Sunday, August 16, 2009
Desperate in Dhauladhar
Ok, I will start with a disclaimer; it’s not required though, but I will still, just to be on the safe side. There are few things in my life that I will never repeat; may I repeat, never repeat unless under a direct threat to my life or a million dollar offer dangling like that proverbial carrot within my grasp(which might prompt me to consider, if not do it actually). Over the last 10 days or so, as some of you already know, I have been incommunicado out of choice as I had gone off again into the lofty Dhauladhar in Kangra. The adventure that ensued, and which I am about to relate (in two episodes), is one, a part of which I would not repeat. As a matter of fact now that I am back in the safety zone of civilization I am wondering how on Earth I did it even once! Here’s the story.
Any voyage can be made comfortable or otherwise by adding or subtracting the options available. For this particular adventure, I wished to make it improbably difficult by opting to be minimalistic. I had no choice in the matter though since I wished to go solo on a trail and to a mountain that no one seems to know. I realized that up there I would need not only my wits, humor, experience and resilience but also my technical ice gear and the tent (being in the middle of monsoon) and therefore the need for food and such luxuries could be done away with. On the day of departure from Delhi, my fully packed 75 ltrs. Millet rucksack weighed 23 kg. It contained primarily my ice axe, crampons, ice screw, few crabs and slings, tent, spare clothing, down jacket, climbing gloves, two gas canisters and burner, one water bottle, headlamp, ground sheet, gore tex jacket and pant, 10 teabags, and four packets of Tiger glucose biscuit for emergency. I did not carry the sleeping bag or any other food at all. The mountain jungles were full of herbs and roots and edible plants and I intended to boil them for survival. I expected no shortage of water since there would be innumerable streams and waterfalls all along the way. In case I did not find any food then the four packets of Tiger glucose would have to suffice at the rate of half a packet per day (for 8 days on ground). I have survived on less before.
My target area was to the east of the popular Indrahar Pass (this pass is crossed by hundreds every year). In the continuing ridge from the Indrahar Pass, there lies several passes and peaks that no one goes to, or rarely and never in the monsoons. The two passes I wished to cross over were Sarhali Ka Pher (SKP) and Toral and climb Mun Peak in between or anything on the sharp ridge that fancied my taste. This area is the playground of the traditional Gaddis (the shepherds), who graze their flocks from end May to early October each year. Some of these shepherds did cross these two passes so it was imperative that I should meet some of them to understand the route. Since no trekkers or hikers or climbers ever visited the area there were no trails so to speak beyond a point. The jungles that covered every inch of the land were one of the thickest and wildlife infested in the entire range. My obstacles therefore included not only unknown mountains and the monsoon but also Himalayan black bear, wild boars and leopards. As I boarded the bus from ISBT, Delhi, I wondered aloud, ‘this would surely be an interesting trip.’
I got off the empty bus at Khaniyara and felt the shoulder straps of my rucksack dig deep into the flesh. I went to the only grocery store in sight and inquired about the route ahead. Predictably the owner expressed his surprise that I was headed that way in the middle of monsoon and without a companion or a local guide. From where I stood, around 500 m up and beyond everything lay encompassed in thick impenetrable cloud of dark proportion. ‘You want to go into that?’ The grocery chap nodded his head sadly. ‘Do you have a gun?’ I couldn’t hide my astonishment. ‘Gun! I didn’t know you need a gun to climb mountains, or is that how you do it here?’ ‘You will need it; there are hundreds of hungry bear up there right now.’ The old man nodded gravely once again. He seemed to be working out my obituary. I have never had such an ominous beginning in my life and did not wish to linger any longer than necessary. I bid him goodbye and took to the only tarred road that led towards the rising slopes. Few tiny drops pattered from heaven. Shortly a portly fellow, swinging his umbrella came whistling by. I directed my query to him. He stopped whistling and pointed up to the lower edge of a steep ridge to my right and asked me to follow it all the way up. When I asked him how I could find the beginning of the ridge to begin climbing, he answered, ‘You will, if you reach the top, but you won’t. Good luck.’ He hurried along leaving a wild laughter on his trail. Something should have warned me then, but at these precise moments, that ‘something’ usually hibernates; only to wake up later with the observation, ‘I had told you so’.
