Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Pindari Glacier Trek - October 1985

Pindari Glacier trek was my first formal induction to the trekking. The trek was organised by Youth Hostel Association of India (YHAI) and was su
pposed to be an easy one . But it turned out to be one of the most adventurous treks that I had done so far. I and my colleague Narayan joined the batch which was to report on 8th October 1985 at the base camp at Kapkote. We reached Delhi by Frontier Mail and took a night bus from ISBT for Bageshwar which reached Kathgodam the next day early morning. Here, we were shifted to a small bus for our onward journey to Bageshwar. After Almora, the journey became scary as we were on a single lane road which was more often covered with thick mist. We reached Bageshwar the evening and a 24 km bus journey took us to Kapkote. After completion of the reporting formalities, we were allotted one of the tents pitched on a camp site located on the banks of Saryu river. After dinner, the Camp Leader apprised us of the details of the trek and our programme at the base camp scheduled for the next day.

We completed the trek as under :

Day-1 : Orientation at the Base Camp at Kapkote (985m)
Day-2 : Kapkote to Loharkhet (1760m) - 16 kms, trek
Day-3 : Loharkhet to Dhakuri (2860m) - 10 kms, trek
Day-4 : Dhakuri to Khati (2210m) - 10 kms, trek
Day-5 : Khati to Dwali (2575m) - 11 kms, trek
Day-6 : Unscheduled halt at Dwali due to heavy rains.
Day-7 : Dwali-Purkhiya (3250m) -Zero Point (3660m) -Dwali - 22 kms, trek
Day-8 : Dwali to Karmi - 21 kms, trek
Day-9 : Karmi to Kapkote : 16 kms, trek
Day-10: Valedictory function at Kapkote and departure.

As required by YHAI, we selected one of our members in a batch of 35 to be the Leader. The trek to Loharkhet was a gradual climb but the warm weather through out the day made our progress slow. The last 3 kms of the trek was a steep climb during which my colleague Narayanan suffered a cramp on on the calf muscle of his left leg and he was not in a position to walk any more. With the help of other members of our batch, he was taken to the Rest House where one of the 4 doctors in our batch attended on him. After giving some massage over the affected muscle and pain relieving tablets, he was advised to take complete rest. The doctors felt that the muscle cramp could have happened due to excessive drinking of water during the trek in hot conditions. Fortunately, Narayanan fully recovered from muscle cramp by the next day morning and was ready for the Dhakuri trek.

The trek up to Dhakuri Pass (2940m) was a gurelling one as it was a steep climb of about 7 kms on a winding stony path. We reached the pass at around 1.00 p.m. We met a Japanese family who had came here to offer their condolence to a group of Japanese climbers who had lost their lives on a mountaineering expedition on one of the peaks nearby few years ago. We made an early departure from the pass as we felt uncomfortable in the cold wind. From the pass, it was a 2 km steep descent on a stony path to reach our Rest House which was strategically located on a hill top surrounded by meadows and tall trees all around. In my view, this was the best place in the entire trek where I felt like staying a couple of days more.

Next day, we got up early morning and had a good sun rise view of Maiktoli and other peaks. After breakfast of Aloo-Poori, we started leisurely around 9.00 a.m.for Khati. The trek was an easy one through the forest cover most of the time. There were few villages/hemlets and tea shops on the way. When we were almost half way to our destination, the Doordarshan crew met us and interviewed of one of the lady members of our batch.

Khati was the last village in our trekking route which was located at the confluence of Pindar and Sunderdunga rivers. The trek to Sunderdunga bifurcates here. In the afternoon, some of us took a stroll in the village which looked comparativley big with many tea shops and dabhas.

The Adventurous Khati-Dwali Trek

We started from Khati early morning for Dwali in a good weather condition. Once again, the trek route was mostly through forest with many small streams flowing through our trekking path. At around 11.00, the weather turned cloudy and soon dark clouds were looming large on the horizon. It started raining heavily forcing us to take shelter at an abandoned cattleshed where we waited for the rains to subside. Sensing that rains may continue, we resumed our trek. Despite ponchos and raincoats, all of us were now fully drenched.

