Having read and researched so much about this unique Roopkund trek over the last couple of years, for me it was like I’m actually trekking along on a pre-destined mental map carved out deep within my inner mind.
The welcoming fragrance of the lush pine grooves, the enchanting narrow trail through the oak & deodar forest from Lohajung onwards, the elusive Neel Ganga, the blooming rhododendrons in pinkish-white and blood-red, the occasional bird-call breaking the absolute silence of the mountains, the miles-long green alpine meadows of Ali & Bedni Bugiyals, the bleating sheep herds in their hundreds always on the run in search of the next pasture, the lonesome wild stallion grazing along, the omnipresent Trishul peak, the shy Nandaghunti, the whizzing Himalayan icy winds brushing across our faces, the stone-shrine of the revered Kalu Vinayak amidst a carpet of snow - an amphitheatre to view countless snow-peaks up close and personal, were all part of my imagination, which, did come true as we trekked our way into this awesome Himalayan trail also known as the “Curzon Trail” seeking to view that jinxed high-altitude Roopkund Lake.
Since, it is here, within and alongside the Roopkund Lake, you would find remnants of a Himalayan tragedy that had happened perhaps millennium ago – well preserved human bones and skeletons scattered all around - a mystery still today as to who these people were, why had they come here and what caused their deaths. Welcome to Roopkund, the mysterious skeletal lake situated over 16000 feet above sea-level amidst the High Himalayans interiors of Chamoli District of Uttarakhand…
Saturday, May 5th – Excited as we were, we started off on yet another unique Himalayan odyssey. The hired Meru cab took us from our Mumbai residence at 10.45 am towards the airport. Reaching the airport we checked our baggage and straightaway went for our security check only to face an unforeseen fiasco. As our hand baggage came out of the roller of the x-ray machine, the mandatory stamping on the hand-baggage tag was missed out. This, I did not notice and casually picked up the bag and approached the wide sitting lounge waiting for Mitali, my wife to come about with the camera bag post her security check.
As I waited for her, I happened to check the hand-baggage tag and surprisingly noticed that the necessary stamping was not done. I went back to the security counter and informed one of the security personnel that they have perhaps missed stamping the baggage tag. To my surprise he informed that my baggage has to be frisked, since it contains certain items not meant to be carried in the hand-baggage. To our distaste and embarrassment, he soon opened the zipper and tossed around the contents of the bag and out popped a few cans of Tuna and Chicken Sausages. The personnel initially could not identify what it was; till another colleague informed him that “it is meat….meat” at the top of his voice.
“Sir, we’ll not allow you to carry these cans, have to confiscate them,” the security personnel informed to my utter disgruntlement. “Why would you confiscate them, these are mere food items?” I insisted angrily. “But Sir, there is water inside them and as per our rules we cannot allow them,” he coolly replied.
I countered, “We are going on a Himalayan trek and nothing much is available in those Himalayan interiors other than potatoes, rice and pulses, we need them for extra energy in that utterly cold environment.” He insisted, “Please put them in your main baggage, in that case.” “But, you are well aware that our main baggage has already been checked-in, how can that be possible,” I argued. “In that case Sir, I’m sorry,” he casually replied and as if adding salt to my injury, he commented, for his other colleagues to giggle, “it is not that cold in the Himalayas as you presume” to my helplessness.
In another security counter nearby, I saw a CISF Officer and decided to approach him. I explained to him that by mistake we have placed these cans in our hand-baggage and these are ‘mere harmless food items’, and added that we would really need them to give us that extra boost on our proposed Himalayan trek. After quite some coxing and cajoling, somehow managed to convince the officer and thankfully he allowed us to carry the almost confiscated “banned” protein supplements. Mr Mallik, CISF officer, Airport Security, “Thank you Sir, the tuna and sausages kept us boosted and warm in the Himalayas.”
We thought what a bumpy start to our journey as we boarded the flight walking through the final security gate. In about 2 hours, our Indigo flight was hovering above the New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport. The Captain of the flight informed that there would be some delay as there is traffic in the airport and our flight kept hovering around at a low height causing the usual pain in the eardrums. Finally, after about 25 minutes of aimless hovering, the flight landed safely.
Friends of Donkey Years
As scheduled, my friend of ‘donkey years’, Biplob was there along with his wife Urvi to receive us and soon we made our way to his South Delhi residence. Caught up with them both and chatted a lot over a cup of tea. Late afternoon, we decided to venture out and visited the Delhi Haat. We loitered around visiting the various colorful stalls of various states of India – a vivid representation of a mini-India. Our bags were already full and Mitali’s wish to go on a shopping spree had to be sadly curtailed. Finally, we visited the Nagaland Food stall and savored some delicious pork and chicken dim-sums and a dish of roasted Pork ribs with “bhoot jolokia” (world’s hottest chilly) chutney. Post our early dinner we aimlessly drove around the smooth roads of Delhi till Biplob sweetly dropped us at the Old Delhi Railway Station. Bidding bye to them and thanking them, we boarded the Ranikhet Express chugging its way to our destination Kathgodam scheduled to reach early next morning.
Kathgodam Railway Station
Sunday, May 6 – Woke up very early at about 4.30 am excited. Dawn was slowly breaking up, as I stood alongside the door of the moving train; the fresh Himalayan wind bracing across my face was so welcoming. Holy Himalayas, here we come back yet again to bow at footsteps. The train chugged to a stop around 5.30 am at the Kathgodam Railway Station. As planned, Pandeji, the representative of our contact was there outside the station and soon the vehicle to drive us out arrived. Saw a group of 5 boys sitting in another vehicle adjacent also heading in our direction.
