My unforgettable Mountaineering Expedition in Northern India
Ex Baljuri Tiger was a unit led level three overseas mountaineering expedition in India. The expedition took place in early spring of 2010 from 12 April through to 12 May. The participants of the expedition were from the British Forces Brunei Garrison, comprising of an eight man team. The expedition leader was Capt Saroj Rai and due to requirement of another JSMEL qualified instructor, I was privileged to fill an instructor’s role.
The planning and preparation began a year prior to the expedition with much research needed on procedures, obtaining visas, details on health matters, altitude sickness, equipment, and clothing. Training for the expedition was difficult with the climate and terrain being so different in Brunei. Some members of the team attended relevant courses covering MLT, SMP, WMP and Mountain First Aid courses to prepare themselves. The training program was scheduled in such a way that it included physical and technical aspects of mountaineering; including various lectures and films related to mountain safety. There was also a two day training programme during the stay at Base Camp (BC), where snow and Ice safety training was carried out in the Pindari glacier.
The primary aim of the expedition was to climb the open peak Mt. Baljuri which is 5992 metres above sea level in the Uttarakhand region of India. This introduces climbers to a high altitude climbing experience as well as team leadership building and promoting mountaineering within the RGR unit. An additional aim of the expedition was to involve in Military Aid to Civilian Community (MACC) project. The project involved visiting a remote school on the route and distributing stationary.
Uttarakhand is a state located in the northern part of India. It became the 27th state of the Republic of India on 9 Nov 2000. Uttarakhand borders Tibet to the north, Nepal to the east, and the states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh (of which it formed a part before 2000) in the west and south respectively. The region is traditionally referred to as Uttarakhand in Hindu scriptures and old literature, a term which derives from Sanskrit for the Northern Country or Section. In Jan 2007, the name of the state was officially changed from Uttaranchal, its interim name, to Uttarakhand, according to the wishes of a large section of its people. The provisional capital of Uttarakhand is Dehradun which is also a rail-head and the largest city in the region.
The history behind this area goes back to the beginning of the 19th century, when the Gurkhas were expelled from Kumaon, Garhwal and Himachal Pradesh after the 1814 – 15 Gurkha War. Nepal and Britain signed a non-aggression pact which neither side violated. However, Nepal adopted an isolation policy, closing its doors to the rest of the world. It then became a forbidden land and this stimulated a curious fascination among outsiders. The discovery that the Everest is the highest mountain in the world added to the mystique. When Nepal opened its doors again in 1950, the first visitors were captivated by this medieval kingdom that was seemingly unaffected by the 20th century. The members of the first expeditions to Everest marvelled at the beauty of Nepal and widely advertised it. Then came the trekkers and tourism gathered momentum.
This region has been open since the British took it over in 1815 but it was abandoned by explorers in favour of Nepal. Various early Himalayan explorations were undertaken here. The Trisul Parbat, after it had been climbed by Dr. Tom Longstaff in 1906 remained the highest mountain climbed for the next 30 years. The famous mountaineers of 1930 like Bill Tilman, Eric Shipton and Frank Smythe marvelled at the beauty of the region. Later, climbers like Chris Bonington, Peter Boardman and Mick Tasker used alpine techniques to conquer Changabang and Dunagiri. The hill folks and pilgrims also trek over hills and dales due to lack of roads and means of transportation. Adi Shankaracharya trekked in the Garhwal Himalayas in the 8th century A.D. and he was the pioneer who opened trekking routes in this part of the country.
At first, the expedition team was split into two groups with the Advance team, consisting of Capt Saroj and LCpl Biswasdip travelling on 12 April from Brunei to New Delhi via Singapore to arrange some necessary administration for the expedition. The main body consisted of Sgts Indra and Surendra, Rfns Khim, Hari, Dipesh and Umesh travelling on 15 April from Brunei. After attending an Indian Mountaineering Foundation brief containing the Dos and Don’ts of the country on 16 April, all expedition team members boarded the train to Kathgodam. The train began its journey through the northern plains of Delhi which exhibited a completely flat landscape. The train journey to Kathgodam took a total of 8 hours arriving after midnight. On arrival we were then transported to a government guest house known as Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam.
