A bright and sunny day with sapphire blue skies stretching right through to the horizon is what greeted us that morning. There wasn’t a single cloud in sight. It was spring time in the month of April, hence no surprise. We were camping at the gorgeous Har-ki-Dun valley where we had arrived the day before. The more I talk about this heavenly place, the less it is. For now, I am parking that for another post.
Having an entire day in this valley, gave us the opportunity to hike up further beyond and see a lake called Maninda Taal hidden behind the mountains. Taal refers to lake in the local language. The night before at dinner we had a discussion on the two places that we might want to visit that day – Maninda Taal, located around 3 km from the campsite and Juandhar Glacier at around 10 km from camp site. Most of the votes went for the lake. I wasn’t sure, as I wanted to go to both but on enquiring got to know that wasn’t a possibility.
It was still early in the morning when we started walking up the mountain. It was a steep climb through a loose muddy trail with sparing vegetation. As we neared the top, the gorgeous snow-hooded mountains spearing up to the sky surrounding the valley appeared unusually close. They seemed to be gazing at us scrutinizing each and every move we made. A little ahead, we came upon a place that was covered with fresh snow. The blanket of white seemed unending in every direction and this continued for the rest of the trail with no sight of animals or plants.
The snow fights (throwing snowballs at each other) had already started and it intensified along the way and all hell broke loose when we took a bend and landed onto a mound of snow. This mound was created by an avalanche that must have taken place in the recent past. I for one hadn’t seen such heaps of snow before. It reminded me about those calendar pictures of *Shiva and Parvati sitting in a cloud of snow with Ganesha on their lap.
*Shiva, Parvati, and Ganesha are Hindu deities, Parvati is Shiva’s wife and Ganesha their son with the head of a elephant (Read More).
Everyone was engrossed with snow fights and unconsciously divided ourselves into two teams. We had to reign in ourselves by reminding that the lake was our destination and not the snow fights. We walked across the knee deep snow for some more time while the strong mountain sun continued blazing above us.
Finally, the lake was in sight! And, what a spectacular moment that was! I could feel utter joy surging up my heart. The silvery shining water of the lake lay still with occasional small ripples as though surprised to see the sudden curious onlookers. The gravity of the greyish-blue water was sending out invisible rays of energy that was gently piercing my heart filling me with contentment and happiness. The snow-draped mountains around the lake seemed to understand my feelings and I felt they were graciously smiling with acknowledgement. As my eyes dropped to the water for a deeper look, I noticed how divine and sparklingly clean it was. I was compelled to bend down and feel the water with my bare hands.
As I looked up from my cupped hands, my gaze moved a little beyond and fell upon the tall wall of a mountain that appeared to be on one corner of the lake. I could see our trek guide sliding down the snow from the top. How did he reach there! This was an adrenalin rush and I knew I had to go there too.
After spending a few more moments beside the lake and capturing some of it through my mobile lens, I started walking toward the tall grand mountain wall that seemed to be eagerly reaching out for the heavens above. A few people joined in. My sister, who was on this trek with me, also came along. Going over to the tall mountain wasn’t all easy as the snow was really deep. It was only with help and support from my fellow trekkers that I could make it there.
We walked up the mountain wall and then sitting on our water proof jackets, using them as props did a slide down. And, oh what fun that was! Some of us repeated the act several times as we slid individually and slid in small groups together with others. We captured videos for one another, clicked photos, and laughed our hearts out!
After all the fun and laughter, it was time to go. Bidding goodbye to the charming lake that exuded such elegance and grace was not easy. I felt I could just keep staring at her for the rest of my life.
Maninda Taal, I remember you with fond memories that I will cherish for the rest of my life. Lots of love to you…..
A corner of my mind and heart now stand permanently reserved for the enchanting Himalayas after my first rendezvous with the majestic snow-clad magnificence.
I was back from Kedarkanta Trek with millions of tales to tell and I’ve been told a couple of times that each time I reminisce the Himalayas my face lights up and my eyes sparkle – a comment that doesn’t fail to amuse me!
I had deliberately planned the next trek during the Christmas week in the month of December. This was to be my second Himalayan trek in the year 2016. This time my friend, Papia, was joining me and I was delighted. Papia always nurtured a sincere desire to trek the Himalayas but felt she couldn’t and it took me quite an effort to convince her. Once convinced, there was no looking back and she plunged wholeheartedly into it. She even got her brother’s family and two other people with her. A colleague of mine also joined in. So, this time we were a big gang of 7 people from Bangalore.
