Our First Himalayan Trek: RUPIN PASS
Trekking in Himalayas had been on my bucket list for quite some time. Dream came to reality when my better half agreed to be part of the expedition this summer. After some research, we booked ‘Rupin Pass’ trek with ‘Trek The Himalayas’ (TTH) group for the 18th June batch. It is an 8-day trek starting from Dehradun and ending at Shimla. In between, we need to trek/hike for around 70-80 Km (including the everyday acclimatization walks) through narrow trails with mighty Himalayas on one side and meandering Rupin river on the other to reach the summit at 15, 250 feet.
Quite exciting, isn’t it! Only problem being, in this age of Google it is hard to downplay the risks of such adventures. As both our families, especially my parents knew it was ‘my’ idea of vacation, chip laid on my shoulder for the safe return from the trip. But then who fears responsibilities!
Beginning with a small goof-up
After multiple trips to Decathlon (a sports mall) to get all the necessary equipment, shouldering a 10kg backpack and the EXTRA responsibility, we boarded Nanda Devi Express at midnight from New Delhi railway station. We reached Dehradun early in the morning. After freshening up, I decided to get into complete trekker mode: wore a cap, a full sleeves light jacket and tied my shoe laces t the platform itself. Maybe I attracted a few eyeballs in the process. But the moment I started to walk, I tripped over my shoes as the laces got entangled! In my defence, these Quechua trekking shoes had incredibly long laces and it takes a while to understand them. So, beware!
Reaching Dhaula and Knowing Fellow Trekkers
TTH had arranged transport to Dhaula (our first base camp). It was a nice 10-hour drive alongside gushing Supin river, through the pine forests. Just 4-5Km before our campsite, our cab got punctured. By the time it was rectified and we reached Dhaula, it started raining heavily. Driver was like in the mountains, rains don’t stop early, so you better get going. With little less than a kilometre to cover on foot, we got in the act of taking out the wind sheeters, ponchos, rain cover etc. from some nook and corner of our backpacks. Lesson no. 1 of trekking in Himalayas, always keep rain proof gear at the top. Finally, we reached campsite and were given a tent.
Over the evening tea, we met our trek leads Achin and Devraj and 15 other trekkers along with whom we were going to scale Rupin pass. Achin had undergone a couple of mountaineering courses and Devraj knew this region at the back of his hand. So, from the very onset we knew we were in safe hands. Getting to know the past trekking experiences of the group members was a real ice-breaker. We had a 57-year old half marathon runner amongst us who had taken voluntary retirement to pursue his interests in social service, world war II research, law and fitness. He became a constant source of inspiration throughout the trek. We also had an avid trekker in the group who had trekked in Dolomites, Mount Santis and Himalayas in the past. There was a set of 5 young turks in their early 20’s who were doing their first high altitude trek. Out of love their mothers had packed a lot of eatables and clothes to last the entire duration of the trek but that meant the backpacks became quite heavy and lifting them became strenuous.
Knowing the Trek Route and Do’s and Don’ts
Now came the serious business of giving medical declaration forms and Achin’s first briefing on what we had got ourselves into. Starting from Dhaula, we would trek to Sewa -> Bawta -> Jakha -> Dhanteras Thatch -> Upper Waterfall -> Rupin Pass -> Rontigad -> Sangla. In the next 7 days, we would go from 5500 ft to 15,250 ft to 8800 ft and stay in 6 camps: 4 in tents and 2 in the homes of the villagers in Bawta and Jhaka. We were told to be completely covered all the time to avoid mosquito bite. In the first two camps, due to damp conditions, there bred a type of mosquito whose sting caused huge amount of swelling. As we were going to gain altitude every day (at times 3000 ft in a single day), to avoid Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) we had to get acclimatised naturally: Drink 5-6 litres of water to keep hydrated, go for acclimatisation walks after reaching a camp, stay awake throughout the day and absorb the surroundings. Himalayas demand respect and discipline and we were made aware of the adverse consequences in case we didn’t follow. Suddenly the mood in the group became grim. Queries were fired left, right and centre and Achin addressed them convincingly. A delicious dinner also lifted the spirits.
Living the Nomadic Life and Meeting the School Kids
Our first brush against the nomadic life! As we had to unpack after reaching every camp for one reason or the other and pack before making a move the next day, memory faded and things got lost and found often. For instance, our mobile went missing and then appeared in our back pack, one of us lost his credit card, etc.
