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I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote

- Herman Melville

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Expeditions

Jul 01, 2019

Trans Himalaya 2019: First Contact

In his first contact since embarking on a 2,500 km self-supported journey last month, Peter Van Geit ventures deeper into the most remote corners of the Himalaya.

WRITTEN BY

Peter Van Geit

Last month, The Outdoor Journal introduced an alpine-style journey for the ages in which wilderness explorer Peter Van Geit, along with filmmaker Neil D’Souza, embarked on a 2,500 km self-supported journey across 100+ Himalayan high passes in Himachal, Ladakh, and Uttarakhand. Now more than one month into their journey, Peter shares the first field notes update from their psychedelic experience amidst the mountains.

After exactly one month since the start, I completed the first section of my journey, the state of Uttarakhand East to West starting from the border of Nepal until entering the neighbouring state of Himachal today. Uttarakhand has been mesmerizing – lush green forests, countless small hamlets, virgin valleys, beautiful paths and trails connecting villages, overwhelming hospitality.

As 3330m we pitched up camp at the last flat space next to a large snow bridge before a steep 600m climb to Balsi Khal.
Peter and Neil’s journey is self-supported, which means they carry all of their own gear and navigate using offline maps.

In total, I crossed 127 hamlets in the state, some very remote hidden deep inside the mountains, climbed across 27 passes touching the snowline near to 4000m, hiked through 27 valleys in between the passes, some with many hamlets and farmlands, some uninhabited virgin jungles, crossed several wild streams, saw various wildlife including a black bear, monkeys and deer.

Read next on TOJ: Field Notes: Solo Ultra-Running the High Himalaya

Another steep climb follows above Pana till the path crosses a major ridge at 3100m. To my surprise I find a kind shepherd camping at the same spot inviting me over for tea and night stay.
These routes are rarely used, if at all, by local shepherds.

Aside the stunning natural beauty, what touched me most was the remote hospitality of Uttarakhand. Especially while passing through remote tribal settlements where very few or no travelers would have ever crossed, people were extremely friendly and warm, inviting me in for food and a night’s stay without expectations. In many homes, I was treated as if I was their own son, as they showed concern about my well-being and guiding me to the next pass.

On the way from Joshimath to Mondal, we descended and crossed a side valley on the way to Dumak (2400m) where the village kids playfully welcomed us.

The most memorable night stays were those with the “Bakris” or shepherds who roam the entire summer in remote sections of the high mountains grazing the “bugyals” or meadows with hundreds of their sheep. They are truly your best friends in the remotest corners of the Himalaya. Staying with them around a warm campfire in the cold high altitude nights, sharing yummy rottis (flat breads) with “sabji”, fresh goat milk, lying on your back and watching the night skies lit up with millions of stars, listening to a 20 year old Philips radio playing Hindi songs from All India AM radio. That experience is out of this world.

After a full-day journey traveling in 3 share taxis from Mondal to Sonprayag through madening pilgrim traffic and dusty under construction ghat roads we finally settled down at Trijugi Nārāyan 2200m, a peaceful hamlet above the pilgrim madness at Sonprayag 1700m.
The snow clad peaks above Kedarnath span across the horizon. The other side of the pass follows a long gradual descent along a ridge. At 3300m there is the small hamlet of Panwali Kantha.

The most challenging parts of the journey have been those where we lost the path or where the trail fades out in the jungle. You then have to scramble across steep valley slopes, sometimes dense thorny vegetation, cross wild streams, hang on to trees and roots climbing across landslide sections, rely on contour maps to navigate your way around vertical cliffs, etc. The intensity of the effort and calories burned multiplies manifold once you go “off trail” finding your way through the jungle towards the next hamlet or pass.

On the way from Bhatwari to Hanuman Chatti, we reached the Darwa pass within 1.5 hours. From there it was a quick descend back down to Doti Taal where I gobbled up yummy rottis with spinach veggie. Met a nice Colombian who was doing a 6 month Yatra, or religious pilgrimage in the North.

