Appeared in the May 2015 issue as “Leap of Faith”.
Faith and protein never sit easy, but nowhere is it more evident than at 4,500 metres above sea level in the Himalayas. I am sitting with my friends Avilash and Pawan Bisht and our guide Sundar in a kitchen tent, as it is pummelled by hail and roughed up by shrieking winds. The glacier under us moans and rumbles, the hollow grinding of ice and rock floods our flimsy shelter.
“You shouldn’t have brought the eggs and canned fish,” Sundar says. “Now the gods are angry.”
Given a choice, most would put down the Himalaya’s higher reaches as godforsaken places best left alone, but when Sundar, our local guide, speaks, they seem more alive than us dreary-eyed souls in our down suits, rubbing our hands for warmth in a losing battle against the steadily dipping temperature.
Behind us—four days’ walk over badlands of boulders, shifting surfaces of sand and rock, meadows abuzz with insects, and across roiling rivers—lies Badrinath, the holiest of holy Vishnu shrines, near which we began our journey. Ahead, over four full days, an even more challenging terrain awaits us: soft snow, steep inclines, and vast expanses of glaciers riddled with crevasses all the way to Madhyamaheshwar, the temple dedicated to Lord Shiva that’s part of the Panch Kedar circuit in Uttarakhand.
We are, in a manner of speaking, at Middle Earth, caught in the crosshairs of the preserver and the destroyer.
We’re on the trek to Panpatia Col (the lowest point of a ridge between two peaks), to follow in the footsteps of explorers who walked this route in the last century. This trek is part of our project-in-progress to document in images, text, and maps the routes hailed by British explorers of the 19th and 20th centuries.
For us, mad mountain men, these visits began as means to get off the ever-expanding “beaten track” in the mountains. But after the crossing of Auden’s Col—the route charted by British surveyor J.B. Auden in 1939 from Gangotri to Kedarnath—it became more of a salute to pioneers who braved weather and terrain in their pursuit of legend and curiosity, exploration and cartography. After all, there is always this fear-cloaked excitement that comes with the understanding that no book, no guide map, and no one really knows what we are all venturing into. The proverbial leap of faith, if you will.
This neck of the mountains, between the holy shrines in Uttarakhand’s Garhwal region is shrouded in legend. It is said that a priest from Kedarnath walked to Badrinath daily to light the temple’s lamps. His wife urged him to spend more time at home. When her pleas fell on deaf ears, she called upon Shiva for help. Shiva made the peak Neelkanth rise up on that route, and peppered the rest of the way with other obstacles too great for humans to overcome.
What became of the poor priest no one knows. But the legend endured long enough to whet the appetite of explorer C.F. Meade, who in 1912 reached a col on the Satopanth glacier, a watershed parallel to the route we had decided to take. We hoped we’d be more successful than Meade, who returned from there announcing that it could not possibly be a route for pilgrims.
In 1934, explorers Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman set out to find for themselves how good Shiva was at setting up insurmountable hurdles. They probably gave the god an AAA-rating, considering they found themselves trapped between ice walls and a bear-infested forest beyond a col of the Satopanth Bank, in a place called the Gandharpongi Gad. A route they had expected to cover in two days took more than two weeks, and they just about lived to tell the tale. Food ran out, and they survived on bamboo shoots for which, in Shipton’s words, they had to go “fighting with the bears”.
The duo was among the luckier explorers on this route. Two trekkers from West Bengal who tried to retrace their steps in 1984 were never heard of again. And these are only the documented stories. The mountains keep their secrets well, and with each disappointment or disaster on the trail, the route has only grown more silent.
It seemed ironic then, that in a near-vertical land of thin air and sub-zero temperatures, we find the success of our mission stalled not by glaciers and crevasses, or inclement weather and bad health, but by eggs and canned tuna.
Thankfully, Avilash and Pawan run an adventure travel company and know these problems only too well. Between the lack of eggs and an aborted expedition, the choice is easy to make. Avilash asks Siri Dai, our cook, to make us a vegetarian dinner. It’s a silent peace offering to Sundar, and a hint of what our menu will be for as long as we remained in the realm of the gods. Pawan and I repack the eggs and tuna to drive home the point—the protein can wait.
To say that we are treading where no one else ever has would be a lie. The quest for finding the legendary route between the shrines first bore fruit in 2000, when Martin Moran, an English mountaineer, led an expedition to summit Neelkanth, a solitary peak close to the Panpatia glacier.
