Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Life Begins at 10,000 feet!

"Life begins at 10,000 feet," is a famous quote by the legendary American philosopher/mountaineer Willi Unsoeld who, with Tom Hornbein was the first to climb Everest by its difficult West Ridge in 1963. For me, my life almost ended at 10,000 feet in the Dhauladhar range in May 2000!

The trek up to the meadows of Yara Got had gone well. The four kids with us were doing well and were now playing in the patches of snow which enlivened the swathes of lush green pastures dotted with wild rhododendron in full summer bloom. I was on a ridge high above them, striding along confidently on the snow and using my trekking pole occasionally to steady my gait. When I reached the cairn on top where Govind the guide was waiting for me I looked happily at the vast panorama spread out in all directions, white clouds billowing in the valley immediately below and on the other side. It was a perfect moment. As always, these perfect moments must end; we turned around and began to head down towards the tents where we were to spend the night. Margaret, my wife, and Franklyn were attending to the camp chores while Adele, Timothy, Sanal and Gavin were throwing snowballs at each other higher up the slope. I could see their four dots and the bigger dot which belonged to Behari, another one of our guides.

The camp at Yara Got

We had ascended mostly on slopes of tussocky grass, avoiding the hard packed snow which lay in sheets across the hill. Now, Govind decided that going down the snow would be faster and less time consuming than zig-zagging our way down the hill. He sprinted ahead of me and was soon receding into the distance. I followed sedately, using the conservative "heel plunge" technique which normally works well on soft snow. The snow here was not soft, yet I made fair progress until my heels hit a thin layer of snow under which was hard ice. My legs shot out from under me in an instant and I found myself sliding down the slope on my butt. "Self arrest!" my instinct screamed at me: I dug my one trekking pole into the snow on my right and tried to pivot my body into the classic pose taught at climbing schools which brings the weight of your shoulders directly above the pick of the ice axe and this helps to decelerate and ultimately stop your downward rush. In this case, the trekking pole bent and snapped out of the snow, not slowing me down one bit. I spreadeagled my legs and the snow in the V of my crotch gathered itself and slapped me in the face splattering my sunglasses and reducing visibility. I was now in serious trouble, I could see the end of the snow slope way below  and beyond that a cliff which plunged into a deep valley. I bundled myself into a tight ball as a clump of black rocks loomed; I was thrown up into the air with the impact, landed back on the snow with a thud and slithered some more before thankfully coming to a rest on another block of rocks just feet away from the edge of the cliff. I lay still for a long time before uncovering my head from under my arms where I had tucked them as I had been thrown into that arcing trajectory. I could feel bruises on my limbs. I stretched my legs at the knees and they seemed functional. I stretched my arms and my elbows - they seemed all right too. My right wrist was swollen like a tennis ball and I feared the worst, but somehow it didn't feel broken. Lady Luck had saved me once again!

Govind waiting for me at the cairn

Down below the kids had been watching my rather rapid descent down the snow...my son Sanal (at that time 10 years old) shouted happily, "Hey, look, my dad is glissading!" I had been talking to him earlier about that technique which allows you to execute a controlled descent on slopes of snow with a moderate angle and he was thrilled that I was apparently demonstrating the technique for their benefit. His cousins Adele, (5 months older than him) and Timothy who was twelve took his word for it as did Gavin, the fourth child in our little group. The whole idea about doing a trek in the friendly and not too high ranges of the Dhauladhar had been conceived so that the kids would be able to enjoy it as well.

Descending back to the tents...we took the slope below and to the right of the guide

It took me a little while to appreciate the fact that I was still alive and not mortally injured. I sat up in the snow. Govind, who I had whizzed past, was next to me now and helping me to stand up. He asked me if I was all right and I said I thought so. I put my left arm over his shoulder and this is how I hobbled back to the tents.

My injury warranted an extra day at this camp for which I was glad. Above us was the Jalsu pass (approx. 12,000 ft) which we planned to cross as the highlight of this particular segment of our summer holiday in the mountains of Chamba. I seem to have a propensity for little accidents in the hills...but this was by far the most serious injury I had sustained while on a Himalayan trek. I had been introduced to the joys of trekking in the Himalaya in May 1976 when I joined a programme conducted by the Youth Hostels Association of India (YHAI). The cost was ridiculously cheap - Rs.300/- all inclusive - and all one had to do was show up at their Base Camp in Kishtwar! Over a 10 day period, the trek took groups of people over the Synthen and Margan passes where I had my first experience of walking on snow! If like me you had grown up in the plains of Bengal, you will appreciate what a life changing event that could be...

Margaret and Franklyn with the walking wounded!

This blog will chronicle a few of the Himalayan treks that I undertook over the years with my friends and I hope to convey the charm and challenges encountered...

There was a line emblazoned across the top of the brochure which the YHAI had mailed me before the Kishtwar trek. "Wandering, one gathers honey", it said. Looking back now on my wanderings, I agree completely!

Jalsu Pass is shown on the extreme right of the map

The trail from Surai to Yara Got

Wild rhododendrons en route to Jalsu Pass


  1. This was one Himalayan trek that I thoroughly enjoyed.

  2. I also went for YHAI sponsored Kishtwar-Margan Pass-Sinthan Pass-Kishtwar trek in 1976 as a student of Kurukshetra University Group. I still maintain the booklet YHAI gave to us before the trek with scribblings on the blank pages at the end of the booklet along with few amateur pencil sketches of a few camps. I feel nostalgic about that first trek to the mountains though many trips followed in the subsequent years...

    1. What a wonderful coincidence! Cheers and my best wishes to you and your family.... may the mountains always beckon you!