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The Relentlessness of the Auden’s Col trek

Once you have lived with mountains

Under the whispering pines

And deodars, near stars,

And a brighter moon,

With woodsmoke and mist

Sweet smell of grass, dew lines

On spider spun, sun kissed

Buttercup and vine:

Once you have lived with these,

Blessed, God’s favorite then,

You will return,

You will come back

To touch the trees and grass

And climb once more the windswept mountain pass

                              – Once you have lived with mountains by Ruskin Bond

*****

I was missing the mountains.

Badly.

It was about seven years since my last trek into the mountains. Yes, I had gone whitewater rafting down the Brahmaputra but then other than it being an outdoor adventure, there was nothing in common with a trek.

A trek is different. Mountains have a different aura about them. There’s an aloofness, a solidity, a sense of permanence about them that nothing else in nature provides.

I wanted to see the mountains, walk up its steep inclines, breathe the clean fresh air, feel the snow, enjoy the solitude and love the physical challenge that they give you.

But, I think, most of all, I just wanted to recharge my batteries and nothing does that better than a trek in the mountains. Work was at its most chaotic state for the last couple of years and I really needed that recharge.

Work again dictated a very narrow time frame for me to plan my break. That tiny gap when one quarter’s business is done and the real action for the next starts ( ah, the life of a salesman ! ). If I stretch it a bit, I could squeeze in about two weeks.

There was one trek that fitted in to my narrow schedule perfectly.

The Auden’s Col trek. And, of course, I went with Aquaterra.

*****

Auden’s Col.

  1. Auden : John Bicknell Auden, brother of the famous poet Auden, was a Geographical Survey officer. He discovered the Col in 1935 and finally crossed it in 1939.

  2. Col : the lowest point of a ridge or saddle between two peaks, typically providing a pass from one side of a mountain range to another

  3. Auden’s Col is one of the toughest and most challenging treks in the country and definitely the most dangerous pass in the Garhwal Himalayas.

  4. Its not a popular trek due to its level of difficulty. Someone told me later that less than 50 people do this trek each year.

  5. The Col is at a height of 5490 m – 18,000 feet. ( That’s high. )

  6. The terrain is strenous and the trail passes through moraines, narrow cliffs, Boulders and difficult ridges.

  7. The pass links two glaciers on the opposite sides, viz Khatling glacier and Jogin I glacier. The pass and the Khatling glacier are heavily infested with crevasses.

I knew nothing about all the above info. Absolutely. Nothing.

I didn’t have the time to do any research. Forget research, I didn’t  do  much cursory reading.

I even didn’t have time to do any serious training for the trek, remaining cheerfully confident ( foolhardy is the right term ) about my fitness levels to do the trek.

My physical routine just had a longish run once a week and yoga 3-4 days a week.

I was flying in blind.

*****

Most treks begin the same way. Assemble, meet the rest of the group,  go on a road trip, gain altitude during the drive, get acclimatized by spending a day at the end point of the drive and then the start climbing.

I took a night train from Delhi to Haridwar, a short drive to the resort followed where I met the rest of the crowd. 11 of them. Four women and eight men. Total strangers ( another first for me )

And soon we were off. Driving through winding roads, lush greenery around you and the blue skies above.

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Far from the madd(en)ing crowd, our journey begins


Seven hours later, after the sun had long set, we had reached the place of our night’s halt. A quaintly named place called Kuflon Basics ( 1550 mts ) in the Assi Ganga valley (http://kuflonbasics.com ).

I stepped out of my cottage the next morning to realize what a beautiful place Kuflon Basics was. Nestling between the curves of the hills, just above the river the place was incredibly lovely.

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The beauty that is Kuflon Basics


Our hosts showed us how far the water level had risen from the river below during the Uttarakhand in 2013. It was unnerving to see that. We saw the damage the floods had caused on some of the buildings near by. Frightening.

