10 Sep 2010 [Delhi - Kalka]
On the night of that Friday, the group of five trekkers headed for Shimla (enroute to Rupin Pass) converged at the Old Delhi railway station. The mood was eager, but was soon dampened learning that the flooding Yamuna led to the closure of a bridge. India was reeling under unprecedented rains and there were floods in many parts of the subcontinent. Would our train at Delhi get cancelled? Fortunately the Kalka Mail got rerouted to New Delhi railway station (NDLS) and did not get canceled.
It was a race against time for us to reach NDLS, to catch the train. It was chaos at NDLS, as there was no proper departures-announcement board and the enquiry queue was miles long. A guard there advised us to climb the foot over bridge and wait for the announcement. It sounded like a good idea and we trooped over there; the announcement came and we moved to the train that luckily turned up. This was the first of many just-in-time manoeuvres that helped us complete the trek and get back home in time. The air conditioning in the train was a welcome relief given the sultry and humid weather in Delhi. At Kalka, we connected to the Shivalik Deluxe Toy Train (which we learnt, always waits for the feeder trains from Delhi). The famous heritage train and the scenic route lived up to the world class reputation they carry.
11 Sep 2010 [Kalka - Shimla]
Upon reaching Shimla the next morning, we checked into the hotel that Vikranth and Mothay had already identified for us (they reached a day before). A nice siesta helped refresh and a few remaining trek items were bought on the famous Mall Road. I’d expected it to be a large city-square like in some European cities, but the Mall Road turned out to be somewhat narrow. Nevertheless it was the place where the local youth hung around and there was enough hustle and bustle all around. Almost all the well-known brands were represented on Mall Road. Certain points on the road offered panoramic views of Shimla. The countless lights on the hill side looked charming.
12 Sep 2010 [Shimla - Thiyog - Rohru ]
The much awaited journey started on Sunday morning when the sixteen trekkers left for Gosangu (the trek's start point) in three Sumos. There was the expected delay in the start, by about an hour. We reached Dhalli on the outskirts of Shimla where the trek organizer Arjun Majumder of India Hikes (IH) joined the group. Breakfast stop was at Thiyog for some aloo paranthas.
The wide tarmac roads soon became muddy; later the mud was like thick brown grease on the roads and then the roads further narrowed down as we criss crossed little known villages. As the road trip progressed, the Sumos would get stuck in the mud at some places, struggling to get out. Those who feared motion sickness did not have to worry as the vehicles were moving very slowly navigating the rain and mud.
The surrounding hills were pretty with the thick white clouds hovering over them; the motionless clouds looked like cuddly sheep settling down into their pens. By night fall, we somehow managed to reach a small town called Rohru. We had covered only 130 km in 9 hours, taking a longer route since the main route was apparently closed. In the interest of safety it was decided to stay the night at Rohru and hotels were hunted.
At the River View hotel, hot dinner was served and a briefing was held by Arjun. We hadn’t yet reached Gosangu and it might take another day; result: the trek would get reduced by one day. The perils of Altitude Mountain Sickness (AMS) were discussed and we were told to continue to take the medicine Diamox. Diamox thins the blood, allowing it carry more oxygen and hence helps acclimitasation; it has some side effects - you pee more but also get a good sleep at high altitude.
13 Sep 2010 [Rohru - Larot - Chanshil - Dodra]
The morning of Tuesday we left for Gosangu again by 8 am. The route followed the surging Rupin River initially. Early on, the lead vehicle took a wrong turn and it took almost two hours to retrace the way back. One wondered if a simple GPS device would have helped; any trek organizer ought to have one.
We stopped for breakfast-cum-lunch (brunch) by around 11 am at a village called Larot (MSL – 2550m). The shack owner took almost an hour to prepare the meal; the rajma-chaval (kidney bean and rice) turned out to be very delicious (hunger does wonders!). The area also had many apple orchards and some of us took the liberty of helping ourselves with fresh juicy apples, straight off the tree. Meanwhile the drivers (instigated by our vehicle’s driver) confabulated and started making loud noises about the bad road, the extra day, and various other issues, without directly asking for more money. The stage was being set for a ransom.
