Tag Archives: trekking

HIKING IN THE HIMALAYAS DEMYSTIFIED

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The carpet of flowers greet hikers descending from saurkundi pass

      What is it that makes me go back, again and again, for a hike in the Himalayas, I wonder often. I lack stamina, have not been into any form of sport my entire life, cannot really call myself adventurous, I get easily scared when the weather turns foul at higher altitudes in the mountains and crossing a glacier gives me the jitters.

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Crossing a glacier on way to Indrahara Top

In short, I am a very unlikely candidate to keep up with this activity for so many years. And yet, I have gone for trek after trek, year after year, well into my forties and fifties. I am sure the credit goes to the Himalayas for stoking and keeping this passion alive in me. The bottom line is – If I could do it, you can do it too!

People like you and me who are not adventure freaks or into serious mountaineering but who would like physical exertion, breathe in the fresh mountain air and be one with nature can hike on the innumerable trails in the Himalayas. At the lower altitudes, these trails take you through villages, meadows, forests and streams and as you ascend, the tree line recedes giving way to glaciers and snow laden mountains, Himalaya meaning the abode of snow.

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Trails along mountain streams

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Snow peaks – a view of Chaukhamba from Chandrashila

So, here are a few tips for the uninitiated on how to go about a hike in the Himalayas.  Just do it and let the magic unfold.

1.       As a first trek, choose a simple one of not more than 2 or 3 days and not taking you above 8000 to 9000 feet. There are several good treks at lower altitudes like Mcleodganj- Triund near Dharamsala, Nag Tibba near Mussorrie, Deoriataal and Tungnath-Chandrashila near chopta, Parashar lake near Mandi, valley of flowers in Uttarakhand, Dayara Bugyal near Uttarkashi, Sandakphu near Darjeeling, Beas Kund near Manali etc. Don’t dream of doing the Goecha La trek in Sikkim or the Pin Parvati trek straightaway. The tree line ends at about 11000 feet and conditions generally get harsh beyond this altitude requiring acclimatization. A trek involving crossing of a Pass at 12000 feet or above should be attempted after experiencing a couple of treks to lower altitudes.

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Triund with a view of Macleodganj and the plains beyond

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Friendship peak as seen from the base camp at Bakkarthach

2.      Read about the terrain, the trek route, the level of difficulty, the best time to trek, how to reach the starting point of the trek, the flora and fauna of the region, the villages en route etc. Most of the information is available on the internet. This will make the trek enjoyable and wholesome rather than experiencing it as an adventure activity alone.

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A beautiful Himalayan village called Kugti
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Purple Rhododendrons blooming at higher altitudes
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The trails are also shared by shepherds with their flock

3.      The next aspect that you need to decide is whether to go with people/organizations well established in this field or you want to go on your own with a group of friends. The benefits of starting with an established group are many. They have a wealth of knowledge and experience which they share with the participants in their orientation sessions, take care of all logistics of arrangements and also provide trekking gear. Some of the prominent ones are The Youth Hostel Association of India (www.yhaiindia.org), STEP Trekkers (www.steptrekkers.org), Indiahikes (www.indiahikes.com), Indian Himalayan Adventures (www.ihaclub.com). A few treks down the line, you can think of doing it on your own, hiring guides, porters, cooks and tents.

4.      Do not start buying expensive and top end hiking gear immediately. Yes, a good pair of hiking shoes is a must, which should be used and broken into before the trek. The need to buy other equipment will depend upon the nature of the trek and what can be hired or borrowed easily. You can start buying rucksack, sleeping bag etc after you have done a couple of treks and intend being a regular.

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A trekker with his gear

5.      Start walking regularly for about 45 minutes to one hour every day, at least for one month before the trek. This really helps. And climb stairs to the extent possible. Otherwise, you will end up with extreme stiffness in the legs on the first day of the trek. Even if you have been walking regularly in the plains, it would still be better to have an acclimatization walk in the hills on the first day and start the trek the next day.

