Sunday, October 11, 2015

Bali Pass & Ruinsara Taal Trek 2015

Bali Pass 4953 m

"Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." 
- T S Eliot

Life, in a way, is all about facing challenges head-on & over-coming them. From the moment we are born we encounter problems & learn to solve them. And everytime we find a solution to a problem, everytime we find victory over a challenge, we find happiness. This experiential happiness far exceeds & outlasts the happiness that we find in any material possessions. Our minds get so conditioned to accept & welcome challenges that the times when we don't face any, we get bored & depressed, we act restless & reckless, eager to create problems or we go out seeking challenges. Probably this is the psyche that drives people into adventure sports, trekking & mountaineering.

My last endorphin-laden shot of adventure was in 2011 when I climbed Stok Kangri. I was long overdue for a booster dose.

Maninder Kohli's announcement of Bali Pass trek came as a vaccine-reminder for the child ailing inside me.

Bali Pass & Ruinsara Taal
Bali Pass is a high altitude pass at 4953 m that connects the Har ki dun & Ruinsara valleys with the Yumnotri valley in the Uttarakhand region of Indian Himalayas. Rauinsara taal is a natural fresh water lake near the base of Ruinsara peak. The region is picturesque & lush green after the monsoon rains in June-August. So September-October is a good weather window to trek in this region. Other attractions of the region are the pristine Swargarohini peak (6252m), Bandar Poonch & Kala Nag mountains. And for the pious souls, there is the Yumnotri temple (one of the four important Hindu places of pilgrimage) & the river. For the atheists like me, who are in love with the beauty of the mountains, God is everywhere except the temples.

The roadhead to access this region is at Sankri village & the nearest railways & airport is about 200 km away at Dehradun.

The trail begins at Taluka village & concludes across the Bali pass at Jaanki Chatti village below the Yumnotri temple. The linear distance of the trek is about 65 km - a measure that is meaningless on the mountains. What matters on the mountain is the work you do against or along gravity i.e., the altitude gained or lost & the time spent. The trail starts at about 2000m, climbs up to about 5000m & then descends to about 2000m. This vertical traverse of 6000m over 6 days defines the difficulty level of this trek.

Swargarohini Peak 6252 m


25 Sept 15
New Delhi

26 Sept 15
31.04.41N      78.11.03E
1929 m
27 Sept 15
2460 m
28 Sept
Dev Thach
2998 m
29 Sept 15
Dev Tach
Ruinsara Taal
3584 m
30 Sept 15
Ruinsara Taal
Ruinsara Taal

1 Oct 15
Ruinsara Taal
4102 m
2 Oct 15
Upper Damini
4496 m
3 Oct 15
Upper Damini
Jaanki Chatti
2654 m
4 Oct 15
Jannki Chatti
New Delhi

Bali Pass: 31.01.5 N; 78.26.24 E; 4931 m 
All coordinates & altitude recorded using Motion-X GPS on iPhone 6. Please refer to official maps for exact locations

Image Courtesy:

Day 0 - 25 Sept 2015 Friday - 11:50 pm - Delhi to Dehradun
I reached the New Delhi Railway Station to catch the train to Dehradun - Nanda Devi Express - the name of the train was motivational enough for our days to come.
A3 seat 18 upper berth - I could hardly sleep in the train although the train was reasonably comfortable & on time.

Our group of 18 ardent lovers of mountains !

Day 1 - 26 Sept 2015 Saturday - Dehradun to Sankri
Dehradun 5:40 am - train reached at the designated time.
3 Innova cars drove us up the green hills to Mussourie where 4 members had already checked into a friend's beautiful house the previous night. We stopped for a refreshing breakfast & moved on towards our destination. It was a large group of 18 members (almost equal men & women) from various walks of life. The excitement on the faces & in the voices of all the members was eloquent.

We halted at Purola village for a sumptuous lunch at Classic Hotel.

