Wednesday, August 15, 2018

STOK'ed in Leh

“Chasing angels or fleeing demons, go to the mountains.” 
― Jeffrey Rasley

A few months in the city and restlessness seeps in. The urge to get away from ‘it all” becomes stronger and stronger till it turns irresistible! And can there be a better place to get away than to the Himalayas – the abode of the Gods! The Himalayas don’t call. They are good in their solitude, standing tall, silent and strong. It is we who need to find our calling and follow them. 
A year had passed since my last trek to the Pin Parvati valley in Himachal and it was time to go back to the Himalayas. The lure of summiting Stok Kangri at 6153 mts/20180 ft. was becoming an increasingly attractive proposition. I was excited about the fact that it would be my highest climb so far and in trekking circles it qualifies one for higher and more technical climbs. I was also thrilled about the fact that I would be in Leh for a few days before the trek for acclimatisation and Leh has always been a photographer’s delight and it was no different with me. The thought of climbing a mountain and also getting to photograph the alluring vistas even before the trek fired me up and all preparations began in earnest.
A very much underestimated peak, Stok Kangri needed intense preparations and good physical and mental fitness as well. 
View from the flight
Arrival in Leh: It was a beautiful day to land in Leh with a crystal clear view of Stok Kangri. We soon learnt that we were lucky, because it had been raining for a week before this day and the weather had considerably improved that day. With a silent prayer on my lips thanking the weather gods for obliging us, I looked up at the peak we were to summit. Stok Kangri overlooks Leh from everywhere, as if a guardian keeping watch over its ward. There is no missing it. From the time, I landed in Leh, it was difficult to keep it off my mind.Wherever I went, Stok seemed to follow except my much touted Vodafone network, which seemed to have disappeared as if Vodafone didn't exist. (Only Airtel and the much maligned BSNL post paid work in Leh) 
Thiksey Monastery

2 days were spent getting acclimatised by visiting monasteries, walking up to them, going to Khardung La, spending time there, and then a small acclimatisation hike up to Namgyal Tsemo, from where the entire Leh market could be seen soaking in the last rays of the setting sun.

The Pristine Stok Village
Expedition Day 1
The expedition began from trekking point (3565 mts) in Stok Village, but not before spending a night in a home stay at Gyap-Thago. Located in serene surroundings amidst lush mustard fields and the Stok Kangri in the background, this well spent day provided the much-needed elixir before the start. Home-made thukpas, momos, salad fresh from the fields and butter tea were the highlights of this stay apart from the pristine surroundings.
Our tents at Mankorma - 1st camp
The first camp was at Mankorma located 9.5 kms away and at an altitude of 4480 mtrs. Walking at a leisurely pace, with an hours' break for lunch of steaming hot Dal Rice, some sabzi and crispy papad at Chang Ma, it took us 6 hours to reach Mankorma from Stok Village. We walked at a slow, unhurried pace and drank plenty of water (3 to 4 litres per day). This was emphasised again and again to the team by our guides and the trek leader Sumeet from GGIM (Guardian Giripremi Institute of Mountaineering) who had organised this expedition.
The trail
This climb took us on trails interspersed by rocky areas and some steep ascents which took my breath away. Soon the sparse greenery gave way to a barren landscape. The rocks and boulders forming the mountains displayed various hues of brown and magenta, depending on their content of iron, manganese and other minerals. In fact, some rocks with high iron content had the typical rusted appearance, making me coin the word 'rusted mountains'. The altitude gain that day was 915mts/3000ft, but thanks to the acclimatisation schedule in Leh most of us could make it to the camp, albeit with a bit of headache and light-headedness which settled down after a while. 
Very soon, dusk ushered in darkness with a beauty of its own supplemented by countless stars and the milky way. In the confines of my tent, I slipped into my sleeping bag hearing the soothing sound of gushing waters from the nearby stream breaking the silence of the night.

