Friday, July 22, 2005

Stranded in the Himalayas - Chandratal Trek


Getting there......

After hours of discussion, searching the net and calling up agents in manali, delhi and ladakh, we finalised upon the trek to chandratal in the spiti valley of himachal pradesh. so finally the grand trekdi himalayan safari was looking possible and likely......

The PLs passed by, and so did the exams and soon one fine saturday night, on the 26th of june, 23 of us found ourselves boarding the nizamuddin express at the rather unearthly hour of 3.30 in the morning. After an hour of arguing with a fellow occupying one of our berths and insisting that his RAC ticket entitled him to our berth, we settled down on our berths and tried to salvage whatever few hours of sleep we could from what was left of the night.

The next day was a ride through the unending great indian plains. We were in MP by afternoon, and we could see that the monsoon hadn’t felt like moving on into the state. Getting off the train at the first station in MP, I went off in search for ‘tak’ ( buttermilk ), and we were soon drowning in it. The milk federations of MP ( and Gujarat and Rajasthan, too, as I discovered in the return journey ) sold pouches of the stuff for 5 bucks, and I’d remembered this fact from my previous Himalayan treks. In fact, ‘tak’ consisted of my most of my nutritional intake in the journey, as I didn’t quite fell like having the railways’ meals or for that matter any of the dripping-in-oil stuff found at various stations.

Early morning on the 28th, we reached old delhi, where one of us promptly managed to get himself lost, while trying to find the cancellation counter. The next hour went in teams of 2-3 people from the group going out in search of him and, expectedly, getting lost themselves in the general chaos. After rounding up all the errant cattle and forcing them onto the bus, we left for our delhi hotel. In delhi we learnt of the flood situation in Himachal Pradesh and wondered whether we would be forced to spend days in Delhi waiting for the situation improve. Thankfully, however, we had to do nothing of the sort and boarded a bus to Manali that evening as per schedule.

The next day started with torrential rain, and it looked like we were going to have a very wet trek. However, Manali was bathed in clear sunlight, and looked as beautiful as ever.

The Trek - Part 1 - Great Weather, fabulous 'scapes, great time

The trek started the next day, on the 29th. The day started with a jeep drive upto the village of Chhatru, which was very important to us coming out of the trek alive and well, as it was proved later on. Chhatru was about 40 km beyond Rohtang Pass. To reach Chhatru, you have to turn off the Manali – Leh National Highway at the village of Grampfu, which was where our ordeal ended on the way back. The snow-clad peaks on the way to Chhatru increased the sense of excitement, and all of us were raring to get off the jeeps and start walking. The landscape changes drastically on the other side of the Rohtang Pass, with almost no trees. It was a high altitude desert. The landscape is beautiful, but beautiful in a different way, as compared to the picturesque tree lined slopes which graced our eyes on the Manali side of the Rohtang Pass.

The trek started at Chhatru, and I was soon at the end of the pack, frequently wandering off course to shoot some wayward butterfly, much to the irritation of C.D, our guide and ‘manager’. He had to wait for me every time I did that, and he did that with a irritated look on his face. It took much cajoling and explaining on my part to let him leave me alone with my flowers and butterflies. I got excellent pictures of a few flowers and the Indian Tortoiseshell butterfly ( see attached pics ).

After walking along for a couple of hours, we reached the campsite, at place called ‘Dadarfoo’. It consisted of a large meadow next to the river. There was a beautiful waterfall about 500 feet from camp, which we visited in the late afternoon for acclimatizing to the high altitude ( dadarfoo was at 11500 ft ). On the way I snapped some good pics of another butterfly, the Indian Chequered Blue ( Pseudophilotes vicrama ). During the evening, Saili’s condition deteriorated, and it was clear that there would be no option for her but to go back. We tried to stop a truck which was going towards manali, but the driver understandably sped up and raced away when he saw 10-15 torches rushing towards the truck in the dark and people hollering about.

The next day consisted of a walk of 9 km to Chhotadara. The high altitude got to me on this day, and I was soon gasping for breath. These 9 kms took 3-4 hours, and I was beginning to get a bit bored of the monotonous landscape. It was beautiful, but it was the same all the time. On the way, we met with some people from Pune, and we sent Saili and Puranik, another guy who’d suddenly deteriorated during the night back to Manali, where they stayed in a hotel till our return. Chhotadara camp was a bit marshy, and during the long walk from the mess tent to our tents, one invariably ended up sinking his feet in some extra squishy areas. Not a pleasant experience when the average temperature of the water was something close to zero.

