My first close acquaintance with the mountains … a story of a few young men setting out on a venture to explore … a story full of fun, laughter and excitement.
It was pitch dark in the trekkers’ hut.
We would have been delighted if a fire could be lit up. The fireplace was empty and beckoning. But who would dare to go out in search of logs, amidst that torrential rain and bone-chilling wind? Tucked inside our sleeping bags, with one blanket below and one above, we lay wide awake at midnight with our eyes fixed to the roof of the hut from where the sounds of impact of the heavy mountain rain came thundering in. And cold it was. We were shivering even after all possible protection. The occasional giant thud of a landslide crashing into the river Pindar hundred feet below made us jump out of the blankets, only to find it too difficult to wriggle out of the sleeping bags. At 2,680 meters, the trekker’s log hut at Dwali was an isolated piece of civilization amidst the mighty mountains and forest on that frightful night in the later part of April, 1996.
Six of us we were, all from Bokaro, still fresh from engineering college, having spent a couple of years with the Steel Plant. All of us bachelors, living in a hostel, bored to the bones with the monotony of Plant life, we decided one fine morning that it was time for some adventure.
Rathin and Nandy seemed to have done a trek or two previously, rest we were all novices. Samit, fondly called as বড়দা, was the more level-headed one. He did not like the idea of a trek, that too in April when the snow in the higher mountains still remain, and that too Pindari which was almost 100 km to and fro walk. Arun and Manash did not care much. “ওটা ম্যানেজ হয়ে যাবে। আরে Zero Point-এ মাত্র 3,660 m altitude – ওখান থেকে নন্দাদেবী আর নন্দাকোট পিকগুলো-দুর্দান্ত দেখা যায়।“
I felt excited too. Looking into the trusted Bengali travel guide ভ্রমন সঙ্গী, I discovered that this trek can be delightful just because of the incredible spectrum of nature, the meandering path through the mountain villages and woods, the flora, the fauna, and if lucky the occasional mountain bear. Done, we all said eventually.
First step – to get our leave requests sanctioned. It was difficult, given the fact that we were in shop-floor production. Next – Nandy knew a place in Bokaro where they tailored rucksacks. It took not more that a week for the oldish gentleman to sew six not-so-funky yet hardy rucksacks for us. Lastly – train reservations. Someone had to volunteer to shulder the pain of coming to Kolkata and standing in the day-long queue at the Fairly Place Booking Office to secure six second-class berths in Kathgodam Express.
On the given day in the third week of April, we all assembled in front of the বড় ঘড়ি in Howrah Station. The train was scheduled at 8 o’clock in the evening. It had a chilling reputation of running late by hours. Plan was to reach Kathgodam, two nights after departure, early in the morning. From there an hour-long (may be two) drive to Nainital, unwinding for a day, and then travelling through the stretches of Kumaon to the sleepy yet beautiful village of Song, the starting point of our trek to Pindari.
Mind you, I did not inform Mother so much about the details, or else the matter would have been surely reported to my বড়মামা, who happened to be my guardian angel in every sphere of life. Soma of course knew about it. She did some routine questioning, and finally assured that I shall not slip off my feet and fall into a crevasse and will hopefully return in one piece, she let me off.
Just as apprehended, the train was running late by hours. Two full days thereafter spent brushing shoulders with the crowd which was boarding on and off at every station as we crossed Bihar and went through Uttar Pradesh. Getting up and stretching was risky, someone would just slip into my vacated berth as soon I left guard. The pantry-man did not succeed to reach us crossing the human wall in between. The only option was to resort to the occasional hawker reaching out for a cup of tea, the puri-sabji or boiled egg. Finally, on the morning of the third day, we woke up to find the train lazily creeping into Kathgodam station and screeching to a halt.
