A Mountaineering Pilgrimage from Badrinath to Gangotri that includes crossing the elusive Chaukhamba Col (6053 mtr) and to complete a trail route started by C.F. Meade 101 years ago
The objective of the Exploration was to explore and study the major glacial deposits around Gangotri (Ganges), Bhagirath and Satopanth Bamak (Alakananda), Vishali (Mandakini), Gondharpongi-Mandani (Markendeya), Panpatia (Kheer Ganga) and Saraswati (Saraswati) that forms the main sources of the River Ganges.
In 2007, we had explored the Kheer Ganga (Panpatia), where we discovered a side gully and named it as Parvati Gully. From Panpatia glacier we reached the upper snow field and finally descended to Madmaheswar via Panpatia Khal and Kachni Khal. That trek under the leadership of Tapan Pandit created a new high altitude route which is now popularly known as Panpatia trek from Badrinath to Madmaheswar.
In 2009, I started from Kedarnath and completed the first crossing from Kedarnath to Badrinath. Starting from Kedarnath we went to Mahapanth – Vishali – Yeonbuk Col – Mandani Temple – DBT Col – Gondharpongi forest (we survived 10 days in that primitive jungle) – Madmaheswar – Panpatia – Swargarohini – Satopanth Bamak- Satopanth Tal – Badrinath. That exploration covered the sources of Mandakini, Markendeya Ganga and Alakananda (Satopanth Bamak).
In 2011, I visited the source of Saraswati near Mana Pass and discovered some uncharted beautiful lakes up the glacier and named them as Trimukhi Taal.
In 2013, we attempted the toughest trek of the Garhwal Himalaya region. We wanted to explore the beginning of Alakananda from the Bhagirath Kharak and then the beginning of the Bhagirathi Ganga, or, Gangotri glacier – on the either side of the Chaukhamba col.
This Exploration was also our first attempt to find a Shortest feasible Route and Direct access between the two famous pilgrimage point viz. Badrinath and Gangotri through Chaukhamba Col (6053mtrs) (between Chaukhamba – I and Mt. Janhukut / Januhut which was first tried by C.F. Meade in 1912) and Kalindi Khal.
Chaukhamba Col (6053mtr) lies between the NE ridge of Chaukhamba-I and SW ridge of Janhukut (Januhut) at 30°46’01.4″N / 79°15’51.6″E. It is the last depression on the Eastern boundary of Gangotri glacier.
Leaving aside the interesting stories of ‘The Mahabharata’ or, the mythological daily commuter priest of Kedar-Badri temples; the contribution of the Chaukhamba massif in the geography of India is unparalleled. It is the main donor to the Gangotri glacial complex that supports the water supply of the main three sources of the Ganges viz. Bhagirathi, Alakananda and Mandakini. It is very surprising that in this era of Global warming controversy no geophysical studies have been made in these sources of the Ganges. Research work on the retreating snout point at Goumukh is in process, but according to me, studies on the cause behind the less snow-accumulation and its effect on the resultant thickness of the glacier at its sources should be done too. The comparison of photos during the earlier expeditions could be useful for this study.To save the civilization of India it is very important to keep ourselves informed about the main mother river of India – The Ganges.
History & Research
“Like us, Shipton and Tilman in 1934, had failed to reach the Chaukhamba Col…”
– Lost in the Legends (HJ-54) – Harish Kapadia
“We had caught a glimpse of the col at the head of this on the way up and it seemed to offer some hope, but the approach to the glacier was up a steep and difficult ice-fall which moreover, was raked by avalanches from the tremendous north face of Kunaling (Chaukhamba-I), the giant of this range, some 23,400’ft. The Roar of an intermittent bombardment of this glacier from the slopes of Kunaling was ever in our ears.
(Since returning to England we have learnt that it was till here that Mr. Meade reached, but he got on to the glacier by some route that avoided the ice-fall and the avalanche-swept area.)
Defeated in the Bhagat Kharak (Bhagirath Kharak – Chaukhamba col) we fell back on a fresh plan.”
– Nanda Devi – Eric Shipton
“We knew that in 1912 Mr. C.F. Meade and his two Swiss guides had gone from Badrinath up the Bhagat Kharak Glacier, climbed the ridge at its head and looked down on the Gangotri Glacier. They did not descend on the other side, but they thought the pass was practicable, and it was their intention to find and cross this pass and thereby not only cross the range, but also explore the unknown head of the Gangotri Glacier”
– Kamet Conquered – Frank Smythe
We didn’t want to make any mistake, especially on a route which sent back mountaineers like Shipton-Tilman and Harish Kapadia. Moreover, as we were already busy with some other expeditions and explorations we couldn’t concentrate on Chaukhamba col. So we were not in hurry. By the end of 2012, we started to gather information about it. A little research on Chaukhamba Col revealed many interesting facts.
The first mention of Chaukhamba Col is found in the famous book, “Kamet conquered” written by my idol – Frank Smythe. He mentioned the name of C.F. Meade and his 1912 exploration of Bhagat (Bhagirath) Kharak Gap at the head of the glacier with the same name . The second mention of that elusive pass was found in the book “Approach to the Hills” by C. F. Meade himself in 1932. The next mention was in the book “Nanda Devi” in 1936, when Eric Shipton wrote about his exploration of these watersheds before climbing Mt. Nanda Devi.
It is quite surprising that, though most of the mountaineers of the world talk about these three epic books, yet nobody tried to climb, lest crossing the Chaukhamba Col, that is for more than 60 years after Shipton’s failure in that route. Except a reconnaissance of the lower ice-fall below Chaukhamba-I during their Gangotri glacier traverse by the Calcutta section of Himalayan Club in 1984 nobody even mentioned it till 1995.
