Monday, July 4, 2011

Tango at Toral - Part 3

We step on the slabs and climb nimbly with utmost care as not to dislodge any of the stones. I wonder what an ingenious way to overcome a typical rock problem that otherwise would need proper gear and rock climbing equipment. As we exit out of the dihedral I heave a sigh of relief. It wasn’t a steady climb at all. As we ascend so does the pale dawn, turning pink and then crimson and then golden-orange, and so does the towering peaks around. I pause to take pictures and walk behind my guide and shepherd friend. We climb through an ice column and across and over several rock ridges and finally I begin to see the top of the Toral Ridge. Shortly I sight the prayer flags fluttering at the pass. My happiness knows no bounds, after so many years I am finally within touching distance of this elusive pass. We have been climbing really fast and in about 40 min from our tent, I finally step on to the slab rock that marks Toral Pass at around 4600 m.

What a magnificent sight it is, I take a deep breath to fill up my lungs and look around in wonder and awe. The place is prettier than my wildest dreams. The fact that I might be the only outsider to reach here in decades adds to the thrill. A massive ice field covers the slopes on the other side that flows down to grassy alpine meadows far below. It’s windy and the first sunrays bathe the place in a divine glow. Subhash stands in supplication in front of the prayer flags. Toral God is a very potent deity, to whom each shepherd after crossing must sacrifice a goat. Legends say that Toral God fought and defeated the demons in ancient times that used to infest these hills and kill the shepherds and their flocks. And for his victory and to ensure his benevolence, the shepherds forever have been offering a goat to the god after crossing this dreaded pass. We find few ration loads too scattered upon various rocks and corners around the pass, of those who would come after us. I click pictures but the automatic camera (my mom’s) that I carried kept running out of power in the freezing cold. I am so excited that the cold doesn’t bother me at all, though my companion is shivering in his woolens and the jacket he had borrowed from me.

I bow my head to the God and pray seeking and asking nothing but offering my gratitude for keeping me safe and granting me this rare audience. I ask Subhash to go down with me to the other side and approach the bottom ice fields of Matterhorn, to which he seems highly reluctant. His logic being that there’s no point in going down as we would have to climb back up again as we would be going down the same way we had climbed. So I ask him to accompany me to a little distance on the ice field and show me the way to the other side, from there I would be on my own and he can wait for me below the pass inside a tiny cave. He isn’t happy with my decision but plays the field.

We slide down the other side on hard ice and bounce like balls on the flat field below. It’s great fun. I pose for few pictures till the batteries completely died down. Subhash gives me a run of the topography, naming all the peaks and pointing out his grazing ground in the yonder and also the route that would take us into Chamba and Ravi Valley.

Time is short and I take off in a sprint down the icy slopes, sliding and slithering all the way to the edge. I walk for an hour and reach the bottom slopes of Matterhorn and look up at the vast expanse of the mountain. Though a little under 5000 m, it is a magnificent sculpture of landscape carved by millions of natural forces. I am not carrying my ice axe or crampons and to go up further would be fraught with danger that I do not wish to take. Plus time and food was certainly not in my side. The mountain pulls me towards the red hued summit like magnet but it also tells me that today I must return. I say my goodbye to the mountain like an old friend and return. I carry no backpack so I can climb up almost as quickly as I had gone down and in about an hour and half I am back up at the pass where I find a shepherd along with his son and father and a flock of 250 goats and lambs crowded around my companion.

It’s chilly and windy and they all are sharing a hookah with contentment writ large on their cheery faces. They have four shepherd dogs. I immediately fall in love with the leader of the pack, the cream-white coated Bhaloo. I pull him and hug him and pat him and finally manage to catch him in couple of frames too. He is a magnificent animal. The shepherds find my fascination for their flock humorous. They ask me to join them and go down to their grazing ground. I decline reluctantly, my heart struggling to decide. I am so tempted to go with them. But I know the time isn’t right and I must return one day to fulfill this journey that I have now done only half way. We shake hands, exchange names and wave at each other. Subhash is by now completely chilled (not chilled out) though he smiles through chattering teeth. It’s nigh impossible but finally I tear myself away from the pass and we retrace our path back to the tent. On our way down Subhash points out a tiny cave where we find human skeleton of someone who had frozen to death at the spot few years ago.

