This is Part 2 of the story. If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, please use the link below to access it.
Picking up from where we left…
In contrast to the warmth that was building sketchily inside the make-shift structure, the temperatures dipped steadily outside. Help was likely to arrive only after dark. Pijush wasn’t sure what the next step would be then.
Would they descend to the campsite at night? Would they decide to stay on the pass itself until daylight? With some warm food, tents and sleeping bags, spending a night on the Pass shouldn’t be entirely impossible. But then again, a lot of it would depend on how Ved was doing.
“Ved’s condition was growing worse by the minute. He couldn’t feel or move his lower limbs anymore. They were completely paralysed from the cold. And he kept drifting in and out of consciousness.
The trekkers rubbed his hands and feet to induce some warmth while I continuously monitored his oxygen levels. It was crucial to keep him awake. So, every time he lost consciousness, I removed my gloves and slapped his cheeks back and forth to get him to wake up.
I didn’t tell the other trekkers this, but from what I could see, there was a 95% chance that he wouldn’t make it. I chose to focus on the 5%, gave him the required medication, kept him awake and warm, and hoped fervently that he would pull through.” – Pijush
An excruciating hour passed by in this manner. The other trekkers were cold, hungry, exhausted, and worried. But, Ved needed more attention. So, they kept at it in their own capacity, each ensuring he stayed warm and awake.
After what seemed like 5 hours, but was essentially only an hour in real time, Ved asked for some water. It was 4 PM in the evening.
“Wanting water was a good sign. Although, it didn’t place him in the safe zone as such, it was the first indication of some kind of recovery. He still could not feel his lower limbs. If we gave him the cold water that we were carrying with us, it could push his body into hypothermia.
So, I dipped my finger into the waterbottle and lined his lips with some water. It would prevent dehydration and ensure he doesn’t fall prey to hypothermia.”- Pijush
This continued for the next hour or so while Pijush carefully monitored Ved’s oxygen levels.
At 5 PM, Ved’s haze seemed to clear up a little. He asked for some frooti to drink.
“The frooti packets we had with us were cold and frozen. So I placed one inside my jacket to warm it up. Once it wasn’t ice cold, I offered it to Ved.
He drank it and soon afterwards asked for some food to eat. I was beginning to feel the first signs of relief. The improvement in Ved’s condition was clear. Color was beginning to return to his cheeks. If we continued in the same manner, complete recovery wasn’t far away.
We had our packed lunches with us. But, they were completely frozen in the cold and weren’t fit to eat. So, we dug out all the chocolates and dry fruits we could find and offered it to him. He ate them with a good appetite.”- Pijush
This was a sign that his body was finally acclimatising to the altitude. But the cold continued to pose a problem. Ved could still not feel his lower limbs. The sun had begun its slow descent down the horizon taking the remnants of warmth from the slopes of Rupin Pass with it.
All that separated the trekkers from 3 ft of soft snow now was a thick plastic sheet below them, another sheet of plastic above them and many troubling questions inside them.
They had no idea if Arvind had reached Ronti Gad. They didn’t know how much longer they would have to wait for help. Will Ved be able to survive the night? Would they be able to cope with the cold that settles in once the sun goes down? Will the weather on the pass remain stable for the rest of the night?
An hour had passed. The questions were plenty. But the answers were nowhere in sight.
Around this time, as if to put a stop to each trekker’s train of thought, Ved uttered something that earned a spate of chuckles from all the trekkers inside the make-shift structure.
He wanted to know why his cheeks and mouth were hurting so much.
“I had hit him across his face so many times in the last couple of hours to keep him awake. Judging by his question, he was so cold that he hadn’t felt any pain then. And he had absolutely no recollection of it when we narrated the incident to him now.
The pain aside, his cheeks hurting was a good sign. It meant his body was warming up. Regaining consciousness in his legs wasn’t far away.” – Pijush
Relieved that Ved was well out of the danger zone now, Pijush stepped out of the polythene sheet for the first time since that afternoon to focus on the next task at hand. They had to figure out how far away help was and plan the next set of steps accordingly.
He wasn’t prepared for the sight that greeted him outside. They had been so occupied with Ved that they had totally lost track of the time and space around them.
“The skies had cleared up and there was a bewitching sunset unfolding in the horizon. I didn’t know sunsets at the Rupin Pass were this stunning. It was the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen in my life till date.”- Pijush
There was no movement of people or lights in the direction of Ronti Gad. This meant help was nowhere near. But, instead of worrying about the next course of action or attending to the questions that were now pulsing through his head, Pijush wanted to just be; to stay in the moment for a bit and be lulled by the sunset that was happening right in front of him.
The morning’s events had left him on his toes. There was uncertainty over what will happen next. And in that narrow space between what has been and what is yet to come; the mountains were presenting him with this breath-taking sunset almost evocative of the calm that appears right before a storm.
When the last of the colors in the horizon were disappearing, Pijush got back to the tasks at hand feeling a little more clear-headed and optimistic.
“I decided to prepare for the worst case scenario- the possibility of us having to spend the entire night on the Pass with no help from Ronti Gad.
