“Always do what you are afraid to do”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
You could say I took Emerson’s advice when I packed my bags to go trekking in Uttarakhand, in the monsoon. And true enough, some parts of my trek scared the daylights out of me. But more on that later.
Let’s go back to one hot afternoon, a few months ago. My editor was getting tired of seeing us getting too comfortable in the air-conditioned office room, so he told us to come up with story ideas. Overestimating my endurance level for pain and exhaustion, I came up with the Char Dhaam in Garhwal. That idea was shot down. So this obstinate acrophobic, succumbed to her limitations and picked Tungnath anyway. My friends told me “it’s an easy trek, in no time you will make it to the 4,000m summit of Chandrashila (the mountain on which the Tungnath temple is situated).” How wrong were theybut wait, I will get there too.
It took me a month to finish my research on the destination–in and around, things to do, places to visit etc. You see, I had my limitations, being on the plumper side; I like mountains but would run out of breath after ten steps. So, obsessively, I asked every adventure enthusiast I knew about the nature of the trek and the duration and checked out every possible online resource on the Chandrashila trek. It was suggested that I contact Great Indian Outdoors for their trekking programs, to check if they had a fixed departure where they’d be willing to accommodate me. They did. Through all this, my friends from Uttarakhand diligently sent me pictures of floods and landslides. All I could see online was news about the early onset of the monsoon.
Turning a deaf ear to my misgivings about the weather, I set off from Delhi one day in early June, joining up with the trekking team in Haridwar the next day. The journey from Haridwar to Kund kicked off with the very hot and humid Haridwar-Devprayag-Srinagar stretch and incessant rains on the Rudraprayag to Kund stretch. In some places we had to stop and wait for the rain to stop because of the very real danger of rock-fall. For their prudence, I had to thank our very patient and alert driver Ramesh, and our guide Sunil. We reached the GIO camp in Kund late, but at least in one piece. Here we were joined by our trek leader, Yashpal.
We began our trek from Sari village the next day, our objective, a pretty little lake called Deoria Tal. The drive from Kund to Sari village was a beautiful one. Mist-covered hills greeted the 13 of us on the trek–seven trekkers, two guides, one driver and three kitchen crew. But soon enough, I was a nervous wreck because a) the clear sky had gathered dark clouds and b) I was already experiencing mountain sickness along with a bad stomach ache. I battled the pain and the nausea for the 2-km trail to Deoria Tal, with Sunil caring for me and staying by my side, till the pain subsided. But now that the physical discomfort was gone, it was the clouds’ turn to play spoilsport. We met with a heavy downpour, complete with violent thunder and lightning. Every now and then, the clouds would pass and we’d be flooded with harsh sunlight. Three hours of this, and we finally reached our Deoria Tal–a picturesque meadow around a lake with a gorgeous view of the mighty Chaukhamba massif.
Chaukhamba was hidden when we reached, thanks to the rain. Right after reaching the campsite, I had to retreat to my tent because of the onrushing thunderstorm. Sometime in the afternoon, amidst heavy downpour, I saw a flash of red across the sky, followed by a loud explosion. When the rain stopped and I stepped outside, I learnt that our campsite had been struck by lightning–the kitchen tent, to be more precise, only a few metres from my tent. The kitchen team had escaped with electric shocks to their legs. It was a close call.
However, I soon forgot about the scary experience, because Chaukhamba and the rest of the range were slowly coming out from behind the retreating clouds. The view that unfolded in front of me made the weather, my health and the thunderbolt worth it! In the evening, the sky cleared for few hours, the temperature dropped below five degrees and the sky was filled with stars, so many of them! Living in Delhi for so long now, I had forgotten that there were things called stars. Seeing so many of them on such a clear night, I sat mesmerised for all of the twenty minutes of clear visibility. My reverie was broken only when the clouds began to roll back in. As the stars slowly faded, I remembered my camera. I missed the opportunity, but I don’t have any regrets.
I slept through a very cold night only to wake up very early the next day, in order to catch the sunrise. Of course, I didn’t see any–nature was really playing with me by now. The fog never lifted, and soon it was 6am and we had to get a move on to our next destination, Chopta. Two of our team members decided to trek all the way to Chopta, some 16 kilometres, through the forest trail. I personally felt it not too wise a thing to do, mainly because of the unpredictable weather, and because our trekking itinerary was quite tight.
The rest of us reached the beautiful camping ground of Chopta sometime around 11am. The day was sunny, green meadows stretched all around and the ringing of cow bells our constant companion. A friendly sheepdog paid a visit. Huge flocks of sheep grazed on the slopes of the gentle hillocks. Then came the much needed rest and sleep, as did the rain. An hour of light drizzle took away my hopes of seeing the gorgeous sunset my guide and the kitchen help kept talking about. Sadly, there was nothing to see because of the clouds. We sat and hoped that the rest of the team would reach us safely before the storm broke. They walked in around 5pm and within moments, all of us were running towards our respective tents. The much awaited and predicted storm had arrived.
