“These silences are good for the whole body”, says Saurabh and it has been, though it marks a great contrast to our team’s scurrying around as bodies line up kitchen gear and bags, weigh up loads, and madly chirp at one another.
Departure days are something special and bring with it a special energy: “we are here, we are intact and still together”. Regardless of whether heading into the mountains, up the mountains, out of the mountains, or simply to another camp (as we are now doing), a task that for some would seem tedious is a kind of testament to the enduring bond and commitment we all have. Porters’ impatient bodies prefer days of movement…they’ve had enough days of playing cards in the tent, and using the solar panels to charge their Bollywood music. They want to move.
Move we shall. From Kirti Glacier, we will head north again having had almost a week of climbing onto, and wandering through the ice of this sheet of ice directly south of Shivling. We’ll retrace our route back to Tapovan and spend a night, afterwhich we’ll cross the Gangotri Glacier heading east to Nandanvan camp beneath Bhagirathi 2 peak.
Our day should be a short one, with a sequence of ascents, flows and rumbles forward until an open stretch where the air, normally cool and ever flowing, seems to simply die. As our path swings back into the mountains base, Karma looks up as he inevitably is the first to hear or feel things. High above, virtually straight up, puffs of dust preempt the tell tale “clacks” as small stones bounce downwards, sending larger cousins downwards and before long a line of dust and rattling stones becomes our entire vista.
Blue sheep high above have set off a shower and our team stops dead to watch. At one point Berinder, myself, Karin and Karma race across a stretch lugging our loads like odd-shaped little beetles. Valiant Deb stares up at this mayhem waiting, and knowing she will not be able to sprint across this zone of plunging stones. She’ll need time and vision…and she’ll need help.
Karma and Karin decide to re-cross back to where Deb and her honor guards, Purun and Saurabh wait, and strap on their extra loads to assist with the efficiency. Purun and Saurabh’s sole role will be to manage Deb across a 200-metre stretch of plunging stones and careful footwork.
Our joyous little crew urges them on over the ‘route of peril’ and we are able to track back up a perilous bit of diagonal danger that we’d crossed a few days previous.
Camp back at Tapovan is a brief little reentry to our old campsite. Temperatures have plunged which has kept with its tradition of dropping quickly around 6pm before becoming a more still and quiet kind of cold later on. Kirti’s camps had been more enclosed affairs with little sound at all permeating into us. I prefer the odd sound as it keeps the reality of where we are, real.
Glaciers, in a friend’s words are “vast, clear, and blue things”. In my time in the mountains they were usually only half of that ideal. Here, the vast Gangotri Glacier with its dips and crevasses were smothered in black stone, silt, and all sorts of natural materials it had collected on its journey. It was in many ways a moving history of all of the elements it had touched, though it’s ‘intactness’ was something fleeting. In much of the Himalayas, it seems disputed that the great bodies of ice are in fact decreasing in size due to an apparent “expansion”. One local in Gangotri, though, stated his view in clear terms: “They may appear to be spreading, but their bulk is diminishing…this is easy to see for us who live here”.
Another day of gorgeous slogging over the ice and stone on our way to Nandanvan. Heading further south of the proposed route, I go entirely off course and only realize this when I see the flash of Berinder’s pink cap through my zoom lens, far to the north of me heading up another pathway, which is obviously not the one I’m on.
Pathways that appear one day or even for an hour or two can and do change at the will of shifting ice caused by the brat sun above us. Landslides echo randomly in chambers below us and rocks cascade into the numerous green lakes which grow daily with meltwater. Watchful is the word! Even the porters tie their loads looser so that if they do begin a plunge the at least have a better chance of releasing their packs.
We move upon a living (and ebbing) landscape of frozen fluid matter. Ice axes are used by our team and the odd Nordic pole as so-called firm footing can whish away in seconds. The team of porters has broken into separate teams finding different routes to their liking. Uncle and young Parkash race through a lower section streaking across rivulets and dark folds, while Kerin, Parkash the Elder, and Berinder take a higher line that at times needs a complete retreat and a re-assessment of where the route is, before plodding along. These three carry double loads and have the tendon strength and split second judgements of mongoose. Twice I see Kerin go close to going over, and twice he languidly catches himself and his massive load.
Uncle and Parkash the Younger mock the efforts of the team as they have stretched out on a rock on the other side, content (but concerned) that they have made it through an ice gauntlet. Their little jibes belie their apprehension as they franticly point and scream from their little post directions to us from afar, directing from their vantage point where we should
Camp Nandanvan (or “Paradise”) is the first of a series of camps within the greater valley that shoots northeast out of Gangotri. Gangotri is one of 4 “dhams”, or places of pilgrimage for Hindus. To the west, Yamunotri is where the Yamuna River is worshipped, Gangotri where we are is where the Ganga or Ganges is worshipped, Kedarnath where Shiva is worshipped (Kedar is another name for Shiva, who is considered not a god, but rather a yogi), and finally Badrinath where Vishnu is worshipped (Badri is one of the names for Vishnu).
Nandanvan camp welcomes with fierce winds and a temperature that seems intent on simply plummeting. Alongside and heading up into the valley is the Chaturangi Glacier (Chatu meaning 4, and Rangi meaning coloured)…it is indeed a glacier that is shot full of strands of colour, the most prominent of which is a dark almost rusty red.
Further into the valley the mighty Kalindi Pass, sitting at close to 20,000 feet lies in wait. One of my longtime heroes, the iconic wanderer and iron-made explorer Eric Shipton explored these regions in 1934. I had read about his unexpected appreciation of these areas, when he was fixated on Nanda Devi and just briefly I recall his awe, which mixes fluidly with my own.
Our team of porters are now friends…but still porters as well with their responsibilities, and as always Karma has them working and learning the finer points of camping, cooking, and all of the little items that need doing. Berinder is kitchen helper on this first night and Kerin with his surplus of power and energy has become a favourite for Karma as well. As always, Karma is able to read the various strong personalities of the team and knows precisely, as any good manager, how to wring the best from each member.
It is one of the great joys of these journeys that all we have is all that we appear to need. Foxes, as they have the for the entire journey, are evident in the scat that we find, but little else besides the Blue Sheep seem to leave a trace in these huge wide gaps.
One exception is the yellow-billed choughs that gather strategically at Karma’s kitchen tent as if on cue. They sit huddled on stone every morning close to our camp waiting (as we do) for the first lines of sun to hit making these little “caw caw” sounds, conversing about whatever it is that they converse about.