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"When the ice disappears, the Gods will disappear"

-Swami Sunderanand

Withering Heights
(Uttarkashi District, Uttarakhand, India)

That quote, to the left on this page, from Swami Sunderanand was spoken at the beginning of a month-long expedition to (and onto) the ice mass that is the Gangotri Glacier, one of the prime feeders of the 2,500 km Mother Ganga, the Ganges River. They were spoken by a seated Swami Sunderanand in his shack close to the great and disintegrating 30 km body of ice, and the words were a warning and an observation. They would serve to set the tone for the next month of expedition atop one of the most vital glaciers of the entire Himalaya.


As one who had lived at the cusp of the glacier for over five decades in a hut, observing the ideals of a yogi, which embraced non-judgemental values and refraining from possession of things, I expected more words of the breath, of being, and of the soul from Swami. His words, however, were focused firmly upon the very tangible bodies of ice above us, and of the environment. His words came as a plea more than any passing comment or simple observation and he didn't want to waste time with falsities. One of the largest of the Himalayan water towers, and crucial origin of  fresh water that feeds civilizations and economies, our journey’s beginning with the Swami’s thoughts were prophetic and dire.  His words were to be the beginning of one of the most mesmerizing and starkly intense journeys I’ve been a part of.

Journeying with thought-leader on water issues, Debra Tan, our expedition was summed up simply by her as, “Get me up there safely and let’s document that glacier”.

As always it would be the assembly of a team that would be most vital, for it is with the building of a good team that one builds complicity of purpose. Kapil Negi, mountain scribe, defender of heights and lands of snow, would organize logistics, along with my request for certain ‘must-have’ characters. Few are better than Kapil in alchemizing the pragmatic together with the correct ‘feel’. My guru, Karma, would man the kitchen (and manage all of the mortals, as he invariably did on every single expedition I’ve been on with him), Puran Thakur would join again as the elegant and fiercely strong lead, along with a collection of wonderful porters which would include the relentless and man of the pink toque, Berinder, and the languid elder of the mountains, known to all as “Uncle”. Karma, who was one of the absolute members of every single team that I could coerce into, was additionally a vocal master of Bollywood classics, including the songs of the supreme Lata Mangeshkar, which kept each and every expedition light and tainted with some magic.


The “why” of the journey was straightforward. Both Debra and I had watched the ebbing the Himalayan Water Towers, read reports, and listened to tales of locals throughout the mountains. My time in particular with nomads, listening to them simply and eloquently speak - not simply of change - but of the speed of change to their mountain worlds, had lit a fire in my brain. What began up in the high altitudes would surely descend. ‘All is interconnected’ is and always has been one of the great mountain mantras and it was one that repeated itself everywhere. Nothing impressed upon the mind quite like repeated journeys to the frontline of that change. That frontline included speaking to those who lived within the breath of that change as well, as so often it was (and remains so), that locals see and feel firsthand the changes long before any graphs and data sheets do.

Like so many of the vast tangible mountain worlds, Gangotri is part visceral, earthly spectacle of vital resource and part spirit world of worship and pilgrimage. For pilgrims, the Ganges River and Lord Shiva are worshipped with whatever zeal is left after the great journeys to simply arrive here in Uttarakhand. Ganges is the name given to the River Bhagirathi, and once it is said the river was a celestial River called Akash Ganga (Sky River), which is the Hindu mythological equivalent of the Milky Way.The legend, which lives large still, continues that Akash Ganga was convinced to come down to wash away the sins of mortals by King Bhagirathi. When she arrived, she descended into the locks of Lord Shiva (the very first yogi) and broke into several river channels. And so, from the heavens the Ganga descended at Gangotri (Ganga: river, Utri: descended).

Our routing would take us past the sacred Shivling, the knife edge that is Meru, and the stunning siblings of stone, the Bhaghirathi Sisters, all peaks in the Garhwal. One of the most densely peak-ridden regions of the Himalayas, the areas’ ice contributes to the Indo-Gangetic Plain further south,  accommodates and feeds over 40% of the Indian population.

Moving moraine fields and yawning crevasses were the very ‘ground’ upon which we walked at times, under the watchful eyes of Blue Sheep that were beginning to come down from the heights to escape a winter that came from above. Avalanches billowed and roared, and winds boomed and disappeared…and always below us, the glacial ice waters flowed. Rivulets of silver water is strewn into a thousand little veins and streams through pebbly moraine patches, and to each side of us upon the route, the shattered pyramids and delicate bodies of ice. Our camps are tucked away along the 30 km glacier for the month that we have and these camps embed themselves upon the memory palace for the silences they provide in amidst towering bodies of worshipped stone. The names of camps and glaciers became like a mantra in the mind: Kirti, Tapovan, Nandanvan, Chaturangi, Raktavarn…they roll above us, past us, and they roll off the tongue.

Dark, lethal moraine (lethal because the darker the rubble-strewn surfaces, the more intensely the sun beats down upon them) camouflages the vast temporary ice reserves below. it is a moving and living museum who's beauty is entirely decieving. Though Gomukh, the terminus of the Gangotri, is perhaps the most dramatic example of ‘loss’ of ice between our entry and exit points of the greater glacier, it is the isolated vast feeder glaciers further up the main body which most articulately feature the ebbing of ice. Successive horizontal lines mark the rock faces where, in the not-so-distant past, ice levels rested.

At the end of each day, the mind was abuzz with trying to put all of the random details of the water, the ice,  and the loss of ice, the people in proximity, and the majesty of it all into some kind of sense. Rarely did it make sense, other than the continual feeling of the urgency to address the Third Pole’s water reserves. Locals seemed to understand the issue clearly, but they worried that cities ("the land of faucets" one local described cities) further south would ever comprehend how very delicate the water issues remain. At the end of each day, what did assist in making sense of anything, was the inevitable pungent and powerful masala chai made by Karma.

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