Two weeks ago, on the 23rd of September, two weary trekkers with their porters approached our camp at around half past seven in the evening. They were from a different trekking group and were attempting Auden’s Col alongside us. The worried expressions on their faces told us all was not going well with them. Four members of their group hadn’t reached the campsite yet. Their guides and the rest of the porters were missing as well.
We were camping on the Khatling Glacier that day, a glacier infamous for its ruthless terrain and treacherous crevasses.
The crevasse ridden glacier of Khatling. PC: Somenath
A cursory search of Auden’s Col on the internet will display two conflicting pictures of the trail.
On one hand, it is revered as the holiest grail of India, offering a rare but stunning passage way between Gangotri and Kedarnath. Brimming with raw beauty and laborious challenges, it is perfect for seasoned trekkers looking to step up their trekking game in the Himalayas.
On the other hand, it is feared to be a hostile trail where the dangers encountered outweigh the scenic beauty of the landscapes.
A captivating view from the trail of Auden PC: Somenath
I am writing this article today hoping to add some context to these two opposing views of Auden’s Col. It is a story of how two groups of trekkers who crossed the col side by side on the same day at the same time ended up with vastly contradicting experiences to remember these mountains by.
Setting the stage
Day 1: Dehradun to Gangotri
Our team embarked on a long but scenic drive from Doon to Gangotri.
Day 2: The Team
We had three participants trekking with us. They were spending the day acclimatising. Meanwhile, Somenath (our trek leader), Pratham (our guide) and Kamal (our cook) were separating out the load with our diligent porters and ensuring everything was set and ready for the expedition.
Day 3: Gangotri to Nala Camp
We were going to be gaining over 5000 ft in altitude in the next two days! Needless to say, the ascent was going to be a gruelling one. The trail for most parts runs through dense forests that occasionally open up to miniature grasslands with unclouded views of limpid skies above.
Enroute Nala Camp. PC: Somenath
“We reached Nala Camp at around 3pm. Post a session of stretching, we headed out for a short acclimatisation walk. A group of six trekkers were camping not far from us. We learnt from them that they would be crossing the Col on the same day as us.” –Somenath, Trek Leader
Day 4 & 5: Nala Camp to Gangotri Base Camp via Rudugaira
“We were supposed to camp at Rudugaira according to the itinerary. Since all of our three trekkers were coping remarkably well with the altitude gain, we decided to skip Rudugaira Camp and head directly to Gangotri Base Camp instead. Located 1.5 kms away, water sources were not only closer here but the campsite was also better protected from chilly winds.” –Somenath
Next morning, the base camp at Gangotri saw intermittent snowfall and remained cloudy throughout the day. Our team woke up early, did yoga with some breathing exercises and the rest of the day was left for acclimatisation.
Meanwhile the six trekkers we met at Nala camp had reached Gangotri Base camp from Rudugaira and were pitching their tents here.
The weather remained cloudy throughout the day. PC: Somenath
The adventure begins
Day 6: Gangotri Base Camp to Auden’s Col Base Camp
Compared to the first two days of ascent, today’s trek was less demanding on our trekkers. It was a gradual undulating climb all the way up to Auden’s Col Base Camp.
“We had our first glimpse of the col today.” – Somenath
The view was a spectacular one to behold.
Covered in white, the col appeared benign as it straddled a precarious ridge from the mighty Jogin I on the east and an equally formidable ridge running from the Gangotri III peak on the North West.
The dip between the two ridges is Auden's Col. PC: Somenath
“Considering how tiny the col looked from where we stood, it may have passed off as insignificant to an outsider. But this is hardly the case in reality. The Auden’s col not just connects two venerated mountains in the trekking world, it also links the Jogin I glacier from the Rudugaira valley on the north to the Khatling Glacier from the Bhilangna Valley on the south. The thought of navigating this impressive stretch in less than twenty four hours from now was adrenaline inducing. ” – Somenath
Our group reached Auden’s Col basecamp at around 3 pm that afternoon. Soon after pitching tents, halwa was prepared and prayers were offered to the mountain gods.
“We had been blessed with clear weather on the trek until now. Given the volatile nature of the weather conditions in this campsite, we prayed quite fervently that evening for the good weather to continue.” –Somenath
Auden's Col Base Camp. PC: Somenath
That night, much to Somenath’s dismay, he noticed that the guides and porters of the other team were hardly prepared for what lay ahead.
“They were carrying around 4kgs of rice and 40l of kerosene oil. The food was barely sufficient for all of them. To top it all, they did not have a kitchen tent.
