Friday, July 17, 2009

Sarpass – The Conclusion (Part 3)

Simply put Sarpass Trek was bigger & better than anything I have done before. It is only fitting that a Himalayan trek should take the cake so to speak. For I have absolutely completely fallen in love with that region.

This trek was also special for the company we had. I remember discussing with a gentleman who had done the Everest Base Camp trek & then with some of the camp leaders with respect to how YHAI goes about organizing an event of this type. Also very motivating was the fact that in our group SP4 there were first time trekkers, experienced trekkers & intermediate trekkers. And something that I found very nice was to see among women a college going student to a married woman. Also nice was a Father & daughter pair doing the trek together, a husband & wife doing it together & a couple who did it for the second time in celebration of their meeting a year ago on the very same trek. In our very group of friends were guys who were doing this sort of a trek for the first time.

The other significant part of this trek was that it was a true camping experience. Sleeping in tents, resting in tents, playing cards in tents & working on various improvisations to make the tents warmer, it had its moments. One must congratulate YHAI for making some amazing arrangements in the most difficult of places. For example the camp at Fual Paani. Also a big credit has to go to them for the food arrangements. The cooks apparently get up as early as 3 or 4 AM to ensure the morning tea (which is served to you in the tent & is like a wake up call at 5:30 AM every morning) to breakfast to packed lunch to dinner. Add to that welcome drinks, evening tea with some snacks. In Biskeri Thatch we were served hot pakodas with tea. This to me was five star treatment. I don’t think at those altitudes we could really ask for more.

All said & done it was a trek that had to be remembered for trekking. End of the day that is what we were all there for - some hardcore trekking. And we got our money’s worth. Actually more than our money’s worth. For a little less than Rs 3000 I think we got a steal.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s) for Sarpass

What to expect during the trek? Food, Things to carry, Clothes, Toilets, facilities etc. There is a load of information out there however below is how we did it & what we experienced.

One has to really be prepared to extreme weather conditions. One definitely needs a good rain coat. Also the jacket that you buy for the cold should be rain proof. It helps big time. A good pair of shoes are really important. They are important because in snow & in slush it gets wet very badly. Our group used Woodlands & Lafuma shoes. The latter being the expensive option. We did most of our shopping in the Mayur Army and General Stores in Shivajinagar, Bangalore. We picked up Inners, Monkey Cap, Raincoat, Wollen Socks from there. We bought our gloves from The Brown Shop in Commercial Street. If you are investing in shoes especially Woodlands you can purchase it from a factory outlet it costs cheaper there. It is recommended that one either carries two pairs of wollen gloves or goes in for a pair of leather (basically rain proof) gloves.

We survived majority of the trek with one pair of clothes. With another pair being a back up. We were also advised to carry as less luggage as possible. This I think is very critical because it does help a lot in your pace & energy levels during the trek. We invested in Rucksacks in Bangalore. We bought them at Adventureworx in Jayanagar. However most of us didn’t use them during the trek because these rucksacks themselves weighed about 2 Kgs. The YHAI issued a simple bag that was very right & perfect for carrying just the required amount of luggage.

The food is basic & very good. Apart from lunch which is packed & hence cold, the rest of the meals are served hot. Dinner would mostly comprise of Rotis, Sabzi, Fried Papad, White rice, Daal & Pickle. For Breakfast we had broken wheat porridge, puris, Bread, Upma & so on. Also apart from the YHAI provided meals in a few camps the villagers also sell omlettes & maggi. At every Lunch point every day the lunch stop is where the villagers have set up shop selling omlettes, maggi, tea & coffee. Infact at our first camp Guna Paani we had the provision of charging our mobiles in these shops of course for a charge. The price of omlettes & maggi increased as we went to the higher camps. I also remember on our way to our last camp (Bhandak Thatch) savoring desi lassi sold by a villager at the lunch point. Yummy.

Although it is highly discouraged by YHAI, porters are available during the trek. Local villagers agree to carry your rucksacks up to the next camp for a charge. I think the charge was upwards of Rs 100 per day per bag. They of course come back next day to carry the bag again till the next camp. This is indeed a luxury thats available but at the risk of the bag owner. These porters don’t walk with you as they take shortcuts to the next camp.

