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Wild in the White

Wild in the White
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The unique spiritual wealth of the Himalayan State of Uttarakhand has been attracting pilgrims since time immemorial for the famous yatra to the Chardhams of Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. However, in recent years, the state has also become the destination for those seeking to hike through challenging terrain, climb lofty peaks, trek the glaciers, raft through choppy waters and enjoy various other adventure sports.

Skiing and snowboarding

Uttarakhand in winter is simply heaven on earth. With about 90 percent of Uttarakhand’s geographical area being mountainous and more than 60 percent of the total area under forest cover, the view of a white blanket of snow over the dense green vegetation is breathtaking. It creates just the right mood for frolicking on the icy slopes.

Uttarakhand offers three main winter activities – skiing and snowboarding, trekking and watersports. Recently, a facility has also been created for ice-skating in Dehradun. The successful organisation of the South Asian Federation (SAF) Winter Games in January 2011 at Auli further enhanced both the potential for adventure sports and the interest of those looking for adventure during the winter months.

Besides Auli, the other centres being developed for skiing are Mundali near Chakrata, Dayara Bugyal in Bhagirathi valley and Munsyari in Pithoragarh in the Kumaon hills. Numerous other places in Garhwal and Kumaon have potential for skiing, where an individual or a group can enjoy this winter sport on their own. In Garhwal, there is Kush Kalyan and Kedar Kantha in Uttarkashi and Panwali and Matya in Tehri Garhwal, Bedni Bugyal in Chamoli, as well as Chiplakot Valley in Pithoragarh district in Kumaon, all potential skiing areas where professionals can enjoy skiing in isolation. Garhwal and Kumaon also offer the exciting possibility of ski-touring among the glaciers.

For the avid skier, cross-country runs of 10-20 km are now available, with the added advantage of fresh powder, where you can avoid the criss-crossing streams of skiers that crowd the slopes of the European Alps.

Auli lies on the way to Badrinath and is blessed with a breathtaking panoramic view of the lofty peaks of the greatest mountain range in the world, as it lies along the Garhwal Himalayas of Uttaranchal. Auli is covered with a thick carpet of snow, about 3 metres deep, from January to March. Often called the Switzerland of the east, it is situated at an altitude of 3,049 metres (11,000 feet), and offers a panoramic view of Himalayan peaks like Nanda Devi (7817 mts), Kamet (7756 mts), Mana Parvat (7273 mts) and Dunagiri (7066 mts). About16 km from Joshimath, it is an ideal winter resort, providing easy access to the ski slopes, and has emerged as one of India’s major wintersports playgrounds for Indians and foreigners alike. Joshimath, the gateway to Badrinath temple and the seat of Lord Badrinarayan during winter, no longer remains desolate during this time. When snow covers the Alaknanda valley, this small town comes alive with a large number of tourists whizzing along the skiing slopes and the adrenaline levels rise as snowfall progressively gets heavier and tourists are able to negotiate the steep gradients.

The slopes here provide enough thrills for the professional skier and novice as well. The snow capped slopes of auli are flanked by stately coniferous and oak forests which cut wind velocity to a minimum. Seasonal skiers have clean streches of absolutely virgin slopes to play on. These slopes provide excellent opportunities for cross country, slalom and downhill skiing events. Winter skiing in Garhwal is now being professionally run on the Auli slopes by trained professionals.

Long stretches of 10-20 km of snow is the highlight of Auli’s ski slopes and snow beaters and snow-packing machines are continually used to keep the slopes dressed and fit for skiing at all times. The main 3 km-long slope, ranging from a height of 2519 mts to 3049 mts, with a drop in elevation of 500 metres, serves as an excellent skiing ground that meets international standards.

The natural advantages of Auli’s slopes, which offers superlative skiing conditions if the snowfall is good, coupled with state-of the-art facilities provided by Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam Limited (GMVNL), a government agency, which takes care of the slopes and has imported the snow dredgers, has made it a skiing destination comparable to the best in the world.

Auli, in fact, is so good that French and Austrian experts have compared it favourably to the slopes in Switzerland. The Skiing Festival in Auli is held annually between January and March and participants can access over 20 kms of pristine slopes for slalom events, besides opportunities for winning cross-country and downhill skiing competitions during the National Championships.

The world’s highest man-made lake is at Auli, right next to the private hotel, Clifftop Club. The government has built it to create artificial snow on the new ski slopes in the event of low snowfall. The water from this lake is used to feed the snow guns stationed along the ski slopes and provide a good skiing surface, that can also extend the sporting  season.

