Silent Baba from Pete McBride on Vimeo.

September 17-28, 2013

Just before sunset, the snow starts to fall. The flakes are wet and heavy. Jake looks up and says as much to the sky as to us, his climbing partners, “This feels like one of those monsoon storms that stick around.”

Dave and I listen to Jake’s words, but there is nothing to do except button up. We are high in the Garhwal region of the Indian Himalaya, standing at 17,500 feet atop the giant Gangotri glacier, surrounded by 23,000-foot peaks, many unclimbed. It is said to be the birthplace of India’s sacred river, the Ganges. It has taken us nearly ten days to get here—six of them by foot walking through treacherous, glacial moraine. We are miles from any whisper of civilization. But due to our proximity to India’s northwestern border with Pakistan, Indian law prohibits satellite phones. International tensions with Pakistan are hotter than normal, boiling even. We are highly aware that any rescue requiring support (helicopters), is out of the question.

1-140804-mcbride-ganges-01At 16,700 feet at minus 20ºF, Jake Norton (right) and Dave Morton eat a quick dinner under moonlight as they prepare to climb the unclimbed Chaukhamba IV looming behind them.

We came to this remoteness to claw our way up the unclimbed Chaukhamba IV, a 22,487-foot, glacial-clad granite monster standing like a sentinel protecting the Gangotri glacier at its feet. Avalanche conditions are ripe, so we have targeted another 22,200-foot peak just west. It too has never been climbed, or even named. We are poised to move upward tomorrow. Ropes, helmets, crampons, and ice axes sit ready, waiting outside our tents.

2-140804-mcbride-ganges-02The team retreats from Camp I at 17,300 feet, down the Gangotri Glacier after an unexpected, late monsoon storm dumped over three feet of snow in 12 hours. They counted 36 avalanches throughout the night before they concluded it wasn’t safe to keep climbing.

A stubborn monsoon season might say otherwise though. As darkness seeps over us, the wet, heavy flakes change. The soft sound of falling snow has morphed to a frozen, small hail. Miniature tap dancers performing on our nylon roof, I think. We lie in our sleeping bags cracking jokes about our situation. Who packed skis? All of us are intently focused on the sound of the storm. I try to keep worry to a slow percolate.

3-News-Map-Ganges2-v5-709x1024

As the damp night lists, we continually shake accumulating snow from our tents. We take turns shoveling every two hours to keep the ventilation from sealing. The thought of quiet suffocation keeps me awake.

The steady creaks and moans of the glacier that kept me awake previous nights have subsided. And the steady roar of water pouring down the glacier has also gone mute. Just the icy snow dance on our tent. I wonder if the haunting loon-like call of the male Himalayan snowcock will wake us in the morning like it has before.

4-140804-mcbride-ganges-03Silent Baba is a sadhu who has chosen not to speak for seven years. He lives in a humble stone ashram above Tapovan Creek, at 14,200 feet, in the shadow of the Bhagirathi mountains behind. Like many Hindu, he believes the Ganges is more sacred at its headwaters.

Sometime around midnight a new sound jolts Jake and me upright in our bags. A low rumble … no, distant thunder … no, echoing giant thunder. Avalanche. At first we hear it from afar—high up on Chaukhamba, I presume. But steadily the rumble grows louder, stereo even. Jake and I look at each other. “How far are we from the mountain?” I ask, starting to eye my boots. Jake assures me we are fine. Ten minutes later another roar, even louder. Jake eyes his boots.

For the next five hours, the avalanches continue. Their sounds vary between that of distant thunderstorms and the crack of artillery fire—building-size blocks tumbling from above. Some avalanches rumble over a minute. Throughout the night, I count 36.

At 5:30 a.m., we come to the conclusion that our climbing mission is over. If we don’t move, the monsoon won’t let us. It is time to pack up and fight/flee our way down. As I mine for buried tent stakes, I measure over three feet of snow. It is still snowing, hard. The soupy light is so flat, I get disoriented when I stand. The call of the snowcock is absent. Everything is absent except snow.

5-140804-mcbride-ganges-04A wild ibex soars across Tapovan Creek, one of many small tributaries that form the headwaters of the Ganges River.

