It all started with a random text message. Harsh texted me expressing his craving (chull) of doing something crazy and out of the box since it had been a while we’d gone on a trip. I had been incubating this idea of a mountain trek for a while. We discussed this through and started looking for a trek offered in the Himalayas. Our first pick was Roopkund Trek, primarily because of the surreal landscapes we’d be able to witness on the journey. But then we agreed that given our inexperience and lack of acclimatization, we should begin with a much easier trek. So, after quite some deliberation, Hampta Pass Trek was finalized. Google was snooping, of course, so we started getting advertisements of trek operators for Hampta Pass on social media. We picked the first one we saw, checked out their reviews, and contacted them for the itinerary and other logistical details. Soon after, we paid them 50% advance and booked ourselves a trek. Embarking on an adventure like this one was particularly crazy back then owing to the fact that it was for the first time that both of us had decided to venture anywhere outside Rajasthan to travel and that too on an experience like a mountain trek. To those 18-year olds, this seemed like a big deal then.
Typically, the adventure should’ve begun after reaching the base camp, but destiny chose to take us for a ride. We took a train to Chandigarh from where we were supposed to board a bus to Manali. We reached Chandigarh early in the morning, but our bus was scheduled to depart 8 hrs from then, so we decided to wait at the bus stand itself. After a few hours of lazing around on the bus platform, I spotted a notice which said, “Jebkatron se saavdhan” (Beware of Pickpockets). Upon seeing that, I immediately reached out to my pockets, only to find my wallet missing. I freaked out! I frantically searched all of my pockets and my bag but couldn’t find it anywhere. Before the trip had even begun, I had lost my wallet containing all my IDs and Debit Card. Thankfully, Harsh and I had already strategically pooled our cash and divided it into two different pockets of our bags, safely hidden. We ran to the nearest Police Station to lodge an FIR for the missing wallet, as I’d have required that to get duplicate IDs issued. The trip started on an incredibly wrong foot.
We waited for another 3-4hrs before boarding our bus to Manali. Our stop was this quaint little village of Rumsu, 23km short of Manali. Now I have been to my fair share of amusement parks, but this Bus Journey to Manali was a ride of a lifetime. I was awestruck at the sheer virtuoso of our bus driver. He maneuvered the massive Volvo 9400 4×2 coach effortlessly all along those sharp curves and steep inclines. As soon as we began our ascent into the lower Himalayas, the show started. We swung right and left in the bus, enjoying the ultra-long joyride. Such was the fury of the bus ride, that apart from the usual stops to eat, the conductor arranged for a special ‘vomit’ stop where everyone who felt nauseated was asked to throw up outside. The ride was an experience of a lifetime.
Due to the congestion on the highway, our bus got delayed by a few hours, and we reached Rumsu at midnight. We were dropped on the main road at an extraordinarily underlit and scantily populated spot. We reluctantly deboarded the bus into the dark night and collected our luggage. The bus whizzed past us, leaving us in the dust of uncertainty. I called the contact number I had from the trek operator and apprised him of our position. He asked us to look for a cab nearby, but we couldn’t spot a vehicle around us. Suddenly, a man appeared from nowhere and asked us about our predicament. We told him that we needed a ride to the Rumsu Base Camp. He was suspiciously helpful and even offered to drop us to the base camp himself in a cab belonging to his brother. We were elated. He asked us to follow him to this dark alley where his brother’s taxi was parked. We unquestioningly began to follow him. He brisked ahead of us and kept talking. Suddenly, like a bolt of lightning, some sense got knocked into Harsh’s head, and he muttered that something was wrong. He asked me to stop. I, too, began taking hold of my senses and started looking for a torch in my bag. Suddenly, the guy turned and asked us what was wrong. Harsh insisted that we stay there, and he could go, get his cab to fetch us. He was hesitant and visibly opposed to the idea. Abruptly, it occurred to both us at once that this guy was a fraud and wanted to rob us, or probably something worse. We quickly turned back and ran to the main road where there were a few people to be seen. Just as about we hurried to reach safety, the guy disappeared. We panicked, and I frantically called the tour operator and asked him to come to fetch us urgently. He instructed us to wait there and told us that he was sending his guy down there to bring us. We impatiently waited until this faint ‘Dug-Dug’ pierced the silence, and a well-built guy rode to us and asked us if we were the ones he was asked to fetch. We were relieved at receiving some sort of faith from this dude. He quickly arranged for a cab for us, and a Mahindra Bolero drove us to the Rumsu Base Camp an hour post-midnight.
