How Trek Explorations Are Done — The Phulara Ridge Example

Over 6 weeks, we have been talking about treks that Indiahikes explored and brought out in Indian trekking. These are treks that have fundamentally changed how we trek in our country. They have made a big impact on trekking.

If these treks did not exist then trekking would not have grown in India. This is the legacy of the Indiahikes exploration team. We have defined new treks for India.

We spoke about the Roopkund, Rupin Pass, Kedarkantha, Chadar Frozen River, and Kashmir Great Lakes.

Today our founder, Arjun Majumdar, zooms out a bit and gives you an insider peek into how trek explorations are done. For that he uses the Phulara Ridge, one of our great new treks as an example.


How Is A Trek Decided For An Exploration?

This is a question that people often ask me. How do you decide on what trek to do?

First, we select a region that we would like to explore

The region is a very big deciding factor. For example, we may feel western Himachal Pradesh, or the Lahaul region may have very few treks that people do — so that’s a region we would look to explore. Or we may think that Kumaon is a region that has not been explored much — so can we look at that region? Or Arunachal has some splendid forests — could those be explored?

In the case of Phulara Ridge, we were very keen to find trails around the Sankri region — there was a self interest in it as well. Over the years we noticed Kedarkantha was getting overcrowded. We knew this region was strikingly beautiful, but we needed to find trails that could match up to Kedarkantha and help take the load off.

For those who don’t know, Sankri is a very big trekking hub of our country. Some of the greatest treks in our country start out of the Sankri region: Kedarkantha, Har-Ki-Dun, Bali Pass, Phulara and even the Rupin Pass. Sankri is in the extreme western borders of Uttarakhand, almost touching Himachal — which is in a very exciting geographic topographical region. The variety in the mountains is superb.

Next, the map plays a very important role

Once we have earmarked a region, we dig deep into maps we have of that region. Topographical maps with contours really help. We want to know where the mountains, rivers, valleys and passes are. We want to see all possible trails around the region.

These give us our first clues. We mentally chalk out trails connecting regions. Say, this village to that through a valley here.

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We go through Topographical maps with contours to know all the trails that are possible around the region. Picture by Swathi Chatrapathy

In fact, that’s how the Warwan Valley exploration was done. We wanted to explore a crossover trek from the deserts of Ladakh to the greenery of Kashmir. Was there such a trek? Yes, there were a few. But Warwan Valley seemed the most feasible of the lot. Others looked extremely difficult.

Even the Warwan Valley had two routes — the map helped us choose one of the two mountain passes for our crossover. It is a bit of luck that Warwan Valley turned out to be one of the greatest explorations we have done.

From theory to fact finding

Moving on, finally, comes the stage where we move out of the theoretical and gather first hand information.

This is where we talk extensively with people of that region. You may imagine that we ask them about treks in the region — we don’t do that.

Instead we gather larger information about the region. We ask questions like, Where does this stream go? We notice there is a lake around here, have you been there? Is there a shepherd’s trail that links this side of the grassland to that side?

We hold these discussions over many days and sessions, usually months, slowly absorbing the topography of the region, forming mental maps.

Why trek extensions make for good explorations

As with most explorations, we also keep trek extensions in mind. That’s how Har-Ki-Dun’s extension, the beautiful Ruinsara tal, was added to our itinerary. Though it was a famous lake and mountaineers of yore have always talked about, it was an extension to Har-Ki-Dun that few did or talked about. We wondered why.

That’s another aspect of explorations. Sometimes people do not explore extensions of already famous treks. They take what is available as a finality. Unfortunately, that is like knowing a person only by looking at them. First impressions could be deceptive. Only when you set foot on an extension do you realise how stunning it is.

Or we keep a few days in hand to see if other extensions crop up when we explore a region. When we explored the Dayara Bugyal, we always had the Siyari region in mind (ridge extension of Dayara meadows) and even the Gidara Bugyal area. These require more days to explore — they are remote and unknown, but they do throw up great surprises.

Exploring quickly

That’s another thing about explorations — we always try to explore a trail quickly. We want to get an overall idea of the trail first. We want to see if it is great for future trekkers. Or we don’t spend too much time on it.

When we explored Kashmir Great Lakes for the first time, we wrapped up the trek in 4 days but sauntered around the lakes for an extra day. Later, the trek became a 7 day event.