We had hardly trekked further one km or so when we encountered a gushing stream which was required to be crossed to move ahead. One of our members went ahead and crossed the knee-deep stream with great difficulties. It was clear that the force of the torrent was very strong. We then decided to cross the stream in a group of 2-3 persons holding each others' hands. By the time 16 of us had crossed the stream, the water had risen to almost waist level making it difficult to withstand the force of the water flow. It was quite possible that the powerful force of the torrent could drag a person to a point where it joined the Pindar river. Seeing the dangerous situtation, the remaining 19 persons of our batch including our Batch Leader lost their nerves and decided to turn back to Khati camp.

We were just rejoicing after crossing the dangerous looking stream when we noticed ahead a big watefall coming down from a high vertical rock on the cliff side. As we approached near the waterfall, we realised that the path was hardly 3 feet wide and the waterfall was much wider than what we had seen from a distance. We guessed that the force of the waterfall would be great as it was falling from a good height and hence the danger of being pushed down in Pindar river flowing about 100 feet down was real. It became apparent that we were not going to attempt walking through the waterfall. But moving back to Khati was also equally risky now as the stream which we have crossed earlier would have swollen further. [Later we came to know that the trek route was cut-off by the torrential flow from the stream and two batches were sent back to base camp] We were now caught between devil and the deep sea. The third option was to wait for the rains to subside which at the moment looked bleak as the sky was still covered with grey clouds.

As we were debating as to which one of the three options we should take, we saw a group of 7-8 people coming from Dwali side. As they reached near the waterfall, they all stopped for a while then moved one by one in a brisk pace through the waterfall. These people were PWD workers bound for Khati as we came to know later. Hearing our predicament, they offered to help us in taking through the waterfall. All but one of them stood as a human chain on the exposed edge of the path where waterfall was draining down to Pindar river. The remaining one took us, one at a time, through the waterfall in brisk pace holding our hand. As soon as I completed the walk through the waterfall, a shiver ran on me - not for the dangerous manoeuvre I just completed but for having seen the PWD workers standing as human chain with their toes on the edge and heels exposed to the valley. A slight acidental push from one of us could have resulted any one or more of them rolling down to Pindar river flowing about 100 feet down the path. As we came out of the waterfall, we noticed that many of us had traces of blood on the exposed hands probably small rock particles which could have travelled in the waterfall with great speed pricked our exposed hands.

We profusely thanked the PWD workers for their help and moved towards Dwali Rest House which was about 3 kms further. Heavy rains continued as we reached Rest House at 3.30 p.m. We (16 persons) were accommodated in a single room as other rooms were occupied by an earlier batch of 35 persons who could not trek to Purkhiya due to bad weather. It rained during the night and there was no let up in rains in the next day and night as well. We were thus confined to our overcrowded room for about 40 hours except that we were required to come out of the room for breakfast, lunch and dinner at the kitchen located in the Rest House compound.

It would have been double whammy for us if rains continued the next day. First, our chances of making it to Zero Point would be bleak and secondly, the Camp Leader may take a decision to send us back to Khati. The very thought of once again walking through the monster waterfall and crossing the fast moving torrent on way to Khati were depressing. But luck was in our favour.

Close Encounter with Avalanches

We got up early morning to a blue sky with no trace of rain. The Camp Leader announced that the we should get ready by 7.30 a.m. for departure for Zero Point with packed breakfast . A local guide was arranged to accompany us in the trek since there were reports of fresh snow on way to Purkhiya and beyond which would have made the well-marked trekking path obliterated.

We had trekked about 4 kms from Dwali when we saw that the entire area was covered with snow layers. The weather was fine but it became very cold as we were approached Purkhiya. The snow layer had now thicken and we were experiencing difficulties in walking over them. We reached Purkhiya at around 10.00 a.m. The view of Panwali Dwar and other peaks were superb from Purkhiya. After finishing the packed breakfast, we moved further to our final destination. The Zero Point was supposed to be a place where the glacier started. But from Purkhiya rest house, all the places in front of us were snow bound as far as we could see. Now we were walking on a thick layer of slushy snow and our hunter shoes were inadequate for such walks. The guide instructed us to not to talk in loud voices as the echo of sound could result in snow slabs accumulated on the upper slopes sliding down the path. We had not even covered 2 kms of trek from Purkhiya when our guide suddenly shouted at us to wait for a while as he saw some small pieces of loose ice along with with stones and mud coming down from the upper slope. As we were looking at the upper slope, suddenly there was a nerve wrecking loud thundering sound and within few seconds a big snow slab with tons of snow came crashing down from the upper slope, fell on our trekking path about 100 meters ahead of us and then rolled down over the lower slope to the valley side in several round shapes. I had read about avalanches in the Himalaya but never imagined the way I saw happening in front of me which was frightening.

