|Maggie and I on the way to Hemkund
Trekking in the Garhwal Himalayas is both fun and
adventure. Thanks to the school in Delhi where I taught for a considerable
period of my life, I got opportunities to climb many a peak in the Himalayas
along with groups of young students. The best was the Hemkund trek.
Hemkund is a glacial lake that lies
about 15,000 feet (4572 metres) above sea level in the Himalayas. It’s a Sikh
pilgrimage centre dedicated to the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh (1666-1708). There
is a gurudwara on the bank of the lake. It is a two-day trek for ordinary folk
who are not professional trekkers in the mountains. You climb about
three-fourth of the total distance on day one. The trek starts from Joshimath,
the place that was in news two years ago because of the catastrophic floods and
landslides that wreaked unprecedented havoc in the mountains.
Joshimath itself is at an altitude of
6150 feet (1875 metres). Our bus carried us up to Joshimath from where we
started the trek early in the morning. You keep climbing. And climbing. The whole
day. With a backpack that carries the most essential things including your
lunch and drinking water.
Joshimath was nothing more than a
nondescript hill town in those days. It was twenty years ago that we undertook
this adventure along with a fairly large group of students from the seniormost
section. I don’t know how Joshimath would look like today. It must have lost
all the pristine charm it possessed in those days when we visited it. A lot of
buildings came up there later. Too much development which the fragile ecosystem
of the Himalayas could not endure.
The Himalayas are the youngest
mountain ranges in the world. Please recall your history lesson about how
Gondwana shifted from the south pole a few million years ago to hit the
northern continent forming the mountain ranges that we call the Himalayas
today. These mountains seem to be yet to stabilise. They are highly prone to
erosion even now, millions of years after their formation.
The cloudbursts of Feb 2021 wreaked untold havoc in Joshimath and nearby areas. Let me reproduce an image from Down to Earth to give you a picture of the damage caused by the rains then.
It was not just the rains. A glacier
had broken off along with its bedrock at around 5600 m above sea level from the
Ronti mountain peak, causing flood and landslides in the Rishiganga and
Dhauliganga rivers. The rivers changed their paths. Hundreds of houses were
washed away in the swirling waters. Development extracts too heavy prices
Twenty years ago, so much development
hadn’t reached the mountains. There were rains in those days too. In fact, it
was raining the whole afternoon of our trek. We all got drenched thoroughly. We
shivered beneath the plastic raincoats that we bought on the way from peddlers
who knew about the unpredictability of the rains in the mountains and hence did
brisk business as soon as it started raining. Our shoes squelched. But climb,
we did. When we reached the destination of day one, we were utterly fatigued.
But we knew there was one more day to go. The steepest ascent was just waiting.
The final stretch to Hemkund was really tough. But it is that arduousness which
makes a trek charming and unforgettable.
This was the first trek of our life, both
Maggie’s and mine. The first of such magnitude. Later, we climbed a few other
peaks in the Himalayas like Gaumukh and so on. But none of them has left as
many indelible imprints in our memories as Hemkund.
Today Joshimath, the base camp of
that classical trek, is sinking at the rate of 6.5 cm every year. Many
buildings have been abandoned. Many are in ruins. I don’t think I would like to
see the place now. Let my heart carry better memories. Of a little hill town
and its cool rivers of Alaknanda and Bhagirathi, the two rivers that unite at
Devaprayag forming the Ganga. I still remember watching that confluence, with
one river looking reddish with its muddy waters and the other crystal clear,
until they merge seamlessly into one and flow on and on quite as a symbol of all
the good and the bad that make up humanity.
Maggie with a fellow trekker in front of the Badrinath Temple