When Kaushal Desai came up with the itinerary of Roopkund trek, it looked impressive to me. It has been my dream for 5 years to visit the Roopkund lake. Roopkund is situated at an impressive altitude of 5029m in Chamoli district of Uttaranchal. It is famous due to the human and horse skeletal remains that can be still found in it. Many reasons have been attributed to these remains. But the popular belief, narrated in the folk traditions about the pilgrimage to Nanda Devi undertaken by Raja Jasdhaval and his men, who perished in a hailstorm at Jurangali, appears to be closer to the truth. And this was validated by the National Geographic Channel expedition conducted last year. The Nanda Raj Jat, the pilgrimage trek comprising of people from nearby villages passes through this lake once in 12 years.
Our trek was to start in the 1st week of May. Kaushal Desai (above14000ft.com), the organizer is a professional mountaineer and instructor himself. So my chances of making it to the lake looked bright. Kaushal’s passion for mountains had seen him leave his job in Bangalore and settle amidst mountains in Manali.
Four of us,Naren, Sharada, Saravanan and Iregistered for the trek with much enthusiasm. Including us 13 had totally registered for the trek. I generally don’t prefer arranged treks, but this opportunity of trekking with a professional mountaineer was hard to let go.
Four of us boarded the afternoon flight from Bangalore to Delhi. I don’t understand why every time in Delhi I land up in places where it is difficult to find any decent restaurants. This time we reached Delhi S Rohilla railway station from where we had an overnight journey to Kathgodam in Ranikhet express. Carrying all our bags we wandered more than a kilometer in the scorching heat before finding a restaurant. The amount of food served on the aircraft for lunch was thoroughly insufficient for us and we were dead hungry by dinner time. After a sumptuous dinner we spent an extra hour in the air conditioned surroundings of the restaurant. Ranikhet express started more than an hour late. There was a non stop activity in the train throughout the night, thanks to the overcrowded compartments. Despite that I could catch decent amount of sleep.
By 6.45AM, the train arrived at Kathgodam (Nainital district, Uttaranchal) where wewere joined by Kaushal and his aides and other trekkers of the group who had traveled from Delhi by the same train. The day’s planwas to reach Mandoli (Mundoli) by evening. After the train journey we get started with the bus journey as we board the mini bus arranged by Kaushal. We pass the town of Almora before reaching Kausani at 2PM where we break for lunch. Nothing much happens in the bus as people are busy catching the last night’s lost sleep. The journey is mostly through the winding roads of the lower Himalayan ranges. By 6.45PM we are relieved to end the bus journey at Debal(Deval). We must have traveled almost 240km from Kathgodam to this place. Our ultra safe bus driver had taken at least an hour more to reach this place. From here we shift to jeeps to cover the remaining leg of the journey to Mandoli. The road to Mandoli is kaccha in parts and being metaled in stretches. Finally at 8.30PM in the night we reach our destination, Lohajung(2133m) in Mandoli and settle down in the Roopkund Tourist House. I and Naren decide to wash off the dirt of Delhi by taking a cold water bath. We finally get time to get familiar with others in the group. Dinner is finished at 11PM.
The day starts early for me and Naren. I begin the day with a round of Suryanamaskaras. The day’s planwas to reach Wan(2439m). There is a motarable road from Mandoli to Wan, but we plan to trek 13km to reach Wan. After a delayed breakfast we were out on trail by 9AM. The porters would be reaching Wan in a jeep with our supplies. The trail is mostly through the pine forests occasionally passing through meadows.
Our first break
The ascent and descent are gradual and the trail is generally easy. By 12.30PM we reach the Wan village. Surprisingly as per my altimeter we are yet to gain an altitude of at least 400m. We take the jeep track hoping to find our campsite and the porters. The jeep track goes past the Neelganga river. At one point we leave the jeep track and take the trail. From here it is a steep ascent of 400m through pine forests. Most of us are gasping for breath when we reach the campsite adjoining the GMVN Tourist Rest House, Wan. The place offers some nice views of the Neelganga valley. On the other side is a tiny stream (which is our source for water) which eventually joins the Neelganga. This place has a beautiful temple (constructed fully of loose stones) of Latu devta beside a very old and huge pine tree (of Surai variety). According to a local, villagers from Wan and others places conduct a Yatra to this place once in a year in May. During the Yatra villagers assemble here, worship, cook and eat food together. There is a tradition of hanging bells in this temple by devotees and one can find many bells of varying sizes with the names of the devotees engraved on them. Interestingly women aren’t allowed inside the temple beyond a point.
