A few years ago, I made a resolution to try and do at least 3 Himalayan treks a year. While 2020 was almost a complete wash out, I responded eagerly when my good friend and fellow trekker Gautam Gode invited me to join him for the Kuari pass trek in the winter of 2020. His friend, Gaurav Monga, joined in and the trip was on!
The trail for the Kuari Pass trek is reasonably well marked and clearly delineated. The walk per se is not particularly challenging in normal circumstances, the only thing that was different here was that we were doing it in winter, and when we arrived it had snowed for the previous few days and there was therefore a lot of fresh white powder on the ground, something that made experience all the more beautiful.
The trek commences in the village of Kharchi, and the first day is a short 4.5 hour walk , gaining about 1900 feet in altitude, to the Akrotghetta campsite , so called for the beautiful lone Walnut tree [called ‘Akrot’ in Hindi and the local language]. As you reach the Akrotghetta campsite you look around you and see several 6-7000 meter mountain peaks covered in snow and this is what makes the Kuari pass trek especially beautiful -- spectacular views of the snow-capped peaks and the changing character from sunrise to day-time and then sunset. This continues to the next campsite, Khullara.
Since it was winter, it was cold in the morning before the sun hit you, and after the sun dipped below the Hills (which typically happened as early as 4:00 PM). While the sun was shining it was actually quite pleasant. One had to make sure that one properly utilized layering techniques to stay warm, and at night, the trek organizer, India hikes, had provided us with 2 sleeping bags and a liner each, which was more than adequate [in fact on the 3rd night I actually found myself sweating inside the sleeping bag].
The Trek to the pass itself was on the 3rd day and due to ice and snow on the route some members of the group decided not to take a chance , so 12 out of 18 of us managed to actually climb the summit. The views from the summit were even more spectacular because you could see almost 360 degrees around, peaks like Chaukhamba, Kamet, Haathi Parvat, Dunagiri , etc. You just cannot get tired of the views on this particular trek.
The trek group were a mixed bunch -- three TV serial actresses from Bangalore and a good friend of theirs who was a photographer, software engineers from Kerala , a filmmaker from Mumbai and some folks from Delhi. Gautam, Gaurav and I were the three oldest at 52, 50 and 49 years of age, but as I've seen in my half marathons, older people tend to take preparation for such events much more seriously and I do believe the three of us were fitter and therefore typically at the front of the pack when it came to actual walking.
We were also amused to see how surprised some of the folks from the south were with the cold (I've lived in Ambala, Delhi and New York, so I don't count). I guess if you haven't experienced -10 degrees C, you have no idea how cold that can be. We also observed how focused people were on getting their photographs taken, and looking good in them. I am guessing that for the Snapchat - Instagram generation, the primary purpose of the trek is to generate enough material to keep their feed busy for the next year or so!
Wildlife of Uttarakhand is legendary and this trek was no different. On the drive up we were extremely presently surprised to see a full grown leopard by the side of the road leaping up a rivulet. We got only a flashing glimpse of him but it was sure energising. On the way down I happened to see and take some nice photographs of streak-throated woodpecker who was busy pecking away at an old pine tree. I have a photograph of him with a worm in his mouth. Of course we had several Bhutia dogs following us and hanging around the camp, and one night when I stepped out to relieve my bladder, in a flash one of them snuck into my tent and if it wasn't for the alertness of my half asleep tent mate, he would probably have been comfortably sleeping inside my sleeping bag when I returned a few minutes later!
The people of Uttarakhand are special - hardy, friendly, and cheerful, despite the tough conditions under which they have to live and work. Interacting with these folks always makes one realize that there's more to life and joy than material comforts or possessions.
Another beautiful thing that we were fortunate to experience on this trek was a meteor shower. I've always enjoyed looking at the stars at night, and the Milky Way in particular. I was not aware that a meteor shower was in the offing, and was thankful to the trek leader for the heads up. When I stepped out on the night of the 12th, I saw three meteors at the same time and a few minutes later I saw two other meteors , which was an absolutely delightful experience.
The trek organiser, India Hikes, was efficient as usual, and I do think that they have gotten better over the years that I've been trekking with them. We were fortunate this time to have one of their most experienced trek leaders, Dushyant, and he certainly lived up to the reputation that preceded him . Every time I watch a good trek leader in action I have a renewed appreciation of how difficult that job is -- the participants in the trek are customers, and a bad review on Facebook or other social media could have a damming effect on both the career of the trek leader as well as the prospects of the trekking company.
But at the same time, they are team members who have to be commanded, disciplined, motivated, entertained, comforted, and sometimes told “no”. To do all this while maintaining an even keel and smiling face requires a unique set of skills, which one does not see often in the same person, but Dushyant certainly had them in more than adequate measure. Due to the snow, uncertain track, and lack of fitness of some team members, he had to modify the itinerary and order some people down by the easier route, which he handled with tact.
Kuari Pass trek was my first winter trek, and I was happy to see that I was able to handle the conditions, the cold as well as the snow, as well as I thought was necessary. I do believe that winter treks are special because of the very clear day and night skies that you get, the sight of snow on the ground, less crowding in general, and the challenge that the conditions provide. I'm not sure if I'll do one again but I'm certainly glad that I did this one and that it brought otherwise bad year to a wonderful end.
I remembered my mother, who passed away earlier this year, a lot during this trek, particularly when I was on the summit. After every trek, we would sit down and I would project my best photographs on the TV for her, and walk her through a day-by-day account of what had happened, and she would vicariously experience the trek through my descriptions and photographs. I was acutely aware that this time that would not be the case. But on the other hand, she was probably there with me, on my shoulder, finally experiencing what I could see with her own eyes.
Executive, entrepreneur, investor and mentor to social entrepreneurs, golf and squash addict, author of thrillers... In short, an amateur dabbler in new experiences, and provoker of thoughts.