Valley of Flowers: Where I Learnt That Fitness is Key to Enjoying a Trek

Sometimes you need to go on a consecutive trek to feel good about an earlier trek.

Going on the Valley of Flowers trek was an instantaneous decision post my Kedarkantha trek in May of last year. I had an awful time on the KK trek, mainly because I wasn’t too fit and lacked experience. With Valley of Flowers, I chose a more doable trek, determined to raise my fitness and experience levels. Not that Kedarkantha was too hard but with Valley of Flowers and Hemkund Sahib now accomplished, I can look back and see the mistakes I committed on my first trek. So much to learn and unlearn.

Valley of Flowers - Indiahikes
The Valley of Flowers. Picture by Niladri Adhikary

Why I trek

I didn’t take up these treks to find an escape from what appears to be a mundane corporate life and a not-so-happening personal life. I am quite at peace with both. I didn’t take them up because I am an ardent nature lover or had some spiritual longings that could only be quenched by the Himalayas. To be honest, I’m not too taken with the mountains; I have had a fair bit of experience “touristing” in the hills right from my childhood, as a result of which I don’t have mighty fantasies about them.

Trekkers like me know that trekking isn’t a picnic, that life is hard in the mountains; we don’t see the mountains as an escape from a caged routine in the plains. We know very practically that we don’t have to live up there. We are used to civilisation and howsoever we may hear this “civilised life” being blamed for poisoning souls, deep down we know we are not suited to living in the hills without access to most of our basic comforts. We respect the difficulty, know that merely trekking for a few days is nowhere close to living a life out there 24*7. We have grounded expectations, and most importantly we know that post-trek we wouldn’t turn into a Buddha!

We know that a trek would, at the most, provide a small nourishing respite coupled with fragments of learnings (that we aren’t too sure will be applicable to our everyday living). We expect to bring a whiff of fresh air to an otherwise stagnated soul and make some fragmented memories.

We don’t take up a trek to flaunt it among our friends with a “been there, done that” air. We have outgrown that age.

Valley of Flowers - Indiahikes
The Valley of Flowers. Picture by Indiahikes trek leader Sushant Ale

Why I signed up for the Valley of Flowers trek

What led me to sign up this trek was my deteriorating fitness… the terrible feeling of metamorphosing into a sloth. To see what I had come to, I decided to test my lungs. To my utter dismay, I was breathless after climbing a couple of stairs! I had to take a call.

The pre-trek preparation actually helped me scale the body and mind. It was really important to not let them fall back into comfort zones, to keep them under optimum stress. Given that I lead a very peaceful, well-programmed life, I hardly feel stress. I had to find out how I respond to it.

As a result, I spent long hours sweating it out on the cross trainer, avoiding the lift and taking the stairs, running unnecessary errands at my workplace, swimming, cycling. I also gave up my very occasional smoking. I remember it wasn’t easy trashing the last six unsmoked cigarettes in the pack.

That’s about the preparation. Looks extensive and dedicated, but to be honest I played it with a fair number of cheat codes (ha!).

How the trek panned out for me

An ascent to 14,100 ft on the Valley of Flowers trek (from my last 12,500 ft at KK) was a delectable challenge and this time I had girded up to be fitter and have a better approach to trekking. Last time, I had cried out of tiredness while descending the KK summit to Hargaon. That was so not happening this time!

Sparing you the boring chronology of events that brought me to the base camp, here is a just a summary: Ranchi – New Delhi – Haridwar – Govindghat (base camp).

I reached Haridwar well in time and was picked up by the Indiahikes (IH) arranged vehicle. A beautiful (yet exhausting) 11-hour drive through Rishikesh, Byasi, Langasu, Joshimath and the prayags put us at Govindghat where we stayed overnight.

Day 1 – Easily Done

The next day, we left for a 13-km trek to Ghangria at 8 am. Saying 13 km would be a bit of an exaggeration because we covered a good 4 km by jeep till Pulna. From Pulna, we set off on the trek proper to Ghangria. We reached Ghangria by 6 in the evening.

