Friday, October 07, 2005


MacLeod Ganj, India

Jason has been hiking maybe three times. Compared to me, that makes him a very experienced outdoorsman. Using the power of nondeterministic logic, Jason convinced me that I should cut my trekking teeth by taking a long journey through the tallest mountains in the world. I was either overpowered by audacity or just not paying attention when I agreed.

Our trusty Rough Guide led us up a steep road early in the morning to the local mountaineering institute. We were just about to conclude that it was closed on Sundays when we tripped across a very polite and well-spoken gentleman named Harish. It turns out that Harish's dad literally wrote the book on trekking in this region. He outlined several options and we decided to take an easy 4 day trek up to a mountain pass. For the low-low price of $40 US per person per day, Harish agreed to provide an experienced guide, food, equipment, and a porter to carry said food and equipment. That night we charged out batteries on high-energy Tibetan grub and hit the sack early. It was Ghandi's birthday, so we could not have stayed up drinking beer even if we tried.

Harish's brother met us at the family's lodge early the next day and introduced our guide - SK - and the porter - Mitrurham (Mitru). SK was a very-fit looking man of 24 from a local herding village. His English vocabulary was almost entirely comprised of camping/hiking-related words. Mitru was quite a bit older, wore a very apropos woolen jacket and woven trousers, and spoke almost no English. Communication with our companions was low in volume but occasionally very high in content. For example, we could not really chat much about politics, but it was always clear when I was about to walk over a cliff. We dropped off most of our stuff and headed to the institute to meet Harish. There was a brief dispute about who-didn't-tell-who (I didn't tell SK) that I needed a pack before we started out.

It was awkward hiking with a guide and a porter. For example, I was carrying a sleeping bag, a foam mattress, a Tibetan yak-wool sweater of questionable taste, and my cleanest pair of underpants. Mitru - a man maybe twice my age - was carrying 4 days of food, a camping stove, a big jug of kerosene, pots and pans, a china tea-setting for 6, and who knows what else. Jason and I never had to cook a meal or wash a plate. SK insisted that we eat first and aggressively pushed the bulk of the food onto our plates. We had plates and spoons. They had bread and hands. I could never really shake the feeling that I was an imperial-era Englishman on a bit of a jaunt into the hills. Having servants does not come comfortably to me. Fortunately, luxury does, so I put up only the meekest complaints.

The first day's hike was along a well-worn and largely empty trail. Cars, buildings, and forest steadily gave way to sheep, steep green hills, and chunky white rocks. We stopped at two surprisingly-located little shops along the way for chai, water, and a chocolate snack or two. SK cut us some thin walking sticks and promised Jason a better one farther along. The whole climb took maybe 3 hours. We arrived at Triund village in time for lunch. Village may be a bit strong. Triund is 3 mountain convenience stores made of rock and tarp and two or three wooden buildings that together form a guest house. It is a quiet, rugged, and scenic spot with views down to the towns in the valley and up to the snowy peaks, but by no means wilderness. We pitched our tent near the guest house and busied ourselves for the rest of the day eating, taking photos, walking around, and making a bow (as in "bow and arrow") string. More about the bow project later.

It was a cold night that ended well with a hot cup of chai and a hearty sub-continental breakfast of eggs, bread, butter, and jam. These eats were no fluke. We ate very well for the entire trip. SK also set us up with several Indian-style hot vegetable dishes, noodles, an infinite supply of rice, fresh chapatis, porridge, soup, coffee, something akin to Horlicks, and 3 or 4 daily cups of chai. There could be no complaining about food. Except perhaps its enforced abundance. No matter how full we claimed to be, a little bit more always seemed to work its way onto our plates.

Day two was a 4-hour march out above the trees, across some hard-packed residual snow, and up an increasingly steep and rocky hillside to "the cave". When Harish first told us that we would be sleeping in a cave, I immediately pictured bears and bats and secret Cobra bases and picking my teeth with a bone. This particular cave did not bear out any of those expectations. The roof (at most a mighty 4 feet from the floor) was a giant piece of rock jutting out from the hillside horizontally. The dry-stone walls provided something of a barrier against light and something less of a barrier against wind. The cave's saving grace was a large stone porch with a commanding view down the valley, across to a loudly streaming stream, and up to the rocky peak. We spent some time between lunch and dinner sticking our head in the freezing stream, but that feeling could not hold a candle to the view from our igneous solarium.

