You May Be Right – I May Be Crazy

April 8, 2011

…but that’s ok with me. It’s not such a bad thing, being a little bit crazy. Especially if one is crazy about the right thing.

In this particular instance, it is about trekking.

Most people know us well enough not to bother calling us crazy if they hear that we’re going off on another trek. But when they hear that our soon-to-be-five year old daughters are coming along on their first Himalayan trek ever, eyebrows (at the very least) do tend to go up.

Maybe it is a little bit crazy. But it’s probably not as crazy as you think. First, this is only a short trek – two days up, one day at the top, and two days down. Of course, we also spend two days getting there and two days getting back, but that’s on wheels, rails, and wings, so that (probably) doesn’t count as crazy. The altitude is not all that high. We start at about 6,000 ft, and the highest point is a little under 12,000 ft. The walking itself is only 5 days, one of which is a rest day. Also, on most days we won’t have to tent because there are lodges all along this route. Only on one night, we didn’t get a reservation at the lodge, so we might end up tenting for just one night. So it’s not all that crazy, see?

Of course, there’s the small matter of walking 13 km per day. And gaining 5,000 ft in two days. Are you asking me if the kids can do that? I haven’t the slightest idea – I don’t even know if I can do that. After all, it’s been four years since my last trek. This might come as something of a shock to you (especially if you’ve read my book; have you?) but I’m actually very scared of trekking. I mean, I get scared while trekking – when the dry, slippery pebbles start sliding under foot, I get terrified. I also get phobic about steep slopes and narrow paths. And heights. And descents. And boulders. And whatever else you can think of. It took me lots of practice to get my various fears under control, but now it’s been a gap of four years and I have no idea how much I might have regressed.

Of course I should be doing something to prepare. I should be working on my leg muscles. I should be improving my cardio-vascular fitness. I’m not really doing anything. I’m going to be in so much trouble. And, on top of everything else, I’m going to starve! Because I can’t eat most of the emergency food that we carry – biscuits, cake, bread, Maggi – and my lactose intolerance is also at its most intolerant in the mountains, so I can’t even have coffee, or even a good dose of ghee in my khichadi – not unless I want to risk diarrhea, which is not the best thing to have when on a trek.

And then I have to worry about the kids. I honestly have no idea if they will take to it – the whole wilderness experience. Will they enjoy doing nothing but walking the whole day long? They love to talk and they love to get the undiluted attention of their parents and they are very active all day long. At least I can be sure they won’t miss TV or battery-operated toys (they don’t have any). But will they enjoy the walk? How much will they be able to walk? Will they last the entire trek or will we have to abort after day 1? Will they be enthralled by the views and the sheer novelty of being in the mountains? Or will they start whining “I’m bored; I’m hungry; I’m tired; you carry me…” within the first 20 minutes and keep it up the whole damn day?

If they do get tired, will they agree to be carried? By a porter? In a sack? Will they (horrors!) both want to hang on to my hand and walk – on a narrow, slippery path with a steep fall on one side???

Worse still, what if I get petrified along the way and one of the kids has to come and hold my hand and pull me along? What kind of role model is that?

Sigh. Problems, problems…

But at least we are going back to the mountains. At one point, I doubted I ever would. If this works… there could be so much more to look forward to in the coming years. 🙂


Walking in the Rain

September 1, 2008

I hadn’t had an afternoon off for a while; I was supposed to get one every weekend, but it doesn’t always work out that way. So this weekend, I was determined to get away, at least for a couple of hours. Saturday didn’t work out for various complicated reasons, so it had to be Sunday.

Lunch at Eden Park is not really conducive to anything other than an afternoon snooze, but I made a Herculean effort after getting home and left before the sleep managed to ensnare me. Ostensibly, my goal was to buy a large number of ring folders so I could spend the next several weeks filing away my papers methodically and systematically, as the income tax audit had revealed that they were anything but. But that was more of an excuse than a just cause for leaving the house; the real reason, of course, was, as always, just to get a break from home and kids for a bit.