We began the trek to Sewa. It is a small village in Govind Pashu Vihar National Park at the boundary of Uttarakhand. With mountains covered in chir pine and cedar trees and Rupin river finding its way through them, it was quite an exhilarating experience to walk on the narrow trails. There were a couple of places where help from trek leaders was required to cross the tricky terrain. On the way, we met lot of school children who walk good 3-4 km one side every day to go to school. Reality check on how we, the city folks take so many things for granted. Throughout this trek, we came face to face with this hard fact over and over.
Lifting one’s own Bagpack
Main challenge of this day was to test my limits as to whether I can lift my 10-12Kg backpack all 7 days or not. After delaying it for too long, I had only 2 more days to decide whether to hire a porter or carry it myself. In the name of equality and because I pulled my husband into this expedition, I was pestering him that let’s both of us give our bags to porter. As expected, it didn’t strike a chord with him and I underwent this trial. Watching 2 other ladies in the group lifting their bags was another source of encouragement to go for it. By the time we reached Sewa, my shoulders were literally crying but in my heart of hearts I had decided, like a true trekker, backpack is going to be my best friend till the end of this adventure.
Starting of New Rituals
Our campsite was in the middle of Sewa village with a huge mountain in the front. Nearby there was an old temple which opened only once a year on a festive occasion. A peculiar feature of temples in this region is that temple fronts are adorned with medals and trophies won by the villagers in various fields. In the evening, we went for an acclimatization walk where for the first time we saw the snow-capped mountains beyond which we had to reach during next few days.
At 6PM, commenced the ritual of taking our oxygen and pulse rate readings. As we gain altitude, air becomes thinner and oxygen content depletes, therefore monitoring these vital stats become paramount. Permissible readings are: Oxygen more than 90 at lower altitude and 80 at higher altitude and pulse rate between 60 to 150. Subsequently followed another ritual of comparing our readings with our peers and making a huge hue and cry about it like board exam results. People with high readings used to have that ‘Karlo Duniya Muthi Mein’ feeling (this roughly translates to top of the world feeling) and looked with mixed emotions towards the ones with low readings who were segregated and directed to drink more and more water. Hereon, this act was our every day evening past time!
Scaling the steep hillock
Next day was interesting in a lot of ways. From the campsite, our trail took us downhill right next to the Rupin river. After getting clicked with the river, we crossed a small 10 ft wooden bridge that took us from Uttarakhand to Himachal. After ascending through the thick forest for an hour, we hit the narrow motorable road. Like our previous day, this stretch was a spiral road with steep slopes leading to Rupin river. Walking in light rain shower, we reached the juncture from where began the herculean task of scaling a 45-50-degree inclined hill with extremely narrow snake-shaped path. One wrong step and you effortlessly slide towards the motorable road with serious injuries. Looking at my balancing abilities, I was demoted to the front of the group. Paradox, right! Well, it is not. A group is as good as its weakest link. Our trek lead’s strategy was to keep the struggling members in the front. So, moving in front of the group was a reminder that there is still so much to learn in terms of technique to become a strong trekker. With one’s heart in one’s mouth and one step at a time, we completed this 2Km stretch and reached Bawta.
Here we resided in Narinder’s abode. A cosy double storeyed wooden house with loads of windows facing the beautiful mountains. From Sewa, Narinder joined our trek leading team. As part of our acclimatization walk, we went to the source of the waterfall we had seen earlier in the day. We also saw Kwar Village facing the waterfall and which has the only bank branch around this region. Imagine walking an hour or more to withdraw some cash!
Hanging out in Jakha
Our last village in en-route to Rupin pass was the hanging village, Jakha. It is a lovely village nestled in the Himalayan slopes. It is still in the process of getting connected to a motorable road, so whatever is grown is pretty much used for domestic consumption. In mountains, weather changes in minutes. A sudden downpour forced us to don the rainproof gear and we kept traversing the winding paths.
We saw the first herd of 200-300 sheep and mountain goats taking shelter in a mountain cave. Lot more herds were to follow till our summit day. We also had company of Himalayan Sheepdogs at every campsite. These are livestock guardian dogs and with iron spiked collar around the neck can beat the sheep-stealing leopard any day. After the day’s trek, dog lovers in the group used to sit back and pet them.
We climbed a steep incline for 1-1.5 hour and took a pitstop at a small shop covered with tarpaulin. Here, the piping hot tea and Maggi were a welcome respite from the rain outside. In Jakha, we stayed in our trek leader Devraj’s home. Food was delectable especially the halwa sprinkled with generous amount of dry fruits in the night.
