Badrinath to Gangotri via Chaukhamba Col (6053 m)

Many early explorers usually turned back in despair seeing the complex sea of peaks and glaciers before them. But then there were some legends whose explorations in the Himalaya seemed as smooth as silk. One of them was the legendary CF Meade. On 10 July 1912, Meade along with Bhotia porters hiked from a high camp of Bhagirath Kharak glacier and reached the col between Chaukhamba I and Januhut. The team didn’t cross the col. Instead; they got back in the afternoon after having a glimpse of the Gangotri glacier.

After reading Meade’s Approach to the Hills, the idea of crossing Chaukhamba col was planted in Debabrata Mukherjee’s head few years back. As the years passed by, he hunted every available photograph, map, Google Earth, every tidbit of information and nurtured this plan. In January 2013 Debabrata recruited Biman Biswas, Biplab Baidya, Partha- Sarathi Moulik and me for an attempt.

The Beginning of the trip
On 16 May, our big team finally got moving from Joshimath to Mana village via Badrinath. On 18 May we hit the trail and walked from Mana to Bagua nala passing Vasudhara falls. After walking for 2 days we camped at Chaukhamba base camp at 3898 m. The magnificent Nilkanth and Balakun loom large in the surroundings.

Chaukhambha base camp with NeelkanthChaukhambha base camp with Neelkanth
Chaukhamba Base Camp to Camp 1 to Camp2
The date on my watch showed 20th May. Monday morning began early and we scrambled down on to the main moraine of the Bhagirath Kharak. Debabrata and Biman forged the way in this boulder maze as we crisscrossed the glacier and moved to the true left side, in the shadow of Balakun. After a tiring boulder hoping for over 6 hours, we camped on a nice flattish patch of snow. We named this place Glacier Camp 1, 4302m.

Next day we stayed on the left and kept walking straight towards the head of Bhagirath Kharak glacier. Our hike ended at around 3 p.m right at the headwall of Bhagirath Kharak below Chaukhamba I. It was Glacier Camp 2, 4732m. Ahead of us was a rock wall and a massive icefall, which came down from Chaukhamba I. It was a technical climb from here and the five low altitude supporters, who carried our loads turned back. Meanwhile we spent the afternoon fixing 230 meters of rope on the wall.

Rock wall below Chaukhamba colRock wall below Chaukhamba col
Camp 2 to Ledge Camp
It was 22 May. We made a beeline for the rock wall. Biman was leading the route and was first up, followed by the four High Altitude Supporters, Debabrata, Partha, Biplab and then myself. Jugging on the fixed line with the heavy sack took a lot of effort. After the rock came ice and snow. Biman had fixed close to 425 m of rope on the rock and snow. We daggered up the slope and reached a small ledge. From here Debabrata began to lead with Biman as his belayer. Debabrata asked us to stay put on this ledge, as the light was fading and also there were no free ropes. So the three of us started hacking furiously to make the ledge bigger to fit our tent. We anchored the tent to every possible hardware available. The night at the ledge at 5131m, passed in a haze of cramped sleeping, careful snow melting, and trippy dreams.

Camp 3 to Chaukhamba Col Base
As the first rays of light reached our tent on 23 May, we began the morning rituals, winded up camp and were really relived to escape the ledge. Camp 3 at 5420 m was a two and a half hour climb. Next day after a steep climb of two hours we caught our first views of the Chaukhamba col. From here it seemed like a light year away. As we climbed the incline eased and we were at the base of the col at 5623 m, tired and completely wasted. So much so, that we called the next day a rest day. And what a place to rest! We were right below Januhut. Chaukhamba I’s summit seemed perilously close. Across the valley Arwa group of peaks and the majestic Kamet jetted out in the air. On the rest day, we did a small load ferry and recce of the route ahead to the col.

Climbing above the rock wallClimbing above the rock wall
Chaukhamba Col camp from Bhagirath Kharak sideChaukhamba Col camp from Bhagirath Kharak side
Chaukhamba Col Crossing
26 May was D-Day. The weather, which was brilliant till now, was moving in. We just kept going through the motions and playing our roles with focused determination. The exposure, although camouflaged with misty clouds, felt like a monster swimming just below the soles of our boots. The final obstacle was a 400 m vertical wall. Adrenaline was starting to well up in me. Go, go, go! Just then, 10 minutes from the top, Partha slipped. Kamal the head HAS also took a tumble. Luckily both of them were fine except for a few minor injuries. Finally on top of the pass we were ecstatic. C.F. Meade once stood here. In 1995, Simon Yearsley, a British Mountaineer on his attempt of Chaukhamba I stood here. And now we were. We were overjoyed. We congratulated each other and hurriedly performed a small puja and began our march to the other side. After a small plateau, it was a sheer drop on either side. Biman then found a snow chute. Night overtook us as we waved our arms, down climbed, and then repeated the cycle again and again. The air was bone chilling. Our gloves froze and our calves ached. We became especially good at tumbling, falling and shouting expletives. After three or four hours we finally piled in the tent dead tired and thirsty at 5563 m. The time on my watch was 10.30 pm. We had climbed for more than 14 hours.

Chaukhamba Icefall Camp to 1st Camp on Gangotri Glacier
The alarm buzzed. There was an overwhelming sense of achievement. But then it was a job half done. We were still high and on top of an ice field. Biman fixed the rappel rope and was the first one down to the Gangotri glacier. It was a complex rappel of 300 m, because the rope had couple of knots in between. A blizzard made it even more difficult. It was around seven p.m. when all of us were down having our first brew in the camp on the névé of Gangotri glacier at 5245 m. And boom! A huge avalanche came crashing down from Chaukhamba - IV. But luckily it had lost its power and a strong wind draft and powder snow rattled out tents.

Descending an ice gully towards Gangotri glacierDescending an ice gully towards Gangotri glacier
Walking across the length of Gangotri Glacier
After the epic descent, 28 May was a perfect day. From our vantage point Chaukhamba I, II, III, IV, Janhukut, Mandani, Yeonbuk and the vast expanse of the Gangotri glacier stood silent and still. Partha’s injured leg from falling into a bergschrund; dwindling rations and fuel were a major concern. So it was decided that we would trek down to Gangotri instead of going to Kedarnath via Gangotri col. So ropes were tied, crampons clipped and we got moving. It was easy but long walk to the next campsite right below the peak of Kharchakund. The same ritual was repeated the next day, and we were at Kedar Dome base camp. The views kept getting better. Shivling, Kedarnath, Bhagirathi I, II and III dominated the skyline. Debabrata and Biman charted a superb route through this maze and we reached Tapovan. On 31 May, the lure of hot food, hot shower, internet, coke and other junk made us run down to Gangotri on full steam. I managed to take a dip at Gaumukh. I don’t know if any of my sins got washed in the ice-cold waters of Ganga, but the dirt of 15 days definitely did.

In this information age, most people assume that if it isn't written about then either it doesn't exist, or it isn't worth doing. Our Chaukhamba col expedition was definitely worth doing. It was the completion of a route, which was initiated by C. F. Meade some years back. 101 years to be precise!

First ever crossing via Meade's Chaukhamba Col (6053 m). We were the 5th team to traverse the entire length of the Gangotri glacier.

Ritabrata Saha