Bali pass trek

@maggiei

Bali pass trek

Bali pass trek

Bali pass trek :I am beaming ear to ear this morning as what we achieved in the last week is finally sinking in, after a comfortable night in a real bed and a hot South Indian breakfast graciously served by my home stay owner at Dehradun.

** Disclaimer **

I am also hesitant as I start writing this because my account of the trek that we just completed may not entirely match what you might experience if you go the same route. But high altitude mountain treks are never the same on any two given days I suppose.

*** Disclaimer done ***

The elderly Bengali lady next to me on the train from Delhi to Dehradun asked, “Why do you go climb mountains?” I drew a blank. I had quite not disconnected from work by then. All I knew this was my annual trek that I must undertake albeit being highly unprepared this time.

Bali pass trek is not for the faint-hearted; definitely not for first timers. But if you are an aspiring mountaineer, you should try this. Bali pass trek packs in more than just a trek. It is challenging. It is breathtaking. It presents different vistas every day. It covers half the Har ki Dun trek; gives a feeling of the Chaddar trek (weather cooperating); and a splash of spirituality with Yamunotri in the mix.

Just a little side note – Har ki Dun is also not for first timers; unless you are used to walking 10-12 km a day on a regular basis.

Day -1: Dehradun

Dehradun was the pick up point for our trek. The sense of exploration set in the moment I boarded the flight to Delhi and then the JanShatabdi to Dehradun. When I reached Dehradun, it was pouring. (A sign of things to come?) My train had reached late, smashing my hopes of shopping for last minute trekking needs in the city. The attender at the hotel was kind enough to run out and get a toothbrush for me that late in the night.

Day 0: Sankri lodge

We set out at 7.30 AM to drive to Sankri, our starting point for the trek. Met our guide, sweet Bhuvan, hugged old friends and started off.

All treks start like this. Slowly plunging one into the world of nature, gradually pulling you away from city life. As we start, we aah and ooh at every marvel we see. The drive from Dehradun to Sankri was no exception. Gushing Tons and Yamuna rivers. Mountains rising up to the skies. Clouds gently caressing them. Blooms and birds. From Baristas to tea shops, where “no sugar” means two teaspoons of sugar in your 100 ml chai. (Usually, this comes down as the next few days are filled only with these)

River Yamuna on the way to Sankri Bali pass trek
River Yamuna on the way to Sankri

It was a pleasant drive and we reached Sankri at around 4 PM. Sankri is a base camp for many treks in the Uttarkashi district on the Shivalik range situated at 2000 m altitude. The trekking company we were going with, GIO, have comfortable lodges there where we were going to spend the night. It was heartwarming to run into Vijay, our guide from the Hampta Pass trek. This is your last stop to stock up on any trekking gear you had missed packing. Exactly what I did.

Vijay took us on a short hike to the market. The marketplace was full of trekkers and guides and offered some of the best warm clothing and yummy omelettes. And I got myself a fleece jacket, one of the best purchases of my life.

Day 1: Sankri to Osla

We were supposed to leave at 7 AM, but couldn’t as we couldn’t find a vehicle to take us to Taluka, from where the trek would start. Apparently a busy day and too many trekking teams in town. We finally left at 8 AM for the short drive only to stop 2 km before Taluka as the bridge across one of the streams had given up. This led us to a lovely start to the trek crossing the stream on wooden logs. If anyone had ever had the slightest perception of this being a recreational trip, this crossing was designed to bring them down to reality.

Bali pass trek
Fun start to the trek

With that started the long 17 km walk to Osla, crossing the villages of Thalu and Ghungaad. Har ki Dun and Bali pass trekkers share this part of the route. It is 17 km of ascent, a trail winding through woods and colourful amaranth fields, constituting rocks feigned into steps. Very pretty views along the way.

However, this trek was like learning to swim by throwing one in the deep end. It was hard. Many treks ease you in with lighter days slowly building on to the harder climbs. Not this.

The weather alternated between cloudy and rainy (read depressing). The path was steep. And not too many places one could take a break as it was wet all around. Our lead guide Jaichand had given us the target to reach Ghungaad for lunch break between 12.30 and 1 PM. It was past 1 and I was still huffing and puffing my way through and took my break at a tea spot on the way, a good 2 km before Ghungaad.

We finally reached Ghungaad and Osla was just a couple of kilometres away. The bridge connecting Ghungaad and Osla looked serene with the Supin river rushing beneath it; deceptively hiding what was to come next.

