Thursday, August 14, 2014

DDK Pass Trek - Living on the Edge and Loving it

24 hours without sleep for some last minute deliverables in the office and to watch inauguration of the football world cup before I get to sleep for about couple of hours. The day again starts quite early as I struggle to meet another poorly planned deadline --How many of those I have met or missed over the years and still I'm not dead! -- before I depart for the airport to catch my flight to Delhi for our much-anticipated trek of Dhum Dhar Kandi Pass(DDK Pass). Sandeep and Shilpa, who are going to join me in the taxi, are also busy attending some office calls. No wonder - Friday, the 13th it is! I'm not worried though. For one, couple of years back, I started for Everest Base Camp (EBC) trek on Friday, the 13th and it turned out to be one of the best treks I was part of. Second, I consider 13 a lucky number. For no apparent reasons. I just like the sound of that number. So after a hurried lunch and frantic calls to colleagues, I start from my home at 1:45 PM. Sandeep and Shilpa are ready with their bags when I reach to their home.

Surprisingly there is not much traffic on the road and we reach to the Bangalore Airport by 3 PM. Jagdish(Jaggi) is already there waiting for us. In some time, Rohit also arrives and we have full gang all eager and excited to start an adventurous trip. While waiting for the boarding to start, Sandeep, who is also our trek leader, asks what should be our next trek. We laugh at it and suggest him to take up this question after we finish this difficult DDK Pass trek. While nibbling the tasty akki roti prepared by Rohit's mother, Shilpa recollects from her past trek experiences that after coming back from difficult treks, nobody wants to talk about next one for some time.

The flight journey, as usual, is eventless and boring. Rohit and I share our dislike for flight journeys vis-a-vis train journeys in India. We go on about how people in Indian Rail not only open their food boxes for fellow travelers but their hearts too. The card games go on till late in the night. Compare that to air travel where only words you exchange with a fellow traveler may be "Excuse Me" when you get up to go to lavatory. A cute little kid in the row behind us makes the journey bearable though by frequently calling the air-hostesses in his sweet voice - he wants a sandwich but they have none. One of the hostesses does not take it to her liking when he calls her aunty :)

We take a taxi from New Delhi Airport to New Delhi Railway Station. After a sumptuous dinner at Ratan da Dhaba opposite the station, we meet Piyush at the station. Piyush was supposed to join us for the trek but he had to cancel the plan due to other commitments. While planning for the trek, we decided to get some food items from Delhi to manage the weight of the check-in baggage. Piyush was kind enough to buy the stuff and deliver it to us in the station.

Our train is at midnight and we need to kill time, so we spread a sleeping mat on the platform, occupy every inch of the space available on it and start playing cards. The train arrives, we board it, settle in and once it chugs out of the station, we are fast asleep dreaming about the mountains we are to see in next few days. A day - the so-called unluckiest day - which started with lot of hectic activities ends in relaxed manner.

The Gateway to the Paradise

A short while after 4 AM, our train reaches to Haridwar railway station. After maneuvering thru the platform to avoid the passengers sleeping there, we get outside the station and see another big bunch of passengers sleeping in open. The Char Dham yatra season is on so I suppose this rush of passengers is not new to this city. If Uttarakhand is called devbhoomi, then Haridwar has to be the gateway to this land of Gods. This is the place to start journey for Char Dhams and also to Mount Kailash. For us trekkers, Haridwar is the gateway to some of the best treks in the country, in the Garhwal Himalayas.

We hire a vikram, a big auto rickshaw quite popular in this part of India, to directly head to Hrishikesh from where we are supposed to get another vehicle to reach Uttarkashi, our destination for the day. Haridwar is the place where river Ganga (or Ganges, an Anglicized name which I truly deplore) enters the plains. As we move towards Hrishikesh, we cross some bridges over the Ganga. The famous Ganga ghats are bustling with pilgrims waiting to take the holy dip in the river at this early auspicious hour of the day. There are some tall idols of deities, mainly Shiva, adorning some ghats.  

We feel cramped inside Vikram as most of the space is occupied by our big rucksacks. I am sitting on the outer side, holding the iron bar for support and almost touching the roof. Last night was full moon night and though the dawn is about to break, the full moon is visible in the sky. I crane my neck and try to get a clear glimpse of the moon thru two iron bars while it constantly plays hide and seek with me, hiding behind trees or buildings and then coming out in open like a showman. I wonder why I take the trouble to seek that view in that confined space. For centuries, the moon symbolizes hope – of pleasant views, of better days, of improvement in the condition of human beings, of the inevitable onset of good after bad like no moon followed by full moon. There is an apt Hindi expression - chaand parosa haiThe full moon floats in the wide open sky and the hope floats, like those diyas on the waters of Ganga, flickering yet shining bright.

 Once we reach to the city limits  of Haridwar, we are transferred  to another Vikram as Haridwar  autos are not allowed in  Hrishikesh and vice versa. They  have color coded system, blue  color autos for one town and  green for another to restrict the  vehicles within city limits. We  immediately get a taxi to  Uttarkashi after reaching Hrishikesh and we hit the road again after drinking tea. Suresh, the driver of the vehicle, looks to be a gentleman. He does not speak much and only answers if we prod him further. We stop for breakfast at a nice roadside dhaba and then continue our journey. Sandeep points to the mountains we are passing thru and says that these are part of Shivalik range. Shivalik ranges are also called Outer Himalayas and in fact they are the youngest Himalayan mountains.

By noon we are in Uttarkashi, Kashi of the north. This district headquarter is situated on the banks of river Bhagirathi. Uttarkashi is relatively big town and this is the place where we are supposed to buy the remaining provisions for our trek and meet the guide and the rest of the support staff. Balwant, our guide, is already there at the guest house waiting for us. He is accompanied by Mahaveer, his cousin and our cook on the trek. We discuss our trek plan with them. We are keen to do both DDK pass and Bali(Yamunotri) Pass together though he is slightly apprehensive. We have already discussed the charges with him on phone – for guide, cook and porters as well as rent for tents etc. But he quotes a little bit higher numbers now. We are somewhat pissed off but we agree to pay higher charges given that Bali Pass is also included in the trek. With the help from both of them, we prepare a list of items to buy – vegetables, oil, rice, daal, atta, fuel etc. Post lunch, we go to market and buy all the items. We also meet Satya, one of our common friends and an avid trekker and mountaineer, who is also planning to trek in the same region and attempt the climb to Kala Naag, a mountain which is quite close to DDK Pass. After early dinner in the evening, we retire for a good night’s sleep. For the next 10 days, we are not going to see these coats and mattresses as we will camp in nature and sleep in sleeping bags.  For once, a simple mattress is already a symbol of luxury.

