It was the end of a very hot Indian summer, and my study at Oxford had just gotten confirmed. It was time for a holiday! I wanted to do something different and adventurous, explore a region I had not been to yet, and spend superior quality time with some of my closest friends.
A Himalayan trek it had to be! And so, four of us found ourselves on a bus to the mountains from Delhi.
The Himalayas are one of the highest, longest and mightiest ranges of the world. They run from the northern tip of India and Pakistan down all the way to Nepal. Our plan was to trek up to Hampta Pass at 14,500 feet. Our trek began in Manali, a quaint mountain town with bustling bazaars sporting colourful Tibetan ware and steaming momos dipped in chilli sauce.
From here, we drove to Jobra, from where the walking commenced. On our first day, we walked through forests of pine and maple, crossed wooden bridges over mountain streams and rested on grassy slopes with grazing mountain goats. At night, we set up camp at Cheeka next to the Rani Nala river and slept like logs.
Day Two was more challenging. Our itinerary demanded 7-8 hours of trekking. Much of it was by the sides of mountains, balancing on narrow strips between rocks. At times, we had to walk through waterfalls. At one point, we had to cross a river hurtling down in full force. We took our shoes off, made a human chain and screamed our way through the ice-cold water. Funnily, soon after us, a pack of mules effortlessly crossed the stream, putting us to much shame. The latter part of the day was spent crossing a massive valley of little flowers. That evening, our campsite was at a height of 11,000 feet at Balu Ka Ghera, with a view of the snow-clad slopes we would be climbing the next day. On top of the mountain, we could see an ancient stone temple flushed by the orange light of the setting sun. I remember not feeling so peaceful in a long time.
Day Three was the BIG day. We were slated for 12 hours of hiking, across three slopes of snow, each at inclines of 70-80 degrees. As we climbed, it got windier and colder, as visibility faltered. With height, oxygen levels were dipping too, and we drank lots of water to counter any risk of headache and nausea. When we finally made it to Hampta Pass, it seemed unreal that we had just come up all the way. There was much celebration that included playing with snow, multiple group photographs, and of course, the mandatory selfie (though we had no connection to upload it to Facebook).
Just when we thought we had done the most difficult part of the trek, we were in for a huge (and rather scary) surprise. The way down from Hampta Pass was, literally speaking, a rocky vertical surface. With every step, we had to make sure our footing was secure before moving forward. We had to also take care to not unsettle a single boulder, because if one went rolling down, it could start an avalanche! The last stretch of the day was sliding down a snowy slope, using our elbows and feet to brake and stop.
Day Four was uneventful in comparison. We walked along level rocky slopes, enjoying clear blue skies, basking in pure sunlight, and taking in views of the Spiti valley. After about 4 hours of walking, we reached Chhatru, and from there, drove down to the Chandratal Lake. This drive is not always possible due to mountain streams flooding the roads, but our expert driver made sure the jeep wasn’t washed away by the oncoming rush of water. Chandratal is a moon-shaped lake nestled in a valley. It is considered holy by the locals. The water is still and pristine, and cold, so taking a dip is at your own risk. That night, we lit a bonfire and danced to mountain folk tunes sung for us by locals.
The next day, we drove down to Manali with a heavy heart, refusing to acknowledge that our trek was over. This was a very new experience, and a lot of fun. It also taught me some very important lessons.
The first is simple, but we fail to see it ever so often. We only know as well as our next step. While trekking, it was pointless to think of how far I have to go and how much I have left to climb, because if I did not focus on securing my next step, I would fall. We spend years planning for the future, but it is only the present moment that we have any control over.
The second was that every few years, one should go away with one’s closest friends for experiences that will belong to just us. We spent hours walking side by side in silence, and talking and singing in the tent. That brings me to my final lesson. Being away from technology for five days (no phone calls, no social media, no texting) was one of the most liberating experiences. It is essential that we look around more often, be aware of the sights, sounds and smells around us, and give the people we love our undivided attention.
I came back feeling fulfilled and ready to start a new phase of life. This experience reinforced in me the belief to value time, value health, value nature, and value people.