Sar Pass trek, 2009

In the lap of the gods
What do you do when the humdrum of urban life gets to you? How about heading to the Himalayas for a fortnight long holiday? Well, that’s what I (along with my buddies Swapnil, Pranav, Prashant and Amit) did last May. The itinerary (one that was to be tweaked generously) included a brief stay at Hrishikesh and later a trek to Sar Pass near Kullu.

April 30 – The journey begins

My flight to Delhi was scheduled at 3.45 pm. Had to shop for a jacket though, thanks to the dry cleaners who had screwed up my older one. Accompanied by my Dad, I rushed to Santacruz. Armed with a bagpack that was almost as huge as me, I looked like an army jawan. Picked up a decent looking jacket, and scooted off to the airport. Reached there a whole two hours before my scheduled flight, which is a record for me by any standard. I have a history of being just in time in such cases; have even missed a train by a whole ten minutes once, so you know how much those two hours must have meant to me.

While I was waiting for the announcement about my flight, a man at the boarding gate eyed me rather suspiciously. I walked to him, wondering if he needed to check my boarding pass. He still maintained his serious look. “Next time you come, I want you to get these guys out here,’ he said in a gruff tone, pointing to my Pink Floyd T-shirt. Floydians, you can find them just about anywhere!!

The journey to Delhi was pretty nondescript, and Asimov’s Foundation barely helped me while away the two hours. Reached Delhi airport at around 6pm. The rest – Amit, Pranav, Prashant and Swapnil – were to arrive at 9 pm, so I had to spend a few hours twiddling my thumbs at the airport. Our train to Dehra Dun was scheduled at 11.55 pm, which meant we would have to rush once the gang made it to the airport. Swap informed me their flight was delayed by thirty minutes which made the task trickier. Pranav further tried to stretch it by saying the flight was delayed by an hour but Swap unwittingly gave it away when I called him.

 

Finally, the gang of four arrived at around 10 pm.We got into two cabs and headed off to Nizamuddin station. Me and Pranav marveled at the excellent state of roads in the capital, and were also surprised at how empty they were. Reached the station well in time and picked up some grub for dinner. In between all this Pranav and Swap did not miss any opportunity filling me in on the dinner they had aboard the flight. Pranav, with his typical pseudo-serious tone kept asking me, “Arre Mally, tujhko flight mein khana nahi mila kya? Jet ka dinner sahi tha” Of course, he knew I had taken a no-frills Indigo flight, and the devil that he is, he was only rubbing it in.

Got into the train, and it was only then that these guys started off with their birthday wishes. Oh, did I forget to mention this, April 30 is my birthday. I was pissed off that none of them had wished me earlier, but knowing these guys, I was pretty sure they had something up their sleeves. So when do they wish me? At 11.55 pm!! I wonder if they had planned to delay it till 11:59:59 pm. Anyways, the customary cake smashing followed, and we actually did get to munch on a little of the Black Forest as well. Saalo, thoda kam smash kiya hota, you guys knew how hungry I was then!!


Birthday celebrations at 11.55 pm: Talk about timing!

Anyways, thanks a lot, guys! The train departed at just around midnight.

May 1 – The whirlwind tour of Dehra Dun, Mussourie and Hrishikesh

The Nizamuddin express trundled with the sunrise into Dehra Dun station. At 6 am, the North Indian town had barely woken up, with her feet still snugly warm under the covers. Except for a few rickshaws, the station was cloaked in a silence you would associate with a small town.

Our original plan was to scoot off to Hrishikesh, check in to our hotel and spend the day taking in the sun. But I suspect road trips seldom follow a script. Pranav suggested taking a quick tour of Mussourie and Dehra Dun. Not everyone agreed initially (me included), but heck, our adventure had begun. So off we went in an Ambassador (yup, those sturdy long lost vehicles of the 80s are still a common sight here in Dehra Dun).

Our first destination was Sahastradhara. Literally, the name means ‘thousand fold springs’. The place has a spring which has medicinal value on account of the sulphur content of its water. Nestled around the lap of the spring is a temple dedicated to Dronacharya, who according to legend meditated here.


Dronacharya Temple, SahastraDhara


The Sulphur Pond

 

A few middle aged men were bathing in the sulphur pond. The potbellied men notwithstanding, the sun-sparkled waters of the pond were enticing enough for me to take a dip. The pangs of breakfast however, were to cut short the sulphur dip. We stopped at a Punjabi dhaba, and snacked on some delectable aloo and gobi parathas before moving on with our breakneck tour.

The Ambassador zipped off to the Kempti Falls at Mussourie. On the way, our driver Pradeep told us about the wonders of the springs in Uttaranchal. The waters of some springs, he said, could cure indigestion, while some could eliminate hunger. He did not have much to tell of the magical powers of Kempti Falls though, except that the falls were perennial.

 

Apart from the waterfall, the place has a decent market where you can pick up some nice wooden articles (miniature bikes and cars) at a steal. Pranav and I also briefly toyed with the idea of buying cowboy hats, but ended up with just a few photographs.


Cowboy Ishtyle

On the way back from the falls to our stately vehicle, we had rounds of some refreshing goti soda (please don’t read those two words in Marathi!!). For the uninitiated, this is soda in bottles capped with marbles, stuff quite common here in the by lanes of North Indian towns.

Stops further down our whistle tour were a lake and Mall Road. We didn’t spend much time at either spot as most of the guys were pretty drained and needed some rest. Did pay a visit to the Shiv Mandir, and cooled off with some ice-cream.

By this time, we all were pretty groggy, so we cut short our tour and asked Pradeep to head straight to our hotel at Hrishikesh.

Reached OGS Tourist Home (that’s where we were put up) within an hour. The hotel’s location was better than I could have asked for. Situated on the banks of the Ganga, the hotel offers an idyllic view of the river. The mighty Ganga meanders around gently, its flow paced like a gentle adagio, weaving a pastoral rhythm. Just watching the river waltz by can lull you into a reverie. The river has a sandy bank on the other side, which is a haven for yoga practitioners.

 


Chilling outside OGS

The evening was relatively uneventful with dinner – food at OGS was passable – followed by a few rounds of UNO, and retired for the night.

May 2 – Whitewater rafting, traipsing around Hrishikesh

The boys decided to explore Hrishikesh a little before we left for the river rafting activity in the afternoon. However Pranav, Swap and me got into an intense discussion about destiny and industry, which meant considerable time being spent at the hotel itself. Goaded by Prashant – who for once was wide awake – we cut our talk and headed off to Ramjhoola. Our prolonged discussion earlier meant a super-quick lunch sans the intended exploration after which we sped back to our hotel. Took the sumo to the river rafting site at Shivpuri. The journey was a steep uphill one, and ten people packed in the vehicle didn’t really make the climb a memorable one.

Reached the flag-off point in an hour and found it choc-a-bloc with tents. It is evident that adventure sports are a thriving industry in Hrishikesh, and the competition helped us as the rates were quite reasonable. Rs. 550 for a 16 km stretch (approx. 2 hours) scores way ahead of the fare dished out for one grand plus at Kolad.

