Under the sun’s glare, my eyes dimmed and felt like two heavy slits. My lips were dry, even as I sipped the little water I had. My headache felt like a nagging feeling, like missing an important deadline. The lunch that I had had some time ago refused to stay inside. I had puked it out. My feet were sluggish like they had a mind of their own. I stopped, leaned against my trekking pole and wondered when this would end.
One of my trek leaders, Sanjay Singh Rawal, looked back and shouted, "Come on, Shaurya, keep moving. You can rest at the camp." His voice felt like a distant echo in the mountains. We didn't want to get stuck here in the dark. I kept walking, and the trail still felt endless.
This was after I descended from the Kedarkantha summit, my first Himalayan trek. I was tired like never before. But, with Sanjay's motivation, it took every ounce of energy in me to reach my camp near Juda-ka-Talab (9,000 feet altitude) by dusk. I was relieved and drank a litre of water, stretched and had hot tea with macaroni. I washed my face- it was the first time I did in the five-day-long trek- moisturised it and got ready for dinner before hitting the sack by 9 pm. I felt better, and I was glad about it.
This was my first proper trek. I had only been on a day trek in western Ladakh two years ago, but it was not as hard as Kedarkantha. I had physically and mentally prepared myself for months prior to the trek, which is widely considered to be easy. I was running 5-10 km regularly a week, besides weight training. I was apprehensive and excited about what I would face.
The first day of the trek from Sankri (a village about 200 km away from Dehradun at an altitude of 6,500 feet) was not difficult, even though the trail had a steady inline up to our camp near Juda-ka-Talab. I did what my other trek leader, Abhishek Rana, told me to do, to take small and consistent steps. It felt like making lunges uphill at a steady pace. My batchmates and I reached the campsite 6 hours later. I was not very tired and felt rejuvenated with the tea and snacks that were provided immediately afterwards.
We learnt how to pitch our tents, enter them and also use a toilet tent. The first night was tough because of the changing weather. It had been raining during our trek, followed by hail and rain again. It was freezing at night, and the dining tent felt like a hearth. Everyone huddled together for dinner.
Later inside my tent, I was glad I had a tentmate, Raghav, mainly because it ensured the tent remained warm. It was my first time camping and using a sleeping bag. We were taught how to use it, but it felt very uncomfortable because I had to get into the fleece blanket that was sewn like a sack and then zip myself inside the sleeping bag. My tentmate looked at me and, speaking from inside his bag, said, "I am used to a king-size bed at home, where I can toss and turn."
"Same here," I said. "Are you going to go outside if you have to pee," I asked.
“Yes, I might and will muster up all my courage. But I won’t go very far for it,” he smirked.
That was another concern I had. I usually drink a lot of water before sleeping and would go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. But, I asked myself if I should go outside in the sub-zero temperature here, away from the warmth of my blanket, wear my shoes in half-sleep and walk 20 metres near the toilet tent to urinate in pitch darkness. I then thought about holding it until the morning.
I woke up sometime in the middle of the night to discover that I hadn’t used the sleeping bag properly. I had covered it like a blanket. I woke up shivering in the middle of the night, looked down and saw that the bag had bundled on one side and had left me mostly uncovered. “You won’t get sleep on your first night,” I remembered what Abhishek had told me.
The following day, it snowed after raining the entire night. I layered myself appropriately and went outside to a ramshackle empty dhaba adjacent to our camp. The landscape was very beautiful. We had camped on a meadow with pine and oak trees that were surrounded by snow-covered peaks.
I found everything to be overwhelming, unanchored. Like there was nothing to ground me. This was my first trip after the coronavirus lockdown last year. I was with strangers. I had not socialised much. Apart from that, I was also trying to enjoy the views and do my job as an on-field writer for Bikat Adventures. I had come from a life of a fixed routine at home, doing my chores and working at my own pace. This place felt unusual.
I closed my eyes and listened to the birds chirping. It was about 6 am, and I was glad for the silence that engulfed me. I paid attention to my breathing and opened my eyes after a few minutes. The first thing I saw was a snow-covered mountain. I felt at peace.
A few minutes later, I wanted to use the toilet tent. As I walked towards an empty one, I heard some of my fellow trekkers asking the Bikat staff, “garam paani milega (can we get some hot water)”, an essential bowel-movement requirement for a lot of people.
Since the tent was pitched a few inches above the ground, the wind outside provided ventilation inside it. I looked around me. There was a half-foot pit and a pile of mud next to it. I was not used to this. I was used to a western or an Indian style toilet with a flush and faucet. I felt uncomfortable when I squatted and held onto the tent pole. I was not used to toilet paper, but I managed somehow. When I went outside to wash my hands, it was so cold that the soap’s lather stuck to my hands.