6.      Packing your sack sensibly with the essentials with the weight distributed evenly is an art which needs to be perfected over the years. Take minimum number of shirts and trousers but you can be liberal in the number of undergarments and socks. One warm sweater, a jacket with windproof covering, a woolen cap/muffler, thermal gloves, and sunglasses are the essentials. The clothes should be packed in 3 or 4 separate thin waterproof covers to keep them dry even in a heavy downpour. Stack the clothes packets vertically with two packets at each level so that the weight is distributed evenly from the bottom of the sack to the top. The heaviest items should be in the middle portion. Pack the rainsheet, gloves and woolen cap in the top compartment of the sack for quick access. Many sacks come with a separate access to the lowermost compartment, which would be ideal for packing the sleeping bag. The water bottle goes obviously on one of the side pockets for easy access while walking.

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7.     For protection from rain, a rain sheet is the best and will serve the purpose much better than a raincoat or a waterproof poncho or waterproof trousers and uppers. A rain sheet (called a barsati in Hindi) is just a large waterproof sheet folded and stitched at the top to form a hood over your head and body and is large and loose enough to cover your sack too. You can hold the sheet ends and continue to walk comfortably or it can be made hands free by attaching strings to the sheet which can be loosely tied over the abdominal area. It generally rains in intermittent spells during the day and a rain sheet is the easiest to put on and take off.

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8.     Do not trek on an empty stomach but at the same time, do not have a very heavy breakfast as it would tire you before you have trekked even a kilometer. Walk at your own pace, steadily without having frequent resting/snacking breaks. Whenever you feel tired or out of breath especially while walking uphill, take very short rests leaning on rocks instead of sitting down. If you sit down frequently, thinking that the rest will energize you, walking will become even more difficult. Take small sips of water whenever you feel thirsty and sucking sugar candies also helps. Munch on snacks like dry fruits or chocolate while walking and ideally you should have two snack/tea breaks and one lunch break in a trek of about 10 kilometres of 6 to 7 hours.

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During these breaks, you should relax with the sack off your back and take off your shoes too if you like. If you are already at some height, put on your sweater or windcheater as soon as you sit down as the heat generated in the body while walking dissipates immediately.

 

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Walking single file on narrow trails

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9.     While walking, keep to the mountain side and watch where your next step is going to land. If you want to take photograph or just enjoy the scenery around, stop walking for a minute or two. Doing any of these while walking, can lead to a stumble and a fall, sometimes with very serious consequences. Another safety aspect to be observed is not to overtake another trekker when the path is narrow and certainly not without intimation or in a hurry. An accidental rubbing of the sacks or rolled floor mats on top of the sacks can actually topple over either person.

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Trails to be negotiated with due care

 

10.     Be aware of Mountain Sickness which can strike anyone as  altitude is gained, especially if the ascent is not gradual and the body is unable to acclimatize.  Headache, nausea, dizziness and inability to follow  instructions are some of the symptoms as oxygen supply to the brain gets diminished. If symptoms persist, it is safest to descend to lower altitudes as Acute Mountain Sickness can be fatal once it sets in.  Also, once you have reached some altitude, do not go to sleep at night without eating, irrespective of how tired or exhausted you are after the day’s trek as this can also have serious consequences.

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Gaddis (nomadic shepherds)

11.     Respect the mountains, the local customs of the villagers and ensure that your hike is environment friendly. Littering is a big NO NO. Walk up to the village or shepherd huts near the camp and interact with the folks to get an insight into the life in the mountains. You will be amazed at the friendliness and warmth that you would receive. If you can, carry small gifts for the children that live in remote areas.

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12.     Once you reach the camping place and the tents have been pitched, keep your sack at the head of the mat assigned for you and take out only the bare minimum items for changing clothes, footwear to be used in the camp etc. DO NOT unpack your sack completely and fill up the limited space inside the tent. Just imagine what the tent would look like if all the occupants did likewise! If it is a sunny day, you can leave the shoes outside but before you retire for the night, keep the shoes in an orderly fashion between the outer layer and inner layer of the tent to ensure that these do not get wet due to rain or even dew.

