A personal account of a trek to the Siraunch Glacier of the Garhwal Himalayas, Uttaranchal, India.
Mid April 2001, on a warm summer morn at the Indian Mountaineering Foundation in Benito Juarez Marg in New Delhi, I was introduced to a seven member British expedition team to Peak Trisuli West (7035 m) consisting of team leader Colin Knowles and members Chris Drinkwater, Chris Smart, Angela Benham, Titch Kavanagh, Andrew Phillips and Roly Arnison. That was the first day of our association for a period of about one and half months wandering in the treacherously beautiful wilderness of the majestic Garhwal Himalayas. We had travelled from Delhi to Joshimath (Chamoli District of Uttaranchal now renamed Uttarakhand) on a hired bus where we halted for a few days. It was a beautiful hill station with the popular ski destination of Auli located nearby. The peak of Auli at an altitude of approximately 3000 meters offers a mesmerizing panoramic view of the Garhwal Himalayas, especially a breathtaking view of the magnificent Mt.Kamet (7756 m) and Mt.Nanda devi (7817 m), the two highest peaks in this part of the Himalayas. As I soaked in the view, with my breathlessness slowly subsiding, a feeling of calmness slowly permeated over me like as if the serenity of the mountains was caressing me ever so lightly. I thought to myself, this must be the reason why the hot-tempered Lord Shiva had chosen it to be his abode. Mt. Kamet, shaped like a prism. stood bold, rigid and definitely masculine. Mt. Nanda Devi on the other hand was elegant and calming. Pictures of a lady sitting in a meditative pose with her ‘Pallu’ (ending part of the Sari) over her head like as if offering a prayer, a mother cradling and feeding her child etc fleeted across my mind. For a while I imagined myself in the shoes (perhaps there were none at that time) of the one who had given it the name Nanda Devi, the Goddess of bliss.
The beautiful few days in Joshimath was marred only by the exasperating confusion created by the newly appointed district officials of the newly created State of Uttaranchal, carved out of the state of Uttar Pradesh. Colin and I wasted precious days running after the district authorities to clear our permits, scuttling back and forth to the District authorities headquarters in Chamoli . Finally after much explaining, pleading, and flaring tempers, we managed to evinced a reluctant go ahead. After finalising the nitty-gritty of the expedition, hiring porters and such, we flagged off our journey from Joshimath on two rickety jeeps headed for Malari, the last human settlement in the northern reaches of the state of Uttaranchal, very near to the Indo-Tibetian border. The small village, when we arrived, was like a ghost town, empty of its inhabitants who have migrated down to lower altitudes during the snow seasons and are yet to return back. After two day’s camp at Malari, we set off early morning on foot for the Surans Ka Dhura pass from where we had planned to cross over to the Siraunch Glacier where it was planned to set up the Base camp for an attempt climb of the virgin peak of Mt. Trisuli West.
This was perhaps the most trying of all the treks I have taken and by its virtue the most enjoyable in hindsight. Very few attempts had been made to approach the North wall of Trisuli West from this side and the Sirauch Glacier, at the base of the mountain, was practically unapproachable from where we stood. The most viable route via Surans Ka Dhura (pass), above the grazing meadow of Chopping, was rendered unassailable on account of dangerously overhanging cornices that would have been dangerous for the porters with their massive loads. The other approaches, as subsequently revealed by a local porter, had been abandoned for more than a decade owing to dangerous rock falls. Something we were not aware of initially but were soon to find out for ourselves. One difference I noticed with the mountains in this side of the Himalayas with that of Sikkim where I had most of my earlier experiences, was that it was very broken and the steep slopes at the base of the mountains were practically made up of scree and loose rocks. In some of the rocky mountain faces we had to negotiate on the way to the Glacier, it appeared like stone slabs were piled up to make up the mountain. Some of the rocks you cling to would come lose if you pull on it a little harder.
After almost a week of scampering up and down the mountains, trying multiple of approaches to the Siraunch Glacier from Malari, which either ended in very loose scree with more than a 500 ft drop to the gorges below or very dangerous cornices that would come loose at the hint of a whisper, we finally were able to find access from the 8th Mile point from Malari. It wasn’t very pretty but it was a way alright. It looked real slippery and rather daunting. It was a long gradual six-seven hundred metres of icy slope inclined at about 35 degrees made up frozen snow and rocky boulders and pebbles which has come off the faces of the two facing very broken mountain cliffs which nestled the corridor. I looked up at the long line of porters and an equal number behind me slowly inching forward on the icy slope. One slip and it would take you all the way down to where you started and take the rest of those behind you as well. I shuddered at the thought of the whole lot coming down in one big pile. But one’s got to do what one’s got to do, so brushing aside the worrisome thought, I scampered up the slope praying I don’t slip in the icy slope which had started to melt in the morning sun, making it almost like butter on stone.
After labouring up about 500 metres on the treacherous slope, we veered sharply left off the glacier onto an equally treacherous steep slope rising sharply to the brow of the mountain which suddenly fell off on the other side way down to the river below. On turning right over the brow, you are faced with the most overwhelming view of the mountains. The nearby Uja Tirche on the eastern flank of the Siraunch Glacier with a height of 6202 metres sat smugly. Towards the right of it was the three peaks of Trisuli, named so because it is shaped liked the trident of Shiva. To the north of the Trisuli is the Siraunch Glacier where we had intended to set up Base Camp. Following the river that drained the glacier (seen above), we traversed along the mountain face to finally set up base at an open terrace just above the snout of the Glacier, an idyllic spot but still a long way off from the glacier, the intended site of the Base camp (BC). However after the unenerving experience of ‘Camp Precarious’, so nick named because of the 45 degree slope it was stationed on, we were still very gald to have found the terrace to establish camp on a level ground. From there we had to negotiate another mountain, forcing our way through a field of Rhododendrons to finally emerge on the other side and traverse down the slope to the glacier. The glacier itself is nestled between two mountain faces on either side and ran right up to the base of the Trisuli wall. After advancing some distance, the Advance Base Camp (ABC) site was set up. Stashing the equipment and rest of the stuffs, we returned back to BC.
