Over 10,000 feet (3050 meters) above sea level, surrounded by towering rocky slopes, the families of Dhumman and Yusuf were camped in a patch of forest on the fringe of the treeline, a little ways above Dodi Tal. Alfa and his family had stopped below the lake, before the trail reached the water, the small temple, or the few shack-like shops where trekkers can buy hot chai, Maggi noodles, or whatever kind of candy happens to be in stock. From there, Alfa would split off in a slightly different direction, taking his herd to a spot just south of Kanasar, so as not to overgraze the meadows.
Kanasar was just six miles ahead – but to get there, the family would still have to climb some 2500 feet (770 meters) or more, up and over a mountain pass. The ascent would be challenging, especially considering the condition of most of the pack animals, but could be done in a one-day push. If the weather would ever let them go. They had to wait until conditions became safe enough for high alpine travel, and were stuck at Dodi Tal for days.
One day, Dhumman took advantage of the delay to run down the trail to Sangam Chatti, where he caught a bus all the way to the main bazaar in Uttarakashi, in order to buy some materials that the family would need once they got to Kanasar, including sheets of plastic to cover the roof of the old hut – called a chappar – which he knew would need extensive repairs. He was due to return the following day. While he was gone, the accident happened.
Swirling gray clouds swallowed the mountaintops. A cold rain fell in surges, hard and heavy one minute, a light patter the next.The three tents of black plastic sheeting, propped up with sticks, were worn and tattered and, at that moment, leaky. Underneath, fresh pine needles had been spread, making a clean floor and a bed softer than the bare earth. The cooking fire just outside the tent sputtered and smoldered, giving off more smoke than flame.
Early that morning the skies had been clear, raising everyone’s hopes that the bad weather they’d been besieged by had finally broken. If they were lucky, they’d be able to tackle the final leg of the journey the next day. Since the bulls and horses were too worn out to carry full loads over the high pass that loomed ahead, it made sense to take advantage of the sunshine and send a small advance team to shuttle some of the family's belongings up to the meadow, then return. Carrying as much as they could on their backs and in their arms, Gamee, Apa, and Sharafat followed the trail up a creek, through a tight, rocky canyon and out into a treeless bowl at the base of the path up to the pass. Then the clouds moved in. The risks of being caught in a Himalayan storm, exposed on a bare mountainside, had consequences too grim to ignore. They cached what they were carrying among some bushes, intending to pick them up when they trekked by them the following day, and hustled back down to camp through a thickening mist, arriving just as the rain really began to fall.
After lunch, nearly everyone went out to watch the herds. Huddling together under umbrellas or beneath trees, they tried, unsuccessfully, to stay dry. Their plastic shoes filled with water; their woolen shawls were soaked. But they endured the storm with stoicism and even laughter, their own comfort less important than the safety of their animals. There was too much rhododendron around - which buffaloes find delicious, but which can be fatally poisonous - to leave them unattended.
Under the tent, some of the women were watching over the youngest children. Akloo, whose dark eyes and sculpted cheeks were loosely framed by a green-and-purple headscarf, cradled little Hasina. Apa, in a yellow polyester sweater over a green kameez, brushed out Salma's hair. Mariam was lying down, wrapped in a brown fleece blanket, resting but awake enough to giggle and joke with her sister-in-law and her closest cousin.
Their easy banter was abruptly severed by a scream so panicked, so distressed, there was no doubt it was provoked by genuine terror.Apa and Mariam turned to each other and, with fear in their faces, simultaneously said, "Bashi!"
Leaping up without bothering to put on their shoes, they dashed toward the source of the shriek, while Akloo stayed under the tent with the children.
Up the canyon they ran, along the muddy trail, leaping from rock to rock to cross the churning creek, and sometimes wading through it. The sound of the rushing water was amplified by the walls of the narrow gorge into a wild roar. After about two minutes, they met Bashi, who was sprinting towards them in tears. She could barely speak through her sobs, her whole body shaking as she tried to explain what happened. As soon as Apa and Mariam got the picture, they bolted up the trail, while Bashi continued running down to camp.