Having grown up in the Rocky Mountains and spent the majority of my life in snowy environs, I’m dumbfounded. I’ve never seen such a surge of frozen moisture before, ever.

Over the next six hours we posthole through thigh-deep, concrete-like snow, straining under oversize loads. Our climbing ropes remain behind—too heavy for a single load. We mark their location with GPS coordinates, optimistically hoping someone can find them later. In ten hours, we make just three miles to Advance Base Camp. Our third tent is completely buried, hidden. Dave, who has guided all seven summits and stood atop Everest six times, says it is the “most worked he has been in a long time.” I can barely smile at the comment. I’m shattered.

We reach Base Camp the following night. I’m so tired I can barely eat. And two days later we reach the rustic ashram of Silent Baba, a sadhu who hasn’t spoken in seven years—his form of reverence to Ma Ganga. His tiny structure sits at 14,200 feet, in the shadow of the Bhagirathi, Meru, and Shivling, some of the most stunning peaks I’ve witnessed. Wild ibex linger in the meadows beyond his stone sanctuary. Baba serves us homemade chai and we sit in silence, watching the mountains, grateful we aren’t stranded.

6-140804-mcbride-ganges-05The Tehri Dam and reservoir, which halted the sacred Ganges, is one of the largest dams in Asia and highly controversial in India. Drowning 40 villages and displacing 100,000 people, it has ongoing legal battles. The hydroelectric facility is said to produce 2,400 MW of electricity.

Slightly defeated by our abandoned climb, we push downstream past Gaumukh, “the cow’s mouth,” where the Ganges pours out beneath the collapsing foot of the Gangotri Glacier. This transition of ice to river is spiritually powerful and many Hindu pilgrimage here. The exact location, however, is moving upstream at roughly 60 feet a year—the hand of climate change at work.

7-140804-mcbride-ganges-06Aerial perspective of the confluence of the Alaknanda (right) and Bhagirathi Rivers. Known as Devaprayag, this location is considered religiously important among Hindus because the divine Ganges River takes its official name and form here.

Then, suddenly, after weeks on foot, we return to the wheeled travel of 4x4s and move downstream through the scoured canyons of a gravity-fueled river. The roads that were washed out when we came in are now repaired, barely. “It feels like we are driving on a sandcastle,” says Dave.

When we enter the lower foothills, the power of the Ganges visibly stops. Stretched before us is the Tehri Dam and reservoir, one of the largest and most controversial hydroelectric projects in the world. To quench a growing thirst for electricity, the Tehri project submerged 40 villages and physically stopped Lord Shiva’s flow.

The sacred headwaters are clearly behind us. Time to start looking downstream.

The Ganges River expedition was made possible with funding from Microsoft, Eddie Bauer, National Geographic Society’s Expeditions Council, Ambuja Cement India, and Hach Hyrdolab. The full expedition team includes photographer and videographer Pete McBride, videographers and professional climbers Jake Norton and Dave Morton, and second camera Ashley Mosher.

{ 0 comments }

Chasing the Sacred: Snow to Sea down India's Ganges River from Pete McBride on Vimeo.

In northern India, there is a river with over a hundred names. It starts in the Garhwal Himalaya and drops over 14,000 feet from the terminus of the Gangotri Glacier before marching some 1,550 miles to the Bay of Bengal. For nearly a billion Hindus in India and beyond, it is more than a river. It is the extension of the divine—Lord Shiva. Not only does it transport the prayers of believers visiting its waters, but it also provides sustenance for hundreds of millions of people, vast industry, agriculture, and endangered wildlife like the Bengal tiger and the susu, a blind freshwater dolphin. For Indians it is most commonly known as Ma Ganga—Mother Ganga. For Westerners, it is the Ganges, one of the most sacred of the world’s rivers.
1-140801-mcbride-ganges-overview-02Dave Morton and Jake Norton navigate crevasses and three feet of fresh snow above 16,000 feet on Gangotri Glacier.

