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near Mcleodganj, Himachal Pradesh (India)
See the pictures at https://goo.gl/photos/iE8asqZTfvJFAaxZ8
This trek took place around the last week of July 2010 in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh.
A word of caution: the route is through some really rough terrain. As I did not have a guide with me, I ended up taking some routes which I wish I hadn’t. I would also advise against attempting a solo trek in these parts because it doesn’t take a lot to turn a trek into a nightmare. While I was up there I heard numerous stories of mishaps from the locals who would always end the conversation with “I can arrange for a guide”.
It was raining in McLeodganj, so you could be sure it was snowing on the Indrahar pass. I was in Triund where I was sitting inside a tent with two of my friends railing some really rude language at the weather. It was a full moon night, the storm clouds had moved into the mountains faster than expected and the weather gods had unleashed their wrath in full swing, hail the size of golf balls were battering down hard. One such hail stone managed to break the structural pole of the tent. The wind was threatening to blow it all away. The only thing holding it down was the lashing and the weight of the three of us sitting inside! This was the last night the three of us were together.
Earlier on, seeing the storm clouds approaching we had started to beat down the tent, securing it with extra pegs and lashing. One friend of mine had gone scouting for large stones which could be placed around the camp fire while the other was cooking noodles on the portable stove that we had carried with us. The three of us were fully prepared to cross the pass: we had food, water and fire and could have stayed there for weeks if we had to. But we had long dreamt of the day when we would attempt this trek. The last two weeks were spent just planning and preparing for it. Sadly, the weather was going from bad to worse putting our dreams to the acid test.
Just before the storm started we had decided that we would go back the next day and would not attempt the trek under such conditions. Somehow something inside me refused to give up. The decision was taken after looking at all the safety aspects but still something inside just would not listen and it kept saying, “All I need is blue skies and some sunshine.”
We were in Triund for two days, waiting for the weather to clear, but had no luck. On the third day the skies had cleared just a bit which gave me some hope, but to others it was a sign to head back. So after a very long and hard discussion my friends and I decided to head in different directions. Even if they decided to join me, I knew it would be unsafe for someone on their first trek so I managed to convince them that they should head back down to Dharamkot. It was not easy making that decision, but it was for the best. With my cell phone on its last bar of signal I gave Mallika (my girlfriend) a call and told her I was going ahead alone and would call her on the sixth day from then.
As I reached the snowline which was about an hour’s trek from the guest house in Triund, I got a good view of the path to be taken up the mountain. This is a place most people come to as it makes for a beautiful day trek spot with the most amazing view of the Dhauladhar range. There is a small dhaba there called the “Snowline Cafe”. Sitting outside with the sun shining on my face and eating omelettes, I planned my route and decided to start as soon as I was finished at the Cafe. The moment I went down that line of thought, clouds started appearing. Seeing the weather build up, the cafe owner Raj Kumar (who had been running it for 15 years) started telling me that a total of 11 people had gone up this morning in three groups. On hearing this I wanted to just grab my bag and run all the way up, but he quickly added that it would be sheer suicide to go up now and hoped the ones already up there would come down before nightfall. As we were talking the weather took a turn for the worse and within a few minutes the sky was filled with dark clouds. Soon it started to hail.
We took shelter inside the tent which was quite large and was filled with all kinds of junk food snacks imaginable. Kumar told me this was the last place you could get such things till Kuarsi which was across the mountains and even there one may not find any food like this. I would have indulged myself if not for the prices. Everything was double; even triple the price, which was fair enough considering the height to which he brings them, so the best options were the freshly stuffed paranthas and tea. Stay away from anything that comes in a packet and you will do your pocket, and the environment, a favour. While we were in the midst of a conversation about the history of the place people started rushing into the tent. Within seconds there were seven people inside the tent all soaking wet from the rain which had started after the hail stopped. This was one of the three groups which had gone up that morning. They had returned midway from the Lahesh caves as their group leader had slipped and broken his elbow. Despite his injury he showed no sign of it and his high spirits held the group together. They had some food and left for Triund as soon as the rain stopped.
Just as they left two more people came crashing in and were the second group that had gone up that morning. One of them was Ron who I had met a few days ago in Triund. He is the tallest person I have ever met, about 7 feet! After he and his friend settled down, he told me going up in such weather conditions is sheer madness. The winds were so strong that they were pushing him closer to the edge with every step. He literally had to crawl his way back. The visibility was down to a few feet with no sign of red arrows marking the path, so they decided to turn back. The decision to return had saved their lives.
