For the first time in a week since the start of the Kalindi Khal Expedition, genial merriment permeated the blanket of gloom that had enveloped the campsite of Nandanvan.
Settling down on a floor rumpled with boulders, Kulwinder, one of our participants, cheerfully began singing a song. Sandeep and Somenath, our Expedition Leaders, joined in along with the others.
The past week had been anything but easy for them. Trouble had decided to strike our month's long hard work from all directions at once.
From permits getting delayed to porters abandoning the trail midway, today's story is about the grit of a team that made it through India's most challenging expedition despite all odds.
The team at Gangotri before starting the expedition. PC: Somenath
Kalindi Khal was the first expedition of 2020.
The amiable vendor we usually partner with for expeditions in Uttarkashi stared at us in astonishment. Our Operations team had just informed him about an upcoming trekking expedition to Kalindi Khal. As per the guidelines of Uttarkashi, an outside company cannot work in the region without tying up with a local partner.
It was on the 18th of August, this year. There was still one month left for the expedition. Local politics had already begun brewing around the re-opening of borders and resumption of tourism.
Kalindi Khal, in this context, was not just our first expedition but also the first trek to be planned in the region after a break of 6 months.
Kalindi Khal was the first trek to be held in the region after a 6 month break. PC: Somenath
We knew Bikat Adventures had spent one-month re-working routes and campsites on all itineraries to ensure maximum social distancing with everyone living in the mountains. The locals did not know.
A section of the population was skeptical about letting in outsiders. The staff was unwilling to begin work, fearing repercussions (they will not be allowed into their village if they worked with outsiders).
"We felt it would be better to start preparations early to accommodate any difficulties that might arise along the way. Our local partner, still lost in amazement, was telling us that to begin with an expedition straight away after the lockdown was too good to be true. Since we had a good month to prepare for it, he was more than optimistic about making the arrangements"
– Sandeep, Ops Manager & Assistant Expedition Leader
With the local partner’s promise to get the permits and a team of porters, cook, and guide ready by September, the Operations team left Uttarkashi.
02 September 2020
We hit the first of many roadblocks with obtaining permits.
"In September, on the 2nd, we received a call from our partner. He said he had difficulty obtaining permits" - Sandeep
Pankaj and Sushant, two of our Founders, traveled to Dehradun on the 4th to resolve this issue. They met up with the District Forest Officer, who then issued an official letter about trekking being allowed in Uttarakhand.
"We forwarded this letter to our local partner. Using this letter, works on obtaining the permits resumed once again" - Sandeep
The next roadblock appeared in the form of porters.
"Our old team of porters, the ones who usually assist us on our expeditions, were originally from Nepal. So they had moved back there during the lockdown. The local authorities were not willing to provide Inner Line Permits for them.
We needed a minimum of 13 porters to do the Kalindi Khal Expedition. When the local partner could not source that many in Uttarkashi, our OPs team switched to overdrive, pulling out all stops to source porters from different slopes in Uttarakhand" - Sandeep
Despite the best of efforts from the local partner and the Operations Team, the team was still short by five porters.
"When we asked the partner for a solution, he suggested we cancel the expedition. Unwilling to go back on our word, given to the participants, we contacted another trusted local partner from Joshimath" – Sandeep
This partner from Joshimath was more than optimistic and promised to get everything ready for the expedition. What the Ops team believed was too good to be true ended up being so a day before the expedition.
13 September 2020
"We were still running short on porters due to circumstances outside of the Joshimath partner's control. He said he would need an extra day and asked us if we could start the expedition on the 15th instead of the 14th. When I conveyed the series of events that had taken place over the last few weeks to our participants (who were now at Gangotri), the team was more than willing and agreed to wait" - Sandeep.
So they spent that day and the next going on short acclimatization walks and exploring the region.
Views in and around Gangotri. PC: Somenath
"We had an experienced team of five participants: two women and three men. Each of them had done Auden’s Col, Pangarchulla, or Kang Yatse in the past, a good experience base to progress to Kalindi Khal" – Somenath, Expedition Leader
Arrangements, as promised, were made by the evening of the 14th. The team (five participants, two expedition leaders, one cook, one guide, and sixteen porters) was all set to start their expedition the next day.
15th September 2020
As per the original itinerary, the trekkers were to trek from Gangotri to Bhojwasa.
"Everyone in the team kept up a surprisingly steady pace. Neither too slow nor too fast, we paused only twice or thrice for a break along the entire route. We reached Chidwasa (about 8 km from Gangotri) by half-past three that afternoon." – Somenath
The weather was bright and sunny. The route was a gradual ascent and pecked with boulders everywhere. There was evident relief in everyone at having begun the expedition (finally).
The team on its way to the next campsite. PC: Somenath
Meanwhile, Sandeep, who was walking behind the team, received a perturbing call from the cook.
"The porters had started their trek later than the rest of the team. At around 3 in the afternoon that day, the cook called me up to tell me that the porters were very slow.