Latu Devta temple
By the time the cooks were ready with the lunch it was 4PM in the evening. After filling to the brim, most of the group retired to their respective tents.Naren and I ventured beyond the stream and found a nice flat elevated piece of land overlooking the majestic mountains. One can’t find a better place to meditate in the mountains. I quickly settled down while Naren followed suit. We had an early dinner at 7PM before ending the day.
When in mountains, it is always a refreshing experience to be awake and out before the Sun. AccordinglyNaren and Igot up at 4AM, finished our morning ablutions in the woods and settled down in our meditative postures waiting for the sun to appear. I was continuing my Pranayama practice in the mountains also with the hope of getting acclimatized to altitudes better.
Today we were right on schedule and finish breakfast early enough to get going at 7.30AM. The plan was to trek 12km and reach Bedni Bugyal(3354m). This involves an altitude gain of around 900m which is a bit on the higher side for a day. Many in the group appeared totally unaware of importance and the effects of the altitude. I was in fact very surprised to find a first timer (for any treks) in this group. Although she did commendably well, I would think one shouldn’t ideally take first timers to Roopkund which is in fact a high altitude trek.
A small clearing in the pine forests
Initially from Wan there is an ascent of 150m followed by an equal descent. This is where we cross a bridge over a stream. During this season(May) this is the last water source. The next source of water is only at Bedni. After the stream it is a continuous gradual ascent. The conditions here are tough; altitude, steepness and the lack of water. The trail takes us through some dense pine forests. Nothing is visible once we are inside these forests. We are covered all round by huge trees. Throughout the forests, we could see trees with bright red flowers.
Thetrail through the forests
At around 3200m, the pine forests end and we enter the grasslands. From here the vastness of the surroundings and the beauty of the mountains become visible. Ascending at a snail’s pace, we manage to reach Bedni Bugyal at 1.30PM.
Bedni is a vast meadow which offers good views of Trishul, Nanda Ghunti, Chaukamba and Neelkanth peaks. A few of us still had some energy left to pitch up all the tents. The meadow appeared quite windy. The place meant for sheep was converted to a make shift kitchen by our cooks. The lunch was skipped and we had an early dinner. By evening the clouds covered the meadow from every direction and it started to pour. We were even fortunate to witness the sleet shower. We met a couple of foreigners returning from near Baggubasa. The news was not good; they were unable to go ahead due to heavy snow. The intensity of the rain and the winds increases and we have no option other than to retire into our tents. I had a kind of broken sleep in the night.
I got up at 4.30AM. The rain had stopped and the weather looked pleasant outside. Naren and I got out of the tents and finished the morning ablutions. There is water no where else in Bedni expect at one place where the water appears to come straight out of mountains. Though the temperature is 2C, we weren’t feeling cold due to the absence of winds. For once there was a respite from the clouds. Hence Trishul and Nanda Ghunti were visible clearly. Even Chaukamba and Neelkanth were mostly visible.
Kailu Vinayak temple
After meeting the foreigners yesterday, Kaushal and team had decided that Roopkund is out of question. But we (I, Naren, Sharada and Saravanan) were still hopeful. It began to become clear that most of the group wasn’t even remotely ready for anything like this. Roopkund’s altitude of 5029m hasn’t probably sunk in for most of the participants. Expect a handful of us, none including the organizer were prepared to walk on any kind of snow. Most were in sneakers. While others looked reasonably satisfied with the trek and the wonderful surroundings of Bedni, our group of 4 were seriously disappointed. We had been preparing for this trek since last two months. While we pressed Kaushal to shift our base from Bedni to next higher camp at Baggubasa, he was reluctant. This is when we started collecting information from local porters. We were clearly told by them that May is not the right season to reach Roopkund. Even porters won’t venture any further from Baggubasa with this much snow. The snow would start melting only after rains in June and July. And the best season to reach Roopkund is late August and September. In fact the Nanda Raj Jat pilgrimage trek takes place in September.
The trail ahead to Roopkund
Looking back I can only say that Kaushal shouldn’t have taken a group like ours to Roopkund in May. First it was a thoroughly wrong season to reach Roopkund and second most of the group members weren’t ready for a high altitude trek.
