the Nanda Devi Sanctuary walls and dividing the Sunderdhunga and Pindari valleys, ‘The Gateway of Winds’ – Panwali Dwar. At 6663 metres, seeming like a big beautiful blade guarding the Citadel of the Goddess.
And here I was, reliving the stories that I’d read and heard till now, of Eric Shipton’s humble heroics and Bill Aitken’s passionate lovemaking. And here I sat, having absolutely no right to be but kindly allowed nonetheless by the Goddess Supreme. Then, as if out of impulse, much like Bill Aitken when he was travelling through the Pindari eastern flank of the sanctuary curtain, I too felt the urge to try and cross the ice-fall that culminates at Traill’s Pass. But as he said, “This was wishful thinking of an almost suicidal order revealing how passion for the Devi can blind a walker to his limitations.” And then, as if out of nowhere, the team members started appearing after the descent from the Zero Point. The thought-bubble snapped and gave way to another feeling of having to walk back another 12 kilometres to reach our base at Dwali. But hey, we stood reenergised; it was the New Year’s Eve, celebrations were in order, songs were to be sung and the company, good.
We were a ragtag group of individuals from different walks of life brought together by Terrain Troopers to do just that – walk it off. And in doing that, while only carrying whatever weight was necessary, we gelled well. We were no Suicide Squad, but what we set out to achieve did feel like an attempt at one, only occasionally. Considering we were deep into winter and the inner realm of the Pindari Valley was immensely prone to changing its colour in a matter of minutes. Lest we be snowed in, we charged back. Only the body hunched; the spirit soared. It helped that the core team of Terrain Troopers that led us was of seasoned trekkers. And the fact that all of them were from Almora and knew these mountains like the back of hand was an added assurance. Wherever we faltered, they came to the rescue. Whether with the technical expertise we needed at some points or the motivation we needed throughout, one of them was always by our side. Right from the very beginning!
About the Trek
Difficulty – Easy to Moderate (Some sections beyond Phurkiya need to be tread with extreme caution, especially in winter)
Trek Distance – 60 kilometres
Duration – 5-7 Days (Depending on your physical and mental strength)
Day 1: Almora – Kharkiya – Khati
Motorable – 120 km till Kharkiya
Trek Distance – 5 km | Kharkiya to Khati
The early morning drive from Almora to Kharkiya via Bageshwar was picturesque to say the least, with some of the prominent peaks of the Kumaon Himalaya making repeated guest appearances on the skyline. As we reached Bageshwar, the bends in the road gave way to bends in the river. It was time for Saryu and Gomti to shine and keep us good company till we reach Bharari. Hereafter, every trace of tarmac vanished and the (off)road diverted to the left, leading all the way to Kharkiya. It was late afternoon but the onset of heavy winter made it feel like late evening. It was around 4.30 pm that we started this easy trek towards Khati and reached around 6 in the evening. It is the last inhabited village on the way to Pindari Glacier. Krishna Guest House was our home for the night (there are a few others as well). Temperatures were dipping and so was our energy. With respect to an early start the next morning, immediately after dinner, we retired to sleep.
Day 2: Khati – Dwali
Trek Distance – 13 km
Clear skies and bright sunshine welcomed us. Aalu Parathas, Omelettes and Hot Tea made it feel sunnier and warmer. With a renewed spirit, we left Khati for our base in Dwali. The trail started with Pindari River to our left, descended down to the riverbed where, after crossing a wooden bridge, we climbed back up again to join the broken trail. Only this time, we switched to the left of the river. It was an easy but gradual ascent, with a few steep exceptions. And a few steep average-sized descents. No other switches came in between and the trail stayed true, until one last time we descended down to the river again, walked for about half an hour on the riverside moraines to reach our base for the night – the PWD Guest House. It took about 6 and a half hours reaching Dwali from Khati with a few 5-10 minutes breaks in between. All in all, we had covered a good distance and made good time to get enough rest for even more early morning start the next day.