To hell with directions; I simply walked as the crow flies and found the beginning of the ridge besides a cascading waterfall of considerable girth. I filled up my water bottle and started climbing on a faint trail lined with flat rocks. Soon I passed a tiny village of three houses plastered precariously to the steep face. Why did they not succumb to gravity must remain a mystery to be solved later. For now I had an immense distance and height to gain. I had to cover nearly 16 km and gain 1300 meters to reach the night camping ground of Haudi. After the village the trail split into multiple paths going all over and through the forest. This is usual since villagers and their animals simply go wherever they feel like for wood, food and water. I just followed the one that climbed up and remained closest to the centre of the thin ridge, as the portly fellow had advised. In less than an hour, heavy downpour started. My body completely drenched from rain and my own sweat. The sack pulled me down as my legs and shoulders struggled to move up. The path was not only steep but extremely slippery with mud and slush sliding under me and the rocks provided no purchase to my trekking shoes. I had to stop often to reorient myself and keep climbing without any sense of direction at all. The jungle was far too thick and I could not see much besides the canopy on top and the heavy foliage around. There were no reference point for me and whatever little of old trail remained were fully overgrown with grass and dead leaves. Eventually I lost my way and followed a trail that seemed to have appeared from nowhere simply because it was there, though it did not climb, rather circled the mountain’s girth. My instincts told me that this trail would definitely lead me somewhere to someone who could show me the correct direction, since by now I was hopelessly lost. After an hour I reached a clearing and through the distant trees sighted a solitary hut made of stone and mud sandwiched between two waterfalls about a km away and few hundred meters below. I rushed on through the blinding downpour. The mammoth waterfall was in full spate and crossing it took some tricky steps and leaps, and finally I banged on the hut door.
The crinkly old man who responded seemed a direct descendent of Rip Van Winkle. Of the two, who was more surprised is hard to determine. I couldn’t imagine a more forlorn or forbidden location for a hut manned by a more uncommon occupant and the old man perhaps could not imagine a more uncanny visitor at this hour. Hearing my errand he slapped his forehead, ‘Oh my god!’ He offered me a cup of steaming tea as if it would be my last supper. ‘You are so lost, you are way off, and you are alone, have you lost your mind?’ Long time back, I assured him. Just tell me the way, ok. I pleaded. In whatever language and dialect he knew and I understood, he told me that I needed to go back nearly 3 km on the trail that I had been following and then climb straight up into the forest, though I wouldn’t see any trail. A fine direction that would be, I muttered, but I have been on worst ones. I thanked him for the tea and tightened my gore tex jacket and stood up under the thundering sky. ‘You can stay here, if you wish, it’s late now.’ The old man offered. ‘And you could have me for your supper, I suppose.’ I thought aloud and sped off from the apparition.
It was nearly 4 in the evening and the forest had started darkening well before the sun had set since the sun was completely obscured by the dark clouds, pelting rain and the heavy woods. Though I did not feel eerie in any way, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if a vampire or a ghoul had accosted me right then. Judging the distance to be correct I gaped up and found no gap in the wilderness for me to climb through. After some deep soul and forest searching I found some sort of clearing through the bushes and pulled myself up by grasping few ivy branches. Little later I nearly fell into a carefully covered animal trap. The pit was covered with dry woods and leaves and was about 5 feet deep with few needle tipped bamboo sticks at the bottom pointing up. I felt I was back in the Amazons pursued by the cannibals so many years ago. But out there I was with three friends, while here I was all by myself.
Around an hour of vertical bushwhacking led me to an opening and suddenly the rain stopped and the clouds parted for the sun to peek and wash me with a sudden warm glow. Seldom have I been so happy to see the orange globe in the sky. The altitude told me that I had nearly 300 meters more to go and I reoriented myself from the familiar Dhauladhar ridge that I could see now through the clouds. Soon I crossed the deserted stone huts of the Gaddis at Thatarna grazing meadow. It was nothing short of a miracle that I was on the right track. I reached a flat clearing land on the ridge just as the sun bid goodbye for the day. The portly man twirling umbrella had been hopelessly accurate. I was plumb on the centre of the ridge that he had told me to follow. Though it was a great camping location, there was no vegetation or water source anywhere nearby. But the day was over and I was tired so I pitched my tent and discovered that my water bottle held only a cup of water. Being only the first day, I could easily go without food, so I sipped one cup of water and went off to sleep. My parched throat and swollen tongue woke me up the next morning. I realized I had no water at all. I took out my spoon and scrapped off nearly two teaspoonful of dew from the tent roof and licked it dry and then broke camp.
