The Kuari Pass trek, with its wonderful views of big mountains, is a must-do for mountain lovers. It takes you through the meadows of Gorson Bugyal, forests of Chitrakantha, while all along, Mt Nanda Devi, India’s tallest mountain, blesses you with her presence.
But apart from being the perfect vantage point, the Kuari Pass trek also doubles up as a beautiful winter trek. Dr Santanu Sain witnessed the Kuari Pass trek like none of us have before. He and his friends experienced the first winter snow!
This photo story takes you through the golden brown layers of the Auli Ski slopes to the first flakes of snow that submerged the trail.
The pictures in this photo story are taken by Dr Santanu Sain. The story has been compiled and written by Akanksha Raju.
An hour’s drive from Joshimath landed us at the Auli ski resort. In December, the resort is patiently preparing for the hoard of skiers that will flock its slopes in the months to come.
When we were there this winter, the snow hadn’t yet come. The slopes looked endearing with tawny grasslands. Despite the cold winds, the shades of brown radiated warmth.
Our trek started with a stair climb to the top of the resort. The faint huffs and puffs had already begun.
As the first few trekkers reached the top, their eyes widened in awe. It left the rest of us curious and in a scurry to catch up with them.
As we exited the four walls of the resort, our eyes went wide too. The full blown beauty of the Garhwal fringes hit us right about then. And we had hardly gotten started!
We continued our uphill trek alongside the ropeway to the top of the slopes. One by one, snow capped peaks started to show themselves. With a golden brown earth in the foreground, and the Himalayan ranges at the horizon, it was postcard-perfect.
We trekked along the Auli ski slopes for three hours. It was a continuous ascent. But we took regular breaks and trekked at our pace. During the course of the trek, we would discover that Kuari Pass was a trek that allowed us the leisure of being slow. What a blessing that was! Because this is a trail that commands your time and attention.
After the winter sun had squeezed the energy from us, we entered the forest. The shade was a relief! The oak trees immediately bore the heat for us. We walked through the cool trail, smelling sweet wood and moist grass.
Our day’s trek ended at the Padiyar mandir. All of us rang the temple bell praying for snowfall. The Padiyar campsite is just about hundred meters from the temple.
Just when we were taking in the beauty of the dry brown clearing, the first snowflake fell. Tiny feathery snowflakes fell all about us. For many of us, it was the first snowfall of our lives! Could we be any luckier?
In a matter of minutes, fresh snow covered everything in sight. It is one thing to see snow on a trek. It is completely something else to see untouched virgin snow that has just fallen from the skies. It was indiscriminate and unforgiving – the most beautiful! The snow had wiped out any signs of brown.
The temperature had dipped within minutes. It was perhaps 1 or 2 degrees. The wind was loud and fearsome. In these harsh conditions, no one complained. It was literally a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
But as we realised, the payoff to snowfall is always the morning after. When the snow has settled and the calm has set in. We woke up to the glow of the morning light. The trees around us swayed gently, and flurries of snow latched onto them, reluctant to let go. It was a glorious sight!
Against the snow, our shoes could not win. We strapped on our micro spikes and gaiters. Leaving the trees behind, we continued our trek into the boundless Gorson Bugyal.
As we exited the tree line, Gorson Bugyal slowly unveiled herself around us. The amount of space that each trekker enjoyed was extremely liberating. Something us city slickers were in desperate need of. With each step, the bugyal enticed us to climb higher and catch the best views that she had to offer.
Of course, the photographers climbed the highest!
From the grasslands of Gorson Bugyal, we walked on a narrow pathway skirting the meadows. This was, by far, the most thrilling part of our trek. The short descents on this foot-wide trail were sometimes a challenge.
For the next half hour, we trekked on this beautiful butterscotched trail. Far below, we saw tiny villages living off a thundering river. Our eyes followed the river to see Mt Nanda Devi at the end of the valley.
I got my favourite views of Mt Dronagiri and Mt Nanda Devi somewhere around here!
Then we came across a semi-frozen pond. It was a beautiful place to stop and reflect on the past two days of trekking. This pond also marked the end of the meadow walk on our second day.
From this point on, the trees started to creep back around us. In no time, the meadow was left behind. Snow-laden branches showed us the way.
On this part of the trail, we saw trees with peculiar downward facing leaves. They were Rhododendron trees. Rhodo flowers come alive in shades of red and pink in the months of March and April.
Within an hour, it seemed as though the trees caved in to give us this perfect view of our campsite (picture below). The camp is right in the heart of the forest. The sun rays barely make it through the canopy. Camping in such a concealed jungle made it feel like a real adventure.
This day packs a punch. We were all looking forward to it. An early start was definitely not an issue. We started with a strenuous climb up to Chitrakantha top. Even though the landscape was gorgeous in its monochrome form, the trek would have been much easier on our legs without it.
Chitrakantha Top was the best viewpoint throughout our trek. The entire panorama of the Garhwal hills was at eye level.
We all took some time off to enjoy the views from Chitrakantha top. In the distance, we saw Hathi and Ghoda parvat. The panorama was completed by Dronagiri, Trishul, Nanda Ghunti, Ronti saddle, Chaukhamba and Kamet.
After enjoying the views, we continued on the trail towards our next stop: Kuari Pass. En route, there were layers and layers of mountains surrounding us. It was one of the most scenic walks throughout our trek.
Kuari Top is the highest point of the Kuari Pass trek. From here it is a short descent down to the actual pass. From Kuari Top, we could see the peculiar silhouette of the Chaukhamba massif in the distance. It was set aside from the pointed mounds around it.
The Khullara campsite is a grand clearing; one of our coldest nights on the trek. It is the perfect vantage point for many beautiful sunsets. There are many boulders around the campsite. We chose our favourite spot and waited for the big mountains to turn golden red.
The next morning, we packed our lunches and left the Khullara campsite to begin our 8 km descent. This day was quite tiring and hard on our knees. But the landscape change was worth the toil. I promise!
We moved out of the vast Khullara campsite and into the dense forest. The barren landscape suddenly transformed. Soon, lively green trees rose up around us.
This was the final leg of our trek. Tall trees climbed up to the sky all around us, as we made our way down to the village of Dhak. This forest was a mix and match of brown and green, nothing like the Talli forest.
As we continued our descent, signs of civilisation peeped through the trees.
After the descent, we took a short break at this bridge and gobbled at our lunch. There was a small waterfall flowing under the bridge. We took some time off to pick up waste plastic around the water. From there, the road head was just about an hour away.
And just like that, we completed the Kuari Pass trek.
Now that I’m back home, I’m thinking to myself, did the snowfall change the trek? Would I choose to do this trek again without snow?
Well, my answer is yes to both. Experiencing the first winter snow is an otherworldly feeling. It is something that doesn’t happen to you often. I will treasure memories of the first few snowflakes forever.
But Kuari Pass isn’t really about the snow.
As the photographs will tell you, Kuari Pass is about the mountain views – of Mt Nanda Devi, Mt Dronagiri, Mt Trishul – mountains whose names and aesthetics I know like the back of my hand after doing this trek. Kuari Pass is about the dense forests. It is about the deep dark woods where we camp, where we think twice to step out of our tents in the middle of the night – where the darkness of the jungle itself is an adventure. It is about the meadows of Gorson Bugyal that can make your heart fly.
With or without snow, this trail is one that will make a deep connect with you. It is something you will fondly think of when you see a picture of a mountain or a forest, like suddenly remembering a long lost pen pal. That’s always a pleasant feeling.
So there you have it – my story about the first snowfall of the year at Kuari Pass trek. Throw in a comment below about your first snowfall experience. I’d love to know about it.