Towards Western Uttarakhand near to the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh we came across remote fairytale villages built from beautiful natural stone and wood. We discovered ancient wooden temples beautifully handcrafted by previous generations. Homes have several vertical levels with beautifully crafted terraces, animals staying below and people on top.

Beautiful wooden temple in Phari village, at 1500 m elevation.

Most hiking groups usually select 1 pass and take a week to acclimatize and cross the pass over several campsites. Doing 27 passes in one month, or nearly one each day requires a lot of endurance and speed. Going minimalist and lightweight is the key to go faster, with less food and less night stays in between. Proper nutrition and night rest is key to keep up the daily momentum of some 30-40km with an average elevation gain of 3,000 meters. You easily burn 5,000 calories for each pass crossing which needs to be refueled in the villages in between.

I found a nice path leading up Northwest along the ridge leading towards Kedarkanta. After a 30min walk a hidden settlement of Darsaun 2400m revealed itself. Here I lost the path and asking the locals for directions did not help either. At the last home I met an old friendly lady who invited me over for some hot “dude” (milk). Soon after that a sumptuous breakfast followed with thick rottis, curd, cheese, spinach. Best home made food I had in my entire journey.

The entire trip so far went alpine style using offline contour maps, pre-planned trails and some local guidance here and there. 85% was on proper trails and paths between the villages and passes, 15% was “off trail” scrambling through jungles and valley slopes. Most of the night stays are near villages and in people’s homes, a lesser number in the wild and near the passes with the shepherds. We usually cross passes in between valleys in 1-2 days and carry only enough food ration with us. Each day usually starts at 5 am and goes till sunrise targetting the first village out of the forest in the next valley. No rest days so far with approximately 800 km covered and 70 thousand meters elevation gain.

According to Peter, his only objective is to inspire others to explore these beautiful locations. You can read more about Peter’s experiences and motivations in his interview here – Alpine-Style, Ultra-Challenge in the Himalayan High Passes. Stay tuned on The Outdoor Journal for Peter’s next update along his 2,500 km journey.

To follow Peter’s expedition, visit his blog.
Facebook: @PeterVanGeit
Instagram: @petervangeit
Chennai Trekking Club

For more Neil Productions, visit: http://neil.dj/
Facebook: @neilb4me

Introducing The Outdoor Voyage

The Outdoor Voyage booking platform and online marketplace only lists good operators, who care for sustainability, the environment and immersive, authentic experiences. All listed prices are agreed directly with the operator, and we promise that 86% of any money spent ends up supporting the local community that you’re visiting. Click the image below to find out more.

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Expeditions

Jul 29, 2019

Trans Himalaya 2019: Breathless in the Himalaya

In an unprecedented Himalayan snowfall, ultra-runner Peter Van Geit breaks out his ice axe to access undocumented passes in the High Himalayas.

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WRITTEN BY

Peter Van Geit

Last month, The Outdoor Journal received the first contact from Peter Van Geit on his 2,500 km self-supported journey across 100+ Himalayan high passes in Himachal, Ladakh, and Uttarakhand, accompanied by filmmaker Neil D’Souza. In his latest update, Peter navigates unpassable verticle cliffs and holy glacial lakes along his spellbinding adventure.

After completing the entire length of Uttarakhand in 17 passes, I entered the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh. I had been doing 600-700 km ultra runs through this beautiful state in previous years on lesser-traveled roads in remote valleys. This time I was targetting several passes across the high mountains in three major sections: the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) a wildlife sanctuary and protected biosphere, the Dhauladhar range separating the Kangra plains and Chamba valley, and the Pir Panjal range separating Chamba from Lahaul. As of mid-July, I completed 45 high altitude passes touching 4,600 meters and heavy snow due to unprecedented snowfall this winter.

