We had just arrived at the eerie village of Bhyundar (2600 msl) after a weeklong trek in the picturesque flower valley and hemkund sahib in uttarakhand on a September evening. The hamlet was in news after the last year’s disaster which had caused much havoc in the region. I and a group of five intrepid trekkers were inquisitive & looking forward to an yet another adventurous trek to Kagbushandi taal. A less trodden trail in the region.
The central Himalayan belt is known for exotic high altitude lakes. Some less known are tucked away in remote corners thus making it necessary for one to traverse great distances just to get a glimpse.
We were cautioned by the locals about the difficult terrain and the impending danger to be overcome during the trail. We would have to ford the raging streams, broken glaciers, cross innumerable boulders and traverse high passes around 15,000 ft in unfavourable weather conditions. These predictions were not much cause for worry as members were acclimatized well to high altitude. Our only concern was getting a guide who had an uncanny sense of direction, who could steer us through a not so well marked topography devastated by the previous year’s. Since then the District Magistrate was initially hesitant to grant permit to this remote lake as the trail had got washed away completely. We finally succeeded in finding Raman singh negi and Sumit chauhan from Joshimath who had successfully finished the trek post winter and they agreed to escort us on the weeklong trek. They were from villages of Garpak and Tolma near Joshimath and helped us hire six porters and a cook. Here was, at last, a sign of good hope to begin our hike next day.
However the acute weather reports cautioned of rainfall and dark clouds. A glimpse of Mt.Hathi Parvat 6727 m peak in the morning raising up over the tree line in the valley fired our spirits. Taking a diversion from Bhyundar village, we crossed Laxman Ganga over a makeshift bridge. Then we took the trail going to the right, along Karnkul Ganga. As forewarned, the trail had been washed away by the flood. Our guides initially followed the path and later managed to cross the huge boulders and landslides at Kabassi Udiayar. After walking for 6 hours through the valley carpeted with Polygonum flowers and Rhododendron trees, we reached an undulating alpine meadow called Semartoli campsite 3170 m overlooking the valley.
The gujjars were still holding on to their huts and their livestock were returning from the meadows at dusk. It was a subliminally divine experience, hard to put in words. The gentle drizzle, the whispering susurration of the breeze carrying colorful leaves of the fall, the baby goats calling out animatedly for their returning mothers, a shepherd looking out for lost sheep, the call of monal in the woods, the patches of snow and clouds in the high mountains difficult to tell one from the other – all of these whisked one away to another world. It started raining in the night and the temperature dipped. We were served hot soup followed by dinner. No sooner did we have dinner, than we squeezed into our sleeping bags and fell asleep.
Next day the skies were clear displaying the mountains looming in the distance. Chomping through a thick spread of Paranthas and Pickles we started early .Sumit told us that we had to walk along the river and cross it. The valley after Semartoli widened up quite a bit and in about two Kilometers entered a rocky flat. The PWD trail disappeared into the boulder-filled riverbed once too often and the route was barely marked by parallel lines of outlining rocks. From a distance we could see the denuded ridges of the Dang Kharak glacier. Ram singh negi our guide told that trail went through a glacial moraine and was longer than what we had the day before. We were soon standing beneath the giant wall of the glacier. Crossing the stream below the snout of glacial moraine and after a steep climb over the Scree we reached the vast pasture land of Dang karak.
Though the terrain was rocky, surprisingly there were patches of Bistorta , Inula and Aster flowers nestled amidst the rocks. By the time we reached Dang Kharak from where the Kankul Ganga originates, it was already 5 pm in the evening. I had a cup of hot soup and felt going around the campsite for doing some Macro Photography. I was summoned to campsite by fellow mates for quick dinner. It started to drizzle slowly. The night was too cold with a temperature of -3 degree.
Raj kharak campsite
Next morning the whole chain of snow clad peaks encircling the valley was glowing in the sunrise.
I could identify the Ghoda parvat in the end of the valley glowing in the morning sun. It was a tough day as we had to cross Kankun Khal , a 4713 m high pass , to reach Kagbushandi Lake. The team started up towards the valley-head flanking the true right of the medial moraine of the Kankul Glacier . From the campsite, a little depression was visible due south over a bounding ridgeline. That was the first view of the Kankun Khal. Even in the bright sunshine, the tall and jagged outline was awe-inspiring. This glacier emanates from the feet of "Oti ka Danda", the dominant peak guarding the eastern extreme of the Haathi Parvat valley.
Next morning the whole chain of snow clad peaks encircling the valley was glowing in the sunrise. Countless boulders numerously punctuated the laborious climb up (a feature that would be our companion for next couple of days, of which we were not yet aware). Finally the group reached a moraine mound blocking the way ahead and discovered a small tarn below the foot of Haathi Parvat medial moraine. We decided unanimously to call it the Haathi Taal - named after the presiding peak of the valley.
Thankfully the skies opened bright and remained clear till evening. That is a piece of luck every trekker prays for in the high mountains. Any precipitation in this season means heavy snows in the high passes, which makes even a hundred feet look like a mile of ordeal. All in high spirits, and with the morale high the team set out for the Pass. The trail to Kankul Pass from here wound up in a confusingly serpentine fashion towards the general direction of the pass. The climb became quite steep and much more difficult as there was no clear path to the pass. In fact, unlike other high altitude passes that I had done, it was difficult to guage where the pass exactly was. Seeing the Cairn - a pile of stones piled over the boulders leading to pass, boosted up our morale . We took a short break at the pass to have packed lunch and a cup of tea.
