Standing in the bathroom at YHAI base camp in Kasol, listening to River Parvati guzzle in and out of herself next to our camp, staring at the chilled water oozing out of the tap, hoping it wouldn’t bite when I attempt to partially kill myself trying to bathe in it, I wondered what I would write on my blog about this trek. I thought it would be better to recap everything. Where should I start? Well, it took a phone call at almost midnight to pester and keep me awake until I finished booking my slot for the fifth batch of YHAI’s Sar Pass trek of 2016. I had not even bothered to check the pictures of the trek on the internet before booking. It was a whimsical decision when my friends were on a conference call with me. “Shwetha, do you want to join us on Sar Pass trek?” After a yawn, I said yes. We took YHAI membership in the middle of the night and booked our slots. We were only short of flight and bus tickets to reach our destination, Kasol, on 9th May 2016. Long story short, apparently not, all eight of us are back in Bengaluru, and here I am writing about Sar Pass trek, which helped to set myself free.
Our base camp in Parvati valley. That’s River Parvati. I sound like a boring tour guide already.
When we reported at our base camp in Kasol, we were welcomed by two women sitting at the reception. They appeared to be grumpy. Maybe it’s because they had to sit there all day watching young people trotting around in a manner they couldn’t because they were in charge of registering participants there and had to be glued to their seats. They helped us complete our registration and allotted separate tents for males and females. Yes, I would rather use the words males and females because it is easier this way when there were people of all age groups present. We didn’t have much to do on the first day. For someone like me who doesn’t know what to do even on a Sunday, sitting idle for a long time was a little irritating. By evening, before the people high up in sky pissed on Earthlings, we visited the town of Kasol…err, its market…or whatever is there of the town. Some of us had to buy waterproof pants and warm wear. Rest of us had to waste time. So, we chose to make fun of each other by wearing woollen clothes with weird designs. One woollen cap was sure to make you look like a cock if you wore it. I was talking about hen-cock, just to be clear. Shopkeeper almost shooed us out. I even found a bookstore there.
Ahha! One in Kasol!
Until sunset, we spent time gazing at the snow-clad mountains that we could see from our base camp.
A view from our Kasol base camp.
YHAI has this tradition of “electric campfire.” In that dazed condition at night, I was struggling to keep my eyes wide open for the sake of campfire only to see one of the grumpy women switch on the “campfire.” But then, we took turns to make fun of that as well. The third batch, i.e. SP-3 was to leave for Sar Pass next morning and our batch, i.e. SP-5 had reported that day, so SP-4 had to entertain us, and they did really well. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I crawled back to the tent allotted to us and dozed off.
“When the morning came I was up before first light…” Yes, that is Be There’s lyrics by Howie Day and that’s exactly what I did. Next morning saw our batch walking and running to a big playground somewhere in the middle of Kasol. Waking up by 5:30am to get ready by 6:00am for a workout isn’t new to me, but workout in hill station where people would be still snuggling with each other at the wee hours was new to me. I had a feeling that people here make offenders stand in the middle of the playground and stone them and throw them into the river. Anyway, there we were for our morning workout. Pretty gruesome all of a sudden, but I enjoyed it. After that one hour zesty workout in the Himalayan range, we came back to base camp by 7:00am to freshen up and have breakfast. SP-3 was ready to leave. We had to do some not-so-awkward cheerleading. After that, we were taken on acclimatisation walk. And Ta-Da! Walk turned into a trek! Magic! When we reached the intended spot up the hill that we apparently walked, Jagadeesh Thakur, our trainer and guide for the day, informed us that it was our turn to entertain SP-4, that was to leave for Sar Pass next morning, and SP-6 that had reported that day. Subgroups were formed instantaneously and programs were charted out. Rest is history and hers as well. Can’t explain. My bad, if you got my PJ.
