Jan 17, 2014

Kumara Parvatha - how Jack and Jill went up the hill

Signs of triumph
((To read a Tamil version of this post, please click here))

Pushpagiri aka Kumara Parvatha. A breath-taking challenge of 5617-ft. height in the Western ghats of Karnataka. One of the toughest treks of South India. A total distance of 22 km by foot up and down the peak. Two days and a night at the top. Thirteen men. What a start it was to 2014!

The most-debated topic in our terrace conversations over the last few months was where to celebrate the coming new year. Several options from Besant Nagar to Andaman were contemplated and pushed aside in cycles for want of better ideas. We looked for something fresh and challenging. That is when a friend first floated the idea of Kumara Parvatha. He had tried in vain earlier in December 2012 with another social circle to ascend this peak. Unfortunately, their cool adventure turned soggy in incessant rains and irritating leech-bites, forcing them to return midway. The idea tickled our taste and then we actively marketed the trek among the extended circle of friends. You convince A by saying that B comes to the trek and convince B by saying the vice-versa and in a matter of days, the trip was scheduled and all arrangements were finalized. Not all of us are trek enthusiasts or hunks-by-physique. It was to be a story of amateur Jack and Jill trekkers going up the hill, risking a few falls, rolls and trolls. Nevertheless, we were ready!

The internet blessed us with more than adequate information for prompt planning. People approach the hill from two directions. Somwarpete and Kukke are two towns at either end of the peak. The distance by road going around the hill to connect the towns is about 60 km. If you take a casual stroll on the peak and get down at the other side, it is just 22 km! Kukke is a reasonably livelier town that Somwarpete. It has a famous Subramanya temple to add to its portfolio too. Trekkers can choose to start from Somwarpete and get down at the Kukke side or to do a to-and-fro from Kukke. We chose the former. For later, it should never bother us that we did not experience the other side of the mountain.

By difficulty levels, this trek can safely be termed 'not for beginners'. From Somwarpete, we have to take another bus to Bidahalli and walk a distance of 5 km from there to reach the checkpost of Pushpagiri Wildlife sanctuary. This 5 km stretch itself is a tough uphill nut to crack and might be more than sufficient to suck all the adventure enthusiasm from weak-minded souls. When one walks all the way up till here to know that the actual trek starts only there, the natural reaction will be to find a good tree shade, rest and return to the comforts of normalcy. This is the last chance too! Once you cross the checkpost, there is no easy turning back. We decided to bypass this entrance test. We hired a jeep from Somwarpete bus stand which crammed us all in, miraculously with our luggage too, and took us to the checkpost directly. The driver asked Rs. 1,500/- for it. It is worth every rupee. The last 3 kms of this journey is the most 'jumping japaak' stretch where you can not find a proper road even if you Google search.

You can meet two very interesting characters here. Two mountain dogs with thick fur coating their body will run along with your jeep and look expectantly at you like a tourist guide. A friend who has trekked the hill earlier had informed us of these dogs. They are very faithful to those who offer them a biscuit or two and lead them all the way up the hill. That is how the friend became acquainted with the dogs and he had in fact named one of them Maya. We passed his wishes to Maya but were hesitant to accept her offer of help. The cost of the biscuit pieces looked too expensive for us, for that was our actual situation.

The trip will start with a plate of idlis with sweet sambar at Somwarpete and the next cooked-food stop will only come after about 36 hours on the way down to Kukke at Bhattara Mane. Bhattara Mane is a pit-stop for trekkers where a kind hearted cook serves good food to the tired people. Hence, all food supplies have to be carried on the backs during the trek. We divided the 13 people into 3 groups and gave each one of them a pair of apples, a cucumber, 3 Snickers bars and one biscuit packet; each group got two full loaves of bread slices, two glucose packets, one tetrapack of flavoured soya milk; and in common for the whole group we had 15 frozen rotis. Two water bottles each and that completed our food and water status. Water points are far and few in the hill too. No doubt we thought twice before sharing our biscuits.