There are toilet facilities at every camp. It’s basically a toilet tent. One each for men & women. Needless to say these are not clean & I also found these toilet tents very short in height & cramped for space. The YHAI is very strict about using only the allocated toilet sites. Any fooling around there could result in sending back the offenders to base camp. But of course apart from the toilet tent one was free to use the vast spaces in the allocated area. Which to me and quite a few of others was more convenient & some adventure in itself. Absolutely forget about bath during the trek. In the base camp there are bathroom facilities. The cold Parvati River water is supplied there. If anyone is game for a colder than a refrigerator water bath, could pursue it. Also at the base camp town Kasol, there are a few hotels that let you use their bathrooms for a charge. My suggestion would be to not bother and experience not taking bath for a good 11 days.

The tents provided are cosy. Some of them are not on flat ground so the sides or the corners could be open to the elements. We had some cases like that. We would either cover it up with our rucksacks or use our rain sheets (which we bought for 25 bucks in the base camp & please note this is more of a protection for the rucksack & not to be substituted for a raincoat). In all the higher camps , everybody was provided with a sleeping bag & a blanket each. These are very effective in keeping you warm at those altitudes. Also if you are forced to occupy more people in the tent suggest you don’t complain for you will realize it helps to warm up the tent in the higher camps. Our Tent strength was varying between 14 – 16 people.

Kasol, our base camp site is a small town. Largely inhabited by Israelis who have set up base there for what many say easy availability of pot/hash (Sorry I don’t know the exact term used). This trip taught me a lot, one among them was that Israeli women are very pretty, at least the ones we saw there were. There are some very nice restaurants, cafes, & bakeries in the town. After the trek got over we dined at an amazing restaurant. Our table was next to a window & through the window we could see snow capped mountains it was a very romantic place unfortunately ours was an all guys group. Kasol has many travel agents. We booked our Manali to Delhi bus tickets and Manali to Chandigarh bus tickets in an agency here. It is advised to think twice about booking anything with these guys unless of course you are in for more adventure apart from trekking like my friend had of sleeping in the drivers cabin from Manali to Chandigarh and three of us had in settling for the last row seats for our Manali to Delhi bus ride. This after paying up full amount & getting specific seat numbers on the bus.

Finally, I would like to end with the list of people who I did this trek with. Imran – the initiator, planner, executor who also became the Group Leader of the SP4 during the trek. Dilip – The main Entertainer of the trip. Deepak, Devaiah, Dinesh, Jayanth and Gyan.

Sarpass – As it happened (Part 2)

The below description is not a day by day account but covers the most memorable events during the trek.

Kasol Base Camp (6500ft) – Beautiful, Colorful & Small

After a flight, train, bus & taxi ride, we reached Kasol at 10.30 PM on a cold night. The camp was off to sleep. The only sound that dominated then was the sound of river Parvati flowing alongside the camp. We reported at the Reception & after producing our admit cards, were allowed into a tent. The camp easily had about 25 odd tents each having a capacity of about 15. On one side were the female tents and on the other side were the male tents comparatively more in number. There was one area in the middle that served as the dining area behind which was the kitchen tent. Considering that we had an early start the next day, we rushed to finish dinner. Dinner comprised of rotis, sabzi, rice, dhal, halwa & papad. This in addition to Kheer was pretty much our standard Dinner fare all through the trek.

After some discussion on how & where we should keep our bags & some confusion on the tent number allocated to us, the first night in the base camp was uneventful.

The Morning Exercise

The two days that we were stationed in Base Camp, we had a morning exercise. This was at 6:30 in the morning. After morning tea & counting, the group had to walk up to a ground about half a kilometer away from the camp. The exercise incharge was a localite by name Devraj, who also doubled up as the Sr. Rock Climbing instructor. Devraj looked a localite, spoke fluent Hindi & I remember the first day of morning exercise he saying to the group encircling him, “If anybody speaks during the exercise, I’ll make you run 20 rounds of this ground”. But as the exercise progressed & we got to see him more he didn’t seem much of a task master really. So I wondered why the tough talk. The exercise was amazing. He made us do some really basic stuff, which were more of warm up & loosening exercises. The sad part however was that even these basic exercises we were not very comfortable doing. But I enjoyed the activity.

Acclimatization Trek – Day 2

It took our group a while to come to terms with the YHAI speed. YHAI is a stickler for timings. In the process of Breakfast, putting on contact lenses & all that, our group got delayed big time for the Acclimatization trek. The rest of the group had started off long back & we were still trying to figure out what we should finish & where we should go. Finally after collecting the YHAI rucksack & dumping two blankets in it, we started off hoping to catch up with the rest of the group soon. The Acclimatization trek was a hike up a near by hill. We had to pass by a local school. The school building was in front of a snow clad mountain. Little girls dressed in salwar kameezes & guys in shorts sat in the corridor doing what their teacher was asking them to do. After a heavy breakfast it took a while to get up the hill. But as we climbed up, we realized how beautiful the route was. I have a fascination for the jungle terrain. Its my favorite among all terrains. Its probably because I love trees & walking under huge tall pine trees was an awesome experience. What we experienced that day was how the trek for the rest of the days going to be. Hiking & hiking all the way. It was challenging & tiring. However when we thought we still have a long way to go, we saw the group seated a few meters front of us overlooking a drop at the bottom of which was parvati flowing away with the snow clad mountains in the background.

