Thursday, 20 October 2011

A Journey to the Top of the Earth

The alarm rang and I was awake almost before the first chime. The day had arrived! It was time to leave for the Himalayas. There was a buzz inside of me that I hadn't felt in a really long time. In next to no time, I was ready and at the railway station with my fellow trekkers. I could tell I wasn't the only one excited by the trek. After a quick breakfast and the usual chaos that accompanies fifty people trying to split themselves into two buses we were off!
An uneventful 18 hours on the bus brought us to the tourist town of Manali, and also our first and slightest tryst with the cold that would become such an integral part of my recollection of the trek. A day spent in Manali doing a bit of sightseeing was followed by a night where sleep ended prematurely. We left for our first camp site at the crack of dawn. We were headed for a small village 2000m above Manali and approximately 4000m above sea level called Batal.
On reaching Batal, my excitement hit a new high and I believe on at least one occasion I was reproached for being too restless. If I was restless, then it was only because I couldn't wait to start trekking and I am certain that my feelings were shared by others who were more adept at staying at even keel.
When the morning of the trek did finally reach, it was not the most auspicious beginning one could hope for. It had been a tough night in the tents for everybody, very few of us had expected the cold that hit us in the middle of the night. I went to bed in my shirt sleeves and woke up with a start when the temperature suddenly dipped. In the ensuing race to put on some warm clothing, I was very quickly out of breath, due to the altitude. This was the first time I realized just how tough this trek was going to be. Indeed, in retrospect, I realize that throughout the trek the some of the toughest parts, personally and as a group, were when we weren't walking through the mountains. When we were still, at camp or on the road, was when we were faced with the greatest adversity. That first night was no different. I believe that night was the toughest of all because of my lack of preparedness. Before bed, there was a general feeling around camp that however bad it got, all of us would handle it without a problem. The next morning, this bravado was completely lost. Some of the noisiest and most talkative were the ones who were struck hardest by the night's difficulties. And many who came through feeling alright, physically, were hit hard mentally. The morale was low that morning, 4 students and 3 adults had to return to Manali before the trek even started.
Despite the difficulties we began with a spring to our step and, for yours truly, a song in heart(that Lakshya song is perfect, for those wondering). The first couple of hours on that first day passed without incident, those more comfortable with the bags on their back and the altitude set a fairly steady pace for those behind to follow. At around nine thirty, we turned a corner and our guide( Tashi bhaiyya) pointed to a path weaving its way between two mountains. Our destination lay just behind that mountain said Tashi. If only we knew then just how much of an understatement that was. We set off once more towards our destination. That day was physically not the most comfortable for me as I was still acclimatizing to the altitude but a slow and steady pace brought me to the aforementioned gap between two mountains. There seemed to be no sign of the lake whose banks we were supposed to camp on. Tashi urged us on saying it was only another half an hour to the camp site. It took us another two hours to reach camp.
There are few sights grander than Chandratal, the lake we camped by. It is a lake of exquisite beauty, one where the light touches the surface of the water so that it may be reflected in a multitude of vibrant hues.  A water body so large it took nearly forty-five minutes to walk from one bank of the lake to other, Chandratal is truly magnificent. I along with around 12 others reached the shores of Chandratal at around three in the afternoon. We expected most of our group to reach within the next hour and a half. However, the first people to arrive after our small group reached only at about 5:30. They had gotten lost on their way. Due to the physical exertion and a little bit of altitude sickness I had a headache and went into my tent to have a small nap. I awoke a couple of hours later. My first impression was of the wind that was billowing through the valley. Even through the layers of the tent, the wind was a powerful force. The next thing I was alerted to was the sound of Jazz screaming "Who still does not have a tent?". His tone was not one I would normally associate with him. Normally, I think of him as an extremely calm man. Now, he sounded worried and anxious. Hoping that I could help, I hurriedly got out of my tent. I quickly gathered that the last few people had just reached. By this time it was nearly seven thirty and it had been dark(and hence frigid) for at least an hour and a half! No wonder there was worry in the air.
Eventually, everyone had been assigned a tent. I sensed an atmosphere of forced normalcy around camp. I got the impression that the majority of students and assorted others had realized that the more they thought about the difficulties they had encountered the more likely they would be of giving up.
The morning brought a fresh wave of sick and unfit, the night had taken a few more for her own. The rest of us packed up our belongings in readiness for the day ahead. We began day two at about nine, leaving behind those who could no longer go forth(they would head back to Manali by road).
Once more there was a sense of optimism as we began the day. During the early part of the day we trekked as one large group. It was slow going, but it was necessitated by the previous day's events. We carried on in this vein till lunch time. After lunch, everybody was given the freedom to walk at the pace that they deemed comfortable. Immediately huge gaps began to form across the trail. At around four in the evening those of us in front encountered the mules that were heading to camp. We were told then that camp was another hour away. I repeat, this was at four. Immediately after this, we reached a section of the trail where there was a steep incline to the right and a steep drop to the left. In the middle was a section of scree rocks where  sure footing was a serious challenge. After an entire day of trekking, a section of this kind required extreme levels of concentration. It was an incredibly hard hour or so. I emerged from the scree physically spent but mentally happy because I was sure that the camp site could not be much further now. We had reached a rocky plain with a series of small ridges for relief, just large enough so that you couldn't see past them. I was at the time walking with three others. After three-quarters of an hour on the plain, we encountered a guide. He pointed to a path and said "Follow this and you'll reach the camp site in half an hour". By now, we knew better than to trust the time specified by the guide but we continued on in the hope that we were finally on the home stretch. Very soon, it