16 March. Suketar to Simbu. 12 km. 4.5 hours. 300m up. 990m down. The two porters, Ramesh and Santos took the night bus from Kathmandu to Bertimod with all our baggage while Bharat and I flew to Biratnagar and took a taxi to Birtimod where we would meet around 10 and then charter a jeep for the four of us and all the baggage to take us up to Taplejung some seven hours drive away. Unfortunately a bearing broke on the overnight bus wheel and they were eight hours late. We left in our jeep as it got dark and had a hard drive for three hours past 1am to a dull pretentious hotel. The next morning the four of us got back into the jeep with the driver and drove another 4-5 hours to Taplejung and on to the nearly mothballed airport at Suketar where the road ended. We had a daltbat here to fortify us for the walk.
By the time the food was cooked at the bhatti we had packed the porters’ baskets and we ready to take our first of many million steps. After a group photo we raised out loads and headed east up the dusty track with the occasion rustic 4 wheel drive jeep, loaded to the gunwales, labouring past and blowing up dust. It was a short hike up to Deurali, which was a busy hamlet catering for pilgrims to the important Phathibhara Temple, but is now by passed by a dusty track where jeeps ferry the devout. We stopped for water here and then headed down the other side of the pass. It was largely forest on this side with some clearings far below. The road was carved into the hillside, sometimes precariously, and it made frequent hairpins. Where possible people have stamped a shortcut between the bends.
The forest was warm and humid but the haze in the air smothered the distant views beyond the next valley. It was largely dust and smoke in the air which is only in the early morning and dusk. Amongst the large tree were Rhododendrons vibrant with red flowers. However it was the grand magnolia trees which stole the show with the bright bulbous branches thick in white flowers. Much of the route was down on the track passing some homesteads until we got to the hamlet of Lalikharka. It was mooted as a place to stay but it was just 3pm and we had only walked two hours so I suggested we walk on Simbu in an hour and a half.
We went into the kitchen for a tea. I was overwhelmed with nostalgia inside. It was the genuine rural idyll inside with a neat earth stove and shelves of tin and copper utensils. Some dry meat was hanging from the rafters preserving itself in the smoke. How far removed is this from the noisy chaos of Kathmandu. it was the first time I had relaxed with the porters in a relaxed setting and I knew I would get on with both of them. Bharat has chosen well.
After the tea we continued down through clusters of homesteads circling above the pastoral village of Tembewa as we contoured across the hillside peppered with the bright red Rhododendron flowers. We then crossed a ridge and started a long descent on a rocky path. As we descended we reached homesteads in small fields now given over to cardamom, it being the new gold fever crop of the region.
With tired legs we reached the main cluster of Simbu where I found the rustic hotel I had been told about. They had a very simple room for me and space for Bharat, Santos and Ramesh on the floor. However they had a cosy kitchen and pressure cookers hissing with cooking rice and dahl. I retired to my room to write while the others hung about until it got dark and then moved into the kitchen. I could hear the buoyant barrel-chested Santos holding court. It was quite a short day but we were all glad it was over and I was delighted to be back in rural Nepal.
17 March. Simbu to Phumphe Danda. 18 km. 8 hours. 1160m up. 990m down. We all slept well in the cosy tea house and left after a quick breakfast at 0800. We could and should have left much earlier as it was daylight by 0600 and by 0800 it was already getting warm. We descended for almost an hour through small terraced fields and then into the humid warm jungle at the deep valley floor. We now faced the daunting prospect of a gruelling 700m climb in the hot sun. Santos and Ramesh paused frequently and Bharat stayed with them so I decided I would do the whole climb at my slow pace but without stopping before Kande Bhanjyang Pass.
I trudged up the steps occasionally coming to a track which zig-zagged up the hillside carving a ruthless path through what was once peaceful terraced fields. The path generally short cut the zig-zags passing some homesteads and chautera which are resting places under the shade of a peepal tree. After a good hour I passed a rural village, called Hinchhebun, with a school and a few local shops. I stopped to chat in very broken Nepali to occasion people, usually men, working at their homesteads usually opening my conversation by asking directions. My smattering of 3-400 Nepali words slowly returning to me. After about three hours I finally reached the pass and found a clean local shop fun by a Gurung. I asked him to start cooking four dalbhat for me and the other three who I hoped would not stop to eat before at the usual time of 1000.
As always the meal took about 40 minutes to cook and was ready just as the others came into the hamlet. We fell upon the piles of rice, dahl and curried vegetables and cleaned out plates and then washed the meal down with tea and buffalo milk. We then relaxed and chatted with the Gurung owner for another half hour before it was time to set off again around 1300. I again went on ahead descending into a huge crescent formed by two ridges.
I descended into the bowl past homesteads sitting amongst terraced fields until the path entered jungle. The path was easier to follow here as it was less confused. It contoured across the hillside in the jungle and then climbed steep ground up to the other ridge of the bowl where there was a small temple and a chautera. I had a drink of water here waiting for the others but after 20 minutes there was no sign, so I continued through the small hamlet of Phungphung Danda contouring across the steep hillside to the village of Yanpang. Ahead of me far up the valley I could see the high peaks of the Kanchenjunga massif. At the far end of Yanpang was a small bhatti and I was making a beeline for it hoping for more buffalo milk tea to sooth my dusty throat. It was a lovely saunter through the cottages of Yanpang but the bhatti just had black tea. I waited half an hour for the other to catch up and hey looked as tired as I felt.
From the bhatti there was just an hours’ more walking slowly climbing up a ridge, initially gently and then steeply to crest another ridge. It was the final effort of a long day. From the top of the climb it was a delightful walk in the cooler late afternoon sun along a level path high above the valley floor for half an hour to the village of Phumphe Danda. Right at the start was a rustic hotel which seemed neat and tidy. There was also another English speaking group staying here so I was delighted I would have someone else to chat to that evening. Our group split that evening with the Nepalis getting together for a raucous evening in the hotel kitchen while me and the four English speakers gathered in a dining alcove for a quiet meal. I was tired but Ramesh and Santos recovered quickly – Santos so much so he chased a chicken across the hotel yard which ended up in their pot.
I chatted with the expats who were living in Thailand and I was glad of their easy company and gentle witty banter. Bharat came through with a tumble of raksi, told some stories and then disappeared. I hobbled up to bed quite early and slept quickly in the tiny room with the phone charging off a 12v battery system.
18 March. Phumphe Danda to Sherpagoan. 12 km. 6 hours. 990m up. 790m down. The morning did not start well. I was up and packed by seven, but the others had been up until late drinking and dancing. Once they were up I had some gentle words and would leave reading the riot act until later.
Again the day started with a 300 metre descent followed by a quick steep climb up to the village of Manankhe, a small Limbu village with clusters of cottages and a museum of cultural life but it was closed. I was walking with the expats and Santos now.
