The Spell of Roop Kund
Indian Himalayas Oct. 2011
by Hans Rey & Carmen Rey
The last thing I pictured myself doing, if I could reach the mysterious Roop Kund Lake in the remote Uttarakhand region in India’s Himalayan Range was crash face first into a pile of muddy human bones. Well, that is exactly what happened. I had paid tribute and my respects at the little shrine only minutes before, a necessary precaution since I have had my interesting experiences with bones and spirits in the past. Was it coincidence, an accident or a spell from the gods that suddenly pulled my front wheel from underneath me and made me go down faster than the speed of light? I might have been delirious from the lack of oxygen at 5000meter/16400ft. when I followed Joscha down the footpath to the shore of the tiny alpine lake and all of a sudden realized that the many human bones reported there, weren’t just in the lake, but everywhere, all around us, even on the shore where we were at that moment riding. That very second my front wheel felt like it was yanked from beneath me and I crashed hard, face first in the wet mud! In the process hitting a huge boulder that had bones and skulls laid on top just like a sacrificial altar. I immediately jumped to my knees, partly freaked out and partly shocked, it was then that I realized I had landed face first on top of countless bones.
Together with my Adidas Outdoor team mates; Freeride legend Richie Schley from Canada and Joscha Forstreuter from Germany I planned this trip based on a famous trek, but this had never been attempted on bikes before. The Uttarakand region was recommended to me by none other than the legendary Reinhold Messner. We set out on our adventure in late September 2011, to ride to Roop Kund, a six day trek – hoping to reach our goal. On trips like this there are numerous uncertainties and things that can go very wrong, from arriving in a Developing Country with a damaged bike with no chance of a replacement, to getting altitude sickness, finding the terrain un-ridable, becoming ill from the food or water, being robbed or simply getting caught in bad weather or the first snow of the season.
With us to document our journey on film were two cameramen on bikes, Rob Summers and Martin Hanisch, and our ‘Swindian’ (Swiss/Indian) photographer Mesum Verma. When I choose these destinations I usually look for spectacular places where nobody has ridden or dared to ride in the past. I like trails were I can use my technical and extreme biking skills, mixed with a healthy dose of adventure and usually some sort of a mission to search for mystery or history. In this case it was the mysterious and remote alpine lake of Roop Kund, high up in the Himalayan Range, flanked by majestically beautiful peaks like Trisul (7124m/23370ft) or Nanta Ghunti (6309m/20700ft). This is an ancient pilgrimage destination where people travel to worship the gods and mo According to some, a group of over 300 pilgrims led by their king were caught in a devastating hail storm and they were then buried alive by an avalanche, this all happened some 600 years ago. The lake is only snow free for a couple of months each year, when one can see the skeletal remains from this expedition; we were certainly hoping not to leave similar traces behind. It’s always a challenge to choose the proper bike for a ride with so many unknowns. My decision was made partly by the fact that I wanted to celebrate the 20 year anniversary of the GT Zaskar, named after the nearby Zanskar Mountains. This is a 140/100mm carbon full suspension bike; Joscha’s Felt bike had more suspension and Richie’s Rotwild even more, but they were also heavier which would become a factor on the steep and long uphills. We were supported by a guide, a cook and some porters with mules who would provide us all with food and shelter.
After a 2-day flight from Los Angeles to Delhi we were facing a long and crazy drive to the mountains. India’s traffic is something different; everybody drives as though their lives depended on it, no matter if they were on foot, bike, moto, car, truck or ox. As chaotic and dangerous as it was, everybody always seemed to be ready for the worst scenario, and amazingly, relatively few accidents happen and we didn’t see any cases of road rage. We saw our lives flash in front of our eyes about every 15 minutes. It was nice when we finally set our tires on the dirt in the small village of Loharjung (2500m/8200ft.) to start out on our trek.
The first day of hiking took us 8.5 hours, the going was extremely tough, after a nice 10 mile warm-up on a jeep road we tackled a very steep rhododendron forest, 3.5 hours of pushing and carrying our bikes found us all at our physical limits. The altitude was now clearly noticeable in our breathing and the frequent stops to film and photograph didn’t really make things easier or faster. In the Alps the tree line is at fewer than 2500m, here it was about a 1000m higher, I distracted myself from the pain of climbing up the mountain by keeping an eye out for jungle cats, bears and monkeys, all of which have been reported in the area. Once we reached the alpine meadows of Bedni we knew camp wouldn’t be far and a beautiful sunset and evening sky unveiled itself.
We camped in tents and used the permanent shelter; which was a fiberglass shed. Dazzled by the star -studded skies and under the Milky Way we crawled into our sleeping bags for a well-earned nights sleep. The beauty of the campsite and the views surrounding us was truly breathtaking, the snowcapped mountains called for an early morning photo shoot prior to breakfast before the real challenge of the day would even begin.