On reaching the camp, we were given two sleeping bags and were shown a room where we could spend the night. We dozed off in no time.
The next morning, I woke up next to no one. I saw Harsh hurling abuses at me for not waking up already. I lazily got up and made my way out of the room only to witness this chill atmosphere around. Like, both literally and figuratively. We quickly freshened up and made our way towards the common mess area to have our breakfast. While I was asleep, Harsh had already befriended a few guys who had returned from the trek a day before and a few who were supposed to leave that very day. Our actual departure was scheduled for the next day. However, since the group leaving the same day was quite small, we requested the trek operator to send us in a day early. He reluctantly agreed and asked us to pack our stuff quickly. We were supposed to leave in the next 15mins. We promptly unloaded some unnecessary things in their lockers and got dressed up to embark for the coveted trek.
We began the journey uphill in a Bolero with eight other people. The cab left us at the foothill from where our ascent began. Here we got introduced to our trek leader, who was nothing like what they showed in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. We looked at this lanky, not-at-all-glamorous 20-year old lad named Tinku. We had no trekking sticks, so we bought sticks cut out of tree branches for 50 bucks each. The adventure was about to begin.
We began walking into a pine forest with Tinku leading the way. The group was diverse. We instantly made friends with some of the elder ones as we were the youngest lads in the group. The walk was pretty easy, as there were no abrupt ascents or descents. Gradually, we began to enter the valley of Hampta Pass. We cleared the forest and entered into this vast space with a river flowing downhill, opposite our trail. This river was our only source of water throughout the trek. We strategically filled up our bottles at regular intervals to stay hydrated. The terrain of the trail gradually became undulating, and we were occasionally challenged to walk any further. However, it was not intolerable, and the entire hike uphill can be listed as accessible. After 4hrs of an uphill hike, we reached a shack selling Maggi and tea, which, according to Tinku, was the last shack of the trek. We sumptuously ate some Maggie and relished the tea. Here we met a few people who warned us about the way ahead. They told us that it had snowed the day before, and the pass is closed for passage. They advised us to return to our basecamp and try later in the week. Filled with hope, we asked Tinku if it could snow the next day, to which he responded, “Mountain hai, kuch bhi ho sakta hai” (Anything can happen in the mountains). That wasn’t the answer we were looking for. But we took his adage and almost contemporaneously decided that we weren’t returning until it’s impossible to go any further.
Post this; we walked for another 2 hrs to reach a roaring brook. Now to many of us, this was a roadblock. For Tinku, it was a cake-walk. And for Harsh, it was Showtime! He believed in Tinku when he casually asked him to walk through the torrential flow of water to the other side. And guess what, he made it. Next up was another dude from our group who fell and almost got carried away by the drifting water into death. Everything had now changed. It didn’t seem so easy anymore. We needed some support to go further (both moral and physical), and Tinku wasn’t one. So, like messiahs, 4 Punjabi dudes who’d decided to scale the pass on their own, came to our rescue. They fetched a rope out of nowhere and threw the other end towards Tinku for all of us to take its support to walk to the other side. We were way out of our comfort zones. And none had done anything like this before. Mustering all the courage and strength from within, we made it to the other end one person at a time.
Right on the other side of the brook was our campsite. Now, since we had paid these guys for everything, the tents, and the kitchen were already set up here. We were stationed at a hilltop amidst the clouds. The air around us started turning chilly. We had expected a bitter atmosphere, but this. This was glacial. We were shown our tents where we crashed for a while. It was our first night in a tent. Never before had we slept on a hard surface, away from home and in the middle of a goddamn glacier. It was extremely frigid outside, and we could feel it penetrating through the thick walls of the fluffy sleeping bags. And without the necessary acclimatization, we couldn’t sleep half the night.
Till sunset, we roamed around the hilltop exploring tiny waterfalls and fields of wildflowers. We were as close to nature as anyone could’ve been. We took some pictures here and there until we were called for dinner, which was unusually lavish for the mountains. After dinner, we were allowed to roam the hilltop at our own risk and convenience. As the dusk broke and the sky descended into darkness, we sank into our tents and slept early, ready to take on the mighty Hampta Pass the next day.
