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    East of Nanda The first ascent of Changuch and a crossing of Traill's Pass

    Nanda Devi is the presiding citadel of Uttarakhand. Her buttressed twin summits dominate the encircling entourage of lower peaks in the image of a graceful goddess surrounded by her acolytes. She is, by universal assent, India's greatest mountain. Since the Government's closure of her Sanctuary in 1982 the only way to approach close to her throne is to trek the Gori Ganga valley north from Munsiari in Kumaon, then turn left at Martoli and follow the Lawan valley westwards for 18km to the base of the eastern summit.

    Mountaineers are now only allowed to climb on 7434m Nanda Devi East, and the 7816m Main Summit remains gloriously inviolate and inaccessible. Nanda East was first ascended by a four-man Polish team in 1939, who took the long and pinnacled South-East ridge to create what is now acknowledged as the hardest Himalayan climb to be achieved prior to World War Two. Many large expeditions, equipped with thousands of metres of fixed rope, have tried and failed due to the length and insecurity of this prodigious route.

    Our team of six British climbers arrived in Delhi on May 15th 2009 with ambitions to repeat the Polish route on Nanda Devi East. We hoped to climb largely in Alpine-style and took only 400 metres of fixed line for the hardest sections as opposed to the 3000 taken by some recent international teams. Only one successful Alpine-style ascent has ever been recorded of the East summit, a fine effort by Julie-Ann Clyma and Roger Payne in 1994. Whatever the outcome of our attempt we looked forward to a month exploring the country to the east of Nanda, a reputedly magnificent hinterland of shining peaks and flowered valleys.

    Goodbye Gori Ganga!

    "See the Gori Ganga while you can. In 15 years it will all be gone"

    So lamented my agent, C.S.Pandey, as we trekked the verdant gorge from Munsiari to Martoli. We had spent the previous two days on the twisting cobbled path that for many centuries carried a vibrant trade in goods and animals between India and Tibet, gaining height through swathes of sub-tropical jungle to emerge in the open upper reaches where the river meandered in a vast bed of gravel above its downward plunge.

    Down on the riverbank a group of labourers were operating a diesel-powered drill, testing rock hardness, at the site of the highest of four hydro dams that are proposed for this valley. They will begin at 1700m just above the humid and sleepy village of Lilam, filling the canyon past Rupsia Bagar and Bogudiyar, and up to Mapang at 2980m altitude. The dam walls will be between 70 and 100m in height with underground water shafts leading to downstream powerhouses. There will be massive pollution during the construction phase with bulldozing of access roads for heavy machinery. The landscape, ecology and tranquillity of the area will be irreversibly degraded, along with the culture and traditional livelihoods of the local Bhotia and Saukhia people. All the plans and feasibility studies can be viewed at www.uttara.in/initiatives/wfw/intro.htm .

    Of course it is inevitable that some of the massive hydro potential of Uttarakhand's mountains must be harnessed. No fair-minded person could dispute the need to develop renewable sources of energy to satisfy north India's burgeoning demand for electricity without adding significantly to global warming. The 1000MW Tehri dam is already in operation, and several more schemes are under construction on the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda rivers. The combined generating capacity of the Gori Ganga schemes will be around 800MW according to the engineers. Even allowing for operational inefficiency one cannot deny that the valley carries a considerable head of power.

    However, State-sponsored companies are actively plotting similar exploitation of each and every mountain valley in Kumaon and Garhwal without any concern for environmental or cultural protection. Even worse, there seems to be complete lack of any co-ordinated opposition save for the plaintive cries of those helpless villagers who will be displaced. Where is the environmental protest from trekkers, mountaineers, cultural organisations, ecologists and tourism operators? A thunderous voice of protest must be raised soon or every mountain valley in Uttarakhand state will suffer the same fate within the next 50 years. And maybe there is still time to spare the Gori Ganga from complete devastation. Each of the four dams will take five to eight years to build, working upstream from Lilam.  The upper valley might yet be saved.

    From Martoli our route to Nanda Devi cut off up the Lawan valley, a tight cleft clad with rhododendron and birch. We camped at a levelling in the jaws of the canyon and I woke at dawn to witness a searing sunrise light the chiselled rock tiers and ice ridges of Nanda Devi East, which was framed massively in the valley head, although still 10km away. After this brief revelation she drew cloud veils to her bosom and disappeared.

