This morning, I was travelling in my mind. This is from my bit of what would become ‘Two Walks in the Kishtwar’, eventually co-authored with Harish Kapadia, and first published in The Himalayan Journal (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2015), 135-150.
(For now, I have only an outline map. I hope to post photographs as soon as I have recovered them from another computer.)
Our man in Bhaderwah assured us that all was currently peaceful in their part of Jammu and Kashmir. Even apart from the political unrest, the floods in Kashmir had been terrible in 2014. But Jammu had thankfully been spared. So, there we were one sunny morning in Patnitop. Vikas Manhas sipped his kahwa with relish and addressed the nine plainspeople in front of him. ‘We shall let the horses take the usual trail up from Nalthy. But with three children in the group, we shall try to make a shorter day of walking ourselves. I propose we approach the Kablas Lakes from Chhettra Gala. From that direction, it should be no more than six kilometres from the roadhead to the Lakes.’
This was the first part of a three-week trip to Jammu. We were planning to trek to a high plateau of snowmelt lakes, the Kablas Lakes (3,810 m), to the south of the Bhaderwah valley. And it sounded like a good idea to allow a short day’s walk to ease ourselves into the high terrain. That way, our lungs would have time to adjust to the thinner air. With our three Kumaonis and Vikas, we therefore rattled down by bus from Patnitop to Batote, and up from Batote to Bhaderwah, where we did our groceries for the next several backcountry days. Another hour’s drive brought us to the lovely little village of Nalthy (1,853 m).
Nalthy is the roadhead for what I shall call the regular trail—what Vikas had called the main trail, or usual trail—leading up to the Lakes. This is the trail used by horses and horsemen. It is also the trail for the thousands of pilgrims who in August—for the festivities of Janmashtami—come to this area from neighbouring valleys and towns to visit the Lakes on a spiritual journey. In the space of a day, or two, they ascend 1,800-odd metres using a path that winds through beautiful forests of deodar and rhododendron, and finally, grassy alps dotted with fantastic rocks and boulders, to gain the high country of the Lakes. But right now, we were not going to walk to the Lakes using this trail. We’d only use it on way down from the Lakes to Nalthy. Following Vikas’s proposal, we were headed to Chhettra Gala (2,900 m), the army camp straddling the ridge between the Doda and Kathua districts of Jammu. Chhettra Gala would be our roadhead.
It is a short distance to Chhettra Gala from Nalthy. Only about ten kilometres. But the drive over the winding dirt roads took a good hour. As we got close to Chhettra Gala, a fantastic vista opened up to our north. Below us, the town of Bhaderwah sat nestled in the valley. And somewhere at remote eye-level, but in fact considerably higher, the snow peaks of Kishtwar opened up in effortless majesty. The air was intoxicating. By the time we got off our little bus at the Army Post in Chhettra Gala, the sun had climbed down into the higher reaches of the valley below, and we were enveloped in a gorgeous sunlit autumn morning.
The Kishtwar mountainous region, neighbour to the surrounding kingdoms of Chamba and Kashmir, had enjoyed relative peace and prosperity for almost two centuries leading up to India’s independence in 1947. In independent India, Bhaderwah became part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and thus also part of its strategic geographical and political importance. Matters came to head in the late 1980s when militancy and terrorism threw the state into turmoil. 2008 saw a degree of normalcy return—although it was a few years yet before trekkers and climbers began to trickle in again.
At Chhettra Gala, a gracious young Captain of the Army oversaw the inspection of our papers and stood us steaming glasses of chai as we unloaded our bags from the bus and strapped into our respective rucksacks.
A grassy alpine path from Chhettra Gala climbs up to meet the ridge to its west, then crosses it in a long and gradually climbing traverse—taking in a good number of small ridges on the way—until it comes up, in some eight hours of good walking, against the rim of the bowl of mountains containing the Lakes. From here, a sharp descent on a loose gravelly path tips the walker into the bowl. But we did not know this yet. No maps exist of this area, and we had only Vikas’s and others’ oral directions by which to try and gauge the distance and altitude we were embarking on. As we started out from Chhetra Gala, we were still under the impression that the total walking distance to the Lakes was, indeed, six kilometres.
