Due to severe time constraints, I’m writing a relatively brief travelogue of this adventure. The photo album is here.
Kalindi Khal at nearly 6000 meters is arguably the world’s highest pass. Located in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, it separates the popular Gangotri region from the equally popular Badrinath region. Kalindi is one of the many names of the river Yamuna. Crossing the pass is one of the most difficult non-summit expeditions that you can undertake anywhere in world. Notorious for its extreme weather and dangerous crevasses, several trekkers have died attempting this route in the past. In the recent past, a new generation of adventure enthusiasts have come up in India, and Kalindi Khal has become a dream for every hardcore trekker. Apart from the difficulties imposed by mother nature, the government also makes it very difficult for groups to undertake this expedition with a number of permissions and steep costs.
A little before the expedition, I suffered from food poisoning, which weakened me tremendously and hampered by preparations. But having committed and planned for the expedition for such a long time, I was in no mood to cancel it. The expedition was organized by my friend Tilak who operates under the banner Where Eagles Dare. The start point of the expedition was Uttarkashi and the end was at Badrinath, after a 15 day trek of course!. I also managed to screw up with my flight schedule but made it to Dehradun on the 30th of August, 2012, from where I had to head to Uttarkashi, to Tilak’s house.
Aug 30: I flew to Dehradun via Delhi and arrived at the Jolly Grant airport. There was no conveyance available to get me to Rishikesh apart from chartered cabs. A private car dropped me to the intersection on the main highway, from where I managed to get into (barely) a local shared rickshaw to Rishikesh. At Rishikesh, I had lunch and made my way to the shared taxi stand. Taxis are infrequent and the road from Rishikesh to Uttarkashi was closed till a couple of days ago due to landslides. It was around 2 pm so if I didn’t get a taxi now, I would be stuck in Rishikesh till the next morning. It was VERY hot and I had to wait for some time before there were enough people for the taxi to move. Luckily, we started our journey, during which the co-passengers told me that some of them were in this taxi waiting for it to get full since 9 am! I was feeling blessed. The journey was long, uncomfortable, and tiring. I reached Uttarkashi at around 8 pm.
Tilak came to pick me up on his thumping beast and we went to his house in Uttarkashi, which he calls Eagle’s Nest! It is on perched at a slight height alongside the Ganga (called Bhagirathi in this region). Another trekker, Rajiv was also at his house. On reaching, I realized that the others had already moved forward for Gangotri today morning. Tilak and Rajiv were waiting for me, and waiting for a couple of final permits that were taking longer than expected. We had dinner and some crashed into our mattresses for well-deserved sleep.
Sep 1: I was up thanks to the sharp sun rays piercing through Tilak’s window at 7 am. The morning was beautiful and the view’s from the roof were heavenly. Last night, one didn’t get a complete idea of the picturesque surroundings. We had breakfast in the market by 9 am, and all of use got a hair cut, including Tilak who got fascinating a ‘mullah’ cut, when he left the choice for the pattern of his beard at the mercy of the barber. Later, I came to know that the barber had worked for 5 years in Saudi Arabia!
We were supposed to leave for Gangotri today but two things stood in our way. One, the pending permits; two the road to Gangotri. Although a few hours later we got news that the road was accessible, the forest officer was unwell and was unwilling to meet us, which delayed our plans. We were stuck in Uttarkashi for another day. In the evening, we got the permits (which meant we could leave tomorrow) and also went for a short hike . At night, we spent some time packing and preparing for the next day’s long journey. We also spoke with our group members, who were expecting us at Gangotri tonight, and apprised them about the change in plan.
Sep 2: I was all excited and woke up much earlier than needed. The three of us along with the support team, consisting of 10 odd porters and the climbing guides, needed two dedicated vehicles. Our primary guide, Jai Singh, was a veteran who had summitted Mt. Kamet, which is the second highest peak in India. We left at a leisurely 10 30 am with the huge logistical equipment tied across the roofs of the two vehicles. In an hour, we reached the first major land slide zone and the road was closed. This meant that we would need to leave our vehicles there and trek around two kilometers across the land slide zone. Don’t forget that this also meant that the whole team would have to pick up all the stuff on their backs for those two km. On the other side of the land slide zone, there were vehicles using which we could continue our journey to Gangotri. It took as nearly three hours to leave our vehicles, trek to the other side with all our stuff, and arrange for vehicles to continue the journey. There was a small refreshments stall on the other side and also a vendor selling apples for Rs.10 (20 cents) a kilogram.
