This time I wanted some actual technical traverses out of my trek. The mighty Garhwal Himal in Uttarakhand seemed like the logical choice. I indeed got what I bargained for. The Garhwal Himal is renowned for its many sharp peaks, immense glaciers and of course the Nanda Devi, the highest peak fully within Indian borders. With the highest concentration of 6000 and 7000 meter peaks in the country it eclipses all other alpine scenery that can be found in India. Despite of this it is a very under-trekked region, I myself haven’t seen a single other trekker around.
I decided to cross the Mayali pas, Auden col and Kalindi pas looping them all together in a short but arduous trek. As the town Gangotri forms an easy stepping in or out point, I will split the trip report in two. This report is about the first part of my trek: the Mayali pas and Auden col.
It is an adventurous and wild trek. Especially the Auden col requires traversing a few stretches of challenging glacier and a steep rock climb to get to the pass itself. The glacier is heavily crevassed and around the pas a lot of these crevasses are hidden. On top of that, it is not completely trivial to locate the pass. Mayali pass is more moderate and takes, apart from some considerable route finding, no special skill.
Based on gps labeled photos that I found on google earth I reconstructed the route. My travel mate Erik never engaged on any mountaineering route before so we did some crash courses at home as well. I guess this expedition was not the most responsible thing I have ever done, but I’m still here.
An additional challenge is that the Indian police does not seem to want to have you around here. We were sent back repeatedly, as we lacked ‘the permission’. At Kalindi Khal they had a point, this turned out to be inner line, but for Auden col I think they were just making it up. If you are here as an independent traveler sneaking around is by times required.
On top of this we were plagued by monsoon rains and mist almost the entire way.
It took quite some determination but in the end we did not let ourselves be stopped by crevasses, difficult route finding, obnoxious police, steep terrain, poring rain or thick mist. It is still an adventure I proudly look back to.
For this route you need the whole technical glacier shebang. The necessity of a crevasse rescue is a real possibility. You can withstand with one pickle as the only very steep part goes over rocks. It is by no means so steep that you need nuts, cams or other anchoring material, just climb up carefully.
There is no permanent habitation anywhere on the trek. You may meet a Sheppard along the way who you can join for dinner, but you cannot rely on this.
Consider taking satellite communication.
If trekking in monsoon take a tent that can take some rain. I say this as my tent was an absolute nightmare.
I trekked here in August 2016. Ice conditions are best in this month, but you have a high risk of needing to battle rain and mist. For July goes pretty much the same. September and October see clearer skies, but colder weather. June and May see clearer skies, but much leftover winter snow. So choose you pain…
How to get there
The starting point Gaurikund can be reached in a day busing from Dheradun. The bus will drop you off around Rudrapayag from where you will need to transit to a small taxi bus.
To return form Gangotri you need a local bus or taxi to Utrakashi from where you can reach Dheradun within 3 hours.
Dheradun is about 6 hours busing from Delhi. You can also fly to Dheradun, but this is not cost and barely time effective.
Auden col and Mayali can also be crossed independently. If you follow the trail in the valley between these passes downstream you will get to the road head in Jandoli in about 2 days time.
Erik and I had slept in Rudrapayag and it was a mere hour by jeep to get to the trail head of the route to Kedarnath. Kedarnath is a famous temple and an all time favourite pilgrim destination. This, you could very well tell from the trail head itself. It was full with people renting donkeys, selling hiking sticks, offering porters and what not. We had to buy some kind of permit and were allowed to continue along the very broad paved path (almost road) .
It was sunny and quite hot. We shared the trail with hundreds on Indians all on their way to visit the holy side of Kedarnath, one of the main sources of the river Ganges. The trail was as easy as you get them and we could easily make it to the temple complex in one day. We had quite some breaks in the many small restaurants on the way in order to beat the worst heat.
Late in the afternoon we reached Kedarnath and checked in at a campsite with large house-like tents for rent. We filled in the required forms (there are always forms in this nation), as our departing destination we filled in Mayali pass. As usual in India, building an ambiance was not really thought off. In principle it could have been an enchanting place. A temple right under a glacier with a mighty, almost 7000 meter high peak in it’s backdrop. Instead however it came across as a rather dirty overpopulated unorganized looking settlement with a kitsch digital screen to top it all off.
