Monday, September 19, 2011

Walking in thin air

‘How can you really know the joy of being on the summit of the
mountain unless you have first visited the lowest valley?’

Day 2 of trek. My Casio ABT watch recorded an altitude of around 13000+ feet. Being new to trekking and relatively slow walker, some of us had started early that day. Target was a daunting 2500 feet climb in those rarefied mountains. Rains over past couple of days had made tracks disappear at places. At the foot of the first hill, we lost the mule track and took the more visible under construction road by BRO. The road had met a dead end almost halfway to the top. We were left with no option but to find our way to the top of the hill. The exertion and anxiety in trying to find our way to the top made the feeling of breathlessness worse. Occasionally, I even felt mild giddiness. Looking down I even thought what bug had bitten me to do all this. I was out on trekking, looked forward to clicking some memorable photos, and now I was trying climb up the face of a hill clinging dangerously on to rocks. Welcome to high altitude trekking.

Rain, rain and more rain

15th August, 2011. Rain and a cold morning greeted us at Manali. While the nation was getting ready to celebrate Independence Day, we were getting ready for a grueling trek from Darcha (Lahaul Spiti) to Padum (Ladakh) – nearly 100 km over 8 days across Zanskar. Torrential rains had been playing havoc in Himachal this year. Perilously swelling Beas was an indication of things around Manali. In fact the Manali – Leh could be re-opened on the afternoon of 14th after a couple of day’s blockade. As the road was open to traffic, we knew that the trip was on. The team could move out of Manali only by noon because of delay in obtaining permit. Halfway to Rohtang pass, we faced the first hurdle - a long stretch of mud and slush on an upward Z turn. Our vehicles could not find a grip on the slush to move up. I was in a Tata Winger, which probably is the worst vehicle on such road. Many other vehicles were also struggling. For a moment I felt that this was the end of the trip. After half an hour struggle, the experience of the drivers came handy and we could move beyond that deadly 100 meters of slush, only to get stuck in another jam at another slushy stretch. Most bikers on that day could not go beyond this slush. This is quite in contrast to my last visit to Rohtang pass some 10 years back in good season. The Manali – Rohtang road is now a nightmare and is often remains blocked due to landslides. In July and Augsut this year tourists had a harrowing time on this road getting blocked sometimes for days with no food and water.

Rain did not relent even for a minute that day. It was snowing in higher ups. The road at Rohtang pass resembled a long black snake cuddled up on a white sheet. By now, we had fallen well behind schedule and now faced the daunting task of driving at night in unknown hills in bad weather, where nearest aid may be several hours away. You can’t spot falling stones at night. Darcha was too far away now and we had to reach Keylong. Fortunately we had company– around 6 vehicles and a couple of bikers. A landslide at a stream named Pagal Nullah, forced us to take a diversion. If I look back on the events of that night, it gives me chill. It was very dangerous. We were fortunate to come unscathed that night. Braving landslides, falling stone, we had managed to reach Keylong at around 10 in the night. Being a district headquarters, Keylong had about 5 hotels. But all were full. One of the hotel owners was kind enough to let the group spent the night in the carpeted dining hall. My first night in sleeping bag had more twist to it. Late in the night, I was jolted out of slumber by sound of droplets. After 3 days of incessant rain, the roof the dining hall had started leaking. These are rain shadow areas, which rarely receive rain.

By morning rain had reduced to light drizzle. While we had breakfast, the vehicles went to Tandi, which is just 8 km from Keylong, to get fuel. The petrol pump at Tandi has a signboard saying next petrol pump is 365 km away (which is not correct as you will find at least one next day – probably at Pang). Vehicles by default had to tank up here. As the pump was close when we had crossed it previous night, our vehicles went to Tandi in the morning for fuel. While one vehicle managed to come back safely, two other got stuck in a landslide and could come back only around 3pm. We made a sizeable contribution to the economy of Keylong by shopping that day. However, a clear sky and bright sunshine after noon cheered us up. But we were facing the prospect of losing an entire day.

Get, set, go : almost there

Darcha is about 30 km from Keylong. There we found that the Darcha - Padum trek now actually starts at Palamu. A motorable road now exists till Palamu. One of the dhaba owners at Darcha told us to look for the horseman named Norbu at Chikka village. A young fella at Chikka helped us to locate Norbu. The young fella is studying at Bangalore. He will certainly make his remote village proud one day, not Norbu who later ditched us.

