Hiking the Roopkund Trail — India’s best alpine meadow, a dying lake, a majestic mountain, folklore, thoughts and the unknown!
I always feel at home when involved in an expedition in the Himalaya. I’m the best version of myself when climbing the high passes, or strolling in the deep chasms! It was late July 2016 and I was just back from the epic 3 week bicycle Expedition in Ladakh. I wanted to join my friend Torres who was heading for a cycle trip Mongolia in September but work commitments and expensive Air China Flight tickets just didn’t allow for that..
I also wanted a break to explore Bhutan, but turned out solo travelers are not welcome! and Bhutan stays gross nationally happy by charging high fees on treks and expeditions! (Such a bummer). Arunachal Pradesh was next on my list, but the absence of Himalaya in the lower valleys did not excite me much. I finally decided to explore Uttarakhand on foot and gave myself 3 months to see as much as possible of the Himalaya! I noted about 12–13 long distance hikes that were possible during the end September, October, November and early December.
With no fixed plans, I intended to arrive in Uttarakhand and move from one valley to another on foot and explore the hikes that were possible on the go.
Uttarakhand is primarily divided into two main regions, Garhwal to the north and the Kumaon to the south. I wanted to do routes which were less frequented and not commercialized, bringing more adventure into play, unique stories and the bonus snob factor!
I am not the guy who enjoys so-much the panoramic views you get from hill stations, it’s no mental high for me. I like getting deep and high into the mountains and stick my nose in the mountains, feel exhausted, breathless and sweaty! I don’t even enjoy forests so much, I really start enjoying hikes as I breach the tree line, somewhere above 3000+ metres above sea level (in the Himalaya)
I figured the key districts which excited me and allowed for High Altitude Alpine style self-supported hikes were Chamoli, Rudrapryag, Uttar Kashi in Garhwal region and Pitthoragarh and Bageshwar in the Kumaon region.
With this in mind, I thought Roopkund would be a good first acclimatizing hike.
a. It had food available at most points of the trek.
b. Was possible to get as high as 5000m (~16400ft)
c. It gets bone chilling cold.
So I packed my rucksack with tent, sleeping bag, few warm clothes, cameras, batteries and other camping essentials and set out. A friend from Hyderabad joined too which bought good company, and also helped bring down some of the costs.
Roopkund Trek starts from a small village called Lohajung in the eastern Chamoli district. The closest big town is Dewal, till where one can find some kind of transportation from Kathgodam/Haldwani. The other close-by town is Gwaldam which is a major junction for the road moving into Garhwal from Kumaon. From Gwaldam, one can get a local shared jeep upto Dewal, and then another shared jeep to Lohajung.
I don’t really like hiring guides to show directions, instead I like to get someone knowledgeable who can enlighten me about the culture of local people, folklore, the Himalayan region and other minute details one can learn from local people. So we decided to hire a guide, but turned out, he wasn’t knowledgeable as most in that region, we would know later. For information, guides can be hired at Lohajung and INR 800 is what they charge per day at the bare minimum.
There is Forest Office behind the Gram Panchayat Guest house in Lohajung where permits can be arranged with the Forest department. Roopkund trail comes under the jurisdiction of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve. The Forest officials try to rip you off, but you have to be careful with the costs that they fill your permit with. Better to ask them for the cost charts and get the entry costs cross verified. They typically charge for camping and some for development of the national park.
The Route we had decided was:
Day 1:Lohajung — Didna
Day 2: Didna — Ali Bugyal — Bedni Bugyal
Day 3: Bedni Bugyal — Patar Nachauni
Day 4: Patar Nachauni — Kalu Vinayak — BagwaBasa
Day 5: BagwaBasa — Roopkund — Junargali — Bedni Bugyal
Day 6: Bedni Bugyal — Wan — Lohajung
The trail to Roopkund starts from Lohajung and passes above Baank village enroute Didna. Didna is also the first stop of the day. On the way you cross forests, streams and bridges climbing slowly to breach tree line to reach the most famous bugyals (or the high alpine meadows) of Uttarakhand.