There were also some other expedition teams that we met there including one that was headed to the 7000 meter Mt. Satopanth. We finally got moving again towards Gangotri. The scenery was beautiful as expected but the recent flash floods had caused extensive damage. There was no road as such, just a path along which light vehicles were plying quite precariously. At several places, our jeep barely was 6 inches from the cliff, but somehow, we managed to scrape through and reached Gangotri late in evening. It was cold and serene. We met our fellow trekkers, who were quite bored waiting for us at Gangotri. They included the 60+ year old Shankarji, who I was quite curious to meet. Dinner was limited to daal and rice because Gangotri had not received any fresh food supplies for weeks. The other trekkers told us about the interesting acclimatizing hikes that they had done over the last two days; something I was very keen to have participated in. The cold weather coupled with the comforts of a warm room and quilt gave me sound sleep.
Sep 3: Early in the morning, we visited the Gangotri temple in the cold and serene atmosphere. We left after breakfast for our first destination, Bhojbasa, which was 14 km away, towards the Gaumukh glacier. The scenery was superb, with Ganga flowing to our right and massive cliffs to our left. The clear skies made it optimal for photography. Soon, we crossed the Gangotri National Park check post. The group had split into sub groups due to varying speeds. Tilak and I were towards the tail with photography keeping us busy. The path to Bhojbasa is well established so there were no surprises in store for us. Around half way through, we got our first view of the lovely Bhagirathi peaks in the distance. We also saw some other peaks to our right, the names of which I don’t remember. Though the altitude wasn’t much, I was feeling a little tired (the distance for the day was quite a bit), which I think was because I had virtually flown from Pune to Gangotri without any sort of exercise in between. I had my lunch in the company of birds, cliffs, and Ganga! There were several other trekkers who crossed us, most of who were on their way to the popular Gaumukh-Tapovan trek.
Around 2 hours before Bhojbasa, we crossed Chirbasa, another small settlement which was empty as of now. I found it very enticing and slept there for almost 45 mins till I was awakened by a squirrel running across my chest. I was by myself and continued the trek for around 2 more hours before finally reaching Bhojbasa, a small settlement that includes a GKVM run lodge. Three of our members had already reached and were either resting or feasting themselves on super expensive Maggi. I rested for a while and couldn’t resist a Maggi either! Satish, one of my fellow trekkers, and I, decided to strain our lungs a little by gaining more height and descending back to Bhojbasa. We trekked towards Gaumukh. and then I decided to go in for a 50 degree climb to the west, where as Satish continued with the mild trek. My climb was extremely strenuous and tricky. The mud was loose but I was gaining height really fast, which is what I wanted. In about 40 mins, I reached the top of the small hill that I was climbing. It offered lovely views of the Gaumukh glacier to my left and Bhojbasa, 300 meters below me, to my right. Descending was far more a challenge due to the loose soil and the dipping temperature.
In about an hour and a half, we were back to Bhojbasa feeling better and more relaxed. The others has reached by then; albeit the porters who had the tents. This was a logistical error because the people who reached first had been waiting for more than 3 hours for the tents to arrive and the camp to be set up. Considering Bhojbasa had other options where one could rest in the interim, this was ok, but not something which would work on the journey ahead. At night, I met the leader Commandant GS Chauhan and the team doctor of an ITBP expedition to summit Bhagirathi 2. I will talk more about them in the days to come as well, as our paths crossed more than once. We had dinner, which was quite elaborate, and retired to our tents for some well-deserved rest. Sleep evaded me, which proved to be my undoing in the days to come.
Sep 4: At around 7 am, we lazed out of our tents. The weather was pleasant and the views were clear. There had been some light showers overnight, but the sky was relatively blue, which was a relief. After some breakfast, I spent some time with the ITBP Commandant GS Chauhan and his team, who briefed me about their expedition. He also needed some help with his new DSLR, which was similar to mine, and I readily obliged. Today, we were to cross the Gangotri glacier and camp and Nadanvan, at an altitude of 4200 meters. By the time I returned from the ITBP camp, my folks had already left and I was by myself. The feeling of being all alone deep in the Himalayas is extra ordinary, and I was in no mood to catch up with the others, whose occasional glimpse I could catch from time to time.
