An aura of despair hung inside the quivering tent where six of us were huddled late in the afternoon. A snowstorm raged on outside, in a desolate glacial valley surrounded by Himalayan peaks. A few kilometers ahead of us, obscured by the blizzard, lay Auden’s Col, a daunting mountain pass deep in the hallowed mountains of Uttarakhand. Suddenly, one of our guides, Happy Negi, peeked into our tent, and offered hot halwa as prasad with a reassuring smile, unperturbed by the lashing snow and freezing winds. Our frayed nerves began to calm down; after all, these prayers had worked so well over the past six days.
Last June six others and I were attempting to cross the col, an 18,000-foot saddle between the Gangotri and Jogin peaks that provides a rare passage from Gangotri to Kedarnath. Owing to the tough terrain and a long trudge across a crevasse-ridden glacier, few have attempted the trek to this pass after it was first crossed in 1939 by John Bicknell Auden, an English geologist and explorer then working with Geological Survey of India. Our group however decided to tackle two more passes—Patangani Dhar and Mayali—along with Auden’s Col over a span of two weeks; an ambitious plan that put us right at the centre of the monumental landscape of the Garhwal Himalayas.
For the longest time, I couldn’t fathom what has made Uttarakhand the cynosure of mountaineers and geologists for decades. Crowded pilgrimages, overdeveloped hill towns and holy shrines were the only things I associated with Uttarakhand. But a few years ago small hikes introduced me to the state’s vast Himalayan range peppered with magnificent peaks such as Trishul, Nanda Devi, Panchachuli, Chaukhamba, and Shivling. The peaks were not all particularly tall but their forms were deeply mesmerising.
I find it rather shameful that after nearly a decade of trekking in the Indian Himalayas, I had only just found my way to the mother ship where countless peaks and endless glaciers prevailed in relative isolation, protected by inclement weather and the torment of the rough landscape. Trekking to Auden’s Col meant days spent gawking at the glistening granites and snow-covered massifs in the Gangotri group of mountains.
Sunsets are stunning at the Kedarkhadak campsite in Kedarganga valley (top left). The triangular peak of Thalay Sagar looms over Kedartal (top right). Trekkers returning from Kedartal to Gangotri, a popular short trek in the region (bottom left). Pristine snowfields are common on the trekking route in early June (bottom right). Photos by: Neelima Vallangi
The trek begins at Gangotri and ends at Kedarnath. While most expeditions enter via the Rudugaira valley right below the peaks of the Gangotri group of mountains, we forayed into the adjacent valley, alongside the raging waters of Kedar Ganga, a tributary of the Bhagirathi River. Kedartal, a high altitude glacial lake at the base of mighty Thalay Sagar peak (22,650 feet) beckoned us into this valley. At 15,585 feet, Kedartal is a vision in blue, set amidst oversized boulders and flanked by Brighupant and Jogin peaks on either side. But it was the allure of Thalay Sagar that left me spellbound, a glistening rock soaring skyward. Thalay Sagar was a mountain I hadn’t heard of before but it was love at first sight.
On day two, a teammate affected by altitude sickness made a hasty descent to Gangotri. At the same time, the weather worsened, leaving us stranded in the Kedar Ganga valley. We stayed holed up inside our tent all day. It was then that we received two pertinent gifts—the gift of faith and the gift of camaraderie. We learnt that a heartfelt prayer could go a long way, as far as clearing up the foulest weather. Our staff’s solution to any untoward development was to rustle up delicious prasad—mostly piping hot halwa—and perform puja. Their unflinching belief in the benevolence of mountain gods was oddly reassuring.
It was also on that day that the six of us truly came together as a team. Over countless rounds of poker games and dumb charades, we found common ground and safe distraction that prevented our minds from wandering to dangerous places, as it can often happen in isolation over long periods in the mountains. We believed we could carry on and cross hurdles despite the occasional flaring of tempers and exhaustion-induced anxiety.
The next morning, it was finally time to go where there were no trails, guided only by a sense of direction rather than a tangible path. On expeditions where trails often do not exist, a working knowledge of the region forms the thin line between a successful crossing and a doomed undertaking. Evidently, the most valuable member of our group was our local guide Deepender Pun, a short man from Uttarakhand with a weather-beaten face, chapped lips (a parting gift from his last mountaineering expedition) and years of guiding experience.
The climb towards Mayali Pass, a 16,400-high crossing connecting Bhilangana and Mandakini valleys, is a vision in white. It is the third mountain crossing on the challenging Auden’s Col trek that begins in Gangotri and ends at Kedarnath, in Uttarakhand (top left). The group wades through bone-freezing waters to reach the campsite at Chowki (bottom left). On the last climb before the end of the expedition, the trekkers pass Vasuki Tal, a lake near the Kedarnath shrine which attracts plenty of pilgrims (right). Photos by: Neelima Vallangi
Scrambling over a 16,730-foot wall of rock and scree called Patangani Dhar, he led us into the Rudugaira valley. After two more days of plodding over slippery slopes and loose rocks, we arrived at the basecamp before crossing the col, where the freak snowstorm caught up. Strong winds blasted our tents and the brown campsite transformed into a white canvas within minutes. Naturally, it was time for puja and halwa prasad. Our loquacious cook, Lokesh, assured me that the expedition would go on with the blessings of the gods that be.