Due to poor sleep the previous night, a late breakfast & somewhat wobbly car ride I developed full blown Migraine which settled only after throwing up a few times, consuming my staple Voveran-D & sleeping for 2 hours at Sankri - our stop for the night.
We checked into Swargarohini hotel at Sankhri for dinner & night stay (1900m) - a very basic accomodation.
Varun was my partner in the room but more importantly, our next door neighbor was Adrian with his (in)famous snoring. He would snore with a crescendo & a dog on the street would respond to each snore by barking raucously as though completing a piece of his musical overtures. The fatigue of the day was strong enough to drown this musical duet & I woke up the next morning to the sound of hot "Chai" !

Many of us had started our dose of Diamox twice a day (Iopar-SR for me) as a precaution against AMS.


Day 2 - 27 Sept 2015 Sunday - Sankri to Sima - Camp 1
After the musical night we had a quiet breakfast & started out at  7:00 am
in a Jeep to Taluka. Most of us were hurdled together as cattle on the open pickup deck of the jeep & some had to be perched at the top which imparted us a panoramic view & an amazing ride. 20 people compressed into one single jeep was an appropriate beginning of our adventure. We reached Taluka, the trail-head at 1900 m, & after the ceremonial group photo we started out at 9:30 am.

The trail progressed embracing the Tons river all along & slipping past beautiful fields of red amaranth flowers. The gradient was gentle & the path was well demarcated. Without much difficulty we reached Gangaar, a small village & paused at a small "dhaba" for maggie, lunch & tea at 1:30 pm 2280m. The sky was overcast & there were light showers.
We trudged on along the beautiful river trail to reach our campsite - Camp 1 next to the gushing waters of Tons river at Sima (2385 m). The rocks by the banks offered a great locale for photography.
The dinner time is always packed with gossip & stories. Today's "bakra (i)" was Monali - she played the age-guessing game in which she went wrong 100 % of the times. Yet it was fun, especially when she labelled Arti as 46. Even the rain that ensued could not wash away Monali's sins. She should have known that a wise (wo)man is (s)he who always remembers (or guesses) women's birthdays but never their age !


Day 3 - 28 Sept 2015 Monday - Sima to Dev Thach - Camp 2
Left camp at 8:30 am
It was supposed to be a short day, so taking advantage of that, we planned a detour to beautiful Osla village (2600 m) - a steep hike along Tons river, reaching there at 10:15 am. Specially carved, beautiful wooden houses are the attraction of this village. A temple in the village & kids playing all around were mesmerising. I was somewhat saddened to see a lot of patients in this village with various eye & other ailments. I dispensed whatever medicines that Smita and I were carrying. It's so strange that we have a multitude of free charitable & goverment medical facilities in Delhi (where people can very well afford medical care) but just a few hundred kilometers away from Delhi (& towns like Dehradun) there's not a single doctor or health care facility for miles (where people can neither afford healthcare nor travel). Another shocking spectacle was kids making "charas". Yes that's India shining.

We resumed at 10:45 am for a steep hike to camp 2 (2890m). Beautiful views during the hike along the tons river and a final stretch of a very steep climb landed us at a beautiful meadow camp - Dev Thach. We all collapsed on the grass to get some sap of life !

After a hot lunch we walked around the camp. Dark clouds hovered over & a hesitant drizzle brought with it rainbow vibgyor. The landscape was rejuvenating.

Dev Thach

Day 4 - 29 Sept 2015 Tuesday - Dev Thach to Ruinsara Taal - Camp 3
We left the camp at 8:30 am
First there was a steep descent of about 100 m to the tons river & then a steady ascent along beautiful trail that was broken due to landslides at various places - where later during the day the ponies had a lot of difficulty.
Came to an idyllic spot for a nice halt for lunch under trees & over huge boulders. Every long break is bound to have a photo session !
Reached Ruinsara Taal by 3:30 pm 3425m, a good 30 min before that we had to wait for the ponies to arrive. 
A beautiful view of snow capped peaks unfolded across the valley & river. 
The evening temp was 8 & at night dipped to -5. We would be parked here for 2 days.