A British team under the leadership of Simon Yearsley reached the Chaukhamba Col and camped there on 3rd October, 1995 on their way to attempt Chaukhamba-I. But they traced their footprints back on finding that the next part of the route was too dangerous to continue. The only attempt made to reach the col was by the team of Harish Kapadia in June 1997, when two members and three sherpas failed to reach the main glacier below the north face of Chaukhamba – I. And then the hush fell again.
We went through every possible line found in the prints and googled every link in the net with the word Chaukhamba col. It only resulted in the lines already given above. In fact, only two photographs of Chaukhamba col from East side were found in the net. That too was from Deo Dekhani (quite far away). The West side of the col was found in an article over Chaukhamba – IV expedition by NIM team led by Col Abbey.
The pages from the Meade’s ‘Approach to the Hills’ were copied including the photo taken by Arnold Heim of the First Swiss Expedition to the Himalayas (which was added with the route marking in the second edition of the book). For several days we were glued to the Google Earth images and contour of the route. We finally could understand the position of the hidden gully of Meade.
To get the right team members for this exploration was initially quite a tough job. The trained mountaineers wanted to go for some other peaks and the trekkers were not technically qualified to face the challenges of this route. Moreover, everyone wants to be successful. So after seeing the results of the previous attempts by the famous mountaineers quite a lot of people lost their interest to join the team. Moreover some of the regular mountaineers left the league when they came to know that there wouldn’t be any Sherpa or guide with the team. In a way, it became a boon for us. I finally got a small but strong team that included a combat commando of ITBP, Biman Biswas (29), who had gone through every possible mountaineering course and was also a prize winner of contemporary Sport climbing athlete. He was with me in several of my expeditions including 2007 Panpatia exploration and Gondharpongi part of 2009 Kedar-Badri. He simply joined the team out of love to adventure and challenging climb. Partha Sarathi Moulik (40), another team mate of mine of 2009 Exploration and other climbing expeditions was a natural choice. Biplab Baidya (42), an experienced mountaineer who had been climbing in various parts of the Himalayas was with me for an alpine climb up the Rudragoira peak found this venture interesting too. And the last member to join the team was Ritabrata Saha (33), who wanted to do something different. I asked my old favorite porters Kamal Singh (40) and Devram (22) to join us; who brought another two fellow villagers Kritam (22) and Raghubeer (25) from Agoda (the second village on the trekking route to Dodital from Uttarkashi). All of them had done basic mountaineering course from NIM.
Support Staff, Their role and Extent of Reliance on them
As stated earlier in the team selection section, all our Expeditions and Explorations are organized with the idea of True Adventure and Mountaineering. We always try to climb within our own capabilities. So like all other previous expeditions this Expedition too DID NOT Employ Any SHERPA /GUIDE.
We employed 4 HAPs to carry the equipment and food for 10 days from below the hidden gulley to Gangotri. We provided them with the same kind of climbing equipment (Snow-boot to Helmet). The group Insurance was done for all of them.
We employed 5 LAPs through a Porter Agency of Joshimath to carry our Equipments for the first four days (mainly kitchen-stove-cooker-kerosene and food), who were released once we reached the base of the Chaukhamba wall.
|DEBABRATA MUKHERJEE (LEADER/Guide)||M
|23-D, Surah 3rd Lane, Kolkata – 700010||Regd Guide – Min of Tourism. Govt of India.||BMC, AMC, Winter ALPINE Course. UIAA Trek Guide SKI (Basic)||35 Expeditions, 25 Leaderships, 28 Summit, IMF Leader,2005/ 11|
|PARTHASARATHI MOULIK (Treasurer)||M
|51, M. M. Ghosh Road, Kolkata – 700074||Port Trust Authority of India. Water treatment||BMC||3 Expeditions, 2 Summit|
|BIPLAB BAIDYA (Team Manager)||M
|269, Madurdaha co-operative, Kolkata – 700 107||Pollution Engineer at WBPCB||BMC||4 Expeditions, 3 Summit|
|Ritabrata SAHA (Co-ordinator)||M
|1D, 602, Phase-3, NG Sun city. Kandivili (E). Mumbai – 101.||Private Service||BMC||3 Expeditions, 2 Summit|
|BIMAN BISWAS (Lead Climber/Navigator)||M
|Christian-danga Rd. Nutan-choti. Bankura, WB – 722 101||ITBP (Combat Commando)||BMC, AMC, S & R, MOI. ALPINE, SKI.||8 Expeditions, 8 Summits|
Day to Day Program – (Deviation from the Program)
- D – 01 – 12/05 – Dep Kolkata in Morning.
- D – 02 – 13/05 – Arrival & night halt at Haridwar.
- D – 03 – 14/05 – Arrival Joshimath by afternoon.
- D – 04 – 15/05 – Arrangement of Uttaranchal & Forest Dept. permit, porters, Fuel, Food etc.
- D – 05 – 16/05 – Same as Above. Packing. (As we were all prepared so we left Joshimath and reached Mana village by noon).
- D – 06 – 17/05 – Transfer to Mana Village beyond Badrinath. Acclimatization trek in afternoon. (We had a repacking & acclimatization day).
- D – 07 – 18/05 – Trek to Bagua Nala.
- D – 08 – 19/05 – Trek to Chaukhamba Base.
- D – 09 – 20/05 – Trek to Camp – I on Bhagirath Kharak.
- D – 10 – 21/05 – Trek to Camp – II below Chaukhamba Wall. (Return of LAPs, We fixed ropes on the Rock wall leading to the hidden gully).
