Mountain Walking

Kara to Phustrang: A Hard Day’s Work

Thunder. Dense Fog. A Deep Dark Night. But that was yesterday.

This morning, it was all clear and bright. But that was the weather.

It was a different story with me. I was up nice and bright at 6:30 a.m. But then I pulled my right thigh and hamstring muscles. It wasn’t too bad since I was able to walk. And after breakfast – when Abhishek and Negi Ji advised me not to worry too much – we helped in packing up the tents and then started off at 8:30 a.m.

We crossed a few small brooks and reached the first big stream crossing for the day. I took of my shoes, tied the laces, hung the shoes around my neck, took a deep breath, and stepped into the water. It was cold, but since it was still early, the water was only up till the shins. A few quick steps and we were across the stream.

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Stream crossing was a “current” experience; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

Negi Ji had warned me that walking in the cold mountain stream would feel like an electric current passing through my body; but I hadn’t felt anything of the sort.

Soon, we reached the second stream, I confidently walked in, and immediately felt the ‘current’ effect. I had to be careful while stepping on the slippery stones but decided to trust my instincts and experience and literally ran out to the other end in four steps! The ‘current’ effect continued even as I walked on the sand and stones, all the way up till the next stream. Fortunately, crossing the third stream was faster and less excruciating. We finally sat down on a few stones, dried our feet, applied powder, wore the socks and shoes, and started walking again.

By this time, Hari and the porters had reached the stream crossings and it was an education watching them: they just walked straight through – into the stream and out the other end! Simple.

The trail for the day now lay in front of us in the form of a grassy slope, which had looked like a gradual ascent from a distance yesterday. But now I could see that it was more than a gradual climb. The stream crossings had quickened the pace of my breathing and I now found myself stopping every few steps to catch my breath and get into a rhythm. I kept clambering up at my own pace but the uneasy sensation in my right thigh and hamstring returned and just an hour into the walk, I motioned Abhishek to stop.

I reached him and my first intention was to tell him that I would not be able to walk too well and maybe we should slow down. Abhishek, with all the experience from expeditions and treks, assured me that for a first-timer, I had done pretty well carrying my bag and reaching Kara and till this point on the third day. Then, he reminded me of the mantra he had given me all along and said it was now time to let go of the bag. It was one of the hardest seconds of my life, but with a heavy heart and a troubled mind, I reluctantly took off my rucksack.

With the rucksack off, I had to protect my wet and continuously sweating body from the winds. So out came the wind cheater. Meanwhile, Abhishek and Negi Ji were already pulling my rucksack between themselves, each wanting to carry the additional load. Negi Ji was carrying a small day pack and finally he took my rucksack. I offered to carry his day pack but Abhishek told me to just walk without any bags. With this, we started climbing again, with me at the back as usual. I turned back to see our porters a little distance behind us, while the Mumbai Group had crossed the stream and were resting on the banks.

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Walking “without” bags wasn’t easy either; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

Walking without the rucksack should have ideally been very easy for me but I was subconsciously suffering from accumulated mental distress. I tried all the techniques that Abhishek had told me about and those I had utilised over the past two days but I just couldn’t find my rhythm of walking and breathing. The beautiful sights around didn’t excite me any longer. By 10:05 a.m., we had already reached the top of the grassy slope and I could see the South Africans with their guide at the far end of an almost flattish trail across the face of the mountain. We stopped just after crossing another small stream and although I was feeling massively low, I laughed and fooled around with Abhishek and Negi Ji. A little later, we started walking again and within 15 minutes, two of our porters overtook us. I quietly and submissively told myself that today I would be the last of our team to reach the campsite, but the good part would be that our tent would be up and snacks and food ready by the time I arrived.