When I took off my bag my T Shirt was all wet with sweat. The cool breeze under the trees helped regain some energy & sitting down was heaven. Most of us from the group felt the trek was too short & we were eager for more. We quickly got the guide to take us for an extended trek & announced it to the rest of the group. A lot others decided to join us. The trek that we did till that point had a clear walkable path. However the stretch that we pursued thereafter had no clear path. So that was a different experience. There were many plants with big thorns along that route. Slowly but surely we realized that this stretch would require some concentration & couldn’t be taken lightly. Especially the time when the group began to get down the hill it was all the more challenging. A couple of lose big stones were pushed off from the back & all of them had to alert the guys in the front about it. Some time later we were walking back to our previous halt position & rejoined the guys who had decided to rest there. A lime squash was mixed with all the water that each of us had in a plastic bucket. A bottle was cut to become a pouring mug & the juice was then distributed in the same water bottles to all. There was no need for ice or cold water. The water there is naturally so cold, one feels like drinking refrigerated water. After which we descended.

Orientation – Day 2

The next agenda for us on the first day was an orientation session scheduled at 3 PM. The orientation was important as our entire group was up North trekking for the first time & felt it necessary to get inputs from people who have been there done that. During the course of the orientation what we learnt were very basic things. One of the things that was communicated & which I too thought to be very correct was this statement – “Don’t be a porter, Be a trekker” meaning to say that most of us are so interested in finishing the trek that we hardly stop & pause to look at the sights around us. The next important message given was maintain distance between the person in front of you & behind you. The distance should ideally be such that the person in front you & behind you should be able to hear you if you call out. This also I thought was an important piece of advise. The other things communicated were not to break away from the YHAI route which was clearly marked with arrows all through the trekking path.

An experience of a life time
Day 5 - The trek between Guna Paani (8000ft) to Fual Paani (9500 ft)

The YHAI in all their communiqué describes this stretch to be of 5 kms in distance & 6 hours in duration. The previous day’s trek (Day 4 trekking between Unch Dhar to Guna Pani)) was very easy & we completed it by 2 PM or so. I remember a lot of people in our group suggesting to each other that the group should take it easy & not rush the completion of the days trek. At that time it made sense. One of the things that most of us did was to check with either the guides or the camp leaders how the next day’s route would be. And I remember very well that we were told that we will be able to complete the Guna Paani to Fual Paani stretch in 3 hours. In all fairness more or less that is what would have happened. But then one big lesson we all learnt was that there is one other important factor called the rain that had to be factored in. The day started off normally. Although we had to pass through a lot of slushy terrain initially as well, it didn’t matter much because we were more or less on flat ground. The fun started as we approached the lunch point. Just as we were about to reach the lunch point, it started to rain heavily. The lunch point was under a huge rock. Most of them had squeezed themselves under the rock which provided the cover from the rain. In this condition we finished lunch.

