Wednesday, January 14, 2015
Har Ki Dun: The Indiahikes Experience
Old loves die hard. For the last three years I was caught up with professional life, postgraduation, the disadvantages of being flung to the far south in Tamil Nadu hinterland and what not. But I always remembered my last tryst with the Himalayas way back in 2009; of pristine blue skies, fields of snow, the winter chill, the clean air, majestic alpine trees and all the beauty that it possessed. The yearning to be there once again was further kindled by the approaching culmination of my postgraduate course. After looking at many options, trekking agencies, the GMVN and the KMVN, I decided to put my faith in Indiahikes. Now, I had been reading a lot on the IH website and the information it contains for a trekker is enormous. Though there would be no better way to trek with people you already know but the prospect of trekking with strangers was novel and also I had hoped a very fulfilling experience. And so it was. Thus me and Antariksh, batchmate and fellow trekker from school decided to do the Har ki Dun trek in December. I intended to do it in the 3rd week of December as I anticipated with my past experience with the Dodital trek in winter at the same time that a single bout of snowfall almost always occurs in mid December leaving the landscape more scenic than ever. Now, one can't predict the weather but in this case I was right. After having booked the trek and enrolling myself as the team doctor and booking all the tickets I could hardly wait for the adventure to begin. I was amazed at the way IH took care of everything. From regular mails, itineraries, things we would need and weather updates; IH did not miss anything. Initially I ridiculed the idea of such a thorough checklist of things. Frankly speaking I have trekked so casually earlier. So this list meant buying a lot of things. For starters, trekking shoes! I had always trekked with sports shoes but with IH so heavily insisting on trekking shoes I invested in Forclaz 100. The importance of them I learnt painfully later in the trek. Mid December arrived with the western disturbance and the anticipated news of snow fall in the higher reaches of the Himalayas. There was no way of knowing whether HKD got it too but thanks to one of the IH trek leaders I came to know. Being the team doctor also meant brushing up my first aid skills and knowledge about mountain sickness! Finally on 18th December I left for New Delhi where I reached 5 hours late thanks to heavy fog. Antariksh had created a WhatsApp group for our batch of HKD trekkers and we left for Dehradun on 19th. I think it is better to reach Dehradun the evening before departure to Sankri as it gives some rest to the body. Reaching early morning by the Nanda Devi express or the bus is better if one has a really tight schedule but it is tiring. Thanks to the GOSF sale we got a heavy discount for the hotel we stayed in for the night. The scheduled departure from Dehradun was at 6.30am. After a hot bath we reached the railway station where Saranbir, our trek leader was waiting for us and the Kedarkantha team. As expected Nanda Devi express could only reach by 8.30am and by the time we pushed off for Sankri it was already 9.45am. Packed into Mahindra Boleros and Maxxs we left for Sankri via Mussoorie. After a long pitstop at Kempty Falls for Aloo Paratha we were travelling again. It was in Mussoorie we got our first views of the snow clad peaks. One can distinctly identify the Chaukhamba massif on the extreme right. The road then goes via Damta to Puraula. The condition of the road was good in most parts except for few short stretches. Puraula was our halt for lunch where to my surprise was a really good restaurant called Hotel Classic. Puraula is also the last place where most mobile networks work. From Puraula we headed to Mori, Netwar and then entered the Gobind Pashu National Park. By the time we reached the forest checkpost it was dark and the last few kilometers to Sankri were in darkness. One has to pay a small entrance fee at the checkpost which IH had taken care of. The road after the checkpost is mostly non metalled. We reached Sankri at 6pm. The Kedarkantha team was accommodated at Hotel Swargarohini while we set our bags at the GMVN lodge. Hot tea, Pakodas and a briefing by Saranbir awaited us. After being introduced to our team including Assistant trek leader Anil and a round of introductions from all the trekkers in the batch which included 20 guys and 3 girls, Saranbir gave us an introduction to Indiahikes, the green trails initiative and certain trekking basics. For sure, some of the first timers were freaked out! So herewith I will also introduce all the trekkers. Apart from me and Antariksh, the others who had done treks before were Shantanu, Rahul Agrawal, Aditya, Kartik, Yatharth and Vivek. Especially freaked out were Divya (our showstopper of the trek) and the Under-19 (U-19) group (Siddhesh, Jay, Dhruv and Shubham). The rest included Rahul Matmari, Sirish, Chirag, Ashish Gupta and Singla (Bhatinda as he would be known!), Vedant (Yatharth's cousin), Sneha and Anuja (the Tulsyan sisters :P), Salvin and Ashok Sir (the funny bone!). Just after Saranbir's frightening briefing, me