Gaumukh Tapovan Trek – Hiking to the base of Mount Shivling with an Ascetic. It was the middle of October but it was sweltering in the dusty town of Srinagar (Uttarakhand). I had just boarded a bus full of people heading to Chamba in Tehri, from where I had to hopefully hop 2 more buses to reach Uttar Kashi.
“People spend their entire lives at those lower altitudes without any awareness that this high country exists.” — Robert M. Pirsig
Public transport in Uttarakhand is crazy, there isn’t any proper connectivity and too much dependency on the private taxis, which was certainly not conducive for someone hiking solo – the length and breadth of Uttarakhand for a few months now.
Just as the bus left Srinagar for a long journey in the middle of this hot October afternoon, the driver did something crazy while negotiating a sharp turn bringing the bus to a screeching halt.
Soon the animated audience in the bus got out on to the road — the national highway in the absolutely belting sun. After a while, the Bus conductor started identifying the people who were on the way to Uttar Kashi. As I whimpered in the affirmative, a voice emerged in the background. Are you going to Uttar Kashi as well? I turned around to find a Swamiji along with a short guy by name Mohan. They asked me where I was heading to, I replied I was going to hike the trail to Mount Meru all by myself. Surprisingly they were heading there as well and would be joined by a group of Bengali boys from Calcutta. They invited me to join them and I obliged happily. There was a natural camaraderie as we spoke along the way, hopping onto another bus going towards Uttar Kashi
The rest of the journey involved changing 2–3 Shared jeeps, crossing the Tehri Region and finally making it to the sultry town of Uttar Kashi around 9 in the night.
The next day was spent with Swamiji and Mohan buying ration for the trek. We went around the shabby market of Uttar Kashi picking up any last minute items. The boys from Bengal were supposed to arrive from Haridwar, in a Taxi booked by Mohan. By afternoon, we were all set and ready to head out to Gangotri.
Gangotri is 100 km’s from Uttar Kashi and the route is scenic especially once you enter the Bhagirathi valley after Bhatwari. Arrival in Bhatwari at least in 2016 also meant parting away with any Mobile Internet especially if you are looking for any such service. Further down the valley, all kinds of network disconnection happen unless of course, you are carrying a BSNL SIM Card. Rule no.1 in the mountains in India: Carry a BSNL SIM card where you can!
We reached Gangotri by the night and had plans to stay a day in Gangotri (3415 msl) to acclimatize. The Funny thing about Gangotri is that it has direct road connectivity at a crazy altitude. For many who do not understand AMS and its subsequent Fatal repercussions, 3415m is a gain of 2000m in altitude in 4 hours if you are coming from Uttar Kashi (1400msl)
Therefore, it’s advisable to spend some time in Gangotri taking side hikes and acclimatizing than sprinting towards Gaumukh etc.
While calling the walks around as Side hikes would be an overstatement, yet it was refreshing to take walk in the Deodhar forests. There is an ancient cave which was inhabited by the Pandavas and now by a shady monk. There is also Suraj Kund where the Bhagirathi drops taking almost 90-degree turn forming a natural pool (kund). Then there is the revered Gangotri Dham and the Bhagirathi itself. A quite walk and the calmness of the river sets you up for the long hike to Bhojbasa the next day.
Gaumukh and the other mountains in the Gangotri range fall under the Gangotri National Park, entry to which is restricted to 150 people per day. Therefore, if you wish to enter this sacred and beautiful sanctuary, you should get a permit done in advance at the Forest Office in Gangotri.
Most people just dash to Bhojbasa (3775m) the first day from Gangotri, a distance of 14kms and a gradual climb with fewer steep climbs on the way.
“ It is when we renounce everything that everything is given to us, in abundance. Everything: meaning the intensity of presence itself.”
Swamiji was walking with me all along as we entered the Gangotri National park. He was one among us a few years back, having a good corporate life but soon became an ascetic and migrated to live in a cave the mountains of Kumaon in Bageshwar, very close to Mohan’s village. He was very different from the so called Holy men, who wear Saffron clothes but are always looking to score and smoke pot. Swamiji was more of a Yogi, who traveled in Saffron clothes, but had no characteristics of the cliched Holy men who sit by the river in Varanasi and get high…. He was a man of knowledge, high intellect, and great vision.