After leaving Mananhke we all noticed how dark the skies were becoming. This was not good news as any rain here, though unpleasant, would fall as snow higher up, and make life very difficult over any passes. Despite my 16 kg rucksack I felt quite buoyant and relieved to be out of the oppressive heat of the last 2 days. I left the others behind and walked across the steep hillside contouring in and out of steep ravines. Although I say contouring nothing in Nepal is flat and there were many short up and downs.
After in about three hours in all it was about 1100, well after Dalhbhat time and I knew Santos would be getting hungry, as were the other group with the expats so I stopped at a bhatti. The expat’s guide said it was the only place. He soon arrived and we ordered ten, six for them and four for us. It arrived an hour later and was a disappointment as the dahl was barely yellow water.
The small path continued its steep undulations until it descended to the river in the valley below by a swing bridge. We did not cross the bridge but wove through cardamom plantations on the valley floor for a glorious flat km. The sinister sky now broke with large droplets of water crashing into the dust on the path like little meteors. Just as the climb started the lightening and thunder also started which hastened my pace and I soon left the other behind. I powered up the smooth dusty boulders of the path but it became inevitable I would have to stop and cover up for the rain.
The path climbed rapidly up to Yampudin on a ridge. Below it on the valley floor in was a larger village with a big police post. Whether I needed to go there or not I don’t know but I could see the expats and their guide also bypassed it. It was now getting miserable and cold but tomorrow was a big day and it was necessary to continue up the hill for another hour to a delightful village called Sherpagoan. There were three rustic hotels here. I took shelter in one to see where the expats went. They went to the other – it was the nicest place on the trail so far. The rain continued all evening and at the cloud level I could see the forest turning white with snowfall. It did not bode well.
19 March. Sherpagoan to Torantang. 22 km. 8.5hours. 1680m up. 810m down. The hotel was quite noisy and I woke a few times with people crashing about and when my alarm went at 0530 I dis not feel so well rested. To my dismay I heard one of the expats, Oliver shout that he needed a rest day to get over his cough. It was probably a good idea as there was 1400m of ascent in total up to the Lasiya Bhanjyang, 3310m, and it looked like the top half was covered in last nights snow.
Initially the path wove through the forest above Sherpagoan, climbing mostly, and passing a couple of herders with their tiny cattle and a few sheep. Eventually we go to a stream where two streams joined where there was a small bridge which looked like it was from a Japanese garden. This was the last water, and from here the path ascended steeply up the ridge between the streams for a relentless steep zigzagging 3-400 metres. I left the other behind here as they took frequent pauses and I trudged slowly but surely.
There were glimpses through the dense dark forest but I was mostly looking at the hillside. There were bamboos about on the forest floor and I optimistically kept my eye out for a Red Panda as they had been spotted here. After a hard hour I broke out of the jungle onto a more open ridge covered in Rhododendron, many just about to flower and festooned with plump buds. The path continued to climb weaving a route through the trees and across pasture. It was a delight to walk up it. The very fragrant lokti (Bhunia daphne) were just about in full flower and the rhododendrons were just starting. I saw the most florescent bird eating the flowers or the nectar but it was too active to photo. There were great views each side of the ridge from this high pasture.
The pasture did not last and soon the path veered to the east of the ridge and climbed up the flank of a steep knoll. The forest here was largely Rhododendron but of a larger variety with some very venerable trees. They were all covered in mosses and epiphytes and the forest floor was scattered with many clumps of Himalayan primrose. When I finally broke back onto the ridge again I found myself in the Himalayan Silver Fir woods. There was a lot of tree debris on the path which must have been a recent heavy snowfall. The final km up to the pass was very snowy but at last after an ascent of some 1400 metres I reached the small bhatti. There was no sign of the others but I knew they would be labouring and very hungry so I ordered four Dahlbhats. Bharat and Ramesh arrived after an hour and I ate with them others minus Santos. After the meal the loyal, hard-working Ramesh went back to help Santos. He arrived back just as I was leaving with the huge red bag. I have seldom seen such a kind generous act.
Unfortunately there was a sting in the tail, as some 10 years ago a huge landslide had taken out about a km of the path. The landslide, even by Nepali standards was immense, and it was like a open would which would never heal as there was constant rock fall in it and no vegetation could establish itself. The new path went round the lip of this chasm and climbed another 200 metres before coming down the eastern edge of the vast scar. It was quite precarious, as there was about six inches of snow lying on this north facing slope. It took a good hour to gingerly shuffle down the path until the snow became sporadic. I did see the recent tracks from a pair of Red Pandas which had wandered up here within the last six hours.
The path now descended much more gently as it fell diagonally through the large mature Silver Firs. In one clump of bamboo I saw a striking red Blood Pheasant. As I reached the valley floor the mist closed in and gave the forest a mysterious ambience. In all it took about three hours to reach the valley floor from the snowy bhatti at the pass, and I did not see a soul as I wandered through this ancient forest. Once on the forest floor the drizzle turned to sleet and I quickly walked up beside the river for a couple of km to reach the tiny hamlet of Tortong by a bridge. It had a couple of simple lodges and in the cold sleet I chose the first. The others arrived about an hour later. We all piled into the cosy kitchen to warm up. The high cheek-boned owner of the lodge at Cheram arrived joined in. Despite the huge day the porters had both Ramesh and Santos were in great form.
20 March. Torantang to Chesam.12 km. 4.5 hours. 900m up. 50m down. The miserable weather continued through the night and I was getting concerned as the cold sleet down here would be deep snow on the Mirgin La pass we hoped to go over tomorrow. We left at 0800 on this shortish day to up Cheram and were walking across a few inches of snow at once. The sun was melting it on the rhododendron leaves and it occasionally cascaded onto us. There were extensive patches of blue sky but these were short lived and soon grey patches of mist blocked them out.
We wandered up on the north side of the river climbing slowly and overtaking each other. The vigours of yesterday were taking their toll. The forest was lush and dripping in mosses, every stone on the floor was covered in moss, and then with a cap of snow on that. On each side the valley floor rose steeply. It was clad in large silver firs whose crowns were stacked with new snow. They were arranged up the ridges such that the snowy crowns stood out from the dark forest behind as if one were walking through a monochrome Chinese watercolour. Before long the dripping from the branches stopped as the temperature dropped with altitude and the sun was obscured.
It was a very beautiful walk up the snow clad valley but the snow was now 10-15 cm deep. I was ahead of the others and following the footsteps of the Cheram lodge owner and his porter. It was quite a winter wonderland and easy walking but the whole time I was worried about the accumulations on the pass. Suddenly there was a huddle of blood pheasants in the undergrowth of berberis in a forest opening. I was slow to get my camera out but they were magnificent against the snow.
I passed the uninviting campsite in a snow covered pasture at Anda Phedi and was heading down to the river again when a guide and tourist approached. They were coming down from Oktang where they were with a group who were preparing to film two Russians who were attempting to climb the SE face of Jannu later in the spring. We got chatting and discovered we were both from Scotland. Then I put two and two together and guessed his name as Keith Partridge. He was gobsmacked. We had a few mutual friends in common. He was going down to meet the Russians. He said their satellite phone forecast was not good with more snow due.
