Legends have it that a single priest used to perform worship at both Badrinath and Kedarnath shrines located in the Garhwal Himalayas. Every day the priest used to take this route to conduct prayers at both the temples leaving no time for his wife. Irritated by this, the priest’s wife prayed to Lord Shiva who answered her call and in order to stop the priest from doing this daily journey any further, raised mountains and glaciers to make the journey impossible. So many beautiful and behemoth peaks like Neelkanth, Chaukhambha, Parvati now adore the entire valley. To separate facts from mythology, many teams tried to cross this route but all failed. The technical difficulties and mounting death toll at the ice fall just before the snowfield kept everyone away from this trek. A foreigner team led by Martin Moran achieved success in climbing the ice fall only in 2000, hence this route was a purely technical and a dangerous route. Seven years later, in 2007 an Indian team led by Debabrata Mukherjee found another route over a steep rock gully (named the Parvati gully) which was deemed non-technical and which could be done even without ropes in the absence of ice. Since then the route is known but very few groups, maybe one or two every year, dare to do the crevasse infested crossing of Panpatia Col situated at an altitude of 5238 metres.
Disclaimer : For a more fact based travelogue I would direct the reader to a much better documentation, done by Sathya in 2015 (link). Continue reading this post for our journey which was quite different from theirs even though the route was the same.
It is said that there is a fine line between where trekking ends and mountaineering begins. Treks like the Panpatia col trek, Auden’s col, Kalindi Pass, Gupt Col, Arwa Col (crossed the very first time in 2016) and many more fall on the fine line. You face all the dangers of a mountaineering expedition like an avalanche, ice fall, crevasses, ice slopes, whiteouts etc. and most dangerous of them all AMS i.e. acute mountain sickness. Yet you are not bound by a single purpose goal that is summitting a peak or else you would go home disappointed. There are a lot of adventures such a trek which requires an expedition level planning. Throw into this human factors like mismanagement and chaos and you have the recipe for a perfect movie storyline. That is some what how our trek went.
The trek was organised under the aegis of Bangalore Ascenders trekking group, by Achintya Kundu who had put together the entire trekking team (total 10 people) and arranged for the guide. The guide, Balvant had then took the entire contract of the trek and got porters, food, tents, equipment etc.
29th May – Day 0 : drive to Joshimath
Almost everyone reached the first meeting point which was Dehradun railway station early morning on the 29th of May, 2016. There were eight of us there – Jijo Paul, Vishwas HK, Maniraj, Kishore J, Sreeharsha Aithal, Abhiruk Lahiri, Roshan and myself. As we started in our Toofan gypsy car towards Joshimath, we picked up Debjyoti Paul (referred as DJ hereafter) from Rishikesh and continued. Achintya Kundu (referred as Kundu hereafter), the organiser of the trek was supposed to join us in Joshimath directly as he was bringing the guide and porters alongwith him from Uttarkashi.
We started exchanging stories in the vehicle and upon discussion got to know that four of our teammates had previously done Auden’s Col trek last year with the same guide, Balvant and that he is quite a character – getting drunk during the trek, forcing trekkers to skip camps, giving less food and even skipping meals. Slowly my heart was sinking in, this might prove to be another level of challenge, apart from the trekking itself. We reached Joshimath around 5 pm and found that our guide had not booked the hotel we were supposed to stay at. After talking to him on the phone we cleared the confusion and took up the rooms. Leaving our luggage we went around in the city gorging on some indulgences (like gulab jamun and butter chicken) and doing some last minute shopping (bandanas, glasses etc.). Kundu was supposed to reach by 8pm but we got the news that he got stuck due to road block because of rains near Chamoli district. We ate well and called it a day and slept at around 11PM. Kundu reached at around midnight, we got to know the next day.
