The Mountains Knew Me Much Before I knew Them

A seven-day trek to Roopkund – The Mysterious Lake made me look deep within and helped me make peace with my raw thoughts. Here I go, sharing them in seven parts.

Part I: Signing up for the out-of-comfort zone

It was a comfortable January evening in Bombay when I told my uncle that I wanted to go on a trek for my Birthday. I had been inspired by the photos he took on his Kashmir Great Lakes trek with Indiahikes (India’s biggest and easily the most wonderful trekking community). I’ve been realizing more and more about how Birthdays are all about celebrating life – a life that should be rich with experiences that enliven you and throw you off your comfort zone.

My uncle said, “You pick any trek, and we’ll do it together”. The only one on the Indiahikes website was the Roopkund Trek that would begin a day after I’d turn 27. It was a high-altitude, moderate-difficult trek and the reasonable response should have been to scroll further down and look for another trek that was ‘easy-moderate’. I was however, quite sure about timing it around my birthday and my uncle seemed positive that with enough physical training, we could do it. So a month later, the three of us (my father joined us, showed double the enthusiasm and became the biggest hit at the trek) signed up for the 18-26 June 2016 batch for Roopkund. Panic struck the moment I realized that this idea, which seemed quite idealistic and distant until now, was a few steps closer toward realization.

And thus began my daily tryst with the gym. Having been blessed with good metabolism, I had always been complacent about physical fitness, scoffing at the idea of sweating it out. I was struck by harsh reality checks at the gym.Those moments of disappointment however, soon transformed into mini successes when I could see and map my progress – I went from wanting to die at 200 mts to running 4 kms in 30 minutes. The Roopkund trek started giving much before it even began. For the first time ever, I had discovered the joys of running and the positive impact it had on my emotional well-being.At 61 it would be my Dad’s first ever trek too. We pursued our fitness regimes quite diligently. My mom perhaps noticed consistency in me for the first time. Every time I would want to give up, I would tell myself about the possibilities at that altitude and the magical sights that awaited me up there. I let Roopkund fill up my thoughts for the five months that led up to the trek.

The five months were also filled with self-doubts. Doubts about being able to complete the trek, or to even making it to the gym the next day. I was convinced that I’d be struck by Acute Mountain Sickness, my back would break or my knees would crack. I still kept at it, because maybe subconsciously I knew that this was more important than I was yet ready to realize. A week before the trek, I went to Decathlon to get my trekking gear.  As I went from one aisle to the other picking out my gear, I met people who were going for their first treks just like me, people who had been to a few and who were happy to help me pick out my gear, and people who inspired me with their stories.

I spent my birthday afternoon in Delhi with a dear friend from my Delhi University days and the evening sandwiched between my mother, aunt and my cousins. Later at night I boarded the train with my Dad and Uncle to Kathgodam. My aunt had baked the most delicious chocolate cake for me and a bunch of fellow trekkers who were until then strangers burst out singing and wishing me the moment I stepped into our compartment. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to celebrate. Stepping out for a journey as I began my new year was my way of making sure that the upcoming year would be different than the last one.

Early in the morning at Kathgodam station, the heavens welcomed us with a rude and heavy downpour. The Indiahikes group of trekkers kept growing as fellow trekkers arriving from different parts of the country found each other and gathered at the waiting area. Sleepy and tired from the journey and anxious about the rains, the introductions and greetings were kept short. As the rain slowed down a bit, spirits lifted and we put ourselves into the vans that would take us up to the base camp at Lohajung, at 7,000 ft. The 10-hour long journey made friends out of strangers. We were already sharing food, laughing, taking pictures and pulling each other’s legs by the time we reached Lohajung. Most of my fellow trekkers had already been to several high altitude treks. As I began telling our trek leader how I had never been on a trek ever but I could run 4 kms in 30 minutes, a voice inside my head grew big and told me about how stupid I sounded and that I absolutely must turn around and escape in the same cab that had brought us up there to save some pride. Thankfully, I did none of that.

