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Harishchandragad via Nali-chi-vaat (Part 3)

A recount of my thrilling trek to Harishchandragad via nali-chi-vaat, which is considered to be one of the most difficult treks in the Sahyadri Mountains (Western Ghats) of Maharashtra, India. This is a story about the most adrenaline-filled 48 hours of my life.

Click for: Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

Ghali (Gully)

The climb after lunch was intense and difficult. The channel had a number of large boulders, which we had to climb. The long lunch break made it especially difficult to get back into climbing again. Once again, I was happy being able to climb without luggage. Others were saying that we should take turns to climb without luggage. I took that as a joke!  Given my heavy bag, I wanted to conserve my energy for later.

Cliffs on the right side of Konkan Kada

Cliffs on the right side of Konkan Kada

We were getting closer to the Konkan Kada, but none of us really stopped to take pictures like we did before. It was getting late and we were climbing fast to make up for lost time. We also agreed to limit our rest breaks to a maximum of 5 minutes. The channel curved to the left as we got closer to the Konkan Kada. After a while, Konkan Kada was no longer directly in front of us, but on our right side.

Our guide leading us to the start of the gully

Our guide leading us to the start of the gully

It was almost 4’o clock when our guide finally pointed the start of the ghali to us. We could see the narrow ghali with massive rock walls on both sides. It looked like a giant slide, except it was the way water flowed down the mountain in the rainy season. After climbing a bit more, but before reaching the starting point of ghali, I asked my porter to head back as it was getting late for him. I don’t think he had a flash light on him. I didn’t have one either. I gave him a good tip and took my backpack back.  I had conserved energy for this and was now mentally prepared to carry the load. I think trekking is mostly mental. Most people will be surprised by how much they can walk, climb and carry – if only they have the will power to do so.

Before leaving, our guide warned us that we should hurry up and try to get to the top before nightfall. According to him, it was “only” a 1.5 to 2 hours of climb to the top. But he had said the same about reaching the ghali from the village, and that had taken us almost 4 hours. The climb so far had been gentle, but going forward it was going to be very steep including several patches where we would have to do some rock climbing.

Krish was now leading. Looking straight up, it looked as if the real adventure was just about to begin.

This was the starting point of the 'ghali' (gully) - Photo Credit: Deva

This was the starting point of the ‘ghali’ (gully) – Photo Credit: Deva

Dead End in the Dead of Night

The sun was racing towards the horizon and we were rushing to climb all the rock patches before night-time. There was a lot of scree, which made the climb dangerous and risky. I had never walked on so much scree before, which was a mix of sand and loose stones. It was a struggle just to stand straight without slipping. Certain patches were risky and everyone was taking their own route, which they felt was the “best”. Sometimes, a route that is easy in the beginning becomes very difficult later, and vice-versa. It’s always a challenge to select the best and safest route, and that usually comes with experience.

Slippery climb through the gully that was full of loose scree

Slippery climb through the gully that was full of loose scree

We were quickly gaining altitude and by 4:30pm we had reached the first rock patch that would require the use of safety ropes. It took us a long time to haul our luggage up and then climb using the safety equipment. Rock patches are always thrilling and nerve wrecking at the same time. Immediately after the first rock patch, came another one – a bigger one. This time, to save time, we skimped a bit on safety and just had the rope hanging down while we free climbed. The idea was if we needed the rope, then it was there. All we had to do was grab it. By the time we all climbed the second patch, it was dark already.

One of the relatively easy rock patches that we climbed before it got completely dark

One of the relatively easy rock patches that we climbed before it got completely dark

View from the gully as the sun was setting on us. As beautiful as mountains are, they can be just as dangerous.

View from the gully as the sun was setting on us. As beautiful as mountains are, they can be just as dangerous.

We must have asked Krish a dozen times how many more rock patches were still remaining. He wasn’t sure whether it was one or two. Bottom line was we would have to do it in the dark, which was not ideal.

My buddies, Atul and Shailesh

My buddies, Atul and Shailesh

Because of the huge mountain walls that were on either side of us, it felt darker than it really was. To make matters worse, the rocks which had been heated by the sun during the day time were becoming loose and falling too close to us for our comfort. One unlucky direct hit on the head would have spelled the end for any one of us.

We mainly used the rope to haul our luggage up and for support as we climbed

We mainly used the rope to haul our luggage up and for support as we climbed

Due to time constraints, we climbed without safety gear

Due to time constraints, we climbed without safety gear

We finally reached the end of the ghali and there was nowhere to go! It looked like what the villagers had said in the afternoon was right – the way up was blocked by rock slides. We were facing huge rock walls – a Dead End!

Cliff Hanger

bharari_harishchandragad_nali-chi-vaat_arrowThe entire route is marked with painted arrows, which indicate the way up. Those who had a flash light were looking for the small arrow. I didn’t have a flashlight. Krish figured that the route must be on our right (if we stand facing the ghali) above the wall… if only we could see the arrow above, but the wall too high for us to see anything from where we were at.

Krish attempted to climb the vertical wall. He made it half way up before getting stuck. There weren’t too many holds on the wall.

Meanwhile, we could still hear the occasional rock falling. It was steep where I was standing and I was having difficulty maintaining my balance and the scree made that task even more difficult. I managed to sit awkwardly on a rock.

