By Team Nomad
A recent surge in popularity has put Chandrashila on the circuit as an easy weekend trek. It is one of the most accessible summits for a first time trekker. At almost 4000m above sea level it offers breathtaking views of the Nanda Devi Range and Chaukhamba. Unlike the religious tourists of the past who visited the sacred ‘Chaar Dhams’, the new tourists are modern well-equipped trekkers in search for the next adventure.
I arrived at Chopta, after being driven through a series of serpentine switchbacks. It was a cold March morning with predictions of heavy snowfall. Like most hill towns, Chopta has a very crowded market with a dozen jeeps. The ‘dhaabas’ were teeming with people selling chai and Maggi. Chopta is a small hamlet, which can be reached by a forest road that bifurcates from NH 58 at Chamoli. It serves as a basecamp for Chandrashila and Deoriatal. A lot of travel companies have set up elaborate camps along the slopes with luxuries to the boot. There is a very distinctive path leading up to the Tungnath Temple and Chandrashila. Most of the tourists were enjoying breakfast before setting forth for the summit. It is touted as a relatively easy climb and quite surprisingly people were clad in jeans and slippers.
I had signed up with an agency that was conducting the trek. The group had around 6 people and a couple of guides to help us navigate.
The Path To Tungnath
I must confess my disappointment upon seeing a paved path leading up to Tungnath. Though it eases the transfer of essentials up the mountain, it takes away most of the challenge for a trekker. Being relatively fit, I soon overtook most members of my group and climbed steadily. The first noticeable change in scenery was where the forest path gave way to meadows.
Being a perfect campsite, this is a spot where many travellers break their journey by setting up tents. The path forward was a serious of switchbacks going all the way up. The climb was strenuous to say the least and most people were settling down for long breaks.
I continued slowly, taking multiple breaks and enjoying the sights. The best part about trekking the Chandrashila route is the dramatic change in scenery one encounters at every bend. The trick to dealing with a relentless climb is to keep with short breaks every 20 miniyes. I could see a bunch of tourists who were thoroughly unprepared for this kind of exercise.
The group consisted of three gym going boys who had probably missed out on cardiovascular training and focused almost exclusively on building up their biceps. One of them had reached the limits of exhaustion and hollered loudly at his friends. “Guys, I did not sign up for this. I’m not interested in this Sheila; I think we should take some pictures and go down.” His friend chuckled and asked him to push himself just a little bit more.
The Tungnath temple was visible after the last switchback. Chandrashila loomed behind the temple, towering over the region and seemed quite unattainable. The path before Tungnath was under thick snow cover, and I had to ensure that I didn’t lose my footing.
One of the guides sent through the agency caught up with me. He informed me that there were predictions of heavy snowfall, and asked me to hurry so that I would have adequate time to return. I agreed whole-heartedly and began to walk briskly. Most tourists chose to break their journey at Tungnath. The temple was shut for the winer and so were the multiple guesthouses that surrounded it. Most people were not going further from Tungnath. It was biting cold as the bare mountainside had no trees to stop the wind.
Summiting the Moon Peak
A thin route skirts the back of the temple and leads upto the Chandrashila summit. Though there is an earmarked route, the constant snowfall had covered all traces of it.
Thankfully, my guide had chalked out a relatively safe route to the summit. The challenge in this section was that the melting ice which made it very difficult to get a grip. Most people were struggling and taking breaks wherever they could find a rocky surface. By this point I was completely exhausted. I had been climbing the hill for nearly three hours and a part of me wanted to sit down on some rock and relax.
The summit was tantalizingly close but the slippery snow made it very tough to maintain balance. I saw a fellow who was lying on a rock and looked very tired. I offered him a pack of biscuits and asked him to get himself together. At this point there was a commotion as most of the guides were worried about the impending heavy snowfall and were asking the tourists to either summit or go down. “There is not much time guys, you have a short window. Please get a move on. Do not crowd around this area.”
Overcrowding is a common occurrence on popular trek routes. The final push to Chandrashila was a series of ice-covered steps just below the summit. A lot of people were really tired and were standing still on the route. This coupled with the dark clouds looming on the horizon, led to a sense of urgency. Though I was tempted to take a long break and miss out on the summit entirely, the regret it could have caused, spurred me on. I made my way through the crowded mess and scrambled over the last section to reach the summit.
It was a little anti-climactic since dark clouds had spoiled the best views. I couldn’t see more than 500m in any direction and noted that it was a steep drop from the summit on 3 sides.
There is a small temple like structure on the summit that serves as a nice backdrop for many pictures. I got shutter busy and clicked away at the sights. The summit is the only point from where one can see the valley from the other sides. I lost out on sighting any of the famous peaks but I did not complain because summiting Chandrashila felt like an achievement in itself.
