Monday, March 20, 2017

Kuari Pass Trek

I usually don't hike in India due to paucity of good lodging along the trek route. However a friend had done Roopkund trek with India Hikes (IH) and had a great experience. Plus this was a short trek of 4 days with camping requirement of only 3 nights. So I signed up for this winter trek in Garwhal region of Uttarakhand.

3 of us (batch mates from B-school) met at Delhi airport, flew to Dehradun and took a cab to Haridwar. This was my first tryst with Ganges up close and that too in the Dev Bhoomi. We spent the evening walking along the holy river and enjoying the quiet of a smaller town. 

We met the rest of the group next day at 6:45 am. We were total 7 of us - this was a low number as against the usual 20 pax that IH has in one group. It was to be a long (10 hours) drive to Joshimath base camp so we decided to take two cabs instead of packing all of us and our backpacks in one Sumo. 

The route, although long, was very scenic and road quality was good. During this journey we witnessed four of the five river confluences listed from downstream to upstream order:
  • Devprayag, where the Bhagirathi joins the Alaknanda to form the Ganges.
  • Rudraprayag, where the Mandakini joins the Alaknanda;
  • Nandprayag, where the Nandakini joins the Alaknanda; 
  • Karnaprayag, where the Pindar joins the Alaknanda 

Vishnuprayag (the first one upstream), where the Dhauliganga joins the Alaknanda is the one we couldn't see up close. I am not a very religious person but I did find these confluences mystical and magical! 

While the roads were wide, their wavy nature did create queasiness and resulted in fatigue by the time we reached Joshimath at 5 pm. However, some of the tiredness vanished once we reached the base camp. The base camp accommodation was a hostel and it was really good and clean. I was quite impressed with the arrangements. Here we met with our Trek Leader and were briefed on safety, trek route and being Green throughout the trail (means don't trash and pick up anything thrown by others)

After a sumptuous dinner that included Jalebis for dessert, we retired for the night. Given I was the only female in this 7 member group, I had the room to myself and the 6 men were in a large dormitory. While I was a little bit jealous at all the fun they were having (could hear their laughter down the hall), I was happy to have the entire bed and two blankets to myself. 

Sometime during middle of the night I woke up to a strange sound and found that it was completely dark (power failure) and some strange white light was blinking on the ceiling. When I couldn't figure out the source of it, I found myself wondering if there was an astral presence around...but soon I realised that it was the blinking of an unread message on my phone...phew!!!

Next day we woke up in complete darkness (there was no power still) and started packing our backpacks. Cold shower was out of question in 8 degree Celsius temperatures, so we all got ready well in time for breakfast and morning health check - that included BP measurement and oxymeter reading. During the course of trek, oxymeter readings were taken atleast thrice a day - morning, on arrival at camp and evening before dinner. Plus BP measurements were taken if anyone had a persistent headache. 

After breakfast, we all boarded a vehicle for Auli - our start point for the trek, couple of people had decided to offload their backpacks to the porter and the porter was also supposed to meet us there with the mule(s).

It was bright sunny day with no clouds in sight - disappointing because there had been no snowfall yet and the winter trek had started to feel like a bad summer trek (usually summer treks have green grass and blooming flowers and here everything was brown or grey). Today was supposed to be an easy day and it really was. 

Despite all attempts by our trek leader to slow us down (like numerous breaks and a tea halt) we reached the campsite of Gursan Bugyal at 12 noon. This is at 3056 m (10,084 ft) and is located just 3 km from Auli. Bugyal means meadows but there wasn't much lush greenery around as it was winter. The bugyal must be impressive when green in spring/summer or when it has the white background of snow covered mountains. While it was still beautiful against the stark brown range of Garwhal mountains, we all kept wondering what it could have been had it snowed.
The campsite had around 10 tents, a dining tent and a kitchen tent. There were 3 toilet tents - as expected a little far from the main site. The water for cleaning etc. was in drums and obviously would freeze overnight. But overall the arrangements seemed good except for lack of any seating in dining tent. The floor was uneven and since no one wants to take off their boots, the tarp was always dirty. There honestly wasn't a truly comfortable position one could sit in.
Acclimatization Walk
Since the weather was sunny, we found ourselves some comfortable spots in sun to have our lunch. After lunch and some rest, we went for a acclimatization walk. It was a really short walk - almost laughable compared to the ones I have done on my earlier hikes. Anyways, we had fun and reached the camp in time for tea and popcorn. 
Gursan Bugyal (meadow)
The evening was getting cooler and most of us retired into tents - I was alone as I was the only female and others were two in each tent. I honestly liked being alone in the tent. Loved the privacy that allowed me to clean myself up and change into comfortable clothing for the night and was thankful for the extra space. Normally they put three in a tent, not sure I would ever be able to handle that.
Dinner was served around 7 pm. it was pretty sumptuous for a camping trek and we all ate more than we needed to. Sated we retired to our tents for the night. At night, we were told to inform the tent-mate while stepping out for nature's call. This was to ensure that if a wild animal or any confusion doesn't allow one to return to tent, the rescue can start in time. Since I was alone, I tried to wake up tenants of the other tent and only answer I got was "keep on moving"!!!! After that I never tried waking up anyone :)

