Monday, June 04, 2007

Hamta Pass

Having done quite a few one day treks, I was telling myself that I should try and attempt something bigger – and along came the KMA announcement for a trek to Hamta Pass in the Himalayan range in Himachal Pradesh. I promptly signed up, even though I have never done any major treks before and could not convince anyone that I knew to join me for the trek. The following was the itinerary:

May 23: Delhi to Manali
May 24: Stay in Manali
May 25: Manali to Prini and there on to Tilgan
May 26: Tilgan to Sarrabogi
May 27: Sarrabogi to Kokunallah
May 28: Kokunallah to Ooching Bihai
May 29: Ooching Bihai to Juara
May 30: Juara to Hamta Pass and back
May 31: Juara to Ooching Bihai
June 1: Ooching Bihai to Manali
June 2: Manali to Delhi
June 3: Reach Delhi

Hamta Pass was located at an altitude slightly above 14,000 ft (4270m). We would be trekking around 100 KM in 8 days from Manali to Manali. The initial briefing went off smoothly, with lots of nice 'n inviting pics shared from the previous expedition to Hamta pass. We were also told about how the previous expedition encountered deep snowfall and had to push through waist deep snow to reach their target. There were 28 people in this year's expedition including trek lead Sunand and deputy lead Prasanna.

I choose to fly to and from Delhi since that would save me two working days, even though I would miss out on all the fun the folks would have in the train for four days. Thankfully I had Kamala for company in the flight and she being an experienced trekker plus having done KMA's Valley of Flowers last year helped me a lot with understanding how such treks were generally organized. One valuable tip that I got from her - about hand sanitizer, it is the easiest form of hygiene that can be practiced on a trek of such nature.

The flight landed in Delhi and the city welcomed us with a sweltering heat of 42 degrees Celsius. To be anywhere outside the shade was torture, the wind was a blast of heat that left you drained of all energy. An hour of this and Kamala and I decided no more, we sank into the air conditioned comfort of the Park Hotel Coffee Bar and cooled off with a few drinks.

By now, everyone had arrived at Delhi - at the Himachal Pradesh Tourist Office that was the designated rendezvous point (except Mahalakshmi and Sabina who were supposed to join us in Manali). The bus ride from Delhi to Manali was in an air conditioned Volvo bus and this proved to be quite a blessing - both due to the air conditioning as well as the excellent suspension that absorbed most of the irregularities of the road.

Rooms were arranged for us at Manali - these were much better than I expected within the limited budget with excellent view of the mountains and plains. Having the whole day to ourselves, most of us took a quick walk done to the Manali city and market place and had fun window shopping and tasting local cuisine. There were lots of Nepalese & Tibetan food items on the menu, and I did not waste the opportunity to taste some excellent Momos - and topped that off with a double scoop of Baskin Robbins ice cream of which there was a next little counter in Manali!

That night we have fun - with a round of introductions followed by song and dance and jokes.

The formal trek started the next day with a briefing from the organizers and we were introduced to our three guides - Amar, Cheturam & Sanjay. They would be our guardians for the next week, leading us up to Hamta pass and back to Manali. The next days are a blur of activity in my mind, so I will not go through them in any specific order, will just capture moments and incidents that spring to memory:

Washing plate - sounds innocuous, doesn't it? Having stayed alone for the past several years, I am quite used to this activity. However, try doing this after a hard days trek up in the mountains when it is raining and you have to wash in a small stream with freezing cold water. Enough said.

Food - Roti/Phulka & rice on most days. Tastes amazing after all the exercise in the cold mountain air. Treat the guides nicely and you might be even treated with a Biriyani at 10,000 ft.

Tents & Sleeping Bags - my first time in both. Not as bad as I expected, although I learnt two valuable lesions - one, make sure all zippers work, the cold has a way of creeping in through the slightest crack. Two, try and get a tent on level ground, I found myself waking up 2 feet down from wherever I had laid down to sleep because there was a slope.

Games - If the weather allows, there is nothing to beat Koko, Dog & bone or Frisbee at 10,000+ altitudes. If weather is not so benevolent, there is the always the option of 14 people stuffed into a 4 man tent, nice and warm, albeit a bit suffocating. Open flaps resolve the latter issue though people near the flaps tend to get wet if it is raining (as is mostly the case in the afternoons up in the mountains). Good indoor games are cards (Rummy, Bluff, Donkey), god/police/thief/villager (which I introduced and later regretted after playing it a million and one times, believe I learnt it from Kiran in Mensa). Or just sit around swapping life experiences; being such a heterogeneous group, this is bound to be varied and interesting.

Dancing & singing - come night, it is time for the camp fire. Gather wood first and then you're all set to sit around the fire singing old Hindi songs. Soon the local guides and helpers join you, and then it is swaying to the rhythm of the local songs set to the tune of beats from an empty plastic can.

Getting up - Slowly gain consciousness in the warmth of your sleeping bag, hesitating to get out and expose yourself to the cold. Drag yourself out finally for the ceremonial face wash in the cold, cold stream. Once this is done, you have completed the hardest part of the day and are all set to face a new day.

Once we were back at Manali we had a taste of the local wines - Apricot, Peach, Plum & Kiwi. Everyone agreed that Plum & Apricot were amongst the best.

On the whole, a very amazing experience for me - treks through verdant mountains, icy valleys & pine filled slopes, making lots of new friends - from school kids to retired folks, waking up to new sights, sounds, smells & taste every day, too many opportunities for photography, fun games, lots of laughter & teasing and fun, dancing and singing and above all - totally disconnected from the daily grind.

A view of Manali & Prini Valley

Starting off on the day's trek

Contemplating nature with a morning cuppa

All camp sites were in beautiful locations, nestled in valleys between snowcapped mountains

Photographer's paradise

We named it the heart lake

Initial stretch of snow on way to Hamta Pass

Following footprints in the snow

Atop Hamta Pass Flag Point (I don't know the actual name)

Geeta's flag that we planted atop Hamta Pass - from L to R, Krip, Parvati, Amar, Monica, Deepak, Prasanna & Cheturam

Flag with the valley in the background.