In the year 2012, on a cool November morning at 4 AM, we off boarded the Nanda Devi express at a platform of the Haridwar railway station. We were three of us (me, my wife and my 3 years old daughter). We were on our way to undertake our first family trek. I was a tad nervous because of my daughter as I wasn’t sure if she’d be able to bear the brunt of walking 8-9 km a day for a stretch of 3 days but I was overjoyed to be proved wrong at the end.
We were glad that the train wasn’t late and had the entire day at our disposal (or so we thought). After all, we only had to go till Chandrapuri, a picturesque place on the banks of the river Mandakini which was about 5-6 hours drive from Haridwar. After getting fresh at the railway retiring room, we started off with our journey on a vehicle when it was still dark. As always on this route, we took our first break at the town of Byasi, about 55 km from Haridwar. After having some tea and a light breakfast, we resumed our journey. The road moved along the slopes of the familiar landscape of the Garhwal region keeping the river Ganges on its right. Then came Devprayag with its view of the confluence of the Ganges and Alakananda. The colors of waters of the two rivers always remain distinct. Over the different times that I have been to this place, I’ve seen one of the water streams to be green and the other muddy and the colors have switched sides but never they have looked the same.
After travelling about 20-30 km beyond Devprayag, we got our first setback. Our vehicle broke down. At first it seemed to be a minor defect and the driver assured that we’d soon be on our way but the signs were ominous. It turned out, we may have to wait for another 4-5 hours to get it repaired and for that too, we have to head back to Devprayag again to find a motor garage. I wasn’t prepared to waste time and gave a call to Lakhpat Singh (our tour co-ordinator). He arranged for another vehicle but that had to come down to Devprayag from some distant town on the route beyond Rudraprayag. It was still some time lost, but was much better compared to the former option. By the time we set off once again from Devprayag, we already lost about 3 hours. After Devprayag, the road descends to the valley of Alakananda river to reach Srinagar. The act of building a hydro-electric project on the river Alakananda had transformed it in many ways and not every change is welcome (in fact, most of them aren’t). Concrete walls were being erected along its banks and large swathes of the mountain slopes were devoid of trees. Hills had been blasted to make way for the large reservoir behind the dam. With my limited knowledge, I asked “Was it safe to embark on such large-scale constructions in these Himalayan areas, which are known to be fragile?” Landslides are common in the growing Himalayan mountains. So, how could we afford such extents of deforestation in the name of development? The river Alakananda appeared to have been tamed with its free flow constrained by such activities (or so we thought). The next year, it would prove way too costly when cloud bursts would trigger massive flow of water allowing Alakananda and Mandakini to break free from human clutches washing away large swathes of villages along with them.
We bid goodbye to Alakananda at Rudraprayag and rode along the banks of Mandakini. Gradually, we crossed Tilwara, Agastamuni and by the time we reached Chandrapuri, the afternoon rays of the sun had started to take a golden touch in its colors. The GMVN rest house was at a picturesque location. It was spread out with cottages dotting a sprawling lawn that led to the banks of the river Mandakini. The sky was crystal clear with some white clouds building up in the distant horizon. The chill in the air was on the rise as evening wore on. Lunch was served on a table in the lawn. Mountains surrounded us on all sides with Mandakini giving us company with its soothing sound as its waters danced their way through the boulder strewn river bed towards Rudraprayag.
The atmosphere was too serene back then to believe that the same river, a year down the line, would swell almost twenty times in volume and pour its wrath on everyone residing on its banks and wipe this place (along with many others) off to redefine the region’s geography. As darkness came on, we resigned to our cottages and focussed on re-juggling our luggage to separate items that would be required on the trail for the next three days from the ones that could be done without. We slid into our beds early that night. We were to forget the comforts of a hotel, at least for next three days.
After a comfortable breakfast, the next morning, we found ourselves heading towards the Sari village. We were heading down the Kedarnath road till we reached Kund, where the roads divided. The road on the left went towards Gaurikund via Guptkashi, while we took right towards the town of Ukhimath. This is the connecting road that goes through the Kedarnath wild life sanctuary till Chamoli, where it meets the Badrinath highway. After about 5 km from Ukhimath, we left the main road and headed up the mountain slopes on the left to reach the village of Sari. Sari is a small congregation of lodges, shops and local village homes. Lakhpat met us there. We spent sometime and had some tea while Lakhpat briefed us about the plan for the next few days. The hike for that day was a simple one for about 2.5 km which were to take us up the slopes of the mountains above Sari to the other side of it. There resided a small lake nestled amidst the mountains, Deoriatal. Three of us embarked on the trail. Bukku (my daughter) seemed to be enjoying the gradual elevation of the hike. Clear weather also contributed to the general cheerful mood.
