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Garhwal Diary: The Kamal Valley of Purola

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Sometime ago in late spring, we chanced upon an unlikely halt at the state government run traveller guest house at Purola (1530m) in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand. Travelling on our way to Sankri – base village for Har-Ki-Dun trek – from Yamunotri, we settled for a night halt at Purola as the evening light faded. The finery of the terraced open landscape of the valley floor seemed to invite us to take walks and explore the immediate area next morning.

The Yamuna Valley against the backdrop of the Bandarpoonch Massif at sundown

The Yamuna Valley against the backdrop of the Bandarpoonch Massif in a fading light. More at Flickr

As we travelled through the hillsides of Garhwal, the changing landscape on our line of approach from Yamunotri including the climatic transitions from heat to cold and vice versa arrived almost suddenly; as we ascended or descended. In covering the distance, sometimes we were dreadfully annoyed by the encumbrance of our dusty vehicle while travelling through the Yamuna Valley to the open and sunny Kamal Valley. The sylvan charms of the Jarmola Dhaar, as we approached Purola, provided some respite from the dust as well as late noon heat. The landscape changed as the pine adorned grassy valley appeared.

Jungle Owlet

Jungle Owlet; as we entered the valley

Locals bathing in a stream that joins the Kamal River

Camera curious locals bathing in a stream that joins the Kamal River. More images at Flickr

From what it seemed, the guest house was not very frequently occupied. The caretaker arranged for a cook who dished up some local foods by the time we took an evening stroll in the market. The valley of Purola is said to be one of the most fertile as well as widest valleys of the region. Geographically, the valley is the biggest divide between the Yamuna and the Tons Valleys. The street was full of vegetable vendors and kiryana shops selling local red rice produce as well as other traded items. The typical tea-cum-sweet shops weren’t difficult to locate either; where, if lucky, one could freely exchange knowledge of the various treks and routes up the higher ridges of the Himalayas including the very famous shorter alternatives of Har-Ki-Dun or Kedarkantha treks. In fact, the settlement of Purola has also been popularised as the gateway to both these treks. The other popular alternative today is of course the village Sankri, where we were heading in a few days’ time.

The Kamal River meandering below the settlement of Purola

The Kamal River meandering below the settlement of Purola. More images from the region at Flickr

The fertile Kamal Valley

The fertile Kamal Valley. Photo by Sarabjit LehalPlease visit Flickr Photoset for more images of the region

Relatively untouched by the rapid development of the hill stations, the quaint hillside of Purola offers picturesque views and serene salubrious environs making it an ideal destination to rejuvenate the soul. The road meandering along the valley up to the ridge top, Jarmola Dhaar, offers spectacular and awe-inspiring views of the valley. The Jarmola Dhar fringes the southern end of the Govind Pashu Vihar National Park and Sanctuary, which is home to many endangered species of fauna and flora. The following morning, we headed to the valley floor where the remains of an ancient Yagya Kund were discovered.

Relatively untouched by the rapid development of the hill stations, the quaint hillside of Purola offers picturesque views and serene salubrious environs making it an ideal destination to rejuvenate the soul.

Relatively untouched by the rapid development of the hill stations, the quaint hillside of Purola offers picturesque views and serene salubrious environs making it an ideal destination to rejuvenate the soul.

The Kamal Valley; geographically, the valley is the biggest divide between the Yamuna and the Tons Valleys.

The Kamal Valley; geographically, the valley is the biggest divide between the Yamuna and the Tons Valleys.

A passage through the market leads to the ancient ASI site of the Yagya Kund that is said to be dating back to the second century BC. The ancient site is located on the left bank of the river Kamal. The Yagya Vedica (burnt brick alter) is unique in its kind resembling a floating Garuda. During excavation a good number of Sungha-Kushana period red wares and coins belonging to the Kuninda rulers were discovered. The popular yields at the site include the remains of Painted Grey Ware (PGW) from the earliest level along with other materials like terracotta figurines, beads, potter-stamp and the dental and femur portions of a domesticated horse. The most important one being a brick alter identified as Syena Chiti. The valley is also associated with the Mahabharata period.

