Date with Death
They hire two porters and guide for their exit trek from one of the remotest points.
It starts with one experienced trekker, two trekkers and businessmen, one energetic wanderer and one amateur trekker all from Himachal Pradesh. It was the beginning of our Date with Death.
The two senior citizen porters and guide are Shri Durga Ram and Shri Maan Singh Gurung!
First day of trekking starts with easy to moderate walk through dense forest. With all black shade, Ravi River runs madly beside the trail. We did not knew this was the beginning of our Date with Death.
The constant and clearly visible but huge footprints of chubby and furry wild friend, reminded that we were also venturing in the homeland of the Brown and the Black Bear!
The first days walk was easy, long but was refreshing with beautiful fragrance of herbs all along the trail.
We climbed steep hill sides and then walked down with beautiful views that were/are beyond description.
For some this was their first trekking and camping of several days. By noon we stopped for packed lunch break and some relaxation.
After another long climb we came across a string of horses and one of the horses came running towards us, hoping that one of us was his owner.
After realizing that none of us was his owner, he galloped back to his mates!
We hold up there for another much needed break before calling it a day. After another one hour of walk, we met brother sister who were out there to collect herbs.
(Digging herbs in Reserve Forests is not legal and even the so called licensed contractors cheat the local villagers by luring them to pay high price for herbs and when the villagers collect huge amount of herbs, the so called contractors pay them less money, saying that the market value for the herbs has dropped significantly and so the villagers should either sell the herbs at lower price or throw it away!)
(The same illegal contractors even threaten local seasonal shepherds and due to this illegal digging/mining for herbs has put the mountains and hills under threat, because once you dig a huge hole or something like that in many spots, these very holes trigger landslides during rain and monsoon.)
It was a coincidence that the two (brother and sister) were the real nephews of Shri Durga Ram. Now we walked through the forest of Birch trees. The nephew of Shri Durga Ram carried the much heavy backpack (that included cooking utensils for the trek) up to their campsite and where we also had to camp for the day.
The trail was not easy. With mere edge for foot stepping by striking boots against the steep walls of the hill, we reached the campsite and were welcomed by a herd of goats and a hut made of stones.
By the time we pitched our tents, tea was served to all by the nephew of Shri Durga Ram. Soon we were accompanied by the shepherd from Hamirpur, who also had camped in the same hut.
He showed us another steep trail for Kugati Pass and then Chamba ManiMahesh beyond it.
The campsite was adored by Spinach like plants, which are very dear to the Brown Bear. The distant Mountains were garlanded with snow and the hanging glaciers.
After tea break we enjoyed soup that was the part of our ration for the exit trail and with that we discussed various topics.
Dinner included rice, daal and chapati for few. It was cold with mild drizzle, so soon after dinner everyone slipped in to their respective tents and sleeping bags.
With the arrival of the morning, we had Oats as breakfast for everyone in the campsite. There we were visited by another wealthy shepherd, despite him being sufficiently wealthy.
He chose to herd sheep and goats in the hills, who was heading to the other side of the hill. He was going to check his another herd of sheep and goats.
Soon after breakfast we packed our stuff and started our day two of the trek.
We hurriedly crossed another rivulet, before it took control of the crossing.
After more of constant walks, without lunch (which is a not wise act while trekking a long trail). But with some cold wind and mild rain we were at our second campsite. The campsite was abandoned and was being stopped from use by the local shepherds.
In hurry we pitched our Quechua Two Men Tent and used a tarp over the open stone hut for our kitchen.
Water was sourced by Shri Maan Singh Gurung from nearby glacier. As usual a few of our friends climbed up nearby hill for the sighting of the Mountain Pass. Rest of us prepared the last batch of soup, followed by tea.
Mr Maan Singh Gurung started the fire with woods and shrubs, which was carried along till the campsite by all of us.
Again heavy rain followed in and three of us were inside the stone hut, which was used by us as kitchen. It was good time, with sharing of each other’s experiences be it regarding trekking or cooking. Rain was heavy but for short moment.
