Trek team: Raacho Trekkers
Day Zero: Gangotri
The thing about the Auden’s Col 3 passes expedition is that it is something that you can’t just put in a bucket; it needs a cauldron.😀
For four to five years I was harboring a desire to try my feet, both feet at it; when Navtej Boss, a veteran trekker (25 or more treks in all parts of the Himalayas and abroad), whom I met on a trek itself, formed a group of like-minded (tough nuts) for a possible 2022 June departure.
As per unconfirmed reports from the guide, Sonu Negi from Raacho Trekkers, and brethren, it hasn’t been tried since 2019 summer (pre-Covid) and the blogs too suggested so.
Hence, the motley, crazy and hard-headed hombres collected at Gangotri, char dham yatra made travel difficult for some; I had the company of a handsome dude, Jeetandra Aka Jeetu.
All along the drive from Dehradun to Gangotri, we were two talkative fellas 😀 — but not too much — and the drive didn’t seem as long as it was.
Accommodation was arranged bang at the ghats of the Bhagirathi with the temple in full view. The weather was pleasant; Chai seemed ethereal after that drive, and along came the hot steppa, Sonu, the chief guide.
What’s in a name, a simple name, but there wasn’t an air of simplicity about him 😎. Must be early forties, with an aura of confidence and very nimble on his feet. Lives in Kinnaur, got a café and apple orchards and had just come back from Lamkhaga trek. He got his two deputies—Rajeev and Parvesh, both visually recognizable as mountain men.
After the hoos and hahas and the introductions, the Josh and general medical questions and check-up, we dispersed for the temple and dinner later in one of the many busy eateries.
You don’t get non-vegetarian food here or at Kedarnath; no alcohol is served and consumption of alcohol and smoking cigarettes is highly discouraged simply because of the high level of fitness involved.
At heights around, 5000k, AMS is lurking behind the corner. The first three days are acclimatisation days, climb to Kedartal and back, and anyone at risk of AMS or any other fitness issues is sorted out before we head to the ‘real’ thing—the Col of Auden’s.
Gear all checked, we headed out to dinner. The doc, (Dr. Sanjay V), despite all his reluctance, was called ‘doc’ all the way, so that made it two of us. An affable personality, fluent in Punjabi, along with Boss (Navtej), lived and worked in Delhi. Till the phone had networks, he continued dispensing advice and prescriptions. 😀
Sleep was good, especially the last one in the comforts of quilts (rajai) and mattressed bed.
Day 1: Gangotri to Bhoj Kharak (3770m)
June 5, 2022
So it began, the motley crowd began trudging up a steep climb. Doctors, engineers, bankers, financial consultants, entrepreneurs. But all of them hard core trekkers, quite a few with more than 15 under their trek belts, all tough blokes with a ‘will do it in style’ sort of élan.
For newbies, the first day climb is tough; you gain altitude very, very quickly, vis-à-vis distance. The secret is to keep yourself hydrated, carry two liters of fluid, one replete with ORS, and go slow. That is true for all stages of the trek; go slow, take your own sweet time, rest, stretch, walk and repeat the process.
Most of the way is a frequented path for pilgrims to Kedartal, there are quite a few stretches of moraine and landslides where you have to be very careful indeed and follow your guide to the word.
It’s a beautiful landscape; it’s interesting to see how it changes. Trees vanish after 3000 m; grass after 3500 m, and with it birds and animals too. You will be lucky to see the blue sheep — Bharal grazing on the slopes.
How sure-footed they are, they jump and walk over paper-thin ledges as if it’s a walk in the park for them.
Quite a few photo opportunities were offered, which we took with great satisfaction. This is the part of the trek where you get to know people, develop camaraderie and gauge each other’s fitness levels.
The Boss (Navtej) seems to be the fittest of all, first to reach every pit stop. A resident of Gurugram, an avid trekker, cyclist, wanderer, traveler and bird watcher. He always had a thing or two to say from his rich experience and has a friendly, easy-going nature. Doc had a thing or two to teach us about headstands and jumps.😀
Munched on chocolates and dry fruits in our day bags, we were out of breath, often because of the sheer climb. It was our first day, so the body did take some time getting used to all the effort. Knees and legs, aches, heads, and necks cried, but we egged each other on.
Porters were way ahead of us and had set camp much before we reached there. There used to be a treacherous spider wall to climb and cross, but it was skirted, and an alternate route had been set across, though it wasn’t as risky, but was long and tiresome.
Plenty of mountain streams to refill our water supplies. Ah, the fresh streams had cold fresh water and tasted like heaven from the bitterness of RO water we get in the cities.
We reached camp late into the afternoon. It is a scenic camp site, protected from the wind, green and surrounded by ice-capped mountains and the Bhagirathi flowing some thousands of feet below. Welcomed into the afternoon sun with lemon tea, we rested a while and then settled into the dinner tent for an evening of guffaw and stories.
It was damn cold in the night, as one realises when getting out of the comfort of sleeping bags to relieve oneself. There were a soul or two trying to catch the Milky Way on their phone cameras. 😳
Day 2: Bhoj Kharak to Kedarkharak (4323m)
June 6: About 5km trek
A lovely sunny day to start with, bed tea to wake us up, a good sumptuous breakfast of parathas, butter and aachar (pickle) with some goodies packed. I glanced about the beautiful campsite in the morning sun, which was just descending into the valley.
With quite a graciousness, we clambered along. The first half hour or so is always difficult, and you get out of breath soon. Handy advice is to stretch as soon as you wake up, despite all the tiredness and aches, it warms and loosens up your body.
As a trekker and a doc who deals with bones and joints, it is very, very helpful to trek with someone like Sanjay. This is the last stretch of vegetation we would see as altitude rises, and there would be none above Kedarkharak.
I did the Kedartal trek in 2018, and things have changed much; some streams were dry, trees were few, and no animals to be seen, maybe except a few crows.
The climb was good, i.e. steep and tiring, stretches of moraine and boulders, quite a few times we had to descend and climb up again along boulders to skirt landslide areas. The two streams we encountered were cool and fresh and very welcoming in the sun.