The prospect was magnificent. The Kishtwar ranges stood resplendent to our distant north. At our feet, the grass was interspersed with tiny flowers, bright rust-coloured shrubs, and gradually, high streams that froze into years-old snow patches. The day passed by in glorious walking. But by afternoon, it was clear that the Lakes were no six kilometres from Chhettra Gala. If pace and time were to be any indication, the Lakes had to be at about twice that distance, if not more. So, as we approached an airy ridge on which was perched a tiny shepherd’s shelter, Harish decided to call a night’s halt. Vikas and a couple of others offered to carry on to the Lakes—another two hours’ walk away, as we found out on the following day—to fetch tents from the party of horses who must by now have reached the Lakes by the regular trail. As dusk fell and Vikas and a couple of horsemen came back with the tents and food for the night, a cheer went up from the three youngest members of our party.
By lunchtime next day, everyone was assembled at Lake Camp (3,675 m). Our tents stood like little patches of colour in a crumpled grey landscape. But from even slightly higher ground, the two lakes lowest in the bowl came into view. One of the horsemen, Irshad Ahmed, pointed west to say that two more lakes, a bit higher, lay in that general direction. A spot of lunch later, therefore, Irshad and I set out from camp for an afternoon’s scramble.
Our ostensible destination for this scramble was a dramatic granite pinnacle directly behind our campsite. But both by way of avoiding a gradient of 60-70 degrees and of exploring wider, we headed left and just a little higher towards what was called Trisul Lake. This nomenclature was by virtue of an iron trident stuck on the ground near the lake, as I would soon find out. From Trisul Lake, we wound our way southeast through grassy slopes until we found ourselves in decided rock country, and had to rely on narrow ramps heading gradually up. The final rise to the pinnacle (4,110 m) consisted of about twenty feet of phenomenal exposure involving delightful fourth class climbing. As we stood waving down to the minuscule dots of colour on the valley floor in the hope that someone in camp might spot us, we could also see directly across the huge bowl to the rim we had crossed yesterday. Four lakes lay like stretches of sky at our feet: two on the valley floor, Trisul Lake on somewhat higher ground, and to the north another, considerably larger, on the banks of which there seemed to be some sort of hut with corrugated aluminum roofs. ‘That is Kablas Lake’, said Irshad. ‘The shelter is for visiting pilgrims.’
‘That many pilgrims?’
‘Thousands, in August, for yatra!’
‘I guess it’s reasonably temperate in August, not particularly cold, even at this elevation. But where do they sleep? What do they eat? What provisions have they?’
‘They bring their blankets, and sleep in the shelter. They carry some food. And they don’t stay for long. Up one day, down the next.’
Indeed, when a few days later we walked down by the main trail to Nalthy, evidence of the yatri was everywhere. It is easy to identify with the mystical and emotional pull towards pilgrimage that the amazing landscape we were in inspires. It is less easy to understand or accept the piles and piles of Styrofoam, remnants of plastic bags, and general debris that one encounters at several places along the trail. The yatris doubtless need their plates and mugs and bags. But as in so many places worldwide, it is incomprehensible why these utilities must be composed of biologically poisonous substances, and why, at any rate, there is no regulation for visitors to the area to carry out their rubbish. In the gorgeous vastness of Himalayan landscapes, the mountains seem limitless and everlasting. But it is important to realise that they belong in exceedingly fragile ecologies, and that if travel in these places is to be sustained, the onus is on all of us to keep these areas clean, to meticulously pack out all non-biodegradable waste, to respect trails and thus avoid undue erosion, and to leave behind only the lightest possible footprints.
From the pinnacle on which we stood this afternoon, a very direct decent brought us back to camp in an hour. Hurtling down on ankles of steel and with astonishing speed and balance, Irshad cried out into the wind: ‘Maza aa gaya! Kal phir chalein?’ (‘That was fantastic! Shall we go again tomorrow?’)