After around 2 1/2 hours, we reached the revered Gaumukh (lit. Cow’s mouth), the source of the Ganges. The Gangotri glacier is more than 30 km long and culminates at the point where the ice appears to be a cow’s mouth. It is a sacred place and has a small temple of lord Shiva nearby. We spent around thirty minutes enjoying the serenity of the place. From Gaumukh, the difficult trek begins. We had to cross the massive glacier, which was full of crevasses, lose ice/mud, and no clear path. Add to it the cold wind reflecting off the glacier. The first part was a depressing moraine walk whereas the second part was the really challenging one, where one slip could seal your fate. Due to global warming, the glacier is badly torn, which makes it very difficult to maneuver through it. The group had split and I was at the tail. Tilak was around me and so was a struggling ad hoc porter, whom I gave my warm monkey cap to wear. It took us nearly two hours to cross the glacier after which there was a very steep climb leading to the plains of Nadanvan.
It took me another 1 1/2 hour to reach Nadanvan. I was quite tired and feeling the effects of altitude as well. Mt. Shivling occasionally peaked through the clouds to recharge our bodies, but other than that it was quite gray and cold. I really needed to spend a day at Nadanvan to acclimatize better. The others had dinner where as Shankar ji and I just retired to our tents. I had some meal replacement bars to ensure that I receive appropriate nutrition. Sleep evaded me and it rained lightly through the night. The next morning too I was quite fatigued but the group had to move on. I thought that we were going to acclimatize here for a day, but that wasn’t to be. Today, we were to head o Vaasuki taal, a small pond nestled near the foot of Mt. Satopanth and the Bhagirathi peaks.
Sep 5: I had another sleepless night and the cold, damp, and the gray morning added to my woes. Tilak asked me if he should hold the team back at Nandanvan for a day to allow me time for acclimatization, but since I was the only one feeling unwell, I didn’t want to hold back the entire expedition. We decided to continue to Vaasuki Taal, a small lake perched at almost 4500 meters. The trek, I was told, was relatively straight forward, so I decided to continue. After breakfast, we left towards Vaasuki Taal at a leisurely pace with Satish and I at the head of the pack. Rajeev was the slowest and I often spotted him on he knees grasping for breath; but his mental concentration was great and he always managed to continued. In an hour, we reached a lovely vantage point with the Bhagirathi valley and peaks to our right, another glacier to our left, and the Chaukhamba range straight ahead. We could see the base camp established by the ITBP expedition to Bhagirathi in the valley to our right. The glacier on the left was hidden by a ridge on which I eventually began to trek.
The mud was very lose and it was extremely windy. Cold wind is one of the major challenges in mountaineering. I was feeling tired and drowsy and the destination seemed as far as it was when we left from Nandanvan. After about 4 hours, we reached a ridge which was separated from the next range by a glacier. The glacier was 400 ft below which meant that we needed to descend 400 ft, cross the glacier and then climb up around 600 ft! Just the sight of it made me sick especially because the destination was a mere 500 meters aerially! The descent was slow due to the slippery mud that was often mixed with ice. The guides were at the head of the pack because the climb after the glacial crossing was very difficult and precarious. Personally, the sight of the climb gave me energy because I love such climbs and have often done them in the western ghats. A couple of members slipped and fell during the crossing but luckily, it was nothing major. The glacier was very lose and there were several areas full of lose rocks where we couldn’t even wait for a few seconds due to the fear of an impending avalanche. It just takes a few stones to knock a person over so don’t think of a killer avalanche as being a massive snowfall or something that you must have seen on National Geographic!
It took a couple of hours for people (one at a time) to ascend the other cliff, during which Shankar and I got some much needed break. There was a rope attached, but I found it more for mental security than physical. Right at the end, it was just me who was yet to climb. I asked all guide to clear the path and also remove the rope as it would distract me. I climbed absolutely free style without any support and even managing to pose in between for pictures! The incline made me breathless after every few steps but the challenge rejuvenated me. I climbed the whole thing in about 20 minutes and reached the other side, which was at 5000 meters. We could see almost as far as Nandanvan on one side and the tiny Vaasuki Taal about 800 ft below on the other. It was very windy, but the views were terrific. A few of us sought shelter from the wind behind a huge boulder and ate our packed lunches. At the lake below, we could see yellow tents that were already established, so we knew that there was another expedition camped there. After lunch, we started descending to the lake and reached there in about 40 mins. If we were to climb back the same way, it would take us two hours! I hate losing hard earned altitude.
The tents were empty and belonged to an expedition headed for Mt. Satopanth, members of which were yet to arrive at Vaasuki Taal. We used those tents and I immediately retired to my tent much to the annoyance of Tilak. I wasn’t feeling well at all and badly needed some sleep. My problem, which I have realized over the years, is that I cannot sleep straight on my back, which is essential to sleep in a sleeping bag. We had snacks and tea in the evening and then played cards for a long time; a game that I usually ace. At night, I slept after taking some light medication and finally found sleep.