Day 3 of the trek was going to be difficult, with a walk of 16 kms and a gin of altitude to 13200 ft. Sitting up all night and nursing saili meant that Persis too was feeling very much under the weather, and, half way through, she hitched a car ride to our next camp site of Batal. The entire route was jeepable, but what’s a journey if you cant stop to admire a flower or chase a butterfly or listen to the sounds of the river ?

Batal consisted of 2-3 tea shops, and a solid look

ing metal bridge, through which the road led on to Chandratal and Kumzum Pass. Persis, alongwith 2 others, left that evening for Manali, as we couldn’t risk her condition deteriorating further, as there was no road access to Chandratal, and the altitude gain was also significant. The mountains seemed to share my mood, as we climed quite high for acclimatization. It all looked very desolate and forbidding. And this was in great weather!

Next day was d-day, the day we’d reach Chandratal. The route went up and down along the side of a mountain ridge, which was extremely frustating and tiring as whatever height we’d gained was soon lost. We had to de-boot and cross an extremely cold mountain stream, which had me jumping and yelling all over the place.We had lunch near a small yellow board which described chandratal in terms which made heaven sound ordinary. Just before chandratal was another cold stream and I realized that I couldn’t take many more of these. The last climb before chandratal was extremely tiring and everyone had to stop for breath after every few steps. I didn’t make this too easy for myself by running after a butterfly, the Dark Clouded Yellow. After we reached the top of that slope we still couldn’t see the lake which meant that we had some bit of walking still ahead of us. Now every step felt long and painful even on flat ground. The distances separating all of us had increased so much that we no longer had an idea where we had to go. This caused a few of us to go slightly astray, but ended up being good in a way as we stumbled upon 2 small lakes where I later discovered and shot ( I mean with a camera ) 2 ducks. After a bit of exploring we saw the greenish waters of the chandratal lake. The colour of the water was a big disappointment as I had seen shots where it appeared turquoise blue. However we realized that this had been caused by mud flowing down with the melting snows, and it was just a matter of our luck.

The next 2 days were spent exploring the area around the lake. I did 1 ‘parikrama’ around the lake, and got a few good shots of the Indian Meadow Blue butterfly. I also got quite a few peak reflections in the lake when the waters were still. On our second day there we climbed quite high up a mountain and reached 15200 ft. Chandratal lies at 14200 ft. From the top we could see a glorious view of the entire valley, the lake and all the surrounding snow clad peaks.

The Trek - Part 2 - Nature turns villain

The next day we were scheduled to leave the lake and climb 7 steep kilometers to Kumzum pass, where pick-up was arranged. However, things were going to go wrong, very very w

rong. I was woken up at 5.30 the next morning by excited shouts of ‘harshad, its snowing’ from outside the tent. I got out of warm sleeping bag, and opened the tent zip and was stunned by the cold outside. I mean it used to be very cold all the time in most camps, but this was COLD. An errant snowflake drifted into the tent and landed on my face. The world outside was how it looked in all those foreign Christmas shots – white, with snow falling. I took out my camera and took a few casual shots from inside the tent. Then, seeing that Darshan was hovering about outside with an umbrella, I went out and couldn’t believe the scene. Everything was just white, and getting just whiter. Snow was falling heavily, and we couldn’t see beyond 20-30 feet. C.D told us to pack up and stay in the mess tent to leave immediately when he decided. At that time we thought it was loony to leave and walk in all that snow, but in a couple of days time we realized that that swift decision had saved our lives. Everybody wore 2-3 layers of clothing and wrapped up their feet in plastic before wearing shoes. Vaseline was duly applied to the shoes to keep off water. Our plans had changed now. We had to go back to Batal as Kumzum pass would have closed due to the snowfall. The prospect of walking 16 km in snow was dreadful. A few of us were happy that it was snowing, but I could see the grim lines on the face of C.D. I had walked through snow before for a long time, and I knew how difficult it is to just keep yourself from falling.