Day 0: By the Holy Waters

After a good night’s sleep, the morning wakes us up in a fresh mood. We pay a visit to The Kashi Vishwanath Temple, the reason Uttarkashi is named as the Kashi of North. Suresh is again there waiting for us with his taxi and one more taxi so that 17(5 of us, the guide, the cook and 10 porters) of us can go to Jhala, a small village from where we are supposed to start trekking. They load our luggage of rucksacks, tents, utensils, provisions etc. on the roof of the taxis and we settle inside. Jhala is around 65 km from Uttarkashi, on the way to Gangotri. The road is quite bad in many sections due to landslides. Rocks are scattered on the zigzag road in some places. A little below, the Bhagirathi is flowing with all its might and a little negligence on a driver’s part can be fatal. It is a challenge to drive safely on such roads. Sitting in the front seat, I observe Suresh offering prayers whenever a temple is in vicinity. There is a small photo of violent and destructive Durga, the Mahisasura Mardini, in his car. I am an atheist and an agnostic at best but I wonder if I were any different if I had to live in such harsh conditions. Fear of death may prompt one to believe in heavenly powers. Many people I know who are believers just because they are afraid of retributive justice at some stage of their life or even afterlife. Fear is possibly the foundation on which faith is built for a huge population. Or what a kaafir like me knows about faith anyway?

The road winds up as we constantly gain altitude. Sandeep suddenly points out at some distant, barely visible snow-capped mountain. It is beautiful, tucked behind brown mountains, as if embarrassed by its own breathtaking beauty! Couple of days more and we will be in the laps of many of its cousins, I say to myself.

We get down at Jhala and wait for second taxi to arrive. There is a bridge over Bhagirathi maintained by General Reserve Engineering Force (GREF). The guide on the duty enlightens us about GREF and its functions. The bridge is not strong enough to take the load of heavy vehicles together so the guard ensures that only one vehicle passes on it at a time. Soon after lunch, we start walking towards Harsil on the true left bank of Bhagirathi. I call it Day 0 of the trek. From the high road, we get down to the river level, cross a bridge with Buddhist prayer flags and enter into a small village inviting stares from the villagers. We are now on the true right bank of Bhagirathi. We find a place to camp(2600m altitude) for the day just outside the village. It’s a grazing ground for mules and horses.  We pitch our tents right next to the forceful river. A wall of rocks separates us from the river. A little later, I cross the rock wall and sit on the pebbles lying in the river bed.

The pebbles are of different hue, all of them washed clean and bright by the Bhagirathi. According to the Hindu mythology, the river Bhagirathi (and eventually the Ganga) was brought on earth from the heaven by the great Suryavanshi king Bhagirath, one of the forefathers of Lord Rama. Bhagirath did penance and succeeded in convincing goddess Ganga to come on earth to release 60000 sons of king Sagar from a curse given by sage Kapila. Looking at those pebbles, I get the feeling that these are not pebbles but those sons of Sagar whose curse was washed off by the holy waters of the river and they attained their salvation at this very place.

Our campsite is at serene location, surrounded by tall mountains on both the sides and adjacent to Bhagirathi running on the ground. Slightly ahead, the river is wide and takes left turn in front of Jhala village. A range of mountains is visible in the backdrop of Jhala. There are three layers of mountains, each layer on the back towering over the one in front. They are of identical shapes and one gets impression as if those are just shadows of only one mountain. It is a tranquil setup and we sit there watching the river. The river is like a comely lady, curvaceous in right places, delicate but fierce in equal measure. The water flows by…uninhibited…relentless. Does it know that we are watching it? Does it stop even for a fraction of a second to acknowledge our appreciative glance? Does it care? The river, it seems, moves on – unashamed, unabashed, ruthlessly. It does not stop, it does not look back, it does not contemplate. What it is concerned with is its movement – if there is no way, make one. If there are obstacles, jump over them, sidestep them, destroy them, wash them off the shore.

In the evening, Sandeep talks to the group of porters and figures out that they are quite inexperienced and ill-equipped. They are young kids, in 15-20 age group and no one has ever been to the altitude the trek is going to take us to. We are obviously worried about it. Only three people are experienced enough in the support crew – the guide Balwant, senior porter Suresh and the cook Mahaveer. We realize that such a difficult trek can put these porters as well as our lives in danger. We cannot expect those 3 people to take care of 14 remaining people on the pass or in difficult terrain. Lengthy discussions ensue among 5 of us. We share our concerns with Balwant but he sees no danger and asks us to believe in his plan as well as capabilities.  He persists that we have nothing to worry about. Finally we decide to take the bet with some reluctance.

The night falls. There is almost full moon in the sky, beautiful as ever, and it provides us some calming effect. The river continues to flow by; producing the rhythmic sound, sort of a lullaby and I fall in deep slumber.  

Day 1: Up We Go, Down We Come

Spot the moon there
The real trek starts today. It is a bright sunny day to begin with, the sky is clear and all the mountains are standing tall while the Bhagirathi nourishes the green valley. After breakfast and customary first-day photos of every one of us, we set off on the right bank of the river. We walk on the river bed, crossing the small streams which have carved their own paths before joining Bhagirathi back. Just before the river takes left turn, there is a confluence of Sian Gad and Bhagirathi. Sian Gad, divided into multiple streams, merges with Bhagirathi here, losing its own identity but invariably adding its footprint in Bhagirathi. Eventually, the Bhagirathi meets Alaknanda at Devprayag to become what we know as the Ganga, India’s holiest and the most revered river. In its more than 2500km of journey across India and Bangladesh, the Ganga assimilates many small and big rivers in its fold at various places. It is truly symbolic of what this country is all about – welcoming people of different civilizations for many centuries and make them their own, blending their cultures with its own, producing a new cultural flavor yet retaining its very essence of Ganga-Jamuni tahzeeb.

We need to go to the true left bank of Sian Gad towards East, but there is a half-submerged cliff at this confluence and there is no way we can walk at the river level. We climb the cliff to see if we can walk down on the other side but it looks impossible to get down from there too. We come back to the river level to explore the possibility of crossing the streams of Sian Gad, walk on its right bank and cross back to left bank when feasible. The water level is rising and Sian Gad looks wild. Our porters manage to cross its first stream. We wait for our turn to cross but Suresh announces that we cannot cross the second stream as it is slightly wider and deeper. We abandon the idea of crossing the streams there.

Goat Trail
There is a goat trail from the river to the top of the mountain on our right. We have planned to camp at Jhadunga campsite today which is upstream of Sian Gad on its left bank. We need to try to reach there and out of desperation, we decide to follow the goat trail and see if we can reach to the Sian Gad from the other side of the mountain. In front of our eyes lies almost vertical mountain wall. We start climbing. The trail is steep and the sand is loose. As we step on the trail, the small rocks give up and fall on the persons behind us. Mindful of this, we maintain some distance from each other. After about 200m altitude gain, we hit the forest of pine and deodar trees. The climb becomes steeper and in some places we have to be on all fours to get going. Balwant is slightly ahead of, asking us to wait while he tries to find the trail. We encircle the mountain almost all the way up to the top at around 3100m. The disappointment was waiting us there as we figure out that we cannot reach to the Sian Gad from the other side. So what we need now is to move down roughly in the direction of the confluence and try to find a place where we can get down to the river level! The descent is tougher as the loose rocks and sand make it difficult balancing act. We stop for a while at one place to relax. Shilpa puts her backpack down and it starts rolling down the hill. From that slope we are sure it will end up directly in the river, about 500m fall. But Mahaveer, our cook, has different idea. In flash he runs down that dangerous slope. One, two, three, four...and he gets hold of the bag. We are left gaping at him in astonishment. How could he run like that!

