• PROOF:
  • August 5, 2014

High in the Himalaya: 36 Avalanches and a Silent Refuge

Author
Pete McBride

One river, 18,000 feet, 1,500 miles. In the fall of 2013, photographer and videographer Pete McBride, along with professional climbers Jake Norton and Dave Morton, followed the Ganges River from snow to sea. All this week, Proof takes you on their 45-day journey—by foot, boat, bike, aircraft, rickshaw, bus, train, and even elephant—as they track every mile of this sacred river.

September 17-28, 2013

Just before sunset, the snow starts to fall. The flakes are wet and heavy. Jake looks up and says as much to the sky as to us, his climbing partners, “This feels like one of those monsoon storms that stick around.”

Dave and I listen to Jake’s words, but there is nothing to do except button up. We are high in the Garhwal region of the Indian Himalaya, standing at 17,500 feet atop the giant Gangotri glacier, surrounded by 23,000-foot peaks, many unclimbed. It is said to be the birthplace of India’s sacred river, the Ganges. It has taken us nearly ten days to get here—six of them by foot walking through treacherous, glacial moraine. We are miles from any whisper of civilization. But due to our proximity to India’s northwestern border with Pakistan, Indian law prohibits satellite phones. International tensions with Pakistan are hotter than normal, boiling even. We are highly aware that any rescue requiring support (helicopters), is out of the question.

Picture of climbers at the base of Chaukhamba IV in the Himalaya
At 16,700 feet at minus 20ºF, Jake Norton (right) and Dave Morton eat a quick dinner under moonlight as they prepare to climb the unclimbed Chaukhamba IV looming behind them.

We came to this remoteness to claw our way up the unclimbed Chaukhamba IV, a 22,487-foot, glacial-clad granite monster standing like a sentinel protecting the Gangotri glacier at its feet. Avalanche conditions are ripe, so we have targeted another 22,200-foot peak just west. It too has never been climbed, or even named. We are poised to move upward tomorrow. Ropes, helmets, crampons, and ice axes sit ready, waiting outside our tents.

Picture of climbers retreating in a snow storm down the Gangotri Glacier in the Indian Himalaya
The team retreats from Camp I at 17,300 feet, down the Gangotri Glacier after an unexpected, late monsoon storm dumped over three feet of snow in 12 hours. They counted 36 avalanches throughout the night before they concluded it wasn’t safe to keep climbing.

A stubborn monsoon season might say otherwise though. As darkness seeps over us, the wet, heavy flakes change. The soft sound of falling snow has morphed to a frozen, small hail. Miniature tap dancers performing on our nylon roof, I think. We lie in our sleeping bags cracking jokes about our situation. Who packed skis? All of us are intently focused on the sound of the storm. I try to keep worry to a slow percolate.

News-Map-Ganges2-v5
  Maggie Smith, NG Staff

As the damp night lists, we continually shake accumulating snow from our tents. We take turns shoveling every two hours to keep the ventilation from sealing. The thought of quiet suffocation keeps me awake.

The steady creaks and moans of the glacier that kept me awake previous nights have subsided. And the steady roar of water pouring down the glacier has also gone mute. Just the icy snow dance on our tent. I wonder if the haunting loon-like call of the male Himalayan snowcock will wake us in the morning like it has before.

Silent Baba is a sadhu who has chosen not to speak for seven years. He lives in a humble stone ashram above Tapovan Creek, at 14,200 feet, in the shadow of the Bhagirathi mountains behind. Like many Hindu, he believes the Ganges is more sacred at its headwaters.
Silent Baba is a sadhu who has chosen not to speak for seven years. He lives in a humble stone ashram above Tapovan Creek, at 14,200 feet, in the shadow of the Bhagirathi mountains behind. Like many Hindu, he believes the Ganges is more sacred at its headwaters.

Sometime around midnight a new sound jolts Jake and me upright in our bags. A low rumble … no, distant thunder … no, echoing giant thunder. Avalanche. At first we hear it from afar—high up on Chaukhamba, I presume. But steadily the rumble grows louder, stereo even. Jake and I look at each other. “How far are we from the mountain?” I ask, starting to eye my boots. Jake assures me we are fine. Ten minutes later another roar, even louder. Jake eyes his boots.

For the next five hours, the avalanches continue. Their sounds vary between that of distant thunderstorms and the crack of artillery fire—building-size blocks tumbling from above. Some avalanches rumble over a minute. Throughout the night, I count 36.

At 5:30 a.m., we come to the conclusion that our climbing mission is over. If we don’t move, the monsoon won’t let us. It is time to pack up and fight/flee our way down. As I mine for buried tent stakes, I measure over three feet of snow. It is still snowing, hard. The soupy light is so flat, I get disoriented when I stand. The call of the snowcock is absent. Everything is absent except snow.

Picture of a wild ibex crossing one of the tributaries forming the headwaters of the Ganges
A wild ibex soars across Tapovan Creek, one of many small tributaries that form the headwaters of the Ganges River.

Having grown up in the Rocky Mountains and spent the majority of my life in snowy environs, I’m dumbfounded. I’ve never seen such a surge of frozen moisture before, ever.