- D – 11 – 22/05 – Return of the Porters. Repacking day. (We were well acclimatized so we continued with the climb to Bivy – I).
- D – 12 – 23/05 – Acclimatization, Reccee towards Chaukhamba Col. (Continued with the climb till Bivy – II)
- D – 13 – 24/05 – Climb to Ch-Col Glacier Camp – I.
- D – 14 – 25/05 – Climb to Ch-Col Camp – II. (Reccee & Ferry. Rest day for the HAPs)
- D – 15 – 26/05 – Climb across Chaukhamba Col & Bivouac at 6000 mtr. (Bivouac at 5630 mtr after the crossing)
- D – 16 – 27/05 – Descending to Gangotri Glacier possible Bivouac at 5500 mtr. (Descended to Gangotri glacier 5240 mtr)
- D – 17 – 28/05 – Descend to Gangotri Glacier Chaukhamba Base. (Trek down to Kharchakund area)
- D – 18 – 29/05 – Trek down to Kharchakund area. (Trek down to Kedardome area)
- D – 19 – 30/05 – Trek down to Kedardome area. (Trek to Tapovan.)
- D – 20 – 31/05 – Trek to Tapovan. (Trek to Gangotri)
- D – 21 – 01/06 – Trek to Gangotri. (Jeep to Uttarkashi)
- D – 22 – 02/06 – Jeep to Uttarkashi. (Jeep to Haridwar)
- D – 23 – 03/06 – Jeep to Haridwar. (Rest at Haridwar)
- D – 24 – 04/06 – Night Train.
- D – 25 – 05/06 – Train.
- D – 26 – 06/06 – Arrival Kolkata.
Sensitivity to the environment
For the first 4 days we used kerosene as our fuel before beginning the actual climbing. Thereafter, we used Butane gas for our cooking. All non-degradable materials were brought back to Gangotri. (In fact we planned our ration and weight in a way so that we don’t have much garbage). As the HAPs had also received mountaineering trained, it was easy for us to leave the least carbon footprint in the mountain.
Detail Final Report
On 12th May 2013, we left Kolkata. Spending a night in Haridwar and two nights in Joshimath for collecting permits and marketing etc we reached the last road head Mana on 16th noon bypassing the Badrinath which had just opened on that day for pilgrims this year. With the kind permission of the village chief we camped at the school premise which was closed for the vacation. The afternoon was spent walking around Mana village for acclimatization. Crossing the Mythological ‘Bhim-pul’  we went up some hundred meters to give our legs some idea about the coming days. As per our plan we would be out of touch of any other human beings for 16 – 18 days to complete the journey from Badrinath to Kedarnath. As we couldn’t afford to take along more than 4 HAP, so we planned to hire 5 LAPs. They would mostly carry the first four days food, kitchen and the equipment etc till the end of the Bhagirath Kharak glacier. Once we reach the head wall of the glacier they would be released with the kitchen kit and the trekking shoes of some members to deposit with the agent from whom we hired them. The agent would send them to Haridwar by the local bus driver to be collected by us.
The 17th was spent for unpacking and repacking for making loads for the five low altitude porters, who would join us next morning and continue for next four days. In the afternoon we visited the Badrinath temple to get the blessing of the Lord to make our journey safe and successful.
18th morning the first day’s trek started with the usual chaos. The five Nepalese low altitude porters arrived quite late, at 09.00 am. However, we were lucky this time. They made no fuss about the load we kept packed for them and started after having a quick breakfast. By 09.30, we hit the trail. As it’s a popular trail for the first 5 kms which leads to Basudhara falls, a well marked path is available. But that too made some problem to some of us because none of us were on this side of the river and with any idea of the route. So some members went up straight to Basudhara falls following that path. They realized their mistake only when they looked downwards to find Biman and I had left the path midway and were walking towards the river bed. As we didn’t have any guide with us so from then onwards they were instructed to keep close and follow the leader as there were no more footmarks. We encountered no more problems till we reached our campsite crossing the Bagua Nala (a stream coming down from the north boundary wall) in three and half hours. The GPS reading for our first day camp at Bagua Nala read as: Ht. 3528 mtr. 30°-47′-09.0″N / 79°-26′-09.1″E.
We had two options for the next day’s trek to follow, either to keep going on the river bed over the dead moraine in the beginning and later on the terminal moraine of the Bhagirath Kharak or, go up to our right and follow the broken ridge created by the true left lateral moraine. On the early morning of 19th May, we decided to try both the routes and choose the easier course later by passing information over walky-talky. I started a little late after seeing off all the porters and took the upper route. Crossing the boulder zone and once atop the lateral moraine I found a nice trail between the moraine ridge and the northern boundary wall. Ritabrata and the porters were following me. I wanted to call the other three members up to continue with us. But it was too late. They were already got stuck in the sea of boulders of the terminal moraine and in order to reach the top of the lateral moraine it’s a straight wall of scree and sand with overhanging boulders. So when our group took 3 and half hours to reach the next campsite (Chaukhamba – I Base Camp), the lower group took 5 hours to reach there. Of course I had to keep my mouth shut when they finally arrived and greeted me with some chosen words. A small improvised temple confirmed us that it’s the Base Camp for Chaukhamba-I going expeditions. The GPS data recorded the height as 3898 mtr and the co-ordinates were 30°-47′-31.1″N / 79°-24′-04.0″E. After setting up the camp and coffee we were out for a reconnaissance of the next day’s route. We walked up 200 meters to have a clear view of the area. The findings were not enjoyable at all as this lateral moraine is not continuing anymore like a continuous ridge. We would need to get down to the main glacier which is really broken. The southern side of the Bhagirath Kharak is still covered by snow which could be taken after traversing the full width of the Bhagirath Kharak glacier. But we have to be very careful while walking on those snow patches as it is quite close to the north face of Balakun which was spitting avalanches every now and then. However, our main concern for the time being was where to find a relatively easier slope to get down to the bed of the glacier. After a good search we could find a boulder strewn gulley which is not yet full of water in the middle of May. Better than nothing; we decided to use that. At 7°C, he weather was a little chilly in the evening.
