Trek Report: Bada Bhangal Trek, August 20-27, 2016

#1 Sep 18th, 2016, 00:41
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Grinning Grasslands: Memoirs of Bada Bhangal Trek

An overview of the Bada Bhangal trek in the Dhaualdhar Himalayas

Team Members: Parth Joshi, Karan Bharti, Varun Sharma

Additional Support: 1 Muleteer, 1 Cook, 5 Ponies

We had been pining for this trek since 2013, when we had to abort the expedition failing to find any guide in Manali. This time around, we decided to reverse the route, starting from Billing to end in Manali, which would also make it easier to catch onward transport. The trail had not been kind on trekkers this year, with a couple of fatalities and a group of stuck trekkers, but these were dangerous excursions in the midst of monsoons, and we hoped the decision to wait till mid-August would go down well with the weather gods. Surprisingly, despite being one of the largest repositories of offbeat travel in India, there is very little information on this trek. I’d researched quite a bit to pre-plan the itinerary and cut it short to 8-days from the usual 10-11, but forced by the paucity of information, had to leave it to the trail.

Starting out from Billing at the stroke of noon in a drizzle that would be our constant companion through the journey, a couple of hours of easy trail, more of a jeep road in dry weather, brought us to Chana pass, from where the trail descended into the village of Rajgundha, part of the old princely Chota Bhangal region, lying on the Kangra side of the Kangra Chamba divide cleaved by the Dhauladhars. One follows the Uhl River up to Thamsar pass, decending intot the confluence of Ravi and Kalihani Rivers before following Kalihani River to its source and crossing over into Kullu Valley.

The day long drizzle had made the trail too slushy for comfit now, and we were quite grateful when the jeep road gave way to the narrow forest trails, much easier to navigate. From Chana pass, the hike to Plachek took another three hours. The campsite, next to Uhl River is a conglomerate of a shepherd hut and a nondescript forest guest house. Dining with the Gorkha shepherd who lords over this neck of the woods, the fire crackled with the stories of landslides and the travails to follow.

It was still overcast as we climbed up from Plachek the next morning, the forest trail through Jhodi scarred by quite a few landslips. Crossing Uhl over a snow bridge, we crossed the tree-line in about a couple of hours, and another hour of huffing up and down the undulating meadows brought us at Panihartu, where the ‘hotel’ owner obliged us with hot rice and lentils. This side of the route till Bada Bhangal is better equipped in terms of encampments where one can buy food and shelter since trade to and from Bada Bhangal happens on this route, and is in greater proximity to major towns. A steep 2-hour climb from Panihartu brought us to Bhadpal campsite at the base of Thamsar Pass, and we made camp early as the mist continuously rolled in and out of the valley.

We were blessed with sunshine the next morning as we trekked up to Thamsar pass. The trail was moraine heavy and took some time to traverse. An hour and a half of steep traversing and the pass plateaued out to reveal one glacial lake on this die. Another hour of climbing and were at the pass top with a clear panorama in front of us, one of the highlights of the trek being the clear view of Manimahesh peak, usually a rarity from this angle. The peaks of Shikar Beh and Mukar Beh flanked the other side of the frame.

Although the other side of the pass was no less beautiful with two glacial lakes dotting the floor, the descent was long, rocky and excruciatingly steep, with heavy rock fall leading to a cautious progress. Crossing Marhi, three hours of fast descent brought us to Udg, where we had lunch and rested leisurely for over an hour. Another couple of hours descending, and we hit Bada Bhangal just as a thunderstorm started rolling in, the knees in a serious wobble as we wondered if 8-days were realistic enough.

It poured cats and dogs all night, and we were thankful when sunshine hit the tent on the morning. If it was the descent that killed us the day before, today was reverting back to the fare of moving against gravity, climbing along Kalihani River to its genesis. The climb up from the village was a bad trail, completely invisible and shrouded with bushes head high, who, drunk by the rain the previous night, drenched us completely till the chest as we broke through to the higher grounds.

