Kashmir Great Lakes – Nature at its unpredictable best

The Kashmir Great Lakes Trek is one of the most beautiful treks that Indiahikes organises. It goes through vivid green valleys and hills, with inexplicably beautiful lakes. But nature can be as menacing as she is beautiful. Raghunandan Hegde recollects his experience on the KGL trek in August 2014, just days before the valleys were flooded.

Day 5
Vishansar Lake

An unforeseen adventure

It’s a usual weekday. I get an invite from a bunch of friends, who are experienced trekkers, to go on the Kashmir Great Lakes trek. A quick look at the website and it takes me no more than a couple of minutes to agree. Some months of excited waiting, buying gear and not-so-intense preparation follow, and the day of departure finally arrives.

Day 1: Aug 29

We meet at Srinagar airport. We are scheduled to start our road journey to Sonamarg, our first camp site, at 2 pm. It is almost 4 om by the time we leave, in groups of 5-6 people. We get a glimpse of the beautiful landscape. The mood is light and new friendships are made, even as our driver shares nuggets of Kashmiri life. En route, we stop for our first cup of kahwa, the sweetened and flavoured green tea that is traditional to the region. We reach the campsite just after sunset. The camp is at an altitude of 7,800 ft. Our trek leader, Vivian Sebastian, takes our oximeter readings, and explains to us about its importance and why our readings would be taken every day of the trek, as we gain altitude. We gorge on a delicious meal of roti, dal, matar paneer and semiya and retire for the day.

Day 2: Aug 30

Day 2
En route to Nichnai

The day starts early, and the weather is perfect – sunny with a hint of chill in the air. We have a formal round of introductions, and uncover information about the participants. The group is suitably eclectic, with people coming from Bharuch, Bhubaneshwar, Chennai, Delhi and several other places in between. Amongst us are  software engineers, government employees, management students, a Spanish teacher, researchers and those managing businesses.

We start with Vivian in the lead. The trail is a steep uphill. We take a break at Table Top, which has a shop selling chai, omlette, noodles and of course, kahwa. We are refreshed and ready to start again, but, by then, the weather has changed. A light drizzle that had been following us is now a steady downpour. Vivian is anxious, and tells us that the rain has to stop for us to continue ahead; he is worried that the rain might make the trail harder. We even contemplate camping at Table Top for the night. Thankfully, the rain abates and we complete our scheduled trail for the day, but not before we brave more tough weather. It is a day on which we’ve seen the sun, rain, strong winds, chilling cold and even a land slide, which thankfully ends abruptly and quickly. We reach and camp at Nichnai, at an altitude of almost 11,000 feet.

Day 3: Aug 31

It’s another day with excellent weather. We make steady progress, and reach the highest point of the day, Nichnai pass. Lunch is eaten next to a river, and we drink icy cool water from the river. This will be a constant experience throughout the trek – our water source are rivers and streams, which are mostly fed from glaciers on the Himalayas.

After lunch is a descent, which takes us a couple of hours to finish. We reach the campsite at Vishansar, after getting a glimpse of the exquisitely beautiful Vishansar lake, filled with fresh water from the glaciers. Clichéd though it may sound, words (and pictures) don’t do justice to the beauty of the lake – it has to be seen and experienced.

The first batch reaches the campsite in the early afternoon. A group of ten trekkers with an assistant trek leader and a member of the support staff, who were trailing behind us have not arrived still. We wait for them for an hour after we reach the camp; yet there is no word from them. Our trek leader considers sending a search party. Finally, they arrive. We discover that one of the trekkers had a couple of falls, and that has slowed them down. By evening, the whole group is together. At dinner, Vivian announces that the next day’s trek is going to be a hard climb to 13,500 feet, and recommends that we start early. He suggests that we pack our rucksacks in the night itself. Little do we know what lies ahead.

Day 4: Sep 1

We wake up to rain. The rain continues without a break, as we finish our breakfast. Given the difficulty of the terrain ahead, the trek leaders are sure that we cannot leave until it stops raining and the sun comes out for some time. Meanwhile, we also learn that a few horses that were part of our group have escaped in the night. The horses are crucial to the team – they carry the heavy tents, sleeping bags, kitchen utensils and gas cylinders on their backs. It is simple. Without the horses, we cannot proceed.

By 10 am, it is clear that we have to call the day off. The weather has not sufficiently improved, and the terrain and the altitude make it dangerous to attempt to trek. The horses would find it trickier. Vivian lists several conditions for us to trek the next day – the rain needs to stop latest by mid-afternoon and not return throughout the next day, and the trial needs to dry up. It is not very hopeful. We potter around the camp site, eat the marvelous food, drink several cups of sweetened chai and spend time in the tents – playing games, strengthening friendships and resting.

