It has been a long, long walk in the mountains of Kashmir for me, and every trek has brought heaps of happiness. While people count the years of their lives, I count the lakes I trek each year. 2015 was the most gratifying year for me. That summer I was able to trek to my 100th high-altitude lake.
Kashmir has seen its share of misfortune. For over two decades, turmoil and strife have remained unrelenting, but they have left me undeterred in my mad pursuit into the mountains of Kashmir. For an ordinary countryman, Kashmir epitomises a place of conflict where venturing out invites trouble and going into the mountains is scary. But to me, these misunderstood mountains are like a mother’s lap where I have always found solace. Meanwhile, my photo library continues to swell, forcing me to buy a 4-TB hard disk to store the images I have so diligently collected across the crags and cliffs of Kashmir, never ever thinking of deleting a single shot, even if horrible.
A Legendary Past
The Nilmata Purana describes Kashmir as Satisar, a huge mountain lake where Parvati used to sail in her pleasure boat until it was drained. Anand’s huge plough share divided the mighty chain of the Himalaya flanking towards the west into two parts allowing the waters of Satisar out, making the valley habitable for the Nagas. This 5,440 sq km- long valley over time came to be known as “paradise on earth”. Geologists have their own tectonic theory of the draining of the valley. The fact remains that this erstwhile Satisar—the mega lake—disappeared only to leave behind a huge progeny scattered across the mountains. National Wetland Atlas figures indicate that Jammu & Kashmir has about 2,104 high-altitude lakes, which aggregates to about 1,10,131 hectares of water surface. We are followed by Arunachal Pradesh, which has 1,672 high-altitude waterbodies.
None of the high-altitude lakes of Kashmir are accessible by road. Like rare gemstones, they lie hidden deep in the inhospitable recesses of the mountains, snowbound for seven-eight months in the year. For the rest of the time, the weather remains hostile and, ironically, unfriendly for photography. So every year it requires careful planning to trek to each lake. Still, unexpected glitches crop up spoiling the applecart—malfunction of GPS, camera, batteries, hostile weather, misleading trails, communication gaps, stubborn local guides, lack of terrain knowledge and official exigencies among them.
Despite all odds, I was to keep my rendezvous with the elusive figure. At the end of 2014 I was at the 93 mark, and was able to trek up to 7 lakes in 2015 to complete a century. Hence, 2015 become a watershed year for me. However, like every batsman, I was nervous. Nineties Syndrome! Purani Ganga (4,000m) is a lake located east of Gangabal, the largest high-altitude lake of Kashmir with an area of 167 hectares. It is an important waypoint of the Great Lakes Trek. The trek to Purani Ganga starts 4km short of Naranag from a village called Martahoi. A zig-zag trail leads over to the lake. But there was a twist in the tale. The altitude of Martahoi is 2,100m.
Therefore, a climb of 1,900m is required to reach the lake. While we had been doing 1,300-1,500m of up-and-down regularly, doing this one required utmost fitness. Hence, I started to concentrate on my fitness and began to feel confident. It was September 11 when I started on the trail with a few of my trekking buddies.As a thumb-rule in Kashmir, the trail starts from a village, goes through forest up to the alpine zone (most trails start in the 2,000m zone) and then extends into forest from 2,000m to 3,500m. Thereafter, the alpine zone gradually merges into the permanent snowline.
The trail as it goes up offers amazing vistas of the lower Sind valley. Harwar and Harmukh gradually began to unveil themselves as we trudged up through the thick canopy. No sooner did we enter a huge alpine meadow with a gradual incline, that the true grandeur of the Kashmir Himalaya was unveiled. The last stretch to the lake was over a rock, boulders and moraine deposits. While boulders have been mellowed to a roundness by the weather vagaries, these very elements make moraine deposits razor sharp. A careful manoeuvring is required over these glacial deposits, which litter Kashmir’s alpine zone.
Legend has it that an annual yatra used to take place to the Purani Ganga Lake but was decimated centuries ago by a rock slide truncating its area considerably, making yatris abandon it in favour of its sibling sitting at the foot of Harmukh mountain, the mighty Gangabal. Hence the lake became known as Purani Ganga. The trek up to the lake took six hours. 1,900m in 6 hours was a pretty fast ascent and a shot in the arm for me. Clear weather, a brief breather and a rapid burst of the camera are the most pleasing aspect of a trek—these are the moments that can make or mar your expedition. One of the most conspicuous mountains of Kashmir is Harmukh (5,145m). It was climbed in 1856 by Gen. Montgomery, the Surveyor General of India. He is credited with discovering K2 from Harmukh while marking the peaks of Karakoram during the survey in the order of K1, K2, K3, K4, etc.