Any experienced trekker will know that the way down is easy on the lungs and painful for the knees. Combine the gradient with slippery slopes, ice and a lot of people in sneakers; and the way down from the summit was nothing short of a nightmare. The scramble down was tough as most people were slipping and losing their balance on the snow. Matters got pretty serious when I saw a guy slip around 5 feet on his waist.
One of the guides told his crew to stop bothering with walking altogether and just slide along the snow on their backsides. The end result was a bunch of really drenched people covered head to toe in mud and snow. I made my way down gingerly, stepping forward with extreme caution. I took a break once I reached Tungnath and noticed that some members from my group had finally made their way up. They had taken long breaks and were now trying to reach the summit. It was already 2:30 and their guide kept telling them that it was risky to try and go further because of the predicted bad weather. They argued with the guide saying they had already paid money and wanted the full experience.
Thankfully better sense prevailed, and they decided to go down with the other people. I saw that even in late afternoon some brave souls were making their to Tungnath with tents, with full intentions of spending the night there. It seemed like a very bad idea because of the windchill and snowfall. The journey back was really bad on the feet as they were forced into an awkward angle on the paved road. Some intelligent people had figured out that it was better to take shortcuts on the mountainside rather than follow the paved road. I joined these risk takers and sped down the mountain via shortcuts instead of the paved road. The result was that my journey was cut in half and I made it to Chopta way before sunset. Most people were comparing notes in Chopta and I got to know that almost 60% of the people had failed to reach Chandrashila. What was touted as an easy trek had eluded more than half the people.
Reasons for a failed Summit Attempt on Chandrashila
1. Starting Late: I noticed that quite a few people were starting for the summit after 11 a.m. Most guides will recommend that you leave between 7-9 a.m. and get back by 4 p.m. Weather on Chandrashila deteriorates rapidly in the afternoon and it’s best to return from the summit before 2 p.m.
2. Too Many Breaks: Quite a few people, walk really fast in the beginning and end up getting too tired by the time they cross the first meadow. The switchbacks before Tungnath are where most people become complacent. I noticed that many people were taking long lunch breaks there and consequently wasted too much crucial time. The key is to take one long break at Tungnath and then push forward relentlessly.
3. Improper Shoes: There are too many issues that one can face if they wear improper shoes on this trek. The paved road ends at Tungnath and from there it’s rock and ice. Chances of slipping are nigh-high especially on the way back. Sneakers are not meant for trekking and increase the risk of slipping and ankle twisting.
4. No Walking Stick: Statistics show that a walking stick and reduce stress on the knee by upto 60%. A decent walking stick costs less than Rs.1000 but can help you weather all kinds of trails. If there is too much snow, you can just wedge in the walking stick and use it as a crutch. A walking stick can also aid while descending on muddy terrain and it can literally function like an extra leg giving you support.
5. Wind Chill: The area after Tungnath is open mountainside with no vegetation. It is hit by icy cold Himalayan winds, which will wipe the smile of your face. Head cover and gloves are useful to allay the effects of these biting cold winds. Proper preparation for the cold is essential especially if you are attempting this trek in winter.
How to Reach Chandrashila
1. Delhi- Haridwar: The journey takes approximately 4-5 hours by car/bus. One can board buses from Delhi I.S.B.T. The buses mostly leave from Delhi at midnight and will get you to Haridwar early morning.
2. Haridwar- Chopta: The journey takes approximately 7 hours by car. The road is generally in good condition except for certain sections near Agastyamuni. The ideal route is: Haridwar- Devprayag-Rudraprayag-Agastyamuni-Chopta. It is around 185 km. by car. A private taxi costs around Rs. 4000 one way. One can avail buses/-shared cabs at below Rs. 400.
3. Chopta- Tungnath-Chandrashila (Trek): The trek route is 3.5 km. to Tungnath and another 1 Km. to the summit. Returning to Chopta at night is advisable because of the lack of decent accommodation at Tungnath.
Accommodation at Chopta for Chandrashila
No permanent accommodation is available at Chopta. Multiple agencies have set up tents in the meadows near Chopta to accommodate tourists.
Contact person for accommodation: Mr. Rahul Negi: 9997629633.
Mr. Negi arranged good quality tents near Chopta for our group. He also offered packed lunch for the trek and delicious chicken stew for our tired limbs.
Food at Chandrashila
The local ‘pahaadi’ food in this region is delicious. The ‘dal’(pulses stew) was prepared in a very good fashion. There are various small dhabas(roadside restaurants) that serve parathas and the usual north Indian fare. One can request a good chicken stew at Chopta from any agency they are camping with.
Nights at Chopta
The meadows near the Chopta serve as a perfect camping spot. At night there are many bonfires organized and people congregate there for the warmth. One can catch beautiful views of the stars and the Chandrashila summit. The place is teeming with wildlife and one can sight quite a few exotic birds. Our guides warned us about wild animals in the region and asked us to venture out at night in groups.
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