Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Fortnight in the Himalayas

This is my attempt to summarize a truly memorable, often times gut wrenching, added to the mix a couple of adrenaline fueled days, beautiful almost otherworldly hike through the Himalayas. We started off with the goal of accomplishing passing 2 passes at 18500 ft/5500 mts in the Himalayas, Kang La and Poat La being there hallowed names. The memories that these 2 passes generated will last with me for as long as my mind is healthy :). Will try to compile a blow by blow account below.

Started with my flight to Delhi from Pune on the 17th, the 3 of us merry men, Eddie, Paresh and yours truly. We reached that afternoon greeted by extreme sultriness that was Delhi and Archit from Geck&Co. We then proceeded to get some much required lunch and then took the longest rickshaw ride in the world to get to Connaught place to while away the rest of the evening. Amid shopping, coffee, tons of laughs and trying to beat the heat we lapped up the sights of the famous CP that I heard about for the longest time. We then synced up with the rest of the trekkers Dave and Archit and headed to Kashmiri gate to catch our bus to Manali, which was a long 15-hour ride.

We reached Manali on the 18th late morning and got situated got our rooms taken care of for the day in Manali. Got our bags repacked, got lunch by the riverside and then proceeded to alter my hirsute facade and then walked the streets of Manali, from the old to the new side of town. Took in the sites and sounds of the little town got some dinner and turned in for a early day tomorrow 4:30am where we would get our stuff, food and utensils and attempt to cross the famous Rohtang La (pass).

Started the 19th dreary eyed and cold, strapped ourselves in to the Tata Sumo and were on our way to get to Rohtang pass by 8am after which the road would be closed one way. We made it across the pass in plenty of time, and the weather was kind enough to allow a couple of pictures too, and entered the Lahaul region of Himachal Pradesh. To say that the drive was bumpy would be a gross understatement, with the roads being slush pits in a bunch of places, we made it down to the valley soon enough and then bypassed the road to Keylong/Leh, fork and got on the road to Udaipur in Himachal Pradesh. A frustratingly long day in the car where we planned to set up tent in Udaipur followed. When we reached Udaipur the dust and the heat were overwhelming and we vehemently declined to camp there. We pushed on and finally got to a town Tamlu where there were campsites and drinking water available so set up our first tent there. The long bus/car rides of the last couple of days were really frustrating and I wanted to air my legs out, so Dave and I tried to get up a mountain that was just across the river. We crossed a bridge along the way, one of many we would cross in the fortcoming days, a rope bridge that would sway with every step with raging torrents below. It was quite exciting. Huffing and puffing up the mountain we met some locals too, discussed their lifestyle. Life is so simple and archaic up in the mountains for these folks, they farm on terrraces for 6 months in the summer and when winter comes for 6 months they completely shut up shop basically just live off their first 6 months. We got pics with the locals and went down and met up with the rest of the gang.

After a night cramped up the 3 of us in a tent getting used to sleeping on the ground in a sleeping bag with fitful sleep among flypaloooza we woke up the next day to continue the god forsaken car ride on the bumpy narrow winding excuse for a road. We did another 2 hours got up to a little higher elevation and the road ended. The porters hadn't reached as of yet so the original plan to camp at Khanjar La but we instead set up at that spot only. The campsite was beautiful and we again decided to scramble up the mountains close by after lunch. This time Archit and me went up almost 3/4ths of the way, it was a tough steep scramble and this is where Eddie following us hurt his knee, which would lead to him leaving the next day. The scramble was tough but the views were majestic as with any Himalayan hike. The porters also showed up in the evening and our eagerly awaited guide Prakash, the only one who knew the way finally showed up in the night. We embraced him, and true to our knowledge he proved instrumental over the next fortnight for us to complete this endeavor.

With heavy heart we bid our adieus to Eddie on the 21st and the 18 of us started our trek. We hiked for a couple of hours to end up in a truly amazing meadow with red wildflowers, wild cows and glaciers. The meadow was near Khumba Nala, we stopped as the porters were trudging along very slowly albeit the weight they were carrying was really heavy. I again got antsy due to the short day and decided to do another scramble with Paresh, it was a beautiful walk for a couple of hours, where we saw the Tarsa Lamu glacier, and the campsite from a height. The campsites throughout the trek were sights to behold, I guess the countryside is so pretty, pretty much wherever you stop you cannot go wrong.

