Trekking in Ladakh with her husband and some friends, Anamika Mukherjee, a Bangalore-based 37-year-old technical writer, had an attack of altitude sickness. Once the worst was over, she decided to do the trek again, and do it right. So she sent her husband home and went trekking with only her guide for company—first in Manali, where she acclimatized herself to the mountains, and then back to Leh, where she successfully completed the Markha Valley trek that had almost killed her a few months earlier.
Her book on the three months she spent trekking in the Himalayas, Worth Every Gasp, has been published by Prakash Books and is available now. Mukherjee talks about loneliness, the differing pulls of cities and mountains, and being pig-headed. Edited excerpts:
Rugged: Nimaling, Ladakh
Could you tell us a little about how long you’ve been trekking, and what got you started?
My husband Amit was the one who persuaded me to get into trekking. I wasn’t sure I’d take to it—it didn’t sound like my kind of thing. I was the lazy, curl-up-with-a-book type, not the rugged outdoors, sporty type. Our first trek was to Gaumukh, a few years before this trek. It was terrible. I thought that if I’d known what it would be like, I’d never have gone. After that, we did another trek together, to Roopkund. The trek to Markha Valley with Amit and our friends was only my third trek ever.
What pushed you into doing the Ladakh trek again, right after it had almost killed you? You could have done less gruelling treks over the next couple of years and gradually acclimatized yourself to the mountains.
If I had left, I might never have come back, and stopping then would have meant failure for me. Coming back to face all the naysayers and their smug expressions wasn’t an option. I did recuperate and acclimatize by going down to Manali for a bit—but I knew that I was going to come back to Ladakh and do what I’d set out to do, no matter what. That’s why my father calls me pig-headed.
Worth Every Gasp: Prakash Books, 164 pages. Rs125.
But I did have to build up my nerve to attempt this solo journey.
Now that you’ve beaten something that almost killed you, what’s next?
I don’t think I’ve “beaten” trekking—it’s something you can keep coming back to, time and again. Every time brings different challenges. I don’t think I will necessarily look for more difficult treks—it is more about just enjoying the oneness with nature, the simplicity of life when it comes down to the most fundamental level.
My next challenge in the Himalayas is to take my twin daughters for their first trek in April this year. They are four-and-a-half and as far as the Himalayas are concerned, they’ve only been to Binsar. We are planning to do the Har Ki Dun trek, a short and relatively easy route.
Animals keep popping up in the book—you share a toilet with goats, are nearly attacked by hungry cows, and miss a close encounter with bears. What made you emphasize these encounters?
For someone who’s been born and brought up in a city and never spent any time at all in a rural setting, this kind of proximity to animal life was a complete novelty. I embraced nature in the shape of mountains, valleys and streams, and also whatever animal life there was around me.
The book paints a picture of solitude. Was that something particular to these treks, where you were travelling alone, or is it the nature of treks to move on, not pause?
Trekking is what you choose to make it. You can take it slow and spend days in the same place too. So that wasn’t the reason I was solitary or the reason that I kept moving on. I was solitary because I chose to be. Getting away from people was something I did to preserve the sense of upliftment that I found when I was alone in the mountains. There were always people around. But I was alone in the sense that I did choose not to bond with the people around me. I was busy conversing with nature and the mountains.
You seem to have conflicting emotions in the book—every time you arrive at a town or settlement you’re glad of the opportunity to enjoy urban amenities. But at the end, when you have to return to the city, there’s a sense of grief.
By the end of the three months, I was strongly tempted to—in over-dramatized terms—renounce this material urban life and take sanyas. The pull of the mountains and a simple, down-to-basics kind of lifestyle was immense. If I’d stayed for six months, I might never have come back. But I’m a city girl, I have friends, family, a job, and a whole host of material attachments. My practical, level-headed side said I couldn’t possibly leave all that. So with a heavy heart I turned my back to the mountains. I will probably keep going back, but it will be as a visitor and not as one going home.
An excerpt from Anamika Mukherjee’s ‘Worth Every Gasp’
Nimaling is a place that defies description—both in words, and in pictures. To say that it is paradise on earth is to only belittle it.
Think of a river twisting and winding in a leisurely way through a long, straight, broad valley, at about 16,000 ft. At one end, imagine a soft, gentle slope of low grass. At the other end, add range upon range of mountains, some with snow-capped peaks, others, rising higher, with sharp, pointy pinnacles, like fortresses in a fairy tale world.
Now, along the length of the valley, imagine the land sloping up gently, in both directions; dotted with grass, coloured with tiny yellow, purple, and white flowers, small stones, and large red, orange and white boulders. On one side of the valley, a path heads up to Kongmaru La; on the other side, the Kangyatze peak rears its snow-clad head and shoulders above the snowy and grassy slope.
Add in the rustic little wooden bridge over the river; the tiny trekkers’ tents dotting the meadow; the big, hairy, horny yaks grazing in the valley; and throw in a few herds of shaggy, long-haired goat and curly-haired, curly-horned sheep; paint in a clear blue sky and brilliant sunshine; and then you have more-or-less the full picture.
It’s a good picture, I’m sure, but it’s not a patch on the real thing.
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