The backpack should also consist of a pair of change clothes, winter-wear, salt packs to tackle leeches, a cozy sleeping bag and a foldable tent (one tent can accommodate 4 people). Each backpack would easily weigh upto 10 kgs. People were also reported to lose their way in the forest and keeping Murphy's law in mind, we had also provided each one of us a basic survival kit - with torch light, cigarette lighters, a pocket knife and a whistle. The utility of all these can not be argued with. A smart packer will manage to reduce the weight as much as possible without compromising on these. We realized that we were not that smart very soon!

At the checkpost, we were made to sign in a form printed in incomprehensible Kannada and a fee of Rs. 200/- per person was collected for entrance into the sanctuary. In case of an emergency, our addresses and contact details will also be collected. Two forest officials checked our baggages for liquour and gave us their mobile numbers to contact if help is needed. Mobile signals are very intermittently available in the trail but nevertheless it is useful to store those numbers. One look up at the sky and the mighty Kumara Parvatha will greet you with an aloof smile. It would take half a day to climb and touch its nose!

There will be a stream at the foothill which should satisfy the toilet needs. You have to silently find the best spot for you and quickly get done with the task. If you are lucky, you might even get to chat with a green snake while relieving yourself. Immediately after the stream, starts the dense forest where the 'leech alert mode' has to be switched on. Salt is a good prevention against leeches. We applied salt inside the socks and on portions of skin not covered by the clothing. On rainy months, leech threat can be very harsh and these cowardly suckers attack us in the incognito mode. So you have to frequently check your feet and exposed body parts for leeches. If in spite of the salt, leeches bite you, you can apply powdered tobacco on the bite spot after plucking the leech out of the skin. It will help the blood to clot faster. Fortunately for us, leeches seemed to have gone on a holiday and we crossed the leech forest without any damage.

Leech-alert zone
There will be a point where the dense forest abruptly ends and another terrain starts. That is the end of the leech zone. There will also be a small stream there for refreshment and water refill. It will also be a good spot to unpack the food store and grab an apple. Shortly thereafter, a wider stream arrives with ample space and water for a longer food break. There won't be much water for a long time after this point. We halted there and finished a packet of bread slices and filled one water bottle with glucose.

From that point onward, it is a merciless march ahead. The one good thing about this side of the hill is that there are many shade trees in this route upwards to escape from the direct attack of the sun. The trek becomes steeper and the terrain rougher as it progresses. For amateurs, this can weaken the self-confidence one has about his physical ability and stamina very easily. Apart from 3-4 people, most are amateur trekkers in our group. And for some, the maximum physical work in normal life would be going up the stairs of their second floor home. The case worsens for smokers. It is best for smokers to completely forget the fire in the fingers and focus on the fire inside at least 10 days before the trek to sum up the necessary power in their lungs.

The speed of a group is determined by the speed of the slowest person in the group. Nobody wants to be the slowest person dragging the whole group. It is a race from behind not to finish last! The group should stick together. Apart from safety reasons, it also makes more social sense. If not, one might as well trek in January and the other in March. There is no point in coming as a group to enjoy the trek. The weight of the backpack somehow seems to increase by perception with every passing hour. The leading ones in the group cover a short distance and halt for rest till the others catch up. When the last person joins, the leading pack starts to resume walking. This irritated the friend who came last every time. When he fights fatigue, pain and a thousand demoralizing voices inside his head to close the few meters advantage that the others gained everytime, he naturally expected the others not to run away with the advantage immediately. Beyond a point, we made the slowest person walk in the front of the group. When he lags behind and joins hands with the last person in line, it is time for the whole group to rest. This idea worked well. We made sure that the person ahead always stays in eye sight. If not, we would blow the whistle and whoever is walking ahead would stop at the sound and wait.

Beyond physical fitness, this trek also tested the will and character of everyone. We were joking among us at the bottom that if anyone dared to ask an extra snickers bar, it would end the friendship then and there between them. But as we climbed higher and higher, we were also discovering how high each man's character can go. From sharing the weight of the backpack to motivating each other with pep talks, each person plays a role that comes naturally to him. These pep talks in a group of men are usually about women. They have amazing motivating powers in times of crisis like these. Mere imagination itself can do wonders if not for a conversation. Imaginations can sometimes border on hallucinations depending on the toughness of the terrain and the extent of the fatigue. Each and every girl one loved from childhood may come in a chronological order with glamorous eyes and lead one to the top of the peak with hallucinatory conversations.

