Mountains

Bhyundar Khal, tripping billies

Bhyundar Khal

The third wave thankfully got delayed, and after an excruciating 2020 where one would be looked upon incredulously for suggesting an autumn sojourn to the high mountains, this year was kinder, and barring some news about landslides and roadblocks on the Char Dham highway that seems more like the Tower of Babel than an ‘all-weather’ road, a mid-September evening found us in the familiar environs of Joshimath, listening to the rain hoping this would be the last of it for the next week or so…

We’d mulled over the choice between Kagbhusandi Tal and Bhyundar Khal for a while, and ‘twas Smythe’s trysts with the latter region that settled it for us, plus the fact that I’d wondered what lay beyond the manicured trails of the Valley of Flowers (VoF) for over a decade since I’d first visited it… usually going from the village of Pulna to the border village of Gamshali over varied mountain terrain, we decided to do it from the opposite side, one because it’d mean a shorter drive to Joshimath on return, and two so that we could save the crowds at VoF (and the consequent irascibility) for the end rather than the beginning…

The road to Gamshali, which goes up till Niti village for civilians and thereafter becomes an army road, was still recovering from the ravages of the flash floods earlier this year… having breakfast at Suraithota village around 30 kms from Joshimath, we were told that the road is in the process of being cleared off a fresh landslide… reaching that point around 11 am, we were treated to an intermittent barrage of rocks shooting off the mountain straight into the raging Dhauliganga… a rockfall close to where the cars were parked sent everyone scampering back a few kilometres to relative safety… minutes turned into hours,  and conversations started extrapolating from the state of the road to the state of the country, interspersed with flocks of sheep moving on to (quite literally) greener pastures, lambs fresh off the womb bleating furiously looking for their mothers to feed…

Around 4 pm we decided to give up and drove back to Suraithota to camp for the night at the primary school grounds, the quintessential camping site in many a mountain village… not the most auspicious of beginnings but on the upside, things always tend to improve after such an event… lesson reiterated – mountains demand patience… we got a glimpse of Dronagiri the next morning and starting around 9 am, an hour after the JCBs’d left, were able to cross the landslide zone of the previous day easily but were halted by another landslide hardly 10 kms ahead… having already lost a full day and still sore from that, this time we just crossed the debris on foot and changed the vehicle on the other side…

We found ourselves on the meadows near Gamshali a little after noon, and started climbing straightaway, eager to shake off the two and a half days of roads… an easy trail along the river with small patches of rockfall… the proximity to Tibet was reeking out of the dusty, rocky landscape in the distance as we meandered up the meadows, picking up a few Himalayan Snowberries (that tasted a bit like Vicks) along the way… four hours later found us atop the flat grounds of Damarsen, a lush green camp where the gushing waters slowed down to catch a breath before hurtling themselves down the mountain again…

Patches of clouds were congregating in the sky but not threatening a deluge of any sort, we’d met a group returning from an unsuccessful crossing of Gupt Khal on the way up who’d complained about the incessant rain and snow the past week so we took this to be a sign that the worst of the weather was behind us… Damarsen (roughly translating to ‘where the horses play’) was a scenic campsite, a grassy flatland surrounded by snow-topped rocky spires and fleeceflowers lining the riverbanks, the kind that charges one up for the travails ahead…

We continued on the meadow the next morning, staying on the true right of the river… the fields were longer than I’d expected, almost 6 kms of relatively flat and grassy meadow is not very common at these altitudes, the only avifauna around was a juvenile common moorhen (not expected at this location or altitude so might have been a case of stranding), ducking and weaving its way between shrubs of Five-finger cinquefoils… me moved leisurely up the rain shadow of the Zaskar range hoping to rest in the wet contrast of VoF a few days later…

The first real patch of rockfall came after an hour and a half of saunter on easy trails… we bid adieu to the meadow and a steep section brought us up to the right side of Bankund glacier, impressive in its proportions even if bereft of ice and snow… the trail now turned into loose moraine which started taking more time and effort, evident that we were now entering the higher cathedrals… a couple of Chughs came over looking for leftovers as we lunched looking at the trail to Gupt Khal on the far end… we hadn’t refilled our water bottles expecting plenty of glacial streams above but were now in a quandary as most of the sources turned out to be buried deep beneath the rockfall… a classic Coleridgean conundrum

