Conquering the spectacular heights of Kashmir’s trekking paradise

May 18, 2023
Source: Supplied.

As well as the idyllic lake, Kashmir in India is also a very popular trekking destination, and in 1985 my friend Gulam and I completed a seven-day hike through what had to be some of the world’s most incredible scenery.

We came very close to glaciers and transcended the tree line into the realm of the clouds. It was a tremendous, breathtaking, and at times heart-stopping experience – a first and last for me!

Before we embarked upon this venture, I was asked to prepare a list of provisions for purchase, to which it was suggested that I add chicken. Without giving it much thought, I naïvely supposed that they had in mind chicken from a supermarket freezer, little did I imagine that we would carry them live.

The first night we made camp, our guide-cum-‘chef’, Mohammed, prepared dinner in the cook tent with one of the birds perched on a saddle outside the flap! Not having had much experience with hens, I was surprised that they did not wander from the campsite.

Obviously, any fresh meat that we carried had to be eaten first so the chickens were the last to go; imagine how I felt after them having been our travelling companions for three days.

At least Mohammed had the sensitivity to kill them whilst I was absent; I returned to be confronted with just a pile of feathers! Maybe because of the trauma of the trip, and even though Mohammed had a pressure cooker, they were tough.

Although, considering our surroundings, the meals were surprisingly good, and on two occasions when we finished early we even had hot drop-scones for afternoon tea.

Along with the pack ponies, Gulam had hired one for me to ride, but feeling more secure on my own two feet I declined to do so. These incredibly sturdy little animals can carry fantastic loads up impossible inclines, but even so, one had to be rescued when it became wedged between two enormous boulders.

As we attained higher altitudes, and because he was aware of my fear, Mohammed took great delight in pointing out where even these sure-footed beasts of burden had slipped and fallen to their deaths over precipices. There was no path, only the occasional track made by wild goats.

On the first day, because the arranged ponies were late in arriving, we had a delayed start that necessitated extra time for the distance to be covered. By the end of a few hours, my feet had blisters and I was ready to mount a horse, but because I had initially refused, the ponyboy had gone well ahead – and there he remained all day.

However, the river crossings we made were so cold that afterwards, I could not feel my numbed feet anyway! On lower slopes, amongst the first things we encountered were men leading laden ponies, and a flock of vultures appearing to dance as they hopped with outspread wings across a grassy stretch.

Altogether, I was told that we climbed to almost 17,000 feet or nearly two-thirds the height of Everest, but in retrospect, I doubt it was higher than 12,000.

Nevertheless, coming from a part of the world that is almost totally flat, I am afraid fear got the better of me and I am not ashamed to admit that I was reduced to tears on about five occasions. At times, the trek involved some perpendicular climbing over loose rocks without so much as a clump of grass to break a fall.

For someone apprehensive about ascending higher than the second rung of a ladder, it was like walking a 12-inch parapet on top of the world’s tallest building. Normally, one is advised not to look down, but in these situations, I could not even look up because there seemed to be no end in sight

Terrified that I would never make it, I just concentrated on carefully watching where I planted my foot at each step. One section was comprised of huge tumbled boulders from a previous landslide, between which it was impossible to see the bottom, so far below was it. Here, Mohammed related how on one occasion coming face to face with a bear he had nowhere to turn.

Although it was the end of the summer season, crests were still sheathed in snow; we were very lucky with the weather, had it rained conditions would have been extremely dangerous. As it was, on nearing the top of the first pass it started to hail, which stung and blew straight into our faces so that it was difficult to see.

On reaching the top it started to snow, so because of the risk of dying of exposure by remaining up there, Mohammed instructed me to place my arms around his neck and he literally dragged me, slipping and sliding, off the summit. Being aware of the perilous terrain on the ascent, fortunately, I could not see the ground over which I was hauled! It was bitterly cold, and all I was wearing on top was a T-shirt.

