The Journey Begins
“Nothing needs to be impossible for you. After all man is six feet taller than the mountain he climbs. Only the will resolute has to be there”.
With these lines in1939, J B Auden, the famous geologist and explorer had inspired Swami Probodhananda who was planning to cross Kalindi Khal (a high mountain pass of 19510 feet, between Gagongotri and Badrinath) with fellow Sadhus (Ascetics). Seeing that he was still not convinced Auden added, “You need not get frightened; there is no danger to life. And if it is so, that should be a further lure for a man like you.”
After 6 years of that famous meet, Probodhananda did eventually cross Kalindi pass in 1945 to reach Badrinath from Gangotri, along with five half naked and one fully naked Sadhu. It took him six years to find those fellow adventurers who were mad enough (!) to take that huge risk.
Yes, modern pragmatic society does consider these men and women who risk their live to climb some godforsaken mountain peaks or high passes as simply fool. But still they go, attracted by the lure of the mountain, particularly of the Himalaya; like moths attracted to the flame. I consider this an enigma! To avoid the answer one can imitate the famous mountaineer who was asked for his reason to climb the Everest and simply said, “Because it is there”.
But those lines of Auden have always haunted me and that famous meet between Probodhananda and Auden became a guiding factor in my life from when I was attracted to the mountain, particularly to the Himalayas.
Like millions of Bengali, my first encounter with the Himalaya was in Darjeeling more than thirty years back. But that was just a very brief frolic – a group of college students having the first gambol of their life; though we did visit Himalayan mountaineering Institute but more as a tourist attraction and not as a serious student of mountain.
I was christened with the Himalaya by my maternal father-in-law who with his five feet tall and thirty five kilogram frame was an avid and surprisingly, tough trekker. He has since retired but the Himalaya got a new addict in me. Every year I go to the Himalaya like a pilgrim to have my yearly Darshan.
I have never tried to be a mountaineer; for me trekking with the rucksack on my back and the cool mountain breeze in my face was enough. In fact, when I started to trek, I was past my prime and taking to mountaineering would have been foolish; I was smart (!) enough to realize that. But though I have never stood on the top of a mountain, only on top of a few high mountain passes, Audens’ comment always would bug me; is man really six feet taller than the mountain he climbs!
Figuratively yes; particularly when one is standing on the top of a mountain peak. Till then despite the back breaking labour and the lung bursting breathing, a mad rush of adrenalin, a sense of achievement drives us. We had a job to do and damn well would complete it. But as soon as one reaches the summit, be it a peak or a pass, one kneels down and offers a prayer, to whom I am not very sure; but an overwhelming sense of satisfaction and humility engulfs us completely. For a few moments one feels at peace with his surroundings – that charming and brute nature. A great sense of achievement and calm overwhelms us. Probably to this sense of achievement and peace we – even the hardcore atheist among us, offer that prayer. So, are we really six feet taller than the mountain we climb? It’s a difficult one to answer.
My first trekking, like hundreds of Bengali, was on the trail to Sandakphu (the highest point of the terrai Himalaya within Darjeeling district of West Bengal). One fine morning we – I, my newly wedded wife and one of my close friends landed in the Darjeeling taxi stand. We were booked in the youth hostel of Darjeeling which happens to be perched on the highest point of Darjeeling town, a place called Jalapahar. It was a straight climb of 500 meters from the taxi stand. Half dead, we some how managed to drag ourselves there with our rucksack and other luggage (newly wed wives were not supposed to carry luggage and the poor husband had to bear the extra burden! Figuratively & literally!), only to be sternly told that we have no reservation. We showed her (the wife of the warden, the warden was out on a job) our reservation chit but she was unmoved; they did not have the copy from their head office. Period. Seeing my wife shivering from the exhaustion and the cold and when told that we have a newly married woman among us, she mellowed a bit and offered us a room, which has no flooring – the floor was covered only with brick and with windows that can not be shut properly. Clouds had free access to this room and the bed was wet and cold.
In the morning I went to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute to hire a guide for our expedition (!), the highest point of which was only 12000 feet. The institute supplies the toughest and the most accomplished Sherpa guides to the numerous mountain expeditions including Everest and I thought it was prudent (!) to approach the best. After all I have a newly married wife to protect.
Mr Rai, the Administrative Officer of the institute, with great patient informed me that they would have been happy to give me a guide but they really could not spare a Sherpa since all the instructors (yes, the Sherpas of this institute are all instructors) have left with trainees for high altitude training in Sikkim and were not likely to return within the next seven days. On hind-sight, Mr. Rai must have been a very patient and gentle man and that’s why he simply ignored my atrocious audacity.
