Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Hampta part 3 - Balu ka Ghera to Hampta peak and back

Link to previous parts



Big day. Snow was calling us and nature was kind enough to give us a bright morning. Most of us woke up early around 5 AM again. Since there were two large groups camped, kitchen was quite busy in preparing breakfast (wheat dalia, milk, cornflakes) and packing lunch. So hot water only for those with cold or sick enough to need medicine. So far. we were coping well enough with altitude (11900 feet at Balu ka Ghera)

Even brief contact with cold (but fresh and tasty) river  water left our fingers numb. Tea mugs and gloves were handy. For a while, weather swung rapidly between warm and chill. I had packed warm clothes in small bag to carry, reluctantly I went to put on heavy jacket. By the time I came out, sun was shining and it soon became uncomfortable to wear the jacket :P


We were delayed from our expected 7:30 AM start due to various reasons. At 8 AM, the guides asked us to gather in a circle to give instructions for the day. Especially that we need to trek briskly and avoid stopping just to take photos. Also, we selected crampons, needed for moving on snow later on. Some of them didn't have size info, some didn't have pouch to carry and generally there were fewer of larger sizes - resulting in uncomfortable experience later on. Our day bags were already cramped with warm clothes, ponchos, snacks, lunch, water bottle, etc. So, many of us tied the crampon pouches to our bags - light enough to be comfortable.




Soon, we were on our way after a chorus of Jai Hampta - enthusiasm was palpable in the brisk strides and purposeful way we trekked. Despite advice to save batteries to take pics at the peak (my first set of batteries had already nearly run out the previous and I was using the other one), I couldn't quieten my compulsive clicks. 



How could I, on this beautiful trail - Beas river to our right, frozen snow all the way down to base of mountains, sometimes covering the river in a protective embrace, melting snow forming thin waterfalls, magnificent snow capped peaks in the distance, grassy mountain on the left, etc? To compensate, I would walk faster or jog often and managed to stay with front group for a while - giving me time to click pictures as well avoid guide's ire.





We took our first break after about 40 minutes. Ishan sprinted to the river to fill his water bottle. After 5 minutes, we were up and on our way again to glory. Our trail was now primarily cobbles and boulders with sprinkling of grass. Shortly, we reached a shallow lake. Another group of trekkers had camped near the lake (mostly orange and red tents). They had started their climb much earlier than us.




The breaks were also meant to attend to nature calls. While it is frequently advised to drink lot of water during treks, especially high altitude treks, it probably needs to be explicitly mentioned that it is important to heed to body's excreta calls as well. Being shy or afraid of what others would think is secondary. Why strain your body in addition to tough trekking conditions? Thankfully I've changed my habit and I can confidently say it has helped me physically for the better.






After the lake, trekking amongst the boulders interspersed with small snow stretches was slow going. We had to be circumspect walking on snow without the crampons - trekking pole helped to test the grounding as well as provide support. An hour of trudge later, on a vast expanse of snow covered mountain side, we stopped to fit crampons on our shoes.






The benefit of crampons was felt immediately - much better grip and easier to climb. It was like discovering you can swim. The sky was still largely blue with white clouds hovering over mountain peaks on either side. Excepting the guides (who were used to this climate), we had our caps/sunglasses and warm clothes weren't needed yet. 





I was still with front group of trekkers, clicking as many photos I could. It was surreal to be climbing on snow (not fresh snow though) - the feeling took a while to sink in. My focus mainly was to reach the peak and come back safely - without realizing implications, I could get single minded like that often.


It took about 30 minutes to climb the first large stretch of snow. Once or twice, those in front had to correct our course to the left side - the guide accompanying us probably not as experienced as Shyam. We could still spot our constant companion - the Beas river, near the edges of snow covering and some open patches amidst the foot or so thick snow covering. 



We had to cross the river yet again. Thankfully not another bridge - just skipping on rocks. It was easier in the morning than while returning later, when river flow was more. The crampons, while useful on snow, were a hindrance on rocks. Painful if one didn't get proper size and too tight. Around this point, our entourage started to gradually spread over wide area, splitting into small groups.




Some members in our team were struggling to keep up to the pace of those far ahead in front. Monisha realized the situation and asked the few of us little bit in front (relatively) to wait and stick together as team. After about 20 minutes of uncomfortable trek through rocky trail, we hit snow again. After which, we were mostly on snow till the peak, except for a rocky patch here and there. The river hid somewhere within those snowy stretches and streams from waterfalls took tunnelled their way to join the river below. In all the excitement and focus on climbing, some of us forgot to replenish our empty water bottles.


