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Dhauladhar Ranges - Dharamsala

Our first sight of the Dhauladhar ranges had many of us cringing our faces in disappointment. The ranges did not "look good" in the conventional sense. We had seen more stunning peaks. Had we but known that some of the most beautiful photographs on any trek were going to be taken during this one! And so it was throughout this winter trek - a trek that exceeded all expectations. It turned out into a full-blown snow trek despite apprehensions about late snowfall in the region and we also managed to achieve targets that were only tentatively chalked into our schedule.

Landing in Dharamsala, a sleepy little Himachali town, despite its claim to world fame, we had no problems with hiring guides - the Dhauladhars have several well-known trekking routes. But the difference was (as always with the JNUMC) that we chose to trek in the most unusual or off-season periods. And that makes even a regular trekking route a whole different ball game. In the event, we were making a snow trek out of what was usually a summer trek. Our route started from Dharamkot, on the outskirts of Mcleodganj, itself an extension of Dharamsala, and onwards to the Triund Got, and Illaqa Got.

Mcleodganj. Now that is an interesting place, with its narrow streets crowded by migrant hawkers and shops run by refugee Tibetans, and young women and Buddhist monks queuing up for water. But there was not enough time to reflect on life's bittersweet ironies just then, as we made our way with our two guides, to our campsite at Dharamkot. Zahoor and Ashraf, brothers and hardly older than many in the group, were Kashmiris who spent six months away from their home to work as guides and porters in the tourist season at Dharamsala. As we got to know the brothers better, and we heard them describe their home in Gurez, we were struck despite the inadequacy of words, by their love for home and the beauty of it, that events had conspired to lock away in a cocoon, from the rest of the world. A tragedy as great as that of the Tibetan exiles. And the experienced ones among us - we who had come from the nation's capital where the big decisions affecting these lives are made - were once again aware of what a trek actually entailed and taught above and beyond physical endurance and witnessing natural beauty.

Dharamkot, is situated about 3kms up a steep climb from Mcleodganj and was an ideal place to start our trek. The only problem we had was water and this was something that would dog us throughout the entire trek. The got is a grassy plateau and Triund and Illaqa were two such plateaus that would be the campsites for each of the first two days of our trek. Starting from Dharamkot on the morning of the 20th we started our steep ascent to Triund Got. On the map it says about 14kms, but distances are beside the point in the hills. 5kms in the hills is an entirely different proposition from the same distance in the plains. Call it beginner's luck, but despite there being as many freshers as there being experienced trekkers, the team was able to stick to schedule and route without major problems.

The route up to Triund was instructional in several ways. For one, there was an idea of the track that was important if we were to see snow either further ahead or on the return. And it does not take long for even light snow to cover entirely pits and those unpleasant surprises that loose rocks provide. Secondly, we also saw some of the peculiarities of a terrain that receives snow. It had snowed just a few days ago and there was this very slippery phenomenon, neither ice nor glass, but seemingly a cross between the two, known as berglass, that can make a trekker think twice about putting the next step forward. And of course, we saw the rhododendrons and deodars that the Dhauladhars are famous for.

The view from Triund of the mountains that had so far been shielded from our view by the steep rock faces was sensational. And if that were not enough we were also able to see below us Mcleodganj and Dharamsla laid out like a ragged and lumpy old carpet of green, brown and gray. Once we had taken in the sights that old problem of water hit us. Th rains had been late and there was no water anywhere in the vicinity. So we laid down our rucksacks and took out the kitchen utensils and made our way to what one of the guides thought was a likely source of water. The weather now started to change as we made our way down the other side of the plateau, such that soon we could hardly see ten feet in front of us. We were heading towards a white-out. Unable to find any water, we returned, picking up instead firewood for what would undoubtedly be a cold night And this was at around noon, mind you.

Back at Triund, we had to avail of the only other option - melting snow for cooking - and so off some of us went, hunting for snow somewhere on the lower reaches of Triund, on another side. Meanwhile, we had to unpitch the tents and rush to the wooden outhouse of a the government tourist bungalow a short distance away to avoid being blown off the top of the got in case the weather got any worse. Next to some lonely gaddi huts that are only occupied during the summers, we finally found snow, dirty though it was. But by the time we made our way back it was snowing in right earnest. After setting the snow on the boil, the entire group was soon out with cameras and rainsheets improvised as sledges, to have a gala time in the snow!

A few hours later, the snowfall had ceased and almost immediately the peaks the trees and the town down below reappeared, but in entirely different hues. The trees in the area where it had snowed were now bedecked in an ash grey for quite a while before the sun melted the snow off their branches. The peaks too now reflected sunlight differently. Reinvigorated we made our way up about 200metres or so to a shrine of sorts to acclimatize ourselves. Again, full marks for the views from the top.

The track to Illaqa Got was covered in snow in many places, it having snowed again in the night. Nevertheless, we made quick time. Illaqa, at approximately 3,600metres, is where the snowline begins and we were not disappointed as now we had snow all around us. We had to of course use snow instead of water and now we even pitched our tents in the snow. We soon found ourselves in knee-deep snow, as we proceeded to the popular Lahesh Caves a little further, which were now actually surrounded by gaddi huts. Back at the campsite, rainsheets were out once again as we skied and sledded to our heart's content, this time in much better weather.

We had now completed the first stage of the trek as planned. We now decided that attempting the Indrahar Pass, further ahead was feasible despite the snow. But our guides did not know the way further ahead and this is where the JNUMC's knowledge of the maps and terrain of the area, came in. We were sure of the rough direction in which the Pass lay, and the guides were convinced enough to accompany us. But this was for tomorrow. Today was still young and the team went off on the familiar acclimatization trip. We must have gained about 400metres, and reaching an altitude of 4000metres plus is no mean achievement in the snows of Himachal. This would provide us the impetus for the long day tomorrow, for it was decided that the group would attempt Indrahar and get back to Dharamkot in one day.

The next morning, Indrahar Pass was reached successfully but the view of the valley down below in the distance was visible only possible from further up the side of a mountain. Again the group did about 4000metres plus up the side of a mountain to treat themselves to a visual feast! Back in Illaqa Got, it was now possible to unpitch our tents without tearing out the bottoms, for the ice below had melted. From now on, it was one long descent back the way we came, a distance - if the maps were to be believed - of around 30kms. The group was in high spirits but the descent would tell on our calf muscles at the end of the day and for a few days later, as much as thirst would dodge us during the trek downwards.

At Dharamkot, the next morning we had a special celebratory breakfast before we descended to the Mcleodganj for the real touristy part of the trek. The famed Bhagsu Nag temple, the Namgyal Monastery - residence of the Dalai Lama - and the Tibetan Museum were the places to see here. The Dal lake, the church of St. John in the Wilderness and the Kangra Museum in Dharamsala were the other highlights. The festival of Losar was about to begin the next day and as a result, most offices and shops were closed leading to a spirit of festivity.

That night on a bus back to Delhi - possibly the slowest one out of Mcleodganj - an exhausted group of JNUites basked in the glory of having successfully completed a trek and in the pleasure of "snowy" memories that would last a lifetime. (Contributed By: JT Jacob)

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