I have always been fascinated with mountains; its grandeur, mightiness and its strength. It reminds me of how insignificant I stand, in its outreaching and intimidating vastness. Having done a few day-treks and hikes, I was thrilled to finally go on my very first mountain trek to Roopkund, set in the beautiful region of Garhwal in the state of Uttarakhand. The trek was my chosen birthday gift to self, joined by four of my closest friends, who had graciously agreed to bear the harsh with me.
After several excited visits to Decathlon, our bags were set and we boarded the Ranikhet Express. We reached Kathgodam at 7:30 AM. At the train station, several unfamiliar faces, lugging backpacks, gathered at the periphery of the station, forming the trekkers’ cult. A roll call was taken by one of the group members, marking the beginning of a journey, where these unfamiliar strangers were to become our homies for the days to come.
Day One: Kathgodam to Lohajung, At 7,662 ft.
Our rickety car, the only kinds that can sustain the even more rickety road, set foot in the hills, for a ten-hour long journey, crossing and turning on winding lanes, in a breeze that danced to the aroma of freshness. After several pit stops, hogging on paranthas, kali rajama daal, Moti Roti and surprisingly swadisht kaddu ki sabzi, we reached the ‘Trek the Himalayas’ guesthouse at Lohajung. The temperature had already dipped low and our jackets and windcheaters were pulled out from the interiors of the pack.
As the team arrived in, our very robust Trek Leader, Thakur ji (as the name speaks for itself), took us through the Dos and Don’ts of the Trek, turning into a strict disciplinarian, setting out the time schedule and of course laying the bait of penalty for rule–breakers. Equally nervous and excited, we prepared our mule bags for the trek and set to sleep.
Day Two: Lohajung to Didna Village, From 7,662 ft. to 8,045 ft.
As the usual route between Lohajung and Didna was covered in leech, we took the alternate concrete route, moving between waterfalls and colorful pastures, which, although pretty, extended the hiking route to about 16 Kms. After the tedious climb and descent, we finally reached our camp for the night at Didna Village. I was a little disappointed, as our abode was actually a permanent structure and not a proper campsite. Little did I know the value of cots and cushion, back then! Our panting, huffing and puffing was rewarded with some fresh Rhododendron juice. We attacked the meal like hungry wolves and tore into the food! In the evening that followed, we went for our first acclimatization walk. We were told that if we wished to have a bonfire, then we should fetch some wood for it. Unwillingly, we dragged our bodies to the top of a hillock, bringing with us, as many logs of wood, as were qualified to char into fire.
The daily food routine of soup and then the meal of the day was served. After a soulful meal, a game of Mafia was moderated by Nikhil, wherein teams were divided by the play of cards, with devilish mafias murdering innocent, the doctor turning to be the least selfless, with couples turning to kill their spouse and the quietest of the lot turning to be the imp. The banter soon tuned from shades of being accusatory to protective to suspectful. We were reminded by Thakur ji, about the logs of wood collected through our toll, and we proceeded to heap them onto a pyre. Bonfire and Antakshari is like flames and fire. Over the next hour, the group filled the quiet of the valley with soulful songs. As the blaze burnt to ashes, so did our energy levels and we retired to our beds (for real).
Day Three: Didna Village to Ali Bugyal, From 8,045 ft. to 11,320 ft.
We trotted along the steep hill, our labour remunerated with mesmerizing views, through the lush oak meadows. As we escalated higher, the air became thinner and the load on the back felt heavier. Despite being away from the hustle-bustle, my competitive edge had not given way, and I was still trying to be the forerunner amidst the climbers (not succeeding entirely but still pushing through!). My realisation of being in this silly mad rush, put me to shame, and I decided to pace down and live in the moment.
After a three and a half hour precipitous climb, we finally reached the top of a hill to our mid-lunch point. There were flocks of sheep grazing the green and dancing in the clouds, which floated at our feet. The layers of mountain, overlapping one over the other, made the perfect silhouette.
Our happiness knew no bounds, and the exhaustion gave way, when we discovered that this isolated dot on the planet, was serving omelettes, masala chai and Maggi!!! We ate like famished animals, ordering everything off the menu. As this area had no tree line, the wind had become biting cold, and the masala chai and the garama garam food came as a welcome escape. After lugging our stomach with more food than we could digest (a problem we realised the next morning), food coma hit us and we all succumbed to the grass, relaxing in the game of shade and shine!
Our Trek leader blew the whistle soon, and we, once again, set out, to reach our camp site. As we chose our respective tents and warmed up beneath its shelter, a rain storm followed by hail, hit us. Within minutes, the brown sheet was covered in white and the temperature hit low. The night that followed was nothing short of an escapade. Our tents were attacked by a flock of sheep, and then dogs that were trying to chase the sheep away (and were doing a terrible job at it!). The sheep, upset with the breach of their territory, showered upon our tents, all the dump that they could produce, turning our night lurid. To add salt to the burn, our tents were camped on a slide, as a result of which, our sleeping bags kept descending all night! Phew, what a night!!
Day Four: Ali Bugyal via Bedni Bugyal to Ghora Lotani, From 11,320 ft. to 12,818 ft.
Packing our exhausted bodies up, we started for one of the most scenic routes on the trip. We crossed Bedni Bugyal, which was a beautiful hill locked valley with a beautiful pond at its core. The shades of green and blue, through layers of peppered rocks, were mesmerizing. As we progressed, we saw tiny freckles of snow floating in the air, which then turned into a snow storm. This was my first experience of witnessing a snow fall which is beyond words! We happily rolled snow balls and aimed at our closest target, collecting flakes on our palm, eating it and completely misjudging the temperature that had dipped, as we spiraled up. Our camp site at Ghora Lotani was beautiful and as the sun waved us bye, the sky turned sapphire.
