When I first saw pictures of one of my friends visiting Kolsar lake (situated on the west side of Harmukh glacier in north Kashmir), I was taken aback by the mesmerising beauty the lake presented. Since the last few years, for me, love for mountains have been eternal. I have started taking trekking more as a passion than just any other trip. I never give a second thought if someone offers me a nice hike, good food and a lot of uncountable memories-captured and uncaptured. Over the years, I have climbed and hiked everything I could think of, and have been pushing myself to go harder.
However, it was rare to organise a trip during Covid times. But after the partial unlock, we decided to have one. S0, I along with my brother and the other three friends were planning to set off on a quick one day trek to Kolsar Lake. Just a day before the 'trek day', one of my childhood friends Bilal (name changed), who is supposed to be my neighbour texted me, requested to join us. Initially, I was not sure of him as he had no trekking experience, but he was adamant to come.
So we began our journey in the wee hours of June 14 last year. It was a Sunday and trekking season had just started. We reached the town of Naranag (around 60 km from Srinagar) at 6:30 am and started our ascent by 7 that morning. Later, I heard that my friend had not informed his brother before leaving his home early in the morning, for which I scolded him like anything. He was an orphan, his parents had died when he was a child. It was just him and his brother, who was married recently.
Bilal behaved like any other happy person on a trek, after all, it was his first such trip. For most of the journey, he was walking fine, even during Budhsheri, which is the most challenging 8-kilometre-long stretch in the ascent. Our team rested and drank tea which we had carried from our homes in a flask. During the period, all of us called and texted our family because the mobile networks were fading away. After hiking past difficult Budhsheri, Bilal slowed down at Trunkhol as he felt tired like anything. We split into two groups..three ahead and two behind-Bilal along with my brother. We walked a little ahead to the turning point when Bilal completely gave up. He sat down on the stones from exhaustion. All the friends convinced him to resume walking as we were very close to our destination. Honestly! I didn't want to miss out on the lake, I so desperately wanted to see it. After much negotiation, Bilal asked us 'to not spoil our trip' because of him and move ahead. He told us he would wait at the exact spot where he was, until our return. After much hesitation, we agreed and left the spot.
We successfully reached our destination, relished the beauty of the lake, had some delicious 'biryani' and took some wonderful shots. But back in our minds, Bilal was there. He must be feeling lonely there, I thought. After staying there for an hour, I told my friends to wind up and move back. We left from there in order to reunite at Trunkhol. But Bilal was not there. He was gone.
He searched for him for around two hours. We checked with every farmer, tribal, a shepherd in sight. We leapt around the meadows like mad ones, looking for our friend. Since it was a no-network zone, his phone was not reachable.
Disappointed, we descended towards Budhsheri while consoling our minds that 'he must be at the foot of the mountains. However, on reaching our base camp, his two-wheeler was still parked there, leaving us in utter dismay. Rather, his family along with the men in uniform had gathered there. We were already declared as culprits.
The next day we along with the police, army, mountaineering team and the local tribals went up the majestic mountains once again, searching through every nook and corner, but couldn't find a single trace of him. The search operation lasted for 3 days, but day by day we lost every hope.
What followed was the constant interrogation, accusations, investigations, humiliation. We were even subjected to polygraph tests and narco-test, which is termed as silent torture, for a crime that we never did. Neither did they helped in finding Bilal.
Losing a friend is never easy. Things can, and will, go wrong. But the memories of that fateful day is still afresh and buried with mysteries. He, too, has perhaps vanished without a trace like the thousand others in Kashmir.
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