Expedition Airaavat- In the Shadow of The Celestial Elephant

Expedition Airaavat- In the Shadow of The Celestial Elephant

(Explorations in the Haathi Parvat Valley)

Time: 1230 Hrs 5th Nov 2009

“Woh nahin Sir, yeh pass cross karna hai”. Subhan said, his voice partially garbled in the radio transmission. Subhan, Vinod and Kundu were looking like three tiny specks at the feet of an imposing mountain.
“What???” I could not believe what he was saying. From where we were, this pass looked perched on top of a vertical wall of snow!

“Yeh to technical lag raha hai. Isse kaise cross karenge?”- Arun asked, his eyes still examining the objective carefully.
“Yehi Rasta hai Sir, hum kai baar aye hain. Doosra raasta me ek gulley hai. Bahut danger hai rock-fall ka”- One of the senior porters replied.
“Lagta hai rope lagana padega. Oopar thodasa technical climb lag raha hai”- The veteran –Jaisingh offered his assessment.

“Sahi bataoon? Yeh Pass mujhe bula raha hai. Chalo karte hain” Shahid said

All of us looked at him with utter incredulity. “Sheer Madness!! Let them take the call. Why are we suggesting?” exclaimed Rajesh not quite appreciating the enthusiasm.

“Sir yahan pass ka base main aa jao, phir decision lete hain” Vinod’s voice crackled over the radio. He was already half a kilometer away conferring animatedly with Subhan.

“Shahid bhai, map nikalo”- I asked of Shahid and he promptly obliged, with the the Google Earth printouts, neatly filed in a plastic folder.

Seven heads pored over the little printout anxiously to find any opportunity to avoid the sinister looking wall of rock, snow and ice.
Half an hour later, having not found any possible alternative,we decided to get a closer look at the wall. Meanwhile, Jaisingh had modified his views partially.

“Lagta hai, woh rock band ka niche se approach hai”- He said.

With reluctant feet dragging our tired bodies on that treacherously slippery slope of dry grass, we proceeded towards where the trio of Vinod, Subhan and Kundu sat huddled. Just behind them was the wall, which they called as Barmai Pass, the only reasonably safe passage from Kagbhushandi Taal to Alakananda Valley.
Time 1300 hrs- 5th Nov 2009
“So guys, are we ready for the pass?” I was asking Negi and Bharat leading ahead of me along the already steepening slope.

“Kind of”- someone replied
“When you commit yourself to a difficult route, you don’t say kind of. You say, ‘I will do it’!” I said, thinking about the need for focus for the task at hand.
“We don’t have an option right?” – says Bharat
“Since we don’t have an option, we gotta say and believe, we are going to do it!” I was bit concerned about the team morale.
“We will do it” – shouted out Shahid, coming up few steps behind me.

So the team plodded on with mixed emotions and apprehensions.

Time: 1530 Hrs, 5th Nov 2009
“Yaar pata hai kya? …hum mission pe mission accomplish kiye ja rahe hain,,,,,,,” Rajesh was jest fully serious saying this

“Aur har din naya mission khada ho jata hai”… I filled in and the team burst out into a hearty laughter. Bharat and Venky had just reached the top. Rajesh, Shahid, Negi and I had reached minutes before and had our fill of shooting majestic pictures from that high vantage point.

The laughter masked the great relief all of us felt after the tense moments few hours ago when we were committing ourselves to the route to the top.

Resting briefly on the top of Barmai Pass , we saw a bright orange glow of a sun was about to set- lighting up the snow-scape around for 270 degrees. Haathi Parvat stood gloriously tall with all its 6700 Meters, ruling over everything that was in our view North.

Shivering slightly with the onset of cold, these were the reigning thoughts in our minds -relief and disbelief.
We had just negotiated a pass, whose apparent degree of difficulty had sprung up as a nasty surprise in an otherwise pleasant Himalayan afternoon.

The mystical emerald lake Kagbhushandi Taal wasn’t yet finished with all the surprises it could throw at us, as we would find out soon.

Searching for the list of high altitude lakes in Garhwal Mountains, this tongue twister of a name pops up all the time quite innocuously, “Kagbhushandi Taal”. For the un-initiated there is added confusion since there is a peak by the same name located not very far from the Haathi Parvat valley. To add to it all, the very lake is named as “Kankul Taal” in the British Army map that many of us use (freely available at University of Texas website), probably named after the Pass one uses to reach the emerald lake from the Haathi Parvat valley.

I went through all that a few years back in a frenzied December evening of Google Earth browsing, in the hope of a possible exploration of the route sometime in future.

View Kagbhushandi Route in a larger map to see this actual GPS Plot

The route plotted after the research veers off East from the famous Hemkund Sahib- Valley of Flowers Trail, first done by M/s Frank Smythe and party almost a century back, at Bhyunder village. It then meanders up along a small river till the head of the Haathi Parvat valley until it reaches the terminal Cwm presided by the 6700 mtrs high Haathi Parvat and another smaller peak “Oti Ka Danda”. From there the route turns south over the Kankul Pass and descends into the little boulder-strewn recess where the Kagbhushandi Taal is located. The route forth to Joshimath looked first a little unsure in the contour maps, at least for the first few kilometers, and then proceeded onwards along a ridge down to Vishnuprayag and Joshimath.

As it happens always, The Mountain bade its time and finally allowed me to go for it at last in the November of 2009. I was fresh from the Lamkhaga- Nalgan pass trek done in June, but still this one happened, barely four months later!!! To make it special two additional features were added to the itinerary.

  1. It was to be done in early winter (The usual season is in the mid and late monsoon)
  2. We were to explore deep into the head of the Haathi Parvat- Oti Ka Danda Cwm and locate an unmapped lake which was so clearly visible in the satellite pictures

As has been the practice in the last few years, a thread was floated duly in the Orkut and Indiamike community threads (lately I have had very high opinion of teams made out of the internet community- one gets to meet new friends and more often than not highly capable and enthusiastic ones). In due course of time a whole new team was formed (somehow all members of previous treks were in-disposed to join in)-another youthful team with widely varied backgrounds and profiles.

Arun Negi and Bharat Tomar came from the IT fraternity. Both fit, energetic and willing to brave it if the situation so demanded. Arun, the Handsome Brute-force of a Pahadi proved to be a solid anchor in the middle later on. Bharat- Loveguru- Tomar proved his mettle in his maiden trek. The Rajput from Haryana carried on his role, be it for team entertainment or bringing up the rear in a tough climb, with equal aplomb.

Ananda Kundu from Kolkata was the silent and gentle giant. A last moment joinee in his maiden trek, he fared well. The Robotics engineer-entrepreneur swore to take time out for exploring the mountains many times more, by the time we ended.

I had met Anand Venkat the first time browsing through some blogs, scanning some discussion thread on Kailash Darshan. Although we had interacted during some discussions on Mount Kailash, this was the first time we were going to be trekking together. I was shocked out of my mind when I saw the smiling young lad for the first time! Barely a facial hair on him, he looked the youngest. By the time we ended the trek, my respect for the Youngman had grown several fold. A tireless campaigner and silent worker, he works magic when behind his Nikon lenses.

Rajesh‘s hearty laughter and animated comments rang in the ears weeks after we ended the trek. The maverick ex-banker- Outrageous- NGO activist who is also husband to my ex colleague went out for the first time with me on a trek. Although we had exchanged notes several times on various trekking experiences, this was the first time we were together on one. He was the other senior citizen in the team (other than me).

Shahid Ali had earlier interacted in Orkut when he was planning his solo trek to EBC (Everest Base Camp). The Audiologist from Bangalore donned a commando look when in the mountains. Always willing to take up a challenge he proved good in all roles- Lead, Middle or bringing up the rear. No wonder he had earlier survived serious weather conditions in the foothills of the highest mountain peak on earth.

The Support team was interestingly structured as well. A 4-member core team was hired from Crystal of Uttarkashi (Old and trusted friends as Vinod, Jaisingh, Praveen and Anil) who then arranged the rest of the resources locally from Joshimath.
The porters were hired from a porter agency at Joshimath who also provided a local route expert in form of Subhan and the necessary permissions from the forest department. Subhan claimed to have done the route couple of times himself.

Day 0- Delhi- Joshimath ( 480 Kms drive)

I remember the long drive to Joshimath from Delhi as one that was tiring and draining but funny as hell!! One advantage of not having ladies in the team is, as a driver, you really don’t have to plan stoppages for such matters as relieving oneself. One could just stop anywhere you liked and felt like :-). I was happy.
Bharat, however, took some opportunistic advantages of that fact. “Dada, ek minute ek photo”, “Dada kuchh khate hain na”, “Dada thoda pani lete hain”, “Dada this and Dada that!!” Thankfully some of the many stopovers he proposed, allowed me to steal few winks of sleep. It is an additional fact that some fabulous shots have been shot during those myriad stopovers for toilet, food and just plain nature watching.

We started off from Delhi at about 0400 Hrs and were in Rishikesh by 0930 Hrs after some undue delays on the way due to fog and poor visibility. After taking a short power nap and some hasty South Indian breakfast, we were past Devprayag by 1300 and were in Srinagar for lunch by 1430 Hrs. Amidst some hilarious lectures and banters of M/s Bharat and Shahid, we were at Joshimath by 2000 Hrs. It was interesting to listen to the “Do-it-yourself course” for “50 dates in 10 days” by Baba Bharat. Anyways, happy ending for a grueling 16 hrs drive with no sleep in the previous night. Phew!

Once settled in the hotel, it was time to party!! Next day onwards it was walk all the way for 80 Kms!!

Day 1- Joshimath- Bhyunder Village (25 Kms drive and 9 Kms Trek)

Next day Vinod woke us up early at 0700. By the time we were lazily ready, it was 0930. It took another two and a half hour to actually begin the trek from Govindghat. Learning point!! It is better to stay at Govindghat than at Joshimath so that one can start trekking early. It is downright depressing to start a trek with the sun beating down harsh on your head.

After filling up water bottles at the Gurdwara at Govindghat, it was time to hit the trail. Old memories came flooding back as I started off across the suspension bridge over Alakananda, her waters bearing the turquoise hue, so typical of all Himalayan Rivers at this time of the year.

