Great Lakes – The first trek of my life

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Dhanashree from July 2013 trek group writes ” Hi All! I am a first time blogger. I am not much of a writer but I have had one of the best experiences of my life which I want to share with you all. I have detailed it a bit, only because my aim is to take the reader through my journey and experience my experience of the 8 most awesome days of my life.”

Day 1- Srinagar to Shekdur

The first sight as my plane descended was the expanse of green, with a few pine trees and Kashmiri houses popping up here and there. Then came the peaks -clad in snow, partially blocked by clouds, towering above the Kashmir Valley.

My first thought was, “Wow, I have to trek in these mountains!!” I felt excitement, dread, hope, and most of all a strong will to do it, no matter what.

We started off from Srinagar to reach our base camp at Shekdur, a campsite 2000 ft. above Sonmarg, a quaint little beautiful town in a valley surrounded by mountains. The drive itself was mesmerizing and I understood why people call Kashmir, “Heaven on Earth.”

The car dropped us a few meters away from the campsite. That was the first incline I walked and it took the breath out of me! I was adamant to carry my own backpack and determined to make use of my training. For 25 days I practiced carrying a 10kg backpack, walking for 5 kms and climbing 7 flights of stairs twice, everyday. But those few meters showed me that it would be tough. I decided to offload my backpack.

My first lesson was realizing that I need to carry a daypack to carry the minimum necessities like, water bottles, a raincoat and a few other things. Fortunately a fellow trekker was kind enough to lend me an extra one. That made the rest of the trek so much easier for me.

The first day passed by getting used to the height, the beauty of nature, meeting new people, and recovering from severe stomach infection and sickness.

Day 2- Shekdur to Nichnai. A gain of approx. 3000 ft.

We were up by 5am and watched the sunrise. It was a sunrise unlike any other. It was a sunrise amongst the mountains, with the sun rays gradually hitting each slope of the peaks creating some interesting shadows and ultimately illuminating the valley. Our trek leader blew the breakfast whistle at 7. After a hurried breakfast, we finally started off.

I underestimated the trek and half an hour into the trek fell behind, walking slowly up the inclines, breathless. I remember the first day of the trek was extremely tough, mentally and physically. I stopped after every 15 steps to catch my breath. A part of me was pushing me to do it and another part of me was having thoughts of quitting. I thought of giving up and going back at least 7-8 times. My mind was in a state of complete confusion. This is where my new friends stepped in. They supported me and helped me calm down. I met a few foreigners coming down from Vishansar, and they gave me a few words of advice too.

I learnt the tact of breathing while climbing and learnt that it’s okay to be last. Trekking is not a race; it’s all about the journey. I learned to be patient with myself, to give my mind and body time to adjust. I learnt that there is no point in pushing myself too hard.

With new-found confidence, I walked on, and started to enjoy the walk in the Silver Birch forest, with rays of sunlight finding their way through the leaves and the shadows of the Birch trees, creating beautiful imagery and patterns of light on the trail. It was poetic. I encountered my first moraine area, an area full of rocks and boulders, as we reached our lunch point. It was beside a stream which later joint the Sindh River. The cold water felt so good on my face and feet. We filled our bottles and started off again in the midday sun. The rest of the walk was beautiful, with mountains on both sides, lush green valleys and amazing views. We reached our next campsite, around 1500 ft below Nichnai Pass.

After walking for 6 hours, reaching around 12000ft, finishing the day’s walk despite my struggle; I felt a lingering sense of accomplishment. Part of me was looking forward to the next day, and the struggle it would bring. The sense of achievement after the struggle, the pain experienced to reach the destination felt so good. My legs were aching but the beauty around made me forget all my pain. I started absorbing the peace, the magnificence, and started feeling like a different person.

After a game of Uno with friends and a briefing by our leader for the next day, we retired to our tents for the night, under star-washed skies.

Day 3- Climb to Nichnai Pass at 13500 ft and Descent to Vishansar at 12000 ft.

We were up and ready to go by 7 am. We had our first climb ahead to Nichnai Pass. I was a bit more confident than the day before and was at peace with myself about being slower than others. That mental preparation was very important for me to climb slowly and steadily.

We walked beside a half-melted stream. A friend and I found extra energy to run across the stream and play in the snow as we headed for the final patch of ascent to Nichnai Pass. The 13500 ft point gave me a headache. It was my first experience being at a Pass and at such a height. I felt a sense of achievement and luck, to be able to see such wonders of nature around me.

After making a last phone call, we started with our first descent; it was tough on the knees and lower back. We all felt the strain. The walk down was full of beautiful coloured flowers in grass.

