Ticket to Brahmatal – a trekker’s diary

While the year for 2019 was giving me more surprises, it had probably reserved the best for the last. From at least two years, I have been hearing from my friend Abhishek about his trekking stories in the Himalayas, and the views I had seen during my Leh trip had made the desire even stronger. When I look at the sequence of events that happened this year, it probably seems like this trek was destined.

My first plan was to attempt the Har Ki Dun valley but I somehow opted on Brahmatal, the starting point being Rishikesh made me check that place off my list too. This being my first Himalayan trek and I wanted to know the hows of it all, I opted to go with Indiahikes, a name I kept hearing from my friend on multiple occasions. Their detailed itinerary was already making it harder to contain my excitement.

About half the trail in the trek was beyond 9000ft qualifying it as a high-altitude trek. This meant a good month of cardio-vascular and body strengthening workout was needed to be prepared for it. Lucky for me, I had been doing those to prepare for my 1oKs and a half marathon (I know I am bragging, but eventually it all fell into place 😛 ). And as for the experience of being at high-altitudes, though it was a leisure trip to Leh, we had our share of experience of how it felt when we climbed up from one city to another. All I needed was some more patience to contain my excitement and lighter backpack to have a smooth experience. Honestly, the latter was making me more anxious. Thankfully, Indiahikes had options to rent a few gears such as shoes, jackets, trekking pole, etc. which had made both my bag and expenses lighter. Some of these trekking gear would be a one time expense that you can keep using later, or one of the options is to borrow if any of your friends have similar hobbies. Here is a video that was very helpful in knowing what exactly to take. Explore the channel to know more about treks in the Himalayas and what to know before you go.

After a smashing reception party of my manager at Delhi followed by a quick train journey, I was at Rishikesh a day before our scheduled pickup. Coincidentally, my trek-mates Prashanth, Aditi, and Siddhika were roommates at Zostel. Gaurav, on the other hand, gave me a company for the evening tea. There were 13 more faces I was yet to see. Our trek coordinator was actively updating us about the weather and just 2 days ago there was heavy snowfall at the Lohajung our basecamp. While it was amazing to imagine trekking in the snow trail, trekking in such lower temperature with a decently planned backpack had made me worried a little.

Day 1

We had an early start since it was going to be all-day travel. There were 8 of us out of 21 traveling to the basecamp from Rishikesh. Sudeep, Tanmoy, and Rahul joined us in the morning. To our surprise, our trek-leader Mukta was traveling with us to basecamp to start her next few consecutive batches, and we had spent a good one-hour pouring question about trails, weather, her experience and more. After a quick breakfast for some yummy Paratha(not sure if I’ll start hating paratha’s in this trip too), the sounds in the van had mellowed down to only the music that was getting played.
There it was, my first mistake. Though I had caught a nice window seat, all that I could see outside was half-constructed roads and JCB ki Khudai. Man, I was so jealous of people on the other side enjoying the views!! The solution? ask people to switch places every time we stopped for a break 😛

To cloud-nine

Though the base camp about 250km away from Rishikesh, mountain paths and ongoing construction work on the same was making the journey longer. The journey was already unveiling a host of surprises and my first one began with Dev-Prayag. The place I have been reading about and always wanted to see was just a few kilometers away and our driver stopped at a perfect view-point when we were there. The magical view of rivers Bhagirathi and Alaknanda meet to form the river Ganga was worth the stop.

Dev-Prayag. WIth Bhagirathi to the left and Alaknanada to the right

While we were slowly getting to know each other, the best gelling agent was the all-time favorite songs being played. We hummed to the tunes as our vehicle crawled on the twists and turns of the mountains not forgetting to stop at each traffic jam. We knew it was going to be longer, but the ever-flowing rivers were there for our company.

Ye raasta hai keh raha ab mujhse.. Milne ko hai koi kahi ab tujhse….

Further down the road at almost equidistant from Dev-Prayag, we passed through Rudraprayag, a name apt for a fierce confluence of rivers Alaknanda and Mandakini. The sounds of the rivers can be heard from distant. Each of these confluences has shrines and is widely inhabitant, hence it can be worth the stop. We bid farewell to the highways nears the Karna-Prayag and climbed our way up the mountain roads. Roads were getting even more scenic yet still under maintenance and the sun had set his course towards the horizon.

