My weary legs were thankful for the rest. The steaming hot cup of tea in my hand seemed god sent. The day had come to an end after almost twelve hours of navigating through moraine fields, crunching glaciers and a terrifying descent from Hagshu La (C 5300 m). I bumped my head against wet rock as I tried to stretch, little remembering we were perched inside a small cave for the night that allowed only for horizontal stretching. Cold and damp, with a small bag full of Sattu hanging from the ceiling, this little cave was probably housed by shepherds not long ago.
Often enough, even the most seasoned trekkers are wary of Satya’s company, given his knack for doing the most unusual routes. So I should have known what I was in for when we decided to cross Hagshu La (a high pass in J & K connecting Zanskar with Kishtwar) – a pass that hadn’t been crossed by any outsiders in decades.
The evening before we had camped above the confluence of three glaciers. The central one would take us across Hagshu, the route clearly visible from our campsite. An estimate time of 6 hours was drawn to complete the march to our next campsite. A clear morning signaled a good day ahead and in high spirits, we ambled forward, descending to the glacier almost immediately. After the first few awkward, slippery steps, I found my footing and carefully treaded the glassy surface. Soon we had moved from ice to rocks. Moraine walking is no easy business. To my mind, an hour of such vertical zigzag is equivalent to two hours of surface walking. My hamstrings stretched, calf muscles contracted, arms went back and forth, no part of my body was excluded from the exercise. It didn’t help that I was a novice at the art and while everyone else hopped like goats, I looked like an amateur tight rope walker. Every few miles, the entourage would halt to take a breather and allow me to catch up. It was another story that since I was always ten minutes behind, the moment I reached, rest time was over and we plodded on. Each time we thought this was the last of them, another moraine rib stood benignly ahead. And this went on and on, until I was sure we had crossed at least 8. Six hours past and we were still threading our way to the main glacier leading to Hagshu La. In between, we crossed small glacial streams with water as clear as glass. The sun was well up in the sky and surface ice had begun to melt. Squish, squash, almost like walking on crushed ice drinks.
Eventually, we stepped on the main glacier. Our three enterprising porters went on ahead, looking also for a good spot to brew some tea. It had been like this since we began walking with them two days ago. Every couple of hours, sacks were lowered to the ground to enjoy a leisurely cup of tea. This was a first for me. Of course, everyone stopped to rest but never before had I witnessed porters picnicking in the middle of the hike. But I am glad they did and so did we. There is no rush here. Me? I was timing myself all through and was mighty pleased when we were able to stick to our schedule. In contrast, what schedule? The concept of time as something to be chased is nonexistent. And that’s the key. No one predetermines how much time it will take, they simply walk. All they know is that the destination has to be reached and by and by, they will arrive. But until then, they are happy to walk together, take the time to sip a cup of tea, look around, and just be. After all, this is why we come to the mountains, to just be, to take in the views and the wonders. And nowhere else is the journey equally rich as the destination as in the mountains.
To me, there is nothing kind in the name ‘Hagshu’. It churns an image of something akin to an ogre. Like a giant. And so it was, Hagshu La is no easy business. Hagshu La is well concealed and is revealed only when you stumble onto the marker cairns. I made the mistake of looking down from where I stood and almost immediately, my head went into a tizzy. To my right, a gigantic tongue of ice ran down nearly 500 meters and right below was white ice and to my left sweeping scree of loose and wet mud. All the ways leading down were sharp drops. I didn’t even want to imagine what it would be like to get down any of the ways. But in such activities, you reach a point of no return and this was that. It was a manifestation of all my fears and apprehensions and therefore a unique opportunity to face the demons within. The second time in this trip, I prayed fervently and to so many deities. One of them was sure to come to my rescue as I gingerly stepped on loose rock. Satya walked a step ahead of me, giving me confidence and helping me down. After 20 minutes of walking on jello knees, I found the needed rhythm and began to enjoy this slide and glide method of coming downhill. Eventually we made it to horizontal ground and I was still smiling. This was my triumph. Of course, it didn’t end here and we had to walk another hour to get to the cave, again while navigating slippery surface, but now I was seasoned.
As I finally took that first sip of tea, I couldn’t even begin to recount how many miles I had walked, on foot and in my mind to come this far.