Here I am on my way back home and the last thing I feel is homesick. What just happened? Disoriented, overwhelmed, nostalgic, I can barely contain myself as a multitude of feelings launch at me all at once. I pulled the plug on routine and found myself in the middle of virgin Himalayas.
A week back my relentless search for beauty brought me to a piece of nature etched by the gods themselves. The Rupin Pass, tucked away in a far corner of the great Himalayas, a trail along the humble Rupin River through hanging hamlets, gushing waterfalls, endless forests, crisp green meadows, pebbled rivulets, magical valleys, snow bridges and I feel tempted to give the plot away already.
Day 1: Dehradun to Dhaula
We began our journey up the winding roads of Mussourie. The ever-changing scenes that rushed by us charged us up for the week that awaited. We gazed down Yamuna and the trippy patterns of tall forest pines. We were slowly beginning to lose our connectivity to the world, one bar at a time. By the time we got to Dhaula, the rain gods emptied their stash of monsoon showers upon us. Curious us, we explored the modest campsite that lay by the river Rupin despite the spell of rain.
A group of 18 strangers sat huddled in a tent that was soon labeled the hangout area. The group was a great mix of people across ages and different walks of life. I’d been assigned a tent that I’d share with Archana, a fellow first-time trekker.
Meanwhile, the nip in the air was as real as it could get. Made me realize how spoilt I was by the convenient weather in Bombay. Minutes after the introduction and a quick debate on the trek, I found myself panicking about being hit by AMS or having the required levels of stamina to scale a height of 15350 ft, Rupin Pass being one of the country’s most difficult treks. I’d underestimated the whole affair.
I crept inside my assigned tent at 8:30 and then inside a cozy sleeping bag and slept a sound sleep, something that evaded me for months.
Day 2: Sewa
I was asked to line up with our pilot (Treppan a.k.a. 53) for the trek up ahead and off we began our week-long hike. We were immediately flanked by terraced mountain meadows on our right and rugged hills to our left and the foamy waters of rupin kept us company all along.
And then we were met by the first steep climb of the day. I remember thinking, I push myself at the gym, run every other day till I smell sweat. But none of that compared to climbing a small piece of the great Himalayas. I got to the top and collapsed on the nearest rock. Noticed that the guys in the group already got there before me. Before I could catch my breath, we were rushing off to climb another patch of heights. My muscles shivered, my mind drained, body screaming as I got to the top. Two minutes later I stood up to find myself staring at another majestic scene. Yep, it was worth it. We gorged on the juiciest peach before rushing off again. We weren’t even half way through.
This time around I lost the rest of the trekkers. It was just me, the mountains, the sound of the river echoing miles below me. I walked for an hour before catching up with them again. My back stung from the heavy weight of my backpack, despite having packed light. A quick lunch break and we were off to the little village of Sewa. Oh, did I mention the sea of red greens en route to Sewa? Beaut! Still trying to figure what they’re called.
I spotted a tap amidst all the afternoon heat at Sewa and went running to Rhik, our trek lead. Asked him if I could indulge in a hair bath. I couldn’t. No hairwash. No bath for the next week. Cold Water = Pneumonia. 😦 We spent the rest of the day playing Mafia in clever disguise of getting to know each other. Two servings of bhajiyas, a fun donkey ride and a dinner later, we gave in to sweet well-earned slumber.
This had mentally been the toughest day, perhaps because we didn’t know what to expect.
