Saturday, 16 January 2010
I first met Jim, and his wife Adrina, on a the GR4 trail in the Alpe Maritime in France. It was 15th April 2004. I’d camped just outside the village of Greolieres that day and as I was climbing up and over the Barre de Cheiron it started to drizzle. As I got higher the rain turned to sleet and then finally to softly falling snow. On the plateau it was very pleasant walking through a pine forest and I started to follow a pair of footsteps. They appeared to have a dog too. After descending past the ruined village of Vergay I finally caught up with them. they didn;t have a dog though and it transpired that we were probably following in the trail of a fox. Adriana gave me a handful of dried apricots and I recall she nearly slipped over a precipice when putting her rucksack on! We then travelled together for five days along the GR4 until we reached the other side of the Verddon Gorge. They were diverging here onto the GR9 whilst I was continuing on the GR4.
The following year Jim asked me if I was interested in a trekking trip to the Himalayas and we’ve travelling together, usually just once a year, every year since then.
Jim likes to hike, to climb and to cycle and goes a bit mental if he can’t get out to do something.
I met Adriana obviously when I met Jim. Adriana is from the Netherlands. My partner Kristine is from Flanders so they can speak Dutch and take the rise out of me and Jim for being able to do so. I know I should make more effort to do so On the trail Adriana is famed for giving stuff away; gloves, hats, sweets, medicines, sunglasses and most famously a cake. On this last trip she’d squirrelled away a cake for Jim’s birthday. When the day finally arrived after two weeks on the trail she passed the cake onto Surosh, our cook, with the idea that he would present the cake as a surprise at dinner. Imagine our surprise when it transpired that Surosh had misinterpreted the cake as a gift for him and he and a number of the porters had subsequently eaten it. You have to see the funny side.
Adriana always joins us on our hiking trips and is a pleasant calming travelling companion. However she does use hiking poles which I find irritating. Click clack click clack. But that’s just me. She hikes and cycles with Jim several times during the year. Last year she persuaded Jim to come on a five day canoe trip down the Dordogne river in France. He thought it was a bit tame; a bit “Wind in the Willows” without the reckless Toad.
I first met James when I joined Jim and Adriana on our first Himalayan trip in 2005. he’s renowned for running around like a ‘blue-arsed fly’ (as my Father used to say). James main activity when not hiking is Orienteering at which he is very good. He was National Champion at his age range last year. As you can imagine James is the one who strides off into the distance when on the trail. That’s not quite always the case though as he does also like to meander and bird-watch along the way.
James is also a pyrotechnic. he re-introduced me to the pleasures of campfires and is always the first to go off hunting for firewood after we get sorted out at the campsite. He even collects tinder when out on the trail during the day. his speciality is building a small pyramid of kindling and sticks at the base of the fire and also re-starting the fire, without using matches, in the morning. Huffing and puffing.
This trip to the Himalayas was the first time that Jan has joined us. He’s Adriana’s brother. This trip was marred for him as he injured his knee about a week into the trip and had to have four rest days to recover. He took a taxi from Ghuttu to Gaurikund and waited for us there. Even after that he was not fully fit and probably didn’t enjoy the trek as much as he would have. Let’s hope that that doesn’t put him off joining us on a subsequent trip.
My brother Keith. I’d better not say much. This is the first time he’s joined us on one of these treks.He suffered a little bit on this trip after being bled by a leech on the second,day, after falling sick at Kedarnath and also suffering snow blindness the day after we went over the 5000m pass in the snow. Apart from that I think he enjoyed it and will possibly join us again in the future. He too was part of the fire-starter crew and would also race James out on the trail. On the penultimate day he did a double day (as Maneesh did) in order to get down to Ghuttu a day before us and organise our transport to Delhi.
Ajay - our Guide
Ajay was a bit too self-effacing as a leader and didn’t seem to be as in control as much as our last leader in the Himalayas, Heera. On the trail he wasn’t out in front enough and we often had to wait when decisions were required. Even then he wasn’t decisive enough. He’s a pleasant character but too shy to be an effective leader and I think the porters took advantage of that. Perhaps the main problem was that he was reluctant to speak english to us and would rather wait for us to come to him rather than vice-versa.
He had a difficult time dealing with the new porters from Gaurikund and had to organise some of the porters to do double days by going back and carrying another load. he did this himself too. Apparently we had some desertions at Kedarnath and at Vasuki Tal the day after that. This must have been a difficult time but he was reluctant to share the details with us.
