Monday, May 5, 2008

Baptised by Fire... Kedartaal- The Winter of 2004

One could only hear silent footsteps echoing in that vast silent valley. Our footsteps! We were marching on a bit loosely; observing the shadow line progressing over the hill ahead. The sun was softening out as it set on its way West and we were hastening walk in order to reach the campsite before shadows became longer.

"और कितना दूर Rana?".. I asked

"बस आ गया  sir..abhi और एक ढलान है और एक चढ़ाई। बस .. धुप ढलने से पहले ....." his speech was broken by a shrill whistle from somewhere in the back. Rana looked back abruptly and whistled out as if in reply. He was looking back silent and alert trying hard to hear some sound back.

"क्या हुआ  Rana?"- I noticed, something was amiss.
"कुछ नहीं  sir.. मैं अभी आता हूँ ...आप लोग यहीं ठहरिये। कहीं मत जाना "
"अब बताओ तो सही क्या हुआ? . कुछ गड़बड़ तो नहीं है ?"... we were all tensed up now. Rupendra, Bunty and I.

"लगता है कुछ गिर गया ..सामान  गिरा है शायद " Rana replied still unbuckling his rucksack which he intended to leave where we were standing and go back to check what happened.He disappeared in an instant, tracing the path we had just covered. We could look back for about a kilometre along the steep valley side and make out the figures of few men from our party huddled together.
This was the first time in my trekking career I had heard of something falling off while being on the march. Yet we were not surprised, for this was one hell of a steep valley we were trekking up. Steadily gaining altitude with every step forward and going steeper on that huge V shaped gorge of a valley.
Soon I went back to enquire about the incident to find that one porter-load containing all the tents had just tumbled down the steep valley (with almost a 75 degree incline) and landed somewhere in the river below. Luckily nothing happened to the porter. He had just loosened his load on the trackside and was resting a while when gravity took over the load! And the sack went tumbling down before the very eyes of the poor fellow.
I estimated the river to be flowing a good 100 meters below. After some 45 minutes of anxious wait and an incessant whistle-communication amongst the lads, I saw the sturdiest of them emerging with a wet sack. The fellow had just descended 100 meters into the river bed and had recovered the sack!!
Even as I was trying to regain my anxious breaths, my heart warmed with respect for that brave lad. He had risked that tough and deadly detour because, without that sack we would have been without a tent or shelter at Kedarkharak camp and that probably would have caused us certain doom. (My multi function watch recorded a temperature of -22 degrees Celsious in the blowing blizzard outside my tent that very night)
This wasn't unexpected, for we had taken up this weird challenge for ourselves...we wanted to do Kedartal around the onset of winter. This was the first week of November, 2004. The Himalayas did treat us with a gentle yet firm admonition...a reminder, not to take the mighty ranges casually.

A Wild Thought...The year 2004 was coming to a close and I was fresh from a snow adventure at Mayali Pass. I had already been trekking seriously for about 5 years now continuously and had reached the highest point of 5300 mtrs at Mayali Pass. A wild strand of thought started playing in the mind...why not do a winter trek? People do Chandrshila winter trek in December/Jan period; couldn't we do a tougher one a bit early?

I had heard during my first Gangotri visit that Kedartal is easily trekkable but the experience is tough and fearsome! I thought we shall give it a go. We shall try doing Kedartaal in the first week of November, knowing well that the area had already seen one round of pre-winter snow. Chandan examined the proposition and agreed after a bit of thought. The team was assembled and ready to go on 7th of November 2004... Rupendra – my trekking partner in the Tapovan Nandanvan trek in the earlier year and Bunty my cousin brother and trek-partner in Roopkund and Tapovan trails.
Fervent internet research and active consultation with Chandan enabled us to draw up a careful itinerary that ruled out any unnecessary risk. We were to tread the standard route with one exception..we intended to camp below the snowline in the last camp and make a valiant dash through the snow to reach Kedartal hoping that the snow conditions would facilitate.
Day 1- Delhi- Uttarkashi- Gangotri
Day 2- Gangotri- Bhojkharak
Day 3- Bhojkharak- Lower Kedarkharak-
Day 4- Lower Kedarkharak- Kedartal- Lower Kedarkharak
Day 5- Lower Kedarkharak- Gangotri
Day 6- Gangotri- Uttarkashi- Delhi
That's an itinerary and a trek that shall remain etched in memory forever ..for the little events that spiced up those days. Be it the Giant Ice Carrot, The rolling boulders, The Spiderwall, The severe sub-zero clime, the snow challenge or Bunty's slip on the frozen waterfall..each day was different, delightfully pretty and alluringly challenging!!
In retrospective, we were probably right in drawing up that itinerary, may be anything else would have caused a more severe experience.
Day 1 and 2- Onwards to Bhojkharak from Gangotri As usual we did our marathon drive from Delhi in one single dash to Uttarkashi and then onto Gangotri after an hour of lunch stop. The mettle of my newly bought Scorpio was tested and we were at Gangotri before nightfall. It was almost a ghost town since the temple was to close in a few days. We had a peaceful Puja in the temple ...I still remember the beautifully uncluttered surrounding ...each shloka clearly heard as the priest carried out the Pravah Puja near the Bhagirath Shila. It's a Puja offered to Mother Ganges standing by her flowing waters..singing her praise..exactly the way Adi Shankara did aeons ago.

