On the afternoon of 15th June 2013, 45-50 travelers, villagers, guides and porters had reached Dwali from visiting the Pindari and Kafni glaciers, and in our case, from the village “Khati” below. As the travellers were resting their aching bones by the fire and under their blankets, thinking of the long treks down to Khati or up to the glaciers the next day, it started raining heavily in the area. While the locals cast worried looks around, the travelers were more relaxed, hoping for the rain to cease by the morning and anticipating another refreshing trek in the mountains. However, it rained continuously for the next 61 hours, as nature unleashed its fury upon the mountain state of Uttarakhand. Over the next few days, these people would get stranded, go hungry, and live on a patch of land disappearing before their eyes while being completely cut off from civilisation.
As we watched on the morning of the 16th, the waterfalls that merely trickled down the hills now resembled rivers themselves, while the two rivers coming down from the Pindari and Kafni glaciers were well past their boundaries, eating up mountains and trees like a child swallows a candy. The bridge on the trek route to Khati broke before our eyes, and the hill opposite Dwali on the Kafni river side turned from green to brown, as the rain and river combined made sure more and more land slid down into the churning brown Pindar River. As the debris from the hill reached the river, it changed course and eroded the hill on which Dwali was based, leading to heavy tremors which shook all the buildings, leading to sleepless nights and on two occasions, evacuations to higher ground. Three days of torrential rainfall turned the pristine settlement into an island in a sea of destruction, with three sides of the hill falling sharply into the river bed. By the morning of 18th, when the rains finally ceased and the sun came out, it could be seen that only one more day of rain could have washed away Dwali, leaving the 50 stranded people with no shelter, no rations and no means of a safe return. It was, as they call it, “living on the edge”.
The 50 people comprised of 10 tourists including us (There were three children aged 11, 14, and 15 and two 50 year olds), 5 guides and porters, 21 boys of Champawat district aged between 18-25 who had come along with 4 instructors on a Search and Rescue training camp for the Nanda Raj Jat yatra later in the year and their 5 guides and cooks. This search and rescue team had iceaxes, ropes, carabeners, snow boots, carry mats and tents in supply. Their 4 four instructors, Manish Joshi, Moni Baba, Basant Joshi and leader Vinod Chandra Bhatt were also highly trained and experienced in mountain trekking, climbing and rock climbing. What we will most remember them for though, is their “never say die” attitude, and their dedication to the principles of Search and Rescue, they made sure every single person on the team made it past every obstacle that nature put in their path.
With the road back to Khati destroyed, on the morning of the 18th, the travellers moved to Phurkiya, a settlement 5 kms above Dwali in the Pindar valley (The last stop before the Pindari glacier). Ration supplies were dwindling and Dwali was perpetually shaking, its safety and stability always a question. Moreover, these settlements did not have any mobile signal, or satellite phone connectivity, thus contact with the outside world was impossible. It was hoped that we might find someone with more news in Phurkiya. Making footholds with their ice-axes and helping people across landslide areas and huge nallas rushing down the hills, the S&R Team ensured everyone reached Phurkiya safely. However, our elation at having escaped Dwali was short-lived, as we learned of the destruction and landslides in all of Uttarakhand and the magnitude of the disaster on radio sets belonging to the locals in Phurkiya. Along with this sad news, ration supplies and space was even lesser at Phurkiya, and there was still no method of communication with the outside world. This forced the team to return to Dwali on 19th morning, with other travellers and locals stuck in Phurkiya. The total number of people stuck in Dwali stood at around 70 now. Some locals spoke of an alternate treacherous way through the Kafni glacier, and they including one of our guides “Kheem Singh”, an ex-army villageman from Jhuni left with phone numbers and messages.
By now the water in the rivers had reduced, but crossing was still considered as asking for death. The rescue team cut logs from the forest, and tried to bridge the Pindar side of the river on the morning of the 20th, but the massive current swept away the logs and splintered them. When an air force helicopter flew up to Dwali later in the day, we all thought help was finally at hand. Waving frantically with shirts in hand at the incoming heli, we smiled and beamed and danced on the rocks, already thinking of home and the phone calls we had to make. Unfortunately, the helicopter was solely on a recee mission, and no further help arrived during the day. Rations had finished in Phurkiya, and an empty stomach can only increase a man’s desperation. By the night, we had made up our minds; we would bridge the Pindar and cross tomorrow, or die trying. By now Kheem Singh had conveyed our messages to our father, and the Bageshwar DM was aware of our plight, position and the number of people stranded. So while the administration had swung into action to ensure our rescue, we were unaware of any efforts and hinging on our own attempts to survive.
