After doing four Himalayan treks during 1984-87, annual Himalayan trekking had become an addiction for me. Sometime in March-April every year, our trekking group would meet in one of the Udipi hotels in the Fort area to finalise the next trekking destination. During one of such meetings, we decided on Gangotri-Gaumukh-Tapovan trek. The fascination of viewing Bhagirathi river originating from the Gaumukh and spending a night in Tapovan at the Shivling base excited us. I had already collected some information on this trek including those from Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN), Rishikesh, who were prompt in replying to my various queries. At the second meeting of our trekking group, it was decided to do this trek during the middle of May as the period was convenient to all of us. We kept 2 extra days in our itinerary to take care of delays on account of road blocks etc.
We (myself, Sriram Deshpande, Jumbukeswaran and Vasant Ghag - all my office collegues) reached Rishikesh via Delhi and Haridwar for overnight stay ( Hotel Hari @Rs.40/-). The day's activities included a bath in Ganga and a walk over the Shivanand Jhula to visits temples and ashrams on the other side of Rishikesh. In the evening, we visited the GMOU bus stand ( called Sanyukta Rotation Bus Stand) and our enquiry revealed that there was a bus at 6.00 a.m. for Gangotri for which there was no need to reserve the seats.
Rishikesh across Ganga. On the left is Shivanand Jhula
Day-1 : Rishikesh-Gangotri (245 kms)
We reached the bus stand about an hour early to make sure that we get the right seats. The bus started sharp at 6.00 a.m. with some seats still remaining vacant but these were filled in by the time it reached the check post at Rishikesh. We all were excited as it was our first journey beyond Rishikesh and we would soon have river Ganga of the mountains as our companion until Gaumukh. At Tehri ( now old Tehri), the bus took a diversion on a make-shift mud road as the main road was blocked probably for Tehri dam project. It was a dusty journey of 2-3 kms with heaps of rocks and mud lying on both sides of the road. The entire area looked like as if it had gone through a major devastation. It was a bit of disappointment for all of us to witness Bhagirathi river with its muddy water and being striped off its green surroundings.
The other impressions about this road journey still fresh in my mind were a long lunch stop at Uttarkashi and the discussion amongst the passengers that the bus will eventually go up to Gangotri. The reason for this uncertainty was that even though the road from Lanka to Gangotri was thrown open some time in 1986, there had been many occasions when the buses to Gangotri had to be terminated at Lanka/Bhaironchatti as the condition of newly opened road was still fragile and sometime unfit for the bus journey. Maneri was a scenic place mainly for its lake formed from the water discharged by the dam constructed over Bhagirathi river. I also liked the Harsil area with Bhagirathi flowing clamly, though at that time I felt that with army's presence all over this place, it may be out of bound for tourists. The road journey from Lanka to Gangotri was very scenic. Here onwards, Bhagirathi river was in full force finding its way through rocks and gorges. If I recall correctly, one of the deep Bhagirathi gorges was somewhere in the vicinity of Bhaironchatti. We reached Gangotri at around 6.30 p.m. completely tired by the 10-hour long and jumpy bus journey. We stayed in Gangotri Temple Committee room (@ Rs.50/-).
Day-2 : In Gangotri (3048m)
It was a rest day for us mainly to get acclimatise for the next day's 14 kms trek to Bhojwasa. After breakfast, we walked about 2 kms on the Chirbasa-Bhojwasa track when we noticed an Ashram to the right of the path. As we entered the Ashram, we saw an elderly Sadhu sitting in the veranda. We sat with him and chatted for sometime. Disillusioned with material life, the Sadhu took to sanyas some time in early 50s and eventually settled in Gangotri. The old age coupled with loss of his eyesight had made him virtually dependent on his disciples. In the last few years, he has been sustaining only on fruits and berries available in the nearby forests.
Sadhu at his Ashram at Gangotri
It was a bright sunny day when we returned from the Ashram. After a dip in ice-cold water of Bhagirathi river, we visited the Gangotri temple. Apparently, the pilgrimage season was yet to gather momentum as there were very few pilgrims in the Gangotri temple. In the afternoon, we visited Gourikund falls of Bhagirathi river. It was interesting to see Bhagirathi river suddenly taking a plunge like a waterfall, flows through a narrow gorge and settle in a pond before moving further. The entire area around Gaurikund fall was very cold and windy. We chose the comfort of our Temple Committee room which was relatively less cold due to it being insulated by wooden planks from all sides. In the evening, we met a guide based in Gangotri and agreed to engaged him for our Gaumukh-Tapovan-Gaumukh trek.