Getting down and counting our luggage, ourselves and our shoes, we did a bit of stretching on the platform. I was carrying a Kodak SLR and a couple of reels, so I had to be the default photographer. I had, however, to reserve most of the film for the main trek, so obviously I was not going to be generous with the clicks. However, even after the initial turning down of the request of a group photograph, I had to relent to substantial pressure from the rest and agree to take a snap with the platform as backdrop.
There was a Maruti Omni standing in front of the station, the driver quite eager to have his first passenger for the day. On the way to Nainital, we had to stop once to dig into some Aloo Paratha in a small yet tidy roadside eatery. All of us were damn hungry.
At the Nainital bus stand, we were immediately surrounded by agents offering us hotels at discounted prices. We did not previously book any place, so we caught hold of one of them to lead us to a decent budget hotel on the Mall Road.
The lake looked glorious with the mid morning sun striking down from a clear sky. Sailed boats were plying all over the lake and the Mall Road was already busy with the tourists streaming in. The famous Naini Devi temple was on our right. The exhaustion of the journey seemed to disappear in a moment. We hit the road and quickly proceeded towards the lake – a boat ride was definitely on the cards.
Manash, the more organized one amongst us, had spotted a sign-board stating “Information Centre” on a block along the lake while we were boating. He disappeared as soon as we landed back on shore, and came back with a smile to announce that the transport for the next day had been taken care of. We were to leave Nainital early in the morning and reach Song via Bageshwar by afternoon, so that we might cover the first part of the trek upto Loharkhet the same day itself.
The boat ride and the previous couple of days’ meager rations had taken their toll. I could feel a rumbling noise from the interiors of my stomach. Just at the same time almost, বড়দা announced it was time for lunch. With a certain tone of assurance and command, he asked us to follow him.
A few minutes later, we were approaching a rather long queue of people on the Mall Road. The queue was leading towards a flight of stairs upwards which ended in a doorway with a signboard in Bengali announcing “মৌচাক”. I later read about it in ভ্রমন সঙ্গী – it was The one-and-only বাঙালী রেস্টুরেন্ট in Nainital, famous for the home-style food which Bengalis crave for. In whichever part of the world it may be, if we Bengalis can get a smell of some আলু পোস্ত and ডাল, none can hold us back. Manash was a bit cynical about the long queue and “- বেড়াতে এসে আবার বাঙালী খাবার -“, but he was washed away by বড়দা and the rest of us – no compromise here. Braving the crowd, we somehow found a place for the six of us in the restaurant, and within moments we were gorging on ভাত, মুসুর ডাল, আলু পোস্ত and চাটনি. Nandy commented mischievously, “কাল থেকে তো ম্যাগি খেয়ে থাকতে হবে, আজ যা পারো সাঁটিয়ে নাও ভাই”.
The early morning bed-tea guy from the hotel was God-sent. Sleeplessness carried forward from previous nights had taken its toll. We had dropped dead onto the beds, but not before a round of leg-pulling at each other and the routine unprintable greetings being hurled in response. I managed to pull my eyes open to find that the others were already sipping on. “উঠে পড়” – Arun was pulling at my blanket. Our jeep was to report at 8, and a long day lay ahead.
The drive from Nainital to Song, through Almora and Bageshwar, was tiring and uneventful. Some of us dozed off to catch up with some left over quota of sleep. We did a couple of photoshoots in between, stopping by some small tea junctions or eateries on the mountain road. It was still not cold, but there was a refreshing chill in the air which brushed our faces as we drove on.
It was almost 2 pm when we reached Bageshwar. Needed some food to come over the nausea which came from the mountain drive. The chicken curry and rice option seemed delightfully good, we did not waste time in helping ourselves. Next seven days did not promise much as far as food was concerned.
It took another half an hour to reach Song, a beautiful village rested in the lap of Nature frequented by like-minded trekkers. We found our Man Friday for the next few days – Chamuram, I still recall him smiling fondly at us like a grandfather wolf towards a pack of unruly cubs. He was to be our guide cum porter.
