...all of a sudden the fog rolled away from us and we found ourselves looking down into the immense depths of a cloud-filled valley at our feet. The glacier descended in a steep icefall for about a thousand feet, then flattened out into a fairly level stretch of ice before it heeled over for its final colossal plunge into the gloom of the gorge six thousand feet below us.
Eric Shipton ( Nanda Devi, 1935 )
EVER SINCE MY FIRST reading 15 years ago I had been enthralled by Shipton's account of his crossing of the Badrinath-Kedarnath watershed with Bill Tilman and three Sherpas in 1934. Their lightweight attempt to prove a direct link between these two great Hindu shrines over the mountains of the Chaukhamba range captured all I had ever regarded as romantic and daring in mountain exploration. The commitment to cross an unknown and heavily glaciated 18,000 foot pass in rank monsoon weather had an epic denouement when they became trapped without food in dense bamboo forest on the far side. Their ensuing battle for survival, fording dangerously swollen torrents and competing with black bears for the supply of edible bamboo shoots, was, to me, a model of courage and endeavour against the odds.
Yet this adventure was overshadowed by the opening of the route into the Nanda Devi sanctuary, which was the central achievement of Shipton and Tilman's 1934 Garhwal Himalayan campaign. The lovely ice spire of Nilkanth apart there are no compelling mountains along the route of the Badrinath watershed crossing which might have ensured its subsequent notoriety. The shutters were further drawn following India's conflict with China in 1962, when the first half of the route was designated as part of the Inner Line border security zone, and access has since been denied to foreign parties.
Come the 1990's, no party had ever repeated the crossing, either in whole or in part, and of the other explorations in the area the only report was of two Bengalis who had entered the bamboo valley from the Kedarnath side in 1984 and were never seen again.1
Soon a personal dream to relive Shipton and Tilman's journey moved into the realms of the possible. The sense of history, the promise of genuine adventure and the chance to explore a pristine wilderness of exceptional ecological diversity; all these seemed, to me, irresistible lures.
My search for a team took a while to bear fruit. Few mountaineers want to abandon summit goals for a thrash in a jungle. Eventually I was joined by John Harvey, an ex-guiding client who loved the rough life of Himalayan travel, Welsh caving enthusiasts Pete Francis and Ben Lovett, and mountain guide Brede Arkless. Then three months before departure came a bolt from the blue, a call from John Shipton, Eric's son. He had heard we were going; could he come along and support us? After a teaching career in several countries, John had become a contented bulb grower in rural southwest Wales. But now the bug of mountain exploration had finally bitten. In John's words :
I only began to study my father's journeys in earnest in the last two years, having studiously steered my own path. But one story has always remained fixed in my memory as an image of his special form of mountaineering, gleaned not from reading his books which until recently I had managed to avoid doing, but from memories of his conversations over dinner during childhood. The climbing of a difficult col, and seeing very far below what appeared to be a paradisical valley, which appeared to offer rest and a gentle route back to civilisation, but which turned out to be a hopelessly difficult and impenetrable jungle, has become a sort of personal legend....
The Rawal and the Rishi
'Work is worship', said the Rawal, 'if you are determined you will reach your goal....'
Our team of 10 sat cross-legged in an annex of Badrinath temple early on 24 May receiving the high priest's blessing. The four Indian members, Pandey, Heera Singh, Naveen Chandra and Sobat Singh Rana, hung spellbound on his every word. To have this private audience with a man revered by the many thousands who come from all over India each year to worship at Badrinath was a special privilege and conferred symbolic significance upon our venture. Outside in the chill clear air hundreds of pilgrims were taking their ritual bath from the hot water springs, by which a temple has been sited for at least 1200 years. Drum rolls, murmured chants and a cacophony of bells mingled with the roar of the Alaknanda river, and, some 3000 m above the temple, the snow cap and veils of Nilkanth glowed in the first flush of dawn. Even we British sensed the charge in the atmosphere and our Western masks of cynicism slipped away.