The ancient Yagya Kund site all covered with a shed

The ancient Yagya Kund site all covered with a shed. Please visit Flickr for more images of the region

The Yagya Vedica (burnt brick alter) is unique in its kind resembling a floating Garuda.

The Yagya Vedica (burnt brick alter) is unique in its kind resembling a floating Garuda. More at Flickr

Legend has it that during the Mahabharata era, Duryodhana came to Purola after traveling through Kullu and Kashmir. Duryodhana liked Purola so much that he decided to reside there. He prayed to the Mahasu Devta for a piece of land. The deity accepted his pleas and made him the king of the area. King Duryodhana made Jakholi his capital village and constructed Mahasu Devta Temple. In medieval time the Mughal emperor Akbar also made frequent visits to the temple.

Valley view from Jarmola Dhaar

Valley view from Jarmola Dhaar. Photo by Sarabjit LehalPlease visit Flickr for images of the region

The settlement of Purola offers good scope for morning and evening walks especially to watch and admire the rich birdlife of the region. Although, the upper slopes offer some enthralling treks that takes one through surging waterfalls, verdant hills covered with pine and oak trees, gushing river streams. The state tourism agency also lists that wildlife enthusiasts can visit the sanctuary which is one of the largest national parks in India and home to myriad species of animals like Himalayan snow leopard, bharals, sloth bear, deer, flying squirrel and Himalayan Tahr.

A Siberian Stonechat

A Siberian Stonechat. For more images from the region, please visit Flickr Photoset 

The valley of Purola is said to be one of the most fertile as well as widest valleys of the region.

The valley of Purola is said to be one of the most fertile as well as widest valleys of the region. More at Flickr

Getting There

The valley of Purola is 112 km from Uttarakashi and nearly 100 km from Mussoorie. The stretches of the hillside from Mussoorie as well as Uttarakashi side are remarkably beautiful but beware of the road condition especially during the monsoons.

Average Altitude: 1530m
Best time to visit: Winters and spring
Travel Lure: Heritage and Birdlife
Accommodation: Limited; confirm in advance

Garhwal Diary: The ancient temple of Lakhamandal

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Sometime ago we visited the Yamuna Valley in the Garhwal region of Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. We took the route through Dehradun and Chakrata so as to avoid the touristy humdrum of Mussoorie. Having already visited the Ashokan rock edict at Kalsi, I was particularly motivated towards visiting yet another site of archaeological importance – Lakhamandal – situated in the Yamuna valley itself.

Mystic Himalayan morning at Chakrata

Mystic Himalayan morning at Chakrata. Please visit Flickr for more images of the region

Capturing various hues and tones of the landscape as well as the rich birdlife on camera, we made slow progress on the bumpy, dusty narrow stretch of the road from Chakrata to Lakhamandal. On the way we stopped briefly for lunch by the famous Tiger Falls located just over 20km from Chakrata. Locally known as Keraao Pachad and with a spectacular fall of 312ft, the Tiger Falls are said to be highest waterfalls of the state. Being much away from the hustle bustle of Mussoorie, Chakrata or Dehradun, the falls are relatively untouched by crass commercialisation and attract many a trekkers. People I know prefer to trek all the way to Lakhamandal from Kalsi edict; taking about three days to cover the distance over multiple ridges. Tiger Falls are a natural choice for a an attractive halting place or a preferred option for a brief stopover on such treks.

The Tiger Falls

The scenic Tiger Falls. More images at Flickr

Long-tailed Shrike

A Long-tailed Shrike. More images from the region at Flickr

Ahead, the bumpiness and dust of Garhwal hillside had clearly overtaxed our bodies. The antiquarian paradise of Lakhamandal, a small village in the Jaunsar-Bawar region of Garhwal is situated at an altitude of 1150m on the rolling slopes of a rugged mountain range that runs parallel to the Yamuna on its right bank. After the recent construction of a regular motorable road from Mussoorie to Yamunotri via Chakrata on the opposite bank along the river, Lakhamandal was left unconnected on the other side. Situation improved gradually.

