Monday, July 4, 2011

Tango at Toral - Part 2

Further on the ground keeps getting steeper and with the fresh rain pattering on our head, slippery as well. Through the dense mist comes the bark of typical shepherd dogs though we don’t see anything. Then I start smelling goats and lambs and then suddenly a large rocky slab rears out of the mist like a serpent’s hood. Few odd goats stand atop the slab with a pair of black dogs besides who bark at us from above. For me any wild animal’s roar is a welcoming signal and I coo at the dogs that calm down immediately. No animal ever attacks out of spite or unprovoked anger like human. And if they smell no fear and are not scared of being attacked or hungry then they are gentle and only curious. Around the slab we find another cave with a couple inside. They invite us for tea and roti. We rest for a while and then again take to our trail that I cannot see yet.

We enter a boulder field and start hopping from one massive boulder to another. Subhash easily outpaces and outruns me with his inherent sense of balance and knowledge of the area. I follow cautiously as my heavy hiking boots slip on the wet rock. Any fall will cause serious injuries and I have a 20 kg backpack. Few places I prefer to sit and slide across, causing damage to my hiking trousers, which is brand new and I wonder what if it rips or gives way, I carry no spare. The boulder field seems endless. Finally we emerge with minor bruises and cuts and get on to another grassy slope where the steepness makes us clutch at the grass to keep our balance. The wet ground offer little purchase and I scramble after my companion who is panting too. I spy another group of sheep and lambs and few dogs wagging their tails. They don’t bark at us, probably they know that we come in peace. And soon we reach the grazing pastures of Ghoontu.

Ghoontu is less of a shepherd’s dwelling point or grazing ground and more of a resting point for his onward journeys. No one halts here for more than a day at the most. This area, as with the rest of the region, has a local deity who protects all those who pass through. There are strict rituals to follow. Within the area one cannot wear any footwear; one cannot answer nature’s call, drink or indulge in any profanity. Smoking hookah is permitted though bidi isn’t. We find three shepherds smoking hookah and warming themselves by a fire on a large round stone. They invite us for tea. The dogs follow at our footsteps. We first take off our shoes and walk to the edge of the slope where on a rock stays Hindi Mata (Goddess Hindi) the local deity and offer our prayers to her. Then apply the red teeka on our foreheads.

We return to the shepherds and sip tea and eat our rotis that the old man had packed for us in the morning. The sun struggles to emerge out of the clouds, the rain slows down and the mists keep swirling like magic smoke around us. The shepherds express their disbelief and surprise that I am here and my objective is the Toral-Talang Ridge. They caution me that Talang right now is out of question as it has too much snow and ice and the slopes are very steep and dangerous. They advise that I should do it much later. I listen and nod but keep my options open. I am not yet at the snow line and I will decide later. Subhash too agrees with others. After a while we take leave of our friends, of whom I may never see again, and we push off towards the slope that seems to disappear into the sky. Immediately after Ghoontu we get right in the midst of a boulder labyrinth, where we hop, skip and squeeze through rocks of all shapes and sizes. The gradient is suddenly more than 70 degree. At places I have to clutch on the mud and rock to pull myself up to the next ledge. My back pack impedes my passage at several places. At one point a rock protrusion hits my sack ferociously almost throwing me out of the trail into the oblivion; but I save myself at the nick by breaking my knee against the soft muddy slope.

Then we reach a tiny ledge with a stream flowing nearby where I drink to my heart’s fill. Immediately thereafter we climb down a bit to cross a frozen stream. As I walk on the hard ice I can feel the entire ice slab vibrate due to the rushing water below. And then we reach the bottom of what’s locally called the ‘Bharam Nullah’ or the ‘Wonder Stream’. I look up craning and creaking my neck but my sight soon gets lost into the mist that completely obliterates all features of the nullah. Subhash explains that the next 200 m of the climb through this nullah is the toughest part of the trail to Toral Pass. One cannot do it before when it is full of ice and one can’t climb it either in the rain as it becomes a wild waterfall. We are in luck, only minor trickles of water mar our way. I can only see a continuous wall of jumbled rocks covered in green moss and dry twigs and grass that just rise up into the azure. It is steep for sure and as I can see we would have to resort to four-point climbing for substantial amount of the passage. I tighten my straps, get the backpack snug on my spine and step off horizontal ground.

