Kedarkantha summit day!
Kedarkantha beckons. Woken up at 2:30 AM by Kuldeep Rana. In the pitch dark, under the grace of our head lamps we got ready. Changed all the layers, got ready for the freezing chill outside. We had super early breakfast of, noodles, pasta, soup and chai at 3:00 a.m.
We could only spot each other in the pitch dark from our headlamps. Because the light would be in our line of sight, we would not be able to tell who was who – until someone else’s headlamp light fell on them.
We all got packed snacks for the kedarkantha summit climb – boiled chana (Gram) and eggs. Solid protein punch. We were asked to line up, follow a single rank and file, not to wander off or get left behind. We were to trek up in the dead of the night in the deep Himalayan forests. The risk of being ambushed by wild animals including mountain cats or Himalayan sloth bear was real. We were instructed if you see a bear, do not run or create a noise. We would not want the bear to generate interest or curiosity in the bear.
I asked, what if the bear charges towards us?
Abhishek replied, “if it does, start to run for your life, leave everything behind. Just run. Even then you will not be able to outrun the bear. So pray that you do not find one.”
Very reassuring, I pondered.
You understand the importance of relying on your senses and of those in your pack. Develop a deep appreciation of following instructions when you are in an environment that is alien to you and can change very quickly. Not question, but follow. At that very moment, all your city life drilled concept of who you are and your ego starts to leak out to the ground. Almost like a warm and senile piss stream. You feel humbled and a general sense of well being and reliance on everything within and without starts to take shape.
Encounter narrow passes, broken bridges… interesting trek up the majestic Kedarkantha Peak.
Last mile – the most strenuous, tiring and testing
Watched the enchanting and liberating Sunrise before Kedarkantha peak. Overwhelmed
Crying like a baby: On 23rd Dec 2016, a few hundred steps away from the summit, were were stopped by Abhishek. He pointed us to the left of the mountain’s rocky feature. We were suddenly drawn the cliff head – wow. It was the sun coming up. I could not move for what seemed like a very long and short span of time.
The sun came up and grew bigger and brighter, spreading its golden hue over a certain angle over the mountain ranges and their venerable peaks. In time, the sun had fully come up – round, radiant and yet easy on the eye. I could not bear the sheer beauty of it – and I started to weep, cry and sob – tears started to roll down, my body was shaking. Had not seen or experienced anything like this – my entire being was quite and was experiencing this magnificent sight. Standing high on the mountains and the others peaks in hundreds of distant layers seemed like peers experiencing the same sight. I kept looking and could not take my eyes off – had no voluntary control over my body.
Tears rolling down uncontrollably. Never felt so boundary less and dissolved ever in my life. Every atom in my body was bursting with life. I had never seen or experienced something within and without as moving as this sight. This singularly was a life changing experience for me. I have not been the same ever since.
Our trek leader, Abhishek- all of 22 years was teasing me “Aank nahi hat rahi hai na? Deewar banwa dein? (Translated to English: Eyes are not moving their gaze away right? Should we build a wall in between?). He saw my tears and said “Aisa hota hai, kabhi kabhi.” (Translated to English: It happens, sometimes.)
There was immense wisdom and realization in Abhishek’s words. These mountain men are blessed by the simplicity and immensity of life around.
Chanchal knew I was having a moment – she quietly hugged me and didn’t say a word.
Beauty can make grown men and women cry – And it should!
Final ascent, Steep and narrow! Kedarkantha is in sight.
The final ascent was steep, nearly vertical in some stretches and narrow. The air was thin, our bodies tired, our lungs struggling to keep up, our breath labored. We knew we were at altitude that was testing us. Every step had to be intentional, carefully planned and executed. Margin for error was negligible. You just have to keep going, stopping for too long would mean that your body temperature would drop and the sub-zero temperature and the high winds will result in hypothermia.
Chanchal and I kept looking out for each other. Making sure that we were feeling alright. Eric, the noblest of us all, slowed down to give Chanchal and I company. We were touched by his warmth and thoughtfulness. Chanchal felt that she may be bleeding from her nose, I checked her up – she was alright, she was good. It was perhaps the thin air that made her feel so.
On one instance, I took a wrong turn and was staring at a dead end on one side and thousands of feet of free fall on another. Your legs tremble involuntarily – you feel afraid. You keep your wits and slowly step away and back to the main track. You thank whoever you need to thank, feel grateful and move on.
Witnessing the vistas, oh the glorious Kedarkantha view points
We submitted. It was a surreal feeling. Our first high-altitude trek coming to fruition. Suddenly you realize that standing at an altitude of 12,500 feet, staring at other mountain peaks for kilometers in front of you – that life is all about perspective. Tall and majestic mountains just exist – they do not make much noise about themselves. Do not clamor for fame or fortune, they do not foster insecurity among their mountain kin, not fetch for validation nor do they scream for attention. They live – not as a singular noun but as a plural verb.
Chanchal and I held hands. We knew this moment was special. We have climbed a mountain together – quite literally and metaphorically. This expedition has made us unravel, understand and accept each other at a far deeper level that we did before. At that very moment, I knew that there is no one else I would like to share this experience and memory with.