began to get dark. This was terrible news, we still didn't seem to be anywhere close to camp and the double threat of the dark and the bone(marrow)-chilling cold that it would bring was a potent one. As my little group walked along we heard shouts from behind us. After failing to communicate with them from afar, I walked back some of the distance to better understand their cries while my companions walked on ahead. All by myself in the near total darkness I decided to wait for those behind me rather than race ahead to catch up with those ahead. Once we had amassed to a fairly large group we once more began walking. In the dark it was very difficult to make out any sort of clear path and we had to regularly stop to double check that we were indeed going in the right direction. After walking as a large group for a fair while we still had no sight of camp, until suddenly in the distance we saw the flash of a torchlight. Convinced that this must be our camp, we renewed our walk with haste. As we walked we passed a couple of guides who were returning from camp to assist those behind us, they assured us that camp was indeed very very close. Very quickly we reached the torch light, only to find out that wasn't really the camp! It was the group of students in front of us.  They were also stranded and had been waiting in the cold for at least an hour. It was around eight in the evening now and we had no idea where our camp site was with no guides around. Jazz at this point decided that there was no point going off in search of the camp site, we would wait until a guide came to fetch us. In the cold then, nearly 30 of us sat down to wait for a guide. A guide reached us close to two hours later. That time spent under the stars was incredibly difficult, the cold and the wind conspired to create a mixture so inhospitable and powerful that one felt incredibly lucidly just how infinitesimally small and insignificant one really is. More than one person broke down in tears and others, so spent by the day could not offer them anything more than an accompanying shiver. I personally spent the time doing anything that I thought would keep my morale up, humming bad songs, remembering all the things Bear Grylls said on Man vs Wild about staying positive and trying to see the silver lining of the dark, dark cloud (I must admit, at the time I failed with point 3).
When the guide did finally reach, a relatively short climb finally brought us to camp(Tokpo Yongma). Needless to say, there was joy abound only most people were too tired to let out a little more than a short whoop of exultation before searching for a tent in which to crash in. We reached camp at around 10:30. Just as I was planning to cuddle into my sleeping bag, a guide returned with the news that a girl had fainted along the way. He had left her in a cave to shelter her before racing over to camp. Volunteers were required to carry down some sleeping bags, food and tents for those further back because they were in not in a position to come up to camp. Initially I was not too keen on heading back down to help. I wasn't sure I was fit enough to go back down, at certain points during the day I had felt completely wiped out, physically. It very quickly transpired that there were a lot of people in my situation, there was the possibility of not enough volunteers. I decided I would never know if I was fit enough if I didn't try. In hindsight, I am glad I took the decision to go back down. Another reason for me volunteering was that I thought it was a great adventure, trekking in the middle of the night through the dark rocky landscape rushing off on a "rescue mission"(not my words) seemed very Indiana Jones! We quickly gathered supplies and headed back. We walked at a pace that belied the weary limbs each of us carried, a walk which had taken us nearly 40 min only 45 min ago now took us only about fifteen to twenty minutes. Very soon we encountered a group of three students and 4 adults. The three girls looked completely shattered. Each of them sat absolutely motionless, looking down, not saying a word. It was  an eerie sight. They were quickly fed and put into a tent. We waited for everyone still left to reach this intermediary camp site before going back up to the main camp site. After grabbing a quick bite to eat, I finally got inside a (mine was being used by somebody) sleeping bag at 2:30 in the morning.
The next day's trek began at 11, an incredibly late hour by normal trekking times but we had to because of the previous day's events. Day 3 was largely uneventful,except for a small stream that we had to cross barefoot at the start of the day and the brevity of the trek. Despite starting only at 11 and moving very slowly for a large part of the day we reached our next camp(Tokpo Gongma) by 4. That night, on the occasion of a birthday, the kitchen staff prepared an incredible meal for us. Pudding and cheese pasta at 4600m! There was not a blade of grass to be seen but the staff had carried the resources for a quite delightful meal!
Day 4, the final day of trekking, began once more with a barefoot stream crossing. This second time of asking was much tougher. The first time we crossed at 11, this time we crossed the stream at 7. The stream had had no time to be heated by the sun so that it took us a good half an hour to recover fully from the pain of crossing. Indeed, until last week I felt my toes still weren't completely alright. We moved that day with high optimism, looking forward to the end of the trek and reaching our destination. We reached Baralacha La with great joy and enthusiasm and after a few photos to mark the moment moved on towards the road where there were jeeps waiting to take us back into civilization. The last day was not to pass with a dull whimper however. In a magical turn of events that I believe can only be seen in the mountains, we spent the last hour walking through a slight but constant snowfall. It wasn't enough to disrupt our trek, just enough to make one happy there was snow.
 I climbed one final hillock and on the other side lay numerous white jeeps waiting for all of us. It gave me a sense of achievement that I am not sure can be matched by very many other things. It was a tough trek, one that asked a lot of an individual, but I came through it, as did everyone else with me. I take great pride in that.
In retrospect, even the toughest times of the trek, like sitting in the cold for nearly two hours on the second day are times that I will cherish, not because it was the most enjoyable period of my life, it doesn't even come close. However, it does put into the sharpest relief the more enjoyable parts of my life and for that I cherish it. Also, if I drop the serious tone for a minute, it is an incredibly cool story to be a part of! It is the kind of experience that very few people ever have the fortune to have and for that I am grateful.


  1. Great Harsha! Or Harsha the Great! I wish I could experience one night of this...will not be able to survive more than that! If I could dream...I would imagine a Himalayas, all white and snowy, but not I can sing like in the Hindi films and walk across with ease

  2. too good!!!very realistic experience!!...i can see a great writer in best wishes :)