We got up early the next morning. It was like no morning I’d woken up before. I was in the middle of a vast valley and on top of a medium-sized hill. Horses and mules surrounded us. The air was still chilly. After grabbing my jacket and a lot of courage, I got outside my tent. I had never seen such a sight before. Some of our trek members were already up and about. I went to the kitchen tent to check out something to eat. The cook there had made some fantastic tea and gave us Puri and Aloo to eat for breakfast. We ate our heart’s content as we were not going to get anything to eat till the end of the day. We filled our tiffin with some stuff from the kitchen. By this time, four members from our party had taken the night to introspect and finally give up on the road further. This news was not particularly heartening as now it was just five of us left in the party who had to complete the trek. Regardless, we began our climb uphill. After an hour of hike, another member from our party who had spent the previous night roaming the hill in shorts and t-shirt boasting of his Delhi upbringing felt sick and had to be rushed down to the base camp. This was our 1st lesson. Don’t overestimate yourself, and certainly don’t underestimate the mountains.
The only problem now was that it was our trek guide Tinku who had to drop him to the basecamp. He asked us to keep walking at a slow pace by the time he goes and returns. He claimed that he could cover the distance we took 12hrs to cover in 3hrs and still make it in time. We didn’t question him. We, however, didn’t let this affect us and kept moving forward. The trail got increasingly difficult to climb with every step. So much so that I didn’t get a single opportunity to stop and take my camera out.
In contrast to the usual rocks and stones, we were now greeted with slippery boulders loaded with moss on them. After a tiresome 3hr hike, the inevitable happened. It began raining. Not to complain, but we were practically ‘in’ a cloud. That’s the least that could’ve happened. To turn matters worse, the raindrops turned into hail. For a while, we kept walking with our rain covers on. But after a point, it got incredibly arcane to walk any further, as the visibility had reduced drastically. So, we hunted for a cave around, and like cave dwellers took shelter under a huge boulder curved inward at the bottom. We sat there for about an hour and waited for the rain to subside.
When the rain gods gave us their permission, we began our hike upwards. Soon after, we saw our first fresh snow patch. The Rajasthanis inside us lost it and started jumping on the snow. Harsh almost tripped. You see, the only snow we’d seen was in cartoons. So, we had all these myths and notions about how it must really feel like. After spending our fair share of happiness looking and feeling the snow, we proceeded further. By this time, we were dead tired. My bag had become twice its weight, and the strap of the bag pierced its way into my shoulder. We could see our next campsite at a distance. Blue and red stood out from the omnipresent green and white. We vowed to continue until we reach our campsite as any delay in reaching there could have left us in the dark, both literally and figuratively. I could feel the metaphor turning into a reality. With a goal in our mind, we were courageously taking over the mountain ahead. Only persistence and determination were the key to reaching our camp safely. And suddenly, all those fancy quotes allegedly said by some famous men started making sense.
After hours of struggle and strangle, we finally approached our campsite. To date, I can’t forget the feeling I got looking at those tents appear larger and larger as I extended each step forward. My bag was twice as heavy, and my 4kg tripod was eight now. And my body felt energy-less. I just touched the tent as I came near and dropped dead to the ground. All of us were grounded. We had planned to feast on 2 cups of tea each on our way up, but we could barely get up from the ground.
And just as were we about to fall asleep, our trek leader Tinku appeared hurling compliments and congratulatory remarks on making it up to the campsite without a guide. He persuaded us to get out of our tent and head to the much ‘warmer’ tent of the kitchen for some hot piping Khichdi. We only heard the word “hot’ and followed him like rats to the Pied Piper. Every grain of rice and lentil felt heavenly. From that day onwards, I never took Khichdi for granted. We came out of the kitchen tent into a white mist of engulfment. We looked in both awe and horror at the surreal sight in front of us. We were in a fluffy cloud. A goddamn cloud. The fog was so dense that we could barely see our tents. Somehow, we managed to locate our shelters and got inside. It was freezing! I could feel my blood freeze. So, to battle seizure, all 4 of us, people of different age groups, and gender decided to sleep together in the same tent close to each other to conserve body heat. For that moment, principles of privacy and personal space were thrown out of the tent, and notions of survival took precedence. A female solo traveler from Pune, a middle-aged married man, and two barely adults all slept together close to each other. We slept almost instantly. And Day 2 was successfully completed. Battles won, and lessons learned, we had finally made it to the foothill of the Hampta top.