I woke up to the sound of rain rapping on our tents. Our itinerary for the third day was to train in rock climbing and rappelling after the morning workout. Thanks to rain, we only had to go out of our tents to do cheerleading for SP-4 and for the morning routine. Since YHAI didn’t want to let us be idle, they sent us to Manikaran by walk and we didn’t complain. Manikaran is a village, 5km away from Kasol, whose main attraction is a gurudwara and hot water springs adjacent to that. People in and around gurudwara use hot water springs to bathe, to cook and for other amenities.
My friends and I had been there on the previous evening, so while the rest of the batch chose to visit gurudwara, we chose to shop and eat in the market behind. If you want to buy trekking gears, go to Kasol market. If you want to buy souvenirs and gifts, then shop in Manikaran market. After returning to our base camp, we had a daunting task ahead of us. That was to repack our backpack. According to YHAI, the weight of the backpack for males must be 5kg and for females, 4kg. My backpack weighed 8.5kg. Reducing its weight further meant leaving the down jacket behind and dying due to hypothermia in higher camps. Just kidding; you could stay awake for the whole night crouching in a corner for which fleece pants and jackets would be enough along with thermals. Our Quechua backpack itself was about 2kg. Using backpacks provided by YHAI to reduce weight meant shoulder pain and imbalance. So, I went ahead with 8.5kg. We stocked all our extra stuff in a cattle shed behind YHAI office. That night I tried my best to be entertained by SP-6, but no, nope, no way I could stay until the end by 9:30pm.
There was no workout on the morning we left from our base camp. Finally, we were to leave. While everyone was excited about the start of the trek, I was in a dilemma. YHAI was giving roti and bhindi ki sabzi to pack for lunch. I love bhindi, but I was worried if there would be dishwashing detergent in the higher camps. Oil in food stinks after a long time if not washed properly. Sar Pass proved it. Let’s save this for later. So, after breakfast, with SP-6 and SP-7 cheering us, we walked down (up) the imaginary red carpet like celebrities. We were to trek to Grahan camp, which is at 7700ft from the sea level and our trek’s walk on the first day was about 9km. Initially, we descended for about a kilometre and everybody was happy thinking most of the day’s trek would be similar. But later it was ascent, and it didn’t stop. Nope. Not until we reached Grahan camp. From Kasol to Grahan, we passed through a jungle initially and found streams as the water source. To say, there were many stray dogs that would wander in and out of our base camp looking for food. But, there was this one white coloured stray dog that I had not seen before in the base camp that accompanied us on our trek. We thought it would go back to Kasol after a while, but it proved us wrong. By 11:00am, we reached half the way to Grahan, like just 4km away. But our guide was hell-bent on having a stop for lunch at that time. I mean, who has lunch at 11:00am? YHAI treks have more pitstops and you tire more due to them than due to trek. So, even after spotting the lunch arena, because I was the first one to reach there, I thought we would stop somewhere ahead by 1:00pm or some time, and went ahead. I had already walked for a few metres and didn’t hear anyone coming behind me. I turned around to look and only this white coloured dog was coming. I thought I must have walked fast and continued. There started my conversations with the dog. I usually don’t speak with anyone while trekking, but at that moment, I felt obligated to talk to the dog, at least for courtesy sake. I asked him to come along, whether he wanted to take a break or if he was thirsty. We both walked together for a long time, both of us just following the well-trodden trail out of the few we came across. When I stopped to give water to the dog, I turned around to see Sriharsha come running towards me and gasping for breath. Did you ask why? Let me tell you. You need to know this. He had come to take me back to that lunch-spot where I didn’t stop. YHAI has only one punishment for rule breaking or deviating from their instructions, and that is the participant will be checked-out from the trek. On the morning that we left the base camp, the camp leader’s instruction was that nobody should go ahead of our trek guide. To avoid the impending punishment which could have been only to me or to the whole group, Sriharsha had run after me to make me retrace my steps for a kilometre. And lunch break was for 2hrs. “Bring out the playing cards” was my friends’ motto whenever they could get place and time. We started trekking again after the 2hrs gap and it was a complete ascent. From here to Grahan, for almost every kilometre we used to find vendors selling lassi, candies or lemon juice. These people come up till those spots only to make few bucks. Such is life for them there. However, more vendors mean more pitstops and lethargy. The last 2km stretch to Grahan was steep, and we were struggling to reach any flat surface where we could rest. Alas, we found none. To reach YHAI’s camp in Grahan, we had to pass through the village. Grahan has homes for its residents and homestays for the trekkers and tourists. As far as I could see, agriculture is villagers’ main occupation. I could see wheat fields spread far and wide from where I stood.