As usual after dinner all of us slipped in to our sleeping bags BUT were kept awake with huge sounds of rock falls and glacier break ups across the other side of the valley.
Now we understood why that campsite was abandoned. It was because of constant rock falls and glacier break ups in distant mountains. Even in same campsite the fallen rocks and boulders had proved that, it had experienced rock falls.
By mid night there was long huge rock fall and the sound of it echoed up to our campsite. In the pin drop silence of the night, that loud rumble made our heart beat fast. Some of us even had kept the zip lines of our sleeping bag open, for just in case.
Within 100 meters of our campsite, we even heard hunger cries of some baby wild animal, maybe it was of some bear cub. But with the mercy of the mountains, the night was good for all of us.
Next morning we had to start off for the trail very early, so the first thing to do was get water for tea.
Water which on previous day was sourced from nearby glacier, now was very difficult to collect. Because the same glacier was frozen and water was trickling like small droplets.
After tea, it was planned to make breakfast. But instead of breakfast, everyone ate five-six spoons of last night’s left over dinner. With that all started off for another long and tiring trek that was going through steep hill sides, glaciers, crevasse, moraine.
It proved another big mistake in the terminology of hiking, trekking and mountaineering. Skipping breakfast and lunch in mountains takes very huge toll on your body. Specially if you are also carrying your heavy backpack with tents and mats.
The results are clearly visible, like facial bones try to come out of your face. Eating dry fruits and biscuits does not help much.
Our two senior citizen guides and porters were very helpful all along the long and tiring trail.
With moderate rest, we arrived at the first bed of steep moraine followed by small crevasse.
The climb was tiring with bit of slips on sandy and hard ice, no crampons or ice axes were available.
As we walked up, the steepness of moraine increased and with that the depth of crevasse increased as well. To add to it, we were heading closer to the rock fall area, quite a natural phenomena.
Though we maintained proper distance from rock fall zones. With the experience of Mr Maan Singh Gurung and Mr Durga Ram safely steered through deep beautiful, bluish crevasses.
Sometimes we even had to retreat to some safe point before moving forward from another direction.
Personally for me this was my first ever long walk through moraine and deep crevasses. When looking back to the point from where we had started our days trek. The views were/are awesome.
The views our behind were/are still beautiful.
The hanging glaciers and the fog added to the beauty. The constant rock fall near-by, kept us alert.
As we walked further, we found ourselves in a stadium made of glacier. The only safe point seemed to us was a medium sized boulder buried in snow, which served as a podium.
All seven of us removed our backpack and now were facing walls of the mountains pass. We had to climb this mountain pass. We didn’t knew, Date with Death was waiting for us.
The features of that mountain pass, which were known to Mr Maan Singh Gurung had changed drastically. Climate Change had made the glaciers melt down. Which further made it difficult to reahc the top of Sha Jot.
There was no climbing trail or route. Now we were in the base of a bowl shape with steep walls around us and a net of tricky crevasses behind us.
All of us were left baffled, we tried to find climbing routes, which were not visible at any point. The on going rock fall near by was adding to the confusion.
A trek, which was in no way meant to be Technical now seemed very technical. And for which none of us was prepared.
Then Mr Maan Singh Gurung took the initiative and tried to climb the steep point, with no feasible trail. As per him that was used to be the actual trail side.
He climbed with heavy backpack and through hard ice and slippery rocks. Managed to reach mid way. He removed his backpack and tried to scan alternative trail for us, but all in vain.
Then Mr Sunil Sharma brought out a sling from his backpack for in case needed.
Though for the part from which Mr Maan Singh Gurung had climbed up. It required a full length rope, so in that situation a sling was also hopeful.
Second one to go up was Mr Sunil Sharma, the energetic wanderer. He also slipped over the sandy hard ice but somehow managed to reach Mr Maan Singh Gurung.
Now the sandy and slippery hard ice point was more difficult to navigate for the rest of the team members.
Then climbed Mr Durga Ram. Maybe Mr Maan Singh Gurung used that sling to pull Mr Durga Ram from the slippery point.
