When we reached our campsite on the first day, we found that it was completely snowed in. This was a first. It usually takes two or three days of walking before we encounter snow. This time, we were in it up to our ankles within the first hour of walking. Luckily our first day required only two hours of walking, and it took that long only because we were slow.
We were a group of eight: the girls, Mrini and Tara, 8 years old (yes, twins); me; Ballu, my trusty guide; Mohan, his son; Pramod, the horseman (or, to be more accurate and less glamorous, the khacherwallah – that is, “muleman”); and Kamla and Kamli, the two mules.
I’ve trekked many times before, of course, but for the girls this was a second. Their first trek was to Har ki Dun four years ago. They were not even five then, and they managed the entire walk, 55 km up and down, albeit with some verbal and much gastronomic persuasion. That time, they were greatly unimpressed by the majesty of the Himalayas. This time, I was pleased to hear their excitement as the grand snow-capped peaks sneak in and out of view.
There was a hailstorm less than an hour after we reached the campsite; a fabulous hailstorm that contributed further white to a landscape already glittering with pristine snow. We had just about got our tent up, having spent the first half hour reviving ourselves with tea, chocolate, and grapes (an odd combination, I admit, but in some circumstances you make do with whatever comes to hand), when the hailstones started to pound down on us. That was when I discovered that I had misplaced the tent pegs, which I had carefully kept aside when I unfolded the tent. I had carefully misplaced them in the voluminous pockets of my cargo pants, it later turned out, but at any rate when then hailstones started to rain down on us, there was nary a tent peg in sight. So we did the only practical thing in the circumstances and beat a hasty retreat to the kitchen tent. I must also add, in case you’re picturing something grand, that the kitchen tent was nothing more than a large, black plastic sheet draped over a rope and weighed down with rocks. The hailstones made their entry about a foot into this tunnel-like structure; luckily there was another four feet or so of tunnel for the six of us to cram into. (The mules weren’t invited)
Meanwhile, left untended and unpegged, my tent went flying off in a gust of wind, cartwheeling downhill with gay abandon. Three people burst out of the kitchen tent, two in hot pursuit of the errant tent, the hapless third getting in the way and being pushed roughly aside, being none other than yours truly.
The tent was duly recovered before making it to the bottom of the valley in shreds, the tent pegs were duly discovered and handed over rather sheepishly, and the tent was then secured in the thick of the hailstorm by the three men. Needless to say, as soon as they were done, the hailstorm wore itself out and died.
So, this was supposed to be a failed trek to Dodital, but it ended up being a failed trek to Kuari Pass instead. The thing is that, in the good old days you had very little idea about the weather at any of these remote places. What you might know was what somebody thereabouts could tell you of the current weather; but forecasts (reliable or otherwise) were simply not available. Now, unfortunately, you can actually look up the weather forecasts at Dodital or at Kuari Pass, and therein lies the problem. As soon as you have this information, you start wondering whether some other route might not be better than the one you’d planned just because of the weather.
Mr Google informed me that Dodital had a very high likelihood of a serious rainfall in just the window of time when I’d be walking to the lake and spending a rest day at its shores. While, on the other hand, said Mr Google, the chance of precipitation at Kuari Pass on the same two days was nil. On the flip side, though, the temperature at Kuari Pass was likely to be hovering on the wrong side of zero (centigrade), while Dodital was likely to be about 10 degrees warmer.
That decided it. Either trek was likely to fail in that weather, but cold and dry beats warm and wet, at least on paper (or a computer screen), so Kuari it would be.
When you actually get there, it’s another matter. At Haridwar it was warm, and on the drive — the extremely long and dusty drive — to Joshimath, it was hot and sunny, at least until it started to rain. At the camp site, just below Gurson Bugiyal, it was literally freezing. My fingers could barely hold the pen as I tried to write in an actual paper notebook, my nose was almost numb, and my feet turned to blocks of ice. I was shivering too, but that was only because I was trying to keep my warmest clothes in reserve for tomorrow. This was day one, after all.
Now that the hailstorm was over, the skies had cleared, and a slanting sun was shining on a slanting rock that was almost dry. Tea, doubtless, and then dinner, would soon be forthcoming from the kitchen tent. Meanwhile, there was silence, solitude, and serenity – all somewhat illusory, since the hurricane twins were still around and only temporarily subdued, but all to be treasured nevertheless.
The next day, both kids were showing signs of mild altitude sickness. They took it in turns to vomit, one at night, one the next morning. Tara, who had done us the massive favour of actually stumbling out of bed in the middle of the night to throw up outside the tent, recovered quickly enough, but Mrini, who had very sensibly held off vomiting till it was morning, continued to remain lacklustre until almost lunch time. It was just as well that we didn’t have much planned for that day – or, in fact, for any of the following days. If we’d had a hope of actually completing the trek all the way to the Pass and back, we’d have been counting the hours and days; but we’d been told in no uncertain terms that there was too much snow on the ground and we would never manage it. On my own, I might have managed it (and it goes without saying that Ballu and Mohan certainly would have) but the mules would sink in up to their bellies, said the locals. This, I thought, might be a bit of an exaggeration, but in any case, Ballu said that with the kids, venturing to inaccessible places that were quite deeply snowed in might be unwise. If we went higher and they got sicker, getting back would be… fraught with tension, if nothing else.
The great thing about having a guide you can rely on is that I didn’t need to question his judgment or argue with him. If he thought taking those chances was unwise with the kids, then it was unwise. He was not overly cautious guide, but he was sensible — at least I knew that much about him. He would do whatever was sensible to ensure that we had as good an experience as the circumstances would permit; but he wouldn’t push it to a level of high risk.
That morning, Tara and I strolled up the snow-clad slope in front of our camp and made it to the crest in about ten minutes. We went back for lunch, then managed to coax Mrini out of the tent and persuade her to accompany us up to the top. This time Ballu came along as well, which meant that we went up further than we had in the morning, to a high-ish point where the grand peaks were visible in a 180 degree arc in front of us. Behind, the bugiyal stretched out, sloping up and away, blocking out what would otherwise have been a 360 degree view.
But that was the next day’s view. After a happy breakfast, with both kids in great spirits, we climbed up to the same high point and then followed the meadow up, up, and away until we came to the true highest point, the top of Gurson Bugiyal. From there, we could see Kuari Pass, only about two days’ walk away. Ahead, the route descended through a grove of trees to an unseen lower meadow, the one that Ballu judged would be completely snowed in, sheltered as it was from the sun. There wasn’t much point going down, so we stopped at the high point and enjoyed the view before turning back. It was a mere 3 km from our camp, and our camp was a mere 3 km from the trail head at Auli. So this would be a total of 12 km of trekking – a far cry from the 75 km trek that the Kuari route promised. But that’s the way it goes; you can’t argue with the vagaries of the weather.
At any rate, we had a grand view, with peaks in front and peaks behind. An easy walk down brought us back to camp and the next day, after all the hustle-bustle of packing up camp, another easy walk brought us down to Auli. We camped another night, just because I didn’t want to get packed away into a room at Joshimath, but really, the trek, such as it was, was over. The kids had fussed and cribbed on the uphill stretches, as expected, but had skipped, and slid, and actually run downhill on the snow without a care in the world, while I followed along at a more sedate pace. In fact, I slipped and fell on the snow several times, much to the merriment of all, but apart from the ignominy of sliding a few feet in a somewhat undignified manner, there was no risk and no harm done. I get the feeling that that’s going to be one of those enduring memories from this trip that the kids are unlikely to allow me to forget – but then, that’s what holidays are for, right?