A Trek to Jalsu Pass

All India Bike Ride — Part 2.5

Previously

Bike trip to Bir, 15 days in Hillhacks — camping up, hula hoops and slack line, fell into a ditch, teaching kids, Tracking and hacking your life presentation, dancing, random strolls, Mau, forest fire and goodbyes.

TL;DR

Trekked to the top and survived a hailstorm.

The Ascent

Day 1

On May 25th 6 am, 7 of us, Sva, Moorthi, Deepak, Schneider, Lochan, Sapna and me hastily packed our things, took a ride from Bir via Utrala to the foot of the trek. Sva had been planning this trek ever since she came to hillhacks and the previous day I had gone to patanjali and got some energy bars. We stretched for a bit, racked the bags on our backs and stated climbing.

The start of the trek is usually the most tiring part. Unless you do cardio based workout everyday, it takes a while for your body (legs and heart) to get adapted to constant climbing. But once you understand your own pace and stick to it, you’ll feel at ease. The reservoir is one of the prominent structures in the view as you keep climbing. We saw a lot of skulls and bones and dead cows on the way, supposedly slipped while climbing.

Deepak with a skull and some edible plants

And in the scorching sun, we got tired very soon and very often. We moved at different paces, so the faster ones had the luxury of taking rests while waiting for the rest. I wanted to try out skinners and so I had my boots tied behind my rucksack. The boots, tied to the bag with laces, kept swinging but it was okay. After the first hour or so, my shoulders started to hurt. Sva helped me fix it by rearranging the rucksack in a way that heavy weights are at the bottom and tied it tightly close to my body. This ensure that the hips owned up to maximum weight and the bag close to my body helped me move as a single unit. We were carrying everything we need for 3 days.

Me, Lochan and Deepak were excited and took a steep shortcut and lost the rest of the group. But we kept moving towards the hills. When the track is unclear it might become a worry to find the right path to take. Sapna, being an ex-biologist and an adventurer, mentioned that one of the easiest techniques is to follow the shit. No kidding, animal shit usually means there’s a way through.

“Where there is poop, there is a way”

Whenever we saw a hut, we’ll huddle up, have chai and relax for a few minutes. We’ll plan the next stop and keep moving. OSM — Open Source Maps had a clear marked trial with even the huts on the way. We used it to make sure we were on track.

By 1 pm in the noon, we’ve crossed enough elevation that despite the sun the breeze was getting cold, the vegetation was getting greener and the stream was getting fiercer. I was in the middle of this stretched group and I made sure I tried my best to wait once in a while and focus on smaller things on the way. Trekking is never usually a continuous uphill walk, it’s usually a lot of uphill with a decent amount of downhill, and a lot of uphill and so on. But you’d almost always be climbing.

We came across a beautiful pool, but by the time we reached there Lochan had already taken a swim and was dressing up 😂 That guy was way too fit compared to the rest of us and so he was always way ahead of us. There’s was a bridge to cross. Sva sat down to roll a cigarette. She was very fast as well, but she was making sure everybody was doing okay and so she stopped and waited for others a lot. That was the first serious trek for Moorthi and he had a tough time keeping up and coping up. At that point, I’ve endured enough pain trekking with the skinners and so I switched to shoes. I drank some water directly from the stream and was relaxing for the rest of the group to join.

There were a group herding a cow, lead by this awesome dog with tiger stripes on it. But the cow was too scared to cross the bridge, it clearly said NO. And these guys had to literally push it through. It was so funny.

The mountain was so green and beautiful. It was getting colder and colder. We stopped at a hut for lunch around 3. We rested for a bit and kept moving. As the sun started going down, the valley was drowned in the shadow of the mountains. And you could clearly see the last ray of light.

