A guide from Tirthan Valley, Himachal Pradesh, looks back at his Tirthan Valley treks and wildlife encounters with nostalgia, humility and a tinge of humor
Story by: Sanju Negi
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As a youngster, I always enjoyed trekking with my friends. We often went on hikes in the nearby mountains for our religious celebrations. Here in Himachal Pradesh, every village has their own deity. So every festival season, the elders, women and children hike up into the hills to offer fruits and sweets to their deity, and receive blessings for the agricultural season.
I’m lucky that now, as a guide, I can earn a living through something I like to do. I often get the opportunity to meet people from different parts of the world.
Memories from Tirthan Valley Trekking
Every day in the mountains is a new adventure. The mountains can be moody – what seems beautiful one moment can become scary in no time.
I clearly remember one cold September day while trekking Tirthan Valley. A group of eight – six trekkers, a porter and I – started the hike from Pekhri village (2100m) to Rangthar (2900m). The hike is easy but involves a significant altitude gain in a single day and sometimes we can get fresh snowfall on the way! When we reached the meadows of Rangthar, breathtaking views of the Himalayan peaks greeted us. To prepare for the unpredictable mountain weather, we pitched the guest and kitchen tents immediately, and lit a campfire to beat the cold. Neelu – the porter and a childhood friend – offered local alcohol made from jaggery to the trekkers, and post dinner, we called it a night.
“Sanju bhaiya, please come here!” I heard a female voice yell my name after about an hour. Sensing trouble, I rushed out of the kitchen tent with my torch. The trekkers were huddled together in their tent, fearing they had seen a wild animal around their tent. I wondered if they were imagining it but tried to reassure them. Five minutes after I left, they yelled out again! And again, I spotted no movement and tried to reassure them, though I had started to wonder if a wild animal was nearby.
When they yelled out a third time, I immediately flashed my torch in the direction of their tents and saw movement behind it. This time, I too was afraid. Could it be a leopard? I’ve spotted a leopard on this side of the mountains many times. Leopards also enter the village in search of food – village dogs are easy prey.
Somehow I mustered my courage and went behind the tent, and finally saw an animal scurry away. I breathed a sigh of relief for it was a fox, feeding on the leftovers of our food!
That night in my tent, I thought fear always makes us imagine the worst. Despite having seen wild animals since childhood, I still got scared and thought we were in trouble!
Lessons in Patience from Tirthan Valley, Himachal Pradesh
One of my most unforgettable wildlife sightings was during a trek to the Rakhundi Top (3600m) in the Tirthan valley. I was with Partha, a patient and friendly Indian trekker who lives in London; we’ve been on 6 treks together! It was a scenic trail through the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) – a haven to spot local mammals. After hiking for a while, we sat on a rock to rest and chat. Suddenly, we saw a leopard with black spots leap toward a Himalayan Goral!
Gorals are an easy prey for leopards, but a declining species. The leopard jumped towards the goral and even managed to brush it with its paw. But the smart goral swiftly moved into the thick bushes and saved himself!
Black-spotted leopard sightings are quite rare. We usually see yellow leopards here. Similarly, trekkers with a lot of patience are quite rare too!
Tirthan Valley in Himachal: Wildlife
I once guided a group from Delhi on a hike in the Great Himalayan National Park. They kept complaining that they’d come so far only to see wild animals but there was nothing here. The trip would be a waste of their money if they saw nothing. I tried explaining to them that it’s not easy to sight a wild animal on every trek, that luck matters too.
Later on the trek, as we were climbing up, I saw a black bear just 100 meters below us! I called out to the group, “Look behind! There’s a black bear!” My voice had alerted the bear and it was staring right back at us. I thought the trekkers would share my excitement. Instead, I saw fear in their eyes. That night, one of the trekkers came to the kitchen tent, saying he couldn’t sleep out of fear. It was surprising and funny at the same time!
Wildlife sightings have become frequent over the years, thanks to the forest department sealing the jungle with the formation of GHNP. Instances of hunting have almost completely stopped. Even the declining species, such as the Himalayan gorals, have grown in numbers.
But the wild animals and the mountains themselves shouldn’t be taken for granted. I was lucky to meet the renowned mountaineer Premlata Agarwal – the first Indian woman to scale the Seven Summits. My friend was guiding her on a 4-day trek in the Tirthan Valley. I asked her why an experienced mountaineer like her needed a guide, that too for such an easy trek.
Her reply surprised me: “If the weather doesn’t allow, one can’t even complete a 2-day hike. A mountaineer is nothing in front of the mountains.”
Hear a snippet of this story in Hindi