I’ve been importing Trekking/Camping equipment for years now and I’ve barely managed to put it to use because of not finding like minded people to trek or camp with. This was my first major trek, so I thought I’d better pen down my experiences for others to read before they head out on their own or make the same mistakes I did. It is easy to dump a large sum on some tour organiser and let them handle all the logistics like food, water, transport etc, but there is a lot more adventure (and sometimes danger) when heading out on your own. Sorry for the lack of photographs as I lost most of them when my laptop hard disk suddenly stopped working.
To start with, our plan was to trek to Har Ki Dun. The plan was also to keep it low budget and pitch our own tents and cook our own food. (The advantage of spending so much money on hardware) However, even though I had my own tent, my friend suggested that we not use tents, but that we spend the night at some tea shop along the route as he had done so on a previous trek to some other place. This was the first lesson I learned -not to assume what I would find in uncharted territory that neither of us had ever been to. In addition, during our discussions, he often spoke about the valley of flowers when he should have said Har ki dun, so I assumed we were going to the valley of flowers and all my research was based on going to the valley of flowers.
Like I mentioned before, people have different ideas about camping, for most it is a picnic, where they play games and eat junk food and pour unreasonable quantities of vodka down their hatch before crashing into their tents and waking up bleary eyed. Then there are those who want to enjoy the place, i.e go to malls, take cable cars and dress up like locals to take pictures just like tourists and others who want a hot bath and TV at the end of the day.
So understandably, a couple of days before D-day, everyone dropped out. Most of them, colleagues, were averse to “wasting” their leave and their money. I was ready to drop out too, as the weather forecast in Google said, “freezing rain, -7 deg C on Sunday night”. In addition, I found reliable information which said that the valley of flowers opens only on the 1st of June and not in the middle of May.
The day before, I called up my friend and told him that I was opting out too as the VOF was no place to be in weather like this to which he replied that he meant Har ki dun which changed the equation. This was good news in part as I later found out that the total expense I incurred was over Rs. 27,000/- . I would have got a bigger shock if it were not for the fact that some things were one off purchases like a good Zaap selfie stick, 2 Coleman trekking poles, a down sleeping bag and the excellent Salomon L37325900 Quest 4D 2GTX Backpacking boots which cost me Rs 15,000 just by itself.
For me, the trip started at 4 am on Sunday morning. I took an auto rikshaw to Kashmere gate ISBT and to save money, caught an ordinary bus to Dehradun ISBT. I had already reserved my seat and was able to cram my backpack under the seat. I reached in the evening around 6:30 pm. Last morning while packing, I had a nasty surprise finding a saucer sized hole in my sleeping bag. I suspect it was done by a rat which had once entered my house. So the moment I reached Dehradun, I took a bus straight to the clock tower and headed towards the camping shops in Paltan bazaar. Being Sunday, most of the shops were closed. The others were selling bulky locally made sleeping bags. Finally in one of the old shops, there was an equally old man lounging at his counter -with his legs on the table and half sitting – half sleeping, I can’t describe it, but it was a disgusting sight. I later heard the same story from my friend who has now stopped frequenting that shop. He asked his employee to show me some bags and I chose a Canadian bag with 80% down and 10% duck feathers. It was the only decent option available. My previous synthetic bag was bulky and I wasn’t in any frame of mind to buy a similar bag. I was in a hurry to leave, He brought out a fresh piece from his warehouse and I didn’t bother to open it. The employee wasn’t too keen to show it to me either and I learned later on why as it takes the strength of two men to get the bag into its stuff sack. However it still packs down much smaller than my old synthetic bag (which was much warmer) which I got for a paltry Rs 200 when gear used during the 2001 Gujarat earthquake relief done by my then employer was being disposed.
I reached Herbertpur from Dehradun at 11:30 pm thanks to the employee at the store who suggested I take a Vikram to Prem Nagar from where I’d get a connecting bus to Vikas Nagar as it was not worth going back to the ISBT to catch the bus. The guy was right, but his advice wasn’t helpful as they refused to let me board the bus during rush hour as I was carrying my 80 liter rucksack. Finally after haggling with some auto drivers who wanted to charge me 3 times the bus fare that I paid from Delhi to Dehradun, I took another Vikram back to ISBT. As I boarded, they called out after me informing me that there was no way I’d be in time for the last bus. I had decided to spend the night at ISBT but was fortunate to be allowed into the last bus with my rucksack put into the boot of the bus. I’m grateful for the excellent dinner hosted by my friend (and colleague) in Herbertpur after which I checked into a guest room, did my laundry and went to bed.
