Friday, October 16, 2009

Roopkund Trekker's Diary

On a 2006 evening while surfing the TV channels, got stuck to a program at National Geographic Channel. The title of the program was quite enough to draw my attention. I not only gulped “Riddles of The Dead: Skeleton Lake” but didn’t even changed the channel during commercial breaks so that I don’t miss a single second of it. Frankly at that time neither I was drawn to trekking nor planning to start-up trekking. At that time, like most of normal tourist, Himalayas was enjoyed by me from popular hill stations & viewing expedition documentaries on Discovery or NatGeo. Honestly, the program on Roopkund at NatGeo was enthralling enough to draw not only my attention towards a lake situated over 16,000’ in Himalayas, but also unknowingly planted the seed of trekking in my soul.

Three years & a couple of treks later, I was somewhat destined to Roopkund, the Skeleton Lake. A year of self research & discussions with veteran trekkers on the net (primarily through Indiamike & Orkut) made me more confident of venturing on the less traveled route. Four of us were confirmed & necessary travel booking were done quite in advance. IM-ers (members of IndiaMike) helped a lot in meticulous planning of itenary, complete with buffer days. We choose 1st half of September mainly for two reasons. Firstly, in the last 2 seasons the second half of Sep has experienced mild-heavy snowfall even in Bedini Bugiyal. Last thing we wanted is marching through snow all the way upto Roopkund. The second & final reason, we will be back before Durgapuja & can spend the time with our families. A fortnight before we were down to 3 members. The 3rd one opted out about 5days from our departure date. Professional hazards are to be blamed.


4th Sep ’09:
On a typical sunny, hot, humid, summer morning Aloke & I boarded a bus for Asansol to catch Upasana Express. After an hour of our departure from Bardhaman, a friend of mine called up to enquire if we have left already as its raining heavily at Bardhaman. We felt lucky as a little late meant we could have started our journey with wet rucksacks. We reached Asansol well in advance & took shelter at a friend’s office to cool off a bit in the air-conditioned room. After a casual chat & cups of tea, we gently walked to station only to find our train will be arriving late by half an hour. While the wait was increasing, it started drizzling at Asansol. At least we hit the rain 4hours late than that of our home town. The train arrives 1hour 10mins late & we start our journey towards Moradabad.


5th Sep ’09: We reach Moradabad in time & moved out of the station premises for a sumptuous lunch at OK Dhaba, a welcome break after the pathetic food at Upasana Express. Please note, Upasana Express doesn’t have a pantry car; hence better to carry your stock as options available are very less on-board. Boarded Moradabad – Katgodwam Passanger train & waited impatiently for it to start moving. Finally after 35mins late of its scheduled 14:30 hours time, the train started. Nothing much happened before we arrived at Katgodwam station at 18:20hours. To our surprise the train halted at its destination amongst two trains without any platform in sight. On enquiry, our co-passengers informed its normal for this train to `park’ in the siding directly.

First we went to KMVN guest house in search of room to spend the night, only to find out a damp smelly room to be quoted at Rs. 500. Arrived again back to station to try our luck at the `retireing room’. Hard luck, we were informed “no vacancy”, while we were confident about atleast one room to be vacant. Settled down at Radium Restaurant & Guest House, just in front of the station approach. The room, nothing flashy, a basic with attached bath was offered at Rs. 300 after much bargain. After a much needed bath, we venture out for a last minute shopping of chocolates for the trek & some vodka for the night. After having a couple of drinks went down, had our dinner & went around searching a cybercafé for a last minute update in Indiamike as well as activating the “vacation responder” on my gmail account. A bit of searching & we found a café still open near the station. Called up Raju Shah at Dewal to confirm our arrival at Katgodwam & took the number of Gopal, the driver supposed to drive us to Dewal next day morning.

Village Wan

6th Sep ’09: We got up early as Gopal was supposed to pick us up at 7am. Called Gopal to inform our guest house details, only to find his mobile not in reach. Tried him a couple of times thinking it to be a normal BSNL snag, but couldn’t manage to connect him. Called Raju Shah to learn that Gopal have arrived at Dewal in the morning itself after getting night passengers from Lalkuan. He provided us the contact details of Ballu, the new driver who will be picking us up. Ballu arrived at 9am (2 hours late from our prior schedule of 7am), & we started our journey toward Dewal. By this time we quite got used to the words `late start’.