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And quietly flows the Bhageeratha


Another longish drive and we reached the destination of our road trip. The base camp of our trek – the temple town of Gangotri.

*****

Gangotri is a small town mainly centered around the temple of Goddess Ganga and the Bhagirathi falls at Gauri Kund. It is one of the four sites of the Chhota Char Dham pilgrim circuit.

And its really a small town. The 2011 census put the town population at 600. Yes, 600. The rest are the tourists. Lots of them but we were, in a way lucky that we were there at an extremely lean period. There were some extremely peaceful places though in this bustling town.

The river, Bhagirathi, flows right thru the heart of the town, which is not surprising since everything is after all built around the river. The river is called Bhagirathi here and acquires the name Ganga from Dev Prayag onwards. The origin of the river, however, is at Gaumukh which is 19km away, in the Gangotri Glacier.

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Om Shanti….


We strolled down the one street that Gangotri has, looked into the many stores and took part in the maha aarti at the temple at sun down and buckled down for an early night.

In most of the treks I have done, the acclimatization hike is a gentle walk and that was what I was expecting when we started the next morning. Banish the thought. What followed was an exhausting but exhilarating climb up the slopes which should have given me a hint of what was about to follow. Both in terms of effort and the beauty.

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Yes. That is a bit steep.



That evening we were taken through what the plan for the rest of the trek looked like, how each day will look like and realization dawned on me slowly that this trek was different from my earlier ones. Way different. We were told about the last point we can decide if we want to turn back. Turn back ? That’s mentioned as an option right upfront ? Gulp.

The trek leader was specific on the precautions we had to take while walking, the clothing we need to carry in our day pack and took us through the meds that we need to be regular on ( taking Diamox for Altitude Sickness was not much of a matter of debate cos of the heights we will be reaching ).

It was after our morning hike that I committed my first mistake. Elementary one. I stayed with the group for a wee bit too long in my sweat drenched T shirt. On top of that, during my post lunch nap, I didn’t cover up adequately, with the result that by evening I was feeling a bit peakish. Boy…would I run a mild temperature !

That feeling, along with listening to what the trek was all about, left me a bit spooked. It was just the first day with a bunch of strangers and while the ice had been broken, no great rapport has yet been established. The comfort of having known faces around was missing.

It was a decidedly lonely, slightly nervous and worried me that went to bed that night.

*****

Usually treks begin in a similar fashion. The first couple of days are relatively easy, then the slightly steeper slopes start and then there is that one or max two difficult days.

No such luck here. The Auden’s Col trek makes a statement from the first day itself. The slopes are steep, the tracks at many places narrow and having loose soil, loose rocks and then there are scarily narrow wooden logs that serve the purpose of bridges across rushing waters. You get the picture ?

If there’s a single word to describe this trek its – relentless.

But the beauty around you. Breath taking. Huge mountain faces, lovely valleys, brilliant blue skies. Magnificence all around you.

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Breathtaking sights all around us


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Those scary crossings !!


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The insignificance that is us


climb

This was labeled as an easy climb. Yeah, right.


As we kept gaining altitude, the lush greenery soon fell behind us and shorter sparser shrubs took their place and soon they too gave up keeping pace with us.

On the third day was the rest day. At the height of about 4600 mt. All of us lazed about, exchanged stories, enjoyed the warm sunshines, practiced walking with the snowboots ( bloody difficult ! ). We didn’t know then that we won’t be seeing such sun shine and such weather for a long time.

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In that general direction, lay Auden’s Col. Our destination.


This was the first day we were told that if anyone wants to head back to Gangotri, now would be a good time. Cos, things will be tougher from now on.

*****

The mind is a funny thing.

Every morning and evening, two parameters were checked for all of us. Our pulse rate and our oxygen levels ( Another indication of the close eye that was kept on our physical status).

The first morning my mood when I woke up was the same as when I went to sleep –  anxious. My pulse rates were high…110, oxygen levels quite ok.

