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The Ascent to Sandakphu

IndiaHikes - Sandakphu
Man originated somewhere deep in the jungles of Ethiopia. And then, he walked, and walked, and walked; to become, arguably, the most dominant species in the history of the planet. Walking then, is the most natural thing in the world, and as old as the hills themselves. And yet, today, walking is an archaism. We live in the era of Uber and Amazon, of the remote and the elevator; all designed to not just make walking unnecessary but also unfashionable.

Trekking then, inhabits this curious corner of contradiction, natural and unnatural at the very same time. For the first time trekker, this contradiction is all the more magnified; accustomed as he is, to the warm comforts of luxury travel, the lure and excitement of trekking is nonetheless elementary, almost primal even.

As the first timer treks, flat terrain is his friend, all so familiar and so very comforting; if at all, monotony is the only damper. The descent is a trickier beast, with dangers potentially lurking behind every corner and cunning pitfalls never too far away. Complacency here, can be a rather expensive mistake. And yet, it is fair to say that, caution, rather than exertion, is the chief concern.
The soul of trekking though resides in the ascent. The urge to scale peaks and conquer challenges strikes at the most central chord of human spirit.

The 27 of us, a rather motley group of trekkers, stood there, collectively contemplating the final ascent to Sandakphu. Sandakphu, to us, was the promised land, having lured us from different parts of the country and having given us a common goal and purpose. For that one week, we were to be a family, sharing the same concerns, combating the same challenges, and most importantly, having a common aspiration.

After one final sip of water, I stood up, slung the rucksack over the shoulders, tightened the straps, and took a hard good luck at our destination, far and high up in the mountains. And so I began the ascent, one step at a time. Very soon, I began to pull away. 12,000 feet above the sea level is not an easy place to be trekking in. The air is thinner, the temperature colder and each and every exertion requires extra effort.

As I zigzagged across the torturous mountain trail, one step up at a time, everything else began to fade away. It was no more about the enchanting scenery, no more about the elusive red panda and no more even about the 26 others. It was all about me, myself and the mountains. The mountains asked for greater discipline, deeper resolve and stronger will. I responded. Taking deep breaths and short steps, I placed one foot after the other, with the green bamboo staff, having become an extension of myself, a third limb in fact. The monotony, rather than being belittling, became exhilarating. The distance of the destination and the steepness of the ascent ceased to matter. It was all about that one moment, that one next step and that one next breath. Pain itself became the greatest motivation and exhaustion the greatest strength. And so I surrendered myself to the mountain and became one with it. The destination now did not seem that far away.

But alas, the mountains are cruel friends, and do not grant access all that easily. Even as the steps accumulated, the pain became sharper and the exhaustion greater. I stumbled and the rhythm was broken. I was no more one with the mountain. I looked up now and the destination seemed forbiddingly far and the path impossibly steep. The resolve began to break and the mountains seemed to have won. But yet, I had one last trick up my sleeve; companionship. When all seems lost, humans fall back upon their one greatest strength, the other human beings. Solidarity is the greatest and the defining character of humanity.

And so I drew upon this companionship. It was three of us now, ahead of all the others. All three of us were battling the same challenges, buckling under the weight of the backpack and the greater weight of the mountain. Even as our individual resolve began to fail, our collective resolve came to the rescue. We spoke hardly a word among ourselves, but for that short while, we were one, united by pain and ambition alike. We walked together and rested together. As one began to tire, the other took up the lead, silently motivating the other two. I was once again back into the rhythm and zone, but this time, there were three tiny set of steps being taken, three set of breaths and three wills fighting together.

And so finally, the challenge (never the mountain), was conquered. What couldn’t be achieved alone, was achieved together. We had earned the majestic view of the Kanchenjunga and the Everest that beheld us. And also, we had earned the respect of ourselves, of each other and perhaps hopefully the respect of the mountains themselves. The friendship forged may or may not last, even the memory might begin to fade with the cruel, inexorable passage of time, but the experience shared and earned will remain on, even if deep within. 

Lastly, never did Maggi taste better, with our feet up, three spoons in a bowl, and the mountains looking, benignly now, down upon us. We could afford to smile and smile we did.

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