Tons River

Day 5 - 30 Sept 2015 Wednesday - Ruinsara Taal - Camp 3 - Rest / Acclimatisation Day
Started for an acclamatisation hike at about 10:00 am
A team of three - Varun, Pooja & Arundathi ventured out at 8:00 to attempt Ruinsara peak along with 2 guides. 
Varun could do one of the sister peaks & the girls did a smaller peak. 
Our walk was steady uphill along a beautiful valley. Plenty of photographing today - nature & portraiture including Amina's Yoga. 
Amina gave a short yoga lesson. 
A lot of off-loading done as preparation for next two days as now-on there would be no ponies but only porters. 
Day ended with usual fun chat session over dinner.

Ruinsara Taal

Day 6 - 1 Oct 2015 Thursday - Ruinsara Taal to Odari - Camp 4
Started at 9:00 am 
Initial descent of about 50 m thereafter ascent up steady slope to Camp 4 Odari 3815m by 12:00 noon. 
Later we went for an acclimatisation walk up hill. There was a wonderful fashion photo shoot assisted by designer Namrata Joshipura.  Then back for lunch. 
There was a change of plan. Rather than having another camp before the pass it was decided to attempt the pass next day & camp at Upper Damini. So early dinner & bedtime was planned. 
This camp was very cold - my thermals & down jacket were put into service. 
Dinner at 6:00 pm & we slept at 7:00 pm after preparing gear for the next day

Swargarohini Mountain 6252 m

Day 7 - 2 Oct 2015 Friday - Odari to Bali Pass to Upper Damini - Camp 5 (The Big Day)
It was anticipated to be a long day of about 9-10 hours with an ascent of almost 900 m & about 500 m descent. The entire vertical traverse of 1400 m was expected to be difficult with some extremely difficult sections. It proved to be all that & more. 

We woke up at 4:00 am to hot tea. Did morning rituals & got ready - dressed to the occasion to deal with biting sub-zero mercury, snow, the heat of climbing & sun & for the unforeseen rain - yet we had to be light. Gearing for trekking or climbing is a marriage of paradoxes.

Had porridge as breakfast & started out at 5:30 am

It started with a steep climb which continued till the pass. There were rock sections & rock with snow. We had to alter our route a little to avoid a steep & slippery section of a ridge so we had to traverse around its exposed slope. Only the col section was somewhat level & from here we could see the intimidating steep snow covered climb up to the pass. And behind us was the dominating view of Swararohini peak beckoning us from its 6252 m summit as though saying, "Where are you going? Come to me, I haven't had a visitor in a long long time."

The altitude was overpowering everyone - some were breathless, others threw up, some had headache & some backache. Above 4500 m every step you take reminds you not to take nature for granted. Every inch against the gravity requires effort & one only feels like an apple on the ground.

At the final steep snow climb the porters came to help most of us. They had already sprinted up to leave their loads at the top & came down to help the lesser mortals who were alien to the mountains. These young & lean boys in their 20s weigh about 45-50 kg but carry 30 kg load on their back. They wear ordinary canvas shoes & routine winter clothes that hill folks wear but have the amazing capability to shine in any extreme weather conditions, to help the frail town dweller Humpty-Dumpty from having a fall.

Climbing a steep gradient on snow required some getting used to. My porter & saviour taught me the kicks (yes, not tricks) of the trade & offered to carry my backpack which weighed about 8 kg but felt like 80 - at higher altitudes although the oxygen ditches you but the gravity clings to you with loyalty as though she was married to you. With reluctance & guilt I parted with my load and stopped for a moment to enjoy a sense of sinful relief.

