“Ravi you will have to leave for another exploration.” This is how my slope manager Rajkumar welcomed me to Jagatsukh, the Indiahikes Manali Base camp.
I had just returned from an exploration with my colleague Mihir, where we had a close shave with the Himalayan bear. Frankly, I was looking forward to some downtime.
But then I found myself asking, “Where this time?”
“I don’t know much, but it is in The Great Himalayan National Park,” Rajkumar told me.
The Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) is in the Kullu region of Himachal Pradesh. It is listed under the UNESCO World Heritage National Parks and Sanctuaries in India. It is home to several great treks.
“Is anyone coming along?” I asked, excited at the prospect of exploring this extremely bio-diverse region.
Cahl Wilson, a 6’5” fellow from the United Kingdom, joined Indiahikes as a part of an exchange programme. I was happy to have him as my partner because we both share the same love for adventure.
The two of us quickly packed our backpacks. All we knew that we were going to do these explorations alpine-style — carrying all the camping stuff and equipment in our backpacks.
We reached the base village, Barshangarh, the very next day. We had two treks to explore – Shumga Top which lay at the border of the park and Dhel, which was well within GHNP.
Many trekkers have asked me how we explore treks. How do we find new trails?
Let me tell you a secret. We don’t. Most of these trails are shepherd trails. They are the ones who let us know about these hidden wonders. These two treks were no different.
Getting To Shumga
With a local guide from Sainj in tow, we started our trek. We were surrounded by dense vegetation, with Urtica Diocia, commonly known as the stinging nettle, making up most of it. We found ourselves itching all through the way.
The trail was not difficult to find amid this vegetation. This was because we found human footprints in the form of plastic wrappers.
“Are we really exploring? I can see plastic all around our trail!” Cahl said sarcastically.
I sighed. “Unfortunately people take their habits everywhere.”
As we climbed, we reached a lake that reminded us of the settings of a Hollywood horror movie — Sarah lake. We thanked our stars that we didn’t have to rest here. We carried on and walked two hours further. Only then did we realize that we were on the wrong path. Since we had lost time, we had no choice but to camp at a place without water. It was a small setback; we still had our water bottles.
But the next day, we had to rush all the way to the Shumga summit, with limited water supply.
An Unfortunate Detour
While descending from Shumga summit, our guide gave us some good news. He said he knew an alternate route that was a shorter distance to our next exploration – Dhel. It was a bright and sunny day and the Dhel trail was visible on the other side of the ridge.
“That’s fantastic!” I exclaimed. I knew that the weather was going to get worse in the next couple of days. We needed to be as quick as possible.
“It will take 2-3 hours to reach the village, we will stay overnight and start early in the morning,” our guide said enthusiastically.
“Let’s move with goli ki raftaar (like a bullet)” I declared.
We descended till we reached a point where the trail forked. One path would lead us back to where we started, and the other was for the alternate route.
By then, it was 3 in the afternoon. Looking at our current plan, we were to reach the village by 6 in the evening. However, within the first 20 minutes of us walking on this mud track, the trail was gone!
We were in the middle of a dense forest with rotting wood and a thick layer of leaves on the ground. I got a little worried and asked our guide whether we were on the right path. “Don’t worry bhai, I know the route,” he replied confidently. Cahl was smiling all through the way, oblivious to our conversation.
The trail was constantly descending. About two-and-a-half-hours later, at around 5:30 pm, we were nowhere near a trail or any sign of human inhabitation. Soon, the vegetation also changed — from giant pine trees to a dense tropical forest.
The sun too, was gone.
We followed our guide. By now, he too was struggling through the forest in the darkness.
Suddenly, I heard a loud scream from Cahl.
My heart sank.
“What happened?” I rushed to him.
“Something bit me near my ankle” Cahl said, in pain.
When I looked at his ankle, I noticed that his ankles were completely exposed throughout the trek. His skin was swollen and red. Something had bitten him.
However, he was still smiling (strong man!) but I could sense some uneasiness in his body language. Cahl took an antihistamine for the bite.
The Unending Night
I knew we had to make some decisions. It was getting late.
At last, our guide confessed that he didn’t know the way. He did the trek 4 years ago and now he didn’t remember anything!
A confession after three hours of struggle in the jungle?
I nearly lost my cool — but it was a moment to make quick decisions. And as I have often learned from the outdoors, we have to be prepared physically and mentally to face the unimaginable.