Sep 6: I woke up at around 4 am because I slept early. I managed to negotiate with the darkness and the cold (-1 degrees) to finish my morning chores. I was still not feeling very well and was unsure of whether I should continue the journey. It was a very hard decision to make because of the costs and preparation involved. On the other hand, this was realistically the last place from which one could return. The next destination was Khada Patthar, a notorious camping sight, where one needs to virtually camp on boulders and gravel. If I was to not feel good at Khada Patthar either, the return journey to Gangotri would be too long to be undertaken alone or with one porter.
I was having negative vibrations and though we had the whole of today for rest and acclimatization, I wasn’t convinced. Again, the thought that after this point, returning would be very difficult, forced me to nearly make up my mind. In a couple of hours when the others woke up, Tilak and I discussed my plan and he was very upset that I was thinking of returning. He tried hard to convince me to continue but in the end I decided that I wasn’t feeling well-enough to continue over 5000 meters in severe conditions. Most of the others were feeling good and decided to the continue and the weather wasn’t as bad as it generally is in the region. The fact that I was an experienced (the most experienced in the team) actually tilt my decision in favour of retreat. This is because experienced trekkers tend to be more careful than newer ones (who are hell bent on completing the expedition at any cost). On the other hand, we live to trek another day!
So, after breakfast and exchanging best wishes with the team, one porter and I started our return journey to Bhojbasa via Nandavan and Gaumukh. The first challenge was descending the difficult ascent that I described earlier. The whole descent, glacier crossing, and the subsequent ascent on loose gravel took an hour and a half. The views were spectacular and though it was cloudy, Mt. Shivling would take a sneak peak at us from time to time. In a couple of hours of trekking over precarious ridges, we could see Nandanvan, which had some visible activity around it. I assumed that it must be the ITBP expedition (Cmdt. Chauhan whom I met earlier). Deceptively close, it took us another 45 minutes to reach Nandanvan. The weather had cleared out and Cmdt. Chauhan was sipping hot tea out in the warm sun. I joined him and we discussed my return along with their plans of summitting Bhagirathi III. He offered to send additional porters from his team to help us with the tricky descent and glacial crossing that was yet to come, but I really didn’t want to strain people from his team who were on their was to summit a 6400 meter peak. We took some photographs, exchanged contacts, and parted with the promise to be in touch.
The descent was very difficult and finding the way across the massive glacier was very confusing. Multiple times did we manage to take wrong path and had to return to the previous spot to reassess the route. It took us another hour and a half to negotiate the 2 km long section. We reached Gaumukh at around 3 pm. We were extremely tired and my knees were begging for rest. We had lunch sitting near the make shift Shiva temple where we also bet some Bhagva clad sadhus who had come for offering their prayers. Lunch was frugal, consisting of cold rotis and pickle. We also met the party of a joint expedition of Indo-British Army, who were attempting to summit an unnamed and unscaled peak. Major Jamwal, an Everest summitter was the leader. Lastly, we crossed a large expedition party on their way to the summit of Mt.Satopanth. At Vaasuki Taal, we stayed in the tents that belonged to these people! The group was followed by an elderly gentleman Mr. Kaul, who I later came to know of, the owner of the mountaineering company that organized the expedition. We reached Bhojbasa at 5 pm, after a trekking for of 10 hours. The GKVM accomodation was empty and I got a bed in the dormitory where as the porter dumped his stuff in the porter’s quarters. After relaxing for a little while, I freshened up with the ice cold water and had some hot Maggi (a popular fast food item in India). Heaven. I was inside my blanket as quickly as dusk was upon us. I had good sleep apart from the occasional disturbance caused by a little mouse that kept finding its way up my haversack looking for food.
Sep 7: I woke up very early at about 5 30 am and spent some time reorganizing my haversack. At around 6 30 am the others woke up. In the morning, I realized that a guy I met last evening was the our expedition’s assistant guide, who was supposed to meet us at Nandanvan. He got delayed due to permit issues and the team was now acclimatizing at Vaasuki taal with only one climbing guide. So the second guide would have to trek from Bhojbasa to Vaasuki taal today to meet with the team and help them ascend to Khada Patthar. That is generally a two day journey and even for a guide, it was surely going to be very strenuous. He left early and I wished him and the others the best of luck before beginning my journey to Gangotri. We needed to reach Gangotri before noon time so that I could get transport back to Uttarkashi the same day.
