Here's an account of my first expedition... in the borderline poetic prose style of Miss Isha Astha....
It was a starry night…. somewhere in the hills (!) …and we were on our way there, Aakash, Pavitra, Mehak, Amit, Nitasha, Mary, Veronica, Ankit, Raghu sir and me. Seshadri was to join us a day later at Uttarkashi. Stuck in a rickety bus, which is the trademark start to any given Hiking Club trek, we prepared ourselves for a sleepless night. We had found a direct bus, so at least we didn’t have to switch buses in the middle of the night. Ankit had managed to find himself a single backseat on which he sprawled himself , covered his eyes with his Stetson, and in true cowboy style dozed off. Pavitra mean while amused herself by watching Nitasha bonk her head against the window pane every time she drifted off and must’ve laughed so hard that eventually her seat broke. By the time we crossed Chamba, dawn broke and a few hours later we reached Uttarkashi. the ‘bus stop’ in front of Bhandari hotel had actually turned into a muddy swamp thanks to the previous night’s rain, and we had to wade through it to reach our rest house….all exclaims of disgust were soon forgotten at the thought of aloo parathas awaiting us for lunch. Stomachs full, we made our way to NIM to hire equipment; tents, axes, and koflachs for the guides, we ourselves didn’t carry any, relying on the guides to break the trail for us. The skies were clear, the weather was warm and perfect, and we were all excited at the prospect of climbing the peak… and prayed for some snowfall at the end as well. We spent that evening scarfing down just about everything the Uttarkashi dhabas had to offer us to eat~ trying to build food reserves for the days we’d be on the mountain with virtually nothing to eat.
5th October, we were ready and raring to go. Nitasha was in dampened spirits since the time she woke up and found her lip swollen to the size of an egg. Lesson no.1: when in strange beds never sleep with face into the pillow. An avil, and a couple of parathas later she was back to her usual chatter pattar self and making Ankit’s life miserable. We boarded the luggage on the 10 a.m bus to Gangotri, after Seshadri arrived and were on our way amidst a noisy and very cramped bus. The view succeeded in making up for the discomfort of the journey. The deep gorges, livid colours, the raging Bhagirathi, all made the mountain seem to come alive. The rock formations, especially in the river were unlike anything I’ve seen before. They were huge single boulders, smooth as a baby’s bottom in different shades of browns and grays, with these depressions in them, as though someone had left finger marks in clay dough. This was the second time I was going up the valley this year, and as opposed to the summer when I had visited the Gangotri valley for the first time, and the scenery was dull and lifeless, somehow autumn had brought about a 180 degree change in the landscape.
The landscape was breathtaking all the way until Chirbas where we went for an acclimatization walk the following day. Throughout the 9km walk from Gangotri to Chirbas we had the Bhagirathi to our right, glimmering like a thousand diamonds under the midday sun, and the mountain ranges flanking both sides of the valley, showing off a spectrum of colours; dark green pine forests at the base, orange to brown till finally red alpine meadows higher up, and the whipped cream- like snowy tips. It was a clear, sunny day and we had a clear view of the Bhagirathi massif, as well as Saifi, Maitri, and Chirbas Paarbat. After a hearty meal of nutella in Maggi masala flavoured water, we marched back down to Gangotri like happy campers, singing at the top of our lungs, (Mary) stopping here and there to take pictures, or (veronica) posing as a Liril ad model under waterfalls. It was our last night in civilization before we officially commenced the trek. The boys decided to christen the occasion with cold water baths…. and loud screams of terror (from Ankit) when the cold water actually hit him.
On the 7th of October we started making our way up the Rudugaira valley. The river played hide and seek with us most of the morning. The first half of the trek that day was through shaded mountain on a carpet of maple leaves in their autumn hues, the sounds of waterfalls beckoning us in the distance, and sunny patches where we could drop our packs and just feel light and free and doze off for a while. But all was not pretty that day. It wouldn’t hurt to mention the killer 1000 foot ascent ,that gave our backs reason to scream, or the part of the trek when the group had split Aakash, Mary and I lost the trail and eventually had to scramble over a rock fall (extremely nerve wracking) to regain our bearings. It also wouldn’t hurt to mention the little crush that Pavitra and Nitasha had on Baldev, one of our guides, and how they managed to successfully play damsel in distress on various occasions, and have Baldev come to their rescue, either helping them cross over a dilapidated looking bridge, or run down the mountain holding their hands…heh heh! 16500 feet up, the day had ended well- a short spell of rain towards the evening and a warm glass of milk served by the porters in our tents, for a good night’s sleep.
