If I had my life to live over...
I would go more places.
I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers...
- Don Harold
After months of deliberation and planning, we had decided on the trek to Bali pass in May 2012 with 14 signing up. The plan was to reach Dehradun and then drive on to the end of the road at Taluka. From here we would walk, climb the pass whose highest point was at 4800 m, descend on the other side and reach road again at Janaki Chatti from where we would drive back to Dehradun. For 4 of us, this would be the third trek in the Himalayas together, starting with Hampta pass in September 2010. Another 7 would be enjoying their second trek with us and the other 3 were new faces. The group was drawn from a wide range of places from New York and Singapore to Delhi, Pune and Chennai. Finally, the day we had planned for, had waited for eagerly, was there ...
Five of us flew out of Chennai late evening to reach Delhi close to midnight. We went over to a friend's place for a mini party, eating chaats, dhokla, chicken kababs and other assorted stuff. The hosts seemed to be running around all night refilling plates and glasses, cleaning up and setting up makeshift beds while we shamefully just ate, drank and slept. As I nodded off, I was thinking I would never do this for anyone at my home, not even if they were my ten best friends.
In the New Delhi railway station, the whole team came together and we boarded the Shatabdi. We were served at regular intervals with coffee, snacks or breakfast and rolled into Dehradun on time at noon. Here we met our guides for the trip, Jayanth a.k.a Mowgli and Ashish from Himalayan Wanderers and were taken to a hotel close to the railway station for a simple vegetarian lunch. We left by 2.00 pm on two cars. A long, somewhat cramped, often picturesque and occasionally scary ride brought us to Sankri by about 9 pm. The last hour or so to Taluka over a bad road was thus done in darkness. At Taluka, we slept well, knowing we wouldnt be sleeping on a soft bed for a few days now.
First day of the trek. After the drive, it felt good to get going on your feet. All the way, we walked along the river Tons through some lush forests. It is a gentle climb for most of the way with a couple of segments that go down. We cover a distance of about 13 km going up from an altitude of 1900 m to 2560 m. Osla is a small village and we camped in two man tents. I slept poorly, having difficulty adjusting to a tent and sleeping bag.
Second day's trek was quite a warm up, a 10 hour climb from Osla to Har Ki Dun at an altitude of 3566 m. We crossed the river and had a steady, stiff climb ahead of us for most of the way. It was a climb with sparse vegetation and a rocky path, but with a lovely waterfalls on the way to break the monotony. Before sunset we had a few moments to enjoy a view of the Har Ki Doon valley before returning to our beautiful campsite for the day, near a stream. Tonight I again slept badly and it would be another night before I made peace with the sleeping bag.
After our detour to Har Ki Doon, we retraced most of the route today, which meant a steep climb down, taxing everyone's knees. There was a little excitement for a while when we noticed Sanjeev was missing, but it turned out that he had gone ahead by a different trail. Original plan was to reach Debshu Bugyal, but we stopped a little ahead of it to give us some time for 'adventure activities'. Our guides set up ropes for a river crossing which was exhilirating and then we learnt some rock climbing on a small rock before setting up camp.
Up until this point, we had mules carrying all the stuff, but we were due to change to porters today. Unfortunately we found that the porters who were to have reported this morning failed to turn up and so we had to find fresh porters from the village. All this meant we were still sitting around at 10 am unable to get going. Finally, with news of some porters arriving in a few hours, we decided to cover some ground at least with some of us carrying our own bags. We trekked for 3-4 hours with an initial steep climb to Debshu Bugyal, then coming down a short steep slope and going on a little more to reach a lovely campsite by a stream for a late lunch. We had an expanse of riverbed that had soft sand cluttered with pebbles and larger stones. With the sun and a clear sky this was like a lovely summer day at the beach and we enjoyed a beach-side lunch. With most of the day left, we spent time playing 'dog and the bone' and later on, handball with a ball made of rolled up socks! In between someone came up with the idea of taking in a dip in the stream. Tentatively putting my leg in, I was able to bear the freezing water for only 30 seconds. So I changed and went in with no little apprehension, but once in, it turned out be fun and an impromptu challenge with Sushanth went into a deadlock for more than a minute only broken by us coming out together. Late evening we had a campfire, and despite missing some meat to barbeque in the campfire, we had fun trading stories.
Having had a free day, the plan today was to push it to the base of Bali pass. In between, we intended to visit Ruinsara Tal before crossing the river on a bridge. We had to walk on a trail on the steep sides of a stream. Turned out that the rains in the last couple of weeks had left a series of landslides all along the trail and now we found the trail broken at maybe 10 places by these slides. We had to find our way above, under or across these places, trusting our feet to hold on to the steep, loose sides, hoping that neither our feet nor the trail would give way to send us sliding down to the stream below. It was a long and tough walk, a steady climb of about 16 km to reach the Tal at 3500 m. When we reached the area tired and late in evening, we found that the bridge that we had planned to use to cross the stream was broken. In addition, there was a brief hailstorm with thunder raising concerns about the weather on the pass. Unable to cross over to the base of the pass, we camped near the Tal, which by the way was a small but delightful high altitude lake.