As I kept moving, I saw a lot more skulls and bones. At this point, the stream had branched itself into a wide area of very small flows. And I saw a lot of goats roaming around and there was small bridge made of stone to cross the current. As I closed in, there were a few goats which wanted to cross the bridge from the other side, but the bridge was too small. It reminded me of the Two Goats and a Bridge story I’ve heard as a child. So I let the goat step into the bridge and I stepped in against it. I was hoping for the goat to be adamant or stupid and try to push through. But to my surprise, the goat immediately backed off. I was genuinely shocked at the goat’s understanding of the situation. But I didn’t let go, I backed off too, to see what the goat does. And seeing me back off the bridge, the goat tried to step in and run across, but stepped in too. And like that, I played with the goat for a while before finally letting the goat pass. Made me wonder about all these small bridges in the city where a biker and a car move in at the same time and ends up fighting for a while on who goes back.

We finally stopped at a hut where there was an old man and planned to stay the night there. We rested our bags and relaxed for a bit waiting for dinner. Schneider had setup his own tent. Moorthi had had enough and couldn’t push any further. He was getting a temperature as well. We let him rest while some of us setup a tent outside. On the way we had been warned about that old man. He costs were extravagant. But by the time he came back and had the discussion it was too late for us to go back. So we had no choice but to go with it. Lochan and Sapna carried gas and stove and they tried to make coffee with their own setup. After dinner, we found a decent spot to rest our eyes. There were scorpions near the supplies and so we avoided the corners. In the night we could hear the scream of a very young goat tied outside, it must’ve been feeling so cold. We tried to convince the old guy to let it stay with us inside, but he refused to do so. We felt really bad, but I heard the kid had to learn to adapt to live.

Day 2

The next day, we woke up early and tried to start trekking around 6. Lucky that none of us had been bit by scorpion. Moorthi wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t proceed. So we left Deepak to accompany him and continued onwards. The place was so beautiful and green in the morning. We trekked along the stream for a couple of hours until we reached the foot of the pass. There was a point where we had to cross the stream and there was no easy way. Across the stream was a hut and there was a guy who was saw us and pointed a way for us. It was still a risky jump and some of us struggled.

As we sat down for some chai, which would become a very common habit very soon, I was playing with this cute little puppy until it went back to his mother, yawned and dozed off. The clear thing I noticed was that as we went higher in the hills, the dogs we saw were furrier, supposedly to adapt to the cold temperatures.

I also noticed a small scincella. Of course I didn’t know what it was until Sapna pointed out but it was peaking out of it’s cave into the light. Lochan held his hands and slowly it crawled on it. His skin must’ve been warmer than the rocks and so it stayed on him until we had to leave. We also had a couple of slices of bread. We were at the foot of the pass, after that it was supposed to be a few hours of continuous uphill trekking. Schneider had a flight to catch the next day, so he had to turn back and sva accompanied him. It was just the three of us after that. And what was about to come was one hell of an experience for all of us.

It was a continuous uphill and it was tough. And just as expected Lochan dashed forward and waited here and there for us to join him. A little later Sapna’s shoes had given up, so they tried to stitch it and kept moving. Jalsu pass trek is considered the Flower Valley of Himachal Pradesh and we started noticing all these different kinds of flowers on the way. I wasn’t too keen on the flowers but Sapna was and she tried to collect a variety of things on the way. To my surprise I saw a lot of horses gazing. And for some unexplainable reason I was wearing my fedora all the way.

After a few hours of steep trekking in the wilderness we finally reached the top, and when we did, it was misty all around. Within minutes the mist cleared and the view was so beautiful.

As we were enjoying the view, it slowly started to rain and it turned out to be a hailstorm. We ran to the closest broken structure and quickly setup our tent there and went inside as the hailstorm worsened. That was my first time experiencing a hailstorm. And the three of us were sitting inside hoping it would stop. We heard some noise and it was a bunch of locals passing by. They told us it’s very dangerous to camp in the pass and asked us to cross it. Passes are the highest points in the mountain and usually they’re extremely windy. I also learnt that since they’re the high points, the oxygen content is very low and it’s not advisable to stay in a pass for long. So Lochan immediately packed the tent as we prepared ourselves to leave in the hailstorm. Sapna had a poncho and it wasn’t enough, so she and I swapped our raindress and we started trekking down. The poncho wasn’t completely covering but it was okay, I knew I could endure it. Also since we kept moving, our heart rate was up and so the cold didn’t really get to us. Sapna was feeling the lack of oxygen and she was a bit slower. Lochan was leading us, just like always. We couldn’t find a track, but we didn’t stop. We wanted to go down, we need to reduce our elevation and get away from the pass. We kept trekking downhill, kept moving whichever way we could… until we reached a point where we had to cross an icy path.