It’s just as well that I had decided that hell and high water would not deter me, because high water was descending soon enough and hell pretty much described the state of the roads as the water level rose.
Umbrella in one hand and ring folders in the other, I trudged through the downpour, without much hope of staying dry for long. I was thinking of a previous and most memorable experience of walking in the rain. That was in Ladakh.

One day, we spent about 8 hours and 15 km in a steady downpour. I would hardly describe it as beautiful; and Amit was not in good spirits, so I had a task on my hands just keeping him going; but looking back, I have to admit it was one hell of an experience. (Of course, it was a terrible year in Ladakh, with unprecedented floods, and our trek ended with Amit’s father sending out the Army and the CBI to search for us… but that’s another story, and a very long one.)

And there were other memories – of rain and slush and mud mixed with dung, calf-deep and black as night and more slippery than an oiled eel; of solitude and companionship and nights alone in my tent at high altitudes and cold places; of nights spent awake and shivering and hoping the rain would not find a leak in my tent, and knowing that even if I stayed dry, others in neighbouring tents would not be so lucky; of wet shoes and cold feet and a fresh set of warm and dry socks and a cozy sleeping bag that has somehow avoided getting soaked; and so much more.

Repeatedly, over the course of many wet treks, I came to realize how important it is to keep one’s feet and crotch dry. And how much effort one is willing to expend towards this end. And, most importantly, how life becomes so much easier and less worrying once you give up on this and resign yourself to even these all-important regions of your body being cold and wet.

Sure enough, in the brief Bangalore downpour, my shoes were soon soaked through and I stopped stepping carefully to avoid the fast-flowing streams by the edges of the road. My jeans were wet at the bottom and I could feel the dampness inching up, so I stopped worrying about the passing vehicles splashing me. My upper body was still dry, thanks to the variety of bags I had saddled and draped around me and the umbrella held low over my head. But by far the more important function of the umbrella was to hide my face from the masses of people crowding under bus stops or squeezing flat against walls in an effort to stay dry – if they had seen the broad grin plastered on my face, they might have thought that I was completely crazy.

As I turned into the apartment complex, just for a moment a complete calm descended on the universe. There was no traffic on the road, not another person in sight, the trees and buildings were absolutely still and even the dogs and birds were in hiding, so there was no movement at all except the steady falling of the rain, and no sound other than that of the falling rain. Just for a moment, I felt that wonderful sense of alone-ness and calm that’s normally so impossible to find in the city and that repeatedly lures me to the remoter parts of the Himalayas. Now, with the twins, I wonder when – or whether – I’ll ever have a chance to find those quiet places again.


Lost in the Himalayas – Part 4 (the last)

July 25, 2007

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?


Lost in the Himalayas – Part 3

July 23, 2007

Despite the long and ultimately quite harrowing day before, we set off for Chilling bright and early. Straight out of camp, we climbed up a mini pass, Lanak La, only ~14,000 ft. Down we went on the other side, and after crossing a campsite, up we went again, climbing gradually on a winding path to DungDung La.

Words cannot describe the unique agony of struggling up a steep and apparently never-ending slope at 16,000 ft. Placing one foot just microscopically ahead of the other, at a pace a caterpillar might be ashamed of, and still having to stop after only a few steps, gasping piteously – there’s no doubt that mountains can reduce the nominally fit to shreds in a matter of minutes.

But, by noon, we were at the pass, and our view of the path we had traveled stretched all the way back to Konzke La. It was hard to believe we could have walked that far in a day. Ahead of us, under gathering clouds, was the Ladakh range on the left and very far away, the Stok range straight ahead, and the Zanskar range on the right. The Zanskar river, which appeared briefly and disappeared far away showed the path the Chadar Ice trek from Chilling to Padum would follow.

After a long sloping walk at quite a high altitude, the path went down, down, down. I, in the lead again, again took a wrong turn and led Amit down a steep and uncomfortable descent of about half an hour. After that, I went on ahead to ascertain whether the untenable route we were following improved or disappeared and found, to my utmost dismay, that it did the latter. After a heated debate and a lot of self reproach, we got back on the right track and found the “tail-enders” coming along. From there on, we went together, and made it to Chilling without further incident.

