Lost in the Himalayas – Part 4 (the last)

Were we lost???

It was 4.30, when I at last forced the issue with Ballu. He, too, was loath to concede that we might very well be. But, by this time we had come in view of two wonderful peaks that should have been visible on the route to Thochuntse – the only problem was that we seemed to be behind the peaks, when I could have sworn we should have been around in front of them, at quite a different angle.

We held a quick round-table conference (minus the table). As a first step, Ballu was dispatched to investigate whether Thochuntse perchance lay around the next bend. The second step was to fortify ourselves with whatever little food we were carrying – we certainly looked as though we were in for a long, long day, and perhaps, in the worst case, a cold and hungry night.

I explained why we could not be on the right path to Thochuntse.

“You see that ridge over there on the left?”

Everyone looked ~1500 ft upwards and nodded.

“Well, if we could get over that and around the foot of that peak there, we’d be at Nimaling – that’s where we want to be tomorrow.”

The thought didn’t seem to lighten the mood much.

“Let’s not panic,” said DDB sagely.

Everyone nodded.

Why would we panic? We only had to retrace our millions of steps of the last four hours, and we’d be back at Hankar. Surely the villagers would provide us some food and a place to sleep – then we’d go on tomorrow and everything would be fine.

But, what had taken us four hours on the outward path, would certainly take five, maybe more, as tiredness and as darkness enveloped us.

To make matters worse, the sun, which had been shining brightly earlier in the afternoon, seemed to have been vanquished yet again by rain clouds; and each of us had carried only a light jacket with ourselves.

At length, Ballu returned with a crestfallen look. He had hurried a long way ahead and seen no sign of Thochuntse. The fact that no horses and no people had passed us in four hours seemed the clinching consideration – we must turn back.

We were a worried lot, as we picked up our stuff and turned around, but this time, now that things had gone seriously wrong for once, there were no recriminations, no raised voices, no drama. We just turned around and started back.

It wasn’t long before we heard the welcome tinkle of a bell, signifying that a horse was nearby. Another few minutes, and our own horseman appeared in view, riding his best steed, a light coloured horse with a flowing, blonde mane. We were never so relieved to see anyone or anything as we were to see that horseman and his horse. He, apparently, was equally relieved to see us.

It transpired that, after reaching the campsite at Thochuntse, he had learned from others at the campsite that we had not yet arrived. As he had not overtaken us on the way, he deduced that we must be lost and came back to look for us. There weren’t, luckily for us, too many wrong turns that we could have taken, so his search options were limited.

We should not have crossed the bridge at Hankar, he told us cheerfully. Having done so, we need only have continued on our present course a fortnight or so and we would have reached Tso Moriri. While Tso Moriri is a beautiful lake and any of us would have loved to visit it, 15 days of walking without horses, without food, and without finding any villages en route looked like a scary prospect even to the most experienced of us, and we were doubly grateful to the young chap for having had the sense and consideration to come out looking for us.

What’s more, much to our delight he announced that we need not walk all the way back to Hankar, where we had stepped off the beaten track; there was a shortcut to Thochuntse. Tired, but relieved, Amit and I walked the fastest we possibly could behind the horse, almost causing the horse to break into a trot, till we reached the point where the shortcut to Thochuntse diverged from our Hankar-Tso Moriri path. It was nothing but a gap in the hills, with a narrow stream flowing through it. “Just cross the stream and follow the route, and you’ll find Thochuntse after about an hour,” our rescuer assured us, as he settled down to wait for the others.

And so we did – we stumbled into camp at around 7.30, before the onset of darkness, to be greeted by worried, relieved, friendly, sympathetic, concerned, and drama-seeking countenances along with a flood of questions and comments from the score of people already settled there. We must have walked more than 20 km, instead of the leisurely 12 we had expected… but we had survived, and that, without panic.

The next day, despite the exhaustion, we left for Nimaling by 8 a.m. The one thing we were clear about was that, if we were to get lost again, we wanted to have plenty of time in hand so that we could be found during daylight hours. We adopted the strategy of trying to keep other trekking parties in sight, ahead or behind, and so made it to Nimaling before lunch and without incidence.

It was a little hard to appreciate the beauty of Nimaling, tired as we were, but Nimaling did her best to impress us – the weather remained clear, and the sunset was sublime. DDB and I found the energy for a short excursion up the slope behind the campsite that afternoon, but did not really get high enough to experience the best of Nimaling. I, well aware of the treasures in store, could hardly wait till the next day, when we had planned a “rest” day at Nimaling.

Our adventures were not yet at an end, though. Over the past several days, we had all watched with baited breath as Amit’s enormous, kiloton-weight, steel-tipped, ankle-high, inflexible leather, water proof, ice proof, wind proof, truck-proof workman’s shoes came apart at the soles. A couple of tiny tubes of Fevikwik (?) and Dendrite that DDB&B happened to be carrying had been put to use and the boots had been weighted down with some REALLY HEAVY stones overnight, but they had resolutely opened up again over the next day or two. Multiple water crossings had not been of much help. The situation was so desperate that Amit had even suggested taking a quick detour from Chilling to the nearest town that offered the services of a mochi, but since that town was likely to be Leh, he was persuaded to abandon this crazy undertaking.