Lessons in camping

Most of us were new to long distance trekking. Spending few days of my life in tents sounded interesting experience to me. I had no idea as to what are types of tents; forget about know-how on how they are to be pitched.

My initiation to camping started at 12000 feet in the darkness of a night at Palamu. Moon was yet to rise. Under a starry sky with flashing torchlight all around, I was introduced to basic of pitching tents. By 7:30 pm, we had finished dinner and got cozy in the comfort our sleeping bags. Songs of labourers at a BRO camp in distance wafted in. It died down after some time. The silence and tranquility drifted us into early slumber.

Only when we poked our heads out of tents next morning we could see the beauty of the campsite at Palamu. It lay by the side of a gentle stream, with tents pitched on both side of it. Snow capped mountains stands majestically all around. A small hotel and couple of BRO camps and road construction equipment dotted the scene.

After spending 7 nights in tents and having seen several types of tents during those days, I now can confidently pitch at least 2 types of tents.

An odyssey through wilderness

After a blissful night at Palamu, everyone was cheered up by beautiful weather and surrounding. A group photo together signaled the flag off. Target was Zanskar Sumdo – gentle 1500 feet climb over 8 km. The temporary shelters set up by BRO labourers at Palamu, turned out to be last human habitation for next few days. The humans we met in next few days were trekkers, and occasional locals and horseman. It was absolute wilderness, unspoilt nature.

“We must go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and
untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and
explore and tell the world the glories of our journey.” – G K Chesterton

Day 2 of the trek continues. We had lost the track and were struggling to find our way to the top of a hill. Half an hour struggle eventually took us to the top. We were relived to found the track. A long break helped to recuperate from the high altitude breathlessness and giddiness.

Tracking resumed through absolute wilderness. Breathtaking landscapes kept unfolding before us as we went deeper and higher into Zanskar. The canvas of nature kept changing with sun playing hide and seek. Soon we were above snow line. Because of torrential rains in last couple of days, snow line was quite lower. The landscape now mostly consists of snow capped mountains and valleys, while an icy cold river with turquoise water flows down below. The footpath was narrow but well defined, generally by the edge of hills. Because of rains, track had given in at many stretches and had ominous appearance. Often I took a deep breath, remembered everyone and went ahead, leaving everything to almighty. Occasionally, I looked back at such stretches to fathom how dangerous it was. Every successful crossing boasted my confidence. Having someone’s company at such stretches ups your confidence. But at times, when you are all alone, the thought of ‘if I slip and fall no one would even know’ tends to send chill down the spine. It is always good to track in close groups. But often it happens that good walkers disappear in distance while slower ones falls half hour behind you. Couple of hours down the line, I found to have fallen behind with no one to be seen either ahead or after me.

Silence of the Mountains

I had fallen back by giving company to an ailing teammate whose condition was detoriating with height. When help arrived in form of experienced teammate, I resumed tracking. Soon I found that those ahead of me had already disappeared in the hills ahead while those behind me were also hidden from my sight. I was left all alone in mountains.

I continued walking enjoying the company of the mountains standing majestically. Whenever I sat down for break, the tranquility of the surroundings engulfed me. Living in crowded cities we had forgotten such calmness. Just 4 days of travelling from Delhi had taken me into such wilderness and tranquility which we thought do not exists anymore. It’s a different world out here.

The eerie silence can also make you uneasy. Beneath the calmness of these mountains lie the powers of nature to be destructive. These are quite young mountains. The moraines and abraded debris on their faces often gave you a feel that heavy rains or a shake of earth can bring many of them down. You can easily understand how the Leh cloud burst catastrophe of 2009 took place. An unknown fear crept into my mind. I suddenly felt that it is not safe to be alone in such absolute wilderness. I often listen to my inner voice. A longer break ensured that couple of guys from trailing team had arrived for company.

Lesson learnt. Day 2 of track continued. In high mountains weather often changes after 2pm and hence while going up one should look to finish around that time. We were running slightly behind schedule. The weather had indeed changed around 3pm and a cloud cover brought icy cold winds. It took us almost 8 hours to reach the campsite. The sight was not very pleasant. Almost 15000 feet and there was snow all around. Tents were pitched clearing snows. It was damp, wet ground and pretty cold out there. Once inside the tent, you never felt like coming out. My appetite had disappeared. Couple of guys had developed fever. Most of us did not have dinner that night. My PS camera had stopped working because of low temperature. I tried to save my DSLR from moisture by keeping it warm. The worst possible experience was getting relieved in the morning. Touching water will make your hand numb. But somehow I managed to do it – at 15000 feet - an experienced I will not forget.

