Some of Baljuri’s taller neighbors are counted among the peaks protecting the Nanda Devi sanctuary. Baljuri is a shade short of 6000 meters in elevation. That doesn’t make every attempt on it a guaranteed success. Mountains have their ways. In September 2017, a group of friends set out to climb the peak. They made it to the top.
It was October 2017; festive season.
The shops in the mall were on overdrive to sell and a compere in the adjacent lobby was going ballistic about some contest underway. You shouted to be heard over the din but the din had a habit of suddenly ending when the compere zipped her mouth. That left you temporarily stuck in high decibel. You correct volume to suit revised ambiance and the compere would launch afresh shattering the equilibrium. How quiet it must have been on Baljuri – I thought. That’s the thing about a trip to the mountains. Crowds thin out. Araib Hasan, who worked at a bank in Mumbai, was just back from Baljuri.
Four friends; two had done their mountaineering course, an expedition to climb their first peak. They picked Baljuri. At roughly 19,500 feet, it is the smallest of the major peaks arrayed at Zero Point near Pindari Glacier. Small needn’t mean easy. In the mountains, a successful ascent is a case of many attributes working in your favor. Among them – you should feel good, the weather and conditions on the mountain must be supportive and costly mistakes shouldn’t be committed.
Araib hails from Bageshwar. It is the big town closest to Pindari Valley. Growing up in Kumaon, home to some of the best mountain views in India, Araib wished to climb at least some of the peaks around. In 2016, he came to know of Baljuri; a less highlighted peak from the region but one that is suitable for those making their initial forays into mountaineering. The team included his friends Adil, Nitin and Girish. They started out from Bageshwar on September 25, 2017 hoping to complete the expedition in 8-9 days. For guide, they had Lakshman Singh from the village of Wacham in Pindari Valley. The climbing boots, crampons and gaiters they needed for the expedition – they rented it from Uttarkashi’s Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM). As a precautionary measure and to help acclimatize, Araib said, the team members took Diamox, the medication meant for altitude sickness. Typically, expeditions avoid use of such medicines on the approach and instead rely on adequate days on the trail and slow gain of altitude to acclimatize.
By September 28, the team was at Base Camp, just across the river from Zero Point. Here, they met Dhruv Joshi, mountaineer from Almora. He was leading a team to Traill Pass. For a visitor to Zero Point, Baljuri, Panwali Dwar (21,860 feet) and Nanda Khat (21,690 feet) would seem as though they are rising from the same mountain massif – they are set almost in a line. The peaks are located high above and recessed, from Base Camp. The first stage of accessing the peaks is to get oneself to Camp 1, above the immediate mountain face providing backdrop for Base Camp. En route to Camp 1 the team met another group of climbers, originally headed for Traill Pass but after that attempt got aborted, settling for a shot at Baljuri Col instead. According to Dhruv, a little appreciated detail about Traill Pass is that while many people try crossing it, the success rate is not correspondingly high. On September 29, Araib’s team reached Camp 1. Here, the peaks appear more fleshed out; they seem distinct. While in the past, this area is known to have feature snow, this time around there was no snow. Next day, the team moved to Camp 2 just below the col linking Baljuri and Panwali Dwar. The route to Baljuri’s summit lay along this col.
October 1 was to be summit day. Araib’s group set out from Camp 2 at 5.30 AM. There was deep snow for a while but overall they took less than an hour to reach the col. According to Araib, the route they took commenced a bit toward the side of Panwali Dwar and ran diagonally up to the col, avoiding the glacier’s bergschrund below. On the col, they paused to rest, melt water and have some hot drinks. From the col to Baljuri’s summit, it was a gentle slope albeit clad in deep snow and in portions, crevassed. The summit ridge, Araib said, was not very wide at start but quite broad leading on. Given Baljuri stands on the divide between Pindari and Sundardunga, the team could see Maiktoli (22,320 feet), the peak which dominates Sundardunga. They couldn’t see Nanda Devi from the col, Araib said. For that, another 300 meters or so of elevation gain was needed. Three team members – Araib, Adil and Nitin reached the summit at around 12.55 PM. From the summit, Nanda Devi was visible. They could also see towards Changuch and Nanda Kot. The team stayed for about 20 minutes on the summit; then turned back. On the return leg, Araib said, they had to be very careful while descending from the col to Camp 2, as the line of fall here leads to the bergschrund.
Baljuri was Araib’s first peak. Before this trip he had hiked a lot, having done treks like Roopkund, Pin Parvati, Mayali Pass and Auden’s Col. Dhruv led his team across Traill Pass successfully. An experienced climber, he has a unique link with Baljuri. He attempted Baljuri in December for a taste of climbing in winter. A further two attempts in April and September were also made. On all occasions, he was beaten back by bad weather. At the time of writing this article, a successful summit for him on Baljuri, was still awaited. Small or big, prevailing conditions can make a peak challenging.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)