I was up, ready and rocking by 5.45 am and waiting in full gear and so were a few of them, the rest of the few we had, well all late latifs( late comers) 😊 I couldn’t blame them, for most it was their first Himalayan trek and the importance of losing time in the mountains flew over their heads. So by the time we actually started it was 6.30 am.
Most of them were struggling to put on their gators and Meenakshi controlling her frustration was giving them a 101 lesson on how to do it repeatedly. Previously I would have been irritated but this is the thing folks, when you sign up for treks where beginners can do it, you got to be the more patient one. I was like that too when I did my first trek. It didn’t frazzle me one bit, and at that point I realised, whether we reach the pass or not, whether we reach halfway or not, I was happy to be able to trek, any trek. These were lovely people, most of them who were experiencing so many new things on this trek. Even the struggle right now would be something they will carry it in their lives, learning little by little.
It was starkly dark like it is in the Himalayas even though we started at 6.30 am. I admired Anshulbhai and Meenakshi for their calm and composure. There was no pushing of ‘let’s make up for lost time’ nothing. We would keep going as long as we could. Meenakshi had kind of foretold what would be the possibilities. There was a 50% chance of not making it till the pass. Many factors, the heavy snow we witnessed here meant we didn’t know how bad it could be up there. Second and I stress this importantly, fitness and stamina. And most of them were frankly unfit.
Yash was a big guy, Garima had not much stamina and her backpack was being carried by her guy Nikshep who later joked, he was her ‘human mule’😊, Kshitij was overweight, Avishek had a major accident years ago and it took a turn for the worse that day as his past injury caught up with him. Shivam though overweight had the mental strength to keep going and he had the experience of Hampta pass with Dhairya who was fit. Harsh was lean so he could keep going but stamina also was a mix of things. Could they have the endurance to get through this.
Kuari pass might be categorised as an easy-moderate trek but once it snows, as Trek the Himalayas clearly mentioned in their description, it gets tough. We started our ascent through the forest with chilling wind, no snowfall but with almost knee deep snow all the way up. As for me, call it stupidity or ignorance, I was thoroughly enjoying the state of my mind and body at that time, the rigours of it. For the first time and I truly mean the first time, enjoying the push of it. For a few minutes I thought of the toughest trek I did for the year, Pin Bhaba pass with the most awesome group and once we did that, from that moment I knew I could handle the next trek better. And let me tell you doing as many treks doesn’t make it ‘easy’ you only get better at handling it.
It was breathtaking, breathless in one go as we trekked, paced, ascended in deep snow through the forest with our head lamps on. I had only one thought, to keep my pace and to be with Anshulbhai, he had a calming presence and his pace was keeping me motivated. As we kept looking back, I could see the struggle my trekmates were going through, this would be one of the many experiences and they would definitely cherish this looking back.
We kept on moving, heavy snow to more snow as we ascended and kept on moving. Harsh who was behind kept muttering, how amazing this is, and Kshitij with his struggles still bore a happy smiling face, he couldn’t believe he was experiencing it all. Until and then, slowly the sun began to rise, slowly spreading its light first to the stunning peaks and slowly coming towards us. I think at that moment, whatever questions I would have in every trek stopped with this trek, within myself. I felt strong, rejuvenated, and extremely happy to be there. It was very simple really.
Anshulbhai told me that the team was struggling and he was already getting a feeling that we would not be able to make it to the pass. The later we would get there, the worse it would be, the weather, the wind, it would take more time to get back as most of them would be exhausted. I could already see faces pulled down with the tiredness.
We were finally at Khullara top, we could take a cover behind some rocks as me, Anshulbhai and Dhairya with Shivam waited for the rest to turn up. I saw the Bikat camp down below. I wondered how worse it would have been for them last night. It was an isolated open space with no protection from the winds and the temperatures must have dipped further. They were getting ready to head back to base camp, there was no time for them.
Meenakshi had packed a thermos of hot chai for everyone! It was a relief for the team. As we munched on our snacks, Meenakshi gave us the go ahead to start trekking, the rest of them would take time and were looking down and out.
I started trekking with Anshulbhai and the terrain was getting damn tough. An out and out ascent and now our feet as we stepped each step ahead was above knee feet deep snow! It requires a lot of effort, stamina and patience to put one step ahead, then the next and maintain a pace. Even Shivam and Dhairya ended up with the group, and am telling you this was something else. Anshulbhai walked criss cross with each step and foot getting deeper in and I placed my foot on his steps to walk.
This was going to take some time to get used to, but once a rhythm forms, no matter what something happens within , an energy surges up , there is nothing else to do other than move forward and move we did.
