Friday, August 22, 2014

Over to Changshil Pass - Himalayan trek in April 2014

There is a sense of exhilaration that springs from the challenge, the fear and the thrill of having overcome obstacles that have not been faced before. Over the last couple of years am coming to realise that when it comes to trekking, each trek is unique and the exhilaration continues.

It's April 2014 and this time our group of ten is headed to Changshil Pass on the border of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh's Himalayan mountain range. During the year since the last Himalayan trek to Obra Valley-Devkyara Pass, I've managed to go for couple more short treks in the Sahyadri mountain range of Maharashtra. Without a doubt, the treks here in the monsoon prove to be spectacular with some breathtaking visual treats.

To get to the start of our Changshil trek, we are taken by jeep from Sankhri (have described this beautiful village in an earlier post). As the jeep winds down the narrow roads, we pass the Rupin and Supin rivers...these rivers later join to make the Tons river that further ahead merges itself into the Ganga. We are informed by our guide that this route also makes for another scenic trek. As we marvel at the raw energy of the surging rivers and the soaring beyond, we pass two funeral pyres which we are told are of village men who died when a tree fell on them in the forest. Humbled, we proceed to our drop-off point from where our trek upward begins.

By the time we begin our 11 km stretch on Day 1, the sun has risen high and the ascent immediately gets steep making it a demanding start to the trek. Later sections of the route through pine forests will provide us much needed relief from the sun. As we pass the only river that will be on our route on this trek (unlike our last trek where the rivers provided us constant company), we are impressed to see a fully functional "Paan-chakki" (water-powered flour mill) in the middle of the river. The villagers fill in their grains inside this while on their way to graze their animals, and pick up the flour on their way back. Truly indigenous and natural mechanisms at work! We are to pass the same route on our way back, so our picture halts are kept for later, including of the terraced fields of mustard, flush with dainty yellow flowers against the backdrop of the mountain peaks.

Our Day 1 campsite is a spacious open green meadow with the pine forest and mountain behind us and up ahead, we have deep valleys and the snow-capped mountain peaks beyond that. My conversations enroute on day 2 with our local guide, Tikam Singh ji, have enlightened me on the ways and mannerisms of the mountain bear, which I am informed are found in some numbers in these environs. I would rather not give out too many details of these conversations, lest some readers get scared out of even visiting here, but suffice it to say that the locals consider it safest to stand still if one actually comes face to face with a bear. By the time we reach our campsite, I am all excited and keen to catch sight of a bear in the mountains.

By comparison, our campsite that night is tiny as the tents have to be pitched on the smallest patch of soil available in the midst of a lot of snow. What ups the excitement quotient for me is that there are bear paw prints in the snow all around us - not just of one bear, but of a baby bear too! All of this anticipation and excitement, added with having our tent base heavily slanted due to the steep gradient, make for a restless, sleepless night with my tent-mate Neeta, me and our sleeping bags constantly sliding down. To add to that, to my over-alert ears, even the smallest sounds in the night start sounding like the footfall of bears in the snow, or their breath heaving against our tent. It is only in the early morning light that I realize there are no fresh paw-prints, which means I have to wait some more to catch sight of these big furry creatures.

On Day 3, as decided the previous night by our trek leader, Neeta, three of us prepare to set out for the last mile(s) stretch to Changshil Pass. We equip ourselves with some dry fruits, water, snow sticks and gaiters tied over our shoes to keep off the snow and get going. We are accompanied by two of our local guides including our local trek leader, Kuldeepji. About 1.5 hours into the trek, as I stretch over a section of the snowy climb, I find my back has frozen and in extreme pain. There is a catch in my back so bad that makes even straightening up difficult, leave alone going uphill. But my not having made the last hour of the trek the previous year has made me determined to go all the way right until the end. Fortunately for me, one of us finds some painkiller in her small rucksack and with some relief from that and a lot of willpower, I continue onward.

The 5 km trek to the Pass is on a very steep gradient and along sharp mountain edges and it takes us more than 3 hours as we find ourselves trudging, slipping and falling through 2.5 feet deep snow that ensures even the gaiters are quite useless as the snow starts filling into our shoes, chilling and numbing our toes and feet. We are surrounded by the most pristine white mountains, which are dotted in places with footprints of families of deer (we see one or two), and of the Himalayan Monal, a large brilliantly coloured pheasant bird which unfortunately we do not get to see. We also see very fresh paw prints of bears, but to my disappointment (and relief of others), a sight of them still evades me.

As we near the top at an altitude of more than 13,000 feet, a sense of relief starts to wash the exhaustion away. Finally, we've made it. And I am so glad I persisted. The thrill of having made it to the top makes the three of us break into song and dance and a lot of laughter. But this soon changes as we gaze in silence and with wonder and amazement at the sights around us. We are the highest point of that mountain range and below and ahead of us, we see layers and layers of undulating mountains that at their lower altitudes have no snow. Behind us on the opposite range, looms the Baradsar peak. To me, that place, that moment, those sights feel like the top of the world. 

Our downhill trek continues for another 2 days. By the time we meet the jeeps at our pickup point at Jakol, we have covered 55 km on foot. As the jeeps make their winding journey back to Dehradun, I gaze out the windows at the abundant pine forests around me and wonder when I will be back again. Two red foxes jump out of the forest next to us, as if to bid us farewell. I crane my neck until the very last to see them and to soak in the mountains. Until the next time...

The pictures here (click on each to view full display) try to capture the sights and sensations I experienced on the trek, which of course are best experienced in person! :)

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