Two Indiahikes’ trekkers, Venkatachandrika Radhakrishnan and Raghunandan Hegde, who did the Kashmir Great Lakes trek, were intrigued by the strength of the support staff members. Sitting high in the mountains in their tents after a hot bowl of soup, they chatted up three members and here’s what they got.
One of the lesser appreciated aspects of organised trekking is the invaluable role played by the support staff – the cooks, the horsemen and their horses, the local villagers, who sometimes double up as guides, in addition to, of course, the leadership that is provided by the trek leader and his assistants. The support staff often perform multiple roles, from setting up and managing camp sites, to organising and carrying huge amounts of food supplies, to cooking and serving timely meals to fatigued and famished trekkers, and assisting the trek leaders in the operations.
On the recent Kashmir Great Lakes trek that I was a part of, a fellow trekker and I had the opportunity to catch up with three members of our wonderful support team. In the biting cold, huddled together in a warm tent and savoring the tangy after-taste of hot soup, we struck up a conversation.
Kushal Singh Dana, from Uttarakhand, Ishtiyar Rahmat Chauhan and Zavl Ahmed Thekri, from Kashmir, all began working with Indiahikes at different times over the past three years. Kushal and Ishtiyar, both work in the kitchen, while Zavl’s role is that of a helper. While Zavl and Kushal have both worked as guides before – Zavl in Sonamarg and Kushal in Amarnath, this is Ishityar’s first job.
They all confirm unequivocally that they absolutely love their jobs. They list the reasons – travelling to new places, meeting new people, opportunities to learn. In their experience, they have had chances to learn about the technical side of mountaineering, develop their cooking skills, assist in managing trek groups and perform the role of guides.
They take great pride in their work, and would like people to go back and talk about the helper, the trek leads and their contributions. Compared to the adventurous life in the mountains, where one gets to learn something new every day, cities are mundane, they declare.
Being support staff for a trekking group is not an easy task. The work is tough and demands physical fitness and mental strength. On our trek, for instance, for a group of 26 trekkers, the support staff were carrying roughly 40 kilos of food supplies, tents, sleeping bags, cooking utensils, gas cylinders and medical supplies through harsh weather. They were supported by a herd of about 17 horses, which required coordinating with the horsemen. Yet, the three of them cheerfully agree that they enjoy the challenges; the only disappointment is when treks cannot be completed due to rough weather.
What have been some of their most memorable experiences on treks? While Zavl and Ishtiyar find it difficult to pin point a single experience, Kushal talks about how he had to once navigate a route that would have normally taken two days, in a single day along with two trekkers.
It is difficult to wrap up any conversation about Kashmir without discussing the touchy issue of the Army; Kashmir is the largest militarised zone in the world. What are their thoughts on it? They shrug off the Army presence as a reality of living close to an international border. The Army is there to serve people and do their job, and they do not affect the trekkers or tourists much, they say. Kashmir is absolutely safe for tourists and trekkers, and they would like to see many more people in the Valley, enjoying its splendid beauty and grandeur.
We can certainly vouch for it. We had a fantastic time on the trek. And Zavl, Kushal, Ishtiyar and their team members made it all the more memorable for us.