Monday, March 21, 2016

The Winter Embrace of Kedarkantha

I am in Berlin, and trying to write this blog entry at 4 am in the morning. This has long been overdue; though I came back to Delhi after doing the Kedarkantha trek in the second week of January, but the life in Delhi has ever since been too hectic at personal and professional fronts, preventing me to jot down a few lines about the amazing trek and my personal reminisces. But it is not to say that the experience has sunk down deep in my memory lane; I often think, remember, live and cherish the time I had with the group during this snowbound trek in very low tempertatures. Even here I wish to look at the photographs.

I had been thinking of doing Kedarkantha ever since 2011, when I did Roopkund trek with the Indiahikes. We were impressed with the logistics and arrangements done by the Indiahikes, and had wanted to do some more treks with them. Since I had never done any snow-bound winter trek ever, we zeroed down on Kedarkantha, which Indiahikes had recently added to its kitty. Meanwhile, Shariff, Malini (my colleagues) and Vasuman (son) completed the trek long back, and I had to wait thus far to find or create the opportunity. But then, things are destined, they say, and I was destined to do this trek with Kushagra, and the fantastic bunch of 25 young enthusiasts.

Kushagra was planning to visit us some time in December 2015, but when I told him about my intention of booking for Kedarkantha trek in the first week of January, he firmed up his dates immediately to join me for the trek, as he said, ‘it is quite a while, we had done a trek together’.

When I looked at the Indiahikes website to book, I was surprised to see that all the suitable dates for us were already full. It seemed the trek was fast becoming popular. Fortunately, I had saved some telephone numbers of Indiahikes from my previous trek, and to my good luck, the numbers were active, working, and when I rang up, someone immediately put me in touch with Prathima, who assured me of helping us by accommodating us on our preferred date. She precisely did that. Prathima was kind of in-charge of the group leaving on 2nd January, and as I realized, she was mentoring the group throughout.

Fortunately, I had already been training myself for this trek for last few months by working out in gym or going for long walks for cardiopulmonary exercises, endurance, and strengthening my quads and glutes. The significance of training oneself for any trek cannot be overemphasized, and Prathima too had been reminding the group members time and again to practice running 4.5 km in 30 minutes. What I was a little worried about was managing the low temperatures. In the month of January, it could go as low as minus 10 C. But when Kush arrived in December, he advised me very precisely how I should layer myself with specialized layers without overburdening myself. Though his advice was very reassuring, yet the anxieties remained.

That Kedarkantha was going to be an exciting trek was never in doubt. After all, the Indiahikes has labeled this trek as the best ever winter trek. It had given many reasons in support of its verdict: it remains snow bound from December till April, prettiest campsites, beautiful drive in Himalayas, pleasure of walking on a carpet of brown leaves with snow peaks all around. I could vouch for that. We had done nearby ‘Har-ki-Doon’ trek way back in 1993, and to this day I find ‘Har-ki-Doon’ as one of most beautiful treks. The exciting part of Kedarkantha was doing it in winter with snow-laden path under extreme cold conditions.

When I was preparing myself physically and mentally, Prathima from the Indiahikes was constantly in touch with all the group members reminding us about how to prepare ourselves, what all essentials we should carry (no more, no less), what we should expect by way of arrangements, giving various important contact numbers etc. The most praiseworthy part was that whenever any member posed any query on the group email, the response came almost immediately. Meanwhile, one trek member had soon created a whatsapp group for members to get acquainted with one another. They were coming from all over, Bengaluru, Pune, Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, and the US.