We discovered the true potential of another very crude form of motivation and stress relief - swearing! Not all of us in the group were closely acquainted before this trek. But we were completely swearing profanities at the top of our voice without any inhibition. The magic word is 'Otha' for Tamilians. Just how many meanings can this one word convey? Pain, frustration, desperation, fatigue, anger, awe, beauty, surprise, shock, inspiration, appreciation, respect - otha this 'otha' covers everything! When reducing the weight on the back is impossible, swearing helps to reduce the weight in the mind. In such cases, whichever form of weight reduction can only do good. The dialogue to be double-quoted in the whole trek arrived at such a moment. We asked one of our very 'healthy' friends to walk in front of the group since he was a bit slower. He was walking second-in-line, next to another 'healthy' friend who chose to walk ahead for the same reason. At one sharp turn, the leader of the pack suddenly disappeared and the second-in-line had no clue where he went. He was panting for breath. But he could not lose time because he did not want the leader to gain a few extra meters ahead in these precious minutes. He looked up and around, took a few deep breaths and shouted the leader's name and pronounced with sheer firmness, "Pogadhe da punda" (roughly translated to 'Don't you go one step ahead, cunt'). That golden dialogue sent us in splits laughing hysterically behind. There was such a genuine emotion in that dialogue and he truly meant it! What makes it more interesting is that the leader is much elder to the second-in-line and they were not even 'vaada poda' range friends before that moment. The heat of the moment, truly!

And when we inch ahead with such difficulties, we saw a few trained trekkers who seemed to float ahead of us with effortless ease and a descending look. That look is enough to break all the confidence one musters to go ahead. There is no other way than to stop comparing oneself with them and console oneself saying that they are 'professional trekkers' and we are just amateurs. If that is also not enough and if the Almighty wills, one might get to see an enthusiastic uncle panting and struggling harder than him as a benchmark to feel good about. Unfortunately for us, we got to see only the 'professional trekkers' on the way upward. To hell with professional trekkers!

Mule-like on the mountains
Fed up by fatigue and frustration, my friends started to investigate whose evil idea was this trek at the first place. The funny thing is that no one could be traced to the root of this crazy idea. Honestly, even if one knew that he was the one, he would not dare to confide for his own life's sake. There were at least about ten easy ways available for a group to murder one person there! Even if one tried to pass the buck saying, "You signed up for this adventure voluntarily dude", the ball immediately came back ferociously - "So what if I fucking volunteered? Shouldn't you have put some sense into my stupid brain and left me at the ground, you son of a bitch". When conversations go dangerously in this direction, the safe bet is to try a diversion, something like "Hey if it is too heavy on you, I can lend a hand to you. Give me your handkerchief. I will carry it for you".

Although the uphill route always had something closely resembling a 'path', there were three steep barren rocks to climb. Each one is steep, rough and risky. We chose to pass the luggage, like construction workers passing bricks in the first rock to make things easier. It somehow worked. But very soon we realized that the second such rock is a big fat rock-son-of-a-bitch! The trick would not work there. It was over 40 ft. tall and without an option, we had to climb it with the backpacks on. Fortunately there were a lot of cracks and grass on one side of the rock giving a lifeline to climb it with some grip. Trusting the grip of our shoes and risking a few bones, we crossed that rock centimeter by centimeter (yes, slower than inch by inch). Once we crossed this rock, the first rock seemed to be baby stuff. We started to wonder how stupidly we were passing luggage to cover that rock! The third rock is neither steeper nor riskier. If there were enough reserves of strength in the mind and thighs, it can be a cake-walk. Shortly after the third rock, we were able to see the Kumara Parvatha's peak at arm's length, giving a sudden dose of adrenalin and motivation. There would be a point where the route from Kukke joins our route at the foot of the last stretch of the climb to the peak.