Hmm…that got me wondering. Why is my pulse rate high ? I have never had that before.

That evening, pulse levels continued to be at similar levels. And the next morning. And the next evening. Now, I was getting more than a wee bit worried.

Both these parameters used to be checked when all of us were sitting in the kitchen tent. Now, the trick on a trek is to be amongst the first to enter the tent and sit in the farthest corner since that will be the warmest and the cosiest. Also, it’s a pain to sit next to the tent opening cos every time someone enters or leaves, the flap opens and the bitterly cold wind rushes in. I was pretty good at doing that J

So, the guy comes in with his little gadget to check the pulse and the oxygen levels and he comes round the tight circle we would be sitting in. I will be waiting as he records the reading for each person and the reading will be announced.

On the third day, as soon as he came into the tent I got up, walked across to him and asked him to take my readings first. Pulse normal. Oxygen levels normal.

Just waiting for the guy to reach me, wondering if my pulse will again be high used to send it racing.

A small incident but something that I always remember. Our mind…funny things it can do.

*****

Moraine : A moraine is any glacially formed accumulation of unconsolidated glacial debris (regolith and rock)

In simple words, it’s a collection of loose rocks, stones and gravel. Its ugly to look at and you need to be careful when you walk on them. You never know which rock is stable and which one is loose. You need to choose your path carefully and while walking on that you cannot idly look around you and enjoy the beauty that nature has to offer. You focus. On every single step. You look at the path that the person ahead of you has taken and follow that path if it appears to be safe. You don’t hesitate to ask for help in crossing some passage. And be prepared to slip and tumble.

We got introduced to moraine the day after our rest day. It was a short distance of 3 kms we walked that day and didn’t gain much altitude – around 300 mts –  but it was a real painful walk. It was becoming cold and there was moraine. Ugly combination.

And thus we made it to the Auden’s Col Base Camp. Altitude : 4900 mt. Auden’s Col lay ahead of us. We could see it at what seemed to be a peaceful distance ahead and a not intimidating altitude.

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The bleak Auden’s Col Base Camp


That evening’s address was a terse one. We were told bluntly that if anyone wanted to turn back, this was the last point. We had to climb up and cross the pass the next day and if we are not feeling confident, we had to drop out now. We shouldn’t be putting the group at risk too. There were spare people in the team to take back anyone who opted out, no one naturally will have to return alone.

We were told that we had to leave very early in the morning. Much before sunrise. It was imperative that not only do we reach the pass early in the day but the rest of the porters carrying unimaginable loads also need to reach. And then we had to descend on the other side and walk across a glacier to our camp. If we are late in reaching the Pass, the weather might turn post lunch and then we could be on a sticky wicket.

We were clearly told. Keep your gear next to you in the evening itself. No one will have the time to search for it the next morning and God be with you in case you are without any of the gear. Gaiters. Snowboots. Gloves. Balaclava. Headlamps. The works.

The atmosphere was decidedly nervous. There was none of the usual banter. The slightly gloomy weather didn’t help. The usual tenting arrangements had changed since there wasn’t enough flat ground for all the tents to be pitched.  Everyone checked and rechecked and then again rechecked their gears. I think we all went to sleep that night hugging our gear .

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Bleak, yes. But there was such beauty.


*****

Upper body – Two thermal inners. Two dry fit T shirts. Two fleece jackets, one thick down jacket. A balaclava, a woolen cap and the jacket top zipped uptill the nose.

Lower body – a thermal inner, two pants, two woolen socks, snow boots.

And I was still shivering .

We started very early, our headlamps eerily glowing in the dark as we all made our way from our camp to the base of the snowy incline.

And then we start walking up the incline. Those not so intimidating inclines that we saw yesterday ? Ha. Not intimidating, indeed.

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That brutal climb


Walking in snow is a different experience. Walking in snow where you can suddenly sink upto your knees is a way way different experience. It was incredibly exhausting. A white expanse of snow lay all around us. We kept stopping…nay, collapsing on the snow, to take a breath and have some energy bars. We were too tired to soak in any beauty that was around us. The only thing that we were looking at – how far is the Col. And that never looked near enough.