A tiring day had come to an end. The sore point of that day’s event was the sending back of a team member. He had fallen victim to High Altitude Sickness (HAS). He had shown symptom of severe headache from Rohtang and was having mild fever by day 2. The exertion he applied to climb the hill face worsened his condition. Team leaders had decided to send him back as he was in no position to track ahead. Tugging him alone would have jeopardized the entire trip. We all felt bad for him. Most of us had carried Diamox in kit, and had planned to use it at Darcha / Palamu before the climb to the pass. Diamox has 2 days gestation period. But after learning about severe side effects of Diamox, none of us used it.

Day 3 of track. It was critical to success of the expedition as we had to cross the Shingo La pass. We appeared to have lost our luck with weather. Bright sunshine of past two days had gone and a gloomy, cloudy and ominous looking weather greeted us that morning. It was not looking good at all.

We were told about possibility of heavy snow at the pass by locals at Keylong because of incessant rains and had kept our fingers crossed. There had been bright sunshine for 2 days and we hoped that one more days sunshine would melt enough snow to make the passage of Shingo La easy for us. At the Zanskar Sumdo campsite, we met a European group, who had tried for two days in a row to cross the pass, but had to come back because of heavy snow. They decided to wait another day at Zanskar Sumdo.

Keeping our fears aside, we started the upward climb. Target was more daunting than day before – a climb from 15000 to 16700 feet and then come down to 14000 feet. We were in point of no return. The weather kept changing as we climbed. It had even drizzled for few minutes on the way. But when we were close to the pass, sunshine was back. The weather god had smiled at us again. The second good news appeared in the form of a group of locals coming from the other side. They had informed that snow is about 1 foot and they could easily cross it. We met at least two trekking teams coming from the other side on our way up. This had cheered us up. Mules would create a visible track on the snow for trekkers to use.

Climbing up was tough. Altitude was higher and air was lighter than day before. It required lot of exertion and our physical endurance was severely tested. Every step at that height required effort. Often looking up to see how much more to climb would scare you. I found a way to handle it - took 15-20 steps at a time without looking up, take a break to catch your breadth and resume. A good climber would make it to the top in 4-5 hours. But it took most of us almost 6 hours to reach the top. The entire area was covered in a white blanket. Snow was about calf deep, but mule tracks were clearly visible. Negotiating slippery snows, we had finally reached the official Shingo la top.

At 16700 feet, for a first timer is quite an achievement. We congratulated each other. The sense of achievement evaporated the fatigue. The pangs and toils endured were worth the result. Standing at the top, I thanked God, remembered my loved ones – my family. I don’t know whether I will take another such arduous trek and will come to that kind of height again. The moments got captured in our mind for ever and in cameras for others to feel it.

Climbing down to camp took another 5 hours. Descend was also tough because of snow. The side from Lakhang appeared much steeper to me. Most European trekkers cross the pass from Lakhang side, then from Chumik Napo side. For some unknown reasons, our team leaders had decided to set up the camp that at lower Lakhang. This made our trek that day killing. Most people setup camp at upper Lakhang. Lower Lakhang is another hour’s trek from upper Lakhang. We had trekked 11 hours that day, in addition to crossing the pass. Lot of curse was showered on the non-existent leadership that day. Dead tired, I went another night without dinner.

Day 4 of track. It was the most pleasant of all, almost like day 1. Though we had tracked for almost 16 km that day, it was generally through valleys and there was hardly any steep climb. As we were walking through valleys and moraines, it involved crossing many river / streams. It was difficult to keep your feet dry. My investment in Quechua shoes was worth every rupee spent. However I had injured my left thigh while trying to jump across a heavy stream that day. That nagging pain kept troubling me in the coming days, despite pain killers. After 8 hours walk, we had reached Kargyak village, the first human habitation after 5 days. The village has a satellite phone. Some of us called up their homes after 5 days to let families know about their safety. News of rain, landslides and cloud burst around Manali had left the families worried. It was soothing to hear voices of your loved ones after 5 days when you were totally cut off from the rest of the world.