On my second trip to the ABC from the BC, accompanied by one of the cooking staff, the glacier itself had undergone a complete transformation with the snow melting and exposing some of the rocks below. The glacier was filled with hummocks made of ice and rocks which made locating the ABC difficult. Climbing up and down every hummock in the vicinity, the tents were nowhere to be seen till late afternoon hours. Suddenly it dawned on me that the ABC must have been moved by the team that have advanced to Camp 1. It was getting too late for us to turn back for BC and the possibility of us having to bivouac for the night in the open started to worry me. In a last-ditch effort we started searching for a water source knowing that a camp would have to be made near one. There was small water fall nearby and I was sure the camp had to be nearby, yet when we neared it the tents were nowhere to be seen. Frustrated, I stood atop a hummock and gazed up at the formidable Wall of the Trisuli West and thought to myself, we all have to be bloody out of our minds wanting to climb that! The wall was covered with snow with tiers of hanging glaciers packed over one another waiting to come down anytime. I was glad the team had decided to forsake the attempt and try to summit an adjoining peak instead. With that thought I turned round to my immediate problem of finding a suitable place to bivouac when suddenly a red spot caught my eye. I scampered over the icy dunes towards it and Lo! there it was, three very reassuring tents at the base of a hummock. I thanked the Lord profusely. It was a terrible night. The socks of my companion smelled so bad that I had to finally relent and go sleep in the other tent. I also had to offer my down-jacket to him as his sleeping bag was in not so good a condition, making do with my light jacket which wasn’t good enough for the chilling cold. Coupled with the scare from rocks falling from the cliffs throughout the night, it was one of the most taxing night i have spent in my entire life. Shivering through the night we finally made it to the trickle of early morning light. Stepping out of the tent I thanked the lord again for a wonderful morning, something I did for the first time in my life :-). As I stretched and warmed up to the icy morning chill, I heard a strange sound, something not quite in harmony with the serene environment. I strained my ears only to find that it is coming from the other tent. It was Kallu, my companion, thundering away in his sleep in the wee hours of the morning having had a sleepless night. It was a beautiful dawn, not quite light yet but luminous enough to see the silhouettes of the mountains against the backdrop of the slowly brightening sky. I decided to let Kallu sleep while I explore a little further towards the base of the Trisuli to see maybe if I can spot Camp 1. As I plodded forward securing one step after another on the slippery snow, it started to light up bringing to life the beauty of the snow-clad mountains in its full glory. I wished I could have gone further to take a peek from round the bend but I told myself I have to turn back now else we would be late returning back to BC. So hesitantly I turned round and momentarily stood to soak in the sense of gratification one last time thinking I may never get a chance to set foot in this part of the world, or rather top of the world, again. The realisation that you are standing at a place where very few men have dared to venture gave you a unexplainable sense of elation. I was bathing in the exhilaration when I heard something crack. A chill shot through my spine and intuitively I spun round to see life pass in a slow motion like. The hanging glaciers on the Trisuli wall had come lose coming down in a slow motion like effect gathering mass as it slid down the face and finally hit the bottom with a loud thud. In seconds the whole glacier was enveloped in a thick cloud of snow flakes and the beautiful bright morning went dark like it was already dusk. I stood frozen for what seemed like a lifetime. Then the realisation slowly crept up on me that I was still quite a distance away from the base of the mountain and the avalanche may not reach me. So it was to be, the glacier was engulfed in darkness but we were safe. I gathered my frozen wits and hurried back to ABC knowing Kallu must be pretty worried by now. When the snow fog settled a bit, we swiftly made some noodles soup for breakfast and after gulping it down quickly we made our way out of the glacier as fast as we possibly could, heading towards our Base camp. It was only mid-way down the mountain towards our BC that my companion muttered to himself saying he is never ever going back to that place again come what may that I burst out in uncontrollable laughter bringing me down to my knees literally. I laughed and laughed uncontrollably, but it wasn’t the humour, it was my sense of relief bursting out in uncontrollable laughter.
Although the preposterous idea of scaling the unconquered North Wall of Trisuli West was abandoned after sensible reasoning by sensible men, six members of the expedition team went on to scale a nearby peak standing 6160 metres tall (as tall as the Chalab nearby). One of the members, Angella Benham, unfortunately suffered a fall from heights of the mountain but luckily escaped with minor bruises and no major injuries. She lived to tell the tale in her novel titled “Lucky to be Alive”.
Initially thought to be the Chalab, Colin after a careful scrutiny came to conclusion that the peak was unnamed and unclimbed before. A brainstorming session quickly gathered momentum to name the newly conquered peak. On my suggestion, it was given the name “Shambhu Ka Killa” – the Citadel of Shiva as it looked like a fortress. So stands a mountain with a name I have christened. That is an experience I shall never ever forget.
Accounts of the expedition are available at the following :
* An account by the expedition team leader titled “The Trident of Shiva” in the Himalayan Journal available at http://www.himalayanclub.org/journal/the-trident-of-shiva/
* A log in the Indian Mountaineering Foundation website – www.indmount.org/expeditionsin2001.html
* A fascinating read in a Novel titled ” Lucky to be Alive” by Angela Benham, one of the team members who luckily survived a deadly fall from the cliff.