In 2018, three seasoned climbers were confronted by a challenge unlike any they have faced before. Caught amidst a tough snowstorm on one of the most formidable Passes of the Garhwal Himalayas of Uttarakhand, there was no option of moving forward or retracing their path to the previous campsite. They were going to have to set up camp on the Pass itself and wait out the frigid weather. There was only one issue.
The sparse fuel they were carrying would last them for exactly one meal.
On the food front, there were plenty of dry fruits, nuts and snacks to keep them going. But what were they going to do about water?
Today's story is about three resilient mountaineers who, through a stroke of genius, harvested water without using fuel in a stubborn snowstorm set atop a frozen mountain pass at 5,950 M.
Informative, witty, inspiring and fresh, we hope you enjoy reading their story as much as we did listening to it.
Tent set up at the top of Khalindi Khal
How it all began
On the 28th of August 2018, Pranav Rawat, Bharat Bhushan and Shikhar Singh, mountaineers by passion and profession embarked on a unique journey across the Himalayan Landscape of India. The trail which they have now fondly named The Western Himalayan Traverse starts in Ladakh and ends at the Dharchula Village close to the India Nepal border. Spanning over 1022 kms, it took the trio a total of 47 days to complete this expedition.
“Despite the rich landscape here, we have no long trails to hike on in India. I wished to build one similar to the Pacific Crest Trail along the Western Himalayas. So in 2017, I began my hike solo in Ladakh. I wanted to cross all the seven Passes and eventually hike to the state of Uttarakhand. However I had to cut my journey short after the first pass itself because I fell sick.” – Pranav Rawat
It was then Pranav realised that he needed a team to achieve this goal.
“We needed at least three members in the team. In case one fell sick, the other could stay behind and take care of them while the third member headed to the closest village to get help.” –Pranav
In 2018, Bharat and Shikhar wanted in on the team after they were told about the route Pranav was attempting. To Pranav’s delight, their views of trekking were similar to his.
“We want to change the scenario of trekking in India; make trails available digitally and build a community of independent alpine climbers. There are so many people capable of so much! Yet they haven’t realised their full potential due to a lack of knowledge/training.” –Pranav
The Western Himalayan Traverse is one such novel attempt in this direction.
“This is the first time we were attempting such a long expedition that too self-supported. As far as planning was concerned, we had most of the trail mapped out. But there were still some sections for which we had to figure the route out on the go.” – Pranav
On the 28th of August, the trio kick started the expedition from Chilling Bridge in Ladakh.
With each day, the landscapes shifted rapidly. The trail ran through Passes, named and unnamed, villages occupied and abandoned and paths known and unknown. Soon many a step was lost in miles and many a day in weeks.
Ladakh saw them cross seven passes over 5000 metres with gusto.
Crossing Tso Kar Lake in Ladakh
In Himachal, they decided to step up the challenge by trekking in the night.
Having dinner enroute before resuming their trek
“We still have no idea what any of these places we travelled through look like at night”- Pranav
Uttarakhand, on the other hand, decided to test them in the most gruelling way possible.
Not only did they have to survive a snow storm atop a frigid mountain pass but they also had to figure out a way to melt snow into water without using fuel.
Day 24: Weather Check at Gangotri
By the time the team reached Gangotri, they had run out of cash. After requesting a friend to bring them some money, they started working on getting the required permits.
“We were going to do the Khalindi Khal Trek next. It is one of the highest Trekkable Passes in India. The weather at the Pass is famous for being unpredictable. So, one of the first things we did was check the forecasts for Khalindi Khal. And as the weather gods would have it, a snow storm was predicted for after 48 hours.” – Pranav
Troubled, Pranav, Bharat and Shikhar weighed their options. They had already crossed two states and were now in the final leg of the expedition. The idea of having to turn back now felt disheartening.
“Since bad weather was expected only after 48 hours, if we stepped up the pace we would be able to cross the Pass before snowfall begins. And I was familiar with the area from my climb up Mt. Satopanth before. It was worth giving a shot.” – Pranav
After getting permits, the team began the trek at 3 p.m that day. The weather was pleasant and the climb was a little gruelling owing to the long day they have had.
Nandan Wan Campsite
At 9 pm that day, after a six hour steady trek, they set up camp at Nandan Van, the first campsite of the trek.
Day 25: Caught Off guard
The team woke up to limpid blue skies and sunshine today. Cheerful and optimistic, they began their trek to the base camp of Khalindi Khal with vigour. As afternoon drew close, dreaded dark clouds began closing in. By the time they made it to Satopanth Base Camp it had started snowing.
“Snowfall had begun a day earlier than what was predicted. A little nervous now, we began walking fast. In tandem with our pace, the snow fell harder. Visibility had gotten really low and it was white everywhere. We couldn’t identify the base camp of Khalindi Khal anymore. So we stopped wherever we were and set up camp.”- Pranav
Day 26: A Land of White
It had snowed heavily all night. Sheathed in soft, fluffy, white snow, the place looked like it had been handpicked straight out of a Winter Wonderland.