We pushed on post lunch and enjoyed scenic views of the Chanshil valley. We could see meadows, pine and deodar forests and as we climbed Chanshil the tree line was also visible. The Chanshil pass offered panoramic views of the entire valley; it was beautiful with the wispy white clouds floating up slowly. The strong wind made it really chilly and we did not stop for long there. The Himachal Tourism board plans to build a small facility here.
As soon as we resumed, the driver made a dramatic stop, threw his hands up and made signs of 'giving up'. He relented only after he was assured of some more money. We slowly reached Dodra village (MSL - 2310m) by 3:30 pm. That would be our night halt; Gosangu was another 90 minutes from there but the rains had messed up all the lodging arrangements. Here our trek lead Sandeep from IH joined us; Arjun went back with the Sumos.
The trekkers slowly spread into the village to enjoy the rustic sights. Many village houses tied up grass into large mats and dried them out; they would serve as fodder for their livestock during the harsh winters. The village had a few temples, the biggest one for the local Jakha Devata (Vishnu form), one for Lord Siva and another for the Goddess Shakti. The villagers had a custom of decorating their temples with the trophies the children win in tournaments. An older custom was to also add the busts of animals (mostly sheep and goat). The Jakha temple’s door also had numerous coins nailed to it; some of them were real antiques. We took a lot of photographs of the village life and the children in particular. Of particular interest was a mute child who was also very active.
One of the very talkative trekkers, was very anxious to start a campfire even before the trek started and the others had to oblige. The villagers turned out to be experts at tending fire but they joined very late. One of them, Tiwari narrated how he trekked to Rupin from Dodra in just two days! Soon dinner was served (Dal, Rice, Roti, Cabbage curry). The trekkers retired into one large dormitory and two rooms. Three of us got into a log cabin about 200m away.
14 Sep 2010 [Dodra - Gosangu - Kwar - Bavuta]
Dodra is a small village and like many of its kind in India, does not have enough toilets. The first thing to tackle in the cold morning (and it was raining, of course) was to take care of the, ahem, morning business. So off we went with tissue paper roll and bottle of water in hand, not to forget the umbrella/raincoat. Our host in the log cabin graciously offered use of the adjacent balcony but we felt a bit embarassed; it would be inappropriate and so we ventured out in the rain.
Breakfast took a long time to cook. Some of us (the six who rode in the same Sumo) joined in the kitchen to help and peel the potatoes. The kitchen being a warm place was also ideal to escape into. We later learnt that the plan was to have Maggi noodles and quickly leave; this was changed as someone wanted to have delicious puris instead. Soon breakfast was ready but the puris turned out to be thick and the curry had no seasoning. This led some to complain, but most were looking to get out and get to the elusive Gosangu.
So for the third day, we got into a vehicle heading for Gosangu. Luckily the drive lasted only about 90 minutes (it would have been a 30 minute walk for a local cutting across the hills). The views to our right, showed the rich tapestry of the Kwar hill side that appeared like a quilt stitched with numerous patches; each patch being a field, tree cluster or a meadow. To our left, there was another hill with steep slopes and not much foliage; there was however a thick layer of grass on the entire hill, and with its elaborate folds it looked like someone draped a giant green cloth on the entire hill.
Finally, Destination Gosangu was reached! It was huge relief as the endless journey ended! It was decided to start the trek to the first camp at Jhaka (via Kwar and Bavuta) past the bridge; a few who wished to could ride till Kwar in the jeep and join the rest there. It felt good to get on to the trail. The legs felt alive after the prolonged ride. Soon we came upon a massive land slide that dwarfed the entire mountain side and painted it a thick shade of brown. We had no choice but to clamber down and up the brown mudscape. After we saw a middle aged villager woman and her child dance their way across a faint trail, we picked up courage and got going.
We reached Kwar village after in less than two hours. At the village bore well, we took a long break; two of us even tried taking a small nap. The village children milled around for chocolates that were being distributed. We then saw another group of American trekkers who were returning from Rupin. Apparently they could not cross the waterfall and had to turn back. With the bad weather, it was possible that we experience a similar fate. But if we were lucky we could cross the river at the waterfall and go on to Rupin pass.
At Kwar our second trek guide Gajju joined us. After a longish break, we resumed our trek (the larger a group, the longer the break!). These long breaks when added can easily impact the trek schedule. A second smaller landslide was navigated with ease. We also came upon a nice waterfall and cute old wooden bridge on the way. After a steep climb, we reached Bavuta gaining almost 1000 ft over Kwar.