At Maggu he was indecisive about where we should camp when we were huddled in the cow-shed in the pouring rain. This problem was exacerbated by him not being there when our porters were bullied by the guides of the French group at the place we were originally intended to camp. In addition I don’t think he was aware that we could have moved on down the track to a place we passed the next day.
On the day we were going to cross the 5000m pass and go down to Masar Tal from Vasuki Tal he was not at the front to lead the way when it became apparent that the porters were unsure and divided on the issue. It meant that we had to wait in the snow for him to catch up. In the end he decided that we’d have to camp the night, in the snow, below the pass. It was just as well because the next days hike to Masar Tal was a full day and it would have been impossible to do it the day before. This showed that he was unfamiliar with the ground and didn’t know himself what distances were involved. This is contrary to what we had been told by Himalayan Run and Trek who had assured us that he had been sent up to the pass prior to our arrival to ensure that it was safe. It’s possible that he did this but didn’t go over the pass but returned to Kedarnath the way he had come.
On the days after Kedarnath the new porters complained at every turn. They’d abandoned us at Kedernath and walked the 14km home down the mountain to Gaurikund. Ajay had to get up at 4am and follow them down the hill to retrieve them and then return the same 14km up the mountain and back to Kedarnath. They then had to walk the trail to catch up with us. A Trek that took 4 and a half hours itself. This was an inauspicious start for them and must have been demoralising. We were never sure whether the porters he got from Gaurikund that time were the same ones that had abandoned the day before. It’s no wonder that some of them wanted to leave us at Vasuki Tal the following morning. Ajay did well to persuade them not to. But the following morning after we’d camped on the snow he wasn’t so lucky and I think we had a couple of porters leave us then.
The next several at least six of the porters were suffering from snow-blindness. We did what we could for them but they were still angling for a rest day instead of continuing down the mountain. This was the day we thought the party would split in two and some of us carried our own gear to ensure we had tents and sleeping-bags with us. Ajay did well in the end to persuade them not to stay and in the end we were all together at Chauki. It surely should have been Ajay’s responsibility though to ensure that the porters were properly equipped with sunglasses.
Even at Chauki though the mutterings were not finished and Ajay was unable to persuade all the porters to finish the trek by taking the high route over another pass (at 4700m) and down to Malla where we had begun. Ostensibly Ajay felt that the recent snow falls would make the pass dangerous but it seems fair to say that this new crop of porters from Gaurikund, rather than our original porters from Malla, are not up to it. This is a major disappointment all round. From our point of view I might add that we were also concerned with the welfare of Jan who was still carrying his injury and this contributed to our acquiescence. Nonetheless I still believe that with a stronger leader it would have been possible.
This sounds like a lot of criticism for Ajay but overall for a three week trek he did reasonably well as was dogged and hobbled by the behaviour of the young men from Gaurikund.
I might add that Ajay was exemplary when it came to organising that Jan would be ferried by Taxi to Gaurikund after his accident and for ensuring that he had a room there. he also insisted that a porter would accompany Jan in the taxi and be available during those days to help Jan get whatever he needed. he also ensured that after our change of plans that the office in Delhi was informed and that the re-arrangements for our pick-up was properly done.
Surosh - our Cook.
No complaints about the food. Surosh did well to keep us nourished during the whole trip. We were never hungry. Inevitably the style of food that can be prepared on the trail can become a bit dull after three weeks. That’s to be expected. Going without meat for all that time was probably good for us too. Perhaps the only complaint would be that the packed lunches didn’t have much variety. But that’s a trivial complaint really.
Our only real cause for concern was that some of our party were inflicted with stomach problems at the beginning of the trip. We noticed that we weren’t getting a bowl of hot water with Dettol added before every meal as we had on the last trip. This time I think they expected us to provide our cleansing wipes. Also we had to push him to ensure that all drinking water was properly boiled beforehand. We certainly did have to do that on the last trip with Heera who was a stickler for cleanliness throughout.
As with Ajay, Surosh was also a quiet character and not given to any interaction with us at all. That said he did invite Keith and I into the kitchen tent the night we were camped under the pass and share the heat by the cooking stove.
From time to time Surosh prepared a little treat for us by cooking some chips or some pakoras to go with our afternoon tea, This is the way to our hearts.