A little ahead from Khullara top, Meenakshi laid it bare and honest. As a backup she had a kitchen team member come with us and there was a reason. If anyone felt exhausted, truly felt he/ she couldn’t go further, they could go back with him now. This was now or never. After this point, if they felt tired, beaten up they still had to go all the way up and go all the way down. No egos here, just realities. And I really appreciate her for doing this, because the pace was so slow by now by the rest of the team, reaching Kuari pass coming back in the evening seemed an almost impossible task. I was ahead with Anshulbhai and watching it all. Garima wanted to go back but Nikshep was goading her to come with him. Was that good or bad? I don’t know, sometimes one needs a push and sometimes one needs to back out.
From day one Garima was struggling, it seemed clear trekking was not her forte and she only came along because Nikshep insisted. Right from morning she would stop and say she wanted to go back. Yash then made a sensible decision, he let go off his ego and said he was exhausted and we still had almost a 3 km steep ascent to the pass, he knew it. And honestly I couldn’t be prouder of him, because folks this is also courage, sheer courage to let go off the ego. This is not giving up believe me, there will be times when one should push oneself and times when you know you got to stop. I see this as bravery in every way. My respect for Yash went up. Later he told me, you guys looked so tiny up there moving ahead, I didn’t want to slow anyone down, I knew I reached my maximum. Respect!
Garima was still in confusion until finally she ceded to her guy Nikshep who decided she must move ahead. I remember Meenakshi shrugging and shaking her head, moving towards us and updating us. She knew even Garima should have gone back but she wouldn’t ever tell that to her, it was their decision. She looked at me and said, well you guys keep going ahead, we will see what happens.
We stopped at a point to catch breath. And in awe we saw a steep ascent point, and winds were strong and gushing ahead. The vastness surrounding us with howling winds, this was more than a snow landscape, it was scary with intimidating freezing whipping winds. Anshulbhai gestured me to move and we did, one step at a time, each step getting tougher, really tough, lifting up knee one at a time to move ahead. At some points, the snow was at hip level and we were walking. He told me to step in harder. The whole trail was covered by snow so we were stepping in and making the trail, footsteps for others, and Anshulbhai was checking each route and then stepping in, I followed him to a T. We were the only ones up there.
Anshulbhai told me then, I can definitely trek Pangarchulla now. We could also see the foreboding Pangarchulla peak way ahead and Kuari pass was nothing in front of it. Steep technical ascent that should be attempted only in deep snow or with absolutely no snow as there were huge boulders with gaps and one could fall in between.
The group behind us looked so tiny now, and Anshulbhai was sure we would not make it to the pass. Weather condition was terrible I tell you. Whipping lashing winds hitting us, deep snow it felt like a freaking expedition we see in those disaster movies! Seriously! There were two points. First we had to reach a point where a small temple stood as a mark, from there the pass was another 1.5 kms. We were very close to the temple with lashing winds hitting us and now the group were literally away and out of sight. How was this going to happen?
Meenakshi came onto the walkie talkie, told us to wait. Anshulbhai also said we couldn’t wait long at the temple as the winds were heavier, we had to move forward. Meenakshi came to us and then asked me that one question. Listen you and Anshulbhai can do the pass and come back, it’s impossible for the rest to do it, they are all exhausted.
But I knew and let me be blunt here, if we did it, they would want to do it too, and if Meenakshi said no to them saying it’s too risky they would feel bad. It didn’t matter that it was physically not possible for them, because they would have struggled and there could be injuries, exhaustion, no help to get anyone back in time. Anshulbhai also said if we didn’t have to wait for the group, we could have reached the pass and would be already descending. I made my decision instantly, we came together, we go back together. I won’t do the pass. Let’s stop at the temple, wait for everybody and descend back. And guys let me tell you this was not an act of some lofty bullshit, it was morale. Simply morale of the team. The group were giving it their all to reach a point and I didn’t want to be the only one reaching the pass. It would not be fair.
I told Meenakshi it’s ok, we will wait at the temple and head back once the group reached here. Anshulbhai delayed his pace to the temple because the winds were getting brutal now. Really brutal. One heavy wind could knock us out like nine pins. But reach we did at that point as he showed me the pass. It was visible from here. So near yet so far.. He looked at me said, we can still go ahead, then he looked back and said Aap sahi bole, woh bhi aayenge phir risk ho jayega( if we went ahead, they would come too and it would be risky)
I can still remember that feeling, as the winds were lashing in full force at Anshulbhai and me. We crouched to protect our selves. The group was yet to come and those 20 minutes of waiting seemed like forever.
To be continued..