The Kullu Valley in Himachal Pradesh sits as a kind of catchment and entrance into the huge valleys and spaces of Ladakh, the Chandra Valley and Spiti to the north. It is often from the shadows of these grand expanses and fabled lands that the most competent guides, journeyers and traders come. It has also been where some of the more intelligent views of the world and our place in it have come. Oral narratives here are not simply the exaggerated tales of times past or deeds done. They are a social method of communicating science and historical data, enforcing the social bonds as it does so of the natural worlds and its risks and wonders.
Oral narratives here are not simply the exaggerated tales of times past or deeds done. They are a social method of communicating science and historical data, enforcing the social bonds as it does so of the natural worlds and its risks and wonders.
Little stirs at any time of year in the tiny village of Kais within the Kullu Valley except during festivals, elections, or village meetings. It is a geography that was formed by the nearby Beas River which carved its way through on its way south.
The making of a Mountain Guide
It is here in Kais that Purun Thakur was born and it was from here that he first saw the spires of stone, listened to tales of what lay beyond the passes, and gazed upon the high treelines that line the large valleys. One of a new generation that is absolutely fine with being “out of cities”, Purun decided instead to honour his skill sets and love of the “air and clarity” and stay in the mountains and guide.
For long years these territories, coves and valleys have held the ‘lessons of the locals’, and of course the vibrant and sturdy locals themselves. In the long years of trekking, climbing and meandering the mountains’ corridors I’ve adored listening to the tales, the words, and the sense of the mountain peoples. Simple intuition, simple principles of living and of course living with the land’s moods and needing her good graces.
Some of my great mentors have come from these higher lands and like mentors everywhere, they come in every shape, size and age. It is precisely in their abilities and methods of dealing with life that they are mentors, rather than a desire to mentor. Purun was one of these.
Purun is one of those silent, ageless figures who wearing minimal kit, being of a sinewy strength with some fatalism thrown in, has competently led my teams up and onto two of Asia’s most significant glaciers, the Bara Shigri and the Gangotri. After having spent two months on these grinding pilgrimages and expeditions one likes to think one can feel and intuit someone regardless of the cultural nuances. Mountains can create an intimacy that is transparent and it can either bond forever, or divide into chasms. There is no hiding and in the words of many a Himalayan people, “Mountains are Nature’s editors”. You peer into yourself and others very quickly in these remote thin-aired spaces.
A Mountain Man
Purun’s life was similar to most in that school was available but not necessarily promoted and almost predictably a young and very strong Purun left class life for good as a teenager to be, in his own words, “moving”. The intentions were simple. He wanted to work, support the family and do these things in the mountains. In time he substituted picking apples in the orchards for scaling walls and learned that if one can lead and care for people in the heights, there is money to be made and that ‘rarest of rares’ sastisfaction. Risks were not part of the thinking when he began in his late teens and early twenties and he rose both in stature within the guiding world and in the altitudes themselves.
Now in his mid-twenties with a wife and child following in quick succession since I first met him, he continues to train and learn but he hasn’t lost the wonderful abilities as a guide nor as a special mortal. He is now coveted as a guide, employee and friend alike and all those who meet him speak of a genuine spirit and loyal friend…and an amazing mountain man.
My own not so slight adoration for the men and women who manage teams amidst the winds and big silences, has been constructed over years’ of tea with them, and co-managing groups. I’ve shared ragged breathing with them, scaling snow and stone with them, and dealing with the always formidable human dynamic component with them.
Not surprisingly, it is often during afternoon tea breaks when Purun (and my own cluttered mind as well) unfurls some of this rolled up and accumulated knowledge and visions of the world in which he occupies. We sat at a base camp high up within the Garhwal Himalayas, pon the Kirti Glacier, which feeds the Ganges River, and hauled in cups of Ginger and Lemon tea and reflected on a day which was relatively easy in length but for a almost two hour section, was spent shimmying along a pathway that was disintegrating as we passed over its length. One slip and a certain mauling awaited a hundred metres below. Purun and another lead had tied themselves into my partner on this journey acting as moving anchors.
Rivulets of rock and dust would shoot down in sudden outbursts, which in time would ebb and then explode once again. None of us were particularly comfortable on this portion as the instability and sheer drop to our left motivated a nervous desire to speed up the crossing. All of us did variations of a crab walk with a little unstable skiing thrown in. Purun, with tea in hand went on one of his rare forays into his philosophies in life which marked his evolved and uncluttered thinking. We were speaking about cities and the mountains and his understanding of where he belonged. “I have been to the cities but the speed and air for me cannot keep me for long. I arrive and soon after I am thinking of when I can go back to the mountains. I know my place and I am happy I know my place”.
A Guide, Guardian and Mentor
Risks and the accompanying mindsets are something utterly imbued in what Purun does and in what his family must endure. A kind of fatalism reigns but a kind of joy too, at least in Purun’s view. “My job is simple mostly, but complicated some times because I must deal with people’s…” he struggles to find the word, but the meaning was clear. He speaks of ‘expectation’. “I cannot control the weather or the sky…I sometimes miss my family, but when I’m home for too long I miss it here”. My own feeling is entirely similar.
Given respect, a respectable pay and a sane mandate, these guardians are relentless contributors and comrades who open up worlds and ensure worlds for those of us who wish to wander. Their own employers too are an essential part of this whole enterprise but it is ultimately the guides and the epic landscapes that move the mind and blood. Some would say that the guides and porters are unsung and I am one of those. For a pittance they lead, they haul, they inform and share and ultimately and they give texture…or at least allow those textures to be seen and felt.
Heading up the formidable ice-sheath of Bara Shigri’s moraine empire years’ ago, I asked Purun if he wasn’t guiding in the mountains that he so loves, what could he imagine doing. His answer was vintage Purun. “Maybe go back to picking apples. But I will stay up ‘here’ in the mountains. I will stay”.
There are plenty of influencers, mentors and teachers…those who inspire all sorts of feelings. It is those perhaps understated ones who know their place in the universe and who know how they want to live that warrant some attention, some mild idol worship. Those who lead us into other realms are surely worthy of a little gush and some words of praise.
A moment together when Jeff is presented with hand knit woollen socks from Purun’s wife. They remain my ‘sleeping socks’ still to this day.
Purun leading the way up into the Bara Shigri Glacier in Himachal Pradesh
Purun performing final checks before we set off