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The collapse every now and then. Previously called as a ‘ breather’


I and another group member decided to take ten steps and then stop for a breath. Loudly counted our steps to egg each other on. Soon, we dropped the number. Seven steps and a breather. Then five. Three. Two…

Around ten feet away from the Col, I looked around me. I vaguely remembered some breath taking sights. There was nothing remotely similar here. I was too exhausted to even be disappointed.

And, then finally I am there. I take a step onto the Col and I freeze.

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I choked when I saw the wondrous sight before me


I look at the wondrous spectacle that was in front of me and I am choking with emotion at the sight. A sea of snow clad sharp mountain peaks lie ahead. Touching small wisps of billowing white clouds. All against a background of the most brilliant blue that I have ever seen.

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Uff…The incredible beauty


We have done it. We were on the Auden’s Col !!!

Altitude : 5490 mt.

*****

But the day was far from over.

We had to descend to the other side. It was steep. Very very steep.

The technical term used for this type of descent is ‘abseiling’. Abseling is a controlled descent off a vertical drop, using a rope. Its usually used when the descent is either too steep or too dangerous to attempt without protection. This one certainly called for it.

Ropes had to be put for us to slide down. We had to do it in a particular style. Slide down the snow, holding on to the rope, stop at a place for a breather and then continue further down. Easier said than done. I somehow managed it the right way till the first stop, but from there on mysteriously I lost the knack and bumped my way down. It was slow and it was a painful descent.

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The descent on the other side


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Just in case you did’nt get the idea


And the day was still far from over.

Ahead of us lay the Khatling glacier. The usual prefix the Khatling glacier had was – deadly. Why ? Because of the number of crevasses that existed here. We had to walk across the glacier to safe ground where we can camp for the night. We had a grizzled mountain veteran would would walk ahead of us, deciding which was the safest path to take.

Groups of 5-6 people were roped together and we started our careful walk. It was evening by now, we were plumb exhausted and walking on snow was just bloody tough. It was very easy to lose your balance and fall, taking everyone else tied to you along with you. At one point, when I slipped, my water bottle fell from my day pack and in the silence of the mountains, the metallic sound of it rolling across rang loudly. Till it fell into a crevasse. Boy.

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The nervy , bone tired stagger across the Khatling glacier


We finally did the 2 km walk and reached our camp. We had climbed 600+ mts and then descended 400 mts. By the time we reached, the rest of the team – God bless them – had put up the tents and steaming hot Maggi was waiting for us. It was bitterly cold and we crept into our tents exhausted beyond belief.

*****

There is something magical to wake up in the morning, crawl out of your tent and find the bright sun shining down at you. Suddenly, the previous day’s exertions are a thing of the past and we are all happily ambling around taking pictures of the camp site and the wondrous scenes around us.

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Exhausted ? Who we ? Bah ! The sun’s out !!


We then take a fairly big decision. The bright sun definitely made us a lot more confident, cheery and emboldened. The team leader outlines the challenges in doing two days walk in one day, but as a group we are game to go for it. It has to be the sun. Or the altitude. A day after a brutal ascent and descent we have decided to do two days walk in one.

Our original plan was to walk on the glacier, spend the night again on a similar snow covered ground. The next day continue walking and reach the lower altitude, friendlier settings of a valley. The revised plan means it would be a long day. 10-12 kms of a tough walk.

We decide to go for it. First we had to rope up and cross the rest of the glacier. Once that was done, continue our descent this time over moraine.

*****

It was a brutal walk. Too often did we wonder if we had tried to bite off more than we should have. The walk on the glacier in hindsight was easy compared to the moraine. Ever step was a delicate one. The number of times we would have stepped on a loose stone and lost balance or fell on your backside wouldn’t have been funny. We didn’t even have beauty around us to bolster our spirits ! The surroundings looked ugly and unforgiving.

