I had never been in a helicopter before. But for me and all the other people inside the Indian Air Force Mi-17, there was little excitement—relief and gratitude, yes, but it was mixed with the dread of what had happened to all those other souls like us who’d had their lives turned upside down by the elements in a few days.
Our journey had begun about a week before. After a long and tortuous journey from Dhanaulti near Mussoorie, my friend Prasad and I reached our final destination of Harsil on 14 June, a small hill station and the base of the 5 Garhwal Rifles in Uttarakhand, 25km from Gangotri.
We stayed at a place 3km from Harsil known as Dharali, a small valley nestled between the Himalayas and the Bhagirathi river. It was already night and drizzling. We didn’t waste much time in picking a hotel.
The rain had stopped by the next morning, when we walked on the banks of the Bhagirathi towards Harsil. The scenery was breathtaking—cloud-covered mountains, glaciers, tall pine trees, apple orchards, the river in spate. Later we caught a shared taxi to Gangotri. After a visit to the Ganga Devi temple and a dip in the ice-cold water of the holy river, we got lucky in the evening and were able to hitch a lift in the car of some bureaucrats from Delhi. It had already started raining and the temperature had dropped below 10 degrees Celsius.
We had our dinner early and went to sleep as we had to catch a taxi or some form of public transport to Uttarkashi. Our train to Delhi would leave from Dehradun at midnight.
On the morning of 16 June, it was still raining heavily. The restaurant owners and the few locals who were around told us they hadn’t ever seen such incessant rain. Not a single vehicle was moving on the roads. Some buses carrying pilgrims that had left early started returning one by one. They told us that the roads had been washed away some 8-9km from Harsil, and there was no way any vehicle could move in or out of the area. We had no option but to check back into the hotel.
This was going to be our worst night. With the weather unleashing its fury on the upper reaches of Uttarakhand, it was always going to be difficult to rein in the fear and panic. As it became dark, the sound of rushing water, imagined or otherwise, became the soundtrack to a fearful night.
As we were at dinner, the pilgrims in the hotel opposite to ours suddenly rushed out screaming. They had heard or seen a torrent or water accompanied by a landslide on the hills behind the hotel and were panicked into believing it would sweep them all away, and rushed to seek shelter in our hotel. Some of them were weeping and praying for deliverance, their eyes wide with terror.
Desperate to find a way out, some of the pilgrims rushed toward a bridge a scant 15m from the hotel. But when they saw the ferocity of the water, they came running back. It appeared to some that they were headed to an apocalyptic end.
One man became more agitated than the rest, declaring that unless we left immediately, we would be trapped and pulverised into oblivion.
I, too, panicked for a moment. But we soon realized we didn’t have much of an option. Apart the score or so hotels in the area, there are just the hills on one side and the Bhagirathi on the other, with little else by way of shelter until Harsil. And there was no way of saying what havoc had been wrought between the two places. We thought we were better off where we were and resolved to face the situation as it developed.
At around midnight, we heard loud whistles by the locals who live on the hills and most of whom own the hotels in the area. They were warning us of impending danger. We rushed downstairs from our second-floor room and saw water rushing down from the hills, over the bridge, cutting off the road. While the torrent was fierce, it had fortuitously created its own path to the Bhagirathi at a safe distance from our hotel, which was situated on a steeper plain.
From what we could make out, the water wouldn’t come toward our hotel at least until the morning. But when we got back in the room, Prasad felt the hotel building shift. I said he was imagining things. At around 2am, the whistles sounded again. When we looked down from our window, we saw the street in front had been inundated and turned into a river. We rushed downstairs again.
The water threatened to enter the hotel. It seemed the torrent of water had made its way down the mountainside and found the gap between the hotels opposite to ours. At one point, the flow seemed to recede and I returned to our room to try and get some sleep, while Prasad stayed downstairs. As I lay on my bed, I felt the building shift. When Prasad came back, I pretended to be asleep, although my mind was churning with forbidding thoughts.
The rain eased a little in the morning. As daylight broke, the devastation caused by the floods became apparent. The street in front, the national highway that goes up to the China border, was 2ft deep in silt and other debris, with the cars and buses that had been parked there stuck in the muck.
A few meters ahead, over the bridge, there were boulders and huge tree trunks strewn all around. There was no recognizable road to be seen. Water and silt had found their way into the basements of most restaurants and hotels, destroying whatever supplies they had. Most of the restaurants closed because they had nothing to cook.
At around two in the afternoon on 17 June, while we were catching up on sleep, somebody knocked hard on the door. The hotel owner and a few of his friends told us we would have to evacuate immediately as the flow of water in front of our hotel was accelerating—it was raining heavily again, flooding the street. If it continued this way, the water would first hit the hotel opposite and then the one we were in.
We packed our belongings and rushed downstairs. Somehow, we managed to reach the other end of the street, which was on higher ground, and remained there, stranded in a hotel verandah for about three hours.
The rains suddenly stopped at around 5.30 in the evening and the dark clouds started clearing. That was it really—suddenly, everyone started smiling again. The crisis, at least the immediate one, had passed.
Had the rains continued for another 12 hours, there’s little doubt in my mind that we would all have been flushed into the Bhagirathi river along everyone else in the valley.
The locals in Dharali were a comfort. A few of them would do the rounds to check on the welfare of visitors. They made sure that scarcity didn’t become an excuse for gouging customers.
While the immediate danger had passed, we realized our isolation wasn’t likely to end any time soon. We needed to make sure that what little money we had left would last. Not that there were too many opportunities to splurge—most of the hotels were serving dal-rice and alu paranthas.
With no electricity since 15 June evening, we had no idea about what was happening elsewhere. Mobile phone connections were down—I had last spoken to my family on 15 June from Gangotri. I had no idea what they were going through.
Each day since 16 June, we would walk the 6km to Harsil in the hope that we could call family and friends from the army camp. But we couldn’t cross the still-raging torrent that had cut off the road just before Harsil. We were finally able to cross the stream on 18 June, when Prasad was able to make calls; it took me another two days before I was able to get through on the phone.
On 19 June, we moved into the army camp, where we stayed for three days and were evacuated in the Indian Air Force helicopter to Jolly Grant Airport in Dehradun. That’s how I got my first helicopter ride—as part of the massive rescue and relief mission run by the country’s armed forces.