On the sixth of February I left Rishikesh to head up North to the source of the Ganges, I would then work my way South along it’s route as planned until the rivers end at the Bay of Bengal. I booked a jeep for the trip and left Rishikesh in the early hours for what would be around an eight hour trip to get as close to the source as possible, it didn’t turn out like that….
A jeep would be necessary for the journey as we would be driving on rough mountain roads, this was booked with a local travel agent and he wasn’t sure how far towards the source I’d be able to get due to the affect the weather can have on the roads up there. The source of Gaumukh at the Gangotri glacier would be impossible to reach as this required a 18 km trek from the last town of Gangotri which acts as a launch pad for the pilgrimage trail.
In the winters the environment is so inhospitable that many people in these far Northern villages migrate to other villages lying in the South. He thought the village of Harsil would be possible 43 km from the source but this again was not certain.
The jeep arrived at eight a.m and my companions for the journey would be the driver Sultan Singh Rawat as well as a guide Pramod Rawat who would be coming along to keep the driver company on the return South to Rishikesh once they had dropped me off. The guide spoke very good English and the driver not so much although we were able to make each other understood.
Five hours into the journey and we reached Uttarkashi. This town acted as a major travel hub to destinations further North and the place seemed almost exclusively populated by the same tough little jeep that I was riding in. Up here there are no trains and the local buses struggle on the delicate and unstable mountain roads carved into the mountainside. These share jeeps could be hailed at any point on the Gangotri road and acted as the local transport.
The Gangotri Road was the only road both North and South from here and was a major lifeline. As we left Uttarkashi and travelled further North I began to become aware of the affect of nature on the environment. We drove along many areas where whole sections of road had collapsed during landslides and along the roadside we passed many groups of workers making repairs to the fragile highway. A few times we were stopped from progress while a digger cleared the road of debris that had been dumped during the latest act of ‘slipping’ as it was known locally.
Another couple of hours into the journey and I began to have the impression that we were shrinking. The landscape became more and more intimidating. We travelled along the road that was a small slither of flat surface chiselled into the mountainside, a sheer drop of hundreds of feet below us and above hundreds of tons of unstable mountainside. Nature seemed to be saying ‘You’re in my house now’.
Then we hit a stretch of road where the only direction we seemed to be travelling was up, we went up and up and up along a road that seemed to be ascending directly towards the heavens. It began to get colder inside the jeep, I put on my hat and gloves.
By now it was beginning to get late and the sun seemed to disappear behind darkening skies. Then I noticed the first few flakes of snow began falling. ‘Is the snow a problem?’ I asked the guide, ‘Only if it settles’ he replied. The snow began to settle.
Visibility decreased rapidly as the snowfall became harder and we quickly realised we were now driving in a blizzard, on a mountainside, still miles from our destination.
Then a jeep passed us coming down from the mountain, the slight relief at seeing the first vehicle in around two hours of driving was cancelled out by the fact we saw it was covered in snow. This was not good, not good at all.
Progress became more and more difficult as the amount of snow on the road increased. We were crawling at a snails pace still well short of our intended destination, the driver and the guide were concerned about how they would come back down the mountain once they had dropped me off and were just as impatient as myself to arrive in Harsil.
Then we started loosing traction, the jeep began alarmingly lurching sideways towards the edge of the sheer drop at the side of the snow covered road.
We became stuck, the guide and myself got out into the blinding snow to try and straighten the jeep back on course but the wheels span helplessly.
Out of no where another jeep came up from behind us and a man jumped out with a large bundle of sticks tied in the middle and placed them behind the spinning back wheel to try and aid traction. After a few attempts it worked and the jeep got moving, we ran after it to jump in as the driver obviously didn’t want to allow the jeep to remain stationary again. It was only when I got back inside the struggling jeep that I now realised how cold I was. The few minutes spent outside had turned my hands and feet to ice, We were all freezing cold trying to drive up a dark mountain road in a worsening blizzard. I could see the concern on my companions faces and I began to realise how serious the situation was.
Then up ahead through the snow we saw the vehicle that had passed us after helping stopping and turning round, as they delicately passed us they said the road ahead and conditions were now too dangerous and we should do the same. We managed to turn the jeep around and began coming back down but the state of the roads was worsening, one particular sideways lurch in the snow had myself and the guide both reaching for the door handles ready to leap from the vehicle. The driver cut the engine as with dread we realised we now had to abandon the vehicle and somehow try to continue on foot. We were still around 4 km from Harsil and in real trouble.
The idea of getting to our intended destination had now become very much secondary to getting ourselves out of this blizzard and off this mountainside into shelter.