The climb to Osla, a 3000 year old village, situated at an altitude of was daunting, to put it lightly. An assault on my already tired limbs.

Osla is an isolated village which finally saw electricity last year. It is not connected by road. Yet Osla folks do not complain. They make a day trips to Sankri and back as it is a walk to the park. It was a revelation that villages like this exist in today’s world.

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“It is a good thing we mountain people don’t fall sick”, said Pavan, one of the guides, “Imagine having to take a sick person on this trail to Sankri and then to Dehradun for medical facilities”. Walking the trail that day, I could see why they don’t fall sick.

Osla’s folks are beautiful and happy in spite what we consider “limited resources”. We were lucky enough to stay the night in the one of their traditional houses converted into a lodge. The houses are elevated, built on multiple levels. The top level usually houses the livign and sleeping spaces. The rooms have no ventilation to keep the cold out and are flanked by open balconies that serve as living spaces during the warmth of the day and give fantastic views of the valley. We pried the locals to tell us why someone would choose to make a home at Osla and learnt that centuries ago, the village folks fled here to escape an attack by a king. Living so high up provided them with natural safety.

I also came across a story about how Osla villagers worship Duryodhana, the antagonist character of the Mahabharata story. Whatever be the story, the innocence and smile of the villagers was heartwarming.

Day 2: Osla to Rain basera camp

Day 2 started off with renewed energy. I have to mention here that I started this trek from a negative point. My prep had come to an abrupt halt in the last two weeks due to a sprained back; I had spent the past year working through injuries in my knees and back and was still in the recovery mode; and I had the spent the previous week sitting through hours of meetings followed by hours of traffic and had worked till 3 AM before I left for Delhi. So my physical and mental stamina were both lower than usual. The climb to Osla had left me doubting myself.

As per the original plan we were supposed to trek up to Ruinsara Tal which was 20km away. The next day was meant for rest and acclimatisation. After the previous day, another day of 20 km seemed so daunting that we negotiated with Jaichand to break it up. We would now walk 15 km to the Rain basera camp (not completely sure of this name).

Bhuvan has promised that the walk to this camp would be better than the ascent to Osla. And he was quite right.

The walk was indeed pleasant winding through sides of cliffs, rolling slopes. The sun was out and the whole world turned magical. We also had company as three dogs, whom we named Sheru, Bolu and Kaalu decided to trek with us from Osla.

I was slow but ploughing through it quite well. Around noon the weather turned and it was time to take the rain gear out. We also had to walk through a waterfall on the way, which soaked everything! With wetness adding to the weight I was carrying and the path becoming steeper, I was again exhausted by the time we reached the camp. Thankfully the skies cleared as we reached the camp and our guides decided to make a bonfire to cheer us up and dry our shoes and bags to help us get ready for the next day.

The place where we camped is a small clearance amidst flush vegetation. Vegetation that was wet from days of rain. Between the bonfire, our first night in the tents, starry skies, the Milky Way (always a treat while trekking) and conversations, what I vividly remember of that night is wetness.

Day 3: Ruinsara Tal and Tanga campsite

This was supposed to be an easy day for rest and acclimatisation. We went on a short hike to Ruinsara Tal, a serene lake emerging out of nowhere with a rock housing a Shiva linga atop. We relaxed around the lake, did a customary prayer to the God on the rock, took pictures and slithered down to the Supin river.

As we descended, our canine friends seemed to have lost interest in us. May be they went back to Osla. Or followed a different trekking group from the lake.

Next was the most fun part of the trek – river crossing. When you have climbed way above civilisation, bridges cease to exist across rivers. Most high altitude treks thus seem to have a point where one needs to just walk across the icy waters to get to the other side. Thankfully for us, given the season, the waters were from the rains and not glacier melt and hence the cold was bearable. We just needed to be firm in our legs so as not to be washed away by the currents.

A couple of steep climbs across oak and spruce trees later, we were at the Tanga campsite, now way above the tree line at about 3500m altitude. Bhuvan described the shrubs and flowers and trees along the way. Rhododendron bushes that flower white in that height, the pretty looking but extremely poisonous flowers, sage bushes, the legendary Brahma kamal – the unique flora of the Himalayas. We also got to spot a group of ibex up on the hills. The weather had been perfect all day, raining a little when we reached the campsite but dry otherwise.

