ACROSS THE GANGOTRI-ALAKNANDA WATERSHED
J.A. K. Martyn
This is an account of a journey which broke no new ground, but which got fairly well away from the beaten track. Its interest must lie chiefly in telling how this can be done by two people with not very much mountaineering experience anywhere and none in the Himalaya-not, it is true, without the collaboration of two first-class Sherpas, Rinzing and Tensing, both of whom have been high on Mount Everest.
J. T. M. Gibson and I left Mussoorie on the 30th June 1937 with the object of ascending the Bhagirathi valley to the Gaumukh, of crossing the Gangotri-Alaknanda watershed, and of coming down to Badrinath. This we succeeded in doing, while, on our way up the valley, we also crossed westwards into the uppermost basin of the Jumna and carried out a brief exploration of Bandarpunch.
From Mussoorie a descent has to be made to the Bhagirathi valley, and usually a direct journey to Dharasu can be made. Because of the rains, however, our men took us round by Dhanaulti. Dhanaulti has a rest-house, but there are not many others in Tehri- Garhwal State. We used them also at Uttarkashi, Batwari, and Harsil. At other places we had to choose between using the dharam- sala and putting up our tents. To begin with we chose the dharam- salas, and enjoyed within rather confined linguistic limits the company and conversation of sadhus and pilgrims, but there was other smaller and more numerous company, the almost inevitable presence of which eventually drove us to our tents.
At Uttarkashi, a colony where sadhus live in picturesque ashrams under the shade of deodars-incidentally it seemed that they live a life of very rigid monastic discipline-news reached us that for technical reasons
we must delay before proceeding up the valley. We therefore decided to visit Dodi Tal, a lake in a narrow gorge at a height of about 10,000 feet below a shoulder of Bandarpunch, and two days' journey from Uttarkashi. Another morning's ascent brought us on to a ridge, whence the view of Bandarpunch looked very tempting. Though under 21,000 feet, this mountain, by reason of its isolation between the Bhagirathi and the Jumna, looks magnificent.
To go along the ridge would have meant climbing many subsidiary peaks before reaching the main one, so that a descent was made to the Hanuman Ganga, a tributary of the Jumna which flows from a glacier in the heart of the mountain. The bank of the Hanuman Ganga gave us a most attractive camping-ground amid lovely flowers. After a day's ascent from here, we pitched camp on a spur of moraine above the foot of the glacier (height by aneroid 14,200 feet). Next day a steep snow-gully took us to the summit ridge, by great luck, at a place wide enough for our tents (17,400 feet). We then made our way along the summit ridge, decided that the route would probably ‘go', but that it would take at least two more days, and as, on this unpremeditated venture, we had brought few supplies, a return was necessary.
The Bhagirathi Valley
On regaining the ridge above Dodi Tal we decided, instead of returning to Uttarkashi, to make our way north-east along a track marked on the quarter-inch map 53 j, and even on map 53 (scale 1: M), as crossing the Bumsor pass and joining the pilgrim route at a place called Jhala. The track was never very clear and at times disappeared entirely. Villages which were marked on the map did not exist, and a 14,000-foot pass which did exist was not marked. For a fair preparation of the next three days we might have thought we were lost, but for an occasional shepherd who seemed to think that Jhala lay somewhere to the north. We emerged at the right place, however, and are still puzzled as to why for so many miles we saw no signs of the track when we must almost certainly have beeji on it. It was, we discovered later, used as early as 1815 by James Baillie Fraser1
as a short cut from Jumnotri to Gangotri. At that time effects of height seemed very alarming, and possibilities of acclimatization do not seem to have been realized. The natives of Jumnotri attempted to dissuade Fraser from this route by saying that 'in crossing a high hill, with much snow, there appears to be a poison in the air which so affects travellers, particularly those carrying loads, that they become senseless, lie down, and are perfectly incapable of motion'. 'They cannot', writes Fraser, 'account for this phenomenon, but believe it to proceed from the powerful perfume of myriads of flowers.' Fraser, on completing the crossing, writes:
The summit ridge of Bandarpunch, July 1937, between points A and B
Glacier Lake on Kamlindi Bamak, near foot of pass, August 1937
I had no idea that height of situation could have so severely affected the strength and chest. ... It was ludicrous to see those who had laughed at others yielding, some to lassitude, and others to sickness, yet endeavouring to conceal it from the rest. I believe I held out longer than anyone; yet after passing this gorge every few paces of ascent seemed an insuperable labour, and even in passing along the most level places my knees trembled under me, and at times even sickness at stomach was experienced.
