Thursday, February 19, 2015

Roopkund - A journey beyond imagination

Not all those who wander are lost – J.R.R. Tolkein

As we walk over the lush meadows of Ali Bugyal (refer picture above) with no sight of the trail, my mind wanders to many places, thoughts, emotions and moments.  

I feel lost in the vastness of the hills.  But as I look back now on those days spent trekking in the Himalayas, I am filled with a sense of fulfilment and heady content.

As we drove from Kathgodam railway station to Loharjung (our base camp) through the winding roads, with tall coniferous trees lining the mountain slopes, I had no idea that the trek to Roopkund Lake, beyond remotest villages of Chamoli district in Garhwal region of Uttarakhand, would be so physically and emotionally trying; yet the memories I made there would linger so fondly.

Roopkund is touted as one of the most scenic Himalayan treks.  Many trekkers, including me, are taken by the magic and sheer beauty of the trek route.  It is essentially a high-altitude trek (15,696 ft above sea level! Yes, you read it right!) and the lake at the summit remains frozen for most part of the year.  During monsoon, while trekking season ends, pilgrims dressed in traditional attire throng the trails for the annual pilgrimage called Raj Jat Yatra to worship goddess Nanda devi. 

This was my first brush with trekking in the Himalayas, and what better destination than the mystery lake of Roopkund which has a timeless folklore to boast about (Mystery of several human (apparently pilgrims) and animal skeletons which were found in and around the Lake several thousand years ago)!     

A brief about our trail

Where in the world id roopkund?  Look at the map below!

We did the trek with TTH or Trek the himalayas ( and the decision was right!

Day 0 :- Kathgodam to Loharjung – no trek
Day 1 :- Lohargunj to Didna Village
Day 2 :- Didna Village to Ali Bugyal
Day 3 :- Ali Bugyal to Ghora Lotani
Day 4 :- Ghora Lotani to Bhagwabasa
Day 5 :- Bhagwabasa to Roopkund to Bedni Bugyal
Day 6 :- Bedni Bugyal to Lohajung
Day 7 :- Loharjung to Kathgodam – no trek    

Mesmerised by the changing landscape

The 6-day trek to Roopkund is a feast for the eyes and a photographer’s dream.  The landscape here changes swiftly.

The first day of the trek comprised of a 3-km descent, followed by a 2 km ascend from Loharjung base camp to Didna village.  We enjoyed the trek through dense coniferous forests; the sunlight playing hide-n-seek with the leaves, tiny village houses, locals going about their daily chores and criss-crossing streams.  The ascend in the second half of the trek is steep and the scorching sun slowed us down, but the sight of Jowar fields marked the end of first day’s 3.5 to 4 hours trek.  

We were welcomed at Didna village with rhododendron juice (red colour flowers growing abundantly in this region) and we settled in comfortably, playing cards, sipping hot soup and chit-chatting in the cozy village house.

The second day was a test of willpower and a true show-case of change in landscape.  The initial ascend was through thick forests, then a walk through thicker forest with dry brown leaves covering the trail, untouched by sun-light.  

There was just one sparse stream after which we ascended into a grassy clearing covered with tiny yellow flowers.  Thereafter we walked through rhododendron trees and came upon miles of wondrous bugyals i.e. pastures.  

Our camp at Ali Bugyal was round the corner from the bugyals, in a valley that overlooked snow-clad Himalayan peaks (Trishul, Nandaghunti and Chaukhamba).  In spite of the reassurance, the sky was unusually cloudy and rains could be expected anytime.  And indeed, shortly after we had settled into our tents, it began to rain accompanied by a bit of hailstorm.  

Briefly afterwards, the sun peaked out again and we saw an incredibly large rainbow, unlike any that we had witnessed before!

In just two nights, I was getting used to watching black canvas of sky studded by a million stars –a first for city dweller’s eyes and a treat for the star-gazers.  Conversations under the brilliant sky seemed to come so naturally to us.  Also I realised, that just within two days of trekking, we were blessed by sights of ever changing landscape through the trail.  The feeling only heightened by the fact that this was just the beginning! 