The advantage of this camp site was the availability of a 24 hour store, with ration of chocolate, coffee and maggi. Life becomes so simple up in the mountains. You get a chocolate, you can breathe, you have a decent place to relieve yourself, and your sleeping bag rest on a flat surface- WOW! Victory!
My debauchery with snow had cost me heavy and left me with Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) (in hindsight, still worth it!) and I crashed early, hoping to revive the next day.
Day Five: Ghora Lotani via Patar Nachauni to Bhagwasa, 12,818 ft. to 14,117 ft.
This was the day for the battle of the wits, where our restless bodies, with the lack of sleep, and most importantly, the lack of oxygen were making us want to track our steps backward. However, the only thought at that point was to put one foot ahead of the other and keep going. Our first halt was at Patar Nachauni. As per our Trek leader, the place derived its name from a local folklore, as per which, the gods, angered by the licentiousness of a king, who had misbehaved by bringing seductive dancers in the land of the gods, ordered the king to be thrown into the Patal Lok (Inferno) for his misdeeds. Hence, the name! Not wanting to be part of any such misfortune, we quickly yielded forward.
The very steep, zig zag path, which was, although, only about 4 kms, seemed like a lifetime away to complete. As we were climbing close to our stop at Kalu Vinayak, we heard a beautiful sound from the shankhanada (conch sound), which echoed in the valley, as if, a proclamation of conquest, a celebration of endurance or just a salute to the mighty Himalayan ranges. Kalu Vinayak, located at around 14000 ft. houses a beautiful temple of Lord Ganesha. This area screams of freshness, peace, serenity and is an epitome of natural beauty. From here, one can see Mt. Trishul, the Nandaghanti range and our very final destination- Roopkund. I have never regretted not having enough battery back-up for my phone as then. A small Chai ki chowki also sits at Kalu Vinayak. Astounded by what lay before us, we grabbed hot tea with bun maska, which was not only a luxury, but also a necessity, in the brutal winds that engulfed us.
Walking the uneven, rocky and snow patched route, we finally made it to our final camp at Bhagwasa. This place was locked with mighty walls on all three sides, as if made of thighs of granite and thew of steel. Within an hour of us settling in our camps, there was a massive snow-storm, which left no patch uncovered without snow and a mist engulfed the area, making visibility scarce. The temperature had dropped to minus levels. It looked like a spooky scene from a horror movie. At our orientation in the evening, we were told to get as much rest as was possible as we were going to start the final climb at 3 A.M, the coming morning, and were going to embark on an overall hike of 12 hours for the day. We were definitely worried about the next day, for we were warned about the snow sheet being slippery and the path being rocky, steep and narrow. The only saving grace amidst all this frightening detail was that there was custard for dinner!! J
After supper, my body was exhausted and was crying for some sleep. However, my mind was filled with nervousness and excitement, which therefore refuted any chance of catching sleep. Also it was terribly cold by now. We emptied our bags and layered up as many clothes as we could, till it became difficult to breathe. The summit point was visible and the exhilaration to climb it was hard to contain.
Day Six: The Final Rise – Roopkund, over 15755 ft.
As the destined hour came to a close, we sprung to action, before the alarm clocks could. The day was here! The day we were all waiting for, in much anticipation- our Summit climb. The stars sparkled in their nest and the crescent moon, lead the way, bright and blue. To our great luck, the sky had cleared out and there was no further forecast of snow. We all had soup and corn flakes and packed our day packs (which was now being shared between two or more persons for avoiding carrying additional weight).
Mr. Pushkar, our very patient and able guide, assembled us into a line, women forward, men behind. With hearts in our mouth, we marched forward to attempt the summit. As we hiked up the very steep and snow-covered path, the air had become very thin and the temperature had dipped to minus ten. On one of the water breaks, we found that our water had also frozen and the limbs were giving way. We were told to keep shuffling, for our feet and hands could easily freeze. As the snow had hardened, it had become slippery and therefore we had to tread each step carefully. Our team stuck together like a pack and passed on instructions from the group leader to the rest, like a domino effect. Displaying great camaraderie, each member backed the other for any lack of motivation and pushed the other to overcome their fear.
As we ascended up, the first rays of purple and orange ornamented the mountains, and, the white of the snow glimmered. As I took my final steps towards summit, emotions churned and I couldn’t stop, but break into tears. The guild exploded into cheer and hugged and threw high fives at each other. It was finally done- We were there! The sky disbursed into shades of red, orange and blue, making it, beyond a doubt, one of the most magnificent sights, I have ever witnessed. The frozen lake and the remains of skull and bones added to the mystic charm of the place. We stayed there for a while, until the fear of our bodies freezing sent alarm bells and we set to descend.
While descending, my technique was flawed and for the lack of crampons, I slipped, got a knee injury and was brought back to the camp with the help and care of my team mates and our guide. With a swollen knee, the only option to get back was on a mule, which was, as painful, if not more, as the injury itself. After a mule ride followed by a car and then flight journey, we were back in the jungle of cars, traffic and pollution.
I do ask myself: Was it all worth it? And I find myself with the same answer, without a demur.
Despite all the times, when I kicked myself for not choosing a beach destination over the treacherous trek; despite the times when my lungs cried for oxygen; despite the dearth of any comfort whatsoever; despite the knee injury and the mule ride, I know, that, the mountains make me content and humble, in ways, the above does not (except the oxygen of course 😉). I cannot wait to be on another such trek, finding my path, making friends with some amazing people and witnessing the beauty of yet another unchartered destination.
I want to sign out with this beautiful poem, which I read somewhere:
“Oh let my soul flee
To the purple mountains
Where poetry breathes—
Where dawn’s shadows
Move silently with the sun.
Let my eyes feast on”