Our previous experience with river rafting seemed to favour us. Quickly donned the rafting gear and waited eagerly to step on to the raft.

 

With the helmet and the paddles held as if they were spears, we marched off and took our positions on the raft. The guide told us about a few basic commands, and off we went.

The Ganga which epitomized serenity as it flowed outside our hotel welcomed us with a different hue this time. The first of the rapids, Welcome lulled us in with a seemingly gentle current. Thereafter, the river metamorphosed from a placid idyll into a restless giant, its wild unrestrained energy tossing our raft as if it were a petal in the breeze. The subsequent rapids – RollerCoaster, GolfCourse and Clubhouse­ – tested us to the extreme, hurling and bouncing us in the raft with arrogance. The entire two-hour adventure was an exhilarating one and as often not without its hiccups – one of our team members lost his footing and was lobbed into the waters. Thankfully, we managed to pull him out sans his glasses – beats me why anyone should wear glasses on a rafting expedition.


No prizes for guessing the Fallen Star

Once the rapids eased out, I could not resist taking a dip in the river. Could not hold out long in the chilling waters though and immediately got back to the raft.

Got back to the hotel by early evening. Decided to continue with our Hrishikesh exploration plan and scooted off to Laxman Jhoola.

Laxman Jhoola is the site of a bridge across the Ganga. Legend has it that Laxman did penance here, hence the name. The bridge was originally a rope bridge till 1889 and was rebuilt with iron ropes in 1939.


The Laxmanjhoola bridge

Laxman Jhoola is also home to the Trayambakeshwar Temple. Pranav, Prashant and Amit paid a visit to the temple while Swap and I strolled down the streets.


The Trayambakeshwar temple

 

Being a pilgrimage center, Laxman Jhoola has the religious ambience that you would expect. Home to mystics and foreign tourists alike, this is very much the cultural heartland of India – one that I had only seen in the movies. Stalls vending rudraksha beads and necklaces, stones, malas and all other sorts of spiritual embellishments line the streets; barefooted men clad in saffron walk around leisurely, unmindful of the attention they draw.

Swap and I bumped into a man who claimed to have lost all his belongings and was stranded in Hrishikesh. “Mujhe kuch paise do, mujhe Dilli jaana hain. Meri pehchaan Dilli tak hain,” he said. Poor bluff dude. Wonder what stopped him from using hisclout to get him back to Delhi. Swap, played a masterstroke here; convinced the conman to approach a cop nearby.

The old man though, was a better actor than we thought. He sweet-talked his way with the policeman and managed to prise out some dough from him.

Once Amit, Pranav, and Prashant were back, we walked down towards Ram Jhoola and met more stalls selling – you guessed it – Rudrakshas. Seemed like Rudraksha is the most abundant export from Hrishikesh. Depending on the number of ridges on a bead, you have ek-mookhi (single ridged), do-mookhi(two ridges) beads and so on. Bought a Rudraksha mala.

Dined at the Chotiwala restaurant at Ram Jhoola. The food here was pretty ordinary – much like what you would get in Mumbai. What set the place apart though was their Chotiwala mascot. With his portly frame, painted face and gravity-defying pigtail (wonder if he had a wire in it to keep it straight), he just could not keep the shutterbugs away.


The Chotiwala Mascot

Over dinner, we had another of our ardent discussions – you have plenty of time for talks like these on a road trip – this time it was about the joys, and also the pitfalls of living in Mumbai. It made for pretty interesting conversation with more than six different opinions between the five of us. A pretty common occurrence really, and by now we guys have come to expect this.

After dinner, we spent some time on the banks of the Ganga. Found the idle silence a far cry from the rushed night we would be having on a weekday in Mumbai.

The walk back over the Ram Jhoola was an exciting one. The night breeze had got stronger, and I could feel the bridge swaying in the wind.

Took a rickshaw back to our hotel. I thought we would crash as soon as we touched base, but I think the reserve energy in all of us kicked in at just about this time. Played a few rounds of UNO – I finally managed to win a few times, of course Swap is the unofficial champ among us at this, thanks in part to his card spying skills 😀

As usual, Prashant was the first to fall asleep. By this time we had started digging into Hindu mythology, discussing the characters of the Mahabharata. Pranav and Amit both knew their mythology well, while Swap was definitely the most creative at filling in the gaps in their stories – I’m afraid I can’t divulge more about that in print.

Moved on from mythology to history, discussed the Maratha rulers right from Shivaji to the Peshwas. Eventually ran out of stories, and fell asleep at around 4 am. All this when we had to make the long journey to Kullu the next day. Sheer madness!!!

May 3 & 4 – The saga of a journey from Hrishikesh to Manali

Needed to get going to Kullu. The plan was this – a one hour bus journey from Hrishikesh to Haridwar, another bus from Haridwar to Chandigarh and finally a bus from Chandigarh to Kullu / Manali. The experience of our previous North India trip had told us enough how exhausting the journey could get, hence we were leaving a day earlier – we were to reach the Kasol base camp on May 5. This meant we would have a day in hand, which again meant more opportunities to explore. I suggested spending a day at Chandigarh, visiting the Rock Gardens, but the idea did not warm to anyone but me. Instead we all agreed to spend a day at Manali and visit Rohtang Pass.

Checked out from OGS after a quick breakfast. Reached Hrishikesh, snacked on parathas at a dhaba, and then rushed to Haridwar. Lunched near the Haridwar bus stand. Relaxed a bit too much and almost missed the bus to Chandigarh. Consequently yours truly had to climb on to the back of the bus and offload our luggage on the rooftop in record time. Discovered that state transport drivers are pretty much the same everywhere in India. Unstoppable seems to be their tagline; the driver in this case was no different and seemed intent on having me stay airborne on the roof top for the entire journey. Somehow good sense prevailed, and I eventually made my way to a safe seat aboard the bus. Midway through our journey, Swap began speculating how safe our bags were on the rooftop. He did have interesting theories: maybe the bags could fall off the bus on a sharp turn, which was possible given the state of the roads, and the skills of the driver. Or worse still, perhaps a ruffian may have climbed on to the roof and thrown off our luggage to one of his comrades further down the road. Now Swapnil has this talent of putting on a serious face and saying the most inane things in such a logical manner that you might actually believe him for a moment. So there I was, wondering if our belongings were safe. Swap later confessed that he never believed anything of what he said.

Reached Chandigarh at around 10 pm, and learnt that there was no bus to Kullu for the night. I made another last ditch attempt to convince the guys to stay at Chandigarh – I don’t give up that easily, do I? – and this time I was met with an even colder reaction than before. After much scouting around, we managed to get a Sumo to Manali. The whole deal seemed shady right from the start – the vehicle did not turn up on time, and the tout kept haggling over the fare – but of course we did not have any other option. Started our journey to Manali at around 1 am. An hour into the drive and Swapnil, to our horror, saw the driver napping behind the wheel. That was enough to beat the sleep out of us; I doubt Swap had even the hint of a nap in the journey thereafter. That was not all though. The driver’s companion, who we thought was an alternate driver, could not drive at all. That surely was the icing on our cake!!! Spent the whole night watchfully looking out of the car, and Swap’s presence of mind meant we had a few close shaves. The driver tried all possible tricks to keep awake – cigarettes, tea, fidgeting with the car stereo. Every now and then he would stop the car, look around at vehicles passing by, check the car tyres and then continue with the drive. He lost his way near Kullu a few times, but thankfully by that time the danger had passed. There was daylight, and it was safer driving now.

