April 29, 2016 Anindya Roy

A Mighty Glacier Gangotri & Vasuki Taal trek: An eye-opener

Gangotri & Vasuki Taal trek

A buzzing city, glitzy shopping malls, air-conditioned comforts, high risers and two misfits with lot of ideals of freedom and a fading belief of socialism , a perfect Molotov cocktail of alienation. That’s when Bangalore based software engineer Anindya and his Hyderabadi counterpart and long-time co-wanderer Arnab decided to take mountaineering and high-altitude trekking seriously; that was the only escape-route known to them.

Himalaya was not totally unknown to them. These two had traversed the eastern Himalayan state of Sikkim like their backyard. As Anindya chips in: “Given a chance I would rather marry a Sikkimese gal and settle down in a high-altitude village”.

“That’s when we decided to move on to other parts of the Indian Himalaya” pokes Arnab.

These guys had been their separate ways, and in this time Anindya completed his mountaineering course from Manali, HP.

So armed with mountaineering experience and Arnab’s unending zeal and the common between them: a longing for the extreme, this duo decided to tackle The Gangotri Glacier situated in Uttarakhand state of India.

“Our aim is to traverse the glacier for valleys around it, visit base camps of as many peaks as possible in the vicinity and document mainly the fauna and to get some awe-inspiring photographs”.

The region they are moving into is an important one both from a biological and mountaineering point of view. The region is famous for its challenging landscape coupled with existence of technical and medium altitude peaks, not to mention the daunting presence of the Gangotri glacier, which came in recent limelight because of the speed with which it is receding. Biologically speaking the Himalayan range is among the most important bio-geographical zones in India and is situated at the junction of three bio-geographical realms viz., Palaearctic, Africo-tropical and Indo-Malayan. This unique feature enabled proliferation of a wide variety of floral and faunal assemblages from all these realms, making it a biologically rich and valuable at the regional and global scales. Most popular group of animals residing the landscape include a large number of wild goats and sheep, snow leopard, musk deer and pheasants. Considerable proportion of the species is listed in the Red Data Book of IUCN and status of several of them is still to be assessed.

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Keeping this in mind 1553 Sq. Km. of the area has been declared as Gangotri National Park, and with this there comes need for special permits and permission for adventure tourists, and the number of people entering the park area are strictly controlled.

The Gangotri National Park (GNP) (Lat. 78°45’ to 79°02’ East and 30°50’ to 31°12’.North) is located in the upper catchments of Bhagirathi River in the Uttarkashi District of Uttaranchal State, India. The northeastern park boundary is located along the international Boundary with China. It falls under the Biogeographical zone – 2A West Himalaya  and covers an areas of 2,390 sq km. including a considerable stretch of snow-clad mountains and glaciers. The Gangotri glacier, the origin of river Ganga is located inside the park. The Gangotri, after which the park has been named, is one of the holy shrines of Hindus. The park area forms a viable continuity between Govind National Park and Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary. High ridges, deep gorges and precipitous cliffs, rocky craggy glaciers and narrow valleys characterize the area. There is a high variation in the elevation gradients from 1,800 to 7,083m, which in turn reflects in the diverse biomes, from subtropical communities to alpine meadows. So far 15 species of mammals and 150 bird species have been documented in the park. This includes some of the rare and charismatic species such as snow leopard (Uncia uncia), black bear (Selenarctos thibetanus), brown bear (Ursus arctos), musk deer (Moschus chrysogaster), blue sheep or bharal (Pseudois nayaur), Himalayan tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus), Himalayan monal (Lophophorus impejanus), Koklass (Pucrasia macrolopha) and Himalayan snowcock (Tetraogallus himalayensis).

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The season was perfect for mountains, as the Indian plane was suffering the hottest days of the year in the end of May ’09. The Delhi to Uttarkashi road travel was acceptable as they were high on adrenaline it seems.

Gangotri is the start point as well as the last motorable  point in the map. It’s a tourist spot for Hindu Pilgrims, some of whom trek up to the start of Gangothri glacier called Gomukh, named by early religious explorers after its supposed  uncanny resemblance to the mouth of a cow, But again back then the glacier reached up to Gangotri , now it’s a trek of 15 Km.

Besides some nominal low-altitude setbacks the two managed to travel up to Gomukh , from where the real deal began – walking on a glacier. Anindya had previous experience of glacier in Himachal but Arnab had to suffer of what can be called Landscape Shock.

The first valley on the right of Gangotri Glacier is Tapovan Valley. It’s actually a glacial moraine valley created by silt from nearby mountain streams. Himalayan glaciers have a thick deposition of rock and silt over them. So to a new eye they might not render themselves as glaciers at all, this can be tricky sometimes to a trekker to find a safe passage. On a moving river of ice the trail changes every season, besides being a geological hotspot with a past history of earthquakes this is a terrain not for everyone. The true physiology of the glacier can be noticed when you traverse the ablation zone, namely when the glacier is at its supreme. It is a daunting landscape far too hostile for human habitation and even dangerous to pitch a tent. All along the Gangotri glacier, several longitudinal and transverse crevasses are formed along which ice blocks have broken down. The ablation zone of the Gangotri glacier is covered by a thick pile of supraglacial moraines and is characterized by several ice sections, melting into pools of supraglacial lakes. Because of subsidence and the fast degenerating nature of the glacier, its centre is full of supraglacial lakes. It’s a devastation zone where many forces of nature are at loose. The eerie silence of the place is broke by sudden rumblings of the depositions.