She had been tending to the calves, like she usually did. They were a few minutes uphill from the camp, on a high bank in the creek-carved gorge that funneled runoff down from highest ridges. At the base of a sheer cliff, the animals clustered together, hiding from the weather, instinctually seeking cover under an overhanging rock, though not all could fit beneath it. Bashi huddled in close with the calves, knowing her presence helped calm them - and taking comfort from them as well. When the downpour temporarily tapered off, she crossed the creek to fetch a bundle of grass for her four-legged friends to munch on.
Suddenly, the storm surged back to life. Thunder shook the canyon. Rain exploded from the sky. At the top of the rock wall, some fifty feet directly above the young buffaloes, the water rose in a small ravine. Swelling fast, it swept downhill, pulling a dead tree from its brittle roots and flinging it over the cliff's edge. Plunging to the ground, it smashed into five of the calves.
Hurrying back with a load of grass in her arms, Bashi saw the whole thing. Her scream was so loud, so full of every ounce of her being, it carried all the way down to the camp. She was lucky she wasn’t crushed by the tree herself, but that didn't cross her mind. Her only thoughts were for the calves. Afraid they would die, she turned and ran for the tents, her bare feet splashing through frigid puddles while she cried hysterically, yelling for help. Her brothers, sisters, and cousins were already on their way.
Within minutes, seven of them had reached the site of the accident. The rain had paused. They surveyed the scene, taking in the size of the tree that lay splayed on the ground, then looking up to the top of the cliff and tracing its fall with their eyes. For a moment, they seemed frozen by disbelief, which quickly thawed into a devastated grief; as their attention turned to the buffalo calves, their stunned silence was broken by heartrending wails and sobs and shouts of protest directed at the clouds.
After a minute or two of chaos, Gamee – the eldest of his generation - took on the role of incident commander and organized his brothers, sisters, and cousins for action. Though they were focused and efficient, even the men wept as they triaged the animals, sorting the wounded from the well, checking the injured, and building a bonfire to keep the calves warm.
The five victims were large yearlings. Two were obviously okay, their tough black hide only scraped by the tree’s branches. Another two suffered blows to their bodies and seemed like they might have had internal injuries, but it was hard to tell whether or not they were seriously hurt. The fifth was in the worst shape. Its left front leg was crushed. A shattered bone stuck through her flesh, and the hoof beneath it flopped around like it was held on by a rubber band.
Mariam warmed a burlap sack over the fire, then spread it over the back of the broken-legged yearling. Lying on the ground, it was too hurt to struggle even as Gamee, Chamar, and Hamju tried to straighten its leg - which was bent at an unnatural angle - and wrapped the wound with a shirt and scarf. Blood dripped from the corner of its mouth as it sank into deep lethargy. It seemed like she might be dying. And the rain started falling again.
After about fifteen minutes, Yusuf arrived. His pointy orange beard leapt in the wind as he asked what happened, his tone at once demanding and desperate. The injured buffaloes were his. While listening to the story, he dropped his umbrella, knelt on the soggy ground, and examined the yearlings. Upon seeing the broken leg, he slapped his hands to his forehead. Facing skyward, he ranted in anguish, uttering short, tormented outbursts, each of which ended with a pained howl, seared by despair.
A few moments later, Jamila and Roshni appeared. With calm confidence, the two women took control of the situation. They ushered their children away, sending them back to camp or to the herds of adult buffaloes temporarily left unattended. Their silver bracelets jingling, they mixed milk and turmeric powder together in a stainless steel jug then, through a green plastic tube, poured the concoction down the throats of the three wounded yearlings to fortify them and deter infection. Jamila stoked the fire while Roshni re-warmed the burlap sack that was draped over the hurt buffalo's back.
Suddenly, the sky crackled and hail began to fall, violently, in balls the size of cherries. Jamila and Roshni ran for shelter under the rock overhang. With their scarf-covered heads tilted to the heavens, they watched with distressed eyes as millions of ice pellets streaked through the foggy air, the drumroll of countless tiny impacts echoing off the canyon wall. Taking it as proof that fate was truly against them, Jamila and Roshni keened in high-pitched tones, plaintively praying to Allah with their whole souls, pleading for mercy yet willing to accept whatever His hand had written for them.
