” What happened to the ‘Bloody rat’ ?” came the question from a friend. For a moment I was like “What? Come again ?”. It completely caught me off guard. “What bloody rat ?”
A chapter on Angela’s novel “Lucky to be alive” about our Himalayan expedition to Mt. Trisuli West in Uttarakhand had closed off with a para thus:
“Over the last supper at Base Camp that evening Colin (Leader of the expedition) explained that he had been pouring over maps with Mo… all day trying to determine the position of the mountain that we had climbed in relation to Chalab. The trouble was none of the maps agreed on Chalab’s location. Notwithstanding Mo.. suggested a Hindi namewe could give our previously unclimbed peak, which would recognise its close ties with the three mountains forming the trident of Shiva – Trisuli, Trisuli West and Hardeol. This name was Shambhu ka Qilla and means the fortress of Shiva……………………………………….I was savouring the sound of Shambhu Ka Qilla as I knelt down to unzip my tent when ……….zoom! The bloody mouse ran out over my legs! “
So there I was narrating about how a mountain in the Himalayas came to be named by me, something that I hadn’t aspired to do even in my wildest dreams and yet, there it was immortalised in the novel, also documented and recorded in the ‘Himalayan Club‘ by the Grand master of Indian Mountaineering Harish Kapadia himself about the naming of a previously unclimbed mountain as “Shambhu ka kila“. A mountain with a name that I had christened !!! Needless to say, I was swelling with pride to extent of exploding when Wham! came the question. It was disorienting to say the least.
Of course the ‘bloody mouse’ did have a story. Everyone and everything in this universe, however small or puny, has a story. Yet it is also true that we don’t quite bother ourselves with something as inconsequential as a rat. Truly speaking I’d rather be talking about the mountain that I named or in fact enthrall you with stories of wildlife in the mountains that we encountered, like the elusive snow leopard that we chased for instance. Ah! I haven’t told you about that, have I ?
Well we have been trekking for days and days. More than a week had passed since we left Malari, the last road-head and the last human settlement in the northern reaches of the district of Chamoli in the state of Uttarakhand, very close to the Indo-Tibetan border. Skirting along the subsidiary ridges of Kunti Bhannar and passing through the ‘Shepherd pass’ and following the river that drains the Siraunch Glacier, we broke journey on a 45º slope of a mountain that we nick-named ‘Camp Precarious‘. We were then finally headed to a level grazing ground situated just above the snout of the glacier which offered an idyllic spot for our base camp. Just before descending to the ground we had to ford a small waterfall which we did by stringing across a rope and helping every single member of the group including the porters to cross one by one. On the other side the snow-line had extended all the way from the top and some of the porters who happened to venture a little higher reported seeing some paw marks. The more elder of the porters who had a fair knowledge of the local wildlife agreed that the marks were of ‘Barfani Cheetah’ (local name for snow Leopard).
The ‘Barfani Cheetah’ are a very shy and reclusive animal preferring a very solitary existence in high altitudes mostly above the treeline. They are however known to venture to the lower areas of the mountains following the migration of their prey. Owing to their reclusiveness, there has been very few sightings even though they are reported to be found in the Garhwal mountains amongst other neighbouring areas in the Himalayas.
We hurried to the site of the Base Camp and after offloading all our baggage there, me and a few porters decided to investigate a little. The snow leopard is never known to attack humans and it is said they would even forsake their prey rather than confront. Comforted by that knowledge though not completely trusting the veracity of it, we risked a little exploration. The marks were that of a cat alright and though I was no expert on it, I could tell it was definitely smaller than those of a lion or a tiger that I have seen. A young snow leopard perhaps. The snow was undisturbed for most part but the trail disappeared in the slightly rocky terrain of the mountain. We decided it would not be very prudent to unnecessarily stretch our boldness any further. As we stood to turn back we scanned the slopes in the hope of a lucky sighting. We spotted a herd of Bharals (local deer) quite some distance away. It confirmed our suspicion that the snow cat must have come following its prey.
Returning back, we soon got ourselves busy setting up the Base Camp. The loner that I was, I decided to put my tent a little away from the group choosing a nice spot halfway to the Kitchen tent which was set up a little higher up the slope (group of tents on the extreme right in the picture below). Definitely not a very good decision in hindsight. It did not occur to me that the food in the Kitchen tent would be a magnet for all kinds of animals, especially during the night !