Driving through the hills, crossing Bhimtal, Bhawali, Kausani, Almorah, Gwaldam & Tharali, finally we reach Dewal at 5pm. Our guide Mohan Singh Bisht was waiting for us impatiently. He managed to stop Balwant’s jeep (scheduled to leave Dewal at 3pm) over two hours waiting for us. We hurriedly change vehicles & off we hit the road for Wan. Listening to the conversations of co-passengers & often informative tips from Balwant (he seldom stops speaking), we reach Mundoli & next to Lohajang. I walk to Patwal Lodge to locate Arjun (a veteran IM-er) & share a chat before driving ahead to Wan.

We were welcomed to Wan by Mr. Hira Singh Bugiyal with steaming cup of tea, the most sought after thing after driving over 11 hours on the hills. Mr. Bugiyal runs a stationary cum grocery shop & is an active core committee member of the `Ali-Bedni-Bagchi Bugiyal Sanrakshan Samity’. We found him ever helpful even before we arrived at Wan. Actually we used to call him up to pass on messages to Mohan as is WLL connection is somewhat our only source to communicate with the distant village. A dinner of roti-dal-sabji & we retire for the day at Mr. Bugiyal’s guest room.

Wan-Bedini Bugiyal
(12kms. Level: moderate-difficult, 2km ascent, 500mtr descent, 8.5km steep ascent, last 1.5km flat ridge walk)
7th Sep ’09: Mohan wakes up us as he arrives with the group of porters. We freshen up as Mohan arranges for the remaining ration items (usual dal, rice, vegetables etc.), kerosene & utensil. Let me mention here, all items at Hira Singh’s shop are sold at MRPs & doesn’t fleece tourists with exuberant prices like other parts of the Garwal. After packing & breakfast with Maggie, we hit the road at around 10.30am. The bright sunlight & the steep climb to Ran-Ki-Dhar were quite enough for us to strip down to our T-shirts within 5-10mins. We reach Ran-Ki-Dhar, relax a bit & move down quickly towards Neel Ganga. Within 2 hours we cross Neel Ganga & prepare ourselves for the steep climb through the forest to Dolidhar top via Garoli Patal. After an hour of exhausting ascent, mild drizzling started. Pulling on to our rain-coat uppers we continued our journey through the green to Garoli Patal, our next stop. We reached Garoli Patal at round 2.30pm & stopped for tea & biscuits. We didn’t stop for long as we knew the steep ascent to Doulidhar top was awaiting & we desperately wanted to reach Bedini beore heavy rain started. Again we are late, this time in weather God’s books. After ½ an hour we started from Garoli Patal, sky broke loose & we had to rush to cover the lower part of our body with our rain coat. Although the trees were blocking the rain we could easily understand how heavily it’s coming down. We met the Forest official (stationed at Bedini) while he was heading down to Dewal for official reasons. We completed the necessary formalities among the rain & heady towards the Douliadhar top. As we reach the top our previous protection of the trees vanished & was exposed directly to the downpour. The torrential downpour lashing at us along with storm like winds & the tiredness of the day-long trekking made the last 1.5km `cake walk’ miserable. We had to wipe off the water out of our eyes every minute so that we can actually see the road ahead.

Finally we reach Bedini Bugiyal at 6pm all drenched. Quickly took shelter inside the two-roomed hut at the Bugiyal. Being the only souls at Bedini, didn’t face any problem occupying the hut luckily; as pitching tent among such rain meant more disaster for us. Quickly changed into dry clothing & sipped into piping hot tea. We didn’t worry much over the rain till now as next day was our scheduled stay at Bedini for acclimatizing. Had a nice (& much needed) dinner over chawl-dal-&-omellets. Although the sleeping bags were waiting for us to jump in, the intensity of the rain & the sound of the gushing winds made us frown & think over it for the first time. We were informed by Bhaktwar Singh Bisht, Mohan’s father & the oldest man in our group that everything can change over hours in the hills. Assured we plunge ourselves into the bags & fall asleep among the rattling sound of the rain hitting the roof.

