We braved -7 degrees Celsius without sleeping bags.
We trekked 15 hours (a typical trek day is 7-8 hours) in a day.
We ascended nearly 6,500 feet (against recommended 1,500 feet ascent per day) in a day.
And to make it worse, we didn’t have food for 32 hours.
Such extremes could’ve easily proved fatal, but 25 of us survived, somehow, on this trek to Rupin Pass (15,250 feet).
These extremes, though, weren’t a result of our super-human, adventurous spirit, but of our foolhardiness, error of judgement which forced us to cover two days of trek in one.
Forenoon: we skipped Kanda
6:00 AM. October 06, 1999.
Day 1 of the trek.
After a light breakfast, the group (including two porters-cum-cooks and a guide) started out from our guest house at Sangla Valley, our base camp at 8,800 feet.
As per the itinerary, we were to halt at Kanda on Day 1 and, after crossing the highest point of the trek at Rupin Pass, underneath a rock-shelter (space under the projection of a rock to take shelter underneath) on Day 2. Thereafter, from Day 3 onwards, we were to gradually descend for five days and complete the 8-day trek.
Because it was the first day, we were overly enthusiastic. We were faster than usual … and there was purpose in our steps. The more accomplished trekkers amongst us were in fact galloping, and because of varying pace, we had already split into three subgroups (one ahead of us, and one behind) when our subgroup stopped for a quick snack around 8:00 AM.
Regardless, we kept walking, marvelling at snow-laden Himalayan mountains towering over 25,000, Rhododendrons flowers swinging with the wind, and yaks grazing on the slopes. And soon, the last of the human habitations was behind us.
My subgroup reached a small, plane area, a break from the monotonous upward slope. On one side, not-too-distant, there was a nondescript, abandoned hut. Nothing more.
We thought this was Kanda.
But if it was Kanda, why did the leading subgroup not stop here? Moreover, the destination for the day couldn’t have come so soon: we had trekked for just four hours, whereas a typical trek-day takes 7-8 hours.
This logic overrode sane voices that begged waiting for some more time there, at least till the lagging subgroup also reached there. But the overzealous didn’t want to give up on the lead – as if this was an Olympic event – we had already taken over the lagging subgroup.
And we left the place behind.
Afternoon: things started turning bad
As it turned out few hours later (around 1 PM), the place we left behind was indeed Kanda. But, because we had come so far from Kanda by then that it was more prudent to head for the next day’s destination, the rock-shelter, which we thought wasn’t too distant from there. (It was imperative for us to reach one of the two, Kanda or the rock-shelter, because the entire region was pitch wilderness for miles and we were not carrying tents because our itinerary didn’t demand it.)
We were famished by now, but there was no way to meal. We had the stoves, but the ration was with the other subgroup, of which we had no clue. Our limited snacks – for on-the-way energy boosting– had already been done with.
Extreme workload and no food had started taking its toll now: almost everyone was cramping, and two gave up altogether. With no communication gadgets to call for rescue, giving it up at that height would’ve been fatal, and, left with no choice, we applied all the tricks we could – cajoled, scared, begged, massaged – to bring them back to life. With the two up on their feet, we resumed the trek, but the morning’s gallop had turned into trudge by now.
This and few other obstacles slowed us down, slimming our hope of locating the rock-shelter, as it was extremely difficult to locate it in the dark in the unending chain of look-a-like mountains.
Finally, at dusk, we reached Rupin Pass (rock-shelter was still distant). There we met the leading subgroup. Exhausted, cramped, famished, they were waiting for other subgroups to not only get the strength of numbers but also recombine the resources such as stove and ration.
Sunlight was fading fast, but the third subgroup, which had the ration, was nowhere on the horizon (we could see distant from the height of the pass). We waited … and waited, but they didn’t appear.
Now, we had no option but to move on, otherwise we were certain to run into darkness before we could locate the rock-shelter.
Night: things turned from bad to worse
The descent immediately after the pass was extremely treacherous – loose boulders littered on a steep slope, which further slowed us down. And we knew it was inevitable now.
By the time we covered the descent, darkness had descended down the valley, and, with that, our hope of locating the rock-shelter was over.
It was pitch dark.
We kept moving in the valley in the direction suggested by our guide, avoiding boulders, and by around 9:00 PM, we finally stopped for the day. No rock-shelter to take cover under. Just flat ground, open to the elements.
Exhausted, we dropped dead on the ground.
We lay there for several minutes, but no sooner had we started unpacking our rucksacks than it started snowing. Now we had no option but to find some cover.
Our guide, a veteran of several 25,000 + feet Himalayan peaks, set off into the nearby mountains, and eventually located a smattering of a rock-shelter, a pale cousin of one we were looking for (its projection wasn’t deep enough to cover our the full dimensions of our bodies). However, we had no options.
Reaching there took some climbing (which was insanely tough because we had just taken a long break) and by the time we settled it was 11 PM. That was the beginning of the most horrifying night of our lives: four sleeping bags for fourteen in -7 degrees Celsius ambient temperature. And remember, we hadn’t had any meals since 6 in the morning and we had trekked two-day distance in just one.
How we survived the night is a story in itself.
Next morning, we reunited with the third subgroup on the banks of Rupin river (13,000 + feet) and finally had a meal, lunch at 2 PM.
Our mistakes, a comedy of errors
If you’re looking for a proof for Murphy’s laws, you need not look beyond the mistakes we made on October 6.
Moore’s law 1: If anything can go wrong, it will.
We failed to spot Kanda. We split resources. It started snowing when we thought we had already walked the last step of the day. And many more.
Moore’s law 2: If several things can go wrong, the one that will cause the most damage will go wrong first.
Failing to spot Kanda and splitting resources, both, magically prove this law.
By 4 PM that day, most of us had reached their physical limits.
We had cramps all over the body. We were exhausted beyond limit. We were famished.
Taking a step had become a task in itself.
Under these circumstances, it wasn’t the physical fitness that carried people forward; it was mental make-up, the grit (this is kind of short-term grit, unlike the one for long-term goals). And it wasn’t surprising that of the two who caved in one was an accomplished trekker.
I too was an average trekker with average fitness level. What kept me going for several hours till late in the night (and also surviving the extreme cold without a sleeping bag) was the mind-set of not thinking too far ahead, and just focusing in the moment. Just one step at a time.
Because the moment you look too far ahead, you’ll be deflated by the enormity of the situation facing you. So, when walking up the mountain, I used to look once at the peak and then just focus on my steps. One step at a time.
This holds not just for the particular situation we faced on October 6, but for most challenging situations in any walk of life.
Question: Have you faced a tough situation (not necessarily like the one covered in the post)? What methods you adopted to overcome it?