Last 25 days I have been to the most exotic yet most secluded corners of Indian Himalayas. I have hiked and climbed one of the most challenging and dangerous regions during this expedition. I was extremely lucky to witness some incredible landscapes and was lucky to see it’s fascinating yet unique wildlife.
Auden’s Col Expedition
My expedition was in Garhwal Himalayas, Uttarakhand. It was roughly around 180+ km covering all major valley in the region including Gangotri National Park, Rudragiyara Valley, and Rudraprayag Valley. And I, along with my team was the first one to summit the infamous- Auden’s Col this year.
From hailstorms to snowstorms; From lush meadows to the infinite ocean of snow; From insane bad weather to crystal clear sunny days; From high altitude glacial lakes to starving for a glass of water, From life to death and everything in-between, I have seen everything during this expedition.
It started from one of the mighties places for Hindu pilgrims, at Gangotri and ended at another mighty adobe, at Kedarnath- The home of Shiva. In between, I have hiked to Kedar Tal, Patangini Pass, the infamous- Auden’s col, Mayali Pass(which I couldn’t summit because of an excessive amount of snow), Marsar Taal and Vasuki Taal.
Summiting Auden’s col was a very personal and emotional achievement for me as I was coveting this for so long and finally, it had happened.
If I’ll flaunt my achievement by saying it was my lone effort for this giant achievement, it would be so naïve and dishonest of me. I owe every bit of success of this expedition to mountain legend and big brother, Sonu bhai @raachotrekkers. Without his and the team’s immense efforts, nothing would’ve been possible. I genuinely thank you for doing what you are doing for years and years, Thank you bhai ji!
Meanwhile, I’ll try to share these incredible landscapes I was able to witness in my most honest and humble way.
Gangotri to Kedar Tal
My clock read 4: 20 PM. I quickly wore my shoes and had to come out of my tent to wipe off the huge amount of snow accumulated above my tent. And then I looked up the sky it was all hazy and cloudy in all its glory!
The last 4 hours had been completely rough. Snowfall and thunderstorms have dominated the afternoon. Today’s climb was pretty intense and after about 7 hours of some super steep climbing, we reached the base of Patangini Pass at around 4920 m above sea level. There was not a single cloud in the sky, and hardly any wind when I reached the campsite.
Within no real-time, the weather has decided to change. Black gloomy clouds started hovering over and it didn’t take too long to stated snowing heavily. It lasted for about some 4 hours. The landscape outside was completely white-out. This is what Life in the Himalayas is all about, the unpredictability.
I came out of my tent to get some water for myself. As the temperature outside was way below zero, there was no ready water source nearby. We had to melt the snow to get some water for ourselves. But the view outside was an absolutely thrilling one and make you feel worth all these hardships in the mountains.
If you’re climbing to the glacier as notorious as Auden’s col, what route would you prefer?
Would you take the typical route which starts from Gangotri and attempting Auden’s col via Rudrigayara Valley or you would rather take a longer route which goes all the way to mighty Kedar Tal first, then you climb 5100m to a pass called Patangini Dhar; cross the ridge, negotiate an infinite ocean of snow, reach Auden’s Base and then attempt the summit from Gangotri III side? I chose the latter.
It was a longer route which first takes you to Kedartal first and then you march towards the mighty Auden’s Col. It also serves as kind of an acclimatization climb (though calling Kedar Tal hike as an acclimatization climb is quite unfair due to the difficulty of the route to Kedar Tal).
Also, the trail to Kedartal was very messed up due to the immense amount of untimely snowfall the region has received and the trail after Kedarkharak was also affected badly with avalanches and landslides.
Generally at this time of the year, one would expect the Tal to be in its beautiful turquoise blue color but because of heavy snowfall, Tal was completely frozen. And trust me, it had its own charm!
If you will ask any mountaineer which is that dream Mountain which you want to conquer, the answer will be likes of Mt. Everest, Mt. Lhotse, Ama Dablam, Mt. Kanchenjunga, Mt. Denali, etc.
My dream mountain is right there in the rightmost corner of this picture, it is called Mt. Thalay Sagar. Yes, two mountains in Himalayan ranges have fascinated me like anything in a recent while:
1. Mt. Thalay Sagar (6904 m)
2. Mt. Meru (6660 m)
Now I will need a life or two to describe how beautiful and fascinating Mount Meru is. I probably will talk about it sometime later. Its infamous “Shark’s Fin” route which was first summited by Conrad Anker & Renan Ozturk, and it’s stories give me utter goosebumps.
