Even the most casual tourist to Pahalgam this summer could not have failed to notice the big blue banner hanging outside the Tourist Office, proclaiming 'HIMANKAN 82, INDIAN INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY, BOMBAY'. Slightly more observant tourists would have noticed strange bespectacled/bearded creatures with knapsacks and white carrymats on their back, roaming in the main street of Pahalgam. These were IITian participants of Himankan-82, the annual Himalayan trekking venture of the Mountaineering Club, IIT Bombay.
Way back in 1972, some enthusiastic hikers in IIT got together to form a small mountaineering club. It's activities were restricted to weekend hikes and occasional treks in the Sahyadris. Girls were not allowed without escorts. Over the years, as the urge to climb spread, eyes turned towards the Himalayas, the pilgrimage for all climbers. A small group had grown into a big active club with the participation steadily increasing. Climbing expeditions to the Himalayas were sponsored by the students' Gymkhana. Every year a few experienced hikers were sent to the mountaineering institutes at Manali, Uttar Kashi and Dargeeling for basic/advanced courses in mountaineering.
However, with the ever increasing popularity of mountaineering in IIT, it became clear that not everybody interested in going to the Himalayas could be sponsored by the Gymkhana for an institute expedition. Moreover, the majority who were just novices as far as mountaineering was concerned could not be sent on a technical climbing venture.
With this in mind, in 1981, the idea of Himankan was mooted. ‘Himankan’ means exploring the folds of Himalayan snow. The spirit behind it was to expose the uninitiated IITian to the joys and hardships of trekking in the Himalayas and to let him watch at close quarters the simple lifestyle of the mountain folk. And above all, since the participants would move in large groups, Himankan would foster a feeling of camaraderie among the trekkers. The organisation of such a big venture would be completely undertaken by a team of students themselves.
Thus, in the summer of 1981, Himankan was launched in the Manali region. The programme, the first of its kind, was fully handled by students, and was an overwhelming success.
Encouraged by the success of Himankan-81, plans were made for organising Himankan-82, and this time, in Kashmir. The factors involved in choosing a region include speedy and efficient transport, regular supplies of vegetables, eatables and fuel, accommodation, medical, postal and military assistance if the need arises.
In the IIT, around 240 participants (including 11 girls) enrolled for Himankan-82. One could see IITians scurrying around trying to get a TABC inoculation (a must) or standing in queues at Bombay Central trying to get a reservation for Jammu.
For organisers, there was 'mountainous' work to be done. Makarand and Atul had worked out the logistics or group movements from Pahalgam, the base camp. Four more camps were to be set up, at Aru, Lidderwat (on the Northwest) and Chandanwadi, Sheshnag (on the Northeast), forming a V-shaped route, with Pahalgam at the apex. The participants were divided into 8 batches, each batch covering the total distance of 180 km. in twelve days.
Alka, Bapat and Bhagdikar had to work out the food estimates at every camp. Ajit, Mayya, Milind, Kushal and Satish had to procure miscellaneous items like sheets, ropes, buckets, lanterns, utensils, cardboard cartons, stoves, apart from repairing existing rucksacks, stoves and cookers. Girish, Subodh and Chandrashekar were responsible for transport arrangements to and from Pahalgam for all the equipment and organizers. Madhuwanti and Atul managed all the medical stores. Four doctors, Anand, Milind (Chowdhary), Milind (Modak) and Artee would accompany the organizers. Manjunath, Surya and Vinay were entrusted with circulating information about Himankan and interesting outside industries and trusts in it.
The overall Coordination was done by Ajit, Makarand, Vasudev and Sandeep, with help from Chandrashekhar (Datye).
On 27th April, an advance team left for Pahalgam to prepare the ground for Himankan. The remaining organizers were busy packing the food provisions, utensils, stoves, etc., a total weight of 2.5 tonnes! This job was itself a small expedition, requiring meticulous planning.
Finally, the journey began, not to mention the problems at the railway station, with the booking clerk getting awed by the bulk and weight of the luggage and initially refusing to take any of it in the brake van.
On the fourth of May, we reached Jammu, late, of course, and were stranded without any transport to Srinagar. The luggage was sent by a truck, and the party finally left for Pahalgam in a chartered bus the next day. Finally, on the fifth, all organizers were present at Pahalgam, the base camp, to discuss plans and schedules, amidst the thunder of clouds and slashing of rain on the window panes. The sight outside the dormitory - an overcast sky - was, to say the least, a shade paler than the gloom that had filled the room, on hearing the disheartening news about the very low snowline; the freaky weather; snow-boundness of all paths to the campsites, especially Chandanwadi, Sheshnag and Lidderwat; non-availability of PWD huts at the camps; and finally, the unwillingness of the ponywallas to carry our gear to Sheshnag. Nevertheless, there was no going back,and with the assurance of help from Mr. Mohd. Aslam (Tourist Officer), Mr. Magid Khan (Asst.Exec. Engineer of PWD) and Mr. Mohd. Ashraf, it was decided to set up the camps as planned, and defer the details of different hikes till all else was settled.
The challenge having been accepted, on 6th May, small groups left Pahalgam with the luggage to set up the four camps. Most of the organizers were paired to work as a team, and their movement schedule also decided. Four members were kept free to coordinate the whole show.
The caravans wound their muddy way to the camps at Aru and Chandanwadi. The next day, they were to move to Lidderwat from Aru and Sheshnag from Chandanwadi. Both these groups had their share of difficulties.
