The Gangotri Glacier in Uttarakhand, India, is the prime feeder of freshwater to the mighty Mother Ganges. Now experts want to know if, and why, it’s disappearing.
Story and Photos by Jeff Fuchs
Berinder and Karin are hidden under their loads with only their legs peeking out, pulling them relentlessly onward and upward. Our scattered porter team is a ragged line, coloured bulbs weaving in and out of rocks and ice, disappearing and then reappearing.
On every side of this ever-shifting pathway, ice bodies climb upwards in shards and shattered pyramids, while ice pillars hold up boulders, tenuously. We are little moving creatures in a realm of dissipating, frozen Himalayan water towers. We move further into and onto a sacred zone where Shiva is worshiped, and to the source of one of the great flowing bodies of freshwater on the planet: the Mother River, the Ganges.’
It is Berinder that I track amid this maze, finding his vibrant pink woolen toque easily. It was he who, unsmiling and tiny, had volunteered to take a double load of supplies for the entirety of this almost month-long journey. We had embarked days ago from the pilgrim departure point of the town of Gangotri, and headed up into these vast vertical sheets of stone and ice.
Now Berinder pirouettes on little more than rubber soles with a crippling load, and the not-so-secret adoration I have for these porters—philosophers and fine-boned titans rolled into one—only increases. It is their fusion of sinuous power and clairvoyance with “all-things-mountain” that can carry a journey (or unravel it). These porters will be lifelines and compatriots for the next weeks, and their contentedness is a journey’s fortune.
Shuddering sounds and vibrations rumble nonstop through the moraine beneath us, as crevasses open up and yawn, and massive shards of ice cleave off in the sun into the Bhagirathi River, which in turn feeds the Ganges. We have passed the receding Gomukh (meaning “mouth of the cow,” it is known as the snout of the Gangotri Glacier), and its not-so-gracefully disintegrating husks of ice and rumbles are part of this living mass. One of the largest glaciers in Asia, the Gangotri is actually the prime feeder of freshwater to the holy Ganges; and now, it is playing host to our team.
We are laced along a fractured kilometre-or-so angled path, and behind me in an encased slow bundle is Debra Tan. Water influencer, city resident and lover of the mountains, she is willing herself up into these heights to immerse herself in one of the most pressing issues of this era: water preservation.
We’ve come to document, to absorb and to try and interconnect it all. The faucet culture of the cities needs a tangible point of reference for freshwater sources, and here the plight and culture of water is unimaginably clear. Deb’s philosophy is “slowly, slowly, but get there.”
We are treading through a rich blanket of land and people that effortlessly mixes mythology, fact and feelings within the magnificent and stoic beauty of the Himalayas.
Gangotri is one of four dhams, or places of pilgrimage, for Hindus, and as daunting as these spaces might seem, it is their spiritual component that staggers. Pilgrims reinforce the vitality of the place with their annual migrations, and its inextricable link to the human realm is accentuated. Ill-dressed, the pilgrims wobble their way up the glacier with courage, grace and sometimes naivete, while swamis tread barefoot, wrapped only in cottons, caps and a reverential gaze.
Here, the Ganges River and Lord Shiva are worshiped with whatever zeal is left after the great journeys to simply arrive in Uttarakhand, where Gangotri Glacier lies. Locals refer to both the glacier and the River Bhagirathi as “the birthplace of the Ganges,” but it is more technically correct that the Ganges begins at the confluence of its two primary headstreams, the Bhagirati and Alakananda rivers, somewhat south of here.
The Ganges, it was once said, was a celestial body called Akash Ganga (Sky River), which is the Hindu mythological equivalent of the Milky Way. The legend, which still lives large, 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).
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In India, it is said: “If the Ganges thrives, India thrives; and if the Ganges dies, India dies.” Water’s vital role has re-emerged as one of the drivers of economics and industry here, and perhaps just as crucially, as a healthy and spiritually complete India.
• • •
Morning comes to Tapovan camp (at 4,463 metres), with one of the mountaineering world’s great bodies, Shivling (6,543 m), splaying its northeastern wall and exquisite peak in the beams of sun. Further west is the revered Meru (6,660 m); but for all of the world’s obsessive interest in the verticals, it is below in the horizontals—the ebbing glaciers—where perhaps the most compelling story is taking place.