“Trekking means a travelling experience with a thrilling excitement.” 
― Amit Kalantri

Base camp - a riot of colors
Expedition day 2: Our next destination was the Base camp located at an altitude of 4980 meters. Located 5.5 kms from Mankorma, it took us 3 hrs to traverse this distance. Though the altitude gain wasn't as much as the previous day, but 500 meters gain in a day was sufficient for the headache to recur in many of us. We continued hydrating ourselves with the mandatory 4 litres of water per day.
The base camp is a busy place! Trekkers preparing for the summit, some reaching back after a successful summit, some taking a day's rest before their attempt, all imparted a sort of seriousness to the place. There wasn't a jovial or festive atmosphere, even though there was a colorful look to the place. A thousand questions played on my mind about my summit attempt scheduled for the next day, and I tried to allay my fears by not thinking of it. But as much as I tried I couldn't get Stok away from my thoughts. The fact that this would be my first 6000+ meter climb was throughout in my mind. 

A bird's eye view from the 4G point
We went for an acclimatisation climb in the evening. This climb served another purpose too. On the top of this climb, we were able to get good network on our phones and everyone chanced this opportunity to call up and talk to their near ones. The mobiles signals were so strong here, that we christened this point as 4G point. This climb was going to be the initial part of our ascent during the summit attempt the next day.
The trail

Looking down from the top, the base camp looked very tiny, nestled in the bottom of a big bowl, lined by Gholep Kangri on one side and the Stok Kangri on the other.  Looking ahead, a long winding trail showed the path for the next day.
An early 7 pm dinner followed.
Soon twilight gave way to darkness and as is in the mountains, the sky came alive with a million stars glittering.

“Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light; 
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.” 
― Sarah Williams

The Milky way rose over the peaks and provided yet another glimpse into the vast universe.
One of the reasons I love being at night in the mountains is this magnificent sight. The clear air, absence of lights exposes the naked night sky in all its glory.
I decided to try my hand at astrophotography and brought out my tripod which I had carried all the way here in anticipation of some good pictures. I wasn’t going to let the howling mountain wind and freezing night get in the way of my plans.

Expedition day 3: 

