King of Himalayan Treks: Kalindi Khal Pass Expedition
(Written by Sameer Kelkar)
16 June 2006 : 5950metres, 19500feet above sea level, dividing the watersheds of the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda river systems, discovered by Shipton and Tilman in 1934 (though legend exists of folk knowing the route from ages). We knew we were in for the trek of all treks! Flying from Aurangabad to Delhi in the morning, we looked at the world we would be leaving behind … no phones, no habitation for 12 days. The trek which bordered an expedition would test our endurance, strength and more importantly decision making. Reaching Rishikesh in the evening around 8, we prepared to leave for Uttarkashi next morning. The porter at the GMVN hotel innocently replied to our query for a good restaurant �Khana toh kahi bhi accha hee milega sir, koi ganda khana kyun dega ?�- We knew we had crossed the border between Uttar Pradesh and Uttaranchal.
17 June 2006 : We picked up the wrong bus to get to Uttarkashi. Instead of the 2*2 luxury bus we thought we would use, we were in a rickety local bus, our sacks on the top, and the 2 of us forcing space inside. After an hour of standing in a Bombay local train like situation, we finally got seats towards the end of the bus at Chamba. Having covered the 140 km to Uttarkashi on bicycle in Diwali time, we expected to reach in 4-5 hours. However, because of the Tehri Dam backwaters, the route has been diverted. The new road is not only dusty, rough, but also 30 km longer, adding atleast a couple of hours to the journey. Villages between Old Tehri and Chinyali Saur are all submerged due to this giant 2400MW of a dam. We had a lot of interesting talk with the local people. They were quite divided on the Tehri dam issue. Then there was a chap from California, a nurse, traveling in the Himalaya for 6 months. He enraged Kaka with his talk! Kaka could only warn me to be careful at Berkeley. We finally reached Uttarkashi at 2.
We had left all the trek arrangements to Vishnu. These we now checked on reaching his office at Uttarkashi (Snow Spider Expeditions). We also had to go to the district magistrate�s office for signing some documents, permits for the trek. This done we started on the journey to Harsil. Vishnu accompanied us to this scenic resort high in the Bhagirathi valley. Located 2600m above sea level, and only 25 km before Gangotri, it boasts of some of the best views in the valley. The river basin is very broad in this part, and the Ganges leaves behind a trail of spectacular white sand beaches.
18 June 2006 : After a quick drive to Gangotri, we were ready to get started on the trek. Vishnu and Kaka prayed at the Gangotri temple for success, and we were looking back at the Gangotri temple, bidding farewell to the shrine at 11.30. The route is very broad till Chirbasa. The valley gets narrower and large cliffs loom over the track. Snow capped peaks like Mandya lie on the true left of the valley. Chirbasa, at an altitude of 3600m, brings the first views of the Bhagirathi peaks. The cluster of Chir trees justify the name given to the place. A number of dhabas provide shelter and food to pilgrims here. We ate our lunch of Maggi at one such dhaba, and proceeded on the track which slowly climbed up along the valley. 5 km onward, at an altitude of 3800m, is Bhojbasa. Named so thanks to a cluster of Bhojpatra trees, it can be called the last point of civilization in the Bhagirathi valley. There is a GMVN hotel, a meteorology centre, and Lal Baba’s ashram. The latter 2 are occupied all through the year. Light snowfall welcomed us at the dhabas above Bhojbasa, and we responded quickly by resorting to the invigorating chai. I hate the very taste of tea and coffee. But in Himalayas it is allright! In fact it is a must! Since the weather was going bad we needed to take shelter quickly. Our porters hadn’t arrived with the luggage yet. So we entered the GMVN hotel. The rooms had been destroyed by snow storms a couple of years back, so we stayed in the dorm style tent which they provided. Our porters finally came at 7.30 in evening. They were accommodated in the dhabas.
The first night of the trek brought sub zero temperatures. We began to doubt if this was the right season to do this trek. I had heard from many groups having failed to reach Kalindi in July, August and September. It made me wonder what the right season to attempt a crossing was. Vishnu was an experienced guide, having led the trek successfully around 15-20 times in the last 10 years. He assured us that the weather was with us.