I have done one other trek in the rain. It was the Tadiyandemol trek in Coorg. On our way down from the peak it poured crazy & no raincoat or umbrella helped. This was very similar. Now, there are quite a few of them who love the rain. I think getting wet in the rain is one thing & trekking in the rain is another. The ground we would walk on was so slushy that every foot forward would slip. I wonder if there was any one from the group who did not slip & fall even once during this part of the trek. That was the only challenge but it made movement absolutely slow. Now add to the slippery ground the hiking part. This very same route on a dry day would have been a cakewalk. But that day it was like actually walking on a cake. You hike up & slide down, you hike up & slide down. Most of the time we were making movement on all fours. And here all cleanliness & hygiene had to be thrown out of the window. Irrespective of what color pant you wore it all looked brown end of the trek. I remember three instances which I encountered during this stretch. The first one was hiking up. Like I said the only way one could move up was to crawl. Hold a branch or a root or a rock & pull yourself up. This was the only way I was making progress. I was leading a group of 5 odd people. There wasn’t anyone immediately in front of me. After having gone fairly comfortably some distance I came to a point where there was absolutely nothing in front of me to grip & push myself up. I remember I was stuck there for may be a good 5 minutes. It was only when I put all my weight on one leg & pushed myself up with the help of the loose soil itself that I was able to move up. The second instance was of taking the wrong route. Somewhere on the route there was this huge rock which was like cutting in on the way. We had to maneuver ourselves around it. I observed very carefully how the guy in front of me did it and went for it immediately after he finished. It was a bit difficult, but I managed to cross over. And only after I crossed over did people realize that was not the path to take. Luckily I & the other person in front of me were able to rejoin the group after continuing on the same path further up. The third instance was the most mentionable of the lot. This time around again I was in the front. I just kept pursuing a path in front of me. I didn’t look left or right just kept going until I reached a point way above from the rest of the group only to realize that that wasn’t the way. I was really caught there. I didn’t know if I should go back down & rejoin the rest of them or pursue the same path up & try to rejoin them further up somewhere. But there was no clear path beyond the point I was standing and going back down didn’t look very easy. And nobody around there seemed to realize I had gone the wrong way. I was completely isolated at that spot. Then I noticed a fallen pine tree further up. This pine tree seemed to have been cut off its branches not fully up to the trunk but about two feet away from its trunk. It had fallen down on a proper slope. I pursued that path up with the support of the branches. It was difficult but I finally managed to go all the way up till the end of the fallen trunk. There another 2 meters of negotiation got me back on the route everyone else was following.

‘Sher ke Bacche’ reach Tila Lotni
Day 6 – From Zirmi (11000ft) to Tila Lotni (12500ft)

Being called ‘Sher ke Bacche’ is a very high feeling. I don’t know how the others felt about it, but it did lift the morale, confidence & gave a can do attitude. Of course this is probably what the guide said to all the trekkers. This was the day when we experienced our first snow on the trek. The initial snow patches were greeted with so much joy that when we reached the most stunning stretch of the day, we were wondering why we even thought of celebrating the initial patches. Simply put, this trek only got better as time progressed. We had in front of us a 2-3 km stretch & every inch of it was covered in snow. It was a breathtaking sight. And walking on it were trekkers one behind the other in a line carefully negotiating the path. It to me was like having got transplanted in to a National Geographic video. The only disappointment being that day we had a longer distance of trek to complete and hence couldn’t pause for a long time to savor the sights we got to witness.

‘Upar ja kar Pooja karna’ – Day 8 - The trek from Tila Lotni (12500 ft) to Biskeri Thatch (11000ft) via Sarpass (13800ft)

The D Day had arrived. We would have to get on top of Sarpass at a good 13800 ft. We had an early start that day not the normal 8:30 AM start. This was largely to make good use of good weather conditions. The task immediately was to hike up. The initial part was on a plain mountain. And this hike took a good bit of time as it came so early in the day & it was straight up. Once we got to the top the snow stretches began. That apparently was the peak of Sarpass. Sarpass peak we soon realized is very flat. It is not like a typical peak which tapers towards the top. This was flat & we didn’t even know we had reached the top. Only when the guides clarified that we were indeed on the peak did the celebrations begin. We had made our plans to celebrate on the peak by showing off our designed for the occasion T Shirts. But we had to do it in a rush as the guides first advised us against removing our jackets & then pushed us to get moving with the rest of the group. We got our jackets off just for the four or five pictures & put them back on & caught up with the rest of the group. It was only at Lunch Time that we learnt a pooja was done up there when we got the Prasad from a fellow group mate. And what a lunch point it was. It was right in the middle of nowhere. All around one could see snow. Nearby there was a little stream & there put on the snow was a plastic sheet. The group settled there & got busy eating lunch which was a little different from the routine. We got a tetrapak of mango juice, some chikkies and some other fried stuff. Of course we had Omlettes & maggi being prepared by the villagers near by even there.

“Waha tak chod do na yaar”- The latter half of Day 8

Post lunch for a long time we had long stretches of snow tracks to walk on. The only challenge that came on this stretch was a sharp right turn sort of bend which immediately after taking right went down. This spot slowed the group up. But after having negotiated this, we were in for the next challenge of the day. It didn’t come immediately & from where we saw it looked like it was going to be a nice hike up. And sitting on that peak were the porters who had carried some of our group mates luggage. It was an awesome sight. But of course as we approached it the challenge became clearer. Luckily standing mid way on that hike was a guide who was pulling us up when we got to him. And guess what happened there. Immediately after being pulled up the line stopped moving. It was an odd spot. It was not flat land. It was uneven terrain. Most of us were crawling up that stretch and some of us had our rucksacks on the back. No bit of yelling & pleading to the guys ahead to move helped. In odd positions like that your feet take a lot of strain. It finally cleared & we were on top. The relief was short lived. The weather had been deteriorating for a while. There were a lot of dark clouds up above. As we reached the top it started to snow. And a few meters ahead of us was the start point of our slide. Yes the famous Sarpass Slide. Basically we were standing on a 3 feet flat land & one side was a rocky uneven slope & on the other side was a snowy slide. And to add to all this it started to rain and the ground beneath our feet became slippery and the line was moving really slowly. Man, this moment is fresh in my mind.

