Looking Back – A Trek Within
“Nothing needs to be impossible for you. After all man is six feet taller than the mountain he climbs. Only the will resolute has to be there” — commented J. B. Auden to Swami Probodhananda. Swamiji dreamt to trek to Badrinath from Gangotri across a high pass – Kalindi Khal and came to Auden to enquire about the route and Auden encouraged him with those words. That was 1939. Six years later in 1945, six Indian Sadhus (ascetic) led by Swamiji (five half-naked and one completely naked) embarked upon this difficult trekking expedition with Dileep Singh as guide. They crossed Kalindi Pass – the highest point (5948m), on 22nd July 1945 and eventually became the first Indian team to achieve that remarkable feat.
Standing on top of Kalindi Khal, 49 years after that remarkable feat, I was reflecting on those words of Auden. Probodhananda was in a team with five other ascetics – all of them were ill prepared but with determination, courage and dream in their eyes. I, similarly, was with five trekkers but well equipped, well guided and if I might add, well fed. However, the difficulty and the toughness of the trek was nonetheless, probably more so, because unlike them, we are only trekkers, not believers.
I was also thinking of the implication of Audens’ words. Are we really six feet taller than the mountain we climb? Figuratively yes; particularly when one is on the top. Till then a mad rush of adrenalin, a sense of achievement drives us. We had a job to do and damn well complete it. But as soon as one reaches the summit, one kneels and offers prayer, to whom I am not very sure; but an overwhelming sense of satisfaction and humility engulfs us and for a moment one is at peace with his surroundings – that charming and brute nature. Probably to this sense of achievement and peace we, even the hardcore atheist among us, offers that prayer. So, are we really six feet taller than the mountain we climb? It’s a difficult one to answer.
It all started with a casual discussion and soon we realized, some of us are passionate about this route – going to Badrinath from Gangotri across the Kalindi Khal. It is a quite difficult 99 kms trek that commences at Gangotri (3048 mts), passes through Gaumukh (3892 mts), Nandanban (4500 mts), Vasuki Tal (5300 mts), Kalindi Base (5590 mts), Kalindi Khal (5948 mts) and then descends to Arwa Tal (3980 mts), Ghastoli (3600 mts) and ends at Badrinath (3100 mts). The route passes through one of the most breathtaking mountainscape under the shadow of great peaks of Garhwal – Bhagirathi II, III & I, Shiblinga, Basuki, Chandraparbat, Satopanth and so on. On this trek one can experience all kinds of trekking, as the route goes over boulders, glaciers, scree, and snow.
So on a rainy evening of August 1995, after several transshipments due to landslide, we reached Uttarkashi and booked ourselves in a hotel near the bus stand. Now began the boring but essential work like booking HAP & LAP, purchasing & packing provision, getting inner line permit from the authority and we reached Gangotri on the evening of 21st August.
Ganga, the holiest Indian River, said to have descended from heaven at Gangotri. The legend may have some teeth. In the distance past, the snout of Gangotri glacier, the main source of the Ganga or the Bhagirathi – as it is called till Devprayag, was at Gangotri. According to some studies by the geologists of Garhwal University (published in the Telegraph on February 26, 2001), Gangotri glacier receded 850 meter in the last 25 years. They estimated that Gangorti glacier had receded 40 km since the last ice age.
I shudder to think what will happen in the next 100 years. Probably Gangotri glacier will disappear, so will Ganga*. The mighty river will be a dry riverbed. It happened. And that too in not so distant past — Saraswati River was lost. We need conservation measures in this part of the world and need it fast. To start with, may be a massive afforestation programme to cool the atmosphere.
Spending two days in Gangotri for packing and acclimatization, we were off to Bhujbasa in the early morning of 24th August. The track goes through the right bank of Bhagirathi, the snow peak of Sudarshan beckoning. We had our launch under the shade of a Chir trees at Chirbasa.
