Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Hampta part 1 - Reaching first camp at Chika

Perhaps there was an inevitability about it, perhaps I just had to overcome my irrational fear. All is well that ends well. And the wheels kicked into motion when Sathesh asked me (sometime in March) on chat if I was interested for Himalayan trek. I had the desire for some years and on impulse I said yes. He suggested a few places and we both did a bit of online searching. The very next day, BTC opened event for Hampta Pass. It fit my bill every which way - moderate trek, BTC, June. Sathesh agreed too and then Vivek agreed almost immediately (thanks for so much faith on us, mate)

Then inexperience cost us booking flight as recommended by organizer Monisha. We waited a bit, trying to see if we could extend our trip either at start or end of trek. In the end we decided to stick to BTC itinerary and had to book flights 2-3 hours prior/later. After initial excitement cooled off, we largely ignored fitness routine and things to carry lists prepared meticulously and sent by our organizers Monisha and Srikanth. In May, with about a month left, we began discussing again - buying things, starting practice treks and morning exercises. Inevitably there were last minute purchases :P as departure date snuck quietly upon us (Moral of the story: read the mail and follow good advice given)

The day before our flights to Delhi, Sathesh called to inform that Vijay is dropping out because of last minute office shenanigans. And Vijay was supposed to get poncho and trekking pole for Sathesh - I had just seen weather forecast, rain predicted everyday! I placated Sathesh by promising to bring a thin raincoat I had (passable for drizzling conditions) and that he might possibly buy a good one at Delhi. On my end, I ticked off things to carry (including my own additions like diary and pen, electral, honey, etc) and somehow managed to pack them neatly in 60 liter backpack. Had call with Vivek to go through items we were carrying and when to meet next morning. Srikanth and Nagur were on same flight too, but too far away from our place to go together.


Got up early next day, last minute check up (nervousness setting in) and managed to peel bit of skin while buckling my backpack (which repeated again during trek!). Vivek arrived at bus-stop even as the airport bus was coming. Traffic was light that Saturday morning and we reached airport in less than an hour, leaving us plenty of time before take-off. First we got ourselves cup of tea and coffee, outside the airport entry gates. We took selfie and thought a bit for tagline before posting on fb :P, had to wait until we went inside to connect to wifi. Once inside, we repacked our bags, separating camera and other items into a smaller cabin bag, read newspaper and then checked-in. Didn't have to wait long either to get boarding pass or at the security check (pro-tip: empty your water bottles or you'd likely have to trash it)

We then waited a while for Srikanth and Nagur to show up. They had web-checked in and timed their travel to arrive much closer to take-off. We had a light lunch (I made do with a pack of cookies, pretty good ones at that) and finally embarked on our long journey. While Vivek had his Kindle out to read Shantaram, it was quite boring for me. Now and then we would glance outside, but reflection from clouds was too intense to watch more than a few seconds.

At Delhi domestic airport, we had to wait a while for all of us to get our backpacks. We could easily make out other trekkers waiting, from their attire and backpacks. Since our bags had lot of loose straps, the flight staff had tied them on our behalf - thanks Indigo! Then we refreshed a bit, had cake and biscuits to quiet our gnawing hunger and discussed whether we should wait for next batch of our group to come or go out roaming in hot and polluted Delhi (not that it is worse than Bengaluru, but somehow the heat and crowd makes it seem atrocious)

Sathesh and Veena had arrived before us and we decided to catch them up instead of boring wait at airport. We took feeder bus to Aerocity metro station, then metro to New Delhi station, changed to another line to Chandni Chowk. It was so crowded at New Delhi that we waited for next train with space enough to fit in.

We walked through crowded street vendors and then choking traffic to reach Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib. We could see Red Fort at the end of road in one direction and sprawling shops in the other direction. Sathesh and Veena came to meet us after they had spent about an hour or so inside the temple. We four of us then left our footwear, got token for it and kept our bags in cloak room. Our visit inside temple was serene, but made a bit of mess in following normal order of things. We entered and left by entrance and didn't get how the prasad system worked. Temple staff and worshipers were kindly and didn't seem to be bothered by our novice mistakes.

