by Shruti Sharma
Sometime in April my friends, who were setting up their new adventure travel outfit, Geck & Co Adventurers, asked me to join them on this trek taking the route used by Gaddi shepherds herding their flocks (and earlier used by the British) to cross over from Pabbar valley through the Buran pass to the Sangla valley. So, come May 14, a couple of my girlfriends and I boarded our train from Delhi to Kalka and then hopped on a cab to Shimla, to join the Geckos for an epic trek. I wasn’t too kicked about staying the night in Shimla but Hotel Spars Lodge run by the awesome, Joey changed my mind: do try the Smoked chicken and the Salmon at their kitchen!
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The next day we were up at 6 am and on the road through Kufri, Narkanda, Rohru, and Chirgaon finally, where we stopped for lunch and also picked up Pankaj Negi and Jay Negi, our route guides. After having some soulful pahadi Rajma-Chawal we drove to Pankaj’s village called Janglik where we were to camp for the night. Since the road going up to Janglik was still being constructed we had to de-board our vehicle at a village called Tangnu, which some of us were rather happy to do since road conditions were painful by this point. Our porters were already waiting for us here by the time we reached.
Impressed as I was with my ‘mad skillz’ and preparation for the trek (I’d been running and had started rock-climbing), I decided to carry both my big pack and small daypack on person, which proved to be quite a silly idea—five minutes into the walk I had to ask someone to carry my daypack for me. Ten minutes down the line the walking stick was brought into action and 12 minutes into it, when the uphill climb began, all possible support belts of the big backpack were tied wherever they possibly could be tied. Some heavy-duty sweating followed soon and as tiny drops of rain began to fall, my sharp trekker stance was quickly morphed into a sappy wet-beaver one. The uphill climb (the village is at 2800 meters) was a rude shock to say the least, and many breaks were taken. The only solace was a bunch of kids who trotted up and down around us as we sauntered uphill and sang a cheeky Kinnauri song at the request of the Geckos & it went something like, Tension nahin lene ka, tension bas dene ka. Fortunately, the walk was short (3.5 kilometers) and we made it to our campsite in about an hour and a half.
When we reached, our tents were already pitched in and hot, sweet tea awaited us. As the breathing came back to normal and tea warmed our tired souls, we took the beautiful views in. Right after, Pankaj gave us a tour of his village, followed by his friend ‘Commando Ji’, as he was lovingly called, cooking us a scrumptious hot meal of aloo gobi, dal and some mean chicken curry. Although the food was delicious it is recommended that you avoid eating the stringy hill chicken and carry soya etc. for your protein requirements.
At night before sleeping, some of us began to doubt our ability to make it beyond the point we were at. A couple of people from the group had a quiet meeting with the trek & route guides to discuss the idea of turning back from Janglik itself so they wouldn’t be a liability for the whole group in case they weren’t able to walk. Geck & Co apparently gave them a very sweet, polite, pep talk, assuring them of all kinds of support through the journey and urged them to push their limits a little. Reassured, we all brushed our teeth under the clear moonlit sky and soon turned to the comfort of our warm sleeping bags. I would like to tell you that I slept like a baby but I didn’t—we were sleeping on hard ground for god’s sake with nothing but a thin layer of foam (carry mat) between the ground and us. Harsh stuff, that!
Breakfast was brilliant—some yummy omelettes, toast, peanut butter, jam, coffee, tea and milk. Right after, we were handed out our very lovely, not-so-little Tiffin boxes that had some subzi rolled in paranthas in them, some chocolates, energy bars, dry fruits, and toffees—all in all, quite homey! Equipped with food, water, daypacks and walking sticks, we ventured out ‘into the wild’; there were going to be no villages en route for about 3 days now. Soon, Janglik was behind us and we were walking through beautiful forested patches that were slowly beginning to give way to lush, enchanting meadows.
It was now beginning to become difficult for me to keep my eyes on the path; I just didn’t want to take my eyes off the mountains and miss even a moment. Lunch was at a spot that was stuff of computer screen wallpapers—only we were in the wallpaper now.
We also met some Shepherds here (only other people besides our group). They were sitting and shearing their sheep casually. We bid them adieu after lunch, which took all of 10 minutes by the way, and moved forth through one of the last patches of forest. In about 40 minutes, the forest cleared and opened into stunning Alpine meadows of Dehra Kanda (3249 meters)—we’d walked 12.3 kilometres to reach here. A suitable camping site was soon found where we learnt to pitch tents (at least some of us did!). Of course, this was right after some three of us wet our shoes whilst crossing the stream to reach the campsite. So, sandals/floaters it was going to be—for the acclimatization walk next. When high up in the mountains, they say ‘climb high and sleep low’, so we were to climb a nearby hill, to get used to the altitude.
