The Himalayan Odyssey: Memories of scaling new heights

Thursday, October 27, 2011

It has been my desire to go to those places or do those things which can truly test and scale up my physical and mental potential to conquer new heights. The nine day Himalayan trek as a part of our Foundation Course at LBSNAA provided me an opportunity to do just that! The freshness and purity of Himalayas, their untouched majesty, pristine beauty, divine aura, rich culture and wondrous history left me wanting for more.

I had read somewhere that, when God decided to descend on the earth as mountains, the earth asked: “Why do you come in the form of mountains and not in your own form?”. And God answered: “The pleasure that exists in mountains is greater than that of animate beings, for they feel no heat, nor cold, nor pain, nor anger, nor fear, nor pleasure.”

That is exactly why mountains humble me. They are always there and have stood the test of time. They have seen thousands of generations, stood there as mighty bastions of god’s creations, thrown away beautiful smiles when every man was awestruck by their beauty, they humble the mortals as nature always do.

One of the most memorable part of Foundation Course at LBSNAA, Mussoorie is the Himalayan trek. 260+ officer trainees were divided into 14 trekking groups (plus one group of officers who didn’t want to trek for various reasons and were made to visit NGOs and other places of pilgrimage. Many called them ‘Bhajan Mandali’!). The journey from Academy to Rudraprayag, Govind Ghat, Ghangaria, Hemkund, Valley of Flowers, Badrinath, Mana, Ghastoli, Auli, and back to the Academy was something special. The rivers separating the rocky and green mountains, confluence of rivers (Prayags), the music of flowing water streams, countless waterfalls, majestic snow covered mountains, the clouds moving across those mountains against the backdrop of a clear blue sky, chilling cold at the high altitude, and a feeling of sense of achievement after the difficult journey to the top will always remain fresh in my mind for a long time to come.

1. The first day

19 of us in my trek group were all excited to scale the new heights in Himalayas. The first day was kept just to reach Rudraprayag by bus and to stay there for a night. Throughout the journey, what struck me was the beauty of rivers effortlessly overcoming the obstacles of mountains to continue their hurried journey towards the ocean. On the way to Rudraprayag, the confluence of two heavenly rivers, Bhagirathi and Alakananda to form the holy Ganga at Devaprayag makes one to think about seeing Panch Prayags (five confluences) of river Alakananda. It was a great feeling after I crossed all five Prayags of Alakananda at the end of our 9 day trek.

2. The night trek and the fear of ‘Bhaalu’ (Bear)

We were quite late to leave Rudraprayag in the morning and it was close to 2PM by the time we reached Govind Ghat though we were supposed to reach there by 11AM.  Govind Ghat is a starting point for the trek to Valley of Flowers and Hemkund via Ghangaria - around 15KM uphill from Govind Ghat. The worst part of our (planned) trek was to carry the rucksack ourselves which was around 20-25kgs. It was almost an impossible task to do that considering the 15km uphill that was quite steep towards the end. All of us in the group couldn’t resist the idea of hiring few mules to carry our rucksacks so that we can trek to Ghangaria peacefully. To our bad luck we had to pay lot more than the normal price because the mule owners were reluctant to come since it was already late and they cannot return back to Govind Ghat from Ghangaria on the same day. We had no option but to go for expensive hiring. But trust me, the decision to hire the mules was totally worth every penny that we paid. That day’s trek was something we had never done before. Had we carried our rucksacks, we might have abandoned that day’s trek midway!

Since we started the trek quite late, at around 3.30pm, we were sure about getting late to reach Ghangaria. But we had no option, we had to go according to our schedule to complete that day’s trek. One of the worst thing about that trek route was it’s full of mule dung, stinking every now and then! By 6pm it was dark enough to start using our torch light. Quite a few people who were returning from Ghangaria and also few shopkeepers on the way (sincerely) advised us not to continue the trek since it was too dark. One fellow trekker said the route is a paradise for Bhalu (the Bear). We found that assertion quite preposterous since the route was well known and there were quite a few food stalls on the way. However, we couldn’t escape from the element of fear in our minds. We decided to continue but stay close to each other and move slowly but steadily. This is the point where our comradery started to protect ourselves just in case the (non-existent, fictitious) Bhalu attack us! After all, life is important to every one and no one want to die or get injured for that matter!