We stop to another place for lunch. We have packed lunch of roti and aloo sabzi. Satya catches up with us there. Apparently they camped on the opposite side of confluence last evening but even then could not cross the river in the morning. The final descent to the river level starts soon after lunch. It becomes steeper and steeper and at one place we have to take help of the rope to avoid slippery ground. What we fail to imagine is how the porters are able to carry that much weight and still manage to negotiate this rough terrain. Hats off to those mountain people! At last we reach to the river, Sian Gad water in it full force jumping over the rocks and producing high-decibel sound. It is almost 2:30 in the afternoon and clouds are hovering above us so we decide to camp at a least rocky ground close to the river. To our utter bewilderment, we are just about 100m from the confluence which means we are just about half a km away from our previous campsite!  We surely could not have crossed the river as it is in full spat here. What disappoints us more is that there is a wooden log put as a bridge about 50m away from the confluence and if we knew about it, we could have tried to find a way to reach there in the morning itself.

The Estranged Friends
The road connecting Uttarkashi to Gangotri is still visible. Shilpa and Rohit lament the fact that we are still quite close to the road and not away from civilization. This first day of the trek presents us with unforeseen challenges and puts us thru some tough test. Sandeep describes it as Kasauti Zindagi Ki on the trek. We all laugh at Rohit when says those Hindi words translate as “A Spoonful of Life” in English :D

Satya also camps close to our campsite. He has some maps of the area and we study those maps to get the fair understanding of the task at our hands. Rohit and I listen to our favorite song – Azadiyaan from movie Udaan – while watching the boundless water playing on the rocks in carefree manner. The day has been hard on us but our spirits are soaring. We cannot compete with nature. We have to respect it. We just hope the nature will bless us tomorrow and give us smooth passage. 

Day 2: Every Drop of Water Carries a Rainbow in It

A wooden log for a bridge
Satya bids us early goodbye and wishes us luck. He is set out on the Kala Naag climb and being a solo trekker, he can start early to take advantage of favorable morning weather. We again climb up to the goat trail and walk upstream of Sian Gad. As we move forward, the river becomes narrower and as the result of that, the sound it produces acquires roaring proportion. The trail is easier than yesterday’s trail. We see a very small glacier, or a disjointed part of it. I name it Bear Glacier as the shape resembles as that of a snow bear. Our tryst with the river continues as we approach an area where crossing the river is only option. A thin wooden log is placed on two high rocks as a makeshift bridge. The water gushes down under it. As we gather courage to put our best foot forward, a cliff behind us showers some rocks from above. Not much time to ponder over, we cross the bridge with the help of Balwant and other porters. Another makeshift bridge slightly ahead brings us back to the true left bank of the river and we continue our upstream journey. We cross the campsite of Jhadunga which we planned to stay at yesterday.

The sound of the river is our constant companion from the beginning of the trek. A little ahead, a small waterfall merges itself in Sian Gad. Falling from the height directly on the rocks, the splash generates wonderful rainbow like effect. Every drop contributes to that effect, flaunting its own significance.

The nature surprises us here at every step. Small streams and waterfalls abound. We sight the tiny yellow flowers. An hour after noon, we stop at a beautiful waterfall which I mark as Paradise Falls. The water falls from great height and then passes under a glacier before enriching the Sian Gad. We take lunch break there. The porters are tired but they want to continue. With great difficulty, we go down to the glacier and cross it. Balwant and others have to help us as there is not much ground to plant our foot. That becomes our first of many glacier crossings of the trek.

The first of many dangerous crossings
We are in Kiyarkoti region. This is a big area and we plan to cover as much as possible in short time. The ascent from the glacier turns out to be more challenging. The endless steep gradient on the loose ground combined with shrubs and thorns tire us down. On top of that, weather turns bad and clouds suddenly rise from nowhere. In no time it starts drizzling. There is no flat ground here so we decide to camp on a slope close to a stream from where we can fetch water. We can see weeds all around us. We flatten some weed plants and put our tents on it.

The whiteout reflects the gloom in the camp
We are at 3500m altitude so effectively we have gained 900m altitude. To make up for a lost day, we have covered more distance and gained more altitude than prescribed. Rohit complains of headache. Now that is trouble coming our way if we are already not troubled enough! This can be the initial signs of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). He is dejected. We try to cheer him up but to no avail. Adding to the effect, there is full whiteout and we can hardly see anything or anyone. The white gloom spreads all over.

Fortunately the weather clears up in the evening. Across the river, behind the brown wall of mountains, rise snow-capped mountains. The interplay of clouds and sun rays on those peaks entertains us. It is indeed live television! Though we cannot see the river, its loud song is clearly audible, constantly advertising its presence.

Rohit goes in the silent mode. He is hardly speaking anything. Sandeep gives him some medicines and we hope that he gets well. Like every drop of water carries rainbow in it, we all carry hope inside us which helps us sleep well in the night and wake up with vigor in the morning.

Day 3: The Day of Rewards

The sleep largely eludes me in the night as our tent is on a slope and I keep sliding down the slope. The situation is same with others also. The morning hardly brings any cheers. Rohit has not recovered from the headache. He wants to go back as he thinks that it will be riskier and tougher to turn back after going further. Sandeep persuades him to continue for the day and we promise him that we will all go back at the first serious sign of AMS. His spirits are down and we all are concerned about him. We climb down to cross the stream. The descent is quite tough – no change there from last two days. The trail is clear after crossing the stream. More and more peaks with snow cover are visible in the distance. The valley truly opens up now. The tree line is receding but the flower plants are dotted all over the green carpet. Our reward for last 2 days of strenuous trek is right in front of us. Purple, red, yellow and white flowers welcome us at every step.

The picture perfect mountain
We see a herd of goats and sheep grazing the verdant ground, flanked by a large mountain dog on each side. We do not see the shepherd though. More glacier crossings follow. The river continues to roar as more and more water pour down the surrounding glaciers and streams. The greenery partly gives way to moraines. Rohit, exhausted by the accumulated fatigue and pounding headache, trips on a rock and topples over. Luckily he lands on his backpack and escapes with minor scratches.

More rewards follow as we see a fully white mountain between two brown ridges. It is shaped ideally, the way we draw the mountains in our drawing books. The sides rise evenly, meeting at the pointed peak as if a sage is performing tapasya with raised and folded hands. A long glacier from that mountain feeds the river with a huge stream. A birch or bhojpatra tree bows down to the mountain from the place where we take in this lovely view.

The campsite in the evening
We reach to a nice enclosure between moraines. It is noon time. Balwant tells us that we are going to camp here. Every one rejoices with this happy news. Porters, as well as five of us, are exhausted after 3 days of tiring trek and an early break is immediately welcome. So this day brings one more reward. We are at 3800m altitude. We have gained about 1300m altitude in last two days which is not advisable. So we decide to take rest day tomorrow and use it for acclimatization. Our campsite is surrounded by bhojpatra trees. The bark of this tree can be used as paper. Incidentally sage Ved Vyas recited the epic Mahabharata to Ganesha who wrote it down on bhojpatra bark. These trees are considered sacred and locals do not cut or burn this tree. Post lunch, I collect some bark as memorabilia.