To our dismay we found that the innkeeper did not have the lunch ready (he claimed he was waiting for a phone call that never came). The bad weather was messing up the initial trek logistics and the domino effect continued; it would take some more time and patience to align things. It took a very long time to cook the lunch and we used the time to rest at a beautiful house that overlooked the valley.
What got served finally, was a simple fare of rice and plain kadi, but we were so hungry that we gobbled up whatever was served. At 5pm, I was not sure if it was a late lunch, supper or an early dinner. The wildly fluctuating meal timings were leading to binge eating and in turn, to acidity or indigestion. (*Lesson: always carry some fruits or chocolates to compensate for missed meals, if you wish to avoid gastric trouble*). Dinner at 8pm was a better fare, roti made of the Jawar and the local ram dana (long purple corn grown the fields and giving the hills that quilt like look). A dessert dish (Kheer) was also served.
It was now obvious that we had to stay the night at Bavuta and reach Jhaka only the next day. We were already behind by two days and not reaching Jhaka meant a further slippage! But the shocking news of that night was that ten of the sixteen trekkers decided to opt out. The reasons cited were many - bad weather, speculation on waterfall/river crossing, headache etc. A few were frank to admit lack of preparation, not taking Diamox and fitness. The constant rain and gloomy weather did not help a bit.
This was indeed a big jolt to the team, but six of us decided to continue. Going back was not an option. It was a coincidence that we were the same group of six that travelled together in the Sumo from Shimla, and all of us came from Hyderabad! We stayed the night in the same beautiful wooden rest house. We had had a word with the house owner Balakram and he was happy to let us stay. The innkeeper was also keen but his place was already overcrowded.
The six of us conferred with Sandeep, to redraw the plans and on how to make up on lost time. It was decided to trek the next day, all the way to Saruvas Thatch, which meant we would double-camp i.e., cover two days plan in just one. After dinner, the clouds had cleared and we could see the moonless sky brightly lit with countless stars. It was so clear that we could see many constellations and even the faint white band that is the Milky Way - our home galaxy! This sight was a highlight of the trip.
15 Sep 2010 [Bavuta - Jhaka - Saruvas Thatch]
A pleasant surprise awaited us after we woke up the next day. The house where we stayed actually had a toilet outside. This made things very simple and there was no need for the kind of loo expedition we did the previous morning. It is said that the presence of a toilet is a sign of development in rural India; we saw the lack of it in Dodra village the previous day.
As luck would have it, there was no breakfast served as the innkeeper claimed some vague reason. The recourse was to eat chocolates or cereal bars and get going. We said our goodbyes to our friends who were heading the other way. They encouraged us, wished us luck and gave us their stock of Diamox tablets and a few chocolates.
We started relatively early, by 8:15am. By now the sky looked less gray as the clouds had somewhat cleared after a spell of rain at 7am. We trekked towards Jhaka on a scenic route. After about 45 minutes, the sun emerged out of the clouds lighting up the entire valley. We were already warmed up and sweating by then and it was time to discard a few layers. What the heck, it was time to strip down and soak in the sun and drink some Vitamin D! The true meaning of ‘sunbathing’ was realized only then!
We came across corner in the trail was overhung with huge cliffs on all sides. The place looked similar to the kind of cliffs one gets to see in the forests around Tirumala Hills. The cliffs were dripping with water; every layer in every rock was just oozing water, enough to fill a water bottle within seconds. The water, moisture and relative closed atmosphere resulted in thick undergrowth, much like a rain forest.
There was also a very cute old wooden bridge that we used to cross the Rupin river. The river flowed by the side and its pure aqua green water was a neat sight. We were told that the water was very muddy just a month ago. Why was the water clean? Did the rains stop upstream? Or is there no more mud to be washed away? What does this mean for the river crossing? With these thoughts we kept climbing.
After gaining 2100ft (1hr 45min later), we reached Jhaka (Day1 camp, per the original plan). Consistent with the meal plan (or lack of it), the brunch was delayed at Jhaka too. But Newar Singh, our host had apple trees in his garden, and we asked for some. They were peeled, cut and served keeping hunger pangs at bay. We made use of the sunshine by washing socks and drying our clothes in the huge sundeck/balcony of our host. In line with the apparent prosperity, the host’s house also had a toilet.