Considering whether any of the high peaks had ever been climbed, he writes: 'The natives consider it as an impracticable undertaking, and it is hardly credible that in many ages there should not have been one man born of sufficient curiosity to make the attempt, if it were not so.'
At Harsil we celebrated our return to relative plenty by eating a sheep that had served its time as a beast of burden between India and Tibet with those curious nomadic Bhotiyas who make their living from a combination of sheep-farming and commerce. Two and a half days took us past Gangotri, its temple and its hermitages, up to the Gaumukh. From Gangotri to the Gaumukh there is a rough track on the left bank of the river, but at one point a side stream was so swollen that we had to ascend to the glacier at its head.
Up till this time we had used Mussoorie porters. In fact, having been informed that we were unlikely to get men on the route, as every one would be too busy farming, we had persuaded them to agree to coming all the way. They had, however, been rather unnerved by the Bumsor pass, and at Harsil we had succeeded in collecting ten more men. Of these, four were Bhotiyas, and proved excellent porters. One of them, whom we knew as Bompal Singh, had accompanied Pallis in 1933 and Auden in 1935. The remainder of Pallis's men had gone off to Tibet. Of the remaining six, one was a pahari, who was strong and came over the pass with us; two were Harsil men, but very undersized, and we did not risk taking them over the pass; and three were from Jhala, who could not stand the height.
Journal of a Tour through part of the Himala Mountains, by J. B. Fraser, 1820.
As we intended, if possible, to take our porters over the watershed with us, and it seemed probable that the pass used by Shipton and Tilman might be too difficult for them, we decided to take sufficient supplies to enable us to spend a day or so searching for the passes examined by Birnie in 1931. The Mussoorie men refused to come beyond the Gaumukh, in spite of much urging, so that we had to send them back, together with a few luxuries and, much to our regret, our skis. The following day the Jhala men also had to be sent down. Consequently to get our allowance of supplies-a rather liberal allowance, as it turned out-to the head of the glacier we had to relay loads in double journeys. Our first camp above the Gaumukh was on an alp at the foot of a side glacier where Shipton and Tilman must have camped in 1934.1
At the head of this side glacier we hoped to find our way across the watershed. The name suggested, but not yet officially accepted, for this glacier is the Chaturangi Bamak, because it has moraines of four colours coming down it. Looking across the Gangotri glacier from this point, one sees the amazing 'Matterhorn' peak, but it was enveloped in cloud during our stay there, and we only saw it in sections. For our next camp also we were lucky enough to have a pleasant grassy site, on its left or southern side, about half-way up. The third camp had to be in the middle of the glacier itself. At the end of our sixth day of glacier work we dumped our loads there in time to explore. Straight ahead we could see the rather formidable-looking pass which Shipton and Tilman used, but on looking round a corner to the north we saw a very attractive glacier coming down to join ours, at an easy gradient apparently all the way from the watershed ridge. Next day we sent back our two dwarf-like porters, and made an early start with the two Sherpas and the five Harsil stalwarts. After three hours' journey up the delectably smooth surface of this northerly glacier we saw on our right an easy-looking col, leading eastwards, in the direction we would go. We decided to climb it. Immediately at its foot we left behind us on our left a glacier lake marked on Captain Birnie's map in the Himalayan Journal of 1932 (p. 44), but omitted from the latest survey maps, either because it is too small or because it was under snow when the survey was made. We found no difficulty in ascending to the top of the snow col, and a short snow slope led down to the glacial field beyond. From the top we could see the summits of Kamet and Mana peak, though the feet of most of the mountains were hidden in cloud. We used ropes from the glacier lake until we left the glacier above the Arwa in the afternoon, for there were numerous small crevasses. The descent was rather trying, knee-deep in soft snow, and I should not have enjoyed the crossing so much in the opposite direction. We camped that afternoon at about 3 p.m. by the Arwa river, the following evening at Ghastoli, and the next in the bungalow at Badrinath. The game of crossing passes has this advantage over that of climbing mountains, that you get more variety on your return journey.
