Susan Dobson’s Himalayan Art Adventure

Mountaineer and artist Susan Dobson has just returned from her second drawing trip to the Himalaya this year. It turned out to be quite an adventure!

This time we’re off to the remote Nanda Devi area in Kumaon, N W India.

Wednesday morning – the alarm went off at 2.45am signalling the start of our five day journey to get to Munsyari and the trailhead to Milam! Lakpa Sherpa, who arranges all our Himalayan trips, meets us at the airport. Early Friday train from Delhi to Kathgodam and then two and a half days of driving the winding mountain roads over washouts and landslips, along vast river valleys and over vertiginous ridges at a top speed of about 20km/h.

Sunday afternoon, arrived at Munsyari, a lovely, bustling little village nestling in the valley with wonderful views of the Panchachuli range.

Lakpa and Dhruv disappear to meet Pruba Sherpa, our brilliant cook, and organise the porters for tomorrow.

Monday dawns bright and clear. Blue sky, refreshing breeze, puffs of cumulus building by 9.20am – so a quick drawing while permits are sorted – then off in the jeep to the roadhead – like riding a bucking bronco!! The trip starts here! A steep descent to the bridge and off we go to Lilam, winding up the gorge of the Gori Ganga, the river roaring hundreds of feet below.

Two long days, exhausting in the intense heat and high humidity. My Berghaus Argentium base layer is perfect in these conditions – cool and dry. The gorge gets steeper and narrower. Waterfalls thunder over the path. Many washouts caused by monsoon rains. Arrive at dusk at Bugdwar, then again at Ralikot. Inevitable checkpoint signatures. Lulled to sleep by the roaring river.

A shorter third day to Martoli, all height gain at start, arrive for lunch! At last we leave the humidity behind. Clouds lift and Tirsuli appears. A gale blows in but manage to get a drawing from shelter of tent. As the evening air cools, the wind drops, the sun goes down and the stars come out – wondrous!

Friday, an hour’s strenuous walk to a viewpoint for Nanda Devi East. Longstaff Col out, but big mountains hiding in cloud. Tea in the sun then back to camp where the afternoon gale was in full swing! Cloud all around. Better luck next morning – a beautiful sunrise at 6am. Quick cup of tea, then up to the viewpoint above the temple. Clear blue sky and fine view of Nanda Devi and Nanda Devi East – at last!

Breakfast, a steep climb down to the river and then a long slog up the ‘new’ road being built to Milam, the farthest village up this valley. Hot and very dusty in the afternoon wind. Welcome cup of tea from the Border police while we sign in and hand over our mobile phones! It’s been a long day!

Sunday and storm clouds up towards Milam glacier so head back to Burphu to spend more time heading up to Ralam Dhura, the highest point of our trip at 4570m. Retrace our steps along the hot, dusty highway, fighting a stiff wind, to a small camping place in the gardens of the village.

From Burphu the path to Tola contours the mountain side high above the Gori Ganga gorge over many washouts with slippy scree, mud and long, sheer drops to the river below.

At Tola, we cross the river and the climbing begins to the camping place. Two hours later and we are drinking tea in the sunshine high above the Milam valley.

Tuesday fine and clear with early frost. Time to get my Berghaus Extrem down gilet out again! From a viewpoint above the camp, Nanda Devi is stark, shining white against the clear blue. Drawing, then breakfast, then drawing again – Hadeol and Tirsuli – while sky remains cloudless. An hour’s climb brings us to another camping place ready for the final climb to Ralam Dhura.

Wednesday – a cloudy morning and the mountains looking moody! Cooler for the steep ascent to the pass with excellent mountain views all the way.

As we approach the pass, cloud and rain begin to spill over from the Ralam valley. On the top it is cold, wet, blowing a gale and clagged in – so no views at all! Full waterproof gear (thanks Berghaus!) for the challenging descent involving slippery, steep, narrow paths, dodgy river crossings and thick clagg all the way. Later, moonlight on snowy peaks.

Awake to sound of rain on tent, but by 7.30am sun emerging and everything drying out. New snow on the mountains and pass. Late start for another long trudge down the valley over washouts and boulder fields. Arrived exhausted at lovely camping place in a wood by the river at Saba Udiyar.

Friday, a day of steep descents and ascents and some very exposed traverses in hot, humid conditions. Arrived at Pattan, a thriving, busy village full of children, dogs and cattle late afternoon. Camping place next to temple. Last night under canvas. Happy sound of porters having a singsong with the locals.

Saturday 8 October and tonight we’ll be in Munsyari! Hot and sunny again. Path wanders steeply down through the village, hay meadows then down to the bridge over the Gori Ganga. A steep climb brings us back to the tea house near Lilam where we ‘sign out’ at the checkpoint there. Soon we are back at the bridge with just the final 300m of vertical scrambling to gain the road and the jeep, the air full of sparkling mica dust from the road blasting we saw earlier. But for now, no more walking! A hotel room, a pot of tea and a magnificent view of the mountains to look forward to!

Sunday is a lovely clear blue morning, hot sunshine. Spend a couple of hours drawing the five peaks of the Panchachuli range. Later, storm clouds building. When they clear, new snow on the peaks, followed by a beautiful sunset, the only one this trip, and a perfect ending to our stay.

Superb weather for our return trip to Delhi. Fantastic views of all the mountain ranges as we travel the mountain roads again. At Chaukori, another sunset, a beautiful sunrise and a last drawing of Nanda Devi.

A trip to Agra to see the amazing Taj Mahal in the pearly morning light, then a relaxing stay at the Lutyens Bungalow in New Delhi before catching our night flight home.

On reflection in tranquillity, this trip turned out to be far more about the journey than the destination! The Goddess, remote within her Sanctuary, granted only distant views from rare viewpoints – very different from the sense I had on previous trips to the Khumbu and Annapurna, of being surrounded by the big mountains and absorbed by the experience of them. Here, the landscape took over – as it always does in the mountains – but in a very direct physical sense, for the most part keeping me extremely focussed on the path beneath my feet!

Susan will be exhibiting at The Biscuit Factory, Newcastle NE2 1AN, in the Winter Show. Preview night is Friday 18 November, 6 – 9pm. All welcome. The show runs until 29 February 2012.