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13.     While there is still some daylight, locate essential items like medicines, torch, water bottle, plate, mug, muffler etc that you may need at night. Rummaging through the sack for any of these in the darkness, with the help of a torchlight can be very difficult and extremely irritating for your companions.  Since you will be sharing a very small space with several others, follow basic etiquette like not talking too loudly when others are resting/sleeping, not airing your smelly pair of socks on your sack etc. Of course, if you snore, you cannot do anything about it except sympathize with the other occupants the next morning.

 

14.     The Himalayas abound with wildlife – panthers, black bears and birds – but it is very unlikely that you would encounter them during the day.  If you have to go out at night to answer nature’s call, don’t go far from the cluster of tents and take a bright torch and also a friend along if possible.

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Keeping the chill out

15.     Lastly and most importantly, enjoy the hiking and camping experience. Breathe in the fresh unpolluted air and the heady scent of pine cones, have your dinner under a sky filled with unbelievable number of stars, nestle cozily in a warm sleeping bag inside the tent, get up at the crack of dawn to experience the silence and the wilderness around, huddle around the fire in the make-shift kitchen with a hot cup of tea and chat up with the cook, catch the first or last rays of the sun on the snow peak in front and share stories with fellow hikers during campfire.

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Experience all of these and more – the laughter and banter among friends, a great appetite, good physical exercise and watch the cares and worries dropping off like withered leaves.

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sights like these await you
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Oh! to be in the midst of nature’s best

 

 

 

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GLACIERS TO CROSS

This is in response to the Daily Post photo challenge on Adventure.

Trekking in the Himalayas is a complete adventure. But for me, the adrenalin rush is pronounced when I have to cross a glacier. When a trek route is being discussed and finalized, the first thing that I ask is “how much of snow will be there?” I am not bothered much about the altitude, having gone up to 19000 feet while going around Mount Kailash in Tibet. Snow conditions depend not just on altitude alone but also on the geographical location and the month of the year. But walking on ice is not a cakewalk (pun intended) for me.

The following 3 photographs were taken on my trek to Har ki dun, a beautiful valley at the base of swargarohini peak in Uttarakhand region of the Himalayas. We had taken a circuitous route which entailed crossing a series of glaciers on one day, most of them being on an incline of about 60-70 degrees requiring fixing of rope.

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A few years later, on a trek to Indrahara Pass in the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas, I opted to stay back at the last camp at the foot of the pass and 5 members of the group left at four in the morning to negotiate the steep (read scary) snow track , full of crevasses. You can see my good friends Arvind, Jaspal and the guides in the following photographs.   Hair-raising adventure indeed!

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HIMALAYAS BECKON ONCE AGAIN

This place just took our breath away, literally and figuratively. We were at Dalotu in Himachal Pradesh at 11000 feet, and had trudged for the last three hours up the steep mountainside through dense pine forests. We were gasping for breath, as it is, but what really took our breath away was the 360 degree view of unparallelled beauty around us. We were totally unprepared for the magnificent surroundings of this place and the “been there, seen it all” seasoned trekkers amongst us were also awestruck by the sheer beauty.

We were a part of Indian Himalayan Adventures, a Delhi-based non-commercial adventure group consisting of people who share the passion for trekking in the Himalayas, and had decided to go to Kugti Pass, the highest pass in the Pir Panjal range of the Himalayas. The plan was to go up to Kugti Pass from Bharmour(65 kms from Chamba) in Himachal Pradesh, along the shepherds’ trail but unlike the shepherds, who cross over the pass with their flock and descend into Lahaul valley, we planned to return the same way from the top of the pass. But the plan had to be modified, based on reports from Bharmour, of excessive snow not only around the pass but even below alyas, which is a generic term for the camping place before the ascent to the pass. Kugti pass, at a height of 16500 feet and prone to avalanches, is daunting and is generally opened by the nomadic shepherds (Gaddis), who are the first to cross over to Lahaul. But before that, they pray to Goddess Marala Mata for safe passage and sacrifice sheep at her altar. Our modified plan was, therefore, to go up to Kugti village and further on to Kelang temple or Duggi depending on snow conditions and thereafter, take a diverted route towards Chobu Pass, which is at a lower altitude of 14000 feet.

