OUTDOOR WOMAN’S VOICE: Upasana Ray

As some of you may know, I am currently a nomad in Washington, DC which is my third home.   I have called Washington, D.C. my physical home for the past 15 years.  With a few exceptions, this area is a hub for nomads and transients who come to the city to pursue their dream jobs and initiate lifelong careers.  Hence, Washington, DC is a unique place to meet a diverse group of people.  This applies as well to meeting hikers and mountain lovers in the region.

Upasana herself came to D.C. for work opportunities just like many of us.  She came to the D.C. area to pursue a fellowship in 2012 and eventually discovered her love for the mountains.  Upasana became known to me via outdoor groups through Meetup.com.  If you have yet to familiarize yourself with Meetup, I highly recommend it.  If it wasn’t for Meetup, I would have never discovered my passion for the mountains and Brown Gal Trekker would not have been in existence.  Suffice it to say, I’m grateful for the invention of such a platform.  It’s one of those social media sites that actually allows for people to meet and connect in the old school way – plan the activity and go!  This discovery is something that Upasana also experienced herself as you’ll hear more about below.

Truth be told, I have yet to meet Upasana in person which hasn’t prevented me from  hearing about her from mutual friends and acquaintances.  Eventually, despite the lack of an actual meeting in person, we managed to become friends virtually on Facebook.  That allowed me to witness her passion for the mountains, and as such, I quietly admired her nonstop pursuit of peaks in the East Coast, then West Coast, and eventually the Indian Himalayas.

As I got to know her a little more, I realized Upasana and I have this similar love for high altitude treks – the ones that make you work extremely hard to capture an everlasting moment in nature.  At the same time, we both share the same sentiment about trekking – the notion that we spend time with our beloved mountains for spiritual connection, more so than a personal goal defined by distance or speed.   It’s a thrill for me to feature Upasana, who is now a kickass hiker in the mighty Himalayas of India.  Although she has left behind her Meetup hiking friends in the D.C. area, I’m sure we’re all with her in spirit as she continues to trudge up the Himalayan mountain ranges of India.

Feature Outdoor Woman’s Voice

Upasana Ray is from India and is currently living in West Bengal.  She’s a scientist working on research on viral infections and development of therapeutic aids.  She professes to being a nature lover and wildlife enthusiast since her childhood.  However, due to her busy school schedule and lack of like-minded friends, she did not get into hiking until she came to Maryland in 2012 for a fellowship with the National Institutes of Health.   The boredom during her free time led her to discover hiking via Meetup.com, which was a pivotal moment in her hiking life.  Upasana is also an avid landscape and wildlife photographer and loves painting, music and films.

Let’s hear directly from Upasana about her hiking life in the U.S. and India.

Tell us some details on how you discovered hiking via Meetup.com in the U.S. and your experience hiking with strangers for the first time.

In 2013, one lucky day, I do not even know how, I was searching for trekking clubs or nature clubs over the internet. It was then that Washington Backpackers and Young Adventurers groups caught my eyes. These were actually Meetup groups. Travelling with strangers? Oh, I do not drive! Should I take this risk? Are these good people? What if…….? And so on…….Many questions came to my mind especially being a woman.   But then, I decided that alright…..enough of thinking……….I should go for one and see how I feel.

The next question was which one to do? I did not know a single thing about trekking and gear list involved. That time in the meet up group I saw that a night hike meant to view the sunrise from the Old Rag mountain, Virginia was getting organized. This was it. I wanted to do it. It was a group of many hikers…….really many. We did carpooling (something that I could never imagine doing) and reached the trail head at almost midnight. Everything was new for me that time – the country, the people, the culture, the society and the type of activity, as well. But, as it turned out, I liked the people, I liked the company, I liked the fresh air, the darkness of the mountain, the thrill……every moment of the hike. The sunrise…….Ah! I decided, yes, I love this!   And, the journey started.

After this first hike, I did several day hikes before I did some weekend backpacking trips in Virginia and Southwest Virginia with Washington Backpackers. Then I came to know about the DC-Ultralight group. I wanted to do serious mountain treks/hikes with full of challenges and definitely risks. It was this group where I was taught to be methodical and independent on mountains. I kept doing all kind of hikes with them starting from low mileage to moderate to extreme hikes. Very soon, I realized that I have changed a lot.  My endurance level increased a lot and I was getting crazy about mountains.

