Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Great Lakes of Kashmir Trek

Trekking has not been too high on my wish list. All said and done, no shower and loo for 7 days is not very fun. But I have two very dear friends who become starry eyed at the thought of walking through mountains and I do adore them. So, the seven days long, 65 kms hike to the seven alpine lakes of Kashmir happened in July 2014. We went with India Hikes. There is a sense of security going with a group (about 25 people). There were porters to carry the tents, food and other necessities. We carried our backpacks, but you do have the option of offloading them to the porters (at a cost). Even for a first timer like me, offloading did not make sense. It was a trek after all and carrying our own bag was the bare minimum we could do. Before I actually write about the trek, a quick note on all the preparation and shopping required for such a trek. This was a moderate weather trek. Minimum temperature was about 3-5 degrees Celsius if I remember correctly. Days were mostly sunny and pleasant. All these treks give Decathlon (and Quechua) a ton of business. Must-haves for the trek -
  • Good waterproof trekking shoes. Though I didn't have the high ankle ones, those make sense in a lot of snow and slush. You might just be better off buying those. We were blessed with good weather during the trek.
  • Waterproof backpack. Again we had our old ragged ones. So, we bought rain protection for the bags. 
  • Quick-dry, well-fitting slacks and tees
  • One light jacket
  • One down jacket (if you are a Bong). Or you could be like S, and just loan the Bong's jacket on cold nights!
  • Sunglasses
  • A monkey cap (if you are a Bong). It gets cold in the tent! Any which way, get ear protection.
  • Cap to avoid face tan. If you saw my nose post trek, you would know why this is so important
  • Energy bars, chocolate, glucose, dry fruits - These keep you going during hours and hours of hiking
  • A bottle, plate, spoon, toilet paper and tissues (wet and otherwise) 
  • Trekking pole (got mine for INR 250 from ebay)
  • Small torch or head lamp. Very handy this one.
  • Vaseline, sunscreen
  • Poncho
  • Risk appetite and some physical stamina
  • Camera (A necessity for me. Might not be the case for everyone.)
The starting point for the trek was Sonmarg (7,800 ft). We reached Srinagar, just to figure that there was a bit of chaos in the city and the route to Sonmarg was closed out. Spent the night at a seedy hotel and left at an ungodly hour for Sonmarg base camp. So, the first day started really really early. Took about two hours to reach base camp. Taarak, the trek guide and Noorani Bhai rounded us up and gave the initial load of warnings and instructions. Air gets thinner as you walk up. Take deep breaths. You will get tired easily. First two days are the toughest. Drink a lot of water. Small sips at regular intervals. Might get mild headaches. Don't panic. By the end of it all, my Bong self had put all the warnings together and stitched out a near death situation. S said one step at a time. One day at a time. With that in my head, we started off. 

The first day was extremely strenuous and long. To top it, S was not feeling too well. We hiked for about 12-13 kilometers that day. Walking that distance is okay, but climbing from 7000 something ft to about 12,000 ft is quite a stretch. First two days of the trek are make or break. Either you acclimatize or you don't. The trek route is unbelievably beautiful, and it keeps getting prettier by the hour. I was carrying the D90, and the weight of it along with the backpack and the thinning air was not very fun. But the pics that came out of it were totally worth the effort. :) So, the first day, we walked right up till 7 pm. En route, saw a bunch of Kashmiri kids playing on a rope swing. Those swings looked easy enough, bur city butts are not used to such things. Needless to say, we provided free entertainment to those kids, who were in splits seeing our pathetic attempts. There is minimal to no civilization on the way. Stopped at a small tea/maggi shop in the middle of nowhere. They knew they were the only ones around, and made the most of it. Charged a premium for everything. Our bill for omelette, maggi and tea for three people was over 500 bucks! The camp site was one of the most welcome sites we had seen in a while. :) First day was done and we had come out of it without any injuries or AMS. Being that tired is actually a good feeling. Every muscle hurt. Hot food tasted divine and the Bournvita served right after, seemed like a cure for all maladies. The Milky Way had lit up the sky beautifully. Barely 9.30 pm, and I was out like a light in the tent.