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To reach Tapovan valley one will have to traverse the glacier and climb a steep ridge created mainly by a waterfall locally called as Akash Ganga. “Tapovan is easily one of the most beautiful valleys I have seen in my life” adds Anindya. From here you can achieve Base Camps and even Advanced Base camps of some famous Himalayan Peaks. Right in the middle of the valley is the daunting presence of Mount Shivling. Its formidable face should make you feel small as well as powerful. Just behind is a scarier peak called Meru Peak. No wonder people have base-jumped from these peaks because getting down from them is bound to be tougher.

We explored the valley to our full extent, went up to the Advanced Base Camp of Mt. Shivling. Traversed through the Meru Glacier, which is a tributary of Gangotri glacier, but now, it has developed its own snout and it does not mix in to the main glacier. The Akash Ganga waterfall eminates from a glacial lake formed in this Meru glacier. This glacier is in its ruins, maybe the worst state it has been ever, the melted away glacier has left behind a high altitude desert with sands blowing about. To find the real lake was a big deal, we had to traverse through many of those dried up parts of glacier and when ultimately we reached the shallow but majestic lake we were pretty sad on the state of the things,says Anindya.

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“Local people said the lake once consisted of all the sand patches we came through , As well as researchers say that Gangotri had 9 tributary glaciers that did meet with it, now its left with 5, one of them this Meru Glacier, which doesn’t even go all way to the big one”.

“We felt like sitting on the ruins of a lost paradise”.

The first encounter with Himalayan Wildlife came on the Glacier itself, a Himalayan Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes montana), with its distinctive thick tail and agility. This shy and agile creature gave the duo no scope to capture it, even on the camera. These are a Himalayan subspecies of Red Fox family, found mainly in high altitude Himalayan deserts.

Then came over the Himalayan Ibex, aka The Blue Sheep, being in the IUCN list as a low risk , they thrive here, cross the glacier whenever they wish to and climb ridges impossible for free climbing. “These bloody goats eluded us long; in Sikkim and Nepal they are almost eaten to extinction” sighs Arnab.

“Talking about our companions , we could not afford much fanfare , so we kept it as simple as possible, Die hard wanderers we are, our Guide was Govind, a teenage guy with knowledge of the landscape. We had one porter and a cook.

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Blue sheep is just like any other goat, the group consists of a few males and mainly a lot of females. The male with huge horns is easily distinguishable from the more docile females. They follow a leader (in this troop it was a male) who guide them to grazing land, if the leader eludes you or feels threatened by you the whole group is gone amiss. To watch them one has to blend in and appear as no threat. Luckily the troop in this valley seemed to be used to humans and they felt less threatened, this proves that poaching is still not a common occurrence here, the duo also found dead carcasses of dead Ibex, this further proves the fact that newly formed Gangotri National Park is a conservation success, at least in this regard. Their grazing motive is pretty distinctive, the leader leads and decides the movement of the whole herd, there is an interesting story about these animals, locals say a few decades back the whole troop vanished supposedly because of a wrong move by the leader, the leader died with the whole troop behind him, Ironic indeed.

The next valley on the list is Nandavan, but to go there one will have to traverse the glacier breadth wise. Today will be a test of all the knowledge they have gathered in this terrain so far. Ropes become essential as this route is rarely traversed by mountaineers. The tributary glaciers come into view today.

Gangotri has a lot of tributary glaciers, among them one can see the Raktavarn glacier, which lies beside the Nandavan valley. True to its name, the glacier indeed is reddish in color as it erodes through almost eroded mountains on its one side.

Next few days are kept for traversing the whole valley lengthwise and find the fauna habitat. This valley has the largest troop of Blue Sheep, which consists of a number of males and a lot of females, their total number is over hundred. Surprisingly they were totally at ease with the humans around, just keeping a safe distance. The valley ends lengthwise after 7-8 kilometers as Vasuki Glacier cuts it short.

Vasuki Glacier is a tributary of Raktavarn Glacier; it originates from the snowy slopes of Bhagirathi Peaks. The state of this small glacier is also alarming with crevasses originating all over it.

The adventure was coming to an end. Just like all good things end. But Anindya is not ready to accept: “Next time I am going to do it for as long I can, traveling the whole region would not be a bad idea”.

So what might be a recollection of this endeavor, a receding glacier, tall standing peaks, signs of millennium old glacial erosion on the rock surface, standing on the last stretches of wilderness left for us and our future generations, one cannot help but think of the bigger picture. These last patches of seclusion are reminiscent of the past. There is an urgent need of understanding and unearthing the spectrum of life in our planet, lot of research is yet to be done and a lot of preservation for our own sake. This world has always undergone changes, landscapes and species have evaporated. We, humans are here just for a brief moment, let’s try to blend in, let’s try to understand and unearth the intricate string that attaches every life form to others, lets try to minimize our devastative footprint on this earth, because life is there and life will be there, maybe in different form.

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