Wednesday, December 24, 2014

December Madness - A trek to Kuari Pass - Part 2

10th December, 2014, Wednesday
Day 3 of the Kuari Pass trek

I was the last one to crawl out of the tent that morning. It was 9.30 or thereabouts when I collected myself up and walked to a campfire that was burning on its last logs. Someone should have lit it up again. I was reminded of Anand's flamboyant display of Hindi expertise the previous morning. He had woken up early and had somehow managed to breathe some life into the almost-dead campfire. Kishen asked him later how he had managed to accomplish that feat. To which he responded, "woh chingaari use karke" (by using the embers). And all around him was amazed at his use of the word chingaari. I know it does not sound funny now, but it's one of those you-had-to-be-there jokes. His Hindi is very limited, btw. Around 14 years ago, on our millennium trip to Nepal, I heard him speak the same language while we were feeding hungry kids in a train that had stopped next to ours in Balharshah railway station. The kids were not sharing food among themselves and I remember him yelling "usko do, usko, usko, usko" (that one, give it to that one, that one, that one) as though repeating one word from his limited vocabulary was bound to have a profound impact. :)

People were up early but no one was ready, so to speak. We just idled over hot but tasteless tea and smokes, with the occasional person walking up to the woods with a water bottle or wet tissues in hand to mark territory. SreeGanesh started complaining about severe headache, wondering if it was a symptom of high altitude sickness. We weren't that high in the hills, so I just attributed it to a medical condition called hangover. Valichu kettumbom aalochikkanam - sorry no translation for that. Anyway, after a breakfast of poori and sabzee, we walked into the forest zone at around 10.45. Most of the day's stretch was through the woods. We had to walk downhill quite a bit before hitting some level zone and the occasional elevation.

This was the first "sight" of the day. The frozen stream caused a little bit of excitement among our kinsmen. Little did we know that this would become a pattern as the day wore on.

Like I said, frozen streams had become the norm. I tried to tell myself that it is the shade that's causing them to freeze up and the situation would not be so bad at our camp.

A peek at Dunagiri peak (7,016m) from inside the woods.

One of the few climbers who have added the Dunagiri Peak to their portfolios was Joe Tasker, whose name is immortalized in the "Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature". Mountain aficionados should not miss their riveting anthology - The Boardman Tasker Omnibus.

Lincoln Hall attempted this beauty and was instrumental in putting another climber to the top, long before he became the first Aussie to climb exalted peaks, and before the last push in 2006 on Everest where he was daringly rescued after being left for dead for 12 hours by (I'm proud to say) my friend, Daniel Mazur and his crew who aborted their summit attempt to keep him alive.

To put things in better perspective!

Kishen in the non-existent innards of a long-gone tree. Apparently, the bark is stronger than the sap.

Pit stop on the way. Kishen lit an itty bitty fire for warmth. We rested for a bit and resumed our walk  after stomping it out, with a lit beedi giving me precious company for a few minutes.

Mark the guy wearing the red T-shirt in the pic below - that color means a lot more to him than meets the eye. :P

Green ornamental thingies on a Bhoj Patra tree, devoid of leaves otherwise. Locals say that the fungus-like element can stay in state for as long as it takes.

Part of the walk was through what looked like dead wood.

 But then, there were stretches like these to overcompensate.

By around 1 in the afternoon, we turned a corner, and the campsite at Khullara exposed itself in full glory. This is easily the best camping spot in the trek (appearance-wise i.e., temperature was a different ball game). From here, it was a short 20 minutes walk down to the camp. We waited for a while as the mules had just passed us carrying our tents and provisions.
Finally, in the comfort of the camp. Thank God for Sunlight! It was only 2 in the afternoon and it was cold as hell.

Both the streams near the campsite were completely frozen, leaving us with no option other than to break ice and melt it for drinking water. Here's Abishek, the icebreaker, in action!
We estimated that the sun would vanish into the hills behind us in an hour or two. 

That said, these were moments of heart-break. Clouds would mercilessly cover the sun for what seemed like 15-20 minutes, leaving us to shiver, giving us a taste of the temperature dip that we were about to swallow once the heat source was gone. I was thinking of Sound Garden when I clicked this picture.

