As I stepped off the road my feet sank perceptibly into the soft snow. It was the December of 83, I was about to turn nineteen and on my one of the earliest forays into the greater Himalaya. I wanted to seek solitude, a decent climb and my inner self; not necessarily in that order. It had been an unusually heavy winter with snow line starting well below Manali and coating everything within sight in a sweeping uninterrupted sheet of pure white. My quest lay above Manali, deep into the Beas Valley. All the villages and road side joints, bustling in the summer with tourist and odd-stuff sellers were now deserted. The road just ahead of Manali, that wound up towards the Rohtang Pass was submerged under heavy snow. No vehicular movement was possible neither deemed necessary.
Buried deep within the snow, lurked empty gaps and dangers of which I had no clue and I wished to go alone. I wound up slowly along the road and then at a point left the curbs and plunged deep into the forest. On my back I carried my tent, sleeping bag, food, fuel, clothing, etc that would sustain me over the next 12 days. I was young, inexperienced, reckless and definitely insane as my enterprise was bound to fail. Not even a bird stirred anywhere and the tall pine trees decked in white stood mute observers to my slow and haphazard progress. Suddenly, I paused and picked my ears.
In that deep silence of the forest another sound accompanied mine. It was hushed, muffled, but distinct… someone was following me. It stopped the moment I did and picked up as I resumed walking. Almost matching step for step, my unknown pursuer and I progressed. By now I was far from any civilization or help. Then I heard something that ruffled the back skin of my neck. Someone was panting right behind me. I spun around on my heel and stared back straight into a pair of deep, black pool of glistening eyes.
The dog stood barely a foot away. I had no idea how he could have crept up so close without my knowledge. We surveyed each other silently. He was a typical mountain shepherd dog, sinew muscles, long limbed, big muzzle and keen eyes. His teeth were bared and his tongue hung outside with saliva dripping on the snow. His jet black coat shone like silk and a solitary pure white diamond stood right in between his eyes on the forehead. Save that white spot, he was black through and through. His shoulders almost reached my waist. He was a huge brute, but friendly from my point of view. I extended my right hand, which he sniffed several times and rolled his head against my trousers showing acceptance. I was used to mountain dogs and paying no further heed continued on my journey. The dog followed me a step behind. I was glad to have him around though I did not wish for any human company. We gained ground slowly as the soft snow made progress laborious. I was approaching a narrow wooden footbridge (that I knew about) that would take me across the Beas gorge and from the other side I would climb further towards the glacier. The ground beneath lay at least 4 – 5 feet below snow and I doubted if in these conditions I would be able to locate the wooden bridge. Following my instincts and the noise of the rushing Beas, I went on.
Abruptly the dog overtook me with few easy bounds and raced ahead. I followed his barks as he disappeared within the woods. I rounded off a wide tree and found my friend standing in between two wooden hand rails, barking loudly and wagging his tail. He had found the bridge. Though I could not see the bottom of the bridge, the hand rails being nearly 5 feet above ground protruded marginally out of the snow. As I approached the dog barked fiercely and stood his ground with menace in his eyes. I have literally grown up with wild animals and insects and always believed in them. I felt as if he wished me to stop. I stopped and waited.
The dog ran ahead and suddenly pounced on the snow covered bridge. To my utmost horror, the bridge collapsed and the entire middle section tumbled off into the empty air below. I watched in slow motion as the rotten woods and pile of snow spiraled down towards the bottom of the gorge till it crashed into the water and rocks below without a sound. But for the dog I would have stepped on to the bridge and would be lying dead by now. He barked happily and wagged his tail as he returned to me in two long bounds. I patted his head and rubbed his belly. He led me further up the trail and we crossed the gorge from a higher bridge, of whose existence I had no knowledge.
When I pitched my tent in the evening, he parked himself right by the door. He shared my food and then snuggled inside for a comfortable night. We did not exchange a single word but we communicated rather well. In the morning he was nowhere to be seen. I presumed that he had returned home. I continued my journey towards the mesmerizing mountains now piercing the azure on my northern horizon.
Soon enough, the silent patter joined me at the back and I knew that my companion had returned. ‘Where did you go, young fellow!’ I patted his head as he rubbed his nose against my knee and made guttural sounds. After two days we reached the base camp. The dog remained by my side all through. In the last four days that we had been together I noticed something strange. Every time I pointed my camera at him, the dog would bound out of sight and would only return after I had kept the camera back in its case. Could he recognize a camera, I wondered, and did not wish to be photographed! The thought seemed crazy even to me; how could a dog not wish to be photographed. But after four days of hide and seek I knew that my surmise was correct and I promised him that I would not photograph him. Since then he remained by my side even when I had the camera unsheathed in my hand. We had learnt to trust each other.
