Wednesday, October 29, 2008

My second Himalayan holiday (Kuari Pass trek)

Where is this?
Kuari Pass is a mountain pass at about 3800 mtrs in the central Garhwal Himalayan range in Uttarakhand (norhern state of India). The pass is probably the best window to view the high Himalayan peaks. We face north and see the gorges of Trishul in the east to the peaks of Kedarnath in the west - the Kedarnath, Chaukhamba, Nilkantha, Kamet, Gauri Parbat, Hathi Parbat, Nandadevi, Bethartoli, Dunagiri – (all high 6000ers or 7000 m peaks) lined one after the other in a panoramic arc

Why did I choose this?
Hmmmm...As I was planning my holiday for this year (its been 2 1/2 years since I last took one), I dug deeper into myself to see what did I really want. I realised that I needed a mental cleanser (its been a very active last few years on both the personal and the professional front), and that I needed to retract and develop a better understanding of myself. Also that I was going to do this holiday alone (no friends or family tagging along) and didnt really want to indulge in a splurgy holiday. I worked out several options but fell prey to the great Himalayan temptation. I also recalled the great time I had the last time I was there. I was a little apprehensive since the mountains would be cold at this time of the year (I am not a great fan of cold weathers...prefer summer anyday). All said and done, I thought it would be a great non-indulgent way to unwind, what with all the physical activity to be undertaken.

How did I plan this trek?
Once decided I started looking for companies, which organise treks for small groups. I thought that since I am alone, I may as well join a group. After a lot of unsuccessful attempts ( i sent an enquiry to more than 10 companies, whose links I got off the Internet, but didnt get a response from a single one), I got a reference of Wanderers from a friend who had travelled with them earlier. I started interacting with them, and I found them so amazingly responsive. Maithilee from their Pune office, patiently helped me work out several options and arrive at a solution for my needs. I finalised upon the Kuari Pass trek, which was just the right length (10 days Pune to Pune) and spent enough time in the mountains (7 days). In addition a small group had already formed for the trek. I did this a couple of months before the departure date to give me enough time to work out the plans in office and also to prepare myself for the trek.

