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Week of 4.17.09

David's Journal from India: Day 9

An Icy Dip

Conrad and I have a low-key conversation while sitting on rocks along the side of the Tapovan meadow about what is driving this project. He speaks of moving away from his older selfish motivations, when he had as much fun as possible scaling, crossing and picking at glaciers. That has evolved into his current passion, using his position as a mountaineer who can see changes in the ice first to sound an alarm. He is very firm on the following point: it is less about butterflies, trees, or even glaciers, it is about the effects that pollution, environmental degradation and climate change have on human beings in which he is mainly interested.

As for me, I have noticed an interesting attribute about the climate change discussion that I hadn't fully appreciated. It is a problem that is, by definition, global in scope, which can make it seem too intractable for mere individuals to take on. However, it is becoming more clear to me that because we are all deeply involved in the carbon dioxide production business wherever we live, we are all connected to something like the melting Gangotri.

David sets up for an on-camera stand-up.
David sets up for an on-camera stand-up.
I walk back toward the edge of the glacial abyss with William Campbell, a great guy to have leading this charge. By charge I mean much more than today's trek. Campbell's the one who has set up this entire expedition and who will be responsible for turning it into television that puts our adventure into the full scientific, energy, and food security context. A veteran journalist and filmmaker, he is also a world-class still photographer and former volunteer rescue guide on famously imposing Mount Kenya. Bill is a decade older than I, but he always manages to outrun me over the tougher parts of the trail, the manly hair on his chest sticking out of his hiking shirt as if emphasizing his fitness for duty.

The man affectionately known as 'Silent Baba' presides over the cliff that looks down at the Gangotri Glacier.
The man affectionately known as "Silent Baba" presides over the cliff that looks down at the Gangotri Glacier. (Photo: David Brancaccio)
We make one more stop before walking off the flat meadow and descending back onto that bizarre glacial landscape. Silent Baba is motioning us to visit his cave. He is a guy who would have an arresting view of the glacier, were it not for the piece of felt that he has affixed over his eyes. Word is he didn't speak for two years, but that phase has come to an end. These days, he doesn't look much, given that piece of felt. His cave is divided into two rooms, the first, a living area, with sleeping mats and relatively bright. Down deeper is another room, practically pitch black, with an alter featuring a lingam, a quite specific symbol of manhood. When we emerge from his prayer room, I get a good look at our host. He quite young underneath the beard, maybe late twenties. I admire his devotion and his umbrella-shaped solar cooker he's got out front for his tea and rice.

Then it's time to cross the bamboo poles across the river Styx again and climb down the steep side of the bathtub that holds the glacier. We don't need technical climbing gear to do it, but only just. The wall is devoid of vegetation and I feel like a lunar astronaut who picked too challenging of a crater to examine.

Crossing the first of many obstacles on the descent.
Crossing the first of many obstacles on the descent.
Once on the glacier, it is more of those disconcerting crevasses that are disguised with loose rubble so you don't realize until it's too late that you're walking on a deep, melting, moving fissure in the ice. The path, if you can call it that, is mostly rock of dauntingly random sizes and it takes a good forty five minutes to make it to the other side, ankles wobbly.

It is worth the journey. Descending from the opposite side of the glacier gives us the opportunity to do what pilgrims have done in the Ganges for thousands of years: take our proper dip. Conrad scopes out a protected area very close to the Cow's Mouth where we can descend to the water's edge. He strips to his navy blue hiking civvies but before diving in, he produces his two hallowed ice axes and gives them a sacred dip. Then, after the rinsed axes are safely stowed, Conrad moves out beyond a rock, sticks his arms over his head, and takes a full-bodied plunge. The temperature is even a bit much for Mr. Everest and he gives out a grunt. Just then, a watermelon-sized chunk of floats into his chest. Very old, very compact ice, he notes. Very cold water, I note.

Conrad Anker takes a full-body dip in the river, amid floating chunks of ice.
Conrad Anker takes a full-body dip in the river, amid floating chunks of ice. (Photo: David Brancaccio)
I'm not as spectacular a sight in my underwear as Conrad, so I zip off the lower legs of my hiking trousers and jump in that far. The water must be 32.5 Fahrenheit but it feels like it's on fire. I throw some of the sacred Ganges water on my arms and head, and jump out for safety. Before we go, I fill my bronze bottles with the water, so I car share the goodness with family. And, yes, I do take a good swig. We are just downstream from the source and I am looking for a piece of that "living a hundred years" thing that arises from drinking a drop of Ganga jal. The dip is also meant to cleanse away the sins of ancestors, but I can't think of anything too bad that can be attributed to my forebears, at least that I am aware of. So I make my dip personal, to cleanse any bad kharma, or lazy journalism, that I myself may have contributed over the years.

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 10: "Stuck in the Mud"