The last time I picked up the “proverbial” pen was 4 years back. That was a “high” I felt when I ran my one and only full marathon. Was just about to feel a different kind of high now on the kedarkantha trek.
That experience of the marathon, spurred the adventurer in me, to say yes to a casual conversation, on whether we should do the Kedarkantha trek in December, in the snow. How difficult can that be? The temperatures would vary from 0 to -15 deg and a maximum height of 12500 feet. I have seen colder than -15 and survived. And 12.5k ain’t exactly Everest!
It was a 3 sibling / their friends and family, kee snow mountain kahaani. Sounds a bit jumbled, but that’s what it was. 11 of us in all, a 12 year old, an 11 year old and yours truly, the youngest at heart, and everybody else in between! Btw, don’t mind the number of exclamations in this story. A full stop or a comma, does not tell the story.
So what follows is story in pictures, because unlike the marathon, the view was pretty. Somebody said, a picture says a million words. You stand to become a word millionaire, without paying a penny!
The journey to the kedarkantha trek started with a ride from Dehradun to Naitwar, our “Base Village”, was as uneventful as they come. But a feast for the eyes, it sure was. The Yamunotri on the way, is absolutely serene and chilled out, literally. Dip your hands, legs and even your head and feel the cold crispiness sizzle through your body!. The best water i ever tasted. Absolutely, don’t forget to stop, when you see the river flowing a few meters below the bus path.
Reached Naitwar (pronounced Naitwal, the base camp of the kedarkantha trek) late evening. Cold like hell. Having dinner outdoors, on a moonlit night in near zero degrees, (without electricity) is a trying experience. Try it, at least once.
The sky is blue, the sun is out, morning is pretty alright, the cold is definitely not alright! Don’t go by what the dude behind us is wearing. Everybodys decked up. At Least three layers of woolens, snow boots, a head cap (which will now never be removed till we come back, a golden rule, which we had to literally sign on a bond paper!) Anybody attempting their first snow ride, follow this to the T. Kabir and Adoo were by far the coolest dudes in the group. In a couple of days we were to discover how easily they could do what some of us found really really tough.
A 9km hike with a 1km vertical climb was tough, given the rocky tough terrain. Destination Jalouta, our first base. Meanwhile, the most amazing sights, stunning houses (all wood) and some conversation with the villagers. “Labour of Love” is a term that comes to mind when you see a view as pretty as the red house. Imagine the amount of time, effort and passion go into building these kinds of picture-postcard houses, in the middle of absolutely nowhere.
The best looking people, you would ever meet, by a long way. The pictures probably don’t reflect it, but absolutely stunning groovy eyes!! Come on, don’t tell me you aren’t smiling right now, just looking at the kids.
The number from our group of 12 11+ our trek leader (who I will talk about later) increased to 13 as we made an interesting 4 legged friend. He was with us all the way up to the next camp and to the base camp pf and to the kedarkantha summit and back. The mystic goes that he knows the route so well that he has taken first-time climbers all the way to the top without a formal trekker. Backpackers, please find him, going up from Naitwar to Jalouta !!
After a grueling 9 hour hike, we are finally at Jalouta, tents were already set for us, two in a tent. Here is an interesting story… Tents were set up a group of support staff, with their mules. They left the base Naitwar, much after we left. Overtook us somewhere in the middle of our 9km climb, hauled up the tents, and our heavy luggage (we carried simple backpacks on us), food and the works. Set up the tents, left and must have reached Naitwar before we reached Jalouta! They did that for the next 3 days at every camp we stayed in.
Its but obvious that there is no hot water and you don’t need to bathe. For a first time hiker like me, the whole process of changing your inners (you have to, every evening) is downright hilarious. The tent is not tall enough for you to stand. A semi squat/sit position is hardly ideal to change in freezing temperatures. If you are not precise in your process and finish the process in time, the oohs and aahs of the cold hitting you, can be heard by all and sundry outside the tent, and they were many!
