Aug 17, 2013

The Roopkund Trek

Little sleep over three days with many back to back journeys. Starting a physically challenging trek requires a certain level of serenity and this was sorely lacking as I landed in Delhi on that Friday morning. To make things worse, the train tickets did not get confirmed and Dilip and I had an overnight and overpriced bus journey to Kathgodam. That was immediately followed by another day long (11 hour) road trip to Loharjung (7575 ft) making it the proverbial last straw that broke the camel’s back. But a broken back is not good enough to climb an astounding 10,000 feet in 5 days.

The first thing that my mother asked me on the phone was if the Delhi hot winds (called loo) were blowing and if it has too hot. I had to explain that it was in fact very cold up there in Loharjung. After a quick dinner at Patwal’s guest house, I was able to sleep like a log, but only for seven hours. Had to remind my roommate to not repeat the mistake of waking up a sleeping log or dog.

Day 1: Loharjung to Didna
The day started with a simple breakfast of aloo paratha (1/2) and wheat dhaliya. We set off on the Curzon trail towards Didna after walking down from the Patwal’s place. After taking some time to buy a pair of snow gloves, I joined the team behind everyone else. The going was very slow. I wondered if it was the lack of sleep, less breakfast I ate or if it was something else. It soon started raining and that made the pace even worse. The mind was preoccupied with thought of the next steps and about walking meditation, without actually doing any of it.

Finally we reached Didna after a couple of hours of descent and an equally long ascent. The village offered a great view of the mountains. After a lunch of the usual Dal, Chaval, Roti and Aloo Sabji, we went for a post lunch hike. It continued to drizzle and the rest of the day was quite uneventful.

Day 2: Didna to Ali Bugyal
After the limited ‘conditioning’ that the previous days trek provided, it was time to make things interesting. So off we went on our way to Ali Bugyal (Bugyal means meadows in this part of the world). There were steep climbs all along. Many rhododendron trees were in full bloom making the strenuous climb actually appealing visually.

We took a short break at Topna where the water bottles were filled. The sun was out with the clouds clearing out. A quick sun bath was helpful (a regular bath was already out of question till we returned to Loharjung).

We soon resumed the steep climb to Ali Bugyal after crossing a very pretty oak tree forest. The rolling meadows of the Bugyal offered a very long trail. Soon the dark clouds started showering hail on us forcing us to walk faster. Dilip and I sprinted to reach the trekker’s huts covered with green domes made of fibre glass. We would get into our regular tents later.

Since it was getting quite cold with the hail+ rain mixture still falling we decided to spend some time in the kitchen. Getting lunch ready typically takes a fairly long time and the time keeping oneself warm near the stove is well worth it. While the cook normally serves lunch for everyone at one go, we managed to convince him to serve us early since he was anyway making the noodles in batches due to limitations with both the stove and utensil.

With lunch done it was time to for a siesta. The view of the surrounding snow clad mountains was pretty. The camp site was very picturesque and can easily rank among the best in the world. When it was late evening, three of us trudged up about 450 feet for a better view of the mountains and of the camp site from above. It would also help us acclimatize better for the higher altitudes we planned to reach in the coming days. While the views were good, the climb down proved to me how poor in shape my thigh muscles were (both hamstrings and quadriceps).

We had a dinner on time – paneer matar (cottage cheese with peas), roti, rice and cabbage curry. The untimely eating with prolonged breaks between meals created perfect conditions for stomach acidity. The day’s heavy exertions also meant that the body had to both work on repairing itself and digestion – a daunting task indeed!

Day 3: Ali Bugyal to Pathal Nachaniya

The next morning we woke up to a wonderful sun rising up from behind the snow peaks. One couldn’t stop admiring the beauty of the camp site. After a breakfast of Puri Chole and Wheat Dhaliya, we slowly started the day’s trek. After tracing back about 100 meters along the previous day’s route, we made a right along the hill.