Woke up at 4 again the next morning, and by 5:15 we hit the road and landed at Vikasnagar. We should have started earlier as we missed the first bus and had to wait till 7:30 am for the next bus. We finally arrived at Purola where we entered the Govind wild life sanctuary/National Park through its Netwar (pronounced Netwad) gate. Here all vehicle drivers have to mandatorily stop and declare tourists. We had to pay Rs. 250 each for 4 days of trekking. There are no reimbursements if you arrive early. In addition, they levied an additional Rs 200 as security deposit and scrawled it behind the bill. If we were camping, we would have to pay even more.
We arrived at Sankri somewhere around 5 pm. Somewhere in between, we lost mobile connectivity. Only BSNL connections work here with some difficulty. As soon as we got down, we were accosted by a person with a limp who was travelling on the bus with us. My friend recognised him as he had been trying to cozy up to a girl and had been sharply reprimanded by his relatives. He however denied it and said that they were high on pot and that is why they were fighting with him.
He immediately told us that there was no place to stay in the hotel there. He took us to the GMVN rest house at a higher level and there was a very strong smell of cheap booze coming from the office when we entered. They claimed that it was full as well. However everyone there seemed to know each other very well and probably were related to each other, so we are not quite sure whether they were helping him out to get some customers.
He talked us into coming to his old wooden house constructed from huge planks of the Himalayan Cedar (Deodar) which is similar to the wooden houses in Himachal but uses flat, heavy stone slabs to cover the roof instead of slate. He then talked us out of going to Har ki dun and said that it was too long and too far away. He said that the Kedarkantha trek via Juda lake was a much better and shorter option for a beginners trek. He also told us that it was impossible to do any trek without a guide.
Although we had to ask him several times he finally agreed for Rs. 800 for the trek. He said others charged up to 20,000 although I found full package tours for Rs 12000 later on online. We spread out our sleeping bags on the wooden floor and went to sleep almost instantly. My phone in spite of being in airplane mode since our departure except for my check in’s on Facebook till Purula was on its last legs. However there was only one 60 watt incandescent bulb in his house which kept turning off -which he had to fix by climbing the roof so there was no option to charge the phone. Before going to bed, we made a list of things we needed.
- 2 match boxes (I was already carrying them)
- A couple of kg’s of rice & dal for khichdi (The guide opted for Masoor dal as he claimed it would cook faster)
- 9 packets of Maggi ( A poor choice for anything except convenience, but would cook fast)
- Several packets of biscuits
- A small bottle of oil
- 5 Onions
- 1/2 Kg Sugar (He claimed he drinks tea all night as he won’t sleep)
- 50 gms Tea leaves
- 50 gms of garlic (The stupid shopkeeper suggested ginger – garlic paste and our guide was quick to grab 2 packets… I hate ready made ginger-garlic paste as it reeks of synthetic vinegar)
- 100 gms Cumin seeds
- 1 kg chicken (Mutton is available as well, but would take longer to cook as all of our cooking was done on whatever wood we could gather)
- 10 eggs (We ordered them boiled with a little tea leaves for color and flavor) The bugger crushed most of the eggs and biscuits as he probably rested on them…
- 1 liter of kerosene (I wish I could roll up my eyes…)
- 5 packets of bidi’s for him (I regret supporting his addictions)
When we set out, he severely dissuaded us from carrying our cooking gear as it would become quite heavy. Even though, I had pared my equipment to the bare minimum, I left my Bushbuddy stove, Montbell 1.9 Liter titanium cookpot and my 2 liter Klean Kanteen and picked up a 1 litre bottle of water. I was a bit worried as his house had no lock but our stuff was perfectly safe when we returned. Just before the climb started we filled up at a pipe which was basically redirecting water from some mountain stream/spring. We found this all over the place from time to time, but the water was mostly a trickle -and one had to know where to look as it was impossible to carry the quantity of water required; -that was why one needed a guide as sometimes the flow dries up depending on the season and you need to know the alternate locations in case one has run dry.
