You’ve been stuck there for three days now and haven’t the foggiest about when you’re going home.
You were supposed to be out of Yogmato, that campsite, over 48 hours ago, but instead you were stuck with some of your trekking mates and local guides and porters to spend the slow moving time and wait for something to happen. Oh, and it had started to snow that morning.
The (in)famous Chadar trek. Oh how the adventure center of your brain perked up when you first heard about it six months ago, and spent the next six months counting down the days to when you finally get to walk on the frozen river in -15°C surrounded by mountains and ice beneath your feet. Ah, the dreams.
And open your eyes because here you are now. Stuck because the river further down the way has liquefied and you’d catch hypothermia within minutes if you ventured walking through it.
Uncertainty was annoying, not least because the cold was genuinely spine chilling. The nights were the toughest, having to sleep within those godforsaken sleeping bags. When your body heat literally condenses and the sleeping bags actually get moist from the inside, rendering the whole point of them, useless.
Other than that, your fingers and toes perennially numb and yet somehow at the same time, in pain. The after-effects of which you still feel 10 days later trying to type this with swollen fingers.
So it came as a welcome break, when the First Ladakhi Scouts, the local rescue team arrived at Yogmato.
They speak to the trek leaders and you try to eavesdrop and your ears perk up when you hear the words “Nerak” and “Army” and “Helicopter.”
Sure enough, you soon get briefed that you will be taken back where you came from, and further ahead to the Nerak village, where the actual Indian army will send an actual Mi17 Helicopter and rescue you out.
And so you say to your friend C standing next to you, “Man, we’re in one hell of a story.”
And so you start walking again. Towards the village. Further away from home yet at the same time a step closer. On ice. Ice that feels like it’s breaking every time you take a step and the sound of cracks and creaks that you will still hear in your nightmares a week from now. One missed step on a weak sheet of ice and down it goes allowing water and small ice cubes in your gumboots, followed by you having to change your wet socks and suffer excruciating pain in your feet for a couple of minutes.
It got worse still, when you slip and fall hands first on your backside and the freezing cold water seeps into both your gumboots and both your gloves, causing you to suffer inexplicably in the middle of way, crying in agony. And the wind. The incessant wind blowing on your wet limbs ironically makes it feel like they’re actually on fire. But you pick yourself up, and you go on, ’cause man, you just gotta.
A couple hours later you reach the Nerak waterfall, frozen in midair, the summit of this trek, for the second time in three days. But this time, not one person has the energy or the willingness to take pictures. Walk on ahead, about an hour or so further, to the Nerak village, a tiny place with a few scattered houses in the middle of nowhere, disconnected from the outside world in every way imaginable bar a single satellite phone.
You’re greeted with hot tea, instant noodles, and medical care if anybody needed any.
Meanwhile the snow was incessant. You get told that the helicopter won’t be there if the weather doesn’t clear up first and so you had to prepare for further wait.
But the human psyche is incredible, you’re in the middle of nowhere, with people you didn’t know a week ago, and you don’t know when you’re going home. But you come together with your spirit and treat each other as family, helping one another with every little thing. You brush your teeth and you have one of them with you to help you open up the toothpaste cap and pour water for you.
With temperatures hitting negative twenty five and sometimes as low as negative thirty(!), your body squeezes unto itself. Reminds you of the time after the mandatory medical checkup before the trek began, you went with C to the public restroom to take a leak, and a complete stranger, a local, comes to urinal in between, looks down to his zipper and says with the perfect timing, “cr*p, where’d it go? It was right here this morning!”
The next morning, the absolute first thing you do is you wiggle out of the sleeping bag and open the window and take a peek. Take a peek and see the snow hurling down with gusto and you can’t see past it, and your heart sank. There was going to be no rescue that day.
So you do what human beings in agony often do, get together and drink plenty of old monk and party like there wasn’t going to be a tomorrow. For all we knew, there might well not be one.
Thankfully, there was.
The next morning, same routine, window check, and you see that the snow has stopped finally and it feels like your heart has had a huge weight lifted off it. And right on cue, your trek guide comes in and demands everyone to get ready. The helicopters were finally coming.
Little twist though, you then find out that the helipad in the village was on top of a steep, two hour climb away. But you do it, because duh. You’re pretty much on your knees by the time you reach there, dead on your knees.
But you’re there. You made it. You see the helicopter coming. You’re finally going home.
The helicopter arrives, with three Army doctors, one senior official, and plenty of supplies, and the helicopter departs.
Confused, dumbfounded. Confounded.
And it hits you almost as hard as the cold when he says that there will not be a rescue today on account of the weather worsening and you best go back down and wait for it to clear up again.
Like hell you would.
But you gotta. It’s the freaking Indian army man.
You put your tail between your legs start walking down again, dreading with the thought of having to climb back up again in a day or two.
But the spirit was at a breaking point now. You reach back down, not a word was spoken, you were offered tea and you shared a blanket with two others.
But just when everything seemed low and doom ridden, Sharaf the local porter burst into our room and said, “Chalo, chalo Helicopter aa raha hai tumhe rescue karne!”
And Christ on a bike if we suddenly didn’t find the hidden strength from behind the sofa and raced back up to the helipad in next to no time.
And this time, they came and took us away. Flying between the snow clad mountains and above the valleys, we reached the Army base hospital after about 30 mintues of airtime. Routine medical check-up, protocols, and forms were filled and finally you were able to call home, finally you reached the hotel.
Finally you take a warm bath, a home-like dinner, fresh clothes and a heater, finally you sleep in a comfortable bed, and finally, you learn to appreciate life like never before.
A thin slice of it.