The Youth Hostels Association of India arranges a number of Himalayan treks every year in the months of April to June at the national level. For those in love with nature and the outdoors, YHA provides a wonderful opportunity, at comparatively very reasonable costs, to allow you partake of an experience that is very, very exhilarating.
I would say that I was very fortunate to have been able to go on a couple of these treks. In the year 1996, when I was nearly forty years old, I joined a group of my friends, for the YHA trek across the Chanderkhani Pass. The route was through the mountain ranges of Kullu Manali. Starting from the base camp at Babeli, a little distance away from Kullu, and returning to the same place after eleven days of trekking through beautiful terrain, away from all hustle and bustle of the plains , it is an experience that gives you a life long addiction for the mountains, the fresh air, the joy of walking and a spirit of camaraderie based on nothing but a common spirit of adventure.
This was my first trek ever, big or small . The experience was so full of novelty for me that I felt like recording every bit of it . Back at the camp, after each day’s trek, I would jot down the experiences of the day in the notepad that I carried with me. I take up those notes every once in a while just to vicariously go through the thrill of that amazing experience again. I’d like to share it with you.
7h May, 1996
Base camp at Babeli. We reached here at around 11-11.30 A.M. Tents provided are smaller than we expected-about 20 ft. by 20 ft. and accommodating 15 persons. But there are trees all around and shade. Toilets are in good condition as well- So much for the infrastructure.
We came here by the Himachal Roadways bus, which left Delhi last night at 8.30 P.M. Had dozed in fits and starts-so there is nothing really that I remember of the overnight journey except the clamour at the inter-state bus Terminal.. But the view in the morning was glorious. The bus ran along roads that were precariously placed between huge mountains on one side and sheer drops on the other, at places alarmingly so. At certain bends on the road, one could see the snow covered peaks in the distance. At places, there were stretches of poppies and pretty blue flowers suddenly bursting on you in full glory. Rose bushes with deep red blooms, so big, as you can’t see even in the best tended gardens in Delhi.
We had had tea and biscuits at some dhaba near Sundernagar, which was not much of a breakfast, considering that I had had practically nothing to eat yesterday; the day had been so hectic to which was added the tension of the journey ahead. So by the time lunch was served here at the base camp, my appetite was really at its peak; so also was the case of the others, it appeared. Meals were simple, but hot and tasty. We had rice, chappatis, daal and a subji with pickle.
Right now, it’s nap time, being our first day at the camp (Reporting day). So we really have nothing to do.
The other group, with whom we’re sharing our tent, is a group from Hyderabad. I think they’re from Mangalore, ‘cos they’ve been speaking in Konkani (which I recognize from the spoken language of my neighbours , back at home, in Kannur who were Manglorean Christians).
We had tea with biscuits at 4.30 p.m. Went for a stroll along the river which was rushing along-sweeping, majestic! Huge boulders along the banks, rounded and smooth and white. Trees all along the shore. We sat there singing all the old songs we knew in school; two of the others were teachers and they and the kids were familiar with the songs too. We’re supposed to present a group song at the campfire tonight.
We’ve been issued rucksacks and blankets (blankets are just for use here at the base camp, thankfully. We don’t have to carry them from camp to camp)
Up at 5.00 A.M.. Ooh!!, it was cold in the night. Towards dawn, I kept turning from one side to another, looking for the warmer portion of the blanket.
Last night we had a campfire. When they told us about it, I thought it was going to be one of those roaring crackling bonfires. It turned out to be a petromax kept in the middle of the circle that we formed , seated on the ground. Participants from different groups presented some item or the other. It was horrible, some of them, but fun anyway. Even our group sang “Que sera sera”. That was the only song all of us knew in common.
Right now, we’re about to set out for our morning exercises and jogging. All of us have had a full steaming cup of tea. But nothing seems to be working on my bowels.
Had a long hectic day. After morning exercises that was intended to move and stretch every bit of muscle in our bodies,we were back for breakfast at the camp-sandwiches, samosas and tea. Then we bid goodluck to the first group who were leaving for the higher camp, after which we set out for our acclimatization trek. We carried two blankets in the rucksack, just to get the feel of what it’s going to be like. We trekked about 3 kms up . It really strained the leg muscles-over rocks and boulders and across little streams.