In the morning I heard my friend outside quarreling with some folk. I quickly got up and went to check it out. It was police that asked if we had ‘the permission’ to go to Mayali. I showed the leader of them the permit for Kedarnath, but he did not go for it. No way we could go there, in fact we had to return back immediately! The tone with which we were spoken to was rather aggressive and authoritarian. I caved, there was no point in arguing. ‘OK, no problem we will return first thing tomorrow.’ Of course I did not actually plan to head back, I did not do all this planing and traveling just to go back for no apparent reason. I said that I was too tired to return back today as I had already hiked yesterday (hahaha), this would buy us some time to make a plan. He went for it. Great!
We spent the rest of the day scouting how we could sneak out in the night without being seen. There was a bridge we needed to cross, it was not guarded, but we had to do it in the cover of darkness. Two white guys with backpacks would most certainly raise the alarms leading to the end of our trek before it had even started.
The rest of the day we hung around the temple. We also wanted to head up to the glacier. We were however stopped by some army folk. It was way too dangerous up there they said. They took us back to the temple and guarded us the rest of the day. We will keep you safe they said. My god, can these people just let me myself worry about my safety. It could be just me, but my safety is my responsibility. Get off my back already!
At around midnight the town was falling quiet. Heavy rains broke out. This was our chance. Nobody would expect us to leave now. We went out, crossed the bridge and quickly disappeared in the dark. It was rather miserable for us, the rain kept on falling and there was no way to keep track of the trail. Pitching our tents was not possible the terrain was too steep. We found an overhanging rock and slept under it. A cold and wet night lay ahead.
In the morning I woke. Wow I head actually slept a while. We started walking to get a little warmer. Kedarnath lay just 2 kilometers north of us down valley and we were keen to get some distance between us and those meddlers in Kedarnath. We quickly found a trail and followed it. The fact that we had started the hike in the night and the fact that we had to get away from Kedarnath as soon as possible had caused us to take a wrong trail. I knew this, but I did not dare return to Kedernath. I hoped that the trail would turn and head to Vasuki lake later on.
The trail however kept on going south instead of east. I kept hope there was only one real destination, Vasuki lake, and since the trail was pretty big it probably eventually went there. After 2 hours the large trail terminated in nothing. Shit, Vasuki tal was 3 kilometers away and here were were in the middle of steep rock. This was apparently a new route that they were still building or something. Heading back to Kedarnath was a risk I was still not prepared to take so we just went for it. Cross country through the mountains.
This was of course hell. With only our gps to roughly guide us in the right direction we navigated the boulders and grassy mountains towards Vasuki lake. There were three ridges between us and the lake and it took us 4 hours to cover the 3 kilometers. To make things worse there was a thick mist all day long obscuring much of our view. We made it however and could pitch next to the lake.
It rained cats and dogs all night long. Something my tent is not designed for. In the morning we had despite of everything the giggles. The situation was so miserable, that we could only laugh about it. A small stream had formed right next to our tents and there was a pool of water within our tent. Nice, we do not have to get out to get water, I joked. The tent fabric had had its maximum water column. I caught a few drups leaking right through the canvas in a cup. Erik joked we would get really good at it at that in the end of our trek. To make things worse to a real comical degree, a stream had formed under the rock under which we had put our bags the night before. Our packs were completely and utterly soaked. We had just left Kedarnath 36 hours ago, how bad could things get in that time?
Today we would hold an acclimatization day, so luckily we had some time to try and dry our soaking stuff. It seemed like this might be possible. At around 9 am weather started to clear up. We went outside to do some crisis management. At 10 am fun was over and rains swept in again. We spent the rest of the day in the tent, competing to make the best joke about our situation.
Today we would push for Mayali pas. Again it rained all night and in the morning our stuff was as wet as it had been yesterday. In the morning the weather cleared for a bit. I even caught a glimpse of the sun at some moment. I was weary however, we had seen this very temporal morning clearing up before yesterday. The first part of the climb went over steep grassy grounds.
