Roopkund Trek: A Mule Trekker’s Story to the Mysterious Skeletal Lake

Mountains always made me feel happy. The higher I went the more I felt I could be closer to where the gods live. But, that was perhaps a narrow whimsical view of reality. I discovered what truly made me happy, only during my first trek.

I finished each day, enjoying the fruit of an honest day’s labor. Toiling mentally and physically, overcoming perceptual barriers about my own abilities, I experienced a literally cosmic calm and peace. The pure joy still lingers on and makes me smile as I look back on days spent in the high altitude Garhwal Mountains.

Roopkund

To begin with, I was skeptical about my trekking abilities. My husband, who suggested we go on this trek held a good trekking record. I knew he’ll make it to the summit. But as I walked all attired as a trekker past the Kathgodam Railway station to board our Jeep for the base camp, I felt my heart sinking. It was a glum morning. An overcast sky and a silent drizzle further accentuated my melancholy.

What a bad omen I thought!

The jeep ascended, and we went passed blacked out mountain slopes, a result of rampant forest fires across Uttarakhand. Perpetual smog blocked our view, and I could make out from the faces of my co-passengers that we all pitied the mountains. Little did we know the mountains would avenge soon.  The summit at Roopkund would look down upon us and smile. It would say, “I’m mightier” and mock our vulnerable existence.

On our arrival at Lohajung, the base camp village, we put up at a rest house, arranged by our trekking company, Trek the Himalayas. We were introduced to our trekking group, comprising of 20 people, including my husband and I.

Yes, we had booked a highly commercialized trek, one where our private operator would arrange for tents, food, provide tour guides, and also offer mules to carry backpacks in case we could not. For a beginner like me, such support was rather quintessential. After the first day of carrying my backpack, I decided I too would use a mule.

My husband still laughs and calls me “a mule trekker.”  

We were warned in our evening briefings about how the weather plays fowl in the mountains. Moisture carried by strong winds precipitates by noon and rain and snow, depending on the season, are likely to occur every day.

In the words of Vicky Thakur, our tour guide:

“Bombay ka fashion aur pahadon ka mausam kabhi bhi badal sakta hai” (Bombay’s fashion and the weather in the hills can change anytime).

So early next morning, with bags on our back, we started the 6 day trek to Roopkund, comprising of a 60km walk. On the first day, our target was to reach Didna village.

A scenic walk, with plentiful streams, tiny villages, and a gradual gradient made for an interesting day. We walked past potato farms and spoke to village folk, troubled by low market prices. Their biggest bottleneck was unavailability of a good transport system. Being remote, the region still had no proper roads. Villagers are required to trek to reach the nearest markets and eventually end up selling at low price because of the inevitable delay.

Unlike progressive villages in Himachal, villages in Uttarakhand are straggling in poverty. Total dependence upon agriculture and little help from government, keeps them on the lower ebb of development. Villages don’t have access to electricity and many of them depend upon solar power collected by panels installed outside homes.

Observing these tit bits about the surroundings, we finally landed at our homestay for the night. It was pouring cats and dogs, when inside our cozy rooms we started interacting with each other.

The next day broke to a wonderfully bright and gay sun. It was to be one of the toughest ascends of our trek. From 8,000 feet, we were to camp at 12,000 feet. After a bone breaking climb across a dense rhododendron forest, we made way for the twin Bugyals or meadows.

It’s rare to find meadows as vast and open like these Bugyals, anywhere. They run up and down, with swirls and turns like none other.  Strong winds, peculiar to such height, force you to push your way ahead. But even after taking a strong lashing by the winds, it seems the summit keeps beckoning at you to come and meet it, in its isolation.

Ali Bugyal Campsite
Ali Bugyal Campsite
Bedni Bugyal
Bedni Bugyal, where the Gods came down to meet Goddess Parvati
My dear friend Nandini, the bravest amongst us all
My dear friend Nandini, the bravest amongst us all
Camp at Pathar Nauchani
Camp at Pathar Nauchani

And so with this thought we spent a ghostly night at Ali Bugyal, the third camp site, where the winds kept howling all night, with occasional whistling. I can’t describe how much I fell in love with the whistling. I’d read so much about how the wind whistle, but I’d never experienced it.

But time ran out on us, and the next morning we began walking toward Pathar Nauchani, our next camp. We crossed, Bedni Bugyal, the twin of Ali Bugyal. Guides narrated mythological stories along the way to keep us entertained, even when most of them didn’t comply with ancient texts.