The terrain looked a little more mellow than the day before, a beautiful trail wound up hill and along the big meadows, herds of sheep, goats and wild horses were peacefully grazing and the occasional trekker could be seen, I am sure they were wondering about us and our bikes. We decided to push farther than planned, we were not sure if the weather would hold or change on us. The decision was made to go all the way to the base camp at Bagwasa (4500m/14760ft.), which meant we had another long and steep hike n’ bike to get to our destination. Before we reached camp the weather turned on us, a thunderstorm was moving closer, we were pelted with icy rain and then snow, the first of the season! Luckily we were all well equipped having our trip supported by Adidas meant that we each had several layers of highly functional outdoor clothing on us and in our packs. Who would have thought 24 hours before at 30C/90F that we would need our warmest and best Goretex. Our group scattered, everybody put their heads down and headed to shelter. The lightening storm was right above us, I ditched my bike each time I heard the roar of thunder followed by a crack of lightening. At one point I said to Joscha who was right behind, “man that was close”, little did I know that Richie, who was slightly ahead of us, was within 5m/15ft of being struck, the lightening hit the ground right beside to him. Fighting the wet and cold we rode the last couple of miles on a snow covered trail thankful that it was at least an easy downhill and all rideable.
Our initial joy when the reaching camp, which consisted of two of the fiberglass huts, was quickly suppressed when we realized that our shelters were already occupied by a group of Indian hikers. Luckily they were willing to share not only the small huts but also their bottle of rum. It turned into quite the multi cultural slumber party; everybody tucked into their cozy sleeping bags and packed in tightly. Before sunset the weather cleared up and we could see the magnificent ridge high above our camp behind which Roop Kund was located.
The mighty Trisul Mountains were towering gigantically encompassed by one of the most stunning sunsets ever. It isn’t easy to sleep above 4000m and we were all happy when the seemingly endless night was over. We rose to mount our frost- covered bikes and begin our next day. As if the first few days hadn’t been hard enough, today would have even tougher challenges in store for us. I probably wasn’t alone in occasionally wondering what I had signed up for. We would push, drag or carry our bikes for a minute at a time, then stop and take a breather and simply rest for several seconds before continuing the slow pace. I felt dizzy, lightheaded and exhausted, some of our crew felt even worse – the altitude was getting to us. But all the pain and struggle were quickly forgotten when we finally reached our goal.
Prayer flags and the scent of incense from a beautifully decorated shrine marked our arrival. Just below, we could see on the other side of the ridge the long awaited lake, nestled into a crater. A skull and bones neatly arranged on a rock added to the eerie atmosphere along with the ancient leather sandals from the deceased as a reminder of the tragedy that struck centuries before. Together we rode down to the lake’s shore to take a closer look, I spent a moment of silence in front of the pile of rocks and bones, mumbling a few words to myself in homage to the site and in appreciation for succeeding in getting to Roop Kund;
As we headed down with the lake in our sights, ‘Bum Bang!’ I landed on my face – confused, angry and a little shaken I collected myself, realizing that I was a bit banged up, but had thankfully avoided the serious injuries that could easily have happened when slamming into a huge rock. The worst part however was when I realized that the ground was scattered with shattered pieces of human bone. Apologetic I left the scene behind. It turns out that the shoreline of the alpine lake had receded a lot during the summer months; this consequently revealed the bones that would normally be submerged in water.
It was now time to focus on the ultimate downhill ahead, we had two and half days of super fun and technical riding, due to the weather and filming we took our time. Ever since my involuntary dismount at the lake I had a raging headache, which didn’t help me to focus and concentrate on the loose and rocky terrain. It takes a certain style of riding to tackle these trails, Richie’s and my old school Freeride skills came in handy, Joscha, the young gun in our team held his own and was not going to be dropped by the old men.
Another night at base camp and it was quite miserable, the weather, once again altered for the worse in the afternoon. We gambled and waited for better conditions in the morning, it paid off and we had one heck of a day. Although the downhills were much faster than the journey up, they were just as physically and mentally exhausting. On a trip like this there is no room for error or injury, a small incident can turn into a life threatening situation, out of cell phone range and days from the nearest hospital disaster is a constant fear.
A few flat tires and the occasional “can you ride this section one more time” from one of our cameramen sometimes slowed us down. The riding stretched over the entire day through the ever- changing landscape. Enormous birds of prey were seen gliding the thermals, the Golden Eagle, Himalayan Bearded Vulture or a Kestrel would soar the skies reminding me of Dean Potter in his wing-suit. Another interesting camp, Ali Bugyal was our next home for a night. Our guide disappeared for half an hour coming back with a shank of goat leg; still covered in fur and hoofed it was roasted over the fire, sounds disgusting, but it tasted delicious.
Once again we were close to the forest and the steeper slopes that traversed more deep canyons before arriving at the small village of Didana. Here some of the locals had opened a simple guesthouse to accommodate passing Trekkers. We had already made arrangements to give some children who walk miles to school some bicycles from Wheels 4 Life. Unfortunately the bikes didn’t arrive in time for us to personally distribute them, but I was able to select the children who would receive a bike once they arrived. For me it was a highlight to meet some of their families in their primitive homes, homes they share with cows, goats and sheep.
As another incredible day was coming to a close, we were entertained by the locals they had decided that arrival was reason for celebration! They dressed in multi colored hues, circling each other, arm in arm and dancing with all the joy in the world, this we couldn’t miss, we had to participate. Moments like this are priceless and imbedded in our memories forever.
Our final day brought us steep switchbacks that reminded me of Inca trails and required a little more hike and bike before we pedaled back along the dirt road to Loharjung. Dicing it out on the endless downhill with plenty of places to pass each other, we left our cameramen in the dust as we raced to the end of our adventure.