One of the basic tenets of trekking is never to let your body cool down completely and lose its momentum. Periodic rest is necessary but it should not exceed more than catching up on one’s breath. Well, so goes the laws of trekking but the situation we were in right now was beyond anything we had experienced (or anticipated) before. It was not about trekking anymore but about survival! Hence, even though our body had cooled down completely and we could feel that stiffness on our muscles I feel that 15 mins of rest on that solitary piece of rock on the trail helped us gather our wits and strengthen our resolve to somehow overcome the situation.
On a day with good weather, this climb up the hill towards Gadsar pass would have taken no more than an hour but right now it was past two hours since we started the climb and we were still somewhere in the middle of the hill. I look down and the sights that I see are harrowing to say the least. Apart from the main trail, which has by now turned into a muddy rainwater path, there are numerous other smaller goat trails skirting the slope of the hill and our fellow trekkers are spread across all these trails. While some are stuck at a spot holding on to their trekking poles dug deep into the ground, unable to budge from their positions, the others were still trying to figure out a way to trudge through the sludge. One of the mules carrying our ration loses its footing and slips on the path and almost goes tumbling down the hill before a couple of trekkers and the horsemen jump to its rescue by holding on to its rein and pulling it back on the trail. It was a terrifying sight to watch the sure footed animal of the Himalayas braying out in panic and hanging on to its dear life on just its two fore legs while its hind legs were flailing in the air. But as the saying goes, the strong winds of adversity bring out the best of one’s character and what I witnessed was an incredible show of resolve by the trekkers and a unbelievable act of bravery and dedication from the guides and the staff who were accompanying us. Altaf was doing a superhero act of holding and pulling people back on track and then guiding them towards one of the trails that had not yet turned into a small river; and doing all of this with three backpacks (that he had taken over from some of the struggling trekkers) slung over his shoulders! Amit and rest of his team were far down on the trail, helping out the guys who were moving slowly and were getting left behind from the group. Having so far witnessed just its mesmerizing beauty, the full brunt of nature’s fury had caught us off-guard but none of us were ready to give up yet!
I turn back and squint my eyes against the angling sheets of rain and take a measure of what lies before us. The route to the top of Gadsar pass takes a winding path along the slope of the hill and there were numerous bends and turns before it finally reaches the top. I figure that if we were to follow the main trail or any of the other smaller ones it would take us ages to reach the top as almost all the trails now were just sinking traps of sludge. I feel that the best way to reach the top was to go straight up. Ofcourse it would mean that we would be attempting to pull ourselves up the sheer face of the hill at an angle of almost 75° but the roots of the shrubs and the grass would probably provide a better footing than the wet and loose mud of the trails. I share my thoughts with Sophie and she agrees to the plan of giving the trails a miss and going straight up the hill.
Now there is a reason why trails skirt the slope of the hill instead of going straight up from the bottom to the top – it ensures that even though you are climbing, your center of gravity is never out of place (especially when you are carrying a load) and your knees are fooled into believing that it’s walking on a straight path as the trail climbs slowly but steadily to the top. When you go straight up, you have to bend your back and also your knees and ankles are subjected to tremendous amount of pressure in maintaining your balance as you pull yourself up the hill.
During the brief rest, our bodies were lulled into believing that the punishment was over and it could start the repair process by releasing chemicals to the blood stream which starts to cramp our muscles. Hence, taking those initial steps and that too straight up the hill took tremendous amount of effort. The two backpacks slung over my shoulders had soaked in gallons of water and had almost doubled its weight of ~20kgs and I was worried that my shoulders would snap any moment now. My cramped legs were refusing to budge. My eyes were turning blurry due to sheer exhaustion…..And that’s when I looked up to the sky and let out my first growl. Yes! a growl that came right from the bottom of my guts, exploding through my veins and finally escaping through my mouth as a full throated ROAR.
Only animals roar you might say but I cannot describe that sound and the vibration that shook my body awake in any other way. My mind suddenly went blank and all the reasoning faculties in my brain were shut down. In that sense, yes, I guess I had become an animal. Incredibly my legs also seemed to have forgotten about the cramps and I could feel it striding ahead, bending at the knee and then hauling my upper body and the load of two backpacks up the steep incline of the hill. After every few steps just when the body would again start crying out in protest, the growl would build up slowly, followed by the roar that would shut down all the other noises in my head and force my body into performing an act that was beyond its capacity.
An hour of this grinding (and growling) climb I reach the top of Gadsar pass. Dumping my bags on the ground I turn around and go back on the trail to check on Sophie. She was steadily making her way to the top by using her hands to grab the bottom of the shrubs and pulling herself up, easing the pressure on her knees and ankles. She was on all fours but looked in control of the situation. Later in the day, she explained her method as being inspired by a Discovery channel documentary show about a Monkey Man who had been shown climbing the vertical face of a tall building in a similar way!
Our joy of having finally reached the top was short-lived as a strong and howling wind welcomed us and made us shiver to the bone. The snow on the ground at Gadsar pass indicated a near freezing temperature and the wind made it worse. There were just five of us who had made it to the pass till now and none of the guides were there yet – all of them were still caught up in helping out the people stuck on the slope of the hill. From the top of Gadsar pass to the other side of the valley, there were again a number of trails skirting down the hill and we were clueless about the one we were supposed to take. The drenched clothes and the cold wind do its damage and Sophie starts shivering heavily. I scout around and find an overhang of a rock, a few meters below the pass where one could squat down and get shielded against the wind. I guide her to the spot and try cheering her up by gathering a bunch-o-wildflowers and making a haggard bouquet out of it before presenting it to her.
Finally, I spot one of the horsemen who had made it to the top and we quickly take directions from him and start descending (escaping!) down the pass.
The increased level of oxygen in the atmosphere as we descend from the Gadsar pass and walk past another meadow of flowers help calm our nerves but the rain was still unrelenting. After every bend in the trail, we hope to be greeted by the comforting sight of our tents being pitched on the ground but for another six hours we see nothing but the most stunning visual of the green meadows bursting with iris flowers and unknown smaller lakes fed by the melting glaciers from the snow-capped mountains on our left. Even when every cell of our body was drained with sheer exhaustion it was hard not to appreciate the surreal beauty of the landscape that we were passing through. The rain made it impossible to capture any of it in our cameras but there was this one irresistible moment to which I gave in and risked taking out my camera to take a picture. We were walking past Gadsar Lake, supposedly one of the most stunning of all the lakes on this trek, and I could see chunks of the glacial ice floating on it. Perhaps the rain had a role to play in creating this unique visual but the green lake and the bursting glaciers made me feel that I was not in Kashmir but in North Pole and a polar bear would be jumping out of the lake any moment now! I crouch on the ground and ask Sophie to hold the raincoat over the camera and I shoot the first and the last picture of the entire afternoon.
Sophie takes over her backpack once we descend from the ridge but now my body seems to be in a mood to collect tax for the sudden burst of adrenaline in the morning. My shoulders are throbbing with all the strain it has been subjected to and I am finding it hard to even continue carrying my own backpack now. I start getting dizzy on the head and wobbly on the feet. I ask Sophie to carry on ahead and I would catch up with her later. Once she was past the bend, I try and get up but my legs keep giving away under me. I pull out a sachet of Gatorade and prepare an energy drink which helps me for a while but it had its own side effect. After every ten paces I take I have to stop and pee!! I start getting dehydrated and by the time I reach the camp a few hours later my words are coming out in just mumbles and I can no longer feel my shoulders.
For the first time ever during a trek I skip watching the stars at night and hit the sack immediately after popping in a painkiller.