The sunset was pretty, even though the mountains were nearly all hidden in mist. You’ve certainly noticed this before: a little before sunset on a clear day the colour of the light changes towards yellows and reds. It’s the golden hour. And that gold transforms the mountain peaks, whether they are clear or hidden behind massed clouds. Fortunately, the only clouds in our sky that day were those clustered on the peaks.
As the afternoon progressed, The Family’s became more involved in the weather. All the moisture in the air seemed to be condensing on the line of the high peaks visible on the horizon. As the winds blew over them, the clouds would roll and shift, revealings parts of the massif for a few moments. The Family kept lamenting of the loss of the clear views we’d had of the Himalayas of Uttarakhand. Since the rest of the sky was absolutely clear, I didn’t think the clouds indicated a change in the weather. I thought this must be one phase of a daily cycle. The vapour drops to the valleys during at night, rising as a haze that blues distances during the day, settling on the cold mountain tops as clouds in the afternoon. At night, as the air cooled again, it would condense into valleys.
But as the clear afternoon light shifted to gold, I could not keep my trigger finger from the camera. The light was so good! Even through the misty haze I could spot those edges of cliffs and the folds of land which glowed in the light. A few more minutes, and the mountains turned to that pink gold which you see in the featured photos. I noticed then that the clouds were beginning to settle, falling lower and clear of the tips of the peaks.
The clouds continued to settle in the cold of the night. By morning they had condensed into dense banks of mist covering the lowest valleys. The views of the high Himalayas were perfectly clear. So clear, that I could sight for the first time the hump of a flank of the distant Nanda Devi (7816 m) behind the massifs connecting the Panchachauli (6904 m) to the range around Trisul (7120 m). The light was not the best, but the sight was unexpected from this far south.
The train bringing our future comrades-in-binoculars to Kumaon was slightly late. But we still managed to have our breakfast before sunrise and set out for the drive to Dotiyal in reasonably good time. As the sun broke over us, we’d already started climbing. I had a wonderful view over the valley of the Ramganga river out of the car as we reached near the top of the first line of ridges on the Sivaliks.
It didn’t seem to take very long before we crossed a pass, and came to a long curve on the road. Off to our right we could see … Those are not clouds on the horizon, they are the Himalayas. Bright and unobscured! We stopped at the side of the road and our guide and driver, Arjun, pointed out the peaks. Two of the peaks of Trisul were clearly the highest we could see. Off the to west was Nanda Kot. Nanda Devi, was beyond the line that we could see, but was high enough that we would get glimpses of it once the mist burnt off. To the east were the five peaks of Panchachauli, still a little hazy.
A little higher and we’d left the oak forests behind. We entered the large expanse of Himalayan pine grasslands. When the English colonizers first came here, they had not yet understood that grasslands are a separate ecology. They declared them to be degraded forests, wasteland. This was a political decision, to start converting them to cash crops: fields of coffee and tea for export. It is only now that the ecology of this habitat is beginning to be recongnized and studied. Unfortunately it is still common for many, including some dedicated Greens, to declare the chir pine (Pinus roxburghii) as inferior to banj oak (Quercus leucotrichiphora) in some way.
As if to give the lie to such thoughts, we heard the first calls of a Koklass pheasant (Pucrasia macrolopha) almost as soon as we rolled to a stop. It was sitting on a stone in a patch of grass three meters above us. I ran around the small cliff to get photos. I could hear many small birds in the pines around me. A mixed hunting party of birds had arrived. These waves of birds are wonderful opportunities for bird watchers, and this set fed for quite a while.
We’d stopped to take photos of the mountains. They seemed much nearer from here. Those are two of the three peaks of Trisul (7120 m). The highest one visible was the first peak over 7000 meters which was scaled. This was done by an expedition organized by Thomas Longstaff in 1907. Apparently this was the first time that mountaineers carried oxygen with them. The air was cool and fresh. The sun was warm. It felt good to be standing there listening to the calls of birds and staring at the high Himalayas.
I’m often the only one in these mixed hunting parties of bird watchers who’s interested in the local vegetation and insects. Not this time. More than half the group was taking photos of plants and insects as well as birds. I spotted many growths of these foliose lichen on stone and wood. They are a biomarker for clean air, being killed very quickly by SO2 in the air. More than my sense of smell testified to the clean air of these heights. I was looking forward to the next two days.
