Having decided to stay in India, I spent a few of the days following Triund kicking around in Dharamsala and deciding where I would go from there. I’d checked into the same guest house as Sunny, Baba, Raj and the rest of the guys and was enjoying being there.
Since I had some more time I decided I’d join the Mountain Cleaners for another project, this time to the Guna Temple to pick up trash. This would only be a one-day return trip, hiking up to the temple, picking up trash and then back down.
While still fun, this one was far less glamorous and picking up trash at the temple sucked. We’re on the mountain-side behind the temple, where people have literally been rifling bags of trash over the edge for what must have been years.
It was steep, often sliding, dirty and dusty, hot, with insects constantly in your mix, plants that burn your skin, and bags and bags of disgusting trash. It was really frustrating and the few of us down in the trenches were all cursing under our breath the entire time. Even so we were laughing it off once we realized each of us were feeling the same way. I was particularly impressed with Winn on this trip, the 20-year-old kid from California, who guided the expedition and showed a lot of dedication to our effort.
It was when we returned that evening I was talking with Abhi over dinner. I asked him when he was planning to hike up to the peak again that I’d pointed out during the Triund project.
“Well, I was going to go on Monday, but I have no one to go with.”
And that was pretty much that. Abhi talked his friend Sanju into joining us, a very experienced trekker, and Caro decided to come as well. What I didn’t realize was that we’d actually be going to Indrahar Pass and not the actual peak, although we would have a chance for the peak once we reached the pass.
I was seriously pumped about this trip. I’d checked around a few prices with trekking guides and the same trek could easily cost 2,000 rupees (almost $40) per day, stretched out to three or four days, and yet I was going to be able to go with two experienced guides and friends for just the cost of food and supplies.
Also, I believed at the time that trekking Indrahar would bring me to the highest elevation I’d been in my life. In 2008, in an unforgettable family adventure, I trekked Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States at 14,505, with my mom, grandpa, uncle and cousin. Abhi had told me the Inderhara Pass was about 4,500 meters or 14,764 feet, which would have easily eclipsed my previous mark.
So the four of us joined the weekly Mountain Cleaners Triund march on Monday with the rest of the regulars. Once we were in Triund it started raining heavily, so we were essentially hunkered down there for the night.
We left Triund (9,268 feet) in darkness just after 0400 on Tuesday morning, it having rained all night. This would prove to be no small factor.
We made it to the Lahesh Cave by about 0700 and had a meal just as the sun was cresting over the range. I’d been to Lahesh the week before, and I wouldn’t call it easy up to that point. From there it got really serious.
The rain we’d gotten in Triund was of course snow in the higher altitudes, and as we gained elevation from Lahesh we first hit the snow and gradually saw it get deeper. Not only that, but the snow had a strange consistently, almost a corn snow, that was particularly wet and slippery underfoot.
I didn’t expect it was going to be as easy trek. In fact, it was really tough. Very steep and challenging and especially difficult with the fresh snow. Even so we kept making our way at a good pace and there was nothing holding us back.
We’d reached near the top of the ridge line we’d been hiking up and had to cross over to another ridge where we would continue ascending. However, to cross over we had to traverse a glacier perhaps fifty meters wide. It sounded a little sketchy to me, and looking up in the distance to where we would cross I wasn’t overly encouraged.
As we approached the glacier I could see tracks going across, but I didn’t like the look of it and I was hoping we would seek another way. We finally arrived to the crossing and I was legitimately concerned.
Looking down the glacier, it was really steep. Steep enough to where if you start going, you’re not stopping until you get to the bottom or hit something. Far below I could see the jagged exposed rocks and cliffs protruding from the glacier.
The tracks leading across were newly cut into the eight or 10 inches of fresh snow covering the glacier beneath. The footholds were somewhat firm but did not look stable. What had started as nervousness inside me was becoming more intense.
I watched as Sanju led, followed by Abhi, spaced apart by a good 20 meters.
Waiting to start across, real, true fear gripped my heart. I’m not talking about concern, or worry, or anxiety. I’m talking about genuine fear. I honestly was not sure if I could go on.
I couldn’t remember having felt this way before, certainly not in any recent memory. And that’s not to say I’m fearless; I simply haven’t encountered the right combination of circumstances to trigger the fear synapses in my brain. We often encounter emotions similar to fear, or we might be afraid of things, like snakes or clowns or car salesmen. But true fear, the kind that rises from below and turns your stomach, is hidden deep within, rarely discovered by most. I could feel that fear.
I paused for a moment and steeled myself, then took my first steps out onto the glacier as the depth opened up below me.
I was concerned about two things happening. One, that a footprint in the track would break free and I would slide, or, with the sun now shining warmly, that the fresh snow would break free into an avalanche. I couldn’t imagine surviving in either case.
About halfway across I paused for a moment to look down the glacier. As much as the old adage of “don’t look down” was running through my mind, I had to really look and see and feel where I was, and uncomfortable embrace.