Boarding our Max 4x4 vehicle we soon made our way other of Kathgodam at about 6.30 am. Our destination was the Roopkund Base Camp at Lohajung, approximately 300 odd kms away. It was a long lonesome drive that would take us deep into the Himalayan interiors. Our driver Bishen Singh Bhist was an experienced mountain rider and he skillfully steered through the Himalayan High roads.
Soon the serpentine climb started as we passed by the scenic Bhimtal Lake and thereafter Bhowali. As requested by us, Bhist stopped by at Khairani where we munched the tasty Bun-Mukhan. Each time we visit this blessed land this is a never-to-be-missed item. Having had our fill we continued ahead through the Pine forested road.
Green Tea Carpet - Serene Kausani
It was a sunny day but a gust of cool wind brushing past the rolled down windows kept us comfortable. We stopped at a road-side hotel in serene Almora and had a cup of tea and its famous sweet Bal-Mithai. Around noon we reached green Kausani carpeted by tea estates all around. We stopped by for some time and sipped a cup of herbal tea. Continuing ahead, we passed by Baijnath, famous for its ancient group of stone temple situated by the side of the Gomti river amidst the Gauda Valley. As we passed by this revered site we recalled our visit last year to this holy shrine.
Early afternoon we reached Gwaldham but the views of the Himalayan peaks were missing. Clouds and fog on the northern horizon blocked the magnificent views of the Himalayan peaks that we recall soaking ourselves from Gwaldham, the last time we were around this part of the country in December 2010. Road condition till Gwaldham was smooth except a few bumps on and off. Continuing ahead we passed by Tharali. From here on the condition of the road started crumbling gradually.
Artwork of Terraces
The terraces alongside the mountain slopes with abundance of ripened wheat crops were a sight to behold. All around was a golden hue of stepped up cultivation with certain patches of un-ripened green crops, an absolute visual treat to our eyes. Soon, we reached Deval – the confluence point of the Neel Ganga and the Pindari River. We stopped by our vehicle owner Raju Shah’s shop situated in the main market road and discussed with him conditions of Roopkund as well as our onward journey next after the Roopkund trek where we plan to go towards Gangotri. Raju assured that during that journey his vehicle would be there to pick us up from Haridwar.
Finalizing our vehicle hire charges, we bid him bye and continued ahead. The gravel road soon disappeared and it was more or less a narrow dirt track as we approached Lohajung. Trudging along the bumpy road we finally reached Lohajung at 4.10 pm. Debu, our eternal guide of the Himalayas was there as planned to receive us and soon we checked into the Zilla Parishad Guest House. The day long road trip was tiring indeed but the very thought of walking along the unexplored trail from tomorrow onwards wished away any the fatigue that may otherwise have seeped in.
After some rest, I ventured out and visited the Patwal Lodge and was fortunate to interact with its owner Retired Subedar Major Patwal, with whom I had spoken umpteen times over the phone from Mumbai inquiring about snow conditions around Roopkund. Finally, I met him in person. A gentleman in himself, he offered me some tea and pakoras as we discussed about a freak accident that happened a couple of days earlier, when lightning strike claimed the life of an unfortunate trekker in Ali Bugiyal.
It was being said that he was trying to make a mobile call when this happened. We all come to these Himalayan interiors to be away from civilization and it is perhaps a mistake till your trek is over to try connecting with the world outside. It is more beneficial perhaps to connect ourselves to the higher self. I heard about this at Kathgodam Railway Station itself from Pandeji but I did not mention it to Mitali to cause un-necessary anxiety and worry.
A Himalayan lesson learnt – switch off your mobile when you are walking in the High Himalayas. For me of course, thanks to ‘superior’ Reliance network, the signal simply does not stay once you are a little away from civilization. I simply love it, since there would not be any office calls to attend to nor any unsolicited calls to receive as well.
Late evening we chatted with Debu and Trilok Singh Rana, the caretaker of the guest house over a couple of drinks till a hot dinner was served by Khilaf, Debu’s son, who was also there with us during our last trek to Pindari & Kafni Glacier . The Himalayan wind was blowing in full gust and we too retired to the comforts of the beds.
Monday, May 7 – It was the starting day of our trek. Excited we woke up early but as we observed this ‘waking up early’ syndrome perhaps happen naturally when-so-ever we are in the Himalayas. Our eyes would pop open by 5 am and would simply fail to remain shut. Energetic and ever smiling Anand, our cook, in his early 20s, who too hails from Debu’s village of Khati, soon offered us a hot refreshing cup of tea. Behind Anan’s smiling face however lay a tragedy that happened as recently as a week back. He lost his sister who had gone to collect fodder in the nearby forest of their village Khati, when she accidently slipped and fell into the Pindar river. As she was alone, no help came by and she unfortunately drowned in the swift currents of the Pindari. Later, Anand was narrating how they went about that night searching for her sisters with lanterns and how finally they managed to salvage her body.
Shy Nandaghunti - up in the Horizon
Realized how much sadness Anand must be going through behind his ever smiling face. Sipping the tea I thought about Anand’s tragedy as I watched the sun pouring its first rays into the Nandaghunti peak making it dazzle like gold. After a quick freshen up (our last proper bath till the trek ends) we visited the nearby Raja Rajeshwari temple and prayed the Mother for a safe and successful trek ahead. Nearby, I also witness how a middle school classes were being conducted out in the open, which started off with a round of drill.
