A MOUNTAINEER AND HIS PLAYGROUND

Dhruv Joshi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Dhruv Joshi didn’t run after big, costly peaks and foreign landscapes. Instead, he favored peaks that interested him. Two other angles engage in Dhruv’s journey. The expeditions he has been responsible for, are mostly alpine style or using small teams. As yet, these trips have frequented the area around Nanda Devi in Uttarakhand, the state he hails from.

In India, the C certificate is a document coveted by members of the National Cadet Corps (NCC).

When it comes to recruitment in the armed forces, C-certificate holders have an edge over other candidates.

Dhruv Joshi wasn’t short of reason to attempt joining the forces. He hailed from Uttarakhand, a state were employment in the military and paramilitary is widespread. His father had retired as head constable in the Border Security Force (BSF) and the person he looked up to – his uncle, Colonel J. C Joshi – was an illustrious army officer, reputed in the country’s mountaineering establishment. Col Joshi had been part of many climbing expeditions in the Himalaya, served as commandant of the High Altitude Warfare School and been the second principal of the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM). Born November 1981 in Almora, Dhruv had grown up with some of the best views of the Himalaya for company. The peaks were visible in the distance from Dhruv’s house. His uncle told him the names of some of the mountains. Instances like an accident on Maiktoli in the early 1990s and a ringside view of his uncle coordinating rescue operations brought the specter of mountaineering home (at that time, Col Joshi was in Nainital and secretary of the Nainital Mountaineering Club).

Tackling the tricky ridge on Nanda Khat (Photo: courtesy Dhruv Joshi)

In 1996, at Col Joshi’s suggestion, Dhruv went on a trek to Pindari Glacier, organized by Altitudes High Adventure. The trek culminates in an arc of mountains, which as any mountain lover would tell you is impressive for the proximity to peaks it rewards the hiker. It is also noteworthy for another factor – the mountains here are linked to the architecture of peaks that shape the location of Nanda Devi, at 25,643 feet, the second highest peak in India and among the world’s most beautiful. A twin peaked-mountain, its western summit is the main one; the eastern summit – referred to as Nanda Devi East – is lower at 24,390 feet. In mountaineering Nanda Devi is revered for some interesting attributes. Access to the mountain is tough and took long to be figured out. Very few mountains have the magnificent setting it has, surrounded by high peaks providing a protective wall. Twelve of these peaks exceed 6400 meters (approximately 21,000 feet) in elevation. Further, Nanda Devi rises steep and high from the glacier at its immediate south western base. This rise measures about 10,800 feet and occurs over a span of 4.2 kilometers making the mountain pretty steep to climb. The Pindari Glacier hike ends just beyond the rim of the outer wall of peaks guarding Nanda Devi. The peaks at hand here include Baljuri, Panwali Dwar, Nanda Khat, Changuch and Nanda Kot of which Panwali Dwar and Nanda Khat are categorized as on the outer wall of the Nanda Devi sanctuary while Nanda Kot is just outside it. In between this arc of peaks lay Traill Pass; it links the Pindari Valley to Milam and Munsyari. Standing at Zero Point, where the hike to Pindari Glacier concludes, the most dominant peak would seem to be Changuch (20,741 feet). It showed up prominently in photos Dhruv took. When he shared the images with Col Joshi, the veteran mountaineer said that it hadn’t been successfully climbed yet. Dhruv remembers telling himself that he should take a shot at it some time. Right then however, he hadn’t done any mountaineering course and Col Joshi had been periodically reminding him of the need for it. The impetus manifested when despite C certificate, Dhruv’s attempts to join the army and be like his uncle, failed. In all he made seven attempts to enlist; all of them to the same disappointing result. It was time to look at life differently.