Up there was a little village, built of wood with slate like tile roofs. Really very indigent conditions. Even for basic necessities they have to walk the whole way down that tricky terrain and carry them up again. I don’t think the kids go to any school. In the verandah of one little hut, they had a tiny loom , which had a half -made shawl, apparently being woven for their own use. Vegetables, they grew a little, they said, whatever was possible of being grown. It looked a really tough life out there, but what was striking , was that there was no cynicism or disgruntlement on their faces.
Back at the camp we had lunch and after a bath and a little rest, we had an orientation talk. After dinner , campfire at night, songs, hot cocoa and sleep.
Morning exercises after a long jog and then breakfast. Afterwards, we were taken for rock climbing and rappling. It looked so easy when the others did it, that I decided to give it a try. The rock surface was steep, at least, it was for me, who was doing anything like this for the first time in my life. There were few footholds. Till halfway through, I managed somehow, but then came the difficult part. There was no ledges to hold on to, except narrow spaces where one could just fit in a few fingers. I don’t know how I managed to push myself up; my hands had lost its strength. Anyway, after that there was no way I was going to attempt the rappling. I decided I wasn’t adventurous enough to try.
In the afternoon after lunch, we were taken for river crossing. I didn’t have the nerve to try that either, although it looked easy enough when others did it. A rope tied across a small ravine and one was required to slide across, fastened to the rope. Even at night, I kept having visions of the rock and the rope and the fall.
Campfire at night again and then packing up for the trek to the higher camp, which meant sorting out belongings for the rucksack which we would be carrying with us; the rest of our stuff was to be left behind at the base camp, to be picked up on our way back. Sleep.
Trekking for 12 kms to Larikot. We started off at 8.30 approximately, in great spirits, singing all the way. But by noon, we’d slackened a bit, as it was ascent all the way. Beautiful landscape . Way down below, we could see River Beas meandering along , from different angles. The higher we climbed, the stiller the waters seemed, until the whole landscape looked like a framed painting or a picture postcard. Blue skies, blue- grey and white mountain ranges, little patches of green in various shades, pine and other trees. The trekking route was narrow most of the way. At places there were rivulets with ice cold , gushing clear water. We had our lunch at one such water hole. On our way again, we had nimbu paani at one or two places, where the villagers had set up make-shift stalls.
Isolated cluster of huts here and there with a cluster of children wearing clothes that had obviously not been washed for ages, running noses, but such innocence on the faces and such smiles!!.
The second half of the day’s trek was smoother, through shady trees. Finally, Larikot.
Four tents and forty seven participants. Fifteen ladies in one tent! We had tea and finger chips on arrival, the kitchen camp was way below; oh, but it was so welcome. We walked off to find suitable places behind the trees to attend to the calls of nature, the right side of the camp reserved for the males and the left for the females. We were cautioned not to wander further up the track so as not to contaminate the waterhole there, which the villagers used.
We’re sitting up on a hillock beside the tents. In front, there is a whole range of blue- grey mountains across the entire stretch of sky. The sun, setting behind it, is sending down distinct bands of white light . Kids are running down the slope, sure-footed as mountain goats. Earlier they’d come running round us for sweets and biscuits. Little girls returning home with huge bamboo baskets laden with firewood. Life here for the females seems to be quite a grind. They work in the fields with little babies around their backs, they carry water from water holes, they cook and heaven knows what else. What they don’t seem to be doing , is washing clothes and by the tattered look of the clothes the people around here are wearing, it looks like that the only reason could be, that they don’t have another set of clothes to change into.
Early morning trek through pine forests up to Bringta Top. The path literally strewn with pine cones-one had to kick them aside at every step before moving on. The trees grew thickly and when the wind blew through them the sound resembled that of sea waves, advancing and retreating. The climb up to Bringta Top was steep. It was not tiring though, as there was no sun. It kept drizzling often. We kept taking out our rainsheets and packing them back again.
