It had been a while since I almost died on a mountain, and of all the places I almost died on this trip, the mountains around Manali would be my first choice. At least that's what I told myself when I was up there. I felt like I had finally hit my stride in India. I had gotten a grip on the transportation system, I felt like I could stomach any food, and I was starting to figure out how things "work". I was also following the tourist trail and playing it safe and easy.
My first stop was a city called Rishikesh. The Beatles visited the peaceful mountain town back in the late 60's, and since then it's become a western tourist pilgrimage, "the world capital of Yoga", and where my least favorite type of tourists in India are born. You can spot the tourists I'm talking about from down the street because they're barefoot, despite having a good pair of shoes and sandals with them, and they're wearing "traditional" Indian cloths that modern Indians don't wear. Modern Indians wear jeans and t-shirts just like most of the people in America. I should say the men do. Most of the women in India still dress in the traditional garb, which is also true in many other parts of Asia.
They're the type of tourist that wears a bindi on their forehead but don't know the first thing about Indian culture or religion. They talk in a high soft voice with the last syllable of each sentence dragged out. "Oh. Yeah. I loved India. I stayed in an Ashram for two months." They eat Chicken Tikka Masala, a popular which likely originated in the UK but can be found India for tourists, and they're from parts of Portland or Madison or San Fransisco. So Rishikesh wasn't my bag; I moved on.
The next city was also on the tourist trail, but because it was fall there and temperatures dropped below freezing in the evenings, all the tourists stayed away (with the exception of a few Austrians). Manali was a charming mountain town and the fourth place I visited in India that I'd heard referred to as "The Switzerland of India". If any place deserved the title, it was Manali (and I've been to Switzerland before). Manali is literally surrounded by snow-covered mountains. It's divided into two regions—Old Manali and New Manali—separated by a charming forest. Domestic tourists, of which there were quite a few, stayed in resorts outside of town and spent most of their time on "Mall Road" in New Manali. I found lodging in the mostly-closed-down Old Manali, which I had pretty much to myself.
For many people the word "Paradise" is intrinsically linked to the word "Tropical", but for me the word "Paradise" conjures up images of a sleepy mountain town full of apple and cherry trees that have almost entirely lost their leaves, and smiling locals and beautiful yaks and puppies everywhere. In paradise the air smells of wood from the fires used to cook and heat houses. In paradise the hiking trails are minimal and unpolluted. Late November in Manali is pretty close to my idea of paradise.
Every night as I stood bundled up on my balcony watching the sun set on the mountains across the valley, I thought "Those mountains aren't so high. Tomorrow I'm going to climb one." And eventually I did. I figured there was no way I could get lost since all I would have to do is go down and then I'd be in the valley and could follow the river back to town. I figured I wouldn't need too many supplies since it would just be a short hike up a small mountain. I figured it would be safe to go alone. Still, I brought my basic survival supplies: knife, rope, lighter, compass+mirror, flashlight, metal water bottle and chocolate.
I walked across the valley and found a place at the base of the mountain near the line I had sighted. The initial climb up a loose scree was a bit challenging but I figured it would get easier after that. The notion that things would get easier just a little higher up soon became my mantra. The underbrush was far thicker and thornier than I was expecting, but I pushed on through. Then I came to a 4m/13ft vertical face that I couldn't go around because of steep gorges on either side. "Well, this is it" I thought "It's do or die" and began to climb. The first couple rock holds were relatively easy, but then the stone became smooth and I couldn't find any footing. At that point I was about 3m/9ft off the ground. I spotted some brush limbs hanging down and some tall dry grass that I could just reach if I leaped. Dreaming that the stunt would be filmed for use in a future Mission Impossible, I jumped up and grabbed hold. The branch and grasses held. I pulled myself up as a shower of dirt and debris rained down, partially blinding me.
The next several hours were more of the same. I realized that every time I had to jump or pull myself up by a clump of long grass, I was limiting my ability to go down the way I had come. "I just have to get to the top. There'll be some sort of trail along the crest of the mountain; there always is." In retrospect I was starting to suffer from delirium caused by altitude sickness and dehydration, but it's hard to accept that at the moment. I foolishly pushed on as I got more exhausted and the air got thinner. My little metal bottle of water was empty within a few hours. I had convinced myself that the only way off the mountain was up.
The slope was steep, the vegetation was dry, and the earth was loose. More times than I could count on my fingers I found myself sliding down the mountain and just barely grabbed hold of something before falling off a cliff. On a couple occasions I literally grabbed something as I was falling off a cliff, and hung there like a cartoon character until I could muster the strength to pull myself up. Then, moving a few steps at a time, I'd push on.
At about three o'clock I realized that I'd been hiking for five hours and the sun would be down in two hours, and once it was, the temperature would drop very fast and the light would quickly disappear. I knew I didn't have the warm cloths to be out at night, and there was no way for me to traverse the terrain in the dark, even with a flashlight. It was about that time I heard some very loud rustling in the woods not to far from me. I knew the chances were very very very small that it was a person, but I was delirious so I ran over to see what it was. It was a baby bear. It was all fat and cute for the winter and took off as soon as it saw me. I couldn't find the mother and that worried me. I started banging my metal water bottle against rocks as I hiked, though climbing with one less hand added a new element of danger.
False summits abounded. Every time I thought I was nearing the top, I would crest a peak and find more mountain. I had been forced to abandon my original line, if ever I was truly on it, due to the tricky terrain. It was around five o'clock when the sun was starting to dip behind the mountain over Old Manali that I came across a dying glacier. It was a molecule of what it once was, but I could see where it had been. As it lay there dying and helpless in the evening light, I asked it for help. "Could you spare some water?" It was producing a small trickle. I filled my water bottle and drank. It tasted like ice. I filled it again and carried on. I could have built a fire and sterilized it, but I knew I didn't have time.
It was shortly after the glacier that I met up with a game trail. I followed it in the downwards direction until it stopped at the edge of cliff. "I ain't going out like this" I said, and then jumped onto the steep bank of the nearby mountainside and, in a semi-controlled slide, began rapidly descending through thorn bushes and undergrowth. I stopped before another cliff and began to climb horizontally across the mountain. It was then that I spotted it: an old village trail. It was barely visible and looked as though it had barely ever been a trail, but it was a real, human-made trail. In the best of light only a few meters of trail were visible, and twilight was quickly metamorphosing into darkness. At times the trail forked and at times it disappeared altogether, but I trusted my gut and made it down the mountain. It was still about 8km back to town when I reached the bottom, but luckily an auto-rickshaw happened to be going by so I flagged it down and paid more than I should have to get a ride back home.
When I got back to my hotel I didn't know what I wanted to do first: bandage my wounds, remove my splinters, take off my cloths, take some medicine for the pounding headache I had. I had debris in my underwear and tree-sap in my bellybutton. At no time previously on this trip had a hot shower been so well received. I got some hearty Tibetan soup and then climbed into bed and reflected upon my journey. Bushwhacking onto a mountain by myself probably wasn't the brightest idea, and if anyone had been with me I'm sure we would have concluded to find a way down long before I descended, but it was an amazing experience. One time while I was sitting there peeling an orange and looking out across the gorgeous expanse, three large eagles dropped down into my field of vision and glided across the sky with the beautiful snow-capped mountains as their only backdrop.Soundtrack: Big Rock Candy Mountain (Harry McClintock)