By late afternoon, we were at Bhujbasa – so named for its abundance of Bhuj trees; but all gone now, indiscriminately cut down for fuel to supply hot meal and warmth to thousands of pilgrims and trekkers who visit Gaumukh every year. Next morning, we were at Gaumukh (the cows’ mouth) – considered by the Hindus as the holiest place on earth. Well, I am not very sure about the holiness of the place but the scenic beauty is spellbinding. Gaumukh surely resembles the open mouth of a cow but then several glaciers’ snouts are gaumukh, nothing unique in that; the uniqueness is its stunning splendor. Looming large in front of us was Bhagirathi group of peaks and on the right was Shiblinga. Water with chunks of ice floating on it, was gurgling out of the dark cave. Here silence, accentuated by the gurgling water, reigns supreme; reverence abounds.
But Gaumukh is not the only source of Bhagirathi, as has been described in the religious scriptures. It is only the visible source of Bhagirathi. Above Gaumukh, I have seen numerous rivulets in Gangotri and Raktabaran glacier, running a short distance and then diving under the glacier bed, flowing underneath and emerging together at Gaumukh. Surprisingly, Kalidas had an allusion of this in his great poetic piece (Kavya) “Meghadutam” when he describe Gangas’ descend from heaven, flowing down the matted locks of Lord Shiva in numerous streams.
(* A recent news item (dated 15.03.2005 published in “The Telegraph”), reported, quoting WWF, that Gangotri glacier is receding at an average rate of 23 meter/year.)
Indian ascetics must have visited Gaumukh before the 19th century but there were no record of those visits. The first recorded visit of Gaumukh was on 31st May 1817 by John Hodgson and James Herbert and they said, “ A most wonderful scene, the Bhagirathi or Ganges issues from under a very low arch at the foot of the grand snow bed, the river here is bounded to the right and left by high snow and rocks, but in front the mass of snow is perfectly perpendicular, and from the bed of the summit we estimated the thickness a little less than 300 feet of solid frozen snow, probably accumulation of ages”2.
But you cannot stop and admire the scenery forever. One has to move on and we too were off to Nandanban, our next camping site.
Till Gaumukh, it was a well-defined track. But now, we were hopping from one unstable boulder to another equally unstable boulder. Like wild horses that try to throw their riders, those damn boulders, as soon as one rides it, were becoming wild horses and trying their best to throw us off. One has to watch them carefully and constantly. The trick is to transfer ones’ weight to the next boulder before that under ones’ feet go. While dancing thus through the boulders, rocks, hurtling down the mountain-wall and the occasional landslides, greeted us. It was like a quite non-eventful (!) charming evening stroll in cool breeze, though a bit tiresome! Really!
Crossing the last ridge, almost on all fours, we reached Nandanban – a small grassy valley of exquisite beauty, literally surrounded by snow peaks – Bhagirathi II, III & I, Kedar-dome, Karchakunda, and Shiblinga. Blue, orange, yellow alpine flowers at full bloom break the carpeted green monotony. At a height of 4500 mts, Nandanban (3 kms in length and 1.5 in breadth) is very near to the heaven; so I christened it Eden. 40 years ago, Umaprasad Mukhopadhyay – a great Himalayan explorer and traveler, had described Nanandanban as such when he came here on his way to Badrinath across Kalindi Khal. We planned to spend the next two nights here for acclimatization.
The most stunning peak, dominating Nandanban, is undoubtedly Shiblinga. It is hard to believe, unless one sees it, that a 6540-meter peak would be so rocky, devoid of snow and that’s why climbing Shiblinga was very difficult and after a few unsuccessful attempts, only in June 1974 a team from the Indo-Tibetan police was successful. The peak has such a forceful presence. I do not understand why Shiblinga is called Matterhorn of east; instead we should rather call Mt. Matterhorn — the Shiblinga of west.
Two nights are big enough to accommodate some reflections. So I was thinking of those early expeditions in this area. It was on 20th July 1931 when J. Birnie achieved the first recorded crossing of Kalindi Pass from the Arwa valley and descended to Chaturangi valley. On 24th July he re-crossed the pass. Marco Pallis, in course of a survey, crossed Kalindi Khal and went to
(2. A sketch of the Geography and Geology of the Himalayan Mountains and Tibet: Col, S. G. Burrard and H.H. Hayden.)