A briefing session later, all information gaps were plugged. We knew our Indiahikes team, we knew how to ranger roll our clothes and our schedule for the next day. When I started asking a question about the rucksack that I had already paid to get offloaded, my half-question was met with expressions that were a mix of disappointment and disapproval. Carry your own rucksack and you’ll feel double the satisfaction, they said. My feeble attempts at justifying my choice (that I was myself not very convinced about) were dismissed. It was easy to convince me after our Assistant Trek Leader kept aside almost two kilograms of supplies from my rucksack. I went to bed questioning myself. The first trek ever, the first high altitude trek and the first time carrying my own rucksack – was I doing a smart thing?

Part II: The amateur heads out

I felt the weight on my body the moment I wore my rucksack the next morning. To avoid the panic from growing, I quickly took the sack off and put it inside the cab that was taking us to the Wan village, from where our trek would begin. Ascent began as soon as we stepped into the dense forest. 10 minutes into the trek and I was bewildered by all that was going on inside my body. My heart was pounding heavily against my ribs, I was gasping for air, a cold numb feeling started creeping in my head, and my shoulders and arms went numb. I was told that this was normal, and that I was panicking only because my body was experiencing all of this for the first time. I chose to believe the trek leaders, only because there was no other way out! My rucksack was adjusted so as to not suffocate and kill me, and as my body and mind recovered from the initial shock, I realized I didn’t want to turn around and run away any more. I wanted to give this a shot. I had never thrown myself so ruthlessly out of my comfort zone, as I had this time. I felt like I deserved an apology – from myself. I was in a way testing my physical and emotional resilience. It probably stemmed from my feelings of restlessness and inadequacy that had been settling in over the last couple of months, when I kept struggling to fit into my new life set-up and to leave nostalgia where it belongs – in the past. I realized on Day 1 how this trek was not just about making it to the mysterious lake. This trek was crucial for me for so many reasons. And with each day that passed, with each hurdle I crossed and with each conversation I had, I received tools to untangle my thoughts.

The altitude gain of over 2,500 ft was merciless that day. It started raining as we made our way through the steep trails. Wearing a rain-poncho made the experience akin to jogging inside a sauna. We met a group of trekkers who were returning after finishing the Roopkund trek. Best wishes poured in from either sides as we crossed each other. I stopped and asked someone if it was really worth all the pain. He smiled and said I wouldn’t even remember the struggles when I’d reach the top. A few hours later, we found our campsite at a small clearing right in the middle of the forest. That night it poured, and I gave up trying to sleep. There were too many things to deal with that night – it was my first night inside a sleeping bag, in a tent, that was being beaten up by sheets of rain, in the middle of a forest. Also, my feet had gone cold (only literally). I lay awake for most of the night thinking how incredible all of this was.

The following morning arrived with heaps of promises. The clouds had washed themselves away and they now lingered around in smaller groups, bright and clean. We had a majestic view of the sun-kissed Mount Trishul standing tall and proud at over 7000 mts. As I ate breakfast looking at the snow clad peaks that glistened brightly, with a gorgeous black mountain dog taking a nap right next to me, and the sun warming my face, the raw beauty of nature made herself felt. She was fierce, calm, irresistible and temperamental. To be able to love her and feel loved by her, one had to respect and admire all of her forms.

The day’s trek began yet again with light rains and a cloudy sky in the thickest forest I had ever been to, but this time it would end in the meadows. I had abstained from looking at a lot of photos on the Internet to not kill my curiosity, and so I wasn’t ready for the moment I crossed the tree line and stepped into a massive and unending lush green spread. As we dumped our bags and ran around in all directions, the clouds made way for some sun – like a mini reward system. The vast limitless carpet of undulating grasslands studded with tiny wild flowers had hundreds of sheep grazing around. I was right there, having my Sound of Music moment. I sang for a while hoping no one would hear me, and gave myself some time alone as I started feeling overwhelmed by that unmatched boundless splendor. A certain part of my brain started pushing in thoughts about the other realities of my life, but juxtaposed with the magnificence that lay in front of me, both my worries and I seemed so small and insignificant that the thoughts vanished as suddenly as they had appeared. I stood and stared, and thought I must be doing at least something right in life to be able to experience, appreciate and be part of this beauty.

