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Nanda Devi by Manas Samant

If one climbs up to the temple perched on a hill adjoining the quaint little deserted village of Martoli and looks to the west, a spectacular sight meets the eye, especially just after sunrise. The golden-crested twin peaks of Nandadevi and the celebrated Longstaff Col present a view so enchanting that it leaves one in no doubt why the majestic peak of Nandadevi occupied a special place in the hearts of some of the best British mountaineers of their era.
“Nandadevi was described as ’the most romantic mountain in the world surrounded by legend of inaccessibility” -writes Julie-Ann Clyma in the article on her successful Alpine style ascent of Nandadevi East in 1995 (The Alpine Jour-nal- 1995). No one can question these words. And the fact that Nandadevi with an altitude of 25643 ft (7816 m) was the highest mountain in the whole of the British Empire or that it was the highest mountain climbed till 1950 (when a French expedition successfully climbed Annapurna) are not the only reasons for this. The main peak of Nandadevi is surrounded by a formidable ring of mountains including Nandadevi East, Bethartoli, Trisul, Changabang with no depression below an altitude of 17000 ft except the precarious gorge of Rishi Ganga in the west and this gorge is certainly not one of the most hospitable terrains in the world! The mysteri-ous land surrounded by this ring is further divided by ridges that descend on the Rishi Ganga from north and south into two regions which are called the ’Inner Sanctuary’ and the ’Outer Sanctuary’. Owing to this phenomenal geography of the Nandadevi Sanctuary- which would be more suitable to a fantasy novel including dragons, elves, orcs and dwarves- Nandadevi has become a part of the local folklore and supersti-tions.
“Nanda Devi imposes upon her votaries an admission test as yet beyond their skill and endurance”- wrote Mr. Hugh Ruttledge (1884-1961), a British civil servant and a well-known mountaineer. There¬fore it is hardly surprising that it took 50 years of relentless efforts involving some of the finest mountaineering personalities before anyone could even set their foot in the fabled Inner Sanctuary. One of the first recorded attempts to enter the Sanctuary was made in 1883 by W.W. Graham through the Rishi Ganga gorge, though without any success. In 1905 Tom Longstaff and the two Brocherel Brothers tried a different route. They reached Pachu Glacier from the gorge of river Gori Ganga (known for the famous Milam Glacier trek) and were able to climb up to a col on the south-eastern ridge of Nandadevi East. Though they could proceed no further, they became probably the first mountaineers to climb the ’rim’ and actually look down into the Inner Sanc¬tuary and hence the col was christened as the Longstaff Col. Two years later Longstaff along with General Bruce and the Brocherels made two other unsuccessful at-tempts to reach the Inner Sanctuary. The first one was in the north- from Bagini Glacier and they reached a place called Ramani in the Outer Sanctu-ary. The other one was in the south near Sunderdunga Glacier- a route which was revisited by Hugh Ruttledge in 1932, who too could not breach the walls guarding Nandadevi. In 1934, however, H.W. Tilman and Eric Shipton with three Sherpas became the first to enter the Inner Sanctuary which they spent a considerable amount of time making a map of. Later, in 1936, as a part of a joint Anglo-American expedition Tilman and Noel Odell (who was also a part of the ill-fated 1924 expedition to Everest which resulted in the deaths of Mallory and Irvine) managed to reach the summit. The first successful Indian ascent of the peak had to wait till 1964 when the Indian Army team led by Captain Narinder Kumar, climbed the mountain, though Captain Kumar admits having used helicopters to ferry supplies (including him) directly into the Sanctuary.
Due to various reasons including poaching of musk deer, blue sheep, snow leopards, unbelievable amount of garbage left behind by trekkers, increasing presence of domesticated animals and the secret 1965 Indo-American attempt to place a nuclear powered surveillance device on Nan-dadevi to monitor Chinese missile tests which in 1966, was discovered to have been lost in an avalanche, the Nandadevi Sanctuary was closed for tourists since 1982 and declared a National Park in 1988. Since then, very few trekking parties are allowed inside. Despite all this, it would be no less exciting to retrace the footsteps of Shipton and Tilman.

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