For someone who would have visited Hemkund Sahib and Valley of Flowers (the trail that we were on), the solitude and calm would immediately be apparent. In season, these very routes shall be teeming with thousands of pilgrims of all age and origin, the route would be lined with shops, trade would be brisk, the air filled with the smell of human beings and mule-dung, the chants of the people and the neighing of the horses filling the ears; I liked the change.
In the tough climb out of Govindghat, there was a funny interlude when w
e saw a signboard put up by the local managing committee, exhorting tourists and pilgrims to write their suggestions in the “Suggestion Rock”! Probably a minor error on part of the painter, but in that mountainous locale, with several utterly funny interpretations and visualizations.

By the time we reached the pretty Pulna village, we were suddenly aware that Vinod and the party of porters are far behind and faintly within radio contact.

Meanwhile I was enjoying the almost forgotten memories of a trek done 16 years back. The whole trail had changed so much since 1992 that it was like doing the trek anew. The colors of the fall added on to the novelty. Pulna village was probably a cluster of few houses when I visited the place a decade and half ago. Now it was a bustling settlement with a prominent concrete arch welcoming the passers-by. The sparse population of the village was merely a reminder of the season. Colorful Marigolds, Sunflowers and Dahlias adorned the area near the welcome arch. Bright red fields of “Chaulai (an edible “saag” which also bears flour bearing seeds)” lined the narrow dirt-road leading into the village.

We had not realized till then that this was only a trailer of the spectacle that the Mountain was going to unfold; a Himalayan Autumn surprise! The forest ahead wore various hues of red, yellow, purple, green, brown and a multitude of other shades; so vivid and colorful, one is reminded of flipping through the pages of a comic book.

Soon it was lunchtime and we stopped under a small cluster of sheds, which might have been serving as refueling point for hungry and thirsty pilgrims during the season. Now of course they were all deserted. Chomping through Paranthas and Pickles we had another hilarious discourse by Loveguru- Bharat about some theory on Chocolates and Women.

The only nagging issue in the mind was the slow progress of the Porters’ Team. They were yet to be contacted over radio!! It was 1500 Hrs and we were already half way through!! At that rate, we would be at the designated campsite by 1700 and wait for the porters to arrive by 1900!

“Not a nice idea”, I mused. For a moment I regretted not getting porters from Uttarkashi, who were familiar and whom I trusted not to turn their back at the middle of the trek. We decided to wait for the porters for the simple reason that we needed to be sure that the porters were coming after all! No point waiting for them at Bhyunder village without a fall back option for the shelter for the night.

The problem resolved itself 45 minutes later when the porter team finally came up. After a sharp and pointed communication with the Porter Sirdar-Dalbir and Subhan the local guide, we proceeded towards Bhyunder, relieved and hopeful.

Just as we were witnessing the first views of Snow over the Nar Parvat, part of the sky clouded up. It can be mesmerizing to see the reddish-yellow hues of the setting sun juxtaposed with the grayish rain bearing clouds, walking on the picket-fenced boulevard at Bhyunder Mall 🙂

It is difficult to put to words, the subliminally divine experience. The gentle drizzle, the whispering susurration of the breeze carrying colorful leaves of the fall, the baby goats calling out animatedly for their returning mothers, the patches of snows and clouds in the high mountains difficult to tell one from the other- all of it just whisked one off to another world.

By the time we reached the village the rain had increased intensity and we found some of our members in the advance party resting on the verandah of the village temple. Praveen was already cleaning up the Verandah for camping there for the night. This is one characteristic of our support team I have never been able to understand. Even when there is a perfect campsite, so close to water and a relatively friendly weather with plenty of firewood for a grand campfire, they would always rush to the nearest concrete shelter! For us citi-breds, dying for a camping experience, it becomes slightly incomprehensible at that moment. (Of course we conveniently ignore the labor they have to put in to pitch the tents in and then pack all of it back in the morning before starting the day’s walk ;-))

We insisted upon camping down on the little field across the bridge over Laxman Ganga. This is where we were to veer off from the VoF route and catch the robustly constructed trail into the Haathi Parvat Valley. In about an hour everybody assembled at the camping ground. By the time tents were pitched, it was already dark. Price paid for starting off late.

The first day had taken its toll. The tired limbs, however, were soon forgotten as soon as Vinod and Jaisingh got a massive campfire going. After fervent experimentation with night shooting by the light of the campfire, it was time for dinner. There was some jesting talk by Jaisingh about possible visit of bears from the nearby Jungle. I was almost about to scream in the middle of the night when a restless Rajesh went looking for a suitable place to relieve himself. Thankfully I did not 🙂

Day 2- Bhyunder- Semartoli Bugyal- Dang Kharak Glacier Camp (8 Kms Trek)

The larger the village, the eerier it looks when deserted. Watching the silent outlines of the Bhyunder village, still shivering by the small campfire, I was thinking of the day ahead. The small camp was stirring lazily to life. We knew we had a long walk ahead. We had targeted reaching the head of the valley, if we were to spend any meaningful time exploring the glacier and looking for the small un-mapped lake.
After some easy idle talk, we were all ready in a hurry and had hit the trail by 8:30 AM. Good show! I thought, we all had been regretting the late start, the previous day.
Not long after the Bhyunder camp, the jungle grows even denser. The well made Chhe-phuti (6 Ft wide) trail twists its way through the abundance of conifers, all of them rich with their zillion colors of the fall.

Dry maple leaves with their shades of red, brown and yellow carpeted the track amidst faint piercing calls of crickets. Not a bird to be heard or a call of a monkey. It was a silent pleasure walk with a colorful canopy overhead through which the sun pierced in with numerous needles. One could hear a distant gurgle of the river we were following up east. Who would not treasure those moments of total immersion and silent reverence for a force so powerful yet so eloquent and pretty!


After an hour of walk one reaches a small opening (probably can serve as a camping ground for a small party) from where the mighty bulk of the Haathi Parvat reveals itself over the tree line.
Shortly thereafter one crosses a concrete bridge to cross over to the river’s true left. Just after crossing the bridge the route seemed to disappear beneath the thick undergrowth. Watchful eyes tracked the route back and soon we were over another makeshift bridge back to the true right of the river. From now on, we would remain on the true right till we cross it over at its origin near the Chainyal Kharak camp.

That’s when Shahid Ali declared, he has lost his newly-purchased-highly-admired-Singapore-sourced-Casio Protrek watch somewhere on the way. As usual, the “lost-and-found” service of Praveen Negi was employed. Commando Shahid insisted upon accompanying him in the adventure. Thankfully both of them returned successful and tired after one long hour. To cut a long story short, this little accident set us back by 90 minutes against the planned timelines.

The trek resumed with several necessary halts on the way. The view was so breathtaking, one had to stop to shoot the pictures. Timelines could wait for a while J. At Kabassi Udiar, about 2 kms from the bridge, one could see several large rocks that might be used for shelter (for humans as well as bears). Here Jaisingh did some digging around for medicinal herbs (He called it Chaura- used for cold and flu apparently). After this lovely meadow, one crosses three dried up nullahs and a dense jungle to reach the next camping site. These streams were bone dry, even in the month of November.

After about 6 Kms from Bhyunder camp, one reaches a large undulating meadow through which a highly meandering trail passes (one wondered if the route surveyor was following the proverbial path of the calf) to lead on to a beautiful campsite. On a good day, if the team plans well enough, it is possible to reach this campsite, Semartoli, in one-day form Govindghat.

The camping ground is a dream of a campsite for any size of the group. A lone ashram of a Baba looks over the twisting course of the river from the gentle slopes that lead further east towards the head of the valley. The Ashram was deserted however. Waiting for the rest of the party to arrive, I lit up a small fire. The sun was faint with wisps of clouds filling up the sky and it was becoming cold waiting in a half-hearted Sun.

Even as we had our lunch I could overhear the porter team grumbling yet again about the distance and the load. We had barely crossed 6 Kms and they were at it again!! I had to do some essential hard-talk.
“Aap log agar aise hi karte rahenge, ya to hum tour cancel karenge ya phir apna load khud carry karenge. Yeh kya mazak hai?”- The anger was presumably a manifestation of the helplessness inside. ” Aage char kilometer aur chalna hai camp ke liye.” I warned.

“Koi baat nahin Sir. Chal lenge.”- The Porter Sirdar Dalbir said.

They all nodded and carried on. The valley after Semartoli widens up quite a bit and in about 2 Kilometers enters a rocky flat. The PWD trail disappears into the boulder-filled riverbed once too often, the route barely marked by parallel lines of outlining rocks. From a distance we could see the denuded ridges of the Dang Kharak glacier. The Google Earth print-out and the GPS position locator were once again deadly accurate in navigation.

We were soon standing beneath the giant wall of the Dang Kharak glacier even as the pregnant clouds overhead hinted of a snowstorm. The wind powered up and little flakes of snow came floating down.

“Abe kya kar raha hai? Direct snow kha raha hai aasmaan se?” I asked Arun Negi

He had his mouth wide open, skywards, trying to catch the falling snowflakes.
Subhan was following closely behind. Looking at the weather and the gloomy outline of the Cwm area ahead I decided to camp.

“Yehin camp karte hain Subhan”. The GPS readings said we were short by 2 Kms from our designated target. But looking at the condition of the team, especially the porters and the weather condition, a call had to be taken.
“Lekin sir, yahan koi campsite to dikh nahin raha hai” Subhan said, scanning the boulder-strewn riverbed.
“Koi baat nahin bana lenge!”- I said.

I was hopeful; we should indeed find some leveled patches where we could pitch the tents. The waters of the river gurgled nearby and a birch forest was not too far away. Water and fire and some level ground! That’s what we needed for a camp in any case. Soon after the tents were pitched, all of us spent considerable time gathering firewood. By the time the sunset, we had gathered at least a quintal of fuel for our campfire.

As the clouds dispersed and darkness fell, the glorious view of the Haathi Parvat revealed slowly. The giant mountain and its less lofty subordinates were completely awash with the gentle brightness of a full moon. The -6 degree cold did not deter us from trying out night-shoots in our respective cameras from different angles. Far away in the West, the pinnacle of Mt. Neelkanth peeked from over the ridgelines of the Khuliaghata ridge. Talking late into the night, gathered around the campfire, the imposing walls of the glacier almost behind us, the whiteness of the snow kingdom visible ahead and all that moonlight magic!! It was another world.
In the maps, Chainyal Kharak (also called Raj Kharak by some local tour operators) is indicated as the final camping ground before reaching the Kankul Pass. We aimed to camp there or any other suitable camping site closest to the base of the pass and then spend the day exploring till the end of the medial moraine of the glacier. By all estimates, the campsite would not be more than 4 Kms, I reckoned.

