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Going Solo On The Himalayas

Sherwin Noronha flees from the city to negotiate the 4268-metre high Hamta Pass

View from Hamta Pass

There comes a time when you heed a certain call, an irrepressible urge to just get up and go. Fortunately for me, this August, the right set of circumstances - job-related stress and a whacked out personal life combined to lend credence for my perpetual need to ’break free’.

I landed in Manali (Himachal Pradesh) for my two-week sojourn into the mountains with a single point agenda, to do a trek where I could touch snow. After innumerable forays into the Sahyadris, at last I was on the threshold of fulfilling my childhood dream of exploring and experiencing the grandeur of the Himalayas.

Far from the hustle and bustle of Mumbai, Manali was like a breath of fresh air. Though it was a little too commercial for my liking, nevertheless the gallery of towering mountains peeping through the clouds and the Beas roaring down the Kullu valley, a sound you can never be too far from anywhere in town, would rank among my best sightseeing experiences.

Manali, at 2050 metres, was also the highest place I had set foot on.

Camp 1 at Sethan in Hamta Valley

There are quite a few trekking options around Manali and the most frequented circuits are to Chandra Tal (Moon Lake) in Lahaul and from there on to the Baralacha La on the Manali-Leh road over the Hamta Pass and Deo Tibba base camp, over the Chandrakani Pass into Manikaran. Most of these treks are spread over 4-21 days depending on the circuit. While every second shop, or thereabouts, on the Mall provides trekking-camping equipment and guides/porters, on the recommendation of a friend I met up with Mohinder Singh of Snowland Holiday Pvt Ltd.

We discussed and arranged a 4 day-3 night trek to Chandra Tal. Unfortunately, the road to Kaza in the Spiti valley was closed due to landslides and I had to put off my trek by a couple of days. As the Kaza road did not clear up I had to cancel Chandra Tal and instead made arrangements for a trek over Hamta Pass into Chatru in Lahaul.

View from Hamta Pass at 4268 metres

Day 1
I set off by taxi accompanied by an all Nepali team of two porters, Narender and Maniraj and the cook cum guide Ramji to Pirni, the starting point of the trek. After a final check of the equipment we were on our way, the target, Hamta Pass-4268 metres.

The first stage was a steep and back breaking climb through thick pine forests to the village of Sethan (2800 mts), an ascendancy of almost 800 mts in three hours. We made good time and my entourage were pretty surprised that I could match their pace and didn’t whine like a typical city ‘babu’ whom they come across quite often. It was hard and exhausting work though the breaks at the ice-cold mountain streams acted as ‘chargers’.

On our way to Sethan we were treated to some fantastic views of the Kullu Valley and Manali Pass. Just below the village of Sethan, we halted for lunch and then moved on to set up camp in a clearing called Pandav Groove around 1.30 pm. Later, I stretched out on a flat rock to enjoy the scenery and immediately fell fast asleep. The evening chill was a rude wake up call from my siesta and I got into my thermal underwear and trousers. For once I was ‘dressed’ or rather overdressed for dinner, which was served at 6 pm, the earliest dinner I have ever had. I was out like a light once I snuggled into my sleeping bag.

Day 2
Woke up to the aroma of black coffee and a chilly morning. As is usual with most folks, after coffee, I got the urge! I therefore found a spot with a view and did a bit of downloading. The aftermath with ice cold stream water was pure agony, not recommended for the faint hearted. As I returned to the campsite, a visible picture of discomfort, Ramji told me with a broad grin that he normally provides warm water for calls of nature and that I should inform him before I take to the bush. I did not know whether to laugh or to cry.

Horses grazing at Camp 2 at Juara

After a hearty breakfast, we packed up camp and headed up the Hamta Valley around 7.45 am. It was another an 800-metre climb and a 10-kilometre trek to our next camp at Juara (3600 metres approximately). The weather was clear and pleasant; the breeze wafted across the valley spreading the scent of wild flowers that carpeted the valley floor. Thin light clouds sailed in the blue sky. One can walk for hours in such surroundings. I thoroughly enjoyed this stage of the trek.

