Vidhu Goel, 39, director of health services at Reed Elsevier publishing, trekked to Gaumukh with wife Geetu, 38, sons Shubhang, 8, and Aaryan, 6, and 15 other family members and friends last May. Despite acclimatization issues and a mixed age group, it was a holiday to remember
Why trek to Gaumukh with the entire family?
As a family from Uttar Pradesh, the Ganga is an integral part of our lives. Though we now live in Gurgaon, places such as Haridwar and Rishikesh are very close to our hearts; we visit them often to keep our connection with the river alive. With the boys now going to school and learning about the rivers and the country, we felt it would be a good idea for them to see what they read about and trace the path of the Ganga to its source.
All our holidays usually involve new destinations as well as activities such as trekking, adventure sports, skiing and the like. The Gaumukh trek, we thought, would also be an opportunity to spend time together, bonding over a physically challenging activity.
What was the planning process like?
My Dad strongest: Vidhu and Shubhang bond along the way.
We started planning almost six months in advance, sounding out people and inviting them to be part of the trip. In the end, we got together a group of 19—the oldest was my septuagenarian father-in-law, while my younger son was among the youngest of seven children in a similar age group. Once we had their okay, we froze the dates and did the bookings for the trains and taxis and contacted the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam Ltd (GMVNL) for the hotels. It helped us have complete control over the itinerary.
With the logistics firmed up, our sons got into the act: Shubhang and Aaryan helped research the trip by finding out about the flora and fauna, stops on the way, photo opportunities and the general experiences of those who had made the trip earlier. Thus, we built an inventory of experiences even before we set out. The boys were thoroughly excited at the idea of seeing and experiencing all they had read and heard about.
Did you need to pack any special gear for the trek?
From our research we knew we would need caps, sunglasses, walking shoes, raincoats, walking sticks, warm slacks, pullovers and gloves. We packed whatever we had at hand and picked up caps, gloves, raincoats and walking sticks from Gangotri.
I guess you travelled to Haridwar by train.
That’s right. On reaching Haridwar, we piled into two Qualis taxis and drove to Uttarkashi via Rishikesh, Narendra Nagar, Chamba and Tehri. After an overnight halt, we drove to Gangotri, arriving there by 2pm. The rest of the day went in preparing for the trek, hiring ponies and buying a few essentials.
So you started the walk from Gangotri?
Right. Of our group of 19, five people opted to stay back at Gangotri because of reasons of health or age. My younger son was among them. We left at 6am, walking up a gradual ascent, with the Bhagirathi river flowing beside us. Since our group was a mixed one, we divided ourselves to make sure at least one adult accompanied each child. Two of us brought up the rear to keep an eye on things and ensure help was available if someone fell behind or felt sick or was injured. We also had two ponies with us to carry our luggage and as a backup if someone felt tired and wanted to ride part of the way or even go back to our base at Gangotri. This way, we were able to enjoy the scenery as well as cover the distance within a reasonable period of time. We reached Bhojwasa, our halt for the night, by 4.30pm.
What was the scenery like on the way up?
Though we consider the Ganga very close to our hearts, this was our first time in these altitudes. The views were pristine. After the lush hills and Chir forests we had encountered lower down, the scenery after Gangotri seemed very stark. The vegetation became sparse as centuries-old mountains with rocky faces and ice caps came into view. The Bhagirathi was a constant presence as we walked up the narrow dirt path, the roar of its waters audible even when the river was not.
Where did you spend the night at Bhojwasa?
In tents provided by GMVNL. At 3,500m, it was very cold, even in May. I think at night the temperature fell to 0 degrees Celsius. But one of our best memories from the trip was watching the sun rise behind the eastern mountains as we sipped cups of steaming tea and bit into hot aloo ka parathas. We’ll remember the sight of the sun gradually painting the peaks golden for a long time.
That was a brilliant start to the day.
Yes it was, though the 4km trek that remained was even more difficult than the path we had covered the day before. After the first half hour, we didn’t even come across any people. There’s no proper road here—the pathway barely allows two people to walk abreast—and one has to be alert constantly, especially for the unmanned ponies. Also, one gets breathless very fast.
Did you have any issues with acclimatization?
Gangotri, at around 3,042m, does not pose any problem. But Gaumukh is at 4,000m and oxygen levels are thin. In retrospect, of course, we should have spent more time getting used to the low oxygen availability. Shubhang was feeling nauseous but he managed to keep going.
Tell us about finally reaching Gaumukh.
We reached Gaumukh by noon. It was the end of the journey, but for us the immediate physical discomfort was a bit overwhelming. It was very cold, there was only a weak sun and several of us were breathless and nauseous. Nevertheless, we trekked right up to the mouth of the Gangotri glacier. Though the glacier is supposed to have receded quite a bit over the years, seeing the majestic source of the river was quite a spiritual experience for all of us who revere the Ganga. There were large blocks of ice all around, even in the river. The water was so cold that your fingers went numb when you dipped in a bare hand.
Many trekkers camp at Gaumukh. But you chose to come back the same day.
That’s right. Camping at Gaumukh is popular but that’s a completely different experience. There is no food available, no facilities. It would have involved roughing it. With the age range of our group, that wasn’t a possibility—though Tapovan, a high-altitude meadow, is just 4km away and something we want to do one day. We started back around 1pm and reached Gangotri by 6pm—it was downhill all the way.
A 36km trek is not easy for a child. How did Shubhang take it?
He enjoyed the trek tremendously. He was very interested in the flora and fauna, even the mountain goats we saw frequently on the steep slopes—he even claims to have spotted the tail of a leopard. Since the trek was a bit of a challenge for him, he took turns on the ponies but, by and large, he was able to maintain his pace and spirit throughout the trip. It helped that there were other children of his age group: They kept themselves busy with games such as I-spy.
We were also impressed by his determination: On the last stretch, he was feeling sick and we suggested that he stay back. But his desire to see the mouth of the river was so strong that he kept going. This was a side to him we had never known before.
Haridwar is well connected by train. Use local taxis or contact a travel agent for conveyance to Gangotri. The Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam has a useful website: www.gmvnl.com/ newgmvn/
As told to Sumana Mukherjee. Share your last holiday with us at firstname.lastname@example.org