Snow-Blindness and Dissent
India; October 10th; Day 19; Chauki; 3696m
Trek: 3hrs 33mins starting at 11.00
Low: 3700m at 14.40
High: 4555m at 11.08
Woke up before 6 desperate for a pee. Staggered out and staggered back. It’s freezing out there. Half an hour later I went out again to take some photographs. It’s still bitterly cold so I went back to bed with frozen hands. I lay in bed a long time but eventually got up shortly before the sun reached the tents. It seems to be quiet all around the campsite.
Keith was, unusually, not about and it turns out he had snow blindness and very painful eyes. We later find out that half a dozen of the porters are also afflicted and are in a lot of discomfort. Everyone clubs together to find some eye-drops to help out. We don’t have much but every little helps.
All these problems lead to plenty of discussions about how we should proceed. Many of the porters are favouring having a rest day so they can recuperate. Keith however is determined to continue as are all of us.
It takes a long time for breakfast to be prepared but at least that gives us plenty of time to dry out the tents and our gear. We had a smattering of snow fall during the night. After some discussion it is agreed that the party will split into two and that we, with sufficient porters, will go down to Chauki, whilst the others will take a rest day and come down tomorrow. It’s not clear when we will rejoin one another! In the end this doesn’t happen and everyone comes down to Chauki today. It’s not a long hike today and it will get us down below the snow to a warmer altitude.
Keith and I get fed up of hanging around and decide to go. We will take out our own tents and sleeping bags and enough snacks to keep us going. In our haste we forget to switch my clumsy black bag for Keith’s bag which can convert to a rucksack. Keith is carrying the most as we set off and it must be uncomfortable.
It’s 11am when we finally get going along a rocky traverse. After a while the trail becomes difficult to follow and we rely on a few far and between cairns. We are sure of the direction though as we head down into the valley below which seem to have green patches on either side which may be our destination.
Sometimes the way is earthy and grassy but mostly it’s a rocky scramble. Several times we had to climb down and then out of rocky ravines which are filled with loose stone. It’s dangerous as the stones are easily loosed and then often come bouncing down around us.
We follow a ridge for a while before descending to cross a small river. On the other side we see a trail going up. We try it but it seems to peter out so we abandon it and take a lower route. We find out later that this is the way the porters went. But it made no real difference. Instead we follow another ridge and another path. Ahead we notice a green swathe above a cliff with a glacial river running below. We convince ourselves that this must be Chauki.
The ridge finishes and we descend to cross another stream before climbing up a cliff to grassy meadow above. We don’t think it can be the campsite though as their is no litter or any evidence of fire. Looking back we can’t see anyone following us. We decide to wait here for the others to catch up just in case this is the place or perhaps we should be on the other side of the river!
After a while we are ‘hallooed’ and we can see the others on a high track in the distance. That’s the trail we ignored. They arrive within half an hour with several porters. They say that Chauki is another hour further down.
Me and Keith then leave, whilst the others take a break, and we take the comfortable grassy trail down the hill. The trail gradually meanders down to the river bed which we follow for a while whilst occasionally going up and down the small cliff on the river’s edge. Eventually we reach a grassy area which is obviously the campsite. It’s filthy with litter and in one area disgusting with human excrement. Extremely unpleasant. The views however are spectacular with huge mountains all around.
We laze around until everyone else arrives and set up our tents as the sun disappeared over the horizon.
Again we are having problems with the disposition of the porters. Jim has a meeting with our guide Ajay. They are discussing our route which is supposed to take us over another pass, at 4700m, and another 4 or 5 days trekking to return us to our start point at Malla. The porters are not keen to go in this direction and want to take an escape route which would take us down the valley to Ghuttu; a trek of three days. Ajay is of the opinion that that the recent snow falls would make the pass dangerous and he’s also concerned about the well-being of some of the porters.
We will have to contact the base in New Delhi to inform them where we are so that the bus can pick us up at Ghuttu for the drive back to Delhi via Rishikesh. However we will not be able to make contact until we reach Ghuttu.
Sitting by the fire we all get together to discuss the options and consequences. We agree to make the best of a bad job and conclude that we shall not go over the pass to Malla but return to Ghuttu. We take into account that Jan is still suffering from his bad leg and has done incredibly well to get this far. We also realise that many of the new porters that joined us in Kedarnath are under-equipped. Some are still suffering from the after effects of snow-blindness and it’s even more obvious that many of them are not that bothered and have been causing trouble almost every day. It’s a great pity as our first porters were hired in Malla and we had hoped to complete our circular route back to their home. They will have to continue alone from Ghuttu in one direction whilst the Gauri Kund porters will go in the opposite direction. It’s 3 or 4 days travel for each group.
Personally I am disappointed as the high passes are the highlight of the trip and it’s a waste to come all this way and not do it. I really liked the idea of finishing where we started too.
After all these discussion we have dinner in the Mess tent as it begins to snow again. It’ll be cold here tonight but nowhere near as cold as the previous nights.