At Chilling, our horses from Leh awaited us, as we discovered to our relief the next morning. Our donkeys from Lamayuru ferried our stuff to the river and there we parted company from them. We made the usual exciting crossing of the Zanskar: hauled across by means of a basket suspended high over the water. The walk to Skiu was uneventful, except that Skiu seemed much farther away than I remember it being. The trail is hot and dry and dusty like a desert and we were all relieved to reach Skiu around 3 p.m.

Hot and dry gave way to cloudy and the next morning, soon after we left, it began raining. Umbrellas and raincoats were grumblingly put into use, but everybody wanted nothing more than to reach and get out of the rain as soon as possible. Markha, our destination for the day, was a good 18 km away, but it was a level walk and normally we should have made it in 3 hours. At first, after our various misadventures, we all walked roughly together. Then, at one point the path went both down and up. Amit followed the lower option, while the rest of us took the high road. We expected to meet after a few minutes, where the high road went down to the river, and we kept an eye out for signs of Amit navigating the lower path, but saw no sign of him at all. We reached the bottom and waited, but he didn’t come. Then Ballu went back along the lower path to look for him, and came back and reported that the lower path was clear, easy to navigate, and that Amit must have crossed this point ages ago and gone on ahead. But I was adamant that he would not have done any such thing without waiting to see us first. We have to go back and check again, I told Ballu, who clearly thought I was out of my mind to be worried. I had seen the limits of Amit’s mountain-climbing skills already and wasn’t leaving anything to chance, though. As DDB&B said, only half jokingly, we were all expecting him to be lying somewhere, unconscious, hands, legs and ribs smashed, and to see his blue jacket floating by on the lazy waters of the Markha river.

After wasting a good half hour waiting and searching, we were forced to go on. As we proceeded, we did find signs of Amit’s existence, such as enormous shoe-prints, and a hastily drawn arrow in the dirt – but I could not be convinced until I saw the fellow in person. So, I proceeded post haste, leaving Ballu, DDB&B behind and trotting along all alone on the 18 km path, slipping, sliding, and even falling in the mud, swinging between anger, humour, hope, and despair, not pausing to breathe far less to eat, until I came to the Markha river crossing, just a little before the village.

This river crossing is a much more serious affair than all the tiny streams we had hopped across so far; while also not being major enough to merit a rope-suspended trolley such as the one at Chilling. The terrain is quite flat, and the river splits into several threads, most of which can be crossed without pause for thought. The central stream, though, is somewhat broad, with water up to the mid-thigh level, and, as I discovered, a current that is quite swift and strong. Perhaps I should not have attempted it alone with nobody in sight or shouting distance, but, desperate to find my other half as I was, I did. Afterwards, I felt a bit like someone who’s been learning to drive for a couple of years, and has just summoned up the courage to take the driving test – with some courage, some skill, and some luck, I had passed.

And 45 minutes later, I could reassure myself that the other half was alive and kicking, having walked along with the string of horses, reached the campsite an hour earlier, negotiated for a room (the same one I had stayed in a couple of years ago) and downed a packed of Maggi and some hot tea, all unaware of the trouble and turmoil he had caused.

By early afternoon the rain stopped, and by early evening, the sky was beginning to clear up. We sprawled in the room, occasionally going outdoors to stretch our legs and gaze hopefully at the sky. There was an energetic game of cricket going on in the muddy campsite, which provided sporadic entertainment.

Markha to Thochuntse is only 12 km, and though it is generally uphill, I didn’t remember it as being particularly steep or tiring. We expected to reach camp around lunchtime, and I promised a delightful campsite at which to spend what looked like being a sunny afternoon.

Things went well for the first few hours, and we reached the two tiny villages along our way, Umlung and Hankar, pretty much as expected. At Hankar, we all ate some Maggi, and it was around 12.30 when we left. The locals promised us the walk would take no more than two hours, even at our leisurely pace.