Little bit about Kedarkantha: One has to first reach a village by name of Sankari to begin the trek.  The road for Sankari (the starting point for the trek) starts from Mussourie and passes through Kempty falls, and some other small towns like Barkot, Purola, to enter the Supin range of Himalayas. A couple of hours before reaching Sankari, one enters Govind wild life sanctuary, a protected area. One then views two rivers, Supin and Rupin, and their confluence, which finally merges with river Yamuna. When a few decades back, my uncle and auntie were trekking towards Har-ki-Doon, they decided that whenever they were blessed with a daughter, they would name her Rupin; and they precisely did that. Now Rupin is a smart young lady, working where else but Silicon Valley. One then reaches Netwar, a small village, which used to be the starting point for beginning the trek to Har-ki-Doon way back in early 1990s, since that was the end of road head that time. Now road goes as far as Sankari. Sankari is a small village of about 400 houses at a height of 1950 m (6400 ft). It has a GMVN guesthouse of about 15 rooms, and a couple of private guesthouses. Sankari is now the base camp for both, Har-ki-Doon as well as Kedarkantha. Once you starting walking up, it is all the way uphill trek amidst lush green forests of pine, oak and other trees. There are two campsites, Juda ka Talab and Kedarkantha base camp at very picturesque sites, finally taking you to Kedarkantha peak at 12,500 ft.

Our journey from Delhi to Mussourie by train, then onwards to Sankari by SUVs was quite uneventful. We met up briefly with our batch mates whenever we stopped for breakfast, tea or lunch on our way up. There were two father-son teams, two husband-wife teams; many of the members were colleagues or had been friends since school days. There was a group of 9 from Bengaluru, who had studied together in school, all graduated from various engineering colleges, and now were all software engineers in Bengaluru itself. Others were fast becoming friends with one another. Youngest of the group was 11 year old Shreshtha, and the oldest was ‘yours truly’.

When we reached Sankari in the evening, Harshit (trek leader) welcomed us at the guesthouse along with his team of technical experts, Sarvan and Tarpan, with hot tea and delicious pakoras. We were tired, and perhaps famished, or the charm of hot pakoras in a remote area, we ate like hogs. Harshit gave a detailed briefing of our trek, which I would rate among the best briefings I have ever had. He explained each point in detail, answered to every query patiently, and did not mind if there were frequent interruptions or similar questions being asked by different members. The GMVN guesthouse at Sankari is basic, with spacious and reasonably clean rooms, toilets with running water, flush working, but no hot water please. The quilts were heavy but warm, so did not have to struggle for sleep.

