I just have to write something about our 5-day trek that finished a few days ago. More for myself – to remember – than for anyone else. It was memorable in so many ways, and I hope my writing and photos will be able to communicate it as it was.

For various reasons, including a Covid case, a surge in the number of infections and rumours of closed borders (due to Covid), only my son and I drove the 6 hours to Palampur on Wednesday. I haven’t planned a trek this long for a while and looked forward to it for months. I planned meals meticulously; we would have to carry everything we wanted to eat with us. Our guides would have rice and maybe dal (lentils).

We had a late start as there was a change of guide at the last minute. Excul travel organized the guides and planned the route. Rajmal was excellent, and his friend Sanju also contributed to making the first day memorable. They know some English, but we conversed mostly in Hindi. I did not understand a lot of what they said. But, we still learned a lot. Rajmal was a shepherd earlier and intimately knows the Dhauladar range of mountains, it’s plant and animal life, and it’s weather.

There was snow on the peaks, but the sun was shining brightly. The Rhododendrons were in full bloom and had a fresh coat of leaves. Layers upon layers of leaves slipped around under our feet. Our backpacks were feeling good, though heavy. I was carrying a tent. We could still see Palampur, but the mountain we had totally for ourselves. We did not meet anybody else for three whole days.

Ghari was our first stop which we reached early afternoon. There were probably about ten shepherd mud huts. They all have two floors. The ground floor is for the animals and above that is a room for humans. It was maybe more like an attic with it’s low, slanted roof. My son felt the place was a bit dirty, so we pitched our tent inside one hut. It fitted snugly. Our guides went to fetch water. I could not stop taking pictures of all the beauty around me.

I soon learned that a route in these mountains has to be planned around water sources. Our guides came back much later than expected. They had to go much further due to water sources being dry. They soon had a fire going and cooked rice and dal for everyone. My little butane stove made coffee and hot chocolate. We barbequed marshmallows on a stick.

That night I slept fitfully – not used to my hard, cold bed. In the middle of the night, the extreme darkness in the tent in the hut forced me out for some space and fresh air. The moon and stars were shining brightly. I thanked God for his presence and would have stayed out longer if it wasn’t for the sharp bite of the cold wind.

Breakfast was Wheatabix and coffee. I couldn’t wait to set out again, not knowing what was ahead.

After a bit of uneventful walking, I saw our guides exchanged worried looks, and they asked us to wait while they explore the route. It turned out that due to disuse, some of the trails were in bad shape, and we had to follow an alternative. Even the alternative turned out to be tough to navigate. We were faced with sheer cliffs and half a foot of slippery grass-covered ledge to walk on with only grass to hold on to.

I must confess that I was afraid when I saw where we had to go. It looked impossible to me.

We had to learn to turn our bodies towards the wall, kick our toes in between the grass, grab handfuls of grass, and not look down. Rajmal held my son’s hand and twice saved him from inevitable disaster this way. However, he soon learned how to do it and grew in confidence and skill. I was so worried for him and also for myself. My old number ten running shoes did not have a lot of grip. Do not move unless you have secure footing, became the mantra. Life-threatening situations certainly make you draw closer to God. I remembered a scripture and the song that goes like this (Habakuk 3)

Though the fig tree does not bud

    and there are no grapes on the vines,

though the olive crop fails

    and the fields produce no food,

though there are no sheep in the pen

    and no cattle in the stalls,

18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord,

    I will be joyful in God my Savior.

19 The Sovereign Lord is my strength;

    he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,

    he enables me to tread on the heights.

For day 2, 3, and 4, we faced similar situations that involved climbing (up, down, or sideways). We climbed near-vertical rock faces, more grass-covered cliffs, and steep, leave-covered terrain where you have to drive your walking stick deep into the muck to have something solid to hold on to. I was surprised by my son’s courage and our ability to get up or get down alive. Glory to the Lord Jesus for his protection and strength.

The adventure-value of all of this was very high. I wondered if it may have been a blessing in disguise that our whole group could not come. I would not have blamed anyone if they became paralyzed with fear and unable to move on those cliffs. It was pure grace that we did not get stuck somewhere.

Our original guides could not stay, but we found our new guide, Pinku, and said our farewells. Pinku was from a shepherd family but became a lawyer. He knew a tad more English, so our conversation alternated between broken Hindi and broken English. He is tall but extremely thin. However, very strong and agile. Like Rajmal, he loves those mountains, the plants, animals, and birds that one can find there. The best thing about him was his endless positive outlook and his energy.

After all the detours, we reached our destination for the second day, Tatri, just before sunset. There was a wooden hut with a bit of firewood. Pinku went to fetch water, and my son and I went to look for firewood. My son was so tired that he went to bed without dinner, but not before again doing the marshmallows. I could hardly stay awake myself but enjoyed the generous helpings of rice that Pinku dished up. That night we all slept like logs.

We started early the next day, but getting away from Tatri was just as hazardous as getting there. We made painfully slow progress down cliffs with thorn bushes all around. We had to get down to the dam. The last bit was the toughest as the cliffs became almost vertical, and we had to rock climb down some parts. Around two in the afternoon, we finally reached level ground again.

