The small man in the office in McLeod Ganj didn't look like a mountain climber, but he seemed sure of himself. Lots of tourists use his guiding service, he said.
"Triund, 9 kilometers. Snowline, 3 kilometers. One day!" he said with confidence. And he quoted his prices with confidence too--4,400 rupees for the two of us to take a guide up to the snowline, spend a night in a mountaintop lodge and come back down.
We decided that instead of spending five days' budget on one hike, we'd rather try the trek by ourselves, using a map we bought from the tourism office for two rupees.
'How hard could it be?' we asked each other. 'We just hike up the hill, then to the snowline, it's flat!"
Yeah, flat like a mountain is flat.
In China, briefly, we considered ourselves good hikers. We would power up the hills in the national parks, leaving whole families of Chinese tourists in our wake. Well, that was when the competition wore high heels and the trails were antiseptic, cemented parodies of nature.
Unfortunately, a real mountain and real hikers kick Dan's and my collective butt.
The general consensus of the several guiding agencies and the talkative man at the tourism department was that it would take us about three hours to hike up to Triund, the 'base camp', and then a further hour to the snowline below Ilaqua pass.
Four hours up? No problem, we said at 7 a.m., lacing up our boots and stocking our backpacks with bottles of water. We'll be back in time for dinner.
At 8 we stopped for breakfast.
At 8:15 we stopped for breath.
At 8:20 we stopped to take pictures.
At 8:25 we stopped for a pee.
At 8:30 we were down a liter of water.
At 9:30 we were wondering where that shortcut was.
By 3:30 we were in Triund.
Evidence of our weakness passed us by every half hour or so. A Japanese or Korean couple who ate breakfast when we did passed us at the halfway mark - but they were going back down, at 11:30. A Dutch mother-son duo got to the snowline by 12, took a few hours to relax at Triund, and strolled leisurely back down to the village for meditation classes. An Indian man afflicted by childhood polio passed us on crutches, smoking.
And the day, when seen from the top, was gorgeous. At Triund, we could see the three snow-frosted peaks clearly. Down below, back the way we came, the afternoon sun lit the flowering rhododendron trees to a flaming red.
A man came out of one of the stone and tarpaulin shacks at the top and offered us tea. We ended up renting a tent from him too and staying the night on top, watching the moon light the snow caps and the stars shift through the night.
A group of recent college grads, three Tibetan refugees and a Nepalese guy, invited us to sit by their campfire with them. They talked about sports and some of the hardships of being a refugee.
The next morning we got ourselves up for the sunrise and continued to the snow.
Flat it wasn't. But it was fantastic.
**Click here to see photos of McLeodGanj**