Witnessing a Multitude of Waterfalls
Today we were going to leave the treeline (the upper limit of tree growth in the mountains) and walk through the grasslands, moraines and two snow bridges for around 11Kms. We woke up very early in the morning, had breakfast, took our packed lunch and got ready to leave by 7:30AM. Unfortunately, one of the group members had to quit the trek due to ill health.
While leaving the village we saw the stadium-like setting where nearby villagers come and play tournaments. Given the sturdy built of natives and the amount of physical work they do on day to day basis, if governments encourage sports with full heart, villages can get uplifted automatically.
It was a sunny day and we criss-crossed the length of the mountains. After crossing the wooden bridge with roaring Rupin waters underneath, we basked in the sun and had hot onion pakoras from the lone Rupin pass tarpaulin-covered dhaba. River in the front, mountains in the backdrop, few Golden Eagles gliding in the sun-kissed sky was a sight of bliss. As it was late June, snow had melted and few snow bridges were remaining in this region. We learnt to hit the snow through the lateral side of our foot to get an anchor on the slippery snow bridge and cross it step by step.
After having lunch and many energy bars and hiking for a long time, Dhanteras Thatch appeared to be in sight. But nature had tiny round crystals of hailstones to offer. Suddenly the panorama transformed into a valley encompassed with snow-capped mountains and tens of waterfalls running across them. We could see our camp right in the middle of this vista and thought we could run towards it keeping our drenching fears aside. Guess we were wrong! Distance was much more than what it appeared and after a couple of vacillating thoughts, we paused our dash for the camp and took out the rain cover. We all rushed towards the dining tent and stayed put till the rain subsided.
Dhanteras Thatch is an enchanting campsite by the river side at 11,680 ft. Till late May it is covered with snow completely. As it was late June, we were presented with the rocky landscape. We could see the upper and middle waterfall with thundering Rupin waters. Rupin river originates just above the waterfall and we had to scale this waterfall region to gain another 1,440ft the next day. It was a scary ravine and I wondered how on earth we were going to make it. There seemed to be no direct way to reach there.
Answering Nature’s Calls
Henceforth, another challenge was to get used to dry pit toilets. Our trek lead enquired whether everyone knew how to use them. Everyone affirmatively kept quiet. But I guess it took a while for some to figure out that sickle kept in the toilet tent was to be used to fill the pit with soil after answering the longer nature call.
Good thing about this voyage was that it brought the focus back to basics: Wake up early, eat at regular intervals, stay hydrated, have a good sleep at night and time the lavatory related processes to avoid running in search of solitary places to relieve oneself while trekking.
Reaching the Cliff-side Camp
Ascent to Upper Waterfall camp was replete with many tilting snow bridges and extraordinarily gruelling rocks. Our number of pitstops grew as we went higher and higher to catch our breath every now and then. Though distance was just 3.5 kms, it took us around 3.5-4 hours to reach the destination. Perched on a crag in the mountains, sight of our cliff-side camp came as a treat. At this campsite, the mandate was to keep our bags packed all the time. In case of sudden adverse weather conditions, tents need to be folded and we need to gather at a common place. Luckily, we had a bright sunshine and cool breeze throughout the day. With still half a day to go post lunch, all we had to do was to immerse in mother nature, drink plenty of water and chit chat with fellow trekkers. Remember, no sleeping in the day time! In the dusking sky, the chilly winds took over and the mercury levels dropped rapidly.
Viewing the Milky Way
Day 7 was the D-day. At Rupin pass, ice starts to melt a little in sunshine presenting the risk of falling ice cubes and weather generally begins to get harsh post mid-day, so we had to scale the summit as early as possible. We woke up at 3AM in the morning. I’m at a loss of words to explain how beautiful the sky looked with milky way and some zillion stars twinkling! By 5:20AM, sporting 3-4 layers of clothing, we were all set to kick off the journey to our ultimate goal. Sadly, Achin (our trek leader) met with an accident while lifting a heavy boulder the previous day. Seeing his bloated foot, it was unimaginable how he would cross the pass and reach Sangla after 2 days to get some medical assistance. But like a true leader he took it in his stride and led the team till the very end.