After having lunch at a glacial stream, we made it to our next campsite at Vishansar Lake. It was a two hour walk across plain meadows in the valley. It was not easy and I struggled again, with my feet aching. A fellow trekker kept my mind diverted, and we talked about various things until we reached Vishansar.

We put up our tents, took some rest. A friend suggested we walk up to the lake, since the waters of the lake reflect the sunlight with best colors in the afternoon. After convincing myself to climb another small hill to reach the lake, we made it to the shores of a huge expanse of bright turquoise with a backdrop of glaciers and snow covered peaks. This was by far the most beautiful sight I had ever seen anywhere. The wind was cold and blowing quite hard. Putting my feet into the freezing waters of the lake was scary, but there was no relief like the one I felt after feeling the cold waters. I sat at the lake, just enjoying the silence around.

By evening we were at the campsite. We played cricket, chatted and a friend helped the cook with rotis in the kitchen tent! The warmth of the stove felt lovely. I wandered around and we ended our day with a scrumptious dinner of roti, sabzi, dhal, rice, and kheer for dessert!

Day 4- The D-Day. Climb to Gadsar Pass at 13750 ft.

The climb that day was toughest, with an incline of around 70-75 degrees. We were given an estimated time of 4 hours to climb. So I started off early with a gradual ascent first to the base of Gadsar Pass, crossing the twin Kishansar Lake on the way. Then the climb started. As usual, I did not hurry myself, I went at the maximum pace I could without compromising on my energy (going fast initially can make you tired later).

The trail was thrilling, sometimes so narrow I barely fit in one foot at a time. I was doing fine till I reached 3/4th of the climb, where I started to feel the effects of the altitude. I got a headache again, this time accompanied by dizziness and feeling nauseated. It so happened that at that moment I was alone. My friends were at the next turn ahead and a few were a few turns behind me. The first thing I did was not panic. I signaled our leader who was a couple of turns ahead of me about my situation. He asked me to wait for one of the guides to come up. The trail was narrow; I managed to find a small rock to sit on. I felt sick, but afterwards I felt better. One of the staff came, took my backpack and asked me to carry on. I knew there was no point in trying to rest; it would make my muscles ache and worsen my headache. I got up and started climbing. The horses with our group overtook me, as did most of my fellow trekkers. I reached Gadsar Pass with an extremely painful headache.

Sadly, I couldn’t enjoy the surroundings much and I decided to start descending as soon as I can if I have to stop my headache. I was not dehydrated and so, descending would solve my problem. The descent was again the toughest with the same 70 degree incline. The initial patch was gravel, which was very slippery. I was taking small steps to maintain balance. One of the horsemen came and took my hand and said “Daro mat! Daro mat! Paer khulla karke chalo” (Trans.-Dont be afraid! Take wider steps.”) Normally one hesitates to take wide steps on a steep slope out of fear of losing balance or control and also because it can increase one’s speed, making one practically run down the slope. With such a narrow trail, I had the same thoughts, but the horseman taught me the technique to descend, which helped me in all my other descends, taking the pressure off my knees.

I learnt it fast and I was on my own quite soon. 10 minutes into the descent, after my headache subsided, I stopped and looked behind. I had climbed a mountain!!! The Gadsar Pass, even though being a Pass it is a local maxima point, meaning it is actually a mountain top. Being a first time trekker, and after having a tough time, this realization made me so happy that it brought tears to my eyes. I cried out of happiness.

I saw the Pass behind me. On my left I saw the adjacent snow clad peaks with glaciers at my eye level, a small frozen lake, a stream running down from the glacier and to my right, beautiful green rolling hills. Ahead I saw rain clouds coming in, slowly covering the peaks to my left. I looked at the slope below, with several small glacial lakes. The reason for the tears was inexpressible. I sort of connected with Nature and myself.

After this beautiful moment, I continued, walking faster than others, having a renewed sense of energy, not feeling the freezing cold wind blowing. We had lunch at Gadsar Lake, which was exceedingly beautiful. The rest of the walk was down the valley till we reached a meadow, just before the Gadsar Army Camp. We had descended to almost 10500 ft. The meadow was beautiful, and the sight of horses grazing made it  picture-perfect. One of the trekkers said, “Its like Microsoft Windows Desktop picture!”

A few of us reached the camp crossing two streams in the valley, while some continued on the trail above. I chose the initial one and oh my! I regretted it. The water was freezing cold! We had to remove our shoes and walk, my feet were completely numb and red by the time I got out. I had no idea there was a second one too and I was regretting taking this route. But it was an experience in itself. It was fun.

After having a nice nap in the sun covering my head and eyes with a hat, I was refreshed and felt awesome, especially after the achievement earlier that day. I took some photos and chatted with a friend. The dinner was great and we enjoyed the star-lit skies and then it was time to sleep.

