High on happiness and altitude – trekking to mesmerizing Mystery Lake.
Situated at an altitude of 5,029 m (16,499 ft) in Uttarakhand and lying in the lap of the Trishul massif, is Roopkund. Call it ‘Mystery Lake’, ‘Skeleton Lake’ or simply a mountaineers’ paradise; Roopkund is a lake that never runs dry, thanks to the snow. Follow our author and his group of merry friends on a path that left their hearts delighted and souls exulted.
Be it the rut of office, exam pressure, hassles or just a void deep within, it is best to ask nature for a perspective. We were a group of seven people from diverse backgrounds – some with a mountaineering background with NIM and HMI certification, some were even first-timers. Although most of us were strangers, the love for mountains brought us all together and after endless conference calls and group chats, the location was finalised. It was an easy decision out of over eighteen thousand mountaineering destinations. The ‘Mystery Lake’ Roopkund it was!
State of being: happiness
We set off for Delhi on May 24 and to our pleasant surprise, we all hit it off well right away! After a quick lunch together, we took the Ranikhet Express and alighted at Kathgodam in Nainital, Uttarakhand at midnight and enjoyed an elaborate dinner. We started off early the following day, as we had a full day’s journey to complete by road.
Some of us popped an Avomine (nausea preventing tablet) for the winding roads and hairpin curves ahead, but the wind in the hair and songs playing in the car stereo had us calmly soaking in the sloped scenery all the way. The route from Kathgodam to Loharjung is peppered with river bridges and green patches. In the evening at Loharjung, we met our guide Anand Singh (Aan Singh) – a stout, friendly man with many summits and high-altitude passes under his belt. We were also lucky to get a magical cook in Mohan, a jolly pahadi (man of the mountains), who prepared tea, soup, noodles, parathas, onion pakoras…all in a jiffy, throughout the trip! Fellow hiker Saurabh and I quickly met up with the forest officials, paid the fees and got our permits, all of it hassle-free. We did some last-minute shopping for batteries, spare gloves, etc. and left for Paataal Ganga. In the morning, the jeep dropped us a little bit ahead and what lay in front of us was beyond roads and routine.
We began trekking on the loose limestone screes of Garhwal, Himalayas, surrounded by forest patches with Oak trees that peeked at us at intervals. We went down the valley, crossed a river bridge and climbed back up on the other side – typical mountain topography. Swaminathan, a co-hiker, imitated a bird’s call so perfectly that if the bird was internet-savvy, it would have updated its Facebook status to Soul-mate found!
After a few hours’ of trekking, we reached Didna – a small village of farmers and traders, in the district of Chamoli. Step-cultivated landscapes are the signature highlights of such settlements; so green and pristine. There’s something about the pahadi air; even strangers walking by, smile at you. Even their choice of music is serene and happy, just like them.
Mellow meadow walks
Our first campsite was a flat ground near Didna and we reached just in time to pitch our tents before moderate rains greeted us for an hour. Didna looked even more beautiful after the rain showers. From here onwards, we could constantly hear the sound of bells tied around the necks of Khacchars (mules), the domesticated animals that carried our tents, gas cylinders and other essentials up to the trek route.
We began early next morning, moving upwards from Didna. Although we hiked on a footway, it is easy to lose one’s line of sight around the mountains. After a few hours of a steady moderate gradient, the tree lines ended and vast grasslands and the snowy peaks on the north-western horizon greeted us. We were lucky to see the Choukhamba and Neelkanth peaks in the hazy summer sky and also saw the entire range of Hathi Parbat, Ghoda Parbat, and Nanda Ghunti a little ahead. We spotted a Himalayan Griffon soaring high on the wind currents and just a few meters ahead was a Lammergeier – the bone-eating vulture.
We reached Ali Bugyal, first of the two grasslands that offer a liberating walk along its slight up-slope. Yellow and purple flowers dotted the green carpet. Aan Singh kept us engaged with stories on mountain legends, of summits and climbing accidents and anecdotes on Keeda jadi smuggling (an aphrodisiac originating from a dead insect sourced from the mountains). Mountain gossip galore kept us entertained!