Breakfast - Out in the Open
Post our breakfast of the usual Aloo Parathas, our horse ‘Hira’ too arrived with its owner Gopal, to carry our rations and tents.
Soon, we boarded a jeep to take us around 7 kms ahead till the Kulling village. Further ahead on the road lay the last village Wan, en-route the Roopkund trail. But while approaching, we decided we’ll not take the ‘Curzon Trail' which starts from Wan but instead start from Kulling and make our first halt at Didna Village. Meanwhile, Khilaf, Anand and Gopal with the horse would take a different route from Lohajung and join us at Didna. The road from Lohajung was pathetic and we swayed ourselves as per the movement of the jeep, it took us about 40 minutes to reach Kulling. All around the bumpy trail was a carpet of forest – fresh and green. Finally, we were dropped at Kulling and we could see a narrow trail going down-hill. It was 8.45 am.
Directions - Kulling Village - the starting point of our trek
Securing our back-packs we took the first steps of our trek. There were a few cultivation patches towards our right while towards our left the thick vegetation of the forest.
As I waited
Slowly, we adjusted our limbs and made our way down-hill till we reached the Neel Ganga 2 kms way below in about an hour. We crossed over a huge iron bridge, below which the blue waters of the Neel Ganga flowed over many a rocks and boulders. We halted and captured a few scenic moments. From here it was a climb all the way up to Didna. We soon entered the steep trail through the forest of oak and deodars and continued ahead. The silence of forest was a sheer bliss. Occasionally, the eerie silence was broken by the some bird-call. It was steep climb ahead and we went about at our own pace.
Bridge over the Neel Ganga
Debu was ahead while Mitali followed slowly. The sun rays penetrating through the thick foliage of the dark green forest in certain patches naturally made a light-n-shade effect. The fallen leaves of the oak trees on the ground of the trail provided a natural cushion as we trudged through. We halted often to catch our breath and also to soak in all the solitude possible. Soon to our pleasure we witnessed plentiful of rhododendron bloom in pinkish-white and blood-red.
Midway through, as we were taking a break we could see the entourage of Khilaf, Anand, and Gopal along with the horse ‘Hira’ way below over the opposite bank of the Neel Ganga trudging along in full speed. Didn’t realize that they would soon catch up on us, they continuously walk, without much rest unlike us.
Inquired with Debu what all animals abound these forests to be informed that deer, bara singha, wild pigs, bear, leopard, langurs, jackals, fox, monkeys, and a plethora of bird life flourish here. In fact, soon we heard barks emanating out from the distance at a consistent interval. “There you are Sir, it is the distress call of the barking deer, and probably a leopard is on the prowl,” Debu mentioned as we paused to gauge from which direction it was coming.
Suddenly, out of the blues there was a flutter and just 5-10 meters ahead we saw a few colorful jungle fowls disappearing amidst the thick foliage, so fast enough that I could hardly capture them in the lens. Thereafter, we continued ahead soon to hear tingling sound of horses approaching us from behind. It was the horses of another group of trekkers guided by Mohan Singh Bhist of Wan village. The trekkers were way behind as we spoke to Mohan who informed us that they too would be halting at Didna for the night and their targeted destination too being Roopkund.
Shelter - the lodge where we stayed at Didna Village
Our crew meanwhile also reached and joining the other group they continued ahead of us. Meanwhile, gradually scaling ahead the steep inclining path we soon reached a clearing and could see a few houses ahead of us. “We have reach Didna,” uttered Debu and soon we walked by the narrow village path and checked ourselves in a wooden lodge. It was a very basic lodge with the long room on the ground floor serving as a dorm and slightly raised upper floor having two rooms. We were allotted a room on the upper floor. We noticed that our adjacent room having a common entrance was used as a store room. Besides our accommodation block was another small block which served as a kitchen as well as the retiring room for the guides & porters. A few meters away were three toilets and a small bath room, very basic but clean.
Didna Lodge - inside out
Didna was a sleepy old village with terraces all around. But we notices that the village was pretty much empty only to be informed that during the winter the villagers move down to avoid the snows and around May mid-week slowly return back to resume their cultivation of potatoes, millet, wheat etc.
Wild & Free
Soon we were served with a simple lunch of rice, dal, papadam and pickles. As we were resting our heels after the nutritious lunch, the other trekkers arrived. There were a mixed group of 5 friends from Bangalore, Kanpur and Hyderabad, all form the IT industry. They were placed in the dorm of the ground floor. In fact they were the same guys whom we first saw at Kathgodam Railway Station.
Old Man of the Mountains
This 93-year old gentleman narrated to us how he use to go herding his sheep up in the alpine meadows. He is still raring to go but his family members do not allow him to venture out into the high Himalayas because of his failing eyes.
Late afternoon I ventured out of our lodge and walked to the edge of the almost empty village and soaked in the silence. Mitali kept indoor engrossed reading Orhan Pamuk’s Snow. After witnessing a beautiful sunset, chatted with Debu for some time and soon it was time for dinner by 8.20 pm. The age-old adage “early to bed early to rise makes a man healthy wealthy and wise” is at best followed in these Himalayan interiors.
