It has been one year since I came back home from Dubai. Reflecting on the past year, I can say that it has been the happiest, most fulfilling year of my life. It was this year that my fascination for star gazing and love for trekking came together to create a unique career for me at Indiahikes.
How it all began
It all started back in 2013 when I went on a solo trek to Sandakphu. I was staying at this quaint village called Tumling. I remember the evening being very cold. The owner had set up a small campfire right outside our hut for us.
As soon as I emerged from my hut, I was greeted by this ocean of stars, twinkling above my head like fireflies. I was awestruck. I didn’t know what to make of what I was seeing… I felt like I was looking at heaven!
This trek to Sandakphu was my first high altitude trek. I weighed around 98 kg. I was unfit and overweight. I found it very hard to take a few steps without stopping and taking a break. But there was something magical about where I was.
I huffed and I puffed, crawled and cribbed, and somehow managed to reach Sandakphu. I had never felt such euphoria before, pushing myself to my limit and reaching my destination, watching the sunset over the Kanchenjunga and the first rays of the sun fall on the Everest!
We are the cosmos made conscious, and life is the means by which the universe understands itself. ― Brian Cox
The experience of trekking to Sandakphu stayed with me for a long time after I finished my trek and went back to Dubai. Even though I wanted to do more treks, I never could find the time from my busy schedule to come back to India.
The sight of the night sky, however, got me intrigued about the cosmos. I ended up watching a lot of documentaries on YouTube about space. That just boosted by hunger for more of the night sky.
The trek that changed the direction of my career
In the autumn of 2015, my sister, after completing the Goechala trek with Indiahikes, sent me photos that she had taken of Venus, Mars and one showing an arm of the Milky Way. I was taken aback by the beautiful photos, and promised myself to do the same trek the very next month.
The trek to Goechala ended up being a life changer. It still is and will always be, for me, the best trek a person can do in India. I also loved what Indiahikes was trying to do with the Green Trails program and was really impressed with the overall execution of safety procedures and policies. This was the first time I had a realisation that Trek Leading was something that I would really love to do!
The Goechala trek also turned out to be unforgettable for other reasons – I got hit by Acute Mountain Sickness, my fellow trekkers and sister had to carry my backpack and take care of me. I also ended up flushing my iPhone 6 down the toilet at one of the campsites (by mistake, of course!). We wore gloves, pulled out pipes, sifted through faeces… Unfortunately, the never found it. I came to be known in the Indiahikes office as the “Trekker who flushed his iPhone down the toilet at Tshoka.” That’s not very flattering.
The only downside to my Goechala trek was that the reason I joined the trek — to stargaze — was not fulfilled. We had a full moon. Learning: I needed to check the moon phases before heading out to stargaze! The disappointment of not being able to see clear skies stayed with me. However, the trek itself had become etched in my memory as one of the best experiences I have ever had, and all I could think about was trekking.
It took me six more months to pull up my socks and join Indiahikes. Finishing up things at work and heading back to India took time.
I joined Indiahikes in May 2016 on the Roopkund slope. Learning about trek leading and what it takes to be a trek leader took up most of my time then. I didn’t get much time to research stargazing. Once the monsoon set in at the end of June, the question I kept asking was, “Is it ever going to clear up?”
Jude at Bedni Bugyal on the Roopkund trek
When I experienced the night skies with my trekkers
It wasn’t until a campsite at Tarsar Marsar in Kashmir that I got the next best views of the night sky. I remember one of my trekkers, Shonali, asking me, “Hey Jude, why don’t you learn about the constellations and share the knowledge with trekkers?”
I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of that before! So I ended up learning about the Big Dipper from her as it was the most obvious sight in the sky that night. We stayed up for an hour after bedtime to chat about how beautiful the sky looked that night. We saw a couple of satellites race across the sky, an amazing meteor shower and flashes of light so fast that our eyes could barely follow them! I thanked her for her advice, after which I started putting in more effort to learn about the night sky.
The night sky on the Kashmir Great Lakes trek. Picture by Anirban Banerjee
My efforts first bore fruit at Jiskun on the Rupin Pass Trek, where I was able to find Orion. I had been studying about Orion for quite a while, since it is one of the most conspicuous constellations and the most intriguing. I was surprised at how much I could talk about it to the trekkers that morning! I was happy with where I was headed with my knowledge about the night sky. I realised that learning about a few individual stars and other celestial objects in a constellation is more interesting than trying to figure out what the constellation looks like in the sky.
Using an app to show what the constellation actually looks like, after imparting some mind-boggling information about the stars and other celestial objects, is the best way to stargaze. The look on the faces of some trekkers when given this unbelievable information is priceless!
My favourite piece of information is about a star called Betelgeuse, in the constellation of Orion. This monster is one of the largest stars known, shining 100,000 times brighter than the Sun. It is roughly 1180 times the radius of our Sun too. You could fit everything in the solar system, from the Sun, all the way up to Jupiter, INSIDE the star. In other words, you could fit 2,000,000,000,000,000 (2 quadrillion) Earths inside the star! If facts like these don’t boggle your mind, I don’t know what will!
I am no astronomer; I possess only basic knowledge about the cosmos. However, it was enough to give me perspective in life. I asked myself, “Is it worth it to stick to a job, which I am not passionate about, for the rest of my life?” The answer was a clear.
Today, I’m happily entrenched as a Trek Leader with Indiahikes. I know for sure that this is quite an unconventional career, to be in the outdoors all the time, but you know what… life has never been better.
My goal with this article is not to preach about life, but to hopefully instigate curiosity about the vastness of the universe and our place in it. Being born and brought up in a city, I can tell you that the night sky at higher altitudes is far superior. It must be a primary reason to head to the mountains.
If you enjoyed this article, watch out for a few more articles from me to enhance your knowledge of the night sky. Hopefully it will add to your overall experience of a trek in the Himalayas.