Lochan tried to cross it and realised that it was too slippery and we were neither equipped nor trained to cross it. And the moment we stopped walking, the Himalayan cold started creeping into our nerves. Within seconds I could feel the chill touch of the hailstorm all over my body. Suddenly I was aware of the jeans which was drenched in the rain, my fingers were starting to hurt. We didn’t have time think. Lochan immediately setup his tent right there, in the rain. Within a minute it was up and both him and Sapna had gone in, leaving their dry bags and rain coats outside. By this time, given the negligibly low fat content in my body, the cold had gotten worse on me and my fingers were hurting badly. I threw my bag and the poncho outside and tried to enter the tent. But I had to take off my shoes… and I couldn’t. I couldn’t hold the shoe laces. My fingers had stopped working. Both my thumb had already darkened to the colour of coal and I couldn’t feel them anymore. My hands! I started freaking out. I didn’t want to want to lose my thumb to the cold. And as I stood there watching my hands, the tent was open and we weren’t warming up. Lochan immediately untied my shoes and helped me remove them. And I went into the tent and he closed it instantly hoping the closeness, of the tent and us together, would keep us warm. I was still shivering, my fingers still black. Sapna quickly warmed her hands and rubbed mine to bring them back from the dead. Wasn’t enough. Then I placed it on my belly to give it some heat. Sadly my belly was cold too. Without hesitation she placed it on her’s and it helped. I slowly started feeling my thumb again and felt so lucky to have not gotten frostbite. Damn man, nature is so harsh and unforgiving.

But the fight wasn’t over for us yet. We were still feeling cold and were scared if we’d make it through the night. We counted the food and water we had and lied close to each, hoping that we survive.

About 20 minutes passed in silence with the sound of hail falling on the tent keeping us grounded to what was happening. Again, we heard some walking sound. It was another set of locals walking towards a shelter. Lochan instantly flashed out to ask for help, hoping they could help us cross or show us a safer path. Looking at us, one them decided to stopped to help us cross the ice. Again, we packed up our tent in hurry, wore our rain jacket, racked our bags and prepared to trek.

The local guy was using a stick and made it look like a cake walk, but we were slipping and skating. So he helped each one of us cross, making sure we didn’t fall. He asked us to keep our foot down forcefully that we create a small cut on ice so we don’t slip. As I crossed, I did slip a bit, but I got a hold with the stick and kept moving. I looked down on the hill and wondered what would happen with a single misstep, I would first fall down on my butt and start skating; my attempts to regain control would fail as I accelerate downwards; and I would finally be thrown out into the forest with such a speed with a lot of bruises and some broken bones. Well I knew I still would’ve crawled to a shelter and survived, if I were DiCaprio.

It was already a relief for us to have crossed the ice. The rest of the trek felt like a summer breeze, though technically it was still raining and the wind blowing on us was cold as hell. It was a small steep trek downhill till we had crossed the pass. There was a small hut where we decided to stay the night. It was getting darker, we didn’t really have a choice. It was packed with about 13 men. It had a small furnace where one guy was cooking something. Because of the rain the smoke didn’t leave and it was tearing up our eyes. We left our bags in a corner and immediately went and sat near the fire, heating ourselves up. I was so glad to have had my hand handed back to me 😂 . The night was young but we felt like we had already made it though. Sapna was the only girl among the 15 men there. She later told us that a couple of guys kept reassuring her that it’s okay, that it’s safe, that those men were good and she has nothing to worry about, that she could feel comfortable and get some rest since she was super tired from the trek. She said,

In Himalayas the place is cold, but the people are warm.

As I travelled around more over the later weeks, this line kept coming back to me. The climate was harsh in the mountains but the people were always welcoming and warm. I travelled alone and I had no reason to trust anyone and so I’ve almost always been skeptical, but the people were so pleasant and receiving. I had tough time understanding them as I didn’t know the Hindi, but the experience was pleasant regardless. That night, I just crawled into my sleeping bag and slept like a baby.

