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 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.