We slept well curled up in our sleeping bags until 24th February greeted us with bright sunshine. The morning was lazy as three among us had to attend their online viva exams. Half of us tried to catch up with the lightning speed of four officers of Yuksom Police Station in a badminton match. Others tended to breakfast-lunch preparation and dilly-dallied in photo-shoots.
As the day grew older and we finally started off for Sachen, 8.5 kilometres away from Yuksom, we had no clue about the hindrance we were about to face. As soon as we reached the check post at 2 P.M. for procuring our permits, the forest range officer held us up. He was unrelenting in his claims that we would not reach Sachen before sunset, and protested that we were taking only one guide with us. A series of arguments followed and we finally gave in to his requests, as the clock struck 3 by then. The plan was changed, and we had to trek 16 kilometres from Yuksom to Tshoka the next day (7.5 kilometres between Sachen and Tshoka)
We set up camp on a nearby green patch of land and explored the environment. Curious ponies trotted close to us and sniffed our hands. Little children chased us around with sticks and answered our questions shyly. The photographers among us clicked away. The evening came while we brewed coffee, hunted for clean toilets, and contemplated the challenges of the next day. Amidst flickering flashlights and a light drizzle, we finished up a light dinner and headed back to our tents. Card games kept some of us awake until we finally dozed off to sleep.
The morning of 25th February got us waking up by 6:00 A.M. Freshening up, a quick breakfast, and a careful pack-up of our tents preceded the trek. Another guide (Mani Dada) and a porter (Chotu Dada) had come to accompany us along with Girish Dada.
Fresh and cold spring water dripped down the sides of filled water bottles. Calf muscles stretched with each step upward as rucksack straps dug into tight shoulders. Words and excitement soon thinned out as struggled breathing and aching muscles drew our attention. We crossed three bridges and several waterfalls on the way. The rocky path shaded by towering trees received us in silence, with crickets chirping occasionally. The journey was long, and the mountain awaited.
Energy spilled out of most our bodies initially, and we welcomed each resting point wholeheartedly. The degrees dropped as we ascended up the altitude. Jackets soon warmed our backs, and sweating ceased regardless of the strain. Parched lips sipped on chilled water often. We looked at our watches, clicked photographs, but were mostly occupied with how to keep going.
It was long. Longer and more strenuous than we had expected. We initially planned to stop at Bakhim, which was 2 kilometres lower than Tshoka. But there was no water. By the time we had reached Bakhim (around 5:15), the sun had already set. We looked at each other’s faces and exchanged hopeless expressions. A flicker, and then an entire train of demotivating thoughts entered some of our heads. But we had to keep moving.
The night hit us as we took out our flashlights to tackle the last two kilometres. The path became hazy, and the rucksacks seemed heavier. Three people among us fell sick, threw up, and had to give away their sacks to the stronger people. Although I retained my strength, my head got foggier as I struggled to make out the trail. Eventually a trek mate held my arm to stop me from falling on either side. Water ran out very quickly. The path never seemed to end. An insane kind of desperation gripped our hearts.
Hustle. Rest. Take a deep breath. Keep going. Don’t stop.
When I finally spotted one of our guides flashing a light from the trekkers’ hut, new confidence flowed inside me. The journey had ended, while shattering our plans to pitch tents, as nobody had the energy or enthusiasm to do it.
The warmth and comfort that the wooden hut offered us could beat the luxury of any fancy hotel. My head soon stopped spinning, and we were all laughing about our hardships on a 16 km uphill trek in no time. Our guides brought firewood and joined us in fixing dinner. We warmed up our cold hands and hearts near the fireplace.
Hot, steaming rice and vegetable curry tasted like nectar on our lips. Our spirits were revived. The moonlight drew some of us outside, and we stood there in the shivering cold, just enjoying nature’s raw beauty.
Mattresses were spread out, sleeping bags unrolled and we snuggled next to each other for a tired, cold, yet comforting sleep.
The extraordinary experience was etched deep in our hearts.
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