With the final year exams gone by and the end of college approaching, it felt like the right time to go on an 8 day trek to the hills in Manali, to Hampta Pass, with friends. The trek was to begin on 27th May and end on 3rd June, but I can safely say that we spent a lot more time in nature’s bosom than a measly eight days; at least that’s what it felt like. We were a group of 16 people, some coming from Mumbai, and some joining in Delhi itself, wherefrom we took a Volvo from ISBT to Manali. We crossed the busy streets of Delhi, via Murthal and on our way to Karnal, where we stopped at around midnight for food and refreshments. It is quite funny when even though you are sleepy and tired, but still you stay awake, wanting to keep talking, keeping busy and soaking in all of the journey as much as you can, because if you close your eyes you might just miss something important. It was around 3 in the morning when my eyes shut themselves, the music in my ears drowned all thought and the lightly lit road ahead lulled me to sleep. We had been going at it hard, making noise playing Dumb-Charades, eating Theplas, talking of TV shows new and old, and making friends with people that we didn’t know and becoming better friends with people that we did.
The morning greeted us near the city of Kullu where the bus stopped for morning tea/coffee. The river Beas had been following us and keeping a watchful eye thereof, welcoming us to the destination. Entering the city of Manali, we were taken by the Camp Instructor to the base camp at Prini. An absolutely beautiful camp, not small in size and not huge, but just the right size; everywhere that you could turn your head you’d see greenery and far ahead you’d see ice-lit blue mountains. The base camp had all the facilities one could think of, warm tents for upto 8 people, electricity, delicious and energizing food & drinks, and a quaint little mini-trek path to the washroom for the boys, to reach where you literally had to cross a stream. After having been served with welcome drinks and hot food, we settled down and were briefed about the trek and what it entailed. Close attention had to be paid to understand that while nature is not a tempest but it is still formidable, and one could not survive at heights if basic instructions were ignored, such as high intake of fluids was important, so was keeping yourself energized, making sure you kept yourself warm at the right times and most of all, to hide nothing that might become a problem later on.
In the afternoon, we were taken for the acclimatization walk so that our body should be jump-started into automatically adjusting to the weather and breathing at the height. The walk took us up solid, broad and tall stone steps and higher up the city. We walked, breathing heavier than before, admiring the creations of nature till we reached Shabari Temple; a temple made completely of wood with intricate and delicate carvings all through the structure; one could not help but appreciate and think of the effort put in the creation. Facing the temple was open sky and looking down from there, you could feel that you had come high and far; and that was just was the beginning. As the light drizzling caressed our warm skin, we headed back. Hot soup awaited us when we reached the base camp and thereafter tea/coffee and thereafter dinner; it was like sitting in a Rajdhani, you were being fed with something every other moment. To make it feel like a trek with friends, it was necessary to play games that didn’t end very well. Our pick of games that day were Mafia and UNO; the former involved unfair accusations, lots of fighting and shouting and the City losing almost every other turn, and while UNO was fairly eventless that night, the Great UNO War of 2015 was yet to happen. In the warm camps, we had been provided with warmer blankets for the night. We tried to sleep while listening to the music at a distance, of a group that after having claimed the summit had come back and were celebrating; every single one of us hoped that we’d have something to celebrate when we came back too.
The morning hadn’t started that early in a long time, but it was 5 when we woke to the alarms in our phone and went to wash and freshen up. The morning began with hot tea/coffee and early on thereafter we were taken for the exercise. We jogged for some time until we reached a big patch of grass where everyone did basic bodily exercises of wrists, feet, legs, things, arms and neck; better exercise than a sprain or injury later on ahead. Hot breakfast awaited us when we reached back, and we gobbled it down irrespective of whether we were hungry or not. Leaving the heavier and bigger haversacks for the mules to carry on ahead, we loaded our day-sacks on our backs, filled out water bottles to the brim and collected our share of refreshments for the journey – 1 chocolate, 2 orange candies and 1 small packet of Frooti. With minds and bodies ready for the day ahead, we left the base camp by around 8 and bid a ‘we’ll meet again’ goodbye to the base camp at Prini. The trek on Day 1 comprised of us climbing steps and crossing roads that were used to reach higher up in Manali; agreed we were not in the heart of the jungle, but we’d get a glimpse of it and now and then, and for now that was plenty. We climbed innumerable stone steps and walked roads till we’d reach our 2nd Camp, at Hamta Village.