Tibet in 1933. Next year, in 1934, Shipton and Tilman also crossed the pass. Gordon Osmaston did most of the survey work in this region in 1935-36. Chaturangi (four colours) glacier was named such by him “because it has moraines of four colours”3 – white, black, red and yellow.
On 15th august 1947, when India achieved its freedom, a team led by Andre Roch crossed Kalindi Khal and Tenzing Norgay was in that team.
On 23rd July 1963 Ms. Bhakti Biswas became the first women to cross Kalindi Khal and reach Badrinath from Gangotri. Her team was led by Swami Sundaranand and included, among others, her husband Dr. Mani Biswas and Umaprsad Mukhopadhyay.
Our next camp would be at Basuki Tal under the shadow of Basuki Peak. The track onwards, till Kalindi glacier, lies on the left lateral moraine of Chaturangi glacier, a 16 km long colourful glacier, which emerges from the foot of Mana mountain range and converges with the Gangotri glacier. Merger of many glaciers such as Khalipet, Basuki, Sundar, Suralaya and Sweta augments Chaturangi, on its downward journey.
Since expedition parties visit Basuki Tal on their way to mountain peaks, there was a faint track mark to follow. But the slow and constant movement of a glacier frequently changes the track. So we were trekking on a track with no track at all. Walking, as such, at a height of 5300 mts itself is tough and then to cross the last ascend before Basuki Tal, we had first to slide down on a stiff descend full of loose stone and scree. One step after another, careful et al, could not prevent that fall and I found myself rolling down. Lakhsmi, our team leader, ran down the slope overtaking me, anchored himself with his ice axe and caught me. I was too afraid to notice anything except that somebody grabbed me and stopped my fall. It has shaken me quite a bit and I was disoriented & distant for the rest of the evening. I recalled an Urdu couplet “Pasina maut ka mathe pe aaya. / Aaina lao. Ham gindegi ki aakhri tasbir dekhenge”. [Smell of death on (my) head. Bring (me) a mirror. I’d see the embodiment of life].
Next morning, as I stepped out of the tent, a deep blue cloudless sky greeted me. Its blueness turned Basuki Tal blue. The blue water reflecting the image of Basukis’ snow peak (6790 mts), its hood spread like the great Puranic Serpent –Basuki — guarding forever for unwarranted intrusion. Behind Basuki, on the SE, Satopanth (7070 mts) was peeping.
It was one of those perfect, ethereal mornings but the show must go on. So we climbed on to the left lateral moraine of Chaturangi glacier. Our next camp, on the Suralaya glacier is approximately 8 kms away. Measurement of distances is not very accurate in this part of the world. There were no mileposts!
(3. Himalayan Journal: Vol: X.)
By early afternoon, I was sitting on a ridge, looking down to our campsite, where porters were busy putting up tents. On the SE I can see Chandra Parvat, first climbed by an Austro-German team led by Rudolf Schwargruber in 1938. I can also see Khalipet Bamak- a symbol of mans’ scarifies and courage.
We were trekking continuously, barring a day’s rest at Nandanban, for 5 days and for the last three days at an average altitude of 4500 mts plus which had taken its toll on all of us, particularly on Saha-da and me – the two older members of the team. I was feeling totally exhausted, almost unable to move. Lying in the tent alone, I was apprehensive. I may have to return, keeping my long lasting dream of crossing Kalindi to reach Badrinath, unfulfilled. Thoughts were flying through my mind and suddenly I recalled few lines from Richard Bachs’ “Illusions”, “You are never given a wish without also given the power to make it true. You may have to work for it, however.”
From Suralaya one could go straight to Kalindi base camp site but most of us were not fit even to cover this approximately 10 kms stretch in a day and crossing a fiercely flowing stream proved to be too time consuming. Our guide had to cut steps on an ice wall so that stepping on the last step we could reach to a narrow gap over the stream and then could jump over the ferociously flowing water, crossing over to the other side landing on a slippery boulder. A miss and one could flow with the stream. Luckily no one slipped. We put up our camp near the confluence of Chaturangi and Kalindi glaciers.