The trail snaked round the hill with the meadows rolling down beneath us. Where the tree line intersected the meadows, there were flowery bushes that looked like a natural garden with white and purple flower laden hedges. From where we were, we could see Baidyni Bugyal and ahead were the peaks of Mt Nanda Devi and Mt Trishul dominating the horizon. We would stop at Baidyni Bugyal on our way back.

Soon we came up on snow on the path. While this was a great sight, it would also become the bane of our existence for the next few days. The mixture of snow and ice that one had to cross was a tricky affair. Any misstep and the resultant fall would be very steep and prove costly. After a few crossings that tested our courage, we quickly opted for crampons that attached to the boots providing a steel cover below with spikes. The crampons made it only slightly safer. Where there would be a hard cover of ice (frozen snow melt overnight), one had to walk carefully with the toe angled in correctly.

Within minutes of the icy crossings beginning, we turned back to see one of the mules in our caravan slip and roll down towards the valley. Its keeper jumped behind to save his mule. The mule somehow stopped mid way and refused to climb back! This event was enough for all the mule keepers to make an about turn making our trek logistics that much more complex.

The last icy crossing of the day brought us to the highest point of the day - Ghoda Loutanya (“place where the horses are corralled and released to nearby Bugyal to graze and return by end of the day”). It was not as scary due to a ledge offering protection below. I was able to run up the snowy slope to reach the meadow. Stones were placed on top of another as an altar to worship the local deity. This place was actually a mountain pass that separated two valleys.

After a short break, we made our way into the other valley along a path that skirted the mountains right slope. We saw Kurmonital Bugyal below. This was a unique Bugyal that looked like a natural golf course with at least 7 to 8 fairways. Pretty sight.

Half an hour later, I descended down the valley to reach the camp site for the day at Pathal Nachaniya. We could have used the green trekker’s fibre huts that were located near the trail but our site had easy access to a water source. Pathal Nachaniya is so named as it was at this site that according to Roopkund legend, three dancers were swallowed by the earth when the king’s retinue displeased the gods.

As we relaxed during the evening, the sight of the next day’s trail on the mountain was visible like a thin sliver on the mountain’s side. It was a daunting sight and one really worried if such a steep climb was really possible.

Day 4: Pathal Nachaniya to Bhagwa Basa

The next day’s trek began from the camp site with a climb up toward the trekkers huts. Within a short distance we came to a small temple named Chota Vinayak (Small temple for Lord Ganesha). The name contrasted this place from Kailu Vinayak which was a bigger temple located at the mountain pass one would reach after the steep climb up the mountain.

We saw a group of locals sitting near the temple smiling at us, somewhat amused by the urbanites that have come to their world seeking some adventure. One of them carried something special in his hand. They called it “keeda jadi” which was basically a kind of caterpillar mummified by a fungal infection. Found only at altitudes between 3,000 and 5,000 metres and that too in this part of the Himalayas, it is a prize catch fetching its weight in gold. Keeda jadi is popular in China as a medicine and as an aphrodisiac.

After checking out a few “keedas”, we set off on our path to meet Kailu Vinayak. This path which looked so scary from a distance was quite comfortable. En route, we had wonderful and clear views of an entire snow clad Himalayan mountain range that included Mt Nilkanth (shaped like a Shiva lingam) and Chaukhamba (a massive flattish peak). On our path, there was some snow in between but for the most part the path was a dirt trail. We had to resort to crampons only once.

Eventually we reached Kailu Vinayak, a beautiful temple with a nice altar. The statue of Ganesha was half covered in snow, which gave him an exquisite look. After paying our respects for safety thus far (and praying for more protection in the coming days!), we took a long break. The place offered panoramic views of the twin peaks of Mt Nanda Gomti and Trishul.

The final stretch for the day was the trek to Bhagwa Basa. The path was a semi circular cutting across the large valley. The sun was overhead causing the snow to melt at many places. This made the path quite slushy and at places the foot would cave into knee deep snow/slush. The path did not require crampons as the snow was offering a good grip to the shoes. As my body warmed up, I got into a jog and enjoyed the one hour brisk walk/jog to Bhagwa Basa.