Amused Kashmiri kids on the way

Multiple rest stops

Early to bed and early to rise was an easy tenet to follow in this trek. We woke up without any alarms at 6 am. Plan for Day Two was to cross the Nichnai Pass and camp at the base of Vishnusar Lake. A climb till 13,500 feet and then descent to 12,000 for the camp. This was probably my worst day. As we kept going higher, we started walking on a fair amount of slushy snow. Thank god for waterproof shoes! At the top of Nichnai Pass, we decided to sit in the snow and eat lunch. On hindsight, should have started moving down from that altitude real quick. Who learned from making no mistakes anyway. :) So, there we were, freezing our asses in the snow and happily munching on poori aaloo. And then I started feeling uneasy. Rest of the day was just a blur. Dragged myself to basecamp (with ample help) and almost passed out. Folks around me were contemplating the easiest way to go back, if my situation didn't improve. But thank god for small mercies, I did feel better a few hours later, pushed down some food, got a good night's sleep and was bright and shiny next morning. :) So, my face off with AMS was done. Nichnai Pass was stunning even with a severe headache.

At Nichnai Pass
The next day was a day of incredible views. To be fair, all days were. But this was the first day we saw few of the alpine lakes. Pictures cannot explain the sight that was. Day 3 task was to cross the Gadsar Pass (13,750 ft) and the alpine lakes, Vishnusar, Krishansar and Gadsar. Gadsar Pass was one of the highest points of the trek. After climbing half way up Gadsar Pass, you get this awe inspiring bird's eye view of the valley with the two lakes. Cameras fell short and so did words. We just sat there. Right after Gadsar Pass, there was a beautiful meadow walk which led to the Gadsar Lake. By far, the most beautiful alpine lake of the lot. There was ice floating on the lake, creating shadows with the sunlight. Everything about the place was surreal. Cities, noise, people - everything seemed so distant here. Like this was all there was. The blue green water, the green mountains speckled with snow, the mellow warmth of the sun and a few dear ones. As is true for all good things, we had to move on with vivid memories. Somewhere near the next basecamp, a local family offered us tea (dinner as well). This was the month of Ramadan. Which meant that the family had not eaten anything all day. Yet the warmth with which they welcomed us, made tea for us, sat with us and heard our ridiculous stories about the tough terrain (for them, its a cakewalk); it says a lot about human compassion. And a whole lot about the absurdity of bias based on religion or any other reason.
Path leading to Gadsar Pass

View of Krishansar and Vishnusar Lakes

Gadsar Pass

Gadsar Lake

Meadow walk to the camp site

All the hospitality :)
Day 4 was a relatively easy day. About three hours of steep ascent and then a beautiful meadow walk. By now, our bodies were well acclimatized and our comfort level had gone up. Crossed an Indian army post on the way to Satsar basecamp. We were there during the good weather days. The thought of not just surviving at this altitude in -30 degree celsius during the winter months, but to also encounter terrorists was a scary thought. In the humdrum of our daily lives, we forget what so many people do for us without saying a word; without any complaints. And you thought your job was tough? Think again.
Meadow walk to Satsar

Since this was an easier day, Taarak Bhai suggested a short hike to a lake near basecamp. If you do this route, this lake is highly recommended. The sunset there was memorable. Some of the folks still had the energy to go further up ahead. I was just happy with my camera, as parts of the lake lit up with the receding sun.

Next day was a hike to the twin lakes Gangabal and Nandakol. The descent was brutal. Probably, one of the worst days for S. Just when we thought that we were done with AMS, it hit her. Hydrate and take it one step a time was the buzz word for the day. We did reach the campsite safe and sound. The next day was a rest day and by far one of my favourite days. :) While everyone planned for hiking around the place, we three went to the Nandakol lake, found a corner and did our own thing. My thing being a Ruskin Bond book and music. Probably this would be as close to Utopia as I will ever be.
Nandakol Camp Site

Reading time :)
The final day was a steep descent to Naranag from 11,500 ft to 7,500 ft. The thing with these long treks are that they make you aware of your strengths and weaknesses. Probably true for all tough things in life. The sense of accomplishment was heady. Back in Srinagar, the sight of a hot shower was blissful. So was the mutton rogan josh and biryani. :) This trek should be a must on your wishlist (if you have one). Hoping I have given enough reasons to that effect.

The Group
Final Descent


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