I was already at the front seat by now playing the game of chairs 😛 and started to chat with our chauffeur. He had many stories about how he usually takes the route from Kathgodam to Lohajung and his experience earlier days driving on the narrow roads. The river accompanying us had a different name now and was called Pindar originating from the Pindari glacier. In fact, it is the Pindar river originally that meets many rivers till Dev-Prayag finally to be called Ganga. When we stopped for tea at Mundoli village, it was almost dark and we were all anxious about the journey taking longer than expected. There was still more than an hour of travel left. Roads were narrowing down and the visibility was almost nill when we saw some glimpse of snow in the dim-lit road. Our destination was closer and everyone was excited at once. Finally, at around 7:30 PM, we were dropped off to Lohajung Indiahikes basecamp.

Steaming hot dinner was waiting for us along with a piece of slightly bitter news. I couldn’t keep the count of hot Chapati I had with yummy Paneer-Matar curry 😛 Oh and there was dessert too. We met our fellow batch mates who had joined from Katgodam and all were curious about the weather conditions at the peak. It was time for the Slope Manager Gaurab to break the news. The trek route to Brahmatal was mostly closed due to heavy snowfall in the previous day. While I was getting anxious about the fate of the trek, it was equally horrifying to hear the experience of how they managed to rescue their staff from the camping sites along with some solo trekkers. However, the team ensured that they had already started to create a route to get us at least till Jhandi Top which makes it a 3-day trek delayed by a day. And to accommodate for the time that we have on our day-2, they would take us to Ajan Top, a small 2-hour hike from the base to catch a glimpse of peaks we would be climbing. We decided to reserve the rest of the talking for upcoming days and the tiring journey had put us to sleep soon.

Day – 2

It’s so difficult to wake up from that cozy bed when you are squeezed in between two thick blankets at single-digit temperatures. But there is more to the day than just sleeping. Our next day’s morning schedules were set to 7-8-9. The morning black-tea would be at 7 am, followed by breakfast at 8 am and we would leave from the place at 9. There was sufficient time between these to freshen up or to pack our bags whenever necessary. The first sip of black tea flavored with pepper, ginger, and sugar would make our tastebuds jump out so much so we started calling it the Gochi (for those who know what it is 😛 ). The breakfast was pampering with Sevaiya-Upma and cornflakes for those who wanted options.

Today’s trek was a trial-run in many ways. After collecting my rental gears such as Shoes, trekking pole and jacket, we were equipped with a pair of gaiters and microspikes. Since most of the trail would be covered in hard snow, microspikes would help to have a firm grip on every step. The gaiters, on the other hand, would only be used to protect the leg from thorns, mud, snow or even getting scratched by the microspikes that are worn. Viru Bhaiyya and Munna Bhaiyya were our guides for the entire trek who had a lot of stories and experiences to share. With a lighter backpack to carry our water bottles and an extra warm layer, we set out to ascend the Ajan Top hill.

Being in such close proximity to snow was like a dream come true. The entire town of Lohajung was like a winter wonderland. Viru bhaiyya pointed at a hill at a distance and said: “that’s where we are going”. We were all thrilled to see the entire trail covered with snow and so the walk began. First walking through the lanes waving at the kids who were passing by, then through the zig-zag uphill trails covered by a canopy of trees and finally through the meadow filled with knee-deep snow. We screamed in excitement when we reached the top. A mild breeze, wide open ground and a backdrop of tall mountains were view beyond imagination. We played in the snow, jumped and rolled on it, made little snow-man with numb hands till we were content. Mukta made us all settle down for a moment and observe the silence of the mountains for a few minutes. I had goosebumps when the winds whispered in my ears in that silence. It was so far the best moment of the year.