Our camp leader there was a good and soft-spoken person, unlike the ones in the base camp. But that is their job. Camp leader in the base camp has to handle about 150 participants at a time and camp leaders in the higher camps have to handle 52 participants at a time.
Reminds me of the song Some of Us by Starsailor. Ah, I love that song!
Also, when we reach higher camps after trekking, none of us will be in a state to create havoc. Anyway, it rained heavily as soon as we settled in our tents in Grahan after welcome drink, high tea and hot tomato soup.
Grahan was our last look at a village. After this, our only link to any civilization was camp leader and his crew at each camp.
We had dinner in an empty tent, with people of one tent at a time awkwardly giggling and galloping for dinner. We already had instructions that we needed for the next day and since there was no electricity or mobile network, we all dozed off early with nothing to do other than narrating ghost stories to each other in our tent for girls.
Isolated sheds. Home for psychopaths.
On the day we left Grahan, some people paid for hot water and to use toilets bathrooms in the nearby homestays, and others were content with facilities provided by YHAI. By 9am, we were ready with our packed lunch. We were reluctant to leave the village surrounded by Himalayan mountains, but we were going to a better place. No, we were not going to die, but just to higher camp with better scenery. As far as we got to know from the camp leader, Grahan would be the last village we would come across until we finish the Sar Pass trek. Seeing us playing with puppies in the vicinity, our camp leader said “You will get puppies to play with here, but in Padri and Ming Thatch you will get bears. If you by any chance, spot a bear on your way, don’t stare at it. Your stare will intimidate the bear and it will think of attacking you before you attack it, even if you don’t have any such intentions. Years ago, Sar Pass trek route was Grahan – Padri – Ratapani – Nagaru and so on. Due to more and more bear attacks on trekkers and camp crews, YHAI decided to close camping at Ratapani and shift to Ming Thatch, a comparatively safer place.” Then, by 9am, we went on our way to Padri looking for bears on the way with our guide. Our guide for the day told us that after lunch we will only have to descend. Until then we were constantly ascending the slopes leading to Padri, our next camping site at 9300ft from the sea level, 9km away from Grahan. The way to Padri was again through the jungle. Once I reached there, the surroundings made me forget the beauty of Grahan. Where Grahan was a scenic beauty surrounded with bare minimum civilization and terrace cultivation, Padri gave me a feeling that I am a fish in the bowl surrounded by the rims of the Himalayan mountains. The routine of welcome drink, high tea and hot tomato soup happened, and the briefing followed soon after. Every camp had two types of pits. One, connected to toilets were all excretions went and another where we could throw our dry wastes. Camp leader of Padri showed us bear killings of three bulls and a good viewpoint from where we could take good pictures of the mountains as well as profile pictures for Facebook. Oh, bulls! There were so many bulls there, running their horns through mud and grass. There must have been at least fifty bulls. Thinking about bulls, why don’t people say cowshit and bulldung instead of bullshit and cow dung?
Padri camp site at 9300ft from sea level. We had again waled for 9km that day.
Anyway, back to bulls in Padri, villagers leave them here to fend for themselves because taking care of bulls is a bad investment without any returns as they don’t give milk, but only dung. Villagers take them back to the village after a few months only for the purpose of mating with a cow.