The trek:
I have described my trek in the sequence of days as we went through the trip. The pictures uploaded in picassa are also arranged in the same sequence to relate the happenings of the day.
Day 1:Delhi -> Rishikesh (330 mtrs)
Starts at Delhi by boarding the Shatabdi to Haridwar where we were received by Avilash Bisht of Aquaterra adventures, who would be conducting the entire trip with us. (Wanderers have tied up with Aquaterra adventures). The entire group was on the train (probably in the same compartment) but we didnt meet since we didnt know each other. Our group consists of myself, Vikram (delhi), Shirsha (Mumbai), Richa (Delhi), Emma, George, Niki (UK). From Haridwar we were driven to Rishikesh, where we put up in "The Great Ganga". After a group lunch, the day was free and I set out to explore Rishikesh (my first time here). I visited the famous Ram and Laxman Jhulla (suspension bridges across the Ganges), listened to some soulful music for a long time outside a music store, attended the arti at dusk on the banks of the river and devoured some delicious north indian samosas.
Day 2: Rishikesh -> Cheffna (1560 mtrs)
We woke up early and started out on a long picturesque drive towards our first camp site. It was approximately 240 kms and we were headed for a village called Cheffna. We drove in two vehicles, a Chevrolet Tavera and a Toyota Qualis (I am mentioning the vehicles since they deserve a special note for being able to stand up to the rough roads quite sturdily). The drive was serene and we passed four confluences viz. Devprayag, Rudraprayag, Nandprayag and Karnaprayag. We followed the alaknanda river and after a 7 hour journey, reached our camp site on the banks of the Nandakini river. Our drivers kept up the pressure and went over teh rough roads at a good consistent pace. My respect for the tavera and qualis climbed a few notches. we made it to our camp site, just before sun set and were greeted by the rest of the Aquaterra team who would be with us on the trek and would look after us. We had Yuvraj (one of the cooks, very good one at that, who Vikram said looks like Rafael Nadal since he was sporting a bandana over his hair), Yogendra (the other cook), and Chain singh. Besides the four aquaterra team members, we had four mule drivers and 8 mules to carry the equipment, kitchen, etc. Our camp site consisted of basically 4 tents for the 7 of us, a kitchen tent, a toilet tent and a dining tent besides the other stuff like stools, tables etc.The food was quite unexpected (throughout the journey). Variety daily, with desert and very delicious. I thought the cooks were not just professional but also very deeply involved with their work. They surely loved their jobs. We turned in early since we decided to start walking at 7:30 after an early breakfast. It was my first time in a sleeping bag and a tent and frankly found it a little difficult to sleep.
Day 3: Cheffna -> Ghunni (2450 mtrs)
We woke up early at 6 AM. It was quite cold (for my liking). Hot water, tea and coffee was already served in the dining tent. While I was strolling around having my morning litre of water, I saw Vikram walk back from the river looking absolutely fresh. he mentioned that he had a full body bath in the river and encouraged me to do so. It was tempting but it was also very cold and the water more so. Moreover I dont normally bathe in cold water. Eventually I gave in to the adventure spirit within me and took the plunge. Awesome is the only word to describe the experience. The first splash not withstanding, I wanted to continue bathing for longer. Thanks to my left over sensibilities I exited and dressed up. Felt lovely...thanks vikram for this push.After a yummy breakfast and a packed lunch, we started our trek. Today was a short day of approximately 4 hours and takes us through the Ghat village onto another village called Ghunni. I was carrying my own bag (approx 23 pounds) and found the going moderately tough. The sun was high too. After we leave the camp site, the team packs up, loads the mules and moves to the next camp site. They try to get there earlier than us so they can setup the camp site and greet us with a hot cup of tea. Today was an exception, but while we waited for them, we devoured our packed lunches. The camp site was right above te shool in Ghunni. I used the space after the trek to reconnect to myself, do my meditation etc. What follows from now on is a similar pattern.
Day 4: Ghunni -> Sem Kharak (2630 mtrs)
We left our camp site at 8AM and trekked towards our 3rd camp site. Todays walk involves steep ascents and walks through woods. After about 5 hours of walking, we came to our really cute camp site nestled in the woods. Here we encountered heavy rains in the evenings, after dinner. Weather then was cold and damp. I realised that I have overpacked. There was some stuff which I might never use (refer to my note at the end of this blog post about lessons learnt during this holiday).
Day 5: sem Kharak -> Pana (2790 mtrs)
Today I got rid of about 6 pounds of my bag and let that be loaded on the mules. What was left was a bag minimally packed for 7 days of living off only the bag contents. Today is a tough long day with 2 descents and 2 ascents totalling about 7 hours of walking. Today I came down with a severe congestion of my ENT system along with some fever (it turned out to be bronchitis). This added to my stress and made the day really long and tough for me. The walk was really beautiful though...through the woods (every time we walked through the woods, it looked different), over a very high bridge crossing the Birahi Ganga, crossing some really pretty meadows, and a village where there was a school. The kids here clean the school themselves, and call the teacher "Adhyapak" which is a hindi word for teacher (Check the pictures). Todays camp site was located above the Pana village. we had 3 cute kids from the village visit us and be with us. They were curious to see what we are upto. They were especially kicked to see me, George and Emma meditate. They were sweet enough to sing for us.
Day 6: Pana -> Dhakwani (3105 mtrs)
Todays walk was through forests and meadows with steep ascents and descents to bring us to a camp site just below the Kuari Pass. From our camp site, we could clearly see the pass above us. Today was a stretch and a struggle for me physically. I was finding it very difficult to breath, thanks to my congestion and the thinning air. I was now consuming crocin+combiflam (twice a day) to get symptomatic relief at least (didnt help much). In the mountains, its not just the temparature but the breeze which adds to the discomfort. It multiples the effect of the cold (chill factor). Continuing to walk now was a mind game for me. I was now physically broken. Tonight we would turn in early since we planned to wake up at 3 am and reach the pass before sunrise. We wanted to capture the snow capped mountains being kissed by the rising sun (how poetic :-))
Day 7: Dhakwani (3105 mtrs) -> Kuari Pass (3800 mtrs) -> Khulara (3395 mtrs)
We started at sharp 3:30 AM and walked with flash lights towards the pass. It was a steep climb. I was covered with 5 layers including thermals, woolen cap and muffler and gloves. I was really straining today and it took me a little over 3 hours to reach the top. But once at the top, all pain was forgotten. We had a panaromic view of the Chaukhamba, Neelkanth, Badrinath, Kedernath, Kamet, and more. It was stunning. We spent a good deal of time on the top, ensuring our cameras have captured the peaks with all the changing colours (as the sun rose). It was severely cold, especially due to the wind chill and most people couldnt use their hands.Shirsha and Richa were our professional photographers, who between them took over 500 pictures using SLR cameras. (I have linked to their albums in this blog). We bumped into a foreign national who had camped on the pass (must have guts to sleep in that cold) and had been travelling in India since a year and half. He was kind enough to take some pictures of the group using our cameras. We were lucky to have not encountered any bad weather (despite niki having seen one Magpie, which was supposed to be unlucky. After a windy breakfast and a short (refreshing) nap in the sun, we started our leisurely descent towards Khulara. The camp site again was nestled in the woods near a water source. As soon as we settled into our camp site we encountered bad weather (not too soon). We were treated to a hail storm for about 4 hours after which our green camp site turned white. The whole camp site looked like a snow covered holiday resort.The weather turned really very cold and we huddled around a camp fire to keep warm. I realised how poorly i have been sleeping all through out the trek. (probably couldnt handle the cold). This despite having exchanged my sleeping bag with Avilash's bag to see if the bag is not suitable for these temparatures.
Day 8: Khulara -> Auli -> Bihari guest house.
Today we woke up later than usual and started a scenic walk towards Auli, where our trek would end. Avilash changed the plan (originally we were meant to descend to tapovan directly) and made walk through the north facing slope and all along we had a great view of the peaks, especially Nandadevi. Was a good walk, partially through the snow covered path and then through a slushy part (melting snow) and the usual dry trail. We were picked up by cars and driven to the Bihari guest house which is along the Bihari Ganga river. After a refreshing bath (after 6 days), we all had a small gettogeher to celebrate the achievement (was not fact this trek was much tougher than the Har ki dun trek I had undertaken 2 years ago).

