The experience of being part of the team that was the first to reach Gaumukh this year.
Alighting from the mini-bus at 7.00 p.m. after a day-long journey from Rishikesh, I expect some relief. But all there is to be experienced is the Himalayan cold. Welcome to Harsil, says the darkness around me. There is not a soul around and the rest of the trekking group gets down to figuring out our place of stay. We walk along a serpentine path in the freezing April cold. Gurgling streams and mountains seem to hem the village in. Finally we find our guesthouse.
I was circumspect when I got an invite to trek to Tapovan in the Gangotri National Park. The park’s 6,000-metre peaks are poor cousins of the 8,000-metre ones and do not make good stories to tell. But the trek was being led by Malli Mastan Babu, the first Indian to do the Seven Summits, and that made it interesting.
The next morning reveals that we are staying alongside an army cantonment on the banks of the Bhagirati surrounded by dense woods of pine trees with snow peaks on vigil. We are at Harsil for the acclimatisation trek to Saat Tal. We hit the trail to walking languorously along the river, past Mukhba, Goddess Gangotri’s winter home, into the woods where the apple orchards come into view. The trees have started blooming and look picturesque amid the backdrop of ruddy-cheeked women smiling from their wooden Gharwali-styled houses. After a steep hike up the mountain through snow and trees, we reach Saat Tal by afternoon. We pitch our tents near the second lake but rain drenches our excitement. Not even our cook’s hot khichdi can lift our spirits. We shiver through the night.
Early in the morning, someone shouts about a fire being lit. I crawl out and sigh. There is a 360° view of snowy peaks. Saat Tal is a perfect place to set up camp and read Milton when not running around the rocks in bare feet.
Gangotri National Park begins before Gangotri town. We discover it to be an empty town as it is still closed for winter. It is eerie but sublime to set foot in this pilgrimage place and find no human activity. In the chill evening air, I walk past closed shops to hear the river crash against the rocks and think how tranquil this place must have been in the past.
Day 1: Gangotri - Chirbasa
The sun’s rays hit the tallest peaks around 6.00 a.m. Dinesh, the most laidback of us, notices a steep path going uphill. Soon, eight adults, three children, six porters and one cook are hiking up the trail. The narrow path is at an average height of around 150 ft from the floor of the valley and consists of stones hammered together. Even with their loads, the porters are far ahead of us and we, with 10 kg backpacks, are the laggards. After some distance, the head porter Amar’s face bobbed into view. We had encountered our first glacier.
The glaciers had still not melted. Unverified reports said that it last snowed so much in 1995. Crushed ice doesn’t offer great traction on a gradient and it is imperative to dig your toes or heels while climbing up or down respectively. Our fear is accentuated by the fact that we are the only ones in the park and there will be no help if we tumbled into the uninviting valley. But we make it.
By evening when we reach Chirbasa, we have crossed seven sizeable glaciers with 45° inclines, with the widest being 70 metres. Chirbasa is primarily a pine forest with some birch trees. The camping ground has a couple of brick and mortar structures and is right besides the river with an excellent view of the Bhagirathi sisters up the valley.
Day 2: Chirbasa - Bhojbasa
The night is cold and the morning reveals more glaciers on the trail. By 1.00 p.m., we have crossed three glaciers and two streams besides spotting the Himalayan Blue Sheep. Just as the comfort level increases, we encounter our first landslide. Crossing a glacier is something but crossing a landslide in an active rock fall area is another. We again manage.
At around 2.00 p.m., it suddenly becomes dark and starts snowing. The wind howls and begins to hit us savagely. There is neither shelter nor life anywhere and this is the Himalayas at its remotest best. Chirbasa is four km behind and Bhojbasa is a kilometre ahead. The tension is palpable. After much discussion, we decide to go forward as no one wants to get caught in the snowstorm. The adversity and fear galvanise the whole group into action. Another four landslides are crossed and around 4.00 p.m., amid falling snow, I see a white expanse with a few shelters. It is Bhojbasa. An easy trek from Gangotri became a trek across 10 glaciers/moraines, five landslides with no ropes, pick axes or Mountain Dew.
The persistent snowfall means that we cannot pitch our tents for the night. Raghu, the most enterprising of our group, convinces the meteorology station staff — the only life in Bhojbasa — to give us a cabin where we crash.
Day 3: Bhojbasa - Gaumukh - Bhojbasa - Chirbasa
On a wonderfully clear morning, Bhojbasa looks like a picture out of a Christmas postcard. We get to know that it was minus six degrees and had snowed five inches the previous night. In an intense discussion, Malli rules out going to Tapovan because the weather is bad. At 7.00 a.m., we start out in the icy cold to Gaumukh. The sun is not shining and each one is wearing at least three layers of thermals. We can see the snow plumes of Bhagirathi — 2, 3 and 1 — in that order. Mount Shivling is on the valley’s true right. We trudge in the snow along the icicles that have formed underneath the rocks.
We reach Gaumukh (3,890 m), the snout of the Gangotri that is essentially a cave-like formation with ice walls against a background of snow and glacier. This glacier once extended till Gangotri town before it receded. It is still receding. We pay our obeisance. We don’t realise that the UV rays reflecting off the snow is burning our exposed skin so badly that it would peel off over the next few days.
Later we go back to Bhojbasa and start for Chirbasa. Early afternoon, I come across a landslide in a rock fall zone. The six inches wide path in loose mud and gravel on a not-too-steep slope seems relatively easy. We had done scarier ones and I quickly scramble to the middle. I hear a rumble above me. Amar shouts “Saabji, Saabji.” I look up to see a rock, two feet in diameter with jagged edges, hurtling towards me. I wait till the boulder reaches me and at the last moment, lean back. The boulder misses me by two feet.
We reach Chirbasa; it is snowing. The Sahara mountaineering team who arrived from Gangotri that morning inform us that the forest officials had mentioned a Search and Rescue mission for us and that they were asked not to go forward because of the weather. We look at one another and shrug. The clouds suddenly clear above Mount Bhagirathi. The valley is dark while the sisters glow on the horizon. It is magical.
Day 4: Chirbasa - Gangotri
The next morning, I spot Himalayan vultures, yellow beaked ravens and thrushes as we start back. It seems that the Chirbasa camping ground becomes quite dirty with plastic in peak season. The Environment Ministry needs to be strict in a park that houses India’s second largest glacier.
By evening, we are in Gangotri and notice that the first shop has opened for the season. We greet the smiling shopkeeper. We were the first to officially trek to Gaumukh this year. Malli puts our trek in context by saying that what we did is usually experienced on a 5,000-metre pass. But now, it was time to have a shower. It was time to go home.