If your arms can pull you up and your feet can push you forward, then you are ready to conquer the mountains….
I was in 9th grade when I did the first ever trek of my life. It happened in the Western Ghats in Goa. For me it was one of the major achievements of my life. Only after it ended, I could believe that I had finished the task successfully. It was a new direction of thoughts from this point on and I wished to face those challenges time and again. Trekking was a now a newly found passion of my life.
At that very moment I decided to go on a Himalayan trek. Himalayan treks usually are more vigorous and challenging than the Sayadaris treks. Given the altitudes at which the snow capped peaks are, they add more thrill and adventure to the trek. But for an amateur trekker like me, it became a dream to go on a high altitude trek.
It is not only a matter of luck but also a matter of courage to go on a trek as tough as Sar Pass. Although it was a dream trek for me, it still took me seven years and the experience of few easier treks to go ahead with this one. June 2013 turned out to be the perfect time to spend ten days of my life in the Himalayas and the luck has always been such that my parents have never said NO to me to live an adventurous life. It is because of their support that I could live the most memorable ten days of my life.
Sar Pass, a peak at 13,800 ft in the Himalayan (Himachal Pradesh) belt is one of the most popular treks amongst the Indian trekkers. Youth Hostels Association of India, a Non Governmental Organization, organizes a national level trekking camp to Sar Pass every year. Participants from all across the country come and take part in this week long trekking program for this is one of the cheapest and the most organized ways to trek in the Himalayas. It is mandatory to be a member of the YHAI to enroll in the national and state level trekking.
Regular and efficient buses are available from Delhi, provided by the HP Tourism. It is an overnight journey from Delhi to Kullu District in HP. Bhuntar, a small city located on the way to Kullu is the point from where one takes another road to Manikaran. Manikaran is a very popular Sikh pilgrim place in the Parvati Valley. It takes almost two hours to reach Manikaran from Bhuntar. Local buses ply on a regular basis. Just 5 kilometers before Manikaran, there is a small town called Kasol. The base camp of the “National Himalayan Trekking Expedition” is located at Kasol.
Kasol, situated at 6500 ft altitude, in the earlier days, used to be a very small and secluded town amidst the hills. Lately, it has become a very popular destination amongst the Israeli tourists. A lot of display boards are written in Ibru, the language of the Israelis. The place is quite famous for drug cultivation like Hash and Marijuana.
A huge base camp comprising of 25 to 30 tents is set up in the month of May every year to facilitate trekking groups of 40 to 50 people each. For the next 11 days, my food was simple and the living was distant from luxury. All the participants followed strict discipline and time table at the base camp. But all of this does not hamper the fun element of the trek in any way.
On the first day, the participants reported to the base camp and found a place to settle in the tents. Day one is a relaxed day; participants from all across the country reach the base camp at different times. Everyone meets everyone and the bonding within the group starts.
On the second day, participants are taken for morning exercises and then the Acclimatization Walk.Acclimatization Walk is majorly for beginners as well as for people who are not used to high altitude temperatures. It’s a walk into the natural trails in the forest which is nearby to the base camp. The walk is a blend of moderate up and downhill tracks. Participants realize their fitness during this walk before making a final decision as to their going ahead on the trek in the coming days. There is hardly ever a trekker who chooses to stay back. Any minuscule doubts are subdued by the sheer beauty of the Himalayan Mountains.
By afternoon, everyone was back from the Acclimatization Walk and post Lunch there was an Orientation session followed by Medical checkup. The orientation was conducted by the Camp Leader , Mr Chauhan, during which he briefed us about the Himalayan ecosystem in the Sar Pass region and how our next one week was going to be. The Orientation was highly informative and by the end of it all of us were even more excited to start with the trek.
In the evening, everyone went to Kasol market to buy what was missing in the sack. The market was just one kilometre away from the camp.