Being guided by a dog

On a related yet so not related note, I love pets – esp dogs.  They are an epitome of innocence and loyalty.  What better example than ‘Pinky’, a golden brown hill dog who loyally trekked with us from Loharjung to Ali Bugyal, like a guide and a loyal friend.  

As the night dawned at Ali Bugyal, we did not see Pinky around us anymore and knew we’d miss her company on the third day’s trek. Perhaps other trekkers needed her company too!

Looking in awe at our next target from Ghora Lotani

On the third day, we trekked through zig-zagging route crossing Bedni Bugyal, a mini glacier/ bit of snow patch and then on a rocky path intermittently sprinkled with yellow, purple and pink flowers to Ghora Lotani, our next base camp.  The air had considerably thinned down, the vegetation became sparse and the view even more marvellous! 

We sat on the clearing between our tents, sipping on piping hot tea and crunchy fryams and looked high above towards the steep criss-crossing path through the snow clad-mountains – our trek route for tomorrow! Then we settled into our tents and prayed that the howling gusts of wind do not blow us off the valley (especially, as I was staying alone in the tent this time!) and that we survived the third day’s arduous trek route.

Awesome trek leader, support staff and fellow trekkers

Uphill tasks (literally and figuratively) –made me remember the song ‘Ain’t no mountain high enough’.  The next day’s trek was going to be intense, especially since we were to gain immense altitude in that one day, and it was reassuring to be surrounded by:

  • A humble trek leader, Sanjeev bhaiya – Short in height, but tall in stature (for the sheer respect he commanded from all of us).  His ever smiling face and his patience was what brought us together as a group.  He never let any trekker feel left out and ensured safety and well-being of each trek member.  Even today his patent song, ‘Tune maari entriyaan’ (in Garhwali accent!) rings in my ears and brings a smile to my face. 
  • Local guides (who would typically be the front and back lead) ensured that the entire team reached each base camp safely.
  •  Support staff at each campsite – Every camp we reached, we were treated like royalty – tents laid out, sleeping bags ready, food served on time.  Kudos to the support staff who made it happen.

  •  Awesome fellow trekkers -  Photos are proof enough of all the fun we had.  Yes, it’s the fellow trekkers who ensured the smiles that you see in the photos!  I had the added benefit of going here with close friends and hence came back with lots of memories. 
An emotional and spiritual high at Kalu Vinayak

Considering that we were to reach snow camp today, we wore extra layers of warm-clothing in anticipation as we began ascending towards Bhagwabasa from Ghora Lotani over a windy ridge.  The landscape initially was brown/ rocky; our eyes thirsting for sight of vegetation and as we looked down, all we could see was steep deadly slopes.  We were egged on by trekkers descending from Roopkund summit and a short walk after crossing a small glacier brought us to Kalu Vinayak temple. 

One of our local guides blew a shell (shankh), a tradition followed by every trek group which reaches Kalu Vinayak, as the entire trek group completed this leg of the trek.  The blowing of shankh, the ring of temple bells, traditional Marathi prayers (aarti) by another trek group, the views of brown mountains on the valley on the left side and the endless blanket of snow on the right side of the Valley was an emotional and spiritual high.  Even though I am not religious, Kalu Vinayak over-whelmed me.         

Miles and miles of snow

Our 2-kms trek from Kalu Vinayak to Bhagwabasa base camp was entirely on snow.  We could see miles and miles of snow, cut only by the narrow trek trail.  Ahead of us lay the tall peaks and a depression between the peaks – Yes, the eerie Roopkund Lake!

We trudged slowly through the snow, using our walking poles for balance and containing our excitement of camping on snow.  Almost all of us walked on someone else’s footprint only to find our leg, sunk deep in the snow, followed by peals of laughter. 

The far-off specks of blue and yellow – our tents amidst snow – became more real and normal in proportions as we battled the melting snow and finally made it to the campsite.  