Undoubtedly, there are lesser diseases among these hardy mountain folks. Soon, it started pouring steadily. With the sound of the rain drops falling over the tin roof of our lodge we tucked ourselves into the bed for the last time, since from tomorrow, there would be no more beds, it would be sleeping bag all the way across till our trek ends.
Tuesday, May 8 – Woke up early to be treated by a hot glass of tea by Anand, which I sipped sitting outside and showed Mitali the glimpses of Ali Bugiyal high high into the sky over the mountains. The very look of how high we’ll have to climb made Mitali think if she would be able to make it up. I reassured her not to worry and to keep surging at a steady pace and I’m sure she would make it with some bit of effort.
Quickly freshening up we had a breakfast of hot noodles and started off at 7.05 am with Debu leading the way. The rest of the members of our crew would start later and we were sure that would catch up with us in no time.
Soon we again started following the zigzag trail path through the oak forest. We spotted many a Whistling Thrush, Monal, Blue Magpie, Bulbuls, and many other species of the avian flock which we fail to recognize. It was an awesome environment to walk though this birding paradise. The climb was however was much steeper compared to the previous day and we had to stop many a times to rest. The climb simply went up, up, and further up; no even path to our ease. We were also gaining height and hence less oxygen reaching our lungs.
As a golden rule which I follow during my treks, I always make small distance targets and keep pushing ahead, say I’ll make up in my mind I’ll take hundred steps without stopping and surge ahead. Invariably, I had to stop after 50-60 steps to catch my breath. After some deep breathing when I feel my lungs are full I again continue ahead in a similar manner. Ultimately, it is more of a mental endurance game rather than brute physical strength.
Resting a While - our guide Debu
I was trekking along pretty much comfortably at a steady pace but I could see Mitali lagging initially. At one pit stop, as I sat with Debu chatting, I could see Mitali reaching after quite an up-hill climb to simply blurting out “this is the last trek for me,” to me as Debu looked dumbfounded. I comforted her saying that we are almost half-way through and we would soon be reaching Ali Bugiyal, “just think how beautiful a feeling it would be to watch the Himalayan peaks from Ali Bugiyal.”
Soon the rest of our crew too arrived and they too encouraged Mitali that she was pretty much trekking nicely. After the break we continued the surge. By 10.30 am we were almost above the tree-line, the dwarfed rhododendrons too were giving away and we could almost see the humped alpine meadows at a distance. Each turn through the trail we would think that this was the last one but yet the trail seems to continue ahead.
We plucked some rhododendron flowers which we contemplated to offer in the stone shrine of the Mother at Bedni Bugiyal.
By now the other group of trekkers too reached and we trekked ahead together till we reached the very edge of the mesmerizing Ali Bugiyal. Wow what a sight, miles-upon of undulated alpine meadows. Our climb however did not end, we had to climb another half a kilometer further to reach the high point of the Ali Bugiyal from where it was an almost straight path going towards Bedni Bugiyal – our destination for the day. Debu and Anand had already reached there and were signaling us to push ahead.
Leaving the Treeline behind as we approached Ali Bugiyal
Over the Mesmerizing Meadows
Finally, in another 15-20 minutes we were at the high point of the Ali Bugiyal from where the trail more or less evens out. We were speechless to witness the out of the world beauty. As far as our eyes could see it was a green carpet all around, without a single tree. We clicked; I do not recall how may pictures to capture its beauty in our cameras as well treasuring it deep within our inner mind. We recollected our trek from Munsiyari to Khalia Top, couple of years back, where too we were amazed by the beauty of the alpine meadows but the Khalia meadows were much smaller in size compared to these magnificent gigantic meadows in front of us.
Snow-Clad Peak Awaits Us
It was a sunny day but some passing clouds were blocking the views of the lines of peaks - Nandaghunti, Trishul, on the north and towards the north-west Chaukhamba, Hati Parvat, etc. these lofty peaks were partially visible not in absolute crystal clear visibility though, because of the clouds. Despite this we were completely bowled over by the beauty of Ali Bugiyal. The tiredness that we had felt till some moments ago while climbing continuously up-hill for the last almost 4 hours simply vanished and there was a constant smile on Mitali’s face.
Soaking A While
Lonesome Meadows - connecting to your higher self
Awesome Ali Bugiyal
After soaking in all the scenic attributes for about an hour we moved ahead towards Bedni Bugiyal. Walking through the carpet of green meadows was an awesome feeling as we followed the marked trail slowly. We had to again trek a bit up-hill through the awesome meadows till finally we could see way below our red tent pitched in the midst of the Bedni Bugiyal. We still had to go down-hill for about 500 meters till we reach our camp site. A little ahead of our camp site was the Bedni Kund, with no water however, it seem to have dried up. We were told that after the monsoon this kund becomes full to the brim. Adjacent to it was the cute stone temple, laid out by slates, which we saw as we glided down-hill through the meadows.
Carpet of Grass
The Trek Continues...
Our Campsite of Bedni Comes to View
Finally, we reached our camp after a total 7 hours of trekking. Our limbs were tired and we opened our shoes for the needed relieve. But the chill factor was there, it was gradually getting cloudy as we placed our bags inside our tent and got inside our feather-lined sleeping bags to get the desired warmth. Soon Anand offer us some hot tomato soup as icy winds blew across our tent. We could feel and hear the velocity of the wind by the vibration it was causing to the outer cover of our secured tent.