Shepherds from Barmour descending from the snow-covered Chaurasi pass at 4700m in Chamba valley on their way to graze their herds in the high altitude meadows around the Chaurasi Ka Dal lake.
Panoramic view from the Gaj pass at 4100m from the Dhauladhar high range onto the snow-covered Lam Dal Lake in the upper range of the Chamba valley. Late summer after the snow melts tens of thousands of pilgrims visit this holy lake.

Climbing above 4,000 meters in early summer meant cutting through steep, frozen snow gullies with my ice axe, opening several passes not yet traversed by anyone or following the fresh trail of the shepherds who had just migrated across some passes. With the Northeast monsoon setting in soon, I’ll be moving next to the high altitude deserts of Lahaul and Zanskar to complete several 5,000-meter plus passes and come back down to Garhwal in Uttarakhand in September once the rains in the lower Himalayas subside.

Read next on TOJ: Alpine-Style, Ultra-Challenge in the Himalayan High Passes

GHNP is cornered between the high ranges of the Parvati National Park and Kinnaur. Three major rivers flow through this national reserve: the Tirthan, Sainj and Jiwa Nala separated by sharp, steep rising ridges. With no accurate trail info available on the Internet (no blog references meant few people or none have hiked here) I explored all three valleys using a very rough PDF sketch map made available by the tourism office and crossed over through three steep passes. The park has some of the steepest and most inaccessible rock cliffs I have encountered. Losing the trail here meant getting stuck inside near-vertical cliffs.

Sharing a cup of tea beneath the onset of the monsoon clouds with these shepherds while climbing up to the Waru pass at 3870m while crossing over the Dhauladhar range from Chamba valley to the Kangra plains.
Hospitality in the mountains. Night stay and dinner with these two shepherds on a ridge above the Jalsu pass in the Dhauladhar range of Himachal. Beautiful views on the snow-covered Mani Mahesh in the background, one of the seven Holi shrines of lord Shiva.

Once the snow melts on the higher ranges, many young men in Uttarakhand and Himachal go out in search for the “Jungli Nalla”, a high altitude medicinal root which is smuggled across the border from Tibet into China. One kilogram fetches 20 thousand rupees ($300 USD). Spending one and a half months in the mountains provides sufficient income for the rest of the year. While hiking deep inside the GHNP, I came across several villagers digging for both roots as well as large, beautiful rock quartz crystals.

Dhauladhar is a 4,000-meter plus mountain range which rises up steeply from the Kangra plains between Dharamsala and Palampur. Several passes cross over to the beautiful Chamba valley fed by the Ravi river which flows down from the high ranges separating Kullu-Chamba-Lahaul districts. There are several high altitude glacial lakes in the Dhauladhar which are considered holy and visited during an annual late summer pilgrimage by the local people. Most of the lakes were still covered under a thick sheet of frozen snow when I passed by.

Woman carrying home firewood from the forest in Lug valley in Himachal Pradesh for cooking purposes. With no road access or electricity in many remote hamlets, people rely on natural resources for home building and cooking.
Two Gurjar (mountain tribe) from Mumbardar in Chamba valley of Himachal were grazing their buffaloes in the alpine meadows above the clouds and upon seeing me passing by immediately invited me over for dinner and a night stay in their mud home.

I crossed five passes in the Dhauladhar: Baleni, Minkiani, Indrahar, Waru and Gaj pass between 3,800 to 4,300 meters coming across heavy snow at the North facing (less exposure to the sun) Chamba side. The most adventurous was Waru at 3,870 meters, a lesser-known pass used only by shepherds (which means undocumented) where I lost the trail several times. Trying to get back on track, I had to scramble through dense forest and climb down through several side gullies which had cut deeply into the valley slope resulting in several “free solo” moments while climbing down 100-meter plus vertical drops. I survived several breathless and adrenaline rushing moments here until I set a foothold on firm ground again.

One of the near-vertical rock descents into a snow-covered gully which deeply cut inside the main valley while navigating my way “off-trail” to the Waru pass across the Pir Panjal in Himachal.