With the help of the sling Mr Maan Singh Gurung pulled all of us through that slippery and sandy hard ice point.
Once everyone was at the point of Mr Maan Singh Gurung, all of us started to climb up side. Now this was not regular trekking or hiking. It was more like a technical mountaineering, of course, all we had was just a sling.
Not trying to sound like professionals because even untrained Gaddi Shepherds can beat a pro-mountaineer. A professiona and Real shepherd can navigate through such points without having specific training in mountaineering.
The exit from bowl shaped glacier field and that boulder podium was a relief, because everyone hoped for a good slope with visible trail on the other side of the climb!
Date with Death had already started. Even Mr Rijul Shergill of Dharamsala, Mr Kapil Mehta and Mr Ankush Sharma of Shimla, Sunil Sharma of Hamirpur and I, none of us was aware of it.
As we climbed/crawled to the top, the next view was breathtaking yet awesome. Breathtaking it was because, there was literally no trail and no easy slope as we all had hoped and were told about.
A sense of fear embedded in all of us, yet everyone tried to remain calm. But deep inside all knew, what the situation meant. The meaning was really no good! It was the peak of our Date with Death.
As per local tradition. We offered our prayers at the top of Sha Jot and tried to remain calm.
Behind us was a net of crevasses, moraine with steep climb down and in front it was a steep fall. There was no trail. The altitude was 5,000 meters minus 20 meters as per GPS, but I would call it straight 5,000 meters.
A Date with Death, because there was NO TRAIL to climb down or to safely navigate through. For a while our brain had stopped working, but regained the control and all sat there calmly.
The only factor that was adding to the fear was the incoming fog and wind. I was in no mood of photography. Because it was for the first time, we took a Technical climb.
It was without a trail, without any technical tools. Further the view from that height was really frightening.
It was for the first time me had climbed such peak without trail. So height may not have been a factor but no visible or no trail just was a concern for everyone.
We were on a Date with Death. Then we had not realized that, we were also accompanied by the angels of the mountains. They were in the form of our senior citizen guides and porters, Mr Durga Ram and Mr Maan Singh Gurung.
As we all sat tight, Mr Maan Singh Gurung removed his backpack and took the leap to trace the trail. Mr Sunil Sharma pulled his mobile camera for the shots. So myself also dared to pull out my bulky camera for the moment.
Like a mountain goat, he slowly managed to reach some 50 meters from the point where we was sitting.
He went further and went invisible at a turn. Then after some time, he came back to us and asked all of us to follow him carefully.
He picked up his heavy backpack and led us all to the left side of the steep mountain. The second one to follow him was Mr Durga Ram.
We were not mountain goats. But somehow managed to navigate through frail trail and reach the point which was explored by Mr Maan Singh Gurung. We had to place our feet on loose soil and with trail width only fit for our boots.
Then the duo Mr Maan Singh Gurung and Mr Durga Ram, our mountain angels. They took charge of the situation. They went ahead of us to explore the possible steep trails for climb down. Trail tracing in steep Pir Panjals.
As we were moving through steep and loose walls of the steep mountain. We experienced some drops of snowflakes.
It is not a joke and it was really a great blessing that it didn’t rained. After two few snowflakes, the weather turned good with thick clouds in nearby high mountains.
The mountains in front were like a colorful layered cake but with steep wall.
At that moment the main concern for all was a SAFE climb down and touchdown at the base of the mountain. The base in fact was the bed of moraine and crevasse.
Sometimes our mountain angles had to climb down to long distances to check the feasible safe trail. They even had to climb back up side, if no trail was found. So it was really a tough job for them. They were risking their selves while searching for treks.
For some points they even had to carry load of our backpack up to the safe points.
The concern for Mr Durga Ram and Mr Maan Singh Gurung was to climb down before sunset.
As we were told, the climb down should had taken only 2 hours . But since there was no trail, so for us it took all good 6-7 hours. Further more, whatever trail was being discovered by our two mountain angles, it had loose soil and rocks.