On 20th May we started together. The boulder gulley was more difficult than we thought. The loose boulders on dust, sand and scree were just waiting for a vibration. So each of us created some landslides and slid down to the glacier with some part of the wall. Of course, as usual, Partha was the person who championed in dislodging the maximum-chunk of the debris. We marked an imaginary line to cross the glacier to its true right side. We started to follow it and soon found us swimming in the ocean of boulders. However we could manage to keep our sense of direction correct and reached the snowfield below the north face of Balakun in an hour or so. Biman and I had a difference of opinion here. I wanted to walk on the semi-soft snow close to the wall, whereas Biman wanted to keep away from the wall and continue on the rocks sighting me the shooting rocks and boulders from above as the reason and also the mini avalanches of various volumes that could possibly descend if they would follow me. I wanted to take the calculated risk with helmets and more than 4 pairs of eyes to keep a vigil on the wall and started on the snow with the porters. After half an hour Biman and his followers had realized that the chances of getting hit by a boulder was much less than getting injured by an unstable boulder in the waves of boulder-field and joined us too. Soon the amount of snow started to grow and we could move a little towards the center of the glacier. Biman felt happy. After 6 hours trek we found a relatively flat place and lowered our rucksacks. Glacier Camp-I established at 4302 mtr (30°47’28.3″N / 79°21’28.8″E).
We must be well acclimatized and over-eating than expected because on the morning of 21st , Kamal announced, “Chawal khatam ho gaya (rice is finished)”. We had planned to eat normal food as long as the LAP’s are carrying those; after that we will continue on porridge-soup-noodle diet till we reach the next locality. We were supposed to have this last breakfast with rice but, we had overeaten. But we were lucky. I had noticed that our low altitude Nepalese porters were carrying extra ‘Atta’ (wheat flour). So paying the double cost we brought some flour and sugar from them and made a special local food which tasted like ‘Halwa’.
The beginning of that day’s route was on the pack snow crisscrossing many beautiful glacial terns. The height gain was not felt that much as it was a continuous gradient of 35°-40°. With the rising sun the snow started melting and we started sinking. Once we were in the glacier and on the snowfield, Biman and I were roped up. I was trying to find a route avoiding the crevasses and at places Biman had to be cautious when I was not sure of the terrain. The others were following us. We crossed a turning on the glacier and view of Chaukhamba-I opened to us. The avalanche prone north face of Chaukhamba was awe-inspiring. But the ice-fall below looked like a nightmare. Our goal, the mighty Chaukhamba Col is somewhere up and above that ice-fall. But we did not care for that as we will avoid that ice-fall and the continuous bombardment of avalanches from the north face of Chaukhamba and climb the rock-ice mixed wall left to the ice-fall as indicated by Meade in his book “Approach to the Hills”. After a continuous trek of 6 hours on that knee-deep crevasse ridden snowfield we reached below the hidden gulley which leads to the side glacier used by Meade’s team in 1912 and was not found by Shipton in 1934. The low altitude porters were released with the stove, big utensils and all other extra loads. They ran down to reach Badrinath as quickly as possible by next day’s afternoon.
After setting up the camp we walked up to the base of the rock wall. The first obstacle would be to climb the first 80 meters of that 80°- 90° wall to reach the base of the snow couloirs. From the position we were standing it looked like a funnel. From above, the snow avalanches were coming down in every 5 minutes. All we hoped that it would be fewer avalanches in the early morning. At the bottom of the snow the water was gushing out from the melted snow above. It was a thin flim of snow forming a brittle snow-bridge. We hoped it wouldn’t break under our pressure. Biman started with the pitons and hammer to fix rope on the wall with belay from Devram and myself. It was quite difficult to drive piton in that wall. The intermediate anchors didn’t look very strong at all. However, on the top of the rock wall a huge boulder provided a good final anchor to satisfy us with the safety of the route. The height of this camp was measured as 4723 meters and the coordinates were 30°47’17.5″N / 79°17’43.6″E.
22nd morning, the second phase of expedition started with three main differences from the last days. Firstly, from here it would be no more walking but real climbing. Secondly, with no more LAPs, so we have to carry or, ferry up all the extra loads. And last but not the least, no more normal food, from the last night we started our mountain diet of soup and noodles. One after the other, we started to move out of the camp to the base of the rock-wall. Biman was the first, then all the HAPs, because they would be coming back to carry up the leftovers of the loads including their tent and their sleeping bags etc. Then it was me followed by Partha, Biplab and Ritabrata. Biman and the four loaded friends were already above the rocky part when I attached my ropeman (ascender) to the fixed rope. The heavy load on the back was pulling me downwards on this > 85° wall. I was up only 15 meters when the piton just above me came out. I swung left towards the waterfall which was flowing down from the top of the Rock-wall. Lucky me! The heap of soft snow which was deposited by those continuous avalanches cushioned my fall and saved me from getting an early morning cold shower. I gave a fresh start but only to find after 25 meters that the rope got stuck in a zigzag way for that uprooted piton. I tried to free it by shaking the rope and holding my ascending device but it didn’t give any positive result. So I climbed a little up to get a firm hand and foothold and started giving the waves holding the rope a little loose. It worked, the rope became free but, the ropeman which was hanging loose below waved too and hit my chin to give a warm bath of blood. I could manage to find some steel-tape only to fix over my bearded face. However, the bleeding only stopped once I reached the final anchor and held some snow over the cut to stop bleeding.