"In every walk with nature, one receives far more than one seeks"
- John Muir

That night I slept well, satisfied with the photos I had managed to click. I got up feeling fresh and rejuvenated. Tonight would be the night of redemption. After a while the apprehensions began. Will I or won’t I? Will I or won’t I?
Foremost on my mind was the sleep factor. This trek would start at 10.00 pm and we would be trekking throughout the night into the wee hours of the morning till we would summit or till we turn back mid-way. The outcome unsure, my mind loaded with a fear of the unknown, I carried out my morning activities. I developed a headache and I wasn't sure if it was the altitude, migraine or just my brain playing tricks because of my suppressed anxiety. Not wanting to take chances, I popped up my anti migraine pill as well as a painkiller. Whatever the cause the headache disappeared after 1/2 an hour and thankfully did not recur again. 
This being a trekking expedition unlike a simple trek, we were to carry certain mountaineering equipment. So the rest of the morning was spent in the company of our guides and Sumeet, our trek lead who familiarised us with the various terminologies and use of equipment to be used during the summit push. We were taught the ways of wearing and using the harness, carabiners, crampons and ropes. We were roped together and made to walk for some distance to make us comfortable with these alien accessories. All these activities kept my mind preoccupied and the 'ascent anxiety' away for some time. 
Post lunch instructions were to rest and sleep as much as possible. I tried my best, but could hardly manage an hour’s sleep. The tent is not a comfortable place to be in during the afternoon. Even though it is freezing cold at night, the days quite hot and the tents tend to become warm and suffocating. I had delusional plans to sleep till 7 pm and get up fresh and raring to go for the summit at 10 pm, but I could hardly sleep for an hour. By 3 pm I was bored of being in the tent and since we were blessed with a good weather and clear blue skies, I decided to kill my time doing some long exposure photography. My trek leader had strictly instructed me not to carry my DSLR for the summit. He wanted me and generally all of us to carry as less weight as possible. 
I always trek in the anticipation of getting good landscape photographs, and so my DSLR is a inseparable part of my during my treks trekking.  I was obviously disappointed when he refused to let me carry my camera. But on a hindsight, I realised that was a very good decision and thanked him silently for this advice as I dragged myself during the summit attempt where every gm seemed to be weighing me down.
The clock stuck 10 and we were all ready. A nervous excitement was palpable. Helmets in place, headlights on, harness with carabiner worn, crampons in backpack, 2 litres of water, 4 layers of clothing, wind proof jacket ready to be used if needed. It was 10.15 pm by the time we began our summit push. With the moon yet to rise, in the pitch-dark night, with the only light provided by our head lamps we trudged on, our band of 7 trekkers, Sherpas and our trek leader.
An hour into the trek and the moon made its way up, imparting a bit of light to the landscape. A faint outline of the peak we were to summit loomed large in front of us. The steep 1st stage done with, the 2nd stage up to the Advance base camp was a gradual incline which didn't take much of an effort. The excitement of trekking in the night probably compensated for the fatigue. Soon we reached the km long glacier. This was a tricky walk. There was hard snow
Negotiating a small crevasse at night
interspersed with a thin layer of snow below which was icy water. The trick was not to step on them and wet the shoes. It needed focus and concentration. I did well till I was almost more than half way through. A momentary lapse of concentration and crunch and splash! I stepped exactly where I wasn't supposed to, the thin layer of ice gave way and my left leg went down till my knees in the icy cold glacial water. It took my breath away for a moment. Luckily, I didn't injury myself. I took a brief halt, made sure I had no injuries and then I continued my climb hoping that my body warmth would dry the trousers and socks. I had an extra pair of socks in my back pack, but my mind wasn't willing to spend the calories needed in that effort to change them. Glacier crossing done and now was the most challenging part. Next target was to reach the ‘shoulder’. A flat area just before the final summit climb. This, would be the most challenging part of the expedition. The inclination was nearly 70°. The time to reach the shoulder would be 4 hours. We were told before the climb began that the target would be to reach the summit by 7 am. Any estimated delay in reaching the summit by 7am would result in our turning back without summiting since the melting snow with rising temperature coupled with fatigue of the night long climb as the day progressed would make the descent difficult.

“The best view comes after the hardest climb.” -Anon

The final ascent: Count 1...2...3...4...30....pause, rest, count 1...2...3...10. Start 1....2...3.... and so on and on it continued. It apparently hadn’t snowed much the previous winter here. That explained the unusual lack of snow cover at such an altitude. Opinions were divided as to walking on the snow was easier or walking on the exposed boulders as we were all doing! Some parts were sandy and small pebbles over them was making the climb slippery. 3 1/2 hours climb down and the shoulder was now visible and within reach or so I thought. A few minutes more and I would be on it. But appearance in the mountains can be deceptive. What seemed to be within a few minutes reach, took me ½ hour to reach which seemed like eternity. I heaved myself up on the shoulder and sat down. It was still dark. 2 of us had reached.
The wait
Others were on their way up. I could see their torch light moving up slowly, inching towards us. The plan now was to rope us up in 2 batches each as we began our final ascent. The final ascent was a high ridge about 400 meters high. To negotiate this narrow and exposed ridge towards the summit roping was necessary. It was cold and windy. We were tired and sleepy as well after completing almost 8 hrs of climbing and hence the need for roping.
After 15 mins rest, the rope was passed and knotted through our carabiners. The guide leading us, then me and then 2 of my co trekkers with Sumeet bringing up the rear. Fatigue had already creeped in mingling with sleep. Fortunately, I had no pain or cramps and there was enough energy left in me for the final push. But the climb in dark was taking its toll. The darkness added to the fatigue. I told myself that 800 meters were done. It was a matter of 400 more. I started thinking of all bad conditions I was in and considering my profession, there was plenty to think about. I told myself that this was a cake walk compared to what I had gone through on many previous occasions and that spurred me and I trudged on. The only thought in my mind the summit and I visualised myself standing there, nothing less, nothing more. As we reached the mid-way mark, suddenly a ray of light appeared on the horizon. It was as if a switch was turned on! This seemed to brighten the sky and along with it my mood too. No doubt, light is life. The sleep vanished. With dawn, came hope.
I stopped and turned around.
The view from the top
The vista around was too stunning. It was as if a curtain was raised, exposing a magnificent set. My steps developed a spring. The movements became quicker and the fluttering flags above came into view indicating that the top was now within reach. A few steps up and a few turns around and I was on the top with the rest of the team. A shout of joy erupted from my throat. It was 6.15 am and we had reached well within our cut off time of 7 am. We were In time to see the sun peeping out from behind the mountains. I stood next to the fluttering prayer flags removed the national flag and posed for a picture. Then took a selfie. The highest ever selfie for me at 6153 meters/20180 feet. The Karakoram range was seen in the distance.
The Summit at last!
We waited for others to join us and then took a group pic. The cold, wind and the slope made sure that we couldn't spend more than 15 mins here. 