Day 3: Jiskun
Up again at 5am, maybe I could get used to early mornings after all? We began our trail through neck high farms of mountain weed and greeted the river Rupin at its pebbled bed. Somewhere along the way, a very hyper four-legged babe latched on to us. I christened him Rupin a little later in the day, it seemed like he meant serious business with all the tailing us. After a quick hello to the lush banks of Rupin, we set sail again and crossed the bridge that separated Himachal Pradesh from Uttarakhand. This time I was racing ahead of the pack. Maybe to prove a point, girl power! The climb got tougher. I had to keep stopping to catch my breath. My friend, P1, kept reminding me to stay hydrated and sip on water. We emptied a packet of glucose into both our water bottles, bought a few candies for the journey at the first shop we’d spotted since Day 1. After the first patch of relentless climbing, the trail straightened up a tad bit to bring some temporary relief to our aching knees and thighs. I picked some speed again as we whizzed past the loveliest greens. Up ahead a recent landslide played spoilt sport owing to which we were left with no option but to climb a steep patch of fallen rocks and a slippery mud hill. Our trek pilot a.k.a. 53 pulled me up in a fashion I was left feeling like a sack of feathers (I am not).
Post the little adventure; we parked our tired asses at our second home stay of the journey. A beautiful wooden abode perched atop the edge of Jiskun, a little hamlet. We gazed up at the naked mountains, made peace with the fact that we won’t be greeted by snow at the Rupin pass. We didn’t let this dampen our spirits though. Compensation came our way in the form of Maggi Mahaan noodles, a yummy local delicacy at Jiskun along with some hot spicy momos with a side serving of good ol’ mountain conversations. 🙂
That night we slept like babies while it rained down on Jiskun. A surprise awaited us on the other side of ‘morrow.
Day 4: Saruwas Thatch
And it snowed! Pristine white snow laced the mountain caps at a distance as we stepped down for some brekky next day. Rain at our current altitude translated to snow at our ultimate destination. Yay! Energy pumping through our veins, we begun our next trail however we had to bid adieu to Subhash & Archana from the group. I’d grown fond of their company but their departure meant I was the only girl left in the group. A bout of self doubt crept back into my mind.
Two hours into our trek and we arrived at the hanging village of Jhaka, where houses literally hung off the mountain edges. We hung out at one of these quirky houses before resuming our journey. A daunting climb at every juncture, this was slowly proving to be one of the most difficult trails on our trek. While the ever changing scenes took my breath away, the thinning air with every little climb was quite literally taking my breath away too. Stay away from me, AMS, I barked in the quiet of my mind and went back to drooling at the greener landscapes around me!
After lunching by the Rupin river, we found ourselves creeping along the walls of the mountains that flanked us, high above the river. The trail was only wide enough for a single foot. Tricky that. We spotted the first snow bridge, jumped over logs of wood, climbed further up the hills, collapsed on random stones, got up again to run and climb and walk!
Late afternoon we camped by the forest at Saruwas Thatch. We battled the shivering cold to collect wood for a bonfire however our plans went down the drain much thanks to the rains! We had to initiate an unplanned hike to cross over higher up the river and across a daunting snow bridge in the evening. Our campsite for the day had to moved to a different location owing to bad weather and logistics issues. We embraced the change in plans!
My warm clothes were drenched after the climb, the temperatures dipped further and so did my confidence. Any remains of energy and enthusiasm I had left in me, waved goodbye! I was convinced I’d need a miracle to complete this. P1 lent me an extra pair of fleece from his towering backpack. It was a painfully cold though short journey back into my little tent. My hands were so cold, they trembled as I struggled to open up the sleeping bag. The bag was drenched on the outside, uninviting and cold. I fought every nerve in my body to slip into it and forced some sleep upon myself. The following day proved to be my toughest.
Day 5: Dhanderas Thatch (Lower Waterfall Camp)
At 5 AM, I scrambled out of my sleeping bag and froze. How was I supposed to crawl outta my tent and brave that cold, get past breakfast let alone the trek. My hands begged for some warmth, out came the leather gloves. I momentarily contemplated skipping the meal over a few extra minutes of warmth in my tent.