In the evening, we have visitors – the Indian Army. After the introductions and the photo ops, we are advised not to stray too far away from the camp site, particularly after it becomes dark. Intelligence reports have indicated that some people have crossed over from the border, and the Army has sent troops looking out for them. The message – stay indoors.

Day 5: Sep 2

It rains intermittently from 4 in the morning. We wake up to the news that all the horses – there are 16 of them as part of our group – have bolted. The horsemen and the support staff are dismayed. They have been searching for the horses since 5:30 am, and by 9 am, only nine of them have been found. Our trek leader sends a team to do a recce of the trail ahead, to see if there is any way at all that we can go ahead. They come back with depressing news – the trail is far too tricky and slushy for us to attempt. They bring back photos – among them is one of a dead horse from a few days ago that must have belonged to the Army or one of the other trekking groups.

Vivian is crestfallen, but breaks the news as is to all of us. As a group, we decide it is probably best to head back. There is disappointment all around, but an acceptance of the situation. We agree that as soon as the rest of the horses are found, we will turn back. But soon after, the trek leader suggests an alternative: if we wait out today, and if the weather doesn’t become too bad, we could go ahead to Gadsar (our scheduled next camp) tomorrow. There are two riders though: we would have to skip the final camp in Gangbal, and on the last day, be prepared for a treacherous downhill trek of 18 km, with a steep 4,000 ft drop. All this of course, assuming the weather cleared up to a reasonable extent. There are a few in the group, who are not sure of this new idea, given the risks involved, but a majority feel it is a gamble worth taking. We confirm to Vivian that we will go with the alternative, and spend the rest of the day doing smaller treks and going for walks. The next batch, which started the same trek on Aug 30, also arrive and set up camp next to ours.

By the time we assemble for dinner, the writing is on the mountains: it’s a steady but unrelenting downpour, and we have to head back. It is officially confirmed at dinner.

Day 6: Sep 3

Nichnai camp site covered in snow
Vishansar camp site covered in snow

The rain doesn’t stop at all – it just pours throughout the night and in the morning. For the first time, the camp site stirs to life at 8 am, instead of the mandatory 5:30 wake up call. The rain is relentless, and the morning is spent mostly in the tents. As we eat lunch, the rain turns to snow.

Snowing continues throughout the afternoon, sometimes with increased intensity. By evening, our camp site has at least three inches of snow, and we take turns at shaking the snow off of our tents. The support staff is great – they do all they can to lessen the impact of the snow. They bring tea and soup right to our tent doorstep, remove excess snow from the tents, and sing and dance in an effort to keep the mood positive. We get through the day, playing with or without the snow, reading, sleeping and eating. The joke is that instead of feeling fitter and knocking off a couple of kilos after the trek, we might end up gaining a few: it is our third full day in Vishansar with no activity.

At dinner, Vivian has seen enough: we are turning back tomorrow, no matter what happens. We tuck into our tents early, eternally thankful for the super warm sleeping bags. It is our fourth night in Vishansar, and the temperature plummets to zero.

Day 7: Sep 4

Tracing the route back to the base camp
Tracing the route back to the base camp

There is no sun as we start tracing our route back. It has rained in the night, and the snow is slushy and slippery. As we walk, the intensity of the rain increases, and as we close in on Nichnai pass, it starts snowing again. We cross a massive section of boulders that are covered with snow, making them harder to navigate than they were on the onward part of the trek.

After crossing a ridge, we realise that one person from our group is missing. We proceed with the hope that he is coming right behind us, or has linked up with the second batch, who are also turning back. As the day progresses, snowing increases. We reach Nichnai pass at 1 pm, and continue trekking. Post Nichnai pass, the trail is downhill. We make quick progress, and soon the landscape changes from snow to grass. The rain though, is still going strong!

We reach Table Top at around 5 in the evening, and quickly eat our packed lunch. We embark on the final leg – we have to get to Shekdur, where accommodation has been arranged for us. Its impossible to pitch tents and set up a camp site, and so we need to get to the nearest town, where we can all spend the night. We are told that this final stretch should take an hour at most.

We end up taking three, and most of the trek is done in the dark, with the light of the moon and a few head torches to guide us. We are joined by a couple of people with local knowledge, as this is new territory even for our trek leaders. We are massively indebted to them, as they lead and coax us to put in our final ounces of energy.

Finally, at 9 pm, we are done with the trek. We reach a road, and can see taxis waiting for us. It is about time – we have done a remarkable 20 kilometre trek, in 13 virtually non-stop hours. The last trekkers of our batch come in at 11 in the night. We crash in the dormitory accommodation. The home-stay has close to 90 trekkers (three batches), staying for the night.

The next day, we leave for Srinagar by road. And have quite an adventure leaving from the capital of Kashmir to our respective home towns. But that is another story.

Picture courtesy: Venkatachandrika Radhakrishnan and Raghunandan Hegde

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