How To Do A Spectacular Trek To Gangotri

Few places in the world offer such powerful mountains so accessibly. The mountains of Gangotri have a deep-seated spirituality. Denouncing the confines of his home Michael Henry heads for a great Himalayan escape.
Tapovan during a colourful sunset with floating clouds
Tapovan during a colourful sunset with floating clouds

Your house is your gulag. That's what the pandemic&nbspdid to us since March last year, keeping us indoors, and redefining our inter-personal relationships to the extent that the season&rsquos greeting became &ldquostay safe&nbspand stay away&rdquo. From the crowd that is. Butcalls of the hiking boots swelled like the monsoon clouds, waiting impatiently to dunk all below.

By autumn 2020, it was impossible for&nbspme and my girlfriend, Mallika, to not heed the call &mdash of the mountains or the jungle or someplace other than Delhi. The long lockdown had ended, Covid cases were declining, and Uttarakhand offered a window. We knew we had to go. Now, Covid&nbsphasn&rsquot entirely gone away and the protocols such as social distancing and avoiding crowded spaces were very much there.

Our travel plan must agree with the rules and so we cottoned onto the idea of going deep into the Himalayas and giving our pins their long-pined-for exercise. Of all the options, trekking ticked the most boxes. And why not A solitary walk in the woods is perhaps the perfect pandemic activity, tailor-made for social distancing. Even a&nbspguided trekking tour on popular trails up there is a lot safer than travelling in a city.&nbspBesides, it brings much-needed money&nbspto remote communities dependent on tourism, which is ravaged by the pandemic. There couldn&rsquot have been a better time&nbspto explore and enjoy solitude. This year, after the second wave of Covid and when the Himalayas open up again, the post- monsoon season will hopefully offer an incredible opportunity for trekkers.

Last October, Mallika and I visited Gangotri for two separate three-day treks.&nbspThe first took us to Gomukh, a source of&nbspthe Ganga at the yawning mouth of the Gangotri glacier, and then to the stunning Tapovan meadow. Returning to town, we set off for the second hike to the awe-inspiring&nbsplake of Kedartal. Easy access to these high&nbspmountains is a lucky byproduct of military&nbspactivity and the flood of religious pilgrims&nbspto Gangotri. A trekker can drive on a paved road to Gangotri, at 3,100m, and hike in&nbspa single day to the foot of the mountains above 6,000m. Few places in the world offer such powerful mountains so accessibly. The mountains of Gangotri have a deep-seated spirituality.

The Road to Gangotri

Mallika and I got our PCR tests and hopped&nbspon a flight from Delhi to Dehradun. A taxi&nbsptook us up the long, spectacular route&nbspinto the Himalayas, through Uttarkashi&nbspto Gangotri. The unending ridges were hypnotic, full of hill villages and terraced&nbspfields. We bought fresh local fruits and vegetables as snacks. By the time wereached Gangotri, darkness and cold&nbsphad enveloped the land. Dawn revealed Gangotri as a stunning town squeezed between vertically forested ridges,&nbspabove the glacial Bhagirathi river. We finalised our permits, hired local guide Rakesh Rao and hit the trail on our first&nbsphike to Gomukh.

Hike 1 To Gomukh and Tapovan

The trail climbed into a picturesque valley bursting in all pigments of colour. Autumn has touched the land, painting the leaves&nbsporange and gold. The Bhagirathi raged&nbspmilky-blue through chaotically strewn boulders, below textured granite slopes. Rugged wooden bridges lay high across streams. When the stunning pyramid of&nbspBhagirathi peak appeared in the afternoon,&nbspwe used its snowy promises to pull us forward as the challenge of altitude increased. We planned to sleep at the3,775m Bhojwasa camp, but had not yet&nbspacclimatised. Our packs felt like lead. Only a&nbspherd of wild Bharal, Himalayan Blue Sheep,&nbspprovided some relief from the uphill grind.

Finally, we crested a ridge to a view&nbspbeyond belief the whole Bhagirathi&nbspmountain in front of us, immense yet graceful, catching the orange glow of the&nbspsetting sun on its snowy summit. Before&nbspdawn, we were hanging in a welded metal&nbspbox on a cable above the roaring Bhagirathi. We were the first to cross that morning.&nbspThe trail continued up the widening valley,&nbsparriving in a tremendous boulder-field.&nbspThis brutal no man&rsquos land, left behind by the glacier retreating at 25m a year, made for a surreal hike.