Day 3

The next morning was so calm and pleasant. I woke up to the view of a beautiful golden snow mountain reflecting the sun light. Lochan was already up and was enjoying the view. I went out and yawned as everyone greeted me morning. The sky was clear blue without a single spot. The place looked completely different from the previous evening. We had some chai and waited for the sun to rise. As the sun light warmed us, we unpacked our bags and spread out everything on rocks to dry them out. It was all wet from the previous evening.

We enjoyed the sun till our things were dry, then packed it up, said our thanks and good byes to the men and started moving. They refused to take a penny from us. They said they were happy as they were. It was humbling.

Then we marched downhill steadily and peacefully.

My DSLR battery was over and my phone hardly had charge in it, so not much pictures to come. The trek that day was way too easy for two reasons, it was downhill and it was gradual. We kept walking and walking. We wanted to reach the village and finish the trek by evening.

Compared to the previous two days, the third day was more of a fun day. As we kept going down, started feeling the heat of sun on our skins and I slowly started removing layers of clothes. We stopped at a random place for lunch and I noticed some weird crows with red beaks. Sapna said that they were Red-billed chough. We rested very little and we kept moving. And just like the uphill it was very close to the stream. After crossing a small bridge and having chai at a hut we were talking about how mountains are referred to as Shiva for it’s colossal awakening and the streams as Parvati for the force breaking through them.

Around 4 in the evening was the first time I saw an electric wire. It had been days. It was a sign that we had reached civilisation. I’ve always been proud of how we humans have conquered this planet. But when you spend a lot of time with the nature, sometimes you wish that we hadn’t. Sometimes you wish never to see generators and phones and cars. Sometimes you feel like all you need in life is the mountains, the sound of the stream, chai and some good friends to spend the evenings with.

Soon we had almost reached Lake Wali Mata Temple. But before that we had to cross the stream. The icy path we got stuck at was one of the beginnings of this stream. There were points where we crossed the stream with logs, then via some small wooden bridge, but at this point the stream had become so large and strong that we had to climb all the way down and take an established bridge (because it’s easier and shorted to build bridges at lower elevation where the mountains meet). This one was a straight zig-zag downhill immediately followed by a straight zig-zag uphill. When we were in the top we noticed a few people herding a massive flock of goats. From that height all those white guys looked like tiny ants and they were trying to fit in to that bridge, it was funny.

The view of the stream from the bridge was so surreal. I just stood there until everybody crossed. Then came the uphill. I noticed a really big trunk without branches, coal black, that stood out alone out in the hill. I wondered if it was struck by a lightning and refused to go down. I wondered if a few thousand years from now it would become fossil fuel. And I kept walking.

As we crossed the bridge, the locals asked us to stay put until the goats have climbed since their climbing might trip some stones and it’s impossible to keep an eye out for it. And since none of us wanted our head burst open, we stayed. Some of the lambs were really naughty, they went deep and far into the cliffs. I’ve always been curious about how goats can scale rocky mountains so easily and comfortably. The shepherd women would shouting at the goats to call them and sometimes her son carefully climbed across, catches them by the ears and brought them back. I knew it was the son because he had the same style of buddhist shaved head as his father. I didn’t understand their words, but I really think they spoke sheep. Finally after the uphill we were on road. The road felt so safe and easy. And soon we reached the village where we rested for the night and took a bus back to Bir the next day.

Day 4

The bus ride was boring mostly. Within an hour we saw that the stream had become a huge river polluted by humans. The river which was an icy path at the pass. It took us an entire day to come back to Bir, where we would tell the rest of the folks how we survived getting stuck at the pass.

Few words

Trekking in the Himalayas is a unique and amazing experience. Whenever I think about it I feel like going back there and doing it all over again, and again. If you trek, you would know. But you also realise that nature is harsh and it is indifferent towards our existence. So if you’re putting yourself out there, I suggest doing some basic leg exercises for start — squats, deadlift and some duck walk should get your legs prepared for the trek. Because if you’re focussed on the pain and panting while climbing then you may not have much time or attention for the beautiful things around you, big and small. Do share your stories and thoughts or doubts on trekking, I’m always ears.