It was in my mid-thirties when I first heard stories of Everest Base Camp experiences that I first felt like experiencing what it feels like to walk in the mountains for days without what we perceive as basic necessities. For someone whose only experience of the mountains had been visits to overcrowded hill stations and views of sunrises and sunsets from afar, the stories about covering rugged terrains not knowing what the weather would be like the next moment, were somewhat fascinating, somewhat scary, and somewhat unbelievable!

My urge to be really close to nature, walk the paths less explored, and bring back my own memories and stories made me sign up for my first Himalayan trek – to Galotu peak via Kugti Wildlife Sanctuary. To my surprise, not many of my trekker friends had heard about the route and that made it more intriguing for me.

The preparation for fitness began with a bit of running in the morning and ended with a couple of Sinhagad fort hikes in Pune. A whole lot of shopping was done – trek poles, shoes, poncho, jackets, warm clothes and what not! And I was set… (or at least so I believed).

Day 1: Pune – Delhi – Pathankot

The trekking group was to assemble in Delhi and travel overnight by a bus from Delhi to Pathankot. An early-morning flight from my hometown took me to Delhi in about 2 hours. I had an entire noon to myself, so I decided to show up at a friend’s place. It was the month of May. The temperature in Delhi was insanely high! The yummie home-cooked food and an engrossing chat with my friend made me forget that I was supposed to be at Majnu ka Tila (I love that name!) to board the bus by 4ish. Thankfully, the cab driver understood the urgency. Assuring me with a smile that he’d take me there in time, he drove like a maniac and dropped me at the destination 20 minutes before time!

Despite what seemed to me like the name of a shady place, Majnu ka Tila turned out to be quite an interesting place with all things Tibetan – a Tibetan market that sells beautiful artefacts, Tibetan joints that serve finger-licking good Tibetan food! It was difficult to imagine I was roaming around in a part of Delhi.

The co-trekkers gathered, brief rounds of introductions took place, and things on sale in the market were discussed until finally the bus left the place with us in it.

Day 2: Pathankot – Bharmaur

11 hours of a bus journey later, we were all in a small city called Karnal near Pathankot – enjoying a hearty breakfast and getting ready for the last couple of hours of drive to Bharmaur.

The route was incredibly scenic and the villages we crossed were tiny yet gorgeous. At a village named Rakh, I tasted the sabzi made from fern leaves! The route got more scenic from a village called Gehra as our Taveras followed the long winding roads with mountains on one side and Ravi River on the other.

By the time we reached Bharmaur at around 5-ish in the evening, the body parts were achy and felt as if they’d fall off. The tea-lover in me was craving for a cup of hot chai and was way too glad to get one within minutes of reaching the guesthouse where we were to stay.

Bharmaur, the erstwhile capital of the Chamba region in Himachal Pradesh, is a gorgeous little place surrounded by snowy peaks and its old-world charm. The village has ancient temples, some of which are believed to be built in the 6th century! We decided to go for a walk in this picturesque village to witness its beauty.

We walked watching kids and young adults play cricket on a ground next to our guesthouse. We admired the architecture of timber-and-stone houses with slate-stone roofs and spent some time in the spacious “Chaurassi” temple complex (the temple of 84 deities, hence the name, which is a Hindi word for the number 84). The peaceful evening amidst serene surroundings made us forget all about the aches and pains we’d endured to reach the village.

Back at the guesthouse, after a session on how to pack backpacks in duffel bags followed by a sumptuous dinner, it was time to hit the hay.

Day 3: Bharmaur-Dharol-Kugti Village – The Beginning of the Trek

After breakfast, we went for a small hike at around 9-ish. At a village called Malkauta along the way, kids from a school were waiting for the school hours to start. We asked them to sing for us and they readily obliged and sang the national anthem followed by the “Hey Ram” bhajan. The innocence and sincerity on their faces could’ve melted the hardest of hearts. When we climbed downhill, cars were waiting to drive us to Dharol to the last road head for Kugti Wildlife Sanctury where we would kickstart our trek.

By this time, Keki – the 77-year-old trekker in the group – had fallen a couple of times. His wife, Aban, had already decided in Pathankot to not proceed with the trek since she’d had health issues and had gone to Mcleod Ganj to spend 10 days there. We wondered if it made sense for Keki to join her instead of continuing with the trek. The man was determined that he would continue and so we all went ahead together.

Walk through an apple orchard

The place where we stopped for lunch – a pristine one with lush greenery around – gave us the first glimpse of the Galotu peak. This is where we started walking on a road that was simple and straight without inclines and one that offered incredibly stunning views. The 4.2 km walk took about 2.5 hours after which we were at our campsite – the school ground in Kugti village.