By 2004, having completed his BSc from Kumaon University and elected to do his MCA through correspondence course from the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), Dhruv found himself in Delhi. In 2005, he eventually got around to doing his Basic Mountaineering Course from NIM. Same year, thanks to his uncle, he attended celebrations around the fortieth anniversary of the first Indian ascent of Everest (Col Joshi had been on that team). At that function in Delhi, he met Junko Tabei, the Japanese mountaineer who became first woman to ascend Everest and Maurice Herzog, the French mountaineer who in 1950 became the first person to climb an 8000 meter-peak when he and Louis Lachenal reached the summit of Annapurna in Nepal. For young man dreaming mountains and recently trained in the sport by mountaineering institute, this was interesting. Dhruv also met Col J.S. Dhillon, at that time principal of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) in Darjeeling. In March-April 2006, Dhruv did his Advanced Mountaineering Course from HMI. It was however a year of tragedy in the family. Col Joshi’s wife passed away, he was diagnosed with cancer and an aunt met with an accident (she too would pass away). On the way back from HMI, Dhruv spent time in Faridabad with his cousin, Vikram (Col Joshi’s son). Not long afterwards, in April itself, Col Joshi passed away in Almora. That was a trying period – three deaths in the family in a year. Dhruv shifted back to Almora. By then he was also through with those appearances before the Service Selection Board (SSB) for potential recruitment in the army. In May 2006, erstwhile army aspirant found himself working with a group of school children at an outdoor camp organized by Altitudes. Dhruv liked the experience.

On Changuch (Photo: courtesy Dhruv Joshi)

Around this time, he had begun checking out the expeditions being planned by Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF). IMF is the nodal organization in India for mountaineering in the Himalaya. Besides administering the sport, permitting expeditions and monitoring them, it also runs its own expeditions. Dhruv was sure that he wasn’t keen on sport climbing (which too the IMF administers); he wanted to be out on expeditions in the Himalaya. The call came a year or so later. Dhruv was working a program at a school in Coimbatore in South India, when the IMF informed him of his selection for an expedition to climb Panwali Dwar (21,860 feet), under the leadership of Col Vijay Singh Thakur. In May-June 2007, along with other team members, Dhruv was tasked with specific responsibilities; the preparatory phase at IMF lasted almost two weeks. Panwali Dwar is a lovely triangle of a peak with a prominent notch interrupting the straight upward sweep of one of its ridges. Out on the mountain, the team climbed up to the notch but had to turn back from there due to bad weather. Soon afterwards, Dhruv travelled to Ladakh. This time, in one of those moves people wishing to be at altitude do – they work any role they get just to be in the mountains – he had joined an expedition to Chamser Kangri (21,775 feet) as a High Altitude Porter (HAP). Work as HAP typically means you get a chance to climb the peak. Although he climbed Chamser Kangri, Dhruv didn’t find it challenging. It made him think of Panwali Dwar. The peak in Ladakh and the one in Kumaon were similar in height but Panwali Dwar was a challenging climb. Needless to say, thoughts of Changuch too returned. It was yet to receive a first Indian ascent. There had been a joint expedition to the peak by the IMF and Indian Navy; it resulted in two casualties.

Amid this, in 2008, Dhruv was assigned an IMF expedition to Maiktoli (22,320 feet), led by Col Vijay Singh Thakur. Maiktoli, which is on the outer wall of the Nanda Devi sanctuary, is approached through the Sundardunga Valley. Just as Changuch dominates Zero Point, Maiktoli dominates Sundardunga. Dhruv fell into the bergschrund of the mountain’s glacier when a snow bridge snapped under the combined weight of person and load. Stuck some seven feet below in the crevasse, he remembers sensing void below. Somehow he climbed back up. This was followed by bad weather and an avalanche. Eventually, having made it as high as 6200 meters (20,340 feet) or so on the peak and beset with corniced ridges ahead, the expedition turned back. It was yet again an unsuccessful trip but for a change, this one had yielded learning. In 2009, Dhruv applied afresh to the IMF for a seat on any of its expeditions. In the interim, he went on expeditions to Shitidhar (17,224 feet) and Ladakhi (17,536 feet) in Himachal Pradesh; in both cases his role ended with being at summit camp. When IMF finally called, it was to inform that he had been assigned to a joint BSF-IMF expedition to Plateau Peak (26,679 feet) in Ladakh. Among those on this trip was Loveraj Singh Dharmshaktu, a BSF officer who would go on to be the Indian climbing Everest the most number of times. It was a big team; Dhruv remembers knowing many of them from before – they were either from the hills (like him) or former course-mates from mountaineering institutes. Plateau Peak was an unclimbed peak then. In the month-long expedition, the team made it up to around 6800 meters (22,310 feet) before turning back.