There were horses too with bells dangling from their necks. These horses were used to bring all the necessities from Kasol base camp to higher camps and were left free until next trip.
Bull. Just bull.
We played cards at the viewpoint also until sunset, had dinner later and prepared ourselves for stargazing, but it was a cloudy night. I dozed off listening to the bells of the horses that were grazing near our tents.
Some experiment with my camera
Every morning our routine was to wake up at 5:00am. No, wait. That would be untrue. YHAI gave us starch and dietary fibre rich food at every camp that our bowel movements would wake us up before 5:00am to make us run to toilets, which were in such places that going to attend nature’s call itself was like a small trek anytime. After the morning routine and breakfast, we left from Padri forgetting the oxygen cylinder, given to each group at the base camp before the leave from Kasol, only to send a few guys back for a kilometre to Padri camp and delay our trek. Rest of our trek to Ming Thatch, which was 11,200ft from sea level and 10km from Padri, was a killer.
Tall trees intimidating you
It was an ascent of about 2 and 1/2km after initial false hope of descent, and we were again gasping for breath. We stopped at Ratapani, the previous camping site, for lunch. The Rs.12 Maggi at sea level is Rs.60 at this altitude.
Maggi at Ratapani
You get single omelettes too at the same price. While ascending we heard thunders many times, and it rained with hailstones soon after. Supreeth picked up a big hailstone, and I snatched and popped it into my mouth! It was good! Ice basically. Rain fluctuated between downpour and drizzle, and the rocks were slippery by the time we neared Ming Thatch. Rain brings happiness to us but also pain if we are trying to get a foothold on rocks. Even from far away, we could see a flag fluttering at the top and we were happy thinking that is the Ming Thatch camp. But, once we reached there, we could see only a small idol of goddess there. That meant we had to go down again to reach the camp site. Going down all the way was worth it. The most beautiful campsites of all, Ming Thatch didn’t disappoint us and after seeing this, we had no mood to trek up to Sar Pass. The camp leader was cool, but strict too.
A view from Ming Thatch comp site.
He gave us all the freedom in the campsite to move around but gave us enough instructions that we were not to deviate from. It was windy there, and I had to finally wear my fleece jacket.
Ming Thatch, at 11,200ft from sea level, was the most beautiful camp site of all others throughout the Sar Pass trek.
After the beverages routine, we were elated to hear that we were to leave Ming Thatch camp by 11:00am next morning as the trek to Nagaru was easy and only of 8km to reach 12,500ft altitude. That meant we could wake up late. We woke by 6:00am anyway.
I want my unicorn…
On the day of our trek to Nagaru nothing special happened except hailstorm when we found shelter at the lunch point. This delayed our 3hrs trek to Nagaru. Once the rain stopped, we resumed our trek again only to find slippery rocks. There is a phrase in Kannada “jeeva baayige bandha haage aaithu”, which means “life was about to pop out of the mouth”, nowhere near to “taking my breath away.” Maybe literally because if my feet slipped and lost grip in my hands too, then I would have reached a better place, higher than the altitude at which Sar Pass is located. Somehow, with the help of our guides, we reached the camp site of Nagaru by 2:30pm. Here the beverage routine was same, but we had to finish dinner by 6pm and be asleep by 7:00pm to wake up by 2:30am next morning. Why? Because after sunrise, snow would start melting and it would be risky to trek at such altitudes.
Gods descended on Earth!
Trekkers might slip on the melting snow and tumble down to the valley where he/she may or may not be found, let alone intact. The hailstones of the storm in the noon had not melted due to drop in the temperature after rain and had left enough snow for us.
Where we were able to manage with one or two layers of clothes earlier, in Nagaru we had to wear three or four layers of clothes to keep ourselves warm. With ears stuffed with cotton and covered with a balaclava.
From Nagaru camp
The view from Nagaru is exotic. It looked like the light rays beamed on one patch after another of the mountains as the gates to heaven opened and the gods would descend any moment.