Their porters slept under a tarpaulin sheet with spare blankets and sleeping bags every night. The guides neither had space under the tarpaulin sheet nor had sleeping bags to use. I couldn’t fathom how they could possibly get through this campsite. Temperatures here drop several degrees below zero by mid night.
Our dining tent was already being used by our porters for sleeping. So I moved into the kitchen tent with Pratham and Kamal and gave the tent I was using to the guides of the other team.” – Somenath
This arrangement continued until we parted ways with them.
Day 7: Auden’s Col
In an amusing twist of fate to the sincere prayers that were made the previous evening, it snowed heavily throughout the night all the way until 7 am that morning.
“We were supposed to start our trek to the col at 4 am. But, snowfall held us back. The weather had cleared up by 8 am that day but we decided to stay back at the campsite nevertheless. Although it would have been possible to make the ascent to the col, Pratham felt that the presence of soft snow on the slopes while descending might prove to be an encumbrance.” –Somenath
So, we decided to wait until the next day. The other team chose to do the same.
Day 8: Crossing Auden’s Col
Armed with two to three litres of water per person and with gaiters and micro-spikes on the ready, we broke camp early eager to pursue the highlight of the entire trek: The Auden’s Col.
Five minutes from the base camp, an arduous ascent of 1.5kms up a snowy slope awaited the trekkers. The presence of fresh snow from the previous day made navigation difficult. To add to the consternation, it began snowing again!
“It took us a total of 5 hours to cross this stretch.” –Somenath
Ascent up the snowy slope. PC: Somenath
Our group was now 40 metres from the col.
“The entire section was covered in blue ice. So Kamal and I headed up first and fixed a rope for our trekkers. The other team who were trekking with us until this point in time used the ropes as well. They weren’t wearing micro-spikes. This increased the dangers for them multi-fold.” –Somnath
At 12 p.m that day, despite the odds they faced with the weather and the terrain, both teams finally made it to the top of Auden’s Col.
The top of Auden's Col. PC; Somenath
The col was surreal. Standing there, the hardships felt worth it.
“We were right at the confluence of four huge massifs: Jogin I and Gangotri III flanking us on either side with the Jogin glacier behind us and Khatling lying in front of us. It was both formidable and beautiful, for lack of a better word.” –Somenath
We did not stay for long at the col though. It was time to start preparing for descent.
“The descent from the col was a tricky section. Inclined at an angle of 70-75 degrees, the presence of soft snow from the previous day coupled with bad weather conditions today made the navigating it challenging!”- Garima, one of the trekkers from our batch
Ropes were fixed to assist the climb down the slope.
“Since both the teams were using the rope now, it took us almost two hours to descend down the 250 metre stretch from the col”- Somenath
Two hours later: Enter Khatling Glacier
The teams had successfully crossed the Col now.
One look ahead however made them realise that the real challenge might only just be beginning.
The beginning of Khatling Glacier. PC: Somenath
“When I read about the Khatling glacier online, I was under the impression that it was a tough but small portion of the entire trek. I was shocked when I realised we will be grappling with this humongous mass of ice for two days! The Glacier was almost ten kilometres long.” – Vijay, one of the trekkers from our batch.
Our trekkers walking beside a gaping crevasse of Khatling. PC: Somenath
True to its reputation, the crevasses of the Khatling Glacier were crafty and challenging to navigate.
“It helped that Pratham and Kamal had been on the trek several times before. They were comfortable navigating the terrain, adept at recognising unstable sections and were quick with finding alternative routes. But even they were taken by surprise that day. They had never seen Khatling this way before. The crevasses were somehow bigger and more in number!”- Somenath
That afternoon, post a taxing hike, both teams finally set up camp side by side on a snow field located right on the crevasse ridden glacier of Khatling, much to Vijay’s disbelief and amusement.
Our campsite on Khatling. PC: Somenath
Day 9: Crossing Khatling Glacier
“We broke camp a little late, around 10 a.m. The other team started the trek with us” – Somenath
Today was going to be demanding.
“With the weather turning slightly foggy and the glacier boasting deep crevasses of different shapes and sizes, it was important for us to stick together so that we could keep an eye out on each other. Two of the trekkers from the other group trekked with us as well.”-Somenath
The remaining four were walking behind us with their guides and porters.
Some places, there was a crevasse on the right and left leaving only a narrow path to walk on. PC: Somenath
It took us a total of six hours to cross the glacier.
“We reached Zero Point (the end of Khatling) at around 3.30 in the afternoon. The exhilaration was evident. We had managed to cross the forbidding glacier of Khatling safely” – Somenath
7.30 p.m that day:
This relief turned to grave concern when the two trekkers from the other group approached Somenath during dinner time that day.