We had a royale lunch with soup, dal, and rice, peppered with different types pickles - prawns from home, and of course, Amal's magical seer fish pickle preparation. His cooking earned him a lot of fans that evening. We had to heat up the almost-frozen fish pickle, but once done, it tasted just-so-succulent-and-spicy-and-fresh as though the fish had just gotten out of the water and landed in the hands of a master marinater.

We would have wanted to laze away, but could not do so because there was a job to be done before the sun chickened out - collecting precious firewood that will see us through the cold Himalayan night. You can imagine what nights would be like at a campsite where water remains frozen in broad sunlight at noon. So, off we went into the woods, half a kilometer away. The trek was needed as Khullara is a popular and over-used camping ground, with dry wood in its 500 metre periphery having already been consummated (pun intended) by people who chose to walk these paths before us.  Even after the walk, we found it difficult to get enough dry wood inside the forest. After looking at our measly collection, we sincerely hoped that Shibu and his support crew would augment our supply in some fashion. We had seen them climb up to collect their supplies, but they too needed a lot of fuel for the kitchen, warmth, and to melt ice.

Here's a rare photo of Sandheep, more precious than the ones that float around the Web like Tirupati Balaji's that exhort you to forward them to 10 people for good graces, or else! Rare, because he is perennially allergic to any sort of physical action. He is extreme when it comes to this particular allergy, but come to think of it, who in our group was not!
Group Motto: Never walk if you can afford to stand; Never stand if you can afford to sit; Never sit if you can afford to lie down. It was a surprise that all of us had reached this far with just a few shivers.

Madhu (in the front) deserves a special mention for being the Chief Fire Engineer so far during the trip. On both the previous nights, he kept the fire glowing like crazy with his way with the burning logs. Wonder where he learnt it from!

Tonight was a different ballgame. We did not have firewood of the right size or quality. And that damn fire would refuse to start in the right manner (also thanks to the oxygen percentage reduction at altitude). The picture below may be good for postcards, but truth be told, we were shivering violently even at 5 PM.
I found it chilling that the previous evening, Shibu had suggested a cricket match between Joshimath and Bangalore at the Khullara camp. What balls! By the time we had a taste of Khullara mercury, a tennis ball was the last thing that any of us wanted to feel.

A cold wind started blowing to make matters worse. Our toilet tent (a first, during this trek) toppled over, but was promptly re-erected. But like most erections, it was seen bending over after some time. Look at it swaying in the left corner.
As an aside, our reinforcements had arrived. We had ordered some chicken and ciggies two days ago, and a guy walked in to the camp like Santa, delivering the goods (In case you're wondering, he picked it up from a village nine kms away. It's complicated.) Afsos, I do not have our savior's picture - we were too greedy collecting the goodies.

Watching the different shades of the mountains, as the twilight gave way to the cold and darkness of the night!

 Like this.                                                                      And this.

Soon, most of us retired to the dining tent in the hope that our collective body heat inside the enclosure will keep us warm enough. It was better than the non-starter fire, but unknown to us, the maestro had set things in motion. In 30 minutes, Kishen set up a blazing fire outside. The curious few who tentatively crept out of the tent were happy with the outcome and tried calling everyone to come out of their stupid cocoon. Most would not, till the soup arrived, which was also promptly served to those who stayed rooted in the tent. In a matter of minutes, someone  inside the tent would try to lift the steel mug containing the soup, and would come to a numbing conclusion. The damn mug was frozen to the steel plate it was delivered in. With their coccyx frozen between their legs, all of them would soon walk out and join us at the campfire.

Dinner was served at around 7.30, with a topping of sweet semia, like the night before. Semia was gone before I could even say "save some for me". With an early start set for the next day for the Pass, and if possible, for the peak, most people retired to their 2-person tents. A few of us stayed back at the campfire for what I can only attribute to some cosmic reason. At around 9, Kishen prompted us to look at Dunagiri Peak after he sensed a glow behind the mountain. We stood there transfixed as the moon came up from behind the peak in a fast-forward motion in just a matter of minutes. I remember yelling to the others inside their sleeping bags to come out; while jumping around like a jackass. Those precious heavenly minutes marked the high point of my trek.

Almost every night had it's joke, and the prima donna comment that night was delivered by Madhu. This one was overheard in a nearby tent. In Madhu's words "mairu, vellam kudichu marickam ennu vachal, athu polum freeze aaayi irikkunnu" (If I had to die now and needed a sip of water before that, I would be damned; even that is bloody frozen). All the water bottles were frozen except those kept inside the sleeping bags.