‘Tis more weaving than making a trail through a rockfall, taking the path of least resistance most of the time but once in a while blustering through when the cautiously observing the undulations starts becoming too much of an effort… leaps of faith over rocks waiting to deceive, an unceasing medley of skipping stones… giving it a good heave-ho, we pushed and reached Edi Udiyar camp at around three thirty, and immediately started looking for water, which the guide thankfully managed to locate after prying out a few rocks…

Overlooking imposing icefalls on one end and the wide expanse of glacial debris on the other, the campsite was nothing more than some flat spaces in a turbulent ocean of rocks that were the moraines… not that we were complaining as beautiful campsites are often uncomfortable, and to be honest we were able to pitch tents at a comfortable angle despite the terrain, with decent protection from the wind… snow, stone, and moody weather would schlepp along with us for the next two days, the crux of the experience we were jaunting for…

It was a very silent camp, one with a bit of absoluteness about it… no rockfalls or avalanches at dusk, the burbles of streams subdued by cold rocks, no birds to stick around once the sun had disappeared and the wind being quite polite… it could have been much colder but the weather gods seemed to have relented for a while… the gloomy blue of the night sky peeped through in between a rolling mist settling down over the glacier… the visuals keep moving, only the song’s been muted… small rockfalls at a distance come intermittently through the night, but only as if to break the monotony…

The sun lifted the mist early in the morning as we started a tad early around seven thirty, today being the day the pass beckoned, the make or break day… the moraines were unrelenting, but we kept climbing and took the shoulder of a mountain to avoid rotten snow and small crevasses at the base… the peak opposite had started spewing out small avalanches and rocks too… a couple of brooks hosted clumps of Musk Larkspur, Smooth ground daisy and cinquefoil wherever the rocks consented…

First glimpse of the pass revealed a decent amount of snow, we’d expected less but then were also cognizant of the folly of clinging on to assumptions too fervently in these realms… plus the weather was quite clear so we weren’t that bothered… passing a group of about a dozen camp bases and a couple of jerry cans, most probably belonging to patrolling armed forces, we kept to the slopes instead of the base, the angles getting… ‘twas when the first patch of snow hit that we realized this would take significantly more time than anticipated… the snow was fresh and soft rendering the crampons useless, snow already inside the boots, I decided to forego the gaiters too and settled for the gloves…

The snow was a comfort initially after hours of walking over unstable scree, but soon started getting tiring as it usually does… and as if the weather wanted to reinforce unquestionable superiority, a whiteout was thrown into the mix… the path was still clear, but the temperature dropped fast… we found the footsteps of a Tahr midway through the climb that made breaking trail easy for a while… ‘twas a decently technical clamber up during the last stretch to the pass, with several steep and exposed sections requiring both hands and feet (both wet and cold)…

A chilling wind welcomed us at the top as we scrambled up the pass at around two thirty, we’d expected about six hours of climb that had stretched to nearly eight… there was the top though, all misty and cold with no views to boast of, but one can’t be too greedy… as the trailing party made its way up, the incenses were lit and prasad distributed… wedging between a few rocks to keep the wind away as we waited for the others, I was amused at the sight of a mosquito standing stout on the snow… either a case of braggadocio or a freak wind, one surmised…

I never celebrate at the top, well aware that the descent is way more trying and irking, and true to the hypothesis, we were appalled as we looked down the other side, draped entirely in white against our expectations of hopping over some more moraines… ‘twas a blunder assuming the icefall to borrow from the lay of Bankund glacier, and having already expended ourselves on the way up, it was a little dismaying… the mountain had pulled one of its usual tricks, and a couple of glacial lakes which would otherwise be characterizing the tranquillity of these heights were now mirrors of mischief…

One can’t waste time ruing one’s luck in these places though, ao we descended into what would be an afternoon tumble fest, downhill where one feels it’s better to have gravity as a foe than a friend… the campsite used as an advanced base while climbing from the VoF side was completely snowbound… disappointed and tired, we mulled over camping here anyway, it’d been ten hours of slogging over unforgiving terrain… but the idea was dismissed by the thought of a cold night followed by another snow trudge, there was still an hour and a half of good light left and the weather was holding on, so we decided to keep descending…