Another advice, the sun in the afternoon is very hot and burn-inducing. Get a very high SPA UV protection cream, minimum 50 SPA, cover the exposed areas with full sleeve dry fit tees, a good hat, and bandanas.
I don’t need to advise you on the layers you wear, as per the temperature, body fitness and the general body heat-cold feeling, which differs from person to person. Woollens are avoided on the move; keep a raincoat, gloves, woollen cap, and down jacket ready in your day pack.
Keep yourself very hydrated, and I will emphasise this often.
Our doc, Sanjay, is a yoga enthusiast; he can do headstands and jumps easily. Mohit, a young handsome entrepreneur from Mumbai, avid traveler, was very handy because of his photography skills along with his friend, Ishan.
We reached the campsite at around 1300 hours, and what a gorgeous campsite it was. Surrounded by ice-capped Thalaysagar, Bhrigu 1, 2 and 3 with Jogin. What a mighty view is that, with the greatest of mountains, which man aspires to win. 😀
The campsite is in bang open, with plenty to explore around it, though the wind can pick up sometimes, and it can get chilly if the sun is not around. The camp is surrounded by fresh water streams and grass lands, and we knew that the next picnic-type campsite would be Chowki. 🙄
Never roam around without a down jacket, one solitary cloud in front of the sun, and the temperature can plummet about 15 degrees in 15 seconds. Lunch was served in glorious sunshine, and no one returned into the tents until darkness fell.
Carry a good medication kit as advised by the leader. Combiflams should be in good supply, to sooth those muscles and joints. Tired as we were, more from the exploring than the trek, a three-course dinner followed by some country music in our tent made way to a dream-full of sleep.
Day 3: Kedarkharak to Kedartal (4760m) and back
The test was here; it was all the way to Kedartal and back the same day. This would separate the boys from the men, and it did, 15-0.😀 Each one of us made it in time, without incidents, and before the evening tea got cold.
As opposed to the last time (2018, September) I was here, there was no snow, zero; all we had was moraine and rocks. Though the distance was a measly 6.3 km, it was a brutal climb over three and a half hours each way, that is when you don’t make long stops, except to drink/ fill water and to relieve yourself.
Precarious ridges, ledges, acute rock climbs, slippery moraine tested both our bodies and our shoes. Falls and slips are common, but you got to focus all the way. Every step is to be a sure foothold and never transfer your body weight unless one foot is firmly planted on the ground.
In last visit, I noticed some snow leopard tracks, but this time, no snow and hence no leopard. There was jubilation as we climbed and crossed the last tricky ridge to be in visual distance of the holy lake — Kedartal — with the grandiose Thalaysagar in the background.
The top is sunny and windy, but the place is ethereal. Don’t climb down the lake too quickly. Walk around some distance, experience the lake in full view, and witness the enormity and beauty of it all.
We walked for two hours about the pious lake, rested in the sun, played around, clicked, had some snacks to bite. The place takes your breath away, and the fatigue of the climb with it. The water is pure and azure, lovely snow-capped mountains, and the wind is cool to cold at times.
Camping is not allowed near the lake (I was lucky when the last time I was here). We could not get the trademark reflections, but still were content with what we got; at least the weather held up, and we clambered along for the way back, aware that we cannot afford to lose focus while going down.
It’s a slippery moraine, and the absence of snow made the job harder. In the end, it took the same time that we took for going up.🙄 By the time we reached camp, every hombre was tired enough for any more campsite adventures.
Everyone made it, acclimatisation was complete, all hearts and lungs were good, as for headaches and body aches—they are part and parcel of the game. The course dinner by our wonderful cook Sooraj, aided by our own Sonu. A long night’s sleep was needed to prepare the team for the ‘real’ thing up ahead, because after tomorrow, there was no turning back.
I got two tent mates, Jeetu, and Lijo. Jitendra (Jeetu), a senior data scientist for investment banking at Bangalore, an avid trekker, sports enthusiast, and a musician 😀 (he has his own band) had a penchant for country music. We usually slept with John Denver and Maclean crooning in our ears. 😊
Day 4: Kedarkharak to Patangini Dhar (5200 m) to Daba camp site (4702m)
In hindsight, this was our second-toughest day, certified by each of the trek members and our guide included. 0430 hours, woke up with tea, 0500 porridge (which was yummy by the way) and moved at 0530.
Moved west along the ridge, into the green grass and gentle wind. Sun wasn’t up, so the down jackets were up and out 👀.
The climb was steep, though the soft grass helped in getting a good foothold. Up and down we went, winded around the mountain paths, rested, out of breath, hoping for the climb to reach a gentle stage.
Alas, after two hours, we were greeted by rocks and moraine. The climb for the next two hours went from tough to brutal—steeper and steeper. Our rests became frequent and longer. It was three hours more to the top, and we were scheduled to camp on the other side, depending on the ice and water conditions.
High altitude passes need to be crossed well before 1100 hours or the weather may play a part and things may get sticky for everyone.
Vegetations had vanished once again, and we egged on amid the sounds of ‘come on‘ and ‘you people said you were tough, time to show it‘, and ‘how is the josh‘ calls.
One of the guides, Rajeev, developed a nose bleed, and it didn’t look good. Some people do develop nose bleeds at high altitudes. He was attended to by the doc, made to lie down, and his nose was packed with improvised techniques. Luckily his bleeding stopped, it took time, but eventually he did well.
It was a bad day for health, our mentor, Navtej Boss, twisted his ankle and sprained it. A strong guy as he is and pretty experienced trekker who knew the ways of the mountain, reposed faith in his bandages and his excellent shoes to take him along. And that was exactly what happened. Inspirational material….!
As the clock touched 11, we had scaled the peak. It was a harrowing climb, almost flushed the breath, and life out of us.
The summit at Patangini Dhar is a cramped space, but offers the best views you can dream of. A 360 degree magic. Surrounded by the Rudragaira valley on one side and Kedar Ganga valley on the other side was a celestial view, to say the least.
