Night was falling, and fast. One by one, the stars put on their lights against the wide canopy of a purple sky stretched out between the Himalayas. In other circumstances, I would have been standing rapt, rendered motionless by the breathtaking beauty of the moment. But it had been 8 hours 30 minutes and countless seconds since we had made our triumphant crossing of the Rupin pass, and exactly one hour since we decided to agree that we were lost. The stark beauty of the landscape with its swathes of ice over barren rock and the distant mountains standing guard seemed to close in forbiddingly as the shadows deepened. The rock shelter that we thought we had been heading towards for the past 8 hours, marked so unmistakably with a black dot on the map, was turning out to be as elusive as Shangri-la. I had trekked the weary miles up and down trails consisting of nothing more than slight cuts on sheer rock face, crossed a swollen river and nearly missed my footing and the sight of another day. I had faced it all with the anticipation of the trophy awaiting me at the end of the journey: a steaming hot cup of tea. And now here we were in a treeless valley with nameless mountains surrounding us, and a cup of tea had never seemed so unobtainable. Our provisions were running low and if we did not find our bearings soon, we could be in for a long night. After debating the relative risks of continuing our search in the dark and spending the night in the open, we decided to make camp right where we were. We had no tents, only sleeping bags with rudimentary rubber mats. The trek had never been planned for nights out in the open. The only comfort was in our numbers. We were a big group of twenty, and if there was no shelter at least there was company. But even that thought brought little cheer at the prospect of spending a night in the open at near zero degrees. I regretted having given in to my roommate’s pleas. “Come along, it’ll be exciting and fun!” Exciting and fun indeed! Now she was standing beside me looking even more dejected than I did. Not the right time for an exultant I told you so! I wished I had signed up for the “easy” trek, the kind where you plod along on picturesque trails with two guides, half a dozen hired donkeys and a village shelter to sleep in every night. But it was too late to think of that now. I sat down on a rock and rested my tired feet. I could feel a big juicy blister forming where my new boots rubbed the back of my right heel. Someone attempted to start a fire, which didn’t take off because the only twigs we could find were damp. Then we tried to construct a rudimentary shelter with the extra plastic sheets we’d brought along in case of rain, but they were flimsy and soon fell apart after a strong wind. We ate our dinner of chocolate bars and peanuts in silence, gloomy faces replacing the exuberant ones at the pass. Finally when it could no longer be put off we put on our windcheaters and laid out our sleeping bags close together. I looked up at the clear night sky glittering with stars like diamonds and marvelled at how near they seemed and how far they were, just like the rock shelter we never found. I could already feel the night dew turning to frost under my sleeping bag. I remembered the countless nights I’d plonked down into bed without a thought. I’d give anything for a warm bed and a roof over my head right now. Fatigue finally won over discomfort as I drifted off to sleep wondering what my mother would say when the news reached her that I’d frozen to death in the shadow of the Himalayas. In my state of dazed half-sleep I battled the unpleasant feeling of sliding down a slope peppered with icicles. Sooner than I had hoped, dawn broke into my uneasy dreams. I sat up at once, more relieved than anything to be alive. As I looked around, the sleepy heads of my trek mates popped up one by one, red nosed and bleary eyed. Everyone had survived the night.
E N Hanghal