The grassy terrain made place for boulders. Sometimes rather steep sometimes plain flat. The weather deteriorated, rain as usual. We had no dry clothes left and the wind chill grilled us. My friend had a small emotional break down right under the pas, but was able to put himself together. The last part of the climb to the pas was not hard and we were up there at around 1 pm. The other side of Mayali is heavily glaciated. A nice sight and a nice chance to put our crampons to the test. We hung up our Nepalese prayer flags, made our photo and ate a snack. The usual pas routine. We did not linger too long, way too windy up here.
The glacier is clear of snow minimizing crevice risk. We hiked unroped, there was no snow and not many crevices. You had to be a complete idiot if you would manage to drop in a crevice here. The glacier is not very steep, but as it is very icy crampons were definitely good to have. The glacier ends in a large glacial lake. The route here was not obvious. The eastern bank of the lake looked steeper than the western, but both did not seem ideal. I suspect that you can hike right across the lake outside the summer making things easier. We took the western bank. It took us forever, but we made it passed the cliffs. At the first hint of a grassy patch we made camp. A tiring but actually quite beautiful day. And, best of all, it had stopped raining.
In the evening I explored the route we had to take further down the next day. I could some traces of previous trespassing, so I guessed we were on the right track.
Not much rain that night and even a bit of sun in the morning. At last we could dry some of our stuff. It seemed like the good weather would last for a while.
We hiked the route I had found yesterday. First along the glacial lake later over the moraine. We could see Mayali pas for the last time. An incredibly steep descend over loose terrain lay now in front of us. This loose terrain was not Erik’s favourite and he almost crawled down. I personally love when I can take down half of the mountain upon descending.
After this steep descend we needed to traverse a large boulder field. Once on the other side it was smooth sailing down. Nice gassy area and quite a bit of sun. All the way down we spotted a bunch of horses probably lead up here from Jandoli for the summer. We followed the stream further down all the way to the main river. This main river was as wild as you find them. Good that there was a wobbly bridge across, otherwise it would have been game over.
Once across we found ourselves in knee deep overgrown terrain. We could set up a tent, but chose to sleep under a stone. It seemed a lot more water tight than my tent. When I wanted to start cooking we had a lighter crisis. None of the three lighter we had taken was still operational. With still at least 4 days to go this was a real problem. Most of our food consisted of potatoes that we had bought in Kedarnath and really needed boiling… I started to shake out all the supplies I had in my bag that we could eat without boiling it first. A few candy bars and noodles were all I could muster. I wanted to count the bars and than I found my spare, spare, spare lighter! Oh yeah, I once had placed an additional emergency lighter in a small pocket within my back. Wow, was I happy I had done that. I prayed it would work and thank heavens it did.
Once again the rain screwed us over. A small stream had formed right under the rock that I was sleeping under and I woke that night in the middle of it. I cursed and moved up a little, but the damage was already done. This must be the wettest trek of my life.
In the morning the rain had gone and we hiked further up valley. After a few hundred meters, out of nowhere, a trail begun. That was nice! The hike was a pleasant with many hanging glaciers to gaze upon.
We had lunch before the start of the glacier we would have to climb. The sun came through once again. These were the moments I tearished. I inspected our glacier gear as we would probably need it soon.
We hiked up the southern part of the glacier. This was a highly active region. Rocks constantly fell as the ice was melting. Not a nice place to be. The coursing river disappeared under the immense glacier, finally some quiet. We hiked over the steep southern moraines of the glacier. It was all loose gravel and we needed to be a bit careful here. After about half an hour we arrived at a steeper section of the glacier. We decided that we would leave this for tomorrow. We once again found a cave which we made our home.
The way up tomorrow looked rather difficult. We clearly had to hike over the glacier here, as the glacier was surrounded by steep cliffs, but the ice and boulders seemed rather uninviting.
It had rained heavily that night, but for a change our sleeping place stood firm. We started our climb and it was way easier than it had looked. There was a ramp of boulders which bypassed the steep ice and we were on top in no time.
After this ascend there was a second little steeper climb after which the icy part of the glacier finally began. The glacier flattened out here and the hiking was easy now.
There was no other option than to pitch our tent on the ice for the night. This was going to be a chilly night… Luckily we had some relatively dry clothes left this time.