From here it was only a couple of km up to Chesam. My mind was churning with options. We had to give the pass a go perhaps with an extra porter from Chesam to share the porters’ load, who at 28 kg were at their limit. Bharat would also have to start earning his keep by forging a path for the rest of us to follow. The hotel owner as Chesam also said he would help and he was a big strong Sherpa. Alternatively we would have to return down the valley to Hellok and then go up to Ghunsa from there which would be four days instead of one or two most likely with the snow.
I arrived at the two lodges at Chesam, which was all Chesam was, and was beckoned over by the strong Sherpa. The other lodge was apparently run by his sister. He made me the most delicious milk tea with chopped fresh ginger and then showed me to a surprisingly spacious room. The others arrived over the next half hour with Santos the last announcing his arrival with whoops and bombast. The strong Sherpa, called Dawa Chirri Sherpa, made a great noodle and fresh veg dish as he had been a cook for a trekking outfit called Summit Expeditions for 15 years before setting up himself. After lunch I had a long snooze. As dusk closed in it looked miserable outside with cold grey mist enveloping everything, and icicles forming on the rough hand hewn shingles which made up the roof. We were nearly at 3900 metres now. In the evening it cascaded with snow and a good 15 cm fell in a few hours – dry polystyrene balls which stuck to nothing.
21 March. Chesam to Torantang. 20 km. 7.5 hours. 570m up. 1430m down. That night I did not sleep well and the options were running through my head. I got up around two and went outside and was amazed to see clear skies and a full moon. Perhaps we were destined to make it over the passes after all. I determined to talk to Dawa at first light. I would pay him well to ferry us over and if this big strong Sherpa could not no-one could. I heard him up at 0530 and went to chat to him. Yes he would do it and was delighted with my offer. We would leave ASAP and he would take us over three passes including Mirgin La, at 4836m. He warned it would be difficult. He would leave us at Mirgin La pass and return to Cheram, and we would make our own way down to Selele Camp in a saddle at 4200, where we could camp in the snow before going over the final Selele La pass (about 4500) tomorrow. We bought kerosene from him for the camp and set off at 0800.
It was a winter wonderland heading up through the large juniper trees on the steep slope. It was difficult to keep up with Dawa even though he was carrying 15kg of our stuff. He pointed out red fox tracks and places where he had seen snow leopards. He had 160 yak and each year he lost some 20 calves to snow leopards. He was however involved in the collaring programs and helped scientists locate them. After an hour the steep juniper forest finished and we continued to ascend steep scrub and boulders, all under 20 cm of snow. It was a glorious day with great views to the gargantuan mountains up the vast Yalong Glacier beneath us, essentially Kabru and Kanchenjunga.
As we reached the top of the scrub we began to tread across older snow and Dawa was starting to post hole, sometimes two feet deep. It looked exhausting and I volunteered a shot at the front. After 200 metres we reached a small frozen lake beyond a lip. Soon we were having to wade through the old snow and it was very slow going. I could tell by Dawa’s demeanour he thought further progress was hopeless as we were still a good way from the first pass. We had a little meeting when Bharat and Ramesh arrived and as the sky was also closing in thought it best to abandon the crossing. We had a small photoshoot at 4400m and then headed back down. Throughout this whole climb I was amazed as Ramesh. He admirably carried half his own weight in a basket up this immense terrain with a constant smile.
We quickly descended to Cheram again. Dawa was very apologetic and refused any money but I insisted and gave a fifth of what was agreed. He was delighted. Dawa and Ramesh are two outstanding humans. Back at Cheram we had a quick lunch and then bowed to the inevitable and started heading down some 2300 metres along the Tamur Nadi river down the valley. Once there we would have to head north and climb up to Ghunsa over three days. The excursion up to Cheram and Kanchenjunga south would cost us three days in all and it was a mistake to think this difficult series of passes around Mirgin La would be a pushover, especially in March.
It should have been an easy three hours back down to Torantang, but we were all tired. I had not slept well and the ascent and then the postholing in the snow had been taxing. I passed all the expats on the way down. Peter was alarmed to see me because they were hoping to go over the passes in a couple of days. His girlfriend had seen a Red Panda on the way up and still buzzing about that. Oliver was labouring at the back without his rucksack, still weak with his chest infection. It was good to see them again, and I hope our paths cross around Ghunsa in a week.
This time at Torungtan we chose the other teahouse, more of a bhatti really but the guys liked it and were soon chatting round the fire. Ramesh, eager to display his cooking skills, demanded to make the team supper on the wood stove while the owner looked on. Indeed the whole atmosphere in the old teahouse with its rough-hewn wooden shingle roof and wooden walls was very cosy. Santos as usual was holding court with five to seven people gathered around the other stove. It was perhaps the nearest Nepal gets to a country pub. After Ramesh commandeered the kitchen he produced the tastiest Dalhbhat. It seems both him and the bhatti owners’ son both worked in Malaysia. Many Nepalis do a 2-4 year stint somewhere, often a Muslim country, for a manpower agency. That night some musicians also arrived late in the evening and I could hear singing and dancing until late.
22 March. Torantang to Japantar. 19 km. 9 hours. 540m up. 1870m down. It was a clear day and I set off at 0800 with Santos in tow. I thought the path would be easy and it was down to the junction with the path up to Sherpagoan and even the bottom of the vast landslip I negotiated a few days ago. At that it crossed the river on a temporary bridge, with a new one under construction, to the north side of the valley. From here it began a torturous route up and down very steep spurs on small steps. Sometimes there would be very precipitous drops and a slip would be very serious. The path climbed and descended almost at random however, you then passed a buttress or climbed up over a landslip and you realized it was necessary.
it was a wild valley and thickly clad in bamboos and larger trees, many dripping in moss and broadleaved epiphytes. It was the ideal place to see a Red Panda and I kept my eyes peeled when the path allowed. Across the valley was a vast forest of Silver Fir and Hemlock. It was hardly surprising this path was not marked on the tourist maps. About three and a half hours after leaving Torungtang, Ramesh caught me up and suggested we stop. I hiked on to the next rivulet cascading down the hillside and we stopped here. At this point it seemed there was a mule track being built up the valley from Hellok where we were going. It soon transpired that the new track just followed the torturous undulating route of the old track with its steep ups and precipitous downs, it was just that it was now on steps of newly hewn stone. It took another two and a half hours to get to the first houses of upper Hellok, perhaps the hamlet of Sigodanda. They were mostly seasonal bamboo shelters of herders and goats were tethered in small shelters and brought leaves.
The descent into Hellok took forever, but at least the path was mostly down and there was plenty of cultural interest. The houses became more like simple one storey cottages with bamboo and occasionally blue tin roofs. After a good hour I finally reached the established homesteads in Hellok sitting proudly among their terraced fields which seemed to have mostly potatoes or maize growing in them. I was not sure of my way among a myriad of paths but could see the bridge over the Simbuwa Khola and knew I had to cross it. I was also wary of losing too much height ending up on a dead end path on the cardamom plantations below and having to climb up. I could not see the others so just followed my instinct and asked whenever I saw a mature person.