We made Maggi, pasta and coffee on my little stove. Then we went swimming in the freezing water which comes from melted snow. There was also a little waterfall. My son was delighted to find a place where he could skip stones. After this relaxed lunch, we set off on the dirt road that runs next to the river. We stayed on this road for quite some time and did not find one vehicle. It was as if the three of us were the only people in the world. And you may have heard about the countless millions of people staying in India!

We reached the temple where there supposedly was a Baba staying. But he wasn’t there either. We enjoyed the views around there and then went further down the road. We came to a tunnel. It must be at least half a kilometre long, but it is hard to guess. In the middle, it was pitch-black dark. We had to use our torches.

Then, we finally reached our destination for the day, the security check-post manned by a friendly person. We pitched our tent on the flat field opposite, while Pinku accepted an offer to sleep in the house. We cooked rice and exchanged stories while my son enjoyed the clear skies with many stars. The moon was nearly full and very bright. He found some satellites (slowly moving stars) and even saw a few shooting stars.

It was a quiet, windless night, unlike the previous ones where there was always a cold wind blowing. We already experienced so much, that we could have stopped there and then, but we had another adventure waiting for us. Pinku decided that we should leave the tent, my son’s bag and any unneeded things behind and not carry extra water so that we can move fast the next day.

We started early because we wanted to see how close we could get to Char Patar (Four rocks). My son was motivated by the idea that he would be able to touch snow. This was going to be the highest we’ve reached so far. Everything started well. We soon ran into some young guys who went up the hill the previous night, pitched their tents and partied. Pinku have not done this part of the route, so he inquired from them, and they gave some directions.

We followed these directions, but they did not seem to come together. We ended up having to climb up a very steep slope. Pinku went ahead, looking for the correct route to follow and, in the process, disappeared from our view. He may have asked us to wait, but I did not hear it. We kept on going, and soon we must have taken another route than he took. By this time, we have experienced so much that we just kept on going, despite the steep gradient and difficulty presented by rocks, leaves, grass, tangled forest and thorns.

We called for Pinku, but he must have been out of earshot. Eventually, we heard him calling. We were almost at the top of the ridge by that time. Still, we were relieved that he found us again. This side-trip caused us to lose a lot of time and energy. Still, we continued towards Char Pattar. But we were cranky and decided to have lunch. We found a bit of shade below some rocks, and my little stove did its job.

Slightly revived again, we pushed on and after what must have been an hour saw in the distance an Indian tri-colour (flag). My son had had enough, but we convinced him to go on until the flag. A little before we reached it, we found an overhanging rock which was used as a temporary dwelling before and decided to leave our bags there. Our water was running low, and there was no water source anywhere nearby. But, we did pass some patches of snow.

For the first time, we saw some more ominous clouds. We decided that it is probably best not to try to reach Char Pattar. That will be my goal for next time. But the clouds made for some fantastic scenes and photo opportunities up where we got to the flag. Ivan hit rocks with his walking stick. Pinku went a little further and found a lot more snow just around the corner. I just enjoyed that highest point of our journey.

We found another place where there was a lot of wood piled up and a nice flat spot to sleep. However, there wasn’t any protection against the rain. The rest of the day went into collecting, melting, and boiling snow and then filtering it as best we could. The wind was cold, and although I wore all my jackets, I kept shivering. We finally had enough water for cooking, washing dishes and drinking.

We even made a snow-duck, named Duff, by my son.

While Pinku had the rice on the boil, I decided to look at the overhang and found many rocks inside, which I moved out and piled on the “fence” that someone else started. After our meal, we moved everything to our new “home”, lit a fire there and then tried to settle in for the night. It wasn’t that flat, and my son kept sliding down onto me as I kept on sliding off my sleeping mat. Around 3 in the morning, it started raining, and the wind changed to drive the rain deep under our rock so that we all got wet. Luckily it did not last very long. I just kept on wishing that morning would come.

Our last day started easy. We just had to walk back to Palampur and our car. Getting back to our previous camp took less than half the time. We got the tent and bag that we left there, had some snacks – everything left in our bags – and then the suffering began as we went further. It was hot, we did not have enough water, our feet were sore, and the climb down to Palampur had a lot of loose rocks. It was slow. We could see and crossed the winding road that also went to Palampur and decided that we might as well follow it. Pinku wanted to take the shortcut, but for once, I overruled him. My son, who had a bag to carry again, was fading fast, but it went slightly better on the road.

Everything changed when we found a water source next to the road. A pipe delivered a steady stream of clear mountain water, and we could fill our bottles and drink as much as we wanted. We continued on the road, but when Pinku suggested another shortcut, we went for it. It took us through some beautiful green fields. I could finally use Google Maps and found that we were just 2 kilometres from our car. Pinku had to go another direction. We said goodbye to him, ordered a pizza to be delivered at the travel office where we parked our car and happily walked the last bit.

A lot more happened, but hopefully, this will be enough to remind me of the adventure we had in the Dhauladar mountains in 2021. Driving back to our home in Mohali, 6 hours away, we tried to push back the realities of Covid (again picking up in India), my overflowing inbox, my son’s new school year, and our house that needs painting to enjoy a few more hours of holiday. We listened to Billy Joel, Casting Crowns, Queen, Jannie du Toit, Abba, Tree 63 while not stopping once.

Walking in the mountains remains the best way to disconnect from work and get away from it all.