Early next morning we set off for Bhojkharak at about 0900 Hrs. The path essentially follows the true left bank of Kedar Ganga which confluences with Bhagirathi a few hundred meters up from the Gangotri GMVN Guest House. Its actually a path one can jump into after crossing the little fence behind the GMVN compound. The path winds steadily up for about 200 mtrs before it levels out and opens onto the very steep sides of the Kedarganga valley. The river Kedarganga flows so far below in a gorge that its momentous roar only appears as a mere rumble to the ears. If one looks down the valley, the river is invisible almost , cutting through the rocks in unseen depths of the only comes back with a unsteadying feel of a vertigo.
Rana would forever exhort us to remain close to the wall and not onto the open side of the trail and all three of us dutifully obeyed his commands, walking with careful, measured yet sure steps.
After about an hour we came to a clearing where the team took a well deserved rest. With the roar of a waterfall somewhere in the background we scanned the area and were delighted to see some strange looking icicles hanging from the rock overhang nearby.
Ice Carrot...One of the younger lads from the porter team went ahead and came back in minutes with a large icicle resembling a carrot...a giant carrot!! The thing must have been at least 6 feet in height. This was our first brush with winter surprises that the Himalaya throws up. The large and tall icicles hung on to the overhang with absolute tenacity with scant regard for the blazing sun overhead!! We knew we were in snow and ice country where the elements of nature were at their powerful best. Each one of us was lost in own private thoughts about what lay ahead!
Soon the track winded rapidly up and took the wind out of our lungs. We were steadily scrambling up the hillside, the downward slope to our left never easing lesser than sixty degrees incline. An hour later one passes through a beautiful birch forest... totally denuded in the fall. The stark white skeletons of the trees made for an amazing view. The shadows of the trees had preserved the snow that had fallen a fortnight back. Rana had to cut steps on that hard snow for we could not risk slipping and tipping over to the dangerous slopes. By midday we had the first view of the majestic "Thalaysagar" the equivalent word in Sanskrit meaning "Sthal-sagar... meaning The Sea of Land". The peak is also named as "Sphatik-ling" in some maps which means "The Crystal Lingam". The peak indeed looked magnificient with its crown on top from where a faint snow plume emanated to the North.
Soon afterwards we negotiated a land slide area which looked and felt dangerous with constant roll of little pebbles coming from somewhere on the top. A pebble of the size of an almond coming at that speed can create fatal injuries if struck on the head with full force! You would try to hasten your steps through that zone but the loose earth and sand would hold on to your feet like quick sand. One's heart skipped a beat during the process.
Spiderwall ISoon enough we ran head-on into a rockwall. It was as if the trail suddenly disappeared as it entered the side of the rockwall and reappeared after the other end of it. There was only a 4 inch ledge on the wall which one had to tread carefully to cover the whole length. I somehow managed that section without much thought which was surprising because on the way back, it took me a good 15 minutes of unsteady steps to cross the same stretch of 50 meters! More of that later...
Rupendra and Bunty had a bit of a tough time crossing the wall. After we regrouped on the otherside, there was this animated discussion on the experience of crossing it and we agreed commonly that the only guy who would possibly cross that place without any apprehension would be "Spiderman"!!! Thus we christened the wall as "Spiderwall"!
Just after this wall the route opened into a little clearing with a dilapidated rest-shed, ravaged under the forces of nature... a freak avalanche from above may be! All that was left was the crumpled tin sheets that made up for the roof of the shed once upon a time!

