“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.” – Jack Kerouac
And that is exactly what I did! I climbed a mountain.
I had always wanted to go to the Himalayas but every trip that I had planned had been cancelled. So, when an opportunity presented itself in the form of accompanying a few friends on their photography assignment with IndiaHikes, I jumped up and grabbed it without thinking twice. Pratap and another friend had to shoot photographs of the Deoria Tal to Chandrashila peak trek in winter for IndiaHikes. And, I happily tagged along.
IndiaHikes is a trekking community. They conduct many treks in the Himalayan region. They have a very good itinerary for the Deoria Tal to Chandrashila peak trek. The difficulty level of the trek is rated as easy to moderate, and it is the perfect trek for beginners like me. Their itinerary is designed to help trekkers cope gradually with temperature, terrain, and altitude. The itinerary was as follows:
- Day 1 (20th Dec): Pick up from Haridwar railway station and drive to Sari village.
- Day 2 (21st Dec): Trek from Sari village to Deoria Tal (about 3 km)
- Day 3 (22nd Dec): Trek from Deoria Tal to Rohini Bugyal (about 8 km)
- Day 4 (23rd Dec): Trek from Rohini Bugyal to Bhrujgali (about 6 km)
- Day 5 (24th Dec): Climb from Bhrujgali to Chandrashila Peak via Tungnath (about 12 km) 11,975 ft. & back to Bhrujgali, 11 – 12 km approx., 6 to 7 hours.
- Day 6 (25th Dec): Bhrujgali to Chopta 9,5148 feet, 3 km approx., 1 hour trek. Chopta to Haridwar via Jeep – 235 km ( 8 – 10 hour drive).
Preparing for the Trek
To prepare for the trek, I tried to get as much exercise as possible. I also read multiple blogs, asked family and friends who had been to the Himalayas for tips to prepare for the trek both mentally and physically. But I knew that nothing I did in Bangalore would prepare me for the Himalayas!
After we registered for the trek, IndiaHikes sent us emails at regular intervals with information about the trek and tips to prepare for it. One email was about Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). AMS is the effect that high altitude has on human beings and is something that can creep up on the unsuspecting traveler. It is not possible to say who will be affected and at what altitude. IndiaHikes had recommended that we take a course of Diamox to prevent AMS and stay hydrated. We started taking the prescribed dosage of Diamox when we reached Haridwar. We also made sure we took the mandatory items and other medicines needed for the trek.
Bangalore to Delhi and Haridwar
My friends and I decided to get to Sari early so that we could explore the place and get acclimatized to the weather. This would also give my friends a chance to take some photographs of the village and its surroundings. We also decided to book our return tickets a couple of days after the trek just in case we were stuck somewhere because of the snow. So ours was to be a ten day trip – from 18th to 27th December. We left for Delhi from Bangalore on 18th Dec by air. From Delhi, we took a day train to Haridwar and reached by dinnertime. That night, we got an excellent idea of how cold the weather could get and knew we were to face much colder times!
Getting to Sari
On 19th Dec, we left for Sari by shared taxi with the batch of trekkers who were going to begin their trek on 20th December. The journey though long, was extremely beautiful. We left at about 8:30 AM and drove through Rishikesh, Devaprayag, Rudraprayag, and Srinagar towards Sari. All through the journey, we had the beautiful emerald green Alaknanda River flowing for company.
I had a smile on my lips throughout the journey as each bend in the road led us from one magnificent view to another. The decrease in temperature was obvious, but nothing could come in the way of my excitement when I caught my first glimpse of the snowcapped mountains!
After stopping a few times for breakfast and lunch, we reached our base camp, the village of Sari by about 4:30 PM. On our arrival, we were welcomed by the IndiaHikes base camp coordinator, Ankit. We checked into our room and talked with the other trekkers during dinner.
After dinner, we went to shoot the night sky and stars. We walked a little way away from the lights of the village to take photographs. After we had taken some photographs, we heard mewls of a leopard cub. We hastened back to our hotel not wanting to encounter a protective mother leopard!