My favorite moments at this place – attempting yoga poses (horrible attempts) on the huge rocks by the river, hogging hot pakoras while enjoying views of the river, dinner of makke-ki-roti and desi aalu and rajma-rice at the home of the Sarpanch, and attempting to spot creatures in the dark (we spotted long-legged centipede, black scorpion and black spider) while on our way back from the Sarpanch’s home to the campsite. I remember, after dinner, when we wanted to wash hands, the Sarpanch himself went with a jug containing hot water and a big utensil so people could use the hot water to wash their hands without getting up from their places. There wasn’t a person in our group that wasn’t touched by the kind gestures of the people in the Sarpanch’s family!

Besides the creatures we’d spotted in the night, the day had been full of learnings about birds and plants we saw along the way. Egyptian vultures hovering high in skies, a citrine wagtail and redstart couple near the waterbody, Himalayan black bird, Himalayan bulbul and Himalayan thrushes – my love for birding had given me new reasons to look forward to the rest of the trek. I was amazed to see Marijuana plants growing all over in the villages along the way besides peaches and apricot and apple trees.

This was the first day when I slept in a sleeping bag inside a small tent. The first experience of using a loo tent. The first day of sharing the small space in a closed tent with another trekker. I discovered next morning that rolling the sleeping bag and pushing it inside the duffel bag along with the backpack was far more difficult than getting some sleep in the sleeping bag! Things I find quite daunting even now, after having completed a couple of treks.

Day 4: Kugti-Galotu Base Camp – The Day I Lost My Sleeping Bag!

We started the day with some light exercises and some heavy breakfast.

A bit of warm-up to start the day

A walk through the Kugti village, we crossed a couple of wooden bridges across waterfalls and streams. We walked through the dense woods of the Kugti Wildlife Sanctuary – the second largest sanctuary in Himachal Pradesh. A walk of almost 5 hours (approximately 10 km) eventually led us to the gorgeous campsite inside the sanctuary area. We were told that this place is known to be the last homes of the endangered Himalayan Tahr. Despite having come across numerous scenic places by this time, the gorgeousness of the campsite took everyone’s breath away. We were a little closer to the snowy peaks than before.

Tents were pitched. Two shepherd dogs playfully greeted us. Not too far behind was a flock of sheep. A mandatory photo session followed with the snow-covered mountains, rocks, sheep, greenery in the background giving us ample scope for trying our photography as well as posing skills.

When we unpacked our duffel bags, to my dismay, I realized that my duffel bag didn’t have the sleeping bag. I searched… everywhere… but it wasn’t to be found! But I’d packed it neatly in the duffel bag – backpack first, then the sleeping bag and next to it my floaters wrapped neatly in a plastic. The bag had the backpack, the floaters, but no sleeping bag. I panicked and was almost in tears wondering how I’d manage to sleep in the freezing nights. One of the elderly guys representing the trek company that I’d gone with assured me that I needn’t worry and gave me a “spare sleeping bag”. It was days later that I discovered that he had actually given his own sleeping bag so I could sleep comfortably in my tent!

As the night came closer, the skies got cloudy. The air got cooler. In the quiet of the night all one could hear was the sound of the river flowing through the valley close-by. The moon kept playing hide-n-seek, and every time it decided to show up from behind the clouds, its dim light enhanced the beauty of the snow-clad mountains. And as beautiful as the mountains seemed during the day and in the moonlight early in the night, late in the night when no one was around, the same beautiful peaks looked like humongous gray ghosts! Our camp leader had told us what “true mountaineers” do if they wanted to go to the loo in the middle of the night but wanted to avoid going to the loo tents in freezing cold. Reluctant to follow those instructions, we all walked out in the freezing cold to the loo tent but (at least I) didn’t dare to look at those scary, gray-ghost-like mountains!

Day 5: Galotu base camp – Galotu peak – Galotu base camp – When we trekked to the highest point

As decided the previous night, we all woke up early. We’d been informed that we couldn’t go right up to the Galotu peak, since the climb gets a bit technical ahead. The group had been divided into two – one that wanted to go up to the top-most ridge (at around 4000 meters) and the other group would go up to the tall lone tree standing on an empty patch and return (since the route up to the ridge was quite steep). I’d opted to go with the group that would go up to the ridge. “After all that’s what I’ve come here for!” I’d said to Michelle – one of the co-trekkers – with a grin to hide my nervousness.

The plan was that the group that would walk up to the ridge would leave the campsite by 6:00 a.m. and walk until 11:00 a.m. and then return from wherever we had reached. The other group that was going to walk just half way up (up to the “lone tree”) was to leave at 8:30-9ish and was sleeping peacefully when we left. For once I wondered if I was making a mistake, but then there was no point in changing mind after being wide awake and all set for the trek.

