Roopkund 2016!

IMG_20160619_0756540_rewind.jpg

IMG_20160617_1044282_rewind The trek to Roopkund was on my bucket list ever since I read about it in my 2nd year of college. It is a 6 day trek in the Garhwali region of the Indian State of Uttrakhand. The trek is extensive, long and classified as a high altitude trek. But after extensive research and planning I finally set out on the journey, which took me through a myriad of experiences, landscapes and changing altitude.

The trip started on 13th June 2016 from Delhi by Ranikhet express (train) and joining me on the trek were were three other people I knew from different places. Abhinav Kaura-My friend from 11th grade. He is in the red Santa Cap in the picture (During the trek I came to know that women actually dig that. He did not go unnoticed at any base camp. Haha). Also, he flew all the way from Pune when he heard of my plans of going for the trek on Instagram. Pauline-My friend who came to India from France for a 6 month internship and was introduced to me by a mutual friend. Incidentally, I also met that friend on a previous trek. Lastly, Priyanshu-my classmate in electrical engineering at Delhi Technological University (My college).

So, we boarded the train from Old Delhi Railway Station and reached Kathgodam early in the morning. As soon as we got off at Kathgodam, we began our search for a taxi to take us to the base of the trek. We tried booking for one the night before we boarded the train, but had no luck at finding one. At the station we met a taxi driver who agreed to drop us at rs. 7000 to Lohajung, which is the start point of the trek.

Upon our arrival at Lohajung, there was only one lodge available where we could find reservations. It was called "Trek The Himalayas". Our driver negotiated the price in Garhwali (the local language of the region) for our stay and the owner agreed to rent us a room at rs. 400 for the night. The room was spacious and had 4 single beds. Voila! The hotel provided us with meat for dinner. The last bit of meat I was going to eat in a long time to come.

Day 1:

We woke up at 6:00 am and ate breakfast at the lodge. We had to wait for an impending visit of a man from the forest department to obtain trek permission and pay maintenance fee. The forest department was intimated of our visit by the lodge owner himself. We had to pay the forest department a fee of rs. 3000. The permission looked something like this

IMG_20160618_1621136_rewind

IMG_3803

Mr. Daulat (our porter and mule owner) arrived shortly and negotiated his fee. He agreed to let us rent the mule at rs. 500 for 6 days and his food during the course of the trek. Gopi, our guide for the trek was a 16 year old lad from the lodge and charged rs. 800/day to come with us. We agreed and started walking towards Lohajung market. The last formality was renting a tent for Gopi and Daulat bhaiya, which was available at the market.

IMG_3747

The start of the Trek from Lohajung was relatively easy. With the path inclining down at most places. At others it was inclining up and down and winding and curving along the mountain side. We descended the mountain at a river and crossed a metal bridge.

 

IMG_3753

From here on wards we began our ascend for Didina (the first camp on our way). Didina is considered to be at nearly the same height as that of Lohajung which is 7700 ft. approximately. But to reach Didina we have to climb a different mountain. At most times while descending from Lohajung, Didina was in fact visible in clear sight ahead of us.

IMG_20160615_1013138_rewind

The ascend towards Didina went through a forest with a muddy path. I could see huge trees and a thick undergrowth on both sides of the path on the ground. On some occasions we spotted brooks, on others, tree trunks fallen on our path. The path kept winding up a steep incline and for the uninitiated would be quite exhausting.  We reached a few bridges and clearings too. Two extremely memorable stops in between were:

Firstly, we found a clearing with a meadow like semblance and two dozen goats and sheep grazing and basking under the sun. A few kids were scurrying all over the place and playing with each other. The image is still etched in my mind.

IMG_20160615_1005214_rewind

 

IMG_20160615_1008299_rewind

Secondly, a stop where we found a lot of marijuana leaves growing (Not fit for consumption though, we just kept marveling at the fact that we saw them at all), a few farms, a beautiful village house and a village woman sitting by the curb of the house selling rhododendron juice. I tasted some of the juice and it was surprisingly good. We bought a little juice and moved along the way.