Once you start the trek just past the snowline the small red arrows are painted on rocks along the path up till the pass. They guide you very well till the top. Follow them and you can’t go wrong. In good weather with no snow, the trek is a very pleasant one, but under such conditions you might as well be climbing Everest.
The bad weather kept up all day and night, after a short lull for about an hour. Ron managed to set up his tent and somehow survived the night in it. I bunked in the café in my sleeping bag with still no sign of the last two trekkers.
A bright blue sky welcomed me in the morning with fresh snow on the ground. With this much snow we all decided to head back to Triund, as most of the arrows would be hidden by the snow. This is where a guide would be helpful, so with a heavy heart I turned back. If the sky had stayed clear and the snow cleared I had some hope of continuing. On the way we met a group of seven people who were going up to the caves and attempt the pass the next day. There were four people fromNew Delhi, two porters and a guide. I inquired as much as I could from the guide about what lay ahead and even for a minute thought of following them, but decided to stick to my plan.
That entire day I spent in Sunil’s shop. I met a lot of people passing through. I spent the night in a cave near the same spot my friends and I had camped; I didn’t want to take a chance with my tent just in case it started to hail again. The cave was quite comfortable, as much as caves can be. The candle wax all around made it evident that it had been frequently used. Starting a small fire outside, I settled down. The cave had a visitor in the night also looking for a place to stay and it was large enough to provide. The visitor was from Israel. We shared some stories beside the fire before calling it a day.
At day break the skies were as blue as they could get with not a single cloud in sight so I decided to go for it. On my way to the snowline I came across one of the two trekkers who had left before Ron. They told me tales of wind speeds so strong than some of the stones were moving! They had reached the caves and were stuck there. They only managed to come back last evening and this life-and-death situation made them drop the idea of going up any further. The also added that I was plain crazy to think of going up there alone.When I stopped at the snowline for a snack, there was quite a crowd there. A couple from Delhi, students from Punjab, they had all made it there this morning and two other groups that were planning on going till the caves. I decided to leave early as I didn’t want to waste daylight or get stuck in a crowd. The little red arrows marked the way up well, so I stuck to them and reached the caves before noon. Deciding to carry on immediately though was a mistake. Just an hour ahead and the whole mountain side was covered in fresh snow mixed with hail which made my progress extremely slow.
I had to settle for the night in a cave which was hardly big enough for me and almost on the edge of a ledge. Its exact height was 4023m according to my GPS, I got ready for bed (hung up my socks to dry, ate some food, etc) and fell asleep the moment my head hit the rock solid ground.
I was woken up by the most unusual sound of some birds. They seemed to be from the pheasant family with a fat stout body and a high neck on small short legs with a long tail. The snow was not making things easy for me, but at least it was a bright sunny day. It took me a good amount of time to reach the pass from here despite the short distance from the cave,
Climbing the last few meters was the most difficult with snow and sleet, making progress almost impossible. The only thing keeping me going was the orange toffee I had in my mouth. As soon as I reached the top I was breathless, not because of the height but honestly it was one of the most stunning, beautiful sights I have ever seen. I tried to capture it on camera but the pictures do the place no justice, like a movie to a 900 page book. One could actually see the curvature of the planet from that spot, it was THAT clear! All the rains and snow had cleared up the skies, with not a cloud in sight.
While I was basking in the sun high on life I heard someone coming up the path it was a local shepherd who was crossing the pass with his sheep and this guy was coolly climbing up the mountain like it was a walk in the park, with a bidi in his mouth, hands clasped behind him, holding a cane and wearing shoes made of hard plastic with grass stuck in them as a substitute for socks. He stopped here for a while to pray at the shrine near the pass. When I spoke to him, he said he had been doing this for last 20 years just like his father had done before him and his before him. I learnt as much as I could from him of what lay ahead. He also said it was crazy of me to trek in these parts alone, but at least he blessed me before he left. He had walked down the ridge in the next second, and this is when I realised I was alone on this mountain.
My companion ahead: fields of snow nearly three feet deep.
At one spot I decided to go a bit off track and instantly I was standing in snow till my chest. This scared me to death and I decided to stick to the track made by the shepherd. The first slope down from the pass on the other side towards Chamba was a steep 55 degree side which I was more than happy to slide down, but four such slides down I realised it was not a good idea as my clothes and shoes were soaking wet by the end! The shepherd had told me that in the right season, these fields are a lush green without a single trace of snow on them. Right now though, as far as I could see, there was just snow.
