Trekking in the Indian Himalayas: The Final Chapter of a 4-Part Series — Our Extraordinary Experiences at Tapovan and the Hair-Raising Descent to Safety

This 4-part blog series is being featured on The Wise Traveller – a global travel site providing innovative ideas and insights to make travel easier, safer, cheaper and more enriching. In addition, freelancers share their travel experiences there, so the community can have a taste of a variety of destinations and/or escapades.

Click here to read my latest article posted on the site highlighting our time at Tapovan, a high-altitude meadow perched over one of the most sacred glaciers in the Himalayas, surrounded by revered summits:

Blog synopsis:

I was captivated by Tapovan, a stunning paradise, tucked away on the Himalayan border shared by India, Tibet and Nepal. This legendary, high-alpine meadow was truly Shangri-La – bursting with colourful flora, meandering creeks, and highly adaptable blue-mountain sheep foraging on the lush tundra. Nonetheless, the bucolic tranquillity was eclipsed by the encircling, uninhabitable backdrop of Mts. Shivling, Meru, Bhagirathi I, II, III and Sudarshan Parbat – all boasting intimidating granite and ice faces, as they towered to more than 6,700 m (22,770 ft). This paradox affirmed the delicate harmony between man and nature – leaving little wonder why babas, yogis and sadhus have chosen this sacred sanctuary for countless centuries for their year-round meditation retreats.

Mts. Shivling and Meru Tower over Tapovan
Bhagirathi I, II, and III, Gaumukh Glacier and Tapovan
Tapovan High-Alpine Meadow in Full Bloom

We relished the opportunity to rest and acclimatise here for two days before forging ahead to Nandanvan and Vasuki Taal – a reward for our formidable, three-day ascent, teeming with countless, inconceivable spine-chilling encounters. We luxuriated in the sunshine enjoying azure-blue, cloudless skies and unobstructed, jaw-dropping views, whilst practicing pranayama breathing to counter our oxygen deficit and soothing our over-worked muscles with alfresco yoga. Refreshed, we set off to Neel Taal, the blue pond renowned for its intense reflections of Meru and the Bhagirathi range. The 60-degree slope meant a two-hour scramble, leaving us panting, only to discover that the recent landslides had obliterated the pool, filling the crater with a jumble of rubble.

Morning Yoga at Tapovan
Neel Taal After the Landslide

Vigilant to not get close to the wobbly edge that was still spewing gravel avalanches into the abyss, we zigzagged our way along the ascending ridge to better size up Shivling – known as the Matterhorn of the East for its near-perfect, conical shape. Alpinists know it is rare to fully view any mountain, which made Shivling enthralling to witness, proudly exhibiting its pinnacle, rivalling a massive, pearly-white tooth. We had the good fortune to meet an expedition ferrying loads from base camp to advanced stations for their upcoming gruelling summit attempt. They were full of climbing chronicles – including the somber news of two Polish climbers who had died a year ago, just a mere 200 metres shy of the prized North Face apex.

As we clambered onwards, we were granted an up-close frontal of Meru Peak – with its magnificent, expansive glacier – certainly a photographer’s dream come true. Though Meru was calling us, the winds began gusting and dark, menacing clouds barrelled towards us – shortcutting our exploits. It was a sight for sore eyes to finally see the glow of the mess-tent oil lamps and tuck into a sumptuous Indian feast of roti (Indian bread), sabzi (fried vegetables), sabji (vegetable curry), dal (lentils), mixed veggie pakora (fried fritters) and rice – whipped up by our camp chef in a bare-bones galley. As the night-time temperatures plummeted past freezing, I cherished his toasty hot-water bottles.

Mt. Meru and Its Glacier
Descending from Mt. Meru to Tapovan Through a Boulder Field
Hanging Prayer Flags at Tapovan
Our Camp Chef and Helper Whipping up Dinner

Daybreak brought an incessant drizzle and thick fog, leaving a conspicuous stream of water running along the inside, front seam of my tent. Before heading out to further explore our playground and its many attractions, the trekking company’s ‘expedition-quality’ digs needed an emergency overhaul to cope with Mother Nature. It took fancy footwork to traverse the super-saturated, boggy terrain. We struggled to make out Mt. Kedar Dome swallowed by the mist. Similarly, Sundervan, ground zero for Bhagirathi III assaults, played hide and seek in the low-lying clouds. Even Tapovan’s third jewel in her crown, the mighty Kirti Bamak Glacier, was veiled in the pea soup. Despite the curtailed vistas, the universal, interconnected web of energy vibrated powerfully in this off-the-beaten-path, exotic utopia. I felt blessed to tune into this expanded consciousness from such a remote hideaway, where so few dare to venture.

