indiahikes camps during snowfall in chirbasa
Uttarakhand

Gaumukh Tapovan: My Trek Rescue Story

We all have been hearing a lot about the avalanches and the incidents that have been happening in the mountains recently. The avalanche that the NIM(Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, Uttarkashi) batch had to go through or the avalanche at the Manaslu expedition. Many lives have been lost, but is it going to stop the mountaineers or trekkers from reaching the peaks?

While it does put a halt for sometime and everyone starts to think of it as dangerous, but soon we can again see people overcoming their fears and climbing those mighty peaks.. Something similar happened in October last year which kind of made me realize how unpredictable these mountains are or in general nature.

A little snippet(which didn’t end up being a little after I was done finishing the story) of what I and the fellow trekkers experienced on our trek to Gaumukh Tapovan.

Reaching the Gangotri Base Camp

tingling view point while ont he route from dehradun to uttarkashi
Tingling view point

The trip started by taking a flight from Bangalore to Dehradun on the 15th of Oct. The journey for the trek started from Dehradun in the early morning on 16th Oct. At 6:30 all the trekkers assembled at the meeting point and then departed from here on the journey to the base camp at Gangotri. This is where I met all my fellow trekkers and thus the journey began.

We made multiple stopovers during this 11 -12hrs journey from Dehradun to Uttarkashi. Now, this route was nostalgic because I took the same route exactly the year before for my trek to Dayara Bugyal(Dec ’20). To top it off, the stops were at the exact locations like the tingling point and the stop we made for breakfast. It was a beautiful October day, slightly chilly with a bright sun and an open terrace to have your hot paranthas and gaze over the beautiful view around

dense clouds over gangotri
Weather about to change over Gangotri

A little ahead of Uttarkashi, we stopped for lunch and during this course of the journey, fellow travelers gave some insights about their past experiences and journeys which was so thrilling and exciting. We were welcomed at the base camp of Gangotri by a thick layer of dense clouds all around us which was mesmerizing and scary at the same time.

Gangotri is famous because it is part of the Chota Char Dham. After settling down at the campsite We had our briefings for the following days and we discussed the weather forecast for the trek. So the weather showed it’s going to rain the next two days and on the 3rd day, there’s going to be snowfall. 

Everyone was anxious and worried after the discussion but since the last batch who will be returning the next day had clear weather, we were hopeful that we would have a great trek ahead and everyone went to sleep after the discussion.

A little info about the Gaumukh Tapovan trek

Gaumukh Glacier is famous as it is where the Holy Ganges originates. Hence, this trek is also done by a lot of pilgrims. . But the trek takes you one step higher than the glacier and you camp at Tapovan. While camping at Tapovan you are just lost in the magnificent views of Mt. Shivling

This trek starts from the Gangotri base camp which is at an altitude of 10,050ft. Regular trekkers who regularly trek know how high this altitude is for a base camp, and usually the 2nd, and 3rd camp is at 10,000ft. The trek is 41 km long and it takes 5 days to do the trek. With Indiahikes they also have another buffer day just in case the weather doesn’t permit. We also had an extra day to finish the trek. 

These are the camps and their altitude 

  • Gangotri Base Camp – 10,050ft
  • Camp 1: Chirbasa – 11,630ft
  • Camp 2: Bhojbasa – 12,415ft
  • Summit Camp: Tapovan – 14,203ft 

The trek begins

Gangotri chota char dham
Gangotri view of the temple and the Bhagirathi river

So, my roommates(Nitish, Randhir & Navaneeth) and a few other trekkers decided to go visit the temple early in the morning for the aarti. After the aarti, we came back and it was time to pack and start the trek. We were also given helmets because some parts of the trek did contain rock fall sections. 

We started the trek by 9 am by first visiting the temple and paying our homage to the god. Everyone was confident about the weather because if anything had to happen we had one buffer day to rest. The trail started by passing through the forest check-post where they make note of the number of people going for the trek.

trekkers posing during the gaumukh tapovan trek
Fellow trekmates!

Started with an easy and gradual ascent and descent and some water stream crossing. Everyone was getting familiar with the conditions around and enjoying the views of nature with their fellow trek mates. A drawback of this trek is since it has rock-falling sections the mules don’t carry your luggage. So all the camping gear and kitchen items were being carried by porters. Each porter was easily carrying 50-60 kgs of load.

