Our Great Himalayan National Park trek plan gets altered, as the path to Ghumtarao is snowed out. We end up doing local excursions at Dhel Thatch on day four and five, trying to spot some wildlife, and enjoying the fauna and the Himalayan sun.
Days Four and Five: Rest days at Dhel Thatch
We are up before sunrise. It had dropped below zero at night again and the grass is crunchier underfoot here than it was at Humkhani thanks to thicker frost at higher altitudes. Thin, transparent layers of frost cover every blade of grass. The plan is to go spot some mammals grazing in the meadows, but by the time Andy and Arun and I are done with our squatting in the bushes, it is already quite late. Beej is not happy (actually he pretty nearly busts an artery expressing his angst) and wants us up earlier if we need to finish our morning business before we go on these strolls. As we start off from the camp, Arun points out some fresh fox scat near the tents – looks like someone has been snooping around in the night.
By the time we reach the top of the meadow above the hut, it is already past seven and we see absolutely no mammalian life. We wander around, seeing some bird life, but that is no consolation for we were expecting goral, bharal (mountain goats and sheep, respectively) or bears (brown and black) that are common in these parts. A Eurasian cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) sits atop a high tree and utters intermittent calls similar to the old cuckoo clock. This point, Charan tells us, is called Jogni and there are tiny makeshift shrines around, with all kinds of offerings strewn around — bangles, muddied tenners lying exposed to the elements since time immemorial, pieces of silk, and scrap metal. From that lofty ridge, if you look north and north-east, you find a formidable wall of snow-capped peaks. In any other direction you glance, all we see are layers after layers after layers of mountains.
Charan is off to ascertain if the path ahead is passable. The route to Ghumtarao is a 3-km-long, one-foot-wide (!) ledge above a 200 m drop. This is supposed to be the toughest stretch of the whole trek, but offers a magnificent (if gut-clenching) view as we transition between two valleys. The day stays glorious, and the warm sun has rendered the frost to melt and we slip and slide on our way uphill. There are amazingly colorful flowers – and the higher we go, the more striking they become. We roam around photographing for a while and come back to the camp and sit in the sun. To rest in the shade was like sitting inside a refrigerator. Today’s ration of nutribars is orange flavoured – tastes like eating cream cake icing raw on an empty stomach. Yech. Slowly we doze off, one by one.
We wake up to have more sattu, and watch as Charan come downhill after his recon mission. He looks at us and shows the “dead ball” sign as a cricket umpire might gesture. “Thick snow ahead on the ledge; the pass won’t be open for another month and half,” he mutters. “For the last three years, the path was open in summer. This time we have had too much of snow in the winter.” We sit around a fire deliberating this turn of events; we must come up with an alternate plan.
The options: We could trek back the way we came, or climb down to another village – Lapa – and leave for Kullu or Manali via Neuli and spend time there. Finally, after a lot of deliberation, we chart the plan ahead thus:
Day 5 – Another day at Dhel, to start early and try and see some wildlife.
Day 6 – Trek down to Lapa
Day 7 – Trek from Lapa to Neuli
Day 8 – Rest at Neuli
Day 9 – Bus to Kullu and do some shopping.
The sun is dipping and we can smell dinner getting ready.
Dinner is served soon – similar stuff as on the days before, but it is funny that I don’t find it monotonous yet. We stand around the fire and narrate horror stories and exchange book reviews. That is one thing I love about this gang. All are voracious readers, and every time we meet, we get to hear about good reading material. And when it is dark, we all settle into our cozy sleeping bags.
I wake up to Sahastra’s voice at 4:00 am and find that it is decently bright already. Sahastra is already done squatting and Beej is walking back from the bushes already. We make an early start to Jogni, seeing the orange glow behind the snowcaps, but our fortunes are still the same. The whole Jogni area lay empty. A mile away, a Himalayan Monal (Lophophorus impejanus) glides downhill with wings spread open. We notice that even crows here glide as eagles and kites do at lower altitudes. Beej and I walk in one direction while the others try their luck elsewhere.
I pause to photograph rosefinches, and I hear Beej shout from ahead, “Musk deer!” By the time I clamber up to his vantage, there is no trace of musk or deer. Beej is disappointed that he couldn’t share the exhilaration of seeing a critically endangered mammal with anyone else. We come down much later, having seen a few other birds, and spend the rest of the day lying under the oaks, cribbing about life and work and sharing reviews about good books and movies.
I ask everyone “What do you miss the most here?”
Sahastra says, “Hot rajma and rice!”
Beej says, “A hot bath.”
Andy says, “Ice cream” and winks.
No response from Arun, who is fast asleep.
All look at me to know what I miss the most. I muttered “My toilet seat”.
At around four, I and Arun see a couple of crows glide past overhead. The cry, though, is much less harsh. We quickly pick up our binoculars and find that the bills are yellow – which makes the bird a Yellow-billed chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus). We climb up Jogni once more, and get some ‘record’ shots of each other in the evening light.
We look down at Lapa from Jogni. It is at the foot of the adjoining hill. We can make out the shapes of a few buildings with our binoculars. It promises to be a steep descent.
Later in the night, we hear a fox bark from very close to the tent. But the thought of coming out and shining the flashlight into the pitch-black wilderness is quite unappealing compared to the comforts of the sleeping bag. No one bothers, fox or no fox.
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