Not many trekkers have heard of the Kugti Pass trek and it is not surprising why. It is virtually unexplored – and perhaps that is its beauty – one of the unknown treks of India, yet marked with all the grandness of any great Himalayan trek. If you love trekking, then the Kugti Pass is a trek that needs to be a priority in your treks for the future.
The Kugti pass trek is rare and remote – On the lower trails the trek winds through acres of apple orchards, pine forests and over miles of green meadows. Water falls are everywhere. Camp sites spring out next to streams and green grass. On the higher slopes, the trail weaves through snow fields, glaciers and ice falls. The thrill of high altitude is intoxicating.
The Kugti Pass trek climbs to 16,600 feet and many sections are rigorous. For those who are beginners to high altitude trekking, this can be daunting. We strongly advocate prior experience in high altitude trekking before attempting the Kugti Pass.
The trek starts at Bharmour, a bustling well connected town, 65 kms from Chamba. It is easy to get to Bharmour. Take any bus to Chamba from Pathankot, and then another connecting bus to Bharmour.
Bharmour has many places to stay and the wisest thing is to find a place to stay somewhere near the bus stand. No advance booking is necessary and you can even negotiate room rates. Avoid, if you can, the Manimahesh Yatra season between Krishna Janmasthami and Radhasthami – a 15 day chaotic period in late August or early September when the town is a fortress of thousands of pilgrims making their way to the Manimahesh lake.
Day 1. Bharmour to Kugti village (8,500 feet)
Bharmour to Dharol in vehicles. Dharol (7,600 ft) to Kugti (8,500 ft). Easy undulating walk with mild altitude gain. 5½ kms 3 hours.
Ensure all your supplies for the trek is bought at Bharmour – after Bharmour you get nothing on the trek and it makes sense to scrutinize your trek shopping list carefully before moving out. However, at Kugti village you do get groceries like rice, dal, wheat but nothing much more.
This is your plan for the day: First get to Dharol, the start point of your trek by vehicle. Dharol is 19 kms from Bharmour. Dharol is the last point where vehicles ply and even though some folks (and a few internet sources) say there is a vehicular road to Kugti — it is not true. From Dharol you have to trek for 5½ kms to arrive at Kugti. The route to Dharol first goes to Hadsar, the start point of the Manimahesh Yatra, and then continues to Dharol another 6 kms further on. Hadsar is 13 kms out of Bharmour.
Hire a Sumo out of Bharmour to Dharol. There are plenty available near the bus stand. The hustle bustle of Bharmour dies out almost immediately as the vehicle leaves the town past the helipad on your left. Occasional needle pines line the road but for most parts the narrow road careens over a gorge over the Budhil river 500 feet below. The road mildly descends until Hadsar, a busy one street settlement that caters only to the pilgrims of the Manimahesh Yatra. If short of porters, Hadsar is the last point to look for them.
The road crosses the Budhil over an iron bridge at Hadsar and immediately turns into a narrow dirt track. The uneven road bumps and grinds over a series of switchbacks to climb sharply to Dharol, 6 kms away.
Dharol is a surprise for most trekkers. It is nothing but two wooden houses facing each other at the end of the dirt track. Unload your gears while the friendly shopkeeper of one of the two houses prepares tea for your team. Fill water at Dharol though you get some clear streams on the way.
The trail to Kugti is wide and is an extension of the dirt track. Step out of Dharol past a small apple orchard on your left. Fifteen minutes later, watch the trail dip sharply into a fold of the mountain and cross a quaint wooden bridge, that is nothing but a few logs joined together by planks. Climb gently out of the fold to find the Budhil rushing below you. On the other side of the river, a dense pine forest climbs high into the mountain only to be broken by a waterfall or a stream running through it.
The trail hugs the side of the mountain, veering just over the river, but is wide enough for trekkers to walk comfortably. Shepherds with their flock of sheep often move down the slope; and you are likely to be caught in the middle of one such caravan. The sight of hundreds of sheep passing through your legs is a delight.