Valley-of-Flowers-Indiahikes-Helicopter-on-the-way-from-Govind-Ghat-to-Ghangria
A helicopter on the way from Govind Ghat to Ghangria

On the way to Ghangria, we heard a helicopter droning as it took pilgrims to and from Govindghat helipad to Kanjila at Ghangria. You see throngs of Sikh pilgrims throughout the way as Hemkund Sahib (HS) is their most revered Gurudwara (here’s a bit of trivia for you – it’s also the highest Gurudwara in the world!).

We gorged on our packed lunch, simultaneously enjoying the sight of Kakbhusandi Peak from one of the many dhabas that fell on the way.

The day ended well. It was an easy trek on mostly concrete trails. We hit the bed soon after an early dinner.

Day 2 – Easy with Bonus of Divine Views

I woke up around 4 to the calls of “Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa” and “Satnam Shri Waheguru Ji.” Couldn’t sleep but couldn’t get off the bed either, considering a soreness in my legs and the cold outside.

Later, after finishing off a sumptuous breakfast of parathas, we hit the Valley of Flowers trail.

The Valley of Flowers trail. PC: Sayan Das.

The trek begins from a VOF check post just half a kilometre from our lodgings. Valley of Flowers National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site spread across an area of 90 square kilometers, is home to about 520 species of alpine flowers, many of which are endemic to the valley. Camping is not allowed inside the park and visitors have to leave by 5 in the evening.

The trails were cleaner as there weren’t any mules on the way. The Pushpawati river flowed along and invited us further into the terrain. The valley begins 3 km from the entry check post. It was a gradual ascent. 

To be honest, September isn’t the ideal time to visit the place as not a single patch of bloom is in sight. Barring a few species of rhubarbs, berries, balsams and thistles, we didn’t see much. But the green spread over the valley, the clear blue sky and the glacier atop one of the mountains made it a heavenly sight.

We trekked further in, stopping at the memorial of a certain Miss Joan Margaret Legge, a botanist who drowned in one of the many rapids while collecting flower samples in VOF. The memorial, erected by her sister, has a beautiful quote:

“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills

from whence cometh my help.”

The memorial of Miss Joan Margaret Legge. Picture by Prerna Munshi

I was seesawing between an insurmountable languor and a surrealism. I was sleepy. The sun shone strongly. The valley seemed to be dancing to a rhythm. I wasn’t hungry in spite of a meagre breakfast but considering the very prominent Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) symptom – appetite loss – I forcibly made myself to eat a paratha. I felt better.

When we returned to our lodgings that evening, we saw the tired Hemkund trekkers (from a previous IH batch) getting nice foot massages. A little apprehensive about the steep zigzagging trail to Hemkund from VOF I had seen earlier, I asked them about their experience. They said it was fine and suggested taking small steps.

We also had an experienced army person in our group who had trekked through most of the Himalayas during his early assignments. He said the trick was to not get breathless as you ascend and to take it slow while you descend.

After finishing my Valley of Flowers day, I was pretty confident about managing HS.

Day 3 – The Real Test, Rewarded by Hot Halwa!

The next day, we were all on our toes. I had a light breakfast and did a few stretches. We started off  at 7.30 am. With my first kilometre, I saw myself withdrawing from the first few trekkers in the group (of 25). I decided not to lag behind as a tail-ender and not be in the front either. I found an easy pace. The Gurudwara closed at 2 pm, so we had ample time to make it to the top.

We came across many pilgrims; the moment they saw someone having a difficult time ascending, they were kind enough to hand over a chocolate or a smile, or better still an invigorating “Satnam.”

I was gentle on myself. Mostly alone, with half the group ahead of me and the rest behind, I didn’t rush. I tried to absorb the terrain around me, but didn’t let my body rest for too long and kept going at a steady pace.

There were a few hard trails, steep at the edges and some landslide areas that you had to run through. I was disappointed to see that the route till Hemkund Sahib, a good 6 km, was littered with toffee wrappers, mineral water bottles, mule dung and what not. More disappointed that there were not many trash cans.

I collected as much garbage as my Eco Bag (as provided by IH) could hold, knowing that this would hardly make a difference to the place, but with a faint hope that this practice might urge some not to litter.

The trails around the dhabas were a mess, to say the least! Even with all the cringing and exhaustion, I made it to HS well in time. The stunning emerald green lake, Hemkund, lay in front of me. I took off my shoes, put my feet in the water and sprinkled some water on me. It was extremely chilly. It took away all my tiredness. And that’s how I sum up my inexplicable experience.