Step by step & breath by breath I continued to climb. There were far more breath s counted than steps taken as though you were climbing with your lungs. Finally I could get above the 60-65 gradient ascent secton to reach the shoulder. I paused, breathed & then looked around. The 360 degree view was far more rewarding than what I seemed to have paid for in terms of the effort I had put in to reach this point. I had incurred a debt, a debt that I would have to repay while descending down the other side. After absorbing a few moments of ecstasy here, I gradually trudged above the narrow ridge to the highest point of the  pass (4931 m as per my GPS recordings). Some of members of the group were already waiting there & a few more were still fighting the gravity on the slopes below. I rested a little. Hogged on the beauty all around me like a hungry vulture & to satiate my unquenchable hunger, I took out my camera & crazily clicked the scene that surrounded me. Recorded my GPS coordinates (31.01.5N; 78.26.24E; 4931 m) & prepared to leave for descent. I felt like a child who wants to eat more but is pulled away from the table.
I took back my load of backpack now.
I also made a silent prayer.

Snow slopes to Bali Pass 4953 m

After Bali Pass

Bali Pass 4953 m

Descending on the other side of the pass proved to be an even bigger ordeal than climbing up the snow. About 80-90 m pitch immediately after the pass was so treacherous that each of us had to be taken down, hand-held by a porter. Suddenly the word "porter" assumed a great deal of respect & reverence - we were virtually portered down by them. However, I was expecting it to be so because our local guide had blurted a few days earlier, "pass ke baad to danger slope hai" (it's dangerous descent after the pass). And if the local guide says that then you have to take it seriously. For a moment an irrational fear crossed my mind, "What if I were to fall & die here? That'd be fine - dying on the mountains is better than dying in Delhi madness."

After this "dangerous" section there was a long moderate gradient descent down the snow. My porter taught me how to dig my heel into the snow while descending on snow. I immediately picked this drill of marching ahead with heel first - the school march-past surfaced from hidden memories.

The end of snow section was marked by a beautiful small lake with smooth but steep walls. From far I could see some of the porters running up & down those walls - somewhere I would not dare to put my feet.

Some of us rested & recovered our breath before we could carry on further descent. Further down on the dried bed of a seasonal lake was set our lunch for the day. Peas pulao being served by our youngest porter Rahul who was seen running around on the slopes in flip-flops with such carefree abandon as though he was the spoilt youngest child of the mountains. I exchanged a few cheerful words with him in my half-baked Nepali language that I picked up in Nepal.

We continued to descend to reach the camp. A much needed & well earned culmination of a hard day. At the camp I just laid on the ground for half an hour before I could awaken to life again. There was tea, there was soup and there was amazing view all around. The setting sun cast a brilliant golden hue on the snow covered peaks. Deeper into the evening, the sky turned from red to violet to deep blue of the night. The twinkling of a multitude of stars was a reminder to me to crawl into sleeping bag for that well-earned sleep. So I did slip into my bed which for tonight was concave in the middle & sloping to the right !

Kalanag Mountain

Kalanag Mountain

Day 8 - 3 Oct 2015 Saturday - Upper Damini to Yumnotri to Jaanki Chatti (The Long Day)
Started at 9:15 am

Upper Damini

The excitement of the previous day hadn't worn off, neither had the fatigue. Reluctantly we all arose & got dressed for further descent leaving the Bali Pass behind & in the past. Ony the memories of the wonderful day would be our friends forever. A gradual walk down the mountains brought us to a wonderful locale for a group photograph & everyone posed with all the enthusiasm & noise. But soon excitement would give way to scare. We were at the verge of a very steep descent - almost 80-85 % gradient. Once again the porters were ready to porter us down. Each porter held one porterage by the hand & securely guided their steps down with some additonal reinforcements at critical points. This was a pitch of about 70-80 m that seemed to have no bottom & no end. Once we reached the bottom of the ordeal we felt happy to be alive & our porters relieved to have the load off their heads.

