Mountain heights fascinate me. So, when my friend Tek Chand asked if I was interested to join him on a trek to the Base Camp of DeoTibbain Kullu, Himachal Pradesh, I consented without any reservation. DeoTibba – literally, the Mount of Gods – is a hoary Himalayan peak that stands as high as 19,700 feet. To reach its base camp by the normal route, one has to climb to a snowy height of 13,500 feet.
Trekking is not an excursion, let me tell you. It calls for a certain level of physical fitness, a willingness to accept little and big inconveniences, the companionship of one or more enthusiasts (the more, the merrier) and above all, a mind to be at one with nature. If you lack these basics, better stay home and enjoy watching your favourite programme on National Geographic TV channel.
Hairdryer in backpack
A community venture, trekking is organised by several commercial establishments and non-profit organisations such as Youth Hostels Association of India (YHAI). These people make logistic arrangements from lodging and boarding to providing guides for the participants. YHAI, for instance, with its affiliates spread over all the states, is doing an excellent job of conducting treks to practically every scenic spot of the country, and at an affordable cost. Ours was a YHAI trek.
At the end of the day, however, it is for the trekkers themselves to plan and carry on their backs all that they might require during the period they are away from the comfort and certitude of their homes. It is not uncommon for some picky eaters to bring their own masala to add to the dal-subzi served by the tour-operators. There are also the people who, not to missa tasty morsel when they feel like having it, don’t mind lugging all sorts of eatables to the highest point of the trek.
Food, though of vital importance, is not the only item one has to worry about. There is also the need for proper clothing, trek-worthy shoes, hygiene consumables, medicines, raincoats and so on. A team-mate of ours has uploaded three lists on whatsapp, naming as many as 64 items that he considers essential for trekkers.
Dan, our young group-leader, proved even wiser. He had brought along a hairdryer, which he mentioned several times during the trek. We wondered what on earth a closely cropped sturdy man like him was going to do with a hairdryer in a trekking camp. The mystery was solved when we arrived at a camp on a rainy day. While our improvised barsatis – made of broad plastic sheets folded into two and stitched at one end – had saved our garments from getting soaked, our shoes and socks were hopelessly drenched. Climbing to the next higher camp in wet footwear was unthinkable. It was then that Dan took out his hairdryer and gave everybody a chance to air-dry their socks and shoes.
As in life, a trekker might have provided for all plausible situations, and yet he may have to depend on a companion in an eventuality.
We were an assortment of 55 people, hailing from Gujarat, Goa, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Delhi. Nine among us were girls. Age-wise, while most of the members were in their mid to late twenties, three of us men were past sixties (including me; at 69, I was the oldest of the group). We also had two boy-participants, aged 14 and 15. That such a disparate bunch of individuals commingled in a matter of 9-10 days into a single identifiable unit was the magic of a trek.
The first day of reporting at Katrain was rather boring to start with. How long could one loll in the confines of a tent? We went exploring the surrounds. Overshadowed by the Baragarh peak (10,906 ft), Katrain is a prosperous village of handsome houses, abundant water and apple orchards. The locals are hospitable and seem comfortable with the presence of backpackers among them.
Next day, early morning, after having a cup of tea, we jogged together to a large ground by the bank of river Beas for aerobics. The rest of the day was spent familiarising with the tent-mates and exchanging notes on the earlier treks each of us had been to. At night, a doctor gave the whole group a talk on the High Altitude Syndrome that may appear in persons who are directly exposed to altitudes above 8,000 feet. The sickness is attributed to the lowering of atmospheric oxygen pressure as we go higher and higher from the sea level. We were assured nonetheless that the minor symptoms of headache, tiredness, lack of appetite and nausea could be dealt with by administering medicines that are easily available. The camps are also provided with oxygen cylinders for use in cases of breathlessness. But the appearance of severe symptoms such as persistent dry cough, fever and unsteady gait warrants post-haste rescue of the affected person to a lower camp.
On the third and last day of acclimatisation, a camp leader took us to a gentle incline. There, surrounded by lush greenery and seeping in greedily the unspoilt elements, we made introductions to each other. Back to the base camp, we deposited our extra baggage in the cloak room and got YHAI rucksacks to carry the most essential items to the higher camp. Mr Anil Pathak, the Field Director, personally checked each bag meant for the higher camps to see that it did not weigh more than 5 kg. A heavier bag could have hampered a trekker’s progress.
Toil and smile
The following morning we woke up to a drizzle. It had been pitter-pattering all night long and the lawns of the base camp were quite mushy. In the squelching mud and pervading dampness, we completed our morning routine and lined up at the gate in our make-do barsatis. At 8:30, a senior functionary at the base camp flagged us off for the first higher camp at Tilgan, to the clapping of the participants of the new group that was to follow us up the next day.