We left half an hour late than the pre-decided time and within 10 minutes of the beginning of the trek, I was thrilled that I hadn’t changed my mind. The sighting of Cheer Pheasant couple in flight was all I needed to start my day on a cheerful note. A Monal in flight a few minutes later made the morning even more beautiful!

All set for the day’s hike from the Galotu base to the Galotu peak

The “lone tree” standing tall on an empty patch wasn’t too far away. We reached there within 45-50 minutes at around 7:15 am, which was way lesser than what Ashok – our local guide – thought we would take! From there onwards, the route was covered with rhododendrons and birch (bhoj-patra) trees. The terrain changed. The hike became more challenging with continuous steep incline. It was 9:15 a.m. when we reached the first snowy patch. The body was tired, but the mind refused to give up. A short break later, we continued to hike towards the ridge. Sheru, one of the shepherd dogs, seemed to have decided to accompany us right up to the top. I continued for about 1 hour 15 minutes more – until 10:40-ish and my legs gave up completely. I was told to stop (with two others who were equally tired) where I was, so I sat on an uneven rock. I ain’t sure if it was the exhaustion or some kind of overwhelming feeling, but before I knew, I was in tears. We had reached 3800 meters. The rest of the 5 trekkers, along with the local guide, continued to go up to the ridge that was at 4020 meters. I felt frustrated and angry. It looked so close! Why had I not been able to go ahead… just 200 meters ahead!?

We all returned to the campsite and were greeted with “congratulations!!” and smiling faces of the other group. A tea after an exhausting day feels like an energy drink! When I expressed my frustration about not reaching up to the ridge and about crying like a fool, the elderly guide said “One needs to know when to give up. It is important. There will be more treks, if only you stay alive and in good condition.” Words of wisdom!

While the day had been a bit frustrating for me since I felt like a loser for not having completed the trek for the day, I felt elated about the sightings. Besides the Cheer Pheasant and Monal, Lammergeier, Griffon Vulture, Kestrel… and oh, some leopard droppings too! How did we know? Well, the guides told us! Apparently, leopard scat often has some hair!

Day 6: Galotu – Dhamgori Base – The Glacial River-Crossing Experience that Made a Few Cry

I was relieved when I heard that the day was going to be much lighter in terms of the hike. Mostly plains with just a few not-too-steep inclines to reach Dhamgori base. Dham means sun, gori means friend, so Dhamgori means friend of sun, the local guide told us.

Waking up at 7 a.m. felt like a luxury! We packed duffel bags. By this time, I’d learned that packing the sleeping bag below the backpack is the right way to do things so that even if the duffel bag opened up, the sleeping bag wouldn’t roll out.

We did some warm up and a few asanas, as guided by Dr. Pande – one of the co-trekkers – and headed for breakfast with the fixed menu – porridge, bread and butter, cornflakes and milk, and of course, chai!

Another day of walking through beautiful landscapes began. The descent was simple and the group proceeded at a steady pace. Sightings of Scarlet Minivets, Monal, Golden Eagle, Plumbeous Redstart (male) during the descent kept the excitement intact. The love for old Hindi movie songs brought a few trekkers together and they sang their lungs out.

A co-trekker, who was in love with the African song – Hakuna Matata – that they’d learnt from one of the organizers the previous night, continued to sing it all through the way! I realized much later that the girl sang it only when the slopes were steep or when she was really tired. I quite adored her for being so spirited. She was right at the end, the last one in the group during the first 2 days of the trek. Soon, she’d picked up pace and was smiling all day without complaining at all!

Stunning views awaited us at the end of the descent. On our left was Galotu peak that we’d attempted a day earlier, there were some other snowy peaks in front and miles and miles of meadows, a waterfall at a distance, wild spinach fields, butter cup (flowers), snake lilies, birch trees, and rhododendrons and of course – snow!! Pictures couldn’t do justice to the breathtaking beauty we were surrounded by.

We got our first experience of walking through patches of snow and we learnt how to make sure you don’t slip while walking on it. We tasted goat milk that our guide got for us from a local staying nearby.