Having fun, while we are on it, at it
At the Kedarkantha peak, after the initial euphoria and surreal wave of emotions, we all break into a fun mood. Everyone is high-fiving fellow summiteers, clicking group photographs (and even selfies). People were generally having a great time. We had some snacks and chocolates to keep our energy level high.
It was really cold and the wind was blowing at over 110 kilometers (70 miles) per hour. That makes the wind chill factor high. The trek leader mentioned the temperature was easily minus seven degrees Celsius (about 18 F).
After the euphoria, came the time for quietude on the mountain peak. Everyone slowly started to find a cliff head or a wedge to seat themselves and look at the endless sea of peaks in front of them. With the wind blowing on their faces, the sun shining bright and clear, everyone was lost in their own moment. You could actually tell even the most unbalanced and disturbed of people found their moment of peace and solace there.
I found my moment too. My entire life flashed before my eyes – some glimpses providing comic relief while others reminding me that I should be grateful for being alive, sane and hopeful. You leave a lot behind in life. The ability to see life for what it is – is really a gift. Often the moments of clarity do not last long. You need to dive in and hold on when they do happen. Mountains are infectious. They infect all life with deconstruction, disruption and dissolution.
Lessons in Common Mountain sense from Kuldeep Rana – the Mountain Man
While all that was happening was surreal, we also were bothered by people who even at this altitude were creating ruckus, littering at the kedarkantha peak, throwing away garbage and plastic wrappers. Kuldeep our native mountain man, wanted to share a message with world. I was moved by his clarity of though, sanity of his advice, and comfort he had in front of the camera. Kudos! Please share this video and spread the word around. We all need to be environmentally conscious.
Slowly, all the trek groups started to ready themselves for the descent. Everyone made a bee-line to the ancient temple on the mountain to click their group photograph.
The temple is believed to have been built by the mighty Bheema (the second of the Pandava prince) during their exile period in the epic Mahabharata. It was an ode to Shiva. This puts the temple’s construction between 5,000-8,000 Before Common Era. That is roughly 7,000 – 10,000 years ago. Quite a relic. All stone and geometric rubble – steeped in history, mythology and reverence.
The long descent to Hargaon camp
To be able to reach the peak around sunrise was a great experience. After that we had our long descent. The summit day is the longest and most strenuous trek leg.
Our first checkpoint was KedarKantha Base camp. We were to reach there by noon – in time for lunch. The plan was to have lunch, rest a while and start further descent to Hargaon Camp (9,000 feet) by sun down and spend the night there.
Having summited, we knew our trek was on a wind-down mode. It is always a strange feeling on a trip or vacation when you have reached your planned destination. From then on you start to feel it is the long closing ceremony. How our mind plays tricks with us — forcing us to be in the future and not relish the present.
Orientation on Sanatana Dharma
Eric, Suzzie and I were trekking down together. We were talking about religion and Eric asked to know more about Hindu way of life and belief systems. I started to share what I knew — the concept of inner divinity or ‘Sachidananda’.
A combination of three root words:
- Sat = existential truth
- Chit = consciousness
- Ananda = bliss
I talked about the cyclical nature of time in our culture. About the essence of ‘Karma’ and ‘Dharma’, about how they are tied to the notions and mechanics of rebirth. Of how, the ‘Sanatana Dharma’ (what is referred to now as Hinduism) means the primordial order of the universe.
All religious, cultural and ritualistic bearings came much later. I also shared my view on how the open source construct of ‘Sanatana Dharma’ ties in with the Darwinian theory of evolution. Much unlike some of the other widespread world religions, the local culture does not come in conflict with scientific temper or findings. In fact, because ultimate goal in our culture is to seek the ultimate truth — “the Brahman”, enquiry and questions are native to the evolution and progress of our culture. Much like scientific endeavors — the Sanatana Dharmic construct relies on seeking answers. The focus is on experience as opposed to empirical evidence.
Eric and Suzzie had a lot of question that kept me going. I realized I did not have a script in my mind, I was just organically responding to their queries. It seems over the years, my quest has led me to a greater and deeper understanding of this topic. No need to memorize a factoid or line of argument. There is an understanding and that engages with understanding within others.
I truly hope that Eric and Suzzie enjoyed the conversation as much as I did. Kudos to them for keeping such an open mind while trying to probe and understand a different cultural and religious construct. It is not everyday that you meet such open minded youngsters. So when you do, you thank your stars. I certainly walked away with my set of learning. If you want to know something, keep your prejudices aside. That is when true learning and experiences begin.
Chanchal, Karishma and Will were the other group. Merrily talking away on their way down the seraphic and sun-kissed meadows. When we did take a pit stop, we realized that both groups were talking about the same topic. About the Hindu religion and its bearing and meaning. What are the chances? 🙂
Getting anxious over my missing wallet
At the pit stop, there was a small cabin with a pantry. They were selling chai and Maggie noodles. I realized I may have lost my wallet. Seemingly for the second time during the trek. Luckily, I had found it lying by the campsite on a previous occasion but was getting worried that luck may not favor me twice.