Despite all the sweat (and fear), the night trek was something special. The gentle breeze from mountains, the deserted path with absolute silence, the music of flowing water, and a never give up attitude in all of us was an amazing combination for the night trek. At one point of time the road to Ghangaria never seemed to be ending. We walked and walked in a hope that we could reach at least by 8PM, but that was the time mules carrying our rucksacks reached Ghangaria. It took us another two and half hours to reach. We all just wanted to finish off that day’s trek and hit the bed, but the joy of scaling 3050m height after trekking 13km uphill had no bounds. Because of the night, though we missed the beauty of mountains and river on the way, it was really a special trek. The ‘Bhalu’ element made it even more interesting!

3. The Valley of Flowers and Hemkund Sahib
The third day’s trek plan by LBSNAA was over ambitious. We were supposed to cover both Valley of flowers and Hemkund Sahib on the same day. Valley of flowers is about 3km uphill from Ghangaria in one direction and Hemkund Sahib is around 6km uphill from Ghangaria in opposite direction. Many localites and trekking enthusiasts staying at Ghangaria told us that it’s very difficult to cover both places on the same day. I did not want to miss either of them at any cost. A localite at Ghangaria advised us to take Mules to cover one place so that we will have time to see the other. Only five of us including me volunteered to visit Hemkund and rest all fourteen decided to go to Valley of flowers. I was really hoping to scale Hemkund by lunch time and then the valley of flowers.

We started to trek soon after out breakfast and it didn’t take much time for me to realize that the trek route to Hemkund is extremely tough due to steep uphill. Couple of my friends were finding it very difficult to climb and I advised them to hire mules so that we could finish the trek in time. At first, they refused but after some time they convinced that my advise was right. I was still over confident about my energy to trek and thought i could keep up my pace with those friends on the mules. As the mules started climbing the hill effortlessly, rate of my breathing increased rapidly. The cold weather, dusty route and smell of mule dung (read s**t) made the situation worst. I knew i could scale the height of Hemkund but it would have taken two or three hours more than the mules and hence costing the visit to Valley of Flowers. The ITBP jawan who accompanied us advised us to hire mules on one way so that we can save plenty of time and effort in order to cover Valley of flowers. I thought that’s quite sensible advise and hired the mule to reach Hemkund. It took us just one and half hour to reach Hemkund. To my surprize, ITBP jawan - who was well trained to scale such mountains - reached Hemkund much before us!

Hemkund is the highest Gurudwara in the wold and a place of serenity. “With a setting of a glacial lake surrounded by seven mountain peaks and each peak is adorned by a Nishan Sahib on its cliff. It is located at an elevation of 15,200 ft / 4632 meters as per the Survey of India.[Wiki]” Though the surrounding mountains were not yet fully covered by snow, weather was extremely cold and the floor of the Gurudwara was almost freezing and water in the lake was ice cold. The atmosphere in and around Gurudwara gave a spiritual feeling and a state of serenity. I was in no mood to leave that place soon, but Valley of Flowers was there in the back of my mind. We started by 11.45 -12.00 in a hope that we could reach Ghangaria by 2 and then start to Valley of Flowers by 3pm. Downhill trek to Ghangaria was not easy either. After the half way i felt like i had no control over my legs, they were just moving on and on. Shoes were hurting and knees were in a bit of pain. But the beauty of surrounding mountains - some of which were partially covered by snow - and the view of the valley from the mountain were worth the pain and struggle. There was a feeling of great joy.

However, that joy did not last long. Few people on the way told us that the Valley of flowers will be closed by 2PM! I was thoroughly disappointed and started feeling guilty of hiring mules on the way to Hemkund Sahib. The moment i got that confirmed from localites on the way, we started walking slowly and reached Ghangaria by 3.30pm. The other friends who went to visit Valley of Flowers also came back by same time. All those who visited Valley of Flowers told me that there weren’t enough flowers since it was not the season for flowering. June-July is the time when the Valley of Flowers is at it’s majestic beauty. For a moment i thought i made a right decision to visit Hemkund Sahib first! In any case i will not miss a chance to visit Valley of Flowers at least once in my life time!

4. Downhill trek to Govindghat and journey to Badrinath

The very next day, as per our trek plan, we had to pack up and trek down to Govind Ghat where our bus was waiting to take us to Badrinath. Just a day before we had thoroughly enjoyed (uphill) night trek on the same 13km route between Ghangaria and Govind Ghat. But trekking down on the same route in the broad day light gave us a chance to enjoy the beauty of mountains, streams and river which we missed during the night trek. Eatery stalls and tea shops on the way provided some sigh of relief in covering the 13km route.

