“Screw this, I’m never coming back here again. Kalindi Khal is much better than this shit show”, Depender, our guide, calls out as he enters the kitchen tent. Kamal grunts in agreement as he brings the stoves to life, sputtering pitifully as if gasping for oxygen in the thin air, much like us.
We huddle together in the corners, trying to score a spot on the thin rubber mattresses that afford some insulation from the ice below. My mind drifts from conversation as I gaze intently at the grotesque icefall guarding Jogin’s western flanks - a stark departure from the tame slopes of it’s north face.
Jogin's West Face from the Khatling Glacier
We had just crossed over from the Rudugaira Valley via Auden’s Col, descending to a massive glacial snowfield in the midst of a whiteout. As we neared the edge of a small hump above the snowfield, the clouds parted dramatically, revealing the gigantic scale of the heavily crevassed Khatling glacier. The bare, white glacier ran down the valley as far as we could see. On either side, formidable peaks surrounded the glacier, daunting towers of rock and ice.
Five days ago, we had left from the pilgrimage town of Gangotri, with the intention of trekking over Auden’s Col and Mayali Pass to Kedarnath. Along with Yamunotri and Badrinath, Gangotri and Kedarnath make up the Char Dham Yatra in the Uttarakhand Himalaya undertaken by thousands of Hindus in the depth of the Indian summer each year. Although I had no such religious inclination myself, I was eager about the Col itself.
Meadows of the upper Rudugaira valley, with Jogin towering to the left
The first two days, we hiked steeply up the lower Rudugaira valley along the river, from birch forests to the vastness of the higher meadows. Already at over 14000 feet, and with some of the Garhwali porters struggling to keep pace, a rest day was in order. From the base of Rudugaira peak, where we set camp, the massive Gangotri peaks rise from the midst of crevassed slopes to over 23000 ft to the East. On the other side of the valley to the North is the smaller but equally impressive Jogin group. The ridges descending from these two massifs at the head of the valley meet at a small saddle, maybe 200 feet wide, which is Auden’s Col. A steep 70 degree snow gully descends on the other side of the Col to the Khatling glacier, and further to the long and remote Bhilangana valley. While the rest of us had it easy, Lalit and Depender had to head back down to Gangotri, tasked with replacing the slowest of the porters with (hopefully) faster ones.
As the sun sets that day, painting the clouds with glowing yellows, we sit outside watching bharal run down the slopes. I am envious of their nonchalant agility and the ease with which they climb loose, precarious rock. They run away before I have a chance to photograph them. The next day, somehow Sandeep convinces me to leave the camera at camp on our acclimatisation hike up to Rudugaira’s higher camps. When we see a huge flock not more than a few hundred feet away, I curse him silently.
Bharal run down the slopes at Rudugaira Base Camp
The next day, we wake up to an overcast sky and light, persistent rain. Despite the unimpressive view, the conditions make for easy hiking without the harsh, high altitude sun beating down on us and the constant worrying about sunburn and dehydration. We leave the grassy slopes and traverse onto the moraine, passing another group on the way. While climbing up to a small ridge, some of us notice splatters of bear poo on rocks just next to the trail. None of us mention it until we take a breather at the top, curiosity masking our fear and apprehension. Despite being just three days’ walk from the Gangotri, where dozens of expeditions and countless trekking groups frequent the main valley in the summer months, the Rudugaira valley sees only a fraction of those visitors.
Depender and Shivaji on the moraine
We descend to another grassy field next to the lateral moraine, that serves as the base camp for the Gangotri peaks, before climbing back up the moraine. All around us, huge glacial walls rise hundreds of feet, spitting rock and ice into the depths of glacier below. This is truly harsh alpine territory. A short, very steep climb on huge, loose boulders leads to a glacial lake, ironically named Sukha Tal (dry lake) - apparently, it dries up in the post monsoon months. After walking along the bank and climbing along a ridge on the lateral moraine for a couple of hours, we reach the campsite that serves as base camp for the Col. With the sky still overcast, we gloomily slink away into our tents, unsure the weather will allow us the pass crossing the next day.
Namrata and Lalit walking along Sukha Tal
Our fourth cup of chai that evening is punctuated by voices claiming the weather has cleared. I grab the camera and rush outside to see the last of the sun’s rays illuminating the highest reaches of Jogin’s ridges. I turn around to see the Col, finally free of clouds and almost within reach. Equipment is distributed and plans are made for a 3 am start. But, there is the plan and then there is what actually happens.
Sunset on Jogin's ridges as the weather clears the evening before our pass push
Everyone sleeps past the 3 am mark, and the first to wake up are the kitchen staff at 4. While Sandeep admonishes them for not waking everyone up at 3, I am full of calm acceptance. It’s Indian time. By the time we are done with breakfast and everyone has the right gaiter on the right foot, it is dawn. We need to hurry before the midday sun turns the snow to sugary slush. Although clouds hide the summits of Gangotri and Jogin, the glacier itself is magnificent enough to keep our attention from the physical effort. It takes a couple of hours for us to cross the glacier and reach the base of the actually climb to the pass. From here, the slope gets steeper and the snow gets softer. We rest, rope up and proceed.
Painfully slow progress is made for the next five hours. Namrata is having the hardest time. Sandeep shows some tough love, denying her requests to turn around and head back to Gangotri. Depender carries her pack, short roping and almost dragging her along. One of the porters gives up midway, leaving his load consisting of sleeping bags to be slowly drenched in the snow. Sandeep and I practically haul Satyajit up the last 200 feet to the Col. Dehydrated and defeated, we reach the Col at 1 in the afternoon.
