During a full-fledged trekking season in May of 2019, the Rupin Pass witnessed a curious sight that was incomprehensible at first glance.
Roughly 100 M below the Pass, on the slope that faces the Ronti Gad campsite, five figures sat huddled together under a tarpaulin sheet. Amongst these figures was Pijush Nath, a dependable and competent Trek Leader of Bikat Adventures.
He, along with four trekkers, had set up camp at the highest point of the trail. They had no sleeping bags or tents and the temperatures had dipped below zero, to the double figures.
Pijush knew there was only one way they could spend an entire night on the Rupin Pass and survive to tell the tale afterwards. And for that, they had to stay nourished; they had to stay warm; and more importantly they had to stay awake.
Even the safest of trails can turn life threatening when you don’t respect the signs the mountains give you. Today’s story is a stark reminder of that and what follows when you take these signs for granted.
About the Rupin Pass Trek
For those unfamiliar with the trail, the Rupin Pass Trek is a stunning cross-over trek between the states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Climbing to an altitude of 4, 650 M, the trek is infamous for its ever changing vistas. Every turn on the trail feels like a giant theatre curtain unfurling; revealing dramatic landscapes drenched in a mind-boggling array of colours that leave you dumbstruck in its wake.
PC: Rajat Shah
But it is not just the topography that undergoes multitudes of transformation. The Rupin River in itself changes avatars as we move from campsite to campsite. If we were to pick one, this would perhaps be our most favourite feature of the trek. What makes it special is that you get to trace the journey of the river from its riverbed in Dhaula all the way to its origin at the top of the Rupin Waterfall. Not many can claim to have witnessed the course of a river as intimately as one does on the Rupin Pass Trek!
Whether it is a hike through the endless pine and rhododendron forests or meandering through a hanging village, crossing giant glacial valleys or trudging up a narrow and steep gully; there is never a dull moment once you are on the trail.
Getting back to our Story
It was the 6th day of the Rupin Pass trek. The team was setting up camp at the Upper Waterfall Campsite. The journey had been smooth so far with the weather and the terrain remaining amicable for most parts.
“We had a total of 8 participants. They had been maintaining a good rhythm until now. The staffs were experienced. Arvind, our guide, knew the trail like the back of his hand. And our Cook, Rajendra, was a veteran of this trek. He has been handling all batches on this trail for the last three to four years now.
Apart from the 8 participants, a group of four alpine climbers who were attempting the trail independently, joined us from Jhaka and onwards.” – Pijush
Pijush with some members of the team.
The Upper Waterfall Campsite is the prettiest and the most capricious of all campsites on the Rupin Pass Trek. It is an expansive green meadow that sits right on top of the Rupin Waterfall. The Rupin River flows gently at its centre until it reaches the edge of the meadow from where it thunders down into the valley below (Lower Waterfall Campsite).
“We reached the Upper Waterfall Campsite at 11 AM and set up camp. The rest of the day passed palatably. We were to start for the Pass at 4 AM the following morning. Arvind and I did a test run of the route at night before going to sleep. All was fine with the trail but we had our apprehensions about the weather. The skies looked cloudy and heavy” – Pijush
True to their fears, it began snowing heavily at 4.30 AM that morning.
“Trekking in the dark did not seem a prudent option in the present conditions. So, we decided to wait until daylight before starting the trek.”- Pijush
At 6.30 AM, the weather cleared up briefly allowing a narrow window to start the trek. Pijush and Arvind knew this wasn’t going to last for long. However, the trial run they did the previous night told them that the snowfall wasn’t going to pose a problem up to the gully.
As far as the Pass was concerned, they had plenty of information on the snow conditions from previous batches that had attempted the trail that week.
With the current level of snow fall, they expected a sturdy base of the old snow layered with an inch or so of soft snow by the time they began crossing the Pass.
After a thorough assessment of the snow conditions, the team began their ascent to the base of the Rupin Pass gully. The other four trekkers also started their trek along with them.
It took one hour to reach Rati Pheri from the Upper Waterfall Campsite. The ascent is a steep incline through snow and gains a generous amount of altitude. The final leg of the trail climbs over a ridge before reaching the campsite of Rati Pheri.
“We reached Rati Pheri at 7.30 in the morning. By the time we got there, it began snowing relentlessly. There was a whiteout with visibility of up to a 100 ft. All of the participants were doing remarkably well.
