It was May 1988. At around 8:00 p.m. on a humid, crowded platform of Dadar Railway Station in Mumbai, I was waiting with a bunch of excited, chattering boys and girls. I had just completed one term as a teacher at the RishiValley School. It was vacation time now. The students and I together waited in eager anticipation for the Dadar - Gorakhpur Express. We were to embark on a journey across the dusty plains of central India to the dry heat of Delhi. From there we would ascend to the cooler climes of the Kulu Manali region, where the snows of the 'Chandrakhani Pass' beckoned us.
So began my annual sojourn in the Himalayas which has now gone on almost uninterrupted for the last 14 years. I have been involved in escorting trekking expeditions for the students of the school to various regions of the Himalayas. This has taken me to some of the remotest spots in the Garhwal and Kumaon regions of Uttaranchal, as well as the Kinnaur region of Himachal Pradesh. We have together trudged along narrow mountain trails above rushing mountain streams, wended our way through rich pine forests straddling deep valleys, crossed vast meadows at the base of rugged peaks, traversed glaciers and clambered across snow-laden passes. If any experience can be described as enchanting, this surely is! It is no exaggeration to say that the beauty and majesty of the Himalayas cannot be put into words. After many years of trekking, I still retain the strong urge that something so tremendous needs to be appreciated by as many people as possible. This is why I continue to plan and escort these treks, so that I may share this joy with others.
Trekking: why and what
For centuries people have undertaken arduous travels into the Himalayas. Some have gone there in search of beauty or truth, some on a pilgrimage, some with a sense of adventure and others probably simply to have a good time. In our own trekking programme our aim is perhaps to have a bit of everything!
At the outset I must distinguish trekking from mountaineering, that other enterprise that takes many a daring climber to the heights of various mountain peaks. Mountaineering is a high altitude sport (typically greater than 20, 000 ft). It is often construed as a race to reach a summit, or as the conquest of an unyielding peak. It requires special training and often involves an intensely competitive spirit and a highly focussed approach. It is also an expensive affair, involving a great many risks and uncertainties. Trekking, on the other hand, is a more easy-paced and cooperative affair. It involves walking up the mountains at one's own speed, looking at the valleys, rivers, snow and trees (these disappear above 14, 000 ft), greeting and chatting with fellow travellers and villagers you meet on the way. Trekkers often wait for each other, giving a chance for the slower ones to catch up. Though very often there is a destination to be reached, it can be done fairly leisurely most of the time. Nonetheless it is no picnic! It has its demands too, but certainly far fewer risks.
As an organiser and escort for student trekking groups, I have over the years come to realize that every stage of the journey offers its own challenges and learning experiences. In this article I hope to share not only a flavour of the learning experiences that the journey brings, but also the various dilemmas and situations that the escorting teacher needs to respond to.
Journey to Delhi and to the base camp
The train journey to Delhi, and then the bus journey to get to the Himalayas, are in themselves a mélange of experiences. For our treks, one group is escorted from the South and another starts from Mumbai. Making the right choice of trains and getting reservations is not so easy, given that summer is a peak travelling season. In the last dozen years or so, we have ended up travelling by probably as many different trains to Delhi. However, wiser from our first experience, we have never opted for the Dadar - Gorakhpur Express again! (It started late and took two nights and more than 30 halts to bring us to Delhi). These journeys are hot. We travel second class. The first test of escorting begins right away. Generally the night is spent without much sleep, keeping an eye on the luggage and on an occasional hyperactive kid or an 'over-friendly' co- passenger.
The stopover in Delhi is invariably very hectic. We have stayed over at many different places: 'Sports Authority of India' stadium, Youth Hostel, Rail Yatri Nivas, the JNU Campus and even at a couple of 'International' hotels! In early May, Delhi heat is beginning to peak. The students need to be fed, kept cool, well hydrated, and prevented from disappearing with well-meaning relatives. The teachers have to be on their toes.
Most of our treks have been organized through different groups based in Delhi, who look after the travel arrangements on the round trip from Delhi and back. The evolution and splitting-up of these organizations makes an interesting study in itself. The stakes involved in such ventures are rather high, and some breakaway groups often decide to strike out on their own. We have nevertheless managed to make a few trustworthy friends and some of them havegone out of their way to help us.
The travel from Delhi to the base camp usually involves a strenuous bus journey of about 15 - 18 hours. It starts in the late evening and with a brief halt in the morning goes on for another 8 - 10 hours, as the bus wheezes its way up the lower ranges and negotiates hair-pin bends. The last leg of this journey invariably excites everyone and the strain of travel is forgotten. The air gets perceptibly colder; the landscape is noticeably different; the broad-leafed trees give way to the dark green conifers. A few snow-laden peaks make their first grand appearance, albeit at a far distance. It isa glimpse of another world.