We’d only just begun the climb for the day, and I found myself breathing heavier than sedated monkeys! I stopped two minutes into my hike and let the others pass me by. I needed to breathe. My thighs refused to support my climb. I had three full days of climbing left to reach the top before we begun our descend into Sangla. Nothing qualified as legit motivation at this point. I perched myself on a huge rock and watched the others go past me. A few moments later, Arvind came up to me and chimed in, ‘Chalo Reemaji, dheere dheere chalo. Pohoch jaoge!’ I wasn’t going to succumb to petty tears of self defeat. Despite being without will, I got to my feet and took the tiniest and slowest steps in the history of forever. This continued for a good 60 minutes during which I halted at every other twist and turn. I resigned to the assumption that the rest of the guys had probably completed the trail and were perhaps already napping for the day.
After pushing myself for a few more miles, we saw 53 running towards us! We’d somehow managed to catch up with the group. They’d halted to grab a bite. Somehow in that moment, seeing everyone raring to go, hearing them go, ‘Don’t give up!’ lifted my spirits. I looked around me. When did we arrive here, at this unreal beautiful juncture in our journey. My eyes had to witness the scenes atop the Rupin pass. Picked myself up again and walked across the most beautiful display of pebbled Rupin waters, climbed higher up the hills, crossed a slippery snow bridge and found myself in the middle of the greenest meadows peppered with cows on the moo. 🙂
I jogged my memory to check if I’d seen something more beautiful than what surrounded me in that tick. Nah! This was the BIG HIMALAYAN SHOW OFF. The landscapes stood around us as proud paintings etched in hues borrowed from paradise.
We stood and just stared. So beautiful. I would never do justice to that beauty with my shabby words. The journey had all been worth it. I remember Uncle Colonel telling me that I’d make it. He said let the others pass by, you enjoy the trail at your own pace, but don’t give up! We’ll all be up at the pass together.
That night, I found myself singing a song to a huddled group of hikers around a bonfire and the silence of the mountains. I’d never find the courage to do this back home. The steepest climb stared down at us the next day but I was going to try and focus on the happy vibes!
Day 6: Rati Pheri (Upper Waterfall Camp)
Today, we were going to quickly gain 1000 mts in height. I knew I’d make it. My immediate neighbours, Chohan and Harish gave me the last remains of their Gatorade to help me conquer this next climb that had been labeled as the toughest yet. 🙂 I’d already won the battle against my mind the previous day, I plunged head first into this day with a truck full of confidence.
The climb had been broken down into three waterfalls, one above the other. It was tough but so was my resolve. Quick small steps, aching muscles, couple of water sipping breaks and we were through to the top of the third waterfall. A few DDLJ poses and a lunch later, we set off to scale the last flash of height.
What we didn’t anticipate was that this was going to wreck us! We were looking up at a damn near 90 degree steep climb. Soon, an acute headache entered my world! That mixed with breathing trouble and muscle ache made a terrific combo. The climb didn’t seem to end. Every little patch I’d somehow finish conquering would immediately say hello to a new pile of height. This was definitely that same damned eternal beanstalk poor Jack had to climb in a fairytale. No clue how it got here.
I climbed and climbed and climbed and climbed some more. Hello? Anything upstairs? I have been played by the Himalayas, I screamed. Oh, the pain!
After what seemed like an agonising eternity, I reached the campsite and how. It was a basin locked by beautiful barren mountains laced with snow. Thank goodness I reached when I did, ‘cause minutes later we found ourselves at the epi-center of a hailstone shower. Tiny shiny little morons! If I subtracted the chill from the scheme of things, then I’d probably admire their icy beauty. All hail the mountains! Soon little flakes of snow crashed the party too! The campsite had slowly turned into a semi-white wonderland. Acclimatisation. Check.
Shivered I did, for the rest of the day. That evening, I managed to win a round of Mafia as the mafia for the first time since meeting my comrades! :p
I refused to go seek my tent, ‘twas colder than ever! I would turn into cold slaw. I couldn’t possibly put my family through that. Not to mention, the horror stories that plagued the campsite.
But the porters traveling with us needed a place to sleep too, so after dinner we evacuated the activity tent and crept into our respective little plastic dens. I slipped into 5 layers of clothes that night. Brr!
