Mountain spirits - the Gangotri Glacier

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Tapovan is a beautiful meadow above the Gangotri Glacier. It is named for the Sanskrit word tapasya - heat. But tapasya also denotes yogic austerities of all sorts - heat, cold, hunger, contortion. Tapovan is a place of austerity and meditation. In the summer it is also a holiday home for trekkers and mountaineers. It was quiet enough when we visited.

It was almost winter. Gaumukh - the place where Ganga springs from the glacier - was almost deserted. Amongst the ruined teashops there were a couple of huts where tatters of saffron cloth still fluttered. A man was sitting in front of one of them draped in saffron robes. He rang a little bell that hung from the blue plastic awning, and beckoned us over. He spoke to us in signs. We answered in Hindi and English, not knowing what language he might have spoken before he renounced words. After a minute or two he brought us a stale paratha, and then he brought us fresh parathas and a potato curry. We gave him a few rupees and set off up the stony talus behind his hut.

The stones were piled over a hogsback of ice, like marbles on a glass table. We trod carefully. The sadhu was below us, and we didn’t want to send the slope clattering down into his meditation. Not after what happened to King Sakara’s sons. A faint path led along the hogsback, past the infant Ganga and the ice-cliff, and onto the open glacier. We were at the start of a huge rubble highway through the mountains. Shivling was on our right, mist-white against the sun; to our left were the immense golden walls of Bhagirathi Parbat.

The glacier’s surface was wrinkled and torn and heaped with grey stones. I snaked my way forward amongst chasms of ice, with Shivling as my beacon. Julia followed, quiet as a country child in a great city. Julia is from Australia. The only high mountains she knew were the mountains of Bolivia. The glaciers there tumble like ice cream down the sides of the peaks. They do not crawl along the valleys like serpents dressed in stone.

At the glacier’s edge we began the climb over earth and scree towards Tapovan. We were at an altitude of 4100 metres. I began to wonder how Julia would fare in the thin air. At the top of the hillside I sat down to wait for her. I began to notice that I was not feeling quite as well as I had imagined.

It was some time before Julia arrived.

“Are you alright?” she said.

“Not really,” I said. I had a headache and I was feeling rather sick; the symptoms of altitude sickness. Oh well.

"I am Bengali Baba. Any problems, you let me know."

Tapovan is a place of retreat, where tapas – austerities – may be performed, as they were performed the by sages of antiquity. We were at the edge of a wide green meadow at the foot of Shivling. The Gangotri Glacier was below us and there was a wall of rubble behind us where a side glacier tumbled down from a cirque of granite peaks. Julia pitched the tent and I sat on the grass, watching her and trying not to be sick. We had a cup of tea and I began to feel better.

We got up late the next day and breakfasted slowly in the sunshine. A saffron-clad man came by.

“I am Bengali Baba,” he said. “Any problems, you let me know.”

Bengali Baba’s cottage was on the other side of a little hillock. Over the next hillock there was a whole hamlet of cottages, deserted for the winter. “I’m not sure that I’d like it here in the summertime,” said Julia. “All those men, meditating on Shiva’s penis.”

She made it sound like transcendental masturbation.

“It’s not just a man thing,” I said. “The lingam is the shape of formlessness. Male and female and everything else.”

Shivling was climbed for first time in 1974, by a team from the Indo-Tibet Border Police. The Gangotri basin was hidden behind the Inner Line in those days, accessible only to Indians. It was re-opened in 1979. Mountaineers from all over the world were drawn here by the clustered blades and buttresses and walls of granite. The routes that they took to the summits involved rock-climbing at a standard that never before been attempted at so great an altitude.

Over the next hillock we came upon an encampment of tents that must have belonged to a mountaineering party. It was deserted; the climbers were away somewhere in the mountains.

We followed the path past Shivling, curious to see around the next bend in the glacier. The wind was cold, and we put our balaclavas on beneath our sun hats. A flock of wild goats clattered across the mountainside above us, sending a cascade of stones into the moraine defile we were walking through. By mid-afternoon Shivling’s shadow had crept across our path. We put on our down jackets and went back to the tent to cook a supper of noodles and tomato soup powder and soya chunks.

I struggled for a long time with the tent zip. Dust and grit had damaged it, so that the slider either jammed or ran uselessly over it, not closing it at all. This wouldn’t do. An opening had to be left at the top of the door to let out some of the water vapour that would otherwise turn to ice inside the tent. Below the opening the door had to closed, or night winds would creep in and make mischief between the inner and outer skins of the tent, catching its tight structure where it was weakest. Eventually I succeeded and we lay down to sleep.

The night frost killed our water filter. Julia had bought it for me after I caught amoebiasis in Bolivia. Now it gurgled uselessly, like a broken hookah. Julia succumbed to diarrhoea the next day.

We spent several more days at Tapovan. Julia’s diarrhoea raged unabated. By day the peaks glowed all around us and the sun scorched our faces. Sometimes we saw the Baba. In the evenings we fumbled numb-fingered with our stove. We varied our noodle suppers by changing the amount of soup powder that we added. Then we buried ourselves in our sleeping bags while frost crystallised on the tent’s ceiling. In the mornings we opened the tent up to defrost, and laid our sleeping bags on its roof to dry, and prepared the day’s chapattis.

“Well?” I said one morning.

I was keen to move our camp further up the glacier. Julia was still unwell, but our supplies were running low. If we were to go any further we would have to make our move soon.

We stepped down onto the glacier near the place where a side glacier flowed into it. The ice swirled with the slow tumult of their mingling. We picked our way over rubble heaped between blue crevasses. Julia’s diarrhoea was rampant, and she kept stopping to squat behind boulders. We progressed slowly. In the end we turned round and headed back to the comforts of our old campsite. It was clear that we would have to go down to Gangotri.

I noticed that the stitching at the back of my new boots had almost worn through. Only faith seemed to be preventing my feet from exploding out of them.