Day 3- Dang Kharak- Kankul Pass Base Camp (5 Kms)

We lifted camp a little late at about 0930. The day was sunny as usual. Thanked The Mountain for one more day of blessing. The peaks shone gloriously to the North almost over our heads. The Dang Kharak Glacier was a stone’s throw away. Negi, Bharat and Kundu had decided to team up together and keep equal speed. Rajesh and I led ahead quickly along with Vinod and Jaisingh. We had to reconnoiter a suitable campsite that can help us launch our exploration into the Cwm and serve as a base camp for the pass at the same time.

The steep climb over the moraine ridge on the true left of Dang Kharak glacier, leaves one with bit of a shock. By the time we regained our breath on top of the rise, it was already 1100 Hrs. For some reason, we were having quite a leisurely walk. I wasn’t quite sure if it was the altitude or the anticipation of an early camp or just plain laziness.

The route, expectedly broken around the glacier snout requires a bit of exploration. In the monsoons it can be a bit of a task crossing the river there. The team spent quite some time shooting pictures near the snout.

I was beginning to have bit of a problem with the eyes. A combination of snow and altitude does it to me always. However, this time around there was help at hand in form of the little vial of “Lubrex” that Rajesh was carrying. We stopped several times to administer numerous drops of the magic lotion in my eyes. This shall be a necessary item in my medicine chest from now on.
“Lagta hai koi party aa rahi hai udhar se”- Vinod said squinting against the sun looking at the few people coming towards us from the opposite direction.

“Kahan se aa rahe hain?” I asked the couple of men who came near. They were loaded heavily and also armed with shovels and axe. For a moment, several unsavory thoughts popped in the mind about possible snow conditions ahead.
“Aage se aa rahe hain. Raasta bana rahe the. Snow zyada hai. Wapas jaa rahe hain.” One of them said.

We soon gathered that they were PWD workers, who were calling off work for the season due to heavy snow conditions. The PWD has done some excellent work in building this trail right till the base of the Kankul Pass. One might wonder why, given the virgin-ness of the valley.

“May be the Government wants to popularize the trail for tourists”, I thought.

This group of workers had another gift for us in form of a well-stocked and well managed camp at Chainyal Kharak as we were to discover pretty soon. The campsite is at the right edge of the medial moraine across a small stream. The team regrouped slowly, a little after midday. Kundu suffered a minor and unnecessary fall into the waters while crossing the stream, rendering the trousers and the shoes completely wet.

From the campsite, a little depression is visible due south over a bounding ridgeline. That was the first view of the Kankul Pass. Even in the bright sunshine, the tall and jagged outline was awe-inspiring.
After a quick lunch it was time to go exploring the head of the valley in the hope of locating that little lake, yet unmapped but visible from the manmade eyes in the skies. Kundu decided to stay back, still trying to dry up his shoes and clothes.

With Dalbir in the lead and Subhan and Jaisingh as assistants, the team started up towards the valley-head flanking the true right of the medial moraine of the Kankul Glacier.

This glacier emanates from the feet of “Oti Ka Danda”, the dominant peak guarding the Eastern extreme of the Haathi Parvat valley. The lake was expected to be seen somewhere at the base of that peak, slightly to the west.
Countless boulders numerously punctuated the laborious climb up (a feature that would be our companion for next couple of days, we were yet unaware). Finally the group reached a moraine mound blocking the way ahead. Rajesh and Bharat had decided against the late-afternoon-boulder-hopping.
“Reached back camp buddy! Best of luck! Not feeling too well. Bharat is also with me, he had bit of a stomach problem”- Rajesh radioed in.

“Dalbir ko bhejo aage Subhan. Is chadhai ke baad lake mil sakta hai” I told Subhan. The GPS mapping showed, we were very close to the edge of the lake.
Dalbir and Jaisingh went ahead following two different routes. The climb up was in knee-deep snow, probably for about a hundred vertical meters.
By 1520 Hrs Dalbir shouted back- “Lake mil gaya sir!!” Jaisingh also radioed back the sighting of the lake 10 minutes later.

Arun, Venkat and Shahid had gathered by then at the base of the mound, all of them raring to go for the top. I stayed back behind overseeing the respective routes up and coordinating messages through the radio.
“It’s okay guys. Go ahead, but do start back the moment it is 1600 Hrs, whether you have seen the lake or not” I was worried about the clouds gathering up above.

“Aye aye Sir!!” said Arun. They took a sip each from my hydration pack and up they went.

After a bit of a struggle in the snow, the team reached the narrow bank of that little un-spoilt beauty.
“Ashu Sir!! Lake sighted and conquered!!”
Shahid was loud and clear on the radio in what can be termed as his characteristic “Victory Cry” upon attainment of an objective 🙂
As agreed, they all started back in time and the team was back at the camp by 1800. Rajesh and Bharat had set up an ingenious hearth as campfire, inspired by some description in the book that Rajesh was reading. It was indeed, a fine contraption in that windy and flat place.

“Dada maza aya na campfire me?” Bharat would have asked me the same question at least three times that evening. Obviously he was happy with his Joint Venture handiwork with Rajesh.

Happy conferencing followed, sipping on tasty Daal borrowed from the Porters’ kitchen around The Campfire. Everyone was discussing the interesting little excursion and exploration of the unmapped lake. We decided unanimously to call it the Haathi Taal- named after the presiding peak of the valley.

The salient aspect of the evening was, however, the delicious Jacket Potatoes that Bharat produced from the campfire. The barbecue, suitably interspersed with jewels of wisdom about women and love, lasted late into the night.

“Yeh ladkiyan jo hoti hain na dada…” and another long discourse from Bharat Tomar would follow.
That was the first of the many times that Bharat’s culinary expertise was to be tested, with resounding success, if I may add.
“Age se, bade bade alu layenge, agle trek ke liye” that was the final decision that night J Bigger potatoes made better jacket potatoes 🙂

Day 4- Over Kankul Pass to Kagbhushandi Taal (8 Kms)

Thankfully the skies opened bright and clear, the next morning. That is a piece of luck every trekker prays for in the high mountains, especially in the winter. Any precipitation in this season means heavy snows in the high passes, which makes even a hundred feet look like a mile of ordeal. All in high spirits, the morale high with the exploration of the previous evening, the team set out for the Pass.

We were to cross the pass and camp near the Kagbhushandi Taal by the end of the day. The distance wasn’t much, but the difficult terrain would take up much of the time. “Difficult Terrain” was an understatement, as we would realize not long after.
The trail to Kankul Pass from the Chainyal Kharak campsite winds up in a confusingly serpentine fashion towards the general direction of the pass. Since Kundu was suffering a bit from exhaustion, it was decided to send him ahead with Jaisingh an hour before rests of us were to start. Just when the duo vanished ahead of the last visible bend on the trail, Rajesh and I started off.

About a kilometer later the faithful and well made Chhe Phuti, which had been our companion since Govindghat, just trailed off; probably a result of the abandonment of work by the group of PWD workers whom we had met the previous day. Jaisingh and Kundu were nowhere to be seen. We decided to follow the general direction where the trail was headed last and found ourselves standing on the left edge of the medial moraine.
Beyond a ravine below, the tall ramparts of the ridge rose several hundred meters above us, due south. A gentler slope leading to the top could be seen further east; in fact Subhan had indicated that to be the route the previous evening. We failed to notice Jaisingh and Kundu trying to follow a shepherd trail directly due South where the forbidding wall of the ridge rising above us. We decided to move east towards the slope.

The entire team was on the move now, following different trails, generally guiding each other over voice and radio calls. Just then someone pointed out Jaisingh and Kundu trying to negotiate an alternate trail that looked fairly challenging from where we stood. Upon our repeated calls to come back and join the route we were following, Jaisingh radioed back his confidence about the route he was following with characteristic nonchalance.

“Poora rasta bana hua hai sir idhar se. Bakri wala rasta hai. Boulder aur snow bhi kam milega.” – His voice came over the radio.

“Ooper difficult lag raha hai Jaisingh.” I radioed back anxiously.
“Maine dekha hai Sir. Kuch problem nahin hai.” – He replied. I could imagine the impact this conversation might be having on Kundu’s morale and decided to trust the instincts of the veteran.

There was a quick consultation among Vinod, Subhan and I. We decided to proceed fast and be at the top, where the two routes appeared to converge, as soon as possible. In case any help was required in terms of fixed rope, Vinod could then go down and help Jaisingh. We should have known the old man better, as we would realize later.
The real ordeal started after that. Soon we were to realize, how true and correct Jaisingh’s gut-feel was!

“These sherpas have a way with smelling their way through. This bugger Jaisingh practically sniffs his way out!” we would discuss later that evening.

Where the rock and shrubs of the medial moraine ends and the snow & grass covered bouldered slope starts to the top, there is a small glacial tarn. I noted it for future reference. It could be used as a bivouac site or for setting a small base camp for the Pass. The immediate increase in the steepness knocked the wind out of us. Soon we were boulder hopping, each hop becoming longer as we proceeded ahead.

At one point, Rajesh stopped. Huffing and puffing heavily he put his trekking pole between two boulders, which clearly indicated the gap to be close to 6 feet.

“Yeh saale porters load ke saath jump maar ke jaa rahe hain kya?” said Rajesh, he had that familiar look of exaggerated disbelief J

In that section of the climb we were basically following the porters, who appeared to be flying across the boulders. Vinod and Subhan were much further ahead aiming to reach the junction point from where they could oversee progress on both the routes, one that we were following and the one that Jaisingh was following with Kundu.

By the time we reached the junction point, all of us were totally exhausted, frustrated with the snow, run out of drinking water and hungry. We had not had a morsel of food since morning and it was already midday. The saving grace was the clear sky and the blazing sun overhead.

We tried having some chocolate bars and some ice-melt for drinking. I still remember stuffing my hydration pack with powder snow, desperate to have some water for the climb ahead. Soon Jaisingh and Kundu appeared. Kundu was exhausted too from the steep climb. They however, did not have to go through the painful and risky boulder hopping that we had to do. The mountain had a different challenge for everyone.

