By Rijul Nadkarni ( Railways BG)
The love was always there, you know. Perhaps the search was for the right expression. I’m talking about my love for the mountains, which found profound expression in trekking. I am your regular corporate slave, whose pursuit for serenity makes him look beyond the ‘fun’ vacation in Thailand or that relaxing stay at a beachside resort. There is something about the mountains that makes me want to go up there time and again .
Before you begin reading this piece let me warn you that you are in for a long read as I’ve tried to keep my account as detailed as possible !
“When everything feels like an uphill struggle, just think of the view from the top.” Some may argue why take the trouble of climbing the hill when you can take a helicopter to the summit. But getting to the peak after putting in the sweat and work is beyond words.
One enervating May evening in Delhi after my workout, I received a call from my best friend from college that we should do a trip together before he leaves. Before jumping the gun, he is due to leave for MBA to the US in September. So, we were exploring options and the usual Goa, Kerala and North East came up. I however suggested let’s do a trek or chill out trip in the hills. He was on notice but I had to optimize leaves! He did his research, read doable treks in North India, shortlisted a couple with trekking groups. We didn’t want to go for something difficult. We chose Bhrigu Lake by Trek the Himalayas group as they had labeled the trek “Easy to moderate”. I don’t quite agree with this benchmarking of treks as it’s not only the place or trail that should be rated. Climatic conditions , Seasons when visiting , number of equipments being used , time of the day that you trek and the number of people you travel with , if solo , with or without a guide all play a role in labeling a trek as Easy , Moderate or Difficult .
The first line of action after signing up for any trek is to ensure you have all the trekking essentials. Trek the Himalayas will provide you with a list. I would recommend to have all items on the list. Quality of the trekking shoes are the most important.
As a second line of action and probably the most important for first timers is to maintain high fitness levels at least a month or so before the trek. Eat right, sleep right and train right. Make sure your heart and legs are strong enough to withstand what the trek will put you through .
My friend arrived from Mumbai to Delhi and we decided to directly meet at the Kashmere Gate ISBT to avoid last minute chaos . We had booked the Himachal State Transport Himsutva Bus to Manali . As a heads up , always book state transport buses while heading to the hills . Private buses loiter around a lot , take unnecessary halts , have a history of breaking down en route and thus ensure a minimum delay of 3-4 hours . This hampers your entire plan for trek ahead .
It’s funny the sheer number of times I have travelled this route, yet had no memory of it! I’m always in deep slumber all the way. This time around I had my friend for company and we spoke for hours together , catching up on various updates in each other’s lives . We had a Whatsapp group to coordinate activities and meeting point for the trek .
Next morning after getting looted for a ride from Bus Stand to the Mall Road , we reached the meeting point about 3 hours before the start of the trek . Nobody had arrived yet. We decided to have a heavy breakfast and freshen up at Johnsons café , a picturesque and well maintained café in Manali . We met our group which contained many first timers , a 47 year old seasoned trekker , an opera singer from the US and a couple of basketball players also from the US .
We met our guide , Deepak and all the other group members , who would be doing the trek together . It’s funny how at first glance we tried to match people’s identities based on how they spoke or wrote in the whatsapp Group! Then we were on our way in two SUVs from Manali to Gulaba , a poor man’s Rohtang ! With half the country heading towards Leh / Ladakh or Rohtang pass as these are two months when the routes are open there, this route was congested. It was frustrating to be stuck in a car with a never ending queue ahead and no means to overtake or break the line. Three hill towns—Kolang, Palchan, and Kothi marks the way, and the pine forests help diminish some of the frustration as meander along.
Management teaches you to be a professional at managing time, money and resource. Our first little test was to complete a trek which would normally take 2 hours in one hour. Initial plan was to walk zig zag along a hair pin but we decided to cut certain levels in the most optimum way. We also had to ensure that the many first timers in our group could manage this route. A couple of the girls couldn’t handle the load of their backpacks and were on the verge of passing out. There is the option to offload your backpacks on a mule. But that option was available only after our first camp night. Though It was not the toughest trek to our first camp, we had to take care of the first timers and it made us quickly realize of what was to come in tougher trails ahead. We were a team and had to maintain the synergy.
The second day started with hot lemon tea that got our intestines all loaded up to release. For those who don’t know, taking a dump is a real experience on treks or at campsites.
We were starting at an altitude of 12,500 ft. and planned to cover 10 km in 3-4 hours. At the end of the trek was the base camp , so the plan was to minise travel time and maximize time at base cmap for acclimatizing with the weather conditions at that altitude .