30th May – Day 1 : reaching Khirao campsite
The day started with Kundu telling us to eat well in Joshimath itself, as decent food would be a luxury in the trek. I took one extra aloo paratha after already eating two during breakfast while listening to his trials and tribulations in the Auden’s Col. We started at around noon from Joshimath towards Hanuman chatti which is a slight exit point in the road that leads to Badrinath. Getting down by the side of the road we continued walking, crossed a stream (which was Khirao Ganga) using a bridge and after about 4 kilometres on dirt/boulder tracks we crossed a few houses and reached an elevated patch which was our campsite for the day.
An easy walk of 1-1.5 hours it was with some nice views of the valley we were entering in.
To our surprise we found that the tents our guide Balvant had brought with him were of very poor condition, and one tent had a mismatched outer cover that took an hour to put up.
At the same time some dal-rice combo was prepared. We ate that and relaxed for few hours. Balvant had picked some wild edible plants on the way and those were cooked for dinner as well. In the evening the meal was good and we slept early anticipating a long day ahead.
31st May – Day 2 : A Mutiny strikes!
We woke up to noises of arguments early morning at 6AM, only to find that half the porters and the cook had decided to rise in mutiny against their mistreatment by the guide, and had left the camp and gone back. The guide Balvant had gone behind them, first in an effort to convince them or to get replacements all the way from Joshimath. Apparently while on their trip from Uttarkashi to Joshimath he had not cared to feed them dinner properly and had only given them one meal in the Khirao campsite. Seeing the road-head so close, they had decided to take the opportune moment and run away. We further got to know that the actual porters booked by the guide Balvant had taken money from him and ditched him in Uttarkashi itself, that’s why they were late coming from there in the first place. Those who had mutinieed were actually the replacements. Now we needed another set of re-replacements!! Luckily one of the older porters stepped up as the cook on that day and made good breakfast and lunch.
Balvant returned at 2 pm with some new porters but since it was too late to start for trek we just stayed there itself. Instead Maniraj and Kishore wandered around and found a nice picturesque double tiered waterfall and even took a bath in it. We also discover six camping chairs in the load Balvant had got and are pleasantly surprised by it as such luxurious usually appear on higher budget treks with foreign clients. Later we find out that they were not intended to be there but due to poor packing skills just happened to come there and should’ve been sent with another group.
To appease the porters, Balvant had brought a small goat which was killed, hairs burnt, chopped, cleaned and cooked right there and then for the evening dinner. Think of it as a sacrificial offering. All of us except one were non vegetarians and had a hearty meal of mutton curry. Atleast there was some silver lining to this mutiny 🙂
1st June – Day 3 : To Snout camp
We were camped just next to a steep climb up a ridge that would take us around a mountain valley into another terrain altogether. Starting the day’s walk early at 7 am, we first climbed up the steep ridge which then started to curve around the mountain valley, but that’s when another problem happened. I was walking with Vishwas when he complained of having muscle pain in his left leg, although he hadn’t had any injury in the past few days. He said maybe it was due to an old time injury and kept on walking. We took a lunch break at around 11 am at the Shepherd’s camp and continued on.
We got views of peaks like Dunagiri and Hathi Parvat were captured from a distance while Neelkanth peak continued to play hide and seek with clouds.
We reached the Snout camp rather early by 2 pm and the camp was set up next to a clearing and a clear flowing stream.
As we were just relaxing and having tea and popcorn in the evening, Vishwas told us that he might not go ahead with us since the pain in his leg was becoming severe.
After much discussion, DJ told him to postpone taking a decision till the next morning and then decide seeing the condition then.
2nd June – Day 4 : To Moraine Camp (4200m)
We woke up to find clear views of the Neelkanth and Parvati peaks and soon we were busy clicking photos even before getting ready. Meanwhile Vishwas confirmed that he would go back as his pain was still the same. He was sent back with a porter to guide him. We hope that he should reach Joshimath by evening and figure out his way back from there. Sadly the camping chairs were also sent back with the porter going down. I was also not keeping up well and had fever and headache since last night but decided to continue after taking medications last night.We waited for sun rays to directly hit our campsite at around 8AM and then started walking. Soon we realised that this was going to be a long and hard day.