The view from Bringta Top was breathtaking. Range after range of snow peaked mountains, the valley below with the Parvati river flowing down from the mountains. Then the trek to the camp at Pinni along narrow mountain paths at the very edge, often dangerously narrow.
All along the way, the path curved round the mountain slopes with forests, fields and streams. Getting near the stream, there was a whole hillside of iris plants with buds-just a week more and the whole stretch would’ve been and expanse of blue!
Pinni village seemed more prosperous. There were cute houses built of wood perched on stilts. Fields of wheat and fragrant coriander. The way to the camp at Pinni from the Larikot camp was a distance of 16 kms.Brinta Top was at a height of 10,500 feet. We had climbed around 2500 feet up till that point and then descended to Pinni for the rest of the way. The camp is beautifully situated. The tent was a luxury compared to the one at Larikot. It is beside a running stream .Lots of participants are doing their washing. My jeans were wet and dirty. So I’ve changed them for the night and hung them out to dry, to be worn for the next day’s trek again. The weather is cloudy, so one might not as well risk washing it. Carrying wet clothes around would be twice the burden. Even as it is, the shoulder blades seem to break by the time we put down our rucksacks. All that arm swinging and hip rotating at the base camp has helped but the strain becomes insufferable , even then.
Little kids with cheeks rosier than apples chanted “Ta-ta, toffee”. They’ve become used to being offered toffees by trekkers, I guess.
All I was certain of at the camp was that in spite of the physical constraints, in spite of having to look for a cover behind the trees out of sight , to relieve yourselves, in spite of the wind blowing into the tent and the stones pricking your backs beneath the tarpaulin sheets when you slept, the trek was worth every inch of it-the spread of beauty before one’s eyes made all the ordeals seem so trivial, eventually.
Last night was bad. It rained and the water seeped into the tents. Our sheets got wet and half the night was spent shivering and shifting inside the tent. Our camp leader had to be woken up in the middle of the night to dig a shallow canal along the borders of the tent so that the rainwater would flow away. How we waited for the morning!
Trek to the Chalal camp was tough but beautiful all the way. River Parvati roared over huge boulders. Descent most of the time, but the path was so narrow-one put each step forward hoping and praying that one didn’t slip and fall into the river below or at least break one’s bones. Chalal campsite is absolutely gorgeous. Parvati river just beside it and clumps of trees.
We had a wonderful real campfire. There is no dearth of wood in these parts. All the houses are built of wood. There was song and dance. Here we met the trekkers of C3 group , who would set off to Rashol tomorrow. Tomorrow is rest day for us. Welcome rest day!
Rest day. After seeing off C3, we set off to Manikaran to visit the Gurudwara there and also have our baths. Manikaran is famous for its hot water springs. We paid Rs.15/ for taking a hot water bath in a hotel. It was real luxury. One just let the shower spray down on the shoulders and backing soothingly warm streams. We had lunch at the gurudwara. Took a lift back till Kasol and then walked back to the camp. In the evening , the C4 group arrived one by one. As we had done our washing in the morning , we just relaxed for the rest of the evening.
Chalal to Rasol-12 kms. Nice trek . The tent allotted to the females, had a direct view of snow-clad mountains. I chose the corner of the tent for sleeping , thinking that in the morning I’d just open the flap of the tent and look at the mountains, the first thing in the morning. The evening sun on the ranges had been so lovely, with the sunrays catching the tips and giving the snow and indescribable glow.
Besides, the shadow of the opposite ranges fell upon them, leaving dark shades in between. We had a small bonfire at night and played Antakshari and dumb charades. Everyone joined in. It was fun.
Morning was misty . So the mountains remained a distant shadow, only hazily visible.
Trek to Rashol Jot; up a steep incline, the path very risky, with fear of falling stones. It took all our stamina and will power to get us there. The young boys were quite helpful, ready with a hand to pull you up when you’re your legs and feet did not have the strength to lift you up. From Rashol (10,000ft) down to Malana Nala, which is a huge roaring river, it was down all the way. It rained and then started snowing. It was my first experience of snow. The path became wet and slippery and one could only walk with confidence if one could get into the knack of balancing the body and rucksack on your two feet and knowing how to find your way without slipping. All of us slipped and fell on our behinds, me twice.
