It was impossible to count them. Millions of shiny dots of all sizes and colours mapped the night sky. The night was still. No whooshing of the wind, no screeching of crickets. Today, it was just me and the silky black quilt studded with stars. Laying on my back, looking at the sky and feeling the silent but murderous river flowing beneath; I was alive. The seven layers of clothing were not enough to keep the chill from reaching my skin. I told myself that I should go back to the tent, but another part of me yearned to lie there for a few more minutes – just to reassure myself that I was really there!
“Rohan, come on in” my thoughts were interrupted by the loud call from our trek-leader. “It’s very cold outside and you need to get some sleep.”
Three days earlier when I landed on the Leh airport, I had no idea I would be encountering such a beautiful night sky. Traveling to Leh in February is madness! The first step outside the aircraft felt as if I had stepped inside the deep-freeze compartment of a refrigerator. Chilled, we proceeded to our hotel. After a warm drink and a nutritious breakfast, our camp-leader gave us some basic instructions and the rest of the day was free for acclimatization.
Next day we packed our day-sacks and set off to the base camp which was set in a small village called TilatSumdo. Zanskar is a menacing, gushing flow of water between July to September when it is considered to be one of the best for rafting, however during peak winter season it gets transformed into a six feet thick ‘chadar’ of ice. After dinner, I took a break from the group and decided to lie down on the ice not very far from our tent. And when I looked up, I could not believe my eyes!
“Yes I am coming,” I replied to the trek-leader’s call and walked towards my tent.
“We need to leave by 7 AM” he instructed over my shoulder as I entered the tent.
The next morning we hurriedly wrapped up our tents, had a sumptuous meal to sustain the day and set off to the next camp site – ShingraKoma. After walking for the entire day, we reached the camp. Until there, all went well. The problems started when we encountered some folks who were on their way back from Nerak (the final summit). The ice had melted in some places and they had to take a detour over the rocks to cross the patch.
It was dangerous because in case anyone falls off the cliff in the ice-cold water, there are no chances of survival. A sudden cardiac arrest would cause death within 120 seconds. And if your heart is strong enough to resist the attack, you would definitely die of Hypothermia in the next five minutes. This spread doubts and fear in the minds of all our batch mates. But some of us were very optimistic and believed we should reach the summit, now that we have come so far. Still, two of us decided to stay back.
The path to Nerak was by far the toughest rock-patch I have encountered and I am saying this having a trekking history of 12 years in the Sahyadris and Himalayas alike! No patch was this dangerous, not even close. Sliding our feet between crevices barely inches wide, we somehow managed to cross the sharp water-cut mountains and got back to the ‘chadar’. And the view that awaited us was just mesmerizing. A 100-feet tall huge waterfall completely frozen in time! I walked up to the waterfall. This was it. It was for real. I could touch it. I removed my gloves and touched it with my bare hands. I just couldn’t envelope its majesty in my eyes. It was the most beautiful sight!
Crossing the same treacherous mountains we reached Tibb. The next day was going to bring a big hurdle which none of us were aware of. At one point the ‘chadar’ had melted and a detour on the rocks was impossible because of their almost vertical inclination on both the sides. We looked at our trek leader with a now-what expression on our faces. He dipped his stick in the water and said, “About two feet. Off with your bottoms everyone. We will have to walk through the water!” At first everyone denied and demanded to find another way out. But none of our denials were going to work because that was the only way. We had to do it. Every one of us, girls and boys alike, removed all the layers of our bottom-wear and lifted our bags on our heads and started walking. The moment we entered the water, a freakily evil chill ran through my spine and I let out a loud Arrrrggghhhhh…I felt like I was walking in a furnace. My legs were burning. Burning with cold. And to top it all, the frost discs floating on the water cut through the skin of my thighs making them look like a suicidal person’s wrist! The pebbles under my feet made it even harder to walk and I almost slipped twice. Thankfully I did not fall in the water. The two-minute walk through the water was no less than hell. When we got out, none of us could feel our legs. They had gone numb, and a darker shade of bluish-black.Once on the rocks, we immediately spread out our wet clothes in the sun. The watery pasta offered by our cooks seemed as if the best lunch ever!
We reached Leh dirty as ever, cracked skin and swollen noses, bones paining, but feeling awesome. We took the traditional dip in the ice-cold water to commemorate our success. With a heavy heart full of sweet memories, we parted only hoping that our paths might cross some time, somewhere.
Mary Tyler Moore once said, ‘Pain nourishes your courage.’ I realised how true it is!