Steep descent continued but nothing as bad as the ones that we experienced yesterday & today. But what it lacked in its lethality it more than made up in its gruesome length. The rocks gave way to the shades of the forest but the downhill descent did not give any sign of mercy. We paused for lunch break - shifting a small load of paranthas from our back pack to our tummies, & we continued our downward course. Suddenly the trail took a sharp turn to left, changed into hard concrete surface & the gradient became positive again. Yes, once again we were climbing. This climb was to take us to the Yumnotri Temple - & it seemed that the emphasis was on "Yum" with the "notri" being almost silent. Gods were mocking us & had to prove it to us that its not easy to reach them. Close to & at the temple I met my usual frustration by the way religion has degenerated into business - sell God to the ingorant & make some money in the bargain. I could hear the temple's PA system (well God's are hearing impaired) play - 

"maili chaadar od ke kaise dwaar tumhare aaoon
man maila aur tan ko dhoye, phool ko chaahe kaante boe"

In Hindu tradition we have a bath & adorn clean clothes before we pray. Our body is what God gave us & the clothes are symbolic of our acts (of commission & omission) in this life. So the above prayer says that how could I present myself to God in dirty robe; in other words, covered with all the ill deeds I have done in life. It also says how can one expect to reap flowers when one has sowed the thorns.

Yumnotri Temple

With these thoughts in my mind & with a conviction that God is omnipresent, I refrained from entering the premises of the temple. All others went in & made their offerings to the deities & came out with a red dot (teeka) stamped on their forehead that marked their attendance in the temple. I prayed in silence outside, prayed for my family & friends, alive & dead.

There was yet another 5 km long & 500 m downhill walk from the temple to the Jaanki Chatti village where we stayed for a night in a GMVN guest house.

After resting a little & the first warm water bath in a week, we assembled in the dining room for dinner & drinks. No sooner than the dinner & drinks went down our belly, our spirits started to rise. There was laughter, there was cheer, there was a sense of achievement & there was music. We began to dance - in rhythm, out of rhythm, in sync, out of sync, music changed randomly & so did the dance. Our feet had become really adept at all the twists & turns & our minds so adept to high altitude that we found hard staying on lower ground. We climbed  the chairs, we climbed the tables, we made the dining room rock. This thunderous seismic activity went on deep into the night - we gave "Freedom of the Hills" an all new meaning !

Lower Damini

Day 9 - 4 October 2015 Sunday - Jaanki Chatti to Dehradun to New Delhi (Return to Uncivilisation)

A reluctant return to New Delhi - by road to Dehradun & then by Jet Airways flight to New Delhi.

Physically you may drag me down to the Delhi dust but my mind & spirit still soars high on the mountains . . . where the oxygen is less but life is more!

"Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." 
- R W Emerson

Ruinsara Taal

Key Points about this trek:
- Level: Difficult (so first timers should avoid)
- Proper conditioning & training of body required
- Need proper gear & clothing for sub-zero temperatures
- Shoes are the single most important equipment
- High Altitude requires proper acclimatisation
- Post monsoon or pre-monsoon is the best time. During rains the region is prone to landslides
- Phones don't work
- Beautiful landscape so carry good photo gear (I couldn't carry my best equipment)
- Travel light (my backpack was heavy at about 10 kg)
- Keep an extra day in your itinerary for crossing the pass to account for bad weather

Dr. Sanjay Dhawan climbing up to Bali Pass

Dr. Sanjay Dhawan
New Delhi 
October 2015


Shikhar said...

Amazed to see this side of you Dr Dhawan. Very well written journal.

Shikhar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mita Datta said...

Sanjay every day I find you a new u....Good man keep the enthusiasm up.


aruna sarkar said...

Absolutely fascinating and vivid account. Thank you. Best wishes. Amit Sarkar ( Amina's father)

Dyslexicon said...

Thank you !

Dyslexicon said...

Thank you :-)

Dyslexicon said...

Thank you sir for your kind words !

Ankit Karki said...

MR Sanjay, These are Incredible Picture of bali Pass.
I am Ankit Karki and I run an Adventure travel Company by name of Eccentric Travels.
We are actually rolling out batches for Bali Pass this year. Was wondering If i could use these incredible Images for Commercial Use.
Please let me know what is the process of obtaining these images for Purpose of commercial use
Thanks in Advance