 

 

With all his sleep-defying intermediate stops we reached Manali at 1 pm, some three hours later than what we would have expected. Checked into hotel Triveni near Manali market. Had a sumptuous lunch and relaxed for the rest of the afternoon. Strangely insomnia seemed to follow me everywhere on the trip even in the pleasantly cool weather at Manali. Tiptoed out of the room and strolled out to Manali market. The light showers and the stalls lining the street gave the place a Mumbai-esque look. Had some hot tea watching the showers drench the city. There’s something about sipping chai in the rains. The aroma of tea mingling with the fragrance of moist earth is a magical feeling.

The locals told me the rains were unseasonal, which was just a mild indication of the things that were to meet us further on our trip. Thankfully the weather dried out in the evening. We realized we needed to stock a few more woolens to combat the cold, and went out shopping. Didn’t find too many options, so bought a pullover which I thought would just about serve the purpose.

Had dinner at a restaurant where the Manchow soup was so spicy we had to turn it down after the first sip itself. Thankfully the rest of the meal was relatively better, though not at all recommended.

Since dinner was such a downer, Swap and I chilled out with some ice-cream. The rest did not initially buy the idea, but could not resist the temptation later.

 

 

Ran into a herd of sheep on the way back to the hotel. Check out how their eyes shimmered in the dark night into the receding distance.


Stars on earth

Crashed a little after midnight, not before we ushered in Prashant’s twenty-seventh birthday, this time without the cake.

May 5

The lack of sleep eventually caught up with me, and I woke up feeling groggy and lethargic. We were to visit Rohtang Pass. I had already been there a couple of years ago, so I dropped out of the plan. Instead I decided to venture around Manali.

One would think the proliferation of tourism in the town would have led to dwindling forest cover. But right in the heart of Manali, flanking the market, there is the Great Himalayan National Park.

 

 

The park covers 620 sq. kms and is home to several species of birds including the Western Tragopan which I was lucky enough to catch sight of. Not lucky enough to catch it on my camera though.

Also met a local whose flowing white beard reminded me of the Kungfu masters in the old Chinese movies. Am sure you will agree.


Kungfu Master

 

As everywhere else in Manali, even here the enterprising locals have utilized every opportunity to do business. You can get yourself clicked in traditional Manali costumes at a price. Another attraction is the Angora rabbit. Whether at Rohtang or Manali, you will find these docile creatures, with a coat of fur so thick you might wonder if that’s all there is to the animal.


The lady with the Angora rabbit

 

I got the feeling life may be real tough for the locals in here, since they had to depend so heavily on tourism which would definitely be a seasonal industry.

Walked out of the park at around 1.30 pm. Still needed to while away a couple of hours till the guys came back from Rohtang. Ordered a cake for Prashant from a local bakery (the only bakery in there). Went back to the market, and lunched at, guess where – the same place we had had dinner at. (Some people just don’t learn, do they?) Was yearning to try out the mutton Momos, so did exactly that. The waiter shot a long hard look when I gave him the order, as if I had uttered an alien word. The Momos turned out to be good, in fact quite delectable. Except that the servings were not meant for a single person, even with a huge appetite. So that’s what had elicited the waiter’s reaction!!!

By the time I was done, it was pouring heavily. Waited for a while for the rain to subside. The rain gods though, would not relent. Rushed out and walked into a Tibetan handicrafts store. The place stocked interesting stuff – semi precious stones, bronze statues, bags with Tibetan symbols embroidered onto them, Tibetan flags, scrolls, cards with quotes from the Dalai Lama. Picked up a few bags, an elephant statue of gun metal, and a pack of mint tea – have always found tea the most refreshing beverage.

Was done with shopping by around 3 pm. Went back to the bakery for the cake and headed back to our hotel where our luggage was placed. Realised on the way back that I had forgotten to inquire about the State transport buses to Kasol. It was too late to do that now. Thankfully though, Prashant and Amit managed to get a private Sumo to drop us right at the base camp at Kasol. That suited us just fine; a state transport bus would have taken us only to Bhuntar or Kullu, and we would have had to arrange for transport to Kasol thereon.

Stopped over for dinner at a hotel where the food was as exquisite as the ambience. With the weather getting too cold for comfort by now, the dinner was just timed well enough to warm us up.

 

Look , no hands

 

Could not savour the meal as much as we would have liked though, since our driver had to get back to Manali at the earliest. On the way further to Kasol, we encountered a Himachali wedding. Seemed like some eminent family was involved, going by the long line of cars parked on the road. A traffic jam resulted, which set us back further by a few minutes. At that stage, it did not matter really, we were already too late in any case. Caught sight of the YHAI banner further down the road, at 9 pm. Finally, at base camp!!


Arrival at Kasol Base Camp

Walked down to the tents and found the campfire was going on. The five of us completed the paper work at the reception and deposited our baggage in our allotted tent. On the way, overheard someone giving a rustic rendition of Allah ke Bandhe, and it sounded fabulous.

Walked around the base camp to get a feel of the place. Read the schedule for the first two days. That, along with the rules and regulations, was a strong indicator of how much the YHAI stresses on discipline.

 

 


Rules and regulations!!!

 

 

 

 

Seemed like a pretty tight schedule. After ages, I would be waking up at 5 am.

And this was our route.

 

Collected our blankets and sleeping cover from Mr. Dogre, the camp leader and headed to relax for the night.

Apart from the five of us, there was another guy, Utsav in our tent. Suited us very well, for we had good space in the tent for six people. Prashant cut the birthday cake we had got from Manali, with flashlights substituting for candles. Must say the cake was pretty mediocre, which meant more of it was used for smearing the birthday boy’s face than for actually eating.

 

Since we had to start early the next day, we tucked into our blankets at around 12. No more UNO or Mahabharata tales!

May 6

The cold began to hit me in the night. Woke up at around 3.30 am to the sound of light rain beating on the tent. Groped for my backpack, and put the woolens on to beat the chill. Still found sleep a distant friend, and spent a long time before I fell asleep. Woke up again sometime before 5 am. Warmed up with bed tea, a feature which we would encounter at all the camps in the days to come. And yes, saw the sunrise after ages!

Life at the base camp is scheduled to the minute. So after bed tea, we headed to an open field for the morning exercise session. Had a warm-up session with the instructor, Deb, directing us with his rustic Pahaadi accent. B to the

 

Breakfast was a quick affair. Had a send-off for the earlier group (SP-6, SP standing for Sar Pass) as they left the base camp for their trek. This is a YHAI ritual wherein the trekkers cheer the group while it leaves the base camp for the trek. Really cool and a great morale booster.

