Expedition Part 1; 05/14/23-05/17/23

I am pleased to announce that I survived ten days in the wilderness! Better yet, I thrived. I saw and experienced things I will remember for the rest of my life, and I cannot wait to share. This post marks Part 1 of four blogs detailing the twelve days of this adventure. 

My journey began at the Hanifl Centre on Sunday, May 14. We departed at around 8:00 AM. Three of us rode in a Jeep; the rest took a coach bus. For the first leg of the drive, I sat adjacent to the front door of the coach. At first, the music consisted of lively songs in Hindi from the local radio (which I rather enjoyed). To me, whatever music kept the driver focused on protecting us from collisions with oncoming cars flying around tight, curvy mountain roads was perfectly appropriate. However, we quickly discovered that Vipul could connect his phone to the bus speakers, and we all requested songs for the queue. The predominating genre was classic rock—I have a fun video of us singing Hotel California. 

At our first rest stop (a moderately wide swath of road deemed safe enough to relieve oneself without dying), I switched vehicles with Anita to give her a turn in the coach. While I was hesitant about leg room in the Jeep, I rather enjoyed talking with Gaurav, Tommy, and Alex. Also, my position in the middle seat provided easy access to the aux cord. I must apologize to Tommy and Alex, for I was the inert mass that slammed into them any time we hit a bump in the road. The experience was reminiscent of a particular roller coaster ride at Ocean City where individuals on the inside of the seat would inevitably crush those on the outside due to centripetal forces (my sister will know the ride to which I am referring).

On a more pleasant note, one particularly interesting experience during our travels was arriving at the scene of a minor car crash. Instead of angrily sitting in the ensuing traffic buildup, as Americans would do, each driver that pulled up in line immediately congregated to investigate. Gaurav and our Jeep driver both lent a hand in the crowd, actively working to repair a damaged wheel. Within 20 minutes, the two cars were functional and cleared the area for us to proceed. I kept thinking about the kindness and teamwork I had just witnessed. 

As we moved away from the car crash incident, civilization started to fade. We began to drive along a river (I believe the Rupin, but I was not certain) which contained massive rocks and cascades. Villages boasted immense rice paddies with patches of differently colored grains, and I always searched for temples. We then began a violently bumpy ascent that impaired the metal plate guarding the oil tank of our Jeep, to the extent that we had to transfer all luggage in our Jeep in the coach bus. We also transferred the two men that jumped on top of our Jeep in the middle of a village (whom I later discovered to be Raju and Govin, two extremely kind and somewhat enigmatic friends of Vipul and Gaurav). 

At length, we arrived at our first campsite, which boasted some beautiful views of the mountains. My group (Anita, Ally, and I) quickly went to work setting up our tent for the first time. We cheerfully named the tent “Medusa,” warning other groups to not look at us in our grizzled state. Our first meal was rice with bacon: Anita and Ally took charge cutting onions and cooking, and I cleaned. We used water for cleaning and drinking from a small spout offered to us by a villager. The spout only functioned at certain times, totally dependent on the flow of a small stream nearby. I was glad to fill my hydration bladder in the dark instead of in the morning. 

Sunset came around 7:30 PM, and by 8:00 PM everything was completely dark. We conducted our first in-field debrief in the twilight. Debriefs followed a structure abbreviated as GASSE (Gratitude, Announcements, Subject, Schedule, Entertainment). During the gratitude section, we shared people and events for which we were grateful that day; announcements were reserved for any new developments the group needed to hear; subject was a recap of instructional material from our guides; the schedule section was a forum for our two designated leaders of the next day to arrange the timing of wakeup and departure; and entertainment consisted of a poem or short story from Vipul. 

After our debrief, I prepared for bed and slept beautifully, thanks again to the air mattress and sleeping bag generously lent to me by my uncle and aunt. Others had mixed experiences that night—particularly Ally, who found a spider the size of a sea dollar when she went to move her bowels. Nonetheless, we all awoke to the sun at 6:30 AM ready to gather our personal items, cook, and stuff our backpacks again. 

I was never an enormous fan of mornings in the wilderness; I always found them stressful, especially because my success while packing determined my comfort for the rest of the day. An overflowing or poorly distributed 60-pound backpack is never enjoyable. However, I somehow managed to stuff our entire tent into my bag, along with food and all personal items, and we soon set out for our first hike under the leadership of Eli and Mitch. 

During the trek, we split into two hiking groups (five to six people is a more manageable approach than twelve). I hiked with Mitch, who led the first group; Eli led the trailing group. His first move was to lead us up a steep, rocky switchback that I enjoyed but the girls in our group did not. Gaurav came along with our group for the day, and I had my first introduction to his lessons on flora and fauna. The man is a phenomenal resource on every plant, animal, and rock imaginable. At every water break, and sometimes mid-trek, Gaurav would enlighten us with background information on a nearby tree or flower. I learned quite a lot, but some names and terms escape me. I want to introduce him to my Pop Pop, who has a similar passion for gardening and nature.