Over the next six hours we posthole through thigh-deep, concrete-like snow, straining under oversize loads. Our climbing ropes remain behind—too heavy for a single load. We mark their location with GPS coordinates, optimistically hoping someone can find them later. In ten hours, we make just three miles to Advance Base Camp. Our third tent is completely buried, hidden. Dave, who has guided all seven summits and stood atop Everest six times, says it is the “most worked he has been in a long time.” I can barely smile at the comment. I’m shattered.

We reach Base Camp the following night. I’m so tired I can barely eat. And two days later we reach the rustic ashram of Silent Baba, a sadhu who hasn’t spoken in seven years—his form of reverence to Ma Ganga. His tiny structure sits at 14,200 feet, in the shadow of the Bhagirathi, Meru, and Shivling, some of the most stunning peaks I’ve witnessed. Wild ibex linger in the meadows beyond his stone sanctuary. Baba serves us homemade chai and we sit in silence, watching the mountains, grateful we aren’t stranded.

Picture of the Tehri Dam and reservoir in India
The Tehri Dam and reservoir, which halted the sacred Ganges, is one of the largest dams in Asia and highly controversial in India. Drowning 40 villages and displacing 100,000 people, it has ongoing legal battles. The hydroelectric facility is said to produce 2,400 MW of electricity.

Slightly defeated by our abandoned climb, we push downstream past Gaumukh, “the cow’s mouth,” where the Ganges pours out beneath the collapsing foot of the Gangotri Glacier. This transition of ice to river is spiritually powerful and many Hindu pilgrimage here. The exact location, however, is moving upstream at roughly 60 feet a year—the hand of climate change at work.

Picture of the confluence of the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi Rivers in India
Aerial perspective of the confluence of the Alaknanda (right) and Bhagirathi Rivers. Known as Devaprayag, this location is considered religiously important among Hindus because the divine Ganges River takes its official name and form here.

Then, suddenly, after weeks on foot, we return to the wheeled travel of 4x4s and move downstream through the scoured canyons of a gravity-fueled river. The roads that were washed out when we came in are now repaired, barely. “It feels like we are driving on a sandcastle,” says Dave.

When we enter the lower foothills, the power of the Ganges visibly stops. Stretched before us is the Tehri Dam and reservoir, one of the largest and most controversial hydroelectric projects in the world. To quench a growing thirst for electricity, the Tehri project submerged 40 villages and physically stopped Lord Shiva’s flow.

The sacred headwaters are clearly behind us. Time to start looking downstream.

Next: Do you know where your shoes come from? Industry on the Banks: Deep Inside Kanpur’s Tanneries

The Ganges River expedition was made possible with funding from Microsoft, Eddie Bauer, National Geographic Society’s Expeditions Council, Ambuja Cement India, and Hach Hyrdolab. The full expedition team includes photographer and videographer Pete McBride, videographers and professional climbers Jake Norton and Dave Morton, and second camera Ashley Mosher.

There are 45 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Max thomson
    August 27, 2016

    Thanks for the gripping photos and narration. I had the pleasure of 2 trips to Nepal and India over 25 years ago, but not to the Ganges. I’ve just added it to my bucket list! The cultures, ecology and scenery are one of our planet’s richest gifts.

  2. Marina
    July 12, 2016

    Dear Pete, last time in Tapovan i showed this video to Silent Baba, he was very happy and he remembers you 🙂 Thanks for this amazing review of this amazing place. I can’t stop coming back there every year :)))

  3. Marina
    July 12, 2016

    Since 2010 every year we go there with small organized group. If someone wants to join us, you are welcome! Marina.

  4. pk
    January 19, 2016

    wonderful shoot……it’s reality. In my words Nobody can save. Nature..only Nature save Nature. I know Your Silent Refuge….i meet him last 3-4 year frequently in GANGOTRI.

  5. Lillian
    August 31, 2015

    It is so wonderful !!!!!!!!’ DTB !!!!!!!!

  6. Carlos Cruz Velasco
    September 29, 2014

    Magnifico reportaje e impresionantes fotografías. Gracias por regalarnos estos impresionantes paisajes. Dios los bendiga.

  7. Kathrin
    September 29, 2014

    Thank you for sharing this fantastic trip. It was wonderful to look and read.

  8. kiran
    September 29, 2014

    Thanks for sharing your wonderful journey with us.. from my child hood i am a great admirer of National Geographic channel and your whole team who are bringing lot of awareness to whole world risking your lives for which i can’t praise u guy’s in few lines..

    But in this particular article the map’s you have shown Indian occupied Kashmir as Pakistan territory seriously hurt my feelings as well as every Indian. I never expected this from NG. I sincerely hope this will not be continued. Thank you.

  9. Anoop
    September 12, 2014

    Great effort; i appreciate it

  10. Firoz hassan
    September 12, 2014

    Awesome

  11. Aneesh S
    September 11, 2014

    superb work… can i have more pictures..?

  12. Remesh
    September 11, 2014

    Excellent

  13. Shalu Saithalavi
    September 11, 2014

    Being an Indian it makes me more pride. Thank you for promoting Indian tourism.