My Trekking Party on a Foggy Day

The next morning, our best-laid plans to head farther into the wilderness came to a crashing halt when we awoke to an off-season snowstorm. Despite our best efforts to shovel snow off the tents, by mid-afternoon, it was undeniable we were losing the battle and the lightweight structures eventually collapsed – rendering us effectively homeless.

Homeless After Our Tents Failed

Not one to readily accept defeat, I was determined to scout a dry sleeping nook in the barren wasteland. I had heard tales about an unearthly baba (wise, holy man), who had taken a vow of silence whilst living in solitude, meditating somewhere in Tapovan. After some traipsing around, we found him, and he humbly agreed we could stay with him. Surprisingly, his four-season homemade accommodation was more like glamping than austere cave dwelling – comprised of a hodgepodge of stone walls and a make-shift roof. I was convinced we would be protected in the presence of Mouni Baba.

Spending the Night in Mouni Baba’s Ashram
A Rare Photo of Mouni Baba

Waylaid at 4,463 m (14,640 ft), conditions deteriorated, and a strange phenomenon called thundersnow occurred. It was eerie to hear thunder bellowing overhead and watch the relentless wet powder accumulate. To me, the blizzard was otherworldly and calming; but my hiking partner did not share the vibe and her mounting panic required some intervention. Tapping into my yoga and meditation training, I asked her to chant with me. Sure enough, in time, the anxiety relaxed its throttlehold and serenity was restored. Regrettably, the peace was short-lived, and I was rattled from my blissful state anew by this woman’s high-pitched shrieks. This time, the perpetrator was a tiny field mouse that had snuck in between the rocks. I will never forget the frenzy that ensued out of her unadulterated hysteria, with the critter eventually losing its life. Talk about bad karma – reminding me that we, alone, are each responsible for taming our pesky minds.

Mt. Shivling’s Climbing Expedition

Dawn served up much improved skies and we held council to assess our menu of options. Our guide and porters decided our fate and we were turning back. The rationale was conclusive: our over-rated tents had failed miserably and there was no Plan B for lodging in the hinterland; the weather was frighteningly unpredictable; and my hiking partner had become unhinged by a tiny rodent – not a good omen. So, in a whirling dervish of activity, we broke camp with a single-minded mission for our safe return.

Mt. Shivling After the Snowstorm
Hungry Bharal at Tapovan

It is an age-old mountaineering truth: if climbing up was problematic, then getting down will likely be down-right risky. We had to first inch to the bottom of the unapologetically sheer wall leading to Gaumukh Glacier, that was now uber slippery. It was daunting that the descent did not look anything like the route up, with Akash Ganga now a waterfall tumbling down the embankment, which had been a mere trickle three days ago. The icefield flaunted fresh, gaping crevasses, with a brand-new topping of muck, making it simultaneously adrenaline-pumping and perilous. We had no choice but to re-enter the manic rockfall area, that had lengthened three-fold. It was terrifying to eye the unstable cliffs overhead and contend with raging forces of water gushing down the crags. Once again, this trove of hazards, that each seemed insurmountable, became doable as our most gifted and trustworthy porters graciously guided us with their instinctive grit.

Beginning Our Descent from Tapovan
Akash Ganga Waterfall Tumbling off Tapovan
Halfway Between Tapovan and Gaumukh Glacier
Gaumukh Glacier with the Bhagirathi Peaks in the Clouds
Crossing Gaumukh Glacier with Fresh Crevasses
The Boulder Fields on Gaumukh Glacier
Gangotri Glacier’s Snout After the Storm
Assessing the Extended Rockfall Area After Gaumukh Glacier
Running the Landslide Gauntlet
Crossing Gushing Streams Without Any Bridges

When we straggled into Gangotri two punishing days later, I was filled with immense gratitude. I had just completed this incredible, blockbuster Himalayan adventure. I was privileged to have had the opportunity to explore our planet’s natural grace and its rugged tangle of mountains, rivers and glaciers in such a secluded geography. And, lastly, I was moved with a sense of wonder that my inner strength and intuition kept me grounded in the face of the many challenges presented throughout this magical and spiritual journey.

