THESE DAYS a metalled road exists right up to Gangotri, the famous Hindu shrine where the holy Ganga (Bhagirathi) originates. This area abounds in high and beautiful mountains, expansive glaciers and lower down the lush green meadows where many a shepherd, the unsung adventurers, come to spend their summer time to graze their sheep. The Himalayan flora and fauna bewitches the eyes. One is thankful the poacher is yet to turn adventurous enough to track down those high-altitude animals in their inaccessible habitat.
We had determined to climb Jaonli, a 21,760 ft mountain, a little to the south and east of Gangotri massif. To reach it one leaves the road at Bhatwari 60 km short of Gangotri and follows the Lod Gad, a tributary of the Ganga, to its origin at the snout of the Jaonli Glacier, a distance of about 16 km.
Jaonli, an essentially snow-and-ice peak, had been attempted thrice by the Doon School under Hari Dang, who had finally succeeded in climbing it in 1967. Since then no other team had ventured into this area. The mountain wTas known to be moderately difficult and there were many other peaks including the virgin Srikant in the sanctuary waiting to be reconnoitred for the future. It was with a sense of rediscovery that we approached the mountain and were excited with the prospect ahead of us.
The expedition had been sponsored by the Artillery Directorate. In November 1976 I was asked to lead the gunners' expedition to a Himalayan peak and I readily accepted the offer. Soon after began the tasks of selecting the team and organizing numerous other details. Amongst the officers we had Uday Sathe (Yogi), Issar (Ishara), Balwinder (Ballu), Ali (Mian), Tanwar (Tani), Jagan (Jag), Agarwal (Aggie), Raghuvir (Raghu) and Dhot (Doc) and in the other ranks we had Rameshwar, Bihari, Ram Karan, Jagjit, Noorang, Nachhattar, Janak, Laxman and our cook Des Raj. It was a largish party for a medium-sized mountain but then we also had the aim to give as many youngsters as possible a chance to go adventuring. Very few knew each other before. There were characters of all kinds, promising interesting developments in sociology on the mountain. I had no doubt that we had a happy team and that whatever the outcome, we would never be sorry at the end.
Capt. Char an jit (Cherry) of the Engineers and Sepoy Umed Singh of the local formation joined us. Gurdial Singh (Guru) of the Doon School, a veteran of twenty-five odd expeditions including two to Everest, was also accompanying us, and what greater personality could our youngsters have asked for to initiate them into this great sport of mountaineering?
On 29 May 1977 we set off in two jeeps and two 3-ton lorries from Dehra Dun to our destination at Bhatwari. We halted in the school hall at Maneri, contacted our Garhwali guide Jatinder Singh Rawat and our Nepalese porters, and Guru and I called on Col. Jag jit Singh, Principal, Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, Uttarkashi, who happens to be Guru's younger brother, a gunner and renowned mountaineer. He promised us all possible help from his institute.
30 May was spent in organizing our departure on the approach march. By the evening we had reached Gangnani and lodged ourselves in the tourist Rest House. Across the river we could see the red-roofed huts of the hot spring and felt that a visit out there a month later would be imperative to clean ourselves of all kinds of filth and vermin that we would have collected by then.
It had been raining since the afternoon, in fact it had been raining thus for nearly a month, and if the met pundits were to be believed, no let-up was in the offing either; hardly a comforting feeling for us.
There was a slight moment of uncertainty and delay when the local civil authorities failed to give clearance to the Nepalese porters to cross the Inner Line. However, thanks to Guru's all- encompassing knowledge of the hills, we soon discovered that our route to Jaonli fell just a little short of the prohibited line. We therefore cut short our proceedings with the civil authorities. We drove through the police check-post with an air of confidence and candidly apprised the police officer of the existing situation on the ground, and sent a letter to the District Magistrate informing him of our departure.
The trek to the base camp of Jaonli was expected to be short. The first 4 km of the trek lie along the right bank of Bhagirathi involving short climbs over spurs and an occasional traverse. It appeared delightfully short and even the map promised a track right up to the twin grazing grounds of Harlu and Jharalu ki Jaonli at the edge of the glacier, where we planned to site our Base Camp. We intended to establish two staging camps en route, the first near the confluence of the Lod Gad with the Ganga at 7000 ft and the second at 10,500 ft at what had been described as Birch Camp by the earlier expedition. Since there were only 25 porters and over 80 loads to be carried, ferrying between camps was inevitable. This implied that what in normal course would take an expedition only three days to reach the base camp, would take us nearly a week. We weren't in any particular hurry at that juncture and on the contrary I was rather glad that this would help us to acclimatize fully before reaching the base camp.