Day 5- “The worst is over.” Or so we thought. Climb to Satsar at 12500 ft.

Our leader told us that today’s ascent is easy. The initial ascent was quite steep, but I felt like a pro after climbing Gadsar! I managed it well in the same slow and steady style, and soon it was a level walk with small patches of steep ascents and descents.

But we had no water source. Usually the trails are full of streams, where we can fill up our bottles. But this was a walk across the mountains on their slope. The valley was way down below and all of us were carrying only 1 ltr of water. Our water was soon reduced to only a few ml and we still had a long way to go. We were dehydrated, desperate for water, sharing our water with each other. I walked non-stop that day, to divert my mind from the thirst and the resulting headache, and also to reach the campsite which was near a stream. We had lunch just a few metres from the campsite that day. All 7 hours we walked with just 1 litre of water. That was a new challenge, a new experience.

But every trail in this trek is full of surprises. There were tiny strawberries the size of my fingertips in the bushes on the trail. We plucked and ate some of the juiciest strawberries. The view was again very different, and extremely beautiful, and a friend and I jumped with joy. I also spotted a Bald Eagle which disappeared as fast as it had appeared. The campsite was in a huge meadow which looked like it had no boundaries. The wind was blowing very hard and putting up tents became a tough task.

I sat outside in the meadow the rest of the afternoon just enjoying the mountains around. In the evening a few friends and I played cricket. The day ended the same way with a briefing for the next day and a nice dinner.

Day 6- A long climb to Zach Pass at 13500 ft and a longer descent to Gangbal and Nandkol Lakes

The day started well as usual and we crossed the seven lakes called Satsar Lakes after registering at the Army Camp. Then we came across the moraine area. It was a long and tough climb on the boulders with steep valley on one side. I gave my trekking pole to the guide and used both hands to climb the huge boulders. Sometimes the rocks were too high and our guide helped us climb. The moraine area itself was a long ascent and I thought the Pass must be near. There was again a steep ascent and a trail had appeared. Our guide informed us that the Pass was still far ahead. It was best not to think of how far we had to go, but to just keep walking, keep going, taking each step carefully along the road, and believing that eventually we would reach our destination.

We had made our way in thick fog and the situation was not any better ahead. It was extremely important to stick together with the visibility being hardly a few meters due to the fog, so I avoided walking ahead alone, and waited for another fellow trekker and the sweeper guide to catch up. We still had a long way ahead, the Pass was nowhere in sight and we had to carry on. The moraine area had consumed a lot of energy and I was extremely hungry even before we reached the base of the Pass. It was really nice of Indiahikes to provide us with biscuits and chocolates on the trek as energy boosters.

Finally Zach Pass was in sight and we started the final leg of the ascent. My stomach was gurgling with hunger, and the lunch was at the Pass. That became my motivation to climb the last patch. To make matters worse, it began raining. I was sweating inside with two layers of warm clothes and one raincoat and it was freezing cold outside. We had lunch at the Pass in rain, in biting cold wind, and quickly started the descent before it rained harder. The descent was very long; I think we must have crossed three mountains to reach the valley. The decent trail was thrilling, sometimes narrow and sometimes wide. We descended again in fog, which reduced only when we were near the valley. After filling up my water bottles at a stream I continued, only to see that I’ll have to climb another considerably big hill to get to the campsite.

There was no option but to keep walking, and I sung to myself to forget the pain in my feet. We reached Nandkol campsite, which was the only campsite that was closest to the Lake, on the shores of the Lake. The backdrop of the lake was the majestic, imposing Harmukh Peak.

It was extremely beautiful! It was foggy and cold. But there was something different about this place. You could feel it deep inside. It is said that the local Kashmiri Pandits believe that there is presence of Lord Shiva at Harmukh Peak. The twin lake Gangbal is very holy for them, and the remains of their dead are put into the waters of the Gangbal lake.

There was fog the day we reached Nandkol Lake so we could not see much of the mountains around. I sat outside again and it felt wonderful. The place was almost poetic, romantic. I felt like I have fallen in love with myself and with nature. There was a sound of silence; it was so quiet and peaceful. The night was very cold. It was the coldest campsite of all.

Day 7- The Holiday!!

Everyone of us decided that we would wake up late, not before 10 am, today was the day of rest. Even our leader said he would not wake up before 12 pm!  But to our surprise, most of us were up by 5 am as usual. The mountains make you sleep early and get up early, with the first ray of sunlight hitting the peak. I was awake and had the whole day in front of me.

We got done with our breakfast and took a lot of photos. It was fun! A friend and I went for a walk on the shores of the Nandkol Lake. We were joined by two more and sat for a long time on a boulder in the middle of a wide stream that was flowing down from Gangbal. The sound of water flowing fast was wonderful. It was music in itself. Later we made a trip to Gangbal which is located on a higher elevation than Nandkol. It started raining heavily and we couldn’t enjoy much as we had to head back.

