Looking Back — A Trek Within

Chinmoy Chakrabarti

'Nothing needs to be impossible for you. After all man is six feet taller than the mountain he climbs. Only the will resolute has to be there,' — commented J. B. Auden to Swami Probodhananda. Swamiji dreamt of a trek to Badrinath from Gangotri across a high pass — Kalindi Khal and came to Auden to enquire about the route. Auden encouraged him with those words. That was in 1939. Six years later, in 1945, six Indian Sadhus (ascetics) led by Swamiji (five half-naked and one completely naked) embarked upon this difficult trekking expedition with Dileep Singh as their guide. They crossed Kalindi pass — the highest point (5948 m), on 22 July 1945 and eventually became the first Indian team to achieve that remarkable feat.1

Standing on top of Kalindi Khal, 49 years after that remarkable feat, I reflected on Auden's words. Probodhananda was part of a team with five other ascetics — all of them were ill prepared, but filled with determination, courage and a dream in their eyes. Similarly, I was with five trekkers but well equipped, well guided and if I might add well fed. However the difficulty and the toughness of the trek was nonetheless the same, probably more so, because unlike them, we are only trekkers, not believers.

I was also thinking of the implication of Auden's words. Are we really six feet taller than the mountain we climb? Figuratively yes; particularly when one is on the top. Until then a mad rush of adrenalin, a sense of achievement drives us. We have a job to do and must damn well complete it. But as soon as one reaches the summit, one kneels and offers prayer, to whom I am not very sure; but an overwhelming sense of satisfaction and humility engulfs us and for a moment one is at peace with one's surroundings. Probably it is to this sense of achievement and peace that we (even the hardcore atheist among us) offer that prayer. So, are we really six feet taller than the mountain we climb? That's a difficult one to answer.

It started with a casual discussion but soon we realised that some of us were passionate about this route — going to Badrinath from Gangotri across the Kalindi Khal. It is a difficult 99 km trek that commences at Gangotri (3048 m), passes through Gaumukh (3892 m), Nandanban (4500 m), Vasuki tal (5300 m), Kalindi base (5590 m), Kalindi Khal (5948 m) and then descends to Arwa tal (3980 m), Ghastoli (3600 m) and ends at Badrinath (3100 m). The route passes through some of the most breathtaking mountainscapes under the shadow of great peaks of Garhwal — Bhagirathi II, III and I, Shivling, Vasuki, Chandra Parvat, Satopanth and so on. On this trek one experiences all kinds of trekking terrain as the route goes over boulders, glaciers, scree, and snow.

So on a rainy evening of August 1995, after several transhipments due to landslides, we reached Uttarkashi and booked ourselves in a hotel near the bus stand. Now began the boring but essential work like booking HAP & LAP, purchasing and packing provisions, getting inner line permits etc 2. We reached Gangotri in the evening of 21 August.

Ganga, the holiest Indian river, is said to have descended from heaven at Gangotri. This legend may have some truth. In the distant past, the snout of Gangotri glacier, the main source of the Ganga or the Bhagirathi — as it is called till Devprayag, was at Gangotri. According to studies by geologists of Garhwal University (published in The Telegraph, 26 February, 2001), Gangotri glacier has receded 850 m in the last 25 years. They estimated that Gangorti glacier had receded 40 km since the last ice age.3

I shudder to think what will happen in the next 100 years. Probably Gangotri glacier will disappear, so will the Ganga. The mighty river will be a dry riverbed. It has happened in not so distant past — Saraswati river has been lost. We need serious and urgent conservation measures to prevent disaster. Spending two days in Gangotri for packing and acclimatisation, we were off to Bhujbasa in the early morning of 24 August. The track goes through the right bank of Bhagirathi, the snow peak of Sudarshan beckoning. We had lunch under the shade of Chir trees at Chirbasa.

By late afternoon, we were at Bhujbasa — so named for its abundance of bhoj trees; but all gone now, indiscriminately cut down for fuel to supply hot meals and warmth to thousands of pilgrims and trekkers who visit Gaumukh every year. Next morning, we were at Gaumukh (the cow's mouth) — considered by the Hindus as the holiest place on earth. Well, I am not very sure about the holiness of the place but the scenic beauty is spellbinding. Gaumukh surely resembles the open mouth of a cow but then several glaciers' snouts are 'Gaumukhs', nothing unique in that; the uniqueness is its stunning splendour. Looming large in front of us was Bhagirathi group of peaks and on the right was Shivling. Water, with chunks of ice floating on it, gurgled out of the dark cave. Here silence, accentuated by gurgling water, reigns supreme; reverence abounds.