The first days trek was mostly uneventful. We were out of breath and had to stop for a break in places, but reached a plain by about 2 or 3 pm. This was inhabited by seasonal Gujjars who had just returned from Haridwar. They pay a fee to the forest department for grazing their cattle (and also another fee to the village) and stay till just before the snow starts and then go to down to Haridwar again. They build temporary wooden structures and our guide started cooking there and was planning to stay there but there was an altercation between them and one of the women accused the villagers of using timber from their shelters for burning in the winters when they were not around and they had to rebuild their shelters every year because of this. Finally we moved out into a damp valley and sheltered under a rock. Before getting into our by now dirty sleeping bags as we were in an inch of fine dust, we gathered firewood for cooking and also what we hoped was enough for the night. He prepared the chicken, rice and dal that he was carrying and we nearly had a plateful of chicken each. I was pretty upset that he cooked it all in one go. He was only bothered that we would waste the bones and was literally refusing to give us chicken on the bone as he wanted to eat the meat and crunch the bones.
The night was full of disturbed sleep. I was continuously aware of the crackling fire and any sparks which could jump off at me and burn small holes in my brand new sleeping bag. My friend kept waking up in the night and asking the guide to look out as he heard some animal crunching bones. Animals were the last thing I was worried about. We woke up in the morning and tiptoed through the miry valley to where the water was flowing. The water was as cold as melted ice. It was already untouchable at 9 pm and now everything went numb. We decided to have breakfast at our next stop. We walked up another 50 meters and we entered a meadow with grazing cattle and in its depression was Juda lake. It was a beautiful sight although the water level had dropped quite a bit.
From there the gradient changed and it became really steep. The path itself was strewn with boulders which were probably placed by the villagers to act as steps but which were about a foot high! Taking an upward step carrying an 80 litre backpack was a nightmare. All through the path, the stupid guide kept drinking water from my water bottle and informing us that we could re-fill it soon. I think he used his bottle to go to the toilet. After what seemed like eternity punctuated by forced breaks we had to take, we reached close to the summit and flopped on the ground. Like near the Gujjars, there were tents and large scale cooking going on by some tour organisers as they were expecting a group to arrive. I remember as we were sitting down totally exhausted on the way up, one of our guides neighbours walked past with his mule on which was loaded 2 LPG cylinders for the cooking on top. On the way, we polished off what was left of the biscuits and the crushed boiled eggs which our guide apparently sat on. I was avoiding biscuits as like Maggie, they are not exactly good for health, but I finally gave in.
As we lay in the sun staring at the grey peak with absolutely nothing on it except some stones which the guide said had been put in place by the villagers. He insisted that we should go up and come down and finish the climb, but we refused. We were tired, hungry an totally worn down by the unnecessarily rushed climb. In addition, we were eating less than what we were normally eating when we should have been eating like pigs. Once more, we had the last of our Maggi noodles and both of us decided to take a nap. We woke up in a couple of hours and the guide had cleared an old semi-permanent wood and stone abandoned Gujjar construction. We refused to sleep in as there was an old dead oak tree leaning in the direction of the shack. He claimed that if it didn’t fall in the winter it wouldn’t now but we didn’t want to take a risk. We ended up sleeping outside under the beautiful stars and were joined by a bhotiya sheep dog who followed us from the plains. The night was cold and my slightly oversized sleeping bag dripped with water due to my breath condensing inside. Before going to bed we polished off the last of the khichdi made out of the rice and dal.
In the morning, we woke up and the dog was in a playful mode. He scrounged most of a packet of biscuits my friend was eating. Our guide heated up some water for us and poured it into plastic bottles for washing up. I was very upset at him and let him know that he had destroyed my bottle by pouring hot water into it and it was no longer safe to use it. As usual we had to attend to nature’s calls out in the open. I was glad I carried my toilet paper.
We were ready to start our downhill trek and packed up and I stuffed my sleeping bag which was sunning on the roof of the shack. He left our matches and kerosene in the shack -“for some other people who would come” and we started downhill. We didn’t question his decision at that time as we were still tired from the whole trek. From here all things started to unravel. Since he had nothing to carry, he carried my elderly colleagues rucksack as he had promised and set out at a furious pace downhill. We struggled to keep up with him. My colleague was just as tired as me in spite of his rucksack being carried by the guide. When we finally stopped for breakfast, we realised the truth. There was only one packet of biscuits to go between us. Now we realised his rush. The moron wanted to have breakfast at Sankhri and we were expected to reach there with our loads and already exhausted bodies on an empty stomach! A trek of 10 kilometres! When we tallied our meals, we realised that the bugger had stayed up all night and snacked on our food and probably had been drinking as well as his brother and neighbour had told us that he was a confirmed alcoholic and the reason for his limp and his separation from his wife and kids was that he once an accomplished guide was now a drunkard and had broken his leg twice after drinking and falling off his house.
