Mountains

on befuddled trudges…

Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India

the pull of snow is a bemusing affair to say the least… while ‘tis a charmingly uniform perspective on a canvas that is generally a palette of myriad contrasts, looks tend to be deceiving when it comes to the actual traverse… not surprising considering that ‘tis a progeny of the winter where the sun shines brighter than ever yet the warmth relocates to another hemisphere… the little remaining dregs of it greedily sought after by man and animal alike…

there is a certain mellowness to this season that masks the ruthlessness of the elements… a palpable sense of hush as the fauna gears down for survival and most of the flowing water is frozen… the rockfalls call ceasefire and the trees refuse to rustle… the birdcalls are far and few in between and the canopy seems to be huddling on its haunches to brave out the weather, eagerly awaiting spring…

’twas to meander on such pretext that we found ourselves in Gushaini in the middle of December, the compact, corrugated trails of Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) being a favoured haunt for more than half a decade now… despite the sudden surge of adrenalin in the country’s demographic dividend that has translated into a spike in anthropogenic pressure in the Himalaya in general (more sonorous than anything if you ask me), thankfully, there are still quite a few pockets where one can safely disappear into solitude, and also indulge in a bit of foolhardiness… 

getting rations permits et al till about noon, we took a jeep from Gushaini to the end of the road head at Pekhri village, a ten kilometre, twenty minute ride up through a dozen switchbacks… we’d planned initially to go up till Dhel meadow in Sainj Valley… but reports of too much snow made us revamp the plan to stay in Tirthan Valley, climbing up from outside the park zone to Rakhundi top, a small peak at about thirty eight hundred meters, and then descending through it… 

from Pekhri, ’twas a short 2 hour hike up to Lagcha village, which, as the porters gushed about rather excitedly, will see a road in the next few years… I remember seeing the current road to Pekhri under construction when I’d first visited the area, and I rue the day the road to the park gate is inaugurated, leaving my selfish self to scourge other inhospitable mountains for refuge… almost a dozen Himalayan Griffons were circling across the sky, drawing arc after arc as I fumbled with the camera to catch a few in flight, not with much success though…

like any other Himalayan hamlet that is awaiting a road, wood currently dominates cement in Lagcha, with bright greens and turquoise blues punched against a massif alternating between conifers and  steep grassy slopes… camping inside a hut built specifically for the drunken reveries of the villagers, the afternoon slid into evening as we enjoyed a catnap on the verandah soaking in the sun, overlooking the snow capped peaks on the other side of the river… circling griffons gave way to ravens as the sun set below the horizon… and dusk came draped over smouldering coals…

over the past couple of years, I’ve found mid-December to be the ‘cleanest’ time in winters to trek in terms of the weather… it usually snows in the November or early December and the next round of snowfall comes around Christmas, so while walking in the snow remains a drag, the clear weather provides an overarching sense of relief, for if it’s snowing while you’re on snow, life becomes a very linear struggle… 

while I chewed on this train of thought, we started winding our way up from Lagcha, crossing Saur to reach Rangthar in about an hour and a half… from there ’twas an hour and a half of steep uphill to reach Kundri top, where we hit the first snow that the locals had been warning us about for the past two days… we kept on the ridge for another hour before descending about a hundred meters to Marohni thatch, where a shepherd’s stone hut lay in idyll amidst that sheet of white… the porters went looking for water but without any luck as the rivulets were frozen… 

grabbing a quick lunch (of chapattis, jam and peanut butter), we marched towards the descent… the snow, hardly a bother till now, got trickier as we now found ourselves in knee or even thigh deep snow at times while traversing down the slopes… locals had stopped using the trail a while back so the snow part had to be broken for most part of the trek, which in the moment might seem a drag, but in retrospect, as one basks in the solitude of the campfire, can be perceived as a fair barter… there were a decent amount of bear pug marks visible, and a few small ones that we presumed to be foxes…