A lot had changed since 1967 and mostly for the worse. The first 4 km that were expected to be difficult had been made adequately safe by the forest contractor whose men now seasonally went up to cut timber astride the Lod Gad. Staging camp 1, though picturesque, was full of flies and we attributed this to the sheep's droppings littered all around us. Pine, chestnut and walnuts were in abundance with countless birds giving us! their chirpy company, the whistling thrush being the most vocal of the lot. The timber track ceased a couple of km above staging camp 1. A number of reconnaissance parties were sent to find the route and gradually it became evident that the so-called track to the base camp along Lod Gad no longer existed. Thick foliage and groves of small bamboos made passage a problem. Though it was possible to hop along the precarious rock debris and scree along the stream, a continuous journey was impossible owing to frequent rock walls. A couple of shepherds who were camping nearby advised us to take a detour to the left of Lod Gad by climbing a steep spur to about 11,000 ft, whereafter a reasonable route existed up to the base camp. Another information that a much better route existed from Jhalla (a village further ahead on the Gangotri Road) to the Base Camp came our way, but it was too late to change our plans. Nevertheless, I sent Uday Sathe with Ram Karan and two porters to try it out. They took a guide from Suki and were soon off on a minor adventure of their own.
Our approach march to the mountain was a tiring affair though in patches amidst steep gradients through a forest of pine, birch and fir, the beauty of Himalaya had begun to reveal itself. We had our Staging camp 2 at 11,000 ft with running water nearby. As the porters remained busy with fetching loads from the lower heights, the main party was kept occupied with finding the route beyond. Once again a fresh lot of shepherds came to our help and a highly improbable route was finally explored, agonizing as it proved for our laden porters who cursed the thick thorny shrubs they had to pass through. The last f km went along the Lod Gad. The first party was hit by a fierce snowstorm and Ballu the leader of this group decided to strike camp on a comfortable meadow at 12,500 ft, 2 km short of the planned Base Camp. By 9 June all our stores had reached the temporary base camp and we decided to move to our actual Base Camp at 13,500 ft on the following day.
Jaonli is the land of black bear, snow leopard, bharal (blue sheep) and the brown bear, found in that order as one climbs higher. We sometimes got reports of the snow leopard having lifted sheep and dogs from the shepherds' camps nearby but our efforts to see this very elusive animal never materialized.
On 10 June our Base Camp at Haralu ki Jaonli (13,000 ft) had been occupied for good. Once again it was an ideal camp site with the greenery beginning to sprout, the spring snows just recently having melted from the grazing ground. There were numerous rocks, one nearly 100 ft high, littering the area that made ideal overhanging shelters for our porters and the kitchen.
We had our medium arctic tents pitched on level sites. We were very comfortable and it was heartening to see that nearly all members were fit and acclimatized. Part of the route to Camp 1 had already been recceed from temporary Base Camp and there was great excitement in all quarters for what lay ahead.
Maybe it was my bad back which was getting worse gradually and the uncertain weather that made me think in terms of rush tactics. We were at 13,500 ft near the snout of the glacier and the peak was 14 km away and 8000 ft higher. A party consisting of all fit members left for Camp 1 at 0700 hours on 11 June.
Over the first five km, the plod was on the medial moraine and the going never all that difficult. It was an enchanting view all the way. To our left was the impregnable Srikanta, a 20,120-ft virgin mountain demanding all the skills of Alpine climbing. The most feasible route lies from the northeast col at 18,500 ft along a steep ice ridge. The last 1500 ft of the mountain are all ice, the lower slopes being a combination of rock, snow and ice, all making it a formidable challenge to the strongest of teams. Along the South Ridge a line of fearsome spires ran towards the summit and maybe one day the top mountaineers would take them on.6As we travelled further, the massive Gangotri wall appeared to our left. Gangotri I, II and III were clearly visible but any approach from our side was fraught with danger. The hanging glaciers were far too prone to avalanche and along the remaining approaches the gradient looked too severe to be tackled.
