Some people like to party their way into the New Year. Some like to get together with family and friends and enjoy the cosy warmth of winter bonfire. And then there are some who like to feel the chill of the wind against their face and venture into one of the natures pristine sanctuaries. The thrill of finding way through the knee deep snow, the rare luxury of fire under the stars and company of friends with many stories to share, winter trek for me is the best possible way to usher in the New Year with spirits buoyed by many wondrous shows of nature.
With the dates and agenda fixed, the next natural step was to zero in on a trek that promised right amount of adventure and offered feasibility to be undertaken with safety even in case of weather playing spoilsport. Experience and weather reports dictated 3500-3800 to be a safe altitude with possibility of snow. With Bhilangana valley still unexplored in my books, Panwali Kantha seemed a perfect match.
Panwali Kantha is a moderate grade trek in summers but in winters the level of difficulty is determined by amount of snow the area received. In peak season this can be done as a tea house trek with many shepherd huts available to be used as a night shelter. In winters however one has to carry provisions and camping gear as most of the huts are locked.
We decided to procure all the provisions and camping gear from Ghuttu itself, placing our trust in the fact that Ghuttu is base for several other treks like Mayali Pass and Khatling glacier trek. Our trust was not misplaced, as we learned later as Ghuttu has a fairly large market and some trek operators. But Ghuttu has its distinct place in this narration so more about that later.
Buoyed by the news of snowfall in upper reaches of Uttarakhand and clear forecast for the window that we had planned, we started our preparations for snow conditions that we then naturally anticipated. Once all the required items were collected, we waited in anticipation of the pleasures of walking in fresh snow, an experience that had narrowly eluded us in our last winter trek.
The journey starts from Rishikesh , the proverbial gate for most of the Garhwal. There is an early morning bus directly to Ghuttu apart from many shared jeeps that can get you to Ghuttu but requiring breaking the journey. We decided to go up to Ghansali in a share jeep that we found right outside the bus station. We left for Ghansali before the break of the dawn, feeling very cold after the comfortable Volvo bus journey.
Chamba welcomed us with bright early morning sunshine but the freezing wind made nullified any effect of warmth that we had hoped for. Realising the futility of our efforts to get some warmth, we left for Ghansali.
The road ahead descends until the emerald green water of Tehri reservoir is just a few meters away lending a beautiful sight. The expansive water reserve is beautiful yet a queer sight for someone used to watching much narrow streams in the mountains, it also invariably invokes some strange sentiments in hearts of those who know the story of the emotional experiences of Old Tehri residents.
The beautiful road leads to Ghansali, a typical Garhwal town with roads congested with many taxis plying to and fro and drivers shouting at top of their voices as soon as they see a person with a bag. We took a jeep to Ghuttu after a savoury lunch and spent next hour or so listening to modern Garhwali songs
We reached Ghuttu at around 3 and wasted no time in arranging guide, porters and camping gear. Having made all the arrangements, we were free to explore this sleepy little town.
Ghuttu has a beautiful guest house built by an NGO and run by some villagers. The beautifully perched cottage was booked was our shelter for the day and we retired for the most comfortable sleep of next few days.
News of good amount of snow in Panwali Kantha had lifted the spirit, although I took the 3 feet figure with a pinch of salt having witnessed the instinct of exaggeration first hand. Nevertheless, the confirmed news was enough to shoot expectations soaring and we started with great excitement.
The trek is all nice and easy initially as the only challenging bits are negotiating deep snow. We received many unsolicited but friendly advices from the passing villagers about the extreme cold that we would face in Panwali.
The trek becomes a tad bit tougher in comparison once the thick forest starts but that comes with added perk of walking in beautiful high altitude forest, a trade off that I gladly embraced.
Gaurmanda, the camping point for the day offered first encounter with snow with a good sheet of snow amassed right in the trail and camping ground. This was a solitary patch and only an indication of things to come, but that was enough to afford us good 20 minutes of frolicking in the snow until the hands and toes went numb.
The temperature dipped dramatically once the sun went down the balmy horizon and we burned good amount of logs to ashes.
The white washed paradise
The path rises steeply above Gaurmanda camping ground and enters into yet another patch of beautiful forest with some small snow clad bugyals on the right horizon. We negotiated this part in about an hour to come to a top that had more prominent patches of snow. We knew snow was near. How near? This was answered as soon as we took a turn after having a quick rest. The next turn opened up completely different landscape with good 5-6 inch of snow cover in the ground.
We buckled up for the walk in snow, those who had gaiters strapped them on; those who didn’t improvised.
The amount of snow increased with each step and soon we were wallowing in knee deep snow, with Panwali Kantha good 3-4 kms away. The whitewashed path , trees laden with snow and birds frolicking in the snow, the scene was right out of imagination.
Having walked in an extraordinarily beautiful path for a couple of kilometres, we were wondering what better view we can expect from Panwali Kantha. We were in for pleasant surprise when we reached the meadows. The white carpet like snow covered the gentle domes of the bugyals and created a sight out of this world. The perfect and untainted cover stretched for miles ending only in Himalayan Peaks rising in the horizon.
The panoramic view of the area can only be viewed from the highest point which lends a perspective to the surreal landscape. The tiring climb to the top is more than handsomely rewarded with the view. The landscape combined with sense of achievement and a distinct feeling of one ness with nature creates a sensation that leaves you speechless for a while and gives you perfect moments to remember the trek by.
We left the top with retracting sunrays lending golden hue to the white cover. The solemn silence in the surrounding resonated with the heaviness in the hearts that invariably strikes during the end. We had trekked a long distance to reach that point, we were returning more energetic than ever.