Chopta Birding in an Asthmatic Ertiga – Part Five

Read part four here.

Day four dawned early, for this was the day to experience, what is to me, the highlight of any trip to Chopta – the utterly absorbing climb up to Tungnath and Chandrashila.

Once you park your car at Chopta, it’s a five-kilometre climb up to the Shiva temple, and a further two-kilometre ascent to the summit of Chandrashila. As much of it is uphill and as a photographer you’re laden with heavy equipment, it’s no walk in the park. 

In fact the Tungnath trail is where you learn that the Himalaya makes you work for its carrots, and if you do, the taste is unsurpassed. 

This mountain sure knows how to make you feel alive and lively. The carrot is always dangled high, where it isn’t reached cheaply. 

This snowy abode of the supernaturals doesn’t need to demand your attention and solicit your attendance, because it commands them. And it shows you the peaks of life while also offering a helpful glimpse of what lies just beyond the heights, in the throes of its deep valleys. 

You don’t walk in the Himalaya as much as you straddle an edge between extreme elation and potential despair. And you can’t take your foot off the edge, because the edge is all there is. 

You don’t walk in the Himalaya as much as you straddle an edge between extreme elation and potential despair. And you can’t take your foot off the edge, because the edge is all there is. 

Of course we knew that the lack of snow would decrease the difficulty level of our enterprise, but in the Himalaya, you always respect the mountain.

With this preamble, the day started exceptionally early, when I awoke at 3, so as to be able to make the departure time of 4:30. The idea was to reach Chopta (an hour’s drive) in time to commence our climb at 5:30, and before the rising sun had the chance to rouse the many birds found here to a heightened enough state of activity for them to get away, for us to reach the middle reaches, for it is not just the early bird, but the bird that is at the right place at the right time that catches the worm. 

Sourabha on the Tungnath trail

Accordingly and gladly, we were on time, and by 6:00, had climbed high enough to be treated to the first view of Chaukhamba, that redoubtable peak that never fails to awe me. Owing to the generally indifferent weather and the prevailing haze, the view wasn’t very clear, but at least, there was one.

Just then a koklass started calling from our left, and while waiting for it would’ve no doubt led to a photographable sighting, I urged Sourabha on ahead, because I wanted beautiful views of the mountains in virginal light as much as the birds, and life and light wait for none, as they don’t say.

First view of the day of the fearsome Chaukhamba massif (6,854 m / 22,487 ft to 7,138 metres / 23,419 ft)

Further up, we missed getting a picture of another koklass by a matter of metres, but I was confident that we’d get more opportunities, for the Tungnath trail is never short on activity.

Surely enough, we found a monal on a highly clement perch in the valley to our left, albeit a bit far, and made the most of it. 

A Himalayan monal sits pretty on a rocky ledge

A behind-the-scenes view of the picture, by Sourabha:

Photographing the monal. Photo by Sourabha.

And the view of the snow-clad Mandani Parbat was now this:

Mandani Parbat (6,193 metres / 20,318 ft) breaks through the haze.

Meanwhile, the call of some koklass or another was a constant, and we were constantly conscious of the hope of photographing one, as we had had no fortune on the trip with this beauty hitherto.

That moment finally came soon enough, for we found a male seemingly completely oblivious to his surroundings, as we crouched and crawled into position, making bunkers out of the recesses between the rocks, until he actually appeared fairly close to where we were, allowing us some intimate shots of his gorgeous plumage. And then, in a case of granting the weary traveller’s serendipity, he called.

Being adequately satisfied that the morning was going to his plan and all was well in his world, he proceeded feeding and became obscure in the bushes in pursuit of grub, so we left him at peace and carried further on. 

Not far away, we heard an olive-backed pipit calling from atop a tree, and the next moment the realisation of the moment’s potential dawned on us.

The pipit was perched directly before the mountain, allowing us this dramatic and ecstatic visual:

Not far away, we spotted a black-and-yellow grosbeak:

This black-and-yellow grosbeak perched quietly while all the attention was on the olive-backed pipit.

Mesmerised by this triumphant sight, we carried on, and found several Alpine accentors dotting the snowless slopes to our left, which looked like this:

Picturesque slopes flanking the Tungnath-Chandrashila trail, teeming with accentors. If you look closely, you may see Mandani Parbat (left) and Chaukhamba (left-of-centre) in the distance.

Meanwhile, the majesty of Chaukhamba had reached a peak, if you’ll excuse my entirely intentional pun, and because of the haze, it looked all the more mystical, as naturally, that which teases us fascinates us all the more.

Soon, we found a completely surprising species up here – a fire-tailed sunbird – in what was apparently only the second ever time Dinesh had seen it at this elevation. And a rather beautifully perched stripe-throated yuhina.

Shortly after this, after what could be called a challenging, but not arduous, climb, we reached the sweet reward of seeing the Tungnath temple. It isn’t open before May, but just being on its premises and absorbing the energy there never fails to evoke tears. 

After requesting fellow visitors to grant us a minute of silence, we recorded this poem by Kuvempu:

Following this, we set forth on our next mission: the summit of Chandrashila at 3,690 metres.

I had been unable to set foot on this peak from which the most stunning view of the Garhwal Himalaya is there to be taken, on my last visit, so I had been very keen to not miss out this time. Fortunately, Sourabha was, if anything, even more enthusiastic than I, which I found utterly admirable and laurel-worthy.

Although there is a path up to Chandrashila, there are places where climbers tend to take a shortcut, especially when there’s no snow, and what we realised is that when you do that, you end up expending more energy than you’d have by taking the longer route, since the latter is less steep and therefore not as strenuous. 

It is interesting to observe these nuances and psychological intricacies when doing challenging tasks, and certainly, being in the high altitudes of the Himalaya is nothing if not a way of understanding oneself and the ways of the mind.