Gangotri Temple Marks the End of Our Trek
Jubuliant at the End of the Trek
My Hero, the Master Porter
The Master Porter’s Sidekick

Trekking in the Indian Himalayas: Part 3 of a 4-Part Series — The Extremely Challenging Ascent from the Gangotri Trailhead to Tapovan High-Alpine Meadow

This 4-part blog series is being featured on The Wise Traveller – a global travel site providing innovative ideas and insights to make travel easier, safer, cheaper and more enriching. In addition, freelancers share their travel experiences there, so the community can have a taste of a variety of destinations and/or adventures.

Click here to read my latest blog on trekking to one of the most sacred glaciers in the Himalayas, surrounded by revered summits:

Blog synopsis:

There is no getting around it; mountaineering in the Himalayas requires an enormous amount of stamina and planning. Besides being fit as a fiddle for my 10-day, 75-kilometre (46.5 miles) trek, I had to be savvy to cope with the oxygen-deprived air at 4,700 metres (15,416 feet). Being off the grid meant no electricity, Wi-Fi or telco service, so camera-charging options were limited to portable solar panels and power banks. Then there was the task of packing for the highly undependable, monsoon weather that might range from -10 to 25°C (14-77°F), with the chance of fog, rain or snow at any moment. The secret was heat-retention, layering and waterproofing – as well as lots of wet wipes, since showers would be off the menu.

If you have never been on a trek, it is quite unbelievable what all gets hauled up and back, and how those logistics work. Having Nepalese Sherpas really tipped the scales in our favour, as they are adept mountaineers – weathered, surefooted, insensitive to altitude and capable of carrying backbreaking supplies topping 50 kg (110 lbs) each. We needed that muscle to lug all our food, a stove, propane, sleeping bags, inflatable mats, plus an array of tents.

Setting off from Gangotri Trailhead
Entering Gangotri National Park
Our Lead Porter Weathered and Surefooted, with His Back-Breaking Load

Day One

The sun gods gifted us with monsoon-eluding, cobalt-blue skies, as we parallelled the Bhagirathi River, gradually rising through lush pines and junipers – under the watchful eye of Mts. Sudarshan Parbat and Bhagirathi II and III. The route to our camp at Chirwasa was so deserted, I could be fully present to the allure of nature with its mystical essence that has attracted sages, babas, yogis and sadhus for eons. It was magical snuggling into our sacks, undistracted by gadgets, with the primal gratification that we were guests in a very precious and fragile playground.

Setting Prayer Flags to Spread Blessings to All Who Pass By
Our Makeshift Kitchen at 4,500 Metres

Day Two

The forest completely changed as we ascended through silver birch and got our first glimpse of towering Mts. Bhagirathi I, Manda I, II, III and Shivling. Adopting a nomadic rhythm was a bit tricky given the unstable turf – compounded by having to cross overflowing tributaries with rickety bridges consisting of a couple of logs slapped together with twine. The challenges were soon forgotten by the time we arrived at our magnificent above-the-treeline campsite at Bhojwasa. The stillness, punctuated by the constant thunder of the turbulent and sentiment-laden Bhagirathi River, was testimony that we had succeeded in escaping civilisation and venturing into the pristine wilderness. As night fell, countless stars appeared, and I was rejuvenated with a sense of wonder.

The Bhagirathi River Valley from Our Campsite at Bhojwasa
Our First Glimpse of Revered Mt. Shivling
A Rickety Bridge Crossing

Day Three

Halfway to Gaumukh Glacier, we had to navigate a recent landslide that had wiped out the trail. Our stocky porters, defying their short legs and onerous packs, boulder hopped through the chaotic landscape. As I gazed skyward at what was left of the mountainside, I shivered at the thought of running this gauntlet: gigantic pieces of bedrock were precariously hanging overhead; an abrupt drop into the Bhagirathi threatened on the right; and the lingering sound of rubble crashed in the distance.

The Aftermath of the Most Recent Landslide

Compassionately, the mountain men managed to not just traverse the unchartered wasteland, but they returned to help us to safe passage. One exceptionally attentive Sherpa endeared himself to me by lending a firm hand, a reassuring tone and a hair-raising piggyback ride over the insanely perilous stretches. Though I was, admittedly, way out of my comfort zone, I mustered my mental acumen, remembered to breathe and focus on my balance and stable footholds – grateful for my invincible hiking poles, sturdy boots and indestructible gloves.