being the doc was already being consulted for advice. Ashish Gupta ji had a fever thanks to the recent Tetanus shot, some had headches, others were just freaked out by the cold. Apart from Ashish's fever all the rest were panic responses for Saranbir's deadly briefing!! I think this briefing might just be chilled out a bit in the future. After a very filling dinner in our tiffins and cups everyone retired one last time to the warmth of Razais and the comforts of a bed before the 5 day bedless, Razai-less trek! We woke up on the 21st to a cloudy and cold morning. The surrounding hills were sprinkled with snow. Post morning tea, Saranbir demonstrated us the packing of a rucksack. This reinforced some old memories from the adventure course at Nehru Institute of Mountaineering the teachings of which were now lost in the sands of time. We bid goodbye and good luck to the Kedarkantha team and left by our vehicles for Taluka which was 16km from Sankri. The road was covered with a layer of snow at several places. Sankri to Taluka took an hour and the sky opened up a little to reveal some beautiful cloud patterns against the azure blue. At Taluka, those who had to offload their rucksacks did so and we set off finally. The team was supposed to go with the guide in front, the assistant leader in the middle and Saranbir and Brij Mohan being the sweepers at the tail. Our guide initially was Phoolak Singh who was replaced shortly ahead by Irabeer (a relatively short tempered but good hearted man). The trail descended a bit steeply from Taluka covered with slush due to the melted snow. Our first stop was about 2 kms ahead of Taluka on a completely flat piece of sun exposed ground. Till this point the trail was mostly even with little if any climbs. At this point I would also mention about the green trails initiative by IH. All of us carried an Eco-bag strapped to our waists. The idea was to pick up any plastic on the trail and collecting it in the Eco-bag to be disposed at the end of the trek at Sankri being later segregated and disposed at Dehradun. This initiative by IH is really appreciable as it inculcates a sense of responsibility for the environment as much as it does for trekking per se. Moving further from this pitstop we went under cloudy skies following the Har ki Dun Nala to another halt at a snow covered place. It was here I clicked the best picture of my trek. The day was not particularly good for photography because of the poor light due to cloudy skies again. Add to that the limitations of a 7 megapixel point and shoot camera. But as I looked above from this place we halted, I saw the cloudy sky ensnared by the dry leafless branches of several trees posing as a spidery silhouette. Later during the descent on the 5th day I captured the same picture but with a perfectly clear sky but it did not match the awesomeness of the first picture. Har Ki Dun being one of the most popular treks in Uttarakhand carries the burden of having extremely littered trails. This is more evident at places of lower altitude and those where people halt usually. So as I clicked this picture I also noticed the many plastic wrappers which littered the ground. It was perfect irony. On one hand was the most beautiful sky above and on the other an equally horrible ground below. We cleared the area of as much litter as we could. By this time the fitness level of the team was evident. No longer were we trekking as a group. Like in a school class there were front trekkers, the middlers and the TAIL blazers! This is not to glorify or point out someone but I mention this just to highlight the fact that this division was so significant in so many ways. It was because of this division a lot of humor, friendship, photography, cameraderie and companionship developed. We had our packed lunch at a point about 7kms from Taluka. There is a certain joy in having ice cold lunch too! Further we passed the Gangad village nestled in a valley facing sunlight. From Gangad the trail was again even and finally a descent to Chilludgarh (12kms from Taluka) which was to be our first campsite. Up until Gangar the trail was laced with equal ups and downs but for three particularly steep climbs. Chilludgarh is also nestled in a valley which barely receives sunlight and thus was covered in snow. It is named so after the Chillud trees found there. Before we descended into Chilludgarh we could distantly see the peaks surrounding Har ki Dun. We reached Chilludgarh after about 7 hours of trekking at just about sunset. Not wanting to miss the sunset light play with the HKD peaks, myself, Kartik and Vivek climbed up the hillock abutting the campsite and we were met with an eye popping sunset play at work with the peaks. While the rest were resting below as the tents were being pitched, the three of us were clicking pictures. By the time we came back the tents were pitched and tea was ready. Everyone was tired that day being the first day of the trek. Saranbir further disappointed us regarding the bonfire. Bonfire was not permitted as the trek lies in a national park. This meant that after soup, dinner and hot bournvita everyone was ready to tuck into their sleeping bags. The cold tolerance level was also evident. While