Little had we realized that we were only half way through the climb! We still had to cover 400 more vertical meters. The climb was divided into three distinct stages, each stage visible directly ahead from where we stood. The first two stages were through brown and dried grass over a steep slope. The final stage was along a wall, the track made of rock and snow. We had to hurry, if we were to cross the top before the iffy mountain weather played truant in the afternoon.

Rajesh and I took the lead again. The steep climb ahead was on slippery dried grass. Far below on our left lay an angry bed of boulders awash with brilliant-white snow. Hungry bodies and thirsty throats struggled for balance. On such slopes essentially one walks on the sides of one’s feet. Prolonged exercise of this nature become agonizing for anyone. The porters seemed to be forever ahead of us. They were now showing their true mettle after all the grumbling in the previous days.

Resting under a rock after the first step I chanced to take a look around. The proud Hathi Parvat stood tall directly North of us. The Kankul Glacier lay below its feet with a East-West orientation, looking like a wide highway constructed with great care. The surrounding peaks at the head of the valley, due East stood encircling the head of the glacier as if blessing it with silent magnanimity. Small crevasses on the glacier and its medial moraine were visible from where I stood.

I could make out the small depression where the Haathi Taal (one that we had explored the previous evening) might be located. The Taal, however, was not visible. It wasn’t visible the entire way till the top; one of the possible reasons why it might have been uncharted in the British Army Map (1937).

Soon the rest of the team caught up and we had to plod on. After a long, tedious, highly punctuated and exhausting hour we finally caught the summit slope.

“Wo raha pass”- Subhan said. “Dalbir pahunch gaya hai do porters ke saath.”

Seeing the small cairn from that distance, our morale perked up. With Subhan cutting the route through knee-deep snow I finally reached the top at 1430 hrs. The altitude reading had beaten my calculations. We were well over 4700 mtrs at the top of the pass, 4713 meters to be precise.

Beyond lay the Kagbhushand Gaad valley leading on to Alaknanda. The comparatively low-lying Shivalik mountains appeared ghostly on the horizon with their faint purple-blue outlines. Looking back one could see the Haathi Parvat valley and the slope leading to where I stood. I could see our team snaking its way up. A large, lazy and struggling snake :-).

Rajesh reached up soon. As he reached the top his hands folded in salutation to the great Mountain, as if he was seeking blessings and was thanking the King of Mountains for have ended the trying part of the day. In the next one hour all of the team members arrived one by one- first Shahid and then Arun, Venkat and Bharat Tomar. Kundu was much far behind struggling his way through the deep snow.

“Kundu! We have reached the Pass.” – Shahid was shouting at the top of his voice into the radio, exhorting his tent-mate to come on.

“Aa raha hoon main” came the disinterested reply. He obviously had more pressing matters at hand to deal with, all that rock and snow and slippery ground J.

After waiting a while, we decided to leave Subhan behind to wait for Kundu and started for the camp. Some porters had gone ahead to look for campsite near the Kagbhushandi Taal. We were eager to join them. All we needed was water to drink and the warmth of a sleeping bag.

(We had earlier planned to camp much below the Taal. The time of the day, body conditions and the ever increasing thirst forced us to abandon plan and we had decided to camp near the Taal for the night, even if it was cold. It was going to be our highest camp at 4350 mtrs.)

The boulder hopping started again, albeit for a much shorter duration. With the mind divided between the boulders and the safe arrival of Kundu, we finally reached the end of the platform from where one could see the emerald jewel- Kagbhushandi Taal.

Soon the tents were visible, pitched right near the West bank of the lake. The team morale shot up again and we all were at the camp by about 1600 hrs. Just when we were about to rest in the dying rays of the setting sun, Subhan appeared informing us that Kundu had crossed the Pass 15 minutes back.

I think, the sun set the fastest that evening. By the time we had finished clicking couple of snaps of the beautiful lake, darkness was descending with cold ferocity. Before long, the temperature began dipping below the zero mark.

With the headlight glowing on his head, Kundu finally appeared. I was waiting for him outside the Kitchen tent. He rested on the rock alongside and almost collapsed. The gentle giant had been drained off his last ounce of strength.

No campfire that night. Food was served inside the tent as members refused to brave the cold outside. Shahid was heard discussing the day with Kundu late into the night. By now, it was habitual to hear Shahid giving a motivational spiel to his tent mate for several hours. I was happy they had bonded well. All that bonding was going to be necessary for the challenge ahead, challenges I was not yet aware of.

Day 5- Kagbhushandi Taal – Barmai Pass (4513 Mtrs) – Upper Barmai Camping Ground (6 Kms)

It was a visual treat next morning.

The large water body of Kagbhushandi Taal appears emerald green during most part of the day, possibly due to the immense depth. When you combine that large emerald with its lightly shimmering tranquil waters, with the snow covered mountainsides, the thin morning mist that hangs above it and the early rays of the rising sun that light up the lofty peaks around, you are transported to a different dimension. Even for the non-believer there would be a moment of silent gratitude for all that sublime beauty.

A small river emerges from the Southwestern corner of the lake, the point well marked with a cairn. The route to Joshimath touches this point, rises over a mound to its south and descends further ahead. We watched Subhan and Kundu disappear down that route around 0730 hrs that morning.

To reduce variability in arrival at the evening camp we had again requested Kundu to start early, for which he sportingly obliged. In fact he had slept with his shoes on, the previous night to reduce start-up time in the morning. Dedicated lad he was!!

With the bright sun beating overhead, we proceeded down to the very edge of the waters of Kagbhushandi Taal and then over across the steep contours of the mound to the south. The view beyond opened up into a huge bowl of a valley. Further south a wall of high ridges blocked the way.

Seeing this on Google Earth I had earlier charted a possible route along the riverside down the South West. Subhan, Kundu and few porters were well ahead of us. Vinod and Jaisingh, new in the area were leading us across the mountain face locating distant cairn marks. Till then I was thinking that the route was across a n easy looking pass to the South East. However, all doubts were put to rest when Subhan said it over the radio.

“Sir, woh samne raha pass.”

“Kaun sa Subhan ? Woh bayen wala? Jo boulders dikh rahe hain?” I asked to clarify.

“Woh nahin Sir, yeh pass cross karna hai. Dahine wala..jo wall dikh raha hai”.

What happened after that is narrated as the opening scene of this article. We were stunned for a moment looking at the obstacle. It was forbidding in the strictest sense- The Barmai Pass.

This must be one reason why not too many successful accounts one reads of about the crossover to the lake from Joshimath and back. There is this most imposing wall of a pass that stands in between the leading ridge to Joshimath and the emerald lake.

Few hours later, marveling at the 360-degree view around we looked down into the other side of the watershed. While the climb up to the pass was a struggle in powdery, unstable snow, the other side looked frustratingly boulder-strewn. No one amongst us liked the remembrance of the toil of the previous day. However, a camp had to be reached, before sundown.

“Mera jute ne dhokha de diya dada” said Bharat, he wasn’t looking too happy with the experience of treading through powdery snow on that 60 degree slope.

This time around we waited for Kundu to reach the top at 1600 hrs and later proceeded down together. I also recall, quite fondly if I might add, the animated conversation Arun and Bharat had with some lady friend ( the GSM phones were suddenly detecting telecom traffic once we were atop the Barmai pass) and how Bharat forgot the name of his tent-mate Arun while handing over the phone.

The camp that night was on an ideal camping ground, the Upper Barmai camping ground. The campsite is in a deep recess with an absolutely flat ground. To the west, a deep valley leads forth. One of the senior porters showed us the deep gully coming down from the ridge to the south. That was the alternate route to Barmai Pass. It is a decent route for one or two people. But for a team of 20, it is like inviting disaster. We were happy with our decision.
The campfire was with freshly cut Juniper bushes. With the fragrance of the Juniper hanging on our jackets we retired into our sleeping bags early that night. Enough of struggle and surprises for one day!!

Day 6- Upper Barmai Camping Ground- Pharsawan Bank- Vishnu Prayag (20 Kms)

It was evident from the location, the previous evening, that the Sun would break late at the campsite. It is in fact located in a deep recess, much far down the contours of the mountainous ground around. Having finished our morning chores early, in the chilling shade of the surrounding mountains, we were off for the day’s hike by 800 Hrs.

As an interesting aside, Arun Negi reported of a stubborn bird that teased him all the way through his process of ablution. While Arun was in a sensitive and vulnerable posture (squatting on the rocks J) the bird would start calling out and stop the moment Arun turned around with much effort at balancing. We named it “Shaitani Chidiya” -The impish bird.

As usual, Subhan and Kundu had left early. After his tough experience with Jaisingh on the day of Kankul crossing, Kundu now preferred Subhan as his lead. Today we had to reach a hilltop, Pharsawan Bank, due South West. One expected to get a well-constructed Chhe Phuti after that, leading all the way down to Joshimath.

After bit of confusion in the route ahead, we finally hit a proper trail and were on the Hill top of Pharsawan Bainak ( I am yet not sure about the name, whether it is Pharsawan Bank or Binayak or Bainak- Bank would mean a glacier, there is none. Binayak would indicate a Ganesha temple, there are some deities in the little stone temples at the top, but none of Ganesha)by 1000 Hrs. Altitude reading: 4215 Mtrs.

Kundu, Rajesh and I were there almost at the same time. After a brief talk, Kundu left and we waited on enjoying the sprawling view of the Alakananda Valley with Auli and Gairson Bugyal directly ahead. One could see the white dots of the buildings detailing the Joshimath town. I wondered for a moment about the extent of descent. It is only then that I realized the challenge ahead for the day.

Assuming, the Alalknanda road-head at a minimum altitude of 1800 mtrs, we still had about 2400 mtrs of descent to do!! (It later turned out that, Vishnuprayag was, in fact, at 1600 mtrs and the total descent from Pharsawan- 2600 mtrs).

The entire troupe regrouped there by 1100 Hours. During the short stopover there, Dalbir sustained some bloody injury on his forehead. In the usual lively banter amongst the porters he had rolled down over and hit his head on a jagged stone. The crisis was quickly attended to with state of the art first aid from our medicine chest. A brief photo session thereafter it was time to start the Grand Descent.

And Boy! Was it a descent? It was the Mother of all descents I have seen in my life.!! The route undulated up and down (but generally down) till we crossed two small passes (in fact, transverse high spurs along a North- South ridge that led all the way down south).