  14. Priya
    September 11, 2014

    Amazingly Amazing…….

  15. anwar vakkad
    September 11, 2014

    A BIG SALUTE…its too amazing..

  16. Manoj
    September 11, 2014

    Amazing findings…

  17. Remesh kumar
    September 10, 2014

    WONDERFUL

  18. Sreenivasan
    September 10, 2014

    very good photos

  19. Dinesh PV
    September 10, 2014

    Very very interesting thank u….

  20. Amal Zubair
    September 10, 2014

    AMAZINGG STILLS!!

  21. Boban Varghese
    September 10, 2014

    Fanastic

  22. shriekanth
    September 10, 2014

    Thanx sir….for giving the live photos history of yhe lord sivas himalayas.this will teach me the relation between the humans and loard siva….now i am more proud about as a hindu………

  23. Anil
    September 10, 2014

    Awesome……thrilling.. Inspired

  24. anoop
    September 10, 2014

    i like that

  25. Peter McBride
    August 25, 2014

    Thanks all for the nice comments. The burning ghat footage and story is in the following blogs.

  26. Shaas Ruz
    August 20, 2014

    W O N D E R F U L L, thanks!

  27. Dr.Shibani Chakravorti;Ph.D.,MBA:USA.Member:CNN.
    August 18, 2014

    This is amazing! Such courage and undaunted determination!!! I admire your level of braveness to do this!! Absolutely stunning photo and videography!! I am a video and photographer too, and I can’t imagine what an amazing journey this must have been, amidst all the fear for the avalanches etc!!! Hats off to the entire team!!! Cheers!!! I really wish I could go with all of you. I have been to Kedarnath, Badrinath, and several other places.. I wish I can visit those places again.. The beauty is mesmerizing.. Such beautiful sunrises and sunsets too..!!!! 🙂

  28. FKH
    August 17, 2014

    just last I watched “Children of the Pyre” about the burning ghats in Varanasi toward which you are heading. Let’s see those photos and videos!

  29. nilda lopez vale
    August 17, 2014

    I was just at the foot of the Himalayas a couple of years ago and it was breathtaking to start to read your article congratulations for sharing such a fantastic experience will search for the rest of it.Congratulations and thanks for sharing your experience .

  30. Gerda Hoogvorst
    August 17, 2014

    Prachtige Beelden

  31. Neha Kulkarni
    August 12, 2014

    Amazing, Thrilling..!! Those avalanches must be scarier than worst nightmares!! But awesome!
    I wish I could be a part of something of this sort!

  32. Vinod Pandit
    August 9, 2014

    Exhilarating & inspiring journey into the Garhwal Himalayas.

  33. Pete McBride
    August 6, 2014

    Dr. Alam – You are correct. China is north but Pakistan is just to the west of where we were thus the restriction on Satellite phones. The Indian climbing authority who issued our climbing permit also gave us the information and warning about that Himalaya border stretch with Pakistan.

  34. kapish daga
    August 6, 2014

    It is wonderful to read such a nice description of the journey.would like to go in such kind of journey with u all of possible.

  35. honey chauhan
    August 6, 2014

    an unquenching thirst of adventure and the the surfieting serene beauty of peaks.. that is what keeps a mountaineer alive… above all no matter you conquered it or not ‘cos what you’ve achieved from there is not even a millimeter less.. (y) Cheers to life.. cheers to fun..

  36. Haili Li
    August 5, 2014

    The harsh travel condition reminds me a movie : Kekexili Mountain Patrol. No Avalanches nor quicksand can stop poacher hunt Tibetan Antelopes.If they could use the effort to conquer the unknown like the climbers,there will be less unknown.Truly admire the adventurer like you all.

  37. tata
    August 5, 2014

    Really really awesome journey. When I read this articel, I feel like Ikm there too. Really nice pict. someday I can get travelling together hopefully

  38. Dr. Mohammad Ayaz Alam (Santiago, Chile)
    August 5, 2014

    *Correction*
    “But due to our proximity to India’s northern border with Pakistan, Indian law prohibits satellite phones. International tensions with Pakistan are hotter than normal, boiling even.”
    India shares its northern border with China, not Pakistan. It could be seen in the map included in the article. It seems some tourist guide gave this piece of information. 🙂

    • Alexa Keefe
      August 8, 2014

      Thank you for your comment. We have updated the post to specify that the border being referenced is the northwestern border between India and Pakistan.

  39. Swati Mukherjee
    August 5, 2014

    Awesome description!!!! Hope we can read many more of such places from your travel!!!!

  40. DT
    August 5, 2014

    What a wonderful journey! Thanks National Geographic!

  41. Vijesh V
    August 5, 2014

    Epic!

  42. Cathy Dammann
    August 5, 2014

    Thank You for the opportunity to see this as I will never be able to do it I feel like I was there with you. Wonderful way of explaining your great journey. Would love to travel with you on another journey another day. Am a true follower of National Geographic.

  43. sharad sharma
    August 5, 2014

    Great journey. Greater photos. I’ve been upto Tapovan. Real Heaven.

  44. meghnath sahu
    August 5, 2014

    amazing .

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