But Gaumukh is not the only source of Bhagirathi, as has been described in the religious scriptures. It is only the visible source of Bhagirathi. Above Gaumukh, I have seen numerous rivulets in Gangotri and Raktavaran glacier, running a short distance and then diving under the glacier bed, flowing underneath and emerging together at Gaumukh. Surprisingly, Kalidas had an allusion of this in his great poetic piece Meghdoot when he describe Ganga's descent from heaven, flowing down the matted locks of Lord Shiva in numerous streams.

Indian ascetics must have visited Gaumukh before the 19th century but there is no record of those visits. The first recorded visit to Gaumukh was on 31 May 1817 by John Hodgson and James Herbert and they said, 'A most wonderful scene, the Bhagirathi or Ganges issues from under a very low arch at the foot of the grand snow bed, the river here is bounded to the right and left by high snow and rocks, but in front the mass of snow is perfectly perpendicular, and from the bed of the summit we estimated the thickness a little less than 300 feet of solid frozen snow, probably accumulation of ages'4.

But you cannot stop and admire the scenery forever. One has to move on and we too were off to Nandanvan, our next camping site. Till Gaumukh, it was a well-defined track. But now, we were hopping from one unstable boulder to another. The boulders behaved like wild horses that try to throw off their riders. One had to watch them carefully and constantly. While dancing thus through boulders, rocks hurtling down the mountain-wall, greeted us along with occasional landslides. An uneventful stroll in cool breeze, though a bit tiresome! Really!

Crossing the last ridge, almost on all fours, we reached Nandanvan — a small grassy valley of exquisite beauty, surrounded by snow peaks — Bhagirathi II, III and I, Kedar Dome, Karchakund, and Shivling. Blue, orange, yellow alpine flowers at full bloom broke the carpeted green monotony. At a height of 4500 m, Nandanvan (3 kms in length and 1.5 in breadth) is very near to heaven; so I christened it Eden. Forty years ago, Umaprasad Mukhopadhyay — a great Himalayan explorer and traveller, had described Nandanvan thus when he came here on his way to Badrinath across Kalindi Khal. We planned to spend the next two nights here for acclimatisation.

The most stunning peak, dominating Nandanvan, is undoubtedly Shivling. It is hard to believe, that a 6540 m peak can be so rocky and devoid of snow. That's why climbing Shivling had always proved difficult and after some unsuccessful attempts, a team from the Indo-Tibetan police was successful only in June 1974. Two nights are long enough to accommodate some reflections. I thought about early expeditions in this area. On 20 July 1931 J. Birnie achieved the first recorded crossing of Kalindi pass from the Arwa valley and descended to Chaturangi valley. On the 24 July he re-crossed the pass. Marco Pallis, in course of a survey, crossed Kalindi Khal and went to Tibet in 1933. Next year, in 1934, Shipton and Tilman also crossed the pass. Gordon Osmaston did most of the survey work in this region in 1935-36. Chaturangi (four colours) glacier was named so by him 'because it has moraines of four colours' — white, black, red and yellow. On 15 August 1947, when India achieved its freedom, a team led by Andre Roch crossed Kalindi Khal. Tenzing Norgay was in that team. On 23 July 1963 Ms. Bhakti Biswas became the first woman to cross Kalindi Khal and reach Badrinath from Gangotri. Her team was led by Swami Sundaranand and included, among others, her husband Dr. Mani Biswas and Umaprasad Mukhopadhyay.

Our next camp would be at Vasuki tal under the shadow of Vasuki peak. The track onwards, till Kalindi glacier, lies on the left lateral moraine of Chaturangi glacier, a 16 km long colourful glacier, which emerges from the foot of Mana Parvat range and converges with the Gangotri glacier. Merger of many glaciers such as Khalipet, Vasuki, Sundar, Suralaya and Swet augments Chaturangi, on its downward journey.

Since expedition parties visit Vasuki tal on their way to mountain peaks, there was a faint track to follow. But the slow and constant movement of a glacier frequently changes the track. So we were trekking where there was no track at all. Walking at a height of 5300 m itself is tough and then to cross the last ascent before Vasuki tal, we had first to slide down on a stiff descent full of loose stone and scree. Careful as I was, I found myself rolling down. Lakhsmi, our team leader, ran down the slope overtaking me, anchored himself with his ice axe and caught me. I was too afraid to notice anything except that somebody had grabbed me and stopped my fall. Quite shaken, I was disoriented and distant for the rest of the evening. I recalled an Urdu couplet;

Pasina maut ka, mathe pe aaya.
Aaina lao. Hum zindagi ki aakhri tasvir dekhenge

(The perspiration of death falls upon my head. Bring me a mirror; I will have the last glimpse of life.)

