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Week of 4.17.09

David's Journal from India: Day 6

Trail to the Gangotri Glacier
A Breath of Thin Air


We set out from Gangotri by 7:30 am, what we can carry of our clothes, the television equipment, and climbing gear on our backs, the rest with a platoon of porters. It is a trudge, not an arduous climb, but we are starting from 10,000 feet and moving to 12,500 and it takes a while to get rid of the light-headedness. The path is to the left of the roaring river and we're moving generally east. Cliffs rise up more than a thousand feet above us on either side. The evergreens and rough terrain bring Switzerland to mind and come to think of it, the Swami's prayer spot yesterday did have a kind of A-frame Swiss chalet aspect to it. The "Hills are Alive" thought evaporates whenever we greet a holy man in flip flops carrying nothing but a metal can, who is speeding down from the Cow's Mouth, Gomukt, the source of the Ganges. Here we are with backpacks and nice hiking boots, getting humbled every time by these more simply-geared professionals and their presence removes any possibility of complaining about the long trek in thin air.

Conrad Anker takes in the view along the pilgrimage route to the source of the Ganges.
Conrad Anker takes in the view along the pilgrimage route to the source of the Ganges.
After three hours of thinking about complaining about the labor needed to climb, we turn into a path to find our new friend from Uttarkashi, Dr. Bisht. It's her Gangotri tree nursery, where she has put in terraces separate by low rock walls to grow seedlings, one woman's effort to nurse the glacier back to health. She has white spruce and some cedar among others, and in the overcast, her nursery is cool and inviting. Her assistant makes us chai tea, even though they are staying in a tent. Dr. Bisht is desperate for a government permit to continue her project. Officials are hassling her, she says, because her work calls attention to the improper management of Gangotri's resources.

"The sound heard at the Ganges is the river's current shoving really big stones downstream."
This year the government has begun to limit the number of pilgrims allowed on the final twelve mile trail to the Cow's Mouth to 150, in an effort to ease the burden on the environment. Surprisingly, Dr. Bisht is not in favor. She says with fewer folks around, the poachers run riot and grab more trees and animals. The government's new program is also visible elsewhere on the trail. A number of rest stops, sheds selling tea and other refreshment, lie abandoned.

After slogging through mist, through fog, through rain, the trek becomes one of those things where it's just another five kilometers to go for the day, but the five kilometers never seems to end. When we arrive at our campsite for the night, the crew is convinced it was 14 miles not 14 kilometers. I think it is a sign that this valley represents some kind of tear in the space-time continuum.

"The trek becomes one of those things where it's just another five kilometers to go for the day, but the five kilometers never seems to end."
The porters with the tents set out well after us, so the crew, Conrad, and I have more tea in a little settlement called Bohjbasa. We chat with some other pilgrims, a family where the father is an economics professor and the wife a finance professor. A young man at another table works for an investment firm in Delhi and the fellow adjacent is the operations manager for a new FM radio station. Conrad sees the pattern first: The folks on the road to Gomukt are much better-heeled than his first visit here five years earlier when he came to conquer some real peaks in this region. He says the old carnival atmosphere is gone, with the new government rules.

Pilgrimage route, 11,500 feet.
Pilgrimage route, 11,500 feet.
When the rain clears, I go down a long slope strewn with medium to small boulders and come to a kind of miniature beach along side the Ganges. About every minute or so you can hear a low frequency concussion erupt from the river, rather like a monster version of the clink heard when you're washing dishes and accidentally bang two drinking glasses together. The sound heard at the Ganges is the river's current shoving really big stones downstream. Conrad notes that if the stones are moving so briskly in regular human time, imagine how fast the river is flushing out the valley in geologic time.

It's low fog, so there is no filming for the rest of this day. A mess tent gets pulled together and one of the porters is also the cook. As we sit in little camp chairs, dining on potatoes, a kind of Indian chow mein, and baked beans, conversation drifts to mountaineering. Cameraman Thom shot footage on Everest during Conrad's historic discovery of the body of George Mallory back in 1999. By the light of a single candle propped at the center of the table, we hear riveting first hand versions of that epic event. When a central question is put on the table, did Mallory make it to the summit in 1924 before expiring? Conrad comes down on the side of embracing the mystery. Conrad is very gracious when that Everest topic comes up. I worry to myself that it is rather like Neil Armstrong being bugged on every occasion to tell about the "One Small Step" thing. It is clear to me that his two Everest expeditions are very much a part of him but that this whole climate change topic and what it is doing to his ice and the ice of the world is what really is front and center for him now.

Visit "On Thin Ice" to watch the hour-long NOW on PBS special and learn more about global warming.
*Note: All photographs by John Siceloff unless otherwise credited.

Next week: Read Day 7: To the Source of the Ganges