Mountain Walking

The Invisible River

It was the second day of the Bhabha Pin Valley trek, and although Abhishek and I were up pretty early, we kept shuffling in our sleeping bags, waiting for Hari the cook to bring us tea. Finally at 6:45 a.m., we both got out. I went to the shed to find Hari and the gang fully active and I gleefully accepted their offer for a hot cup of chai.

We also met our guide Negi Ji, who had reached Mulling late the previous night, much after we had finished dinner and retired to our tents. Mr. Kumar from the Mumbai Group joined us a little later. Both the guides talked about the peaks and mountain ranges around us. We could see the Kinner Kailash Range across the flat plains of Mulling, looking towards the road coming from Kafnu. I could see quite a lot of snow on the high peaks of the Kinner Kailash Range and I was informed that several of the peaks were below 6000 m in height and hence unnamed.

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Admiring the scenic setting of our tent at Mulling; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

Negi Ji showed us the rough direction of our destination for the day – Kara, which lay around a barren mountain in our sight. He had taken a stroll around the other camps and informed us that apart from us and the Mumbai Group, there was a third team comprising two South African trekkers with their guide, cook, helper and pack horses. And it turned out that all pack horses for both the other teams were owned and operated by the elderly gentleman we had met the previous evening.

We were scheduled to cover 5 – 6 kms on the day, which was expected to take around 3 hours. This meant that we could afford to start today’s walk without any hurry. A little later, we went to the nearby stream higher up the mountain to freshen up. After the regular ablution schedules, we packed up our material and got ready for the day. Breakfast comprised parathas with omlette, which we followed up with a huge mug of sweet and light coffee. Thereafter, we filled our water bottles and kept our ready rucksacks in the sun, moving on to help in the packing up of the tent. Finally at 8:55 a.m., we started walking – Hari and the porters would pack up the remaining things and follow soon.

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While dairy cows are kept in the villages, bulls are left out to graze in the mountain meadows for months at a stretch; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

I had already seen the South Africans leave with their guide at around 8:00 a.m. and as we started out, I could see the Mumbai Group also getting ready. The trail for the day continued ahead with a gradual elevation gain amongst the rocks. Up ahead, we could see more rocks as the trail kept along the face of the mountain. Forty-five minutes into the trek, we took our first stop amongst trees and rocks, enjoying the warm sun as well as the shade of the trees on huge boulders. After a quick 5-minute break, we continued walking up the trail and in another 20 odd minutes, came out into a clearing.

A huge mountain face was looming right across our path, while we could see another valley going into snowy peaks higher up on our left side. Negi Ji informed us that the valley on the left is frequented only by the shepherds and leads to Shakarog Khango, another high altitude pass of the area. And since we were not going towards Shakarog Khango, I asked Negi Ji about our route ahead, to which he pointed at the huge mountain face in front of us. On staring hard enough, I could spot a trail going up and across. And while I was scanning the entire mountain face, I spotted the two South Africans and their guide in their blue dresses, walking up at a flat portion of the trail high up the mountain face.

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The valley towards Shakarog Khango pulls one towards itself; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

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So is the trail really way up there on the mountain face? ; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

Abhishek and I joked with each other that the actual climb for the day was the one we were looking at, and not the semi steep one we had just finished. I had read somewhere about a subterranean river in this area and as we came to the end of the flat clearing and turned towards the crossing onto the mountain face in front, I could see huge boulders in the Nallah and hear the gushing of a stream, but there was no sight of any water. I tried peeping into the gaps between the boulders but couldn’t see any trace of water. The walk down to the actual crossing of the Nallah had a few tricky spots but once again, the advantage of childhood experience of walking the mountains helped a lot. With a few careful steps, I was standing next to Abhishek, who was waiting for me to admire the subterranean river phenomenon from a stable flat ground rather than standing on the precarious trail with enough space to just put one foot down at a time. Once again, I tried to spot the stream under the boulders but to no avail.

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There’s a river hidden under all that rubble; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

It was 10:20 a.m. by the time we crossed over the Nallah and started the climb for the day. The trail was more or less absent till we reached another flat ground after 10 minutes of walking. And then, we started climbing again. As we kept gaining height, we got beautiful views of the meadows towards Mulling and the high peaks towards Shakarog Khango. After an initial gradual climb, the trail soon went into a somewhat steep section with sharp hairpin bends amongst rocks and mud. I kept stopping every few minutes to regulate my breathing and take in the sceneries all around.