After a second failed attempt, Shailesh decided to give it a try. What followed were some very tense cliff hanger moments. Under normal circumstances, we would be taking plenty of pictures of friends who are rock climbing. However, given that Shailesh was free climbing a very difficult and risky rock patch in the dark without any safety equipment, we did not want to distract him with a flash. It was too dark to take photos without using a flash.

Shailesh reached the same point where Krish had gotten stuck. We tried to help him as much as possible by pointing our flash lights in his direction. I tried to do the same with my borrowed flashlight, but it was no use since it was barely giving any light.  Shailesh was now standing with his full weight on a small rock that was jutting out of the wall. He stood on it for a few minutes looking for a hold that he could use to pull himself up and on the top. Being taller and leaner, he felt a hold, which he could not see that was high above his head. Using that hold, he somehow managed to pull himself up and on the top.

We were very happy when he had safely made it to the top. It was an incredibly risky patch particularly because of the darkness and lack of safety equipment.

Krish started climbing once Shailesh was on top. He was climbing with the rope. The jutting rock which Shailesh had stood on just minutes earlier was within his reach.  He was contemplating how to get on top of it. Meanwhile, Shailesh was trying to help Krish with the holds. Then, when he held the rock to pull himself up on it, it easily came out of its place and into his hand. That’s when we realized what a close call it had been for Shailesh. Had the rock come off when he was standing on it – it would have been a terrible disaster.

Death Around the Corner

Meanwhile, Shailesh had been looking for the elusive “arrow-mark” to give us a clue for the way up. Fortunately, he found it.

With some difficulty, we managed to throw the rope to Shailesh. He secured one end of the rope to a shrub that seemed to have sprouted amidst rocks. The shrub was quite small but it was the only thing around that we felt was strong enough to hold our weight.  It showed the amazing resilience of nature because it seemed to be growing in a place with all odds stacked against its very existence (lack of soil, water and sunlight etc).  I needed some of that – resilience.

batman and robin climbingWhat we did next was akin to a military exercise. We were to climb “batman style” using only the rope that was dangling from the shrub. Krish said to be careful about the cracks in the rock wall as poisonous snakes may be lurking in them.  We hauled up our backpacks first and then ourselves – one-by-one.  I had seen people do it in the movies and the old Batman series had made it look very easy. In reality, it was much harder than Batman and Robin had made it look.  Pulling your own weight is not as easy as it looks.  To make matters worse, rocks were falling while we were climbing.

Sleeping on the Edge

After everyone had climbed, we had to negotiate a narrow, semi-circular and highly exposed trail.  I didn’t have my own flashlight, so I was negotiating the trail using light from the person in front of me.  So that made negotiating the trail even more difficult and dangerous.

The trail led to yet another patch where we had to do some rock climbing.  The novelty and excitement of rock climbing had worn off by that time.  Shailesh climbed before me and showed me the holds with his flashlight as I negotiated the rock patch.

There was a lot of loose scree after the rock patch.  Our trail branched into two with a new trail forking to the left through a thick growth of Karvi (strobilanthes callosus) shrubs and the other one continuing forward.  We checked the trail going straight first and it was full of scree and was becoming too steep to climb.  We decided against exploring this path further.  The trail through the bushes seemed like the correct route although it was by no means easy.  There was plenty of loose scree here too and I was on all fours most of the time trying to keep my balance and avoid the low-hanging branches from getting into my eyes.  I was suddenly aware of my eye injury.

We could not find the trail after we came out of the Karvi shrubs.  There was a steep rocky terrain to our left and a dark valley on the right.  The time was around 9:00PM.

Krish and Shailesh searched for the trail for nearly an hour before giving up.  Krish had been getting dizzy, probably due to dehydration and fatigue.  We decided to stop climbing and look for a place to sleep.  Everyone was exhausted and somewhat dehydrated.  Having exhausted our water supplies a long time back, we were not in a position to cook food either.  Not that we had the energy to do so anyway.

There was no flat surface to sleep on.  We chose a dry rock surface that was at an incline of nearly 30 degrees; everywhere else it was steeper.  We thought about tying our rope across where we were going to sleep, like a low-hanging clothes line, and put our arms over the rope for safety, so we don’t fall off.  However, we had to drop that idea as there was nothing to tie our rope to!  Even if there was something to tie our ropes to, I’m not sure if that idea would have prevented us from rolling over in case we had shifted in our sleep.  Probably not.

We noticed that the rocks just above where we were going to sleep were wet.  A little bit of water was seeping over the surface.  However, there wasn’t enough flow for us to drink.  Shailesh then came up with a simple yet ingenious way to collect water.  With the help of some plastic waste that we were carrying, he setup a couple of bottles that would collect water overnight.  It would take at least a few hours for a meaningful amount of water to accumulate.

At 10:30PM, after devouring a few biscuits and some left over apple juice, we went to sleep.  I was so tired that I was even able to put aside my paranoia about scorpions.  Previously on a trek, I had seen a deadly scorpion right where we were going to sleep and I was not able to sleep peacefully the whole night.  Ever since then, I had become paranoid before sleeping on treks.

As I was falling asleep I could hear Sachin and Shailesh talking.  At night, there were some strange sounds; those were probably monkeys howling.  Shailesh was lying next to me, and being a good friend that he is, he kept an eye on me the whole night as he was afraid I would roll in my sleep and fall over the edge.

In the dark, we had no idea how deep the valley was.

Sleeping on the edge!  Photo Credit: Deva

Sleeping on the edge!  Photo Credit: Deva

To be continued… Click for Part Four.