On the occassion of my driving up my second 14k feet peak at Mt. Evans in Colorado, I felt it only appropriate to complete the story of my first 14k peak - a story from more than thirteen months ago, but one that remains fresh in memory like it happened yesterday. Part III of that story can be found here, and Parts I and II are linked from Part III, so let me not make this a link-fest. All that said, here goes...
We were still catching out breath in the trekker's shelter at Dronagiri, ready to settle in for a night in a solid structure after two nights in a canvas tent, when our still-active treak leaders informed us that it would probably not be the best idea to sleep in that shelter for the night. We had abandoned our sleeping bags, tents and any other item that could provide us warmth at the base camp. We would freeze through the night if we tried sleeping in our jackets, in that non-insulated building on a concrete floor. Seeing as there was no arguing with that logic, the next natural question then was "Where then?".
The answer - in the stables of the kindly old man who had lent us the mules for the trip. And thus the 14 of us piled into the 'upper floor' of his house, if it could be called that, in an area of approximately 10 feet by 8 feet, and were greeted by the heavenliest item that we could hope to find after three wet, shivering days in snow - a little wood fire burning merrily in the center of the room. At that moment, we realized what the first man who managed to make fire felt like. Short of jumping into the fire itself, we managed to dry ourselves off, and crept down into the stables, which was basically a hole cut into the mountainside. In another display of optimal packing (and reduced sensitivity to smells) we drifted off while overhearing the locals tell our guides about how the mandir doob gaya. They were of course, talking about this, but we had no idea at the time.
The next day - June 18th dawned bright and sunny, almost in mocking contrast to the misery of the previous three. And we slowly started to piece together the true scale of the destruction that had actually happened over the past three days. While we had been snowed in for 48 hours, the parallel mountain range had been practically wiped out in a series of cloudeburst-flooding-landslide events. This also explained the strange looks we had got from the locals the previous night. "You were the ones that were stuck in the snow?, they asked. "We didn't expect you back". The true nature of what we had survived was just beginning to sink in.
We didn't start our descent to Jumma as planned on the day, because the landlides had wiped out our original route. So while the guides explored other routed down the mountain, we pottered about with the locals, learning card tricks and eating raw potato with this simply amazing concoction that we ended up calling Dronagiri Masala. After another night of drying out shoes, socks, gloves and hats, as well as generally returning to a state of wholesomeness under the completely inviting hospitality of people who themselves did not have much to begin with, we were told that we were ready to go the next day. There was a path down - it would involves a few points of inching along on a ledge about a foot wide, and a few points of jumping across 'minor' chasms, but there was a path. Of course we were gonna go for it.
|Not that we jumped across that. We just weren't photgraphing cliff-hanger moments|
Apart from the mild acrobatics, which again we megotiated quite succesfully for a group of novices, the rest of the descent went by without much drama (relatively, of course). The thing with the descent is that it is much harder on the knees, since you are constantly landing on the knees to 'brake' so that you don't go too fast. However, those nuanced fitness reasons were far from our mind as we took all the assistance that gravity provided us to quicken out pace. We reached Ruing, the point of our first stop when we were climbing by mid-day, and took a little breather. We were finally back in reasonable weather and got our first chance to evaluate the condition of mind and body. Satisfied that they were all fine, we continued our half-walk, half-stumble back down to the roaring Dhauliganga, which was certainly fuller and faster now than we remembered it going up.
|Bridge. River. Kwai etc. Also you can see 'Jumma', the bus stop|
After succesfully negotiating this last bridge and the last climb, we reached Jumma, the point till which we had previously had mechanized transport. However, the landslides had meant that there was now a portion of the road almost exactly halfway to Joshimath, that had been rendered non-motorable, hence leaving us with a three-part journey. The first, piled into the back of an open-top convertible as shown below, then on foot across the parts where the road had been damaged, and back on to our original Maxis to head back to Joshimath. And life. In all, an entirely fun journey. And one not complete without a callout to the Border Roads Organisation, who were already at work clearing up the roadway and waited on their dynamite while we trundled across their work zone, calling for us to 'watch the rocks'. A salute, to the BRO.
|Our open-top convertible|
The rest of the story is really about getting back to civilization - first at Joshimath and then to Delhi. Once again, the scale of the event that had just happened in the area was evident only at Joshimath, with stranded tourists, rescue helicopters and incessant army movement. We were asked to get down the mountains as quickly as we possible could, and we once again passed the mighty Alakananda on our way down. Only this time it was a lot closer to the buildings than we remembered it.
|That, is a river in spate.|
Epiphanies are pretty easy to have up in mountains with the deathly silence broken only by the rumblings of a breaking glacier. But they also arrive on a highway alongside a raging river, when you realize for all of humankind's advancement, there really isn't much to do when nature really turns it on. Except watch in awe. And hope.