After ascertaining that there were no further slides, our guide advised us to follow him in the trail. The uneven snow accumulations over the path made the walking extremely difficult. We had not walked even 1 km further when there was another huge snow slides with thundering sound just ahead of us. This left the huge piles of snow on our trekking path and walking over them looked risky especially when we did not have requisite equipments for the snow trek. In the meantime, the clouds had started gathering and the memory of our misery during the rains was fresh in our mind. Finally, the guide announced that it was no longer safe to trek further. None of us was disappointed for not reaching Zero Point as we had already been in snow for a good time. We returned to Dwali in the afternoon and spend time in drying our wet cloths and hunter shoes. For the first time, I could see Kafni river which was flowing by the side of our rest house.

The Return Trek

Next day, we started 21 kms return trek to Karmi at 7.30 a.m. After trekking about half of the distance of Dwali-Khati route, there was a diversion of the path for Karmi. I don't recall much of the topography of this route except that it was not an interesting trekking route as compared with that of Loharkhet-Dhakuri-Khati route. The one incidence I remember is that we lost our way some time in warm afternoon and we must have been off the trekking route by at least 5-6 kms if the time taken to reach Karmi was any indication. After about two hours, we could locate the correct trekking route with the help of locals. Karmi was still 4-5 kms further and it was already getting dark. Tired and thirsty, we trekked the remaining distance with the help of torch light to reach Karmi camp at 8.00 p.m. The following day, we trekked 16 kms to reach our base camp at Kapkote.Later,we learnt that 19 of our batch who returned to Khati and two subsequent batches were sent back to base camp due to heavy rains. They all returned home without completing the trek.

The Pindari trek made me to realised that we were all dwarfs - both physically and metaphorically - in front of the Himalayas and the weather conditions can turn an easy trek into a difficult and risky one.

Note: I could not attach pictures of the trek in this post as I have not been able to trace the same.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

My First Trip to the Himalaya - July 1984

I was going through the chronicles of my treks in the Himalaya when I realised that my first trip to the Himalaya was not the hills stations in Uttarakhand nor in Himachal Pradesh but the pilgrimage to Amarnath in Kashmir in July 1984. I glanced through the photos of the pilgrimage taken in my 'aim and shoot' camera in 24mm films and memories of the trip came back to me in a kaleidoscope of images.

Eight of my office colleagues decided to go on a pilgrimage to Amarnath in Kashmir valley in the month of July 1984. My curiosity about the formation of a natural ice-lingam inside Amarnath cave which could be seen in the months of July-August made me to join the group. We booked the train journey to Jammu for July 6, 1984 so that we would be at the Amarnath cave on the full moon day during which the ice lingam was supposed to be in its full size.

There was some uncertainty about our trip as in the first week of June 1984, the army launched Operation Blue Star to flush out militants from the Golden Temple. There were violent protests in Punjab. To add to our problem, the violence also erupted in the Kashmir valley for many days when the Government led by Chief Minister Farooq Abdulla was dismissed in the last week of June 1984. After debating ourselves about the desirability or otherwise of undertaking the trip in the unsettled situations in Punjab and Kashmir, we unanimously decided to go ahead with our planned trip assuming that things will improve by the schedule date of our journey.

When we reached Mumbai Central station, we came to know of the fact that the Jammu-Tawi Super Fast Express would be terminated at New Delhi due to the prevailing situation in Punjab. We boarded the train with a wishful thought that we may get some trains from New Delhi for Jammu. As announced, our train was terminated at New Delhi. Since there were no trains scheduled to Jammu, we proceeded to Kashmiri Gate bus stand to scout for Jammu bus. Fortunately, we got a morning J&K Roadway bus bound for Jammu. We were quite pleased with our efforts as we will still be able to reach Jammu by late evening.

As we reached the outskirt of Karnal, our bus broke down and it took about 5 hours to rectify the problem. Thereafter, it was a smooth journey with not much traffic on the road. The bus reached the Jullunder bus stand at around 7.00 p.m. only to be told that we would have to take an overnight halt at Jullunder as night journey was risky in the prevailing situation in Punjab. There were instances of militants stopping the buses and shooting passengers selectively. After spending a sleepless night, we started the onward journey to reach Jammu bus stand at around 10.30 a.m. The Mumbai-Jammu journey which was supposed to take 32 hours, took almost 50 hours.