view of haathi parvat in the background
To my dismay the descent was still not identifiable and boulders were slippery due to snowfall on the previous night. Beyond lay the Kagbhushand Gaad valley leading on to Alakananda. We were greeted by Phen Kamal flowers (Saussurea simpsoniana) on the slopes growing profusely during the descent. The boulder hopping started again, and it took more than five hours of balancing on rocks to reach the base and we finally approached the end of the platform from where one could see the hidden emerald jewel- Kagbhushandi Taal. Raman Negi and some porters had gone ahead and soon the tents were visible from the distance, above the cliff overlooking Kagbhushandi Taal. We were eager to join them. All we needed was water to drink and the warmth of a sleeping bag. The sun set the fastest that evening. By the time we had finished clicking couple of snaps of the beautiful lake and few unknown peaks to south west, darkness was descending with cold ferocity. Before long, the temperature began dipping below the zero mark. Food was served inside the kitchen tent as members refused to brave the cold outside. The large water body of Kagbhushandi Taal appears emerald green during most part of the day, possibly due to the immense depth. When you combine that large emerald with its lightly shimmering tranquil waters along with the snow covered mountainsides; the thin morning mist that hangs above it and the early rays of the rising sun that light up the lofty peaks around, you are transported to a different dimension. To make the lake more enchanting were the Colourful high–altitude Brahma Kamal Flowers (Saussurea Obvallatta). Even for the non-believer there would be a moment of silent gratitude for all that sublime beauty. Sumit said that a small river emerges from the southwestern corner of the lake, the point well marked with a cairn and surrounded by interesting mythological stories . Above the Kagbhusandi Lake, two huge irregular shaped rocks can be seen sitting on the spur of the HathiParvat. According to the local folklore, they are the Kaga (crow) and Garuda (Eagle) who are having a heated discussion on the affairs of the universe. Yet another version narrates the crow as actually being a learned Brahmin from Ayodhya. Having been unfortunate enough to incur the wrath of the sage Lomas who lived near the lake, the Brahmin was cursed by the sage and turned into a crow.
Brahmakamal flowers frow profusely on the ridges
Here, usually trekkers retrace the route back to Bhyundar from the lake, but we had decided for the full circuit and to reach Painka roadhead at Vishnuprayag - Confluence of Dhauliganga and Alakananda river on the last day. This meant crossing two more high altitude passes- Brahmi khal 3900 m and Farswan Vinayak 2900 m on the next day. Our guide pointed at high col looming in the distance that we need to cross next day. We were stunned for a moment looking at the obstacle. It was forbidding in the strictest sense.
camp below brahmi khal
Next day after breaklfast and carrying packed lunch we started descending the valley. There was no trail again and day seemed long again. The pass was a around 8 hour steep climb up on the boulders. The mountain had a different challenge for everyone.Justifying the name of the pass the entire trail was covered with Brahma Kamal flowers. Few hours later, marveling at the 360-degree view around we looked down into the other side of the watershed. While the climb up to the pass was a struggle in powdery, unstable snow, the other side looked frustratingly boulder- strewn.The descent was in a narrow gully almost 1200 ft of descent, knee breaking effort indeed !. For a moment I thought for a team of 15, the descent nothing but inviting disaster .It was along a gully - naalah, and extremely slippery with boulders strewn strait down.!.After traversing on the route cautiously, we reached campsite below next to a small stream.The camp that night was on an ideal camping ground, the Upper Barmai camping ground. The campsite is in a deep recess with an absolutely flat ground. The campfire was with freshly cut Juniper bushes. With the fragrance of the Juniper hanging on our jackets we retired into our sleeping bags early that night. Enough of struggle and surprises for one day.!
It was evident from the previous evening, that the sun would break late at the campsite. Having finished our morning chores early, in the chilling shade of the surrounding mountains, we were off for the day's hike by 7 Hrs. After bit of confusion in the route ahead, we finally hit a proper trail and were on the Hill top of Pharsawan binayak 4215 m. On our right was the sprawling view of the Alakananda Valley with Auli and Gairson bugyal with Chaukamba massif , Nilkanth peak 6596 m and Mt.Kamet 7756 m glowing in the sunlight.
We could see the white dots of the buildings detailing the Joshimath town. I wondered for a moment about the extent of descent. It is only then that I realized the challenge that remained for the day. Assuming the Alakananda road-head at a minimum altitude of 1800 mtrs, from Altimeter we still had about 2400 descent to do..!
After a brief photo session it was time to start the grand descent. After the second high point, there was a sharp descent of about 400 mtrs ending at a trough on the ridgeline. The trail was a kaleidioscope of colours with Bistorta, Moria Longifolia, Selinum, Doronicum , Erigerons, in full bloom.
Bistorta scapoli flowers in full bloom
After reaching there we saw another gigantic descent waiting for us on the other side of the ridge. The muscles in the thigh and the calf were already protesting when we looked down at the tiny painkha village from that high vantage point. This place was called Jabar kharak. The first camping site if we were to attempt this route from the Joshimathside.
Descending from farswan binayak
We lost the count of the number of hairpin bends we negotiated. What remained, as a nagging thought, was the scarcity of water. The streams were thin and the stream nullahs dry. Hungry bodies and thirsty throats struggled for balance. After walking down for nearly 11 hrs through Deodar and Birch forest we reached the small hamlet Painka using our headlamps in the dark. The village wasn't as deserted as it was in the Laxman Ganga valley. It was well inhabited and looked prosperous, probably because of its proximity to Joshimath town.
The last day seemed much easy in comparison. The trail became a concrete track- much more defined and sure. The speed became faster as the black line defining the national highway loomed into view. Everyone was eager to reach faster and take well deserved rest. Though it seemed that we had risked our lives sometimes, we still felt overjoyed with a sense of accomplishment. The thoughts and the sights of Kagbushandi lake will ever be etched in our memories for lifetime..!