That evening, Hamju and Sharafat returned to the calves with blankets and food for themselves. They would spend the night there. They concluded that the two buffaloes suspected of having internal injuries only had some bruises and would be fine. But things looked bad for the yearling with the broken leg.
Back at the tents that evening, the storm still sat on top of them and, between keeping an eye on the buffaloes and keeping the fires going, people were too preoccupied to wallow in emotion. Earlier, Bashi had been devastated by what she'd seen, and felt horribly guilty that it had happened on her watch, but by dinnertime she was clearly feeling better, the comfort given by her family quickly - if not completely - repairing her world.
Dhumman returned later that night from his mission to Uttarkashi. Exhausted, he listened to the story of the accident while he silently ate the chapattis that were reheated for him on the fire. Finishing his chai, he quietly asked a few questions. Then he went to see Yusuf.
Sitting by the fire at Yusuf's tent, the two brothers talked for a long time. By the end of the conversation, they'd reached a decision about the yearling with the broken leg.
They were going to try to save her.
The morning was sunny and warm, the sky pure blue. Dhumman, Jamila, Yusuf and Roshni fine-tuned their plans, figuring out what supplies would need to be brought up to the injured calf. Jamila would stay at camp, while the other three, along with a few of Yusuf and Roshni's sons, would head up the trail and try to splint the buffalo's leg.
When they reached the calves, Bashi was already there watching them. She sat by the wounded yearling's head, petting and kissing it, while Dhumman fashioned a splint from six thin pieces of wood and some rope, which he then put to the side.
Chamar, Gamee, and Hamju lay across the young buffalo, holding it down with their bodies. Yusuf poured turmeric powder into the hole in its leg, then he and Roshni pulled gently outward on the hoof, applying traction as Dhumman jimmied the bone back in and positioned it correctly. The buffalo tried to recoil, but couldn't move.
Working slowly and meticulously, Dhumman bandaged the wound and wrapped a cloth around it, neat and tight. At last, the wooden splint was secured over the yearling’s leg as snugly as possible. The whole procedure, including fashioning the splint, took about an hour. It looked perfect, and could hardly have been done better in an animal hospital.
Of course, there was one problem. They young buffalo still couldn't walk, and a 2500-foot pass still stood between the family and the meadow.
The following day, they rose before sunrise. They were always efficient, but on this morning they packed up with extra enthusiasm, since it was the last time they would have to do it until October. There was a buzz of excitement in the frigid, pre-dawn air, as everyone was eager to finally set eyes on the meadow.
As the sky grew light, they walked up through the narrow canyon just above camp. With the loaded horses and bulls, they moved slowly, crossing the creek a number of times and navigating a tricky trail around massive boulders that choked the gorge. They passed the spot where the accident had happened - and where the wounded calf remained - at last emerging in the clearing where, two days earlier, they'd turned back when trying to shuttle supplies over the pass.
The buffaloes had been moved here the previous afternoon and were waiting, munching on leafy bushes. They would take up the rear. Looking ahead, the trail zigzagged up a steep, grassy chute between two rocky ridges. The higher it rose, the more acclivitous it appeared, until it finally veered out of view far above - but still well below the pass. Anticipating the trouble that the pack animals would have reaching the top, their loads were reduced and divided among the family.
And so they started up, carrying children and cooking pots and milk cans, followed by an armada of big, black, horned beasts, each step bringing them closer to the sky as the jewel-like peaks of the 23,000-foot (7000 meter) Gangotri Group emerged behind them, gleaming on the jagged horizon.
The trail was narrow but in surprisingly good condition. The weather was perfect. Despite the incline and the thinning air, they kept a steady pace. Individuals paused for breaks here and there, to catch their breath and give their thighs a few seconds to stop throbbing, but the group as whole kept moving forward, snaking up the mountainside. With one final push over a nearly vertical slope they cleared the pass, then sat and rested, tired and happy. From there, it was a relatively easy traverse to the spot where they would stay for the summer, just a couple of miles further on.