Written by Hamish Lawson // Photography: Hamish Lawson & Himanshu Singh
I was cold, the coldest I had ever been in my life. Although we had zipped our sleeping bags together in an effort to maintain body heat, my companion next to me provided little to no warmth. Our two-season sleeping bags were having minimal effect against the temperatures outside, which had plummeted to somewhere between -10 and -15˚C. I rolled over in the darkness and saw that our fire had gone out. This was bad, a bad situation getting worse, and I wasn’t in any way certain that we would make it through the night without some sort of heating. As we had left for this trip with almost no preparation, relighting the fire was our only option. I woke up my friend, Himanshu, sleeping next to me.
‘Dude, the fire has gone out. We gotta get it going again, this is not a good situation.’
Himanshu cracked his eyes, rubbing the soot from his hands over his face, and sat up. He reached next to him for his lighter, stoked the paltry embers that scuttled in the ash heap. I was panicking. I didn’t know what I was doing, and had little to no experience lighting fires. The extent of my camping knowledge came from a silver Duke of Edinburgh expedition two years ago. That provided little help for our current circumstances.
Some may say it was too late to start contemplating my situation. We were camping in a cave at an altitude of around 3,200m in the Indian Himalaya. The cave opening looked out to the town of Tabo a couple of kilometres away. It would be something of a tourist hotspot in the summer, a base from which people would continue their travels into the mountains. It was currently March, however, and although in places the snow was melting and the rivers filling up once again with freezing meltwater, snow still embraced much of the landscape. As we continued on our journey we would be forced to walk along the sides of valleys, dancing on top of snow drifts that would swallow you waist deep if trodden with too heavy a step. The situation was a perilous one, but peril was a feeling I had begun to be accustomed to during my travels with Himanshu. This was not our first potentially lethal situation.
After a time, my friend managed to relight the fire. We were still half in our sleeping bags and wearing all our layers in an effort to retain warmth, but he turned to me with his grin only slightly suppressed and his chattering teeth bright against his soot-stained face.
‘Zip up the sleeping bag, get close to the flame. I think we’re going to be OK.’
My Indian friend had an optimism that had appeared blind to me at many times in the past two weeks. He had an uncanny knack for turning a good situation into a bad one and a bad situation into a good one. I guess it was this unique skill that had brought me to this moment, freezing in a Himalayan cave looking up at the sky more full with stars than I had ever seen it.
I rolled over in the darkness and saw that our fire had gone out. This was bad, a bad situation getting worse, and I wasn’t in any way certain that we would make it through the night without some sort of heating.
It was trust in the human spirit, and trust in an adventurous soul that would allow me to experience the next three weeks; without that trust I would not have been able to look so deeply into the lives of another culture.
Himanshu Singh stumbled into my life in a flash of chrome and the squawk of rubber, with a fray of limbs and a complete disinterest towards social convention. He sat down next to me – a complete stranger – and proposed an adventure so intoxicating that my usual fears were thrown to the back of my mind. One and a half years later, that meeting remains one of the most significant of my life. I’ve always been drawn to people who appear to burn with internal fire, people who can’t sit still for want of the next adventure, and Himanshu was burning one of the brightest yet. Fresh from 90 days cycling around his home country, he proposed an adventure into the Himalayas. Hitching and hiking was the proposed transport, staying with local people and never in hotels, so as to better understand the people of Himachal Pradesh.
I was a fresh-faced 19-year-old, having just left home for the first time. I had stumbled my way through Sri Lanka, making my way steadily north through Mumbai until arriving in Delhi. It was safe to say I had no idea what I was doing. I had bounced from city to beach to tourist hangout but nothing had sated my thirst for adventure – so when Himanshu asked, it wasn’t long before we were standing on the side of a highway, thumbs raised and heading north.
It was with blind trust that I put my faith in Himanshu, and over the next three weeks we would adventure north, climbing steadily without preparation until finally reaching Kibber at 4,200m altitude in the Himalaya. It is a destination not hard to reach in summer – a long bumpy drive will get you there – but in winter the roads become blocked by snow. We began our journey in mid-March, heading into the mountains against calls that our mission was impossible, that the roads would be blocked by snow.
It was trust in the human spirit, and trust in an adventurous soul that would allow me to experience the next three weeks; without that trust I would not have been able to look so deeply into the lives of another culture. I would not have been able to visit their homes and speak to their children, taste their food and experience just a portion of their world. I was a teenager from a small town in South-East England who glimpsed lives so incredibly different from mine, and participated in a cultural exchange that I had never believed possible – all by trusting a rugged Indian man I met on the road. By putting my trust in Himanshu I was able to travel deep into the Indian mountain communities and see them in a way few can, for it is rare that one is able to arrive in Kibber whilst the snow still lies and ice covers the torrent of water that rages underneath.
Our decision to stay in the cave was testament to Himanshu’s desire for authenticity and his love for the outdoors. He had come here to meet the local people, to talk with them about how they lived, how they managed to survive for so many months in such inhospitable environments, and why they did it. He marvelled at the beauty of the mountains and took every opportunity to explore his environment. Sometimes this left us in less-than-ideal situations, such as freezing in a cave without a fire, or balancing on top of a truck as it hurtled along mountain roads. Once, in a bid to explore a frozen river, he shuffled to the base of the valley, 200m below, walking through thigh-high snow in plastic wellies, thin waterproof trousers and tracksuit bottoms before eventually falling waist deep into the river. It took him 15 minutes to clamber out of the river and up the side of the valley. His thirst and enthusiasm allowed me to explore and discover things that I had never thought possible, and although we sometimes clashed over his reckless excitement, his passion allowed me to experience beauty I had never previously known.
We would return to the cave above Tabo three days later. We had made it to Kibber, but the snow blocked any chance of hiking further. On our journey we had spent a night sitting in on monks’ prayers at Key Monastery and eating with them in their kitchens, and it was with a sense of satisfaction and awe that we turned around and headed back to Delhi. Having experienced human existence so different from both our own, the culmination of our trip in Key and Kibber was nothing short of transcendental.
As we passed back through the town of Tabo, we began to hear of a rumour. It was said that two hikers had slept in the caves above the town. Firelight had been seen flickering during the night, but when the caves were checked in the morning no-one was to be found. People said that perhaps they had died, and their spirits may haunt the caves. It was strange to hear ourselves mythologised, but considering Himanshu’s passion and tenacity, I could imagine no-one more suited to the role.
Hamish Lawson is a politics student and photographer from South East England. He is passionate about the outdoors using photography to understand and capture the incredible characters he meets and the places they take him. When he’s not travelling, he likes to spend his time climbing, surfing and slacklining around the south coast of Wales.
Himanshu Singh is an adventurous soul from Ahmedabad, India. He has undertaken numerous solo cycling trips around India and the Himalayas. Completely unsupported, he has gained attention for his tenacity and endless energy and is rapidly building a name for himself in the small, but growing Indian adventure and cycling communities. When he is not on an adventure, Himanshu is saving for the next one; inspiring others through his stories and working to build his own adventure tourism company.