Treading on ice

When I woke up from my short and fitful sleep it was still very early. The Sun had barely risen and it was still very chilly outside. I coaxed myself out of my warm and cosy sleeping bag and out into the open. It was a glorious morning.

I stretched my limbs and breathed in the cold, sharp morning air. I felt the chill spread into my chest and suddenly, I felt very awake.

After breakfast we started on our short trek to the last camp below the pass. It was called Kharo. It is the last campsite below the snow-line and the one from which we would start the next day to cross the pass and descend into Spiti valley.

As we started on our trek, our guide pointed out a distant meandering stream and casually said that we would have to cross it to get to the other side.

I was thinking, “Yeah, so what? We have crossed so many streams”. But, as we started walking towards it I realized that this was one stream that I wouldn’t be hopping and skipping over in a hurry. The waters were flowing rapidly and there seemed to be treacherous gaps and sharp rocks lurking under the rushing planes of water. We walked up and down the stream looking for a place to cross it.

Eventually, our dependable guide found us a stretch where the waters were relatively shallow and spread out. I took off my shoes and waded into the water after him.

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Well, the next couple of minutes were a truly illuminating period for me. The water was ice-melt from a glacier just above us and it was only a few degrees above freezing. As I stepped onto the sharp pebbles and rocks with the water gushing over my feet I suddenly felt a sharp jab of pain in my legs. I desperately rushed to cross the stream behind my guide who somehow seemed to be completely unaffected by the brutal chill of the water made worse by the unsteady rocks and gushing water.

159-IMG_8676 As I stepped out of the water and jumped about a bit to get some feeling in my legs I felt the heat of the Sun soothe my feet and that immediately calmed me down. I sat down to let my legs dry before putting on my shoes.

I waited for some time as one by one all the guys caught up. As I was waiting there at the bend that would take us away from the valley, I turned around and gazed one last time at the magnificent valley that had hosted us the previous day.
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It would be the last time during the trip that I would be able to look upon such verdant beauty made complete by the streams and glaciers with the towering snow-capped peaks watching over it all… it was indeed a magnificent sight.

I turned back and started walking towards the mountains. The grass started growing sparser. The Sun beat down harshly and patches of dirty white ice started appearing along the trail.

After a short trek we reached the campsite.

After putting up the tents I jumped in to escape from the harsh elements. This was the worst of all the places we camped at during the entire trip.

The air was thin, the Sun beat down mercilessly and the air made our noses bleed. Inside the tent it was alternately baking hot and freezing cold as the Sun played hide and seek behind the clouds. Some of the guys came down with pounding headaches. I spent most of that day reading inside the tent and venturing out only to eat and wash myself.

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The next day was the one I had been waiting for all along. For the first time in my life I would get to walk on solid ice and be surrounded by the stuff while trekking across a pass separating a lush green valley and a spectacular dessert.

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As I and KP loaded up, tightened our straps and filled our bottles with electrolyte we discussed what it would be like. We started soon and after a couple of hours of determined climbing we came onto the first big glacier. I looked ahead and saw the guide walk over it as if nothing had really changed.

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So, I too followed suit and stepped onto the ice and walked on confidently. But, immediately I realized that something was not right. My shoes started sliding and slipping as I pushed off with my toes.

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Very soon it had become impossible to walk normally and I was struggling. After a couple of falls the guide turned back and told me to wedge my toes into the ice with every step to prevent my feet from sliding about. I tried it and it worked!

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So, I was again walking smoothly and enjoying the view around me. But, then I came to some rocks and suddenly my leg plunged through some thin ice into a hollow. That shook me up pretty badly.

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Having your feet disappear under you when trekking on ice is not a pleasant experience. My one friend then explained to me that the rocks get heated by the sun and cause the ice surrounding them to become soft and unstable and advised me against walking too close to them.

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So, we went on like that. Through that unreal landscape… through blinding white ice, heading for the gap in the mountains,  breathing hard and taking controlled steps while keeping a wary eye out for rocks sticking out through the ice.