I followed the ridge as if it was my lifeline and picked up the faint trail. Nearly half an hour later I stumbled across a stone and wood hut with cow dung littered all around. They were fresh hence the cowherd had to be close. I poked inside but found the hut deserted though a slow fire burned at the hearth and there were signs of recent occupation all around. I found a plastic bottle full of fresh water and drank to my fill. I continued as I had a tough day ahead. Finally I reached where the ridge dipped into a ‘U’ and from the other end it started climbing up towards my destination. Close to the dip another ramshackle hut of mud and stone cropped up. A young boy stood outside chewing grass. I asked him the way up to my next post and he simply showed me the slope opposite. For the love of me, I could not see any trail at all on the face. It was completely covered with deep grass and massive boulders and waterfalls all clinging desperately to the steep gradient. So I asked the silly question. He replied in the negative; there wasn’t or isn’t any trail, you just go up till the top; how; that was entirely my problem, and not his. Thereafter he went back to chewing the grass as if it was the last piece of morsel on earth. I felt like placing few well meaning thumps on his tiny bum. Cheeky fellow, I grumbled.
At the dip, much to my contrition, I lost nearly a hundred meter and when I started the climb, my altimeter read 2830 m and my night’s halt lay at 3750 m; a straight up of 900 m through one of the toughest patches of my life (I realized soon enough). To begin with, the boy had been accurate; there was no path at all, defined or non-defined. The shower stayed mild thankfully and I weaved my way through, above, and below the boulders like a spider and gasped and groped through the knee deep grass. Boulder hopping is something that I really love and enjoy but on such steep ground it was more like boulder leaping and one wrong step or slip of steps could hurtle me hundreds of meters in seconds and crush my bones to dust. With the rain gaining momentum, the probability of a slip seemed more a possibility than not. The rolling fog and mist added to the misery. I realized soon enough that on this trip, vision was something that I could not rely upon. For most of the way I had to be on my all fours or threes clinging to non-existent holds and tiniest of cracks for balance and survival. Cursing every blasphemy possibly prohibited by the Bible, when I had just convinced myself that it couldn’t get any worse, a hailstorm started and ice balls the size of paperweights hit my head with full fury. Great, I thought, now I could finally die in peace. Finding no shade at all, I plunged my ice-axe on the soft slippery ground and tied myself to it with a sling and then placed my sack on my head and bit into the ground as if I would not leave it ever. After nearly 20 minutes when the hailstorm stopped, returning to the rain as before, I could only wonder how I remained stuck to the face.
Finding the deep grass totally impervious to what lay on ground, I forced myself to go into a waterfall and started climbing by clutching on the stones through the stream. By the time I cleared three waterfalls and finally found a small flat patch of ground, my palms and hand were frozen stiff and biting sharply due to the pain. I had just done something that every mountaineering training manual forbid. I stood at 3440 meters with rain sweeping over me like a gigantic wave and my both hands numb and hypothermic, but all I could do was gape and smile and wonder. Red, violet and green flowers decked the flat patch with few stone blocks that Gaddis used to cook upon while at the further edge, the mist had lifted partially to expose a rock face with a dozen waterfall cascading down like the wild tress of an old woman. Suddenly I heard the unmistakable whistle of a Gaddi directing his sheep. It came from somewhere above me into the clouds. I waited for the rain to calm down and then whistled with all might. Few anxious seconds later the answering whistle flew back. Without any more ado, I walked into the clouds. Soon I found a thickly overgrown track, the flowers nearly reaching the top of my head.
