The warmth of friendship … on the snow clad slopes…
Much like how children form transformative bonds when pitted against a particularly vindictive teacher, so do travellers when faced with the harshest teacher of them all, Nature.
Kuari Pass Winter Trek, unlike all my other trips wasn’t a last moment, hurried plan. The call of the mountains had been heard long before, allowing enough time for leave applications, survey and purchase of equipments and even a decent detoxification. Yet, often, even though one has had enough time to cross-check every item on the check-list, some preparations still remain incomplete. Amid the purchasing of thermals, rain-covers, gloves, medical supplies, etc. was sown the seed of friendship.
Feb 20, 2016, 5:30 a.m.: Haridwar
Decked in lights, for the ardh kumbh, Haridwar was up quite early to greet a bunch of “unsuspecting” travellers as they walked/ took autos or cabs to meet Umesh bhai. Unsuspecting? Yeah … I don’t think any of us knew that we were not going to be the same after this trip!
Between judging glances, crisp hellos and worrying about where our luggage was going, we got packed into safaris heading towards Joshimath, the adventure had just begun.
First stop, Trekker’s Café, Rishikesh, opposite the booking office for Jumping Heights, India’s highest bungee jumping platform. For any first time or experienced trekker, this little establishment is a one stop solution for all your trekking needs (purchase/ rent).
Then began the bumpy ride, as we wound around mountains, ignoring poor roads, landslides and speed breakers, necessitating several “pukestops”. Thus, by the time we halted at Pipalkoti for a much required refreshing chai and pakoda top-up, we were definitely considering those who did not ride with Umesh bhai, extremely lucky. Or, maybe not, because then you would only get to know about the “bhau waale” monkeys during the bonfire sessions, that too sans the excitement in the eyes. You wouldn’t have participated in the 10 hr long sing along session that continued through the several breaks. And, you wouldn’t get to witness someone diligently solve a puzzle about types of sauces, while others were barely managing to hang on to their seats.
I have never seen or expected to see fall colours on the hills of India, definitely not at this time of the year. But, there it was, an entire hillside painted in various hues of yellow and red. There was only one question that ran in the mind, one that would pop up quite a few more times, why do we Indians fantasise about travelling abroad so much?!
Pipalkoti was the first proper food stop. Though most of were still unsure of their systems, the temptation of the hot samosas, onion and chilly pakodas, the steaming tea, and the jalebis did prove to be too much to resist. Pipalkoti was also where we got the first proper view of the snow clad mountains we were heading for.
Feb 20, 2016, 5:45 p.m.: JOSHIMATH
By the time we reached our destination for the day, Joshimath, the last civilisation as it would turn out to be, we had had enough of cars and turning roads. The sun was about to come to its early rest, as is expected in places like this, surrounded by high peaks. And we had precious few minutes to capture the breathtaking vista we had landed in. The ropeway to Auli added a tempting charm to the place.
We also got to briefly meet those on whose expert judgement we were going to battle nature the next few days … “chaliye chaliye…” Subhash, and “shabbash…” Mahavir. The promised briefing upon reaching Joshimath was going to be delayed as we were still awaiting the “B’lore boys”.
As we waited, we stacked up on the remaining supplies, medicines, warm clothing, water bottles, rain coats, etc. Joint accounts were created, first jokes and ice-breakers happened, and even the first rounds of group photos.
It was only after dinner that the entire group assembled to be briefed about the do s and don’t s during the trek, though it would still take some more time for us to get to know each other. I am sure, the thought that the challenge ahead was greater than what we had come expecting, did creep into all our minds at this stage…
Ambition has always been a trait that has led to easy ice breakers with me … thus bonding over “Wild” and the ambitions of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail led to an immediate connect.
Feb 21, 2016: INTO THE WILDERNESS
A short drive got us to Dhak, from where our first day of the trek began. As we climbed up the sloping terrain, paved roads leading to the villages soon gave way to rougher tracks. Even though the first day encompassed only a 6 km hike, to lower Chitrakhana, we soon realised that we weren’t really going to have 3 days easy of trekking. As the camaraderie grew, and the jokes started to flow, we reached our destination for the first day, around late afternoon. We were greeted with the welcome sight of lunch, and the piping hot khichdi felt like Manna sent down from heaven.
After a brief rest, while we tried hard to keep ourselves awake, we were in for another short hike. The acclimatisation walk, as it is called, also served the dual purpose of collecting firewood for the bonfire we were going to have later. Subhash and Mahavir treated us to tales of their previous experiences, stories of Roopkund, how the locals came to hate Hanuman the monkey god for stealing their healing mountain and of ghosts and spirits.
The story-telling continued as we returned to the campsite and the fire was lit. As we gathered around it to absorb the heat, the bonfire helped us open up and forged bonds of friendship. Hidden talents were revealed as singing, mimicry, rapping ensued …
Since most of were going to sleep in sleeping bags for the first time, we turned in for an uncomfortable night, to wake up with stories of our own.
Feb 22, 2016: SNOW!!
The second day of walking was supposed to be more strenuous, with a steep ascend to reach Tali Top. The first rays of the sun hit Nanda Devi, giving her the hallowed status. Tea, breakfast and quick refilling of water bottles, learning how to disassemble our tents, and grabbing a handful of candies for the road from our guides began the day’s trekking.
The track became steep soon after we left the campsite and we clambered through forested hillside supporting each other, taking short breaks in between. The bonfire session had already established the power of our imagination, and that almost all of us were on the same page when it came to being “filmy”. Thus it was not very surprising that when we climbed up to this meadow, surrounded by trees and hills, we were reminded of the several sniper fights we had seen on screen, and lost track of time (and the rest of the group who were walking behind us).