It was clear, of course, that no other shoe would fit Amit apart from his own. Luckily, he had carried a pair of floaters (sandals) along – but these were so old and decrepit that the sole of each one was cleanly split in two across the middle. As they were made for use more as bathroom slippers than trekking footwear, the grip of the sole, even when new was not in the least confidence inspiring. I had been reassuring him that, apart from the descent on the last day, the terrain was not such as to make heavy demands on the footwear, but events so far had not really shown the truth of this statement. When the adhesive solutions failed, we tried Leucoplast (a somewhat stronger version of a bandaid) and later took to tying the front of the shoe together with whatever strands of rope were at hand. As the strands never survived very long, we were always on the lookout for stronger and stronger bits of rope, and eventually were reduced to pulling strings out of DDB&B’s jackets. From bright blue to mousy brown to dirty white – all manner of string were wound around the shoes, and each of them eventually fell off. If we had had no other form of entertainment at all on the trip, this would have been sufficient to keep us well occupied.

Amit decided that he wanted to look “presentable” on this trek, so he had started out with every intention of bathing and shaving. (It seems to me that he would have done better to dress more sensibly. He had elected to wear shorts and T-shirt, with the result that his arms and legs were excruciatingly sunburnt. I had sunscreen, of course, but covering his never-ending limbs with it would have required carrying a bathtub-full of it, and an extra horse to carry it.) However, dry, dusty, scratched and sun-burnt limbs notwithstanding, he wanted to look presentable. So far, he had managed two “baths” and one shave. Nimaling was too high and the water too cold to allow another bath, but the rest day was duly designated as shaving day. Having completed his shave satisfactorily (with warm water, of course), he set about slicing open his thumb with his safety razor.

By the time that damage had been controlled it was past 10.30 a.m. – and we set off almost lethargically for the climb to the foot of the Kangyatze. Amit was looking his resplendent best in his T-shirt and shorts, with deeply sunburnt limbs on display, cleanly shaven, wearing his they-come-apart-in-the-middle floaters and with a ragged and ineffective bandaid wrapped around his butchered thumb.

The walk up from the campsite – ~1500 ft – took almost two hours. The walk down took well over one. And yet, those four hours of exertion, panting at 16,000 ft and upwards, were a small price to pay for the one hour of sheer bliss up there at the base of the Kangyatze.

Photos will paint a better picture of the place than words can, but I’ll try to give some impression of it.

First, there was the exertion of the slow and steady climb. Upon reaching the top of a quite marked ascent, you’d find in front of you not a grand view, but another rise. You struggle on, upwards, wondering when it will end, and suddenly it does. It is quite a small crest, but if you are at the top, you are really at the top.

On your left is a sloping shoulder, dropping down behind you to the valley you’ve left below. In front, there stands a mountain, hitherto well hidden from view, with ridges extending in both directions. The ridge on the right curves around and links up with the Kangyatze you’ve grown familiar with, which looms above you. From where we stood, we could make out the rope that had been fixed just below the summit, and the steps of climbers across part of the snow on the face. It didn’t look so far, or so impossible, a mere 4,000 ft or so above us. The two climbers who had made it to the summit the previous morning had crossed our campsite on their way down.

Swivel around with the hidden peak on your left, and the view opens up to offer a limitless panorama, with ranges of mountains stretching into infinity. The farthest range, identified by DDB as the Karakoram, lies more in Pakistan than in India! Nearer at hand are the ranges that mark the path we have traversed in the past so many days. DDB tentatively pointed out Konzke La, which we had crossed on day 3, five days ago!

Swivel around a little more, with your back to the Kangyatze, and you’re facing the Stok range, which runs down from some high peaks to the low saddle that is Kongmaru La. Just in front of and below Kongmaru La, invisible to us from here, is our campsite. Further on, the Stok range seems to run out completely, with the ridge sloping down to create a gentle cradle for the valley.

To this panorama, add peace, stillness, quiet. No animals other than an occasional lizard and no plants. No sound is to be heard except what noise we make. There is scant movement, other than that caused by us. This is nature at its most undisturbed. I can understand why hermits legendarily sought high Himalayan peaks for their centuries-long meditation.

The altitude made me cough, but a few minutes’ complete stillness helped. We wandered around that high place, going in different directions, then shot some photographs. The group photographs required immense physical effort by way of a 100 m sprint in the ten seconds it took for the camera’s delayed shutter action to kick in. (Notice, in the picture, that I only just made it – not bad at 17,000 ft!)

In all too short a time, we turned around and went back, to the lunch that was waiting for us.

And from there, it was all downhill. Of course, the next day we had a similar climb of ~1,500 ft to reach Kongmaru La, and the views from the pass were perhaps just as good, but for me, this time as before, the high point of the trek was not the pass but the rest day at the foot of the Kangyatze.

The walk to Shang Sumdo was a formality. It had its moments, but they paled in comparison to all that had been. We walked, we tied up Amit’s shoes, we didn’t get lost, we crossed streams, we went slithering down the slippery bits, we admired the gorge, we stopped for tea and Maggi, we reached a village, and still we walked, and walked, and walked, and at last, around 5 p.m., we reached Sumdo and found our car waiting for us. And so our trek came to an end at last.

I would not call it the perfect trek. I wish our cancelled flight out had not caused us to lose a day; I wish it hadn’t rained even as little as it had; I wish Amit’s footwear hadn’t been so troublesome; I wish we had not got lost; I wish it had not been so long and so tiring a trek… but none of that really matters. We had spent two wonderful days at Nimaling and the weather had been glorious. What more could anyone want?

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