An avid dreamer who always wanted to travel for reasons so clichéd - to be lost and found in the womb of mother nature, and to bask in her love and caress. Brought up in a village of Palakkad did not have any dearth of nature. Was always a lost soul when I was around nature, deeply in love and full of life in my teenage years. Becoming an adult, starting a career and the love of a man took toll on me as with most people, I guess. Lost in the flickering city lights and its momentary pleasures, never able to find my way back to what mattered the most, the ability to actually see, experience, and live life.
When this year began as usual things began to fall apart, I started to dream again to escape the mundane existence. Someone came along with a lot of travel stories, little encouragements to step out, to the extent that the person helped me plan for the trip, always a phone call away for suggestions and advice. With lots of doubt and excitement I started my journey, not really understanding what I had signed up for. My only experience with higher altitude is vacationing on hill stations but not a trek. And this was my first trek.
After some research and deliberation registered for Kauri Pass Trek (April 16-20) with Bikat Adventures. Finally, I left home from Palakkad on April 15th, boarded 2 flights to reach Dehradun. In the evening, visited the Ghanta Ghar (Clock Tower); an hexagonal architecture structure in a commercial junction. Was feeling wary of everything around me. All I wanted was some quiet time away from the bustle of city and its people.
As directed by the Bikat team, reached ISBT Dehradun at 7 AM. Met Hardik, the trek leader for Kauri Pass. Got into the tempo traveller for the 8 plus hour drive to Joshimath. I was not paying attention to the names of the places, people or any other details. All I did was soak in the air I was breathing in (yes, forgot about COVID) and stared at the scenery around me as the vehicle made its way up the winding road. It was not the beauty that caught my eyes to begin with, it was the conquest of man over nature, the construction of roads that was ongoing in most of the places on our way. Looking at the jagged and scathed mountain sides pained me enough to wonder, am I contributing to it. Yes, I did. Need this road to reach my destination with speed and agility. The natives in the remote highlands needed it for their survival and livelihood. Would not debate on this subject now. What I felt during the drive was pain and the feeling of a slave becoming the master.
On our journey we had crossed three prayags (Devprayag, Karnaprayag and Rudraprayag) of the Panch Prayag in Uttrakhand. 'Prayag' means confluence of two or more rivers, and it is considered as one of holiest of confluences according to the Hindus. Watching Devprayag, the confluence of Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers, humbled me for I had not seen two rivers that flow with such defying forces, forms and colors become one in perfect union and to be called Ganga, the holiest of all rivers. At the same time, I marvelled at the structures (buildings) that stood precariously on the cliffs engineered by man.
By the time we reached the Jain Guest House at Joshimath in the evening, I had three friends - the Protector, the Truthsayer and the Satirist Yogi, who changed the course of my journey. These guys reminded me of the prayags. That night I changed my trek from Kauri Pass Trek to Pangarchulla Peak Trek (April 16-21). The difficulty levels of the treks were poles apart, first one was BRS 3 (Easy) and the latter was BRS 5 (Difficult). I figured the rating was given for a reason and not until later it dawned on me how important it is to understand the nature of the trek before embarking on one.
On April 17 morning, we drove to Dhak village watching the snow-capped peaks. The scene changed drastically from a state of noise to quietude, and the view mostly to scattered settlements on the valley and terrace farms. As I strapped my trekking bag, I was happy as a schoolgirl carrying her new school bag on her first day. No one tells her that she will be left to fend for herself in a new world on her own the minute she enters the school gate. Same thing happened to me. Just had to walk a few steps up the road, I was panting, sweating profusely and was ready to collapse. Realized I was alone in this endeavour. People can help you only to an extent. One must have the grit, physical and mental, to complete such treks. This was not meant for me. Wrong place to learn such lessons. Felt ashamed and disappointed at myself. Made me wonder was it not enough to walk 5 - 8 kilometres a day and workout 5 days in a week to complete this trek. Nishanth, one of the trek leaders, walked up to me and helped me get off my fleece jacket and handed me the water bottle. It helped me physically but did not boost my confidence. Everyone else in the group had some experience trekking and here I was slowing them down and was not even sure whether I wanted to move forward. Felt like one of those mules standing its ground when unsure. The moment of enlightment arrived with tears pricking my eyes and the knowledge that I should give up. Well, neither did I shed those tears in front of those strangers nor did I let my pride down. Dragged myself ahead. Again, the team started moving forward. Not sure how much distance we must have gone, about a kilometre, everyone was there resting in a shelter as I dragged myself. My journey began in that shelter which was surrounded by poison ivy. Won't forget the itching as I accidently touched it.
When we left the shelter, the team moved ahead of me or rather was asked to continue their walk, and the trek leader Sanjay came with me. Something changed my phase, I stopped dragging myself and started taking small measured steps, slow but steadily we moved on. Sanjay was patient and quiet. We crossed the dwellings where kids surrounded us for chocolates. I gave them whatever I had. More than kindness to them, was grateful for the kindness I was receiving. We crossed villages, people, cattle, dwellings and I passed them as a ghost. My only thought was moving ahead and getting a sip of water and there was plenty of water in every village we came across. In a while, we crossed a patch with trees, as if it was the boundary between the civilization and wilderness. After crossing a stream, we climbed a steep path only to reach the plain where lay the beautiful orange tents. I was thrilled, not because I could rest, but this was the first time I was going to stay in a tent, and it looked cute. To tell you the truth, those tents looked a little sophisticated in the wilderness, marking the presence of civilized beings. Was I not there to be away from them? Did not have to wait too long to experience the true nature of some of the guys bred in the mountains - pure and light-hearted as snowflakes.