As we moved ahead on the trail, the view kept getting better with each step. There were gigantic mountains on one side and on the other, the mighty Bhagirathi river was flowing. We stopped for a while after noon because the weather had started to look bad and all of us put on our ponchos. I mean trekking in ponchos is a little uncomfortable but way better than walking all drenched. 

Is the rain going to stop?

colors of autumn while on the gaumkh tapovan trek
Beautiful autumn colors on the trek route

It wasn’t raining heavily but kept on drizzling, but to experience autumn at the same time is a sight to behold. We were crossing a section of trees and we could see those beautiful autumn colours (orange, green, brown, red). Since we were carrying our packed lunches we took a short break for lunch. 

bhagirathi flowing on the gaumkh tapovan trek
Bhagirathi River

After lunch, we continued walking but the drizzling went on. It was 4 pm now and we were just an hour away from our first camp. But the issue was since the porters had to put a cover on the weight they were carrying, so they were still behind us. So we stayed in a place that had shade and what better way to know your trekkers well than to play some fun games with them!

During that time everyone forgot about the weather and all we did was play games for the next 1 hr and enjoy each other’s company. After all the games and fun we resumed towards the 1st camp. All this while we were walking with Bhagirathi on our right but now we were entering the forest section. We reached the camp by 5 pm. We did find a lot of other trekking groups who had set up their camps there.

scenic clouds from gangotri to chirbasa
covered in clouds while all of us enjoy the interaction & games

Once we got to the camp we saw some of the tents and sleeping bags had gotten wet, but not like we could do something about it so we just tried drying them in the tents. The rain didn’t stop and it kept drizzling. Since there was barely anything to be done after reaching the camp, all of us gathered in the kitchen tents and we continued with different games and some stories shared by everyone. All of us had made up our minds that the buffer day would be spent here because it just didn’t stop raining.

By 9 or 10 pm, everyone was back to their tents, even the trek leader mentioned all the decisions would be made in the early morning depending on the weather conditions. You might have heard that the sound of rain helps in a pleasant sleep, but we didn’t know the horror this rain was going to bring for all of us the next day.

Experiencing my first snowfall

chirbasa campsite covered in snow
Chirbasa campsite covered in snow

We woke up in the morning and the rain hadn’t stopped yet, yes it rained the whole night, drizzling at times but it just didn’t stop. So our trek leader gave us the information that we would be using our buffer day at this camp itself. Now everyone got back to speculating, What if it doesn’t stop raining? Or can we leave as soon as the weather becomes normal? But leaving as soon as the weather got normal wasn’t possible because the tents had to be dried and then packed and another day of wet tents in that altitude and with that weather wasn’t a good decision. 

So we got back to our kitchen tents and continued with our game session. By 11 am we got the news that it had started to snow at Bhojbasa(2nd camp). And within an hour it started to snow on our camp as well. Cool isn’t it?? This was the first time I was experiencing a snowfall so we got out of our tents and started enjoying the snow, got lots of pictures clicked, and tasted snow (no it doesn’t have a taste 😛) 

indiahikes camps during snowfall in chirbasa
The tents were completely loaded with snow

After a couple of hours of continuous snowfall, the place became a snow wonderland, with layers of snow on our tents which we had to keep removing or else would make the tents wet. The trees were covered in snow and the whole place seemed like it was wearing a blanket of snow. Meanwhile, we got to know that because of heavy snowfall, going to the next camp was impossible.

The trek leader and other forest officials were discussing what needed to be done and they came to a decision that we needed to descend. Now, this was conveyed to us by 2 pm and as soon as we got to know about this everyone was disappointed. We had our lunch and immediately started our descent as it was going to take 3-4 hrs to reach the base camp. The trek was over for us or that is what we thought.

Is the trek over?

trek route covered in snow
The trek route was covered in snow

The same forest which was all green yesterday was now completely covered in snow. The bridges which we used for crossing the streams were also covered in snow. I repeat as far as we all could see it was all completely white. But with so much snow on the path we weren’t able to walk properly. We were slipping and it was tough to get a grip. Some parts had so much slush(Snow, Water, and Mud) that our boots were half sunk in them. We took our first break at around 4:30 pm after an hour of walking

That is when our trek leader got serious and he said to rush because we had to be close to the base camp before it got dark. While I was also enjoying the view and recording as much as possible with my go pro using the head mount I was also trying to rush(read as running) 

My socks were already wet because the water had started to seep into the boots(Note there is nothing known as completely waterproof boots) and my hands were freezing as well. I just had a Waterproof jacket which did cover the top of my body well but the pants were almost half wet(Note: No matter what please carry a poncho). 