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Two of the largest alpine meadows in Asia: Bedni Bugyal and Ali Bugyal

The next day’s trek was through the meadows, and maybe to have me focused and not wander away from the group, the clouds decided to descend and block everything else in view apart from the few meters ahead. It would clear up once a while, we’d all gasp with joy and then sigh with despair, as we’d notice clouds approaching from the other side. It was a constant game of hide-and-seek with nature winning all the time, leaving us feeling like a bunch of jilted yet persistent lovers.

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I’m good at speaking ‘Sheep’ so I got to practice a lot here

Part III: Do people make places, or do places make people?

Despite the weather acting up and being temperamental, we as a group bonded really well. Maybe it was the weather, or the altitude, the dependency on each other, or the shared experiences – I remember having some wonderful conversations and moments with almost every body. While some of them provided heavy food for thought, others brought in the much-needed comic relief, and some provided companionship even without words. The latter largely because on the steeper slopes, it is difficult to be all chatty. Speaking to the locals made my heart melt as I discovered their simplicity and the authenticity of their words. I believe people get better and better as the altitude increases. We were a ‘Green Trails’ batch of trekkers. An initiative by India Hikes, it endeavors to reverse the damage that the mountains get subjected to. As volunteers, we kept filling up our ‘Eco bags’ with waste that we’d find on the trails and at our campsites. It broke my heart, but at the same time filled me with hope. At least there were organizations and individuals who care! Maybe one day the force will be stronger on this side. We ended up collecting 30 large sacks of waste which were later taken to recycling centres.

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Somewhere high up at the alpine Himalayan meadows, I found my favourite room

Part IV: Letting the self be conquered

On the third day, we made our way to our summit camp. Walking through the meadows, chattering brooks, the greens gently gave way to barren rocky terrain. The transition was smooth and before I could realize, I was negotiating my way through boulders of all sizes. While some were large and stable, sturdy enough to even host a tap dance sequence, others were smaller and placed precariously – wobbling beneath my feet. I found myself drawing parallels with life. The unstable boulders made me wary and were tricky to deal with. One could either lose balance and fall or stay and figure out the optimum position that would allow a comfortable stay. However, spending more time on those unstable rocks only meant focusing all energy and time toward an effort that’s only directed at not falling. Maneuvering through those made me see how even the unstable and tricky boulders held the potential to help me move forward. At times they were the only means to reach a place that was sturdier. All I needed to do was step on them lightly and move ahead swiftly – recognizing that the sense of insecurity was fleeting.

The metaphorical significance attached to every tiny bend at the trails, the varying terrain and the theatrics of the weather blew my mind. There was some magical beauty in all the unpredictability. Again that evening after an entire afternoon of heavy rains, we were treated to clear skies and a breathtaking sunset. And just like every preceding day, soon the clouds made thick blankets for the mountains and the sights; just in case we get too fond!

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Walking into clouds at the Summit camp at Bhagwabasa

As I lay awake in my tent that night thinking about what the next day had in store, I was surprised at feeling confident. I knew I’d make it to Roopkund, and with my rucksack. I had managed to get so far while carrying it all along! Maybe I’d even go to Junargali – the highest point of that trek. I heard someone talk about the skies having cleared up. I quickly crawled and stumbled out of my tent. Right there above my head, over seven billion stars were effortlessly putting to shame every seven star hotel put together on this planet. I have spent times gazing into starry nights before, but this felt different. I felt close to an overarching power. It made me feel tiny and yet made me feel connected, like I really belonged in the bigger system. I went back into my tent and had the deepest sleep.

Part V: Let’s do this!

The next morning was the day of the summit. We woke up at 3 in the morning and by 4 am we were all queuing up, with our flashlights and helmets. The moon shone above us, and we quietly progressed toward the Roopkund Lake. Nobody spoke for a long time. It could’ve either been early morning grumpiness or the zillion thoughts inside each mind. As the night melted away into a bright, yet cloudy day, we kept moving ahead. The last 100 meters toward Roopkund made me question angrily whose idea this trek was anyway. It was my idea. So I had no alternative but to keep going on. Like magic the clouds retreated to welcome us just as we reached the enchanting lake that looks like a giant emerald.