In front of us, farthest of the lot, was the col joining the Gangotri group with Jaonli. From the col a snow-and-ice ridge with an easy gradient led to the plateau top of Jaonli. Its north summit was nearly 800 ft lower than the southern one, the latter being our objective. Jaonli has a personality of its own. It didn't look difficult at the first glance, yet its impressive snow- and-ice appearance made it the most dominating in the area. The glacier went right up to the col and was badly broken by two prominent icefalls, forcing one to discard the glacier approach in the last 5 km. An irregular snowfield existed to the right of the glacier, marked by two prominent rocks between it and the glacier. One could not be sure of the going; there were bound to be crevasses, dead ends and above all a tiresome plod over soft snow. Anyway, this alone appeared to be a feasible approach. The route on the left, immediately under the Gangotri wall, was ruled out because of avalanches. Taken on frontally, there was first of all a false ridge short of Jaonli and the face itself had a hanging glacier on it and was technically beyond us. A possible route existed from the right but it was definitely more broken, steeper and circuitous, necessitating the climbing of a rock band short of the summit. To the right of us were some lesser mountains, the most prominent being Draupadi-ka-Danda (18,754 ft). They were picturesque all the same and helped to give the scenery around Jaonli a very balanced appearance.
It had taken us a deliberate six hours to reach Camp 1 at 15,400 ft. Jaonli glacier is characteristic on account of the numerous lakes formed on it and some of them are as large as 800 yards. They make interesting landmarks and their blue waters are rather fascinating. Our Camp 1 was located on the edge of one such lake. It was a comfortable site over a morainish hillock in what was otherwise now a vast sea of snow.
Jag, Nachhattar, Janak and Rawat and two Garhwali porters stayed on at Camp 1 and the rest of us moved down to Base Camp. They were to form our first summit party for they were the fittest in the group. They were to recce and occupy Camp 2 at 18,000 ft and if possible to make an attempt on the 13th. It was far too ambitious an undertaking. We all make wrong decisions and this was one of mine.
On our way back to Base Camp we were caught in an electric storm and since our path lay along a ridge (the spine-like medial moraine), I quite feared that the lightning would get us. Luckily despite a number of very near bangs and heavy snow, we made home safely and were immediately plied with hot tea followed by delicious bharal curry and chapatis. We had promised Jag and his companions that we would return to Camp 1 on 12 June. The previous day's excursion had taken a heavy toll of our energies and we decided to call it off for a day. 12 June turned out to be a perfectly clear day. While we remained recuperating at Base Camp? we were confident that considerable progress was meanwhile being made beyond Camp 1.
Aggie, Tani, Jagjit, Yogi and I with other ranks Ram Karan, Bihari, Rameshwar, Noorang and Umed, left Base Camp at 7 a.m. on 13 June along the more or less beaten track to Camp 1. As we approached Camp 1 we could see little sign of progress higher up and our scepticism was confirmed when we met Nachhattar and the Garhwali porter coming down with the former in really bad shape on account of high fever and nausea. We reached Camp 1 at 12 noon and found our friends out there rather messed up socially. Nachhattar's illness and the general mood had prevented them from doing any substantial work on the 12th and the Garhwali porters had proved a liability. After a little exercise in man management, the crowd was once again buoyant enough for a more positive approach. Two precious days of work had been lost, but the situation was far from being desperate. We still had sufficient time and enough logistic support to last us another 10 days.
On 14 June Yogi, Jag, Aggie, self, Janak, Jagjit, Umed and four porters left to site Camp 2. For the first 2 km we followed the last bit of the medial moraine and the going was pretty bad because of the soft sinking snow. An equally irksome plod over a flat portion of the glacier came next. We had a short rest on a rock platform and collected the two tents dumped there by Jag's party during their recce on the 12th.
What followed was one of the worst experiences one can have of walking over snow. We had started climbing on to the snowfield keeping the lower of two rocks to our left. Since it was sunny, glacial lassitude couldn't have been worse. We had reached the foot of the rock, and the envisaged Camp 2 was still 1500 ft above us. A suggestion was made to strike camp there itself but for Yogi's vehemence which made us proceed further. Fortune favours the resolute. Very soon the snow conditions improved considerably. I took the lead and even though the gradient was pretty steep, it was now mainly a question of lung-power at that altitude. Finally a camp site was selected at approximately 17,000 ft. We could have gone a little higher but it was already late and the majority had to go back to Camp 1. Yogi was finding it extremely hard and was far behind. The first summit party consisting of Jag? Janak and Rawat were to stay behind at Camp 2. Jagjit and Umed were also to stay there in administrative support. I instructed them to head for the summit the next day. It involved a climb of 5000 ft spread over 5 km, a fairly difficult proposition but well worth a try.