The trail continues to climb intermittently for the next forty minutes. Around a bend, watch for a waterfall cascading over the trail, take a swipe under it and continue over the trail now dug out of the rock face of the mountain. The trail immediately climbs sharply upwards and rounds a bend to come under the shades of giant Cyprus trees. So large are the trees in their girth that it would take many people with their hands outstretched to encircle one of them.
Catch your breath and take a swig of water as this spot mark the half way point to Kugti. In the far distance, towards the end of the valley, watch for the first signs of settlement. The Budhil now opens out over a wider valley, the dense pine forest continuing to keep it company on the other side of the river.
Walk up the now gentle undulating trail with pines as company. A wide curve of the trail and a bend later, the view opens out to the first construction of Kugti. Below and on the other side of a stream that crosses your path is a large grey building. It is a primary school under construction.
It is a sharp short switchback decent to the stream, before rejoining the trail that widens out to a flat straight walk through a thick canopy of pines. The school passes below you. Twenty minutes later watch for a tributary that joins the Budhil below you, signaling the start of the Kugti village. The trail veers sharply to the left and around a bend the entire Kugti village opens out in a picturesque settlement.
Do not enter the village, but ask the locals for direction to the Forest Rest House. It is directly above the trail at the entrance of the village. Located in an idyllic setting the Kugti Forest Rest house overlooks the entire Kugti village. With the Budhil flowing below through a gorge, the Kugti village looks perched over a high cliff. On the other side of the river, the thick impenetrable pine forests still continue to overlook the setting.
The caretaker of the Forest Rest House can fix you up a room quickly (ideally booked at Bharmour) or use the grounds of the FRH to set up your tents.
Day 2. Kugti (8,500 feet) to Duggi (11,000 feet)
Via Kelang temple (4 kms). Mostly gentle climbs with a short steep climb to Kelang temple, further followed by easy undulating walk to Duggi. Total distance 7 kms. Time: 5 hours.
The days trek has numerous changes in scenery at the end of which you camp above the tree line.
Start early from Kugti, cross the village with its two storied wooden houses and brightly painted exteriors. Watch the village come to life with smoke spiraling through the roofs of houses and dew drops hanging on the needle leaves of the pines. Cross the village, a large stream signaling the last house of the village, and start to climb sharply immediately after.
A statue of Hanuman looms menacingly at the end of the short climb. Immediately after the trail turns left sharply and splits into two – with one going higher and the other lower. Stick to the trail going higher and continue your trek through a colourful kaleidoscope of fields. Apple orchards line the sides of the trail and in season apple laden trees are ready for plucking for the eager trekker! The Budhil still continues to rush through a gorge below and you get only an occasional peek of the river. The thick pines on the other side give way to small clearings where Kugti villagers grow their food in a myriad display of colours.
From high above, to your left, a big tributary tumbles down to meet the Budhil, traveling the last few moments through a gorge. Over the gorge through the pines a bridge hangs over the tributary – lonely, isolated and a lifeline for civilization.
The trail veers left again at the confluence of the two rivers opening up a different view. This is the Kelang temple valley and rises rapidly from the river below stretching far out high in the horizon. The trail begins to climb in a steeper gradient eventually arriving at a shelter on your left. For a weary trekker this is a welcome break with a clear water source nearby. From the shelter, high above to your left, sketched out in the green meadow background, spot a flurry of colourful flags and a cluster of buildings. This is the Kelang temple, still 1000 feet higher.
The valley becomes sparse and the trees on your side of the trail become fewer. On the other side, cliffs and steep mountain side tower over the river. The pines still dense where they get a hold to grow. Follow the cliffs for a sight that takes the wind out of you – perched high above a cliff on the very edge of a sheer drop is an outline of a temple. So high is the temple that your eye fail to catch its shape unless you focus through a zoom lens. This is the Mata Marala temple. Locals on the trail point an incredulous path leading to the temple – for a common trekker a feat hard to imagine.