A trail that typically takes 5 days, we explore in 3 days. We don’t camp at usual places, but mark spots on the way that can make for good campsites.

Later, we revisit the trail a couple of times before we throw it open to the world. Typically, an exploration that we find exciting goes through at least 3-4 further visits. We check for campsites, water, snow, and tricky sections.

The revisit is also required to get a different perspective of the trail. What sounds exciting to the exploration team may not feel great to a regular trekker. So we usually ask our other team members to explore a trail again.  

How Phulara Was Selected For Exploration

I’ll admit, Phulara was not our first choice for exploration. Though we had been talking about this region for some time with our staff around Sankri, we were very uncomfortable about a trail that ran so close to Kedarkantha.

The first few times when our staff talked about a shepherd’s trail that went over a long ridge that connected the Sankri region with Taluka, we dismissed the idea. We were not convinced.

On the other hand, another trail in that region attracted us too — the Devkyara meadows. In our gathering of information, we had heard, much to our disbelief, that the meadows were as big and green as Kashmir, with gentle streams running through them. Tall, snow clad mountains towered over the meadows.

It was a bit of a climb to get to the meadows, almost at 14,000 feet, but the settings apparently made up for the effort.  

On to Devkyara

Four of us, Sandhya, Suhas, Anika and I set off exploring Devkyara in the late spring of 2018. That’s how explorations are — a small team that explores quickly, but never alone. Apart from the risk of trekking alone there is a practical reason to always explore in teams.

We divide our exploration work among ourselves. I usually write a detailed trek guide. Sandhya takes videos and photos. Someone else takes readings of temperature, altitudes, distances and GPS readings. Some of us are good at finding trails and others are good at navigating unknown territory.  Some of us are adept at climbing and cutting a trail through snow. Everyone’s talent is required during an exploration.

Treks come with risks too. We do not want to leave an exploration unfinished because a team member has fallen sick. That’s another reason we explore in teams. Team-work is always great for explorations. On the Devkyara trail there were four of us — which was an ideal size.

On the Devkyara trail we quickly discovered that the trek was rather rough on the legs. All along we had to walk over a trail that was largely paved with stones — it didn’t feel good on the legs. Campsites were very little until we cleared the treeline.

Higher up, though, things changed totally. The settings were remarkable! We were in a high altitude alpine valley with a lovely river flowing along. We camped beside the sandy banks of the river with snow covered mountains surrounding our camp.

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After a rough climb on the Devkyara trail, we camped on the river bank after a stunning sight of the snow clad mountains and the river in a high altitude alpine valley. Picture by Suhas Saya

Though Devkyara turned out stunning in beauty even under snow, we concluded that the trail was excellent for only small teams (3-4 members). There was very little space to camp lower down the trail. The trail was rough too. We didn’t think it would be ideal for trekkers.

| Note: Arjun Majumdar is the CEO, founder of Indiahikes. Sandhya Chandrasekharayya is the COO and co-founder. Suhas Saya is the head of the Trek Coordinator’s team at Indiahikes. Anika is an active explorer who treks along with the Indiahikes founding team.

Jumping to Phulara

We quickly descended off the trail. But with the extra days in hand, we were already contemplating another exploration — but it had to be quick.

Jagdish, our senior trek manager, implored us to try Phulara, the ridge that descended down from the flanks of the Kedarkantha, but went many miles over hill tops towards Taloti, a small lake hidden in another high altitude meadow. He said it would be spectacular.

| Note: The trek was not called Phulara then. I am using the name to make it easier for you to understand the trek.

Sandhya and I were skeptical. We didn’t want to rush into another exploration so close to Kedarkantha. The trek Jagdish was talking about had to be something really special to be at par with Kedarkantha. 

Yet, we could not ignore what Jagdish was telling us. He was an experienced hand, having grown along with us. He knew what went into explorations.

On the other hand, Sandhya and I wanted to take advantage of the extra days to look into our operations at Sankri. It had been a while since we had been there.

We were torn in our minds. We wanted to explore, but we had our operations work too.

That’s how we asked Suhas if he wanted to explore the trek alone along with Kumresh, one of our most experienced guides of Indiahikes. It could give Sandhya and me that little bit of extra time to look into our operations.

Suhas was taken aback, but pleasantly surprised. I could see him quiver with excitement. These were opportunities that came only once in a lifetime!

