A Walk in the Clouds

A Walk in the Clouds: Trekking in the Himalayas to Triyuginarayan

I often speak of forging on in life, in spite of difficulties. Well, that's exactly what I did in the month of October, during a hike in the Himalayas. I had been asked by Swami Sivananda Murthy to help him organize the First International Conference on Mundane Astrology. The conference ran from October 1-4, so I planned a hike in the mountains for the week after the conference was finished.

I had heard about this hike from my friend, Rajiv. He said it was a favorite of Sadhus, who he said often make the four day hike carrying nothing but a water pot. "It starts from a mountain village called Guttu," Rajiv said, "and ends in Trijyugi Narayan, the place where, according to ancient lore, Siva and Parvati got married. It's a spectacular trail that crosses the foothills at nearly 12,000 feet, with amazing views of 25,000 foot Himalayan peaks nearby."

"Sign me up," I said to Rajiv, as I quizzed him on the trail conditions, weather considerations, camping gear, and other trip details. Rajiv asked, "How does the astrology look for the trip." "It could be better," I said, as I glanced at my own chart. I don't usually talk about my own chart, but let me just say that it wasn't a pretty site. Nor was the question chart for the trip that I cast later. Both suggested the possibility of injury or accidents. It looked like the trip could be difficult, painful, and uncomfortable. So I thought about it long and hard (about 30 seconds) and then made a sober and conservative decision. I said, "Let's go for it! What's the worst that can happen?"

I know this sounds like a fool hearty decision that flies in the face of astrological common sense. Some people might think that it is rash or careless to trek in the Himalayas during a bad astrological period. They might remind me that I did the same thing in March of 2010 with my trip to Kumbh Mela. The chart for that trip also looked difficult, but I went anyway. I ended up breaking my toe. This is true, but I do not regret that trip at all. I was totally happy that I went, and I simply refuse to let a few negative, or challenging influences in the heavens scare me into hiding out. I believe in practicing "no fear astrology". So I usually do not let astrology get in my way. I don't ignore the chart either. I just take extra precautions and care, and try not to do anything too risky. On this trip, for example, I made sure we took a good first aid kit, and in a moment of foresight, I included an Ace bandage in case of sprained ankles or injured knees.

Fast Forward to the Start of the Trip

Rajiv, Surya (Rajiv's employee) and I departed Guttu on the morning of October 8th. We had two horses and two guides carrying our gear, so all I had to carry was my camera. Just before we started, a fight broke out between two guards at our hotel. It didn't last long, just a few seconds, and was mostly shouting and scuffling, but I took it as a negative omen for the trip. All bluster and no substance, still, it wasn't a good sign. "I hope this wasn't a mistake," I thought, as we walked through the village and began to climb into the hills above. Then, just before we left the village, a young girl carrying a baby, who was obviously her younger brother, crossed the trail in front of me. She seemed to be about 11 years old, and was dressed in the colorful, local attire of the mountain people. But what struck me was her face. It had the beautiful, joyous, innocent, glow of a simple mountain village girl, who had not yet been spoiled by contact with outside world. I stopped and she let me take her picture. "This is a much better omen," I thought as I continued up the mountain, "Siva and Parvati have given their blessing for the trip." The mixture of positive and negative omens seemed to mirror and confirm the question chart that I had done before the trip, but this final nimitta gave me confidence that the trip would turn out well.

We started up the mountain, passing above a large valley of terraced farmland, and watched as the village ladies put together large grassy bundles to carry on their backs to the market. The air was chilly, but the combination of the morning sun and the strenuous uphill hiking took the edge off, making the conditions perfect for the rigorous uphill climb. As my body warmed up, I shed my fleece jacket in favor of my tee shirt. After a few miles, we used an old wooden footbridge to cross the rushing white-water of a large creek. Then we entered a dense forest and began a steep ascent. "The Himalayas are so much bigger and more steep than the Sierras," I thought. Remembering the 50 mile backpacking trip that I had done in the Sierras two weeks earlier, I thought, "I am so happy that God created horses to carry my pack!"

As soon as we hit the steep, forested switchbacks, Rajiv began to lag behind. We stopped the horses and waited. Surya went back to check on him. After a long wait, Surya returned to say that Rajiv was sick and he needed some toilet paper. Apparently he had eaten something in the village for dinner the previous evening that did not agree with him, and now he had a bad headache and "the runs". Surya told us to continue ahead and that Rajiv would catch up later.

We hiked ahead until we came to a very rustic hut where a farmer lived. We waited on a small grassy knoll, while the farmer's cows grazed around us. Rajiv took nearly an hour to reach us. As he walked up to us I could see that he was in trouble. His face was ashen, and he was moving very slowly. "Are you OK?" I asked. "I am sick," Rajiv said, "I just need to lie down and rest for a bit." "Do you think you'll be able to continue?" I asked, "We can go back if you are not up to it. It's really no problem." "I've experienced much worse than this in the mountains," Rajiv said, " I just need to rest a bit and then I will continue up."

