Tales from Rupin Pass by Kshitij Gajjar

Very few people have the talent to transport you completely to their trek through their writing. Our trekker Kshitij writes about his experience on the Rupin Pass trek. His blog will leave you wanting to experience the stunning trek and smiling at some ‘such is life’ humor as well.  

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Mozart, Prahladh, Mona & Ganga

Before you start reading this passage, here is a small puzzle. Just above, I have given you the names of four people who were with us on the trek. You have to guess how many of them are male and how many are female, just by looking at their name. Yes, do it right now. If you’re done, you may commence reading. The answer will be revealed as you read the passage.

A word for the IndiaHikes team who organized the trek, because they were amazing. From our batch, I was the first to meet our trek leader. For some reason, I thought he was joking about his name when he introduced himself. “Hi, I’m Mozart”, he said. “And we trekkers are your orchestra team”, I thought to myself. He continued, “But you can call me Max”. And I realized he wasn’t kidding. He turned out to be a fascinating individual. Not only was he a splendid high altitude trek leader at the age of 23, but he was also simultaneously pursuing his PhD in Philosophy.

On the first day, he was asking everybody how they had been preparing for this trek. The responses were: “Gym”, “Workouts”, “Running” and “Exercise”. I was worried since I was not prepared. Finally it was my turn.

“Have you been preparing for this trek?”

“Not specifically”

(He looks at me) “What does that mean?”

“We play Ultimate twice a week”

“Ultimate Frisbee?”

(I nod my head)

“Very good. You are qualified”

I left the tent thinking to myself, “That was easy”. I later found out that he was being sarcastic. Our trek guide was Prahladh, an extremely helpful and friendly person. He conducted the team building activities and games (all of which I lost). One activity that I will never forget is Zikuza. I enjoyed it so much, I requested for it twice and Prahladh indeed repeated Zikuza on the last day.

The food with IndiaHikes is always spectacular, in fact it makes our canteen food look bad. The accolades for this go to the cooks; one of them was Mona. Then, there was the senior and respected Ganga ji, an admirer of the mountains and of Narendra Modi. The speech that he gave on the final day of the trek was reminiscent of his idol, ending it with the line, “???? ???? ??? ??, ????? ???? ???????”.

Finally, there’s the porters, some of who double up as cooks. We carry a 9-11 kg state- of-the-art backpack, wear high-tech trekking boots, and huff and puff most of our trek. The porters carry 30-35 kg, wear jeans and standard shoes, and happily hop about their way.

The real test came on day 4, when it rained heavily and some of the mules lost their balance and fell down because the rocks were too slippery. To compensate for it, most of the porters carried up to 10 kg more, and even Max and Prahladh shared some of their extra load. When that was insufficient, some of the porters traveled all the way back to the previous campsite (around 12 km), and thus made a second trip just to get the goods.

Upon arrival, they quickly entered the kitchen tent to prepare food for us. Considering how easy they made life for us, I almost felt like we were on a luxury 5-star trek. As for the puzzle, all four are male. If you got it right, you win 50 points.

 

Before the start & after the finish
Before the start
: In order to start the trek on schedule, we were supposed to reach Dehradun railway station early on Saturday morning. The IndiaHikes team would take it from there. My train to Dehradun originated from Delhi at 11:50 PM. Somehow things got tight at the last moment. I had to make a mad dash for it and boarded my coach at 11:48 PM. Completely out of breath, I told Alex, “I had no idea my trek would start from Delhi itself!!”

The trek started from Dhaula in Uttarakhand and ended at Sangla in Himachal Pradesh. The road journey from Dehradun to Dhaula was full of meandering curves and turns, and thus quite hard for somebody suffering from motion sickness, like me. I asked our cab driver to stop thrice during the ride; on two of those occasions, I felt like vomiting but just couldn’t do it. On my third attempt, I managed to finally get it out of my system and felt a whole lot better. I was aware that at altitudes of 14000 ft, problems like AMS can cause uneasiness in the stomach. But here I was, regurgitating all my food at 5000 ft—and the trek still hadn’t begun!!!!

