Comic Adventure: We survive an extraordinary day in Spiti
Spiti is a cold mountain desert. The valley is formed by the Spiti river. Geologically and archaeologically, it is a living museum. The mountains are devoid of any vegetation and erosion by wind, sun and snow over thousands of years has laid bare the rocks. The rugged and rocky mountain slopes sweep down to the riverbeds, giving the landscape a moon-like appearance. From Kunzam pass to Sumdo, the length of the valley is about 150 km. Spiti river flows eastwards to meet the Sutlej in Kinnaur.
Kaza is in the middle of Spiti and is the divisional headquarters. It is at an altitude of 3600M (11,808 feet), and is a small town equipped with a hospital and grocery shops selling vegetables that arrive from Shimla or Manali. Temperatures in Kaza at that time, during October/November, ranged from -12 C to 5 C.
This was going to be our home for the next 3/4 days and I was enthusiastically looking forward to it. A few of us walked to a restaurant to have breakfast, the rest stayed recuperating at the lodge. The lodge manager told us excitedly about an annual festival being celebrated that day in a village called Kaumik (also spelled as Comic) in the mountains above Kaza. It turned out that either you could trek up the mountain slope or travel by jeep in a roundabout fashion to reach the village.
These Buddhist festivals are a visual feast and some of us started planning to trek the mountain slope. Initially, I felt so worn out after getting up that I was in no mood to do any physical activity. After the breakfast walk however, three of us (Madhukar, George and I) aspired to trek, while the others decided to travel by jeep and meet us at the village festival.
I had heard a lot about the importance of acclimatization. When you travel to an altitude of more than 10,000 feet from sea level, you are advised to spend a day acclimatizing yourself to the altitude before you move about. The altitude can play tricks with your lungs and brain, and it does it so fast, that it is usually too late to act if anything happens. Trekking immediately the next morning after reaching Kaza (11,808 ft.) was dangerous. However, Madhukar and George inspired me, and I did not worry about acclimatization at all.
I think that was the key. I just wanted to join them and prove to myself that I was capable of doing it. We did not know the height of the mountain, except that the villagers had said the trek would take about 2 to 3 hours. One of us said that if it seems difficult we could always return after a few minutes. That put to rest my worries. I decided that I could indeed begin; we will see what happens later. We began inching our way up the mountain at 10:45 AM.
Our target was a fluttering flag flying high above, on the side of the mountaintop. It was on the slope, lower than the top, and the path seemed to go directly up across the mountain towards it. After a few minutes, I was breathless. I had not taken anything along with me, to keep myself weightless and free. Madhukar and George were carrying cameras and one backpack. On the way, we halted for a few moments several times for pictures. By the time we were half-way through, I was completely exhausted. Until now, everything was physical, now began the mental and psychological trekking. Step forward, inhale, step forward, exhale.
I dragged myself upwards, towards the flag. We encountered several villagers who were also going towards Kaumik, but soon dropped the idea of following them. Their pace and short cuts were beyond us. George and I slowed down Madhukar, but he patiently waited and urged us along. I was the only smoker among the three — a fact both noted with great significance. Step forward, inhale. Exhale, step forward.
We were now in the steep rocks towards the top. As soon as we neared the flag, we saw that the road did not lead to the flag on the slope, but continued upward towards the top. Madhukar went on upward along the road to check out how far it was until the top. He went up for some distance and called out to us, saying it was only a bit far.
It was only in hindsight that I realized how good a leader Madhukar was. George and I plodded along, breathless, but believing him. George was doing much better, I was worse. Step forward. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. Step forward. Each step was a milestone. I tried to achieve a rhythm in my steps and breathing, but could not keep it up. I knew the rhythm was the key to trekking and tried to return to it even after losing it. After what seemed an eternity, we finally saw another set of flags, perched at the top — the real top. The flag we were seeing so far was only an illusion; it was actually on the side of the mountain slope. The real crossover was still quite some distance away. I was in no condition even to think about what Madhukar had said earlier about the top being close. The set of flags, our new target, was indeed our goal, and we spurred on, inching our way towards it. Step forward, several breaths, wait, and then step forward.
At last, we reached the fluttering flags at the top. The village was nowhere in sight. I was out of breath and was about to collapse. We then met other villagers who were traveling the same way to Kaumik. Upon asking them how far it was, their responses varied between “no longer far” to “about 30 minutes far”. Later, we were to discover that we had climbed above 15,000 feet. It was a 6 km trek and a climb of about 3,000 feet. We were higher than Kunzam!
Of course, we did not know any of this and trudged along the mountain. Now, at least we were not climbing. An inhabited hill came into view far away, across a valley. We got scared and wondered if that was Kaumik. If it was, I was in no position to reach it; at least in that day. My worst fears came true.
The rest of us were coming there by jeep; and we were to meet at Kaumik. We had decided upon a time of about 2:00 PM, estimating that we would take four hours when the villagers had said two. However, it was already past 2:00 PM, and we did not know where Kaumik was. Hence, Madhukar said that he would proceed ahead at his faster pace in order to catch the jeeps, while George and I could follow at our own pace.
