Many people have asked me why I have not done a Himalaya trek yet, given my general interest in trekking. Well ... its usually a combination of reasons. A little bit of starting trouble - it takes time to get to know the terrain and geography and I generally enjoy a trek more when I know both. Also, the effort and time required for a Himalaya trek is way higher than what is required for a trek in Western Ghats. The later is possible over a normal weekend and hardly any Western Ghats treks will need more than 4-5 days. But, a Himalaya trek would take two days just for the travel. Even the smallest of the plans I had seen would take a week's leave. Not to mention the higher cost involved.
But, there is always a first time, isnt it? When I saw Facebook posts talking about YHAI treks to Sarpass and Saurkundi, I knew that this could be the one. I asked a couple of Himalaya experts and was told that either of these could be a good beginners trek. Preethu preferred Saurkundi trek and among the friends I checked with, Amit and Priya wanted to join too. Soon, we registered for the trek and also booked train tickets to Delhi. Priya's family in Roorkee had plans to go to Vaishnodevi temple around the same time and we decided to tag along as well. We had to report at the YHAI base camp at Babeli, near Kullu. Amit made the rest of the itinerary and booked tickets from Delhi to Kullu / Babeli / Manali, Manali to Katra (for Vaishnodevi), return to Delhi and flight tickets from Delhi to Bangalore.
We followed that up with a couple of trips to Decathlon (Sarjapur road, Bangalore) for shopping and was all set with new pairs of shoes and bags. As per consensus across the web, Preethu had prepared a long list of must-have items for a YHAI trek and we ended up buying most of them. I personally felt that most of the items are a matter of personal choice - but in this case, it was better to get it anyways, rather than not getting anything and missing it later!
I took a total of 15 days leave starting on a Friday and four of us were aboard a train to Delhi on a Thursday evening. We landed at Delhi a day later and headed to Amit's sister's place first. In the evening, we boarded an overnight bus headed to Kullu / Manali, which reached Kullu early morning. Babeli is only about 9 kms from Kullu, but we did not realize this and ended up at Manali town about 32kms from Babeli. The highlight though, was the journey along the Beas river with views of snow-capped mountains at a distance.
At Manali, we took an auto to the Himachal Pradesh RTC bus stand (which was quite close and walkable, if not for the luggage), where we found a restaurant for freshening up. We also had breakfast there and left our luggage in their custody before heading out to spend a few hours roaming around Manali.
We took a leisurely walk to the Hidimba temple and stopped a couple of times in the streets for shopping. Part of the trail was through a park and was nice. On our way back, we stopped near the river side for a 'River Crossing Adventure' and also at 'Casa Bella Vista' for Pizza, before eventually heading back to Manali town. By evening, we took a state transport bus to Kullu and got down near Babeli base camp.
The base camp was a totally new experience for all of us. The place already had a big group of people camped there in tents - some were all set to go for the trek and some just came in like us. All people reporting to the trek gets assigned to a group and we were part of SK-12 (Saurkundi group for day 12). Every day morning, one group will leave for the trek to Saurkundi - after going through a two day acclimatization. Eventhough, the food and leisure areas were common for everybody, tent arrangements were seperate for girls and guys.
Our tent at the Basecamp
Everybody was supposed to follow the rules and timings - food was available only at fixed times and all were expected to come out and have it then. Similarly, the whole SK-12 group reported early morning next day and was taken out for physical exercises. Later in the day, there was an acclimatization walk to a nearby hill - to make sure that everybody is physically fit for the trek. During this time, we got to know the rest of the group. We had people from different age groups - ranging from a just-out-of-school gang from Gujarat to a 18-till-i-die-but-going-on-55+ trekker gang from Pune. We had to select a group leader and Abhijit was chosen, followed by Rutwik as the co-leader and Saloni as environment leader.
Night was very eventful with our group putting together a string of performances - the highlight of which was mimes of "Tadap Tadap Ke ..." and "Jaane Ja ...". The songs were acted out with a very straigh face as the audience was rolling over with laughter. The performances went on for longer than usual and was termed as the best till date by the organizers!
Next day, we were out for rappelling and rock climbing session, which went out pretty well as most of the people went ahead and did it shrugging of all fear. The best part, though, was watching Manu (our instructor) climbing up the flat rock face with bare hands and no protective gear. I was one of the few people who skipped the rock climbing session as I somehow did not feel like it.
Roof with a view!