8th Sep ’09: We arise with Mohan waking us up with tea & his smile. Almost immediately I recognize the rain is still continuing although the intensity has decreased. Go out of the sleeping bag for a tour of the hut we’re staying. The hut (a very basic one with wooden floor, roof & one window open in absence of any glass or window-pane) is built by the Zilla Parishad & operated by the owner of the sole tea shop cum eatery at Bedini. The adjacent toilet is not functioning; hence the only option left is the vast outdoors.

After a breakfast of parantha-&-achar we venture out to the tea stall. Almost instantly we noticed a group of 4 trekkers marching down towards Bedini from the direction we are headed to. Anxiously we wait for their arrival so that we got to know the exact situation of the area above Bedini. With the group bad news arrives. They had camped at Patharnatchuni last night & had faced hailstorm. Afraid, they have abandoned their mission & are heading down & will proceed to Wan the next day. Mohan assured us that if weather clear up, we can easily reach Roopkund. Insipte of the assurance, the presence of the word `if’ in Mohan’s dialogue worries us. The Indihikes’ team heading to Roopkund arrives at Bedini at noon. They camp on the higher side of the bugiyal which according to Mohan is “not a wise decision” due to the presence of strong winds. Rain increases & we rush to the safety of our hut.

We arrive at our hut and learn that our request of finding meat has been honoured & Mohan’s father has managed to bring up an entire hind leg of a goat from the bakhriwala below. He leaves to dress the mutton & cut into pieces. We spend the time chatting with Mohan & Gopal bhai (our other porter) & sipping into hot tea. I act as the chef this evening & come up with a tasty mutton curry-rice-roasted papad menu. Again we go to bed with the rain, wind & the rattling sound on the roof singing a chorus lullaby.

9th Sep ’09: We awake only to find the rain is still on in its full swing. Even we had to wait for the rain to subside a bit before we answer our `nature’s call’. As the rain subsides, we witness both the groups (Indiahikes’ team & the team of 4 trekkers) going down to Wan. We seriously ponder over both the options & stick to our earlier plan of staying back at Bedini & wait for the weather clears up till we run out of our buffer days. Rest of the day we had to be confined inside our hut due to more lashing of the torrential downpour. Frustration slowly creeps in our mind. We start to fear we may run out of days & have to go down without even attempting Roopkund. Mohan & his team still assure that weather will improve & we can trek up to Roopkund. Our confinement inside the room for over 22hours everyday makes us feel as part of the NatGeo `Jailed Aboard’ series. What a coincidence, a NatGeo series inspired me to travel this part of the world & now the situation makes me feel a part of another NatGeo series….

10th Sep ’09: Rain still continues as usually & dampens both the Bugiyal & our mindset. At the back of our mind we start believing the rain is in the process of bringing our trek to an end. We wished if we arrived a little late by atleast 7 more days….

Another team of Indiahikes’ climbs & camp at Bedini. They are heading to Ronti Saddle. A team of 2 trekkers from Sodepur, W.B. also arrives from Didna heading to Ronti. The rain subsides at afternoon & we venture out to have a glimpse of Ali Bugiyal. The only positive point of the rain is probably we could experience the lush green bugiyal even in September.

At last, the sun shines a bit over the bugiyal & along with that shines the technology. The only WLL phone starts functioning & everyone present swarm around it to convey messages to respective family & friends. The charges of Rs. 8/min is quite nominal in respect to the terrain & isolation. We were quite happy to see a bit of sun & blue sky. At last the weather God may have bestowed her blessing on us.