Our Tent Simply Stood Out
Snowflakes outside our tent
Soon, lunch followed consisting of the usual rice, dal. But for a change to our taste buds, I helped Khilaf fry some Tuna flakes with onion and chilies. After that sumptuous lunch we zipped our tent and dozed off for some time inside our sleeping bags. Late afternoon, it started snowing, we simply were overjoyed to touch and feel the soft snow flakes that seem to be melting in our hands. After sometime the weather somewhat cleared as I went our exploring nearby.
Stone Shrine of Bedni in the eveing light
Met another trekker form Kolkata, who informed that they too had planned to go to Roopkund but had to abandon the plan since one of their team member developed signs of AMS (Altitude Mountain Sickness). They left him behind at Wan and would be back after exploring till Ghora Lotani the next day. Really thanked the Lord that till now in any of our Himalayan treks, either of us have not developed AMS. But as a precaution I do carry Diamox tablets just in case it is needed. Since up in these mountains, you are your own friend, philosopher and guide in the literal sense. But till now in any of our treks the need to use them did not arise.
Kitchen Mess - the stove gave our Khilaf & team a tough time as they set repairing it inside the hut, however dinner was served on time
As dusk set in I entered next door the hut which served as our kitchen as well as living quarters of our guide and porters and chatted with them all, till an early dinner was ready to be served hot consisting of palak paneer, began aloo and chapatti. Outside the Himalayan winds were howling along and soon we tucked ourselves inside our tent. In the middle of the night, it started pouring and snowing again, leading to further drop of temperature. It was bone-chilling cold that night as we curled up tight inside our sleeping bags.
Wednesday, May 9 – Woke up early at 5.30 am. Opening the zipper of our tent I was greeted to the dazzling peak of the Nandaghunti basking in the first rays of the warm sun. The weather had cleared and it was a spotless blue sky with some clouds however in the north-western horizon but still could view the Chaukhamba peak clearly.
Our Scenic Campsite
Nature's Call - our blue toilet tent simply stood out amidst the greens
After a quick freshen up, thanks that we did not had to take the nature’s call out in the open. In fact, I had specifically asked Debu to carry a toilet tent, which gave us the needed privacy. Thereafter, we visited the nearby stone shrine of Bedni and prayed for a safe trek ahead, since, from today onwards, we mainly have to do major snow trekking all the way ahead. With loads of anticipation we had a quick breakfast of Gobi Paratha and started off around 8 am – our destination of the day Pathar Nachuni. Though a distance of 6 kms, it was going to be a tough way up-hill amidst all snow.
Team Work - Hira & Gopal - getting ready to move
Holy Shrine - the stone shrine of Bedni where we bowed our heads for a successful and safe trek
Oh so Beautiful
Breakfast - out in the Open
Pack Up - both Khilaf and Anand wraps up as we get ready to move out
The other trekker group with whom I had interacted the previous day too joined us and we started trekking up-hill through the meadows to reach the trail path – a climb of over 500 meters. Slowly and gradually we reached the trail. We were fully padded in our layers yet we could feel the icy wind brushing across our bare faces.
Dried Out - the Bedni Kund can be seen in a dried out state, we were told that after monsoon this lake it full to its brim
From here, the trail path is laden with snow and we had to carefully step ahead. It was slippery at times and the trail path at certain section was not visible at all. We had to make our way across carefully, one step at a time, balancing our way with our walking sticks. The snow was soft and our whole legs would go inside as we took each step. One section it was a straight slide down and if we miss a step or slip we were sure to slide down over 500 meter down-hill. Carefully, one by one we crossed that treacherous patch to finally lay our feet on some firm ground.
Snowland Ahead - the trail can be clearly seen as we started our trek from Bedni
Free as a Bird
Watch Your Step
Resting a While
The Way Ahead
Looking Back, Going Forward
On your Edge - a slip here would be fatal as you would slide down over thousands of feet
A Slip here, a Miss there
As we took the last bend, approaching Ghora Lotani, we were simply bowled out of the views. The entire Trishul peak along with lines of other Himalayan peaks including the Nandaghunti, and the Tent peak, were all as if in hand reach distance. We sat besides the stone shrine of Ghora Lotani and simply soaked in all the views possible. It was an awesome experience. We shared some chocolates and biscuits along with the other group and the sweet trekker conveyed his best wishes to us for a successful trek ahead as we bid farewell to them since they would depart back and camp towards Ali Bugiyal.
After about 30 minutes of this Himalayan gazing, we moved along. The meadows were slowly giving way to rock and ice. We continued following the trail path. Meanwhile the rest of our group member along with our horse “Hira” overtook us and they continued ahead. Trekking across a few more snow patches we could finally at one turn of the trail see the camp site of Pathar Nachuni. The red tent and and the other blue tent of our crew was already pitched and as we reached Khilaf offered us some hot chicken soup.
Steps on the Snow
Pathar Nachuni - camp site so beautiful
We simply sipped the soup and were amazed at our scenic camp site, the prettiest one till date undoubtedly. All around was snow-capped mountains, and, towards the east was a deep valley of a green meadow.
Killer Views - from within our tent
Fiber Huts at Pathar Nachuni
Soon lunch of some tasty khidiri followed which we had it inside our tent. The other group of 5 trekkers whom we had met at Didna earlier was camped in one of the two green fiber huts of Pathar Nachuni. We rested till late afternoon as the weather meanwhile too turned gloomy. I strolled outside.
