… mumbled the ashram chowkidar (guard) as we were wading though a snow drift on our way to Yamunotri in early March this year. At 3176 metres, Yamunotri is one of the four sites in India’s Chhota Char Dham pilgrimage. The sacred shrine of Yamunotri, the source of the River Yamuna, is the westernmost shrine in the Garhwal Himalaya, perched atop a flank of Bandarpunch. Every year thousands of pilgrims make their way up this trail during the Char Dham Yatra. Yet, as someone who is not religiously inclined, I had my own selfish reasons to visit Yamunotri . Poring over topographical maps back at base, I figured that the route to Yamunotri (along with Har Ki Dun) has the best view of the Bandarpunch massif. Bandarpunch has been an obsession for me of late.
Bandarpunch is a mountain massif of the Garhwal division of the Himalaya in the Indian State of Uttarakhand. Widely known as Bandarpoonch, which literally means “Tail of the Monkey”. This is a reference to Hanuman, the monkey god and mighty warrior, who went to its summit to extinguish his tail when it caught fire in the battle alongside King Rama to rescue the Princes Sita from the evil forces of the demon Ravana in Lanka. Bandarpoonch massif has 3 peaks. To the West above Yamunotri is White Peak (6102 m). Almost 5 km east is Bandarpoonch Peak (6316 m) and about 4 km to the north-east of that is Kalanag (6387 m) lit. black serpent, commonly known as Black Peak.
Bandarpunch is strategically located at the western edge of the High Himalayan Range where it turns the corner to the Northwest. It is part of the Sankari Range and lies within the Govind Pashu Vihar National Park and Sanctuary. It is a major watershed for the headwaters of the Yamuna River, whose source lies above Yamunotri, on the West end of the massif below White Peak. On the North side of the Bandarpoonch massif, the 12 km long glacier from its flanks feeds the Ruinsar Gad which flows into the Yamuna at Seema. On the South side, the glacier at the base of Bandarpoonch peak feeds the Hanuman Ganga River which joins the Yamuna at Hanuman Chatti.
Maj Gen Harold Williams led the first successful climbing expedition in 1950. The first team to summit Bandarpoonch Peak comprised legendary Mountaineer Tenzing Norgay, Sergeant Roy Greenwood and Sherpa Kin Chok Tshering.
I first came across Bandarpunch while reading Tenzing Norgay’s autobiography “Man of Everest: The Autobiography of Tenzing” by James Ramsey Ullman. This is a book worth reading if you love the mountains. Tenzing’s humility and love for the mountains is evident and especially in this passage where he says-
At Barkot (Google Maps) en-route to Yamunotri, everyone I met advised against this trek given the recent heavy snowfall. I often feel that while locals mean well, advice like this stems from fear and unsubstantiated facts. More often than not, advice like this activates my stubborn streak and prompts me to do otherwise.
So, early March found me and my trusty 4WD parked at Janki Chatti, the starting point for the Yamunotri trail. As I looked around I realised that people at Barkot were right in a way. The snow around town lay heavier than I had expected. Alarm bells and the three gospel truths of mountaineering were already ringing in my head as I started to repack my bag and change into my heavier Hi-Tec boots and gaiters, given the terrain.
Janki Chatti was a ghost town this time of the year. Shuttered shops, closed hotels and dharamshalas, no smoke rising from houses nor the cacophony of children. I had hoped to buy some chocolates at Janki Chatti for this trek but that was not to be. I felt like a lone cowboy walking through a ghost town in the wild west as I made my way through the empty main drag. There is a well-camouflaged police post at the end of town and as I passed along a home guard sprang out. “This road is closed,” he tells me, striking a Gandalf-like pose in the middle of the trail. “You should come back in a month when this route reopens for regular tourists”. It took me a while to convince him that I was not his average pilgrim and that I was well prepared for the trail. Nothing screams serious trekker (or sometimes foreign spy) than a bearded guy with a GPS and ice pick dangling from his backpack. Since I refused to be convinced otherwise, he let me proceed but only after taking down my phone number and advising me to keep a sharp lookout for any weather change.