The Meru Glacier languishes in cold blue shadowed light that hasn’t quite been touched by the sun’s graces. Peaks garner the attention, but glaciers hold the vitality, however temporal. Meru is one of many tributary glaciers that we’ve come to take in, document and tread upon. Just as Gangotri Glacier feeds the Mother Ganges, these tributaries feed the greater Gangotri. Every singular event here in the mountains is interconnected; rocks will endure, but water and its providers won’t.
At their core, tales of travel, of wandering and of exploration within the Himalayas weave together myth, statistics, oral narratives and utterly entertaining characters, though so often in them there is obsession with “ascent” while not paying heed to the wealth of what lies at the feet of the mountains.
Our kitchen tent gently comes to life in the still morning air, with Karma (who is essential beyond his culinary abilities) vocally shifting between muttering mantras in Tibetan and blasting out bits of Bollywood music in Hindi. There are scurrying noises and vague complaints from the porters’ tent, while cold, still sheets of air emanate out of the frozen earth.
Purun and I stand waiting for the sun to finally touch us; more vitally, we await Karma’s potent cups of tea, inundated with freshly grated ginger, cloves and cinnamon. Purun, Karma and I have travelled together for months in the mountains in previous years, and with them, mornings are deliciously devoid of useless chatter. It is a small miracle, this morning sky that beams power and utter faith in itself, and mortals’ voices can erase this magic in an instant … Karma’s morning mantras aside.
Our team is a wonderful stew of individuals, which numbers nine. Purun, Karma and Debra Tan, whose desire to map and document the ebbing glaciers and river sources match my own. Saurabh, a local guide who is a languid hard man, along with a team of five porters, completes our family. The porters are utterly epic characters, markedly different in appearance and temperament, and yet they work in smooth tandem.
There is Berinder of the pink toque, who has in short order become like an appendage shadowing me, admonishing me, and watching—always watching. There is Uncle (simply called “Uncle” by all), a wizened porter with a huge smile who uses craft and positioning when carrying loads; and Karin, a hyperactive man of huge strength who could be a professional athlete, such is his force and resilience. Two young quiet men who are both named Parkas make up the team.
Debra’s mornings are consistent in that they don’t usually begin until the sun begins to embrace her tent—it’s only then that she makes her appearance and offers her almost-musical “Good Mornings” to every single thing she lays eyes upon, animate or otherwise.
Winter’s currents come down at us, and they beg the eyes and imagination to tilt up to a skyline that is at once gargantuan and detailed. It is one of the most densely peak-ridden regions of the Himalayas, and its ice contributes to the Indo-Gangetic Plain further south, a basin that accommodates and feeds nearly 42 percent of the Indian population. It is as absolutely epic in scale as it is vital in nature.
When the Ganges’s 2,525 kilometres finally discharge into the Bay of Bengal, it is a soup of industrial and human waste. The mighty Mother is sacred; and yet, it is entirely corrupted by man’s industry and ignorance. It begins pristine, then ebbs into a kind of madness of murk. Flowing bodies of water across the globe have been similarly treated, but few have the scale of debasement of India’s great river.
Onward we push with Uncle and the two Parkas, heading south and up and further onto the Gangotri Glacier, and then to another of the tributary glaciers, the Kirti, and to our camp that lies at 4,800 metres.
Saurabh warns us there is a “small descent that will take a little time” to negotiate.
His voice was raised ever so slightly, and this “small descent” is a dirt path that pitches into a dark line between the glaciers below. Debra’s huge heaves and wide eyes say much. Above us, a haven for landslides spews dust and sand in tiny errant lines. Purun and Saurabh are stationed in front and behind Deb like the honour guards they have become.
Incredibly, the porters take the path with their huge loads upon their back, with a brave plunging step and some mantras. Yet even they pray at such points. Shale, dust, sand and rocks all shoot and rocket down the slope, leaving little plumes in their wake. When these accumulate and forge with one another, landslides begin.
Karma, with his quiet voice, in Tibetan tells anyone who will listen, “Kalè, kalè,” or “Slowly, slowly.”
One slip and momentum and gravity will do the rest, without a moment’s loss. We are not roped onto one another as we have agreed that our chances are better to “catch” a fall, rather than drag down others on these paths. It’s an agreement we make in earnest on each portion of the route that hints at risk.
Kirti camp lies at a small river-basin dugout that winds cannot quite corkscrew their way into. We will camp here for three nights while I take daily glacier forages, with Saurabh and Berinder in tow. Base camps provide a temporary illusion that we do in fact have a home out here, though all of us are quite content with being on the move.
