It was cold outside when we left the dhaba whose warm interiors compensated for the foul, musty odor. D insisted we leave at 5 am because his friend, whose vehicle we were hiring, had to ferry it back to Bageshwar in the morning. I was happy to have bought the thermals, the feather jacket and the woollen skull cap the previous evening. The owner of the dhaba, who wore a gruff, battle hardened demeanour that could have walked out of any grimy old western, thumped two big glasses of tea for us before he went to attend to the day’s business of chopping meat and onions for the food he had to prepare for his patrons.
A talkative, amiable Panditji (a priest) who lived in one of the villages on the Pindari route joined us on the trek. He appeared to be well acquainted with D and when he came to know of our misfortunes of the previous day, he gave D an earful for not ringing the bells and paying his respects to the shrine of a Himalayan deity on the way. As soon as we reached the location of the deity where a small stone idol of a fiery goddess was hidden away inside a rocky niche, Panditji fished out a bell and performed an elaborate ritual chanting mantras and singing hymns. After this, he plastered a large patch of vermillion on my forehead with his thumb and asked me to put in some money.
I laughed and said, “No, thank you. I don’t believe in all this.”
Panditji gave me a fiery stare that may have made the most fearsome creatures tremble with fear and said, “What do you mean you don’t believe? This is why you weren’t allowed to walk in these mountains. You have to take the permission of the goddess to do anything here. This is her territory. If you don’t, you’ll have to repent for it. So be sensible and give her an offering.”
“But what if someone else takes the money?”, I said.
“These are the Himalayas. No one would dare to take the money you keep here. It’ll only go to the goddess. Anyone who steals her money will only go to hell.”
D pulled me aside and whispered in my ear to put in some money so we could move on. I obeyed quietly and the moment the 100 Rs. note reached the shrine of the goddess, Panditji’s demeanour returned to its default mode of gentle affability.
After this ritual, Panditji and D abandoned the clear trail in front of us and took a perilous short cut that cut down to a stream. When we crossed a wobbly log bridge to clamber on to a rock on the other side, I noted that there was no discernible path visible beyond. Panditji and D were quietly sitting on a large boulder smoking a round of bidis. I asked D how we were to proceed ahead. He asked me to calm down, relax for 5 minutes and take a few puffs of the bidis.
“This is your trial by fire”, he said, once the 5 minutes were up. Pointing at a nearly vertical, mossy, rocky section hanging above us, he calmly informed me that we had to clamber over it. The very sight of it made me dizzy and nauseous with vertigo. I had never done any rock climbing in my life because I have always been petrified of height and while this was technically more of a clamber up mighty boulders than climbing up a vertical precipice, it still made me shiver with fright. I asked D if we could continue on the easier trail we had abandoned.
D looked at me and said, “This is going to save us an hour of walking. These are our mountains. You have to trust them and the people who take you. Like I said, this is your trial by fire. If you do this, I will believe you can do this trek. If not, there’s no point in hiring me to take you. You don’t come to the mountains to walk on roads, you come for the hardship and the adventure.”
Panditji decided he had enough and went ahead. Watching him climb the hillside with reptilian agility made me feel a bit embarrassed. I did not want come across as a coward and so I began scrambling up. Every time I slipped a little, D was up on a boulder above to lend me a helping hand. Halfway into the climb, I was thoroughly exhausted and gasping for air. When I looked down, in complete defiance of D’s advice NOT to look down, I felt even worse. The wooden log bridge that we crossed just a few minutes ago looked like a little twig far down below. I’m fatalistic on the best of days but here I had resigned myself to my fate. But D’s encouraging words spurred me on and when I finished my clumsy fearful scramble to the top, I felt as if I had climbed Mount Everest.
D appeared happier than I was when he saw that I had negotiated this stretch without any debilitating injuries. “Now that you’ve done this”, he said, “nothing on this trek will be difficult for you.” I told him that I sincerely hoped he was right because I felt as if all the energy in my body had been sucked out with the climb.
The route ahead was mercifully on a gentler incline and the landscape became gradually more ethereal. We walked through large verdant meadows, thick oak forests and misty alpine highlands. Soon, the sun became obscured by a bank of clouds that shrouded us in a blanket of white wrapping the trees and the hills in ghostly shades of grey. We took shelter inside a little hut made of stone and covered with a perfunctory plastic tarp where an old man made us tea while we waited out a sudden hailstorm that battered us.
After we resumed walking, the trail became significantly more brutal as we neared the Dhakuri pass where the steep climb through grassy slopes and jungly paths sliding through chestnut and oak forests was complicated further by the slippery terrain occasioned by the rain. While crossing another grassy hillside, we passed the grave of Peter Kost, a German trekker who suffered a cardiac arrest at the spot in 2000, a poignant reminder that not all walks in the mountains ended happily.
As I slipped and slid up to the vast, highland meadows at Dhakuri, I was greeted by a ginormous view of the Nanda Devi range hanging in the distance above and beyond the KMVN Tourist Rest House. It was the first time I had seen the Himalayas so close and all the pain and effort I had to put in to get here melted away. We rested at the Dhakuri Rest House for an hour, getting a meal of dal, roti, vegetables and numerous cups of tea and then resumed our journey to Khati.