The camp site had two more of the trekker huts, but one of them was full of ice that got accumulated. We anyway would get into tents later in the day but this time they would get pitched on top of thick snow. Given the mule fall the previous day (it appeared so distant), it was a long long wait for the rations and supplies to reach the camp site. So we took rest on a large boulder that was overlooking the valley. We had a Khichdi lunch after the supplies arrived and took a small nap.

Evening time was play time and some of us climbed up the nearby slope for a slide down. The climb up was not easy (especially after a day’s hard work) but I enjoyed my two trips down. It snowed a bit and the weather was getting cold. The entire landscape was white all around, another contrast from the previous day’s camp site. The diversity of landscapes is another compelling reason that draws one back to the Himalayas again and again. The day ended with a beautiful sun set that as a backdrop had rain clouds in the distant valley showering rain.

At around quarter less four in the morning, I got up to take a leak. When I looked up, I saw the Milky Way as a faint white patch streaking across the sky from South to North. The sight of our galaxy is fairly common in the high mountains and is yet another pull factor. In these parts of the world one gets to see it before dawn.

Day 5: Bhagwa Basa to Roopkund

The day promised to be the toughest day and was also the longest day in terms of effort. We had to trek up to see the Roopkund Lake and them come back to the camp site for a quick lunch and then continue to Pathal Nachaniya. No wonder the day’s trek started at 5 am. We had a tough climb up the snow slopes to reach a place called Chidiya Naka. It took us time to cut the ice and create steps to climb up.

Like the previous afternoon, we followed an anticlockwise path along the middle of the mountain slope. At some places we saw remnants of mini avalanches. On a much small scale, one could see small snow roll offs that accumulated more snow as they rolled in a spiral path. The resulting shapes were nature’s work of art – three dimensional roses made completely of snow.

The progress was very slow as the guide had to cut steps wherever the slope was steep. The crampons were now worn constantly. As I warmed up, I wanted to go a bit faster and slowly reached the head of the line. I looked at the guide for permission to move further and he nodded. Soon disaster struck.

We reached a place where two large rocky formations created some sort of a snowy gateway. The slope was very steep here, almost vertical. The right side of the rocky formation was further along. The left side appeared closer and I started walking towards it. I was a mere two feet away and used my hiking stick as a pivot to jump across to the rock. Attempting this with all the heavy woolen gear I had was foolish, but then I say that in hindsight. The metal stick could not take all the weight and snapped.

I started to fall into the deep valley below and the first reaction was panic. Within a second or two I recovered and used all my four limbs and the remnant of the stick to dig into the snow. Fortunately I was able to stop myself after slipping down by four feet. Then as the team leader Sandeep came, I was able to slowly standup. However I was shaken and this did affect my confidence for the next few hours.

We resumed the arduous climb and made more steps to climb. Had I waited for the steps to be made, I would have perhaps been spared of the fall. We arrived at a resting place. Recouped our energies and made more steps to finally reach the destination. Some fifty feet below us was the fabled lake called Roopkund. It was of course frozen but shone like a jewel under the sun. We had a small celebration on the achievement of being the first group in the season to reach the lake, that too so early in May. Under other circumstances I would have climbed down to reach the lake. But the exhaustion took the better of the team and no one went down (except the porters for whom this was all play).

The Return Trip Begins

Despite the sun being up in the sky, it was getting chilly as we were not moving. So after a longish break, the return trip started. I find climbing down tough in normal circumstances as it tests the hamstrings the most. This time with the snow melting under the noon sun it was slippery and treacherous too.

Nevertheless we started off with a spectacular slide down on the steepest slope which was from our pre-Roopkund resting place. My rain coat made my slide very fast causing me to flip over in the process. The subsequent climb down was tough due to the melt; our crampons were not finding any grip since there was no snow powder. To make matters worse it started to snow as well. In this part the snow falls as small round balls – almost like thermocol balls and not like the regular snowflakes.

