Winner of IndiaHike’s March 2016 Blog Contest.
Recently I went on a high altitude trek to Chadrashila Peak (12,083 feet) in the Himalayas. If you want to read something that is packed with edge-of-the-cliff adventure, this is not that blog post. However, if you are willing to be satisfied with a few insights, read on.
I was born in a place called Malappuram in Kerala. It basically means ‘Land of Mountains’. The mountains of Malappuram are the gentle, rolling hills of the Western Ghat’s coastal face.
So I guess the affinity I feel for hills and mountains should be expected. Give me a hill station any day over a beach. I love the cooler climes, the greenery, the gentle and grand beauty that is a South Indian hill station, like Ooty, Kodaikanal, and Munnar. I have also stood humbled by the perfection that is nature, at the top of Alpine mountains in Switzerland. However, at no point did the mountains call. I admired them all and I moved on.
Then three years ago I went on a 9-days long road trip through Himachal Pradesh. Those nine days, saw me re-visit how I wanted to live my life in the near and not-so-near future. The peaks looming above me, the evergreens towering over me, the mist, the rain, the greenery… everything. These were not the gentle, green rolling hills and mountains of the south. These were not the perfect snowy slopes of Jungfrau and Rigi. This was a different beast altogether. Wild, untamed, verdant, stark and edgy they called to my soul in a way no other place ever has. The mountains didn’t just call. They screamed.
Since then, I have always tried to include a visit to the Himalayas into our holiday plans. I succeeded the year that we visited Bhutan and failed miserably the next year when we visited Lavazza, near Lonavala. Maybe it was the failed holiday plan or just plain old middle age, but this year my friend and I decided to go on that long-planned trek. “Come what may. We are going to do this.” We told this to each other over and over again, until we believed it. We then informed our rather incredulous families. Neither of us is remotely athletic and a pretty long way from desired fitness levels. Nonetheless, the decision was made. The mountains had called.
My brother, a veteran of three to four treks, recommended India Hikes to us. And just like that over a phone call, I registered my friend and my name for the Devriatal-Chandrashila Peak trek for the March 21-26 batch.
Our reasons for picking this particular trek were rather straightforward. The website describes the Chandrashila trek as an easy-moderate trek. The words ‘easy-moderate’ lulled me into believing that my rather pedestrian level of fitness and a course of Diamox would see me through.
It was not until I was into Day 3 of the trek that it struck someone to ask the trek leader, “Easy-to-moderate in comparison to what?”
The trek is easy-to-moderate in comparison to other high altitude Himalayan treks. If you are planning on going for one of these treks, please take those fitness charts, the trekking companies send out, seriously.
However, that (my fitness levels) was about the only downside of the trek for me. The rest was all… life-affirming, humbling, joyful and peaceful. Starting from the base camp at Sari to the second day’s camp at Devriatal, then the third day’s camp at Rohini Bugyal and finally the camp at Martoli, which was our base for the last two days including the day we summited the peak, and the final day’s mini-trek to Chopta and back to Haridwar, I enjoyed myself despite gasping for air like a fish out of water. I am not going to document each and every step of the trek. This India Hikes article http://indiahikes.in/deoria-tal-chandrashila-peak-trek/ does that much better. However, I would like to share moments, anecdotes, conversations and lessons that stood out in stark clarity for me.
Pahadi Rasthe (Mountain Paths)
I have read some great poems about mountains, open roads, and walks through forests. Wordsworth, Whitman, Frost et all have to step aside, though. One of my favourite lines was the one quoted by our tempo driver – Vicky – as he drove us from Haridwar railway station to Sari base camp – a gruelling 10-hour drive. I don’t remember the context in which he mentioned it, but he said, “Yeh pahadi rasthe zahreele saanp hothein hein. Sambaloge nahin toh das legi.” [These mountain roads are like a poisonous snake. If you are not careful, they will strike.]. I had never, despite my crazy imagination, looked upon these curving, twisting stretch of tar, gravel, and rock as a living, breathing entity. Now I can’t think of it as anything but!