Due to the earlier short day we decided to push it this day and pulled in a longer day with over 9 miles of hiking. The highlights were the meadows and some awe inspiring majestic boulders along the way. This was the first day that we actually felt like we trekked a significant amount. When we finally were done and the porters caught up there was some consternation over how much we walked which became almost a daily theme. The porter soap opera is one thing you probably need to ignore and let the organizers do their job.

The 23rd was another extremely short day due to the aforementioned porter issues but what an amazing 3 hours of hiking, we crossed a series of glacier fed streams and couldn't skip over them on the rocks. Instead we took our shoes off and waded into the streams. The combination of the speedy currents and the bone chilling cold made this quite harrowing and exciting at the same time. The numbness in the legs used to hurt so much that after every crossing I used to scream just to alleviate assuage the pain as best I could. We had initially started with the idea of getting as close to Kang La base camp as possible but after we crossed these streams the porters just shut up shop at lunch. Frustrated we whiled away time playing cards and sock cricket. Realized that the flight I had to catch on the 2nd would be a distant reality so was not very happy with the state of affairs.

The dawn of the 24th came and our guide Prakashji seemed hell bent on outdistancing himself from the porters, we finally got on the glacier after being at the mouth the previous day. It was a tough long day primarily due to the fact that the moraine is the toughest thing I have ever trekked on. Tough, unforgiving terrain coupled with rocks that are loose which cause your legs to get worn out. We tried to get as to close to base camp again, but with the light fading, bad weather and the rain we had to stop earlier. Walking on the the actual glacier rather than the moraine had to be the absolute highlight. Here started the campsites from hell, the views as usual were magnificent as always but sleeping on a bed of sharp rocks in cold cold weather is horribly tough. This campsite was a harbinger of things to come and I knew we would up against it from now on. No more energy to burn doing scrambles this was when the toughness of the hike started setting in. The rain soaked my clothes and it really took a long time for me to reach my core temperature because my warm/rainproof clothes were in the porters backpack, a mistake that I would never repeat because I suffered the consequences quite brutally.

The 25th was even longer than the previous day if possible. The horrible rainy weather, interminable moraine, a rolled ankle made the day seem like never ending and made me contemplate quitting after Kang La, since I thought the two passes would pretty much be the same and I couldn't take another day like this. There were some amazing glacier walks interspersed in between but my mind was half broken due to the fact that I was missing my daughter and wife and also thought that we would never make my Dad's bday since I would miss the 2nd flight. I spoke to Archit at the end of the day but he mentioned that we could not turn back as an individual. Thank god for that because Poat La was an unforgettable experience, more to come on that below. The campsite here at the elevation was even more rockier and the weather was subzero too, but the views were just magnificent, glaciers covered mountains all around us. But all in all another tough cold night lay ahead of us.

The day of the pass crossing was the best day of the trek as of yet the 26th. We started bright and early and walked on the glacier, which was just serene and beautiful for the next couple of hours. After some tough sledding between 16 and 17000 feet, the weather finally started clearing up just as we were about to ascend the pass making it ever so beautiful. Kang La was highly crevassed and though we were skipping them following Prakashji's footsteps there was ever-present danger. One such harrowing incident happening when Dinesh one of the porters fell into a crevasse, it all happened so fast luckily he got wedged on an ice ledge about 15 feet in and Naresh our guide and cooks helper threw some rope and pulled him out in the nick of time before he slipped any further and would probably be gone forever. After that we got roped up for safety, which was really tough going up, we encountered numerous crevasses going up but when we finally made it up the pass it was such a sense of accomplishment. The beauty had been wondrous all the way through but got amplified by our giddiness at the feat we just completed. After spending about 15 mins. up there, we then started our navigation down which was far more treacherous than going up. The path after a while became so crevassed that we had to setup shop for a while, till Prakash and Naresh found another route that took us safely down, we retraced our steps a bit but made it down which was a relief to all of us. We then trekked down to the Zanskar valley in Ladakh on our best foe moraine and the scenery completely changed. On the one side there were the Poet La and Kang La glaciers and the other side there was Zanskar was relatively Grand Canyonesque, dry and colorful. Prakashji found an amazing campsite with green meadows and after the last 2 days of rocks, felt like we were sleeping on a bed of roses.