The sun is shining bright so we lazily sit in one place and chitchat. Rohit’s headache is not fully gone but it is under control. We play cards for some time before dinner. The porters have prepared a cozy fireplace so we all sit around and talk to them. That is first time I come to know that Suresh is regular to mountain expeditions and have successfully climbed Mt. Satopanth, a 7075m peak in Garwhal, nine times. He has done a few more expeditions in Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh also. We all are relieved now knowing we can rely on him fully in the higher mountains. Balwant and Suresh convince us to skip the rest day and continue trekking tomorrow so that we do not lose any more time. They plan to reach to the DDK Pass Base Camp tomorrow. The dark clouds take over the sky in no time and we disperse to the confined comforts of our tents. After I lay my sleeping bag and lie down, I realize there is a big rock right under my back. The whole night passes while I attempt to avoid the rock in futility. Rewarding day gives way to restless night.

Day 4: The Song of the River

My sleepless ordeal finally ends at around 5 AM when one of the porters brings bed(!) tea. Exhaustion is the thing of past now and everyone is as fresh as fern. The idea of rest day is discarded as the night wears out and the day takes over. Pancakes are served in breakfast. Soon we start walking under the clear blue sky and warmth of morning sunshine. We cross many moraines and reach to 4000m+ altitude. The tree line is gone now but we spot a few pink rhododendrons spread over the ground. We stare at small snowfields in front of us pierced by the rocks. Facing us are two huge mountains and a pass connecting them. We continue walking towards them on rocks and snowfields.

Lets go there
Out of nowhere, pristine white snow-capped mountains appear in sight on the left side. A series of snowfields across the Sian Gad in North leads to these peaks. Suresh and Balwant argue whether the massif visible at the far end of these snowfields is Kala Naag or not. A session of photography with the whole team follows. Balwant tells us that we are supposed to walk on these snowfields and then turn westwards to reach DDK pass.

Nasty surprises await us. To reach to those snowfields towards DDK pass, we are supposed to cross the river! For last two days, we were under the impression that river crossing is out of plate now. Balwant mentioned a day before that there was no more crossing to do. Buoyant by that thought, we conveniently forgot about the river. Now the prospect of crossing it suddenly appears daunting. We climb some rocks and move upstream to see if there is any shallow and narrow opening in the river which can be used for crossing. Balwant and Suresh go further to scan the river. They come back with the news that it is too risky to cross the river today as water level is high and there is no narrow passage anywhere. That infuriates Sandeep and rest of us. He vents out at Balwant asking him how he did not know about this crossing and why he did not plan for it. Balwant meekly replies that he expected snow instead of flowing river! We all are disappointed as it is just 10 AM and it is ideal day to cover some lost ground and reach to the base camp of DDK pass. To rub the salt on the wounds, Balwant also informs us that we are short on provisions and it may not last the full course!

We are forced to camp here. The altitude is close to 4200m. We are surrounded by some beautiful mountains and rocks all over. There is a nice patch of flat ground though where we pitch our tents. Out of all the campsites, this place looks the flattest. At least there will not be any rocks under the back or rolling sleeping bags tonight! Jaggi and I take a small walk and click some pictures of what Balwant thinks is the Kala Naag massif.

We have lot of time to kill owing to our early halt. Post lunch, we spread our sleeping mats on the ground and take sunbath. There is curious interplay of clouds and sun and mountains seem to be enjoying it. Every now and then, some cloud comes floating in the air and deprives mountains of sunlight. The Sun kicks it out with the help of the wind. Another cloud appears and taunts the Sun and the sequence repeats itself. Strange weather it is! The Sun is shining so bright that the heat is piercing and burning the skin. But when a cloud momentarily flies overhead, there is definite chill in the air which leaves the body shivering.

Rohit, Shilpa and Jaggi play the cards while I read some poetry by Gulzar on Rohit’s Kindle. In his own inimitable style, he has written poems about deforestation, destruction of environment, science, degeneration of human values and even planetary system! What a delight to read him leisurely in such a wonderful location. I keep looking at the words on the screen and the surrounding mountains alternatingly. Difficult for me to decide what is more beautiful – the imagery or the image in front of my eyes.

Tea and pakoras are served which we gobble with the urgency of a starved man. The undeniable thing about mountain air is that it makes one perennially hungry. On top of that, there is nothing else to do once you are at your campsite. So multiple rounds of food are wished for and welcome enthusiastically. We eat some homemade laddus and mixture in addition to what is served by the cook. Life certainly is good.

We feel that the Sian Gad’s flow is getting stronger with every passing moment, as if the mountain Gods have left a tape running by mistake. The river gets water from two different streams here: the bigger one from the west which is wayward and notorious and the smaller one from the north which is gentle.  The roar, like a war cry, is unmistakable now. The raging water crashes on the rocks, droplets spray all around, white foam starts taking shape and before it is fully materialized another sweeping wave runs it over.

There is sense of apprehension and anticipation on each face. We decide to start early tomorrow expecting that the river will ebb in the night due to snowfall and early morning will be the best time to cross it. We retire to our tents immediately after the dinner. In the dead of the night, I can clearly hear the flowing river. It continues to sing, in the high-pitched terrifying voice, like Durga possessed by will to crush Mahishasura. Prayers and pleadings drown in that great deafening force. The song of the river simply goes on…

Day 5: The Leap of Faith, and Not to Talk about Frogs

The Best Good Morning
Getting out of the tent as early as 5 in the morning in severe cold is not something I dream of. But we have to start a little early today to attempt river crossing. Involuntarily I step out and immediately goad myself for not doing that on previous days. In that pre-dawn partial light, only the moon and a solitary star are visible in the sky. What a sight it must be on the no moon day when the stars assemble in their twinkling glory! The mountains appear massive and closer in the dark. Rohit notes that the mountains look menacing in the night. I cannot agree more. The dawn breaks and the show in the sky changes smoothly. The sun is hiding behind mountains but the rays are illuminating the peaks with dazzling light. The veil is lifted from the heads of the mountains first and then slowly the whole mountains declare the rein of the sun God.

There is not much time to bask in the sun though. The river is still roaring furiously and we may be out of luck. We start after a hurried breakfast as we want to cross the river before snow starts melting. After about 15 minutes, we reach to a point which Suresh and Balwant have earmarked for the crossing. There is palpable sign of anxiety on our faces. The river here is actually three distinguished streams separated by half-submerged rocks. The distance must not be more than 25 meters. The gushing water means we cannot cross it without the help of a rope. Suresh takes one end of the rope and in two swift jumps over the rocks crosses one stream. He realizes that the rocks he jumped on are slippery so he finds some dust from dry rocks and puts it on those rocks so we can jump over them without any trouble. He crosses another two streams with the same alacrity and ties the rope on the opposite bank. We are all set!

One by one we are supposed to cross. One end of a rope will be tied to a carabineer on one’s waist. Balwant holds the remaining rope which he has to release slowly as one move across the river. All the while the rope which Suresh has tied across the other end has to be firmly held. As Balwant simply puts it, I’m holding the rope so don’t worry. In theory, it is really easy. Just hop on the rocks knowing all well that the rope tied to your waist will make sure that you are not carried with the flow. In theory. In reality, the matters are much more complicated. The rocks are not steady so we may fall down in the water. There is still lot of cold and once you fall, the icy cold water will send the chill down and up your spine and in all directions. Shilpa volunteers to go first. Either she is too brave or she just wants to go to the other side and enjoy the sunshine. With one long hop, she is on the rock in the middle of the first stream. Good start. Suresh is waiting at the end of the first stream. To reach there, Shilpa needs to jump with all her might. She glances at the water, gauges its depth, gathers her courage, lifts her leg and tries to jump. She cannot. She is frozen there. She tries again. Frozen again. She mumbles something. Another try…same result. We all encourage her. But she is immovable. Sandeep is tensed and impatient now. Shilpa says that she cannot go. She turns around and jumps back to where we are standing.

