I have always had a habit of reading old mountaineering journals and magazines.and
I was fortunate to have Sujal Mukherjee as my uncle that way ;
as he had this wonderful collection of mountaineering journals, magazines and books. In 1994, after my uncle passed away,
I started to work on the book based on the diaries he kept during his early days of trekking and mountaineering in the Indian
Himalaya. The book was later published as “Sujaler Diary”. It was an amateurish work from my part, I still think,
but it helped me lot in knowing and understanding the early days of West Bengal mountaineering and explorations. And as time passed I grew more and more interest
in exploration possibilities in Garwal Himalaya and one day stumbled upon an article
rather a report) by Sri Manas Basu; describing his trekking from the village of Ransi in Madmaheswar
Valley to the temple of Kedarnath, by crossing several high passes, spending 6 days. I got curious and found another article
by Sri A.C.Mitter; only to discover that he had done the same route in less number of days, only in a reverse direction. Now
that was fascinating! Two or less people exploring the endless ridges and glaciers of Garwal; that’s something I wanted
to do. Wow!
around the same time I was reading the epic book Kamet Conquered by Frank Smythe. And he mentioned early explorations by C.F.Meade
and the rumours of existence of a high path connecting the shrines of Kedarnath and Badrinath. Meade had reached the head
of the Bhagirath Kharak in search of the legendary trail, only to certify his route too dangerous for pilgrims without mountaineering
skill and proper gear. However he was able to see the head of ( or rather the upper extreme reaches of the Gangotri glacier
for the very first time) Gangotri glacier. Inspired by the attempts of Meade, the legendary duo Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman
along with 3 Darjeeling shirpas, entered the Satopanth glacier
and after crossing the col at the head of Satopanth glacier, descended to Gondherpongi valley. They could force their way
through the gorge of Gondherpongi and had finally emerged at Gonder village in Madmaheswar valley. I then came across reports
by Sri Prabhat Ganguly and his treks and exploration in upper Madmaheswar area near Kachni and Maindagalla lakes. And then
came the final inspiration; the story of Ranajit Lahiri and Arun Ghosh. The efforts of these two explorers was to do the Shipton-Tilman’s
route in reverse; but instead of following the Gondherpongi gorge up, they took a treacherous and futile (later proved to
be ‘fatal’ as well) route by Kachni lakes! Ranajit and Arun never came back to tell us their part of the story;
so we only can guess. What an unfortunate, yet, romantic end for them! I consider them bold and admire their courage till
Maps and Mountains
It has always been almost religiously difficult for the Bengal mountaineers to get
access to a decent map of the Himalayan ranges and I was no exception. To add to the misery, the Badrinath region falls under
the restricted zone as per our Indian government. By that time in 1995, I had read a meticulously informative article on the
glaciers of the Upper Alakananda valley, by Professor Manotosh Bandyopadhyay, and got instantly
attracted to a glacier called the Panpatia glacier. I could sense a possibility to connect the Alakanananda valley with the
Madmaheswar valley, but simply needed more information. Could not locate anyone in India then who had ventured in to the upper reaches of Panpatia glacier. I found
a sketchy report by Sri Harish Kapadia, on his futile attempts to reach the upper Panpatia plateau and saw some slides from
a team of Calcutta (Sri Probodh Ganguly) that went up to the snout of Panpatia glacier. Also found a brief report of an attempt
on the Parbati Parbat(6257m) by a Bengal mountaineering club.
We had already formed a team by then and it was ably leaded by Dr. Kallol Das and Sri Tarun Bhuinya and Late Sri P.K.Burman
and of course me the youngest one in the gang! All four of us were convinced that for an exploration of this degree we will
have to consult the very best, and so we went and met Dr. Tridib Basu (then the Dy. Director of National Atlas and Thematic
Mapping). Under careful instructions and suggestions made by Dr. Basu, we were all set to go!
In August 1996, the first attempt was made. Dr.Kallol Das and Tarun Bhuniya went ahead. I had to drop out due some
urgent family reasons. So did Sri P.K.Burman. Dr. Das and Tarun Bhuinya entered the Khirganga
Valley and could only explore a few kilometres of the Panpatia glacier.
They however went and crossed the Holdsworths’ Pass (Nilkanth Khal) on their way out and reached Badrinath.
1997, September saw three young lads approaching Panpatia from a different direction altogether. Raghav Mukherjee,
Subrata Bhattacharjee and myself went up the Madmaheswar valley and went beyond Maindagalla Tal (lake) only to find out that
one has to go down another narrow valley and cross another small glacier to reach the ridge that looked like the head wall
of Panpatia glacier!
In October 1998, we were back again in Madmaheswar. The monsoon was heavy in Garwal Himalaya, few villages were completely
washed down from the slopes and their debris had blocked the river Madmaheswar ganga. A big lake was formed as the debris
barraged the river flow threatening flood and further damage any day. We went up and ahead and after camping at kachni and
maindagalla lakes we crossed a depression (4750m) and came to find another impressive lake. After taking bearings on our location
on the map, I was convinced that I had seen the hidden passage to Panpatia. That was a moment
to cherish for me and a satisfying map reading exercise indeed! We had spotted the Panpatia Col and we were able to appreciate
the glacier that was guarding its entrance. So we were back again in the valley the very next year. September 1999, saw me
and Sundar Singh ( a shepherd from the village of Gondar) crossing that unnamed stretch of glacier and cross Panpatia Col. I took pictures
around as we strolled down to the vast ice plateau of Panpatia, and traced our footsteps back to lake and our cave shelter,
where my friend the only other companion was suffering from AMS. We waited another day for my friend Subrata to recover ,
but showed no sign of improvement and so I was disheartened and down the tracks of Madmaheswar again. But at least this time,
I was not going back empty handed, I was returning with the great thrilling feelings of standing on a hidden Himalayan pass,
for the first time! My 3 years of efforts did not end in nothing!
Having been on the Madmaheswar side for last 3 years, I decided to go through the Alakananda side in 2000. In May 2000,
again with a team of 3, we ventured into the Panpatia. After making 2 camps beyond the snout of the glacier, we reached a
shelf tucked in between 2 icefalls. Our first attempt on climbing the icefall failed as we ended up under a vertical icewall
and we were least prepared for it. And the next day we met some members of Martin Moran’s Nilkanth Expedition team,
with Sobat Singh of Uttarkashi. My companion Subrata was suffering from AMS again, and we were losing valuable time. I met
a person called Robin from Martin Moran’s team and even discussed routes over that icefall. Next day, we turned our
back on the ice fall and down we went, as the Scottish team eventually crossed the col.
I later had the opportunity to interact with Martin Moran as he had mentioned his teams crossing in his website, and
after exchange of photos and my report of 1999, Mr.Moran was convinced that, I was the first person to climb the col in 1999
and his team was first to cross the col in May 2000.
In 2002, I went for alpine style dash on the Parbati Parbat and could see the whole of the glacier and the plateau
from the top of Parbati’s East summit ( 6145m) and took pictures. But never felt the same urge to go back there and
finish the incomplete story that a few of us started and dared our imaginations.