I would never have been able to imagine that I would be doing this , sitting in the comfort of my home or in the office. Talking and planning about it in anticipation was an indulgence of one’s fantasies. This was reality and it was tough.
At night , we got the most disheartening news. The C1 group had returned to Malana as they couldn’t make it across the Chanderkani Pass. There had been a snow storm and the guide who was to meet them at the snow point had not turned up. I hope things are better for us. Today’s trek through slush and rain was one big ordeal. But it would all be worth it , if we could make it through.
I forgot to mention Malana village. The small population there are supposed to be directly descended from Greek ancestors. They had their own Parliament and rules. We were warned well ahead not to touch anything there, or we could be fined anything up to Rs.5000/-
No campfire tonight. We got into our sleeping bags as quickly as possible.
Morning. Glum faces all around. No one sure whether to go on or go back. Together with the disappointment of the returning group and the tiredness of the ten and a half hours of trekking of yesterday, most of us failed to tap into our reserves of strength-mental as well as physical.
In any case , we started off with the encouragement of our camp leader- Raunaque. True to his name, he was one great source of confidence and encouragement. All of us were apprehensive , wondering whether we would have to return all the way back from Nagruni, if the Chanderkhani Pass was impassable. A little after we started , in the Malana village, we saw the C1 group, put up in school there. They looked really tired and disheveled.. Further on, we met the C2 group as well. They seemed disappointed as they had not been allowed to go on. Their camp leader was not prepared to take them further. But Raunaque was detemined to help us make it through.
Looking across at Rashol Jot, which looked as high as the sky, we really wondered how we had made the climb from Rashol camp in that rain and hail and down again.
Today’s route was again climbing and climbing. I had to stop after every little while to take my breath. Ankles didn’t pain as in the earlier climbs. Sun came out after a while and there were such welcome smiles all around! We reached a meadow and rested a while.
We just lay down , with the sun bathing us in it warmth. There were snow covered mountains all around, at close range, with wide belts of snow along the slopes, which would later melt into the streams that we had encounterd all along the trekking route and from which we kept filling up our bottles. The sun had really livened up all our spirits.
After the meadow, it was a climb again, but through a forest. The guide mentioned bears, so we were supposed to walk together.
There were patches of snow on the way. We tried walking through it just to have a feel of what it would be like . Plonk plonk, we went. Freshly fallen snow is soft and wouldn’t hurt if we slipped and fell, that is what we were told.
We made it to Nageruni , the next campsite, by four in the evening. This time, we had a small room with brick walls to sleep in. It was snowing a little when we reached there. We felt a little alarmed. But I believe this kind of weather is nothing unusual in these parts at this time of the year.
Tonight we are to sleep quickly. Have to get up at 2 O’clock in the morning and start for Chanderkhani to make it across the pass before noon; the weather invariably gets lousy after that , we were told.
Now we’re all cosily sitting around in the room, with as many clothes on us as we can put on-two shirts, sweater, two pairs of socks, gloves, scarf etc. We’ve had hot steaming soup and we’re waiting for dinner. Then sleep.
Today is the big day. We were woken up at 2.30 A.M. Last night had been horrible. Fifteen of us sleeping in that room, breathing in the same air-the two doors and windows closed because of the intense cold. No heads could be seen . Just rows of sleeping bags, lined close to each other , in two lines. There was a howling wind outside and the sound of the other tents flapping and the roof of the hut making a menacing beating sound, was scary. Through the glass windows, one could see that it was snowing outside. Our hopes of being able to make it across the Pass plummeted further down. After a while, the wind died down and the snow stopped falling. I couldn’t sleep. The closed space was giving me claustrophobia. I sat up near the door, keeping it slightly ajar and kept my face near the open space, shining a torch because I couldn’t even stand the darkeness. Thankfully, we heard Raunaque’s voice outside soon afterwards, telling us that there was good news for us-that the weather was excellent. We got up in a hurry to look up at the sky and my word! In my forty years, I’d never seen such a sky. It was completely star-studded and so bright and near; one felt that you could grasp them just by extending your hands. By 4 A.M , we were ready with our rucksacks , having had tea and a little bit of breakfast- one puree and a little kheer. None of us could eat, partly because it was too early, more because of the excitement.
