Click here for the complete set of pictures: Roopkund, October 2014
When I was unable to find a partner for Roopkund trek who would be willing to do it independently (without hiring guides or porters), I had doubts if I should be even attempting this trek alone. I had never gone above 13,500 feet in any of my previous treks and this one takes you beyond 16,000 in less than 4 days. Compounding my doubts was the fact that I was carrying on my own a tent, sleeping bag, mat, winter clothes, utensils, fuel, stove, food for 5 days, camera, tripod and other miscellaneous gear which made my backpack weigh close to 20 Kg. And then recently, there were news reports about a couple of experienced hikers who were trekking with established trekking agencies, collapsing mid-way due to AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) on this trek and unfortunately couldn’t make it back alive. Much deliberation later and finding it impossible to ignore the call of the mountains, I anyways left for Lohajung alone.
Fast forward 6 days and I’m on the bus returning to Delhi with a bag full of memories from the trek which couldn’t have gone any better! The weather held good for most of the time and the gradient never got too tricky. So mesmerized was I on being surrounded by such grandeur of nature that I felt no effects of AMS. Most importantly, I went for a ‘solo’ trek, but met some of the nicest people on the trail. Sharing the same love for mountains, their company made this trek much more enjoyable and memorable.
Day 1: Delhi to Lohajung
The prospect of a continuous travel of over 20 hours in a bus is daunting enough for most to opt out of the Roopkund trek. I was hoping to cover half the distance by train and had booked my ticket to Kathgodam over a month in advance, but they never got confirmed. I had no option but to take the direct 9.00 PM Uttarakhand Roadways bus to Karanprayag from Delhi ISBT. The ride till Rishikesh is tedious and uneventful with most of the time being wasted in negotiating with traffic. The noise inside the dilapidated bus reaches unimaginable levels and the seats are cramped enough to make you beg for leg space the entire time. Sometimes, just the journey to reach the trailhead proves to be more of a test than the trek itself!
The bus reached Rishikesh bus depot just before 4 AM and almost suddenly it started raining heavily. Such unseasonal downpour before a trek always makes one nervous, especially if it’s a high altitude trek. At the bus depot I was told that due to the restrictions on driving in Uttarakhand during night time, the bus will only be able to leave at 5 AM. I was just glad to take a break from the bus ride, even if it meant standing outside in the rain!
Finally at 5 AM, all the buses from the depot started making their way slowly up the lower hills of Rishikesh. The altitude and the landscape remains almost unchanged for the next 7-8 hours till one reaches Karanprayag – the last major town on this route. At the bus stop I met a group of hikers who were also on their way to Roopkund. It was a relief to have some company for the final leg of the journey and even for the trek since our itineraries were quite similar. They were a group of 10 people – all from different parts of India, from different walks of life who had met online on a travel forum and decided to do Roopkund together.
After a hurried lunch at a small restaurant in Karanprayag, we were out on the road again looking for a bus to Dewal. Few minutes later we did find a bus and somehow managed to squeeze in with our backpacks all piled up at the front, next to the driver. Unfortunately, what should have taken not more than 3 hours, took over 5 hours due to a landslide just outside Karanprayag. The sun was beginning to hide behind the mountains as we reached the small nondescript town of Dewal. The ritual of finding connecting transportation began all over again and after much waiting, we found a shared taxi which dropped us at Lohajung, our final destination.
Lohajung is a small village and is one of the trailheads for Roopkund trek. The other option is to start the trek from Wan which is 15 Kms further ahead from Lohajung. Views from Lohajung are quite uninspiring with only a part of Nanda Ghunti’s summit (20,700 feet) visible at a distance. But it was a relief nonetheless to finally put an end to all the tedious travelling. A couple of basic lodges and home stays are situated in Lohajung and few shops which have now started stocking things relevant to trekking. A discussion on the plans for the next day and a sumptuous dinner later, it was time to call it an early night, for tomorrow, we finally start our walk to the famed ‘Skeleton Lake’, Roopkund.
Day 2: Lohajung (8300 ft) to Didina (8550 ft)
The sun was out in its full glory with only a few clouds dotting the sky. The day was bright and none of us was in a hurry to start the trek. The group of 10 I had met the previous day were finalizing the plans with their guide and porters. I was thoroughly enjoying their company and didn’t feel like starting the trek alone. I simply used the opportunity to laze around and bask under the sun.
Few minutes after 11, all of us were finally prepared to start the trek and were on our way to Didina village. The first 45 minutes walk is on a paved road curving around the valley till you reach the delightful Kuling village. Just before the village, a 3 feet long snake decided to stop dead in the middle of the road and pose for pictures!