Pictures taken, we had a glance of the way down, and boy oh boy, we were SCARED. There was no ice, no glacier. Sonu Negi had a very sure-shot memory of a gentle, icy sloping glacier on this side of the summit.
All there was a shitty climb down, which looked like 90 degrees, as far as eyes could see, all rock, and moraine. All that for climate change 🙄 and it was just the beginning.
No one wanted to move, looking at the conditions ahead, after a backbreaking climb. Now when you get down, it’s a different ball game all together, a different set of muscles and endurance are at work.
Focusing at every step is the key when you get down in these conditions. Boss’ ankle was doing fine, at least he said so, and Rajeev’s nose pack was holding up, so post-refreshments, the group moved ahead.
Now there was a problem; there was no ice, so no water. That precluded the planned campsite, and the next camp site was 5 hours — Dabba.
Let me tell you, this leg of the expedition is no child’s play. It was gruesome. Steep descent on rocks, slippery gravel, ledges getting on your edges, every muscle aching, every joint crying to be let off, toes ready to jump out of the shoes.
About the shoes, always get very good shoes, ankle high, well-tried and tested. No one was clicking pics; no one was talking to each other. I’m a very garrulous, congenial bud who likes to talk. Anjan Ghosh (we called him Dada out of love and his affable personality). He said in his lovely Bengali accent, “either I can walk, or I can talk“.
1700 and we walked in a broken line, heads down, straight into our tents. It was the first time we were served tea in our tents. We were exhausted.
After nursing our bruised and battered bodies and souls, we limped out to the dinner tent.
Some soups and popcorns later, everyone agreed it was their toughest day inclusive of all their treks and expeditions so far, and the very conception was misplaced, as we realised it later.😎
And that was one hell of a statement to make. I consider myself reasonably fit, flexible and with a good endurance, but that day was brutal. I had to summon all my reserves — physical as well as mental.
After a few encouraging words from our trek leader—”you guys did well, it was tough“. And you don’t hear these kinda words from Sonu; we felt proud. Now onwards, it was supposed to be it as it was, so we had our dinner, popped in our combiflams and stretched off in our sleeping bags. But not before some sweet goodies out of the bag of Jeetu.
Lijo (Lijo Vergese), my other tentmate, a quiet man, software professional from Kerala, and a proud father to a recently born girl, an avid trekker and bike enthusiast himself, had something to say about the tough day as well.
We packed a lot of battery backups, so our tent was always abuzz with country music, sometimes, even after we had dozed off. 😀
Day 5: Dabba campsite to advance Auden Col base camp (4902m).
Penultimate day to the ultimate test of climbing Audens, 🙄 all hoots were damn tired. The guide let us off with a late start. It was foggy, and it snowed during the night; in fact, it was snowing when we got up and about.
Had a proper breakfast and moved at a leisurely pace, more so to get the limbs warm and supple, and also to get the cardiopulmonary system to start working after the hammering it out yesterday.
So it began, two hours of boulders and slippery moraine. There was just no let up; we just continued from where we left yesterday. Brutal, gruesome, well, we had run out of adjectives. No two steps were at the same latitude and longitude; in fact, neither were the two feet at the same step. 😂
We fell, we slid, were handled and helped, roped, and whatever was in the book was done. And then a miracle happened. We got 100 odd meters of relatively level ground. ‘Oye, ye highway kahan se aya‘ remarked Rahul Bhai (Rahul Singh, self-employed professional, a very sporty, and witty dude).
Amid laughs and guffaws, we took a break on the highway, 😀 took in the beautiful views, hydrated ourself and moved on in the trademark ‘खच्चर’ mode, a term coined by a dear trek mate from another trek.😀
Soon enough, we were back at the boulders, climb-ups then downs. The skies grew dark; it started to rain and snow, prompting everyone to get their raincoats out. It got colder, then we got the raincoats off, down jackets on and raincoats on over it.
After 3-4 hours of clambering, we did reach our campsite—the advanced Auden’s Col base camp.
It was a difficult area to camp on; the team had to work extra hard. Thanks to the terrain, there could be no dinner tent, the kitchen tent was put up with difficulty, and that too was far ahead to walk in the rain, which was still battering our tents; hence all meals had to be delivered at the ‘tent’ step.
All tents had to be pitched up on inclines; everyone had to adjust which way their body was going to align, but that was fun. In all that rain, cold and snow, I tell you, these boys are tough. Hot tea, soups, snacks, and even dinner was piping hot delivered.
Sonu was not in a playful mood; trek will start at 0530 hours—orders were given.
“We had to cross the pass before 11, and no one knew what lay on the other side of the pass. It was a comfortable ice and snow sheet, a gentle gradient in 2019, which we would soon find out.”Sonu Negi
Going by our ‘terrain difficulty’ luck so far, we did not harbour any fancy ideas and pulled up our woollen socks and drifted to sleep with ‘sun shine on my shoulders, makes me happy’ song.😊
Day 6: ABC (4902 m) to Auden Col (5510 m) to Khatling glacier camp
In tent, had tea and breakfast and got out before 0530 hours. Today was supposed to be a long day, with steep climbs and an unpredictable descent. No one knew what lay on the other side of the pass.
Pulling up our frozen socks and boots, the initial one and a half hours were steep through boulders and rocks. And as the first rays of sunlight shone, we stepped onto hard ice with pointed icicles for two kilometres or so before we touched the glacier per se.
Arpan (Arpan Sarkar, an animation professional in Santipur, WB, trekker and a sports enthusiast), one of the three Bengalis, shouted through a warm smile—”doc, आज बहुत तेज़ीतेज़ी चल रहे हो?”
It’s ice dada, and I’m comfortable on ice, so I’m gonna beat everyone to it, and that I did, amid protests from the guide.😀
The pass was visible from the camp itself; it was pulling me toward its summit. It seemed close all the time, and yet too far.
It’s a steep enough climb, in fact very steep indeed. Now, everyone one has his or her own ways to climb altitude, mine, and also favoured by quite a few, was counting the steps.