Lunch was excellent, aloo paranthas served with raw onions, large bowls of curd/yoghurt and cheese spread. It would energise us till we reached our camp at Saruvas Thatch that evening. With the drop outs, we now had more trek enablers (10 porters - who all joined us here, 2 trek guides, 1 trek lead) than trekkers. We also got our coveted 'High Altitude Trekker' caps here from Sandeep. With reduced supplies and rations, the porters had more space and we happily agreed to pass on some of our heavy luggage pieces enclosed in plastic.
At noon, we left Jhaka which was the last main village on the route to Rupin. As we took the steep steps up and away from Newar Singh’s house, the trail changed and the path roughened out with fewer stones and markings. There was an old woman seen carrying a huge load of freshly cut grass on her back. Her name was Neelam Devi and she looked resplendent with a large red bindi adorning her heavily wrinkled forehead. She could have been easily 70 years old but with the mountain folks, it is tough to tell as wrinkles are part of their genetic makeup; even children have them.
The path climbed up and up, roughened out more, and soon it became pretty lonely. With the porters out of sight, it was tough to tell if the route was indeed correct. The path then wound down to the river and to a small bridge on the left across a tributary stream. The bridge was made of poles with large stones placed for footsteps. This was another scenic spot with the gushing river; the bend in the river offered views of two mountains.
Soon it started raining again and the rain coats were out. The rain was incessant and trekking with the raincoats on was uncomfortable as the sweat accumulated inside. The path roughened out more and soon there were only rocks; the rocks became the path. After a while we had to enter the river to move forward - we waded through the water and then walked across the exposed pebbles and rocks. Now the river became the path!
After a final climb we reached the meadows by about 5:30pm. In local Pahari dialect, the word for meadow is ‘Thatch’. This was Saruvas Thatch, our camp for the night. By the time we reached, the porters had already pitched the tents on the banks of the river. Where there is a meadow, expect to see sheep and possibly cows grazing. Immediately we saw a commotion on the opposite bank of the river. Hundreds of sheep started clambering down and bleating like crazy, expecting to be thrown lumps of salt. Normally the shepherds feed them salt once a week, but who doesn’t want a free snack?
These sheep are usually left free to graze and are herded at night, or home in to the smoke from the shepherd’s campfire at night. The odd one escapes to the wild, but has to face predators that include bear, wolf and panther. The sheep graze here from summer through October. To escape the harsh winter, they start moving to a lower altitude towards Dehradun, the journey taking 30 to 45 days. September – November is also the season when they breed; we could see several young lambs. A herd of 600-700 sheep would have at least 100 lambs. The seemingly vulnerable lambs are born with enough wool on them to help them survive the winter.
The camp site was set in an idyllic location. There were steep cliffs on either side of the river giving the valley a bowl shape and protecting us somewhat from strong winds. The snowy mountain tops were visible now and then gone, as the clouds were busy acting as curtains, offering a peek here and there, of the majestic peaks.
It was a satisfying day’s work as we were well underway on the trek. We had easily put in eight hours of solid trekking, braved rain and overcame steep climbs. It was still raining and would rain deep into the dark night (till about 2 am) but we were ready for anything now. Siva had overcome a cramp in his calf muscle and set an example of perseverance.
It was getting very cold and it took a while to get the warm clothes back from with the porter. We rushed into the tents to get warm and take some much needed rest. As we settled into our tents, the porters got to work preparing dinner for the group. Hot tea was served immediately and by 7pm hot vegetable soup was also served; we eagerly lapped it up, profusely thanking our ‘waiters’. Dinner came around 8pm – dal chaval with tiny slices of onion and cucumber which was eaten ravenously.
16 sep 2010 [Saruvas Thatch - River Crossing - Upper Waterfall]
By 2am the sky had cleared completely and there was not a trace of cloud. We woke up at around 6am to a hot chai (bed tea) and clear skies. The golden glow of the sun was reflected off the mountains on the south side; to the north the snow peaks were clearly visible. The weather pattern in the high mountains during for this season was slowly unraveling: okay weather between early morning and early afternoon; later gathering clouds and resulting precipitation as rain/sleet/snow. I was told mountaineers who scale the highest peaks always understand and respect this pattern.