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A crater lake, Roopkund glistens like a giant emerald

Watching Roopkund nestled by mountains and glisten like a jewel reminded me why I had brought myself there. I was there to bring awe-inspiring moments back into my life. I was reclaiming my right to all the beauty and possibilities that this world held! The lake was much larger and far more stunning than it seems in the photos available on the Internet. I had just started to catch my breath again and look for the skeletons next to the lake when I heard someone calling out to me. Right there, a few feet ahead, the group was queuing up again, this time to make it further up to Junargali. The climb to Junargali was a bonus that the unexpected stellar weather and the overall good performance of the group had brought us. We made our way through the 200ft of snowy slope to Junargali. Holding on to a rope and boosting each other’s morale while clutching on to the snow with our crampons and microspikes, we made it to 16,000ft.

I obviously burst out into tears. The 4-day trek to Junargali had taken my breath away – figuratively and literally. I was overpowered by feelings of disbelief, accomplishment, and wonderment. I knew I had become a mountain person for life, and I started believing that maybe I did have it in me after all, to finish what I started. 45 minutes of being overwhelmed were interspersed with photo sessions at 16000 ft. I’d have been very proud of those photos if I didn’t look like such a weepy non-badass. I’m hoping I’ll be better behaved on my next trek!

Part VI: The most reluctant descent ever

As we made our descent back to the base camp over the next two days, I started holding major grudges against everyone who made me leave the place. I felt incredibly envious of the trek leaders who could call this piece of heaven their home! I decided to be the slowest during the descent to ensure I’d have enough time to soak in all the beauty.   I belonged there. I wondered why I couldn’t just build a hut and live there with some sheep and enchanting views for company for the rest of my life!

The two days of descent were also my days of reflecting hard upon what all had happened during the last four days. All the travel quotes that sound like clichés when one doesn’t travel had begun making sense all over again. I had finally been at the kind of spots I’d look at with eager eyes when I’d be on train/bus journeys in Europe. I felt silly at ever thinking that that kind of beauty was probably exclusive to only Europe. I was also incredibly thankful for this experience that I was reluctantly wrapping up, while knowing fully well that this was just a new beginning. There was joy hidden in every little feeling of dismay I had about leaving, because although I was leaving, I knew I had loaded up my senses.

Part VII: I didn’t say Goodbye. I said Aufwiedersehen.

The six days of being in the mountains with a bunch of wonderful souls while navigating through various terrains made me discover a lot about myself. Mostly pleasant discoveries. I realized how the body indeed is a powerhouse that we need only to acknowledge. I was surer about the kind of people that I wanted around me – the kinds who speak the same language, the kinds who knew exactly what was going on in my mind when I’d be lost in thoughts at the meadows. My sense of self-worth had been repaired well. Basically, the mountains gave me all that I secretly needed and desired.

The trek helped me to finally move on. It had been over a year of returning from Germany and I was still not over that experience. I continued to wake up in the mornings hoping to wake up there. I would catch myself thinking at times that all the good that could have ever happened to me, had already happened – that I had chosen to leave all of it behind; quite an unhealthy scenario. Thankfully, I realized in good time that I was getting only weaker while doing this and more importantly, I realized I wasn’t missing living abroad. What I terribly missed were the awe-inspiring and breathtaking moments that were so frequent there. Going to the mountains only confirmed for me that I was fretting and slipping into low points for zilch. It made me realize that I was a tiny speck and that my life-dilemmas were too insignificant to lose sleep over.

It would be a terribly pretentious claim if I say I came back a Superwoman. However, I did discover some very strong points about my existence when I was up there. And I know where to go to when I might need to learn to love myself again.

So, my advice: Go to the mountains when you want to remind yourself about your strengths, when your heart needs some repair, or when you think you might need an ego-crush. Even when you don’t know what you seek, go to the mountains anyway. The mountains will know what you need and give you exactly that.

 

P.S: It was a conscious decision to skip the technical details of the trek. Those are available in abundance here. And, a bazillion thanks to Indiahikes team for creating an environment of security, warmth and unlimited optimism. You’ve made me a mountain lover for life!

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4 thoughts on “The Mountains Knew Me Much Before I knew Them

      1. I heard one guide say during my trek two years ago that mountains are like keeda who’ll keep biting you until you come back…. Every now and then! I find it pretty precise!

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