Few minutes later I stop to catch my breath. It is almost like climbing a frozen waterfall in the winters using my ice tools, the difference being that here I am using my four limbs on the rocks that are as steep and as tottering and slippery and smooth as ice. It’s a narrow nullah with rising walls on either side. If one falls one will fall straight down to the bottom of the abyss; which is the only solace. One could die here by falling but one wouldn’t get lost for sure. Subhash follows me from little below. His feet are totally steady and stable on the incline. He is bent double as I am to keep our center of gravity into the slope. I grip another rock and pull myself up. I am using mantling technique mostly, even chimney at places and enjoy the exercise that keeps me sweating in the cold chill. If it was sunny it would now be too hot. We maintain a steady pace and are at the top in less than half an hour. We rest for a while on a tiny ledge above. Subhash smokes his bidi and looks contemplatively into the clouds that are now beneath our feet.

I am dressed only in my T shirt and enjoy the cool chilly breeze rushing from the snows above while Subhash dressed in his woolen jumpers and full sleeve shirt complains of cold. He says he wants to borrow an additional blanket from a friend who must be somewhere in the vicinity. I look around the place and can’t see anything other than endless slopes, snow line above, the clouds, wild flowers and the dancing mist. I also see a faint trail through the grass now since we are much above the forest and tree line. I see goat droppings and know that we must follow the trail. But Subhash soon leaves it and goes along the slope rather than climbing it, on a traverse through very steep slippery grass. He is literally sprinting and I follow him as quickly as I can.

That is the only way one can traverse on really steep and slippery slopes. If you go slow than you would lose balance and fall off due to gravity. The trick is to leave the ground before you start falling and just keep doing that till you really want to stop and when you stop you must clutch the slope with all fours, even using your body surface at times to grasp whatever you can. It’s simple physics, increase your body surface area to get maximum friction and therefore stop from falling and toppling over. I always enjoy such traverses where there’s no time for me to think or contemplate the consequences if I fall. The action and the sheer feeling of literally hanging on the edge keeps me so excited and enthralled that the consequences of such actions don’t even enter my domain at the time. Though in reflection, as I do now, I often think if we (people like me) are completely out of our minds! In an arena where nothing, absolutely nothing is under our control that is external, why do we repeatedly throw everything away into one step, into one senseless act of ours, which if we succeed means nothing and in which if we fail we stand to lose everything.

We traverse in our insane rush from one ridge to another, without any significant gain in altitude. There’s no trail and I only see the clouds below to my right and hear the deafening noise of waterfalls and rushing gorge far beneath clouds, where I would end up if I miss my steps or falter even a bit. Subhash is too far ahead to render any help at all. And then I stop amazed on my track as I climb over a rock. Right in front up and down and across, all the slopes are covered with an uninterrupted carpet of vermillion, purple and yellow.

We are well above the tree line and over the last few hours all I had seen was rocky slopes with tiny grasses as it happens at altitudes beyond 11,000 ft. Everything had been submerged into the clouds and mist and there were only shades of pale green, brown or monochrome. The sudden burst of color vivid and sparkling dazzles my eyes. Millions of flowers sprouted like magic across the mountains as far as I could see. Did I just step into a wonderland of the shepherds! I had never seen such a vista in these mountain ranges before. We were barely a hundred meter below permanent snow line. The breeze picks up and the flowers dance along with my heart to the tune of some halcyon melody. I remember Wordsworth’s ‘dancing with the daffodils’. I have no idea what these flowers are called and I bend down to smell their heady fragrance and take close up pictures. Soon I am intoxicated and experience the happiness of pure joy when the reason for being happy is happiness itself. Such joy needs no explanation or raison d’être. I sit on the slope and brush my fingers carefully across the purple flowers, spy the lady bugs and bees buzzing around within them, then I scoop my palm through the yellow and the vermillion and the pink and lilac and shut my eyes in complete bliss. Time stands still and I am transported into another world.