Finally Kaushal worked out a compromise; we shall move forward today as far as we can, but would return back to Bedni for the night. So thus we started towards Baggubasa (3800m) at 7.45AM. From Bedni we gradually climb to a ridge at 3800m. This place offers some great views of Trishul and other snow capped peaks. At this point most of the group decided to return back. Only Kaushal and his wife Indu,Naren, Pramod, Sudheer, Sharada, Saravanan and Imoved ahead. Next we descend almost a 150m to reach a place called Patarnachauni(Patalnachni) (3658m). There was a group of two with porters attempting Baggubasa with us. That group gives up and decides to camp near Patarnachauni itself. From Patarnachauni, it is a continuous steep ascent till Kailu Vinayak (~4150m). The complete trail is visible on the mountain side from Patarnachauni and it is quite daunting to look at. Sharada, Saravanan and Pramod come till 3800m and decide to return back from there. While Indu and Kaushal move ahead, Sudheer follows them closely.Naren and Iascend at a very slow pace taking deep breaths for every 100m gain. After a difficult climb we reach Kailu Vinayak at 1PM.
At Kailu Vinayak (L2R: Sudheer, Naren, Kaushal, Bharata)
Kailu Vinayak has a beautiful Ganesha idol installed, which was entirely covered by snow when we arrive. The porter clears the snow on it. From Kailu Vinayak, the other side of the mountain is full of snow and it is so cloudy that nothing is visible. We were told that Baggubasa, the next campsite is just 45min from here and our final destination Roopkund is just 5hrs from here. It was so disappointing to reach here and then unable to make it any further. It was heavily windy at Kailu Vinayak and we quickly finish our packed lunch and start getting down. While Kaushal and Indu quickly return back to Bedni, Sudheer,Naren and I take our own sweet time to descend. We reach Bedni at 4.30PM just in time to escape a heavy downpour. It rained a lot during the night and many had trouble of water seeping into the tents. In fact Naren had worst time with water getting into his inners.
Chaukamba (left) and Neelkanth (right) as seen from Bedni
It was still drizzling in the morning and also we did not have any real motivation to get up. There was nothing exciting to look forward to this day. Last night’s winds and rain had caused considerable damage if not to anything but to the psyche of some participants. While a group of worst sufferers wanted to get down to Wan, Kaushal wasn’t keen on that. He succeeded in convincing them to stay put at Bedni for one more day. If we look back now, we don’t see why we wasted a day at Bedni, we could have utilized the day better.
The plan for the day was to trek to Auli Bugyal(~3400m) from Bedni and return back to Bedni. We started leisurely at 10AM. It was a nice and easy walk to Auli from Bedni. We got some great views of the surrounding mountains from Auli. We were back in Bedni in time for lunch. The rest of the day was spent idling in Bedni. We keep saying that it would be so nice to be part of nature in the isolated mountains doing nothing in particular. But from experience I can say that it will be fun as along as there is someone to cook us food. Even then not for long, life is tough in mountains.
View from Auli Bugyal
Got up at 4.45AM and stared the return trek from Bedni to Wan at 8AM. The descent turned out to be pretty easy for us. The mountain had a well maintained gradually ascending/descending trail and a less used straight ascent/descent route. While climbing we had promptly used the circuitous route, while getting down we were more than willing to try out the straight descent path, even though it means more work for the knees. While we were descending we met a group of foreigners proceeding to Bedni. They seemed to have more porters and management staff than the participants themselves. To our utter surprise porters were carrying plastic chairs for the guests !
We reach Wan at 11.15AM only to find the entire campsite littered with garbage. The foreigners’ group had stayed here last night. They were so insensitive that they had pitched toilet tents in camping ground overlooking the Neelganga valley. We had to clean the entire area ourselves. As per Kaushal’s plan, we were supposed to trek from Wan to Kanol and from Kanol to Sethel in two days. But we didn’t want to waste two days on this while it was possible to do this entire stretch in a day. We were relieved as other group members agreed to this plan.
After the breakfast Augustine, Gopinath and Sjef separated and proceeded towards Nainital. While the rest of the group started towards Kanol. The initial trail from Wan towards Kanol is a gradual ascent. We reach a maximum height of 3000m after which point the rapid descent starts. By 11AM we reached the Kanol village.
From Kanol it is again descent to Sethel. We descend until we cross the Nandakini river. We finish our packed lunch on the banks of Nandakini. From here it is a bit of ascent and then again some descent before we reach Sethel. We were at Sethel(~1850m) at 4PM. Nandaprayag is the nearest big town to Sethel. It took us 3 hours of jeep ride from Sethel to reach Nandaprayag. The first half from Sethel to Ghat is a kaccha road and the rest is metaled road. Since we had saved a day by doing the stretch together, 5 of us (Naren, Sharada, Saravanan,Sudheer and I) decide to visit Badrinath from here. We spend the night in Nandaprayag.
