Mountain Walking

Himalayan Odyssey: Rock 2 Star

In the Himalayas, there’s a tradition and a ritual to starting most treks. Not just the first trek of a season or the beginning of a Yatra (which have more elaborate customs), but before you start any trek.

And so, on the bright morning of the 27th of September 2016, we visited the temple of the local deity in Kafnu village in Himachal Pradesh, to pay our obeisances and pray for a safe and successful trek from Bhabha Valley to Pin Valley across Bhabha Pass. We stopped near the temple for a little while, to admire a huge Deodar tree which apparently was the biggest in Kinnaur district. And then we were off through Kafnu market, across the village, along the Kafnu Dam and a small school, passing under the last village of the valley Homte, across a bridge over Bhabha Khud, and up along the mountain on the other side.

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A wide and full Bhabha Khud flowing down across Homte towards Kafnu; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

Soon, our porters were behind us and as we reached yet another bridge after an hour and a half of walking, we stopped for a small break. In a bit, we spotted the porters – they were leaving the road and climbing up next to a retaining wall to join a small trail. As they would pass above us, we also climbed the retaining wall near us and joined them shortly.

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Well defined trail along the Bhabha Khud; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

For the next hour or so, we kept walking along the left bank of the Bhabha Khud, gradually climbing up, crossing a few streams. Hari had said that we would reach a point where one trail would go down towards the Bhabha Khud while the other would continue upwards, steeply climbing across the face of the mountain. We reached one such point after crossing yet another small stream and on seeing a rock to rest, we removed our backpacks and sat down. The rock face across the Khud was really fascinating, with jagged edges interspersed with bushes and trees, the entire mass rising up into the distant clouds above.

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Imposing sight of the jagged rock face; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

After a little while, we started off on the trail which rose up steeply through a series of hairpin bends. The saving grace was that this patch was covered in trees and the harsh sun of the high mountains wasn’t burning our sweating bodies. The porters had reached the bottom of this steep section by now and they confirmed that we were on the right path. Meanwhile, we came to an opening with stone walls built around green meadows. The trail wound along the stone walls and entered a patch strewn with huge boulders. Across the top of these boulders, we came into another section of clearing in the forests, with a temporary tarpaulin shelter on our right. We met a gentleman who told us that we still had a few more hours of walking to do and that there was another group walking ahead. A little distance from this spot, a white square thing shining in the sun caught my eye. On reaching closer, I saw that it was a solar panel put up next to a tent – a unique setting for such an equipment, but promising nonetheless.

By 12:40 p.m., we had reached a flat section where the trail was really wide. We found another nice spot in the shade and took off our rucksacks to rest for a while. This time, we wanted to wait for the porters as they were carrying our packed lunch. Hari and another porter arrived soon and Hari told us that we would have lunch next to a tiny stream a little distance ahead. We started walking through rocky patches in the forest and I let the porters and Abhishek go ahead. The trail came out of the forest and I could see it winding its way across the face of the mountains ahead.

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The black opening of a glacier up the mountain side; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

I reached the tiny stream, took off my rucksack yet again, and washed my hands and face. The sparkling clean cold water was refreshing and brought me alive. Hari started taking out plates to serve food but since lunch comprised rotis and sabzi, we told Hari to avoid all the hassle. We spread out our rotis on our hand, took the sabzi in between, rolled all of it and started eating. Across the Bhabha Khud down below, we could see a glacier high up the mountain, with its opening sporting a pitch black colour. It looked really interesting and then I was shaken out of my reverie by a blast! It was the last thing I expected in the place where we were. Turns out yet another hydroelectric project was under construction and the blastings were a part of the same process. A few minutes into lunch and a huge herd of goats came upon the trail, headed down towards Kafnu. As expected, the animals were not sticking to the trail but clambering all over. And we had to keep them away from chewing our bags and other material!

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There always is atleast one wayward sheep in the flock; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

Out in front of us we could see the last ridge with trees, across which lay Mulling, our campsite for the night. We carried on along the trail, climbed down and were soon walking right next to the Bhabha Khud, on the sandy and stony banks. And that’s when it started raining. Since we were walking along the main Khud, I assumed we would cross over and find some shade on the other side. The trail however, slowly started going away from the Bhabha Khud, back into the forests. Just as Abhishek stopped under a tree to take out the Wind Cheater, the rain reduced to a light drizzle and we continued. At around 1:50 pm, I finally saw the “bridge” that we were supposed to cross. It was a few logs thrown across a small stream!

I saw Abhishek a little distance ahead of me, overtaking the last members of the group that we were informed was walking ahead of us. By the time I reached and crossed the bridge, Abhishek was already on the other side, chit-chatting with the guide of the other group. They were a group of 8 from Mumbai and they were a bit surprised that we were only two and that we were walking ahead on our own while the porters and guides came behind. Their guide Mr. Kumar told us to sit down at this spot and wait since we would have nothing to do at camp if we reached early. As the Mumbai Group slowly started walking again, Abhishek and I stood at the spot with our rucksacks still on, wondering what to do. The rain had stopped a few minutes ago and a slight wind was making us feel cold. So, in order to avoid our bodies and limbs getting cold and stiff, we started climbing through the forest again.