Tanga campsite is a beautiful spot with visual treats of Swargarohini, Kaal Nag and Bali pass trek peaks around. Swargarohini is a 6500m towering beauty, so majestic and standing out like a jewel. Seeing the peak can make one understand why people pursue summits. Spirits of the likes of Norgay and Mallory live in those peaks.

A bit of mythology – Swargarohini is apparently the peak from where Yudhishtira ascended to heaven. Read the full story here

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Swargarohini peak glowing in the evening sun, visible behind the mountain in the forefront

We again had a bonfire and were treated to a lavish dinner that night, given that our supplies will be limited from there onward. This was the last point to which we could hire mules to carry our luggage and supplies. The terrain would be difficult from there on and we only porters to help us. So we cut down on as much as we could. Reduced the toilet tents to one from two, modified the sleeping arrangements, gave up the portable stools to reduce what we needed to carry.

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The entire team was doing well with the height. Not a surprise because we had all done high altitude treks earlier. The oxygen levels start dropping from 2500m onwards. Acute Mountain Syndrome, AMS, is a real thing that can set in any time after reaching that height.

The steep ascents were still leaving me breathless and exhausted and I was slow, but I could finally feel the stamina coming together. The next day was supposed to be the toughest day of the trek. I was wondering what could be tougher than that climb to Osla while one of the guides quipped “Kal tum log marenge” (you will die climbing tomorrow). What a lovely thought to set the context for the next day!

Day 4: Tanga to Bali base/Bali pass trek

So, the dreaded day had come. Jaichand showed us a rock a little far away and casually mentioned we will be doing three times the distance from our camp to that rock. The location he indicated is called the Bali Udiyari, a natural cave and apparently the spot where apparently Vali, a character from Ramayana killed a monster.

On the hills, of course, visual distances are deceptive. We would know only when we actually crossed it.

The morning was clear and we started off. The first half was a relatively simple climb, a continuous ascent with some steep patches on navigable terrain. The only complication was that we were at a high altitude. After we crossed halfway, the scene changed. The next half involved walking along the ridges of mountains. Walking along a ridge means you have steep drops on both sides and hence need be careful as well as ensure that the team follows one after the other. There is hardly any spot where two people can stand next to each other. To add fun to this, it had snowed leaving one unsure of the footing.

Snow meant the pace was slower; and there was no place to rest; but lots of fun. For me personally this was the highlight of this adventure. We plodded along amidst swathes of white snow all around.

It was around mid day by then and the weather turned. It started with the winds. The most ethereal experience ever. The winds there start off like someone is playing a flute loudly. When you hear that, it is like a calling. Mesmerising. You just want to surrender. Dissolve. Disintegrate and disappear into the one who is calling.

Soon, the winds pick up and start howling. You are then jarred into awakening. You have a path to follow. You start putting one foot after another.

And with those winds it started snowing and the visibility diminished.

After what felt like forever, we reached our snow camp at Bali base/Bali pass trek. We all huddled in our tents to keep warm. And hit our sleeping bags after a simple dal chawal (lentils and rice) for dinner. No bonfire. The plan was to leave for the summit at 5 AM. That would mean we would reach lower Damni, our destination for the next day by 4 PM. Another descent from there and we would be back in Dehradun on day 6.

Having overcome what was termed as the toughest day of the trek, I went to bed, eagerly looking forward to the next day.

Around midnight, the mesmerising flute music started as the winds stirred around us. Soon the winds picked up and turned into a full blown snowstorm. My next few hours of the night were spent in listening to the winds, while slapping the tent from inside to shake off the snow so that the tent wouldn’t cave upon us. Snow was falling so rapidly and I couldn’t help admiring and thanking the ones who invented the material and design of the tents we were sleeping in, that kept the cold and winds out.

Our guides walked around all night as well, shaking off the snow and ensuring tents are alright. I was half awake all night wondering what we will wake up to in the morning. Will we be snowed it? Can we make the summit?

Day 5: Bali pass/Bali pass trek – the summit

We woke up to incessant snowing. Not surprising. Visibility had reduced greatly and we couldn’t see the mountain tops around us. This was not the ideal condition to summit. We decided to wait a little.

5 became 6; 6 to 7; and thus hours slowly rolled on to become 10.

We had three options in front of us:

1) Make the summit

2) Wait until the weather cleared and make the summit even if it meant the next day (Did we have enough rations to cover one more day?)