When asked about his background, his name etc. he just smiled and replied, “You shouldn’t ask those details to a Sanyasi..” and So I refrained from asking any more personal details. I loved his life, he had no identity, he had destroyed all his Govt. Issued ID cards and basically renounced anything that would point back to his past societal life. We had a lot in common, he loved exploring the mountains, he had been to Mustang in Nepal and Muktinath, He had done Panch Kailash, Panch Kedar and he even mentioned Panch Badri. Swamiji loved hiking and was always wishing to explore and learn about the Himalaya, something which very much what’s my calling as well!
“I cannot imagine a more perfect hell than being trapped inside my own mind.” — Beth Revis, The Body Electric
It’s a long walk to Bhojbasa, I enjoyed my conversation with Swamiji all along as we spoke of the yogis, Karmayogis, and the practicalities of life. It was refreshing to learn some very good things from him.
Sometimes on the trail, it’s much better to have a company of a good person. Else, I get into my own zone and line of thinking. While it does bring clarity but mostly it’s like Zen Meditation. You keep walking without thinking too much, it’s just a single point aim of reaching your destination for the day… You are looking at the surroundings appreciating it, but you need a company to share it with!
We finally reached Bhojbasa around 1 in the afternoon. Bhojbasa is the last stop point before Gaumukh. It is host to an Ashram and a couple of Forest and NRSA (National Remote Sensing Agency) posts. Of course, these people have been observing the Gaumukh Glacier (Source of the Ganges) retreat by almost a kilometer in last one year but yet no action is being taken by the various governments. Global Warming is not merely a buzzword, it’s a reality.
In a recent announcement of the Char Dham Highway, the government intends to (work is in full force) four-lane the existing narrow road to Gangotri among others such as Kedarnath, Badrinath and Yamunotri . This is resulting in felling of more than 50,000 trees. No, wonder this will lead to rise in the temperature in this region and further melting of the glacier.
Bhoj means ‘meal’ and basa means ‘abode’. So in keeping with the tradition of the name, we had a hearty lunch at Bhojbasa and went about exploring this region on the banks of the Bhagirathi. The Gaumukh glacier was visible in the far with the Bhagirathi peaks rising behind them.
The night was spent in an observatory like enclosure setup by the local Forest Department for trekkers and religious tourists who halt here for the night. We had to clean it to make it livable for the night. The previous trekking group had littered this place. No wonder, there is still so much education that needs to be imparted to the general public on green hiking.
The next morning, we left Bhojbasa towards Gaumukh. The Plan was to cross the Glacier and ascend to Tapovan- the mystic meadow and the base camp for Mount Shivling. On the way, we saw an old Shiva Temple and few tourists whose aim was only to reach Gaumukh and collect the Holy water from the Stream. Somehow it seemed to them that the water 3 km downstream at Bhojbasa were just not worth it!
Finally reached the snout of the Gaumukh around 10 in the morning. It was a beautiful sight. Gau — Mukh translates to Cow’s mouth and is a revered place in Hinduism. This is where the Ganga takes birth as per the ancient scripts. The Bhagirathi peaks on the left are named after the famous sage Bhagirath who sat in meditation to convince Shiva to send the Ganga down to earth… It’s here that Ganga is known to descend upon earth to quench the thirst of millions of Indians who rely on the Ganga for sustenance…
After resting for a while at Gaumukh, appreciating the many stories and the just the mere sight of the place with the first towering views of Mount Shivling right behind Gaumukh, we started for Tapovan.
To reach Tapovan one has to cross the Gaumukh Glacier. While it’s not such a tough job yet Gaumukh glacier does have a few dangerous crevasses which can be fatal. Extreme care is important to walk on glaciers anyways!
After crossing the glacier there is a steep climb to Tapovan. As one ascends to gain higher ground, various beautiful views open up. One can see the Trail to Raktvan mountain, there is Nandanvan meadow visible right below the bhagirathi peaks and then on the far south Kedar Dome (Kedarnath) mountain emerges. The Shivling is visible but the Meru is still elusive.