IMG_20160615_1038339_rewind

Weather at Didina!

Just as we were about the reach Didina, it started pouring heavily. We got into our ponchos and paced towards the nearest shelter in the village in clear sight. We stopped at a portly village woman's house who cooked fresh hot lunch for us.

The village of Didina just had a few rest houses, goat shelters, mountain dogs and houses. The entire village had a very rustic and simple appearance. Apart from the buildings, there were terrace farms and  kitchen gardens near every house.

I later came to know, that all the buildings were built by the residents of the village of Didina themselves. Our plan for day 1 was to go further to Ali Bughyal, the second camp after Didina.

The beautiful Village of Didina after the weather cleared out

Terrace gardens at Didina

God's rays!

We had reached Didina by 1:30 pm and waited for the rain to subside while we ate lunch. Gopi informed that we may not be able to continue our trek for the day judging by looking at the weather conditions. The rain made it impossible to go any further. After the weather cleared out in the evening, the first thing I noticed was the pristine beauty of my surroundings. We spent the rest of our time walking around Didina, visiting the terrace farms, walking into the woods and finding a magical looking waterfall. We pitched our tents in the porch of the house where the lady had cooked for us and slept after playing a few rounds of UNO.

Our tents at Didina

Day 2:

IMG-20160626-WA0018

We started for the next base camp at 7:00 am the next morning. The weather looked clear and we were spirited enough to be willing to go all the way to Pathar Nachauni, the base camp beyond Ali Bughyal. The way leading to Ali Bughyal had a steep ascent throughout the way and we kept walking amidst a haunted looking forest. The path remained rocky and muddy. We crossed a place called Tol Pani, a small village on the way. We refilled our bottles of water there. After ascending to a height of approximately 9000 ft. we had almost reached the top of the mountain we seemed to be climbing.

IMG-20160626-WA0029

The weather was misty and it felt like being  inside a cloud. The forest looked mystic and haunted even in the day. I could see silhouettes of trees from in between the cascade of mist. The trees had very less leaf cover, and every once in a while I could see a mule passing by.  The tree trunks had moss covering it. The fore ground had almost no foliage in this area for two reasons. The dead leaves that cover the ground make it impossible for it to grow and the sun barely reaches the ground. We were almost out of water by now, with no water source in the vicinity.

IMG-20160626-WA0022

The steep climb leading to Ali Bughyal

IMG_3813

IMG_20160616_1133088_rewind

IMG_20160616_1134405_rewind

After walking a little further, I realized we were leaving the tree cover and climbing above the tree line. The trees began to recede gradually. We could see green pastures all around us now. This place gave me a feeling of being in a place like heaven. I remember that I kept telling myself, "this is what heaven must feel like" after every few steps that I took. There was an unquestionable shroud of silence among us. None of us talked to each other a lot because of the exhaustion (the focus was on climbing mostly). The cloud cover was invariant. But every once in a while I could hear a mule whinnying in the distance and its bell chiming. A few herds of mules were walking languidly around us. The mysticism of the place was magnetic. Each of us was awed by the setting. By this time I also started experiencing a dull ache in my glutes and hamstrings.  Hunger pangs that I was feeling were inevitable too. We had walked for almost 8 km already. We walked for another 2 km in the green pastures and finally reached Ali Bughyal.

IMG_20160616_1139150_rewind

 

IMG_20160616_1204391_rewind

Upon arrival I was shocked to see that Ali Bughyal comprised of just two food eating shacks/tents and one stone small house for storage. We wore our ponchos by now to protect ourselves from the light drizzle that suddenly alighted. The difference in temperature here was palpable. The winds raging violently with the light showers grew colder.  There was no respite from the cold as the sun was hidden behind the cloud cover the entire time. We sat inside the shack and ordered egg maggi, masala chai and parathas for everybody. The first sight of hot cooked food felt like a blessing. I will not mention just how much I ate, but it will suffice to say that it was the largest portion of food I've ever consumed in the current span of my life!