We boarded an already delayed J&K Roadway bus bound for Srinagar. After security checks by an army jawan, the bus ultimately left Jammu at 2.30 p.m. When the bus reached Batote, the driver announced that the bus would halt here for the night and depart for Srinagar the next day early morning. At this point, a few of the passengers protested stating that this was not told to them at Jammu. The driver explained to them that it was a normal procedure to take a night halt when a bus got delayed and not able to make it to Srinagar by early night. And the driver was feeling sleepy. But these passengers were in no mood to listen to the driver's explanation. Fed up with the arguments and counter arguments, the bus driver left the bus in a huff and slept on a nearby bench. Later, the aggrieved passengers took the issue with the bus conductor to make the driver to take the bus to Srinagar. But having snubbed by these passengers, the driver was insistent in taking a night halt.

It appeared that somehow these passengers managed to convince the conductor as to how important for them to reach Srinagar at the earliest. Tired of the events and of more than 50 hours of continuous journey, we all sat on our seats preparaing to take naps when suddenly the bus started moving. First we thought that at last, these passengers had persuaded the driver to drive the bus. But we sat to our surprise that it was the conductor who was now driving the bus. Fortunately, the conductor's driving was smooth. Later we came to know that these passengers were journalists who were eager to reach Srinagar as early as possible to cover the latest situation in Srinagar and send reports to their respective newspapers by morning.

The bus reached the outskirt of Srinagar at around 2.00 a.m. At the check point, the police told the conductor that a dusk to dawn curfew was clamped in Srinagar and as such the passengers will not be able to go out from the bus stand. He then suggested him to take the bus to Tourist Reception Centre (TRC) where the passengers could take rest until morning. As directed by the police, we reached TRC at around 2.30 a.m. The TRC Manager was very helpful in providing temporary accommodation to us in one of the rooms which was mainly used for storing blankets, matteress and pillows. When he heard of our Amarnath plan, he advised us to proceed to Pahalgam early morning as the situation in Srinagar could get worsen leading to the reimposition of curfew.

Getting ready for departure from our guest house at Pahalgam

Refreshed with three hours of sound sleep, the next day, we proceeded to Pahalgam( 2130m) by a taxi which dropped us at the guest house which was already booked for us. The guest house was spacious having a common room, 2 bed rooms, and a kitchen with services of a cook. For the first time after leaving Mumbai, we felt relaxed as there was not an iota of tension which was evident during our journey into Punjab and then to Srinagar. The caretaker arranged three porters for carrying our luggage. We had already made the reservation of pitched tents at Chandanwari, Sheshnag and Panchatarni enroute to Amarnath through correspondence from Mumbai. Although, all these places had few dabhas to cater to the pilgrims, we did take provisions, stove and kerosene as two of our group members were keen to cook the food for us.

The following day, we commenced a 16 km trek to Chandanwari (2920m) on a dirt road skirting the Lidder river. We saw a couple of jeeps packed with local passengers moving on this road. After crossing a bridge over Lidder, we reached Chandanwari early afternoon. There were many tents picthed on the camp site of which two tents were allotted to us. These were military style tents with 4 folding beds. We had dal rice for lunch prepared by one of the group member.

Filling water from Lidder river for drinking

The next day, we resumed our 12 km trek to Sheshnag. After crossing the snow-bridge over the Sheshnag stream, we were on a steep winding climb of Pisu Ghati. Being the first exposure to steep climbing to most of us, we made a very slow progress to reach the Pisu Top (3390m). We were happy to see a couple of tea shops where se stopped for rest and hot tea. The valley from this spot looked beautiful.

Valley view from Pishu Top

After about 6 kms of a gradual accent we reached a point from where there was again a steep climb of about 2 kms followed by one km of level walk to a place called Wawajan (3550m) where our tents were pitched. At the opposite side the camp site was the blue coloured Sheshnag lake with Trinity peaks in the background. Although there is beautiful camping on the bank of the lake, but to reach there, one will have to walk on a steep slope.

Sheshnag lake

The next day, some members of the group decided to take the pony ride as they were not physically fit to trek further. Since all of us wanted to be together in our pilgrimage trail, we all joined together on ponies and started our march at 7.30 a.m. After ascending one km, the climb to Mahagunus Pass (4600m) started. Even though we were on ponies, the thinness of air was evident. I could see that my pony was breathing very fast resulting in foams coming out of my pony's mouth.