The idea was simple. Follow the holy waters of this river source to sea. Climb to the top of the Ganges watershed and follow its flow through the Himalaya, across the Gangetic plain and through the delta to where it kisses the ocean. It would be the classic, age-old river trip down India’s lifeline—a window into the country’s culture, religion, industry, birth, ritual, and love, even death. The goal would be to document the river and the world around it and even measure water quality en route.
2-140801-mcbride-ganges-overview-03Winding through the Himalaya, the Bhagarathi River, a source river of the Ganges, winds through the terraced hills and communities of Utterkashi in northern India. Last summer, this region was ravaged by floods due to a glacial outburst that killed over 6,000 people.

Having visited the Ganges years before on another assignment for National Geographic, I knew just enough about this world through which the river flowed to realize an important thing: A source-to-sea mission, on paper, is simple. Doing it would be daunting. The mind-boggling logistics involved in any source-to-sea mission are troublesome. In India, they can be perplexing. Communication near remote headwaters is limited or nonexistent. The permit process can suffocate you in bureaucratic paperwork and take six months to a year. It took nine months to initiate the process of hiring a helicopter for a scouting/filming flight. The actual trip would last six weeks.

3-News-Map-Ganges-v6-2048

As a visual storyteller, I knew that finding photographic gems and video jewels amid the swarm of beauty, rawness, and messy vitality that makes up India’s tapestry of life would inevitably create a quandary: where and when do you point the lens?

4-140805-mcbride-ganges-03In the holy city of Rishikesh, upstream from Hardiwar, pilgrims and tourists from all over the world come to visit the Ganges and give offerings. Shops line the streets with spiritual items and colorful toys that captivate a boy’s attention.

Although the Ganges is far from my home and heritage, I grew up on the banks of another famed waterway—the mighty Colorado. Five years ago I followed that river source to sea—by boat, by plane, by foot—to document its beauty and challenges (it no longer reaches the sea). In the process, I learned something obvious to me now but surprising at the time: Few grasp the importance of watersheds and rivers or think of them beyond their own backyard. I, of course, was one of them. I had little awareness of the importance of a river, especially the Colorado, until I chased its waters. Perhaps our Ganges journey could ignite a spark of interest.

5-140801-mcbride-ganges-overview-04In Haridwar, Hindus come to the banks of the holy Ganges daily to perform aarti rituals with song, flames, and prayer.

Our first challenge beyond the logistical minefield of permits, communication, and transportation would be capturing the passion and reverence people exhibit for their beloved waterway, which drains the southern Himalaya. Everyone from pilgrims and politicians to socialites and sadhus flock to the river’s banks to pray, bathe, or merely admire its power. Many rivers worldwide often go unnoticed except for hydroelectric operators and a few recreationalists (boaters and fishermen). But in India, the public embraces the Ganges with open arms. And they do it by praying on the river’s banks daily throughout the entire watershed. In the holy cities of Rishikesh, Haridwar, and Varanasi, formal prayer services with music, fire, and speeches occur every day. They are called aarti—some call it the “Hindu happy hour.”

6-140801-mcbride-ganges-overview-05People cross a makeshift pier on the Yamuna River, the largest tributary of the Ganges. Overall, the Ganges supports over 400 million people.

This collective, spiritual hug by the hundreds of millions using the river, however, comes with costs. Pollution and a lack of environmental awareness are visibly notable across much of the watershed. And in many areas, the challenges are compounded by a simple mindset flowing through the same people that revere its sacred flow: The river is God, thus it is all powerful and immune to the threats of overuse, contamination, and environmental degradation. In short, people believe the curative powers of the Ganges will not only heal us, but also itself. It is an illogical environmental conundrum—the Ganges paradox, if you will.

7-140801-mcbride-ganges-overview-06Below the Ganga Barrage at Kanpur, fishermen test their luck. Fishing is a rare sight through much of the Ganges since Hindus, the religious majority, are vegetarian and don’t allow fishing in many stretches.

For me, this paradox sparks a question: If the physical river dies, what happens to the spiritual power?

