When I turned 60 in January 2016, the thought crossed my mind: what did I want to do with the rest of my life? My father and mother were recently deceased; I had more time than before for reflection. I had left India at 23 to study and eventually settle in the United States. Subsequent visits to India had been centered around family and friends. As a result, I had not seen much of the country where I was born and raised. My family comes from the plains of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, but even as a child I was fascinated by the mountains, by the greenery and crisp air, by the perspectives that can only be had from some altitude. Little else could bring me more joy than exploring the Himalayas, the greatest mountain range in the world, with the time I had left.
But could I do it? As a young man, I had backpacked the Annapurna trail with friends, starting from Pokhara and getting as far as Tatopani before running out of time and money. Exhilarating as that was, that trek had taxed my body to the limit. Now, 40 years later, with the onset of arthritis and marginally high cholesterol, could I still do it? I was in reasonably good shape, I thought. My regimen includes an hour in the gym 5 times a week. But after a couple of self-arranged day hikes to Tungnath and Deoria Tal last year, I realized I needed endurance training.
My partner Ashok shares my interest in nature and the outdoors, and he was up for exploring the Himalayas with me. This time we wanted to go on a professionally organized trek. Last year another self-arranged day hike in the hills near Darap, Sikkim, had ended disastrously: the trail vanished, the leeches found us, and when it got dark, we were miles from civilization. It took many phone calls and three search parties to rescue us. That’s not the sort of adventure we sought.
Websurfing one evening, youtube pointed me to some videos. In them, a young woman by the name of Swathi was offering helpful advice on trekking in the Himalaya: how to train, what to take, how to pack, how to prevent acute mountain sickness and how to recover from it. She seemed to know her stuff, as did the people she interviewed: Arjun and Sandhya. What’s more, she was covering topics most people would studiously avoid: encouraging women to go trekking, no matter what time of month and gave information on how to use Himalayan portable potties! Did we grow up in the same country?! These short, succinct videos were professionally produced, disarmingly honest, and non-commercial. I was intrigued.
Digging deeper, we found that her company IndiaHikes bills itself as a trekking community rather than a company. It offers many treks through the Himalayas. It has a zero-alcohol policy. Food served is lacto-ovo-vegetarian. Best of all, they are successful, taking as many as 10,000 people to the mountains each year. The company’s approach to trekking seemed to embody the best aspects of being outdoors – seeking adventure on nature’s terms – and promoting environmental conservation at the same time. It struck a chord; we had to check it out.
From the IndiaHikes website — professionally designed, packed with information, easy to use — we identified a trek of easy/moderate difficulty: Sandakphu. The trail goes through the Singalila National Park, which includes red panda habitat. Registration was simple and straightforward. We went through all of Swathi’s videos, following every instruction and checklist — they were practical and helpful. Periodic emails from the ground coordinator Sandeep helped us prepare.
From then on, training took on a special meaning; every session on the elliptical machine seemed imbued with a higher purpose, you might say, with thoughts of the Himalayas. The months flew by. I could now do 10 km each day 5 days a week (in a climate-controlled gym, no doubt, but still way above my normal capacity) — without injury. By the time we landed at Bagdogra airport, I felt confident and well-prepared. A shared SUV picked us up and after a 4-hour scenic ride, dropped us off at base camp, Jaubari, 7,000 feet, just outside the town of Manebhanjyang.
It was dark when we arrived. Guided by flashlights, we walked down a slope to our quarters: a large building with dorm-style rooms, a dining room, spartan but clean toilets, recycling bins for bottles and cans, paper and cardboard, and plastic.
We gathered in the dining room and introduced ourselves. We were a motley crew. Most people were from India (a good sign) with a wide spread of ages (21 to 47), sexes, and backgrounds. Some were seasoned trekkers — one on his third trek to Sandakphu — and for some this was their very first trek. One person came from Holland, another from Israel, and three were from the U.S. of Indian descent.
Trek leader Dushyant and assistant trek leader Geet performed what was to become a daily ritual – a medical checkup: blood pressure, oxygen saturation, and pulse readings. Each of us received a health card in which these statistics were recorded. I had nothing to worry about, I thought; my recent checkups in San Jose had been A-OK. But the sphygmomanometer in Jaubari read an abnormally high 180/100, that too twice in a row! I was puzzled.
Dinner followed: a simple but delicious Nepali meal of roti, rice, dal, vegetables, and crisp papad. Afterwards, we retired to our respective dorm rooms, three to a bed, six to a room. In spite of the warm covers, I knew it was a very cold night outside.
We woke at the crack of dawn to catch the sunrise over the valley — it was overcast. Time for another health check. Now my systolic BP had fallen to 160, but still high. The trek leader pulled me aside: it was not advisable, he said, for me to proceed to higher altitudes in this condition. My heart sank. To come all this way and find out that my body wouldn’t cooperate! He offered a ray of hope: stay back in Jaubari for an extra day; trek leader Indrajit would monitor my BP; if my body acclimatized, I could join the group on the second day at Kuakata.
After breakfast and orientation, the team took off for Tumling. Three of us stayed back, two due to high BP, and one for love. We walked up and down the hillside to explore and acclimatize. Later in the afternoon, Indrajit took us on a short walk to Manebhanjyang for another BP reading. It had fallen further, to 140/80, but was it good enough? I would not find out until the next day, but I had already learned an important lesson: next time, arrive a day earlier to acclimatize.