Soon the sun hides below the clouds & drizzle restarts. Along with it the cloud of fear & frustration glooms on us again. Back to square one again, confining ourselves to the hut hoping for a better weather. At evening, Aloke, Mohan & me sat on a decisive meet whether to call off the trek or still wait for a try to Roopkund. The rain stops at night & Mohan informs us that, weather may clear-up tomorrow morning & in such a case we have to try Roopkund from Bedini in a single day. Sounds, tiring leave aside trying. Later we decide to give it try recollecting about Asish (an IM-er). He successfully trekked all the way to Roopkund from Bedini & back in a single day. With a doubtful mind we dozed off to sleep.
Bedini – Ghoralatuni – Pathanachuni – Kalu Vinayak – Bagubasha – Roopkunk & back to Bedini
(12.5kms oneway. 300mtrs. Steep ascent to be on the trail from Bedini, 2kms mild ascent to Ghoralatuni, 3kms. moderate descent to Patharnachuni, 3kms steep zigzag ascent to Kalu Vinayak, 1.5km flat to Huniathal, 1km steep ascent to Chiryanag, 2km moderate ascent & 500mtrs. steep climb to reach Roopkund)

11th Sep ’09: Wake-up call came at 5am with hot tea & news that the D-day is here. We freshen up hastily & put on almost all woolen & thermals we had with us. Mohan, Gopal bhai, Aloke & I left at 5.30am. The first ascent to be back on the trail to Ghoralatuni made us puff for wind & took around 20mins. The picture (our route marked in red & the normal trail marked in yellow) can deceive you regarding the terrain. As we reach Ghoralatuni, clouds start accumulating below us & come all around us at Patharnachuni. We stop for a bit for glucose & water before starting the ascent to Kalu Vinayak. Mohan for the first time was trying to push us faster instead of his normal “hollye hollye apne hisab se chaliye sirji” dialect. Everytime we run out of breath & stop, within a minute he insists, “Sirji upar thoda jaldi chaliye, niche ate wqat dhire dhire ayenge”. On enquiry he informed, “Mausam kabhi bhi bigar sakti hai. Upar baraf bhi hoga or usme hame time jada lagega”.

As we reach Kalu Viyanak, clouds & fog were all around us & visibility drops to around 25-30 mtrs. Gopal bhai performs the puja rituals & prays for our safe journey. A breather, some Cadbury, water & snaps we move ahead towards Huniathal via Bagubahsa. The terrain changes to a rocky nature & the visibility increases a bit suddenly. We believed our prayer is working miracle for us. We passed on Rani-ki-Suleha & proceed to Chiryanag. Aloke moves away from the trail to click a couple of Brahmakamal, instantly Mohan intervened, “Abhi aage chalo sirji, aage bahut milega. Niche ate waqt ji bharke photo lena”. From here Mohan shows us the location we’re heading to & everything around there has a single colour, White. We cross the stone steps on Chiryanag with utmost caution as the rocks are wet with rain & fog residue. Speed decline to a great extent both with the terrain & altitude. We stop more inspite of Mohan’s instruction to move ahead as fast we can.

We hit our first patch of snow after ½ km from Chiryanag. We moved ahead & snow starts increasing with every step we proceed. My shoe starts slipping at the thin layer of snow to make our life miserable. Gopal bhai comes to my rescue with a walking stick (a thin piece of dried bamboo shoot). Within minutes visibility drops to a mere 20feet & we found ourselves standing in more than 1feet deep snow. We regret of not even thinking once to include gaiter in our equipment list. Its snow all around & our shoes are full of snow. The socks got wet instantly as did the lower thermal & trousers. We drag ourselves ahead with mere will power revolting against our physical conditions. The lack of oxygen (inspite of 4 nights stay at Bedini hence better acclimatization) & almost nil visibility slows us down further. Negotiating with snow & our body we reached below the last steep climb to Roopkund. A couple of minutes wait & I announce my inability to proceed further. I don’t regret to admit, at that moment I was confident it to my last day in my life as I felt my body is revolting against any further steps in any direction.

