A beautiful passage through oak trees, sprawling lush green meadows, a turquoise pool surrounded by a circle of silvery snow, a majestic backdrop of snow-clad Himalayan peaks, the pictures of Roopkund presented a mesmerizing view. Situated at 4756 M (15,696 feet) in the lap of unbridled nature in Kumaon region, Uttrakhand, it formed a perfect trek destination.
A seven day trip organized by “Trek The Himalayas“ agency to this heavenly beauty seemed quite promising. Thrilled I boarded a bus on 15 June 2013 from Kathgodam at 9 a.m., arranged by the agency to ferry us to Lohajung, the starting point of the trek. Little did I visualize the tumultuous events next seven days had hidden in their womb! It was to be the most unpredictable, agonizing and yet a fun-filled period. Oblivious of future, I soaked in the soothing breeze of the hills, the verdure rushing past and the sense of liberation one gets, away from the hectic city life. While the bus meandered on the snaky roads, I got introduced to my fellow trekkers- a group from Bangalore and a lady doctor from Kashmir. Suddenly our bus halted and the driver’s helper, a hill boy got down and ran a few feet back only to return with a handful of plums. Nothing had ever tasted as delicious as those fresh fruits straight from the tree! It started raining in afternoon and around 4 p.m., our bus stopped near a kiosk. A jeep carrying fellow trekkers was waiting there. We were informed that the road had been blocked by a landslide. Thankfully, within half an hour we resumed our journey. The bus rattled and swayed wildly as dark descended. This year monsoon had hit early and the incessant rain cast a shadow of doubt on our prospects. We prayed loudly for it to be clear tomorrow. The driver interjected, Madam, Lohajung has been named so because it rains so heavily there that all the iron gets rusted. (Loha- iron, Jung- rust) Finally, after a 12 hour bone-rattling journey, we reached Lohajung (7575 feet) at 10 p.m. A quick introduction of the trek leader Prakash and the 20 member team followed by dinner ended our day. We got into beds in the wooden lodge while the Bangalore group spread its clothes to dry. Their rucksacks, tied on the roof of the bus had got wet.
Next morning, it was raining cats and dogs. We waited indecisively while speculating the move. However, it showed no signs of relenting. At 11.40 a.m. Prakash led us forward through a landslide stricken road. All of us got wrapped in our rain coats and ankle-length Phonchus, purchased in emergency from a nearby shop at exorbitant prices. We resembled villains from a superhero movie, hooded and with elongated arms. Water dripped from all sides but the devils continued marching laughing at each other. The oak forest of the picture materialized but more real with the slush, wet leaves on ground and the blood-sucking leeches. Seven of them were found feasting on the doctor’s legs, after penetrating through the shoes and socks! Much to her dismay people mockingly reasoned that leeches sucked her blood as doctors suck patient’s blood. The slimy creatures had established themselves as far as at somebody”s palm.
Water got inside our shoes. Good that the Quechua (trekking shoes company) owner wasn’t present at the moment otherwise he would have to run for cover to escape the ire of his recent customers. The camera enthusiasts lamented the loss of opportunity to click the landscape, made more mysterious by the mist. Soaked to bone, we reached our destination Dedina (2585 M) in evening. The accommodation consisted of a hut of four rooms. We fitted ourselves amidst the dripping clothes, hung at every nail, the door, windows, roof beams in addition to the rope tied across the room. Shoes, wet and heavy lined the boundary.
The team held an emergency meeting. People were left with only one set of dry clothes. What should we do if it continues like this? If we get wet once more, we have nothing to change. Even if we go higher, would we be able to sustain without warm clothes. An urgent call was placed to the agency owner. He informed that weather would clear day after and in a display of a mountaineers camaraderie offered to let us do the trek again if not completed this time. Still, the general mood remained pensive as God continued pouring water on our expectations in abundance.