A Sunday at Sari
We spent a cold night in our hotel room and woke up to a chilly morning. We set out early to shoot the sunrise and it was completely worth our while!
We then returned to the hotel to take photographs of the trekkers who were setting out. We had hot toast and Maggi for breakfast. Maggi had not tasted so good before!
During the day, we made small excursions to take pictures of the village, the birds, and a nearby waterfall. Sari is a small village at altitude of about 6,700 ft. It has a few hotels and houses. The villagers were friendly and many of them spoke to us. They seemed totally at ease with the cold weather. Most houses have hay spread on the rooftops to keep the houses warm.
Ankit was very helpful and friendly and he shared several stories from his trekking experiences with us. He also told us the story of the Tungnath temple that we were going to visit.
In the evening, the trekkers from our group arrived from Haridwar and we spent some time talking to them. There were people of various ages and different parts of India. Ankit introduced us to our trek leaders Dinesh, Kamal, and Khushi. He briefed us thoroughly about the camp rules, importance of keeping time, sipping water, and keeping our surroundings clean. IndiaHikes emphasizes on being a green trekker and leaving mountains in a better condition than we find them. Ankit reiterated the importance of being green trekkers. We were requested to pick up trash that we found on the trail.
We were instructed on the use of toilet tents. For people who have never used toilet tents, they are either an object of amusement or one of disgust. But for people who are regular trekkers or familiar with being outdoors for several days at a time, toilet tents are nothing short of a blessing.
We were also given fleece liners for our sleeping bags. We had to carry these with us till the last day of the trek. After dinner, we settled in for the night, in anticipation of starting our trek next morning.
Sari Village to Deoria Tal (21st Dec)
On Monday morning, we woke up early, eagerly looking forward to the first day of our trek. After breakfast, Dinesh our main trek leader briefed us about how he and his team would guide us through the trek. We would have a trek leader in the lead, one in the middle, and one sweeper at the end of the line. No trekker was to go ahead of the lead person or fall behind the sweeper. We were all given eco bags to collect trash during our trek.
Dinesh also explained the use and importance of the trekking pole. We left our offloading backpacks for the mules to carry, hoisted our day packs on our backs and set off at about 9:30 AM.
We were told to sip water during the trek. It is extremely important to stay hydrated while trekking. Though the weather is cold, we were told to keep water bottles in an easily accessible place and keep taking sips (and not too many gulps) of water. We were told to consume at least 2 liters of water during the day.
The trek from Sari to Deoria Tal is a gradual ascent of about 3 km with an altitude gain of 1,240 ft. The trail is a well-laid one. Five minutes into the climb I realized what the importance of the trekking pole was!
We stopped briefly at a temple which is on the way, and saw many birds and goats during the course of the trek. We had wonderful views of the Chandrashila peak and Sari village while we were climbing. We took several photographs along the way.
We reached the campsite that had been set up for us beside the beautiful Deoria Tal, which is at an altitude of about 8,000 ft., at about 12:30 PM. We were all very happy to have completed the first day of our trek. We had a fantastic view of the Kedarnath range and Chaukhamba peak from our camp. After lunch, we walked around the lake and explored the surrounding areas. It was freezing that night, but we managed to take some photos of birds in the evening and the night sky after dinner.
That night I wore five layers of clothes, but even then I could feel the biting cold. 🙂 To begin with, it was quite a difficult task to wear the layers (starting with thermals) inside the tent. When one of us was changing, the others had to wait outside in the cold. And since the tent was not tall enough for people to stand in, it was quite a feat to change inside it. We had to repeat this whole performance in the mornings to reduce the number of layers we wore, as we are not supposed to wear thermals during the trek.
One mistake we had all made was not carrying the right footwear to wear in the camp. Instead of taking light slip-ons, we had taken slippers (with toe partitions). We couldn’t wear those slippers with the thick socks. So we had to wear our trekking shoes every time we stepped out of the tent. And that was probably the thing I enjoyed the least on the trip. Try tying up shoelaces with numb fingers when the temperature is below 0 degrees, in the middle of the night to visit the toilet tent.
