The date still sends chills to my spine as it has been the most daunting trek of my life. Though a cherished memory, I would never like to repeat it again even after years of being a mountaineer and here’s why:
Rewind to 2012
Back in 2012, I had successfully completed a lot of treks in the Sahyadris. But I considered myself as an amateur trekker because there was still a lot left to explore. In that era, trekking was not merely an outing. And the old school trekkers would know the deeper meaning of this sentence. Back then, very few of us knew about the various trekking gears like sleeping bags and we mostly trekked in sport shoes carrying a simple backpack. In such a scenario, the question is why would I sign up for such a thrilling trek? And that too in monsoons? Before going to that, let’s know a bit about the trek.
Nalichi Vaat is one of the trekking routes to reach Kokankada and Harishchandragad. It closely follows the path of a waterfall and hence the name. In winters, it takes approximately 10-12 hours for a group to complete the trek via this route. Overall, the entire route is tricky due to a few challenging rocky patches and loose rocks throughout the trail. It is generally considered to be a difficult trek.
In monsoons, the entire route turns slippery thus taking up the difficulty of this trek to another levels.
Until Aug 2012, very few people had done this trek in monsoons. In fact, owing to its tricky nature, none of the commercial groups had even thought of attempting it in rains. However, one fine afternoon, a friend of mine, whom I would rather keep anonymous, decided to lead this thrilling expedition.
The person to stimulate me was Rohini.
Rohini and I had started trekking almost in the same period and hence had developed a mixed sense of care and competitiveness towards each other. In 2012, she was in an adrenaline rush. After several discussions, Rohini finally booked the trek and owing to the competitor in me, I too ended up signing up for it.
A day before the trek
On August 17th, we met at Kalyan station and travelled to a small hamlet named Belpada, located below Malshej ghat, by a late-night ST bus. We were a group of 17 trekkers including the trek leader. After a few hours of sleep, we started our trek at around 7am. Since I knew the difficulty level of the trek, I thought of travelling light and did not carry much food or water.
There are five major rock patches on this trek, and we were told that our lead had all the necessary technical gears to help us overcome those patches.
First Rock Patch:
The trek till the first rock patch was very good but did not really challenge us as trekkers. After successfully completing the patch, I laughed in my head thinking about all the hype about this ‘thrilling’ trek. With elated excitement and pride, we marched ahead. The rock holds were loose and often broke apart. However, it was not enough to deter us. The josh was completely high!!
Second Rock Patch:
In the second rock patch, we felt some thrill in the sense that the lead, had to arrange for rope support. Most of us could easily climb it but then something scary happened. A fellow trekker, named Swati, was trying to crawl up using the rope and the trek lead was just below giving her climbing instructions. Suddenly the rock below her right foot came off and fell towards our lead. Fortunately, it just brushed against his thighs leaving minor bruises. A direct fall would have left him with a fractured limb. This incident sent jitters amongst the group waiting to climb and suddenly the drizzle had intensified into a rainfall.
The thrill had just begun!
Kamlu was an inhabitant of Belpada village and he was our local guide. For Kamlu, crossing tricky rock patches in slippers were a child’s play. Yes, you read it right, Kamlu climbed the most thrilling trek of my life in slippers! Though a skilled trekker, he lacked the quality to motivate and help amateurs.
Third Rock Patch:
After the second rock patch, the gap steadily increased between the participants. Kamlu was leading the group and the trek lead was behind motivating the tired trekkers of the group. Rohini and I were somewhere in between acting as a link between the faster and slower groups. The third patch was small but very steep and slippery. It would not have been possible for amateurs to climb it without a technical support. Kamlu attached a small portable ladder there, which made it easier for us to climb up. After that patch, there was an intimidating traverse, which we completed on our own.
Fourth Rock Patch:
This was the most threatening patch. It was raining, the rock was slippery, and a fall from this patch would have left us dead in a deep valley. However, Kamlu climbed up and acted as a savior by tying an end of his rope to a tree. Two more guys in the team followed his trail but struggled badly. Usually, a rope without knots or harness does not help much. Seeing my fellow trek mates battling the slippery rock, I closed my eyes for a while and started imagining myself dead in the valley, as I was the next in line to climb up. Our trek lead was not in sight yet. Swati and Rohini were behind me and told me that they will not go ahead of me. In addition, I do not know why but whenever a tricky situation came up, the rain would intensify.
Goodness Gracious! I had learnt how to tie a bowline knot in one of my previous treks.
I quickly put my knowledge to use, tied the rope around my waist and instructed Kamlu to keep it tight at his end. This gave me the confidence that at least I will not die today. I climbed up the patch, but I was worried about Rohini. Being an amateur myself, I could only tie the bowline on my waist and had no idea how to instruct others to do the same. The stalemate of the situation ended when the lead arrived and swiftly helped everyone to climb.
