The Himalayan Journal – Mapping the Western Himalayas

Link to journal

During my initial foray into the Indian Western Himalayas in the summer of 2018 I realized the significant difficulty to plan an alpine style journey due to the absence of detailed, publicly available maps. It took me weeks and weeks of reading through blogs, searching for GPS logs and scanning hires satellite maps to finalize a 1500km long traverse across 43 high altitude passes. Aside from the well known commercial / tourist destinations, it was hard to find details on the lesser known regions of the Himalayas. In the following years and 5000+km subsequent explorations covering 160 lesser known passes I decided to start publicly mapping the Himalayas enabling alpine hikers to explore this beautiful part of the world.

The Western Indian Himalayas stretch out from Uttarakhand to Kashmir. Thousands of peaks (orange), passes (red) and high-altitude lakes (blue) form beautiful destinations for alpine style exploration.

1 – Map Sources

Hiking the alps in Europe, the Himalayas in Nepal or the mountains in the US one has detailed maps at his disposal. When it comes to the Indian Himalayas, public maps are scarce. For Ladakh and Northern Himachal the Swiss Olizane maps cover approx. 200+ high passes. These are fairly expensive (mostly used by Europeans), large size paper maps at a 1:150K scale. Useful as reference for clearly marked routes in Ladakh but less accurate for lesser trodden routes. Olizane is one of the few maps that has contours, essential for hikers to understand the topography of the terrain. Another well known commercial map series are the Leomann maps, at 1:200K and without contours, more schematic and much less accurate covering Kashmir to Uttarakhand.

A 1:150K Olizane map showing the Poat La and Kang La trails across the Great Himalayan Range connecting Lahaul with Zanskar. Recent editions have been updated with accurate satellite generated topography.

During the cold war the Soviet military undertook a secret mapping project that covered the entire world in high detail, including the Indian Himalayas. These manually cartographed maps are fairly detailed at 1:100K scale with a surprisingly accurate topography compared to modern day satellite elevation data. Covering the entire Western Himalayas they hold a treasure of hiking routes. Similarly, the US army map service (AMS) map service has mapped India in 100+ detailed 1:250K scale sheets including the Himalayas although the larger scale and lesser resolution makes them of limited use to the hiker. 

A 1:100k Soviet army map shows the Chobia pass trail across the Pir Panjal range, an ancient shepherd migration route from Chamba to Lahaul. Glaciers, forests and rock areas are marked on top of manual cartographed topography.

The first major effort to publicly map the Himalayas was done by Depi Chaudhry who explored the Western Himalayas extensively and accurately GPS recorded his routes. In 2015 he created a beautiful topographic map including 1000+ km of routes covered across 50+ high passes from Uttarakhand to Kashmir. He tried publishing his maps and hiking routes in both print format and through a mobile app but unfortunately his efforts did not realize. A 17×17 feet copy is displayed at the IMF (Indian Mountaineering Foundation) office in Delhi. 

A section of Depi Chaudhry’s topographic map showing hiking routes, high passes and river valleys in the Zanskar region. With prior permission of Depi these hiking routes were added to Open Street Maps.

As part of the Great Trigonometrical Survey started in 1802 the British did the first accurate mapping of the Indian Subcontinent. The Survey of India (SOI) was born and it took nearly 70 years to complete this mammoth mapping effort with scientific precision. Maps covering the Himalayas and geo-political sensitive border regions were generally not easily available to the public. Only until recently when India opened up its mapping and geo-spatial data policy, did the Survey release the Open Series Maps to the public.

Survey of India Open Series Maps 1:50K sheet nrs of Himachal each capturing a 15’x15’ (28x28km) region downloadable from the Survey’s Nakshe portal.

Detailed 1:50K scale maps can be downloaded from the Survey of India’s portal documenting the Indian Himalayas in stunning detail – countless high ranges, valleys, tens of thousands of remote settlements connected by lakhs of kilometers of remote trails and paths. One can download some 120+ map sheets covering the entire Uttarakhand and Himachal. As of now, Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir can only be ordered offline.