View of Nanda Devi from the upper slopes of Changuch (Photo: courtesy Dhruv Joshi)

The name of British mountaineer, Martin Moran, is well known in Kumaon. In May-June 2009, Dhruv’s pet project, Changuch, received its first ascent from a team led by Martin. In August 2009, aware of Dhruv’s obsession with the peak, Altitudes – the company he worked for – launched an expedition to Changuch. The team made it up to Advanced Base Camp (ABC) at 14,670 feet. “ There is a rock wall here, which is tackled to make one’s way to Traill Pass. You climb this and then cross to the other side for the route to Changuch. We couldn’t find the proper route,’’ Dhruv said. The expedition turned back. In the heavy snowfall that followed, some of the porters ran away. Supplies were not consolidated. It was a tough situation. Somehow they wound up the trip and came down. Dhruv’s employer, the owner of Altitudes, assured him that they would return to attempt the peak again. All that Dhruv could think of was – so many expeditions done and still only one easy peak – Chamser Kangri – for summit. It hurt.

Dhruv wrote to Martin Moran explaining that he had been on expeditions including an aborted trip to Changuch. So, could he work for Martin? The reply he got suggested that he try and be liaison officer for Martin’s upcoming expedition to Satopanth (23,212 feet). In the meantime, in 2010, Dhruv noticed an option put up on the IMF website. The agency was asking visitors to suggest peaks to attempt. Dr Anil Gurtoo – whom Dhruv knew from before – had been tasked with leading an IMF expedition. Together, Dr Gurtoo and Dhruv selected Nanda Khat (21,690 feet), which stands between Panwali Dwar and Changuch on the arc of mountains at Zero Point near Pindari Glacier. Selection of peak done, Dhruv left for NIM to do his course in search and rescue. His mind was however on the proposed expedition. Almost every day, from the institute, he called up Dr Gurtoo to discuss the upcoming expedition which by now, had been approved by IMF. Conscious of his track record with only Chamser Kangri for successful ascent, Dhruv looked to Nanda Khat with hope. He knew that chances of successful summit were there. From previous trips to Pindari Glacier and higher up, he already knew the route to Camp 1. “ It seemed doable and I needed a successful summit badly,’’ Dhruv said. From his course-mates at NIM’s search and rescue course, he roped in Bharat Bhushan and Takpa Norbu (Takpa was also Dhruv’s batch-mate for basic mountaineering course). He also consulted the late C. Norbu, a senior instructor at NIM and among the best instructors the Indian mountaineering fraternity has known, for other potential candidates. The next addition was Chetan Pandey from Almora. New IMF rules required that woman mountaineers be mandatorily included. Three years earlier, in 2007, Dhruv had met Wallambok Lyngdoh at IMF. Now, given his need to know more about a woman climber from Meghalaya in India’s north-east, he called up Meghalaya Rock Climbing and Mountaineering Association and to his surprise, Wallambok answered the phone. The latter not only provided the needed details but also joined the team himself.

The snow stake which was left on the summit of Changuch. It has engraved on it, the names of senior mountaineers, to whom the expedition was dedicated (Photo: courtesy Dhruv Joshi)

The Indian style of climbing has traditionally featured large expeditions. Some military and paramilitary expeditions have even smacked of siege. Veteran mountaineer, Col. B.S. Sandhu, who was overseeing the Nanda Khat expedition, wanted the team to attempt the peak alpine style. This meant minimum support staff overall with climbers doing everything themselves on the mountain. As Dhruv had predicted, progress was smooth till ABC near the rock wall above Pindari Glacier. It took them three days to clear the wall. On top was a big glacial plateau. Weather was rough on June 22, 2010. Dhruv decided to make an all-out attempt for the summit. Nanda Khat has four summit humps of which, the third is the actual summit. Upon reaching the first of these summits they discovered that the approach to the second was along a knife edge-ridge. They sat astride it and traversed roughly half of the ridge on their butts; potential fall looming to either side. Around 4 PM they reached the actual summit. From that high point, Dhruv recalls, they looked towards Changuch and Nanda Kot, seeking climbing routes on their slopes. Then, the weather deteriorated. There was thunder and lightning and static electricity could be felt. About 8.30 PM they were able to get back on their return route; they were back in camp by midnight. Altogether, the summit bid took roughly 21 hours and thirty minutes. It was realized later that at least a part of the route taken by the team was new; no one had done that traverse earlier. It was now time for the Satopanth expedition with Martin Moran. “ Martin talks little. He is usually a serious person,’’ Dhruv said. He went with Martin and his team to Garhwal. As it turned out, bad weather ensured that Martin’s expedition to Satopanth in September 2010 was denied summit. But Dhruv considers the opportunity he got to see Martin’s management of the expedition, a chance to learn. Martin gifted him a small tent, ideal for bivouac. It was apt for mountaineer aspiring to repeat Martin’s ascent of Changuch.