To make matters worse all those porters sitting there announced that they had reached their last point. That put everybody who had given them their rucksacks to carry in a spot of bother. They had to pay off the porters & carry the rucksack for the rest of the day all by themselves.

Zoooom - The Slide - The finale of Day 8

I never thought I would ever do something like this in my life. Its one of those things that you read about, see from far and get really excited about but the true experience is in doing it. The first slide was about 200 meters. The guide gave me the instructions. He said the speed breakers are the elbows and said Go. I remember only one thing, when I started to slide I slid so fast that more than being exciting it was scary. It was like zoom. It also wasn’t very comfortable. We had our rucksacks on our back, our trekking stick & we were also very keen to not wet our clothes as much as possible. I also remember the burning feeling on the lower back when I was sliding. The T shirt was pulled up & the back was rubbing against the snow.

After having finally come to a halt and learning that I had torn my raincoat I turned around to see the three others behind me coming down. Two of them tumbled on the slide. One lost his sunglasses & rain sheet & the other lost his water bottle. The third managed it pretty much like mine. The look on everybody’s face was of pain & discomfort. Then it quickly changed. There were 3 more slides we had to do. Among them only another one was a major one. This turned out to be a lot more fun partly because we were now clear about what to expect & two also because it wasn’t a straight down slide. It was one with a bend. The bend made it all the more fun. It was like those slides in water parks. For the third slide we were all the more comfortable & started to enjoy it.

Bhandak Thatch – A beautiful campsite

This campsite was the most awaited of the trek for this is the campsite that has been described as Switzerland in India. And it did not disappoint. It was a green hill & there was greenery as far as you could see. The slopes were green with these little tiny yellow & white flowers growing on them here & there. And of course it was all surrounded by snow capped mountains. The sights around was very beautiful indeed. That being the last camp of the trek, made most of us very emotional.

This campsite also turned out to be very nice for other reasons. One for the game that the camp leader impromptu made us get involved in, two for the antakshari that followed the game & three for the closing get together in a tent for the camp fire. The antakshari was unbelievable what with kannada, marathi, hindi, tamil & telegu songs being sung. I found it fascinating that so many of them could sing old songs & that too completely.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Sarpass – Introduction (Part 1)

City life treats you well. A home you can come back to from office, an air conditioned office you can drive to the next day, friends you can drink beer with on a Saturday evening, life in the City is great. Contrast this with Living out of wet rucksacks, hiking up to the next camp in wet shoes, a sleeping bag for comfort in the night, a tent over your head & answering nature’s call where else but amidst nature. This is what one would call a Trekker’s Life.

Despite having done many treks down South, this was going to be a very different experience. I always fancied camping, Camping the real camping way. Most times during our South Indian treks, which are of 2 day duration, camping would mean sleeping in tents for the night just for the kick. Near by one would have a concrete structure with basic toilet facilities. This time around though we got to do camping the real way.

Looking back at those amazing 11 days, I recollect how disconnected I was with the city life. The only connection I must admit was to make a call home daily to tell mom I was fine & check up on things here. Guess getting away from the family bond is never easy. Each day had its share of surprises. Each day was more adventurous than the other. Just when you thought you had enough, there came the next challenge. This trek to me was as much a mental thing as it was physical. This trek was a test to the very end. Now that it is all over, looking back at it all, I still have a feeling of disconnect here. It is taking me a while to come back to the city life’s demands and very soon I will have completely given in to it. Until then I wish to cherish this lazy disconnected feeling.

The calm & peace, the spectacular views, the awesome variance in weather conditions right from hot sun to pouring rain to hail storms to the flaky snowfall. One would want it to never end. This trip only strengthened my belief that there is a lot to see in India itself & one needn’t really go out of here for it.

Sarpass – A YHAI (Youth Hostels Association of India) organized trek in the Himalayan region in Himachal Pradesh. The Base Camp was at Kasol at 6500 ft. The highest point trekked being Sarpass at 13800 ft. Highlights included, trekking on snow, sliding on snow, the route itself which is very picturesque and camping.

Sarpass Group No. - SP4. Reporting Date - 1 May 2009

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