Eventually the path descended to a new track below Hellok and I turned and followed it north over a rickety bridge below the wire bridge I was originally aiming for. I then crossed the large Tamor Nadi twice to end up in a small teahouse at Sukethum. I had been going for about eight hours and was drained. I had a sweet black tea to get me along the last 20 minutes to a small collection of rustic tea houses at Japantar. I thought the others would already be here as I assumed they overtook me in the maze of paths in Hellok but it seems they were also confused. My clothes were in need of a wash now and Ramesh offered to do them. I had to tip him for that job.
23 March. Japantar to Thayam. 15 km. 7 hours. 1270m up. 470m down. We were all quite tired, especially me, so we dithered a bit and we did not get going until 0830. The sun was already warming the gorge. We crossed to the shaded south side at once and followed a twisting path beside the river through scant and poor cardamom fields. After a km the path crossed back to the south side and we were at the mercy of the sun again. I chatted easily with Bharat – he’s an extremely likable, jocular, sociable person.
As we continued along the bottom of the extremely deep gorge, perhaps 2 km deep, the path clinging to the edges just above the water. In many places it had to be hewn out of the sheer rock and in others a rustic concrete walkway clung to the edge. One was very vulnerable down here and you had the feeling a rock could land somewhere anytime having fallen from high above. Again we crossed from the north to the shadier south side when a vast buttress blocked any route for the path. While on the south side I heard a loud jingling of bells. Before I realized what it was a vast dhzo,, in full regalia was bearing down on me, sharp horns stick out from his headdress. A dhzo is a yak-cow cross and supposed to be slightly more even tempered than a yak. This one was the lead in a caravan and there were about ten behind him. He was not stopping for me and I had to climb boulders at the path side to let them past.
We the crossed to the north side again and began the climb up to Amjilosa. It was only some 3-400 metres but in the hots sun it was hard work climbing out of the depths of the gorge to a broad shelf on the valley side. The redeeming factor of this climb was we seemed to be entering a band of rhododendrons again and most were in a magnificent red bloom. Small colourful birds, perhaps a sunbird species, swarmed around these trees. I was the last to reach Amjilosa and Bharat had already organized things. There were about ten houses in this hamlet and three of them were tourist tea houses. We stopped at one for the morning Dhalbhat. After we had had our fill I could see everyone getting sleepy so we lazed around for half an hour.
Once we left we still had a good 200 metres to climb to the spur of a large ridge where the deep gorge far below turned north. Apparently this was a known quirk where there was mobile phone reception, and Bharat kindly lent me his phone to phone Fiona in Scotland for five minutes. The next opportunity might be in a month. As we turned north off the parched spur we started a taxing undulation through forest where the trees were once again covered in moss. Every short climb was felt in our legs. At last we then started the descent proper and crashed down some 300 metres through a forest of larger trees and an underfloor of bamboo. It was perfect red panda country again but this was not a remote track. Finally we reached the tiny very rustic local hotel at Thayam. I stayed here three years ago and got ill, so I was wary of it. There was a new water supply now apparently according to the old owner who was hand spinning wool when we arrived. I showed his some photos from my last visit and he was delighted. It would have been too far to push on and climb for three hours to Gyabla. I got a filthy bed in the back of the storeroom and the others got something worse. This place catered for the mule and dhzo caravan drivers, not genteel tourists.
24 March. Thayam to Ghunsa. 15 km. 7 hours. 1300m up. 290m down. I managed to get out of Thayam without food poisoning this time. I think they had changed their water source from the muddy spring the animals also drank out of. In fact, I felt good as I stormed up the path on this chilly morning in my shorts and shirt-sleeves. The path followed a gentle course along the west bank of the river for a few km before it started to climb through the oaks and bamboos. I remember seeing a fresh bear dropping here three years ago as it was foraging for acorns. By the time I started the steep climb up to Gyabla the others had caught me up and soon overtook me. I was sluggish now and they had a spring in their step.
The slope got steeper towards the top but I could see strings of prayer flags fluttering above me and knew the grassy plateau Gyabla sat onb was close. Soon I was on the closely grazed plateau and looking down onto the high waterfall, perhaps 100 metres high, over which the river plunged up ahead and beyond that the high snowy mountains of the Kanchenjunga massif. I sauntered up the grassy path for a few minutes to the heart of the hamlet. There was one enormous 26 room hotel which was nearing the completion of its construction. It looked very out of place and looked like it was from the Everest region. It dwarfed the sympathetic wooden lodges it was competing against, and dominated the hamlet.
After a very slow Dahlbhat we set off again at 1100 and hiked into the heat of the day. The porters were feeling it but I was keeping cool especially when the path entered the Hemlock and Fir forests. They were covered in moss but it was dry and dusty moss. It was a very pleasant walk for a short three hours as we slow climbed up the valley, often leapfrogging each other. Ramesh was on fine form but Santos was struggling with the heat and exertion. We brought up the rear.
At last there was the steep climb up to Lower Phale. Here again there was an extensive grassy plateau which was closely grazed by yak and dhzo, many being calves. However all the rustic wooden cabins here were empty. Lower Phale is where the people of Ghunsa come for December, January and February to escape the cold and snow in Ghunsa just up the valley. I had hoped for a tea here as I had had three years before, when I met Nima Chettin Sherpa who opened up his houses up to Lhonak for us that bitterly cold January. However Lower Phale was abandoned for the season and Nima had even moved up to Lhonak.
We carried on up to the adjacent Upper Phale where there was a thriving community of Tibetan refugees who had arrived and settled in the 1960’s. They had built two Gompas and had a number of tea houses. All the homesteads here were busy planting potatoes. We stopped at a tea house here in the mid afternoon for a well deserved rest. Inside was a brilliant Sherpa kitchen with many polished utensils shining in the semi darkness.
A tall dapper man arrived, and I assumed he was a second generation Tibetian Refugee. As it happens he was a son of the owner at Thanyam and also the younger brother of Nima Chettin Sherpa. When he realized I was here three years ago he immediately said how Nima had told his family about the large tip he got from me and how pleased he was. I told him it was no less than Nima deserved for his huge effort of four days. I am looking forward to see Nima in Lhonak in a few days but I doubt he will recognize me.
The final short two hours to Ghunsa were just about flat, which is a rare treat in Nepal. It passed through forests of large junipers which was until quite recently distilled into an oil in Ghunsa. Nima gave me a plastic coke bottle of it and I still have it in Scotland for aches and pains. We crossed the bridge over the Yangma Samba Khola river which we would go up in about 5-6 days. I noted with alarm the path up it to the Nango La Pass, 4778m, looked tiny and barely used. The heavily forested sides of the valley now opened out, and on a large alluvial plateau sat the large village of Ghunsa. We had at last arrived after our four day detour instead of two days over the blocked Mirgin La pass
Ghunsa is the main settlement of the area with, I guess, 50 houses, mostly two storey and made of wood with the animals on the lower floor. The people here were Sherpa through and through and made money from trading, yaks, and seasonal agriculture. Recently tourism has become important and there are about ten prominent guest houses.