The next crucial part was to cross the snow-bridge over the funnel. The thin layer of snow over that waterfall is not only the end of a funnel part of the upper slope but it is also the runnel for all the loose snow coming down every 5 minutes from the upper valley as mini avalanches. We couldn’t fix any rope in that part. Those 30 meters we had to cross with belay. And in two occasions we had very close saves in that place. For the next two hundred meters Biman went up on a 70° mixed patch of Rock and snow fixing the rope. We ran out of fix-rope after that. We fixed one climbing rope of 50 meters to reach a little easier ground of 50°-55°. And then we send the HAPs to go down and bring their tent and sleeping bag etc. It was about 13.00 hrs. The weather was at its best. So I decided to continue. I had the emergency 6mm 30 meters line which we folded in double and tied to our harness. Biman started helping me with belay to start traversing upwards on the 60°-70° southern face of the intermediate ridge. In the meantime, the other three members climbed up the rock wall and jumarred up the fix rope to the point where Kamal and others left the first set of loads. After about two hours we reached the brim of the funnel and found a place which seemed to us safe from the avalanche.
It was already 15:00 hrs and the other members were waiting for the HAPs to come up with the ropes which were fixed on the wall. The snow became very soft from the scorching Sun. Already tired and without the climbing rope it could have been dangerous to continue for them on that slippery slope. I asked them over walky-talky to stop and start setting their tent. I knew it wouldn’t be easy to place a tent on that 55° slope. Still it was a better option than continue for another two hours in that situation for them. So they somehow dug out a platform and tied the tent with every possible anchor to have a bivouac for a very memorable night.
Kamal and his team arrived there with all the ropes after another 1 and half hours. They didn’t feel it comfortable to stay the night in the half-hanging position and continued upwards leaving a climbing rope for the members.
Biman and I took it slowly to unpack and put up our small tent and started brewing soup. The HAPs arrived with the magnificient sunset over Mt Kamet 25 aerial kms away. The GPS reading showed the height as 5131 mtr at 30°47’03.6″N / 79°17’19.4″E.
On 23rd May early morning Devram, Kritam and Raghuveer went down to bring the loads from the last Bivouac. After waiting for nearly two hours we decided to move forward as the sun was getting high. Kamal followed two of us with the fixed rope and some food kit. We crossed the avalanche debris and continued traversing upward on the north face of the intermediate ridge toward the col some 2 kms ahead and some 370 meters high up. Within two hours, at about 11:30 we reached the intermediate col at 5490 meters. Around the same time, the members and porters from the hanging bivouac arrived at our last night’s campsite. They stopped for repacking and rest while we stopped to have the first view of our goal – CHAUKHAMBA Col.
What an all-around awe-inspiring sight it was! We were facing south. At far left were the peaks Mukut, Kamet, Mana, Nar, Narayan, Balakun and then Chaukhamba – I (7138 meters) with its crevasses, hanging glaciers and continuous avalanches all along the north face. The summit looked so close but so far with its two rock-slabs known as ‘charan-paduka’ (slippers of Lord Vishnu). The NW ridge continued from the summit to our right and suddenly dropped at a heavily corniced Chaukhamba Col at 6053 meters before going up again to meet the summit ridge of Janhukut. On our back were the Arwa group of peaks and many other known and unknown giants of Garhwal.
Just the sight of the col brought some real shiver in my spine. The sheer glistening curved ice-wall with the cornice on the top looked unachievable. Biman and I exchanged a glance and smiled. Biman said, “Don’t think anything else. We have to do it”. We went down about 60 meters; rather we rolled over a crevasse to negotiate it to reach a flat place. In fact, that’s the huge snow-covered ledge on the southern rock-wall of the intermediate ridge. The Walky buzzed only to deliver a negative message from the people below. Partha and others started to move but the high Sun had melted the snow and they were getting sunk to their waist and couldn’t move up with their already tired legs from the morning’s climb minus last night’s sleep. So they decided to get back to our last night’s bivouac. I had to agree. So for the second consecutive night the team slept in separated camp site. But tonight the HAP’s will sleep at the lower point. So after three of the other HAPs had reached this campsite we had a tea and then four of them returned to lower camp. Biman and I started enjoying the long hours looking at the Chaukhamba col and planning the route. The GPS registered this 5420 meter point as 30°46’52.0″N / 79°16’57.3″E.