Thoroughly satisfied with my previous experience, I once again decided to trek with IndiaHikes (a trekking community). We had chosen Har-ki-Dun and it was the prospect of walking in snow that excited many in our group. While we were busy planning Har-ki-Dun, destiny had something else in store for us. Just a fortnight before the trek, we got to know Har-ki-Dun was cancelled as the government had decided not to allow winter trekking in the area. IndiaHikes gave us the option of taking our money back or trek Kuari Pass instead. We chose the latter as we already had booked our tickets to Dehradun. I for one, was totally disheartened and my enthusiasm subsided considerably. The reason being Kuari Pass wasn’t rated amongst the top 10 Himalayan treks by IndiaHikes. Well, the saying ‘whatever happens is always for the best’ revealed itself later during the trek.
This time, we traveled to Joshimath from Dehradun. Needless to say this was yet another journey that is etched in our memories forever. As we passed through the ‘Panch Prayag’ (Vishnuprayag, Nandaprayag, Karnaprayag, Rudraprayag, and Devprayag) one by one with Mother Ganges in all her glory for constant company, it was a journey through paradise. By the time we reached Joshimath, dusk had set in. However, even after travelling for 12 hours on road there was no exhaustion whatsoever.
The following day, a 45 min drive took us to Auli, considered as one of the best ski destinations in India. The season’s snowfall hadn’t happened and Auli bore a barren look much to the disappointment of many in our group. After all, it was late December and Christmas Eve for heaven’s sake! We climbed the Auli slope for a little more than 2 hours. The rugged mountains in the background with glimpses of snow gave us some respite from the barren slopes and noisy tourists.
Pic 3: As we climbed the barren slopes of Auli
As we left the slopes and moved higher, Mount Nanda Devi made a brief and grandiose appearance bringing in the much needed excitement to all of us. Very soon the much awaited Oak forest greeted us. The interplay of sun and shade, the ground strewn with fallen leaves, and the gradual climb made for a mesmerizing walk that I will cherish for the rest of my life. In a tiny clearing at the edge of the woods is ‘Padiyar Devta’ temple. The serene and tranquil temple seemed to be in perfect harmony with the calmness and silence of the surrounding woods.
We reached Gorson Bugyal, our camp site for Day 1. The group of 18 odd people from various walks of life were slowly getting to know each other – a bunch of young scientists from ISRO, an ophthalmologist from AIIMS, an executive from a well-known MNC, the tech engineer duo, entrepreneur couples, instructional designers, and last but not the least a computer scientist with degrees from top-tier institutions across the world, who quit his high-flying career to be with the Himalayas.
An acclimatization walk in the afternoon followed by an abundance of ghost stories around a bon fire marked the other highlights of Day-1. The temperatures dropped as we retired for the night amidst a bright and twinkling sky with millions of shining stars. Our wishes for snowfall intensified and someone even sent out a fervent prayer to the universe. We hoped for a miracle as the weather prediction didn’t mention snow for the next one week.
And miracle did happen…..
All night long we thought we heard rain drops splattering across our tents. It was cold and the thought of rain was enough to dampen our spirits. Just before dawn, Papia put on her headlamp and opened the tent to inspect the rain…..and she squealed out in joy as all she saw was white flakes all around. It was the season’s first snowfall and it was Christmas morning. What could be more magical than this! We felt we were nature’s chosen ones and this was special. It was Papia’s first experience of snow as was for most others in the group.
It snowed intermittently as we walked making for a very special Christmas Day, Day-2 of our trek. It was a cloudy day for most part. The sun did make brief appearances during the morning half but it lacked the usual warmth. It was freezing and the cold seemed to seep in through our skin. The snow mountains peeked through the clouds once in a while allowing us glimpses of Haati-Ghoda and Dronagiri. The twin peaks of Haati-ghoda had become our constant companion right from the time we had spotted them for the first time on our way to Joshimath. The setting sun had painted them a bright orange that had stolen our hearts in an instant.
Walking right ahead with those at the beginning of our group, we approached the ridge, which was an adrenalin rush for many but not for me. My heart froze as I saw the narrow trail with the almost vertical cliff on one side and the deep valley on the other. Khusiji, our guide, offered a hand and I covered the entire 1.5 Km clinging onto him. I couldn’t concentrate much on the mind-blowingly beautiful stretch with shades of green, brown, yellow, black. It had started to snow once again while we were midway onto the stretch, which intensified as we were towards the end. At the end of this stretch, I sent out a small prayer of gratitude to the Almighty for enabling me to cross over to the other side safe and sound. Simultaneously, my mind raced to Papia and the rest of my gang who were trailing behind wondering how they were faring. It was not until later that night I got to know it was just as challenging for them as well.
