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Surviving Uttarakhand | ‘We won’t leave anyone behind’

A first-hand account of a Mint reporter’s story of surviving the Uttarakhand disaster while trekking with her family
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First Published: Sun, Jun 30 2013. 08 52 PM IST
Shepherd’s Hut in Sunderdunga Valley where the trekkers took shelter. Photo by Ruchira Singh/Mint
Shepherd’s Hut in Sunderdunga Valley where the trekkers took shelter. Photo by Ruchira Singh/Mint
Updated: Mon, Jul 01 2013. 07 42 AM IST
It’s the monsoon season in Mumbai and the rain has been quite heavy at times. The weather department correctly predicted that the season would start on time this year. It also said the June-September monsoon would be normal, which should be good news for agriculture, for the country’s economy. The rain gives life, and disrupts it—trains don’t run, roads get flooded, phones get drenched and stop working.
My phone still doesn’t work properly. It didn’t get wet in Mumbai. That happened in Uttarakhand.
It rained for more than three days and nights, a continuous downpour that churned the foothills of the Himalayas—tributaries turned into roaring torrents, hillsides became an uncontrollable mess of mud, boulders and other debris. And it was bone-chillingly cold.
Our group was small—my husband Praveen, our 10-year-old son Neil, and a friend of ours, Sathya. We were trekking to Sunderdunga valley, which is at a height of 3,206m in the foothills of the Himalayas, from where we planned to see Maiktoli Glacier and Mt Pawalidwar.
This is the toughest trek in Uttarakhand for amateurs, and usually takes about 8-10 days to complete. On the 40km route along the Sunderdunga river, you have to cross around five big tributaries, and in the final stretch there’s just the faintest of dirt tracks leading to the isolated valley. This time of the year, there aren’t too many people about—mostly shepherds and herb-pickers. We had a guide, Prakash, and four helpers.
In the past, as part of much larger groups, we had walked to the Pindari and Gomukh glaciers. We were confident of tackling Sunderdunga. In hindsight, perhaps overconfident, because we forgot to check the latest weather forecast.
The rain started on 15 June, a Saturday. That didn’t deter us—we continued climbing, oblivious to signs of danger. The weather kept worsening, the ground we were walking on was no longer firm, the rickety wooden bridges bent alarmingly under their own weight, and there was one gap in the path from where we could glimpse the sheer drop into the river below.
From the night of 16 June, the rain started hammering down, the temperature fell, and the ground water rose in Shepherd’s Hut, which is we where we had struck camp. In the morning, we woke up to an avalanche opposite the hut—what had been a crystalline waterfall was now a slurry of mud, blocks of ice and boulders roaring down the hillside. Incidentally, the most dreaded word in the valley is gadhera, which means avalanche.
Our purpose had changed by this time. Or rather, it was changed for us—from a bunch of trekkers we had become part of the vast group of people in the Himalayan foothills trying to survive.
Neil stayed in his own world, playing with his toy wrestlers. We never expressed our worries fully in front of Neil, but he knew we were in trouble. He would occasional express his anxiety, by pretending to fight with the rain, for instance. We all tried to hold on to our calm and stay cheerful, not just for his sake, but to keep our own morale up.
On the second day of our stay at Shepherd’s Hut, we met a group of 17 workmen who were building a guesthouse in the area. What the team boss told us sounded heartening:
“Tomorrow, everyone must leave together. We have saws, axes, spades. We will build the bridges,” he said. “We won’t leave anyone behind.”
We joined the group at 6am the next day and set out in the pelting rain that hadn’t lost any of its intensity since it started. Our shoes instantly soaked up the icy water and our flimsy raincoats offered no protection.
We walked right into an avalanche. The ground had been torn apart, trees uprooted and flung randomly across the shifting earth. The screamed warnings of “pathar, pathar” panicked us even more as we tried to negotiate our way through the morass.
Then we got to the tributary we had to get across. It had turned into a raging river and the chasm we had to cross was the width of a soccer field, with the river threatening to swallow up anything that went anywhere near it. We were caught between the roaring water and slope we had just scrambled down.
This was the most terrifying part of the whole episode—the avalanche and the subsequently our attempt to cross the water on Day 2 of the rain. That was the only time my son seemed to lose his composure. He wanted to throw up and I remember seeing his hands turn blue.
