I would never have thought of climbing a Himalayan peak, however small, in the coldest month of the Indian winter. And yet, here I was. I would never have thought it possible that I would be hiking around with some of my closest friends, all of together in a nice and small group. And yet, here I was. I would never have thought that I would stay away from these mountains for more than a year, and yet here I was, trying to climb Chandrashila peak(13,000 ft) with 4 other friends, in the middle of January, after a gap of about two and a half years!
I was very glad to be there, to be plodding in the knee-deep snow, making steps with the snow boots and a rented walking stick, looking at the exquisite panorama on my left side on the horizon and vainly trying to chart a possible path to the peak that lay vertically above my nose. Although we were taking turns in opening the route in the snow, the progress was very slow and it was becoming apparent that the peak lay out of reach if we were to go back to the base in safe time. We had started walking roughly around 9 a.m. that day from a place called Baniya Kund. Having covered about 6.5 km from there to Tungnath temple(12,000 ft), we had decided to attempt climbing Chandrashila peak which stands roughly a kilometer high behind Tungnath, as if guarding the highest Shiva shrine. We had passed Chopta about 3 km after leaving our car behind at Baniya Kund and renting the snow shoes and walking sticks at a shop there. From Chopta onwards, the trail had been covered under snow, although it was not knee-deep till we reached Tungnath. Still, walking on snow was a much larger effort compared to walking up a trail in the summer, with everything around you reflecting a bright while instead of a refreshing green!
The views on the trail had been panoramic throughout, with Chaukhamba peak and an entire range of mountains prominently visible across the valley. It took a couple of hours for the sun to hit the part of the trail we were on and from then on, the sky assumed an azure blue and the snow started reflecting the sunlight as if it was a mirror. I was thankful to the 70 SPF sunscreen lotion I was carrying in my backpack.
The last half km before Tungnath
With very few breaks in between, we had reached Tungnath by about 12:30 p.m. The last one km to up to the temple had seemed unending as the snow had started to become deeper. The snow trail in this part of the hike was very narrow and it felt like we had to do a cat walk as one foot had to be kept directly in front of the other due to the narrow width of the trail. At times, even the hand-railing, meant for the support of the hikers, was almost covered under snow – the layer of snow was so thick and deep that we were walking at the level of the top of the handrail at many a places. The gradient of the trail from Chopta to Tungnath was not bad at all – it was just that there was a hell lot of snow. From Baniya Kund to Chopta, the trail had been comparatively much easier owing to less snow. Thanks to our guide, we had taken a short cut in the mountains, thereby lessening the distance we had to cover from Baniya Kund to Chopta. Without the shortcut, we would have had to keep walking longer on the tar road that was covered under snow. Overall, the hike till Tungnath had been easy, terrain wise and moderate, effort wise. I would rate the trail from Tungnath to Chandrashila as difficult, only because of the extra effort required to open the route. At no point was this trek close to being dangerous in terms of terrain.
The rented shoes were not working that well for a few of the group members – they had already started leaking the water inside and my friends’ socks were drenched in water. Estimated time needed to climb the peak from Tungnath was 1.5 hours as per our guide, Mr. Negi. Although the distance that we had to cover was only 1 km, the climb was going to be uphill – we were going to be on the mountain face from then on. The most difficult part about the climb was going to be having to break open the trail as nobody had gone up that route after the latest snow fall. We were not confident about making it to the top but wanted to give our best shot at the climb; so we set off for the final leg of the trek around 1 p.m., after a lunch break around the temple.
The climb had started with some scrambling up the mountain face for the first 15 minutes till we hit the snow laden part. From here on, we wanted to go towards the ridge line and then follow the ridge to the summit. The hard work of cutting steps in the snow, in order to traverse towards the ridge began here.
Mr. Negi started leading the pack but after about 5 minutes, it was clear that he would be too exhausted doing all the step cutting work by himself. Besides, we wanted to have some fun ourselves too. So we decided to take turns in cutting fresh steps. This way, only the person leading in the front would be exhausted at a time and the rest of the group would be able to follow in the deep steps quite easily. We dragged on like this for almost 40 minutes or so before the group as a whole, started to lose faith that we could keep doing it till reaching the summit. The clock was ticking and some of the group members’ feet were freezing in the snow. We finally decided to go on till the ridge and take a call from there.
By the time we were at the ridge, it was already 2 p.m. The weather didn’t look too favorable and not everybody wanted to push for the summit. It didn’t take long for the group to conclude that it was time to go back. Chandrashila can wait. As it is, it was a trek of another 3-4 hours at least, to go back to Baniya Kund, where our driver was waiting for us.
But Ashish was not ready to go back without building a snowman for his 2-year-old daughter, to whom he had promised that he would build one, when he had left home for the trek. Within 10 minutes, he built a very cute looking fella in the snow with Archana’s hat and my scarf adorning the head and the neck respectively. With that, we bid adieu to the peak and started our return journey. The 8 km long walk back to Baniya Kund was not as fast as it would have been in summer conditions. Nonetheless, we tried to glissade wherever possible on the way down and it was a lot of fun!
Once at Baniya Kund, we returned the gear, had a piping hot cup of tea and warmed our hands and feet around the cooking fireplace inside the shop. It was about 6:30 p.m. by the time we went back to Duggal Bitta, the place where hotel Maya Deep is. Maya Deep is the only hotel that is open through the year and is closest to Chopta. Most trekkers in winter stay at this hotel, the road to Chopta being closed in that season. In summer, trekkers drive all the way up to Chopta and trek only 3.5 km from there to Tungnath.