Survey of India Open Series Map I43W07 showing district boundaries, rivers, forests, lakes, remote settlements and hiking trails across the Dhauladhar range in Himachal

Finally, if all above fail, one can use publicly available high resolution digital satellite maps like Google Satellite, Microsoft Bing, ESRI or Maxar satellite imagery. These detailed visual maps reveal human settlements and connecting trails in remote mountain regions not yet digitally mapped on any other available maps. Frequently used hiking trails as small as 30cm wide contrasting in the surrounding terrain can easily be spotted on hires sat maps. This of course is only possible in regions without forest or cloud cover, especially the high altitude deserts of Ladakh, Zanskar, Lahaul and Spiti. Farming settlements in Kashmir, Himachal, Uttarakhand are usually clearings in forest and can therefore also be easily identified.

An isolated farming settlement, homes and connecting roads deep inside the inner regions of Uttarakhand surrounded by dense forest as identified on a hi-res Google Satellite map

Another popular map source to study the topography of the terrain is Google Earth (GE). GE renders a Google Satellite map on a 3D digital elevation model. The user can view the terrain from different angles, heights and zoom levels providing an interactive way to view the topography including valleys, peaks and ridges. Although this animated view is visually appealing, using contour maps (see below) will be much more accurate in understanding the steepness of the terrain and planning your journey through the mountains.

Trisul I peak rendered in a 3D interactive view in Google Earth providing a visual understanding of the topography of the surrounding terrain.

Below overview shows the complete map coverage of the Western Himalayas through available Olizane (purple), Soviet (green) and Survey maps (yellow). The 1:50K scale Survey map sheets, each covering an 15×15” area and offer the highest detail. The Soviet map sheets come in 1:100K scale covering 1.5×0.8” providing medium detail with manual, less precise topography. The 1:100K maps are not available for certain regions so we fall back on the less detailed 1:200K Soviet map sheets covering 3×1.6” each. Finally, the Ladakh region is mostly covered by the 1:150K Olizane maps with satellite generated contours, although being decades old and not regularly updated some hiking routes are less accurate.

Overall map coverage of the Western Himalayas through different map sources offering various level of detail.

2. Georeferencing Maps

A hard or soft copy of any map above is useful as a reference while hiking in the mountains. One can correlate the topography (valleys, ridges, peaks…) on the ground with the same features shown on the map to identify your position. Many Europeans refer to the large size Olizane map sheets to find their way along valleys and passes along frequented routes in the open, gradual landscape of Ladakh. This way of visual correlation between map and field is more challenging in steeper, densely forested terrain. A map generally becomes much more useful and accurate after georeferencing it. Georeferencing is the process of mapping the internal coordinate system of the map to a geographic coordinate system on the planet. It’s basically a projection system of how a region of our spherical planet is projected onto a 2 dimensional map surface. 

AMS map NI-43-16 covering the Dhauladhar region Northeast of Palampur, Himachal georeferenced in Google Earth as per Transverse Mercator Projection

Commonly used coordinate system for our planet since the advent of satellite based GPS (Global Positioning System) are longitude (East-West) and latitude (North-South position). Combined with elevation (altitude) it uniquely identifies each location on the planet. Your current position identified by your phone GPS can be real-time displayed on a georeferenced map making field navigation much easier and more accurate. Boundaries of a map are usually marked with coordinates like latitude and longitude allowing you to accurately georeference the map along with its projection system and datum.

Horizontal longitude circles and vertical latitude circles shown in Google Earth. AMS map NI-43-16 (shown as white square) covers longitudes 76.5-78 degrees East and latitudes 32-33 degrees North.

Once georeferenced, the location of each object shown on the map (river, peak, village, trail, ..) can be correlated to its exact location on the planet. Using a Geographic Information System (GIS) one can digitize and extract these features along with their exact location and use them in any other mapping or mobile navigation app. Each map also has a scale mapping a given distance on the map to the actual distance on the planet. On a 1:100K scale map 1cm measured on the map will correspond to 1km in the field. A lower scale 1:50K Survey map will therefore offer more detail and be more accurate than a higher 1:150K scale Olizane map.

Digitizing rivers (blue), trails (dashed pink), peaks (orange), passes (red cross), villages (red), hamlets (yellow), dwellings (green) in the foothills of the Dhauladhar on Survey map I43W16 using QGIS an open source GIS system.

In addition to identifying your exact planar location on the surface of the planet (and corresponding position on any map), it’s equally important for the alpine explorer to understand the topography of the surrounding mountains for planning your route: valleys, ridges, peaks. It’s essential to understand the steepness of the terrain in order to plan your journey. Topographic maps indicate elevation through contour lines indicating lines of equal elevation. Each contour corresponds to a certain increase in altitude (e.g. 20 meters). Closely spaced contours indicate steep terrain, wider spaces contours indicate more gradual slopes suitable to climb or descend. 

