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The Long Path to Sumdo

From Lamayuru to Wanla to Hinju, the trek was uneventful. The weather cleared up at Wanla, the path was easy and pretty, the afternoons were warm and relaxed. Then we set out from the scenic campsite at Hinju for a long walk over Konzke La, a pass at an altitude of ~16,000 ft, to Sumdo village, far away from and about 3,000 ft lower than the pass. Many trekkers stop well before Sumdo, at a campsite called Doksar. This is good because it means that on the following day, you can climb one pass, Lanak La, and halt at the foot of DungDung La. On the fifth day, you get over DungDung La and reach Chilling. We, however, planned to cut a day and reach Chilling on day 4, and this involved going on from Doksar to Sumdo on day 3, and then crossing two passes, Lanak La and DungDung La, on day 4. We knew we were in for two long days.

We left early and followed the river for a long, long, long way before starting the climb to the pass. Somewhere along the way, I, in the lead, took a wrong turn, and Amit, right behind me, obediently followed. We wandered along a thin, almost invisible trail across the steep mountain side, and at the end, where the mountain curved around, I proceeded with the aid of my sturdy walking sticks to struggle straight up the loose stony face of the slope with the gay abandon of a mountain goat. Amit, meanwhile, was precariously positioned, tripod in one hand, nothing in the other, able to move neither up nor down, and cursing me with every passing breath. In the end, we both made it to the top of the slope without incident, only to find that there was a perfectly reasonable path approaching from another direction and sauntering along it was Ballu, our cook-and-guide, offering sympathy, food and a helping hand.

I had thought that this was the pass, but from our new vantage point we could clearly see that the pass was still far away, in fact, incredibly far away, and much higher as well. It took as a good two hours of sweat, hyperventilation, and despair.

This was not, in fact our first adventure on this trip. The previous day, Amit and I, going on ahead of the others as usual, had found a small stream in our path, which had to be crossed three or four times. These crossings are not remarkable - there are usually a few boulders sticking out of the water in just such an orientation that, with some courage and basic sense of balance, one can hop across them without getting the soles of one's shoes wet. Every trekker has overcome many such crossings, and usually many worse ones as well. At the first of these, I duly hopped across, then turned around and waited for Amit.

Much to my surprise, he was stuck. One foot on one rock, he stood stock still, trying to summon up the courage to extend his long legs to the next rock. I waited. He waited. Time passed. I urged him on. He waved me to shut up. More time passed. Eventually I crossed back towards him and told him to give me the tripod.

Now, these crossings may not in themselves be difficult, but when someone as small, nervous and clumsy as me, is standing on a rock in the middle of a stream and encouraging someone else in a state of catatonic shock to handover a camera and tripod that together weigh about 15 kilos and cost a king's ransom to boot, suddenly things don't look so easy either. When Amit actually extended the tripod across the water towards me and I grabbed one end of it, I was leaning forward. When he released the blasted thing and the entire weight of it came into my arms, it took every bit of muscle power and determination for me to be able to straighten up and turn around. Both of us were more surprised than relieved - and that's saying a lot, because we were really relieved - that I managed it without dropping the whole thing on the rocks or in the water.

The funny thing was that, with the camera out of the way, Amit crossed without further ado. And later on in the trek, when he had given permanent custody of the tripod to Ballu and the camera was safely packed away in his camera bag, he rarely thought twice about skipping from one rock to the next. With his long, long legs, he could afford to pick his own route across every little stream, while I had to hunt for the closest-spaced stones and even then sometimes ended up stepping in water.

That day, we reached the pass around noon, and left about an hour later. On the descent, Amit wasn't feeling too good, so we walked really slowly, me doing everything in my power just to keep him going. Eventually, he did improve, but it was mid-afternoon by the time we reached Doksar. Now we had at least another two hours' walk, or so we thought. Just as we exited the campsite at Doksar, we saw a huge mountain in front of us with a path going right up it. Crikey! Did we have to go up that???

We did. It took us a couple of hours, but up we went and down the other side, and as we went down, we got a superb view of a neat path about a thousand feet below us, snaking along the mountain side close to the river.

Recriminations flew fast and thick. Clearly we should be on that path - why on earth were we up here? By now, the five of us were walking in a bunch, the easier to argue the matter, and nobody felt happy about having been led up the mountain path for no reason. Ballu maintained that the access to the lower path had been washed away by floods last year, hence the need for the high road, but visual inspection indicated that we could have sneaked along the side of the river, perhaps crossing it a couple of times and reached that path by that far quicker and easier route. As it was, we made an unplanned descent straight down the mountainside, which was certainly the direct route, but not so easy on the knees.

That day, after a "real" river crossing (which entailed taking off socks and shoes and linking arms to cross), we reached Sumdo around 7 p.m. It was still daylight then, but our campsite was to be found not at Sumdo village itself, but a couple of km further on. The donkeys who were carrying all our luggage would be waiting there for us, so we had no choice but to continue. Amit and I charged ahead at top speed. A matter of 2 km may not sound like much, but on a winding mountain path in fading light it can practically take forever. As it happened, we reached camp just after 8, when it was just possible to stumble along without a torch. DDB&B reached about half an hour later, by when torchlight was indispensable. It would have been my second trek by torchlight, and both are unforgettable due to the sheer physical tiredness and the mental determination that were intrinsic to the experience.

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Copyright 2008 Amit and Anamika Mukherjee. All rights reserved.