Tinku woke us all up in a sense of urgency. He practically pulled us out of the sleeping bag himself. He kept insisting that we leave early, as we had to cover the longest stretch of the trek in a single day. We had to climb the Hampta top – a snow-clad mountain top with a 45-55-degree uphill incline. Then we had to descend the Hampta top into the Spiti valley and reach our next campsite in the foothills of the Mt. Indrasan. All in a single day before dusk. We hurried and freshened up in no time. We skipped breakfast and packed up some rice for the journey ahead. We reached Balu ka Ghera almost right after we left our campsite. Balu translates to marshy sand, and Ghera is a circle. The place was flat marshy land, which we circumvented through the corners and made it to the feet of the Hampta top. The earth began turning snowy. Soon after, we found ourselves scaling the Hampta top on a trail totally engulfed by snow everywhere.
We were walking on the Hampta glacier, underneath which flew the river we had encountered on our way up. None of us had ever experienced anything like this before. We summoned all the vigor and endurance amongst us and kept walking up without the protection of any safety equipment. We were lucky that our gear was sufficient to tackle this kind of weather, except Harsh. He was wearing Basketball Shoes on a goddamn snow trek. Tinku wasn’t impressed by his shiny red and blue colored out of place shoes. He kept taunting Harsh every time he lost balance or slipped even slightly. It was too funny to watch them argue over it.
Now, we were walking in a single line on a sheet of snow underneath, which flowed a river. Suddenly, underneath the feet of one of our teammates, the ice broke, and she plummeted downwards. She was walking right in front of Harsh. He pounced forward to grab her hands before she went totally underneath the ice and into the flowing river. I felt my blood freeze. All 4 of us were scared out of our wits. Tinku rushed to the spot and kept building up our confidence to proceed further. We lashed at him for not being vigilant about the situation despite being the trek leader. He was supposed to ensure the safety of the party. He profusely apologized and encouraged us to keep moving forward. Whenever we encountered an obstacle, he would simply reassure us by shouting, “Arey kuch nahi hoga.” It was probably this confidence of his that had kept us moving forward, which also could’ve been the sole reason for our untimely death.
We now left the glacier behind and began walking on the face of the mountain. The incline felt like a 45-degree ascent, and it became tremendously tough to walk on it. To add to our difficulties, the trail that we had to follow became insanely thin. On the left side of this trail was a deep ditch leading to death or certainly a severe life setback, and the right side was a very steep cliff, leaving us the space of just one foot at a time. We kept walking at different paces. I accompanied Tinku in leading the way ahead. After a few hours of walking, we reached the Hampta Top. I was the 1st one to approach the top, while others came in one by one. The feeling was something else. For the first time in my life, I had climbed a mountain. A real one. In snow. I was ecstatic. I ran like a madman on the top. Hugged Harsh and thanked him for coming with me to this unprecedented expedition. Now he didn’t tell this to me until a few days ago, but as soon as he reached the top, he quietly sneaked out and looked for the absolute center of the summit and bent down to lick the snowy ground like an animal, just to feel accomplished. It sounds disgusting now, but I guess I’d have done the same had it occurred to me back then. 😛
We took a few victorious group pictures on the top and celebrated our success for barely 15 mins, till the time Tinku began pestering us to hurry up as we had an entire descent to make before dusk broke. We looked at each other blankly. We couldn’t believe that scaling the peak wasn’t just it. With heavy hearts, we began walking further. Well, I guess, that’s how life is too. There never is a final goal. Beyond every summit, lies another and another. It was the mountain giving us a slice of life at 14,600m above the sea level.
Now what we had thought would be a path similar to the one we had already scaled, turned out to be a deadly 80-degree downhill incline. It seemed impossible. Tinku proclaimed that we were leaving the Hampta valley behind and were now descending into the much more barren and dustier Spiti valley. We were staring at the deep ditch at every second step we took. A faint trail was crafted in the ground by the locals; given the dryness of the land, we had to be extremely careful while walking. Now it wasn’t much about our speed; it was merely about caution. We walked tenderly on the dusty and rocky mountain without knocking down any boulders on the rest of our teammates. The dust underneath our shoes was thin and thus slippery. Here came handy my prized Wildcraft shoes which held firmly on to the ground and saved me from slipping into oblivion. Harsh obviously struggled here as it wasn’t a concrete or wooden court he was walking on; this terrain was out of syllabus for his shoes. Tinku was sadistically taking a jibe at him at this point.