As we unpacked all our gear from the car with numbing fingers we became aware of a figure walking towards us through the haze of falling snow. He came to us and after a quick discussion in Hindi we began following him down into the valley where only a few lights were burning through the darkness and snow. We all slipped over at least once, progress was almost impossible in the now shin deep snow.
We soon arrived in a small village and were greeted by a man who beckoned us to a small building where another man was sat outside under a porch huddled round a small wood burning fire, we all made a bee line for this eager to get some warmth into our ice cold hands.
We were shown into the small adjoining concrete constructed room that contained just two wooden bed frames, a table and some plastic chairs. It seemed to be just as cold in the room as it was outside. It had single glazed windows and no insulation but compared to what we had just come in from it was a lifesaver. The relief amongst us was tangible. The owner occasionally rented these basic rooms during the peak pilgrimage season and said we were welcome to stay until the blizzard passed. According to the guide there is a strong sense of people dwelling in the mountains helping others in need, the landscape dictates it. After the introductions a bottle of rum appeared that was served with warm water that was brought in from the hosts house next door. This was more of a medical necessity and provided some welcome relief from the cold, the guide himself a non drinker drank his heartily as we all did.
After this it began to sink in just how much danger we had been in. I asked the guide (already knowing the answer) ‘We wouldn’t have been able to spend the night in the car would we?’, ‘No, it would have been very bad’.
We had abandoned the jeep and found ourselves in the village of Jhala, the nearest place of any population was at least 5km in any direction.
Once the rum was drunk and a small dinner of rice and daal was served to us we prepared to bed down for the night. The host brought in heavy blankets and we also had two sleeping bags that the guide had brought with him. The three of us lay side by side as we tried to get some sleep. It was so cold that the idea of undressing was out of the question, I even slept with my gloves and hat on, it turned out I would be wearing them almost round the clock for the next six days and nights.
The following morning I woke first, I was struck immediately by how cold it was. When my face and gloved hands were out from under the blankets it felt as though they were in a freezer. I reluctantly got out of bed and opened the thin curtain and saw about eight inches of snow banked up against the window pane on the other side of the glass. I opened the door to find the blizzard was still raging, the covered porch where we had sat beside the fire the previous night was now covered with snow with drifts up against every right angle.
I went to use the outside loo walking through the shin deep snow and went back into bed. It then snowed all day. We spent the day under the covers trying to fend off the cold, relieving the boredom of incarceration by talking and smoking. Chai was brought in to us through out the day and this provided some small relief from the cold, a small lunch and dinner were also served which we were very grateful for.
We would have to be patient and see what the weather would do tomorrow, we bedded down for our second night.
The following morning I woke first and again was the first to venture outside. To my relief the skies were clear and I realised it was actually the first chance I’d had to see the context our surroundings, towering mountains were on all sides and the eerie dawn light gave it an other worldly impression.
I went back into the room to find the guide and the driver propped up on their elbows expectantly looking at me for some sign as to what lay out there. I gave them the thumbs up and we all went outside.
I grabbed the camera and began recording the scenes around us. The owner appeared and invited me next door into his home. To my surprise his house (more of a room really) was just as basic as the one we were staying in if not more so. His wife then invited me into the small adjoining room and served me chai warmed on the small clay wood burning stove while the host looked out of the window at the mountain opposite obviously eager to try and gain some information about the state of the weather.
I could see that life up here in winter was very hard for these people, no heating, no running water and the mains electricity was off (it turned out that stayed off the whole time we were there).
As we talked outside the rising sun broke from over the mountain opposite and everybody seemed to say their thanks, it was a completely different day to the one previous and thankfully the strong sunlight provided some warmth which we hadn’t felt since we had arrived.
There was talk of the Indian Army coming to clear the roads if the weather would stay clear for the next few days although as this was not the peak season for visitors this could not be certain. There had been tensions in the past along the India/China border and there was a strong military presence in these parts with bases dotted around the surrounding hills. I’d noticed that most of the people in the village were wearing Indian Army surplus jackets and boots, the environment definitely called for them.
A few hours later one army lorry sporting snow chains did appear driving through the village, the large tyres gouged a path in the snow and we walked up the road to check the jeep which we had abandoned two days previously. It was obvious that we were going nowhere until the roads were cleared of snow. We later heard that the army lorry itself had got stuck in the snow trying to navigate the route we needed to take up and over mount Suki towards the South.
We had the now familiar evening routine of a light meal of rice and daal which was brought to us, after this we sat huddled by the fire and then went to bed fully clothed under the blankets. I realised I had not taken my hat and gloves off in over twenty four hours.
The third day was again sunny, we sat outside as the previous morning and I tried to dry out my shoes in the sun which had got soaking wet in the snow the previous day and were freezing (as was everything else). The driver joked with the guide that the previous night he had heard him calling out for a towel in his sleep, he was literally dreaming of a hot shower.
