Soon enough, I should be in a position to put together a compilation of “Birthday Trek Chronicles.” The addition of 2018 was opening of the route to Indrahaar Pass. Somewhere lingering was also the thought of summiting Moon Peak. It had been a calling for long, but I was trying not to entertain that thought too much – it was March, no less, when we were attempting this.
I had done about half a dozen treks under Dheeraj’s guidance, so we knew each other fairly well. I called him up, and he was only too happy to partner with me on this one. He got along an apprentice under his training, making us a party of 3.
In the first quarter of the year, Indrahaar is NOT for the fainthearted, especially when you have to get back down into the Kangra valley. You may opt to not look back down on the way up (looking back down is a bad, bad idea), but that’s not an option when you are returning head first into the valley!
The first major set-back came in Delhi itself – the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) in Delhi was closed for the two days prior to my trek dates. I was counting on them to rent micro spikes and ice axe. A lot of back and forth, but I realized I won’t find this equipment in Delhi at such short notice. I thought of going ahead anyway. I have done the trail a few times before, so while it would be tough, but I thought maybe I could manage. And boy, was that a miscalculation.
We reached Galu Devi temple at about 10.30AM, split our load, and geared up. My bag was heavy, with a couple of sleeping bags, part of rations and the standard load. Our aim was to camp at Lahesh cave. We swiftly cleared the clutter till Triund, made our way to snow line, down and over to Laka. From there on, the climb till Lahesh was arduous. We had loaded up on dead wood, and that had significantly slowed progress. We knew, though that it was critical to land up at the cave as base camp, since the trek up Indrahaar the next day would demand time and effort.
It was 7 PM by the time we reached Lahesh, our shelter for the night. The cave itself is nothing more than a massive boulder resting steadfastly at an acute angle, leaving just enough space for a bunch of people to sneak in. The evening was gorgeous – bold strokes of yellow and orange, with shots of blue and purple. A Monal somewhere in the distance called out yearningly, adding to the drama. The investment to carry firewood paid off – we were comfortably nestled in the cave on an otherwise cold night.
We started at about 6 AM for Indrahaar. Anyone who has climbed this trail would know how it continuously outdoes its views every few meters. Soon enough, we were climbing up steep, rock-hard ice. Without ice axe, we were cutting steps using some sharp stones and our trekking poles. It was effort and time consuming, but we trudged along.
Indrahaar at last.
Must admit, for all my climbs up this range, this was the toughest by some distance! Climbing up steep ice to open the route with no specialized equipment was tremendously demanding. This story, though, is not made by the climb – it is made by what followed. We summited at around 3 PM. Very late, but the reassurance was that we needed to head down only till Lahesh. I bowed at the small temple at the top, stole a moment to clang the bell kept at the kerb, and quietly admired the vastness.
As is typical with this range, afternoons imply a whiteout. I reminisced my geography text books from school – the rain side of the mountain – where heavy, moisture-laden clouds gather near the peak, but cannot cross over due to the weight, and the leeside stays in the rain shadow. The science made sense. Yet, to see those clouds spinning in the wind below, unable to climb any further; and on the other side, the wide open Chamba valley, crystal clear all the way to Pir Panjal… These can’t be just geographic features. This appeals to something baser. It doesn’t just clarify the science, it clarifies so much more!
3.30 PM – Descend time.
The trail sharply dips and rises one last time as one reaches the temple on Indrahaar. Coming back, this was tricky, because to the left is an exposed steep slide right up to Laka – and on hard ice, finding any traction was difficult.
This is where the slip occurred. I lost my footing, landed on my right hip, and began sliding onwards to Laka a few thousand feet down! This was it, I should have thought. There was no escaping this one without some serious injury. Curiously though, nothing of that sort crossed my mind. Without an ice axe to attempt self-arrest, I was gaining speed with each passing inch, and it was only a matter of seconds before the slide would become an out of control tumble.
Yet, in an act of composure that even surprised me, I looked over my shoulder for some way to arrest my fall. 20 meters in and about another 15 meters away, I spotted a small triangular rock protruding from the otherwise entirely white surface. It was a tad to the right of my sliding path. Not sure how, but I managed to glide to the right and came in direct path of that rock.
Another problem by now was the sheer speed I had gained into the slide, implying that I better hit the rock flush center, lest I would break the ankle that would bear my entire body weight travelling at serious speed.
BAM! I hit the rock with my right foot and my body, out of sheer dumb luck, perfectly aligned, came to a complete halt! I looked up – Dheeraj had dived right after me, alarm writ all over his face. He arrested his slide with a rock he was holding to cut the path. That’s when the severity of the situation hit me. Permutations ran through my mind – the rock could have got dislodged; I could have hit the rock and bounced right over it to continue somersaulting to Laka; I could have simply missed the rock and there was nothing in sight for hundreds of meters beyond this tiny triangle.
I got up, I think I was shaking. Dheeraj helped me back on to the trail, from which I had digressed a good 50 meters. From there on, I just could not find the confidence. Every step felt like another slide. An hour later, Dheeraj suggested we do a controlled slide to gain time. While I thought it was not the greatest idea, I realized I needed to get my confidence back, and this was one way to do it. We agreed. Dheeraj slid first and I followed. The consistent hardness of the ice was more than our anticipation – we lost control. Fortunately, rock formations were denser on the lower part of the trail. I found one, plonked my foot in it, and grabbed Dheeraj to arrest his slide. Sliding was clearly not an option. We had to do this the hard way. With shaky footing, and multiple falls, we snailed our way back to the cave.
It was over 8PM by the time we reached. We came into the cave, lit the deadwood on fire and I took off my boots. My feet were billowing smoke! Maybe it was the warm feet soaked in molten snow meeting the cold ambient temperature. Possibly the first amusing thing I had come across the entire day. We cooked up some Maggi, which I immediately gobbled up, and that’s all I remember of that night. I was too jaded to react to anything.
Moon peak was not even on the margins of the agenda as we headed down the next day. We were brimming with stories, but there was a silent recognition of the catastrophe that had been averted. It took some convincing to make the Magic View Café operator believe that we had actually opened the route to Indrahaar, ahead of the Gaddis! His disbelief was fun to dispel.
Given all of this transpired on my birthday, a friend later joked that had the ultimate tragedy struck, I would have left the world at an age of a nice round number. Terrifyingly apt!
Looking back, this was dumb, honestly. Without equipment, to attempt this in March-April was a death wish. I can only thank the mountain to have just nudged me into this realization, rather than smack me hard on the back of my head.
Lesson duly learnt: Climb hard – Prepare harder.