I felt it was best to let them rest since they had only arrived the previous night. So, I called up Somenath, and we decided to set camp on the grounds of Chidwasa itself for the night" - Sandeep
At 9.30 that night, the campsite of Chidwasa saw the team huddled in a forest house nearby.
Two of Bikat Adventures’ former expedition leaders, Rohit and Lalit, who were attempting Kalindi Khal alongside, stopped at Chidwasa as well. No familiar tents marked its landscape. The porters carrying the tents, sleeping bags, and food ration had still not arrived.
"The air was getting chillier by the minute, and all of us were exhausted from the day’s climb. We were ready to forego food, but how were we to sleep without tents and sleeping bags?" – Somenath
Deciding to take matters into their hands, Somenath and Sandeep trekked back along the same route they had come while leaving the participants under Rohit and Lalit’s care.
Expedition Leader Somenath trekking back to Chidwasa in the night after relieving some of the load carried by the porters. PC: Sandeep
"We had to go back some 3.5 km to meet the porters. Somenath and I shouldered 20kgs each relieving the porters off 40 kgs. We made it to the campsite soon, pitched up tents immediately, and fell asleep. Since we had already snacked a bit in the evening, all of us were ready to forego dinner" – Sandeep
The day dawned bright and sunny. Well rested, despite the setback the previous night, the team was ready to move to the next campsite. One could not say the same of the porters.
"That morning, 8 out of the 16 porters refused to go ahead because they found the load heavy. In reality, their load was lighter than the loads Bikat Adventures' usual set of porters carry.
The tone and comportment of the porters were recalcitrant. Noticing they weren't team players, I felt continuing with an alternative arrangement for them would not be prudent because they were likely to create more trouble in the coming days. So I asked them to return to Gangotri.
I called Pankaj and Girish afterward using the satellite phone we were carrying to enquire what to do. They told me that the decision was mine to make and that they will stand by whatever line of action I choose. After giving it some thought, I decided to call off the expedition" – Sandeep
That morning at Chidwasa. PC: Somanath
The thought of returning this way did not bode well with the participants. Unwilling to give up yet, they enquired of other alternatives.
"According to the itinerary, the expedition was supposed to end on the 26th. If we could maybe wait for two more days, we could arrange for another batch of porters and try to end it on the 27th or 28th" – Sandeep
The participants, much to the admiration of Somenath and Sandeep, were willing to do what it takes to continue with the expedition. Not wanting to let them down, Sandeep quickly made a couple of calls to arrange for another batch of porters.
"A new batch of porters meant we would have to apply for a fresh set of permits with their identifications once again. We could not say for sure how many days this would take. Hoping for the best, we decided to focus on the things we could control. We still had eight porters with us.
So while we waited for the new batch of porters to arrive, we got the old porters to conduct load ferry to the next campsite while we took the participants on an acclimatization walk" – Somenath
The porters had managed to transport close to 100 kgs to the next campsite by the following day.
Reverse of Murphy's Law
Much to the delight of everyone waiting at Chidwasa, ten new porters arrived in the wee morning hours. With their spirits lifted once again, the team set forth to Bhujwasa.
Enroute Bhujwasa. The team using the pulley system to transport their load across a river. PC: Somenath
"It was, on the whole, a good day. The weather was pleasant. The load was light thanks to the load ferrying we had done the previous day. We now had 18 porters. And the best part of it all, we did not have to call off the expedition after all!" – Somenath
Views from the campsite of Bhujwasa. PC: Somenath
Today was the first time, in almost an entire week, that the team could trek two continuous days without any mishaps or interruptions. The weather, much like the previous days, remained cheery.
"It was going to be a tough day. There were a river crossing and a fair bit of ascent and descent involved. The real test, though, lay in crossing the Gaumukh Glacier" – Somenath
Landscape view of the Glacier of Gaumukh. PC: Somenath
The Gaumukh Glacier changes every year. That means no visible trail exists to cross the glacier. Teeming with moraines, crevasses, and boulders, tackling this glacier is no easy feat. The fight, however, does not end here.
After crossing the glacier, one has to battle another steep ascent of 1 to 1.5 hours to reach the highly acclaimed campsite of Nandanvan.
The trail during the ascent was broken and pockmarked by boulders and crevasses everwhere. PC: Somenath
"The trail during the ascent was particularly demanding because it was broken and pockmarked by boulders and crevasses everywhere. But the views from the Nandanvan campsite more than made up for this!
Thanks to the clear weather, we were treated to a stunning array of snow-covered peaks, amongst which lay the Shivling and Bhagirathi Massif, Kedar Dome, and Meru Peaks!" – Somenath
A miniscule stretch of the views one gets treated to from the campsite of Nandanvan. PC: Somenath
Somenath was not sure if it was the views or the fact that they finally got the expedition rolling after a series of sputtered starts, the uninhibited happiness on the faces of everyone was evident. One of the participants began singing a cheerful song after reaching the campsite. The others joined in. A delicious spread of piping hot food was set outside by the cook.
And night quietly drew her veil across the evening sky while the Milky Way splayed her magic all around.