Munna bhaiyya gathered us all to tell the story of Ajan Top (every place has a story). It is believed that the young God Devsing once climbed up this hill and due to his mystic abilities he reached the abode of Gods. The villagers loved him a lot and they requested him to come back (Aaja or Aajana in Hindi), hence the name (there was actually a longer version of the story which I have forgotten 😀 )

It was time to descend back and our stomach was growling already. Hot steamed rice with curry was waiting for us at the base and cold weather tempted us to take an extra serving. We were to take some rest and meet again in the evening for the briefing on the trek, a quick health checkup and to get to know each other (yes, we hadn’t know names of many yet 😛 ).
Mukta and Viru Bhaiyya took us through itinerary for the next 3 days, how the terrains and trails would be, about food and using dry toilets at the camps, about using our trekking gears and also about the green-trails initiative. The last one was quite inspiring. We were all given a small handbag where we were to pick-up and bring back all big and small waste lying around in the mountains. The idea was to leave the mountains cleaner than how we saw it. After submitting our health certificate, indemnity certificate and getting the BP, blood-oxidation checked, it was time for some informal ice-breaking sessions.
We all decided to sit cozily in one of the rooms and get to the fellow trek mates. One of the activities that made sure we remembered names of all was the memory game. We were to choose an adjective that describes us starting with the first letter of our name. So we were Mighty Mukta, Adventurous Aditi, Sanskari Siddhika, Perfect Prashant, Cool Kuldeep, Radiant Rahul, Reliable Ritesh, Adorable Aishwarya, Hyperactive Hithesh, Peaceful Pandit, Arrogant Abhishek, Awesome Ashutosh, Ultimate Uday, Tenacious TG, Smart Sid, Passionate Paramveer, YOLO Yashvanth, Traveler Tilak, Versatile Vignesh, Gangsta Gaurav, Super Sudeep, and Talented Tanmoy. It was amazing to know how people from various experiences, skills, age-group, and interests had the same dream to complete the Brahmatal trek.

The Indiahikes team had promised that if not for the Brahmatal peak, they would at least get us till Jhandi Top the place from where we could have the best view of everything that we would see. I quickly unpacked my backpack and stuffed the items only those are necessary, i.e., a pair of thermals, padded jacket, fleece jacket, few pairs of socks of which one was woolen to be used in the night, basic toiletries, tissue paper, quick-dry T-shirt, cotton T-shirt, trek pant, track pant, a lunch box, a coffee mug, head- torch, medication kit, and two water bottles. All we needed in the mountains were to stay fresh, stay active and stay warm. There was an option to leave all unnecessary belongings in the base. It was time for an early sleep. Better late than never, we were to set off for our trek towards Brahmatal.

Day – 3

It was the regular 7-8-9 routine. Yummy hot breakfast and Gochi black tea had pumped up our energy. The sky was clear and it couldn’t have been any better to start our journey. Since the walk was going to heat up our body, we barely needed one or a maximum of two layers even at such lower temperatures. Polarised glasses were a must since the direct reflection of sunlight from the snow could cause snow blindness. A quick warm-up charged us up and we were on foot to the exciting journey ahead.

Our today’s journey was about 6 KM uphill where we would pass through a rhododendron forest and then reach our first campsite at Bekaltal by noon. Yes, the treks are mostly half a day journey every day and the rest of the time is to settle down, explore and even acclimatize at higher altitudes. As usual, the first bit of the walk was beside the compound walls and lanes of the village in search of the trails to the jungle. The tracks were already covered in snow and the microspikes were proving good support. Groups of mules would cross paths at times where we were advised to stick to the sides of the mountain to avoid any accidental push towards the valley 😛 Our guides Munna Bhaiyya, Viru Bhaiyya, and Mukta were keeping us all involved with talks about the trails and the trees. They pointed at the V-shaped gap between the line of trees at a much further distance and indicated that’s where our campsite would be. Reminded me of W ke niche paisa hai from Dhamaal 😀

The forest cover was getting denser as we moved ahead and it had kept the snow intact without melting. We crossed a few tiny streams where we refilled our water bottles. There were beautiful tiny bridges covered in snow, snow-covered trees, making every step in the journey even more exciting. Out of nowhere, there was a small teashop where we stopped for a quick tea break.