The snout was the starting of a lower level glacier field with lots of loose rocky boulders on top of them. We had to figure out a way across them and keep on crossing one hill after another and keep moving forward till there was none.
After walking for six hours at end over loose boulders/rocks and over ice patches we reached our campsite at 3 pm. The campsite was good but the only issue was getting clean water as there was a muddy stream that had to be carefully used, by lifting water from a cup from top surface so as to not disturb the bottom.
Balvant looked depressed at our progress today as according to him we should have reached the base of Parvati gully today itself. According to the previous plan, we should now have had a rest day at this Moraine camp but Balvant told us its better to cover as much distance tomorrow as possible, even as much as crossing the Parvati gully itself. Kundu on the other hand was telling us that we will reach Parvati gully and camp near its base. Amidst all these conflicting statements between the trek leader and guide, we decided to see for ourselves tomorrow and settled for the day after having an early dinner. Some of us including myself were not keeping well also, so had to take medications during the night to get better.
Sreeharsha was not satisfied with the food quality, specially dal that looked like yellow coloured water and chapatis were getting thicker at each camp (probably an effect of AMS). So he had gone to foraging his own and our food stocks. This trek had become a test for his to rely on accumulated body fat and probably loose some weight.
3rd June – Day 5 : Where do we go – Parvati gully base or cross it?
This was going to be a long day – Balvant explicitly told us that at breakfast. So we were definitely not sure what would be our destination for today. Nevertheless we marched on.
After crossing some more remaining moraine patches on the glacier field for about an hour or so, we finally reached a clear glacier and started ascending upwards.
The views all around were mesmerising as well as terrifying at the same time. Small boulders used to roll down from the cliff sides, all of which looked like a landslide prone zone. Twice we saw a minor landslide happening on one of the cliff faces surrounding us, good that we were walking in the centre of the huge valley. For us navigating across the moraine-boulders field itself had been a tough task for the past two days.
We heaved a sign of relief and had our dismal lunch (2 chapatis with jam) and found that now we had to do almost a 900 meters ascent to reach the Parvati gully and that involved ascending over boulders on a 75 degrees slope line.
We passed what looked like a good camping spot only to find that Balvant had kept the porters moving way ahead of us, and they could be spotted just below the Parvati gully. On we went for another three hours finally resting at the base of Parvati gully as it looked too daunting to be crossed without any guidance. None of the porters or Balvant were in sight, for all that we knew they might have started moving into the snowfield itself! Kundu went ahead to check on the route of climbing Parvati gully rock face (at a slope of 50 degrees to 70 degrees for few patches).
Soon we saw Balvant coming down for us with few porters and brining hot black tea to drink. That provided us the much needed push to complete the last stretch of the day, and on we went. He helped us to cross this part, holding some of us when needed and in 20 minutes all of us had crossed Parvati gully rock patch and climbed up to find our tents fixed just at the base of the snowfield, and a beautiful mesmerising waterfall falling behind it.
The view of the entire route we had covered that day, added to the sharp mountains rising all around us was too overpowering and took the rest of the remaining day to take in. Soon a whiteout was happening, and we had an early lunch and slept in. I was exhausted and not feeling well so took medications and slept.
4th June – Day 6 : Rest day finally!
The day before Kundu had told us we would have a rest day now to avoid getting any issues of AMS. Balvant tried his best to move us by giving reasons that the weather might turn bad and so on, but I was not feeling very well and low on energy. After a short discussion, we decided to have a rest day at the Snowfield basecamp itself.
5th June – Day 7 : Snowfield crossing in a day! (from 5100m to 5400m and then to 5200m)
The day started early and we left the camp at around 7:30AM, this was the day we had all been waiting for and the weather was amazing with clear blue skies. It started off with a good scramble up a 70 degrees slope of ice and rock face up for 20 minutes, followed by a long haul up a snow slope for another 20 minutes after which we realised we had reached the most important and beautiful part of the trek – the Panpatia Snowfield.