IMG_20160616_1218489_rewind

The path leadin to Pathar Nachuni

We started from Ali Bughyal at 1:30 pm for Pathar Nachchuni. The path to pathar Nachauni was not exhausting in terms of the climb. The path had a uniform inclination of just 20 degrees at most. But I kept feeling exhausted initially because of the amount of food in my belly! It kept raining on and off and beneath my poncho, I could feel the wetness of the sleeves of my sweatshirt and the portion of my track pants below my knees. The road leading up to Pathar was atleast 8 km.

 

Dew laden grass

The cloud surrounding us was weighing us down. We kept walking in the wetness of the atmosphere. The earth was damp, the grass lining the path on either side had dew on it, our hair strands were moist, our clothes inside the poncho felt sodden too by the end. When we reached Pathar, the rain became ferocious. There was no sign of the rain retreating or subsiding. Pitching our own tents looked impossible. A few tents were pitched under a shed, the only dry place in Pathar. These were the old fashioned tarpaulin tents. We rented out those tents at the rate of rs. 400 for two 4 men tents. Under the shed we removed our wet ponchos and changed out of our wet clothes. We hung our wet clothes on ropes that held the tents in  place.

It soon turned dark and the cold mixed with wetness became unbearable.  We sat huddled inside our tents. I came out of the tent to inspect my clothes. I flashed my torch into the atmosphere and realized that it wasn't raining really. Water droplets seemed to be floating in a wild frenzy everywhere. The wetness hung suspended  in the atmosphere clutching on to the wind and creating havoc in Brownian motion like proportions (only a lot faster because the wind velocity was high). After some time, everything felt sodden. It took just a few minutes of standing in the open and my change of clothes were nearly wet too. I had to put my shoes in a poly bag to prevent them from getting wet on the inside. A man from "Eco Trekking" was kind enough to visit our tent and lend his kerosene burner. We warmed ourselves and dried some of our tiny pieces of clothes like scarves, gloves etc.

Gopi that night had to bring us hot food inside our tents. Gopi, the man from Eco trekking, Daulat bhaiya and the four of us sat in a tent eating our food and talking about local legends behind why the places are called what they are. I'll narrate them in a separate post. After they left, each of us got into our sleeping bags. I tried my best to sleep that night but the fore ground felt too rocky. The floor of the tent was wet and cold irrespective of the waterproofing.

The funniest part of the night was that I was awoken by something out of my deep reverie(since sleep wouldn't come). I was sleeping the closest to the flap of the tent. At around 1 am, I felt like something forced its way into our tent. It felt like somebody kicked me a few times on my back. I started shouting and calling out "who is it?" A very groggy and sleepy Abhinav on the other end of the tent woke up and flashed his torch light. Turned out that, that "something" was a huge furry mountain dog. Wet himself from the rain and possibly seeking shelter. So sleep that night was erratic. It finally stopped raining at 3 am.

Day 3:

IMG_3835

I woke up the next morning at 6 am. The sight outside the tent was awe-striking. The weather had cleared out. The sun was shining to its fullest glory, I finally felt a little warm standing outside. But the best part was, that the cloud that clouded our vision the evening before was gone! The green gorge and mountains that stood in front of me were the most beautiful sight of the day.

IMG_3828

I could see tiny tents in the camp site far below. The sudden change of weather actually made me release a sigh of relief. I called out to the other guys. We all stood admiring the view for a while and then quickly put out our clothes to dry. By the time breakfast ended and our clothes dried out, it was 9:00 am and we packed up and started for Bhagua Basa, the last base camp before Roopkund.

