David Morton and Jake Norton set out to trace the Ganges from its source on the Gangotri Glacier to its outlet in the world’s largest delta at the Bay of Bengal. They also aimed to climb to the summit of Chaukhamba IV (6,854 meters), but in the mountaineering realm little goes according to plan. In David Morton’s second report from the climb, the team finds challenging conditions but also the spiritual source of the Ganges. —LYA Editor
Words by David Morton, Images by Jake Norton, David Morton and Pete McBride
During our reconnaissance, we dropped a cache of equipment at the base of our objective and then returned to ABC for a good night’s rest. The following morning dawned cold, crisp and clear. We covered the return to our high point in an hour and a half, as our bodies and lungs began to adapt to the higher reaches and thinner air. It was noon, and the entire afternoon was ours to rest and ready ourselves for the push the next morning, when we’d embark on our quest, entering into a relationship with the mountain. It’s a relationship like many. We test the other. We push against real and perceived risk and see if the other responds. We inch further onto the edge, testing to see how the other reacts. We read signs as if we’re in a seductive dance, taking turns leading each other and daring each other to move further into those magical high places. It’s exhilarating. It’s tenuous. It’s comforting. Unfortunately, in the end, this facade always cracks. There is no other animate being. It’s all a tug of war within us. As much as we would like it to, nature does not reciprocate. It plays by its own rules and won’t bargain with us, comfort us, or make deals. That much was painfully true by the following morning.
Before tucking in for the night, we ventured up to the true head of the Gangotri Glacier. The Chaukhamba massif’s walls of ice and rock blocked any further passage. This was the end of the line. Eerie. Powerful. Shocking. Shocking because even here, we witnessed incredible volumes of surface meltwater creating deep channels in the glacier. The characteristics of the glacier here, at the head, were those that matched characteristics of healthy glaciers nearer their terminus. After a few hours scurrying around in a cloud bank trying to document what we saw, we headed back to camp to get a good night’s sleep before the climb.
By 7 p.m. we had brewed up, eaten, and snuggled into our bags for the night. Also at 7 p.m. the skies swallowed us. Heavy snow was falling, and had been for the previous hour and a half. We told ourselves it would stop soon. We told ourselves it would it at least lighten up. We tried to bargain. It failed miserably. By first light, we had been out of the tent shoveling every hour and a half by headlamp. We counted the dozens of avalanches booming through the amphitheater as if we were counting sheep. The combined sleep total for the three of us was 90 minutes. By first light, there was well over three feet of new snow. We packed up, departed, and sank to our waist with the first post hole.
After six hours we slowly rolled into ABC. One and a half hours up, six hours down. My energy was completely tapped. We dug out the flattened tent, only identifying its location by the broken poles pointing directly towards the heavens. Within an hour, we had collapsed into a deep sleep.
Once a storm comes in such as that, there is no option for further climbing. It likely took two weeks for that storm to settle out enough to walk efficiently on the glacier. The concern is that if it had continued to snow for another 12 hours and we had stayed at camp, we would have been “snowed in,” unable to move through the accumulation and get ourselves down to our supplies at base camp. Avalanches are another issue entirely. Perhaps the mountain gods that stood sentinel around us throughout the night may have in fact been watching. If we had started our route a day earlier, we likely would have found ourselves in a very unfortunate and dangerous position high on the route.
The downside for us is the plus side for others. The monsoon snows are badly needed, as we witness the decline of the glacier. Those snows will melt and provide millions of gallons of water downriverfor the hundreds of millions that depend on it. For us, we trust the magic will now come in the low places along this amazing waterway, not the high places I dreamt of back home.
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