Of Stress, Summits, Scholar—Kashmiri Mountaineer’s Peak Odyssey

Amir at the peak. KO Photos by Special Arrangement.

Amir was among the first persons who had rushed to search the missing Bemina scholar—for whom more than 400 people have hunted through sticks and stones across Naranag, making his case the rarest of rare.

A few minutes before dawn on the 29th May 2022, a group—which seemed like a swarm of ants—set off towards a draining elevation in Kashmir countryside, just outside the main town of Kishtwar. The only difference was that it was a flock managed by three summit shepherds.

The man at the front was spooked by the early wind. The second caretaker, stationed in the middle of the fleet, was supposed to minimize exposure to injury, making sure that everyone ascended with the utmost caution. The last one—whose sporadic shouts, alerting everyone about the ridgelines and bare patches, buzzed up the silent mountains—was keeping a hawkish eye on trekkers at the back of it.

In Kashmir’s mountain sites, a summer windstorm is a nuisance and a lure for both new high-climbers and the veteran guides. Its beguiling appearance certainly runs some people out of the high elevations but draws many others into it.

That day, there was nothing intrepid about that particular outing of these human-ants. The deceptive windstorm was neither a nuisance nor a lure towards nature’s calmness. Some thought it was just a normal hike up a minor mountain of Arshan valley (known for its unremarkable four alpine lakes) which cuts through the mountain pass of Sinthan Top—a popular tourist destination located between Anantnag’s Breng Valley and Kishtwar’s Chenab Valley—but most of them including the hawkish-eyed caretaker were there for an uncanny reason.

But, wouldn’t it be cosmically stupid to kick off a hike without a meaning to enjoy nature on the way? This wasn’t true for Amir—the affable and the hawkeyed caretaker.

The young and restive millenial from the valley along with hundreds of newly recruited trekkers was venturing the Arshan heights to de-stress himself from the trace amounts of stress, increased heart rates, lost sleep, emotional interruptions, anxiety, exasperation that daily entails and they were definitely there to detox themselves from the intense desire to hide behind a phone which has become a default metric of living in the urban slum of the valley.

“These hike ups aren’t just a sight-seeing expedition but a trip to soothe one’s soul to such an extent that they forget all of the worldly worries and troubles,” Amir told me before gearing up for a new trek to Dumail—a pristine camping spot near central Kashmir’s Naranag.

“At an elevation of several thousands, there’s no one except you and your creator. These elevations help you find a purpose for yourself. It’s the exact same place where you find glory—a reason to live.”

On way to mountain.

In recent years as distress evolved to become a synonym of mental normalcy in Kashmir, the counselor chambers have changed into the steep stretches of mountains. In 2019—when boots on the ground were multiplied to enforce “new order” in his homeland ahead of the abrogation of J&K’s semi-autonomous status—Amir got flattened and engulfed by stress, but in a few days when the air had cleared a bit, he found himself high climbing through an elevation—alive and in peace.

“Most of the mystics in Kashmir have found ‘salvation in elevation’,” Amir turns thoughtful while explaining his altitude experiences. “Following their footprints, most of the veterans and fresh flock of trekkers are now finding solace amid darkness at these elevations.”

At an altitude, the mountaineer argues, the confined birds are able to unwind and freshen up themselves and return back to the urban spaces as a revitalized soul with clear insights.

And a five-year trekking career has definitely played its part of flaring a new acumen in Amir, who, among his peers, is not just an admired character for his unparalleled expertise for exploits on rocks and snow but also for his attentiveness in finding peace for others as someone who understands the self-recrimination caused by the distress in the urban space.

This young hiker has become a kind of a survivor and a friend who’d come to his brethren to provide and seek emotional succor and support.

A high-altitude lake captured by Amir.

Down the hills, Amir works as a taxation-service provider which itself enhances the fact that his professional life is an appropriate example of a radical change. It all started in 2014 when as a young business graduate, Amir was taken by a group of acquaintances for a climb on a fiercely easy elevation of Wasturwan—a dense and green forest range located in the mid-Himalayan range of South Kashmir’s Pampore.

