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Travel
September 23, 2016

A First-Timer Documents Her Trek To The Valley of the Gods

Text by Geeta Rao. Illustration by Farzana Cooper

She braves the cold, bath-less days and sleeping alone in a tent to get to Uttarakand’s Har Ki Dun. Would she do it again?

Here I am, 12,000 feet above sea level, standing at Uttarakhand’s spectacular Swargrohini range as scalpel-sharp mountain air slices through my ragged city lungs. It has taken me five days of walking, huffing, puffing and some very inelegant panting to get to Har Ki Dun or Valley of the Gods.

In the trekking world, it is a beginner’s trek. When you reach the top, you don’t plant the Indian flag here or make V for Victory signs. You just celebrate with a double omlette and hot tea at a local stall. At 12,000 feet, it is lower than Khardung La pass in Ladakh but high enough to give you altitude sickness. I am a newbie. I am the person who bumps the treadmill incline to level one on a good day at the gym and thinks this is the ultimate fitness workout.

Group travel has never been my thing but when I sign up impulsively for an all-women’s trek I figure the 15 other women are likely to be soul sisters. If I must lose my dignity and roll off a cliff, let it be with soul sisters! Plus, they understand the need to take selfies at crucial points and carry backup power banks and sunscreen.

A list of essentials is sent to me soon after. Trekking poles, head torch, a light backpack, hiking shoes and a fitness checklist — you should be able to run five kilometres carrying five kilos in 15 minutes kind of stuff. I am too late to reach this level. If you can’t do that, advises a friend, walk up and down 10 to 20 floors. Right! Remember what I said about the treadmill?

I also sign up for a single tent. Everyone else has opted to share but I think a little privacy and me time will add to the trekking experience. Two days into the trek, when the temperature hits minus two and a chill draft refuses to squiggle out of my tent, I realise that two people and two sets of luggage in a tent is the only way to stay truly insulated. Essentially, I have paid more to freeze.

The trek begins with a 13-hour drive on endless hairpin bends and winding roads from Mussoorie to Mori, our first camp. This is a driving trek, not a walking trek, I think. Mori, with views of rapids, bleached rocks and driftwood by the rivers edges, is a very picturesque spot. Little dome-shaped tents are set up. Red vertical-shaped tents in a corner are the loos. I am not going into the loo story here. Back to nature may be an admirable thing but let’s say diplomatically that loo dynamics remain a challenge until the very end. Baths, we are told, will not be possible for the next five days. Errrr…right!

On paper, we have an easy-paced trek. From Mori to Bedtaal-Taluka, then some serious walking to Osla, from Olsa to Har Ki Dun camp and then Har Ki Dun. We are not scheduled to do more than 10 to 12 kilometres a day. Some days it is only three to five. But kilometres can’t be trusted in the mountains. One-and-a-half kilometres on a steep uphill climb can take over three hours. You can climb over a thousand feet in a span of five kilometres.

Micro-environments get created in a jiffy. It snows, it rains, there is a hailstorm, it is blazing hot, it is icy and windy and predictability is not the norm. The internet disappears early on and phone signals start going on the blink shortly. This is a good time to research advertising claims made by cell phone companies. Vodafone goes first, then Airtel. BSNL stays on valiantly for much longer but then bows out at about 7,000 feet. We are totally disconnected.

I get used to life in a tent but the dome-shaped one turns me into a dome-shaped body by the end of the trip; I forget the pleasure of standing straight or standing up while changing clothes. Considering the cold outside, you end up spending a lot of time in the tent. I become adept at snake-like moves — slithering into my trackpants and changing at record speed to beat the cold. You can’t stand in this little tent, you stretch horizontally but be warned — the ground is usually sloping, stony and hard. Layering is a skill you learn fast. My legs and lungs continue to protest any time there is an uphill climb — usually at every turn. A pregnant Pahari woman carrying 30 kilos of firewood on her head tells me with happy candour, “If I walk like you I will never reach my village.” Mountain lungs versus city lungs! I sigh as I watch her disappear. Note to self: will run up and down 20 floors on my return.

Our male tour leader, let’s call him A, becomes our stylist and beauty consultant all rolled into one. On a day of unexpected hailstones, there is a chorus of voices at 5 a.m. from nine tents, “A, what shall I wear today? Do I need thermals? Will I need an extra fleece?” A would have made a really good FMCG brand manager — he gets his target audience. “Wear sunscreen, madam,” he insists. “Try not to wash your face with soap or gel, it won’t wash out. Carry a dupatta to protect your neck from burning. Soak your feet in the ice-cold mountain stream and watch them heat up and all the tiredness drain out.” Invaluable tips. And then a bonus. He organises hot water, a noon bonfire and a hair-wash day for those who are dying to wash their hair — most of us. Bathing is still not permitted but hair in the high-altitude sunshine dries out super fast. A massage roller is provided in the dining tent for tired muscles. Bliss! I resolve to sign up for the next trek with A as well. I suddenly realise I am thinking of another trek already. When did that happen?

As we go higher it gets colder and we get a double-fleece sleeping bag to line inside our existing padded sleeping bags. Now the night ritual involves wearing two woollen caps, thermals, tracks, two sweaters, two pairs of socks and zipping myself into the fleece bag. I then slither, my naagin moves now perfected, into the larger sleeping bag. Until 3 a.m. when I need to pee. The cold has that effect. The prospect of unzipping, un-slithering and stepping out in the freezing cold to walk to the loo tent some distance away is not an appealing one. But mother nature will not wait. On the way back I pause and take in the silent camp. It is freezing cold but exhilaratingly so. The air is crystal clean and pure, there is a quality of silence I have never ever experienced, and the brooding mountains with their ice caps fluorescent in the moonlight makes this the purest meditative moment ever. I have a bit of an out-of-body experience — this moment will always be special.

Carb-loading is the mountain norm; so forget about low carb, no carb, Dukan, Paleo, 80-20 diets or about losing weight on the trek. You are handed your mandatory post-breakfast rations every morning — two aloo parathas, chocolates, nuts, two cheese sandwiches, and some orange sweets. Horror of horrors, you find yourself gobbling all of this down during the day’s walk and are ready for a piping hot dinner on your return. Of course I don’t lose any weight but all that uphill work makes my calves and ankles get decidedly sexier.

Back at Har Ki Dun there is a sense of achievement. I have suffered but I did it. I have walked along beautiful coniferous forests and river banks, through lush green paddy fields in valleys of snow-clad peaks, seen breathtakingly pretty bhojpatra trees, rhododendrons and mountain irises and watched birds and butterflies I have only seen in books emerge from the foliage and put on amazing shows. But even to my untrained eye the forest is thinning and the snow is receding. I am glad I made it in time.

The walk from Har Ki Dun to Sankri is about 14 kilometres but now it is downhill and I feel like a veteran.

At Sankri we get into buses ready to head back to the plains. It feels great to sit in a seat with a backrest again. Through the mist of sleep I hear an exhilarated scream. I look out of the window and see the second-most spectacular sight of the trek. A double rainbow — a large one that shows a full seven-colour spectrum, followed by a smaller one in a perfect arc. The pollution-free air, further cleared by rain, makes the colours surreal. And the mountain perspective makes the rainbow almost touchable. Note to self: another trek is called for.

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