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Roopkund - #1 of 9 Treks That Transformed Indian Trekking
Category Treks That Transformed Indian Trekking About Indiahikes
By Swathi Chatrapathy
This is a series of 9 stories about treks that changed Indian trekking forever.
All of these treks were brought out and made popular by Indiahikes.
You may have done these treks yourself, but you may not have known their origin stories.
I never usually share these stories. I keep telling our founders they are too modest about their past, about the legacy Indiahikes has created, never sharing their stories with the world. They usually wave me off and I usually back off.
This time though, I didn’t back off.
I’ve extracted out of them stories about 9 Treks That Changed Indian Trekking.
In this series I’m going to be talking about the stories behind them and how each of them impacted trekking in India. I’m going to attempt to play the role of a narrator, looking at Indiahikes from a third person point of view. These stories are so interesting, full of twists and turns, I hope I can do justice to them.
Today, we’ll start with Roopkund. Where it all began…
Roopkund: The Trek That Brought About A Dramatic Shift In Indian Trekking
“Roopkund was a trek that brought about the biggest shift in Indian trekking,” starts Arjun Majumdar, the founder of Indiahikes.
“It brought about an era when a new generation of modern Indians, recently exposed to the global world, transformed themselves into ‘trekkers’,” he reflects.
Here’s where the story starts.
Roopkund was a trek not many had heard of prior to 2007. “Hardly anyone knew of Roopkund. In a year, a maximum of 50-60 people would do the trek,” recollects Arjun.
“So when I returned from Roopkund and wrote a detailed guide on the trek, the whole trekking world came alive. Suddenly, a very new, very different and an extremely adventurous trek looked possible,” he says.
The blog, titled The Roopkund Trek Adventure erupted an adventurous flame in the hearts of regular people like you and me. It created thrilling possibilities in their minds.
“This was something unthinkable back then,” chimes Sandhya, the co-founder of Indiahikes. “Back then, trekking in the Himalayas wasn’t considered something accessible to the common man. It was reserved for those handful of hard core adventurers, who would make expeditions and come back with stories to tell. Normal people like you and me would only listen to stories and try to live the mountains through their eyes,” shares Sandhya.
So the single-page-blog of 12,000 words really caught the attention of trekkers across the country. That was the start of our country’s first interest in Roopkund.
Everything changed the next year, in 2008, when Indiahikes was founded. “We started the organisation with the Roopkund trek”.
Was it the beauty of the trek that attracted people?
“Yes, but the beauty of the trek was not everything. Along with Roopkund came about a new way of trekking, a new generation of trekkers, and a new organisation that was changing the way trekking was being done. That’s what slowly began changing the face of the trekking industry,” Arjun says.
This new generation of trekkers were not regular trekkers, who had trekked earlier, say, in the Western Ghats. This new generation took to trekking by starting to do a trek like Roopkund, simply because it became accessible to them.
They suddenly became aware that such locations existed. They saw photographs of the Roopkund trek and were enthralled.
What the Roopkund trek meant to Indiahikes:
“Do you know at that time if you wanted to start a trekking organisation, you needed a long catalogue of treks to offer,” says Arjun. “That was how trekking businesses were at that time.
“And here we were, talking of only one trek. Roopkund. We had no other trek to offer,” he adds.
“At Indiahikes we rarely spoke about the organisation. Instead we celebrated Roopkund. Even on our website we told people how to do the Roopkund themselves, and not with us,” Sandhya adds.
“Nobody knew Roopkund like we did. For most trekking businesses, Roopkund was just another trek to do. For us Roopkund was our blood. We knew every nuance of the trek, every different alternate trail, every small tree and stream. We knew all the people of the villages. They were like family to us. We had spent months in the region!” exclaims Sandhya.
How The Roopkund trek brought about the concept of ‘Trek Leaders’
“With Indiahikes we were trying to bring in a new way of trekking. We wanted people to experience the trek like we did. We wanted to show them Roopkund like how we saw it. That’s how I started to lead the first few groups to Roopkund. I wanted them to see the trek with my eyes,” says Arjun.
“Yet, I was very firm on who could do the trek. I was very clear with my trekkers that I would take them up to the high camp of Bhagwabasa, but I would take the final call on who would go ahead finally to Roopkund.
“It was a very high altitude trek, and most were new to trekking. I did not want unfit and unprepared trekkers trying to attempt Roopkund. This was the birth of the concept of trek leading. A trek leader was someone who not only showed you the trek for what it was, but also took full responsibility for your well being.
“I remember very clearly. On the very first trek, I introduced myself as the Trek Leader to the group. Though everyone knew I was behind starting Indiahikes, they accepted me more in the role of the trek leader,” explains Arjun.
