Saurkundi Pass-A backpack’s journey up the Himalayas

It was a dream. A dream conjured from just an image; a miserable reproduction in which the jagged peaks stood white against a grotesquely blackened and scratched sky. But it didn’t matter, for dreams were the key to the picture, permitting a little boy to enter it, to stand at the crest of the windswept ridge, to climb towards the summit and just gaze at the little world below him. Of all the million things to do, I chose to travel a 1500 miles north to experience the dream- the mighty Himalayas. So I did and as I inched closer to my destination, I crouched to peer through a small waist level window, hoping to catch a glimpse of some mountains. I was not disappointed: there, raking the horizon stood the jagged incisors of the Himalaya. I sat there at the window for the rest of the journey, spellbound, hunkered over rucksacks, my face pressed against the cold window shades. As I alighted and walked across the gates of the 15 Mile Base Camp-Kullu (or so it was called), a thought of being on top of the Saurkundi Pass seven day later struck so hard that my eyes strayed more towards the far horizon above than the silky soil below.

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Yes, I had missed the acclimatization trek. Yes, there was still the orientation remaining. But I guess it was the moment, the enthusiasm or just that sheer surge of adrenaline that asked me to go river rafting on the gorgeous Beas River instead. As I plunged from one rapid to the other, the ice cold freezing waters splashed and pounded the raft and the men aboard. She didn’t seem pleased. She didn’t seem happy at all. She halted us right in the middle of nowhere. We were all but at her mercy trying to pull the raft out of the rocky patch as she kept flowing furiously downstream. Did I feel that my little vessel was going to overturn? Yes! But now sitting back, I think I am rather happy it didn’t. It was the way I kick started the proceedings of perhaps what is the best journey of my life so far.

I don’t know if I am a deep sleeper or not but trust me, tents and sleeping bags aren’t the coziest of the places on earth. I was up early the following day and as the toothbrush was having its daily dose of the toothpaste, I witnessed the spectacle of the sun beaming its rays from atop some ranges and the same rays reverberating over the ice-clad peaks and slopes of other ranges. The shiver in the spine however needed an extensive morning warm up to subside. But the adrenaline rushed in again as I strapped on to rappel down on a hillside. Later that evening, I went about peeping into the little towns of Pathlikul and Khaitran. The sleepy towns buzzed with little activity on the streets and fed me a belly full of Chole Chat, Bread Pakoda and some delicious Momos.

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As the sun said goodbye to another day, I had found a quiet little place by the base camp. It was beyond a rustic iron bridge, hidden beneath a dense canopy of trees by the Beas River. I sat there staring at the peaks ahead, just trying to apprehend what it would be like to be standing on that white snowy peak. The peaks looked so high, so cold and so far away. Yet, it was my dream and I had to make it up there. As I started walking up the bridge and as the little stars started to dot the skyline, my emotions oscillated between nervous anticipation and a sense of exhilaration.

I geared up to start my ascent on the day 3. I still felt that my emotions hadn’t veered off from where I had left them last night. The rucksack seemed a little heavy, but I was just starting. And I knew my baggage would all but seem lighter as I would move ahead. The hike wasn’t steep. I was walking on trails that were more like uphill dirt roads. The flatter lands were dotted with houses made of wood and stones and there I found a little insight into the humble lives that people led here in the remote worlds of mountains. Probably that’s where I first developed my thoughts of retiring in the shadows of the mountains. I walked through the dense forests of pine and deodar and watched as the sun rays tried desperately hard to pierce through. And as evening drew closer, my batch and I had made it to Segli Thatch (at 7100ft)- which was to be our first home in the mountains. Segli was a camp that was situated beside a tiny deserted saw mill overlooking a beautiful little town dispersed below that lightens itself up in the night. There was plume of ice that trailed like a long silk scarf somewhere straight ahead. And a 1000 feet below, slicing a deep crease through the surrounding bedrock, the Beas River appeared as a crooked strand of silver glinting from the shadows.

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Day 4 went by in an ambrosial blur. The trail took me past glades of juniper and dwarf birch, blue pine and rhododendron, thundering waterfalls, enchanting boulder gardens, burbling streams. There were sights of flocks of sheep and mountain goats, ponies and horses grazing along the green meadows. The Valkyrian skyline bristled with peaks that I had been dreaming about since I was a child. It was a simple joy of walking in an exotic land. The halt for lunch was a little longer than what was initially planned. Partially being responsible for that, a party of us had strayed off the trail following the sounds to witness a gorgeous waterfall. Yes, it was mighty but sky was already beginning to let loose. With the guides, I started sweeping this time pushing everyone up the hills towards the next camp.