After their successful ascent of the peak, Moran and his team managed to climb the dangerous Panpatia icefall, a feat made possible by the extensive equipment they carried, and went on to exit at Kedarnath. They became the first party to lay to rest the mystery of the route between the two temples.
India notched its first success in 2008, using an unlikely ally to achieve the feat—Google Earth. A man, known simply as Debu-da from West Bengal, managed to cross successfully and without the need for Moran’s derring-do, since he skirted the deadly icefall altogether to find, relatively speaking, a less dangerous way up. This was a route that followed Khirao Ganga, a stream that emerges from the base of the Panpatia glacier and flows through a valley parallel to the one used by Shipton-Tilman and Martin Moran.
Still, knowledge of previous successes and all the maps, research, and preparation, rarely help in making the real slog easier.
Luckily, the next morning arrives bright and cheery, bathing the jumble of peaks, ridges and hanging glaciers all around us in a golden glow. To our west rises the main icefall of the Parvati glacier. Gnarled and broken, it tumbles down layer by insurmountable layer all the way to the valley floor, every bit as dangerous as Shipton described it: “We gazed down upon the head of a very formidable icefall. It was appallingly steep and for a very long time we could not see any way of tackling it which offered the slightest hope of success.”
To stand against this might of nature, we have a piece of A4-sized paper that contains a thin line charting a route of possible success winding its way up from next to Neelkanth. The peak itself rises hefty and straight, piercing clouds that float too low, an unmissable landmark in this Himalayan labyrinth.
Beyond, what we see from camp is a landscape in utter disarray. Gigantic boulders strewn over the glacier’s serrated surface. Hissing streams snaking their way across the ice. Gaping crevasses waiting patiently for one false step. In images, such expanses may evoke a flood of awe and visions of human frailty. In reality though, it’s quite the opposite. Backpack strapped on and ready to go, I discover the carapace of city life shatter, the mind freed of a multitude of unnecessary clutter in this realm of snow and ice. My world shrinks until it is reduced to the next six inches of solid ground that I am ready to plant my feet on. Every step, every moment, is as intense as it is full of peace; heartbeats, breath, and the crunch of boot against snow and ice form a synchrony that keeps every sense alive, and random thoughts at bay. All that matters, I realise, is how surely each foot is planted, and whether our socks are dry at the end of the day. And while the explorers never penned such thoughts, I was sure they’d agree.
Our progress is slow but steady as we climb a minor hill that rises like a wave, its crest is a knife’s-edge ridge that melts into a seasonal snowfield on the flank of the next hill. Great walls of rock rise up around us, so steep that there’s no place for even the snow to cling to. It isn’t the best place for a camp—the snow being steadily chewed by underground streams—but it will have to do. We hurry through dinner and call it a day.
We set out early the next morning, hoping to cover some ground before the sun rises and softens the snow. We make good time, beating the sun on the western flank of the climb and entering the shadow of the eastern side—a place of deep snow and steep drops.
We plough on in slow, steady motion, digging our ice axes in, taking turns to open a route by beating down the snow and waiting for drifting clouds to clear and visibility increase beyond five metres. As each layer of cloud clears, it reveals yet another heaving hump of snow waiting to be climbed.
On a clear day, the pain of the climb might have been offset by the views, but now all that the mind can focus on is the numbness caused by the damp cold, and the sinking feeling of another mound of snow appearing when it is actually the pass we are eager to make acquaintance of.
At midday, we finally climb the last mountainside, beyond which the land flattens to a tabletop, bringing with it a different kind of disorientation—a desolate nothingness with little to lead us on. Many a past traveller may have found himself lost on this stretch—disoriented and climbing down the wrong valley, finding his advance blocked by an armada of crevasses and beaten back by winds too harsh to battle—keeping him from connecting the final dots to the Parvati and Panpatia cols.
But today, amazingly, the weather is clear and windless, and among the peaks that ring in this plateau, we can easily identify Chaukhamba, the palace of Shiva, towards which we will be walking for the next two days.
There is no hurry any more. We will be traversing the plateau, and in its flatness and fullness of snow, the area seems like one huge, perfect campsite. Avilash, who’d been pushing us to hurry before this, now allows some respite. “These are the promised views for which we have gone through all this trouble. Let’s enjoy them.”