The Pir Panjal is a high range of 5,000meter peaks separating the Chenab river valley (geopolitically split across Pangi and Lahaul districts) and Chamba valley. Shepherds from Chamba annually migrate with large herds of 300 to 1,000 sheep and goats across several very steep 4,500 meter passes to graze the high altitude meadows of Pangi and Lahaul which produces better quality milk and meat. They return home only five months later at the end of the summer before the passes close again.

Camping below the stardust of the milky way while camping at Trakdi along the Manji Khad stream inside the beautiful Dhauladhar mountains near Dharamsala in Himachal.

I crossed the Marhu, Darati and Chaurasi passes touching 4,200 to 4,600 meters, all undocumented, following the footsteps of the Gaddis or shepherds who had just crossed over. The most adventurous and scary one is Darati, which is a sheer vertical 1,000-meter rockface that seems impossible to climb at first sight. From steep snow-covered ridges on top of the pass to a labyrinth of narrow passages through steep rock faces, one can only imagine how shepherds traverse these with 500 sheep. About 5% of the sheep do not make it alive to the other side.

Shepherds from Chamba Valley, Himachal at the base of the Darati pass waiting to cross over the steep snow-covered pass in early July across the Pir Panjal range into the high altitude meadows of Lahaul.
Women at Kalprai village in Chamba valley harvesting wheat on the rooftops of the mud separating the grains from the stem by hitting with large sticks while rhythmically rotating in a circle.

I experienced one of the most spellbinding moments in my entire journey so far while I was about to climb up the Chaurasi pass. At exactly the same moment, a massive herd of more than a thousand sheep and goats descended down the snow-covered pass displaying their natural skill to traverse these very steep slopes. They were guided by ten shepherds from Barmour district in Chamba on their way to the fairytale Chaurasi ki dal glacial lake surrounded by lush green meadows dotted with alpine flowers of all colors of the rainbow.

One thousand sheep descending from the snow-covered Chaurasi pass (4700m) in the Chamba valley in Himachal on their way from the plains to graze the high altitude meadows. They will only return home 5 months later at the onset of winter.

The most memorable moments in these remote valleys of the Himalayas have been my encounters and night stays with the Gujjars, or mountain tribes. Small, remote hamlets far beyond the last villages deep inside the forest, completely disconnected from civilization. These tribals live with their cattle in large beautiful rock and mud shelters built with huge pine tree trunks. They graze their buffaloes, horses, and sheep in the meadows which stay together with them under the same roof. Each and every encounter along my way with these native people has been one of heartwarming hospitality. After a full energy-draining pass crossing, ending up around a warm fire in a mud home eating freshly cooked food with these families who consider you as one of their own is beyond words.

Unseen hospitality with the Gujjars or mountain tribes in Chamba, Himachal who live disconnected from society deep inside the forests in mud homes grazing their cattle in high altitude meadows.
Overnight stay and dinner with the mountain tribes at Rali Dhar in Chamba, Himachal. The lady of the home is preparing yummy rottis (flat breads) on the fire with buffalo milk. They stay under one roof with their cattle.

Peter will continue to share his field notes with the hope of inspiring others to explore these beautiful locations. You can read more about Peter’s experiences and motivations in his interview here – Alpine-Style, Ultra-Challenge in the Himalayan High Passes. Stay tuned on The Outdoor Journal for Peter’s next update along his 2,500 km journey.

To follow Peter’s expedition, visit his blog.
Facebook: @PeterVanGeit
Instagram: @petervangeit
Chennai Trekking Club

For more Neil Productions, visit: http://neil.dj/
Facebook: @neilb4me

Introducing The Outdoor Voyage

The Outdoor Voyage booking platform and online marketplace only lists good operators, who care for sustainability, the environment and immersive, authentic experiences. All listed prices are agreed directly with the operator, and we promise that 86% of any money spent ends up supporting the local community that you’re visiting. Click the image below to find out more.

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