When we told people we planned to climb to 15000+ feet, their reactions were a mix of awe, indifference, envy, and subtle questioning of our sanity or the arrival of a mid-life crises.
Over the last 2 years ago I fell in love with the Himalayas, they are magnificent, nearly unreal and offer an escape from city life, people, routine .They teach you things about yourself that you never would have imagined, however this trek gave me much more than even that.
Walking is the perfect catalyst for conversations and ice breaking moments, each time I sign up for a trek I come back with so many new friends’.
Meeting like-minded new people is hard, especially when we are stuck in our daily routines, hence I made the most of the 5 days in wilderness and this trek introduced me to interesting vagabonds who shared the thrill, fear and experience with me.
We had walked for 3 days to get to this gorgeous base camp, all the way from Auli through the Gorson meadows into Talli . After a night stay in the wet forests of Talli we walked through steep ridges and slopes to Khulara .Khulara is popularly known as the base camp for the Kuari Pass trek, that we had completed the day before the summit.
The walk towards Khulara is enchanting as it offers you clear views of the majestic Himalayan peaks of Nanda Devi (7816 m), which is the highest peak situated completely within India , Dronagiri (7066 m) ,Hathi Parbat (6727 m) and Ghori Parvat (6708 m).
Khulara is an ideal campsite against the backdrop of the majestic range and with a stream running a large ground big enough to accommodate a number of trekking groups .
I know that many serious climbers don’t consider 15-ers a real climb, but for me reaching that 15419 feet and 11.37 inches was an eye-opening experience and proof that I could push my limits. I have learn that while trekking, you can't depend on any one but yourself, ofcourse you do come back making some friends for life but this trek taught me that even if you start of in a group or follow a herd , it is only your personal confidence that will allow you to continue in un-charted terrain.
After 3 days of fun trekking (which were also 13 hour per day) we were ready to set out on the key task- Summit the Pangarchula peak.
Jagat and Abhishek our guides decided we should leave camp at 3:00 am .We were warned and counselled that it was going to be one hard day and that it was a test of our mind and patience.
When you ask people what the toughest part of trekking is , you’ll get feedback like the altitude, the 13 hour walks , the ridges etc. however in my experience it is getting up and out of your very complicated sleeping bag and getting out into the cold to go pee.
Shital and I were awake right from 1:00 am after our midnight ritual , layering and un-layering our thermals,fleece jackets and coats until we decided we were ready to walk straight through the -3 deg Celsius night and get to peak base camp by sunrise.
Confidently we led the 17 member pack closely following our guide, hoping that his momentum would kick in and we could scurry to the top. It was a beautiful cold night, not a cloud in sight, a blanket of stars, a perfect full moon and no wind.
The climb to the Pangarchula peak base camp was gorgeous. As the sun rises higher, it progressively lights up each peak of the Lower Himalayan range, like lighting a row of candles one after another.
Gradually you get a clear view of the wide green meadows with patches of snow, the trail of the ever so loyal ‘pahadi’ dogs that have followed you all the way from base camp, the blooming pink white and red Rhododendrons scattered in the valley and the multiple ranges that stretch out into the horizon.
We stopped to take in this view and to fuel up our body ,this was the last point where all the 17 members met. This was the point where the famed AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) began to make an appearance.
Some slowed down and lagged behind due to exhaustion, some just didn’t feel good , some had nose bleeds , headaches and slight nausea. I kept telling myself that I was all in the head and I was doing great. It was also at this point that I vowed to get back and join yoga classes; I started thinking about all my other friends and colleagues who were probably at their desks recording sales targets or reviewing plans.
I started hoping for a better toned body and how I was there to pay for all the cheese cakes I thought I had earned. I was doing great at my pace, until I hear my guide yell,” Maithili / Shital Hurry up go fast , but slow slow slow “
I snapped myself out of my zone and realized that we were only 6 of us and had only a few hours to summit. The climb from that point was through some pretty exposed 60 degree slopes that dropped off to the extremely deep valley .There were patches where at no point could you just walk, part of the trail was big rocks ranging from the size of a large cobblestones to the size of a nano car.
With every step, you had to look ahead and calculate if, in choosing to tilt to a side of the path you were setting yourself up for a good or bad steps further along. It took a ton of concentration and a great amount of composure.
It was about 11:00 am and the gradient only continued getting worse , our patience did fade and confidence did drop,anyone who says that they have fun all through a summit climb is flat out lying.
Energy and enthusiasm runs high at the start of a climb, over time, this fades, stronger experienced hikers will have a higher tolerance and last longer, but everyone has a breaking point. Well for those who know me I’m sure they expected it to happen soon.
The summit was just about 15 minutes away even at my cautious, really slow trekking pace , so close but I had this strong urge to simply stop taking that risk and stay where I was.
The exhaustion, the deadly slope and the altitude wasn’t making it easier and I was hungry, but the idea of getting to a hot soap quickly got me to the top, without realizing then that my soup was still 8 hours away.
So we approached the summit 2 hours after “turnaround time”. Every mountaineering movie I had seen or very book I had read flashed before my eyes and I planned to bask in the glory, but to my surprise the tears were flowing before we reached the summit.
I remember looking up at the clear sky, dropping the pole and looking at Shital and then laughing.
I think the tears were because even though we were sure we would complete what we had started off, and as the only 2 women to make it to the summit we was glad we didn’t disappoint ourselves. Or maybe it was just because we didn’t have to hang off any more slopes or climb anymore boulders and rocks.
Our guide and the team of 6 chose to just relax for a while and enjoy the view and pat each other’s back with the confidence that we were done with the toughest bit and that the descent would be fairly quick and involve some fun ‘skiing and sliding’ down some slopes.
I suddenly realised that the exposed slopes that I complained about, where the ones we needed to climb down. It was past noon and the snow had started visibly melting making each step tricky.
Twists, slips and tumbles did definitely occur whilst descending and I can assure you that no other type of hiking causes more wear and tear on the joints and muscles than heading down.
I have learnt that the only thing one can do is decide how to minimize the impact of each fall and not worry about the probability of falling.
Our guide did help us scope each section of the slope allowing us to slide our way through patches to save time. A slide down each patch of snow felt like I was heading downhill to break the gravity-powered snow sledge world record.
Each time I prayed for a soft landing and not end in a typically expected a wipeout and blooper, but unfortunately my many soft landings not only ended with my legs around somebody but also with a lot of snow in every opening of my gear.
That’s when I reached my breaking point. Well today I can bravely explain that I believe I was exposed to a very minor case of a first degree frostbite, also called frostnip which occurs when the surface of your fingers or toes freeze.The underlying tissue of my fingers was unaffected, but I developed numb, waxy looking white areas on my toe tips.
However I wasn’t this calm or scientific at that point and every possible worst case scenario flashed in my head. Shital being the perfect co trekker chose not to react even as I starred angrily at her for some sympathy or some compassion.
I lost momentum at that point and unfortunately as we started talking about beating day light, my enthusiasm about making it to the summit vanished and I too started doubting my sanity.The group was tired we hadn’t eaten since 8:00 am and we were wet and cold .All I could see was a fire at the base camp and Abhishek our co – guide who hand held me through the last patch.
We finally stumbled into the base camp at 8:30 pm, with a sense of victory and pain.
It is said that success triggers ambition and I can vouch for that because as we lay in our tent that night we could only think about what we planned to achieve next.