We had reached our campsite for the day.... Bhojkharak.
The place looked barren with a cover of dried brown grass. At a distance there was a snow covered forest, indicating the nature of the terrain ahead.
Pradeep, as usual, treated us to some sumptuous mutton. For some reason I remember counting the number of whistles the pressure cooker blew before cooking the mutton fully. There were 35 whistles in total and still the mutton wasn't fully cooked. I experienced that day, what altitude does to cooking temperatures!!
Rolling BouldersThe night was noisy. All night long, one could hear the roaring sound of boulders rolling down the hill side and stopping at the bottom of the valley with a loud whoomph!! Luckily it was the other side of the valley but directly opposite to the camp. I had read about a similar experience at Bhojkharak camp by another team. This basically meant that the rock-fall in the valley was a regular phenomenon. However assured one might be of the fact that it's on the other side, that thunderous sound never quite allows one's heart beat to calm down all through the night.
Day 3- Bhojkaharak to Lower Kedarkharak

Camp broke next morning at 0900 hrs and we were on the trail that seemed to wind heavenwards. Usually in most treks the route goes up and then down again creating that sense of frustration in one's mind. But none of that in this trail...the route seemed to move up forever...particularly in this stretch after Bhojkaharak! After some 3 hours of toil we had lunch with the view of ground snow about a mile ahead. We had to quicken our steps and aim to reach the designated camp site by 1400 hrs. That way there would be time to set up camp and be ready for the onslaught of cold with some fire or something.
Of tumbling Sacks and Wet Tents

That very moment the sack tumble incident happened. As described earlier, a porter had taken out his load and kept it leaning against a rock and was stretching his limbs when the sack tipped over and went tumbling down the steep slope into the river bed which was invisible from that point. The combined effort of the entire team rescued the bag. We were relieved that there was no fatal accident and also the load got recovered. After all this we were behind by about 1.5 hrs and were left with a load of wet tents that badly required drying.
We hurried our way into another large and frustrating stretch of landslide. I did not realise the danger element till a pebble actually hit Bunty's shoulder who was right behind me. Poor chap shrieked out in pain but there was nothing much one could do except for quickening one's step in all that loose earth.
A large cairn finally indicated a campsite that Rana identified as lower Kedarkharak. About a hundred meters ahead was dense snow covered ground.
"Yeh snowline aa gaya sir"..informed Rana..."Jaldi se camp laga ke tents dry kar dete hain jab tak dhup hai. Raat ko bahut thand hoga".. he added.
While the support team went about its routine of setting up camp, Rupendra, Bunty and I set out on a collective task of gathering dried grass and twigs for a campfire. The evening sun had set the peaks and mountain tops on fire. Ahead up north, the massive wall of Bhairon Jhamp was visible, aglow with the golden sun. Gangotri is located at the feet of Bhairon Jhamp and thus, literally Gangotri area is visible from Kedarkharak as line of sight.
Due South and Sounth-East, an amazing array of peaks- Bhrigu Parvat, Manda, Bhrigupanth and Thalaysagar as one scanned from South-East to South.
The cold and the chill was evident just after sundown. Rana suggested an innovative room heater for the night- a thick candle supported by powdered snow in a coffee mug that would burn inside the tent for about 2 hrs before going to sleep. The contraption really works!! It does take up the in-tent temperature by up above 3 degrees!
Roaring Blizzard and 22 belowThe ferocious mountain winds started roaring just after nightfall. The tent sides would flap uncontrollably...the same sound that reverberated in the ears exactly 3 years later at Balipass base in November 2007. We retired early. Knowing that it's going to be cold, I hung the thermometer outside the tent. The cold was so intense and the impish winds so loud, I woke up with a start at 0400 hrs and lit up the candle, hoping it would ease the cold. At 0500 hrs when I got the thermometer inside, it read -22 degrees Celsius...I have no idea if it dipped further earlier during the night. That's the coldest I have experienced in Indian Himalayas.

Day 4- Excursion to Kedartaal... Lucky Disappointment!!
The morning was surprisingly calm. The Kedar Ganga valley is aligned North- South with Gangotri at the northern tip, at the base of Bhairon Jhamp and Kedartaal at the southern tip at the base of Mt Thalaysagar. From our campsite at Kedarkharak as one looked South towards South East , an array of mountains looked beautifully arranged bathed in the golden hue of the early morning sun. The contrast was greater since the valley was in the morning twilights yet.

First Thalaysagar to the right with its Golden crown and then Bhrigupanth with its tall rampart of a ridge and the Manda Peaks, in front of which was the rock tower of Bhrigu Parvat. I had come out of the camp early to do the photo-shoot and the scene was so ethereal, I forgot I was cold at all!
Up there in snow land, the sun has this vitalising effect on everything. The plants look up, the wind stops, the dew drops shine, the wild flowers bloom open and the human beings spring into activity. By 1000 hrs we were ready for our excursion to Kedartaal. Rana estimated the distance to be about 4 Kilometres ( which I now estimate at 3 Kms after referring to Google Earth). All of it was full with snow, but we had no idea – how deep?

