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Week of 4.17.09

David's Journal from India: Day 7

Trail to the Glacier, day two

The first major milestone on our trek today is a fishing boat sized boulder with "Gomukt 1891" inscribed upon it. One hundred seventeen years ago, this rock marked the terminus of the Gangotri glacier and the beginning of the river. Now that glacier is way back, well beyond our view. I mark the 1891 location on my GPS device so we can do some back of the envelope calculations later. More trekking and we get to the glacier's spot in 1935, then 1966, and finally a marking for the glacier's edge in 2002. In those last three years, the glacier has melted back nearly a quarter mile, an astounding amount for such a short time. From the 2002 marker we can see it for the first time, the Cow's Mouth, Gomukt.

A man praying near Gomukt, the mouth of the glacier and source of the river.
A man praying near Gomukt, the mouth of the glacier and source of the river.
For the record, it no longer looks like a Cow's mouth, but a mouth it is, surrounded by a wall of ice and rock ranging from the green to the dark brown. A low mist hangs over the aperture like the thing is breathing. There's a pile of shattered ice to the right, evidence of a very recent collapse, perhaps one we heard about from the day before. Little bits of rock, ice and earth rain down across the mouth of the glacier even as we watch. Because of the danger of falling ice, the park authorities bar pilgrims from getting too close. I must say that as much as Hardiwar is normally filled with all humanity taking their dunks, there were not too many pilgrims at the Ganges source on this chilly, overcast week day. There were a couple of guys taking the plunge, and a holy man sat adjacent to the site saying prayers over a small fire. On our minds was our impending traverse of the glacier and the hike up the steep wall of the valley to our destination. The plan was to take our dips in the Ganges on the return, so we didn't have to lug our souvenir Ganges water unnecessarily uphill.

The ascent up the Gangotri glacier.
The ascent up the Gangotri glacier.
What are you thinking when you think "glacier"? I visited one in Switzerland as a kid, and it was a frozen river of ice that had carved a deep channel through the mountains. The Gangotri Glacier at first glance looks more like a lava flow: it is covered in rocks, little palm-sized ones, big car sized ones, and when you look carefully you notice that you're walking on a slowly moving, slowly melting river of ice. It groans and it cracks. Then I noticed the slits, apertures of dirty ice like the gills of a partially submerged sea creature. Every few moments, bits of earth would slide off sheets of ice that stand up like fins. A glaciologist we'd met in Delhi said these chunks were evidence that the glacier is sick.

The glacier shows signs that large chunks of its ice have very recently fallen away.
The glacier shows signs that large chunks of its ice have very recently fallen away.
We had now made it to about 13,000 feet above sea level and I was huffing but good. The trail atop the glacier gets very vague, but for the occasional rock cairn stacked on high points to catch the eye to guide the way. Then the last killer 800 feet up a nearly vertical wall. Imagine a bathtub half filled with ice. You're walking along the ice, but then you have got to climb the rest of the bathtub wall to get out. To be honest, I have been running an explained fever at night for three days, probably from the altitude. That plus this last "vert" as the climbers call it, nearly does me in. I put one hiking pole away, shorten the other, and get the job done.

David examines (and avoids) a crevasse that has formed in the glacier.
David examines (and avoids) a crevasse that has formed in the glacier.
At the top, everything changes. "Very easy from here," says Kehm Singh who has been keeping an eye on us stragglers. Near as I can tell in the dense fog I am in an alpine meadow, surrounded by two humps of earth and rock, moraines deposited by other glaciers. Our little hero's journey isn't quite over, however. We have to cross a rushing brook by stepping, with our backpacks, over a pipe flanked by three bamboo shoots. I half expect the enchanter Tim from Holy Grail to ask "What is your favorite color?" We make it to the campsite in the rain. It is only at dawn when we learn, dramatically, just where we have landed.

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 8: "My Religion is Peace"