Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Of succinct snow and winter warps: Winter Trek to Brahmatal, Uttarakhand

The remnants of the Nanda Devi Raj Jat Yatra were visible as we drove into the windy ridge of the GMVN Guesthouse at Lohajung. Perched at a height of ~2300 mts in the southern fringes of Chamoli district in Uttarakhand, the recent surge in the popularity of Roopkund brings a lot of tourist traffic into this sleepy little hamlet, as one surmises from the sheer number of guest houses that have mushroomed, but winters are when normalcy is restored, and the village basks under the sun in its natural gait.

The trek to Brahmatal takes the opposite ridge to Ali Bugyal and the higher climes to Roopkund thereafter, but offers a better panoramic view of the upper Himalayan massifs from quite a few vantage points. Driving in to reach Lohajung around noon, the rest of the day was spent in procuring porters and rations.

Starting leisurely around 9:30 the next morning, we climbed steadily for 3 hours through the oak and rhododendron canopy, passing through Budla with views of the Kail valley, the confluence of Kail and Pindar rivers to hit the snowline and reach the campsite for the day next to the completely frozen Khopriya Tal @ ~3000 mts, the first and the smallest of the lakes. 

Bekal Tal, the first of the major lakes, lay on the other side, with heavy snow and canopy leading up to the Nag Devta temple. The lake top had the cold blue tinge of the freezing water below, and one could spot naked carp bubbling around the fringes. The dark canopy and pin drop silence was in contrast to the camping grounds on the other side, basking comfortably in the afternoon sun, pecked by the avifauna.

The rest of the evening was spent bird watching with little success, White-tailed Nuthatches and Jungle crows the miserly spoils of the day. The long winterline tapered over the campsite like a ribbon as we sat huddle around the campfire in shepherd enclosures, and a clear winter sky laid bare the astronomical treasures.

The next morning provided some more cheer, or twitter rather, as Grey-crested Tits flittered around in unison, and I spent almost half an hour chasing a pair of Spotted Laughing thrush, only to stumble upon a Himalayan Woodpecker knocking on the oak in the hectic morning schedule. Starting from the campsite around 9:30, we swiftly climbed above the tree line to the first ridge, the massifs of Trishul and Nandaghunti now dominating the backdrop. 

Wading through a decent amount of snow, with about half a dozen Himalayan Vultures hovering the skies above, we walked through the ridgeline for another hour till the end of the ridge, face to face with the snow glazed summits and squinting to identify the contours of Ronti Saddle, Bedni Bugyal, Ali Bugyal and Junargali, the twitter of rock buntings 

Brahmatal lay hidden in the snows at the bottom to our left, but looking at the heavy, untread snow ahead, we decided to camp at the ridge top, taking a gamble with the dusky winds. After setting up camp and a quick bite, we started hiking down to the lake. A couple hundred meters down the line, and I started regretting leaving gators behind, as the snow, upto 3-4 feet deep in places, made for a slippery going. 

Tentatively treading down the slope, we reached the Nag Devta temple in around two hours, and a ten minute hike thereon led us to the lake’s edge. Not wanting to tread through this snow in the dark, we immediately started back, and a tough 2 hour hike brought us back up to ridge, the wind making me apprehensive on our decently exposed campsite. The weather gods relented, however, and the hour long gust of strong wind finally gave way to a clear night, with a big campfire to dry out the day’s sorrows (a tad over dried maybe, if my hiking boots could talk). 

We woke up to a bright sunrise over Trishul, and after a seemingly celebratory breakfast of kaddu poori, rushed down at military speed. Intending to reach Ranikhet by nightfall, a 2.5 hour sprint saw us back at Lohajung, interrupted only by a brief sighting of the Himalayan Weasel. All in all, a compact 3 day trek, that I feel is often mis-marketed as a 4-5 day itinerary. With proper equipment, however, the area is worth a longer winter exploration.

Itinerary:

Dates: Feb 9-11

Day 1: 
Lohajung (~2300 mts) to Bekal Tal (~3000 mts). 3 hour steep uphill hike, camped at Khopariya Tal, very little snow

Day 2: 
Khopariya Tal to Brahmatal Peak (~4000 mts), 2 hour hike, medium snow. 
Brahmatal Peak to Brahmatal and back, 3-4 hour hike, heavy snow
Camp at ridge top

Day 3:
Hike back to Lohajung, 3-4 hours

Trip Notes:

Spotted Wildlife:
Birds: Yellow-billed Blue Magpie, White-tailed Nuthatch, Grey crested Tit, Spotted Laughingthrush, Himalayan Woodpecker
Animals: Himalayan Weasel
Butterflies: Pale Clouded Yellow

Almost no water sources, carry enough fuel to melt water

The sleepy little hamlet of Lohajung

White-tailed Nuthatch

Yellow-billed Blue Magpie

The campsite at Khopariya Tal; the frozen lake at the bottom

Nag Devta Temple at Bekal Tal
Frozen Bekal Tal

Pale-clouded Yellow

Of enchanting winterlines
Spotted Laughing thrush
The moon asked the crow...
Grey-crested Tit

Rock Bunting

Trishul; an afternoon pun...

The view from the top...
Nag Devta Temple at  Brahmatal
The view and the wind....
Nag Devta Temple at  Brahmatal