At about a furlong from the Lidderwat campsite, the bridge to cross the river Lidder had broken and the ponywallas dumped the luggage on the other bank of the river and fled back, leaving the four organizers who were present, in a state of extreme frustration. With darkness approaching and chilly winds blowing around the scattered mass of 800 - 900 kg. of provisions, the morale of those present was as low as the of mercury in the thermometer. They shifted the luggage to a small open shelter-hut to shield it from the rain and slept in the available space.
Not more than 10 km. east of them, as the crow flies, the other group was in no better shape. It had rained heavily in the morning, and they could leave for Sheshnag only at 11 o'clock, after loading the ponies with 1000 kg. of luggage. Anticipating a steep slope of 1800' of snow, they had borrowed a pair of shovels to make a level path for the ponias. After climbing halfway up the slope, the ponies found the going difficult due to the soft snow. Under their weight the ponies started sinking upto their bellies in the snow. Panic gripped them, and they could easily have slid down the slope with all the strapped luggage too. The ponywallas were scared out of their wits and refused to come up. Finally it was decided to manually ferry the luggage to Pissu Top, at the head of the slope, store it there in a "Labour Sarai" and then explore the possibility of moving it to Sheshnag. However, the ferry to the top by ten organizers and six ponywallas was so tiring that it was decided to cancel the Sheshnag camp, and have it at Pissu Top itself. The flat area there was a big expanse of snow, at least 8-10' deep. There was so much snow that the 3 labour sarais were covered up to the roof.
A massive cleaning operation was taken up, removing trash from the sarais, burying it in the snow in a remote place, shovelling out the snow which had entered the concrete structure through open doors and cracking and slicing the hard ice covering the floor of the sarai. Luckily, some dry wood stored by the locals was located, and a fire was lit. The fierce wind blew through the few ventilation openings, blocking the way for fumes to go out, making life miserable for the organizers. The snowfall continued for what seemed like an eternity.
At Chandanwadi, Aru and Pahalgam, all things were sorted out, awaiting the first batches of participants.
At Lidderwat, the day after the luggage had been dumped on the way, the morning sunshine brought hope. The gallant team took up the job of repairing the bridge, which consisted of three parallel logs across the Lidder. Using local axes, the heaps of wooden pieces were crudely fashioned into planks, and a bridge was improvised, one which rocked heavily even when a single person passed across. The gear was ferried across the bridge, from where a helper and the organizers carried it to the campsite. A wartime efficiency was demonstrated in the process and the whole camp was in order by that evening.
By the next night, the 10th of May, the participants had started arriving. After dinner, a briefing followed, of instructions - stressing disciplines, mountain manners, cleanliness, behaviour with locals, the schedule and the shape of things to expect. From the next day onwards, the pairs of organizers had fixed schedules. They would either look after the camps, or guide a batch during a one-day hike or camp-to-camp movement.
Then the first batches left base camp, one to Aru and the other towards Chandanwadi. There was heavy snowfall that night. It was incredibly cold at Pissu Top and the movement scheduled for the next day was postponed indefinitely. The weather did not relent and there was no movement towards Pissu Top, whereas the first batch did reach Lidderwat. However, at both the places, most participants enjoyed themselves with their first taste of snow. There were some, however, who had a bad time in the snowfall, and they were considering leaving the trek. The next day, however, the sun rose, and with it, their spirits, too. Batch I went on a hike to Tarsar Lake, a long walk along a fast flowing stream. After crossing the chilly river and plodding through soft snow for two hours, they reached a point, trough-shaped and fully covered with snow, where the lake should have been. Lake or no lake, it was a feast to the eyes, the vast expanse of virgin snow. After a short rest and quick lunch, everyone hurried back.
The other hike from Lidderwat to Kolahoi peak base camp is again a gradual climb, initially meandering through pine forests and then merging into a huge snow field leading to an uneven terrain.
On the other leg, there was finally only one camp - at Chandanwadi, and there were three different outings - to Sheshnag (via Pissu Top, where camping was still out of the question), Asthanmarg and Dudhal. The first 2 km to Sheshnag were steep in snow followed by a traverse upto Jhazipal and then a climb after crossing a stream near a waterfall. The first view of Sheshnag Lake was truly overwhelming, with a thin layer of ice on it, cracking at some places, to reveal the clear turquoise coloured water.
Asthanmarg was the next hike, the destination being a small meadow at the base of a rocky peak. The path was steep and exposed, at places slippery too. The arduousness of climbing was compensated by a beautiful basin, enclosed by peaks all around. The third hike was to Dudhal galli, which gets its name from its milky-whiteness all over.
After all hikes on one leg were over, the batches returned to Pahalgam and went to the other leg. As the trek progressed, with its hikes, and camp life, the participants stopped worrying about their ability to challenge Nature. They had really become part of it. Luckily, there was no more bad weather after the 15th. Actually, except for the weather, everything else was the same, but the shift in their attitude made everything look wonderful.
The trek went smoothly thereafter, and just as people were getting involved, the inevitable happened. The end came. The participants started departing, leaving behind a big void amongst the organizers. Though Pahalgam was full of tourists, everyone Colt lonely. Maybe due to this, the winding up was very swift.
The return journey was uneventful. It is difficult to define the success, especially since such a large cross-section of people converge; but if you ask anyone about Himankan, he will answer that it was successful.