Kargyak is a big village by its remoteness. Villagers cultivate jaw, Potato and Peas. Water is not a problem at those places, but land without stone is at premium. We had talked with couple of villagers who said they grow enough food to last the year. They also get subsidized rice and kerosene from administration. The area is devoid of forestation to provide any firewood. Campsite at Kargyak was about 1 km further from village center by a health centre. It was very windy. We felt as if our tens would get blown away.

Day 5 of track. Bodies were tired, but spirits were not. Every morning we wake up with new vigor. Target for day was Purne – 20 km away, but involves continuous climb and descent. We expected another daunting day in the field. Sun was blazing. The umbrellas that we bought for rain had come very handy in saving us from the sun. You could get serious sunburn in 5 minutes flat. Seeping water regularly was the key to prevent dehydration. Occasionally it was windy and dusty. A shopkeeper at Manali gave a useful piece of advice - to get a scarf and apply Vaseline (petroleum jelly) to nostrils to protect from the fine invisible dust in Zanskar.

We were walking much below snowline. Snow capped mountains got hidden from view. Landscape devoid of any vegetation had started to become monotonous. En-route we had stopped at a village named Teesta. It also has a satellite phone.

Few minutes in a Ladakhi village

Almost around noon we had reached Teesta village and decided to have a brief break. When we arrived, it sported a deserted look. We found the house with satellite dish. But there was no one to talk. We decided to wait.

A typical village 5-10 houses, made of bricks and mud. Kargyak was a much bigger village with more houses. Roof is used to store cow dung cakes and fodder for animals. Villages are surrounded by farm lands where locals cultivate jaw, potato and peas. In the first half of the day, most humanfolk are out in the fields, either attending farm or gathering fodder for cattle. Thus village generally remains deserted. Yak is their main cattle, besides mules, goat and sheep. Yaks serve them even after its productive life is over. Every parts of yak are used. True Yaks can be seen only in these higher altitudes. (Villagers down below had produced an ugly hybrid of cow and yak. What do you call it – Yaow)

After a brief wait at Teesta, a young guy appeared in the scene. He could communicate in Hindi. We asked him about using the village satellite phone. They normally allow for a small payment. He led us to the house having the phone. The dark room was pretty cool and provided welcome succor from the heat outside. Corruption and greed had not touched these people yet. And hence they won’t fleece you for using the phone which is a luxury in such remoteness. I spoke to my family on a satellite phone by paying just 20 rupees.

Soon more people appeared and interacted with us. They spoke about tough life out in these terrains. All these areas will soon be snowed out and links with rest of the world will get cutoff for 5-6 months. Occasional house had got a solar light. Most of them cultivate enough to feed the entire year. They also get highly subsidized rice and kerosene oil. These areas are devoid of any trees, and hence firewood. Cow dung cakes are main source of fuel.

Indian tourist rarely came this way. The kids would generally make a beeline with folded hands asking for toffees whenever they see trekkers. Looking at them made me wonder about their world. No education, no power, no TV. They live in different world, a world way back in time. Standing among them you would fell as if time had come to a standstill.

Day 5 of trek to Purne resumed. Another couple of hours walk and we were on the outskirt of Purne where we had to make a choice. While the trek continues upward, another trek goes down steeply to a bridge on Kargyak River. There was no road sign and no one to ask. A campsite could be seen on hill opposite the river which would tempt you to take the downward path. But the sight of deep descent and the prospect of climbing that up again if you make the wrong choice had made us wait. A volunteer went down and had figured out that we need to go down and cross the river to reach Purne campsite. It is a steep descent and then climb up again about 100 feet. Purne turned out to be the best camp site on the route. Most trekkers stay for two nights and take the side trip to Phuktal monastery. Purne campsite had shops which even sells beer and cold drinks.

Washing off hands and faces at a stream nearby had a soothing effect on the entire body. It felt like ages since we had touched water for more than a few seconds. That night, we sat under a clear night sky and sipped tea at the tea stall of the campsite. The sky resplendent with stars was magnificent at night. I have seen such a clear night with sky full of stars after a long time. After a long time we went to sleep around 10 pm. For the last few days we had been sleeping latest by 8 pm.