Through my dreams I hear my friend call out my name. I open my eyes to see him far and little above the flower decked slope. Reluctantly I stand up and walk towards the apparition that is my friend. When I reach the spot where he had been I see nothing and no one around. The slope is around 50 degree and to the front I can see a frozen gully and the big stream further to my right and far below. All I see around are large rocks and protruding slabs but no sign of any living or dead. I shout out my friend’s name and prompt comes the reply right beneath me and I almost jump out of my skin. I look down but there’s nothing but never-ending slope except one slab of rock and another large boulder stuck to the slope defying all forms of gravity.

I shout again and the response comes again seemingly out of the slope underneath my feet. It seems my friend has been swallowed by the ground. I walk down and around the slab and discover a narrow fissure that is formed beneath the slab into which my friend is squeezed in with another fellow. It’s a narrow cave with the slab forming the roof. I could see it only from the front and below. From the top it is impossible to detect that the slab could be concealing a cave underneath.

The tiny cave is full of goodies and a slow fire is on and looks very inviting. Seems to be our lunch spot. Subhash introduces me to his friend. I take one half of the cave, sitting on my haunches as it doesn’t have enough head space and take off my boots. My feet are swollen and need to be aired. While rice is cooking we partake tea and snacks. I stare out at the misty slopes and at our host and wonder how he would be surviving here for several months. The cave is literally squeezed into the slope. You actually step out on the slope and you could slip and fall if you aren’t careful. The shepherd mentions that he gets his water from a stream far below that takes him an hour of climbing down and back up again and he has to get his stock of dry woods from the forests below Ghoontu, which is nearly three hours away. I feel guilty as we consume his precious water and wood. He tells us stories of his world and his travels across the mountains, his childhood and his family from whom he has to stay away for more than half the year. After lunch, Subhash borrows a blanket and we resume our journey up.

All along the journey and even now as we crash into the grass heedless, I have realized that just like me Subhash loves to lose trail and often prefers the ‘short cut’ approach like I do. At times when I can see a perfectly logical straightforward track, Subhash would plunge into wilderness and then soon would wonder where we need to go. Getting lost is something I often do deliberately and enjoy since only then do we discover and explore. If we continue walking on known trails we would never discover anything new.

Rain has stopped now giving way to dense thick mist and I can barely see more than few feet around. I ask Subhash to stay close else he would be swallowed up into the mist. After an hour of wild goose chase (seems like that to me) we come across the trail that we should have been on if we hadn’t gone astray to the cave to borrow the blanket. The trail is steep, unstable, and very exposed. Lose rocks, wet mud, steep with sharp open drops on either sides. My knees are hurting by now and I slow down but determined not to stop. We reach another cave that is called ‘Lahesh’ as Subhash explained. We find dry grass in the cave but it is devoid of anything else. The trail thereafter continues climbing through a rock face till we reach a crack into the rock, where, as Subhash relates, once upon a time a huge goat had got caught around its horns, it was so fat. I stand into the crack and with outstretched arms can barely touch the edges and wonder if a goat can ever be that fat or broad!

Our journey continues through rock slabs where we could step only into the tiniest of fissures to walk and balance. With Subhash’s plastic shoes it’s easy but my broad, wide and heavy hiking boot toes are too thick to get into the thin cracks. And they are wet on top of that. With utmost caution and at places by hanging on to the rock slabs with my fingers I get across, my feet literally suspended atop empty air. At one point I slip and tumble, and only my right palm is locked into a crack that holds my fall. Subhash screams in fright, I smile in delight and wonder what the hell am I up to! And then our trail disappears into a continuous series of ice fields that slopes into angles steeper than 70 degrees.