It was an early start for the team as we had a long journey of 12 – 13 hours in four wheel drive vehicles from Kathgodam to Song, the trek start point. The area we drove through took us into some of the well known hill stations of the Kumaon region, such as Bhimtal, Nainital, Almora and Bageshwor. The road was very narrow with small bends, requiring extra care from drivers coming from both directions. The views were breathtaking along with different species of pine and alpine trees. On arrival at Song, we decided to by pass this busy campsite and move to Loharkhet at 1680 metres.
On 18 April at Loharkhet we had a pleasant start to our day with a well prepared breakfast to kick start us into action. We then started our scheduled acclimatisation walk up to a 2200 metre hill top known as Chow Rasta. We decided to stay at Loharkhet an extra night, and visited some local villages en route to the hill top. The locals were mostly from a Bhutia ethnic group and some of our staff had come from these villages. The villages mostly depend on agriculture for their daily living and they are lucky enough to have basic water supply through the spring water.
On 20 April, it was time to move to Dhakuri Khal, although the weather was against us with heavy rain and thunder storms. Once the weather cleared, we managed to prepare our logistical support group which consisted of 20 mules, 8 local agency staff and 8 horsemen. Today was our MACC day at a school in Harkot village, where two of our porters came from. We received a warm welcome from the villagers after a 1 ½ hour trek including a steep climb. It was during our second communication check back to the unit at 1600hrs Brunei local time that we received sad compassionate news regarding a member of our team, Sgt Suredra. Circumstances were such that he had to immediately abandon the expedition and fly to Nepal from India. However, the rest of the team had to persist after losing a much valued member and we continued the MACC project at the school at Harkot village. The school and children were expecting our arrival and we received a very warm welcome from them. We distributed all the stationary items that we had brought with us from Delhi and we all agreed that it was a very rewarding experience. After a quick packed lunch and some entertainment which had been organised by the school children, we continued our trek towards Dhakuri pass. The route was through village paddy fields then on towards rhododendron hill all along until the pass. Like Britain in April, all the rhododendron flowers were blooming and it felt as though even nature was welcoming us.
The following day on 21 April, we did the longest leg of our journey which covered a total distance of 19 km over 9 hours. We began our journey around 0830 hours descending down toward the bank of the Pindari River before reaching a village called Khati. The village Khati sits at the bottom of the mountain where Mt. Baljuri lies. The actual route toward the Pindari region starts from Khati. The route hand rails along the east bank of the river Pindari up to Malyadaur. The route from Khati to our next destination Dwali was very pleasant, with no steep ground. Bamboo trees are found in abundance here and the locals from Khati use bamboo for many aspects of their lives especially in the household. Dwali lies on the bottom of the Nandakot range and the campsite is situated next to a river junction.
On 22 April, we moved from Dwali to Phurkia. The leg to Phurkia was short in comparison to the last one and we were now gaining more altitude. The beautiful valley of rhododendron and mountain ranges either side gave the team members experience of the pure Himalayas. We arrived at Phurkia just in time and managed to set up the campsite just before heavy snow hit our campsite.
On 23 April, we moved from Phurkia to Base Camp (BC). We already had a few members with early symptoms of Altitude Mountain Sickness (AMS). The team agreed to continue towards the BC in order to be able to spend more time there. The route was through the same valley, we hand railed the river Pindari up to the start of the Pindari glacier as shown on the map. The BC lay directly south east of Malla Panchal on the western bank of the river Pindari. It is good grazing land where there are two – three seasonal stone huts built by the locals at Khati. The BC is also used by Yarsha Gumba harvesters from Khati and close villagers. Yarsha Gumba is a type of caterpillar which turns into a plant after its short lifespan. This very small and delicate plant can be used for medical purposes. The locals are offered substantial sums of money for the plant which is then exported to China.
There is a lot of interest from locals in this lucrative market; however, it also brings an environmental concern. The plant is difficult to find and involves disturbing the earth substantially to obtain it. During its harvest, there can be a lot of soil erosion, destroying other plants and natural habitat.
We spent two days in BC for acclimatisation, rest and equipment preparation. Also, this offered an ideal opportunity for any of the members to recover from AMS. We also managed to schedule in time for snow and ice safety training at the BC.
On 25 April, the expedition team was split into two groups again and the first group went to establish Advance Base Camp (ABC) at Buria glacier with two High Altitude Porters (HAP) while the second group stayed at BC allowing more time to acclimatise for those who were already suffering from AMS. The route is roughly 7 – 8 kms with a steep uphill climb and can take up to 5 – 6 hours to get from BC to ABC. Thankfully, we managed to set up ABC just before the weather deteriorated.