On 15 June, the first party left Camp 2 at four in the morning. The second summit party consisting of Tani, Ram Karan and Noorang with Bihari and Rameshwar in administrative support left for Camp 2 a little later. My instructions were that should the first party fail to reach the top, the second party would try a day later. The first party was to return to Camp 1 in the evening for lack of space at Camp 2. Cherry and Ishara, the latter having languished long enough at Base Camp, arrived at Camp 1 to be near the climaxing activity. 15 June was a clear day and our eyes were set on the face of Jaonli trying to figure out the progress of the summit party. The sheer distance (5 to 6 km) made any accurate observation impossible but all the same we did allow our imagination to play tricks. In the afternoon, the weather packed up and we took shelter in our medium tent, now a little worried about the summit party's safety.
At 4 p.m. we heard the sound of approaching steps on snow. It was the first summit party returning to Camp 1, after an unsuccessful though valiant bid. They had reached a height of about 19,000 ft near the upper icefall and had a 12 hours' gruelling day, beaten back by crevasses, appalling snow conditions and the ensuing fatigue. Bad weather too had been a factor forcing them to beat a retreat. It was now imperative to site yet another camp if Jaonli was to be climbed. Rawat quite rightly had stayed back at Camp 2, for he alone was experienced enough to lead them to the summit.
On 16 June, Cherry, Aggie and two porters left for Camp 2 to brief the second summit party about the changed plan. It was decided to establish Camp 3 at 19,000 ft a little short of the highest point reached by the first party. This was to be done on 17 June. The attempt was to be made on the 18th and with the summit now considerably nearer, the chances of success were much greater, provided the weather played fair. Guru had predicted fair weather for the 18th and he was proved right. Once again the people at lower camps could make out nothing of the happenings of the summit party. A group of men wouldn't even appear as dots at 6 to 10 km. However, since the weather continued to be clear, our hopes ran high.
The summit party was making slow but steady progress. Their main problems were soft snow, circumventing crevasses and of course the rising gradient. It had taken them six hours just to cover 1000 ft and their bid to reach the North Ridge was foiled 100 ft below it by unnegotiable crevasses that ran through the entire length of the snowfield. They had no choice but to turn towards the North summit of Jaonli. They began traversing right and found that its last 100 ft were a vertical ice-cliff. They then began traversing to the other side of the mountain and reached what in military terminology would be called the reverse slope of Jaonli. It was now a question of a gradual upward traverse to the South summit of Jaonli. The Jogin group could be seen quite clearly.
At this juncture the weather began deteriorating, Rawat had been doing a fantastic job leading most of the way. Ram Karan and Bihari lived up to the reputation of Jats for limitless physical courage and endurance. Tani, though physically the weakest of the lot, proved his mettle by his steadfast decision to carry on despite the bad weather and instead of proving a liability was a great moral force behind their herculean effort. Despite bad visibility and a squalling wind they reached the top of Jaonli at 5 p.m., exactly 12 hours from the time they had left Camp 3 in the morning. After a brief stay at the summit and a few photographs, the party beat a hasty retreat. By 8 p.m. they were back in Camp 3 completely dehydrated but in high spirits.
We in the lower camps were oblivious of their success or whereabouts. When till the 19th morning they had failed to return or be seen anywhere on the mountain, we had begun to organize a rescue operation for we feared the worst. The weather was bad. There was a partial gloom in Camp 1. Just then one of the Nepalese porters on the look-out shouted that he could see two men coming towards us. Seldom have I received happier news. When the approaching men came near enough we recognized them as Noorang and Rameshwar, the support element at Camp 2, and we shouted for news of the others. They were safe and on their way back, they said, but needed help to carry their rucksacks. Our hardy porters were soon on the run and not long after the successful summiters were hauled into Camp 1 like victorious soldiers on winning a war. For the entire team it was a moment of great triumph, the culmination of a well-coordinated team effort.
Success of an expedition is measured in terms of whether the mountain has been scaled or not. This is a very important factor no doubt: but there are other values too, namely the effort itself, the companionship, and the fact that the team is fortunate enough to return in one piece. I shan't be guilty of exaggeration if I say that ours had been a complete success.