Few minutes later a dog’s bark shredded the rain and soon enough a black bundle crashed into my legs with full excitement written on its lapping tongue. I hugged him as if he was my lost beloved from the past life. His owner, a typical Gaddi, chewing tobacco and his scythe braced on his shoulders, sat atop a rock few meters above and watched me with amused eyes. I reached him in few easy strides. After exchanging pleasantries, Buddhi Singh, directed me towards his ‘dera’ (refuge, usually a natural cave) and told me that I must stay with them tonight. He would join later as his flock was still spread all over the mountain, though I would find his uncle at the dera. He pointed at a boulder around 100 m from us and told me to traverse from there to the neighboring ridge and I will find the trail to the cave. He left and climbed on. From the boulder the traverse was breathtaking and heart-stopping for obvious reasons.
I sighted the cave from a considerable distance but could not see any signs of life. May be the uncle was out too with his flock of goats. I had to cross two more waterfalls and rock beds before nearing the cave. Suddenly two black dogs and a brown Shepherd dog appeared from nowhere and started barking their heads off. I spoke to them and after having pacified the brutes; I dropped my sack next to the cave and stepped under the rock roof. It was less of a cave rather a bowl carved off from the steep mountain face with a widening opening. If it rained or a storm hit us then it would not provide any shelter at all. An hour later Buddhi Singh and his uncle returned. I learned that the Shepherd dog, who was now my buddy, was called Dobu. He wore a leopard preventive spiked collar around his neck therefore I could not hug him, and they told me that if anything went missing from the cave, Dobu’s voracious appetite could be weighed with the responsibility. Dobu’s innocent eyes told me another story. He was too cute and lovable to hurt even a fly. We had a fun filled evening with Buddhi Singh and his uncle preparing flat bread and goat’s milk curry accompanied by tales of their lives. They both categorically forbade me to continue further. I for one could see no trail up. All around were only rock and ice faces. They assured me that the trail to the pass and the mountain top was unusually complex and I would never find my way up and at this time no one ever went that way. They were here since before the rains to graze their flock and would only go down after the monsoon. They were surprised that I had even reached this place to begin with.
When I bid them goodbye the next morning, Buddhi Singh’s uncle remarked, ‘Do come down whenever you want, you can always return next year before the rains.’ I assured him that I had no desire to die in these mountains either. He did his morning worship of Lord Shiva and placed a big black mark on my forehead. The day seemed providential, the rain had paused and the sun shone through the thin clouds. Incidentally, one of the black dogs decided to accompany me. He followed me from a safe distance. I lost the trail right at the beginning, but got back to the faint track and soon entered a heavily screed slope and steep rock faces with water streams and ice patches scattered intermittently. The climb, though steep and objectively dangerous, did not cause much concern to me or to my companion. The gradient even gentled out a bit and I could boulder hop for all I was worth. The dog of course outwitted and outmaneuvered me at every corner. Often he would hop off ahead of me and then perch himself like a judge on a higher boulder and watch how I would cover the distance. It was kind of a game. I enjoyed the taxing climb and the gentle breeze and the glowing sun. We gained height steadily. Finally I exited the boulder field and hit the bottom of the ice face. At this point the dog decided to return and he lopped away into the clouds that had by now started swirling from below. Nearly 300 meters of hard ice column rose up before me like a children’s slide. There was a sizeable boulder ridden field next to it, which I supposed the Gaddis used to climb to the pass, but for me ice was the obvious choice. I clamped on my crampons and got the ice axe in my right hand and stepped into the familiar zone of hard ice.
The gradient averaged around 60 degree and not unusually hard. By now I was above 4000 m and the thin air combined with the heavy pack made my climb slow and laborious. I stopped every hundred step to breath and rest. As I climbed up, the mountain face fell off all around in a white sheath while the clouds rolled on and around mimicking the play of a Japanese fan. I guessed I was around 50 m from the top when the unthinkable happened. I lifted my left leg to push the crampon into the ice when I noticed that the crampon had come free from my boot and as I brought my leg forward, the crampon simply tipped off and disappeared from sight in seconds. I had just lost one of my three anchor points on hard vertical ice. My mind seemed uncommonly calm considering the predicament that it found itself in for the present. If at that moment I was on a really big, high mountain and a long ice face then it would have been the last act of my life. But I was not. I did not bother with any ice screws or slings. Through the fading strength in my arms, I cut steps carefully in the ice for the left boot and hop-climbed the rest of the way up. When I finally got out of the ice, my heart and chest were heaving like a steam engine not only with the strain but also with the proximity to death I had just traversed. It was an amazingly exhilarating moment.