Count the steps when you get breathless, so much so that you can’t go another step; stop 5 steps short of that. Get your breathing in order and repeat the process. As the altitude gets higher, the oxygen gets lower, and you have to stop often.
So I usually started with 25 steps at the start of the climb, and reduced it to 10-15 by the time we summited. Do not push yourself; always maintain the cardio-pulmonary balance, drink lots of water and keep munching something every hour or so.
Place your feet in the already made footmarks, or you may end up sinking your leg in about 10 feet of snow, or may hit a crevice.
The glacier was 50% of what it was three years back—as per Sonu. And would be impossible to simply walk across, unless you got ladders and bridges and stuff. We had to criss-cross too often to avoid crevices and, on occasions, use rope for 150-200 meters.
Sun was good, eyes had the tinge of glare reflected off from the ice; wind wasn’t much, weather seemed good, so we trudged on, step by step, stop by stop, by passing risky areas.
I had a habit of chewing on ice for my hydration needs, a quirky habit I picked up long ago, or the laziness of having to take out the bottle from the pack and putting it back again. But then, everyone has their own thing, and what works for me, may not work for someone else.
“Eating snow is not the same as consuming water because snow is a solid that must melt before it becomes a fluid. Cells and organs in the body need water to be in a liquid state, so the body must work to heat and melt the snow once it is eaten. Because the organs must work harder to heat the ice and melt it, you will become further dehydrated rather than hydrated. You will continue to lose more water than you are taking in, even though you are hydrating the body by eating snow“.Sunny Sports
The pass, being visible all the time, was giving ‘बस पहुँच गये’ type of vibe. The near yet no so near feeling may have helped, and we stumbled, fell, sank deep in ice and snow, which percolated everywhere.
The summit was won in good time, it was a good sun, so everything dried off quickly, even our hopes when we looked to the other side. I will come to that later, first, let us enjoy the summit.
Sunlight stayed with us for half an hour, and it was enough. Rudugaira valley on one side, entire expanse of Khatling glacier and Bhilangana valley on the other side; Gangotri III, II, I on the northwest and Jogin peaks on the east.
We were a happy lot, very happy, and contended indeed, on scaling the highest of our summits in good weather.
We were mesmerised by the sheer expanse and grandeur of nature; we were just a speck of dust. No one spoke for some time, as reality set in, we hugged each other and congratulated on the feat.
Things happen suddenly in the mountains, we could see fog approaching from the Khatling side; two things happened that put a spanner in our ‘before time’ celebrations. Fog practically ran over us, and brought with it wind, cold and snow; and the guide screamed in utter desperation.
“There is no gentle snow slope on the way down, it’s a tricky ice moraine slope, a long steep slope divided in three parts“.Raacho Trekkers’ guide
A reconnaissance mission was sent consisting of the two best guides.
All hard slippery ice, around 200 m and would need ropes.
The second part was rock and moraine — 300m, which could be negotiated with care.
And the third was a slide, a steep one, more than 200 m. The porters had made it, and we could see them from the top as tiny little specks.
I tell you, it was damn scary, but we had faith in our guides, and he had faith, which sometimes shook, but he had faith in us too.
We had a nervous packed lunch while the first ones started down. A couple of us were trained in mountaineering; they just grappled down the ropes with ease, well not that easy, but it looked better than the awkward, apprehensive rolling sliding we were doing. Sonu keeping a weary eye on us, and two three guys ready if the rope slipped.
It was tough, and at the end of it, I made it with a few slips and a cramped forearm.
Resting on a very narrow rocky edge was mandatory before we encountered those rocks—which were steep, slippery, and villainous.
The weather had turned bad; it was all dark , foggy and about to snow as we lined up for the slide.
Well, slides are supposed to be funny with people making reels, smiling, waving and stuff, but this wasn’t. It was near 75 degrees incline and maybe a total of 200 m plus.
Some of us slid straight, and some not too straight. Jeetu had a toppling slide, was hurt but came out with sprains, and bruises, but he was smiling all right 😀. It was so far down that you couldn’t make the guy standing there hear you.
Anyways, all of us slid in different fashions and collected our wet, bruised, icy bodies, dusted and wiped out snow from the inside of our clothes and shoes, and made a beeline to cross the Khatling glacier.
We were just in time as snow had started falling in kilos and the visibility had gone down very fast. We stayed close to each other and walked on in blinding snow, just following our guide, who surely knew where we were heading.
There was silence in the ranks; we just lumbered on, one after the other, hoping for the torment to end. Snow and ice intermixed, there were a few falls, a few crevices which we had to negotiate. Even after that, we had two guys falling into crevices, that too around 50 m from camp.
Luckily, we were walking in a tight line and both were roped together by the expert team we had. Interesting experiences were recounted by the duo, but the significant fact was—none of the two panicked.
That area was not known to have many crevices, and they were all covered with fresh snow, hence missed. So the rule is, however tired you may be, however, crampy your legs maybe, just put your foot down only on an impression of mark made by the guy ahead of you.
Do not, I repeat, do not put your foot down in fresh snow. It was 1600 hours when we reached camp, and since it was snowing heavily, two tents could be put up, the kitchen and the dinner tent.
We put all our bags and asses in the dry environment of the tent, and waited out for the weather to be clear, and the team was supplying us with coffees, soups and pop corns.
It was yet another tough day and a job well done, all in camp, safe and sound.
It was then I learned that besides being fit, Pranav (a businessman in Pune, fit young dude, biker and a scuba diver) had trained at a mountaineering institute, and that explained his effortless dappling down the rope.
Shyam ji (Shyam Kanitkar, works with M and M, a very hard core trekker, done ABC twice, yup you heard it right, twice 😳) was another one with the training, the senior most. He was very quick on his feet, usually led the way behind our front guide. I was amazed at his speed and stamina.
As soon as the tents were set, we set our bags, had a breather, and came back for dinner.
Now the doc had a ritual every time we reached camp. We used to be bestowed with Prasad (5 ml vodka shot, dropped in by doc himself, and you were not allowed to touch it, or ask for more, with an encore of बम बम भोले 😊).