We had a lazy morning at the upper camp on 24th May. When our team from the lower camp finally joined us again after two nights at about 09:30 hrs we had already anchored the only 220 meter polypropylene rope above a gap right to our campsite. We have to go down a Couloir of 70° to reach the glacier under the north face of Chaukhamba-I. Although by taking this route we could avoid the main ice-fall and the most dangerous avalanche bombardment area still we needed to cross another 2 kms of crevasse-filled glacier and of course the avalanches from both north face of Chaukhamba-I and south face of Janhukut. Moreover, we need to cross the bergschrund of the Janhukut-side several times. We had to reach a safe place before the dark. Where…When…and How? We did not know. The 250 meters descent was uneventful except that of Partha showing his regular drama of slipping and somersaulting. Once on the glacier we got roped up in three groups. Biman and I were tied in our 30 meters double-folded rope. Ritabrata-Partha-Biplab in the dry light-weight 50 meters rope and all the four HAPs in another climbing rope. I started to beat the already melted snow keeping close to the south face of Janhukut. With hidden crevasses at every five steps and avalanches of different dimensions at every five minutes, it was quite a perilous task. It was a continuous upward movement trek without any long rest and definitely no longer than a minute standing for next four hours. At about 15:00 hrs, I reached the last flat portion of the glacier 500 meters before the final wall of Chaukhamba col. That place was already devoid of sunrays for the south face of Janhukut. I suddenly felt very cold. Was it for the shadow or, the deadly atmosphere around I couldn’t tell! We called it a day and started pitching our tent. It was even tiring for the others who were coming from the camp across the intermediate ridge. They reached the camp about two hours later dead tired. The HAPs for the first time looked not so happy. After a quick talk over the tea we decided a rest for the HAPs and Ritabrata tomorrow. They got cheered up instantly. The sunset over Kamet on the left to Chaukhamba on the right was an unforgettable memory. We slept with the music of avalanches at a height of 5623 meters at 30°46’23.9″N / 79°16’08.8″E.
25th May was declared a rest day for the HAPs and Ritabrata as his foot hadn’t decided yet which snow boot was better, new one or, the old one. Ritabrata and Partha were changing between those two pairs of boots every alternative day and Ritabrata developed some painful toe for that.
After breakfast with our regular menu of oatmeal porridge Biman, Partha and Biplab joined me for the load ferry and reconnaissance. We started towards the col keeping close to the northern wall. There were two lines of bergschrund to cross in the beginning of the climb. The first one was climbed over a thin snow-bridge and the second one was avoided climbing up a small rock projection which was luckily protruded in the middle of the gaping bergschrund. We continued to climb the steeper slope after those crevasses and then stopped near the next rock projection. We had already climbed for 2 and half hours from our camp. We dumped our equipment load in a snow-hole digging under that rock and came down to camp. We were welcomed by a thundering avalanche from the Janhukut wall which stopped rolling down and missed our tents by a mere 15 meters. We enjoyed another afternoon of beautiful sunset.
D-Day arrived with a haze. So long we were having the best weather. But on 26th morning the sun rose behind a curtain of heavy mist. We started at 06:30, laden with heavy loads of at least 18 kgs each to make the history.
Mr. Charles Francis Meade climbed this with his Swiss guides, Mr. Pierre Blanc and Justin Blanc (two brothers) and three Bhotia porters on 10th of July, 1912. They had less snow cover over the rocks in July and perhaps more snow on the glacier and ice wall for less warmed up globe. Maybe, that overhanging cornice over the head of the wall did not form then as there is no mention of it in his book. Some lines from his book must be mentioned here to understand the condition of the wall 101 years back.
“Above this bergschrund the angle steepened so that in some seasons the snow might be avalanchy and dangerous, perhaps forcing a climbing-party to take to some rock-cliffs on the right. As usual in the Himalaya, the angle turned out to be much steeper than a distant view of it had led us to suppose, but with increasing eagerness to see the unknown country ahead, we raced panting up the final slope. Suddenly we found ourselves on the top of the pass, and a thrilling spectacle was revealed.”
No mention of the cornice on the top. And in front of us was standing an overhanging 50 meters ice-wall with a 3 meters hanging cornice. And it was very avalanchy in May as it was said. So we were taking the right side rock-cliff but, the thin snow cover over this 80-90° rock-wall was making it more difficult to keep our foot stable. We were moving in our usual groups. I, getting belayed by Biman was leading. Then the four HAPs followed by Rito-Partha-Biplab. We reached the dumping place very quickly for the hard snow condition, within one hour. After getting a little heavier with the load from yesterday we started to crampon up the steep slope. (It’s difficult to describe the thoughts and feeling of that moment while sitting in a room with hot tea-cup fuming in my front) Every step was a series of actions; first to determine the safety, then stability of the snow / ice, then to balance the body, then decide the direction of the next step and finally raise one leg to place a little higher up and start panting for some oxygen. We forgot the time for how long we moved like that. Suddenly, I found that I could see the unnamed peak attached to Chaukhamba-IV. The Cornice of Chaukhamba col is about 70 meters below.
We crossed the ridge and entered the saddle connecting Chaukhamba-I and Janhukut, 70 meters above the lowest point – CHAUKHAMBA COL. Biman and I quickly congratulated the porters, who reached with us before trying to hide ourselves behind some rocks as we were greeted on the col by the high wind entering from the Gangotri glacier. We pulled on the hoods of our parkas over the helmet. But before we could unbuckle our rucksacks we had Biplab’s SOS coming through the radio. Partha had slipped again and was somehow arrested by Ritabrata and Biplab from going down 300 meters below into the gaping bergschrund. However, still shaken from the fall he couldn’t stand up and place his steps properly. Thus they need help with Partha’s load. We knew Partha was having some problem to keep his balance with the heavy load. Lucky that Biplab and Ritabrata was alert to arrest the fall in time. We rushed towards the edge of the col to find Ritabrata and Biplab about 100 meters below, anchored with their ice-axes while Partha was kind of hanging in between them. We took out the long rope to fix on the wall. But in our hurry it got entangled. For the need of the hour without thinking we cut it into three pieces, joined them and except Devram other 3 HAPs rappelled down to them. They helped Partha to stand up and Kamal took Partha’s rucksack and tried to reach the fix rope to clip his jumar. Suddenly Kamal started to skid. At first he was just slipping down, soon he started to roll and then bouncing 10 meters in each bounces.