The high altitude and tiredness made the not-so-steep climb on snow just that bit difficult to require frequent stop every few minutes to catch breadth. Fog and cloud (still whitish) started to enclose us all around. We wore thermals/jackets to get comfortable and scarf/woollen-cap to cover our head and ears. Gloves not yet, as we needed to grip trekking pole (or wooden stick) and it wasn't that cold yet.



Around 11:30 AM, some in our team decided to stay back - for various reasons. In retrospect, I feel that had we started on time from camp and our team had paced as per our comfort level, we could have all reached the peak. (They did spend good time enjoying though, not having to confront conditions at peak :P)




Monisha did a good job keeping the rest of us together - asking those ahead to wait and encouraging those behind. Around noon, we came across huge swathes of snow covered valley. Fog and chill moved in deeper and out came gloves too. The ones Vivek and I bought were thick and water resistant, but not so good in keeping warmth :-/ Should have bought thin woollen ones too. Our climb became steeper too, but manageable with breaks.


We didn't have an idea how far it was to peak though. The lone guide accompanying us was evasive, purposefully perhaps. Whatever little water we had was shared around - we weren't that thirsty as in need of energy. Having hydrated well on the way helped too. Finally, around 12:40 PM (20 minutes before guideline to start descent) we reached the peak - more than 14000 feet above mean sea level. Last 10 feet of climb was quite steep and slippery.



Anytime I removed my gloves to click photos left my fingers numb from cold. Had a running nose as well. We spent about half an hour clicking solo and group photos. We were of course absolutely stoked to reach the peak (and wishing we could have had opportunity to cross the Hampta pass to other side - would have been tougher with our heavy backpacks though) - had plenty of josh to shout and pose for the pics.





With foggy conditions at the top, it was difficult to see chances of rain while going back. We could only wish to not get caught in a rainy spell like previous days. Climbing down was much faster as could be expected but trickier as usual. Some slid down purposefully while others did accidentally. The trodden paths were much softer now and the trekking poles proved quite handy - helping us judge how soft was snow under as well as prevent slips more often than not.




An hour later, we stopped for lunch. We chose a spot with river flowing besides to replenish with water as well. The now cold rotis stuffed with boiled potato curry was good enough to eat and sate our hunger. We didn't rest long and were up on our feet soon to continue our descent/slide. I took the opportunity to add another layer of clothing though.




We reached the river crossing at few minutes to 3 PM. Took about 10 minutes to circumvent. Taller ones found it easier to leap and cross while shorter ones had to take time to find appropriate way. Sandeep was accompanying us and his experience helped too. Shortly, we could see the tents near the shallow lake - which in hindsight wasn't a welcoming sight.




Half an hour later, we had crossed most of the snow covered trail and removed our crampons. After the break, another 30 minutes to finally reach the shallow lake. Sun was peaking through the fog and cloud and we couldn't be happier to escape rain. We were like Ocean's 11 team - escaped the worst of rain on all the five trekking days.



We were amidst greenery again. Shepherds were tending to their sheep and goats. Dogs were effective in helping the herdsmen. We would hear whistles now and then, seemed to be tuned for different purposes. To the uninitiated, it was all mystical and magical. 



Even after our blue tents were finally visible, we took about 20 minutes to reach the camp. The last stretch simply didn't seem to end, though we were encouraged that camp was near. I stopped clicking photos for the day - but still it marked the most pics for a day during the trek.

Around 5 PM, we reached the dining tents, tea mugs in hand. Others in our team had reached about half an hour earlier - apparently they had spent lot of time, clicking photos and playing in the snow to make up for not reaching the peak (and a special request to not mention them in this blog :P). Tea was followed by chow mein, masala a little on the higher side. While we were chit chatting and cooks momentarily inattentive to food table, a mule was sly enough to pounce on the chow mein. Reaction afterwards seemed to suggest it quite liked the experience.

We went to keep our bags, freshen up a bit and continue our discussion (including another round of pulse oximeter checks - mine didn't register despite trying three times :-/ ). Those with pounding headaches and touch of fever went to sleep. I had light headache and fever as well, but too excited to take a nap.

Next up was soup. We gathered in the dining tent again, front flap closed to keep out the chill (but frequently opened and closed as more trekkers joined us and left). We relieved our moments of glory and went through pics of peak. After a while, everybody headed to take rest. Back in tent, I took notes for the day. Then when dinner calls came, some of us decided to skip - we weren't that hungry and embraced sweet sleep instead.

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