At the base camp in Sonamarg, around 80 km north of Srinagar, Javed Ahmad Khan, 26, and Ejaz Ahmad Raina, 28, are ready to take a group of trekkers to Kashmir's most popular trekking corridor called Kashmir Great Lakes Trek.
The Kashmir Great Lakes Trek, commercially known as Sonamarg-Vishansar-Naranag Trek, is a Himalayan high-altitude route that is an all-time favourite among trekkers all across India.
Raina and Khan have just completed Kashmir Great Lakes Trek, which takes beginners around seven days to complete, in a record 15 hours. Both hail from the Sonamarg area. They say they started their journey at 4 am from Sonamarg and reached Naranag at 7:38 pm.
“We are very happy with the achievement and encouragement from colleagues, adventurers, and trekking lovers. This is something that has never happened. It will encourage other trekkers to go for such 'sky marathons', and create and break records,” says soft-spoken Raina.
Raina and Khan are trekking since early childhood.
“We belong to the mountains. And mountains belong to us. As a child, I used to play around mountains like every child in our village. We know mountains like the back of our hand," says Khan.
This year, Khan spent almost 200 days in the mountains guiding several trekking groups back-to-back. It has been a golden year for trekking tourism, with high-end tourists coming from different states of the country for trekking expeditions.
Raina says, "I have taken several groups, including foreigners, for moderate to difficult trekking expeditions. It has been wonderful. Trekkers are responsible tourists. They spend money and keep environmental concerns in mind.”
Both mountaineers are working with Cliff Hangers, a mountaineering company established by one of the Kashmir Valley's ace mountaineers, Mohammad Adil, some 10 years ago.
Adil, 35, says both Raina and Khan have vast experience in mountain trekking and their 15-hour feat to complete Kashmir Great Lake Trek is unprecedented.
Raina says a few years back, a trekking group from Nepal had completed the same trek in about 18 hours, and he and Khan were keen to break the record.
"And we did it. We tried earlier to do it, but this time we were successful," says Khan.
Kashmir Great Lake Trek is around 70 km long. It winds through innumerable vast meadows, snowclad mountain passes, rocky barren lands, streams, glaciers and alpine lakes. The highest mountain pass en route, called Harmuk pass, is at around 13,800 ft.
“You move from one heavenly place to another. I cannot tell you how you feel when you come out of one valley, ascend a peak and then move down to see another valley. You see different hues and colours of nature. This is a trek that everyone should take and feel nature,” says Khan.
Khan and Rains’s 15-hour trek is called the 'sky marathon' in the trekking world. It is in its infancy in the Valley and only those trekkers who are extremely physically fit are advised to attempt it.
The Great Lake Trek is one of the finest in India and those who participate in the trek usually seek a certificate from the trekking company that they have completed it.
“It is like we have been to Kashmir and we have done the Kashmir Great Lakes Trek,” says Khan.
Khan says even for local Kashmiris who are familiar with mountains, meadows and valleys, this trek gives a different experience. He adds that trekkers who come from South India and metros get mesmerised by the beauty of the alpine lakes.
“I remember one tourist who came twice for this trek,” adds Khan.
These days trekking has become more professional. Trekking companies have to keep everything available for the trekker, from a variety of foodstuffs, oxygen cylinders and medical kits to emergency stretchers to carry the trekker in case the latter feels some physical discomfort. Every morning and evening, the trekkers have to undergo rudimentarily medical check-up.
However, many trekking agencies in Kashmir avoid serving liquor to the trekkers and there is a total ban on bonfires, which could pose a threat of forest fires in forest areas. The trekking expedition needs prior permission from tourism and forest departments, besides those from the Jammu and Kashmir Police, Indian Army, and other security agencies. These usually take a long time and sometimes delay the treks.
For quite some time, trekking companies have been urging the tourism department to ensure a single-window permit system. A senior official in the tourism department says they are working on a mechanism to address the issue. He says Kashmir Valley is a trekkers' paradise and the government has opened different routes for trekking.
“We are getting a number of tourists for trekking expeditions alone. Trekking tourism is a priority area,” says the official.
Tourism officials say the department has identified virgin tourist destinations to provide tourists with more options for recreation and adventurous activities. The department has already taken trekking groups from Sonamarg to Thajwas glacier, providing all logistic support to the groups.