Chamuram’s smile, however, soon disappeared as he went on to deliver some serious info. It was too early this time of the year, he said, for the trek – the snow was still there, the upper mountain villages were mostly vacated, and most importantly the trekkers’ log huts were – in all probability – unmanned since the caretakers might not have resumed duties post winter. And lastly, the weather would be playing spoilsport. Light to heavy rains were expected intermittently in the next few days.
Rathin took to Chamuram right from first sight. Otherwise an enterprising bloke, Rathin used to hate his stints with the Coke Ovens in Steel Plant. Before coming to this trek, he had been listening to a popular Hindi movie track of which one line he had memorized – and throughout the trek he was to indulge in singing this one-liner whenever he stopped for breath in between the walks, “लो हमने तुम्हे दिल दिया क्या याद करोगे”. Now in Chamuram, Rathin had found his long-lost friend in whom he would confide, “यार Chamu, हम यहीं रह जायेंगे, खेती बारी करेंगे, पर Coke Ovens में नहीं लौटेंगे”. The two shared a strange Chemistry. Chamuram, although knowing nothing about Coke Ovens, would feel the anguish of the poor soul and would try to sooth the wound with some kind of fatherly banter. It was fun for us.
So, we were to move on to Loharkhet, a walk uphill for about 30 minutes at a leisurely pace, to the first trekker’s hut in the route. It would be more of an acclimatization stuff, and before sunset we would be having চা together at 1,760 meters altitude.
Unfazed by the grim notes from our guide, we started. The initial kickbacks hurt our lungs as we groped for air and were forced to stop barely 100 meters after. “घबराने की कोई बात नहीं” – Chamu assured – “बस कुछ गहरी साँस लेनी है और आगे बढ़ना है, ताजा हवा आराम करती”. He was spot on. The energy came bouncing back, and rejuvenated we resumed. Within short, the trekkers’ hut peeped round the corner.
That evening was spent memorably, with the Caretaker cooking a delightful meal of खिचड़ी and आलू चोखा and lighting a small fire for us outside the hut. We were laughing and kidding, so glad to be away from the rest of the world and soaking every bit into the ambiance. The days to come looked even more promising.
Nandy was holding on to my hand and pulling me up. I was lying on my back, fallen flat. While negotiating the mountain spring that streamed across the slanting piece of rocky terrain which interrupted the narrow path of trek, I had lost my balance as the moss on which I stepped wriggled itself out. It could have been serious, the weight of the rucksack had shifted my center of gravity backwards and I landed on my left side with my right hand protecting the camera. I slipped a few feet downwards before I crashed into a tree trunk, now completely off-balance and out of control. The tree trunk somehow prevented further slippage, and I tried to gather my camera, my rucksack and myself, in the same order. Nandy was just ahead of me, and on hearing the sound of the impact he turned quickly. Crossing the wet stone carefully, he came down and reached towards me.
Earlier in the morning, Chamu had cautioned us. A tougher day lay ahead, he had said. The trek to Dhakuri was going to be tricky. It was a steeper climb, up to 2800 m through Dhakuri pass, in between lush green forests and scenic trails.
The first night in the mountains had been spent peacefully. The mosquito repellent cream worked well. We had decided to leave behind a part of our belongings in the Loharkhet trekkers’ hut, so that our rucksacks would not bother us much. We were having breakfast in the morning with some delightful आलू-की-सब्जी and चपाती, while Chamu, resourceful as he was, was carving out a few walking sticks for us from dead branches. He had also arranged for sleeping bags which were to be our best companions for the days to come.
Post breakfast, Chamu decided upon the formation of the walk. He was to lead us from the front with the ever-energetic Manash and Arun close to his heels. Nandy and I would be behind them – more of leisurely walkers – followed by বড়দা – the cautious lone wolf. Lastly Rathin – the happy-go-lucky bloke – he believed in the tortoise/hare story and was prepared to play the tortoise to perfection.