On the third day, the adventure began in bits and pieces. We went to the forest along with three experts to try our hands on Rock Climbing and Rappelling. The chosen rock was not very difficult to conquer and hence everyone took a shot. They explained the basics of rock climbing. After my experience with the rock, I can assure that this task looks easier while others are doing it and becomes extremely tough while the rope is tied around your own waste. The safety is complete, yet so is the fear. The concentration of mind and faith on your grip is what makes it possible. Needless to say, following all the instructions of the expert is mandatory in adventure sports.
After the Rock Climbing it was time for Rappelling. It is an easy and an enjoyable sport with only a few instructions. In only a few minutes it gets over. Post that we brought water from a stream of fresh water in the forest and prepared Lichi Lychee Juice to celebrate the success of our Rock Climbing and Rappelling.
After returning to the base camp, we deposited the extra luggage which was not required at higher camps. In the night we had a good meal followed by Camp Fire. The meals at YHAI camps are usually simple vegetarian food but the view that we get to see while having those meals is extra-ordinary.
On the fourth day, we finally left the base camp in the morning to move towards the higher camps. It started with a 30 kilometre bus journey to a village called Shilla. The route to Shilla is beyond Manikaran Gurudwara. ‘Shilla’ in local language means huge rocks which block the sunshine. In this village the sun light remains for the whole day but the sun shines bright for not more than two hours. Our guide for the day was from Shilla village only.
The first higher camp was located at “Galgi Thatch”. It is a fairly easy distance of 7 kilometers. We crossed Shilla village and entered the forest region. The route was rocky but the company was smooth. We sang songs all along the way until we reached the Lunch Point. By that time, everyone was famished and lunch boxes were opened. Pack Lunch is provided at every base camp. For about two hours we sat there, ate, relaxed and talked to the locals. The locals usually set up a small canteen at the Lunch Points where they serve Maggi, Omlette and coffee to the trekkers. This small activity boosts the local economy of the village in simple ways. And almost everyone would agree that getting to eat Maggi in the mountains is magical.
After this break, the distance to walk was not much. Everyone geared up to reach Galgi Thatch, which was at an altitude of 8,500 ft. We reached the camp by 3 in the afternoon where the camp leader Mr Ramphal gave us a warm welcome with Lychee juice.
The camp site was located in a very natural environment though it was not very far from the main road. We could see trucks moving on the road in the mountain which was just across a large water stream.
Behind our camp was a rocky path which led further into the forest. We were supposed to take this path the next day. A small rivulet flowed beside our tents where we dipped our feet and enjoyed the evening tea. The water was extremely cold but felt strangely nice after the day’s walking. The dinner was served to us before sunset at all the camps.
The next morning was beautiful; the nature’s calls were attended in the serene natural environment only. Nature calls on treks are perhaps one of the most learning experiences; it helps us stay raw and the feeling is just out of this world for many of us. Soon we started walking towards the next higher camp.
On the fifth day we were supposed to walk only 5 kilometres but it was a steep ascending. Although an uphill walk reduces the speed of walking, but it makes sure that the trekkers take halts and enjoy the scenic views around them. The forests on the Himalayan Mountains are breathtaking and magnificent. They are thick covers of green and the valleys go deep down completely covered with long standing Pine trees. Some of the trees are so giant that they almost look like natural tree houses on which you can sit and relax. The peace of the place is broken only by the local water streams and by the chirping of the birds. Not many people are seen in these dense forests except a few locals who are there only till the time the trekking camps are set up. One can sit here for as long as he wants. Somewhere in the forest we stopped to fill our bottles from the natural springs. The water is was cold but very sweet.
In the late afternoon we reached our next camp “Khora Thatch” which is at an altitude of 9800 ft. ‘khora’ in the local language means Apricot.The camp leader, Mr Bhati, from Jaisalmer welcomed us to the camp. Soon it started to rain and the place started to look even greener. This camp was located amidst the dense forest and there was quite a possibility of bears attacking the camp. But a fire was lit in the night for protection. Maggi at this camp was the most enjoyable not only because it rained but also because this part of the forest had meadows, rocks, valleys and cattle grazing around. It appeared to be like a scene described in a fairy tale which one can imagine only in the stories. But this one was real and we were a part of it. Later in the evening we sat with the camp leader where he shared his stories of the deserts and how he felt so blessed to be in Himachal in the month of June which otherwise would have been a scorching month for him.