Next morning, as I stepped out of the tent, a deep blue cloudless sky greeted me. Its blueness turned Vasuki tal blue. The blue water reflecting the image of Vasuki Parvat (6790 m), its hood spread like the great Puranic Serpent — Vasuki — guarding forever for unwarranted intrusion. Behind Vasuki, on the SE, peeped Satopanth (7070 m). It was a perfect, ethereal morning but the show must go on. So we climbed on to the left lateral moraine of Chaturangi glacier. Our next camp, on the Suralaya glacier was approximately 8 kms away. Measurement of distances is not very accurate in this part of the world. There were no mileposts!

By early afternoon, I sat on a ridge, looking down to our campsite, where porters were busy putting up tents. On the SE I could see Chandra Parvat, first climbed by an Austro-German team led by Rudolf Schwargruber in 1938. I also saw Khalipet Bamak- a symbol of man's sacrifice and courage.

We had been trekking continuously, barring a day's rest at Nandanvan, for five days and for the last three days at an average altitude of 4500 m plus which had begun to take its toll on all of us, particularly on Saha da (da, is respectful title added to elders) and me — the two older members of the team. I felt totally exhausted, almost unable to move. Lying in the tent alone, I was apprehensive. I may have to turn back, keeping my long lasting dream of crossing Kalindi to reach Badrinath, unfulfilled. Thoughts flew through my mind when suddenly I recalled few lines from Richard Bachs' Illusions — 'You are never given a wish without also being given the power to make it true. You may have to work for it, however.'

From Suralaya one could go straight to Kalindi base camp but most of us were not fit enough to cover this approximately 10 kms stretch in a day. Besides, crossing a fiercely flowing stream proved to be too time consuming. Our guide had to cut steps on an ice wall so that we could reach to a narrow gap over the stream. We would then jump over the ferociously flowing water, crossing over to the other side, landing on a slippery boulder. A miss and one would flow with the stream. Luckily no one slipped. We put up our camp near the confluence of Chaturangi and Kalindi glaciers.

Next day saw us on Kalindi glacier, moving like zombies, crunching on hard ice, towards Kalindi base campsite. We were at 5500 m; numb and dumb, moving through a sort of haze. The only thought was that we have to move forward. Though for the first time in my life I was moving over a wide icefield, that sense of adventure, the surrounding beauty, nothing registered. Fortunately, all roads end. We reached Kalindi base.

Next morning, Mohan — our guide, was on fire. It is mandatory to start very early to cross any pass. But till eight we could not move. Everybody was down with some ailment. But we moved in a single line on the icefield, literary following Mohan's footsteps. After few hours of hard toil, we could see Kalindi and Avalanche peak. After four hours, we were finally on top of the pass.

After taking a few photographs, I suddenly realised that I could not see a thing through the viewfinder of my camera. Must have kept the lens cap on, I thought. But the cap was off. I shoot with the right eye. So to check, I shut my left eye and everything was black. I tested again and again in the vain hope that some miracle might occur. It must be temporary snow blindness, I thought. Later, eye surgeons at Kolkata diagnosed that I had had a coronary thrombosis attack in both the eyes and numerous blood clots had formed in the eyes blocking the vision in the right eye. I was lucky that vision of my left eye was not blocked! I'd have been completely blind at a height of about 5900 m and at least three days march from nearest civilisation.

As we started to descend, visibility dropped to three metres. It was a white-out. We were paying dearly for the late start. Everybody was madly scampering down and suddenly with a great shake, I found myself drowning in snow; that harbinger of death was slowly swallowing me and I could not find anything under my dangling feet. I was in a crevasse. The realisation paralyzed me. Despite the cold, I was sweating. The rucksack was preventing me from going completely under. In no time, white death came up to my chest. At this time, Heera and Chandramohan — two of our porters, came running and pulled me out. I could not stand. I just lay down on the icefield oblivious of everything. Next our leader fell, followed by Mohan. Luckily, we could pull everybody out. It became a mad scramble to run down the snowfield. Visibility came down to almost zero. For the last few days, we were fed up with boulders but now we were desperate to reach any rock band. Rocks are faithful — at least you know where you are stepping. Utterly exhausted, on the point of collapse, we reached Rajparab — the camping site. Rest of the evening and the night passed under a kind of haze.

Next morning, everybody slept late. As I came out of the tent, a few raindrops greeted me. It was one of those mornings, hazy, cloudy with chances of a few drizzles. Though not visible from the campsite, I still can visualize the pass and with it came the realisation — we have crossed the pass — that sweet, heady feeling of achievement.