It was just our group which was descending and the other groups decided to stay the night there. Now since the altitude had reduced it was not continuous snowfall but rather continuous rainfall again. I also heard from the other trekkers that the poncho wasn’t helping as well at this point. But the good part was we were able to see the base camp now and it seemed like we were just an hour away.

Rainfall, Autumn, Snowfall is there anything else left to experience?

After walking for another 10 minutes, Nitish who was leading the group in the front stopped because he was able to hear something. It took me another 2 mins to reach where I saw Nitish waiting and then I heard the noise. Rocks were falling, and I am not talking about one or two smaller rocks but rather huge boulders. After a couple of minutes, we could see the complete land/path in front of us getting washed away. Yes, it was a ‘LANDSLIDE’. 

Have you heard the sound of thunder when it’s lightning? Now imagine thundering continuously for 10 mins with 10x the sound, that was the sound we were able to hear because of this landslide. It took another 20 minutes for our complete team to reach the spot. And all this while the boulders and moraines kept sliding down.

Now the issue was, that this was the only route for us to reach the base camp. Once the landslide stopped for some time our trek guide goes and checks if it’s possible to walk on the path. And as soon as he placed his leg in the landslide section the ground started to slide down. So it was just not possible for us to move ahead using that path. All of us started to speculate if we could descend down and then cross the landslide zone and again climb back on the route but it had started to get dark and yes it was still drizzling.

Just yesterday, we were receiving a network in our mobile at the same place and now there was no network at all. If we have to contact the base team for help or let them know how do we even inform them? Luckily the trek leader had a walkie-talkie through which he was able to contact the base team and they said they’d get some help soon.

Our trek leader suggested we go to one of the sheds and wait there(Remember how we mentioned this was a pilgrim route and we had a lot of sheds for resting on the way). Now some of us didn’t want to go back because we had to climb for another 20 minutes and then again come back here and everyone was almost out of energy. But since the rocks from the landslides started to reach close to the spot where we were standing, we had no option but to go to the shed.

Meanwhile, we also found another family who were waiting with us and they didn’t have any rain gear or even proper footwear for trekking. It was almost 7:15 pm and we reached the shed with the help of the headlights all of us were carrying. 

Stranded in cold and rain

The first thing that all of us did after reaching the shed was to change into as many dry clothes as possible, especially socks. It had been more than 2 hrs of walking in wet socks and there was a high chance of frostbite or hypothermia.

Another thing that happened between all the commotion was all the porters who were carrying the luggage actually ran past the landslide section and crossed it safely. And some of the trekkers who had offloaded their backpacks didn’t have any dry clothes

Everyone was so drained out and now since we were not walking it had started to feel even colder. Thanks to the snacks and dry fruits that Randhir and some of the trekkers were carrying, they were lifesavers. But now we had to figure out how to keep ourselves warm, so our trek guide got some wood(obviously wet), and that’s when sanitizers came to our help. 

A good thing that Indiahikes has initiated is picking waste from the trek route while trekking so all of us emptied our eco bags which had paper and a lot of plastic which helped us with the fire. The family I mentioned didn’t have any dry clothes and they begged us and were even ready to pay us for dry clothes. Some of us who had dried clothes helped them and for real saved them from hypothermia and since they needed the fire the majority of us didn’t even go close to the fire.

A lifehack, which was introduced by Ayush at the moment, was two to three of us keeping our legs together in the helmet trying to keep our feet as warm as possible. (This should be added to the trek survival guides). That was the time when all the trekkers came up as a complete team and helped each other out in any way possible.

It was 8 pm and some of us had made up our minds and were even comfortable spending the whole night in the shed. But after continuous interaction with the base camp using the sat phone, we finally got to know the SDRF(State Disaster Response Force) team had started and was coming to rescue us.

The backstory of what happened at the base camp

As soon as the base camp got to hear of the landslide a team immediately left to reach us and another team went to ask for help for the rescue. Now the issue was there was no electricity and network in Gangotri since the day we had left, so they were not able to contact anyone.

So they rushed to the police station and made the calls to the higher official, eventually, the calls reached the DM(district magistrate) of Uttarkashi who approved a team of SDRF of 15 people to come and rescue us.