Around 10:45 a.m., I looked back down and across towards the trail coming through the flat clearing that we were on before crossing the Nallah. I could see the first group of pack horses walking pretty fast. From yesterday’s experience of letting pack horses pass by, I knew that the horses needed quite a lot of space to move around and a few unloaded ones might stray here and there to chew on any available grass or plant nearby. And assuming that the trail up ahead would be similar to what we had come across in the past half an hour, I knew that there wouldn’t be much space to let the pack horses pass. And so I increased my speed as much as I could and soon enough, we reached the flat portion of the trail.

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We’ve walked quite far and high from Mulling which lies in the distance; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

We had gained quite a lot in altitude and at around 11:00 a.m., I got the first sight of the flattish Kara plains section. We crossed over a land-slid section and were soon out amongst some rocks as the trail further flattened out. At 11:15 a.m., we stopped at a few huge boulders, removed our rucksacks and sat down. The walk for the day was almost done and our campsite was at a maximum of 10 minutes walk ahead. Negi Ji gave us “Real Fruit Juice” and a chocolate while we’re sitting there. These freshened us up and soon we saw the group of pack horses that I had spotted earlier pass us by. These guys were the ones with the South Africans, who incidentally, were up ahead, resting peacefully next to the stream.

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Within sight and reach of Kara; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

We got up within 15 minutes and started walking towards the campsite. We watched sheep graze in the nearby grassy hillside, enjoyed fresher and closer views of high snowy peaks, and also went to a small pond nearby. But soon enough, we had nothing much left to do and our porters were still not in sight. Negi Ji showed us the exact site where our tent would be put up and then told us that he was going back to check where the porters had reached and prod them to walk faster. Finally at 12:15 p.m., Abhishek and I sat down on the grass. It was a pretty windy afternoon and our wind cheaters were out. Negi Ji came back with the porters at around 12:55 p.m. and by 1:10 p.m., our tent was up. Subsequently, the kitchen tent was put up and preparations for a hot lunch were started.

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Negi Ji tries to while away time by herding some of the sheep at Kara; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

We finished lunch and the strong winds prompted us to get back into the tent. Abhishek had clearly warned me a lot of times that once at the campsite, one shouldn’t relax completely and get into the tent but roam around. We had already walked around the campsite prior to the porters arriving and now, after a sumptuous lunch, back in the tent, there wasn’t a lot to do. The hot afternoon sun created a warm sauna effect inside the tent and frequent winds would help regulate the temperature. We chit chatted for a while, listened to some music and kept ourselves active. Although I initially thought that we would get bored and I would end up taking a power-nap, but somehow, whiling away time wasn’t much of an effort.

We came out of our tent at 4:15 p.m. and met Negi Ji at the kitchen tent. We could see the Mumbai Group walking up the grassy mountain side but our walking direction was towards the numerous streams and brooks in the direction of our trek for the next day. We kept walking towards the widest stream and could see another wide valley opening up on our front, towards the right; however, our way ahead towards the next camp for tomorrow was on the left, going up along a grassy slope, into the narrow side valley. As we were roaming around, we could see dark clouds gathering around the high mountains surrounding Kara. And since the winds weren’t abating, Abhishek commented that the weather might be bad tonight.

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Weather Gods putting up their Himalayan Show; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

At around 5:15 p.m., we got back to our campsite and I went to the kitchen tent. I found one of the porters – Dhan Bahadur – lying down under a blanket, coughing a little. On enquiring, he told me that he had caught a slight cold the previous night at the Mulling shed and now it was worse. He asked me if I had any medicines and considering the risk of effect of regular medication at higher altitudes, I told him I didn’t have any medicines and gave him a few cloves instead. I then headed back to our tent, to once again while away time till dinner.

Coming out of the comparatively warmer and cosier tent at 7:30 p.m. to go to the kitchen tent felt difficult as the strong winds hadn’t died down even by this time. As we finished dinner, Hari quickly prepared sewai kheer for me, infused with lots of dry fruits and this dessert felt heavenly. We bade everyone goodnight and headed back to our tent. I lay down for a while, thinking about how the trail to Shakarog Khango would be and what terrain led to it being only used by shepherds. But I dozed off soon, for my thoughts steered back to the route for tomorrow, and I looked forward to another day of walking, with my bags on.

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