It’s the new buzzword in the tourism industry — they call it ‘doomsday tourism’. The urge to see the natural wonders of the world before they are gone. Suddenly the number of people visiting the Arctic and the Antarctic to witness firsthand the icebergs falling is on the rise. I have similar plans but closer home.
My aim is to trek up to the Gangotri glacier — the source of the Ganga — with a group of scientists who will measure the glacier to see if it is melting because of climate change. We start our drive from Delhi — it will take us two days to reach Gangotri town in Uttarakhand — the last road point before we begin our trek up. When we arrive at Gangotri town we seem misfits — everyone else undertakes this journey for religious reasons. The town is bustling with pilgrims
Initially the mountains seem intimidating and uninviting. They loom large in the landscape ahead of us — we will start at 9,000 feet and reach up to 13,000 feet above sea level. We will be trekking some 20 kilometres uphill crossing crevices and sharp boulders. Our team consists of, amongst others, a glaciologist, Dr Rajesh from the Birla Institute for Technology. For the team, he is Dr Glacier. Rajesh spends six months a year camping on glaciers across the Himalayas — he can tell the health of a glacier just by looking at it. He will be downloading data from the weather station installed at the glacier to give us the scientific proof of how the glacier is melting. Our walk starts exactly at six a.m. and when we take our first break at four km next to a stream the walk does not seem so daunting. However, the uphill trek starts only after nine km at Chirbassa —named after its pine trees.
Chirbassa is the last stand of the Indian birch tree or the Bhojpatra. They say before paper was invented it was the bark of this tree which was used to write ancient scriptures like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. But today the Bhojpatra tree is fighting for survival in its place of origin. Many trees are chopped by pilgrims on their way to Gaumukh. In fact till recently, hundreds of dhabas used to dot this barren landscape — but they have now been removed and the number of pilgrims too has been restricted — a timely intervention from the state government given the pressure by humans on this fragile ecosystem. The landscape now is a stark brown, though I can see snow capped peaks now ahead of us.
It is now four p.m. and I am now resting every 25 metres. The Garwhal mandal Vikas Nigam rest house is a welcome sight after a long day of trekking. They also provide tents for those who can brave the cold. The rest house is neat and cosy though I am not sure when the blankets were washed. The washrooms too could do with a good scrub. But at this altitude where the only motive is to keep warm all other comforts seem secondary.
Early next morning I am now anxious to reach Gaumukh — it’s four km ahead but when you are climbing up every step feels like a mile. My first sighting of a herd of Bharal or Himalayan Blue sheep is enough to lift the spirits- and its time to hobble on again. Next we pass a stone slab embedded in a boulder — which states Gaumukh 1891. And that’s the stark reality of climate change. Just in one hundred odd years the glacier has retreated by two kms.
And to the silent blare of trumpets by mid-day we reach the Gangotri glacier. As we stand under it we seem like tiny elves under this giant piece of ice. There are portions where the glacier is muddied and with many crevices. Dr Rajesh informs us that the numbers of crevices is the first sign of global warming.
Parts of the glacier that are still intact are a stunning cool blue. Our companions at the glacier are a swami — he’s walked all the way from Haridwar — in another corner are two farmers from Rajasthan. I am still recovering from the day’s trek and fall asleep under a rock. It’s the most peaceful sleep I have ever had with the sound of the gurgling water and an occasional splash of pieces of ice from the glacier falling into the river.
The trek back from the glacier seems lighter. There is a sense of achievement and even the mountains seem friendlier. Back at Gangotri town I get a glimpse of myself in the mirror — my face is red and swollen. We stay at the base camp, the Chardham Camp in Harsil. The hot water bottle is deliciously warm and it feels good to bathe after four days. There’s something dichotomous about enduring the hard physical labour of a trek. When you are gasping for breath on a mountain you wonder why you are doing it. When it’s all over you feel invincible. The only somber footnote to the journey is that the Gangotri glacier is definitely melting. And yes it is climate change.
Bahar Dutt is the Environment Editor, CNN-IBN