Today happens to be the 66th Independence Day for India and we couldn’t have been celebrating it better than by trekking through one of the most breathtaking landscape of Incredible India.
As we traverse past the gurgling mountain stream and head towards Gadsar pass, which at 13800 ft would also be the highest altitude we touch during the trek, I ponder about the idea of India. Is it even possible to define India? I guess not as unlike any other country on this planet it is not a coming together of people with one religion, language, culture, race or any other (so called) unifying factor. The idea of India goes far beyond these factors and touches a rare chord of humanity, overriding the principles on which the other nations seem to have been founded (or the world seems to have been divided – strange how the same concept makes one feel so different with just a subtle change in perspective). The only way I can somewhat grasp the idea of India is to look at it as one of the greatest experiments ever undertaken by mankind – a coming together of people based not on similarities but on differences. As Nehru had first remarked on this day 66 years ago…it is indeed a Tryst with Destiny. It is not the jingoistic chants of India’s past glories or its going-to-superpower-status that makes me proud to be an Indian today but rather the fact that I am lucky to be part of this incredible adventure, dared by people living in this continent (‘country’ is too restrictive a word for a land as diverse as India). And when there is adventure in the air can a song be far behind?
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake
– Rabindra Nath Tagore
For me the words of this timeless poem capture the essence and the path of this great adventure.
Talking about adventure, I secretly wish in the morning to let today be the craziest, adventurous day ever (later in the day, I realize that we should be careful with what we wish for). The shoes that had had its own little adventure the previous day was fortunately dry enough to be worn in the morning. Though still a little soggy, I wasn’t worried as I knew that it would dry out during the course of the day (again, how wrong I was!).
Our spirits are soaring high as we cross Vishnusar Lake and climb the ridge (past the spot of yesterday’s panoramic activity) and walk through a vast and expansive meadow on the banks of another beautiful water body of the Himalayas, The Kishansar Lake.
As we walk through this fantasy land, the colors of the lakes also seem to slowly transform itself from emerald green to a dark shade of olive green. The signs though are ominous – the white fluffy clouds of the last couple of days seem to also have grown thicker and darker and we are hit with the first drops of rain as we walk towards Kishansar Lake. Quickly, the cameras are shoved inside backpacks; ponchos, rain-coats, rain-jackets, rain-pants, backpack covers et al are pulled out and the gang quickly starts changing into their rain-gear.
I linger around the meadows awhile and enjoy the light drizzle pricking the pores of my face but I skip the part of changing into my rain-pants (I already had my rain jacket on) as I could sense a strong breeze blowing into the valley. The drizzle seemed to be just passing rain and I presumed that we would see the sun breaking through the clouds any moment now. Also, I find walking in rain-pants an uncomfortable experience. However, I wish I had not forgotten to carry a backpack cover as I felt my backpack getting heavier after slowly soaking in the rain water.
I look around for Sophie to check if she is doing alright as the climb up the ridge had been quite steep one and the sudden drizzle had made it just a little more difficult for us. By initiating her into her first trek in the Himalayas, I was hoping to change her perception of trekking to be just of Uts-coming-home-haggard-and dirty-with-a-bad-sunburn. Her first innocent question in fact when we had booked the trek was ‘Btw where do we do it in the morning? I have never ever in my life done it outside.’ I had got a punch from her for replying, ‘O You will enjoy doing it out in the open, behind a boulder, enjoying the morning breeze and watching the sunrise. Just don’t forget to start whistling or break into a song in case you hear footsteps nearby.’
However, she seemed to have figured out the morning business dilemma by now. Also, I could sense that the glorious visuals of the incredible landscapes and the walk through the sea of flowers yesterday had charmed her into the beautiful world of trekking in the Himalayas.
But getting beaten with a steady drizzle when you have to climb a steep hill with a backpack is quite a task even for an experienced trekker and I thought of making it easier for her by relieving her of her backpack at least till the drizzle stopped.