19 June 2006 : Excellent views of Bhagirathi peaks in the morning light with Shivling peeping from behind a ridge set the start of the climb to Gaumukh. The broad track leads as far as 1 km before Gaumukh, where there is a series of dhabas. A large army camp had also been established here. The jawans were undergoing training in snowcraft on the Gaumukh glacier. We later saw them practicing climbing in the ice walls in the glacier. The trail becomes narrower as one comes close to the glacier and the last few steps are in moraine. The first sight of the glacier is at Gaumukh itself, where the Ganges starts its journey from a cave under a 30 foot ice wall at the head of the glacier. Some sadhus were bathing in the icy cold waters. Though I am an atheist, I appreciate the power religion has over people. I had come to this altitude hiking such a distance for my love of the mountains. For Hindu devotees it is religion. They are least concerned with the Bhagirathi peaks being clearly visible, or listening to accounts of people who have attempted the various peaks in the region. The sadhu doesn’t give a damn to whether he is at 3890m or not. The fact that he is at Gaumukh, and is watching Ganga Maa start its journey, overwhelms him of anything and everything else.
Gaumukh has been receding for many years. It once existed at Gangotri, but with global warming the glacier has been going back. Vishnu himself had seen it 100-150 feet ahead of its current position. We had also met old sadhus in Bhojbasa who had lived by the glacier there 50 years ago!
The route climbs steeply above Gaumukh, ascending the glacier from its true right. Vishnu led the walk through the rocks, mud and ice. In 30 minutes we were at the top of the glacier, standing over tonnes and tonnes of ice, snow, water covered with rocks and mud. The chaos of a glacier is simply indescribable. One thinks of glaciers as rivers of snow, and imagines them to be the flat snowfields gently rolling down valleys and mountains. They are much more than that. Glaciers have ridges, valleys, ice walls, ponds, moraines, crevices and are infinitely complicated. This was our first glacier crossing of the trek and we were in a state of awe throughout the route. It took a full hour to get across the chaos! Stones piled on top of each other (called a cairn) mark the route. This path keeps changing with the changes in the glacier. Every year a slightly different route is established to go across.
At the sides of the valley the glacier ends and the mountain faces begin. This region is extremely unstable, steep and what is worse, needs to be crossed in order to get onto the glacier or off it. Tapovan, at an altitude of 4450m, is situated above the glacier. The climb from the glacier to this meadow is extremely steep, and sometimes slippery. The Amar Ganga flows very close to the route, draining herself into the glacier. We climbed up fairly fast, reaching the campsite at 1. This climb would have been fairly tricky had the weather gone bad. However we had been blessed with sun shine.
Tapovan lies under the shadow of giant peaks such as Meru Parwat and Shivling, which we got very good views of now. Infact the base camp for both the peaks is established at Tapovan. Some features of Shivling make it resemble a Ganesh idol. The rock solid faces from all sides make it one of the most technically challenging peaks to climb. I was surprised to hear that it had been climbed from the face by a foreign team. A mini-Shivling can also be seen on one of its ridges. When Vishnu later told about the German team which had climbed the technically challenging Meru and paraglided down I was astounded. I could also appreciate the difficulty the Indian team would have faced climbing the Bhagirathi wall, which was also clearly visible.
The campsite at Tapovan is well protected by ridges from all sides. The tents were pitched and we rested. Both Kaka and I were having a headache. We planned to take a walk out in the evening, but failed to do so because of snowfall. We realized that this trend would follow us throughout the trek. Not hungry because of the sick feeling and headache, we forced ourselves to dinner, and spent an uncomfortable night. Living on altitude is something tricky. The best way to deal with the low air pressure and oxygen is doing all movements slowly, trying to breathe from the nose rather than gasping for air. I also realized we had climbed very fast that day. Particularly the last climb to Tapovan could have been done much slowly. Resolving to use this tip the next day, I tried to get some sleep.
20 June 2006 : Bed tea is the medicine required to get a tired trekker out of his sleeping bag. For a sick and tired trekker 2 cups of the medicine are required! A walk around the campsite and I felt a little stronger. Kaka was quite all right. In fact he was nicely chatting to the Mata ji at Tapovan. 2 sadhus and a Mata ji live at Tapovan most of the year. The forest department had tried to evacuate them by destroying their shelters, but they resisted moving away from what they consider their home. Mata ji had come to stay with her husband 16 years ago. She decided not to leave the place after his death and now stays with a helper. She had many a story to tell. The place is covered with 5-8 feet snow during winter, and one has to almost hibernate during that season. Her shelter was under a stone cave, with the front side constructed of wood and tin.