It was windy and snowy to start with, but the stars were all out at midnight, and we hoped for sunny weather for our glacier crossing the next day.
Day 7: Khatling glacier camp (4500 m)to Khatling zero-point camp (4012 m)
It was a good sunny day; the glacier was all shining, and glimmering. It was supposed to be a walk for not more than 6-8 hours; we had a good breakfast, parathas, pickle, and butter. A lot of butter and several cups of coffee to go with the delicious parathas.
Wary of last evening’s adventures, we roped ourselves in from the word go, led by Kapil. It was around three hours of glacial walk; no one fell, at least not into any crevices. The sun was strong, going was slow, but the views were great, bellies were full, and we had hopes of an easier day.
We knew it was a hope again, as the way hadn’t been traversed in four years and no one knew how the terrain would hold up.
Climate change was self-evident. The glacier had shrunk and broke off, large chunks of it. Where there should have been 5-6 km of it, it was only 2 to 3. Sonu and the guides who had been here fours years prior were sad, very visibly and vocally sad.
“There is no snow, it’s all rock, this won’t be a crossable/trekkable in another year or so, our mountains are gone.”Sonu Negi and team Raacho.
Their head hung as they sat in high rocks, and their eyes swept the ranges and stopped where the glaciers had broken off, the sad large jagged pieces of ice, dirty from landslides.
A thing or two about spikes, they can be very useful when walking on hard ice, repeat hard ice only. They can be very counterproductive on snow or rocks, so follow your guide’s instructions on the matter.
There was an early disruption in the glacier, so we disconnected ourselves, took a break, and began the arduous journey on steep rocks and moraine; the head of our guide hung in sadness. We understood that this was going to be a very, very long day.
Steep descent with moraine and rocks, rocks ready to slip down and start a landslide. You’ve got to be careful in these areas. Be sure of your footing and try your best that a rock doesn’t slip from under your shoe.
Raktim (Raktim Dasgupta, an IT professional from Bangalore, cooking was one of his hobbies along with trekking) didn’t seem to mind it, a battle hardened trekker as he was, fit and nimble on his feet.
After about three hours of battling it out, up and down and across, our knees and feet ready to apply for VRS, the welcome sight of a waterfall was a big relief. Everyone stopped, gazed at it in ‘slow motion’, marveling at the sheer expanse of the rocky valley.
For the record, we were still on the glacier; once we scraped the moraine from under our feet, it was ice. It was only when the first drops of rain/snow dribbled on our nose tips, and it did put an urgency in our movements as we got our raincoats and slickers out.
The negotiating around the terrain was getting more and more difficult, five or six stretches of steep descents / climbs on boulders and rocks, with slippery ice beneath it. At around 1700 hours we were greeted by the first sign of greenery, a small shrub 😀.
I don’t know, but that small piece of green made us feel so much better. We smiled and grinned at it, and somehow we felt the bush grinning back. The last two kilometres, we had to descend to the level of the Bhilangana river.
It was very steep and slippery, and almost everyone had to be helped out. Around 1830 hours we reached camp, it was green and beautiful with river flowing a few hundred meters away and below. It was a sight to behold; camp was set. Chairs and a box were made out as a table, out in the open, tea, and popcorn were being served.
‘Luxury’ was the word. Even though every soul was tired to his last bone; we just chatted, had a fire going, and we looked at the stars, at the moon as it moved across, the long dancing shadows of the fire over the huge rocks. Smokes and whatever was left of the vodka and rum was passed around. Dinner tasted like never before, and we slept like a dog.
Day 8: Khatling Zero Point 4012 m to Chowki camp (3715 m)
It was a nice sunny morning, and we had a moderate day ahead of us. We dried out our socks, shoes, and hats in the sun. Breakfast was in the open, you don’t get a more gorgeous open air restaurant anywhere 😁, and today we had an unlimited supply of tea and coffee.
I had some pouches of cappuccino, which I made good use of. My second tent mate, Jeetu (Jeetandra Pathak), a senior data scientist based in Bangalore, a musician with his own band, an interesting hombre with a cat as a pet 😀. Not many people can put up with cats, and cats too can’t put up with many people.
We had country music playing all through the morning. He was sullen with himself for not being able to bring along his drone. But then, everything can’t be captured in a lens, the best views, the best memories you have to carry around in your heart. We had a river to cross, so we began our trudge among boulders and moraine once again.
After about an hour and a half, the hard ground gave way to grassy patches, and the going got easier. Sonu and team were exploring the river bank for a safe location to cross the river, it was a rapid river and by the looks of it, more than a waist deep.
We crossed grassy flats, with flowers and amazing mountain views. Anjan took his SLR out, it was the first time he got that thing out. 🙄
Trial cross runs were made, and after about an hour and a half of looking, they found a safe spot. The tallest of the guide and porters waded through and ropes were secured. It looked scary, it did. 🙄
Everyone sat at the shore, observing the guides going through and checking, the fast water; the deepest seemed to be waist high for an average tall guy.
We got our shoes off, who has slippers or sandals, put them on. Now there is conflicting argument on river crossings, according to some, slippers make the feet unstable and the risk of a fall is more; on the contrary; bare feet, though have a better grip, are at an increased risk of potential cuts and bruises cause by rocks and pebbles on the river bed.
Electronics were towed away and secured in backpacks. I had a GoPro, which I secured on my head, 😀 the watchful eyes of our chief guide following each one of us.
Giving a space of about 5-7 meters, we followed each other into the river. Water was fast and freezing, cut like a knife. We held on to the rope for dear life, with instructions being shouted from both sides of the river. The last 10 meters were very tough.
The river was deeper and the water was fast, trying to pull us away. Three people were posted on the side, well into the river, and they man-hauled us to the safety of the bank.
Phew, we made it, congratulations, and hugs all around as we examined our injures. Quite a few of us fell; thankfully there were no major injuries except a few bruises and cuts which were immediately taken care of.
It was sunny for the time being, cloud playing hide and seek, so we dried ourselves as the last of the group and the guides waded through the current.