Way towards Bhagua Base from Pathar Nachauni

Bhagua Basa base camp

Bhagua Basa stands at 15000 ft. and is just 3 km from Pathar Nachauni and Roopkund on either sides. The way to Bhagua Basa was again a winding incline along the mountain. The distance on a plain road would normally take 45 minutes to cover at most.

 

At Kalu Vinayak Mandir

But for us it took nearly 3 hours to reach. The path inclines entirely upwards till Kalu Vinayak Mandir. After the temple, the path declines. The first sign of Bhagua Basa is a stone cave where the lion of Goddess Durga apparently rested when she went to Kailash. We took a few photos in front of the cave.

Our tent at Bhagua Basa

IMG_20160617_1749498_rewind

We reached Bhagua Basa at 12 pm and for the rest of the day had to camp there. Although Roopkund is barely 3 km from here. It is highly recommended by seasoned trekkers and guides that the ascend for Roopkund should only be started at 3-4 am to avoid bad weather conditions and for purposes of acclimatization. For the first few hours we had lunch at a chai shack and rested inside our tents. It was cold initially and we all snuggled inside our sleeping bags.

Sunset at Bhagua Basa base camp

But the sun kept making guest appearances every once in a while. At one point I was inside my tent and heard somebody shout "Oh look! A rainbow". That made me get out of my sleeping bag faster that the speed of sound! The weather kept changing drastically in a matter of minutes. One minute it was bright and sunny and in another we could witness the clouds rising.

IMG_20160617_1409573_rewind

The terrain of Bhagua Basa had no grass. Our mule and his owner, Daulat bhaiya had to return to Pathar after lunch. Bhagua had huge boulders of rocks all over the place. Finding a place to pitch a tent was difficult enough, but walking was even more difficult.

Hindustan ki aakhri chai ki dukan!

I had to walk with my fullest attention so I didn't injure my ankles or fall on my face. At night time, we retreated to our tents. it was so cold at night that five layers of clothing and my sleeping bag combined couldn't comfort me. By this time, Priyanshu developed pain in an old injury on his knee. He told us that he may not be able to climb the next day. At the same time, Pauline started feeling queasy. Abhinav took Pauline to the medical staff officer of "India Hikes".

View from Bhagua Basa on a clear evening

He analyzed her blood sample and proclaimed that her blood oxygen levels were low. Although we were all taking Diamox (a medicine to prevent AMS), the medical staff officer advised that she drink atleast 2 L of water. We immediately bought water and she tried her best to consume it. We had to begin our ascend at 3 am. The most difficult part of the night for me personally was getting out of my sleeping bag and finding a spot to pee. It was just so extremely cold. I spent the rest of the night shivering in my sleeping bag and sleeping for short intervals.

Day 4:

The moon from base camp

The next morning I and Abhinav woke up at 2:30 am.  Pauline confirmed that she may not be able to climb further because of her AMS symptoms. Priyanshu also confirmed that he wont climb. It was just the two of us left by this time. We went to our shack to eat something. I ate an aloo paratha. Carbohydrates are helpful for climbing I've learnt. We took our torches, got dressed in the maximum number of layers (layering of clothes helps with the cold!) and were ready to begin. We left our luggage at the camp. By the time we started it was 3:45 am. It was absolutely dark. I could see a few constellations in the night sky. We were walking with the help of our torches. This for me was probably the best part of the trek.

IMG_20160618_0511453_rewind

The excitement to reach Roopkund was real. I couldn't believe I was on the last leg of the climb. I was so excited, I couldn't feel my limbs. I did not feel exhaustion at the time at all. Every once in a while I and Abhinav drank our fill of water to stay hydrated. But we barely rested. We did not stop for more than 5 seconds anywhere. One step in front of the other, we kept going. Far ahead in the distance we could see flashes of light of a group that left at 3:00 am and far below the mountain we could see flashes of light of a group which started at 4:00 am. The sun began to rise at 5:00 am and dawn broke. By now we were crossing patches of snow. The morning light was lending a surreal sheen to the snow covered mountains. The visibility grew progressively. We did not need our torches anymore.

