Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Roopkund Trek: The Adventure of a Lifetime

Note to reader: this is an extremely long blog post!

I have just returned from a trek to Roopkund, a lake situated at 15,500 ft in the Himalayas in the north western part of Uttarakhand, the state where we live. The hike was one of the most physically demanding things I've ever done, but at the same time hugely satisfying to achieve. In one week I experienced a full range of emotions, joy, sadness, sickness, fear, and ultimately exhilaration and exhaustion when we made it to the top.

However, if things had gone to plan I shouldn't have been on the trek at all. This summer we were planning to take our four-month old Charlie back to meet his family in the UK. But thanks to the incompetence of the British Passport Office and their absurd scheme to try and process all global British passport applications in Liverpool, our son's application got stuck in a logjam of half a million.

But where one door closes another opens. I was on the trek! We were a group of eight in total; me and Woodstock colleagues Ben, Abe and Andy with Andy's 13-year-old son Micah; Josh and Adi from Hyderabad, and Sam from Delhi.

Those of us coming from Mussoorie took the night train from Dehradun to Kathgodam, and there we met the other three guys at the station. As we gathered in the waiting room rain sheeted down, and it seemed like Monsoon was in full swing. Please, not a week of teeming rain, I silently prayed. We piled into a jeep to start the gruelling ten hour drive north via Almora and Gwaldam to the start of the trek in a village called Lohajung, situated at about 8,000 ft.

We arrived at about 7pm with most of us feeling rough after an extremely long and sick-inducing journey. We found a guest house to stay in, booked a porter with a horse to carry our tents and food the next day, and found a cafe for a rice and dal supper. The next morning we woke up to bright weather to begin the trek in earnest.

Day 1: Lohajung to Ali Bugyal via Didana

It was a fine day and the trek started with a descent to a river in the valley between Lohajung and Didana. The scenery was beautiful but the drop took us back down to about 6,000 ft, with our ultimate destination that day at 11,000 ft, meaning a 5,000 ft ascent in total for the day. After we crossed the river our backpacks started to feel really heavy. I was struggling, while Ben was feeling sick, and the steep path up started to slow us down. We all made Didana for lunch, but were in a sorry state. It was here I gratefully handed my pack over the to our donkeywalla for the rest of the trek (kudos to the other guys who hiked most of the entire trek with their packs - I am not that hardcore!).

At the river on the first day  BEN BOWLING
The bad news was after lunch the paths up through a forest felt pretty much vertical. During the afternoon we got separated, with Andy and Micah out in front, and the rest lagging behind. I was on my own for much of the way up, before catching up with Sam, who was struggling with a cramped knee. Continuing through the zigzagging paths in the forest was slow going. Every step took an enormous amount of energy, and we kept having to stop for breaks. We eventually made it to the meadow at the top at about 5pm, where we met Andy and Micah. Andy decided to go down and try and find the four stragglers, so we three of us waited in the meadow as our donkeywalla implored us to get a move on, as the fog swirled in around the meadow.

Finally at around about 6pm the other group made it up, but were in bad shape. We needed to get to our destination before the weather turned, which can change very quickly in the Himalayas. As Andy and Micah kept up with the donkeywalla, the rest of us lagged behind, as rain, hail and fog started to come in. We were in a 3km-long meadow with limited visibility, no maps and no shelter. This was not good! At one point I couldn't see anyone else from the group and was blindly stumbling on in what I thought was the right direction. Thankfully, the six of us managed to find each other through shouting out and locating each other by our voices. By now hail was lashing down, and one of our group Josh had no waterproofs as Andy had taken his bag. We were badly exposed but had to keep moving - if we stayed still we were in danger of getting hypothermia.

The meadow in which we got lost    BEN BOWLING

We kept running across the meadow in the hail yelling out for any signs of shelter, but to no avail. It was past 7pm but thankfully we had some visibility, and eventually we stumbled across a small stone animal shelter which would have to double up as our accommodation for the night. Just as those who were the most cold were getting in, and Ben and Sam were about to go to look for the campsite, a light was spotted in the distance. Andy had come back to find us, and told us the campsite was just five minutes away! Relieved and thankful, we followed him to the campsite where we collapsed exhausted and cold, but happy to be safe.