But reaching this far has sometimes involved quite some luck and even feats of endurance. Journeys in India are often subject to the vagaries of Indian politics. A 'Mumbai Bandh' announced by a prominent political party threatened to cut short the very first leg of our journey on a recent trek. We finally had to walk from a hotel through deserted streets and were luckily able to catch our train. Back in 1988, at the height of a disturbance in Punjab, we have had to change our plans of bus travel from Delhi to the base camp almost at the last minute. This was decided when reports were received that just the previous night on our intended route, terrorists had chased a bus and fired at it indiscriminately. The new plan involved an additional 20 plus hours of travel, partly by train. Even now, I have vivid memories of the four nights of continuous journey that we undertook to reach the base camp at Raison between Kuluand Manali.
The base camp
Arriving at the base camp signals the start of the actual trekking programme. The base camp includes a cluster of tents, with cooking facilities, which have been prepared by the group that is organizing the trek. A full day is spent in 'acclimatizing', a familiar term in the vocabulary of trekkers and mountaineers. Our bodies need to 'adjust' to the thinner air and a sharper sun at higher altitudes. Although most people may not show much discomfort up to 16, 000 ft if the ascent is gradual, it is recommended that the body be tuned slowly and methodically. Even then a mild headache and minor nausea are some commonlyexhibited symptoms.
The day at the base camp is spent exploring the surroundings. There is usually a river, or a mountain stream or a spring nearby. A nearby hillock may be scaled, or a local temple situated at some height attracts our attention. Occasionally some physical exercises are also done. It is here that most get their first exposure to the rigours aswell as to the fun of camping. The water of the spring or stream is unimaginably cold. So many give up the idea of a bath or even a wash almost instantly! Usually there are no built-in toilet facilities (though nowadays there is an increasing emphasis on this). The tent floor is anything but a soft cushioned bed! However, there are adequate compensations. The view is picturesque, the air intoxicating. The food (mostly roti, subzi, dal, rice and pickle), though quite tasty, does give many a digestion problem for the firstfew days!
Sleeping in a tent can be quite an experience. While turning over one might brush against a boulder; a large pebble might keep poking you; sometimes an 'invisible' insect may annoy you for a while. At other times, there simply may not be any space to turn! It gets pitch dark. However, everyoneis rather tired and sleeps like a log!
Not all arrivals at the base camp have been smooth, though! During one trek, whenwe had braved a bus journey for almost 40 continuous hours, tired and hungry, we were greeted with a heavy snowfall. Although it was the first such sighting of snow for most and as thrilled as theywere, the cold, fatigue and hunger soon took over and manyscrambled for warm places inside the tents.
The students have always shown remarkable resilience and spirit at such times. They are accommodative of each other and soon learn to shoulder responsibilities. Helping the cooks in chopping vegetables, fetching water from a nearby stream, clearing the camp site of litter, helping in pitching the tents, are some jobs readily done by them. The younger ones (13 year olds, in our case) frequently have some difficulties (carrying their loaded rucksacks, managing the routine) but the older ones look after them well. Many enduring relationships have begun and blossomed over these treks.
On the trekking Trail
The actual trekking starts after the students have acclimatized themselves. A typical day's walk during a trek may be about six to eight km. But it can vary considerably. The duration may range fromfive to eight or even ten days on the trekking trail. The route is charted out by experienced persons from the trekking organization, who have a good knowledge of the region. The initial day's walk is often easy-paced, on gentle slopes. But this invariably gets tougher as the height increases. 'Round trip' treks usually have a substantial walk (mostly descent) on the last day. At the end of each leg of the trek, the tired and hungry group reaches the intermediate camp, with tents and hot food waiting. After resting and replenishing themselves, we get down to exploring the surroundings.
In some of the camps there are hill villages nearby and we have had some absorbing chats with the local people. Through these we learn something of the local customs and traditions. The construction of the houses and the architecture of temples are also interesting. I was once surprised to find that there was a temple dedicated to Duryodhana nearby. Occasionally, you get to knowabout a nearby hot-water spring. Everyone then rushes for awell-deserved bath. The feeling of hot water on our bodies after braving the bone-chilling cold is purely ecstatic. Volleyball and cricket are popular games even while we are in theremotest parts of our country.
Sometimes, however, a day's climb can be quite formidable. To reach Tapovan, which lies above Gaumukh, we made a vertical climb of nearly 4, 000 ft in one day! The views above the Gangotri Glacier, from beneath which the river Ganga emerges, were so spectacular that we probably did not feel the strain. Not all climbs are managed without difficulties though. Even now at times, during a particular stretch I feel rather tired and not very confident of finishing! Most students need encouragement and help sometime or the other, and it is an important function of the escorts to be able to do so. At times one may have to cajole them, adopt a somewhat 'mollycoddling' approach, whereas at other times a sterner approach is needed. One may need to demand the necessary tasks of people, even when they are very tired. It is a delicate balance. It is at such times that we discover the untapped capacities of the body and the mind.
