Gaurav warned us during our rest day that rain was coming when we felt a warm gust of wind. While it ultimately did not rain that day, the clouds we saw the next morning were a bit ominous. However, the expedition had to go on. We fueled ourselves with a stringy pasta dish (I forget the name) and then proceeded uphill again.
The beginning of the hike was relatively tame. We passed through more meadows, enjoyed some great views of the snow-capped mountains, and encountered more sheep and cows. As our altitude increased, we began to notice new flowers and trees. Some of my favorites were purple phlox and rhododendrons. Gaurav explained in great detail how the flowers only grow at certain altitudes, but I forget the specific ranges. At that point in the trek, we were at around 10,000 feet (the highest elevation we ultimately reached was around 12,500 feet).
When we caught up to the leading group, it began to drizzle, and we all apprehensively donned our rain coats. The leading group set out ahead while our group (fittingly) had a quick lesson from Gaurav about risk management and hazards. Once our group completed the lesson, we resumed hiking. Intermittent rain quickly turned into a downpour, and we found ourselves facing our first significant weather obstacle of the trek. At first, I was nervous to trek in the rain, but I soon began to trust my rain jacket (I said a silent thanks to the inventors of Gore-Tex).
We found the leading group huddled under a tarp between two trees, and we quickly removed our bags and joined them. The future was uncertain, as we had planned to hike a good distance farther that day. Eventually, we took down the tarp and carried onward into the rain. We soon crossed the tree line and began searching for flat ground to camp, as the rain was not abating. The cold did not help, either.
The following half hour contained one of the most harrowing experiences of the trek for me. Soaked and exhausted, I had to remove the tent from my backpack, help Anita and Ally pitch the tent, and keep all of my belongings somewhat dry in the process. A nearby rock provided crucial temporary shelter for my personal items. Once we had everything set up, I retreated into the tent and changed into dry clothes. I then devoured my leftover pizza and took a 20-minute nap, as I was in no mood to talk to anyone or do anything.
After twenty minutes of solitude and recovery, I emerged from my tent to look around. Ally and the others had made quesadillas, which gave me a much-needed energy boost. The fog that obscured the mountains during our scramble for shelter had lifted, revealing a jaw-dropping panorama of craggy peaks. I saw Hannah and Eli sitting on a rock in the distance, so I joined them to take some photos. The scenery was otherworldly—almost like a foreign landscape from Interstellar.
I felt the remoteness of our campsite much more tangibly when we began strategizing how we would drink water. All of the typical water sources were nonexistent, owing mostly to the abnormal amount of snow present. So, our best option was to collect snow and ice in Nalgene bottles and melt them in pots on our stoves. The approach was fuel-intensive, but we had a comfortable amount of fuel. I slipped multiple times on the snowy hills, and our yields were lackluster due to the low density of the snow.
Eventually, we gathered enough water for dinner and for ourselves. Anita sauteed potatoes with onions and cheese once we troubleshooted our malfunctioning stove with Vipul. During dinner, we enjoyed a beautiful sunset that illuminated previously hidden peaks in the distance. I snuck away to take photos every five minutes, even though I vowed to keep my phone powered off to save battery. Walking anywhere revealed yet another stunning 360-degree perspective of the Himalayas. I wished Chris had kept his phone turned off, though, because he somehow obtained two bars and discovered that the Sixers had lost Game 7 a few days ago. In that moment, I was briefly reminded of how disconnected I was from the world.
Despite the cold, I slept quite well. This campsite was the first for which the ground was somewhat flat, and the harsh conditions meant few bugs and no roaming sheep. We arose the next morning at around 7:00 AM, and I cooked rice for my group. I tried including some of the soy balls we packed—Ally was not a fan, but Anita and I did not mind them.
Before we departed for the ridge, Gaurav and Vipul gave us a brief lesson on how to walk through snow. We were to follow the same footsteps left by the individual in front of us to create a footpath for trailing hikers. We brought traction devices and ice axes in our backpacks, but Gaurav and Vipul said that neither would be necessary because the snow was soft and deep. Only one hiking pole was recommended to remain close to the slope, but I always enjoyed having both in my hand.