The serene ambience of Nagaru was simply mind-blowing. Another thing about this camp is if in every other camp, we got plenty of water for at least to wash our face and limbs, and for toilet purpose as each camp crew had arranged water supply from the nearest water source no matter how far it was, in Nagaru our water source was the heap of snow that would melt and get collected by the camp crew. After 4:00pm, the snow would stop melting, so we were informed to take water for drinking first and later for everything else. So, here you will need wet or dry tissues as per your preferences. Also, it is so windy high up there that the toilet tents keep flapping and flying every time the winds are strong. Back to taking pictures, since there was no light pollution due to lack of electricity, Tejas was able to click pictures of the multitude of stars clearly visible in the night sky at 2:30am.
Sunset at Nagaru camp.
By the time we woke up, the white coloured dog was found sleeping next to Smitha who was sleeping next to me. Poor thing had entered our tent to find refuge from the harsh cold Himalayan climate.
Neele neele ambar par chaand jab aaye
I was already fed up of masaladar food and chose to skip both breakfast and lunch on the day we were to reach Sar Pass. Altitude special. By 4am we were on our way to Sar Pass, thanking the camp leader for the hospitality and shooing us out of the camp. Unlike other days when we had only one or two guides with us, on that particular day, we had 4 guides trekking along with us, helping us by making way for us through ice that had formed in the safe paths. I guess, it was 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning when we reached Sar Pass.
The beginning of Sar Pass
I threw my bag somewhere and was sprawled in that heavenly bliss, with Apollo shining brightly on us, telling us to make haste before snow melts, but we just wouldn’t listen. We had to take pictures; pictures of the place that was so divine, so mesmerising that would etch its name on our mind to haunt us for the rest of our lives.
13,800ft was not a joke for many of us. We were humbled in front of Mother Nature who could have swallowed us then and there without living any trace.
Ekla Chalo Re
We stomped on snow, slid on every surface covered with snow and too numerous pictures enough to satiate our desires and nauseate our relatives who would see them back home. Just too many.
But who cares? Not us. We wanted more. More of the Sun, more of the snow, more of the water that could trickle down and more of every tiny thing that brought us till there. Even the dog that was hopping mad somewhere camouflaged in snow. The moment of realisation dawns that you are more than you are and lesser than you think when you look up from the front camera at the mountains surrounding you. Have you ever wondered that arms might protrude out from the walls of the hills and just embrace you if you hopefully stood there for long enough? I wish that was true, but life moves on. Just like we had to measure Sar Pass one step at a time. When we stopped for tea on a flat surface near a vendor’s tent, we took some time off to have snow fight. I never knew it would be so tiring! This was not a pain in the neck or ass. This was pain in the heels and toes due to trying and finding grip on snow. You just follow the guide who is breaking ice like an axe-murderer, and you find yourself walking on the slopes of a snow-clad hill, somewhere on the edge, to look to your left and say “I want to go back home at least to tell tales about Sar Pass.” To top this, our guides were sliding and skiing randomly around us. I was like are they motivating us or what? There we were sometimes falling deep into the loose snow and sometimes not finding enough grip to walk ahead, and these guys were acting like Happy Feet platoon. Then I was like I better be the White Witch from the Chronicle of Narnia with a wooden stick in my hand for her magic spear. I dare say my friends to be the monsters with me. They are so going to kill me when they read this. Or we all could be elves of Santa Claus! Yay! Nay! Anyway, we must have appeared like specks on pristine snow from up above. Thankfully, it didn’t rain at that time. After an ascent again, our four guides bid adieu to us by handing over our responsibility to other two people of YHAI who were waiting for us at the sliding point. Yes, you read that right. The main attraction of Sar Pass is to slide down the mountain. The slide distance must have been about one kilometre, not more than that. We had to sit down, lean back on our backpacks, lift both legs together and we were good to go sliding down. We were apprehensive about sliding in the beginning. But after that, we were trying to slide down from anywhere and everywhere. We wished to slide down to Biskeri Thatch camp, but there was not enough snow. We had to simply walk to our camp at 11,000ft from the sea level. We had walked for about 7hrs and 9km. Some of us fell sick after reaching Biskeri Thatch. Nausea, headache, stomach ache, fever and so on due to a sudden drop in altitude and lack of sleep. Some recovered, but some decided to go back to Kasol base camp directly from there next day. Biskeri Thatch camp was next to a waterfall, and we found puppies there too, which pestered the white coloured dog that successfully came down from Sar Pass along with us. It drizzled that evening. The clouds were heavy just like our hearts as the trek neared its end.
