Words and images by Elisa Røtterud
High Altitude tourism has gone viral the last couple of years. Thanks to climbing legend Nimsdai and his company Elite Exped who have blasted social media with their Insta360 and GoProMax cameras, the domino effect on other Nepali companies have followed: Himalayan Expeditions are trending. In 2021, Nepal’s Department of Tourism issued a record 408 Everest permits—the most in history. Everest has become overcrowded and full of trash that it has been called the “world’s highest garbage dump”. Well, this discussion and hard core empiricism is a story itself.
After 9 adventures in the Nepali Himalayas, I felt it was time for me to explore something new. I wanted to visit a high altitude mountain with no que and expand my narrow horizon. I turned to India. Incredible India.
After weeks of reading and research I found great interest in Mount Shivling (6543M). Referred to as the Indian Matterhorn.
Truly named after the most revered god of Hindu Mythology – Lord Shiva, Mount Shivling is a very challenging and technical peak located in the Tapovan region of Uttarakhand in India. The steep and hardly distinguishable tooth-like peak stands at a towering height of 6543M above sea level and is also undeniably, the most beautiful peak nestled among the western Garhwal Himalayan region.
Once referred to as the Indian Matterhorn, you can feel the power and magnanimity of the mountain from its base.
Day 1: Arrival Delhi
This is my fourth visit to India. My last journeys were all about yoga and ashrams. In Goa and Kerala- nice tourist friendly areas.
I traveled together with my friend Monica. We have read that the areas we are visiting are women friendly, but we do carry knives in our belts and an within reach in case of an emergency.
Let’s rewind very quickly in time
Monica and I met at the 8K meter Manaslu in 2017. We celebrated our new friendship by hijacking a rickshaw in Kathmandu after our summit, and went cycling at night to get fried chicken. (Don’t ask)
We really have few things in common except for our humor, love for mountains, animals and people, as well as a curiosity about the world. Moa went to Everest in 2018 – where I waited for her in Kathmandu and combed out her tangles. In 2019 we summited the 7K meter Himlung Himal where we were triggered by a Norwegian first ascent. After that we had great winter trips in Norway. It was time to seek the sun in India.
After a long flight we arrived in Delhi and were greeted by a representative from ShikharTravels. They claim they have 40 years of experience and I have booked them to organize our permit papers and liaison officer.
Who are the liaison officers? There is a provision for each mountaineering group at altitudes above 6500 meters that they are monitored by a liaison officer. The roles of such officers are to report every activity of the group to the government and to mediate for the problems faced by groups. We visit the Indian Mountain Foundation for expedition briefing and to sign papers and read journals from previous Shivling Expeditions. Avalanches and bad weather- the area we are going to is famous for this. The calendar shows September 2022- and the weather forecast in the Himalayas is challenging.
A major avalanche similar to 2012 will soon hit high on Manalsu, between Camp 3 and 4.
– When was the last summit? I asked the representative from Shikhar Travels.
– 2015, he replies
– No, that’s not true, I laugh.
– Well, then only God knows, he replies.
I get a strange feeling about this trip.
Day 2: Delhi – Rishikesh Drive 250 Kms
We are traveling together with a Swiss and Italian alpinist, one English climber, one liaison officer and a representative from Shikhar Travels. Let’s call him Captain. An interesting cultural mix of people.
Day 3: Rishikesh – Uttarkashi (1200 M) Drive 170 km
A drive to Uttarkashi is a journey filled with scenic landscapes and lush green vegetation. Here we do our last paperwork and complete a few legal formalities related to the expedition. There seems to be some difficulties with some papers, but when I ask the Captain if everything is OK, he smiles and nods.
Day 4: Uttarkashi – Gangotri (3400 M) Drive 100 Km
The road from Uttarkashi to Gangotri is challenging. Late monson and landslides.
The road runs along vertical cliffs with no guardrails. I’ve experienced similar roads in Nepal, and I must confess I feel quite nervous on them. You can read more about this road on Dangerousroads.org
Gangotri is a charming mountain city and according to Hindu legends, the most sacred of all rivers, Ganges (or Ganga), descended from heaven to earth at Gangotri, when Lord Shiva released the mighty river from his locks.
From 0 to 3400 meters, I normally like to adjust my body to acclimatize slower, but according to the Captain there is no time.
Why, I ask? Only God knows, he replies.
I look at Monica and we laugh. This sounds really strange, but being the only gals on a trip in an area we haven’t been before, we feel it’s safer to start the trekking the day after together with the others.
We also meet our porters in Gangotri. A team consisting of 10 young men. They seem confused. No papers, they tell me. What do you mean, I ask? No papers, they reply. Please explain, I ask. No papers, they reply.
Day 5: Gangotri – Bhojbasa (3800 M)
I wake up early and decide to do the trekking slowly to adjust my body. Day 3 up to 3775 meters, I know this might be challenging. Therefore I start the day by drinking 1 liter of water. Water is of great importance in altitude. In my pack I have snacks, water, my trollveggen Pro Light Gore Tex jacket, the lyngen down jacket, my mittens and beanie. Monica carries the inreach, which we are told is not allowed since we are close to the Chinese border. We lie and tell our liaison officer that we don’t have one.
According to the Captain and the liaison officer we will have lunch at Bhojbasa where we will set camp for the night. The trek goes through rugged terrains along with the Bhagirathi River. Absolutely beautiful!