All around us were mountains with unobstructed views – Chaukhamba massif with its four peaks, Parvati peak with its near vertical rock faces and hanging glaciers on its shoulders. It felt like we had stepped into heaven itself and giant Gods stared down at us ant-like humans.
The snowfield stretched all the way to the base of Chaukhamba on the right side, Parvati and other peaks behind, Panpatia ice fall on the left side with Panpatia peak jutting out and separating it with the Papatia col in the front, situated slightly below that the entire icefield.
To avoid crevasses we didn’t walk down straight to the col but took a long circular route going right towards the Chaukhamba and then circling back to reach the Panpatia col.
When we started walking it was clear blue skies but within an hour we were in a whiteout zone and soon finding each other and the guide only through footsteps. The weather was indeed turning bad and we had to rush. That was the very first time I experienced slight hallucinations at high altitude.
The white shade of the snow matched with the shade of the fog and in their merging only the patterns in the snow were visible, which now started to wave and move around like a serpentine river – as if the entire snowfield was flowing across and we were wading through it like small dinghies. For a few seconds, I even felt my entire vision was changing colours, green, blue, red as if my mind had decided to go on a riot. As I paused to take a break on a small snow slope, I could see the fog playing hide and seek with us showing peeks of the massive mountains that surrounded us and huge falls that we might get forever sucked into at any wrong step. Many had lost their lives in these icefalls and crevasse as we made our way through them silently. I remembered the lines from Game of Thrones, “What do we say to the God of Death? Not today.”
I was quite exhausted and taking frequent pauses to catch my breath, when Sreeharsha pointed out the camps to me and kept the spirits high and urged me to keep moving so we can go and rest in the camp. We were still a good 15 minutes walk away from the camp when it started to snow, not in soft wisps but thermocol like round pellets that were not hurting but came like a torrent. I ran fast but with caution and crashed inside my tent. Sreeharsha was still standing outside so I urged him to get some hot water for me in a bottle. He went into the kitchen tent, left my water bottle there as they were still boiling ice to make water and got a small bowl of hot water that invigorated me. Me, Sreeharsha and Kishore got in the tent and zipped it up and soon soft snow started to fall, but in huge volumes and we had to keep shaking the tent so that it didn’t deposit over and crash the whole tent down.
The snowing stopped after two hours and that’s when another interesting episode unfolded. Sreeharsha was a bit irritated that he had given water bottle for hot water a long time ago and no one had given the hot water. Case in point is also that till now we hadn’t got any hot water in any of the camps before, even though we had been camping in snow for two nights already. In his anger he got out of the tent and walked barefeet in the snow, now a feet deep and reached the kitchen tent. Here is how it goes
Sreeharsha to Balvant (who was sitting inside the hot kitchen tent) : Aap log ka service level itna kharab hai! do ghante pehle paani bottle diya hot water ke liye abhi tak dia hi nhi hai pyaas se baithe hue hai…itni baar bola koi sun hi nhi rha. Itna trek kia par aapke jaisa guide nhi dekha…thuu.
(translation : your service level is so bad! 2 hours ago I gave water bottle for some hot water and havent got it yet, we have been sitting thirsty for so long…cried out so many times but nobody listened. I have done so many treks but not seen a guide like you…Spits)
One of the staff hands him the two bottles filled with hot water and Sreeharsha walks back in the tent. I am furious at him since I am worried about Balvant’s comeback. I tell Sreeharsha that there was no need to go there barefeet in anger and the whole situation can go in any direction now. Soon enough Balvant comes to our tent.
Balvant (kneels down in snow and speaks) to Sreeharsha : apko zara tameej nhi hai guide se baat karne ka…aise koi bolta hai…maine toh sun liya dusra koi guide hota toh kal crevasse mein gira deta kisi ko pata bhi nhi chalta…service ki baat karte ho..