The trail continues to gain height though the trail dips and rises a few times, eventually arriving at a stream directly below the climb to the Kelang temple. It is a steep 600 feet, switch back climb to the Keylang temple.
Prayer flags line the way as you climb to the temple. Just before you step inside the temple complex, watch for water sprouting out of a makeshift pipe. It is laden with iron and the spot around it stained with a reddish tinge – locals believe the water can cure anything.
Step into the Kelang temple complex. At 10,500 feet the air is thin and the rest at the temple welcoming.
Spare some moments to look inside the chambers of the Kelang temple lined up with scores of bells. Outside, chains of iron, used to beat oneself up (called Sangal), line the outer wall. Around a square perennial well, are lined hundreds of iron Trishuls and Sothus, an offering by the followers to the god they worship.
Two shops outside the temple sell mostly religious paraphernalia but you do get some snacks, biscuits and toffees to buy too.
The trail continues past the shop over a rising mound to another temple complex – this one dedicated to Mata Marala, a temple requested by devotees who did not want to make the daunting climb to the cliff above.
Skirt around the outer wall of the temple and over a small grassy meadow before entering another grove of pine trees. The pines are dense but shorter. Below, in their grassy shade juniper bushes and colourful wild flowers grow in abundance. The trail descends through the pine trees, the small forest ending in a sharp descent to a stream.
Loose soil and a steep hill side give very little foothold for trekker. The section isn’t for long and within five minutes you are at the stream and climbing your way out of the descent.
The trail continues in an easy undulating trail over grassy embankments, with the Budhil rushing in a wide valley not many feet below you. Occasionally the trail narrows and you need to clamber over a few junipers to get a foot hold. Look out for a few boulder moraines through which the trail weaves its way in and out. Ahead the high cliffs ends in another valley running horizontally across the one you are hiking forming a ‘T’
An hour later descend to the valley. It is a grassy meadow at the valley junction with another tributary joining the Budhil. The large expanse of green meadows makes an exquisite camping ground. Streams run on either side of your camp. Around, tall cliffs rising over 3000-4000 feet complete the grandness of the setting. This is Duggi Goth – a spot where shepherds bring their flock for grazing. The sun rises and sets on either ends of the valley making it a remarkable place to camp.
Day 3. Duggi (10,500 feet) to Alyas (13,900 feet)
Gradual to steep climb followed by easy walk. Total distance 8 kms. Time: 6 hours
It is a long day of hiking where you gain critical height all through. Most of the day’s trek is above the tree line so it makes sense to start the day early – preferably by 7 am.
Cross the boulder strewn moraine through which runs the tributary that joins the Budhil, at places you need to hop, skip and jump over running water, before arriving at the full bodied stream over which there is a log bridge. Cross the bridge, climb over the remaining boulders on the other side and arrive at the extension of the meadows.
Follow the trail that swiftly cuts across the meadows, hugs the side of the mountain and begins to climb immediately. The Budhil starts to fall below you. Crest the top of the green ridge and the Duggi valley opens ahead of you.
Below, a dark moraine filled glacier falls over the Budhil. A kilometer ahead another glacier hangs over the Budhil, but clearer and white. The trail hugs the side of the mountain, climbing steadily.
The valley widens out and the trail winds in and out of the folds of the mountain but maintaining a steady upward easterly direction throughout. The valley is green and dotted with juniper bushes. Halfway through the valley, near a stream, but before you reach the second glacier; look for a rocky overhang below the trail. This is Duggi Cave.
Chances of missing Duggi Cave are high if a local does not point it out to you. Duggi Cave is often a camping spot for trekkers. It is not really a cave but a rock overhang. There is space enough for 4-5 trekkers to lie down comfortably. The ground is ash strewn with remains of cooking fire always around. Duggi Cave opens out to the eastern end of the valley and a wind blowing through can make an extremely cold night.
