Dec 28, 2006

Scaling Chandrashila Peak

Driving from Ukhimath to Chopta was sheer pleasure (pardon the cliché). Stretches of mighty pines and bushy rhododendron reminded me of the picture postcards addressed Switzerland; the sun pierced through dense pines, as shown in many a Hindi song; and meadows offered tempting camp sites. If time were on our side, I would have pulled over, to spend a complete day there.

It was a two-hour journey, on freshly tarred road, that reached us Chopta. There used to be a guest house in Chopta a few years ago but after the area was declared a sanctuary — banning use of generators or electric lights — only a few tin-sheds remain, with basic night shelters and food for the visitors. A lot of locals visit the Tungnath temple during the 'season'. While the ascent is a mild trek for the trained foot soldier, taking about a little over one hour, Pepsi dudes find it a tough call. A couple of kilometres up ahead is Chandrashila, the training ground for budding mountaineers where GMVN (Garhwal mandal vikas nigam) organises a session every winter.

As Doc and I looked at the route before us, a friendly advice came from the dhaba-owner whom we had enquired about a guide to Chandrashila. “Ab toh guide nahi milega, sirji (too late for a guide now) aap bas German team ke nishan pakad lena ( A German team had gone there early in the morning; you can follow their footsteps on the snow to keep in direction.) On hindsight, as I write this piece, this was a sound advice. For, when there is snow and heights all around you in a huge semi-circle, it is not difficult to lose way. Losing way means going in circles, tiring your bones up and down… but reaching nowhere.

Packed with advice and adulation, Doctor and I began the pilgrim. With age, experience and fitness on my side, I soon left Naren paces behind (sorry to rub it, Doc). But it goes to his credit that the old man proved to be no mean horse; steadily, almost like a tortoise, he pushed himself till Tungnath temple, whereafter it became snowy all around and he called it a day not due to lack of courage but for his soggy sports shoes. The kind soul even left a few tetrapacks of fruit juice for me behind, before turning his back (the juice-kit was taken care of by a pack of thickset langurs in my absence).

Before moving ahead from Tungnath temple, which was submerged in thick solid snow, I sat on my haunches to revive breath and survey the road ahead. In that 180-degree arc of snow-bound area, pray where to start? Cold weather biting my cheeks, I decided to look for the 'German footprints'.

Help came after walking alongside a roof (the dwelling was nearly fully under whites). I traced the ankle-deep footmarks on a virgin tract towards the right. Infact, there were two trails, which merged into a wider footpath higher. The problems began thereto. The footmarks worked fine as a guide, but they were slippery and unreliable for holding a new foot; one had to make his own path up at a painfully slow place (I rued why I ignored Deva’s request in Hrishikesh to take an ice-axe with me). My shoes-soles had worn out and their spikes barely worked. The way to move, therefore, was to first dig my leather heels hard into the snow, make a footrest of sorts, and then lead oneself upward.

Thanks to the foot trail, and some hard hitting, I reached Chandrashila in about one and hafl hours. I regained my breath, as soon as I looked around; the view swept away the fatigue. I was surrounded by smiling snowy peaks — all fair and lovely — in a 270 degree arc. For one brief hour, I just sat near the small Chandrashila temple, motionless. Meanwhile, the mind bubbled with ideas, stories, anecdotal phrases, and plans to bring more friends there... Only when the weather sent a few warning signals that I got up, grudgingly. My knees made an unfamiliar creaky sound, signaling the coming of age, and the hardships that the weathered joints had taken.

The downhill slide was rife with risks. The slippery snow and no hold-ons would ensure that if I slip once, I would be taken to some pit in the same direction. But moving slowly, I devised a way to come down without hurting my muscles. I would tilt 45 degree backward and jump in the desired direction to move. This would glide me down to a stretch as long as I could balance myself like a skiing enthusiast, and then when I were to stop I would dig my hand into snow to break pace. A few times, I did lost my direction and had to stab my left arm a few extra times with regret. But nevertheless in less than 15 minutes, I was at Tungnath temple, trying to rub my numb hands to life.

After that it was just a run-down – which includes a brief encounter with langurs who had taken care of the snacks left behind by the doc and a few painful landings on the slippery stones. Less than an hour later I was back to where the journey on foot had begun. Doc had a jealous look in his eyes when I expressed gratitude. Two warm cups of tea and we were back in the X-ing to scale back to Ukhimath.
"Go to the bazaar area first. We have to buy chicken, onions and garlic today. I will teach the bugger (a mild reference to the lazy GMVN bawarchi) how to cook a meal," Doc muttered minutes before we hit Ukhimath. I knew I would have a delicious dinner tonight....