We had to cross the Hamta River and fortunately, there’s a log bridge. I didn’t fancy getting into the icy waters after my washing experience in the morning. We walked on the true right of the valley through the Gujjar grazing grounds of Chikka over side-streams fed by beautiful waterfalls and past several herds of cattle and sheep. We were now above the tree line with only a few birch trees higher up. Just as we turned into Juara, we were treated to a spectacular view of the entire Hamta Valley below us with the river in full glory cascading down, carving a gorge and then disappearing into the faraway Kullu Valley. We had to cross another side-stream to get to the camp site and there was no other way but to wade through. I flung my shoes across the stream and entered the icy cold waters which reached up to my thighs...if I were 2-3 inches shorter, I’d have frozen my youknowwhat! We set up camp and had lunch at 12.30 pm. All I wanted then was a short nap and a bath. I smelled so bad that even the normally inquisitive horses wouldn’t come near me. I plucked the courage and went down to the stream. After a few minutes of agony, I felt refreshed and donning clean underwear was like heaven. The evening turned out to be more chilly than the first one and even after wearing every piece of clothing I was carrying, I still needed something more to warm me up. Narender and Maniraj, my resourceful porters, arranged a bottle of rakshi (locally brewed liquor) from the nearby Gujjar camp. I had a bit but it was not my cup of tea. I preferred to stick to my usual rounds of whisky. Another good dinner and we were all out for the count...wondered what my mom would say if she heard I was eating vegetarian food and going to sleep at 6 pm.

Day 3
Breakfast over, we set out up the valley at a fast pace as the weather was turning bad and we wanted to beat the dark clouds creeping up from the valley.

Hamta Valley - 3600 metres

As we climbed higher, the grassy flower-filled meadows with herds of goats and sheep gave way to loose rock and scree as the climb got steeper. Soon we entered a gorge with sparkling waterfalls on the left of the valley, called Bhalu Ka Khera as bears are known to use the caves on the mountainside to hibernate during winter. From here we could now see snow-capped peaks at the head of the valley as we approached the pass and the source of the Hamta river.

A short tough precarious climb over ice and rock later we were at the pass-4268 mts. Smoking a bidi (I had run out of cigarettes some time back) amidst the mist and clouds was a whole new feeling. And then as if the mountain gods wanted to bless me the clouds cleared to unveil a magnificent vista of Indrakila and Indrasan (6221 mts) with its huge hanging glacier (the source of the Indrasan river), the Indrasan valley below us and the mountains across the Chandra river on the extreme left in Lahaul.

As compared to the Kullu Valley, which is full of lush green meadows, Lahaul and Spiti has a barren, lunar-like landscape which has a beauty of its own. After our fill of being on top of the world, we descended to the base of the Indrasan valley via goat trails, doing a fine balancing act on the six-inch wide winding paths. My efficient crew had the tents at the campsite of Shiagouru up in no time.

After a long session of photography we had an early dinner and I got snug in my sleeping bag for a well deserved night’s rest. The temperature soon shot down to almost freezing and there was a thin layer of frost lining the tent. Sleep was difficult to come by and even after a couple of swigs of whisky I was still twisting and turning the whole night through.

Day 4
Yet another frightfully cold morning with beautiful clear blue sky. Breakfast - banana pancakes with coffee for breakfast...man, I was being spoilt! We packed up camp and were at the crossing of Indrasan river at 7 am....the only thing worse would have been to cross the river at 6.30 am.

Hamta Valley below the pass - 4000 metres; Camp 3 at Shiagouru

Ramji and the porters just ran across while I froze on the bank staring at the icicles in the water deliberating “to cross or not to cross.” Finally I gathered the courage to take the plunge and as advised by Ramji made the fastest 100 meters dash of my life. Even as I stepped ashore the porters had a roaring fire going and I knew why. I couldn’t feel my feet and my soles were all purple and blue. It took a good half hour to get back the colour in my soles, what an experience. It was a most painful incident.

After crossing the river we descended at a very rapid pace as we had to be in Chatru before 9.30 am to catch the bus from Kaza to Manali. The bus passes through Chatru anytime between 9:30 am and 10.30 am. Once we hit the valley floor, we recrossed the Indrasan river just before it flows into the raging Chandra river, this time fortunately over a log bridge.

A short walk along the Chandra and we were at Chatru, an almost abrupt end to the trek though we still had the bus journey back to Manali.

There are no fixed schedules for buses and most of the services depends on whether the roads are clear of landslides. The bus to Manali finally arrived at 11 am...and boy, was it loaded.

The journey back to Manali via Rohtang Pass over some of the most treacherous road conditions I’ve ever been through turned out to be as heart-stopping as the vistas on the trek. The narrow road winds up the true left of the gorge and it felt like the bus was clinging to the mountainside. The driver meanwhile was busy chatting to the conductor even while he was negotiating the ultrasharp turns with incredible skill and speed.

Rohtang Pass was an anticlimax after all the hype I heard about it, crowded with tea stalls, taxis, buses and tourists. However the 50-kilometre drive from Rohtang to Manali was amazingly beautiful. The whole adventure set me back by Rs 4500 but it was worth it. Return to civilisation was a bit jarring but I was refreshed and riding on a ‘high’. I was ready to take on the world.

View of Indrasan from Hamta Pass

(The author is sales manager (Mumbai), The British Metal Corp. (India) Pvt. Ltd. He is an avid trekker and a self-confessed adventure freak)