Our fellows at Mahagunus Pass

After crossing the pass, the path was mostly flat until we reached a downward slope. From here the vast meadow of Panchatarani (4270m) was visible with large number of tents. We continued to move ahead and now we were moving on small patches of snow on our path with Amar Ganga streams flowing just 30 feet below the path. After about 3 kms of decent through the valley we reached the base of the Amarnath cave. This was the point upto which ponies were allowed.
A dip in ice-cold water of Amar Ganga

After a refreshing dip in the ice-cold water of Amar
Ganga stream flowing just about 100 meters below the cave, we climbed about 100 stony steps to reach the Amarnath cave (4170m) at 12.30.m. There was not much of pilgrims' rush and we could have a nice and satisfying darshan of ice-shivaling. There were two more rectangular shaped ice-formation, which according to the priest, represented Parvati and Ganesh. Since the cave floor was covered with ice sheet, it was an ordeal for all of us to stand on the barefoot.

Some of us posing for photo in front of ice shivaling.

After spending an hour or so in the vicinity of Amarnath, we commenced our return journey of 5 kms to Panchatarani to take the night halt in our tents. The camp site was located on a flat meadow and the five streams flowing through it provided plenty of water sources.

The next day early morning, we started our pony ride from Panchatarni to Sheshnag and then by trekking and reached Pahalgam by late evening. We stayed in the comfort of our guest house. The following day, we departed by bus to Srinagar by which time, normalcy had returned in the Kashmir valley. After spending two days in around Srinagar for sight seeing, we bid our adieu to Kashmir valley and boarded a morning delux bus for Jammu. As we reached a place called Mand, about 50 kms before Jammu, we saw a bus about to depart for Katra. Since we had one extra day to spare, we took an impromptu decision to get down from the Jammu bus and take the Katra bus for visiting Vaishodevi shrine.

We reached Katra in the late evening. After dumping our haversacks and other luggage in one of dharamshalas near the bus stand and taking an early dinner, we commenced the 14 km trek to Vaishnodevi at around 8.00 p.m. and reached the shrine at 2.00 a.m. We got an early darshan of Vaishnodevi as there were not many pilgrims in the queue. After taking rest for an hour or so, we started our return trek to reach Katra at dawn and then by a bus to Jammu in the afternoon.The next day, after some local sight-seeing, we boarded the Jammu-Mumbai Super Fast Express and reached Mumbai the following day.

This was the trip which was full of adventure of a different kind. As I relook at the trip after 24 years, I now realise that the trip was not as efficiently planned as we do today. Most of us relied on the experience of our group leader who had earlier done the Amarnath pilgrimage. We took the trip as a pilgrimage and neglected the trekking aspects - the physical fitness, precautions to be taken on mountains and the problems at higher altitude. Many of us were not even aware that we were to cross a 4500 m plus cross to reach Amarnath.

The trip, however, made me 'addicted' to the Himalaya in general and to the world of trekking in particular. The flip sides of this trip was that I missed to capture many of the beautiful sceneries due to the limitation of my 'aim and shoot' camera. Furthermore, I was not happy with the pony ride from Sheshnag to Amarnath and back as I missed the trekking opportunity on the Mahagunus pass and the sceneries in this route. I was mostly concentrating on my pony which often moved towards the edge of the path due to the temptation of green grass and shrubs. A lose of balance at such juncture would have resulted in serious injuries if not fatal.
When I reached Mumbai, I decided to revisit the Amarnath cave - more as a trekking destination than the pilgrimage - with a reasonably good SLR camera. I did complete the trek to Amarnath in July 1987 with a Pentax K-1000 SLR camera. While, we had a smooth journey from Mumbai to Srinagar, we faced some hardships during the trek especially from Sheshnag to Amarnath cave which was, to my surprise, was heavily snow bound. I will share more experience about this trek in another post.
Photos by the author.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Panch Kedar Treks - September 1992

The middle Himalayan range of the Garhwal region, also known as Rudra Himalaya, stretches from Kedarnath in the west to Badrinath in the east. It is in this range that the five Kedar shrines – the Panch Kedars are situated at altitude ranging from 2500m to 3600m. The five Kedars are Kedarnath, Madhmaheswar, Tungnath, Rudranath and Kalpanath. All these five Kedars are the manifestation of Shiva in various forms - Kedarnath (hump of a bull), Madhmaheshwar (belly), Tungnath (arm), Rudranath (face) and Kalpanath (hair). All the trek routes to Madhmaheshwar, Tungnath and Rudranath come under the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary.

