We maintained a slow but steady pace and decided to meet at the designated resting points maintained by courtesy of the Border Security Force and also by devotees serving tea, water, snacks, meal, etc. at no cost. Tea, Mineral Water, Lime Water, Cucumber, Corns, Snacks, Cigarette etc are also available at some points at a very high cost e.g. a bottle of water for Rs. 60/-. The initial 3-4 km trek is interesting and motivating due to the immense enthusiasm of pilgrims of all age and also because of the awesome and spellbound picturesque surrounding visible from the height.
After the first break, its extremely exhaustive and painful, the mere thought of climbing another twice the distance already covered is dissuading and repressing. Breathlessness due to scarcity of oxygen in the air causes inattentiveness and unresponsiveness therefore, a self sensible vigil is very much required during high altitude treks. There are medical facilities available at some points with oxygen cylinders for curbing such emergency which is not at all sufficient and we cannot expect much as this is one of the most inhospitable place in the Earth where only the most ardent can survive. That’s why the Indian Army is ranked No. 1 in the world. The only precaution required is don’t force your body when your mind is not supporting for it. A little more rest or going back to the base camp is better than to dare any fatality. We have seen at least 10 pilgrims of all ages (mostly young and middle age) died, being taken down, all of whom deceased due to cardiac arrests and none by falling or physically hurting. A report published in the Times of India on 12 July 2012 reported 67 deaths in 2 weeks mostly due to cardiac arrest.
We started together from the base camp but after some time we were at our own pace and met one after another at the first resting point at Barari at an altitude of 3700 meter. After some rest, tea and kadhi chawal served with passion by courtesy of the BSF, I was back to my job in capturing the panoramic view of snow capped mountains, glaciers, the tough rugged terrain which we have just left behind, with a feeling of instant triumph upon it and the river flowing underneath the fresh melting glaciers, satisfied my camera’s appetite and rejuvenated me too. The hovering colorful helicopters were teasing us by dropping the fliers in 9 minutes from the base camp to Panchtarni only 5 km away from the holy cave however, humbly I captured a few of them hovering almost at our height in my camera and obliged.Pic: At the same altitude, Glacier at hand shaking distance & Glaciers melting
I was very exhausted hence, preferred to rest for few more minutes whereas, my other two colleagues relatively more energetic started for the further journey, decided to meet at Sangam Top at an altitude of 3850 meter, the next stop. I actually suffered a severe cramp in my left leg while positioning for clicking a picture, resting my foot on a rock which was actually an ice block covered with dirt that slipped. Without heroism and hesitation I hired a pony for Rs. 500/- upto Sangam Top which was a relatively a tougher terrain of 3.5 km with multiple steep ups and downs. While on pony, I got ample time in clicking few more pictures and also provide rest to my injured leg.
I reached Sangam Top in one hour and so did my colleagues. The air was getting thinner with every meter of rising up and head heavy. Till now we were sure that we will have to stay at the tents near Amarnath Cave. So my colleagues decided to reach there and hire a better tent before it’s too late. I being injured slowly moved towards the last stage of our destination and finally reached there safely in six hours in total.
My colleagues reached earlier and already booked one tent tied upon one ice block cut in rectangular, half a kilometer from the shrine. After bathing in boiling hot water available for Rs. 100/- per bucket, we were through for offering our reverence to the lord. We were the last ones to enter through the entry gate as it was already 5 PM, closing time. Very satisfactorily we had the holy glimpse of the lustrous giant 10 feet Lingam glittering like huge piece of diamond that mystifies every devotee. After offering our worship and prayers we stepped down for a glimpse of the pair of pigeons blessed immortality by Lord Shiva and it is believed that these holy pigeons are by virtue of that blessing could survive the crudest weather even when the entire mountain is covered by snow during winter. In the niches of the giant cave, the auspicious glimpse of the propitious pigeons is rare, due to the illusion of vision or mythologically only the luckiest blessed can view the pair together. After a long wait I couldn’t have a glimpse of the pair together however, I could see a few individually hovering from one point to other in search for a resting place for the night. With heavy heart, I descended the stairs crippling due to extreme pain in my injured leg. The instant blessings I wished from the Lord was to cure my leg to enable me trek down safely and further continue the journey to the most awaited dream destination.
After taking medicines from a BSF medicine distribution point at the stairs of the shrine, I any how managed to descend the stairs and reached at the tent already booked by my colleagues. The mind and soul was full of triumph and satisfaction of finally reaching the place, which is still a dream for many. Soon it was dark and the cold sheer wind penetrated through the bones shivering whole body relentlessly. Hot tea, some noodles and chholey bhature served in different langars sufficed us for the dinner. The tent inside was so cold and dark that we had to sleep on the ice block wearing all woolens and shoes intact besides the heavy multifold blankets covering head to toe. Frankly, no one could sleep in such adversity unless one is tired enough and completely exhausted. My eyes opened many times but it was so dark all around that I just longed the glimpse of light.