We carefully made our way downhill until we arrived at this massive patch of snow at a 45-degree downhill incline. There was no way of reaching the bottom of the mountain without walking on the snow and tripping hard only to roll over and turn into a ball of snow. So, Harsh joked about sliding our way down the snow patch as they did in cartoons. Well, it wasn’t a joke. That’s how we were supposed to go down. Tinku gestured us to follow him to the top edge of the snow patch and started giving us instructions as to how we were supposed to slide down. I gazed at the sight in front of me and zoned out instantly. Harsh, like usual, volunteered to go first. Tinku shouted his instructions at Harsh, almost as if he was physically trying to put the words inside his head, and then subtly pushed him downwards on the slide. We watched in horror as he slid on the snow towards the bottom of the humungous snow patch. I was next up. I held my camera bag close to my heart and laid down on the slight depression formed out of repeated sliding on the hard snow. I remember Tinku constantly instructing me not to let my legs touch the ground, cause if I did, I’ll somersault up and down into the massive ditch rendered broken in many ways I’d not want. I listened carefully and thanked my family and god for everything and left myself loose on the incline like a corpse. I slid ferociously downwards on the hard snow. That moment I realized a harsh truth about snow. It wasn’t soft. All the cartoons lied to me. I felt shard-like rocks piercing my bottom as I slid over them. It wasn’t rocks, it was settled and solidified snow hurting me in the bum. Harsh recalls seeing me descend like a dead body left loose on the cliff. I slid for about a minute and a half, which felt like forever and finally came to a halt near Harsh.
I couldn’t believe that I came down in a single piece. I tried pacifying my racing heartbeat while I saw the others slide down. And then came our warrior, Tinku. That dude came running down the same slide we’d laid down horizontally on. Using two sticks as ski sticks, he skied his way down to us in all possible swagger. We stood awestruck and could feel a sudden gush of respect formulating in hearts for this guy. While we were starstruck by this spectacle, Harsh was inspired. He decided to try this on his own. On a relatively smaller cliff, he used his stick to ski down. He was successful for the first 6 seconds, where we all were impressed by him and appreciated his bravura. The 7th second took everything away from him, and he came crashing down to our feet.
We then proceeded further deep into the valley towards the Shea Goru campsite. The trail forward was trying. Everything around us was a mix of dusty brown and white, a drastic shift from green and yellow. Huge boulders riddled our way. Everything was dry. Only life abundant in this barren land was in the tiny colorful wildflowers. We made our way crossing small lakes and snowy patches to our next campsite for a good, long 4 hours. We finally reached the campground, which was beautifully nestled in a wide patch of grass on the banks of a busy brook. It was refreshing. Behind us, we could see the mighty Mt. Indrasan towering over the slope of the broad valley. And in front of us, the valley widened further bordered by daunting peaks. We had a long day and were tremendously exhausted. I could see my knees shiver after carrying all that weight of my body. We picked a tent and threw ourselves on the sleeping mat. The thin foam mat seemed like a fluffy mattress.
I had hoarded the tripod on my fragile shoulders throughout the trek only to capture the Milky Way in the mountains at night. However, the days before this one had been overcast, leaving no space for me to peek at the stars beyond. The evening that day was clear. I was excited to shoot the milky way. But as the darkness approached, so did the clouds, out of nowhere, and it began raining cats and dogs. We were forced into our tents. The silver lining was that this was the first night we were not knocked out of fatigue. We were wide awake. Harsh and I shared a few thoughts that we’d been pondering over throughout the trek. We talked about life. The deep intricacies of it and how were simply lucky to be alive. It was textbook beautiful. I couldn’t have expected such a conversation out of Harsh under normal circumstances. And here I was talking to this happy-go-lucky clown about things I’d never talked about with anyone. This moment was probably the biggest takeaway from the trek. I felt like I leveled up.
The sound of the raindrops falling on the top of the tent felt like a lullaby driving us to sleep.