My trekking group was very keen that we attempt Panch Kedar treks for our '92 slot. After getting necessary background information including the rough trek map from GMVN, Rishikesh (they were very prompt in replying all our querries), we decided to do the trek in the month of September. Jambukeswaran, my trekking partner and an expert on religious convention suggested that we undertake the treks from west to east and also visit Badrinath after completion of the trek. All things settled, we boarded the Frontier Mail from Mumbai for New Delhi. The overnight Mussoorie Express took us to Haridwar the next day early morning. We reached Rishikesh by a bus and stayed in a hotel near GMOA Bus Stand for overnight. Next day, we took an early morning bus which reached Gaurikund in the late afternoon. After walking one km from the bus stand through a congested path, we checked in GMVN.

Gushing Mandakini rivr near Rambara on way to Kedarnath
Kedarnath Trek (14+14 kms)We left Gaurikund (1981m) early morning for 14 km trek to Kedarnath (3584m). The first 7 kms trek, all along Mandakini river ,was a gradual climb on a broad muddy path. After crossing a wooden bridge over a stream, we reached Rambara. The trek from here to Garur Chatty (5 kms) was of a steep climb followed by a 1 km of level walk up to GMVN which was located about 1 km before Kedarnath temple. In the evening, we paid obeisance at the Kedarnath temple.
Kedardome as seen from Kedarnath
Trijuginarayan Trek (5+5 kms)
Next day, we trekked back to Gaurikund and after spending overnight at GMVN, the follwing day, we took a morning bus to Sonprayag from where a 5 km trek through forest led us Trijuginaryan temple. This was the place where Vishnu was said to have solmnised the wedding of Shiva and Parvati. The temple is made of grey stones. We saw pilgrims taking bath from the water drawn from a small well located in the temple complex. Some religious ceremony was also in progress in the temple. After spending some time in the temple complex, we trekked back to Sonprayag and stayed in a hotel opposite the bus stand.

We at Trijuginaryan temple

Next day, we got an early morning bus for Ukhimath which was proceeding to Badrinath via Ukhimath. We learnt that the bus was called Bhookh Hartal, so named because it was introduced on Gaurikund-Badrinath route via Ukhimath-Chopta-Gopeshwar only following the hunger strike by villagers around Ukhimath. This was to be our bus for the road journey until Gopeshwar for treks up to Rudranath. The bus stopped on the main road from where a 1 km walk through the village path led us to Ukhimath temple.
Ukhimath temple complex
The temple is called Omkareswar and it is the winter seats of Kedarnath and Madhmaheshwar. The priests of these temples also stayed in the Ukhimath temple complex during winter. After paying obeisance at the temple, we met one of the temple official who arranged a Nepali guide for our Madhmaheshwar trek. The family of Madhmaheshwar priest staying in the complex invited us for tea. The priests at Kedarnath, Madhmaheshwar and Rudranath are from Karnataka and they are rotated at these temples every year. The priest's family gave us a cloth bag containing vegetables and other items with a request hand over the same to the priest at Madhmaheshwar.
Madmaheshwar Ganga as seen from the suspension bridge
Madhamaheshwar Trek ( 26 +26 kms)The 26 km trek to Madhmaheshwar started from Mansuna village, 8 kms jeep drive from Ukhimath. The first 3 km trek was a gradual descent through paddy fields. After crossing a suspension briedge over Madhmaheswar Ganga and after a gradual climb of 6 kms through forest, we reached Ransi village. We stayed overnight in a villager's house which had a toilet and a bathrom. In the evening, we visited a local Shiva temple where we saw some locals offerring brahma kamals to deity. We had a good dinner and breakfast in the owner's house.

The house in Ransi we stayed
The following day, we trekked on a gradual ascent to Gaundhar along the Madhmaheshwar Ganga which flows through the valley. The glen was deep and stretched into horizon. It was interesting to note that while the valley adjoining the trekking path was full of grass, the valley on the opposite side was full of dense forest. While on this part of the trekking path, I saw a couple of dark brown colour snakes quickly crossing the trekking path and moving into the grassy patch. I also saw many large chameleons moving on the boulders near the path. Perhaps, the warm weather must have compelled them to come out of their pits. At Gaundhar, we took a break for lunch at one of the all-in-one shop.