We readily agreed. Madhukar went trotting ahead of us, while we trudged along behind him. Soon, he was far ahead of us, climbing up the hill that we had seen some time back. I felt it to be impossible for me to go that far and climb again. George and I were inspiring each other to go along and we somehow continued. Our steps were wavering, we were faltering, but we were moving, to catch the jeeps. Survival instinct was my only source of energy.
Then, suddenly, we saw them! Our Maruti Gypsies had reached the inhabited hilltop! This confirmed that the hilltop was indeed Kaumik, our destination. We could also see Madhukar perched on the top of a hut, apparently shouting at the vehicles. The sight of the jeeps motivated me to climb the Kaumik hill. I was visualizing lying in them and going back to our home in Kaza. Madhukar was still on the slope of the hill, frantically waving towards the jeeps; but they neither saw nor heard him. Disaster struck as I saw the jeeps begin their journey back to Kaza.
We later learned that everyone else had thought that if we did not come by the time we had decided to meet, we must already be on our way down and therefore did not search for us in Kaumik…
George and I sat down. We said to each other that neither of us had the strength to climb down to Kaza today. Our goal in life was only to reach Kaumik, somehow, and rest there forever. We got up and began walking across the agricultural fields in the valley. Soon we were inching our way up the slope of the hill. We were walking towards a temple where we saw Madhukar perched on the top.
The last section of the climb was unimaginable. I was collapsing and sure that I was in no condition to move any farther. Madhukar came down beside us and urged us upwards. I was gathering mental and physical strength from all my reserves and I did not know where those reserves were. Every step was a lifetime achievement. Each step caused dizziness and I had to rest my hands on the rocks alongside or the ground, to avoid collapsing. I felt the world swirling around me and had no further strength to continue. It was a choice between dying because of moving, or dying because I didn’t move.
I sat down, and saw George continuing to climb. Then I heard Madhukar urging me to get up and move. In a hypnotized state, I got up and moved. I climbed and climbed; not stopping until I reached the top, where I collapsed. After a few minutes, I regained awareness and looked around.
We were at the top of a plateau, and there were several religious structures around. The village ceremony was still going on, and the villagers were dancing and playing music in a wild, vivacious yatra — a procession.
Now that the jeeps were gone, we had to find an alternative way to return to Kaza. Madhukar first suggested climbing down; but that was out of the question for George and me. He then said he had talked with a truck driver who had brought several villagers for the festival. He was willing to take us back to Kaza along with them. We sighed in relief at this news and crouched on the floor hiding from the wind, waiting for the ceremony to end.
I felt the irony but felt helpless. We had climbed so much to watch the ceremonies of the village festival, but were hiding behind a wall to brace ourselves from the wind while the celebrations were going on. However, there was no choice as my body was freezing and I was already fantasizing about lying in bed in Kaza. Madhukar again suggested that we could climb down to Kaza but we were in no mood to do that. We firmly refused; saying we would rather spend the night in Kaumik than climb down. Thus, we stayed on, crouching behind the wall avoiding the cold wind that had begun to blow.
After the ceremonies and celebrations were over, a huge crowd assembled in the truck. I was amazed at the variety of the crowd that was to travel with us to Kaza. There were males and females of all ages, from 10 years old to 80 years old and were scrambling together in the truck like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. We climbed the truck and stood watching the chaos in a daze.
After quite a while, the truck started its slow and torturous journey towards Kaza. The sun was down already, and it was in darkness that the truck driver was taking death-defying turns. We held our breath, but were in such a daze that we almost did not care. We were still in a stupor from all the exhaustion and the altitude.
A few villagers got off on the way in the local villages and the crowd in the truck reduced. While passing through a deep gorge, the engine started coughing and the truck abruptly stopped. There were shouts galore. Someone opined that it was out of fuel. Upon the driver’s insistence, the passengers got out and started pushing the truck. While we were in a daze, waiting desperately for the moment we reached our home in Kaza; we looked at Madhukar joining the group in pushing the truck. George, suffering from a headache, was sitting with his head between his hands. I was so dazed that I did not care what was happening as long as the truck was moving.
Soon however, everyone realized that there was no sense in pushing the truck since it was never going to start. All the villagers therefore decided promptly to continue on foot, and by the time we were shaken out of our daze, they were already quite a distance ahead. Madhukar urged us to get up on our feet and start moving. George and I scampered to our feet and began to walk on the road. Shortly, the villagers were out of sight. Then we were all alone, in the darkness, in the mountains on an isolated path. We did not know where we were, or how far, nothing was to be seen or heard anywhere around us.
We continued walking feverishly, urged on by Madhukar’s admonishments. We could barely see the path in the dark. It was especially unnerving on u-turns. I constantly followed Madhukar; George was behind me. We later confessed to everyone that at that time, we were all afraid of wildlife. However, we did not mention this to each other as we were walking.
Madhukar was encouraging us all along, inspiring us to walk faster. He then remarked about the sound of the river, indicating that we were close to the bottom of the mountain, near the surface of the river, near the main road! Our pace increased and soon we were on the main road, like stranded passengers waiting for any vehicle that would take us to Kaza.
Finally, a van stopped in response to our frantic waving and dropped us at Kaza. At 8:30 PM we were back home. Reaching home safely after such a nightmare was a dream come true! To this day, this is the most adventurous day of my life.