“Donning a formal shirt, jeans pants and formal loafer shoes, I was cursing myself for being too absurd to climb that treacherous path,” he recalls. “It was a fairly easy trek but as a newcomer, I’d to face the brunt of breathlessness. But, with each tip and toe, the curiosity akin to the breathlessness, kept on growing and the drive to explore kept on augmenting.”

And perhaps, that’s exactly what proved to be a coming of age for Amir who soon became known for climbing peaks that rise thousands of feet above Kashmir’s remote and urban places including the magnificent Gangabal Lake and Nundkoul.

Looking at the serene sight.

In just five years, Amir has made his way up many of J&K and Ladakh’s most forbidding peaks. His best-known ascent, he says, are the 21-lake trek of Pir-Panjal and Stok Kangri. At an elevation of 20,080 feet, Stok Kangri is the highest elevation in Ladakh.

But, in the past half a decade, there’re a lot of mysteries he had noticed while actually being part of Kashmir’s drive towards the lofty peaks. “There’re some unexplored peaks in Kashmir which do something to you. There’s some kind of a magnet atop these peaks, which just pulls and attracts you towards them. Sometimes, you feel there’s someone sitting adjacent to you and silently speaking words of god,” Amir told me before enrolling himself in the elite group of Basic Mountaineering Course at Kashmir’s famed Jawahar Institute of Mountaineering and Winter Sports (JIM & WS).

Despite coming this far in his altitude career, there’re certain things which even baffle this young trekker who keeps on dating mountains like no other person in Kashmir valley.

He was among the first persons who had voluntarily rushed to seek the details and traces of the missing Bemina scholar—for whom more than 400 people have searched through sticks and stones across the humble town of Naranag, making his case the rarest of rare.

“In Hilal’s case,” Amir says, “I’ve my own reservations. Had he been mauled by a man-eater beast, there would definitely have been some traces—blood, tarnished piece of cloth.”

So, does that mean Hilal has vanished in thin air? “It seems so,” Amir made a pause with a calculated silence and quickly added, “Mystery is a part of Kashmir’s mountains. Even though I haven’t encountered one myself, I’m not ruling it out. Just because I haven’t faced it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”

Perhaps, he’s right.

Back in early nineties, a foreigner who was in Kashmir for an elevation expedition had also disappeared, never to be found again. Even the participation of active high command and government agencies could not trace her, gradually declaring her whereabouts “untraceable”.

Some three decades later, the missing status of Bemina scholar is now baffling Amir. “I don’t know what could have happened,” he said. “But, it seriously seems like a case of ‘Trekking gone wrong.’ ”

Elevated retreat.

But away from the maddening crowd, whenever Kashmiris go for these exploratory rambles to seek some moment of solace in their life, the mishaps and the mysteries are something which has the least scope to happen at the same time.

“Most of Kashmir’s peaks are under a close watch,” says Amir with a sense of curiosity in Hilal’s case.

Besides this, there’re definite tracks laid by the European hikers who’ve been frequenting Kashmir for these mountains, that too, at a time when the valley’s own mountain people have dismissed these elevation enthusiasts as wayfarers and drifters having “no purpose” in life.

“Let me be very frank to you,” Amir says, “Kashmir is like a climbing world’s folksong, filled with mysterious musings and melodies that have always remained open to new interpretations. It took us a lot of years to actually realize why these foreigners used to throng our part of the world. But, these are definitely some exhilarating times as we may have finally realized that more than the clinical treatment there’s always a clean air treatment available to us and that is to seek height in one’s life.”

Peak pose.

In the post-pandemic era, many young Kashmiris have understood the meaning of mountains making Amir hopeful about the valley’s peak passion.

“The awareness about the importance of these elevations is building up in Kashmir,” Amir says. “Much of it has to do with the weary life we’ve been living in Kashmir since 2019. We saw it during pandemic how young Kashmiris sought some solace in these summits.”

However, a decade back, Kashmir was more hesitant of these mountains, the rambler says. “Kashmiris have finally grasped that it is not only a matter of these mountains being at stake but of their identity, wellbeing and peace of mind.”

But, while detailing his altitude acumen akin to a captive chronicle, Amir intricately built conversation that actually stressed on one important thing: “Today, Kashmiris being the mountain people, need mountains more than ever.”

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Zaid Bin Shabir

Zaid Bin Shabir is a special correspondent at Kashmir Observer. He tweets @Zaidbinshabir

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