This is an interview with Naveen Kanakadandi, Co-Organizer with GHAC. It was conducted and condensed by Indiahikes Explorer Vaibhav Chauhan. Naveen did the trek in September 2011 with 9 participants, 1 cook and 8 High altitude Porters.
Q. Tell us about your Kalindikhal Pass trek.
We were planning to do a high altitude trek or 6000 meter peak climb in September 2011, and by June 2011 Kalindikhal was not yet in the picture. But after a discussion with my personal guide in Uttarkashi,within a week we zeroed down on Kalindikhal . I was told by a lot of people that it’s a very difficult and risky trek but that didn’t worry me much because of the fact that once you are in mountains, anything and everything is difficult if the required preparation is lacking. The weather is the only thing that’s not in our control. Keeping the weather factor in mind, I believe that as long as we do our part correctly , listen to nature’s signals and take the right decision at the right time the risk involved becomes negligible.
Q. As an organizer and leader of the team, how did you prepare for the logistics, permits and support staff?
I was in touch with my personal guide and spent hours on the phone with him every alternate day for almost 3 weeks discussing all the issues like logistics, permits, support staff etc.as I was unable to go there personally and sort them out due to my own professional commitments. I did not have to worry too much about preparations as I’d been trekking with the same guide for almost 2 years and could completely rely on him. I sent the ID proofs of all the members in advance to the guide along with medical certificates so that he could get the needful done.
I did extensive research on the internet and discussed the route and camp sites with the guide. We discussed the distances between the campsites, latest conditions of the trek route, water sources , weight to be carried and equipments needed. Keeping all these in mind we calculated the number of support staff we would require .
Q. Did you face any difficulties in getting necessary permits?
Yes. The DFO was not ready to give permission for the Kalindikhal trek due to the casualty rate on that route at that point of time. Even now fatal casualties do occur but our guide managed to convince the DFO and we were lucky to get through.
Q. What was your team size including support staff?
Our team comprised 18 people : 9 participants, 1 cook cum guide and 8 double load porters. Others that accompanied our team were two teams from Hyderabad, five from GHAC and Bangalore & four from a different adventure club. This was planned as per my guide’s advise and also keeping economic factors in mind .
Q. Is there anything specific that one needs to keep in mind while preparing for Kalindikhal?
A general instruction which I would give for any Himalayan trek/expedition is that one needs to be doubly sure of one’s fitness levels and understand one’s body. Specific to Kalindikhal- if you are not a person who can push yourself at every point after Day 2 (not just while reaching the end point) this trek is not for you. Having some technical knowledge of different terrains and crevasses is an added advantage.
Q. How many days does this trek take? Which campsites did you identify to stop for the night?
10 days in a very tight schedule without any acclimatization and is not advisable but not impossible. 12 days is decent and 15 days max is what I would suggest. Campsites identified for night stops were Bhojbasa, Nandanvan, Vasukital, Kharapathar, Swetha-Glacier, Kalindi Base, Raj Parav, Arwatal, Ghastoli, Mana and then Badrinath.We were, however, not able to go all the way to Badrinath due to bad weather and had to return back from Kalindi Pass .
Q. Did you have a contingency plan in case a rescue needed to be done?
Yes and no. While we did not have any hi-fi rescue mechanisms or any satellite phone with us, we had the HAP’s who would have turned back along with the participants if required. We intentionally took along 2 extra HAPs mainly for rescue.
Q. What is the basic criteria needed to do a trek like Kalindikhal?
The first criterion is the will-power that you can do it. Secondly you should not over-estimate or under-estimate any aspect – be it about yourself,others, the weather etc. Thirdly your fitness should be 100% before you venture into it. Finally you need the courage to face the unexpected and be ready for tough decisions or situations as and when they arise. While a lot has been said in different forums on the dangers and challenges of Kalindikhal, if one sticks to the basics and follows the rules of the game, all should go smoothly.
Q. Did you stop over at Bhojwassa or proceeded to Gomukh on day 1 of your trek?
We stopped at Bhojbasa.
Q. How was the weather in Gomukh and Bhojwassa?
The weather was pretty good. There was sunshine and hardly any breeze till about 4:00 pm after which it got completely foggy and visibility kept decreasing.
Q. Tell us about your trek to Nandanvan and Vasukital trail.
The trail till Gomukh was easy after which the actual trek began. The trail from Gomukh to Nandanvan is totally on the Glacier and we had to pass through a lot of crevasses. Not even a single step could be taken without having good eye-foot-terrain coordination. Being a glacial terrain speed was reduced and due to the steepness trekkers got exhausted faster and could not cover long distances at one go. We had to be very careful on the trail from Gangotri to Nandanvan as the glaciers were breaking on and off, which can be very dangerous. Basically the route is not set and pre-defined. It keeps changing as and when the glaciers break and hence one needs to have a sense of direction and use the markings on the trail, if any available, to go ahead
Regarding the trail from Nandanvan to Vasukital – it starts with a ridge comprising almost 60% of the trail, half of which is a very narrow path, with a gradual increase in steepness, after which you need to get down that ridge ,crossing an ice-wall at a 60 degree angle, and then get onto glaciers full of crevasses. The last leg is a little difficult and a bit dangerous too because one slip there would land you in a crevasse and the rest is left to your imagination. To reach Vasukital in the final stretch, you have to climb up the face of the hill on a very narrow path (single foot) with the help of a rope tied already and some pitons bolted in. Experienced trekkers can climb up the face without taking much support of the rope. The rope portion hardly takes two minute to cross after which it climbs up. A slip here and you’re gone. Once you’re on the ridge of that hill you get a view of Vasukital. Walk down that hill and you’re at the camp site in 5 minutes.