We were told it was going to be steep, steep walk, so we needed to go equipped with 2 liters water and little snack bites to unwind between the testing laps.
For the first few miles we are trailing under a forest cover and bathing in the shade of rustling conifers. You could easily spot oaks, cedar, and birches. It’s a beautiful sight to catch a glimpse of blue through these leaves.
The trail is so different for each person . For one it may be strenuous and he/she puts his entire focus into every step , while for another it could be just a casual walk in the park . For me this particular initial trail was the latter , but little did I know what was to come .
After Walking on 20 minutes into the trek, and the forest had now ebbed behind, unfolding only rolling green meadows before. This was the shepherds’ zone where cattle grazers are brought from the local villages all through summer. You could find a few mud huts and camp poles lying there. At this point the sun shone brightly and this is bright sunshine , it was mesmerizing to see sheeps and beautiful horses grazing with spectacular peaks in the background
Keeping the meadow behind and heading south, we encountered the peak of Hanuman Tibba rising in sharp focus at this point and a little below, the seven sisters Peaks. Lying somewhere far below was the green patch of Beas Kund valley, which Is another trek organized by trek groups .
Another slight jungle cover passed by after which the trail fell on to the rugged meadows again. The path was filled with rocky , green and snow trails . Fitness and breathing was put to serious test during this stretch and that is why I stressed so much on fitness in the introduction.
The thrill climaxed when the path got narrower and steeper just before entering the grasslands of Rola Kholi., which would be our camp site for the night
Our camp was set near chor nallah ( water source ) at the Rola Kholi campsite.
This night is the night of wonder under a sky breaking into a zillion stars! But it is also a night where your body starts taking a toll due to the exertions of the entire day and plus with the rising altitude. People were unale to sleep due to the body pain , the breathlessness , a heavy head , nausea and what not . Three people backed out of the next part of the trek which was supposed to commence the next day . We did try to play games of Frisbee , Dumb charades , various Card games to cheer them up but they just weren’t ready .
We did interact and tried to make the American folks comfortable as well as for the next part of the trek , we needed everyone coordinated and together .
At night my friend and I had a severe headache and a slight fever , something you have to deal with when you’re at 14,000 ft altitude . But we tried to drive it away by singing songs for more than two hours in our tent right from Kishore Kumar to Armaan Malik & Arijit Singh .
So we set for the Bhrigu Lake summit from the base camp as ten instead of thirteen. This was going to be a complete change in landscape as we were moving on from meadows, rivers, forests, rocks to mountains covered with snow.
We were told to wake up early as possible so that we could return early . The logical explanation was that as the sun beat the hardest around noon, it would cause the snow to melt and we needed to have come down past the more difficult parts of the descent otherwise it would’ve been catastrophic.
I haven’t yet explained what we ate during the day . Our meal would start with Lemon tea or Black tea to get us active after a cold chilly night . After our morning rituals , we would be served a plate of breakfast with hot milk/ chai . For breakfast we were served Parantha , Puri Sabji , Cereal and French Toast on various days . We would then fill out bottles from the nearest water source and carry dry fruits / protein bars for the rest of the day. For dinner, we were served Yellow Dal , Rajma , Dal Makhni , Paneer , Kheer etc. on various days . It’s worth commending our group cooks for serving such sumptuous meals despite having the challenge to cook at high altitudes.
Back to the trek. Starting off way early in the morning we were to traverse a distance of 10 kilometers in approximately 7-8 hours on a steep and massively stony path. The verdant meadows of the last two days felt like a dream but this landscape was to be no less captivating, and got all the more refreshing in the cool mountain climate.
We started with a steep uphill climb. Luckily we were one of the first to start, so we could grip the snow properly. Instead of going straight up we went diagonal right and then diagonally left . People were on the verge of twisting their ankles but thank the crampons which our group asked us to carry. Without them gripping the snow was near impossible.
10 km of snowy ascents with crevices, ridges, huge valleys to glance to your left. Chances of sliipery feet and the heavy head and breathless body meant instinct would never let you reach out for your phone and click pictures. All you were focused on was your next step and the summit is what kept you going.
“Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail”. This is the mantra for the out of the box thinkers and the differentiators, but we were strictly told to follow the trails left by others and that would enable us to grip better.
The last hill climb before we reach lake is grueling and formidable, but as we climbed higher, we could see the lake and the happiness could not be expressed in words literally as we were breathless.
The alpine lake becomes visible between the two ridges that we reach at the end of the last boulder-bound lap. Be it high winters or the beginning of summer, the lake is never entirely frozen. This is an incidence attributed to the power of Sage Bhrigu of the ancient myths to whom this lake is named.
