Pedalling ahead, feeling fortunate to be besides magnificent landscapes, I saw the majestic mountains at a distance being engulfed by light snow. Just then I realised it started snowing on us too. We moved towards our first campsite near Surajtal as snow gently rested on our face. There was a sense of happiness in us knowing we were going to be away from civilisation for the next few days. Who knew this could be the worst mistake of our lives!
A lake situated near Bara-lacha la, Surajtal is the 3rd highest lake in India. It is also called Suryatal, is a major attraction for many tourists and a sacred water body, that literally translates to the 'Lake of the Sun God'. It is situated just below the Bara-lacha pass in Lahaul and Spiti Valley, in the state Himachal Pradesh.
Surajtal to Chandratal is among the lesser known trekking routes which covers two of the famous lakes in Himachal. The trek can be covered in 4 days. I got introduced to this route by Mohit aka 'Munching on Saddle’. When we tried looking for more information on the internet we hardly found intel on it so the only way was to explore it ourselves.
Be it a trek or a bikepacking adventure, "It is always important to map out the route.", which is the 1st lesson that I have always abided by since my first ever bike packing tour. [Read about my solo bikepacking tour from Jaipur to Kanyakumari] Whenever I plan a route, I first check the satellite map and maps.me to spot a trail, luckily the route we were to attempt had been marked previously which was helpful!
Initially during our discussion about doing this route together, Mohit planned to meet me at Darcha. As I was to start riding a week before he arrived there, I was skeptical if I would see him at my time of my arrival!
Our timings weren’t able to sync because of his work commitments and my shortage of time. So, a week later I decided to ride from Manali towards Zanskar Valley with no hopes to catch up with Mohit as I was sure that by the time I reached Darcha, Mohit would've already started from Surajtaal according to the previous plan.
On 15th Sept '19 I came back to Darcha to find his whereabouts and to my surprise he was in Keylong which meant we could still ride together.
I did some scouting to know about current situations of the route by asking locals which usually is a good idea because they surely are updated with all kind of information. I was told that the route will have only a few river crossings and scree sections which will not be suitable for biking but majority of it would be rideable. Since Mohit shared similar information about the route I was relieved but, it wasn't the case when we reached there. Turned out we were fed on false information from people.
To skip the misery, Mohit and I took a taxi ride to Surajtal to avoid wasting 2 more days which was a great idea because I had to be back in Manali as soon as possible.
It was very windy and chilly at the pass, the most challenging task was assembling our bikes. It was difficult to pack our gears back every time while trying to keep our hands warm.
The horse trail from Surajtal going towards Chandratal is easily visible from the pass, it’s only when you reach further that there are some sketchy parts which require good route selection skills. The terrain changes from beautiful meadows to being very rough along the Chandra river. With our hopes high we followed the trail while timely referring the phone GPS to keep a track of water crossings and the distance we covered in a day. Our first water crossing wasn’t difficult but, definitely gave us a hard time keeping our feet warm.
One of the things which alarmed me about this route then was the water crossings. There were 4 crossings enroute, the worst of all is Chandra river as it is wide and crossing it with bikes meant double the risk. Mohit always headed first and I followed his way next.
On our first day we camped right after the first crossing, as it was getting dark and the weather was not on our side. Mohit went straight into his tent to settle down as he had a sharp headache, was sick with vomiting and was feeling extremely cold. I started planning our dinner and the spirit stove gave up on us, so our only choice was to fill our stomach with oats & tsampa soaked in cold water.
Neither of us could sleep that night because Mohit’s health was deteriorating. The best idea was to share a tent so that it stayed warm inside and Mohit survived the cold night. What added to the misery was Mohit's gear, which was unsuitable for such cold temperatures - his tent, sleeping bag and mattress got beaten due to which he had to put on extra layers of fleece and line the emergency blanket in his sleeping bag. I was alarmed by the situation and knew he was showing symptoms of AMS. I was worried that if anything would go wrong, there was no scope of help for kilometres.
After a lot of positive talks to build motivation, we derived at a conclusion that it was best that he took Diamox, which would help ease down his altitude sickness. Diamox is a preventive drug which is to be taken in case there are symptoms of AMS, but usually people make a mistake of taking a course before they start for an expedition.
"Our body needs to be acclimated naturally!" - I would like to emphasize this as the 2nd lesson for adventure enthusiasts.
Soon after the first dose, Mohit started to ease up a little and we both survived the night.
Standing at the crossroads - Should we continue or abort our journey?
Next morning even though we both felt dehydrated, the good news was, Mohit's body responded quite well after the first dose of Diamox. I took a deep breath of relief. Before we took any step, I checked the map to study the route ahead. I learnt that there was going to be a descend for the next 8-9 kms, which made me think it could help Mohit acclimatise. So we mutually decided to go further, thinking that it’s easier to descend on a bike than to ride uphill.
It was soon that we both realised this descending route wasn’t practically rideable and our Bikepacking trip had turned into the latest activity "Bikepushing" as there were a lot of loose scree sections where it was only possible for a person to hike. But, that's the idea of Bikepacking or Bikepushing, “You take your bike where people hike".