Fill your bottles at the stream and continue your gentle climb out of the valley. An hour later, the trail overlooks another valley that intersects the one you are on, again forming a ‘T’. A stream, larger than the Budhil cascades down a valley flowing down from vast snow fields running down the sides of the tall mountains ahead of you. It meets the Budhil at a large flat meadow with lush green grasses below the trail. So stunning is the prettiness of the setting that it takes a while for the trekker to take it in.
The Budhil turns almost 90 degrees to the left and so does your trail, now looking up to a narrower “V” shaped valley. The valley bottom rises rapidly to end at a boulder strewn moraine hugging the sides of the cliffs to your left. The Budhil rises rapidly and comes cascading down two high mounds to the right of the moraine. Above and beyond the mounds is Alyas.
The gradient is steeper but it is an even climb. The Budhil is now a much narrow stream and its volume a lot less. The two mounds to climb appear closer and more intimidating. On your right, spot a stream gushing out of the side of the mountain on the other side of the Budhil. From this spot, the trail inclines perceptibly more and catches up with the Budhil at the base of the mounds in half an hour.
The base of the mounds is another striking camp site. A large flat meadow with statues of boulders planted over a cover of green grass, it has a sparkling clear stream that emerges from the bottom of the boulder strewn moraines running to its right. To the left the Budhil tumbles down from the top of the mounds. Around in three directions are mountains encircling the meadow protecting it from the elements.
There are two mounds to cross, one after the other. The climb up the first mound is sheer, through a series of sharp switchbacks. Half an hour later you top the mound. It opens to a pretty flat ground which forms the base of the climb to the second mound. The second mound is less steep and the climb ends in 15 minutes at the start of Alyas.
Alyas is a table-top open grassland. In the cusp of a cauldron surrounded by towering peaks all laden with snow, Alyas is a vast meadow stretching for over a kilometer in length. Flowers spring up every where in the greenery. A series of small landscaped hillocks line the left flank of Alyas. The Budhil, now a much smaller stream cuts a path directly through Alyas, sticking to the right flank of the meadow. At the far end of Alyas towering high moraines emerging from the shadows of the mountain flanks surrounding Alyas, descend to the green grounds of the meadows.
Directly ahead, beyond the moraines merging with the snow fields settled at its bottom, the precipitous flanks of a mountain face soars into the horizon, forming a ridge line in the sky. The top of the daunting ridge line is Kugti Pass.
Skirt the left flank of Alyas, riding on the ridges of the hillocks, and scamper over the remains of a very old boulder strewn moraine. Beyond the moraine a lovely grassy patch with a sparking brook running through it makes a perfect camping ground. Pitch your tent here to mark your Alyas camp. From the start of Alyas it is an hour long mesmerizing walk to your camp.
Note: For people on the Lahaul side of Himachal Pradesh, Alyas means camping ground before or after a pass crossing. So any trek in Lahaul generally has two Alyases. One on either side of the pass. Alyas is a generic term and not a name of a place. Some Alyas do have names, like Kodlu, which is on the other side of the Kugti Pass. However, they are better known as Alyas.
Day 4. Alyas (13,900 feet) to Kodlu Alyas (12,500 feet) Via Kugti Pass (16,600 feet)
Steep climb followed by steep descent. Total distance 8 kms. Time: 11 hours.Start the day by 5 am; it is a long climb to the top of the Kugti Pass. The descent is grueling and is one of the longest you will ever do.
The climb to the Kugti Pass can be divided into four stages. The first is the climb to the top of the moraine out of which gushes a stream. The next stage is to climb another moraine behind it to reach the snow fields at the base of the mountain. The third stage is to get on the snow field and get as close as possible to the left flank of the mountain near the base of the climb to the Kugti pass. The fourth stage is to climb through boulders and stones to get on top of the Kugti Pass.
For most parts of the year these stages could be covered in snow and the terrain white. An ice axe is invaluable and a rope helps.
