At about 12,000 feet, the pain in my feet and lower back was replaced by a distant chanting that began to swell in volume with each step I took up a rocky trail. The frequency of traffic on the trail grew significantly and the air in my lungs seemed to be less and less present. For the final mile, the smiling faces of Sikh pilgrims and the sounds of distant prayers were my motivation. In four days I trekked 30 miles and reached peak elevation of 15,200 feet.
For me, this trek was to be a learning opportunity. One that would teach me about myself. As the climax of my Indian adventure, I decided to be alone. On this four day trek I knew nobody, had no connectivity, and my driver had left me at the base camp. The further away from metropolitan centers I ventured, the less likely I would be to come across English speakers. However, I knew that I needed to prove to myself my ability to be alone.
In the last 3,000 feet, the ascent was made by way of a 'staircase'. The faint chanting had become recognizable words. I stood at the bottom of the stairs with a steep valley behind me and my destination looming over me. A group of fellow trekkers came up behind me and, with a smile, gave me a pat on the back. That was all the motivation I needed. We climbed the staircase 10 stairs at a time to allow our lungs to fill up. Alongside a group of strangers who had welcomed me with open arms, I reached the peak. I arrived at Hemkund Sahib.
Hemkund Sahib is the highest Gurudwara (place of worship) of the Sikh community. It rests on the shore of a pristine 'snow lake' and is covered by snow nine months out of the year. This isolated destination serves as a Sikh pilgrimage where Sikhs come together to pray, eat and bathe.
Alongside smiling faces, I waded into the shallows of the coldest water I have ever felt. I grabbed onto the chain connecting me to the shore, took a deep breath, and plunged my entirety under the water. As I came up my lungs were struggling to fill with air. I was shivering, but laughing. I looked to my left and my right and was greeted by supporting glances from Sikhs on both sides. I dipped again and stepped out of the water.
I dried off got dressed and stepped inside the Gurudwara to participate in the continuous prayer. I sat on carpet inside the star shaped marble building and listened. The language was an unfamiliar one, but the sentiment was not. I was surrounded by the sounds of chanting. The room was filled with blue and orange. Many hands in the room rested on the hilt of a Kirpan (the Sikh sword or dagger that represents mercy, grace, and compassion). Here too I was welcomed. I sat and I experienced the prayer.
The Langar is at the center of every Gurudwara. In this community kitchen, meals and tea are prepared for everyone who visits the Gurudwara. After the prayer, we ate in each other's company - another core commandment of Sikhism.
As the day grew long, I knew it would be time for my descent to begin, but I wasn't quite ready. I returned to the edge of the water and sat to experience this place for a few moments longer. The views of the seven surrounding Himalayan peaks were extraordinary, the water of the lake was absolutely pristine, but the people held the biggest influence of my experience. I went on this trek without any companions, but I was never alone. I was constantly greeted with smiles, kind gestures, and immense warmth.
I grew up in the heart of the Rocky Mountains in Montana. Every morning, I would wake up, look out my window, and see beautiful snow capped peaks. When I learned that I was traveling to India, I knew that I had to step foot in the Himalayas. I have dreamed of these peaks my entire life. The beauty of the mountains was overwhelmingly moving, yet I had no idea the experience would be one of so much spiritual significance for me. I can say with confidence, sharing a meal, a bath, and a prayer in the Himalayas with Sikhs from all over the world has been one of the moments that has defined my life.