Between, 2013-2015, I did many… REALLY MANY hikes with them. Even though I returned to India in July 2015, by then I had done many section hikes of the Appalachian mountain/Massanutten mountain, many weekend backcountry hikes in Virginia and Southwest Virginia regions like the Roaring Plains, Dolly Sods, Double Top mountain, Canaan mountain, Catoctin mountain, Mill mountain, Big Schloss, McAfee Knob, Tinker Cliff, Dragon’s Tooth, Cranberry Wilderness, Mount Rogers, North Fork mountain, AT-Mau-Har trail, southern SNP, the Tuscarora trail, Great North mountain, so on and so forth. I loved the foothills trail running from South to North Carolina. Then I got the opportunity to taste the mountains of New York. The first one was Devil’s path. I was told that it’s very tough and risky and I should be careful. Yes, it was. But I did it. I successfully finished United States’ one of the most difficult hikes.

Tibett Knob, Virginia.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.
The Adirondacks, New York.

Then I followed my passion and did many peaks of the Adirondacks range.  East Coast was not enough for me and so I went to other parts of the country with different groups of hiking friends and hiked the Rocky mountains, Colorado; the wind river traverse in Wyoming; the famous rim to rim hike in the Grand Canyon, Arizona; Olympic National park in Seattle; Mount Rainier up to the Muir base camp in the Washington state and the Burroughs mountain of Washington state.  All these – in less than 2 years.  As I kept hiking I realized that I like high altitudes more, the snow covered peaks and the beauty of the mountains above tree line.

Olympic National Park, Washington.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.
Wind River Traverse, Wyoming.

Then in July, 2015 I came back India. We have Himalayas. I had to try. Himalayas have completely different terrain, very unstable weather, more dangerous on high altitudes and definitely majestic. So, I went for a 12 day high altitude trek in the state of Himachal Pradesh, the Bara Bhangal trek that involved two high mountain passes of almost 14,000-15,000 ft altitude, the Kalihani pass and the Thamsar pass. We were a group of just a few trekkers and out of them I knew one who studied in the same institute from where I did my PhD.

This is one of the most remote treks in India and we did it. I was extremely happy. The view that one can get from these high mountains is just breath taking. No, I could not stop here. In fact, now it’s time to explore more and explore higher. This year, after all the preparations, I went for a semi-technical climb of Stok Kangri, in Ladakh region of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. This is a 20,080 ft high summit of northern Himalayas, the highest in the Stok range. It was a serious expedition as the altitude falls under extreme high altitude range. With a systematic ascent I could successfully be at the top of the summit.  It’s beyond my vocabulary to explain how I felt. This was an achievement.

And the journey continues.

Who or what inspires you to trek?

Mountains attract. They are addictive and keep calling back. The beauty, the massiveness, the sense of achievement after a successful summit or after successful finish of a trek, everything inspires me to do more and not stop. When I stand surrounded by those massive snow peaks and weather doesn’t follow the rules, I feel how tiny I am and how big mother nature is. So, shake off all those unnecessary ego, overconfidence and what not…….here I am nothing but a tiny part of this huge universe. Mountains teach to be human, to share, to live, to smile, to enjoy, to respect nature and to trust each other. When the same mountain allows us to stand on top of one of her peaks, she says…….hey, see, you can do it….this is success! Being a woman, this feeling of achievement is a huge driving force.

What do you like the most about hiking or the outdoors?

Hiking lets me see nature at its much unaltered/ minimally disturbed form and offers me with a feeling of success. This success is something very different than materialistic success. Above all,trekking brings tremendous peace of mind and boosts my confidence level. Even if no one is there for you, nature will always be there. I always feel that mountains make me feel that I am important, I am worth it.  Every time I visit her, she asks me to come back and talk to her, whatever I want, whenever I want. She has so much to offer but for that I need to keep going back.

Apart from walking on the trail or climbing the passes/peaks I also love mountain photography and thus every time I trek, I shoot lot of photographs.

Upasana proceeds to tell us about her most important treks thus far.

I will tell you about not one but two of my favorite treks that I did in India as I can’t pick one out of them. These are (i) Bara Bhangal trek, Himachal Pradesh, India (12 days) (ii) Stok Kangri expedition, Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, India (9 days). I went for Bara Bhangal trek in the month of October and Stok Kangri, between end of August and early September. The reason I attempted these treks are the challenge levels. These are challenging treks. Additionally, Stok Kangri is a summit climb of a 20,  080ft mountain top that is the highest of the Stok Range of the Himalayas.

Bara Bhangal Trek

Bara Bhangal is a very less explored trek. Not many people attempt this. The trek is 12 day long and difficult but what you experience is majestic. The two passes that one has to traverse, the Kalihani and the Thamsar, will drain out the energy from you but once you start feeling like you are now completely drained out, it’s when you realize that you reached the top and then look up to see the heaven. Tons of high Himalayan peaks show up in panoramic form and you now feel all of a sudden that the energy you lost is back again.