Finally the longest night and wait was over with the glimpse of the most ever awaited dawn. Immediately, we started off but we were not aware that the temperature at night had fallen to minus and the sheets of ice on which we had to trek for almost two kms on the way back turned very slippery and petrified and it was not possible to walk on it without specially designed shoes used by the military in such places. We could see people falling hard, while trying to walk on the icy road. One of my colleagues also fell very hard narrowly escaping a severe head injury. Just then I recalled a travel show on National Geography wherein, it was suggested to cover the shoes with cotton socks to walk on such places to avoid skidding, I tried it and it worked. After crossing the impossible two kilometers, we stopped for a while and looked back to re-live the memory of the unforgettable challenging journey and also pay a last homage to the Lord, by grace of whom my injured leg was performing better. The return journey may not be mistaken easy because there are similar ups and downs both ways hence we slowly but steadily and with the same amount of caution, finally reached the base camp safely before noon.
My colleagues reached the base camp a little earlier and were waiting for me at the parking lot having done with their breakfast. Once I reached there, they shocked me with the news that as per their enquiry and information gathered from the local taxi drivers in the parking lot, it was not safe to travel upto Leh by road in a small car because of the road condition. Also they were skeptic about our driving skill at the highest altitude road with hairpin bends and blind curves. This information sufficiently motivated my colleagues to drop the idea of further journey. Heavy hearted I was left with no choice but to abide by the majority decision. I knew it was not possible for me to escalate their enthusiasm at this point of time moreover, I was too exhausted and lack of words to convince them that many people drive on this terrain every year and not all die. Frankly, even they were not very happy about the sudden change in the itinerary of our trip, which was a silver lining to me.
Finally, we decided to stay for a night at Sonamarg to rest our body and soul and allow the mind to think wisely, we were quite acclimatized by now. We therefore, stayed in Sonamarg Youth Hostel, a beautiful property, ideally located on the banks of River Sindh, fit on all budgets offering dormitory to double occupancy and also separate cottages. The property is almost one km from Sonamarg hence had no choice but enjoy the serene beauty of nature, surrounded by snow capped mountains, freezing crystal clear water gushing in the river with youths and enthusiasts opting for rafting and the lush green lawn in the architectural delight of the property. The River Sindh was flowing just behind the terrace of our room and we could hear the rattling all night from behind the tightly closed doors but who cares, we were soon snoring.
We woke up early because the mind alarm was set by now for waking up early. Gloomily, planned to return via Srinagar and visit Gulmarg and stay for one night at Pahalgam. While having our breakfast in the cafeteria, we could hear a family from Haryana, comprising a middle age man, his wife and teenager daughter planning for Leh in their Honda Brio. Our mind rekindled with hopes and we approached the gentle man with optimism that he may have a positive reason to travel in a small car to Leh. The gentle man with a gentle smile informed, he was also trying it for the first time but looked pretty confident and was more excited to know that we also have a Swift and wish to travel to Leh and persuaded us to join them too. My colleagues, one of whom is from Haryana, after talking with him for some time agreed to join them. I thanked God and immediately started for the onward journey before any second thought could creep into their mind. The two small cars were now on the Srinagar–Ladakh Highway No. 1-D to Leh at or around 7 AM.
Important Tips for the trip:
1. Avoid speeding above 90 in Haryana & Punjab (Max Speed Limit) else you will be stranded & fined by the sudden interceptors.
2. Avoid over eating and frequent halts to maintain timings.
3. Avoid alcohol & smoking on the way.
4. Practice walking / jogging well, before the trip.
5. Carry as much drinking water as you can to avoid fake branded bottles.
6. Don’t try the trip without spare driver.
7. Give way to the Army Convoy with red flag on the pilot van, always moving ahead, to avoid a clash.
8. Avoid night journey/driving in Kashmir.
9. Carry sufficient woolens, Jackets, gloves, cap etc. (any season)
10. First aid kit & general medicines is good to carry.
11. Car with extra locking system is advisable, good to have extra stepney.
12. A compatible camera with portable charger is a must carry.
13. Mobile network not available in many parts of J&K and no signals in Baltal to Amarnath (BSNL Services available with PCO)
14. Don’t mistake in pushing your body during Yatra, if you are having severe nausea and headache, immediately seek medical care or descend as soon as possible. This can be AMS (acute mountain sickness) and can be fatal.
15. Avoid thugs in guise of pilgrims during the Trek with pathetic stories of stolen/lost money, asking for money in bargain of some fake items, selling magical/medicinal herbs, Musk (kasturi) and what not.