Mountain Walking

Of Grasslands, Steep Climbs and Grand Peaks

Day Two hadn’t dawned yet, and there I was wide awake at 4:30 am; I have noticed that when I wake up during an expedition, there doesn’t seem anything better to do than to step out of the tent. No lounging lazy, no dilly-dallying – just straight out.

Outside, the weather was clear and cold after yesterday’s rain. After completing my daily chores, I waited for the warmth of the sun to arrive at the camp site. The Naala campsite is enclosed by high mountains towards the East and West, which meant the sunlight would be late to reach the camp. I had my hot cup of chai and had finished my packing by the time the sun started shining over the campsite. Soon, we broke our tents and put them out to dry up.

I asked the guides about the route we would walk today to the Base Camp. Apparently, we have two steep climbs today and rest of the walk is through Bugyal, which is an Alpine grassland covered with natural green grass and seasonal flowers. 

After eating Oats, and Roti with Aloo Sabzi for breakfast, we started setting off from the campsite one by one. The first steep climb was right beside our campsite. I started walking up along the small spring, which was used as a water source at Naala camp. After climbing up for a while I found the trail leading up and followed it till the top of the ridge. Now I had a bird’s eye view of the Naala campsite. I could see my team members on their ascent to the ridge above the Naala camp. I rested while they caught up. Up ahead was the huge Bugyal, with a ravine towards the East through which the Ruduganga was flowing. Towards the West, the Bugyal was bounded by steep rocky mountain.

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Climbing above Naala Camp in the Rudugaira Valley; Photo: Swarjit Samajpati.

I started walking through the Bugyal. Today I am walking with Manisha, one of the team members. She is back to the mountains after a gap of some years having completed her Basic and Advanced Mountaineering courses from N. I. M., Uttarkashi. Since today the route had some steep climbs, it was safer to walk in groups and everybody was in sight of the group preceding them, so that in case of any emergency, other team members were available for help. 

The walk through the Bugyal had a very gradual climb. I kept on walking following the trail across the grassland. Midway I noticed a herd of Bharals (Himalayan Blue Sheep) enjoying their breakfast of lush green grass. I crossed the grassland and descended into a narrow valley with a frozen stream. I crossed the frozen stream and climbed up the valley and then I found myself on another vast grassland, which was relatively flat as compared to the previous one. After resting a while I continued my walk across the Bugyal. Our porters had overtaken us by now and were well ahead of us. They had a double load ferry today and were planning to reach Gangotri by night fall.

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Walking along the Bugyals; Photo: Swarjit Samajpati.

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An un-named snow covered peak across the Rudugaira Valley; Photo: Swarjit Samajpati.

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A herd of Bharals (Himalayan Blue Sheep) enjoying breakfast amidst the high grass; Photo: Swarjit Samajpati.

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Ragged peaks rising up towards the Gangotri side of the valley; Photo: Swarjit Samajpati.

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Porters crossing the section between the two Bugyals; Photo: Swarjit Samajpati.

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The second Bugyal; Photo: Swarjit Samajpati.

At the end of the second Bugyal, the second steep climb awaited us. Looking at the magnitude of the climb, I told Manisha, “Ye toh Baap chadhai hai” (this is the father of all steep climbs). In front of us, down below, there was a stream flowing, and across the stream was a long steep climb at an inclination of greater than 60 degrees, which seemed to almost touch the sky. I could see some of our porters and guides more than half way up the climb and they looked like tiny dots from where I was standing. They were followed by Shashi and some climbers.  Manisha, being a trained mountaineer, told me not to worry – we would keep small milestones and rest once we reached the designated milestone. She told me to walk ahead and set the pace and she would follow me.

I descended through the loose gravel and crossed the stream and waited for Manisha. After deciding the first milestone (a big rock), I started walking slowly towards it. In my mind, I was counting my steps to the first milestone, and reaching there I caught my breath. Manisha was closely following me at the same pace. I knew that instead of focusing on the milestone, I have to determine the number of steps which I can take comfortably at one stretch, without over-exhausting myself on this steep section. I discussed this with Manisha and we agreed to it, and so I started the climb counting steps and taking frequent breaks followed by Manisha. The trail along this climb was zig zag to reduce the impact of the steep gradient, which was helpful for us.

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The steep climb before Mt. Rudugaira Base Camp; Photo: Swarjit Samajpati.

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At the start of the steep climb section; Photo: Swarjit Samajpati.

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The two tiny spots near the skyline are my team mates who make me realise that there’s still a long way to climb; Photo: Swarjit Samajpati.