The first sign that all was not well came before we had even found our way out of Hankar. The path took a left and climbed steeply to the Hankar gompa. While it was extremely picturesque at the top, I had no recollection of having done this climb before. “The path just followed the river,” explained Ballu. “Now, that path is probably washed away with the rains, hence this forced ascent.” The explanation looked plausible, so we just followed the path from the monastery, through another part of the village, and back down to the river, where we crossed a convenient wooden bridge. “I don’t remember crossing this bridge last time,” said I to Ballu. He assured me that we had, and that I didn’t remember anything, in which he was at least partly correct.

The feeling that I didn’t remember anything only grew on me during the next four hours. I mentioned it repeatedly to Amit, with growing concern and bewilderment. We were following a path all right, and there was enough dung on it to indicate that horses had been on it sometime not too long ago; but were we following the right path, was the question that forced itself upon my consciousness with the passing hours. We had seen not a soul after leaving the monastery, and there should have been enough people traversing the path from Markha to Thochuntse. Moreover, our horseman, who had caught up with us at Hankar and stopped for tea, had not yet overtaken us, as he should have done hours ago.

Were we lost?


Lost in the Himalayas – Part 2

July 21, 2007

From Lamayuru to Wanla to Hinju, the trek was uneventful. The weather cleared up at Wanla, the path was easy and pretty, the afternoons were warm and relaxed. Then we set out from the scenic campsite at Hinju for a long walk over Konzke La, a pass at an altitude of ~16,000 ft, to Sumdo village, far away from and about 3,000 ft lower than the pass. Many trekkers stop well before Sumdo, at a campsite called Doksar. This is good because it means that on the following day, you can climb one pass, Lanak La, and halt at the foot of DungDung La. On the fifth day, you get over DungDung La and reach Chilling. We, however, planned to cut a day and reach Chilling on day 4, and this involved going on from Doksar to Sumdo on day 3, and then crossing two passes, Lanak La and DungDung La, on day 4. We knew we were in for two long days.

We left early and followed the river for a long, long, long way before starting the climb to the pass. Somewhere along the way, I, in the lead, took a wrong turn, and Amit, right behind me, obediently followed. We wandered along a thin, almost invisible trail across the steep mountain side, and at the end, where the mountain curved around, I proceeded with the aid of my sturdy walking sticks to struggle straight up the loose stony face of the slope with the gay abandon of a mountain goat. Amit, meanwhile, was precariously positioned, tripod in one hand, nothing in the other, able to move neither up nor down, and cursing me with every passing breath. In the end, we both made it to the top of the slope without incident, only to find that there was a perfectly reasonable path approaching from another direction and sauntering along it was Ballu, our cook-and-guide, offering sympathy, food and a helping hand.

I had thought that this was the pass, but from our new vantage point we could clearly see that the pass was still far away, in fact, incredibly far away, and much higher as well. It took as a good two hours of sweat, hyperventilation, and despair.

This was not, in fact our first adventure on this trip. The previous day, Amit and I, going on ahead of the others as usual, had found a small stream in our path, which had to be crossed three or four times. These crossings are not remarkable – there are usually a few boulders sticking out of the water in just such an orientation that, with some courage and basic sense of balance, one can hop across them without getting the soles of one’s shoes wet. Every trekker has overcome many such crossings, and usually many worse ones as well. At the first of these, I duly hopped across, then turned around and waited for Amit.

Much to my surprise, he was stuck. One foot on one rock, he stood stock still, trying to summon up the courage to extend his long legs to the next rock. I waited. He waited. Time passed. I urged him on. He waved me to shut up. More time passed. Eventually I crossed back towards him and told him to give me the tripod.

Now, these crossings may not in themselves be difficult, but when someone as small, nervous and clumsy as me, is standing on a rock in the middle of a stream and encouraging someone else in a state of catatonic shock to handover a camera and tripod that together weigh about 15 kilos and cost a king’s ransom to boot, suddenly things don’t look so easy either. When Amit actually extended the tripod across the water towards me and I grabbed one end of it, I was leaning forward. When he released the blasted thing and the entire weight of it came into my arms, it took every bit of muscle power and determination for me to be able to straighten up and turn around. Both of us were more surprised than relieved – and that’s saying a lot, because we were really relieved – that I managed it without dropping the whole thing on the rocks or in the water.