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It was with a sense of relief that I gingerly stepped onto the ice near the edge of a glacier and hopped onto steady land. Each time, hoping that I wouldn’t have to step onto another glacier again. Only to be faced with the next one within a few metres.

It looked like my reluctance to walk on flaky, soft and slippery ice was going to get beaten out of me that day. After a long time spent trudging through the ice the top was finally in sight. After another breathless lunge at the peak we were finally there… and it felt strange to be there.

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One one side was the green Kinnaur valley. Standing on the lip of pass turning to the other side one could see the vast, surreal and intimidating bareness of the Spiti valley. The claw marks that the glaciers had ripped into the mountains on their way down, the mineral patterns, the river flowing through a gorge in the valley, an endless desert speckled with green meadows here and there….

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It was shocking to see two such vastly different ecosystems at the same time. After spending some time at the top we started on our way down.

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Going down steep icy slopes can be either very dignified and difficult or easy and fun depending on the type of guy you are and the chill-resistance-rating of your butt.

Those black specks in the ice are guys sliding down

Those black specks in the ice are guys sliding down

After a long time spent jamming my leg into the ice and gingerly walking behind the guide, I finally gave up and just jumped onto the ice and slid down the rest of the way!

Well, there were few occasions in life that were more fun.

The rest  of the guys followed suit and we had a swell time.

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But, some of them didn’t have waterproof pants like me and their behinds paid the price for it.

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This is how people walk when their behinds are sore

The rest of the way was all big, big boulders and rocks and after that some more rocks interspersed with stretches of ice and ice-melt. The ice-melt was converging into a stream.

A crevasse formed by a fissure in the glacier

A crevasse formed by a fissure in the glacier

We had lunch at a spot somewhere along the way. Most of the other guys were having pounding head-aches. I was feeling nauseated from lack of water and food. I ate something and drank the ice-cold water from the stream with great difficulty and felt better soon.

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The long trek to our campsite

After several more kilometers of trekking we finally came to the campsite and settled in for the night!

What a day it had been! Every bit as exciting as I had hoped it would be. Next day’s adventures in another post!

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The Mountain Lake – Tso Moriri

I know that it’s been a long time since the trip. But, this part of the Cycling tour I undertook with the Bangalore Ascenders in the Himalayas was one of the most memorable ones. After cycling to Pangong Tso the rest of the gang returned from Tangtse to Karu with all the cycles. I had forgotten my bag containing some essential spares, tools and sandals in a shop in Lukung where we had stopped for tea the previous day while returning from Spangamik to Tangtse. So, I got up early in the morning and went and stood near the check-post behind the village hoping to hitch a ride on some vehicle passing by. After a while a truck carrying a JCB came trundling along. They stopped for me and I hopped on for a free ride to Lukung. It was the first time I was travelling in a lorry. It was fun and I was quite impressed by the skill of the driver.

After getting to Lukung I got my bag back, had breakfast and tea and spent some more time staring at the beautiful lake. Then I got onto another truck which took me to Tangtse. There I got off to check whether the others had left already. After finding out that they had gone I went back to the bridge which marked the start of the village and started waiting again. After a long time a Scorpio carrying a photographer came along and after a bit of pleading with him he agreed to take me to Karu. After a long time spent on the hard and unforgiving saddle of my cycle and on trucks it was quite a change to travel in a modern car.

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The second time I crossed the Chang-La it was snowing. It was the first time in my life I was experiencing snow-fall and it simply was magical. I was so excited, I almost didn’t feel the cold.

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Spent some time there and then we started on our way to Karu. After getting there in the afternoon, I soon found everyone at the tea stall there. Neelima was coincidentally visiting a nearby monastery and she dropped in to meet us and have a quick chat.