On the fifth day, I started off for the summit. It was a straightforward climb of 1200 meters over 40 – 50 deg gradient of snow slope. It was not difficult or untowardly dangerous. I only had to be careful of the fresh snow accumulation at the summit ridge that could crash down unannounced. I hoped to reach the summit in about 5 hours and get down in two. A short simple day and then head back home. As I started up the dog stayed behind by the tent. Since it was a non-complicated face without much undulation I could see the dog and my tent all the way up as I gained height steadily. The silent air was crisp and the atmosphere seemed to be hanging breathlessly for some impending disaster. And then it happened. I heard a deafening crack above like thunder, but the sky was blue and cloudless.
I looked up and found my worst fears materializing like a conjurer’s trick. While I watched the entire summit ridge, heavily corniced and laboring under huge accumulation of snow, cracked and separated from the rest of the mountain and started crashing down in a gigantic avalanche of thundering snow. I was directly in its path and had absolutely nowhere to hide or avoid the onrushing snowy deluge. Strangely the only thought, as I watched the spectacle transfixed, that coursed through me was that I would not outlive my teen-ship. Confronting the unexpected and acceptance of the inevitable happened with such alacrity that I felt no fear but only a silent submission to the justice of God. The avalanche gained momentum as it raced down in full fury. I calculated that it would take around a minute to hit and blow me to smithereens.
The bark broke my reverie.
The dog had raced up to me and now wagged his tail vigorously. He looked into my eyes and suddenly took off downhill galloping like a prized derby. To this day I have no idea why I did what I did, but it saved me from certain death. Without a second thought, I dropped my knapsack and raced after the dog as fast as my feet could carry me. But even as I hurtled like a satellite out of orbit I gazed at the unbroken white of the slope in front, with the black dog streaking across like an arrow, and wondered how would this save me anyways.
There was absolutely nowhere to run, nowhere to hide and the colossal column of ice and snow now gaining in mass and potency in leaps and bounds would eventually overtake and obliterate us both from the face of earth. Our mad cap run could only delay the inevitable by only few seconds at the most. The avalanche front hit me with an upswing draft of chilling wind. Zillions of ice particles filled up the air like confetti, I felt being lifted by the breeze, and the main barrage could not be more than 50 meters behind. My eyes were fixed on to the black shape ahead. Suddenly in front of my incredulous eyes, the dog disappeared as if eaten up by the snow itself. My amazement was such that if it were possible for me to stop then I would but my momentum simply carried me forward and downward with my limbs completely out of control. Falling and tumbling when I reached the precise spot where my friend had disappeared a moment ago I found a tiny gap in the snow, a small black perforation in the uninterrupted white. I dived in like a rugby champion and even before my legs had followed my body within, the huge avalanche overtook me and rushed on in its path of destruction.
It was a tiny cave, barely able to take in the two of us. It narrowed towards the inner wall and as I hugged my friend the thunderous noise and debris above shook the entire mountain like dry grass. Snow blocks poured in through the gap and soon we plunged into complete darkness as our exit was completely choked. After what seemed eternity the mountain stopped rumbling and a deathly calm descended over the place. Breathing was difficult as we consumed the precious air slowly but surely. I tried to dig out through the ice but it was hard and impenetrable like tempered steel. Then I noticed my ice axe protruding out of the snow. I had no recollection of having it with me. I started hacking with the axe as the dog started digging with its paws.
After about an hour we emerged out of our chamber and surveyed the devastation below. There was no trace of my tent or any of my belongings. After three long and desperate days I reached civilization barely able to walk due to starvation induced exhaustion. The dog remained by my side every step of the way, but as I turned around, near the road, he was nowhere to be seen. I called out, beckoned him, but the woods had swallowed him as silently as he had emerged from them at the beginning. Only when I sat at a tea stall that night, gorging on rice and curry, did I wonder how the dog knew where the cave lay buried under the snow.
Our second meeting occurred four years later when I walked alone on a forlorn trail in North Sikkim. As soon as I had rounded a bend that took me away from the last human post, I found the dog sitting astride a boulder, wagging his tail and looking straight at me. He seemed to be waiting for me. I was surprised since he looked so similar to my friend in Beas Valley. Within five minutes of patting his back I knew it was him. He hadn’t changed even a bit. That expedition took me across some remote passes and glaciers and forgotten trails. The dog stayed by my side all through and as promised I never took his photograph. Once again as I sighted civilization the dog disappeared from my side. I found it strangely comforting. It was beyond explanation as to how he could travel from one corner of the Himalaya to another. But I felt that as long as he was with me, I would stay safe.