We took stock of the situation and ran through our possibilities. Should we go back to the starting point? Or descend further down into oblivion? Or do we stay here and camp?
Going back to the starting point was out of question. The ascent was steep – It would drain all our energy. Descending could have been a possibility but it was already 6 in the evening. Walking on an unknown trail was an unnecessary risk.
By the process of elimination (and by exhaustion), we were down to the final option.
We were still in the middle of the forest, in animal territory. But we didn’t have a choice.
We started looking for a flat surface, which was almost impossible to locate. And as darkness set in, our hearts started beating faster.
Finally, we found a flat piece of land. We cleared the area and pitched our tent.
We had to get the camp setup quickly.
Next, we had to collect wood to light a fire. With the help of our headlamps, we collected all the dry wood we could find. We had to make sure that the fire we lit would be a controlled one so that we do not start a forest fire. It was tiring.
Finally, after two hours, we settled down in our camp for the night.
It is a funny thing — we never think about fire in our daily lives. In this campsite, in the middle of a forest, for the first time, I realised its importance.
We abandoned cooking altogether as the smell could attract wild animals. We ended up heating raw potatoes on a flame to eat.
Finally, it was time to retire – but I couldn’t sleep. Nights in an unknown jungle make you understand how fragile you are, how generations of our ancestors must have spent their lives. You remember your loved ones, you think of happy times, you make so many promises to yourself for when you are out of this sticky situation.
Every distant noise you hear, even the sound of a falling leaf can make you jump. I was praying for the night to pass quickly.
At 02:30 am, I heard the pitter-patter of raindrops on our tent. Soon, it started to pour, with flashes of lightning.
After what felt like a very long night, dawn arrived. But that didn’t stop the rain.
We decided to wind up the camp and move. We knew we had to leave. But we didn’t know which way to go. It was pouring heavily and the mist didn’t allow us to see more than a few meters ahead. And we were in the middle of a dense forest.
The Offline Map That Saved Us
Our guide started descending.
“Stop! You will end up in a steep gorge! It’s a dead end ahead. We have to take a right turn towards the west. There, we will have a gradual gradient. We still have to descend another 1100 meters to get to the riverbed. We need to stick together!”
The guide who was blindly descending heard me. He stopped, and looked at me with complete astonishment.
I had my phone in my hand. I just remembered that I had downloaded an offline terrain map of that area. Yes! A terrain map! This was by far the best thing that happened to us on this trek.
This is one thing I always do whenever I go into an unknown territory — download a terrain map of that area. That day, it saved our lives.
Slowly and steadily, falling and rolling, we began descending. My eyes were constantly on the contours.
Suddenly, our guide started singing loudly!
“What the hell?” I called out.
“Sir aap bhi gaana gaao, bhaalu ke nishan hain yahan (You sing too, Sir. There are bear footprints here). If you want to survive then sing,” he shouted back.
I was scared and amused at the same time. So Cahl chose an English song, the guide chose a Honey Singh number and I chose a Kishore Kumar song. We sung at the top of our voices.
Every dark thing around the corner started looking like bears to us.
“Why aren’t there plastic wrappers on the trail, I want to see one of them!” said Cahl. He clearly wanted to find a little hint of civilization around the trail to know that we are out of bear country. We both laughed.
The contours guided us for almost 5 hours and we still saw no sign of human presence. And then, finally, we heard an animal move.
“No, it’s not a bear, it’s a horse – we found the trail!”
We started jumping in celebration. Finally, the trail!
Lessons From Our Experience
We found out later that we had deviated almost 4 kilometers away from the village! The weather had gotten worse afterwards and I thanked our lucky stars that we left the forest just in time.Though it was a small event of two days, we got lessons for life. I’d like to share them:
Always download an offline map of the area you plan to explore. The GPS device can also come handy. Many apps such as Alltrails, GAIA, Geaotracker can come to your rescue only if you have downloaded the offline map on your phone
Always track your movement. It will help you go back to where you started.
Learn how to use a compass and read a topographic map. It is one of the most essential skills you require to be in the outdoors.
While mental toughness is an inbuilt quality, physical preparation is something you should always take seriously. The outdoors take you out of comfort zone and are full of uncertainties. You’ll never know what situation you may fall into.
Observe your surroundings. There are always small hints for your survival in the outdoors if you are a keen observer and have a cool head.
And last but not the least, being positive is the key to your survival. Never lose hope and have faith in your abilities. Trust your team and let them know why have you taken a decision. Panic can kill even before the actual hazard occurs.