The tracks of a Tahr again provided some relief from the drudgery of breaking trail… we were slipping and sliding down much more frequently now, times when instinct takes over and helps one to focus inspite of the exhaustion… the porters went waist deep into the snow a couple of times and I found a few boulders eager to swallow a human, but we managed to bid farewell to the snow after another hour and a half…

Hastening behind the guide, the two of us reached a grassy slope around six just as the sun was about to set, and decided to pitch a makeshift camp as the regular site of Raj Kharak, although visible near the base of the glacier, was still a few hours and rockfalls away… ‘twas nearly eight as the last of the party reached camp, torch signals breaking through the mist that settled again just after I witnessed a beautiful moonrise behind the snowclad peaks…

Bhyundar icefall was a noisy lot, avalanches and rockfalls large and small ringing throughout the night… although on a steep slope, we were once again lucky to find a decent campsite, relatively warm and safe from the ramblings of the glaciers… yet fickle, all so fickle… an uneasy sleep followed, but the pass had been negotiated safely in decent weather, and one could afford to feel contended… a Dickensian epoch of belief and incredulity stuffed inside an sleeping bag… the vicissitudes of daily life, one muses…

Another clear morning… except for a late night drizzle at Damarsen, the weather had treated us kindly throughout… starting again at seven thirty, we negotiated tricky rockfalls for quite a while again, Nilgiri Parvat looking forbearing in the morning sun, it took us close to three hours to reach Raj Kharak, the steep descent which was a mix of loose mud and rockfalls taking more time than expected… another half an hour of descending along a stream brought us to the base of the glacier, whose meander we would now follow…

Although still quiet rocky, and unstable as small rockfalls continued unabated – the glacier groaning and writhing under the sun – it was still easier than the slopes we’d negotiated… we rested near the end of the glacial debris for a brief snack, watching Pushpawati river emerge from an icy hollow at the end of Tipra glacier… the sun really hot now making everyone drowsy… cutting my finger while lazily trying to peel a sweet lime woke me up from the part slumber and onwards we trotted, walking alongside the river now…

We reached the camp at Tipra Kharak around two thirty after the first stream crossing where my usual tentative self slipped once before deciding to cross it barefoot rather than hopping slippery stones… I was feeling quite tired, maybe from a combination of a tough two days coupled with little food and rest, but we’d crossed over from the sombre glacial portals into the cheerful green vistas VoF… the elements so lifeless in their own high castles whipping up a riot of biodiversity downstream… contrasts abounded, from grey to green, inanimate to animate, the deep time of frozen waters to the frivolity of a frothing river…

In Tipra Kharak we were now on grounds tread frequently by the forest department and tourists, a small rock temple dedicated to Shiva, the metal frame of an erstwhile hut and a few stone plinths of prospective ones… we’d be pampered with well-manicured trails now… a small campfire was lit from the fallen twigs of silver birch to dry out the clothes and shoes and we settled in by nine…

Starting leisurely the next day, we dove straight into the meadows, dominated by that omnipresent invasive Himalayan knotweed… bumblebees bouncing about their business as caterpillars lay leaves to waste… balsams, bellflowers, dandelions and thistles peppering the green canvas with tinges of blue and purple… a dozen or so streams gushing down into the river… behind us, Tipra glacier was slowly closing its portals down as Pushpawati hurtled down a narrow gorge, Kunth Khal pass visible at a distance, all cloaked in green on this side…

Back into civilization, one bemoaned as the selfie sticks started propping up… we walked down briskly, entering the tree line after one last look at Tipra Bamak, crossing the bridge over Pushpawati that was, like many other constructions, washed away after the 2013 floods and rebuilt… we reached Ghangaria around two thirty, after waiting for twenty minutes at the forest check post where the guard charged a fee for camping at Tipra Kharak, surprising since we’d already paid a fee while getting the trek permit at Joshimath and it belied common sense to be paying a fee at exit, but no one was in a mood to argue and we got a receipt anyway… Ghangaria’s changed a little bit but not much, hotels having sprouted a few more floors and there is cellular connectivity… Hemkund had just been opened while we were away from the throes of civilization so the crowds hadn’t started pouring in yet…