Next he took us through a steep shortcut. As I kept pace with him, the full weight of my pack was on my knees and calves in spite of holding 2 trekking poles as we ere literally jumping from stone to root and stone downhill. We finally arrived at a flat concrete surface and my friend lay down as he felt dizzy. I badly needed a break too and lay down next to him, my legs were barely functional in spite of the daily 18 Km walks I did in Delhi prior to the trek. After a while we drank some water and slowly limped down. Luckily my friend had some dried fruits gifted to him by a friend and we had the sugar we had got for tea. With great difficulty we reached Sankhri. There too instead of taking us through a smooth path, he took use through another route winding our way through Cannabis plants and school children with constant ups and downs and stone steps. His hurry was understandable as he wanted to finish the trek, get our cash and go down to wherever booze is available (I don’t remember seeing any booze shops) and get drunk.
After reaching his house, (cursing him all the way). We bathed at the community tap and washed our clothes and hung them out to dry. Then with great difficulty down the irregular stone steps of his house and up the gradient again we hobbled to the Sankhri bus stand for lunch. The food took some time to be served and my friend was dizzy again but felt better after having a soft drink.
After we came back home we had an altercation with him and told him that if he required more food he should have told us so. He also turned around and said that he had asked for Rs. 800 per day. We ultimately paid him 2000 and asked him to collect the rest from Hrbertpur whenever he came there. I had totally run out of money because of buying the sleeping bag. I promised to send money for my share of the expenses after reaching Delhi. Our guides neighbour -related to him like most of the others, turned out to be a nice well to do person. He also had contacts and was able to book us on a jeep back to Herbertpur. I had lunch at my friends place and then took an unreserved bus back to Delhi. I had trouble getting down the stairs for one week or so 🙂
Mistakes we made:
- We were unprepared with tents as originally planned and should have pre-booked accommodation. This left us at the mercy of touts like the guide with the limp.
- We were not carrying sufficient cash. Post Purola there were no ATM’s. Or regular electricity. I was lucky to have a Waka Waka solar charger, but it did not charge on my backpack. It started charging only when my rucksack was placed on the ground in the sun for the full day. Although it was not ideal, I did manage to get enough charge into my phone battery to take a few photographs.
- We had no guide map to Har ki dun. The plan was to walk along the river. Not sure if it would have worked as I didn’t have enough time to research the place as I came to know of the plan only a day in advance.
- We gave all our food over to our guide, who ended up not walking with us, but waiting for us every few kilometres. If something had happened to him or he would have abandoned us, we would have been starving. We might also not have been able to find our way back as we met only 1 person on the way back that too close to the village.
- Carrying enough food would have been a difficult task. I think the future points to dehydrated or cooked and dried or freeze dried foodstuffs which can be re-hydrated without much boiling.
- We should have allowed one day around the peak to enjoy our achievement. We could have even climbed to the summit. Unfortunately even if we wanted too, we couldn’t. Apart from the few shops in Sankhri, there is nothing anywhere else -not even a village. In 24 hours, we would pass 1 or 2 people.
However, we did the trek at 1/3rd of the cost mentioned somewhere else on the net it came to a paltry sum of 3500 to 4000. We stayed in his insect ridden house for 2 nights for free. So we are not discouraged, only better equipped for our next trek and also more wary about alcoholic guides. After we paid him 2000, he said the village headman wanted to see him as he owed him some money. He stumbled in late at night and we were woken up by the door creaking open. He was drunk to the gills. He checked up on us and tottered back to his bed outside…
Kedarkantha seems to be a beautiful trek in the winter. I checked some online trek organisers. While it might not be as grand as they make it our to be, if their itinerary is followed, it should be an enjoyable trek. It should also be mentioned here that if their itinerary is followed, it will be quite difficult to carry the required amount of food on your back and it is better to stick with them, unless your rations are freeze dried or dehydrated. You will be sweating even when it is cold as the climb is quite steep and will be ravenously hungry. I plan to do this as part of an organised trek. I found the Meetup site to be a good place to meet other like minded individuals. They also have an app for their smartphone.
Don’t expect toilet facilities on this trek. The organised tours do put up toilet tents, but it would be wise to confirm with them.
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