The workmen scurried up the concave wall that was the bank of the river, dodging falling boulders. Their leader gave us one last look and disappeared. We were on our own. With near frozen arms and legs and tongues that wouldn’t move, we scrambled back, more by instinct than anything else, retreating to Shepherd’s Hut.
The hut had rations for a month, yet our position was precarious. All of our guide’s four helpers said they were leaving and we overheard one of them telling Prakash to abandon us to our fate. To our credit, and after some persuasion, Prakash and one of the helpers stayed.
Sill, we were vulnerable and would never have been able to make a second attempt to get out of there. We needed more guiding hands to negotiate the terrain.
Worse, with the approaching monsoon season, people in the hills would pack up and leave and at such a time no one would be in a hurry to build bridges.
I never got much sleep in the nights. I would strain my ears to try and listen out for any telltale rumbles of rocks crashing down in an avalanche. I would wake up suddenly, seized with terror that the stone hut would be wiped out. The hut would get smoky because of the firewood we were using to cook and keep warm, and I feared carbon monoxide would poison us in our sleep. I would keep waking everyone up to ask if they were okay.
The smoke also triggered off my wheezing and a new window of worry opened. How would I trek back with lungs in such poor shape?
We arrived at a plan. We thought the cloudburst or depression—whatever it was—had to stop after some time. Then we would wait a day or two for the avalanches to settle and make a fresh attempt to get out. We told Prakash to try to hire the herb-pickers to accompany us, but they weren’t too interested. (These are the pickers of kida ghas, an energy booster that Chinese agents buy for Rs.500 apiece—very lucrative for the locals.)
In the meantime, we sent SOS messages through the helpers who had left us. They called our homes and offices to say we were safe, we have rations, but that we needed a helicopter to come and get us out.
We kept our backpacks ready, just in case a chopper did turn up.
When the rain stopped, we shifted to our tents and felt much safer. They had been submerged in ankle-deep water.
We whiled away time playing card games and kept ourselves occupied playing catch with a ball made out of woollen socks. Ghantu, the wild shepherd dog, became a part of our circle. When members of Prakash’s team left, we helped in the kitchen—chopping rookhi (wild grass) to use as a vegetable and washing dishes at the nearby stream.
On the fourth day, the skies cleared up and we were able to actually admire the view—Maiktoli Glacier and Mt Nanda Khat—besides enjoying beautiful moonlight nights. We even went for some mini treks in the valley and did a recce of the path we needed to take out of there.
After three days of sunshine, we decided it was time to try and make another attempt at leaving.
But just then, on the seventh day, we saw bits of the forest coming towards us. They were men in camouflage suits. Not one, not two, but a team of 27 people. This was the 2/5 Gorkha Rifles from Almora, also known as the Frontier Force. They had appeared as an answer to our prayers.
A flurry of activity lit up the gloomy valley that evening. Hands were briskly at work—firewood was cut, beds were made, onions were sliced, shoes were polished, torches were flashed, a bonfire was lit. A mountain sheep was procured and turned into the meal of the day.
The next day, those very hands pulled us, pushed us, fixed us in safety harnesses, heaved us up, guided us, and even became the support below our feet as we made our way out.
The biggest source of tension for lieutenant Dheeraj Nimbalkar, who led the men, was avalanches through the 14-hour trek to safety, while the most difficult part for us was crossing rivers and an uphill jungle trek to go around a landslide.
The hill had a gradient of about 80 degrees and I tried to keep my eyes glued to the boots of lance naik Bhesh Bahadur Pun, my escort during the trek, so that I could follow his footsteps.
Some mountaineering tips came my way—never rest your knee or back on a slope and never panic because that makes you fall.
I did fall though, sliding down on my belly and dragging down Bhesh. But the wiry Gorkha from Nepal was quick as a flash to dig in his toes in the leafy mud of the mountain and we were safe.
We got to know later that the 17 workmen had spent a night shivering in the forest with no food or fire. Had we gone with them, we would have died of hypothermia. They took more than 24 hours to reach Jatoli village. We took 14 hours with the army, with the weather on our side.
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First Published: Sun, Jun 30 2013. 08 52 PM IST