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Roopkund lies in the laps of the Thrishul massif and is mostly frozen year round. The triple peaks of Trishul start to rise from the banks of this lake, the highest of them reaching up to 23000ft. In mythology, Lord Shiva conjured up the lake by brandishing his trident - The Thrishul - for his beloved wife Goddess Nanda to quench her thirst. The lake also doubled up as her dressing chamber mirror. Goddess Nanda was very pleased with her reflection seen on its jade waters and hence the name roop (form) kund (lake). Nanda Devi is the patron goddess of the Garwhal Himalayas, and the story of her journey to her husband lord Shiva's abode in the Himalayas is deeply ingrained in the culture and religion of the people here. Roopkund lies on the path of Nanda Devi Raj Jat Yathra or the Royal Pilgrimage of Goddess Nanda. The Raj Jat is a festival of very large proportions that takes place roughly once around every twelve years. The Goddess Nanda is carried by foot from a village named Nauti in Chamoli over 300 kilometers up through Roopkund and over the high snow clad pass of Junargali adjoining the lake and to Homkund, another lake at 13500 ft. According to legend every twelve years a four horned ram mysteriously takes birth in the fields of the ancient king of Garwhal; Ants infest the rice announcing to people that it is time for the Raj Jat. The ram is believed to be Nanda Devi's messenger to lead the pilgrimage which depicts her bridal journey to her lord's domicile. Four horned rams are indeed born in the Chandpurpatti region near Karnapryag and are carried along with the procession and freed up at Homkund. The rituals and mythology of central Himalayas is studied in detail by noted anthropologist William S. Sax and described in his book "Mountain Goddess: Gender and Politics in a Himalayan Pilgrimage". He also went along with the Raj Jat of 1988. The last Jat happened in the autumn of the year 2000.
We woke up early today, but the sun was already up and about. It kept on fighting a valiant battle with the mist from the mountains till it rose cleanly over them. I think Nanda Devi did not take that lightly to playing cards after all, the pyramid peak was shrouded in clouds of varying degrees of gray and the morning was very misty and cold. We must have started around 7.00 in the morning. I had my watch and started looking at time again :-)
Swargarohini path ...
Climbing up to the trail through the huge boulders strewn across the mountain side was an ordeal. Once on it, the trail to Kalu Vinayak ridge did not seem as difficult as it looked from down below. We made slow and steady progress and rested at a few places along the climb. From here the path we've come reminds of the myth of Pandavas climbing the Swargarohini Parbat and disappearing into the heavens. The sun was high up in the sky and it was warm, but the snow clad regions where we eventually have to head to still looked bad covered in gray masses of cloud. We hit the tight zig zags pretty soon and ascended onto the Kalu Vinayak ridge around 10 am. Kalu vinayak has a small shrine with a black Ganesh and many bells. The whole area remains covered in snow till late in summer but now the Ganesh was peacefully casting his divine gaze over the valley. The Thrishul peak is very clearly visible from here in all its majestic splendor. A fairly large group from Northern Railway Mountaineering Club were coming down from Roopkund and met us here. They had camped in Bhaguabasa the previous day and reached Roopkund early morning. Bhaguabasa is a rocky place further ahead from Kalu Vinayak. Some of the descending group members warned us of the deteriorating weather. The Mumbaikar gang also climbed with us but they were staying in Bhaguabasa for the day.
We should reach Rookund by noon so that trekking down we can reach the camp by six or so in the night. The forward runners gang had started ahead - Abhijit, Mahesh, Adiga and couple of guides; Bhandariji and Raj Bahadur. Rest of us started a little later. There are a bunch of stone huts in Bhaguabasa where you stay if you are camping here. Heavy winds here may take out your tent if you pitch it on open terrain. A little flat terrain follows after Bhaguabasa and we walk over a trail of stones where its easy to twist your ankle unless you watch your step. The sky if full of clouds now, but thankfully most of them still white. I'm now immersed in a circle of rising peaks with scattered white snow lanes on them like streaked hair. We are passing the snow lane, the first snow lump on the trail felt cuhsy and crackling as I stepped over it. The forward runners were quite ahead, I could not see them anymore. Bal Bahadur was with us though. And soon we hit the first frozen snow stream. The snow was hard, but I could almost hear water running beneath my feet as I walked over it. The stream felt like a frozen palm ending the outstretched snow laden hands of the mountain, and I was in the palm, walking over its criss-crossed lines. A Lilliputian palmist trying to read the lines of Gulliver's palms as he lay unconscious.