Passing through the gorgeous Tali lake that was half frozen, we entered the fascinating Oak woods once again. This time, it was even more magical as the entire place was covered with snow. It was a surreal feeling of fantasy as I could imagine Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer passing by with Santa’s sleigh and leaving behind an illuminated trail for us to follow. My joyful mind quietly hummed the Christmas Carol (Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer…..) and I felt I could hear the jingling bells all around me.
As the temperatures dropped further, we reached Chithrakantha camp site, situated in the heart of the forest. It had gotten extremely cold and I have to admit that we were feeling miserable despite the layers of warm clothes we had on. Some sat around a fire while others wouldn’t step out of their tents. I felt my blood was freezing and was in no mood to even talk to anybody – a behavior alien to the otherwise exuberant me. We retired for the night apprehensive about the weather next day and wondered how deep the snow might be higher up where we would trek the following day. The sleeping bags kept us warm and cozy but we couldn’t sleep well, which was for the unevenness of the ground rather than the cold.
It was Day-3, the summit day and we had started early. The Mountain Gods had smiled and a bright and sunny day greeted us, which lifted our spirits considerably. There was sparkling snow all around us and we couldn’t be happier. The terrain constituted several steep ascents and steep descents. The snow peaks glistened at the distance and their elegance and splendor kept multiplying with every ascent. Once again, it was Haati-Ghoda and Dronagiri along with the spectacular Neelkanth that were most prominent peaks accompanying us all the way.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for me and Day-3 felt tough especially the stretches of steep ascents. Despite that, I was thoroughly enjoying myself and the good weather had a lot to do with that. I was intermittently sending my gratitude to the Mountains for giving me this opportunity to experience their supreme splendor.
Passing through Chitrakantha top with a panoramic 360 degree view we arrived at a ridge with gradual slopes. Here, the strong winds threatened to throw us off and we struggled to maintain our balance.
Passing through a part of the legendary ‘Lord Curzon’s Trail’ we reached the breathtaking frozen waterfall. Precariously we made our way down through the sides of the waterfall with crampons attached to our shoes that provided the much needed additional grip.
Finally, we reached Kuari Pass! We were overwhelmed at 12,516 ft and each one of us rejoiced in our own way. While some of us preferred to sit in complete silence, others got busy clicking selfies and freezing the moment forever through their lenses.
As I sat there absorbing every bit of the surrounding gorgeousness, my mind ran to Papia and I wished we could enjoy this moment together. Papia, along with a few others had opted out of the summit and had instead descended to Khullara, our next camp, where I would meet her later that day. The miserably chilling conditions of Day-2 drove them towards this decision.
With the summit over, we retraced our path and proceeded towards Khullara. While most of the people moved ahead, a group of five of us decided to take it slow as we rested, chatted, clicked pictures, and made the most of our descent towards Khullara.
Khullara was the most beautiful campsite of this trek. It was a small clearing, surrounded by forest slopes and mountain ranges. The brilliant sunsets and sunrises we witnessed here across Neelkanth, haati Ghoda, Dronagriri and other peaks was a feast for the eyes. People who chose not to go to the summit ended up having a wonderful time exploring Khullara and it was not a bad bargain after all.
Starting early the next day, we commenced our journey towards Joshimath through the Tapovan valley. During the onward journey as always, I was way ahead with the group of people who were always at the beginning. On the return journey, I chose to go slow, stay behind and relish each and every moment. Who knows when I’ll be back again!
Another fantastic trail of about 9 Km awaited us as we pass through forests partially covered in snow with steep descends in some places, overlooking the snow-mountains all along. Towards the end of the trail we passed through a cluster of hamlets that provided a glimpse of the lives of the local people. As we passed through one such village, someone remarked “How lucky are these people to wake up to such a view of the Himalayas everyday!” It took us a good 60-70 minutes from the village to the nearest motorable road. Joshimath was a 45 minute drive from here. Are the village people really all that lucky? And to think that they don’t have a hospital.
My second Himalayan trek had come to an end. Captivated and spellbound I was once again. Additionally, this time two realizations dawned upon me. First, a Himalayan trek is about feelings and experiences that are beyond all words. You have to go there to know what I mean. Second, the belief that our desire and intention is nothing before the mighty Himalayas (and perhaps all other mountains). The mountains decide what they want you to experience. If the mountains concede, only then you get to set foot on them to experience their majestic grandeur and I bow in reverence.