As exhilarating as it was to eventually reach Gaumukh — renowned as a popular Hindu pilgrimage site – it was also sad to know that the lion’s share of devotees would no longer make it past the rockslide. Astonishingly, the glacier had been pummelled with so much fresh granite and muck that the snout had been damaged and the icy melt into the Ganges River was now emerging from the left side, instead from the centre. Contrary to those picturesque blue-ice masses showcased in Alaska, Greenland and New Zealand, this was black floe shrouded in a thick layer of moraine, comprised of a mishmash of perpetually accumulating mud and boulders.

Gaumukh Glacier and Mts. Bhagirathi I, II and III
The Mouth of Gaumukh Glacier with Mt. Shivling

It was no small feat scrambling up the slope, and, once on top, there was no hint of a path – with crude cairns positioned by preceding adventurers serving as our sole navigation guides. The arduous 2-hour trudge across Gaumukh tested our physical abilities, yet rewarded us with sweeping panoramas of the encircling lofty ridges.

With no time to rest, we single-mindedly focused on the next endeavour: a ridiculously steep, 2 km (1.25 mile), 70-degree pitch leading to our final destination. Unsurprisingly, there was no track – only loose scree – so we had to fight tooth and nail to claw ourselves forward. Ultimately, after our dawn-to-dusk, demanding slog, Tapovan welcomed us to its stunning alpine meadow. The ubiquitous flowers and babbling streams were juxtaposed with unobstructed views of revered Mts. Shivling, Meru, Bhagirathi I, II, III and Sudarshan Parbat. The sheer beauty of Tapovan was astonishing and my heart overflowed with joy as I marvelled at our haven on the roof of the world.

Mts. Shivling and Meru from Tapovan
Our Porters Taking a Well-Deserved Tea Break After the Long Ascent to Tapovan

Trekking in the Indian Himalayas: Part 2 of a 4-Part Series — The Treacherous Drive to Gangotri

Months ago when I was planning my Himalayan trek, I knew just getting to the trailhead in Gangotri would be an arduous journey entailing a propeller flight from Delhi to Dehradun and then driving 275 kilometres (171 miles) on a national highway. However, despite multiple conversations with the trekking company about what to anticipate that day, nothing quite prepares you for your first road trip in the mountains of India.

As a Westerner, it seemed reasonable to expect that the national highway would have some protocols adhering to safety, security and comfort standards. Who would have guessed that National Highway 34 would be largely a one-lane dirt passage teeming with a mishmash of motorbikes, rickshaws, tractors, wagons, trailers, cars, buses and trucks of all sizes? If you haven’t seen an Indian cargo truck up close before, you are in for a big surprise – their imposing oversized bodies are typically chock full with goods and people, whilst their exteriors are garishly hand painted in a colourful kaleidoscope and embellished with vibrant streamers, plastic garlands, sequined scarves, religious symbols and distinctive memorabilia. Their heftiness and sluggish pace fuels the perpetual need to overtake them, which then involves dodging oncoming travellers – a thoroughly intimidating experience, with no emergency shoulders or guardrails in sight.

Truck Art in India

In addition, this year’s punishing monsoon rains triggered landslides and flash floods in northern India, causing our route to be in varying states of disrepair. Though it was promising to see billboards touting that the federal government is funding national highway maintenance, our hearts sank when we found young women – adorned in their eye-catching village attire squatting barefoot roadside in the rubble – crushing stones, one at a time, with only hammers.

North India’s Ubiquitous Landslides
The Recent Landslide on the National Highway
National Highway Upgrade Programme

All day long, we encountered creatures, large and small, freely meandering down the middle of the street, unfazed by the daredevils on wheels or the billowing black exhaust. We were constantly manoeuvring around herds of sacred Brahman cows sauntering or even lying on the roadway, oblivious to the honking horns and screeching brakes. The flocks of goats were less ubiquitous, but since they are smaller and nimbler, they tended to dart in front of us suddenly, barely escaping being knocked down. The troops of monkeys were even more unpredictable as they played in the trees overhead, cheekily jumping onto the roofs of the slower vehicles. The pervasive chaos was unlimited – further including mules toting bricks, peasants balancing lopsided bales of hay on their heads, and countless giggling school children.

Sacred Brahman Cows Oblivious to Traffic
Cows Rule the Roads
Roadside Goat Herder
Traffic Jam in India
School Girls Sharing the Road

Despite the impression that this drive was insanely risky, we never witnessed a single accident and there was a noticeable lack of road rage. Nobody seemed to get worked up about any of the innumerable near misses, and everyone amicably went with the flow, with no rude gestures, verbal insults or physical threats targeted toward other drivers or obstacles.

