We were still wet behind our ears so to speak. It was a day in early 1950, perhaps in late February or early March some time. By the pronoun ‘we’ here, I identify the young cadets of the third batch of ISW-AFA (Inter Services Wing of the Armed Forces Academy) at Clement Town Dehradun who had joined the Acdemy during the last week of January.
We had just about finished our ‘Drill Square’ test (which certified that we were considered fit to appear in public in uniform without disgracing ourselves) and were in the process of fitting in into the daily life of the Academy. A restricted holiday declared at short notice made the next weekend into a long one. Some of the young instructors thought that it would be an ideal opportunity to go out for a trek into the lower Himalayas. The snow cap in the Banderpunch range had started melting, but patches of snow were still visible on the northern slopes which lay in shadows for most of the day. These late winter / early spring days in the Doon valley were exquisite; all the dust in the sky washed away by the passing Western Disturbances. Bright sunshine and cool breeze, bright blue skies with streaks of very high cirrostratus clouds heightening the framework of dark blue/green Himalayas to the north and the grey/green Shiwalik to the south; Clement Town in such times was a beautiful place to stay in.
Lieutenant Saldanah, a short fair smart restless young exec officer from the Navy who was a Div Officer with Baker Squadron, was the main instigator of the idea and he soon gathered a bunch of other young officers around him. He picked an isolated peak called Top Tibba as his target for the climb. The idea caught on. Surely it would be a crying shame to waste an unexpected long weekend twiddling one’s thumb? It however soon became apparent that there were a few obstacles to be crossed before this trek could be given a shape. Firstly, a trek in the Himalayas, even very simple and rudimentary ones, always carried an element of risk of physical injury. A twisted ankle or a bruised elbow did not really bother anyone. However, under such circumstances it was also possible to break a bone or two. This exposure to risks, unless covered by official blessing, generated administrative problems for the unit holding such adventurers on its roll. The group had grown to a size of about eight officers, large enough for recognition as a group for ‘adventure trekking’. There was however another more obtrusive problem. From Clement Town, the foothills towards Mussoorie was a long march; a walk of three or four hours through built-up areas that was most unwelcome. It would also curtail the reach of the trek into the hills. After all, only three days were in hand for this trip. It would be nice if a motor transport could be arranged to take the party up to a reasonable launch pad into the hills from where the trek could begin. The suggestion was gingerly floated to Reggie Sawhney (a tall and swarthy Captain from the Navy) who was the Deputy Commandant at Clement Town. Our man Reggie was a bit of a stickler for regulations. No, he said, a ‘officers only’ trekking party cannot be authorised as a ‘training’ exercise. If they were willing to take the responsibility of a group of cadets in the trek, then it would be possible for the ISW to chip in and provide official support. By this time a day had passed and we were already in the morning of the Friday. The long week-end had begun. The offices were closed. It was difficult at this moment to convert the junket into the hill into a hill-climbing camp for the cadets.
Lieutenant Commander Sarma, the newly promoted Naval Officer was the Officer of the Day. For him, nothing was impossible. He got hold of Mahender Pratap, the SCC (Squadron Cadet Captain) of ‘Able’ Squadron, and asked him to gather about twenty ‘volunteers’ from amongst the first termers for a ‘hill climbing training camp’ and have them lined up dressed in dungarees and back pack immediately. Now for an SCC such a task was child’s play. Mahender walked into the mess dining hall of Able and Baker Squadrons where the tables were full with cadets enjoying a holiday breakfast. In about five minutes he picked his targeted twenty and ordered a putty parade on the road dividing Able and Baker Squadrons in front of the first toilet block close to the mess hall. In another five minutes the squad was lined up.
From a high perch on the veranda of the last billet of number 3 Div Lieutenant Commander Sarma viewed the activities with a bemused smile as Lieutenant Saldanah prepared to brief the gathering. Sarmaji needed a high perch; he was only five feet tall without his boots. In a short while the quarter master Havildar laid out a collection of tinned ‘Emergency Rations’ on a portable table. We were instructed to run back to our cabins, stuff three sets of underwear, our tooth brush, one set of socks, one blanket, and one additional sweater into our back packs. We were then to collect three tins of Emergency Rations from the quartermaster’s table, repack our bags to an inspection standard and re assemble. We were allowed 10 minutes for the process. All arrangements were done! Three or four PT and drill instructors also joined the group and took charge of the administration of the party.