A georeferenced Olizane map rendered in 3D in Google Earth showing contours defining lines of equal elevation clearly showing the topography of the boundary region between Lahaul and Pangi near the Menthosa peak

The Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) in 2000 was the first global effort to generate a Digital Elevation Model (DEM) of the entire planet. At a resolution of 1 arc-second (30 meters) this was the first high resolution and accurate satellite based topographic mapping of the planet. DEM data is publicly made available through NASA or ISRO’s Bhuvan portal. DEM data can be used to generate contours and overlay the same on maps like the Survey maps (which lack contours most probably due to border security concerns) transforming these into much more useful topographic maps.

50m contours generated from SRTM DEM overlaid on Survey map I43W16 covering the upper Barto valley in Kangra at the foothills of the Dhauladhar giving a better understanding of the terrain topography.

I planned and navigated my recent 3 months winter exploration across 2000km and 110 passes across the breadth of Uttarakhand using 60 georeferenced Survey maps (each 15×15’ or 28x28km) covering the entire state. Although created decades ago and lacking recent updates these heritage maps are surprisingly accurate and no doubt the most detailed account of the Indian Himalayas. Once digitally georeferenced, the Survey and any of the above maps can be downloaded in any mobile app and used directly for navigation just like Google Maps on the phone. Your current location is shown in real-time directly on the map making navigation a breeze.

Mobile GPS based navigation using the OSMAnd app in the Dhauladhar using a georeferenced Survey of India map I43W07. Current position is indicated real-time as a blue dot on the map.

Mobile GPS based navigation through OSMAnd using a georeferenced Survey of India map I43W03 following a dashed path connecting remote settlements deep inside the Kundi Reserved Forest in Chamba, Himachal.

Sathyanarayan Venkatachari, a well known solo hiker in the Indian hiking community was no doubt a pioneer in exploring the innermost regions of the Himalayas using georeferenced maps a decade ago. He maintains a wonderful blog with detailed geo-tagged routes of his journeys and was knowledgeable on georeferencing maps, generating contours and using GPS based navigation to plan his alpine style journeys. An inspiration to me, he unfortunately disappeared in summer 2018 during one of his solo journeys in Kinnaur while I was into my first Himalayan exploration.

Various Survey maps of the Zanskar region georeferenced and overlaid with contours by Sathya to plan and navigate his long solo journeys through this high altitude desert rendered in 3D in Google Earth.

3. GIS Databases

There are several GIS databases in the world containing geo-tagged data like GPS recorded trails and geo locations of features useful to the hiking community including hamlets, passes, peaks, lakes, etc. The NGA (US National Geospatial Intelligence Agency) has a public dataset of thousand+ passes and tens of thousands of remote settlements in the Himalayas – a treasure for the alpine explorer. Open Street Maps (OSM) has probably the largest public set of geo-coded data describing the entire world, each feature is searchable by name. Anyone can contribute new terrain features, hiking routes, passes, peaks, campsites, rivers, shelters, lakes, remote roads, settlements through various free editors.

Lam Dal lake, a well known pilgrim destination in the Dhauladhar range geo-mapped and described using well defined tags in the OSM data model shown on a topographic map

Two well known public databases covering world-wide hiking routes are WikiLoc and Ramblr where hikers can upload and share recorded GPS logs. Both include hundreds of trails, mostly commercial and tourist hiking destinations in the Indian Himalaya and Sahyadri. Depi Chaudhry collected a large set of GPS recorded trails over a decade spanning Uttarakhand to Kashmir. In the summer of 2018 three Indian hikers completed the “Western Traverse”, a 950km long continuous traverse from Ladakh to the border of Nepal arosses 27 high passes. The entire journey was GPS recorded. GPS logs from all above sources have been consolidated and mapped as hiking routes in Open Street Maps.

Waymarked Hiking Trails, a popular Open Street Maps viewer showing Mayali pass hiking route on a topographic map connecting Kedarnath with Gangotri. Elevation profile is shown and GPS log can be downloaded for offline navigation.