 

IMG_20160618_0442360_rewind

IMG_20160618_0823275_rewind

IMG_20160618_0551254_rewind

We crossed a mark that read "1 km-Roopkund". This made my adrenaline levels sky rocket. The sign was so overwhelming, I felt even more motivated to keep going. By the time 500 m were left, our little group caught up with the group that was ahead of us. The last part of the trek was extremely narrow and only one person could stand on the path at one time. We lined up behind the group and climbed one step at a time. After those 500 m, we finally reached the top at 6:00 am! The first thing that struck me after getting there was; that I finally made it! It felt like an achievement, conceptualizing a notion and then fulfilling it! There is something  about being on top of a mountain that resonates with my heart and soul. I like the idea of being on top (figuratively), I'm extremely competitive and I keep working hard in my ordinary life to achieve the idea of perfection. But those, they trap me in their shackles and make me anxious about life in general. But being on mountains, is more gratifying than that. The idea of perfection consumes us. It is the idea of embracing fears, that should keep us going-They are only paper tigers after all. No?

IMG_20160618_0719588_rewind

The lake of skeletons!

The top was covered in snow at some places. But most part could be traversed without crossing snow. Roopkund is famous for the lake of Skeletons, which preserves the mortal remains of travelers from 9th century that got buried at the spot. We saw the frozen lake and human remains. It made the end of my hair rise on the back of my neck. It was spooky gazing at the flesh of humans that were once alive and now lay encumbered by mother nature. The view from the top was breathtaking.

IMG_20160618_0634036_rewind

After all of this, Abhinav, Gopi and I, ate aloo parathas that we packed and brought with us looking at the view and reflecting on our lives. I was extremely overwhelmed by the whole experience. We started descending Roopkund by 8:00 am. The way down made me feel dizzy with emotions(not AMS!) I was happy and awaiting my return start a different kind of life (of employment, college was over at last)

 

Aloo Parathas at 16,000 ft

At Bhagua Basa, we got reunited with Pauline and Priyanshu, packed our luggage, waited for Daulat bhaiya to load our mule and ate breakfast.

The village kids that I befriended

We started our descend towards Pathar first. On the way down to Pathar, I found a group of young kinds climbing down in front of me. I befriended them and started walking with them. The kids asked me if I wanted to take a shortcut and I agreed. What followed was one of the most fun parts of the descend for me.We took a shortcut which was basically a diversion from the winding path. This path went straight down and connected to the winding path after a while. The kids were extremely agile and sure-footed. With them I became a little less cautious about my steps too. After  a point we were all running down the hill and descending the hill at a maniacal speed. I remember laughing so much and feeling like a mountain goat while doing that. The shortcut was a lot longer than I had anticipated. The kids kept chatting with me and asking me questions about me in the meantime. They were so unassuming, friendly and warm. I felt at ease while talking to them. When we finally reached the winding path, I first met Daulat bhaiya.

 

Way back donw!

We waited for the rest of the party. When they arrived it just took a little while for Pauline to fall in love with the kids too. We bought chocolates for them at Pathar and drank masala chai. We bid adieu to the kids and started further for our last camp at Bedni Bughyal. After Pathar, the way to Bedni felt like a never ending road, albeit beautiful.  I felt exhausted, sleepy, sore and numb, all at the same time. Just short of reaching Bedni, I found myself a grassy patch and lay down on it for a while. a slight patter of rain made me shrink my nose and I realized for the first time in days just how bright the sky was without clouds.