Two participants from our batch were slightly slower than the rest but they maintained a steady pace without any breaks. Since they were facing no trouble with the altitude and weather, I knew there would be no hiccups with crossing the Pass at their current speed.
The only person I was troubled about was Ved, one of the trekkers from the other group. He was getting slower with time and he seemed to have difficulty coping with the altitude.” - Pijush
The landscape changes entrancingly at Rati Pheri- a promise best kept by the Rupin Pass Trek! The expansive views of the Rupin valley are replaced by the magnificent Dhauladar range as you move ahead. However, with the whiteout that day, none of this was visible to the team.
After a short break at Rati Pheri, they resumed their trek. The trail climbs steeper from Rati Pheri and onwards. Trudging in their microspikes and gaiters, they made their way to the base of the Rupin Pass Gully in one long file.
The difference in the pace of the trekkers had inadvertently divided them into a group of two. Arvind walked ahead with 6 of the participants from the batch. Two trekkers from the other group matched his pace and climbed alongside him.
Pijush accompanied the remaining two participants at the back with Ved and his friend.
“Arvind and his group of trekkers reached the base of the gully first. The snowfall had picked up pace and the visibility was growing lower by the minute. So, I asked Arvind to proceed to the top of the Pass.
I was walking at the back with the remaining four. Three of them were slow but steady. Ved, however, had me worried. He was not doing well and from what I could gauge, the first symptoms of AMS were beginning to show.
By the time we reached the base of the gully, it was clear that Ved wouldn’t be able to keep up. If we proceeded, his AMS could regress into HAPE. So I arranged for Shivram, one of our staff, to take him and his friend back”- Pijush
The final climb to the Pass through the gully is the steepest section you will encounter on the trek. Angled at 70 degrees, it is a near vertical ascent to the top. Since it is a rapid gain in altitude, conditions like AMS could spiral out of hand quickly along the way.
A perspective shot of the Rupin Pass Gully on a clear day.
The weather and the white-out added to the challenge. If Ved turned back now, he could rest for the evening and attempt the pass the next day along with his friend. There was even a batch of Bikat Adventures that was to arrive at the Upper Waterfall Campsite that very same day. He could join them too if he wanted.
His trek would be delayed by one day but it was the safest thing to do; for him and for everybody else, Pijush deduced.
Convincing Ved, however, was easier said than done.
“Despite his enervated state, Ved was not ready to listen. I even told him that there is a good chance he might not survive the ascent. But, he kept insisting that he would be able to climb the gully.
I was not ready to trek ahead with him. And he refused to turn back.
I couldn’t abandon him and just walk ahead either knowing the danger he was putting himself in. There was no way he would survive the climb on his own and worse still, he would be risking his friend’s life too.
I was caught in a precarious situation. And in the stand-off that ensued between me and him, all of us were losing critical time!”- Pijush
The snowfall had picked up pace by then. Sheaths of loose snow now slid down the gully in a series of mini-avalanches. Hopeless about convincing Ved and worried about his own trekkers who were caught in the onslaught between them, Pijush re-assessed the situation.
He had a full oxygen tank on him for the worst case scenario. After quickly taking stock of Ved’s health, he pulled out a string of tablets that would help keep AMS symptoms at bay and offered them to him. With the medication set, Pijush and the four trekkers began their ascent up the infamous gully of Rupin Pass.
A close up shot of the gully on a clear day. PC: Rajat Shah
Meanwhile, Arvind and his group had reached the top of the Pass and were waiting for the rest of the team. Situated at 4,600 M, the Rupin Pass marks the highest point of the trek with panoramic views of the Kinner Kailash in the north and the Rupin Valley in the south. This meant the people on the Pass were unshielded from the cold and the winds.
To make things worse, the white out and the frigid temperatures had drained the batteries in the walkie-talkies. So, there was no way for Arvind and Pijush to communicate with each other.
When Pijush and the two participants did not make it to the top of the Pass even after a long time, Arvind knew something wasn’t right. The horizon, on the other side, above Ronti Gad was clearing. But, the weather continued to remain grim in and around the Pass.
So, he asked Rajendra (who had reached the Pass by then) to lead the participants to Ronti Gad while he doubled back to check on Pijush.
It was a fairly straight-forward descent to Ronti Gad and Rajendra knew the trail right down to each stone. Knowing the participants were in safe hands, Arvind retraced his way down the gully.
Back in the gully…
About half-way up the gully, Ved’s body had given up. The snowfall hadn’t. Soft snow fell to the ground and kept piling up beneath their feet while he struggled to take each step.