How high is High
All around were snow peaks and the Tent peak stood out majestically amidst the passing clouds. Soon I could see some dark grey clouds building up and soon started snowing. We stayed inside our tents as Anand provided us some hot pakoras and tea. Munching along we simply stated indoor. The icy wind was speeding up as dusk set in. We thought it was yet another passing cloud but it failed to relent.
The mild snowfall soon turned into an out-right blizzard. The heavens were rumbling aloud and 'by God' we started feeling scared. The snow stated falling in sheets and the wind too becoming stronger by the minute. We worried that the gusty Himalayan wind might blow our tent away. The outer covering of our tent was shaking violently. It was dark as we huddled inside our tent praying to the Gods for the Himalayan hurricane to calm down.
Suddenly, we could hear a thud and realized the outer covering of the crew tent blew away. Soon, Debu hurriedly came by to our tent and said we have to be evacuated immediately and moved to the fiber hut. As I pulled down the zipper, we could feel the intensity of howling Himalayan wind. In an instant, we packed our stuff and moved across to the fiber hut some 100 meters away. Anand and Khilaf helped us carry our back packs and soon we were placed inside the warmth of the fiber hut. The fellow trekkers too were worried for us that our tent might be swept across.
Around 8.30 pm, in the midst of the storm Khilaf, sweetly brought in our dinner (hats off to their professionalism, they perhaps deserve a far better fee than we trekkers usually offer) and gulping it fast, we tucked ourselves inside the sleeping bags as the howling blizzard continued outside accompanied by thunders and lightning.
Thursday, May 10 – The effect of the previous day’s Himalayan blizzard was visible for us all to see as we peeked outside the fiber hut early in the morning at 4.30 am. Dawn was slowly breaking up and it was a white mantle all around. The weather was cloudy and gloomy but fortunately there were no rain, snow or wind. Moved to the next Fiber hut where Debu and the other guide Mohan Singh was to inquire about our next plan. We all realized that there would be heaps of snow ahead in the path as our target was to at least reach Kallu Vinayak, the destination next.
No Words to Say
Two other trekkers joined in and we all debated the pros and cons of the trek ahead. The previous night snow has made matter worse since it would be a dangerous way up cutting our way over knee deep snow, through a height gain of over 1000-1500 meters. Some were of the opinion that we abandon and return back but a few other including Debu suggested that we wait for a couple of hours to see how the weather fairs, if it clears a bit we’ll go ahead but in case the weather worsens, we would not have much option, since it would be too dangerous to move ahead.
Sipping many rounds of hot tea we waited and watch the situation also we could clearly see our day’s route ahead – a zigzag white trail going steeply up-hill. Around 7 am, as the weather remained calm and perhaps the Gods relented to our prayers. Suddenly there were activities all around. It was decided that we quickly give it a try to scale towards Kallu Vinayak. Gearing up fast after a breakfast of Sujee we were soon up the trail at 7.30 am. The initial patch had some few inches of snow but as we started following the trail we soon realized that it would be a total snowy affair all the way up 4 kms. It was tiring since as we have gained substantial height gain, the oxygen level too was low. We had to halt at every 20-30 steps. It was a sheer test of endurance, pushing to its limits.
Path-full of Snow
Entering the Snowscape
Debu with his expertise and 26-years old hands on experience, lead the way and we all realized how important is the role of a good guide. He quickly and swiftly was cutting the steps through the 2/3 feet deep snow with his Ice-Axe making way for us to follow one step at a time. The snow was soft but certain section it was hard and slippery. Debu informed us that the soft snow is never dangerous but it is the hard snow where the danger lay, since it would be slippery and if you happen to slip it will be fatal. Also there are the chances of an unexpected avalanche.
Ice-Axe - Debu uses it with awesome ease - cuts his way across the snow
Vantage Point - both Debu and me sat at a vantage point waiting for the others to scale through
Endurance - testing of your mental strength
Catch Your Breath - at a height of over 15500 feet, oxygen supply to your lungs is LOW
Pushing your Limits
Another thing we realized how important a good pair of the shoes is for this sort of trek and I was happy at our decision to buy the Forclaz Quecha 500 shoes. As I had read its review it kept our feet very warm and dry despite the continuous walk amidst all snow.
Life in the Himalayas - a rare sighting of a endangered Tragopan
Introspect - Anand perhaps was thinking of his sister he lost just a few weeks back
The Final Steps
Finally, after an arduous exhaustive climb of over 2 hours we reached the shrine of Kallu Vinayak. The last step as one takes and reaches the ridge of Kallu Vinakay; it is a speechless sight beyond. Despite there being clouds, it was a sight seen to be believed. We bowed our heads in the holy shrine of Kallu Vinayak, offering a coconut carried by Debu and some chocolates. We prayed for the safe passage by lighting some incense sticks.
Kallu Vinayak Shrine - paying our obeisance & thanking the Lord
In All Smiles - after a hard and enduring climb
Finally, a dream come true
We were totally spellbound by the vistas in front of us. The clouds were covering the peak of Trishul and Nandaghunti but below we could see the fiber huts amidst the bowl of Bhugwabasa and further ahead the snaking trail going through the ridge of Roopkund and Junnargali beyond can be clearly seen. We sat in top of the ridge of Kallu Vinayak, by walking across a snow patch and simply gazed in silence. We prayed for the clouds to move away to be able to view even better the Trishul and Nandaghunti. Our prayers were partially answered as the clouds gave way and we could see the bowl of Roopkund, the point from where one can see the mystic Roopkund Lake.