Bidding farewell to this wonderful lady, we left on the track to Nandanvan. A narrow path went along the valley side for a couple of km. Vishnu then started searching for a place to descent on to the glacier. The path continued on to Khada Patthar and Sunderban. There was earlier a route continuing in the valley adjacent to Kedar dome to Kedarnath, but no one has attempted it for several years now because of landslides. This place gave a grand view of the Gaumukh glacier. The snow river is very long, and extends right upto Chaukhamba peak, 25 km up the valley from Gaumukh. Right across the valley were the Raktavarna and the Sita glaciers. Chakram Hikers had attempted a peak before in the Raktavarna valley (named so because of a red coloured weed growing there). The Sita glacier valley would lead us to Kalindi Khal pass. Vishnu showed us the site of Nandanvan, right at the base of Bhagirathi peak in the Sita valley.
A scree and mud slope led down to the glacier. The glacier crossing again involved climbing various domes, traversing ridges and negotiating around the ice walls. Cairns marked the route and it took a couple of hours to reach the base of the climb to Nandanvan. We were proceeding fairly slowly, giving our body’s time to acclimatize to the altitude. This also gave us time to appreciate the ice tables and bridges in the glacier. The final climb was not as steep as the Tapovan climb and we relaxed under the sun in the Nandanvan campsite (4340m) at 1. The porters soon arrived with the camping gear and we got our afternoon nap inside the tent.
Vishnu woke us in the evening. Peeping out of the tent I got the sight of my life. Kaka asked what was outside and I could barely utter “Oh shit�� and “too much�� as I saw Shivling rising out of the clouds. Kedar Dome also stood tall amongst the clouds and the sight is beyond all description of beauty. This was Himalayas at their very best …. Simply majestic!
This feeling of elation coupled with a sense of being well acclimatized made my evening particularly bright. A long walk around the campsite, exploring the shepherd shelters around gave a big appetite followed by an excellent sleep.
21 June 2006 : First rays of the sun shining brightly on Shivling and Kedar Dome, with Bhagirathi looming over the campsite was good. But we also had some bad news. One of the porters was down with AMS. He had to be taken down to Gaumukh. Govind and Akhilesh volunteered to do the task. I was afraid they would have a very long day.
The trek to Vasuki Tal took 4 hours. We continued on a long ridge descending from the Bhagirathi range. This ridge walk was 3-4 km long and gently climbing. It separated the Bhagirathi mountains from the Sita glacier, forming a natural defense for a series of campsites, including Nandanvan. The highest of these campsites is the base for one of the Bhagirathi peaks. Like all ridge walks, this also gives excellent views in all directions. The vast mass of Sita glacier lying below, making grinding noise as rocks fell into and around the glacier, and the Kala Pahad ridge beyond. This mountain range had struck me even on the camp at Tapovan. It seems to be totally different from the other peaks, made of a dark rock and scree. Not very high, but definitely very challenging. Infact most of its peaks have remained unascended. Shivling and Kedar dome slowly disappeared from view as we went deeper into the valley.
The ridge ends in scree slopes of the Bhagirathi peak. Here we had to cross the Bhagirathi glacier. The descent to the glacier was extremely steep, and slippery. Crossing the glacier was something we had gotten used to now. However the climb of a ridge on the other side seemed tricky. A yellow rope had been fixed to aid that climb by the Bengali team attempting Satopanth peak. Kaka was doubtful if he would be able to do this portion. Vishnu and I convinced him to give it a try. Slowly we moved across the glacier.
Our porters had caught up with us by now. They used to start almost an hour after we did after packing up the campsite. With heavy loads on their back they walked much faster than us (we did the sections quite quickly, taking around 4-5 hours on all days when other groups had taken 7-8 hours). They got into a nice rhythm by taking loads on their backs. Here they descended the scree slopes very comfortably. Their confidence, strength and agility was admirable. Most of them were my age or younger, and had been on this trek once or twice before.
The climb with the fixed rope was much simpler than what it looked from across the glacier. There was some danger from rockfall in the region so we hurriedly scrambled up the ridge. Vishnu had earlier told me “Sir aap Vasuki Tal dekhenge to sab thakan door ho jayegi�� . I only realized how true that was! A small walk down brought us to the campsite by the waters. The lake was very shallow (about a foot or two at most), and spread across a nice little plain under Vasuki Parbat. The water was not very cold for the altitude of 5000m. Across the lake there were 2 camps – both Bengali teams attempting Satopanth peak. One of them had just succeeded in their quest. The other was starting the attempt. We congratulated the successful team and wished All the Best to the other team.
