A few metres from the Gangotri glacier were dhabas serving hot parathas and tea.
For fuel, they often used trees chopped down and dragged over from a protected reserve nearby.
Business was brisk.
Every day, about 1,000 people would trek up to the receding glacier to tramp around, have a quick bite, take a few pictures.
Ironically, a favourite frame for the tourists was the line of painted rocks with markings from different years, grim reminders of where the solid ice of the glacier had given way to global warming.
Now, with the illegal dhabas cleared out, green cover protected and tourist numbers monitored carefully, there is finally a ray of hope.
“The rate of recession of the Gangotri glacier has slowed,” says Deepak Srivastava, glacier expert and deputy director general of the Geological Survey of India and national adviser to the proposed National Institute of Himalayan Glaciology.
According to the G B Pant Institute of Himalayan Development in Almora, the Gangotri is now receding at the rate of 12 metres a year, as against 20 metres a year in 2000-03.
Some experts are even going so far as to revise the predictions of a 2007 assessment report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The IPCC report had predicted that most Himalayan glaciers — including the Gangotri — would likely be gone altogether by 2035.
Now, experts say the glacier is showing signs of life again, with Himalayan deer and other small animals returning to the reforested areas around it.
“Take my word for it,” says Srivastava. “This glacier will not disappear by 2035.”
This is good news for the millions of people that depend on the Ganga as their primary source of water.
“Large numbers of tourists and trekkers used to visit the Gangotri glacier every day,” says Manohar Arora, glaciologist with the National Institute of Hydrology who has led a camp to study the glacier ever year since 1999.
“The presence of dhabas was particularly highlighted by the media and environmentalists, forcing the Uttaranchal forest department to impose some serious restrictions.”
Today, only 100 to 150 tourists are allowed up to the glacier every day.
Earlier Geological Survey of India studies had also attributed the high rate of recession of the Gangotri glacier to increased urbanisation in the area.
“Gangotri town was covered with green when I first came here in 1947,” says environmentalist Swami Sunderanand.
“The 18-km Gangotri-Gaumukh trekking route (now about 19 km owing to recession) used to have some rare flora and fauna. It’s barren now.”