The funny thing was that, with the camera out of the way, Amit crossed without further ado. And later on in the trek, when he had given permanent custody of the tripod to Ballu and the camera was safely packed away in his camera bag, he rarely thought twice about skipping from one rock to the next. With his long, long legs, he could afford to pick his own route across every little stream, while I had to hunt for the closest-spaced stones and even then sometimes ended up stepping in water.

That day, we reached the pass around noon, and left about an hour later. On the descent, Amit wasn’t feeling too good, so we walked really slowly, me doing everything in my power just to keep him going. Eventually, he did improve, but it was mid-afternoon by the time we reached Doksar. Now we had at least another two hours’ walk, or so we thought. Just as we exited the campsite at Doksar, we saw a huge mountain in front of us with a path going right up it. Crikey! Did we have to go up that???

We did. It took us a couple of hours, but up we went and down the other side, and as we went down, we got a superb view of a neat path about a thousand feet below us, snaking along the mountain side close to the river.

Recriminations flew fast and thick. Clearly we should be on that path – why on earth were we up here? By now, the five of us were walking in a bunch, the easier to argue the matter, and nobody felt happy about having been led up the mountain path for no reason. Ballu maintained that the access to the lower path had been washed away by floods last year, hence the need for the high road, but visual inspection indicated that we could have sneaked along the side of the river, perhaps crossing it a couple of times and reached that path by that far quicker and easier route. As it was, we made an unplanned descent straight down the mountainside, which was certainly the direct route, but not so easy on the knees.

That day, after a “real” river crossing (which entailed taking off socks and shoes and linking arms to cross), we reached Sumdo around 7 p.m. It was still daylight then, but our campsite was to be found not at Sumdo village itself, but a couple of km further on. The donkeys who were carrying all our luggage would be waiting there for us, so we had no choice but to continue. Amit and I charged ahead at top speed. A matter of 2 km may not sound like much, but on a winding mountain path in fading light it can practically take forever. As it happened, we reached camp just after 8, when it was just possible to stumble along without a torch. DDB&B reached about half an hour later, by when torchlight was indispensable. It would have been my second trek by torchlight, and both are unforgettable due to the sheer physical tiredness and the mental determination that were intrinsic to the experience.


Lost in the Himalayas – Part 1

July 18, 2007

A trek in Ladakh is always a big event. The landscape is vast, infinite, without end… and the scale of preparation and coordination required is almost in proportion to it. Plus, a trek of 11-12 days is quite a major undertaking in its own right, when you’re not going through a travel agency.

I’m not sure if having a lot of experienced and well-prepared people on the team makes everything easier, or a little more difficult. When Amit and I went on our first Himalayan trek ever, we were five trekkers with a total of zero years of trekking experience between us. Our equipment then consisted of rented sleeping bags and a jacket each. In our ignorance, we walked in sneakers and somehow stumbled through alive.

This time, our team had four members: Amit, me, and his cousins DDB & B. DDB&B have been trekking for about a quarter of a century, so the total of our trekking experience amounted to maybe 60 years. Consequently, we had about enough equipment to start a mid-size trekking agency of our own. Apart from personalized sleeping bags and mats, some genuine, branded North Face jackets and rucksacks, and enough medicines to treat a small city, we even had high-ankle, waterproof trekking shoes and – for Amit – calf-length (almost), steel-tipped workman’s boots. We were well equipped to launch a veritable expedition.

I was the only one who had been on this route before, so, before I quite knew what was happening, I had been appointed “leader” of the expedition. This was scary, because the others were all older, more experienced, fitter, and in every way better than me, so I didn’t feel qualified in any way to be leader. I should not really have taken the designation seriously, but for the realization that three other people were just about to subject themselves to serious degrees of discomfort over several days, not to mention the rather high financial commitment, all on my sole recommendation. That was really scary. Every time a query was addressed to “leader-saab” – which was often! – I had serious palpitations, the more so as I didn’t really have such a clear memory of every twist and turn of the route as to be able to address basic questions like: How many river crossings will we have today? (This later had “interesting” repurcussions – but that comes later.)