The trek started next day morning - at about 8.30AM. We were taken in a bus to a bridge near Patlikuhl (at about 1,500m+/5,000ft+), from where the trail to Saurkundi pass started. We walked for some time on a jeep track with views of snow-capped mountains towards our North-West. We passed through a pine-forest and stopped there for packed lunch before coming back in to a village. By now, we had gained some altitude and the mountains around us looked much more beautiful - especially with the blue sky sprinkled with white cotton clouds. The trek itself was at a very comfortable pace and we were told to go slow and make sure not to reach the next camp site (Segli) too early! This was to make sure that the people-in-charge at the camp get enough rest.
View from Segli
In spite of our best efforts, we reached the base camp way before evening and had to wait outside for a while. Especially with a slight drizzle, this was a little difficult. Segli camp, at about 7,100ft, was essentially a 2-storey wooden house and our large group (of 52 people) barely managed to fit in. Nevertheless, nobody seem to complain, thanks to the beautiful views all around.
Group en route Hora
The trek was even more easier the next day as we walked only for a very short distance - passing through another village, before finally reaching the campsite - called Hora, at about 9,000ft. This camp consisted of tents and had good tree cover all around, with only a glimpse of the green valley towards the North. In the night, the temperature went pretty low prompting everybody to finish the food before sun going down (which was not until about 7.30 or so) and crawl back in to the tent. The most testing task was washing the plates after the food, in the ice cold water - which most people avoided by using tissue papers!
Next day, I had some adventure trying to get water from a nearby stream. The problem was that the place seemed to have faced a landslide recently and water had tiny rock grains difficult to filter out. I tried going up stream to see if it was any better upstream - but, this did not help much. Finally, I used a thicker cloth to filter out the water and managed to get some clean water.
View from Maylee
The trek part was again not very difficult as we reached the Maylee thatch (10,500ft) without much effort. But, by now, thanks to the higher altitudes, the snow-capped mountains looked much closer. The location of Maylee thatch was breathtaking. We got a good upclose view of the snow-capped mountains on one side. It felt great just sitting there with a line of snow-capped mountains on one side. We faced a heavy breeze and a cold drizzle just before reaching the thatch, which brought down the temperature considerably. The breeze and drizzle continued on and off for some time making it a very cold night.
Peekaboo at the mountains
Group at Maylee
Apparently, Maylee thatch was not too far from civilization, even though we had taken three days of trek to reach there. For some of the locals we met there - who had set up small food stalls for the trekkers - the place was just a couple of hours climb from their village. They even offered to take our camera / mobile batteries and chargers to their village and get it charged by next day morning! It only made sense that YHAI opted for a easy route to Saurkundi (atleast in the beginning), thus allowing enough time for acclimatization for all everybody.
I am taking this tent - at Dora
Dora from the top
We got even closer to the snow line the next day - the highlight of the day being the snow fall we faced around noon, a first time experience for many of us. We reached our camp for the day - Dora thatch at an altitude of 11,300ft and just next to the snowline - by about 1.30. It was easily the best camping site for the entire trek, with beautiful views of the mountain ranges on the other side. I had been using the camera as little as possible to preserve memory and battery charge, but this was the place to go berserk. To help us further, the cloudy climate during the snowfall was soon gone, giving way to bright sun. We even played cricket for a while before it got dark.
|Romance in the air!
Way up to the mountains
More and more snow ...
Next day was the best for the entire trek - as we climbed further up, the hills on both sides became visible. It was snow covered mountains ranges all around us and felt like we were walking along patches of green among the snow. Soon, the green patch started shrinking and the snow on either side ate into our trail as well. In the beginning, it felt a little scary to walk on the snow, but soon we got used to it. Fear of ice breaking beneath us and / or slipping soon gave way to the thrill of walking in the snow for the first time.
First slide from a distance
Soon, it was time to take a slide in the snow. At first, it looked a bit scary watching people sliding down in the snow - seemingly out of control with a good possibility of crashing down the slopes. But, actually doing it was fun unlimited. Our guide showed us how easy it is to control the speed - by pressing both the feets against the ground / snow. But, obviously, the fun was to let go at full throttle :)
Black and White stripes ... and the blue
Hurray ... we did it!
The first slide was a small one - of about 100m - followed by a walk on the snow, a lunch break and goofing around in / with snow. After that, we were on for a long walk on the snow, scaling small hills en route to finally reach the Saurkundi pass (12,900ft) by noon. It was indeed a moment of triumph and we all celebrated rolling over in snow and waving a national flag that the Pune trekker gang was carrying.
The big slide
The descent was very eventful as well - first, we had a long slide which was a lot of fun. I almost froze myself while sliding down and decided to take a break in the middle of the slide. This was a perfect place to take out the camera and take pictures of people on their way down. This slide was very long and we had people actually losing control and coming down head first or crashing on to those in front. In any case, nobody seemed to complain!