In a few minutes a convoy of two 15-hundredweight trucks and one box wagon was lined up next to the HQ of Able Squadron and the expedition rolled off. From the time Sarmaji had come on the scene it was less than an hour to wheels roll and he was entitled to the smile of satisfaction that played on his lips. We rolled out and headed for Mussoorie. The planning and execution for the trip was done so quickly that some of the instructors found their preparation inadequate and we had to halt for a short while on route to let them do a little supplementary marketing. that ‘little marketing took a long time and we got hungry. Some one pulled out his packed lunch and every one followed suit. Ultimately we set course again and headed for the hills. Soon sunlight started playing hide and seek around bends of the road as we climbed. We reached Mussoorie just before sunset. The officers were accommodated into a mess and the NCOs found a shelter for themselves, but there was some confusion about housing the relatively larger body of the cadets. Finally, we were pushed into an inspection bungalow four to a room. The IB kitchen was functional and we got our dinner in time. Agog with excitement, we prattled for a long time and ultimately fell asleep.
Next morning our actual trek began and it began bright and early. We were pulled out of beds before sunrise. There was a scramble for toilet space that was sorted out without fisticuffs. Hot breakfast was plentiful and most welcome. Packed lunches were collected. We were assembled and head-counted before we set off before the clock struck seven thirty in the morning. Weather was wonderful to start with and we made good speed. There were of course some lads who were tough and some who was not so tough. The trek column soon spread out over half a mile. As we climbed along, the road narrowed and became a jeep track. Then the leading climbers left the track all together and went up a gentle rise through bushes and bramble. I found myself somewhere in the middle of the trail. Keeping the leading climbers in sight, we were in a bunch of about five cadets chatting as we climbed at our own pace. All of a sudden we came across a small stream forming a small waterfall about fifteen or twenty feet high. the falling water had dug out a small pond where there was a pool about five feet deep and ten feet wide. The water was crystal clear. We could see colored pebbles lying at the bottom. It was indeed a wonderful sight. Without any ones say so, we gathered round the pool and lowered our back packs for a little rest. One of the boys ran up to alert the leading climbers about this beautiful sight which they seemed to have missed. While we we thus busy stealing a few minutes of undeserved rest in our climb, suddenly there was a commotion and a loud splash. Apparently, some one had jumped into that small very blue pool of water for a quick dip. As we rushed to the edge of the pool to see who this brave lad was, the head of Bulbul Brar popped out from under water. He was in his all together, having stripped off his dungaree before jumping in, and apparently not encumbered with silly things like under clothing. While his nudity was clearly visible through the crystal clear water, what caused us concern was the look in his eyes. His bulging eyes and open mouth spelt a surprise that could not be hidden. The water of that mountain spring must have been near the freezing point, something that Bulbul had not anticipated. He had taken a long leap into the stream where the pool was quite deep. He had to swim a minimum of two yards to reach the pool-side and his body was freezing by the second. One of the PT Instructors came to his rescue immediately. He took off his shoes, jumped in and pulled Bulbul out of water. A smart rubdown and a few thumps on his back, Bulbul was up on his feet shivering in his dungaree and a jacket on top. Bada cold hay yaar was all he could utter. We all laughed our guts out as we resumed our trek.
The unscheduled bathing incident of Bulbul Brar had cost us some time on the march. Also, we were actually slower in our progress than what had been planned for. The net result was that our scheduled halt for lunch was cancelled and we were asked to munch out packed lunch on the march. For us, the green horns in the mountain, it was not a convenient decision. We had to take our back packs off, extract our food packets, put the packs back on our back and continue on our march as we nibbled on or gulped our food down. Possibility of some one dropping his backpack accidentally was high and the law of averages worked flawlessly. One cadet, (was it Sushil Mathur? ) swung his pack to his back and it slipped out of his hand. The pack was quite heavy and its momentum took it away from the road into the khud in one swift motion. We all watched the pack tumble over and over again in its journey to the valley floor till we lost sight of it; its owner did not know what to do about it. Sergeant Greenwood (our very popular Drill Instructor) volunteered to fetch it back and went down after it. Amazingly, he was back with us with the fetched pack within a couple of hours. We were amazed at his stamina.
By about four in the afternoon the shadows lengthened on the roads as our fatigue increased. Progress became slow. We were quite far form our planned location for night halt and we were far more tired than we thought we would be. We were also quite hungry. At long last a short break was ordered. The Sahabs (we always referred to the senior NCOs as Sahabs) magically produced hot mugs of tea out of nowhere. That a few of them had rushed ahead of the main party and had made this tea break possible was not known to us. But we also had bad news along with the very welcome hot tea. It seemed that there was no place available for a night halt other than the preplanned one that was still far away. We had no option but to march on. We picked up our backpacks and trudged on as the dusk dissolved into a night. Thank God we were now following a recognizable road and our trek had not become blind.
