Up, close and personal with the Guides: Destination Base Camp (Raktvan)

Abhishek Kaushal shares his special experience with guides on Day 2 of the expedition to the summit of Mount Thelu in Garhwal Himalayas, Uttarakhand.

Mount Thelu Expedition Day 2 – 22/May/2016

Woke up at 04:30 am and rushed out of the tent to catch a glimpse of the early morning views. The temperatures were low but since there was no wind, it was pleasant to walk around the camp. For me, the early-morning and night views of the surrounding places have always been the biggest motivation for undertaking high-altitude treks or mountaineering expeditions. The weather was clear and hence I had crispy clear views of the Gangotri valley and nearby mountains – simply breath-taking.

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Early Morning view of the Bhagirathi peaks as seen from Bhojwasa camp; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

I met the guide and he described the route ahead over our first cup of tea. I packed my stuff and got ready for breakfast. My patience was running out now as I wanted to leave as soon as possible so as to get involved in the rope-fixing activity at the Raktvan Nala and also in the entire process of marking the route above Gaumukh.

The plan for the day was that we would leave in three groups. The first would include the two guides and me, and we would mark the route above Gaumukh to Raktvan Base Camp. The second group would comprise the porters who would carry the supplies and equipment to Base Camp (they would then return to Gangotri – from Base Camp onwards the team members would carry stuff as per requirements). The third group, which included the team leaders and rest of the climbing team, would leave after packing the Bhojwasa camp. Finally after breakfast and a small brief from our expedition leaders, the three of us in Group I left the Bhojwasa camp.

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Bidding adieu to Bhojwasa camp as we proceed to higher grounds on Day 2; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

The journey to Gaumukh from Bhojwasa was pretty similar to what we had experienced the previous day. After walking for 30 minutes or so, the body got warmed up and I started enjoying the gentle walk to Gaumukh. This would be pretty much our last decent trail, after this we would be walking through tight and loose moraines or snow till we came back to Gaumukh again. Now the sun light was beaming over the nearby peaks – the sight of Mount Shivling in particular was amazing. Mount Shivling is one of the toughest and most technical peaks in this region. With the sunlight moving from the summit of Mount Shivling to its base, one could see why it was considered to be so difficult. Bhagirathi 1,2 and 3 peaks were looking like a crown over the Gangotri Glacier. We also saw a flock of Bharals (Himalayan blue sheep) having their breakfast along the way. They were harmless and probably used to humans walking around them as they quietly kept on enjoying their meal. It took us an hour to reach the Gaumukh Temple. Here we offered some prayers and rested a while. The trail-walking part of our expedition was now over, and what lay ahead was difficult and a bit dangerous.

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The mighty Shivling peak stands tall against a beautiful blue sky; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

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Flock of Bharals (Himalyan Blue Sheep) in search of food near Gangotri Glacier; Photo: Swarjit Samajpati

Walking over any glacier is dangerous and requires a lot of effort. Since there was no trail, at some point we had to use hands to cross over big boulders. This was the second time I was walking over the Gangotri Glacier, the first time being in 2003 when I had gone to Tapovan. Our lead guide was making headway, followed by the second guide while I brought up the rear. It was really hard for me to keep pace with the two of them. Whenever I stopped to catch my breath, I would click some photographs. The guides would also stop once in a while to rest and relieve themselves from the heavy loads on their back. On seeing them resting ahead, I would also get hopes of resting properly. But as soon as I would reach near them, they would get ready and tell me to keep on moving! After walking for  a while on the glacier, the lead guide showed me the trail which cut off from the main route towards Tapovan, while our route carried on ahead on the one towards Nandanvan. A little later, we had crossed over the glacier towards Raktvan. Here the guide showed me the route which continued ahead towards Nandanvan. From this point onward, we were separated from the common trekking route and would have to navigate through loose moraines towards the crossing point over Raktvan Nala.

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The “Highway’ atop Gangotri Glacier; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

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Watching the porters and team tackle the moraines; Photo: Guneet Puri

The route now comprised of a mix of loose and tight moraines. Loose moraines are very irritating to walk on, as one slips very often, which in turn increases the effort and the amount of distance effectively being travelled. The tight moraines present a different challenge – of walking over big boulders. One has to be careful while stepping on them as some of them cause imbalance and one might fall resulting in serious injury. Here the skill of our experienced guides was in full display as they were quick to find the easiest way possible to find a way through the moraines. They were placing cairns (human-made pile of stones) frequently on the route as a reference marking to guide the remaining groups of our team. The Raktvan Nala was on our left-hand side and we were searching for the best point to cross over as the base camp was supposed to be on the opposite side of the Nala, above a ridge. After a couple of kilometers, we reached a point which the guides decided was the best point to cross the Nala.

