Gazing down the slopes of Naranag, the historic temple complex located close to Srinagar, one July morning, savouring the crisp air flowing over green meadows dotted with grazing pashmina goats and mountain cows – the white patches of glacial ice starkly juxtaposed against the blue sky – I felt that time had stood still. But alas, the skies dulled and we hurried to rejoin our families in the safety of the city beyond the mountains – taking one final look at the meandering track that led out of the memorable and arduous trek across pristine Kashmir. The simply clad children of the nomadic ‘Gaddi’ beckoned us to play; streams bubbling forth under the gargantuan boulders vied for our attention; the snow crunched rhythmically underfoot begging us to stop and stare…
An energetic bunch of 32 trekkers had left the slopes of Sonamarg or meadow of gold as it is lovingly known, a week earlier, led by Amit, Group Head, India Hikes and supported by 3 trekking guides and a dozen mules. Meadow of gold, an alpine valley in Ganderbal district, situated at the bank of Nallah Sindh, 87 km north-east from Srinagar, is a popular tourist destination and a starting point of several treks. Peaks visible from here are the Sirbal, Kolhoi, Amarnath and Machoi, and in the near vicinity lies the glaciers of Kolhoi and Machoi. Yatris to Amarnath via the Baltal Route (which also boasts of a helipad) were proceeding in busloads along the road to Sonamarg.
Amit brought our group up the hill to the camp site tents. By now the sun was setting and the golden rays lit up the Amarnath Peak where the sacred cave housing the ice Shivling is worshipped. The cold wind whipped up sending shivers through our woollen jackets. At the base camp we were allotted three to a tent and Arjun from Bangalore was to spend the night with my daughter and me. We put the sleeping bags and the backpacks into our tent and assembled for a round of introductions and instructions. Dinner was announced and we were treated to sumptuous khana which we eagerly gulped amidst animated discussions about our subsequent week!
Night turned chilly and the nightcap of hot health drink served by the phiran clad mess boy was elixir. The morning lit up the resplendent glaciers before us – and morning yoga, ablutions by the river and a generous breakfast followed. We were ready to leave camp at 8. The first stretch was a climb overlooking the neatly laid out tents of base camp, which was soon obliterated from sight by tall maple trees. The path went up and then down, gaining height with each loop round the mountains – soon we were in deep and dark pine forests. Ahead a rivulet sprang forth from the glacier at least 500 metres below us, shimmering in the shafts of sunlight that managed to penetrate the canopy. Another half hour later we were atop the glacier, carefully picking our way to avoid plunging into the icy river beneath. After about an hour we hit a grassy knoll surrounded by barren mountains and green meadows. Resting awhile, we resumed our march through a clump of silver birch trees – used centuries ago as paper to write scriptures and texts in Sanskrit and other scripts, particularly in historical Kashmir. The Sanskrit word for the tree is bhûrja—sharing a similarity with other Indo-European words that provide the origin for the common name ‘birch’. Here we came across a group of nomadic herders, the Gaddis who were grieving over the recent death of an old man. Indeed the paucity of medical facilities in this remote area and the difficulty in transporting a sick man to the city hospital was stark – knowledge of medicinal herbs in the jungle must be saving them from misery. By 2 in the afternoon we rejoined the cavalcade transporting our camp equipment and were served parathas. Post lunch we hiked over a few more snow patches, across icy streams, boulders and rocks – finally viewing the campsite in the haze of the light drizzle.
Hot instant noodles awaited us at the Nichnai Camp and we soon settled into our tents. Surrounded as we were by snow covered peaks on three sides – it soon turned cold and windy. A camp mate had not been feeling well, she was giddy and queasy and weak. Medication proved ineffective and after a restless night, she decided to return with her husband. She apparently improved as soon as they reached Sonamarg, so in retrospect it looks like she had a touch of high altitude sickness (HAS).
