A group of civilian mountaineers finds a safer route for the Gangotri-Badrinath pilgrimage, says Pherozel L. Vincent

Eight explorers, including six from the National Capital Region, recently discovered a new route on the Gangotri-Badrinath pilgrim trail. In the footsteps of J. B. Auden, W. H. Auden’s brother, who explored the area in 1939, this band of mountaineers attempted to cross over from Nelang Valley to Saraswati Valley in the Alaknanda watershed in Uttarakhand. The area, bordering Tibet, is partly restricted to the Army and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP).

The team was entirely made up of civilian mountaineers, including a lady, Kalyani Patil, a Maharashtra revenue official who had conquered Garhwal’s Mt. Mukut in 2010. They were assisted by 16 Uttarkashi based guides and porters.

The Nelang Valley, north of the Gangotri, is surrounded by 6000 metre high ridges. The present route taken by adventurous pilgrims from Gangotri to Badrinath, one of the four dhams sacred to Hindus, is through Kalindi Khal. The Khal is at the intersection of the cloud systems of the Alaknanda and the Bhagirathi. Snowfall is high and avalanches and casualties are frequent.

Auden had tried to cross the watershed through Arwa Col, but didn’t succeed. The Himalayan Club’s Harish Kapadia and Romesh Bhattacharjee had also tried to cross the ridge south of Tara Col in the late eighties, without success. This June — a group led by Ashutosh Mishra — a Delhi based management consultant — crossed the Mana Dhar ridge near the Basisi Glacier into the Upper Saraswati Valley above Deo Taal near the international border. They called it the Auden Trail, and it took them 11 days to complete.

The adventure has been documented in a recent edition of Indian Mountaineer. The team has created a video of the trek which has been screened in Delhi and Mumbai this month.

Mishra explains that they made use of a military all—weather road from Bhaironghati to Nilapani. It was through Naga post on this route that Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer did escape from a Dehradun prison to Tibet in 1943, depicted in the film Seven Years in Tibet.

“One of the major challenges of treks in those parts is getting clearances from the Sub Divisional Magistrate (SDM),” explains Mishra who regularly treks in the Himalayas. This involves insurance, an inner line permit and clearance from the forest department. The SDM’s office alerts the ITBP — who staff a network of outposts and arrange rescue operations when required.

“The ITBP is most helpful. They’re just happy to see any humans, as they usually encounter only Bharals (Himalayan blue sheep). At one ITBP post we were welcomed with tea and pakoras. They even let us call home from their phone booths,” says Bharat Tomar — a team member who’s also an IT professional in Noida.

“No satellite phones are allowed, due to security reasons. So it’s either BSNL signal, wherever available, or the ITBP wireless at their posts for communication. If we’re lost, our survival depends on our resilience and the alertness of the ITBP,” says Ravin Bhatt— another team member and a business analyst from Gurgaon.

“We were scared of running in to bears or snow leopards. At least a photograph of a snow leopard would fetch us some money, but a bear meant all pain no gain. I had a catapult and Bharat had a knife,” says Mishra.

The team used a US Army 1952 map — freely available on The University of Texas at Austin’s online library — as obtaining Survey of India maps for such border areas is a Himalayan task in itself. This was overlaid with a map from Google Earth, followed by a detailed analysis of the terrain using close up satellite photographs of the route— taken in different seasons.

“This is fed into a GPS. We use weather forecasts from accuweather.com. Uncle Sam’s technologies play a major role in mountaineering,” explains Mishra.

Preparation for the trek started months earlier, and was co-ordinated online. “The group was raised on Facebook. The inventory lists were on Google documents. We even kept track of each others’ fitness regimen online,” says Tomar.

Having discovered the route, the team hopes this would attract more civilians. The Nelang watershed was a trade hub on the Tibet-Rampur route, before the 1962 war. After the war, a village Jadung was evacuated of civilians and large parts of these mountains are closed to civilians.

“Pakistan organises treks, including those by foreign mountaineers, to their side of Siachen to assert their sovereignty. This is Indian territory, yet not only we restrict explorers but we also have evacuated our own population,” says Mishra.