Winter's trail

Winter's trail
Punishing, yet rewarding, that's the land between now-sullied Shangri-Las of Manali and Dharamsala, Photo Credit: Sankar Sridhar

The route to the Gaddi village of Bara Bangal is as treacherous as it is beautiful

Sankar Sridhar
March 31 , 2014
11 Min Read

Day 1
His outline etched against that cloud-choked sky, Manu pauses a moment to catch his breath and smell the fragrance of flowers on the way to Lama Dugh (3,020m) from Manali. While the gradient and thick undergrowth make the hike punishing even on the brightest day, the darkest hours are made bearable by blossoms that quilt the terrain even until the first week of November. Not this year, though. A bad turn in the weather, which led to cloudbursts in Uttarakhand and floods in Delhi, wreaked havoc in the higher reaches of Himachal as well. Mountainsides caved in and whispering streams turned into roaring rivers. In the end, it all came down to how well we managed to dry our socks each evening.

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Between the now-sullied Shangri-Las of Manali and Dharamsala lies a land as punishing on the legs as it is rewarding to the eye. This is the domain of Shiva and He, it is said, permits only Gaddis, the semi-nomadic pastoralists of Himachal Pradesh, right of passage. Everyone else he deters by piling the passes with snow and drenching the earth with endless rain. The legend outdid itself when I went in September 2010. The early onset of winter squalls last year made even the usually easy crossing of the boulder zone an arduous and dangerous affair.

The information

Getting there:
Start from Manali, which is well connected by buses and taxis from Delhi (570kms), Chandigarh and Kalka. There are flights to Bhuntar (50kms from Manali), the closest airport, on Air India (40 seater) (from Rs 5,268 ex-Delhi) every day. If you’re travelling by rail, you can get off at Ambala Cantt (from Rs 380 on 2A ex-Delhi), Chandigarh (from Rs 420 on CC) or Kiratpur Sahib (from Rs 574 on 2A) and take a taxi from there.

Air Nearest Airport Kullu-Manali Airport Bhuntar (50kms from Manali)

Air India Flight (40 seater) reaching everyday  to Bhuntar, the rates are dynamic (Rs 5,268)

Mon, Tues, Thur, Fri ; Delhi-Chandigarh-Bhuntar- 2hrs (Hopping Flight)

Sun, Wed, Sat-Delhi-Bhuntar -1hrs (Direct Flight)

Rail Shimla (350 kms)

Bus from Delhi-Manali ; 570kms/13-14hrs (Rs 1,200), HRTC Buses Volvo (Rs 1,200-1,400)

Taxi from Delhi -Manali 570kms/11-12kms; (Rs 11,000)


This is a strenuous trek, partially because this isn’t exactly a ‘pony route’. If you do find a horseman willing to risk his beasts, be prepared to help coax the mules up the final stretch of the passes, where they often sink chest-deep in snow.

The best month to walk this route is August, but for people who love snow, October through December will promise unrivalled adventure. The stout of heart could try mid-March, by when the worst winter storms stop, and the snow is hard enough to bear the weight of a man. A sturdy dome tent, sleeping bags that can keep you warm at –20°C and waterproof shoes are an absolute must.

It’s worth remembering, though, that this is a trek that is very demanding even in season and most usually steer clear of it. An entirely uninhabited stretch, save for Bara Bangal, which too is partially deserted, even a semblance of help will be impossible to find throughout the route. For those still intent on an attempt, stretching it over fifteen or sixteen days would be a safe bet.

The route:

Kilometres never make sense on a trek, so distances are given in time.

Day 1: Manali to Lama Dugh

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The trek begins from the Delhi Public School in Manali and runs through the Manali Sanctuary and lasts about seven hours. Much of the walk is through very thick undergrowth, so it would be best to skip the views and keep an eye, or two, on the barely visible route. You can’t miss the campsite, which is the only clearing and the only flat place in an otherwise thick oak forest.

Day 2: Lama Dugh to Riyali Thach The least excruciating day on the entire hike, the downhill days included. You leave behind the forests and walk through open meadows carpeted in the pre-winter season by motley wildflowers. A meek trail pushes through until it finally melts into a thick trail on top of a ridge. Remember not to follow the trail, instead keep your eyes peeled for a slender track that rushes downhill. We followed the thick trail and reached Duppu, late in the evening, with neither sleeping bag nor tent. It’s not a night we will forget in a hurry, mostly because we sat huddled together for warmth under an open sky and lashing rain.

Day 3: Riyali Thach to Duppu and Back Head back up the trail and follow the thick trail to Duppu. Though not part of the circuit, the three-hour walk is extremely rewarding, with open expanses, massive boulder zones and magnificent views of Deo Tibba and Indrasan. Head back to Riyali Thach.

Day 4: Riyali Thach to Base of Kalihani Brace, and brace again, for some serious river-crossing. There is no trail to follow on the riverbank, so it’s every man for himself to find the easiest way up. It pays to remember that the ultimate uphill climb to the base camp must be made from the right bank of the river.

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Though there’s no trail, all ways lead to a ridge that then flattens out to meet the glacier. The Marhi (stone shelter built by Gaddis), which is the best camping option, is visible once you reach the ridge.

Day 5: Base of Kalihani to Devi Ki Marhi This stretch, which goes via Kalihani pass, is a testing one as much for the shin-scraping uphill march through boulders and then snow as for the kneecap-grinding plunge on the other side. Again, there are no routes to follow, just remember to turn a hard left when you reach the first plateau on the climb. On the other side of the pass, use the lakes as a marker and then, further downhill, follow the river up to the Marhi. The hike can take up to twelve hours.

Day 6: Devi Ki Marhi to Bara Bangal

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We were forced to make up for time lost due to bad weather and it took us sixteen hours. It is advisable to break journey at Dal Marhi, a distance that can be comfortably covered in five hours, and head for Bara Bangal the next day. This stretch of the trek is the most depressing, with the trail rife with steep descents and spine-chilling climbs.

Day 7: Bara Bangal to Thamsar Base (3,890m) Bara Bangal is considered the oldest Gaddi village, and looks it. You must spend a day exploring this eighty-hut village. The road beyond it is mostly through a boulder zone with patches of vegetation. The trail disappears as the vegetation thins but it’s easy to find your way to camp if you keep a waterfall as your marker. Cairns then guide you to a campsite well-hidden among rocks.

Day 8: Thamsar Base to Plachak (2,728m) This route goes via Thamsar pass. A fairly easy climb because the Kalihani ordeal is still fresh in mind. The lakes at the base of the pass merit special attention and the views from the pass, weather permitting, defy description.

Day 9: Plachak to Rajgundha

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An easy walk through almost flat land, traversing hill after hill and through pure pine forests. The walk lasts about six hours at an easy clip, though the lack of scenery means most cover the distance in five.

Day 10: Rajgundha to Bir-Billing The path broadens to a road, a once-upon-a-time project that fell by the wayside. It’s an easy three-hour walk and ends at a tea stall, a bonus on any trek.

Tour operator

Himalayan Yeti Adventure
Cell:  09816300789 (Contact Bhupinder)
Rates: Rs 4,000-5,000/person/day incl of all (min7-15max) (Manali -Manali)

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