The rest of their team hadn’t reached the campsite yet!
The weather had turned bitingly cold by then and it was pitch black all around.
The glacier was hard to navigate during the day itself. The thought of the lost trekkers walking alongside the unforgiving crevasses of Khatling at night felt like a nightmare!
Fog setting in on Khatling. PC: Somenath
Fearing the worst and hoping for the best, Somenath quickly put a plan in action.
“We had three walkie talkies with us. Barring the trekkers, our porters and guides were divided into three teams. We handed out walkie talkies to each team and then set out with flash lights in search of the lost trekkers.
The rules were clear. We were not to stray far away from the campsite. We would constantly stay in touch through the walkie talkie. If we are unable to locate the trekkers within the next hour, we were going to call for rescue using the sat phone we were carrying with us.
The entire situation was unnerving. Their guides were not familiar with the glacier, their participants were not insured, they did not have walkie talkies or satellite phones on them and they had chosen the worst place possible to get lost in.” –Somenath
The teams split in three different directions. Each person set to work, combing through the terrain as quickly as possible unmindful of the cold penetrating through their clothes as they crossed icy rivers and slopes close to the campsite to check if the lost team was anywhere nearby.
“We used whistles, red light, white light, called their names out loud but we couldn’t spot them anywhere.”- Somnath
Thirty minutes later
One of the search parties eventually located the rest of the trekkers walking along the other side of the river in search of the campsite.
“The Khatling glacier has no mapped routes per say and it is easy to get lost if one is not familiar with the terrain. The guides leading the other team somehow got confused with the directions that day and ended up on the other side of the river.
Each of them looked cold, exhausted and terrified. We brought all of them to our dining tents and fed them cuppa noodles which were the easiest to whip up then. First aid was simultaneously administered to some of our porters who had sustained minor cuts from rocks while searching for the lost team.”- Somenath
Worn out by the unexpected turn of events but thankful about everyone remaining safe, each member drifted to sleep as soon as they hit their sleeping bags that night.
The end of one Adventure
Day 10: Parting Ways
Two roads diverged at Zero Point: one was a short cut to the valley of Doon and another takes you to Kedarnath via Mayali Pass.
The team of six trekkers took the short cut to Dehradun, as per their itinerary.
We set forth to Kedarnath embarking on yet another new adventure through the highs and lows of the legendary Mayali Pass, a story that I will leave for another day :)
A sneak peek into the next phase of our journey. PC: Somenath
One Week Later:
Our team had returned from the mountains. When I listened to Somnath’s account of the events, I was curious to find out how our trekkers felt about the expedition. Vijay and Garima (trekkers from our batch) were kind enough to get on call to discuss the same.
“I heard about Auden’s Col two years ago while on a trip to Badrinath. Having done the Pin Parvati, I assumed Auden’s Col would be slightly tougher than that. But it was way harder! In fact, Sanjay (the third trekker of Auden’s) was telling me that he encountered challenges here that he did not face in his 7k+ expedition.
Physical fitness alone is not enough for terrains like these. Considerable mental strength is required as well.” – Garima
Vijay felt the same way too. When asked more about how he prepared himself to be mentally strong, he narrated an interesting incident from his trek to the Pin Parvati with us in 2018.
“The first test to my mental strength came up here when we encountered a cloud burst over Himachal and Uttarakhand. There was too much snow everywhere.
We had just crossed the pass and our only option was to keep walking all the way to Mudh village which was 25-30kms away. Through the harsh conditions, Sanjay (the same trekker as Auden’s) and I managed to reach Mudh, hire a tractor and give a ride to the rest of our batch mates who were making their way through the snow to the village.
While the trekking skills I picked up on Pin Parvati helped, Auden’s Col was still very challenging.” – Vijay
While Vijay and Garima shared many interesting annecdotes of their experience on Auden’s Col, the reason I chose to share these two snippets from our conversations is this:
Not once did they describe the trek as dangerous.
And that is the final point I am going to wrap up this article with.
The difference between a trek becoming challenging and a trek becoming dangerous depends on the people attempting the trek.
“You need good trek leaders, guides, porters and finally you need trekkers with the right experience. This is very important.
There is a reason our batches are at most six to seven members big on expeditions like the Auden’s Col. This is because we look into the trekking experience of each of our participants before accepting the bookings they make.
In case they lack experience, we try and encourage them to embark on a couple of other treks we feel would prepare them better for something like the Auden’s Col.”
–Girish, one of our Founders
And if you ask us, Auden’s Col is a challenging trek that comes with its own set of risks and adventures as any other trek in India.
But we would never call it dangerous in itself.