After a long climb, one reaches Tapovan. the very sight of Tapovan needs no explanation. While Bhagirathi and Shivling are visible in full glory, Mount Meru is now also fully visible from here.
Tapovan means A Forest of spiritual practices. Tapovan as the stories says has been inhabited by various saints and sages in the past. This makes it a place full of positive vibrations and energies…
Tapovan at a height of 4463m above sea level also serves as the base camp of Mount Shivling and Mount Meru. Apart from a small Ashram run by a young baba also referred to as “Mouni Baba’” primarily because he prefers to keep quiet and converse only in signs… Staying muted is an ancient Indian practice of conserving energy and also to prohibit oneself from indulging in loose talk. But, staying that way for an extended time of few years is definitely a part of austerity, Tapovan is famous for!
Mount Bhagirathi is a mountain with 3 prominent peaks — Bhagirathi I, II and III standing at 6856m, 6512m and 6454m above sea level respectively. These all mountains belong to the Gangotri range of Garhwal Himalaya. Bhagirathi III, in particular, has seen some of the most extreme rock climbing acts in the history of Himalaya. Nandanvan a short 4 hour hike from Tapovan serves as a base camp for these mighty big wall Himalayan Climbs.
Mount Shivling at 6,543m is popularly known to the Europeans as the Matterhorn of the east. Though much higher compared to its European lookalike, Shivling is a prized summit for many! Shivling was first climbed on 3 June 1974 via the west ridge, by a team from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, led by Hukam Singh. The ridge is the lowest-angle feature on the mountain, but still, involves serious mixed climbing
Arrival at Tapovan also brought its share of bad news. There were two climbers from Poland stuck on Mount Shivling for the last 2 days with no rescue possible at all. Elite climbers from the Indian Army, NIM and SDRF (state Disaster Response Force) were all their trying to make the rescue work but it looked difficult. There were constant sorties from choppers of both Indian Army and Air Force reconnoitering the Shivling peak from all directions but to no avail. The Army personnel told us that the Polish team comprised of 7 climbers out of which 5 had returned back to base camp.
By evening, we got to know that one of the climbers was dead due to possibly HAPE/HACE and the other was trying to descend the mountain on his own. Both of them were experienced climbers with one of them even having submitted mount K2!
Grzegorz Kukurowski and Lukasz Chrzanowski had tried to climb the mountain via the North Face. They got stuck at 6,300 meters, about 200 meters below the summit.
Kukurowski showed symptoms of high altitude sickness. Chrzanowski gave him emergency medicine in the tent, but Grzegorz died a little later. Lukasz had tried to descend alone. According to the Polish Mountaineering Association (PZA), he lost his balance on a snow and ice slope, slid more than 200 meters down and fell into a crevasse. Two other Polish expedition members, who had climbed up to help him, were only about 150 meters away at this time. When they reached the crevasse, Chrzanowski was still alive. But a little later he died from his inner injuries.
“It is not the mountains that we conquer but ourselves” — Edmund Hillary
Camping at Tapovan that day was accompanied by constant sounds of the Indian Army choppers doing their sorties in the last ditch effort for search and rescue of the Lone surviving Polish climber. The morning day after was gloomy. We had woken up to the news of a death of the second climber…
There was this different kind of bizarre calm. More like the one after the storm. Yet another son of the mountain had probably gone in unison with the great mountain being eternally in Peace.
We took a walk around Tapovan catching glimpses of Kedar Dome and Mount Meru from the Shivling Ridge. There was a sense of uneasiness because of the news yet there was this thought that mountaineers are from a different clan!
Mountaineers carry his heart on his sleeves. They like to go beyond their limits and Constantly push the envelope of possibilities… They are cut from a different cloth for sure!
After a long and tiring day walking around Tapovan, we walked back to Chirbasa (the Abode of Trees) to camp for one final night. From Tapovan Gangotri is about 22 km and can be done in a day. But we stopped by at Chirbasa (at 14kms) instead to not overstretch. The Subsequent day we returned to Gangotri where the others bid me goodbye, while I stayed on to explore the other trail to KedarTal and Thalay Sagar base camp, which originates from Gangotri!
“In seeking after what the soul desires we become pilgrims with no home but the path the soul would have us follow.” -Michael Meade