After the second high point, there was a sharp descent of about 400 mtrs ending at a trough on the ridgeline. After reaching there we saw another gigantic descent down on the other side of the ridge. The muscles in the thigh and the calf were already protesting when we looked down at the tiny Painkha village form that high vantage point. This place was called Jabar Kharak. The first camping site if we were to attempt this route from the Joshimath side.

“Paani hai?” some one enquired. We looked at each other and were to our own thoughts for a while. We were running short of drinking water yet again.

“Jaisingh aur Praveen aage jayenge aur Paani ke pass rukenge”- Vinod said. The dreadful descent ahead of us, we trode on the path ahead, with parched throats- our minds singularly focused on getting some water.

We lost the count of the number of hairpin bends we negotiated. What I remember is the several near-falls I had, my shoes slipping on the thick foliage, which sometimes blocked and sometimes carpeted our track. Shahid was just ahead of me, desperately searching for water and a leveled patch of ground where he could offer his Afternoon –Friday prayers. But he would have no such luck.

Finally, the good news came around 1400 when Praveen informed the team that they have found water.

“Paani mil gaya sir.” – said Praveen over the radio

“Kahan mila, Gaon pahunch gaye?” I asked.

“Nahin sir, Gaon to nahin hai. Yahan jungle ke andar Paani ka dhar mil gaya. ” he informed.

That’s the only place we have rested during the descent. After some quick refueling of water Shahid, Rajesh and I started off again. There was a bit of confusion in the route ahead. But soon we hit a Chhe Phuti trail and we were at Painkha village by 1530 Hrs.

The village wasn’t as deserted as it was in the Laxman Ganga valley. The village was well inhabited and was looking in good economic health; probably because of the proximity to the Joshimath town.

From now on, the trail became a concrete track- much more defined and sure; but a tad difficult to walk on. The speed became faster as the black line defining the national highway loomed into view. I was at the road-head by 1630. Rajesh, Shahid and Bharat arrived within the next hour. Phew!! The final calculation showed a total descent of 2630 Mtrs. My biggest descent so far! Never ever in my life have I descended 2630 meters in one go in a single day.

There was news from the top, that Kundu is unwell and might have to be rested at Painkha village at night. None of us liked the idea. A horse owner was found hastily at Vishnuprayag and his horse was pressed into service to retrieve Kundu till road-head.

Bisht, the faithful mountain driver was waiting with his Mahindra Commander. Two ferries of his vehicle were required to evacuate the entire team, luggage and equipment to Hotel Trishul at Joshimath.

Waiting for the quorum to build for the first ferry, we witnessed the most majestic view of a family of Himalayan Thar on the right bank of Alaknanda. A whole family of Thar was grazing, the calves cavorting and the bull and the cow desperately herding them in. The Thar is an interesting cross between a wild boar and a goat and an Ibex. It is powerful yet agile. The spectacle lasted for a good half an hour.

By the time, the second ferry of the Mahindra Commander arrived at the hotel it was 1900 already. A celebratory party was hastily organized for we had to leave early next morning. Rajesh ruled the roost that evening, recalling and narrating and re-living interesting moments of the week gone by.

Saying Bye Bye…
As usual, the Mountain gifted. Yet again, not just the elevating experience but also another bunch of dear friends. As it happens always, one is tied together initially by a common purpose. The extreme life on the mountains however, lets one discover several aspects common and aspired in each other and you become friends for life, without even realizing. It was like going back to college days, in the company of these sprightly young-men (Rajesh looked younger than them all in bearing and demeanor as well). The drive back to Delhi was relatively more continuous and less time taking. After a 16-hour marathon we were back in the city well before midnight.

Apart from the team (diverse, jolly, fit and tightly knit), the trek stood out for a few more points worth remembering. The time of attempt of the route, the exploration of the glacier & Haathi Taal and the 2600 mtrs descent were all unique in their own way. Not a single soul, or an animal was sighted for better part of the way and when it was time to sight one, it was a whole family of the rare Himalayan Thar. The virginity of the route was abundantly evident the moment we headed East into the Haathi Parvat valley.

What remained, as a nagging thought, was the omniscient scarcity of water. The streams were thin and the nullahs dry. The relatively fresh moraines near glaciers indicated some fast recession. The lovely stream bed of Barmai Camping ground looked like a cobbled street.

Probably, there just wasn’t enough glacier ice to provide the melt water. The Kagbhushandi Gaad was without water. During the long descent in the last day, during that desperate hunt for water, we did cross several streams. But all of them bone dry. The entire mountainside drained into but a small stream, carrying about four faucet-full of water! Observe keenly, and it points at the dying throes of an already-fragile ecosystem.

What tragedy! Here is the highest landmass of the world, many nooks and crannies yet undiscovered and unexplored. Here is the third highest freshwater reserve in the planet (apart from the two poles) that has fed some of the fiercest and mightiest of the rivers. Yet it dies before our very eyes. Withering away slowly, even before being seen completely.

The Captioned Album of the team’s Pictures at

Expedition Airaavat

Facebook Albums

The Interested might wish to see some of the excerpts of team DVD at

[Published under the author’s permission ]     

[ Original publication at www.snowscapes.blogspot.com on January 23, 2010–the readers are requested to express their comments on the original Blog as mentioned above ]


On the bank of Satopanth

 My Silent Ascetic


Satopanth Taal

Satopanth Taal


We ran into him on the bank of Satopanth Tal – a small triangular shaped glacial lake in the deep of the Himalaya at an altitude of 14320 feet. Satopanth, literally meaning the way to the truth, a sacred lake, described in the Skanda Puran said to be guarded by the Holy Trinity—Bramha, Bishnu and Maheswar (Shiva) . At the foot of Chaukhamba group of peaks, the lake is very difficult to accessible and well protected from the casual forays of the naïve travelers. High ridges and treacherous glaciers surround it leaving only one route of access that too over razor-sharp ridges and perilous broken glaciers. Every time the trekker had a fall or is faced with a landslide and there is no escape from those, he would desperately want to run back to the safety of the Badrinath valley – amidst familiar sights and sounds, into the warmth and safety of a bed. But after traversing a considerable distance and spending one night under an overhang (a jutting rock from the mountain wall), when ultimately we comprehended the danger fully; there were simply no point in returning. To do so, we had to cross that killing field again. So we simply marched on.

Naturally, at such a godforsaken place, in the middle of nowhere, miles away from the nearest habitation, in the lap of legends and harsh reality, we least expected anyone and definitely not a half naked ascetic.

Walking for around ten hours per day over the most difficult and dangerous terrain that too for two full days and in the process almost killing ourselves, we had reached the lake. As we dragged our half dead body over the last ridge and descended on to the bank of the lake, he came out of a nearby cave with a reassuring welcome smile as if he was expecting us for a long time; holding two steaming cup (actually two coconut shells) of scented tea. He must have seen us coming down the ridge and rightly guessed; we need some hot beverage badly. The first thing that strikes one about him was his average demeanor. He was of average height, average built — with a common face.  Apart from the unkempt long beard and the moustache, there was nothing striking about him. But instinctively one feels, there were more to that deceptive appearance, as if, he was deliberately trying to keep an ordinary and low profile.

I looked closely and realized that I am looking at the most striking pair of eyes that I have ever seen. It is not the eyes itself, which were rather small but the gaze that was coming out of those eyes– full of so much compassion. It caressed me so gently and some thing ruptured inside me. I felt like crying.

Though the temperature around here was near freezing point, he was wearing a small dhoti that only fell up to his knees; the torso was exposed to the elements and his skin was burnt deep brown (at this height sunrays plays havoc with the skin). Through the long beard and moustache his white teeth flashes every time he smiles and he smiles a lot. His small and lithe body looked exceptionally fit. I had so many questions for him wailing to burst out that I was momentarily lost for word. Seeing my amazement, which must have been dangling like a red flag, he gesticulated to let me know that he would not speak; he had taken a vow of silence. That must be the proverbial last straw on the camels’ back. Seeing me crest fallen, he gave me that dazzling smile again and signaled me to rest for a while. Yes, we badly needed some rest.

As we took possession of the two nearby vacant caves– the big one for us and the small one for our guide and the porter, he went into his cave to prepare our meal. Silently, he has taken the control by allowing us to stay and by accepting us as his guest. But where from he gets his ration! The thought haunted me for the rest of the day. The Shepard of Mana (last village near Badrinath on the Indo-Tibet border) must have been supplying him with the ration on their forays into the valleys around the lake but that’s must be very occasional. Nobody would take the huge risk to come here regularly. Food is the most precious commodity here and he offering to feed us, four healthy young men, from his precious store without even batting an eyelid!

It is so frustrating when one has so many questions and no answers.

We had no prior plan to visit Satopanth Lake. We came to Badrinath for the relatively easy and well- known trek to the Valley of Flower and Hemkunda Saheb – the pilgrim centre of the Sikh. But fate had something else for us. In Badrinth we were staying in Balananda Ashram where we met Swami Darshanananda, the in-charge of the Ashram – a sort of hotel in the guise of a Dharamshala. One evening sitting snugly in his room, we were discussing the commercialization of religion and the profusion of Dosa and Chana Batora shops in Badrinath and lamenting the loss of those quiet and peaceful religiously significant places where one can spend some time meditating or just chilling; Darshananandaji gave me a long searching look and suggested that I visit Satopanth.  Though I have read about the Satopanth Lake but had not the foggiest idea how to reach it or how many days it will take us to reach, where were the paraos(the places for night rest)– these are a ‘must- know’ on any trekking expedition. Darshananandaji assured us that he would take care of everything and he did. He arranged the guide and a porter. Our newly appointed guide and porter bought our ration arranged a stove, kerosene and other essentials.

The lake, 25kms from Badrinath, could be reached after a difficult trek of two-day with night rest at Lakshmiban and Chakratirtha. Caves in those stopovers are used as the night shelter. Around Badrinath every place is steeped in legends so are Lakshmiban and Chakratirtha. It is said that goddess Lakshmi ( goddess of wealth)and her husband Narayan ( the preserver) meditated in Lakshmiban and Chakratirtha respectively and while meditating Narayan kept his famous Sudarshan Chraka on the valley which depressed by the weight of that Chakra to form a beautiful round shaped meadow surrounded by lofty mountains.

I really feel that the whole of Himalaya is not only made of stone and ice but also of legends and hearsays.

