At Bona, the peaks appear after an evening shower, (right) the peaks are lost in the haze again by next afternoon. Pictures by Shyam G Menon
At his house in upper Paton, next to the trail leading to eastern Kumaon’s Ralam Valley, Kharak Singh empathised with the weather-beaten hikers relishing the roti and daal his family had made.
Over a long trek of 44 days, threading various trails from Garhwal to Kumaon, we had precipitation in some form — rain, hail or snow — everyday for more than 30 days. Only the rest were precipitation-free days.
Singh was a friend, known well to one of us. In Paton, we decided to say hello and seek a break from our every day routine of cooking food.
During dinner, he listened to our story. “The weather has become unpredictable,” Singh said, shaking his head.
Late-May 2014, families in Paton were gearing up for their annual migration to higher pastures and farmland. In summer, they move up, in winter, they move down.
Even the local school — teacher, students, books et al — migrates to premises higher up in Ralam for three to four months.
Singh’s family was preparing to shift. Provisions had been bought. Two days after we had dinner at Singh’s house, we found pack-loads for horses, mules and goats being readied. A white ram bolted, trying to shake off the gunny bag strapped to its back. It ran around the house, ran circles around trees. Singh laughed, his grandchildren even more.
The mirth hid a reality. “We are already 10 days late,” he said, attributing the delay in migration to the fickle weather and untimely showers.
Similar to what we experienced in the early part of our hike, precipitation had apparently occurred here in the East Kumaon hills, too. Then it gave way to a welcome warmth, which grew to an unexpected heat.
March to June is traditionally the Indian summer. In the Himalayas and while hiking there, it is never exactly so.
The occasional shower, characteristic of specific valleys, is a given. It also snowed well last winter. In early March, on a hike preceding the current one, some of us had post-holed through thigh-deep snow at places known to host snow at around 11,000 feet. It also rained in March, making for a cold, wet environment.
By April-May and with the rains still around, villagers expressed concern at what the unseasonal showers meant for farming.
In Namik, a villager said that life in Uttarakhand was resembling Cherapunji, once the wettest place on Earth. That was an exaggeration.
But at Bhainsia Kharak, a high-altitude pasture between the Saryu and Ramganga valleys, we met a group of villagers with a goat in tow. The animal was to be sacrificed to appease the gods and usher in fair weather for agriculture. It betrayed the local perception. “Everything will be fine from tomorrow onwards,” one of them said.
The next day dawned clear. At the nearby mountain pass, we came across the villagers, idling after the early morning sacrifice. Then over the next couple of days, the rising heat grew so annoying that we found ourselves praying for a cold shower. It came, sacrifice notwithstanding.
“I don’t know what’s going on but nowadays when it rains, it pours and when it is expected to be warm, it is hot,” Singh said. His observation seemed closer to fact.
As the heat increased, dust and smoke invaded the high ranges. It was the likely product of distant forest fires. After some days, the persistent heat culminated in rain.
The cyclical process was classic high mountain but the nature of wet and warmth had changed. Post-rain, the suspended dust settled. From a ridge overlooking the Goriganga river and the trail to Milam glacier on the opposite side, we appreciated the visual relief. It was beautiful mountain world.
We got back to a Delhi boiling in the 40s (centigrade). Two days later, a dry, summer storm slammed the capital city. The world darkened with approaching dust and foliage swayed as though a T-rex from Jurassic Park was ripping through it. Precipitation was little but the high-speed wind felled trees. The next day’s papers said: nine dead. Outside my room with ceiling fan, the scorching Delhi summer continued.
Typically, the monsoon reaches India in June. It is both a life-giver and a complex weather phenomenon formed through developments straddling a vast span of the globe.
Early June, news reports talked of a monsoon, likely below normal. To blame is El Nino in the far off Pacific, near Chile. Illogical and lacking science it may be — but on the trail, we had speculated during rainy days whether such untimely and enduring showers in summer could mean a weak monsoon later.
June second week. There is no trademark Panchchuli range in Munsiyari’s scenery. Instead, there is a thick haze. It was the same at Bona village, closer to the high mountains, from where you should normally glimpse at the apex of Penagad (a local name for the adjacent stream and its valley), a small portion of the range. An evening shower bared the peaks upstream, till the haze swallowed it again by next afternoon.
Mathura Devi, longstanding resident of the village, said: “It is hotter than before, the haze is more and when it rains, it is heavier than before.”
The observation sounded familiar.