“Climbing to the top demands strength, whether it is to the top of Mount Everest or to the top of your career.” -
A. P. J. Abdul Kalam – Former President of India.
Though this is not my first trek, yet every time I embark on a journey, I am as anxious and confused as if it is my first trek ever! For me, each trek is the winding down of a busy lifestyle to unleash my soul into the wild and the unknown. All the ballyhoo about the trip is so stressful that you almost don’t even get time to think. In fact, my wife very kindly helped me to do some last-minute shopping and got me some energy bars and body wipes. By looking at the quantity of the stuff she had bought for me, I began wondering whether she was packing me off for a month or even more than that. My paraphernalia itself must have weighed around 2 kg. Even my driver bought me last-minute toiletries in excess of what I had requested as if I was going for a spiritual retreat. Guess he didn’t realise the fact that I may not be even able to take a bath for several days as the temperature will be - 4 °C up there. However, my preparation this time was kept minimal as the entire trip was planned by a friend of mine- Dr Vishal From Mumbai. I take this moment to extend my immense gratitude to him for that!
Every time I go on a trek, I always ponder about being in a “settled down” state so that I need not worry much about my family and know that they will be fine even if I’m not around for a few days. But, later I realised that this whole concept of 'settling down' is itself a misleading mirage.
We think that we will settle down when we finally complete our studies (Oh really?). Or, maybe when you get married (No ways), and then we think that we will settle down once we attain success(it never happens). Then perhaps, we will undoubtedly settle after we have kids? (no way). Ok! Then maybe after our kids turn into adults? (Not at all). Let me tell you one truth. I am yet to experience this so-called mirage named “settling down”.
Thus, I learned one truth of life- Life is not meant to settle down. Instead, life is meant to explore, wander, love, lose, earn, unlearn, fail, and rebel! That is what is called living, and it is what keeps us content and happy.
But this time around, the trip to the Himalayas was decided amidst a hectic schedule of moving houses, busy days at work, setting up a business and many more things. So, this trip was more of an escape from the cramped up daily routine, which had started to strangle my soul. I was not on a mission to find happiness up in the Himalayas. Instead, I was in search of a much-needed space my mind craved for.
One of my friends used to say that I need to compartmentalise my life and prioritise accordingly. But, how can I do that when there are either too many compartments or when all these compartments are interconnected? So I decided to go to the Himalayas just to unwind and get some peace of mind and not in search of any particular wisdom or ganja! The beauty of the towering mountains makes you feel small, insignificant, calm and composed. The challenges posed by the adventure prepares you to face the more significant challenges when you return to everyday life.
The trip started with a flight to Dehradun to join other trekkers from Singapore, Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Pune. While some of them were spine surgeons, others came from professional backgrounds like finance, banking and strategy management. It was a good mix of awesomeness in one!
From Dehradun, it is a 10-hour-long drive to Joshimath. The name comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Jyotirmath’. It was believed that Adi Shankaracharya came to this place to meditate and later established a pilgrimage in this spot after he received the divine ‘Jyoti’. This place is also believed to be a religious place devoted to Lord Vishnu. The nearby destination, Badrinath is the holy place of Lord Vishnu and is just 20 km from Dehradun. The area remains closed during winter may be because the Lord feels cold or rather the priest finds it too cold to stay there. Hence, the god is brought to Joshimath Narisingha temple during the winter season.
The drive from Dehradun is an incredible experience as you seem to follow the river Ganga along the journey. Amid the journey, we stopped for around 4 hours to enjoy the wild water rafting experience in the river Ganga. The experience of swimming through the freezing cold waters of Ganga was beyond words. The size and majesty of the river make it a visit worth your lifetime. Its water comes from the glaciers in the Himalayas. Hence, it is never dry, unlike the rivers down south, which are mostly rain-dependent. The river is formed by the sangam (union) of many rivers like Alaknanda, Nandakini, and Bhagirathi, to name a few. It is an incredible sight to watch the union of rivers and human life all blended in harmony along the riverside.
As we progress ahead, the giant mountains make you feel intimidated, and the roads carved out of them make you wonder out loud about the engineering marvel. In short, it is a beautiful mix of both human-made and natural marvels. It also gives you the jitters as one side of the road is the Ganga river which is around 1000 meters in depth. The maniac drivers carelessly speeding from all directions through the “supposed to be the one-way road” make you feel like clutching on to dear life for good. In case the car skids and you fall, it can be considered as a holy death in the Ganges. No escape, no coming back!
Our trek started from Joshimath and took about 4-5 hours to reach Gulling. Here are some interesting facts about this Himalayan range in the Uttarakhand part:
The place is bordered on one side by Nepal and the other side by Tibet (China).
The Nada Devi National sanctuary is located on the mountain range.
The Nanda Devi peak is the 2nd tallest in India at 18500 odd feet.
The Himalayas can be called the “mountain of dreams” as it is higher than anything else on this planet.
The Himalayas is undoubtedly a modest dream for many, but also a dream that rarely comes true. Getting to the top of the mountain is an adventure that requires enormous efforts, physically, mentally and financially! It is said that from the moment you decide to climb it, till you stand on top of it and then return home again, you will have to count from months to years just for the preparations part alone.
The worst nightmare came when we reached Gulling. It started to snow, and the temperature dropped to sub-zero. Tired after the first-day trek, we had tents set up by the travel company with a separate tent to defecate and clean up using baby wipes. We had to sleep in tents, and that was the worst nightmare for almost all of us! While we spend a lot on expensive comfortable beds and pillows at home, here we had to sleep on the floor and that too at -2 degree without even a pillow. We were sleeping inside a sleeping bag wrapped up exactly like an Egyptian Mummy. It makes you so uncomfortable as you can’t even bend, turn or twist inside that sleeping bag. Hence, no one was actually able to sleep in such an uncomfortable posture.