Amit had been praying so fervently (despite his self-professed atheism) for sunny weather, that I was pretty sure we would find rain. And we did, but it altered our plans in a way least expected.

Being very long-term planners when it comes to travel, Amit and I had booked tickets to Leh about six months in advance of our intended date of departure. This was a BIG mistake, because we spent several weeks prior to departure juggling air tickets, because the airlines (IC) took us on a jolly ride by changing the dates of both flights into and out of Leh. Then our flight to Delhi (Spice) was pushed out by almost three hours. Altogether we spent way too many hours and way too much money booking and re-booking flights, but when the dust settled, our flight from Delhi to Leh which was scheduled to leave at 5.45 a.m. on Friday got delayed till 7 a.m. and then sat on the tarmac for a further two hours, eventually taking off at 9 a.m. At 9.30, when our arrival at Leh should have been imminent, our pilot abruptly announced that weather conditions prohibited us from landing, that the Leh airport had been shut down, and that we were turning around and heading back to Delhi!

After a disaster like this, things can only get better… or worse. In this instance, they got worse before they got better. There was a free-for-all at the airport, brought on primarily by the airlines requesting us to wait for the next flight out on Monday. Although there were only a handful of passengers on this flight, and some wise ones (like yours truly) opted out of the fracase, bodily injury seemed inevitable, so the airline representatives gave in and organized a “special” flight for us the next morning. By this time, it was past lunch time and even the most energetic campaigners against the airline were tired, so we had lunch at the airport and went back home.

The next morning, things looked almost equally dismal. Internet reports on the weather at Leh were not promising. Plans B, C, D, and Z were discussed, including plans to shorten the trek, change the trek, abort the trek, and one particularly desperate plan to fly to Srinagar and drive from there to Leh; but the flight took off on time, and after circling above Leh for about half an hour, suddenly plunged through the clouds, swooped around the mountains, and landed at Leh amidst much applause from the 30-odd passengers.

The nice thing about Leh – actually, there are many nice things about Leh, but one of them – is that if you’ve been there once, when you go back it’s like returning to a host of friends. You have more than a passing acquaintance with a substantial proportion of the town’s population. We had been there a combined total of three times already, so we knew practically everyone. The taxi driver we got through the prepaid window at the airport, for instance, had driven us back from our aborted trek two years ago, so we were pretty much on first name terms right away. The small lodge where we always stayed, Palu Guest House, treated us like family, as did one particular travel agency, Royal Explorer, with whom we had never done business but only met socially.

Having arrived in Leh, things proceeded smoothly. Over the next two days, we got acclimatized and made all the arrangements necessary to start trekking. This included buying a large pressure cooker, a plastic can for water, kerosene, of course, and a sleeping bag for Ballu, who had decided to travel without one. It also included a trip to the Leh palace and Shanti Stupa, and to the local grocery stores and vegetable market. Having sneaked in several good meals along the way, at the end of two days, we were almost organized and ready to go.

The next day, we left for Lamayuru. At Lamayuru, we took two rooms, so we did not have to set up and tear down the tents from day one – there would be plenty of that in the following days. We negotiated with the locals for a group of five donkeys to carry our stuff, requested our taxi to pick us up from the end point on the appointed date, and with that, we were set to bid goodbye to civilization for the next ten days.

Lamayuru was wonderful, as always. It is a small, rustic place, with a monastery, a handful of run-down houses, solar lighting, a riverbed without much evidence of a river, and of course Moonland. Moonland is one stretch of mountain that has an ethereal creamy-white surface. Whether it is rock or sand it is difficult to say, but it is quite fascinating. The weather was somewhat unpredictable – it would rain every 45 minutes for a few minutes, not hard, but sufficiently so that whoever was outdoors would be forced to retire indoors.

Despite the rugged landscape and the unpredictable weather, there is a high awareness of cleanliness and hygiene in these areas, as evidenced by the following scene.

Five assorted people were standing around tentatively under a temporary shelter outdoors. On a nearby wooden bench was a fat cotton mattress, doubled over. It was just beginning to rain. The following conversation took place in Hindi, in which it is hugely effective.

First person: You’d better put that mattress in; it’s beginning to rain.