Our group was headed toward Bhitri, a small Himalayan village. We were taught a few phrases in Hindi and told to ask villagers for directions to a temple, where we would rest for another Hindi lesson. After a few awkward interactions with children who probably understood us but were too shy to respond, we found our way to the village temple. We sat down with our bags in the town hall adjacent to the temple, and the trailing group soon found us there. For the next hour, we snacked on trail mix (our lunch throughout the trek, in addition to any leftovers we might have had) and learned more Hindi from Gaurav. 

After the Hindi lesson, we continued out of the village along a stone trail, which started to veer uphill. The chilly, overcast weather induced us to settle for a campsite on a tiered plot of land after we secured the permission of the owner (Gaurav did the talking in that exchange). Confirming our predictions, it started to rain almost immediately after we finished pitching our tents. I prepared to lie down and wait for the storm to pass, but I soon heard word that we needed to send group members to a tarp for cooking. 

Ally was the head chef for this stressful but rewarding experience. We used flour, potatoes, onions, and our cooking equipment (two pots, a stove, and a fry bake) to make stuffed bread. I acted as an assistant, frantically throwing spices and ingredients at Ally as Vipul demonstrated the recipe in real time. The final product was delicious and filling—I never fathomed baking in the backcountry. In addition, the sun came out and we took some pictures of the snowy mountains we would see much more closely in the coming days. 

At the nightly debrief, Simon and I were selected by Mitch and Eli as the next pair of leaders. The job was fairly simple—coordinate our departure from the current campsite, lead the group along trails (easier said than done), and select a new campsite. The next morning, we began with cinnamon pancakes and peanut butter, which I cooked for my group. Gaurav told us to add basil, a surprisingly delicious addition. 

Possibly because of the labor-intensive pancakes, almost everyone fell behind schedule, and we left the campsite a bit later than anticipated. In response, Gaurav and Vipul emphasized the importance of punctuality in the outdoors. As a group leader, I conceded their points but defended my decision to allow the group space to pack their belongings thoroughly and correctly. In my view, one must be right before being punctual and right. Losing, misplacing, or poorly distributing items among the group could lead to more severe consequences then a time delay. However, I remained very conscious about the typical afternoon rain in the mountains, and we soon headed out for a new home. 

I led the trailing group up an arduous, winding path that took us into the forest for the first time. The change of setting gave Gaurav even more opportunities to regale us with descriptions of indigenous plants and animals. While the trees brought a new and exciting energy, the hike was quite exhausting. For me, the most difficult part of trekking was not the cardiovascular demands but instead the weight of the backpack on my shoulders. Thus, as a leader, it became difficult to slow the pace of the group and extend the amount of time I spent wearing the pack. I was, however, extremely aware that the safety and comfort of my peers was essential to my survival, as they carried essential gear too. I found success designating future rest spots to the group and encouraging everyone to push themselves toward a visible goal. 

After several hours of hiking, we reunited with the leading group and decided to continue hiking in search of a meadow that Gaurav mentioned to us. Eventually, we arrived at this meadow more exhausted than we had ever been on the trip to that point. I was quite hungry and irritable until we worked diligently to set up our tents and cook dinner. Anita graciously prepared soup and concocted peanut butter elbow noodles (another recipe from Gaurav). 

As I was sitting down to eat, we were startled to hear the cacophonous “baaa” of a charging flock of sheep. After all, we had occupied their meadow, not ours. Sheep making loud, jarring noises and vying for our food was a common thread throughout my ten days in the wild. I have some amusing videos of guys in our group chasing the sheep away from our goods. We also had to worry about cows, horses, and stray dogs, but they were more manageable in my opinion (and fewer in number). 

The next day, we stayed in the meadow to rest and recover. Ally and Anita prepared biscuits and gravy, which were absolutely delightful and one of my favorite meals of the trek. The gravy was obviously not extracted from an animal and instead consisted of onions, butter, spices, and other ingredients that escape my memory. After breakfast, we were given some much needed time in the morning to sit in the sun and reflect on our experiences. I peacefully watched sheep and cows graze the meadows (unless they strayed too close to my tent, in which case I chased them away).

Since we had more time, we chose to make pizza for dinner. I rose to the challenge and volunteered to be head chef for my group. After unceremoniously kneading dough while Anita prepared a tomato sauce with cheese, I produced four pizzas for us to enjoy. We devoured three of them and had one to save for lunch the next day. Completing this rather challenging task was a milestone in my quest to develop confidence in the outdoors. I felt that I had mastered the stove, the pan, and all of the ingredients at my disposal. 

The next day, we began our ascent to even higher altitudes… and things got chilly (and wet). Please proceed to Part 2 for more details!