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 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.