The mountain’s call

An arduous, painful, agonising trek… And I can’t wait to do it again

Shailesh Kochhar

[Photo courtesy India Hikes]

Editor's Note: This is a follow-up to Nayantara Kochhar's story on the Sandakphu Phalut trek.

“What am I doing here?”, I asked silently. “Why in god's name do I do this to myself?"


In the dark of the night, our tent shudders. I open my eyes to see yellow walls pressed down by the howling wind to within inches of my face.

Swaddled in sweaters and entangled in sleeping bags I try to turn and find a comfortable angle to sleep. The hard ground below is unyielding. Then there's a cracking snap. The sound changes to a furious and roaring flapping.

I gingerly begin cracking one eye filled with an unending dread of what I will find. My very will to move fades as the prospect of facing biting cold and fierce winds without a tent gets closer.

Mercifully, the thin yellow shell is still there. I mutter my undying gratitude to its protection. Never been more grateful for 10 millimetres of flimsy plastic.

The flapping outside gets worse as the gusting wind gathers strength. The sound has me convinced that the whole hillside will be ripped off at any moment.

Eyes darting in the freezing darkness, I faintly make out my watch reading 1:30 am.

“Sleep!”, I tell myself. “Sleep. You have to be up at 4.”

But how? My pelvic bone is rubbed raw and my sides are numb from the hard ground, the sleeping bags all twisted between my legs, icy cold drafts painfully sting my ears. Sleep is impossible.

I close my eyes and wait.

Why do I do this to myself?


Four months earlier, enjoying a chilly evening before Diwali, the plans fell in place so quickly.

"Broooo, we have to make up for this year's missed trek, yaar.

Main toh gaya tha [I had been on one]... missed you on that one bro. It was a snowy wonderland!

Haan so? Phir se chal na [Let’s go again] this year 

Ok, done baba. When? March?

Haan March. But before year end haan?

Yea yea"

Glory of glories, my wife, who gives such discussions a wide berth only making plans to hang out and shop at base camp, jumped on the idea. "Chalo, I'll also come with you guys. Not a very difficult one, ok?" was her only criteria.

A week later we had settled on the Sandakphu trek near Darjeeling. March meant spring time. Views of Kanchenjunga and seven of the world's highest 8K peaks. Rhododendron lined trail walks. Rolling meadows and rushing rivers. Languid days, sunlight kissing our faces in the pine forests, endless cups of chai drunk at evening camps. It would be an idyll in the Himalaya.


And here I am. Tired and sore from two long days of trekking. Nearly four thousand feet ascended today. Every bit of exposed skin freezing in sub-zero temperature. My tent flapping like it wants to take off. Unable to sleep.

I lie in place turning from side to side, cursing myself. “This is your last ****** trek okay? No more!” An eternity passes before my eyes can make out 3:45 on my watch and I rustle myself up exhausted and relieved. Unzipping the tent door, I peek out. Darkness everywhere. In the beam of my headlamp I can see frost covering the ground and ice lining the inside of the tent cover. “It's gonna be a cold one,” I tell my wife next to me. Luckily for her, she's still fast asleep. I let her sleep a little longer. Call time is 4 am.


It didn't start out all that well. 

We are off bright and early on day one. The first hour takes us along the winding mountain road, across a river and then up some steep switchbacks. Our feet unaccustomed to walking for long on hard tarmac, our backs newly laden with packed rucksacks, we limp along at the end of our group of 13. My wife's face is now tomato red. I can see the distress in her eyes. “What if I don't want to do this?” she asks between sips of water at our next rest stop. “I don't think I'm enjoying it.” Ahead, the trail rises sharply. The group is now about 30 feet above us, climbing steadily. “I don't know, my love,” I offer, my mind racing. If she backs out now it will be crushing for both of us. She'll stay at Sepi or head back to Darjeeling contemplating events alone. And I'll have to go on without her. “Let's go a bit further and talk to Ani?”

She turns to Daju, one of our two guides, who brings up the rear with us. “Agar mere se nahin hoga, toh? Aage kya hoga?” [What if I can’t do it? What’ll happen up ahead?]. “Yeh khayal apne mind se delete kar do.” [Delete that thought from your mind.] He makes a big cross in the air with a smile on his face. “You can do it. One hour mein dekh ke hum ko pata chal jata hai.” [Within an hour of seeing people we can tell.] We shuffle some weight between our packs as we wait. Then we start up the steep slope, now entering gentle woods with clusters of huts dotting terraced fields.