We headed upwards through the bugyals to reach Bedni Bugyal next morning. Situated on the grassland plateau is the vast shallow lake of Bedni Taal. Even in such pristine lake, plastic pieces lying at its bottom. Some of us also began experiencing symptoms of mountain sickness i.e. loss of appetite and vomiting. Aan Singh kept the mood high, though, with his motivating one-liners of “jo khayega, woh jayega”.
Bedni is a pilgrimage spot for the local community, with temples of Nandadevi and Shivji present here. A ‘once-in-twelve-years’ event, famously known as the ‘Nanda Devi Jat Yatra’, is of great significance to people of Garhwal-Kumaon. Hundreds of devotees, of all ages, undertake this three-week long pilgrimage to worship the goddess, Nanda Devi. The pilgrimage begins once the snow melts and is routed via Roopkund, further up to Hom Kund, crossing the glacier, Sheela Samudra.
With Bedni, ended the grassland en route Roopkund and we hiked up in the afternoon to Pathar Nachuni, our Advance Base Camp (ABC).
Unravelling the mystery
Day 4 of our trek was a day of rising in altitude. We set noon as the target to reach Roopkund so that we could make it back to ABC by sunset- a long day of climbing 4,000 ft. over 15 km, to reach the destination and then return.
In order to leverage climbing on firmly-set snow, we decided to start at 3 am when it was still quite chilly and dark. Being at that altitude with zero air/light pollution, we saw a blanket of stars on the moonless, cloudless sky; a band-shaped formation that stretched from horizon to horizon. A spectacular sight that left us wondering if we had just witnessed the Milky Way!
A quick cup of tea, and off we set on our climb with the essentials on our back and hiking sticks in our hands. It was a cold windy night and our feet soon sensed the unique experience of walking on the crisp, frozen snow that lay all around. We made the good pace, rhythmic to the sound of our feet crushing the snow beneath. Part of our hiking pack, Swami and Saurabh spotted an Ibex in the mountain shadows here. The ‘aha’ moment came when I noticed a pugmark. “Snow leopard,” confirmed Aan Singh. Small moments such as these emerged as beacons of excitement and accentuated the vibes of the place – that feeling of realizing that you are amongst the beasts.
We got scattered along the route due to varying paces. I began panting and my pace reduced after we crossed Bhagwabasa (14,000 ft), which is the ABC for most climbers. Each misplaced step brought me down by three and the lack of oxygen only added to making recovery a struggle.
By around 11 am, snow began melting around the rocks into icicles and small streams. Small rocks dangerously developed into a deceptive, icy, slippery surfaces and my pace only dropped further. I was reminded of famous mountaineer-author, Jon Krakauer’s line: “The perfect conditions of weather and snow offer the slightest chance of success.”
Exhausted and elevated, we reached Junargali sharp at 12.30 pm after a steady, moderately steep climb. Just below us, a little way ahead, we saw ice afloat a circular blue pool. Roopkund! Stark and silent, yet splendid! The lake is in a small valley and the adjoining peak (or pass) is known as Junargali. We spent 10 minutes of glory at the top and took photographs of ourselves with the national flag. We were on a high, literally! I had tears of joy when we turned back. Life, as they say, comes down to a few moments, and this was, indeed, one of them.
Next stop: adventure
The descent was harder than I expected. I knew I had to lose altitude and lose it fast. Digging in the heels strong was the only way to stay upright; even a slight lax in the movement would have sent me sliding all the way to the bottom. After an exhausting descent and satisfactory day, I got into our ABC. Mohan had prepared to steam hot tea for me. Later, we all huddled up in the hut like geeky students discussing an exam paper. For the first time on the expedition, no alarms were set.
The rest of the trek was a leisurely descent. We came back to Bedni, further down to Neelganga, and climbed up to village Wan. We stayed there overnight comparing each other’s tans and toes. The next day, we got back behind the wheels and on the roads, driving parallel to Ganga via Rudraprayag, Devprayag, and Karnaprayag. We reached Rishikesh to begin yet another adventure.
Originally published in Saevus Magazine Oct 2015 issue
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