Drop the name ‘Sorang Valley’ amidst a gathering of even the most seasoned Himalayan climbers and chances are they would find it hard to place. Such are the places that attract me most. Located north of the Sutluj River in the Kinnaur Valley of Himachal, Sorang valley does not have any high peaks but there are many untrodden trails criss-crossing the thick forests. I had just reached the Parvati Valley from Spiti and now planned to exit through the rarely visited Kamba Khango Pass that would lead me into the heart of the Sorang Valley. I had contour maps of the area, few days ration and confident that I would find my way on to the other side to the small shepherd settlement of Sorang Dogri in two days. From there I would ascend to the tiny hamlet of Nyugalsari and find a bus to take me to Shimla.
From Kamba Khango Pass the trail disappeared and all I had to do was to lose height through the thick forest of pine. It was a full moon night in early April with the ground sheathed in heavy snow. My gaiter-laced boots sank till my calf. Ideally I should have moved only in the morning, lost as I was, but the night sparkled brilliantly with the stars and the moon gliding effortlessly across the sky. It was simply too beautiful for me to stay inside a tent. I could camp anywhere I wanted, whenever I got tired, if at all. I was alone and could pretty much walk through the night if I so wished.
The silvery moon and its light, whatever managed to filter through the foliage overhead painted the snow covered ground in amazing mosaic of baroque. A soft breeze played through the leaves as they rustled like snakes gliding across dry grass. I simply had to maintain a SW bearing and sooner or later I would clear the forest and sight the settlement. I walked unconcerned. Even whistled with the breeze and looked up whenever a clearing allowed the moon to bless me with its full mirth. At that moment I did not have a single care in the world and I did not wish to be anywhere else but exactly where I was. Content is a man who gets exactly what he wants and that night I was supremely content.
With countless hours spent in the wildest of places; I have naturally developed an acute sense of sensing things without engaging any of my normal senses. I think it is called, ‘sixth sense’. It warns me well in time and may be this is what has kept me alive through all perils. Without any foreboding, suddenly my hair stood up on their own. I felt a current pass through my body, and then my nose felt it too. A wild smell of savage animals permeated the air. My ears picked up the noise next. Several feet, soft and barely audible followed me from behind. I was not scared, have never been of any wild animals.
Normally a wild animal does not attack or kill without provocation or without being attacked first for self-preservation. They do not kill if not hungry and they only attack if they smell fear. A wild animal knows if the human is scared then he might attack to ward him off. But if you are not scared and you are friendly, genuinely from deep within, then chances are they won’t attack even if hungry. I am also a firm believer in my destiny and I know that if I am destined to die at a moment then I would, no matter what, and if my time was not yet up then I wouldn’t, even if I entered the den of a dozen hungry lions. I stopped walking and whistling and looked back slowly, so as not to startle whatever was behind.
Around ten meters from where I was a pack of wolves cordoned off my rear. They stood now expectantly, tongues hanging out and eyes burning like embers in the dark. They remained silent though the air buzzed with their thoughts. They were hungry and I was a prey. Though I couldn’t see all of them I guessed from the eyes I could make out that they numbered around 20. A wolf can sprint easily at 60 kmph and had teeth sharp enough to tear me to pieces in minutes. I had nothing to defend myself except the tiny Swiss knife in my pocket. I felt unusually calm. They did not appear aggressive or unduly hostile. It was a situation that was completely beyond my control. There was absolutely nothing I could do to change the equation. I was at their complete mercy. If the wolves decided to pounce on me right then, then they can and there was nothing to prevent it. I did not pray to my friend Shiva. I just knew that nothing would happen to me. I must walk and that’s what I did. I turned away again towards where I was headed and started walking. Sure enough, the 40 pair of feet followed.
I did not increase speed or break my steps even once. None of them closed the gap though they could have at any instant. We maintained our respective distance. The minutes and hours rolled on as did the moon keeping its vigil in the night sky. I remained acutely aware of my pursuers but totally unafraid and even unconcerned perhaps. Their silent feet pattering softly on the snow simply assumed another echo of the silent night. But my curiosity grew. When would they attack, why did they wait? They must know by now that I was alone and could not defend myself in any way. Wild animals know such things instinctively. Walking thus I suddenly sighted the end of the pine forest. Another fifty meters perhaps and I would exit the forest into a wide open field, flat pasture land where there were no shades and nothing at all to hide behind. And I realized to my delight that my camping ground lay on the other edge of this pasture land.
I came out of the forest and stepped onto the smooth unbroken sheet of white on the pasture ground. The moon burst free with utmost glee, dazzling my eyes now with its full brilliance. My entire body seemed to be glimmering in the silvery streak. It was beautiful beyond belief. I counted exactly a hundred pace and stopped, and turned around.
The wolf pack had stopped as before and now stood slightly closer forming a tight semi-circle, staring at me unblinkingly. The grey bodies now looked white and their eyes dimmed under the bright moon. They were beautiful. I had to solve the mystery. I lowered my back pack on the snow and dropped to my knees and looked back at them with open eyes, bidding them silently to come close. I figured that if they indeed would kill me now then it would certainly make a more interesting story: ‘Satya killed and eaten by a pack of wolves’ looked a more worthy epitaph than, ‘Satya went climbing and fell and died from some silly mountain.’ How many mountaineers can boast of being killed by wolves, none that I could recall at the moment.
The alpha male and female and another pair detached from the pack and came forward. I eyed their lop-sided gait breathlessly. Such amazing grace such perfection, I dared not breathe lest the trance broke. The four came right in front of me. Their mouths open and jowls bared with the polished teeth exposed. I extended both my arms loosely and let the fingers dangle inches from their nose. Their rugged breaths filled up the air and the wild smell drove into my inner soul. The red tongues dropped saliva around me and even on my hand. They pushed glistening nose and muzzle against my palm and stomach and circled around me several times. I did not break eye contact with the dominant pair. Their cold eyes bore into mine as I tried reading their minds. What are you thinking, tell me, I whispered. I spoke to them, remained still and offered whatever I had. They made unintelligible noises, whined and growled and after a while seemed to have satisfied their curiosity. The pack leader finally flicked its bristling tongue across the back of my right hand and turned back, followed by the other three. I stayed on my knees. They rejoined the pack. One by one they all turned back, towards the forest from where they had emerged.
Just before the forest ate them up, the leader turned around one last time and bore me with its burning eyes and then with a flick of its thick furry tale, he was gone. I remained immobile for how long I have no idea. Then I stood up and dusted the snow from my clothes. I shouldered my back pack and turned my back to the forest and to my friends and went down further in search of the new ones.
Post Script: The above episode happened in 1993 and I had all but forgotten about it, but only three days ago while I dined at a friend’s place it came back to me in a rush, triggered by something his nephew asked me that evening. I related the above story to his family. He insisted that I wrote a post about it. This is for you Raj… but for you and Ashwin’s question it would still be buried deep within the vaults of my forgotten memories. The picture is borrowed from a friend who breeds them in the Arctic