In spite of my doubts about Rajiv's condition, we forged on up the mountain. Rajiv had been a mountain climber when he was younger, and had been part of some major expeditions, climbing some of India's major peaks. Now he was drawing on his experience and pacing himself as we continued up the murderous switch backs for another four miles. We arrived at camp around 6 p.m., after completing 10 miles and gaining 5000 feet. Although exhausted, Rajiv seemed to be feeling a little better. "Climbing is mostly a mental game,"  he said, as we warmed ourselves around the campfire that evening. "You have to be fit, but it's far more important to be mentally tough." Words to live by!" I said.

The following day, we got up before dawn and got started early. We had a long day ahead. Normally the hike to Triyugi Narayan takes four days, but my time was limited, so we needed to do the trip in 3 days. That meant we had to double-up on the miles on this day. We hiked all morning, starting at 10,000 feet, and then climbing out of the forest and above the tree line to a ridge at 11,000 feet. There we rested next to a small white-washed temple adorned with multiple red flags blowing in the wind. We ate our lunch as we took in a breathtaking panorama of Himalayan peaks around us. After lunch we continued on, undulating in alternating 500 foot ascents and descents along the mountain crest for several miles. Near the end of the day, the trail ascended to about 12,000 feet to the top of a knife-like ridge with shear drop-offs on each side. We followed the ridge for a couple of miles and entered a bank of dense clouds. The air quickly became extremely cold, and it began to rain. I watched as the guides struggled with our two pack horses who were balking as we started down an extremely steep descent. The trail, which had to this point been very good, degenerated into sharp, broken rocks.

It was at this point that my left knee began to hurt. As I continued down this brutal, craggy trail, the pain quickly became much worse, until I began to limp along the trail at a snail's pace. Finally, as the light began to fade and the rain continued to pour down, I struggled painfully into the campsite. Surya offered to set up my tent, as I sat in the rain and rested my knee. "How in the heck am I going to complete this hike?" I thought. "There are 7 more miles to go."

Later, as I sat in my tent, wet gear all around me, I pondered my situation. There was no way I was going to make it down the mountain on my own with this kind of pain in my knee. I thought about possibly going down on one of the horses, but remembering the erratic behavior of the horses earlier that day on the steep, rocky trail, I quickly dropped that idea. "It would be suicide," I muttered.

Sparing me the pain of walking fifty yards to get dinner, Surya brought a steaming plate of rice, dhal, and vegetables to my tent. The great thing about hiking with Indians is that they don't fudge on the chow. My normal bill of fare on a backpacking trip would be freeze dried backpacker food. I ate the hot food with gratitude while listening to the sound of the rain beating against outside of my tent. I didn't know exactly how I was going to get down the mountain, but at least I was warm. So I took a couple of Advil for the pain, wiped the water off the outside of my sleeping bag, got in, and went to sleep.

In the morning I felt a little better, but the pain was still there. Knowing that it would be slow going, I wanted to get an early start. I got out the first aid kit and found the ace bandage. "If I hadn't done the question chart, I might not have brought this." I thought. I wrapped my knee with the bandage, took two more Advil, and found a couple of long sticks to use as trekking poles. Rajiv and I started out immediately. I went slowly, using the poles to offset the weight on my left knee. Somehow, the combination of the Ace bandage, Advil (backpackers call it "vitamin I") and the trekking poles made it possible to get into a slow, relatively painless routine that got me down the mountain without a problem. As we descended we had a beautiful close up view of Kedarnath Peak, surrounded by other Himalayan giants.

We arrived in Triyugi Narayan in the late morning and, as we did, we passed through a narrow walkway between two houses. On the flat rooftop of each house there was a village woman husking grain in large baskets. As they worked they chatted loudly to each other from their rooftops. I imagined they might be talking about their children or possibly gossiping about one of their friends. We passed by other ladies in colorful outfits, carrying bundles of sticks back to their homes for firewood.

Finally, we arrived at the temple, where we had a puja performed by the temple priest. We offered rice into a the fire and chanted the Mahamrityunjaya Mantra to Siva in gratitude for a great trip. In spite of a little minor discomfort, Siva and Parvati had blessed us with an amazing walk in the clouds. It had been a spectacular Himalayan journey, and a once in a lifetime adventure. As we drove down the mountain I reflected on the wisdom of taking the trip, thinking about the negative astrological factors that had been in my own chart and in the question chart. "It was definitely a good decision to do this trip," I thought. "I'm really glad I did it. Fear should have no place in the practice of astrology." I felt expansive and empowered. I turned to Rajiv and said, "This trip was fantastic, a total success, don't you think?" Rajiv agreed enthusiastically. Then I said, "But I'm really glad we took the Ace bandage and the Advil!"