On a cold February morning, I was pleasantly surprised to get a call from my friend Partap Chauhan who stays in Kanroti, a small village of around 44 families in Ratnari Panchayat. Just three hours drive from Shimla. In India it is one of the richest panchayats in terms of per capita income because it grows some of the finest apples in the country. Partap asked if I could join a snow trek route-opening team that he was part of. My reply was an instant yes. The next morning, I packed my bags and, along with a friend of mine, set off for Ratnari. It took almost 12 hours from Delhi by road. We took the 475-km-long Delhi-Ambala-Shimla-Theog- Ratnari route.
Ratnari is located approximately 8,000 ft above sea level. From here, we started our trek to the Hatu Peak, which is 11000 ft above sea level. It gets heavy snowfall during winters and is famous for wildlife including leopards, bears and monal. Partap runs a resort called Agyaat Vaas, which is two km short of Hatu peak. There is Bhim Chulla on Hatu peak, legend has it that this is where the Pandavas cooked their meal during their agyaat vaas [period of 'incognito living']. However, the spot remains snow-bound from January to March. It’s then that several adventure activities including the slow trek are organized. I must warn you, however, that one needs extreme physical fitness to endure this trek from Ratnari to Hatu.
Early morning, after a hot glass of milk which Mrs Partap gets from their Jersy cows, we started the trek through the apple orchards with just the bare minimum—a pair of snow rubber boots that we bought in Theog on Partap’s advice. As we entered the forest areas of Hatu, we found snow—5-10 ft thick—all over. Partap’s nephew Aditya 19yrs , who is a trained mountaineer, was leading the pack along with Tanuj, 24 yrs and Shyam, a 18 yrs-old boy from Jharkhand who was working as caretaker at Agyaat Vaas for the last two months. This was Shyam’s first winter and first trek as well. Aditya was guiding us with his firm footmarks. The initial half kilometre was easy and we were very excited. Then started the difficult and treacherous terrain and we cursed ourselves for embarking on this trek. After every twenty steps we would stop and begin a debate on whether we should continue or return. Aditya would encourage us, telling us that we were doing very well and would cover the distance very soon. More trouble followed as snow started getting inside our boots, making the climb extremely difficult. At times the boot would get stuck in the snow and we needed strings to tie up our boots to prevent snow from getting inside them. It would not have been possible without Aditya who was carrying emergency equipment in his backpack.
After climbing up for an hour and not even a km done, we took a break for 15 minutes to polish off the aloo parathas and hot tea that Partap’s wife had packed for us. As we started again, we could see dark clouds and the wind gathered speed. The thought of more snowfall scared us as we were far away from our goal. But the weather god took mercy and spared us with just some snowflakes. It was a clear sky again.
The Highest point in our trek was the Karena Peak from where one can have a 360 degree view of the Himalayas. After about six hours of struggle, we managed to reach Karena, which was covered in five ft thick snow. It was a breath-taking sight. We could see some remains of a hide-out and a fort built by the Gorkhas. These were destroyed by the British during a battle with the Gorkhas. We rested at the peak for 10 minutes and continued the last leg of the trek which was about a kilometre from Agyaat Vaas. Around 5 in the evening and after struggling for eight hours, we reached the summit which was half buried in snow
For the enthusiast, here’s a warning: the Agyaat Vaas resorts which conducts the Snow Treks from January till March provides only basic comforts, and some trekking gear. So go only if you are ready for real adventure.