The next morning, the 21st, already hungry from the previous day, the rescue team along with help from the locals again constructed a log bridge. This time, they managed to bridge the river, and Moni Baba scampered across to lash the bridge into place. By 9 AM, the bridge was in place and a rope and pulley system had been constructed by the S&R Team for the bags as well. All 70 people crossed the roaring Pindar on two logs, merely 3 feet above the gushing water. As we inched across on the makeshift bridge, we knew even one mistake or slip would kill us, as there was no safety harness in place, but only a rope to cling onto for support. However, everyone safely made it across, and by 11 PM, we had even scaled the vertical rock face and descended onto the adjacent river bed.
The help provided by the locals here was essential here, as they used their own bodies to support your weight as you slithered down the sheer rock faces. As the last person finally made it to the river bed, we realised what we had done comprised of sheer daredevilry, and the concentration and efforts of the locals and S&R Team had ensured that everyone was alive and across. However, as we began the trek down to Khati, it became evident that the crossing the river was the easiest task of the day. The path to Khati had been destroyed by the rains and landslides, and the only alternative was to trek through the mountain jungle back to civilisation. With 11 foreboding kms of jungle valley between us and civilisation, our ragged band of travellers set out on the densely forested slopes with the guides and S&R team leading the way, and the instructors bringing the old and weak people at the end of the line. The dense mountain jungle always sloped down into the gushing river, and grabbing onto bamboo stalks and grass ensured that we get some kind of grip on the mountainside as we zigzagged towards Khati. Many times we ascended, only to reach a dead end and descend again. We crossed so many landslides we lost count, and we had to be careful, as the huge boulders only need one nudge the wrong way to come crushing down on our party. Sometimes we reached the old path down to Khati, and our spirits lifted but it broke again as another landslide had destroyed it, and we would return to the jungle, disappointed. Waterfalls and naalas were now only sources of water, as we trudged on and on, in search of civilisation, in hope of contact from below. We walked and trekked across the thick forest for 10 hours on empty stomachs, leaping across boulders, tiptoeing across landslides and climbing through the jungle until darkness fell. With the road ahead now shrouded in darkness, we walked by torchlight, determined to reach the village ahead and save ourselves, when we met the army, coming from the other side. The sight of men in uniform, and food in their hands, was almost like a dream. After 6 days of witnessing nature’s fury, and 3 days of mitigated and absent ration, this was like a miracle, something which was too good to be true. Our joyous party was led to the banks of the Pindar River, where we were fed, and a warm fire was crackling as jawans of the 23 Gorkha regiment of Almora arranged for dinner. Men cried as they spoke with their parents (there was BSNL signal in the area) for the first time in 10 days to tell them they were finally safe, they were alive and coming home. The next morning, by 8.30 all the team had been helped across the river by the army and were safely in Khati, with their names registered by govt officials and breakfast cooking.
While stranded on the shaking and moving mountain at Dwali with no hope in sight, the company of the S&R team was god’s gift to all travellers. Not only did they physically make the bridge and ensure everyone safely crossed it, not only did the boys from Champawat hold hands and pull you up and down through that mountain jungle on the 21st, but those boys and the instructors also lifted your spirits during those idle times in the rain. Playing cards with them and listening to tales of their adventures, one forgot the plight that nature had put us in. They not only saved our bodies, but they saved our minds from themselves, because when your life is in danger, the mind can be your biggest enemy, always thinking of what could have been done, despairing, giving up. The boys and instructors from Champawat made sure the mind was always at rest, only thinking of the task ahead, and the way home. Their own task was made more difficult by the 30-35 kg of equipment each boy had to carry on his back, as their mules could not cross the river, but never once did they complain about the adverse circumstances; they were too busy helping people to complain. The locals, the guides and porters displayed courage only pahaadis can show, not leaving their clients and helping them across the wilderness, with their bags on their backs.
The experience left us with a cautious respect for Mother Nature and the hills and a memory that will remain with us for our lives. We have learnt more in the last three days than we learnt in years of the classroom, about ourselves, about other people, and we have made friends that will be there for life ahead. “Kumaon mein nahi marte log sahaab, yahaan nahi hota aisa kabhi”, said a villager to me. With reports of all being rescued from the Kumaon area, one silently agrees with the old villager.
The above post was submitted by Vishrut Garg and was chosen for the first prize of our Travelogue competition, held between 24th-June and 6th-July 2013 for IIT-B students.