In the evening, we all got our cycles ready and started on our way to Likche. This was an easy ride and there were no crisis moments at all. But, it was pitch dark by the time I reached the turn-off point towards Likche. I turned my cycle around and waited with my strobe lights on for the rest of the gang. I don’t think I have stood anywhere like that in absolute darkness… just waiting. It felt really weird. After a while I saw a line of three blinking lights in the distance and soon enough the rest of the gang was with me. We rode up to the village and found that there weren’t any commercial places that could offer us a room for the night. We roamed around the village asking where we could get a room for the night. One family, upon seeing us said that it would be hard to find a place at that time of the day and offered us a room in their own house for the night and food. We were quite relieved and in fact pleasantly surprised at this.

We went in and they prepared us dinner and Rajesh told them all about our trip and how we got there. After a hearty dinner we were shown to our room which was a cozy one with lots of blankets, mattresses and cushions. In Ladakh, no matter how rickety a home looks, their bedrooms always look rich and warm. We nestled into the warm blankets and in no time fell into a deep and fitful sleep.

In the morning I  woke up to the glorious sight of a field of flowers in full blossom against a backdrop of towering mountains and a lush green valley with pretty little homes, mills and a stream gurgling through it all.

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It was simply mind-blowing. I walked around the village rubbing my eyes to make sure it wasn’t all a dream.

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The previous night the lady of the house who was a govt. health worker had told us that the sight from the bedroom was a beautiful one. But, that didn’t prepare me for this.

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After breakfast, we said bye to our hosts. When we offered them money they refused to take it. Somehow we managed to force them to take it and left the village with a full tummy and an even fuller heart.

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Rajesh and Jay with them.

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That day our target was a little ambitious. We had to reach Chumathang which is known for its hot-water springs. It was a hard day of cycling.

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The occasional little village nestled in the mountains was quite a sight to see.

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On the way, there was an army base where we had hoped to get lunch from. I was terribly hungry and tired by the time I reached the base. But, I found out that the canteen was closed that day because it was some holiday( or was it a Sunday? I don’t remember…). One soldier seeing my state gave me some biscuits and stuff. After going a little further I realized that it would be impossible for anyone to go any further without a proper meal. My stomach was growling like an angry dog.

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Some soldiers at an army post then took me to their quarters and after letting me sit and rest for a while got permission from their commander to take us to their mess and give us a meal there. I waited there in the mess after asking the guy at the post on the road to watch out for the others and bring them in when they come. They kept insisting that I eat right away. But, I waited and after a while they all came and we had what seemed like the tastiest lunch of my life with the guys there.

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There was a Malayalee there and he gave me loads of nuts, juices and biscuits and let me lie down on his bunk. There was a Kannada guy who simply couldn’t stop talking to Rajesh. After eating and resting, it was time to leave. It was quite an experience seeing their quarters, eating their food, hearing their stories and being part of their Sunday fun for a while. Life in the army, especially  in the forward posts serving in hostile conditions with minimum equipment while dealing with the terrible isolation is a challenge.

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After a comfortable bout of cycling we arrived in Chumathang and stayed there for the night. I was hoping to take a bath after a long time. But, the water coming directly from the springs proved to be too hot for a bath and there was no cold water available for mixing. This was one of the places I liked the least in Ladakh. Nothing remarkable about it and very dirty and shabby.

But the route is very picturesque.

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I was glad to get away from the place in the morning. We started very early, even before breakfast.

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That day, we were to do something really crazy. Cycle all the way to Tso Moriri in one day. We had to cross the Namshang-La pass on the way. It was really scary. But, before breakfast we had covered some 30kms and our strategy of starting early looked like it might work.

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After eating we started off again. We reached Sumdoh after that and after waiting for a while there we started our climb up to Namshang-La pass. It was a relatively lower pass.But, I hadn’t eaten much and my hope was that it would be all downhill after the pass. As it turned out, it was a bit of a stupid assumption.

The climb was easy as by then I had adapted somewhat to the low-oxygen conditions. This is a pretty boring looking pass…, that is until you turn a bend and your eyes fall on the stunning Kyagar-Tso.

