The Trek from Hell
Sunday, October 2, 2005. The five-hour delay in our take-off from Delhi to Guwahati should have been a clue. We were on the Delhi-Guwahati-Dibrugarh flight with Sahara Airlines. Allegedly, the pilot didn't show up, we sat for two hours, we saw the baggage being removed and we still sat there. Later we disembarked and were put on another plane - sit anywhere you want. Another hour passed and we took off for Guwahati, the capital of Assam in northeast India. We landed in some rain and at 4 p.m. it was darkening. The runway in Dibrugarh is short, has poor landing equipment and the weather was bad. We would have to be put up in Guwahati and miss our reservation at the wonderful old-fashioned manager's bungalow of the Mancotta Tea Estate in Dibrugarh. Now we are a day late in our tight travel schedule. We are now obliged to stay the next night in Dibrugarh because the one flight a day puts us in the town late in the afternoon, too late to take the once-aday ferry across the Brahmaputra to Pasighat. This passenger-only ferry was old but serviceable. Fortunately, it was sunny and we could stand on deck and not be jammed into either the fore or aft hold. It took two hours to cross, a marvel and credit to the boat captain who navigated successfully the constantly shifting sandy shoals and currents of this miles-wide river filled with islands some so large that large herds of grazing cattle and villagers are permanent residents. Vehicles picked us up from the makeshift landing and we spent the night in the very primitive town of Pasighat. Electric lights on the street are practically non-existent. India has a series of "circuit houses" for travelers usually with some government or business connection. This area is so off the beaten track there are few specific accommodations for tourists. Our booking in the main building was not possible because we were, of course, a day late and thus we were forced to stay in the dump of the auxiliary building. The next two days were spent driving up the valley of the Siang River. This river is an extension of the Tsangpo which courses through the southern part of Tibet, cuts through the Himalayas via wondrous and mysterious waterfalls and enters the state of Arunachal Pradesh, India, as the Siang which then becomes a major tributary of the Brahmaputra River which is formed in Assam. The road is pretty decent although with the huge amount of rainfall, washouts occur; road and vehicle repairs are a way of life. The drivers are trying to drive as fast as possible, keeping up their speed in time with Bollywood pop music. Naturally, I got really motion sick and had to request riding exclusively in the front seat to alleviate the nausea. Fortunately, most of my other seven Western companions were not affected. The next night was in a not-too-bad circuit house and the winding road continued the next day until we reached Tuting, basically the end of the road, only a few miles from Tibet. There is no direct road link here between the two countries. The circuit house here was the worst of the lot as might be expected with its remote location and a population of only a couple of thousand people.
Porters from the area were recruited that night. Early in the morning, bags were lifted and sorted according to weight; no one wanted to carry the heaviest bag. We were invited to the local gompa – Buddhist temple, met the lama and received his blessings and a white silk scarf. The Dalai Lama had been there only a short time ago to dedicate the new building with the hopes of promoting more Buddhist pilgrimages. The lamas were going to pray and beat some drums for good weather. Our ostensible reason for the trip was to do the "kora" around the Riutala. A kora is the circumambulation around a holy site. Merit is gained in its accomplishment. This mountain is one of the holiest sites in Pemako, an area in the Himalayas on both sides of the Tibetan-Indian border revered in Tibetan-based Buddhism. We crossed the cable bridge spanning the Siang River and headed southeast up the Yang Sang River valley thinking that we could get to the Abroka Pass for a few days and then hit the Riutala. It was sunny and hot; for the first few hours, we did some climbing and some level walking. It was peculiar how everyone was red in the face - we were all overheating due to the high humidity and temperature. Adequate hydration was going to be very important. I had 2 liters of water and was planning to spread them out over the course of the day. At around noon, the plan was to stop for lunch. We rested by the river. The porters were taking their time in preparing a lunch of noodles so the decision was made to move on without lunch, relying on our own trail food. This was a mistake - I had not prepared to bring my own meals, my water was running low, we were burning thousands of calories and losing liters of water. I was being dehydrated and undernourished with subsequent fatigue. By mid-afternoon I was becoming nauseated. That morning diarrhea had first been noted, and this was getting worse and of course aggravating the dehydration. More diarrhea and now vomiting. I couldn't drink much of my remaining water because I was afraid it wouldn't stay down. Small sips would have to do. Fortunately, one of the guys was just naturally slow and it was not a chore to keep up with him. I was grateful for his company. At one point we were so slow, a couple of the porters came back, grabbed our backpacks and hurried us up to a little "hotel" - a shack with a couple of open air platforms for beds. We were offered tea and rest - for five minutes! They were in a hurry for us to move along. It was 4 o'clock and we learned the sun would set at 5. It would be very dangerous to be on this trail after dark. Well of course, 5 o'clock came around and it was another hour to Nugong, our destination. Although we had our headlamps, it was very tough gauging the vicissitudes of the rocky and rooty trail. At one point, we walked on rocks