At one stage, we sheltered overnight in one of a group of gypsy houses, which they vacate for the winter months, taking their livestock, goods and chattels to the low country. These were communal homes used by many families in their semi-nomadic lifestyle.

They were built into the sides of mountains and constructed of clay and logs (even though we were well above the tree line), the roof thatched with grass. When planning my villa home, I remember being told that exposed beams would be beyond my means, and yet here we were, in a very primitive dwelling on top of the Himalayas, with massive joists supporting the ceiling, the inside even decorated with murals!

The only problem arose when Gulam and I went to investigate an ice bridge that we had to traverse the following morning and, turning to come back, saw gypsies descending from higher up – and we were in one of their houses! Because they can be very dangerous we were apprehensive and hesitated before returning.

Meanwhile, to placate them, Mohammed had offered them tea – out of our cups. This did little to impress me because although very colourful and laden with turquoise and silver jewellery, they were exceedingly dirty. After studying me intently for some time, with what appeared to be an aggressive demeanour, one old woman finally approached accompanied by a tall willowy young girl.

The latter, her eyes adorned with charcoal and very attractive, produced from behind her back, under the concealment of a multitude of shawls, an infant only days old. Sadly, it seemed to have an infection in its eyes, and I think they were hoping that I could help, but all I could offer was cotton wool and suggest (through an interpreter) bathing in warm boiled water. I doubt they acted on this advice.

It was extremely fascinating to watch this group unload, within minutes, their entire possessions from the backs of pack animals; they even carried an assortment of firewood that was unavailable at that altitude. The whole encounter was a fascinating interlude, which I was very reluctant to photograph in case I caused offence.

The crossing of the ice bridge was probably the most terrifying experience of the entire climb. It was virtually convex in shape, obviously exceedingly slippery, and barely six feet wide; there was nothing to prevent anyone who lost their footing from plummeting into the raging flood waters below.

Being October and the last trek for the season, most of the ice connecting the slopes in winter had melted, and what remained was very precarious. For safety reasons, the ponies were sent across first to ascertain the strength, and we followed, single file, behind. The opposite wall was a sheer rock face – a daunting spectacle.

In fact, I regretted having seen it the previous evening because the thought of what was to come prevented me from procuring a night’s sleep! I did not envisage being able to scale it, but with considerable assistance (and bullying!) from above and below, I somehow made it to the top. In winter, the ice provides an avenue to facilitate movement between valleys for the populace.

However, it was not all bad; in crystal-clear glacial pools, I witnessed some truly unbelievable reflections of mountains displaying colourful striations and enjoyed the rare beauty of pure waters from the last melting ice of the season rushing over stony creek beds below tree-covered slopes with barren snowy peaks rising behind.

We saw vultures squabbling over a morsel, a shepherd taking his sheep to lower pastures, and quaint marmots assuming their amusing upright stance to survey the territory.

From inside my tent, pitched on a grassy plain, views of snow-capped ranges (framed by the flaps) were awesome, and I took film of the remaining chickens perched on a saddle next to a porter smoking a hookah outside his tent.

I saw pink clouds at sunset, glaciers and rearing peaks mirrored in lakes cradled in craters normally only seen from the air and, as we climbed right into the cloud, incredibly blue glacial lakes from above.

I have pictures of the gypsies rugged up and huddled together against the cold, their sheep and goats, another lakeshore camp, and more exquisite, absolutely perfect reflections.

Because of a morbid fear of heights, the trek was a traumatic and yet exhilarating experience that I felt an enormous sense of satisfaction in having accomplished; I wanted to yell it to the world when I arrived back at my houseboat, but there was nobody to tell.

I only learned on completion that it was classified as an A-grade trek, which to this day remains the pinnacle of my achievements.

To read more travel articles from Faye Day, head here. Or you can find her brilliant travel series “Every Nook and Cranny: A World Travel Guide” here.

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