Madhmaheshwar valley - one side grass, the other side dense forest
From Gaundhar, it was a steep climb of 12 kms to Madhmaheshwar. The climb became steeper after Nanu. From the top of the ridge, a 1 km walk on a level path led us to aamlet. The temple was located at the far end of the hamlet. We reached Madhmaheshwar (3490m) in the afternoon. We met the priest and handed over the cloth bag given to us by his family at Ukhimath. He looked pleased after checking the contents. He must have got the vegetables of his liking. He directed us to occupy a room on the first floor house of the Temple Council.
Madhmaheshwar on the left and Temple Guest House in the middle
The temple set in a meadow was made up of grey stones. The gurgling waters of the three small streams around the temple was the only sound breaking the serenity of the place. The place became very cold in the evening and we had to come back to our room covering ourselves with blankets. It was only when the nearby dabha owner came to our room to tell us that the dinner was ready, we reluctantly came out of the room.
Next morning, after having a quick bath, we went to the temple to witness the morning pujas for which the priest had specially invited us. The puja was a short affair with priest placing Brahma Kamals on the lingam with chanting of mantras. This was followed by an aarti. After the conclusion of the pujas, we proceeded to a 1 km climb to Budha Madmaheshwar which was located on a table top. From here, we had a ring side view of Chaukhambha peaks.

Chaukhambha peaks as seen from Budha Madhmaheshwar
After taking leave of priest, we commenced our return trek to Ransi and then to Mansuna the next day. The weather was fine through out the trek. At Mansuna, we got the share jeep for Ukhimath. We stayed at GMVN which was located near the road side facing the Mandakini valley. The Rest House was very clean and the food , though basic, was good.
Tungnath Trek ( 3.5+3.5 kms)
Next morning, we departed for Chopta by Bhookh Hartal bus. At Chopta, we kept our haversacks in a tea shop and commenced 3.5 kms of paved trek to Tungnath. As we proceeded, we could see beautiful Chopta meadows slopping towards the road. The stony path looked like a long stair case. On the way, I met a Mumbai photographer who was on a photography assignment. He said that he was camping in Tungnath for the last two days waiting for a clear weather to take pictures of himalayan view, but no success so far. After precipitous climb, we reached Tungnath (3680m) in fine weather. But the strong cold breeze made us uncomfortable.

Chopta meadow
After a visit to the temple, we spent about an hour in the temple vicinity to enjoy the scenery. There were some pilgrims and a group of school children who had come here for trekking. Since the sky was cloudy, we did not venture for trek to Chandrashilla.

Tungnath temple
By afternoon, we were back in Chopta and checked in GMVN Rest House which was strategically located for the snow-clad peaks on the north-west horizon. [ GMVN Rest House at Chopta has been closed since then]. Our evening was spend in the GMVN lawn waiting for the sunset view on the peaks. Although it was cold outside, the constant supply of hot bhajias and tea from a dabha located just outside the compound of GMVN made our day.

GMVN Rest House as seen from Tungnath trek path
Rudranath Trek (22+22 kms)
There were two options to trek Rudranath which was our next trekking destination - Mandal-Anusuya Devi or Gopeshwar-Sagar. GMVN had suggested us to take the Sagar route. As we prepared for the road journey to Gopeshwar the next day, we learnt that buses were off the road due to a flash chakka jam agitation. We had almost resigned to spend a day more in Chopta when we heard of roaring noise of the bus which was seen at the foothills. It took about 20 minutes for the bus to reach Chopta and it was the Bhookh Hartal bus. We had to make a great efforts to get into the bus as it was crowded. We had no option but to travel a 40 km journey on a bumpy road standing all the way to Gopeshwar. We checked in GMVN located just opposite the bus stand.

In to the dense forest on way to Rudranath
We were told that the trek to Rudranath was the most difficult of the Panch Kedar treks. Since we planned to reach Rudranath on the same day, we left Gopeshwar at 4.00 in the morning by a pre-arranged jeep for a 5 km drive to Sagar which was the starting point of the 22 km trek to Rudranath. The first 3 km trek was of a gradual climb through fields after which we reached a small meadow. We sat down here to eat whatever eatables we bought with us. Fortunately, a shepherd served us tea. With this, we were rejunuvated to resume the most difficult stretch of this trek - the 12 kms climb to Panar.