Himalayan Griffon Vultures feasting on a dead cow

Himalayan Griffon Vultures feasting on a dead cow. More images from the region at Flickr

Road through the Yamuna Valley

The bumpy, narrow, dusty road through the Yamuna Valley. Photo by Sarabjit LehalMore images at Flickr

Being right on an ancient trunk-route that connects the Indian mainland to Yamunotri and beyond to the trans-Himalayan destinations, Lakhamandal had all the reasons for its flourishment and prosperity. It was because of its advantageous position on the spur of a mountain overlooking the valley that it became a convenient halting stage for the travellers and pilgrims heading towards upper Himalayan destinations. The village was once an active centre for the mercantile trade and religious activities; a fact which is so well attested by the ruins of the ancient structures spread all around in the locality.

Lakhamandal gets its name from the two words: lakha meaning "many" and mandals meaning "temples" or "lingam".

Lakhamandal gets its name from lakha meaning “many” and mandals meaning “temples” or “lingam”. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal. More images at Flickr

The temple is built in North Indian architectural style, which is common in the hilly regions of Garhwal, Jaunsar and Bawar.

The temple is built in North Indian architectural style, which is common in the hilly regions of Garhwal, Jaunsar and Bawar. Photo by Sarabjit Lehal.

Temple-cum-playground for village kids

Temple-cum-playground for village kids. Photo by Sarabjit LehalMore images from the region at Flickr

At the village entrance, one is greeted by an ancient yupa inscription. Around here, small stone relics or inscriptions could be spotted piled on one of the village chabutras. One might get surprised to find sculptural fragments or even stone images lying uncared in and around the village. Farmers occasionally dig out pieces of carved stones and images from the fields. Such fragments of stones could also be observed fitted into the boundary walls of village houses. Out on the village streets near the temple complex, such antiquarian wealth dot both sides of lanes.

Mandals at Lakhamandal Temple

Some of the many mandals at Lakhamandal Temple. More images at Flickr

Even with the archaeological and religious wealth that abounds this village, surprisingly, it has largely remained a terra incognita even to the Yamunotri bound pilgrims. The situation unquestionably should not have been so in the sixth or seventh century when a Shiva (Bhava) temple was said to be constructed here by a princess named Ishwara. The temple was constructed over the base of an earlier brick structure that could well have belonged to a non-Shiva deity. This happened when the Brahminism was going through a revival in the area. Today, the indigenous Khashia Brahmans, who revere the characters of the Mahabharata, largely populate the region. The magnitude to which the Brahminical Hindu elements have been able to influence the native social system could directly be felt in the legendary association of the Kauravas and Pandavas with this area. They are believed to have lived in this region with the locals for many years during their incognito exile.

Twin statues of Danav and Manav are located beside the main shrine. The statues are its dwarpals (doormen). Some people believe these statues to be those of Pandava brothers Bhima and Arjuna. They also resemble Jai and Vijay, the doormen of Lord Vishnu.

Believed to be doormen, the twin statues of Danav and Manav are located just beside the main shrine. People attribute these statues to be those of Bhima and Arjuna. Many believe they also resemble Jai and Vijay, the doormen of Lord Vishnu. Some historians claim the figurines belong to Buddhist era. Photo by Sarabjit LehalMore at Flickr

Around here, small stone relics or inscriptions could be spotted piled on one of the village chabutras.

Even in the village outside the complex, one could spot small stone relics or inscriptions piled scattered. More images at Flickr

Even with respect to the temple, legend has it that the Kauravas built lakshagriha, the house of shellac, here for the Pandavas to stay in. The idea was to trap the Pandavas inside the highly inflammable house and set it ablaze. However, the Pandavas escaped to a place called Chakrapur through a tunnel. That place is associated with the present day Hanol. Similarly, yet another folklore associates the place to which the Pandavas escaped with present day Chakrata (ancient Ekachakrangari).

Built in North Indian architectural style, which is common in the hilly regions of Garhwal, Jaunsar and Bawar, Lakhamandal gets its name from lakha meaning “many” and mandals meaning “temples” or “lingam”.  In its heyday, the temple must surely have been popular but to the western world the temple site attracted the attention of archaeologists for the first time in 1892 AD when George Buhlar discovered an inscription dated sixth to seventh century AD.

The main attraction of this temple shrine is the graphite Lingam. It shines when wet and reflects its surroundings.