So what was in store for us now? Finally we got on to some trekking – an acclimatization trek. This was a short 1 km hike which was intended to gauge our fitness. I collected some pine cones – the forest floor in this region is littered with them. Had an impromptu introduction among us with some guys getting really creative. ‘Bond, the name is Bond’ was how Chaitanya introduced himself. Learnt that the majority of the trekkers were from Bangalore, Mumbai and Gujarat.

In all though, the group was a motley mix of people from all over the country – software engineers, doctors, students, research scholars, housewives. First impressions: lively, energetic, with traces of regionalism. That is perhaps what makes these camps so interesting. You encounter people, people from places you may not have heard of. People whose ways and mannerisms may marvel you or make you bat an eyelid (I admit I experienced this a few times). Apart from the challenge of trekking, it offers you plenty of opportunities to observe people.

Okay, okay before I go off on that tangent let me stop myself and get back to the acclimatization trek. Started our descent back to the base camp and stopped near a school on the way. Got trigger happy and clicked a few pics of the school.

 

Faithful follower

 

 

Lunch at the base camp was followed by an introduction by Mr. Anil Pathak, the field director. He spoke about the origin of the Youth Hostels Association and its beginnings in India. Then moved on to talk about the trek, the dos and donts: walk in a single file during the trek, do not stray from the beaten path, wear adequate protection against the cold at all times. The last tip seemed to be his favourite – he repeated it almost half a dozen times over the two days we were at the base camp.

Had some time off in the evening before the frenzy to pack in as much as possible in the knapsacks YHAI had provided us. Sometime before the 7.30 pm dinner, we heard reports of a few trekkers having died at one of the camps on the trek. The news wasn’t official though, and we were unsure whether it was just some rumour mongering. Dinner was spent with much speculation and panic.

Mr. Pathak made a grim announcement after dinner: two middle aged women had died at the Biskeri Thatch camp after crossing the Sar Pass summit. The YHAI rescue team had rallied brilliantly, covering great ground to get to the camp. Oxygen cylinders were deployed as well. Sadly, it was not enough and the trekkers succumbed to hypothermia.

Pathak’s announcement brought about a palpable sense of gloom in the base camp; prayers were said and the campfire was called off as a mark of respect to the two trekkers. May their souls rest in peace.

Our gang discussed what we could do to combat hypothermia if it did strike any of us. Didn’t come up with any pinpoint solution, and retired for the night.

May 7

We would have rappelling and rock climbing on the second day. The mood at the camp seemed to have eased out over the night: the mishaps of the previous were still fresh in our minds, but as Mr. Pathak had said the previous night, “You don’t stop travelling by air because of a plane crash; you don’t stop driving because of a road accident.” Those words, very rightly put, spurred us on and there was a fresh spirit in the group.

Had the morning exercise session again. I was more relaxed on the way this time, and could notice things I missed out on the previous day. Kasol seemed to be a haven for two things: Royal Enfield bikes and Israelis. You could bet on bumping into an Enfield at every fifty meters.


An Israeli Coffee bar

 

The Israelis seem to have made Kasol into a colony of their own. The town even has hoardings in Hebrew and some decent restaurants serving Israeli cuisine. I made a mental note of trying some Israeli food after we would finish the trek.

The rappelling session was a good learning experience. For the uninitiated, rappelling involves descending down a rocky slope using a rope attached by a harness to the waist. Deb was at our instructor here as well, and with good reason: he showed good agility as he demonstrated how we were to descend down.

When it was my turn, I took some time figuring out how much I needed to loosen my grip on the rope while descending. Once that was done, it was pretty simple actually.

After lunch, we managed to slip in a short nap before leaving for the rock climbing session. The site for rock climbing was the same as the one we had used for rapelling.

And this is how our instructor Deb summarized the technique: “Rock climbing do baar karte hain, pehle aakhon se, phir haathon se.” Meaning you first survey the rock, sketching out the path you would take, and then begin the climb. He gave a quick demo, reaching the top of the thirty-feet tall rock with the agility of a monkey. I had been to a few rock-climbing sessions back in Mumbai, so I was familiar with some rock-climbing calls – Climb On, Climbing, Watch out. Don’t exactly know what Deb meant when he said ‘Bilay loose’ or ‘Bilay tight’. I have a feeling ‘bilay’ meant rope (don’t ask me in which dialect), so maybe they were instructions for the guy at the top to loosen or tighten the rope.

Climbing a natural rock is very different from scaling the artificial walls otherwise used in rock climbing. Here, as Deb said, you need to chart out your course, considering every niche in the rock. Using your feet and fingers like hooks, you need to hold on to every crevice that you can. This was going to be fun, I thought as I queued up with rockclimbers Inc.

Our siesta before coming here however had stretched a tad too long and the delayed start to the activity meant only a handful of the 66 trekkers could strap on the harness and have a go. Swap and I were among the disappointed lot who had to return without having tested our skills. We learnt later that a few people had stayed backed with Deb, waited patiently until the rest of the group had left, and then had taken turns. Life’s not fair, is it?

Walking back to the base camp, we came across this bunch of kids. This picture reveals all.

In the evening, it was time to get our backpacks ready for the trek. It was quite a task doing this, as only so much can be accommodated in the bags. You have to ensure that the bag carries everything you would need for a week and also take care that it is light enough to be carried for 7-8 hours everyday. With due respect to all my planning and coordination skills, I had a tough time getting stuff together. Walked out to Kasol market, got some essentials (torches, soap strips) and was all set for the trek, backpack in tow.

Dinner was followed by the campfire. In keeping with its eco-friendly attitude, the YHAI substitutes the traditional wood campfire with an electric substitute. Way to go guys!!!

The camp fire began with a prayer for the Biskeri Thatch victims. The festivities continued with a singsong session. Eknath Kaka’s about the Indian police was simply hilarious.

May 8 – The gentle warmup (Unch Dhaar – Guna Paani)

 


D-Day had arrived. After a frenzied breakfast, and a quick packing of lunch, we left the base camp to the applause of the other groups cheering us on.

We had to take a bus from the base camp to Unch Dhaar, and begin trekking from there. The bus took an awfully long time to arrive, and when it did, the trekkers attacked the bus as if it was the only vehicle on the planet. More than half of the group climbed on to the roof of the bus, and some of them had precarious vantage points.


Looks like they were trying hard to smile (in spite of the discomfort)

I could not manage to get on top, so chose the more conventional way and got into the bus. The passengers atop the roof, as Swap explained later, had to keep their eyes open to avoid the dangling wires that ran perilously close to the roof. The adventure however, was cut short, within a few meters, with the cops grounding the aerial passengers (pun intended) at Kasol market. So now, it had been almost ninety minutes since our send-off from the base camp and we had not got very far. A thought of walking to Unch Dhaar ran across the group and ran out almost immediately – the long distance would tire us before the trek began. A bus arrived some fifteen minutes later; this time we were more civilized and got inside the bus.

We reached Unch Dhaar in around half an hour. Began trekking at around 11 am. Our destination for the day was Guna Paani, a camp at 8000 ft. above sea level. We’d have to trek for about 5 kms, and had 5 hours to get there. The trek was pretty simple, which is quite right since it was the first day of the trek and our body had not got used to walking a distance this long. The journey was pretty uneventful except for a light shower when we stopped for lunch at Shila village, around an hour from Guna Paani.