After dinner, we spent a bit of time looking at the stars, smoking cigarettes, drinking brandy, and freezing our butts off with a Danish grotto co-resident. It was a cold night in the cave that ended with an early start. We ate, dropped most of our gear, and were out and on the way up by seven. This last bit was steep and we wanted to hit it before the sun was down on our heads. I was particularly grateful to be marching in the relative cold. SK goes up and down this path four times a month. Jason is in good shape due to a steady diet of flippy-dance. Mitru is apparently part goat - he chain-smokes his way up mountains without complaint or any sign of stress. That leaves me as the wheezing, rest-needing runt of the litter. It is hard being the rate-limiter, but somebody has to do it.

Three hours of hard (for me) climbing put us at the top of the pass. The view was well worth the effort. On one side there was the familiar but even more magnificent view of the valley from whence we came. On the other side there was a steep and snowy drop before a line of six ridges leading up to snow-capped peaks. It was exactly what the Himalayas look like on TV but they are right there in front of us. Smack in the middle of the pass is a small shrine complete with statue of Ganeesha, Buddhist prayer flags, and assorted offerings. Our arrival just preceded that of some local shepherds driving their herd of goat-sheep (not sure which) over the top. We ate apples and trail mix and took photos amid the sounds of the herd moving, urged on by whistles and clicks. Those were the best apples I have ever had. As we started back down, SK made good on his promise and convinced one of the shepherds to give Jason a spare walking stick. Ever fair, Jason insisted on handing over his new Tibetan hat by way of trade.

We made it back down to the cave in time for lunch, broke camp, and set out for Triund. Down is a lot more precarious than up when it comes to steep rocky trails. We had a couple of minor scares during the descent including one notable incident where I put one foot down completely off the trail onto nothing at all. Jason also had a few slips and even SK lost his footing on occasion. In addition to increased peril, the down-hike fatigues the mind and body differently than than up. One must concentrate carefully on footing. It is easy to get bored of the game of "choose the rock" and let your mind wander. Also, cardiovascular stress is eschewed in favor of the more insidious muscular variety. Legs slowly get tired, legs go wobbly, and you start taking more risks than safe steps to conserve energy.

We made it back to Triund towards the afternoon of day three and set about completing the bow project. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Jason decided that we should try to construct a bow and arrow from the available materials. The first challenge was to make a string. This was accomplished by weaving together bits off long grass, tying those bits together into longer super-bits, then weaving 3 super-bits into one uber-bit. This process produced a surprisingly strong section of green rope. For act two, we had to make the bow itself and string it. My walking stick bravely volunteered and was cut, notched, and strung before you can say "eccentric waste of time". Bow assembled, we needed an arrow. Jason whittled down his original walking stick, tied on some feathers to the back, and secured a stone point to the front. Our best test shot traveled some 20 feet in a nice arc and landed point down (for once), breaking the arrow in the process. Success. I guess.

We slept in to a lazy 07:00 on day four, had a last mountain breakfast, broke camp, and set out down the easy path back to town. We met Harish at the institute and he accompanied us the last few meters to his lodge, debriefing along the way. We took a final photo of the Fellowship of the Bow and called an official end to the journey. Harish set us up with a room in the lodge. Hot showers and real beds were a relief for sore legs and dirty bodies. We spent some time burning the photos to a CD for SK/Harish before taking them out for dinner where Harish told us all kinds of scary stories about mountaineering accidents. Suffice to say that I am glad not to be the wife of the Canadian ambassador to India. I can now add "fear of horrible death" to "very sore legs" on the list entitled "Reasons To Wait a Bit Before Trekking Again".

In a surprising footnote to our trek, it turns out that SK is Mitru's son. You would think it would be obvious that we were traveling with a father and son but neither Jason or I had any clue. It does explain the occasional squabble about what path to take and continuous debates about who carried what and how.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ha! Very funny dynamics. You guys are gonna be in freaking good shape after this.

10/08/2005 10:38 AM gmt

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Edmund and Tenzing...

The recent earthquake epicenter appears to be a short couple of hundred miles from your most recent known location... hoping you are both unharmed - pls drop us a note and put our collective minds at ease...


10/09/2005 3:47 AM gmt

Anonymous Anonymous said...

very sweet! same here. -- jing

10/09/2005 6:27 AM gmt

Blogger jason said...

A'yup. We OK. We left for Delhi a day before the quake occured. You could make an argument that being in Delhi is better than being trapped and dying under a collapsed mountain.

I don't know if I would make that argument, but it could be made.

10/11/2005 7:54 AM gmt


Post a Comment

<< Home