Nanda Devi Sanctuary
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Nanda Devi Sanctuary

 
The centrepiece of the Garhwal-Kumaun region is, without doubt, the Nanda Oevi Sanctuary, remarkable for its unique wild grandeur.
 
Until 1934 the gorge of the Rishi Ganga and the immediate area around Nanda Oevi was the least known and most inaccessible part of the Himalaya. The mountain stands in a vast amphitheatre, enclosed by a ring of mountains, 110km (70 miles) in circumference, and about 6000m (19686ft) high. There is no point in the ring lower than 5200m (17601ft), except in the west where the Rishi Ganga, draining some 380 sq.km. (240 sq. miles) of ice and snow, carves out for itself one of the world's most formidable gorges. The twin peaks of Nanda Oevi (7816m/25792ft) and Nanda East (7434m/24391ft) stand majestically in the centre. The Nanda Devi peaks are beautiful from any angle, particularly when the first and the last rays of the sun are reflected on the summits.
 
Surrounding Peaks
 
There are several famous peaks on the rim of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary. From the east wall of the north sanctuary are Latu Dhura (6392m/20972ft), Deo Damla (6620m/21720ft), Mangraon (6568m/21550ft) and Rishi Pahar (6992m/22941ft) peaks. The sanctuary wall turns west from this junction and leads to Kalanka (6991m/22937ft) and Changabang (6864m/22521ft). It ends at Dunagiri (7066m/23184ft).
 
Towards the south stand the small but difficult twin peaks of Bethartoli Himal (6352m/20841ft) and Bethartoli South (6318mj20729ft). Further south is Trisul (7120m/23361ft). The wall then turns east and leads to Mrigthuni (6855m/22491ft), Devtoli (6788m/22271ft) and Maiktoli (6803m/22321ft). Across the depression of Sunderdhunga Khal stands Panwali Dwar (6663mj21861ft) and Nanda Khat (6611m/
21690ft) to complete the circle. The sanctuary wall is divided into the inner and outer sanctuary. The Devistan peaks stand on the central dividing ridge.
 
Even more remarkable is the veneration that the Nanda Devi peaks hold in Hinduism, the folk-lore behind it and the tributes it has received from some of the finest writers of mountaineering literature. The sanctuary and the high peaks of Nanda Devi are the major barriers between the cold Tibetan winds and the plains of the River Ganges. Without the sanctuary to absorb the main thrust of the icy winds, the plains of the River Ganges, the granary of India, would be stripped barren. It is hardly surprising, then, that the peaks are worshipped as a goddess with some impressive folk-lore built around them. The name Nanda Devi itself means 'the bliss-giving goddess'.
 
Trek into the Sanctuary
 
It takes eight days to reach the base camp of Nanda Devi on the south side. The Rishi Ganga River forces its way through two gorges. The first one, near Lata village, cuts off any possibility of an easy approach, and therefore a route over two intervening ridges -the Dharanshi and Malathuni – was explored. Shipton and Tilman called this the Curtain Ridge. Near the second gorge of the Rishi Ganga a route was explored over precarious, rocky terrain.
 
The approach to the inner sanctuary will always be difficult. The route is: Lata, Lata Kharak, across Dharanshi Pass (4267m/14000ft) to Dharanshi Alp, across Malathuni
Pass (4270m/14010ft) to Dibrugheta Alp, along the river to Deodi, Ramni at the foot of the gorge, Bhujgara half way through the gorge and Patalkhan across the main difficulties of the gorge. 'The Slabs' are the first of the challenges, where downward-sloping rocky slabs make for a precarious crossing. A narrow staircase of stones ahead cuts across a huge wall. Just one slip and you would plummet thousands of feet down the gorge, aptly called the vaikunth seedi (the 'staircase to heaven') by locals. If you climb up this, you will reach the heaven of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary, whereas if you fall, you might reach heaven anyway. Patalkhan is the first halt in the sanctuary. From Patalkhan, the route crosses the Rishi Ganga to enter the north side of the sanctuary.
 
Exploration of the Sanctuary
 
The first attempt to explore the routes to the sanctuary was made by WW Graham (1883), who could not possibly have made much headway and his claims to have climbed several peaks, such as Changabang, have been called into question. Dr Longstaff (1905 and 1907) was the next explorer. At first, with AL Mumm and CG Bruce he tried unsuccessfully to forge a route through the Rishi Gorge. He then approached from the east and reached a col -becoming the first person to see into the inner sanctuary. This col, on the shoulder of the east peak, is named after him. Hugh Ruttledge was next. and of the several routes tried by him, the most innovative went via the Sunderdhunga Col in the south, which Shipton and Tilman used to descend from the sanctuary in 1934.
 
The main peak of Nanda Devi was climbed in 1936 and over the years several ascents by many routes followed. The ridge between the twin peaks, nowhere less than 6700m (21983ft) and almost 2km (1¼ miles) long, was crossed by an Indo-Japanese expedition in 1976. Many peaks on the sanctuary wall have been climbed by expeditions of different nationalities since the sanctuary was opened to foreign mountaineers in 1974.
 
Unfortunately, too many expeditions in a short span put pressure on the sanctuary's fragile ecology. Logs were cut to make bridges, junipers burnt to keep porters warm and there was talk of building a footpath to the inner sanctuary for tourists. Local shepherds forged an alternative route into the inner sanctuary which allowed their herds to be taken into the main sanctuary for the first time. This was a fine piece of exploration but it led to much destruction of flora and the sanctuary had to be closed to mountaineers and locals alike. As of now beyond Dibrugheta, the sanctuary remains closed, depriving a generation of mountaineers from enjoying the bliss of the goddess Nanda.
 
There is a lot to look forward to when the sanctuary reopens to mountaineers, such as the awe inspiring west face of Nanda Devi. Many other peaks and routes are yet to be climbed. For whatever reason, the abode of the rishis (sages) will always be regarded as one of the world's natural wonders, the most prized mountain wilderness in the world.
 
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