After crossing the final bend, we found ourselves on the banks of Deoriatal. Lakhpat had a permanent tent erected besides the lake with a bed inside. This was going to be our address for the night. The famous Himalayan views gave a skip as clouds held the sway. There wasn’t much to do except to sit back and enjoy the afternoon sun and to have our delayed lunch beside the lake. The day visitors to the taal (there are many of them) gradually headed down to Sari. As the sun slid behind the mountains, evening was waiting its turn somewhere round the corner and was prompt to capture the stage. The night was silent, but sleep deserted me (not sure why), but my wife and daughter seemed to have a sound sleep.
When I strode out of the tent the next morning, it was still dark but traces of faint light were spreading across the northern horizon. Stars were abundant in the sky. The dark outlines of the Himalayan peaks were visible in the backdrop of the faint morning light. That was a comfortable sight and it meant clouds won’t spoil the party. This is a practice I’ve followed many times in my past Himalayan ventures. I could recognize the familiar outlines of the peaks of Chaukhamba, Mandani and Kedarnath even in this darkness. The eastern corner started getting brighter with the first rays falling on the crests of Chaukhamba while the others still remained in darkness. The rays started to spray their colors on the others and gradually the peaks of Kedarnath, Kedar Dome and Mandani woke up from sleep and finally, the rest.
Lakhpat’s crew met us later in the morning. That included a guide named Heera Singh Negi and another person (I don’t remember his name anymore) who started off with the role of leading a pony to carry luggage, cooking and tent equipment, but later on his role expanded to that of a cook, installation and dismantling of tents on the way and virtually everything required for the trek to be successful. The clear morning views lured us to spend more time at the taal and I took a round trip around its banks to reach the famous viewpoint which gave the famous Deoriatal shot to my camera.
All that delayed our departure and we started off at 9.30 AM. We walked along the northern banks of the taal and gradually ascended towards the woods that covered the higher reaches. To start with, my daughter rode on the back of Heera Singh. The trail entered the dense forests of the Kedarnath wild life sanctuary. We walked under the shades of the trees that formed a canopy. The freshness of the morning mist mixed with the smell that oozed out of the forests made the walk memorable.
By noon we reached a place where there was some open space to sit around and our team felt it was time to gulp down the packed lunch of roti and pickle. So we sat down to do justice to the food and water.
After the small lunch break, the trail moved out of the forests temporarily and we had to climb up the hill. The path narrowed up to some extent and we had to be careful as the rocks underneath were not very stable. Looking down the steep slope on the right of us was not even contemplated and we just focused upwards. At times I had to help Anindita (my wife) with her steps. Another sudden development was a cause of concern. My daughter started showing signs of dissent with Heera Singh and it reached a point where she simply resisted to ride his back. Heera and us tried to persuade her to continue the status quo but she was stubborn. I started to get irritated. After all, who would not like the comfortable ride and avoid the tiring walk? But just like this instance, I was grossly mistaken about her for the entire trek. In an attempt to teach her a lesson, we advised Heera to leave her behind and we all started walking while she stood her ground behind a tree. We hoped that isolation would force her to abandon what we interpreted to be her whims. However, we found that she was quite comfortable walking on her own and came along behind us. We then asked Heera to accompany her, else there was every risk of losing track in this wilderness.
After reaching the top of the hill, the track headed down the other side of the slope and once again we entered into the forests, which got more dense. At places, we had to make our way through the thick undergrowth. Heera led us through the forests, while rest of our crew went ahead to prepare for our halt for the day. Our initial target was to reach Vanagher bugyal (high altitude grassland), but time was running out as sunlight started fading. So, as an alternative plan, it was decided to stay near a shepherd hut amidst the forest. As we reached there, the afternoon sun already wore a texture of gold.
Heera Singh started to erect our tent, while rest of the crew stayed in the shepherd hut and prepared for the dinner. Our crew suggested that we stay at the hut to keep us warm amidst the fire they started up, but we didn’t want to let go of the romance of living in a tent.
We were given a torch to aid us in the night if we had to venture out to answer nature’s calls. We prayed not to have to do so. They also lit fires around the tent and the hut in an attempt to keep wild animals at bay and asked us not to heed to strange sounds at night. All such preparations added to our imaginations and the lack of room for movement in the tent that housed three of us also didn’t help the cause. As a result, I couldn’t sleep well.
The trek for next day wasn’t going to be simple as it involved a steep hike after lunch that would take us to the base of the route to Tunganath. But I shoved away the thoughts and at some point, sleep managed to reign.