We woke up to a bright, sunny sky the next morning. Today, Tinku wasn’t after our lives to hurry up. It was a chill day. Lazily, we got out of our tents and strolled around our campsite for a while. Harsh excused himself from my company, claiming that he wanted to spend some time alone, and he walked off behind the rocks. I think we all know what he did there. Well, that’s the beauty of the mountains. No sharam and laaj, no peer pressure, and no regard for social constructions. In the mountains, it’s all about survival. Life gets to its very basics. We were lucky that we were being served food on a platter and didn’t have to go looking for it in the wild. Although, now I’d love to do the latter. We spent some time feasting on tea and breakfast, post which we took off to our next stop, the final campsite of Chhatru. It wasn’t far from there. Just 4-5hrs of the hike on relatively flatter land. But before that began, we had to cross this younger stretch of a tributary of Chenab. Now compared to what we did earlier, the flow wasn’t as ferocious. But the water was freezing, and as soon as I stepped into it, my feet froze and went numb. The water was knee-deep, so we had to open our shoes, curl up our pants above our knees, and carry all the weight on our shoulders to cross the river holding each other’s hands. It took us about 7-8mins to cross the entire stretch, and by the 2nd minute, I had stopped feeling my feet. I was just floating on the water. While crossing the river wasn’t much of a task, amassing all the courage in the world to do it with my camera equipment was something I immensely credit myself with.
After crossing the river, we began our stride towards Chhatru. The trail up to Chhatru was moderately severe. The only point where we got frightened was this one dangling ledge of snow that protruded out of the foothill adjacent. The cliff of snow hung without foundation. Below it, flowed a tributary of Chenab and the cliff just hung from the side of the mountain. We could see that from a distance away from it. And mind you, the memory of our team member going down under the snow was afresh in our minds. You slip, you die. You put too much pressure on the ground, you plummet into the river. You don’t go forward, then good luck surviving in the barren valley living as a hermit.
We gathered all the courage we could and simply followed Tinku leading us. And suddenly Harsh noticed the sheep footmarks on the snow and remarked that if sheep could do it, we were friggin humans. Scared but humans. Well, that surprisingly reinforced us to reach the other end of the cliff alive.
We reached Chatru campsite within 3hrs of our departure from Shea Goru, way before time. I guess we were a tad bit more accustomed to the mountains at the end of Day 5. The campsite was cradled on the banks of the river Chenab, next to the highway connecting Manali and Keylong. We were greeted by our teammate, who had decided to return on the 2nd day. He was brought to Chhatru to join us on our way to Chandratal, which was specially arranged by the trek operator. We dumped our stuff in our tents and ate a lavish meal at the campsite.
We boarded a 1998 model non-power steering Tata Sumo to head for Chandrataal, which was some 45km from our campsite. It took us about two and a half hours of a bone-shaking ride to reach there. I remember sitting in the front and witnessing the marvelous handling of our driver. He effortlessly cruised the SUV on those obtuse turns without the aid of a power steering. People down here in the plains can’t drive on regular roads without a power steering, and here was this guy rotating the wheel like a roulette dealer on often incoming 360-degree curves. We encountered a stray Wagon-R on our way up. How it got till that point surprised me the most. I couldn’t see any other car than a 4-wheel drive surviving on that topographical kaleidoscope.
We drove on cliff edges, waterfalls running across the road, broad and dusty fields, and legit stones to reach the heavenly lake of Chandrataal. Like many other sublime manifestations of nature in India, Chandrataal too boasted of a legend. It is fabled that in Mahabharata, Lord Indra picked up Yudhishtra from this very point to take him away to heaven. Well, unlike Yudhishtra, I didn’t feel the need to go beyond, this very lake was heaven to me. Our cab left us a km away from Chandrataal as there was no road further. We quickly covered the distance as we had little time to thoroughly soak in the place cause we had to hurry to head back before sunset.
This was the exact moment I had saved my camera battery for. I ran on a shutter frenzy even before I saw the lake in front of my eyes. I ran ahead, pressing the shutter and pointing my camera in every direction. And then, in the viewfinder, I saw the color Aqua. A color I had never exposed my naked eyes to. It was right there in front of me—the mystical lake of Chandrataal. With mountains holding guard on one end and a wide valley saluting at the other, the lake laid nestled in the center. It was calm. The wind created ripples in the colorful water. I could see layers of a diverse palette of colors beneath the celestial water. Yellow towards the sand, gradually merging into Aqua a little away from the shore and subtly mixing midway into the dark blue reflection of the sky. The place had a divine vibe to it. There were people around, but none of them mattered. It was just me with the lake.