While in some areas the snow blocks out tourists, in Auli, it is boom time thanks to its overhead ropeway, named Rajju. Auli has a 4.15 km-long  ropeway, said to be the longest zig-zag ropeway in Asia, linking it with downtown Joshimath from its ski centre. It is also the 2nd highest ropeway in all of Asia at 3030 mts, and consists of 10 towers of self-supporting steel structures, complete with saddles and shoes. Safety factors include remote-controlled hydraulic and pneumatic braking systems.

In addition, an 800 mt long chair-lift connects the lower slopes with the upper slopes, making it easy for skiers to zip up in moments. Once there, they can snowboard down rapidly, while others hike down the snow-paths at leisure. There is also an imported, state-of-the-art ski-lift system with a length of 500 mts, the longest in the country, which also carries skiers back to the slope top, thus saving them the trouble and time to bridge up wearing long skis. The ski lifts cost around Rs 50 and operate from November to March.

Apart from annual skiing festivals, three official National Championships have also been held in Auli. Sports like paragliding and snowboarding are also becoming popular and there are ambitious plans for night skiing, heliboarding and snowmobiles for tourists in the future.

James Nagi, a British tourist is all praise for the pristine slopes of Auli. ‘Snowboarding was pretty laidback, the food was great, and weather couldn’t have been better. We landed at the hotel in the middle of a huge snowstorm. The storm subsided by the next morning and the sun shone on a clear sky for all the days we were in Auli. There was soft, dry, virgin snow all around, better than what I have ever seen before. The only problem was that there was just too much, so the areas off the groomed runs were a nightmare on the snowboard. I couldn’t hike out of the skiing area either, as my feet kept sinking in. But Himalayas are fantastic as far as scenery goes, and the skiing itself is one of the best in the world. What Auli lacks in size, it makes up in views, snow and weather. The Nanda Devi is visible from everywhere on the ski runs and the other mountains feel even closer. The journey here was out of this world and for me, it is better than New Zealand, France and the US. This is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It is absolutely brilliant. All it needs is a bit of night-life.’

Trekking

There are numerous trekking options available in Auli itself. The climate in summers is extremely pleasant and the air from the deodar and oak trees and hot springs nearby prove a natural health spa, recommended by therapists. Behind Clifftop resort in Auli lies the famous high-altitude Gorson Reserve forest and Gorson peak, (part of Nanda Devi National Park), inhabited by rare Himalayan wildlife including the Snow Leopard, Musk Deer, Wild Boar, Wild Cat, Wild Rabbit, Jackal, Fox, Hyena and Bears. There are various scenic locations all around and some of the trails that can normally be completed in a single day are Auli-Gorson route of around 7 km, the Gorson-Tali trail of 6 km, the Tali--Kuari Pass of around 11 km, Kuari Pass-Khulara route of around 12 km and the Khulara-Tapovan trek of around 9 kms. The trek to nearby Gurso Bugyal gives opportunity for a brilliant view of the Himalayan peaks like Nanda Devi, Trishul and Dronagiri, Haathi Parbat and Mana Parbat.

The Bhagirathi valley, which largely falls in Uttarkashi district, provides extraordinary opportunities for trekking, both during summers and winters. There are famous trek routes around Gangotri, which is a few hours away from Uttarkashi. The popular trekking routes are Gangotri-Gaumukh-Tapovan, Gangotri-Badarinath, Har Ki Dun, Kalindikhal Pass, Kedar Tal, Khatling, Kauri-Tapovan, Kedarnath-Vasuki Tal, Nanda Devi, Panch Kedar, Roop Kund, Rishikesh-Gopeshwar, Rishikesh-Pauri-Binsar-Chandrashila and Dodi Tal.

You can also trek through glaciers if you are up for the challenge. Some trekking routes include Bhunar khal and Kanari khal (Pass), Pindari Glacier, Kafni Glacier, Sunderdhunga Glacier, Namik Glacier and the Milam Glacier.

Mountaineering

The mountains, forests and river systems of the state provide a unique opportunity for both learning and enjoying mountaineering and rock-climbing. Uttarkashi was chosen as the home for the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM), established in 1965 on the northern bank of the Bhagirathi River, mainly because of its proximity to the Gangotri region in western Garhwal, which has the best climbing and training potential in India, and perhaps in the world. Two of India’s mightiest rivers, the Ganga and the Yamuna, originate from the glaciers of Uttarakhand and are fed by various glacial melts, lakes and streams in the region.

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