The morning loo expeditions became shorter with the open meadows (no villagers nearby) and faster (due to the cold weather). The cooks had already started their work in the kitchen and we were given crisp paranthas and rotis (with cheese) for breakfast. A fire was also set up in the open and some of us tried to dry socks there. Drying socks is a temporary relief; either rain or the next stream that you cross soon makes them wet. (recommended to carry several dry pairs of socks).
The crossing of the waterfall was once again the topic of discussion over breakfast. The local shepherd said “No big deal, can be done”. Sandeep, our trek lead said with no expression and as a matter of fact, “We have to cross”. He also meant “With safety”, but that was apparent from his serious demeanour. “Once we cross, then Rupin, Rontigad and Sangla (rest of the trek) will be ok”.
To make matters worse, we later ran into another shepherd who said that deep water will NOT make the crossing possible. They also gave an alternative – to climb real steep via a circuitous route and cross the river at a shallow point – taking an additional two hours. We kept our fingers crossed, not knowing how the river will behave (given the heavy rains), and knowing that one party had returned and some of our friends had opted out.
We planned to head out by 8am but the actual start was at 9:15am. We walked along the gurgling Rupin river and then inside it (bit like the previous evening). We stopped at a bend in the river to drink some water and enjoy the view. There were some mountain cows nearby and one new born calf was particularly cute and playful.
Soon we came across a massive structure across the river that looked like a giant mattress from a distance. Then it looked like a broken bridge, a practical structure, but the place was too remote for anyone to build a bridge. As we came closer it became clear that it was a large piece of ice sheet, which once evidently occupied a much larger volume in the valley. Was it the remnants of an ancient glacier that has melted (thanks to climate change)? Raju our guide explained that it was the ice sheet formed from last year’s snowfall that has now melted; the recent heavy rains further shrunk and disfigured it.
The first big climb of the day was to the ‘Lower Water Fall’, a tall but thin cascade of water to the right side of the main river. Further up the main river itself was a water fall; the upper part was simply called the ‘Upper Water Fall’. Our target was to cross the river below the Upper Fall and then trek up to the upper part to camp there.
The climb to the Lower Fall was interesting as there was no clear path, only boulders big and small strewn across in a very steep incline. An experienced person could make out a path across the boulders and areas where the grass looks a little more beaten down; we had to either wisely follow a porter closely or just make wild guesses and clamber up.
The cold early in the morning, somehow fooled us into not drinking water till the first climb invoked the thirst pangs. By then the exertion and sweating caused significant dehydration. To make matters tougher, the rain started beating down hard on us.
Eventually we crossed the Lower Fall and after a short distance (about 200m), to the left there was a massive rock outcrop offering shelter from the rain. We made use of the shelter to remove the raincoat, shed a layer or two and then put the rain coat back. Sandeep advised that the body is cold when the trek starts but with time it gets warmed up making it necessary to manage the layers. Similarly at a break, it is important to conserve body heat and put on something warm, especially if it is a longish break. Dress to the weather, period.
The next stop was the all important river crossing. It was another steep climb from the place we stopped at near the Lower Falls. Once we got to the river, the porters and trek guides started scanning the stream up and down to figure out the vantage points. Bishu, one of the fastest porters climbed up high and was raring to go across and had to be restrained.
Meanwhile a fast and flexible lad named Jagat chose a couple of rocks downstream, leapt across the river and delicately balanced himself on a small rock. It would have easily earned him a gold medal at the Common Wealth Games, had he participated. Instantly Jagat was our hero!
A rope was thrown across to Jagat and it was then tied to two large boulders in the mountaineering style. The boulders were afar but were carefully chosen keeping in mind the take-off and landing spots on either side of the river. Sandeep has an advanced course in mountaineering under his belt, and he was the first to cross the river using the rope (and test it as well!). The harness and the props were all made using only ropes, no metal or plastic was used anywhere.
One by one the six trekkers were hauled across and then the porters and equipment followed suit. I would have preferred an active movement, rather than the passive hauling, but we had to save time. During the 1.5 – 2 hours this entire exercise took, we bit into our packed lunch of Roti and Aloo curry. It was not possible to cross the river by wading across; Jagat had indeed saved the day for us.
