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Hope soars: An expedition for Uttarakhand

Last updated on: November 20, 2013 14:14 IST

Image: The 12-member Summitng4Hope team atop Mt Rudugaira
Photographs: Anusha Subramanian

Hope soars: An expedition for Uttarakhand'The Climb for a Cause’ expedition to Mt Rudugaira in Gangotri glacier by Summiting4Hope, an initiative started to rehabilitate the people of Uttarakhand who lost their property and livelihood during the June 2013 floods, was the first successful expedition, post the recent disaster in the state. Anusha Subramanian, who was part of the team, reports.

It was one of our happiest moments when we were atop the summit of Mount Rudugaira (5819 mt). 

The 12-member team consisting of Yashwant Singh Panwar (expedition leader), Deepak Rana (guide), Aditya Shinde (guide assistant), Saurav Rautella (guide) Guneet Puri, Shashi Bahuguna, Udisha Uniyal, Pitambar Chandola, Saurabh Dhiman, Vipul Vashistha and one porter, Raju, and me, summitted the peak on October 6 at 9 am.

It was indeed a big achievement for all of us as the conditions were tough.

After encountering steep inclines, moraine and winds blowing at speeds of 35 kmph, the team slowly and steadily climbed up to the summit.

What was more overwhelming for us was the fact that our team was the first to have summitted a peak in the region post the June 16 floods.

The expedition was conducted in an effort to boost adventure tourism here and also to aid all those people who had lost their jobs in the aftermath of the disaster.  

The June 16 flash floods in Uttarakhand was one of the worst the state had seen. Thereafter, in a matter of 15 days, the pilgrims were rescued and sent back safely to their homes.

For the rest of the world who watched the biggest Army rescue operations, it seemed the Uttarakhand tragedy was well handled. But what was not shown is the plight of the locals.

For the thousands of locals in Uttarakhand, their lives continue to reel from the loss of their land and livelihood, death of the sole earning members of families, lack of access to food and ration, immediate health services and space to continue their children’s education.

For many across the state, this kind of devastation has never been seen before. Even in the 2010 and 2012 floods, people did not lose their homes and lands. Though it was bad, they could pull themselves back and start life afresh but this time round they have lost whatever little they had and now completely left high and dry. 

Garhwal Himalayas, where the maximum devastation has happened, are unstable hills and are still in the process of growing. Despite the assessment done by the state government that 250 villages in Uttarkashi district are in the danger zone, nothing was done to relocate them to a safer zone.

All the assessments have remained on paper. Today, the situation is such that many are dead or marooned across Uttarakhand, scores of villages across the valleys including Uttarkashi are washed away or almost on the verge of being washed away if it witnesses incessant rains once again.

The devastation is unimaginable.


Hope soars: An expedition for Uttarakhand

Photographs: Anusha Subramanian

Some villages such as Pilang, Jadaou have their houses in a precarious situation. The houses are in such positions that from underneath it's sliding and from the top there are mountain landslides. 

The houses are almost sandwiched in between, thus making it unlivable for the villagers. These villages were assessed to be in danger zone and are still awaiting resettlement, forget rehabilitation.

Villagers say that in 1991, when Uttarkashi was struck by a massive earthquake, most faraway villages such as Syaaba, Jadao, Pilang, Loonthru, Bayana all suffered heavy damage. Even last year, a cloudburst caused massive floods in Uttarkashi district. 

The future of these remote villages and hamlets of flood-ravaged Uttarakhand seems to be still bleak. In Uttarkashi alone, no less than 96 villages in Bhatwari block have been destroyed by natural causes in the past and were yet to be relocated.

The current devastation has made it practically impossible and crippled the government's ability to rehabilitate such large numbers of disaster-hit villages.

The situation in these villages is also extremely backward. In the current scenario, all the men here are unemployed and their first priority as of now is to save themselves and their family.

The kids’ education levels are extremely low as the teachers don't come full time because these villages are remote.