Post lunch we had a group discussion. Each one of us shared our experience till now, our motivation to come on the trek, the lessons we learnt. That was a very interesting hour, hearing everyone’s story. Each one of us had different stories to share about the last 5-6 days.

We also did our little bit for the environment. We already used waste-management techniques to manage the biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste generated by such a huge group throughout the trek. Also, quite a few of us went around to clean the shores of the Nandkol Lake. It was saddening to see the 4-5 sacks full of litter that we gathered around the lake. It is extremely irresponsible of us Humans to spoil and litter such a beautiful environment. It felt horrible to imagine such quantity of non-biodegradable waste being strewn around the slopes, staying there frozen during winter. There were so many broken glass fragments, cans, plastic waste, old batteries, cigarette stumps and so on. It felt embarrassing to know that people who came here to enjoy and appreciate Nature could act so irresponsibly instead of respecting it. Is this the environment we want lo leave behind?

In the evening the fog finally lifted up and the rain stopped and we could see the Harmukh Peak. We had a campfire at night after dinner, played music, sang and danced. We were sad that the next day would be our last day of the trek. No more climbs, no more thrills, no more sleeping under star-lit skies, no more waking up to sound of glacial streams.I closed my eyes and made a silent resolution that I would be back. I would come back to the mountains again.

Day 8- Last day. A very long and steep descent from 12000 ft to 7500ft.

We had our last breakfast in the mountains. We thanked all the staff members, the horsemen, the local guides, the cook and the helpers. After a group photo session and distribution of certificates, we started off on our last walk.

The trail was beautiful, surrounded with rolling slopes. We soon approached a tree line and a few shepherd huts. We were now walking through a pine forest and the scenery was nothing like what we had seen during the last 6 days. After having packed lunch at a small tea stall, our real ordeal began.

It was a torture to the knees. An extremely steep and never ending descent through the thick pine forested slopes. Thanks to the technique taught by the horseman, I could reduce the pressure on my knees by taking bigger steps, sometimes running down the slope.

Finally after a long time we reached the end of the trek at Narnag, which had the remains of temples, some of them dating back to the 8th and 9th century.

It was a moment of sadness and happiness. Sad that we would be leaving the mountains and happy that we didn’t have more grueling, tiring walks!

The Beginning:

The mountains are a different world altogether. You see nature at its best, and at its worst. The mountains do not tolerate foolishness. Or overconfidence. No matter how good you think you are, the mountains have a way of showing you where you stand. They humble you. The slopes teach you that there are certain rules which you have to follow, no matter how excited and confident you feel.

I came to know things about myself which I didn’t know before. I realized I had a fear of crossing rivers. We crossed quite a few. They were shallow, but the sheer speed of the flow and crossing it on a small wooden plank; I froze every time.

We met a lot of local people. A few friends visited their houses, and we all felt the warmth, friendliness, helpfulness, and kindness of the beautiful mountain people.

This trek taught me many things. To quote a fellow trekker, Time Management, Resource Management, Team Management, People Management, and above all, Self Management. I made a lot of new friends, met different kinds of people, from different places, background, and age groups. It was wonderful to see a group of 25 people and 13 staff working together as a team, helping each other out.

The mountains gave me back my own self. The real self which we sometimes lose through the struggles we face in life, the self which we fail to connect with. I have understood that struggles don’t mean that you have to push yourself into being someone else. Struggles are meant to make you stronger, better. And no matter what you reach your goal. Endurance is the most important lesson I learnt.

The slopes taught me to maintain focus, to keep going, to keep walking, even if slowly, but not to quit. The only option is the way ahead. There is no turning back. I learnt to enjoy the journey and not worry about the outcome. Life is also a journey with ascents and descents. And sometimes plain meadow walks. The only way is the way ahead. So why not enjoy it and keep going?

This trek was my first one. But not last. I will trek more. See more of the mountains. I will do higher treks each time, because I dream of reaching peaks like Stok Kangri, valleys like Markha Valley, and to dream a little bigger, Everest or Nanda Devi Base Camp. My whole life lies ahead, and I cannot see the whole world in one life, but I can at least try to reach the “Top of the World”, isn’t it?

Vaibhav Chauhan

Vaibhav Chauhan

Vaibhav was associated with Indiahikes as a Writer & Chief Explorer. He is an avid traveler with a passion for trekking in Indian Himalayas. With his roots in Shimla district of Himachal Pradesh, the love for the mountains is in his blood. When not travelling he likes to spend time interacting with like-minded trek enthusiasts and read books on travel and mountaineering.

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