Hora thatch (at 9100 ft) was located in a much more beautiful setting than Segli. Snowline was clearly visible now. Melting glaciers, valleys that ran into infinity, peaks that stretched itself beyond the horizon- there was nothing imperfect there. A little stream guzzled down somewhere. And then there was a huge boulder just perched upon the hill overlooking the entire valley. Enticing, yes it was and I sat perched above the boulder watching the sky turn shades of white and grey and black until my body couldn’t shudder more. Cold shivers took me in, but this night sleep didn’t come easy.

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“Evenings were peaceful, smoke settling in the quiet air to soften the dusk, lights twinkling on the ridge probably where we would camp on tomorrow, clouds dimming the outline of our pass for the day after… There was loneliness, too, as the sun set, but only rarely now did doubts return. Then I felt sinking as if my whole life lay behind me… But at times I wondered if I had come a long way away only to find that what I really sought was something I had left behind.” The moon slowly peeped from behind the tall pine trees lightening up the snow covered peaks in front of her. I sat watching her with the words of Mr. Thomas F Hornbein stark in my mind.

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And so I set off- on a new day, on a new path. I trudged across stretches that were strenuous to walk on with thin trails, steep slopes, loose soil, rocky patches and dense jungles. Yet, we moved on under the blazing sun and on half buried trails. It culminated at the Maylee Thatch (at 10500 ft), a picturesque campsite. Maylee looked like a small open ground at the end of a cliff having the beautiful valley in its view down below, the clouds and the snowcapped peaks above them. At the other end of the camp stood a steep hill that was to be climbed the next day. There were no trees up the hill, but flocks of sheep grazed and bleated on the slopes. We may have been up there away from the world- a world of cellphones, laptops and all worldly and materialistic things but there was life. There was that essence I felt. There were riots of laughter; there was humor even in arguments. A game of kabbadi, a game of cricket with locals, talents and arts around the campfire- I guess the differences were already falling apart and our lives seemed to intertwine.

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The air took on a wintry sting as night fell, and in the morning, I woke up to the sound of stones pounding the tents. I peeped outside to find a few others as well awestruck by the sudden turn of events. It was cold and damp. And the campsite was filled with crystals of ice. The hailstones weren’t too merciful on any gears left unattended outside the tents. The damp grounds didn’t however dampen the spirits as I watched the sun come up this time over the Chanderkhani Pass overlooking the valley below. So the day followed with the trek starting off on a damp, cold morning navigating through slippery soil and water-clogged trails. The ascent was steep and only got steeper and colder as we climbed. Negotiating the serrated hills presents no great technical hurdles but the route was dreadfully exposed because of the turn of events overnight! As I headed up the trail, a glaze of frost sparkled from the rhododendron leaves. Winds kept blowing and mist was in no mood of clearing out even as the sun tried to bring in some respite.

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That evening it was the Daura thatch (at 11300ft) that welcomed me. I have no words for this place. It was just a piece borrowed from the utopian world. The grandeur of the location was the reason for it all. It was just a spectacular sight of snowy peaks rolling on and on and on. For the first time on the expedition, the vista was primarily sky rather than earth. Herds of puffy cumulus raced beneath the evening sun, imprinting the landscape with a shifting matrix of shadow and blinding light.I probably behaved like a little kid up there, running uphill to the meadows overlooking the campsite and just swirling around looking at the majestic Himalayas in all its beauty. Far to my right, were wild horses running merrily along the meadow. I lay there for a long long time on open expanses of green grass looking at the distant stretches of mesmerizing beauty. But yes, Daura Thatch can be little harsh as the dusk creeps in. The chilling spine cold nights can get limbs to go numb.  Somewhere I did say that tents and sleeping bags aren’t the coziest of places, but after a long day’s walk and a night where the temperatures fell below Zero; there isn’t a place which feels like paradise than inside my sleeping bag.

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As I woke up the next morning, still awkwardly shivering, I realized it was the day when we were to make our summit attempt. There was a burst of energy, a surge of adrenaline and a huge sense of exhilaration. I geared up rather quickly. The initial steep climb was followed by flat plateau. The landscapes changed with every few meters. Little flakes of snow started its downward journey. A little rainbow was beginning to form somewhere east. It was a majestic view of the Manali valley, Naggar village, Manala village, Indrahar Pass, Rohtang Pass and the entire Dhauladhar Ranges. Then we hit rocky patches with deep crevices. As Hindu scriptures say it, it was probably brought here by the Pandavas during Mahabharat.