It was a scary way to end the first day and a reminder how the unpredictable weather in the mountains can be so dangerous. Happily all's well that ends well, although our first day's itinerary most groups do in two days, now we understood why!

Snow peaks peeking through: View from the first campsite    BEN BOWLING
Day 2: Ali Bugyal to Patar Nachuani

This was a much easier day, a fairly straightforward and gentle climb up to the next campsite along undulating paths above beautiful meadows. It was a bit foggy so views weren't great, but we made it in about three hours and set up camp at Patar Nachuani, away from the larger clusters of Indian groups who make this trek. There are several companies that are making a killing taking up large groups all through the season, and while it is good to see locals enjoying the mountains, the size of their parties, who aren't always the quietest of folk, meant we did our utmost to keep our distance on the campsites.

At this point I should mention the food we ate during the trek - it was amazing. Trek organiser Ben and Josh had spent hours dehydrating meals for us, which meant we only needed to add water to reconstitute them. We ate like kings: chicken mango curry, chili con carne, as well as delicious puddings such as cheesecake and chocolate brownies. Ben did all the cooking, for which we were all enormously grateful.

Ascending in the fog    BEN BOWLING
Group jump at Patar Nachuani campsite  BEN BOWLING

Day 3: Patar Nachuani to Bhagwabasa (base camp)

I woke up on Day 3 feeling pretty rough. I hadn't slept well and I gulped down some water in the tent. Unfortunately this came straight back up as I vomited. Maybe I was suffering from altitude sickness; we were now at about 12,000 ft.

We decided to get another donkeywalla to take everyone's heavy bags for the next climb. Unfortunately we couldn't find one, but then four chappal-clad local lads turned up and said they would take them, before hareing off up the mountain ahead of us. The first part of the day was a steep climb and again hard going. However, by the time we reached a mundir things levelled out, and this is where we hit the snowline. A fairly level walk took us to Bhagwabasa, a rocky area which is effectively Roopkund basecamp.

Bhagwabasa is what I imagine Everest Base Camp is like, it wasn't the most pleasant of places. It was hard rock, so we had to pitch our tents on the flattest rocks we could find, and although there were two (grim) toilet tents, there was a lot of human excrement around the camp. It was also significantly colder as we were now at 14,000 ft.

That evening we faced a dilemma; to get to Roopkund we would be climbing through a significant amount of snow, other groups going up were using crampons (devices to attach to your boot to help with grip), we didn't have any. After asking the other groups if we could borrow some, we received a resounding 'no' in response. So we decided to attempt the ascent in just our walking boots.

Although the mist was closing in it occasionally cleared and we started to have great views of the snow peaks which were tantalisingly close, including Trishul and Nanda Devi.

Bhagwabasa - the base camp from which we made the final ascent
Day 4: Roopkund ascent

We woke at 3.45am for the ascent attempt. We shivered around the stove and gulped down some coffee for breakfast, and after a ten minute wait for Adi we were ready to go at about 4.45am, just as it was getting light. We managed to get on the path ahead of the large India Hikes group which was good.

The first part of the path was pretty straightforward with some snow patches to cross. We raced ahead of the other group and were making good progress, until they started yelling at us that we were going the wrong way, and needed to head up the mountain more. We did this by transversing a rocky outcrop pretty much vertically.

After a while we were walking in snow the whole time. Fortunately it was not too icy, but for some of our group this was the first time they'd ever hiked in snow, so it was a new and challenging experience. For most of the time Andy and Ben went ahead and dug in footmarks which we all then followed in. After about two-and-a-half hours we knew we were getting close, but the snow climbs were getting almost vertical. It was hard going and every step took a monumental effort.

Finally, after about three hours, we got over the final brow of a hill to arrive above the lake, a stunning sight of crystal clear azure blue water set against the white of the snow. It looked beautiful and it was so satisfying to have made it. The lake contains human skeletons which it is believed are the remains of a group who were on a pilgrimage in the 9th century, and were killed by giant hailstones. A few of us slid down the ice to the lake to get a closer look, although no skeletons were visible. The others stayed at the top and revelled in the joy of having made it, while the fog cleared affording us glorious views all around. We felt truly blessed to have had such a good day for the ascent.

After a while it was time to make our way down, although Ben (being Ben!) decided to try and climb the sheer cliff behind the lake (he got some great photos, see below). On the way down some of us decided to slide down the snow on our butts, which certainly was a lot more fun than walking! We made it down by midday for lunch and then a quick pack up as we left for our next destination.