Mighty glacial hand ...
The rest of the gang had fallen behind by this time. They had couple of guides with them, so I tried to catch up with Bal Bahadur who had gone ahead a bit by now. Looking up at the peak, I could not figure out where the lake would be or what path we are taking to go to the top. It felt as if we were nowhere near the top. The watch showed its already 12 noon. The rareness of the air is almost palpable now. I had to stop and breath every five six steps. Obviously, Bal Bahadur was much better of, far more accustomed to this. He was going out of my sight now, and I was walking all alone.
The path has gotten far steeper now. As they say, no shortcuts to the top. Most part of the trail is covered in snow and loose rocks. I must have walked for about half an hour like that, placing each step carefully to not slip and watching out for boot marks to not lose my way. I felt the presence of the mountain very much around me. In the virgin snow sheets that lay around, in the cold mist that surrounded me, in the gray scrunching clouds above and in the awesomely blue tiny patches of sky visible at random, the mountain was looking at me, touching me and softly whispering in my ears. It was not angry, nor was it trying to scare me. It felt more like an aged grandfather, gentle and kind, with flowing white beard, looking down at me through his half moon spectacles and urging me to go on.
Sometime later I looked up and saw the black silhouette of someone waving to me from a steep cliff above; they must have reached the top! But the sight soon disappeared in clouding mist. I kept on climbing slowly. Maneuvering through some more steeper and loose rocky terrain I came upon a vast stretch of now. This looks like almost stretching to the top and am not seeing anyone here. I shouted and presto! the reply came from somewhere to the right but still a little more up. I crossed the snow field and through the fog I could see the silhouettes of the forward runners group perched on a rocky ledge. The lake lay behind that, hidden from you until you reach this very place. But everything was covered in mist now. Abhi said it had cleared twice when they were there and the view was awesome.
Snowy slope ...
I stood there and waited as it seemed to start clearing up a bit. The fog lifted slowly. I watched in delightful wonder as the form of the lake emerged from its gauzy white veil. It looked so large and round, swirls of emerald and dapples of white frost interspersed, almost popping out from the snow laden slope like a huge eye of he mountain. Fumes of mist kept on rising from the swirling eye. The mountain did not wait long before shutting its eye with layers of mist, just when I was starting to break off the spell and clicking snaps.
It was almost 1 O'clock now. Shanti and the rest of the group have not reached yet. I doubted if she will be able to make it. But we waited. At about 1.30 we heard some shouts and Shanti and group emerged from the fog. She had made it finally! In spite of low hemoglobin, and an affliction of altitude sickness, puking and almost running out of steam she had ploughed on and did reach the top, Kudos! And as soon as she reached, she uncontrollably broke down in tears putting us photographers who were ready with flashes in a dilemma of whether to take snaps or not! :-D
The sky remained overcast and the mist never really cleared up after that. We started the descent at about 2 pm. In the initial really steep parts, we climbed down in pairs and triples in a line holding hands. Sometime later rain started as a slight drizzle, but gratefully it subsided soon. The forward runners went ahead in the descent also and me and Bal Bahadur ended up forming a middle group. We reached Kalu Vinayak ridge by 4 and waited for the rest of the gang to arrive. They came much late and it was almost 5 when all of us started descending from Kalu Vinayak. By the time we reached the tents at 7 in the night, the day had been a real long trek of twelve hours!
Walking to the top ...
Tired and grateful, as I was falling asleep I thanked Nanda Devi for letting us through her mesmerizing kingdom and keeping us safe.