The descent begins
The descent: We began the descent back to the shoulder. Our guide told us to be alert and more careful. More casualties had taken place during descent than ascent, due to exhaustion and loss of focus after the joy of summiting. A momentary lapse and the result would be an endless plunge into the ravines. As our guide said, no summit can be called successful until you reach the base camp safe and strong. Taking precautions and keeping our emotions in check we reached the shoulder where we took a brief break to replenish our exhausted calories. 
The glacier we had crossed on our way up in the dark
It would take between 3 to 4 hours to reach the base camp. The snow over the glacier had started melting making the descent slippery and tricky. Crampons came out of our bags and made the task of negotiating the glacier a bit easy. I came down marvelling at the scene around me which I couldn't see on my way up in the dark. It was time to click pics with my mobile. As I continued the descent, it seemed never ending. At last the base camp came into view. My pace quickened as I drew near. I could see a few of my co trekkers who had opted out of the trek waiting for our return. As they came towards us we shook hands, hugged each other and finally the success of summiting a 6000 + peak sank in. 

It was the relentless pursuit of a heartless mountain!!
The Team!

PS :- (Definition of stokedslang. : being in an enthusiastic or exhilarated state.)

Dr. Sumeet Mandale, Trek Leader
Dawa Sherpa, Instructor, HMI Chief Guide
All my co trekkers who in their own way contributed for the success
GGIM, Pune who organised and provided the logistic support

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Musings from Mcleodganj

Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.” ― Gautama Buddha

A refuge for the Tibetans, a place where temples jostle with monasteries, priests intermingle with the monks and locals live harmoniously with the refugees. Scores of Tibetan shops, selling everything from curios to woolens line the street here and Momos & Thupkas are a more staple diet than Achar & Paranthas.

Welcome to Mcleodganj or Upper Dharamshala, as some prefer to call it! Located 10kms further away from Dharamshala and much higher it is nestled in the lap of the Dhauladhar range, a part of the mighty Himalayas. This small hill station is no match to Shimla, Mussoorie or Ooty, but 
Happy monks
manages to hold its own on the strength of its unique character, a little Tibet in India. 

The presence here of His Holiness - the Dalai Lama  makes it different from other Tibetan settlements elsewhere in India. Even though he wasn't in his usual abode at the time of our visit, his presence was felt everywhere whether it was in the curios shop, the restaurant or the bookshop. His photographs or books authored by him or about him seemed were omnipresent. The Buddhist monks with their unique reddish maroon robes were seen everywhere reminding us of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader & symbol of their peaceful struggle for independence & even existence. 

