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Beyond Gaumukh

This part of the trek was a learning experience. So far we had only got an estimate of our stamina, and how well we had adjusted to the rarified air. There had been little to pose a challenge, but for the landslides. Now, we faced fear again, but this time we also got a reckoning of our mental strength, our physical abilities and limitations, our sense of balance, of timing, of judging just how far a particular foothold would hold or give. Slowly, I gained the confidence that the sliding earth would slide and stop and the rocking boulder would rock but not roll, and that my every shaky step would hold, albeit just long enough for me to take the next.

There were errors and some terrors too. Bending and stretching for handholds meant calculating on the weight of the backpack on your back, pressing you forward. It also meant torn fingernails and, the next day, aching chest and arm muscles. But by far the greater disadvantage was the risk of having one of your handholds turn loose and come tumbling down towards you. Although I had been warned of this and was on the lookout for such precipitous stones, I did have one such misadventure. As I felt my handhold quiver, I warned the person behind me. But even as I withdrew my hand the treacherous stone came loose and started rolling down. "Watch out," I shouted. But the stone avoided the person behind me and landed on my foot instead! Luckily it was not too large a stone and I kept my presence of mind and held on, though mildly panicked, while the guy behind me dislodged it. I checked my foot tenderly, but apart from scraping the skin slightly, it had done no damage.

For me, the scariest part was on the descent. Tapovan was at the very top of a low but steep hill, and involved an extremely steep ascent, having suffered which, we were on the lookout for an easier route down. We prevailed upon Ustaadji to take a different route. It was, unfortunately, probably equally steep and though some in our group went jumping and skittering down it like mountain goats in spring time, I had to be handed and guided down by Ustaadji for almost the entire descent, taking well over an hour in the process. It was during this descent that at one stage I found my chosen path blocked by a huge boulder. Getting past it meant a deep step down, swinging around its edge. I got wedged awkwardly with my backpack and especially the foam mat, which stuck out of the pack, scraping the huge stone. The step around was just that bit too long for my short legs. The ever-present Ustaadji suggested picking me up on his back and hoisting me across. As he had once earlier mentioned doing this favour for another traveller during another trip, I wasn't entirely shocked by the idea itself. But it seemed too ignominious a manner of getting around, so I gathered up my courage and swung myself around the intruding rock. The weight of the backpack threatened to send me flying sideways into outer space (in this case the craggy rocks below). I cried out: "No!" Then I was back on, well, 'terra rocka' as it were. I can't claim to have seen my life flash before my eyes (perhaps they were momentarily shut?), but if ever there were an occasion for such a claim, surely it was this.

Taking the Rough with the Rough

The trek involved a lot of different experiences. We walked on a simple path, on rocks, on sand and dirt, on mud, across streams on a bridge made of a couple of logs, or across the not-quite-submerged surfaces of stones. We crossed the freezing waters of the Ganga, wading between ankle and mid-calf deep in her holy waters, just below Gaumukh. We walked for miles along the path marked by her rushing, green waters sometimes a couple of hundred feet or more above her banks. We walked through crunchy white ice and through soft, deep, freshly fallen snow. We gazed awe-struck at the blue-green snow and dust on the Gangotri glacier, stretching away into the distance.

And we learned how habits change according to one's circumstances. In our normal city lives we would never have passed a week without bathing, never have slept in the same clothes, gotten up in the same clothes, and slept in the same clothes again for days on end, never have passed days without brushing one's teeth or combing one's hair. Here we did all this and more: anything else was unthinkable.

We set up tents and shivered through two nights at Tapovan, despite wearing almost all our clothes. For me, two T-shirts, an enormously thick, businesslike parka meant to keep out snow, thermal longjohns and jeans inside my sleeping bag was not enough. Cold manifested itself in bouts of violent, uncontrollable shivering. In the daytime, the sun burned us black, so that we looked like demons by the time we descended, with darkened faces and hard, black lips.

The Bhagirathi and Shivling peaks towering above us assumed different moods as the sun first lit and later shadowed their snow-clad faces. The first day we reached Tapovan at 2.30 p m and it began to get cold within an hour. Having had no lunch, we ate dinner at five, and found ourselves shivering in our sleeping bags by 6.30!

The second day we lazed around, slept in the sun, went for a brief stroll and generally relaxed. But by around five, it started to snow and we all abandoned the tents and beat a hasty retreat to the deserted shack of a sadhu. This particular shack was quite a grand affair, constructed against the rock of the hillside, with three or four rooms in front and perhaps the same number running parallelly behind. Most of the rooms were locked, but an extremely small and low-ceilinged one, which was open, had thus far served for a kitchen. Only now when the snow began to fall, did we venture into one of the less-securely-locked rooms. Here there was a plastic sheet covering our absent host's personal effects and a curtained partition to his bedroom, which had a bed guarded by a trishul (!!!). The walls were rough dust and the door so low that it almost necessitated ingress on hands and knees. But it was just large enough for us to sleep jammed together, and warmer than our tents. In the event, almost four inches of snow had fallen by the time we ventured out the next morning.

The winters here are so severe that many of the resident sadhus go down to warmer climes. It is said that one Subadra mataji, originally of Bangalore, spent three consecutive winters here before she left the area. She was one of very few who brave the winter in Tapovan. According to the priest of an Ashram at Gangotri where we stayed the night before we started out, a mere 25 people in the whole of Gangotri wait out the six months of winter.

When I had read that Tapovan was a grassy meadow, I had expected a lush green saddle of soft thick grass. What we found, instead, was rough yellow grassy weeds amidst uneven, boulder-strewn terrain. If you want lush green, come back in October, we were told. Meanwhile, after the fresh snowfall, it was now pristine white, all our landmarks obliterated by snow, the narrow streams of melting snow which we were used to seeing, indistinguishable from the sand, smaller stones and yellow grass, all of which were now uniformly white.

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Gangotri, Gaumukh, Tapovan on the Map

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Copyright 2008 Amit and Anamika Mukherjee. All rights reserved.