We could feel nothing but thrill when we landed in Roopkund. This filled our bodies wrapped under many layers of jackets, caps and gloves with the necessary warmth. It was an early morning of May 2016.
It is not allowed to stay up there in Roopkund for more than 15-20 minutes. What you really see there is a very small ‘pond’ like lake. Roopkund appeared like a half frozen bottom of an oval tub pushed fit in the high reaches of the mountains.
Of-course we could locate a few skeletons there.
The weather was fast changing and within minutes of our landing it felt as if very soon the clouds and fog would engulf the lake situated at a height of 15700 ft feet in the Chamoli district of Garhwal Himalayas (India).
It was an early summer (as per the conditions there) pre monsoon visit. The route to Roopkund from the last basecamp ‘Bagwabasa’ was snow covered and appeared pretty adventurous. During this time the thick snow that engulfs the region in winters starts melting. It makes moving onto it quite difficult. the sight of others slipping over ice a little too frequently was frightening. Without proper protection it is not at all suitable to try this last stretch.
So many hardships one endures for a not so picturesque sight of Roopkund.
By the time one is back to the base camp at ‘Bagwabasa’ he or she is completely exhausted. You still have a long way to cover on foot to reach to the last motor head. Chances are pretty high that by this time you will find yourself in a hurry to reach to a place with proper food and toilet. You have managed without these necessities for about 6 days and you wish to take a bath and be back to the normal routine.
So what are the main takeaways form this 60 km trek?
It really took a while to reconcile with the learnings of this trek which starts from Lohajung and ends at the Wan village.
I tried to summarize a few facts about Roopkund trek that caught my attention there and continued to linger in my memory even today.
1. Roopkund trek can provide you a chance to know what Yarsagumba is!
Have you ever heard about Yarsagumba? If not, it may amaze knowing that ‘Yarsagumba’ is at present the costliest bio resource on earth. It is costlier than the gold.
Yarsagumba is used to boost the strength of the body and has earned namw as the Himalayan Viagra.
To my surprize the trek to Roopkund passed through one of the ‘Yarsagumba’ producer areas.
Interesting part about this Himalayan herb is its body which is half fungus and half insect.
The fungus part start growing is on Caterpillar and ultimately takes away all its nutrients. Caterpillar dies and remains buried in the soil beneath the snow cover. It is the fungal part that pops up from the soil when snow starts melting making it conspicuous to its seekers.
If you go to this trek pre-monsoon, you have fair chances of spotting locals moving up in search of 5-7 cm long caterpillar fungus. But as they say, nothing great comes easily. It is arduous and risky task to dig out this small herb that is changing their economic and social conditions. It requires a harvester spend their days in freezing temperatures over a steep mountain of high altitudes in search of it.
The nights of the harvesters are not easier either as they need to put up a tent and spend nights away from their homes in the areas where the herb grows.
Yarsagumba is their natural resource and they are happy digging it. And why they should not? They can make out ~5-8 lakh/ kg in a season through Yarsagumba.
It was a sudden revelation for the locals that they have something in their area that can make them rich. The positive side effect is that up to some extent Yarsagumba has checked their out migration for livelihood.
But money, as they say, is not a very good thing. It brings along lust, crime and what not. If you are not already well versed with the buzzword ‘sustainable’, a trek to Roopkund can be a great opportunity to learn that.
Exhaustive harvesting of Yarsagumba is leading a steady decline in its production. It is said that the changing climatic patterns are also affecting the production of this over-expensive medicine in the region.
2. Roopkund provides a chance to see the divine place where treeline ends and meadows prosper
The trek route goes through the lush green forests. The sharp changes in the plants varieties are attractive. A visit in April-May and you will find yourself lost in the booming crimson red forests of Rhododendrons.
The forests try to grow tolerating the dip in the temperature as much as they can. But ultimately a height comes when the plants with the most survival instincts don’t have any option but to stop themselves.
Whether or not you are a lover of the wonders of the natural world, the sight of Ali bugyal where treeline ends sharply, as if somebody has drawn a line of control for them, leaving the way for the meadows to prosper, will fill you with awe for the precision of the unknown and the omnipresent.