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Setting up cairns (pile of rocks) as reference landmarks to mark the route for the team members coming behind us; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

At this point the guide asked me to climb over a small ridge and use the walkie-talkie to inform the expedition leader that we had found the crossing point and we’re starting to fix the ropes. So I climbed up the nearest ridge and tried calling the leader but could not get through. I figured out that I needed to climb to a higher point and again climbed yet another ridge. Finally after climbing the second ridge I was able to contact the team and inform them of our progress.

By the time I returned, the lead guide had crossed the Nala and was fixing rope on the other side. The crossing point was about 50m long. There were two streams of water which were divided by a small piece of land in the middle. The rope was tied at both banks of the Nala and also on the piece of land in the middle. Once this process was done, the guide again asked me to climb up the ridge to inform the leader that rope had been fixed and we would start crossing the Nala now. But my first trip to the ridges above had taken too much effort and as I felt a bit tired, this time round the guide himself went up to pass the message. By the time he came back the entire rope fixing was done.

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The 2 guides fixing up the rope across the wild Raktvan Nala; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

After getting a brief from the lead guide, I removed my shoes, tied them together, placed them around my neck and got ready to cross the river. As I entered the water, I felt my feet going numb because of the temperature of the water. The water was freezing cold, and after just moving a couple of metres the cold sensation rocketed from my feet to my head. Grabbing the rope with my left hand and holding the walking stick in my right hand, I crossed over the Nala and sat on a big boulder on the other side to dry my feet. The weather was clear hence I was quickly able to dry and heat my feet. Now I was sitting on the other side of the river alone and waiting for the other groups to arrive. All this effort and the cold water had made me hungry so I ate my packed lunch on the banks of the Nala, enjoying the warm sun.

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After crossing the Raktvan Nala, this is the view I was enjoying while sun-bathing; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

After 30 minutes, the porters started arriving one by one and our guides helped them to cross the Nala. Since they were carrying very heavy loads, I could see the amount of effort they had to put in while crossing and also maintaining their balance. By the time all the porters had crossed the nala, other members of the team had arrived. By this time the guide had found another path across the second part of the stream over a few big boulders. The benefit of this path was that the water could be avoided. Based on individual preference the remaining team members took either the wet or the dry route over the water. The first part to be crossed was still through the water which was freezing, and I was enjoying everybody’s expression when they put their first step in the water! To cross the dry route required two big leaps from one boulder to other, and our guide helped the group to pass through them. Finally everyone was together again on the near side of the Nala.

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The porters make our lives easy as they carry heavy loads even through the most dangerous sections of the route ; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

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Does one need more proof of how essential the support staff of an expedition is?; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

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Swarjit takes a “Leap of Faith” as he jumps across the second section of the Raktvan Nala crossing; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

The other members took some much needed break to dry themselves. Meanwhile the porters, the guides and I moved ahead to the camp site. We climbed a small ridge over the boulders and I was relieved to see that the moraines had finally ended. We walked over small bushes and dried grass over a slightly increasing gradient. The final walk to the base camp was a steeper climb, but since I knew this was the final part of the walk for today, I hurried on to reach the camp. At the Base Camp, half the porters had already arrived and the guides and the cook had already set up the kitchen and dining tent. Slowly the remaining porters and some of the team members came in and we started setting up camp. Since we were to spend quite a few nights in this camp, more effort was put in to find a flatter ground and pitch sturdier tents.

The view from this camp site was stunning. Right in fromt of us, we could see Mount Shivling, Mount Meru, Meru Glacier, the Bhagirathi peaks and Tapovan. Raktvan Nala was around 50m below our camp site. Tomorrow was scheduled to be a much needed rest day for the team. Only our guides and two senior climbers would head out for a load ferry to the Advance Base Camp and the porters would head back to Gangotri. The rest day would give us a good chance to acclimatize and also recoup for the more challenging parts of the expedition.

Slowly the sun went behind the mountains, the wind speed picked up, the temperature dropped low and we all changed into heavy clothes and shifted to the much warmer dining tent. The wind factor made it tough to stand outside and enjoy the beautiful night sky. I decided to get into the tent and hoped a similar clear weather will be there every night so that I could enjoy the views after I had adapted to the cold. We finished our dinner and after the tough climb (compared to Day 1), everybody went into their tents.

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HQ at Base Camp, our home away from home; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

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Lucky to have reached base camp before the weather Gods changed their mood; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal

I had really enjoyed the walk today. The trip with the guides gave me a feel for their lives and skills. Lying in my sleeping bag, I kept thinking about the two guides – They were able to walk at a very good pace with heavy loads for a long time before taking a break; they were the first to take the risk and then were responsible for setting up camp and helping the cooking staff with other preparations; they will be going ahead tomorrow while I will be relaxing at the base camp … with these thoughts on my mind, I finally fell asleep.

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