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Parvati Valley’s Perils

The Pin-Parvati pass trek is an 8 day, 65 mile trek through the remote Parvati and Pin Valleys of the Indian Himalayas. Below is the start of our journey on this life-changing trek. 

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As we finished up our final email correspondence and preparations for our 8-day guided trek ahead of us in Manali, my stomach started doing flip-flops once more.  What have we gotten ourselves into?  Am I acclimated enough to cross the 17,500 ft pass on this trek?  Is the palaak paneer I just ate causing these horrible stomach pains or my anxiety? (Turns out it was a combination of both…)

We decided to do a guided trek mainly because we had no access to proper maps and mountaineering guides in the area scared us enough with stories about foreigners getting lost and dying.  In hindsight, it was one of our smartest decisions yet.  We woke up at 5:30am, packed our bags, and walked out to the one-lane road with two-way traffic outside of our guest house to wait to be picked up.  To our surprise, a few other groups were being picked up and even at the break of dawn, there were traffic jams, horns, and chaos.  I stood by the road, of what in America would be considered a sidewalk, and saw our lead guide, Sharma, walking up with a smile and a bright, white shirt displaying the outline of a backpacker on the front of it.  

After brief introductions, we walked down the hill past the cars doing acrobats to attempt to pass one another to reach our ride.  As I climbed into the van, I was shocked to see it stuffed to the brim with people, all staring quiet and wide-eyed at me.  I thought we had only five trekkers signed up for this?!  How is it we need 11 additional people?! Little did I know what was ahead…

My knuckles were permanent white the entire winding trip to the trailhead as we flew past other cars on a single-lane road and came too close to the edge of steep roadways cut into never-ending canyons.  At one point, we reached a traffic jam (commence everyone honking just to make it clear they would like to move) and Sharma decided to have us walk to our breakfast spot just up the way while our driver somehow magically got through the chaos.  On the walk, we watched men actually MOVE a parked van in order to get a bus through the mess!  

Turns out, the small village of Manikaran is a pilgrimage center for Sikhs and this weekend was the time to come bathe in the hot springs found here.

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Cue everyone’s eyes on the white folks as we walked up the steps to an open patio for breakfast.  Indian families visiting the area took turns getting photos with Justin and I as we cautiously only ate plain white toast and tea for breakfast since this restaurant was not used to having to prepare dishes for our non-immune bellies.

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Our van driver miraculously made it out of the car maze as we finished up breakfast and we were all, once again, stuffed into our rollercoaster mobile, white-knuckled and sweating as we continued to climb the valley roads (ok, maybe everyone else was sleeping and it was just me panicking). Never mind the gash in the sidewall of our van’s tire that Justin spotted as we re-entered the vehicle… please make it safe… please make it safe…

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At last, we reached a fork in the valley and our quasi-trusty van pulled over to let us all be on our merry way by foot.  Our porters immediately got to work, taking huge bags of gear off the top of the van.  I was in shock.  How on Earth are they going to carry all of that?!  

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As we all shook off the long drive and packed up our gear, Sharma led the way to start our climb up the Parvati Valley.  The roar of the river, and the unfathomable amounts of water flowing down the canyon, immediately captured us.  The strength and power of Himalayan rivers are unlike anything I have ever seen.

A steep climb, with intermittent breaks for waterfalls, led us to Khirganga, a popular campsite for locals and city folks to visit for its hot springs.  

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As the camp set-up began, we realized it is not custom for paying trekkers to do any work at all in the process.  Yea, sorry – not going to happen.  Justin and I tried to explain to our Nepalese porters that we can build our own tent, but they understood little to no English and we know maybe three words of Hindi.  Over time, our porter friends started to let us help more with chores around camp, understanding that we wanted to help.  And since we were much faster hikers than the three other paying customers, we often set up the tents for all of us as a small gesture of appreciation for all that these porters do. It was an odd and uncomfortable feeling, as someone who leads backpacking treks back in the states, to get waited on and not have to do a thing in camp besides eat and sleep.

That afternoon, I just about lost it in shock when I lay by our tent reading and a porter brought up a silver plate with cookies and a teapot and cups for tea.  Where am I?!  

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Dinner was served in a huge kitchen tent about 8:30 pm and consisted of delicious dal (spicy, soupy lentils), rice, roti (flour, water and salt rolled into a dough, flattened and cooked), and amaranth with cooked fruit/nuts for dessert.  We socialized with our fellow paying trekkers, two city-dwelling gentlemen from Kolkata, India on an adventure of a lifetime (We called them the Kolkata Cats) and a Japanese traveler named Kenji who had been exploring India for the last six months.  