It had snowed a bit last night and higher up it seemed to be still snowing. The route to the pas lay in thick mist, not very inviting and all. The first part of the route was easy. A glacier on a gentle slope with some small and clearly visible crevices.
We came to a small ice fall that we could easily climb.
Once up, the glacier flattened out again. This time however the glacier showed a nastier side. There was quite a bit of snow covering the many small crevices. A rather dangerous place, especially since I doubted whether my friend would be able to do an actual crevice rescue when it came to it. Sure we had practiced it dry, but alone at an altitude of 5100 meters was something else completely. We took the east part of the glacier staying as close to the rock cliffs as we could. This part of the glacier was in the best shape, but I still felt my feet falling through the snow at one time. Luckily I reacted fast enough.
We climbed slowly but steadily further up. At around 5350 meters the glacier flattened out completely and terminated at some steep rock cliffs. The pas should be located around here. The mist allowed us to see the top of the ridge for a moment. There were two places on the ridge that I thought could be the pas. The mist rolled back in again and the cliffs were once again covered. There were still two places the pas could be and with that two places were we might have to start our climb up the cliffs. They lay very close to one another so my gps was of little help. At the start of the cliffs was a crevice that stretched out all the way along it. It took a while to find a snow bridge across. Once across we were at the last and most difficult stage of our climb.
First there was a small ramp of snow that we needed to climb. This was steeper than it looked and my friend even slipped once. A good thing we were roped up as you could slide straight into the deep crevice here. Also from up here there were basically two places which we could reasonably start climbing up. The place where we stood right now and another place about 150 meters further west. For this kind of close range route finding my gps was of no help. I decided to climb up at the place I already was. The snow ramp was difficult to traverse, so I rather didn’t if I didn’t have to. My friend stayed behind with the backpack on a rocky plateau while I climbed up to explore the way.
As I climbed further up the rock face grew steeper. The fresh snow made it hard to get a good grip. At some point I stepped on a few loose rocks under the snow. I fell. I tried to break the fall with my ice axe, but I started rolling and bumping. Fuck, that is not a good sign. By some miracle my ice axe got stuck in a crack in the rocks. I could only just hold on but it broke my fall. When I looked back up I saw I had easily dropped down 20 meters. Well, this was probably not the right way up.
I went down to my friend, who was a bit in despair. I gave him a firm pep talk. We would make it to the pas together. When I studied the other rock face, the confidence in my own words grew. It indeed looked a bit better. I fact, I might even see an old piece of rope hanging there. We traversed the risky snow ramp. Again we could not afford to slip here, as we would slide straight into the deep crevice marking the start of the glacier. Once we got closer we could indeed see some old rope of a previous expedition hanging there. We were going to make it!
The climb was steep, but the old rope gave confidence and it was way not as hard as the other place. I climbed first so that Erik could follow using the rope. It snowed significantly on the pas and I could barely see the peaks right next to us. The sense of accomplishment was however more than enough reward. We congratulated each other and took the usual, prayer flag, photo, energy bar routine. 5550 meters, we made it!
We were however just half way. The route down was steep and littered with crevices that could fit a house. In the first, what was it 30 meters, of the descend I already felt myself falling through the snow. Luckily I did not fall through completely, but I was stuck and needed a bit of outside help if I were not to fall further. Back! I yelled to Erik. He went back and pulled the rope to get me out. It worked. We walked a bit further right and than left, but this hidden crevice seemed to go all the way across the glacier. Instead of climbing straight down towards the valley we went steep down towards the uttermost left side of the glacier. Once on the very side of the glacier the crevices were more manageable and we made quite a bit of progress. As we descended the snow grew less thick making the situation a lot less dangerous.
Many crevices ran over the entire glacier. In one case there was now snow bridge to cross it. In absence of a snow bridge we had no other option than descend into it and climb out of it again.
Further down the snow completely vanished minimizing the risk of falling in hidden crevices. The glacier flattened out and the moraines down seemed really close now. We had to slalom all the way to avoid the large crevices, so it still progress was slow.