The year 2016 was particularly difficult for me. Certain things happened that negatively impacted my personal environment changing the course of my life, perhaps forever. Alongside something else happened. Again impacting me, but in a positive way. Even though this cannot compensate for the other things that have gone so wrong, I feel fortunate and blessed. And here’s what happened – I undertook two fascinating journeys discovering the intriguing beauty of the majestic Himalayas as I trekked to Kedarkanta and Kuari Pass in Uttarakhand. In an attempt to share my wonderful experience, I am penning down the story of my Himalayan sojourn.
Let me start with Kedarkanta…
I am not getting into the details of how I landed up deciding to go on a Himalayan trek. It was a very impulsive decision and how grateful am I for that!
It was the third week of April, the week of my birthday. Accompanied by my friend, Partho, I embarked on my maiden venture to the Abode of Snow with IndiaHikes (a trekking community). Kedarkanta peak is located in Govind National Park and the trek starts from a tiny village called Sankri, tucked away well within the park. We started from Dehradun and the entire route to Sankri was a picturesque one, making the 10 hour drive really pleasurable. Sankri is a tiny little beautiful village with a population of just about 300 offering some stunning views of the mountain ranges in Uttarakhand.
I was trekking for the first time, though I had gone for a day trek in Bangalore before but I don’t consider that to be of any significance. Kedarkanta is considered an easy trek but for people like me with an otherwise sedentary lifestyle, it wasn’t all that easy. I did have an edge though – at least that’s what I would like to believe. After all, I belong to the mountains, having spent the first 30 years of my life in the Eastern Himalayas in the beautiful little hill station of Shillong. My hometown, fondly known as the Scotland of the east, the capital of Meghalaya – abode of clouds!
We were in a group of 25 people of all age groups with the youngest being 9 years old. Most of us were first timers. There were three families and half the group constituted members of the same family. However, by the end of the first day, the entire group had become like one big family.
As we climbed up towards Juda-ka-Talab on Day 1, it was raining intermittently. That didn’t stop us from enjoying the steady ascent through the forests of pine, deodar and oak trees. Occasionally, we would pause to admire the rhododendrons that were blooming all the way. We even plucked a few to satisfy our curiosity of tasting the flower petals. This was totally new to me. I had no clue that we could eat rhododendrons!
The changing landscape kept us engaged all along – forests with shades of all kinds of green with tinges of yellow and orange; trees with intricate trunk patterns having roots that spread far and wide; occasional green meadows irresistible to our already aching feet. We also came across one or two shepherd huts that appeared abandoned. These are places where the shepherds spend the night when they come up grazing their sheep as they cannot go back on the same day. We later learnt that the shepherds of the adjoining villages usually move around in team of twos armed with ‘kukris’ so that during the night while one rests the other watches over the sheep, protecting them from wolves and bears.
After a continuous climb of 4 Km for about 4 hours through countless pines and oaks, Juda-ka-Talab revealed itself as a small pond in a tiny little clearing amidst the lush green and dense forest. Legend has it that Lord Shiva opened a little of his hair and water flowed out to form this small pond.
A little after we reached Juda-Ka-Talab, the rains intensified, forcing us inside our tents. After a continuous spell of about an hour or so, the rains disappeared without trace and a bright and sunny afternoon greeted us. We didn’t see a frozen Juda-Ka-Talab as the ice had melted just a week before we had arrived. No complaints, especially with the snow-clad mountains around us and the reflections of the surrounding pine trees on the ‘talab’ making the entire place an ecstatic visual delight. With our minds and hearts overwhelmed, we retired for the night as the stars shone bright and beautiful making the whole experience blissful and magical.
We looked up and saw the Kedarkanta peak at a distance that was partially covered in snow. It was Day-2 and we had just arrived at Kedarkanta base after a very short and steep climb. The quick ascent left us pleasantly surprised. While most people were delighted with the thought of being able to rest and relax in such heavenly abode, I was excited about the prospect of exploring the adjoining woods. Being the naturally energetic person that I am and with my mind busy fantasizing the witches and fairies of the woods that surrounded us, I wasn’t going to spend the rest of the day just idling around the tent. At the same time, I couldn’t master enough courage to venture into the woods all by myself. I found the 55-year old Vinod for company whom I had befriended the day before, and who amazed me with his stamina and fitness, passion for trekking, his grit and determination, and his love for the Himalayas. We shared our common love for yoga.