Spot the rivulet running down the moraine right in front of you – this is often called the Chor Nala, and is the real source of the Budhil. Trace a path to the left of the moraine flanking it to get on top from the rear of the moraine. At the top is a wide stretch of moraines. Stick to the trail that leads to the ridge that leads to the climb to a moraine right in front of you. It is a short breathless climb of fifteen minutes.
At the top of the second moraine a vast expanse of snow field stretches out. The snow field climbs over an icefall before settling on another field that merges with the flank of the mountain on all three sides.
Strike out a path close to the left flank of the mountain, meeting the ice fall where it is the least steep and less crevasse filled. On days when the snow is less, a clear trail and footprints of hundreds of sheep passing through the snow is visible making it easier for the trekker to forge a path. It takes twenty minutes to reach the foot of the ice fall. Stepping on the ice fall, it is a short climb to reach the snow field on top. There are a few crevasses on the left of your trail and are easily avoided by just watching out for them. From the top of the ice fall it is another short gentle climb to reach the base of the climb to the Kugti pass.
Kugti pass is not visible even from the base of the climb. High above, hidden behind a fold in the mountain, Kugti pass does not reveal itself until you get to the last 50 meters of the climb.
The climb to Kugti pass is almost vertical over boulders and stones and rises to about one thousand feet to the top of the pass. Nearing 16,000 feet the air is thin and every step a difficult one. Stopping often forge a trail through the moraines of boulders to arrive at the top of the pass. On a good day with less snow it takes an hour to make the climb to the pass from the base though often you may have to use all your four limbs to clamber up the slope.
Kugti Pass at 16,600 feet is a ridge top with space for a few trekkers to stand. A small shrine with prayer flags is the only visible symbol of the pass. A collection of Trishuls and Sothus lie at the foot of the shrine – a gesture to the god from many shepherds for the successful crossing of the pass.
The view on the other side is of a stark and barren Lahaul, a complete contrast to the green that is on the side just climbed. Far below is the start of a moraine filled glacier that stretches in a northerly direction for many kilometers. The Kugti Pass is at the pinnacle of a large concave that marks the descent to the glacier, 1,500 feet below. If there is snow on the flanks of the Lahaul side of the pass, then a straight descent with ropes is the easiest way to get down.
On days with less snow, a trail is visible traversing down the side of the mountain slope to your left. Follow the dusty trail, which is sometimes over loose stone and scree and arrive at a switchback descent that rapidly loses altitude in an hour and a half to arrive at the top of the snow field before the start of the glacier.
The snowfield sharply at first eases out to a gradual descent to the moraine filled glacier. From your vantage point a clear trail is visible over the moraines. Strike a path over the snowfield that takes you to the start of the trail. Fill your bottle at the many clear water channels that run through the glacier before disappearing into the folds of the ice many feet under the moraine. There is no other water source until you get to Alyas many hours later.
The trek through the many folds of the moraines is tedious and tiring. The trail dips and rises every few meters and the toil is hard on the trekker. The moraines are a mixer of boulders and stones held together with loose soil and scree – often slippery with wet earth and at other times dusty and loose. Negotiating them is tedious and time consuming. Trekking a kilometer of trail takes about an hour. Frequent rock falls on the mountain slopes above the glacier resound through the silent valley.
Two hours later, an arm of the moraine forms a ridge that descends gradually over to the edge, after which is an emptiness of the horizon, signaling the end of the moraines. Walk along the ridge until you spot the first patch of greenery on a level ground about two hundred feet below the ridge to your right. Spot a few trails that run along the green parallel to the ridge. This is your signal to descend down to the green patch leaving the ridge to the left and above you.
The green patch does not last long and you are once again in a small flat moraine filled valley. The moraine valley dips abruptly and for the first time you get a view of the valley below you. The Kodlu Alyas is an expanse of green, a welcome break from the dusty brown moraines you have been hiking on for the past couple of hours. A ridge of gentle hills lines the eastern side of Alyas. Spot a singular white shelter at the far end of the ridge. The shelter is your camp for the day, still an hour and a half and 1,500 feet below you.