The shiny graphite lingam is one of the attractions of this temple complex. More images at Flickr

The Yamuna Valley view ahead

The Yamuna Valley view ahead. Photo by Sarabjit LehalPlease visit Flickr for more images of the region

Getting There

The heritage temple at Lakhamandal is 128 km from Dehradun and nearly 70 km from Chakrata. The road length from Mussoorie via Chakrata is approximately 100km. Budget more time than usual to cover this stretch as you could never be sure of the road condition.

Average Altitude: 1150m
Best time to visit: Winters and spring
Travel Lure: Heritage and birdlife
Accommodation: Limited; confirm in advance

Book Talk: Nanda Devi, The Tragic Expedition

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It is rather unfortunate that certain level of dissention, squabble and recriminations have mostly been a constant feature of high-altitude mountain climbing expeditions the world over. And out in the Himalayas, when climbers along with their support staff are cramped together in below freezing conditions for months, even a small misjudgement, often due to miscommunication, can provoke tragedy leading to discord among them.

In 1976, John Roskelley, the author of Nanda Devi, The Tragic Expedition joined a group to climb the mountain Nanda Devi (7816m), located in the Indian Himalayas, to celebrate fortieth anniversary of its first accent by Tilman and Odell. Published first in 1987, almost a decade after the expedition got over, the book is the expedition account full of strong emotions, conflicting ambitions and often misplaced dedication; combined with tragedy and success.

Just as most such large scale expeditions of recent age, this Nanda Devi assignment was said to be a fractious one. Much before the expedition started, the climbers had started to lose faith in the twin command of Ad Carter and Willi Unsoeld. Within the first few days of the trek up the Sanctuary, the group became divided into two factions – team A and B. One was made up of handful of those whose almost exclusive focus was on reaching the summit by a demanding new route. The other seemed to be going more for the experience, to have a good time in the Himalayas. Through the book, mountaineer John Roskelley has just plainly acknowledged himself to be belonging to the first category.

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The expedition organiser Ad Carter, who also happened to be the member of the original 1936 team, is joined as co-leader by the legendary mountaineer Willi Unsoeld along with his daughter as a group member. Willi was so fascinated by the beauty of the Nanda Devi that he decided to name his daughter for the mountain he considered the most beautiful in the world. Even as Nanda Devi Unsoeld was inexperienced as a mountaineer or a climber, still Willi though she was very much capable of summiting the peak.

Even though, it was the seventh successful summit attempt at the peak, the expedition was able to claim for the first attempt through Nanda Devi’s Nortwest Face. The twelve member Indo-American team – mostly due to persistence of Roskelley, Jim and Louis – had succeeded in forging a difficult new route to the summit. Unfortunately, Devi, aged 22 years, succumbed to illness at camp IV while on her way up.

Supposedly an expedition account, the book is mostly centred on Roskelley himself, who determinedly kept the group moving and summited along with two other accomplished mountaineers. Throughout the narrative, Roskelley is seen outspokenly criticizing, often untactfully, the expedition organisers as they had allowed a few unqualified climbers to participate in a technically difficult Himalayan ascent. The first conflict popped up at Dibrugheta, a camping site in the outer sanctuary when Marty was ill and Dr Jim advised evacuation. Willi, the leader wavered and reluctantly agreed to an evacuation. Later having assessed her deteriorating health, Dr Jim constantly advised Nanda Devi Unsoeld against going higher up. But Willi was still indecisive and Devi kept ignoring Jim’s as well as advises of other experienced climbers. The book reinforced author’s reputation of being an uncompromising climbing critic and a professional mountaineer.

The account seems a worthwhile read for someone who either wants to climb the peak through this particular route or is interested in knowing what might have went wrong in that particular expedition. The book rather conveys how not to manage an expedition of this nature and scale. With a legendary peak like Nanda Devi that once drew the interest of mountaineers from the entire western world, the author could have been much more expressive. Maps, trek information, more photographs, general visualisation of the sanctuary should have been included too.

With nearly 230 pages, this edition of the book unfortunately continues to be out of print for a long time now. Amazon might help! I bought a used edition of this book at a discounted price from a local library-cum-store.