The trekking route falls in Kugti Wildlife sanctuary. Hence, necessary permission for the trek has to be secured from the forest authorities at Chamba. Bharmour is also the base for the trek to Manimahesh lake, a pilgrimage undertaken at the time of Janmashtami by lakhs of devotees. Bharmour has an excellent PWD Rest House, for which prior booking is necessary. At Bharmour, we finalized the arrangements for the trek, collecting tents and other equipment, meeting the guide, porters and cook who would accompany us and purchasing and packing necessary provisions as practically nothing is available beyond this point. We left Bharmour the next day by a hired jeep for Dharol, 19 kms away. Places like Dharol are quaint and hard to find, even by Himachal’s standards. It has exactly two house-cum-shops, one on each side of the road. The trek to Kugti Pass via Kugti village begins from here.

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Kugti village

Kugti is the last village on this trail and is at an altitude of around 8500 feet. The trail from Dharol to Kugti ascends gradually, winding along the river Budhil, a tributary of Raavi. The Budhil valley is green, consisting of dense mixed forests and the snow-capped mountains of Pir Panjal range are visible right from the start of the trek. The gradient is moderate and after 4 kms, the path winds down to Kugti secondary school, located on the banks of Budhil. The school was having a lunch break and the children were playing or moving around happily. The school, catering to the children of Kugti up to class 10, is about one and a half kilometers ahead of the village, though the primary wing is located in the village itself. The stretch from the school to the village was uphill all the way and it was a relief to reach the Forest Rest House where we were to stay that day. Most of the Forest Rest Houses in Himachal Pradesh have idyllic settings and the Kugti FRH is no exception. A walk through the village in the evening reaffirmed the general belief that cricket is indeed the national passion! The village has three or four paved open spaces surrounded by houses on all sides and cricket was in full swing at each of these courtyards, with spectators cheering from the windows and ledges of the quaint houses. Kugti is indeed an active and vibrant village!

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cricket fever at Kugti

This was the lower Kugti and there is an upper Kugti as well, with about 40 houses. The village is electrified and dish antennas sprout out of every house top. While there is no telephone connection, Kugti remains connected to the outer world through television! Dinner on the verandah of the Rest House, under a starlit sky, was a great way to complete the first day of the trek.

We left for Kelang temple the next day and came across streams of boys and girls on their way to school. It was Monday morning but the kids were cheerful and smiling and there were no signs of Monday blues, which is perhaps an urban concept perfected by weary urbanites. The tiny tots were also heading to the primary school within the village.

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4 best friends of Kugti on way to school

At the end of the village is the khud or the stream which is the water source for the village, and a separate ledge has been made for the womenfolk to wash clothes in running water. Kelang is about 5 kms from Kugti and is at an altitude of around 10000 feet, the height where the tree line generally ends in the Himalayas. The trail out of Kugti runs through terraced fields for a kilometer or two. Barley, potato and rajma are the main crops and there are apple trees on the higher slopes. Thereafter, the Budhil valley opens up, unfolding its beauty and the trail continues gently along the river.

How green is the Budhil valley
How green is the Budhil valley

After crossing a large stream which gushes down to join Budhil, the stiff climb to the Kelang temple begins. Kartikeya, the son of Lord Shiva, is the deity of this temple. About 200 metres further up is the temple of Marala Mata, whom the shepherds worship before venturing out onto the Kugti Pass. We stayed in a large bare room within the temple complex.

After having a hot lunch of khichdi, which the cooks had rustled up in no time, we walked towards Duggi, which was originally planned to be our second camp. After just a short walk from the Marla Mata temple and with a turn of the path, the majestic Pir Panjal range comes into full view. It was a lovely walk through forest and alpine meadows but we could not take our eyes off from the range in front of us! The route from Duggi onwards was completely snow-bound and a couple of avalanches seemed waiting to happen.

