Wednesday, 4 September 2013


A report from Vallavi Shukla, The Doon School, Dehradun

Having been in the Doon School for four years, I saw many students and masters go for mountaineering expeditions organized by the school to different peaks and passes. I desperately wished to go for an expedition and when there was a vacancy in one of the teams, I decided to give my name. Surprisingly enough, I was selected to go for an expedition to The Dhumdar Kandi Pass (5608m) between 1st and 6th June, 2013. This pass is situated between Swargarohini (6,252m) and Bander Poonch (6,320m) in the Govind Pashu National Park in the Garhwal Himalayas.

We started our preparation about three months earlier, going jogging and swimming daily - building stamina was a must and considering I was the youngest and the most in-experienced member, everybody wanted to make sure that I practiced twice as hard, something I definitely benefited from later on. Nevertheless, after three months of intense hard work, we were finally ready to take on the challenge.

On the first of June, 2013 a team of seven students (six boys, one girl) and three masters left for Harshil, our first stop for the expedition. The next day we started our trek along a thin trail on the left bank of river Sian Gaud, a major tributary of the Bhagirathi. It was a rather steep and difficult climb for the first day through forests and crossing the occasional stream. After four long hours of tireless trekking we reached our camp, a little below the Gujjar Huts, tired to the very bone! My muscles wouldn't stop hurting! Going up and around the mountains made me realize that my body wasn't just calf and thigh, it was a lot of muscles and they hurt so much! However, we pitched our tents and sat inside. But there was yet another surprise, something I guess none of us had practiced or trained for.... sleeping on uneven ground! Sleeping a little above the bank of Sian Gaad, I loved that sound of the river, a rather peaceful melody. I don't even remember falling asleep that night, but I definitely recall being woken up at night by what must have been really big drops of rain falling on our tent!

On the second day, the rain delayed us by 2 hours, which was a lot. However, we had already packed and as soon as it stopped raining we got our harnesses in place and started off for the next camp. Our initial way was through beautiful forest and alpine meadows blossoming with all sorts of flowers, mostly small in size but wonderfully multicoloured. Another technique we learnt was something called scree-walking. It's a tiny trail right on the edge of a mountain, loose soil and a sharp slope. Much to everyone's disappointment we had to keep moving because the rain had caused the soil to loosen up and getting stuck there for the rest of the night was the last thing on our 'to do list' for this expedition. Our next campsite was close to a place called Bakarthech by the river. It was a beautiful night, for the very first time in my life, I actually saw the sky that starry. It was splendid, our campsite was lit by the moon and stars, and when I say there was no need for us to use our torches, I very much mean it! 

Our camp III was supposed to be a place called Dhār Odari, but the team leader, Dr. Shukla felt that the team needed a day's rest. We already knew that we would have an acclimatization day off, but we weren't expecting it so soon, however this free day was a welcome interlude no matter how soon. So, we camped in Kyarkoti, a beautiful and vast expanse of land. A strikingly beautiful meadow surrounded by birch forest on top and boulder gardens below it, also the streams from Sian Gaud and the gigantic mountains of the Dhumdhar range. It was a marvelous view, everybody was struck by this place; all of them came out of their tents, found a rock each and just sat gazing, taking in the beauty. Luckily for us it was a bright sunny day, no rains, no winds. We had the most delectable aaloo-pranthas for lunch after which we were summoned to learn a few techniques we might need higher up in the mountains.

Like the other camp sites, here too we had a good supply of big boulders and rocks. Our expedition leader selected one big rock for technical training and tied the required equipment around it. A demonstration of 'jummaring' and rappelling was given by one of the guides. It seemed like a pretty easy deal and we eagerly raised our hands for our turns, but when we finally finished, all of us had scraped knees, some bled; aching hands, some bruised. I was beginning to grow accustomed to the hard ground, the silence, the beauty, the mountains, and the stars looking down upon us with care, smiling at one another and us ...something I knew I was going to miss once I got back home. I was actually beginning to understand why boys in school wanted to come to these harsh conditions every year, why they wanted to sleep on the hard ground, in sleeping bags during the holidays (!) because it brought them peace, like it did to me then. That sounds rather profound I must say - well that's precisely how it was.

However, the next few days it was way more hard work than on the days before. We left our camps very early in the morning and reached late, around afternoon. Our food was getting lighter and more watery, oxygen continued decreasing, the temperature kept dropping and of course the much-awaited snow came around. Basically, the factors that made this trek difficult were finally making an appearance. There was no more pushing and joking on the way, heads down, ice axe in hand and with the rucksacks on our shoulders we kept moving.

Well, I must admit the fact that some days of the expedition got so excruciating I cursed myself for getting into this. Also, I realized that snow - very much like the mountain rain - looked good only in the movies; in real life it killed you! It made you cold till the bone, but we were all determined to make the top so, no matter how stiff and sore we were, we just kept moving.

After a tremendous amount of hard work and toil for days we reached our summit camp at Arjun Chara (4650m) having learnt a few more techniques like rope fixing and front point climbing (which were agonizingly used very often) we were decently prepared for the next day, but I guess Dr. Shukla didn't see exactly how keen we were on resting and dragged (literally) the entire team to a slope for yet another training session. However, for this session we were all dressed in our climbing kits. The kit was basically layers and layers of warm, really warm clothes, two pairs of gloves, balaclava (I wore an additional warm cap under mine!) two layers of socks, snow boots and our rain suit along with some more warm clothes. We were taught snow climbing, use of our ice axe etc. Until now we just went along with our equipment but now we had to learn the advanced dos and don'ts of all equipment we would be taking along to the summit. Extreme headaches, nausea, body pain and cold took over each body in Arjun Chara. Not many people wanted to eat dinner, but Dr. Shukla yet again dragged us to the kitchen tent. I still remember the cold creeping on to my back at night, I was unable to sleep, my body hurt and I shivered, I dreaded not going for the final climb the next day and finally snuggled deep into my sleeping bag and prayed for sleep to come, but in vain. 

Finally, the much awaited day came. Every one woke up at 4 o'clock in the morning to get ready. Even though by now I had started loathing snow, the view was spectacular; the mountain tops glowed orange, like a juice stick! I couldn't look away, my gaze was fixed and this time the most clichéd 'wow' came out. I was struck by the beauty, by the grace of god's most wonderful creation ever. However, there was no time to sit and admire nature because we had to leave for the summit; we left our camp by 5 o'clock. 

The climb was terrible. My head hurt, my stomach churned and to top all of that I was gasping for breath as if somebody was choking me or worse, I was drowning drunk! It was impossible to climb beyond ten steps without stopping! My body was broken, I felt incapable in every way. All the way up I had to fight with my brain to keep going, which is what I was talking about when I said that physical fitness is a must but twice the mental toughness is required. Harnessing myself to every rope and dragging my body up, the higher I got the worst I felt. Finally after having dragged myself up to 5558m I collapsed on the snow, my gloves were soaking wet and so was my face and body. The cold was bone-crushing and the sweat was ice. I couldn't bear it anymore; I didn't believe I was going to stop 50m below my summit. All that hard work, all that pain in vain. I couldn't bear to not have my picture clicked with the school flag on the summit so heroically I stood up, clipped myself on a fixed rope and continued. It was not half as easy as it sounds.

The moment I stepped on that sharp icy ridge and realized there is nothing left to climb, I was overjoyed! I was on cloud 9, I wanted to scream and shout, jump and bounce (!), but I was not allowed to. For the simple reason that screaming and shouting would result in an avalanche and we were anchored to our ice block.

We spent about 20 minutes up there. Seven members of the team made the summit, including me! We said our prayers and marveled. Oh! The view! I was yet again struck, couldn't breathe (did I mention low oxygen levels!). We could see Bander Poonch, Black Peak, Gangotri Massif, Lamkhaga, Swargarohini, Yellow Tooth and many more peaks in the Indian and Tibetan Himalayas. Before we could even begin to think that the expedition was over, Dr. Shukla (yet again!) said ''guys, the expedition is never over until you reach where you began" and that was enough for all of us to go into depression, but I guess it wasn't all that bad. We slid down from the very top, the way you do from one of those slides in a kid's park, but this was just way more fun! It was unbelievable! It took us five laborious hours to negotiate the slope to get to the summit and we were down in ten minutes!

The next day we set off for Harshil but were stopped by another river because of the strong current. Crossing the river was yet another phenomenal experience. We had to fix rope to cross the river safely. The water was ice cold, weirdly enough all the snow we encountered on our way up had melted within four days. It was impossible to believe, but none of us were that keen to spend much time over it, so we kept moving. We camped by the river that night. After four days I slept well that night, it was very warm.

The next day we started off for Harshil, everybody was expecting a five hour trek like every day, but boy! Were they wrong! That day we came all the way from Ratia Dhār (our day 6 camp) to Harshil, covering five camps at a stretch! We trekked for thirteen hours! By the time we reached Harshil, we were ready to sleep on the roads! But, the joy was terrific; we found a small inn for ourselves and went in for the night, strangely missing the river and slope! 

This expedition was a great experience, something I will cherish for the rest of my life; it is always going to be on my list of top achievements. The best part about going on this expedition was doing something I know I will never be able to do once out of school. Now I know exactly how far I can push myself, there I'll say it again, physically and mentally.

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