As the weather in Germany becomes sunnier and the days longer, we are now looking forward to spending some more time in the mountains. I have been ‘pleasantly haunted’ by memories of the first Himalayan Trek we had done.
Note: This is going to be a (very) long entry! Firstly, as it was a long trek spanning 5 days and around 50 km combined, and also because I love mountains so much that it is difficult to stop talking/writing about it sometimes. 🙂
This was our first Himalayan trek – and it is imprinted in my memory. Strongly. As fractals go, a mountain is a mountain is a mountain. It is we who distinguish, categorize and label them – highest, steepest, toughest, broadest, prettiest, largest and so on. For me, each peak, each mound, each pile of rocks, each monument of stone has a beauty of its own. And much more. Right through late childhood, when my grandmother used to read about the Indian Gods who used to live and meditate in the mountains, the Himalayan mountain range in particular has held a very special place in the heart and mind. Later on, as her eyes started to fail, I would be the one reading to her from her books. The physical description and photographs of the mountains, and the associated mythology, left a strong impression.
After a couple of train rides and a long Jeep ride, we reached the starting point of the trek. We had gone through a trekking community called Indiahikes. We reached the base at a place called Lohajung where the guides laid down the rules and the schedule that we would be following in the days to come. The following day, we started with a small downhill section, crossing and refilling our water bottles at the Neel Ganga river. This was the first time we would know if we had packed too much or not, what kind of hours we would be putting in everyday and so on. The descent was through a dense, old, forest. The floor was generally covered with a layer of leaves and thick roots. It was Day 1, and energy and enthusiasm levels were high. It was a little strange to be climbing down for a couple of hours when one mentally associates a trek as always gaining altitude, at-least initially. But we weren’t complaining – this gave us a brief opportunity to fall into a rhythm and start feeling the experience. We were accompanied by the local dog ‘Kaalu’ almost till day 4! Thanks to one of our trek-mates for this photograph.
After a small pause at the river, the ascent started. It was a fairly steep switchback that had us exhausted soon. The destination was a grassy field near the village Didina. There was a home-stay arranged here where all the trekkers piled in (something like a trekking hut as seen in Europe). When asked about where and how much we would be trekking the following day, our always-jovial guide simply said “It’s not far..hardly anything..easily doable..” and then pointed at a tall ‘hill’ and said “It’s just behind this hill”!! In the photograph, you can see a couple of clearings at the top of the mountain (in a lighter shade of green) – those were the meadows we would be heading towards.
At this trekking hut, we were welcomed by glasses of Rhododendron juice. The locals use the flower of this tree as pickle and also drink a juice made out of it, which is locally called ‘Buraansh‘. The juice, apart from being tasty, is supposed to be very good for the heart and we gladly sipped on. Later on, we bought a couple of bottles of ‘rhodo’ juice concentrate and took them home with us. Just a sip, and one is transported back!
At Didina, we had the evening to ourselves. We headed off in the field and saw a bit of the local population – the women working in the fields, working a fire while cooking, or venturing out to collect some leaves / fodder.
The local kids were busy playing. They were looking curiously at us, almost as if we were from a different species! The kids were very innocent and cute – always smiling and running around. It was a little chilly towards the evening and they were all wearing sweaters and had runny noses. However, their smiles were so infectious, that soon we were smiling with them! Their natural state of existence seemed to be that of being happy. It seemed to us that they were the happiest kids in the world. Had we stopped smiling, they would still have been smiling. But, why would we stop smiling? 🙂
In parallel, the sun was setting and I took a moment to head to a slightly higher level to get a good and clean view of the sky. The sun was going to set behind a mountain and I was hoping I would see a nice display, especially since there was a cloud involved! As the sun sank lower towards the mountain ridge, and as the cloud blew in its path, there was a pretty scattering of light.
While we were clicking photographs of the sunset, one of the kids with whom we had now broken ice with, came up, and looked at us curiously and picked up a multi-purpose stone and started taking photographs of us! As I crouched down so that I was eye to eye with him, he crouched down as well! Soon, the little game escalated and his friend (or was it brother?) joined him as well..! One of the nicest memories I have of the whole trip.
The next day, we headed out early in the morning and after a healthy and filling breakfast, started the ascent through the woods. The smell of the forest, the freshness of the air in the forests in the mountains, and the soft filtered light of the morning sun made for a special setting.
We were now climbing in old, ‘original’ forest, full of big oak trees among others. The destination for the day was a place called Bedini Bugyal. ‘Bugyal’ in the local language means meadow, and these meadows were strikingly beautiful. These high altitude meadows were above the tree line, and as we went higher and higher, the forest suddenly stopped and suddenly we were out in the open.