All of us started shouting, “Leave the rucksack – throw the rucksack away”. After 150 meters or, so he could release the rucksack and managed to dig his crampon and hands inside the snow and finally stopped. Perhaps we had forgotten to breathe for those brief moments. The rucksack of Partha continued bouncing for another 150 meters and luckily stopped just before an open crevasse. But the foam mattress which got a chance to divorce the rucksack committed suicide in the crevasse. Kamal recovered from his fall and came up and jumarred up with the other three members, while Kritam and Raghuveer went down all the way to the crevasse with the short climbing rope and recovered the rucksack and came up after about 2 hours.
We lost some valuable three hours in this whole episode. For those three hours we spent in high wind trying to hide us behind the rocks and going to the edge to check the progress of Raghuveer and Kirtan. Finally, when they had managed to come up we took photographs and had a small ritual. I tried to locate the Cairn placed by Meade but couldn’t find anything after 101 years.
At about 14:30 we started to move down the other side. The weather was very strange. The dark clouds over the Chaukhamba massif was trying to spread over the Gangotri Glacier but the strong wind (must be over 140 kms/hr) from the glacier was restricting it back and keeping the sky clear over the Glacier. It was an amazing view. Once I got down in the saddle I was pushed back instantly by the wind. I needed to make human chain with Biman to cross some 40 meters open passage to reach the other side of the gap. All others followed us the same way making chains. After traversing the saddle towards SW we started descending. Lucky that we didn’t believe the lines from Meade’s article here and instead relied on the contour and Google Satellite images. Later we found that the GE images were also not correct – at least for this section. We didn’t find a gulley and there was a flat snowfield above the icefall over the end of the Gangotri Glacier. After some 100 meters downwards walk we found the snow slope had suddenly changed to rock cliffs every side. We couldn’t see anything below. After some consultation we anchored two snow-stags and Biman started to descend through a snow-rock Couloir. We doubled the knotted poly propylene rope to descend as we required taking it out for further descending. Devram, Kamal and Ritabrata went down after Biman and helped him fix the two climbing ropes after that. As the rope had already two knots, it was difficult to change the descender two times in the middle. Partha was still very much shaken from the fall on the other side in the morning. He took about an hour to go down that first stretch. The shadow at the anchoring place brought the chill at this 6000 m height. With the sunset approaching, the wind started to blow with powdery snow. It was really difficult to stand with the heavy rucksack on the back over the anchor base and wait till the last man to reach the next anchor. I had to wait 4 hours in that same place doing nothing, of course, except shouting expletives and cursing everything! Once everybody was down, it was my turn to descend. I thought all the knots were on the same side of the doubled rope. So I wouldn’t have any problem to pull it down from the other side. But to my bad luck I found they are on the either side of the strands. So I had no other option than untie the knot and climb down unprotected on ice slope of 80°. When I was just about 30 meters to reach the next anchor; I slipped. I shouted “hold” only to remember that there was nobody and nothing to hold. However, my reflex worked. I turned, kicked with all my strength while skidding with increasing speed and somehow it worked. My crampons got stuck. All others watching me started to descend again as if nothing had happened. Then I asked Kamal to anchor the other end and added a Prussic to the rope. The darkness fell over Gangotri Glacier and soon over Chaukhamba Massif.
We continued our downward journey with lights from the headlamps. I had to gather all the technical gears and ropes as we couldn’t afford the luxury of leaving them. We continued on steep slope. At about 20:30 pm Biman’s voice announced in the Walky that he reached a flat place and was setting the tents with two other porters. I continued to back up and listen the blabbering of my distant fellow climbers about every possible things including losing the direction and falling in the bergschrund. Once I could see the distant light of the tents I found Partha moaning in pain and fighting to come out of the last bergschrund. He told that there are two bergschrund and he might had torn his ligament while he fell in the first one and twisted his legs. I sat down over the first bergschrund and rolled over it. While getting closer to him he managed to come out of the second one and started towards the campsite. I found the big fissure created by Partha’s bodyweight and decided to go for a detour. But the fixed end of the rope didn’t allow me to go far. So I added one of the climbing ropes I was carrying and went around the bergschrund near a rock wall. When I reached the campsite another 300 meters away from the last crevasse it was 10.55. Even the HAPs had denied eating anything. We took out some dry fruits and boiled some water to have a sip. 17 hours of continuous climbing over an unknown route had made us mentally and physically tired. But we couldn’t sleep as all five of us were crammed in one tent. However, next morning we woke up with a happy feeling. The main obstacle is done. We have successfully crossed the Chaukhamba Col after 101 years of Meade’s expedition and was now at 30°45’31.2″N / 79°15’39.7″E standing at a height of 5563 mtr.
Once ready to start again on 27th morning, the problem with Partha’s leg started to bother very much. He couldn’t stand properly. However, we had nothing to do. So we started towards the right. Soon we reached the end of the flat ground and could see that we are on the top of the Chaukhamba-I icefall of Gangotri glacier. On our right one rock wall went down straight to Glacier and on our left the menacing seracs of the icefall were standing. We had no other option than taking that chute to go down. We went down some 50 meters on easier gradient and placed the anchor for the last possible abseil to reach the Gangotri glacier. The weather packed up and started snowing with high wind from the below. Biman continued to rappel down. As we didn’t need to rappel down any more so we decided to fix the rope in single strand to go down as far as possible. Soon Biman found that it wasn’t possible go down straight, so he made a zigzag way and finally after two intermediate anchors could hit the glacier floor after more than one hour. By this time the blizzard from below acquired strength. The superfine powder snow was coming up in great speed through that one meter narrow chute and entering our nose, eyes, ears and every possible place.