At dusk, a hailstorm pelted the campsite and turned the world white. But as the barometer held from evening to night, it was not unreasonable to imagine that a bit of good sun in the morning would dry the rock enough to enable a venture to the beautiful three-summited peak we could see from our campsite. For behind the Lake stood Chhota Kablas (4,270 m) and further behind, invisible from either Trisul Lake or Kablas Lake but following the same high ridge, Kablas itself, or Bara Kablas (c. 4,400 m).
The next day dawned cold and sparkling. As we waited for the horses and their men to turn up in camp—for by evening the horses went down to Padri (2,430 m), a stop along the main trail and a more reasonable altitude for the animals—we walked to the temple and shelter that had looked so tiny from the vantage of the pinnacle the day before. Up close, Kablas Lake was even more impressive, and some indication of the age and length of pilgrimage to this spot was obtained in the form of a quarter-anna coin from 1939 that we found on the sand and pebbles of the lakeshore. By the time we were back in camp, Irshad had packed a lunch of a few paranthas and a couple of apples for himself and me to take to Chhota Kablas.
This time, instead of going right from Trisul Lake, as we had done yesterday, we branched off left to a near-circumnavigation of the lake as we gained a tiny corridor of tumbled granite between the permanent snow patches lining some of the higher but relatively more gradual slopes of the mountain. Since we were ill-equipped in shoes and waterproof wear to go walking in snow, we stayed on the rocks. This meant some aerobic boulder-navigation. To our left, the sun silvered over the chain of distant Kishtwar mountains we had seen from the shepherd’s hut two nights ago. Our camp in the valley became a coloured dot in the vast expanse of the bowl enclosed by the cirque of mountains. The mountain we were on was the highest in the bowl, and almost as a continuation of the ridge on which its three summits stood, Bara Kablas rose to our right.
Last night’s hail had left pockets of snow in tiny ledges all over Chhota Kablas, but we were glad that the rock, a beautiful Himalayan granite, was already bone dry. The sun beat down on us whenever the flying clouds let it. As an hour, then two, then three, fell away into silence and rhythm and balance and the start of a glorious afternoon, we found ourselves at the upper reaches of this scrambler’s paradise. Near the very top, Irshad went one way, I another. Before long, the two of us were smiling at each other from two of the three summits of the mountain. There was distance and wind enough between us that conversation was impossible. We just sat there, the warm and westering sun on our faces, grinning from the sheer pleasure of the climb.
We completed, technically, a circumnavigation of Trisul Lake by virtue of the route we took on our way down. From the summit of Chhota Kablas, it is possible to look down almost directly at Kablas Lake. But descending that way is not an option without having the means to set up a few full-length abseils. So, we went down again in the general direction of Trisul Lake. But we did not follow our rock-corridor-between-the-snow back. Instead, we scoped out a possible route that would, we hoped, bring us out at Trisul Lake exactly at the point where we had started this morning’s circumnavigation. Thus, as the sun showed and hid and the afternoon grew chillier with wind, we started an intricate series of advancements and retreats as slowly, over consistent fourth class climbing that sometimes verged on fifth, we lost height. It was a relief, finally, to be standing on the banks of Trisul Lake again.
All this while, we had not stopped for lunch. It was tempting to eat at Trisul Lake, but I knew that Mallik had been scouting, that morning, for climbing possibilities. Even as the rest of camp had moved to Shankh Padri (3,500 m) today, he was waiting for us, with ropes and harnesses, at the foot of a magnificent bit of slab a little way down. So we raced on, stopping to eat only at the foot of the slab. But the slab that had this morning looked so warm and welcoming and crisp in the sun was, in the afternoon shade and chill, almost painful to the touch. We didn’t do much more than finish a single short climb. But it is difficult to be dissatisfied with a day of exhilarating route-finding, fantastic scrambling, gorgeous vistas, and even a bit of rock to try our hands on. We walked down to meet the rest of the group at Shankh Padri as the setting sun leached the final light from the sky, and our three summits of Chhota Kablas receded again into distance and mystery.