Aaj toh mostly aasaan hai. Zyada ascent bhi nahin hai. Hard toh kal hoga. Ascent hi ascent. [Today is easy. Not much accent. Tomorrow will be all ascent.] Four thousand feet.” 

She looks at me with raised eyebrows. I can almost hear her mind racing. “When we're done, you'll remember this,” I say. She just shakes her head and keeps moving. Daju continues his pep talk. 

“First day mein sabko lagta hai nahin hoga. [On the first day, everyone thinks they can’t do it.] You go, your pace.

Woh aage vale ko bhul jao. [Ignore the people ahead of you.]

First aane ka koi medal nahin hai. [There’s no medal for coming first.]”

His words revisit us the next afternoon. Thighs burning and lungs pumping after hours of climbing steep slopes, I take in the scents of the forest around us. Through the day's seemingly endless and gruelling climb we'd been wandering in forests — first oak, then lush bamboo, then oak again and now beautiful towering pine. I stop for a moment and try to soak in the scented air ruffling my damp brow. My wife is ahead, waving to me, the low sun framing her between the tall pines. The seconds stretch out forever, my legs grateful for the minute’s rest.


It's now almost 6 am. Yesterday’s aches, call time, breakfast and departure are behind us. As the pale light of dawn turns pink, I huff my way up a bend in the trail to find an expanse of mountains stretched out in front of my eyes. I stop in my tracks and turn to look behind as she bounds up to where I stand, "Why did you …” she starts. The sight spread across the horizon before us snatches her breath. Range after range of mountain shimmering blue between our feet till the distant horizon. And there: jagged, icy peaks of the Kanchenjunga massif tearing through pale blue sky. A tiny veil of cloud coyly drifting across the summit.

The first rays of sun burst across the valley.

To be cut off by rugged rock face climbing tall into the sky.

Brutal walls of ice, wrapped in sunrise’s gentle pink halo, bathe in a golden yellow sun.

Pristine, untouched, eternal mountains.

Pure as the morning frost.

I can find no words in the moment. Neither can she. We just look at each other and the mountain. Our interlocked fingers squeezing that we know we are alive and real.

It is the beginning of our days of wonder. Waking up on freezing mornings to see those first rays light up the sky. Lingering on wind battered outcrops to catch just one more glimpse of the mountains before the day’s haze shrouds them up again. Sipping early morning coffee looking out at Lhotse, Everest and Makalu. Evening chai with the sun sinking into a sea of clouds as the mountains fade into the inky night.


After more long days, steep descents, sore muscles and even some broken shoes(!), we find ourselves sitting in a food court at Delhi airport. One flight home is behind us and another ahead. I sit there, foolishly wearing sunglasses at 9 pm, coming to terms with the journey that almost wasn’t. 

People bustle all around. 

Blinding white lights pound down. 

This frenetic life seems so distant from the serenity of the mountain top. I struggle with the incongruity of burning fuel by the ton to travel somewhere to feel in harmony with nature. I marvel at the easy smiles and warm, hospitable nature of the friends we made who live in hardship everyday. The phone rings. It's our son who hasn't seen us for six days. “Why is your nose red, mummy?” is the first thing he says. “Because I was on a mountain, hero. The sun burned my nose.” “My nose is also red, mummy. I went on a mountain... and the sun... he burned my nose!” he intones back.

And in that moment as I look at her excitedly telling our son stories of sunrises and mountains and at him sponging up every word she says, I can feel a part of that sunrise has come back with us. It's there, sitting behind our eyes, softening every moment of the rest of our lives in its gentle pink glow.

And that is why I’ll probably keep doing this to myself.

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About the author

Shailesh Kochhar
Shailesh Kochhar

Principal Machine Learning Engineer


Shailesh is a technologist and trekker who has been creating internet products for more than two decades now. In between trips to the mountains he leads machine learning teams and teaches scooty to his son. Shailesh writes a journal about the intersection of technology, AI and engineering at TexTox

You can find him on LinkedIn

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