Last time we stayed at Nima’s house but as he was away we went to the Selele Lodge – a new wooden building with power to recharge gadgets. There were another three guests, all middle aged Australian men, so I was delighted to have some English speaking company again. The lodge had a simple dining room for the tourists, which was kept warm by a well fed stove. It was roasting. The Nepalis congregated in the typically tidy Sherpa kitchen, while the Australians and I gathered round the stove. Occasionally a guide or porter would come in. Their guide was a dapper distinguished looking Brahmin, but he did not look at home in the mountains.
25 March. Ghunsa to Khambachen. 12 km. 5 hours. 800m up. 150m down. It was a crisp morning with frost on the ground and a clear view to the lofty peaks. Smoke hung in the air over the 40 houses of Ghunsa, all of which were adorned in prayer flags, limp in the still air. I took some photos, had breakfast and then separated my stuff to the bare minimum I needed. Ramesh and Santos had whittled the gear down to the bare minimum also and were looking forward to four easy days. They deserved a holiday after the last nine taxing days. I paid the bill then the lodge owner told me the Sherpa who had looked after Bharat and myself three years ago was in Ghunsa.
We dropped in to see him on the way out of town and were immediately invited in for a cup of tea. He had just come down from Lhonak for a community chore and was now packing supplies to go back up. He was going to Khambachen first and before I knew what was happening it seemed we agreed to stay. Ramesh and Santos were also commandeered to carry some supplies up. I don’t know who suggested it but I would have vetoed it. One of the items was a plastic bag full of eggs.
It was a delightful walk out of Ghunsa heading north with the sun melting the frost on the yak pastures. In the shadow of the junipers trees the frosty outline of the tree lingered. The frequent deep chimes of the yak bells sounded as they grazed. There were now pure yaks and much heavier and furrier that the hybrid Dhzo. The have a grumpy temperament and I gave them as wide berth if needed. After these valley floor pastures the path climber slightly and entered mixed juniper and Sikkim Larch forest. The larches were still bare. The path kept to the east side of the river and undulated through the forest crossing the occasional bouldery ravine.
I caught another group up an Australian couple form Darwin, and their guide and porter. Their guide was quite cocky when I said he would have difficulties crossing Mirgin La Pass in four to five days and implied it would be no problem for him as he was Nepali. Walking with them was Tenzing, co-owner of the White House lodge at Khambuchen. His English was superb and we left the others and chatted for an hour as we reached a small hut where the bridge was. The other three Australians from Perth and their entourage were here. We all chatted in the sun and soon the Darwin Australians and my group with Nima Chettin arrived. About 20 tourists, guides, porters and lodge owners were gathered here.
The lodge owners, Nima Chettin and Tenzin, dashed off. There was no catching them, while the tourists lumbered into gear. I had expected to cross the river here as I did three years ago. However it seems the route has changed and the path now continues up the east side of the river. It was quite icy initially in the shade of the junipers but as we broke out of the forest and started climbing up a huge moraine mound in the valley. Previously the path crossed the river and then crossed a very loose landslip area and as we headed up the moraine there was a rockfall right across the old path with some 20 small boulders tumbling down in a plume of dust. Not that the moraine on the east side was much safer and we had a few landslip areas to cross before the valley opened out into a beautiful high altitude pasture.
To the east, and it is difficult to exaggerate, was the truly awesome peak of Januu, a near 8,000 metre peak which rose steeply above its neighbours. Huge flutes of snow somehow clung to its very very steep sides. It is one of the giants of the Himalayas, and a prized summit. It was this mountain which two Russians were going to climb by the near impossible SE face and Keith Partridge, who I met a few days earlier, was going to film.
Once off the moraine and into the pastures at Khambuchan it was an easy walk to the hamlet. Initially it was a collection of simple yak herding shelters used seasonally in the summer with about 20 shelters each one belonging to a Ghunsa house. However now it had developed three tourist lodges for the trek to Kanchenjunga Base Camp. One of these rustic shelters belonged to Nima Chettin and I could see him dragging stuff out to air in the sun. However I decided I did not want to stay and listen to him chatting to Bharat, Ramesh and Santos all night in the cold so opted for the Kanchenjunga White House Lodge which was owned by Tenzin who I was chatting with on the way up and her brother. It seemed the three Australians from Perth were staying there also.
A welcome tea and a look in there sunny, warm, dining room convinced me. However there was an issue – apparently the Australian couple’s and my guides and porters were all from Solu-Khumbu and they did not care for the three Perth Australians’ guide and porter who were from Dahding. So much so they went to a different and inferior guesthouse. Bharat and my porters decided to spend then the night with Nima Chettin thereby avoiding the issue. The Australian couple however had to suffer a cold and draughty night as their guide refused to stay with the Dahding guide. It was a great teahouse but the prices were certainly starting to increase. That evening the snow returned and between dusk and the time we went to bed some 10 cm had fallen.
26 March.Khambachen to Lhonak. 8 km. 4 hours. 710m up. 40m down. It was a very clear night but by early morning the clouds had returned and before long there was the odd flake of snow. By 0800 it was apparent that a snow shower was coming in and everybody was reluctant to move up to Lhonak, especially the guides, who had no trouble persuading their clients. After breakfast I curled up under some blankets in the tea house dining room and snoozed. I was still snowing by 11 but it seemed to be clearing up.
As the snow cleared and patches of blue sky grew it seemed a bit lazy to squander the opportunity. When a party of 15 arrived from Lhonak having blazed a trail in the snow I knew we should go, and we set off at 1230. The trail was easy to follow initially as it climbed up on to a level lateral moraine beside the now retreated glacier and wove between juniper bushes on pastureland. I was ahead and the others followed all the way to Ramtang which would be a summer pasture camp.
After Ramtang the cloud closed in a bit and the odd speck of snow started to fall. It also got noticeably colder and was now well below freezing. The path was still quite discernible when Ramesh and Santos caught me up. The three of us walked together for about two hours through boulder fields and across ridges of moraine. It was a great shame the weather was poor as this was a spectacular landscape we were missing. After three hours I ran out of steam and the others went on. Soon Nima caught me up and this spurred me on and we walked the last half hour together.
I remembered from my last visit in January how impervious Nima was to the cold his bare hands unnoticing the wind and snow. At last we reached the sandy valley floor at the bottom of the Lhonak Glacier and from here it was just a long km across snow covered gravel to reach the very rustic shelters of Lhonak. Nima showed me a place to sleep and then went into the kitchen to make tea. I was whacked and put on my down jacket and then went into the kitchen and laid down on the dirty cushions. Nima heaped some old blankets of yak hair on me and with five minutes I could feel warmth returning. I could not stay awake and as the juniper and yak dung fire cooked water I feel asleep in the corner.