The following day, the second group arrived at ABC except for Rfn Dipesh who was still recovering from AMS. Unlike the first group who had conducted the route clearance task their journey was slightly shorter and took just 4 hours to reach ABC. With Rfn Dipesh still recovering from AMS at BC, it was planned he would join the rest of the group the following day at ABC, the summit day was now set for 28 April.
The summit day had arrived; the team members were all excited and well prepared. Reveille was at 2300 hours of 27 April and left the ABC at 0100 hours of 28 April. All of the team roped up in their groups, we had two groups of three and one group of four including a liaison officer and HAPs. It was an extremely cold night with freezing temperatures but we were lucky with the moon state; the date being close to full moon meant that we had natural light. Each individual had their head torches shining on the hard snow and ice. The route had already been cleared from the recce group; therefore it was easy to cover the distance up to the Col.
We managed to reach the Baljuri Col by approx 0500 hours in the morning. We now had to climb the next 200 metres from the Col using the South – East Ridge line. The forward team and the second team took turns on clearing the route from the Col to the ridge. The snow was very deep in this area and it took us roughly two hours just to cover a distance of 200 metres. The distance between the teams at this stage was 50 – 70 metres. By 0745 hours, we were on the secondary ridge line. From this ridge line, it was only a matter of 400 – 500 metres up to the summit.
The height was approx 5400 metres. Unexpectedly an avalanche was triggered. The avalanche was approaching the teams at such speed that the forward team got caught up with the edge of the avalanche. The centre person Rfn Hari got entirely submerged in the snow, the rear and front person on the rope just managed to carry out an ice axe arrest on the hard ice, which managed to keep the rope intact and Rfn Hari safe from falling 1000 feet below. Then, Capt Saroj assessed the ground with a hasty pit check. At this time, the other two teams were standing on the avalanche slab. We now had to extract the entire team from this area to the Col due to a high possibility of another avalanche being triggered.
We regrouped at the Col then had to find another route via North ridge line. The route from the North ridge line was a sheer ice wall of 300 – 400 metres; it had to be fixed rope all the way through. We already had been on the ground for 11 hours and one of the members Rfn Dipesh was feeling pretty bad with AMS at this stage. The expedition leader had to make a decision to abandon the plan for the summit. The next agenda was to rescue and recover by going down to ABC followed by BC before bad weather closed in with minimum kit and then ferry the load the following day from ABC.
The team were lucky to also do some sightseeing in Delhi, visiting Agra Taj Mahal one of the Seven Wonders of the World and of course the souvenir hunting too!
The narrow margin of our failure to the summit was due to the avalanche that meant we could not conclude the last 400 metres. However, we are all very proud to be associated with the first Gurkha expedition in India. The expedition area has so much history associated with Gurkhas and Nepal: The Anglo – Gurkha war erupted along the Gurkha Empire’s southern border. Major General Gillespie succeeded in driving out the Gurkhas from Kumaon by 1815. The Treaty of Sagauli restored Sudarshan Shah to the much smaller Garhwali kingdom seated Tehri. The Kumaoni Commissionery was then established to administer Kumaon, and eastern (British) Garhwal for the British. Britain then acquired the region’s substantial natural resources and lucrative trade routes.
The Kumaon and Garhwal region is home to some of the finest soldiers in the Indian Army along with the Indian Gurkhas. The area gave us an experience of the soldier’s pilgrimage, sense of belonging and the historical connection.
The hustle and bustle from the plains of the Delhi to the valleys and mountains of Kumaon was a life time experience for the team. Also, this was a great opportunity to promote mountaineering in the Regiment; there was not a single individual on this trip that did not benefit from it enormously.
On behalf of the team, I would like to convey our sincere thanks to Capt Saroj for all his hard works and to all of our sponsors for their generous contributions that includes 2 RGR Bn HQ, C Coy, Sp Coy, HQBG, Brunei Garrison, 4 Div PAT Branch, BIBMTF, HSBC bank, Waly Goldsmith, Seria, IBS Wales Gurkha Coy (Mandalay), NAFFI, Ramdhani Pvt Ltd and for the MACC project Garrison Workshop, Brunei Signal Troop and the GSM, WO1 Felton who had managed to get some camp contractors to chip in.