The first task was to choose a spot to camp. It had to be somewhere on the track that runs from Ronti Gad to the Upper Waterfall Campsite. That way, if there was help arriving from Ronti Gad at night, they won’t have any difficulty finding us.
I chose a relatively flat spot right on the trek route. It was not very far from where the trekkers were now sitting. I quickly flattened the snow on the ground creating a shallow pit with a well-defined boundary. Then I removed the waterproof covers from the trekking bags we had arranged around Ved and spread them on the floor that I had just flattened. I laid out the plastic sheet on top of the backpack covers.
Then I asked the trekkers to hop in. This time, we had to ensure there was light body-to-body contact to weather out the cold of the night. I got in after that and placed all the trekking bags along the boundary of the pit.
Finally, we pulled another plastic sheet over ourselves.”- Pijush
Time: 7 PM
By this time, the last of the light had disappeared from the horizon and darkness was beginning to envelope them. Pijush turned on the red light on his head torch inside the enclosure. Now that they were settled comfortably inside their makeshift tent, Pijush began explaining the situation they were in to the trekkers.
“We were camping at 4, 650 M in temperatures that were going to dip to -20 degrees in the next hour or two. Since we had no sleeping bags or tents, the only way to survive this altitude and cold was to stay awake until help arrived. I told them that I would call out their names every ten minutes to ensure no one dozes off.
Next, we had to be mindful of the resources. There were five of us and we had a total of three one litre water bottles and some frozen food for the night. It was important to keep the waterbottles and food inside our jackets, close to the warmth of our body to ensure they don’t freeze in the night.
Lastly, we had to ensure that none of us stepped out at night. Every time we step out, we would lose some of the warmth inside the enclosure. So we had to eat and drink water accordingly”- Pijush
And on that note, Pijush began calling out each trekker’s name.
Time: 9:00 PM
Two hours had passed. Pijush had just finished yet another round of calling out everyone’s names in the enclosure when he noticed the faint glare of flashlights through the plastic sheet. There was an immediate change of atmosphere inside. It had to be Arvind bringing help from Ronti Gad. They would now have access to tents, sleeping bags, water and warm food.
Excited and relieved, Pijush lifted a part of the plastic cover from over his head to greet whoever was outside. It was not a familiar face that greeted him. Heart sinking, he called out to the three figures who were now trudging through the cold inching their way closer to where they were camping.
“They were three porters; all young boys who were barely adults. They belonged to a different organisation and were making their way to the Upper Waterfall Campsite from Ronti Gad.
I asked them if they had met Arvind on the way. They said they had met him at around 7 PM when he was still an hour away from Ronti Gad campsite. The snowfall had changed certain sections of the route forcing them to take a detour that was costing all of them more time than they had anticipated.
When I told them about the situation we were in, they said that we did not have high chances of making it out alive through the night”- Pijush
Wishing them a safe journey, Pijush pulled the cover back over his head trying not to show his dejection. Given Arvind had not reached Ronti Gad, he now knew help was a long way away. They were going to have to spend the night on the Pass. What the porters said before leaving also spurred some unrest within the group.
“After the porter kids had said that we won’t survive the night in this state, the trekkers were worried and rightly so. They began talking about it and very soon, the discussion had escalated into a full blown argument.
I decided to let the argument continue. Normally, panic would have been a bad idea. But today, right at this moment, panic was good. The adrenaline would keep the trekkers alert and awake, which in turn would keep them warm, increasing their chances of pulling through the night.
Time: 12 AM
The intense discussion continued for a couple of hours before fading out. A spell-binding Milky Way, meanwhile, had unfurled in the skies above them quietly.
“Our situation aside, it turned out to be one of the most beautiful nights on the Rupin Pass Trek. Once everyone had calmed down, I discussed my new plan with the team.
It was likely that we were not going to get any help from Ronti Gad that night. So, what we were going to do instead is start trekking at day break, around 4:45 AM -5:00 AM.
Although Ved was safe, he was in no state to trek. So I told his friend that he and Ved would have to stay put inside the enclosure while the participants and I went to Ronti Gad to send some help.” – Pijush
Pijush knew Ved and his friend wouldn’t be alone for long. Arvind would bring help from Ronti Gad soon. And the next batch of Bikat Adventures would also be descending to Ronti Gad that morning. Since, they had set up camp right on the route, one of the two groups or both groups are likely to find them.
With the new plan set in place, Pijush handed over some medicines to Ved’s friend and instructed him on which intervals to give them to Ved. Once this was done, he resumed calling each trekker’s name at ten minute intervals to ensure all of them were awake.
The cold had turned brain numbing by now. Each person was barely aware of the other and was struggling to pull through. Little sips of water from bottles that were now wrapped up protectively inside their jackets and Pijush calling out their names every ten minutes were the only things that kept them going.
“To make matters worse, I was hit by a bout of diarrhoea exactly an hour before daybreak. Diarrhoea is a common side effect of exposure to extreme altitudes and temperatures. By 5 AM that morning, I had had five or six runs of loose stomach.
Since I had barely eaten anything that day, what the diarrhoea essentially did was drain me of whatever little water was left in my body.