Here is the rest of the story in Suhas’ own words:

The trek started from our famous trail of Sankri to Kedarkantha. The trail went through the lovely pine forest that the Kedarkantha trek is famous for. Instead of going towards the west heading to Juda Ka Talab, we took a diversion in the forest and headed east.

With the lovely aroma of Deodar trees hanging in the air and birds chirping, I came to a clearing. It was a superb clearing surrounded by oaks and deodars, a stream ran close by — it was ideal for a campsite. I marked it for a future campsite of ours.

Just after this clearing I was soon engulfed in another section of the forest. This is where I started spotting Monals, the elusive and shy state bird of Uttarakhand. A couple of them flew just ahead of me.

A while later I had to cross a small broken wooden bridge, and soon the trees started to recede. We were leaving the treeline.

We camped at a pretty meadow called Bhoj Gadi. In the evening with a golden light on our backs, a small stream flowing close by, colors of the sky changing to orange, we cooked our meal on the open ground. I couldn’t have asked for a better setting to camp.

But what turned out the next day was something I could never have imagined!

The ridge walk was stunning. I started seeing snow capped mountains right in front. And more monals flying below me with their spectacular colors.

When I stepped on the ridge and started walking, I was blown away. This was something different compared to all other treks I had done. The 250-degree panorama of snow-capped mountains was jaw dropping. I was on a ridge with nothing on either side!

Trekking on the ridge was unique. I felt the mountains were trekking along with me! 

The ridge walk continued for a good four hours. Below me I saw thousands of wildflowers.

On a summit trek, you climb to the top and see the views for about half an hour. But here I was trekking for four to five hours on mountain tops, moving from one to another connected with a ridge. That is uncommon and rare to get!

Once I got off the ridge, I stepped into a spectacular meadows on the other side.

The first sight of the Phustara meadows took me back to the famous Bedni Bugyal campsite on the Roopkund trek. A green carpet spread vast across the entire land. With wildflowers growing in abundance in this haven, it was one of the best spots I had ever seen!

Taloti was a bit farther away from these meadows and across another valley. For me I was taking a chance, but Taloti did not hold much importance after what I had seen on this trek. It was hidden deep in the valley with not many views. I didn’t think it could add more value to the trek. I decided to change the route and head into the forests again.

That night we camped on the Phustara meadows. I thought if I died right there, I would die the happiest person in the world.

The next day I got back into the forest. The forest on this side was very different from the Kedarkantha side. It was denser and more virgin. The silence and sounds in the forest were louder. I again spotted the Himalayan Monals. But other birds were more. I was surrounded by chirping sounds.

When I ended the trek at Taluka, I was flying a few feet off the ground. It was one of the best treks I had ever been on! I couldn’t wait to tell Arjun and Sandhya about this! I rushed back to Sankri.

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Suhas was on cloud nine after exploring the Phulara Ridge trek. He couldn’t wait to tell us the story after his exploration. Picture by Avijit Jamloki

Naming Phulara

We knew we had a winner the moment Suhas walked into Sankri. His smile said it all. We pumped him for details. The story about the ridge and grasslands that Suhas told us was incredible. He had just explored one of the hidden gems right in our own backyard!

How did Phulara get its name? That’s another side of explorations that is very exciting. If you explore a new trail very often you get to name campsites, locations and clearings — there are still many that are unnamed in our country. But sometimes, just sometimes, once in a lifetime you get to name a new trek. This was one of them.

We sat around our fireside, with cups of tea in our hand. We tossed around a few names — all to do with the ridge because that was the attraction. We thought of “this ridge trek” and “that ridge trek”, but none were sitting well.

It was Suhas who suddenly blurted out, “let’s call it Phulara! I have seen the amount of wildflowers on this trail. The flowers on this trek will do justice to the name.” It sounded splendid! And that’s how the now famous Phulara Ridge Trek got its name.

It was explored by Suhas Saya and it was named by him. In the history of Indian trekking, Suhas will leave this legacy behind. When you think of it, it is unbelievable. That in the modern world there are still places and treks to be named and like Suhas, you can be a part of it!

Impact of Phulara

Within two years since its inception, Phulara has caught the imagination of the trekking world. Our trekkers have fallen head over heels in love with the ridge walk. In our country ridge walks are rare — and then we have Phulara with its astounding views and a never ending walk.

Even though it is an absolute neighbour of the Kedarkantha, it has stood its ground on its own. That’s the beauty of trekking sometimes, how we discover treks right in our backyard, yet completely different to the trek it is close to. 

