Penning down my thoughts on a subject as complex as trek leading seems inadequate. There is only so much one can convey through words. I believe in the circle of life, and somewhere in the journey you get a chance to meet both ends of life. I consider myself highly fortunate to be born in the North eastern Himalayas, the hills of Assam. It is said that once you have lived in the mountains, they are yours and you theirs forever. What you do in life does not matter, you belong to them.
I would not want to give you an impression of a mad mountain lover, who left the comforts of modern civilization for some individual quest, that was inconceivable in the cities. After meandering from one career choice to another, I realized that I was an explorer, and this realization reckoned through my journeys in the Himalayas. That’s where I met the other end of my life. Having finished my B.Tech in Biotechnology from Delhi, I picked up my camera only to travel the country, understand the culture and people. I knew that working at a press as a photographer would give me a plethora of opportunities. I’d get to visit places and meet people from all walks of life.
In 8 years of photojournalism, I happened to work with several NGOs in Uttarakhand, which were working towards sustainable agriculture methods, education and basic health care in the villages of Uttarkashi and Himachal. I got a chance to live with the Pahadi people (mountain men of the Himalayas). I learned to understand their real life issues and their constantly losing battle with nature. Something moved in me and gave me solid motivation to travel even further into the interiors of the Himalayas.
My first solo trek was the Pin Parvati Pass in 2011, which I did with my guide friend from Tosh village, a mule and ration for 15 days. Trekking for me was never an escape route from the cities. It was to know myself better along with the big mountains. But every return journey would give me jitters and saddened me for months till I figured a trek or a project in the mountains. I did Hampta Pass as my first organised trek with Indiahikes in 2014 and was impressed by the way in which the organisation conducted treks. From the briefing methodology to giving impetus on documenting treks, I was dumbstruck.
In 2015 I did a winter trek with Indiahikes to Kedarkantha, it was then that I made up my mind to work with them. I noticed that there were many trekking and mountaineering companies in the country. How consciously are they conducting treks was a question I would often ask myself. We all like to escape into the wilderness but how many help in preserving it?
Indiahikes works along with the local people as well, helping them understand the importance of preserving their culture and heritage.
As a photojournalist, I’ve always been a quiet person working relentlessly behind the camera, capturing the unnoticed and unusual. Trek leading is a different world altogether. The amalgamation of documentation and leadership in the outdoors was there in me since childhood. I had already made up my mind to leave the cities and work in the mountains, so trek leading was the best way for me share, explore and understand this unique approach to living.
Indiahikes has amazing set of Team Leaders from different walks of life. They inspire trekkers, handle operations and guide teams single handedly. I am told that with me, Indihikes hired a woman trek leader for the first time. It was a big leap for the company and they were ready to experience something different on the slope. Indiahikes founders Arjun, Sandhya and the big family of Indiahikes had huge hopes and expectations from their Woman Trek Leader. There were clouds of uncertainty floating through their minds. Will she be able to withstand the long working hours? Will she be able to handle the local staff? Will she be able to command and guide everyone and most importantly, will the mountain men listen to her? I understood their obvious apprehensions.
I began as an Assistant Trek Leader on the slopes of Roopkund. There I met Dushyant, our slope manager and super responsible Trek Leader. I realized that I was senior to most of them by age but that age difference made no difference. It was all about learning, learning from everyone possible from our chef Pushkarji to our Green Trail interns Nikshep and Sampada. The most important quality of a trek leader is to be able to cook well. In case the head cook falls sick, the Team Leader should be able to feed the trekkers full. I surprised myself and rest of the staff at Lohajung by cooking 80 parathas and scrambled eggs, they gobbled the breakfast in a matter of minutes! I learnt the importance of proportions and how not to waste food and yet feed everyone.
As a Team Leader one should be able to take up individual responsibilities. No one tells you that, but you have to find it and see to its completion. Due to the medical background of my parents, I have a reasonably good knowledge about medicine, therefore I took charge of medical supplies at the base. I actively participated in segregation of the waste we collected from the campsites in Roopkund. I had documented manual scavengers in the cities but never was a part of manual scavenging of waste myself. Trust me its not a good feeling while doing it manually. You may wear masks and gloves, but personally its very rewarding, only because you know you are doing good for the nature.
As Team Leaders were are also supposed to maintain a stock of equipment and make a list of inventories which are needed on the trek. We regularly clean eco bags and fleece liners along with our staff and that process itself became a game, one of stumping the liners by feet to drenching each other with soap water after cleaning!
Being on the slope with my batch, is yet another kind of a thrill. It’s a chance to meet people who save their precious holidays for a life time experience. I was a trekker once, I totally understood, the needs, apprehensions and demands of trekkers from their Trek leader. I learned that tender love and care with the firmness of a parent is what works best. I cannot expect trekkers to listen to me if I haven’t listened to them. I cannot ask them to help clean the mountains if I haven’t inspired them enough. They possibly cannot love me if I haven’t given them enough love. If I haven’t made them feel like a part of a team then I haven’t done enough. Its me as Trek Leader who has to be equal to one and all, the one who has to be available to trekkers in times of health and sickness,
It sounds like an exhaustive list of things to be and things to do, but not once, have I felt weighed down by responsibilities. A quick chat with my staff at the slope and joining them with kitchen chores was my way of bonding. In order to be able to earn respect from these super hard working pahadis, you have work twice as hard as them and be always ready to take the lead and help them work better.
In the past 3 months, my friends from the hills have helped me shape into a more responsible and a patient human being. My office is in the slopes and my bedroom is the tent, the friends that I have made are true and honest, I am already living a dream that I longed for. A life full of learning and minimalist living was at the offering which I accepted. I don’t feel the need to look back anymore, I do long for my family but I know they will visit me every now an then. It is possible for you to do whatever you choose, if you get a chance to know yourself first and work hard with great will power. Initially everything will seems like an ending uphill climb, but I promise you that the view it leads to will be astounding.
Anuja works as a trek leader with Indiahikes. With over 8 years of experience as a press photographer, her love for the mountains brought her to Indiahikes.
Visit www.indiahikes.com for more information.