We waited hopefully for the snow clearing machine that never came, a fourth night was spent here. On the fourth day talk began of walking cross country up to Mount Suki above and down the other side to try and find transportation to take us South back to Rishikesh. Through being stranded here the driver and guides business was suffering and they were just as anxious as myself to get off this mountain. The cold was becoming unbearable and we were all starting to miss out families and loved ones. In the morning in bed the driver had shown me wallet pictures of his two daughters, the strain of being here was becoming apparent on all of us.
We all knew we were just as cold, tired, hungry and thirsty (we had very little water) as each other so we made sure everybody was taken care of. What little you had you shared, you served others before yourself, you gave up your seat by the fire to those next to you. Although conditions were almost unimaginable a real bond was forming between us.
At this point I have to say that although waiting here in the perpetual cold was becoming unbearable I was in no doubt grateful for what we had. On that night we could have broken down miles from the nearest village and frozen in the car, we also could have quite easily slid off the mountain road if we had tried to continue in the jeep. We had shelter, food and company and I was very grateful that the guide spoke English as he was able to translate what was going on and being said, no body else there spoke any English.
The weather throughout the day did not improve, with a sinking feeling we realised that it would not be possible to leave and again we would face another night here.
I was dehydrated, stank of wood smoke from the fire and frozen to my core. I was also beginning to miss those close to me terribly. The driver and guide had been able to contact their families via the hosts mobile phone (only one network provider worked up here) but I had not. Although tough, I knew that this was best as I did not want them to worry by informing them of my situation.
This was a real low point, all we thought about was the weather and the effect it could have on us. There was no sign of the roads being cleared and we knew that if it started snowing again tomorrow we would be stranded here for even longer.
The morning of the sixth day I woke early, rushed to the window and saw that the sun was not shining, this was far from ideal. We faced a two hour walk cross country in deep snow up a mountain side to where there was only a slim chance of finding a vehicle, then a possible further two hour walk to the town where transport would be certain.
The reason for the cross country route to the summit of Suki was that it would save us 6km rather than walking the route via the road. However, the risk was that if it started snowing while we walked it would become even more cold and dangerous.
If one of us were to slip and twist an ankle or break a wrist it would be a disaster.
It was a big gamble but even the idea of spending another night in this freezer was more than I could bear.
After some delay in watching the skies we made the decision that we would leave, we now faced a possible four hour walk in the elements.
The progress up to the summit was incredibly difficult, I had a 25kg bag on my back and the steep path through the snow was icy and very slippery. The other problem I quickly became aware of was that we were climbing at an altitude of 2,500 meters which I was not used to. I could hardly breath as we climbed, it felt as though I had someone sitting on my chest as I struggled to fill my lungs with each breath. In spite of all this I somehow managed to take pictures of our progress eager to record what I hoped would be the last part of this saga.
After around two hours we reached the summit. There were no signs in the snow that any other vehicles had made it up here and it was obvious we would have to continue walking. The skies were threatening and we continued along the icy road to begin our decent down to the valley below. From our vantage point we could see that some of the roads below on this side of the summit had indeed been cleared, it was looking promising. We began to see other people on the route and they informed us that there was a good chance of finding a vehicle in the village below. We walked on through the village along icy paths clutching to anything we could to avoid slipping. Then as we got further down we saw it, a lone jeep parked and the driver coming to meet us, the roads South of here were relatively clear and he could take us. We climbed into the jeep, the engine started and we were on our way. The moment I’d been waiting for had come, after six days and nights we were finally leaving.
I don’t really remember much of the journey back in the jeep, I think we were all a bit stunned. As we got further South I finally got a mobile signal and was able to let my family know via text that I was okay. When I finally arrived at the Monal guest house in Uttarkashi I could feel that I was in some sort of shock (I’d been saying the name ‘Monal’ over and over in my head during the six days in Jhala dreaming of the moment when I’d finally arrive there). I was able to speak to my family (it turned out they had indeed been worried) and also finally change my clothes and take my first hot shower after six days of unimaginable cold.
It has now been around a week since these events took place and this experience is still very much with me. It has been without question the toughest yet most humbling experience of my life so far. I wouldn’t want to go through it again but I wouldn’t say I regret that it happened, far from it. If you’ve managed to make it to the end of this tale I hope that in some way this story has made an impression on you, this experience has been something that I know I’ll carry forward with me in life. In the future if I find myself facing hardship, stress or difficult circumstances I know I’ll always have the memory of those six days in Jhala to put things in perspective.
I would like to take this opportunity to say a big thankyou to Pramod Rawat and Sultan Singh Rawat for their level headedness, patience and companionship and I will remain forever grateful and indebted to Jai Singh Rautela for his compassion and generosity.