Again a huge field of tottering boulders greeted me below the ridge where I intended to camp for the night. I found a narrow ledge next to an ice tongue and placed my tent on hard rock with no anchor at all as the night seemed calmly disposed. At around 4400 meters I was far above any vegetation so I munched the sole flat-bread that Buddhi Singh had given me and a half packet of the Tiger glucose. The ice tongue offered a trickle of drops from one of its extremities and I put my bowl beneath it, which it took nearly an hour to fill up with blackened ice cold water. Through the fading lights I surveyed the ground ahead and above. It was one of the most jagged and tottering mass of rock and ice I had ever seen in these ranges. Buddhi Singh had been right, I could see absolutely no way through them. A glowing moon rose spilling its light and mirth on all mortals below. I was far above everything within sight and definitely all by myself. It was cold and the light breeze cut deep into my skin. I went inside to find the opaque luminescence of the moon permeating the tent fabric throwing ghostly shadows around. Placed right beneath a steep rock face with loose slab rocks above, my tent could be crushed any moment if one of the rocks fell but I found the location strangely comforting and calming. I hummed some of my favorite songs and soon snoozed off.
The next morning rose in a palpable gloom with dark ominous clouds gathered all around my tent. I could feel the electric buzz in the air. Thunder and lightning could start any moment. Over the next two hours I literally ran and climbed up and down like a crazy monkey and almost at the verge of giving up, found the way to the top. I had never seen a more complicated climb in my life. I raced to the top of the mountain and found a cairn adorned with few rusty tridents. Rain had already started and I knew the descent would be very dangerous. I paid my obeisance to the mountain deity and scrambled down to my tent. By the time I packed up and started off, the sky was opening up with brilliant flashes of lightning and thunder. I had no choice but to keep my ice axe inside my sack. In my hand it would be a conductor for the lightning.
To down-climb a steep ice wall ideally needs a pair of ice axe and a pair of crampons. I had only one crampon and my walking poles. Practically I had only one anchor point out of the required four. Lightning and rain struck all around as I gingerly climbed down, one slow step at a time. I simply could not slip and fall. Sparks flew off the neighboring rock faces as boulders were set free by the thunder that crashed down to the bottom. The world was virtually falling apart around me and I was caught dead in the centre of the pandemonium. I fully realized that right at the moment I had even less power than a fly to do anything to alter the situation and I was at the total and complete mercy of Mother Nature. No morbid thoughts stirred my mind and I focused fully on doing what I was destined to.
One – two, one – two, I kept counting with each breath and kicked as hard as I could into the ice, slowly and surely as I lost height with each. And then, the inevitable happened. My left un-cramponed leg found hard bulletproof ice and found no purchase and I fell. As my body cart-wheeled, peeling off the face and begin to accelerate, the last thought that entered my numb brain was that no one would ever find my body. With every iota of strength left in my body I plunged my right leg into the ice as hard and far as I could and dug my nails into the face as well. Both my walking poles broke with the impact and my nails almost uprooted, but my body slowed down in its slide and after about 10 – 15 meters I stopped falling. By now I was so intense and intent on simply staying alive that the world around me had stopped moving and no sound existed save the booming beat of my heart. All my senses were gone. I did not feel the cold, or the ice that now covered me from head to toe, or the pain that shot through my body or the heavy snow that showered from above. My nose was stuck to the ice as was every inch of my body. I dared not move lest the slide started again. I realized that climbing down the ice face would be suicidal and looked for an alternative. My salvation lay around 30 meters to my left. A thin line of boulders, seemingly stuck to the ice face led nearly all the way down to the flattish ice bed below. My dilemma though at the moment was how to surmount those 30 meters. Even as I write this post, of an event that happened only few days ago and is fresh in my memory, I have absolutely no idea how I did what I did. I must have invented a new technique that day on ice traversing. I reached the line of boulders.