Quickly I make some brew and we wash down some peanuts along with the hot fluid. We pack up and start going down. For me descend is always more dangerous, damaging and hurting with my broken knees and torn ligaments and cervical stiffness. My ortho has been advising me for ages to stop climbing and to get my knees operated. My knees jar and shockwaves rush through my body as we tumble and fumble down the steep slopes of tottering rocks and slippery slopes. While going up what had seemed easy is now carefully negotiated. I apply my ski poles into the ground forcefully to take off some weight from my knees. My companion’s knees are in much fitter condition and he easily outpaces me. I am careful and take short pauses every now and then.

At one of the ice fields we face a traffic jam as hundreds of lambs and sheep are caught right in the middle of it. Goaded by their herders the animals simply scream at the top of their voices but refuse to budge in any direction. I am not sure if they are scared or delighted or upset to see us on their trail. We wait for the jam to clear and then sprint across.

The sky is now clear and we can see for hundreds of miles ahead and below us. We can see Kangra town and even Pathankot in the distance, faded and bluish into the horizon. We have a long day ahead and at least 1500 m to descend still. My knees are hurting and I pray for clear weather. We rest before plunging off into an abyss of wet slippery mud gully. We start going down again, slipping and sliding into the gully. After few steps I step on a rock that slips beneath my feet and I crash into the slope twisting my right knee sharply and I collapse on the ground as shocking pain jolts through my right leg. I fear the worst.

I feel my right knee and it hurts palpably. I feel the kneecap and it seems skewed. If I have again ripped my ACL then I won’t be able to stand or walk, far less descend. We are still at 4000 m and there’s no power on earth that could get me out of this place. I apply my physiotherapy knowledge and ask Subhash to pull my right foot and twist the toes from one side to another. I cry out in agony as he did so, but felt relief immediately afterwards. I hobble back on my feet and decide to shut off the pain from my mind. Everything seems ok for the time being but I dread the ‘Bharam Nullah’ which is still far below us.

We exit the gully and then leave the trail again to get to the cave where Subhash needs to return the borrowed blanket. Suddenly we are amidst thick mist. One moment I could see for hundreds of miles and in the next I could barely see my friend few meters away. The grassy slope is unusually slippery at this hour and I constantly grasp clumps of grass to keep from falling off the face. There are still intermittent ice patches around that I carefully avoid. They are real booby traps. Subhash is behind me somewhere and then I misjudge a particular slope and in order to make a direct descent to the cave I step off the ground and step on the steeper side below. The moment I do so I step on a thin patch of ice and in an instant I am falling and airborne.

This is the moment of reckoning in every mountaineer’s life when he knows that this is finally it. I slip and start cart-wheeling with my heavy pack adding to the momentum. I know nothing on earth can or will stop me and I must be lost now forever. I am not sure what my thoughts were in that millionth of a second but as instantly as I had started falling, I stopped with equal alacrity. My entire lower body and right leg screamed out in sheer agony. And then I realize that my right toe had got jammed in a thin crack into a rock that had so far been concealed into the grass and my dragging toe had gone into it. I lay thus immobile and totally helpless and lifeless tossing around like a dead doll.

Subhash appears above and he quickly summarizes the situation. Soon he throws his woolen rope and I wind it around my waist but I indicate to him my inability to straighten up since I am hanging upside down and my heavy sack doesn’t allow me to get my head back up. Subhash is a brave surefooted shepherd but he doesn’t know how to tackle such a situation. Luckily I am carrying a tiny key-ring carabiner on my belt buckle and I decide to try my luck. I slowly unbuckle and dislodge my backpack and clip it to the rope with the tiny carabiner. Then I ask Subhash to pull the sack up. While he does so, I sit up and try to take my foot out of the crack.

Finding me struggling, he comes down and offers his hand. I pull myself up finally to the ledge where he is standing shaking like a dry leaf. He seems scared out of his wits. I am not sure how I look and I don’t ask him either. We silently go down and reach the cave where we drink another cup of tea and buttermilk. I confide to my guide that my knees are now hurting so badly that I wouldn’t stop at all and must go down all the way to the stream below since I may not be in a condition to descend the next day as he suggested. We start off soon. I tackle the Bharam Nullah half climbing down or crawling on all fours, by any method possible, in and out of climbing guide books. Limping and stumbling I emerge out of the rock gully to Ghoontu and I pay my respects to Hindi Goddess for her benevolence. We rest for a while and then speed off. I ask Subhash to use all short cuts possible as I wish to get off the vertical slopes as soon as possible. Pain and cold are mental conditions and I blot them out of my mind. I just follow my companion heedless through anything and everything, only intent on losing altitude and gaining horizontal grounds.

