The date on the handphone was April 12th. We were nearing 2 weeks in the mountains. How time had passed us by, we didn’t know. So busy were we everyday. The one marker which was an indication of this however was our shaggy and rugged facial look. Whenever we had access to a mirror, we would stop and try to recognise the face staring into it. After having discovered it was actually us, we couldn’t stop the ‘self admiration’ that took over. I was ageing. The salt and pepper look suited me though. This look I would take home, when I returned. The face had also narrowed and shrunk. The excess fat had disappeared from the face, the girth and the legs and i could feel them bones. Varun meantime had turned an Italian and a Spanish for most of the journey and drew attention from travellers in the lodges. The boyish Kashmiri looks had deceived most whom he had interacted with, including the opposite sex until they had realised he was from India.
The descent from Thorung La into Muktinath had been strenuous. Descending 5500 ft hadn’t been easy and the knees had taken the brunt. For the first time in all my Himalayan journeys undertaken, I had felt the pressure on them. They had creaked, at times felt wobbly, and I had thought they would give way, esp. on the steeper sections of the descent. But I had carried on, and hadn’t stopped. This was a trifle alarming for me. The ageing process had commenced and I was no longer what I used to be or thought I was, physically. The experience counted more now and the command on the mind and its strength was what mattered. If the mind agreed, the body followed. A very simple rule. These were also different handles you had to grab with the ticking and passing of time and yet continue doing what you were supposed to do, what you were meant to do. For my himalayan sojourns, it also meant devoting more time for physical preparations and a tighter dietary control.
The mountains had enforced a strict daily schedule which you had to follow. There wasn’t any getting away from this. Eat proper, sleep early, sleep well, undergo a rigorous cardio schedule everyday, rest again and wake up early. This was an incredibly disciplined life to lead. And we did this for all the 19 days we were in the outdoors. They were absolutely the best I had spent. I had felt younger, energetic, was more focussed and alert, agile and light on the feet and mind and clearer within, in the lungs. If only I could spend 365 days in the year doing exactly this. If only modern urban life was the same. With all its distractions and daily pressures and stresses it sure wasn’t easy enforcing a similar routine.
We had reached Muktinath at 2.45 in the afternoon after having walked 11 hours at a stretch. The maximum that we had walked so far. The longest that I had ever been through however was on the Goecha La trail after having visited Mt. Kanchenjunga in 2005. That was a 16 hour straight run. The ascent and descent combined. We had commenced the ascent at 1.30 am and eventually halted for the day at 5.30 in the evening. After having completed that I had felt larger than life, probably ‘coz it was the first time ever. The emotions now, were a bit subdued and was akin to having ticked off a target that we had set, with the focus shifting to the next one, namely Annapurna Base Camp with team 2 for company. I wondered how they were and if they were coping with the elements and nature overall. They would have their own stories to tell and it would be good to learn what had transpired in the few days they had walked the trail.
From Muktinath, Varun and I had decided on reaching Ghorepani, our common meeting point with team 2 a day in advance. And that’s exactly what we did. Hitching a jeep ride from Muktinath to Jomsom, we had descended into the deepest gorge in the world onto the expansive and rocky riverbed of the Kali Gandaki. The Kali Gandaki or Gandaki River (also known as the Narayani in southern Nepal and the Gandak in India) is one of the major rivers of Nepal and a left bank tributary of the Ganges in India. In Nepal the river is notable for its deep gorge through the Himalayas and its enormous hydroelectric potential. It has a total catchment area of 46,300 square kilometers (17,900 sq mi), most of it in Nepal. The basin also contains 3 of the world’s 14 highest mountains over 8,000m – Dhaulagiri I, Manaslu and Annapurna I. Dhaulagiri I is the highest point of the Gandaki basin. It lies between the similar Kosi system to the east and the Karnali (Ghaghara) system to the west. (Source: Wikipedia)
I had expected to see a raging river in full flow from high above with lush green surroundings. What I saw however was something completely different. The river bed was dry, barren, full of smooth and rounded rocks and boulders and we just kept bouncing inside the jeep in one continuous 20 minute bumpy ride. That was a backbreaker and a head cruncher too. The jeep ride to Jomsom itself, was no less with a maniacal driver at the wheel, who apparently knew the roads well enough to swerve and hug the corners at will. It was insanely dusty and as we sped down the narrow roads, the multitude of trekking teams walking down were left gasping in the cloud of white dust and mud we left behind. We surely didn’t want to be in their place. I could see their faces as we flashed past. There was terror written all over as they looked at us. On the way we passed the Jomsom airport and Mt. Nilgiri (not to be confused with the Nilgiris in Southern India).