Walking back to Jaubari, we got caught in a rain shower. It didn’t take long for my jacket and hoodie to get wet, and I learned my second important lesson. Don’t leave home without your poncho; keep it close at hand and be ready to whip it out the moment the rain shower hits. When trekking, you are only carrying the essentials, and you can’t afford to put any piece of clothing out of commission.
A gorgeous sunrise awaited us the next day, and I got the good news: it was safe for me to join the trek. I was thankful that I got to go, but even more thankful for the IndiaHikes medical protocol which detected my health issue in the first place.
Ashok and I rode an aging Landrover up the mountain over a bumpy road, stopping briefly at Chitre and Meghma, entering Singalila National Park at Gairibas, then on to Kaiakata to rendezvous with the rest of the team. After a light lunch at a tea house, we set off together, and our hike truly began.
By then the weather had changed. It was now cool and overcast and the hilltops were shrouded in mist. The trail climbed gently up, past hillsides thick with rhododendron trees. I could only imagine how brilliant it must look in spring, the entire slope aflame with crimson, scarlet, pink.
To plant enthusiasts like us, seeing Himalayan plants in their native habitat was deeply meaningful. From diminutive strawberry to ferns to fragrant wintergreen, sycamore, whitebeam, and layered acorn oak, every plant tells a story of survival and of symbiosis with native fauna.
The final stretch brought us to Kalipokhri pond, festooned with prayer flags, and just beyond it was the ridge top.
We took in a spectacular sunset. Anirudh assumed the sheershasana pose. Vishal clicked away. Devina and Darshan shared a quiet moment, looking out at the setting sun.
We made our way to the tea house for the night, cramming into the dining hall, seeking warmth, food, and company. The night’s accommodations — dorm-style beds — were warm and comfortable. The shared bathroom had running water (it was ice cold).
The sun shone brightly the following morning but the frost on the plants told a different story. Sandakphu, our destination, was in sight, at the very top of a huge mountain before us. My endurance was about to be put to the test.
The trail went up gradually at first, but got steeper the closer we got to the top. My fellow trek mates were like-minded individuals who loved nature with fascinating stories of their own. When you are in good company, the climb doesn’t seem so daunting. There was always a reason to stop: beautiful moss, Indian tortoiseshell butterfly sipping at a seep, Himalayan primrose still in bloom.
A brief stop at Bikhebhanjyang, and then we continued uphill. The clouds moved in and the trees gave way to low shrubs. One in particular looked familiar: a handsome groundcover, 2 feet tall, with tightly knit branches, small leaves reddened by the frost, and red berries. It colonized entire slopes at this altitude. I had seen it on the Devariya Tal trail last year, in bloom, and covered with butterflies. This was rockspray cotoneaster, also used as a landscape plant in the West.
The climb was unrelenting, and we made frequent stops. Dushyant kept us company, recounting his remarkable transition from an office worker to a mountaineer and trek leader. At one point, I felt mild nausea coming on, and chose to exercise an abundance of caution by downing a Diamox tablet.
We crossed a high meadow and continued the ascent. Before we knew it, we were at Sandakphu, 11,929 feet, the highest point in the state of West Bengal. After sampling the refreshments at the local tea shop, we made our way to the camp site, some distance from the village.
By the time we got there, the entire camp site was fogged over. With help from the supporting staff, we pitched our tents and set up mats and sleeping bags. Raman produced a ball; everybody joined in a game of catch. And people learned quickly that there was a steep price to pay for taking the ball away from Devina. When summoned, we made our way to the tea house dining hall. We warmed our hands around the charcoal fire, played games of deception and treachery, and wolfed dinner down when it arrived.
One of the nice aspects of the Sandakphu trail is how it weaves between India and Nepal. There is no barbed wire, no sentries, just the occasional marker. A mostly friction less flow of people between two friendly nations. One hopes this becomes the norm in all corners of the world. Nepali people are predominant in this part of the Himalayas: gentle, kind, friendly, smiling, and strong as hell.
Now the hard part. Ashok and I had been nursing a cold and flu for a couple of days (runny nose, mild fever), but by late evening my condition got significantly worse. I could not continue trekking for three more days, and reluctantly decided to head back the following day. It was hard to walk away from our trek mates and trek staff because we had formed a bond. That night in the tent was a cold one.
The mist had lifted by morning but it was still overcast. We could not see Kanchenjunga or Everest — that’s mountain weather for you. The view we did have was grand nonetheless: mountain ranges below us floating in an ocean of clouds.
After breakfast, we wished our trek mates good luck as they headed to Phalut; we boarded a Jeep to return to Manebhanjyang. Vishal was returning with us due to unforeseen work responsibilities. A quick transfer to another taxi and we were in Bagdogra by 6 pm. Along the way we learned about Vishal’s car journeys through the country and the continent: the stories he could tell, the pictures he showed us!
It took two more weeks to recover from the cold and flu, so we made the right call in cutting our trip short. But the memory of this trek will stay with me. I saw not only extraordinary places but also met many special people who shared an abiding love for the outdoors. We are still in touch and I hope that our paths will cross again.
This trek — my first with IndiaHikes — lived up to all my expectations and more. I proved to myself that I could do it, that age was no barrier to trekking in the Himalayas. I have come away with photographs, memories, gratitude, and inspiration. I now feel part of a community of mountain lovers. I will soon be celebrating my 61st birthday. Experiencing the Himalayas through this trek was the best birthday gift ever, and I look forward to more — the mountains are still calling.