We walk past the meadows beside Kishansar Lake and reach the foot of the hill before the trail makes its snaking climb up towards the Gadsar pass. The drizzle hasn’t stopped. In fact, it’s now transformed into pouring rain. I kick myself for being too lazy to change into my rain-pants and now I see no shelter for miles and miles ahead where we could even wait out the rain. The gang though takes it sportingly and since the mules had already crossed over the pass with our tents it seemed prudent at that time to soldier on ahead instead of standing and shivering in the rain.
Because of high altitude, the climb over this hill to reach the Gadsar pass was supposed to be the toughest one hour of the whole trek and now we had the heavens also conspiring to add just a little more spice into the climb by send forth sheets of cold rain sweeping down on us at an almost blinding 45 degree angle due to the strong wind.
Weather in the Himalayas is always unpredictable and the moment reminds me of a common crack shared amongst the boys while growing up in Darjeeling which goes as ‘Beware of the three Ws of the hills, Wine, Women and Weather….all three are unpredictable as hell!’. Mornings are usually clearer and it is only during the afternoon that the weather can suddenly change from a sunny day to a rainy one to a hailstorm and sometimes back to being sunny again, and all of it within a few hours of each other. But if it rains this heavily in the morning it usually hints of a very bad weather that would last almost the entire day.
A little worried now, I catch up with Amit and take his perspective on my hunch about the weather. He agrees that the signs are indeed ominous and tries to connect with the other staff members who had gone ahead with the mules carrying our tents. He shrugs helplessly as his walkie talkie crackles but fails to connect with the Indiahikes staff who had gone ahead with our tents. Camping in-between is ruled out and the only option that we have now is to somehow climb past the Gadsar pass and hope that the weather would be better at the other side of the mountain.
We continue our climb up the hill. The trail we are following is a narrow shepherd’s path and it soon starts to give away in chunks and the already narrow path is now a precarious ledge – no more than a foot wide in its width. The rain is still pouring and as we climb higher the intensity of the chilly wind also starts increasing. My hands go numb and I can hardly feel them anymore. The two backpacks slung on my front and my back is dragging its weight down even more and for the first time during the trek I can feel myself panting and losing my energy levels rapidly. I look around and see that everyone else is also going through a harrowing time trying to maintain their balance on the slithering sludge of a trail. The climb up this hill was turning out to be very challenging as for every two steps ahead we would slip, slither and fall five steps back and standing at one spot also seemed impossible as you could feel your shoes slowly sinking into the wet mud. However, a great camaraderie amongst the gang keeps us going, one small step at a time. Sachin, kindly offers to hold on to one of my backpacks when he notices me lose my footing and almost go tumbling down the hillside while negotiating a challenging part of the trail. Varsha, is pleading aloud asking for poison to die than to have to trek on this treacherous path but it is more in jest than in exasperation. There is always a helping hand stretched by someone to catch and pull a fellow trekker who has got stuck in the sludge.
I go back down the trail and take Sophie’s hand pulling her along the path till we reach a place on the trail where we could stand on a few rocks without our feet sinking into the ground. She has been silent till now, braving the grave situation stoically but her increased gasping as we climb higher (we are almost at 13000 ft high now) starts worrying me. While she rests on the rock, I fumble inside my backpack for a chocolate bar. I finally pull out one after a lot of effort as my numb fingers (which have also swollen up now) turns this small task into a big challenge. I struggle and tear the cover with my teeth and despite her protests that she doesn’t want one right now I shove the chocolate bar in her mouth and hold the water bottle as she gulps it down. She looks up to me and I realize that the water streaming down her cheeks was not just the rain. That look switched on something deep inside me and I decide then that come what may I will have to somehow find the strength within me to make it through this moment of nature’s fury. I cup her shivering face in my hands and ask her to look into my eyes. I hear myself saying ‘Listen to me. No matter how grim the situation may seem right now we will go through it together ok?. Another half hour and once we get past the Gadsar pass it would be better. Trust me, I have trekked in the rain before and the rains up here don’t last for more than an hour or two’.
I was lying on the last bit but that seemed to give her some strength and she pulls herself up, brushes her cheeks with the back of her hand and in a determined voice says ‘Come, Let’s do it then!’