What a Himalayan trek taught me about perseverance

The Bhagirathi emerging from the Himalayas. As seen at Gangotri National Park. Photo: VIDYA VENKAT

[First published in The Hindu, MetroPlus dated Aug 26, 2016.]

My sole climbing feat before I set out on a high-altitude trek of 14,000 feet in the Himalayas was climbing a 50-feet-tall water tank in Puducherry. And that too nine years ago. I often recollected, with an odd mix of amusement and shame, how my knees got wobblier as I ascended the rusty rungs of the tank’s metal ladder, thanks to bouts of intense acrophobia… That is why, when folks at home greeted my brave decision to scale the Himalayas with stares of disbelief, it did not seem out of place.

And then there was the gruelling fitness regimen to boot…

An online group for aspiring trekkers recommended an hour’s exercise every day, which included both cardio and strength training, for a minimum of three months. “You think you can do that?” my mother asked, glancing furtively at the muffin top that I have been trying to get rid of for over two years now…

In the early days of training for the trek, I often thought of myself as Po the panda from the animated film Kung Fu Panda. When the plump panda is declared the Dragon Warrior, the Furious Five, who have been training for the role all their lives, doubt if he can defeat the villain Tai Lung. But in the end, the panda succeeds, not so much because of his fitness or his skill in martial arts, but by simply believing that he was special. It is all in the mind, after all. I entertained such thoughts simply to elevate my sagging spirits. Also, to make the task ahead seem simpler, I reminded myself that Gangotri was only about half the altitude of Mount Everest — fairly high, yet moderate as per standards.

I trained for over four months, hitting the gym at least five days a week. Thanks to my mother’s persistent wake-up calls (that I couldn’t shut and ignore like the morning alarm) and a motivating gym instructor, I stuck to the routine. The fitness target was to be able to run 4.5 km on the treadmill in half an hour, a pace of less than seven minutes per kilometre. But the most I could do was finish a 5-km run in about 40 minutes. And laziness got the better of me during the last month, when I stuck to brisk 45-minute walk sessions inside my apartment complex.

May approached sooner than expected. Unlike most trekkers who sign up with professional trekking companies and go in groups of 10 or 20, I had decided to go it alone. Thanks to Professor Manohar Arora of the National Institute of Hydrology (NIH) in Roorkee, the contacts necessary for the trip were in place. He put me on to Chander, a Nepali tour guide and hotel manager with Hotel Mandakini in Gangotri. Chander helped me pack all the essentials for the trek once I got to Gangotri — a light day pack consisting of protein bars, one litre of bottled water, sunscreen, a set of clothes for changing, a night torch and some cash. I also carried my laptop, camera, power bank and sleeping bag. I left behind everything else in the hotel, as the original plan was to spend only one night at the Bhojwasa camp where NIH scientists would host me at their duty station.

Chander said, “If you walk really well, you should be able to reach Bhojwasa in seven to eight hours.” The place was 14 kilometres from Gangotri, the small temple town that comes alive only during the trekking season that lasts from mid-April to June and September to October. Chander had arranged for a young Nepali porter, Jaya Bahadur, to accompany me till Gaumukh (the source of the Ganga) and back. He also gave me a walking pole that proved immensely useful.

I set out for the trek at about 7 a.m. Bahadur and I climbed the steps that led to the trekking trail. He made it sound easy, but only after a few steps did I realise that there were no steps further up, only a bunch of rocks held together by some loose mud. I managed fine, did not let out any screams, as the porter was kind enough to climb ahead of me and give me a helping hand. Once we climbed on to the walking path, I looked around. Huge mountain rocks protruded on one side, and the Bhagirathi River gurgled below on the other. On the winding trail in between, we went past tourists and devotees riding on mule-back. At the forest check point, the officials wished me good luck, reminding us to report at the office on our way back. “Until then, we will remain worried about your safety uphill,” an official said.

Bahadur suggested I could ride on a mule too if I felt tired, but to trust one’s own feet over that of a scrawny, overworked animal seemed like a wiser thing to do. The walk was made easier by the views of glistening mountain tops melting under the summer sun, yellow and violet flowering bushes popping out of the corners of rocks, and the river rushing below.

We crossed two mountain streams along the path, filling our bottles with icy, cold Himalayan water. The trail got narrower. There were huge boulders on the path, and Bahadur, with his humble flip flops, did better than me with my heavy, water-proof trekking boots. After about three hours, we reached a small, sheltered resting point, where other tourists and devotees had taken a break. A group of middle-aged pilgrims from Bangalore were surprised that I was alone. “You’re brave,” said one of them, cautioning, “It gets trickier after Chirbasa…”

I had read about trekkers getting hurt, fracturing their ankles, fainting, or worse, losing their lives on the trail. About five kilometres before Chirbasa, the first major camping site on the trail, I met a teenage girl from Kerala, who complained of sore feet thanks to the inappropriate leather shoes that she had worn. I was fortunate, for my Gore-Tex boots provided ankle support and kept my feet dry and comfortable. But the sun that blazed above our heads soon gave me a headache. We had walked for about four hours, and Chirbasa was still four kilometres away, when I began to feel the veins pulsating through my temples. “We can rest at Chirbasa. It is only half-an-hour’s walk,” Bahadur offered, comfortingly. In the end, it took us nearly two hours.

I could barely keep my eyes open at this point. We were at an altitude of about 11,000 feet and altitude sickness was beginning to manifest itself. At the Chirbasa campsite, a dhaba owner offered us a meal of soupy instant noodles and sugary tea. It was around 3 p.m.

The Malayali girl with the sore feet struggled too, but she chose to continue walking, egged on by her cousins. I, on the other hand, popped a painkiller, found myself a mattress in the corner of the dhaba’s tented enclosure and shut my eyes. When I opened them next, it was 9 p.m. We decided to continue our journey the next day morning, and reached Bhojwasa at about 10 a.m.

After breakfast at the NIH duty station, scientist Naresh Kumar, Bahadur and I set out for the seven-kilometre trek to Gaumukh, the snout of the Gangotri glacier. At one point, the path got so narrow that there was only enough space for one foot at a time.

The mud was loose below, and a steep drop of several thousand metres awaited, had we slipped… I could never have managed to negotiate that stretch without Kumar covering me on one side with his arms stretched out, and Bahadur gripping my right hand ahead of me, as I leaped across.

Bahadur was kind enough to fill an empty bottle with Gangajal from Gaumukh, as I was too tired to descend the slippery rocks that led to the cave from which the river emerged.

This bottle I carried back home with me as my trophy of accomplishment. I negotiated the return journey much better, finishing in nine hours, and completed the total 36-kilometre stretch without dislodging a single bone in my body.

I returned to the hotel with a pair of swollen feet and a happy heart.

[Also read: Gangotri glacier retreated by 3 kilometers. My report for the Earth Journalism Network fellowship to write about climate change in the Himalayas which supported this trekking expedition as well.]

Published by Vidya Venkat

Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at SOAS, London. Formerly, journalist at The Hindu, Chennai.

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