(translation : you don’t have any manners while talking to the guide…who says like this..It was me who listened to all of this from you otherwise if it was some other guide they would have dropped you in a crevasse tomorrow and no one would have known…and you talk about service..)
I was meanwhile telling Balvant that he should not take this personally and forgive Sreeharsha as he didn’t mean to say bad things and had temporarily got out of control. The situation could get out of hand now, I thought. Others were also seeing this episode play out from their tents.
One good thing was that from now on we got food plate in the tent if we asked for it, or if it was snowing. Three more days to go still. I later got to know that Kundu was not doing well, though my health was much better than the previous day after rest. We had crossed the entire icefield in one day itself (which should have been done in two days) and now we knew we would be rushed down by Balvant. We knew what was coming.
6th June – Day 8 : Across the Panpatia col and descend down
Clear blue skies welcomed us as we stepped out of the tent and got ready for the day’s journey. Breakfast was cornflakes with some coloured water and we were not given packed lunch today since Balvant figured we would reach next camp by 1-2 pm.
Taking some last pics of the ice field we moved in a line formation and within 10 minutes we were standing on the precipice of the Panpatia Col.
The view from there into the valley on the other side was something straight out of a fantasy book, spires of rock and ice covered in fresh snow. What was more foreboding was the descent infront of us – an 80 degrees slope down which could be riddled with crevasses. Snow had not yet melted to open them up.
Balvant made an Ice anchor, tied a rope and told us to use it to rapple down. One by one, us and the porters went, some fumbling, some clambering on the rope like a lifeline and some zooming down.
After that what followed was some cheerful moments sliding down on huge ice slopes, one after the another. Although our bums were getting frozen numb, it sure was amazing fun compared to cautious walking down.
We regrouped and had a 20 minutes rest at the end of the valley and again started.
We went through snow riddled paths, slipping, clambering to save ourselves from falling into crevasse, scrambling on boulders stretches, climbing another minor pass to get amazing views over Sujal Sarovar which was semi-frozen before going down the other side and finding our tents a short distance away. It was almost 3 pm by the time we reached the campsite and all of us were quite hungry since we hadn’t been given any packed lunch.
This was another amazing campsite with a freshwater stream emerging below a huge rock and disappearing again after a distance below rocks. We had made the Col crossing and already our health was improving. It snowed for a bit but our spirits were high. Also this was the last night of camping for us. Lunch cum dinner was prepared and we ate by 5pm, some huddling inside the kitchen tent or eating in their own tent, since it had started snowing.
We found that a lot of vegetables had gone bad as they had not been prepared and consumed. So Balvant was genuinely trying hard to starve us.
7th June – Day 9 : All the way to Madhmaheshwar
The next day involved a tremendous change in altitude and scenery as we moved down from snow slopes to moraine, onwards to rocks boulder patches and then down to grassy ‘bugyals’ of Kachni khal where flowers had started to bloom a bit.
Colors were changing from white to brown finally to greens. Abhiruk was having pain in his knee so he was walking behind but then I slipped many a times on the muddy paths that had become slippery due to trickling rains, so became the last person in the group.
Finally high from the mountains we caught a glimpse of Madhmaheshwar, the shrine and the small settlement around that. Crossing a high altitude forest with a proper route across, farms lands appeared on both sides and before I knew I had reached the day’s destination. We had started the day at 8 am and it was 3 pm when we reached.
I was the last person to arrive at 4pm, by that time the rest of the group had found a place to stay – a big room that could fit all 9 of us and tea and biscuits were already doing rounds. With my arrival another round of tea was ordered and all of us heaved a sigh of joy and relief over what adventures had transpired in the past days. Most of us also managed to attend the evening 7 pm prayers at the Madhmaheshwar temple, happy to be back in civilisation after so long and seeing other humans except ourselves. Since Sreeharsha had brought a laptop along, we managed to catch a bit of a movie as well before dozing off by 11 pm as everyone was indeed very tired.
8th June – Day 10 : Madhmaheshwar to Ransi, reaching the Road Head
Having completed the trek, most of us woke up pretty late the next day – myself at around 9AM 🙂
While DJ, Kishore and Maniraj went up a small hill next to the Madhmaheshwar settlement to get final views of Chaukhamba and other peaks, the rest of us just idled around drinking tea and drying our wet clothes in the bright sunshine.
There was a paved footpath from Madhmaheshwar all the way down the valley for about 10 kms, crossing a river over the bridge and then going a gradual ascent up again on a paved or mud footpath till Ransi.
Going down the paved footpath actually was quite hurting on my legs and they had already started going numb by the time we reached down to the river. We crossed many a pilgrims going up to Madhmaheshwar, mostly walking and some on horseback as well. We were walking at an easy pace since there was no rush and took quite a few breaks as well.
Since this was when we started getting phone signal first time after leaving Joshimath, all of us made calls back home to assure family/loved ones of our well being. Finally after much walking of a total of 18 kms, almost all of us reached Ransi – the roadhead and the end of our walk, by 5 pm.
Ransi was a small settlement with decent guesthouse and many of us had egg omelette after many days. Usually treks have eggs in breakfast everyday but this past trek had changed all those notions altogether. After serving us meagre food for so many days, Balvant decided to get some good food prepared that night – egg curry! Instead of arranging this himself, he extorted some more money from Kundu, eggs were bought and dinner was served at 10 pm. By that time some of us, Maniraj and Sreeharsha had already ate by ordering dinner at the guesthouse we were staying. The rest of us realised that they made a good choice, when we went to have dinner. The eggs curry was nothing more than eggs floating in some brown coloured hot water. Mind you this place had all decent facilities so no excuses of tough conditions in high altitude could be given here. Nevertheless we accepted that this is best what we can get from Balvant and his motly crew, ate whatever eggs and rice we could and went to sleep early.
9th June – Day 11 : Final showdown with the guide and drive to Dehradun
Since our earlier plan had been to reach back Dehradun by only 11th June, we were two days ahead in our plan (even after having two rest days in the trek). Balvant had made us run for sure! Hence many of us were trying to reschedule our plans/flights and reach home early. I had to go back to Lucknow to meet parents so I had managed to find a volvo bus leaving from Haridwar bus station at 7 pm. Amidst all of this there was another struggle of money matters that had ensued between Kundu and Balvant. He had gone back on his word, and was demanding more than the agreed money. He had also started boozing the night before and had made his demands to Kundu then.
We started pretty early in a Toofan jeep (by 6 am) from Ransi, and reached Srinagar town by 11AM where there was a working ATM machine and withdrew the remaining money that had been agreed upon. Balvant had also been behind us in another jeep with the rest of the porters and from here our directions were parting as well. He would go back to Uttarkashi and we would move down towards Dehradun-Haridwar. Instead of coming and meeting us to take the money, he had found a local drinking pub and had started drinking already asking us to come and give the money. Since most of us had been pissed at his bad management, and cutting corners attitude throughout the trek we were of the opinion of not paying him as we knew he had cheated us a lot. But Kundu took a stand and told that we should just hand him over the decided amount and leave. Any confrontation with Balvant who was in a drunken state was pointless. We went to the drinking hole where he was, handed him the money among protests of increasing it and came back. Also I told him that this was the last time we were using his services and would try that none of the people whom we know do a trek with him.
The ride back from Srinagar to Dehradun-Haridwar was a good one, with a pitstop for late lunch where we managed to find some really good lip-smacking chicken curry 🙂
I caught my bus back at 7PM, while Sreeharsha, Maniraj, Kishore and Abhiruk took a train to Delhi and early morning flight back to Bangalore. Kundu, DJ and Jijo stayed back two more days in Rishekesh and came back by following Monday. And thus ended the Panpatia trek on a bitter-sweet note, it was only because of the experience and mental strength of the group that we stuck together and completed it inspite of lot of negative aspects and bad management by Balvant. All in all, I would recommend doing the trek, but never with such a guide.
video by : Maniraj