On the other hand, Mt. Thalay Sagar is like a dark horse, rather an underdog. Thalay Sagar is located 16km Southwest of Gaumukh Glacier. If you hike to Kedar Tal, you can see it right there in front of you. Thalay Sagar rise right from its base to sky-high at Kedar Tal.
Thalay Sagar is a rarely attempted peak in the Garhwal region. A team of Japanese first attempted the summit in 1955 but unfortunately, an avalanche hit them just before the summit and resulted in fatal death of all climbers. In 1985, again a Japanese team has first made the successful summit from it’s North Face. And after that in 2008, a mountaineer from Bengal named Basanta Singha Roy became the first Indian to summit the peak.
From that day till today the only handful of mountaineers have climbed Thalay Sagar because of the difficulty it’s route possesses.
As I rightly mentioned the word “dream” as I don’t know how many lives I will take to summit it (if at all this ever happens). But is it even a dream if it’s not out of your reach?
P. S. A very close friend of mine and a professional mountaineering guide Som Nath also shares the same dream. The only difference is, right now he just came back from Deo Tibba Summit Expedition and now he is scaling the Stok range; summiting Kang Yatse II.. while on the other side, I am right here, writing this silly post, eating chips, shamelessly dreaming about submitting Thalay Sagar one day!
Porters: Superheroes of Himalayas.
Porters- the most underrated fraternity working and living since ages in mountains. While people around the globe have slowly started recognizing the importance of a Sherpa in mountaineering, porters, however, remain unsung.
While the work of a sherpa and a porter is closely aligned, there’s a significant difference when it comes to the responsibility they share. Porters are the community lives in the mountains who make their living out of carrying loads in the mountains.
Porters are the reason why every single trek/expedition ever succeeds in high altitude Mountains. Be it a moderate-high altitude hike or extremely high altitude mountaineering expeditions, it’s almost impossible to succeed in any expeditions without porters. They are the real backbone of mountaineering, and I mean it big time.
Everything you see in the mountains that nature didn’t put there – a porter did. For people like us, the trail can be hard, the air thin, and the gears are really heavy. Porters are accustomed (naturally gifted I would say) to the altitude and thin air (many even have different physical characteristics from you and me – special adaptations to cope) and spend their lives carrying loads in the mountains. Their physic is naturally gifted to sustain the inhuman weather conditions that you and I hardly can.
Next time if you happen to meet a porter when you’re in the mountains, give them a huge smile, ask them if they need something and pay them good. They are the most interesting fraternities one can find in mountains, having so many stories from the corners you and I only can imagine.
Kedartal to Kedar Kharak
Nature, the earth, this whole wide landscape can teach us what our school can’t, what our job can’t, what our everyday life can’t. They can make you realize certain things after which you can never think those things in the same way.
Being here, in the middle of this calamity-turned-magnanimity, watching a beautiful sunrise unfold over Mandakini Range, my tiny brain unable to comprehend nature.
But, when you realize you are just a small dot, you feel liberated. Liberated from the chains of life – job, bills, and everything. Even if for a moment, this feeling of liberation is most satisfying. You feel a sense of calmness.
To put things into perspective – the human eye is the widest ever lens – there is no other lens/ camera that can see as wide as we do in a single frame. Yet, my eyes could not see beyond 0.0001% of this Mandakini Range spread over till my eyes could see and beyond.
Every time you witness such magnanimity – watching a sunrise or a sunset, among most of these untouched regions, you come on terms with several unstated facts.
That you are just a speck in this entirety. You are even smaller. You are perhaps nothing.
Patangini Dhar to Auden’s Col
This Col in the picture connects Gangotri range on the right to the Jogin range on the left, two of the biggest mountain massifs in the Uttarakhand region of Himalayas.
The approach to Auden’s Col was definitely exciting as hell because the infamous speculations about this Col stand really high amongst all the climbing sections across the globe.
The last evening we have set up our camp right at the base, and it was scary because we faced a crazy snowstorm a day previous to this, we haven’t really seen the Col till the morning thy day and we weren’t really sure if we will be able to attempt it or not. But luckily the weather opened up to wonderful daylight and that soft snow made it an amazing ascent for us.
Bad weather at such high altitude in the mountains is literally a curse, you should do whatever to please the Mountain Gods and really hope for good weather windows while you are approaching the summit. Respecting the mountains is really the most important thing.
As you can totally see in this picture the scale of what we are in front of these huge mountains, bad weather can easily take your life in such hazardous situations. One should always be respectful to nature.
From my side, I sang a few songs to please Mountain Gods. We did face extreme snow blizzards and crazy bad weather when we were 2 camps prior to the Col but luckily it all went well on the day it mattered the most. I must say the Mountain Gods do enjoy my songs!