Desperate to believe that all was well with our 8-day target, we walked continuously for four hours, crossing Chala Got to reach Sunni Got around 1 am, one of those rare days when the muleteer had to really sweat to catch up with us. A half hour climb after lunch and we started descending again. Being less frequented, the trail was rockier and more challenging. The water crossings increased in number as well as difficulty. 2-3 ‘de-shoeings’ later, we camped in between Sunni Got and Lamba Padao, right next to a landslide, incidentally, with plenty of black bear markings all around.

It was a another clear night leading to an overcast morning as we descended further and walked along Kalihani for three hours to hit Devi ki Marhi, albeit before one ‘pants-off’ stream crossing. The resident gaddi treated us to halwa made from goat’s milk ghee, a hard to digest proposition for us urban folk. The trail did not gain much height after, although there were more than a dozen tough rockfalls we had to traverse. With rain looming in fast, we once again camped in nick of time as the heavens started pouring down. It rained unabated for the next 15 hours, and we were lucky to find the shepherd hut empty at the camp, which ensured hot rice with kidney beans.

Although the rains ceased at 5 in the morning, the mist showed no signs of relenting, and we sat around contemplating whether to risk traversing the pass in this weather. Doling out all sorts of safety-vs-bravery arguments, impatience got the better of us and we finally broke camp at 8 am. The clouds were kind enough, though, and we did not see rain till late evening.

The climb up to Kalinhani pass was more challenging than Thamsar - a lot more rock fall and moraines, longer plateau zone and more snow at the top. There were only a couple of small lakes only at the top unlike Thamsar which was flanked by larger lakes on both sides. The descent from Kalihani pass was steeper than Thamsar with a lot more scree and loose debris. We had crossed over from Kangra into Kullu valley now, the latter a much more green and resplendent landscape compared to what we had been travelling through the past week.

A quick halt at Sanghor Thatch, and off we went again, since we’d already started late in the morning, and with both passes under the belt, the time to accelerate had come. The horses descended straight to the river while the three of us walked decided to follow the natural course of the ridge between two streams – not a good idea we realized as the trail became very narrow with seventy degree inclines on both sides. The heavens wanted to punish me and so, as soon as I took off backpack to shove the camera in before the water crossing, I realized the windcheater had slipped off the bag. Contemplating the monetary worth of the garment and the decision to backtrack up again, I realized they also had my spare spectacles, a necessity which cannot be discounted considering my short sightedness.

Dumping the bag, I literally raced up the ridge again, giving myself twenty minutes’ before I gave up the chase. I almost did, completely dehydrated by the sudden transition from hiking to trail running, but then the darned piece of garment revealed itself all right, and off I scooted back, knowing we’d lost a full hour in this process. But more was in store. The place where the ponies had crossed river (we assume Raison Nala, but not sure if the stream was it) was beyond our human abilities (too late in the day, this could have been manageable before noon), and we had to go upstream to another small confluence, crossing two streams separately before scampering up a slope that should only be attempted by the ungulates. Hanging on to the grass for dear life, we climbed some and rappelled some for a strenuous half an hour before merging back into the trail. It had been a tough day, and we were more than happy when Riyali thatch appeared after a bend in the meadow.

The ponies wandered off too far during the night and it took an extra hour in the morning to get them back. It was an easy hike through the meadows to Marhi though, from where we managed to take the wrong trail, and took it for almost four hours, braving excessive slush to find ourselves in the middle of the woods with gorges dropping off vertically on all sides. Hearing traffic, we expectantly thrashed about for almost three hours before it appeared that the only remaining trail stopped a few hundred feet off the road. While we still could attempt to rappel down, there was no question of the ponies making it. The muleteer had also managed to have a close shave with a bear while trail hunting, and was physically exhausted. We were prepared to hie even tis 10 in the night if we could only hit the road head, but the one thing years of wandering these trails teaches you is when to refrain.