Bara Bhangal.
Kalihani Pass.
Thamsar Pass.
Thamsar Summit.

Stok Kangri Trek

If weather is clear, from the summit of Stok Kangri, one can see the higher Karakoram range and even K2. There is a massive glacier that one has to cross after the second base camp of Stok Kangri and that part of the journey is glamorous. However, the summit climb of Stok Kangri is a night ascent, hence one can actually see the glacier only while returning.

Stok River.
Stok Kangri Basecamp.
Glacier after Stok Kangri Advanced Basecamp.
Stok Kangri Summit.

What did you wish to get out of this journey? What personal goals did you have and to what extent did you achieve them?

I am a person who just wants to see very high mountain peaks as closely as possible. I enjoy taking challenges and going through difficult conditions to ultimately view something majestic. The only goal I had was to go for extreme high altitudes to see high peaks, cross glaciers and travel through high mountain passes and snowfields full of crevasses. Of course, when I return I wanted to have plenty of photographs to show everyone what I saw, what you can’t get in cities or low lands.

What lessons did you learn from this trek?

I learnt that one should not get demoralized because many people could not finish a particular trek…..rather you should trust your abilities. Being mentally positive and being happy on the trails, both are very important. Instead of trying to finish a trek, one should try to live the trek and enjoy it.

If you were to do this trek again, how would you do it differently, if at all?

I think I did pretty much what I could. But, more the fit one is, the better it is. So, I would definitely exercise harder and try to improve breathing efficiency even more considering the thin air that one faces at extreme high altitudes.

What piece of advise would you give a female who is thinking about doing this trail based on your experience?

I would definitely say that one must at least give it a try ……..and do not underestimate yourself.

Upasana talks about her toughest trek, which happens to be Stok Kangri for obvious reasons.

There are many tough treks that I have done, each challenging in one respect or the other. However, Stok Kangri was most challenging because of the extreme altitude of 20,080 ft accompanied by bad weather. Many participants had to turn back because of altitude mountain sickness sooner or later, in some cases milder and in some others harsh. The pace of an athlete would not necessarily help in such altitudes.  It’s the discipline and slow but steady ascent that counts. If you hurry, you will be in trouble. Being slow, acclimatization, drinking lots of fluid, eating well, and honesty make the difference.

Someone told me in the beginning of the trek that hardly 50% of the total participants can actually finish Stok Kangri. That was not nice to hear. Also, I am not a very thin person. Plus, I am a woman. But, I kept my confidence level high and did everything that I could. I worked hard on acclimatization, kept my spirit up and that was my key to the successful climb of Stok Kangri.

What other treks do you have on your bucket list?

Oh, many…… I would require lots of buckets. However, some of them are Kalindi Khal, Pin Parvathi pass, Annapurna Circuit, Chamser Kangri, Goecha La, Auden’s Col, Panpatia Col, Everest base camp till camp 2 i.e. crossing the Khumbu ice fall and back and the Siachen Glacier trek for civilians that is organized every year by the India army.

I want to explore more semi-technical peaks of altitude 20,000 ft and more. I am also looking for sponsors for my treks so that I can accomplish more and write about such expeditions.

What is your favorite hiking gear?

They are two: (a) My hiking shoes as that keeps my foot (most important for the journey) safe (b) my backpack as that is required to store the essentials for a multi-day exploration in the rugged mountains.

Have you run into any challenges personally as a female hiker? 

As a female hiker my experience regarding issues that I faced is similar if I compare India and USA. Generally speaking, women are considered less efficient as compared to men whether it’s here in India or the western world (of course, the extent of this type of thinking is of lesser degree in western countries). Let’s talk about hiking alone. I found that a lot of women engage in this hobby. However, if you are interested in high altitudes or multi-day treks, the number of women participants decrease with the increase in number of days and increase in altitude. So, if I am looking for a female company, my chances are low.

Being a woman, I am confident. I fight for the rights of a woman. However, I do have to accept that nature herself has made man and woman different. On the trail, some women can be very fast just like their male hike mates while others can be slower but not inferior as far as endurance is concerned. Lot of times I felt that when I trek in a group of men only or mostly, it’s hard for them to understand that a woman who is slower than them is not necessarily less efficient or is feeling unwell. It is just that she hikes little slow but can hike as much as the others do.

Then, we women have health related issues that we need to consider seriously. If needed, we should have someone to share our problem with. It is a little harder when you do not have other female hiking friends in the group. I have faced this once and I had to take medication and wait on the trail itself in an isolated place where the other group mates went ahead. I waited alone for almost half an hour before I could get up and start walking again. This was way back during one of my initial backpacking trips and would never want another woman to go through. Hence, I would suggest every woman hiker to carry enough medicines and have them when required. Also, if you are not feeling well please tell your hiker friends whether female or male about your exact problem.