But I do not frustrate that easily (would be trekkers are not supposed to), especially when one has a new wife to prove ones’ worth. So on my way back, I hired a local lad who after his school final examination was free but has never ventured outside the hill-town.
Well, at least he was a Nepali and could speak the language. Thus, having achieved my target of finding a guide, I came back, victorious, to my wife who was suitably impressed by the achievement of his newly wed husband.
Next morning, Bikash Pradhan our newly appointed guide, came to the taxi stand to meet us with a small kit bag. On seeing our incredulous looks, he assured us with a confident smile, he will get his gears et al in Manebhanjan, the starting point of our trek, where his uncle lived and who was a famous Sandakphu guide.
On reaching Manebhanjan, we went for a cup of tea and Bikash went to his uncles’ house with confident gait only to return with drooping steps to inform us that his uncle was dead drunk but even in his drunken stupor he recognized the nephew and refused to part with his gear. My friend lent Bikash his most favourite half sweater, knitted by his mother and we embarked on to our trek. To cut a long story short, we did reach Sandakphu with two night halts in beautiful meadows simply because there was a well marked trail to Sandakphu and it’s really very hard to loose ones’ way.
On our return, we took another route, to reach a place called Rimbik, the road head, from where we were to take a bus to civilization. On way to Rimbik, we were to cross a dense forest infested with Himalayan Black bears wild dogs and leopards. But on the eve of departure, we could not find our guide. It appeared that, very sagaciously, he started early with another team which had a real guide. We tried to follow their trail and eventually lost our way in that damn forest. When we were struggling to find our way out from that godforsaken forest, our guide was safe and sound in a lodge in Rimbik, waiting for us (anxiously, I was later told!) to reach and pay his food bill.
Hours of desperate trek led us nowhere; totally exhausted and nearly dead, we eventually found our way with the help of two Nepali women. They, damn fortunately, came in the forest to gather fuel-woods. These women took us to their small village high-up on the mountain. The village had only three thatched huts and one of their husbands eventually guided us safely to Rimbik.
As we entered the hotel, unable to walk a step further, almost dead and muddied beyond recognition, Bikash came out to greet us on the doorway; he had his bath and wearing a fresh scented dress – the scent unmistakably my wifes favaourite sandal scent that came from her small knapsack which Bikash was carrying. With a straight face, he said, he was worried (!) sick for us as he has reached the hotel at least four hours back.
That was my introduction to the Himalayan trekking. Later, after years of easy and hard trekking, some of which nearly killed me I could look back and still feel the tremendous drag of the trail; the sense of déjà vu when I would hit the trail with the rucksack on my back and the narrow stone-path under my feet; the cold mountain breeze greeting me like a long lost brother.
On my numerous journeys in the deep Himalaya I have realized, the trails have no character without the walker on it. A trail is just a trail with no story to tell until human trudges on it. Similarly, the Himalaya is inseparable with its legends, its magnificent children who live in its lap on those high valleys and led a simple yet charmed life. Without them and without its legends, the mystical shining peaks of the Himalaya and its numerous trails with their turns and bends are just a heap of stone and ice – a cold and deadly place.
It is really amazing how from a deep sea (Tethys) the Himalaya raised its’ head due to a massive collision between two tectonic plates (India & Asia) some fifty million years ago. Many years later it, probably, sheltered the Homo erectus who had witnessed further uplift of the Himalaya and survived the ice age. The experts claim that, “The Himalayan region has been home to humans since time immemorial.”1
Whenever I am on the trail of the Himalaya, the trail becomes my home. Radha (fiancée of Lord Krishna), when deep in love with his lover, lamented that “the way to my home has become never ending” (Ghare jaite path more hailo aphuran, as immortalized by poet Jnyanadas of Baishnav Padabali – a collection of Bengali poems based on the love between Krishna & Radha). Actually, she did not want to reach home because then her journey would end. On the Himalayan trail I too find oneness with Radha. My journey seems never to end.
In my quest, I am not very sure for what, I have covered most of the Uttarkhand—the Garhwal and the Kumaon. I went to inaccessible places far away from the hustle bustle of the Uttarkhand towns; days walk from the nearest road-head and found the largest natural “OM” of the world, the largest natural “Shiva lingam” of the world, the most sacred natural lake of India, where it is said that the Holy Trinity (Bramha, Bishnu & Maheswar).
are in perpetual meditation and along the way also found charming children, sagacious old men and women, unusual human beings and some mystics – wandering monks. I will be talking more about them than on my route itself, because as I said, without them the Himalaya is just a heap of Ice & stone
- The Making of the Himalaya and Humans: Rasoul Sorkhabi: Himalayan Journal Vol: 59.