Day 6 of track. We were delighted to know that we need not go up the steep path by which we came down previous evening. We had to continue along a new route by the river. Both the treks eventually met somewhere. This trek turned out to be even harder than the Kargyak – Purne one. Climbs were much steeper so do descends. We wondered as to whether we were really going down. Sun was again at its blazing best. By 3 pm we made it to Pipula, a small campsite with a hotel. We had to take a call whether to go further to Ichar which is another 3 hours away. Most of the team had blisters in their foot, because of the hot and tiring trek of previous day. I got 8 in all despite my breathable Quechua. Blisters had got aggravated by another days of strenuous trek. Thus we had decided to halt at Pipula for the night. Then came another twist. Norbu, the horse contractor had decided to not to go any further. He had picked up some fight – a drunken brawl previous night at Purne. One of his friends had a plastered nose. He apparently had some conciliation to attend that night. We were not convinced with his explanation. However no amount of persuasion made him changed his mind. It is difficult to persuade hill tribes. Fortunately, the campsite owner at Pipula had offered to drop us at Ichar with his horses.

We pitched our tent for the night at Pipula. Though a swift flowing Tsarp river next to the camp ground provided some appeal, this campsite was the worst of all. It is devoid of any grass and full of pebbles. Knowing that this would be our last camp, we had arranged for a campfire. It was another very windy night.

Day 7 of track. It took 3 hours for us to reach Ichar. We bid adieu to the wilderness where we had spent last one week. A well built bridge across Tsarp River landed us on a motorable road. The road construction from Radu had reached almost Ichar. One day (some 10 – 15 years from now) this road will reach Zanskar Sumdo, the point where we lost the track on day 2)

Couple of guys decided to go to Radu, some 8-9 km from Ichar to find a vehicle to take us to Padum. Others waited at Ichar with tents and equipments. We had a mini picnic by having lunch on the road itself with all remaining ration. While waiting on the road a BRO mini truck came from Radu. The driver told that he would return in the afternoon. The truck returned around 3 pm. It was going back to Padum. We all got jumped into its back with tents and equipments. A bumpy ride on its back for 30 km landed us at the town of Padum. The track had reached its logical end. Instead of Darcha – Padum, it is now a Palamu – Ichar trek.

Back to a chaotic world
Thomas Jefferson once said “I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely the happier for it”

I am used to remain cutoff from world for upto 3 days, but this time it had been much longer.On the way to Padum we had discussed about the fate of Anna’s fast. The last we were in touch with the outside world was at Keylong about a week back. Anna was to start his fast that day and we saw visuals of him arrested before we left for Darcha. We kept searching for mobile signals as we approached Padum. BSNL networks works at Padum, and only postpaid phones are allowed in JK.

It took us another two days to reach Leh via Kargil via Rangdum. En-route we had crossed the Penzila pass (14000 feet) and got to see the breathtaking view of Darung Durang glacier and the peaks of Nun and Kun. Details of Padum – Kargil – Leh leg of the trip is provided on my earlier post. An early morning flight from Leh brought a tired but rejuvenated body back to Delhi. The scale showed that I had lost 5 kilos in last 10 days.

Clay lies still, but blood’s a rover;

Breath’s aware that will not keep.

Up, lad: when the journey’s over

then there’ll be time enough to sleep. - A.E. Housman

For next one week or so, whenever I slept, in my dreams the the mountains kept coming back. I often waked up with scenes like I am climbing a hill and I had a still a long way to go. A journey of a lifetime had come to an end. But I know that I will be back in those mountains.


Nitin said...


Great work.
Very refreshing narration of the trek. It made the trek days alive in the memories again and made me eager to plan for another such trek.

Regards said...

Nice blog. Love to visit Manali very soon.. Thanks for sharing your views

PRAGYAN said...

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PRAGYAN said...

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Rups you took me into all the terrains.. thank you for sharing..

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Anonymous said...

I love trekking. It seems very adventurous sport in mountains.

Anonymous said...

I love trekking. It seems very adventurous sport in mountains.

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I thoroughly enjoy reading about your adventures and hearing your unguarded thoughts on places, its refreshing! Another place to add to the travel list!!!

Joy said...

I have been to Ladakh and Nainital. They are beautiful hill stations completely different from rest of India. I didn't know that such beautiful and serene places exist in India. I came to know about them at and I booked my tickets there. Had loads of fun among the snow capped mountains there.