Wild Wonderful Karnataka


        Hi everyone. Let me introduce myself. I'm Ganesh working in HSBC, Bangalore as a Banking Assistant. This article is a brief account of my first ever-climbing expedition in The Greater Himalayan Range. And to be frank, adventure sport was an oblivious subject till I actually completed my first year in HSBC.

        Within a year of me joining HSBC, I came across this organization called Karnataka Mountaineering Association (KMA), which has been a pioneering body in the field of mountaineering and allied sports for more than 30years now, in the state of Karnataka. As an active member, I had done a lot of treks in the Western Ghats. My first ever Himalayan experience was a trekking expedition to Khatling Glacier (3500mts) and upwards to Maiali pass (15000feet), in the Uttaranchal region, sometime in May- June 2002. That was the start of a dream to scale some of the beautiful mountains. And who ever said dreams can only be dreams. Think twice! Because had I not dreamt, I wouldn't have got this chance to share with you all my experience of having successfully summitted a 6000mts peak, for the first time.

        It all started, as usual, with the senior members of KMA planning a list of activities for the year 2003. But since this year being the Golden Jubilee celebration year of the first ever-recorded ascent of Mt. Everest (29 May 1953) by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay, we thought that the best way to show our solidarity and respect to such a great event would be by organizing our own climbing expedition. After going through some mountaineering journals, reference cum guide books we decided to scale Mt. Saife on the Swetvarna Glacier, in the Uttaranchal region. The planning began well in advance, nearly two months before we embarked on the expedition. Immediately, a list of members well qualified for expeditions was drawn. After the initial selection (based on mountaineering courses, prior experience on the mountains, level of fitness etc.), a team of four was chosen. Prakash was chosen to be the expedition leader, Kiran Karkera, Krishnamurthy and myself. The itinerary (for 25days), expected budget for the expedition, list of team members with their profile was chalked out and along with other relevant papers were sent to the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF), New Delhi to obtain permission. Once the permission was received, we started checking and packing our equipment (all provided by KMA) and the provisions that we might require during our mountain days. The date of departure from Bangalore was fixed for 14 August 2003

        On 14th we boarded the Karnataka Express to New Delhi, flagged off by the senior KMA members. We reached New Delhi on the 16th and the same day set off to New Tehri by the 8.30PM bus from the Maharana Pratap Inter State Bus Terminus. We reached New Tehri at around 8.30AM on the 17th morning. We immediately boarded the bus towards Uttarkashi. It is 115kms (approx. 4 to 5 hours) drive through some lovely landscape; the only solace in an otherwise taxing journey. These are the mini buses; extremely small, cramping you for leg space, over crowded most of the times and to make matters worse, the commuters smoking beedi continually. We reached Uttarkashi at around 1.30 PM the same evening. Uttarkashi is a nice, small town but crowded with people, mostly pahadis (hill people) who spend half a year working as porters and the other half either to go to some other tourist spots to work as porters or go back to their native villages. That evening after freshening up and after having called up home to let everyone know that we were safe and sound, we started the final round of preparations.

        Porters were hired from Highland Tours and travel and along with them went around the town to buy the more bulky provisions (cereals to be specific) and groceries. By evening we had packed everything and were ready. We were to be accompanied by 9 Low Altitude Porters (LAPS) and 3 High Altitude Porters (HAPs). On 18th morning we caught a bus towards Gangotri, some 95kms from Uttarkashi, at an altitude of 3048mts (10,000feet). After about 10kms of travel we abruptly came to a stop. We were in the middle of a traffic jam, something that I thought I wouldn't have to encounter for the next 25days. But this was a traffic jam with a difference. It wasn't because of an accident in the middle of the road, or because some minister was coming through, but because of a landslide that had happened just an hour before we reached the spot. Landslides are a common phenomenon in these parts of the Himalayas and almost perpetual. And once you get stuck you either turn back from where you started or walk across the slush and loose soil to get to the other side, so that you find another means of transportation. But for the time being, we thought against both these alternatives, and just waited, the only reason being for the fact that the GREF jawans were doing their best to clear up the area and make the road accessible again. As hours passed by, it became more evident to everyone waiting there, hoping that the road would get back to a drivable condition that it wasn't going to happen till the next day. After some discussion we decided to cross the landslide area by foot and try getting a bus from the other side it. Since buses don't ply after 2.00PM in these mountain roads, we would have to wait till the next day, to catch one.

         We trekked for nearly 2kms in steady drizzle that had started by now, to a roadside rest house in a place called Ganganani. The whole team spent the night there. The next morning, couple of us went back to the landslide area, to make enquires for any bus that would accommodate a team of 16 members including our luggage and kit bag, into it, along with other commuters. How glad we were to hear that we would have to travel on top of the bus along with our luggage for the next 85kms! It's something that I shall cherish all my life. Just try visualizing this! Sitting on the top of a bus right in the front, on the left side holding the railing that's meant to support just the luggage kept on the top, snaking roads with overhanging rocks waiting to collapse any moment, rocks that come so close to you that you have to duck down every time the bus pass through them (fantastic exercise to your abdomen), deep valleys with the raging Bhagirathi carving its way through the landscape, the fir trees and the rugged looking snow capped peaks, and of course some hint (wires crisscrossing above) that briefly reminded me of city life. We reached Gangotri at around 4.30PM on the 19th. After a late lunch at Hotel Gangaputra we walked around Gangotri that evening getting ourselves acclimatized to the altitude. Kiran and myself walked up to the Gangotri temple and spent sometime enjoying a traditional dance after some pooja that had taken place. Gangotri has some interesting places one can go around visiting.

