The unsolved mystery of Skeleton Lake

The rising sun was not yet shining on the icy and snowy cirque where I rested after a morning walk towards a glacial tarn. Cold and miserable, at a dizzying height of 4,800m in the Indian Himalayas, I couldn’t muster the energy to take care of the pile of human skeletons piled up beside the frozen lake known as Roopkund. In 2009 when I hiked the mystery of “Skeleton Lake” was considered solved and the Roopkund Trek was well on its way to changing the course of India’s nascent trekking scene.

However, more than a decade later, the little lake not only has become a victim of its fame, but it continues to confuse even as revolutionary strides have been made in understanding our past.

In 1942, HK Madhwal, an Indian forestry official, came across hundreds of human skeletons stored in and around Lake Roopkund. He reported the strange discovery – a mysterious lake where between 300 and 800 people met a tragic end – and the freezing Himalayas continued to preserve human remains. In the late 1950s, the gruesome discovery of the mountain was announced to the public, sparking great interest and triggering several investigations that continue to this day.

All of this was only secondary to dozens of hikers who, like me, have walked Roopkund over the past decade, mostly won over by the unprecedented views, diverse landscapes and challenging route.

Located five days from the nearest settlement in the state of Uttarakhand, the one-week trek covering over 50 km departs from idyllic Himalayan villages that are nothing more than a cluster of traditional houses . Passing through ethereal haze and moss-covered oak forests, the trail then winds past vast mountain pastures laden with wildflowers, known locally as the bugyals, which only occur above the height of 3,300 m in the Himalayas. The high Himalayan peaks appear soon and dominate the horizon for the next two days. The highest point of the 5,000m trek is Junargali, a knife-shaped ridge with a 360-degree view of the High Himalayas and the rugged glacial landscape.

Roopkund is 200 m below this ridge. Junargali’s dangerous and steep climb led to a common joke among hikers that a misstep could easily add more bone to the existing pile in the lake. Almost 80 years after Skeleton Lake first captured the world’s imaginations, this simple joke doesn’t seem too far-fetched after the recent revelations.