Raunaque came with us for a kilometer or two, then wished us luck and returned to the camp at Nageruni. Two local guides accompanied us. We were given instructions how to dig in our heels on the snow on upwards slopes and push in with our entire feet on stretches of snow on the side of mountains. I became quite adept at it and could do it with the minimum of slips and slides, except at one place where both Pushpa and myself kept sliding down everytime we tried to get up. So we stayed put on our bums, with our heels dug in till the guide came and got us up on our feet again. There was nothing but snow all around. We were wearing our goggles because the glare on the snow was too bright even at 6O’clock in the snow. The mountain slopes in that area would probably be stretches of bright blooms later on in May, when the snow started melting . We could see the plants, or at least the tips of it , all over the place.
After having plodded up and down and sidewards in the snow for hours, we reached Chanderkhani Pass. Up one slope, across an expanse and then the next slope and we were through. What a sense of achievement!! What pride in our strength and endurance. I think we were all crying inside with joy, more so, because we knew that luck had favoured our group specially, the earlier groups having failed to make it because of inclement weather.
Some of the C2 group, however were determined and in a while, we saw them behind us, having made it to Chanderkhani with the help of a guide from Nageruni , through another route, which was shorter, but more arduous. We were happy for them.
But after that exhilarating bit, came a really hazardous bit of trekking through the snow. There was an unending path winding halfway down the mountain, prepared by the guide in front, which we had to walk through, one at a time, one foot at a time. Fresh snow was easier to walk in. But here, the snow had hardened and was turning into thin glassy sheets. One had really to be cautious. One wrong step and it would be a slide down the mountain. People who were experts would know how to stop the fall. But amateurs like us would just keep sliding. I managed to cross without help.
To make matters worse, one of the ladies, Chandrika started having intense chest pain and breathing problems. As I was next to her, she collapsed on me, as soon as that long stretch was over, across which she had made it slowly with the help of Shekhar and Ratnam, two youngsters from Hyderabad. It seems she had B.P problems as well as diabetes and was under medication for the same. Was it foolhardiness to have come on such trek , knowing that, I wondered. May be not, may be it is still worth it to have such beautiful glimpses of Nature’s bounty, unravelled before you at every step of the way, something that you cannot even begin to imagine , when caught up in the mundane pre-occupations of everyday life.
The rest of the group, moved on, except a few of us who who stayed back with Chandrika. We kept on massaging her chest and back and hands and legs till she was slightly okay. There was no help anywhere around . It was still 3 or 4 kms to the camp at Rumsu. The guide told us that we would have to get her down to lower altitudes as soon as possible because staying at that height (Chanderkhani Pass is at 12,500 feet above sea level) would only worsen her condition and things would get out of control. I can’t remember anything of the remaining stretch across the snow except the urgency in our minds and hearts.
By the time we got out of the snow line, Chandrika had already started feeling better. We were at a much lower altitude by then. We had a cup of tea at a makeshift stall, some two kms. Away and by 7.30, we were at the next camp, having walked for nearly 15 hours. I can’t remember eating anything; but I know we did. Sleep.
We were through; another four km. trek to Nagar, a small township; visit to an art gallery of Roerich, father-in-law of Devika Rani, with various paintings of the Himalyas put up in three rooms; lunch at a café, where we waited for nearly an hour or more for a plate of macaroni. Then we took the bus back to the base camp at Babeli.
We were leaving the same day. So we rushed through the formalities of filling in various forms and assessment of the trek. Returned our rucksacks, packed up in hast and were ready to take the bus back to Delhi by 6 O’clock, the next morning. We had reserved the tickets earlier. Goodbyes, everybody turning quite emotional. Sandeep, a 12th std. student, the youngest of our group started crying; he had been such a big help to us matrons throughout the trek. Great trip!!