It was Day 3 and the rain hadn’t stopped for even a moment. The heavy outpour caused us a lot of anxiety but pondering over it made no difference. So, we decided to enjoy the moment. All of us got into one room, making space for one another, sitting cozily under the quilts and played dumb charades. A riot of laughter broke out. The whole day was spent playing, singing and laughing. Even if it was turning to be an indoors vacation instead of a trek, we were determined to make the most of it. Pleased, even the weather god smiled, rain stopped in the evening. Everybody scrambled outside. In front was displayed a breathtaking scene. A thick white sheet steadily rose from the valley and spread across the tall mountains. Immediately ahead, stretched lush green terrace farms interspersed with small huts here and there. Who else but God could have created such a masterpiece! Our cameras could catch only an impassive imprint of it, but the splendour seeped inside through our admiring eyes. Cheery exultation broke out when the night sky revealed a moon and two stars- the shimmering chandeliers of hope.
On day 4 our caravan moved up. We wore the wet clothes from the day before to save the only dry clothes we had. Clouds still retained supremacy but their pitchers were held tight for now. The oak forest continued muddier than before. A thick layer of wet leaves carpeted the track. The soil was soggy and sunk deep on each step. At certain places, flanked by moss ridden tall, slender trees, with the steep stone stairs rising through a pervading mist, the route appeared like a Gateway to Heaven.
The forest opened into a vast stretch of meadows. It looked like massive green waves rising and falling in succession, guarded at the distant boundaries by their tall green shores over which had settled a dense layer of white clouds. Slightly afar we saw three tin huts, supposed to be our accommodation. Drizzling started and winds picked up speed. We again had to transform ourselves into walking specimens. However, the spell lasted only a few minutes.
We were at Ali Bugyal now (3490M). For the first time, the snow-clad peaks provided a glimpse to the seekers. We roamed around in high spirits, exploring the place which stretched endlessly. Actual adventure started as 12 of us had to fit in the hut meant for 8. Quilts were now replaced by sleeping bags. Some of the members were going to experience its comfort for the first time. Washrooms? What is that? One could fulfill the purpose anywhere. I enjoyed being at home again. However, the clouds of uncertainty gathered again as Prakash announced that the sleeping bags at the next halt at Bhagwabasa had got wet. If we wanted to move up, everybody had to carry a sleeping bag from here in addition to their own luggage. Most of the members had hired mules for their rucksack and were unsure about their capability for the proposal. Nine mules were reported dead in upper region due cold and no one was ready to risk their animals. The condition of snow was reported to have worsened. Considering the members lack of experience, the leader wasn’t willing to take risk either. He said that even half of their tents had been torn. Gloom descended on us with the setting of sun.
To our pleasant surprise, at dinner Prakash reported to have solved the sleeping bag problem. We only needed to carry our own luggage now. Situation was changing so fast that it was difficult to be sure of anything. Next morning, the sun finally broke its shackles. The leaders voice exhorted us to pack faster and get ready. Momentum built up; excitement and euphoria spread in the air. As I frantically pushed my sleeping bag inside its cover, revised instruction floated like a bad breadth. The trek is aborted. We are to go down. Prakash told that a team from below had come up to instruct us to descend as the weather was going to turn bad in coming days. A glance at the sky though contradicted the prediction. It was crystal clear. However, if the team had come all the way to warn us, it must have a reason. We surrendered. The leader took us for a small excursion to the nearby meadow called Bedni Budyal. In the midst of the meadow, there shone a pool of clear water. And tiny Himalayan flowers smiled from the ground. After lunch we descended to Dedina.
Next day while the rest of the team went further down to Lohajung, four of us stayed back. The sun shone bright and brighter shone the smile of a six year old girl in whose motherâ€™s hut we stayed put. Holding her tiny finger, we went on a tour of her village where she and her brother described the name of each tree, splashed in streams, rolled on grass, plucked apples, and played blind folded. Those innocent kids gave us an invaluable gift of the return of our lost childhood.
While the weather remained absolutely clear for next three days, we realized that Roopkund had eluded us. We felt the pain of our incomplete affair with this exquisite pool and picked up a stone each. It is said that if you pick up a stone from a place, you are bound to return. Only later did we learn of the cloud burst, deluge and massive destruction at Kedarnath during the same week as the pictures of thousands of dead and missing floated on television. While our heart cringed in sympathy for those who had to face the fury of nature, we were grateful that it had spared us. Nature had clearly spelt out that we were only a tiny part of it and not the masters. We could only explore and not conquer it.
(The author is an avid mountaineer and has climbed Mt. Everest in addition to other peaks in Himalayas.)
Written By: Toolika Rani