After saying goodbye to Kaushal and others, we board a jeep to Badrinath at 5.45AM. We reach Badri at 11.15AM. This includes a wait of almost 2 hours at gates in Joshimath and Pandukeshwar. On the route to Badri from Joshimath, vehicles are allowed only in one direction, hence vehicles from either side have to wait at these gates while the other direction traffic clears. The season in Badri had just started and we could see still see the generous patches of snow on Nar and Narayan Parbats (Parbat = mountain). River Alakananda flows in the valley between Nar and Narayan. The Badrinarayan temple is situated on the Narayan Parbat.
We checked into the Ananta Mutt (the Karnataka Dharmashala) and had proper south Indian meals after many days. Badrinath appeared quite different from the one I had seen 5 years back. So many concrete structures have come up. Two new mobile towers (BSNL and Reliance) have come up near Ananta Mutt, considerably hindering the photographic view to Neelkanth peak. Badri is a small place and after spending a couple of hours on its crowded lanes we start to feel if we have been here for long time.
In the afternoon we proceeded towards the Tapth kund (hot sulphur water spring) with much enthusiasm. We had to quickly retreat from the Kund thanks to an unruly crowd. Badrinath temple is one of holiest temples for Hindus, but one would be surprised to see the small temple surrounded by hundreds of adjoining houses and structures. Lakhs of pilgrims come to this temple and I wonder why nobody has thought about clearing all the adjoining houses to make the temple space wider. Badrinath temple really chokes. And with the kind of pilgrims coming to this place, it is tough to expect any kind of order in this place. I am sure Shankaracharya would be very disappointed to see the sorry state of affairs in one of his Jyotirmutts.
I got up at 4.30AM to get an early morning glimpse of Neelkanth. Our plan for the day was to trek to Vasudhara falls which is a majestic waterfalls of 122m situated at ~3500m. One has to cross the last village in India called Mana (Orig: Manibhadrapuri) to reach Vasudhara falls.
Early morning view of Neelkanth
Mana is connected to Badri by road. From Mana we start walking towards Vasudhara. We visit Ganesh Gufa(Gufa = cave) and Vyas Gufa on the way. It is believed that it is in this place Veda Vyasa wrote the epic Mahabharata using the services of Lord Ganesha. The caves have the statues of Ganesha and Vyasa. At a little distance from Vyas Gufa is the Bheempool. One can see a powerful stream of water originating from under the rocks and flowing for around 100m before joining the mighty Alakananda. It is believed that this is the river Saraswati.
A veiw from Mana – Vasudhara falls route
The path to Vasudhara from Mana is an easy one with most of the ascent (almost 400m) reserved towards the end. From the Alakananda valley, two peaks of Chaukamba range are visible. In this season (May), Alakananda flows quietly unlike its normal aggressive ways in spring. At one place we observed an ice bridge across Alakananda connecting the two banks. We even had to get past a huge mass of snow and ice on the way.
Crossing a frozen stream
At around 11AM we reach the Vasudhara falls. The beauty of the falls is best described by the photographs shown here.
Vasudhara falls – closeup view
We reach Badri by 2PM and directly enter Hotel Saket. We had visited this hotel so many times now that we get a smiling welcome from the counter.
We have booked the early morning bus to Haridwar. Unfortunately wecould manage to get only the last seats and are weary of the tough journey ahead. Bus leaves on time and looks like the driver has the unique ability of overtaking all the vehicles on these curvy roads. Anyway we weren’t complaining for speed as we wanted to be relieved of this journey as early as possible. Our only complaint was that the driver was so eager to reach early that stopping for breakfast was not in his plans.
A view from Mana – Vasudhara falls route
We arrive in Haridwar at 6.30PM and check into the nice rooms in Bholagiri Ashram. This Ashram’s hind side opens into the river Ganga and it is as if a private bathing ghat for us. First thing we do is to jump into the cold Ganga and energize ourselves.
For me and Naren the day started with another bath in the river Ganga. After breakfast we leave Haridwar to Delhi. Unable to bear the heat of Delhi we immediately settle down in the air conditioned lobby of the airport. We double check the availability of meals on the aircraft and are assured of ‘proper’ meals. This is a different flight but we still remain unsatisfied with the quantity of food. It is midnight when we land in Bangalore.