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Cold mountain

TRAGIC TREK: Satyawati's sons have printed 2, 000 posters with their father's photograph. (Above) Kedarnath after the floods

Homemaker Satyawati, 59, and her husband, Ompal Singh Chauhan, a 63-year-old English teacher, went to Kedarnath on a pilgrimage mid-June. She returned home after a gut-wrenching ordeal, he is still missing. She recounts her agony to Avijit Ghosh.


We were a motley crew of 25, all disciples of the preacher Krishna Chand Shastri. Four of us were from Bakhtawarpur, in north Delhi. After a tough trek, we reached Kedarnath in the evening. We stayed at a dharamshala and tucked into a dinner of rice, dal and potato curry.


It poured intermittently through the night. We waded through knee-deep water and reached the mandir by 5 am. There were very few devotees for darshan. We walked back to the dharamshala, and half an hour later decided to leave. The 14 km descent to Gourikund was tough. We trudged through driving rain with mountains on one side and an abyss on the other. We managed to cross Rambara, a village about 7 km from Kedarnath.
We trekked all day and covered about 11 km. Our progress was slow because we had several elderly men and women in our group. It was nearly dark when we reached an area called Jungle Chatti, swarming with weary pilgrims. There were at least 1, 500 of us there. The road ahead had been swallowed by the rain but this place wasn't safe either. It kept raining and a policeman kept telling us, "Yahan kachcha pahad hai, yahan mat khade raho (Don't stand here, this is an unstable mountain). " The only shack in the area and four mules standing next to it were swept away as the earth near the bend caved in. With darkness, our fears grew. All of us were dressed in winter clothing, with just a plastic sheet to save us from the rain. But it wasn't enough. We were scared to sit because one could get trampled in a stampede. There were some kids, around 10-11 years old. Their parents were asking around for shawls to keep them warm. There was a small tent which functioned as a mobile hospital for pilgrims.


It was clear that we were stranded for good. A few wanted to stay put till help arrived, others thought the place was too vulnerable. Some started climbing the adjoining mountain. It was a scary sight - desperate men and women, old and young, - climbing a mountain to reach the other side. We fell way behind in the queue.
It was already noon. There was no trail, the ground was slippery, beneath our feet, the soil was being washed away. I often slipped and held on to branches to stop myself from falling down. Once I slipped and fell, but my husband encouraged me to move on. Some pilgrims were so weary they lay down in the rain and you had to step over them to keep moving. Then it turned dark. Suddenly a man, who looked like a local, emerged from nowhere. He was carrying a torch and showed us the way for some time. But the beam wasn't enough. He went away with a promise to return with a bigger torch. He never came back.
It was around this time that I was separated from my husband and the rest of the group. I could hear their voices and see their flashlights, I could even spot a few houses, but I didn't know how to reach them. I kept shouting, pleading for help, calling out to my husband. But nothing happened. I spent the night sitting on a piece of rock chanting the Lord's name.


When dawn came I didn't see anybody around. I didn't worry about my husband at this stage. I thought that he must have found his way down the other side. I had not eaten anything since last morning. I felt very weak. I managed to climb down the mountain and trudge back to the place where we had spent the night on June 16. I found a group of eight men and women from Jodhpur who had opted not to climb and were waiting for help to arrive.
The cop was gone. Those manning the mobile hospital were also gone. I spotted a local boy and asked for some tea. I don't know how but he came back with a cup of tea and a packet of biscuits. I gave him Rs 50. He took Rs 20 and returned the rest. I asked him to keep the change but he refused. I hadn't slept for two nights and my feet and hands were swollen and bruised. It again rained intermittently through the day. The group from Jodhpur consoled me. "Don't think that you are alone, " they said.


I woke up with high fever. Pus had filled up the cuts in my hands. Some thorns were still inside and it hurt. One of the men from Jodhpur found a safety pin and took out the thorns. They cleaned my feet with Dettol and bandaged my feet with stuff they found in the abandoned medical tent. The sun came out after a long time and I felt dizzy.
In the afternoon, some members of our group arrived there. They were very happy to see me. I asked them about my husband. "We are looking for him, " they said. They gave me food and water. I felt very unwell. Members of my group wanted me to accompany them. But the men from Jodhpur were against it. "She is too weak. If you force her to trek at this stage, she might die. Let her stay with us till help arrives. " The Jodhpur guys assured me, "As long as we are alive, we will take care of you. We will ensure you reach home. " I have never experienced such kindness from strangers before.


We kept waiting for help to arrive but nothing happened. The Jodhpur group offered me a roti and a cup of tea. I offered them money but they refused. I persuaded them to accept it because they must have shelled out a lot for the food. I wondered about my husband. But I didn't fret because I thought he was somewhere in the hills.


Help arrived. The soldiers brought nimbu paani and food. The army had set up a small helipad nearby. But after two sorties, the evacuation stopped. The helicopter's blade was damaged while readying for take off. Fortunately, there were no casualties or injuries. We had no option but to wait another day.

JUNE 22-24

Another helipad was set up nearby. We first flew to Phata and then to Guptakashi. At the army relief camp, they served us food - water, milk, khichdi - and consoled us. They were really caring. The next morning, we left by bus for Rishikesh and reached there around 5. 30 pm. We spent the night in a hotel and left for Delhi in the morning. All along the journey I kept thinking of my husband.


It has been nearly three weeks since we were separated in the mountains. Whenever the phone or door bell rings, I think it could be him. My sons are looking for him in the hospitals in Uttarakhand. They have also printed 2, 000 posters with their father's photo for distribution. I am still waiting for him. What else can I do?

The group of 25 lost a member, a diabetic who couldn't survive the ordeal. TOI also spoke to Baburam Prajapat, a PWD engineer, one of the eight members of the Jodhpur group. He fears some pilgrims might have perished
that fateful night. Satyawati's sons are still looking for their father.

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