On Trekking

I did my first real himalayan hike (abeit a very short one) on 31st December 2016, and since then, I have been wanting to put into words how I feel about it. I got into trekking around the same time that I was getting into long distance running and meditation, and my feelings about all three are mingled in some ways to this day. For now though, I want to talk about just trekking - the multi-day, high-altitude, camping-out, no-signal-for-days kind.

My first trek was a lucky accident - on a trip to Sikkim, I had to overhaul my itinerary and ended up at a village called Yakten, in East Sikkim. Yakten had a small hour long hike called Jhandi Dara that could be done at 5AM to watch the sun rising on the Kanchenjunga. I reached the view point in pitch dark and saw the first sunrays forming a red circle on the east face of the mountain; it would slowly grow bigger, brighter, change colors and consume the nearby peaks too. Below is a shot I took on my phone a couple of minutes after sunrise:

The middle peak is the Kanchenjunga

The view was nothing too special in retrospect, but as a 21 year old who had lived in the North Indian plains all his life, I was hooked! I decided that I will chase more of whatever this magic was.

In the 5 years since then, I’ve done a lot of short hikes, and three major high altitude treks - Roopkund, Rupin Pass, and Kuari Pass. I’ve trekked at times purely as a sport - for the sheer joy of it, and at others almost as a pilgrim to the mountains. If someone were to ask me today why I trek, I would tell them this:

Treks have a way of healing you.

A day comes when, thanks to rigidity, nothing causes wonder any more, everything is known, and life is spent in beginning over again…. To come alive again one needs a special grace, self-forgetfulness, or a homeland. Certain mornings, on turning a corner, a delightful dew falls on the heart and then evaporates. But its coolness remains and this is what the heart requires always.

Albert Camus, Return To Tipasa

I came back from Kuari Pass just a week ago, after a whole year of covid induced isolation, and physical, emotional & spiritual exhaustion. There’s something about nature, combined with the physical exertion of a trek, that can somehow thaw long frozen corners of our hearts. Back from the trek, I felt so much more human again, complete with feelings of hope, excitement and gratefulness, and much less like the numb, planning/problem-solving machine that I had become. I remember sitting with my lunch at a very silent rest point on the last day of the trek, thinking gleefully about how free and at peace I had felt during the last 4 days - no plans to hatch, no instructions to follow, no lists to make, no calendars to book. I wondered what on earth had been making me so damn miserable all of last year. (Here’s a video of that place - and yes, it really was that silent!)

Treks are the ultimate escapes.

In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.

I am guilty of having travelled to run away from things, so for the first couple of years I was cautious to not let treks become an escape route - restricting them to once a year events. I am wiser now, and I realize treks make excellent pit stops for me. They break up all structure in your life so starkly that you are left with nothing to hide behind - you can’t read news, check your mail, grab a smoke, binge on Netflix, binge read books, scroll through Instagram, surf reddit, switch on the hotel TV, or indulge in whatever your drug of choice is. Treks let you run away from your life for a bit, but not from yourself.

Walking on a ridge through wind and snow on the Kuari Pass Trek.

After every long trek, I have in some way re-examined my life and made changes to it. You get to view things with a fresh set of eyes, and suddenly they look not as impossible as they seemed before. Running away, or rather, getting this distance from my day to day - is just what I’ve needed at times in my life.

Trekkers are an amazing, inspiring bunch

No matter who you are, high altitude trekking is challenging and uncomfortable. You can’t shower for days, your tent is cramped, there are rocks poking from under your sleeping bag, the cold is unbearable, you poop in a hole dug in the ground, packing and repacking your rucksack everyday is a pain, your clothes don’t dry if it rains, and god forbid if you have to pee at 2AM on a rainy night. And this is before counting the very real risks involved on technical trails. People who are willing to tolerate all of this are not your usual tourists - a lot of them have very specific reasons to come on a trek, and they often prepare for months for it. Unsurprisingly, these people are also inspiring in other areas of their lives - talented, amazingly kind, sometimes with a lot more life experience than me. The people I meet on treks are often the kind I won’t regularly meet- airforce pilots, CXOs, entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, animators, designers, serial travellers - aside from a whole lot of young people like me - from all over the country. I’ve had some amazing conversations with people on treks that I may never have had otherwise.

And some of them end up becoming your friends, which is, of course, invaluable.

Day 1: Strangers. Day 4: Sharing the same spoon.

The views are to die for

My words won’t do justice here - I’ll leave you with a bunch of photos and videos to let you see what I saw. And if you haven’t trekked before and still read till here, I hope I inspired you to plan for one, and I wish you good luck on your trail, wherever that takes you! :)

This is a photo of the night sky on a Rupin Pass campsite. The sky didn’t look exactly like this - the Milky Way was much fainter - but it was still the most star filled sky I had ever seen!

A starry October sky seen from the Rupin Pass Trail

Here’s some unexpected snowfall right as we reached one of our forest campsites on the Kuari Pass Trek. The whole place was straight out of a Disney movie that evening!

And this is the kind of view you can expect to wake up to on a trek!

This one’s on the way down from Kuari Pass - we faced strong winds and snow (sleet?) on the ridge walk that made for a challenging descent.

Even with the grand views around you, you walk looking down at the rocks & mud 80% of the time. On monsoon treks though, even this is a joy - the meadows on the way back from Roopkund were covered with flowers after rains!

Sometimes, even the rest stops don’t let you catch your breath.

rest stops