Auden's Col from Base Camp
Now, we must negotiate the steep descent to the Khatling glacier. With 200 feet of rope and a 70 degree 200 metre snow face to descend, we’re faced with a slight supply-demand situation. This situation is managed with the help of ropes the porters use to secure their loads. Lalit, Kamal and the porters go first and as I follow behind them, an interesting scene plays out below me in slow motion, involving (again) the porter carrying the sleeping bags. He slips, lets go of his load. The sleeping bags somersault into the porter below him, who, in turn, lets go of his load. This second load, not as harmless as somersaulting sleeping bags, consists of kitchen stoves. As the stoves break free of the cords that secure them together, I notice they are headed right towards where Kamal and Lalit are perched on a ledge. I cry out in alarm, Kamal and Lalit look up in horror and duck just in time to avoid the somersaulting stoves hitting them in the face. We continue watching as they sail inches over their heads, before coming to rest on the snowfield below. A shouting match ensues between them and the guilty porters. We breathe a sigh of relief and finish the rest of the descent uneventfully. Once we reach the snowfield, the sky starts dumping loads of snow and we quickly make work of the rest of the walk to the camp on Khatling glacier.
The climb to the Col
Khatling glacier, with our camp in the lower left corner
The next day is the namesake of this blog. We wake up early to the sun illuminating the summits of the dozens of peaks that surround the head of the Khatling glacier. As we head down the glacier, Jogin’s serpentine West face towers over the left of the valley, guarded by a massive icefall at the base. In a couple of hours, we reach the moraine. It is 9 am. Unlike the terminal moraine on frequently traveled glaciers, the route here is unmarked save for a couple of cairns on the entire stretch. This means a lot of route finding and retracing steps when the trail ends abruptly over huge ice walls. The terrain is mostly a thin layer of loose gravel and scree over hard, black ice almost as dense as water ice. It is exhausting and tiring like nothing any of us has ever seen. We keep walking on moraine. The few times we lose our way, we retrace our steps to a vantage point. We slide down a couple of short ice runnels where the moraine has eroded away, leaving bare ice below. Then we walk on moraine some more.
After six hours and nine kilometres of moraine, we leave the glacier and traverse to the steep slopes on the right of the valley. A short climb up these slopes finally leads us to a well established trail. Camp is only a couple of hours from here. We reach camp at 6 pm and radio Depender and Namrata who are lagging behind. After a quick dinner, Sandeep, Lalit and I head back to relieve Depender and accompany Namrata back to camp. It is 2 in the night by the time we return with Namrata. It’s been a long, long day with more moraine than we care for in a lifetime. There is unspoken agreement that we shall rest the next day.
The worst of the moraine
We wake at noon and spend the rest of the day doing nothing in particular. A good part of the afternoon is spent throwing rocks at other rocks. In the distance, the lush Bhilangana valley beckons. As magnificent and beautiful as high alpine places are, it is always a delight to return to the life of lower altitudes. The next day, we must cross the river over a shepherd bridge to continue towards our climb to Mayali pass and onward to Kedarnath. When we reach the confluence over which the bridge stands, Kamal goes ahead to inspect it. The ‘bridge’ consists of two parallel birch logs resting on boulders on either end of the 20 foot wide stretch of river. While testing the unstable logs, Kamal’s phone falls into the river and he declares the bridge unsafe to cross. I look at everyone’s faces and gauge most of us secretly relieved, mysef included. We decide to head down the main Bhilanagana valley and exit via an alternate trailhead.
The route takes us three days. We walk through dense foliage and knee high fields of wild spinach. At night, we regularly hear bear cries. Now running short of ration, we feast on saag Kamal prepares from indigenous bicchu (a thorny plant) and spinach. On the second day, we slaughter a goat bought from a shepherd we meet at camp that feeds us for the next two days in the form of mutton curry, mutton biryani and mutton kebabs. We pick and eat wild strawberries till we feel sick. The Bhilangana valley is one of the most untouched and wildest places I have been to in the Indian Himalaya.
The descent through the Bhilangana Valley
Occasionally, the trail strays right to the valley floor. The river bed is littered with bharal carcasses, some victims of local villagers and others, bear prey. There is one that has been killed so recently, there is still blood dripping from its mouth. Close to this spot, we lose our way and climb through dense bamboo to find the trail. We hear a bear cry not more than a hundred feet away. With the bharal at the valley floor, an abundance of bamboo shoots and mutton biryani in our packs, we genuinely fear becoming bear dinner. The fear is short lived as Lalit becomes our saviour and finds the trail. We practically run down the next few kilometres. We pass a couple of small rural settlements and then a couple of villages. By 5 in the evening, we reach what is to be our last camp. It is pleasantly warm here, so Kamal, Depender, Lalit, Sandeep and I sleep out under the stars in the yard of a dilapidated PWD guesthouse.
Barbeque in the Bhilangana Valley
By noon the next day, we reach the road head. While Lalit and Kamal run down to the nearest town at Reeh to get vehicles, the rest of us spend a lazy afternoon playing cards. It starts raining cats and dogs just as Lalit and Kamal return with the vehicles and hastily load our equipment. When it rains in this part of the Himalaya, it pours. Most of us are drenched by the time we get going.
Two more days on the road, and we are back in Dehradun taking a much needed shower. I don’t understand what Depender was talking about - I would go back in a heartbeat. On second thought though, maybe a bit of a break wouldn’t be bad.
Lalit walks back into civilisation