The next day, I felt about as lazy about getting up as I would on a regular Bangalore morning. My toes were warm inside the sleeping bag, I wasn’t shivering, and I didn’t want anything more than snuggling in the bag all morning. Ruchi and Gayatri woke up and gave me a call for ‘deployment’. Then Kartik came and told me that a fire was burning outside, but I was too comfortable to budge. Finally, reluctantly, about half an hour later, I got up and walked out in the open.
It was cold, of course. But I realised that I was, we all were, very much used to it. (So, its cold. What about it?) Ruchi told us that when we spend a few days in cold climates, our body generates new extra blood vessels just under the skin. Probably our bodies had done just that. Sitting around the fire, I felt more completely cheerful than I had felt in days. To celebrate the occasion, some of us washed our faces with a face wash (and hot drinking water). Layers of dirt, grime, sunscreen and moisturizer came off and we felt instantly fresh, but the freshness evaporated as soon as we coated our faces with moisturizer again. I also had a lot of breakfast – 2 chapatis with dal and 2 more rolled with ample of butter and honey. It was blissful.
After breakfast, Gyanji told us that the road ahead was a little uncertain. His advice was to leave our bags behind, trek to Dibb and come back to the Gsomu camp before the evening. Though a few of us wanted to camp at Dibb, I wasn’t so enthusiastic about sleeping in a cave without tents. And Gsomu had been our best camp so far. So finally, after much deliberation, we decided to go with Gyanji’s advice.
With no bags to pack and no tents to fold, we started earlier than usual. Right at the foothill of Gsomu, the river lay unfrozen, and we had to find our way going around the mountain.
We were walking much faster without the bag packs weighing our shoulders down. It was the day we played hide-n-seek with the Sun. Such were the twists and turns of our path that day, that the Sun kept shining on the mountain right behind us and straight ahead of us, but never on the mountain we were going by.
We saw a lot of slippery ice terrain that day, only, now we were a lot more comfortable with it. Once, while waiting for the rest of the group to catch up, we started dancing on the ice. Sliding our feet on the ice, slipping on it balancing with the trekking pole, slipping on it and, well, falling down – it was all so much fun! And oh, Moon Walking on ice, the way we did it we could have given Michael Jackson a run for his money! We also trekked over a couple of mountains, but they were not so tough. Gayatri even took the liberty of falling down 5 times – four times in the snow, once even on the mountain!
However, all this while, for some reason, my toes had remained stubbornly and painfully cold. I kept wriggling them in the shoe, I started walking so fast that I became breathless for once – but the cold just started spreading into the rest of my foot with time. I was concerned, but in the absence of the sun or a fire, I didn’t dare remove my shoes and socks to check what was wrong with them. Instead, I just kept walking at my fastest, chasing the sun along with Kartik.
By the time we reached our lunch site at Hotong Yokma, I was almost in tears. And rightly so, for when I finally removed the shoes in the vicinity of a smoky fire, my socks were revealed to be frozen around my toes. Drained of all blood, the toes inside had become a deathly white. They looked bleached and felt very hard, solid. Immediately, Ruchi took my feet in her hands and started massaging them to bring the blood circulation back.
There were two possibilities — one, some water had leaked into my shoe, wet the socks and then frozen inside due to the lack of the sun. Or, some snow had built up in the shoes over the night, and I had worn them without shaking it off. As we discussed these possibilities, Ruchi slowly brought my feet to normal and Kartik helped me into fresh warm socks covered with plastic to keep water away. Ruchi also reprimanded me for sitting on the problem for so long – if we had walked for another half an hour, things might have become serious.
When I started feeling good enough to walk, we descended the hill which was our lunch site and gathered at its base for further instructions from Gyanji. However, he had something else on his mind. He told us that we would have to walk at a breakneck speed if we wanted to go to Dibb and come back before the evening. There could be more water on the way ahead, and if we got late on the way, we might have to use torches to find our way back. Were we up for it?