The Village of Didna is a small village with about 20 households and most of the trekkers stay at the Trekkers lodge maintained by Mr. Mahipat and his wife. Mahipat, works closely with Dev Singh who is also a trekking guide working with a company called Himalaya Trekkers.
A Little before Didna, we met Arun sir and Madhavi mam, a couple from Bangalore.. We had met them at Kathgodam station the previous day as we deboarded the Delhi-Kathgodam Samapark Kranti Express. We had some really good conversation going… They were not many treks left in Uttarakhand or Himachal or Ladakh which they hadn’t done!
They were hiking with Himalaya Trekkers, and soon we were friends with others in their group too which had about 15 people. Seeing our camaraderie, the organizers of their group (Dev Singh and Mahipat) invited us to hike with them and also offered to help us with food for the next 6 days at nominal cost. We were grateful to them for this gesture and joined the group while still managing ourselves chores like setting up our camp etc.
Day1 was more about conversations and met some really interesting people in the Himalaya Trekker group.
Day2, the plan was to head up to Bedni Bugyal via TolPaani and Ali Bugyal. Ali Bugyal is considered by many as one of the best high altitude alpine meadow in India.
However hikers don’t camp in Ali Bugyal; courtesy the absence of any drinking water source.
Tol Paani, has small shacks for villagers who come here with their cattle from villages lower down the valley, as it’s easier for them to find grass for their cattle to graze here.
It is fabled, that once Bhagirath (the king who brought River Ganga to earth) was parched and was crossing this region enroute Kailash Mansarovar. At that moment, he found water here in limited quantity thus getting this place the name, Tol (Weigh) + Paani (Water)
Most hikers cross Ali Bugyal to reach Bedni Bugyal which is equally beautiful and has quite a few drinking water sources. The hike from Didna to Ali Bugyal is steep but not tiring.
Ali Bugyal is a refreshing change especially when you cross over from Alpine forests into green grasslands!
Ali Bugyal is a big alpine meadow which stretches 6–7 kms or more. In the hiking season, there is a possibility of finding a small food joint catering to hikers crossing Ali Bugyal enroute Bedni Bugyal.
Ali Bugyal to Bedni Bugyal is approximately 7/8 kms walk on a flat terrain. I personally like Bedni just for the views it presents and the opportunities of side hikes.
Bedni Bugyal has a Kund (pond) which has a parapet constructed around it by local villagers, as it’s a revered spot and also houses a Nanda Devi temple in it’s premises.
On a clear day, one can see reflections of Mount Trisul in the Bedni Kund.
The Day at Bedni was mostly uneventful and involved curious strolls around, enjoying the green cover and gray sky. The thick gray cloud cover meant Mount Trisul, Nanda Ghunti would generally remain elusive. I pitched my tent close to Himalaya Trekkers Camp site and then head out to their camp to chill around and chit-chat with the boys!
Day 3 was slightly clearer compared to the previous two days. In the Far vicinity one could see the Chaukhambha, Neelkanth, BandarPunch, Alka Puri glacier etc. Trisul was still elusive though Kali Dak (the Black Messenger) would present itself. Trisul which towers right behind it was still evasive.
There was also some quite time to pause and reflect on the journey
The distance from Bedni to Patar Nachauni is not a lot, but hikers camp a day in Patar Nachauni as the climb from there to Bagwa Basa is quite a lot. An extra day at Patar Nachauni adds to the acclimatization and also offers some great views enroute. Patar Nachauni too has a water problem like Ali Bugyal but one still can find few water sources to camp.
Patar Nachauni gets it’s name from the three dancers who were buried in three deep holes. Patar means Shameless and Nachauni means dancers in Garhwali.