Book Talk: K2 – The Story of The Savage Mountain

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Standing atop the Mt Haramukh in Kashmir on an assignment of the Trigonometric Survey of India to study heights in September 1886, Lt TG Montogomerie was rewarded with an outstanding view towards the north; where over 200 km away the then almost totally unknown Karakoram range stood imposing in a clear sky. Little did he know that his markings of the two most prominent peaks – labelled K1 and K2 by himself – would one day command prime attraction of the mountaineering world.

While K1, the peak with a distinctive double summit was subsequently popularised with its local name Masherbrum but the random mark applied by Montogomerie to the other distant triangular massif was retained as it is. In the years to come, this “Mountain of Mountains” massif, K2 became tantamount with adventure, exploration, difficulty, danger and impersonal savagery.

Written by Jim Curran, K2 the Story of the Savage Mountain was first published in the year 1995. Having won numerous awards, this bestseller traces the mountaineering history of the remote K2 and attempts to search for the common thread – laced with high adventure and exploration – that has been uniting all attempts to summit the peak for more than a century now. Himself a mountaineer, Curran happened to be the climbing cameraman on the British expedition in the tragic year of 1986 for K2. That year, after a long, terrible summer he was one of the few people left at base camp to witness the final tragedy when five climbers, including his friend Alan Rouse, perished in a storm high on the Abruzzi Ridge of K2. With the objective of making climbing safer and more practical, a debate followed worldwide to evaluate the rationing of human intervention in a fragile ecosystem up at such Himalayan heights.

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Not only had the year 1986 but with K2, tragic events on the Abruzzi Spur in 1939, 1953, 1954 and 1986 become subjects for intense discussion, speculation, disagreement and occasionally lifelong rancour. Circumstances governed by variables like the weather, human frailty, ambition and misjudgement had indeed produced epics of endurance, suffering and often, a stark tragedy. Although Mt K2, the highest peak in the Karakoram Range, falls 784 ft short of Mt Everest, it is far harder to climb and has claimed more casualties as compared to success. Even as this book was being published in 1995, seven more people had died in a freak storm on K2. The author has masterfully highlighted the commonness in all such attempts.

Starting from Montogomerie to the contribution of Godwin Austen and Francis Younghusband to giving due thought to the prevailing politics and spying on newer and derelict trade routes to Mustagh Pass, Curran retraces nearly everything known. The arrival of the Duke of Abruzzi in 1909 along with the legendary mountain photographer Sella at the base camp of K2 is also presented in an enthusiastic manner. From Wiessner and Durrance’s attempts to the first casualties in 1939, Charles Houston, Bob Bates, the tragic end of Art Gilkey in 1953, Ricardo Cassin and Desio to other important mentions including the colossal expeditions involving more than 1500 porters have been given their due share; all of which contributed to popularise climbing at K2.

After the first successful summit attempt at the K2 in 1954, attention in the Karakoram focused on the superb collection of spectacular but lower peaks scattered right across the range. The Mustagh Tower, Gasherbrum IV, Gasherbrum II, Broad Peak, Hidden Peak and Rakaposhi were becoming major scalps. Names like Uli Biaho, Paiju, Trango Tower, the Ogre and the Latoks epitomised the huge potential of the area. After a decade of inactivity, in 1970s the range became climbing hotspot again with world’s top class climbers like Reinhold Messner, Peter Habeler, Bonington, Doug Scott, et al making their efforts through a different route to the summit of K2.

In writing this book, Jim Curran, has lucidly achieved three objectives of much value to mountain enthusiasts: First, he makes available a well-organized mass of history on K2. Second, his text introduces a powerful cautionary element badly needed for future visitors to the mountain. And third, he supplies a great deal of statistical data not previously available in any one volume on K2. K2: The Story of the Savage Mountain would appeal equally to a mountain climber, Himalayan expert or a layman. The maps, sketches and tabular data mentioned at the end are quite useful. The book has some well-captioned photographs as well. With 255 pages, the current edition of the book continues to be unfortunately out of print. I bought this edition from an online store in UK.

Book Talk: Annapurna

Published first in 1952, this fabulous and gripping read is the French expedition leader Maurice Herzog’s account of the first ascent of the mighty Annapurna (8091m) – the tenth highest mountain in the world and the very first 8000m peak to be climbed at that time – in the pre-monsoon season of 1950. The first ever ascent of an eight-thousander, made the French expedition team national heroes overnight. Their heroic conquest stirred up general mountaineering interest the world over.