Unfortunately, we had little time at our disposal, and like a wailing siren came Tinku to take us back to the cab. I waved the beautiful scape goodbye with a promise to return soon.
That night was my night. The sky was clear, and the surroundings extremely dark. I had 2 bars of battery left in my camera. I didn’t sleep throughout the night and waited till midnight. Harsh had slept early that night. I was on my own. I grabbed my camera bag and my tripod and strolled off nearby looking for a clearing away from the tent lights using my flashlight. I could see a faint cluster of stars in front of me right behind those snowy peaks. I figured it was the milky way. It was my 2nd attempt at Milky Way Photography, the first one being partially successful. Next to me, roaring was the mighty Chenab. It was scary. It was pitch dark and river made a deafening noise. I could barely see my camera kept right in front of me. I had a torch at my disposal, so I spread it across to have a look at my surroundings for a subject. The torchlight lit up the brown water flowing viciously over the white and yellow stones smoothened by the constant weathering.
I ran a test shot towards the direction I saw the stars. The screen went blank, and the shutter opened itself, exposing the sensor to the world around me for a good 25 seconds. The sensor in the next 25 seconds gathered all the light it could around itself. Bling! Came the screen on. I saw in front of myself a brightly lit sky riddled with stars of various luminosities and colors. This was my first tryst with the mysterious milky way. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Everything in the foreground was dark. And the stars shone brighter than ever. It was unreal. It was the very moment that I witnessed Milky Way first hand. (Well, only get myself subjected to, “Ye edited/photoshopped hai kya” and “yr aisa thodi dikhta hai aasman” later) Now that I had located the milky way, it was time to play with the foreground and place a subject.
I looked hard around myself, hoping to find something interesting. Then it occurred to me, why not a self-portrait. I could be the subject myself. But the only issue was that I had to lighten up my subject using the torch externally. So, I ran towards the tents hoping to find someone awake. I did. Manas bhaiya was awake. I told him everything I knew about the milky way and how to shoot it. He got excited and followed me to the location. It took me about 10-12 minutes to find where I had placed my camera. After I found it I manually set up all the details and the exposure settings and, explained to him the entire process of pressing the shutter and pointing the flashlight towards me for the shot. He did precisely that, and voila, came out my flagship shot. A shot I’d cherish till the day I die—my first interaction with the Milky Way.
After this one, my unsatisfied ass kept on shooting various other frames with the Milky way gracing the background until the batteries finally dried out. After shooting for good 2-hrs in the darkness, I returned to my tent and sank in my sleeping bag to call it a night and a mission duly accomplished!
The next morning, we got up to leave for Manali as the adventure had officially ended. We boarded the same Tata Sumo and prepared for an uncomfortable and a bumpy ride ahead. We bade goodbye to the mountains and thanked them for being so generous and considerate to us. I would be lying if I said I was unhappy. I was thrilled. I had spent the last six days watching the same faces continuously without spotting a single different soul around. My urban conditioning provoked me to interact with newer people every day. Both Harsh and I had legitimately become sick of each other and just wanted to go back home. We had spent an entire week without a phone: no calls, no texts, no status updates, and no music. Our screen time for the past 1 week was 0. We had been entirely off the radar; deep into the mountains where no one cared about our lives. It was beautiful and yet different. Ideally, I’d love to do that again. But my mind and body withdrew from the instant deprivation. I could feel my craving for getting sucked back into the same old world again. It was a weird dilemma. I didn’t know the answer to it then, but now, I guess, I do.
We played a variety of music on our way back to Manali experiencing each other’s music taste. Chatted endlessly about our personal lives. Manas bhaiya told us about his college love story and Harsh, and I discussed about our career plans. I had just gotten notified about my admission NUJS right after I had switched my phone on. Together we shared happiness, just like we shared all the pain back in the valley. We had become a family. Standing up for each other in times of need and laughing at each other’s eccentricities in times of joy. I look back at these memories, and I wish to go back, back into the world of uncertainties and the no-bullshit life. Only playing with the various elements of nature to feel alive. I had left Hampta Pass behind, but a large part of it was still inside me. Tinku was right. Mountain hai, kuch bhi ho sakta hai.
Bahot kuch ho gaya tha!
Jaane anjaane mai ek anokha sa pyaar ho gaya tha.
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