So Near Yet So Far - Roopkund Crater - the Roopkund lake lay within it
I asked Debu “can we venture ahead towards Bhugwabasa and further towards Roopkund,” knowing well that the answer would be negative since we could all see for ourselves that there were no trail path visible towards Bhugwabasa, it was all covered in 10-15 feet of snow. No way could we have moved further. Our desire to see this elusive lake remained un-fulfilled, it was indeed a case of so near yet so far - a mere short distance of 4-5 kms that eluded our final destination – the mystical Roopkund lake.
“No Sir, this is the wish of the Mother, perhaps she’ll call you both back again, the Big Jath is there in 2013, probably she wants you to go beyond Roopkund to Homkund, where the main “hom”(sacrificial fire) would be held’” Debu mentioned to our dejected faces.
Meanwhile, the other group of 5 trekkers stated making their way back as we continued sitting at the ridge and absorbing as much as possible. It was by now 11.30 am and Anand soon pulled out the hot-case and offered us some puris, which was still hot as we munched with some pickles. After spending about an hour, we could see dark clouds circling around and we decided to trek back to Pathar Nachuni before further snowfall happens.
Slowly we started trudging down-hill through the snow. By now the snow was melting a bit and it was getting a bit slippery. On one occasion I nearly slipped through a precipitous drop but thanks to my walking stick I could halt my slide somehow. Thereafter, we again carefully continued descending. It was though a wonderful experience walking through the heaps of snow. Mitali was thoroughly enjoying the snow walk. We halted midway for some time before continuing ahead. By 1 pm we reached back our camp site at Pathar Nachuni.
Khilaf was ready with some chicken soup and soon lunch followed. The sun was meanwhile out for sometime as we dried our somewhat wet attire and basked in its warmth. The other group of trekkers meanwhile decided to move further down till Bedni and soon they moved out.
Back to our Green Fiber Hut
Landscape so Scenic
Fully Padded - with the icy wind blowing across I climbed up a ledge and watched a heavenly Himalayan sunset
Sunset - high in the Himalayas
Thankfully we had the whole fiber hut to ourselves as we rested. Late afternoon, I ventured out and sat on a rocky ledge some hundred meters away from our camp site and watched a heavenly sun-set. As dusk set in we celebrated our partial success by toasting some rum amidst the icy Himalayan wind gain starting to gain speed. Thankfully, it neither rained nor snowed. Having our dinner of roti and ready to eat butter chicken we called it a night.
Friday, May 11 – It was bright morning as we pulled ourselves from the sleeping bags. The sun was out and the weather was very clear. We took it a bit easy today since from now on it was all the way a down-hill trek. The snow peaks were all shining in glory particularly the Tent peak. Having our breakfast of stuffed Aloo paratha basking in the morning sun, we started off at 8.30 am. It was a wonderful walk through the green meadows in the backdrop of a deep blue sky. Patches of clouds were there towards the northern horizon but it was it was in no way blocking the magnificent views.
Tent peak in the Morning Light
Soaking in all the Possible Solitude
Breakfast - Under the Warm Morning Sun
The Trail back to Bedni
On the way near Hunia Thal we met Debu’s old acquaintance Kunwar Singh of Wan, whose horses usually Debu hires during his treks to Roopkund. We noticed that this time around also, similar to our last trek towards Pindari & Kafni, hoards to young villages camping amidst the meadows.
Catching Up - Debu and Kunwar Singh's friendship goes back many year
Every year once the snow melts, they make a beeline line to the alpine meadows – in their quest to gather the valued “khida ghas”, a supposedly aphrodisiac used in oriental Chinese medicine. It is basically an insect sort of organism resembling a needle like grass stem considered of very high value. These villagers scour the meadows day-in-day-out and gather as many of them as possible, which we were informed were sold at big time prices. They consider it a gift of the Himalayas to them.
Prized Item - khida ghas
Sweet Khilaf, in fact, the previous day, devoted over two hours searching for this elusive “khida ghas” and presented me one of the highly prized item. We continued ahead at a leisurely pace and stopped by Ghora Lotani to be rewarded with some awesome views of the peaks, which while coming we could not view clearly because of the clouds. But today they were all standing tall, the Trishul, Nandaghunti, Tharkot, Tent and line of other Himalayan peaks. Mitali captured some panoramic shots of these amazing visuals with the help of the tripod.
Identifying the Peaks
Walking Stick - trekker's best Assistant
Walking through Awesome Views
The Walk is on...
Shy Nandaghunti - within hand reach
Up Close & Personal - the majestic Trishul peak
Another Close Shot of Trishul
Debu at Ghora Lotani
Scenic Ghora Lotani
Are we ready?
After soaking in for over half an hour we continued ahead, soon to enter the awesome meadows of Bedni. We continued down-hill till we reached the forest beat office quarters of Bedni located near our camp site where we had stayed while coming. We cooled our heels and relished a cup of hot black coffee.
Trekking for Livelihood - we came across this group of locals heading beyond Roopkund in search of the prized Khida Ghas
Halting a While amidst scenic landscapes
The Trail Path Behind
Take Your Time
Bedni Kund Comes to View
Thankfully, mobile phones still did not worked but we did tried calling form the WLL phone at Bedni to inform everyone back home that we were safe but failed to get the line. Thereafter, we started moving ahead and soon passed by the Fiber Huts of Bedni. Noticed a new group of trekkers camped out there who were enthused to inquire from us the snow conditions beyond Pathar Nachuni. After a short conversation we continued ahead.