Day-3 : Gangotri-Chirbasa-Bhojbasa (3792m, 14 kms trek)
We left Gangotri around 8.00 in the morning for Bhojwasa along with the guide who was to take us to Tapovan. There was hardly any pilgrim on this trek which was well marked with pine trees on the slopes ending at the shores of Bhagirathi river on the right side. Some of the pine trees were lying uprooted on the slopes. In a couple of places on the trekking route, temporary wooden bridges were built over the streams joining Bhagarathi river.
Trekkers and pilgrims on way to Chirbasa
As we crossed Chirbasa, the tree lines started depleting and after a couple of kms, the slopes to right were almost barren except for some isolated patches of trees and shrubs. Apart from rampant cutting down the trees for fuel purposes, one of the reasons for depleting tree lines could be the uprooting of trees due to mud slides and rockfalls. The whole valley looked more like a desert. The hills on the cliff side were a mix of mud and pebbles which were fragile. Our guide told us that every year on the start of summer, the trekking path to Bhojbasa gets damaged due to melting of glaciers and accumulated snow which results in mud slide and rockfalls. The name Bhojwasa would suggest that at one point of time, the area was full of bhoj (birch) trees. In Wandering in the Himalayas - a travelogue of Swami Tapovanam of his travel in the Himalayas during 1920-30s, he had mentioned that "ten or twelve miles up (from Gangotri) there is a forest called Bhoorjavanam (birch trees forest). It is the favorite resort of saints and sages". Surely, once upon a time, Bhojwasa was a forest full of birch trees.
Rocky cliff close to Bhagirathi river on way to Bhojwasa
After Chirbasa, it is a trek mainly through hills of mud and rocks
We reached Bhojwasa at around 2.00 in the cold afternoon and checked in GMVN Rest House [dormitory @Rs,25/- per bed]. Since the room was very cold, we decided to sit out in the sun and that gave us an opportunity to view the valley from GMVN which was on the upper side of the valley. The Bhagirathi peaks were in front of us.
It was a very cold night at Bhojbasa. The woollen blanket and a thick razai were insufficient for me to cope up with the cold. I was also experiencing some breathing problem due to sleeping at a high altitude (3700+ m) with low oxygen. During the whole night, I felt as if some weight had been kept on my chest. All these discomforts made me to spent sleepless night at Bhojbasa. I was really worried about my ability to take the next day's trek to Gaumukh and to Tapovan. With great reluctance, I got up early in the morning. However, after morning corus and a cup of hot tea, I felt as normal as the previous day.
Day-4 : Bhojbasa-Gaumukh (3892m) -Gangotri ( 5+18 kms Trek)
We commenced our trek to Gaumukh (4 kms) at 6.00 in the morning so that we cross the Gaumukh glacier for Tapovan before the glacier start melting due to sun heat. The ascend to Gaumukh was gradual which we could complete in about 2 hours. There were heaps of snow - may be 15-20 feet above the ground level from where the Bhagirathi was flowing. It was again a bit of disappointment for us to see the muddy water flowing below the glacier. The glacier snout did not resemble that of a cow's mouth. The mud and moraines sliding from glacier getting deposited in around the snout had made the Bhagirathi water muddy.
There was always a speculation about the source of Bhagirathi. There was a view that Gaumukh was not the source of Bhagirathi but it originated somewhere along the sub-glacial path - may be leading to Gangotri glacier itself. Just a couple of years before we visited Gaumukh, an european expedition team visited Gaumukh to study the source of Bhagirathi. The team entered the mouth of Gaumukh and walked hundred of metres inside the sub-glacial grotto with water flowing below the sub-glacier ceiling until the ceiling became so low that they could not walk further.