That rock-son-of-a-bitch
As soon as we saw the peak at a close range, we halted for a long time at a shade and rested well. After that, at one breath we climbed the peak and when we swore at the top of our voices on reaching the peak, we saw an eclectic bunch of people roaming around quietly here and there. They were those professional trekkers who met us earlier and the ones who started the climb from Kukke side. Even at a height of 6,000 ft. above sea level, there was an impression that I was standing at the crowded Mambalam railway station to catch an evening train. Mera bharat mahaan! In a short while after sunset, it was expected to be biting cold. Each group marked a portion of the peak for their tents and we too started the settling-in rituals. One group pitched the tent. One group went to collect firewood to tackle the cold night. One group went sight-seeing with the DSLR in hand! Ah, these DSLR folks!

I always wonder why these DSLR folks, who take great pains to capture all those art-of-light and divine manifestation moments and a few display picture stuff (only as favours to friends), never bother to share the photos with the group after a trip. At times, they roll out these photos in short bursts on social networking sites, long after the memory of the trip had faded into oblivion. There is no use being a gentleman with them. Beg, borrow or steal - the means do not matter as long as one can collect the photo folder from a DSLR guy shortly after a trip. I have not seen many ordinary digital camera owning souls create this ruckus. Why? Why not? Why me? It is the moral duty of all those who own a photography page in facebook to answer this question to enlighten lesser mortals like us in this regard.

The sun retiring behind the Sesha Parvatha
After settling in, we witnessed the sun set against the majestic Shesha Parvatha opposite us. It was a poetic phenomenon to see the retiring sun bidding good-bye with such a show-off of hues and rays. I felt truly fortunate to witness this event at that height. Soon after the sun sank, the cold winds set in and we were warned that temperatures could dip as low as 5 degrees celcius at the peak. We even had a temperature meter to validate the prediction. It reached as low as 14 degrees till we measured. We set up a camp-fire and heated our frozen rotis and had a light dinner. We slept as early as 8 30 PM. The next day's plan was to get up early to witness the sunrise and start the downhill trek to Kukke immediately. The downhill route is twice as long as the ascent - 14 km! Nevertheless, I slept like a baby in complete peace that night!

The optimist's delight - a new dawn
Unlike the routine, I woke up ahead of the sun the next morning. I can easily count such days in my life with the fingers of my hand. But since it was damn cold, I hid my fingers firmly clenched inside the pockets of my sweat-shirt that early morning. The sun came up and above the clouds very patiently after giving its due of green to every plant and waking up every flower and looked at us eye-to-eye before going further up and ending at the top. The sunrise is one of the eternal truths for every optimist! No matter what, it always dawns the following morning. I silently witnessed one such beautiful dawn in awe and gradually started to pack my belongings to leave the peak.

Makeshift homes for a memorable night
The route downhill towards Kukke posed different challenges. A steep rock greeted us very early and after carefully getting down the rock, there were no more massive rocks to cross. In stead, little brothers of the rocks took over completely. Throughout the day, we were walking on the narrow edges of mountains laden with loose gravel and slippery sand and the steep downward slope complicating things more than adequately. The calf muscles had to bear the weight of the whole body to brake and stop the gravity-aided free-fall at every step. At least about 3 km of the road ahead was visible all the time. It gave the illusion of running in a treadmill when after enthusiastically walking down the slope for a long time, the foothill would appear at the same distance. It felt almost like walking on the backbone of the mountain. There was grass everywhere and only grass. Trees and shades were far and few. Water was even more scarce. The comforting thing in this stretch is the limitless beauty of the valleys on either side of the mountain edge. The minuteness of human form against the majesty of nature started to sink in slowly, which was not this evident during the ascent yesterday amidst dense forests.

There are three major milestones in the descent. The first one is the Sesha Parvatha, another majestic peak opposite Kumara Parvatha. The second milestone is the Kallu Mandapa, where water resources can be replenished. The third milestone is the major recharge point - Bhattara Mane. 'Bhatta' is a local word for 'cook' it seems. He runs a little home-resort offering priceless solid food for the exhausted trekkers there. You can contact him on his mobile (0 94 48 647 947) and inform him in advance if you plan to do this trek and he can keep the food ready when you turn up. Bhattara Mane is still a reasonable distance from the trek's final point. The last stretch after Bhatta's place can be covered in one go to reach the tar roads of Kukke by dusk.