Hope soars: An expedition for Uttarakhand

Image: Rescue work in progress during the June flash floods that ravaged Uttarakhand

Gopal Thapliyal, project manager at Sri Bhuvaneshwari Mahila Ashram, an NGO that has been operating in Uttarkashi for the last three decades and has its office in Joshiyara, says: “This tragedy has affected the locals a lot. They were dependent on tourism. Thousands here work as porters, drivers, guides and waiters. But, due to lack of business they have been rendered jobless. In most areas affected by the floods, the entire economy is based on tourism. Adventure tour companies that have been helping the locals as well as helped in rescue operations of the pilgrims are left with no work currently. All of them have lost business for this year.” 

Tourism provides employment, directly or indirectly; to a significant number of the people residing in villages near the tourist spot in Uttarakhand.

However, what surprised me is that most are positive in their outlook. While they are very clear that they will not move out of Uttarkashi and Uttarakhand, they will find means to be able to rebuild their lives.

The task now is, how does one rebuild this state? It’s a mammoth task at hand. 

For all of us mountaineers on the expedition team it was an overwhelming calling to do something in a place we completely adore. Having spent a lot of our time in Uttarkashi during our mountaineering courses at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering and later on expeditions, it seemed only right to give back to the mountains and people who had welcomed us into their hearts and lives.

Post the June 16 disaster most of team members either found themselves already in Uttarkashi or answered the call of the crying mountains to help with rescue and relief operations in the district. With the approaching winter, the need of the hour was to help the villagers get back on their feet, so that they could sustain themselves through the harshest of seasons. The need of the hour was to help rebuild Uttarakhand.

Thus was born Summiting4Hope, my brainchild. The first project undertaken under this banner was ‘Climb for a Cause: In Uttrakhand, For Uttarakhand, By Uttarakhand’ in association with the help of the local mountaineering fraternity of Uttarkashi.


Hope soars: An expedition for Uttarakhand

Image: The expedition team with Padma Shri Chandraprabha Aitwal at the flag-off ceremony
Photographs: Anusha Subramanian

It was important for the team to get together and do this to instill confidence among the adventure community both within Uttarakhand and outside.

The expedition team was flagged off on September 29 by Padma Shri Chandraprabha Aitwal, a legendary climber from India who also happens to hail from Uttarkashi. The team set out on its journey to Gangotri the next day in a Mahindra Scorpio sponsored by Mahindra Adventures.

The drive was wonderful with the 4-wheel drive car supporting us all through the narrow, rough and not so perfectly made roads. The Border Road Organisation had restored roads that had been completely lost and thus had made it easier for the villagers to be able to at least come down to the Uttarkashi town for their essentials.

Also with winter round the corner, most people in the upper reaches come down to Uttarkashi town.

Despite the bumpy drive, the view succeeded in making up for the discomfort of the journey. The deep gorges, vivid colours, the now calm Bhagirathi river, all made the mountain seem to come alive and beckoned us further into its lap.

The landscape was breathtaking all the way till Gangotri; passing through the quaint villages of Harshil and Dharali which are famous for their apple orchards.

Gangotri is also a beautiful little temple town. What is interesting here are the rock formations, especially in the river. They are huge single boulders, smooth in shades of brown and grey, with depressions in them. It seemed as though someone has left finger marks in clay.


Hope soars: An expedition for Uttarakhand

Image: The base camp
Photographs: Anusha Subramanian

After a good night’s rest at Gangotri (3140m), the team along with the cook and the porters set out for our expedition on the morning of October 1. The trek from Gangotri to our first camp -- Nala Camp (3450m) -- was a steep climb with several landslides on the way, vestiges of the June 16 disaster.

After a neat four-hour walk we had gained a height of approximately 300 metres on the first day.

The next morning we set out for our base camp, which was situated at a height of 4450m. It was a treacherous and steep climb and we gained a height of nearly 1000 metres that day. The walk though treacherous was breathtaking.

