We arrive at Bedni Bugyal, but only barely. Food, shelter and rest are in pitifully short supply. Add to that the prospect of two long, cold, terrifying nights at 11,000 feet.
An hour later, Bijoy comes up to us to beg a sip of water. I point wordlessly to the guide, perched high on the ridge looking down on us with disdain. Bijoy nods but strangely makes his way further down the slope. I am too fatigued mentally and physically to question him. A half-hour of hard climbing later, Sunita takes the bottle of water from Devidutt and holds it out to Bijoy who ignores us totally. Figuring he’d overcome whatever deficiency he had imagined himself to be suffering from, we continue. Bijoy passes us muttering incoherently.
Black clouds shroud the mountains. The air is now rich and damp and we breathe it in watermelon-sized slices. Not for the first time is my stomach reminding me that it is now lodged firmly against my backbone. Composted beneath a deep sift of wishful thinking are hot-cooked meals that will greet us in the welcoming structure that will serve as bed and kitchen at Bedni. Silently, we push on. Our tired bodies are working at full throttle. Light withdraws in great silence up the mountains. The sky is now very thick. A cold light drizzle pricks at us.
A thundercloud billows, rising ice crystals collide with falling hailstones. The hail strips electrons from the ice. The top of the cloud becomes predominantly positive and the bottom mostly negative. Now we have a “shadow”, or negative charges in the lower cloud that induce a positive region on the earth below. Static electricity builds, and a negative spark is launched from the lower cloud. But we know nothing of this, just yet.
Bijoy is struggling with his backpack heavy with photographic equipment. Satish from afar notices his unsteady step and backtracks to shoulder Bijoy’s load. Bijoy resists, then relents. Satish hands him my bird guide for safe-keeping. My weather-beaten field guide is what Bijoy refers to as the Gutenberg Bible – so full of annotations, observations and descriptions is it. It is also in a sad state of disrepair.
We stop to don rain gear. Regrettably, to save weight, I’d packed two cellophane-thin plastic sheets to serve as rain coats instead of the sturdy impermeable poncho that now sits safe and dry in my cupboard at home. The light-weights will just have to do. Freezing rain plates us in silver. I pass Sahastra instructing Bijoy to keep to the centre, not veer off the edge. Bijoy drifts in a fog of distraction trying to breathe the insubstantial air. Exertion has crimsoned his face and neck. I know he is hobbled by pain in his knee, but then, so are we to a certain extent. We must steer clear of danger. The way to steer clear of danger is not to be constrained by fear. But that’s impossible. There is no congenial company of pines to shade and protect you from the incessant rain and hail.
A wind picks up, rattling us like withered walnut leaves. The weather is devoid of both humour and dimension. It is a killer of a storm. We are battered by golf-ball-sized hail. Jagged, branched channels of lightning and upward sparks sprout like weeds from the ground. Upward and downward meet spreading in both directions, superheating air and creating shock waves that produce thunder. Devidutt walks hunching his shoulders against the weather’s onslaught. The stupid man hadn’t bargained for this. I hand him one of my plastic rain shields. A rain-drenched guide is no guide at all.
The sun has long exited the stage, falling behind black curtains of cloud. The sky is dark well before bedtime. Spooky mists emerge, and we walk into banks of fog. Now the whiteness is our darkness. We trip and stumble, unsure. Are we anywhere? Or nowhere? Should we have stayed back home? What is this place, so spare of sights and sounds? Then the fog darkens and fades to black. I’m right behind Bijoy when the book drops. Both Devidutt and I yell at him from barely two feet away. He passes on unconcerned. I pick up my precious book and hand it to Devidutt for safe-keeping. Bijoy is a light-hearted person with a passion for writing and music. Now it seems he is light-headed as well.
The god-awful gale is over. The ridge path turns steeply and we must climb. We trudge and climb and pant and pause and trudge uphill once more. The climb is torturous and not because of its gradient. In the far distance, blazing the trail, is Satish with his phosphorescent white sheet held aloft like some giant bird. He carries food with him and perhaps some water. An hour later I meet up with him reclining against the stark mountainside, waiting to offer us not a meal of sattu goo but a stop-gap salve of nuts and chikki. “I want to eat,” I cry to him, and he gently answers, “Not now, at the camp.” The trail is barely lit by post-storm light. A tide of darkness bides its time in the wings. Just before early night, the ‘camp’ is within sight. The distance we have covered is easily some fifteen kilometres.
We must steer clear of danger. The way to steer clear of danger is not to be constrained by fear. But that’s impossible. There is no congenial company of pines to shade and protect you from the incessant rain and hail.
Wet with cold, we huddle around Devidutt stoking the damnable fire which gives no heat. We are in a cattle shed; hay lies all around; the roof leaks, some rafters are missing. We are bent double to dodge the asphyxiating smoke. We remove socks and shoes and coats and hang them on our arms like well-trained anhingas.
“What about dinner,” goes my refrain, and Satish says, “In half an hour!” Doesn’t the man know that it takes half an hour to ready the dinner then another half hour in the pressure cooker and then another half hour to serve and eat… so I get up with insistence, secure Sunita’s aid and solicit help from Devidutt and we get the dinner going. Rice and dal and salt. Sunita pulls out ready-to-eat packets of rajma for a spare seasoning.
Unable to warm myself successfully, I bend my knees with my butt facing the fire and stoically sit in that quasi-yogic position until my rear is well done. After dinner, I switch my head lamp on to pick my way to our sleeping quarters but there is no need. The snow gleams a phosphorescent white. All our baggage has been dumped in a pentagonal structure with wooden slats raised above the ground that could serve as beds.
Alive at Bedni Bugyal – Rajeev, Sahastra, Sunita, Jennifer, Satish and Bijoy
There is another identical such hut, a little distance away and into this I move Sunita’s and my baggage. In this hut there are no ‘beds’, just some kind of wooden platform; but here we will be on our own. We sleep on the floor. The brick and mortar construction is walled with wood to shut the cold out. Sunita, always the one to lock up for the night, while I lie in bed, secures the door with a log of wood wedged across the two sides of the recess. She is halfway into the warmth of her sleeping bag when she corkscrews her neck and points to the wall behind, “I can see outside.” It’s true, in the brick and mortar there is an unsuccessfully walled-up hole. But that doesn’t occupy our uncontrollable thoughts scurrying like rats. What does is, “Would heaven help us if we should want to pee at night?”