The joy of snow
Experiencing snow is, of course, one of the prime attractions for most to join a trek and many (including teachers!) go crazy with their first contact with it. We meet snow in varied forms. One may unexpectedly come upon a tongue of snow across the path; there might be a sudden hailstorm or a gentle shower of snowflakes, or the final camp may even be completely surrounded with snow. Even if none of these happens, on the 'rest day' at the final camp the group is taken to a nearby snow point and for several hours everyone plays on the snow (sliding and throwing snowballs at each other). Making a 'snowman' is a must! We have been through all this and more. On the way to Tapovan and Dodital we have had to walk through an intermittent shower of rain and snowfall for more than an hour. Many attempted to catch these swirling snowflakes on their tongues! In the 'Dayara Bugyal' region we were hammered for a couple of hours by a hailstorm. It was so strong that we had to immediately seek shelter in the tent. During such times everyone huddles together. Some card games are initiated; songs are spontaneously sung or sometimes everyone is quiet and there is deep silence. This is also the time when people start reminiscing about a cosy bed, a favourite hot drink and even the Delhi heat is fondly recalled! However, with a clear blue sky and bright sunshine the following day, the spirits soar again and the sense of adventure and joy reigns.
Some of our human interactions on these treks have been quite memorable. There was the completely unexpected and warm welcome by an army major at a remote camp near the Tibet border. We gladly accepted his offer of hot pakodas and tea. The subsequent display of ammunition was an added bonus. Much of this was of course 'illegal'. He even posed for a group photograph with us not far away froma signboard declaring in bold letters 'Photography Strictly Prohibited'! I also recall the obliging headmistress of a village school, who made two of the classrooms (wooden floored!) available to us at short notice when we ran short of accommodation. At Tapovan, 'Shimla' baba's generous offering of khichadi cooked at 15, 000 ft above sea level was very nourishing.We witnessed the power of faith at Kedarnath, seeing even very old people undertake a 14 km arduous trek up fromGourikund.
These treks also expose one to nature's elements in their full majesty and glory. Etched in my memory are several such experiences:the first sighting of the towering Swargarohini peaks in Garhwal (Har ki Doon) region from where the Pandavas are believed to have reached heaven; the awesome Shivalinga peak above the Gangotri Glaciar and the 'timeless' 15 minutes or so we spent at its base looking at the vast expanse of white space amidst a fierce sun and icy cool winds; the serene location of the Madhmaheshwar temple, one of the Panchkedar sites; the sudden and momentary glimpse of a far-away lone peak lit in 'gold' by the setting sun, while walking through slush, incessant rains and fearsome lightning down the Chandrakhani Pass; the rocky mountain near Sangla that appeared to be neatly carved out of a giant monolith; the mesmerising 360 degree view fromTeoria top near Dayara Bugyal; the lovely walk through deep pine forests towards Dodital; the silence of a particularly still night at Kareri lake. There have been many suchunforgettable moments.
There have been moments of fear, grief and regrets too. On our Gaumukh trek we met a sadhu on the way from Gangotri to Chirawasa, at one of the tea stalls which come up on the trails during the regular trekking season. We heard him recount some of his experiences. To our shock, we learnt after reaching the next camp that he had been hit by a falling stone from a rock-slide on his way up and had fallen to his death. Once, a few of us had to suddenly get down from the top of a glacier leading to Beaskund and the only available way was to slide on snow a few hundred feet. On the way down, I narrowly missed a deep crevasse. On another occasion a sloping glacier had to be crossed immediately as the snow beneath was melting rapidly. I had to hold the hand of a student who was visibly trembling. A single such experience can bring out the most primordial fears of our being and yet strangely enough, it also sets something free from within.
The escorting teachers have to learn the art of weighing the options carefully: sometimes choosing between a calculated risk for some positive gains, and foolishly exposing the students to unknown hazards. Keeping the morale of the group high is a very important task. One always needs to display a sanguine outlook, even during the most adverse conditions! Managing a group of 20 - 25 students through many intense experiences can be quite demanding. However, the spirit of cooperation and togetherness that it fosters, and the way students learn to handle inconveniences, rigours and uncertainties, is compensation enough for the stress one has to undergo. When the trek is over, the sense of fulfillment writ large on their faces is a joy initself.
One of the 'dangers', if I may use such a word, of these treks and for that matter any other outdoor activity is that one's own pleasures can become excessively important. In many parts of the Himalayas, amidst the bountiful natural beauty lies visible poverty, hardship and lack of basic health amenities. There is squalor, addiction and exploitation. This is in every sense of the word the 'other India' which most of us are usually quite unaware of. The increasing intrusion of modernity into these societies is also all too apparent. We need to be more sensitive to this aspect of trekking. A study of the local cultures, their artisans, and the impact of modernity may deepen our understanding and appreciation of the social issues involved.
The Himalayas are a gigantic .encyclopaedia. of geographical information and there are ample real-life illustrations of terms we see only in textbooks. I still remember the fine examples of 'moraine' and 'cirques' that we saw above Kedarnath. One can gain an understanding of the formation of valleys, glaciers and rivers, a sense of the mountain-building process itself.
How much indeed can be accomplished with a little effort! After all these years, I am deeply convinced that life offers us in abundance; how we receive is the question. These Himalayan excursions have truly been a window to the unknown; an inkling of the unfathomable.
Such a word as 'conquest' to express his relationship with nature breathes of egotism and smacks of a conscious superiority...Nature is not a thing apart, something to be stormed and conquered, it is a part of us, an all prevailing beauty and magnificence in which we strive to realise ourselves and in realising learn the true import of existence.