We six of us then proceeded to Pranthe wali gali for early dinner. Veena ji stood guard over our bags (attracting curious stares and confused looks from passerbys) while we attacked various fried Pranthes. And managed to control ourselves from eating variety of sweet and savories selling in various shops. With time still to kill, we went back to Gurudwara again. A kindly stranger advised us to mind our bags closely to avoid theft. We took turns to sit and stand sentry. Monisha, Kirti and Pushkar came by and left with Veena for their dinner. Suman had come earlier in the day, roamed around Delhi quite a bit and had free dinner at Gurudwara itself. We frequently filled our water bottles from temple staff serving water to passerbys outside (later came to know that there was a tap nearby for self-serving :-/)

About an hour left to catch our bus from ISBT, Kashmere Gate we asked for directions and walked to a bus stop about half a kilometer away (instead of walking all the way with our heavy bags). Initially we were favoring to catch a metro and in the confusion, Sathesh and Nagur had walked a fair bit to metro station and came back - becoming first to draw ire from Monisha :P On the way to bus top, we bought a bunch of bananas. Kirti took upon herself to stop a bus and we managed to get ourselves inside in a hurry. On the way, the bus stopped for about 20 minutes at a signal, instantly reminding us of Silk Board junction. Ishan joined us at ISBT.

We packed warm clothes in small bag (if needed during travel in air-conditioned bus) while our heavy backpacks went in dusty trunk. Rs 10 per bag for coolie. The bus seemed to start on its way to Manali, but just stopped short distance away to wait for remaining passengers. Ishan had Lychee to share with us and I think that brought about the craving for Lychee juice at Manali for some members at the end of trip :P

Soon we were on our way. Plenty of stops and not so smooth ride meant Ishan and I found it difficult to sleep. At ISBT, we had inquired around and someone told us that we would arrive at Manali around 8 AM in the morning. I woke around 5 AM in the morning - enough light to see outside. We were climbing, mountains all around. After another futile attempt to sleep for about an hour, I gave up and put on my specs to enjoy the scenery. Some places road construction was on, shops were built perilously on cliffs and many a times they were built on empty concrete levels.

Many a river tributaries hardly had water, probably due to summer. Occasionally we caught glimpses of Sutlej river amidst the winding roads. A few minutes after 6 AM, we reached Bilaspur for a 20 minute stop. It was the first time I heard that we would reach Manali around 1 PM (father and son talking in back seat) Thanks to brave souls trying out tea at the bus station, the few of us awake skipped the sugary syrup. Once we started again, the milestone put rest to our fears - indeed, there was a looooooooooooooong way yet to Manali.

So, when there was yet another stop around 8 AM, we had breakfast. Some made do with tea/coffee and biscuits, while some ordered bread(butter/omlette) and stuffed Pranthes (to go with butter cubes). I think by then the Beas river started accompanying us. The winding roads would sometimes take us over a river bridge and join the mountain range on other side. We would watch for factories and dam and such bridges for time pass and clicking pics (mostly on mobile phones, we were saving camera batteries for main event :P)

Natural beauty aside, we were all getting a bit restless. Not helped by our bus conductor, who'd often come to inspect - close windows if open, open overhead air-condition vents if closed. And though our bus moved slowly, it was a struggle around the bends - had to cling onto arm supports. Thank the river tributaries meeting, forceful water release at dams, the 3 KM tunnel at Aut and various fruit trees (apple, pomegranate, etc) as excuse for discussions. At Kullu, we had even better view of mountains and could see rainy clouds near the peaks. Swarming everywhere were houses, some so remote that we wondered how they got electricity (if any), food, water, etc. We also had a change of bus conductor, who checked our tickets before moving on to last stretch towards Manali.

On the way, we saw people river rafting and paragliding - another excuse for discussion, we decided to try them if possible after trek. Finally, around 1 PM, with a bit of crawling towards the end, we reached Manali bus stand. It was drizzling a bit.