When I woke Bharat was presenting me with a plate of hot fried noodles and cabbage. I thanked him ate it and fell asleep again. I woke around seven and went through to my place to sleep which was draughty, cold and damp. With a few minutes I was in my sleeping bag and warming up again. I don’t know why I felt so weak once I arrived, perhaps it was the altitude, as we were around 4800m now or perhaps it was the vegetarian diet and the cold. I slept very well.
27 March. Lhonak Rest Day. 0 km. 0 hours. 0m up. 0m down. In the morning it was cold and clear but there was a brisk northerly wind. The mountains were all visible and were covered in new snow. However there was about 20cm of new snow in the yard between the buildings. It was obvious that a visit to Kanchenjunga base camp was off the cards, and Nima confirmed it. Better to wait until tomorrow when some had melted, the other groups had caught up and we could go together, and hopefully the poor spell of weather had passed. Ramesh was already up but I took Santos and Bharat a tea to have in their sleeping bags.
It was a long day. About midday another teahouse owner arrived to say all in Khambuchen were on their way up and he was opening up also. About three hours later they all arrived but went to the newly unlocked lodge. It seemed very unfair on Nima that all of the three groups went there and none to his but he did well to hide his disappointment. One of the guides and porters came over to chat to our group and I went over to their to chat to the two groups of Aussies. It seemed that they all wanted to make the 9-10 hour round trip to Base Camp tomorrow weather permitting. We would either go with them of follow them.
28 March, Lhonak to Pang Pema and return. 16km. 8 hours. 670m up. 670m down. I did not sleep well, and had to get up a few times to let excessive cups of tea out. Each time it was a perfect night with a sky full of stars and even the milky way was crisp and distinct. By dawn a perfect day was breaking without a cloud in the sky and a temperature of minus 10. My altimeter watch suggested high pressure was arriving. The three Australian lads and their guide set off around seven and we hoped they would break a trail in the 20cm of snow. However we set off a good half later and soon caught them as they floundered in the snow looking for the trail. Bharat had been here about five times before so he took over breaking the trail. As we climbed up the vast terrace between the Kanchenjunga Glacier and the 6000m mountains to the north the depth of snow reduced until the path was obvious.
We were in very spectacular scenery and to the south, well below the lip of the terrace was the enormous Kanchenjunga Glacier. It was about 30km long and largely a jumble of blue ice with very little stone or boulders covering the surface. Across the other side of this trench of geological proportions rose the precipitous ramparts of the Chang Himal which soared some 2000 metres above the glacier. These peaks were heavily fluted with snow ridges and even some small glaciers managed to cling to the extremely steep north faces. We expected to see an avalanche down these sides but were disappointed.
The problem with the glacier is that it has lost a lot of its mass. Perhaps as little as 100 years ago it would have been up to the level of the terrace we were walking on, but now it was some 200 metres below the terrace. This meant that the terrace was no longer supported by the glaciers bulk and as a consequence it had slipped in a few places. On one occasion we had to climb down steeply to lower collapsed level and then scramble up loose rock again to regain the old path. On another occasion a recent downpour, probably of Biblical proportions, had scoured out a huge ravine some 40 metres deep in this level lateral moraine, and this chasm cut through the terrace and plunged down to the glacier far below. It was not possible to cross it, and we had to climb to the top of it to get across. I can’t remember either of these obstacles when I was here three years ago. The extremely agile and fit Ramesh found a way through these obstacles and we followed but they put off all the Australian lads bar one who followed us.
Once past the obstacles it was an easy stroll along the top of the terrace. There was still a bit of snow and we imagined we frequently saw snow leopard tracks. Certainly there were frequent tracks of Blue Sheep and occasionally you could see they were running in small herds. The sun had now melted any sharp definition of the predator prints. Nima Chetten used to keep yak at Lhonak but now he says it is just not worth it. There are some 12 snow leopard in the area and they take most of the young calves. In addition there are roving wolves in the area and these can migrate to Tibet or Sikkim nearby and apparently the wolves can take a fully grown yak down. Nima cannot hunt the snow leopard or wolves due to their protected status and receives no compensation for his loses so he claims it is just not worth persevering with yak. He also says the blue sheep population in the region is crashing due to predation.
Around 5000 metres I was gasping for breath on occasion and felt a bit light headed so I was glad when after four and a half hours we reached Pang Pema, also known as Kanchenjunga Base Camp. There is a rustic stone shed here which might be a simple very rustic lodge during the main season. Just across the glacier rose the immense Kanchenjunga at 8586m, the third highest mountain in the world. Its lofty summit is perched on top of series of icefalls and glaciers. From here climbing parties set off across the glacier to reach the foot of the north face of Kanchenjunga and climb it. Once of my best friends, Stuart, did exactly this in 2002 with his good pal and climbing partner, Chris. They both successfully climbed Kanchenjunga alpine style but just half an hour into the descent Chris fell. I was moved to see his memorial plaque still held pride of place on a large stone adorned with prayer flags and facing Kanchenjunga. Most people are content to watch movies and dream, while a few others are the heroes of these movies.
The return was by the same route past the tortious ravine and then the landslip. By now much of the snow had melted or turned to slush in the hot sun in a perfect blue sky. The scale of the glacier seemed even more dramatic on the way down, with Lhonak spread out on an alluvial plain. When we arrived Nima had a cup of tea waiting for us. He seemed pleased to hear Chris’s memorial was unmoved, as a small landslide had affected others. He opened his rustic lodge in 2002 and Stuart and Chris were his first customers, he remembers them still. He also had two pots of Sherpa stew for us, one vegetarian for me and one with a chopped up piece of freeze-dried yak thigh for the others. Mine was very filling with about ten different ingredients. Before bed I went over to the rival teahouse to chat with the Aussie lads.
29 March. Lhonak to Ghunsa. 22km. 7.5 hours. 210m up. 1460m down. It was another stunning morning with a hard frost. I woke to the smell of juniper twigs being burnt in Nima’s stove. We intended to walk all the way back to Ghunsa. Nima Chetten made us a good breakfast and we all lingered around with tea outside in the yard. After a photo session Nima appeared with a couple of “safe travel” scarves and hung them round Bharat and my necks. I don’t know if it was leaving the very special place of Lhonak or saying goodbye to Nima but I was quite overwhelmed. Nima had twice looked after Bharat and myself and done it with such grace and friendliness. Here up at nearly 5000m in a bleak stone strewn valley in the Himalayas was a perfect gentleman, whose hard work had enabled him to bring up 4 sons and a daughter.
I was a delightful walk down to Khambuchen. It took me about three hours and the weather was perfect for the whole way. I passed Ramtang which was full of yakdung and stone buildings without roofs where seasonal herders set up tarpaulins to shelter under in the summer months. Perhaps they concentrated their herds and watchful eyes here so that the snow leopards and wolves were reluctant to seek prey here. From Ramtang there was a great view east up another glacier to Kanchenjunga again.