A few snapshots from the trek.


Pranav shows his true-blue rocker’s attitude, while Swap does his own little jig (top left)


Slate roofed houses – a common feature in Himachal Pradesh


First pit stop: refuelling with biscuits and orange candies

 

Reached Guna Paani at around 3 pm – yea, we were pretty quick in spite of the several breaks we took.(I took pride in being among the first to reach the camp, but then as the field director had said at base camp, ’This is not a race’.)

 

Now, according to some strange rule, the camp leader would allow us in to the tents only after 4 pm. So we had to while away our time near the camp.

I walked to survey the place and was happy with what I saw. Guna Paani is a flat green top on the edge of a valley, bordered on one side by deciduous forests. The forests teem with plenty of bird life. Sighting the birds requires tremendous patience though, as most of the avian species here have the average size of a sparrow. On the other side of the valley, the mountains, majestically clad in their snow coats, stand tall like sentinels.

The ‘threshold time’ of 4 pm eventually ticked over during my exploration, and we settled quickly into our tents. This was our camp site.

A few things I observed at Guna Paani (true for all the other camps as well):
Things at the higher camps are even more scheduled than at Kasol. Getting into the tents, collecting your sleeping bags – so very crucial for surviving the cold as I was to learn later – the welcome drink, tea, dinner, it’s all well structured. While these things happen, time just flies by, so before you know it, you find yourself tucked in your sleeping bag. Between all these activities, you have to find the time, and more importantly the space, to crap. Yea, you read that right. The YHAI does provide toilets – we called them telephone booths – but you can’t expect a sewage system up in the Himalayas, can you? In short, you have to search for your own territory, and sometimes the task is another trek in itself.

I digress again, so let me get back to Guna Paani. After the settling down into the tents, we played a game of ‘Dog and the Bone’. Well, if you are wondering at this, you don’t have much to do at a camp at 8000 ft. – no TV, no newspapers, so you gotta make do with whatever you can.

Pranav and I met another Floydian: Savitha. And what do Floydians do when they meet up? Of course, they sing Floyd. The three of us, along with Hamid, had a full-on Floyd session, before moving on to other classic rock bands. Rain chose to play spoilsport, forcing Pranav to get back to the tent.

Almost all the higher camps are accompanied by a canteen (this does not belong to the YHAI) serving noodles, omelet and tea. Some of them even stock chocolates and soft drinks. These are charged at a premium, of course, given the altitude of the place and the monopoly the canteen has. Nevertheless, this suited me fine. The three of us – Hamid, Savitha and myself – snacked on some omelet and chai.

Dinner was followed by the customary campfire. The group sang some old Hindi classics and the moon shining softly above added a pervading sense of serenity to the atmosphere. Just the right setting for a good night’s sleep, if only insomnia could let me get away.

Day one over without much fuss and without any sweat.

May 9 – The mild workout (Guna Paani to Fual Paani)

Woke up and caught the sun sneaking on to us from behind the mountains. A rare sight for urbanites like me.


This felt like heaven

I attempted to use my photographic skills to capture a bird. This is how the effort turned out.

After bed tea, we continued with the tradition of the morning exercises, though this time we had only about a dozen people participating.

 

 


The Bombay Bombers

Our destination for the day was Fual Paani, at 9500 ft. above sea level and 5 km. away from Guna Paani. When the trek began, Savitha, Hamid and I stayed at the tail, taking our own sweet time. Hamid went shutter crazy all the way; I think he must have clicked a atleast one pic of every different flower we saw on our route. Yea, and a few butterflies too.

The trek to Fual Paani was even more relaxed than the previous day’s trek. So, Savitha, Hamid and myself (outlaws in Savitha’s words) could afford to take a break every fifteen minutes or so. The previous day’s experience had taught us it was fruitless reaching the camp site earlier than required so the rest of the group too did not push it.

 
 

 

 
 

 

It turned out that we had paced ourselves just right: we reached Guna Paani just before 4 pm. From being at the head of the pack the previous day, I had finished at the tail today. Quite a turnaround, but every bit worth the leisured walk we had.

The camp site at Guna Paani was in the midst of thick woods. The tall trees that towered everywhere around us blocked most of the sunlight, so it was quite dull near the tents. The tents themselves were put up on slopes, with hardly any space between the tents. The position of the tent my group was put up in was particularly precarious. I could feel gravity tugging my head when I slept.

The camp leader, NaineshBhai had a unique way with words. This is how he described the chill in the air: “Yahaan ki hawa barf ko chukar aati hai. Isliye zehreeli hoti hain. Ek baar andar jaati hain, toh kahin na kahin se nikalti hain.” I will not translate that – am afraid the English version will not match up to the original.

We had a torch-lit campfire that night, with the group starting a tradition of a couple of members introducing themselves.

End of day two. A mild workout that, as we would discover later, was a perfectly incorrect indication of what awaited us the next two days.

Hey wait, I am not done about Fual Paani yet. Sleeping in the sloping tents was another experience. I felt as if gravity was tugging away at my head all through the night. The ones who slept at the higher end of the tent kept slipping down, and by morning a few of them had drifted down by several feet.

 

 

May 10 – The fun begins (Fual Paani to Zirmi)

Day 3 destination: Zirmi
Distance: 6 km.
Height above sea level: 11,000 ft.
Group motivation: Sky high
Physical status: Tested but not stretched

 

 

 

 

Having had no trouble trekking the past two days, our group was up and about early, eager to get a few thousand feet closer to Sar Pass. The mood in the group was evident by the way all of us attacked the initial part of the trek. We, the outlaws, decided we’d pull up our socks today – we had finished way behind the previous day, remember?

But then you can’t attack nature. It had rained quite a bit in the night, which made our route slippery. After just a few minutes into the trek, we ran into a patch of slippery muddy slopes. We laboured our way through, holding on to outstretched hands, clutching to roots, twigs and whatever else that we could find.

The snow clad mountains followed us all the way; perhaps they just pumped us up. They certainly did motivate me – if I could see them, I could be there as well. (Yea, I know it sounds like the line from I believe I can fly.)

We continued, taking enough breaks to rejuvenate ourselves with all the stuff we had carried – dry fruits, Glucon-D, chocolates, candy sweets. The weather, murky in the morning, deteriorated further as the day progressed. It began raining near lunch time. The shower graduated into sleet, tiny balls of snow beating down on us. It was getting colder with every minute, and lunch was way off our mind. We would have to eat to keep ourselves warm, even if it had to be while the rain gods showed no mercy. Fortunately, Hamid found a cave and we decided that would be our lunch point. The chill was getting stronger now, so Hamid found an innovative way to beat the cold. He was supported moderately by a restrained Savitha. In case you are wondering what his method was, here’s a peek.

Hamid, if you make it big as a dancer, remember this is where they first saw you.

The entertainment did the trick: it diverted our attention from the cold for a while. Lunch was quite an effort: we ate simply because we had to.

We thought we had met the worst we could see for the day.