Crossing the streams back is agonizing as at each I have to take off my shoes and wade bare-feet through the freezing currents. Finally after 15 hrs we reach the abandoned huts at Arur. We crawl inside one of the derelict huts and I somehow cook khichdi (mix of rice and lentil). We both are dog tired and my shirt is soaking wet. We gobble the food and just slip off into oblivion. I feel warm after the cold above, though we are still at 2000 m and the ambient temperature is around 10 deg C. Though exhausted to the bones I can’t sleep. My left pelvic girdle throbs in pain; I must have hurt it during my fall. I toss and turn and doze in and out of fitful slumber. Around 4 am I finally sit up as I can’t lie down any further. I switch on my headlamp and discover that Subhash is awake too and is quietly puffing his bidi in the other corner. We have a quick discussion.

We are at a junction from where I have two options, one to return to Shalag from where we had begun our trek or to climb up back again around 1200 m to the other side and visit Chamunda Devi temple that is dedicated to Goddess Parvati, consort of Lord Shiva. Chamunda Devi is one of most powerful and sacred of Shakti Peeths (places where Goddess Parvati’s body parts had fallen – it’s a long Hindu mythological story). Chamunda Devi temple sits right on top of a conical mountain top at around 3200 m which is visited by many pilgrims each year. We could climb through dense jungle and across several mountain ridges if I wanted to. I have always wanted to visit Chamunda Devi and now it seems so near. So I decide to climb to the temple and then descend to the village by nightfall. It took me less than ten minutes to reach the decision. Tea got ready in a jiffy and we packed off our bags and were off before the clock struck 5 am. Subhash predicted that we would take nearly 6 hrs to reach the temple.

Though hurting severely, climbing up is not as painful as coming down so I follow my guide through another mountain ridge and then another where no trail exist. It is more of bushwhacking and climbing through trees by clutching at roots, branches, leaves and anything at all that can be grasped. Light shower followed. The place is immensely beautiful and lush and verdant. Suddenly on an opposite slope we sight a group of musk deer, that very rare and shy animal, which is hunted for its musk pouch. They sprint away as we come near. Half way up we reach a flat ridge that seems like the ideal camping ground. From there we can see the temple dome on top of the mountain on one side and also the Matterhorn and our route of ascent to Toral. Now it all seems impossibly far and high into the sky. It is hard to believe that we were there barely 24 hrs ago. Then Subhash points out the route to Talang and the pass itself etched against the pale sky. It indeed is full of hard ice as I could discern and very steep. Talang must be done much later. Neither do I have the time for the present to go to the bottom of it.

After the flat ridge top we descend and cross two streams and then once again start climbing almost vertically up the slope. I break into sweat and so does Subhash. Slow and steady we gain altitude and dot after 4 hrs we reach the temple just as the rain starts in true earnest. We dump our sacks outside beneath a shade and take off our shoes. It’s too early for anyone and we are the only occupants of the temple. I find a mysterious peace within the precincts of the holy shrine, we can hear the steady chant of the priest from somewhere within. I sit on a side underneath a Shiva painting and shut my eyes in Holy Communion. I am a firm believer of Shiva and he is more of a friend than a god and I speak to him silently in my mind, asking him questions I can’t answer myself. I sit there for long as the rain drums on the tin roof above. The priest calls me and hands me some prasad (God’s food) and applies vermillion paste on my forehead. The rain has stopped by now.

We pick up our backpacks and go to the tea shop below and eat our breakfast comprising of tea and thin wafer biscuits. The sun finally emerges, though pale, out of the clouds and we spread out our wet clothes and shoes to dry up. After an hour we begin to descend by the normal pilgrim’s route that is paved with stones and steps at most places. And then I realize how exhausted and painful my legs are. I am determined to reach the village though Subhash suggests we should camp en route somewhere and get to the village the next day, but I am adamant for some reason.