Ever since it was first published more than six decades back, the book Annapurna, detailing the first conquest of an 8,000m peak, continues to be a bestselling classic of mountain and adventure climbing literature. Originally written in French language, the book was later translated into English language and subsequently into over 50 different languages. So far the book is said to have sold more than 15 million copies worldwide.

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Positioned in the Himalayas in north-central Nepal that includes Annapurna I over 8,000 metres, thirteen peaks over 7,000 metres and sixteen peaks of more than 6,000 metres, Annapurna Himal is a Sanskrit designation to the massif that translates into “full of food” and is revered as Goddess of Harvests. The main peak is held to be an intimidating peak with a deadly reputation. Even to get a close view of the main peak is a no mean task; a fact which is upheld by the mountaineering fraternity and the Annapurna peaks are considered to be among the world’s most dangerous mountains to climb. With an overall fatality-to-summit ratio of 40 per cent, many world class climbers prefer the Annapurna to be their last option among the eight-thousanders. Just a couple of years ago, in October 2014, 39 people were killed as a result of snowstorms and avalanches in the Annapurna region.

Back in 1950, with numerous handicaps including that of any accurate Himalayan map, route guide, technological aids or technically sound gear, the French expedition led by the author Maurice Herzog set out to try their hands at either Dhaulagiri or the Annapurna. For more than a month, the team initially struggled looking for a feasible route to either Dhaulagiri or Annapurna. Just as they hear the arrival of monsoons, the group having decided the Dhaulagiri to be out of reach and way too difficult, fix and direct their efforts to the North Face of the mighty Annapurna.

The telling account begins with myriad nuisances of establishing base camp, provisioning foods and supplies as well as arranging porters and alliancing with locals. The team begin with multiple exploratory reconnaissance where each expedition member has a specific task assigned to survey the area around Annapurna and its neighbour Dhaulagiri; trying to find a feasible access to the top of either one.

Slowly but painstakingly, and at times frustratingly, the team arrives at a conclusion with respect to the routes and plans to conquer either one of the prized peaks. With the arrival of monsoons in Calcutta, the final assault starts taking shape to climb the Annapurna. After which the frustration started to peter out and pitches became more productive and realistic. With their expertise, enthusiasm and not to forget the exceptional camaraderie which is so uncommon in today’s world of mountaineering, the team quickly established the trail and camps up the mammoth Annapurna.

Against the overpowering odds of the harsh Himalayan terrain and weather, the determined team carried on with complete synchronisation keeping in mind the dangers ahead. The mannerism of planning and detailing to gain the height reflect on the fundamental discipline in French team members. With persistence they carried on successfully. The entire narrative is quite readable and realistically presents minor details seemingly live time.

On the fateful day of June 03, 1950 Maurice Herzog and his teammate Louis Lachenal reached the summit of Annapurna without any supplemental oxygen. The harrowing descent in the bad weather, however, turned into a nightmare with Herzog losing his gloves in excitement after which his hands became frostbitten. Lachenal’s feet too became severely frostbitten. As they both barely make it back to camp V, Lionel Terray and Gaston Rebuffat helped them to ease but the rough weather obstructed all their plans to descend the slope safely. The team wandered helplessly on the exposed slopes before finding a crevasse to spend the night. As they emerge out of it next morning, they get caught in an avalanche. The raw but expert medical treatment and care they both received right from camp II in the open to the plains, by the expedition doctor, was truly exceptional.

After descending from the sanctuary, the end part of the book deals with multiple amputations of the two infected climbers and village life as the author is carried on the back of a porter or on a stretcher through hills and jungles on their way back to civilisation of the plains. The book is a gripping account of the heroic climb and is definitely one of the best I have ever come across. Herzog’s masterful narrative makes it to be one of the greatest mountain-adventure stories of all time. The latest edition of the book in English featuring a foreword by the legendary Conrad Anker is averagely priced at Rs 900 at Amazon and Flipkart. I totally recommend this book to someone who is a keen enthusiast of the Himalayas and especially mountaineering.