Lastly, women always are at the risk of harassment/ misbehavior. I generally keep a knife for emergency use and always maintain distance from suspicious people.

Upasana gave us an in-depth insight on some of the challenges as a female hiker including the pace difference between men and women which I completely relate to as generally men tend to go on a faster pace.  In any event, we ought to listen to our body and learn to respect our own abilities for safety reasons regardless of the pressures from our fellow hikers.

Moving on to the trekking world in India – what are the best areas for trekking in India?

For someone who likes snow peaks, I suggest trekking in the northern and eastern Himalayan ranges in India. The terrain is different in each of these areas. While extreme north (e.g. Jammu and Kashmir) is arid, as you move towards eastern India, the mountains are greener. Each type of the terrain has its own beauty. Ladakh (in Jammu and Kashmir), Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Darjeeling (in West Bengal) and Sikkim are some of my favorite destinations.

How would you categorize the hiking/trekking in India?

In India you will find hiking choices of all sorts, non-technical and easy, moderate, non-technical but very difficult, semi-technical, and of course, technical. Some high peaks such as Stok Kangri and Chamser Kangri are semi-technical climbs where you need to trek till the base camp and some more before you need to get roped up and use your ice axe, crampons etc.

As far as elevation is concerned, the altitude can vary from nominal to extreme high altitudes above 20,000 ft. Trekking above 12,000 ft is very common here in India and thus for many treks hikers traverse through altitudes ranging from 11,000 to 16,000 ft. For those who like to go even higher, there are plenty of options.  The Himalayan terrain is not easy. The weather is also unpredictable.

Although many people opt to hike on their own, according to the government rules, Himalayan treks must be done by hiring a guide and you should have permits wherever required. Hence, trekking alone is not advisable. This is particularly important for high altitude treks as altitude mountain sickness is a common issue in Himalayan treks and guides become very useful in case of any sort of emergencies.

What treks would you recommend for someone who is doing treks in India for the first time?

If someone is new here, I would suggest doing Goecha La (in Sikkim), Roopkund (Uttaranchal), Rupin Pass (traverses from Uttarakhand to Himachal Pradesh), Har ki Dun (Uttarakhand), Chadar (Jammu and Kashmir), Bara Bhangal (Himachal Pradesh) (this is very remote and less explored) and Kuari pass (Uttarakhand). There are many more. These are only some of them. It also depends on individual interests. Like myself, I always look for very challenging treks at extreme altitudes and remote areas where risks are high, and of course, treks with good views. Some trekking companies conduct guided treks and these can be pre-booked. People who are trekking for the first time in India, it will be advisable to book the treks beforehand.

Can people trek solo in India? If so, which areas?   What are the obstacles/challenges of solo trekking in India?

You can trek solo in India but with a guide. However, a group of 5-6 hikers is always better. Himalayan terrain should be taken seriously. As I said elsewhere as well, most of the Himalayan treks involve high altitude climbs in one or the other forms, for less or more duration. Mountain sickness is a commonly experienced issue. Weather is unpredictable. The trails in Himalayas are not well marked, especially at very high altitudes. Hence, even if you want to hike solo, please hike a guide who can help you out in difficult situations.

How does one obtain guides for treks in India for those areas requiring permits and guides?

Guides are mandatory in Himalayan treks. Those who don’t hire guides, violate the law. If caught, you can run into trouble. If you come here and decide to go for a trek unplanned, you can certainly still go for it. You need to get in touch with travel companies and they will assist you.

Are there factors that women should specifically know about when they trek in India?

Yes, being a woman, you have to be a bit more careful. That is why I suggest to be in group. If you still want to go solo, please get in touch with reputable trekking companies. They will take care of your safety. On your own hand, you should keep something for self-defense and emergency situations. Phones might not work on trails. Let the embassy or similar organization know that you will be out solo in the wilderness and share your travel logistics with them.

Upasana encourages everyone, as I would, to experience trekking in India.  As my social enterprise, Peak Explorations, intends to scout the trails in India to promote local tourism, I plan to trek there one day and hope to cross paths with Upasana in her trekking paradise – the Indian Himalayas.

On one final thought, Upasana leaves us with her favorite quote in loving memory of her friend a beloved member of the Meetup hiking community of the East Coast and an inspiring Outdoor Woman’s Voice –

HUA DAVIS

“The whole secret of existence is to have no fear. Never fear what will become of you, depend on no one. Only the moment you reject all help are you freed.”

                                             -Swami Vivekananda

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Brown Gal Trekker is a nomad at heart who survives the mountains to inspire others to trek them.