The first thing I was asked to do once I reached the camp was some stretches for muscle relaxation. Then, came the lunch and we were allowed to loiter as we please. I looked for the best spot to rest my back in the warm sun and enjoy the cool breeze. For some time I rested on a fallen tree and later on a flat rock. The rock was the best spot that I went to rest always after that. The warmth on my back did wonders. Evening we were taken for an acclimatation walk. The food was delicious and plenty in the camp.
From that day till the day we reached Joshimath, I did not know the time of the day or tried to stay connected to the world beyond. I switched off my phone and did not carry a watch. It suited me well. Most of the time I spent looking at the mountains. My trek mates explored the place, learned the names of the surrounding peaks as though they were admiring their favourite celebrities. They had a purpose. Whereas I just saw distant peaks covered in snow. A sense of peace and belonging spread in me. When you know that you are safe in the arms of someone you love that makes you take bold steps. A trust that builds in you and a knowledge that you are protected. It's the same vibe that I felt in those mountains. The night was lit with moonlight and a clear sky. It was magical to sleep on the mountains under the moon light.
The toilet was something I had to come to terms with. Had a few questions for my lady roomie, who answered everything patiently. Must say got used it after a while.
Waking up to the chirping birds ahead of the regular waking hours, which is 7 or 8 AM in the morning was something new to me. The day dawned early, as early as 5.30 AM to the cold air and the ice-cold water. Nothing romantic about it. Of course, it's a pain, well, you know! But we had hot teas to begin the day. A few breathing exercises before our breakfast. This time Sanjay decided to take me ahead of the team to save time. We started before others and entered the thick forest. Trees of varying sizes and blooms of pink rhododendrons surrounded us. There were rocky terrain and boulders to climb, steep climbs with measured steps. Small streams with gushing water. Drank the tastiest water, rested beside the stream, enjoyed their musical, in spite of being an uninvited guest. It was not an easy walk, but we managed to reach the camp a few minutes ahead of the team. That was a little boost to my confidence.
On the day of the summit came, we woke up early and started at about 1.30 AM, geared up like a warrior with helmet, gaiters, gloves, headlamp and layers of clothing. I am not a warrior, am more of a lover. This really worried me. With a lot of faith, I took those measured steps with Sanjay beside me again. The slopes were steep. As I negotiated my steps, saw many tiny flowers in the light of the headlamp. When we reached a certain spot at the top there was a stone structure, which later I came to know as a temple. Don't remember any clear path in particular after that. All I saw was the full moon and the snow-capped peaks looked so clear and closer. As I caught my breath attempted to stand still, watching the mountains, praying for strength to touch her white cheeks. We came to a spot where we were walking on a narrow path with the mountain on one side and the valley on the other. That would have looked nice on a postcard and not very promising when trying to walk across the path. From there Sanjay held my hand. My breathing was getting harder and required more rest. We had to cross three ridges to reach the Pangarchulla peak. The first ridge broke my spirit. As I climbed the steepest slope, and reached the top, I panicked looking at what lay below. Before I knew I had one of my asthma attacks. That was the end of my trek. It was decided I should descend as my team members passed me and proceeded to the summit.
The descend was hurting my body and mind. As I struggled my way down with Rithik (Bikat member who escorted me back to the camp) who lead me by hand, I had two more asthma attacks. The third one on the narrow path with the valley below me. I sat there struggling to breathe, everything appeared to move slow, tears streamed down my cheeks, sounds muffled, all I saw was the beautiful valley below with flowers and greenery, and the white peaks ahead calm and serene. The sun had risen, and light added to the colourful hues. Was there a more beautiful place or time to die? It was perfect. It was not my kith or kin near me or was I in a land that I knew. Still, I felt at home that moment when I took the medicine puff to regain my way back to life. I reached the safety of the camp. Did not completely recover that day.
My sickness gave me access to the kitchen tent which was forbidden to us otherwise. Was glad to meet the fellows who made our delicious food. A jolly lot with a ready smile and kind hearts. The trek leaders and kitchen staff made me feel at home with their stories, fed me, gave me medicines and literally put me to bed. It rained that night, and our tent had a leak. Sanjay gave his tent to my lady roomie and me.
Everything was fine the next morning. I recovered and did a decent descend to the Dhak village. Enjoyed my walk back to the pick-up point. Whenever I came across a steep ground, Sanjay would say, baby steps! Yes, those baby steps helped me climb that far. Before I left, took one last look at her, proud and majestic - Pangarchulla Peak. Definitely, I’m coming back!
I am not a sportsperson at heart to believe in competition or achievement. I am more of a romantic, always have been and always will be. All I see is a beautiful journey that I had with enriching experience from the mountains and its people. More than the destination it is the journey that made the difference to me. The journey ahead is bound to be beautiful as nature is an incurable romantic like me. Hoping to get in shape soon and keep wooing her again!