After a sumptuous lunch, several rounds of card games, hot-chai and hot tasty samosas (yes, at this altitude!  Enough, stop salivating now), it was time to buckle up and concentrate on lessons of walking on snow – our saviour for the summit! 

Summiting the Skeleton lake!       

As was the norm, we never took an afternoon nap – definitely not at our last campsite before summit as it was essential to acclimatize our body.  Just before the sun set on our campsite at Bhagwabasa, our entire trek group marched to a footing higher on the snow with gaiters (to stop the snow from entering our shoes) on our shoe and pants and crampons (spikes for shoes to maintain grip on snow) in our hands.  Our trek leader demonstrated techniques to walk on snow, with and without crampons.  Luckily no one fell while practising and we also discovered that its highly unlikely to slip on snow with crampons – a much needed relief! 

We were sweaty (yes, even in sub-zero temperature!) after our practise session and pumped up as the sun set behind the snow clad peaks.  After an early dinner, we retired to our tents in anticipation of the big day.

Next morning our camp was abuzz at 3:00 am (No, it’s not a typo!).  We struggled out of our sleeping bags, got dressed in layers of clothes and equipment (gaiters and crampons) and eventually started our trek 45 minutes behind schedule.  Our trek leader was worried we might not descent before the snow starts to melt because the harder the snow, easier and safer it is to walk on it; besides as the sun starts to shine, snow reflects this bright sunlight and harmful UV rays which may even lead to snow blindness! 

All 18 of us walked in a straight line as the moonlight reflected on the snow around us.  After an hour’s walk, the trail disappeared and ascend got steeper (nearly 60-70 degree incline in parts!).  We kept chugging on, breathing heavily and following the trekker in front of us.  As the climb got intense, some people got left behind.  And just when I was above to give up after nearly a 4 hour intense trek – Lo, Behold! I had summited! 

All 15,696 ft above sea level seemed to celebrate my feat! 

Roopkund Lake was nearly frozen as was everything else around us.  Everywhere we looked we saw snow, save for the sight of our basecamp at Bhagwabasa which was far, far away.  

As we celebrated by clicking pictures (selfies included!) with the banner of our trekking group ‘Trek the Himalayas’, we were in for a surprise – hot porridge for breakfast and celebrating B’day of a very special friend with Godiva dark chocolate.  How blessed I felt to be living that moment.   

As an afterthought, while the exhilaration of summiting refused to die, I experienced an ironical realization - Roopkund summit is a mere tick-mark and the journey was what made the entire experience so magical. 

And we all fall slide down!

The high of summit had barely sunk in, but the moment I began descend a fear gripped me.  While others seemed to descend swiftly, my legs refused to move.  I was too afraid to slip and/ or die of hypothermia, if not by breaking a bone by falling to the depths of the endless valley towards our right! The quickly melting snow did not help my cause.  However, I was more than grateful when the trek leader/ local guide held my hand while descending - a rather speedy descend! 

Fear aside, descend to Bhagwabasa was uneventful, save for the snow slide!  I suppose this is a tradition followed by every trek group – each team member slides down the snow slopes to celebrate the summit. What fun the snow-slide was; I forgot my fear and fuelled the child in me who (secretly) still loves slides.  It also made me reminisce days spent skiing in Solang valley.  Unadulterated joy! 

Roopkund wali Maggi

In spite of living a (sort-of) frugal life through the course of the trek, anticipation of a junk food got the better of us.  The support staff at our base camp was kind enough to prepare Maggi for lunch after our successful summit.  Trust me, I am quite a fan of Maggi, but Roopkund wali Maggi tasted even better!

Warmth of Garhwali people              

Over the next two days we descended several kms – with a night halt at Pathar Nachunia and ultimately to Wan village. 

Unlike our ascend we met several locals while descending.  We met a lady in traditional attire next to a shrine. While at first she refused photographs,later she was happy to oblige as a pretty fellow-trekker posed with her. 

