I never really knew what to expect going to India. The media mostly tells you what you think you know and then you get there and it’s nothing like you imagined it to be. It’s in your face yet you have space at the same time. Delhi is a place of great contrasts – from the poorest people living in the slums to the mega rich driving around in fancy cars. It’s a place of suffocation, yet a place you feel compelled to see. We leave Delhi during the night and arrive in Manali, a small town in the Himalayas the following morning. It is the breath of fresh air we need. High snow covered peaks for as far as the eye can see, a smile comes over my face, this is what we’d come for.
Our plan is to hike across the 4100m high Hampta Pass and arrive in the Spiti Valley in a few days time. Leaving behind a world of knowns we head off into the relative unknown, four friends, and a map from 1976 as our only means of navigation. It is a feeling of excitement and nervousness at the same time. The season is becoming late, and soon enough the winter snows would arrive, burying with it any trace of a trail and making the high pass almost impossible to cross.
This is the himalayas and the altitude here is real. It gives way to sleepless nights, shallow breathing and sometimes painful headaches, yet it beckons you with arms wide open, like a magnet pulling you to reach the next high point for those truly amazing views. The trail is faint and disappears out of sight almost without warning. We cross the herders fields and come across a shepherd carrying a baby lamb. His huge grin reminds me of the friendliness of the people here and although we can’t understand each other, all it takes is a smile to reinforce that unspoken bond between complete strangers when in the mountains.
We reach our high point just before midday and the intense sun gives me a headache. At 4100m we are as high as most of the highest summits in the Alps, yet the peaks still tower above us. It is a moment of clarity and one that makes you realise how small we really are. Looking out into the next valley it’s a stark contrast to where we’ve just come from. The green trees and grassy meadows are no longer there and we’ve entered into a barren, desert like landscape. It’s alien and one where not much life can sustain itself. Here we meet a mountain dog we call Rex. He is shy, yet gives off a guardian angel aura as he never goes in front of us, always trailing behind making sure that we are ok.
The river snakes its way through the valley and we follow it, like a road leading us to our next destination. After 2 hours we lose the trail. The once open fields are now huge rock walls that are almost impassable without a rope. We have no choice but to go back and find a way to cross the river. Fatigue has crept in and the extra energy to go back up the valley plays on all our minds. We search for 15 minutes for a place to cross the river, it is still running fast but it’s our only option. We are in a dangerous situation, yet it feels much better to cross here than back track for 2 hours to the safety of the small flowing stream.
We take off our boots and the cold water sends shivers through me as I first put my feet in. The current tries to drag my legs from under me and the cold water is numbing to my skin. I take my bag across and come back for Dani. She is small and has a real danger of being swept away without help getting across. By now my legs are turning red from the cold water and I grip Dani’s hand to guide her across the fast flowing rapid. She puts her feet into the water and it immediately comes up over her knees. The water pulls at her relentlessly, trying to take her from my grip. She slips on a rock, falling in waist deep. I pull her out and we make it to the other side, cold and shaken. The river commands respect and we curse ourselves for being so stupid.
We look back across the river and there is Rex. He looks at us with his big eyes and a sadness comes over us as we have to say goodbye. We put our boots back on and as we are about to leave, Rex starts to cross the river. He leaps across to a small rock in the centre of the river but his back legs fall short and they drag in the water. The current is strong and we all yell out to him as if he is a friend, encouraging him to fight to stay on the rock. His front legs shake violently as he manages to pull himself onto the rock. He still has a big rapid to cross and he crouches down on the rock, like a lion ready to take its prey. His eyes connect with ours and he takes one big leap across to the safety of the other side. He shakes off the water from his coat and walks to the trail as if nothing has happened.
We make it to the road and to the small village of Chattru at 3400m. We look back and Rex has disappeared – no where to be seen. Our guardian angel has delivered us to our destination, leaving us without even a goodbye. The sun dips below the mountain peaks and the sky lights up with different shades of red and orange, like fire in the sky. We stay with a local family and the man cooks the best Indian Thali I’ve ever eaten. He gives us the family storage room to sleep in and after freezing in the tent, we are happy to have some warm shelter for the night.
The following day we bump along the dusty road after hitching a ride with a local truck driver. He pulls out a cigarette from his pocket and begins to puff away as the road plunges down to the valley below. I get nervous looking down at the huge drop offs and wonder if we will get home safely. It’s a trip I’ll never forget.