We asked the Rawal about the story of the high priest of long ago who held services at both Badrinath and Kedarnath on the same day. It was this legend which provided some of the inspiration for Shipton and Tilman's venture in 1934. The present priest suggested, somewhat improbably, that there might once have existed a tunnel through the mountains which enabled this feat to be performed. Remarkably, the direct distance between the two is just 40 km but we expected to walk three times that distance in order to make the overland crossing.
Three kilometres north of Badrinath lies Mana village, the last outpost of civilisation before the great glaciers of the Kamet, Chaukhamba and Gangotri ranges and access point to the sequestered land beyond the inner line. Here we escaped the last shackles of officialdom. After some six months of thankless work by Pandey, chasing paper through central Government departments and cranking the machinery of the Uttar Pradesh state bureaucracy in order to satisfy security laws framed 30 years ago, we had finally gained permission to attempt the route as a joint Indo-British team and had obtained our green access permits at Joshimath the previous day. These were duly presented to the Intelligence Officers at Mana, and after a friendly ten minute chat we were allowed to proceed. Our freedom had been long sought and hard won.
Our path crossed the Arwa gorge and swung west into the Alaknanda nala. After 5 km we left the trail and crossed to the south bank of the river by a huge snow bridge formed from winter's avalanche debris. Some 3 km further we camped on an old lake bed in the lee of a lateral moraine, directly opposite the free standing falls of Vasudhara. Our valley was hemmed by granite walls which were cleaved by snowy side gorges. Having got out of a bus at 3100 m at Badrinath and with a height gain of some 2300 m from there to the col we needed to take the approach trek slowly in order to acclimatise, and had 19 porters with us to ferry two weeks food to the base of the col. Our second day took us through meadows bedecked with primroses and bergenia to the snout of the Satopanth glacier.
No Garhwal glacier is complete without its hermits and holy men, and here we met a 'haramukh' of the Rishi sect who we had seen leaving Badrinath temple on horseback the previous morning. His arm was pinned above his head in a woven sock, a position which he had maintained for 30 years, presumably in spiritual penitence and devotion to the god Krishna who is reputed to have held his arms aloft for 100 years in these mountains. His beatific bearded face was the perfect Santa Claus image, whilst his nut brown body was unadorned.
On the Satopanth
On breasting the lateral moraine of the Satopanth we gained our first glimpse of the col we had come so far to cross. Sheltered close under the massive hulk of 7138 m Chaukhamba the pass looked hazily distant and insignificant in scale, but even from 13 km away we could decipher a considerable icefall guarding its approaches. To our west the Bhagirathi ice stream curved off far into the Gangotri massif and to our north an array of unclimbed peaks and faces beckoned, some attractively accessible via snow couloirs, others close approaching 'big wall' status in the height and steepness of their granite walls.
We now battled through dwarf willow scrub along the lateral moraine for 5 km passing directly under the north wall seracs of Nilkanth. The summer grazing alp of Majna at 4200 m offered the ideal camp ground, save that spring snow completely covered the flats, forcing us to pitch camp on the sloping moraine. Thereafter a near continuous snow cover on the main glacier allowed us to link further remnants of moraine without recourse to hopping and sliding over ice and boulders. With an early morning start we could enjoy simple travel on solid neve. This, combined with continuously clear and fine weather, had already justified our choice to go in the pre-monsoon season.
At the holy lake of Satopanth tal, we met another holy man who told us that he was living on 'sun and air', a diet which we quickly supplemented by the donation of surplus nuts and raisins. The last thin strips of grazing ground at Sunkunni and Surajkunni were smothered in deep snowfields and just beyond we made our decisive camp some 2 km from the base of the col 4650 m. The porters returned from here with Pandey, and we were left to contemplate our first real commitment of the enterprise, the gaining of the col.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa
The icefall looked as though it had recently emerged from an underground nuclear test, its centre being caved in and ruptured from the flanks. Neither flank appealed; the left side was severely fractured and sported a slim leaning tower some 60 m high that looked ripe for collapse whilst the right side would be menaced by any avalanches that might choose to drop from Chaukhamba's 1600 m south face. So we opted to explore the centre and on 29 May all of us, bar John Harvey and Pete, set out with 15 kg loads. This crucial reconnoitre coincided with our first day of bad weather. Towering cumulonimbus clouds that had gathered daily on the Kedarnath side of the range now spilled over the col and enveloped us in mist and light snowfall.
