Stretching myself in the fresh air of the mountains after an hour-long bumpy ride from Manali, I take-in the freshness around me. It is green all around, a little bit misty too. Not far from where I stand, stands this huge wall of imposing green and black staring back at me with all its grandeur. So are its comparatively smaller siblings. Slow-moving packs of cloud hide, show and then again hide their protruding peaks. The nip in the air complements the surrounding perfectly and very soon I find myself lost in it, un-interested about any things else around.
I am in Jobra (9700 feet), a temporary settlement of a handful of houses, some 2000 feet above Manali. The trail for the trek to Hampta Pass (14,300 feet) where I am headed to, starts from here.
‘…leave the bags here which are to be carried by the mules’, says Kama, our guide, bringing me out of my trance.
With every step ahead on the slippery incline the woods become thicker and greener. Deodars, some as tall as a hundred feet on my right, a green valley littered with stones, boulders and grazing wild horses to my left and a snaking river ahead. Feeling breathless and a little perspired just a couple of minutes into the walk, I find myself slowing down a bit. Somewhat worried, I try to ignore it and take it easy for some time. I tread along slowly for the next couple of ascents and descents until I start feeling better.
The incline has eased up after I crossed the snaking river on a rickety single-log bridge which looked like it would give away any moment now. Looking back, I see the mountains still as grand as they were almost an hour back when I had started, others who were just starting at the trail however look nothing more than tiny dots of pink, yellow and red from here.
Walking along the river it took us more than 4 hours to get to our first camp at Chikka and we just managed to beat the rains by no more than a couple of minutes. Once settled, I notice how beautiful the contrasting colors of the half a dozen blue, yellow and green tents look in the fading light of dusk.
From inside, it was tough to differentiate between the sound of the rain and that of the river flowing by barely fifty meters from the tent. Not that it mattered to a tired body anyway. Both were lullaby to my ears.
One hour of huffing and puffing through a carpet of wild flowers later at the first water-crossing, we were at the Jwara nullah. The expressions on the faces of those crossing the freezing nullah with more than knee-deep glacial water, was enough for me to hurriedly scan the area for any possible alternate route but to no luck. By the time I was on the other side, I could barely feel my almost frozen legs and could resume my walk only after a good half an hour of trying to warm them.
Sitting atop one of the many huge rock there, I look back and try to re-trace the trail we had taken after the river-crossing but I can’t find it. The long swaying stems of the colourful flowers below seem to have hidden it within themselves. The tall mountains ahead with their cloud-covered peaks and the couple of smaller waterfalls falling to a milky spray hundreds of feet below are however clearly visible.
At the camp, I settle in the warm dining-tent with a steaming-hot tea cup in my hands and can’t help but feel lucky to be in the company of other like-minded people. Talking, discussing and appreciating nature. A far-cry from all the materialistic things that keep us busy in our day-to-day lives back in the respective concrete jungles that we live in.
Outside, as I as my eyes wander towards the cloudless night sky of Balu ka Gera, I see a billion stars twinkling. Excited, I try to spot the different constellations for some time but find myself unable to look anywhere beyond the strikingly beautiful galactic core of the Milky Way, our home. The night looks as much beautiful to me as the day, if not more. Be it the star-lit sky above, the gray shadow of the mountains on both sides of the valley or the tiny red, blue, green, yellow tents on the ground that look nothing less than beautiful igloos with lights inside them.
The first sight of snow by the river below made everybody excited. Snow does this to every mountain-lover. No matter how many times you have seen or experienced it, whenever you see it after a while, you are bound to get excited. That’s the thing about snow.
Frequent chunks of the now dirty snow from last season on the right and the swaying wild colorful flowers on the left kept me company and the camp today came sooner than expected.
Settling in my bright green tent right next to the river this time I pull out a book to read while there is still some daylight but soon happily give in to the temptation of hiking to a nearby glacier.
Walking on hard snow is way more hard work than it seems. By the time I was at the feet of this steep white incline which was the final patch of snow before we attempt the Hampta Pass, I was totally exhausted and out of breath. I had already walked for more than couple of hours on hard and slippery snow, somehow balancing myself on the surface and to take one more step ahead seemed impossible to me.
The mule-train which left camp almost an hour after we did, with all our luggage on their backs passes by as I sit there munching an energy-bar and wandering if these animals feel any effect of the altitude at-all!
The valley below looked like a carpet of yellow and green with occasional hints of white but up there, it was all white. All around me. The huge black rocks that hanged dangerously from the sides of the mountains with streams flowing from some of them being the only contrast.
I crossed the Hampta pass in almost zero visibility and rain that felt like a thousand sharp needles piercing my skin all at once. Negotiating boulders, crevasses and the slippery snow in almost no visibility was an experience in itself and totally worth all the hard-work it had taken to come here. It is something which can be experienced only by being there.
The green, yellow and white started giving way to the rugged terrain and dry rocks of the Spiti valley as we started to descend to the other side of the pass. Through tricky edges of huge boulders hanging by themselves on the left and through precarious trails inches away from the deep plunge to the roaring Chandra river below, we finally made it to the final camp. It was a mixed feeling for me, one that of the happiness for being allowed to cross the pass successfully by the mountain Gods and of sadness that it was over now.
As I sit by the window of my jeep taking me back to Manali while numerous mountains, water-streams and waterfalls pass by, I cannot help but smile. The joys that these mountains have given me every time I have come to them is what I have cherished the most always and it has not been any different this time either. I wish I could stay longer to wander in these great mountains a little more but for now, I have to leave.
With a promise to the mountains and to myself, to be back soon, I keep staring at the mirror of the jeep, until the snow-capped peaks are visible no more.