I looked back to my next step and moved on. Calm and steady. I was two-thirds of the way across, intensely focused on each step, placing my foot carefully and securely into the pockets of snow. Almost there.
Reaching the other side, a flood of relief washed over me.
Caro made it shortly after.
The crossing had shaken me. I freely told the others that that had scared the shit out of me.
Caro replied back to me, “it’s good to be afraid sometimes. When you’re up here, you remember that the mountain is always in control. We are only visitors here.” It’s a shame I can’t write in a French accent.
I agree with her wholeheartedly, and especially now sitting here safely typing away, but it’s hard to come to grips with in the moment.
Speaking of Caro, I have to say she was a beast on the trek. From the start she was never the fastest, but strong and consistent. She made fun of the boys who started off too fast and then tired by the end. But she was rock-solid all the way, never flinching, complaining or seeming to tire. She also knows her way around the mountain, and I was impressed.
From that point on I was really not the same. We encountered three more crossings, one similar but shorter crossing and two relatively short but steep ascents through the snow, each with a unique but equally hazardous penalty for error. Again I could feel the fear as each step seemed like it could have easily broken loose. But even worse I could not stop thinking about our return and having to cross again. How could I do it? I can’t say I fully regained my internal composure until much later.
This video from another party shows one of the shorter crossings.
We pressed on through steep and snow as I wondered what more treachery lie ahead. Finally we made our final push for the pass, and with a few laborious steps we reached. Relief and achievement took hold. We’d made it. And it was beautiful.
From the pass one may continue on to one of the peaks on the range, or cross into the Chamba Valley beyond. But considering our circumstances and the conditions, no one felt it was a good idea. We were content to have made the pass. We rested, ate, and enjoyed the beautiful views of the range and the valley, all while the midday clouds began to creep ominously up from below.
After 30 or 40 minutes we began our descent into the clouds. Things were not looking good as visibility dropped sharply just a short ways down. Great, now we’re going to have to cross over these things blind. Fortunately though, after about 20 minutes of very low visibility, the clouds cleared up a bit and visibility improved significantly.
One by one we approached each of the crossings, and each one I found to be easier on the way down. Whether it was already having done them once or some other reason, I felt more comfortable and confident with each crossing. There were a few minor slips and slides but not in any dangerous places.
We finally made it to the last glacier. I was still feeling fear but no where near as intense as the first time. I had Abhi follow me this time and while it still played the nerves, the crossing was manageable.
Once we were across my anxiety lifted. We’d made it past the sketchy parts and from this point forward it was all downhill…literally.
Resting again at the cave, Abhi admitted that he had been concerned as well, both in crossing and on the trip back.
We made it back to Triund at about 5:00 PM. My body was feeling it and I was ready for a bit of a rest, but Abhi was anxious to get back down to Bhagsu and I wanted to go down with him.
Well, Abhi is a beast and he was apparently trying to break the world record from Triund to Bhagsu. We were practically running downhill, burning trail and taking all the steep shortcuts. For exactly one hour I was keeping pace, right on his heels, but I suddenly hit a wall. My body just gave out. Each step was so painful I was literally walking like an old man, leaning heavily on my walking stick with each and every slow pace. My knees were on fire and it felt like I was getting smoked with a baseball bat with every footfall. It took almost another hour at this pace, at which point I could barely move any further.
We finally reached Bhagsu. We’d trekked nearly 30 kilometers that day with a total elevation change of over 13,300 feet.
I only later learned that the true elevation of Indrahar Pass is actually 4,342 meters, or 14,245 feet, 260 feet shy of my highest lifetime altitude of 14,505 feet on Mt. Whitney in 2008. I was slightly disappointed, but considering what I’d gone through mentally and physically, and the achievement of reaching the pass, I was ok with it. And, I know I’ll reach higher.
While not my highest, Indrahar was by far the most difficult and mentally taxing mountain trek I’ve ever done. I pushed it to the edge and had to reach deep into the Chris Healy reservoir of willpower. But it’s not until you push the limit that you know how far you can really go.
* * *
Having stayed for the trek to Inderhara, I’d been in Dharamsala for about two weeks and was anxious to move.
I’d thought about going to a place called Ladhak further north and deeper into the Himalaya, but by this point it was really too late for that. Instead I opted to see a few more of the famous places in India, including Amritsar in Punjab and Jaipur in Rajasthan.
Returning from the trek I was now staying with the Mountain Cleaners in their volunteer accommodation and I really had become great friends with the MC crew by then. Tashi, Raj, Sagar, Abhi, Caro, Winn, and Felicia, an American who I’d only met toward the end of my stay, were all just great people. I really got to know them and they got to know me, and by this time I honestly didn’t want to leave.
Well good thing, because we all had some drinks up at Abhi’s crib on my last night and had such a nice time that it turned into my second to last night. Haha.
I have to agree with Caro. It’s good to feel fear sometimes.
Have you ever felt true fear?