I am next. Or rather, first now. The first hop is fine. All is well. My legs start shaking. Suresh instructs me to quickly jump to where he is standing. Do not leave the rope, comes the top up of the original instruction. He tells me that we have all jumped like this in childhood. What he forgets is that most of us have not jumped over the rocks in a cold river at 4000m altitude! The friends cheer me. I look at Suresh for reassurance, asks him to be ready to catch me if I fall down and in one mindless moment, jump. I am standing on the rock. Good, I’m not drowning! I think I have created a long jump world record at that altitude! When I look back, I realize I barely have managed to survive. For another jump. Off course. Suresh takes three quick hops and he is on the other side of the second stream. Wow! He asks me to follow him. But wait. I need to come up with better jump to clear this. I think it is impossible. He scolds me. I refuse to budge. I am sure I cannot clear that distance. I ask him to lift a small rock and put it in the stream. He obliges. Holding the support rope, I jump on the first rock, and then second, and the third. The second stream is gone. I feel cold sensation in my feet. Oh no, my feet are wet. To prevent my shoes from getting wet, I decided to use my sandals in the morning to cross the river. While jumping on the small rocks, I had to put my feet in water. The fear of crossing the river is gone. The cold is slowly creeping inside the body. The third stream is fairly shallow so Suresh asks me to cross it without his help. Unfortunately all the rocks in this stream are fully inside the water and I cannot evade it. My toes are numb and I find it tough to walk. I need more support so I put my hands in water to hold on to rocks! As if getting your feet wet was not enough! I somehow cross the full river. I immediately remove the gloves in my hand and my socks and sandals. I start rubbing my palms. The sun is brighter now, but the cold has completely taken control of my body. My full body is shivering. The fingers are numb. The toes are numb. The…mind…is…numb. There is tinge of relief. There is no celebration. There is no joy. There is no pride. Some figures are moving in front of my eyes. Suresh? Shilpa? Sandeep? Rohit? Jagdish? Who are they? Are they real? My mind does not register anything.


Shilpa braving the raging river
After a while, either infinity or a tiniest fraction of a second, I see Jagdish on my side. I applaud his effort and ask him to remove the wet clothes.  Shilpa is already in the middle of the second stream. Her face is strained. With one hand she is holding the rope while with the second she is holding Suresh’s hand. One more step and she is knee-dip inside water. Ouch! Must be really cold. One of the porters is already on this side of the river! When did he cross? I have no idea. It occurs to me that the water level has already risen. With considerable effort, Shilpa manages to cross the river. Hers is a face of outpouring and overpowering emotions. She is crying. It is not easy to try again after initial setback. The brave lady has conquered all her fears and shown remarkable courage. I am proud of her.

Sandeep and Rohit have to withstand greater force of rising water. Shilpa mentions that it is really tough to jump even when you know that you are tied to the rope and people like Balwant and Suresh will not let you fall and drown in the water. She says that it is indeed a leap of faith. I wonder what did the trick for me. Faith is the luxury I am not yet truly provided with. I guess it was that moment of madness and mindlessness when you cannot put the things off any longer. It was deliberate act of numbing the mind where risks and rewards no longer matter. Besides cold, probably that was the reason I was not on the seventh heaven after crossing the river. The mind was numb and unable to fathom the extent of the action.

Even while I am thinking about how it happened, I see one of the porters leapfrogging on the water. He is so nimble footed and confident that he does not use rope or take any support. He hops on one rock from another and in no time, he is standing in front of us! If he had four legs, a pair of protruding eyes and long tongue, I would mistake him for a frog. That settles the debate in my mind then – it is not leap of faith or numbing-dumbing the mind which will necessarily sail your boat. We need to learn from nature, from its constituents, from different life forms to adapt and survive in varied conditions and make best of it. Our frog sings well too, the skill he learned from chirping birds and rocky rivers I suppose.

It has taken two hours to cross the river for 17 of us. We are surprised that Suresh was inside the water for that long. He finally reveals that he was high on opium. That kept him warm inside the water for the full duration. That is something worth considering next time :P

The moving shadows are the porters
In front of us lies expanse of snowfields, separated by moraines and streams. From here on, we are to walk on snow for next couple of days. Not only walk, but climb. The snow is melting due to scorching sun and it is slippery due to its softness. Balwant walks in front of us to make the steps with snow boots which Rohit has given him. The gentle slope of the mountain means that we need to be more careful or a small slip can lead us directly to the stream flowing below. We put our feet precisely in those steps. Like ants, we walk one behind another. The snow is super bright. The full canvas is painted with white of snow and black/brown of moraines. More white, less black. Our porters move in a parallel line at higher altitude. They are far enough not to be recognized. They look tiny and as they move, one gets feelings as if they are moving shadows.

We cross some streams with thin ice on it. We take right turn and leave behind the route which can take us back to Jhala. The climb gets steeper as we gain altitude. Balwant says it is a long day so we keep on walking. We rest only for lunch. We are above 4500m now and the thin air is taking its due toll. Most of us are panting and stopping after a few steps.  We all want to stop as fatigue sets in. But Balwant pushes us to reach to the Advance Base Camp! Yes, I do not even know when the Base Camp site passed. Now we aim for Advance Base Camp.

DDK Pass in Distance
Rohit has already started complaining about his headache. I also feel mild headache. The unusual gain in altitude is surely making us pay for it. At around 2:30 in afternoon, we stop for a break. We are all ready to walk till 5 and reach the ABC. Balwant has smile on his face. He directs his gaze ahead and shows us ABC site. We are delighted. It is full of snow. Shilpa wants to know where the pass is. After some cajoling, Balwant finally points his finger at one rocky ridge in distance. There it is – a black low spot connecting two walls of snow on either side. Our target. Kala Naag is clearly visible now. A majestic multi-headed serpent standing upright to attack the enemy – truly worthy of its name.

Once all the porters assemble, Suresh checks with them if they want to continue to the ABC or camp where we are right now. Camping at ABC means we will have to pitch the tents on snow and night will be extremely colder. But it will also reduce about an hour of effort tomorrow which can come handy after the pass ascent. Porters are tired and they agree to camp at our current location. We are at 4700m altitude. Though there is broad sunlight, there is lot of wind here. There is cold in the air. Everyone is tired so Balwant asks us to help him pitch our tents. The hands are barely moving due to cold and exhaustion. Once we manage to pitch the tents, everyone is inside the tents as wind is getting stronger with every passing moment.

We take dinner inside our tents as nobody wants to go out and face the wind. Tomorrow is a big day – we are going to ascend the DDK pass. The weather can be tricky at such high passes so we want to start early at 4 and reach the pass by 10.  It has been rough day with river crossing and monotonous walk on the snow. But we are in the lap of the DDK Pass now and I sleep with a contented smile on my face tonight.

Day 6: Free as in Freedom

The summit day is the most exciting and anticipated day for any mountaineer. To stand shoulder to shoulder with tall mountains, even for a brief period, is the ultimate high of any climb. The mountains appear so close from the top that one invariably tries to touch them and feel them. The days of hardship culminates in the top of the world feeling. A mind pregnant with such anticipation can hardly rest or focus on anything else.