Tapovan and the Mouni Baba

The glacier&rsquos famous mouth loomed ahead at Gomukh. Instead of visiting it right away, we scrambled up a rocky slope to the high meadow called Tapovan. It lies far&nbspabove the great buckling form of the glacier, right at the foot of stupendous summits. We pulled ourselves over the last boulders onto Tapovan and saw a full panorama of rock and ice. The beauty of Mount Shivling smacked us in the face as its perfectly proportioned ridges sliced into the sky above 6,500m.

We continued to the small, rock-built ashram that houses Tapovan&rsquos lone hermit&mdash&nbspMouni Baba, the quiet one, because he took&nbspa decade-long vow of silence. He has lived alone in this remote abode for 14 years. He is proof of willpower, enduring through&nbspthe winters at such an altitude. Luckily,&nbspMouni Baba has opened up to the world. He&nbspwas happy to receive us, and we found him surprisingly young, witty, and urbane. His voice was barely audible, but the glint in his eye exuded warmth. When Mallika told him&nbspthat she had grown up in Bombay but now&nbsplived in Delhi, he joked about the idiocy of such a manoeuvre. He was happy to hear an&nbspunending flow of town gossip from Rakesh.&nbspThe time at Tapovan was golden. We wandered the gentle meadow, took in the spectacular peaks&nbspfrom every angle, and noshed down tasty dal&nbspserved by the Baba.

The Holy Water of Gomukh

With night approaching, we scrambled back down the boulder slope to Gomukh. The cave lived up to its name, looking like a yawning mouth dropping chunks of ice the size of tennis balls. Mallika scooped up some sacred water to bring back to her grandparents. It is fascinating to realise that the Ganga, central to the lives of so many people, begins right here.

The walk back down to Gangotri town the next day felt like a victory lap. The October weather delivered, and we cruised under deep blue skies. We were much more used to the altitude than the groups coming up the trail towards us. Some were geared-up trekkers, but others were families in jeans and with walking sticks. It was inspiring&nbspto see people of different ages and fitness levels&nbsppushing themselves higher and higher.

Each minute of the hike demonstrated why we go through the efforts of permits, transport, and planning to reach such heights a glorious combination of natural beauty, physical health, and the satisfaction of a goal well achieved. After so many months indoors in Delhi, this was utter bliss. We coasted into town with sore feet and high spirits. 

Hike 2 To Kedartal Lake

The next hike promised different challenges than the route up to Gomukh and Tapovan. The&nbspgoal was a legendary lake called Kedartal, in a&nbspsteep, narrow, and wild valley above Gangotri town. There are no pilgrims or lodges, and only&nbspa few places flat enough even to pitch a tent.

The route started aggressively, switchbacking&nbspup a near-vertical pine forest. We were well-&nbspacclimatised from the first hike, though, and&nbspchurned uphill easily. With the steepest part behind us, we fell into a smooth rhythm through stunning, healthy forests and waterfalls. The wild aspect of this trail unfolded with scrambles across rocky slopes.

As we lugged our packs up the valley, Rakesh told us stories from his village in the Garhwal region. He said, before 1991, few people in&nbspthe village had seen money. His family used&nbsponly two jugs of water a day because&nbspthey had to walk long down to the river&nbspto collect it. In 1991, the combination of economic liberalisation and a disastrous earthquake transformed the village. The quake destroyed most houses, but families received a government payout to rebuild. That improved lives. He said people now keep their cows in buildings better than their own houses in 1991.

By late afternoon, we broke through the&nbsplast trees into a sloping scrubland above 13,000 feet. The autumn&rsquos paintbrush on&nbspgrasses and flowers made every patch ofground complex and beautiful.

The massive form of Mount Thalay Sagar muscled into view. The highest mountain of the trip at 6,904m, its conical form and snow-capped snout made it look like a massive spaceship ready to take off. Walking right towards the spaceship, with clouds swirling around it like exhaust fumes, it felt like humanity had selected us for a mission to the stars. We were taking&nbspour final walk on our native Earth. And&nbspwhat a walk it was the valley ridges were topped with sharp spires, the glacial river rushed far below, and green life strived through every crack in the rock.

