Flying with the Griffins – The Hampta Pass Trek September 2011
Day 1: Prini at 6150 ft
We assembled at Prini village to stage our trek . The ponies with our treks’ rations was alredy there, but we were running behind schedule by an hour. The morning sun was climbing sharply and we were concerned that any further delays would lead to us having trek the 3000 feet under the scorching sun. the trek team comprised of Ashish , Ranjan, Suraj, Chunni, and myself ( Dhruv) . Our porters were Doltu and Tara ( on his first trek as an asst porter) . But the one person who was anchoring the trek both as a defacto guide and horseman was Sadanand, a 63 year old veteran who has been exploring passes in the Ladakh, Lahaul – Spiti Valleys and Kullu ever since he was 12 . Every wrinkle on his weathered face was like a deep crevasse, full of buried stories. With us , were 4 grown ponies of which one was badly injured in the leg, 2 ponies that he was ‘breaking in’ . This team of 8 men and ponies set off on the trek, the destination being Hampta Pass at 10 am . Stripped down from our early morning warmers and jackets to just dry fit t- shirts and cargo’s we began our steep climb to Chikha our first designated camp. The days trek to 9000 feet was estimated to take us 5 -6 hours , with a probably earlier camp at Jabri ( 3 kms short of Chikha) if it got late. Enroute we were to cross the villages of Sethan and Hamta.
The trek in the first leg of day one was an odd one , though really punishing one, because it involved climbing steps cut into the mountainside , between the winding metaled village roads, for about 2000 feet. We looked forward to easing the weight of our 12-15 kg rucksacks and catch our breath as we began to acclimatize. I was particularly gasping for breath , as the body began to get used to the steep and fast climb and the additional weight. Being somewhat overweight didn’t help either ! The blazing hot sun didn’t make it easier , though the crisp cold air, the occasional cold and pure stream water and the circling Griffin eagles against the clear blue skies against the backdrop of craggy and massive mountain faces were truly memorable.
Ashish and Ranjan set a very good pace and they were about 500 feet ahead or 30 mts ahead of me and Suraj, an experienced mountaineer ( with Destination Outdoor) , who was by my side, kept motivating and encouraging when the climbs really got tiring. He and Chunni , a young trainee but excellent and agile climber from Himachal ( and also working with Destination Outdoor ) were steadfast in their support and encouragement in difficult situations throughout the trek. Suraj also became our expedition photographer.
Finally at 3 pm, and 5 hours later we reached Sethan, a small hampet at 8000 feet , and also very close to a small dam project. On the way we also crossed Pandu Roopa, a patch of land, where we saw rice paddy fields . Folklore has it that when the Pandavas resided here, they grew rice ( alien to this region and altitude) and to date, there are wild paddy rice fields here and the locals hold this land in reverence.
We trudged on for another 2 hours and climbed the last 1000 feet for the day, through beautiful chinar forests and open grassy meadows, walking along with shepherds with their flock of sheep and goat. The stony trail led us past lush meadows and raging streams towards our first camp of the treak at Jabri. We had chosen to break here as it was already 4.30 pm and would not have been possible to reach Chikha before sunset. Jabri camp was at 9000 feet, under the shadow of a mountain with a an impressive rock face on one side and a steep meadow on the other. Saddled between the two and countless streams was Jabri. The perfect camp. We soon realized we would be sharing the campsite with a group of Israeli trekkers. We chose to pitch our 2 tents at the far end, at the edge of the mountain , overlooking the river. In the meanwhile our team of porters brought in some hot steaming cups of tea and got down to the business of making the evening meal. What was on the fire was some rice, vegetables and some tinned tuna that we chose to stiry fry with some onions, garlic and tomatoes. Dinner was ready at 8.30 pm and iIt turned out to be delicious. We all squeezed into the warm kitchen tent and hungrily ate into dinner, little did we realize that this would be the last time, we would truly feel as hungry we did. High altitude and fatigue would play its role later in reducing our appetite. It was beginning to get very cold and the full moon was creeping up from behind the mountain. It was Purnima and surprisingly, and thankfully, it wasn’t raining, The Gods had been kind to us today.