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The stream and Kara seemed far below…; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

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And… The way ahead to Phustrang didn’t appear too tough either; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

I kept trudging along the trail slowly, for although physically I was not in any trouble, my mind was in full dejection mode. The two porters who had gone ahead earlier had stopped a little distance ahead. They looked at me and told me that I seemed unwell. I told them that I had only taken off my rucksack and was walking slowly. Their words made me think that maybe I’m not able to understand what my body is going through and it is evident from my face. This new thought could have, but fortunately didn’t actually have, much of a negative effect on the state of my mind. I tried focusing on just one step at a time, looking up ahead to see Abhishek and Negi Ji in the distance.

We took another break at around 10:45 a.m., stopping at a wide flattish section with some big boulders. And as we were about to leave after a 10 minute rest, I saw all four porters arriving at the spot where we were resting. Today seemed good with the entire team traveling within close distance and time of each other. The trail continued going up gradually in between rocks and boulders. Straight ahead, I could see a glacier at the top of a mountain which seemed to block the valley and I had a hunch that the Phustrang campsite wasn’t too far now. My mental state improved to a great extent and I looked to my right to see another bulk of snow atop the mountain. And a little distance ahead, I saw a nice waterfall amongst the mountains.

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The glacier and the trail in the distance kept me engrossed but we didn’t have to go that far; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

Negi Ji had gone ahead of Abhishek and at around 11:30 a.m., we saw a flattish ground next to the stream. My red rucksack was propped up against a small rock and Negi Ji was roaming around the ground. It looked like we had reached Phustrang. But, at our last stop, the pack horses of the South Africans had crossed us, and at the speed at which they were walking, I thought their tents would be up by now. And I couldn’t see any sign of the tents anywhere in my area of vision all around. I could, however, see the trail going further ahead at the other end of the flat ground where Negi Ji had stopped. I kept walking anyway and reached Negi Ji at around 11:40 a.m. All my doubts were dispelled and my questions answered. This place was our campsite and the trail going up led to a bigger flatter ground where the other team’s tents would’ve been put up. Negi Ji had chosen this site as it got less wind and was warmer.

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Camp was ready pretty early; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

The porters arrived within the next 20 minutes and our tent as well as the kitchen tent were both up by 12:30 p.m. Abhishek and I had contemplated washing our hands, face and feet in the stream at Kara the previous afternoon but the strong winds had deterred us. Today, there was very little wind and the sun felt warm and not too harsh. And so, one by one, we quickly went down to the stream and had a refreshing wash. We got back into our tent and put on some extra layers of warm clothes since temperatures at this height of around 4100 m would drastically drop after sunset. By the time we came out of our tent, we saw that Negi Ji had spread out the mat nearby and lunch was served hot, out in the open. Having this open air lunch, amidst beautiful high mountains, in a great weather, felt really great after the wash and change of clothes.

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Another amazing location for the campsite; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

After lunch, we didn’t go into our tent but stayed outside to enjoy the views and the weather. The Mumbai Group passed our campsite and their expressions told me that they were disappointed that they still hadn’t reached their camp. As I had done earlier in the day, they must have been looking out for the campsite eagerly and on seeing our camps, they would’ve thought that this was the end of the walk for the day. Mr. Kumar told us that he had asked his team to put up camp where we were but it was put higher up maybe because of lack of sufficient space or some other reason. And so the Mumbai Group kept walking on and soon they disappeared over the ridge.

Abhishek and I went into the kitchen tent to chit chat with the porters and Negi Ji. Dhan Bahadur was feeling better and soon I asked Hari if I looked unwell, immediately turning to look with an enquiring expression at Umesh and Dhan Bahadur who had said so earlier in the day. They smiled at first and then said that I had become darker. I burst out laughing, telling them all that it was just high altitude tanning and not some ailment that I was suffering from. This conversation quickly dispelled thoughts from my mind about any physical illness that might be evident from my face. I subsequently looked back on the trek journey so far and realised that I had walked with my rucksack till Kara, which was at an altitude of around 3600 m. Prior to this trek, the highest I had ever walked to was Hatu Peak at 3400 m. I must have let go of my rucksack at around 3800 m and right now I was sitting at an altitude of around 4100 m. This was the highest that I had ever been in my life! And it felt great. This visit to the kitchen tent actually boosted my spirits a lot and I was enjoying every moment at Phustrang.