Hotel Maya Deep is a decent place with clean rooms and a huge bathroom attached to every room. The hotel (called Maya Deep Herbal Resort) is located among meadows (bugyals). Although, there are no grand views from the hotel, one gets a feeling of being ensconced in the mountains at this place. It’s situated along a stream and is a very good spot for birding (although the cold didn’t allow for any birding opportunity). The rooms are quite cozy, with blankets and rajai provided for every bed. Although a basic setup, this hotel is a good enough place for trekkers and although the rates might seem a little high, I think the hotel deserves it for providing service through the winter. If someone is looking for cheaper accommodation, the nearby Sari village, to which our guide Mr. Negi belongs, offers a good option with a double bedroom charged for Rs. 500 per night. The guesthouse belongs to Mr. Negi himself and although very basic in nature, is good enough for a night’s stay. More importantly, it has electricity. Maya Deep doesn’t have electricity (although they do provide it for about two hours every night by using a generator).
There’s a nice campground called Magpie campground with tented accommodation just a short hike away from Maya Deep. After reaching Hotel Maya Deep in the afternoon, we had hiked up to this beautiful place and gotten a majestic view of the snow clad ranges at the sunset. It was a fabulous sight!
We celebrated our snow hike and the unsuccessful attempt at the peak with chicken and rum that night. It started snowing heavily the next morning and our driver informed us anxiously that we should make a move asap lest there was a chance that driving might not remain an option. We wanted to make an early start in any case, to be able to reach Sari village, hike up to Deoriatal, an alpine lake in the lap of the mountains, just above the village and then go back to Haridwar the same day.
It took us an hour to reach Sari from Duggal Bitta, the progress being slowed down due to some snow and later rain, as we lost some altitude. While Duggal Batta is at around 10,000 ft altitude, Sari is only about 6550 ft above msl. It’s a beautiful little hamlet, situated in the middle of the mountains. With its small houses, terraced fields and paths going on the side of the mountain, it’s a perfect hill town for those wanting to spend some nature time and yet, not be in a commercially exploited hill station. As had been the wont for the last 3 days, we had a breakfast consisting of aloo paranthas and maggi preceded and followed by hot tea. While Ashish decided to stay back and enjoy the beauty of the village by taking a leisurely stroll through the fields, rest of us left for the short 2.5 km long hike to Deoriatal. The man made, stone laden trail for the lake starts from right across the road from Mr. Negi’s guesthouse. The trail climbs up the mountain face at the base of which the village is located. It’s a very easy hike and anyone visiting Sari should do it.
It was drizzling a little bit when we started walking. We kept a fast pace so as to lessen our hike time and thereby save ourselves from getting completely wet. But we shouldn’t have bothered. As we climbed up and gained some altitude, the rain turned into beautiful showers of snow and snowflakes. Suddenly, the path cutting through the shrubs started looking like a snowy wonderland with the fresh snow settling on the twigs, leaves and the top of our hooded jackets. We had never imagined that Deoriataal would turn into a fun hike. But snow has that quality which makes it very delightful. Clicking pictures and enjoying the snow, we reached the lake in 1.5 hours. The ground surrounding the lake was completely under snow and we spent quite some time doing a photo session in that snow. The entire thing was very joyful! The fact that we couldn’t enjoy any view beyond the lake due to fog didn’t matter as that whole area itself was so gorgeous because of the snow.
We had to heed the clock as an 8 hour long drive back to Haridwar was waiting for us. Clicking a few final pictures, we made our way back to Sari in the next half an hour. On the way back, Sari looked more beautiful than ever. It was as if the mountains around the village were wearing a white colored hood – the fresh snowfall covering only the top portion of the mountains. We wished we had more time to spend in this village; but eventually had to get in the car and start heading back to the urbanity.
Quick travel facts:
Jan 11- Overnight train from Delhi to Haridwar.
Jan 12 – Drive from Haridwar to Duggal Bitta(7-8 hours including lunch and miscellaneous stops) – stay at hotel Mayadeep (This is the only hotel at the road head during winter).
Jan 13 – Drive from Duggal Bitta to the farthest point possible. Trek from that point to Chopta to Tungnath to Chandrashila peak summit and back to Duggal Bitta for the night. Chopta has guest houses that are open in summer but almost everything is closed for winter. That’s why the need to come back to Duggal Bitta the same day. Ask Mr. Negi if he can arrange for accommodation in Chota. He is a local and it’s likely that he can arrange for something through his contacts.
Jan 14 – Drive from Duggal Bitta to Sari village (1 hour), trek to Deoria tal (1.5 hours one way) and come back to Sari, drive back to Haridwar.
Jan 15 – Board an early morning train from Haridwar to Delhi.
- Local Guide (Mr. Rakesh Negi) : 09411534715, 084575011425
- Hotel Maya Deep (Mr. Rawat) : +91 9412029486, +91 9927853631
- Taxi service(Skylark Adventures) : +91 9837200121
Gear Requirement for winter:
- Snow shoes: If you have your own(something like Koflach), that’s the best. If not, rent make -do snow shoes at Baniya Kund. The shop belongs to the owner of Hotel Maya Deep, Mr. Rawat. Rented shoes are not of the best quality but would serve the purpose for a day.
- Trekking pole: It’s a must if you are climbing Chandrashila in snow. Not required otherwise. If you don’t have your own, you can rent an old person’s walking stick from the shop in Baniya Kund.
- Gaiters or a rain pant to serve as an additional protective layer over the hiking pant.
- Woolens that would serve you well up to -3 to -5 degree Celsius.