My second pahadi rasthe comment came my way courtesy Sunil – one of the trek guides and the designated ‘sweeper’, the guide responsible for ensuring that no trekker is left behind. Guess who made up the ranks at the rear. I, me, myself and Sunil. It was Day 3 and we were on the interminably long trek from the Devriatal campsite to the Rohini Bugyal one. The trail was a combination of gentle ascents (more about these later), descents and in Sunil’s words ‘seedha rastha’.
I have lived my entire life in coastal cities, where seedha rastha basically means a flat, straight path. Half way through that day’s trek, I am dead. Seeing my condition, Sunil told me that up ahead is a seedha rastha, and I trekked on in hope. After thirty minutes of hanging on to hope as we climbed up and down, and turned this way and that way, I turned to him and asked, “Where is the seedha rastha?” He looked at me innocently and told me that we were on it. Then he added, by way of explanation, “Pahadon mein seedhe rasthe aise hi hothe hein.” [In the mountains our straight paths are like this.] Sunil is one of the sweetest guys I have ever met, but I could have killed him in that moment.
Saved from Lifelong Regret
Basically, you ask yourself – “Can you do it?”
As I prepared for the trek, I told myself – “Of course, I can!”
If I had not summited, the answer I would have had to live with for the rest of my life is – ‘No. I could not.”
Of course, there are many trekkers who have failed at summiting their chosen peaks but then have gone on to defeat their inner demons and climb the same and other peaks.
However, if I had failed at this one, I doubt I would have had the will or the courage to try again. My greatest motivator was the knowledge that I would not be able to cope with this regret. I was saved from this regret not because I am a great trekker (I am not) or I am tough as hell (you guessed it. That is not me.), but because I got bloody lucky with regards to the human beings I got to trek with, and because the mountains decided to let me climb its slopes.
I also need to mention that while being fit enables us to enjoy the trek better, completing a trek is not dependent on fitness alone… it is dependent largely on one’s will. Ironically enough, this holds especially true if you are not a fit-as-a-fiddle trekker.
When I signed up for the trek, I had rather romantic visions of trekking easily in the lap of nature, enjoying the silence and solitude of the mountains a la William Wordsworth. When I found out that I would be one of 25 other trekkers (average age 25) in the March 21st, 2016 batch, I got worried. ‘There is going to be a traffic jam along the way!’ I thought. ‘What have I signed up for!’ I worried.
Karma of course worked its beautiful magic and I never got caught in a traffic jam at the top. Not because the number of trekkers came down, but because I was always the last one crawling into a camp or arriving at the summit. Humbling lesson learnt.
I have heard that a trek is a great teacher. I was a willing student and the ‘real’ lesson that this trek held for me was truly beautiful. When I met my fellow trekkers, with the exception of my friend, everyone else was a stranger. Day 1 as I lagged behind, I wondered – what will the others think? By day 2, I realised that they were not bothered about analysing my speed, rather they were more interested in cheering my arrival at our smaller ‘break’ spots and our day’s campsite.
Thanks to my speed I did get to have my Wordsworth inspired moments of solitude, but I was also blanketed by the warmth and support of 24 other trekkers, 4 trek guides and PE sirji, the man in charge of the two mules that carried the rucksacks of the nine trekkers who had chosen to offload. (Apparently, he was famous or infamous amongst the kids in Sari, for making them do a few jumping jacks, squats and stretches every single time he came across them. Luckily he spared me that trauma. He would just smile kindly at me and tell me ‘ho jaayega.’ [You will be able to do it.])
I loved most parts of the trek, except the ascending bit. I know. The irony. It was on those ascending bits that Dushyant and Vishal, the trek leader and assistant trek leader, took turns to keep me company, with general chit chat, stories, jokes and even songs. Given that my response to everything and anything was usually just a grunt (I was conserving oxygen) you can imagine how hard these guys had to work at keeping my mind occupied.
On the last day, we stepped out at 2.20am with our day bags. It was the day when the rucksacks were left behind at the Martoli campsite, as we were going to return to it. Yash, one of my fellow trekkers, took my day bag from me saying, “I don’t have a bag to carry today. My friends are carrying my water bottles for me. I will carry your bag.” By now my ego was suitably humbled and I gratefully mumbled my thanks. Yash, and his friends, and then Sunil carried my bag the whole of the final day.