Preparing to Bivouac
India; October 11th; Day 20; Kalyani; 2714m
Trek: 8hrs 7mins starting at 10.02
Low: 2714m at 18.07
High: 3683m at 10.05
Today was a beautiful walk – if long. And we should have started earlier, but we waited and waited until the sun had reached our tents and dried them off before starting. We had breakfast outside and enjoyed the warmth of the sun. It makes such a difference to everyone’s well-being and mood!
Before breakfast I had wandered around taking some shots and I was the last to leave the camp when we finally got going.
Almost immediately we reached the tree-line. As always the first trees are bent and twisted by the wind and often photogenic. James and I spent so much time messing around with cameras that we missed a fork in a trail and almost went the wrong way.
The porters were whistling us from far away and we had to backtrack a bit to find the fork. It wasn’t obvious where this trail was so we just bushwhacked our way across the bush in the general direction of the porters in the distance. We could see that there was a river to cross and Keith and some of the porters were waiting at a very precarious bridge. Keith was patiently waiting so that he could video us crossing the bridge but even then he had to wait longer as James continued to mess around!
Once on the other side it was quite a stiff climb up the other side and I couldn’t believe how breathless I was. I think it was the lack of porridge for breakfast that made me feel so lacklustre too. Fortunately one of the porters held back to ensure that I didn’t straggle too far nor lose the trail. It was a couple of hours before I felt comfortable. Maybe it was the altitude or maybe it was the disappointment of abandoning the high route.
The whole route today was photogenic and I spent a lot of time taking shots. It turned out therefore that I spent much of the day walking alone. It’s a fabulous feeling imagining that you have the wilderness and the world to yourself.
This first part of the trail was following a river valley down, but the trail itself was traversing high above the river itself. from time to time the trail descended into gullies where we had to cross side-streams and then clamber up the other side. We descended through many woods too. First Birches, then hardwoods, then Rhododendrons and then Bamboos. The shade here was very welcome. Unbelievably we still had some uphill stretches to deal with and some places where we had to scramble over landslips.
Eventually the trail descended right down to the river and continued along the river bed. I had glimpsed Keith and James ahead of me a few times and now I saw Keith again. I waved, he waved and then he waited for me to catch up. James was nowhere in sight. We then walked together for the rest of the day.
Soon the trail left the river and climbed the bank. It started gently raining as we passed into the mossy green darkness of a forest Looking back we could see a rainbow. from time to time the trail climbed up to empty meadows before falling back into the woods.
Once again the trail came back down to the river and we crossed another rickety bridge to a place with a shack and a Temple. Nobody was around. We followed the river bed again for a while before crossing our 3rd bridge of the day The trail then disappeared into the woods again and we spent a little while taking the wrong fork before clambering up to rejoin the proper trail. The trail went on and on and up and down until we began to wonder if we would reach our destination before dark. We were thinking that it starts to get dark about 6 but that we should perhaps think about stopping at 5 so that we could find a place and get a fire prepared. We had no tents or sleeping bags with us.
It’s possible we thought that we’d gone too far or taken a wrong turn. We also thought that James and the Cook and Maneesh were somewhere in front of us.
As the day lengthened we began to keep an eye for likely spots to bivouac for the night and at 5.15 we found the perfect spot. It was just before the fourth bridge, underneath a huge rock with a nice sandy spot beneath. It was next to the main river with plenty of driftwood for fire and also next to a side-stream for fresh water.
We had enough clothes and food and we had the ability to make fire. Soon enough we had a lovely fire going and a huge pile of driftwood to keep us going through the night. We were just settling down, after about 40 minutes, when Keith was shocked by the sudden appearance of our oldest porter appearing above the rocks behind us. He was wearing his familiar coon-skin hat and was dangling a headless bird in one hand. He was laughing and cackling like mad. He was also amused at our endeavour and told us that the campsite was another hour down the trail.
Reluctantly we got our stuff together and left our fire to burn out in the sand. I’d rather been looking forward to spending a night in the wild, but now we had to finish our walk at the darkness crept in. The last hour was a bit of and up and down slog through a gloomy forest. It was just about dark when we arrived.
Jan and Jim and Adriana were still behind us somewhere as were several of the porters. We managed to set u pour tents in the dark and as soon as it got really dark our guide Ajay got 4 porters together to go back up the trail and find them.
It turned out that they had reached a fork in the trail at about 6 and not being sure of the direction had just sat down and waited. They waited for an hour and a half in the dark before they were found and it wasn’t until 8.30 that they straggled into camp. We of course had been sat around the fire keeping warm
Dinner, though late, was enjoyed by everyone, and all seemed to be in a good mood after our various adventures. This was probably aided by the fact that Jim produced a bottle of Brandy ahead of his birthday tomorrow.
