Tom’s Tales: Trek to the Himalayas

I took my first Melissa-less trip since moving to India. Along with three colleagues, I chaperoned 28 young folks to the top of a Himalayan mountain. Even with torrential rain, a little bit of snow, and some freaky heat, the only real problem was the Melissa-less part. It was an incredible trip, like a magazine spread.

The way Canadian International School’s schedule sets up, Grades 12 and 10 finish with classes in late April in order to take IB and IGCSE exams full-time (I’m working myself up to writing about my somewhat strong feelings about such things). While they are out, we send our grades 11 and 9 out on excursions. The grade 9 kids went to the Andaman Islands, an Indian state in the form of an archipelago about two-thirds of the way toward Thailand across the Bay of Bengal. Grade 11 kids went three places: Thailand, Dehradun to work with Habitat for Humanity, and the Himalaya.

With the help of Indiahikes and our fabulous guide Geet, we climbed Kedarkantha, a 12,500 foot peak in the state of Uttarakhand. We took 28 kids to try to get them out of their comfort zones and challenge their sense of self.

We started and ended at our “base camp,” which was actually an adorable little guesthouse in Gaichawan Gaon, a crazy eight hour drive from Dehradun. Perched on the side of a hill in a valley that makes the Columbia River Gorge look like a ditch, the seven girls and four of us adults slept in one building with private rooms. The 21 boys were divided between two dormitory rooms. The grounds were swarming with cows, sheep, and dogs, the last of which would soon follow us all the way up the mountain. That first dinner was our first one with the incredible, very un-camp food-like meals IndiaHikes would feed us over the next several days.

The first night in the mountains we experienced a heck of a thunderstorm. The way the rooms were set up, we were able to go to sleep to quite the light show. All the while, we were feeling for the other group of CIS trekkers who left a day earlier so were out in tents during that storm. One result of the storm was that we woke up to a dusting of snow in the hills above us. Nearly half of our kids had never experienced snow, so it got them mightily excited for the adventure to come.

Our first day on the trail presented us with six hours of some pretty rigorous hiking. Mid-way we came across a cute village where some of the men have set up an omelet and Maggi station for hikers. The kids loved it. Once we got to the campsite, we got dumped on by another thunderstorm. This time, it was our turn in the tents. Jeremy, Ganesh (the other two male chaperones) and I were distressed that our tent that had a little leak in the downhill side of the tent where the water was gathering, and that there was a river running underneath the tent. Then Elsa (our one female chaperone) described her tent as “a swimming pool”. The three guys were ok by comparison. The most impressive part of the storm was when Geet and another one of our hosts came around in the worst of it with tea and a kati roll. Otherwise, the three of us played cards in our damp tent until dinner time.

Day two was easier and beautiful. The first sign that the weather would be better was when I got up in the middle of the night for reasons old guys like me have to get up in the middle of the night. The sky was full of unbelievable numbers of stars. The walk involved several pastoral high mountain meadows with our first vistas of the expansive scope of the Himalaya. Once we got to the high camp we found the remnants of the six inches of snow the first trekking group was getting while we were flooding our tents. We arrived early enough that the kids had a fabulous afternoon exploring the area, playing games, having snowball fights, building snowmen, and resting for the early wake up the next morning. I had a concern about my blood oxygen levels, so I decided to not push it. I found a nice place to rest while watching storm after storm roll down the valley, almost entirely missing us. One short snow flurry got the kids fired up, and then it was time to prepare for our early summit push and get to bed early.

Summit day was incredible. The kids did great. One student turned around after falling ill, so 27 of our 28 students made it to the top despite a couple of them having quite the struggle. We were so proud of them. Meanwhile, the summit lived up to what one might expect from a Himalayan peak. The size of each mountain, the size of the visible part of the range, the size of the valleys. Everything was like nothing I have never seen before. After spending some time taking in the views, we started heading down. There were several stretches the kids were allowed to slide in the snow, so that was a good time.

By lunch time, we made it all the way down to the first camp where we got flooded the first time. On this day, it was warm enough for shorts and sandals, more games, and resting up from that early morning and extraordinary exertion.

One more hike downhill; one more stop at the omelet stop; one more day (of 90 degree weather) at base camp; one early morning drive to the airport in Dehradun. The whole experience was just fabulous. We had some superficial issues with language and some other stuff, but the kids were by and large amazing. As for next year, I’m of mixed feelings. I would happily do this again. I also wouldn’t mind doing an excursion to another part of the world (or at least the country).

Random Notes:

The excursions are done as part of the IB CAS process. IB makes an effort to make learning a more all-inclusive experience. Kids need to participate in, document, and reflect on a number of activities with the goal of making them well-rounded, life-long learners. Kids of course take this process more or less seriously, but we were excited by the number of times we heard the exclamation, “CAS photo!”

Dehradun is the base for an important religious pilgrimage. Hindus believe the mountains are the birthplace of Shiva, and there are four holy places in the mountains surrounding the city, 100s of km away from each other. Travelers take 10 days to visit them all on a trail called Char Dham Yatra (Hindi for something along the lines of journey through the four holy places).

I had a number of experiences throughout the week that just felt like quintessentially Indian moments. For example, one of the things I am most impressed by about Indian culture is that people talk to each other as if they already know each other. Our bus driver took this to a whole new level. He seemed to know everybody. Every once in a while he would stop in the middle of the one-lane, curvy road with a cliff on one side and a drop off on the other, in order to exchange words and a handshake with drivers going the other way. Or the gentleman we gave a ride several miles down the road as he stood between the driver and the front passenger. So many elements of this moment would never happen in the States: a stranger on a bus full of students, standing unbuckled in the middle of a van, someone simply asking for the ride in the first place.

Our biggest hurdle was the travel. Somehow, our flights were changed back in March and no one, not IndiGo (the airline) nor Windstar (the travel agency) bothered to notify us. As a result, about half of the group that was supposed to be in the group a day ahead of us along with one of their chaperones missed their flight. We ended up with, instead of two roughly evenly divided groups, one group of about ten people including two chaperones and one of 32 people including four chaperones. All I know is that we had a great time with all of the kids we had and were super happy to have the addition of Jeremy on our team. It also inspired us to check, or rather ask Melissa to check from home, our flight home. If we hadn’t done that, we would have ended up missing our flight in Dehradun, probably requiring us to stay there an extra 24 hours. Thank goodness we checked. The irony is that our new flights were way better than our original flights, but because both agencies failed so badly with the communication, we certainly aren’t using Windstar again, and we’ll try to avoid IndiGo (though I also get the sense this is SOP for Indian airlines in general).


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