Asheesh Bhandari, 40, an associate director with PricewaterhouseCoopers, turned the clock back to his college days when he went on a trek after 20 years on the job-home- family treadmill. At 4,575m, the Pangarchulla peak in Uttarakhand wasn’t the challenge—his own physical fitness was.
You were trekking after 20 years. What prompted you?
I used to trek a lot during school and college. I love the mountains, but trekking fell by the wayside because of work pressures. I took up river rafting, but trekking is a much greater physical challenge. I guess that’s why I went back to it.
You signed up for this trek with an adventure travel company. Do you prefer organized treks to solitary, self-organized ones?
I organized my short treks earlier. But, for the difficult ones, I prefer going with professionals. For Pangarchulla, there were four of us—Aquaterra Adventures’ Avilash, his fiancée Shweta, Vikram, a colleague from Bangalore, and me—plus two support staff. So, no family, but friends, yes.
Pangarchulla is classified as a gentle climb. How did you ease into it?
We left Delhi for Haridwar on 24 April and spent the night at Aquaterra’s Silver Sands camp. The eight-hour journey to Joshimath was memorable: We crossed all the confluences of the Alaknanda, including the all-important Devprayag. From the road, we could see that all the tributaries were much cleaner than the Alaknanda—its waters were muddy because of a hydel project under construction upriver.
After an overnight stay, we drove four km to Auli, on the border of the Nanda Devi National Park. This is where one gets the first glimpse of that majestic peak. On that first day of the climb, we must have walked at least 10km to Talli (3,310m), a beautiful forest clearing. It was deserted except for the odd shepherd; the only sounds were those of the wind and the sheep. Since the snow had just melted, the grass was largely brownish yellow, contrasting starkly with the forests and the sky. Below our feet were thousands of tiny wild flowers, red, yellow, purple, blue. I think everyone needs to visit a bugyal (valley), as they’re called locally.
Despite its beauty and the pond (from which Talli derives its name), we didn’t camp here since stagnant water is not considered safe. We went down 60m into the forest—mostly fir, oak and some maple—and camped by a flowing stream. The night temperature was less than 5°C at the end of April.
The tough bits must have been further ahead?
The next day was all about walking along steep slopes, narrow foot trails and slippery ice patches to the Pangarchulla base camp. We camped at Khullara, at 3,395m. This is a mountain meadow above the treeline, but below the heavy snows, with a fantastic view of the peaks. We spotted Dunagiri (7,066m), Mana (7,272m), Nilkanth (6,596m)—truly awe-inspiring sights.
The day after, a four-hour steep climb through knee-deep snow took us to the advanced base camp at 4,000m. Just after we reached, the weather turned. It became overcast, there were strong gusts of wind and the temperature was close to 0°C. We became anxious about whether we’d be able to move forward, but the weather cleared. However, the steep climb and the bad weather took a toll—only two of our team woke up at 3.30am to climb to the summit and catch the sunrise. I was too exhausted to attempt it.
So the climb down must have been tough?
What I remember most is the blissful sleep after two tiring days. The climb down is tougher on the knees. It took us five hours to descend 1,850m to Tapovan. The next day, we drove back to Silver Sands and then it was on to Delhi.
Any regrets or realizations?
Before setting out, I was aware that I may not be able to do what I could 20 years ago. What I wasn’t prepared for was the speed with which I would lose my breath even on not-so-steep slopes. Every now and then, I felt I needed a new pair of legs. One realizes climbing uses a different set of muscles from the ones we exercise during our walks.
As the climb progressed, my stamina and endurance improved, my old skills—balancing on slippery slopes, spotting loose rocks—came back. I knew if I did this more frequently, my strength would return.
Being older and slower has its advantages, because I could now appreciate nature better. Twenty years ago, I might have tried to summit in two or three days—and looked at the scenery only during a camp stopover.
One regret is that I stayed away from trekking for so long. I also realize that I’m a 40-year-old chartered accountant who’s basically an outdoor person—what a mess.
As told to Sumana Mukherjee. Share your last holiday with us at firstname.lastname@example.org