Mystics and no Cake
India; October 12th; Day 21; Rees; 2158m
Trek: 6hrs 15mins starting at 9.28
Low: 2165m at 15.41
High: 2735m at 11.11
Today was mostly a descent through farmland and small villages and the trail was hard and rocky and sore on the feet.
For the first hour I walked with Keith but he left me as he intends to do a double day and get down to Ghuttu. Maneesh will attempt to do this too. The idea is that then they can contact base in Delhi and arrange for our pick up in Ghuttu rather than Malla.
At a landslip I meet a road crew who are fixing the trail. It’s here that I meet an old man who is travelling the same way as me. I passed them but later when I stopped in a forest he caught up with me. In exchange for an apple and some chocolate he allowed me to take a few portraits.
At the small village of Ganga James caught up with me as we walked through the very picturesque and well maintained place. It was very noticeable that it had no litter unlike most villages. The Cook and our guide Ajay also passed us here and I took some shots of them too, though they were very reticent.
Shortly after this James and I came to a small house with a beautifully flowered garden. A child appeared and asked us for sweets and then above our heads a mystic appeared and asked us in for tea. At first we were reluctant but then we changed our minds and went in. Part of the attraction was that I’d noticed some huge cannabis plants interspersed amongst the flowers in his garden. We spent a very pleasant 40 minutes sitting shoeless in his small temple. We talked about India and in particular the development in the Himalayas. Roads, Dams and Forestry. We had our tea and admired his Dahlias, Gladiolus and Margaritas etc. As we left he asked if we had any medicines to spare and I gave him some headache tablets and pain-killers. He then offered to sell us a bag of grass which I purchased for a few rupees. It was no good to me though as I had no cigarette papers and no chance of getting any! I threw the stuff away on returning to Delhi!
James soon left me when we got back on the trail and I spent the rest of the day walking and ambling alone. It was hot and the trail was stony and sore. The trail also went up from time to time and this was annoying as well as tiring. Eventually the trail descended into the small village of Rees where I found James and the porters waiting at a dirty and tired old Rest House. This is where we will stay tonight.
At dinner we were supposed to have had Jim’s birthday cake but Adriana had given it to the cook to bring out as a surprise but instead he’d accepted it as a gift and presumably shared it out with the Porters! Wonderful. Instead we had baked apples and custard for dessert and some of the brandy that was left from yesterday. Not so bad then.
The Last Leg
India; October 13th; Day 22; Ghuttu; 1680m
Trek: 2hrs 44mins starting at 7.38
Low: 1657m at 10.18
High: 21458m at 7.38
I woke up at about 6 and expected tea around 7. Nothing materialised so I got fed up hanging around and left for Ghuttu before breakfast. In any case I was wondering where Keith was and whether or not he, and Maneesh, had managed to get to Ghuttu yesterday.
The trail was in the shadow of the valley at first as it went down through woods and small meadows. I was a little bit concerned as to whether I was on the right track as the trail was overgrown in many places. I did reach a junction after a while and was then more confident that I was going the right way. In any case I was following the river downstream so I figured it could only be correct. The trail went up and down in farm country until the trail finally came down to the rivers edge.
It was just along here though that I got baulked. They were building a road high above the river and I could hear the diggers above and see huge rocks being toppled down the cliff to the river. I didn’t dare move down stream any further. I could see and hear huge boulders bouncing down, smashing trees on the way, and hurtling into the river. I retreated a little way and found a path climbing the cliff. I started up this but was halted by the screams of the workers above and more rocks bouncing down in my direction. I retreated again and decided to wait for the others to catch up before deciding what to do.
I sat down by the trail and started to read my book when after about half an hour or so a group of lads appeared. I told them what was happening but they seemed confident of getting past. I followed them up the trail I’d abandoned before and they managed to shout up to the workers and get the digger to stop whilst we clambered up.
The last 5km or so was along the new road being built. It was a dull dusty trudge. Looking down I could see the new dam being built. I eventually rolled into town and wound my way back to the Guest House we had stayed in almost two weeks ago. After some wrangling at reception I found the room where Keith and Maneesh were. They had got down to Ghuttu yesterday and managed to contact our base in Delhi. After a brief chat and a long shower we went back into town for breakfast. We managed to find a small shop run by a couple of boys who managed to rustle up an omelette sandwich for us.
After a short walk through the town we sat in the sun and had a couple of cokes. It’s still impossible to buy a bottle of water in this place. We then strolled back to the Guest House and whiled away the afternoon waiting for everyone else to come down.
In the evening, at about 5pm, all the porters came together to collect their tips and receive out thanks. Those from Gauri Kund would have a 2 day walk home from here but those that started with us from the beginning face a 4 day walk home. They would leave the following morning.
The cook made our final dinner of the trip and Jim and I consoled ourselves by finishing off the brandy. It’s hard to believe we’ve come to the end of our trek and it still rankles a bit that we didn’t complete our original route back to Malla. We now face the long drag back to Delhi. At least Keith and I can look forward to continuing our trip to India. We are going to Kerala for a couple of weeks before returning home.