We had no idea how misplaced those thoughts were. Just as the group resumed the trek after lunch, we ran into a few trekkers from the earlier group SP-7. (This was the group that had left base camp for Sar Pass a day before we did.) The weather beyond Zirmi was too rough for them to go any further and the entire group was going back to base camp. It was perhaps not the news, but the state they were in that raised doubts among a few in SP-8. Their clothes, soiled and covered with muddy slush, reflected how bad the route ahead would be. A section of the group teetered between moving ahead and retreating to base camp. Our group leader, Mr Muthuswamy, tried calling at the base camp. However, the cell phone networks turned their backs on him at the inopportune moment. By now, most of the group members had continued the climb upwards, except for a few who chose to revert. We, that is Swap, Vani, Mr. Muthuswamy and myself took the upward route.

And soon, we found why the earlier group had come in that soiled state. Right before us was a stretch of muddy slopes. Muddy is too mild a word, the slopes were actually covered with layers of sticky slippery earth. What made it worse was the gradient of the slope – I think it was between 50 and 60 degrees. So it was now clearly a question of what was stronger: the thought of playing safe and retreating, or the desire to conquer the 13,800 ft. high Sar Pass. We decided we would make it to the next base camp and then take a call next morning.

So we began the onerous task of getting through the muddy terrain. As both Savitha and Swap pointed out to me, you need to follow a certain technique while walking through wet slippery areas. It is this – take the least recently used path. I other words, do not take the path that is used the most. It initially seemed counterintuitive to me – Mr. Pathak had said this more than once: “Use the beaten path, else you may get lost.” Here in the slush covered slopes however, the path least used would offer you the best grip by allowing your feet to sink deeper into the earth without letting you slip down.

I have never preferred taking the beaten path – at least metaphorically – so this was perfectly to my liking. Yet with all the tips and techniques, staying on our feet was tough, let alone progressing further. We did not walk or trek upward, we crept on all fours with mud-soaked hands and knees. This was turning out to be a down and dirty trek somewhat like a mild version of Discovery’s Man versus Wild. Somewhere on the way, I lost my footing and slipped down almost ten meters. Luckily though, the slopes were only muddy, without rocks. So falling or slipping would not result in injury, one would only have to climb up all the way again. Which is what I did, this time with a little more caution and a lot less bravado.

We walked into the Zirmi camp to the welcome of a not-so-friendly camp leader, which was not what we needed after the strenuous climb. A few members of the SP-6 had retreated from the camp at Tilal Lotni. Consequently, there were more people than the camp could handle.

A little about Zirmi now. The mountains here were so close, it seemed as if they were closing in on the camp site. And this place was cold.

Deep inside, I wanted to make it all the way, right up to the summit and through the return journey. I was masochistically loving this, this act of stretching my body and mind to their extremes. The only way we would retreat, I thought, was if the group decided it could not continue further.

Everyone rushed to their tents after dinner. No campfire. It was that cold.

My clothes were still wet, with the rain and with the sweat. The fireplace was a good spot to dry them quickly, so Savitha and I hung out there with local porters. During the clothes-drying session, the locals taught us a little of Kulavi. Savitha made notes (under the flashlights) like an attentive student.


Savitha takes Kulavi lessons

My clothes – the T-shirt, jacket and all other paraphernalia – were dry and warm in around an hour. I walked back to the tent, and found my sleeping bag missing. Or rather stolen, I conjectured. Since there were more trekkers at the camp than the expected number, not all of us could get sleeping bags. Everyone in SP-8 got one, several of the SP-6 members did not. Very likely that the sleeping bag had been flicked while I was away at the fireplace.

This was however, not the time to play Sherlock Holmes and nail the culprit. For one, I was worried how I would get through the night. The camp leader managed to arrange for a couple of blankets. I was skeptical this would be enough protection from the cold. But the feeling was fleeting; I fell asleep as soon as I lay down on the tent floor.

End of day 3 of the trek. Shaken but not stirred.

May 11 – Zirmi to Tilal Lotni

I woke up, surprised to know how soundly I had slept that night. I figure warming myself at the fireplace helped. Of course, the chill did get into my body as I was to learn later that day.

Of all the camps, Zirmi was the most disorganized. Apart from my sleeping bag being flicked, Pranav and Prashant found some of their stuff missing in the morning. Perhaps the YHAI was not prepared to handle the huge number that were present at the camp that night. This is just a nitpick though; the arrangements all throughout the trek had been excellent otherwise. But yea, the YHAI can certainly do better.

The previous day’s experience had dented the enthusiasm of the group. The foreboding inclement weather was another deterrent as well. Several members decided to head back to the base camp. Of the 66 who had started off from Kasol, 48 went ahead on the trek to Tilal Lotni. Amit, Pranav and Prashant chose to return too. I felt a tinge of disappointment as they walked back, but up in the mountains though you need to push out all thoughts out of your mind and concentrate on your path. Soon we were walking further, the allure of touching the summit still strong enough to beat whatever obstacles we had encountered.

Our destination was Tilal Lotni, a camp at 12,500 ft. above sea level. We had to cover 6 km. in 6 hours. Seemed a reasonable task considering all the previous treks had been about the same distance.

The initial part of our walk was relaxed; the weather too eased out. The Himalayan flowers, so abundant at the lower altitudes, petered out as we ascended – the weather higher up was not really conducive to life forms.

The weather though kept deteriorating through the day. The forest cover diminished as we gained altitude, and the chill kept getting stronger. A snowstorm chose to join us when we stopped for lunch. As if the weather was not bad enough earlier. Whew!

//www.youtube.com/get_player


After lunch, it was a long steep climb through the snow. Yes snow. Finally we were walking through snow, our feet sinking in a good six inches into the carpets of white. The wind got stronger and at that height it added to the chill. Not just that, it was getting difficult to walk with the wind blowing into us.


Vani tries some headgear


The snow begins

 

I began to feel a slight headache. Thought it must be due to the lack of oxygen to the brain. Not a major cause for concern, it’s a common occurrence at this altitude. Also walking through the snow less blood was flowing to the head. I found a small chunk of flat land – the slopes were steep almost everywhere you could see – and lay down with my feet resting above my bagpack. The method worked, and within a few minutes I was feeling better.

We continued, with thicker sheets of snowing waiting for us. Walking through the snow, we just followed a simple technique: Follow the steps of the people before you. This was important for in some places the layers of snow were quite thick and one step could take you a foot or two closer to the rock underneath the snow. (The guides told us the snow was six to eight feet deep in some areas, so even the most adventurous among us obediently followed the ‘beaten path’.

The climb turned put to be really long. The path was covered with snow for as long as we could see. It was as if we were walking through a white desert; everything looked unchanged even as we kept walking ahead. In between we had our snowball fights, a little subdued due to all the climbing.

Walking through the unchanging paths of snow made me lose sense of time. The only thought I had during that time was to get to the Tilal Lotni camp; subconsciously my mind had blocked everything out and was concentrating on self preservation. It did not matter how long it took or how fatigued we were as long as we got to Tilal Lotni.

Catching sight of the camp banner at Tilal Lotni was a feeling of pure ecstasy; on the previous three two days we had confidently strode past the banners at the camps. This time it was a sense of relief, but more than that, a sense of achievement. The mountains had tested every one of the 48 trekkers strongly and the thought of resting in our tents itself wiped out a little of my fatigue.