a couple of hours of thrashing about found us at a rather opulent cave at Hedudwar tucked in between two mountains, large enough for a tent and loads of firewood… dedications to Lord Shiv adorned the insides, and drops of water seeping out from the rock collected in a neat little fenced hole…quickly setting about drying shoes and socks — which is perhaps the most laborious of tasks while hiking requiring large dollops of patience — we settled in around the fire, soaking in the first day of wood-fired chapattis (and popcorn, that I have in recent times grown to hallucinate to get through the tough parts of the day)…

another clear morning greeted us… the wind was almost absent during the night, but the icing on the cake was the lack of dew and frost which made breaking camp a breeze… starting out straightaway on a steep uphill… we startled about half a dozen Koklash pheasants out of hiding and a male Monal… the first couple of hours featured clear trail… with Sainj Valley hiding behind a couple of steep slopes on the north-east…

turning south-east to stay in Tirthan Valley, we encountered the first real challenge on the trek… the slopes packed with almost five feet of snow with no trail visible… starting out tentatively, we cleared the first two patches with ease… but then the slopes got steeper and everyone got around to some fair bit of head scratching… armed with only one ice axe and one trekking pole for the whole party of five, we had inevitably cranked up the adventure a couple of notches… 

deciding to tackle the slope as high as possible, we carried on up the steep uphill for another half an hour… I dedicatedly chose to climb rocks instead of climbing a frozen rivulet as my past flirtations with ice have not be too cordial… but the heavy bags were starting to bog the porters down… so putting the bags down, armed with an ice axe and atava, two people went ahead breaking trail… the afternoon heat now mischievously starting to cleave the first six inches of snow on top and funnel it straight into the boots… 

what would otherwise have been an hour of steady climb turned into four hours of carving trail on a dangerous slope, with loads of slipping, sinking and getting snow into all sorts of nooks and crannies of the human physiology… hence ’twas almost a feeling of deliverance as the cairn atop Parchun came into proximity… Rakhundi top now right in front of us at eyeline (we discovered later that this top was a bit higher)… 

we’d initially planned to reach the camp at Ghumtarao but with the watch reading almost 4’o clock at the top, curtailed it to halt midway twixt Patal and Ghumtarao… winding down, we hit another patch of snow, which now seemed quite manageable compared to the travails of the morning… there was beautiful natural sculpture of ice with water coercing down the middle of its that despite our weariness made us take a small detour… an hour and a half of downhill saw us climb up steep sixty meter slope to another cave, the rock much larger than the night before but the cave beneath it a congested space barely enough for a tent… 

it was not a very uncomfortable night, except for the fact every trip down for water of wood had to be through a notorious slope, despite the fact that ’twas devoid of any snow… another long session of drying out shoes and socks and we hit the sack a little bit exhausted, and wary of the day ahead…

another frost free morning (but for the tent poles, quite bemusing to see frozen breath on glass fibre), and sunshine hit the camp at around eight, the frozen parts of the disposition flaking off in the mild heat… the porter brought our attention to a solitary Himalayan serow seeking the sun… binoculars revealed a male that hung around the top for around ten minutes before trodding off the other side of the mountain…

trudging off at around ten… the trail till Ghumtarao top a mild uphill interspersed with little snow… looking down at the hut, it turned out the decision to camp earlier was a better choice as no water could be seen around the thatch… another couple of serows were seen down the valley… the way to Rakhundi seemed a pretty straightforward thrash along the ridge… an hour, hour and a half maybe, pondered my tricked mind… 

a classic case of snow induced mirage it turned out to be, as the snow got tougher with each passing step… a lot of bear pug marks interspersing the trail, maybe a cub too… we sank and we sank, beginning with the knee and going up to the waist as we grappled at the dwarf rhododendrons in desperation… we tried the side slopes but they turned out be riskier than the ridge… the last three hundred meters were obnoxiously precarious… landing us chest deep at times in gaps between boulders… 