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One of the highest lakes in the world!

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It looks so unreal, especially at that altitude surrounded by the mountains and the pure white sand. One has to see it to believe it.

I was preparing myself for some downhill fun and had mentally let myself go. Boy! Was I ever so wrong in my life!

As I crossed the pass and approached the lake on up-and-down roads I came across a french gang of bikers. We talked a lot. They were setting themselves up along the lake for lunch. Just as I got to the lake my cycle plunged into the fine soft sand and very soon it became impossible to cycle through it.

A road-gang working on building the new road asked me to take a break and offered me some tea and refreshments.

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Unfortunately the tea was their traditional Ladakhi butter tea. I drank it with great difficulty as I didn’t want to seem rude. Plus, I thought, it might give me some energy to cycle on.

I then started pushing my cycle through the soft sand for what seemed like forever. After the lake, the gradient did not improve at all. In fact there were even more climbs, no roads, lots of sand and lorries roaring through the dust raking up a respiratory-hell in their wake. By then I was also completely fatigued. I looked ahead and all I could see was a vast level stretch of sand and pebbles with a few lorry tracks on it.

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I steeled myself, bowed down and kept pushing the cycle. After several kms of this, I finally came to a relatively stable road surface. I got on and pushed off. The road had a slight negative gradient. But it was full of big, sharp stones and the ride was difficult.

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After some cycling I could see the Tso-Moriri in the distance. A small triangle of blue in the midst of mountains. It looked deceptively close.

I cycled on and on and finally, I came to the lake. By then, I noticed a shocking thing. The rear tire had somehow gotten torn and the rubber tube was sticking out through it like a scary hernia. I was feeling very dull and couldn’t think clearly. I then did something very stupid. Rajesh had clearly told me that once I reach the lake I had to stay to the right. But the road to the right was not very obvious while there was a clean, solid looking road to the left. I missed the turn and cycled on. Turns out it was the road to China!!

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After what seemed like forever, I realized that this road was not leading me anywhere.

But, there was no one to ask for directions. I looked into the lake bed and saw a few tents. I then did the next stupid thing. Instead of cycling back the way I came, I descended into the bed. After roaming through the marshy, rocky bed for a long time I finally came to the tents and found out that they were nomads who don’t understand Hindi and were unaware of even the nearest town. I decided to cross the lake and try to get to the other side. But the bed was full of small streams and some of them were pretty deep. With great difficulty I got through all of them and I finally came upon some North Indian laborers. They pointed me in the right direction and I was on my way.

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I then found out that the bed was surrounded by wire fencing and there were no openings in it. I struggled on and on and finally I came to a hole in the fence and got through to the other side and onto the right road. Just then the others had reached that point.

Feeling a great sense of relief I cycled along with them. I had a ligament strain in my left knee, I was completely out of fuel and my cycle tire was on the verge of bursting. After 7 more dull, terrible and painful kms we finally reached the Indo-Tibetan Border Police Post. We showed them our permissions and then cycled on to Karzog which is the most remote and climate-wise hostile place I have ever been to in my life. It was situated at 4600 mtrs and more than one person there told me that life there was hell.

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But, it looks awesome, all the same!

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Tso Moriri is mind-numbingly beautiful. I become touchy and sentimental when I am hypoxic and in that state the lake’s beauty and the barrenness of the landscape seemed to evoke a sense of emotional tension in me.

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That night we all slept deeply and I could hear our deep and heavy breathing through the night.

The next day and the journey back was another adventure altogether. But, for now, I think this much is enough. It was one of the most intense trips I had ever undertaken and to this day I still try to remember what I felt when I looked up and saw the vast dusty plains through which I pushed my cycle. My disappointment at finding myself fenced-in inside the lake bed. My anxiety at seeing my torn tire and the bulging tube. My happiness at having finally made it safely to Karzog. It was a complex set of emotions and irrespective of whether I felt good or bad at the time, they are now, all of them,  valuable memories.

Here is a full set of photos.

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