Thursday, November 22, 2007

THE CALL: Part One

Driving through the Zanskar Valley in Ladakh, one cannot but be overwhelmed by the imposing range of mountains that dwarf your puny Sumo jeep as it winds its way through the circuitous rock-hewn dust tracks. Our journey to Padum would have to be halved at Panikhar because, well, we had the time and luxury to lap up the breath-taking scenes that unraveled as we progressed. The first leg from Kargil to Panikhar was shorter than we expected and by noon, we were able to check into a decrepit tourist lodge that, for obvious reasons, didn’t seem to be listed on any tourist catalogue. The rather scruffy attendant was at his solicitous best even as he washed his rather grimy hands. Our request for food was promptly met with bowls of steaming maggi-noodles garnished with strands of frond-like green. It being a welcome filler, none of us even dared to ask why the noodles had turned deep saffron. The overall effect of the food was patriotically Indian!

As we were gorging on the entrĂ©e along the apple tree-strewn banks of the Suru river, we were suddenly aware of the twin peaks of the Nun and the Kun rising, phoenix-esque, before us. The fabled ‘lure of the mountains’ struck but there was no way we’d ever be able to summit it, we reckoned. What, with no gear, training, conditioning or the vital acclimatisation? Come to think of it, we had to humbly accede that we were just a bunch of fanciful and amateur tourists on a passive drive to Padum that would ask no more than patience as we jarred along the unpaved track. So much for the one shot at etching our names in the mountaineering hall of fame. “Wait, what about this hillock across the river...piece of cake, right?” The fabled ‘lure of the mountains’ refused to shoo off! Only later would we find out that the ‘lure’ came with strings attached. For starters, mountains look closer and easier to climb from a distance. Before we could untangle the ‘strings’, we were already at the base of the mountain unaware of the arduous trek that lay ahead. We were high in spirit but low on gear. One bottle of water for three people cannot but be a sign of ineptitude and foreboding disaster.

Our climb started off rather effortlessly. An occasional sheep would pass by staring at us as if to ask what we were up to without the conventional shepherd’s crook! A spring gurgled out a limpid flow of water with a mossy turf growing along the edges of its stream. Our pace soon became irregular with every step needing more effort. The mountain now, at over twelve thousand feet, was downright bare. The surface was pebbled and every step had to be carefully measured to secure a footing. Living organisms of any genus would have a snowball’s chance in hell of surviving on the rocky and windblown surface. The near vertical cliff-faces seemed to pull one in for a kiss as if to rub in the ‘strings’ we should have accounted for before we ever thought of climbing. Every step had to be preceded by huge gasps of breath in order to catch every wisp of oxygen in the rarefied air. To make matters worse, the post-noon anabatic winds were determined to dislodge our already precarious footing. This was no place for an acrophobic. “Hey mountain, give us a break,” I thought with fists gesticulating in the air when...I got my call! be continued.