The hill's backbone
There is a particular view point at the Sesha Parvatha, offering a breath-taking view of the valley and the towering Kumara Parvatha opposite it. A particular rock offered the best seat to soak in the grandeur and my DSLR friend egged me on to pose for a photo sitting at the edge of that rock. Fuelled by an adrenalin shot, I too went ahead. There was a ridge in that rock near the edge and I safely planted one foot at the other side of the ridge. It was scary to view the depth beneath. A strong gust of wind hit me on the face and I instinctively took a step back to regain balance. A sudden thought crossed my mind - What if the gust hit me from behind, forcing me to move forward? That thought sounded the alarm bells wildly in my conscience and I stopped my little thrill there. I sat at the safe side of the ridge and posed contently. After all, there was not much guarantee that the photo would be timely delivered by the DSLR friend. Was it that valuable to put a life and a lot of sense at stake for a few 'likes' for the picture? If something terrible happened, what will be the status of the many girlfriends to whom I am the sole hope? Yes, I was suddenly carried away by a writer's shot of adrenalin and exaggerated a lot in the above paragraph. Nevertheless! The friend seemed to have valued the risk involved in the picture and he shared it promptly with me ahead of the other photos. Here it is!

Freeze time here for an eternity please!
After a few photo breaks, we accelerated downhill as best as we can. Soon we reached the Kallu Mandapa and the stream. The sun was strongly on top of us by that time and sucking all energy out of us. The stream provided a welcome relief. We dipped our feet into the cold water, drank till our stomachs took and filled our bottles and continued ahead. The next recharge can be done only at Bhatta's house.

The searing heat quickly exhausted us and water was also in limited stock. The mind will simply refuse to drink the available water and will deceive the body by offering it a few teaser sips at times. The roof of Bhatta's house shows itself in glimpses and after double-checking that is not a hallucination, motivation starts to surge in again. The thought of food is strong enough to pull us toward Bhatta's house. We just had to submit ourselves to gravity and have a firm grip on the brakes. The rest happened itself. There was no room to appreciate nature's beauty by then. All the focus was on the menu at Bhattara Mane. All for a bowl of rice!

Never has a drop of water or a speck of rice tasted so deliciously in my life earlier. Bhattara Mane showed the value of food and water after the hard toil in the sun. An unlimited supply of rice, cucumber-potato sambar, buttermilk and pickles - this is the permanent menu of Bhatta. He charges Rs. 90/- per meal. There is a little heaven outside his home filled with shady trees for a power nap after that delicious lunch. Bhatta seemed like a divine intervention in that trip! But I did one mistake. Like a beggar reacting to a royal feast, I stuffed myself with lots of rice and it showed its effect in the trek further. The foot of the hill was still a considerable distance away and it was tough to walk with a full stomach. Hindsight wisdom! Hunger would have been more tolerable.

Home of Mr. Divine Intervention

We naturally split into two group on the long descent. The leading group was faster and took the responsibility of carrying most of the common baggage for most part of the trek. I and a few others were in this group. We would reach some shady place faster and rest there waiting for our peers to catch up. It became an interesting hide and seek game sooner. As soon as they turned up, we would pick our stuff and leave and poke them to be faster saying that we were waiting a long time for them. The third time I said this, one of my friends lost his cool again and went back to the swear mode - "Bastards, don't say you were waiting for us. As if your knees know no pain. Go on and don't wait for us anymore. Go all the way down to Kukke and order a cup of hot tea for us" . He vented himself out. It was fun teasing them. We waited patiently for him to finish, replied "Ok ji.. Start soon and catch up with us soon. We will wait for you in the next stop" and quickly left the place before he could respond.