The third meeting confirmed that he would only come when I walked alone and away from other human eyes and when the terrain was full of danger. I was en route to Tso Moriri Lake from Spiti across the difficult Rubarung La and intended to climb a peak in between. Within an hour of leaving the last village, the now familiar patter of feet reached my ears. He stayed with me, once again and helped me ford the deep gorges countless times. Despite the intervening nine years he looked as fit and sprightly as ever. He seemed ageless and his coat shone brilliantly as ever.
Cut to the year 1997. I had just climbed a superlative peak in Zanskar and had exited the valley alone across the high Kang La pass that was still largely unknown. Even today this pass is not widely known among the climbers and Indian trekkers. As I crossed the pass on a bright afternoon and glissaded on to the other side, entering the Miyar Valley of Himachal, I suddenly knew that I would meet my friend. And there he was, atop a large glacier table, wagging his tail as before with an expression as close to a smile as a dog is capable of.
I was suddenly filled up with immense joy and realized how much I missed being with him. I hugged him long and told him stories over food. He nodded his head and whined at opportune moments just like another human being who could follow my stories. When I told him about my disastrous fall in one of the mountains he even gave me a chiding look as if to say, I know you are an idiot but do you have to prove it still! Over the next four days we passed through the glaciers and moraines and the flower decked grassy meadows like two long lost friends. We chattered unceasingly, both in silence and in words. I chased him across the glades and he located fresh water sources. As soon as I sited the first shepherds and his flock on the horizon I knew that it was time for my friend to depart. I kept a vigil to see when and how would he go. It had always remained a mystery. We walked the final miles across a flat and barren land with no trees or bushes anywhere. I kept staring at him, literally walking backwards as we crept nearer to the shepherd’s hut. He stared back mockingly as if he understood my intention and knew that his secret would not be divulged. Suddenly I tumbled and as I spun around to break my fall, my eyes left him for less than half a minute. When I looked back, he had gone. Simply vanished into thin air. I was not hallucinating I am sure.
I had to wait for another seven years before I met my friend again in 2004 on Everest. The base camp area buzzed with hundreds of people and tents of all colors and size. I least expected to see him in that civilized bedlam. I was leading a large team of 14 members and 10 support staff. One day, I climbed up on the eastern ridge above our tents where no one went, to get a different angle of Everest. As I ascended the slippery slope with my camera, Everest too rose like an apparition. Right on top of the ridge I placed my camera on a boulder to take a slow shot. Just as I was about to press the shutter, I was startled by the low growl, which by now I could distinguish even in my sleep. My friend lay curled behind the boulder. He stood up and came up to me rubbing his nose as always against my knee. He appeared none the worse for his age. Our association itself ranged over 21 years now. Why are you here, I asked him. By then it had ceased to amaze me that he could travel across the Himalaya at will and the valleys from one end to another. Where did he come from, who was he, how did he know where to find me.
He stared back blankly as if trying to convey something but unable to decide. He circled me couple of times and scratched the ground repeatedly. I looked at him with full concentration and tried to understand his gestures and then it hit me as he scratched more lines and circles on the ground. It seemed uncannily similar to an ancient method of Tibetan of divination where the oracle drew lines and circles on the ground and predicted the future. I am a man of science and I do not believe what my eyes might witness, but so high up into the thin air, mind does strange things. I felt as if he was trying to warn me of something. After few more minutes of incomprehensibility, he finally gave up. He came up to me, sniffed my face and licked my hands and with one parting shot of melancholy jumped off onto the other side.
In the days to come we climbed Everest in a spectacular manner and on my way down I nearly died several times. The concluding part of my Everest expedition was littered with bodies of friends and it is only a miracle that I did not join them on Everest.
I never saw my dog again. Earlier this month when I had gone up for a short but dangerous climb on my own, I half expected to see him again; but he did not make appearance. I have no idea where he had come from or where did he go. I don’t know if he is alive. I am not even sure if he was merely a dog or something else. He did not even have a name; I never got down to it. Our world is full of strange and unsolved mysteries and there is much more to it than can be explained by rational thoughts. Though I know nothing about him, I know for sure that he had saved my life on many occasions and had been my companion every time I strode alone on dangerous path.
Today I would prefer to call him my Guardian Angel.