After a lousy Jan. 10 when it was cloudy, cold, and there was no heat because McLeod Ganj had no electricity for most of the day, Thursday dawned sparkling clear. When I looked at the sky around 6:45 a.m., I decided to head to the Galu temple above McLG and soak up the Dhauladar mountain view. It was intriguing that a rudimentary map of the area showed a major hiking trail to Triund ridge (“trek to the snow line!”) also started from this temple. Better yet, there was an actual road from McLG to this juncture.
By the time I was packed, fed, and ready to roll, it was 9:00. A taxi driven by a fast-talking Tibetan delivered me to the temple base after bouncing around a dreadfully rocky “road.” It reminded me of one of the worst backcountry access roads I’ve ever been on in the upper Sierra of California. 350 rupees, or about $6.00.
When I surveyed the trail, it was wide, flat and whispering in my ear, “C’mon John, you deserve this hike!” I still had reservations about doing 7.5 miles RT on a trail I knew next to nothing about and had not really planned on tackling. It was the view I wanted.
What canceled my reluctance was looking from the Galu temple down to Baal village, the spot I hiked to on three separate occasions from Naddi. It was wayyyyyy far below this ridge, leading me to ponder just how much of the mountains had I really seen and encountered on those hikes. With that question now clarified, I was on the trail in seconds with a song in my heart and my compass set. After about 20 minutes of hugging the side of a major watershed valley, the trail made a sharp turn north and tah-dah! I could not only see the “Dharamsala Matterhorn” but the snow-covered ridge called “Triund.” With a little effort, I figured I could be there in an hour or so.
First stop was the Magic View Café perched on the side of a cliff (which can be seen in the previous photo) that looked down to the Dharamkot suburb of McLG (the place favored by Israelis after they complete military service. Enough said about that). The proprietor let me take away a package of cookies with the promise I would stop and have tea and more to eat on the way back. He just didn’t have any change for a 500 rupee bill (the equivalent of about $9).
Next stop to chat and take a rest was at a place that seemed it would blow away at the first big gust of wind. It was little more than four posts covered with a blue tarp anchored by stones. The young proprietor said he came up every day and went down every night. Even in the crummy weather yesterday, he had about 20 customers who came this far and then stopped and returned.
Less than five minutes later, and with the upper Triund ridge hovering above the trail (“with tantalizing allure” I wrote and later edited out), I started the final ascent. There had been patches of snow in the shadows en route, but nothing like this hard-packed stuff that fortunately still had a bit of fresh fall on top that provided just a second or two of traction before it slipped away. I discovered that underneath the fresh snow of the night before was snow turned to ice. I remember thinking in a couple spots where there were no rocks or trees or tufts of weeds to grab onto, “Hmmm, this will be tricky coming down.” If the sun stays out then it will melt just enough to allow boot treads to dig in and not slip. To fall in these places would not be deadly, just a slip-sliding tumble of about 20-30 meters before some tree or rock stopped the motion. No fun, that.
But why worry? I’d have to say the upper-most approach to the ridge after this shadowy trail was one of the more dramatic I’ve ever encountered. Once clear of trees and finally into the sun again, the trail crested the ridge-line and presto! The mountains I’d seen, praised, written poems about, photographed endlessly, and wished I could get closer to were now right in my lap. Well, not really…they were still on the other side of a vast ravine…but that’s how it felt after a little less than 2 hours on the trail.
Preceding me were four young Tibetans (two guys and two girls on a date it seemed) and an Australian with whom I would later descend. They were huddled in one of two little tea shops and chatting up a storm, but I opted to walk around in thigh-deep snow and find the light as it danced in and out of slowly-forming clouds. I knew from past observation that the view would soon disappear, so I made the most of the hour I had on top: photos, exploring, lunch against a rectangular foundation that was supposed to serve to catch water. Amazingly, there were a couple rudimentary buildings that provided lodgings for warmer seasons, when it is possible (and highly popular) to bring sleeping bags or even tents and camp out overnight on the grassy fields. I’m sure there are many couples who did exactly this, and now cherish memories of intimate moments under the gaze of the snow-covered peaks. Good for them! Equally likely are groups of Indian young people who brought bottles of whisky and partied the night away.
Once the clouds descended, it was a matter of minutes before the ridge was in white-out conditions. I was ready to head back and then noticed the Australian fellow was likewise gearing up. Pete turned out to be an excellent comrade for the rather harrowing negotiation of ice and gravity. He chatted away calmly about his work in Psychology, his family and its farming origins, or where he grew up in New South Wales as we scooted, scrambled, fell, and butt-slid our way down the worst of the trail.
It was now approaching 2:00 and soon we encountered what was to be the first of probably six or seven groups of Indian young people heading for Triund. The questions were always the same: how far? how much longer? what are the conditions? Pete would answer in an encouraging way that yes, you could make it, then add in a lower voice that you wouldn’t be able to see much. Several young men were convinced that if they could only make it, they would find lodging and comfort on top. Looking at their shoes and lack of warm clothing, I was at first dismissive of their arrogant attitudes and didn’t say much. But when I saw the cute and sometimes downright beautiful women they were dragging up the trail, and who seemed to be already in some discomfort even without encountering the snow and ice (in their running shoes!), I spoke out more strongly. I said it was late in the day, they would run out of light on the return, they wouldn’t see anything on top, so they should seriously consider returning after enjoying a cup of tea at the last chai shop. A couple guys took umbrage at this advice and indicated they would see for themselves if indeed there were no lodgings on top. There are words for people like this, not to mention epitaphs.
After pausing for chair at Magic View and paying my bill, Pete and I separated above Dharamkot village, he to meet his partner Isabella who is finishing her Ph.D. in Tibetan Studies. I took a breather beside a little Shiva temple, then pushed on to the last road leading into McLG, the same place that handsome monkey posed for me in the afternoon sun. Now cloudy and increasingly cold, and with knees trembling from the long descent, central McLG’s hustle and bustle was but a brief flurry of noise and activity. I sought out a westward facing restaurant to catch what I thought would be a brief appearance of the sun as it seemed to move from one cloud bank into the next. I was not disappointed.