The skies were still overcast as I stood on the steps of the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam guesthouse in Auli contemplating the trail that lay in front of me. It looked steep… very steep. The steepness of the trail was further compounded by the rotundity of my mortal body. Thus began a conflict that was to play out every moment for the next few days – the battle between the steep slopes and my heavy self. It was under these circumstances that the unstoppable force of my enthusiasm (for what I lack in physical fitness, I make up for in sheer drive) met the immovable Himalayas.
The morning had begun on a pleasant note though. The sky was still overcast, which meant that Nanda Devi was still out of sight, but there were no aches and pains from the ride from Rishikesh the previous day. Went out for a pre-breakfast walk, and promptly ran into a Khaleej Pheasant. Even though the forests in Auli are rich in bird-life, the overcast skies and the constant drizzle meant the bird activity was low. And then we were to start for the trek to Gorson and we did not have the time to lie in wait for the few birds that did decide to brave the damp weather.
The 3.5 km trek from Auli GMVN to our campsite on the Gorson Meadows can roughly be broken down into two halves. The first part of the trek follows the ski slopes (complete with ski lifts and the ropeway), all the way to an ancient forest. The next half of the trek takes you through the silent forest that opens up suddenly into the meadows.
The climb starts right from the GMVN itself and continues uphill for a quarter of a kilometre to a tea shop and a luxury hotel before plateauing out for about half a kilometre or so. Here, to your left is an artificial reservoir, used to store water to make snow for the ski slopes during winters. On a clear day, the waters of the reservoir reflect the surrounding peaks.
A few hundred metres from the reservoir, the trail starts climbing again towards the last point on the Joshimath-Auli ropeway. This terminal has a small tea shop where you can, if you find yourself huffing and puffing, recharge yourself with a cup or four of super sweet tea. This is also where you leave all forms of human construction behind. The trail continues upwards behind the terminal, and after another few hundred metres, you find yourself standing at the edge of
Mirkwood an ancient forest populated by tall trees.
The forest stands tall, solemn and sentient – like an army of mythical giants. These are ancient trees and every one of them is covered with ferns and moss. As the trail snakes through the forest, you come across the occasional fallen tree; but even in death, it is teeming with life, in the form of colonies of mushroom feeding on the carcass of the fallen giant. In this forest, nothing goes to waste. Also, did I mention the silence? Apart from the deafening chorus of the cicadas, that is.
Just a hundred metres beyond the temple, the trees suddenly give way to a grassy avenue, at the end of which lies the undulating expanse of Gorson. The meadows form a part of the popular Kuari Pass trek, frequented by the teeming patrons of IndiaHikes. Our guide had one clear instruction: to pitch our tent as far away from the IndiaHikes campsite as possible. As soon as I emerged from the forest, the IH campsite came to view. With at least a dozen double tents and the accompanying kitchen, dining and toilet tents, the site looked less like a campsite and more like a small village.
We had chosen to camp about 200m uphill from the IH village, on the edge of the forest, next to a small water body. As we were approaching our tents, the rain picked up again. Thankfully, it was only a steady drizzle – enough to keep the IH crowd in their tents and not enough to keep us in ours.
It was getting colder every minute and thankfully the kitchen tent was up. The cook was quick to brew up some strong tea. Anoraks on and for-tea-fied against the drizzle, we set out to explore the meadows. The entire expanse of the meadows was empty except a couple of shepherds, their dogs and their sizable flock. Dark clouds were sweeping across the upper reaches of the meadows creating a magical landscape that sent one’s imagination into a tizzy. This is the sort of setting, one imagined, where a dragon suddenly emerged out of the mist.
Reality check: There were only sheep.
Here’s a little time-lapse video I made of the sheep grazing on the meadows:
Once we emerged from the forest on the open ground above the Auli ropeway, the entire landscape looked completely different from the previous day! The slopes were bathed in bright sunlight while on the opposite side the jagged, toothy mountains looked less sinister now that they were being viewed through the ‘dappled sunlight’ filter. The grey of the previous day was replaced by a thousand shades of green and blue. Mordor had suddenly turned into the Shire.
True to this change, the birds were up and going about their business. We had particular luck with a kestrel that was hopping from bush to bush in hope for a scurrying Pika or two. Further down, we also emcountered a Himalayan Griffon vulture waiting at the edge of the cliff for the thermals to rise.
The trek to Gorson had one purpose: to acclimatise us to the altitude before we push deep into the Nanda Devi National Park. In my younger days (I can officially use this term now), the altitude had little or no effect on me, but during my ride to Ladakh in the summer of 2016, AMS hit me like the holy ghost. Memories of a sleepless night in a carelessly erected tent in the middle of the windswept plain of Sarchu (13850 ft) prompted me to visit the doctor and medicate myself in advance. Cannot be going through that agony again!
A car would be waiting for us at Auli, ready to take us to the village of Lata, from where the trek to Nanda Devi National Park actually began. Unlike the well-trodden Kuari Pass trail, this route is off the beaten track. In fact, if your guide is to be believed, we were the first person to venture on that route in 2017.