3) Go back the way we came which will add two more days to the itinerary

We, the city dwellers were not the best shots at making the decision. Our guides were. And the decision was made to make the summit. So we started the ascent at 12 noon, porters and luggage and all, across the 500 m near-vertical ridge which was the Bali pass/Bali pass trek. (Bear in mind that typical high altitude summits are made early in the morning, as the weather becomes unpredictable afternoon). After what seemed forever, we finally reached the top three hours later. This was just step one of the day.

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As soon as we reached the top, it started snowing heavily, reducing the visibility further. The descent stared at us, a rocky near vertical cliff, now covered in snow. Along the way we learnt to move sideways to navigate the snow without slipping, learning to work with the fresh powder snow, to identify rocks, to pull our leg out when it plunged into powdery snow, and to use each other’ steps as guiding posts to move along. A treacherous two hours later, we were forced to camp as it was already 5 PM. The guides found a nominal clearing and we camped for the night. Exposure to snow and cold winds for almost six hours had left most of us shivering and cold. We quickly settled in tents for the night, hoping that the worst is over.

The snow seemed to subside. I heard someone from a nearby tent cry, “The stars are out”. With a sigh of relief that the long descent awaiting us the next day would at least be ok, I tried to sleep.

Around midnight the snowstorm started again.

Day 6: Somewhere below Bali pass/Bali pass trek to Jankichatti

I spent the next few hours shaking the snow off the tent and listening to the weather outside. The storm finally subsided at 3 AM. To everyone’s relief, we woke up to a beautiful sunrise. This was our last day in tents. We should be heading back to civilization today and reaching Dehradun.

The final day descent starts. The entire team with our porters, guides and cooks.

Did I say in the beginning of this blog that I was unprepared? Here – that ignorance was shining bright. We all had pretty much thought that the most difficult part of the trek was behind us. What was left was just a descent and that too in clear weather. How hard it can be?

As the snow cover became lighter as we descended, it became more slippery and we all waddled across the snow to reach the point from where we could descend. It was harder than we thought, but what came next was the most challenging part of the trek. (That’s the point with this one, the challenges never seemed to end, until the entire trek came to an end)

The descent from this point was through the Goat path, an extremely difficult and tricky path down a cliff on a narrow ledge. One foot after the other – there was not enough space to keep both the feet together! And one slip can send you down the valley, saving all the effort for the rest of the descent (just may not be where we intended to get to)! This path had become trickier due to the melting snow. Thanks to our expert local guides, we carefully climbed this down and reached “safe ground”, from where we could walk down on our own. Interestingly mobile network was available at this point. After the previous day’s ordeal, it was a relief to call home and check in with the family. A two hour easy walk down across lovely views of valleys and the Yamunotri glacier we reached the point where we would have camped if all had gone to plan.

From there we could either spend two more kilometres walking to Yamunotri shrine or walk straight down to Janakichatti, the first motor-able spot we can get to. The descent and the wet shoes had taken a toll on my toes and I felt I did not have the strength to anything more than required. So I skipped the Yamunotri shrine option and proceeded to Jankichatti. In fact, I took a mule (most of us did) through the last 2.5 km.

Returning to civilization was harsh. As we approached Yamunotri there were plastic bottles strewn across the path and human faeces all over the place. Manish’s (one of the guides) words came back to me – We prefer being on the mountains, he had said. Looking at the mess around me, why wouldn’t he?

The vehicle to take us back to Dehradun was waiting at Jankichatti. Having walked with at eye level with those magnificent mountains it felt a bit unreal to start the journey back.

That evening we stopped at a family restaurant and ordered a whole banquet. As we wolfed down the tasty local food it struck us that we had endured the snow and the terrain challenges for hours and hours with hardly any food. On both the previous days the only meals we had had were two light breakfasts and one light dinner.

This has been the most physically and mentally challenging trek I have done so far. It was spiritual in a sense that we all discovered a deep source of strength and courage as we made those descents in those difficult conditions, after four days of trekking on hard trails. As one of us said, it was a rebirth, in that sense.Bali pass trek

I am at the Dehradun airport. My feet are swollen like fat fish. My finger tips are numb. I wince every time I move. The flight attendant worriedly checks on me.

Yet I smile. At everyone. Every minute. I cannot stop smiling. “This is why I go to the mountains”, I wish I could tell my fellow passenger on the train now.


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