In the previous chapters we covered various important aspects of alpine style hiking. Chapter 1 covered different map sources to plan your alpine hiking routes. Chapter 2 discussed various techniques used for navigation in the mountains. Chapter 3 elaborated on various aspects of planning your alpine style journey. Chapter 4 covered the must-carry gears for the minimalist fast hiker. In Chapter 5 we will take a look at the various types of terrains and other landmarks the alpine hiker comes across in his Himalayan journey:
Module 1 – Settlements
Module 2 – Trails
Module 3 – Valleys & Streams
Module 4 – High Ranges & Passes
Module 5 – Forests & Meadows
Module 6 – Rock & Ice (Scree, Glaciers, Moraines)
Module 7 – Snow
In this chapter let’s take a look at the different types of human settlements we can encounter along the way in the Himalayan terrain. Settlements are very important for independent hikers – they provide guidance, offer food resupply and safe night shelter. During the 2020 lockdown myself and a few volunteers mapped 32 thousand settlements across the Western Himalayas in Open Street Maps, a true treasure for the alpine style explorer.
Villages are key in planning your alpine style journey. They are base points between your more remote traverses / pass crossings. I usually (90% of passes are 1-day only) target night stay in villages which offers several benefits:
Resupply food ration (optimizing weight, just carry sufficient food till next village)
Recharge electronics (while eating / sleeping, less time wasted)
Fresh dinner / BF can be had in village (less food to carry)
Fresh food can be packed up in morning for next 1-2 days
Safer night stay (wildlife) / hospitality
Villages are usually located in the valleys (near to water source, in between the ridgelines / high ranges) below 2500 meters altitude (below winter snowline). It’s important to identify the last village before the pass / first village after the pass in order to plan the optimum food ration for your traverse.
Villages connected by road (refer OSM) usually have a dhaba / more facilities than villages disconnected from roads. Nearby villages in a valley / neighboring valleys are usually connected through trails so knowing the name of the next village will allow locals to guide you in the right direction.
As we climb up to higher altitudes we come across seasonal (semi-nomadic) or summer settlements. Isolated dwellings (above 2000m) that are inhabited only during summers to graze cattle in the high alpine meadows. In Uttarakhand and J&K you can find thousands of these remote dwellings which are useful checkpoints for the alpine explorer both in summer (hospitality) and winter (shelter). People living here further away from modern society usually display heart warming hospitality to the passing solo explorer.
Beyond the last village in the valley, disconnected from modern amenities (road, power, network), deeper inside the forest you will find mountain tribes or gujjar’s. They usually live in small settlements of a few homes built from natural materials and graze their cattle in nearby meadows. These settlements are usually also located at higher altitudes. People staying here are innocent and extremely hospitable to passing travelers.
Further up the mountain / at higher altitudes you will find nomadic shepherds who migrate with large herds of sheep and goats across passes and districts to high altitude meadows to graze during the summer season. They usually stay in temporary rock shelters (open or closed) and without exception offer warm hospitality to anyone passing nearby. Shepherds are usually the last human encounter before you venture further into no mans land.
At higher altitudes or more in remote / desolate regions you will find many settlements which have been abandoned and now partly laying in ruins. No longer inhabited these are still useful shelters for night stay. Residents might have left the hardship of survival in these remote locations for the comfort (and materialism) of modern cities or might have simply forced to migrate due to climate change, in many cases drying up of water source that brings live to the settlement. In my 2019 journey across 120 high passes and 500 remote settlements I came across at least 50 (10%) deserted dwellings.
Acknowledge your understanding of the importance of human settlements for the Himalayan alpine style hiker