Our trek leader was an instructor at NIM and hence we followed the same method of informing us about the wake up tea etc.  6-7-8 (implies 6 am tea, 7 am breakfast, 8 am departure). I woke up before time and waited for the tea -which sadly turned out be a sugar water with a hint of tea. I was quite upset because I expected regular milk tea and after much negotiation, I was provided with same. But I lost about 20 minutes in the process. I tried negotiating with trek leader to delay the start time but he was adamant that we have to leave at sharp 8. Anyways, having done the course at HMI, I was able to manage packing my bag and sleeping bag much faster and was ready on time.
Today's hike started with sights of a beautiful sunrise, the day that started fairly cold (the water in drums was frozen) gave way to a very sunny and warm late morning. We walked slowly, took some photos along the way and finally came to a formal resting point before starting on a bit treacherous route.
To be honest most of us didn't find this route tough but another group that traversed the same from the other side had a few folks that were a bit rattled. Some of them even made a small scene which we enjoyed while eating our Bengal gram snack (which later on proved to be our undoing).
After the snack break we slowly made our way through the mountain side. We met another group on the way and they looked a bit peaked too. Anyways, we soon started to have our problems - no sooner had we crossed the mountain, did one of the trekkers get stomach upset. And by the time we reached the camp site (Chitrakantha @ 11,030 ft) about 30 min or so later, he was sick enough to forgo lunch (a wise decision in hindsight)
After ensuring he had a sleeping bag, we consumed lunch which comprised of kidney beans with rice. And an hour later, bengal gram coupled with kidney beans caused problems for all of us (except one who hadn't eaten the snack). The toilet tents were pretty occupied...I, however, suffered only from a headache that worsened by the hour. Trek leader took my BP, checked oxygen levels and all was fine. Against his wishes, I retired to my tent and refused all food. I popped in some mint based herbal medicine (Pudin Hara) and tried to sleep. Trek leader was convinced that I have AMS and wanted me to take Diamox but I knew that we weren't high enough for me to get same.
Photo shoot on way to Pass
Anyways I was proven right when I threw up a few times around 9 pm, slept really soundly after that and woke up as new the next morning. Couple of folks were still a bit weak but not too worse for the wear. Today was the "summit" day, that is, the day to reach our destination Kuari Pass. We started slowly due to previous afternoon's events but soon found everyone picking up the pace. The wind had also started to pick up and we started adding layers.
Ice patch
After about 2 hours, we reached a place where we could leave our backpacks and proceed with just water and lunch. This made the last hour to the pass easier. We first hit an ice patch and managed to find a way around it though I lost my only water bottle here :(
While it was rescued by an assistant guide but it was all broken and beyond useful. So had to beg for water along the way but thankfully there was a water stream en-route and no one minded sharing the water.
We took another short break before the final 20-30 minute to the pass, and finally reached around noon. The pass is at attitude of 12,516 ft.
View from the pass
After spending 10-15 minutes for the photo shoot, we started back for the place where we had offloaded our bags. However,
View on the other side
we stopped for lunch mid way and consumed the tasty aloo parathas with pickle.
Tonight was the last night of staying in tents. The camping site was named Khullara because its open from all sides and Khulla means open in Hindi. What creativity in naming! huh?
At just 11,230 ft, this was a very windy campsite and since there was no snow, all the dust was blowing in our faces, inside the tents, getting into the food...literally it was everywhere. The camp site, being open, was so windy that I was convinced of toilet tent blowing away while I was inside it. It did fall once but thankfully it was vacant!
However it was a very clear night and we spent time marveling at the clear view of the milky way. Yes THE Milky Way! Guess I forgot to mention, after dinner we would all bundle up and just watch the sky. Without any lights nearby and lack of pollution, we could see billions of stars every night. We could make out the reddish hue of Mars and the bright Venus of course. It was simply mind blowing. We would get into our tents just because it would start to feel very cold - given the late time and lack of activity.
So last night when we were enjoying the stars, two of our trek mates were having water issues in their tent. The clumsier of the duo had managed to spill enough water to soak the bottom blanket and the sleeping bags while claiming that he had dropped only a bit of water. Now he was standing with us, grinning sheepishly while his tent mate was cleaning up after him and screaming at him at the same time. We all had a good laugh at their expense :)
Morning at Khullara
The night felt the coldest here but again it led way to another beautiful morning. As we packed our bags, we all knew that while we didn't see snow and while it wasn't a tough trek, we all had fun.
It was a great group of mostly experienced hikers who got along really well. We would converse while lying down in our tents - the tents were pitched fairly close to each other. We would laugh at antics of our clumsy trek mate, laugh harder when the organized one tried to fix his doings, enjoyed teasing the simple one and I gave enough fodder to others when I picked unnecessary arguments with trek leader :)
The trek back to our pick up point (Dhak @ 7545 ft) was uneventful and so was the short drive to Joshimath. We stayed in a very basic hotel, had a small ceremony where we got our trek certificates etc. Next day we left for Haridwar in two separate vehicles.


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