The trek was beautiful but lengthy and I will skip the details as we were going back the same way. We had to slow down towards the end as it started drizzling and my porter was very fatigued. We managed to reach around noon and after some hot brunch, I started scouting for vehicles, albeit in vain. There were hundreds of cars that reached Gangotri at noon but all most all of them were reserved vehicles carrying pilgrims and would return with the same people as well. After about 1 hour, I met a Ladakhi man Thustop who was also looking for a vehicle. He was from the mountaineering company whose owner I mentioned about earlier. Eventually, Thustop and I decided to charter a vehicle for ourselves so that we made it to Uttarkashi by dusk. Tilak had been kind enough to give me the keys to his house/office in Uttarkashi, where I was to stay tonight. On the way, Thustop and I bought some apples and pears from a farm at some ridiculously low prices. Thustop took a larger quantity, which he wanted to take back with him to Leh.
It took us 7 hours with a lot of trouble (due to damaged roads) in between to reach Uttakashi. It was already late and after dropping of my porter, I trekked back to Tilak’s house. I had some dinner at a lovely dhaba in the market place, modified my flight tickets from Dehradun, and slept.
Sep 8: Thustop and I met at the taxi stand in the morning. The news was that the road towards Dehradun/Rishikesh was still closed. It was expected to open at 11 am. We sat at the stand for nearly three hours, with reserved seats in the shared taxi. I received a call from Gangotri and it turned out to be Satish, another experienced trekker from my group. Apparently, his health deteriorated on the way to Khada Patthar and he too decided to return before it was too late. It was ironical that Satish and I, the most experiences trekkers of the group, had returned. It was noon time and there still weren’t enough people for the taxi to leave. Again, Thustop and I payed for four seats in order to have the taxi leave. We were accompanied by a local couple and a Japanese lady. I was headed to Rishikesh, which we would arrive by dusk. I had some spare time today and tomorrow morning for sightseeing at Rishikesh.
The journey was again long and tiring. Plus, the weather was quite warm during the afternoon. Some sociopolitical conversations kept us busy. We reached Rishikesh at around 6 pm. Thustop directly went to the bus stand to board the next bus to Delhi. I found a small place to dump myself for the night and went around the bazaar. I went to the famous Laxman and Ram Jhula. Built across the river Ganga, these two suspension bridges are amongst the most recognizable spots in India. I wandered through the crowded markets on both sides, walked up to the river along one of the numerous ghats, and took plenty of low light photographs. I walked across the Laxman Jhula to the other side of the river. Ram Jhula was a good 2 km up stream, so I walked along the bank in that direction. The other side was more commercialized with lots of yoga, music, and classical dance classes on offer. Another kilometer and I was passing through the very western tourist frequented area of Rishikesh. I crossed the Ram Jhula, climbed up some very steep stairs, and reached a major ‘square’. After grabbing a bite an an organic restaurant, I took a shared rickshaw back to my lodge.
Sep 9: I had a few hours in the morning so I decided to make it to the bank of the Ganga by sunrise. It was a divine experience, serene and calming. After some ‘people’ photography, I had breakfast at a really nice place overlooking the river and returned to the lodge for the journey towards the airport. I took a state transport bus for Dehradun, which passes the airport junction. The route is extremely scenic and forested with regular boards warning drivers to watch out for crossing wildlife. We reached the airport crossing in an hour and I disembarked from the bus. The walk to the airport is almost two kilometers from the crossing even though the airport was aerially just 750 meters. So, I decided to jump a fence and walk through the bushes directly towards the gate. By doing so, I saved more than a kilometer, but it was illegal! The flight was on time and so was my connecting flight from Delhi. At Delhi airport, I had lunch with an Italian man (Franco…he was a yoga teacher in Italy), who was very interested and impressed by the views I put forth to him. Overhearing our conversation, a young Indian guy (Mrinal) joined us on our table and the conversations continued for almost two hours. I reached Pune by evening and one of my friends was kind enough to pick me up from the airport.
The trip ended prematurely. I was disappointed because I was not able to complete it and also because it cost me a fortune! What I did (the trek upto Vaasuki Taal) itself makes a beautiful trek, but that is not what I had gone there for. But somehow, I felt that I had made the right choice. Satish’s return and the subsequently unfortunate news of one of our porters death at the Kalindi pass made me certain of my choice. The mountains will be there for centuries to come and till I am alive, I will never be far from them!