As we moved up, the breeze was getting much colder and the snow cover became even thicker. It almost seemed like that from a fresh snowfall when our feet were sinking on the fresh powdered snow. The rhododendron cover ended and we were in the middle of a tiny pine forest. The views were much different here. The dispersed light falling from the gaps of tall trees were making the place look like an illusion. Each corner of this stretch seemed like wallpaper from the computers and little did we know that our campsite was just a few hundred meters away. We screamed with joy when we saw the tiny yellow tents in a vast white meadow. Our first day of the hike was successful.

There were 8 spacious tents pitched right in the middle of the vast expanse and we couldn’t wait to explore the campsite. Ritesh, Rahul and I decided to pick a tent and luckily they were the amazing and very cooperative tentmates throughout the entire trek. Taking out those drenched shoes and giving a quick break to legs was relieving. Rice, piping hot black dal curry and Papad were the need of the hour and I shamelessly took multiple servings. Usually, there would be dining tents at each campsite, but the one here was damaged due to the recent snowfall. Nevertheless, it was cozy to sit inside the stone made room nearby to relish the meal.

There was more to the day. The lake Bekaltal was just in the vicinity and we were excited to explore. After a few hundred meters of a walk and the view in front of us was unbelievable. The entire lake was frozen. Such an amazing view hiding quietly in between the thick cover of trees. The snow was knee-deep and very soft near the lake, but it did not stop us from taking a closer look. Some day I wish to walk on these, but here the ice sheet wasn’t very strong, so were refrained from any attempts of stepping on it. We spent 5 minutes in silence here and it was indeed the best. The place was extra quiet in the midst of the forest and we could hear the sound of our own breath. The surroundings felt even more pleasing in silence.

As we strolled around the camp sipping on the evening tea and a handful of popcorns, the sky was turning red. It changed multiple shades before finally turning dark filled with glittering stars. Oh, I had missed watching stars in the city and here they were looking more brighter. After a very few successful attempts in spotting the constellations, heavy cold breeze forced us inside our tents.
It was time for dinner at 7:30 and we were all called inside one of the kitchen tents. The burning fire heated up the room and we could sit there forever. Most of the meals go in silence where all one could hear would be “one more roti”, “a little rice”, “I want dal” and then back to gobbling up from the plate. Just when we were about to finish the meal, we were presented with dessert Shahi-Tukda. That was the yummiest one I have had so far and kudos to the hand behind the perfection. Day’s end couldn’t have been better.

Back in our tents, sleeping in the sleeping bag for the first time was a struggle to figure things out, and to teach it to my tentmates. Trapping body-heat is important especially during sleep. A layer of thermals, t-shirt, fleece were doing the job well and I had kept the padded jacket handy for times if it gets colder. While I thought it would take time for me to sleep, I was OUT instantly.

Day – 4

I don’t know if it was the fear of heavy breeze, an uncontrollable urge to pee or the never-ending snoring of Rahul (don’t kill me for mentioning it here) that woke me up. For once it felt like the tents were going to fly away for the force of the winds, but it eventually slowed down. Now to answer nature’s call, there was no option but to step out of the tent and walk 50 meters to reach the designated area. So far the toughest one in the trek 😛 Not that I had an option. It was just 4:30 AM and the stars were still bright in the sky, at least some perks of making an effort to step out of the tent.

The 7-8-9 schedule was announced the previous day and all were waiting for the morning tea. Today’s trek was going to be the longest and we were given packed snacks after breakfast to have it on our way. The water kept outside was frozen and hands would get numb while washing the utensils. It was the hardest choice to pick between eating with hands or the spoon 😛 A tip for the future me, keep the water bottles inside the sleeping bag in the night at least to keep it lukewarm for drinking.

Coffee with a view

Gaiters were needed today along with microspikes since the trails weren’t much stable. Wearing the gaiters for the first time could be the same as solving a Rubix cube puzzle where most of us struggled to figure out the right way to wear them. Today’s trek was about 7 KM long with some steep ascends and descends. Since the Brahmatal camp was not accessible, we would reach the highest point of our trek Jhandi Top at 11500ft and then descend to the next campsite. It would be a 2500ft gain from our current campsite at Bekaltal. While catching a quick glimpse of The Bekaltal lake on our way, the hike continued.