How trekking trails evolve

People often think that trails are permanent once they are set. They aren’t. They evolve continuously as we discover more facets about them.

For instance, the Buran Ghati trail was a straightforward climb to the pass. But we knew of a side trail that took us to an alpine lake on another valley. When we walked on it, we knew that this would excite trekkers. Now the Chandranahan lake is part of the Buran Ghati trek itinerary. So much so that the trek to the lake could become a trail on its own in future.

Earlier this year, in the same Buran Ghati region, we explored a trail stepping away from the usual route through the forest, but walking on hill tops above Janglik village. Bad weather hampered the explorations. But whatever little we saw, had us all excited. Perhaps in future that trail may become the future route for the Buran Ghati trek. Or it may become a trek on its own right.

On the other hand, The Tarsar Marsar trek in Kashmir could have 5 or 6 variations. We have only set foot on a few of them. Now we know there are hidden lakes on these trails that could be as pretty as the ones we camp beside! In future the trek could have a totally new route!

Trails change over time. So do camps. That’s how dynamic they are.

The trail Suhas walked on introduced Phulara to the world. But Phulara has a lot more to be discovered. The extension to the Pachukandi Pass is already exciting. On the other side of the Phulara ridge, there is an exciting route to the Kedarkantha summit. A lot of variations are possible. Over the years the Phulara ridge trek will see its evolution.

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The original route map of Phulara Ridge trek which Suhas explored. We might see this trail map evolve over time in the near future. Picture by Suhas Saya

In Conclusion — The Beauty Of Explorations

At the end, trek exploration is a lot of research, fact finding, willingness to go on untrodden paths, but is also about creativity. Sometimes it requires a touch of imagination to see the possibilities of a trail.

These figments of our imagination lead us to hidden corners of trails, of new extensions or a completely new path through the mountains.

That’s what makes explorations exciting, fun and a wonderfully joyous experience.

Indiahikes has always been at the forefront of explorations. Most famous trails that our country treks on today have been brought out by Indiahikes. That’s how we have defined the future of trekking.

Not many know that as much as we run treks we are continuously exploring trails too. Most of them never see the light of the day — but our spirit of exploration continues.

I have often been asked by trekkers if they could join us on our explorations. I don’t know if they will make able members of an exploration team. But I would like to know your thoughts. Do you think we must take regular trekkers as members of an exploration team? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. We may just invite you for our next exploration.

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21 thoughts on “How Trek Explorations Are Done — The Phulara Ridge Example

  1. I’m 20 years old, from Uttrakhand, but have been staying in Maharashtra with my family. I’ve visited uttrakhand and seen the Kumaon hills, where some of my relatives live and I’ve seen Garhwal Himalayas, where my most of the relatives live. Often times when I am visitng my native place, we walk a lot, sometimes go deep into the mountains to our ancestral land, which has large open meadows and is a very beautiful place.

    I’ve been one a couple of commercial treks like sar pass, brahmatal and thoroughly enjoyed it. But every time I was trekking, I would always looking at a mountain/forest and thinking like what is there on the other side of that mountain, how would the view be from that mountain, what would it be to go through that forest, I want to climb that peak, etc. My mind is of a explorer. I eagerly wait for my vacations so that I can plan and go to a trek. Even if no friend wants to join me, I go alone and do all the bookings. It’s so much fun!

    I wish someday I can find the long lost route between Badrinath and Kedar nath dham.
    I have always wanted to be a part of an exploration team. I’m quite fit, do not really have any problems in trekking for long times. I enjoy every moment of it and then tell my family and friends the stories of my trekking travels, the Amazing locations I visited, different experiences I had, etc.

    I really really hope I can be part of your exploration team one day. Working with India hikes would be amazing, since trekking is the thing I love to do the most.

    1. At this stage I would not really want you think of big explorations like the link between Kedarnath and Badrinath. Rather you must look to explore treks closer to your home in Uttarakhand. There are lots of treks to be discovered!

      Arjun

      1. Yes I completely agree! I’m planning to do a basic mountaineering course after my graduation then I will decide what to do next.
        Till then, I plan was to go trekking in himalayas 2-3 times a year, since it’s very far from mumbai and I do not get more time than that, but sadly due to the pandemic we do not know when trekking can be resumed.