The Bhagirathi river was flowing on our left, glimmering like a thousand diamonds under the midday sun, and the mountain ranges flanking us on both the sides of the valley, showing off a spectrum of colours, dark green pine forests, orange to brown till finally red alpine meadows higher up, and the whipped cream and chocolate flakes, like snowy tips.

The team having seen two extremely strenuous days of walking while trekking up to base camp, decided to rest for a day to get better acclimatised. Thus, instead of going straight up to the summit camp we decided to set up an advance base camp as well.

We left from base camp for the advance base camp on October 4 morning at around 9.30 am. The entire team was at the camp at around 10.30 am. The terrain was slightly grassy with hints of moraine.

There was also one place where we had to descend into a nala and then climb straight up an incline of about 50 degrees. The advance base camp (4600m) was set up in a ground on the other side of this ridge.


Hope soars: An expedition for Uttarakhand

Image: The team on the way to the top of Mt Rudugaira
Photographs: Anusha Subramanian

After setting up the team's tents and the kitchen tent, we went for a small acclimatisation walk that also served as a scouting trip for the next day's trek up to the summit camp. The weather was as we had faced every day, bright and sunny in the mornings and overcast during the evenings.

The morning of October 5 was bright as well and the team wrapped up at the advance base camp and started moving towards summit camp (4800m) at 9.30am and reached at 11 am.

The terrain from the advance base camp to summit camp was completely moraine. After the camp was set up the team went for a short walk to acclimatise and to scout the route to the summit.

After lunch the weather started turning bleaker than usual. By 3 pm there was a white-out and as we waited for the tea to boil it got increasingly worse. At around 5 pm it started snowing in earnest. There was also severe thunder and lightning.

We were quite worried at this point and there was a general low feeling in the group till dinner time.

Then the weather started cleaning up and the team called an early night in anticipation of the early rising call the next morning. The team set out for the summit on the treacherous moraine peak, from the summit camp at 5.30 am and reached the summit at 9 am.

October 6 morning was a clear but it was extremely cold till the sun came up. The day proved to be windy, with winds blowing at speeds of around 35 kmph.

The terrain was rocky with moraine and there were several patches of slippery slate. We encountered snow only about 150m from the summit. Some amount of front pointing and sidestepping was involved in getting to the top but at 9 am the last pair of feet stepped atop the summit of Mt Rudugaira (5819m).


Hope soars: An expedition for Uttarakhand

Image: The team relaxing at the base camp after accomplishing their mission
Photographs: Anusha Subramanian

Though tired there was a general atmosphere of triumph and jubilation among the team members.

After the initial rounds of hearty congratulations and many more rounds of celebratory hugs the team sobered down for the puja at the summit thanking the gods for the excellent weather as well as the mountain for letting us sneak up to her summit. Incense was burnt, offerings of coconut scattered and Tibetan prayer flags were also tied at the top.

We stopped at the summit camp to have tea and wrap up the camp.

The entire team was safely back at the base camp at around 3 pm after having gained nearly a 1000 metres and descended nearly 1400 metres. The team having successfully summitted the peak, rested for one day at the base camp on October 7.

The next day, we wrapped up our expedition to Mt Rudugaira and walked back down to Gangotri. With the weight of the expedition gone the team frolicked on the way back. The team reached Gangotri at 2.30pm on the afternoon of October 8.

The team left for Uttarkashi the next day and had a flag-in ceremony at the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam with Kushal Singh Negi, the district adventure sports officer.

The team was happy having helped six porters, two cooks, a guide and a local adventure agency earn money and get back on track for the winter.

Where a member stumbled there was another at his or her side to steady them, where someone slipped there was another to pull them up. In this way, we proved that even though Uttarakhand has stumbled, we are here to help her back on her feet.

Anusha Subramanian is an independent journalist and a trained mountaineer.

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