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avalanches waiting to happen

It was on our way back to Kelang that we saw two brown bears – a mother and a cub – on the opposite mountain. They were engrossed in digging out and eating something (a type of insect, the locals told us) and were also moving up gradually. For over an hour, we watched their movements and were thrilled to see them cross a glacier effortlessly. Kugti wildlife sanctuary is rich in high-altitude Himalayan wildlife like the brown bear, Himalayan black bear, goral, leopard, and Himalayan tahr. We spent an enjoyable evening in the courtyard of the temple, looking across the valley at the alluring green ridge far away, which would be our next camp. But to reach there, we would be going all the way down to the level of the river and then climb to a greater height.

Kelang temple and dalotu far away
Kelang temple and dalotu far away

The next morning, we walked back towards Kugti for about 2 kms and then took the narrow trail on the left, which led us downhill to the stream, crossed two picturesque small wooden bridges and were at the foot of the mountain on the other side. The initial climb was through tilled fields and we struggled uphill through this terrain in the hot sun with practically no shade. But as we climbed higher, the fields gave way to thick pine forests.

picture perfect bridge
picture perfect bridge
Trail to Dalotu
Trail to Dalotu

The trail being narrow, we were ambling along single file, laughing and joking, until some swift black movement in the path ahead was spotted. Suspecting that it could be a black bear, we advanced cautiously. Sure enough, there was a cave and fresh droppings nearby and thankfully, the animal seemed to have moved off on hearing human voices. It was with some trepidation that we covered the remaining forest area and came on to a clearing. As we moved uphill towards Dalotu, the ridge that we had seen from afar, we were treated to spectacular views of the Pir Panjal range. Dalotu is at an altitude of about 11000 feet and is a flat wide ridge, connecting the mountain that we had climbed up to the higher snow ranges. The place was covered with fresh grass with small purple flowers scattered all over. Dalotu is surrounded by valleys on all sides and gives a 360 degrees panoramic view, with half of it being dominated by the Pir Panjal range, including the Kugti Pass and the Chobu Pass. One look at the latter made it clear that this pass would also be inaccessible. It was early May and the shepherds had not yet reached this height.

The breathtaking views
The breathtaking views
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Another view from Dalotu

We pitched tents and camped at Dalotu for two blissful days. The place is so beautiful, that any description would fall short of the magnificence that meets the eye. Playing cricket with makeshift stumps and bat, with the mighty Himalayas as the backdrop, was pure unadulterated fun!

What a camping place it was!
What a camping place it was!
cricket at 10000 ft -simple and pure fun
cricket at 10000 ft -simple and pure fun
suprabhat - a glorious morning
suprabhat – a glorious morning

In the morning, as the top of the snow peaks glowed with the first rays of the sun, we had some tranquil moments, doing yoga or meditating. A huge rock served as our dining table and we relished everything that was put before us by our able cook. Giving due thought to the menu at the planning stage had ensured that we had fabulous food all through. While walking further up towards the snow line on the second day, there was an adrenaline rush as we spotted a Himalayan black bear on the snow above us and right ahead in the direction we were heading. Himalayan black bears are dangerous to approach as they are known to attack and this one was watching us advance but stood its ground. After several photographs and video clips were shot, the bear decided to move away and disappeared into the forest. After waiting for some time, we slowly moved up and reached the snow line, with the thought of the bear making another appearance hovering constantly at the back of our minds. This episode of seeing the bear, coupled with bear tales recounted during the campfire, led to some drama at the middle of the night as one of the members mistook the wind rustling against the tent to a bear sniffing around!

The two days that we spent at this uninhabited and totally unexplored part of Himalayas were sheer magic. We left Dalotu the next day and after an easy downhill walk of 2 hours through a different trail in the forest, reached Kugti village and from there, on to Dharol and then Bharmour. In this circular trail, one encounters forests, rivers, glaciers, glacial streams, waterfalls, meadows, valleys, snow ranges, wildlife, temples, quaint villages and lovely people. WHAT A DREAM PACKAGE! It was a complete and total experience of the Himalayas. And something which a travel operator cannot simply offer!