After the initial stretch of grassy land, the steep climb was arduous. To add to our woes, the thoroughly wet clay made the slope dangerously slippery. One wrong step and one was likely to go thudding down to a thousand feet. The barsati, worn like a bride’s veil, obstructed clear view and free movement. Yet, it had to be persistently kept in place to ward off the barrage of rain-drops. A bashful village bride could not have been more assiduous in hiding her face from the curious stares at her in-laws place.
The kacha stretch ended in a narrow plane. A couple of shops there offered tea and snacks. On the other side of the strip of land loomed narrow steps of paved stone rising at an almost perpendicular angle. We tried to ignore the daunting sight by looking down at the height we had already attained.
Just then, there was disturbance in a small group of participants. The 14-year old boy, youngest in our group, had started crying. He was plied with hot tea, Maggie and other savouries which the shops could offer. The child was inconsolable nonetheless. He was exhausted and did not want to go up a step higher. After much deliberation, it was decided that he and his uncle, who had brought him all the way from Gujarat, should go back to the base camp.
With the two of our members gone, we resumed the ascent and reached the first higher camp around 2 pm. The rain had not stopped, nor did the trail abate in its toughness. But sitting in the tent allotted to us, we were euphoric,thanks to our barsatis, about our little victory over the inclement weather. Gushed Satyajit, who teaches Structural Engineering at a college as a livelihood and dabbles in poetry on the side:
barastibarishnebhikaha/nikaltihun in kadum/
Us par nanhi is barsatiboli/ aadekhentujh men kitnahaidum
I must admire the gutsy clouds,
Though they couldn’t dampen our soaring spirits,
The downpour too dared us to show our resolve –
To which our nifty little barsatis retorted:
‘Come, let us see how strong even you can be!’
The news that we got the next morning was not encouraging. Because of the rain and heavy snowfall, the group that had preceded us was not allowed to go beyond the second higher camp. But that did not deter any one of us.
The ascent to the second higher camp at Sorotu was uneventful except that we faced a harsh terrain and even harsher weather conditions. We reached the snow-covered camp, Dumdumi, on the third day of ascent. The nagging rain had stopped and the viscid mud was now a frozen solid. That made it easier for us to walk around. Snow also infused a playful spirit in the young trekkers. They had a jolly good time pelting each other with snow balls. As the Sun put up a splendorous show in the Western skies to celebrate the winding up of daylight, some participants raised the Tricolour to mark the occasion. The National Anthem was sung in full-throated voices and everyone present, including Mr Subodh, the Camp Leader, gave a salute to the Flag. At night, fortified with steaming hot cups of Bournvita, we snuggled into our sleeping bags in good cheer. Outside, the silvery peaks glinted invitingly under a serene, velvety, star-spangled sky.
When we got up to a sunny day, there was much laughter and merry-making in the camp. The only damper was that we were not to be allowed to go across the snowy peak to reach the fourth camp at Kharbhandari.The organisers, on the advice of the guides, had decided that it was not safe for us to follow the usual route in the inclement weather. Instead, we went down and down, precariously manoeuvring the tricky slopes to reach Camp 4, Kharbhandari and the following day to Camp 5 atJobriNala. The one major relief was that it had stopped raining and the Sun shone in full effulgence all the way.
On the last day before noon, we found ourselves in village Preeni, looking for a bus to take us to Manali and from there back to the base camp at Katrain. If it had started raining again, it did not bother us much. The general mood in the group was ‘been there and done that.’
Being fully alive
Sitting comfortably in the HP State Road Transport bus on way back to Delhi, I recounted happily the gains that I had reaped from the trek. I had returned from it surer of the normal state of my health. I got the opportunity to be closer to Mother Nature for several days. I enjoyed the warm hospitality of YHAI, particularly the tasty meals the cooks dished out every time under nearly impossible conditions. More than most, I was in the company of 53 like-minded persons – men and women – of diverse ages who reciprocated manifolds any gesture of friendship that I showed them. I have been privileged to be in close contact with Rawindra, a polymath, who is as adept in Indian classical music as he is in his calling of engineering; and with Ambareesh, the young professor who revealed to us the mysteries of metamorphosis of rocks, eruption of volcanoes and incidents of earthquakes in such an interesting manner that we wanted him to go on and on.
Trekking is a demanding sport. If you ask me why at my age I keep going on treks, I would say with the noted Dogri poet and author, Prof LalitMagotra:
‘…taan je/meinzindgi de kheerle pal takkar/zindgigitajdebelai bi/zindahoaan’
– (Maut 2)
So that –
I’m fully alive till my very last breath
And bid adieu to dear life,
While I still have all the zest in me!