There was still quite a bit of snow in Khambachen when we got there. We all had dalbhat at the teahouse the Aussie Lads were staying at with the fantastic view of Januu, one of the most spectacular mountains of the Himalayas. As we ate outside in the hot sun some clouds started to roll up the valley and form round some of the peaks. It was a quick descent past down across the river flowing out of the Kanchenjunga Glacier and then up the moraine on the east side of the valley. We had to traverse along the moraine under some very loose looking boulders embedded in the crumbling sand. One would bolt along a stretch with the others kept watch for falling rocks for about five 50 metre sections. It was preferable to the old path on the west side where there was a significant rockfall area for 200 metres and even as we watched some small rocks hurtled down across the old route.
At last we got to the huge cave formed by a boulder at the top of the treeline and I encouraged the others to go on, as we were at the top of the forest and I wanted to saunter down through it. As the first juniper trees enveloped me I felt secured again in the mossy forest. The trees were only ten metres high but were ancient and venerable. Occasionally a rhododendron struggled for light on the forest floor but they never thrived. The air smelt of dry juniper. After an hour or so Sikkim Larch seemed to proliferate. They were still not in needle but the forest floor was covered in last years shed brown needles. The river was growing bigger with every tributary and waterfall and it crashed down over boulders to my west. After two hours the Larch were replaced by Silver Firs. They reached 30 metres and soon replaced all the other trees, The forest floor was still very mossy and the trees dripping in old mans beard. Here and there a tree had been cut but by and large it was a pristine forest of large specimens. I could see these magnificent trees continue up the steep valley sides on each side of the valley. Just before reaching Ghunsa there were forest clearings with yaks grazing and then the northern entrance main wall heralded the northern entrance.
Ghunsa’s 40 or so houses remain remarkably traditional with rustic plank walls and shingle roof planks weighted down by boulders. I ambled through taking photos of the traditional houses before I arrived at Selele Lodge. Within minutes I was under a canvas bag full of warm water and was washing off the grime of the last fortnight. Ramesh meanwhile was washing my clothes in the freezing river. Towards the evening the clouds drifted up the valley and I feared the worst which would be more snow, but thankfully it did not happen.
30 March. Ghunsa to Yak Kharka 7 km. 3 hours. 810m up. 90m down. The owner of Selele Guest house gave Bharat and the others of info about crossing the Nanga La pass, 4778m. He thought it was best we climb up to a pasture called Yak Charka at about 4160m and then spend the night there, then the next day leave early in the morning and finish the rest of the climb while the snow on the upper part of the pass is still firm. This meant we did not have to leave that early as it was only a three hour climb. We hung around the guest house slowly getting the extra stuff ready.
In the fields beside the guest house a lot of manure had been spread over the ground. I then noticed two dhzo getting harnessed up into a double yoke to pull a wooden plough. Once they were harnessed and the plough attached a young man led them by a nose ring up and down the field creating a furrow and turning the manure into the ground. Following them was a team of girls with baskets of seed potatoes, most of which were halved and many quartered. Then followed some older ladies with mattocks to bury the potatoes. Within the time of an hour the whole field had been sown. It was a colourful and happy occasion. In the guest house kitchen a vast pot of Sherpa stew was cooking for the planting squad for their break.
As I was finishing packing there was a knock and there was Peter from the expats who we met on the south side a week ago. We gave each other a hug. One of them, Oliver, was ill with some pneumonia/bronchitis and had to be evacuated by a very fortuitous helicopter which happened to be at Cheram dropping of stuff for an Indian expedition to climb Kanchenjunga. The rest of them had followed our footsteps up to Selele La Pass where they also got bogged down in snow. They then went the long way round down the tortuous path to Hellok. They were now heading up to North Base Camp and had time to spare.
After our Dalbhat we set off at 1100. Ramesh and Santos were loaded to the gunwales and each had about 35 kg. We had previously had a talk about not buying more food until we had eaten some of the 10kg we had been carrying from the start. That seems to have fallen on deaf ears as part of the food purchased here was 4kg of potatoes. I am sure they bought them for me and appreciate their willingness but I would rather have had rice than the extra weight.
It was a short walk to the start of out small track up the Yangma Samba Khola stream valley. It branched off from the memorial to the WWF party who died in a helicopter crash. The path we took was small and steep as it climbed steeply on the north east side of the tumbling stream. I plodded up steadily leaving the others with their loads behind. There were lots of bulbs and shoots appearing and it seemed that spring was in the air. Primroses were blossoming everywhere. Slowly but surely I clawed my way up they track in the forest of fir and juniper. As I climbed the fir gave way to the juniper entirely with an increasing understorey of rhododendron. At about 3900m I finally broke out of the forest onto the bare misty hillside. I could only see some 50 metres across the erosion channels which the path wove up. I climbed some 200 metres in this mist until I finally came to the meadows we were heading for at 4100. I could see in the mist they were covered in snow. I search for a flat snow free place to camp but found none.
I decided then to leave my stuff and go down and help lighten the porters’ loads. But they were just five minutes away. Together were scoured the pasture and found one small place to put up the large tent. It was a Helsport Spitsbergen Xtrem four man tent. Someone remarked it could sleep 12 Nepalis. There was easily room for the four of us. I sat down to write while Bharat and Ramesh dashed up the hill to the pass to see if there were any snow problems ahead. They returned two hours later with mixed news and handfuls of juniper scrub for a fire.
Just as they had finished cooking the meal there was thunder and it started to pour with snow. All the stuff was rapidly brought in and we settled inside while the juniper brush fire was swamped. The tent stood up well to the snow which was piling up on the roof. I stupidly lost two hours’ writing so had to start the whole process again while the other fell asleep. As I finished the snow stopped but it had already dumped 5cm.
March 31. Yak Charka Weather Day. 0km. 0 hours. 0 m up. 0 m down. The snow did not let up in the night at all. There was thunder and lightening accompanying it and frequently you could not even get a cigarette paper between the two. I frequently whacked the top of the tent and sent slabs of snow sliding off the roof. Santos and myself were sleeping at the edge of the tent and soon the sides started creeping in and almost enveloping us. What separated us from a two foot pile of snow was two thin layers of nylon. Our sleeping bags were wet with condensation but I had brought synthetic ones so I was not too worried. Bharat and Ramesh in the middle got off more lightly. By first light we were all worried about the tent and the huge amounts of snow piled up on it. All three leapt out of their sleeping bags grabbed a metal dinner plate and set about removing snow from the tent sides to restore its shape. It took about half an hour. About a foot of snow had fallen.
There was no question about going over the pass today. In addition to the old snow higher up this new snow would have made us wade through the stuff. I was beginning to hate the snow. It was remarkably unseasonal to have so much in March. We had been hampered three times so far because of it. I calculated each time it snowed so far it had cost me well over $500 in extra days. I made a tea and we had a meeting in our sleeping bags. We would stay here another day to see what would transpire. If the afternoon looked better we would leave the camp and wade up to the pass empty shouldered and make a route for tomorrow.