Dilip also had a fall and before that he sprained his ankle. A few other people fell too. When we reached Chidiya Naka, it required more cutting as fresh ice froze in areas where there was snow melt. This took considerable time and finally we reached Bhagwa Basa.

The camp site was a big relief after all the adventure during the day. After ingesting a lot of water, we took some rest. Had a heavy lunch of Khichdi and packed our bags to leave for Pathal Nachaniya via Kailu Vinayak.

This route was again made treacherous with the melting snow and freezing ice. The risk was fall taking one to either a cliff hanger end or smashing into a rock if one happened to appear before. The entire route bore absolutely no resemblance to what it was just the previous day. With great relief we reached Kailu Vinayak, took off the crampons and thanked Ganesha there once again.

From then on the climb down was quite comfortable. There was ice at some places but it was easily crossed, with help at times. On the way back I saw a rock shaped just like a lion’s face. This made a nice sight. The pace was brisk and it was feeling quite hot both due to the exercise and the fact that we had lost altitude. The same camp site of Pathal Nachaniya was reached. Warm water and snacks welcomed me there.

Having completed the toughest part of the trek, there were two key realizations. One is that the trail up to Kailu Vinayak that looked so daunting from Pathal Nachaniya was doable, step by step. The same applies to life’s challenges which also appear intimidating at first sight. Second is to focus only on the next step, never look down or up. Only the next step matters, nothing else.

Day 6: Pathal Nachaniya to Wan

The prospect of sighting the Milky Way once again made me wake up again at 3:30 am. There was no camera though, to time lapse the picture as Ankur who had the right piece of equipment was unwell and could not wake up. Nevertheless enjoying the sight in person matters the most (of late I have seen tens of professionally made pictures of the galaxy in tumblr).

The day’s work started at 8:30 am with a quick hike to Ghoda Lautaniya. Kurmonital Bugyal’s golf course view was visible from above as we made progress. From there we made our way to Baidyni Bugyal and had some tough going as we encountered snow and hard ice once again. What made it riskier was the fact that we had returned our crampons the previous day. The temptation to just climb down over the rocks into the valley below and head straight to our immediate destination was resisted. We could have taken hours in the wilderness of the pathless valley below.

Having negotiated the icy patches, we veered off the main trail by taking a smaller trail into the valley below. It was a long descent and we crossed the Bugyal and reached Baidyni Kund. There was a Mahishasur Mardhini temple as legend has it that this is the place where the demon Mahishasur was vanquished by Kali. This was a rustic place with horse running around the large lake. The lake was still and mirrored the views of the snowy peaks around.

After a long break there, we resumed the return journey at quarter less noon. The descent was steep, unending and painful. The thigh muscles underwent incessant torture. The only visual relief was a patch of beautiful rhododendron forest that we passed through. With rhododendron flowers in various shades of pink, rose and white, it was a beautiful sight.

After hours of climb down, we finally reached a metal bridge that sat across a river. Our ears were desperate to hear this river’s sound as we made the painful journey back. A short break there gave an opportunity to fill some water and chill out.

We resumed the journey with a climb up to Wan village. Wan is situated on the top of a hill and there was a cell phone tower located right there. Welcome back to civilization!

Another long (and painful) descent ensued. We saw a Parvati temple on the way. It had a large bell near its compound wall. This was rung. Close by were two very tall and extremely wide deodar trees. There was more descent and finally we emerged out of a line amid the village’s tightly packed houses to reach a motorable road. Our jeeps were packed there and they would take us back to Loharjung.

The modest Patwal’s motel at Loharjung offered hot water which meant a proper bath after a week! Since dinner would take more time as usual, we went to a nearby shack and ordered something to keep the belly pangs at bay. Dinner was accompanied by some celebration and closure ceremony to cap what was yet another memorable trek.

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