Himachal Pradesh is a microcosm of the vast and varied Himalayas: Gentle rolling meadows, jagged snow-clad peaks, lush forests and a rain-shadow desert are intricately connected through a map of high passes, accessible for only a few months in the year.

Through the passes, you can walk from one topographical region to another in a matter of days: Take a gentle amble up the forested slopes in the tea and apple gardens of Kangra and Kinnaur, or force the pace tracing the ancient routes crisscrossing the Dhauladhar and Pir Panjal ranges, and drop down into the remote high-altitude deserts of Lahaul and Spiti. It’s only in Himachal—with a number of high-altitude passes—that you get to stand on a pass and see lush forests on one side and barren landscape on the other. From the Triund and Lamadugh treks, which take a few hours, to the longer and more arduous treks to the Indrasen and Kalihani passes, climbing Mt Menthosa (6,443m), and driving and trekking holidays in Spiti, there is something for everyone.

Himachal Pradesh has over 200 well-defined trekking trails, more than any other state. Routes begin and end in fairly large towns such as Manali and Dharamsala, so accessibility is not an isssue. Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation (HPTDC) buses, which run overnight from Delhi to Manali and Dharamsala, are quite comfortable and popular; you should book early to avoid disappointment. The state also has three airports and many helipads offering quick entries and exits.

While trekking, your mobile will have network most of the time; if you want to escape it, you just need to climb higher. Spend a day or two in Manali and stay away from Rohtang Pass, which is crowded with people from the plains, all starved for a vision of snow. Manali has many hip cafés and an almost permanent population of Israelis and Russians, so there is a variety of cuisines available. Dharamsala is where the Dalai Lama lives and it has plenty of well-run home-stays.

Getting started

What is remarkable about trekking in Himachal is the ease of getting started. When we did the Deo Tibba Base Camp Trek, we began by simply walking through the forests above Manali. Similarly, the Triund Trek is a matter of walking away from Dharamsala into the mountains. Some treks like Bhabha Pass do call for long, bone-shattering jeep rides, but the thrill of starting your trek at the last town on the frontier makes up for it.

The Bhabha Pass Trek reflects the kind of variety that Himachal is famous for—the two sides of the pass reflect two completely contrasting types of terrain, cultures, religions and food. You walk along the rushing waters and melting glaciers of the Bhabha river till you come to the 4,865m pass over big boulders and moraine and drop into another world: The Kinnaur valley is dominated by wooden houses and apple orchards while arid Spiti is lined with fluttering Buddhist prayer flags and a 1,000-year-old monastery.

Whatever route you choose, you will meet the hard-working, semi-nomadic, ancient tribe of Gaddi shepherds who climb the mountains in search of pastures for cattle. When the snow melts, they move up, and as winter sets in, they bring their flock down. The Indrahar Pass Trek, right in their midst, offers fabulous views of the Dhauladhar range. A short detour takes you into Malana, an isolated village with a unique social structure and (unverified) claims to being descendants of Alexander’s army (Malana is also well known for its high-quality cannabis, a distinction it has been trying to shrug off for a while).

Kalihani Pass. Photo courtesy Whitemagicadventures.com
Kalihani Pass. Photo courtesy Whitemagicadventures.com

The trek to the base of Deo Tibba (6,001m) and over Hampta Pass (4,270m) is usually done together. The peak lies in the Pir Panjal range and Hampta Pass was the traditional route between Kullu and Lahaul valleys. You need to negotiate some steep parts initially to get out of Manali, but once you hit the plateau of the meadows, the climb eases. The lower camps are usually in valleys, shielded from harsh winds, so once you reach you can actually stretch and spend most of the day outdoors without freezing over. Re-routing, a common occurrence in trekking, might be required in case of snowfall.

If you want to try another historic route between Manali and Dharamsala, opt for the Bara Banghal Trek, which crosses two high passes—Kalihani and Thamsar—and meanders through both the Kullu and Kangra valleys in a journey that takes more than two weeks. The hamlet of Bara Banghal, which lies between these passes, is cut off for most of the year.

Birdwatchers should try the Kalihani Pass Trek. You cross several streams and rich forests of rhododendron and birch (which explains the birds) before emerging high up in the Pir Panjal range. The pass itself is quite challenging at 4,750m but the view it offers of the Kalihani glacier, which feeds the Ravi river, is well worth it. There is a fair amount of walking on moraine, snow and ice-embedded glaciers so some level of trekking experience is useful.

Raising the bar

If you are keen to raise the bar, try the introductory mountaineering courses offered in Solang valley. It’s high altitude and gives you enough exposure to decide if you want to try a climb or stick to trekking. If you decide on the former, Mt Menthosa (6,443m) is a three-week trip during which you will get to use your technical knowledge. There are more than 25 peaks over 6,000m in this part of the Himalayas, including Manirang (6,593m), Indrasen Peak (6,221m) and Deo Tibba peak (6,001m).

A pond near the Lamadugh campsite. Photo courtesy Whitemagicadventures.com
A pond near the Lamadugh campsite. Photo courtesy Whitemagicadventures.com

The Himalayas stretch 2,400km east to west and 150-400km north to south. Himachal Pradesh lies on their north-western side, sandwiched between Jammu & Kashmir, the Tibetan plateau, Uttarakhand and China. Almost the entire state is mountainous and five major rivers—Sutlej, Beas, Ravi, Yamuna and Chenab (also Parbati, which flows into the Beas)—feed off its glaciers and snowy peaks. It is, indisputably, a trekking paradise.

Staying focused

You get the most out of a trek if you are prepared. A minimum degree of physical fitness is essential but trekking also calls for mental strength and discipline. As the jeep drops you to the end of the last motorable road and heads back to civilization, you become acutely aware of just how much you need your mind and body to work in tandem.

Walking in the mountains, with daunting slopes and slippery rocks, is physically demanding and the body needs at least three months to get prepared. Good muscle strength puts less strain on the joints. Pre-trek training and on-trek stretching are advised. A good guide will caution you about descents that can be treacherous for your ankle and knee joints and, of course, your toes. Lightweight aluminium poles also come in handy.

There will be times when you are really exhausted or feeling the worst of altitude sickness, and staying focused and disciplined will be essential. Guides or experienced trekkers will be able to offer useful tips and it would be best to listen to them.

A simple piece of advice, like when not to stop to rest, can have a significant impact on your energy levels. Stop too often and you’ll quickly lose body heat and find it hard to restart. Keep hydrated, it is critical.

A little attention to these details will ensure you return refreshed rather than exhausted.

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