“Help! I’m stuck!” wailed Rishab. We turned our heads towards his voice to find only half of him. His lower half was buried deep in ice, his legs bent and covered in white, unmovable. Our nimble guide quickly rushed to his side and started clearing the ice. As he went on digging, Rishab’s legs finally became visible.
Hold up. I’ll get back to that scene shortly. Now that I have your attention, let me start from the beginning: At 6:30 AM, on the third day of our trek, at a height of 3350 meters, four human beings began an arduous climb from Laka Got towards Indrahar Pass which sat all the way up at 4342 meters. The four people including me and Rishab were our guide Mister Somnath, and a fellow traveller named Gowtham, whom we had befriended at the very start of our journey all the way from McLeodganj. Originally from Tamil Nadu, he was working in Germany and had come to India for a holiday. Wasting no more time on introductions, I would straightaway like to come back to the adventure. Our path was mostly rocky for the first two days but on this day, snow remained our constant companion. We climbed quickly enough at the start, and covered good distance. As we ascended, we could hear water falling somewhere in the distance, but otherwise, it was dead silent. After 30 minutes of more climbing, a rocky path emerged, on which we gladly trekked. It took us a little higher and lead us to the Lahesh Caves, where we took a little break.
After that brief repose, we resumed our journey and found our way back to the sea of ice. ‘White’ would be the word I would use to describe the view. It was so white that it was blinding. Moreover, the terrain had become more precipitous than ever with fresh snow which made it harder to find a grip. As I took slow careful steps, I realized this was something that I’d never experienced before, not even on my last trek where all I had to do was walk on meadows. Nevertheless, we kept going. With each step, it felt like the snow turned more treacherous. As it was soft, it was uncertain whether we’d be able to successfully place our foot firmly in the snow or limp awkwardly as half of our leg would get buried under it. But none of this was enough to slow my buddy Rishab down. Those ‘pahadi’ genes must’ve kicked in again, because he didn’t stop once. Gowtham and I, on the other hand, took consistent breaks to catch our breath. From time to time we would just stop to look around and say “Damn, we’re actually up here!”. The weather didn’t look promising though, and soon it started snowing. At the sight of flakes, Somnath bhaiya was quick to suggest that we turn back and head to camp. Gowtham also looked reluctantly doubtful about the accomplishment of our mission, as he had first hand experienced snow before and wasn’t a big fan of it. Pondering my options, I looked up to find Rishab who was still going strong, and had yet again managed to appear as an ant, far as he was from me.
That was when I realized that we couldn’t turn back just yet. We hadn’t come that far, to only come that far. And so, hobbling up that deceitful sheet of ice, with nothing but footsteps in the snow in our wake, we finally caught up with Rishab, who was resting on a small muddy patch in the middle of the snow. This is where we took a much needed break and ate lunch.
After a cold lunch, we resumed our languorous walk. Resuming was hard. Strong cold winds blew in our faces and the snow disintegrated at our touch. We found ourselves getting half buried in the snow more often than walking upright. At that height, we were practically plodding on a ‘snow swamp’. That was when Rishab found himself 3 feet under the snow. Looking at him, helpless and immobile, we couldn’t control our laughter. For a minute, Gowtham and I just stood there and laughed at him. “Look how the tables have turned!” we joked. After Rishab was out of his white misery, we continued to climb. Carefully, I read the ice in front of me, took a calculative step in the direction I thought would be safe and the next thing I knew, I was in the same position as Rishab! When I had been ‘rescued’, we continued yet again. Gowtham must’ve felt left out, because he went in next! It had started snowing again by the time we got him out. But when we examined the hole he had created in the snow, we were shocked. It was over 6 feet deep. Gowtham had been extremely lucky that he didn’t go all the way down. This incident forced us to reconsider our obstinate plans of reaching the top. Weather had started to look ominous as well. And so, very reluctantly, we gave up our goal and decided to head back to the camp.
Our guide tied us all through a rope, connecting us.
“Now sit and slide down the slope, everyone.” He told us.
“What??” We asked him dubiously.
But we had heard him correctly. Initially a bit skeptical about it, we gave it a shot anyway and before long, we were sliding down the snow on our asses, hooting and laughing all the way. We glided down the mountain quickly, and covered a lot of distance in a short while. Snow had gotten inside our shoes and gloves, but we were too hot with energy at the moment to notice it. But then came a point where we could see an abrupt fall ahead, so sliding became obsolete and we had to use our legs for walking again. It started raining, and we finally acknowledged what the ice had done – We were drenched and shivering. Our hands and feet had gone numb. It was an effort to even hold our walking sticks. Moreover, we were at a point where even one misstep could prove fatal. Despite all of this, we were all fun and games until we realized that Somnath bhaiya was serious. At one point, Gowtham slipped. As he started sliding down, we freaked out as we all were connected to the same rope! While trying to pull the rope to stop his fall, I also lost my footing and tumbled on the snow, but thankfully remained there. After this episode, our guide had no other option but to dig the ice and make grooves for us to put our feet in, for the majority of our remaining icy escapade. Winds and rain intensified, urging us to don our raincoats. Really, snow beneath your feet and rain above your head is a bad combination. The remaining descend consisted of even more sliding/walking/falling until we reached the last stretch of ice from where our camp was visible. We slid half of the way and ran the remaining distance, howling with joy as all our worries disappeared in an instant. We were back in our camp by 1:30 PM.
This event has been one of the most venturesome experiences of my life so far. At one point, when it got really critical, I thought that any misstep could actually lead to my death. Walking atop these hills is all about witnessing those ephemeral epiphanies that you cannot witness anywhere else. These hills are also a reminder that nature is beautiful, but deadly at the same time – Man may have his tricks and toys but at the end of the day, he is nature’s to command.