The third day dawned. Cloudy and chilly, the hot cup of tea and the breakfast stirred us into action and we set off by 7 am. Heading towards the Nichnai Pass, we trudged over a glacial patch digging our heel into the ice at each step. The ascent was gradual – we spotted fat marmots now and then in the distance. At places the melting snow had converted the path into slush and the going was tough. By midday we reached the top of the Pass with the sun blindingly reflecting off the ice. We could see the very long icy Pass stretching into the horizon, bordered on the right by mountains and on the left by precipitous fall. Amit informed us that we were to slide down about 80 feet (he did make us practise sliding down an icy slope the day before ) as the gradient of the slope was too much to allow a climb downwards. One by one all camp mates sat on the ice, legs stretched in front, arms raised over their heads, clutching the walking stick like a sail and were pushed down the precipice. The people before me managed to do it right and it all looked simple until my turn came. I first scraped my back on the ice for most of the distance, then tumbled and lost my stick and spectacles and finally landing on my face! Recovering I knew there was no option but to put up a brave front and carry on for the next three days. Several long stretches and after a couple of more botched slides I tumbled out of Nichnai Pass and were served lunch. Camp was after 2 more hours of walking and I was ready to collapse.
Kishansar Camp was by the riverside. Weather turned foul and some of us would have been happier if it stayed that way making the Gadsar Pass – our next distinction, impregnable. We could then return to base camp just like the earlier batch. Battling icy winds next morning we trekked towards Kishansar. The lake was like a delicate crystal bowl crafted by the humongous mountains. Crossing the river, we ascended to half frozen Vishansar Lake where we spotted the Shivling massif. The silence around the lakes added magic to the clear blue surface and the ice floes. As we began to ascend a sheer cliff to cross the Gadsar Pass, there was a steady drizzle, the icy winds would not stop and by noon we were at our wits end. The mules with all our luggage had to cross first – the first mule crossed over gingerly, the second one fumbled, dropped the entire load on the ice and scampered across. The others had to be cajoled and pushed to go across. The old man managing the mules came running back on to the Pass, picked up the fallen load and struggled across the ice – heroic indeed. We stepped across and many of us needed to be helped, but we made it across the highest Pass on this trek! A short rest and we were ready to slide down the icy precipice to get a view of the frozen Gadsar (or Yamsar, as it is called locally) Lake. We continued for the next 5 hours hoping to see the elusive campsite. The titbits in our backpacks had to double up for lunch – by nightfall, however, we were safely in our tents.
Next morning after negotiating a treacherous ice wall we descended onto meadows to Rajbal, and spotted distant peaks that were apparently in Pakistan. Camp was reached with time enough for lunch and a post lunch siesta. Next morning we set off in the direction of Satsar, negotiating innumerable streams climbing over boulders huge and small. All along we passed several lakes interconnected with each other. We saw the 14,000 ft Megan Peak in the distance and set out to climb it at ease with our newly acquired familiarity with glaciers and sheer cliffs. In about an hour we crossed the final snow patch and ascended the peak when a wall of clouds isolated us from the rest of the team. We could hear their entreaties but could see no one. The moment of terror passed when we slid from the peak to where the meadows began. It would take us 4 more hours of walk across to arrive dog tired at the Gangabal Campsite.
This site is considered sacred by Kashmiri Pandits who trek here from Naranag to immerse the ashes of their departed elders. We found Muslims too making this trek. It is suspected that the cave temple at the foot of the Haramukh peak dates to an ancient lineage. That evening we witnessed one of the most scariest thunderstorm – all our tents however withstood the fury. The last morning dawned clear and bright and we had a certificate distribution and group photo session. With goodbyes to the mess and mule teams – but for them we could never have made it this far – we descended further recalling popular movie scenes of Switzerland. Indeed they were no match to our own Kashmir! Our toes paid a heavy toll and the blue nails reminded us of the trek for many months. By 2 pm we assembled at the restaurant in Naranag, had a hasty lunch, and set off via Kangan to Srinagar in jeeps! A few kilometres ahead our mobile phones came alive. Soon we would be regaling the stories to family and friends as though it all happened in a dream!