We dumped our loads at around 5150 m, and while Brede, John Shipton, Ben and Naveen returned to camp, Heera, Sobat and I continued up into the jaws of the icefall. The 1934 party had made a camp hereabouts and enjoyed a tense night which fell in Shipton's words to the accompaniment of an almost continuous roar of ice avalanches from the great cliffs of Chaukhamba above us. Several times during the night I was brought to a sitting position, trembling, as some particularly large avalanche fell close at hand. I was similarly afflicted by the creeping dread of objective danger and in spite of the bad weather and lassitude became almost desperate to prove the feasibility of this route to the col.
Some 60 m higher we entered the labyrinth via a tenuous snow bridge which spanned the huge chasm behind the leaning tower. Our way was then barred by misted ice walls. Knowing that Shipton and Tilman had found a way off the icefall into a rock gully at this point, we traversed left until stopped by a vertical jumble of broken ice blocks. In place of the rock gully a simple snow couloir lay just 40 m away, but I could see no safe way to reach its sanctuary. Suddenly, I wanted to be out of this icefall for good. We turned tail, repacked seven persons' loads into three sacks and with burdens of 30 kg each ploughed back down the glacier. When positioned well within the potential crash site of the leaning tower, an ominous crack echoed from its base and a shard of ice broke off. For a second I stared at the tower, riveted with fear and convinced that the whole edifice was quivering. 'Run', I screamed to the others and we staggered wildly across the slope until we collapsed from exhaustion to the realisation that the tower had stayed in place. But I returned to camp with my conviction clear that we should not return to the icefall.
In its place we espied a line on the face of Point 5758, the peak left of the col. A series of snow ramps and gullies led to a ridge which rose to the level of the col, thus avoiding the icefall and all its risks. Without a healthy cover of spring snow this option may not have been available, but its steepness was sufficient to persuade John Shipton to go back. Had he only had some recent experience of snow and ice climbing I would have had no qualms whatsoever about his continuing, for he was as fit as any of us. With his jutting temples and troubled brows he was the image of his father, and he bore the genetic stamp of the mountain explorer, revelling in all the squalor and discomfort of the trip, glorying in the mountains and his beloved flowers, and becoming suitably more scorched and shrivelled by the day. How he would have loved to tread in the bamboo valley, but safety came first.
Pete Francis was troubled by the altitude and a weak knee and decided to join John in returning to Badrinath together with Naveen and Heera. They planned to take jeeps and buses a hundred miles round to the Kedarnath side of the range and then trek from Kalimath along the ridges bounding the far side of the fabled valley. We were thus streamlined to a team of five, which in honesty was an ideal number to enable sharing of equipment and trail-breaking effort yet minimise joint risk exposure on a route where one sprained ankle could jeopardise everyone's life.
Across the Col
At midnight on 30 May our watch alarms sounded the assault on the col. We had been left in isolation to share one four-person tent and an estimated eight days worth of food rations. Our equipment included static rope for abseils and river crossings, a 'volcano' stove which could run on twigs and bark down in the forests, and a gigantic 'kukri' knife procured from some unsuspecting villager down in Mana. With this mighty blade we might cut our way through the dense jungle or fell trees to span torrents. Not surprisingly our loads that night must have been all of 25 kg. The torch-lit climb of the 700 m face was a torture of effort and a tense game of memory to follow the only unbroken line of snow ramps. A brilliant dawn caught us just two-thirds of the way up and we fought progressive enervation and fast-softening snow to gain the final snow ridge, where we were amazed and delighted to be looking down on the icefall. We could trace our probings of two days earlier and felt much relieved to be beyond its clutch.