The whole trail had a feasibility of slip and fall. The trail was really steep and with loose grainy dirt.
Every time, we reached a lower and safe point. We had a sigh of relief because we were not mountain goats. This Date with Death was the most thrilling.
We had noticed footprints of goats in moraine and hard ice before climbing up the mountain wall. Wonder how Gaddi shepherd had navigated through no trek mountain. May be it were the footprints/hoof prints of some wild mountain goat.
From a safe midway point, the view as it was.
Myself had no joy/courage of looking back from where we had started the climb down, because it was really steep and over adventurous.
The trail that was explored by Mr Maan Singh Gurung and Mr Durga Ram was really really NOT EASY ONE to follow.
With every step, we were rolling down loose rocks and with sliding our boots had a good fill of rocky dirt. This grainy dirt further pinched our feet sole.
There was really a good chance of hand slips. But with the mercy of mountain gods, it did not happened and we are thankful for the safe climb down.
In Technical terms too, you cannot use ropes or hooks to climb down because of loose rocks. The grainy texture adds to the difficulty.
We would not recommend anyone to try climbing this mountain. Our Date with Death in Pir Panjal.
I regret for, we left an empty plastic water bottle at the top, very bad though.
With long STRUGGLE and safe sliding of 6-7 hours, we managed to touch a slope of glacier. Which further helped us to safely touch the moraine base.
Here I personally like to thank Mr Maan Singh Gurung for providing us wooden hiking sticks. Which also helped us to navigate through moraine, crevasses, climbing up and then climbing down.
Once we were in moraine, we crossed over and walked over in search for the campsite. Through out this Date with Death, for me Mr Durga Ram and Mr Maan Singh Gurung were not porters or guides.
But more like angles, who helped us to navigate through no trail mountain. They helped in safe climb down.
I personally touched their feet and took their blessings. As the job they had accomplished was not an easy one. Because at some points when, they were out to check for the trails. I’d turned my eyes away out of fear.
All during the climb down, myself prayed to the nearby Mountains. Prayed Dhauladhar Mountains, Pir Panjal and Himalayas to take away my arrogance and give me peace.
It took us another 2-3 hours of good walk through moraine and darkness. Finally settling for tents in small space among the boulders. With this we were done with our Date with Death.
Everyone pitched tents, but for me the priority was food. Mr Maan Singh Gurung arranged for clean water and we managed a quick dal pulaow for everyone.
With dinner everyone was in the rest mode. Since our tents were on rocky surface so, had a tough time to sleep. But still content with safe climb down. With day break, I took some shots of the Pir Panjal mountains that we had climbed down.
The hill slope that we had walked over after climbing down had huge surprise. It was another thick glacier bed covered with sand and soil. It appeared like a layered cake, from which you cut out a piece to eat. A cake was only missing in this Date with Death.
After photography of Decathlon Quechua Tents, myself quickly made one cup of tea for self. Cleaned up the cooker for breakfast.
Later again made another batch of masala tea for everyone. After tea everyone hurried to pack their tents and so my tent mate.
While everyone was closing the camp. I quickly emptied 1 KG of wheat porridge in the cooker. Fried it and mixed in the milk powder, sugar and water as breakfast for all.
Thanked the Pir Panjal Range, Dhauladhar Mountains, the Himalayas and mountain gods for our safe climb down. After breakfast we started off for our last point of the exit trek from our Date with Death.
As we walked, the views were breathtaking with no words to describe it. Beautiful views, but still we had to navigate through steep slopes and cross ice cold rivulets.
We never forgot our Date with Death and with that we reached our last point. But with that we also enjoyed the views that were being unfolded with every turn and hill sides.
Once we were at the last point, everyone enjoyed a good meal and bid farewell to each other. Everyone headed to ones own respective directions.
My heart was/is still, where we had concluded our exit trek. Memorable it was/is, learned a lot, which eventually will be helpful in upcoming treks.
But personally will not take on a trek that has no traceable trail. All that we learned while our Date with Death.