Mountain spirits - the Gangotri Glacier - Page 2

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In the evening a straggle of figures drew into the camp over the hill. The climbers were back. We went to see the Baba the next morning.

He called to someone inside the cottage. A woman came out with tumblers of tea and two little dishes of something that might have been crumbled weetabix.

“This is Bengali Mata,” said Bengali Baba.

Bengali Mata went back indoors. We sipped out tea.

Baba had lived at Tapovan for years. I had seen his photograph in a book. In the summer he gave shelter to the sadhus and yatris who came visiting. In the winter he stayed on in the silence, alone with Mata.

Julia tried to provoke the Baba into a revelation.

“Did you know from the start that you would stay here so long?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said. Nothing more.

We sat quietly again, gazing at Shivling. Suddenly the silence was broken by the sound of a helicopter, invisible below us.

“Can helicopters land here?”

“No,” said the Baba. It sounded like a policy statement.

The clatter of the helicopter dissolved back into the silence.

We went back to our sacks and rummaged for food to leave for the Baba. He came over to us while we were assembling the parcel.

“Have you any kishmish?” he asked.

We added our sultanas to the parcel and the Baba went back to his cottage.

“I didn’t think Babas ate kishmish,” I said.

The sultanas had been the only food we had left. Now we wouldn’t be able to eat until we got down to the Rest House.

We let the porters from the climbing expedition go down ahead of us. We were hungry and in a hurry, but we didn’t want careless feet above us. At Gaumukh we searched our sacks again and found a couple of biscuits that had escaped the Baba. We walked on, dreaming of the meal we would have at the Rest House. There would be no more Maggi Noodles, we thought. There would be daal and rice and vegetables and as many chapattis as we could eat.

The Rest House was almost closed when we arrived. It was the season’s end.

“No dinner,” said the manager.

“No dinner?”

“Maggi noodles only.”

So we dined on noodles after all. The only other guest was a German photographer who had travelled up the Ganga from Calcutta, working on a magazine assignment. He seemed content with his noodles.

The tents of the climbing expedition sprang up beside the Rest House. A man from Uttarkashi was in charge of the porters.

“You are from Scotland?” he said. “You know Mister Martin Moran?”

Martin Moran is a mountain guide from the north west of Scotland. The man had been a cook on Martin’s 1983 expedition to Bhagirathi, a groundbreaking ascent up rock of great difficulty. Now he had a trekking agency of his own in Uttarkashi.

“And this expedition?”

“Korean people. Chaukamba expedition. They did not reach the top. Too much cold. Too late in the season. Next year they will go to Everest.”

At 7138 metres Chaukamba is is the highest peak in the area, but Everest is 1700 metres higher.

We had another bowl of noodles for breakfast, and then we set off for Gangotri. There were no pilgrims now, but the track was busy with heavy traffic; porters from the Chaukamba expedition and porters stripping the Rest House for the winter. I was hungry, and the sultanas that we had given to the Baba still preyed on my mind.

Gangotri was quiet when we arrived. The temple was due to close in three days time. Most of the shops were already abandoned; the shopkeepers had gone down the valley to Uttarkashi. We booked into our hotel and ordered rice and daal and alu gobhi and chapattis. An American called Jo Reinhard shared our table in the yard.

“You’re from Scotland?” he said. “You know a guy called Hamish MacInnes?”

“Not my generation. Or my league.” Twenty years earlier, Hamish MacInnes had been the public face of Scottish mountaineering.

Jo was an anthropologist. He had travelled with MacInnes in Nepal.