We walked in single file away from the campsite, looking bewildered like little children at the sudden and drastic change in scenery. Where there had been colourful flowers alongside the lake, now there were frozen remnants of colour in the ice. Where the sky had been blue, was a foreboding shade of angry grey. Where the peaks were streaked with black rocks between the snow, was just white. Where there was a peaceful, beautiful, playful lake yesterday was now a scary dark coloured perfectly still sheet of water, gulping up the snowflakes like a hungry monster. A lone duck swum placidly in its waters, probably wondering whether its mental calendar had gone haywire. Our feet sunk deep into the already ankle deep snow, sliding and twisting in it. I had to perform real acrobatics to keep myself from splashing into the chilled waters of the lake. We soon lost our way as C.D tried to find a short cut. We soon abandoned the idea and went back to the normal route. Snow covered everything – soil, shrubs, stones, marshy land. Every footstep involved luck.

We climbed down the steep incline which had been extremely tough on our way to the lake, and saw that the pack mules, which had disappeared that morning from camp after snowfall started, were calmly grazing on whatever little grass was peeping out above the snow. The small path was over and we finally had reached a big wide road on which it was much easier to walk. We walked on and on, cursing the snow, which was now falling at an angle so that it hit out faces all the time. We splashed through the 2 mountain streams without bothering to remove our shoes, nobody could feel anything below their ankles anyway, so it didn’t matter. I, however, paid a heavy price for this, as I got my woolen socks wet which I sorely repented later on when I was dying out there in Dorni. At the spot where we had had out lunch on our way to the lake, there was this huge herd of sheep, ALL of whom turned their heads whenever any one of us passed by. It would have made for a great photo, but I just couldn’t risk taking out my camera in such weather. For about an hour I unsuccessfully tried to tie my track pants’ laces, after which I gave up and held it to keep it in place. My fingers just wouldn’t do what my head told them to. I felt like crying, this was too much.

We soon crossed the second stream, which meant that we were within 2-3 km of Batal. Turning around a bend, I saw a parked jeep. After going a little ahead, there was another one. And another. The vehicles had come out of their way to pick us up ! Striping off all wet clothing and dumping the sack in the rear, I went inside, where 4 others were sitting shivering uncontrollably. After devouring a packet of marie biscuits, we tried ti remove our shoes and socks. The entire process took me 15 minutes as my fingers wouldn’t bend and my foot felt like a stone.

The jeeps reached Batal soon, and we soon filled up the small tea shop. The people already sitting there looked at us in amazement as each one of sat out there, shivering uncontrollably. Many cups of chai followed, and we felt a little more alive. We waited at Batal for about 5 hours for the pack mule to arrive with the tents and other materials and finally left at around 5 in the evening. We later learnt that all of the mules died due to the cold and the porters and people who managed the mules barely made it.

And it gets worse.........

What followed was easily the most thrilling and frightening vehicle ride of my life. The snow had covered up the whole road. Our jeep was the lead vehicle, so our driver had to drive on pure instinct and from what he remembered of the twists and turns when he had driven here earlier. The vehicle skid uncontrollably laterally quite often, inching closer to what would have been a ghastly but quick death in the swirling, dark waters of River Chandra, which had been transformed into a terrifying mass of dark, whirling water, which hit the stones in and along the river with ferocious force. Death would have come out of the cold, or drowning or having our deaths cracked open against one of those rocks – whichever way the Chandra pleased. We often got stuck in steep uphill sections where we had to get off in the snowfall and push the vehicle. We had thought we wouldn’t have to get off the vehicle till we reached Manali, so we hadn’t anticipated this, and were, therefore, dressed in the only dry stuff we had and wore floaters. What resulted was that everybody’s last dry clothes became very wet and very cold, and the toes were as close to frostbite as they ever might have been. Every time the vehicle got stuck, we got down, pushed it, got back in again and shivered and tried to get some lost heat back. Juts when we were almost comfortable again, we got stuck again. I finally reached a point when I could not bend my toes at all, so I stayed in once when everybody else had got out. I was soon repenting it as the vehicle suddenly turned 45 degrees and stopped inches from the edge. I saw the fear in the faces of the people who had got off, through the frosty windows.

After 5 such hours, to cover just 31 kms, we reached Chhatru. It was 10 in the night and the drivers were in no mood to go ahead and went inside a tea shop for some dinner. They soon returned, almost drunk, and told us that they had decided to continue. The amount of alcohol in their blood was evident from the speeds we were suddenly going at. After about 3-4 kms, we came across a large rock right

in the middle of the road. We promptly turned back and went back to Chhatru. Dal – bhat was ready by 1 am and after consuming that, we went to sleep, sharing a bed between 2 people.