The bottom line: it was a slow venture, indeed – leaving us exhausted from the 9-hour slog and bewildered at the psyche of Indian drivers. However, it did make arriving at Gangotri all the more exciting, in anticipation of our 10-day trek to Vasuki Taal and back.

Stay tuned for 2 additional articles providing in-depth insights into this gutsy expedition.

Trekking in the Indian Himalayas: Part 1 of a 4-Part Series

Yearning to explore the majestic Himalayas’ lofty peaks, vast glaciers and thundering rivers, renowned for their sheer beauty, ruggedness and spiritual serenity?

Are you willing to forego the world’s highest summits and live without abundant trekking infrastructure – including well-marked hiking paths, regularly spaced villages with tea houses offering home-cooked food, warm beds and Wi-Fi services?

If so, then forget about touristy and crowded Nepal and set your sights on northern India, where the air is crystal clear, the flora and fauna are highly diverse, the trails are relatively unknown, and the power of nature has a mystical essence that has attracted sages, babas, yogis and sadhus for eons.

I chose a 10-day itinerary far off the beaten path in the western Garhwal Himalayas, knowing from the start that this one was not for the faint hearted. It would take a full day to just reach the trailhead from Delhi – involving a domestic flight and a perilous nine-hour car ride on narrow roads clinging precariously to rocky cliffs. Then, I would need two days to acclimatise at Gangotri village, anchored on a lushly wooded mountainside at 3,100 meters (10,200 feet), before heading up the Bhagirathi valley. All of this would precede an arduous 27-kilometre (17-mile) schlepp enroute to Tapovan, a most gorgeous high-alpine meadow at 4,463 m (14,640 ft). Admittedly, the allure was the remoteness, the diversity of the challenging terrain, and the unobstructed views of the extremely strenuous expedition-climbing faces of Shivling, Thalay Sagar, Meru, Sudarshan Parbat and Bhagirathi I/II/III.

The Perilous Road to Gangotri
Gangotri Temple
Gangotri Village
2 Days Acclimatising at Gangotri Village

The route follows the raging Bhagirathi River valley to Gaumukh Glacier – one of the largest ice masses in the Himalayas and a primary source of the sacred Ganges River. Dense forests of silver birch, blue pine and juniper will keep you company for two days, with twisting tracks that constantly reveal surprises: no shortage of waterfalls, gushing tributaries, vertical rock walls, crags, gullies, and snow-clad peaks towering overhead. Along the way, you will see Hindu devotees making a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to the glacier spewing the first drops of what quickly becomes the mighty Ganges.

Our Porters Leaving Gangotri
Meeting a Pilgrim Enroute to Gaumukh Glacier
The Landslide That Destroyed the Trail Before Gaumukh Glacier
Crossing the Landslide That Destroyed the Trail Before Gaumukh Glacier

Crossing the glacier is exceptionally difficult as the black ice and its crevasses are mostly covered by a thick layer of supraglacial moraine comprised of a jumble of granite, schist and gneiss rubble, countless enormous boulders and mud dragged down from the mountains by the perpetual icecap. The final 2 km (1.25 mi) pitched at 70 degrees is nothing short of a scrimmage, with next to no trail at all, forcing you to claw your way up the scree-based incline. However, once you are over the crest, Tapovan greets you with a kaleidoscope of flowering plants, meandering streams, blue-mountain goats (Bharal), and unimpeded vistas of a number of snow-capped pinnacles soaring to more than 6,400 m (21,000 ft).

The Mouth of Gaumukh Glacier with Mt. Shivling in the Background
Bouldering Across Gaumukh Glacier
Halfway Across Gaumukh Glacier
Final 90-Minute Scramble Up to Tapovan Meadow
Mts. Shivling and Meru
Blue-Mountain Sheep Skull in Front of Mt. Shivling
Prayer Flags in Front of Mt. Meru and Its Glacier

You don’t have to be a seasoned mountaineer to venture out of the comforts of your home into this wilderness. Yet, you do have to be in tip-top shape – prepared for long days of hiking and bouldering in oxygen-thin air – and equipped for the possibility of four-season weather any day of the year. You should also invest in an experienced guide or highly reputed trekking outfit familiar with the geography to ensure safe passage across treacherous topography riddled with active landslides, ever-changing glacial debris and super-steep and slippery gravelly slopes.

Stay tuned for 3 additional articles providing in-depth insights into this unforgettable odyssey.