All pooped, that’s what Rahul and I looked like inside the tent. Vishal, Rahul, Sandhya, Shubhankar and Stuti in front of the bonfire. Sandhya obviously loves the cold. Doesn’t she? Temperatures around 0 to-2 Deg. Felt like -10!
An interesting night time rule. If somebody requires to take a wee, you have to take your tentmate with you! Rahul was a bit bemused when I woke him up at 2 am, stepped out in a moonlit night. I did my job and came back, while he stood guard. This rule obviously makes so much sense. Not because wild animals could attack us (and we were told there were a few around) But in the cold, in the snow, on uneven ground, you could slip and run the risk of not being able to call for help. Luckily none of that happened on this trip. We had to pack the tents up in the morning. A new skill learned was to roll up the sleeping bag. Tough job. Try it one day.
Brushing teeth is an amazing experience. Just the thought of removing your hands from the gloves freezes you up and when you actually do remove the hands, you really curse the person who invented the concept of brushing teeth. And btw, the only way you get water is to throw the snow from the ground into a pot and light a fire under it. Dashod and team rustled up an amazing breakfast and we were off for the next hike. This was a more or less, an all snow 700metre incline and a 6km hike with our snow gators, the blue thingy, attached to our shoes. The most pleasing to the eye, if ever you can call a day !. Nature, at its best, resplendent in white !! Lunch under the sun. The Gupta siblings obviously loving every bit of it! Never a sunglasses guy, don’t think I removed it even once.
After about 8 hours, of a tough climb, we sight the base camp and the kedarkantha peak, behind it. The beauty and grandeur, is a sight to behold. But it’s also a feeling, mixed with relief and apprehension. Relief, that we can see the summit, apprehension that scaling that peak is not going to be easy, the next day morning. Mind you, with the way weather behaves on a mountain, you only have a window of a few hours the next day morning to start the climb, and come back. Its like every mountain has its opening and closing timings. . What Rahul is doing below (look at his feet), should be tried at home, not here, if you intend to keep your toes attached to your feet!
I have never been a “Sunset” guy. A nonbeliever, a nonreligious guy, never felt so “spiritual” sitting there in -15 degrees, looking at the sky turn orange to red and then the moon reflecting it back a form of a gentle white on us. Suddenly felt what serenity really meant.
At the base camp, some in the group, decided that they would not attempt to scale the kedarkantha peak, given the level of difficulty, the cold and the time we would need to leave in the morning. It was a sensible decision. They took a call to enjoy the view from the base camp and cheer the rest of us who decided to go ahead
We started a couple of hours late, which meant Dashod, our lead trekker had to take a shorter and a more challenging route to the kedarkantha peak. A 1.5Km walk with an incline of 450metres. We were the first group of this season and and there was no “route” from the base camp to the peak. He had to create a route for us, implying we had to step on more or less exactly the path created by him. What started was a journey to the top, with very few pictures. It was physically the toughest 3-4 hours of my life. The snow went from being walkable, to 2 inches deep to 6 inches deep to 2 feet deep in no time !! The fear of the next step being an endless hole, existed, but faith is a good thing. Faith on somebody who has done this a million times.
The gaitors came on, the anti-skid(microspikes) chains on the boots, came on. Those are smiles of some brave men and women, the bravest being the 12-year-old, Kabir, who has an exceptionally strong mind and heart of a lion. The cold got to him in the middle of the trek but gritted it out till the peak
There are times in a journey when you start questioning “why”. The wind howling, it’s bone-chilling cold, (-17 degrees), the only way you can get a semblance of warmth, is that you keep moving. But your mind and body keep telling you to stop and take a deep breath, rest. Every stop adds to the cold air inside the body. Exhausts it even more. Why am I doing this? Can I stop and go back to myself? We started with the “10 steps-rest” rule. Climb 10 steps and rest for a few seconds. Do it till you get to the top of kedarkantha. The 10 came down to 5. Sometimes 3. Breathing was getting tougher. No, at that time, you don’t think of how the Everest guys do it if this is so hard. You just think of yourself, the next step and the next breath. Then you see this ‘beast’ of a man. All of 5 feet 5 inches weighing 60 kgs, literally running through the snow, nudging, pushing at everybody to move it and keep the faith. This beast was obviously Dashod. I have seen fit people and I have seen super fit people. But when your body is screaming to stop to take a breath and you see this guy literally running up the mountain, in 2 feet snow with effortless ease, you wonder, have you seen a fitter guy than him? Mind you, he has woken up an hour or two before us, prepared breakfast and is physically pushing some of us who are way past tired !!
