David Morton and Jake Norton have checked in twice, on their journey from the source of the Ganges River on the Gangotri Glacier to its outlet in the world’s largest delta at the Bay of Bengal. The Eddie Bauer guides are currently tracing the meltwater route of the Ganges from the high peaks of India along its sacred lifeline to the sea. In Morton’s second dispatch from the expedition, he provides a first-person perspective on the mountain state of the spiritual source of the Ganges and their mission to climb to its summit. —LYA Editor
Words by David Morton, Images by Pete McBride, David Morton and Jake Norton
Climbing mountains has always seemed magical to me. We go off into these remote places and wander wide-eyed, like a child. We look up at what feels like the heavens, imagining ourselves walking along the ragged knife-edge ridges, as if we’re on some sort of defining quest. As rationally pointless as climbing mountains often seems to be, that quest is what provides value and enriches one’s life through discovery. Here in the Indian Garhwal, those feelings are heightened by soaring peaks named after gods and kings: Bagarathi, Shivling, Meru, Kedarnath. Our base camp sat in this magical amphitheater, in a meadow alongside the Gangotri Glacier.
After a few nights in our quiet Shangri-La, we began the work of climbing one of these behemoths, and the reality set in. Heavy packs. Loose rock. Minor crushed fingers. Major sunburn. Bruised knees. Bruised feet. Bruised backs. It’s not as magical when it’s actually in process. Our six-hour route from base camp to an advanced base camp (ABC) followed the Gangotri Glacier, which is essentially a dying glacier.
It’s also the spiritual source of the Ganges. For many miles the glacier is covered by a massive amount of loose rock, which helps insulate those lower portions of the glacier from further melt. Gradually, as one gains altitude, the glacial ice emerges along with the sense that a living glacier still exists, though clearly the Gangotri is in decline. Major surface water streams in the glacial ice cut deep gouges filled with rushing water. Natural markers are left high on the sides of granite walls, indications of where the glacial floor recently stood and evidence of major volume reductions in the glacial ice volume. None of this diminishes the magical beauty of the valley, but it does serve as a reminder of how fragile–and essential–this region is. It’s the head of Maa Ganga (Mother Ganges). It’s the initial source of the most heavily populated river basin in the world. It’s a powerful place and roots us further into the story of one of the world’s most important waterways. Quite a spot to spend a few days in the mountains.
Once established at ABC, we needed to get to work on the route. First day: a reconnaissance. We carried a load up to the base of Chaukhamba IV and continued on to explore our route up to a col that would be Camp II, and put us into position to make a 24-hour round-trip to the summit. The route to the col would be easy snow slopes. The route above the col would be sporty, exciting, and steeper. Unfortunately, problems come with the easy stuff. After the unusually heavy monsoon precipitation, the slopes had been loaded with snow. It hadn’t snowed in a week though, and we reasoned the snow slabs might be isolated to wind-affected areas. After punching through a couple of crevasses, we carried on to a slope of similar aspect to what we would climb. The conclusion was grey. No clear tipping of the scale towards safety, but safe enough to still keep the hope alive that we would be in that magical place, walking ridge lines among the gods.
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