The route initially goes along the true right bank of the fiercely flowing Alakanada River. But instead of the right bank we mistakenly took the left bank – not that there are well defined ‘asphalt roads’ in this part of the world but boulders and scree with no sign of any distinct path. We paid the price of the mistake by bivouacking (open encampment) at an altitude of 13000feet. It was such a freezing experience!

 Madan Sing Bist, our guide, tried his best to dissuade us from taking the left bank trail but the ITBP constables, posted at Mana – the last village on the Indian side (we were on the Indo-Tibet border) stopped us from proceeding further. They wanted to see our permission for visiting Satopanth. We were supposed to take permission from the Sub-Divisional Magistrate of Joshimath.  We did not know that and pleaded ignorance. But ignorance is ‘no plea in eyes of Law’ and we were told to go back. Finding no way out, I had a talk with the in-charge of the ITBP camp and showed him my official identity card.  Thus convinced that we were no Chinese spy and no threat to the national security, we were mere humble government servant who could be traced easily, we were allowed to proceed.

Though lowly paid, but the government servants had some advantages!

The ITBP soldiers who were supposed to know this place like the back of their hand “enlightened (!)” us on the forthcoming broken glacier along the right bank route. They said ‘it would be very risky to cross that broken glacier’.  Feeling superior on our theoretical knowledge and paying no heed to the sage advice of our guide, we marched on along the left bank. So at the end of the first days’ trek of ten hours, we found ourselves lost amidst an ocean of rocks, boulders — without a shelter and more importantly without a source of water. We had a princely dinner with a handful of nuts and raisin.

Fortunately, we could find an overhang under which we could manage to spread our ‘royal bed’ on the rocks and could somehow squeeze together. In a way that was good, because our body-warmth would give us some heat and when your night shelter is at more than 13000ft with three sides open, you need all the warmth that you could generate. We could also identify the direction towards which to proceed. But that would be another day and we were too tired to think straight.

It was still dark, around 5 in the morning, when I woke up. As I fell asleep around 8 in the night, an early rise was obvious. Even dog-tired souls just cannot sleep more than 9 hours.  As I looked with some trepidation towards the dangerous trail that lay ahead that we have to traverse, the first few sunrays touched the snow crested peak of Balakun and the peak erupted into a blaze. Stunned, I devour the sight — a prodigious fire on a snow peak. All of yesterdays’ hassles and hardships have turned into a beautiful gift.

Himalaya takes a lot but gives back plenty; one could not hold it in ones palm, it always overflows.

The rest of the journey till we reached Chakratirtha, was somewhat boring! Clambering up the loose moraine, going two steps forward and sliding one step down, with a few water falls and snow peaks giving company; it is laborious and event less except a few land slides and rock falls that nearly killed us. But by that time, such happenings were ‘all in a days’ work’!

On the way Madan Sing showed us a valley, high up on the mountain and said, “Sir, O dekhiye Alakapuri”( See there is Alakapuri)”! Alakapuri, the abode of Kuber, the god of wealth, was immortalized by Kalidas – the great ancient poet, in his book of verse “Meghdutam.”

Eventually, on the verge of collapse, we reached our destination. As we collapsed on the last ridge – the valley laying under us, Asim, my companion uttered a full sentence of the day, he was too busy to save his life. He said wearily, “Well, we are saved.”

Surrounded by lofty snow peaks, Chakratirtha, a well shaped circular green meadow, around 2 kms in length and 1.5 kms in breath, was a relief amidst the harsh environment. A small rivulet of about three feet wide divided the meadow in two halves. We took shelter in the only cave which fortunately was wide enough to accommodate all of us but to enter in it; we had to walk on our knees.

Next day we were on to Satopanth glacier. After three hours of hard trekking on the treacherous glacier we reached under the last ridge and could see the red flag flying on top of the ridge indicating the site of the lake. We simply dragged ourselves to the top.

The first thing that struck me squarely was the strange ethereal ambience of the lake. It had such calm and soothing effect; probably because it’s an achievement of hard labour or may be the legends, ultimately got me! But I had to admit, our suicidal efforts were amply rewarded. The perfectly triangle shaped lake at the base of the snow crested Chaukhamba I peak, surrounded by lofty mountains reflected an azure sky. A small green field in its eastern side, dotted with alpine flowers accentuates the harsh surrounding. As I feasted on the spellbinding scenery, for the first time I became aware of the complete lack of sound around it. It’s eerie! Except the sound of occasional avalanches that were coming down the Chaukhamba peak, as it is already mid-day and the snow on the peak has started to melt, coming down as huge avalanches, the silence was all encompassing. In fact the sound of the avalanches – alike the sound of a thunder, only accentuates this all-embracing, all-pervading silences. The emerald green water of triangular lake mirrors the snow crested Chaukhamba I peak. The image has been repeatedly broken by the waves of the lake forming due to the pleasantly cold gentle breeze that wafted from the snow crested Chaukhamba peak. The broken image re-forms immediately only to be broken again.

I was resting on the grassy bank of the lake when Madan Singh showed me a path towards the Chaukhamba I peak and told me, that was the path traversed by the Pancha Pandavs on their last journey to the heaven. He said, even today, ascetics who want to leave this painful world to enter the other world of supreme bliss, often take that path never to return.

This practice was very much in vogue just some three hundred years ago. Then the King of Tehri used to give this permission to those ascetics who wanted to take that last journey. But before giving permission, the aspirant was provided with all the luxuries of life — well fed, well dressed, company of beautiful maids and so forth. After few days of living in utter luxury he was commanded to leave all and to return to his former ascetic-life of abstinence. If he succeeded to return, only then the permission was granted.  Later, the British government stopped that practice.

But nobody is there to keep an eye to prevent ascetics from this suicidal effort. So even today ascetics do take this last journey on this path towards the peak of Chaukhamba never to return. That’s why Chaukhamba is called ‘Swargarohini’(path to heaven) by the locals.

From the bank of the lake, I could see a clear path like trail leading to the peak of Chaukhamba. But as the sun rose high, avalanches after avalanches started to roll down that path. It’s definitely a sure path to the other world; whether that path goes to heaven or hell that I am not very sure.

The clearness of the lake-water was surprising. It’s crystal clear. Standing on its bank, I could see almost its bottom. Legends has it, whenever something falls in the water, small birds would come flying and pick it up from the water. I have heard the same story on other sacred lakes of Himalaya, Khecheopalri in Sikkim being one.

Some small grey birds were hopping around me on the bank of the Satopanth Lake. I made a small paper ball and threw it in the lake. My paper ball remained floating till the afternoon turned into the evening and I could not see it any longer. But no bird came to pick it up.

As the evening descended, my silent ascetic came and sat beside me. It seemed that he is in a mood to talk. Immediately, I started to fire my questions. Smilingly he took up a pen and started to write down his answers in my diary.

I asked, ‘why did he come to this god forsaken place?’

He simply replied, ‘to meditate’.

‘But that can be done in ones home.’

He said, ‘yes. But you know, milk comes out only from the nipples of the cow and not from its horn or hoop.’

We talked about god, religion, spirituality, laws of nature, almost on every thing under the sun except on his person. He refused to answer any personal query; not even from where he came from. He had magnificent clarity of though, deep insight, strong opinion – a bit religious may be, but nevertheless strong belief backed by logical argument.

At the end of it he asked me, ‘why did you come?’

I said, ‘to see and to experience this fantastic world of myth and reality; to see this breathtaking beauty.’

He said, ‘me too. But to see the mountain within the mountain; to see the tal

within the tal; to experience the world within this world of myth.’

The evening passed into a starry night, I have never seen so many stars in the night sky before and the night into a glorious dawn. It was time to depart from this world of splendor and legend. As we clambered up the ridge, our silent ascetic stood on the bank of lake biding us farewell. I turned back to have a last look. I, certainly, will not be coming again. Seeing me turn back, he waived. I felt his gaze on me — full of compassion and tolerance, silently caressing me like the soft touch of a caring mother. Again something wailed inside me, and again I felt like crying aloud.

We did not know anything about him. Mortals like us are not comfortable with unanswered queries and unexplained phenomena. There were so many unanswered questions– thousands of it that were never going to be answered, smothered by the omnipotent silence. Perhaps he was right to take the vow of silence. This is certainly the right place for taking such a vow.

It is said, Bramha-Bishnu-Maheswar – the holiest of the gods, the Holy Trinity, are in perpetual meditation on the three vertices of the triangular shaped Satopanth Tal (Lake). That’s why its ambience is so ethereal. Nobody dares to break the all-pervading cloak of silence around here. 

Off course, we have not seen any of the Holy Trinity; on second thought, perhaps we have seen one!

[ Published under the author’s permission ]

[ Original publication at http://charanik.wordpress.com on July 7, 2008–the readers are requested to express their comments on the original Blog as mentioned above ]

The Valley of Gods

The clouds opened up and it started to drizzle. The mp3 player played the latest Hindi songs. Amitesh and I having occupied the last seat of Innova, trickled into a catnap. Sharmil and Nimit in the middle and Hiren in front began their tittle-tattle to keep themselves busy.

The slowness of the vehicle and the loud roar of the downpour outside broke my forty winks and I saw Chandrashekhar(our driver) parking our car behind a convoy of vehicles. Having sensed the road block, I dozed off again.

It was a different scene altogether when I woke up. With the rain still coming down hard, the road had turned into a river. The increasing vigor of River Alaknanda on our left looked threatening. What was more intimidating was the fact that we were stuck on a road which was getting flooded by the minute. Small stones on the slopes to our right lost grip and started falling down on the road. The sheer force of water made these stones roll on the road. Some of these stones collided with the rear tyres of our car which in turn produced rock music:)

Not knowing what was in store for us, we looked at each other. The expressions said it all….we were caught in the hills!

8th August 2008 :
0755 hours:
Mumbai – Delhi. Swaraj Express. The journey was totally uneventful.

9th August 2008:
0435 hours:
Arrival at New Delhi Railway Station. A few phone calls to Mr.Chandrashekhar allowed us to get to him. He waited for us near the VIP car park area on the Ajmeri gate side.

0500 hours: Our 500 km. journey began
Chandrashekharji, plan ke mutabik hume aaj hi Joshimath pahunchna hai. Mujhe pata hai, yeh bahut mushkil hai. Agar aapse nahin ho paaya, toh hum kahin beech mein hi ruk jaayenge. (According to the plan, we need to reach Joshimath today. I know it’s difficult. If you are not able to do it, we shall halt somewhere en route.)