11th December, 2014, Thursday

Day 4 of the Kuari Pass trek

One cannot beat around the woods for long. This was the day, and we were supposed to make an early start at around 5.30 or 6. There were murmurs of dissent in the morning. The night was so cold that some suggested moving the camp lower while we make our attempt for the pass. Shibu was in agreement, but he needed us to tell him then and there, at 6 in the morning, so that he can inform his people to ask for the mules to come up. Yes, the temperature was so low that they had to sent the poor animals lower down the previous evening! That decision, if taken at that point, would mean that we would have to abort either the Pass or the Peak, before we could even start; because a round-trip to both and an additional 4 km walk down to a lower camp would be extremely difficult, considering a group of our size.

Pangarchulla peak climbers start pretty early, around 5.30. If anything could take a second place, it was the peak. This was a first trek in the mountains for the bulk of us, and I felt that everyone should atleast make the Pass, which was our primary objective. We asked Shibu to let the campsite be where it was, and trekked up by around 6.45, after the sun rays had already hit the high peaks.

The trek started with an elevation through a path that was initially well laid out, but would soon be reduced to rock and rubble, thanks to the tragedy of 2013 that spared few areas of Garhwhal. The view from the top of that elevation:

It was still freezing. I had added one more layer during the night which I did not take off, but nothing was helping. You can tell it's freezing when mucus becomes ice on your gloves (yeww) and refuses to fall off. The sunrise was well over and the same mountains that we saw in the morning deceptively felt at our level.

Beyond this patch, the walk was through brown grasslands that we were quite used to by now.

We soon reached a resting point marked by a small temple.

This temple dedicated to a local deity, along with another one diametrically opposite makes it look like an entrance of sorts to the paths that lay ahead. In the distance, right on top of the temple, you can spot the Chaukhamba peaks and to their right, the Parvati Peak, and then the Neelkanth.

After the resting point, the trek evens out for a kilometer or so, and we settled into a nice breezy rhythm.
The easy road ahead!

A look back at the Chaukhamba peaks. You can also see the ice patch meeting an icy stream to the left.

Things were going good till we came to this detour. The bridge on the usual path to the Pass had collapsed in 2013, which meant we had to take a 50-60 degree path down over loose rocks to the small icy stream, cross over, and then climb up a similar elevation to get back on track. It took around 45 minutes for this crossing.
Some taking help, some forfeiting it.
Moi crossing over to the other side over slippery ice. My poor Lytos shoes, I might retire them soon. Worn out over the years, they have also become a bit too tight, making it a chore to ease into them on a cold winter morning.


This is the broken bridge that made the climb down and up inevitable.

After the crossing, there was a moderate ascent followed by an uphill but leisurely stroll to the Pass. We carried with us a packed lunch of boiled eggs, chocolates, baked banana, fruit juice, and something else which I forget. I remember polishing off the boiled eggs at this spot. You would not know how tasty a boiled egg can be, unless you tap it on a stone, unwrap the shell with shivering fingers, and pop it into your mouth after a couple of hours of walk on these kind of terrains.

Our people waiting at the pass.

It was 11.30 by the time we reached the pass. All 13 of us had made it, and we promptly abandoned the peak plan because it wasn't feasible that late in the day. I call this pic, Triskaidekamania.

Closer view of the Dunagiri Peak, from the Pass.

The rocks marking the pass. Our guides did some pooja here and smeared our heads with tika.

Some of us had serious thrill issues, so they insisted on trekking up to Kuari top, another 40 minutes of round-trip. A brown hillock did not appeal to my senses plus I was feeling rather slow, so I opted out. Some of us slept on the pass, while the black sheeps pushed onward. You did not believe even a part of our group motto, did you? Never sit if you can afford to lie down. 
Btw, don't worry about the plastic wrappers on the side. We cleared them all up on our return. The egg-shells, we did not, sowweee.

From left to right, these are the Kuari toppers: Abhishek, Anand, Biju, Rajini, Randeep, SreeGanesh, and Shibu. I would like to call it Kurup's top, as an insider joke. 