         The GMVN complex, the massive SuryaKund falls, Pandu Gupha to name a few. After breakfast the next morning we started towards Gaumukh (14kms) from Gangotri. The trek route is fairly simple. There is a nice trekking path used by both the trekkers as well as the pony back riders. Now that Gangotri is a national park, trekkers or pony back riders have to pay specified fees depending on the purpose of his/her visit to Gangotri and further up. There is no need to utilize your provisions as the whole route has well maintained dhabas, providing tired trekkers decent food and a place to rest, if necessary, for a night at economical rates. The route to Gaumukh takes you through 2 major stops one at Chirbasa (8kms from Gangotri) and the second one at Bhojbasa (11kms from Gangotri). Great weather means some superb scenery and we just had that. We halted that night at Bhojbasa. How close we were to some of the most beautiful and some of the most talked about peaks in the Indian Himalayas became evident only the next morning. The view of Bhagirathi peaks (I, II & III), all towering over 6100mts, right in front of us, some 10kms away from where we stayed, held us spell bound. And this was just the beginning! We started towards Gaumukh at around 8.00AM and were on the Gaumukh glacier by 11.00AM. From here on began the real adventure. We had to cross over one part of the glacier to get to the meadows, higher up. Scrambling up the scree slope (loose rocks and gravel mixed with the glacier water) that is at a gradient of nearly 70o, forcing us to crawl up on all four. It took us an hour and a half to tackle this and get across to the meadows. Once in the meadows it was another 5kms trek to our base camp, which would be our home away from home, for the next 15 days. Finally on the 21st we reached the base camp, pitching our tents at an altitude of 14800feet. I had bettered my earlier record! The LAPS turned back to Uttarkashi from here after dumping our luggage at Base Camp. Now we were just a team of 7 members, 4 from KMA and the 3 HAPs, BalBahadur (the senior most almost aged 55yrs), Hardev Singh and Bachan Singh (HAP cum cook).

         That evening along with the porters we unpacked all our equipment and the provisions, and repacked them as per our mountain itinerary. 22nd morning would be one of those days I would term as a perfect morning. The sun rose from the horizon casting its rays all over the snow capped mountains all around us. But the best of the lot was the golden rays falling on Mt. Shivling (6543mts) that stood tall and magnificent right behind our tent. Mt. Shivling is on the Gaumukh glacier. Magic, absolutely magic! The sun was up and shinning on the clear blue sky. After breakfast, as per our itinerary for that day we would be ferrying some provisions and equipment to the Advanced Base Camp (ABC @ 16500feet). And that would be our routine for the next three days (23,24 & 25/08/03). Kiran and myself would be doing some load ferrying with the HAPs Which basically meant that we would trek up to the next highest campsite, boulder hopping and crossing some glacier streams, to get up there and dump the provisions and equipment and return back to the lower camp by evening the same day. Which, as they say, is the best way to get acclimatized. It's very important for anyone going to high altitudes, to get acclimatized if he/she is planning to have a good time. The main reason being lack of sufficient oxygen, as you get higher, which gives a splitting headache and makes one feel very nauseate. He of she doesn't feel as hungry as usual, which means insufficient intake of food. Tiredness and fatigue sets in very fast. And, of course, the worst case would be to suffer from HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema) or HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema). Let me not get into the technical details of these two dangerous effects, especially encountered by mountaineers, if not properly acclimatized, which have caused so many deaths to mountaineers. Our camp-1 was at an altitude of 18,500feet. We saw for the first time the ridge of Mt.Saife, from up here.

         Next morning, i.e. on the 26th Prakash, Krishnamurthy and the 2 HAPs BalBahadur and Hardev Singh set out on their summit attempt of Mt.Saife. But it was bad news on the weather front! They started at around 7.00AM, which is as such pretty late, if someone is trying a summit bid, and now with lots of cloud funneling into the valley it meant poor visibility and cold winds to bear with, while climbing. One of the worst possible scenarios a mountaineer can be in! They were back to the tent at around 3.00PM, only to give us the bad news that they were short by 300feet from the summit. Deep crevasses, real hard ice into which ice ax wouldn't go and lack of some equipment had made their summit bid a failure. This only meant the worse possible news for both Kiran and myself, our chance to summit Mt.Saife had vanished. After lot of discussion and deliberation we decided to get pack up and get back to our Base Camp. We were back at the base camp by around 2.30PM on 27/08/03. As such feeling pretty low both physically and mentally, both Kiran and myself had made up our mind to get back to Gangotri the next itself instead of 30/08/03 as per our itinerary. That evening, as usual, we sat down playing cards listening to the transistor.