Day 3: Dwali – Phurkiya – Pindari Glacier Zero Point – Phurkiya – Dwali
Trek Distance – 24 km
Maximum Altitude – Approximately 12000 feet
It was 5.30 am. We were slogging through the darkness on a steep ascent with torches in hand. Legitimate sunshine was a good 2 hours away. Shiva Tandava Stotram played loudly through the bluetooth speaker, both for our motivation and to demotivate any wild animal that may have been lurking in the darkness looking for a pre-sunrise snack. By the time the morning sun started to throw spotlight on Nanda Khat, we were nearing Phurkiya. The hard part of the trek was already done. A few harder sections remained still.
Verglas had formed at many intersections beyond Phurkiya, some extremely dangerous where landing one foot alongside the other wasn’t a possibility. With a little caution and a lot of help from the Terrain Troopers team, this was now behind us; the gorgeous looking Pindari icefall ahead. As we walked on and off through the fresh assembly of snow for the next few kilometres, the famous Kutiya (hut) of Pilot Baba and the glacier entered the frame for the first time. So did Changuch and the base of Nanda Kot. Zero Point was now visible at the far end of the valley. We were there!
After spending a good amount of time, each to his or her own accord, we assembled near the summer residence of Pilot Baba and started off for our base in Dwali. We crossed all the difficult sections under broad daylight, thankfully. By the time we reached Phurkiya, evening had started to take its leave for the night. Stories of a bear sighting were told by a few in Phurkiya. Out came the torches and the music. We were expecting a New Year’s Gala dinner back in Dwali; we didn’t want to become the dinner. Walking almost as if shoulder to shoulder for the remainder of the trek, we reached back around 7.30 pm and began the celebrations.
Day 4: Dwali – Khati
Trek Distance – 13 km
Having trekked 24 kilometres the previous day, this one came and went like a breeze. We woke up with a familiar sight of Sunanda Devi shining upon us. After a somewhat hearty breakfast and tea we headed back towards Khati. The trekking route was the same; we weren’t. Physical soreness aside, we soared through the distance. There were no more stories we encountered on the way, only that we made for ourselves. That and a few mindless fits of uncontrollable laughter and a few quiet moments along the banks of Pindari River at dusk!
Day 5: Khati – Kharkiya – Almora
Trek Distance – 5 km
What we had missed the first evening, on account of having to trek in near darkness, we experienced this time around. The sky was clear and sunshine ensued. Having walked off for a few minutes, Khati village could be seen in its entirety from a distance. A village where, surprisingly, there are more Pomeranians than there are humans. That was something we got to know as we entered the village the evening before and were charged at by a Pomeranian dog at every corner. It was a beautiful village with Nanda Kot and Nanda Bhanar looming large over it. Walking slowly, partly due to tiredness but mostly of not wanting to leave this place, we reached Kharkiya. Some of us, including me, headed back to Almora while others trekked to spend another night in the wilderness at Dhakuri top. Goodbyes were said, good wishes exchanged, hugs were given. Strangers had become the extended family, if only for a few days. As they say, every time you trek, there’s more you take home than you give in.
I wrote this post in collaboration with Terrain Troopers, an Uttarakhand based touring and trekking company whose primary aim is to help adventurers and thrill seekers like you and I explore every nook and corner of this magnificent Dev Bhoomi (Land of the Gods). And at the same time play an active part in maintaining the sanctity of the Himalaya, the culture and beliefs.
The write-up and the pictures thereof is a part of #IAmATrooper #ThePindariTrek, created and managed by Terrain Troopers. If you too are looking to be a part of an unadulterated riding and trekking adventure in Uttarakhand, do give them a buzz. Rest assured, you’ll be coming back with a lot of happy memories and friends you’d want to do this again with.
Until next time! I’ll leave you with a few pictures till then. Travel safe, travel responsibly.