The ritual of getting up early had started by now and after waking up at 4:30 a.m. and getting fresh, we segregated all our belongings into day-packs and rucksacks. After enjoying a glass of hot chai, we packed our rucksacks and handed them over to the porters. The porters were making loads of 30 kg each, comprising our expedition equipment, food and tents. They would be carrying these loads till the Base Camp. Due to shortage of porters at Gangotri this year, our porters would do double ‘load ferry’ till the Base Camp. This meant that they had to do two trips per day, carrying the 30 kg loads on each trip. This strenuous back and forth trip had to be undertaken to ensure that all essential items required for the expedition would reach the camp before nightfall.
Gradually, everyone was up and ready. Shashi reminded everyone to give their rucksacks to the porters for making the designated load groups. Some of the team members decided to carry their rucksacks on their own – I was glad that I was not one of them, for I wanted to conserve my energy and did not want any unnecessary exertion at the start of the expedition itself.
After the loads were ready, I accompanied some of the team members to the Gangotri Temple. Prayers were offered to the River Goddess and then we had parathas for breakfast. After everyone was done with breakfast, we started the day’s trek to Naala Camp.
The approach to Gangotri-III peak is very long and has some steep climbs in between. The route starts from the Rudugaira Valley and proceeds upstream along the Ruduganga River, which is a tributary of the Bhagirathi River. The route follows the Ruduganga River till the point where the steep climb to Mt. Rudugaira Base Camp starts. Thereafter, the route runs parallel to the famous Auden’s Col Route and then diverts towards the Gangotri-III peak. The Gangotri-III peak, as is evident from its name, comes under the Gangotri group of mountains, which are subsections of the Garhwal Himalayas in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand. The Gangotri group consists 3 peaks; Gangotri-I (6672 metres above sea-level), Gangotri-II (6590 m) and Gangotri-III (6577 m).
Since the approach to Base Camp is long, the plan was to camp midway beside a Naala today. The trek through the Rudugaira valley starts through Pine and Birch forests, and has a gradual ascent. On the first day of the expedition we would be gaining an altitude of 268 metres starting from Gangotri at 3415 m and ending our day at Naala Camp at a height of approximately 3683 m.
I started walking behind the rest of the team, alongside the Bhagirathi River, and across a little later, following the Pandav Cave Trail. The route went along the Bhagirathi River through a forest for a while, before turning left for a gradual climb. Standing at this junction, I decided that I would negotiate the gradual climb at my own pace.
This year I had come to the mountains with a new perspective. After my failed attempt last year on the Mt. Thelu expedition (which had been successfully completed by Abhishek and others in the team), I had realised my mistakes and this year I was committed not to repeat them. One of those mistakes had been overexerting myself and therefore it was necessary for me to set a comfortable pace for myself from the start of the expedition itself. I tried to synchronise my walking pace with my breathing to develop a rhythm and slowly and steadily I reached the top of the climb section. I saw some of the team members ahead of me resting on a rock. I joined them, opened the ration packet provided to us and had some delicious homemade dry fruit chocolate to replenish my energy. The last few members of the team arrived a little later and joined us at the rock.
After resting for a while, I continued on the trail through the Pine and Birch forest on the left side of Ruduganga River. Guneet had told me earlier that the trail following the Ruduganga upstream has a “Grand Canyon” like feel and as I walked on, I could see the amazing sight for myself as the river had cut through the rocks on either side and created a deep, steep-walled canyon. I could hear the river flowing below loudly but even after trying hard to gauge the depth of the canyon, I was unable to see the actual river flowing. Along the side of the trail through these steep rocks faces, waterfalls were flowing down to join the Ruduganga River.
Walking through the forest for a while, I finally came out into a clearing from where I could see the river in its full glory, weaving its way through massive rocks. Across two such rocks, I noticed a narrow make-shift bridge, made out of grass and soil laid over three small tree trunks. I descended through the rocks and climbed up the giant boulder over which the bridge rested. The rest of the team had already crossed the bridge and continued ahead on the trail. I crossed the bridge along with Shashi and waited for Isha to arrive. I was a bit worried about Isha as she had been suffering from Vertigo before coming to the expedition. Isha arrived a little later with Guneet, and under Guneet’s expert supervision, Isha crossed the bridge safely. I was relieved to see Guneet guiding Isha along the trail, for Guneet is very patient with the slow walkers and I knew Isha was in good hands.
I continued on the trail which was now on the right side of the Ruduganga. After walking for a while I reached a spot where I saw the guides and the support staff waiting below a steep rock face. This part of the trail required rock climbing skills to get over the rock face. Since it was almost noon, the rock face was drenched by small water streams, making it slippery, and thus turning it into a hard and tricky section to negotiate. This is where our skilled guides and support staff came to our rescue – they held my hand and pulled me up through the rock face. I caught my breath as I reached the top and observed the guides helping the rest of the team up the rocky section.
As I carried on ahead, I started feeling a little hungry for it was almost noon, and so I ate a little of my ration and then continued on the way. I was also running low on water by this time, for I had been sipping water all along the way and it had helped a lot in reducing my fatigue. I came across a small stream and filled my hydration pack. The landscape had changed from forest to foot-long pine-shaped grass swaying to the mountain winds. I finally spotted the team members ahead of me resting below the shade of some Birch trees. I joined them and we quickly opened our packed lunches to dig into some much needed nourishing food comprising Aloo Sabzi and Parathas.
I rested for a while after lunch and then started walking again. The vegetation changed after some distance into widespread Wild Spinach. On enquiring later, Guneet told me that this particular herb is used for treating skin irritation caused by Bichchu Bootee (Stinging Nettle) plant. The trail was above the tree line by now and as I crossed this flat section and over a ridge, I got the first glimpse of our tents already in place at the Naala Campsite. I realised that I was still 30 to 45 minutes away from the campsite while a few of our team members could be seen starting the final climb towards the Naala Camp.
I descended through boulders and reached the bottom of the final climb that was through a rock fall area. Shashi was waiting at the other end, monitoring my ascent through the rock fall area. She advised me to hurry up through the section as it was very dangerous so I quickly climbed across and joined her. I took some rest again and then proceeded towards the Naala Campsite along with Shashi, finally arriving at camp after another 20 minutes.
The support staff served us much-needed hot tea as we all waited for the last few team members to arrive, including Isha and Guneet. In the late afternoon, the weather turned cloudy and it started to rain, catching these team members unawares. Isha had her hard shell handy, which saved her from being completely drenched. Her hand-gloves however, were in the bag, as a result of which her hands got numb due to the drop in temperature brought by the sudden rain. As Isha and Guneet came into the camp under such conditions, the hot chai was a saviour and helped Isha deal with the cold. While Guneet was coming towards the camp, I noticed that she had swapped her rucksack with another team member. This person had voluntarily chosen to carry his rucksack this morning and got exhausted during the trek. This situation would have been easily avoided had the person given his rucksack to the porters while the loads were being prepared earlier in the morning.
All the team members settled in a tent to relax and while away time till dinner. Dinner was served in the kitchen tent but as it was crowded, I went out and spent some time with our hard working porters. I had my dinner a little later, enjoying the Saag, Daal, Roti and Rice, and finally retired to my tent.
The first day had been an interesting one for me but my thoughts were focused on the porters rather than my own performance or Isha’s health. Talking to the porters made me realise how tough the life of the people in the hills is. They fight for basic survival their whole life and still they are always cordial and ready to help any stranger. The tough mountain terrain teaches them to be humble and compassionate. I felt like I was back to school, getting lessons on life from the mountains. I finally drifted off to sleep looking forward to the lessons in the coming days.