The heavy snowfall had brought the advantage of creating our own trails so we could climb up the hills almost straight upwards with shortcuts at many places. The thick canopy of trees was above us for almost an hour and then we got the first glimpse of the path towards Jhandi top. While the destination seemed visibly closer by eyesight, we had twice the distance to cover. Winds were stronger in the absence of any trees around and both the cold weather and sun were harsh at the same time. The snow was more powdery and unstable here since very few made it to this place after the recent snowfall and it was important to stick to the visible tracks.
It was almost two hours since we were walking, the journey seemed endless with the mountains farther than what it seemed. We were walking on a ridge now and the winds were so strong, it was blowing the snow up in the air and on to our faces. This had made the walk even more challenging. The Jhandi top was still hiding behind a huge hill.

The last stretch of the uphill climb was the most challenging of all. The ever-changing course of wind was quickly covering any traces of trails created by the person right in front of me. In some places, the snow was so unstable, our legs, or the trekking poles would get stuck and demanded some extra edge of efforts to keep up the pace. We fell many times, some of lost our gloves, scarfs to the heavy winds, but finally, we made it to the top. The fluttering flag at the topmost point was greeting us all for our accomplishment. Yes! as expected the photo sessions began. hashtag wanderlust 😛

Viru Bhaiyya showed us the path leading to the Brahmatal top which was almost untraceable. A few days ago, the staff staying at the campsites had taken two days to reach Jhandi Top from the Brahmatal camp which otherwise would take just 2 to 3 hours. It was indeed a wise decision to skip it till the trails and weather were stable. Standing at the edge of Jhandi Top was giving a magnificent view of mountains in the front. We could see the peaks namely Nanda Ghunti, Trishul-II, Trishul-III, Devtoli, Maiktoli and many more. It was the lap of these mountains which were home for the Roopkund trail ( trek which I have been dreaming about and now it’s unavailable for hike due to a restraining order). Aishwarya had brought a prayer flag with her and we tied it on the flagpost hoping for more and more aspirants of nature to be blessed with this view. The winds were getting stronger and it was now time for descending. A few hundred meters more and we reached a fairly dry piece of land where we decided to have our packed lunch. The next stretch though seemed fairly normal visible trail, it was about 70-degree steep descend.

I loved the way microspikes were giving the grip to step on slippery steep trails and walk as if it was a flat road. Every step felt like I was glued to the ground and there was enough support from the trekking pole too for a brisk walk. The routes were leading us back to the canopy, our next campsite Khururai was about an hour away. The melting snow was constantly dripping down throughout our journey and had created pleasing background music. While the previous camp at Bekaltal was in open ground, the camp at Khuruai was in the midst of gigantic trees. As soon as we reached, we were assigned to our tent. Most of us retained our earlier tentmates.

The packed lunch was just a delusion and the hunger struck again in no time. A huge bowl full of hot and spicy pasta was waiting for us in the dining tent where we lost counts of servings we took. It was a cheat week for all. To accompany the pasta, there was evening tea, it was a strange yet delicious combination at that moment. Some of us retired to the tents for a powernap and the rest of us remained there to chat, share stories and make the best of the evening. Some of them shared their experiences from previous treks while others had stories about every random topic that came up.

Dinner was still an hour due when we all gather in the dining tent for one last round of medical checkups. It was now time for some fun games. We played ‘Connect’ where though the motive was to guess the same word based the hints, we had fun guess it wrong at times to keep the game going. There was Gulab Jamun for dessert along with dinner and I was awestruck by the way we were pampered at such harsh conditions. It was the last evening in the lap of the forest before we got back to the hustle-bustle of our routines. The temperatures were still low, but the tents had helped in a cozy and comfortable sleep.

Day – 5

It was time to bid farewell to the mountains and head back to the base. Lohajung was just 2 – 3 hours away and we were to reach by lunchtime. The weather was fairly stable the last few days and it was melting the snow rapidly. The trails became clearer, slippery and muddy as we moved ahead. The melting snow had created many tiny streams. We passed by many camps by different trekking groups and a few of them were attempting to climb up starting from Khururai.