We awoke the next morning after a long restful night fresh as daisies. I must have put in 9 hours of sleep and never felt better in the last week, ready to tackle Poat La. More drama followed as 2 of the porters (Kiran and Lallu) wanted a rest day and refused to go towards Poat La, instead started towards Rehru/ Padum in the Zanskar valley. The rest of the porters gamely decided that they could carry the load, kudos to them, shedded some food and started off. We were down to 16 now from the initial 20, since Eddie had left with one porter and then we lost these 2 after Kang La. This was another brilliant day with moraine aplenty but once we got on the glacier, the views were as always transcendental. A long day followed where we reached the mouth of the pass and camped on the moraine again. The altitude, cold beyond belief probably -8 degree below and the rocks made it my worst sleep day of the trek.

Come the 28th and what a day it would be. The toughest and most exciting day I have ever had on the mountains yet!! Once the weather cleared we set off to what seemed like it was right there. The steepest of climbs followed, which was made doubly difficult by the altitude. We initially had to cross a snowfield, which I was completely balking at crossing since any slip would lead me to slip off the mountain face almost, but with the right technique and angle of hitting the snow and ice axe path carved for, made it up. I guess I forgot to mention that it snowed a couple of inches the night before making the pass get some snow on it. We made it up the snowfield and then went up a almost dried waterfall where there was almost another fatal accident. One of the porters Meenusahi was resting on a huge rock that moved and almost rolled off its perch. There were 3-4 porters on the snowfield at that time, who would have been in the firing line off the rock, don't know what would have fate would have befallen them had this rock decided to roll on but thankfully it stayed put. We scurried up the steep slopes as best we could and after an arduous heart-pumping climb finally made it up Poet La, another mission accomplished. After some much deserved celebration and pictures with the weather getting foggy again we looked at what awaited us going down. There seemed to be some kind of switchbacks initially that seemed to be there, but they just disappeared for a while and all that was there sheer cliff drops with some broken paths and dizzying drops. The weather was all clouded up so it was just surreal, how dangerous it was. Trying to keep your footing and trying to avoid being hit by rocks that were being dislodged by the folks coming down above you. The adrenaline rush going down was off the carts since Prakash and Naresh were making paths with the ice axe and any little slip would have me not fearing the reaper. In the middle of all this Naresh's backpack, which he had laid down to make a path slipped off the face and fell 1000 feet, but that was the only casualty thankfully that day. Naresh amazingly went back to where it landed after we got down and recovered it too so we did have everything with us at the bottom of the pass. Making it down in one piece was more exhilarating than being on top the pass and we all celebrated the same.

Felt like the trek was over after that, even though our aim to get off the glacier that day. We traversed another few hours of that god-forsaken moraine and also some wonderful glacier and after the longest most eventful day made it to our campsite. We knew that it would still be tough sledding after this since we were a long way away from civilization but the mood at the campsite was very celebratory and relaxed and with good reason. We lapped up our dinners exhausted and turned it for a well-earned nights sleep.

Started the day of the 29th at 10 am after a leisurely breakfast and hiked for 6 hrs. The climb down the trail was beautiful and restful and we could almost see our final destination in sight. The part we were not sure off about was whether it would 2-3 days as it would depend on who you would ask, the weather gods permitting and the complicity of the porters to all that we had planned. When we reached our campsite about 6 hrs later we set up in the beautiful valley amid the Gaddis and their sheep and the cacophony of the porters constant dissatisfaction that the days were too long.

The 30th could be renamed as the push to Dangel, which was what Prakashji had been looking forward to from almost a week prior. He had camped there for 2 nights on a previous trek and always had stories about partying in that town, so we left with renewed vigor to get there. It was really far away about 16 miles when we reached after a long day of lush meadows, amazing riverside trails, looking up at glaciers and peaks and the waterfalls that came down from them. We came back to vegetation too, with trees and flowers in abundance. Was really looking forward to come back to civilization. The march towards Dangel continued unabated throughout the day and with Prakashji leading the way Paresh and I finally reached there at 6pm in the evening. There were rumors earlier that Machel another town an hour down had taxi transport and that to our dismay proved to be false so we readied ourselves for another hellishly long day towards Gulabgarh in Jammu. Before that however due to the length of the current day we were very worried that our bags would make it in time, but our bags arrived on the cusp of the darkness and the others arrived after dark to all our reliefs. Everybody was very exhausted so we decided it would be best if we pushed on about half of us towards Gulabgarh the next day and the rest take an extra day to rest their weary souls and legs. 