At around 9 a.m. Brede and Sobat led a short traverse from the ridge on to the crest of the col, which was a broad snowfield a kilometre in extent at an altitude we reckoned to be 5420 m. Beyond its further edge we could see nought save a deep blue sky and a line of haze which hung above the foothills, as if in emphasis of our reaching our goal. Beyond was a great nothingness, and within I felt strangely empty of emotion. However high we aim, one must at some stage reach the limit and contemplate the infinite. Such thoughts made me long at once for the warm caress of the bamboo forest and the comforting scent of its flowers.
The col was menaced by huge seracs 1000 m higher on Chaukhamba's south face, so we moved 300 m down easy snow slopes on the far side and made camp at 5100 m where we could at last see the delineation of the great valley below. The bounding ridges, although some 4500 m high, looked tame and inviting by contrast to the glacial wilderness behind us, whilst the valley itself cut a straight line westward from the glacier snout into deepening layers of forest. However, a thousand metres of unsighted icefall still lay between ourselves and that security.
But first Brede and I wanted to go back up and climb the shapely summit, Pt 5758 which lay immediately to the southeast of the col, from where we could properly ascertain the lie of the land. So on the following morning while Ben, John Harvey, and Sobat moved camp down to the very brink of the icefall and inspected the options for its descent we took a chance which we knew we might later regret if the going got tough and food or strength ran out down in the jungle. We climbed a steep snow slope to gain the south ridge of the peak from where we could look across the ice plateau of the upper Panpatia glacier. With its surrounding peaks looking like Arctic nuntaks we could imagine ourselves on Spitzsbergen or the Norwegian ice caps rather than the Himalaya. According to our knowledge every one of the assemblage of 5500 m peaks was unclimbed, and despite an attempt by Harish Kapadia the previous year the upper glacier had never been reached.2
Our ridge was largely composed of piled blocks one of which shifted its position under the weight of my arms and trapped me in a little chimney. Unable to shift the offending stone by my own strength, I required Brede's assistance to escape the prospect of permanent impalement on the mountain. Where the rock strata steepened and smoothed near the top we traversed out to steep snow runnels and gained the summit ridge at a fortuitous break in an ice cornice. As expected, the summit bore no signs of previous visitors and the name Shipton's Peak was immediately assigned to our conquest. We descended down the north face back to the col on 50 degree slopes of neve that were so firm and sure that we could face outwards most of the way down. These were conditions one dreams of in the Alps never mind the high Himalaya !
The tables of fortune quickly turned. After our stolen morning thick clouds boiled up down on the glacier and we tasted something of the conditions encountered by the 1934 party in groping our way down through the fog to join the others, their line of marker wands giving invaluable guidance. Once reunited an air of tension took hold of our party. How could we get down the icefall which Eric Shipton had described in such repellent language :
We gazed down upon the head of a second and very formidable icefall. It was appallingly steep and for a long time we could not see any way of tackling it which offered the slightest hope of success.
Down the Gandharpongi Gad
Pondering the likelihood that glacial retreat in the last 64 years could not have made the undertaking any easier, we retreated into the tent during a brief but intense snowstorm. As soon as visibility improved Ben and I went out to probe the options. Ben had already inspected the long gully which dropped down the left side of the ice. This was undoubtedly the gully into which Shipton and Tilman escaped when their blind descent of the glacier ended in impossible seracs, but we could see that any ice avalanche breaking from a hanging glacier up above would be channelled straight down this chute. A long detour to a rock rognon bounding the right edge of the icefall brought an emphatic rebuff. The third option was to cross the head of the gully on the left, traverse close under the hanging seracs then abseil some rock steps to gain snow slopes well left of the risk zone, and it was this route which finally gained our favour.