Kuling is a collection of about 50 houses perched on a hill side with terrace fields of bright red and pink ‘Amarnath’ crop, commonly known as Ramdana and Chaulai. Amarnath was earlier grown as a ‘barter crop’ by farmers to exchange goods with traders. The trail now leaves the paved road and goes downhill through the village and its cherished fields. The well trodden trail continues downhill for roughly 20 minutes past thick forests and shrubs to the valley floor. With a stream tumbling over hefty boulders, it is a lovely place to take a break and fill up water bottles before beginning the continuous 3 hour ascent to Didina village.
After crossing the stream by carefully hoping over well placed rocks, we began the climb to the village. The entire trail up to the village is through a dark, hushed forest of spruce, cypress and oak. The climb was sheer and sticky in spite of the cool wind drifting through the valley. An hour into the climb, a small clear stream cuts across the trail. As you gain height, you can spot the sleepy Lohajung village now on the opposite side of the valley. The delightful sight of snow clad peaks was still missing but the meadows seen on the distant mountains showed the stunning range of Nature’s green palette.
Around mid-afternoon we arrived at Didina village which is about the same height as Lohajung. Handful of houses, couple of basic lodges and a solitary shop make up this entire village. Apricot trees were growing in plenty all around and the locals gave us permission to have them right off the trees. A cramped 12 bed dormitory located in the middle of the village served as our pit stop for the day. The dorm owner happily provided us delicious meals and steaming cups of tea as we all sat outside and saw the sun slowly disappear behind the folds of the valley.
Day 3: Didina (8550 ft) – Ali Bugyal (10,800 ft) – Bedni Bugyal (11,100 ft)
The day we all were waiting for ever since we even decided to do Roopkund. Even the finest photograph of these famed Bugyals (grasslands or meadows) can’t match the true brilliance that they are. And after sifting through countless of their pictures on the internet, I was more than eager to see these wonders of nature myself.
It was a constant 3-4 hour uphill walk from Didina to the outer fringes of Ali Bugyal. Some small portions of the trail were particularly steep but throughout well trodden. The views are unrewarding for the most part so I didn’t bother to take my camera out at all. The anticipation of walking on the Bugyal was already making me quicken my steps. The jungle eventually gave way to the glowing green Bugyals which rose above the dark layers of dense oak and spruce jungle. The tree line abruptly got left behind and the grasslands began. The view suddenly now changed to a marvellous expanse of greenery as far as one could see. Some of us dropped our backpacks and lay on the delicate bed of meadows, while the rest went on a photography overdrive.
This is the beginning of Ali Bugyal, the other twin of Bedni Bugyal, together considered to be the largest alpine grasslands in Asia. The path meandered across the glossy foliage of meadows and into the clouds of mist which were now hanging low dampening the wider views. Nevertheless, it was quite an exquisite sight. Maybe this is where God himself would come if he wants to play Golf!
The emerald sheen of meadows continued to baffle as I got closer to Bedni Bugyal. I was walking a few hundred meters ahead of the group and although alone on the trail, I felt life pulsate around me. A myriad of tiny flowers had carpeted the entire region, attracting hosts of insects and bright butterflies. A huge flock of sheep were gradually taking over the meadows, their bleating loud and clear. The shepherd walked lost in his own thoughts while his dogs got busy with their own play. Some horses were peacefully grazing, while some were running wild, reminiscent of a beautiful expression of freedom.
For the next hour, the trail gently rises till it reaches the campsite of Bedni Bugyal. A cluster of over 30 colourful tents were spread across the flat meadow. Although the ethereal spread of Trishul and Nanda Ghunti peaks was hidden by the low hanging clouds, their dominating presence could not be ignored. Around 100 trekkers from all parts of the country were waiting impatiently for the weather to clear. Just before the sun decided to disappear behind the horizon, it let its last rays penetrate the cloud cover and fell on the snow capped Trishul (23,360 ft) and Nanda Ghunti (20,700 ft). Both peaks presented an unforgettable mountain portrait in the gold of the retiring day.
The wind was at peace and the mountains now finally clear of clouds, brooded massively under the darkening sky. The campsite got loud and busy in preparation for dinner, while I tried to capture the play of clouds with the last light of the sun. Few hours later, the stars were slowly beginning to appear in the clear sky and couple of us decided it was finally time to put our tripods to use. It was a night I won’t forget soon. The rolling meadows, the far away mountains ablaze with conifers, the thrusting peaks of Trishul and Nanda Ghunti, and us mortal trekkers, all blanketed by billions of stars in that one moment.
Day 4: Bedni Bugyal (11,100 ft) – Patar Nachauni (12,300 ft) – Bhagwabasa (14,500 ft)
The sun was already shining bright on the trident when I stepped outside my tent, but it was yet to reach the campsite. Readying the backpack without the sun warming you up feels quite laborious.
The trail from Bedni Bugyal to Patar Nachauni is a trekker’s highway- a beautiful wide trail meandering its way through, while hugging the sides of steep golden meadows. But as it also happens on a highway, it got slightly mundane after a while of walking on this stretch. But the sudden sight of a cuddly Himalayan Weasel popping its head from behind a rock brought back the enthusiasm.
