There are some things in life which you do only for the singular experience and the boasting rights attached to them. Sometimes, however, these experiences leave an impact so profound that the original reasons for pursuing them seem distant and insignificant.
When I did my first trek in December 2015 with India Hikes, my goals were simple:
- Tick an item off my bucket list
- Get pretty pictures amongst the snow-clad mountains
- And come back with some sort of physical mark of the achievement of having summited a peak (the blackened toenails spoke for themselves)
The enigma exuded by the mountains, though, made me reconsider my goals and the concept of a “bucket list” as a whole. Sure, I’d ticked off a major item on my mental checklist but instead of feeling a sense of fulfilment, I found myself aching to go back and explore, learn, test my limits and conquer my fears, over and over again. My goals changed considerably:
- Trek more
- Get people around me to trek
The opportunity to get a step closer to achieving these goals presented itself in the form of the Ganesh Chaturthi holidays and my best friend. I couldn’t help but seize it.
The various travel magazines I’d purchased in June had featured the Valley of Flowers as a monsoon trek that couldn’t be missed. My mind was made up. I convinced my friend to give up her plans of a leisurely beach vacation in Pondicherry and accompany me on a trek to this UNESCO World Heritage Site and the highest gurudwara in the world.
Of course, the adventure began at the very start of our trip when we landed up at the wrong airport because neither of us bothered to check the terminal from which our flight would be departing. What followed was a frantic taxi ride and a ton of yogic breathing in the usual crazy Saturday afternoon traffic on Mumbai’s highways while silently fuming at being unable to mimic the driver’s calm demeanor (dear people who don’t get stressed out- how?!). Luckily, we made it just in time and cut through the check-in queue like celebrities (if they ever wore high-ankle trekking shoes and ran around with flailing backpacks).
After an uneventful flight, metro, rickshaw and train ride, we promptly presented ourselves at Haridwar station at 6:30 the next morning. To hope for the 10-hour long car-ride to Govind Ghat to have gone smoothly would’ve been wishful thinking. At around 9:30 after over 2 hours of driving, our driver came to the conclusion that the third gear in his car wasn’t falling right. The promised half hour to get it repaired turned into a 3 and a half hour wait in the premises of a gurudwara in Rishikesh. And no, that was not the end of it. 30 minutes into setting off again, he decided the third gear still wasn’t up to the mark. Bring in the new man- Speedy Gonzales, the Michael Schumacher of the Mountains with his jeep whose suspension cried at every bump and turn but was tuned out with retro, single-string Hindi music. We reached in 8 hours. My mind forgave the incident, my digestive system did not.
After a briefing by our trek leader, a delectable dinner and 2 litres of water, I had sleep that I would award the title of “The Best Sleep of my Life” without a moment of doubt. The next morning, I repacked my backpack. Having experienced the pitfalls of over-packing the last time around when I ended up offloading my bag onto a mule, I packed super light (albeit not so hygienically). After a great breakfast and briefing, we headed for the road.
Day 1 was a 13km journey to Ghangariya out of which 9 were covered by foot. The path was well-laid and we were constantly cheered on by Sikh pilgrims on their way to the gurudwara. Having recently finished a small stint at film school, I’d decided to try and film most of the trek that I could edit into a video montage. Early into the first day I realized that the only way I’d be able to get this done was if I had a GoPro strapped onto my head. Inevitably (despite having upped by fitness game since the last trek) I’d find myself at the back of the group, stopping to take in the sights of the mountains and the river running beneath (and maybe, you know, catching my breath). It was too late for the GoPro now and another (fitter) trekker was doing the needful anyway. I’d ask him for the footage to edit later, I never quite took to cinematography anyway.
As much as stopping to catch my breath was an excuse, the mountains were a sight to take in. It’s not often that you find yourself so close to something that has existed for centuries before you and will continue to stand long after you cease to exist. These mountains have a way of being able to belittle your problems without making them look small. That sentence may have contradicted itself but while the solution to our worries may not lie in the mountains, you do find a certain sense of peace amongst their very presence. Their existence sends messages that can be interpreted in myriad ways, what depends is your mindset and what you choose to take away.
Our journey ended with an encounter with a pleasant Sikh man just as we entered Ghangariya. He seemed quite intrigued by a whole group of similarly dressed people entering the village that is primarily known as the base of the sacred gurudwara. It was not long before he was telling us the mythical legend behind the presence of the Valley of Flowers as well as how to spot bears in the village. It was only the first of our many encounters with some wonderful pilgrims.
Day 2 was the trek to the Valley of Flowers. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is at around 11,500 feet and the path that leads to the valley runs through a bursting forest. If you feel like fooling around, you can find a couple of trees to hang off and relive your childhood (or experience it for the first time if your childhood mostly revolved around reading books and eating). The view of lush green mountains and valleys bore a stark difference to the snowy peaks I had seen on my last trek. They’d seem like the kind of valleys you’d want to roll down until you realize that it isn’t all as soft and grassy as it may seem from a distance.
