Defeat is the touchstone on which the mental make-up of a man is brought out


VERY OFTEN DEFEAT is a blessing in disguise, the utility of which is not immediately recognised. It is because of defeat, many people have not ruined themselves. Defeat makes us reflective and self analytical and this is exactly what has happened after our recent attempt to Sahastra tal.

The word 'Sahastra' meaning 'a thousand' in Sanskrit, was given to the area by wandering holy men. It is also the modification of the local Garhwali word 'Sahasyu' which means seven. The topmost and the largest lake on the Bhilangana side is referred to as Darshan tal. The other seven being - Pari tal, Arjuna tal, Bhim tal, Draupadi tal, Gaumukhi tal (or Vishnu tal) and Lam tal, all accommodating the worshippers of Shiva as well as Vishnu. There are of course many other tals like Khukala, Dudhi tal etc. But, perched up at 4752 m Sahastra tal which is also the abode of Vishnu is the holiest.

Our group of thirteen girls, set about to attempt the tal at what was said to be the best time - last week of May/early June; along with a good set of porters, guide and instructors, finally ended up learning more at a lesser height. With a maiden unsuccessful attempt at the stiff uphill to Karki, and great amount of rambling on the meadows, it was felt that we have all come back wiser and better prepared for the hills. It is thus pertinent for me to spell out what we really did in the ten days in which we had meticulously planned to achieve our ambition of reaching the highest tal.

Many of us really do underestimate the hills. With experienced hill walkers, this really is the biggest drawback. Sahastra tal, in fact is more of an expedition and not a simple trek. Surely, technical equipment is not required and the high altitude drawbacks are not there, but the stiff climb over the short distance, makes it far beyond a simple trek/walk.

Having started our ascent from Malla we planned to go up the Pilang gad to Johra and then onto Dharamshala. This is really where we erred first, though being short, the forest cover and steep gradient make this a very unsuitable approach march. Instead, to test the ability of our amateurs and further enable the loads to be brought up, we had to take the longer route via Silla, Chamin Chor, Papar and spend an extra night en route Johra.

On 23 May, we left Malla early and took the 4 km long ascent upto Silla. The uphill path wound across the slope through wheat and poppy fields and we took almost three hours. The climb from Silla to Gheru (chauni or shepherd's lodging) was gradual and through a deciduous forest. The slopes abound with walnut trees, Himalayan oak, rhododendrons 'Kanjal' and 'Kharsei' trees. The dense undergrowth of ferns and the thick carpet of dead leaves along the path, do help relieve the aching feet of the trekkers. There were also the great Himalayan Barbit flying over us. It was around 1 p.m. that we were able to reach our camp at Gheru. In order to improve logistic support for the Sahastra tal attempt, our support staff along with the laden mules marched on to Ghutu.

To encourage the concept of new minimum-impact camping and further instill skills and sensitive strategies for sharing we arranged lectures in geography, weather prediction, first aid, survival skills and other useful information at our camps. The cooking lessons, rope craft and all the sessions of rope knot and rock climbing provided the best back drop for pre-expedition training.

Up the Gawar Dhar towards the meadows of Kush Kalyan, was a beautiful walk through coniferous forests. The elegant and strong 'ringal' or bamboo shoot, the sycamore trees, a variety of lichens on the barks of trees and stones, made the approach to the meadows, very enchanting. The tree line gave way to strawberry blossoms, butter cups, primulas and many other flowers, all covering the entire expanse of the endless meadows. The entire walk now was along ridges and saddles. As the temperature and pressure on our barometer fell and the height increased, it was not only the variety of flowers, but also their colours, as in the case of rhododendrons, changed from pastel shades of purple and pink to faded white and different tints on the sunny slopes across. The ridge walk along the meadows made the valley and ridges stand out sharply and the paths were visible for endless distances.

Along the beautiful paths uphill were rows of beautiful lilies and other deep red flowers. At the higher reaches the flowers and bushes were growing below rock shelters and in clusters under the rock ledges. To further enchant us was the spotting of leopard droppings! The breath-taking walk of 12 km finally ended at Ghutu, a small settling of deserted chappads among the endless meadows. With low night temperatures and absence of the evening sun this place at about 3200 m was our first feel of hostile mountain weather. The cold night and useless sleeping bags of some girls made us think of the hard times ahead after base camp.

Moving along the ridge at 3500 m, our problem was of locating water resources. To establish base camp we set off towards the steep wall of Karki top. At Devta, situated on the saddle was a very small temple of simple rock and one flag. This was in fact a pass which is used by the shepherds in the trans-meadow movement from the Pilang valley to the Dharam ganga valley along the parallel low altitude trek towards the Bhilangana watershed. This is the area being promoted for a ski resort along the Bhagirathi watershed. The bad weather of the afternoon and lack of water now dashed our hopes of crossing on to the Andarban Dhar. The trickle of water, before the base of the black rocky steep above Devta was to be the highest camp for us at about 3800 m

On 26 May, a day behind the scheduled attempt for Sahastra tal, a group of four girls with four support staff set off for the ambitious heights of the Andarban Dhar. It was a rocky uphill path and the group walked on at a slow pace, each giving moral support to the other to carry on. Unfortunately the good weather did not keep with us and we were caught in a bad storm. A small rocky outcrop on the steep slope was our saviour from the onslaught of the snow-storm and rain. The white-out and of course the wet, slippery slopes made movement impossible. At this gloomy hour, when we were dinging with all our might to the steep slope up the ridge, our way of retreat was carved. The brisk walk back to base was welcome as we did have better weather now and the joy and jubiliation of meeting the other team members, made us feel as if the Dhar had been attained!

The base camp proved to be a good area for bouldering and rock climbing looking across the Pilang valley was the imposing massif of Bandarpunch and Kalanag. We now decided to climb Kush Kalyan and start going down the valley along the Pilang gad via Mati and Jaura. On the 27 May the high point of Kush Kalyan at 3868 m was the maximum height attained by most of the team members. The usual afternoon storm and rain did drench many of the girls on the way down to Mati, but a fire at Mati camp and the hot meal helped fight fatigue and raise our spirits. When the storm subsided the jungle camp was discovered as the best area for practising monkey crawling, rope traverse and knots. There was enough time to interact with the 'gujars' who needed a lot of medical help too. These nomads were the first of the groups to reach Mati and had come up from Dhaulkhand in the Shivwaliks.

The trail from Mati to Jaura was through dense forest of sycamore and Himalayan oak. There was undergrowth of ferns, bamboo shoots, etc. and as the slopes were wet and devoid of sun it was infested with leeches. On the steep downhill there were the usual slips and sprains and by lunch hour we were all worn out. Hot soup along one mountain stream and applications of ointment provided the necessary relief. Our last camp was pitched just ahead of Jaura on the fields beside Pilang river.

On 29 May we reached Malla and washed away our layers of dirt in the pure water of the Bhagirathi river. There were the usual long hours of packing and sorting out and of course the school at Malla was the camp for night. Badly damaged by the earth quake, with the roof still in place, it provided the peaceful night halt on our return to Dehra Dun on 30 May 1992.

What was so great about this trip?

The honing of the outdoor living skills that keep people safe, comfortable and happy in an environment that is only temporarily their home. We also learnt minimum-impact camping skills that help people leave the outdoors just the way they find it or even better. It was important to get the message across, that outdoor activities mean recreational activities that depend on natural resources (plants, animals, land or water), and outdoor living skills refer to such activities using, understanding and/or appreciating of natural resources.

Summary: A trek in May 1992, to Sahastra tal near Uttarkashi.