We underestimated Chamu in the beginning. He was spot-on with his precautionary measures. It would have been very difficult to walk without the sticks. I had to be a bit more careful with the camera, so I was slowing down from time to time. Whenever I encountered a steeper climb, I had to make sure that the camera was not dangling from my neck and hitting any protruded piece of rock while both my hands were engaged to hold on to something to pull me up. And of course, I had to take the occasional break to refuel myself.
I pulled out my packet of cigarettes from my jeans and lit one, just to allow myself to settle down a bit from the impact and the mild shock. Nandy lit another. Exhaling deeply, I muttered a word of thanks which he waved off with a careless look. Both of us were smoking partners, we spent a lot of time back in Bokaro fooling around in the Engineers’ Hostel or in the City Center or otherwise in Bokaro Club. Nandy lived on a twice-daily diet of আলু ভাজা, মাখন and ভাত supplemented with an hourly count of cigarettes. Obviously with such a combination one does not gain much of weight; and he was the zero-figure brand ambassador. He had a mischievous smile glued to his face, and was always the first to start any leg-pulling session whenever opportunity prevailed.
While we were finishing our cigarettes, বড়দা and Rathin joined us from behind. After the small reunion and the usual exchange of information, I decided to go for a snap.
The 11 km trek was otherwise completed safely till we finally reached the top of the climb. In front of us lay a wide and beautiful meadow surrounded by dense oak forests, a few scattered village houses and at the end bordering the deep pit a picturesque trekkers’ hut. We had started from Loharkhet at around 8, it was then around 2 in the afternoon. So far it had been good weather, crystal clear blue sky and lush green surroundings. Hastily dumping our rucksacks in the hut, we scampered towards the cluster of small houses which were located across the meadow. Chamu had spotted a place to eat somewhere within.
The दाल-चावल and आलू चोखा was divine. The owner of the eatery promised us foul curry on our way back in the trek. It was too short a notice to him to arrange something that evening, he apologetically admitted. No one was complaining though. We were too excited to have completed the tough part of the trek with comparative ease, barring my downfall. The rest of the afternoon was spent amidst fun and frolicking till we prepared ourselves for the long evening and night. It was getting colder with the breeze cutting in sharply through our wind-cheaters and jackets. Chamu served evening tea and Maggi for dinner in due course of time. Good sense demanded that we get into our sleeping bags as soon as possible.
A long night however has it’s own side effects. And the trekkers’ hut obviously did not offer 3-star facilities. So, when the bladder was about to burst, I finally pulled myself out of the sleeping bag, put on whatever protection I could lay hand on in the darkness, came out of the room, and while shivering between my pairs of teeth relieved myself onto the bushes adjacent to the compound.
As the liquid drained out and a sense of calmness gradually crept in, I saw a faint red light and a trail of smoke behind another set of bushes nearby. Rathin emerged shortly from behind the same. Nature, it seemed, called in pairs.
As we quickly puffed on to the last bit of the cigarettes before we were to rush inside, I looked upwards. A hundred thousand twinkling stars set against a clear deep blue-black sky so wide and endless. Momentarily we both let go all other emotions only to feel what we were beholding. Majestic, if the word truly can do justice to the situation. Never experienced this before.
We were sipping into steaming cups of tea. The sky above had darkened and all of a sudden it felt as if the mood of the mountain forests had changed into a sombre grey and black. It was only 11 in the morning.
Raindrops were gently pattering onto the tinned roof of the inconspicuous shanty of the चाय वाला and eventually funneling from one side of the roof into a thin continuous line down below onto the parched ground and dusty fallen leaves of springtime. As I was finishing my third cigarette of the morning, the thin line of water gradually grew in volume and strength. Everything around suddenly became blurred and misty with thunderous rain pouring in. Seated on a wooden bench under the roof, we moved closer to each other. The accompanying wind was blowing the raindrops right onto our face and body from the front side wherein lay the narrow trek path.