A single 2-storeyd building surrounded by over a dozen tents stood in the middle of the Camp. After being welcomed with drinks and food, we encountered a subtle truth of life; if you eat and drink in these dishes, you clean them yourselves. Needless to say, it was all casual until the first person was sent back to clean the plate again properly, and then the next one; and suddenly it was a battle of rubbing that little pale soap on the metallic plates in the icy cold water.
The activity for the day was net climbing, a simple yet entertaining task that one sees in almost all army movies, though lacking a Sergeant whose forehead veins are ready to burst; everyone achieved the task successfully at their own pace. The afternoon felt like the evening when the sky had turned dark and rusty and in distance, we could see the mountains, enveloped by mist, facing fresh snowfall slowly and beautifully making ice caps for the blue mountains; it is indeed a surreal experience to see mountains getting slowly enveloped by caps of snow. In the time that we had been left to our autonomy, we played several games such as Antakshari, Dumb-Charades and UNO, but none left the scars that UNO did; the dispute over the rules, the use and misuse of the hallowed +4 card, the literal shouting and screams, finger pointing and human rights being taken away, reminded us of how sinister this game could turn people. The rituals of the day past repeated itself when we were happily served hot soup, then later tea/coffee and dinner at 7; it was a treacherous task to wash those dirty dishes in the cold water when every gust of wind poked needles in your skin, but then again there were even those who washed someone else’s plate and did them a great favor. The night fell upon us, and dreaming of the steps we climbed, the songs we sang and the clouds we gave shapes to, everyone went to a sound sleep. It was another sound that woke us up at 1 in the morning when one of ours was suffering from severe migraine and found even breathing impossible. It was only after an hour of discussion, help and assistance that adequate medication was given that provided a semblance of relief to her. I learnt that while I had been up during that entire team, being unable to help or being of no help left me with strong pangs of guilt; if by any unfortunate chance she didn’t feel better in the morning, she’d have to go to the base camp and wait the entire duration there. In the morning we came to know that she decided to continue onwards, and though I felt a rush of relief, the guilt was very much there for having been of no help to her. After the usual freshening up, tea/coffee, morning exercise, breakfast of poha, porridge and omelette, and subsequent washing of the dishes, we collected our fair share of chocolate, toffee and Frooti and thanked the Hamta Village Camp for having taken such good care of us.
The path ahead today had lesser steps and more greenery. We ran out of steps soon enough and it was then that we found ourselves on greener plains gradually sloping onwards turning into hills in the distance. While a slope exhausts you more than the steps would, we didn’t mind because we had finally entered the woods. Onwards and ahead, heavier step-by-step, we climbed the slope of the hills. Much like cattle, our group was divided over the hills, with some at the front and some staying behind out of exhaustion or choice. As we climbed higher, our breathing got harder and our knees felt weaker, and often you’d feel alone save and except the person right in front of you; but it was then that over the wind you’d hear, ‘Badal, tum kahan ho’ from below and someone from up ahead shouting down, ‘Bijli main yahan hun’, and you’d know that there were jokers around you, your jokers, and you were certainly not alone in this. Though in all fairness, the fresh feeling of team-spirit quickly turned into an annoyance when Badal and Bijli would never stop calling out to each other.