The next morning we woke up to see snow all around our tents like cottony carpets that wrapped up the Gulling pathways in its pristine beauty. We continued trekking up to our next destination, Kullara, which was also a base camp! It was a 5 - 6 hours trek wading through the 1-2 foot snow.
The temperature started to drop gradually from 15 °C in the day to maybe -5 to – 8 °C by the evening. We were all supposed to sleep in different tents, but because it was too cold, we all decided to sleep in one tent itself! Ten of us, including the guides, were sleeping in one tent wrapped up like mummies and squeezed up together as well. Just imagine all these guys snoring and farting all night! All we could do was just to pretend as if we were sleeping when, in reality, we were all awake unable to sleep the whole night. My mind kept wandering through multiple thoughts, and I just couldn’t stop wishing that someone would soon come to wake us up and tell us that it is time for the summit ascent. Somehow we drifted to sleep and were soon woken up by 2 am for the trek to the summit.
The trek to the summit is always a tough challenge for both the mind and the body. It is a mind game! Honestly! I think this is one of the reasons why the summit trek is always done so early before sunrise. You don’t see anything. You just keep walking in line with the headlights.
If you ever happen to see where you are climbing, you might want to change your mind then and there. The snow valley on one side has a depth of probably 1000 -5000 feet (1.52 km). The wind will be blowing at 150 km/hr making the -10 °C feel like -30 °C. The wind cuts right through your eyes so much so that you can barely see properly what is happening around you. The reduced oxygen in the air makes you gasp for breath and tire you down. The legs turn sore, and the mind gets blurred due to the low oxygen presence in that area. This is where the real mind game begins, and it can be easily related to so many things in our life.
The Mind Game: The Trial
The thoughts that buzz through our mind precisely at this moment are: Why am I even here? To whom am I proving to? What? I have better things to do in this life. Will I reach? When will the sun rise? Will I survive? If I die, is my will taken care of? No! I still want to live! How will my family cope up with my loss? These are some of the poignant questions that troubled my mind.
You reach a stage where you suddenly feel helpless and hopeless and just want to cry! At this moment, some of them suggested that we can stop as we have climbed enough and have gone far away from where we had started. So, it is better that we finally call it a day!
But then out of nowhere, by 5:30 AM, the golden rays of sun gush through the skies blinding our eyes and making our heart leap! We finally see where we are standing and realise that we are so close to death, just a step away! We were standing on top of huge mountains that seem to tower up high enough to kiss the skies. The snow-filled valleys seem to give us a menacing look as it slowly unveils the death trap below our feet.
By then, we had trekked for around 6 hours, and the warmth of the sun rays was slowly creeping up into our cold faces and chapped lips. And, as we dart a glance up, we see the towering peaks welcoming you with the promise of a victory that seems to be in hands reach. You hear yourself whisper under your breath, “I am coming. I will conquer you, and I will prove myself. I have come so far for this, and now there is no going back! Let me do it!”
The group motivates each other and prepares to take the final leap towards victory. Then suddenly, the mind goes blank! But you don’t stop! You just follow your gut, your courage and intuition. There is this rush of adrenaline that seems to shrink all the blood flow to your brain, and you make the final push to reach the top.
As you finally reach the top, the feeling, the emotions and the happiness you get is immense and cannot be described in words. You get emotional, happy and excited at the same time! You feel like you want to scream out “I did it”. You thank your family and mother Nature for making this possible.
The alluring beauty of the mountains with the warm rays of sun shining on it like golden laces wrapping the mountains, the pristine pureness of the white snow and the magnetically beautiful blue sky makes you feel on top of the world. It is an experience you can only feel if you reach on top of the Himalayas!
Once you remove the gloves to take pics and show off your victory, your face turns cold and starts to freeze. Your nose and fingers go numb within seconds. The ecstasy of the victory gives you the adrenaline to cope up with the freezing temperature for a while. Most people do not reach the summit because they won’t be able to handle the mind game or the weather will be too harsh and won’t allow them to complete the journey.
In our case, we were able to do it. We motivated each other, held hands and pushed our energy levels. There were plenty of moments in which I have felt that maybe I will not be able to do this. But then, I regained my confidence and started to plan and progress ahead.
One fact about a dreamy trip like this is that it is still something that remains a dream for many. Why? I don't really have an answer to it, other than the suggestion that you have to just go ahead and listen to what your heart says. The rest will just fall into place!
Personally, I feel that the return is even more challenging than the ascent. After taking selfies and after shedding your emotions, you have to descend soon as the snow will start melting this can make the trip even more difficult. You now climb down very steep mountains, and your legs soon start shivering due to the pain and stress. You will feel the pain creeping through the ankles to the knees. I fell down at least 4 times and had to be picked up. Your leg goes 3-4 feet deep into the snow, sometimes up to the knee level. Every time you fall, the body gets numb, and you will not be even able to remove your gloves. Somehow you stumble down, but the view and euphoria of having climbed that height stay etched in your minds forever.
The return to the summit was of course, memorable, but the return to reality was even harder to sink in. As I sink back into the everyday duties and roles of being a son, father, husband, doctor and community member, I realised that the Law of Attraction was stronger than I had expected it to be. While a part of me was carelessly fluttering around the gorgeousness of nature, my heart pulled me back to where my family is. Blessed, I am, and people around me.
I do encourage everyone to seize the opportunity to wander in the wild. Sometimes when let loose, you tend to find your soul. My journey and trek wasn’t just a trip or an escape. Instead, it was a chapter that taught me the most important lessons of love, life, priorities and my own self.