It was sunny in the afternoon and I settled down on a rock reading “The Traveller�� . The next day was going to be rest and all of us relaxed the evening. Govind and Vishnu came in late at 7. After helping their friend get to Gaumukh and hire a horse, they had come back to Nandanvan, picked up their load and hiked to Vasuki. They got a very well deserved soup, and rest!
22 June 2006 : We woke up lazily to watch the Bengali team depart for the Advanced Base Camp. The other team made preparations to go back. We decided to proceed for some distance on our route to acclimatize. After negotiating around a landslide ridge after Vasuki, we walked on a long ridge for some distance, until we could see Khada Patthar (our campsite for the next day). It looked quite near but the Satopanth glacier lay in between. I asked Vishnu about how much we were walking everyday. It was taking about 4-5 hours to do all the sections, but the distance was varying. From Gangotri to Bhojbasa was 14 km, and then to Tapovan was 9 km, then Nandanvan was 7 km, and the Nandanvan-Vasuki Tal leg had been 6 km. Walking on the moraine and glacier was hard work. Also the altitude made it harder.
Vasuki Parbat looked down upon our campsite. This is another very difficult and technical peak to climb. It has not even been attempted for many years now. 2 of our porters would be going back with excess load. We decided to carry only one 4 man tent and the kitchen tent, other tents would go back. Also the load of foodstuff and fuel was gradually decreasing.
I spent the afternoon finishing �The Traveller� . It snowed in the evening and we stayed inside most of the time. This typical pattern of weather was well suited for our planning. We could finish off the walking till 1-1.30 and didn�t mind if it rained or snowed a little in the evenings. What we needed was bright sunshine when we walked.
23 June 2006 : The route to Khada Patthar followed the long ridge we had seen before. This walk gave great views of the Sita glacier and the chaos within. We were to camp twice on the glacier. Vishnu had assured us that the campsites were very safe. I shuddered at the idea of having to sleep amidst the debris lying on the glacier, not knowing when some rocks may fall, some ice block may shift. The glacier kept making strange sounds, and it did feel weird to have to sleep on top of a sleeping giant.
The ridge ended on top of the Satopanth glacier. The descent was extremely slippery, with lots of loose mud and stones. Our first views of Satopanth peak left us awestruck. The peak was a perfect trapezium, the final ascent covered in tonnes and tonnes of snow. Vishnu pointed to us the ABC of the expedition teams on the Satopanth glacier. The route of ascending the peak looked impossible. There was a snow covered ridge called the �Blade� . This was the toughest part of the climb. Ropes had to be fixed on either side of the Blade, and climbers straddled the ridge with support from both sides. Scary!
A long climb up on the other side of the glacier brought us to a ridge overlooking Khada Patthar campsite. Vishnu was glad to see a stream at the campsite. We had had some problems at Nandanvan where the porters had to fetch water 1 km away from the camp. We didn�t expect to see a stream at Khada Patthar but there it was. The campsite (5500m) itself was quite small. It was in a gully protected from the cold winds from Sita glacier by a ridge. It would be our 6th night in sub zero temperatures. We were now used to shaking off the snow and frost off the tent when asleep! It had to be removed to keep the tent from caving in, and keep the outer separated from the inner of the tent.
Meanwhile my right knee was not taking all the jumping around boulders very well. I had suffered an injury condition called Runners knee and rested for 3 months from December to February. Then a very slow rebuilding program with swim running, cycling and physiotherapy. I had missed a lot of trekking and mountain biking in those months. Now I had Stok Kangri lined up after this trip. The doctor had given his okay for trekking, but I knew that jumping around from rock to rock, twisting the knee at every step on loose mud and scree, was outright abuse of the knee. I was using McKinley anti shock walking sticks to ease the pressure on the feet. My arms had started to pain with the load, but I prayed that my knees pulled it through. I confess that I was seriously contemplating going back to Vasuki Tal from Khada Patthar. The logic was simple � if the knee broke down later on in the trek it would become very difficult to get me back. The problem was that I knew Kaka would not continue onward without me. We would all have to turn back. The weather was going with us, and this was a golden window to complete the trek in. I couldn�t let it go. I made up my mind that this trek was worth completing, even if it meant that my knee would probably be all screwed up and I would get another 3 months rest!