         Through the course of the game, just as we were discussing about mountains and related subjects, the HAPs came to our tent and said that they could help Kiran and myself still succeed in our first attempt to summit a peak. It was decided than and there, that they would help us summit Mt.Thelu (6002mts), right opposite Mt.Saife on the same glacier. That night Bachan Singh with the help of other two HAPs sat down making enough rotis to last us till the 29th morning. Come 28th, the four of us myself, Kiran, BalBahadur and Hardev Singh set off towards the summit camp of Mt.Thelu. Midway through the climb, we got caught in heavy drizzle and were forced to pitch our tents much before we could reach the summit camp. This only meant that the next morning we would have to trek for couple of hours extra before we could actually start scaling the peak. But we enjoyed every moment in the tent, making tea whenever we felt like, and an early dinner too.

        We decided to start early on 29th, so that we could make use of a clear weather window available early in the morning. We were out and on our way to the base of Mt.Thelu the next day (29/08/03) by around 5.00AM finding our way through the moraine and snow with the help of torch and headlamps that we had carried. By around 6.00AM, as the first light peeped through the clouds, we got a glimpse of our route ahead as well as the path we had taken. The route ahead would be through a huge snowfield. Here was the real problem. The snow, which was initially hard and relatively easy to walk on, got softer and softer as the day progressed. The heat from the sun started melting the layer of soft, fresh snow making it tiresome and dangerous to trek through. Tiresome because each step that we took, our foot would go knee deep into the snow and dangerous because we didn't know where there were crevasses and where there were loose boulders. Some how we managed to get through all these and after about two and a half hours of trekking we were finally at the base of Mt.Thelu.

         All around us stood some of the most famous peaks of the Indian Himalayas, Sudarshan Parbat (6507mts), Saife (6161mts) and lots of unnamed peaks. We took a bit of a breather after the long trek and some time to photograph all around. After about half an hour, we started our climb towards the summit of Thelu. Jeez, it was one tough climb. We were literally crawling all the way up, through absolutely loose sliding slabs of stones and gravel with no support and nothing to hold on to. Every four to five steps we took, we slide down 2 steps. And with the air getting thinner and thinner high up, we were gasping for breath every 20steps that we took. Finally an hour and a half of climbing (I mean crawling and scrambling), we reached the summit shoulder. From here it would take us another 40 minutes to reach the summit. We were already standing tall, at an altitude of 19700ft. The summit is at an altitude of 19800ft. On 29/08/2003 at 10.30AM, I had summitted Mt.Thelu (19800ft) followed by Kiran who did likewise at 10.35AM. For a few minutes the two of us hadn't realized what we had achieved that day, that moment. We were very tired and just wanted to rest for sometime. Slow and steadily reality set into us. We had scaled a peak that stood 6002mts (19800ft) above sea level. Way, way higher than our previous best (14500ft)! And the jubilation started. We were hugging each other in joy and ecstasy and congratulating one another on a fabulous team effort that had rewarded us with such a success. I was standing there, looking down at the world below me. Staring at the horizon and into the blue sky, with the clouds below our feet, I almost felt I was on top of the world. There was the Sudarshan Parvat on to our left, Saife along its ridge, Chirbas Parbat behind us, and the majestic and magnificent Shivling, Meru Parbat, Thalay Sagar, the Jogin Group of mountains (Jogin I, II and III) and many more unnamed peaks to our right all sticking out of the clouds.

         We spent nearly 15 to 20 minutes on the summit, taking photos of all the peaks around us and of course of ourselves. A memory that shall last forever! What made our summit success all the more special was the fact that on the same date (29th) fifty years and two months ago (29/05/1953), Sir Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay, at around 11.30AM had successfully conquered the "TOP OF THE WORLD- Mt.Everest".

        We started our descent by 11.00AM and back to our base camp by around 2.00PM the same day. We reached base camp by around 5.00PM. The LAPS had come there by now, to porter all our luggage back to Gangotri. Everyone present there congratulated the four of us on our grand success. We celebrated it that night by having Kheer and some good food made by Bachan Singh. We left the base camp on 31/08/2003 and were back in the hubbub of civilization- Gangotri and down to Uttarkashi on 01/09/2003. We left towards Rishikesh on the 2nd enroute to Delhi. With some time to spare before our bus to Delhi from Rishikesh, we visited the famous Ram Jhula and Lakshman Jhula over River Ganga. It's a six-hour backbreaking journey from Rishikesh to Delhi. Our train to Bangalore was booked for the 5th of September. Which meant 2 days of sight seeing in Delhi. Thank God had it not been for couple of my relatives staying there, it would have been really boring. We were back in Bangalore on the 7th afternoon, greeted by some the KMA members who had come to receive us at the station. The porters had already conveyed the news of our success to them. Here is was, back in Bangalore, which I along with 3 others had left some 25days ago, dreaming and aspiring to be successful in our first ever summit bid, getting congratulated for having successfully done so. And it's only the beginning!

~ Ganesh K P