It is amazing how your back pack seems to get heavier as the day progresses. Having started with an initial weight of about 28 lbs, the pack now seemed to weigh a ton. The shoulder straps were cutting into the shoulder muscles. The backbone was just a bundle of pain. And then by God’s grace we chanced upon a roadside hut that had three rooms of sorts. The scheduled destination was still a couple of miles away, but we were really not in any position to even trudge on. The main room apparently was used as a dhaba/tea house. The other two rooms were stores of some sort, bereft of any doors. Thank God some one realized the need of the hour and authorized an emergency night halt at the hut. The dhaba was closed; I presume no customers were expected at that time. The two stores measured about ten feet by ten feet each and had sundry sacks stacked haphazardly. We entered the stores, pushed and pulled the sacks to clear patches of about 8 by 10 feet in each and sat down on the floor. We needed food. We were now authorized to bring out our ‘Emergency Rations’ and consume them as our dinner. I had three tins with me. I had picked them from a stack marked ‘Baked Beans in Tomato Sauce’. The labels on the tins had comelll off and I was too hungry to even think if the ‘use by’ dated had gone past. I opened the first tin and it turned out to be mutton in brine. The second one was the same. For a vegetarian like me this was a disaster. Fortunately the third tin (a smaller one) turned out to be of condensed milk. Atin Das agreed to swap half of his only tin of beans for one tin of mutton and half a tin of milk. Hungry me! I yielded to his extortion. The half tin of beans did not do much to satisfy my hunger. I closed my eyes and ate up the remaining tin of mutton without any trace of remorse. After all, hadn’t I been taught in my childhood that ‘shareeram adyam khalu dharma saadhanam’! ([Looking after] ones body is the first Dharma truly!)
From the moment we were authorized to halt there for the night, we split the party into two groups of ten or eleven each, spread three or four blankets on the floor and lay down covering ourselves with a pile of six or seven blankets. In that little 8 by 10 feet hole, the ten/eleven tired bodies produced enough heat under the blankets to let us have an wonderful night of sound sleep.
For me the next morning had a lazy start. All the boys in my room slept late. When we arose, we found that’s a few intrepid ones from the other room had gone out and joined the instructors at the next village a couple of miles away for the final climb to Top Tibba. That climb was of about a thousand feet. A few kind souls had decided that the sleepy heads at the emergency halt hut need not be shaken awake early, only the few enthusiastic lads would join the few enthusiastic instructors for the final climb. I was happy to be a recipient of such consideration. Soon the dhaba opened up and we were treated to hot puri-sabji for breakfast. There after a two mile walk to the next village did not pose any problem. By then the climbing party had already left and they were not expected back for at least two more hours. After some discussion it was decided that we could start our return journey immediately. One of the NCOs took charge of the party. The road now was mostly downhill and the journey was easy. We reached Mussoorie comfortably for a latish lunch. We then waited for the rest of the group to catch up with us. Then there was a change of plan. Since we had skipped the climb in the morning it was decided that we would hike down hill up to the foothills and mount our vehicles for the return to base thereafter. We were allowed to do this bit of hike on our own as long as we reached the assembly point by four thirty. This plan suited us well. We formed little groups of three or four and strolled through the town to the bus stand at Kinkreg from which point the road down to Dehradun begins. I was in a group of three. Chinmoy Nandy and G C Dutta were with me. All of us were Bongs and all were Air Force Cadets. Just short of Kinkreg we caught up with another group of three cadets who had apparently hatched a naughty plan. There is a small dry stream that goes straight down to the valley. At that moment there was no water in the stream. One of the boys in the other group was a hill boy and knew of tricks that were unknown to us. ‘Lets go pebble sliding’ he suggested. We did not know what pebble sliding was all about, so he explained it to us. The dry stream was full of pebbles in it’s middle reach. If one could reach there and just do double mark time keeping the body erect, the pebbles would roll down taking you with it without any serious effort. Of course there were risks inherent in this game. If you moved from the small pebble area to larger stones then the landslide could become vicious and injure you. Failing to keep your posture upright could also land you in trouble. If you lost your footing you would probably be hit by rolling boulders. But at sixteen years of age who is bothered about risks? The six of us just entered the stream and pebble-slid to the bottom in less than ten minutes. There were of course repercussions for this show of bravado, but that unpleasant memory need not detract from the thrill of this trip that I am enjoying while I am narrating this tale. The trip back from the foothills to Clement Town was uneventful, but those three days hiking to Top Tibba have remained etched in my memory permanently.