This was probably the most challenging experience for me as a first-time trekker. We went to Juda-ka-Talab that day, which was a 10-minute hike from our camp. The serene oval-shaped lake lies in a meadow surrounded by lines of pine and oak trees.
It rained again, followed by a small hailstorm. I covered myself with a poncho and walked away from the group towards the edge of the lake. I stopped, stared at the lake and then looked up at the hail. It was hitting the ground very fast. But, as I concentrated deeply, I felt the hail dropping from the sky in slow motion, as if it was strewn like flowers from a balcony. I looked further ahead at the trees, and I thought of Christmas, as the hail appeared to layer them like snowfall.
The next morning, we left at about 5.50 am for the summit from our first campsite. According to our original plan, we should have shifted to the base camp (11,200 feet altitude) on the third day of our trek. Since the weather was bad, the trek leader decided to stay back at Juda-ka-Talab.
This increased the difficulty of the summit day because it now became a 12-hour long trek to the summit and back, instead of the nine hours it would take from the base camp. We also didn't leave around the initially planned time of 3 am because of the weather. This meant that the last few hours of our trek to the summit would be under the harsh sun.
It was very cold that day and the rain had made the trail slippery. We reached the base camp at about 8 am, after walking through forests parallel to adjoining snow-capped peaks. On our way there, we saw the sunrise emerging from behind these peaks and the rays falling in patches on our faces.
From the base, we reached two dhabas, facing each other, below the summit.“We are going there. It doesn’t look very far, but it is,” Sanjay said to the group.
The snow on the trail was now knee-deep, and the sun made it difficult to walk. Everyone was tired. The group slowed down every few minutes and stopped to take breaks.
Then came the 45-degree high inclines, where some of our teammates stopped, panicked and with some outstretched hands and loud shouts of motivation, were able to ascend them.
The entire landscape was covered with snow. It was just pure white. We stopped for a break before heading for the ridgeline. The group was even more tired now. I was at the end of the group, going at my pace and stopping to click photographs on my mobile phone. But, I got a little impatient because the group was going slower than before. “How far are we?” a trekker asked Sanjay. “We have not even completed 25 per cent of the trek”, he smiled.
I started moving ahead. The trail here becomes challenging because of the continued ascent and low oxygen levels. With balanced steps and short breaks, I overtook a lot of my fellow trekkers until I reached the ridge. The ridgeline was daunting. The path was narrow. There was a fall on my left and a protruding rock face on my right. Abhishek was on the rock face, and with his ice axe, he guided me on the path. I just had a few more metres to go till the summit. After walking for a few minutes on the heavy snow, I finally made it.
I was thrilled. This was my first summit. About 20 minutes later, the rest of the group reached. Everyone was also happy, a sense of achievement, clicking pictures and calling their families. This is the only place in the entire trek where you can get a mobile network.
After eating a light lunch of sabji and roti, it was time to leave. It was about 1.40 pm, and the sun was blazing hotter than when we started. During our descent, I started getting a slight headache. I reached out for my bottle but remembered that I was out of water. I drank some and shared some with others. After sliding down some snow slopes, my headache increased, and I felt heavy fatigue. I felt parched.
Sanjay dug out some fresh snow which I rolled into a ball and sucked the water from. It gave me some relief. We reached a small dhaba along our trail, where I bought a bottle of water. I gulped it down.
A few minutes later, we reached the two dhabas at the base of the summit. Here, my fatigue and headache increased. I had some Oral Rehydration Solution and an omelette. My condition became worse. When it was time to leave, I was unable to catch up with the group. I felt nauseous. Sanjay stayed back with me as I walked slowly. I asked him if I should be taking any medication.
“Don’t take anything. You will be fine when you reach the camp (a.k.a. losing some altitude). Have plenty of water and food. You will recover,” he said.
I later moved out of the trail and vomited my lunch behind a tree. I was exhausted. I wanted to lie on the snow and sleep.
“Keep moving. Let’s go. We have a long way ahead,” he said.
It was not a good idea to rest there. It was about 4 pm, and around the next two hours, it would be dark. So I kept walking, two steps and then a break, and doing the same thing again and again. I only looked down at the ground, as I didn't want to see how much further we still had to go. I thought of home and my wife and how she would sometimes stand close to me, her hand around my shoulder, caressing my hair.
Sanjay's words brought me back. "Don't worry. Everyone has been hit badly today. It has been a very long trek. You didn't have enough water, and your body is lacking the nutrition it needs," Sanjay explained after I complained of why this happened to me.
Later, with the descent, the altitude reduced, and I started feeling much better. When we were near Juda-ka-Talab, I caught up with some other lagging members of my group. I felt relieved when I reached the campsite with my group.
"It is finally over”, I said to myself, while also glad that I completed what I came here for.