It rained the whole night and continued to rain even in the morning. The distance to walk on the sixth day was very less and hence we decided to wait for the rains to stop. As soon as the rains stopped, we geared up to move. The place was covered all over with clouds. This seemed to be the most wonderful and heavenly cloud walk I would have ever done. We covered ourselves and our rucksacks with the rain sheets to protect ourselves from the drizzle. In no time, we reached at a point where we were completely surrounded by the clouds. We were in the middle of the misty mountains where it stopped raining and for once we could not believe that we were on Earth. Not only girls, but even the boys of the group wanted to get clicked at this mesmerizing landscape. Through some of the clouds the snow capped peaks were seen.
We crossed large open lands on the mountains to reach our next camp “Zhirmi”, at an altitude of 11000 ft. It was a rocky land where there were large rocks. Boys and Girls sat on different rocks to sing some of the best Bollywood songs to pinch each other. The throats gave up after some time but the spirit was not lost. Even the camp leader, Mr Rathore, was astonished to see the enthusiasm of the tricky show that was going on. The girls of course stole the thunder and it became one of the most memorable evening of the trip.
On the seventh day, we got the best breakfast ever. The kitchen staff served us with yummy Chole Bhature which pulled us more towards the tents rather than the trail. But this was going to be a long and a tough day. Our next camp was at Tila Lotni, which was at an altitude of 12,500 ft and its distance from Zhirmi was 10 kilometers. At such an altitude, the risk of altitude sickness increases but thankfully everyone was fit and fine. As the altitude increase in the mountains, so does the scenic beauty. The mountains now started to become a mix of green and white. From forest patches to snow patches we started walking on different paths. Many people became short of breath, but the eyes get addicted to grab even more and so the legs get orders to keep moving. And this is how everyone continued to walk.
The floral variety kept on increasing and the color of the wilderness kept on changing at every short distance. The Lunch Point was very windy but the most beautiful. The guide kept on telling us to move faster as he was expecting a storm. But we chose to ignore him because it was of utmost importance to absorb as much nature as we could on our minds.
Soon we reached the highest altitude camp, Tila Lotni and were welcomed with hot tea and roasted peanuts. We were advised not to fall asleep from drowsiness because it can be hazardous to health. It is important to roam around the place and get accustomed to the high altitude weather. Soon snow started falling and we all got excited to feel the touch of it. Within no time, it converted into a hail storm and all of us ran inside the tents. It was not really advisable to get wet. From inside the tents, we could witness all the green being covered with white. An unforgettable and the most joyous sight to look at, it soon started to scare us. It just didn’t seem to stop. I realized soon that the blanket I was standing on had become wet. I was surprised to see that the water had entered the tent and all the blankets which were spread on a plastic sheet underneath had become wet. The bags were just about to get wet when we ran towards them to pick them up and put our rain sheets under them. We got really scared as there was hardly any place to sit. All the four girls squeezed into each other and prayed to God to make it stop. What we saw next was unbelievable; there was a leak in the tent as the ice had accumulated on the top of the tent. It became the most thrilling moment of the trek. Soon the camp leader, “Khaem Thakur”, a young man from Himachal, walked in,. He was all drenched in water; he created a drain inside the tent after removing all the wet blankets from there. A small corner of the tent was still dry somehow, which was left to us to spend the night in.
We were asked to go to bed early as the next day was going to be a long one. They served the yummiest gulab- jamuns on that eventful night after the dinner. Soon we packed ourselves in our sleeping bags.