At Pathar Nachauni, we camped under the shadow of snow clad mountains. The evenings were hazy and it poured heavily and prevented us from doing anything much, except remain in our tents shielded from the rain and cold. For a brief period, a hailstorm also knocked upon our doors.

This is when I saw, Nandini, a solo trekker amongst us, enjoying the hailstorm as nothing I had ever seen. She’s young, and she came all the way from Kanyakumari all by herself, fighting tooth and nail with her family, who opposed her going solo for a trek in the Himalayas. She had never seen anything like this before, and she relished every second of it, more than any of us could.

Just one camp away from the summit to Roopkund, the following morning brought with it a bundle of excitement. We were to take our first break of the day at Kalu Vinayak temple, up on the hilltop, the spot from where Roopkund, Trishul and Nanda Ghunti, the two majestic snow peaks first come into sight.

After this short religious moment with a background of tinkling temple bells, and blowing of the conch shell, we started walking on a slushy path to our final camp at Bhagwabasa. Normally, trekkers are supposed to encounter a snow white camp at Bhagwabasa, but due to a snow drought in the mountains this winter, we could only spot freckles of it in the distance.

Of course Roopkund and beyond that, the snow sheet was persistent, leaving a rocky camp for us.

As night approached, dark thick snow clouds began to gather. We all huddled inside our dining tent, and as were celebrating Rambo’s birthday, our trekmate, snowflakes rambled down silently.

Yes, it had turned out to be a blizzard. It grew stronger through the night, threatening our tents to be unearthed. And so we were shifted to the forest huts, set up by the Uttarakhand Forest Department as a shield against storms.

Guides felled the tents, to prevent them from unearthing during the snow blizzard. This is how they looked in the morning.
Guides felled the tents, to prevent them from unearthing during the snow blizzard. This is how they looked in the morning.

The night passed away, and the morning felt dramatic, with the weather playing fowl. Our trek to the summit, which was to begin at 4:30 am, took off at 6:30 am. We were given crampons for climbing the snow.

The fresh snow from last night had covered the route entirely. We walked over a sparkling white sheet, zig sagging along treacherous climbs and a near vertical ascend to mount the summit. I’d almost given up in the morning and refused to climb to the summit, and how it all happened, I hardly recall.

All I know is that somehow I did make it to the frozen lake. They say places have a calling, maybe Roopkund wanted me to be there.

Frozen Roopkund, no skeletons visible
Frozen Roopkund, no skeletons visible

While climbing, you forget all about the mysteries and legends associated with the lake. They say it was named after Parvati saw her own beautiful reflection in the water. Roop comes beautiful in Hindi, and Kund is pond, hence, Roopkund. Also, surprisingly, the lake is buried with some 200 skeletons belonging to the 9th century. Scientists believe that a group of pilgrims accompanied by a few locals had perished under a heavy hailstorm. For years their skeletons created mystery, challenging scientists to draw back to their origins. Even today they cannot say with surety where those people came from.

On reaching the summit, approximately at 15,696 feet we looked at the frozen lake, wondering if we could spot the skeletons, but to no avail. After spending some 15 minutes, clicking pictures, and eating hot porridge served by our guides, we climbed down to our snowy camp.

There was still time in parting with the group and the mountains, but it started to feel like it’s over. The thought sat heavy on my heart. I did not want to leave behind these mountains, their simplicity, warmth, and at times their fury. Even when they lay still, they felt more alive than humans could ever be, with all their different moods and emotions.

A general lack of amenities such as a clean toilet, hot water for bathing, clean clothes etc which we consider necessary, seemed to be sheer luxuries in the mountains. One becomes used to the wild and the freedom it generates. The feeling is almost of addiction! You no longer care about how you look, what you wear, whether you smell good or stink bad. It all dissolves, to leave you happy and happy and happy……….

Until of course, you come back and start using memories to take you through the long winding days.

Other trekking details:

Total days: 8 days (beginning from Kathgodam and back to Kathgodam. You walk for 6 days, from the base camp at Lohajung and back via Wan village. From Kathgodam, it takes 10 hours in Jeep to reach Lohajung.)

Total walking distance: 60 kms.

Average expenditure: Rs.10,000/- per person. This cost includes, jeep ride back and forth from Kathgodam to Lohajung, stay at rest house at Lohajung, food and tents throughout the trek. If you hire mules to carry backpacks, it costs another Rs. 1,800/-.

We availed the services offered by Trek the Himalayas. They serve delicious food. Their guides are well trained and amicable. They organize groups of 20, which is an ideal group size to manage.

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