Maneesh - our Liaison
Maneesh tells us at the start of the trip that this is his first time in the field only ever having worked in the office before at Himalayan Run and Trek. For all that I think he enjoys the experience and we enjoy his company the whole time. It is Maneesh;s job, clearly, to interact with us and act as the go-between. He does this very well and without complaint for the whole trip. We know that he misses his wife and child back in Delhi and it’s a pleasure to get to know him a little bit whilst on the trail.
It’s Maneesh who brings us our tea in the mornings and afternoons and it’s Maneesh who conveys to us the trials and tribulations going on in the camp between Ajay and the porters. I think even he gets a little fed up with Ajay’s reticence.
At the time that Jan had his accident Maneesh is there to help and assist and on the penultimate day he does a double-day down to Ghuttu to get ahead of us and ensure the arrangements for our pick-up are done correctly.
I can’t think of any occasion when I would have complained about Maneesh. He did everything he was supposed to do on the trip and on top of that was never discouraged or disheartened by anything. On the contrary he always seemed to smiling and in a good mood. I think he did a great job for his first time in the field. We;d never have known if he hadn’t of told us.
On the first leg of our trip we have a team of seven mules looked after by three muleteers. They are no trouble at all and seem to enjoy the trip. after our two nights at Pawali Kanta however two of the mules go missing. Every night the mules are unloaded and left free to graze. Sometimes they come a bit close to the tents and sometimes at night it can be a bit disconcerting to hear them wandering about outside. Usually however they just wander off. We didn’t hear about the missing mule, one was found, until the evening and it explained why some of the porters were very late in arriving at the campsite in Maggu that day. This also contributed to the indecision when we were sheltering from the rain and why Ajay was late. The muleteers and several of the porters had spent a long time scouring the hillsides for the missing beast.
The Muleteers travelled with us for ten days to Kedarnath and then turned back to return home to Malla. They were confident that they would retrieve the lost animal on the return leg. They would also return in half the time it took to get to Kedarnath. On our last trip to the Himalayas we had seen muleteers riding through the night (or at least starting early and finishing late in the dark) in order to get home. It sounds like a stampede is going through the campsite.
I’ve noted before that when we were playing cricket at Pawali Kanta the porters and the muleteers would not play at the same time. When we were playing with the muleteers and the porters appeared and joined in we noticed that the muleteers would slowly drift away and stop playing. We only really became aware of this afterwards and could only assume that it was a social (caste) thing. Maneesh could shed no light on it.
The Porters from Malla
These porters did the whole trip with us and it was our original intention that over a period of three weeks we would do a circular trek and start and end our trek from their home village. In the end our trek finished at Ghuttu. It had taken us five to reach Ghuttu so they had to walk home from there. I imagine they did it in less than five days. It was a disappointment to us not to do the complete circle.
No complaints about these porters at all. They seemed to do the job and enjoy themselves along the way all through the trip. Our oldest porter Padam was a lot of fun and will be remembered for scaring the daylights out of me and Keith by appearing over a rock laughing like a banshee and dangling a headless bird when we were huddled around a fire in the dusk. very funny. In retrospect.
Some of these porters were from Nepal. Maneesh told us that they come over the border during the summer months looking for work and go back home for the winter.
Most of what can be said about this lot I’ve already said above. Frankly these young boys weren’t up for it and more concerned about whether they could get reception on their mobile phones. We hadn’t seen mobiles on our previous trip to the HImalayas and these boys seem enamoured of them, even to the extent of not having appropriate footwear or sunglasses. This is perhaps a foretaste of the future. It will become harder and harder to get and use porters in the future as technology reaches into this far -off paces and the lure of the cities continues to denude the mountain villages of their youth. It’s hard to imagine how things will be in five years time. We will find out if we ever return to the Indian Himalayas.
It’s fair to say that these boys complained every day as we came out of Kedarnath. I think the only time they were happy were on those last three days as we came down the valley to Ghuttu from Chauki and they knew they were finished.
I think Ajay has to take some responsibility for this as he had to hire them in Gaurikund. On the other hand I think the residents of Gaurikund are used to making a good living from helping pilgrims on the trail up to Kedarnath and from that point of view perhaps a portering job just doesn’t look that enticing. We shall have to be aware of this if and when we next plan a trek in the mountains.
In the end young men will be young men and it’s difficult to blame them for that.