And worser...

Next morning, the snowfall was still going on as heavily as ever. We had nothing to do, and started wondering how many days we were going to be stuck out there. Already there was no chance we would make it back in time to catch our train to Pune. A few days more and we would be in a financial crisis too. The day passed by slowly without any change in weather. In the evening we were told that we were moving off and we weer going to clear off any landslide blocking our way. Picking up a crowbar, we left Chhatru, and we needed it within a km. There were landslides every 2-300 metres where we had to get off and help in clearing the road. Our target was to reach Gramphu on the national highway, about 17 kms from Chhatru. After 8 kms, we reached the 2 hut settlement of Dorni, where a shepherd told us that further progress was impossible due to a huge slide just ahead. Refusing to believe him, we went on ahead, and it was HUGE. Clearing it would take 2-3 hours. A couple of people crossed it to see the state of the road beyond. They had barely crossed it when a HUGE slide took place right behind them. A rock the size of a house fell down, right into the middle of the road. Those people scampered back, and everyone ran back to their vehicles, terrified. We had seen nature at her furious best, as if telling us, don’t mess with me. We soon reached Dorni again. 15 of us had to spend the night in a small room with a wet floor, wet walls and a leaking roof. I was missing Persis terribly though I was happy that she was warm and safe in Manali. We burning horse shit dipped in diesel to make it atleast a little combustible. I was shivering violently and didn’t stop even when I was almost IN the fire. I was very close to hypothermia, and I knew I was in deep trouble. Thankfully there was a dry sleeping bag which somebody had managed to get. I was given half a glass of hooch and bundled inside. The rest of them spent the night sitting beside the fire, shivering, while I slept in a sleeping bag. God bless their souls.

Even more worse !

I woke up at 6 in the morning and found out that one side of me was completely wet and cold as water had leaked and dripped on to the sleeping bag and seeped in. I hadnt realized this earlier probably due to the influence of alcohol. At least I had slept properly. We were soon told by a now ghastly looking C.D that we were to walk the 9 kms to Gramphu. Me and Om had severe reservations to this idea, as we both felt we couldn’t take it. After lengthy discussions, we decided to go ahead with it, and this was another of C.D’s decisions which saved our lives. One by one we would have succumbed to hypothermia if we’d stayed there. There wasn’t much of horse shit and diesel left to keep us warm, and from the drivers behaviour, not much of the alcohol either.

The Good guys win in the end !

Putting on our wet and cold clothes and shoes again, we started off. Shivaji’s ‘ghoshana’ lifted out morales a bit and you could see the ruthless determination in everybody’s faces – we had to do it if we wanted to stay alive. We did those 9 kms in 2 hours flat, without stopping, marching on at an awesome speed. We realized that the road ahead would not open for atleast a month, it was in that bad a state. Dodging landslides, splashing through cold streams and walking over snow which could have given in anywhere, we reached the village of Gramphu. After making me drink cups of hot tea, the old lady out there bundled me into a side room and covered me with 2 blankets. God bless her soul, too ! I slept like a log for 3 hours and was awakened by C.D telling us that he’d got 2 jeeps to take us to Manali. The Rohtang Pass was blocked, but we were going to clear it like we cleared roads before. After clearing the road 2-3 times and once, building a road by diverting a waterfall, we reached Rohtang Pass. We were in mobile phone range, and soon the bills were increasing speedily.

Descending on the other side of Rohtang, we came across a huge slide before the village of Marhi. We were prepared to walk upto Marhi, when the head of the organization we were trekking with crossed the slide and came to us. He was there since morning waiting for us when he had no idea when we would turn up. There were 2 vehicles on the side of the slide and we stuffed ourselves into them. The guy calmly walked down in the snow and rain and let us come in the vehicles. God bless his soul, too !

We stuffed ourselves full in Marhi, and after that rushed to Manali before any more fresh slides stopped us. Manali, where there were the 5 of us who’d returned earlier, and also food, hot water, soft beds and warm, dry clothes.

Everything went as per schedule after that, thankfully, and we reached Pune on the 10th of July, 2 entire days later than schedule. We had been unlucky to get caught in a spell of freak weather, but very lucky to come out alive and with everything intact.



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