Today Trek Leading has become a much coveted profession. Every organisation has Trek Leaders. Indiahikes Trek Leaders are much sought after around the world. But with Roopkund, started the use of the word “Trek Leader” and the acceptance of the role. Prior to Roopkund, “guides” used to lead trekkers on treks. Not Trek Leaders.
The advent of expedition-like trekking equipment in India started with the Roopkund trek:
“With Roopkund came another big change in Indian trekking,” says Arjun.
“Trekkers started to experience and use modern trekking equipment. Dome tents were a big departure from the earlier ‘A’ shaped tents. Dome tents were more suitable for high altitude treks we felt, but trekkers had not seen anything like them before. I remember they would marvel at them — and feeling very expedition-like inside them!” smiles Arjun.
“Even at that time, we had our custom-made sleeping bags, which could take the extreme colds of high altitudes. These were very new to Indian trekking. Most sleeping bags available at that time were flimsy and suitable only for mild temperatures. And here, trekkers were using high grade sleeping bags, in attractive colours, just like foreign expedition members!” Arjun reminisces.
The beginnings of how cooking started on treks
“Trekking at the time was synonymous with eating Maggi. No one expected any other food on the trek. On the other hand, I was very particular that trekkers ate the right food for an attempt at Roopkund, which was close to 16,000 feet. That’s what I had learnt reading in Chris Bonington’s Everest expeditions. The right food was crucial,” informs Arjun.
Cooking on Indian treks changed with Roopkund. A cooking team along with helpers went with the group. That became the norm and still is. Earlier, the guide and team members would cook their own food.
Roopkund changed trekking even after the first few expeditions
“The Roopkund story is not just about the first treks that we ran. Roopkund was our home and our office. We lived, ate and breathed Roopkund,” Sandhya adds.
“We experimented all our ideals on Roopkund,” continues Sandhya. We helped create an ecosystem at Roopkund along with local folks in that region. “For example, Raju Shah Ji started his transportation business along with us at Roopkund. Today he is the largest trek transport operator in Uttarakhand.”
“Like him, more local ecosystems started to grow around us. We nurtured homestays in Didina village. Local landowners started to grow their lodges at the base village in Lohajung.”
“More than that, Indian trekking took a new turn. There was a sudden growth in trekking. Other organisations spawned. They too flocked to Roopkund. Suddenly Roopkund became the trek to do — the bucket list trek for everyone. From a trek no one had heard of, in 5 years Roopkund became India’s most popular trek,” Sandhya observes.
“Meanwhile, we continued our experiments in Roopkund,” continues Arjun. “We brought in new safety norms, new safety equipment, new safety protocols related to altitude and life threatening situations. It didn’t happen in a day, but it happened at Roopkund,” adds Arjun. These fundamentally changed how safety was looked at in Indian trekking.
How Roopkund changed modern environment management system in trekking
“One of the biggest changes that Roopkund helped us bring to Indian trekking was how we started looking at the environment,” Sandhya continues moving forward with the Roopkund story.
“As we saw how trekking was growing around us, we realised that we had to play a big role in learning how to manage the environment around us. This started the Green Trails initiative as early as 2012. It was at Roopkund where we sowed its seed,” adds Sandhya.
Today, as I write this, I know how much Green Trails has changed trekking. If our mountains are cleaner, better, it is because Green Trails has led the change. Today the Green Trails team is felicitated around our country for the work they do. They are invited for talks, for presentations and to show others how to keep our mountains better.
Roopkund is where Green Trails started. It became the symbol of new age trekking.
Here’s one for posterity: A picture of the first team that went to Roopkund with Indiahikes. Spot Arjun in the centre of the frame wearing blue. Sandhya is on the left, the only woman on the team.
As I concluded my conversation with Sandhya and Arjun, I realised how much Roopkund meant to them. How much of their lives they had given to Roopkund. It was a conversation that was very insightful yet very emotional. I was looking back at Indian trekking as well as our past as an organisation.
I couldn’t help but feel terrible that we no longer run the Roopkund trek. There is a high court order that bans camping in the meadows of Roopkund.
Perhaps in future Roopkund will open again to trekking.
Whether Roopkund opens or not, it will stay as a trek that changed the future of trekking in India. This is the legacy of Roopkund. This is the story that I wanted to share with you today.
Like Roopkund there are 8 more pivotal treks that changed the face of trekking — some incrementally and some exponentially.
I’ll continue to bring you these stories over the next few weeks.
I hope you’ll enjoy this ‘Treks That Changed Indian Trekking’ series.
I’ll be back next week with another trek that Indiahikes brought to Indian trekking — the Rupin Pass. It is the story of another obscure high altitude trek that is now one of India’s favourites.
Until then, take care 🙂
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