From Jomsom, we hitched another ride in one of the many rickety buses at our disposal and in the next gruelling 3 hours with Django at the wheel, whose only intent was to overtake every machine in front of him, cursing, abusing and spitting as he drove along, we reached Tatopani, the area of multiple hot water springs. The idea of soaking the body in a hot spring and another session of massage was extremely tempting. But after having seen the quality of resources on hand, we decided against them. We didn’t want to risk infections or even broken bones at this point. The place where we stayed however, was absolutely the best we had come across. Comfortable beds, a clean and spacious washroom, hot water. And together with the warm and tropical climate of Tatopani, the experience was sheer luxury. We had left the harsh, dry, cold, windy and icy surroundings far behind. We could finally rest, refresh, rejuvenate and reenergise ourselves. It was much needed.
After having spent a day and half at Tatopani, it was time to get back on the road again and commence the second half of our journey. We were well rested and the change of cuisines over the last many meals at Tatopani had been delightful. Crossing 5-6 mountain ranges on a warm and sunny day, we gradually made our way to Ghorepani. These were low lying ranges with the usual settlements and step plantations you’d see across hilly terrains. Far removed from what we had been through on our journey to Thorung La. For us, it was a casual walk in the hills. The air, laden with generous amounts of oxygen was soothing to the lungs. Walking through thick rhododendron blanketed forests we finally reached our point for the day. Now all we had to do was to wait for the others to show up. That afternoon Ghorepani was covered with heavy snowfall. The surroundings outside painted a pretty picture with the white of the snow and the pinks and reds of the rhododendron flowers contrasting each other wonderfully.
Around 3 pm the next day, as Varun and I rested in the tiny wooden room, we heard a familiar voice searching for us outside in the dining area of the lodge, together with loud thumps of the trekking boot on the wooden floor. The door flew open with the heavy push it received. In front of us was the man. The lone ranger. The last great motor biker. The mountain man, whom we had fondly nicknamed ‘Yeti’ since the Everest journey in 2008. Ramnik Chhabra. His was a dramatic entrance and Varun and I both sat upright and warmly welcomed him with a shout of ‘Chacha’ Ramnik! His first words however were “Is there anything to eat?” We burst out laughing. Ramnik’s voracious appetite was legendary and well known. And on the back of the day’s walk, he was hungry. Which was fair. The can of Pringles wafers was soon polished off. Well, now was a good time to order popcorn as any I thought.
Pretty soon, they all trooped in. Team 2. Rushabh Seth, Binod Duggar, Sweta Sultania, Kalpak Bhandari, Ketan Mehta and their guide Mahesh Acharya. The ranks had gotten bigger. We were a group now and one that was looking forward to reaching Base Camp Annapurna within a week. After the initial round of introductions, the rest of the day and evening that followed was full of continuous chatter with a healthy mix of groans and aches. The body was ‘breaking’ in for the rest after their steep hike up from Nayapul to Birethanti on Day 3, from Birethanti to Ulleri Village on Day 4 and then to Ghorepani on Day 5. The altitude gained wasn’t much but I could very well imagine the steep inclines they would have had to clamber through. And since this was a first time for most, the experience would have been a bit overwhelming I reckoned.
This didn’t include Ramnik and Sweta however. Ramnik had been part of various high altitude treks before and had also bagged two trekking summits by now. Stok Kangri in Ladakh and Kilimanjaro in Africa. Sweta was one journey old with a trek to Sikkim under her belt. She was to have visited Everest Base Camp in the same period in April that she was with us, but the plans had fallen through, with Odati Adventures rescheduling their dates for departure. Rushabh and Binod were my friends from my apartment complex in Bombay, where we resided. Their’s was a first venture into the mountains and the Himalayas. I had sold the dream that were the Himalayas to both. Binod had readily agreed and over time after much convincing by his mate, Binod, so had Rushabh. So was it for Ketan and Kalpak. Their first foray into the mountains. Ketan was Rushabh’s friend. Kalpak, Ketan’s brother in law. Both I hadn’t met in person until now.
I would get to know more of each of them, as would they about Varun and I, over the next many days as we’d walk together. Their character, their attitude and temperament on the trail, their walking styles, the group dynamics which would develop and emerge, the individual decision making that would follow, amongst many others would be there for me to see, but not to judge. For now however, I just wanted to enjoy their company and listen to them talk, joke with each other. It was good to have them join us. Hopefully we wouldn’t break ranks, learn to co-exist and travel together to reach what we had set out to reach. Annapurna Base Camp. It would be the start of yet another grand adventure with situations within, which none of us had foreseen we would go through.
To be contd.