The eighth day started as early as 3:30 in the morning. They served us bed tea; I opened the tent flap just to catch hold of stars and a thin yellow moon in the sky over those snowy peaks. Another unforgettable sight which I wished I could capture.
At 5 in the morning we were all set to walk. Two sherpas from Darjeeling were our guides. Sherpas are known to be the kings of snow in India. They are very passionate and expert in their skills. It was the day of conquering the Sar Pass. We were supposed to attain the altitude of 13,800 ft. For about an hour and a half, it was a steep uphill walk. Because of the hailstorm on the previous day, the route was all covered with the snow. The Sherpa who was leading us was using his snow boots to break the ice and clear the path. Everyone was walking in a queue. In about two hours, we covered only 3 kilometers but altitude was now more than 13,000 ft. It is not advisable to remove the warm clothes even if the body heat is being generated due to steep walking. From this point we walked on the snow. It was a flat walking. There was ice up to as far as I could see. There was no end to it. And it was here that the group crossed the summit, the Sar Pass. Photography did not stop for at least an hour. Snow balls hit everyone. There was so much snow that everyone could make balls and throw at each other. At some places it was melting due to the sun shining bright. This snow was totally untouched. It was there in its purest form. Some of us even ate it.
For the first time ever, I saw so much of snow around me. My eyes could not believe that I was in the middle of a snow capped peak which is often seen from a distant land. It was like a no man’s land which probably was unknown to the Indian citizens. The feeling of being there will always reside inside each of us.
The sherpas did not let us wait there for very long as we had to cross the Pass before 12 by all means and the distance to cover was still too much. We kept walking until we reached a point from where there was no going up. It was only going down. And going down was not the usual way. It was something that numbed our bums for a long time. It was the fastest ‘going down the hill’ ever. It was the snow sliding. The instructions came to us, “Put your hands and feet in air and rest on your bums”. That is all. After that the best roller coaster ride happened. For the next 2-3 minutes I was going down at an accelerated speed. We started walking from the point where the snow ended. For the next two hours it was steep downhill walking. It requires a lot of focus and pressure on the knees while going down and hence it is a little more risky than going uphill.
We reached our next camp site, “Biskeri Thatch”, at an altitude of 11,000 ft, after covering almost 14 kilometers in 10 hours. The camp leader, “Mr Om Prakash” congratulated on our successful crossing of the Sar Pass. The sense of achievement and the tiredness, both were on a high that evening.
It was the ninth day and last day in a higher camp. It is the downhill walking which is capable of giving blisters to many. We walked through the forests yet again. A guide was always there to guide us on the way. We crossed huge water bodies; we did rappelling on tough rocks.
We finally reached “Bandak Thatch”, at an altitude of 10,000 ft, a camp which can’t really be described in words. It was the largest meadow that I had ever seen. There was no camp leader at the camp site. The meadow was so large that there were arrangements for the boys for playing Cricket. The boys played the game and the girls became the cheer leaders innately. The throats again went for a toss. As the cheer leaders stopped the game also stopped.
A long walk across the meadow and then beyond took us to a giant waterfall where the water was so cold that people started betting for dipping the feet inside the water.
This camp site was a picture perfect landscape, a postcard photograph, a windows web shot in its truest sense.
Finally the tenth day arrived and it was time to move back to the base camp. This was the last day to walk up and down. Post this it was going to be a flat walk on flat road. For the last time we crossed the waterfalls, for one last time all of us got clicked amidst the tall trees. And finally, we reached Barsaini , where the bus was waiting to take us back to Kasol.
Many of us dropped down at Manikaran and a few went back to Kasol. This was the end of a ten days long festival. “Unforgettable Himachal”, rightly quoted by many, became true for SP 29 also. The hardest time, time to bid farewell had arrived.
With all the wonderful memories and smiles on our faces, all of us parted our ways and until we parted our ways, we kept on shouting the slogan of the group “In the gud gude, naal gud gude…dhishkaeon dhishkaeon dhishkaeon”.