The flight landed at Dehradun and here I sat staring at the distant mountains. It was in these mountains that I would be spending the next two weeks traversing some of the most beautiful places that one could hope to see. The cabbie at Dehradun had lots of tales to tell as we fought our way through the madness of Rishikesh and climbed towards Devaprayag. Rishikesh is a temple town also famous for rafting and every second building on the road side advertised adventure activities. The place was teeming with people and we decided to not make it any worse by adding to the chaos. The weather was hot and we could see mountains all around us. Roads were good and the going was smooth. One thing I noticed was the incessant honking by drivers around these parts. Blind turns, empty roads, overtaking…. honking was done everywhere. The cacophony was immense and all kinds of vehicles were jostling for space on the winding road. The cabbie then enlightened me that this was the Badrinath yatra crowd and would be there all the way till Joshimath, which happened to be my halt. The shrine had just opened after the snow melt and the devotees were thronging for the first darshan after the opening.
We crossed Srinagar, a busy town and were making good progress, when the heavens opened up. By now we were amidst high mountains and the temperature had taken a dip. It was dusty as road work was going on in many places and the slush and muck made progress slow. We managed to crawl into Joshimath late in the evening. It was cold and one needed light woollens to remain comfortable. After finding a place to stay for the night, I prowled around the market area and got to savour some exceptional dal-roti-sabji from one of the many bhojanalay’s that flanked the streets. I would develop a good friendship with our bhojanalay friend as I ended up eating most of my meals here during the stay at Joshimath.
The next day began early as we had to get to Auli to start the trek to kuari pass. Met Sanjay Sati, my guide and over the course of the next few days, we would develop a great bond. He was of medium height, fleet-footed, sinewy and very athletic and I realised that I would have to be on my toes to keep up with this man over the undulating terrain. The start itself was a steep climb of over 800m that got me panting like an Alsatian in a steam bath. I looked for some consolation at Sanjay and realized with considerable dismay that he was not even breathing heavily. Well, I had my task cut out.
Thereafter, we proceeded to the Gorson meadow, which was mind numbing beautiful. We set up camp at Gorson and went about making hot soup as the weather was getting colder. I crawled around over the meadow and went berserk clicking as I never had such an open expanse all to myself. Not a soul was around and we made ourselves comfortable. I met a shepherd while walking around the meadow and he reeled of a bunch of peaks that one could see from the meadow that included Nanda devi, Dronagiri, Hathi, Gori, Neelkant and few others. It was a stunning sight to see the peaks tower above the meadow and the deodar trees.
As it turned dark, the temperatures dipped drastically and we were freezing. Out came the sleeping bags and I got myself tucked in very comfortably. Suddenly it began to rain. Light rain pattered on the tent and drowned all other sounds and made for a good nights rest. I kept wondering what I was doing in this place so far away from home.
Daylight comes early in these parts and by 4.30am, I was up and around. We had an early morning start to our next camp which was at Taali. Some splendid views awaited us with the Nanda devi in full glory in the beautiful sunlight during this hike. The weather would play hide and seek all the time and it would turn windy and cold in an instant from bright sunlight. The trail was very narrow and the mule man told me instances where the luggage loaded on the mule would brush the mountain side and upset the balance of the animal resulting in a fall into the deep valley. At one point quite high up on the trail, we saw the magnificent Pangarchula peak. It was covered in snow and looked deadly on the windswept morning.
I knew what fitness was when I observed Sanjay walk the trail. He had a certain grace in his movements that I sorely lacked. I was huffing and puffing my way up while he happened to be enjoying the trail with great reserves of energy. We crossed the Taali lake where the mules took a break and then got into a forest section full of himalayan deoadar and oak trees interspersed with boulders of immense size. This was when the heavens opened up and we had to take cover in a cave. We got our ponchos out and waited in the cave for the rains to subside. Mini sized hail stones kept falling and it was fun to sit in a cave and watch these fall all around you.
