10 Apr The here and now
This is one of the stories from our collection of 8 ‘Short stories from the mountains’ which can be downloaded from Studio Saadho and prints are available at INR 111 (including shipping), just mail email@example.com.
At 4340m above sea level, on top of the Dhauladhar ranges at the Minkiani Pass, a blizzard hit us on the 13th of June, 2017. We were far from prepared for what nature had in store for us. The two of us had a jacket each with a tee-shirt inside and cotton pants. Our shoes were a far cry from what the situation demanded.
We had reached Kareri Lake the day earlier and spent the night camping near a temple. On the 13th, we left by 6am, for Minkiani Pass. The man at the temple told us to be careful and not to go further if we encounter a lot of snow. Much later, we would come to know that we were attempting the pass a month before people usually do.
As the sun was out and the day looked clear and good for climbing, we steadily carried on. We had a sense of the general direction; we had to hit one of the snow fields and take a left from there to reach the top. That’s not very detailed by most standards. We hit the snowfield and took a left and kept moving up ahead. At points, we looked at each other and shared glimpses of surprise. This could not be the path but we carried on, it wasn’t that arduous. We thought things were under control. The clear weather gave us more confidence.
We reached the top and it was breathtaking. In all senses.
We’re were at the top, on the razor’s edge. We walked over to the other side and the vast expanse that is the Chamba valley opened up to us. In the distance, we could see Kali dal and the massive Lam dal (dal stands for lake). In that one moment, we could see and feel the universe. Dark clouds, sunlight, hail, snow, rain, blue sky, clouds forming, waterfall, boulders, vegetation, everything! It was the time we wondered if we were there or had we already stopped existing and become a part of the surroundings completely? We were the surrounding.
And then, in the time we were marvelling, clouds engulfed. We could hardly see each other. On our way up, we had noticed a cave pretty close by, we scrambled our way towards it and found some dry land. Pretty small, we could hardly stand but we settled for it in gratitude.
The next few hours, we witnessed something we couldn’t even have dreamt of. Roaring thunder, lightning, clouds clashing, the sky was falling! It was hard to believe our own eyes. What on earth was happening? The path (or rather the semblance of a path) we had come through was in snow, it was white everywhere. We could only see the edges of stones and the other thing we could see was inside us. This lurking fear that we might not see the light of the day.
Not seeing light is scary. In every which way. In our everyday lives, light is what we live for. The light of love, the light of beauty, the light within our hearts. Light is what we wanted but it was nowhere in sight. It also made us realise how very important the self still is. Preserving life had become most critical, the self was not ready to let go. It had a lot of fire and that’s brilliant for the body. But it probably means the mind hasn’t gained complete relief.
We waited in the small cave from 11am to 3pm, by then our phone batteries had also run out. We used the last bit to check out the time and based on that, we decided to move on. If we tried to stay the night, we were likely to freeze to death.
Once we stepped out, the feeling was good. Much better than inside the cave. Inside, there is anxiety, anticipation; outside, we were in it, in the eye of the storm. Our bodies felt good, they wanted to go for it. We started walking, one step at a time. After around 15 minutes of slipping and finding ground, we landed on a row of stones which had a hint of order. This could be the path! The trail! Our morale boosted and we went on with the momentum.
But within 15 minutes, the trail ended into nothingness. On our left, was a massive glacier and straight ahead, a steep slope followed by a cliff. At this instant, our faces must have gone pale. This was the only time when we felt things could go horribly wrong. One course of action was to slide down the glacier, it would be the quickest path down. And probably also the quickest way straight up. At one juncture, we saw the glacier’s thickness to be not more than half a feet, we couldn’t risk that! Sliding down had to be the last resort.
We traced our way back to the trail. Now, going left wasn’t an option, we started moving towards our right. Huge boulders stood in our way with no clue about what lay on the other side. We jumped and struggled our way on the 70 degree incline across the mountain. After the boulders, we got a sight of the snowfield which looked like the one we had climbed from but it looked much larger now! It looked improbable for us to navigate through it.
We took a breather, had our dose of electrol and sweets and thought further plan. Our minds were still sharp, they were functioning to survive. It must be 4.30 or 5pm by then and the weather seemed like it was going to clear up. We could see some sun rays pouring in from the west onto the fresh snow turning it into slush. Walking would be harder but the sun was such a pleasant sight.
Earlier in the day, from the top, we had seen a herd of sheep going up the mountain further to our right. We thought of reaching there somehow. Our ray of hope were the little shrubs that dotted the mountain slope, all the way from where we stood, to the point where we wanted to reach. Knee height small shrubs, looking like a cousin of the Rhododendron, with incredible strong branches on which one could swing. We had enormous trust in them. We started to make our way through dangling on to these trees. After about half an hour with a few cuts and bruises, we reached a point where we felt that death was evaded.
Huge boulders lay in front of us, navigating which we would be able to reach the proximity of our lake. We sighed and carried on. And by 8 in the night, we had made our way to safety. The first human face was that of a Gaddi (the local tribe) who looked to the gods and said, “It’s the mercy of Shiva that you’re back safely.”
Back at the campsite, we sat around the fire and had our dinner with the folks at the temple. What was meant to be a testing trek up till the pass, had become an experience of a lifetime. Questions around the meaning of life, what are we here for, what is death, what is fear, became all too real.
And this is what mountaineering probably means to me. Getting a glimpse into the unknown, a glimpse into that nature of reality. The only question now is, how can we live in that intensity in our everyday life? How does one become that? Well, that’s the journey we’re all on. I’ll keep walking, keep clawing, in a hope of not reaching somewhere but touching that deep thing within us which keeps us alive, which will allow us to transcend.