We did well, our hard-nosed guide was happy, which was satisfying. Sonu was seldom happy and was always on the edge, urging us on, but kept a keen watchful eye on each of us and managed his team in a professional manner, all along the trek lone.
All dried up, shoes in, and we began for our best green camp, Chowki in the earnest. It was boulders and climbs and descents; once again, it had started to rain, so we quickened our steps a little.
There was another smallish river crossing, and while jumping across, a mate hurt his leg. Slipped on the rock in the rain. Took about an hour to get him up and going.
The trek to camp was about 2 hours, through gentle stretches of grass, streams, and a river to cross as we approached camp. We had to take out our shoes again, haul up our mate, and we were welcomed to a lovely clearing. Chairs were out in the evening sun and the tea was smelling good.
Sooraj, the cook, took on the task of tending to our injured mate; a trained healer he proclaimed to be.
It was a lovely camp site, green, moderate wind, nice altitude, and relatively flat vis-à-vis our previous sites. It began to rain as we approached dinner, the injury to the mate was discussed. He couldn’t ambulate independently and was painful as hell today, and with two extra days at our dispensation.
We decided to take it easy and rest the next day, get some good food in, sunlight, some good old banter with the boys and a bit of roaming around.
The injured mate was sore, sad to be not able to walk, thoroughly disappointed because he may not be allowed to trek again. Theories were extended as to how to placate his family to allow him to trek 😎. There were plenty of heroic explanations, but the boss was like livid.
“A lie has to simple to be believed, like a vanilla and not like a sundae, just say that you fell at the airport. “😂😂😂.Navtej boss.
We all tried to humour him and load him with painkillers; his tent-mates took care of him like family would, maybe better. A folding commode carried by one of us was the ace in the hole. 😀
We had a ‘vacation’ the next day, so we stayed up till late, with mates visiting from other tents.
Eshaan (Eshaan Kaushal, a finance consultant at Mumbai, listed hobbies as food, sports and travel), a quiet fellow, got the goodies out of his bag—chocolates, dry fruits etc. We munched on it with old Bollywood songs late into the night.
Day 9: Rest day at Chowki camp
Perfect sunny day, with little wind and temperatures hovering in the mid-teens to early twenties. 😀 Some of us walked around, clicked, sat up on the river front. It was an ethereal feeling. Sun-capped mountains, cold breeze, and the sound of flowing water.
Nature can be so huge, scary, and beautiful at the same time. It changes you, the sheer magnitude and magnificence of it, if you are at it long enough and open enough. Sweep aside the pains, aches, and the general difficulties of the expedition, and you can feel yourself a part of the mountain, a part of God; and this, I bet you, you are not going to forget for the rest of your lives.
The pedestal of self-awareness and self-belief is raised several notches, and a whole gamut of day-to day worries do not bother you no more. You end up being more patient, potent, stronger, non-judgemental and affable.
There was a small lake we dipped into, some trails we explored at a leisurely pace, and some just lazed in the sun. We had wood smoked chapatis and a Himalayan green vegetable converted to a delicacy by our chef. 😀
Yoga, stretches, music….we did it all. Meanwhile, four porters were debuted to help and carry the injured mate. A makeshift piggyback contraption was put together by the guide and porters, and it looked impressive.
Trail runs and tests were done. After prayers for good weather and dinner, we retired to our tents in anticipation of another tough day ahead.
Day 10: Chowki camp (3715 m) to Masar Tal camp (4415m)
Though it was past 0700 hours, the sun shone on the peaks, yet to deliver its golden showers to the valley, some minutes past 7, we moved on. A moderate terrain was expected on this day.
The first stage was a climb through patches of grass and rocks. The team was scattered today; we moved along in small groups, taking breaks to enjoy the view. It was a long time when we were walking without getting severely breathless in ten steps. 😀
Devdutt (Devdutt Lal, Pondicherry-based adventure traveler) was in his shorts today, an ode to the wonderful weather. He had a good shot at the camera too, besides his cool, handsome looks. 😊
It looked pleasing to turn around and see our camp getting smaller and further, the valley getting bigger; but the size of Thalaysagar remained the same, as if looking out for us, watching us.
Boss was doing fine, the fighter as he is. “What needs to be done, has to be done” was his line in times of doubt or adversity. The injured guy was doing fine as well in company of his guide and porters (identity withheld on request).
After three hours of climbing and some winding paths, we reached a clearing. It was large, with grass-topped ridges and elevations. It was a perfect time to rest and unwind. Sun was good, wind was cool; it was silent, like the heavens had descended. 😊
We cooled off for an hour or more, munching, dozing, chatting and rattling. I just sat on the edge, for a long, long time. You think about much, the heart wanders and the eyes collect images, moments and moisture from memories. It was unforgettable.
Also in sight was the steep, tricky long climb over boulders to negotiate; we tried to visually reach the end, but it seemed to go on and on, right up to the heavens.
We had climbed boulders before, long stretches of it. This was the toughest and longest, and maybe the most tricky of all. There was a stream running close by with patches of snow, rendering it wet, loose and slippery at the same time.
With shouts of guidance and be careful and focused at each step, there were frequents stops because of sheer exhaustion. The stops were precarious as well, simply because there was no flat stretch; nothing to hold or stand or sit on. Standing still, even with support to get our breaths back, was not an easy task.
It took us a painful, sweaty and tiring two and a half hours to make that stretch. We swore and grunted and sprawled on the rocks at the end. As we looked down, we couldn’t stop admiring our efforts.
Refilling and hydrating our guts and souls, we took some time for everyone to gather, and we moved on. It was an hour and a half over some more boulders and grassy patches till we reached our camp. It had turned foggy and started drizzling, so we had to wait before the camp was put in order.
The camp site was lovely, a stream flowing at the edge; the sound of flowing water had that soothing effect. It was sloped at the edges and flat in the middle. An ideal camp, home to some birds and chicks 😀, supplemented by 360 degree ethereal views.