Many Indians I asked brush away the question suggesting the Ganges can’t die, but admit they are concerned about pollution. One woman who has lived on the Ganges’ shores for 18 years boldly stated, “If the Ganges dies, we all die. Society dies.” My friend and translator for the trip, Madhav, a Hindu monk who grew up traveling the river, says, “After years of cleaning our sins, now it is time to clean the sins placed upon Ma Ganga.” It appears many agree. India’s new prime minister, Narenda Modi, won the recent election on a platform that included cleaning the Ganges. Earlier in July his administration proposed a 340 million dollar budget to do just that, fueling hope across India.

8-140801-mcbride-ganges-overview-07In India’s oldest city, Varanasi, infrastructure for garbage and sewage is insufficient. The Indian government has recently promised three million dollars to clean up Varanasi’s waterfront.

In exploring every possible mile of the Ganges, we hoped to better understand the Ganges paradox, maybe even find answers. Joined by professional climbers Jake Norton and Dave Morton we too embraced Ma Ganga, day and night. Madhav would join us downstream as a translator/ guide. Our intended starting point for the journey would be the unclimbed, 22,487-foot Chaukhamba IV summit towering above the Gangotri Glacier like a watchful sentinel.

While questions of this river’s health raced through our minds, I fretted about the miles of hurdles ahead. Could we gain access to the big aarti service in Haridwar? Could we film in the tanneries of Kanpur? How do you capture Varanasi’s crumbling beauty? Would we even make the end at Sagar Island? Could we stay healthy?

9-140801-mcbride-ganges-overview-08At Sagar Island, the Ganges connects with the sea at the Bay of Bengal. Considered a holy place of worship, people come to give offerings and prayers. A pack of stray dogs await a handout.

Arriving in August 2013 on the heels of a record monsoon that triggered a glacial outburst flood, our first river lesson presented itself: The Ganges gives and takes away. Over 6,000 people died, and thousands more were reported missing. Miles of roads were washed out and complete hillsides scoured naked. Entire villages were swept into oblivion. The communities we traveled through mourned with stoic resilience. And as we plodded north, I wondered if walking eight days beyond civilization to attempt an unclimbed peak was prudent. The river gods—Hindu and otherwise—appeared far from happy.

Nonetheless, we pushed on. Our snow/water samples might add to the story of this challenged, sacred watershed. And documenting the many that live, survive, revere, and even revile this majestic body of water might help unveil some answers to a paradox that plagues it. If nothing else, we would add a chapter to the evolving story of a river called Ma—Mother.

The Ganges River expedition was made possible with funding from Microsoft, Eddie Bauer, National Geographic Society’s Expeditions Council, Ambuja Cement India, and Hach Hyrdolab. The full expedition team includes photographer and videographer Pete McBride, videographers and professional climbers Jake Norton and Dave Morton, and second camera Ashley Mosher.

{ 0 comments }

Chasing the Sacred – Source to Sea down the Ganges

September 9, 2013

If I reach my arm out the window, I could casually shake hands with the man next to me — the driver of a truck going some 50 m.p.h. just inches from the car in which I am riding. I look at him and he smiles subtly, then lightly wobbles his head. Such vehicle proximity […]

Read the full article →

Connected by the Most Endangered River in America

July 17, 2013

Their logo says “Rivers Connect Us”. It is a catchy phrase but how do these slivers of life do it? Is it simply their waters that run through so many of our plumbing systems? Or is it their ancient, weathered beauty that lures us to their banks to listen and watch? Maybe its their splashy […]

Read the full article →

The Water Tower

November 9, 2012

In central Kenya, northeast of the Rift Valley, there is a tower. It is a monumental, granite swell with a crumbling pinnacle that stretches 17,058 feet into the sky. Many people throughout this region of East Africa believe their God, Ngai, lives on top. While this second tallest African peak named Mt. Kenya, may be […]

Read the full article →

The ol’ Blog Bulletin Board — and the toe grab.

September 4, 2012

Fear not. I am not a blogger nor intend to be one. As I see it, the world needs more physical doing, less blogging. But, like many, I have collected an eclectic assortment of tales. So consider this a bulletin board of stories, video clips, a few photography tips, snapshots and a some magic moments […]

Read the full article →