Where Hikers Fear to Tread

 

Have you ever felt terrified? Frozen in fear? Unable to move and incapable of doing anything, and completely helpless?

I have had two major surgeries with full anaesthesia, I have had minor surgical stuff done to my teeth, I have suffered two major diseases, I have faced extremely gruelling interviews (not the professional kind, the kind that gets you in trouble) where I have had to negotiate my path like a tightrope-walker. But I have never been that terrified.

This was 2016. Our journey was the usual – morning flight to Delhi, afternoon train to Haridwar. Taju came to Haridwar and next morning we were off to Kanakchauri. Kanakchauri, apart from being a lovely little hamlet, is also the starting point of the easy climb to Kartikswamy temple.

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It was easy for us and an hour and a half’s undemanding climb took us to the temple surrounded by the peaks.

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It was a hazy morning. We did not get crystal clear views, but what we had was nothing less than amazing.

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Next morning we had a little trouble getting a car. But eventually we got on one. Changing cars a couple of times we finally reached Gopeshwar in the afternoon. Taju was in charge of this whole trip. I had clearly told him that this was his tour, we would be obedient followers. Taju’s mistake was that he overestimated us. The last time we had gone trekking with him was a couple of years back. In 2015 we had come but the day we landed in Haridwar the gates to all the temples on the higher hills closed for winter. They wouldn’t open for another six months. The other places were still accessible. But Rudranath being the toughest and the least visited, there would be no logistical support available there. So we had to drop the plan then.

This year everything was according schedule. Taju had advised against travelling on foot. He said one could reach Rudranath in a day, in fact in 6 hours. It would be tough, but on muleback this could be done. We agreed.

So on the scheduled day we reached the village called Sagar on time. Two mules were waiting for us. Mine was called Rupa, Jaya had one called Munni.

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I had always been curious about reincarnation. Rupa convinced me that there is such a thing. This mule (can’t call her she, can I?) was definitely a snake in its earlier life. Throughout the two days that I had the displeasure of being on its back the motion that I experienced could only be described as meandering. It did not know how to move straight. From right to left and left to right – the meanest of bushes was found delectable and the edge of the path where the canyon was steepest was its zone of comfort. It went zigzag and I went absolutely nuts! And this was happening on a series of muletracks which are absolutely deadly. I have walked a bit in my life. But never have I seen narrower paths. Almost 70% of the way was so narrow that you could not dismount – I mean you could dismount, but you would find yourself falling about half a kilometre into a deep gorge when it was not really dangerous. And the mule insisted that bushes hanging over the edge were the tastiest.

Munni was very quiet. It only had the problem of stumbling once in a while. Carrying Jaya is not as easy as it may seem.

We started at 8 a.m. sharp. We reached Puung Bugyal in about 90 minutes. We stopped for tea and the mules started frolicking.

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I was feeling quite upbeat. This was the final Kedar visit. We would complete the whole pattern – visiting all five Kedar temples is no mean achievement. My euphoria was broken by Taju. My mistake was I asked which would be our path. He pointed to the top of a very steep cliff, I could not imagine any path on it, and showed a remote top. That would be our halfway he said. This hill, though nothing like Guns of Navarone, was incredibly vertical.

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My heart sank. It sank further when on that excruciating bit of the path the muleman said that while coming down people have to walk as muleback is too risky. People fall. The casualness with which these casualties were mentioned caused some consternation!

I think just the fact that I could not take photographs during this climb, and the descent, will tell you how harrowing and forbidding this was.

In a while we reached Liti (various spellings are possible) Bugyal.

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That was the end of the deadly path. After that what we had was a steep but negotiable bit. And then we reached Panaar Bugyal.

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Panaar is the stuff of dreams. Just two huts; one courtesy of the Armed forces which used to have an outpost here, the second one belonging to some locals.

 

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The rest of the place was a lovely rolling green bugyal. You could see all the magnificent peaks, you could see Puung down below (a neat drop of six kilometres).

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We had a light lunch here.

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The muleman wanted to stay. But we insisted that we should move on. After all, trekking lore said that the rest of the path was easy.

It was easy. There were a few kilometres of ups and downs. There were a few places where we had to dismount. Then the path became plain. And I just about settled in beginning to enjoy the journey when we turned a bend and I simply froze.

It was a straight and plain path. There were absolutely no ups and downs. But it was extremely narrow – no more than two feet. On one side the hill went up like a wall, on the other side there was a ravine which was unending. The muleman told me that you could see Anusua Devi temple down below (some 10 kilometres straight down is my guess). But I could not look. My vertigo was working overtime. All I could see was the path. It was about a kilometre straight; after which there were some very steep stairs going up to a bunch of red flags. The slanting sunlight was falling directly on those flags and against the harsh terrain the place looked simply divine. But I could not move. The camera was right there. But I could not move. I have never been frozen like that before. If the mule fell then that would be the end. There were bushes, but the mule would be on top of me. If I had known, this bit I would have walked holding Taju’s hand firmly. (To be perfectly honest, if I had known the track would be like this, I wouldn’t have come!)

