Hoping to find some truth in a myth, I left the last village and crossed the confluence of rivers Alaknanda and Saraswati. I trudged along making my way through the thistles and the wee little wildflowers, losing imperceptibly the sense of time. Satopanth is the path of truth, the path that the Pandavas followed to heaven. Walking away from the fading dots of human settlements into the realm of high mountains and silence, the gigantic massifs and the mystic glaciers, mammoth waterfalls and sequestered stony caves, I was intrinsically following the footsteps of the Mahabharata heroes. Gravels and gorges are the best spinners of yarns and I yearned to listen to the stories etched over them.
“May I take a photo, baba?” I met a spiritual minstrel who was all smiles and posed. “Le lo, le lo bete (take it, son),” he said. His eyes were partially hidden by the big turban that he was wearing. His makeshift bedding and a customary jhola were dangling from his shoulder.
“Where do you stay?” I asked. All through my car ride from Rishikesh to Badrinath I saw men walking alone with a steel container in one hand and a stick in the other. Perhaps, spiritual men have been walking these paths since time immemorial.
“The mountains are my home. I stay where I feel like. Someone gave me some fruits and a cup of tea. What more do I want?” He was a figure out of the dogeared scriptures that talk about vanaprastha—a stage of man’s life gained through the renouncement of material pursuits.
The ascetic moved ahead and I slumped down after crossing a long stretch of boulders to navigate the arduous Dhanno glacier. My first day of the Satopanth Tal trek would end with a gain of 2000ft in 8 kilometres. The increasingly rasping sound of Vasudhara bickering on the stones down below declared its presence from afar. A myth muses that Vasudhara’s water doesn't fall on the heads of sinners.
The breeze was making its way through the falls, drifting the water aside in patterns with rainbow arches over the droplets. The village of Mana hid behind the curves, barren mountain tops spiked upwards with trails of glaciers perched at their edges, and tiny flowers dotted the wilderness around. Laxmi Van was another 8 kilometres. The distant sight of the silvery foliage of the trees of Laxmi Van fluttering in the breeze was like a desperate beckoning of an oasis.
My trek custodian Arun and his staff set up tents. After a hot plate of noodles and a cup of black tea, I looked around. The multitudinous folds of black Mount Kuber on my right looked frightening but inviting. Ahead, was the majestic Mount Balakun. The road bifurcated around that mountain—on the left was the Gangotri glacier and on the right, the Satopanth glacier.
Our morning trek started on that trail. I found the cave where that baba might be putting up. The strikingly bright red robe was spread on a stone. I peeped inside the cave. He was not to be found so I moved on. The shrubs and occasional grove of rhododendrons dwindled, glacial streams were abound. On my right was the Alkapuri glacier, the source of Alaknanda. Arun pointed out the blinding white peak jutting out from the lofty hill to my left. Neelkanth, along with other ivory-topped peaks, made for a splendid view.
Thousands of waterfalls dotted the slopes of these barren mountains, making a pool at the base of the hill. Chunks of ice fell off from above. Echoes of loose stones rolling down the valleys resonated elsewhere. Human voice would be a transgression in this immense symphony of streams and the whiffs of wind. Neelkanth, Parvati, Swargarohini, are all steps that ascend to heaven. They form a vast stillness, creating an epiphanic moment that only a few can soak in.
The road from Sahastradhara to Chakratirtha is over huge boulders and the final three kilometres were quite steep. Perhaps the myth of Arjun leaving his mortal frame at the shade of the mighty Chowkhamba, in the meadow of Chakratirtha, was based on the reward of death that comes after such an ordeal. More interesting, however, is the tale of Krishna resting his Sudarshan Chakra on the ground and flattening it with its pressure.
Even the most passionate atheists will have a hard time denying the splendour of Chowkhamba at dawn. After a breakfast here, I walked the final miles to Satopanth Tal (lake), taking in each sight with awe. This final climb reminded me of a similar trail towards Tapovan from Gaumukh though it was not as steep. With many crevasses around, I took careful steps and jumped from stone to stone. God seemed to have personally blessed me on this trek.
The fluttering red flag from the distance helped me push harder and the sight of the emerald green stillness inside the arms of mountains was ever inviting. The mighty Himalaya and the lake at the height of 15,000ft offered a pilgrim the best possible seat for counting his beads and collect some powerful memories to carry in his heart.
I vicariously experienced a dive in the ice-cold water wanting to clear all sins. A legend dictates that on a particular day every year, the gods Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara meet.
I asked Arun to take me little further to the next bend, I wanted to see Vishnu Kund, the base of Swargarohini. I pulled up my socks and took a step towards the stairs to heaven where Yudhisthira mounted the chariots of Indra. My confidence got a dent though. After walking the narrowest boulders for an hour, I found dark clouds slithering from the folds of the mountains and I turned back, leaving the trails for holier souls.
One night in Chakratirtha and another at Chamtoli bugyal, I finally returned to Mana. My gratitude to Mannu Singh Rawat, the man behind the arrangement of the trek, knew no bounds. I hugged my cooks, support staff and Arun with a silent assurance of meeting them again for yet another trek.
Getting there: Rishikesh is well connected by land, train and flight (Jolly Grant airport). From Rishikesh to Badrinath one needs to take public transport or private vehicles and it takes around 12 to 13 hours at least. Badrinath to Mana village is a 3km drive. Trek to Satopanth Tal starts from Mana.