Karan Sandhu, who has countless high-altitude treks under his belt completed the Panchachuli Base Camp Trek in 2008. Considering he went at the onset of winter, in November, which is generally regarded off-season, he had almost the entire Darna Valley to himself. Read further to learn of the best parts of his trek, and for some tips and tricks to do this trek solo.
Q. Tell us about your Panchachuli B.C trek.
It is a relatively easy trek through Darma Valley in Eastern Kumaon. The view of the peaks and the entire valley from the Base Camp is splendid. The trail runs along the Dhauli Ganga River. This region is very close to Tibet to the north and Nepal to the east. It was an important trade route between Tibet and India before 1962. Please make sure the Inner line Permit is obtained in advance at Dharchula.
Q. Was this a personally organised trek or was it done with an expedition group?
I researched on this a week before I went and found out about the trail from the locals at Dharchula and decided that it can be done solo. So I set out on my own. I learnt about homestays on the way. The homestays were tentative, since that month, many villagers had come down from Dugtu, Dantu and Bidang. This region has a religious significance for local folk.
Q. How did you plan this trek in terms of finding the guide, porters, gear, etc?
The trail is well-marked by the PWD in kilometres as well. It’s a fairly used track by the local villagers, who settle in the valley for the summer. It’s better to stick to the defined trail and ask people on the way for detailed directions and clarifications. I was coming in from a long haul in Spiti and was fit enough to carry my own bag. There is no need for any technical gear up to the Base Camp.
Q. How many days had you given for the trek? Which camp sites did you identify to stop for the night?
I had initially planned on going beyond the Panchachulli B.C. to Tidang and Bidang villages, but since it was November, the onset of winter, I did not have much option but to make do with whatever possible, which was 5 days. I started early morning from Dharchula to Dhar and walked to Sela village and also an ITBP camp. I bunked with the jawans and ate food at a makeshift dhaba at Sela. Due to my fitness level, I could walk long distances and I stopped at points like Sela, Nagling and Duktu Villages.
Q. From where does one find a reliable guides and porters?
One can find many guides from Dharchula. Since I stayed at the KMVN (Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam) guest house, they were ready to organise a trip for me, but I chose the solo path.
Q. There is a motorable road from Dharchula to Dhar. How was the condition of this road?
The road from Dharchula to Dhar is good up till Sobla and after Sobla, it’s raw. Due to a landslide, it was a little tricky to negotiate 2 km before reaching the road-head.
Q. Tell us about your experience of reaching Sela?
The mountains are really high at the beginning of Dhar and the path is very narrow here for 1 km, with some exposed cliffs. Definitely not for the faint hearted. Carcasses of ITBP mules can be seen as many slip due to the narrow path. Vultures hovering around make it quite intimidating. After this 1 kilometer stretch, the trail eases a bit. The trail widens and angles into the beautiful Darma valley. On crossing a thick forest area the trail suddenly emerges at the Sela Campsite.
Q. It is said the tabletop meadows of Nagling are a heavenly sight. Did you camp at Nagling or proceeded to Baaling?
I stopped at Nagling, but did not proceed on the meadows due to recent snowfall. Nagling is where I chose to stop after Sela. The architecture and art in the Nagling houses are intriguing, as almost all houses have very old unique carvings of wood and stone, which are really beautiful. The Darma becomes really deep at Nagling.
Q. Do you find suitable sources of drinking water on the trail and at the camp site?
Yes, there were many suitable sources of water on the path.
Q. Duktu and Dantu are the two last villages in Dharma Valley. Did you spend a night here?
Duktu and Dantu lie parallel to each other on the Panchachuli B.C and Meola Glacier. I spent a night at Dugtu after starting early in the morning from Nagling and made it to Dugtu, after which I proceeded to the Base Camp after keeping my bag in the only home-stay I found. Dantu was abandoned for winter.