After the finish
: We summited Rupin pass on day 7, and the last day was a simple descent. Prasanth injured his ankle and was walking really slow. Some of us decided to stay back with him, even though it meant we would reach much later. At one point, I got bored and carried on ahead and decided to wait at the point where we entered the town of Sangla. For a long time, there was no sign of anybody. I began wondering. Could I have missed them? Did they take another route? Are they stuck back there? Maybe separating from the group was not such a good idea.

Then I heard familiar voices. I had hoped to see everybody helping Prasanth. Instead, here was Prasanth with two trekking poles, one in each hand, galloping down like a skier, while the others were just chilling behind him. As he passed by me, he said, “I figured it can’t get any worse than this, so I might as well let it go”. At that point, I rejoined the gang behind him. A few hundred meters ahead, we could see the trek leader waiting for us, possibly annoyed that we were holding up the entire group. But Prasanth was our alibi if he asked for an explanation. We joked that if we told the trek leader we were delayed due to Prasanth, he would probably reply, “You mean the Prasanth who just zoomed right by me?”

As we were nearing civilization, there was a grove of apple trees to our left. It was private property and encircled by a barbed wire fence. However, it was possible to use our trekking pole to perturb some of the overhanging apples so that they would fall on our side. We did this for about half a dozen apples and were very happy. Suddenly from inside the grove a fat naked lady, dripping with water, stood up and started shouting at us. None of us knew what she was saying but we were not waiting there to find out. We took off at such a pace that it made up for all the lost time earlier.

Finally, we reached our drop-off point at Sangla. On the return journey, which was another set of rollercoaster rides, Alex gave me an Avomine tablet two hours before the ride and it worked like a charm. The trip passed quite pleasantly. There were no problems during the 9 hour cab journey from Sangla to Shimla as well as the 8 hour bus journey from Shimla to Delhi. An exciting start and an exciting finish.

 

Farewell to Mohit
It was apparent from day 1 that Mohit and I were the slowest trekkers. We would relax, share stories, take long breaks, and move along at o
ur own pace. Mohit told me that he was enchanted by the beauty of the mountains. He listed out all the places that he had been to with his wife and 4-year-old kid. But on all those trips, they had traveled by car. The only reason he came to this trek was because his wife had gotten fed up of it all and told him she did not want to go to any mountains anymore.

Now, the protocol with IndiaHikes is that the trek guide always stays out front, followed by the trekkers and finally the trek sweeper, while the trek leader shuffles within the bunch. Hence, the trek guide is always in front of the first trekker and the trek sweeper is always behind the last trekker. However, in our case the trek sweeper (Ganga ji) was so miffed by our laziness that he marched on and waited for us ahead in the hope that it would inspire us to speed up. But it had little effect.

Word got to the trek leader and by day 3, he was already asking us to stay ahead of the pack, because we would fall back later on. The trek guide told us to start walking before him and he would lead in the rest. So eventually, we were either in front of the trek guide or behind the trek sweeper for most part of the trek. So much for protocol.

On day 4, when the trek leader called us for our daily oximeter readings after the trek, he found something amiss with Mohit. When he hooked up Mohit to the sphygmomanometer, I knew something was up. Later, I found out that Mohit’s systolic pressure had indeed gone up and the percentage of oxygen in his blood had been fluctuating. It was not alarming at present, but the next few days had greater climbs and higher altitudes. The trek leader advised him to call it off. Mohit said his goodbyes, descended back alone via the same route that we had ascended, and reached home safely in a few days. Next day, I was delighted to discover that Kanchan was also an extremely slow trekker, but I hope that this incident doesn’t diminish Mohit’s love for the mountains.

 

Kshitij & co.
From day 3 onward, our campsites were out in the open and we were all provided with tents. However, on days 1 and 2, we were put up in these cozy little wooden cottages in the villages of Jiskun and Jhaka. They had wooden flooring and sloping roofs. It was a larger version of a tree-house in the midst of the mountains. Staying there was a lot of fun because we shared stories, asked each other trivia, and played games like Contact.