Dejected, we backtracked for another couple of hours to camp, narrowly missing reaching Manali on the seventh day. Too tired, we did not event pitch tents and spent the night under the tarp. It had, like all other days, started raining as son as we camped, but unlike all other days, did not relent at all. Waking up (or rather, having had enough of the completely soaked sleeping bag) at 4:30 in the morning, we waited till 10 am to no avail as the rains kept getting heavier.

Deciding to move on anyway, we waterproofed all electronics and broke camp. Much to our chagrin, the rain started abating after five minutes of walking, and we literally raced up with the irritation of the night before. We walked and walked and walked, and it rained and rained and rained. Climbing back to Marhi, we hit the correct trail, and cursed our luck breaking through the thick grass and slippery mud that offered no traction whatsoever.

We hit Lama Dugh at noon, a beautiful campsite looking even more beautiful in the downpur, but I had resolutely decided to kick the shutter bug aside ever since we’d lost our way, and with the urgency of catching transport out of Manali, we resumed racing down again after a short break. The rain was unrelenting, but we were so caked in mud and dung anyway that it did not matter. There were a couple of nervy moments again as the trail disappeared again, but managed to thrash away back somehow. Almost running now, we reached Manali at 4 pm, the transition into civilization a shock for a few moments as we had nowhere to change into saner clothes, though we did manage using the ponies as a shield from prying eyes.

Summing up, Bada Bhangal is a trek for the hardened, those who realize the fact that the more beautiful a landscape, more strenuous is the road leading up to it. Landslides are very frequent so one should be always move in tight knit groups, and rain protection is essential.


Dates: Aug 20-27, 9-11

Day 1
Billing (~ 2,400 mts) - Chana (~2,700 mts) - Rajgundha (~2,500 mts) - Plachek (~2,900 mts); 18 kms, 5 hrs; Camped inside Thatch

Day 2
Plachek (~2,900 mts) - Panihartu (~3,700 mts) - Bhadpal (~4,100 mts); 16 kms, 7.5 hrs; Camped on a windy hillock

Day 3:
Bhadpal (~4,100 mts) - Thamsar Pass (~4,700 mts) - Marhi (~4,100 mts) - Udg (~3,300 mts) - Bada Baangal (2,500 mts); 18 kms, 10 hrs; Camped in village school playground

Day 4:
Bada Bhangal (~2,500 mts) - Chala Got (~3,200 mts) - Sunni Got (~3,400 mts) - Dal ki Marhi (~3,600 mts) - Camp before Lamba Padao (~3,500 mts); 17 kms, 8.5 hrs; Camped next to a landslip on a ten degree slope

Day 5:
Camp before Lamba Padao (3,500 mts) - Garthala (~3,500 mts) - Devi ki Marhi (~3,700 mts) - Kalihani Pass base (~4,000 mts); 17 kms, 8.5 hrs; Camped near a shepherd encampment near Kalihani River

Day 6:
Kalihani Pass base (~4,000 mts) - Kalihani Pass Ridge (~4,400 mts) - Kalihani Pass (~4,700 mts) - Sanghor Theli (~3,800 mts) - Riyali Thatch (~3,500 mts); 16 kms, 8 hrs; Camped near a shepherd encampment

Day 7:
Riyali Thatch (~3,500 mts) - Marhi (~4,000 mts) - Lost Forest (3,000 mts) - Backtracked to a shepherd encampment (~3,500 mts); 18 kms, 10 hrs; Slept under a canvas tarp

Day 8:
Shepherd encampment (~3,500 mts) - Thanpri Tibba (~4,000 mts) - Lama Dugh (~3,000 mts) - Manali (~2,400 mts); 18 kms, 6hrs

Read the detailed 8-part story here and the view the complete photostream here.
​Shoot up on that, bright Bennu bird.... Eftsoon so too will our ownsphoenix spark spirt his spyre and sunward stride the rampante flambe. Ay, already the somber opacities of the gloom are sphanished. Brave footsore Haun! Work your progress! . . . The silent cock shall crow at last. The west shall shake the east awake. Walk while ye have the night for morn, lightbreakfastbringer.... Amain.

- James Joyce

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