Continuing with the RESCUE story!

gaumukh trek rescue images
SDRF team rescuing the trekkers

By 8:25 pm to be precise we got to know that one of the members of the SDRF team had crossed the landslide section and they asked us to start descending. Once we reached the landslide section we saw how the SDRF team had placed a few rocks and tried to create a path over the washed-out land.

The landslide was still happening but now it was just a couple of rocks that were falling at intervals. So they asked us to form groups of 3 and by holding their hands we were able to successfully cross the landslide section. The streams which we crossed by walking on the stones the previous day were now flooding. The water at this time was going from the top of the ankle shoes. But I didn’t care about water in my shoes and just kept walking because reaching base camp safely was the most important thing at that point.

We were so relieved after reaching the forest check post, then the forest officials and SDRF team counted the no. of trekkers and said to proceed further to base camp. But they then mentioned there are 3 smaller landslide sections ahead which we should cross safely. After crossing these 3 landslides and a waterfall we reached the base camp by 10 pm.

And we reached safely

gaumukh tapovan trek rescue news
News reporting about the incident on the trek

So once all of us reached the base camp safely(apart from a couple of people slipping on the way back) the team served us hot water and soup. We also got to know that there was no network so now that we have reached safely we can’t even inform our parents about it. We all had dinner, changed into our dry clothes, and slept.

The next morning when we woke up the network was not back but while having tea each of us was smiling at each other. Everyone shared their own experience of the previous night and how grateful we were to reach back safely. At that moment Ayush quoted-

“It is not important to reach the summit, but it’s important to reach back safely”.

By 8:30 am we had started to get the network and we informed our parents of the adventure we had gone through in the last 36 hours. After all this and our morning routine, we got to hear about the landslides and roadblocks in the region, because of which we had to stay that night in the base camp at Gangotri only.

scenic mountains views at gangotri
it was all clear sky!

As soon as we got out to take a walk around Gangotri the sun was shining bright. This was the first time we had seen clear skies since the time we had arrived in Gangotri, all the trekkers went to the market to have some snacks in the evening. We also went for the aarti at the temple and saw the moon over the Sudarshan Parbat. The next morning some of us departed back to Dehradun while the others chose to explore a place nearby.

swargarohini peak with the moon over it
View of the Swargarohini Peak

My final thoughts from the trek and about the weather change

trekker carrying backpack on gaumulh tapovan trek

During the same time, there was another team that was doing an expedition in the nearby region which suffered a lot of fatalities. While we were lucky I still felt the urge to summit a mountain and within 4 days I had already booked my next trek to Sandakphu(More details on how I ended up going to Sandakphu in the upcoming blog). 

Now you might be wondering how I convinced my parents to go for the next trek, well I always keep them informed and the only thing I was supposed to check before booking the trek was the weather conditions.

Something odd I observed with Indiahikes was, that they have set an amazing benchmark about the safety of trekkers but there was no post regarding this evacuation on their website or social media. I still suggest everyone who wants to start trekking go for their first experience with Indiahikes. 

Some of you might be thinking If the weather was so bad why did I even try to book this trek? Well, the best time to go on the Gaumukh trek is during October and the weather was only bad for those 2 days. And it’s nearly impossible to predict the weather change, especially in the mountains. 

A lot of it also depends on climate change. We started to see weather change drastically during Oct, which led to huge disasters in the mountains in Oct ’21 and Oct’22.

And lastly thanks to all the SDRF team, the Indiahikes team, our trek guides, the trek leader, and especially all the fellow trekkers. The way we connected and helped each other was one of the best experiences of my Gaumukh trek.

Sharing with you the experience of some of my fellow trekkers

“A plan to go to the Himalayas by motorcycle or on hike, chose the latter. I wanted to experience something different, we never had a clue slight clue about what would unfold in front of us in the hike and what Aman has captured in this blog is point to point experience of the hike.” – Nitish

“The trek that could’ve been Gaumukh Tapovan/Chirbasa. We had to retract after day 2 due to inclement weather – rains at Uttarakhand – and the trail changing from terrific to treacherous in a matter or hours. A hair raising yet humbling experience cause it’s not you who choose the mountain but it’s the mountains that choose you – Shree”

Have you experienced something of this magnitude? Share in the comments below

Are you someone who likes to plan their trips well in advance? Read more about the 14 long weekends in 2024 and plan your travel

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