While toilet tents are a welcome sight at the campsite, zipping their entrances close with frozen fingers or scooping the frozen mud when your job is done, can be quite challenging!
The other daily chore that only one of the three of us perfected was (the art of) first getting into the fleece liner and then the sleeping bag. The sleeping bags are made for 6 footers. So for even slightly shorter people, either the legs don’t reach the bottom or they end up entirely inside the sleeping bags in awkward positions (which happened to me every night and I am not very short!)
We had to collect the sleeping bags in the evening at each campsite, and then roll them up and stuff them into compact bags and leave them for the mules to carry each morning (of course, we had to do all this with frozen fingers :)).
Deoria Tal to Rohini Bugyal (22nd Dec)
We left Deoria Tal on Tuesday morning about 9:30 AM after breakfast. The second day of the trek took us through the forest. The trail had a lot of ascents and descents and many trails leading away from the main trail. Our trek leaders asked us to make sure we remain in groups and keep one of the leads in sight because it was easy to get lost. We had to trek for 8 km with an altitude gain of about 1,000 feet. It had snowed during the previous night and the trail was covered with snow, dry leaves, and slush in some places. This made our trek tricky as well as interesting. We stopped quite a few times to take photos and rest. We ate a packed lunch of rotis and potato curry on a grassy slope which had excellent views. We met several women who were working on the slopes and exchanged pleasantries with them. They were very nimble on their feet and joked about us being too fat to trek!
We reached our campsite at about 4:30 PM. We could not camp at Rohini Bugyal that day because the campsite was covered with snow. So, we camped in a clearing about half a kilometer away, near a stream.
By evening, the weather got really cold and we lit a camp fire. But the camp fire was not enough to keep the cold away. We had to go very close to the fire to be able to feel the warmth. Once we’d come more than a foot away, we’d start shivering.
Each of us was carrying plates, cups, lunch boxes, and spoons to eat with. Every time we used any of these, we had to wash them with cold water (using our frozen fingers). Each night, this task got progressively difficult as the temperature kept dropping. On the last night, we had more ice than water in the buckets! The IndiaHikes cooks did their best to give us hot water to wash in. But on some nights, the water would just not get hot enough.
The cooks would use firewood to heat the water. This gave the water a slightly smoky taste. Some days it was bearable and sometimes it was very difficult to drink. We were carrying a water filter and some water treatment drops, but these only made the water safe for drinking and did not remove the smoky taste. Finally, we ended up adding some Electral to the water to mask the smoky taste.
We had also carried dried fruits and nuts with us, to munch on during the trek. They gave us a lot of energy and prevented us from getting tired and hungry.
Rohini Bugyal to Chopta (23rd Dec)
There was a slight change in plans on the third day of our trek. Since Brujgali was covered in snow, we were to camp in Chopta for two nights. After a hot breakfast and some warming up exercises, we set off for Chopta at about 9:30 AM.
Again the trail was covered with snow and dry leaves and had its share of ascents and descents, but it was comparatively easier than the previous day. We had to trek for about 6 km with an altitude gain of 1,037 feet. We had amazing views of the mountains.
We saw several animal footprints on the fresh snow, including those of bears, foxes, and leopards. We also saw Langur monkeys, jumping from branch to branch and many birds.
We stopped by the side of beautiful stream and waterfall that had icicles, as the water had frozen. We filled our bottles with the clear water and ate a packed lunch of vegetable fried rice near the stream.
We reached our campsite in Chopta at about 4:00 PM.
We met the previous batch of trekkers who had climbed up to the Chandrashila peak that morning. They shared experiences of their climb. The view from our campsite was magnificent. We took photos of the beautiful sunset and moonrise.
Before dinner, Dinesh and his team briefed us on the use of snow gaiters and crampons. We were to wear our snow gaiters for the entire duration and the crampons when required. He gave us instructions for the next day’s climb and made sure each of us was fit enough to attempt the climb. We tried to sleep as early as possible as we had to be up very early next day. The temperature dipped to – 10 degrees that night and I hardly got any sleep.