One night after returning from dumping supplies to the ABC (Advance Base Camp) site at the Siraunch glacier, I had slept like a log after having had a harrowing and tiresome return journey. It was in the middle of the night that I woke up with a start. I didn’t quite know what it was but something had woken me up from my deep slumber, making me sit up bolt upright. Instinctively I knew there was danger. All my senses were alert and I strained to listen trying to figure out what had woken me. It was a calm night and the stillness was almost overbearing. Then I heard it, once and after a brief pause, twice, thrice. It was a sniffing, an animal quietly moving around my tent sniffing obviously trying to figure out what was inside the tent and trying to decide if it was edible or not. I stiffened, my limbs were frozen stiff and I could feel the hairs on the back of my head shoot up like spikes. It was pitch dark. As quietly as I could, I reached for the torch I placed under my pillow while my mind began to race wildly on what I ought to do next. Should I make a run for it ? I would most likely entangle myself trying to rush out of the tent and land myself in more trouble. No I had better sit tight and figure out some way to protect myself. I had nothing I could use as a weapon except for the ice-axe that was pitched just outside at the entrance of my tent. Ever so slowly I reached for the zip of the inner lining of the tent and undid it as quietly as I possibly could. Perhaps the animal sensed my movement, it went quite for a few moments. Awfully quite for what seemed to stretch like an eternity. I primed myself to make a dash for the opening of the tent and go for the ice-axe. I could almost sense every fibre and every sinew of my body coiled to explode into action the moment those sharp claws ripped into my tent.
It seemed like I waited for an eternity before it happened. A sniff and then twice, thrice, this time slowly receding away from my tent towards the kitchen tent. A huge wave of relief cascaded over me and I felt the tension, like a coiled spring, slowly loosening itself and ebbing away beginning from the back of my neck, down my shoulders and the back of my spine. But I dared not move yet lest I attracted the attention of the beast again. I waited, seconds, minutes and perhaps hours as fatigue slowly overtook me and I slipped into my deep slumber again.
The next thing that woke me was the voices and sounds of the team getting ready for venturing out into the glacier for setting up the ABC. It wasn’t light yet but the team was off to an early start. Half dazed, I pulled myself out of the sleeping bag and hurried to get ready just in time to follow Angela who was trailing the rest of the team. By her own admission she was the least experienced of the team, the rest were very experienced climbers. It was still dark and we were climbing by the light of the torch. I could make out the flickering lights trailing one after another as we made up the rocky terrain of the mountain. Honestly I hadn’t climbed in the dark before and was struggling to negotiate the challenging rocky terrain when I heard Angela slip. A curse and I cringed as I heard a rush of rocks and pebbles. Most flew past me as I covered my head but one just big enough rapped me right on the knee of my right leg which I had in a forward position. I yelped as a sharp pain shot through me. Angela shouted to ask if I was alright at which I told her that I hurt my knee and have to gonna rest it a while. I yelled again to asked her to proceed lest she gets left behind. I nursed the knee a while and attempted to climb again but the knee would not have it. I knew I was busted and decided to lay and wait out until the sun comes up so it’d easier to make it down the mountain to BC. I lay there enjoying the calmness and solitude with just the silhouettes of the mountains and the boulder by my side to give me company. It was an exhilarating experience, something one will never get to experience in a mundane city life. As dawn broke slowly lighting up the horizon, I took some more time to soak in the beautiful sensation. I could make out the tiny green tents far down the mountain. Slowly and quite reluctantly I picked myself up and ambled down the mountain.
As I neared the base camp I decided to take a short cut, taking a dip before climbing up a little to where my tent was located. I was negotiating the last climb when I noticed something strange, a furry kind of thing. On closure examination, I found it was the dropping of an animal, a carnivore which might have eaten whole a small furry animal. Like that ‘Bloody rat’ perhaps. Like I said I was no expert but I was pretty convinced it was the ‘Barfali Cheetah’ that came visiting the previous night.
Following the discovery I made all the preparations I possible could in the event of a re-visit. I had the ice-axe placed reassuringly alongside my sleeping bag, the torch just where I could reach with ease, a lighter and even a can of Deo that I could use as a flame thrower. I also stacked up everything available around my head just to give it the best protection possible. Then I would wait and wait until I simply dozed off to sleep. The wait has been going on almost like a ritual now every night. So on that fateful night, with everything in place, I slipped into my sleeping bag and listened to the quite night, waiting. A sound, a rustle, a breaking of a twig, anything that was out of the usual sound of the night that would signal the animal approaching. I waited and I had waited some more until I was startled awake rudely by a noisy racket outside. I could make out Kallu’s animated voice. He specially had been pretty upset that an animal had raided the kitchen and attacked our rations. So they had laid out a trap and was lying in wait for the animal. Although I could not understand the Garhwali dialect I could still grasp that something had been killed. I scrambled out, my heart thumping wildly. I prayed that they hadn’t killed the beautiful animal. It is on the most endangered list for heaven’s sake ! Popping my head out of the tent, I was momentarily disoriented, especially by the brightness. The sun was already up and shinning. I squinted hard towards the cacophony and saw one of the Kitchen staff holding the poor dead animal by the tail. Garhwalis are known to be very brave and they had chased down the animal and killed it. It was a big ‘bloody rat’.