Nanda Devi Raj Yatra is a religious procession which starts from Nauti in Chamoli District of Uttarakhand and ends at HomKund which lies beyond Junargali and on the shoulder between Mount Trisul and Nanda Ghunti.
It is believed that a local king in the 14th century AD was leading the Nanda Devi Raj Yatra and was at resting at Patar Nachauni. The Gods got afurios at the ladies dancing shamelessly during a religious procession in the mountains and not maintaining the sanctity of the place. As a result the Dancers were condemned and buried in the three different holes and the king reprimanded. Even today one can see three giant holes present on the mountain, though it’s filled up with clay to prevent hikers accidentally falling into these. It is said that till very recent times, one could hear shouts for help & mercy when passing by these giant holes.
The walk from Bedni Bugyal to Patar Nachauni was hardly a stretch but it poured heavily as soon as we reached there. I took shelter in one of the neighboring kitchen camps setup by Himalaya Trekkers.
While waiting for the rains to subside, spent some time chatting with Dev Singh, who was leading the Himalaya Trekker group. Apparently he had summitted Mount Trisul with a contingent led by ITBP (Indo Tibetan Border Police) in the 90’s. I tried verifying this with others later, but there was no concluding evidence if he did. He was curious about my plan of walking the Himalaya for 3 months and how much cost it would incur. I assured him it wasn’t as much and I was not going to do any of the Maharaja Style treks Indians are used to…
I am puritanical when it comes to hiking or climbing. I believe that one must go through their own struggle to experience the mountains. May be I come from Reinhold Messener’s school of thought? I don’t believe in having porters unless it’s a long difficult expedition or virtually impossible to carry all of your equipment / food by yourself. A Mule is a strict no-no. They remove the grass cover and also litter the place. May be even contributors to global warming!
Somehow, The Britishers leveraged the availability of cheap labor and carried out lavish Maharaja style expeditions as compared to the Pure Alpine style followed by the Europeans.
Very Few know, By today’s standards, the 1953 British expedition of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay to Mount Everest, under the military-style leadership of Sir John Hunt, was massive in the extreme, but in an oddly bottom-heavy way: 350 porters, 20 Sherpas, and tons of supplies to support a vanguard of only ten climbers.
We had ample time as we had reached Patar Nachauni fairly early in the day. Once the rain stopped, I pitched my camp and head out with Niteen and Manish to a nearby hill, which offered really great views of the valley.
We stopped by at a seasonal Tea shop on the way and had some tea and Maggi to get some much needed energy after the hike to the neighboring mountain.
Day 4, was supposed to be big climb day, as one has to go from Patar Nachauni to Bagwa Basa.
Bagwa Basa is not really a great campsite due to absence of water near campsites and also absence of flat surface as it’s mostly rocky.
Kalu Vinayak, an Ancient Ganesh Temple is the high point in the route between Patar Nachauni and Bagwa Basa. Hikers and Villagers offer a small prayer when heading to Roopkund.
There is stark landscape changes as one crosses from the Patar Nachauni side of the valley to Kalu Vinayak and Bagwa Basa. The Earth was red and rocky and the grass which grows here is of a different kind.
Enroute BagwaBasa, one also crosses a place with few stone huts called the Rani ka Sulera. (the place where the queen sleeps).
An ancient folklore says that here sleeps the queen of the same king whose dancers were persecuted. Accompanying the king, the queen was buried here under debris of rock during a storm! (when on the Nanda Devi Raj Yatra)
Bagwa(Tiger) Basa (Residence) is a place which is fabled to be the residence of the guardian tiger ofGoddess Nanda Devi (An avatar of Goddess Durga)
I was the first to reach Bagwa Basa and pitch my tent, expecting some quite time to relax! However it had started snowing as soon as i pitched my camp and it wasn’t until 3 hours later when the weather was conducive to step out. My camp had collapsed under the snow and had to re-pitch it in whatever area was devoid of rocks! A good 3 hours of snow pounding meant that the next day (summit day) to Junargali Pass and Roopkund would be clear and visibility would be at it’s peak. This was a logical assumption though! The weather in mountains is precarious as we know…
The night was cold as the clouds were gone and the following day, we were supposed to get up at 2 a.m. and push for Junargali around 3 a.m.