All of the porters, except Berinder, pack down in their billowing tent to immerse themselves in serious card-playing sessions. As they do, beautiful strings and voices of Bollywood emanate from the tent, as does the epic voice of legendary Lata Mangeshkar. For the porters, the few songs on their mobile phones are one of the few but very necessary luxuries.
• • •
Utterly small, the rippling curl of a stream bustles in blue clarity, tinkling along, onward and downward. The ice-stream is diminutive, but wholly demonstrative of what we have come to take in. Having crawled down into a cave, with Saurabh somewhere waiting above me, I’m just inches above glacial stream that will end up in the Ganges at some stage later today, or perhaps tomorrow.
Mesmeric is the thought that this nook in which I find myself provides water for a river that will travel through a basin more than a million square kilometres in size. And that the glacier upon which I lie, the Kirti, is one of many that feeds the Gangotri Glacier, which finds itself mentioned in the Puranas (the ancient texts of Hindus) when a shepherd comes upon the great mass of ice looking for lost sheep.
This mass of ice now sees pilgrims in the thousands flock annually, but with them comes all that is man-formed: waste, worship, haste. Even my presence seems in some ways an intrusion, though I’ve long put guilt away as I need these spaces, regardless of whether they need me.
• • •
Berinder is ahead and struggling. His little titan’s body is heaving as we diagonally cross the Gangotri, continuing east toward another of the tributary glaciers.
Karin the head porter takes the extra load from Berinder with little ceremony and a simple nod to his travails. The jagged ice belt that we cross is a lethal ever-shifting body and the only pathways that exist are ones Uncle and Karin sniff out. Every step needs slight variations of pace and placing of the feet.
Uncle and the younger Parkas have moved north to find an alternative route away from crevasses, which stare at us as we pass over them.
Arriving at Nandanvan Camp, Purun mentions simply, “The quiet time is leaving.”
The sky-world above is in dark flux, and the nearby Bhagirathi Peaks seem to funnel the winds down onto us. Pyramidal mountaintops and golden-tinged headwalls look so very reachable and accessible to us, but on this journey we have come for what lies at the base and to the side of such peaks: the ice.
North of our camp lies the layered rainbow of moraine and stone of the Chaturangi (meaning “four colours”’) Glacier. Every tributary glacier we’ve encountered has bled its tones into the larger Gangotri, and every tributary has its own tonal range and accents. Local guides will often explain which glaciers are “bleeding” more than others by simply looking at the greater Gangotri ice flow and seeing what colours dominate.
Winter is draping each successive day in more of its great insulating curtains, and here at Nandanvan all life and movement itself seems to be ebbing. The blue sheep are moving down in small clans out of their high enclaves (and setting off landslides as they go), and even the foxes, which yip and whine most nights, have been silenced.
• • •
Berinder is impatient and staring in his mournful way at Saurabh and I to hurry. He’s had his morning tea and stands like a shy gunslinger, with hands at the side, ready. He is always ready and he wants to move, as it’s our day to make an incursion east into the Chaturangi Glacier valley. For much of this journey the three of us have been a tight crew, wandering in these higher lands.
I am a known tea maven—an obsessive connoisseur, a devoted advocate. Tea’s grip and binding power cannot be overstated; it uncoils the muscles and the brain and reconstitutes the spirit in slow methodical cups, many times a day. Not for the first time, tea is the perfect accompaniment for the mountains.
Once we have our packed lunches of chocolate, biscuits, raisins and tea, Berinder bolts off into the mountains, eager to sate the demons which seem to come to him when sedentary. He has the telltale shuffle of someone who is used to hauling enormous loads, while Saurabh simply glides forward.
Below us red stone and green pockets of water dot the surface of the glacier, while striating rock shelves and ice lies in clumps. The “little” ponds that rest atop the glacier are actually supraglacial lakes, and they can be far wider and much deeper than an interested set of eyes might suspect. They can also have a further warming effect on the glacier as they attract more of the sun’s warmth. Beauty here in the mountains is often deceiving.
Above us to the right is the peak Bhagirathi II, with its 6,512-metre chunk of summit. Sacred peaks, along with rivers and the great arbors, are living things to the locals. Forget this slice of local knowledge (regardless of one’s beliefs) and one is in peril; peril of taking oneself too seriously, peril of forgetting that the essence of the Himalayas rests in its horizontal spaces and the life within them, not in the verticals.
