Imagine a frozen lake which, upon melting each year, reveals the unnerving sight of the mortal remains of hundreds of people? Covered in snow and surrounded by rocky glaciers, the Roopkund lake appears to be a typical, albeit beautiful, natural wonder. However, during the couple of months when the snow melts and the bottom of this shallow lake is visible, the lake reveals its true nature. At the bottom are hundreds of human skeletons – and how they exist there is a mystery! Efforts have been taken to determine their identity – who were they, where did they come from, how did they die?, But the questions remain unanswered, and the lake is often referred to as Skeleton Lake.
I planned to witness the mystery around this high altitude lake and booked my trek through Bikat Adventures (my third with them in 2016). Roopkund sits high in the Indian Himalayas of Garhwal, about 15,800 feet above sea level. It usually takes 6-7 days to complete the trek. The trail passes through villages tucked deep inside oak and rhododendron jungles and streams. And with an ascent to 11,000 ft once the tree-line recedes, the famous alpine meadows (locally called bugyals) of Ali and Bedini come into view. Mighty Himalayan peaks peep from behind these endless grassy slopes. Further up on the altitude scale, the barren rocky landscape, coupled with snow and ice, ignites an adventurous mind.
The journey started from the tiny Kathgodam village where we boarded an SUV for Lohajung village. The group consisted people like me, who wanted to escape from their corporate routine to wilderness; and one father-daughter duo all the way from Thailand! As the vehicle meandered its way through the snaky roads of the hills, we introduced each other and were looked forward to the coming week of adventure.
The itinerary with Bikat Adventures has an advantage as it starts from Lohajung to Didna village which has gradual ascent as compared to route that start from Wan village and go to Gheroli Patal. We set camp ahead of the village at a small clearing called Tolpani as our campsite on day one.
We welcomed day two of the trek with rainfall. We enjoyed our walk through the dense oak forest full of mist; and dense foliage of green and brown leaves, as the seductive smell of moist earth hung heavy in the air. Day two was the longest ascent and the rainy weather only added to our hardship! But the lovely misty view of the mountains and the grasslands of Ali and Bedini Bugyal made it worth the effort. The pitstop for Maggi noodles and chai at the solitary tapri in the desolated region was unexplainably comforting!
Small group size helped us to negotiate today’s hike, making it easier for our trek leaders to coordinate since we were amidst dense foggy trail. This is another advantage with Bikat as they only take small groups. We reached our campsite at Patar Nachauni by late afternoon and relished the hot tea and pakoras. It was much needed and most welcome, as we were drenched and tired after the day’s trek. The evening was fun as we played card games and talked about life and philosophy, helping us bond better as a group. After an early dinner, trek leader Wakeel briefed us on various mountains hazards and how to cope with them.
Day three began with a scrumptious breakfast, as we prepped ourselves for the arduous climb to Bhagwabasa, which was our last campsite before we reach the lake. The trail was slippery because of patches of ice and the gradient was steep. In fact, the stretch between Patar Nachauni and Kalu Vinayak temple is considered as the most difficult on Roopkund Trek.
We crossed a few hillocks through hairpin bends to reach Kalu Vinayak, a small stone temple which locals revere. We chilled over an hour here, taking in the breathtaking panoramic views of Himalayan peaks that the vantage point offered. Here, we found the weather changed from a comforting sunny to dense and cloudy with strong winds in no time!
Then on, after a gradual descent of 1.5 kms, we reached our rocky campsite of Bhagwabasa. The setting of this campsite was surreal with snow-clad mountains all around us, and white clouds floating over the valley that lay below us! Thanks to the cold weather, we quickly changed, and settled in our fibre huts with tea and Maggi. The evening was spent going shutter-crazy with our cameras, capturing the best of what nature had to offer to us. Jaran (our fellow trekker from Thailand) prepared delicious Thai dinner which we finished in no time. The signs of AMS were visible on most of us – we had mild headache and difficulty in breathing. This coupled with the excitement to reach our destination the following morning made it tough for us to catch even a wink! But the sub-zero temperature outside helped us get cozy in our sleeping bags, eventually lulling us to sleep.
The day four morning started early at 3 am, with a nutritious brekky of milk porridge awaiting us. We turned our headlights on, and set off on the final climb towards the mystery! We encountered a ton of snow today – found easier to manage since it was soft. We traversed through the rocks covered with ankle-deep snow, with strong wind blowing at our ears. Battling the sub-zero temperatures, our only aim was to reach the summit as early as possible, before the snow would start melting. Our trek leader Wakeel gave us demonstration of ascending and descending in the snow which was helpful to all.
Soon, we crossed a long file of fellow trekkers who had begun the summit ascent earlier than us, as we huffed and puffed our way closer to the mystery lake. The first views of the snow-covered lake flanked by soaring mountain peaks was phenomenal! I felt a sense of achievement as for the first time I did a snow-trek and reached to a height of about 16000 ft. The effort of overnight train journey to Kathgodam + 10 hours hilly drive + 3 days of trek with steep climbing and spending nights in tents amidst the freezing temperature was all worth to witness the beauty and charm of this trail. And I guess that is the reason that this trek route attracts thousands of trekkers from all around every year. The route to Junargalli Pass (half an hour’s trek further up from the lake – optional for trekkers) was closed due to heavy snowfall, so we could not go further.
It was a chilly night and temperature has dropped significantly compared to the day-time. The night sky was filled with countless shining stars. The morning started on a healthy note as our trek leader Wakeel conducted a brief Yoga session so we could stretch our sore muscles.