over a waterfall, the height of which could not be discerned in the dark. I arrived tired and weak but was able to set up the tent with the help of the porters. The nausea persisted and only small portions of food and water could be taken. The diarrhea wasn't getting any better either. The next morning I started on an antibiotic figuring this diarrhea was getting worse and was of a bacterial nature. Further, I was now getting a sore throat and developing a deep cough with lots of sputum. Soon my sinuses were congested with a continually plugged and runny nose. The following morning, the situation hadn't improved but I decided to plow on. I tried to eat as much as possible knowing the anticipated energy requirements. The nausea persisted; another episode of vomiting occurred. We arrived in Tashigong and set up our tents. Eating and drinking became problematic with the nausea and exhaustion. Overnight it poured. As we know, time, tide and diarrhea wait for no man. The diarrhea was so urgent and the rain so heavy, time would not allow me to get out of the tent in such a hurry and in-tent measures had to be taken. I was so disheartened in the a.m. by these events I approached Ken Cox regardin the options. I could turn back—two days of up and down trails to Tuting, I could stay in Tashigong for a day to see if there was some recovery and then go to back to Tuting or onward to Singa, a larger village where possibly I could start up the mountain a day late and meet the guys coming down. That way I could still get some plant exploration in. It had now been decided that the Abroka pass was too far in our limited time and that just going to the top of Riutala and back would be the only reasonable plan. The track to the Riutala began just south of Singa. Kattu, our trek leader, was willing to do whatever I felt like. Ken thought I ought to make a push for Singa and recover there. Of course, it meant another day's hike starting today, with no rest. Kattu was very ill himself. He looked pale and sometimes like death warmed over, weak and listless. He is suffering from malaria having had chills and fever a few days ago. He had started on the standard course of chloroquine, which is taken for five days. This is for management of symptoms only - it's probably not curable in this endemic area. After breakfast, with a little more food and liquid in me, I felt stronger and decided to go on to Singa. There was just a little rain for the first hour and then it cleared.
I felt stronger, there wasn't any vomiting and I was eating and drinking better. When we arrived in Singa, Ken told us the Political Officer (PO) had to meet with us the next day so we'd all have a day of rest (the only one). This gave us a chance to do some laundry, rest and catch up with stuff. That night the young women performed some dancing and singing - we were invited to join in. The local brew of "chang," fermented millet, was offered.
The PO suggested that it was possible to go to the Riutala Pass and down the other side with a guide who knew the way. This would be great. It takes two days to get to the pass and it would take two days to go down the other side to Yingkiong where we could be picked up by vehicle. The other option was to take two days up, two days back down and then three days back to Tuting. We'd save three days! A guide from the Mishmi tribe was hired. Most of the locals were Khampa - originally from the eastern part of Tibet. Others were Adi, the majority tribe of central Arunachal Pradesh. There were only two campsites on this side of the mountain. One was a 4-5 hours hike, the other was a 10-hour hike. These were the only flat sites and the only sources of water. We started off about 9 a.m. It was a grueling climb of roots, rocks and mud and it was steep, steep, steep. We had started off at Singa at 5,000 feet (1500m) and the camp was at 8000 feet (2400m). Tents were set up; some plant exploration was done. We went to bed early. It was going to be a tough 10-hour climb the next day, we had to get there before dusk, and so we left at 5:30 a.m. (the sun rises at 5). My main goal was to get to the campsite; I was far enough behind that the forward gang had identified many rhododendrons and other plants but little information could be passed on to a laggard like myself.
This track was really tough, lots of narrow ridges, ladders, climbing over 11,000 feet (3300m) and then dropping a thousand feet only to climb another 300 feet to the second campsite which was a cramped ledge under a rock at 10,800 feet (3270m). I arrived, of course, just at dusk. The back rock wall had its own little spring coming from a cleft. Tents had to be shared because of the limited space. That night it was fairly cold; frost was seen in the valley below the ledge the next morning.
The next a.m. we were up early and headed to the Riutala, a 2-hour hike. Superb views of the Himalayan mountain range with their permanent snow were seen to the north in the early morning light. The most prominent were the two stunning peaks that straddle the Tsangpo-Namche Barwa and Gyala Peri. All the porters wanted to do the kora. It would be a lifetime achievement and they were very excited about it. Our plans would not include going all the way round, only halfway and then down the other side. We got to a high point, close to 13,000 feet (3900m). The Mishmi guide couldn't find the trail. He disappeared for hours; we tried to find it ourselves by walking in obvious directions but not being convinced there was a real trail. The porters meanwhile carried on around the mountain, completing the kora. Early afternoon, we realized that we had no trail to follow; the porters had gone back to the rock ledge so we'd have to go back there too. This would mean defeat and we'd have to retrace our steps back to Singa, Tashigong, Nugong, and Tuting. The descent to the rock ledge via the last part of the kora was a 1500-foot rocky slope, not easy to negotiate and, of course, I arrived again at dusk.