We get up early and get ready by 4. It is bitter cold outside, we realize only after the tents are packed. The porters are taking time to get ready and pack their large tent. Exposed to the wind, our toes and fingers are numb. To our west lie ghostly Kala Naag and DDK Pass. Itching to get going, we prod Balwant to hurry up. We have a group huddle and wish each other luck. We have climbed the DDK Pass so many times in our dreams. Time to convert the dream into reality.

Kala Naag Rules here
The snow is hard in the initial section and it is quite easy to walk on the gradual slope. It is already 5 and the dawn is knocking on the door of the day. The princely Kala Naag, waking up from its deep slumber, raises its heads in golden hue. Its dark shadow still looms large over the snowfields. After bowing down to their prince, the lesser mountains slowly raise their heads. A thick layer of clouds is ominously gathering behind us, threatening to swallow the sun. But who can stop the rays awakened by the inner light? We get some reprieve from the cold once the sun sets its rein over the land and the sky. Our target is clearly visible now – a semi-vertical expanse of snow and a few rocks on the top. Some serious ascent it is going to be.

By mistake we take a higher line and reach to a point from where only the superheroes can climb the vertical wall of snow. I smell kerosene. That’s weird. I hope they do not find petroleum resources here lest they will destroy the place in their unsatiating hunger for energy resources. Fortunately for the mountains, and not so much for us, it turns out that one of the porters spilled the kerosene from the vessel he was carrying. 

We need to descent to the level from where we can join the path to the DDK Pass. It is steep and slippery descent. Everyone is very careful. Cautiously we follow a zigzag pattern. Balwant is leading the way and making the steps for us. The snow is more than a foot deep but it is melting in the sharp sunlight. Many a times we put a foot in the step and find the surface of the rock beneath. Shilpa is ahead of me. Rohit, Sandeep and Jaggi are following. The climb is steep now. Treading on the soft snow, we continue to make slow but definite progress. After couple of hours, we take a break. The mountain air always makes me hungry. The dry fruit packets and the biscuits are out the bag now. Everyone seems to be happy to nibble on something. Rohit’s face is white and lifeless. He complains of pounding headache. Noooooooo. Not again. He looks worried. He keeps on looking back from where we have come. Is he thinking of turning back now? Really? We are above 5000m now and the pass is very much in the sight. We just have to climb a couple of hundred meters and then we can go down to lower altitude quickly on the other side of the pass. Just then Sandeep takes the charge and scolds him for letting the frequent thought of AMS playing with his mind. It charges up Rohit and we move on.

As we approach the summit, the snow gets deeper and climb gets steeper. What looked like a couple of hundred meters climb which we can finish in one breath suddenly appears a daunting task. Every step squeezes juice out of me. I decide to take 25 steps and then stop for 25 breathing. Soon it becomes 25-50. Breathing becomes heavy. Lungs go in overdrive, sucking in the precious oxygen from the thin mountain air.  I can hear my heartbeats. I bet even a deaf person can hear it. It is throbbing violently inside the chambers. Thud…thud…thud…it goes…like a timer bomb ticking away…warning me that any attempt to go further and it will explode. I forcibly hold the trekking pole, bend down and try to pacify the heart. First time on the trek I have the doubt that I may not reach to the top. Rohit must be just behind me. At any moment he will tug at my shoulder. I look back. He is still at the same distance he was a while back. Shilpa was going strong. She must have reached to the top already. I raise my head to check on her. There she is, same distance away she was a while back. She is also standing there trying to catch her breath. The heart is still beating hard. This time I rejoice. There are rare moments in life when one truly feels alive. This is one such moment.

A porter tries to pump us by shouting Har Har Mahadev at top of his voice. Some of us repeat in chorus. The far end of the Kala Naag grumbles and a small avalanche takes place! Balwant immediately silences us. It reinforces my belief in Butterfly Effect. The zombies resume their ascent. We take slightly longer route to the summit to avoid the vertical face of it and also to avoid the need for a rope. Finally we reach to the ridge one end of which disappears in Kala Naag and another becomes DDK Pass. It is very narrow ridge. Balwant warns us of cornices and strictly orders us to follow his footsteps. One step in the cornice and we may involuntarily ski down the slope to possibly end up in a crevice or in Sian Gad far off. Carefully, and fearfully, we follow him. It is like walking on a tightrope.

The Duck Shaped lake
There is vertical rock face in front of us. We have arrived! We are at the pass! This is it. 5323 meters, reads the GPS. The landscape in front my eyes is unreal. On my left is a duck shaped blue lake with ice floating on it. There are innumerable small blue and green ponds. On my right, scores of peaks rise like camel humps. Behind me is the rising face of Kala Naag trying to touch the sky. Smoke rises from its top viciously every second. Majestic this mountain is…standing solo, almost arrogantly, unapologetically declaring its supremacy. On its left is pristine white Banderpunchh range. Far away, the peak of Swargarohini peeks at us from the clouds. Heaven it is.

Sandeep and Jaggi arrive in some time. We congratulate everyone. A lengthy photo shoot with porters ensues. Shilpa records our feelings at the pass. The customary pooja is done at the pass to thank the mountain gods for our safe passage. Balwant asks us to sit on the rocks instead of moving around. Along with Suresh, they try to find a way to get down from the pass. Around 200m long snowy slope is of almost 70 degrees gradient. We need to fix rope at the top and get down one by one. Once Suresh fixes the rope, Balwant starts the descent. He makes deep steps in the snow with his snow boots. We are strictly instructed to follow the footsteps and not to destroy them. Couple of porters get down before any of us. Jaggi is not feeling well. He vomited some time back. He is exhausted too. Shilpa asks him to get down first. Rohit is next in line as he still has mild headache.

Majestic Kala Naag from DDK Pass
It takes 15-20 minutes for one person to get down from the pass. While waiting for my turn, I sit down on the rocks and purposelessly stare at the horizon. Mountains are so close yet so far. The army of clouds is gathering around. Rohit and I decided to listen to our favorite song – Aazadiyaan – when we reach to the pass. Rohit is already down there with his ipod. The song no longer matters. The passing wind is free. The mountains are free. Every rock is free. I can touch them but I cannot own them. Nobody owns them. I wonder what freedom is. Nobody owns me. Does that really mean I am free? Freedom not only means not being owned by someone, but more importantly it also means not to own anyone or anything. To be free is not to own or not to be owned. In the lap of mountains here, I feel the greatest freedom.  

By the time I start descending, there is full whiteout. All the mountains have disappeared. Snow is slippery so I have to firmly hold the rope. Leaving the rope means landing into a deep crevice down further. After a while it becomes increasingly difficult to clutch the rope as my fingers are burning. I know now why Rohit and Sandeep were cursing the rope during their turn. Near the end of the rope, there is sleek ice. From the top I have seen everyone sliding there unwillingly. My fate is no different. I slip there and the rope runs out. I slide down further but fortunately Balwant gets hold of me in time to save me from fall.