Next day saw us on Kalindi glacier moving like a zombie, crunching on hard ice, towards Kalindi base campsite. We were at 5500 mts; numb and dumb, moving through a sort of haze. Only the thought that we have to move forward kept us going. Though for the first time in my life I was moving over a wide ice field, crunching hard ice under my feet; somehow that sense of adventure, the surrounding beauty, were not registering in. All I am interested was when I’d stop and take rest. Fortunately, all road ends. We reached Kalindi base.
Next morning, Mohan – our guide, was on fire. It is mandatory to start very early to cross any pass. But till eight we could not move. Everybody was somewhat down with some ailment, especially Dipak who passed blood in urine. A small portion of the ice patch, next to the camp, was red. In the early morning, Dipak urinated on it.
We were moving in a single line on the ice field, literary following Mohans’ footsteps – stepping on the imprint of his footsteps to avoid crevasses. After few hours of hard toiling, snaking upward and upward with wobbling knees and bent waist, we could see Kalindi and Avalanche peak. After four hours of such punishing trek, we were on top of the pass.
After taking a few shots, suddenly I could not see a thing through the viewfinder of my camera. Must have kept the lens cap on, I thought. But the cap was off. I shoot with right eye. So to check, I shut my left eye and a black curtain fell — everything became black. I tested again and again in the vain hope that some miracle may occur and I will have my sight back. But miracle does not happen any more. It must be snow blindness and temporary, I thought. Later, eye surgeons at Kolkata diagnosed that I had a coronary thrombosis attack in both the eyes and numerous blood clots formed in the eyes blocking the vision in the right eye. It is only pure luck that vision of my left eye was not blocked. In that case, I’d have been completely blind at a height of 19510 feet with at least three days march from the nearest civilization.
Well, reaching Kolkata and knowing what happened, I realized that I was extremely lucky but at that time, I was shaky, miserable and disoriented — full of apprehensions.
As we started to descend, the visibility dropped to 10 feet. It was a white out. We were paying dearly for the late start. Everybody was madly scampering down and suddenly with a great shake, I found myself drowning in snow; that harbinger of death was slowly swallowing me and I could not find anything under my dangling feet.
I am in a crevasse.
The realization paralyzed me. Despite the cold, I was sweating. The rucksack was preventing me from going completely under. In no time, the white death came up to my chest. At this time, Heera and Chadramohan – two of our porters, came running and pulled me out. I could not stand. I just lay down on the ice field oblivious of anything. Next our leader fell, followed by Mohan. Luckily, we could pull everybody out. It became a mad scramble to run down the snowfield. Visibility came down to almost zero. For the last few days, we were utterly fed up with boulders but now we were desperate to reach any rock band. Rocks are faithful — at least you know where you are stepping. Utterly exhausted, on the point of collapse, we reached Rajparab – the camping site. Rest of the evening and the night passed under a kind of haze.
Next morning, everybody woke late. As I came out of the tent, a few raindrops greeted me. It was one of those mornings, hazy, cloudy with chances of a few drizzles. Though not visible from the campsite but I still can visualize the pass and with it came the realization – we have crossed the pass – that sweet, heady feeling of achievement.
And this is where we erred. This heady feeling of achievement brought in a false sense of pride and security and to reach Ghastoli, the same day, we tried to cover a distance of 25 kms that too in the Arwa valley. So far, we have not attempted to cover such a long distance in a day and in this case, it is almost impossible owing to the extremely difficult terrain of Arwa valley. Even frank Smythe admitted this in his “ Valley of Flowers” while crossing Arwa valley: “ But I for one was in a thoroughly bad temper. Perhaps the stones had something to do with this, for nothing is more trying to the temper than a day spent pounding over loose stones”. “Thoroughly bad temper” – well, understatement of the century. We should have done our homework properly before setting up such an unrealistic target.
But we had a compulsion too – to take Dipak to the ITBP camp at Ghastoli, which may offer some kind of medical help. So Mohan, Dipak and another member took off early; we were to follow. Bachchan- our cook, who has earlier traversed the route once, would be our guide for the day.