We got some really good time lapses there. We helped in the camping when it was dry enough and pretty soon the supplies of tea, coffee, pop corn and Maggie was restored.😀
A lot of time was spent with the tales of the trail, especially with someone like Boss, Dada, and Sonu in the tent. 😎 Tales of avalanches and blizzards, tales of rain and glaciers, cycling and riding expeditions. What a group this was.
We had plenty of battery back-up which enabled the music to play on until late in the night with tent tales of love and heartbreaks.
Day 11: Masar tal (4600 m) to Mayali pass (5000 m), to Vasuki tal camp 4251 m
बेड टी साहेब, ऊठिये….! Was the call at 4:45. I was in a dream, somewhere on a beach. It took me time to get out of the shock. It was supposed to be a very long day and a 5000 m pass to cross in a safe time window, so we had to get out of the slumber, we packed and were ready to move 0515 hours. It was all uphill from there to our first stop — Masar Tal.
It is the source is the Bhilangana river and is of deep religious importance to the locals. Camping, is forbidden at the lake. It took us an hour to reach it, and we’re dumbfounded by the sheer pristine beauty. It was the best time to get reflection images.
I had never seen a lake so beautiful, maybe after Panagong or Chandratal, but its pristine beauty has much to do with its accessibility as well. The water was calm and chilled and tasted heavenly.
Soon the fun was over, and the climb started again. Slow, damn wretched climb, winding around sun and shade, getting colder and oxygen depleting faster. Even after an hour and a half of climbing, the lake was still in view; its beauty not diminished.
We reached a ridge of sorts, and a snow / ice slope came into view which we had to cross. As it was still a climb, we had to wait till the guides recce’d it. Marked a zigzag way across it. Soon we had our gaiters and spikes out.
Following the foot marks provided by the guide, we made through the slick slippery ice sheet, with quite a few falls and slips, and in an hour or so, we had reached the top, overlooking a glacier lake.
After a break at the ridge, we made a stop at the lake. It was a small lake, but the adjoining glacier was big. Climate change has had its impact, and according to the guide, it had shrunk and broken in half.
Half a glacier gone in 4 years ….sad, very sad, the Mayali pass ice field, most of it gone. It was all slippery slush, with hard ice, so we had to walk on the rocky snowy edge of the ice field. It was about two miles long, and it was tough; even after all these days of varied terrain, it was tough.
It took us more than two hours, in blazing sun, when we ultimately put our foot on the glacier. The glacier leading up to Mayali pass. We could see the ice field for kilometres, and the pass was one winding turn on the top. Protocols were set, gaiters and spikes were set, as the snow and ice was slippery, and it was a good steep climb to negotiate.
It was so steep that the guide had to carve a zigzag path with his ice axe, something which wasn’t required on the Auden’s Col. Breath was coming in gasps even after ten steps. It was slow-going, took us two plus hours, but we did reach the pass and crossed it in haste before the weather went bad.
It was a cold, windy, icy top, and it had started to snow, so we made haste and started the long climb down. It was a kilometre or more of slippery slope, which we managed to cross with a few falls again, even with spikes on. 🙄
It was well after noon, but it was dark and gray, and the skies were not in a mood to relent . After more than ten days on the trail, the day had begun to get heavy on us. As the ice sheet led to a ridge towards the end, we wondered what was on the other side.
A slide, a rope or a gentle trudge down. We could see the valley beyond, it was way down, way down, maybe a down altitude of 500-700 m 👀.
Bang, and it was boulders and rocks with a mix of ice and moraine, slippery, steep and dangerous. We had had it this time, the group just sat there in exasperation; we had given up and just looked beyond.
Sonu could sense our feelings, so he said nothing as he rolled a smoke, offering some to us.
“I’m proud of all of you, even if the expedition stops here, you guys have created history, it’s tough, and it’s three to four hours to camp, you are tired. But the weather is bad; it’s dangerous to stay at this altitude. Tomorrow we reach Kedarnath, and we would thank God for the opportunity he gave us and for getting us safe, so muster up those resources and gather yourself.”Sonu Negi
For some time we looked at each other in silence, with a sense of desperation, pride and accomplishment, and one by one we started down. Feet and calves were cramped, so we were extra careful with each step we took.
Let me tell you, I’m not exaggerating, but this descent was the toughest till date, it eclipsed the Patangini Dhar descent by some margin. It was the first time that almost each one of us was escorted by a guide or some other member of the team, all the way down.
I declined the help, but after about 20 m, after falling and slipping, I waved my hand, which was greeted by a wry smile from Rajeev, as he glided across.
Yes, it seemed that he just glided across with ease. Step by step we went on, and as I gathered the spirit and my legs started working, he just stepped aside and just accompanied me down. It was BRUTAL , to say the least. That stretch of rock took me more than two hours, resting, hydrating, and munching on energy bars.
One more thing, never munch out the whole bar in one go, just a few bites; then repeat the process after some time and keep aside the laziness of taking it out of your bag by storing it in one of your many pockets. Always keep some dry fruits too, and eat them one at a time. Don’t stuff a handful.
There was an expanse of a glacier up ahead, about three kilometres or more across, with breaks in the form of boulders. 😀
The team was really, really tired. But with the words of the chief guide ringing in our ears, for the sake of everyone’s safety, we ambled along, slowly but surely, with heads hanging; no talk, just the resolve to reach camp safely.
The ice gave us no respite; it was sloping from end to the other, next the slope reversed. Even with the spikes, it was difficult to progress.
Above, the skies thundered as the snow kept coming, more intensely with each passing minute. We had to keep each other in sight.
There were places where we tried to skid and slide. I got ice inside of my shoes, tore off my rain jacket, and the cold made it worse. The best way to beat the cold was to keep walking, get those muscles working, to balance the breaks so as not to get cold, and let the body heat take care of the moisture which had seeped inside.
Our luck for this day and run out at noon itself, when we had all of the sun till the top of Mayali pass, post the pass, the weather turned from bad to worse, and kept going.
There it was, at the end of the glacier, another long, hard, steep, sick slippery rocky boulders replete with falling rain; yes, snow had transformed into rain as we descended. By this time we were practically livid; I was swearing incessantly, by the sheer magnitude of today.