Eventually the white ice made place for gray ice, which soon filled up with boulders. At the place the boulder fields started there run a small stream over the glacier. We immediately sat down. We looked up to the massive ice wall south of us. Wow, we actually came down that way…
We wanted to hike further till we had some grass, but we didn’t make it before nightfall. We had to spent one more night on the ice. Whatever, we made it.
There was something different in the air today. A hint of upcoming good weather. Yes, it was definitely less grim than it had been. We were to see some sun today!
We hiked over the moraines till we hit the grass. Very nice to feel grass under my feet again. The valley narrowed till there was only a dozen meters of river bank left. It was a bit of a chance we had to take if we would hike into this gorge. The safer bet might be to climb up the steep rocky hill next to us. On top of this hill seemed to lie a gentler plateau slowly leading down. Hiking into gorges is almost never wise so we decided on the later option. A good guess once we had climbed up we saw a pile of stones and once there we saw a Sheppard!
First human contact since Kedarnath, a milestone! A guarantee we would not have to head back over the Auden col. He gestured where on earth we came for, I pointed to the pas and saw that he could barely believe it. The nice man invited us over in his hut. It was not much but more than fine by us. I thought to understand we could join him for dinner. That was very welcome as, aside from five more energy bars and a package of noodles we had completely ran out of food by now.
We decided to call it a day. It was only 11 am, but due to lack of food we either had to make it all the way to Gangotri today, which was pretty far, or stay here. The Shepperd left us and gestured us to stay around. The weather started to clear up and we could see Auden col, the snowy peaks all around and the mountain under which lay Gangotri.
It took ages for the shepherd to return and we started to get a little worried. In the end however he came back with a friend of him and made us the best dal bhat (rice with lentils) ever.
We left without breakfast, we simply had nothing in our packs left to cook. We followed a small trail that kept altitude for a while after which it steeply descended back to the river down. The gorge had terminated and the river now flowed through a large meadow. We could hike rapidly here, in this phase we would be in Gangotri around noon. At the tree line the valley narrowed. The banks of the river were rather steep and followed by near vertical cliffs rising up way above us. In many places the riverbanks had collapsed due to the rains and we had to do some improvisation.
The valley got more and more forested. The river now lay below us in a gorge with us. The path became very big and well trodden at this point. I could almost smell Gangotri. All of a sudden the trail however became a faint trail. We followed it and quickly got ourselves stuck in steep and bushy terrain. It did not take long or our way was blocked by vertical cliffs rising up right from the river. This did not seem right. We hiked back till the minor trail. We split up. Erik was to go back and see if we had missed some kind of bridge and I was to hike up to see if there was a route across the cliffs higher up.
I climbed up, at first this seemed to be going alright. There clearly evidence of people that had walked here before. After ascending for about 200 meters whatever it was I had been following stopped. I climbed a few rock faces to head towards the end of the valley, but it got worse and worse. From the place I was standing I could literally see the road at the end of the valley. The cliffs were however very hard to traverse, this could not be it. I headed back to the meeting point with Erik.
To my relief Erik had found a small bridge just 300 meters back that we had walked passed. Haha, it was down in the gorge and the trail leading there was way tinier than the one that continued. Probably the bridge changes location from time to time.
We crossed to bridge. The trail got even larger. Soon after we met a few Indian day hikers from Gangotri. They were going to see the steep section of the gorge further up.
It started to rain a little. At the moment Gangotri was in sight it started to poor. We fled into the first hotel we came across. I lay down in bed and fell asleep. In the evening I ate as much dal bhat (rice an lentils) as I could. After that I went into town to buy chips and what not. Gangotri was a nice town completely committed to the tourists and pilgrims coming here to see the source of the holy river Ganges. The center of town had more ambiance than the large hotel in which we were staying. so we decided to switch places tomorrow.
We would take another rest day tomorrow to regain a bit of our strength and contact home.
After that we would continue our trek over the 6000 meter Kalindi khal. We had learnt from last time and this time told nobody what our destination actually was. If anyone asked I was very vague and said something with Dheradun. We heard there was a military outpost standing between us and the Kalinid khal, so that might form a problem. Well we had done the sneaking by trick before.
I posted the trek over the Kalindi khal in a separate section.