The base camp at Tilal Lotni was, like the path to the camp, surrounded by snow. The tents were put up on a small patch of flat land amidst the slopes. There was no sign of vegetation; all you could see was snow and in some places bare rock. Cold and lifeless rock. Wonder how the camp leader spent 21 days at this secluded place.

After checking in to our tents, I snacked on omelet (yes the omelet-n-Maggi serving locals were present even at this remote place) and tea. The altitude though was beginning to get to me. Got a headache which kept getting stronger by the minute. I figured I was having mountain-sickness, about which our camp director had told us at base camp. Went back to the tent and rested for a while. However the dank air in the tent made matters worse – my head began to feel heavy and I could feel my body getting colder. Put on another set of clothes to keep myself warm. It helped to beat the cold, but the headache kept getting worse. Had lost my appetite as well, so skipped dinner. Swapnil suggested I have Maggi; it made sense for no food meant no fuel for the body to generate heat. However, nausea had taken over as well, and the Maggi was spewed out almost as soon as I had gobbled it up.

The camp leader paid a visit and inquired about my health. Now I don’t mean any disrespect, but this man had the features that would please a cartoonist – fishlike eyes popping out and protruding ears. He was genuinely concerned about my health though. Soon, the other trekkers were around as well. I felt as if I was back in school with everyone asking how I felt. Not that I did mind any of the attention. Slept after taking a painkiller, hoping the situation would get better through the night.

End of day 4. Stretched to the limit.

May 12 – Tilal Lotni to Biskeri Thatch

We were to start our trek at 5 am. This was because trekking in the snow at noon or thereafter is not a good proposition; the sun melts away the snow, making it difficult to walk. You could slip, fall or sink into the snow – take your pick!!

We were to wake up at 4 am and start our trek as soon as we could. At Tilal Lotni, there was no escaping the cubicle loos. We had to use them; taking a chance in the open areas at that altitude could leave you frozen stiff. That being the case, Swap and I ensured we woke at 3.30 am before the rest did, so we didn’t have to contend with a possible queue.

It was cold (what else could I expect at 3.30 am at this altitude), and the white patches on the tents were an indicator of the overnight snowfall. The snowcapped slopes glowing in the moonlit night made for a breathtaking view. We got our work done in quick time. However, we discovered the water was so chilly we dared not brush our teeth or even wash our face.

While we were packing up to leave for the day, the camp leader came to our tent and inquired about my health. I was feeling better now; the headache was receding but I could still feel a little heavy-headed. That’s exactly what I told the camp leader. Big mistake!!

Camp leader (in sweet Bengali accent)

: Abhi tum sirf 16-17 saal ke ho.

Me : Main 28 hoon.

Camp leader : Woh bhi kam hain. Meri baat suno, tumko phir chance milega. aaj tum neeche jaao.

Well, though my health had deteriorated the previous night, I’d never thought it would trigger this reaction. Time for damage control. I told Bengali Babu I was getting better. The stockily built man refused to budge. No point in arguing now.

I thought of stalling the decision till after tea. Maybe my headache would wane by then and he would let me continue. If he still did not agree at that time, I would have to be content with having touched 12,500 ft. and turn back towards base camp. And as he said, I could come back some other year. Fitter and stronger. Keeping these possibilities in mind, I passed Swap’s return air tickets to him.

Amidst all this going on, I saw one of the most beautiful sunrises ever. Yea, ever. The sunlight painted the mountains a brilliant golden shade.

Had tea and began feeling better. (Am an even bigger fan of the beverage now.) Jogged around a little to get my body warmed up. Was feeling a little weak, so decided on having a porter carry my knapsack, whichever way I would go later.

Spoke to the camp leader just before the head count began. He seemed more receptive this time, which helped me convince him that much more easily. Yay!! My trek wasn’t over yet.

So we began on the last ascent towards Sar Pass. We would cross Sar Pass at 13,800 ft. and then descend to the next camp at Biskeri Thatch (11,000 ft.).

The walk up to Sar Pass was, like the previous day’s trek, a long walk through the snow. It helped that I had offloaded my baggage to the porter (a lady called Jeebhi Devi with a toothy smile). It was snow and snow all the way. A pinch of bare rock would make its presence known every now and then, as if to remind us rocks existed below the intimidating layers of ice.

 


Someone got creative


The icicle: Swap’s discovery

The slopes were not as steep as the previous day so that helped me. I walked slowly taking short steps and with occasional breaks to conserve energy. Had a fleeting thought how I could have been frolicking like the others jumping around in the snow, had I been fully fit. Almost immediately castigated myself for thinking that way: I was lucky enough to make it further from Tilal Lotni, wasn’t I?

The trek guides that day were super cool dudes. While we would labour through the snowing with measured steps, these guys would run across the slopes, slide down adeptly and then come up again, and still get ahead of us. One of them kept egging us on with his trademark ‘Sher ke bachho, aage chalo!’

‘Ab Sar Pass bas 15 minute dur hain.’ I think he may have said that for almost two hours. Of course, we believed him, like innocent kids following their teacher. After walking for about an hour, we reached another wide patch of flat land. We believed this was Sar Pass, conned by you know who.

This turned out to be just the precursor to the actual summit. The path after that was a long walk for another 45 minutes.

By now we had walked for at least two hours. There was snow as far as I could see. Not a single sign of life: no birds, no plants, not even a bush. It was fun for a while, but the monotony was now beginning to make me feel a little dull. Thankfully, the intermittent chat among the group helped me refresh myself.

We would have crossed Sar Pass and progressed further without much celebration were it not for the tricolour Lalaji (our fellow trekker) had brought along. There was something about the tricolour fluttering at that altitude that made us all come alive. Almost everyone clicked away to glory capturing our victory. The feeling of holding the tricolour at several thousand feet was euphoric. It was as if I had graduated from a trekker to a mountaineer for just that moment.


The victors!!

 

After we were done with our euphoric celebrations, we moved ahead and stopped for lunch. The day’s lunch did not include roti or sabji this time. Perhaps rightly so, as in all these days, several of us had felt nausea. Instead we had some biscuits, and chikki. In case you are wondering about the Maggi-men, they were here too, having carried their cooking gear all the way up here.

After lunch was done, some of the trekkers went berserk., throwing snowballs, sliding in the snow and all the crazy stuff. I, still not having completely recovered from altitude sickness, could not afford these luxuries.

The path after lunch was a short steep climb. This was really a challenge with the snow getting thicker in some patches. Just before reaching the summit, there was a sharp slope where we had to almost go on all fours. In hindsight I think it was not really this tough, but our stretched bodies were beginning to show the effects of fatigue. This was the final ascent though, much like the final kilometer of a marathon. Being so close only egged on to stretch myself a little more.

When I did reach the top, the view was breathtaking. It seemed like we were atop a point that stood defiantly alone, pushed and raised from all sides. The path we had trod lay behind us, the white sheets of snow perforated with our footprints.

We now had to descend from the summit. Our path ahead was a sharp decline with a with a drop of almost a thousand feet.