Through the grasslands, small streams of ice water formed from glaciers, and blue mountains towering over us, we made it to our 3rd Camp at Kharimindiyari. The beauty of that camp was such that hardly any of us spoke after reaching there first, but quietly kept down our bags and went high and up to simply sit in a melodious silence and breathe in nature itself. As others came, we simply started sitting together in silence, some clicking pictures, some staring into deep and some just watching others smile without meaning to. I’m pretty confident when I write this, but happiness had a stop-over at that camp. At the camp we were offered the usual welcome drink and hot food to fill our stomachs; that day’s trek was harder and we felt that it in the hunger that we had and the second helpings of the delicious food that we took. The activity for the day was Rappelling, and since most of us hadn’t done it ever before, we were excited to undertake the task. A little walk, a little climb, a little descent and we were there; a mountain face over 25-30 ft. tall and the instructors at the top ready to rappel down. First we saw the instructor perform the rappelling and we were briefed on the do’s and don’ts of the task. It was a funny event as everyone had to sing while rappelling down; while some chose to sang ‘chhod do anchal zamana kya kahega’, there were those too who went ‘nanha munha raahi hun, desh ka sipahi hun’; a memorable event it certainly made and everyone finished the activity safely without any injuries. On our way back, we collected wood for a campfire at the night. The evening kept us busy with group games viz. tug-of-war, singing and games on the lines of Kho-Kho; and although they were games that we’d probably refuse playing any other day, that evening all of us participated and almost everyone had the childish laughter running around trying to avoid their ‘den’. The refreshments and hot drinks energized us as we prepared the campfire for the night. As the night fell, and fell it did, for it was as if a sudden blanket of darkness wrapped itself around the camp, the wind turned sharper and bitter and everyone bundled themselves in jackets and windcheaters. The dinner was pleasant and since there was no electricity to be had it was dark; there’s a very real possibility that I spent the dinner talking to and eating with a rock thinking it was a person. Though all that changed with the bright illuminating campfire that sent surges of warmth every which way and you felt like a marshmallow slowly melting away. The camp was a darker dungeon where it was mutually agreed that ghost and horror stories shall be shared and not getting afraid was unacceptable. Stories of old and new, real and made-up, of resorts and societies, were told and shared with fervor and only the listeners know whether they were scared or not. It was a blissful occurrence when at around 10 in the night someone knocked at the tent and offered hot chocolate there itself; what more could one ask for really.
With difficulty we bid farewell to the beautiful camp at Kharimindiyari and ready and set we started descending towards the next camp. The path ahead was a fair descent and as such it wasn’t taxing on the body but required us to be focused and careful lest we sprain or injure ourselves. The little brooks that we crossed, the rocks we climbed and the fallen trees we looked back at gave us the sudden realization that right then we were in the heart of the jungle; at all sides we were surrounded by trees, the life around seemed undisturbed by man and save and except all of us there was no one around in sight. Each of us, walking on that day, was alone but naturally and beautifully we were alone together; and that is how we reached our next camp at Chikka. Moving up on a slope, the entire camp appeared to be a natural part of the slope too. As a change of pace, unlike the usual Dal, Vegetable, Roti and Rice, we were served Noodles and Manchurian for our lunch and we enjoyed it all the same; and then washed the utensils in cold icy water. In hindsight, Chikka was the camp that we properly rested at and rejuvenated our bodies for trek to come ahead the next day. The activity for the day was ‘river crossing’; and using a rope and harness we crossed a river that could have easily washed us over and taken us to the base camp in a jiffy. Once again, no one was forced to go beyond themselves and each one at their own pace did the task successfully. Another pleasant change was the animals all around; horses, buffalos, sheep and goats. They’d come close and you could go closer to them, but animals are animals and just because they were in Manali it didn’t mean that if you were mean to the animals you’d escape unharmed. In the evening, the rain created a cool and dark sky of yore and it felt right and proper to rest inside the tent. After the dinner, although horror stories of black sheep were shared, the night passed easily and the sleep was peaceful.
Rested and refreshed, we started the road ahead the next day, and this time we were going to go through the woods to reach the base of Hamta Pass. Eager and excited at the prospect of reaching closer to our ultimate destination, we moved at a strong and gradual pace. We crossed rickety bridges over wild waters, narrow pathways over sharp edged rocks, and climbed along a gradually widening river to realize that the Hamta Pass seemed nearer than ever and it was then that we’d reached the Juara Camp a.k.a. the Summit Camp. The camp was taken out of a story book, a romantic one, because you only had to go up and you’d find yourself in a location of solitude hidden from prying eyes and you had to just step down to find yourself on the bank of the flowing river, and towering up ahead in the distance was the Hamta Pass, so close yet so far; needless to say it was dreamy. After the usual drinks and food, we were back in our tents with no activity to occupy us today; what occupied our minds was the next day, the day we’d either reach or not reach the summit.
