An icy wind cuts over the ridge, kicking up shimmers of dust on the trail that leads to the view to end all views. At the lip stands a ragged red pennant, a prayer-flag marking the Kuari Pass. Apart from the wind, everything is deathly quiet – at 5am and 13,000ft the birds are slumbering, and the streams are still frozen.
Silence is sacred in the Garhwal Himalayas. Spread across the north of Uttarakhand, where India bumps into Tibet and Nepal, this is Hinduism’s spiritual heart: journey’s end for sun-blackened mendicants, home to various many-armed deities and birthplace of the Ganges.
It might have become a tourist destination, too. Before the Second World War, the Garhwal – a name derived from an old word for fortress – was the main arena of Himalayan exploration and the Kuari Pass could easily have become filled with hikers and mountain sightseers. But then came 1947 and the end of the Raj, and two years later Nepal, kingdom of the 25,000-foot peaks, opened its frontiers. When Hillary and Tenzing climbed Everest in 1953 the first Himalayan visitors followed in their wake. And so it was that Nepal became the trekkers’ favourite while the purplest patch on the map of India shrank from view.
It is the prospect of exploring this less-travelled part of the Himalayas that has brought me to a hilltop pasture above Ghunni village, 300 miles north-east of Delhi, where mountain guide Biru and I are untangling guy ropes in preparation for our first evening on the Curzon Trail.
We are camping on protected land – this five-day trek is the marquee route along the western rim of the Unesco-prescribed Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve – but there isn’t much accommodation in these parts so everything we need, including food, cooking rings and an antiquated A-frame tent, is coming with us. It pays to come prepared.
Over the next few days the Curzon Trail takes us through a landscape that changes with each uphill heave and downward scurry. From high passes swathed in silver oak, we plunge through tunnels of rhododendrons down to subtropical depths of bamboo thickets where lilac butterflies drink the perspiration from my hands and gullies scud down the hillsides like runnels of mercury. At the base of each valley we tiptoe over concrete bridges that have been weakened by the monsoon deluges. Then on to the next pass – always farther away than it seems – and over, into another yawning gorge.
Nehru once wrote of the Garhwal that it was “extraordinary to be so near and yet so far from the rest of the world”. Wandering these valleys and passes it’s easy to appreciate this sense of quick immersion. Occasional encounters with civilisation do little to diminish the sense that we are witnessing things just as they were in 1905, when Lord Curzon, then Viceroy of India, first blazed this trail and left it with his name. There is no tourist paraphernalia in the mountain settlements – no tea-houses selling pizza and home-made chang – just corncobs hanging from the lintels and chillies scattered over sackcloth to dry.
Up to now glimpses of the high snows have been rare, but I know they are close from the flying-saucer clouds – the ones that hover over high mountains – projecting over the ridge line.
Our patience is rewarded the next dawn when the pass is breached and we spend the ensuing day on an undulating spur of golden grass, stopping every 30 feet to gawp at the mountains that soar along every horizon. It ends with us camped on the plateau at Thali, tucking into brown, butter-filled chapatis. As the last sun blushes the eastern crags and the stars reclaim the sky I am struggling to contain my excitement, for, beautiful as this is, I have been told that the best of the Curzon Trail is yet to come.
Next morning , we climb the slope behind our campsite just as a party of four griffin vultures wheels into view above us, their huge wings stretched across the updrafts rising from the Dhaoliganga valley far below. This is Gorson Top, the high point of our trek, both physically and emotionally. There can be few mountain views to rival it anywhere on Earth.
To the north and west are the jagged teeth of the Badrinath range, the cradle of Hinduism and principle watershed of the Ganges. But it is in the east that Brahma the Creator’s greatest flourish resides. Here, between the spire of Changabang and three-peaked Trisul, the Himalayas form two concentric rings; a mighty citadel that guards an untouched wilderness at its centre: the Nanda Devi Sanctuary, home to the “Bliss-Giving Goddess”, one of India’s highest mountains at 25,648 ft. This morning she is also the prettiest, a scimitar ridge curling from her grey, west face and a banner of cloud streaming from the summit, as if the runaway princess who is said to live there has lit a fire to ward off the cold.
The British spent decades attempting to penetrate the goddess’ sanctuary, finally succeeding in 1934 when Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman crossed the Kuari Pass. Biru points out a shadowy cleft between two grey buttresses demarcating the Rishi Gorge – their treacherous route in and the only place where the rampart falls below18,000 ft. They roamed the region for four months, a pair of climbing vagabonds (they took just one shirt each), and Shipton’s subsequent account reads like a paean to the joys of exploring terra incognita.
Sadly, we will be following in their boot-prints no farther – the sanctuary was closed in 1982 to protect its pristine ecology – and by mid-afternoon we are back among the holy cows and beeping car-horns of a more familiar India.