We reached camp dog tired from the heavy packs and relentless uphill. Camp was a small platform on a steep hill, utterly exposed, but with spectacular mountainviews in every direction. Light flakes&nbspannounced a snowstorm as we closed the tents for the night.

The Indescribable Wonder of Kedartal

The air was crystal clear when we opened the tents the next morning, revealing Thalay Sagar in all its glory. We soon passed through a rockfall zone, the trail&rsquos most dangerous section, where a rogue boulder could mean disaster. We moved quickly, and&nbspgot through fine.

Thanking the mountain gods, we&nbspascended to a meadow at 4,400m, then a&nbsptortuous boulder field. Each step required&nbspjumping from rock to rock, aiming for the stable ones. Progress was slow but we&nbspstrained forward to the dream of Kedartal. We crested a final ridge and there it was.

Even among the long list of impressive&nbspmountain lakes, Kedartal stands alone. It&nbspis marvelously deep blue, and sits right at the base of sheer cliffs that top out 2,000m above. The lake&rsquos soft curves provide a stunning contrast to the harsh rock and ice all around. Seeing this with our own eyes made the whole trip easily worth it. Perfect afternoon lighting highlighted the complexity of the Himalayan landscape,&nbspwith deep ridges and fissures spreading&nbspthrough the rocks like braided rivers through sand.

Down to the Lowlands

We made it back to camp in time for a dazzling sunset on the immense form of Thalay Sagar. The snow peak turned gold, then pink, then a deep purple. We marvelled at it endlessly as the air chilled and cleared, seeming to bring the mountain closer and closer. Far better entertainment than any TV show can provide.

The last day on the trail flew by, all&nbspdownhill. Lower altitude, and the fragrant pine and birch forests, brought a feeling of easy contentment. We reached Gangotri, and said goodbye to the gorgeous pilgrimage town with its shops full of brass urns for Gomukh water. The local autumn rhythms entertained us on the long drive down. At Dharali village,

famous for its orchards, succulent apples&nbspoverflowed the tables of street-side markets. Past Harsil, a rowdy flock of sheep flowed&nbsplike a river down the road, making their yearly migration downhill.

We reached Uttarkashi in the dark and saw the lights of at least seven different weddings strung out across the hills. Dusshera had coincided with the relaxing of Covid restrictions to allow these joyous gatherings. After a week in the wild, it was deeply comforting to return to a panorama&nbspof human happiness, strung out in flashing&nbspbulbs and blasting music down the valley. It was clear that the pandemic had not wiped out the hill country&rsquos unique charms. The trek had proved good medicine for our lockdown blues, and we vowed to hit a new trail every single year.

Information

There&nbspis a good road from Dehradun to Gangotri, via Rishikesh and Uttarkashi. The journey takes 10-12 hours.

Guides/Porters

A guide is required to trek to Tapovan or Kedartal. you can go alone to Gomukh.

You can hire an independent guide easily&nbspin Gangotri town, or hire&nbspone from one of the many trekking companies in Uttarkashi. The salary should be about Rs 2000 per day, plus paying for guide&rsquos food, lodging, and tip.

If you want help carrying loads, you can hire porters easily in Gangotri town.

Permits

You can get the Gomukh permits at the park office in Gangotri town (Rs 150 for Indians, 600 for foreigners). They are only good for two days, but you can spend an extra day by paying an extra fee of Rs 50 on departure.

The park office in Gangotri cannot provide permits for the Tapovan or Kedartal hikes. you need to get those permits at the park office in Uttarkashi, which is closed on Sundays. you can also email a trekking company in Uttarkashi in advance to get you the permits.

Gear

Sleeping bags are necessary for all of Gomukh, Tapovan, or Kedartal. I recommend bringing one with a -20C rating. you can rent one from a trekking company in Uttarkashi too. you may be able to rent in Gangotri town itself, but it will be more expensive.

The hike to Kedartal has no lodges, so you need to bring a tent, food, and cooking gear. you can rent them all from trekking companies in Uttarkashi. There are lodges with food on the hike to Gomukh and Tapovan.

Related Stories

No stories found.
logo
Outlook Traveller
www.outlooktraveller.com