A few minutes of sun ensued but soon it started raining a hailstorm and we rushed forward. Another steep climb followed and by 3:45pm we had reached the Upper Water Fall camp site (MSL: about 4100m; how I missed carrying the Garmin device). We were welcomed to glorious blue sky and sunshine which again lasted only a short while. The view was stunning with the valley under a mixture of white clouds and blue sky extending to the south.
As we settled into our tents, we were satisfied at another day’s hard work yielding excellent results. We had done another double camp (back-to-back) and recovered the two days lost due to delayed start. The crossing was clean and done; we proved the naysayers wrong!
We could not celebrate with a camp fire as there was no fire wood at all; we were well above the tree line at 11000 ft. Dinner came at 7:45pm; on time! Things were slowly looking up and what more, we had very tasty khichdi served along with a papad. The finishing touch was dry halwa, a simple sweet dish.
It was raining and the rain slowly changed to sleet and later snow as the night progressed. Through the night we had a couple of ferocious Himalayan dogs for company; they belonged to the nearby solitary shepherd. In fact the evening, as I ambled into the campsite, I was warned by the trek guides to stay away from the big black dog with drooping hair.
17 sep 2010 [Upper Waterfall - Rupin Pass - Rontigad]
In the morning, we woke up to see a white carpet outside the tents. It had sleeted and snowed resulting in an accumulation of 3 inches. The loo expedition this morning had a twist, with the big dog alternating between aggressively rushing forward and retreating to loud shouts. it was finally held at 50ft distance under the torch’s spotlight, while the business was accomplished.
Given the task for the day ahead, we had a power breakfast – corn flakes with milk and tangy dhaliya consisting of capsicum, green mirchi. Keen not to repeat the previous day’s mistake, a lot of water was ingested. After getting ready to move, we moved into the kitchen tent to keep warm. An important advice was given about not to shave in the cold conditions (result being a badly bruised face).
The sleet continued even as we moved out of the tents by 9:45am, a relatively late start for the day. By now the custom of the six trekkers leaving first with a lead porter or a trek guide was in place. The porters and the trek guides would then finish packing the tent, supplies and equipment, cross us at some point and go on the reach the camp site much ahead of us giving them time to setup camp for the night. This morning, Raju the lead guide accompanied us – he mustered us, ranked us in some order and asked us to march single file.
The climb way from the campsite was steep (as usual) and with wet socks in wet shoes, something we had gotten used to by now with the weather being what it was. We started the trek in slush (mix of snow, mud and water) but as we climbed the snow accumulation increased, till we were stomping across half a foot of snow. The terrain looked pristine, and the entire ground was picturesque white.
The trail soon turned left and there was no more ground left to climb up. We were upon a trail made of only rocks, similar to what we had faced the previous day before the Lower Falls climb. But now the rocks were all covered in snow, making it very difficult to land the foot at the right spot. Since the rocks had a lot of gaps between them, one wrong step and the leg would get stuck forcing a fall. This made one use the hands more often, and move almost sideways making this phase of the trek a rock climbing sequence. The mountaineering stick we were given by IH came handy during the climb, but now it was not of much use.
After negotiating this phase, we came upon terrain that was less rocky. The snow cover was about half a foot, and we took some respite after the intense climbing. Sandeep scooped out some snow, made a snow ball out of it and used it as a makeshift water bottle biting into it occasionally. He advised us not to eat the snow directly, but let the snow melt in the mouth first.
After about half an hour, we came upon an open area with a large lake on the left. Straight up, on the horizon we could see the faint U formed by the scraggy mountain. The bottom of the U (it was actually very high up) was our destination – the mountain pass named Rupin.
Rupin Pass looked distant; our immediate attentions were occupied more with the lake. We marveled at its half frozen beauty and the serene atmosphere around it. Since our water balls were almost empty, we made some snow balls and bit into them. We took a break and feasted on the snow balls garnished with ORS!
As we moved forward, we came upon a small stream that emerged out the lake on the left. Even at this altitude, there was a small fish seen in the stream, swimming around aimlessly. We moved further ahead and while we were trying to keep our backs erect, It was interesting to note tiny plants proudly place their little stalks and flowers above the white snowy carpet. They managed to somehow stay dry and erect, until the snow practically engulfed them.