The surprise began after the first 100 meters when we sank into knee deep snow without a gaiter. Rana and the escorting porters had some makeshift gaiters inform of polythene bags tied to their shoes and sheen. The blazing sun overhead and the slow creeping of cold to the feet was a challenge we were facing for the first time. The amazing view of the proud pillars Bhrigupanth and Thalaysagar was lost to us. There were these lone pug marks of a snow fox in that virgin snow which almost showed us the way and we were taking turns in cutting route getting exhausted at thrice the normal rate I reckon. The agony was complete when I started developing snow blindness conditions after about an hour of trek. We rested for a while at Kedarkharak camping area where Rana pointed out the Jaonli Ridge and the Patangani Dhar to our right. One crosses over the Patangani Dhar to enter the Rudragaira valley and onwards to Auden's Col. As the day progressed, trudging through the snow became even more difficult.
By 1400 Hrs we had climbed one large hump of a landmark struggling and slipping over boulders and slushy snow. Each step needed both physical and mental effort. With each step we were self exhorting ourselves to move forward. I had realised our prime mistakes.

We should have definitely started about 500 Hrs in the morning when the snow was still hard. We should have been prepared with at least gaiters to go through that knee deep snow and we should probably have done a reccee the earlier evening to estimate a better route. But there was no point rueing over spilt milk.
"Aur kitna dur Rana?" I asked
"Bus ek Kilometer hoga sir...ek aisa aur chadhai hai aur phir adhe ghante ka snow walk hoga!" said Rana
Even while I was contemplating the task ahead, Rupendra called out from 50 feet below
"Main aur nahin jaa sakta boss. Enough...You guys go ahead. I shall wait for you here" He was shouting out. I could understand the agony because I myself was barely able to see with tears coming out constantly from the left eye.
But how could we leave a teammate there? Also it was 1400 Hrs and even if we reached Kedartal by 1500 Hrs and started back from there, we shall surely hit nightfall before reaching camp. In that snow covered territory it would definitely be a huge risk if the weather also started behaving like the earlier night. I took a call and we all decided to turn back at 1430 without taking any further chance.

I agonise over that decision sometimes today because I know from the maps and Google images today that we were probably about 700 meters away from the Taal and could have done it in probably an hour more. But considering the other factors, I think it was a good decision.
We reached campsite by 1700 Hrs to be greeted by a raging welcome fire setup by the guys there. They had gathered some Juniper bushes in that almost barren land and had a fire going for a good three hours which we needed badly to dry our frozen socks, boots and feet. Everything from the knees downwards was frozen stiff!!! We were probably lucky not to have sustained any cold injuries.
The weather gods were happy that night and we thanked our stars while Rana regaled us with his innumerable stories of snow challenge by the fireside.
Day 5- Long Road Back- Kedarkharak to HarsilWe were a bit sad the next morning for having not done the darshan of the Kedar Tal having gone so close to it. We were however happy to have seen the deep cradle of the valley so very densely covered with that snow blanket, the imposing presence of the mighty peaks of Bhrigupanth and Thalaysagar in that snow kingdom and surviving through that night of fiery blizzard.
We did pickup good speed all the way down till Bhojkaharak. Somehow the deep valleys were looking less imposing. That's when we were in for the final surprise.
Spiderwall IIThe rockwall we had christened as Spiderwall was there in the back of our mind, having vaguely remembered the stretch as challenging. As we approached it back again, the facts came back with absolute clarity and we realised why we had subconsciously underlined its presence in the mind.
Now while approaching the stretch on the way back, the vertical wall was on our left. I was standing on that 4 inches ledge, the wall on to my left and I looked to the right to see this huge sloping mass of ice about 20 feet below, the slope pointing to the bottomless valley. This is something I had not noticed earlier and for a moment a shiver ran down the spine. Without that slab of ice, it's not that frightful a stretch. But with that slab, the margin of error plummets to zero. A slip and a fall would mean certain fatality. There was no way one could get down and find a way around that slab.
I managed to somehow cross and waited on the other side watching Bunty crossover. All these while the gang of lads who were our porters were merrily crossing the entire stretch carrying 30 Kg loads without batting an eyelid. Finally Rupendra was roped in and was guided every step by Rana and Pradeep carefully.
Phew!!! We blew a sigh of relief together when Rupendra crossed over. Those 50 mtrs are difficult to forget even today.
About a kilometre later Bunty had a nasty fall crossing over another frozen waterfall . I was laughing away to glory shooting him scrambling for a hold ... he was actually looking like dry-swimming over that frozen mass of ice. It's later that I learnt that he was indeed mortally afraid of a Spiderwall-like drop into the valley and was desperately trying to be aground.
That evening we came all the way back to Harsil GMVN and had the celebratory dinner by the banks of Bhagirathi alongside a large campfire.
Lessons Learnt