Within two days, however, the interest died down and the typical responses became, “No new games, please” and “Kshitij, no more puzzles”. But when the trek guide summoned everyone for a team building activity, they could not avoid playing. The group was divided into two teams and my teammates entrusted me with the responsibility of captain. We lost the game. There’s always another chance, I thought. Sure enough, there was another team building activity on day 4. Again two teams. Again I was made captain of mine. Again we lost.

Finally it was day 6 and my last chance at redemption. This time, the game was very strategic, and somehow my teammates still had faith in me. In fact, this time they went so far as to name the team ‘Kshitij & co’. I even recall someone mentioning, “Kshitij is doing his PhD in algorithms. We should win this.” I gave it my best shot. We lost again. Although the teams were shuffled randomly for each of the three games, I was the only player who ended up on the losing side all three times.

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What’s so tough about trekking?
Trekkers are generally asked some recurring questions (also known as FAQs) when they come back from a trek. Here I will try to tackle two of those.

The first question is, “What is the toughest part about high altitude trekking?”, or different versions of the same question. Trekkers will tell you things like steep incline, slippery ice, cold weather, AMS, etc. However, in my experience the toughest part about high altitude trekking is getting up in the middle of the night to go to the loo.

Why? Firstly, you don’t want to leave the tent but you just have to. You’re tired from the previous day’s trek and it’s nice and cozy in the tent, but your trek leader asked you to consume lots of food and water in order to stay fit and free of AMS. Secondly, in order to leave and return to the tent you have to follow a procedure. Pay attention.

Slip out of your inner lining, get out of your sleeping bag, put on your headlamp, unzip the inner tent, put on your footwear, unzip the outer tent, zip the inner tent, zip the outer tent. Congratulations. You’re now successfully out of your tent, all layered up because it’s so cold outside. Now enter the toilet tent and do your stuff. Oh, and don’t forget to cover your shit. Done? Remember to put your layers back on before you leave. Let’s head back to your tent now. Unzip the outer tent, unzip the inner tent, zip the outer tent, remove your footwear, zip the inner tent, remove your headlamp, slip into your inner lining and get into your sleeping bag. If you can manage all of this without waking up your tent mates, you are an accomplished high altitude trekker. Believe me, I’ve got a certificate for it.

The second question is, “How do you feel?” right after the trek is over. Let me start from the top and work my way down. My head hurts because of the lack of oxygen, my eyes hurt because the sun’s glare reflects strongly off the ice and I can’t wear goggles because of my glasses, my nose because of the chills, my lips because I’ve to inhale through my nose and exhale through my mouth during an ascent, my shoulders because I’m carrying a 9-11 kg backpack, my spine and lower back for the same reasons, my buttocks and knees because they absorb the body weight and my toes because they repeatedly impact the front of the shoe during a descent, the back of my foot because of shoe-bite and my feet because we walk about 12 km every day. Apart from that, I feel perfectly fine.

For the love of Chole Bhature
I still remember those days when we were in Delhi and Anil mama used to get us chole bhature for dinner every Saturday from ??? ?????. I would always end up having more than my stomach could handle and wake up on Sunday morning with loose motions. Next weekend, the cycle would repeat itself. As two great men, George Bernard Shaw and Nikhil Mande, have said, “There is no love sincerer than the love of food”. So, once I knew that Delhi was a connecting stop on the journey to our trek, I tried booking my tickets accordingly.

The catch is that you only get those special chole bhature on Saturdays. Unfortunately, the trek started on a Saturday and ended on a Saturday, which meant that the only way I could have the legendary chole bhature would be to extend my stay in Delhi for an entire week, and that was not possible. Although dejected, I forgot about it once I got involved in the trek.