The morning was bright and sunny, and after a sumptuous breakfast we were ready to trek to ‘Juda ka talaab’.  The other groups had also camped in the village, and their members had left before us. We were to trek for only 4-5 km, but would gain 2700 ft, so it was an ascent all the way. The trek passed through a dense forest of pine  and maple trees, and I think there were rhododendrons also; did not see any wild life, birds were chirping, but too high in the pine trees, so could not sight any. The climb was not tough, but at places, there was slush, or frozen snow that made the trek slippery at places. But I was happy that I was making good progress, and not feeling any fatigue. What I had decided this time was to necessarily consume 3-4 litres of water every day. That is the key to success; you prevent dehydration, and it prevents mountain sickness. So by the time we left Sankari, I had already consumed at least 1.5 lt of water. The campsite was almost like the size of a football field, and had on its left side the ‘talab’, the pond, of the size of ‘D’ of the field, was half frozen. We were now at 9200 ft, and the temperature was falling down rapidly. Though we had reached quite early in the day, I had decided to enter my tent only after having my dinner. Meanwhile, Kushagra helped the group do some stretching and flexibility exercises. I continued with my walking and breathing exercises preparing myself for the tough part over next two days. I started getting acquainted with the group members, and had found them to be a fantastic bunch. More about them later. Later in the afternoon, some members got together to play ‘pitthu’, known as ‘laghori’ in local language, and also known as ‘seven stones’. It was fun seeing them running around or away from the ball, or chasing stones and putting them one on top of other. Meanwhile, the kitchen staff brought hot tea and ‘chatpata pakoras’. Everyone got together to polish them fast, but the kitchen staff kept on supplying them till we ourselves could eat no more. I must say something about the kitchen staff right away. They were an enthusiastic bunch of young people, who never shied away, whether it was cooking and serving food in sub-zero temperatures, or pouring rains, or at an unearthly hour of 3 am. And each meal was a multi-course meal, starting with starters, soup, main course, and dessert, followed by hot chocolate. To top it, there was hot water available for washing our cup-plates.
The next day trek was to Kedarkantha base camp. I wondered why it does not have any other name. It was at an altitude of 11,400 ft, and of course has no resident population. From here one could see peaks all around us, but with some haze and clouds, it was difficult to identify these with names. The trek leader identified them for us as, Swargrohini, Bunderpoonch, and Kalanag etc. The camp was a pretty site, with snow all around. Following lunch, people got on to their own devices. In no time, there was a snowman erected giving all of us ample opportunity for photographs and selfies. My anxiety levels had starting increasing. The next day’s ascent to the peak of Kedarkantha was going to be a steep one, in freezing conditions on snow-covered treks. I was worried about my fitness, capacity to tolerate low temperatures, and had fear of slipping on snow trek or frozen ice. Arjun Majumdar’s video on how to layer ourselves in low temperatures, Kush’s selection of right gear and wear, Harshit’s (trek leader) assurances to be by my side all the way up, and other members’ enthusiasm and encouragement was much helpful in keeping my morale high. With the sun setting, the mercury started falling down rapidly, and many of us were losing our appetite. But it was essential to keep ourselves well nourished and hydrated. Fortunately, I was drinking enough water, keeping away fatigue as well as other problems of high altitude.
The night was cold, but the tents and the sleeping bags, being of good quality, were able to keep us warm in sub-zero temperatures. But it was difficult to sleep soundly. After tossing and turning, I woke up very early to get ready for the challenging yet most exciting day of the trek. We were to trek for 3-4 hours to reach the summit at 12500 ft. One wanted to enjoy the rising sun and sun-basked peaks in front, but I was concentrating in maintaining my pace. The peak where we were to ascend appeared so distant, testing my resolve time and again to walk.
The soft snow covered trek was now hard ice, taking each step became an effort. In spite of frequent temptation to stop and rest, I resisted; that would have meant delay as well as breaking the rhythm. Kush was in front, but keeping an eye on me all the time. He kept on encouraging and goading me to push myself. What a relief it was when at some distance I saw our batch mates assembled on a small flat area at the top, excitedly making noise like school kids during their lunch break. What an exhilaration it was when I joined them at the top. It was an unbelievable feeling of excitement, relief, and elation. When Kush hugged me, I was overwhelmed with emotion. On the top, there was Lord Shiva’s temple. We all bowed down to pray.
Even when I had reached the top, it was an humbling experience. As I had written in my earlier post…
Coming down was easy and fun. Now we were descending down on the southern ridge, which was heavily covered with soft snow. We discovered very soon that sliding down on the snow was the best and fun filled exercise.
We were to reach Sankari via Hargaon, where we stopped for a night. Just before Sankari, when I was to take a trail out of so many going down, I heard a melodious voice cautioning me not to take that trail since trekkers often fell down there. This young girl was coming from her orchard nearby bringing some fruit. I was overjoyed when she offered me a kiwi. I did not know kiwi was grown there. I eagerly peeled and ate it. And I can vouch, never in my life had I tasted a more delicious fruit of kiwi. She disclosed that she would study to become a doctor; I wished her well, and thought if somewhere down the line we would be working together.
A few words about my batch mates. I had spent some enjoyable time with these young guys during this trek. Many of them, Sunil, Rishab, Gaurav, Utsav, and Ashish had encyclopaedic knowledge about computers, smart phones and mobile apps. Some knew all about movies, whether Hollywood or Bollywood. Milind Tambe, a naval architect, was in profession of rescuing stranded ships in the ocean. He could also give a tip or two on photography as well. He has promised to take me along when he goes for his next rescue operation. I hope he remembers it. Sunil Chauhan could patiently wait for his panoramic shots and night photography. If you cared to ask, he would teach you as well. Bengaluru group was a big group, always willing to help others.