The numbing cold wind was freezing our joints and limbs. One by one the members started to go down. As there were several times of descender changes at the knots and anchoring points keeping one foot on rock wall and the other on the ice on a 90° or, overhanging places, with a heavy load on the back; it was time consuming. Everybody was taking 25 to 30 minutes to go down the full length of that 220 meter rope. Partha took the maximum; about one hour as he could not lift his injured leg properly. Even Biplab got stuck in the zigzag and asked for help. But when he understood nobody could help him in a hanging place, he managed to untangle the rope to go down. After about 6 hours standing on one leg on the snow-stag I got the chance to go down. I asked Devram to wait and stand on the single snow-stag, which was placed on that steep wall to enable it to carry my weight. He is the lightest of the group so he will go last. It was really a test of mountaineering skill. Especially while changing the descender in one hand while hanging. I finally touched the Gangotri Glacier with the golden sunrays touching the tip of Chaukhamba-I. I took some quick snaps of Devram coming down the last few meters before setting up my tent with a scary feeling of closeness of the hanging seracs of the Chaukhamba-I icefall and continuous small avalanches from Chaukhamba-IV.
We could just manage a sip from our teacup when Devram from outside announced that an unusually big avalanche was sliding, “It’s a big one coming down” and added gasping, “It’s coming to our tent.” We jumped out of the HAPs tent which was getting used as the common kitchen too. A grayish white 100 meters, or so high wall of clouds with thunderous sound was about 80 meters away from us. Biman shouted, “Get into the tent and put your back to the tent wall towards the avalanche”. We did so without question like puppets. 30 seconds of pushing and shaking- and after that everything was like before. We came out to find that we were lucky as the main snow and ice debris had stopped about some 100 meters before the camp site and we only got the wind-thrust and powdery snow-blast on us. It came from Chaukhamba-IV, which was active sending down avalanches all the day. It was already dark, Partha was restless with his pain and Biman believes in luck. So we didn’t move our campsite any farther. We were scared till we said good night with a sense of satisfaction at this not so frequented source of the Ganges. The height measured by GPS was 5245 meters and the coordinates were 30°45’20.9″N / 79°15’07.6″E.
Once again a bright morning welcomed us on 28th May. I wanted to move as quickly as possible from below these seracs. Partha reported that he couldn’t raise his leg more than 6 inches. We started to walk towards Gangotri crossing the whole 25+ kms length of Gangotri glacier. That’s too a very special fit to achive- as so far only 7 times it was done starting from 1938 by the Austro-German team till last time by the NIM team in 2004. We roped up and started moving fast. After 500 meters I stopped and look back for the first time. We had the amphitheatre like view of the Chaukhamba Massif.
Starting from the Janhukut it drops at Chaukhamba Col, then rise again to Chaukhamba-I and continued to II, III, IV and the unnamed peak before dropping again at Mandani Col. A killer view with some real possibilities of getting killed we continued on the semi-flat glacier avoiding the crevasses passing Mandani, Yeonbuk on our left and Swachhand on our right. Within five hours we reached in front of Kharcha Kund Peak and decided to stop for the day at 30°47’26.6″N / 79°09’11.1″E – 4691 meters. Partha arrived escorted by Raghuveer after two more hours.
29th May the weather after a long time became rough in the morning. We waited till 12:00 noon. But it started to show some signs which we didn’t like. So we started and followed the middle of the glacier where the snow is more. We got down to 4412 meters at the junction of Kirti Glacier and Gangotri Glacier near the turning for Kedardome Base Camp by 16.00 hrs (30°52’03.3″N / 79°05’42.3″E).
30th May we started with a happy mode with all the known peaks around us. It’s like the neighborhood atmosphere with Kedardome, Kedarnath, Shivling and Bhagirathi peaks. But once we started moving on the moraines Partha became slower and slower. He reached Tapovan after 2 hours again at 13.30hrs. We met humanity after 9 days. The real food- rice and dal at Mouni Baba’s Ashram felt like Biriyani. We stayed the night at Tapovan as Partha couldn’t move anymore. The afternoon spent chatting with tourists.
31st may we ran down to Gangotri after stopping at Gaumukh, where one of the members took bath to wash off some unknown sins; and at Bhujbasa for having lunch. Our pilgrimage completed with our arrival at Gangotri temple at 14.30hrs.
1. First crossing of Badrinath to Gangotri over Chaukhamba Col 6053m.
2. Biman Biswas became the first person to complete a journey from the beginning of Gangotri Glacier below Chaukhamba massif (2013) till the Bay of Bengal (in 2012 he did rafting from Gaumukh to Gangasagar with ITBP).
3. Debabrata Mukherjee became the first person to complete a circuit around Nilkantha-Parvati and around Chaukhamba massif and visited all the glacier beginnings of the Ganges River viz. Alakananda – Saraswati – Bhagirathi (Ganga) – Markendeya Ganga and Mandakini.
 – The early explorers wrote the names of the peaks, glaciers etc as they were pronounced by the locals. And some time they were misguided by the uneducated porters. So Bhagirath Kharak (Bhagirath went up to the highest point to meditate by this route and later went down guiding the Ganges via Goumukh-Gangotri) became Bhagat Kharak to Meade. Even Shipton made a mistake to call the ‘Badrinath’ / Chaukhamba peak as ‘Kunaling’. Though Meade climbed this col before climbing the col between Mt. Kamet and Abigamin, still for transparency we preferred to ascribe this col as Meade’s Chaukhamba col.
 – A natural choke-stone (huge boulder across the river) which is used as a bridge over the river Saraswati. The legend goes that Bhima; the strong second brother of the Pandavas placed that boulder to make the bridge on their way to heaven.