While coming down, Shubham bravely accompanied me as I kept sinking into knee deep snow. Every time I sank, I ensured the poor guy took a dunking too. Alok helped me through the slippery icy bits near Tungnath temple. Dhyey kept me company while we came down the Tungnath trail. On the previous days, Polika would happily splash my face with water whenever we neared a stream. Preety taught me how to control my breathing so that I did not feel that my heart was conspiring to jump out of my body via my mouth. My friend, Reva, would wait for me to arrive so that we could eat together. My other fellow trekkers would always have a word of encouragement for me.
And on the last day, Dushyant walked with me up a mountain. Step-by-step, breath-by-breath, not letting me sit too long, especially near the peak (knowing fully well that if I sat down, I would not get up again), as he reminded me again and again, why I was doing this. Some of my fellow trekkers have similar stories about other trekkers. Poonam swears that without Vishal and Dhyey she would not have made it. Bonita was awed by Ambuj and Jasjot’s willingness to put her comfort ahead of their need to summit in time to witness the sunrise.
At no point, did I ever ask for help. At no single point did I have to ask for help. Was it the mountain air that made all of us better and kinder human beings, or did I just draw a trekker’s dream lottery and land up with a trekking team that was peopled with such beautiful souls? I don’t know. All I know is I am deeply grateful.
When we do something that tests our limits, within a day or two we are shorn off all facades, and we are reduced to being exactly who we are. Did I walk with strangers? Maybe on day 1. By the time the trek ended, I knew I had been fortunate enough to walk with people whose histories and life stories I may not be aware of, but whose real self I was privileged enough to have had a glimpse into.
I am a hard-core non-vegetarian, but, now, beef is one item that is off the menu for me. This is what happened. Day 2. It is the day we had that interminably long trek. Like a fool, I was lugging an SLR with me too. About 4 hours into the trek and with another 4 hours to go, I was questioning my sanity and wondering why I did not opt for a luxury spa holiday.
As I sat down for yet another 2-minute break, a black cow joined Sunil and me on the trail and stood near me. I moved aside to let it pass, but it waited with bovine patience. As I trudged along, it kept walking with me for a while. At one point I turned around and the cow was not there. I thought it had got bored and moved on and said so to Sunil. The next bend we turned, we saw the cow waiting there on the mountain side. I felt secretly thrilled. I began to entertain myself with ideas like, maybe Lord Shiva sent the cow down to encourage me and tell me not to give up. Please don’t theorize about Nandi being a bull. I am sticking to my idea of my cow being universe’s messenger. I began to think that maybe… just maybe, I will make it at least till Tungnath temple (which is 700 feet below the Chandrashila Peak) on the final day. The idea did not make me walk faster. But, it kept me walking.
As I walked on I caught up with some others from the group who had lagged behind to take photographs. When they made way for the cow, it moved on ahead and stood on a knoll nearby and then turned around and waited. The others moved on. I followed with Sunil. And the cow followed. I stopped. She stopped. I walked. She walked. This went on. Not for a few minutes or even an hour, but for the rest of the day until I reached the campsite a good four hours after meeting the cow for the first time! She hung around the camp for a while and then moved on. I did not see her after that.
In the next trek, if a hen accompanies me I am turning vegetarian.
Gentle Ascents… More or Less
People who are born in the mountains or those who have adopted it as their home have a peculiar code. They are tough people, but they are also gentle. Maybe it is this gentleness that prevents them from telling you exactly how far you have to go, how long it is going to be and how steep the path up ahead is. Either that or a perverse sense of humour.
Our trek leaders and guides would egg us on by saying, “Bas thodi dhoor aur.” [Just a little bit more.] Invariably we would walk for another hour or two after that statement. Trails were described as having ‘more or less gentle ascents’. Trust me unless you are a billy goat or a pahadi (by birth or choice) there was nothing gentle about those ascents.
Truth be told, these ‘gentle ascents’ and ‘thodi door aur’ did see me continue with the trek. Hope, after all, springs eternal.