So we had to backtrack to Singa. The descent was very, very steep, demanding extra care in trying to get down the slopes without falling. By the time we reached the lower mountain camp, my muscles were screaming. Because we were going down, reasonably good time was made and we actually had a little daylight to set up the tents. I had to look after a number of infected wounds on the legs, backs and hands of our porters. The descent the next day was even more treacherous, the steepness of the trail with gradations of 40, 50, 60, 70 degrees of fine gravel or mud or roots was fierce. When I looked back up the trail, I couldn't believe I actually had climbed that track. I was fortunate in having one of the porters carry my bag and offer a gentle hand as a balance over the steepest parts. He was like a guardian angel, so careful and attentive. At the end, my thighs had an intense burning pain that I had never experienced before. I had great worries that if it was this bad now, what would be any stiffness be like tomorrow? It did not materialize fortunately. It had taken us three days to go from Singa to Tuting, and Ken now wanted us to take only two days to return - we ought to be fitter now. This way we could have a spare day in town. The bar had been raised again! The next morning with an early start and a promise of another 10-hour walk, we made it to Mankota, where one of the porters has a house, wife and eight kids including 3 month-old twin daughters. Not wanting to set up my tent, I took him up on the offer of sleeping in his house. Several villagers came for medical treatment of back pain, itching, fever both in the evening and early the next morning.
Our last day was another 10-hour march, crossing the Siang River at 4:30 p.m. and making it up the other bank and to the Tuting circuit house by dark. It was an unbelievable relief that the worst was definitely over! After being paid and tipped and genuinely thanked for their efforts, the porters disappeared into the night. Just before dinner, our last night in Tuting, two of them had started to drink and then gotten on a motorcycle. It overturned and they presented themselves at the front door with multiple abrasions and cuts. With Kattu's help it took almost an hour to wash, clean, put ointment on and bandage all these wounds. We used up the last of the gauze pads, tapes and bandages. They were lucky there was just enough; with the alcohol, they weren't feeling any pain and were grateful for the attention. This care simply would not be available in the town. The pharmacy didn't even carry aspirin!
That night the rain began and was off and on for the remainder of the trip. It was another 2-day drive down the Siang River to Pasighat. The next day we embarked on a 5-hour boat trip in the rain down the Brahmaputra to Dibrugarh, the highlights of which were watching the huge buckets of milk being on-loaded at different stops along the river as well as the offering of hot tea and pastries by the boat staff. My birthday was the day we arrived back at Dibrugarh. I was kindly given the best room in the wonderful 157-year-old tea estate manager's bungalow at Mancotta. A birthday cake appeared with my name inscribed on it and even a few candles. We celebrated with a very smooth local rum call "Old Monk". This was a really nice surprise and ending for a grueling and demanding adventure. We flew off to Delhi the next day and Seattle was a welcome sight on Sunday, October 23.
Our over-arching good luck had been the good weather - we would never have made it up those trails in the rain with all that mud and slippery roots. Poisonous snakes are endemic to Arunachal Pradesh. Our Mishmi guide killed a viper on the way to Riutala and left it within arm's length for us to witness. My porter pointed out a 3-foot fat green snake as it slithered away in the grass; he assured me it wasn't poisonous. One of the guys almost sat on a tiny brown snake, half the size of a saucer—its danger was unknown. Many had leeches crawl under their gaiters. Hartwig pulled a tiger leech (one of the larger varieties) off my lower back when my skin was exposed when leaning over. It hadn't been there long enough to sink its jaws into me. Severely infected leech bites were a great problem with the villagers as well as the porters. Disinfectants and Band-Aids are simply not available so they just fester. This was the most challenging trek of my life. So many of the days were forced marches: we didn't have any choice but to walk for 8-10 hours because that was where the villages or the mountain campsites were. For someone like me who turned out to be 20-25 years older than all but one it was just too tough. The situation was aggravated by the upper and lower respiratory infections, the diarrhea, and the lack of adequate nutrition and sometimes dehydration. When you're burning 4000 calories and more per day and being offered 100 calories worth of noodles for breakfast, a couple of hundred calories for lunch and not much more for dinner, you wear out real fast. I felt like I was in suspended animation the entirety of the trek, sort of like a walking zombie, able to put one foot in front of the other. My goal was to get to the end of the day in one piece. Everyone admitted that this was an exhausting journey. I don't feel the need to try one of these treks again; I'm ready to hang up my boots. If you hear me talking about going on another one, SHOOT ME!
Garratt Richardson is a member of the Seattle Chapter.