This was also the first time we encountered proper snow, some, for the first time in their life! As photo-sessions, refreshments, fun and games continued we were soon greeted with the already famous “chalo chalo …” reminding us that this wasn’t our destination but just a stop.
The terrain did not get any easier as we continued. Instead, the slippery ice below and the lack of the sun’s heat kept slowing us down. The campsite, when we finally reached, was quite a sight. In a small clearing between dense woods, surrounded by snow, we were indeed in the wilderness.
After we had stuffed ourselves with the delicious food, and rested our tired legs, we went out again for the day’s acclimatisation, to Kuari Lake. The crystal clear lake, surrounded by snow, facing Mt. Dunagiri seemed to have emerged from the literary world to enchant us. As our prolonged photo-sessions continued, the sun crept behind the higher mountains.
Our trek leaders obliged our requests to have another bonfire that night and we gathered fire-wood on our way back from the lake, feeling like great adventurers, surviving in the wild. We were in for another night of late sleeping, as the stories continued followed by the snoring competition.
Feb 23, 2016: SUMMIT!!
The final day of ascent was to be the toughest. Starting early, we began the 15 km walk to Kuari Pass. The first ascent from the camp led us into this massive snow covered field of Khullar, and obviously we didn’t miss any chances of getting ourselves clicked.
A huge fan of Tolkien, the scenes I kept capturing through the lens reminded of the journey of the “Fellowship of the Rings”. Up and down ranges, through grass and snow slipping and sliding, we reached the final return point, by the frozen river. The snow had already started testing our perseverance. We had sunk knee deep in the virgin snow, failed in our attempts to pull ourselves out and been forced to crawl till we found secure foothold. The river, though frozen, wasn’t going to let us pass easily either. To help us walk on the slippery surface we had already been provided with crampons. But the physical effort was miniscule compared to the mental effort we would have to make to reach the top.
It wasn’t all gloomy and depressing though. We were entertained to some daredevil sliding stunts from our party members and trek leaders (ours definitely weren’t intentional) even before we started the last phase of our ascent. We were also asked, to our horror, to follow the leopard tracks in the snow, to find the safest path in the ever increasing amount of snow!
We were all but ready to give up about a km from the top, and had already taken our “Summit Selfies”. But the ever encouraging Subhashji wouldn’t have us returning without reaching the top after coming so far. Dragging each other along, we reached what then seemed to be the test of our stamina. The view and the sense of achievement more than made up for our effort. Also, the cold, boiled egg that was part of the packed lunch had definitely never tasted like gourmet food before!
As the clouds began to gather it was time to climb down. The snow didn’t go any easier on us on the way back, and almost at the end of our strength we finally crossed Khullar. The place which had cheered us up with its photogenic setting, now managed to bring joy to us with the reminder that the campsite was close by.
That night, amid the meagre campfire that we could light, we reminisced upon the achievement we had added to our names. As we desperately tried to find enough heat to warm our bones and dry our shoes, it began to snow. The soft flakes indeed completed the romantic setting.
Celebrating their first anniversary on the snow clad mountains, in the safety of the dining tent; our lovely couple from Mumbai would definitely have lots of stories to tell about this day. It was indeed some feat to manage to get them a cake made at that altitude!
As the fire dwindled, and one by one our troops retired into their tents, the stories would continue over social media.
Feb 24, 2016: Back to Civilisation.
Though we had been very excited to descend via Auli, the road was heavily snowed over. Not that we had a choice, but we still were done with wading through snow for this trip. Hence we took the same route down to Dhak.
The sight of the car that would take us to Joshimath was a balm for our aching bones; the hot bath back at the guest house was heavenly.
It was also at Dhak that we last saw our trusted companion, the local husky. Some called him Rajni, some called him sheru, our Thalaiva, who had accompanied all the way up and down, sometimes as if only to mock us on our laziness. Sometimes, to race ahead and get a nap.
Feb 24, 2017: Small Joys.
It was indeed surprising that we managed to get our strength back to explore Joshimath after the refreshing tea. The idol of BadrinathJi is brought to Joshimath during the months when Badrinath is inaccessible. Without proper direction, and in the dark, it took us much longer than expected to reach the Narasimha temple where the idol is housed. The sight of the evening aarti however was every bit of the effort.
Then however, was turn for another “pooja” we all are very fond of. Having been deprived of non-vegetarian food, we could not contain our cravings any more when we found a restaurant serving the same, at Joshimath market. We stepped in for a snack, stepped out leaving a battlefield on the tables!
When we reached the guest house, we were beyond reporting time for the briefing. The de-briefing was an emotional event with us having to speak about our experiences as we were all overwhelmed with the bonding that we had developed in these few days.
We had tested our limits and come back successful, without any injuries all thanks to the great support team from TTH. At 13,000 ft we had been comfortable, well fed and well taken care of not just by our trek leaders and guides but also by the amazing supporting staff that accompanied us.
Feb 25, 2017: Good Byes.
As we huddled into 2 SUVs headed towards Haridwar, our vehicles crossed several times, inevitably causing us to wave “Bye Bye’ to those in the other car, only to meet up at some other turn of the mountain. We finally parted ways at Haridwar, some staying back for another day, others headed back to their separate ways. What great devices smart phones are, even though we parted, we were still in touch.
My narrative should have ended here. But well, my partners did not miss their chance to make my birthday, just 8 days later super special. Though their plan to make a conference call with all of us did not work out, the thought itself was overwhelming for me.
You find the best of friends in the most unexpected of circumstances.
“You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”