We needed a break to regroup and analyze the remaining part. The fourth patch had shaken all of us and we got the thrill we had signed up for. Now, we wanted to reach the caves soon and have hot tea followed by dinner. Thus, we made a decision that changed the entire course of the upcoming night. We instructed Kamlu to march ahead to the caves to ensure that hot tea and snacks would be ready by the time we reach there.
Fifth Rock Patch:
Fifth patch was challenging but not scary. Though it was a 15 feet climb but a fall from there was not life-threatening as there was no valley down there. It was getting dark and we decided not to waste time on a rope set up. Few people climbed up and then Rohini attempted. After climbing 10 feet, she slid down the rock and ended up with bruises. Later it became an iconic and funny moment in the trek memory.
However, during that point of time it prompted the lead to change the decision and set up a rope for the remaining members. It was already dark, and the remaining members had to climb up using a torch. I got the opportunity to give a belay to the last few members, as TL needed some help. With the fifth rock patch completed, the technical hurdles were all triumphed. But thrill ab bhi baki tha mere dost!!!
Into the dark:
We had almost reached Kokankada and the caves were an hour’s walk from there. The darkness was not the usual dark of the night. At Kokankada, in the peak of monsoons, you could not see beyond 2 meters even in daytime.
At night, we could barely see each other with our torches.
In Sahyadris, we are often taught about an emergency technique. Typically, a person unable to find the path calls out “Ehhh Ohhh” and if someone hears it then he/she replies with an “Ohhh Ehhh”. The direction of sound helps us to navigate and follow the correct trail. We put this technique to best use on that night as we struggled to stay together. The trek lead instructed me to stay at back and I accepted the role with pride. I knew that the role of a temporary back lead is offered only to a reliable and fit person.
Walking on the backside, I was accompanied by three college going youngsters who kept blabbering about the way we were going ahead. The trek lead would often stop the team, go ahead, find the trail, and then call us. We had barely eaten anything throughout the day. Whenever we stopped, the cold wind and rain would make us shiver frantically. However, I was in a different zone of achievement. I enjoyed the roaring clouds passing upon us. I was zoned out to such an extent that Rohini was forced to call out to me to ensure I was in my senses. Then I joked about having to spend the whole night drenched in this rain and all broke into a laughter.
Well, we never know when a naïve joke could turn into a reality, don’t we?
At around 7:30 that evening, the lead announced that he was not able to find the rest of the trail and asked us to wait for some time while he went ahead with two more guys to find the way.
After the lead’s announcement, the gravity of the situation began to hit us. The cliff of Kokankada has a fall of 1800 feet and we had no idea how close we were to the edge. With such relentless wind, rain and clouds it was a disastrous risk to walk on any wrong trail. Most of the mobiles were already drained out of battery or wet. Kamlu’s mobile was not reachable. Rohini called his wife at Belpada and told her to inform him. We tried shouting “ehh ohh” but all in vain!
The lead took more time to return back than expected as he too got lost on his way.
Upon his return, he said something that none of us could bring ourselves to believe. We just wished he would modify this announcement but hope is never a strategy. We were informed that we had no choice but to be in that exact spot all night and try our level best to keep ourselves alive till morning.
Unless you experience it yourself, it is very difficult to imagine the rain of Kokankada. It is not like the rain in plains. The drops pierce your body like miniscule arrows. The wind steadily cools your body and the only way to reduce the effect is to lie down. When we laid down, we could feel muddy water flowing from below our body. We all hugged each other and slept like puppies in the smallest area possible. Rohini had a sleeping bag and a friend had a plastic sheet, which we all shared. Then we waited endlessly.
We all thought about the ‘ifs’, ‘whys’ and ‘buts’ but deep down we all knew that it was impossible to reverse time or our decision to send Kamlu ahead after the fourth patch.
I am not even sure if I was conscious the whole night as that was the closest I ever got to the stage of hypothermia.
No one asked or talked about time. We just kept reassuring each other, pulling each other closer and as instructed, trying to keep ourselves and each other alive till sunrise.
At the break of dawn, someone shouted ‘Light’ and we started moving our numb bodies. First, we checked our own limbs and then each other.
We were delighted when every ‘body’ moved, and no one was unconscious.
When the visibility increased, our lead got the confidence to find the trail and we all reached the caves in 45 mins. Finally, we got some hot tea and snacks. At noon, we descended towards Khireshwar base village. It was a 4 hour trail. But after the terrifying trek through Nalichi vaat and a horrifying night in Kokankada, it seems like an easy mission, doesn’t it?