We were now getting to the heights where the coveted snow partridge resides, and Sandeep, one of the bird guides around us, decided to take a walk to the mountains yonder for a look-see for them, when the sight gave me a sensational perspective – but was I showing him or the mountains in scale? Now, that itself is a matter of perspective, and to be in contradiction and at the same time perfect harmony is the nature of the universe.

Bird guide Sandeep stands dwarfed in the lap of mighty mountains, looking for a clue of the presence of snow partridges.

Unfortunately, try as we might, the snow partridge proved elusive, and thanks to the low levels of snow, perhaps, wasn’t to be found.

The thing I love about reaching a Himalayan summit is not any egotistical satisfaction of having “conquered a mountain” (as though you could ever do that! – it’s the largesse and magnanimity of a mountain if it allows you to climb it), but the facility of quite literally being elevated from all the trivialities of life into a realm where there’s just pure life, without any of its accessories, distractions, illusions and lies. 

Before long we reached the summit, and we settled down in a quiet corner, away from anyone else, just watching the silence, and feeling the stillness. 

The thing I love about reaching a Himalayan summit is not any egotistical satisfaction of having “conquered a mountain” (as though you could ever do that! – it’s the largesse and magnanimity of a mountain if it allows you to climb it), but the facility of quite literally being elevated from all the trivialities of life into a realm where there’s just pure life, without any of its accessories, distractions, illusions and lies. 

Although it’s true that wherever you go, you carry the same mind with you, which means that you can be a prisoner of your own cell anywhere you are, just the purity and ruthlessness of the Himalayan mountains has the power to move you enough to help you look beyond the clutter and the din of everyday transactions which we mistake for what life is about, and come to be face to face with sheer existential fundamentals, and therein, transcend false knowledge into the rarefied atmosphere of a beautiful ignorance.

‘A delicate balance’. A cairn atop Chandrashila (3,690m/12,110 ft) photographed by Sourabha.

Before we opened our breakfast packs, an incredibly bold Alpine accentor came to say hello:

Alpine accentor atop Chandrashila. It walked within touching distance as we sat for breakfast.

Then quite a few jungle crows landed close by, cawing for their share, but needing every ounce of the food we had, for our high degrees of physical exertions, and to keep wildlife wild, we didn’t offer any.

Meanwhile, even as our palates feasted on paranthas, the sight directly ahead of us was this:

Shortly, Mukesh called me to the eastern side of the peak saying he had spotted something, and looking through the binoculars revealed that far in the valley below was a herd of Himalayan tahr, in their full luxuriant winter coat, looking nearly unidentifiable!

A group of Himalayan tahr photographed deep in the valley from the summit of Chandrashila.

Aroused to hunger by our strenuous climb, the clement weather and the exquisite views, we polished off our breakfast in no time, but before leaving, recorded a couple more Padayaatre videos.

‘Moodiba’ by G. S. Shivarudrappa

‘Ante’ by Kuvempu

Then, it was time to undertake the descent, which is often trickier than the ascent, as most trekkers know, for it places great stress on the knees and ankles, and often, exerting the requisite control over the speed of descent at high altitudes and down steep slopes, requires as much effort, albeit in an entirely different way, as does climbing up.

Taking frequent breaks, we took an entire 2.5 hours to return to the base, and here, I must document the extraordinary bundle of energy that Mukesh is. Dinesh had returned from Tungnath with another guest, and Mukesh had accompanied us to Chandrashila (apart from Sandeep, who had his own client). And this man…is utterly indefatigable!

Apart from serving as a porter for the other guests who came until Tungnath, carrying their heavy telephoto lens, he had voluntarily tagged along to Chandrashila with us despite our insisting we didn’t need him to come. And how!

The man simply wouldn’t give up! It was his first time climbing up Chandrashila, so he was in fact grateful to us for having given him an excuse to climb, and just wouldn’t stop looking for birds wherever he was! He never sat down for a moment to rest, and I never saw him for one moment lost in thought or nursing any sign of fatigue or disinterest. Having been a bartender in Delhi, he has recently returned to his humble hometown to work in wildlife tourism, and Sourabha and I earnestly wish him the very best in making it big, for he deserves to! 

Nearly at the end of the Tungnath trail we were blessed by the sight of a spotted treecreeper, but I couldn’t make a great picture. 

A rhododendron tree in full flower, on the lower reaches of Tungnath.

As we were driving back to Ukhimath, Mukesh still wouldn’t give up, and kept looking for birds, and fetched us this lovely sighting of a white-tailed nuthatch:

White-tailed nuthatch

After taking a brief breather in the homestay, we were off again! – this time close to Ukhimath itself, and a pair of common rosefinch and russet sparrow kept us busy running from tree to tree:

Russet sparrow perched beautifully in the open.

But it was with a great barbet that I spent a lot of time. This one was feeding for quite some time, and I got to witness all sorts of behaviour, as for some happy reason, it ignored me completely (I’ve never been happier to be ignored!) and went about its business. Having nursed the dream of photographing this beauty for a long time, I thoroughly enjoyed this session.

Then an Asian barred owlet sat stunningly on top of a tree, and so did a slaty-headed parakeet. A bit later, we walked back to a spot where an upland pipit was seen the previous day, and after a short wait, found it again.

With that splash of colour in the retiring sun, it was time for us to return. There was another car with us with the other guests staying in our homestay, and we thought Mukesh got into that, and we carried on, only to realise that he hadn’t, and we had left him behind, and the poor fellow had to walk back all the way, hours after having climbed up and down the highest peak in these parts! After all the energy he had exerted for us, we felt terrible about it, but as all nice men do, he had a laugh about it and forgave us our folly.

Read part six here:

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