This was no wonderful news for the trekkers that morning however. Everything felt damp. The sun was not out. There was 1 ft of soft snow all around. It was bitingly cold. And any crevasses that would have been visible the previous day were now well hidden.
A little dejected, Pranav, Bharat and Shikhar settled down in their tents and decided to stay put at the same place.
By 9.30 am that morning however, the day had gotten warmer thanks to the sun that was shining brighter with every passing minute. With their spirits rising once again, the team decided to cross the Pass that day.
“The weather forecasts for the next two days were not promising. This moment was our window of opportunity and we decided to seize it” – Pranav
The last 300 metres to the Pass were the toughest. With 3 ft deep soft snow, it took the team a total of three hours to navigate the 300M stretch to the top of Khalindi Khal.
The final stretch to Khalindi Khal
At the Top of Khalindi Khal that day
Despite the unexpected turn of events with the weather, the team had successfully made it to the top of Khalindi Khal. It was not yet the time to celebrate however.
The weather that had co-operated until then had begun turning sour once again. A ginormous cornice stood precariously on the other side of the Pass making descent tricky. And Shikhar was getting hit by the first signs of hypothermia.
“With hypothermia setting in, it was crucial to pitch a tent as soon as possible and get inside it to warm yourself up. Praying for the weather to remain conducive until the next day, we settled into our campsite on the top of Khalindi Khal for the night” – Pranav
To the team’s dismay, it began snowing heavily immediately afterwards. Strong winds lashed at the campsite unceasingly.
“By night, most of the tent was submerged in snow. We did not carry a shovel, only a good pair of gloves. So we took turns and went out at regular intervals to clear the snow off the tent”- Pranav
There was a visible air of gloom and despair around the campsite.
“Everything felt cold and wet. We did not have enough fuel to cook food or boil water. Whatever little we did have, we wanted to conserve it for the day we descend down the Pass. Snacking on some dry fruits and nuts, one of us stayed up to clear the snow off the top of the tent while the other two slept.
Around midnight, fatigue got the better of all three of us and we slipped into deep sleep. By the time we woke up, our tent was completely submerged in snow. With no shovel to dig ourselves out, we began kicking at the tent walls to clear some of the snow on the top.
At one point in between all the desperate kicking, my foot hit one of the tent poles and it looked like the tent was going to collapse right on top of us. We waited with bated breath as we watched the unsteady walls of the tent shudder a little before stabilising once again.
A little relieved, we resumed our kicking once again to clear out the snow” –Pranav.
Day 27: Harvesting Water at 6000M
That morning, the weather hadn’t gotten any better. It continued snowing throughout the day. Descending was definitely not an option. The team would have to wait for the snow to stabilise.
“Digging out whatever little snacks we had for that morning’s breakfast, we reviewed the grim situation of our stock.
There was enough food to sustain us. What were we going to do about water though?
We couldn’t use the little fuel that was left. We would need it to cook food and boil some water on the day we descended.
And we couldn’t possibly crunch on ice and snow all day either.“ – Pranav
Dejected but calm, they sat cooped inside their tent pondering over ideas when they noticed it for the first time.
The droplets of water that had condensed on the surface of the tent from their body heat inside.
“We couldn’t contain our elation. We dug out a clean cotton cloth, placed it on the surface of the tent to absorb the water and then wrung the absorbed water into a container. We were surviving on bare means but it was exciting in its own way.
We passed the day snacking and harvesting water while catching up on the entire season of Sherlock at the top of Khalindi Khal as it snowed outside.” – Pranav
Harvesting water at the top of Khalindi Khal
Day 28: Some good news
At 2 in the morning that day, the weather finally cleared up.
They had been trekking in the mountains for weeks put together. One would think they would have gotten used to this sight by now. But no, there is never any getting used to this, is there?
The beauty, the surprises, the challenges. Each day has something new to look forward to in the mountains.
And tonight it was a full moon that captivated the trio. Enthralled, Pranav, Bharat and Shikhar stepped out of their tents for the first time that day to marvel at the beauty that was that night.
The trio completed the journey, as planned, at the Dharchula Village on the 13th of October 2018. They crossed a total of 27 Passes out of which 13 were above 5000 M and one was over 6000 M. Not everything went as per plan of course.
“When we started, the trail we mapped out was 850 kilometres long and we intended to complete it in 2 months.
Instead, we ended up traversing 1022 kilometres of the gorgeous landscape of the Western Himalayas in 47 days.
Looking back no two days were the same.
Landscapes were different.
Flora and fauna changed.
Challenges were new.
Each state had a unique culture to it.
And amidst all that flux, there were some things that remained a constant.
The warmth, the hospitality of the people and new surprises the mountains sprung up on us. These stayed the same; every single day. “– Pranav