Up or Down - our trek continues
Load of a Firewood
Wild Horses Grazing Along
Campsite of Ghairoli Patal
We took a different route while going back instead of going back via Ali Bugiyal. Soon, we touched the tree line. We had to go down-hill through the Birch forest into a deep green valley. The walk was lovely as we encountered many a rhododendron bloom. It was a quite walk through the lush forest trail. After about half an hour we saw a flat opening in the midst of forest, wherein lay two cute Fiber huts. Yes, we have reached the destination of the day – Ghairoli Patal. As we were approaching the last few meters it stated pouring. Its intensity increased as we placed ourselves inside the Fiber Huts. Soon, it turned into a big hail fall. In no time the entire green carpet of the forest clearing wherein our camp was located turned white with the falling hails continuing.
Shepherd and his Lambs
It finally subsided and the weather thereafter cleared. We felt this camp site truly was yet another pretty one. Its serenity was felt by us. Surrounded by huge deodars, pine, oak and birch trees it also was birding paradise. Colourful birds abound its vicinity and we were treated to a cacophony of bird calls. We spotted many a woodpeckers, Himalayan bulbuls, and countless other species of birds which we failed to recognize.
Campfire - igniting our body & souls
Khilaf and Anand meanwhile went into the forest and brought along lots of fire wood. Seeing the pile of woods we realized our camp fire would be huge tonight. Meanwhile, a huge flock of sheep passed by making the setting even more scenic. Soon our lunch too was ready and
we all had it in the other fiber hut which served as our kitchen, dining hall cum living quarters of our crew. We rest till late afternoon and soon Debu lighted our camp fire. We all joined in and it went on till late into the night as we heard from Debu his numerous trekking tales all across the Himalayas.
Saturday, May 12 – We woke up early as usual but we did have to hurry today since it was the last day of our trek. Yet by 8.30 am we were all set to move out post our breakfast of noodles. The Trishul looked just amazing in the morning light. We bid bye to the scenic camp site and started off going down-hill through the forest. It was a quite walk through the silent forest. A stopped a couple of times to enjoy the serenity of the forest for the one last time. After trekking for over an hour and half we reach the Neel Ganga. We filled our water bottles with the crystal clear azure waters of the Neel Ganga and drank it to glory. Crossing over the Neel Ganga, we had to climb again.
Trishul dazzles in the morning light
Pretty Campsite of Ghairoli Patal
All set to Move Out - the last day of our trek
Forest Walk - as we moved out from Ghairoli patal
Walk a Mile - Soak a While
Quietly Flows the Neel Ganga
The trail was not that steep compared to the Didna trail earlier and we comfortably scaled ahead. By now our legs too were totally tuned up and soon we reached the top point of Rann Ki Dhur. We interacted with some local ladies who were basking in the sun. Thereafter, we continued ahead another 2 kms till we could see the cute sleepy village of Wan – the last village that one can reach while approaching Roopkund from this side. We walked through huge deodars and soon up ahead we saw the GMVN Tourist rest house of Wan.
Back to Civilization
Lush Cultivation near Wan
Tourist Guest House - Wan
We rested in the lawn as Debu got connected to arrange the vehicle to drop us back at Lohajung. There were a huge group of foreign students who too were out on a trek. We interacted with them for some time, as they enquired about the snow conditions. Thereafter, we visited the revered ancient Ladu Devta Mandir. Thanking him for a safe trek we sought his blessing for our journey ahead.
Subsequently, we spend some time inside the premises of the Wan GMVN Tourist rest House till Debu informed us that the vehicle would soon reach and we had to walk down to the Wan village square from where the road-head starts. After a wait of over an hour our Max vehicle finally arrived and soon we started off our way back towards civilization.
Road to Civilization
In about 45 minutes after driving through the broken dirt track, passing by Kulling Village, the starting point of our trek, we reached Lohajung. We could almost feel warm here literally; after all, we have come down over 7000 feet from the over 15000 feet that we had climbed over till Kallu Vinayak. Lohajung stood at approx 8300 feet.
Trilok Singh Rana welcomed us back, as we checked in the guest house and had a bath after 6 long days. Despite the fact that we did not have proper bath for the last six days, we did not feel any dirty since up in the pristine Himalayas there is no pollution unlike our dirty cities. We decided to celebrate that night with a grand dinner.
Asked Debu to inquire and get some chicken. He returned after some time and informed that there were no broiler chicken available currently at Lohajung and a local chicken would cost a bomb - Rs 500-Rs 600 a piece, which he’ll have to get it from someone’s home. We wondered the ones who’ll be selling the chicken were they also counting the eggs that the chicken would lay in future considering the price quoted. Finally, Debu managed to get 2 chickens for Rs 800 and Khilaf cooked it in typical Kumaoni style – hot and spicy. Slumber eluded me that night since my body perhaps was getting used to the sleeping bag rather than the ‘comfortable bed’.
Moving on, with promises to be back again
With mixed thoughts of achievement yet delusion, we started off the subsequent morning for next leg of our journey towards Gangotri, promising ourselves however to be back yet again to see for ourselves the elusive Roopkund lake that eluded us this time around.