And this is where we erred. This heady feeling of achievement brought in a false sense of pride and security and to reach Ghastoli, the same day, we tried to cover a distance of 25 kms that too in the Arwa valley. So far, we have not attempted to cover such a long distance in a day and in this case, it is almost impossible owing to the extremely difficult terrain of Arwa valley. Even Frank Smythe admitted this in his book Valley of Flowers while crossing Arwa valley: 'But I for one was in a thoroughly bad temper. Perhaps the stones had something to do with this, for nothing is more trying to the temper than a day spent pounding over loose stones'. 'Thoroughly bad temper' — well, was an understatement. We should have done our homework properly before setting up such an unrealistic target.

But we had a compulsion too — to take Dipak (who was quite unwell) to the ITBP camp at Ghastoli, which may have medical help. So Mohan, Dipak and another member took off early; we were to follow. Bachchan- our cook, who had earlier traversed the route once, would be our guide for the day. Trekking the whole day pounding boulders after boulder, under a constant drizzle, without any solid food, soaked to the bone, we could not reach Ghastoli. At the end of the day with darkness falling, we realised, we were lost amidst boulders and scree. Our tents and provisions were gone with the porters who were somewhere far ahead of us — four of us and Bachchan, our faithful but worthless guide, were stranded and we did not have the foggiest idea where we were. We moved ahead under torchlight until it became apparent that this was a suicidal effort. So we stopped in front of a small cave, which could hardly accommodate three.

We spent the night in that cave, drenched, sharing four sleeping bags and empty stomachs that rumbled through the night. The drizzle continued in the next morning; but we had to move ahead. Somewhere ahead lay Ghastoli — our salvation. We had not eaten for 24 hours and the strain had sapped our resolve. So, instead of walking, we literally crawled in a daze. We became oblivious of pain and though we kept slipping, and cutting ourselves, we moved ahead. A dull feeling of constant pain overtook my body. Suddenly, through the haze I saw somebody coming our way. It was Heera, our most able porter and behind him Mohan was running down a ridge, followed by two people in uniform. Shouting out Heera's name, I could only cry. We embraced each other, crying. The two people accompanying them were soldiers of ITBP. They had brought food and hot tea. Oh! Life suddenly appeared beautiful!

Mohan told us that even the porters could not reach Ghastoli. They camped near Ghastoli, on the other side of the Saraswati river and waited whole of the night for us — in vain. When we did not reach in the morning, they reported the matter to Subedar Major Puri — the in-charge of the ITBP camp and he immediately sent the rescue party to look for us. We had a rousing reception in the ITBP camp and a separate big aluminium tent was allotted to us. It had some wooden cots. After many days we did not have stone under our bed and blissful sleep followed aided by a few tins of meat — a gift from ITBP.

Small pleasures, which one often takes for granted — a wooden cot, a few pieces of meat and fish, (I am a Bengali and love fish) assumes significance only when one is deprived of these.

The rest was easy going. As we neared Mana village, I could see the crest of the Badrinath temple in the distance. Saha da, our eldest member at 52 years, asked me, ' Tell me Chakrabarti since you are the philosopher type; despite enduring such pain, such exhaustion, why did we come in the first place?'

I could not answer. But it kept coming back like the proverbial phoenix. On the bank of Satopanth tal I had once asked the same question to a silent ascetic. He was under a vow of silence, so he took up a pen to answer. But instead of a straight reply he shot back the same question and I replied simply, 'to see the beauty around and to feel the eerie thrill.' He smiled and wrote, 'me too; but also to see the beauty within and to feel the ethereal excitement.' Well, that sounded too theological to me. I'd rather recall few lines from a poem of my favourite Bengali poet, Jibanananda Das

Babylone eka eka emni hnetechhi aami rater bhitar
keno jano; aajo ammi janinako hazar hazar byasta bachharer par

[I have walked in Babylon through the night, alone. Why so; I don't know, (even) after thousands of busy years].

The journey never really ends. The aim is not to reach but to move on and on. Upanishad pronounces, Charan bai madhu bindati, charan swadu muduswayam surjasya pashya shremanang jo na, tandrayate charan. Charaibati. [Motion is the nectar. Motion's gain is the nectar. Sun always moves. His light is incessant. (So) move on]. Radha — the lover of Lord Krishna on falling in love with the eternal soul (Krishna), realised it and exclaimed in wonder: Ghare jaite path mor haila a-furan (my path to home has become unending). So with trekking.


A trek across Kalindi Khal, from Gangotri to Badrinath in Garhwal.


  1. Across Gangotri Glacier, a record of this crossing, was published by Navneet Parekh years later. It is a remarkable record of this journey. — Ed.
  2. At that time permission from the District Magistrate, Uttarkashi was necessary.
  3. A recent news item (dated 15 March 2005 published in The Telegraph), reported, quoting World Wildlife Fund, that Gangotri glacier is receding at an average rate of 23 m/year.
  4. The Himalayan Journal: Vol. X.


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