In the Himalayas, practicality and the world of deities and goddesses are remarkably collaborative—a holdover from a time when the mountains belonged to the animists.
For locals there is little contradiction in the fusing of facts with beliefs. Beliefs inform living, and in many cases locals I’ve encountered will point to their ways as being more sustainable and intuitive. At one point during our trek—as the mountains frequently do with brilliant and often brutal power—the air changes entirely, and there are suddenly tangs and whiffs of snow in the winds racing down from the Kalindi Pass further east of us.
Winds pick up, and the air that is blown in carries with it the unmistakable sharpness of lands and spaces higher up where the temperatures remain low. Saurabh sniffs at the sky with an arched neck, nodding: a storm is on the way.
This also marks the point where Saurabh heads on his own to assess conditions up ahead, further into the valley. Berinder and I—with our tea, bits of chocolate and almonds—will await his return.
After 25 minutes, Berinder’s familiar look of furtive impatience starts to appear. Try as he may, he has never been able to rest still for more than a few minutes, even when exhausted. The storm continues to pile into the valley and now the sky is more grey than blue. We both lie on our stomachs, chewing on nuts watching Saurabh’s tiny figure hurtling upward along a little line of a pathway. Then he simply disappears.
Within minutes Berinder is itching to go and follow, his dark pockets of eyes pleading with me to move. The great Roman philosopher and dramatist Seneca once said about passions that it was better to “make an exhibition of my passions than brood over them to my cost: express them, vent them, and they grow weaker; it is better to let them jab outside us than be run against us.” It seems a fitting philosophy for Berinder, who is singularly unable to restrain himself. There are little bits of English, lots of bits of Nepali, and both shakes and nods of the head from him.
In the end I relent, and we scurry down to follow Saurabh’s path. Berinder is driven to keep our unit together and to rebond with Saurabh; the sooner we are hinged to one another again the better.
The valley we pass down into and then out of is one of the reasons we have ultimately come. It is a hidden rivulet-lined sheet of concave ice that plunges toward the Chaturangi Glacier behind us. As a tributary glacier it is as vital a witness (and victim) to what ails the mountains as any massive river or mountaintop.
As we hit a vertical ropeway, the last of the sun is eaten up by a surging cloud bank, and there is Saurabh, smiling as he quickly rappels down to us in a few easy springs. He shakes his head at the notion of continuing further, and looking and pointing up at the sky’s energy says, “two storms are coming together.”
Another cloud front is being whipped up in a froth behind us as it moves toward the storm ahead of us. Somewhere, there is a rumble that shakes everything briefly. Though it feels as though it is deep within the earth itself, it is actually from the earth above, the mountains. We turn our heads upward. Now the snow is b
eginning to fall, and then it stops; our immediate world seems in total flux.
When we hit camp, two other mountain friends, Kapil and Bishan, have arrived, beating the storm, but just barely. As the snow arrives, so too does our tea from Karma’s busy kettle, and bodies tuck into tents, even as we gaze out onto the horizon.
Sightlines once dozens of kilometres long are brought into a span of just metres, as flakes the size of leaves shoot down diagonally, and a sort of second storm from far up the greater Gangotri Glacier takes our entire camp into its embrace.
Inevitably our tea-fuelled conversations turn to the health of the mountains (as they so often do). One cannot spend any amount of time within these bastions without being blitzed with worry about the intense change being brought on by distant forces. Old friend Kapil, who is part storytelling sage and part bodhisattva, sees change as only speeding up, outstripping the locals’ ability to adapt. If widely held estimates which say 30 metres of ice disappear or retreat every year are true, then approximately two metres will already have liquefied since our ascent 26 days ago.
Within the tent, with cups of tea in hand, there are already discussions about what imagined changes in these ice entities will be seen. Tomorrow we descend, and with that descent comes all of the inevitable worry and wonder that the last days in the hills bring.
Within their own colourful tent, the porters’ yips and squeals can be heard even above the storm’s heaves. They are content, being content. Berinder, meanwhile, is tucked nearby in our kitchen tent, with his arms wrapped around his knees and his fierce little face topped up by the ever-present pink toque.
We will move back down tomorrow, and Berinder will once again don his enormous load. He’ll head back to Nepal for the winter season, but before that we’ll all once again pass those epic stones and disintegrating ice bodies that we first gazed upon almost a month ago. I smile at Berinder as he sips his tea, and shows me only a hint of a smile on his face. **