The way down was easy except for this stretch. We chose a new route the cross the broken-bridge-zone. Bad choice, as the uphill path after the crossing turned out to be more menacing than what we had experienced on our onward journey.
Some of us crapped in our trousers (not literally) to pull ourselves up the steep incline. And anyone who did it (everyone did it) had to wait for 10-20 minutes at the top to gear back into some sort of walking shape.

Post that V-shaped monstrosity, the walk was a smoothie. Soon enough, we reached the familiar grasslands where one could glide down.

Freezing or otherwise, the campsite thought had started sounding so appealing to me by that time. No elevations for the next day meant only one thing - non-stop euphoria for the evening that lay ahead. Oh, and by sheer ESP, almost all of us collected small firewood for the evening, on our return journey.

We were all back in the camp by 3.30. In the interim, the mobile network came alive for one of the support crew, and we were informed of a tragedy in Amal's family. His mother-in-law had passed away on day 2 of the trek. It was a not-so-unexpected demise. He insisted that he leave at once, despite not being in the best of shape. For the walk back, we were to take a different route, a 9 km journey to Dak Village, mostly downhill with rather steep inclines. Some of us advised him against it - the incline, his swollen feet, the mercury, and mostly the pointlessness of it all, because the last rites were already over. A trip down to the village, and a journey back to Joshimath, onward to Dehradun and Delhi with the inflated spot-booking airline tickets - all of it pointed to one sad decision. He was initially hesitant, and we even found a villager who would ferry him down on a mule -one without a saddle, for a princely sum - madness, but he was willing to do all of it. Thankfully, he spoke to the folks back home and all of them agreed that it was a fruitless reckless plan.

One major chore was left, hauling firewood. Shibu had found a fallen tree trunk, but it was so big that it needed a lot of men to roll it to the campsite. Roll, byaaby, roll!

And haul it across the stream! The firewood was sufficient for two more nights, is my uneducated guess. Some other team would have thanked us in the coming days.

I walked out of the tent just in time when the fire started. I was worried too. However unprecedented or otherwise Amal's situation might have been, this was/is, and will be a dilemma that most trekkers experience in their thought process when they set out for days on end. What if something happens back home while you're off the grid - need not be a casualty, anything important. I have dreaded that "what-if" thought all these years, and I still do.
That thought is out of context with the pic. Here, I just look like I lost my car keys.

The evening was not bad by our standards. We had become accustomed to the cold, just enough to crib less about it than the previous night. Some of us were singing, and were soon joined by Shibu and his crew who wanted a Pahadi versus Malayali anthakshari. With just a few songs exchanged, that competition did not exactly take off, but it succeeded in opening up Randeep's Bollywood repertoire and (surprise) SreeGanesh's nostalgic Mallu crooning. Most of us lip synced into the night, after what turned out to be another sumptuous dinner. Sooji halwa replaced semia for dessert (and in much bigger quantity, thankfully. The kitchen folks might had noticed the previous night that the semia container needed no cleaning, whatsoever.).

All of us waited till around ten for the moon to appear, like the previous night, but that was not meant to be. It was like a no call-no show from the moon.

The dining tent, as usual made my night. I had been inviting people for nights, telling them how much better it is than the 2 or 3-person Quechuas, but no Philistine would listen. That night though, four of them dropped in, which suited me just faine. :)

12th December, 2014, Friday
Day 5 of the Kuari Pass trek

We woke up to a cloudy morning, a first on this trip. The weather that had stayed so clear was about to show its true color - and hopefully, not on us. Are those altocumulous clouds? 

All of us assembled at the campfire (where else) to un-thaw our frozen souls. I forget to mention - over the last few days, some shoes and trousers had regularly caught fire in some lame attempts to keep ourselves warm. Nothing major or deadly, but it was not unusual for us to see someone jumping around to put the smoke on their shoes down. 

That's Anand, posing to be the cameraman on location. Jokes apart, he was our eyes on the ground, apart from being the jolly character that he always has been. Most pics in this blog were taken by him, with the occasional ones from SreeGanesh, and a few from yours truly. 
 LOTR morning. A red sun rises, blood has been spilled this night.

For a bunch of middle-aged people who treat exercise like anathema as though it was some kind of medicine, we did real good. The 13 kinsmen party to this madness, along with Kishen - a parting shot from the Khullara campsite. 

After a bread-omelet and porridge breakfast, we set out for an uneventful day of walking down. More about that, in Part 3.