To our good fortune the sky at dawn was once more clear. After packing with more than usual urgency we commenced the traverse while the splintered ice cliff above was still in shade. Remarkably, a sizeable stream had burst forth from the base of the seracs since the previous afternoon as if to confirm the transience of the mass that hung above. Knowing that a slip would be disastrous we skated nervously across the icy terrace and gained the reassurance of a rock spur. Here a large block offered the perfect anchor for a long abseil down to the snowfields below.
At 10.45 a.m. we stopped at the lower glacier and made a celebratory brew of tea from fresh melt water. The icefall was over and the great forest beckoned. Straight as a die, the valley, which is named on the Garhwal West map as the Gandharpongi gad, dropped below us into green woodland. We could understand all of Shipton's optimism at so pleasant a sight after the tribulations of the col, and even spotted his patches of light green on the far side of the valley which gave false promise of grazings and shepherds' huts within a two day walk.
Dry ice and boulderfields led us quickly down to the glacier snout at around 3650 m where we floundered straight into dense birch wood, much of which had been bent or flattened by avalanches. There was no transitional belt of open meadow or grasslands. We made the bound from high mountain to untamed forest in a single step. Camp that night was a clearing beside a running brook quilted with yellow corydalis and wild rhubarb. Great scrolls of white bark hung from aged birch trunks, fuelling John's volcano stove which brewed a constant supply of drinks. Lammergeiers swept imperiously up and down the valley between its soaring walls of vegetated granite. We spread out in the open and breathed that happiness with life that thinks not of the trials to come but only of the wonder of the moment.
Point 2685 m
A mile downstream from our camp the upper valley terminated in a pronounced downfall. In Shipton's words :
The river disappeared underground for a short distance above the bank of the precipice and issued forth in a great waterspout to crash down into the depths below.
Standing on the jammed blocks spanning the river at the brink we peered down into a dense mantle of giant oak trees which fell away for 800 m to the junction with the side river from Mandani Parvat which the map marks as spot height 2685 m. If the crossing of the col was our initial objective, the attainment of this obscure confluence deep in the jungle was our greater goal. Not only was this the lowest point of our planned route but the crossing of this side stream was also the pivotal passage of the 1934 venture, the place where Sherpa Pasang was nearly killed by a falling boulder and two rain-drenched days were spent in finding a fording point.
One of the questions which had aroused our keenest conjecture was the likelihood of human traces in the valley. Already this had been answered. Above the downfall we had found a rudimentary wire animal trap, and several cut branches on trees, proving that local hunters must, from time to time, penetrate this far up the gorge. We wondered how they managed to negotiate the vegetated slabs which ring the downfall. We hitched our ropes round juniper roots, and, gladly trusting to their dubious strength, abseiled the steepest bluff; all except Sobat whose solo display of down-climbing on vertical grass tufts at this step would doubtless have impressed Mick Fowler.
Shipton's Lost Valley
Article 6 (Martin Moran)
11. Descending from Satopanth Col, looking across Gandharpongi gad.
12. Gorur Parvat with NW ridge on right.
By cautious route finding and a preparity to retrace our steps at each impasse we descended steep oakwood and rock slabs without further recourse to the rope. Distinctive claw marks on tree branches and large piles of droppings showed that black bears still roamed the forest. We could however be confident that our incessant noise, crashing through the undergrowth and snapping off tree branches, would keep them at a safe distance. Where a canopy of old trees shielded the sunlight the forest floor was open and the going was relatively easy, but a dense scrub of dwarf pines and thorn bushes was fighting for space in every clearing, forcing us down on hands and knees. The twisting branches snagged our rucksacks constantly, forcing us to push forward headfirst until they gave way and we went crashing forward, propelled by the weight of the loads.