Losel dolls
Being a mini Tibet, monasteries are in abundance. 
A place not to be missed for handicraft lovers is the Norbulingka Institute which is located about 4kms down from Dharamshala. An institute for Tibetan arts, we got to see first hand, the artists and weavers at work, displaying colorful Tibetan 
A weaver at work
paintings, hand made cotton and woolen dresses, scarfs and carpets. It has the world’s largest collection of handmade dolls here called Losel Dolls. This is alone worth a visit. The monks construct a doll's body of wire and papier maché, and then affix cast metal hands. The heads are sculpted of fine clay, the faces painted, and hair attached. Dressed in tailored clothes of cotton, wool and silk, the doll is completed with jewelry and other accessories. The shop inside sells handmade paintings, handicrafts and dresses, which are prohibitively expensive, but justified due to their uniqueness and the efforts taken to create them.

The mouth water egg fry in the making
Mcleodganj is a haven for foodies. The Jogibara road and Temple road , especially the former, is lined by eateries serving local Himachali to Italian and everything in between including Japanese, Bhutanese & of course Tibetan cuisine. We tried every specialty on each of the day we stayed there and weren't disappointed ever. Oh yes and I forgot to mention the street food.
The taste of the humble omelette-pav at the roadside stall in the chilly morning mountain air will keep tickling my taste buds for a long time. Deep fried boiled eggs coated with a spicy masala from a tiny, easy to be missed shack was another mouth watering item which won't be forgotten easily. 

Mcleodganj at night
Come dusk and the  crowded streets of Mcleodganj turn into a glittering maze. The neon sign boards and lighting on the shops can give any big town street a run for money. The numerous pastry and ice cream shops made their presence felt as the lights switched on. A late evening stroll post dinner for the wonderful desserts should not be missed.

Trekking to Triund

For the adventure enthusiasts, trekking to Triund about 9kms from Mcleodganj and at an altitude of about 10000 ft. ASL, further down to Ilaka to see the snow line & then up to Indrahar pass over 3 days is an option. We trekked up to Triund, which took us about 4 hrs. one way, before the weather turned bad. The mist set in rapidly, visibility turned to just about a couple of feet, temperature dropped down to about 5°C and a hailstorm started, progressing to heavy rains lasting for about an hour forcing us to descent down to Dharamkot, about 2 kms from Mcleodganj. 
Reminiscing now, sitting in my hot & humid city of Mumbai, trekking in the cold, fog covered mountains, the tall Deodars looming through the mist over us seems heavenly.

Paragliding at Billing
Billing, touted, as one of the top places for paragliding in the world is again a must-go and must do. About 45 kms from Mcleodganj, it takes about 2 hours to reach the takeoff site and then waiting all strapped up for the right wind to blow, teeth chattering partly due the cold and mostly due to nervousness, but putting on a bold front is again an experience to cherish. Flying above the birds, sometimes with them, in between the mountain peaks, rustling of the cold mountain air through my ears, as I looked at the village below, I realized what a real bird's eye view is.

Finally, being in Himachal, can temples be missed?
Jwalamukhi temple
Of course not! Himachal Pradesh, the land of temples, has them at every turn, many of them ancient, and with lovely mythological lore’s explaining there significance. We managed to visit a few. The Aghanjar Mahadev temple, near Norbulinga, where Arjuna meditated and was blessed by the boon of victory by Lord Shiva, was the first one in our list of many. The Baijnath temple near Palampur, Chamunda devi temple at Chamba, Bhagsunag temple in Mcleodganj which has a large fresh water underground spring flowing beneath it and on our way back, the Jwaladevi temple where there is an eternal flame burning since centuries, were a few that we managed to visit.
Each of these places thronged with devotees, each one entering with faith & devotion, some to thank the almighty for a wish fulfilled & others to get a wish fulfilled. As far as we were concerned, our objective was to have a spiritual experience.

The location and architecture of these ancient temples done at a time of meager technical resources always intrigues me. The sites seem to be always chosen carefully, at a height commanding panoramic views of the surroundings, the stones carved and laid with love, precise engineering bearing the brunt of multiple insults whether in the form of nature's or man's fury, making sure that they last an eternity. 

As we made our way back to the airport at Chandigarh, each one of us satiated from our adventurous trip, I marvelled at our country’s diversity not only in our language & culture, but the geographical variation from place to place. India will never cease to surprise me. And so far the surprises have always been pleasant.