Panchachuli Base Camp and Darma valley- The hidden gem of Uttarakhand

The Blessed hills of Almora-

It had been just few months since I visited Kumaon but seemed ages. The mountains beckoned, and after a 4 month hiatus, I reached Haldwani at 6 in the morning full with the joys of approaching autumn. It was a cold October dawn, but the weather seemed balmy and inviting. It took just few minutes to find a taxi, and after a small breakfast of tea and maggi I was sitting in the front seat of an old Suzuki Alto, zig zagging along the road to Almora. The road lined up with incessant pine cones and oak leaves has more snake bends than people living alongside the adjacent villages. The sun was still behind the hills and the cold breeze helped accentuate the chilly ambience and the delightful whiff of the crushed hibiscus flowers, and the incessant sal and shisham trees that adorn its lush green forest.

“I sometimes seem to myself to wander around the world merely accumulating material for future nostalgias.”- Vikaram seth

Oh! What a delight it was to be back to the Mountains? The cool air from the eternal snows helped chase away from the cheeks the pallor that lately clung to them in the disconcerting clamour and pollution of Delhi. One clear view of the magnificent Himalayas was enough to whitewash the pangs of dullness, routine, and vexation- that infects most city dwellers like me- who struggles to make a living in the delusions of comfort and safety, inside the civilized and domesticated walls of a metropolis.
It would be interesting if one took a selfie before and after arriving in Kumaon as a conspicuous proof to witness the overwhelming delight and happiness the valley and ambience of Kumaon so easily imparts to any weary traveler that sets foot on its blessed hills. One would definitely notice a sharp contrast in the face and demeanor, for the hills of Kumaon are fatal to lethargy, apathy, and boredom. It is a joy to behold its bucolic corridors.

Almora on a chilly winter Morning
Himalayas from Kasardevi

Reaching Dharchula
The road from Almora to Dharchula via Pithoragarh is a travellers delight. It swirls along lonely hilltops, stunning waterfalls, and quaint little villages surrounded by innumerable pine, oak and deodars- all over the lush green valley. I couldn’t help but wonder that any one of the meadows around these villages would be an ideal spot to build a small home in the Mountains.

I came across one such delightful village on my way to Pithoragarh, where we stopped for a hot tea and maggi. The village was surround by a cluster of oak and pines- scrunched together over the open green meadow. The village homes curled to one side of the bridge- built over a small stream, flowing through a bundle of large boulders perched alongside a well-preserved natural garden of hibiscus and lime trees. It was one of those quaint, secluded, and serene corners of the universe that a child paints in his realm of adventure and happiness, and seemed like a paradise for silent contemplation, solitude, and any creative endeavor. It is a curious thought but- What luxury it would be to live like a poor man with lots of money in Kumaon?

A quaint little village on the way to Pithoragarh

Pithoragrh is a huge district- as big as a city, spread over acres of hill tops, and seems like an extended version of Almora, but fails to imitate its charm, culture, and simplicity. I wish it had its own character and allure, but it just seems like any other small city or a big town that happens to be situated on a hilly terrain.
Our destination- Dharchula was just 100 km from Pithoragarh, and I had hoped and assumed it to be a small, rustic town, with a dearth of people, shops, and vehicles, but it turned out to be complete opposite. Dharchula, to put it mildly-was an utter disappointment. It is an unspectacular town in a spectacular valley. The streets are overcrowded with people, shops, taxis, and noise. A bridge over the Kali river separates it from Nepal, and maybe the proximity with the country has turned it into a pothole of noise, filth, inebriated locals, and cheap, unsanitary restaurants. Anyone can cross the bridge without any verification and enter India from Nepal and vice-versa. It is easy to get restless traversing the claustrophobic by lanes, and an encounter with drunkards is unavoidable that clogs every nook and corner of the dilapidated alleys. But relief is just around the corner, for just after a 15 minute taxi ride one escapes the concrete forest and comes back to the virgin forest cover deep inside the Darma valley .