We then had another three hour hike back down the way we came to our next meadow campsite. Going down was certainly a lot easier than going up, and the good weather meant we had great views which had been obscured on the way up.

We arrived at Bedni Bugyal, our final camping spot, at about 4pm, and found a lovely secluded spot close to a river. In the evening over dinner we shared the elation of the success of the hike, and the teamwork of the group was praised by one and all.
The only way is up: ascending  BEN BOWLING

Roopkund: our first glimpse of the magical lake   BEN BOWLING
View looking down from peak opposite   BEN BOWLING
Roopkund - members of group like ants top left   BEN BOWLING
Sam and me after going down to the water's edge   BEN BOWLING
The way down: the way we came       ED BEAVAN
Back at basecamp after successful ascent    BEN BOWLING

Day 5: Rest day, Bedni Bugyal

Day 5 was a much-needed rest day. There was a mountain dhaba near our campsite where we were able to have egg paranthas for lunch, some guys played frisbee, while others read. We had great views from the snows at this campsite.

The mountain dhaba where we got paranthas  ED BEAVAN
The rest day campsite   ED BEAVAN

Day 6: Final descent to Wan

We were up at 5am for our final descent to Wan, which was a steep trek back down through the beautiful forest which had been our undoing on the way up. When we reached the river five of us stripped off for a wonderful plunge in the icy cold water. It had to be done! Then it was a short ascent, then back down to Wan, which we reached by about 11am.

Arriving at Wan, which had a few shops and a few workman building concrete blocks, was slightly underwhelming. Tired but happy, we drank some chai and tried to work out how we could get to Lohajung, where our driver was supposed to be meeting us. After managing to charge our phones, it turned out our original driver hadn't come, but we managed to book another driver to take us back to Kathgodam.

It was a this point we said goodbye to our hilarious porter Treelok Singh. At the beginning of the week, he had seemed like something of an irritating maverick, yelling at all and sundry to get a move on, by the end of the trek he had become a firm friend, and we were sorry to say goodbye. A potato farmer by trade, he does the portering as an extra income stream during the walking season. What was incredible was that he did the trek in bedroom slippers! As we left Andy gave him his walking boots, which hopefully he'll put to good use.

So it was back in the jeep for the second awful day-long drive to Kathgodam, where we found a hotel and scoffed delicious pizza, watching the Netherlands-Chile World Cup game (I discovered England hadn't even had the decency to stay in the competition in my absence!). The next morning those going to Delhi got the early train, while those returning to Mussoorie had a day to kill in Kathgodam. We went to Cafe Coffee Day and then enjoyed a morning shopping in Haldwani. Then it was the night train back to Dehradun, the taxi ride back up the hill and we were home!

Our porter Treelok Singh    ED BEAVAN
The slippers he walked in!   ED BEAVAN

Clearer views on the way down    BEN BOWLING

We did it! I must admit that every day on the way up I thought I would not be able to make it. The trek was a great way for me to see that with determination and the encouragement of others we are able to achieve more than we think possible and develop resilience. I made great friendships with new people and deepened relationships with others. I will hold the memories of the hike with me forever and am so glad God opened the door for this opportunity. As I am getting older, I am being affected by a genetic condition that runs in our family which means my ability to walk is deteriorating, so it was great to do it while I still can.

On a side note, I will not mind if I never eat gorpe again (trail mix) - we had tons of the stuff between us. I would also like to say a huge thank you to my wife Kirsten who allowed me to do the trek by looking after Charlie on her own during the trek, a task as arduous as summiting Roopkund!

Kirsten and Charlie   ED BEAVAN

Below are my awards for the members of the group:

Hero award: Andy for rescuing us in the meadow, frequently taking two packs, and for helping people up and down Roopkund
Teenager award: Micah, 13, who did amazingly
Unpunctuality award: Adi!
Constantly losing toothbrush award: Ed
Chef extraordinaire and trek organiser award: Ben
Making things with his hands, including home-made tent, award: Josh
Self filming while sliding down mountain award, sponsored by Go Pro: Sam
The Abe Okie award for being Abe Okie: Abe Okie

Chai chahiye?
Great photo story here on chai, the drink India can't do without