In the light of the successful ascent of Nanda Khat, Dr Gurtoo recommended to IMF that Dhruv be made an expedition leader. In March 2011, Dhruv was in Faizabad when he got the call from IMF confirming his appointment. He was to lead an expedition to Changuch. “ The Pindari Valley has been kind to me. That’s where my first real summit happened and I also got opportunity to work for the first time as deputy leader and leader,’’ Dhruv said. For the Changuch expedition, Dhruv didn’t have to look far for team. He had a tried and tested team from the Nanda Khat ascent. Further, Dr Gurtoo was scheduled to lead a team to Nanda Bhanar (20,459 feet) nearby. That put old friends in the same neighborhood. Given Dhruv’s Changuch expedition was a case of attempting its first successful ascent by an Indian team and first successful attempt from the Pindari Glacier side, he got to pick his team members first. He retained Bharat, Takpa, Wallambok and Chetan. Dr Anand Vaidya from the old Maiktoli expedition came aboard as team doctor. Total team strength was eight. There were no HAPs. They hired one person for the kitchen and three helpers for the passage to Zero Point. Dr Vaidya, one team member and the lone person on kitchen duty stayed put at ABC. The rest moved up self-sustained. The route up to Camp 1 was the same as used for the Nanda Khat expedition. At summit camp, Dhruv’s walkie-talkie stopped working as did his watch and altimeter. They found there, a snow stake from Martin Moran’s expedition, which they retained as memento. The team pitched two tents – a three man-tent and the tent Martin had gifted. For summit attempt, they left the summit camp at 11.30 PM. One team member stayed back at summit camp to keep refreshments ready for the summit party when they return. The summit of Changuch was reached at 9.50 AM on June 17, 2011. For Dhruv, it was a longstanding dream coming true. “ There are two ramps before the summit. At the first ramp, Wallambok said that it was his father’s death anniversary. The rest of the team therefore asked him to go ahead. All four of us – Wallambok, Bharat, Chetan and I – reached the top. Everyone cried. Takpa was last person up. He was bewildered to find a party of grown-ups crying on the summit,’’ Dhruv said laughing. Given Nanda Kot was covered in clouds it was difficult to compose a photograph as proof of ascent. So they left behind Takpa’s prayer flag and a snow stake with the names of senior climbers they had dedicated the climb to, inscribed on it. By 11 AM they commenced return. Takpa’s prayer flag could be seen through a zoom lens from lower camp. Dhruv dedicated the climb to Col. Joshi, Col. B.S. Sandhu, Nawang Gombu and C. Norbu. Their names feature on the snow stake left on the summit of Changuch. Dhruv didn’t rest content with Changuch in the bag.

Kuchela Dhura (Photo: courtesy Dhruv Joshi)

One of the peaks visible from Changuch summit camp was Kuchela Dhura (20,650 feet). It extends at a tangent from the Nanda Kot massif, on the Munsyari side of the Pindari-Munsyari divide. It was unclimbed. Access would be through Lawan Glacier; the glacier is fed by the snows of Kuchela Dhura, Nanda Kot (22,510 feet), Changuch, Nanda Lapak (18,970 feet), Peak 6041 and Nanda Devi East.  Dhruv’s proposal for an expedition to attempt Kuchela Dhura in 2012 was approved by the IMF. An eight member team including Takpa, Chetan, Bharat, Wallambok and Dhruv was pieced together. At the same time, Dr Gurtoo took a four person team to Nanda Kot. Base Camp for Kuchela Dhura was established on flat ground near Naspanpatti on the way to Nanda Devi East Base Camp. Kuchela Dhura was totally new on climbing’s radar; no previous climbing data existed. The team decided to access the peak via its col with Nanda Kot, which had been the route of an old Japanese attempt on Nanda Kot. Summit camp was set up on the col at “ roughly 6200 meters,’’ ie around 20,300 feet. “ It was a very windy camp and most members were not feeling well,’’ Dhruv said. Two members descended to lower camp. Of the remaining, Bharat left after one night.