On our last evening of the trek at Sankari was of sharing our experiences and thanksgiving. I had a long list of people to thank: to name a few, the Indiahikes team, trek leader Harshit Patel, Sarvan and Tarpan, all the kitchen and housekeeping team, the fellow trekkers, and many others. I shared with them a story of fish and shark. How the presence of shark in ocean or fish tank is crucial to keep fish alert and active. We all should always have a challenge before us. It acts as a huge motivating force to keeps us productive, innovative, and full of life.
Kushagra had been a constant guide before and throughout the trek. On return, he posted the following lines on his facebook page, the best lines of this trek, As a young boy this man took me up on my first trek up the majestic Himalayas leaving me with a deep lasting love for the outdoors. This week, twenty-five years later, he and I went back for a winter trek in Uttarakhand to climb up the beautiful Kedarkantha. As he overcame the bitter cold and severe fatigue to bravely surmount the last couple of miles to the summit I realized that I'm still following him trying to be half the man he is. Dad you will always be my hero. Love you. #‎Himalayas #‎family #‎climbing #‎trekking #‎India


Poonam Kirpal said...

This is the first time I have gone through such a vivid account of an adventure trek. It almost transports you to the location and you can feel the excitement and anxiety of the trekker sitting in your house.It is wonderful to venture out with someone from the family in this case your son and return with a whole set of friends who would be henceforth like family. Kudos to your abundant spirit Dr.Khabdelwal. Keep up the great work. You are an inspiration to many.

Malini said...

Very well written Sir. It brought back the memories of mine and Shariff's trek to Kedarkantha in Dec 2014.I can't forget the Christmas cake that was baked by out kitchen staff right from scratch at Juda ka talab camp. Another first for us was use of gaiters and microspikes. I am sure you must have also used them during the final climb to the peak.

Anonymous said...

I salute your indomitable spirit in addition to your other achievements.
Anandi Lal.

Sudhir Khandelwal said...

Poonam, if you read what other people achieve, my achievements would pale in comparison. I am honoured by your comments. Thank you.

Sudhir Khandelwal said...

Malini, I had very much wanted to this trek with you and Shariff. We had a great team during Roopkund trek. Let us create another opportunity to trek together some day. Cheers.

Unknown said...

As a kid, when i used to go to my dad's birthplace,a village in Argakhanchi, western part of Nepal to celebrate Dashain (local name for Dusshera in Nepal), those 2-3 weeks used to be the most awaited part of my whole year.Entirely because after those 17-18 hrs of bumpy bus ride, when i mostly remain sedated with the antiemetics for motion sickness, as i would reach the bus stop, i could walk to reach my dad's home for next 1 hr! Thankfully there was no roads constructed for the vehicles then.The panoramic views of mustard fields, such rich yellow with greenery and the freshness of the air,everything with utmost purity..., i could never enjoy these living in cities.Crossing through the river would be another big task, the exciting of all. Yet, when me and my brother would slip, my dad would crack a joke " macha maryo!!" i.e. " catching a fish" and we all would laugh about it and walk ahead.

Thankyou sir, for sharing such a beautiful account of your trekking. It reminded me of my childhood memories with my parents, when we would frequently travel and trek because there were no roads constructed then. As time passed, me and my brother got caught with the usual life-jobs( i know it is nothing compared to yours) and i entirely missed joining my family for such treks. But I will make sure i make one happen when i return home this time.Looking forward to reading more of your accounts, Bigya Shah

Sudhir Khandelwal said...

Bigya, you yourself write so well, I started imagining if I was taking this journey in bumpy rides and having a dip in the river to catch the himalayan trout. Please share more of your such experiences and journeys.

Unknown said...

Great work Doc 👍 With each word of the story, I could feel myself being in it. I really liked the way you have thanked the kitchen and housekeeping staffs. Wish I was there too.
Thanks and regards
Pankaj khandelwal


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