Cameras in hand, we climbed up, relaxed a bit, enjoyed the views and then climbed down to a warm snack (noodles) prepared by the route guides and the cook. Since I’d eaten a part of my lunch right before going for the walk, I decided to skip the snack and sunbathe—with whatever sunlight remained but that was not to be. The mountaineers around me told me that I needed to eat since at high altitudes one doesn’t feel hungry but requires the energy to keep going. After a bit of debate about who knew what was best for me I gave into the noodles. I must say, I did sort of feel better after having it.
After that, the evening was spent exploring the meadows—be it to capture the views or find a suitable spot to take a dump. The latter was a bit of a task by now since there weren’t too many trees or large rocks in sight and a few shepherds were still around, grazing their sheep. Post dinner, the porters and route guides informed us that they’d prepared a cultural programme for us around a fire. Glasses of Rum and Whiskey were passed around along with beedis (our cook Commando Ji kept up a regular supply of them post this night) as we all sat around the fire—some of us drying our wet, cold shoes. Before long, we realized that most of the songs the young porters were singing were about this one girl called Shaalu who seemed, not an equivalent but a superior of our very own city girls—Sheela and Munni. Shaalu apparently drinks whole bottles of Rum by herself and goes to the local fair pretending she has had a bottle of coca-cola. She also seems quite coquettish and a bit of a heartbreaker. By the end of the night, most of us were convinced that Shaalu was ‘the’ item girl and Sheela and Munni did not have her mad skillz.
The next day was going to be fairly easy and short, so we left camp around 9. The views just kept getting better and better. There were a couple of short streams to be crossed, so we were going to all stick together instead of forming smaller groups and walking far apart at our own sweet paces. However, after crossing the first stream we couldn’t keep up with the ‘walking in single file’ routine.
For a bit, I walked with the slowest member of the group, often stopping to take pictures or just breathe in the view. A little later, I paced and left the group of 3 behind me to catch up with another group of 3 ahead of me, and for a bit in between I found myself alone in the wide expanse with no one else in view. I may have been thinking something to this effect at the moment—‘If I could live amidst you all my life just staring blankly at your snow-clad bodies, with no one else by my side, I would’. In that moment: I was lost to the world and had found home, I was too small and too big at the same time, I was the mountain and the mountain was me.
The rest of the walk was a bit of a blur but I do remember crossing a part where there’d been a landslide, a spring that had the purest tasting water and a beautiful but strong stream with a bridge made of large stones. We’d made it to Litham Kanda (3568 meters), having walked 9.8 kilometres.
As soon as the tents were pitched, it started to rain and we all ran to the shelter of our kitchen tent where fortunately, some of the sleeping bags were also kept. While we waited for the rain to stop, spelling games kept us entertained. When the wind and downpour slowed down to a drizzle we saw a small figure come down a hill next to us. Clad in a rain poncho, it was one of the trek members, too thrilled with being there to be able to contain herself inside a tent. Since she couldn’t go up to the nearby Chandranahan (waterfall and glacial lakes above it, about 1.5 hours walking from where we were), she climbed the small hill to get a closer look. Infected by her enthusiasm, soon more of us joined her in an acclimatization walk where we learnt how to walk on snow.
The next day we were to start our climb through Buran Ghati and across Buran pass (4550 meters) at 6 a.m. so the headlamps & torchlight(s) were switched off rather early that night. Waking up at 5 a.m. was a bit harsh but not so much after the lovely, hot cup of tea that was served to us in our tent every morning. Freshening up and brushing our teeth in the cold, cold spring water was a bit of an adventure.
And, soon we were on our way, post some parantha & porridge breakfast that is. The idea was to reach the top of the pass at noon and soon after start the descent. However, the most important thing was to stick together through the day.
Walking in snow sure does take some getting used to—there were slips and falls all along the way, one more memorable than the rest as I slipped down a slope right after cracking a joke about the odds of me slipping. Fortunately, I was saved by one of the Geckos, who I did take down with me for a bit of the slope. Climbing back up to where I’d fallen from wasn’t the most pleasant experienced and so I promised the rest of the group that I wouldn’t crack any silly jokes after that. Fifteen minutes down the line I fell again of course, as the snow under my feet gave way near a spring. Fortunately, yet again, I didn’t fall into the water but my bottle of water did. Our cook immediately came to my rescue and in a Superman-like fashion brought me back my bottle by breaking slabs of ice and taking it out from under them, even though I kept screaming to him that it wasn’t so important.
The climb became more and more steep beyond this point and each step more strained. The porters, guides & some superfit members of the group treaded forth, making guiding steps in the snow, which the rest of us followed. By now we could see the pass clearer but the higher we climbed, the farther it seemed—deceptive bugger! It now began to hail too! We were running late and at 1 p.m. a couple of us were still out of sight of the pass. Having started walking together, we were now each on our own—close by, yet on our own. Me, I was by this point counting my steps: walking 20 steps, 25 this time, lets make it 30, take a break, and start again. It helped to count.
And, before I knew it, I was there.