(Long Silence and then a gentle nod)

0700 hours: Our first break was at Cheetal Grand(100 kms from Delhi), a hub en route to Haridwar – an ideal place to dump something in.

1100 hours: Rishikesh.(238 kms. covered) We spent an hour exploring the place and quickly hit the road again as our destination was still 250 kms away…Long and winding 250 kms.

The NH-58 route

1700 hours: It was time to take a tea break. We had reached Rudraprayag.

We anxiously asked the chai wala whether it was possible to reach Joshimath. His response was not very positive.

Chai wala: Aap log Chamoli tak toh pahunch hi jaayenge. Chamoli se 15 km ki doori pe Pipalkoti padta hai. Wahan hotels bhi acche milenge aapko.Wahin ruk jaana. (You will easily reach Chamoli. Pipalkoti is just 15 kms from Chamoli which has decent hotels. You stay there tonight)

It was a good idea to stay in Pipalkoti as it was just 30 kms from Joshimath. Moreover, we would be away from the somewhat city like life in Joshimath.

2000 hours: We finally reached Pipalkoti. Great effort by Chandrashekhar. We had been in motion for 36 hours. (20 hours in train and the remaining in car). GMVN was decent enough for a night’s stay.

Our next destination was Govindghat(Trek start point) and the gate system that the government follows from Joshimath would come into play early next morning. This gate policy is nothing but allowing traffic only in one direction as the roads are too narrow to make it bi-lane. This is what the Government thinks. But what I found was the roads were pretty okay for bi-directional traffic and there was little reason for this kind of a rule to be imposed.

After some enquiry about the gate timings, it was decided that we would go for the 6:30am gate from Joshimath. The next one being at 9:00am was too late. Later, I found out that the Uttarakhand government is not all that rigid with the gate timings. The gates are opened considering the inflow of traffic.

10th August 2008:
0545 hours:
To my surprise, all five of us were at the GMVN reception and we left in 5 mins. As soon as the wheels got rolling, I started developing a nauseous feeling and I purged everything out. My digestive department probably wasn’t content with its contents 🙂

0615 hours: We stopped again. A van stood in front of us. Whenever a convoy begins to form in this part of India, there can only be two possibilities. It’s either a gate or a landslide. As we were to encounter a gate only at Joshimath, this stoppage meant nothing else but a landslide. It was a fresh one which had happened just a few hours ago.

The 6:30 am gate in Joshimath was now closed for us even before it opened..lolz. We were hoping to slink through the 9:00 am gate.

Had we been a little swifter yesterday, we could have avoided this landslide. But as Mr.Sidhu says ‘My dear friend….If ifs and buts were pots and pans, there would be no tinkers’ :)….So no complaints……

The weather was ok and the Sun shone bright on some of the peaks hovering high on the horizon. As there was nothing that we could do, we started clicking pictures.

0830 hours: The landslide was cleared and we zipped past Joshimath exactly at 9:00am. We were now on our way to Govindghat, 20 kms away.

The Route
Trek from Govindghat to Ghangaria – 14 kms

1000 hours: A huge car park area marks the beginning of Govindghat town. Govindghat at 1828m/6000 feet is a small town just off NH-58 which further continues to go to Badrinath and Mana. It is also the place where Laxman Ganga and Alaknanda rivers unite to form Alaknanda again.

1030 hours: Car was left behind. Our mission to reach Ghangaria meant besieging a couple of ponies for long hours that day. The heavily laden pony pair began its long march and so did we.

15 mins later, after covering a km., we realized that the ponies would reach Ghangaria with our belongings a lot earlier. One of us had to go with them to safeguard our backpacks. We stopped a passerby pony to take one of us with the other two ponies.

As I had rinsed my bodily system earlier in the day; remember the puking act:) ; it was decided that I would be the one who would accompany the ponies :(…all the way till Ghangaria and then the security job of safeguarding the backpacks until the others arrived.

Right from the outset, I was very reluctant to go on a pony back ride, but eventually I did go for it. In retrospect, it appeared to be a very good decision as I couldn’t afford to lose more calories after the puking act and put the remainder of the trek in shambles.

I was deprived of the pleasure of trekking but nevertheless I was enjoying the beautiful scenery from a good height as I was practically 4 feet taller :). River Laxman Ganga gave us invariable company with some rhythmic musical vibes. The trail having a natural green canopy at times constantly gained altitude.

1230 hours: 6 kms done and the three ponies(2 carrying backpacks and 1 carrying me) halted to quench their thirst near a tea stall. I decided to replenish my system by sipping in some juice. That’s when I saw Amitesh and Sharmil gradually approaching me. To my surprise, they too were on a pony back ride.

Amitesh: Oye, tu yahan hai. Arre kitna steep raasta hai yaar. Humne socha ki ghode se hi chale jaate hai taaki kal trek ke time problem na ho. (Hey, you are here. The path is so steep. We too decided to come by ponies so that tomorrow’s trek is not hampered.)

Me: Hiren aur Nimit kahan hai? (What about Hiren and Nimit?)
Amitesh: Woh log chalke aayenge ooper tak. Kal Valley of Flowers jaane ke time unki band bajegi :). Pair akad jaayenge ooper pahunchte pahunchte. (They are planning to trek the distance.Tomorrow, while trekking to VoF , they will feel the pinch.)

1300 hours: This time 5 ponies together resumed their walk.3 kms later, we crossed over to the other side of Laxman Ganga River and a steep climb of 4 kms through dense forest was negotiated to reach the high altitude village of Ghangaria.

1530 hours: Ghangaria also known as GovindDham is located at an altitude of 3049 m/10000feet at the confluence of Pushpawati and Laxman Ganga rivers. The river is then called Laxman Ganga. After settling the pony deal, we went hotel searching. We zeroed in on Hotel Devlok near the Gurudwara. Rs 500 for a 3 bed room and 400 for a 2 bed one. It was a decent hotel. At least the rooms and the beds were clean unlike the other hotels we saw.

1830 hours: Hiren and Nimit checked into hotel Devlok. It had taken them 8 hours of trekking to reach Ghangaria. They luckily spotted Sharmil outside. They were totally exhausted, fatigued to the core.

Yes, I agree and you trekkers might as well agree on this. First day’s trek even if it’s a moderate one can drain out energy pretty quickly as our body is so much accustomed to the activities of the lethargic city life.

1900 hours to 2200 hours: Ghangaria is lit up only for these 3 hours during the night. So it’s charging time. Not a point in the room was left free. Every point had something plugged into it ..lolz

11th August 2008:
0800 hours:
Incapacitated after continuous travelling over a period of 3 days, the pleasure of dormancy had sunk deep within our body and soul. We took our time to get out of the comfy bed.

0930 hours: The rejuvenated five, then left Ghangaria for Valley of Flowers (VoF)-UNESCO’s World Heritage Site. For more information about the valley.(Click Here)

We went past the Gurudwara and the final few concrete structures in Ghangaria, post which the trail gently climbed to a junction where it split.

A few monetary transactions at the check post got us the permit to enter the natural botanical garden.

The Route: The first 3 kms. from the check post was all uphill. Snaking through the thick undergrowth and well laden path; with Pushpawati River for company we got to see traces of flowers right from the beginning of the trail. These 3 kms have to be covered just to reach the valley. It’s only after this that the valley expands its wings for kilometers after kilometers. The path inside the valley was easy and uncomplicated with gentle ups and downs and occasional icy streams which obstructed the path but satirically also acted a source of water to douse our thirst.

Some pics taken during the 3 km trek.

Flowers, Flowers and more Flowers

1230 hours: Amitesh and I entered the valley first and then there was no looking back. The other 3 members of our group were out of sight. We later found out that they had covered the initial 3 kms to reach the valley and then decided to return back to Ghangaria.

1230 hours to 1430 hours: Exploration of the valley was on full swing. The broad valley stretched as far as the eye could see with patches of white, pink and green. In a span of two hours, we visited Joan Margaret Legge’s grave which is a dead end and Suin Chand. We reached a point from where we could see the trail losing height and then stretching for 3 kms right till the glacier alongside river Pushpawati.

1430 hours: With the clouds closing in, barely 3 hours for the Sun to disappear and with NO food in hand (biggest blunder committed before commencing the trek even after knowing that the valley is devoid of any eateries. During our breakfast, we had decided to carry something, but at the brink of our departure, we forgot!), there was too much risk involved in covering those 6 kms, to and fro from the glacier. Famished, we had to return back to Ghangaria before dusk thus covering a total distance of approximately 13 kms.

1630 hours: Our 3 friends lay gossiping on the bed as they wait for their hot waters to arrive to have bath. It’s 40 Rs a bucket. A quick hi and a few exchange of words with them and we straight away entered the restaurant to put a gag on the grudging tummy mice 🙂

Amitesh: Main kal 5 baje Hemkund Sahib ke liye nikal jaaunga. Gurudwara mein jaake madad karunga (I’ll be leaving at 5 am tomorrow to Hemkund Sahib to lend a hand at the Gurudwara.)

Me: Main bhi aaunga. Mujhe bhi uthana (Wake me up, i’ll come along)
Amitesh: Tu nahi utha toh main nikal jaaunga. (If you dont wake up, i’ll leave)

The others had decided to go on ponies and hence could afford to leave a little later.

We slept early that day as we had to be fully charged for the onerous 6 km ascent next day to Hemkund Sahib.

12th August 2008:
0445 hours:
The alarm shattered the eternal silence and Amitesh sprung into action minutes later.

0515 hours: He set foot outside even before I could get ready and began his long walk in the dark.

0600 hours: As Amitesh had left a lot earlier; I took my time to freshen up, had a cup of hot tea and then began my march towards the holy Shrine of Hemkund Sahib and Laxman Temple.

The Route: Zigzag Up, up and up with plenty of shacks, restaurants en route for refreshment. There were many tempting short cuts en route which when taken certainly saved time but left one out of puff. This route was visibly more frequented by pilgrims as many Sikhs made their way up to the Shrine to pay obeisance.

Flowers could be seen all along the route especially the Himalayan Blue Poppy.

Within a couple of hours of hard climb, Ghangaria shrunk to a speck which was encompassed by mighty mountains.

Brahma Kamal, a flower that apparently blooms once in many years could be seen in the upper reaches of the trail just below the Shrine of Hemkund Sahib.