The hike today was mostly easier with lesser inclinations and in general, the speeds are faster when we descend. An hour of the trek in the jungle opened to the grand view of the town. We could spot Ajan Top right in front of our eyes and the town of Lohajung was slowly waking up to the day. The trail seemed almost unrecognizable after the snow had melted. Each step was inching us closer to the completion of the trek. We met a new group that had started to the Bekaltal and we wished them luck to reach Brahmatal. It was time to get rid of the microspikes and gaiters since they wouldn’t be much of a help in a clear trail. Spotting a few pieces of waste was an indication that we were entering the perimeters of the village. It is a disheartening scene of how we end up spoiling nature with so much unnecessary and unmanaged waste.

In two hours dot, we were at the basecamp. What an amazing moment. I was content. The dream I had for many years was now a reality. A beautiful experience in the mountains was now a new trophy in the showcase of the mind palace.

The hot Rajma rice was waiting to be served. It was the last meal together since 5 from the group had decided to leave for Nainital the same evening. We bid them farewell with a promise of crossing the paths again.
While all the magical experiences had kept me occupied, I had just realized it had been days since I had taken a shower. I was ready to trade a fortune for a bucket of hot water, but it seemed doubtful if there were arrangements for such a large group. When the slope manager announced that there were facilities in a few of the rooms, we sighed with relief.

We gathered one last time for a debrief and share the experiences from the trek. It was amazing to see how it was a special experience for all in their own world. There were regulars and first-timers, but we had kept the same pace and made the most of the time we had in the mountains. It was thoughtful how Indiahikes decided to give us tiny fridge-magnet with a picture Brahmatal and to do away with certificates. Indeed a memory to treasure. Mukta was quick in suggesting the next treks that we can pick up which would up the challenges and can be a resolution for the coming year. There were more games and laughter before we called it a day.

Day – 6

The town was asleep when we packed our bags to head to Rishikesh. The journey was expected to be longer and we wanted to get an edge over time. The beauty of Lohajung was unveiling itself with the rising sun and I was the happiest in picking the right window seat this time 😛 The route was no less than the creation of fiction. Winter was in glory with a lineup of pine and deodar trees till farthest we could gaze and then there were snowcapped mountains reminding us of all the amazing time we had in the last few days.

There were 10 of us towards Rishikesh and rest and their return journey planned for Kathgodam. We stopped for breakfast at Mundoli in the exact same hotel where we had stopped on the first day. Most of us needed a power nap before we could stop feeling like zombies. The journey seemed like a rewind where we saw the places again in the reverse sequence. There were more fun, laughter, and games while we were on our way. Luckily almost till the last stretch of the journey, there weren’t any traffic congestions and starting early had helped.

We had reached Rishikesh by 7 and decided to have dinner together. People had different plans for the next day. Few of them were leaving the same night to Delhi, few were leaving home the next day, some were planning to stay in Rishikesh and try some adventure activities and I had my plans of visiting Haridwar. We relished all the memories for one last time over dinner. Goodbyes are hard, yet inevitable. I had made many new friends in the last few days where we played, looked out for each other, cooperated, motivated and had fun. With promises of planning more treks together, we parted ways.

PS:
1. While trek sounds fun, it is an amazing opportunity for you to get to know yourself.
2. Trust people, because by nature we are all nice and accommodative.
3. All the help you need is just a request away. There are no strangers in this world if you decide to initiate a conversation.
4. Having someone you know in your trek is good, but its the best when all the faces are new to you.
5. Every wonderful experience you look for in this world is just a step outside your comfort zone.
6. Whether its the mountains or the sea, keep the place clean. Or rather leave it cleaner than how you saw it.
7. Travel more, travel often, travel solo.
8. Sore legs are better than the numb ones 😛

Author: Hithesh Bhat

Traveller | Foodie | Geek | Lone explorer | Tech coach | Technophile | Maker | Wall-E in search of EVE

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.