We start climbing up. It's tough, and gets tougher. M continues to be completely unfazed while I rapidly descend into the gasping-for-stops phase - I swear this is the toughest girl I've ever known, part from the coolest - and for the next three hours, while the clouds get more and more ominous, lightning crackles, and the wind rises, we learn the unique hill-people definition of 'downhill' and 'five minutes'. 'Downlhill' is any uphill slope not steep enough to make you (them) gasp. '5 minutes' is half an hour. Just like the Calcutta 10 minutes is actually 2 and the Mumbai 2 mins is actually ten.
Brief storm; drizzle, frozen in that temperature to perfect lenses of ice that turn to water on hitting you. In a few minutes, we're soaked. Now, the wind starts to pick up. But we've come too far now to turn back... ever had that feeling when you know you're going to regret this really seriously in the morning, but for now, it's something you just have to say / do / try.
There's a pause. A kind of hush. and we walk over a rise and see the glacier in front of us. At first it's just dirty snow, but gets whiter and whiter as we walk up. And suddenly we aren't tired anymore. Raju says it would take four hours to reach the peak; but again, that's by his standards. If we were to try it, we'd die halfway.
Ski down. And I discover I'm a natural.
Though I'm still the only person who lands on his ass...
Come back over the rise, and suddenly the storm comes back with a vengeance, and it's the complete works this time. No more sleet, no more rain. It's tiny frozen chunks of ice howling in horizontally on a wind strong enough to fly you off the edge if you spread your arms out. You have to keep your back to it, or the flying ice will blind you; and even then, you can hear it machine-gunning your 'cheater hood in a continuous chatter.
My hands quickly go completely numb; I can't use them to hold anything. Drop the bottle, shove them as much as I can in my pockets and keep walking, hunched down. The next morning I'll discover where I've stripped the skin off the nail line on my fingers getting them past the denim, but right now I can't feel anything at all.
Reach the Snow Line Cafe. It's front has been sealed off with a blue plastic tarp, banging and billowing in the wind. We have to get in by lying down on the ground, squeezing our heads in, and wriggling the rest of us up.
Inside, there are five people sitting; all hill people, bundled up, watching the storm. When we breathe out, it vapours more thickly than I've ever seen even in the Allahabad winters; and I realize we're soaked to the skin as well when we go beyond shivering to complete full-body shaking. Down a couple of cups of tea, most of whose heat goes to my hands. Get enough sensation for a while to click off some snaps. An hour later the ice stops; I tell M that we have to leave now, while there's still some light. If we're still here at dark, we won't be able to go down, and staying on the Snow Line in wet clothes will be complete, straightforward, suicide.
M is pretty far gone by now with the cold, but she still gets up and starts walking. And continues. For the next two hours, one foot after another, all the way back to Triund.
Raju tells me later that he had never seen anyone get up and do that walk back even in good weather, in the state she was in; he's never seen anyone with as much guts as her.
And I agree.
We also met another interesting person while chilling at the Snow Line - Mr. Jayprakash Sharma. He's been in Allahabad, running a business near AU; he's had a clothes shop in Panjim; and now he's here. Parallel lives...
There's a campfire going in Triund, and though the smoke gets in my eyes and makes me choke, blinded, I still stand practically in it. Some warmth comes back after a while. M has opted for a change and rolling up in blankets; I still try to dry off before heading back to the hut.
Images - the fire gusting in the wind, sparks heading off into the complete dark. Steam coming off my clothes. Shaking hands, hot chai. A group of Tibetan girls telling us 'Everyone comes from below to above.' (points at the peak) 'We've come from above to below!' This is accompanied by a lot of laughs. A group of college kids with an older mustached gent surround the fire, where they keep tempting him with cigarettes. A Punjabi auntie busily rounds up the younger members back to their tents. And above it all, the dead silence of a recently-passed storm, and the living darkness that comes when you're in completely open country with no streetlights, no habitation all around.
M woke up once briefly, around 2 am, and went out to wartch the stars. I missed that chance.
But... there's always that to look forward to, next time.