‘Twas tough whiling time away on a hotel bed (our phones had no connection since only Jio was available) vis-à-vis a tent, but went did the day away… it rained heavily in the night but the morning yet once again treated us to clear skies… starting at eight thirty, we raced down the cemented trail from Ghangaria to reach the roadhead at Pulna around eleven, Hathi Parvat giving a glimpse at Bhyundar village from where the trail to Kagbhusandi Tal diverged… the end of a six day sojourn, time and body well spent (save for the stomach which’d decided to remain upset for the entire duration, but I was adamant too, not humouring its pernicketiness) … we’d managed to cover up the day lost due to the roadblock, and now the long drawl of a drive to Delhi over that despotic attempt at an all-weather road would begin…

‘Tis quite fascinating, the fact that human history is rather static, facts being facts and events once hard coded becoming immutable… natural history though seems to be always in a state of flux, what looks passive and immovable from afar is actually moving furiously… the glaciers may be receding faster but they have the luxury of (deep) time to refreeze, and while we may be torn asunder grappling with the climate crisis, it may just be blip in the larger scheme of things… it’d been rather whirlwind, the trek, but the aftertaste would linger awhile…

A landslide in the Himalaya
We waited six hours for the landslide to clear, but with continuous rockfall, it wasn’t to be

 

Suraithota village, Chamoli, Uttarakhand
Dismayed, we retreated to Suraithota and camped at the grounds of the primary school

 

Indian Tortoiseshells flickered around the next morning, auguring better times we hoped

 

Gamshali village, Chamoli, Uttarakhand
We managed to reach Gamshali around noon despite another blockage, happy to be on our own two feet finally, barren hills in the backdrop indicating proximity to Tibet

 

Bhyundar Khal trek
The trail was an enjoyable walk, climbing through rocky meadows with snow capped peaks dotting the horizon

 

Himalayan Snowberry
Himalayan Snowberry, smelled and tasted like Vicks

 

Bhyundar Khal trek
Damarsen is that quintessential meadow campsite, damp grounds and green galore

 

Bhyundar Khal trek
Wrapping around one’s fingers, I thought, looking at the rocky spire

 

Himalayan Fleeceflower
Himalayan Fleeceflowers lined the stream beds in their own little symmetry

 

Bhyundar Khal trek
The meadows were quite long we realized as we marched on the next morning, almost 6 kms of rock free grounds, kind of a rarity

 

Smooth Ground Daisy
Smooth Ground Daisy, didn’t look that smooth to be frank, dried plants are used to freshen damp clothes and quilts

 

Five-Finger Cinquefoil
Five-Finger Cinquefoil

 

Musk Larkspur and Ruby Cinquefoil flowers
Musk Larkspur & Ruby Cinquefoil, a paste made from the former is used to remove ticks from livestock

 

Bhyundar Khal trek
Bankund glacier presented itself as we turned a bend, the trail to Gupt Khal going towards the snow covered peak in left centre

 

Bhyundar Khal trek
We were in the folds of proper moraines now, overlooking what I think is Kagbhusand peak

 

Bhyundar Khal trek
Camping on the moraines at Edi Udiyar, it was a relief to discover that the tent floor wasn’t as uncomfortable as we’d expected

 

Bhyundar Khal trek
An early morning mist rolled down the mountain as we started the climb toward the pass

 

Bhyundar Khal trek
As soon as the slopes lost steepness, the flora scuttled in

 

Bhyundar Khal trek
We kept to the slope to avoid crevasses and rock falls at the base of the glacier

 

Bhyundar Khal trek
First view of Bhyundar Khal, and we looked up with a bit of trepidation, there was more snow than expected but at least the weather was clear

 

Bhyundar Khal trek
The snow was fresh and soft, so the guide and I went ahead to break trail as the porters made their way up

 

Bhyundar Khal trek
The weather started playing tricks, a mist rolling in and out, though we had the general sense of direction by now

 

Bhyundar Khal trek
We followed tracks made by a Tahr for a while

 