Thereafter we sampled good hospitality as we had lunch (Maggie, anda pav and maaza!) prepared in a small eatery run by locals, next to a campsite of another trek group.  We spotted small girls, frantically searching for shrubs which have medicinal value on the mountain slopes.  We saw local women harvesting fields (jowar and potatoes) and women going about their daily chores.  However, the most delightful locals were the young kids, folding their hands to wish us ‘namaste’ and asking us for sweets.  

The redness of their cheeks and the twinkle in their eyes was remarkable; however, as instructed by our trek leader, we did not share sweets (toffees, mithais, chocolates) with them as they live in an unadulterated environment, unlike us – so why taint it for them!  

The warmth of the people made descend a memorable one, inspite of our knees giving into the stress of downward incline!  

As we descended, the landscapes kept whizzing past – in a rewind mode - the snow, the barren rocky hills, lush bugyals, tall coniferous trees, criss-crossing streams and the chaos of civilization as we spotted a road and motor vehicles!  While we squeaked in joy at the sight of a motor car and civilization (after days!), deep down inside I knew I’d miss being in nature’s lap. 

Take only photographs leave only footprints!

At the start of the trek each of us was given a waste bag to pick up waste we saw on the trail and/ or to store our waste until the next campsite.  By the time our trek ended, we were satisfied that we had done our part to conserve the Himalayas.

Yes – we did live by the motto of “take only photographs (heaps of them!) and leave only footprints!”  

Will I go for such an intense trek again?

Yes and No.  Yes – because one needs to live those trekking days to enjoy the untouched beauty the mountains offer.  No – because one needs a certain level of fitness to enjoy the trek and not just complete it for the heck of it.

So, next time I plan such a long and onerous trek, I’ll ensure I work on my fitness and choose my company wisely (just like this time around)!

Photos also by: Ankit Kochar, Rohit Gupta, Ashish Dikshit and Deepesh Panicker

Part 2: Roopkund trek in photos


Rishikesh said...

Hello Preeti,

The article looks pretty fresh one. Which month had you trekked to Roopkund?

We have planned to visit Roopkund this June. I have few queries -
1) Any Special tips to take care of?
2) Are gaiters, and crampons really required?

Rishikesh said...

Hello Preeti,

The article looks pretty fresh one. Which month had you trekked to Roopkund?

We have planned to visit Roopkund this June. I have few queries -
1) Any Special tips to take care of?
2) Are gaiters, and crampons really required?

Unknown said...

Hats off , loved it very much, kudos

Unknown said...

Amazing .... Speech less

Will surely do such trek soon

Preeti Datar said...

Hi Rishikesh,

I did Roopkund Trek from 1 to 8 June 2014, though I posted this pretty late.

Some tips;

1) Pack only essentials
2) Work on your fitness
3) Gaiters and crampons are required, but your trek group will provide it.

Thanks for stopping by my blog :)

Rajesh said...

Beautiful and scenic. This is a exciting trip.

eye in the sky said...

The photos are so gorgeous I was in awe. You're a talented photographer. :)

Soumyendu said...

Wonderful pictures Preeti, and a lively narrative that never flags!

Preeti Datar said...

Glad that you enjoy the post. Indeed it is exciting and I highly recommend this trek :)

Preeti Datar said...

Thank you for stopping by. I'm trying to improve my photography one click at a time!

I'm impressed with your travel list. And guess what, Phillipenes is high up on my diving bucket list!

Preeti Datar said...

Hi Soumyendu! You must do a Himalayan trek, if you already haven't :)

Preeti Datar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Preeti Datar said...

Hi Soumyendu! You must do a Himalayan trek, if you already haven't :)

Preeti Datar said...

Thank you for stopping by. I'm trying to improve my photography one click at a time!

I'm impressed with your travel list. And guess what, Phillipenes is high up on my diving bucket list!

R Niranjan Das said...

Wonderful post!

Preeti Datar said...

Thanks Niranjan :)


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