And then he adds a more sobering note: “Just make sure you keep an eye out for the crevasses.” Luckily the egg-induced storm Sundar was worrying about two days ago, now proves a boon. It has dumped enough snow to seal off the crevasses, making our journey a cakewalk. There is better news still. We’re already at 5,000 metres, so climbing up to the 5,400-metre-high Panpatia Col will not cause great grief. In fact, it will only be a signal that we are about to leave this rarefied world and head to greener vales.
Of course, when all goes well, you can count on the weather to be unpredictable. Over the next two days, we are drenched by rain, battered by hail, baked by the sun, and blinded by whiteouts, all the way to Panpatia Col, which looks like a small hillock. Only the stump of a rope and the precipitous drop on the other side, remind us of how daunting this col is from a different approach. We begin the slow march downhill to a valley patterned by wind and thin channels of water towards our destination for the day: the unmissable yellow tents that shine in the otherwise white surroundings. I say a silent prayer, thanking not the gods, but our team of Sherpas and porters for creating the finish line for that day’s trek. Siri Dai, I am sure will have tea ready for us the moment we reach camp.
With the most dreaded sections of the trek behind us and the adrenaline levels lower, all we crave now are dry socks and views of carpets of grass. But even those are hard-won. For rain and clouds and boulders litter the onward journey. We slide across gentle slopes of snow, boulder across gigantic rocks, and negotiate a slew of streams until, at last, the forests of pine and oak are visible far below us. Hidden somewhere within is the temple of Madhyamaheshwar.
By the time we reach it the next day, I am assailed by depressing thoughts of just how I will limp across the finish line to the roadhead at Raansi.
And then I remember: there will be a well-marked village trail to follow and, unlike Shipton and Tilman, I won’t have to survive on bamboo shoot and wild mushrooms. We have enough eggs and canned tuna to help us all sail across with breath to spare.
Even Sundar, I am sure, will agree.
Appeared in the May 2015 issue as “Leap of Faith”.
Haridwar is 200 km/5 hours northeast of New Delhi, and well connected by road and rail. The Delhi-Dehradun Shatabdi is perhaps the most convenient way to travel between the two cities. From Haridwar, take a jeep to Joshimath (270km/8-9 hrs; ₹600) and then continue to Badrinath by jeep the following day (50km/2 hrs; ₹200). Start the trek from Badrinath or from the point where Khirao Ganga meets the Alaknanda (about 12 km short of Badrinath). If you start from Badrinath, you will need to cross the Holdsworth’s Pass (also known as Neelkanth Khal/Pass at 4,650 m to descend to Panpatia glacier at 4,200 m).
An unpredictable climate pattern has reduced the window of exploration to early-May to mid-June. During the day, the temperature hovers around 18˚C and can fall to -10˚C at night. Expect rain, snow, and bouts of bad weather if you attempt the trek in June. The post-monsoon season offers the prospect of a crossing in the end of September, though temperatures could easily be 5 degrees lower.
This is a proper expedition-style trek, so it’s necessary to be equipped with excellent mountaineering boots, crampons, ropes, some anchors (snow bars, ice-pitons, and rock-pitons) apart from regular trekking gear such as good quality 3/4-season tents, sleeping bags, and warm clothing for low temperatures. It is possible to hire equipment from the Indian Mountaineering Foundation in New Delhi.
•It’s best to undertake this trek under the guidance of an experienced operator.
•Fitness training before the trek is essential.
•Trekking permits are available from the Forest Department at Joshimath (01389-333179; entry fee of ₹150 per person and ₹100 per tent per night). There is a forest department checkpost at Khadara, halfway between Madhyamaheshwar and Raansi, on the last day of the trek.
•Porters for the trek can be hired at Joshimath. It is important to equip the porters with good equipment and sleeping bags to ensure the success of the expedition.
•There is no habitation between Khirao village and Madhyamaheshwar. Inform officials at Joshimath, and friends and family about your proposed itinerary so that search and rescue operations can be organised if there is any delay in your arrival.
Since there are no detailed maps and the logistical requirements are significant, this trek is not offered by most trek organisers. The author travelled with White Magic Adventure Travel. This year, White Magic will conduct the trek from 13-27 June 2015 (www.whitemagicadventure.com).
Sankar Sridhar is a photojournalist who has spent the better part of the past 17 years documenting the lives of the nomadic communities in India. He is the author of "Ladakh Trance Himalaya" (2009). His commendations include the Humanity Photo Awards.