A view from our Biskeri Thatch camp
The routine beverages and food followed. We all turned ourselves in safe and sound.
It was 4am, and I was wobbling out of our tent. Thanks to YHAI food, it didn’t even allow me to sleep well. I am in a hurry to go to the loo and I see all the horses huddled together and staring at me. They looked like old matrons standing together talking about me. I should probably stop imagining. Eventually, everybody woke up and was done with their morning rituals. We started out together, but at midway we all turned towards Bhandak Thatch camp and few of us turned towards Kasol directly. Goodbye times came thrice. Once there and again when some of the Bhandak Thatch people too chose to save time and rush to their next destinations. We stayed back, and we stayed back for good. Bhandak Thatch at 8000ft above the sea level is the next beautiful camp after Ming Thatch. We had a good time there. Supreeth, Harsha and me singing random songs in an awesome way, but we had no audience. You just have to believe us. The group had become small. We finally got to know the names of the people whoever were left behind. We had fun in our own way. Smitha and Sriharsha even danced to entertain us! Sucheta was fast asleep and Vinayaka never sang even then. We all were there, yes we were. Come next morning and we all would be literally on our own way, because on our last day that is from Bhandak Thatch to Barshaini, we were not to have any guide with us. Oh, I might just go weep in a corner and come back to finish writing this travelogue, but then we all should listen to this marvellous song called Home by Phillip Phillip. Home is such a beautiful word, thing and feeling. Where was home?
Bhandak Thatch was home.
Home is where the heart is. It is up to you.
No, ours were not colourful.
No packed lunch. Complete descent. We were given directions to reach Barshaini from where we were to get into a bus that would take us to Kasol. We walked through the jungle and through Kalga and Pulga villages. A dam construction was going on in Barshaini. Sriharsha, Smitha, Anju and I took a shortcut and we reached near the bus stop of Barshaini. Tejas was there before us. Few others left by a bus and we chose to wait for the other four. It was the end of our trek.
The white coloured dog was lingering around us. Sriharsha fed it a pack of biscuits.
Barshaini, Kalga and Pulga
Others soon joined us. The only thing left to do was to go to Kasol base camp to collect our luggage and certificates and check-out from there.
Civilization hits with dam construction in Barshaini.
Things that you need to take on this trek
- A good 50-60lt backpack.
- Good pair of waterproof, ankle-high shoes.
- Water bottle.
- A plate or lunchbox to have food.
- Mug, if at all you need it.
- A pair of full-sleeved quick dry shirt and pant.
- An extra pair just in case.
- A pair of thermalwear.
- A pair of fleece jacket and pant.
- A down jacket.
- Two pairs of woollen socks.
- Three pairs of cotton socks.
- A pair of waterproof gloves.
- A pair of woollen gloves.
- Rain-proof jacket and pant
- Rain-cover for your backpack.
- Innerwear as much as you are comfortable with.
- Sunscreen lotion.
- Wet wipes (don’t mind, but you can use wet wipes for both top and bottom, and they won’t make your skin parched).
- Other toiletries.
You can travel to Kasol from New Delhi or Chandigarh. You get plenty of buses, both private-run and Government operated. Don’t forget to take extra batteries for your camera.