Faint trails line the side of the valley to your left. Catch one of them keeping an eye always on the shelter and start your steep descent down to the valley floor. The descent is rough over scree, loose soil and stones. Near the bottom of the descent as the slope eases out, cross a clear stream and resume your walk, now over the grassy ridge that leads to the white shelter.
It takes half an hour to get to the shelter from the stream. The shelter is a large room with an enclosed smaller room that backs up as the kitchen. Shepherds use the shelter to cook and rest. You have a choice to stay inside the shelter or camp anywhere in the green grass all around the shelter. This is Alyas on the Lahaul side. Also called the Kodlu Alyas.
You are at a higher ground from the rest of Alyas, on top of a ridge. Below, the Kodlu Nala falls down from the top of the glacier moraine that you just descended and meanders through the green valley bottom. Near the edge of the stream spot a stone structure with prayer flags adorning it. This is the remains of the Kodlu temple. The grounds near the temple also form an excellent camping ground.
Day 5. Alyas (12,500 feet) to Rappe (9,500 feet)
Gradual to steep descent. Total distance 4 kms. Time: 3 hours.
It is a relatively easy trek day to the road head of Rappe. So you can afford to start the day a bit lazily.
Start out of Alyas following the trail that heads down to the Kodlu nala valley. The first few minutes of the trail is nice and easy. Fifteen minutes into the trek, the greenery suddenly vanishes to be replaced by more moraines. Descend through the loose trail over boulders and stones and confront yourself with the first of the many landslides to come.
The trail disappears when you have to traverse the landslides, leaving little foothold for the trekker. Some of the landslides fall directly into the Kodlu Nala and a timely hand hold from a fellow trekker or a guide is reassuring and helpful.
The trail descends down the valley rapidly. As you descend spot the first of the vegetations and trees on the slope and at the end of the valley a brown full bodied river – the Chandrabhaga. On the other side of the river, much above the banks the Udaipur-Keylong road.
Two hours into the descent, a wooden bridge spans the Kodlu nala. The trail continues on the other side of the stream, along a water channel made by farmers, ascending again gradually first and then sharply to reach a ridge above the village of Rappe. From here the first sign of civilization hits you as you step into the fields of local farmers. Rappe is another half an hour walk away.
Sometimes the bridge may be washed off by flash floods or rain. In such a situation, do not descend to the stream but continue the trail on your side of the mountain until you come to a cement water channel. A clear path follows the side of the water channel making it a wide bodied trail to follow.
The trail along the water channel nearing the end of the valley opens out to a magnificent colourful view of the first villages of Lahaul. Starting with Jalma on your left, followed by Rappe barely seen and Jobrang directly ahead. Follow your eye to another bridge over the Kodlu Nala, the village of Russel and finally Sansha to your right separated by a bit of distance from the other villages.
The trail veers right at this spot and after a while a trail drops suddenly to the valley floor leaving the trail along the cement water channel. Take the trail that drops to the valley floor to arrive fifteen minutes later to a gushing stream that meets the Kodlu Nala. This is the start of civilization as you step into fields of potatoes, hops, and wheat.
Cross a log bridge over the Kodlu Nala, and traverse a few more fields of cabbage and hops to enter an apple orchard. Under the shady trees of apples, the trail suddenly pops out to a tarred road and an iron bridge over the Chandrabhaga. You are at the road head of the Jobrang village.
A few private vehicles ply out of Jobrang or you can pre-arrange a vehicle to pick you up from Manali. If you want to spare the expense of a pre-arranged vehicle, cross the iron bridge and climb up to the Udaipur-Keylong road. Himachal road transport buses and shared Sumo taxis ply on the road and a wait for half an hour to an hour should see you a vehicle getting you to Manali or Keylong.