Editor’s note: In the autumn of 2013, Jake Norton, Peter McBride, and David Morton followed the Ganges River in India from its true source to sea, starting their journey above 18,000 feet on the slopes of Chaukhamba IV in the Garhwal Himalaya and finishing six weeks later at Ganga Sagar in the Bay of Bengal. The GangaS2S Expedition was made possible through the generosity of sponsors Eddie Bauer, Microsoft Surface, National Geographic, Ambuja Cement Foundation, and Tom & Julie Hull. A documentary film of their journey and the story of the Ganges will be coming soon.
RIVERS ARE SUPPOSED to start as trickles…tiny, meandering rivulets emanating from a mountain spring and cascading down a gentle hill, joining forces with other trickles as they make their journey to the sea. Or, at least that’s what I always thought. But not here.
At 13,200 feet in the Garhwal Himalaya of India, at a place called Gaumukh — or “Cow’s Mouth” — a river is born. Here, jagged walls of torn ice tower precipitously 300 feet above the valley floor. Serrated summits clad in ice and snow jut from the horizon, and the periodic crash of boulders releasing from the ice cliffs is all that punctuates the steady, incessant, thundering roar of the Ganges River at its source.
From the mouth of the glacier, water comes out in a torrent — 33-degree water, borne of ice and snow and altitude, raging and foaming and tearing at the walls that confine it. It is milky-brown water here, already carrying a heavy load of sediment, cargo the river will only add to as it courses another 1,600 miles to the Bay of Bengal.
Fury is the word that comes to mind: The river is fury. Cold, strong, unforgiving. And yet also nourishing, giving, caring, sustaining — the lifeblood of the continent, physically and spiritually.
The Ganges — or Maa Ganga, “Mother Ganges” — is believed to have emanated from Lord Shiva, the God of Destruction in the Hindu pantheon. He is a deity to be both revered and feared in equal measure. His fury is strong, with the power to create and utterly destroy. Likewise, his greatest creation, the Ganges, is fury, creation, and destruction. As Salman Rushdie so eloquently put it, “Fury…drives us to our finest heights and coarsest depths. Out of fury comes creation, inspiration, originality, passion, but also violence, pain, pure unafraid destruction, the giving and receiving of blows from which we never recover. The Furies pursue us; Shiva dances his furious dance to create and also to destroy.”
For the next six weeks, my teammates David Morton, Pete McBride, and I would be a part of this fury. We’d be attempting to climb to the highest source of the Ganges, onto the slopes of Chaukhamba IV, which towers above the head of the Gangotri Glacier, and then following the river’s raging, sacred course to its end in the Bay of Bengal. We were here to tell a story…a complicated story of a river, a goddess, a troubled watershed that is revered and reviled, deified, dammed, diverted and, in places, utterly destroyed.