reaching Rakhundi top as the watch read two, some let out a whoop, others a sigh of relief as we staggered near the cairn… housing a camera trap, incidentally, and quickly descended a hundred meters to the nether side devoid of all snow… breaking for lunch, the terra firma, warm and devoid of snow seemed almost incredulous considering what the last four hours had put us through…

we literally ran down the slope thereafter, the vertical and bare massif on the other side of Rakhundi peak staring down at us… the trail was snow free with a sharp descent, and we reached the hut (or half-hut?) at Choi dwar in a little over an hour… the forest department has recently built a watch tower owing to which the smell of pine resin was rife… and so was fire wood… the last night is always the grandest of all the sojourns… and we gazed almost stoned at the pine logs, crackling and sputtering in flames as the resin danced along the edges…

starting again at ten the next morning, it took us about half an hour to reach Shilt Hut, from where a knee-breaking descent (in between which I even considered all the snow thrashing a milder affair) of an hour brought us at the fork leading to Khorli Poi (cordoned off to protect the breeding sites of pheasants)…

from there was the familiar trail leading to Gushaini through the park gate… and we trotted off  rather pompously after three days of diffident demeanour… gazing back yet once again at that familiar gorge that gives away almost nothing of the high altitude scenery behind its dark green canopy, one feels ’tis rather incontestable that GHNP has an allure of its own… a bit darker that other regions maybe… for the terrain never relaxes and the undulations never cease… there are hardly any areas where one can saunter on straight trails once through the big mountains… the glaciers are seldom expansive, rather short and snappy… but in between, are undisturbed canopies, meadows and bird calls like no other…

Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India
We started out from Pekhri, a 10 km drive from Gushaini, around noon
Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India
The snow came into view near the horizon as we climbed up from Pekhri
Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India
More than a dozen Himalayan Griffons were having a busy day at the office and more often than not caught me stumbling on the trail with the neck craned towards the sky
Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India
The village of Lagcha is a quintessential Himalayan hamlet – wood, slate, tin, and the bovine
Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India
Pekhri to Lagcha was more of a short acclimatiztion hike, taking us around an hour and a half
Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India
Around 40-45 minutes of uphill brought us to Saur ridge, the last patch of clean terra firma we’d see for the day
Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India
An hour of steep uphill from Rangthar brought us to Kundri top, from where the snow started to increase
Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India
A short walk on the ridge from Kundri top followed by a quick downhill brought us to a shepherd encampment Marohni thatch, we took a quick bite and tried to find water but the streams were frozen
Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India
We ascended quickly again after lunch, crossing knee deep snow that had was making ballerinas out of us quite frequently now
Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India
Hedu dwar is one of the best caves I’ve camped or rested in, compact yet spacious for a tent and campfire
Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India
Hedu dwar roughly translates to a Hunter’s lair, and had water dripping in from the roof collecting neatly into a stone fenced hole, all under the gaze of the trident
Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India
Another clear and crisp morning greeted us as we started out from Hedu dwar, and we climbed up on an easy trail for about an hour, assuming this would be a cinch before the mountains starting playing mischief
Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India
We thought it’d be a few odd patches of snow, but as the horrifically steep slopes draped in white glared their teeth at us, ’twas time to put the bags down and take a good hard look before committing further
Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India
It became apparent after a while that the snow wasn’t going anywhere, so we decided to take time and break the trail properly, not that we had a choice


Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India
From knee-deep to the thighs, the snow kept getting thicker, thankfully, the weather was clear so we could take our time
’Twas an exercise in patience and rigour, cutting the trail in late afternoon…
Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India
Old man’s beard is one of the most expressive of lichens, each strand standing tall against the vagaries of winter
Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India
An hour worth of trail turned into five, and ’twas quite a sigh of relief as we reached the top at Parchun, a tad higher than the eventual goal of Rakhundi top, now visible in the centre of the frame guarding the higher climes behind
Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India
The snow refused to relent as we wound our way down from Parchun, but we’d had so much of it on the uphill that this failed to perturb us anymore
Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India
The highlight of the day was this amazing ice sculpture, water trickling down right through its centre as the tites and the mites threatened each other
Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India
Another day, another cave, this was a very congested affair however, and to top it up ’twas perched on an almost sixty degree slope
Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India
From dusk to dawn, a campfire to keep warm
Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India
We reached Ghumtarao top in a little under an hour from the camp, and I again befooled myself into thinking that Rakhundi top was an 1.5 hours worth of trotting atop the ridge, turned out to be a 4 hour slog through snow that was chest deep at times
With the sun beating high, each step was an adaptation to the unknown beneath our feet
Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India
Bear, and a couple of other, pugmarks dominated the trail from Ghumtarao till Rakhundi, the silent, sure marks irritating us no less looking at our own patchy imprints
Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India
‘Tis a frustrating proposition at times, the unassuming, placid sheet of white playing pranks on you like a teenager
Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India
The sigh atop Rakhundi top was quite definitive, for it signalled the end of snow that had made us do worse than crawl at times the past couple of days
Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India
A moment or two was all we took at the top, eager to get down the ridge to wipe our snow glazed shoes on some warm grass
Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India
Heaven and hell-that’d more or less sum up our experience of both sides of Rakhundi peak, chest deep snow contrasting warm, baked grass
Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India
We descended steeply after crossing the top, the flat ungiving facade of Rakhundi parting a sideways glance rather boringly
Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India
Climbing up, one waits for the woods to be over and the vistas to begin, getting down is a much fiercer emotion in the opposite direction
Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India
The thatch at Choi dwar belonged to the clan of the unorthodox, like a drunk refute to authority
Trek to Rakhundi top, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India
After the grandest of bonfires at Choi dwar, we started leisurely the next morning, and made it to Shilt hut in a little under an hour, from whereon we literally raced down unceasingly till Gushaini

Diaries from the outdoors, round trek to Rakhundi top, Tirthan Valley, Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh

Trek Itinerary:

Day 1: Gushaini (1,600 m) – Pekhri (2,090 m) (10 kms, by Jeep) – Lagcha (2,600 m) (4 kms, 1.5 hrs), short walk, more of acclimatization

Day 2: Lagcha (2,600 m) – Saur Ridge (2,860 m) – Rangthar (2,930 m) – Kundri top (3,440 m) – Marohni thatch (3,530 m) – Hedu dwar (3,130 m) (12 kms, 7 hrs), steep climb from Rangthar to Kundri, beginning of snow from Marohni onwards

Day 3: Hedu dwar (3,130 m) – Parchun (3,870 m) – Camp somewhere between Patal and Ghumtarao (3,200 m) (10 kms, 7.5 hrs), treacherous snow after the first hour till Parchun top, mid snow on the descent afterwards

Day 4: Camp (3,200 m) – Ghumtarao top (3,500 m) – Rakhundi top (3,680 m) – Choi dwar (2,950 m) (11 kms, 6 hrs), treacherous snow from Ghumtarao top till Rakhundi, steep but easy descent afterwards

Day 5: Choi dwar (2,950 m) – Shilt hut (2,950 m) – Rolla (2,170 m) – Gushaini (18 kms, 6 hrs), steep  descent from Shilt Hut to Khorli Poi, easy trail till Gushaini 

Birds Spotted: Himalayan Griffon, Koklass Pheasant, Himalayan Monal

Animals Spotted: Himalayan serow

Author: Parth Joshi

Allured by the outdoors, the author is made up in parts of that quintessential lost soul wreathing under the pangs of biophilia in a desk job, a wannabe elegist mostly ending up in dungeons of poetasters and an optimist waiting for the senility of the modern world to fade away while sampling shoots and leaves. In saner times, he has a keen interest in areas pertaining to tourism, history, agriculture and climate change, especially with respect to historical interpretations, emerging technologies and future livelihoods. An avid trekker, runner, cyclist, birder and photographer, he is more often than not found gloating over anything hinterland, on foot or over computer monitors, and fantasizing solutions that can foster inclusive growth and sustainable livelihoods for communities at the grassroots.

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