At 3:45 p.m., we left our campsite with Negi Ji and started walking up towards the ridge across which lay the flat ground where the other teams would’ve put up their tents. Negi Ji had shown us the direction in which we would climb towards the Bhabha Pass the next day – it was a tall steep mountain face on our right side and soon after leaving camp, we were getting to see different views and features of this route. Twenty minutes later, we came out on top of the ridge, onto the flat ground. We saw the tents of the Mumbai Group a little distance ahead. We kept walking straight ahead and a little later, Negi Ji showed us the rough outline of the trail zig zagging across the face of the mountain, going out of sight as the rocky patches started near the top. Higher reaches of the mountain were out of sight and if we kept staring up too long, the neck would start aching.

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Catching this view towards the Bhabha Pass hurt the neck a lot, each time… ; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

We soon crossed the tents of the South African trekkers and carried on along a small trail in between small rocks, across a few small streams, over the sandy banks, towards the huge mountain that seemed to be blocking and putting an end to the valley. Negi Ji told us that up ahead, the valley towards the right went towards Nimish Khango, another difficult pass that was tricky because of narrow gorges and rocky terrain. And this pass too was frequented only by the shepherds. A few clouds had gathered over the high mountains near the end of the flat ground and the sun rays sifting through the clouds gave an even more mystical look to the way into Nimish Khango. The clouds and the evening sun rays were playing a different game of colours on the high mountains on our right. A few more high waterfalls and horses grazing at the bottom of one of the rock faces made the entire setting seem like one out of a picture book.

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Nimish Khango lies along the narrow valley going towards the right; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

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Elements play Art; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

At around 4:40 p.m., we turned around and started walking back. The flat ground in front of us was huge and the tents of the other two teams in the far off distance looked like tiny colourful dots in the landscape. As we neared the tents, the trail route up the mountain face came into sight again. I was about to get lost staring at the sight, when we reached the kitchen tent of the South Africans. The cooks and guide knew Negi Ji and invited us for tea. In spite of all three of us politely refusing, they kept asking us to come in and finally we gave in to their wishes. We exchanged stories about the trek journey so far and they were kind enough to tell us that we were welcome at their camp anytime. A little later, one of the South African climbers came in to the tent, asking for more warm water and garlic. Abhishek understood from this combination that the person was troubled with high altitude acclimatisation. We exchanged a few more pleasantries, had the warm mug of tea with biscuits and soon departed for our own campsite.

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The wide flat plains of Phustrang; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

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Visual recce of the route going up to Bhabha Pass; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

As soon as we were out walking again, my attention was once again grabbed by the trail route up towards the Pass. I had been looking at the steep mountain face since we had arrived at Phustrang and over the course of this evening walk, I had seen more of it including the trail. And all of it had slowly started growing on me. The mental barriers started forming yet again and doubts crept in anew. As we reached the end of the flat section, we met the pack horse owners and Mr. Kumar. They were discussing how early the ascent should start tomorrow and told us that we shouldn’t worry for we had walked really well over the past three days. We wished them all the best and continued downwards towards our own campsite. We got back into our tents to sort out the stuff that would be required for the ascent tomorrow. Abhishek told me to use hand gloves to keep my hands warm. The dry fit full sleeves upper had to be replaced with a thermal upper and the Spandex lower with a thicker one.

After sorting out our stuff, we came out of our tent and headed to the kitchen tent. There was very little wind tonight but temperatures were low due to the height. And since we had to make an early start the next day, we were having an early dinner tonight. The worrying thoughts about the steep first stage climb had already grown a lot in my mind over the past few hours and I got back into our tent pretty soon. Although I was worried that I might not be able to sleep well due to the tension but fortunately, I fell asleep pretty soon.

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