Two things I realized as I stood at 16,000 odd feet altitude , admiring the lake. The learnings on life from hikes is commendable be it time management , resource management , fighting it out in the do or die situations , choosing the optimum paths to reach your goal . Also , human body is so flexible with adjustments to conditions and flexible enough to be pushed to any limits if you are courageous enough to do so.
Till June, one can expect this course post Rola Khuli to be covered in snow. From mid-July on, the gradients of brown, green, and white get prominent as the snow melts off.
The alpine lake becomes visible between the two ridges that we reach at the end of the last boulder-bound lap. Be it high winters or the beginning of summer, the lake is never entirely frozen. The locals say this is an incidence attributed to the power of Sage Bhrigu of the ancient myths to whom this lake is named.
From the high belt surrounding the lake, you can catch a istant glimpse of the Solang Valley nestling far away and on a clear day, the sky lights up with the splendid peaks of Pir Panjal and Dhauladhar rang.
If you thought climbing up was difficult , be to be deceived on your descent . We see two people just while on the descent who almost meet fatal accidents – one hurts his back and the other his ankle and then panic sets in the group and 2-3 of us set the calm in the group thatw e are all together in this and we can get out of this hurdle soon .
The technique for descent on snow is always to go heel first so that you plant your feet firmly and similarly in ascent one goes toes first. In treks as in life it’s best to keep things simple. We continued in this way and we descended all the way down the same way we came up .m Only problem this time around , the human traffic was immense , a factor which takes so many lives during the dreadful Everest Trek . Only difference the conditions here are much more supporting than at Everest .
In the last few laps pf our descent as expected , the sun had caused the snow to loosen up and many of us slipped , escaping injury . The last hill descent was left, that large snowy hill which we could see from our base camp. Right when we were about to start, a heavy downpour set off just what the doctor didn’t order. We had a few locals who were seasoned hikers on their way up and they advised us to just slide all the way down rather than adopt the diagonal route we took while on the way up as they predicted this rain was deemed to be perennial . We still wanted to go as per plan but one of our members ahead slipped on the trail and she was advised to slide down all the way and a guide from one the groups caught hold of her luckily and guided her till the base . Viewing this, all of decided that we would just slide down as we would at least be mentally prepared. As long as we took a path without rocks to slide and maintained our center of gravity with an arched body, we would be fine. This way we all slided almost a kilometer down. This helped save time and avoid accidents due to the imposing rain.
Finally , we were back in our base camps , drenched in snow and rain ,nonetheless back safely , all ten of us . We wished for a nice hot shower or a Jacuzzi t that moment but we had to settle for just our quick dry towels to dry us off. Such are the challenges of living in the mountains and in those conditions .
We were only left for one last descent from base camp to Gulaba village . We had planned this for the next day , the final day . At dinner after our sumptuous meal , we made sure everyone spoke of their takeaways from the trek and we thanked the organisers , the cooks , guides etc. for all their support and handed them a generous tip for their efforts .
It was quite gratifying to hear Americans appreciate the natural beauty India boasts of . After hearing out an enthralling opera performance, We all congratulated each other and hit the hay before the final frontier of the hike.
The rain that had started on our descent the previous day had continued all night long . Some frivolous folks who didn’t zip their tents adequately had water sip into their tents and wreck their sleeping bags .
Nonetheless , we packed our things as soon as the rain got lighter , but there was forecast for pounding showers as the day progressed . We had to move and move fast. We knew the path now as it wasn’t white as snow and we had climbed up the same path , but slippery sand and boulders brought naivety in our steps during our descent . The edges of cliffs were scenic but dreadfully dangerous with the thunderstorms around. Nobody dared to take out their phones and take pictures with fear of phones slipping out of their hands . I did manage to get only one .
After slipping multiple times in mud and getting our clothes dirty and wet , we made it to Gulaba where we had to wait for half an hour since half our group had asked for their backpacks to be brought down by the mules . Probably this descent would’ve been easier with backpacks but I decided to cling on. As I said earlier, these are ways to alter difficulty of your treks by altering seasons of visit , adding weight etc.
I felt for the mules as they had to climb down those slippery routes with all the weight of some of my friends . They didn’t have the trekking shoes or the rain proof jackets that we had , but they made it . We then descended to Manali from Gulaba , avoiding the Leh / Ladakh rush on the road .
We bid goodbye to our friends , used a room for an hour to freshen up , change clothes and boarded buses back to Delhi .
I believe your first experience of a trek of such nature decides whether you are built to survive the mountains. Either that turns to be your first and only trek or you go on to be a seasoned hiker. I chose the latter.