The guides gave us a few basic instructions on how to descend down the slope. We were to lie down on our backs and slide down. The snow covered slope would naturally accelerate you; you would have to use your elbows or heels to steer yourself or to brake. This is akin to going down in a luge sans a sled, the sport that you see at the Winter Olympics.

I decided to get adventurous and capture my slide on camera. This is how it looked.

As you might have guessed, my debut was a disaster. Don’t panic though; I survived the journey without breaking a bone.

Swap was more elegant; though to my defense I had to manage the camera as well (poor excuse!!)

We tried sliding again once we were down. The earlier foray had taught us a few lessons, and now we could move with some new-found expertise. We slid down in pairs and quartets, the combined momentum helping us accelerate even more.

Once the slides were over we were in the plains, and began feeling the after-effects: several of us got mild headaches. Small price to pay for the adrenalin rush we had during the slide down though.

After reaching the plains, I thought we were pretty close to the camp site. Well, I could not have been further from the truth. We still had to walk down for more than an hour. The descent initially was along grassy lands, and with no real hurry we took it easy. Further down, the path was ridden with rocks. Walking over hard terrain is not the best thing for your feet, and soon we could feel the effects: stiffening toes, tired knees. Once we caught sight of the tents though, we stepped up a few gears again itching to cross the finishing line.

It was only when we touched down at the Biskeri Thatch camp that the delight of having crossed the summit began to sink in. Five days of trekking and here we were, having crossed Sar Pass.

The camp at Biskeri Thatch was near a small flat green top. The weather here was initially pleasant – we had our first campfire after the two earlier chilly nights at Zirmi and Tilal Lotni. After sunset though the chill began to kick back again, and we were back sleeping in our tents.

End of day 5. Made it through, and boy, am I ecstatic about that. Special thanks to Swap for his support.

May 13 – Biskeri Thatch – Bandhak Thatch – Kasol Base Camp

The group was to move to the next camp at Bandhak Thatch. Swap and me, however had our return flight from Delhi scheduled on May 15, so we decided to get back to the base camp on that day itself.

The group was in great spirits, partly because of the climate which was better in the morning, but more so from having crossed the summit. We had an extended photo session before leaving for Bandhak Thatch.

The trek to Bandhak Thatch was, overall a pretty relaxed one. We were back in the woods and the weather had lost its chilly bite. The walk was eventful, we rapelled down a slope – I think we could have walked that path out as well, we had become battle-hardened trekkers by now – and came across the locals shearing sheep.

 

 

 

 

 


Of all the camp sites, Bandhak Thatch was the most scenic. Our tents were put up on an expansive patch of open land covered with grass. The mountains stood in the distant background; a couple of cows grazing near the tents added to the rustic look. The whole scene tempted me to stay back at the camp for the night. Now I regretted having booked the return flight so early; we could have stayed back for another couple of days and taken the flight on Sunday, May 16. Damn!! Damn, Damn!!

 

 

 

 

 

But now, since that was not possible, we had to leave. Along with Swap and me, there were 12 others who were moving to base camp that evening itself. We would have to walk for around ninety minutes, and after that take a bus from Barsaini at 5 pm.

After refreshing ourselves with the apple juice (and I mean apple juice, not a euphemism for alcohol), we bid goodbye to the rest of the group. Some of them had still not reached the camp; we could not wait though since we would risk missing the bus. At a little distance from the tents, we bumped into Hamid and Savitha walking up leisurely. I guess they had become outlaws again and veered off the path as only they could. Anyway, we bid goodbye to the tribal dancer and his Coorgi sidekick, and continued our descent.

Now the descent was a hurried one as we had to board the 5 m bus. I was still in the idyllic mode and soon found myself at the tail end of the group. Began walking briskly; it was now that I could feel the after-effects of the trek: my toes had become numb (they still are a little numb as I write this, and it’s almost a month since I came back), and the fatigue had dragging me down. The only solace was that we were walking on even ground, so it was easy on the feet.

By the time we reached Unch Dhaar, most of us were too tired to walk further. Hired a jeep for the last kilometer. Got into the bus and hopped off at Kasol market. Now, we had the onerous task of speaking to the camp director, Anil Pathak, who I had noticed was a strict disciplinarian. He was initially displeased with us leaving before the scheduled departure, but eventually calmed down while handing over our certificates.

Whoa!! So our Himalayan trek was over. A big thank you and thumbs up to YHAI for the organization in spite of the hiccups with the weather and the human tragedies.

I think these lines from a Green Day song sum up our adventure:

Something unpredictable but in the end it’s right,
I hope you had the time of your life.

We collected our baggage that we had deposited at the base camp before leaving for the trek, and checked in to a lodge. Incidentally, the lodge did not serve meals. Good opportunity to try out some Israeli cuisine as I had thought earlier. Went off to Hotel Evergreen. Just as soon as we got in, I felt as if we had entered a hippy joint – the walls were decked with abstract paintings, and trance music pervaded the dimly lit atmosphere. The ambience though indicated the execution of a well-thought out design. Our experiments with the cuisine gave mixed results. The main course was strictly decent; the desert though was delectable. If you can do try ‘Shalomla Malka’, a mix of ice-cream, fruits and crushed biscuits.

Went back to the lodge, tired yet satiated. Ninth night without having a bath, but the fatigue was tough to beat. Result – we crashed right away, soiled clothes and all. Guess we had got used to the trekker’s way.

May 14 – Kasol – Kullu – Delhi

After 8 days of sleeping-rolling-kicking feet-sleeping in the tents, even the staid mattress of our room seemed like a luxury. That meant waking up after sunset again, lazing around for the extra hour – ah, the pleasures of a sheltered life! Swap, the second Kumbhakaran in our group (Prashant is the undisputed first), seemed like he could sleep all day.

Left the lodge near noon and brunched at hotel Evergreen again. The after effects of the trek were now beginning to show on Swap.

 

Took a bus to Kullu, and then another to Delhi.

May 15 – Delhi – Mumbai

Reached Delhi at around 8 am. Both Swap and me are clueless about Delhi’s geography, and the streets being sparsely crowded did not help us get anywhere soon. Delhi’s wide open spaces did not help the matter too. After a short walk we caught sight of a family approaching us. I walked to one of them to ask for directions to any eating joint. Hadn’t accounted for Swap though. The poor chap had had a violent attack of sunburn, which made him look miles away from the chocolate boy that he otherwise is. Perhaps that’s why the man cringed at our sight. Somehow we found our way to a McDonald’s outlet. Snacked on leisurely (we had to while away our time since our flight back was scheduled at 2.45 pm), exchanged rupees for US dollars with a group of chinkies who had no Indian currency, and then walked out in the infamous Delhi heat. Traipsed down Delhi’s markets, unfortunately did not find anything to take home. Sorry, Delhi! Bought copies of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, so the next time we discuss mythology, the dude will have stuff to tell us. (No more skewed Bhishma stories!!)

Time ticked off sooner than we expected. Gulped down some refreshing nimbu paani and dashed off to the airport. End of a long 15 day holiday.

Next milestone: 16,000 feet. Hopefully in another year.