I did the Kedartal trek in May 2018. Though I had heard that it was a challenging and relatively unexplored trek, I did not know much about it. I had seen pictures of the notorious spider wall, and I knew the trek climbed up to 16,116 ft. That was it.
That year, no other group had trekked all the way to Kedartal yet; we were going to be the first. The trail had been hit by a series of avalanches, blocking a trekking group that had to be rescued. Alarmed, the forest department revoked trekking permissions for subsequent groups. In this chaos, no one really knew what to expect on the trail — especially if the trail was in a condition good enough to trek.
It was only when I got on the Kedartal trail that I realised how difficult the trek was. I was prepared for the all the glamorous spider walls that I had heard of. In fact, the spider wall was not really the big hazard — it got over quickly, and the danger really wasn’t much. There were other tricky spots on the way. Added to that the weather turned fickle in moments. I saw it going from sunny to snowy many times .
Perhaps I need to elaborate the difficulties of the trek. So in this article, let me explain what makes Kedartal a difficult trek.
The Kedartal trek begins at Gangotri, which in itself is at an altitude of 10,000 ft. Getting to Gangotri by car makes it very easy. There in lies the danger. This is unlike most other treks which begin at altitudes of 7,000 or 8,000 ft. Right from the start, your body is pressed into very high altitudes. It is constantly trying to cope with the high altitudes. Even with the acclimatisation day built into the trek — the altitude gains are very hard on the body.
For example, the first campsite, Bhoj Kharak is at 12,401 ft. The next one, Kedar Kharak, is at 14,000 ft. Kedartal is at 16,116 ft, which means that you climb over 6,000 ft in just three days.
At such high altitudes, AMS can hit you any time. You not only have to be fit to trek here but also pace your trek carefully. Trek too slowly and your body doesn’t get adequate rest at the campsite. Trek too fast and your body doesn’t get adequate time to acclimatise.
Steep ascents and descents
There’s no ‘gradual easing into’ this trek. The trail starts to climb relentlessly as soon as you are out of Gangotri. And stays that way till you reach Bhoj Kharak. The few stretches of level walk are so short that you barely have time to catch your breath.
The best way to manage such an ascent is to take micros steps — small controlled little steps — keeping a sharp focus on the next step and never allowing your breath to rise slightly more than normal. Take short breaks to sip water and take in the bhoj forest around you (silver birch). I must admit, the silver birch forest on this trail is really one of its kind.
Beyond Bhoj Kharak, the incline becomes gentler. But the steady altitude gain makes the trail to Kedar Kharak and beyond equally challenging. The trail becomes slippery and boulder prone. You realize that climbing boulders while trying to catch your breath is no easy task.
The entire trail from Gangotri to Kedartal runs along the Kedar Ganga River. The initial part of the trail from Gangotri is quite straightforward. It goes through forests and the moisture from the trees keeps the trail firm and hard. You realize how important this is when you face the loose mud and stones later on the trek.
There are intermittent sections with small boulders. These can get slippery in rain or snow. However, in dry weather, they are simple to get across.
At almost three quarters of the way to Bhoj Kharak comes the first tricky section — a rock face that you have to walk on to get to the trail on the other side. Your flexibility gets tested as you crawl on all fours under a large overhanging rock to get to this rock face. This is a precursor to the notorious spider wall that comes fifteen minutes later.
The ‘Spider wall’
Honestly, I was a little disappointed to see it after all the hype that was built around it. This is a near vertical rock face which goes right down to the river. It has a very narrow ledge that you need to walk on to get across to the other side. The ledge is wide enough for you to comfortably keep one foot at a time. If you keep one foot in front of the other and hold the wall to get a grip, the spider wall should not be too difficult to navigate.
This stretch is barely 30 metres long. I did not find it very difficult to cross since the rock face was dry. However, this section can become dangerously slippery if it rains or snows.
The trail from Bhoj Kharak to Kedar Kharak is quite an adventure. This is where you begin experiencing more and more loose mud and stones. Around half way to Kedar Kharak, there is a long section that is landslide prone. Rocks shoot down from above all the time. Most trekking groups make a dash through this. To avoid this, you can go down to the river, cross over to the other side and come back to join the trail around 500 metres ahead. Depending on the flow of the river, you will need ropes to cross to the other side. The river is rough so you really need to be careful over the rocks. A slip on one of the rockscan plunge waist-deep into the water.
The trail from Kedar Kharak to Kedartal is largely rocky. There is no defined trail so you really need to be attentive. Blindly following the person ahead of you might not be the best way to trek here. Depending on your own comfort level, you will need to decide whether to hop over a rock or climb it or walk around it.
The effect of bad weather on the Kedartal trek
As in the case of most Himalayan treks, the weather on the Kedartal trek is unpredictable. What starts off as a sunny day can turn cold and snowy in a matter of hours. When I peeped out of my tent on what was a sunny afternoon at the Kedar Kharak campsite after a 20 minute nap, I found the ground covered with snow flakes with dark clouds above.
What makes the weather especially challenging on this trek is the landscape. The Kedar Kharak campsite is surrounded by mountains on all sides. However, on one side where there is a wide opening. The wind blows in through this gap. It is bitingly cold. There is no tree cover to protect you either.
Even while trekking to Kedartal from Kedar Kharak, you need to wear multiple layers because of the incessant wind.
To manage the quick change in weather and the simultaneous play of sun and cold wind, always keep an extra warm layer handy. This will be especially helpful when you take breaks while trekking.
What makes the Kedartal trek rewarding?
While I have mentioned the challenges, the trek is very rewarding otherwise.
The trail is very remote. It goes through the Gangotri National Park. There are limited number of trekking permits that the Forest Department isssues out each day. So you see very few people during the trek. Also, there is no human habitation at this altitude. This solitude is very rewarding.
But the big reason to do the trek are the big mountains. You camp in the shadow of the mighty Mt Thalaysagar and Mt Bhrigupanth at Kedar Kharak. Very few treks bring you so close to such big mountains. And fewer still allow you to spend so much time in their proximity.
The trek reaches its highest point at Kedartal. The serenity that you experience at the first sight of the lake is difficult to put in words. Depending on the weather, the lake looks blue, emerald, grey or all the three at once. You can see the lake stretching all the way to meet the glacier at the foot of Mt Thalaysagar, reminding you how far beyond the mountains stretch.
The lovely bhoj forest on the trail, the sheer adventure and thrill of the climb makes the Kedartal trek very rewarding. There is always a very high feeling of accomplishment when you complete the trek.
I hope with this article I’ve been able to give you a better idea of the difficulties of the Kedartal trek.
If you have been to Kedartal, let us know what you found to be the most challenging parts in the comments sections below.