Ali bugyal is a grand Himalayan Meadow and the route to Roopkund passes through it. It is huge green carpet spread across to the top of the mountain. In the local dialect ‘Bugyal’ means alpine meadow. The campsite at Ali Bugyal is one of the best places in the region to spend an evening. It offers the Himalayan views that can linger in your eyes for the rest of the life.
3. India is a place of caring good people
The locals offer you everything they can for the 7 days in the skin penetrating cold. Towards the end the craving of better food and sleep will make you salute your guides, mule owners and cooks. Their hospitality will make you feel invited. They welcome you as if this is all their responsibility to make sure you are back safely.
On our way back to the base camp at Bagwabasa from Roopkund, we became the spectator of something we least wanted to happen. A fellow trekker, who was repeatedly refusing to follow instructions, started slipping down fast over a steep stretch covered with thick ice.
It could have become the tragic accident and everybody, for a second, thought for the worst.
Heartbeats stopped in anticipation!
What we saw was an unbelievable sight of human courage. Our guide ‘Birbal’ took risk on his own life and ran over slippery ice with the speed at least double of the speed at which this fellow was sliding to catch hold of him. The fellow had a narrow escape for his and our relief.
We learnt our lesson of respecting the local wisdom in an unknown terrain.
Birbal remained humble as ever post his glorifying lifesaving act.
4. We can make anyplace hell
When we see something beautiful, something precious we tend to become possessive. Sadly we don’t become possessive for the sensitive amazing Himalayan landscape.
The campsites of Ali & Dayara Bugyal, Pattarnachni and Bugwabasa all are carrying the burden of all sorts of filth, bottles, polybags, napkins, rappers and whatnot apart our excreta.
This will remain buried under thick snow for more than half of the year. Nature will take millions of years to clean it up.
It reminded the recent attempt of the army to clean up Mount Everest.
Overhearing a group of locals discussing their pain of seeing the deterioration of what they regard as their personal property was heart wrenching.
We definitely need very strict laws and enforcement of the laws on anybody trying to pollute it. Its carrying capacity should be identified and the movement of people beyond that capacity should be restricted.
5. A chance to feel Victorious at Junargali
Treks, shorter or longer, end with a sense of accomplishment. Roopkund too is not an exception. The last day’s trek to Roopkund starts around 2:30 am. Fun part was moving up while it is still dark. This is necessary to avoid the chances of getting slipped when the ice starts melting in the sunlight. Darkness does not let one see much but just about a foot’s distance. Net result is that while coming down you will wonder if this is the same scary route you took while climbing up!
Roopkund is located more than a km below the summit. In case, weather is in your favour you can further move up to Junargali which is a high altitude pass. The pass is famous as much celebrated Nanda Raj-Jat (Jat means journey) passes through Junargali on its way to Homekund.
Junargali is also a place to get a close view of the Trishul peaks. The same mighty ‘Trishul’ peaks that attract many to Ranikhet, Kausani and many other popular tourist destinations in Kumaun Himalaya.
To a casual trekker with a wish to climb Mount Everest, Junargali (16200 ft) can be a good option. While climbing a steep mountain holding on to a rope with your shoes and submerged in the ice, the stop-overs take the breath away. It is one of those moments when you don’t even want to take deep breath fearing it may affect your balance, forget about looking back towards the others who are held together by the common rope.
The higher the risk the better is the reward!
At the summit you are overjoyed because of the beauty that lies ahead, but also because of the memory you succeeded in creating. It is one of those places where while posing for photos your fingers automatically make V.
A trek to Roopkund is a rich experience. You end up receiving much more than what you could have imagined and surely different than what you wanted initially.
The strangest thing about this trek is the mysterious force that keeps pulling you to revisit the memory lane of this trek.
And that is when you realize how this 60 km trek has enhanced your understanding of the natural and human world around. You know the nature of so many things.
With much more to cherish and love for the rest of the life you now know more and appreciate much more.