We camped on a big football field near Nandaprayag at the confluence of the Nandakini and Alaknanda rivers. A couple of stray dogs were barking through the night seeing our tents in their neighborhood. We got up at 7am in search for a dhaba for breakfast. Aloo paratha would take time so we settled for Maggie.
A frequented path starts behind SBI bank climbing up 900m to Sartoli village at 1800m altitude. The wide path runs through serene pine forest along a small ridge. We meet school kids coming down to attend school and a few horses carrying goods. Along the way we see a few small settlements Dharkot, Matharpal before hitting the road side village of Sartoli.
We pick up a few ladoos from a small shop. A friendly local man invites us to his home for herbal tea. The sun is bright and warm and I use the break to wash my socks. His son is attending an online seminar on running a home stay. The program is organized by a university in Dehradun. We thank them for their hospitality and proceed along a nice rock path towards the pass above.
It s another 850m ascent to the pass at 2550m. We pass the last hamlet of Mair before entering pristine pine forest. A clear path contours widely along the left valley slope to the base of the pass. We pass through the ruins of an old settlement. The South facing slope gets dry as we climb higher. Final ascent is from 200m below the pass through lush green forest avoiding a steep rockface on the left.
From the pass we get treated on clear views of Ronti and Nanda Ghunti, two six thousanders. Trishul on the left is hiiden by clouds. We descend a little below the pass to a large bugyal with open views to Hathi, Gauri and Nilgiri Parbat. As per the Survey map the trail descending into the Birahi valley starts from the bugyal. We explore the boundary but are unable to figure out the trail head.
We return to the base of the pass where we find a recently used trail going in the opposite direction. We decide to give it a try seeing if we find another way down not listed on our map. We see fresh footsteps in the partly snow covered trail which contours around 2km to the Southeast below the main ridgeline.
We eventually reach an open bugyal and the ruins of an old settlement. A vague trail descends into the valley but soon fades out into the forest. Another trail with fresh footsteps proceeds forward along the ridgeline but with time hitting 5pm we just have one hour of daylight left, little food and possible bad weather, decide to take a U turn instead towards Sartoli.
We reach back to the pass and hear human voices. 6 locals are returning from the jungle and staying in a cave below a big Boulder at the base of the pass. We ask them to guide us to the trail head into the Bihari river valley below. As it s already late they invite us to stay with them for the night and descend the next morning.
We check into the cave around a warm fire as the night sets in. They prepare tea followed by wood fried rottis and dhal. Sampath my co trekker from Bangalore socializes in Hindi with the men who stay several months in the jungle high up here collecting various plants for food preparation, mehendi and clothing.