IMG_20160619_0757450_rewind

But the rest made me realize how tired my muscles were too. I dragged myself to the shack in Bedni, near which we were going to camp. Pauline and Abhinav had already reached there before me. I ate to my heart's content there. Chips, aerated drinks, paratha, maggi and there was no limit. At 6:30 pm, I and Pauline entered our tent. I to rest for a bit, Pauline to write her diary and to listen to some music. We never realized when we fell asleep or who slept first. The boys spent the rest of their evening playing UNO with Gopi and Daulat bhaiya. They tried waking us up for dinner, but there was no way I was going to break my slumber and neither did Pauline.

 

IMG_20160619_0804495_rewind

Day 5:

I woke up at 5:00 am. Bedni in the morning was the most picturesque place I had ever seen. I remember telling myself that this place could put Swiss Alps to shame. The sky was bright and blue with soft puffs of clouds on it. The landscape was green from horizon to horizon.

IMG_20160619_0759038_rewind

Solar power charged speakers

The sun was shining down on us (which also lent me its infamous sun burn!). The feeling of existing was beyond what words can describe. I was happy to be alive, to witness the place and to soak in the goodness. The place felt different, smelled different and appeared different in every way. I forgot that civilization existed in cities. A certain city of my otherwise humble abode did not seem appealing anymore.

I saw a hundred mules grazing  , in every direction that

I looked. An occasional goat heard crossed us swinging his staff. The bells that hung around the necks of domesticated animals were audible. The owner of the shack turned on music on his solar charged speakers. Peppy Garhwali numbers kept playing for the rest of the morning. I was aghast upon hearing the occasional hindi music. It reminded me of a place I had forgotten all about.

Do I need to say anymore?

We had decided to start our descend to Wan(from where we were going to hire a taxi to Kathgodam) at 7:00 am. But our mule Guddu, was untraceable. Daulat bhaiya left us after breakfast in search for him. By the time Guddu was found and loaded, it was 9:00 pm.

The first sight of trees on the way down

We immediately began the descend. Now this was the second most fun part. The routes were extremely muddy and at times the mud was as deep as the ankle. Abhinav, Pauline and I, started taking shortcuts instead of following the muddy path. The shortcuts meant cutting across one twist on the path and going down the slope instead. Sometimes it meant cutting aross several twists. The shortcuts were no less slippery.

Temple bells

But it saved us the hassle of going round and round on the designated path(also saved us from copious amounts of mud!). By now we had entered the tree cover. Each of us devised our own strategies for saving ourselves from slipping. Abhinav skated down the slope, I ran down and hugged trees like my life depended on it and Pauline stepped on the edge of her shoe for added grip. The only line of communication we had with each other on our way up was limited to:

"wet wipes please"

"stop"

"water"

"food"

But that changed drastically on the way down. We were laughing, making jokes on each other, taunting one another and competing on the criteria of who slips the least. Abhinav, the mountain goat, won the competition eventually. The way to Wan was atleast 12 km. But the way did not feel so long after all.

Extremely old Trees at Wan, and Abhinav for comparison!

We reached Wan by 1:30 pm. Caught a taxi which dropped us at Kathgodam at 11:00 pm. I and Pauline were fortunate enough to find a Bluestar AC bus there. By this time I had access to the internet and realized I was supposed to report to my new job in the morning at 10:30! The boys came the next day by train. The bus dropped us at ISBT Vaishali at 6:30 am.

I reached home at 8:00 am and left for work in just the  nick of time!

Some important useful information:

Taxi Operator: Himanshu Uttrakhand Taxi: +91 81261 10800

Daulat Bhaiya: +91 89370 29452

Cost of lodging+food at each base camp (total group expense):

Lohajung (meat+dinner+breakfast+room): rs. 1500

Didina (lunch+dinner+breakfast+unlimited tea): rs. 2300

Ali Bughyal (lunch+tea): rs. 700

Pathar Nachuni (dinner+tents+breakfast+unlimited tea): rs. 2400

Bhagua Basa (lunch+dinner+packaged water+breakfast+packed breakfast+unlimited chai): rs. 3300

Bedni Bughyal (lunch+dinner+breakfast+tea): rs. 1900