Second person: Well so what? When it rains, it’ll get wet, and when the sun comes out, it’ll dry out again.

First person: Why have you kept it out then, to wet it or to sun it?

Second person: If it gets wet, it will be washed…

First person: And if it gets the sun?

Second person (without missing a beat): …it will be “dry cleaned”.


Mind in the Mountains

June 13, 2007
Two weeks to departure and the countdown is very much under way. As usual, there’s too much to do and not enough time. Apart from the usual trek preparations which involve getting out our tent, sleeping bags, warm clothes, assembling cameras and tripods, taking stock of medical and first aid requirements, etc etc etc – apart from all that usual stuff, I also have to think of a birthday gift for my sister and one for my cousin sister-in-law. Not just think of, but also obtain.

And all of that is quite apart from mundane stuff like getting ahead in German, writing an assignment in Archaeology, and keeping the house running.

To add to the excitement, tax filing date is around the corner!

On top of everything else, my second (or is it third?) most ardent wish has finally been granted and I have been given some work to do in office. It’s very far from being glamorous – or even challenging – work, but it’s work nevertheless, and it’s better than nothing.

On second thoughts, though, nothing would have been quite good just right at the moment. Well, I suppose you should be careful what you wish for.

At last, after postponing it for several weeks, I have finally started fitness training for the trek. Currently this takes the form of running 15 rounds at the tennis courts – that’s AFTER playing for an hour. If that’s not enough to impress you, let me add that my circuit consists of two courts side-by-side. It was enough to impress Tennis Sir, who thought I was doing this to improve my tennis – of which erroneous notion I have not had the heart to disabuse him. I should have done, though, because he was so impressed to see my assumed dedication to the sport that he promptly instructed me to add crunches (sit-ups) to my daily exercise routine. My poor stomach hardly survived the first attempt, but after giving it a week to recover, now I’ve done it three days running and it’s only protesting mildly. So, there’s hope for me yet.

Two weeks might not be enough time for all my preparations, but it’s still too long to wait – my mind is already in the mountains. For a naturally slothful person who avoids physical exertion like the plague, I’m constantly amazed at how I’ve taken to trekking, where you spend hours walking every day, for days on end, with no specific purpose.

I also never cease to be surprised at how I love the rustic lifestyle of trekking. I consider myself a fairly comfort-loving person. I was brought up in an urban and fairly westernized environment, eating dinner (AT the dining table, if you please, NOT in front of TV) with three sets of cutlery and all that, and here I am gamely taking to dust and dirt, a complete lack of privacy, outdoor toilets (sometimes communal), two weeks without a bath and other such delights of the mountains, as if they were second nature to me.

Another thing I about trekking that is perverse to my nature, is the complete absence of a plan. I mean, you do need to have a plan when you set out, and your plan should include certain essentials such as food, and a place to pitch a tent in the evening – oh, and a tent, of course. But all of that is “pre” planning – what you do before you set out. Once you’re out on the trail, you don’t have to plan a thing. You just keep going, and when you find a level spot with some clean water nearby, you stop and pitch tent. The only things to think about are where you’re going to sleep, where you’re going to find sufficient privacy for toilet breaks, and when and how you’re going to get your next meal. Life really boils down to the basics. No wonder hermits through the ages have taken to the mountains.

This time it’s not so easy for me to escape the trek planning part, though. Amit’s trekking cousins are accompanying us. Since I’m the only one who’s been on this trek before, I’ve somehow been made de facto “leader” of the team. This is terrible, because I actually see myself as the least experienced and also the weakest link; the trekking cousins have been trekking twice a year for the last couple of decades. And they are looking to me for information and organization.

Unfortunately, my idea of being “organized” for a trek is to get all my/our personal equipment together and get going. Everything else we’ll buy once we reach the trail head. I’m not used to dealing with questions such as: who’s bringing the stove and pressure cooker, and how many tents will we need?

I suppose it’ll all work out eventually and that whatever can be done will be done, and whatever can’t be done will get dropped by the wayside hopefully without any adverse effects. As long as it doesn’t rain up there and nobody falls sick, it should be ok.


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