some people were decked up with 6 layers already some were only at three or four. One should also not follow a blind number but rather weigh their tolerance to cold. We again rose to another cloudy sky the next day. It was still dark and the early risers were already knocking on the toilet tents. Some of us decided to answer our nature's call to the open fields and that was a wise decision at Chilludgarh considering that the pits dug in the two toilet tents got spent after 4 craps! On the other hand were the late risers especially the U-19 and the girls the most consistent of which was our showstopper Divya! For each day except the last she would come out crying "Hye Rabba, kitni thand hai" to the amusement of us all and to the dismay of Saranbir! But I will give this to Divya that she was the energy of the trek and it has led her to love mountains, forge lasting friendships especially with Saranbir. Saran showed us how to pack sleeping bags before we left for our second day's hike and some of us packed them with numb fingers which gradually warmed up with the effort. Vedant and Yatharth left us at this point as Vedant was not feeling well and he was escorted by a guide back down to Taluka. This aspect of IH is good too as if one fails to complete the trek because of weather or health issues one can re-trek the same later at no cost. The initial 2 kms of hike from Chilludgarh to Osla was steep. We had already climbed 1500 feet from Sankri on the first day and in this initial climb from Chilludgarh to Osla it was a further 700 feet gain. Naturally everyone was panting at Osla. By then Divya had lost her 5 grand costly spectacles, her credit cards and some cash forcing her to make a satellite phone call home at Osla. This prompted others to call too. Some of us decided not to call and though I had an exam result pending and an interview date lurking I too decided to shun the phone for nature's peace. At Osla is an ancient temple of Lord Shiva. Legend has it that the temple was initially made to honor Duryodhan but as people realised Duryodhan's devilry it was converted to a Shiva temple. The temple is made completely of wood mounted on stone with many wood carvings. Saranbir initially planned of trekking to Har ki Dun straight but considering the pace of the group he decided against it and aimed to camp at Kalkattidhar (10000 ft.) which was about 7kms from Osla. The trail before and after Osla is strewn with loose rocks and boulders with certain sections of landslides. There is a very steep climb at a landslide hit area traversed by a stream. It looked so precarious that for a moment I thought the mules would trip over! We had to also negotiate a pine tree log which had completely blocked the trail. A little ahead of Osla in the valley below was visible the village of Seema covered in snow. Across Seema, another trail moved sinuously ahead which leads further to Ruinsara Tal. This trail also bifurcates further leading to an 11 day long trek to Yamunotri. Our trail then opened up to a vast field with little or no ascents. Here we made our lunch stop. We reached Kalkattidhar early at about 2.30pm. Kalkattidhar too was covered in snow. To the west of Kalkattidhar the Kedarkantha top was visible. To the east was Kala Nag peak and the Bandarpoonch ranges. To the north was the Pir Panjal range leading on to Himachal Pradesh. We set camp and as we were having our Maggi and tea, we witnessed a most beautiful sunset. The mountains on the east and north east were lit up in orange and yellow while the setting sun made mesmerizing patterns in the west. Irabeer our guide showed us the local geography. As we had reached early that day there was a lot of scope for merry making. While Aditya kept on pulling Ashok's leg the rest were busy singing songs, Divya taking the lead. The songs went from new ones, to oldies and finally to Honey Singh wherein Saranbir joined in. If not for Saran's constant reminders regarding water intake, rest and cold, we would have sung on to late midnight. I will particularly remember Divya's : "Aunty police bula legi, yaar tera kar lega handle" and her assumption that the ice axe Saran was carrying was his Kripaan!!! Kalkattidhar camp was on a slope which meant sleeping with heads elevated and a very troubled sleep! Before tucking in, myself, Antariksh and the Tulsyan sisters were sharing some really horrid stories. I think they will not forget Antariksh's particularly disgusting story from school! Next morning was very different weather wise. The sky had opened up. Saran had dug up a pit so huge in the toilet tent that it had become difficult figuring out exactly how to position one for crapping! Familiarly the late risers needed Saran's constant yells to get out. After a demo on how to use Gaiters and microspikes we set off towards Har ki Dun. Again like Chilludgarh, the trail immediately steepened. I decided that day to walk with Divya at the tail. I could not do it more than 15 mins! As soon as we reached the top of the incline from Kalkattidhar we were greeted by a most fabulous view of the HKD peaks. On the rear the Kala Nag rose against the blue sky like the serpent's hood it's named after. On the previous day these peaks were receiving fresh