Trekking the whole day pounding boulders after boulders, under constant drizzle, without any solid food, soaked to the bone, we could not reach Ghastoli. At the end of the day with darkness falling, we realized, we were lost amidst boulders and scree. Our tents and entire provisions were gone with the porters who were somewhere far ahead of us. Where? No body had any idea. We — four members and Bachchan, our faithful but worthless guide, were stranded in a no-mans’ land somewhere in the Arwa valley and did not have the foggiest idea where we were. Still we moved ahead under torchlight but soon it became apparent that this was a suicidal effort. So we stopped in front of a small cave, which can hardly accommodate three.
We spent the night in that cave, in drench cloth, sharing four sleeping bags and with empty stomachs that rumbled through out the night. We lost all hope. We were too tired to think straight and spent the night in a stupor.
The drizzle continued in the next morning; but we had no alternative but to move ahead. Somewhere ahead lays Ghastoli – our salvation. But let alone trekking, standing upright was hardly possible. We had not eaten for the last 24 hours and the strain and the tension had sapped our resolve. So, instead of walking, we were literally crawling in a daze climbing over one hump, sliding down and then again climbing over the next hump. We became oblivious of pain and though we were slipping, falling and cutting ourselves, we were still moving ahead. A dull feeling of constant pain took over my body long back and any aggravation simply did not registered.
Suddenly, through the haze I saw somebody coming our way. It was Heera, our most able porter and behind him Mohan was running down a ridge, followed by two people in uniform. Shouting out Heeras’ name, I could only cry. We embraced each other, crying, like there would be no tomorrow. The two people accompanying them were soldiers of ITBP. They had brought food and hot tea.
Oh! Life is so beautiful!
Mohan informed, even the porters could not reach Ghastoli. They camped near Ghastoli, on the other side of the Saraswati River and waited whole of the night for us – in vain. When we did not reach even in the morning, they reported the matter to Major Subedar Mr. Puri – the in-charge of the ITBP camp and he immediately sent the rescue party to look for us. Experienced Mr. Puri knew we’d badly need some food and hot drink.
We had a rousing reception in the ITBP camp and a separate big aluminium tent was allotted to us. It had some wooden cots. After many days we did not have stone under our bed and blissful sleep followed aided by a few tin of meat – a gift from ITBP.
Small things of life, which one is used to and took for granted – a wooden cot to lay, a few pieces of meat and fish to eat, (I am a Bengali and love fish) assumes significance only when one is deprived of those.
The rest was easy going. As we near Mana village, I could see the crest of the Badrinath temple in the distance. Saha-da, our eldest member at 52 years, asked me, “Tell me Chakrabarti since you are the philosopher type; despite enduring such pain, such exhaustion, why did we come in the first place.”
I could not answer. But it kept coming back like the proverbial phoenix. On the bank of Satopanth Tal I had once asked the same question to my silent ascetic. He was under a vow of silence, so he took up a pen to answer. But instead of a straight reply he shot back the same question and I replied simply, “to see the beauty around and to feel the eerie thrill.” He smiled and wrote, “me too; but also to see the beauty within and to feel the ethereal excitement.” Well, that sounded too theological to me. I’d rather recall few lines from a poem of my favourite Bengali poet, Jibanananda Das, “Babylone eka eka emni hnetechhi aami rater bhitar/ keno jano; aajo ammi janinako hazar hazar byasta bachharer par.” [I have walked in Babylon through the night, alone/ why so; I don’t know, (even) after thousands of busy years]. The journey never really ends. The aim is not to reach but to move on and on. Upanishad pronounces, “ Charan bai madhu bindati/ charan swadu muduswayam/ surjasya pashya shremanang jo na/ tandrayate charan. Charaibati.” [Motion is the nectar. Motions’ gain is the nectar. Sun always moves. His light is incessant. (So) move on.]. Radha – the lover of Lord Krishna on falling in love with the eternal soul (Krishna), realized it and exclaimed in wonder: “Ghare jaite path mor haila a-furan” (my path to home has become unending).