Chopta to Tungnath, Chandrashila and Back (24th Dec)
Our ascent was to begin at 5:00 AM because it was important that we reach the summit by 9:30 AM before the snow started melting. My friends and I woke up at about 3:30 AM and got ready. We had breakfast at 4:30 AM and all the trekkers assembled at 5:00 AM. In addition to Dinesh, Kamal, and Khushi we had three other trek leads accompanying us. Since we had heavy cameras and tripods that we had to carry to the summit, Dinesh got one of the guides to carry a bag with all our cameras.
The leadership qualities that Dinesh and the sense of responsibility that his team exhibited that day, was exemplary. The team had been amazing during the entire duration of the trek, but the last day of the trek stood out.
Unlike on the other days, where all the trekkers were loosely bunched, during the ascent on the last day we had to walk in a single file. The slowest trekkers were made to walk at the head of the line to control the speed at which we walked. Dinesh and his team kept walking up and down the line helping people when needed. It had snowed during the night, so fresh snow covered the hardened ice from the previous day and made the trail slippery.
As we climbed, we passed the campsite at Brujgali where we were supposed to have camped. It was blanketed in snow. About forty minutes into the climb it started snowing again and we stopped and wore our raincoats. The snow cover on the ground was thicker and we had to be careful about where we stepped. The blanket of snow was extremely misleading. We had to make sure we walked only on the trail. One wrong step, even a few centimeters on either side of the path, could have landed us in a ditch with a few feet of snow.
We marched on as fast as we could, stopping now and then to sip water. We reached the Tungnath temple at about 8:45 AM. I felt a great sense of achievement for having made it to the temple. Till I reached the temple, I wasn’t sure if I would climb all the way to the top. Before we left Chopta, Pratap had jokingly said that he’d drag me up to at least the Tungnath temple and then leave the decision of climbing to the Chandrashila peak to me (because he himself might need to be dragged up to the peak!) But having come thus far, I decided I would climb all the way to the top.
After taking a couple of photos of the temple that was closed for winter and some rest, about seventeen of us set off for the peak. The distance from the Tungnath temple to the Chandrashila peak is about 600 feet and is a steep climb. We continued again in the same fashion. Pratap stayed by my side during the ascent, and he and Kamal helped me in all the difficult spots.
We reached the summit at about 10:00 AM. Everyone was completely thrilled and there were shouts of jubilation from everyone and hugs all around. I was completely overwhelmed and emotional on having reached the top of the mountain. I felt a great sense of achievement as well as a feeling of being humbled by the Himalayas.
Unfortunately, the entire peak was surrounded by mist and we couldn’t see anything beyond a few feet. So, we couldn’t shoot photos of the 360 degree view that we were eagerly looking forward to. Instead, we took photos of ourselves and a couple of group photos.
After spending about 10 minutes on the peak, we started our descent. Our trek leaders kept hurrying us as the weather was changing drastically. We had to wear our snow crampons for the return journey. We started our descent with mixed feelings of happiness and disappointment. Happiness – because we had made it to the top, and disappointment – because we couldn’t stay up there for longer or see and shoot much.
The descent to the Tungnath temple was uneventful, but the descent from there to our campsite at Chopta turned out to be much more difficult compared to the ascent. Fresh snow kept falling continuously on the hardening ice making the ice very slippery and the crampons useless. We were made to take off the crampons when the snow started falling.
My descent was peppered with about 10 falls! As during the ascent, Pratap stayed by my side as much as he could during the descent helping me, but despite that I fell. Most people in the group including our trek leads fell a few times during the descent. At one point, I didn’t walk on the trail and instead just slid down the mountain side on the snow.
We reached the campsite at Chopta at about 2:20 PM. We ate a quick lunch and went to our tents and lay down. After dinner, our group met in the dining tent and everyone including our trek leaders shared experiences of the last five days. Each of us was presented with a certificate for having completed the trek successfully. We then packed our belongings as we had to leave the next day, and went to sleep.