An hour later we reached the dense forest region. That was the first sign of coming close to the destination. A tricky challenge awaited us there. At every ten feet, the road diverged into two routes. Almost always, one of the routes seemed to be shorter but steeper and more slippery with lot of risks. There was always a longer, steadier, surer route. Within a few minutes, we discovered that all these roads led to the same place. The shorter paths should have been made by running water in the monsoon season. It was as if nature was offering us a choice - go fast with risks or take it slow and safe. It seemed like a life lesson!

When the mind realizes that the destination is very closer, it starts playing its own games. It prematurely unleashes the suppressed pain bit by bit and these last few kilometers suddenly turned the most challenging ones to me, testing my will and stamina. If I showed two minutes of rest to my legs, they refused to get up again and co-operate. I decided to carry on without a break till the end no matter how slowly I crawled. I got separated from the group. I was talking to myself. I was pushing myself on and on. Every next step, every next tree, every next turn - that is all that mattered. Me, my inner voice and the pain on my calf muscles - nothing else seemed real in the universe in those minutes. This little stretch showed an unseen dimension of myself to me with my thresholds and crisis responses. I willed myself on and on.

Like the sound of angels, I soon heard the sound of motor vehicles. Ground was closer! The sound of divine songs from Kukke Subramanya temple titillated the mind. The mind and legs had found a way to co-operate by that time and the mind was constantly telling the legs that the destination was within eyesight. The body bargained with the mind for proper rest and a delicious biriyani soon after the end of the trek. At that moment, I heard the whistle signal from my friends behind and stopped. The first stoppage in a long time!

On seeing me stop at the whistle, an adjacent trekker enquired if that was a code of communication. He was panting harder for breath than me. I explained the whistle code to him. He nodded his head twice and looked at his friend and told with a sense of exclamation, 'Professional trekkers they are! Not like us' and carried on. That one sentence miraculously wiped away all the pain for a fleeting moment. What was not achieved by the expensive shoes, what was not made possible by the sleeping bags and the trekking gear, what we ourselves could not manage to a great extent, was achieved by a plastic whistle! The recognition of professional trekkers. Otha! I can climb the Parvatha back again immediately on the back of this one sentence. In my mind, I stood there beating my chest Tarzan-like and shouted out 'Whoohoo.. fucking professional trekkers'.

Very soon I shared that dose of encouragement with my peers and we carried on. After two or three turns, we abruptly bumped into civilization with concrete houses  and tar roads ahead. All that separated us from the routine was a meager wire fence and a wrought iron gate. One step through the gate and we are back in the normal world! As simple as that and as abrupt as that. No grand finish! Somehow it felt unfair. From outside the gate, the trek path looked calm and harmless. It looked ironical like Goliath eating curd rice! And then it suddenly dawned on me. Life lesson #2 - it is the journey that is important. Not the destination!

The satisfaction of the achievement and magnitude of the trek began to sink in gradually and we crawled the last one kilometre stretch to the town of Kukke on tar roads. Tar roads felt like walking on clouds. The mind and the mouth involuntarily blabbered praises, profanities, exclamations and groans of pain! The latter group also joined us in an hour and we took a room in a lodge at Kukke to refresh and officially end the trek. As soon as we hit the bed, a few of my friends murmured in relief that they would have died if they were made to walk one extra kilometer. Strangely, to me it appeared then that even if there were ten more kilometers to cover, the mind would have somehow deceived the legs to co-operate and on completion of that hypothetical stretch too, we would have felt the same. Not one kilometer more. How false!

Beyond a threshold, it is all just the mind, isn't it?!

- GS

(Photos : Sarath, Pari and Raghu)
((To read a Tamil version of this post, please click here))


  1. Nice trek report, the way you narrated is simply superb. I went back to my first trek experience with your words

  2. Looks like a lot of fun was had by all! Those are some gorgeous photos. I found you via the A to Z challenge Blog-- if you're participating, please put up the challenge badge.

    Look forward your posts in April! Consider joining the A to Z Challenge Theme Reveal. By signing up on this linky, you’ll have like-minded folks visiting your theme on the 21st March and you can do the same for them!

    Co-host, A to Z Challenge 2014

    Twitter: @damyantig

  3. Thank you for the info. It sounds pretty user friendly. I guess I’ll pick one up for fun. thank u

    Packers and Movers besant nagar