So with that day in mind we concluded this Dangel night would be our farewell to most of the porters, Tashi our wonderful cook and Naresh our never flagging guide/ cooking helper. Prakashji knew a house owner and since the house was unoccupied made the house his own. The town was small and quaint with no electricity and we used the guest room on the top floor. There was singing, dancing and dholak beats that night along with a fair amount of the local daru, that the porters really enjoyed. I had chan, which was sake like but wasn't very potent at all, all in all a fun filled night with logistics planning in between what we did with Archit to make our way towards Gulabgarh.  Sleeping on a bed after forever felt heavenly.

We got up on the 31st knowing that this would be the last day of the hike and it was also the longest in terms of yardage. We got up as early as we could, tipped the porters, Tashi, Naresh and Prakashji and were on our way. The hike to Machel where we planned to eat breakfast took less than an hour. I made my first STD call in a fortnight and chatted with Priya for a bit, after that we then ate a bit of breakfast, parathas as is the norm in these areas and then were on our way to Gulabgarh. What a long day it was too, the weather was searing and the hike was a well-trodden path. It was disgusting to see the amount of trash that was on the paths for this trail, its amazing how in India people destroy pristineness so easily. I wore down by lunchtime so much so that I thought I wont make it to Gulabgarh. I then stopped Paresh for lunch and had a rice plate with mushrooms and rajma dal that hit the spot. With renewed vigor I carried on the trail again trying to get from one-kilometer marker to another closer to our ultimate goal. The going got easier once the sun went down and after the final steep ascent came upon motorized civilization. We then took the shared rickshaw back to Gulabgarh, the feeling of me moving without my legs doing the work was one of the happiest sensations that I have had for a while after a fortnight on trudging. I must have covered about 125 miles over the last 2 weeks and this ride just felt deserved.

We arrived at Gulabgarh and asked around for transport to get to Manali, we also looked into getting into Delhi via Jammu. Prakashji arrived an hour later and then finally about 3 hours later Dave and Archit made their appearance in the dark. Because Gulabgarh had no electricity we missed the porters walking past us and after about the bags forever, we finally met them to our relief again. We then got on our way to Killar in a car on the curviest windy road, if it can be called that, that you can imagine. Potholes the size of craters, roads breaking off, steep cliff faces illuminated in the full moon, cops checking to make sure that we were legit and not terrorists coming from J&K made it an exciting and also nerve wracking drive. I then celebrated my birthday on this road from Jammu into Himachal, which was great considering what all we had been through this last fortnight. We then got another Sumo in Killar to Manali and after another interminable car ride finally made it into Manali at 5 in the evening some 20 hours later from when we started from Gulabgarh.

We had another long bus ride to Delhi to go in an hour so we with super duper speed showered after 15 days, ohh man it was so good. In the meanwhile, Archit and the rest of the gang managed to procure a cake for me, which I cut and devoured a couple of pieces. The candle was a joint, which was also welcomed, it was really amazing of them to do this and completely touching, it was great way to usher my 33rd year. We elatedly made the Volvo at 6pm and were on our way to Delhi. Got there in the am and then proceeded to get a hotel room in Pahadganj and pig out in the old Delhi/Jama Masjid area at Karim's and also had some awesome kachori/sabzi, lassi and decadent kulfi. We made our flight in plenty of time and were on our way home.

To summarize the hike I would say now that the beauty and adventure were unsurpassed, both the PASS days have been some of the best hiking days of my life. There were plenty of ups on the hike and some downs, the length was tough on me, because the longest hike I did prior to this was Macchu Picchu, which was 4 days. This trek was everything I thought it would be and so much more. I had expected the awing spectacular beauty, although the range over range of massive peaks and the scale of the scenery were still a sight to behold and experience in person. What I was not completely prepared for were the rigors of camping for a fortnight, even though we almost had a luxury-backpacking trip with awesome food and porters to do all the heavy lifting. The moraine traversing was way harder than I thought it would be, the bad weather days needed a lot more discipline to make it through then I sometimes had. In spite of these things when I look back at it now, the KangLa & PoatLa baptism of fire was a haunting unforgettable ride through the great land that are the Himalayas.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

This is a great blog report. This is David, the only non-Hindi speaking person on the trip. I especially enjoyed this blog because it brought out things that I was totally unaware of because I don’t speak the language. But I do have to agree, though, that this was a fantastic trek – an experience of a life time, never to be forgotten.And I’m ready to do another one!! For photos and another trip report, visit www.hodagvideo.com/photoalbums/india2012/India2012.htm. Feel free to visit www.hodagvideo.com