Now, it would be a fairly long walk across the meadows and upwards. After the continuous session of climbing up, the rolling terrain was much welcome. The weather was lovely too. The group took a pause here to shed their heavy bags, stretch for a while and grab a bite. Since it was just a short pause, the menu was short and quick – Boiled potatoes for the vegetarians, and boiled eggs for the non-vegetarians. 🙂 Done in 15 minutes, we started walking again.
We finally reached Bedni Bugyal – the last bit actually a descend again. It was a vast open field, with views of the mountains pretty much everywhere. We had reached in the late afternoon and it was cloudy. This is the point from where we were hoping to see the huge Mt. Trishul massif. However, we would have to wait. We could see glimpses of the Kaali Daak peak – that’s the pyramidal peak jutting out, covered in ice.
The clouds did part momentarily, and we could catch a glimpse of the mighty Trishul peak behind the Kaali Daak peak. Considering we were already at 3,000+ metres above sea level, and that the mountains in the forefront were easily 6,000 metres above sea level, the size of the Trishul was just astonishing. Whatever was visible of it through the clouds seemed to make it look even bigger than it was.
Evening finally arrived. The light started fading, and local shepherds brought their sheep back home. There were just so many of them, and they covered entire hill-sides!
Unfortunately, I was just too tired to stay up at night and look at the night sky. I also wanted to get some rest so I could climb again the next day. Instead of calling it a regret, I am going to go there again and do that! The night sky would have been very dark, and thus, devoid of light pollution, I would have been able to see our real Home – the galaxy, the stars, space. I had hauled a tripod the whole way, but it still lay strung to my rucksack, unused. Patience, tripod, we will go there again!
Meanwhile, an early rise in the morning did not disappoint. The sky was clear, and while we were catching fleeting glimpses of the huge peaks the evening before, the sight today morning was fantastic. The entire range was visible! We just stood there, glued. Someone from our group had woken up earlier and had strolled up to a higher vantage point – the scale of that human being put things into perspective for us.
While we stared at this icredible sight, the sun rose behind a mountain on our right hand side, and started it’s own daily trek. It cast a long shadow from over the right-most peak in the photograph (compare positions in both pictures). What a view!
After our breakfast, as we climbed up and out of the bugyal, we kept getting stunning views of the landscape. It was difficult to watch and walk up on uneven surface. If we stopped for a pause, we would lose rhythm and body heat. So, generally it was: continue walking up, and pause only to take a sip of water, stretch your back, tighten shoelaces and take a look.
Climbing everyday was not that easy – especially given the weight on the back and the altitude gains. We had gained more than 2500 metres in 4 days! I had run a 10 km marathon before this trek (and part of it was run as preparation for this trek), but that had left me with good cardio strength but poor leg strength. I should have done more squats and stuff like skipping to develop more leg strength. Plus, it was later on, on day 2 that I learnt a better technique of climbing – using my calf muscles as well to give me the last push in each step. The whole process takes a lot of discipline – you have to eat and drink properly. You have to wake up and sleep on time. You have to be alert. You can’t take a break whenever you want to otherwise the body starts cooling down. You have to ration your supply of energy snacks – can’t gobble it up before a steep section and then be left with nothing at the next one. I will not try to flatter my ego by saying that this trek was simple. Although it is listed as moderately easy, I found the trek significantly tough. There was lots to learn. However, and this is probably such a cliche, every day, every session of climbing took it’s toll; but after every session, you were left with a renewed sense of wonder that you could do it. At the evening, you could discard your conception of what you thought yourself capable of just a few days back.
It was a trek of self discovery – along with the tough terrain, you tried to walk through, over and across your fears, your ideas of limits and self doubt. There was a new found appreciation of discipline.
Finally, after what seemed like a very long climb, we reached our campsite at a place called Bhagwasa (also called Bhagwabasa). This was the most barren, desolate, rocky place I had seen so far. Clouds floated in; it was windy and cold. We were exhausted and now short of breath too. This was at more than 4000 metres above sea level now. We would be spending the night here and attempting the summit the next day, starting early morning at 4 a.m. so that we could descend before the sun rose high in the sky and melted the snow and made it difficult for us to come down.
All through the trek, the importance of acclimatization was reiterated. Drink more water, walk, don’t get into your tents, breathe deeply and so on. A lot of people had taken oral medication (Acetazolamide) to aid better acclimatization to the low oxygen in the high altitude air. A friend of mine had been practicing Yoga since a month back to help with this. Inspite of me taking some of these precautions (minus Tablets), the effects of the rare air was felt. The mouth was dry, the throat was irritated, digestion had weakened. I remember waking up in the middle of the night to force some water down, but in the sleeping bag, with head raised up, the effort of drinking water felt so much that against common sense I threw the bottle away.