We were warned ahead that our climbing depended wholly on the weather and if the weather was unfavorable, we might not even attempt the summit. Every time we stepped out of the tents, we glanced at the peak and tried to figure out if any hints or clues might suggest the weather for the day ahead. While some went down over by the bank, one leg crossed over the knee, eyes closed and listening to music sitting on a rock, others went on a long walk all around the camp and over the surrounding hills. It was difficult and stupid to sit inside a tent when so much was right there all around us to enrapture us in its beauty and majesty. As the clouds and mist approached from the peak above, the mountain-walkers were called down and the descent to the river was prohibited. The night came dark and slow, but the moon shone straight and clear and if that night wasn’t beautiful, I’m not sure what is. We slept to the lullaby of the constant flowing river right behind us and it was the freshest I felt on such a morning when I washed my face in the ice turned water from up above.
Fortunately the instructors took the call that the weather was acceptable and we started our climb. There was an energy in the air and as we reached the checkpoint a.k.a. Maggi Point, no one gave but a cursory glance to that site because that was the place where, during the climb, people who could go no further would stop; and none of us was going to stop before the summit. Along the way, we slipped, we fell, we crossed two glaciers, we stopped out of breath, we persevered; the air got thinner, the climbing got harder, the greenery thinned down to give way to rocks and ice, but we still persevered. It was twice that the instructors asked the group if we wanted to go higher, and yes we did. We stopped at 12,000 ft. and some cheered, patted themselves on the backs, while some dismissed the entire idea as at all remarkable, because if we didn’t reach the summit, the 12,000 ft. would feel less like an achievement and more like a compromise. It was harder than any other day of the trek, but crossing the rivers and glaciers with shoes and socks wet, with cold air literally making you shake, we moved on till we reached a huge patch of ice and we touched the single mountain, atop which was Hamta Pass.
At that moment, all of the hard work of the past few days made sense; washing the dishes in icy water, waking up at dawn, walking till you could breathe no more and still walking a step further, it all had culminated into that single view and that single moment. That was the moment of celebration, and celebrate it we did. We climbed up the snow and slid down, covered ourselves and others around us in snow and did it all over again till our feet would slide in the snow and we could climb up no more. Every single picture, every single video, and every single smile, felt new and for the first time ever. As the sky darkened and gray clouds gathered overhead, we started our descent to the Maggi Point. We ate like champions, even though it was Maggi, and seeing how Maggi has essentially been banned now, a dangerous diet of champions it was. After the food, everybody sunk back to the place where they sat and let themselves relax. It was an hour later that we headed back to the summit camp. Every story we shared that night was from an exhausted yet satisfied mouth that fell on tired yet content ears. It is one thing for one to be happy with the journey, but it is simply and enchantingly so another form of happiness when the journey and the peak are one and the same and happiness isn’t even a choice but the obvious result.
With heavy hearts, we said goodbye to the Summit Camp and returned back to the base camp. At night, at the base camp, we celebrated our achievement again by being the audience and participants to the local folk dance and though our feet wouldn’t move as much we’d liked, we danced nonetheless. Have you ever woken, went to window, open it and see the sun shining pleasantly right at you? At that moment, the body suddenly fills with life and everything in the world feels more colorful. That is exactly how we felt after having claimed the summit. When we boarded the bus back to Delhi, I didn’t imagine that I would feel sad or so heavy in heart, but I did; I wasn’t ready to leave Manali but I had to. It seemed that the nature picked up on our mood and till we fell asleep, it rained heavily and the heaviness in the heart seemed to compliment the heavy rain. At the moment of goodbye, hugs were exchanged, eyes moistened, the very first moments of meeting were recalled, and although smiles were reflected, the people and the place had taken a hold over the heart and the memories which weren’t easy to shake off. I fell in love with Nature all over again. It’s been two weeks since the trek has ended, and still I can’t stop thinking of random and loose memories from there. I wonder when it stops, if it does; but I know that this trip has sincerely inspired me to climb high and swim low in search of the happiness that brushed me by on that peak at that day. If I had to condense it in a single line, we emptied all of ourselves during the trek and filled it up with something beautiful and better.
P.S. All the images have been taken by me personally and the rights, any and all, rest with me.
This entry has been shortlisted for Holidify’s Travelogue Writing Contest in association with Linger. The content and pictures may not be used without prior permission of the author.
Submitted by: Nitish Chaudhary