Time stood still as we walked through the enchanted forests of oaks and pines, admired the lichens and mosses, listened to the rustling of dry leaves below our feet, took note of the birds calling out every now and then, discovered streams and waterfalls, relaxed in the meadows, clicked selfies, talked to the occasional shepherd appearing from nowhere with his flock of sheep and disappearing in the same way, encountered the extraordinarily friendly mountain dog, and chatted about our lives and experiences. I was living in a picture postcard. Life seemed perfect!
It was 3.00 AM in the morning and we were already on our way to Kedarkanta peak with headlamps and torches lighting our paths. It was cold and we walked in silence in one straight line being led by our trek guides. The cold eased a bit as twilight approached giving us hope and making Day-3: the Summit Day seem a little more achievable.
As twilight gave way to early morning, we were delighted to see patches of snow glistening with the first rays of the sun. There was some fresh snow indicating that it must have snowed the day before. The terrain constituted patches of steep ascents and continuous gradual ascents as we huffed and puffed our way towards the top. In some patches, the snow had turned to ice making it a slippery and risky affair.
Finally, after a climb of 6 Km for 6 hours, we reached Kedarkanta summit standing tall at 12,500 ft! The 360 degree panoramic view of some of the famous snow-clad peaks and mountain ranges was simply jaw dropping. Swargarohini, Bandarpoonch, Black Peak, Gangotri and the Yamunotri range, Chanshil Pass and Kinnaur Kailash ranges were clearly visible. Keeping my eyes wide open, I was gorging on every moment as my heart and soul danced with joy.
Climbing down was tricky at times especially during the initial descent where the slope was steep and in those places where there were patches of ice. We also did a slide in one patch that had some good amount of snow. It was some real fun as we twisted and turned, rolled and slipped, amidst hooting, laughter, and cheer!
After a brief rest at Kedarkanta base camp, we continued walking down towards Hargaon. While I was always amongst the top five people while climbing up, I was mostly lagging behind while climbing down – a clear sign that my knees needed some workout. Once again a spectacular trail through oaks, pines and streams led us to a meadow laid out in a carpet of green where we were camping for the day. It was a sunny afternoon with clear skies and we spent the rest of the day chit-chatting, reveling in the beauty of the surrounding snow-clad mountains, watching the horses grazing in the distance, walking barefoot on the soft grass, and playing cricket.
As Vinod and I basked in the sun along with a few others, a shepherd we had met the day before passed by with his flock of sheep. It was a moment of mutual delight. This time we chatted longer and learnt more about their lives and it was by no means an easy one. A pang of guilt hit me slightly as my mind did a spontaneous comparison of the kind of life I lead with all amenities at my disposal and here was someone whose life was a constant struggle oblivious to all the comforts that modern life has to offer.
Starting early on day-4 and revisiting our rhododendrons through the forest floor laden with dry pine needles and cones, we descended back to Sankri, the village where we had started.
At Sankri, we further explored the village, visited the ancient wooden temple of Bhairava (a fierce manifestation of Shiva), mingled with the locals, bathed in river Supin, watched young children play joyfully without a care in the world before finally calling it a day.
It was the end of my first Himalayan trek. However, for me this was the beginning of a new chapter in my life – a newly discovered love and passion for the mountains. I was spellbound – the enchanting Himalayas had captivated my soul. It was intoxicating and I knew I would be back very soon, which I did…. (Kuari Pass Trek)
The Mythology of Kedarkantha
Uttarakhand is considered to be the land of Lord Shiva and Kedarkantha peak has its own mythological story related to the Lord. The word Kedarkantha means Throat of Lord Shiva. The story goes back to Mahabharata. After the war of Kurukshetra, the Pandavas were looking for Lord Shiva to atone for the sins committed during the war. First they went to Varanasi, Shiva’s favorite city, which has the famous Vishwanath temple dedicated to the Lord. Infuriated by the death and dishonesty at the Kurukshetra war, Shiva wanted to avoid the Pandavas. So, he assumed the form of a bull (Nandi) and hid in the Garhwal Himalayas. Not finding Shiva in Varanasi, the Pandavas went off to the Himalayas. Bheema spotted the bull and recognized it to be Lord Shiva. He held on to the bull not letting it go. In the resultant struggle, the bull was torn into five parts that appeared at five different locations. This resulted into the Panch Kedar: Kedarnath – Back of Lord Shiva; Kalpeshwar – Hair of Lord Shiva; Rudranath – Face of Lord Shiva; Tungnath – Arms of lord Shiva; and Madhyamaheshwar – Navel of Lord Shiva. Locals believe that during that time, the throat of Lord Shiva fell at Kedarkantha peak and that’s how the peak got its name. A small temple dedicated to the Lord is situated at the summit.