0950 hours: 3 hrs and 50 mins of steady hike from 10000 to 14200 feet took me to the Shrine. Amitesh reached the top just 20 mins before me and he stood at the entrance waiting for my arrival.

The star shaped Hemkund Sahib is a memorial to the tenth Guru of the Sikhs, Sri Guru Gobind Singh ji and just beside the Gurudwara is Laxman Temple, also known as Lokpal Temple where Lord Laxman performed penance.

Hemkund Lake located contiguously to both Shrines acts as the origin of Laxman Ganga River, also known as Hem Ganga. It has a circumference of approx 2 kms.

At 4329m /14200 feet, this Holy place is surrounded by seven peaks known as Sapt Sring and is accessible only from June to October.

Garma garam chai and Khichdi at the Langar provided some warmth as the temperature had dipped considerably.

We then explored the surroundings and found a number of people taking the holy dip in the gorgeous glacial lake. The lake was indeed very welcoming and I too decided to plunge in.

Amitesh: Soch le, paani bahut thanda hai. Kahin beemaar pad gaya toh problem ho jaayega. (The water is very cold, you’ll fall sick)

Me: Nahi yaar,Fataak se andar jaake bahar. (I’ll quickly go in and come out)

I jumped in, one dip…stood to catch hold of my breath and God knows what happened after that…I came running outside….whoaaa…freezing!!!

We met Sharmil, Hiren and Nimit at the Gurudwara. They had started at 8 in the morning and it took only 2 hours for the ponies to reach the top.

Clouds soon shrouded the top and it started raining. We then visited the Gurudwara and Laxman Temple. We dropped the idea of going around the lake as the visibility was very poor.

12 Noon: We started our descent and the lousy weather with intermittent drizzle made the path slippery. We had to get our barsaatis on (rain gear)

1430 hours: 12 kms done and we were at Ghangaria. Quick lunch and a phone call back home to let them know that we all were safe

1630 hours: Valley of Flowers Information Centre near GMVN, run by the Eco Development Committee (EDC) air a slideshow of Valley of Flowers and Hemkund Sahib. We decided to check out the 20 min slideshow. Ridiculous! We had already visited the place. We laughed it out..lolz; but nonetheless it was an informative one. Should have seen it earlier 🙂

It would be unjust if I don’t mention the Gulab Jamuns of Ghangaria. There were many vendors selling hot hot Gulab Jamuns. Look at them- your mouth starts watering. Have them – you won’t regret. They are simply delicious. 10 Rs a plate.

13th August 2008:
An early morning start from Ghangaria would ensure that we would reach Govindghat(14 kms) by 10 am and then we could avail the next gate to Badrinath.

0600 hours: Myself and Amitesh left Ghangaria with our pithoo(person carrying luggage on his back). The others were still asleep and we thought they would come by ponies.

1030 hours: A bit of rummaging in the car park area and there…we spotted Chandrashekhar. Hiren and party came 2 hours later and surprisingly they had trekked down 🙂

1330 hours: The route to Badrinath, just 25 kms from Govindghat was quite steep.

The route:
Govindghat – Pandukeshwar – Hanuman Chhatti- Badrinath

We had to halt at Hanuman Chhatti for 45 mins as the 2 pm gate at Badrinath was opened for downward traffic.

1530 hours: Badrinath at 3133m/10270 feet looked unruffled, calm and peaceful. Gully cricket was very popular among the locals and many of them played on the main road itself. I too pitched in a fast delivery at Amitesh which was a bit wayward and hence was safely negotiated: P

1600 hours: Hotel Dwarkesh, a new entrant in Badrinath was where we stayed. Good hotel with extremely comfy beds and 24 hrs supply of hot water.

1900 hours: We visited Badrinath Shrine and offered our prayers to the Lord. The illuminated Temple looked beautiful in the night. Neelkanth peak behind the clouds kept eluding us.

14th August 2008 :
0800 hours:
It was time to head north to Mana, our final frontier. Mana is a small Tibetan settlement 3 kms north of Badrinath at an altitude of 3118 m/10200 feet. Moving northwards from Mana would mean moving away from civilization as this village marks the end of any kind of habitation. It’s the last village on the Indian side with Indo-China border less than 50 kms away.

0830 hours: We visited Ganesh Gufa, Vyas Gufa and Bhimpul in Mana. The Story of Bhimpul dates back to the Pandavas epoch. Legend has it that Draupadi was obstructed by the fierce flow of River Saraswati while She along with the Pandavas travelled to Swargarohini. It was Bhim who came to her rescue and flung a huge rock over the river thus bridging the gap. This rock bridge is called Bhimpul (1st pic below is Bhimpul and the second one is the view from Bhimpul).

0930 hours: YHAI group from Mumbai also had arrived at Mana.

We: Aaplog Vasudhara falls tak jaaoge? (Are you going till Vasudhara Falls?)

YHAI member: haan,hum jaa rahe hai. (Yes, we are.)

Hearing this, our catch 22 situation of going or not going to Vasudhara falls(5 km trek from Mana) got solved. We decided to go for it having come all this way. But Sharmil and Hiren turned their backs soon and headed back.

Amitesh, Nimit and I got our feet going for one last time. The YHAI group marched ahead and we followed suit. The sky was erratically painted in blue and stuffed in white as the Sun played peek-a-boo with petite creatures walking towards Vasudhara falls.

1100 hours: Vasudhara falls acts as a dead end for us as well as the trail. The valley stretches beyond, leading to the high altitude lake of Satopanth. A small opening high above us allowed the waters of Vasudhara to leap straight onto the boulders below.

It is believed that Vasudhara falls sways away from sinners. Now, there has to be many definitions of ‘Sin’ as I was not dry when I left Vasudhara 🙂

1330 hours: The weather turned gloomy during our return from Vasudhara and it continued to be so, whilst we left for Delhi from Mana.

1400 hours: The gate in Badrinath was thrown open and so were the gates in heaven. I fell into slumber watching the wet windscreen getting wiped every 2 seconds.

1500 hours: Just 18 kms from Badrinath and 4 kms before Pandukeshwar, we got caught in the claws of Nature – Landslide it was and it appeared to be a major one.

It was as if the clouds wanted to empty their month long stock at that very place. The unfurled uncertainties that lay ahead was enough to make a decision to head back to Badrinath.

Just as we took a U over the stones that masked the road, we could sense that there was no going back. The road to Badrinath too was blocked. STRANDED, we had to get ready to do nothing 🙂

1730 hours: A lull in the downpour allowed us to get out of the car and flex our stiff muscles. It was but obvious that the night was going to be a long one.

1930 hours: The loud gush of Alaknanda River was all that could be heard as darkness pitched itself in completely. It was time to have some Maggie and tea before the shops closed.

2030 hours: Just as we were thinking on how to spend the night in this enclosed cabinet, a localite approached us and made an offer to stay in his house. Ofcourse, not for free 🙂
I was more than happy with the offer and convinced the others and we made our way up the hill to enter their small house which had a room big enough to accommodate 4-5 people.

We fell asleep discussing the events that unfolded during the day.

15th August 2008:
0700 hours:
We left their house and paid them Rs 300 as part of the deal.

0800 hours: We saw a cop approaching from the landslide affected area.

We: Yeh landslide kab clear hoga . (When will the landslide be cleared?)

Cop: Aaj 15 August hai. Clear hoga ki nahi kuch keh nahi sakte. (It’s 15th August, not sure whether it will be cleared or not)

A collective gape as the cop’s bombardment left us stunned. Ironically,it was Indepedence Day and here we were….Trapped :)We had to reach Delhi asap as we had to catch our flight back to Mumbai the next day.

0830 hours: A Yellow colour vehicle on the other side of the landslide made entry into the scene. Yes, it was a bulldozer which was out to clear the debris. Everyone stood by the edge of the road and watched the magnificent machine doing the clearing act. Moments later, a loud thud was heard and a car size rock started making its way down the hill. It was right on target to hit the bulldozer and BANG. The boulder hit the picker section (in the front) of the bulldozer and then continued on its way to meet river Alaknanda below.

1100 hours: The landslide was cleared. The engine of our Innova got back its long lost life, 20 hours to be precise and it was time to cross the affected area. Phew! We finally made it to the other side and tough times for ChandraShekhar began as we had to reach Delhi soon.

We whizzed past curves and bends at good speed and we quickly crossed all the Prayag towns and by dusk we had reached Rishikesh.

16th August 2008:
0200 hours:
We were in the Capital. Hiren, Sharmil and Nimit decided to stay in a hotel and head to the airport after breakfast. Amitesh headed straight to the airport, preponed his flight and left for Mumbai at 6 am. I stayed at my uncle’s place as I had to attend the Raksha Bandhan ritual early in the morning. I flew out of Delhi at the onset of dusk.

Dev Bhoomi Uttaranchal – A land that offered spiritual adventure, valleys that hummed the music of mysticism, an experience that will be ever etched deep within our hearts, and hence the title, The Valley Of Gods!

[ Published under the author’s permission ]

[ Original publication at http://www.a-n-a-n-d.blogspot.com/ on September 15, 2008–the readers are requested to express their comments on the original Blog as mentioned above ]

Valley Of Flower Trek

During the 15 Aug’06 week, it was a good opportunity to take a break from hectic work schedule and have some adventure. During that week by taking 3 days of holidays one can enjoy 9 days of holidays 15 Aug (Tue) & 16 Aug (Wed) were declared fixed holidays in our organization on eve of Independence Day and Janamasthmi respectively. At NeoMagic, people were thinking of trek to ‘Valley of flower’ and we thought its a good time to execute it. Planning started, my friend Amit Kanodia (we have lots of Amit in NeoMagic!) took the charge and arranged a tour from ‘Himalayan Mercury Explorartions’. Finally we were total 8 heads for the trip.The tour arranged a Qualis and Tata Safari.

Day 1(Noida-Haridwar-Rishikesh-Joshimath):
Day 2(Rishikesh-Govindghat-Ghangariya):
Day 3(Ghangariya-Valley Of Flower Trek-Ghangariya):
Day 4(Ghangariya-Hemkund Sahib Trek-Ghangariya):
Day 5(Ghangariya-Govindghat-Badrinath-Josimath):
Day 6(Joshimath-Auli-Noida):

[ Published under the author’s permission ]
[ Original publication at www.chitrang.blogspot.com on August 19, 2006–the readers are requested to express their comments on the original Blog as mentioned above ]