We were almost there! I could barely wait! 🙂
Day 7: Rupin Pass – Rontigad
What we encountered the next day was a beautiful interplay of virgin snow and ripe brown rocks! They cracked the landscape into a painting that belonged in museums. This is where the river Rupin began its journey down to our first campsite. What a beaut! Nature had been extremely generous!
We inched ahead in the snow that greeted us. So mushy and slippery. A few huffs and puffs later, we were at the last leg of our climb. We were told how to manipulate the snow with our shoes and trekking poles. Each step was countered with a moment of rest and a lifetime of breathing. This wasn’t too much of a climb but seemed to be the longest at that altitude. A bounty of sheep came raging down our path throwing us off our trail. We got a much needed break in the bargain while flocks and flocks haphazardly slipped down the snowy slope. Or wait, were they lambs? Oh man, blame the snow blindness. Anyway, we meh’d and bah’d along with those munchkins! As they disappeared into the lower horizon, we resumed our climb. Somehow those last few steps seemed miles away. One tiny step and I was tempted to resign. 53 had already made it to the top but he clambered down again and sought me out, grabbed my hands and helped me take those last few steps to the top. Touchdown! We’d all made it and me, somehow without being hit by AMS. I’d made it to the top! 😀 Rupin the dog pounced on me as if to reassert the same! He’d followed us all the way too. I liked Rupin, even though he photobombed all my pictures! 🙂
I instantly marked this as one of the biggest milestones of my life. I stumble with my words as I write this but who cares! What a journey. I’d scaled more than 10,000 ft in 6 days, one of the toughest treks in India. We took a slow turn to get that stunning 360 degree view of the magnificent Himalayas! This moment, I could easily stretch out to an eternity. I’d hit the pause button right here if I could.
We soon began our big fat descend back into reality. The downward trail felt more like a farewell. We had a good 4-5 hours of journey ahead of us. That headache crept back into my temples. So did the fatigue, it caught up with my mind and body once again. The porters that helped us shift bases everyday passed by me. A few of them encouraged me to keep going, the journey was almost over. I just had a few more miles to go. Spoiler Alert: The descend is not a cakewalk. It tests your knees beyond measure, especially so if it’s endless and steep.
Arvind had become more of a friend at this point and less of a trek leader. He had to ensure the last of us got back to the campsite safe \ without losing the way. We’d walked past the lunch hour and my stomach groaned. My packed lunch was in a friend’s bag who was a front runner, I’d never be able to catch up with him to get my grub. So Arvind shared his meal with me, a gesture I’d always hold close to my heart. I admit with zero hesitation, I’d not have made it without his support!
After a few more daunting hours of descend, we reached Rontigad, our final campsite. We were spending the night here and beginning our final bit of descend into Sangla tomorrow. My friends from the group who’d already made it back to the camp cheered me across the mountain as they spotted me! We’d done it!
I ran down the hill to them! J The rest of the journey was nothing but a celebration! We’d all experienced something so extraordinary together. 7 short days and 1 big Himalayan adventure is your recipe for untouched friendship!
Day 8, our last leg of descend was a mere extension of this feat! I remember a brief interlude with a Caucasian couple in their 50s who beamed past us. They were about to backpack through the valleys we’d left behind. She asked if I was the only girl in the group. A smile found its way to my face as I nodded yes! They congratulated me as they whizzed by me.
Back in Bombay, this overwhelming feeling that I can’t quite put a finger on has only soared higher. These mountains have cast a spell on me. I shudder at the thought of climbing stairs now, I’ll get there in a week or two. 🙂 But I feel happier than I’ve been in the longest time. I drift into the soundest sleep at nights and find myself ready to face the world by 6 in the morning! Something incredible has happened. I pushed my limits & discovered how high they really were. Now, if you throw a marathon at me, I’ll run it in a heartbeat! Throw another mountain at me, I’ll climb it! My mind stands conquered.
Tell me, what’s next?
~ A Restless Wandering Bee!
P.S. A huge shout out to the team at India Hikes for bringing this crazy experience to life!