Gazing into the distance was intimidating, as we could clearly see the ridge trail as well as the snow we would have to traverse. I was prepared to trek through snow on this trip; I was not (mentally) prepared to trek through snow along an incline as high as 60 degrees. During our first large stretch along a snowy mountain side, we all realized that our focus and stamina would be challenged in a completely new way. Looking down was frankly one of the most terrifying things I did on this trek, and I quickly redirected my attention on the footholds ahead. There was no hill or rock to arrest a fall; if someone slid down the ridge, they were not stopping.
We trekked in these conditions for at least two hours with only a couple rocky rest stops to recollect our wits. The most pernicious and treacherous feature of the experience for me, however, was not the steep grade or the slippery snow—it was the collection of shrubs along our path. At many junctures, we would have to cross directly past trees and shrubs, sometimes while also moving uphill. The trouble was that my hiking pole would get tangled in the shrubs, and branches sometimes caught my boot. Any unexpected snag would send me into an unsightly tussle with the shrub to literally hang on for dear life. After finally crossing the snow, I was prepared to burn all of the vegetation on that mountain out of revenge.
Weary from dehydration and fatigue but relieved to have survived, we found a set of rocks to rest and recover, which felt great until we noticed a set of angry stormclouds heading directly toward us. Our guides were noncommittal about possible campsites and said that we would not find water anywhere nearby. However, they gave us the option to hike another four kilometers downhill, where our quasi-guides Raju and Govin claimed we might encounter a stream. Delirious and crazed, we unanimously decided to undertake a final push.
The hike took us around a mountain and down to a small, flat stretch of trail that boasted a bustling stream of melted snow within walking distance. We then quickly pitched our tents along the flat ground (in the closest proximity yet, making nighttime gossip a challenge). Dinner was soup with penne pasta, which I eagerly inhaled with my frozen hands. As I ate dinner, I watched tendrils of fog snake through the mountain peaks and descend into our valley. The sight reinforced my conviction that this entire India experience has been exactly like Catching Fire. First it was the vicious monkeys at the Hanifl Centre, then the fog, and then the looming and constant possibility of lightning—all while desperately searching for water. There is always something new!
Cleaning the dishes was excruciating for me and maybe the first moment I longed to be home. The backs of my hands had been through several layers of hell between sunburn, cold weather, and aggressively shoving the tent into my pack each morning. Gloves helped, but taking them on and off further exacerbated my sensitive skin. However, I figured that some higher power was watching over me if my raw hands were the worst physical issue I encountered. Happy to be safe, I finally collapsed under my sleeping bag in my fleece jacket and prepared to sleep in for our upcoming rest day.
I awoke to the smell of cinnamon rolls, which Lily and Mitch graciously prepared for the group. We spent this rest day much like our previous rest day by eating, reflecting, and enjoying the stunning views. At this campsite, we could looked directly at the Supin river (or one of its tributaries; I was not sure). One of my favorite activities of the day was a lesson from Gaurav about the intersection of what we know about ourselves and what the group knows about us. I realized that I had few opportunities on the trek thus far to talk to my peers about their interests, and I made a goal to find more time for one-on-one conversations.
For lunch, Gaurav suggested we use our excess chickpea flour to make pancakes. I am not sure I would classify our product as pancakes in the future. The onions and meat masala resulted in something resembling a savory toaster cake more than a pancake. When the cakes were hot, I enjoyed them, but I could not finish my leftovers. Luckily, Anita was a massive fan and took my extras gladly.
Dinner was lentils and rice (another Gaurav cooking show). Anita did an excellent job, and I reflected on how efficient and successful my team had been throughout the trek. We cooked, cleaned, and took care of our tent and equipment meticulously despite changing schedules and weather conditions. Moreover, I was grateful for their compassion and honesty in our late night talks. We definitely bonded over all the madness.
Before retreating into my tent that night, I took more pictures of the stars. I was amazed by how well my iPhone camera had performed during the trip. I snapped an amazing photo of the stars that contains the shadow of the mountains as well as the lights of a village near the river. In the next few days, we would visit some of those villages! Read Part 3 for more.