4. Open Street Maps

The most comprehensive data model & map in use by the worldwide outdoor community is Open Street Maps (OSM) – a collaborative project to create a free editable map of the world. The European Alps, Himalayas in Nepal and mountain ranges across the world have been mapped in great detail in OSM. Where Google Maps usually ends at the last road, OSM continues deep into the mountains. Combined with contours and used as a base map in numerous mapping sites and mobile navigation apps, OSM remains the map of choice for hikers around the world. The more visited regions in the Himalayas like Leh Ladakh, Dhauladhar range in Himachal and hiking routes in Uttarakhand are mapped in good detail in OSM. 

The standard osm.org web viewer rendering contours on top of an OSM basemap visualizing the topography around the hiking route across the Kaliheni pass connecting Kullu valley to Bara Bangal in Kangra district, Himachal

OSM offers the easiest way to plan and navigate your alpine style journeys in the mountains. Advance route planning can be done through various mapping sites like OSM.org, OpenTopoMap.org or Waymarked Hiking Trails rendering the OSM dataset on satellite generated topographic maps showing valleys, peaks, forests, glaciers, cultivated land and human settlements. One can review the elevation profile of any hiking route and download an accurate GPS log. Various free mobile apps like OSMAnd (my favorite), OruxMaps, Maps.Me, etc allow OSM maps to be downloaded offline and any external GPS logs. The apps show your current position on the OSM base map allowing you to navigate with ease along the hiking routes, indicating distance to the next campsite, river crossing or hamlet. Offline contours give you a clear understanding of the topography of the terrain including elevation gain to your next pass crossing.

OSMAnd rendering offline contour lines on top of an OSM basemap visualizing the topography around the Thamsar pass connecting Barot valley with Bara Bangal in Kangra district, Himachal.

5. Mapping the Himalayas

During the lockdown of 2020 myself and a passionate group of volunteers set out on a massive effort to digitally map the Western Himalayas in OSM. It took us nearly half a year to map the Himalayas in high detail using various external maps sources and GIS databases. We initially mapped mountain passes which define beautiful hiking routes across high ranges connecting neighboring valleys and districts. Overall we identified 2000+ passes from Kashmir to Ladakh to Uttarakhand. We mapped 2000+ glacial high altitude lakes, some well known pilgrim destinations, some very remote and nearly inaccessible. We researched and mapped some 1000+ prominent peaks across the 5 mountainous states. Important for the alpine style explorer, we identified and mapped 30+ thousand remote human settlements. These are key for route guidance, food supply and night stay. 

Hundreds of high passes (red), alpine lakes (blue), peaks (orange) in the Gangotri region of Uttarakhand, accurately GIS mapped into Open Street Maps 

We mapped hundreds of rivers (valleys), important features defining the topography and alpine style route planning. We consolidated 300 publicly available hiking routes (across as many passes) from various public GIS databases, blogs and other sources through accurately recorded GPS logs into Open Street Maps. Hikers can connect these individual trails into thousand kilometer long traverses across the entire Western Himalayas. We georeferenced hundreds of maps using and identified one lakh kilometers of hiking routes, sufficient to explore for a lifetime! Legacy mapped trails are not always entirely accurate, requiring the need to explore and verify their precise location on the ground before adding them into OSM.

Thousands of villages (red), hamlets (yellow) and isolated dwellings (green) in the interior mountains of Tehri Garhwal district of Uttarakhand useful for directions, food and night shelter.

Due to climate change, migration to cities and construction of new roads many remote settlements marked on the legacy maps are abandoned and fallen in ruins. Connecting trails shown on the map are no longer in use and slowly fading away in the surrounding landscape. Some trails are destroyed by landslides or overgrown by the forest and longer repaired. We therefore need to explore and verify the present existance of digitized map routes on the ground before mapping them into OSM. 

Hundreds of digitized trails from various heritage maps covering the remote interior mountains of central Uttarakhand.

During my recent winter exploration of Uttarakhand I explored 2000 km (just 2.5%!) of the above digitized trails. Those found to be still in use were accurately GPS recorded and added to Open Street Maps to be shared with the international hiking community. My objective is to continue full-time exploration and mapping of the entire Western Himalayas in the coming decades enabling like minded alpine style hikers across the world to discover its magnificent natural beauty and conserve the heritage network of ancient paths, pilgrim and migration routes across the high passes for future generations.

Walking across an ancient pilgrim route across the Sukh Dali pass to Mani Mahesh in Chamba, Himachal, one of the 5 adobes of Siva in the Himalayas.

More info, training and webinars related to maps and navigation can be found on my blog ultrajourneys.org

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