After one of the most gruelling treks through snow covered slopes I reached the point where the snow was melting and mixing with the earth; it had created a slush of mud and snow. Though messy, the presence of grass made me feel better. The snow slides had made my butt and fingers quite numb so they appreciated the hint of warmth.
The most treacherous parts of the trek was on this day. I had to cross numerous glaciers to get to the other side and carry on along that path. A single slip and you could end up under the next one. The stories I had heard of people slipping and getting trapped under glaciers till the next season didn’t help the situation much. When you’re sliding down a frozen glacier, hands are no good. One needs a good ice axe or something hard and sharp to dig into the ice. So small pointed sticks are better than nothing and I used them as makeshift axes if I happened to slip.
I strayed off the path a little again and went down a rock face to see if there was a way down. Just as I realised that there wasn’t, my foot slipped on the smooth rock face. Sliding down I tried to hold anything that I could get my hands on. With my heart racing like a jackhammer, somehow I came to a stop on a ledge from where there was a straight drop under a glacier. I could only think of how deep and dark the drop was, and it hit me that my mistake could have ended it all for me. I sat down to recompose myself. I had actually given a thought to the idea of leaving my backpack down so that I could climb back up. I dropped the idea as I didn’t have a rope long enough to haul it up and it contained all my food. What had taken me just a few horrifying seconds to go down took me three drudging hours to get back. Once on top I threw my backpack to the side and fell back into the ground. Thanking the gods, I lay there with leftover adrenalin still pulsing through my system.
After that I was extra careful of where I stepped and was in survival modewith just me in it. Now all I wanted to do was get back home alive. I found a cave close by and it was still early in the afternoon. The trek had left me wet, cold and covered in mud and I figured I could get cleaned up in this beautiful stream flowing near the cave. Unfortunately, and obviously, it was so cold that I could barely get myself to touch it and wash up. I started a fire as big as I could manage I set a pot of hot water to boil. With a towel soaked in the warm water, I wiped myself clean and made a dinner of noodles. I fell asleep moments after my usual chocolate and butter biscuits snack, which was reduced to a packet of crumbs and dust as I had foolishly stored them in the outer pocket of the backpack.
Getting up early I decided to pick up the pace as I had wasted a lot of time the day before. Leaving at day break, I found a trail which I stuck to all the way till a small temple under a huge boulder. The way there was not easy as most of the main path was washed away and I had to take many detours. At one place there must have been a landslide and the alternate route was through a loose stack of rock and boulders which could have given way at any time. Seeing the temple made me feel like I had completed the trek right there and then and somehow the image of the shepherd giving me a blessing came to mind.From here the path was well defined and easy. I had reached a small clearing just outside thevillageofKuarsiwhere I meet two local shepherds who told me their brother had met me on the pass and to look out for me if and when I came along. He offered me a night’s stay at his home in a cave, which I was more than happy to do as it was getting late and I was getting hungry. He and his son were staying in a cave just a bit uphill from the main path where they lived through the season because there is no space for the sheep in the village. That night I had the most delicious meal I had ever eaten: wild saag (spinach) with rice and goat’s milk. After the meal, the shepherd began with some of the most amazing tales which carried on well into the night. It put me well to sleep and I could hear his stories even in my stupor.
Today was last day I had. If I didn’t get in touch with Mallika, today she would start to panic. Today I basically had to get within mobile coverage area.
The shepherd was up before me and after he took a few pictures of me (which I promised to bring back when I returned), I left. I reached Kuarsi early in the morning and it was quite busy. This village has no motorable road and only received electricity a few years ago. That day, in fact, was the day when the only phone in the village had decided to break down, with no mobile signal I decide to move on after a quick rest and a small meal with a local family. On inquiring, I was told I would start getting a mobile signal ahead of Hilling which was the next village, so that day it was a walk from one village to the next on decently defined roads.
I finally made my call saying all is well and managed to reach Chamba where I decided to walk into the first guest house I come across. It turned out to be the dingiest and dirtiest of the lot. This coming from someone who spent the past few nights in caves; so you can imagine how dingy and dirty it really was! I slept in my sleeping bag, which I had gotten used to by now, and the next day I took a 15hr bus back toNew Delhi.
While holding Mallika in my arms after reaching home, I realised that you are alone when you don’t want to be, sometimes when you chose to be and sometimes when there’s no other option. But no matter how lonely it gets, someone is always waiting for you on the other side. It is just a question of you realising who is really waiting.