24 June 2006 : Another 3 days to go for crossing the pass … if everything went right. We climbed the ridge overlooking the Sita glacier. The Kalindi Base camp could be seen in the distance. The glacier split near its head. We would be following the branch turning leftward. The rightward branch also used to lead to a pass to the Arwa valley, but the route was fairly technical with ice walls, innumerable crevices and danger from avalanches. Good. A small scree descent (we were used to getting on and off a glacier by now) and we began traversing the Sita glacier. Passing though a region with lots of ice tables and streams (walking on the ice felt much better than the loose rocks), we climbed up a ridge. The key to moving quickly through a glacier is getting on to the right ridge. A long ridge can get you though quickly. Trying to head straight in a direction makes one go up and down innumerable humps. That is very tiresome and time consuming at 5500m. Vishnu led us skillfully through the chaos, always leaving a pile of stones for the porters to follow.
The ridge walk itself had lots of views of the glacier. Ice walls, streams, lakes … and caves. The giant cave we saw that day on the Sita glacier was big enough for a locomotive to go in. In shape it was similar to any of the tunnels in the Khandala ghat. The Gothic arch of ice supporting the load of tonnes of snow, ice and rock. A pool of chilled water formed under the arch, and I imagined a sadhu performing the Mayurasun in the vicinity! It reminded me that most of the structures we humans build are inspired directly from nature. It is not a coincidence that we see the Gothic arch such as this at 5500m. Only this shape can support the weight lying above. All other shapes get eliminated automatically, and what we are left with indicates the optimum load bearing structure.
The glacier keeps changing every year. The route changes accordingly. Only one team had previously passed on the Kalindi Khal route before us in the season. Ridges which previously led quickly across the glacier get broken. Vishnu spotted the break early enough and plotted another route. Moving around an ice wall, we were on the opposite side of the glacier, in the volatile region bordering the glacier and mountain sides. There was a danger from rock fall, and so we hurried through the scree. Our campsite was on the main ridge within the glacier, so we had to again come into the glacier.
The ridge looked a safe getaway from the possible landslides on the mountains around. A large hanging glacier followed with an ice fall lay to our left as we went up the glacier. As we soon found out our campsite was very close to this dangerous looking giant. Fortunately a fairly deep valley separated our ridge from the mountain. The campsite itself was extremely small. Infact the stony surface was flattened with ice axe and shovel to pitch the tents. It offered magnificent views all around. The valley leading to the Kalindi Khal seemed very close, and the Avalanche peak could be spotted. Having an early dinner (as early as 6pm), we prepared to sleep. The tent is designed for 4 people not because it has enough space for 4 people, but because 4 people sleeping in creates the warmth required. Cramming people up actually works in giving a very comfortable sleep. Not if you hear rocks falling through the night! Everybody was shaken up of sleep at 2am by rocks and ice pieces falling from the hanging glacier. The noise was scary, but our porters saw that it was harmless and slept. I didn�t. I couldn�t.
25 June 2006 : A little distance ahead of the campsite we could see the ice field of the Sita glacier. Walking on the ice would be easier and involve less ups and downs. However we had to cross 2 humps before we got onto the glacier. The glacier was separated into snow fields and long moraine ridges. Between our ridge and the ice field of the glacier was a stream. We had to traverse a long way on the ridge to find a crossing over place. The stream itself is covered with snow and ice, and one needs to be careful about the strength of footing. One of our porters slipped during the crossing. He was left dangling between the 2 edges, his load pulling him down as others tried to pull him out. After 15 minutes of effort he was out of it. Fortunately the fuel he was carrying had not drowned.
We began the long haul up the ice fields of the glacier. As we had made good speed in the day we decided to camp at the last campsite before the climb to the pass. That would save us time on the next day, which was going to be particularly long. The ice field was long and beautiful. Kalindi and Avalanche peaks to our right (with Kalindi pass between them still hidden), unnamed but elegant peaks to our left and a large hump (possibly leading to Tibet) in the front. Looking back we saw the distance we had covered. Atleast 3 km on the ice field. The campsite was to our right, across a snow field and up a moraine ridge.
What appeared a snow field was a field full of streams. It may have been perfectly walkable ice early in the morning, but at 12.30, with sun shining, innumerable streams flowing through the field. It took 30 min to find a dry route through the chilled waters. The campsite was similar to the first glacier camp. Only a bit colder, a bit higher, and a lot windier!
It snowed in evening. We were used to that. It also snowed at night. We got bit worried about it being clear next morning. We were to make an early start. I was also worried about having to go back if need be. With the state of my knee, going back across the Sita glacier, crossing all the moraines of Satopanth, Bhagirathi and Gaumukh would be terrible. I would rather cross the pass and go down the Arwa valley! Vishnu had assured that there wouldn�t be any glacier in the Arwa valley. It would all be down down down along the Alaknanda.