In the wee hours of the following morning, Lokesh flashed a wide smile as I readied for the big climb. The morning was clear as crystal just as he’d predicted, the only sign of the storm being the blanket of snow. It was a lucky break—fresh snow is good for traction; it buries the troublesome hard ice. I followed Deepender as he measured each step towards the saddle of Auden’s Col, finally visible after the storm. Four hours later, we had huffed and puffed our way atop the col, ploughing through mounds of snow and skirting gnarly crevasses.
I stood up there like an insignificant speck, amid a hidden kingdom of snow-clad mountains and fields that held monumental glaciers; a sacred space, where entry felt like winning a lottery. I began to believe that there were invisible forces at work, that getting here needed more than expertise and capability. To thank those forces, obeisance was paid, incense sticks lit, and prasad distributed.
After 30 minutes, it was time to call upon those forces once again to guide us out of the ice fortress. In the mountains, it is always the descent that poses greater threat than the ascent. Using a rope fixed in a near-vertical gully, one by one we began descending onto the massive Khatling glacier, the source of Bhilangana River. Ginormous walls of ice with huge cracks in them flanked the snowfield. A long and frighteningly lonely trudge along snowfields, over bottomless cracks under the feet, upon deceptively slippery shards of hard ice, got us across Khatling Glacier by the end of the day. None of us were in the mood to celebrate—premature celebrations are often avoided in the mountains due to the looming fear of unexpected disaster. It’s not done until it’s done. It was definitely not done in our case. We had a whole mountain range to cross.
Any adventure worth its salt is incomplete without existential enquiry.
‘Why did I sign up for this?’
‘Why am I here instead of a cosy bed somewhere warm?”
The team descends from Auden’s Col onto Khatling glacier after fixing a rope in the steep gully. It was made a bit easier by the tons of fresh snow brought on by the previous day’s snowstorm. Photo by: Neelima Vallangi
These were the thoughts running through my mind as we proceeded to cross the 17,390-foot-high Mayali Pass to reach Kedarnath over the next few days. As a standalone trek, Mayali Pass is an easy trail through forests, meadows and two mirror-like lakes. However after eight days of navigating treacherous moraine and a technical mountain crossing, it felt anything but. My body had nearly given up after trekking for eight days in thin air, and my mind had taken over the lion’s share of the work for the last push. Three long days and three steep climbs later, Kedar Dome (22,415 feet) appeared over the horizon, marking the beginning of the end—the final descent into the holy settlement of Kedarnath.
Given the scale of this expedition and the number of things that could have gone wrong, I hadn’t allowed myself the joy or relief of each milestone crossed during the trek. But, finally safe on the crowded path out of Kedarnath, I let the feeling sink in. A sense of accomplishment and gratitude at having been welcomed into the Himalayas washed over me even later; only once I rested my head on the proverbial familiar pillow. I realised I had successfully (and inadvertently) completed one half of the Chardham yatra. As a non-believer, it was rather strange that I was this invested in a pilgrimage, albeit one of a different kind. Millions of people find their gods in the mountains. To a select few, mountains become their god. In the vast nothingness between the two of the country’s holiest shrines, it seems I had found my temple of worship.
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The Auden’s Col trek begins at Gangotri and ends at Kedarnath. Haridwar is the best point of transit for both the holy towns. Regular buses and trains connect Haridwar and Delhi (200 km/5 hr by road). Gangotri is 300 km/8 hr from Haridwar, and can be reached by taking an early-morning shared taxi to Uttarkashi, followed by a change to catch another shared taxi to Gangotri. Gauri Kund, 18 km away, is the nearest road head from Kedarnath. Trekkers can walk, take a pony or a chopper to reach Gauri Kund after the trek ends at Kedarnath. Taxis can be booked from Gauri Kund to reach Srinagar (a city in the Pauri-Garhwal district of Uttarakhand; 100 km/3.5 hr), followed by another taxi to Haridwar (133 km/4 hr).
The trek can be attempted between June and September. It is challenging and requires trekkers to be fit and have high-altitude trekking experience. This expedition-style trek also requires a knowledgeable guide who can safely navigate the crevasse-ridden glacier and provide basic mountaineering equipment including ice axe, crampons and ropes at the very least. The writer undertook a three-pass trek over 12 days, and travelled with Raacho Trekkers (raachotrekkers.com; from Rs40,000, including permits). It is also possible to cross only Auden’s Col by starting the trek at Gangotri and exiting at Guttu. The maximum altitude reached on the trek is 17,715 feet. Independent trekkers can arrange for guides and porters at Uttarkashi.
is an itinerant freelance travel writer and photographer who enjoys purposefully getting lost in the mountains and going to faraway corners where Google Maps fail. She tweets as @i_wanderingsoul.
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