  2. As you mentioned, exploration needed to be small teams with each team member contributing to the exploration (and all activites)…

    I believe, among the many trekkers who have trekked a few times with the team, you may find good able people, who are willing to go on the journey…
    Process could be simple:
    People fill up willingness to be part of such drives, the time they can take out of their normal routine and the region pf exploration at the time of signing up the trek
    Trek leader has this info, and can assess the capabilities of the trekker
    If the details matches and the trekker is capable, then an invitation be extended…

    Following attractions, why I would pay to be a part of the journey:
    1. Chance to be involved with something new
    2. Adventure of the trek not done by any
    3. A chance to go to a trek, which might not end up being done again by anybody else…

    Reasons why Indiahike could look at this:
    1. Trekkers can pay some minimum cost, partly funding the additional burden on exploration
    2. Faster frequency of explorations
    3. Better reviews of explorations (you may want three teams to go through any potential trek route for reviews)…
    4. More diverse write ups to help make a trek explanation log

    1. These are some good suggestions. Team members could come with some talents that could be utilised!

      Arjun

    1. What an effort by you all to make trekking alive again. In such a depressing situation presently your stories are providing so much for future. Looking forward to trekking with India Hikes once normalcy is restored!!

  3. Truely amazing! Thanks for sharing. Infact exploring unknown trials itself makes the trekking moments most memorable. We experienced the same when we did the Mighty Nandadevi east trek. The year we trekked, the river had changed its path due to the cloud burst that created havoc in kedarnath . with no other way or choice we had to trek the unusual trials crossing ampteen landslides, it was really really adventurous. we trekked almost 200 kms to and fro. It is the most memorable trek.
    Thanks for refreshing our memories and sharing the Great Phulara Ridge story. Keep writing.

  4. The way you mentioned that all the members in the exploration team have different roles to play. A Trekker might not be a part of it. But a Trekker can surely bring in a lot of energy, excitement and positivity in the team. It will be their first time so they will put in 200% to explore new routes with no complaints. I definitely think you should take an experience trekker with you for exploration because it will also give you a perspective of whether other trekkers will love the trek or not.

  5. Yes , they should be included . Under leadership of expert explorers . By this way you can obtain able freshers in your Staff member team also . A good treker can easily be singled out in any trek . They may be offered a chance to be included in the Explorer team

  6. Excellent trek. what are preferable / favourable months when for this trek. which one will be first trek, this or
    great kashmir lakes. awaiting opportunity to travel these lovely treks.

  7. Very interesting reading. Great insight into the planning and team work. If you could have a gallery of some best photos of each trek. One could just see and enjoy. Thank You these gems.

  8. Yes, i feel regular trekkers should be allowed although 1-2 max per exploration team, shortlist them basis the required guidelines or abilities that you may want to assess, and now here you find a couple of trekkers joining the exploration team and apart from bringing their unique strengths and perspectives about exploring new trails, they can also share the experiences as well with a larger Trekking community.

    I enjoy every narrative that is shared by your team and they do it so well that the landscape narrative turns the canvas live in front of you…… continue doing this great job folks….. looking forward to meeting on the trail soon….just can’t wait further

  9. Beautifully described. I get the need to go on that trek. Explorirng new treks must be something special but only for those who already done many of them, so you can compare with seen to value what have you discovered. Thanks for sharing with us.

  10. Having a regular trekker on an exploration trek would be useful. But their attitude and fitness need to be appropriate. Willing to rough it out, gutsy, always helping out irrespective of the task, and having a few useful skills would be prerequisites. Willingness to pay for the privilege could also be a criteria for selection.

    They can provide a lay person’s perspective, help rate level of difficulty, beauty, preparatory needs, etc.

  11. Ridge walk or a trek on the ridge is always amazing provided the weather is clear. Ridges can also have strong winds and sometimes lightening. The well described exploration took me back to the Kedarkantha and Har-Ki-Dun treks which I have done years back. Both Taluka and Sankri are in my memory as very beautiful places.

    You are right few kms to the left or right of any popular treks are less explored and can be popularized for if not anything than to relieve the pressure on the main popular treks. Some of the treks are so crowded that one doesn’t feel that you are far away from people and among st big mountains.

  12. Dear Arjun
    Hope entire IH team is doing good
    looking to explore the new hike asap
    Till than keep posting you ideas
    once again all the best to IH team
    Regards
    Ravi Naidu
    kedarkantha hike team member -Jan-4-6-2020.