We were another two kilometers away from Khati, Chamuram had informed us before he disappeared into the shanty to have a smoke together with the चाय वाला.
We had started from Dhakuri around 8 in the morning. Khati would be eight km walk, comparatively less challenging and undoubtedly a delight for one who loves to walk through forests. At 2210 m, in fact at a lower altitude than Dhakuri, it is the most prominent village on this route situated right on the banks of the Pindar. It turned out to be the most beautiful stretch of walk we had in these three days. Dense forests of rhododendron and oak, in-between dried-out mountain streams and wooden bridges as crossovers, the music of singing birds, a light chill in the air, the occasional steep climb followed by a flat terrain through the forest – we were really enjoying the trek till it started to grow dark and cloudy. Before the rain came in it was a logical choice to have a break.
The tea stall appeared as we negotiated a bend. In front of us, a few more huts could also be seen in the distance. The forest was thinning out to a flat expanse of level land.
The people here are known to be extremely hospitable. Legend has it that they are the descendants of the race who provided shelter to the Pandavas during their exile. What a superb place for a shelter, in such a grand setting! A sudden gust of chilling wind and mist hit my face and brought me back to the present. The rain was showing no signs of toning down.
A small fragment of anxiety was starting to creep in. We were facing the first signs of the real challenge what might lie ahead of us. With such rain continuing, the road from Khati to Dwali would deteriorate further (already this stretch was known for its unpredictability) and landslides would do their share. As if to shove away the anxiety, I barked out loudly, “আরেক কাপ চা হবে নাকি?” Almost instantaneously came in nods and grunts from the rest, and within a few minutes came in Chamu with a tray of steaming cuppas full of liquid life. Another round of cigarettes were lit, Rathin started humming “क्या याद करोगे” – and বড়দা spontaneously intercepted, “ওরে থাম”.
As we were still laughing, Chamu reappeared with God-send gifts. He was carrying sheets of polythene. Most likely his friend the चाय वाला had provisions for needy seekers.
The mood changed immediately. Soon we were off through the rain covered in polythene. Where there is a will, there will be a way, as the wise men had said long before.
Later in the afternoon, sitting on the open verandah of the trekkers’ hut in Khati, I was rubbing Iodex onto my thighs and ankles. Walking in the rain in Kolkata streets can be very different from walking in the rain on mountain treks, the enlightenment was beginning to set in. The rain had stopped by then, the ever-energetic Arun and Manash had gone for a walk through the village to find out what rations could be obtained for the evening. Rathin, Nandy and বড়দা were into some gripping discussions about their lives in Coke Ovens. However, my attention was towards the open space in front between the mountains from where the stunning peaks of Nandabaner, Nandakot and Laspadhura were now visible. Our first view of the snow-clad peaks. Amazing.
Earlier in the trek, someone of us had mentioned Sunderdhunga. This was another trek route towards the Sunderdhunga glacier which separated from Khati towards Jatoli. Actually Khati used to be the last inhabited village on the way to Pindari, so it acted as a base camp for more adventurous trekkers who wanted to do both Pindari-Sunderdhuga and / or Pindari-Sunderdhuga-Kafni. Now for first timers like us that would be too much for asking, we would come back one day to explore the beauties of these two majestic glaciers. Now, it was mission Pindari. Here we come.
The hands-on connection with Pindar had commenced as we started our trek from Khati towards Dwali. The initial half hour took us over a steeper climb, and we could see the Khati village gradually fading in the distance as we walked. The gradient reduced and we entered a comparatively flatter terrain through the light forest intercepted by a thin stream of mountain water. We crossed that, and shortly on our left appeared Pindar down below. We were walking up and down the narrow path by the side of Pindar, sometimes coming down quite close to the river and again rising steeply through the forest.