Miraculously I found my lost crampon at the bottom. Through the blinding blizzard and the raging storm I took another three hours to reach the shelter of Buddhi Singh’s cave. They were as glad as I to see me alive. They insisted that I stayed the night with them and then move down in the morning. But my time was running out and I intended going down the same day. Though I knew that I could only descend if and when the rain stopped. They lit a fire and offered me flat bread and milk that I gulped down like a hungry wolf. By now the wind had changed direction and it drove the rain right onto us. So we promptly covered ourselves up with one ‘pattu’ (handmade shawl made of lamb wool that is very warm and nearly waterproof) each and curled ourselves into balls. Buddhi Singh thoughtfully tuned his radio to FM Lahore station and soon haunting gazhals of Begum Akhtar accompanied the staccato of the rain. I would never forget that ambience. The rain finally stopped around 3 p.m. It was decidedly late for me to start but I had made up my mind. I intended to seek shelter at the cowherd’s hut that I had seen while coming up and I had to reach it before night fell. (Eventually I did reach the hut and met a remarkable man named Kasoori Lal, the cowherd. I will tell about him in my next post).
I hurried along the trail that I had come up on and soon enough the sky opened up and it started raining. I could have easily returned to Buddhi Singh’s cave but I was knowingly being obstinate beyond reason. I had no idea why I wished to come down so late and through such hazardous path, but I simply wanted to. Soon I hit the no-trail patch of 900 meters. My body and my legs hurt so severely that I had to instantly condition my mind not to heed to them at all. Both my knees had twisted earlier and my back and shoulders were sore to point of bursting. Any mountaineer knows that coming down is always more dangerous and difficult than climbing up. The terrain that had seemed difficult and desperate on my way up now seemed impossible, made even a shade more by the incessant rain. I had run out of expletives, curses or pleadings to the gods so I preferred to shut my mouth for once and strangely started humming the most unearthly song that one could think of, in the situation. Believe it or not, I sang, ‘Ai ishq mujhe barbad na kar…’ (Oh, love do not destroy me…) sung by that haunting Pakistani singer Nayyara Noor to the lyrics of Faiz Ahmed Faiz all the way till I reached the bottom and crashed to the ground with as much grace as a Parisian bellhop. I simply lay on my back, flopping in the mud water like a beached whale and gulped the rain drops pelting my face. Was I happy to be alive or just happy and alive; I couldn’t decide for sure.
Finally I mustered my strength if anything remained at all and stood up and suddenly like magic the mist parted and I could see the entire 1700 m of the mountain face that I had just descended. As I gaped in wonder and threw a silent prayer to the one watching from above, I murmured to my own benefit, ‘Satya, you must have been completely out of your mind!’
P.S. Though the real adventure ended where my post ends, three more noteworthy events occurred towards the conclusion of the trip.
(a) While heading for the road head as I passed through the last village of Katui, an old woman picking twigs outside her house accosted me. A typical mountain conversation ensued. She asked me everything under the sun. She invited me in for tea and while sipping the concoction I confided that my companions were not necessarily far behind me since I had none. To this innocent declaration she reacted with a piercing and heart wrenching scream. She brought the entire household and her neighboring ones as well into the room. She caught hold of me in both hands and wouldn’t let me go till I swore on her that I would never again go into these jungles alone. I played a nasty trick. I offered her instead to swear on my father, which I did, and it pacified her enough to let me go with a box full of sweets. God did I really need the sweets! I felt so weak in my battered limbs and mind. Though later standing at the road head I felt bad having cheated the old woman who certainly wished me well, but I did not have the heart or strength left to climb up back again to let her know that I had lost my father more than three decades ago and I could go to all the jungles in the world and it would make no difference to my dear departed dad.
(b) Where the Katui village ended, a large and high waterfall fell from heaven and I simply jumped into the frothing water fully clothed and tried in vain to wash away all dirt and sins (if I had collected any).
(c) As I limbered through the bazaars of Dharamshala looking for a barber to nip off my week old salt-and-pepper beard and put some semblance of respectability to my sleep and food deprived countenance, I spied the most luscious looking bitter guards on sale. I don’t know if bitter guards usually excite one’s tongue to spill out and salivate but for me it surely did. I also realized that the four packets of Tiger glucose biscuits and my walking poles were now no more part of my rucksack hence to compensate for the weight loss I bought 1 kg of bitter guard from the astonished shopkeeper and then went away whistling my expedition anthem (Nayyara Noor et al) looking for the elusive barber of Dharamshala.