(The last part of this sojourn, i.e., our visit to Deoria Taal and Dehra, appears next)

Dec 12, 2006

Road to Ukhimath

Mountain roads remind me of school days. The times when every day or every hour brought about unexpected joys and unexpected sorrows – short-lived, all. Hill routes bring views that may last for a mile or a minute and you never know what the next sharp turn has in store for you: dizzy heights, devilish ditches or merely a painful round of steering-pulling… thus, the wheels move on. About six hour of such tortuous wheeling, Naren and I finally reached Ukhimath; in fact we nearly surpassed it and were forced to take a U-turn.
I must enlighten you here that a U-turn in Uttaranchal hills is no mean drill. One has to first find a wide stretch to exercise the turn and then slice the vehicle to its extreme left, greedily. This would be followed by moving back and forth several times to achieve a neat 180-degree round, watching out all the time that neither the backlights bump a rock nor the rear wheels slid off the road. One respite is lack of traffic, though the driver must watch for pahari kids who may get excited at the site of a horn-blowing vehicle at close contact.
The Kumaon Mandal guest house at Ukhimath, like most other KMVN units, is perched at a vantage place, offering liberal views of a deep valley, and a string of green hills. But the wind factor heightens the chill so we had little time for the verandah. The poker-face cook told us that he can dish out only gobhi for the dinner unless we bring home the chicken to roast. Valid argument, we surmised. Since I needed a PCO booth to tell my wife of my well being, we headed for the local market about less than a km on foot and did the needful. Frankly, throughout the trip, Doc proved a great help in fixing the lunch-dinner (thanks to his food-fixation); besides, he also carried a magician’s cap in his sack and produced tetra-packs of fruit juices with alarming frequency (alarming for the diabetic, that is).
The dinner at Ukhimath, despite Doc's manoeuvres, was not much to write home about, but the cold weather, hilly walks and rum were doing wonder to our appetites. We drank well, ate better and crashed with the TV screen on (yes, the tube was there even when most of the ‘interesting’ channels were missing).
On our worksheet the day next was Chopta-Tungnath-Chandrashila combo while the following 24 hours were booked for Deoria Taal. Since Ukhimath is kind of a midpoint for the two excursions, we decided we should stay for one more night at the lodge. Frankly, if one could fortify oneself from the icy winds, the Kumaon Mandal unit at Ukhimath is a poet’s muse. Too bad that neither Naren (sorry from dropping the title, doc, but it reminds me of Manmohan Singh) nor yours truly felt poetic at the end of a busy day. Hence, we missed the Muse and embraced the Bacchus.

(For the Chopta-Chandrashila climb, wait for the next posts, friends!)

Dec 6, 2006

X-ing In Kedarnath

July is a hot month in Delhi. And if your dreams are made of mountains, it can become unbearable in the night. I barely winked the night before I was scheduled to leave for the snow-laden Kedarnath. I tosssed and turned, checked out the clock several times and tried to keep my eyes closed. The wait was over when the clock finally struck 4 and Dr Naren (a medical practitioner and not a PhD scholar by degree) confirmed his arrival. I leapt out of bed and in no time positioned myself behind the wheels of a trusted X-ing for the pilgrim. Less than 14 hours later, with a brief stopover at Rishikesh to pick up a tent, Doc and I touched Gaurikund — a hot-water spring from where the way to Kedarnath shrine begins on foot.
Bad news came first. The pilgrim route, still under snow, had not yet been opened (how could I not check this before?). We would not be allowed to go ahead, a grinning pahadi cousin told me. Only PWD workers working on the fallen electric poles and lines of communication had the access to the route. The hilly hamlet wore a deserted look, save for a few young men playing carrom on narrow streets who greeted us with surprise. After we checked into a neat double-room for Rs 250 for night, we resolved to try our luck with the policemen watching the post. Our persuasive skills and a Times of India Press card were put to test before the goalkeeper. It was the Press Card more than our sweet talk that melted the khaki. The Inspector in-charge told us that we shall be allowed only if we accompany the patrol team, which visits the pilgrim route everyday to survey the last point and hound any stray sadhu who may have escaped their watch.
Doc and I raised a toast. Two small glasses full of dark rum clinked in the quiet of a darker night. Few men can have a sleepless night, after 14-hour journey and 160 ml of rum (though I must admit that in younger days I have defied worse conditions). Once the Spartan dinner reached our bellies, the two of us fell like a tree.
It was freezing cold when we got up, but after a brisk walk to the sulphur spring (called Gauri tapt kund), things brightened up. Nothing can be more refreshing than a morning walk to an adolescent river and even more soothing is to find warm waters to wash away your fatigue.
It is about 14 km of walk, mostly uphill, that takes you to the Hindu shrine. For us, it was a mild trek to tone up our ill-used limbs. And although we didn’t go all the way to the shrine, we enjoyed the stretch which would be otherwise busied with too many pilgrims, porters, pony-riders, polythenes muck and tea stalls. On the flip side, the patrol party was too quick to keep pace with. We had to request them at regular intervals to go slow so we could revive our breath. Thankfully, in due time, we were back for a late lunch. Fresh lauki ki sabzi, dahi and warm rotis tasted divine. The total bill didn’t cross 50 buck even when our bellies showed a devil’s appetite.
During the lunch itself, we decided there was little time to rest, for we must reach Ukhimath before night if we were to keep our date with Chandrashila peak the next day. Before one could say scoobydoobydoo… the X-ing was negotiating Himalayan bends once again, to reach KMVN tourist lodge for a cosier night.

(Our date with Chopta, Chandrashila and Deoria Taal will appear in the next post)