Leaving the meddling police behind, I started my trek, enjoying the solitude of having this packed pilgrim trail all to myself. To my left was a mountain face, to my right the Yamuna gurgled under a blanket of heavy snow and straight ahead was Bandarpunch awaiting me with open arms.
Into my first kilometre, I spied a lonely man sweating profusely and sitting on one of the many benches that dot the trail. He was more surprised to see me than I was to see him. Turns out that Mr Bahuna was one of the chowkidars at one of the many ashrams in the Yamunotri complex. This was his first trip in 2017 to check the damage that winter had inflicted on the ashram building. He tells me that he plans to stay at the ashram for a couple of days and I’m welcome to join him.
We started to walk together and it was apparent to me he was ill prepared for the route. His bags were heavy and his clothing inappropriate for the unusually heavy snow. The fact that he was chain smoking “Bandar Chaap” bidi didn’t help his breathing either. It’s a hard life he tells me. No television, spotty mobile signal and noone for companionship. Yet the powers that be need him to walk up and ascertain snow damage. Not a job for someone his age, he points out. I nod deferentially and try and steer the conversation to happier topics like the mountains and the mesmerising scenery. But this is work for him and he refuses to see the goodness in a snow covered trail. Chitchatting we come to the steel bridge that marks the halfway point of our journey. After this point, the snow cover gets thicker and walking becomes more difficult. Fresh clouds start to blow in from the Bandarpunch range, decking our trail in swathes of grey.
Conundrum! If I continue at Bahunaji’s pace, then I miss my photo opportunities because the weather is getting iffy. So I grab his heavier handbag and strap it to my backpack and tell him that I will see him at the top. He seems relieved at the thought of not having to lug that heavy bag all the way to the top. Before you go, remember two things, he tells me — keep to the mountainside and avoid leaning on the railing.
There’s wisdom in his words. We’d already crossed many snow drifts that could knock an unaware person off the trail and into the Yamuna flowing below. So staying close to the mountainside does offer protection from tumbling snow drifts. Moreover, the Public Works Department (P.W.D) don’t repose much faith in what they build. This is evident in the frequent signs dissuading the pilgrims to rest along the railings.
Trudging through shin-deep snow, I make good progress along the first series of switchbacks. This part of the route reminds me of my winter trek to Shikari Mata temple a couple of years ago, yet the view here is much more spectacular. The route cloves deeper and higher, bringing me tantalisingly close to the Bandarpunch massif as it towers over me and Yamuna. Eager for more, I power through this half of the journey with a song in my heart.
The last 500 metres to Yamunotri are the trickiest, the snow is thigh deep now and it is merged with the top of the railing, so there’s no knowing where the trail ends and a cornice begins. Keeping close to the mountainside it takes me over three-quarters of an hour to wade through this half kilometre.
Finally the “Welcome to Yamunotri” sign is in view and all my fears come true. The first structure to greet me is a toilet, never cleaned since last year’s pilgrimage. We Hindus may love our gods but definitely not the places where they dwell. Walking about in an empty Yamunotri complex it dawned on me that this place if ever inhabited by god or goddess is long bereft of godliness now. The hot water springs or kunds are black with sludge and stink, most of the makeshift ramshackle structures are covered in plastic and non-bio-degradable garbage. Every bit of this garbage flows into “Maa” Yamunotri.
The weather too had taken a turn for the worse and visibility was quickly dropping. Disappointed with what Yamunotri had to offer I decided that I’d be happier camping in my 4WD than in this place where the goddess has ceased to dwell in human waste. I pile Bahunaji’s bag against the temple, fill up my garbage bag with what garbage I can carry back and bid Yamunotri adieu.
Three things happen as I start to walk back. I spot a yellow-throated marten (Martes flavigula) peeking over the mountainside; the weather clears up for a moment, enabling me to view and appreciate the sheer scale of the ice face towering above me and last but not the least – a huge Gaddi dog (complete with dots over his eyes) appears from nowhere and joins me, picking the best route through the falling snow.