Bhyundar Khal trek
Fearing crevasses, we did not climb straight up but took a steep slope to the right and walked down to the notch that was Bhyundar Khal

 

Bhyundar Khal trek
It felt like being mugged, all that precious body heat earned after a decent slog through the snow snatched by the wind at the top as we waited for the rest to catch up

 

Bhyundar Khal trek
Benedictions at the top

 

Bhyundar Khal trek
The other side turned out to have even more snow, groaning, we rushed down and kept walking till the snowline, and the daylight, ended

 

Bhyundar Khal trek
‘Twas embalming, moonrise over the peaks, before the mist rolled in for the night, taking the visuals away and leaving us to the sounds of avalanches that came down frequently on the other side

 

Bhyundar Khal trek
The actual nature of our makeshift campsite revealed itself in the morning

 

Nilgiri Parvat
Nilgiri Parvat looked over us now

 

Bhyundar Khal trek
A noisy, haughty glacier, constantly sending down rocks and small avalanches day and night

 

Bhyundar Khal trek
I would always take a steep climb over a steep downhill, we had to simply follow the glacier down today but it was a dusty, slippery affair just getting to its base

 

Bhyundar Khal trek
A nice, aesthetic peak that I couldn’t identify

 

Nilgiri Parvat
Nilgiri Parvat (left) from the base of the glacier

 

Bhyundar Khal trek
A glacial feast, rocky, muddy confluences ready to sweep one of their feet, quite literally

 

Bhyundar Khal trek
The glacier was creaking, water flowing under the rocks and stones being spewed down the slopes

 

Bhyundar Khal trek
Punctually, the mist started creeping up towards the pass around noon

 

Source of Pushpavati River
Pushpavati River emerging from its underground recesses

 

Valley of Flowers, Uttarakhand, India
The greens of valley of flowers greeted us a little ahead from where the river emerged

 

Tipra Kharak Camp, Valley of Flowers, Uttarakhand, India
A small shrine at Tipra Kharak campsite, overlooking the confluence of Rataban, Tipra and Gauri glaciers

 

Valley of Flowers, Uttarakhand, India
View of the valley from Tipra Kharak, Kunth Khal visible in the background on the right

 

Valley of Flowers, Uttarakhand, India
Crisp, green morning views greeted us as we took the trail down to Ghangaria, feeling like a cakewalk now

 

Trailing Bellflower
Trailing Bellflower

 

Violet Dandelion
Violet Dandelion

 

Bumblebee
Bumblebees on their morning chores

 

Valley of Flowers, Uttarakhand, India
Himalayan Knotweed, the invasive that dominates VoF’s landscape

 

Viola-Leaved Blue Sow-Thistle
Viola-Leaved Blue Sow-Thistle

 

Valley of Flowers,Uttarakhand, India
A last look at the valley before the gorge closes in and the river goes down in an angry hurtle

 

Showy Inula
Showy Inula

 

Hathi Parvat
Hathi Parvat from Bhyundar village

 

Itinerary:

Day 1: Gamshali (3,400 mts) – Damarsen (3,800 mts), 6 kms, 4 hrs

Day 2: Damarsen (3,800 mts) – Edi Udiyar (4,400 mts), 10 kms, 7.5 hrs

Day 3: Edi Udiyar (4,400 mts) – Bhyundar Khal (5,100 mts) – Makeshift camp (4,700 mts),  9 kms, 11 hrs*

Day 4: Makeshift camp (4,700 mts) – Raj Kharak (4,360 mts) – Tipra Kharak (3,670 mts), 8 kms,7 hrs*

Day 5: Tipra Kharak (3,670 mts) – VoF – Ghangaria (3,100 mts), 10 kms, 6.5 hrs

Day 6: Ghangaria (3,100 mts) – Pulna (2,100 mts), 9 kms, 2.5 hrs

*GPS gave the distances on both these days around 5 kms, which I think is incorrect

 

Reminiscences from Bhyundar Khal trek, Uttarakhand, September 2021

Author: Parth Joshi

Mountain lover ⛰️ | Hiker 🥾| Runner 🏃‍♂️ | Cyclist 🚴 | Photographer 📷... allured by the outdoors, the author is a quintessential lost soul craving for the outdoors while suffering in a desk job...

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