snowfall but now they stood clear. The trail after this incline was fairly even with a few ups and downs. On the way we passed a semi frozen waterfall which was also the place where we refilled our bottles. The HKD peaks made for beautiful and differently spectacular pictures on this ideal day for photography. The backdrop of the peaks with alpine trees or dried trees was brilliant. Finally the HKD valley was distantly visible 2 kms prior. At the wee end of this trail was another moderate climb through snow. While the entire trail was laid out with snow it was not deep enough to wear gaiters nor icy enough to wear microspikes which was a relief. As we neared HKD campsite, the Swargarohini peaks (I, II and III) made their appearance through constantly shifting clouds. I waited almost half an hour to see if the clouds completely cleared off the summit but in vain and I concluded perhaps the name Swargarohini is apt. HKD campsite (11,500 ft.) faced the Swargarohini massif which lay to its south. Hata Peak and Har ki Dun top lay towards the east and Kedarkantha was seen in the distance on the west. That day we decided to do a recce towards Hata Peak. Some of us who were feeling fit to do it left after a round of Tang while others stayed back and pitched tents. As we went towards the valley beside Hata Peak we crossed the GMVN lodge where some other trekkers were staying. Hata Peak was a beauty as the sun and clouds played a shadow dance over it. As it was already getting late we decided to return. Another trail climbs up towards the north east near Hata Peak and leads to a lake called Manindra Tal. By the time we reached HKD campsite it was sunset. Though the sunset was not as brilliant as at Kalkattidhar, it made for a superb panorama shot with HKD top and Swargarohini in the frame. The HKD campsite was being lashed by strong winds and this prompted me to finally don a thermal lower and add another layer on top. Here the cold was relentless. I was also having a headache thanks to dehydration. Jay and Siddhesh had pharyngitis and Siddhesh's complaint of coughing blood prompted me into checking his lung fields for pulmonary edema. Thankfully the blood was due to pharyngitis. As I had replenished myself with loads of water (warm water was finally provided as Saran realized the bitter cold) I had to get up twice at night to pee which meant putting on shoes again, a mammoth task in that weather!!! Though it dipped to -3 to -4 degrees at night it felt more like -7 or -8 thanks to the wind. But inside the tents it was warm in the sleeping bags with the fleece lined inner. The following day dawned clear and sunny. We were supposed to attempt reaching Jaundhar glacier which lay 7 kms ahead. We left our backpacks and carried only our daypacks. After a lot of "Hye Rabba", Divya decided to join us. The trail to Jaundhar is initially same till the GMVN lodge, then it descends down steeply to the vast snowfield lying between HKD top and Swargarohini through which meanders the HKD Nala. As we landed on the snowfield we also noted footprints of the Himalayan Bear. After a lot of candid photography we marched on towards Jaundhar which lay towards the north east. The snow in the field was about 3/4 of a foot deep and even though we were wearing gaiters snow still managed to creep into our shoes. Several stops later we reached a precarious incline. Some of the trekkers decided not to venture further. But we (myself, Shantanu, Rahul, Aditya, Sirish, Vivek, Anil and Irabeer) went on. Some of us plunged their feet into crevasses. We reached Kyaarkoti (12021 ft.) after a 60 degree incline riddled with foot deep snow and loose rocks. Irabeer decided it wasn't wise to venture further to Jaundhar. We had come about 5 km from HKD campsite but still the glacier was not visible. Disappointed, we returned. At the precarious incline I mentioned we slid down the snow where Saran was waiting. All of us were hungry too and Brij Mohan was carrying lunch. To everyone's amusement Saran informed that we were to trek on back until we find Divya who was the lunch point! After spotting her and having lunch consisting of Pulaav we headed back to HKD stopping at the GMVN lodge for lemon tea. As we reached HKD camp all our shoes and socks were wet. Though Saran insisted that we keep on wearing them to prevent loss of body heat some of us removed them to dry in the dying light of the setting sun in vain. That night he also informed us about Acute Mountain Sickness and the rescue plans in case anyone develops it on a trek. The cook delighted us with some awesome Gulab Jamuns the likes of which one may not even find in a city! That night was marginally better with lesser wind. Shubham managed to click an awesome snap of the HKD top surrounded by a sea of stars. I had to get up just once at 4am for pee but that was delightful. Peeing under a sky studded with stars and shooting stars is heaven! Ha ha ha! Next day Divya woke up relatively early as we had to descend! It was a 16km descent back to Chilludgarh. The front trekkers descended rapidly so much so that they were 1 hour ahead of the sweeper. On the way back beautiful patterns had formed in a blue sky peppered with cirrus clouds. This combined with the