Chopta to Duggalbitta and Haridwar on Christmas Day
We woke up at about 6:00 AM on Christmas morning. The weather was clear and beautiful. As the sun rose, the silvery snowy peaks turned a beautiful golden. We shot some photos of the snow peaks. We then had breakfast and left Chopta at about 7:30 AM on foot. Since there had been snowfall the entire week, vehicles were not coming all the way up to Chopta. We had to walk downhill for about 3 hours to Duggalbitta to get into our minibus that would take us to Haridwar.
The descent was again a tricky one and many of us fell because of the slippery ice. We reached Duggalbitta by about 10:30 AM. By then the sun had come out and we were starting to feel warm. We had to wait a little while for our vehicle as it had got stuck in the snow. We had hot tea in one of the shops in Duggalbitta while we were waiting. By the time we left for Haridwar it was 11 AM. The group was split and traveled back in two vehicles.
We stopped briefly near Sari to drop off Dinesh, Kamal, and Khushi. We exchanged goodbyes and promises of coming back to do the trek again.
After stopping once more for lunch we drove on towards Haridwar and reached by about 7:30 PM. On the outskirts of Haridwar, we said our goodbyes to the group of trekkers that we were with. Of all the trekkers, one particular elderly gentleman from Chennai stood out from the rest.
Despite coming from a hot weather place, he bore the temperature, altitude, and had trekked without absolutely any fuss at all. We were all filled with a lot of admiration for him.
We checked into the Urmi hotel which is on the outskirts of Haridwar. We had decided to stay in the area for an extra day and explore Rishikesh. The rooms in our hotel were simply amazing. They had room heaters and bathrooms with round-the-clock hot water. We had not bathed since the trek had started so we took long hot baths before going to the hotel restaurant for hot dinner. We were all looking forward to sleeping well that night. After having slept in tents and out in the cold, our warm rooms and soft beds with warm comforters were nothing less than heaven. We slept like babies that night!
We woke up leisurely on Saturday morning and got ready very slowly. We had late breakfast at a roadside dhaaba and came back to the hotel for a mid-morning nap! We decided to go to Rishikesh for the evening. We left our hotel by about 1 PM and took a shared auto (or Vikram as the locals call it) to Rishikesh. We didn’t have a specific plan in mind. We reached Rishikesh and went straight to a café for late lunch. The café was tastefully done up. It had a homely and calm atmosphere and quiet customers. We spent a very pleasant time and enjoyed our food and milkshakes thoroughly.
After our meal we walked through the markets and reached Lakshman Jhula, an iron suspension bridge across the Ganges. We walked across the bridge and had a nice view of the orange setting sun in the sky and people in rafts in the river below. We stopped to feed a few monkeys on the bridge.
Next, we walked towards Ram Jhula, which is another suspension bridge. Unfortunately, we missed the Ganga Arthi because someone we had asked had not told us the correct time. We were on the opposite bank of the river when the Arthi took place. We spent some time in one of the many Ghats and took some photos.
We then walked across Ram Jhula and stopped at Madras Café for a light dinner. After ten days of eating rotis and parathas, we were all craving for some authentic South Indian food. Pratap happily ordered some idlis for dinner. After dinner we took a Vikram back to our hotel in Haridwar.
Haridwar to Delhi and back to Bangalore
After another good night’s sleep we woke up early and checked out of the hotel to catch the 7:50 AM train to Delhi. Since it was a Sunday, the train was filled with passengers both with and without tickets. We reached Delhi at around lunch time. We left our big backpacks at the Delhi metro station locker facility area and went to Connaught place for lunch. We had intended to have lunch at Nirula’s, but promptly went into the South Indian restaurant next door, which was having a podi food fest. 😀 We had a delicious meal and left the restaurant very full and very satisfied.
After walking around for a while in the area, we went back to the Metro station, collected our backpacks and went to the airport to catch the flight back home.
During the approach to Bangalore, the pilot along with the usual announcements told us that the temperature in Bangalore was 22 degrees. We exchanged glances and burst out laughing.
We landed in Bangalore at about 10:30 PM and reached our houses at about midnight. Our ten-day trip had come to an end. Physically, I had come home. But mentally, I was still in the Himalayas. I knew that it would be a while before my mind too would come back. And I also knew that I would keep going back to the mountains.