Ice cold wind blew relentlessly. It just didn’t seem right. Green had paved way to miles of white snowy lands. Vast expanses that stretched to nothingness. The weather was changing quickly to the worst. Shoes slipped as they failed to grip on the freshly formed snow. Sticks dug in deeper. The winds had gotten stronger. Visibility was fast reducing. We were at 12900ft-at Saurkundi Pass by the frozen Saurkundi Lake. The weather was so bad- the summit passed almost unnoticed. A few meters ahead, we huddled for a few minutes, overlooking the gorgeous sights that the nature had to offer. There was a pack up the mountains where humans hadn’t messed with the nature. There was this pack huddled bearing the brunt that the nature had to offer.

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The wind kicked up huge swirling waves of powder snow that washed down the mountain like breaking surf, plastering me and my gear with frost. A carapace of ice formed over my goggles, making it difficult to see. By now the weather had changed from bad to worse and was fast deteriorating. It was hard to head straight and without support. There on the pass in a really inhospitable environment, we were stuck in a 50 knot tempest; temperatures dipping to as low as 13 degrees below zero. Visibility dropped only to a few meters ahead. People ahead were hardly visible. But to move across the pass, it was necessary to walk directly upwind into the teeth of the blizzard. Wind whipped granules of ice and snow struck the climbers’ faces with violent force, lacerating our eyes and making it impossible to see where we were going. It was so difficult and agonizing that there was an inevitable tendency to bear off the wind to keep angling away from it to the right and to the edge of the cliffs.

At times you couldn’t even see your own feet, it was blowing so hard. Every meter was hard to traverse. There were a few weak links in the group and I was worried somebody would get separated from the group. But once we got off the pass, it was apparent the guides knew what they were doing. We trotted along and escaped the clutches of the storm by snow sliding downhill. Yes, my butt did begin to freeze and it was starting to go all numb below my waist.To follow was a descent downhill on slippery muddy track. There was a rope precariously placed onto a boulder. I scampered ahead in the treacherous stretch. Down below was at least a 100 feet drop. As I dredged along with the help of a fixed line, it was a sense of relief, a sense of joy and a sense of accomplishment that took over. We had summited. Meanwhile, a fire had started burning further downhill. As I hurriedly went downhill, I swear its true when I say tea never tasted better and the fire just didn’t seem warm enough. 6 Longa (7)

An eventful day as it was, I reached Longa thatch (at 10800ft.) that evening. It was all green again. The campsite fascinates with sweet grasses, wild flowers and a variety of birds. But we were in for a whole new experience that night. A bear scare. Retiring to our beds at around 2200hours, we heard growls – little ones at the start and then louder and louder. It could have been hoax but nevertheless after a day of unexpected happenings, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see a grizzly waving hello in the middle of the night. Dogs barked and as the frenzy set in, I held my breath inside the sleeping bag and god alone knows when, fell into deep sleep. 7 Lekhni (3)

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Life returned to normalcy the next morning as we started down along quite lush green dense forests towards our last camp- a cottage at Lekhni (at 8100ft). Little streams, small waterfalls, petite trails filled with pine cones and surrounded by the god-knows-how-tall pine trees. Later that evening, I came into this beautiful cottage that was surrounded by apple orchards, cherry trees and strawberry bushes. It overlooked the beautiful Indrahar Pass. The main room where we stayed was furnished with wooden bunk platforms for some thirty people. I found an unoccupied bunk, shook as many fleas as possible from the soiled mattress, spread out my sleeping bag and just threw down my gear.

People were already conscious about this being the last camp and journey almost coming to an end. It was a wonder how people from different walks of life had come together with a single purpose and shared moments of their lives with each other. He was a Canadian teaching in Bangladesh, she was an Indian studying in Bangladesh, a scientific advisor from BARC, a freelance journalist, a film-maker, a house-wife from Indore, an economist, few budding teenagers, few energetic under-grads and a horde of working professionals from different backgrounds, different parts of the country and different age-groups. It was just another way of celebrating life.

Day 9 we were walking downhill towards Alu Ground- back into civilizations. At the end of it all- a total of 9 days had gone by- we caught a bus back to the base camp. The road ran parallel to the majestic Beas River flowing in the valley between the majestic mountains. At this juncture, I kind of realized how rudimentary, our lives needs are. All we need is a place to lie down, clothes to protect us, food & water, and that is it. We can live on. The peaks stared at us with all its might. It looked so invincible and yet we had passed it through.

Organizers: Youth Hostel Association of India (YHAI)

Gear: Rucksack, a sleeping bag, a pair mittens/gloves, mufflers, a hat, couple of pairs of inner & outer garments, woolens /thermals, a jacket, a raincoat, sunglasses, torch, extra batteries, anti-fungal powder, basic first aid kit, basic toiletries, cold-cream/Vaseline, sunscreen, sanitizers, a pair of slippers and a good pair of trekking shoes.