I rushed to get out of the tent after eating since I observed that no one else was able to eat until we, the paying customers, finished eating.  I absolutely hated that.  If anyone deserved to eat first, it was these strong men carrying insane loads on their HEADS with FLIP-FLOPS on.  To say I was humbled is an understatement.

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It took quite some time for me to be remotely ok with this type of service… but as time went on, I started to see the joy this job brought to these young men.  More on this as the adventures continue.  

Day 2 started with a yummy breakfast of eggs and toast, before heading into an alpine forest.  Now that we had left the popular campsite, signs of man reduced significantly and there was no longer trash strewn about the trail.  (Sadly, almost everywhere we went, it was all too common to see trash continuously piled high on well-traveled trails.)  We rolled along a much gentler climb for the day, basking in the green glow of the forest.  A dog friend followed us from our first camp and soon became best buds with Kenji, who pet him without hesitation.  Unfortunately, for Justin and I, it just was too risky to pet any dogs or herd animals for risk of certain diseases.  I would often pet our dog friend with rocks or sticks, since I could not handle showing no affection.

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When we arrived at our next site, the porters brought to Sharma’s attention the concern about fresh water.  Ironically, while there was copious amounts of water surrounding us, it was all silty glacial water that was not drinkable.  For all other trekkers (paid and porters) besides us, they simply drank from clear streams and did not have filtration systems in place.  I must say I was quite jealous to see folks simply put their water bottles under flowing water and then drink it.

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After quite a bit of searching, clear water was found a good distance from camp and the executive decision to stay was made. With empty water bottles in hand, Justin and I did not want to burden our porters more than they already were with having to hike such a distance to fill the camp’s water jugs.  We decided to hike down the trail, losing quite a bit of elevation with each step, to find a water source and filter our water.  We took additional water jugs to fill as well to help, if not just a little, with the hikes for water.  

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When we returned, we were shocked to see our dog friend was injured!  He could no longer walk on one of his hind legs.  No one saw the incident and our best guess is he fell down one of the steep cliffsides surrounding our camp.  Kenji, who fondly named the dog Hero, let him tuck away in the vestibule of his tent to rest as we all hoped for the best.

I spent the afternoon once again reading while taking breaks to stare off at a waterfall across the river so big that it came from the clouds.

Day 3 found us waking up to tea delivered to our tent (a daily occurrence and amazing way to start the day) as a thick fog blanketed camp.  The once magnificent waterfall was now just sounds swirling around us without a source.

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I had no idea, at the start of this day, that it would be our most challenging of the entire trek, pushing me to the far edges of my challenge zone and bringing me to tears of relief.  We followed the trail close to the edge of the relentless river… And then all of a sudden, there was no trail, instead a slick, granite rock wall, damp from the light rain that fell around us.  

“Ok, up we go.  No poles,” Sharma said, pointing to our trekking poles.

“We’re going up that?!” I replied, the lump in my throat close to choking me.  

It would be one thing to simply climb some granite with a pack on.  What… if you fall, maybe you have a slight injury, but certainly you could rebound.  But here… If you fall, what will catch you is a massive force of water that would take your life instantly.  There is no exaggeration here.  This was simply terrifying.
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Each step has to be well thought out and perfectly executed.  I made it through the first obstacle and heard Justin yelling to me to stop and breathe.  Clearly, holding my breath at over 12,000 ft was noticeable.  I stopped, reset, and tried to stop my heart from jumping for dear life.  

I could not turn back to watch anyone else do the climb.  It was too terrifying.

Thirty minutes of rock climbing, interspersed with sloshing through mud (that is oh so helpful for trying to keep your grip on the rocks…), and we made it to solid ground.  Now all that was left was climbing 1,000 vertical along a steep bank before rolling along hills on legitimate trail once more.

To celebrate the challenges of the day, Justin busted out our deck of cards and attempted to teach the crew Spoons.  We soon realized how challenging it is to explain a game to folks with three different primary languages and limited English.  But it was fun to laugh and try anyways.

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Hero, Kenji’s companion, was somehow lifted amongst the rocks to continue the journey with us but Sharma looked at him with concern.  When we set up camp, he explained to Kenji that the shepherds in the area frown upon people bringing in dogs, as they can be aggressive with their sheep or herding dogs.  In addition, the village of Mud (pronounced Mood) at the end of our trek charges a fine of $100+ for any stray dogs that come with trekkers into their town.  Sharma did not want to have any issues with Hero along the way.

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We watched the gorgeous sunset on the grandiose peaks reaching up in the distance and sat with Hero, quietly knowing in the morning, we would somehow have to say goodbye to him.

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