The next day we began our trek to base camp. We were well above tree line now. All we had around us was patches of brownish red alpine meadows splattering the snow and an eerie calming silence. It was like walking through a painting. Just before base camp was a treacherous path through a landslide which lasted a bit too long. One slip and you’ll find your self skidding all the way down into the river, which will gobble you up and drown your screams. Terrorizing describes the route in one word. Base camp was a flattish area, being the highest point at that height. So the winds beat in from the windward side. Strangely, just ten steps away, you can seek refuge on the leeward side of the mountain and happily bask in the sun all afternoon (and burn your nose doing so). That night at BC was going to be the first of many sleepless nights to follow.
The next morning while the entire party decided to do a recce of ABC, Raghu sir and I stayed back at BC, me feeling the slight effects of altitude. The weather was still good. The Gangotri peaks were visible in the daytime, before the midday clouds rolled in, and across the valley two of the Jogin peaks were also visible. A foreign party of two with an army of porters came into base camp that day, on an expedition to Auden’s col. By that afternoon the ABC party had also returned with horror tales of the speed of the winds up there. The next day was to be the load ferry. I was dreading it. In the evening we killed time making fools of ourselves in a long jump competition, or standing around a tiny fire made out of twigs and trash (we were above tree line), or staring at the very glamorous(!) and better equipped American camp, plotting ways of raiding their kitchen at night.
It snowed that night and all the way into the next morning. Initially our spirits were high at the prospect of making snowmen and having snow ball fights, so we eagerly jumped out of our sleeping bags. Ten snowballs and a one foot tall snow man later, we started getting restless. No Koflachs meant no work that day, so we had to bum in the tents all day, lest our boots get wet in the snow. We sat, all of us crammed in one tent talking excitedly, waiting for the snowfall to cease. When the weather started showing no signs of relenting that day, Mehak and I retired to our tents to sulk, while the others played cards, and made it a point to shriek and disturb my peaceful sulking. Nitasha was getting restless too. While Mehak and Amit were writing pages and pages in their journals, competing for best travelogue of the year, Nit was suffering from writers block and would release her frustration on poor Ankit, which inevitably resulted in very comical squabbles. That night we sat in the shelter of the warm kitchen, eating sticky maggi and contemplating the next days’ moves. The American team had already packed up and left that morning. Although our head guide Mohan Singh was eager that we attempt summit if the snowfall stopped by the next day, to us, packing up and leaving seemed like a welcome idea.
It was a hard night. The winds were howling and banging at our collapsing tents, trying to blow us off the mountain. Lucifer’s messengers were calling out to us and we were saying our last prayers. With the temperature dipping to well below – 20 C, we didn’t get any shut eye that night. All of us took turns banging off the snow on the sides of the tents all night. The boys’ tent was the worst, with the ceiling touching their noses and the guy ropes propped up with ice axes and sandals, and just about anything they could find!
By the next morning the storm had ceased, though there was still an ominous cloud cover stretching for miles around. One couldn’t tell where the sky ended and the snow covered mountains began. So we packed up base camp, and after a breakfast of something that tasted like sweetened shoelaces, we set off, all the way back down to Gangotri. Most of the tough areas were snow covered; making it easier to negotiate. My knees began to collapse midway, the cold and the descent just made it harder. Our boots were wet and we were hungry. The only thing that kept us going was the thought of a warm quilt in Gangotri, and so we marched on, well into the night and finally reached at 9p.m.after a 13 hour hike. After a thank god meal, we crashed, and slept the most peaceful sleep in days. From thereon, it was all the way home. The weather apparently got worse on the mountain by the day, and we had managed to get out of the valley just in time.
Needless to say, despite the fact that we hadn’t achieved our goals we’d gladly do it all over again. And as to what became of the team mates? Veronica and Mary, the inseparable duo, can be found at the Dhaba, at all odd hours of the day, Pavitra and Aakash are in class most of the time like good Mathsies, Amit is known to be setting newer and harder routes on the wall everyday, and Seshadri is trying his level best to demolish the route. Nitasha’s presence can be heard from miles away at any given point of the day. Spider girl Mehak is climbing and passing on gyan to fuchas. And Ankit has been spotted at the local crags often, saving the lives of many, by showing them what NOT to do!