Half-an-hour away from the campsite, Ashok – the local guide, decided to take a shorter route to reach the destination for the day since it was looking as if it was going to start raining. He led us to a stream/river formed by water melting from the glaciers around! The glacial river soon turned scary when we’re told that we’d have to cross it using the “bridge” made by our guides by dropping rocks in the water. Two guides stood balancing on the rocks in the stream, to give us a helping hand to cross the stream. Keki (the 77-year-old trekker) and another lady were almost lifted up and pushed to the other end. The force of the water was increasing every minute. I was the third one. I removed the shoes and gave away my backpack as instructed. The guides threw my shoes to the other end and I could see that one had landed in water and had started to get wet. There was no time to think though. I stepped in the water and shuddered! I stepped on the first rock and held Captain’s (one on the team of organizers) arm. I stepped ahead, and feeling a little confident after I’d taken 2 steps ahead, I stepped on the third rock and then the other foot on the fourth. The rock shook, I slipped and let out a scream. “Shut up!” Captain muttered. There were others who were waiting to cross the stream and Captain wanted to make sure that my silly scream wouldn’t scare them off. Ashok and Captain then asked me to step in water and assured me there’s a rock in it. I couldn’t see it, but all I knew was I needed to trust them to get to the other side! I took a step ahead and Ashok pulled me with all the force and before I knew it, I was on the other side…absolutely safe! The feet were frozen though and refused to move. Another local guide asked me to stand on a dry rock and dance a little or make walking movement in place to overcome to numbness of the feet.

When we were about to heave a sigh of relief, we were told there was another not-so-scary stream to cross. With the things I’d just experienced, even that not-so-scary stream seemed life-threatening! And then there was third. I was about to cry, when I saw Ashok’s assistant running bare feet in freezing water to help each trekker cross the streams, I saw Keki – the 77-year-old – cross the streams quietly. I saw Captain and Ashok standing in freezing water right until the last trekker had crossed the stream.

I felt ashamed about wanting to cry. A trekker who had remained strong enough the earlier day to reach the peak was visibly shaken and even cried. And then there was the Hakuna Matata girl, singing, smiling to make her fears disappear. The trekker who had stayed back instead of going to the ridge since he was too tired was way calmer while crossing the stream. You can never tell when who will be “strong” or “weak”!

Our organizer had injured her arm and was in excruciating pain. But she quietly and quickly wiped her tears and cheered everyone – “Good job everyone!”

The local team managed to cook a delicious dinner comprising pasta, chop suey, sabzi, roti and sujhi ka halwa after such a tiring day! How do they do it? Do they never get tired?

For many reasons, this will remain one of my most memorable and humbling experiences and I guess it would be true for all the other trekkers too. Not-so-surprisingly, during the talks in the night, the topics of discussion were the 1996 Everest tragedy, the urge of some to go to any lengths for the sense of adventure and so on.

It was perhaps the coldest night. I was sleepless from the cold. My tentmate – the organizer – gave me a handwarmer. I held it for some time and didn’t realize when I fell into a deep slumber.

Day 7: Dhamgori Base

A good talk, a peaceful sleep, and a well-fed stomach did wonders and helped us forget all about the fatigue and fears of the previous day! We’d been too exhausted the previous evening to appreciate the magnificence of the surroundings of our campsite. Snow-covered craggy mountains, lush green meadows, gentle streams, and vibrant flowers surrounded our tents. Snow pigeons, wagtails, turtle doves had chosen their own rocks and corners to enjoy the morning sun.

This was the most relaxing day of the trek. We went up a snow slope nearby and slid or rolled down. The game continued for a few hours! After lunch, people in the group scattered and did their own thing. I decided to sit by a stream and enjoy its peaceful music.

Day 8: Dhamgori Base to Lower Kugti Village

The last day of the trek! We took a different route and walked through thick forest one last time during the trek to get back to the Kugti village. The evening mood remained subdued – each one seemed immersed in their own thoughts.

On a return journey from Dhamgori base to the Kugti village

The 77-year-old Keki had managed the entire trek without a complaint and with a smile. I don’t know if at any point he felt fear. Even if he did, he never showed. Quite a rockstar!

At the Kugti village after 9 hours of walk!

At night, it was time for celebrations. The local team baked a cake to congratulate us trekkers! We sang songs together and chatted and shared stories before going to “bed”. The last night in a tent!

Day 9: Kugti Village – Kajjiar – Delhi

Post breakfast, we walked to the nearest road-head. Seeing four-wheelers after 7 days of being in the mountains invoked mixed feelings. After about 5-6 hours of journey, we were in Khajjiar.

Bathed and clean… after a week… feet were numb, probably a bit swollen too…We slept incredibly well in the cozy comfort of the bed instead of the uneven surface in a tent… a part of me was relieved to know that there would be no more of walking in freezing cold to reach the loo tent, no more packing-unpacking-repacking backpack and duffel bag. Yet, while it all seemed like a pain during all those days, I knew that those were the things I was going to miss the most. While there was a bit of homesickness, it felt sad to say goodbye to the mountains!