Despite much coaxing, the porters refused to cross the stream or climb up to the pass. There seemed to be nothing to do but change plans to reach the pass and return to camp today. This would also give some rest to three indisposed trekkers who elected to stay behind at camp. We started off at about 6.30 am, at least an hour too late in retrospect. We had a short descent down to the stream and the first task was to cross the stream. While two of the 'streamlets' could be crossed over logs or stones without stepping into the water, there was no getting around this for one of the wider sections. Wading through absolutely freezing water with bare feet and dancing once on the other side to get some sensation back into the feet is not something any of us would forget soon! Once across, we put on gaiters along with the shoes since we were now entering snow country.
After an initial steep climb, we started walking along a gentle incline towards the foot of the pass. This was apparently unseasonal amount of snow with the locals not having seeing this much snow at this time of the year for 20 years. By the time we reached the base of the pass, we were walking all the time in snow. Trudging in snow in which we kept sinking till the knees now, while all the time climbing and climbing turned out to be much harder than we would have imagined. Three of the 11 who left camp decided to stop in between while there were still some rocks to stay put. The other 8 of us were stretched out in a long line with me closer to the end. We soon ran out of places to sit even and had no option but to keep walking. By now, all of us had also run out of water (another mistake, with hindsight; we should have carried more water) and had our bottles filled with snow. Adding to the misery, my left gaiter strap broke and snow started seeping inside the shoes, slowly freezing my feet. At 12.30 pm, we stopped to rest, sitting down in the snow itself. The highest point of the pass seemed deceptively close, maybe only a few hundred metres away, but there was still a fair bit to climb and judging from our speed so far, we knew it would take almost 2 hours. At that point, we did not have the time to do this and get back safely in time. So, reluctantly, we had to turn back. Just as we reached the base of the pass on the way back, hail started to fall again and we saw a couple of small avalanches.
Today we began our return trip, walking back to Debshu Bugyal and on to Osla. Mostly downhill with some stretches where we had to climb. It was not too taxing at any point, although it seemed to me that we crossed the landslide areas with less care than we did in the other direction and it got scary for me at least in some places. One week of camp cooking had left everyone hankering for things to eat. On the way to Osla we stopped at a small shop to have Maggi and then at Osla itself, we had some scrambled eggs. This would also be our last night in tents. I had by now got used to the tent routine and knew I would miss it.
I woke up pretty early and went out to shoot some birds (with the camera, of course). We had a relatively easy walk ahead of us, but returning by the same route always seems much less fun than walking on a route for the first time. We reached Taluka in the evening and had more eggs (omelette!). We had a post trek celebration with chicken and drinks, with toasts for everyone. Although Taluka is a small place without electricity or phone signal, it was civilization alright. So it was back to the life of Barbarians for us, with chicken, soft beds and bathrooms (yikes!). Tomorrow the phones will start ringing and life will never be the same again.
We started at about 9 am on what turned out to be a 11 hour drive to Dehradun, dashing hopes for a bath at Dehradun. We just had enough time for dinner and a dash to the station to catch an overnight train to Delhi.
End of the trek early morning at Delhi as people split up. It seemed to be hot and dusty and we felt exhausted suddenly, agreeing this was low altitude sickness! This was my third trip to the Himalayas and was arguably the one I enjoyed the most. From the stark beauty of the snow fields to the enchanting loveliness of the forests, we saw it all. The organisers did an amazing job.
Finally my trekmates were the best I could have got. Nagi was the life of the trek, provided inspiration for all the younger trekkers on the trails and dispensed wisdom to the villagers in our nightly rounds of The villagers and the werewolves. On the other end of the age spectrum, Arun who had struggled alongside me on the first trek, now nonchalantly strode in the front everyday carrying his rucksack, becoming an inspiration himself. Sushanth justified the efforts I had put in from the beginning to make sure he would be on the team by demonstrating his fighting spirit and the showdown we had in the freezing waters was, for me, the most memorable moment of the trip.
Siva, as usual, was what noone else can be, with his innovative methods for luring vultures and impromptu flute recitals. Belying the initial impression that he had not changed much since his marriage, Vishravars finally gace proof of the improvement by not losing a single item on the trek. Ragou earned everyone's respect for battling it each day despite the excruciating pain in his knees and then still being able to walk into camp with a smile at the end of the day. Priya endeared herself to everyone when she proved herself guileless enough to not be able to deny that she was a werewolf. Viji showed a lot of 'American' aggressiveness and intensity in all the games which was sometimes daunting, but Viji, I cannot forget your touching faith in me, defending me from the irate villagers throughout that round in the game while I gobbled them up every night. Bhavani, as we have come to know him, was the silent man, always in the background, but somehow evoking confidence that were you to fall into the river, he would be the first guy to jump in to save you. Anu was the kid of the group, trotting along with her small bag and was her endearing self for most of the trek and then exasperatingly, would get upset over the smallest thing and drive people crazy. It was incredible how Durga could always do so much while appearing to do so little and show so little strain, but what I won't forget easily is how you played host on the first day. Finally, my good friend Sudhakar has always been my guide from the day we started making the plans and no trek will be complete without his entertaining stories.
Here is to more mountains in the future !