The heavy downpour lasted half an hour, but this helped clear the skies, and I was treated to one of the best sunsets that I have ever witnessed. This time I spent all of five minutes gawking at the great peaks of Kedarnath, Kedar Doma, Bhrigupanth and Chaukhamba, and the rest behind the viewfinder of my Nikon. I frenziedly clicked away, desperate to make the most of the view before the daylight faded. Monsoon and mountain sickness was dragging me down but one thing was beyond dispute–these mountains were a photographer’s delight!
Following another freezing night my health was not getting any better, so I decided to skip the trek to Tunganath and Chandrashila. With the rest of the team gone on the day hike, I was left with the GIO team to explore Chopta. The camping site falls under the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary and to camp here you need a proper permit from Uttarakhand Tourism and the Forest Department (the latter’s office was just a kilometer away in the market area). The previous afternoon, an official had come on his rounds and lectured us on not lighting a bonfire anywhere in the sanctuary area–all the while standing right next to the blackened remains of an old bonfire. Our team didn’t disobey any of the rules and we even packed all our kitchen waste back to our van. At one in the afternoon, we went to pick up the team on their way back from the Chandrashila hike. After waiting for more than an hour in the rain, the hikers started trickling in, looking tired but in one piece! Unfortunately the ones who had done the 16km trek the previous day were in pretty bad shape. They hadn’t received adequate rest, and a combination of mountain sickness, fever and sore muscles had got the better of them.
By now my cramps were getting worse and I desperately wanted to get back to a warm bed. Needless to say, I felt quite happy to return to HELC Kund. With a heavy heart I accepted the limitations that I’d faced, but now I had a very solid reason to return to Chopta soon. The next time, I’d be in a better condition physically and avoid the monsoon.
Great Indian Outdoors
GIO (gio.in) is an adventure company that organises small-group trips and activities including trekking, camping, rafting, climbing, mountain biking and jeep safaris across the Himalaya. They also run fixed camps and lodges called Himalayan Eco Lodges (himalayanecolodges.com). GIO’s trips are suitable for all age groups and are perfect for enthusiasts across a broad spectrum of interests–expeditions, adventure trips, school trips, weekend trips and family vacations.
I did the moderate 5-day Chopta-Chandrashila Peak Trek.
Day 01: Haridwar—Kund (drive/6-7 hrs)
Day 02: Kund — Deoriatal (trek/4-5 hrs).
Day 03: Deoriatal—Chopta (trek/4-5 hrs). Apart from the usual drivable road, you could also take the 16-km forest trail to reach Chopta from Deoriatal.
Day 04: Chopta—Tungnath—Chandrashila peak—Kund (trek/4-5 hrs & drive/1 hr). This trek is rated as moderate, but again, acclimatisation is important as you will be gaining a lot of altitude by the time you reach Chandrashila.
Day 05: Kund—Haridwar (drive/6-7 hrs)
The 4 Days/3 Nights package for two begins from Rs 12,100 and the 3 Days/2 Nights package for two from Rs 8,900.
From New Delhi, you could take an overnight bus to Haridwar or Rishikesh from ISBT Kashmiri Gate or board a train to Haridwar. If you are travelling with Great Indian Outdoors (gio.in) on one of their fixed departure plans, they will pick you up from the Haridwar railway station or any other designated pickup point.
What to See & Do
The Ukhimath Temple near Kund is an old one. The deity at Kedarnath is carried down to Ukhimath for the winter each year. This fortress-like temple houses a silver image of Shiva. Deoria Tal’s views of Chaukhamba and the rest of the Kedarnath Range is legendary. The thick pine and deodhar forest that stretches up to Chopta is a beautiful one, a prime example of high Himalayan alpine forests. Beyond Chopta, as you climb to Tunganath, lie miles and miles of emerald green bugiyals (alpine meadows) interspersed with bushes of dwarf rhododendrons. The Tunganath Temple is the highest shrine in the entire Kedar-Badri circuit. One of the pancha kedar, it is also the most picturesque with fabulous views encompassing the high peaks of the Kedarnath-Gangotri range. The peak of the mountain, Chandrashila, stands at almost 4,000m. Due to its height, it gives you an unbroken 180° view of the Great Himalayan Range, from Trishul and Nanda Devi in the east to the mountains above Yamunotri to the west. There’s a small shrine to the moon on the peak, as well as lines of eerie cairns. There’s plenty of wild sightings you can make here, including mouse hare, musk deer, monal and lammergeiers.