Maybe it was anger which propelled us. No one had gone this way for years, so we couldn’t have blamed anyone for the not anticipated. Even if we had, there was no place where we could camp.
The next camp was at Vasuki Tal, the prettiest camp as envisaged by the guides, and it seemed hours away. And it was hours away, as we found out soon enough.😀
Parjanya (a young tall good-looking fella, fit, quite a consultant in the petrochemical industry) was unperturbed; he just smiled and went on. Maybe it was his fitness or his spirit. He and Pranav frequently brought up the rear, always relaxed and confident.
“I’m getting old it seems”, to which he just smiled and shook his head in the negative, “it’s a tough day, just keep going.”
Getting that from someone so fit and trained was music to my ears, which were the only organ not dying of tiredness.
After a grueling hour and a half of rocky descent, we crossed a meadow with a running stream. There was no break, and since our boots were already fully wet from the outside and inside, we just waded across the water, not a care in the world.
Still raining, we made it across about an hour and a half more across a rocky wet trail; winding around a mountain side, across two or more dangerous intersections with the river and steep gorges, when the camp came into view. Maybe it was exhaustion or the weather.
I found nothing gorgeous about it. It was foggy and visibly poor as we reached camp. Soaked and drenched, snappy and hungry, cold and bitter.
So tired I was, I couldn’t make myself to change to dry clothes, it meant to rummage inside the trek bag, which somehow also seemed wet despite the cover. I just caught my breath and stretched my aching limbs, got that hot tea delivered right inside the tent. The rain was getting worse as we changed to dry clothes.
For the same reason, there wasn’t to be a dinner meeting, and I appreciated and was humbled by the team in getting all our meals in the tent itself.
Sonu had to rush to Kedarnath to get an evacuation arranged for the injured mate, and somehow, Lijo, my other tent mate, also went with him. It was bad weather, and I was really touched by the effort of the chief guide and Lijo to not go alone in this weather, though Sonu is one of the toughest nut to crack.
It was a gangster of a day of our expedition, so far, we had trekked 12 hours in very difficult terrain and pretty inhospitable weather post noon.
We were proud, snooty, and in no way humble at the same time. Sleep came late, the sound of rain had a pleasing effect, sort of monsoon-like vibe, if we took the cold out of it. It abated around midnight, with hopes of sun and the possibility of drying our shoes, at least in the morning sunshine.
Day 12: Vasuki Tal camp (4251 m) to Vasuki Top (4800 m) to Kedarnath (3573m).
It was a partly cloudy / sunny morning, we had time, so we waited it out to dry out, at least our shoes. The camp site was beautiful, in a lush green meadow, water flowing close, surrounded by ice-capped peaks and the gorgeous lake just 25 m away.
The lake, like glacial lakes, had a surreal feel and serenity to it. Simply awed by its beauty. Sometimes a misty mountain lake becomes so calm in the early morning, so silent, that it’s unnerving. So much so that a person sitting by the side feels he is dead, as if there is only existence, but not himself.
Even when we climbed up, it stayed looking lovely. The team had a sense of fore boding; this was our last day together. Everyone was a bit silent. We walked along the ice sheet by the side of the river, and we did it slowly, enjoying every bit of it.
There was a path made out by the devotees, so going wasn’t that tough; it was a welcome walk after the hard day we had yesterday. After a moderate climb of an hour, we topped a ridge, took a break, had a long last look at the lake, and ambled along to the last leg of our journey.
We encountered two pretty glacial lakes along the way, one of which was frozen. Vasuki Tal top, the last summit in our endeavour, was perched high up, and we had a kilometre or two of steep icy climb to do it.
The ice wasn’t holding very well on inspection by the guides; they went ahead and marked the trail. That last leg wasn’t easy by any means, so we had to get ourselves braced one last time.
The ice and snow was giving away at many places, even with the footmarks. Huffing and puffing, we reached the top, with its magnificent views, took a long break and moved on along the pilgrim trail to Kedarnath.
There were a few rough patches, but it was fast going, and in under two hours, the temple came into view with the to and fro of choppers, which looked like insects hovering about .😁
We were welcomed with an early lunch at a nice, picturesque green flat. We had our group photo taken there, chatted for an hour. No one seemed too eager to go, but we had to; it was still some time before we got to Kedarnath.
Took less than an hour to get there, it was God’s country , God’s mountain and we made way to the temple for ‘Darshan’. It was crowded and packed with devotees. We patiently waited for our turns, thanked him for keeping us safe. Let you know what, the place has got some divine energy about it; a vibe you can feel but can’t express.
From here we parted ways, I had to take a chopper ride to Dehradun; the rest of the team trekked the 17 km path to Gaurikund and from there a shared taxi to Sonprayag and to their respective destinations from there on.
“None of your knowledge, your reading, your connections will be of any use here: two legs suffice, and big eyes to see with. Walk alone, across mountains or through forests. You are nobody to the hills or the thick boughs heavy with greenery. You are no longer a role, or a status, not even an individual, but a body, a body that feels sharp stones on the paths, the caress of long grass and the freshness of the wind. When you walk, the world has neither present nor future: nothing but the cycle of mornings and evenings. Always the same thing to do all day: walk. But the walker who marvels while walking (the blue of the rocks in a July evening light, the silvery green of olive leaves at noon, the violet morning hills) has no past, no plans, no experience. He has within him the eternal child. While walking, I am but a simple gaze.”― Frédéric Gros
Jeetu, Mohit and Ishan proceed to Rishikesh to unwind and go river rafting. The injured mate was flown to Dehradun, and he is recovering well. I made a lot of friends along the way, saw, and felt nature as it should be felt, and had a first-hand experience of how tough guys respond to adversity. The only sad part was climate change. I will do a separate article on that with comparative photographs from yesteryear’s.
So long guys…
With thanks and regards to each member of the expedition, Sonu and his team, and thanks to God for Letting us be there, in his abode and getting us back safe, as a better, stronger and affable humans.