“I pulled out the oxygen cylinder to give him some oxygen. His AMS was regressing into HAPE as I had expected. Turning back wasn’t an option anymore because Ved wouldn’t have been able to cover the stretch back to the Upper Waterfall Campsite. The only recourse left was to get him to the top of the Pass where I hoped Arvind would be waiting. We could then send help to carry him to Ronti Gad from there.
I was keenly aware of our participants who had to slow down their pace and trudge through the cold for absolutely no fault of theirs. Just as I was pondering over what could be done to make this easier for them, Arvind appeared in view like a godsend!”- Pijush
With Arvind back, they quickly put a new plan to action. Arvind would take the two participants and Ved’s friend to the top of the Pass. Pijush, meanwhile, will walk with Ved.
It continued to snow on and off. The white-out maintained its strong hold on the slopes. Now supporting an exhausted Ved on one side, Pijush took one slow step after another as he watched Arvind disappear ahead with the other three.
“By the time we were within 100 M of the Pass, Ved’s body slumped over completely. No matter how much I urged him to move, he couldn’t take another step forward.
Since roping up was already done in the gully, I quickly set to work to build a Z-pulley rescue system out of the rope, jummar and carabiner that I was carrying. The Z-pulley rescue method is primarily used to pull people out of crevasses. Although there was no crevasse here, it would still be effective to pull Ved to the top.
By the time I had arranged the set-up, Arvind had dropped everyone at the Pass and returned to assist me with Ved. Attaching one end of the rope to Ved and catching hold of the other end (near the top of the Pass), we pulled him up with all the strength we could muster. Ved had stopped trying to move by this point.
Every time we pulled, soft snow on the ground piled up under Ved’s feet obstructing his movement forward. I finally descended down to where Ved was, caught hold of his feet and pushed him up while Arvind pulled from the other end.” - Pijush
It was punishing work, to say the least. The white-out continued to hover all around them. Three people waited at the top of the Pass out of sight from their trek leader. Arvind and Pijush worked on the rope, pulling and pushing in synergy, each not visible to the other in the pallid white-out and relying solely on their voices to guide each other.
Every time Pijush pushed Ved’s feet up, his own sunk deeper into the soft snow beneath him. The snow levels had risen to 3 ft in the last three hours and continued to stack up steadily against the ground.
It took two hours of crushing toil to get Ved to the top of the Pass.
“By the time we reached the top, Ved’s health was in a miserable state. The lower part of his body was completely paralysed from the cold. All of us dug out whatever warm clothes we could find. By the end of it, we had layered him up with two t-shirts, one fleece and one down jacket.”- Pijush
To make matters worse, the temperatures continued to dip steadily. It was half past two in the afternoon. In just three hours, they were going to begin losing sunlight. The campsite, Ronti Gad, was a half a day’s walk away from where they stood. Pijush knew the rest of them still had a chance to make it to Ronti Gad by nightfall. But, Ved was in no state to walk.
“I looked around me and set to work to build a rudimentary rope stretcher we could use to carry Ved. I had barely gotten started when Ved completely passed out. Removing my gloves, I hit his cheeks back and forth until he opened his eyes again.
There was no time to build a stretcher. We had to get down immediately and find some cover. One of the participants caught hold of his bag while the rest of us lifted him up by his hands and feet.
We then began descending. There was a basin (a flat piece of snow field) about five minutes from the Pass. It was less exposed than the top of the pass. If we could get there, then we could maybe wait while Arvind went down to Ronti Gad to get help.” – Pijush
The five minute descent took more than 20 minutes to navigate with the soft snow and the excess weight each person was carrying.
“We made it to the basin at around 3 PM. Ved still needed to lose altitude as soon as possible. He was not yet in the safe zone. After ensuring the others were well, I asked Arvind to hurry down to Ronti Gad and bring some help. Meanwhile I flattened the snow and spread a thick polythene sheet I was carrying on the ground. We placed Ved at the centre of the polythene sheet. Then, we arranged all our trekking bags snugly around him.
Finally, we huddled around the trekking bags and pulled another polythene sheet over us to build up some warmth for Ved inside the structure.”- Pijush
Now, all that was left to do was wait; wait for Arvind to reach Ronti Gad and bring some help. Little did they know that the actual battle had only just begun.
Continue Reading Part II of the story in the link below:
A note to all 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?