My learning from this trek:
Every experience in life happens to you for a purpose. It is lifes way of prompting you to grow up. I believe this and am always on the lookout for the hidden lessons in the experiences (of course without compromising on the beauty of the experiences). Heres what I learnt from this (this trek offered me several "first times" e.g. first time in a tent, first time in a sleeping bag, first time in the snow, first time bathing in ice cold water in the open ( i now suspect that is what caused me to get ill), etc.
1. The lessons learnt to deal with these situations were invaluable.
2. I strongly recommend Wanderers and Aquaterra adventures to help you with your holiday plans. They are very professional and committed.
3. If you plan to carry your own bag, target a weight of 6 kgs including the weight of the bag. I struggled initially for 2 days with my 10 Kg bag, before I realised that I had overpacked. On day three, i stripped the contents to the minimum listed below. It came down to about 6.5 kgs which was more manageable.
Heres what I suggest (learnt by observing Avilash and others and then trying it out after day 3) One pair of tracks + one T shirt + one long sleeve t shirt for the walk (Choose material which dries quickly and also keeps you warm (poly material)and can be reused for the 6 days of walking...recomend Nike dri fit) One extra pair of above in case it gets wet. Change for the camp wear (thermals+pyjamas+layered t shirts+jacket+woolens(muffler+cap+gloves)) spare underwear and 2 pairs of socks Dont carry any toiletries except tooth paste (small)+tooth brush+moisturiser+sun block+soap strips+hand sanitizer (all in travel small sizes) Every 100 gms matters. Dont bother to shave, bathe etc. You wont stink no matter what. The environment is too clean.
4. Nothing you do can prepare you for this kind of gruelling event. It takes the most out of you physically, although it refreshes mentally. If at all, do loads of cardio so your lung capacity is good. Add pranayam to this. Dont forget to strengthen your back and shoulders to be able to carry the load.
5. Go with an open mind and enjoy the experience (especially if its your first time). our group was really sporting and open. Not taking away the pampering treatment given by the Aquaterra team. Vikram was an avid trekker (in these parts) and had loads of information to share about the peaks, spots etc. Avilash was a wonderful guide, very well informed and quite focussed. Richa and Shirsha were our fun anchors. Emma, George and Niki surprised with their high level of fitness (they could chat continuously during the entire walk) and were way ahead of the rest of us.

What about the pictures?
Check out these links (Shirsha's and Richa's pictures have an all new quality/depth...very good pics)

Would I do it again?
Yes. No question about it.