If the advent of a sultry summer is cunningly subtle and gradual in the hills, the arrival of the rainy season is equally audacious and sudden. Hazy valleys and sparkling snow-clad mountains reeling under the wrath of a merciless sun pine for the embrace of the rolling nimbus burdened with nectar for the parched earth. And so when on a gloomy day in early June the growling clouds abandon restraint and pour without concern, nature rejoices. Brooks hidden deep in the belly of the jungles are reborn, nascent waterfalls gain fervor and plummet down rugged rock faces, fickle fog rising from the rivers bounds over snowy ridges and delicate white flowers blossom on the grassy knolls. In the solitary Himalayan village of Jatoli in Uttarakhand, concerned farmers reap the ripened harvest and ready the fields for sowing potatoes. Shepherds gather their herds and prepare for the arduous journey to the high grasslands in search of greener pastures. Silence pervades the couple of eateries in the village as inflow of trekkers drops to a trickle—tourist season is over and villagers brace themselves for a struggle with the furious monsoons. The rains are here!
Departing from the town of Bageshwar, driving along the river Saryu and passing through the sleepy settlements of Kapkot, Song and Loharkhet one finds himself surrounded by the imposing mountains threaded by impatient streams. Traditionally trekkers have undertaken the laborious climb from Loharkhet to the enchanting bugyal of Dhakuri and then descended to Kharkiya to begin hiking up the valleys of the Pindar and Sunderdhunga rivers. The unveiling of a recent motor-road connecting Loharkhet to Kharkiya allows a visitor to circumvent the grueling walk but the treacherous road is often plagued by landslides. From Kharkiya one can behold the Pindari Valley framed against snow laden mountains to the right, to the left the Sunderdhunga Valley curves behind the village of Bacham. To reach Jatoli, perched on the west bank of Sunderdhunga, two trails are available—one hurtles down to the Pindar River and ascends a steep section to arrive at Bacham, the other longer but easier route passes through the village of Khati and descends to the confluence of the two rivers before winding up the forest and meeting the trail from Bacham.
There is not much one can do amidst a massive downpour in a remote village in the Himalayas but kick back and relish the explosion of overwhelming greenery, engage in wondrous conversations with fellow travelers and villagers over a steaming cup of sweetened tea huddled around a fireplace. Jatoli is the last inhabited village in the Sunderdhunga Valley beyond which human habitation is limited to shepherds’ stone huts. The trail beyond Jatoli clings to the hill face covered with oak and fed by perennial rills; it rises and falls with the mood of the thundering river alongside rushing down the narrow ravine. With every step the roar of the crashing water becomes louder as the path races across wooden bridges and stumbles over fallen rotten trees. It ultimately breaks free from the shady canopy of the dark jungle and embraces a wide valley strewn with dirty red boulders. Sunderdhunga, in the Kumaoni language, means a beautiful stone and the sight of the crystal river snaking past the huge coloured stones is a sobering experience. Further the trek entails walking along the river navigating overgrown shrubs and unstable earth susceptible to the touch of an ebullient current; white water cascades down the resilient mountains rising from the valley floor and disappears beneath quiet glaciers peppered with dead grass. After holding hands with the river for around six kilometres, the pathway darts into the jungle again climbing feverishly to the camping grounds of Kathaliya.
Words cannot impart justice to the natural beauty of Kathaliya—unfettered waterfalls tumble down the green carpeted mountains shrouded by the wandering fog uniting with the many rivulets which flow into the meadows where the mainstreams from the Panwali and Sukhram glacier merge to give birth to the Sunderdhunga River. Peaks which form the bulwark of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary peek through the opaque mist, their scary slopes glistening in the rays of the evening sun and rainbows dancing on the precarious ridges. The weariness of an eventful day basking in the lap of nature is forgotten when the calm of the night is broken by the pitter patter of rain and one slips into a deep sleep unmindful of the droplets sneaking past the inadequate thatched roof.
However the true magnificence of the prominent summits overlooking Kathaliya can be acknowledged only by trekking to the vantage point on Baluni Top. Although a stiff four kilometre climb, the sensory rewards in store for the one who perseveres far outweigh the efforts of crawling up the slippery mud track holding onto sturdy rhododendron branches. And as the veil of fog lifts staunch Himalayan peaks appear—Tent Peak to the extreme left, the brilliant Maiktoli gracing the centre, to the right the mountaintops of Panwali Dwar and Nanda Kot glow against the backdrop of a blemish free sky. For a fleeting moment the peaks bare themselves and allow the onlooker to celebrate their radiance before retreating behind the resurgent mist. In the distance ominous clouds are gathering and riding up the valley, the days of clear blue skies are behind us and for the coming two months a grey blanket will envelope this landscape testing the resolve of humans and mountains alike.