The Valley of Flowers, though, as I got to see it, had witnessed a storm a few weeks prior and borne the brunt of it. The carpet of flowers we had been expecting to see resembled a rough, straw rug. On close inspection, however, we were able to see at least 40 different kinds of flowers whose names I cannot remember despite the relentless efforts of Krishna and Yaspal, our amazing trek guides who had a crazy sense of humour. There were no complaints and my friend and I napped on the rocks by the river for an hour, basking in the sun without a care in the world (due to the internet being inaccessible, of course).
The descent back to Ghagariya was in the form of my worst nightmare. Having nearly negligible body-balance, the uphill climb which hadn’t been quite as daunting turned into a death march on the way down. With some bad luck and plenty bad judgment, I found my feet on the loosest of rocks, slipping and sliding and grabbing onto what seemed like tough branches. The river below couldn’t have come sooner. Neither the chowmein back at the lodge.
In the evening we sat and heard the stories of the batch that had gone to Hemkund Sahib that day. The fittest of them had done the 6km long, 4000 feet ascent in a mere 2 hours and 10 minutes. The average time was 3 hours and 45 minutes. After doing some calculation, my friend and I settled on a conservative estimate of 5 hours.
At about 7:30pm when we were packing our daypack for our next day’s climb, we overheard a couple of girls who had just returned from their visit to the gurudwara. They said that the descent was steep and being that late, they’d had to turn on their headlamps in the dark. My friend and I looked at each other with wide eyes and quickly slipped our headlamps into our backpack. We were not taking any risks.
Day 3 was judgment day- 6 kilometres covering an altitude gain of 4000 feet to 14,100 feet. I’d never done anything so taxing in my life (if only CA were a physical examination). I decided to pace myself from the very start for the fear of tiring out at a higher altitude with lower oxygen levels. Once again, we met with a lovely old Sikh man who was taking his grandson with him to the gurudwara. He regaled a few trekkers with interesting stories that I was quite keen on hearing but had to give a miss because of the attention my breathing required.
Every few minutes I’d find myself pressed up against the mountain in an attempt to save myself from the sure-footed but stubborn mules who were carrying pilgrims to the top. I have never been very fond of mules and their attack seemed rather personal.
Our trek leader, Karthik, would keep running up and down the mountain to keep a tab on the various trekkers despite them having walky-talkies available for communication. Seeing him doing that over and over again with a backpack and a full-sized oxygen cylinder was certainly motivating.
Following the electricity cables overhead and the sound of the prayers, we made it there at the 5-hour mark. We donned our sweaters and gloves and entered the Hemkund Sahib Gurudwara. The feeling was divine. I felt almost lightheaded as I walked around (or it could’ve just been the reduced oxygen levels. We will never know). And the prasad was to die for.
We progressed to the Hemkund Lake after and what a sight it was. Incomparable but almost akin to the beauty of the mountains, the lake was a picture of peace and calm. My adventurous friend even went through the process of taking off her bulky trekking shoes for the second time to take a dip in the freezing waters of the lake. In my case, better sense prevailed.
The hot kichdi and tea at the langar was a treat. And it was even more heartening to see our trek leaders and guides assist in washing the used dishes. It truly encompassed the spirit of the place.
Once again, I had a hard time descending with my friend walking in front of me and directing my moves. We made it back to the village by 6:15pm without needing to use our headlamps. My head was floating in euphoria. My bloody and blistered feet? Quite the opposite.
Day 4 was the final descent back to Govind Ghat. While my friend and a few other trekkers were busy enjoying the flowers, I decided to test myself a little. I took off and went down a large part of the path by myself. Being able to descend such a distance without any assistance and slipping only twice definitely was an achievement as big as not having to offload my backpack. The way to Govind Ghat was almost uneventful. Almost. Nearing the end of our walk, a large pack of mules was descending. A particularly fed-up mule who also happened to be carrying two large gas cylinders decided he wanted to run. And so he did. He ran hard and fast, dropping and dragging a cylinder in the process, coming straight in my direction. I was a deer caught in the headlights for a few moments until I used Yashpal bhai as a human shield (I’M SO SORRY, I PROMISE) and hid behind him until the danger had passed. I knew there was a reason I wasn’t fond of mules.
My desire to trek has not been fulfilled. It has only grown instead. I came back feeling infinitely less stressed about my oncoming CA final exams (which may or may not be a good thing). My love for the mountains has grown and so has the desire to conserve them. I can see my goals for my next trek in front of me:
- Fill up my Ecobag (a bag provided by India Hikes on every trek to pick up the garbage found on the trail and leave the mountains in a better shape than you found them)
- Get fit enough to be able to film the whole thing without needing to strap a GoPro onto my forehead (or make GoPros the latest fashion maybe? Hey, I have film school fees I need to reimburse!)
…until the mountains call again!