Ruchi was the first one to say that she wasn’t so sure about herself. Gayatri too wasn’t sure if she could walk abreast with all the guys. I, as always, was torn. If Ruchi and Gayatri wanted to go back, I didn’t want to leave them and go ahead. I also didn’t want to take undue risk, as Ruchi had told me not to. But, (and there’s always a but!), my stubborn little ass wanted to go ahead, complete the trip, unfurl the victory flag and rest in peace thereafter. Kartik came to my rescue – he said that if Ruchi wanted to go back, we both would give her company. Thus, finally, 6 guys, namely Utkarsh, Anuj, Dileep, Prarabdh, Ramesh and Bhavdeep started the last bit of their forward journey to Dibb along with Rigzinji, one of our helpers. The four of us, i.e. Ruchi, Gayatri, Kartik and I, along with Gyanji, began the first part of our return journey home,
Our trek back to Gsomu was idyllic. We walked at a leisurely pace, feeling one with the overwhelming bounty of beauty around us. We discussed the different forms of frozen water that we had seen so far – the crunchy white snow (which won’t form a snowball as much as we tried), thick sheets of ice slippery under the feet, thin sheets of ice formed on liquid water whose shards had rainbow colours, slightly thicker sheets which were so transparent they looked just like glass, big round ice crystals scattered over the ground, glittering like a million diamonds, little stalactites of ice formed near swiftly flowing waters… I decided that if I were a Laddakhi, I would just wear ice jewelry in winter.
My feet had also become warm as ever – whatever was the issue with my shoes seemed to have been solved by the plastic bag. And in a miraculous turn of events, a part of the Chadar that was a fast flowing river in the morning had now frozen enough to allow the four of us to walk! Astonished, we walked on 2 hour old ice as Gyanji explained to us the phenomena which might have led to this effect.
In no time, we had reached the foothill of Gsomu. We idled around there, enjoying the last hour of the sunlight. Gayatri collected pretty stones lying on the rocky shores. Kartik started throwing ice slabs on the frozen river to see how far it would slide before coming to rest. I talked to Gyanji for a while, asking him how life in Leh was. As the sun sank into the mountains at 4, we climbed up to our camp.
The six of them came back at 5, jubilant and full of stories. Over plates of steaming hot pakoras, they told us how they had broken all records and risen above all expectations set by Gyanji. They almost ran their way, competing with each other all the time. They told us how the photographers Utkarsh and Dileep would loiter behind to take photographs and then speed up to catch up wit the others. Once, the ice beneath them started cracking, and they ran over it, with the crack following them at their heels. Utkarsh, who was the last in the file, almost stepped into the icy depths of the water beneath the ice! After all of their adventure, Dibb, they thought, was a disappointment. The cave was rumoured to house more than 60 trekkers, but they thought it was barely enough for 25. In addition, a few other groups had already set camp there. Glad that we didn’t leave the warmth of Gsomu for a cramped cave at Dibb, we all settled down in the big tent, and started playing Mafia.
Sometime before dinner, a delicious aroma wafted into our tent. The aroma was followed by the entry of plate full of kheer and marie biscuits, carried by our dear helper. This heavenly delicacy was Bhavdeep’s Sethi birthday cake. Now, let me rewind a little bit. In truth, the day before, i.e. our third day in the valley, had been Bhavdeep’s birthday. But in our misery, we (read Flipkartians) had forgotten about it. Thus, at the stroke of 12 on his birthday, Bhavdeep had just looked at the shooting star in Lower Shingra and wished that he get get married soon. To make up for it, Utkarsh had secretly asked the cooks to make some kheer, and in the same grand way with which they surprised us everyday with popcorn, pakora and rajma, they had now stunned us with the world’s most delicious kheer, conjured out of milk powder and plain rice, in the wilderness of the Chadar.
Needless to say, the kheer disappeared in a few minutes. We went back to playing Mafia, and this time, they made me play it too. Soon, it was time for dinner. And soon after that, it was late enough to sleep.
While having Mafia, while having dinner, while setting our beds – all through the evening, I had shivered – blame it on some hole in the tent we didn’t account for. But I didn’t mind. A strange mood had gripped me (and a few more of us) that day. We were going home. Tomorrow onwards, every mile we walk will lead us closer to Leh, and to home. I loved our trek and everything about it – I loved the valley, the snow and the sun, I loved my comrades and our fellowship, I loved the experience of being in an adventure of my dreams. But the beauty of the journey lies in the very fact that at the end of it, we go home. And now, we will. A smile played on my lips as I went to sleep that day. We had already seen the worst of everything. After all the mountains we had trekked upon and the ice we had slid through, after frozen toes and shivery nights, the return journey now will just be a piece of cake.
How very wrong I was… How very very wrong…
*The journey will continue shortly.