One at a time!
We had one more slide after this and then we had to do a very tricky descent in snow. Even with a rope tied in place and all of us coming down in a line holding on to each other, this took a very long time. Sliding down was one thing - but walking down the snow was definitely not easy. We had to ensure a sure foot hold before taking each step and this some times meant kicking the ground below to make sure of a good stable footmark.
It took us a while to make this descent and get down the snowline. It was a slow and long walk from then on - we had a few more small slides, which some of us chose to circumvent by taking a trail around it. The descent was pretty steep at some places - compared to the cakewalk of a trek till the previous day, this was a good day of trek and we had a few tired legs by evening.
The day's halt was at Longa thatch (10,800ft) ater a real day of trekking. The campsite faced the Manali town on one side and a few winding roads going up the mountains. It was good to be among the greenery once again after a long day of crawling through the snow. On the other hand, it was a little sad thinking that we were nearing the end of a beautiful experience.
In greener pastures
Next day's trek was also longer compared to the first few days - we came downhill quickly and signs of civilization started again. We passed through a few farms and there were people en route selling strawberries and other fruits. The temperature also went up a little, especially by noon - compared to what we faced in the last few days. We also had a good lunch break with the group breaking in to song and dance routines. It was great to see that a group of such varied background has known each other so well and enjoying the company so much.
A happy bunch at Lekhni
We and our adopted daughter - the 'Thithlee' :)
The Himachal couple!
Our last day's halt was at Lekhni - a wooden house in the middle of a apple farm. It also had a good view of the green Manali valley ahead of us. We had long photo sessions here as well as I decided to use up even the last drop of memory and battery life in my camera. One of the families living here offered the chance for us to dress up in traditional Himachal attire and it was not a chance to let go easily!
Last day's trek was nothing eventful and bordered on boring - what else can you expect after the amazing experiences we faced in the last few days? Compared to that, we were walking on a dusty trail in hot sun. Eventually, we reached Aaloo grounds by noon, where the YHAI bus came and picked us up - taking us back to the base camp for a late lunch. Soon, it was time to collect the certificates, say thanks to the organizers and good byes to the fellow group members.
The group bonded so well and we collected each other's email addresses to ensure that we stayed in touch even after the trek. Some of us had planned to spend a day in Manali and ended up together in the YHAI lodge at Manali and an evening at Manali after that. The four of us - Amit, Priya, Preethu and myself - soon borded our overnight bus to Katra for a visit to Vaishnodevi and the rest of the group went on their seperate ways. But, we all stayed in touch through emails and social networking sites. It was great to be part of such a nice group and I would love to go for more treks with them!
Even the experience with YHAI was pretty good - they had the right emphasize on discipline, which was essential to make sure that nothing untoward happens with unknown people coming from different parts of the country. Hats off to the organizers for pulling this off so well with so many groups and so many trails. The trek itself - barring the day in the snow and Longa to Lekhni stretch to a smaller extend - was more like a picnic for most of the people, mainly due to the relaxed plan and the emphasis on acclimatization. The plan and camp locations are tailored to make sure that there is no sudden altitude gain.
If you are planning for your first Himalaya trek, I would strongly recommend YHAI - only a few things to remember:
- Do keep yourself well hydrated - a couple of bottles of water before and after the breakfast and a few more en route should do. It is usually difficult to drink cold water in the morning, but it works very well.
- It can get pretty cold in the evenings - rather than covering up yourself at the base camp itself, go ahead and be a bit brave - take a bath in the cold water at the base camp and roam around wearing a t-shirt in the first few campsites. Its actually quite easy to overcome the cold if you keep moving around and do small stretch exercises - atleast in the first few camps. Start covering up only when the cold becomes unbearable.
- The snow can get quite uncomfortable, if you get too wet. I was wearing just a track pant while doing the slides and ended up freezing my rear side :) Eventually, I had to walk a good distance wearing a very wet dress. It will be good to get in to a raincoat (atleast the lower half) while doing the main slide.
- Please remember that the state or region you belong to is no bigger than the country itself. Though, our group had a good harmony among all the members, I had seen glimpses of regionalism, especially at the base camp. Please leave all my-state-is-the-best attitude at home itself.
- Also, if you are relatively new to trekking, please replace all the mentions of 'easy' with 'moderately difficult'. It is very important to understand that I was comparing this to some of the tough treks in Western Ghats I have done before. Please dont get carried away by mentions of 'easy' in the trek log - no trek is 'easy' until you complete it!