The Final Ascent To The Auden’s Col: The D-Day
I was literally day-dreaming this moment for the last two and a half years.
So there I was, upon the base of Col. I could feel the clouds within my reach. Exhausted and exceeding my limits- physically and more importantly emotionally, in a blissful state of oblivion.
I woke up freezing in extreme cold, it was pitch dark outside, even after adjusting my eyes I couldn’t make out what’s going on outside my tent. I looked at my watch and it was about 2:30 at night. I could hear the wind blowing mercilessly outside my tent. Even after all the possible attempts of warming my body I just couldn’t stop shivering and it continued through the day until we camped on Khatling Glacier.
Seeking mountain’s permit, putting one step after another against the cold wind, crossing crevasse one by one slowly, only aiming to go higher towards the peak which seemed near but at the same time so far.
The battle was less outside and more inside. It took away almost everything from me. And there was not much left after hiking and climbing for many days, missing out on peaceful sleep due to spending many nights at an altitude above 5100 meters. Above all, one has no appetite, eating food was already an achievement at this height.
One can see a huge ridge at the distance in this picture, it’s Col. The Col connects Gangotri range- I II and III to Jogin Range I and II at the altitude of 18,200 ft.
When the snowy, slippery and steep path opens up to this view, the best we can do is to cherish the moment in silence. We often fail to express true joy in words as it can only be felt and lived.
I invariably notice little flora and fauna during my expeditions, ask questions about every wonder of nature that falls on the way, but almost always fail to vocalize the feelings when I see the magnanimous and humbling vistas like these.
It is moments like these that keep inspiring you to climb more and more, venture into the absolute wilderness, see more and come back to the mountains. Because once you have lived with them, for any period of time, there is no going back.
This sharp rock face standing tall in the frame appears to be as a rabbit’s ear from a distance when you are approaching the Col and hence the name.
It does sound cute, but reaching this Col was one hell of an effort. We started at around 3:30 in the night from the base, which looked so close but it took us more than 7 hours to reach the top.
The snow was so soft that we almost went waist-deep in it at some patches, the oxygen levels are very low at the height of 18000 feet, so taking every step in that deep snow was way more than tiring, and to top it all the huge crevasses were hidden below us under this soft snow which was the definitely the most dangerous part.
Suddenly reaching to this point unexpectedly was surely the highlight of that climb to the Rudrigiyara Valley.
Descending Auden’s Col
The descent from the Auden’s col is among the most fascinating thing I have ever done in the Himalayas. I will keep this section right up with the likes of Pandu Pull crossing in Pin Parvati Expedition. But this section challenges you more technically due to its terrain.
Once you cross the Auden’s col and descent down, you encounter a steep vertical gully. One needs to negotiate this long vertical descend to enter into Rudragiyara Valley. Once you cross this gully, you straight away get exposed to gigantic Khatling Glacier.
The gradient of the gully is almost 70° so you just can not simply descend down using your crampons & microspikes and do rappelling straight away.
As this gully is almost a kilometer long, you have to fix a rope to get the support and make your way all the way down. In some cases, you have to use carabiniers to ensure extra safety if the snow level is higher.
You get the bird’s eye view of Khatling Glacier from here. The landscape was totally obscured by haze and the visibility had started decreasing slowly- notorious Himalayan weather after all!
Auden’s Col to Khatling Glacier
Khatling Glacier: An ocean of crevasses
Once you cross the Auden’s col, you enter into infamous Khatling Glacier. It resides on the south ridge of Bhilangana Valley which separates Rudurigiyara Valley from Kedarganga Valley.
Khatling Glacier is an ocean of snow terrain invaded with infinite (I mean it!) crevasses & hidden crevasses. It’s a long 19 km glacier with various challenges imposed with it.
If you’re on Auden’s col expedition, Khaltling Glacier is one of the biggest challenges because of its crevasses. And if the weather is bad and if it snows while you’re on it, it becomes more dangerous as fresh snow covers the crevasses and you absolutely can not spot where these crevasses are. It looks like a flat surface but once you step on it, it breaks rigorously.
With all these revolved around this, Khatling is also one of the prettiest regions in Garhwal Himalayas. Being completely out of the shadow of civilization, it has some of the most spectacular and mesmerizing landscapes to offer.
Only a handful of climbers have hiked to Khatling Glacier by now (and this secludes me to hike this) because of its remoteness, involvement of technical climb, and various risk involved in it. I genuinely feel very fortunate to be among these few.
Blog by: Brijesh Dave