The terrain was full of rocks, scree and moraine, our bodies gave up every minute but we really wanted to cross the valley.
We both were drained and hungry but, none of us was willing to give up. Here I’m throwing the 3rd lesson from my adventure - “True companionship doesn’t only dwell in good times, but how it stands in tough situations.” Mohit was always there when I needed him and I for him, what else do you need from your adventure partner?
At each river crossing, Mohit would take the lead followed by me dragging my gear-laden bike which was three-fourths my own weight. We would hug each other after every crossing, stop when one of us got stuck or tired to share the beautiful views together. The adventure was just getting bigger.
The 3rd day was the execution of the nightmare that I had been seeing with open eyes for days - crossing the Chandra river. As we reached the river, Mohit as always decided to go first. “Hold on to fear and it always catches you.” (the 4th lesson) I lost my balance in the gushing water and the next second, Kushina & I got swept in the flow. But before anything could go wrong, Mohit pulled me out by the rope I held on to. Fortunately we both had ropes to avoid any major mishaps. I was grateful that I had a companion and that we strategised teamwork. This so far has been the most frightening experience of my life and is the lesson number 4 for life!
The worst was yet to come. By evening Mohit started showing symptoms of stomach infection this time, anything he drank or ate came out in a minute. I was now assured that he was a prey to AMS. It was evident that his body had given up and there was no chance he could push any further because of severe sickness. We were stranded and had to call it quits to find a safe location for the night.
I was now thinking whether I should hike 16KM further to find help at Chandratal or stay back one more day to see if Mohit could get any better. Next morning the situation was so that, we had tp agreed to end the tour to mobilise a rescue operation for Mohit due to his critical condition. So I got going to find help to ward off any further trouble. Honestly I was surprised how the route turned out completely unlike how we imagined it to be. We practically had to be lifting our bikes off boulders all day facing every other difficulty which came along.
As I left alone from our last camp site with a heavy heart, I was filled with anxiety. I took longer steps, ran most of the time to reach at the lake as fast as I could to find shepherds. I was exhausted, full of emotions and could not think about anything but Mohit's well-being. Anything could've happened up there in my absence!
6KM before the lake I met a group of trekkers with their guides who were heading to where Mohit was taking shelter, I briefed them about the situation and requested them to hand him medicines on their way. I'm glad they also served him food along with some hot water that day.
It took me over 5 hours to reach the lake where I met a family from Lahaul. As they saw me coming from the other side, they stopped me to ask about my route. Before I could utter anything I broke into tears, I was truly overwhelmed. When I shared the entire incident and that I needed urgent help, they did their best to reassure me that everything would be fine. Sadly none of them was in condition to help, but they offered me some food they had brought for themselves.
After 4 days of only surviving on granola bars and oats, I was now suddenly having aloo puri. Anything salty would have felt like heaven and so it did. It was the only respite in this distraught situation.
It took me some time to calm down and re-assess everything, because chances of getting help were very less due to most camps being non-operational during off-season.
Fortunately, we got to know that the locals who run camps up there have a deed to form a rescue team collectively where one person from each camp is called in to help in cases of emergencies.
At one of the camps nearby I met Sunil bhaiji to whom I narrated the dire situation. He was very kind and supportive, he understood the urgency of the situation and immediately called a member from every camp and held a meeting to plan the rescue mission.
We started the same evening carrying some food supplies and a stretcher to rescue Mohit that very night, I knew it would be challenging because of the distance and terrain but everyone was proactive.
It again took us 5 hours to reach where Mohit was stationed. My body was completely exhausted walking all day on a rough terrain. But, I realised through mental strength I overcame the physical challenges being determined to get Mohit help.
Mohit was instantly rejuvenated upon seeing the entire team that had come for his aid. He felt a whole lot better, so instead of rushing over night we walked down the next morning with all the gear.
Everyone who came for the rescue was equally tired but in high spirits every minute, “We all had a great picnic” said Norbu and Jerry from the team.
An adventure without risk is not an adventure but, “Mountains require serious level of training, knowledge and patience.” Which is the 5th and last lesson that I wish every adventurer would memorise to their hearts. We made a lot of mistakes and that's what we learnt too! To learn from our mistakes is what makes us human.
To come to a synopsis of my latest bike adventure and put out a disclaimer I would like to declare that this route is not suitable for adventure biking or mountain trail biking because of water crossings, steep sections that had scree and moraine. The best decision would be to avoid it!
A big thanks to the rescue team for their great support and hospitality, I will never forget these moments, love that I received, kindness that I was fed with by every person I met on the road and most importantly the lessons which I would swear by for the adventures to come.
I would like to end this blog by going over the 5 lessons that Bara-lacha pass taught me:
1. It is always important to map out the route.
2. Our body needs to be acclimated naturally!
3. True companionship doesn’t only dwell in good times, but how it stands in tough situations.
4. Hold on to fear and it always catches you.
5. Mountains require serious level of training, knowledge and patience.