As we walked, I could notice that the greenery around was gradually changing to a deeper tone and seemingly coated with a greyish tinge. The continuity of the landscape was frequently punctuated with bare exposed rocky and pebbly masses, as if someone had eaten out of the greenery leaving behind the exposed flesh and bones. This signified that we had entered the landslide zone.
The previous evening, over our rationed quota of Maggi, Chamuram was narrating stories from his earlier treks to Pindari and Kafni. This stretch from Khati to Dwali was normally a refreshing trek, he said, and one could expect to walk these thirteen km quite easily, but with certain caution. The caution came from landslides. The weather in the Pindar valley was quite unpredictable, and often the trekkers had to encounter light to moderate rains in the months of April and May, especially around mid-morning. These rains were often leading to landslides. The trek route therefore was normally interrupted and fractured and even non-existent at many points due to these landslides. Alternate routes were to be taken on such situations by climbing down and walking along the river-side rocky terrain of Pindari and then climbing back up to join the broken trek route.
The unpredictability forecast and the change in the trekking conditions had resulted in us walking close to each other, quite unlike the previous days, although in the same order. Suddenly Chamu stopped. In front of us, a few meters away, on a slight decline, the road had narrowed down to less than a foot width. To the right of the narrow road the mountain steeply climbed up, its rocky wall still wet and mossy from yesterday’s rain. To the left down below Pindar was raging through. The road had taken a sharp bend thereafter and disappeared. It was not possible to ascertain how long this narrow stretch was going to continue, unless we started to walk and crossed the bend. This sudden surprise had been quite unnerving, and looks of uncertainty prevailed on each of our faces. Of course there was no choice but to move forward. But then, how?
Brave-heart Manash was the first to recover – “চল আমি আগে যাচ্ছি“. “नहीं साब, आप रुक जाईये“ – Chamu’s outstretched hand was signaling caution.
Taking his own time, Chamu put all of us in a line, holding hands one after the other. Arun was holding on to Manash’s left hand, and in seriatim were Nandy, self, বড়দা and Rathin. Then, holding Manash’s right hand with his left and using his right hand to support against the rocky wall, Chamu strode forward cautiously. The line started to move as if like a lazy serpent, initially a bit wobbly but more in control after a few steps forward. We had our sides pressed against the wall and hunched forward, careful not to allow the rucksacks on our backs to upset the center of gravity.
My eyes were initially on Chamu. He was moving slowly to ensure that the chain did not break, and to allow us enough time to place our feet firmly on the ground and transfer our weights properly. The ground was covered with small and medium sized pebbles, possibly left-overs from the landslide. Unless we were careful, these pebbles would slip away as we put our foot on them and would surely lead to imbalance.
Even after realizing how important it was not to get distracted, I could not resist from sneaking a glance down below. A fall meant hundred feet at least. The spine-chilling trickle of fear was enough to de-focus my concentration and consequently the next step I put in was a disaster. As I was about to tumble and fall, I felt a sudden jolt on my left shoulder and recovered balance.
The ever-cautious বড়দা, walking behind me, had been observing me closely. The moment he saw me looking down, he gauged trouble. Anticipating my downfall, he had his hand more firmly pressing onto mine, and at the right moment had pulled me up with one good heap.
My right hand had come off Nandy’s left hand as I slipped. He had no chance of turning back, and had moved a step or two forward with the others before Rathin’s voice from behind came in. He had a complete view of the event which happened, and was shouting to Chamu to stop. Turning back, Chamu asked, “सब ठीक है साब“? With me nodding in affirmative, he assured, “कोई बात नहीं, आ जाइये, घबराइये मत, पैर देख के रखना, पत्थर गीले हैं“.
The ordeal continued for what seemed to be an age. Actually it might have been about twenty-five meters. We had negotiated the bend carefully, the path ahead was widening and disappearing into another bend. Walking more comfortably we negotiated a second bend, and immediately froze.