Ice is my world indeed and I smile like an excited kid. Subhash cautions me to follow slowly and then he crosses the slippery ice with his woolen shoes that prevents sliding. I literally sprint across the slopes without stopping anywhere in between. The ice is hard and my hiking boots have Vibram sole so I throw caution to wind and simply enjoy the feeling of ice beneath my feet. They have been my lifelong friends and I know them as well as I know my own self. As I cross Subhash on the other side, he gives me a sad look and nods his head in a highly distressed manner. We repeat our routine across all the ice fields that follow. After the last one, from where we won’t get any water, I fill up my water bottle. We then come on a tiny narrow ledge that is our path across and around the slope.

Around the bend the trail again rises up straight into the sky but my friend leads me on a traverse and soon we arrive at an abandoned and derelict shepherd’s cave that is full of grass and rock and moss due to disuse. One of his friends had died here several years ago, Subhash reveals, who had fallen ill and couldn’t be evacuated from this place. We sit there for a while and then climb back up again on the trail and to a tiny flattish patch of grass covered with tawny flowers.

The sun had set a while ago, the sky had cleared and in the twilight glow the place looks straight out of a fairy land. Sheer drops on three sides, the tiny grass patch and the yellow carpet of flowers; while above us spread all across were only rocks and nestled within them somewhere was my Toral Pass. We were at 4200 m high above snow line. The elegant peak to my west, the ‘Matterhorn’ towers above everything else like a giant sentinel guarding the domain of Toral God. We pitch the tent on the grass aligned with the flowers. Subhash fetches water from a frozen stream nearby. I get the gas and cooker going. Soon enough the cooker blows its whistle (the sweetest sound in the mountains when you are hungry) and we have a piping hot meal waiting. I add a dash of butter and pickle to my helping and start gulping.

While Subhash is coiled inside with blankets around him, I sit on a rock outside watching the clouds and the mountains and the rainbow playing hide and seek. Far to my south I can see the distant plains of Punjab where thunder and lightning choreograph a psychedelic display of colors. I trace the contour of the hills and try to chalk the route that we have taken over the past two days to reach where we are tonight. I feel in a completely different world. No one is above us and there’s no one else in sight. Post dinner my friend has gone silent and has slept off, while I can’t get inside. The sky sparkles like diamond with million stars and the breeze plays through the flowers around me, I hear the distant waterfalls and streams, and high above me the clouds dance with the breeze. Even when the mountains are immersed into darkness I continue staring at the pale sky and count the stars for long. For me time stands still and I don’t wish to go anywhere at all. Slowly the cold chill and the ice begins to creep inside my down jacket and reluctantly I enter the tent and wrap myself within the sleeping bag.

I wake up at 4 am into the darkness and feel our tent shaking in an impending storm. I hear the crackle of thunder and static nearby. Subhash is awake too but he remains inside while I step out into a freezing gale. We are right in the middle of a mountain storm. I can only see the summit of ‘Matterhorn’, everything else is covered in thick black clouds. Our intended path up above is totally invisible. Our tent flaps and guy ropes are singing and flying wildly. We have barely an hour before daybreak and this isn’t a good sign at all. If the weather packs up, like it is, then we must descend to safer altitudes and with that would go my chances of crossing Toral Ridge. Subhash pokes his head out and immediately withdraws inside. Very bad weather he opines, as if I haven’t noticed. Time isn’t on my side and I can’t afford to waste even a day so I stare upwards into the clouds where I guess Toral would be and start a close conversation with the gods, with Lord Shiva who is my main deity and savior in the mountains. I pray hard and sincerely never doubting for a moment that these gods don’t exist. I have seen far too many things in the mountains to be a complete believer when I am up there.

At 4.40 am a very strong wind suddenly sprang up from above and rushed down the slopes driving all the dark clouds and mists away from us. In less than five minutes the horizons cleared in our intended direction and I could see the endless chain of the ridge and half a dozen peaks above that. I cry out in joy, pull out my friend and we quickly shoulder our gear and packs. We decide to leave the tent as we would be returning the same way. Sharp at 5 am we strike off. From the very first step it’s almost like climbing a straight ladder. We climb a bit and then come up against a dihedral. It’s a sheer tottering column of rocks at almost right angles to each other and right at the junction of the two columns, a pile of lose slab stones have been stacked. As I look up into the sky and at the tower above I name it the ‘stairway to heaven’.

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