Though we were a big trek group of 19 people, we gelled well as a team. Got to know each other little better and supported each other well during the trek so far. After all, trekking is a wonderful opportunity to get to know your group better.

5. Badrinath and Mana
We reached Badrinath on the same evening after having a good lunch at Govind Ghat. The best part of our stay at Badrinath was the location of our hotel. The river Alakananda flows along the wall of that hotel, a bridge next to the hotel to cross the river and a beautiful Badrinath temple on other side of the river. The music of flowing water invokes the spiritual feeling when you look outside the window at the temple. The moment i got into my room, i thought i couldn’t have got a better place to stay in Badrinath.

It was really a tiring day after a downhill trek and travelling some distance by bus to Badrinath. The ITBP Jawan who accompanied us told me that there is a hot water spring at the temple and we could take holy bath there to get rid of all our tiredness. I had read somewhere in Geography while preparing for UPSC about hot water springs but i had never seen it before. I didn’t even know that Badrinath temple is known for hot water spring miracle. I was keen to visit that place and take a holy dip in “Taptkund”, a hot water well. The Taptkund hot spring is just below the temple and it is considered to be medicinal—many pilgrims consider it a requirement to bathe in the springs before visiting the temple. The water in the Taptkund was too hot in the evening to take a dip. I might have used some 20-30 buckets of hot water that day. All my tiredness was lost in that hot water and the feeling after bath was very very refreshing. I visited the temple and thanked lord Badrinath for giving me an opportunity to scale Himalayan mountains!

According to our trek plan, next day i.e. Day 5, was a day to rest and acclimatize. Some of us decided to trek to Mana which is around 2-3 km from Badrinath and some guys decided to spend some peaceful time in the hotel. Walking along the river Alakananda to reach Mana was a nice experience. Ice cold river water, plenty of pebbles surrounding the river stream, majestic mountains, and the Mana village next to the river was something special that day. Mana is called the last village of India close to the border. ITBP and IBEX army Brigade guards that area.

After 2-3 hours of walk, we decided to eat something at a small eatery in Mana. The maggie was cooked badly and none of us liked it. I thought of going to the kitchen and cooking the maggie in my own style which i had tried in Bangalore, a long ago. The shop keeper smiled when I asked him if i can cook. He agreed and was nice enough to help me with all ingredients i demanded. Trust me, the maggie was much better than what we were served before. Everyone liked it!

6. Trek to Ghastoli and a visit to ITBP Camp
After 5 days of hard trekking, we still had plenty of energy left to scale yet another height in Himalayas. Ghastoli is connected to Mana by road. There is a camp of ITBP and Indian Army to guard our borders. Our official plan was to trek to ITBP camp which is around 16km from Mana, and meet ITBP officials over lunch. The trek route wasn’t that difficult since it was a road for army vehicles maintained by Border Road Organization.

Before starting our trek we took few pictures in the last village of India and the last tea shop of India (Mana village)! It was a long winding walk, crossing several of mountains, each one showcasing the majestic beauty of Himalayan Mountains and it was literally a treat to watch. On the way, Arwa Nala, which was gathering more water from various streams, was in full force. It enters Mana through a deep gorge. A spectacular sight to see while walking on the bridge (near Mana). Arwa Nala joins river Saraswati at Mana and together they become Alakananda at Badrinath.

Throughout the route, clear blue sky covering the mountains, the white clouds hovering around the summit, the rock debris with numerous crossing of streams, the snow covered rocky mountains competing each other in their heights, the long winding road, the cold breeze adding to the feeling of being close to the nature was something which will remain fresh in my mind for a long time to come. One need not be a photographer to capture the surrounding beauty of those mountains and that was hardly a place to learn photography. Point your camera at any direction and blindly click it, it will certainly be one of the best picture. And yes, I am not exaggerating. It was wonderful to be so close to the nature!

The weather along the way was changing constantly, becoming more and more cold. Despite covering sufficiently, and walking for such a long distance, we still couldn’t escape from that freezing cold. For a moment, i just wondered how our Jawans survive there for months and years to protect our borders. After reaching ITBP camp, It was all together a different feeling to see our tricolour flying high in the backdrop of those majestic mountains. The camp was at an altitude of (aprox) 4000 meters. We were treated to all comforts there. They served us warm lunch and hot tea in that freezing cold surrounding. After such a long and tiring trek, with no energy left in us, their hospitality made us feel at home.