After trekking in the deep snow for another half an hour, we the reached the start of what would be a daunting climb. By far this seemed the steepest climb of the trek, almost vertical in its slope. What more it was full of rocks. The difference from the rock climbing sequence navigated earlier in the morning was the slope, all 75 degrees of it! Now vertical climbing on rocks is okay, trekking in snow is okay; but what if these two are thrown at you together at once! Only thing working for us was that the hailstorm or frozen rain somewhat subsided for a little while.
One good thing about thick snow is that it makes the path clear, allowing a trekker to follow in the footsteps of someone who went ahead. On a vertical climb, it almost ends up creating a stair case of snowy footprints. The other good thing about thick snow is that it provides some cushions after one of those inevitable falls. One can also dig into the snow with the ten fingers of two hands which is useful if the leg cannot find a firm foothold. The snow surprisingly holds well and helps in climbing up; imagine the hands in the snow like the claws of a woodpecker stuck into the bark of a tree!
There was no option to turn back, the only option was to move ahead. So with a Zen like approach, we moved ahead focusing only on the next step ahead and nothing else. One step after the other and one step at a time, only the next step mattered. The climb was the toughest of the trek, exhausting and backbreaking. Though the temperature was below zero Celsius (there was a hailstorm hitting us in the eyes), our bodies were so heated up with the climbing that we did not feel the cold. In fact we were profusely sweating under the rain coats, which also caused some dehydration.
To make matters worse, even a small twitch in the forehead would lead to several doubts: was that headache, am I getting AMS? All needless thoughts brought in by exhaustion. One way to beat them back was to drink more water and take deep breaths. The best thing to do was to keep the head down and just focus on the next step; looking up and trying to gauge the distance to the top would only de-motivate and prolong the agony.
And then after an interminably long climb, all of a sudden Rupin Pass was reached. The time was 1:45pm. At 15,500ft we felt like we were on the top of the world; at least on top of the Rupin and Sangla valleys both of which were visible on either sides of the Pass. The Rupin valley offered wonderful views as the weather on that side seemed to clear up for a short while. Sangla valley hid its beauty under the hail and clouds. Our guides and a few porters had already reached and some of them went down again to help a few of the trekkers. Their dedication and courtesy cannot be thanked enough.
At the Rupin Pass, was a small wooden shrine dedicated to the Mountain God and the team offered their thanks for allowing us to get there in one piece. We were fortunate to be there and silently conveyed our deepest gratitude for the same. Raju performed a small Pooja, and prashad (dry coconut) was distributed quickly. The team had to move on quickly as it was extremely cold out there making the body lose heat rapidly. I could feel the fingers in my feet freeze as I watched the proceedings. After the mandatory photo shoots, we left Rupin Pass by 2:15pm.
The next phase of the trek was a continuous descent. Our destination was the first meadow on this side of the mountain range, a place called Ronti-gad. ‘Gad’ in this side of the mountains meant meadow (it was ‘Thatch’ on the other side). We passed another frozen lake on this side and enjoyed close up views of the stark mountain range as we climbed down. The mountains with their millions of rocks, and edges that were covered with snow reflected the light in a way that made them glisten like jewels. As we climbed down, we could see the black&white view of the glistening mountains merge with the sepia shade of the mountainside’s exposed rocks and grass.
After navigating snow, we soon came upon a mix of snow and slush that made the descent unpleasant. The slush then gave way to grass and rock giving our feet a firmer footing. The advantage of moving down quickly was that the temperature improved and so did the blood circulation in the body. In another hour or so, we saw the first bird on this side of the Pass.
As we approached Rontigad (MSL: 4100m), a lot of sheep were grazing in the hill side and the meadows. The shepherd was a middle aged man named Rajesh. He enquired, “Did you see any wolves?”. Negative was the reply; given our group size, even if the wolves had been around, they would have easily hidden somewhere. Rajesh had no dogs guarding his herd; apparently they had all gone down into the village to make their presence during the mating season.
From this point in the mountain, our camp site could be seen way below in the meadow. It was a sight we were not used to, since we were always trekking up to our camp sites! The tents below looked cute, much like Lego blocks. The camp site was once again set up (altitude of 130m below Rontigad) in a beautiful location, overseeing the deep valley with the river gushing below. As expected, the tents were setup by the time we reached the place. We enjoyed a nice view of the mountains from the tents.