I was feeling weak and dehydrated. It was clearly a sign of my body telling me that it was facing trouble with the altitude. Both the trekkers from Bikat asked me to have some food and water. But we only had limited supplies. So, I refused it because I felt they might need it on the way to Ronti Gad.
At 5AM, I went over the medical instructions for Ved once again. Then, the two trekkers and I began our descent to Ronti Gad after leaving some food supplies and rope with Ved’s friend.” – Pijush
The descent was nerve-wracking. Fresh snow now ran up to 4 ft in many sections. This meant Pijush had to re-route in many places and open the route afresh for the trekkers. Amidst opening the route and more runs with loose stomach, the journey demanded every ounce of mental and physical stamina he had in him.
“There were times when I felt like giving up. I just did not have the energy in me to keep going anymore. But seeing the two trekkers who were now walking behind me; trusting in me completely to make it to Ronti Gad, somehow kept me going.
How the two trekkers conducted themselves throughout this event has been truly remarkable. Their journey hadn’t been an easy one. Yet, they never once complained or gave up. They tried to keep up and pitch in with help wherever they could.
For most parts, the descent was a blur. I remember placing one foot in front of the other, as if on automated mode, opening the route, shouting words of encouragement behind me and forcing my body to move ahead, paying no heed to the exhaustion that was now brimming at its threshold.” – Pijush
Time: 9:30 AM
True to what the porters had told them the previous day, the fresh snow had forced them to take the longer route to Ronti Gad.
At roughly 9:30 that morning, after 4 hours of toiling descent, Pijush came across a relieved Shivram (Head Porter) and Arvind. They were carrying tents, sleeping bags, fresh food and some water. Amiable and soft-natured, Shivram was almost in tears when he met Pijush.
Arvind told them that they had begun their ascent to the Pass that very night. Since it had turned pitch black by then, they were looking for light sources on the Pass to give them a semblance of which direction to follow.
Soft snow from the snowfall had blocked the usual routes and trying to locate the trekkers was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. After spending two to three hours searching for the team and wondering if Pijush had already descended from the Pass, Arvind and Shivram decided to camp for the night at around 2 AM.
“Although the pass was visible from where we now stood, the basin where we were camping remained invisible from lower altitude. Since Arvind knew that I would try to make it down the Pass if Ved’s condition improved, there was no way of figuring out where we were that night without walkie-talkies”- Pijush
Pijush and the trekkers ate the rotis and water that Shivram offered them while Arvind updated them on the other rescue measures that the Operations Team had taken. After reaching Ronti Gad, he had contacted the base to update them on the situation Pijush was in. The Operations Team had immediately kick-started the necessary steps to alert the authorities in the state to put together a rescue team.
“I am not sure if it was the food or the sight of familiar faces, but that break gave us some much needed boost to continue our descent to Ronti Gad. It took us a total of three hours and we finally reached Ronti Gad at 12.30 that afternoon. I was met by two Himachali Police at the campsite. They told me that a team of ITBF personnel were on their way to help with the process.”- Pijush
Meanwhile, Arvind and Shivram proceeded to the top of the Pass to assist Ved and his friend with the descent. Over there, they met with the next batch of Bikat Adventures that was crossing the Pass that day.
With the help of the staff members from that team, Ved and his friend were brought down to Ronti Gad safely.
At The Hospital that evening
That very same evening, all five of them were taken to a hospital for a check-up. Sitting in the confines of the hospital, Pijush was brought up to date with the happenings of the previous day.
“I was told that out of the three porter kids who had made their way to the Upper Waterfall Campsite that night, one of them did not survive the cold.
The other two had to dip their feet in hot water to unfreeze their shoes from their feet. With each horrific encounter that was narrated, I realised how lucky we had gotten that night. But it also made me realise how much the carelessness of even one person can endanger the lives of an entire team.
Once my medical examination was done, I went to check up on the other trekkers to find out how they were doing. All of us were thankfully well. Some trekkers had first stage frost bites, which were treatable. The frost bite on my right foot had moved into the second stage.
Ved, alone, was diagnosed with a mild case of HAPE. But the doctors had told him that he was going to be alright.
When I met him that evening, he asked me about the tablets I had given him right before we began our ascent up the Rupin Pass Gully. A little confused, I listed them out one by one when he intervened and said that he had taken all of the tablets except the one that resembled Diamox. He had deliberately thrown it away when I was not looking…”– Pijush.
A note to our Readers:
When we first began work on this story, we wondered if we should publish it. Our concern was that it might come across as one written with ill-will towards Ved (name has been changed in this article). However, nothing could be further from the truth.
We understand why completing a trek is important. We know the priceless feeling that comes with finishing one and earnestly root for every person who embarks on a journey (with us or otherwise) to return with that sense of achievement. That said, reaching a summit should never gain precedence over making it safely back to the base.
So, no matter whom you are trekking with and how fine you think you feel, we urge you to be respectful of the signs the mountains give you. And at a time when you find yourself struggling to do so, we hope this story makes your choice a little easier. And that is our intention behind sharing this article with you.
For every time you wonder if you would have been able to complete the trek had you proceeded ahead, we hope today’s story serves as a reminder to take a step back and ask: But, at what cost?