Himalayan Journal, vol. vii, 1935, pp. 12, 13.
Glaciers of the Gangotri-Arwa watershed
Up Bandarpunch, 20,720 feet, from the south, July 1937 m Down View from north-east to south east from the head of the Chaturangi Bamak, about 18,650 feet, August 1937
We enjoyed remarkably good weather during the whole course of the journey. We walked out of Mussoorie in a downpour, and a downpour fell on us between Mana and Badrinath. The remaining days were fine except for a few heavy showers in the Bhagirathi valley, a wet day on the Hanuman Ganga, after our descent from Bandarpunch, and a few misty drizzles above the Gaumukh. But this weather is not necessarily the rule, and Shipton and Tilman had poor weather in 1934, whereas it had been good in 1931 for the Kamet party. Those who can choose their holidays might do well to avoid the monsoon. Would it be possible to interest the Pandas of the temples at Gangotri and Badrinath in the matter, and persuade them to keep rain gauges?
Given good weather, there were no great difficulties to be overcome. Existing maps were inaccurate, but we were fortunate in being lent an advance sheet of the new Gangotri survey. It did not fit on to existing maps of the Arwa basin, but new maps of both sides are soon to be published. The remaining difficulty is in the matter of transport. Our experience was that Mussoorie men, un- enthusiastic and loath to be hurried at the best of times, are no use above roughly 12,000 feet, and that the supply of men at Harsil is doubtful. We collected ten in a day, of whom five were excellent, and one could probably do better if more time were available. Permits are necessary for crossing the 'Inner Line', and it is worth applying for these well in advance. For Tehri Garhwal, application should be made through the Tehri Durbar to the Political Agent, Punjab Hill States, and for British Garhwal to the Deputy Commissioner of Garhwal.
A point, perhaps not without interest to those whose visits to mountains are primarily holidays, is that we were never really cold, hungry, or uncomfortable. We had four tents: two new Meades, of which we each had one at lower camps, but one of which we gave to the Sherpas at higher camps; an old Meade which the Sherpas used until the Mussoorie men returned from the Gaumukh; and a square tent into which by some miracle on occasions twelve Mussoorie men were fitted. The Harsil men, up to 14,000 feet, did not seem to mind much whether they slept in a tent or not. We enjoyed our meals. Breakfast consisted of porridge, chupatti, and bacon, with the first two of which we freely mixed treacle, syrup, or honey. A few toffees and chocolate usually did for lunch. For supper, soup, dal, meat (tinned when there was no sheep in the larder), and whenever possible fresh stewed fruit. In this we were lucky; apricots in the Bhagirathi valley, wild rhubarb on the Bumsor pass, apples at Harsil (which lasted for some days beyond), and pears below Badrinath. As to costs, we kept no methodical accounts, but I think that seven weeks cost us approximately Rs. 700/- each. I can, however, think of many ways of reducing expenses on another occasion.
Note by the Editor
I have drawn the sketch-map which accompanies this paper from a blueprint of the recent official surveys, and on it I have attempted to indicate the passes and routes across the watershed made by Captain Birnie in 1931 and by Messrs. Shipton and Tilman in 1934. I have numbered the Arwa glaciers 1-8 according to the numbering on Captain Birnie's map in Himalayan Journal, vol. iv, 1932, p. 44. The routes have been put on from an examination of the accounts in Himalayan Journals, vols, iv and vii (1932, 1935), and in Geographical Journals, vols, lxxix and lxxxv (Jan. 1932, April 1935). The peaks climbed by the party of Marco Pallis in 1933 (H.J., vol. vi, 1934) lie in the country to the west of that shown on my sketch- map. It seems likely, though it is not absolutely certain, that Mr. Martyn's party crossed in the opposite direction the pass that Captain Birnie used to reach the Kamlindi Bamak from Arwa glacier No. 5 in 1931.
The Kamlindi-Arwa Pass from the Kamlindi Bamak
The Kamlindi-Arwa Pass from the Arwa side
We received a telegram that our pass for crossing the * Inner Line' had not arrived. We persuaded the Uttarkashi official to let us go up to Bandarpunc h, but as this may be across the 'Inner Line', I feel it is better not to say too much about it.