It takes us three hours to reach the bottom of the trail and as we are about to reach the final teashop, the sky opens up in a torrential downpour. A sweet little girl is tending the shop and we ask her for water, which she serves in two steel glasses. We then order tea. While we wait for the tea I jump out into the rain and enjoy the cold drops against my worn out body. I toss my dirty T shirt away and enjoy the rain on my skin. Soon my body cools down and the chill hits me deep. I get inside the kitchen and hover around the open fire while sipping the tea. We wait for the rain to subside and eventually have to leave in the rain. The normal route to the village of Shalag being very long and winding, we take the forest path directly below the tea shop. Very soon we are lost in thick wood without any trail or signs of human habitation.

We both are exhausted beyond words and hungry and in a rush to conclude the journey. There’s not a patch on my person that isn’t sore or aching. We crash down steep slopes through wet mud and running rivulets, without any heed to our clothes or appearance. All we wish is to get out of the forest and on to the final approach trail to the village. As we are rushing down like mad buffaloes, suddenly out of nowhere springs out a temple in the middle of the thick jungle. Had we been in our senses we would have been wonderstruck but on that day we were in a kind of daze and did not think much of it.

The temple has only a dome supported by four pillars without any walls. I could see a Shiva Lingam in the centre, the phallic symbol of Lord Shiva that is worshipped all over India. The temple looks ancient though newly painted. As suddenly as it had appeared so does an old woman who simply pops out of nowhere and appears on the temple courtyard. She is really ancient but radiance emanates from her beautiful face. She beckons us to come to her. We approach her and she hands us two malpuas (a delicate succulent sweet that isn’t usually found in this region) each with a mound of halwa (another popular Indian sweet, often offered in religious rituals). The sweets are piping hot though I don’t see any fire anywhere and the rain is falling and the air is rather cold and windy. At the time we both are devoid of logic so we begin to leave with our food but the old woman asks us to sit for a while and eat then and there. We follow her dictum and I find the sweets unusually fresh and delicious and hot. All my hunger is washed away in an instant. We thank her and then drink from a neighboring stream and take off in our pursuit.

After several more twists, turns, slips and bum-slides we emerge out of the jungle onto a grassy mound where we collapse to catch a breath and to enjoy the fascinating landscape around. I look back at the jungle but don’t see the temple with the old lady. I wonder where did she come from and how come the sweets were piping hot and fresh. I ask Subhash and he too is clueless though he isn’t as wonder struck as I. He opines that the temple could have been there and the old woman could have come from any of the villages below though he couldn’t explain how come he had never seen this temple before since he has been through this area many times earlier. It remains a mystery and I let it remain so. We go down and cross the rushing stream once more and climb back up on the same trail we had taken five days earlier. At this juncture we part company.

Subhash must return to the jungle to join his other shepherd friends and ferry loads up the trail to Toral and gather his herds from the opposite hills while I must return to civilization, dust and grime of the city life. He is reticent as usual and I am awkward in departure. I feel like parting from a dear friend but I find no word to suit the occasion. In all possibility I would never meet this man again who had been my guide and savior on a journey of a lifetime. What can one ever say when so much is to be said but so little time. I pay him his due shake his hands and we both take up the same trail walking in opposite directions.

I swing my stick into the wind; sing to the flying birds and to the swaying trees, wave at the rushing clouds and smile at the gurgling frothing streams. I am happy and sad at the same time. Sad that the journey concluded so soon, happy that at least I could get a glimpse of this abundant wonderland. I cross the tea stall of the antediluvian couple and they recognize me instantly. They offer me tea that I sip gratefully. I tell them of my adventure and their old cataract eyes shine in mirth and memories of younger days. With halting steps I climb back upon the hills, through the green fields and reach the upper slopes across which I could see my friend’s house. I look back at the majestic mountains where I have been only recently and at the dark clouds that have been my heavenly companions all through.

I sit on the grass one last time and stare at the grazing lambs around, at the distant hills and lush forests, at the stream now looking like a thin silver sliver and don’t wish to be anywhere else at all. I could just sit there like that frozen for eternity. But practicalities of life knock at my senses and I stand up and with heavy halting steps reach my friend’s place where a grand welcome awaits my arrival.


  1. Fantastic pictures! Love your travels..

  2. Adventures of a lifetime in 5 days & this is just a warm up for the Afghanistan climb. Cheers!

  3. Thank you for making the effort to share these incredible journeys, look forward to books one day they will be impossible to put down. I could smell the fresh pasture and hear the lambs...and could feel the cold,cold air. Keep telling we want to take part even from dusty, hot, dry Laikipia! Hugs, Annexxooxo