Trekking slowly up and down the mountains of Gharwal and through its beautiful rhododendron forests with Sunil, I had the opportunity to learn more about the people and the culture of the land. I learnt that the rhododendron is called the burans in their dialect and that the juice of the red burans is delicious, but the pink and purple burans are considered poisonous (apparently the animals and birds don’t feast on them either). In the village shop, if you want the juice, you should ask for burans juice. If you ask for rhododendron juice, they will give you a blank look. Oaks are called karsu, and if I am not mistaken, pine, fir and deodar trees are all called devdaar.
I learnt that the smoke coiling up on the distant mountains were not caused by forest fires, but by the fires that farmers set to their fields to get rid of old roots, and help the soil revive. I learnt about the choolah room – a room adjacent to the kitchen which may lie unused in summer. The room truly comes alive in winter when it becomes their makeshift bedroom with everyone piling into it for warmth. Something similar happened on days 2 to 4 at the campsite, when after sunset the temperatures would dip and we would all pile into the dining tent and stay there until bedtime, talking and swapping stories (scary and otherwise), because that was the largest tent in the camp and all of us wanted to bask in human warmth.
On day 2 as I was sitting down on a flat-ish piece of rock for my hundredth break, I looked back at the distance we had covered so far. I could see Sari (our base camp) lying nestled in the laps of mountains. I must have crossed a few mountains and ridges! For a veteran trekker that maybe no big deal. For a computer bound writer, it was gobsmacking awesome. It is a beautiful piece of land. However, Uttarakhand has experienced nature’s fury. Parts of it have been ravaged by the 2013 deluge – we can still see the damage in places like Rishikesh. Still up here, nature was at its benign, beautiful best – at least for the duration of our trek.
A calm beauty that is reflected in the Gharwalis. Without exception, every single woman, man, and child I met had a smile to offer and that smile always… always reached their eyes. Kind and loving – those are the words I associate with the people of Uttarakhand. Now, back in a global megapolis, trying to assimilate back into ‘normal’ life, it is no longer alright to look into someone’s eyes and smile. If you do, you are usually met with a stony stare or a look that translates into: ‘stay away from that crazy lady who smiles at strangers.’ Sigh.
Off late, the concept of mindfulness had been vying for attention in my packed-to-the-gills life. I realised that I could no longer multi-task efficiently. Then the trek happened. The first two days were spent just trying to get my act together. The third day was better. But everyone knew the last day was going to be a killer. We started out at 2.20am. It was dark and the trail was lit only by our headlamps and the moon. We didn’t really need the torches or the headlamps. The moon was shining so brightly. Kind of apt, given that the peak is named after it.
Our trek leader knew that it was going to be tough for me, so he stayed back with me and told me to focus on just two things – every single step and every single breath I took. That is how I climbed on the last day of the trek. It was an interminably long day (including an almost hour long team Maggi break on the way down) for me. I summited at 8 and got back to camp at about 1.30pm. 11 hours of ascending and descending. I made it because of the attention I was made to pay to every single step.
I was told – Keep it small. Bigger strides will tire you in the mountains. Don’t try and climb straight up. It will tire you. Opt for paths that zig-zag. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth at a steady pace. Don’t rush. It is not a race.
As I sit typing out this post, I find that these words have become the symphony playing on a loop in the background in my mind. As someone attempting my first novel, I am able to extend these words to story maps, character-development and chapter divisions. And through it all, I remind myself to breathe… slowly and deeply.
Most trek leaders were usually working at regular day jobs until their first trek. (The exceptions are the ones who are born in these mountainous states.) The first trek almost always led to a love affair with the mountains. They then either underwent further training or embarked on more treks, and then quit their day jobs and opted for a career as a trek guide and leader. It is a career path that may never find mention in an MBA case study.
Yet, almost all of us – corporate lawyers, sales executives and managers, IT specialists, doctors, traders, writer and educationists (people who made up our motley trek team) – knew that at least one of these guys had found his calling.
To witness a man doing what he absolutely loves to do and be exactly where he wants to be – it is a joy. To witness his passion and energy for the mountains and nature and for his job – it was a wake-up call that most of us carried away with us. Life is too short. We should be spending our hours doing what we like… not what we should be liking.
Like I said earlier, the greater Himalayan foothills have cast their magic on me. They have definitely called. It is up to me to heed.
Thanks for reading.