Midway through the climb I looked down and saw the last few members of our team arriving at end of the Bugyal and watching us climb as they took their rest. Towards the end of the climb the gradient of the slope became less steep, which was a breather for me. Now I could see the ridge on the top of the climb. After an hour and a half of climbing, I was finally on the ridge above the steep climb.

This ridge was the designated Base Camp for Mount Rudugaira expeditions. The view was astonishing – the ridge was surrounded by peaks! Towards the West stood Mount Rudugaira followed by Rudugaira Glacier, while Gangotri-I, Gangotri-II and Gangotri-III peaks rose towards the Southwest of the ridge. I could see our guides waiting at some distance. Reaching there I asked them how far we were from our Base Camp. One of them pointed towards Shashi and the members resting ahead in between two moraines across the Rudugaira Base Camp Bugyal.

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Panoramic view from the Mt. Rudugaira Base Camp; Photo: Swarjit Samajpati.

Since the distance was not much, Manisha and I decided to have our packed lunch of Roti with Nutrela and Aloo Sabzi. While having lunch, I noticed some people above the second moraine. I again asked our guides who they were, and they told me that the wildlife conservation people are setting up motion cameras for tracking wildlife. On the way, I had noticed a camp set up by the wildlife people, and so I believed our guides – little did I knew that I was in for a surprise.

After lunch Manisha and I crossed the Rudugaira Base Camp Bugyal and crossed over the first moraine and arrived between the two moraines. This was the place that our guide had pointed to, where the Base Camp was supposed to be setup. But it was nowhere to be found, and the fellow climbers who were resting at this spot were also gone. As I heard Shashi calling us from the top of the second moraine, I realised it was not the wildlife team but our own team who were above the second moraine, and the Base Camp was still some distance from here!

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Crossing the first moraine after the Mt. Rudugaira Base Camp; Photo: Swarjit Samajpati.

I crossed the water stream, stepping over rocks and climbed the second moraine and joined Shashi. Manisha joined us and we continued walking atop the moraine. Manisha was a bit disappointed, as we had expected the Base Camp to be setup between the two moraines. The tiredness of the long day was now visible on her face along with the disappointment that the destination was still a bit ahead. Shashi kept us in her sight for some time, but since we were too slow, she told us to follow the trail to Base Camp.

I walked with Manisha at her pace. She had helped me through the most difficult part of the climb, and I could not walk on ahead leaving her alone – and that’s what team work is all about on the mountain, and today we were a team. I told her to take her time as we were very close to the Base Camp. The weather in the late afternoon got cloudy and it was about to snow. We continued on the trail. I reached the end of the moraine top and started to descend on the other side and I got the first glimpse of the Base Camp. After another 15 minutes of walking, we finally arrived at Base Camp.

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Finally within reach of Base Camp; Photo: Swarjit Samajpati.

I had a slight headache by now and Shashi advised me to breathe deeply. Following her advice and spending some time outside of the tents, I was able to get rid of my headache soon. It started to snow heavily and we were still waiting for the rest of the team to arrive. Finally I saw Guneet and Isha, along with rest of the team and guides descend through the final moraine towards the Base Camp. I could see our guide helping Isha, holding her hand and almost pulling her through to the Base Camp. Isha was exhausted, so exhausted that she had not even managed to put her hard shell on when it had started snowing. Guneet had kept her spare gloves handy for Isha. Isha was wet, cold and shivering. To prevent hypothermia, I followed Shashi’s advice and quickly helped Isha change into warm clothes. I next helped her get into the sleeping bag, putting my sleeping bag over her sleeping bag, and then I kept on rubbing her hands. Shashi served her hot tea and after an hour Isha was feeling better. I was thankful to Guneet, Mallika and our guide who had helped Isha through the long difficult walk today. Guneet told me that although exhausted, Isha kept on pushing herself through the walk, showing her will power and mental strength.

Guneet also helped one of the climbers who had opted to carry his rucksack. She had reduced his load by carrying his belongings in her rucksack, even though she was already carrying her fully loaded rucksack weighing over 20 kg.

The team gathered in the dinning tent and spent time talking while waiting for dinner – Tehri made with Rice, Soya-bean and Aloo. I quickly finished my dinner and retired to my tent.

Lying in the sleeping bag, I thought about the day’s events and how important  teamwork is in the tough mountain environment – to watch out for each other and stick together as a team. I was glad that I was climbing with people who followed the “one for all and all for one” protocol. Today, the mountains taught me the importance of teamwork and with these comforting thoughts in mind, I finally drifted off to sleep.

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