Q. Did you encounter any difficulties with weather or the terrain till you reached Vasukital?
We did not face much difficulty for most of the way, but as we approached Vasukital the weather suddenly changed. There was snow fall which started slow but then became heavier resulting in a 2 inch deposit outside the tent.
Q. What was the average day and night temperature you encountered?
The average day temperatures were around 15 to 20 degrees C .Night temperatures dropped as low as -15 degrees C at and beyond Swetha Glacier, but on an average it’s around -10 degree C.
Q. The route from Khada-pathar to Vasukital is said to be a difficult one. What was your experience?
It’s said to be difficult because of the rocky terrain on the steep face. Walking on those rocks, moving from one boulder to the other, can be very tricky. At one point while I was getting down the face of a hill, my leg slipped and I , with my 15 Kg backpack, lost control and slipped for almost 100 meters after which I managed to stop myself ahead of a crevasse 50 meters away.
A boulder can appear big and stable but the moment you step on it it could be shaky which makes it difficult to proceed. An experienced person can do it easily and others can manage too but will need to focus on every step.
Q. How was the health of the other team members in the team till now?
3 members were down with minor AMS(Acute Mountain Sickness). They were fine till Vasukital but after reaching Khara-pathar they started developing the symptoms of AMS like head-ache, nausea etc. We sent them back to Vasukital and all was fine.
Q. Describe the view from Khada-pathar campsite. Were you able to see Kalindikhal Pass?
We got a full view of the Swetha Glacier after a 5-10 minute walk from Khadapathar.
It appears like a dump of mud and rock pieces. We got a view of Satopanth, confluence point of Kalindi, Swetha and Chaturangi Glaciers, and of course the rear view of Vasuki Parbat. The weather was not clear and we were unable to see the Kalindi Pass but we could see the tip of Kalindi peak.
Q. Did you camp at Sweta Glacier? How was the terrain of that region?
Yes,we did camp at Swetha Glacier. The terrain was completely rocky and underneath was the glacier.
Q. The route going from Kalindi base camp to Kalindikhal Pass is said to require use of fixed rope. What was your experience?
We did not fix the rope to any particular anchor point but all the members were tied to the rope with me leading and the guide being the sweeper. Luckily for us, at that time, the crevasses were very clearly visible due to low snow levels and we could hence negotiate them quite easily.
Q. Did you encounter any troubles with crevasses? How were you able to identify and traverse them?
We did encounter crevasses but we didn’t have any trouble identifying them as the snow levels were low, making them very clearly visible. I’d like to add that the identification of crevasses comes with experience and knowledge of the terrain.
Q. Did you encounter any avalanche which could have been life-threatening?
Q. Tell us how you felt when you reached Kalindikhal pass? How was the weather that day?
It was really amazing and fantastic when we reached Kalindi Pass. The weather was good but we could see clouds looming in the distance.It was sad that we couldn’t progress beyond the pass since there were many huge crevasses which made it difficult to move on. As per the guide’s advice, that we have only one life but the mountain will always be there to climb, we decided to turn back. We can definitely give it another try in future.
Q. What was the problem you faced and how did you decide to go back?
The main problem we faced was the huge number of crevasses that were there. It was more or less like quick sand and the moment you step on it you get sucked in. Also the weather was turning around as the clouds were looming in from behind the pass and we didn’t want to take any risk knowing what happened to the teams before us.
Q. Did your team agree with the decision to go back?
Q. Tell us about your journey back to Gangotri?
While returning we came back to Vasukital from Swetha Glacier as three of our people were waiting there. We camped there and then reached Nandanvan the next day. A day later we started off from Nandanvan and reached Gangotri directly as two of the HAPs were getting ill.
Q. Did your team face any issue while coming down?
The initial plan was to stay in Bhojbasa on our return and then reach Gangotri as it would be really hectic to reach Gangotri directly from Nanadanvan.Unfortunately two HAP’s were feeling ill and they didn’t want to stop at Bhojbasa. After consultation it was decided to go to Gangotri directly from Nandanvan
Q. How would you sum up your Kalindikhal experience?
Overall it was a fabulous learning experience as it was the first 6000 m ( short) trek/expedition for me. Though it was my first high altitude experience , I was pretty confident and was up for the challenge. The preparations we made were sufficient for the demands of the expedition. It gave me a lot of confidence and prepared me for more difficult and demanding treks/expeditions in future.
Q. Any regrets regarding the expedition?
The only regret is that we were not able to cross the pass which of course could not be helped. Also not everyone in the team could even make it till the pass including my friend Deepak for whom I felt a bit sad.The most important thing was that all the members were back safely inspired with new learnings, mind-blowing views and a life time experience.
Q. Any advice for people planning to do Kalindikhal?
Make sure to be 100% fit before venturing into it. Be prepared for extreme weather conditions and unexpected terrains. Understand your body and its reactions to different conditions. Though there are no restrictions on first- timers,the decision needs to be taken by an individual or the leader based on whether you can push yourself and are ready for the strain and pressure.Experience of walking for long distances with heavy weights (at least 15 Kg) will be a useful preparation. On a trek/expedition like Kalindikhal don’t expect the luxury of someone else carrying your weight. One should be prepared to take on responsibilities and be a more hands-on team player by helping the porters/guides after reaching the camp-site in activities like pitching tents,assisting in the kitchen etc.
The above points are not specific to Kalindi-khal but are applicable for any Himalayan trek/expedition.