The red flags, which I was hoping celebrated our destination, merely marked the highest spot in the region. I think the place was called Pitridwar (the door of the forefathers). I was thanking all my forefathers when we finally crossed it. To my great dismay I found out there was still a journey of about 4 kilometres left. The rest of the way wasn’t difficult. My suggestion to those interested would be to walk. But by this time we were extremely tired. We crossed the lovely Naola Pass. The nature gods showered us with kindness – actually snowed us with kindness. Wrapping ourselves in plastic sheets we went through muddy and slippery paths which intermittently decided to be steep. The muleback is not the most comfortable thing in the world and when the mule is jumping down, you feel an organic outrage which otherwise is inconceivable.

The last kilometre we walked. It was easy and after the whole day it seemed relaxing. We reached the Rudranath settlement around 4 in the afternoon.

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(This is the entire settlement, we stayed in the last hut which was behind me at this point)

The muleman’s prediction was right. Taju had miscalculated by two hours. But I must say, we were dog tired, but this mountain boy walked all the 16 kilometres carrying one sack! And he was still smiling and doing everything that needed to be done. As did the muleman – but he found fuel as soon as we reached.

The accommodation in Rudranath was one of the most expensive that I have stayed in. As this was the end of the season, about two weeks left till the temple would close, most people had gone down. Apart from us there were about ten others. They camped. And they thought Jaya was a foreigner. Taju told us the only staying/eating place was asking Rs. 2000 for one exclusive room. The room was basically their store. There were low level wooden platforms covering the entire room. So you could not walk. You had to leave your shoes outside. There were dirty gunny sacks and dirty blankets covering those platforms. You had more dirty blankets to ward off the cold. Of course, the word dirty is unfair. There is very little water to be found all around, so washing blankets is not possible. No germs can survive in that cold, so that was a relief. But such things did not bother us. We needed a room to ourselves, otherwise proper rest becomes impossible. After a good deal of negotiations the rent came down to Rs. 1500, dinner included. And I agreed. Haggling is not my strong point. Dinner was just Daal and Roti. But that seemed like heaven after that harrowing day.

We went up to the temple. According to legend Rudranath is the face of Shiva.

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The priests told us that we could not get in before Arati, which would begin around 6 pm. It was 5:30. But waiting half an hour was impossible, particularly as the light was falling and the path was not something you would like to traverse with a flashlight (did not write “torch” here as it sounds confusing). Taju went to the priest’s hut, had a brief discussion, and convinced the junior priest to come and take us inside the temple.

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We heard Arati from our staying place. The twenty odd people there were the only human beings in an eight kilometre radius. Surrounded by the mighty peaks the sound of Ararti sounded truly celestial. We had dinner at 7 and went to bed immediately afterwards. Rudranath is not famous for its nightlife. I went out around 4:30 in the morning and the sky was breathtaking (I always try to be early during such hikes, I hate queues in front of toilets and the entire Rudranath settlement has only one for the tourists). In the starlight all the mountains seemed to be asleep and the lone light of the temple also looked like a star.

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(Rudranath in first light)

We started our journey back around 7 in the morning. Rupa was running around. Rupa had no intention of carrying me and four men had to hold her in position so that I could get up on the saddle. The first leg of the journey was fine. But the Pitridwar steps were another nightmare. The steps were unbelievable, each about two feet high, and there was a 90 degree turn. There was no wall. The mule going down with me on its back was looking straight down into the ravine. In fact, the angle was 45 degree, and I could see the mule’s head and the distant bottom of the ravine in a straight line. Taju was shouting at the muleman. He wanted us on our feet. But the muleman was adamant. He said the mules would not falter. He even gave us his guarantee! One false step by the mule meant certain death.

Somehow we crossed that path. I would have been terrified if I was on foot, on the back of the mule I was just petrified. Eventually we reached Panaar. We did not stop. We came down to Liti Bugyal and had some Alu ke Paranthe there.

We had noticed a small black puppy when we were going up. This time we had time. We bought a packet of biscuits for it. The pack was yellow. And it was finished in a matter of moments. After a while Jaya insisted that I put on some sunscreen. The sunscreen tube was also yellow. Looking at the tube the puppy got all excited and started to pull at my trousers with its little mouth. Much later at night, in Ukhimath, I discovered that it had punctured my skin. I had not noticed then. Consultations with my friend Arup, one of the best doctors I know, resulted in a frantic search for anti-rabies vaccine. And the series of injections lasted till I was back in Kolkata. Though Taju reported a couple of days later (he went back to Rudranath again and on foot) that the puppy was alright, still the course of the vaccine had to be completed.

To cut an already long post short, coming down from Liti was harrowing. We walked down that dangerous stretch of the path. I was completely spent. Even going down on muleback was agony. We reached Sagar around 4 and by that time I was walking only on will power. There was no energy left in my body. We had arranged for a car which was waiting to take us to Ukhimath and in that ride, sitting in the car, I knew what absolute fatigue meant.

Map copy

If you ever go to Rudranath follow my path. Take the mules to Panaar. Stay at Panaar. Then walk to Rudranath. On the return journey walk through Naola Pass and stay at Panaar. Whatever you do make sure you have enough rest. But I would not suggest that you hike from Puung to Panaar, even the best trekkers fear that path. Always listen to experience.

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