It takes 17 of us almost 3 hours to get down the pass. Tired and hungry souls crave for some relief but the mountains have some other plans. As we walk in the direction of our campsite, we hear growling from the top. Suresh says we are in rockfall area. We are in perilous situation – the soft snow and the steep slope slow us down but falling rocks mean we need to hasten. Suresh wants us to speed up while also being watchful about rocks. Just then a rock, size of a handball, rolls down the hill. Unaware of its itinerary, Shilpa and Rohit are standing in its path. If anyone gets hit by the rock, the fall may take one to either the icy cold pond or the unfathomably deep crevice. Balwant spots the rock and pulls Shilpa on one side just in time to let the rock pass between them. Phew! That was close.

Another rockfall behind us and one of the porters, fondly named Chattan Singh, starts running away towards safety. He forgets the slippery snow. He trips down in a free fall. Sliding down the ski slope, he cries for help but we can only remain mere spectators. He summersaults twice before managing to use his feet to apply break. He could have easily crashed into a chattan or a pond. But luck is on his side. He immediately gets up, adjusts his hat and starts laughing! Damn these high-spirited mountain people!

We are in safe zone now. There is endless expanse of snow on all the sides. Kala Naag icefall is looming large over the landscape. Sun is also tired and is slowly moving towards the horizon in the west. We keep on walking on tired legs. Finally we see shrubs and brown mountains in distance. We are nearing the confluence of Kala Naag icefall and Banderpunch glacier. Unwittingly we take a lower line and Balwant and our cook Mahaveer show us the higher line climbing which we will reach our campsite.

We can see traces of trail from here. Due to last year’s devastating flash floods, the trail is broken and missing in many parts. On one of those broken section of the trail, we have to cross a stream. Shilpa is in front and Balwant asks her to wait as there are a lot of loose gravels near the stream. I hear his call to stop but I am not fully alert due to the fatigue of a long day. We are into 12th hour now. I cannot arrest my step in time and topple down…

Obituary to Self

As he was fatally landing into the tail of Kala Naag icefall, Brijesh could not help but marvel at the beauty all around him. There was Kala Naag and its rocky icefall. Banderpunch range was just around the corner. The stream he was facing sang melodies. Swargarohini (The ascent to the heaven) was overseeing his avarohan (descent). Not much of a believer, the heaven was not for him, he thought. He was better off scattered all over the land in his beloved Himalayas. He could not imagine the depth of his free fall, but it was roughly 200m. He always considered Mary Legge’s death while collecting some flowers in the Valley of Flowers as ultimate sendoff. He sincerely thought at that moment that his would outdo hers.

Shilpa’s wailing hit his ears. Sandeep was uttering ‘Shit!’ continuously in one breath. Rohit’s face wore horror all over. Where was Jaggi? He must have been walking.  He could have named him Jaggi Walker. “Fret not, my friends. I will see y’all at the Bali Pass. My soul will guide you, guard you.” He wanted to say, but the words died down inside his mouth.

He could see all the mountains again. The grand Nandadevi. The tallest Everest. The princely Pandim. The black and dome-shaped Kabru. The serene and pure Ama Dablam. But nothing compared to the majestic Kangchenjunga, the emperor of them all. How he wish he could go back to it again.

He could feel the waters of Alaknanda, Bhagirathi, Teesta and umpteen other streams quench his thirst one last time. Chaap Tilak Sab Cheeni on the Ganga Ghat in Swargashram still rang in his ears. What a moment it was. Divine.

The life fast-forwarded in front of his eyes. “So it is true. In your dying moments, you do see your entire life like they always show in movies,” he must have thought to himself. It was not a chronology though. He remembered only a few moments – the joy of having his niece smiled at him first time, the thrill of being chased by a wild buffalo in Western Ghats, the pride of listening Indian national anthem in Olympics when Abhinav Bindra won the gold medal, the simple happiness of children waving at him during his train journeys, the thought of flying like the blue Indian Roller in Ratanmahal, the ecstasy of winning a race, the conversations with friends ranging from silly to witty to sensible and back, the priceless moments of being with loved ones, the solitude and calm it brought to him always.

The books nourished him equally well. He forgot what was real and what was not in the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and K M Munshi. Manto’s gut-wrenching stories always pained him but also showed him how much of a devil as well an angel a man can be. He was intoxicated by Ghalib’s ghazals. He marveled at the mastery of Gulzar and his ability to stay connected to the generations of the time. His love was the way Pablo Neruda prescribed - between the shadow and the soul.

He listened to the magical voices of Mukesh, Kishore, Jagjit, Lata and many others. Sports he lived and breathed. Athletes, battling with their rivals as well as their own bodies and minds, honored and humbled in equal measure by that great leveler that sports is in particular and life is in general, always amazed him. He enjoyed life…had fun…laughed at nothings. Life was much more than simple act of breathing and he tried to live it to fullest and find simple joy in little things. He maintained that his life could be summed in just two lines of one of his favorite songs:

हर हसीं चीज़ का, मैं तलबगार हूँ
रस का, फूलों का, गीतों का बीमार हूँ

He was sucker for the road. He followed wherever a road or a trail or any semblance of it took him. It did not matter how fast or slow he was moving – just that he was moving. There was only one maxim he absolutely and truly believed in – life can only be lived forward. There is no point looking back. One cannot live backwards; undo the wrongs and set the things right. Life goes only one direction. And he marched on…    

There was no strained line on his face. There was neither any regret nor any remorse. Life had certainly been kind to him, he thought. He was thinking about freedom a few hours back and here he was, setting himself free forever. A bone-crunching bang a moment later, he became one with the super white and super cold infinite peace of the universe.

I think I do not need to write my premature obituary. I find myself clutching a big black rock. Lying flat on the rock, I miraculously survive. That too unscathed. Beyond the rock is the free fall I am sure I cannot survive. I give a thumbs-up to Sandeep who is a face of scare and anger in equal measure. Just before I slid, he asked me to slow down and watch my step. Before I could heed his advice, I was hugging the rock for my dear life. Balwant almost hurls an abuse at me and tells us that there are too many life-threatening accidents today. He just wants to finish this day without any more trouble.

The campsite - what a relief after more than 12 hours!
Fortunately we can see the campsite after crossing the stream. A couple of hundred meters of descent and we are standing next to our tents. We end the day at 13th hour and congratulate each other for the successful DDK Pass crossing. Everyone is tired and easily miss the fact that the campsite is ideal to get a glimpse of Kala Naag, Banderpunch and Swargarohini together on a clear day. The tents are pitched close to the edge of the cliff and after the day of high drama, nobody wants to venture out near the edge and try their luck. We are back to 4600m altitude and Rohit is feeling better. He does not need to be paranoid about AMS or height gain anymore.

It has been one of the toughest days of my life. I am sure others will also concur with me. I can see some satisfaction and lot of relief on everyone’s face. Nobody is talking about it but everybody seems to be thanking her stars for surviving the day. What a feeling to face the fear of death! What a feeling to be alive – truly, freely and totally! 

Day 7: Small Wonders

When morning greets you like that...
There is a beautiful sight in the morning. Beyond the unending whiteness of Banderpunch glacier, a mountain rises in whiter than the whitest color. Kala Naag icefall and Banderpunch glacier merge below and form a wide alley which must be feeding a big stream or a river further down. Mahaveer serves us Sevaiya in breakfast. I am sure no one can make worse Sevaiya than that! It refuses to go down the mouth. Mahaveer offers us more of his specialty but going by our facial expressions, he must be guessing that he is looking at walking deads. We eat some khakharas to fill ourselves and start the day.