    The Lawan valley opened out at 3900m and the rhododendron were replaced by fields of globe-headed primula denticulata, millions of bright pink flowers nodding in the midday breeze. An array of peaks encircled the valley head. Unclimbed Kuchela was besieged by seracs. Nanda Kot's huge northern wall was capped by the unmistakable chisel-headed summit. Changuch appeared as a mass of fluted ice ribs and cornices, Nanda Khat a distant sweep of snow arêtes. Finally, the banded south-eastern wall of Nanda Devi East took our gaze, nearly 3000m in vertical height and wreathed by tormented clouds. A few squat stone huts, built by the shepherds for their summer sojourn were the only structures in the open flats of the valley, yet lent the scale required to appreciate the vastness of the scene.

    As we sat spellbound, my companion Rob was perplexed:

    "I just can't understand it. How can this side of Nanda Devi have no environmental protection? Anywhere else in the world this whole valley system would be a national park." Humans cannot help but be humbled by such natural grandeur. Maybe the hydro-developers should go up and take a closer look!

    The Heroic Poles

    One other expedition was encamped at the valley head, a Polish team attempting to climb the South-East Ridge in celebration of the 70th anniversary of the first ascent. The team was led by Jan Lenczowski. Jan was the grandson of Jakub Bujak who with Janusz Klarner reached the summit on 2nd July 1939.

    Next afternoon we sat in the Polish mess tent, swapping our malt whisky for their tales of struggle. They had been on the mountain for three weeks, fixing ropes on every exposed or technical section, yet had only reached 6500m. Their team of grizzled veterans had climbed all over the world and their accomplishments included a clutch of 8000m peaks, many climbed without oxygen. Yet here they were gratefully sipping our malt whisky and looking exhausted, nay even demoralised, by the succession of difficulties. First they had encountered an unrelenting 1000 metres ascent to gain Longstaff's Col at 5910m. Exposure to the morning sun meant that this climb could only be made at night. One member had carried seven loads to the col.

    Then came the shock that there are no flat camping places, either on the col or along the succession of three rock pinnacles that followed, save for tiny platforms that must be cut out of the ice. Beyond the pinnacles, a series of rock steps were linked by exposed snow crests, climbing slowly to an eventual easement at 6500m. As they climbed higher they were plagued by strong winds and the ridge was plastered in spring snow.

    If the Polish experience was making our own plans look stupidly presumptuous then we were all sobered by the consideration that this whole route was ascended with primitive equipment on the eve of the Second World War.

    Jan told us of the harrowing fates that befell the four Polish engineers after their heroic ascent in 1939. The two climbers who had supported the summit bid, Bernadzikewicz and team leader Adam Karpinski, died two weeks later in an avalanche while attempting the first ascent of Tirsuli at the head of the Milam valley. Bujak and Klarner were then prevented from returning to Poland by the German invasion and start of the war. Bujak worked with the British until 1945 then vanished without a trace during a day's rock-climbing on the Cornish sea-cliffs. His body was never found but he was presumed drowned. Klarner got home after the war and wrote a manuscript for a book of the Nanda Devi expedition. However, he fell foul of Stalin's regime and disappeared in 1949, presumably in one of the gulag camps. His daughter finally managed to get the book published in 1956, and Jan had brought a copy with him to the Himalaya.

    Nanda Lapak

    Feeling somewhat dwarfed by the scale of the challenge, our first reaction was to build our confidence with the ascent of a training peak. The 5782m Nanda Lapak lies 4km along the lateral ridge east of Nanda Devi. The summit is a shapely snow-cap, buttressed by a short bulging ice wall.

    We forded the Lawan river and ascended a long rib of grass and scree to gain a comfortable tent platform under the south ridge at 5100m. Our team of seven comprised my fellow-guide Rob Jarvis, Jim Finnie, Paul Guest, Leon Winchester, John Venier, our Liaison Officer Ludar Sain and me. Built like a whippet, 27-year-old Ludar was a bundle of enthusiasm, eager to participate in any of our climbs or else help with load-ferrying.

    We departed for the summit at 3am on a cold clear night and climbed a broken gully towards the ice bulge at 5500m. Just after 5am the dawn broke with a pale pink flush over Nanda Devi. The obelisk of the Main Summit now appeared behind its eastern twin. Sinuous ribs of snow plunged from the summits like the pleats of a swirling skirt. The whole assemblage exuded an aura of unattainable virginal splendour. We were immensely privileged to have a grandstand view of the Goddess in this precious morning hour.

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