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Our lead carefully deciding the safest path around the crevasses


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The dull and dreary moraine all around us


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The dreary and bleak terrain


By the time the last person straggled into the camp it was past 8 pm. The Aquaterra lads were simply superb. The way they shepherded us through the unimaginably difficult terrain was beyond description.

That night, secure in the knowledge that the toughest part was behind us, a few bottles were opened in exhausted celebration.

Two more days remained. They weren’t easy. The route continued to be relentless. But the big one was behind us.

We had crossed the Col.

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The last leg of the trek took us through familar and reassuring sights


Beauty

Mountains, meadows, blue skies and the sun…what more is needed ?


*****

So, would I recommend this trek to anyone ?

I loved the trek. It was truly challenging and you get a kick of having completed the trek. Of being part of a relatively small group that does it. The beauty that you see throughout the route – the moraine bit excluding – is just breath taking. The feeling that you get while you look at the world below us on the Col …its out of the world. So, yes, I would definitely highly recommend it.

However, you would need to be physically fit. Nothing much. Simply strong legs and strong lungs. If you are not very regular at your fitness regimen, give yourself 6-7 months to train and you would be fine. Aerobics, yoga, core and leg strengthening should be sufficient. If you like the outdoors and a bit of a challenge…go for it.

I have always maintained that more than half the battle is in the mind and that’s more than applicable here too. There were members in our group who covered some parts of the trek  out of sheer stubbornness. But, you would need a fairly good level of fitness. If you are not, you are not only putting yourself into difficulty but you will be dragging the rest of the team into it too.

*****

What would you need to carry ?

The weather can get bitterly cold. Its best to be a little over prepared. The temperatures would have gone down to -10 deg and in case of a windy night, the wind chill factor would add to the troubles.

So….first of all, be sure of the min temperature of your sleeping bag. It has to be good for – 10 deg or lower. Your boots. Spend money to get good hardy boots. Go for 2-3 pairs of gloves and woollen socks other than a few nylon ones. Take a balaclava. I hadn’t and had to borrow one. Got lucky. Its absolutely mandatory especially while climbing up to the Col. Thermals. A must. Take two sets if you don’t enjoy the cold. I had and I used them.

I am not talking about the usual ones – woollens, rain jackets, headlamps etc etc. Those are a given. Best is to follow the list to the T ( I was a bit lax there ! )

Diamox is strongly advisable. The trek takes you to altitudes where its better not to risk getting AMS.

*****

Photography ?

The usual for a trek. Wide Angle lens.  A tripod will be good to have especially if its one of those lightweight ones. Landscapes would just come out that much better with a tripod. And naturally no need for any usual telephoto lens either. Will just add to the weight.

However, its not easy to walk with a camera dangling from your neck. ( I lost my lens cover on the first day itself. It was a miracle that my lens didn’t get damaged. ) Especially over moraine but even on other days there are lots of paths that are narrow and steep. You can always pack the camera in your day pack and use it but that’s not very easy to do while having to cover fairly long distances each day. I don’t like doing it. But then there was a group member who did it all the time. Both camera and a tripod. So, clearly it’s a matter of personal choice and comfort.

*****

Aquaterra.

What can one say about these guys ?

I thought they were spectacular during my rafting down the Brahmaputra. They were even better here. For the 12 of us, there would have been more than 50 from their side. The leader and his team would be forever at our sides, helping us, egging us on. The lads carrying our luggage were unbelievable.

The food that we had at each place as always was brilliant. Well laid out meals with delicious offerings.

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Wouldn’t you just love to have a meal in such surroundings ?


These guys are just from another world.

To know more about them and the Auden’s Col trek : https://www.aquaterra.in/trips/audens-col-trek-uttarakhand-india/#tab01

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One of those indomitable Aquaterra lads casually walking up an incline with a load


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