Like a skilled sherpa, he kept the peak “10 minutes away from us, all the time. The 10 minutes was repeated many times and kudos to his skill at managing us, that he got us to the top. He said, was ready to carry us one by one if anybody had given up. I absolutely believed he would have done that if that would have happened. Luckily, all of us did manage to pass the test
We finally did summit the peak and a strange silence took everybody over for a minute or two. No jubilation, no over the top “Yahoo”. I remember this like yesterday. We were all quiet. It was a strange form of celebration. The sense of achievement was ridiculously understated for that minute.
We signed up for kedarkantha trek, not really knowing how tough it would be. I thought I was fairly fit and I realized, halfway through, my body was not really sure if I could make it. It was only the mind that got me through. I realise how much stronger the minds of some of my fellow climbers would be. After it all sank in, it was time to take pictures and unlike the last climb up, we had plenty. The story was about celebrating the friendship of Vishal and Rahul, Manjul and Stuti & Shivani and I. Friends for many years, which would continue for many more years. Nothing like celebrating this journey at 12500 feet !!
The story would obviously be incomplete without scenes which literally took your breath away.
Then I think, maybe I did it for the view. Maybe, I did….
The route going down was nice and fast and Dashod, true to his character, inserted some fun into the “climb” down. Anybody remember Shammi Kapoor “Chahe koi mujhe junglee kahen”? Ok, we weren’t as Junglee, but yes we did slide down, over the absolutely fantastic powder snow. Bliss doing that. Dashod again created the route and we followed. Slid down on our backs. Was absolutely hilarious. Snow getting inside our layered clothes, inside our trousers !! For some strange reason that never felt cold. Try that folks, once in your life. Why once, try a few more times. Sometimes it’s nice to be a child in your 40’s or 50’s or whatever.
There were some amazing folks with us, in the journey. Shubhankar, ever the unassuming, hardworking IITian turned mountaineer and Stuti, who took great pains to go through the entire process, planned the entire tour to the T. They did a mini medical check-up every single morning before the climb. Was zapped at the amount of preparation they had done and the fallback options they had thought off, in case of any emergency. Luckily none was required Would highly highly recommend Goghumantu to anybody who wants to explore the unknown and these two amazing people.
Lastly obviously Dashod Rangar, the champ. I rarely take pictures with anybody and keep it for posterity. This was an exception. The amount of energy the guy has, the sheer knowledge of the trade that he plies, and the understanding of his fellow mountaineers was beyond belief. A lesson in corporate life, of knowing your customer. Such a wiry frame could carry an additional half his body weight for hours together, and still retain that same amount of energy, was a lifelong fitness lesson for all of us.
One of the reasons I wanted to do this summit to kedarkantha, was to test my ability to withstand the cold for extended periods of time. I had no hesitation in saying that I was tested, really really tested. Passed the test through the skin of my teeth. From an effort point of view, the execution was tougher than the marathon I ran but gave as much joy and satisfaction. Interestingly, when I was a few kms away from completing my marathon, I vowed to never do it again. The same exact feeling came up here halfway up the mountain this time.
When I reflect back on both, I know I will go one up on both those experiences (full marathon and the kedarkantha trek). One scheduled for next year. Another the year after.
The cold I did manage to withstand with those multiple layers on, but the heart and soul just put on a new layer, a layer to take me to the next adventure.