A great expanse on way to Rudranath
The trek to Panar was a gruelling steep climb through dense forest, often slippery with thick foliage. At some places, we were required to wade through thick high grass, a perfect place for a leopard to hide for his pray. There was no well-beaten path and at few places, we were required to walk through the uprooted trees. Understandly, our going was slow. Luckily, the weather was fine. Earlier, we were told by GMVN Manager at Gopeshwar that this forest was inhabitted by leopards and bears. He advised us to trek together with sticks to ward off wild animals.

Trekking on the ridge on way to Rudranath
At around noon, we were out of the forest to reach Panar. Here a Sadhu, known as Nepali Baba, served us tea. He was staying in a cave and there seemed to be sufficient space for a few trekkers to stay overnight in this cave. Alternatively, once could pitch tent here. From Panar, it was a 7 km trek on a ridge with occasional short climbs and descent. As we were near our destination, the sky became overcaste and it started drizzling for a short while. But the mist on the ridge made the visiblity poor which compelled us to walk very slowly. At the end of the ridge, we found ourselves facing the red stone front of the Rudranath temple, huddled under a projecting rock, which was at a small distance.

Rudranath temple front. On left is the priest.
The location of Rudranath temple (3354m) is really awesome. River Vaitarni flows behind the temple and goes through the meadow where there are some scattered small lakes. A shephered told us that if we could wait until evening, we would be able to see a group of musked deers roaming in the meadow and if lucky, even bears could be seen. Unfortunately, the white clouds fully covered the Himalayan ranges. Although the weather was sunny, the cold breeze blowing from the ridge made us uncomfortable to stand and enjoy the stependous view for long. Later, we went to the priest's house which was located adjunct to the temple. The house was made up of stone slabs and the floor was plastered with cow dung. There was a make-shift firewood place and the flames from wood made the room somewhat warmer than the outside. He instructed our Nepali guide to stay in the stone hut located at the end of row and take some blankets stored in his house for our use. We attended the evening puja, followed by a dinner of kichadi prepared by our guide and retired for the day.
The night was very cold and even the two-three woollen blankets could not give me necessary comfort from the cold. None of us got any sleep in the cold night. How nice it would have been if we could stayed in priest's house which had a fire place. I just sat down with double blankets covering my body with chattering teeth and eagerly waited for the glimpse of dawn. We were told that the sunrise on the snow-clad peaks was magnificent in Rudranath. But the weather gods were not on our side. What we saw was an overcast sky and thick mist over the meadow. There was also the light rains. We could not withstand the cold and hurriedly went back inside the hut waiting for our guide to bring the glasses of hot black tea. With weather improving, we resumed our return trek opf 22 kms to Sagar which was covered in less than 5 hours. At Sagar, we took a share jeep to Gopeshwar and stayed in GMVN.
Kalpanath Trek (9+9 kms)
Next day, we got into 05.30 morning bus to Badrinath for a 44 km journey to Helang. After deposting our haversacks with a tea shop, we commenced our 9 kms trek to Kalpeshwar. After crossing a suspension bridge over Alakhnanda river, we were on a moderate climbing path.
Pine trees on a table top land on way to Urgam
After 2 kms, we were walking through the forest mostly of pine trees. After a further 3 kms of trek, we were in Urgam valley, one of the most fertile and beautiful valleys in the Garhwal region, with terraced fields. There were many houses on the upper slope of the valley. No doubt, we met many villagers on our trekking path.

Urgam valley. Urgam village is in the background
After the Urgam village, the last 2 kms trek led us to the top of the Urgam valley where the Kalpanath temple (2250m) was situated. The entrace to the temple was through a cave. We saw a few Sadhus mediating on a roof of a house near the temple.

Entrance to Kalpanath temple

We returned to Helang by afternoon of the same day. After collecting haversacks from the Tea shop, we proceeded by bus to Joshimath for the overnight halt. We travelled to Badrinath on the next day to thank the Badri Vishal for our successful completion of the Panch Kedar treks. In the afternnon, we walked to Mana village. After spending some time in around Mana, we returned to Badrinath for the overnight stay in GMVN.

Neelkanth peak as seen from Badrinath
The next day early morning, we got the first bus which reached Haridwar in the late evening. Thus our spiritual and adventerous trek of Panch Kedar came to an end.

All photos by the author