We spoke to ITBP Jawans for a while and decided to walk back to Mana. It was already late and we weren’t sure if we could reach back before the sunset. On the way back, we met a Captain from Indian Army. A truck was following his vehicle. We spoke to the captain and he readily agreed to take us in the Army truck. We all felt, “what a relief!”. The truck was so dusty, it looked like seats were covered with an inch of dust. But, who can think of luxury in those mountains? We never hesitated to sit and adjust to make ourselves as comfortable as possible. By the time we reached Mana, our cloths were full of dust! However, none of us complained, we thoroughly enjoyed our ride in that road. It was awesome!

Our original plan was to stay at ITBP camp over a night and return on the next day. But due to extreme weather and logistic problems to accommodate all of us in the camp, ITBP officials had made arrangements for our stay at Badrinath itself. By covering both the ways in one day, thanks to army truck, we saved another day for the rest.

On the next day (i.e. day 7), instead of just resting in the hotel, some of us decided to see Neelkant Parvat behind Badrinath.  This small trek was a cake walk for us after successfully completing Ghastoli trek! Neelakant Pravat was snow covered mountain standing behind two adjacent mountains which weren’t covered with snow, giving contrasting look. Since we went there in first week of October, all the mountains were yet to be covered with snow.

7. The confusion and subsequent visit to Auli

Auli, (alt. 2915 mts-3049 mts ) is an important ski destination in the Himalayan mountains of Uttarakhand, India. Skiing events happens in Auli only after January when it is completely covered by snow. In fact, 2011 South Asean winter sports were held at Auli in last January. Some of us in the group came to the conclusion that “there is no fun in Auli if there is no snow and it will all be mountains which we have been seeing in the last one week”. I wasn’t happy with that. Few others including me really wanted to see Auli no matter it was covered by snow or not. Some were suggesting to skip Auli and go back to academy a day earlier. I was certainly not for that. We decided to go by majority and majority of us raised voice for Auli trip!

Auli is a good tourist destination. Thanks to 2011 South Asean Winder Sports event, the infrastructure there is pretty good. “There are two different small lifts available for skiing during winter seasons. The chair lift of 800 meter & 500 meter of Ski lift are used to reach the top area of the slope to start the skiing.” The ropeway from Joshimath to Auli is called Gorson ropeway system. Joshimath to Auli Gorson ropeway system is the highest ropeway of India. This ropeway has two cable cars and has 10 towers. It covers a slope distance of 3.96 KM and a track distance of 4.15 KM. This ropeway takes you up by 1110 meters. [Read More]

“At Auli one can get 180 degree view of different snow peaks. The highest peak among them are Nanda Devi (7817 m), Choukhamba, Panch Chuli ( named after five Pandava brothers of Hindu mythology ), Doonagiri (7066 m) and many other peaks. “

The decision to go to Auli proved to be right and we had a good time. According to our plan Auli was a last place to visit. After a good lunch at Auli, we started our journey (by bus) to Gauchar for a night’s stay. “Gauchar is a small town located in Karnaprayag tehsil within Chamoli district of Uttarakhand state in India. It is situated on the left bank of river Alaknanda, at an altitude of 800 meters”.

The next day we, started our journey back to the Academy. From Gauchar, till we reached Dehradun, the journey treated us with the same mountains, rivers, and countless streams. There were quite few landslides here there to obstruct the road. Landslides were quite common in those Himalayan roads. By the time we reached Academy, it was around 9.00PM (9th October). It was hard to believe that those nine best days of my life have gone away within no time! Himalayan trek is one of the best thing that happened in my life.

I have said it many times earlier that the mountains always humble me. There is so much to discover from them. There is so much to learn from just being so close to the nature. For me, the mountains that I scaled during the trek represented nature at its best - most powerful, most awe-inspiring and spectacularly beautiful. As I mentioned earlier, “the pleasure that exists in mountains is greater than that of animate beings, for they feel no heat, nor cold, nor pain, nor anger, nor fear, nor pleasure.”

Here are some pictures clicked during the trek, will upload more pics on facebook... :)

At Devprayag

Hemkund Sahib
Trekking down to Govindghat
Taptkund, Badrinath (Hot water spring)
Badrinath Temple
River Alakananda in the background
Cooking Maggie in the Himalayas!
Dinner at Badrinath with Lord Rawat
On the way to Ghastoli
Look at the clear sky!
Neelakant Parvat
Auli Cable way
SA Winter Sport was held at Auli

Caption needed???

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This work by Manjunath Singe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License. The views and opinions expressed in this work are strictly those of the author and do not represent his employer's views in anyway.