Q. Tell us about your trek to Duktu from Baaling?
Baaling has an ITBP post where permits are checked. The whole valley from here onwards is a beautiful table top. In summer, this region is completely green. The sudden gorge of the Dhauliganga makes it even more exhilarating. The trail is very easy and gradual from Balling to Dugtu and just before Dugtu, one can see villages across the valley to the left side of Dhauliganga.
Q. Did you try the food available at Duktu?
Since I was staying in Dugtu and had no food with me, I relied on the only homestay available and the food for the night was delicious – rice, vegetables and lentils. The Kumaon and Garhwal people have an amazing hand at making north Indian cuisine, which I absolutely love – even at homestays.
Q. The trek from Duktu to Panchachuli B.C is said to be a picturesque one. How was your experience?
The panoramic view of the peaks is just thrilling and the pull I felt to get closer to them was quite powerful. It’s an hour’s walk from Dugtu to Meola glacier/B.C and one can see endless waterfalls on the glacier and a lot of vegetation and grassy meadows with ample camping space and water. The temperature is not very low because the BC is not at a very high altitude (3,500 m).
Q. Any tricky section in the trek that one should be aware of?
The only tricky section is after Dhar village where the trail is quite narrow for a kilometre with the roaring river below. This stretch can be intimidating for some and thrilling for others.
Q. Tell us about your camp established at Panchachuli Base Camp? Did you get a clear view of the Panchachuli ranges and Glacier?
Since there is only an hour of gradual climbing from Dugtu to the B.C., I did not camp there, but spent few hours exploring and resting till I saw the sunset behind the peaks. There is ample space to camp and one can see the clearest view from the B.C. overlooking the glacier and waterfalls on it. I managed to count 10 waterfalls in the cold month of November and I am sure in summer, there will be at least five more waterfalls.
Q. Did you see any wildlife while in the valley?
In November, I did not spot any domestic or wild animals while trekking, but there were a large variety of birds. Langurs and wild monkeys were spotted and griffins dominate the area. I also had a special occasion when I came across a Himalayan Golden Eagle, which flew just 10 feet away me.
Q. Is there any scope of further exploration up on the glaciers?
Further exploration on the glaciers would be to summit one of the Panchachuli peaks. The B.C. has visual access to only 4 of the peaks but if you climb higher on the the Dugtu side of the valley the fifth peak can also be spotted. Another possibility is to follow the Dhauliganga from Dugtu to Tidang and Bidang villages over the Sin La Pass into the Byans valley on the route of Adi Kailash Trek and Om-Parvat.
Q. What is an ideal month for this trek to be done?
From my experience, to explore the meadows and Sin La pass, one can access this valley from April – June and September – October. The monsoons bring a lot of flowers and greenery. But note that villages like Sela and Dhar will be really hot in summer.
Q. Would you advise trekking from Base Camp to Sobla in a day while returning, for those hard-pressed for time?
I walked from the base camp to Dhar – 35 km or more. I would recommend this to only very fit people, who are psychologically ready to walk. But in general, stretching it over two days will be much easier.
Q. Is there anything trekkers should keep in mind while preparing for this trek?
The most important thing in this trek is the Inner Line Permits. There are posts at Sela and Balling if one goes only to the Panchachuli B.C. and they can be acquired from the SDM office in Dharchula. During the months from April to November, home stays and food are available at a reasonable price, but be prepared to carry your own food between November and April.
Q. How would you sum up your Darma Valley trek experience?
It was a unique and spectacular experience. I had spent 6 months in the Himalayas before I ventured in here. Since I did this in the month of November, I had all the solitude of this valley to embrace. I would rarely find any people on the trails and only did so at the villages, where I stayed for the night. The thrill of marching with ITBP personnel, encountering the eagle and gazing at the Panchachuli peaks is deeply engraved in my conscious and definitely were ‘the’ highlights of this trek. I would love to go back there and see more than I did last time. The trek was also physically liberating for me because I had a broken my right hand a week before I attempted this solo endeavour.