One of the things that helps acclimitisation is walking. Drop your bag and keep walking. This was fairly easy to do inspite of the fatigue because of the splendid views!! We surely need to go here again, sometime later in the year towards October to see if we can enjoy a few cloudless views!
The next morning, at 3 a.m. in the morning, we woke up and crawled out of our tents. And were gobsmacked. With our naked eyes, we saw an arm of the Milky way galaxy. It was staggeringly beautiful. Unfortunately, we needed to stick to a timeline, and I missed a staring-at-the-night-sky opportunity, not to mention a long exposure photograph, for which I had hauled my tripod up 2ooo metres of rocky terrain. After shedding the heavy backpacks, after folding our sleeping bags and packing our luggage up, we stood in line and finished breakfast. The rules were again read out to us – basically revolving around discipline and respect. Towards each other and towards the mountain. We headed out in single file, the skilled guides and porters accompanying and helping us, cutting footholds in the hard ice where there were no alternate crossings available. As we trudged upwards, the early morning sun started to light up the sky. The sun’s rays fell first on the Chaukhamba mountain and lit it up. That was a very scenic and moving moment, when you see a mountain top being gradually lit up.
Soon, we hit the first of the glaciers. The guides had cut out foot holds in them – these were big enough to accomodate my feet, and yet not that big that I could move my foot in the foothold and slide. That was a good thing, because on the right hand side, the hill rose up, while on the left, there was 4000 feet of nothingness fed by a long rocky slope. The surface was too loose to secure any ropes or anchors. It would have to be done alone, and with the guides standing nearby watching our every step. The first crossing was the scariest thing I had ever done. Almost as if anticipating a fall, I would lean towards the hill-side, the side which rose up. But what that did was just imbalance you even more since your legs are straight anyway. Almost counter-intuitively, one has to walk almost straight, and a little briskly to cross these patches. It soon became a little easier as we crossed a couple more of these patches.
As we gained height, it was tempting to look back from where we came. Especially so, since at this point, the clouds had started floating in. It was very unique to be able to imagine walking above the clouds. Equally beautiful though.
Almost halfway to the summit, I suffered a bad wobble while walking. That was tired legs and breathless lungs acting up. The routine of 10 steps, 5 breath pause, 10 steps again was not working. The ratio was changed. Two steps, two deep breaths and two more steps. The words ‘laborious steps’ were coming to mind. I spoke with the guide and told him I thought it was too dangerous to climb the rest 300 metres in such a bad state. Eventually we agreed it was the right thing to do and I chose to wait there while the rest of the group went on. A few of the others were waiting at Bhagwasa and had not attempted the last summit climb due to altitude sickness (diarrhea, headaches, vomiting, etc). I sat there and contemplated the meaning of stopping 300 metres below the top. Was I ‘chickening’ out? Was I not acclimatized to this altitude (4500+ metres now) properly? Was my ego hurt? Somehow, I didn’t go into a negative mood, just a little sad, but also hopeful that with some more training, some more technique, I could go higher, and in better shape.
As I sat there, I got a good chance to actually see and feel the place. I got very cold sitting there, exposed to the wind. I started pacing up and down. One more guide was bringing up the last batch of trekkers. I joined that batch for a while and continued climbing for some more time. But, after about 20 minutes, the symptoms deteriorated again. This time, I stopped for sure, not sure if I was in total control of my movements.
I sat on a rock, ate some energy bars, drank some water, walked around to stay warm and waited, enjoying the surroundings. After a while, few members from the group came down, and with them I began our climb down. It was time for one last look upwards for a while.
In the afternoon, we began on the way back. The trek was over. We were heading back to lower altitudes, and eventually city life. As we picked up our bags and started walking downwards, a whole new set of muscles were involved. The blister from the shoe while climbing up did not pain now since the angle of the shoe was pointing downwards. It was a relief for the legs, for the lungs. With each step, the air became thicker, and richer in oxygen. We came across a small rise in the terrain on the way down. This 100 metre height gain was dealt with effortlessly. This just showed that in 24 hours, my body had adapted to this height of about 4200 metres above sea level after spending a day at higher altitude. Along with the natural beauty on this trek, there was so much respect I earned for my body and mind. I understood a great deal about them.
It has been almost two years since this trek and yet, I can recollect and re-experience the feelings I had then.
I often wonder – what if instead of us changing a place, we were changed by it?