Without wasting much time at Gaumukh, we marched further on the top of the Gaumukh glacier and moved towards Tapovan (4460m) which was about 6 kms away. Although we crossed the Gaumukh glacier, the moraines and scree on the trekking path made it difficult to know whether we were still walking over the glacier or accumulated snow. I did feel couple of times a bit of shaking ground - more or less the similar feeling I had experienced in Mumbai during the tremors of Koyna earthquack in 1966. Throughout the first 1 km trek from Gaumukh towards Tapovan, we saw some minor mud slides and occasionally some pebble falls. As a result of this, we were were constantly watching the cliff side for possible mudslides and rock falls and then moving forward. At one point, we witnessed a big rock falling from the cliff side on our trekking path some distance away from us and finally tumbling down from the slopes to the valley. As we looked ahead, the situation seemed to be no different. After discussion among ourselves, we felt that there was no point in continuing the trek under constant threat of mud slides and rockfalls. Our guide's silence on this issue also did not give us confidence that we could continue the trek. We decided to abort the trek to Tapovan and started return journey around 9.30 a.m.
Over the Gaumukh glacier covered with rocks and scree
While we were returning from Gaumukh, we met a group of about 15 trekkers who were going to Tapovan and Nandanvan. They belonged to one of the well-known Pune-based trekking organisations. We told one of them the reasons for aborting our trek to Tapovan. Later, when I returned home after the completion of the trek, I came to know, through Times of India of the tragic death of a girl trekker belongong to the same Pune-based trekking organisation due to rockfalls somewhere between Gaumukh and Tapovan.
As we were halfway mark towards Bhojbasa, our guide told me that some trekkers take an alternative route which involved crossing the Bhagirathi river between Bhojbasa and Gaumukh and taking a steep climb to Tapovan. However, river crossing was possible only when the water level was around knee level and there wais not much force in the water. There was no question of our taking this route particularly when Bhagirathi was fed by the melting snow and glacier. We reached Bhojbasa by 10.30 a.m.
After a tea break at Bhojbasa, we commenced the return trek to Gangotri which took us about 4 hours to complete. The evening was spent by visiting a couple of Ashrams in the vicinity of Gangotri temple. It was one of the interactions with one of the sadhus we were told that we were a fortnight too early for the Tapovan trek.
Day-5 : Gangotri-Uttarkashi (100 kms )
Since we had extra days in our hand, we decided to visit Yamunotri. We took 8.00 morning bus to Uttarkashi. We reached the place at around 1.oo in the afternoon by which time the only bus to Hanumanchatti ( the last road-head to Yamunotri) had already left Uttarkashi. We checked in Hotel Bhandari [@60/-] and visited some temples in the evening.
Day-6 : Uttarkashi to Hanumanchatti (2400m, 117 kms)
We got into 11.30 a.m. bus and reached Hanumanchatti at around 5.30 p.m. Hanumanchatti was full of pilgrim crowd. With great difficulty, we could get a room with 4 beds in Hotel Chauhan (@150/-). The common way to all the rooms on the first floor was made of wood planks some of which was loosened. It was very risky to walk on the planks as there was no light. A false step could have dropped down to a stream flowing below the common way.
Day-7 : Hanumanchatti-Yamunotri-Hanumanchatti (13+13 by trek)
We started for Yamunotri (3148m) at 6.00 a.m. Our intention was to reach before noon and stay overnight at Yamunotri. The trek up to Janakichatti (7 kms) and further 2 kms after Janakichatti was easy one with gradual climb. The next 3 kms of trek involved steep climb over the loose stones under the forest cover. The last one km of trek upto Yamunotri was , more or less, a plain walk. We reached Yamunotri around 1.00 p.m. The place disappointed me as, in my view, it did not have a serene atomsphere like Gangotri and there was not much to talk about the temple itself. After spending about an hour or so around the temple complex, we decided to return to Hanumanchatti on the same day instead of staying overnight as planned. We did the non-stop return trek within 4 hours to Hanumanchatti and stayed for the night in the same dingy hotel.
Sadhus in the cave on way to Janakichatti
Me on the way to Janakichatti
One of the villages on way to Yamunotri
Pilgrims take bath at one of the hot water springs in Yamunotri
Day-8 : Hanumanchatti-Dehradun-Haridwar (227 kms)
We got into 8.00 a.m. bus bound for Dehradun. At Damta, we had the best thali lunch of the trip in one of the hotels near the bus stand. The bus took a longer Yamuna Bridge-Herbertpur route to reach Dehradun at around 5.30 p.m. We took a share jeep to Haridwar for a night halt.
After spending two days in Haridwar, we returned to Mumbai via Delhi.
All photos by the author
All photos by the author