We crawled into our tents around 9.30 and that involved some really tight maneuvering after fitting in the rucksacks. Ashish and I shared a tent, and Ranjan, Suraj and Chunni the other tent. The temp outside the tent was close to 5 deg C and inside we were quite warm at 10 deg C . The sleeping bags were very warm and with our warm inners in place, there were times that we found ourselves unzipping the bags ! Like all other subsequent nights, Ashish and I would both wake up past midnight, for a natures call. Crawling out of the tent, feet first, then going out of it with our boots on was quite a chore. The best part was to actually step out into a fully moon lit night, with the mountains lit brightly , the rocks gleaming and the moonlight playing on the stream waters. There is nothing like cold mountain air at night..it chills you to the bones!
Day 3: Balu Ka Ghera to Hampta Pass to Sheragoru
This was going to be the toughest day of the entire trek. We had to climb from 11460 ft to 14000 ft and then descend to 12000 ft all in one day. This was the day when we would cross over form the last vestiges of the green and semi arid meadows of the Kullu Valley into the rock and snow and barren landscape of the Lahaul Valley . It called for almost 8 hours of arduous climbing and descending. As tough as it is to climb, I was told it was even more difficult to descend as the terrain was mostly loose rock and soil. The trek for Hampta Pass started at 8.15 am. Our mission was to reach the pass by 12.30 as inclement weather was predicted. A prolonged stay at the pass was also not advised. The Israeli group had a head start of 30 mts as they had started at 7.30 am . Ashish and I were the first ones to leave with Suraj, Ranjan and Chunni picking up pace behind us. After 30 mts we had to climb to the right as we came across a slushy and sandy patch about half a km along . It was a steep climb over huge boulders and slippery rocks. After climbing and negotiating this steep climb we reached a somewhat stretch which was completely boulder strewn , dotted with patches of a maroon colored flower. This was the first leg of the climb to Hampta , relatively flat and a gradual gradient., wherein we climbed steadily along a glacial river. Then this was followed a steep ascent across rocks and boulders, with no defined path., then the third stretch was to along the ridge at about 12000 ft , crossing over a glacial river and then 3-4 hours later, begin the final steep climb of 2000 ft to Hampta Pass .
Leading the group after the first hour, were Ranjan and Ashish, who moved on solidly in a very spirited manner , exercising great stamina. By the third leg of the climb they were about 45 mts ahead of the rest of us. I was deliberately taking it one step , one rock at a time, as one had no time to acclimatize to the altitude. Here was one, pushing ahead against all odds, with every muscle in the body straining and every breath measured and taken, at 12000 ft. Hauling a 12 kg rucksack up boulders and rocks, crossing rivers and hopping across streams, whilst balancing yourself is not an easy task for someone as uninitiated as me. It needed tremendous willpower which I had to summon many a time. I was inspired by Ashish who was pushing on hard, and displaying great endurance inspite of having dislocated his shoulder just 2 weeks ago.
The last leg of the climb was the most arduous. It took a huge toll on the breath, which came in sharp and heavy, the shoulders and legs as they ached under the weight of the rucksack and the sharp hauling up that was required to move from one rock to the next. At 13000 ft, I began to experience high altitude sickness for the first time. My chest began to hurt , my fingers began to turn blue and numb and most worrying I had some blood in my cough. At this point, precisely, when it began to rain too just 500 ft short of the pass, I handed over my rucksack to our porter, Doltu. It was too much of a risk to haul up the weight with these symptoms. With every ounce of strength that I could muster and kicking out all the negative thoughts about the dangers of AMS that were running through my head at the time, I heaved myself up and began to climb again. All this while, Ashish, Ranjan and the Israeli group waited for me to reach the Pass on top. They had been there for almost an hour and were eager to descend as there was a concern that the weather might turn for the worse. The wind had picked up and it was raining lightly. Finally at around 1.30 pm after 5.5 hours of climbing I reached Hampta pass. It was a moment of great achievement , and I sagged down on the stony ledge . From this point, the views of the towering peaks and cliffs were simply amazing. Deo Tibba and Indrasen rose magnificently. Both are almost 18000 ft. In the distance, we could see the CB series range, rising like sharp conical towers ..
At 2 pm we began our descent from Hampta pass.