It is a considerable altitude gain from Bedni Bugyal to Bhagwabasa if done in a single day. Therefore, many trekkers prefer to break the stage in two days and camp at Patar Nachauni to acclimatize more efficiently. The group of 10 I had befriended was reduced to 6 when we reached Patar Nachauni. Three had returned to Lohajung from Bedni Bugyal and one chose to stay at Patar Nachauni due to breathlessness. The trail from Patar Nachauni to Kalu Vinayak is steep and rapidly climbs over 2000 feet up a mountain in a series of switchbacks. This particular stretch is when most people feel the effects of altitude. The backpack which was already heavy, felt heavier and the slog took me almost 3 hours.
I reached Kalu Vinayak half dead, though the sweeping views of distant peaks like Chaukhamba (23,450 ft) and Black Peak (21,000 ft) were instantly revitalising. From here to Bhagwabasa the trail gradually descends towards the white spire of Trishul. The rock and boulder strewn Bhagwabasa campsite is in stark contrast with the delicate green meadows of Bedni. Tents need to be secured over hefty rocks and having a thick foam sleeping mat would help. But the tantalising glimpses of Trishul and Nanda Ghunti looming over us in the mist made up for all the effort that went in to reach this point.
Out of the 6 that were left in the group, 2 more decided to forfeit their attempt to reach Roopkund and stay at Bhagwabasa the next day. The remaining 4 and I decided to be up at 3 AM and start hiking to Roopkund. The trail from Bhagwabasa to Roopkund was covered in snow and it was crucial that we start hiking while the snow was still hard. As the sun comes up, snow all around begins to melt and the hike turns into a slushy, slippery and an equally risky affair.
I was hardly able to get any sleep that night. We were already camping in the shadows of Trishul and the anticipation of getting even closer to it was quite intimidating.
Day 5: Bhagwabasa (14,500 ft) – Roopkund (15,900 ft) – Junargali (16,200 ft) – Bhagwabasa – Bedni Bugyal – Wan (8200 ft)
I was half asleep when at 3 AM the entire campsite started to come alive. Everyone reluctantly began to emerge out of their warm sleeping bags and into the biting cold air to begin the final ascent to Roopkund. It was as dark as a night could be but the snow on the peaks somehow found a way to still glow.
The five of us were the first ones out of the campsite and to be on the trail to Roopkund. Their young guide led the way while we carefully followed him in a single file. An hour later, couple of hundred yards before the high ridge, I turned around and saw a serpentine of head torches stretched across the trail making its way up the trail.
Roopkund Lake is hidden behind a ridge and remains elusive till you are almost directly upon it. Roopkund, the renowned lake, turned out to be a small, frozen and unsurpassingly bleak body of ice. The lake had all but disappeared and one could barely make out its existence. But the sun was now at the horizon and gradually the surrounding cirque of peaks were illuminated. The lake might not be much to look at, but it was set like a cosmic jewellery enclosed in a natural amphitheatre of jagged and fierce peaks.
Human and horse bones were set in a big pile close to the lake. According to the local legend, the King of Kanauj, along with his wife, servants, dance troupe and many others went on a pilgrimage to Nanda Devi shrine. While crossing Roopkund during a raging hail storm, the entire party of pilgrims slipped and fell to their deaths. Radiocarbon dating of the bones by the researchers from Oxford University has determined them to be over thousand years old.
Junargali is a razor thin ridge situated about 300 feet above Roopkund overlooking the humongous frame of Trishul. Many attempted to reach Junargali but most gave up after constantly slipping and falling due to the melting snow. A slip here could hurtle one down by hundreds of feet with almost no chance of arresting the fall.
Junargali, the highest point of this trek at over 16,000 feet, is a splendid vantage point to look at Trishul- from its base to the summit. The ridge, just wide enough for one person to stand, presents Trishul like never before. The grey polished pinnacles, the snow and ice masked summit, all seem unbelievably close.
After few minutes of soaking it all in, it was finally time to begin the descent and head home. Although the descent to Wan from Roopkund is broken down in 2 days, the idea of sleeping on a bed with blankets made us push ourselves a little and finish the entire descent the same day. We followed the same downhill trail till Bedni Bugyal and then took another trail to Wan. By the time we reached Wan, we had walked over 30 Kms and descended 8000 feet in 16 hours. The exhausting descent took a toll on the legs but finally the trek was now put behind. The bed and the blankets felt like a well deserved prize.
The voyage of several days passed through some of the most magnificent forest glades as well as one of the finest specimens of alpine grasslands on the planet. The peaks of Chaukhamba, Trishul and Nanda Ghunti keep your company throughout the trek and serve as a constant source of inspiration. The end destination Roopkund might not be as charming as the name suggests, the journey to the lake is what makes this trek so special is what I feel.