Monisha and Srikanth had already contacted Renok adventures (our trek organizers for Hampta Pass) for instructions. As it was already late, we skipped refreshments and went to a hotel on Mall road for lunch (tandoori rotis, pulavs, momos, jalebis, etc). We were allowed some time for last minute purchases - Sathesh finally got a poncho,  while Vivek and I turned down expensive wide brimmed sun hats. We spend a bit too much time searching and had to face Monisha's ire - ouch


I finally took out my camera for a group photo on Mall road, before we walked a short distance to catch our vehicles to Jobra (from where trek started). Renok's guide Sandeep joined us. It started raining fair more than drizzle and by the time we stopped by their store room few KMs ahead, it was raining proper. As we were split in two vehicles, we in first vehicle didn't actually realize this was the store location and place to change to trekking attire. After check post, it was series of hair pin bends back to back as we climbed about 4000 feet from Manali to Jobra. Rain and 90s melodies set a pleasant mood and imminent trek put the day and half strenuous travel behind us.

As luck would have it, rain stopped as we reached Jobra. The local guides joined us there. People who missed out got a chance here to quickly change and wear our trekking shoes. Few snaps later, finally we were starting our trek. While we had seen mountains aplenty on our way, including snow capped peaks, walking on a trail surrounded by tall trees and varied hills all around is something bordering on poetry - hard to describe but its beauty is perceptible.

It was about 4:40 PM in the evening when we started. We had 2 hour trek ahead of us, but with rain having stopped and long evening, we didn't have a reason to hurry. After first of many river  crossings, we were amidst tall trees, skirting the hills. Shortly after, we were out in the open grassy hillside, with rugged peaks nearby and hint of snow capped peaks in the distance.

Plenty of mules and cattle were grazing. Over the duration of trek, we would learn that probably there were no grassy regions left where mules and sheep hadn't fed and shit on. It had been just 10 minutes of walk, but we stopped for a break. Near tents a group of women were gathered - some in traditional attire. We didn't miss the opportunity to take pics with them :P and they were more than willing themselves.

Our guides had prepared stuffed Pranthes for lunch, but as we were hungry we had decided to munch in Manali itself. So, we had them now instead. They were tasty to say the least and a precursor to food in coming days (at that point, we newbies to Himalayan trek were still in the dark about camp facilities). Flock of ravens were waiting for scraps - Srikanth started throwing pieces towards them and some ravens caught them right out of air. And so more of us started throwing to see if they'll catch - surprising number of times they were caught.

As we moved on, our view gradually opened up until we had Beas river for company again and our path lay between mountain ranges. We could also spot thin streams running down the face of nearby mountains. During one of the numerous breaks, a big boulder proved popular photogenic spot.

Then came the wooden bridge crossing - about 6 feet above the river, 2-3 feet wide. I found such crossings throughout the trek more challenging than climbing itself :P Our main guide Shyam would go ahead first and instruct/help while crossing, usually not more than 3 members on the entire length of bridge. And of course, we brought out our cameras and mobile phones to capture the moment.

Our path was now strewn with cobbles and boulders, grass, small flowers and the occasional strawberry. Before the bridge, there was a tented shop (selling biscuits, noodles and the like) and soon after we came across 5 tents camp on other side of the river - not sure if trekkers or locals.

Landscape was more or less consistent - trekking over uneven hillside, river to our right, enclosed on both sides by mountain ranges with snow capped mountains in the far distance in front. We'd stop to take pics and soak in nature before moving on. After about 2 hours, sea of blue tents meant we had reached Chika, our first camp site. With plenty of day light still left, we took few group pics before unloading our bags.

We were welcomed with steaming hot chai and biscuits. Followed immediately with noodles and soup. They were so tasty that we couldn't help ourselves despite not feeling hungry, and dinner was just about an hour anyway.

Just beside our camp, two tributaries met. One of them coming from a big enough waterfall, but too cold to venture for a bath. Far off in the front, we had clearer view of snow capped peaks, with last rays of day shining upon. Arming ourselves with scarfs and gloves, in addition to thermocots and sweaters, we climbed a bit to reach the waterfalls. We didn't go too close, as it was too cold and boulders were wet and slippery with water spray.

After a tasty dinner, our guides briefed us on next day's plan - first tea at 6 AM, breakfast at 7:30 AM, warm-up and leave by 8 AM. Tiring travel past two days meant we had no trouble sleeping early and sleeping well - spacious tents and cozy sleeping bags helped too. Took notes before sleeping, one of the reasons why this blog is so long :P All in all, a great start with awesome food, good shelter, amazing nature with its refreshing air and of course wonderful trek mates.

Link to remaining parts:

PS: Photos for this and remaining parts selected from everyone's cameras

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