As the night set in, the skies cleared for another brief interval. A half moon emerged and the snow peaks could be seen in the faint moonlight. It was a serene atmosphere. We had achieved two major milestones – one was crossing the river on the previous day and then today’s climax of crossing the Rupin Pass. We felt relieved. The porters actually broke into a dance and wore big smiles that stretched from one ear to the other. They also had good fun pursuing some stray mountain cows that relentlessly came back smelling salt on one of the stones that held the kitchen tent.
The food service now was a vast improvement over what we experienced in the first two days. Tea (and black tea) was served upon arrival. Soon after we retired into the tents, pop corn and soup followed. Dinner was then served – roti, onion curry, rice, dal and gulab jamoon. We felt really pampered with this kind of food served on a night when it was still raining, at an altitude of 4000m. The only thing missing was a camp fire. But it was raining and since we were still above the tree line, there was no firewood either.
18 sep 2010 [Rontigad - Upper Sangla - Sangla]
Once again it snowed through the night and by the morning, there was a couple of inches of snow around the tents. The night temperature went below freezing. There was also a big thunderstorm (with hail) in the night that twisted our tents out of shape. Early in the morning even before the sun rise, we could hear loud claps of thunder and blinding flashes of lightening that pierced through our tents.
There was enough accumulation of ice on the tent surface to flatten the tops and push the sides inward. Some of us in the sleep could feel the tent side touching us and even thought it could be an animal trying to cozy up to the tent (the exhaustion was such that none woke up).
We once again woke up to bed tea in the morning. The plan was to make an early start after a functional breakfast made of Maggi noodles. We left the camp site at 8:15am, as usual with rain coats trying to protect us from rain and sleet. I discovered that with continuous precipitation over several days, even the rain coats give up, and water somehow finds its way inside.
We traversed slushy mud and made a tricky climb down. There was some excitement after an hour, as we found the tree line again. The two hour descent was uneventful and soon we were at our first village – Sangla Kandla (or Upper Sangla). We came across an old lady who enquired about us and asked for tea. Now that was something not to be refused. She led us around her home and into a very narrow courtyard and made us sit practically in her cow shed. The tea took a long time to cook (like anything else in the mountains) and our trek guides and trek lead caught up with us there. It was a funny sight, nine of us in the rain, sipping half cooked tea in a crowded cow shed.
The descent to Sangla resumed at 11am. After a couple of hours of walking through deodar forests, we reached the bottom of the valley and came upon a large bridge that was adorned with Tibetan Buddhist flags. The perennially muddy Baspa river flowed under the bridge; the incessant rains must have deepened the shade of its brown waters. School kids milled around us, some asked us for chocolates (one even pointed to the wrapper in my raincoat pocket which was empty); we politely said no. Besides all our food supplies were exhausted by then.
Sangla town belongs to the Kinnaur district and is very beautiful with looks straight out of a picture post card. It is dominated by high mountain peaks with the mountain ranges circling it almost on all sides. The tallest peak is Kinnaur Kailash at 6050m said to be the winter home of Lord Shiva; perhaps it would make a great climb some other day.
We reached the guest house by 2pm; the arrangements were modest. We were looking to get out soon and did not wish anything fancy either. We had late lunch by around 5pm and IH distributed our trek completion certificates. After a futile search for the right Kinnauri cap and shawl, we came back to the guest room waiting for the vehicle that would take us back to Shimla. We were told that there was a massive landslide 5kms out of Sangla. It was not predictable when the road would be open again.
After a long wait, just by happen stance, we stepped out of the room around 8pm and enquired with some drivers to learn that the road was now open. Our care taker was trying to hide the information as he was keen on us extending the stay through the night (more income for him!) but we were fortunate to get out. Any further delay would have had a domino effect on the sequential bus/train and flight bookings.
After some haggling for the vehicle, we managed to catch a Sumo jeep at 10:30pm. The midnight dinner at Babaji’s Dhaba in Tapuri was a highlight. After a bumpy ride through the entire night, we were lucky to reach Shimla by 9am. The same luck that saw us through an overflowing Yamuna at Delhi, bad roads through Rohru-Dodra, crucial decisions at Bavuta, river crossing at Upper Falls and finally landslides near Sangla got us back on time.