On summit day, Dhruv and Wallambok proceeded to the summit. “ It was a sharp ridge; quite unlike topographic maps would have you imagine. From the summit camp, summit should have been approximately four kilometers away horizontally. We covered roughly three kilometers. Then we found ourselves on the lip of a big V-shaped cleft. To get across that gap, you had to climb down and then climb back up. It was lose rock. We deemed it unsafe. So we returned to camp,’’ Dhuv said. On return, Dhruv and Wallambok were dispatched on an IMF expedition to climb Rimo I in Ladakh. The expedition had its highest camp at 7020 meters (23,031 feet), then, turned back owing to bad weather. Soon after the 2012 failed bid on Kuchela Dhura, Dhruv submitted fresh mountaineering proposals to IMF including another attempt on Kuchela Dhura. In 2012 December, Dhruv tried a winter ascent of Baljuri (roughly 19,500 feet). It is the smallest of the peaks in the arc at Zero Point in Pindari Valley. The attempt failed. He would try the peak unsuccessfully in September 2015 and April 2016. On all occasions bad weather forced him to give up. Small or big, a peak can be challenging when it wants to.

In Indian arranged marriages, once the parents have spoken to each other, the prospective bride and groom are set up for a face to face meeting in the presence of elders. On May 23, 2013, as part of a proposed arranged marriage, Dhruv went to see a girl. That ritual done he departed next day to take a client across Traill Pass, which lay between Nanda Devi and Changuch at a height of 17,428 feet. The team spent three days at Base Camp during which time the client retired from the attempt but urged that the rest of the team proceed up the pass. On the sixth day the team – now three people; Dhruv, Bharat and Vineet Kumar Saini – climbed the rock wall above Pindari Glacier. On the seventh they crossed Traill Pass. By the tenth day, they were in Munsyari. “ It was all alpine style,’’ Dhruv said. They got back to Delhi to news of the Kedarnath floods. In August 2013, the second attempt on Kuchela Dhura got underway. Dhruv was leader; Wallambok, deputy leader. Others in the team included Vijay Singh Rautela, Chitramohan, Vineet, Ram Singh Lodha, Karan Kumar and Dr Vaidya. They decided to attempt the peak via a different route. They decided to attempt it along a hanging glacier that dropped down from the summit. This way, the V-shaped cleft and its unstable rock, could be avoided. They successfully crossed the glacier and established summit camp on the col leading to the main summit. On September 6, 2013, past 8.20 AM, the team reached the summit in white out conditions. Two months later, in November 2013, Dhruv got married to Meenakshi, who he had met just before leaving for Traill Pass. He had told her in jest that he would marry her if he successfully crossed the pass.

Climbing Kuchela Dhura. The climbers are visible as specks in the top half of the picture; their rope is the faint red line down the middle of the snow clad face (Photo: courtesy Dhruv Joshi)

In May-June 2014, Dhruv was back, this time attempting Latu Dhura. Information on the Internet puts the height of this peak at 6392 meters (20,971 feet). Part of the idea behind this attempt was to recce potential routes on Nanda Devi East. Besides Dhruv, the team included Bharat, Vineet and Karn Kowshik. There were also members drawn from a recent outing with the IMF. The Latu Dhura expedition was unsuccessful courtesy unstable ice. According to Dhruv, Latu Dhura remains candidate for another attempt, another time. Also on the list of mountains to attempt are Nanda Devi East and several of the unclimbed spurs on the outer wall of the Nanda Devi sanctuary. Nanda Devi East rises on the eastern edge of the sanctuary wall and is open to climbing from the eastern side. “ My dream project – that would be traversing the ridge linking Nanda Devi main summit to its east summit,’’ Dhruv said. Nanda Devi sanctuary is a restricted area. At the time of writing this article, it was well over three decades since the mountain – religiously important locally and home to a fragile ecosystem – had been closed for climbing. For the present, Dhruv had a more realistic project to chew on – winter ascents. In 2016, he started an outdoor company, Himalpinist, along with Vijay Singh Rautela and Vineet Kumar Saini. Dhruv reasons that during the company’s many treks in the Johar Valley he should be able to position gear and what he needs for a winter climb of nearby peaks, aptly, in advance. Then during winter, he should be able to come in light and try ascending the peaks, alpine style.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Height of peaks is as available on the Internet. This article is based mostly on a conversation with Dhruv Joshi.)          

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