The rains had made the path quite treacherous with the rocks becoming very slippery and the slush making the shoes struggle for grip. We continued on the trial till we got to the top of a hill and I was blown away by the scene that unfolded. The views were spellbinding. Sheep were grazing, the snow-capped peaks looked really close and the weather was bitterly cold. We pitched our tents and Sanjay quickly got some hot tea going. It was raining intermittently and made walking around slippery and difficult.
The next morning was extremely cold and we were to hike toward kuari pass. The trail was mesmerizing with rhododendrons, oak and deodar. The peaks were towering right in front and the air was getting thinner. We passed a campsite and ran into lot of people aiming for kuari pass. Our camp was further away in a secluded spot overlooking a valley. Sanjay was making mincemeat of the terrain while I followed doing not too badly. By now the body had got used to the conditions and walking was getting easier even though the steep sections were quite agonizing.
Rains continued to hound us at the kuari pass camp and here it was unbearably cold because of the altitude. The plan was to acclimatize here as this would be an advanced base camp for the Pangarchula climb. Sanjay made some fabulous dinner and we retired early that night. We had a 6am start the next morning to scale Pangarchula. Had porridge, took woolens, packed lunch, rain gear and off we started. The climb was hair-raising steep and the going was tough for me. I was making very slow progress and running out of breath everywhere. The initial climb though steep was on a grassy hill which later on became a rocky section covered with ice and snow. This was particularly slippery and a fall here would have been very dangerous. Somehow clambered over this section gasping and fighting for breath. The terrain flattened out after this and I was beginning to feel confident that we would make it to the top. Sanjay led me to a very tricky section which I had considerable difficulty negotiating. It was soft ice and rocks everywhere. After an eternity of slow and painful progress, I got past this hurdle. While I was wondering if the trauma would ever end, we came to the incredibly technical boulder section. Large boulders were strewn all over the mountain side and one had to clamber over these to get to the base of the peak. The boulders were covered in thin sheet of ice and soft snow. It was beginning to get really tough getting grip and hauling oneself over the boulders. I was stunned seeing Sanjay haul himself over boulders and jump from boulder to boulder. I was doing OK but the lack of oxygen was taking the strength away and I had to stop every two steps to take rest. Sanjay, meanwhile was boulder hopping like he was born there which added to the misery. The weather was also getting worse by now. The wind had picked up and drops of rain started falling. It was frightfully cold and all the falling and sliding in the snow earlier had made my gloves very wet. With numb hands and gasping for breath, I was trying to evaluate the possibilities. Sanjay was about 20 yards away and I somehow managed to crawl next to him. The next few minutes were spent debating if it was wise to do the summit with me in this condition. That is when I decided to not go further with the climb. We instead chose the baby Pangarchula standing right beside its big brother at a height of 4100m as our target. A quick-lunch on top of a large boulder in freezing cold and off we started to summit the baby Pangarchula. It was a steep incline and Sanjay made me wear crampons to get better grip in the snow. He clambered up the trail as if it was a piece of cake while I struggled for breath and somehow grappled with snow, rocks, boulders and ice to finally make the summit almost in slow motion. The feeling was out of the world even though visibility had deteriorated considerably. We sat there saying nothing giving a breather to our battered bodies. Meanwhile, the weather had taken a turn for the worse. It was very windy and cold. Visibility was very poor and we could not remain at the top any longer. Then started the descent and this was going to be another titanic struggle with no grip from the snow. We groped our way through the snow and made our way downhill towards the camp. After sliding and falling numerous times with aching muscles we reached our base camp after a few hours. Govind, our mule man was ready with a hot cup of tea when we scrambled in. After some hot food, I walked towards kuari pass and spent some time thinking about the climb that day and finally got back to camp as darkness fell. Slept soundly that night and woke up feeling fresh and ready to do the downhill walk of about 10km to Dhak. It was hard on the knees but I was more sure-footed here than the inclines the previous day especially as there was no snow. Tugasi village greeted us after a downhill walk of around three hours where we got some hot tea from Govind’s home. It was a roller coaster walk from here on till Dhak to close the loop. The experience of walking the mighty hills and meeting extremely friendly locals makes one feel completely at home at such far-flung places. This was an experience I would cherish and I made a quiet promise to myself to come back to attend to the unfinished business with Pangarchula very soon.