landscape made for stunning pictures. At Kalkattidhar on our previous campsite the snow had melted completely and a great blunder revealed its ugly face. The kitchen staff had buried the Maggi packets in the ground which vultures dug open and exposed them in plain sight. Though we cleared them all up it raised a serious issue of campsite etiquette. While the kitchen staff claimed that they had buried them so that they could be removed on the way back it was also possible that they did that just matter of factly. I had noticed that this problem was inherent with the locals. They don't bother to keep the trail clean as was evident when I offered a candy to a village kid who promptly threw the wrapper on the ground. Like our attitude in the cities and our daily surroundings their attitude is the same. Thus, though green trails initiative is great something also needs to be done on this front. We had lunch again on the way. At Osla some of us made satellite phone calls again. We reached Chilludgarh at about 4pm. There was something not right with Divya as she ran off behind a boulder at Chilludgarh and was crying. It took Aditya, myself, bonfire and a lot of singing to bring her back to life but when she did oh boy! Saran was in trouble! It was Christmas that day and being the penultimate day of the trek Saran agreed on a bonfire which our sailor Antariksh lit up with a lot of gusto. We all got Christmas caps and were further surprised by the cook with a Christmas cake (with and without egg too!). As the bonfire died and the dinner finished we all got to singing songs, songs and more songs. That evening U-19, Aditya and Divya owned! Saranbir ko aisa blackmail kiya with songs like "Ruk ruk ruk", "ruk ja oh dil deewani" as he was trying to coax everyone to sleep. Divya infact caught hold of his rucksack and Saran had to grudgingly sit in the dining tent while we sang on! Finally it was only by 11.30pm that people went off to their tents. By then Divya who initially did not want to trek any further was now not wanting to go back at all! The following morning was a very eventful one. Saran awarded us the certificates for the trek here too the showstopper being Divya! As soon as we trekked out of Chilludgarh we were hit by sections of trail iced out. This meant that they were extremely slippery. Many of us fell down, hurt our palms, elbows and prompted Saran to ensure that these sections were navigated properly. Here came the importance of trekking shoes. Had it been sports shoes I would have fallen many times more. As we neared Taluka and halted for lunch at the flat meadow two kms before Taluka, half the team had lost its way and trekked up a wrong trail. Saran had to go back and find and bring them to course. From this point on the line of trekkers was maintained till Taluka. Finally, I decided to challenge myself with the most difficult part; walk as sweeper with Divya and I am proud that I was able to finish last! We reached Taluka at about 4.30pm and after a round of tea and tips to the trekking staff we headed back to Sankri. At Sankri this time we were at the Swargarohini Hotel. Ashish Gupta ji and Aditya made arrangements for sweet amber while the U-19 and Shantanu were ready with bholenaath ka prasad. After a night of well deserved frivolity we slept in beds after 5 days! Next morning some of us took a bath, others waited for their turn at Dehradun and finally we left bidding goodbye to the Indiahikes team. Our vehicle broke down at Mori due to a puncture, probably cursed as we started earlier than others. After Aloo parathas at Puraula, some horrible and expensive bhutta and chaat at Kempty falls and watching Gutar Gutar on Youtube we reached Dehradun at 5.30 in the evening. I was also rewarded with the good news of having passed my Postgrad examination. Me, Rahul and Antariksh took a room near the station in a hotel for the much needed bath. The Tulsyan sisters and Salvin had already bid goodbye to us at Mussoorie. Aditya, Ashok, Ashish and Divya were at Black Pepper for booze. Finally we boarded the Nanda Devi express at night with me, Divya and Antariksh chatting on to late night before we fell asleep. This adventure was awesome for so many reasons. Firstly and most importantly the credit goes to mother earth and nature for having blessed us with other worldly sights and wonders in the lap of the Himalayas. Secondly, to Indiahikes which taught me a lot of things apart from just trekking. I now know how to pitch and pack a tent, pack a sleeping bag and rucksack and keep the trail clean. Thirdly, to our wonderful batch of trekkers. In Antariksh, Shantanu, Aditya and Rahul I have found people who I might trek with again. In Divya, I found a most awesome friend. In the U-19 I discovered and lived again the joys of being in college again. In Kartik I saw the maturity, in Vivek and Rahul the steely resolve. In the two Ashishs the desi touch and in Tulsyan sisters and Salvin the desire to do something new and in Sirish and Chirag the bond of brotherhood. Finally, I would laud Saranbir for his selfless dedication to his job and his desire to teach something to someone every day. Three cheers to the HKD 20-27 Dec team and to Indiahikes! The road goes ever on and on!