“Itna dur aake wapas jaoge? Aur thodhi-hi bas rahe gayi aage” Mohan informed. “Sirji, we will be the first group to reach Roopkund this September” announced Mohan; “aao main apka haat pakarta hoon. Hollye hollye upar aa jao. Thodhi si bas…” he added. Literally he helped to climb the last stretch by holding my hand & Gopal bhai the same with Aloke. Finally the moment of joy… we see the mystery lake below us. The area is white washed with more than 3feet of snow. The water of the lake is covered by a film of snow. We clicked a few quick snaps before our battery ran out. Snowfall starts as we try to replace the battery. Mohan goaded, for us to move toward Chiryanag. “Yaar battery dalke ek dhang ka tasbir to leene de bhai” I complained. Instantly Mohan replied, “Jinda bachoge tab na jake kisiko tasbir dikhaoge sirji. Chahe to mein hazaron tasbir bhej dunga, abhi niche chalo” he commanded. As we reach the base of the steep descent Mohan instructs us to proceed with Gopal bhai & turns back. On enquiry he informs he will be joining back soon after performing puja at Roopkund & vanishes in he mist. Within minutes he rejoins the group & we march towards Rani-Ki-Sulera.

On the way we found the Indiahikes’ team setting up their camp at little ahead of Rani-Ki-Sulera. After a exchange of information, congratulations & wishes we move ahead. At Rani-Ki-Sulera we find the trekkers from Sodepur setup their camp. We had our lunch & stride ahead to Bedini. After crossing Kalu Vinayak, we were greeted by rain & gusty winds. Inspite of the steep decent, we had to move slowly than our normal speed due to fatigue & the wind factor. In between Patharnachuni & Ghoralatuni, a sudden surge of wind rips apart the raincoat upper of both Mohan & mine.

As we wait a bit at Ghoralatuni to relax our already batter muscles, Mohan instructs Gopal bhai to reach ahead of us & arrange for hot tea & soup as we reach. To our astonishment we witness him to literally run down the trails & vanish in minutes. Our ever-lasting rest session was broken by Mohan & rain. Although the rest was well deserved, but it along with the lack of adrenalin rush had a different effect. We seem to be the last souls to stride a step ahead. Again Mohan & our will-power came to our rescue & we start pulling ourselves towards our camp at Bedini. While taking the shortcut from the trail towards Bedini (the one which took our breath away in the early morning), I tumbled & fall just because the co-ordination between my limbs & my brain was not functioning properly.

Finally after 13 long & exciting hours we reach Bedini with a battered body but a joyful soul. We change into dry clothes & woolens even before sipping the awaiting tea. After a short rest, we hugged Mohan & Gopal bhai not only for making our dream come true but also for saving our life by insisting that we keep moving in the snow without long rests so that we remain warm. We all joined by the fire already set up by Mohan’s father along with the steaming hot chicken soup. After dinner we give rest to our aching muscles with both joy & a bit of sorrow in our mind. Joy of achieving our dream of reaching Roopkund, and sorrow of not being able to view the mighty peaks, missing out the scenic beauty due to rain, clouds & fog. Sorrow for not being able to click more snaps at Roopkund, due to snow, fog & drained out battery. Rejoicing we go to sleep maybe with a little smile of satisfaction on our lips.

Bedini Bugiyal – Wan
12th Sep ’09: The morning came with bright sun shine & clear blue sky. What an irony, we were waiting for this for our entire trek & got the same on the day we are heading down. Even before brushing our teeth we rush out of the hut equipped with our cameras to capture the views of Trishul, Nanadaghunti, Chowkhamba, Bunderpunch, Nanadaghunti & the lush green bugiyal in clear weather. Within a short period, clouds cover up the entire scenery; as if weather God had blessed us with a glimpse as a reward of our yesterday’s effort.
Leisurely we pack our sacks & other belongings & get ready to move down to Wan after a breakfast of Aloo prantha & achar. As we head back, we turn back after every step before the lush green Bedini Bugiyal go out of our sight. We quickly reach Doliadhar top & wait for Mohan & Gopal bhai to arrive. Coming down through the damp forest terrain was not as easy as we felt it would be & we had to tread slowly with caution at certain areas. At a particular area mentioned by Mohan, we sat down & started searching for cellular connections. Amazingly I got my Airtel alive while BSNL & Vodafone were not able to register the phones in their respective network. Another bit of information exchange with family members & friends, some chocolates, glucose water & we start heading down. We arrive at Ran-Ki-Dhar at around 2pm & had a lunch-break with biscuits, dates & water. After a bit of rest we start towards Wan & reach by 3.15pm.