CHAUKHAMBA stands as the ultimate rampart in the Himalayan panorama of the Uttarakhand Hills. Appearing to be situated somewhere in the middle, the old maps clarify that this formidable massif is in Garhwal since they name it “Badrinath Trek”.
In fact it sits on the crest of he great range that divides Badrinath from Kedarnath (on the southern flank). Wherever you go in Garhwal, you cannot miss the bulk of this mighty castle. It is the one peak no one can be in any doubt about.
As a climbing proposition, Chaukhamba is for the ustads with a long formidable glacial approach from every angle except the front. This southern face must rank among the last great problems of Himalayan climbing to be faced by those born in the next century. The mountain is so steep it rises breathtakingly sheer for 15000 feet - Chaukhamba Peak
For anyone who wishes to be privy to this mind-boggling aspect of a true Himalayan giant the thing to do is make a round trip from Madhmaheshwar temple to the tiny lake of Kanchinital. Above the forgotten turn runs a jagged arm that connects to the spine of the main range. But beware of the fog. Nowhere in the Himalayas have come across such after-noon pea-soupers as found on this trek. You can only sit and out-patience them. Otherwise you may end up amongest the hitter of an aeroplane wreck – that is the other feature of this dramatic hillside above Madhmaheshwar temple.
To get to the second of the five Kedarnath shrines is a long but delightful walk of 35 km from Guptkashi. The prosperous outline of its many storied houses is testimony to its status as the home of the Kedarnath Pandas, those ubiquitous helpers of pilgrims who are the desi equivalent of the Doomsday Book with their records. The path descends to Kalimath and its round temple, once famous for animal sacrifices. Then the trail winds round to Raun Lekh and Ransi Villages that face the snow peaks now drawing closure at every step.
A steep decent to the Madhmaheshwar Ganga brings you to the last village of Gaunder which happens to find a place in the history books of mountaineering.
In 1934, when Shipton and Tilman discovered the Nanda Devi Sanctuary (with their three Sherpa, they considered it dangerous during the monsoons. To fill in the time before they returned to the sanctuary, they decided to test the ancient belief that a shortcut existed between the temples of Badri and Kedar. Though the temples are only 40 miles apart the Chaukhamba stands between them. Was there a passage known to the seers of old by which the pujari could perform his morning aarti in one shrine and the same day make it to the other for the evening waving lights?
The climbers began famously and found no obstruction. They arrived on the ridge east of Chaukhamba to look down on the lush lower forests guarding Madhmaheshwar the “navel of Shiva”. They knew already by the week it had taken them to get this far that the ancient belief probably referred to astral projection. There was no way a physical body could cross the great snowy divide in less than 10 days. Even these calculations turned out to be very optimistic. Thinking the worst was over, they lowered themselves down the ice falls and imagined their further decent through the jungle to the temple would be a formality.
Instead this passage became absolute nightmare and it took them almost a week to extricate themselves.
Hungry, bleeding and thoroughly demoralised by the impenetrable jungle, the village they at last staggered into was Gaunder. They had at least proved that the only way to do puja in the morning in Badri and evening aarti in Kedar was by bus. Fifty years later to commemorate this crossing of the Himalayas two young Bengali adventurers set off to do it in reverse if they and their sole porter has succeeded they would have been hailed as supermen. But Luck had in the form of blizzard struck their attempt above Kanchinital, even before they hit the Chaukhamba ridge. Nothing more is known of their fate. It is easy hindsight to deplore their rash assumptions and point out that the five tough climbers who did it from easier side had primed their approach with the aid of eight porters. I still feel that the Bengalis determination was of a high enough order to get them across the crest ridge if the fateful blizzard had not destroyed their enterprise.
Most cruelly it did not snow for the next six weeks thereafter and the area had a period of ravishingly clear weather that could have hosted a lightweight crossing.
Several of the searchers who made enquiries about the fate of the young explorers came away with curious sensations that there might be something in the myth of a hidden shortcut between the two shrines. This is the sort of route that is crying out to be examined but the fact that the Badrinath end of the trail is technically within the Inner Line and requires a permit is a dampener.
It is sad fact that these brave young Bengalis had to waste precious time chasing-up local administration for permission to cross. Can we add bones to the list of casualties who have fallen victims to the government red tape?
The trail to Madhmaheshwar, which is not at all difficult, is often deliberately made out to be tough. This is because shrine is managed by the unorthodox priests of the Lingayat sect of Karnataka.
The local pandas of the other Kedarnath shrines feel this beautiful excursion may divert their rightful prey! For a nature lover this walk to the second Kedar temple is a hundred times more fruitful than the jostling main trail.
On it, I was able to see several Himalayan monals and almost ran into a pine-marten crossing the path. I also caught the whiff of musk or to be more accurate spotted a party of musk deer poachers hurrying out of sanctuary at night. Late, I bumped into the forest guards sent from Ukhimath to apprehend them but by then they had mingled with the crowd of pilgrim traffic in Guptkashi.
I was told that every detail of this nefarious trade is known to the government from the village in Pithoragarh where the poachers hail to the name and address of the Delhi hotelier who fund the operation.
To convince me of official connivance, when I got to Delhi I was asked by the “concerned authority” to submit all my findings. That was the last I saw my evidence. I imagine the investigating officer must have celebrated the evening in his client’s five star hotel while his wife was given a present of musk perfume labelled “Whiff of Chaukhamba”.