The saving grace is that there is now a direct taxi service that takes you till Dantu-the last inhabitaed village in the Darma valley. One just needs to trek for just 15 km to reach the Panchaculi base camp- from where the peaks are just a stone throw away. Earlier you needed to trek for about 40 km to reach Dantu, passing through villages of Urthing, Nagling, and Sela, which would take 2-3 days.

Travsersing the Panchachuli Base Camp-
Dantu offers good shelter and a jaw dropping view of the Panchachuli. It is an ideal place to halt and take some stunning pictures of the Panchachuli massif. I reached Dantu at around 5 p.m. but everything was hidden in a swirl of mist and clouds. I started the trek from Dantu and hiked for 7 km to reach the Igloo huts built by KMVN. We arrived around 7 p.m in the evening with my young guide of 18 years age. It had turned pitch black by then. I had read that the huts offered a comfortable refuge in the nail biting cold of the Darma valley. But to our surprise and utter disappointment there was no care taker present, and all the huts were locked and deserted. Our only option was to trail through the jungle back to Dantu village, but my guide told me it would be suicidal, for bears and leopards roamed freely at night all over the valley and in large numbers in search of food.

Sun kissed peaks just before the zero point

The weather had cleared by then and one could make out a broad silhouette of the Panchachuli Mountain under the bright stars and the half-lit moon. The Panchachuli massif seemed like a majestic apparition in the cold, silent, and ubiquitous wilderness- made starker by the juxtaposition of the gigantic Mountain. Its stupendous size and girth has an intense gravitational pull, and one cannot help but feel a strange sensation inside the bloodstream. I had never been so close to a Mountain and it did something to the nerves that was ineffable and pleasantly intimidating. I urge anyone reading this post to experience it, for the effect it had on two young souls in that cold oblivion is beyond the realm of words and rationality. To behold a Mountain in such proximity at night is a completely different experience than witnessing its glory in broad daylight.
We were stuck, and decided to bivouac for the night under the Igloo huts, after the guide told me the story of a young 16 year old boy who was mauled by a leopard few months ago when returning all alone from the base camp back to the village. Fortunately, we had not forgotten to carry a sleeping bag and a bag pack filled with maggi, onion, and kerosene oil. After reconnoitering the surroundings, we found some wooden blocks and made a good fire, and were able to cook maggi under the open sky- with the Panchachuli peaks lingering right in front-glistening milky white under the bright moonlit sky. I wish I had a better camera to capture that moment, but alas!

Panchachuli in the morning light from the base camp

I was susrprised and disappointed at the irresponsible behaviour of the care taker, for these small KMVN operated guest homes are otherwise- well staffed and properly maintained. It was excruciatigly cold and desponding, but slurping maggi in the warmth of the fire- beholding the panchachuli in all its might under the bright starlit sky made up for all the inconvenience.Happiness is a strange thing- to be found between too much and too little, and sometimes with a stranger at the foot of a Mountain.
I was all alone in the wild with my guide and companion for the night.We were far into the desolate wilderness, and the sporadic snarls from the forest every now and then, did induce a sense of fear.My guide had been part of many trekking expeditions to the base camp and even he was averse to the idea of spending the night in the open. But together- with the help of multiple layers of clothing, vodka, cigarretes, and some engaging stories- we braved the unknown and any wild creature skulking in the vicinity .

Sharing the same food, same shelter, same sky, and the same Mountain, we felt protected- exchanging our fears and vunerability.The Mountains and the stark wilderness acted like a strong catalyst to intiate an enthralling conversation and express some close guarded secrets, untold stories, and intimate fantasies to a stranger, that you might otherwise would keep from a familiar confidant.We forget things if there’s no one to tell them to.The past regrets, present indignations, and the expectations and uncertainities of the unforeseeable future- all came tumbling down like an ebullient avalanche amidst an inert and enrapt listener .We felt sheltered just by speaking to each other. Isolation offered its own form of companionship.

I realised the value of human companionship in the lap of Panchachuli- where ironically the Pandavas had stopped to have their last meal before renouncing the world and all attachments.

And what about you? Have you ever been to the Darma valley? Please comment below.

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