The landslide here had completely eaten away the track. At least for a span of fifty meters, there was virtually no track. It appeared again in the distance and looked a comfortable walking stretch before winding and disappearing into the forest. Question therefore was how to negotiate this stretch in-between. It seemed the only way was to climb down to the base of Pindar and continue our journey alongside the stream of water over the rocky river bed.
The downward journey, except for the cautiousness against loose pebbles and soft muddy sliding surface, was easy.
Soon we were sitting on a piece of rock adjacent to the fast flowing Pindar and lighting our cigarettes. Looking above, the exposed flesh of the mountain looked ominous. Dwali would be still another couple of km away, Chamu informed. The sky was getting dark again. We had to be in Dwali as fast as possible, before the rain again hit the mountain. Walking through such conditions would be almost impossible then. After a few regulation photo-shoots, we started to move. Some distance away, a not-so-steep slope could be seen which would be our route upwards to meet the punctuated trek path once again. The human chain reformed, and we were soon climbing up.
The trekkers’ hut in Dwali was set amidst a splendid backdrop. The forest thinned out to a flat stretch of land, and the river Pindar was still visible down below as the land gradually sloped down to meet the stream of water. The snow-clad peaks could be seen in the distance behind. On the flat portion with a couple of similar looking sheds stood the hut, appearing desolate and abandoned. Clearly we would not be having anyone to welcome us. It was too early for the caretaker to attend his duties, the winter was very much prominent still in the month of April in Dwali.
As we dragged our exhausted and out-of breath bodies to the side of the log hut, we realized that the spot was amazing. It was actually the confluence of the two rivers Pindar and Kafni, and from here the route for Kafni separated. Chamu had collected the key of the hut from Khati, and he was quick to reorganize things within short and come up with steaming cups of tea. Our lifesaver, we all exclaimed. Nandy opened a pack of biscuits, Arun took out from his rucksack a tin of laddoos, and within seconds we were refueling ourselves with this wonderful mid-day snack. The खिचड़ी would take some time, as Chamu was off to collect twigs and dead branches to light up the fire.
Our friend Manash so far had demonstrated outstanding positivity and resourcefulness throughout the trek. But when we saw him taking off his shirt and trousers and wrapping himself with a towel proceeding to get down towards the river, we all unanimously exclaimed aloud. It was going too far, by all means. “আরে করছিস কি, জমে যাবি তো!“
Undaunted and unfazed by the remarks and shouts, Manash strode forward to fulfill his mission. He was going to take a bath in Pindar, in that chilling cold, with the rain about to come in any moment. The rest of us, covered from head to foot with protective winterwear, with hoods or monkey caps, remained awestruck and speechless as we saw him disappear down the slope till he reappeared once again, this time shivering yet smiling all ears. The true ‘Bahubali’.
Our experience across the night that followed is described in the opening part of my narration. The rain had started to pour in since evening. The cold had increased multiple times. Helping ourselves to cups of tea at short intervals, we anxiously awaited the morning to dawn. None could sleep, such was the anxiety and fear which had crept in. I was wondering what was to come the next day. Our encounter with real snow had not yet started. We were still thirteen km away from the Zero Point. Hopefully we will reach there, but it would not be easy at all.
Rain had stopped, but the morning sky was still murky. Our trek to Phurkia at 3200 m, would be only 5 km. But that was mere stats. The night before, while we lay awake, the challenges to overcome the remaining 13 km to Zero Point became visible very clearly as they loomed ominously in front of us. The biggest one of course was the weather.
Plan for the day was to trek these 5 km leisurely and reach Phurkia by noon. Day 6 would be then for an early start to cover the 8 km to zero point, reach there by 9 or 10 in the morning, spend some time there and return back to Dwali, covering a total of 21 km. Day 7 and 8 would be to take us back to Loharkhet via Khati and Dhakuri, and Day 9 would be to take us back to Nainital, from where we would start our home-bound journey on Day 10.