Some of the porters, and 3 male members of the group had already reached before me. They were sitting huddled together, trying to get some warmth. I almost couldn’t believe that we’d made it to the top—it seemed there still might be some way to go. Gradually, everyone made it to the top–we celebrated, we laughed, and we hugged each other, and warmed each other and then waited impatiently to start the descent as the chill made it almost impossible to stand still in one place. Oh! And, one of the Geckos had connectivity on their phone at the top and they called home. (pause for ‘awws’!)
Soon, the snow axe was out and the route and trek guides started cutting footsteps for a part of the first slope we were to descend. Once they were done with that a rope was tied around us one by one, and we were to climb down using the footsteps created. After we reached a certain point we were to glacade down. Alarm bells were ringing in my head by this point since slides et al are not my forte and I talk from experience here (read: in a city, falling repeatedly whilst wearing Wellies). So, as those ahead of me slid down with utmost poise, seemingly enjoying themselves in the process as their ‘woohoos’ echoed through the valley, I rolled down the latter part of the slope. My walking stick and sunglasses (very crucial in the snow to avoid snow-blindness) were lost en route, somewhere whilst rolling but were retrieved by the dextrous trek guide, Pankaj, who was walking up and downhill like the valley was his playground—it was indeed.
The rest of the descent included walking downhill in the snow—a part I quickly mastered and thanked my stars that I did. However, for some parts it was best to slide down and since I wasn’t quite sure about this part, I did it with other people, attached to their backs like an oversized baby monkey.
It was a fun ride but it was almost 6 in the evening by the time we got off the snow. It turned out that the site where we’d thought of camping was still covered in snow, so the camp had been set up a little distance from where the descent ended. This was hard to take since we’d now been walking close to twelve hours. Fortunately, we found some fresh water and continued walking. In groups of 2 or 3 we made it to camp by 7 or 8 pm.
Within seconds of reaching we were handed out some warm soup that warmed my soul like no soup had ever done before (I can still almost taste it). This was followed by a change into warm clothes, if we could find some that is, and some Tuna sandwiches, Maggi, Rum, Whiskey, dal & rice and beedis, in that particular order. I think we all sat around the fire for a good 3 hours that night warming our shoes, our socks, our gloves and ourselves. Paracetamols and Vitamin C tablets were had and we all retired to our tents tired but content. The next morning, some aches and pains were felt but the smiles were bigger and warmer.
We didn’t start walking until noon the next day. All of us just sat around after a lovely breakfast and basked in the warm sun. A little into the descent though the knees screamed murder, however, the wilderness that we were now walking through was different and even more beautiful and soon we stopped hearing the screams of our poor knees. We all seemed extremely relaxed a little into the walk and lunch was a lot of fun as dal paranthas were had with side dishes like Tuna, baked beans and pickle.
Since the area was so beautiful, most of us wanted to keep on walking even though we’d walked about 5 hours or more. That evening at camp was one of indulgence in food, and local liquor. The next morning was beautiful and uneventful although one can’t say the same about the afternoon. As we waited for our vehicle to pick us up and take us to Sangla, a little way downhill from the campsite, one of us decided to go free-climbing on a not so big rock and took a bit of a nasty fall. Of course, an hour or two later everyone decided to make the person who had taken the fall the butt of all their jokes. We drove to Sangla and then to Chitkul for lunch. It is difficult to put in words the beauty of Chitkul and the way the place makes you feel.
After lunch, as we drove back to Sangla, I was on a different high and singing ‘All is full of love’ on repeat. I didn’t think it could get better but it did—as we made a pit stop at this beautiful, not-so-little café a little before Sangla, called Café 42 that serves (lord have mercy!) French press coffee.
Most of us almost had tears of joy in our eyes on reading the words ‘French Press, Coffee, Muffin’. Unclean, tired and badly sunburnt, we warmed our souls & soles with some good coffee & desserts on their beautiful wooden deck, or cushy sofas indoors and discussed how we’d all love to own a place like it. In their little library, we also found an Oracle book that told some of us that we were going to climb the Mount Everest one day! And, since the world is too small now, it turned out that an acquaintance from Delhi owned the café.
Unwillingly, we left the place for our hotel and at night, after scrubbing ourselves happy, discussed, almost endlessly, what we loved about being in the mountains, and on the trek.
What to Carry: [Travel light, its good for you and the porters]
* Good trekking shoes + Floaters / Slippers (to cross streams)
* Trekking Pole (Ideally one stick should be enough)
* Headlamp (preferred since you can keep your hands free) / Torch
* Camera + Batteries (charge them fully before your guesthouse/hotel)
* Sleeping Bag (in case you don’t want to use a rented one)
* Trousers (2)
* T-shirts (3)
* Warm Socks (2 – 3 pairs)
* Fleece Jacket (Light to carry, keeps you warm)
* Warm Jacket (Thick, down etc.)
* Sunglasses (Mandatory if you’re going to be in snow)
* Gloves / Warm Hat
* Day pack (to carry water, jacket, camera, food – things you require during the day)
* Rain Gear (Ponchos come in real handy in covering your bag and yourself)
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