At the pass, the cold high-altitude wind blew hard from the Himalayan Parvati Valley into the relatively drier Pin Valley, or so we thought. We rested behind sheltering chortens and rocks, looking into an unfamiliar valley, about to leave the Parvati Valley behind. Is the summit, the pass always the climax of the trip? In our case, it was.
I'm not trying to spoil everything by beginning with our goal accomplished. After all, I am alive and writing this, so it must be obvious that we completed our journey (no broken bones either). But the pass was the climax and did put everything else into context, fading previous worries and making the trials of the trip just part of the process,
perhaps even meaningless.
Our trials, looking back, were minimal: miscommunication, confusion, a thrusting goat horn that found its target, fatigue, altitude headaches, periodic frustration, and the obvious challenges of the Himalayan terrain; and part of the journey was dealing with these trials, one by one.
Perhaps the most important part of this trek was the fact that Nate reached the pass. That will be my most memorable experience, by far, as the entire group celebrated with snacks, Snickers bars, a South Indian holy ash tikka to the forehead, incense, silence, and throwing stones behind sheltering chortens.
Our trek began one week before, about two vertical miles lower, in the hot sun of the Pulga Hydroelectric Construction Site, one of dozens in the Himalays (will this help the blackouts or is the extensive electricity pirating--50%?!--and corruption the hurdle?). We descended into the soon-to-be flooded valley before ascending to our hiking trail with our guide, Surrendra.
Surrendra, named after a Kashmiri Buddhist King, was a young man a Buddhist a Hindu with an air of confidence that perhaps exceeded his experience with guiding treks. This was his second time on the Pin-Parvati trek.
A few hours of hiking through orchards, thickets, and small villages later, Nate played pool under a blue tarp with Surrendra and the Chello Baba porter, while Kevin and I relaxed. Where were the other two porters, the cook, and the Kullu hotel owner (who accompanied us--it seemed--just for fun without carrying his share)?
A few hours later, we arrived at the Snake Falls, a sacred Shiva site, but were missing the rest of our crew, who promised to cook lunch, who promised to be our support, who promised to be reliable despite their inexperience. For this trip, we were paying them so that we wouldn't have to worry about certain things, to make the trek a little easier, so that we could enjoy more subtle things.
Instead we were wondering about where everyone was, as darkness was approaching.
After a cup of chai, Chello Baba, Surrendra, and I backtracked to find the group and to help them carry gear, to quicken their progress. A few hours later, what happened became clear: the cook and hotel man had taken a different path without checking and the young porters, fresh from the streets of Kullu, struggled with their jobs.
Their struggles then became our struggles, an unfair situation where everyone potentially suffered. We had a meeting with the Kullu hotel owner, who was the money collector, the one who hired everyone, it appeared--things had to change. It took awhile, but things did change for the better.
That night, the rain pounded the slate roof of the abandoned cabin where we stayed. Snake Falls began to roar.
Under a sunny morning drizzle whose combination made the spruce and fir forests sparkle with dewdrop rainbows, we continued to hike up the Parvati Valley, passing orchids, immense trees, burn scars on trunks that told a long history of the land, sheep, and the hot springs lair--Kirganga--of many foreign dread-locked tourists. Periodically, the forests reverberated with the sound of the Parvati River below or a Himalayan Woodpecker or a feeding flock of Eurasian Tree Creepers, Pink-browed Rosefinches, and Spot-winged Tits.
In the evening, the rain fell once again, colder at over 10,000 feet, as we constructed our tents in a high meadow overlooking the valley, with its many waterfalls and cascades flowing from the mountains above. We ate dinner together in a small smoky alcove between a boulder and a piece of corrugated aluminum.
Wildflowers everywhere, we walked through carpets of color for the next two days, often spontaneously exclaiming--"It's so beautiful"--because it was. The White-tailed Rubythroats sang from boulder to boulder, creating a constant song for our trip. Parvati, the Goddess of the Himalayas, was truly blessing her eponymous valley.
The trek now had two other fitting songs, each one following the other, alternately, as the clouds would part or darken.
"Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," by B.J. Thomas, from the Forrest Gump
"Here Comes the Sun," by the Beatles.
Between the songs and the flowers, our mood was lifted as our altitude increased to over 13,000 feet according to my Timex Helix altimeter, leading us up and over steep river crossings and through more wildflower meadows to the shores of Mantalai Lake and a small Shiva shrine at a large terminal moraine. There, I thought it was appropriate to break out the holy ash I was saving from holy Hindu Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu.
Offering the light ash to an older Shiva-loving Israeli trekker he took a bit and began to snort it: "No, it's not that!" After the confusion, we put tikkas on our foreheads, the third eye.
At our kerosene and spice flavored campsite, our group joked and relaxed, including: "Chello Baba" (roughly translated as Let's Go, Holy Man), "No tension," and teaching us about the differences between biris and charis, as their eyes turned red from too much smoking. The hotel man took out his cell phone and we listened to a Shiva song and "Losing My Religion" by R.E.M. "My mother made the pickel," he said, serving us a spoonful with the rice and daal. "Achha cha."
Once again the Beatles came to mind, singing..."it's allright (instrumental humming)."
"We have a good group," I said to Kevin and Nate. Jokingly, Nate said, "no, just me." "No, not you," I joked back.
The days passed; my tent was faring well in the wind and rain, despite getting a six inch gash from an irritable goat. At Thakur Kuan, at the trailing edge of the wildflowers at 11,250 feet, was a campsite-cum-goat and sheep resting area, where surrounded by ungulates, my tent was highly vulnerable; overnight, the goat thrust its horn into the fly. Luckily I had my
"Optimists Repair Kit" which included replacement adhesive tent fabric.
Two days left: The trail crossed morainal sand dunes then turned left and sharply up the side of the valley. Up scree slopes, around wet rocks and loose stones, we climbed, sometimes on all fours, breathing heavily. Hours later, we reached Camp 1 at 14,000 feet, a rocky landscape with views of glacial valleys, sharp peaks, ice, and snow: at least until the fog and mist arrived, as usual, in the evening and morning.
A few hours until reaching the pass--we hike up smooth glaciers, over moraine and brown rocks, up slush-like snow. We felt the thin air with our quick breaths and slow walking. Nate and Kevin developed headaches. At the last glacier, Kevin and Nate walked hand-in-hand towards the pass. Struggling, Nate was the last one up the scree to the summit.
I walked a few feet down, took his hand, and we finished the journey to the top of the pass, where we sat behind sheltering chortens eating Snicker bars.