Less than two hundred meters from the center of the little village called Dotiyal in Kumaon the view opened up. We had to stop to take it in: a clear morning’s view of the Great Himalayas. Nanda Devi (7816 m), once considered the world’s highest peak, is not clearly visible from here, but the grand view of Trisul (7120 m) made up for it. In this season the snow line was beginning to creep down. This meant that the peaks were often covered in clouds. But we were lucky with the views. After a long time trying to spot and name the peaks, from Nanda Kot (6861 m) on the west to five peaks of the Panchachuli (6334 to 6904 m) to the east, we turned back.
Most people think of Dotiyal as an insignificant village, perhaps a stop on the way from somewhere to elsewhere. But for the next two days we would think of it as a base from which to travel for bird watching. The area was rich in birds, precisely because the village was small. It is at a crossroads on the mountains, so the crossing had a cluster of stalls selling snacks and tea. A group of young people had converged here, perhaps stopping on a journey, going by the motorbikes parked around them. These motorbikes, cheaper than cars, easier than bicycles, are the main means of transport in these hills. Buses are few, although we would always see one or two people waiting for one.
Away from that junction was the life of the locals: a line of small shops, including a mithaiwala from whom we bought laddus later in the evening. It was Diwali after all, and we couldn’t possibly not have sweets at dinner, could we? Other shops for snacks lined the road: pani puri, samosa, and chaat. A couple of young girls were at the pani puri wala, perhaps immediately after breakfast. The samosawala, above, was tending to a fire. More than the possibility of samosas, I was struck by the wonderful shoes he had on.
Each small kiosk along the road was a place to stop and chat. I liked the doors: quick jobs of wood and metal. The shut doors would not make interesting photos. But the tailor’s shop was open, and there was a person outside it looking in and chatting. The strong shadows made photography difficult. I just couldn’t find an exposure which would make it possible to mellow the contrast. Eventually I settled for multiple exposures and combining the results in an editor. I think the result is an interesting view of the two, but you be the judge.
When the sun is a few degrees below the horizon, you can see the highest visible peaks of mountains just barely catch the light. The highest peak I could see clearly was Trisul, and only the peaks of 7100 m and 6690 m were visible from my viewpoint. I find this a magical time of the day. You can look up into the grey sky and find it blank, not a single star visible any longer. And you can look down into the valleys and see nothing, because a deep mist shrouds all the lights of villages in this transition between the seasons of sharad and hemant. Your hand is forced if you want to show what your eye sees: I used ISO 160, aperture f/5 and exposure of 1/250 s.
For the next shot I zoomed back, still keeping the focus on Trisul. A long shot shows you the surroundings better. I wanted to capture the valley in mist, and the ranges rising towards the high Himalayas. I was standing below 2000 m, above a slope of pine-dotted grassland. I panned west to the lower peaks around Nandakot (6861 m) caught the sun. This gave me a wider view of the valleys immediately below me. Both photos are taken with ISO 100, aperture of f/4 and exposure of 1/100 s.
This camera setting was just right for a shot of the valley. I could see the great river of clouds seething as the sun just began to touch its surroundings. You could argue that I should have used a wider aperture and a shorter exposure for this; perhaps the details in the clouds could be caught better. Perhaps. I will not argue much if that’s what you think. It is certainly worth trying. At this time of the year the clouds would boil away in an hour. A couple of weeks later the mist would take much longer to clear.
Two minutes later the horizon had tilted by about half a degree and the sun was visible just above the distant mountains. This was the hardest photo to take. I took it with ISO 100, aperture of f/2.8 and exposure of 1/250 s. Any less would have muddied the colour, any more and it would have blown out the mountains. Out of the box I didn’t have any colour in the vegetation. I had to do some tinkering to get some of the foreground. It is at times like this that I wish I was in the habit of exposure bracketing; that would have given me a couple of more images to play with. But then it would put a bigger strain on my external hard drives. You have to optimize.
Two minutes more, and the horizon drops to the east by another half a degree. The sun was now high enough to light the pines in front of me. I caught this photo of our driver and guide, Arjun, enjoying the sight of the sunrise. I upped the exposure to 1/80s for this photo, and you can see how the line of mountains has been blown out in order to bring out a little more detail in the foreground. The previous day had been a hard drive for him: from the plains to this village halfway up Kumaon. The plan for the day was lighter: just a foray into the grasslands to look for pheasants.