Scaling the Rupin Pass
After the initial sharp, rocky gradient, major part of the day was about walking in the snow. We were given crampons to have a safe walk. We wore our snow goggles to avoid the glare and then kept climbing slopes of snow one after the other. We walked past three other trekking groups. The final track to reach the pass is 60-65-degree inclined snow slope called ‘Gully’. At the look of it, it appears insurmountable. We had additional technical staff to ensure our safety. They had carved steps in the snow with ice-axe so that the group could use these ice steps like a ladder to reach the summit. There was a herd of around 700 sheep and mountain goats which crossed the pass before us. It is advisable not to follow the herd as they erase the ice-axed steps and roll many snowballs down the slope. While we were waiting for the flock of sheep to cross over, we were given hot tea. TTH staff had been immensely friendly and supportive throughout the trek, but this thoughtful gesture of carrying tea in thermos for the group at 4700 metres above mean sea level was the supreme expression of care.
Once we began mounting the steps in the gully, we realised what a perilous route it was! A step gone wrong and one can find himself spinning down the slope. We were asked to maintain 1-2 ft distance amongst us lest we ram into each other. While we were stuck in the ice-axed steps with visibly petrified looks, porters with bulky loads on their heads and in just lungi (a sarong-like garment wrapped around the waist) and rubber shoes walked past us effortlessly, exchanging pleasantries as if it was no big deal! Thankfully, a technical staff member offered help. Taking one step at a time holding his hand I managed to reach the top. Soon, the whole group was at the summit. We all were ecstatic! We had finally achieved what we had come here for. Icing on the cake was that we clocked the second-best timing of reaching the summit in the season. Sunlit sky had a pivotal role to play. A bad weather could hamper the visibility and accentuate the hardships manifold on this ascent. So, we were very lucky! The peak offered a marvellous spectacle of the snow-laden mountains. It was just surreal! Stuff of fiction!
Sliding Down the Snow Slopes
Our team leaders congratulated us for our group performance and informed that 60% of the trek was yet to be covered. In my mind, I was like they can’t be serious! It must be some keeping us on our toes scheme! Guess, it had some element of truth. Technical staff had to return to upper waterfall camp. So, we thanked them and returned the crampons. We began our descent by sliding over the snow slopes twice. Our trek leaders were very cautious in choosing the slide paths so that we don’t hit a boulder when gravity takes over. Sadly, we witnessed two examples of reckless behaviour and its consequences from the trekkers of another trekking group. Both slid from a slope which had two rocks protruding out of the snow. They hit one rock and then rolled over a couple of times to hit the other one. Therefore, caution is of utmost importance! Unlike the gully, snow slopes were an open field with no trail defined with the ice-axe. It was abundantly slippery and almost everyone slipped. My personal slipping score was at least 20. With lot of help from the trek leaders, we crossed the snow and hit the grasslands. We had lunch on the way and kept walking and walking with no end in sight. After going up and down innumerable number of slopes and crossing a couple of rivulets, we saw Rontigad campsite nicely perched on the hilltop. Climbing this stretch to reach the camp was like the final test of endurance for the day. We were dead tired and dropped on the ground to take a quick nap till the promised samosas arrived.
Revisiting the Experience
Now that Rupin pass was done, we were more relaxed. People shared ghost stories in the night and later got so scared that up to 6 people slept in one tent. Looking at the tent in the morning, it seemed it had its own horror story to narrate! Being our last morning together, trek leaders gathered us for the final briefing session to share our trek experience. It was interesting how each one of us had a different take away from it. Having stayed together for 7 days, recollecting the big and small episodes was quite moving!
Running towards Sangla
Now we geared up for our last stop, Sangla from where we would part in different directions. We saw the picturesque Kinnaur Kailash on the way. Our recent trekking experience came handy and we were running down the mountains in good speed. Still, covering 12Kms took quite a lot of time. In the end, we crossed the bridge over thumping Baspa river waters and reached Sangla. Here we got the certificates from TTH stating that we had successfully completed the trek. After having a quick lunch and saying goodbyes to trek leaders, we boarded the cab to Shimla. Another cab from Shimla to Chandigarh and Haryana Roadways ultra-high-speed bus from Chandigarh to New Delhi ensured our early morning arrival back home.
Checking the Trip Expense
A quick look at the trip expense. TTH charged Rs. 16,240 for complete food and accommodation for 8 days along with the travel to Dhaula and Shimla. Other expenses of reaching Dehradun and journey back from Shimla was borne by the individuals.
Away from the hustle-bustle of the city, unplugged from the invasive social media and with no mobile network to catch, sitting in the lap of nature was all about finding oneself. Though we had a pre-defined destination every day, it was all about the journey both outside and within. Every day some mental barriers were broken and some internal strengths were discovered. It was an elevating experience indeed!