On day 7 (Friday), we scaled Rupin pass, and by Friday afternoon our trek was effectively over. I recall telling Gurleen that the rest of the trek was just a formality to get to the nearest motorable road. Being from Delhi herself, she sympathized with the fact that I would have to return to Mumbai without enjoying the Saturday chole bhature.

I went to sleep with a heavy heart. The next morning, I woke up and guess what the cooks at IndiaHikes had prepared for us??!!!! I could not believe that I would be having chole bhature for both breakfast and lunch at altitudes of 13400 ft and 8900 ft, respectively. I had 6 bhature, Ganga ji reluctantly giving me some more when I shamelessly asked for extra. In hindsight, I was lucky that it did not lead to a stomach upset because that would have been very difficult to handle on the trip.

I was just as glad from successfully completing the trek as I was from the food on the final day. We reached Shimla in the wee hours of Sunday, and Delhi about an hour before noon. I met Anil mama just as he was getting out of his car near the entrance to the building. In his hands there was a large parcel. He asked me about the trip and said that since I had missed the Saturday chole bhature, they got some for me as a surprise.

I laughed for ten seconds before relaying the previous day’s events. The quantity was so much that I had to distribute it over two separate meals. Of course, I did not share it with anybody. In totality, I had chole bhature four times in a two-day period. It was going to be hard to get back to normal food now. I probably ended up as the only trekker whose weight increased during the trek.

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The Witch Goddess of Rati Pheri
It was day 7 and the summit was in sight. From our camp at Rati Pheri, we could clearly see the saddle-shaped Rupin pass. Since this was our highest campsite, several of us were riddled with problems like headaches, vomiting, loss of appetite, etc. At the dinner tent, our trek leader thought that this would be a good time to tell a horror story, titled “???? ???? ?? ?????”. He explained that everybody who has tried to cross Rupin pass at night has died. No scientific study has been done as to why this happens, and in the absence of a rational explanation, the villagers came up with a story about a female ghost.

The Rupin pass is haunted by a witch who appears at night, completely cloaked in white (obviously), and does rounds of the area where we were camping. She is known amongst the village folk as the protector of the mountains. If anybody makes an attempt to cross the pass during nighttime, she consumes them, as she sees it as a sign of disrespect. Nobody has tried it since. Once the storytelling was done, we somberly left the tent. “It’s a big day tomorrow. Get some rest”, said the trek leader. Of course, we should have no problems sleeping now, especially after such a wonderful bedtime story.

The next day, we were to leave at the first sign of morning light. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, if we delay and the sun comes out in all its glory, the snow becomes slippery. Secondly, it was past the witch’s feeding time. As we neared the pass, we noticed there was a pink cloth tied to a rock on Rupin pass that was visible from quite some distance.

The rock is considered sacred, explained Ganga ji. The climb to Rupin pass turned out to be the easiest part of the trek, in fact it was almost boring. This was mainly due to the efforts of the trek leader and the trek guide. They used an ice ax to dig holes into the snow at each step, so that we would have a firm foothold when we followed them.

Once we reached the top, everybody was overjoyed and forgot about the problems. However, one of the trekkers wanted to pee very badly. As we were now on the other side of Rupin pass, the pink cloth that marked the holy rock could no longer be seen. He faced away from us, headed straight for the rock, opened his zipper and did ???? all over it. Ganga ji and the others watched him from behind in stunned silence.

After about a minute, he closed his zipper and turned around a satisfied man, only to find all of us staring at him. “I had been holding it inside all the way up”, he said apologetically. Ganga ji had brought along agarbatti and prasad in order to perform puja on the rock, but now he was forced to switch to another rock. Hopefully, the witch was appeased.

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Kshitij Gajjar

Kshitij Gajjar

Kshitij is a researcher at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, currently pursuing a Ph.D in theoretical computer science. His interests are (solving and asking) puzzles, quizzing, interacting with different people and trying new and adventurous things. He also goes trekking in the Sahyadris on a regular basis. Trekking, in a way, combines most of his interests and he tries to go on at least one big trek every year.

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