Valley of Flowers - Hemkund Sahib - Indiahikes
The Hemkund Sahib. Picture by G.Swarnavalli

As I stepped inside the Gurudwara, the sight of the altar and the echo of the bhajans made me feel like crying tears of joy. I extended trembling hands to receive some hot halwa fried in dollops of ghee. Filled with utter bliss, I bit back my tears and ate the halwa.

The Gurudwara also serves a steaming broth and chai at the langar. I helped myself to two generous servings. With a fair share of blessings in our kitty, we started on our way down.

The descent eased my lungs but was painful on the knees and feet. It began to drizzle and the stony trails became slippery. It was hard to find a grip on them. However, we were so energised that almost all of us made a fast descent.

After we reached the lodge that evening, I felt a little nauseous, quite possibly because of the 4,000 ft we had gained (from 10,000 ft at Ghangria to 14,100 at HS) and the 4,000 ft we had descended. The steep altitude change was a little hard on my body. However, I decided not to medicate myself and bore it through. I slept after an early dinner while the rest of the group enjoyed themselves thoroughly playing games and singing songs.

I had purposely secluded myself from group activities, primarily because I believe the Himalayas demand a certain peace from you. Noise is a curse of civilisation. I didn’t want to corrupt the hills with that, though it already had its share of noise.

Day 4 – Relaxed Descent

The next day, we descended from Ghangria to Govindghat. I was among the first few to reach Govindghat.

Day 5 – Counting my Blessings

The next day, we left for Haridwar from Govindghat, again a strenuous 11-hour drive. A day after, I heard about an accident at Govindghat. An army man and his wife were killed when their SUV was caught in a landslide. Among the survivors were their 5-year-old son and the driver.

Valley of Flowers. PC: Prerna Munshi

It could have been us. We were fortunate by a day. I wonder what the will happen to the child. I hope the mountains that robbed him of everything, give him their everything.

Here are some of my tips for first-timers

  1. Don’t carry sunscreen. You will sweat it out. Also, sun tan makes you look rugged and ruggedness looks great (both on women and men). Also, every gram that you carry weighs you down when going uphill. Leave out unnecessary items, like your sunscreen bottle.
  2. Talk less when you trek. Conserve energy. Your lungs are already doing that extra bit uphill. Talking would make you consume more air. And downhill, talking tends to distract. You don’t want to end up “And Jill came tumbling after!”
  3. When you ascend, suppose on the summit day, NEVER LOOK UP to see what distance remains to be covered. It’s demotivating! Your immediate next step should be your ONLY matter of concern. Find an easy pace. Don’t race but don’t be a tail-ender either.
  4. Don’t rest for long. The body heats up as it gains momentum and when you rest, it cools down. To warm it again, at such high altitudes, would be expending extra energy! Again, conserve energy!
  5. Take small strides. Breathe. Sip water. Munch on dry fruits.
  6. You don’t need to photograph everything on your way. Most of the photos, when you see them later, would be redundant and, more importantly, you’re very likely to forget where you clicked them.
  7. Don’t get photographed in your funny, oversized, fluorescent poncho. You will always regret it!
  8. If it gets too hard, tell yourself it’s only a few days’ affair and that your cosy bed isn’t a farfetched dream. Also, remind yourself and thank your stars that you are an animal of the plains, where almost everything is easily accessible.

I’d be glad to hear your thoughts about how you fared on the Valley of Flowers trek, or any other trek for that matter. Drop in a comment below!

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Prerna Munshi

Prerna Munshi

Prerna Munshi is an HR professional who works with Coal India. A typical corporate animal, she tries building a moment or two to distance herself from everything she is sincerely engaged with, just to delve into her thoughts and get a larger perspective of life. That's where high altitude trekking comes in.

3 thoughts on “Valley of Flowers: Where I Learnt That Fitness is Key to Enjoying a Trek

  1. Nice write up and explained in detail. I also felt the same when had gone for Roopkund, my first trek with India Hikes. Than, I was just pondering “Why I am Here?” However the magnet of Himalaya had always attracted me and had completed 3 more treks after Roopkund. This September I had planned to VOF & Hemkund Sahib. Yours write up had helped me to know the trail . Thanks for that.

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