But then, man can only propose, rest is destiny.
While sipping our morning cups of tea, we were all looking up and around. No sunshine, clouds still hanging around. Our first sight and feel of snow had happened during the last leg to Dwali, and now as we looked beyond towards the trail to Phurkia, it promised more to come. Somehow, it was a eerie kind of a feeling which sunk in.
As if to deliberately shrug off the same and to change over, we started earlier than planned.
Round the corner and beyond the trekkers’ hut lay the route to Phurkia. Right away it went into a steep climb, every meter seemed to gain in height and therefore restricted our pace. The air was thinning, I could feel it clearly as it left me gasping for additional oxygen after each step forward. Phurkia was to be real acclimatization location prior to venturing towards Zero Point, now I knew why. The majestic oak and rhododendron forests, the subdued morning light seeping in through them and the forest trail in between were cumulatively incredibly surreal. The colourscape had already changed to a dominant white. This was winter snow, yet to melt and still hanging on to the leaves and branches and covering the ground and the slopes like a blanket. In spite of the tension mounting up, we could not resist to a certain indulgence in fooling around with the snow. A few snaps followed suit.
As if all of a sudden, we realized we were a little above the treeline. Right in our way lay a frozen stream.
Had never seen such a thing before, but the usual wide-eyedness and the exclamations soon toned down as the question “how to cross” registered in. Tiptoeing, close to each other, shifting the weight onto the stepping foot only after feeling assured that the snow wouldn’t break, we moved forward. The ordeal lasted it seemed an hour, actually it did only 10 minutes. There would be four more to come, Chamu nonchalantly mentioned.
The tension was building up, something seemed not working, my guardian angel seemed to whisper in my ears. As we started to walk again, the forest trail resumed, and the whisper grew louder. The ground was now completely covered with the white blanket, it was rather impossible to distinguish which was actually the path and which one not – the blanket lay uniformly across. Chamu was cautioning us, “साब संभलके, right पै रहीये, left में गहराई है“. And just as he spoke, I flew; only to crashland on my back.
Gathering myself, as I sat up, I realized what happened. What lay on the ground below was not snow, it was solid ice, slippery and wet due to the previous night’s rain. Walking on such ice would be difficult anyhow. With trepidation, I looked at my shoes. The rubber sole of the popular sportswear brand was mockingly staring at my face. Oh my God, this wouldn’t work, we would need spikes on such ice! As if to put a seal on my fear, a thud followed and I turned from my half-raised position to find বড়দা grounded.
My thoughts and my fear seemed to have been read and understood by the rest. They had all stopped and were looking back towards us.
Chamu was the one to break the silence. It would be difficult for the rest of the trip for us, in these shoes, he said. More snow and ice would be found, specially after Phurkia it would be almost impossible unless the weather improved significantly. We had to take a call then and there. Move forward or call it shots?
Well, such a twist in the tale was not anticipated. Anticlimax, so to say. A collective decision would have been difficult to arrive at, had not বড়দা stamped his authority once again. “এই আমি বসলাম, আর এগোনো নয়“, he uttered those immortal words of command. The rest of us, ignoring the seriousness of the situation, could not help but break into a spontaneous laughter.
Arun was the first one to come and pull me up. He was smiling, “আসছে বছর আবার হবে”, he said. “হতেই হবে”, said I, as I touched my fist onto his. The rest of us were also trying to hide the disappointment behind the spirit of friendship and camaraderie.
So near, yet so far. Our mission to Pindari Zero Point would have to wait for another day in another time.
Twenty-two years down the line, when I decided eventually to script this wonderful journey, I was not sure how much of details I would be able to drag back from my memories. Surprisingly and to my utter delight, everything seemed to come back as if it was only a few days back that it happened. My friends who would be reading this chronicle would be able to judge how much I could recreate those golden days. I hope I would not disappoint them. It is, for me indeed, Yesterday Once More.