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Log bridge crossing; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

In a while we overtook the Mumbai Group as well as Mr. Kumar who told Abhishek that the trail kept going up across the mountain. We reached yet another small stone walled clearing and then entered into a rocky uphill climb through the forests. Abhishek and I saw a nice sunny spot amidst the shade of the trees and took off our rucksacks on a rock. We took this opportunity to dry out our wet backs and soak in some of the warm sun. Our watches showed that it was 2:25 p.m. now. A little later we saw a group of pack horses carrying camping material, accompanied by the men in charge. We started a bit later and within 25 minutes, we finished the climb up the forest and came out onto a boulder strewn field. At places where we couldn’t figure out the trail amongst the trees and rocks, our reference would be the hoof marks (and excreta) left behind by the pack horses.

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Unladen pack horses graze their way between rocks; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

We were close to the huge mountains rising up all around. Right in front of us, the last tree cover could be seen on a hill around which the Bhabha Khud was flowing. And across that, we could see vegetation reduce so it gave us some hope that the camp at Mulling should be across this hill. We kept walking in between the rocks on a well defined path. Around 40 more minutes of walking through another forest and we finally came out in sight of the trail going up across the green but treeless face, and the welcome sight of Tibetan flags fluttering in the wind at the top. Abhishek told me that Mr. Kumar had told him earlier that the flags would indicate that we had reached Mulling.

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The last tree-lined ridge before Mulling; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

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In sight of the prayer flags before Mulling; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

The moment I took the last few steps and came out on the top, near the flag poles, the whole scene opened up in front of me. Wide meadows were flowing down gradually from the high mountains on our right, down across the path to meet the Bhabha Khud below on our left. Huge boulders could be seen across the trail but the walking was almost on flat ground. This was the stage when the mind starts agreeing and teaming up with the body to give up walking. We had arrived on the flattish meadows but I couldn’t see any indications of a campsite. And Negi Ji had told Abhishek that at Mulling, he and the cook and the porters would stay in a shed at Mulling, but I couldn’t see anything ahead. My worries and miseries finally came to an end at around 3:50 p.m. when far off, next to the Khud, I saw the white shed. It looked some distance away but at least the end for the day was in sight.

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Mulling meadows; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

Abhishek and I took off our rucksacks at 4:00 p.m., on a big flat rock. We could now see a few colourful tents set up on flat grounds near the shed, although all of it looked like a 15-20 minute walk ahead. The wind at this height was pretty strong and since our dry-fit uppers were wet with sweat, we soon took out our wind-cheaters to avoid catching a cold. Initially we roamed around the area, clicking pics, enjoying the views, but soon we ran out of things to do. So we sat down on the rocks. And then, as the body and muscles started relaxing and getting cold, we both started pacing around again, climbing tall rocks and looking out towards the flags from where we had come, eagerly waiting to see our porters.

After around half an hour of waiting, the first human to come in sight was an aged man, who told us that the he was the owner of one of the pack horse groups. He seemed very tired and told us that he had fallen unconscious on one of the steep climb sections earlier in the day and had somehow managed to get up and walk to Mulling. He told us that our porters were a little distance away. After resting for some time, he carried on towards the campsite. As time passed by, the windchill factor forced us to wear our fleece jackets to keep our idle bodies warm. At around 4:50 p.m., Mr. Kumar reached our perch, with his Mumbai Group a little distance behind. On telling him that we were waiting for the past 50 odd mins, he told us that this was the reason he had told us earlier in the day not to walk ahead – it would be windy and cold in the open at Mulling. He told us that our porters were still 15-20 minutes away and we should go to the permanent shed structure to see if some labourers are there and get some tea and maybe get warm if they had a small fire put up. We thanked Mr. Kumar for this and started off for what seemed to be the last walk for the day.

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Mulling campsite seems so close yet so far; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

Within 10 minutes, we reached the shed and found that there was no one inside. We now had nothing else to do but just wait again. However, our wait was not for long as our porters finally arrived at 5:15 p.m. Abhishek had already looked for a convenient place to put up our tent on, and as soon as the porters arrived, everyone got busy putting up the tent. With Abhishek’s guidance and help, our “The North Face” tent was put up within 10 minutes. Hari and the porters went inside the permanent shed to prepare some much needed tea for us. In the meanwhile, Abhishek and I settled down in the tent, watching the beautiful sights in front of us. Soon enough, we got a warm mug of tea with biscuits and while we were about to finish these, we were given a hot bowl of Maggi soup. All these things really warmed us up and were highly refreshing.

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Pitching “The North Face”; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

We continued relaxing, waiting for the next event of the evening – dinner. At around 7:45 p.m., one of the porters came over to our tent to call us for dinner. We had roti, rice, daal and sabzi sitting around a single candle that acted as the source of light. Hari and the other three porters made us feel very comfortable, frequently asking us what more we needed. This whole experience really humbled me a lot – all these guys had carried the entire load all day long and on reaching here had helped in preparation for dinner and were now busy playing perfect hosts, irrespective of whatever tiredness they had. After thanking everyone for a great dinner and wishing them goodnight, Abhishek and I headed back to our tent.

It was a beautiful clear sky and for the first time in my life, I saw the sky full of stars and so many constellations!

It was tolerably cold outside and we soon got inside our tent. I normally feel cold even in Shimla and Narkanda on a winter day so I was expecting the night to be pretty cold. But, once the outer and inner zippers of the tent were closed, it was soon warm. And the sleeping bags given by Negi Ji were lined inside with fleece so it was really warm and cosy. A little later, the warmth and coziness changed to sweating of feet and stuffiness. I adjusted my arms and legs, made myself as comfortable as possible and finally dozed off, thinking about the experiences of the day, the long walk, the sights and sceneries.

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