Apart from the myriad illusions and transcendental ambience of various patterns of ice, snow, crystal and dews, the trek taught several vital lessons ..
  • Shorter days and impact on distance planned for trek
  • Dips in night temperatures that can render an entire camp frozen
  • The candle contraption for emergency heat inside tent
  • The need to recce routes
  • The need to start early to avoid slushy snow
  • Personal snowgear like Jacket, Boots and Gaiters
  • The unseen complexity of frozen falls and ice slabs that make simple tracks very fearsome
It was my first tryst with winter snows at High Himalayas and I was surely baptized by fire. We were allowed views tantalisingly close to the objective but denied the glimpse of it. The impact of cold and snow presented as lessons on every single day and remain as valuable a learning till date. Never had I been in a journey of such nature when each day presented a new challenge, each few hours one missed a heart bet. Had it not been for these caring lessons by The Mountain in this trek, I would never have the courage and preparation to attempt the Balipass Snow Traverse three years later. Now thats another story... :-)


Anonymous said...

It has courage, devotion, love and respect as its offerings at the feet of the Himalayas. These are the attributes that trekkers need to carry along apart from the sacks on their back.
I always love to run through the alleyways of wonderland adorn in a brilliant sequence of events and beautifully crafted words. Even a failed attempt reveals as much beauty as it could if it met with a success.
In flowing along it lucidly conveys the finest philosophy of life--pursuing the objective is more important that expecting it. Attempt ever precedes either a success or a failure.
Thanks for sharing altogether a different aspect of trekking experiences with us.
I wish it would not confine to the pages of your blog, but surely go into the pages of life of many.
Best wishes, my friend !

Him-Pathik said...

A touching tribute Saibal ..and extremely thought provoking!!!

I tried to communicate what I felt those very moments..
Thanks for the appreciation


indicaspecies said...

Reached here from trekwords.

This is a very interesting post with beautiful pictures. I recalled my trek to Goecha-La where I had "almost" made it to the base of Mt. Kanchenjunga but not ashamed to say not 'quite' as I was affected by altitude-sickness. Of course, the journey is more meaningful than the destination.

Here I found every bit of your well narrated journey an absolute delight to read. I am particularly impressed of your humility in having described the facts as is. Mountains teach us humility too, which of course is a virtue, especially in this age and time when, sadly, some human beings feel they can conquer nature completely.

You are a winner! Great post.

Him-Pathik said...

Ah Celine!!!
Who else would craft words so beautifully!!


How have u been doing??
U see what have I been busy doing now a :-)

indicaspecies said...

Hey thanks. I've been fine, and keeping myself busy too, travelling, writing and healing..(oh, healed rather) ;)

Good to be interacting with you again, and yes, I do see how busy you have been, good job. :)

chits007 said...

Excellent write up, I know Ashu how it feel when a trek fails to achive its objective we failed Roopkund in Oct'07 by hardly a kilo meter, same thing we started late ..anyway why didn't u attempted next day again? did u short of ration etc ?
I read even in season time kedar tal is quite a tough trek to accomplish may be due to geography of that region .

chits007 said...

Excellent write up, I know Ashu how it feel when a trek fails to achive its objective we failed Roopkund in Oct'07 by hardly a kilo meter, same thing we started late ..anyway why didn't u attempted next day again? did u short of ration etc ?
I read even in season time kedar tal is quite a tough trek to accomplish may be due to geography of that region .

Him-Pathik said...

Thanks Chitrang for the compliments....

Well we had run out of leaves...we had to be back to work...also I think there was an issue of supplies.

But good thought.... may be in such situations, its a nice ieda to renew the attempt the next day with a route freshly cut!!

rubbersoul said...

thats a good writeup ashu ...tell me did u attempt kedartal in normal weather ? do u have any idea how it is ? i have done annapurna base camp, lngtng valley, , so do u think it will be extra difficult for me to attemptt?

SnowSam said...

We are planning to go on 27th April.......any suggestions...?

Anonymous said...

please tell us we are doing the kedartal trek this 22to 27 of october any suggestion pls let us know my mail id