We had all but forgotten about the morning's evidence of human visitation in the forest, when Sobat spotted a wood-framed shelter at a clearing on a spur. Outside was a makeshift shrine and inside we found goat skins and muslin bags filled with crushed roots and herbs. We surmised that these must have considerable medicinal value making it worth the while for locals from Kalimath to penetrate the gorge. Had these visits commenced since or even as a result of the 1934 journey, or had Shipton and Tilman simply failed to spot the evidence in the vegetational explosion of the monsoon ?
The great side stream could now be heard pounding its path down a gorge to our right. Having found the hut we were duped into searching for trails in the forest. The only track we found led us past a spring to the brink of the gorge, which was quite impassable upstream for as far as we could see. So with mounting concern we hurried back down the spur to the confluence with the main Gandharpongi river at Pt 2685. A terrifying roar located the meeting of the two great streams. Ben and I left our loads on a leafy terrace and scrambled to the edge of a slimy crag overhanging the side river. There below we spied a makeshift bridge of three wooden spars between raised boulders at precisely the point where Shipton and Tilman must have crossed in 1934. If our passage was thus assured, then perhaps it was offered at too cheap a price, for I suppose we had really wanted the challenge of bridging the stream ourselves. Nevertheless, a relaxed and happy team made open camp and fire beside the crossing that night. Neither the rapid depletion of our rations nor even the exhaustion of our meagre stock of tea bags made much dent in our pleasure to be couched by the crux of the route.
From Pt 2685 Shipton and Tilman had fought their way down valley for five more days, eventually reaching Kalimath, which is some 20 km south of Kedarnath. However, our aim was to make a direct link between the two temples, but to do so we should have to break out of the gorge and make some hefty climbs across a series of three 4500 m ridges. A thunderstorm broke early next morning just as we were abseiling down to the river. We crossed the bridge with a rope handrail for safety then ploughed up into dense dripping undergrowth. Thick stands of bamboo now made their appearance, but the canes were dry and old and were easily brushed aside. The main growing season of new shoots awaited the monsoon.
Our patience with the jungle was quickly exhausted and we struck directly uphill on a relentless climb of 50 or even 55 degrees in angle. Fortunately the rain petered out and a watery sun appeared to dry the slopes. Otherwise we should have had a dangerously greasy climb on mud and ground litter. Even so the exposure was such that we would have tumbled many hundreds of feet had we slipped on open ground, and we came to see the occasional stands of gnarled rhododendron as pillars of security. Higher we re-entered bamboo forest and the pitiless climb continued through the early afternoon, our minds relieved only by constant bird-song from the tree tops. When we finally emerged from the forest at 3600 m, the ground was everywhere too sloping to provide a good campsite. A heavy storm began just as we were clearing a level patch, and soon we were cooped up in the tent again like five chickens in a roost while the rain lashed down.
The fine weather now deserted us and the next storm arrived early the following afternoon, just as we were traversing long snow slopes towards a gap in the Dobra Khal Dhar (ridge). The gruelling physical effort, biting shoulder straps, and dwindling energy stores were gnawing at our confidence and patience. Having thought ourselves 'home and dry' once beyond Pt 2685 we were now seeing each new hill as a mountain. The Mandani valley lay over the ridge, and with a trail and a temple marked on the map, we were certain we would meet someone there; maybe there would even be a tea shop !
We crossed the ridge at 4400 m in a blizzard but the sun reappeared as we descended a grade I gully on the far side. We rushed down open snowfields and across carpets of yellow globe flowers, infused by the rich evening light and the prospect of a path. Then, simultaneously as the sun slipped behind our next ridge, we hit steep slopes of rhododendron. Scanning the shadowed Mandani valley we could decipher stone buildings, but there were no signs either of smoke, light or animals. Our hearts sank. Then we saw traces of a path traversing 80 m above us. With the last vestiges of will we climbed back up to it, but we didn't have the strength to keep with it and camped up on a shelf 300 m above the valley floor.