We woke up to clear sky with no wind whatsoever and slowly started our ascent to Roopkund. We assisted the slow members of the group motivating them to finish. There were some who were already feeling the altitude and some who were just not able to move steps up the steep climb.
At around 5:30 a.m, the dawn was just breaking is when we reached Roopkund. There is hardly anything left of the lake but to me, I wasn’t too keen on the lake anyways. I wanted to get to Junargali pass to catch majestic views of Mount Trisul and Nanda Ghunti.
Ancient folklores have contradicting stories about the bones and skulls found at Roopkund Lake. Some say it’s the dead remains of the same king and his disciples who were enroute the Nanda Devi Raj Yatra when avalanche or snow fall struck. Others say its the remains of Zorawar Singh’s army returning from Talkakot after the failed Tibetian conquest. I have read carbon dating points the bones to be of the 14th century so Zorawar singh’s army theory is ruled out as it happened in the 19th century.
Roopkund lake is moribund though and would soon vanish. Roopkund has been commercialized as a trek and every year thousands descend here to catch a glimpse of this lake. The skulls and bones have been carried away by people and some for research. Even the remains have been removed from the lake and put in front of the small Nanda Devi Temple at Roopkund.
I personally did not have Roopkund on my agenda. I just wanted to push for Junargali and catch the view of majestic Mount Trisul. The climb from Roopkund to Junargali is not much of a stretch though one needs to be careful as there is slippery ice and snow on the way. A decent ice axe can be very helpful in cutting steps but alas I didn’t have one. I pushed for the climb though and was at Junargali by 6 a.m and the first to make it there that day.
The views from Junargali are mind blowing. On a clear day you see Mount Trisul and Nanda Ghunti rising from the base upto the peak.. And can capture it in one frame too :)
One can see the Shila Samundra Moraine Glacier (the vast land between Junargali and Trisul) One can also spot HomKund right below the col connecting Trisul and Nanda Ghunti and also the Shoulder or connecting ridge between Nanda Ghunti and Trisul is known as Ronti’s saddle. Junargali is at 16,200ft and is quite a high pass to traverse.
Early at the Summit, I got some time to gaze in peace at Trisul and admire it’s perpetual beauty.
Trisul is a group of three mountain peaks with Trisul I at 7120m being the highest point. T. G. Longstaff made the first climbing reconnaissance of Trisul, in September 1905,He returned to climb in 1907 with two other Britons, three Alpine guides, and a number of Gurkhas reaching the summit on 12 June in 1907. At the time Trisul was probably the highest mountain to have been climbed. The climb was noted also for the first use of supplementary oxygen in a major climb.
Soon, descended down to Bedni Bugyal and the views from there were wonderful the day after as well.
Soon we descended to BagwaBasa and then to Bedni Bugyal where we camped for the day. That day it rained heavily at Bedni Bugyal for atleast 3 hours. Much later we got to know that Uttarakhand was on Red alert that day for incessant rainfall.
The next day was beautiful with Trisul and Nanda Ghunti presenting themselves in full glory!
As one descends from Bedni Bugyal one encounters the village of Ghareoli Patal and also you cross river Neelganga which originates from Bedni Bugyal itself. Most Hikers stop there for Lunch before proceeding for Wan.
The route to Wan from Bedni is mostly a descent till Neelganga River post which there is a short climb to Wan which is about 7 kms from there.
From Wan, one needs to take a shared Jeep which costs about 100 INRto Lohajung.
Roopkund would always be memorable for the folklores, adventures, beautiful sightings of legendary Mount Trisul, the people I met who would go on to be good friends and a great preparatory hikes for my next 3 months exploring Himalaya on foot!
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