Gritting temperature, frozen valleys, deep gorges and oxygen levels at almost half of normal. Yet, 4000 pilgrims line up army check-posts at the Chandanwari base-camp in Pahalgam. Having already covered a 300 km path from Jammu, they embark upon a 33 km trek to the Amarnath cave shrine at 5 am. But that is not the most impressive aspect of all - it's the undeterred spirit of the pilgrims who march on even after a terrorist attack on the route leading to the shrine.
On July 10, terrorists attacked a bus carrying pilgrims in which eight people were killed. There have been rising security concerns for travelers undertaking the pilgrimage post the incident.
As NDTV sets out on the final leg of the Amarnath Yatra with the upbeat pilgrims into the heart of the Himalayas, nearly 10,000 security personnel from the Central Reserve Police Force, Border Security Force, Army and Jammu and Kashmir Police keep watch. But does this surveillance reinforce a sense of security among the pilgrims?
"I have been coming since 2010. The security services this year are highest in seven years," says Mahesh Sharma from Madhya Pradesh.
Sources say that security facilities at all basecamps along the yatra have been heightened after the attack. To reinforce a sense of assurance to the pilgrims, the 200 camps along the route provide food, bedding, blankets and medication round the clock.
But security is not their only concern. The lack of oxygen has also resulted in at least three deaths of yatris during this season. At all points including Mahagun Top, which at upwards of 14,000 feet stands as the highest point in the pilgrimage, 24 hour medical facilities are being provided by the BSF.
"Compared to last year we are getting more cases of breathlessness, maybe due to higher rains. There is around 60% oxygen saturation, although we have facilities to give oxygen en route. Every day I get 300-400 patients", says Dr Shiv at the MG Top basecamp.
Over 50 squads of the MRT (Medical Response Team) are also present along the route. The team is the first to respond in any instance of a medical emergency. "We are trained not only in medicine and CPR but also in advanced mountaineering. The altitude in the yatra is likely to cause difficulties for many pilgrims but we are always here to assist even in air-lifting during emergencies", says Khalid Nasim of the MRT.
As the climb gets more trying and the base camps more remote, the sight of local Kashmiris helping pilgrims by carrying them on palanquins, horseback and assisting in carrying luggage, becomes common.
"As our ancestors had been doing it, we are also following their tradition. There is no religion involved in it, it is purely our duty towards our guests and fellow brothers and sisters", says 23-year-old Tahir Wani, who along with his three brothers helps pilgrims on horseback every alternate day from Chandanwari to the Amarnath caves.
Three days and 11 stops later as the Amarnath cave shrine finally comes into view, nestled at 12,756 feet amid sprawling glaciers, chants, incantations and hymns to Lord Shiva rent the air. The syncretic spirit of the hills also comes alive once again with local Kashmiris selling Puja samagri.
"The Amarnath Yatra is ultimately a symbol of unity. Away from the headlines it really is about bringing together Hindus from across the subcontinent in the Kashmir Valley where Kashmiris, Muslims, Pandits all come together", says Naveen Chawla, a pilgrim from Ludhiana.