Morale was at a low that night. Kedarnath was still two ridges away. Sobat had long since despaired of our definition of a high mountain trek, and each day our diet shrunk whilst our consumption of body fats increased. I even considered dumping all our technical climbing gear at Mandani to reduce our loads. No sooner were we fed than we slumped into an exhausted sleep.
Deserted and peaceful, Mandani might have been the most exquisite spot on earth that next morning. Grassy moraine shelves led up from a tiny stone temple to long glacier slopes and then the shapely twin summits of 6193 m Mandani Parvat. Nobody is going to make a big name for themselves climbing in such remote places, yet this is how Himalayan climbing once was and can still be for those who shun the glory-seeking.
We brightened considerably to discover a note from John Shipton at the temple door. The others had passed this way just the previous day. Then, as a gift to the temple I offered the trusty kukri, carried so far by Sobat but never used in anger. Perhaps, I thought, the shepherds would make good use of it when they came up in the summer. What I didn't realise was that this temple was dedicated to the avenging goddess Kali. No Hindu, finding that knife at the shrine would dare touch it, and who knows what curses the goddess might bring down on our team for such an impudent offering.
An hour after leaving Mandani all traces of a path had disappeared and we became enmeshed in jungle so thick that we wished we still had the accursed knife. Dwarf oaks, trailing brambles and giant juniper provided new challenges to our bush skills. Traversing along the supposed line of the path only took us across a endless succession of steep nalas. The only escape was to go straight up and out of the forest. Once more we became committed to a 900 m climb up endless grass slopes to the Simtoli Dhar (ridge). When we gained a snowy crest at 4300 m we saw a yet higher ridge beyond, and within minutes a storm descended and a lightning bolt struck the ridge just metres above us. We huddled on a rock ledge to await its passing. Kali must indeed have been angry.
The Final Glissade
We camped that night in a high snowfilled corrie evocative of Scotland in early spring. The cheerful bird song was prescient of renewed life and gave us hope of an end to our current trials. Our cooked food was finally exhausted with a breakfast serving from a single packet of custard. A snow gully led up to the true crest of the Simtoli Dhar at 4450 m and there we were greeted by a view of the dawn alpenglow striking right across the Kedarnath ranges. Easy slopes dropped into our last valley, the Kali ganga, and on its far side we spied a grass gully which breached the Khalini Dhar. Beyond this last horizon we knew lay Kedarnath.
At last we had broken the chains which had bound us for the last three days. We crossed the Kali ganga before its waters had swollen with the daily melt, consumed all our remaining edibles by its banks and then put our backs to the ultimate climb of 500 m. The aching abdomen, strained back, cutting shoulder straps and deadened leg muscles - all the familiar symptoms of this trek were once more in evidence but this was at least the final haul.
Sobat gained the ridge crest first and after a short traverse across a spur we could at last look down on the clustered buildings of Kedarnath 900 m below. Hundreds of tiny figures could be seen plying the trail from the town. After eight days in solitary splendour we were due for a culture shock. The abode of Lord Shiva attracts as many pilgrims as Badrinath, despite the 14 km approach trek. Unbroken snowfields dropped steeply down from our perch towards the town. With a vaguely theatrical sense of occasion I broke into a succession of swooping standing glissades down to the lowest limit of the snow. After so much toil this was an unforgettable finale. Then we packed our axes back to the sacks and slipped into town quietly by the side door. And there among the throngs milling round the temple we instantly spotted young Shipton. He, Heera, Naveem and Pete had got in just an hour before us, having followed a route from Mandani a little south of our own.
Whilst our reunion was joyful and the sense of achievement enormous, our satisfaction was tinged with regret. For in revisiting Shipton's lost valley and in proving the direct route from Badrinath to Kedarnath we had pierced two of the few remaining myths of the high Himalaya. And will that great valley be as wild and beautiful when we too are dead and gone? We can but hope and pray that it is.
Traversing a high route from Badrinath to Kedarnath temples, Garhwal. The British team followed much of the 1934 route of the Shipton-Tilman party. The crossing was undertaken in May-June 1998.