If we expected any leeway after couple of tough days, we were in for some heartbreak. The destruction caused by last year’s floods is more severe on this side and any visible traces of trails are gone. There are many landslides so we have great difficulty in crossing the scattered boulders and loose landfills. In some places, the rockfalls also make things harder.

After continuing for couple of hours, the landscape opens up. There is more flat land and small streams run leisurely across the ground. We spot some bharals(Himalayan sheep) effortlessly crossing a frozen patch of a stream. A long walk follows on a dry riverbed strewn with boulders.

The surprise for the day awaits us once we come out of the riverbed. We see some mesmerizing mountains peeking at us from behind the low hanging clouds. But the real magic is spread all over the ground. The tiny flowers of various colors –yellow, purple, blue, white – vie for our attention. The full path is laden with these marvelous beauties. Small streams from both the sides rush down to become the force of a rivulet. Treeline reappears after 3 days on the opposite side of the river. The greenery rejuvenates the mind and the body and we continue walking after breaking for lunch.

The walk is easier now. Balwant and Suresh ask us to walk at our pace and they go ahead to secure the campsite. It starts drizzling after some time and we have to use the raincoats first time in the trek. We have been really lucky to have very good weather. We have been to very rough terrain and rain could have made it really risky. Thank heavens for these big time small favors!

Ruinsara Taal
A magnificent lake is visible from distance. It is supposed to be the Ruinsara Taal. A temple is watching over the lake from slightly raised vantage point. A small hut is seen afar beyond the lake. Jaggi is ahead of all of us. In his pink raincoat, he is moving steadily towards the hut. A miniscule stream leads us to the hut. Both the sides of the stream are lined up with white flowers. The hut is Forest Rest House. There is one room and a kitchen. We decide to camp there. No pitching tents today. Five of us settle in the room and spread our sleeping mats. A long round of snacks and card games ensues.

In front of the FRH lies some mountains and thick forest. Sandeep tells us that there are black bears in this forest. In the constant rain and semi-whiteout, nobody wants to venture to the forest and find out if there are real bears in there.  The dark night sets in soon and all the mountains and flowers and plants disappear. A disturbing thought creeps in my mind – couple of days more and all these mountains will disappear for long time, no matter it is day or night. There is sudden and irrepressible urge to stay back. How I wish to get lost in these mountains and live among the small wonders of the nature!

 Day 8: Back to the Civilization

The morning brings its usual glory and uptick in mood. The white peaks are glistening in the morning light. The sky’s blue color is mellowed down though as if getting the clue from my partly somber mood. Yesterday’s rivulet has become river Ruinsara now and is flowing right beneath the FRH. The stream with white and purple flowers shows us the way towards the trail passing thru the forest.

The trail is easy on feet and quite scenic, occasionally crisscrossed by streams. The rich flora rules in this verdant forest now. The dominating flowers are of yellow color, occupying small patches of land here and there. A lonely purple flower holds its own. The tiniest pink flowers know the strength of numbers, ganging up together in crowded bunch. Undoubtedly the most beautiful flower is the red one. No wonder that is the rarest of the lot.

The Ruinsara river has taken the emerald green color in the company of its tall neighbor trees. The gushing force makes a thundering roar in narrow parts. There is a tricky section where trail is submerged in the river. Fortunately a newly constructed wooden bridge on the side of the river saves our day. We frequently encounter landslide zones but our risk perception is somewhat reduced now.

We want to stop for lunch but Balwant shows us meadows in distance and asks us to savor lunch there. We see a resting place, possibly constructed by forest department, and make beeline for it. The elections are recently concluded in the country and it seems even this place was not spared from the campaigning. It proudly declares – achhe din aane wale hain. For us though, achhe din jaane wale hai.

The walk continues on the true right bank of the Ruinsara thru thick canopy of trees. A wooden bridge takes us to the left bank of the river from where we start a precipitous climb to the meadows. This is most likely the last tough climb of the whole trek. A narrow trail breaks towards Bali Pass which we ignore. Jumping over some fallen trees, we reach to the meadows.

We realize instantly why Balwant wanted us to spend some time here. The rolling meadows are adorned with little flowers. The tall pine trees make its boundary. And the big bonus – the Kala Naag rising one more time. The last time on this trek. We have a leisurely lunch while appreciating the beauty of Kala Naag.

Time to go. We bid goodbye to Kala Naag. It has lived up to its top billing in the region. And it has been quite generous to us. May you please many more trekkers. The walk continues. After the dangers of last few days, this walk is almost like walk in the park, a big park. We are below 3000m altitude now. The Ruinsara is our constant companion. Its current is more rapid now. A few big rocks hang precariously over the cliff. We see some houses in distance - signs of civilization. Many more wooden bridges are seen. Finally we reach to the ultimate sign of civilization – a cable-stayed suspension bridge. The bridge takes one to the Har ki Doon trek route. We continued on our trail to reach to the Seema village.

Balwant and others are already waiting at the FRH in the village. No camping out today, no tents again. The rain follows us. Shilpa gives rasam powder to Mahaveer to prepare rasam for all of us. Completely unaware of what it takes to make rasam, Mahaveer makes mess of it. If we thought his sevaiya was worst, we needed to find a new adjective for his latest low. He gets benefit of doubt though – the north Indian rasam (ceremony) is entirely different than south Indian rasam (a kind of soup).

There are two rooms in FRH. They are named Kala Naag and Ruinsara. The spacious and clean rooms in FRH are true luxury. We spend evening sitting in the dining room discussing about politics and religion - the real products of civilization. We are once and for all back to the civilization. From the nakedness of survival in the wild, how fast we put on the clothes of our civilized world!

Day 9: Where Does The Road Lead To?

The last day of the trek is always full of mixed feelings. One is happy to complete the trek successfully but also sad at the thought of parting with the mountains. Then there are memories – of beautiful views, near-misses, acts of bravery, shuddering cold, smiling flowers, killer ascents. We get group photos with our porters and guide.

Another phenomenon on the last day of a trek is that everyone prefers solitude as if one wants to have last few intimate moments with the mountains. The lively group of people turns into quiet individuals. There is definite hurriedness and nonchalance in the steps though lest separation becomes more painful. Even while walking together, there is hardly any exchange of words.

We are going to Taluka village where the trek is going to end. More and more people cross our way. The herds of goats block our path multiple times. The standing crop in the wheat fields sway in the passing wind. Layer upon layer of mountains watch our back like the bunch of kids stacked in door to watch a guest depart.  

The Ruinsara is also restraint now. The banks of the river are farther from each other than ever. The trail is wide and flat. It turns into a cemented road as we enter the village of Taluka. Where will the road lead us to? To the green pastures? We left those behind a while back. To the mediocrity of daily city life of morning to evening job and waiting for weekend from first day of week? Hardly interesting. To more adventures? That seems more likely. There are many more mountains and rivers and oceans and forests yet to be explored. One life is not enough, it never is.

A sharp turn of road laden with cow dung and we reach to the roadhead, the endpoint of our trek. I feel happy to be there precisely for 17 seconds before the ruthless world of hard-negotiating humans stabs me. I already start thinking about the next adventure. Who says a road leads one to a particular place? The road remains where it is. It is our steps, carefully and carelessly taken, in the company of others or oneself, which leads us to our next adventure.