I started to get anxious — our backpacks were at the base camp and we were only carrying our small day packs for the summit climb. So there was hope that the wallet may be in the backpack. I had no way to know before reaching the base camp. The thing we have come to rely on everyday for everything – our mobile phones – do not work at this altitude and this terrain. I could not phone in the staff and ask them to check.
Chanchal tried to calm me down. Soon the trek and the beautiful environment took my mind away from the worry. We climbed down and reached the base camp around fifteen past noon. The sun was shining brightly. Fatigue had taken over – we were on our feet for the last nine hours, barely slept at night and were famishing.
The campsite was abuzz people who had reached the base camp a while ago — the next batch. Like the circle of life. They looked at us, asked questions on how the summit was, did we find snow? So on and so forth. Small talk and banter ensued.
I just rushed to the dining tent where all our backpacks were kept. I rummaged through my bag to find my wallet. Just then, Eric sat beside me and said, “be calm, take it slow, go through your items one by one, I am sure the wallet is in there somewhere.”
Voila, I found it. I was so relieved and grateful.
Foodie’s delight on Kedarkantha trail
In sometime, food came in. If I have not written about the food then I have not been grateful enough. The food prepared by the staff at these mountains ranges is simply out of this world — such taste, such nutritious and simple food after a hard day’s trek is all that you can hope for.
We had our lunch and started to laze around in the sun for a while, everyone was sun bathing, some were reading books, some were having conversations in small groups, some were taking walks around the campsite, while others preferred to retire to their tents for a siesta. After a short while, sleep came calling and I went inside my blue tent and slept for what seemed like a long long while when I woke up. Well, it was only an hour and a half. I felt much better, rested and calm.
Outside, Karishma and Suzzie were having conversations. I joined them in their conversations. It was about feminism – the notions, the myths, the strong reactions it draws from people. Karishma spoke about an author, a feminist who had apparently made an inclusive and wonderful statement. I do not remember the name of the author or the quotation – may be Karishma on reading this can help re-jog my memory.
It was a great conversations with two really poised and strongly opinionated young women. I realized they were in their early twenties and had so much life experience, introspection and perspective. I was a dork in my twenties and perhaps still am.
Heading down to Hargaon Camp
In about two hours, around 3:30 pm, it was time to start our descent to Hargaon Campsite. We picked our backpacks and started the descent, turning for the last time to look at the KedarKantha peak and then quietly slipping into the thick foliage of the oak forest. In a trek, every step makes you conscious. You do not sleep walk through a mountain. You are aware, lest you risk losing your balance and tripping down into the valley or a steep fall.
In time, the sun started to set and the light became dim and the temperature started to dip. Abhishek kept Chanchal and I company. We were the last ones on the trail down, so as a trek leader he was giving us company.
We got to know Abhishek, he talked about his family back in Manali, his family’s orange orchards, the trials and tribulations of a mountain life, how he finds solace from all familial issues during these treks that cut him off from all communication with the outside world. There was both enthusiasm and melancholy in his words and voice — and perhaps in his life too. He is a good chap.
We reached the Hargaon Campsite at around 5:30 p.m. — mesmerized by its beauty. Unlike the previous campsites, which were set up in a clearing, this one was set up under the thick canopy of oak trees. Like forest folks or magical creatures of the woods, we were to spend the night under the graces of age old trees. I remembered the Faraway Tree series.
After plonking our backpacks into the tents, some of us: Will, Eric and I, decided to take a short walk around the camp. Beautiful flowers and thick green vegetation, tall oak trees, moss all around, birds chirping and ushering in the evening. We stopped by some trees to notice weird insects and crawlies. Almost like botanists and biologists we made obscure observations. What fun!
Chanchal instinctively knew it is going to be a cold night. It is going to feel colder than it is because of the trees. We settled into our respective tents. Chanchal did her Shambavi Kriya and I had to chat-up the kitchen staff to keep a glass of chai warm for her — waiting for her to finish her meditation.
We had chai and samosas — what luxury!
In the tent next to ours, we could over hear, our friends talking with Abhishek. Perhaps, Karishma or Suzzie had a thing for our tall, lanky and handsome trek leader. Oh the stuff campsite experiences are made off.
Sun-downer, ala International Antakshari
After sundown, all of us gathered near pantry fire and started to play the game of Antakshari – the rules were, one Hindi song and one English song. Boy, it was fun. The cold cold night, the warm fire and melodious music and a weird nostalgic memories passing by. I think we all realized that we had bonded as a group. Cut off from our families, extended friends circle and indulgences of daily life, we had found new friendships and trust.
The songs kept on coming and the night passed by.
Then we heard Kuldeep – he shepherded us to the dinner tent — strongly emphasizing like a boss that the dinner will get cold and then it won’t be warmed up. We had our dinner in the dimly lit tent. It was warm and cozy inside. We all were holed up in the big tent. Great hot food and amazing freshly prepared desserts. You just feel overwhelmed.
A while after dinner, we retired into our tents for a good night’s sleep. It had been the longest and the most arduous day of our trek. If there was anything we deserved the most – it was a cozy, pleasant and sound sleep.
There was a lasting peace in our hearts that night.