Trekking in the high Himalayas at any time of year is an opportunity not to be missed but trekking in winter can add a whole other magical dimension to the experience.
The Kuari Pass trek in the far northern Indian province of Uttarakhand is one of the few Himalayan treks that can be undertaken once the winter snows have descended. The trek will remain with me as one of the most incredible experiences of my life.
This Kuari pass is situated in the vast Garhwal region at the southern foot of the Tibetan Plateau and forms part of the mountainous Nanda Devi National Park. In his time as Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon was the first person to make the traverse and the path leading to the pass is now called Curzon’s Trail.
The first view of Nanda Devi from the Auli ski resort
Heading up into the snowfields
The winter trek route starts in Joshimath in the Chamoli district, a town that has become a hub for trekkers and pilgrims in this part of the Himalayas. To get there from New Delhi, I travelled first to the ancient city of Haridwar where the Ganges river exits the Himalayan foothills. From there I caught a cab to take me another 250km into the mountains to the Auli ski resort, near Joshimath, which would be my base camp.
When we arrived the snows had not yet come and the slopes were covered in tawny grassland and despite the cold winds, the shade of brown radiated warmth. Our first taste of the trek was a stair climb to the resort itself. We overnighted there and our guides welcomed us with a warning to prepare ourselves mentally for the four-day trek to come.
Snow falling heavily at our Padyar campsite
Climbing up through the trees from Padiyar
Early the next morning, my first sight of the trailhead mesmerised me. The grasslands, villages and trees all seemed to be bowing to the towering peak of Mount Dronagiri far in the distance. The beginning of the trail takes you past the confluence of the Pinder, Kaliganga, Nandakini, Birehiganga and Dhauli Ganga rivers and leads you through a number of picturesque mountain villages. The warm and welcoming nature of the people here was for me one of the highlights of the journey.
On that first day we passed through the area where the mythical herb Sanjeevani is supposed to have come from that the monkey god Hanuman retrieved to cure the mortally wounded Lakshmana in the ancient epic, the Ramayana. Interestingly, the Uttarakhand government last year committed some millions of dollars to a scheme to try and identify this magical healing herb amongst the real native plants growing in the region. At the end of the day we reached Chitrakana where we encountered the snowfields for the first time.
The imposing Chaukhamba from our Khullara campsite
Rhododendron trees around the Talli campsite
The next day led us through the thick oak forests and the snow at my feet was a delight that seemed to me to be something from out of the movies. It was beautiful to look at the line of trees marching into the deeper forest and contrasting against the dome of hazy sky and the mountains beyond. I congratulated myself once again for having chosen a winter trek.
Kuari Pass sits at a height of nearly 4000 metres and on the way there your pass two other stunning outlooks, Tali Top and Khullara Top. From these three you are afforded some of the very best views of peaks reaching up to 7000 metres and beyond to be found anywhere in the Himalayas. As the second highest mountain in India at 7,816m, Nanda Devi is a particular standout but I also got to see Trishul, Kamet and the four-pillared Chaukhamba. Not as high but still majestic and imposing were Nanda Ghunti, Neelkanth, Mana, Changbang, and Hathi Ghoda Parbat.
Nanda Devi from the Gorson Bugyal
Reaching the Kuari Top, the highest point of the trek
Most amazing to me at these high altitudes was that we were often walking through long stretches of the most serene green meadows. Known as Bugyals, these pastures left me wondering how this walk could be so stimulating and yet so tranquilising at the same time. The beauty of those meadows is something I think will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Of course, there are also forests on this trek and here we were advised to stick closely to our companions and to the marked trail as leopards and bears were residents within the woods.
The Kuari Pass trek certainly requires some physical effort but it is not too difficult and the rewards are huge.
By Daniel Oludare