Later, it was proved that he had discovered the second-highest peak in the world from this mountain. The skyline of the Purani Ganga trail is dominated by Harmukh. As we sat around Purani Ganga, enjoying lunch, we were intent upon crossing the pass in the vicinity.The Gumbergali Passis at an altitude of 4,210m, which meant an additional ascent, then a frustrating descent to find the camping ground. The shorter duration of September daylight was at the back of my mind as I munched my bread. Contemplating, I heard distant thundering sounds; the weather seemed to be closing in and we were short on time.Hurriedly, we saddled up the horses, putting the luggage upon them and started a tiresome hike up the Gumbergali. An hour later, the pass seemed in sight and a distant view of Harmukh shrouded partially in cloud and the blue expanse of Gangabal at its foot looked phenomenal. A rare sight indeed.
The sight of the pass was panoramic with Sagput making an impressive ridge line. Sagput separates the Gad Sar valley from Kashmir. These ridges have not been climbed and can prove to be an impressive climbing ground in coming days. The walk down the pass provided ample camping ground around Gumbersar, a sizable lake just below the pass. I felt elated on recording my 99th high-altitude lake and eagerly awaited the arrival of the next morning to complete my century, as another lake was located just a ridge across.
Late night, it began to snow heavily and our tent buckled down under its weight. We had to leave its warm confines several times to clear the snow. Expectedly, I was nervous. A heavy snowfall could spoil my apple cart. Later in the night, the snow stopped. Next morning, a feet of snow lay on the ground and the sky was cloudy.But a pleasant surprise awaited us. We began to hear a whistling sound from the surrounding ridges as we started to scout the slopes. We spotted a dozen snow partridges around the pass, my first encounter with the elusive bird.
As our guides packed up the horses with the wet baggage for the descent down the valley we took a slight detour up the ridge to make the rendezvous with my 100th lake, Salma Sar, an enigmatic name for a small lake that drains into Martchoi Nalla. Its outpour meets the Gangabal waters at Dumail, 10km upstream of Naranag.
How it all Began
As I settled on the ridge overlooking Salma Sar, I was filled with a sense of accomplishment. Fifteen years before, my first posting in district Budgam offered me my first big escapade. The situation in the mountains was tense and hostile but my bureaucratic connections offered a safe passage up to Tosamaidan, a huge alpine meadow up in the Pir Panjal mountains with an epic status. Here I was destined to do my own bit of soul searching. As I stood humbled at the edge of the green Tosamaidan turf, its overwhelming effect was hypnotic. I felt a burning desire to understand this place. I had grown up nursing a passion to go on a world tour, but there, at that very moment, my life took a different turn. I felt a deep longing to know my own land and that meant traversing its length and breadth .Thereafter, I was to tread a different path, one that fate had destined for me. I went back home a changed man.
The next few years were strife torn. I embraced books instead of mountains, reading travelogue after travelogue, deriving vicarious pleasure and biding my time to hit the trails. Erstwhile European travellers have left a wealth of travel information, paradoxically demystifying my own motherland Kashmir for me.
Compensating for time lost to the strife, from 2004 onwards I began my serious wandering in the mountains, climbing, trekking and hiking every summer. Like a migratory bird, I felt caged during winter time, getting restive with every summer thaw. Making quick forays into the mountains have been like encounters with divinity for me. I have felt a spirit, an aura lurking around each lake, leaving an indelible impression both on the mind and soul.No doubt divinity looms large at these places, and no wonder all our prophets have been shepherds.
It has been a story of sweat, sweat and more sweat in spite of the fact that I have lost count of the blisters and damaged toenails. It’s a cyclic seasonal rhythm now: I damage toenails in summertime only to regrow them back the following winter. Now, when I stand on the century mark I yearn to add up to this score. Years back, when I embarked upon my wanderings in the mountains, never did it cross my mind that I would be achieving this elusive milestone.
Now, having achieved this three-figure mark, I challenge my aging body to brace for more wanderings to pile up the lake figure (in 2020, the count was 112). I don’t know how far I will go and what my final count will be before I get out. For now it seems that my appetite for the lakes of Kashmir remains unsatiated. To me it is like the line from the soft drink commercial: “Yeh dil maange more”. The mountains are infectious— they make you stubborn in the most humble manner.