We arrive camp at noon with no sight of the porters. At six in the afternoon, there is still no sight of our porters who have the food, equipment and tents. We all start to worry. Has anything happened to them? The weather is changing with heavy wind and rain. We haven’t eaten since breakfast and this is not a way to prepare the body for a high altitude mountain. At 9 PM the porters arrive. They are tired and soaking wet from the rain, and I feel sorry for them. They didn’t have the permit papers to enter the trek and had to “Only God knows how” arrange this in Gangotri. I tell the Captain that we all should sleep and stay in a rotten dome that is placed there,since it’s late and all are extremely hungry. He nods silently. Will you be in charge of the logistics at the mountain, I ask him. He nods. How many high mountain expeditions have you been on, I ask him. Two, he whisperers.
The atmosphere in the group is hostile. We are all pissed off and worried.
We eat in silence and after the much needed meal, we have a meeting about the situation. Facts are: Noone speaks English well enough to inform us about what is going on. The Captain lacks all experience needed to run the logistics of an expedition. The liaison officer, trying to be diplomatic assures us that this will be reported to IMF (The Indian Mountain Foundation). Give me your satellite phone, I say to the Captain. I want to complain to Shikhar Travels myself- right now. The satellite phone is dead. You are traveling with an uncharged satellite phone, I tell the Captain. I am furious!
We spend the night with little sleep, in the rotten dome.
Day 6: Bhojbasa – Tapovan (Base Camp 4200 M)
We wake up to the majestic view of the Bhagirathi range of peaks and we start our trekking towards base camp. The trail is one on moraine-rich glaciers. The view and surrounding peaks start to get wider and wider as the trail gets steeper with every step forward.
Base Camp, Tapovan, a famous meditation spot, is known for its gorgeous meadows encircling the base of Shivling Peak, is a beautiful campsite bustling with the many fresh water streams. Herds of Bharal (blue mountain goats) run up and down the ridges with magnificent views of Bhagirathi 1,2 and 3.
There are also brown bears, puma and snow leopards in the area.
Upon arrival the Captain faints. Monica and I look at each other with horror and see that the young man must be suffering from altitude sickness. We must take him back to Gangotri, we pray to the liaison officer. No, no, he’s only tired- he replies. No, he’s suffering from altitude sickness, we say. He must go down immediately! No, no- don’t worry, we are told.
5 hours later the Captain’s condition gets worse. His face is unrecognizable, all swollen up, and he can’t move. Since the satellite phone is dead, we can’t call for help either. Is this a “press the button situation” I ask Monica who has the inreach. We decide to ask others at camp for help first. 2 German climbing brothers in camp, see what is going on and give the poor lad oxygen and medicine.
We’re taking him down. He needs helicopter rescue immediately, he’ll be dead within a few hours! Monica and I are stressed and furious. Why didn’t they listen to us in the first place? Because we are women?!
Our liaison officer makes sure to follow the Germans with the Captain and he doesn’t return. The Captain gets evacuated with a helicopter at Bhojbasa. We are later told that he stayed 2 weeks at the hospital and was lucky to survive.
Day 7: Base Camp- rest day
I charge the satellite phone on a solar panel and start my own little war against Shikhar Travels.
– After a tour in our camp we see that we have one half full Oxygen tank, which the Captain got. In case any of us get sick, we don’t have any medicine.
– Our climbing Sherpa and the kitchen staff do not understand English which makes it challenging to communicate on the mountain- and to base camp in case of emergency.
– Bad weather is expected and no ropes are fixed. Is there a weather window at all?
– Our liaison officer is gone and we have no one to run the dialogue from the mountain to base camp.
– I feel stressed pumping adrenaline.
Day 7-11- Acclimatization 5500 meters Camp 1
We start to move slowly towards Camp 1. Monica, me and one climbing sherpa.
Me: You have summited Shivling, Dawa!
Dawa: Yes, in 2013.
Me. Great! Not after 2013?
Dawa: No, dangerous mountain.
Me: But the normal route is OK if we get nice weather!
Dawa: Maybe. Only God knows
Me: Which other mountains have you been to in this area?
Me: Yeah, which ones?
Dawa: Yes, mountains
There’s an avalanche up there, all of a sudden Monica sees one hitting above camp 1. Yes, dangerous, Dawa replies.
I start to cry of exhaustion and as I step into brown bear shit, I decide it’s time for us to get out of this area. Fuck this, I tell Monica. There are only red flags. She agrees. This is not the mountain we are dying at. Shivling Expedition went to Shit Expedition.
At the same time we are seeing the avalanche above camp 1, a big avalanche is hitting the area of Uttarkashi. 26 people die. A bus also gets hit by a landslide and kills 25 people. All in the same area. One week after the terrible avalanche at Manaslu.
Dag 12- 15 Evacuation
It’s time to leave.
No one is summiting this season. Food outside tents at Camp 1 got eaten by snow leopards too. We are facing too many alarming dots. Due to the bad weather the whole area is flagged red, which means it will be hard to get out of Gangotri because of all the landslides. Either we try to get out immediately or we wait for better weather to come. We decided to go for the first option. We get an old ambulance as transport and a driver and head back to Rishikesh.
Back in Delhi we have a solid debrief at a bar and we decide never to return to mount Shivling.
So what’s next, I ask Monica. Well, let’s head back home to Norway and go to the mountains there. And off we went…. (Ps. See the video diary under highlights on IG: Elisarotterud)
Elisa’s packing list: