Experience of Bada Bhangal Trek Bir Billing to Manali trekking for 8 days.
Irking us since 2013 when we had to do the Jiwa Nal – Parvati Valley trail instead since we couldn’t find a guide in Manali, the stars aligned for us three years later — in the Chinese Year of the Monkey to note — as a constant drizzle hung around the otherwise pleasant morning at Bir.
We had reversed directions this time around, starting from Billing to end in Manali, as ponies and other logistics were arranged by Varun, a friend and colleague from these parts, and also a budding adventurer local and a budding entrepreneur (you can go through his wares at Travel Bir Billing). Karan took an overnight bus from Gushaini, acclimatising at the bus stop in Bir in the wee hours of the morning before at dawn dawned the realisation that the designated guest house was only a kilometer away, hardly deeming the wait for want of transport.
The drizzle was in no mood to yield, so driving up to Billing (Paragliding take-off point) and leaving the ponies to be loaded, we started hiking up, remnants of the Paragliding World Cup held here last year staring unassumingly at the valley below. A steep 15-minute climb of a hundred odd meters brings one up to the trail, or rather a jeep road that is can be used as during the dry season.
The trail winds up slowly up for a couple of hours to Chana Pass (2,700 mts), not really a vista of snow and rocks looking out to lofty peaks but a humble cusp in the middle of a lush mixed forest. The walk is always easy on the first day come what may — the weather has to get better, the ‘let’s see’ and ‘we’ll manage’ have an ensued sonority about, and foot sores have not yet muffled that spring in one’s step. The usual itinerary would range from 10-12 days, the locals do a 4-6 day version — as a standard operating procedure over the years, Karan and I took the median of 8-days, not a tough ask but the weather can always play spoilsport. We had started hiking from Billing around 1 pm, but the easy trail would help us compensate without much effort.
Halting at the tea shop in Chana for maggi, the trail descended thereafter into the village of Rajgundha. The Chota Bhangal region still adorns a lot of its tribal heritage, as can be observed from the architecture and dresses. The Barot valley is rich in agrarian activity, and is famous for its trout as well as the (now defunct) rail system.
The trail was irritating now, heavy mud and slush painting us in earthen colours to our knees. Leaving the jeep track at Rajgundha, the path narrowed down into the quintessential forest trail, climbing for around a hundred meters through undulating terrain. It was however, the highlight of the day — my 5-year affair with the 55-300 mm was brought to an end by a rather unassuming yet slippery boulder, hurtling the optical contraption a hundred feet down the mountain as it split into two.
Plachek (2,700 mts) is a forest guest house and a shepherd hut in a dark gorge. Crossing the bridge over a gushing Uhl River, we saw no need to pitch tents and settled in one of the dinghy rooms of the guest house (should’ve pitched the tent, creepy crawlies made up for an itchy sleep). Dining with the Gorkha and his family in Plachek for a few years now, the evening was dedicated to his yarns over rice and lentils. We hit the sack early, in anticipation of all that lay beyond the treeline.
It was a scratchy sleep at Plachek, after having my fair share of nights under the stars and across the fifty shades of monsoons, man-made shelters are the castles of the thick skinned, for the defiers of gravity like us, the chemistry of the insect world is nothing less than an irate vagary for the skin, a tryst with morning lesions that you know shall accompany the week long ‘bathlessness’.
That apart, ’twas a cloudy morning of a narrow, noisy gorge, one of those geographies where the hunt for arenas of digestive deliverance is a time consuming affair, and the disgust with the consummation of such with peat is but a triviality.
Otherwise, the drizzle carried forth the conversation from the day before. Nevertheless, we hit the trail at 9 am, looking to make it to the base of Thamsar pass in time to recover for the knee-jerking descent to Bada Bhangal the next day, critical to sticking to the 8-day plan — for their was more company here, the trail from Bada Bhangal to Manali the lesser frequented of the segments, since the major towns lie closer to Thamsar than Kalihani.
Uhl was getting noisier now, the trail was slushier, and landslides started doling out time consuming detours, especially with the arguments we were having in general with the traction around the ecosystem since yesterday (no more broken lenses, I’d vowed, without much conviction with only a fraction of the stroll under the belt).
Couple of hours of a swift hiking took us across Jhodi towards the first snow bridges of the trek — we usually plan our itinerary on the tenet of minimum snow, although emulating ballerinas across moraines, one does ponder over the fact if a bit of white powder and crampons would make life more linear rather than zig zagging across landslides, throwing involuntary instigations at the wind — the first sight of snow is always a relief, having finally broken through the tree-line, the landscape can only open up for the heights now, and the meadows, the green embalmment of all that violent paraphernalia gushing across the gorges and bouncing of mountainsides.
The trails climbed and undulated a lot till Panihartu, not very technical but highly diversionary, many a time separating by a kilometre, and one could easily find oneself choosing between a seventy degree climb or careful traverses across loose landslides.
We hit Panihartu at noon, just in time to beat the drizzle and mist – Karan and Varun storing up on cat naps as the ‘hotel’ owner — yes, they insist on ‘hotel’, not that we would be critical for the relative degree of comfort the stone huts provide from the biting wind and in the shepherd season, they do provide board and lodge — sheep meat was hung dried on the tarp for smoking, to be added to a variety of food items in winters. 15 August had been the last day with clear sunshine, we learnt, as the pressure cooker gasped for air.
Plateful of rice and lentils, and another half an hour of chasing rose finches augured return of the clouds, and we continued upstream to make camp before the rains come in, for drizzles are more often than not punishing in this treelessness.
The trail climbs steeply upwards after Panihartu, and two hours of fast climbing with one tricky water crossing brought us to the congregation of moraines called Bhadpal (deriving from ‘bhed,’ translating into ‘shepherd’s shelter), an intermittent hillock resting just below the base of Thamsar. A lovely vista beckoned, although we’d have to brave the night winds for the luxury, and we camped as the mist swirled all around us. The sheep started returning home, smoked chimed out of the shepherd huts, and we sat in the backdrop of contentment over a shepherd dog’s expression. We dined at twilight, although the bear activity around kept us star gazing for another couple of hours. Maturing over the fact we could not afford a 9 am start tomorrow, we tucked our sensibilities into the sleeping bag.
In all of the repository of natural landscapes, a mountain pass, unless draped in white, will put on display an impressive repertoire of erosion — wind, water, and the infinitesimal dispositions of faunal existence crawling up its shoulders. The oceans are no less, not surprising considering the lineage, but the watery depths are no match for the panoramas of thin air.
Hitting the sack to a starry night, the sound of pitter patter at two in the morning had us tossing around the tent for a while, but the upside of physical exhaustion is an absolute annihilation of amnesia, and mostly clear skies greeted us as we scattered out of the tent on our separate ways in search of that solitude called for by, well, the call of nature if everything else might seem too metaphysical for the lower climes.
We started up at sharp seven, the clouds thin enough to warrant the rains delayed enough for the crossing. A hundred meters or so of warm up and we were on to the steeper sections moraines, prancing across stones. Then there is that question plaguing any troubadour on uncomfortable slopes – to burst the lungs and legs for a five metre ‘hypotenuse glory’ or patiently, maturely choosing to skirt over through the base and the perpendicular; one averages out the two thought processes over any pass, ‘patience’ directly proportional to the amount of snow and scree in most cases.
Huffing up some stupid shortcuts and hands over hips on the consequent arcs, we clocked a little under two hours as I imagined throwing the knapsack on the boulder next to Karan’s perch, a painful fifteen minutes ahead. It was the false base, comfortably triangulated out of existence from our line of vision yesterday but what our muleteer had warned about.
A well deserved fifteen minute break, and off we trudged to the final 200 meters to the summit of Thamsar Pass, grumpily acknowledging the first glimpse of the pristine blue aqueous hurling down those slippery fidgets across the streams below that was hardly five paces beyond our comprehension all this while — a dot as one gained height, but the genesis of Uhl hurling mad down below, the yin and yang — a linear, tired chained of thought, threads of conviction fluttering with or without the wind in this cold dust.
The top was a delight, for in the ways of the mountains, the times, they do are a changin’ pretty quick, and it was a cracking panorama, the clouds playing restricted calligraphy on the horizon. One of the highlights of the trek was a clear of view of Manimahesh Peak with the snow crest ‘shivling’, a rare view from Thamsar due to the usual clouds, with Shikar Beh (6,200 mts) and Mukar Beh (6,070 mts) bordering the other flank.
We descended in glee, two the lakes dotting the first landscape on the other side. Slipping down comfortably over the snow, we picked up pace for what would be long, long descent. Immersed in swapping lenses and feeding the shutter starved disposition, I completely lost sight of everyone for a good couple of hours, not a bad time of the day to do so before noon but not a scenery to be backtracking on uselessly as the clouds moved about above.
The next three hours were painful. Heavy rockfalls graced the lakeside as I digressed upon the number of options left behind by my predecessors. The wind was kind enough, and the sun was being courteous despite all the vapour weighing it down.
Three hours of steep, painful decent over the boulders brought us to Marhi, which we literally raced across for another half an hour to settle down awhile in Udg. Most people camp in either of these two places, and skipping this would be a major boost to our ambitions of finishing early.
Another ‘hotel’ at Udg obliged with hot rice and lentils — these would be rare on the other side of Bada Bhangal — the stories of a trekker and a local from Bada Bhangal who’d been buried by a landslide while trying to cross over to Chamba a couple of months ago now getting the ‘he was sitting right over there, nursing his injured toes’ moments. Not that one would wish to be dampened, but looking hesitantly at rocks hanging on seventy degree slopes over a fair amount of time, one does question the sanity of these enlightened excursions, only to be brushed away by the stark finite targets of the present.
We took it easy at Udg, halting for almost an hour and a half, and the clouds threatened to punish, drizzling on and off, naughtily coercing me into the ‘poncho on, poncho off’ routine almost half a dozen times. The trail had been knee-jerking steep since Thamsar, and it never did relent as we got the first glimpses Bada Bhangal, the old and new settlements perched over a tight gorge at the confluence of Ravi and Kalihani rivers, both writhing in all the glacial fury of the monsoons.
We raced and raced and raced across switchbacks, and they never seemed to end, but a couple of hours (that did seem much more), brought us as the wooden bridge, knees buckling to such and extent that we wobbled even across the one metre wide structure, and the camera survived another fall.
Bada Bhangal, lying at an altitude of around 2,500 mts between Dhauladhar and Pir Panjal ranges, can safely lay claim to be one of the remotest villages in India, atleast 3 days away from any hint of the accelerated development of rural roads the country has witnessed during the past couple of decades; a village where the voters have to brave an 80-km trek in high altitude backcountry to exercise their democratic rights. Ravi, one of the major constituents of the six major rivers of the Indus river system, originates above the village on its 720 km long journey across India into Pakistan.
Local farming and livestock is the primary occupation, and the 500-odd villagers strongly adhere to their traditions and customs, cut off from civilisation by three high passes, none accessible all through the year. The villagers, it is heartening to see though, are a prosperous lot, with lush houses in the traditional kath kuni style of wood and stone architecture. The government provides basic social amenities in the form of a primary school, a dispensary as well as a (barely used) helipad, although not many government employees are enthusiastic enough to brave the everyday struggles of this Himalayan outback.
Campsite was the school village ground across the village, and the clouds, in all their benevolence, roared and growled only once we had comfortably set up camp. Dinner was a wet affair though, and the winds racing on sick granite slipstreams threatening to blow away the tents.
The knee caps crying cremate, we dropped dead to the sound of thunder constantly threatening to throw us asunder.
It rained through the night, and when lazily opened up the sleeping bag to have a whiff of the time when it ceased, it was a relief as the watch showed 4 in the morning. Relaxing back into the sleeping bag for another couple of hours, we left the village at eight, with the sun still not fully into the valley.
Despite the exquisite backdrop of its remoteness, one can feel a slow decay in this settlement perched on a rather uncomfortable gorge. Most of the inhabitants now have houses lower down in Chota Bhangal region and further into the Kangra Valley, gravitating to these altitudes are and more with age. Electricity is a thread of small NGO projects from time to time. Road still looks a distant dream, although one hydropower project is good enough to gnaw these hills down mercilessly.
It was all uphill now, to be frank a far more inviting proposition after the treacherous downhills the previous day. We were also at a stage now where we’d have to go a little further than the usual campsites everyday to stick to our timelines. One day had been saved so far, and we needed to chop another two off.
The first hour of the climb was painful. A short steep path brought on the mountain facing the one we’d descended yesterday, and we walked through a dense hemp vegetation. But the rain had not only made the trail slippery, it was rendered almost invisible by the heavy growth of shrub, who hath more than their fill of the heavenly ale it seemed. Heavily laden with moisture, it has us soaked to the chest in less than 5 minutes. One tends to get use to the wet after the initial discomfort has gone, however, and we spent the next two hours determinedly breaking through the tree line, missing many a step as the grass underfoot would give way to a waiting void, but never too dangerously.
The tree line ended after three hours of bushwhacking, and we reached Chala Got at noon, the trail still not giving any clue as to what lay beyond the next bend. It was one of those days when the ponies had not managed to catch up, they usually did it after 1-2 hours, and we had to be careful not to wander off in unintended directions. Another hour of steep climbing brought us near Sunni Got, where we could finally hear the echoes of the mule train. Stopping on a meadow for a quick lunch of chapattis, jam and peanut butter, the panorama was a bit more wider, in a sense broader than the other side, it would narrow down though as we meander back into the banks the Kalihani River, which was gushing down a couple of kilometres below us at the moment.
A series of short steep climbs and we walked on beautiful plateau, one of the few leisurely strolls the trail offered us, to cross Sunni Got around 2 pm, moving on to cover some incremental distance before camping. The descent started after Sunni Got, with loose gravel and steep switchbacks as painful for the ponies as for us.
The streams were gushing down wildly now after a whole day of glacial melt. Karan and Varun managed on a few, but I had to take my shoes off time and again, wasting almost 10-5 minutes on each of these digressions. 2-3 of such crossings had us pilfering almost an hour, and with the clouds starting to home in as the clock struck 5, we decided to pitch camp after the next stream we crossed.
Part amused, part concerned by all the signs of bears having frolicked around, Karan and Suresh, the muleteer, ventured off down into the forest for firewood. It looked to be another starry night if the wind held. We were in the quieter section of the trek now, one that would break us even more from the glimpses we had today, and have us contemplating as much on the footsore as on the metaphysical.
We had our first campfire cooked meal, a relief considering one of the gas cylinders had leaked away into the thin air somewhere after Thamsar. This was our first campfire of the trek so far, and I was actually happy to be out of the village. All the glory of this trek lies away from civilisation, its momentary presence is more of a discomfort rather than a relief at times.
The mornings were much more enlivening on the other side of Kalihani River; Uhl wasn’t just cutting it maybe, we surmised. The trail took a sharp descent again as we started off, with craggy, shrubby switchbacks down to the river. The trail never eased off, with continuous rockfalls dotting the grassy slopes, and extremely slender trails at times. Garthala came into sight two hours later as the trail eased off for a bit as we started climbing gently.
It looked simple, but the next couple of kilometres to Devi ki Marhi were tricky, with landslides and rockfalls now increasing in size as well as frequency. The gentle incline was dotted with about a dozen stream crossings, many a time accompanied by loose landslips on their sides. We had to take shoes off for a couple, while the last one warranted a dress code strictly without trousers, the water level higher as it was past noon and the sun had been murkily doing away with the snow since morning. There were brief patches of pure bliss, however, walking across sceneries with horses dotting over ripe meadows as glacial whites meandered across the backdrop.
The resident shepherd at Devi ki Marhi (the Devi was a small ‘jogini’ a little above the hut) treated us to some halwa, which was interestingly made of ghee from goat’s milk, and was heavy enough to be lunch for us despite having a light breakfast. The cold water, for however painful any direct interaction with it might be, heals aching muscles like no other medicine. We loafed around the camp for over an hour, one of the ponies had to brought back from some distance as I practised the ritual of doling out medicines from the first aid kit to the shepherds. Not anticipating the tough terrain ahead, we strolled out casually to try and get as close to Kalihani Pass as possible.
The clouds had started building up again, and while the landslides were gone, large rockfalls appeared, some almost a mile long, making up for the lack of stream crossings, and it was slow going, painstakingly hopping over boulders big and small, with intermittent showers making the rocks slippery. We could see the bend before the pass now, but there was no feasible camping ground in sight. Their were a lot of sheep on both sides of the river, the shepherd season was in full swing.
Traversing a snow bridge, the rockfalls grew heavy now, and their were hardly any patches of steady ground for the next hour. This was not a very safe terrain in case the clouds let go, and we wanted to find the camping ground as soon as possible. We found the campsite yet once again just in the nick of time as it started to pour, by far the only possible safe spot for a couple of miles in either direction. The thatch was luckily empty and the cook set his wares around the fire quickly for tea and raw Maggi, the guilty pleasure of every tired hiker. A snow pigeon fleeted across as we stared grumpily out of the thatch at the rain, which had not stopped for three hours now. It would have snowed at the pass for sure. The ground was completely slush now, the tent pegs coming loose every now and then — so much for the white tent inners. We had had similar rain in Bada Bhangal just day before yesterday, but this was high ground, where it could be extremely uncomfortable if the river rose or the rocks came-a-tumblin’.
The thing with rainy nights is, it is, much like everyday, the middle ground — one could aspire for a brighter future, but it could always snow.
Our stream of consciousness mimics glacial landscapes quite a bit – the raw, jagged thought is sitting atop boulder at the top of the pass; slowly the winds carve conviction into its surface as the snow penetrates deep through the cracks, stripping the idea into small bits of comprehension (of sorts) that can easily roll down the slope into the gushing aqueous, a repository of continuity , of change that shall further chide the stone to dust – and it is in this journey from the enormous to the infinitesimal that the rock find deliverance.
We are no different that the rock, reiterating dominance over the elements and situations till the futility of conquering is realised – it is no surprise, none at all, that the journey to enlightenment begins and ends in nullity, but it is no easy task, then, to square a circle.
It was another circle we were trying to square in the morning though. The rain had relented after a twelve hour marathon, but the mist and clouds were in no mood to recede. These are tough times when the body has recovered but the environs have not. Three hours elapsed after my first sojourn out of the tent at five thirty , amply motivated by a call of nature, but it was clear that the clouds were here to stay for the day.
Compromising on our usually conservative approach to mountain safety (we do deserve it once in a while, for in the terra firma we place immense faith), we finally broke camp at eight thirty and started crawling up to the base of Kalihani pass. the streams were a tad easier to negotiate in the morning as compared to the previous two days, although I did manage to take a healthy dip on a careless step.
As compared to Thamsar, this was tougher pass, with more technical moraines and rockfalls, the kind that refuse to let the mind wander off as the feet dance to that tune of enlightenment you’d come wandering for in the first place. Anyhow, we made good progress to cover up for the late start and found ourselves at a plateau before the pass in a little over two hours.
The plateau had much more expanse than the one at Thamsar, but there was not as much snow as we’d expected. Lunging over a mile long section of steep snow with a couple of dozen of small crevasses, none difficult, we found ourselves at the pass, albeit with no panorama and windy as usual, but the view of Kullu valley, distinctly more green after two gut wrenching climbs and the (far more dreaded) knee jerking descents was a delight (more travails were in store, but that’s the following story), a stark naked tapestry of green, the garments of a canopy laid bare by the scruff of vegetation scraping greedily off the rich mountain air.
The descent was again more technical than Thamsar, which had flat rockfalls as compared to the scree on steep angles here. We skidded for a couple of hours in the comfort of all the high altitude having been taken care of to land at Sanghor Thatch, a small transition plateau before another continuous descent (we assume to be to on the banks of Raison Nala but are yet to confirm).
Another shepherd hut, another couple of chapattis with bread and jam, food is really decimated to its real value in the face of where it emanates, one imagines fine dining with a sense of discomfort here, having been caught red handed so pompously wading around the faux pas more often than not.
In hindsight, the singles were sent to us here. The shepherd showed us two trails, one only pedestrian, and the other going down to the river for the ponies to cross. We, as usual, fluffed by the success rate of our law of averages, decided to meander along through a slender ridge right in the middle of two streams. The descent had been decidedly steep, and we were rather irked at the pains of descending swiftly as the ponies slithered down the right slope to the river basin.
Keeping Karan as the marker, me and Varun kept following the ridge, which led to one false drop after the next, keeping us irate for the next half an hour as we finally saw the rocky end at the confluence of two giggling streams, Karan nonchalantly motioning us to hurry down the eight degree scruff to the stream bed, almost two hundred feet of grass-led abseiling. Cussing under the breath as I took the daypack off to shove the camera, popped up the hour of the day – my windbreaker, stuffed on to top, had slipped of somewhere after the thatch.
On any normal day, one would wait to take stock. But this one had my spare spectacles, and of all the luxuries my mountain upbringing can afford to lavish upon me, there is no cure for the myopia if I happen to do away with my current piece of eyewear. With abusive, dehydrated epiphanies, I hurled myself back up the incline, setting myself thirty minutes before I gave up, it was a comfort to know the last place where I’d shoved it back in was way below the thatch, but even that was a climb of almost six hundred feet.
With sheer irritation, I panted uphill, the curves I was careful descending through a while back now angrily raced across. Five minutes before I hit the wall, the jacket revealed itself in all its dusty glory lying in the trail, and with part comfort, part trepidation, I literally raced downhill. It is lot easier to move without twelve odd kilos on the back, and I made full use of it. Karan, unable to comprehend beyond the roar of the stream as to what was happening all this while, had crossed back over and helped Varun over to the other side. A steep hundred feet descent brought us over to the other side of the stream, where Karan told us of the real problem he’d been trying to unravel all this while. Our trail was a couple of kilometres off where the ponies had crossed, and we couldn’t because of the high water, and there we’d have to beat our own trail.
It might sound exciting, but it is never safe, and never really advisable (although one would never shirk off of it) to beat your own trail on seventy degree incline trusting only grass, but so we did for the next hour, amused by the fact that the identification of danger in the outdoors is so often misplaced, and petrified by the little hollows the slope pranked us on too frequently.
We did hit the trail, and a regular undulating trail across upper deodars brought to another slushy meadow of Riyali thatch. It had been a long day, beginning with indecision and ending in resolutions.
And, before I forget, it started raining as soon as we camped.
The place where you lose the trail is not necessarily the place where it ends — Tom Brown, Jr
In hindsight, maybe the morning did give a sign of how the day was about to unfold. Our ponies had wandered off way too far in the night, and it took a good two hours of the early night to get them back. We started a little unsurely today, not sure if we could Manali today or would have to camp at Lama Dugh, for the latter part of the journey would be almost all downhill.
The trail cut across a brilliant pantone of green despite the clouds, relatively flat for the first hour and then climbing steadily for the next ninety minutes. We stopped to chat at a thatch a couple of kilometres below the ridge, the shepherd exasperatedly coaxing his lazy dog refusing to get up and eat. Feeling a tad energetic after an extremely sweet couple of swigs of tea, we set about for the ridge top, possibly the last long climb remaining.
The swarm of almost a dozen Himalayan Griffons circling too close to the ground could also have been a sign, maybe. A little before the ridge top, Suresh, the muleteer, decided to cross-check the way once more, and we still wonder whether we misunderstood those gorkhas or they were just having some plain old high altitude fun.
Instead of crossing the ridge over through the wider trail, we were told to cross a couple of kilometres ahead near a small pond. We were apprehensive of leaving a trail so obvious, but seldom do you doubt bespoke directions, and these trails change due to weather very frequently. Another forty minutes of trudge brought us to the pond, with still no sign of a steep descent we were expecting. Moreover, with the panorama on the far side visible now, we saw the Manali highway, almost 10 kms further down the city, we could see Patlikuhl instead of Manali. A light brown shepherd dog (or not, for we never knew where he came from) found companionship in us, another sign maybe, a good one albeit, for he would end up sticking with us till the very end.
Suresh was still confident that the trail would switch back toward Manali eventually, and so we kept pushing down straight. Another half an hour brought us to a standstill, we were sure this was not the trail we were supposed to be on, and with the watch signalling two in the afternoon, we were not in a mood to retake our steps and recheck. Suresh went ahead on a half hour recce while we waited in the mist, and returning without much conviction, we decided to head straight down and try to switchback into the actual trail.
It was a slow descent, made slower by the short cuts we were now taking to lose altitude and hit the tree line, where we hoped to find the right trail. Crossing an empty shepherd encampment an hour into the descent gave us hope, and another hour of a tough scramble down heavy vegetation over highly uneven rockfall, we found ourselves at a highly slushy meadow, wiping the drizzle off the spectacles to find we were almost at the edge of the hill, a flat barren slab of granite staring at us from the other side of the river, which we could only hear crashing furiously at the rocks below.
This was not really dangerous, but rather irritating. Still persisting, we hit a dense forest and kept descending rather shakily, for the ground was extremely slippery now, and even the ponies were finding it difficult to hold ground. Half an hour of this uber slippery sojourn brought us to a dead end. We would have to beat our own trail now, but without knowing where the end would be, it was not a very exciting proposition.
Suresh went on a desperate recce, more disappeared than went actually. He dropped dead near us 45 minutes later, panting furiously as we gave him water. The gentleman had seen a black bear ten feet away, luckily the animal was too busy digging. Dropping flat to the ground and crawling back for almost 2-300 meters, he shouted, scaring the bear off done the hill as he ran up for his life. This was not looking good now, but an experience tends to make one stubborn, and we decided Suresh would recce once more down the hill, albeit with some company this time. We spent almost an hour herding back the fidgety ponies who were impatiently scooting off in all directions.
This was not our day, and as Suresh came back up again, flatly declaring this the most scary and tiring day of his life, we glumly started retracing our steps back. Suresh was totally spent, urging us to ahead and he would catch along. The first meadow was in no shape to camp, and we would have to climb all the way back through the wet slippery shrubbery to the last shepherd camp we’d seen. Herding the mules in absence of Suresh, we scampered up fast, with only an hour of daylight remaining.
It was an exhausting folly just for trying to double check, we surmised as the camp came into sight. Dusk was approaching fast and since the rain had really picked up, we decided to ditch the tents, draping the larger of the tarps over the wooden frame, big enough for all five of us. Suresh slept as soon as he lay down, and we never managed to get a good fire going. It was decent enough to col though, and we gorged on everything — popcorns, papad, raw Maggi and what not as the rice took forever to boil. The dog never came inside, surprisingly, its instincts were all of a shepherd dog and we surmised it would go back its way the next morning.
Thinking over how we could hear the traffic half a kilometre down the hill a few hours back, the bear country and the 20 kilometre hike we would have to take to circumvent a little up the same road again, we crept into the sleeping bags getting wetter by the hour. It would be an early start tomorrow, but for now, the rain was lullaby enough to lay the lessons of the day to rest.
It is a funny feeling, waking up to realise that everything around you is moist except for your body, still shielded in the rainy night by a devout sleeping bag. Hoping to start early morning, we had not pitched tents to save time. But the mountain gods have their own methods of evaluation, and once it had started raining at seven last evening, there were at 5’o clock the next morn, the rain unrelenting. One hour passed, and then two. We were staring at cruel ironies now, having gotten over the exhaustion of the previous day and raring to rush back up, but the clouds were here for a marathon.
At 10’o clock, we finally decided enough was enough. Packing up with extra layers of waterproofing on all electronics, we decided to make a push, for a rain that had gone on uninterrupted for 14 hours now could not be trusted to wane away anytime soon. The dog from the day before had been guarding us all through the night apparently (or we could be his defence again a susceptible solitude in bear country, such are the unwritten contracts of the wild).
The irony was even more evident as the rain stopped fifteen minutes into the hike. We were driven by irritations of the day before, and sped us strongly, covering the way back to the top of ridge where we’d taken the wrong trail in a little under two hours. We’d thought the dog would find his abode somewhere around these parts, but the canine silently kept with us. Never once would he relent to being patted, shying away into a corner but keeping up with the group unflinchingly.
The trail from the top was something we have done in the recent past treks where it has been rainy, descending at a breakneck pace on slippery mud and slush. But this one had an overload of tall grass (many of these, even if beaten down a couple of days ago, can get back up simply on the rich nutrients of monsoon fed soils), with blind switchbacks over anything that could suck you in from the ankle to the knee.
Another two hours of this painful descent brought us to Lama Dugh, looking magical in the heavy rain that we ducked from inside the thatch for 10-15 minutes. This had been a quick recovery despite the constant rain, and we could hope to be in Manali on time to catch onward buses. Their was water pipeline going down from here, so we could safely assume to be vicinity of civilisation now.
But the path to deliverance is seldom carved easy. The pipes dived down into a cliff, and we wee left to bushwhacking nervously for 15 odd minutes as multiple trails lay hidden deceptively within the bushes. The dog kicked by a pony for being over inquisitive, and somewhere within the bushes came the shouts of the muleteer, a narrow bridge trail leading down to the tree line.
The woods were kind in the way that we did not have to scrounge hard for a view of the trail, but it was slippery all the way down to Manali. We skidded and slipped across oak and pine painfully, and the first sign of the cows and hedge wires brought that mix of elation and nostalgia, the imprints of these sojourns into the wild that would start to hibernate now.
We were a repository of all things dung and mud, and still hung over by the luxuries of the outdoors, packed and changed on the road itself. Having to lift the large rucksack, even heavier that what I’d brought due to all the water it’d drunk, was a dizzying experience. It was all downhilll, thankfully, and within an hour the jamboree of men, ponies and dog ruling amok in the backcountry for a week had dispersed into buses and night shelters with a simple wave of the hand.