We spent much of the day lazing around. The sun tried to come out and when it did it caused the snow to melt quickly. On each side of the valley were frequent small wet snow avalanches. After lunch when we thought about beating our trail the weather closed in again and the mist returned from up the main valley to the south. This was not a good sign and I feared snow would return in the evening, so we abandoned the track making plans and had a siesta in the warm tent.
By the time it was getting dark the first flakes arrived. Then it poured down again, there was the crack of thunder, and it looked like we were in for a repeat performance of last night. Eastern Nepal gets much of its weather from the Bay of Bengal and perhaps due to global warming the sea temperature has risen a bit and is sending more moisture into the air which is the condensing on us as snow at these altitudes. I vainly hold out hope that perhaps tomorrow will bring some sun and respite as the snow seems to arrive in two day cycles with most falling in the evening. This is our second evening so hopefully the morning will bring sun and my barometer is rising. If not we might have to retreat to Ghunsa and wait for a more settled spell. On the positive side Bharat, Ramesh and Santos have been great and witty company and morale is high.
April 1. Yak Charka Weather Day. 7 km. 4.5 hours. 620 m up. 620 m down. I woke in the night to go for a pee at about 0400 and noticed how cold and clear it was. At last the weather was breaking at this half moon. In the morning the sun rose and unfolded speedily across the valley floor dispensing with the freezing dawn. As soon as the sun hit the tent the frost vanished and the temperature inside soared. Any damp on the sleeping bags was soon evaporated. We cooked tea in bed and discussed a plan. We would leave all the kit here and walk up to the pass in the sun. Hopefully our footprints would freeze overnight and then tomorrow we could leave early and follow them with all the gear on frozen ground.
We lazed around in the morning and had a very early lunch and set of at 1030. We were all alarmed however at the speed the blue skies were being snuffed out by cloud and mist, and indeed by the time we set off it was all gone and there were even a few flakes of the cursed snow. During the first half of the climb to the pass we were mostly on the new snows of the last two nights. The tops of juniper shrubs were just poking out and the tops of boulders had a 20cm hat. The walking was arduous but manageable and Bharat and Ramesh took turns picking a route up the stony channels.
However after a good hour the ground was covered in vast snowfields of old snow. In they middle of these we were frequently sinking to our knees and it was hard work but at the edge of these fields where the snow was resting on boulders we were often up to our thighs. It was hard with no baggage, but it would have been impossible with the loads. Out only hope was this was to freeze tonight, which seemed very likely, and there was to be no more snow, which no seemed very unlikely. After three hours of hard graft we eventually made the pass adorned with prayer flags buried in thick snow drifts. All the snow here was old snow and we were up to our knees most steps, and taking turns to lead. With loads this would have been impossible. We got a great view down the other side of the pass and this seemed to have less snow and we were looking forward to it tomorrow.
The return to the tent was quite quick and we followed out footsteps. However just as we got to the tent it started to snow more furiously. We had a siesta, and by the time it was over some 15cm had already fallen and it was barely 5pm. All our hard work today could be in vain. Around 6pm Santos went for water and said the path we made had gone. And it still continued to snow, indeed as we cooked supper the first of the thunderclaps arrived and the snowfall increased. It would be very unlikely we would be up at 3am to follow out frozen footsteps. I am a purist for keeping to the trail without skipping or flipping but it seems we will have to abandon this pass to Olanchun Gola and take a slightly lower one through the forest or we may be here for a week.
April 2. Yak Charka to Langjong Charka. 10 km. 6 hours. 620m up. 590m down. The snow continued much of the early night and the boys had to go out twice to clear the snow around the tent with the dinner plates. However by morning it seemed only some 20cm had fallen and it was a beautiful day. We had intended to go to Gyabla due to the snow but to my delight all three said they were up for the pass. I told them it would be gruelling but they wanted the adventure. I was indebted to their decision. We were a bit slow in packing up and did not get going until 1000, where 0800 would have been ideal.
Bharat led the entire way to the pass. I tried to go second putting some 120 kg into each footstep for Ramesh and Santos to have something firm. However it was difficult to say ahead of Ramesh who was carrying more than half his body weight. Generally we had the sun the whole way and occasionally I could see our footsteps from yesterday ahead of Bharat. It was a long haul up to Nanga La Pass at 4778m but having walked the route yesterday made it easier, psychologically anyway. The prayer flags at the top were a very welcome sight. I was exhausted at the top and Santos looked tired but Bharat and Ramesh seemed fine.
The descent down the other side should have been a doddle from what we had seen yesterday. But we were too late in the day. The first hundred metres of descent was fine. Then Bharat went west onto a slope which had had the morning sun and he was up to his armpits. Ramesh who followed him had no choice but to take his basket off and drag it. I was behind and saw it unfold, so veered east and had a lucky run down to the bottom of the slope for another 100m of descent. I flew down to the bottom and felt quite smug. Bharat and Ramesh somehow managed to fight back to my tracks and followed. There was the odd section which was steep but it ran convex into a U on the valley floor.
I got to the bottom and watched the others coming down. Ramesh was frequently thigh deep at the bottom. We then all waited to see if Santos would follow my footsteps which he did. But with the softening snow, his 30 kg load and size 40 feet he frequently postholed. It looked hard work for him. On one occasion he cartwheeled twice down the slope into deep snow and had to wade back to the track. Ramesh and Bharat were remarkably unsympathetic but my heart bled for him. As he approached he frequently post holed up to his thigh but remarkably hr remained in good humour and joked at us. It was one of the most remarkable displays of human spirit I have ever seen.
From here things got worse as we picked our way down trying to keep of the snowfields. For two hours Bharat led, I seconded, Ramesh came third and Santos was at the back. We were often up to our thighs in deep wet sugar snow. There was nothing else for it but to plough on down through it. It was completely exhausting and the porters must have been straining like horses to keep going. At last we reached a ruined shed where a glacier came in from the N and at last we seemed to be off the metre deep old snow and onto the 20cm deep new snow.
We now had an area of enormous slippery boulders to negotiate for some half hour which was full of potential to hurt oneself in a slip, before I suddenly noticed we were on a path. A snow shower passed and by the time it had gone we found ourselves on snow covered pastureland with plenty of yak droppings. We decided we had had enough and despite it being only four, decided to camp. We found a nice spot although it was covered in snow which we mostly cleared with the dinner plate. By the time the tent was up Santos arrived. The other three found wood and made a campfire to dry their socks, warm their hands and cook dinner while I retreated inside the tent to warm up and write. Occasionally when I emerged from the tent I could see in the evening light that it was the most spectacular place we were camped, with enormous mountains towering some 2000 metres above us on all sides. Despite their most exhausting day the porters bounced back and I could hear raucous laughter from the campfire. They really showed their mettle today and if they were my sons I would be extremely proud of them. I am indebted they chose to go over the pass and cannot be amazed enough by their fortitude. It seems we are close to the snowline so hopefully I will be a nice run down to Olanchun Gola tomorrow. We deserved it as it had been our hardest day yet.
April 3. Langjong Charka to Olangchun Gola. 22km. 8 hours. 650m up 1580m down. We slept well in the Kharha in the tent but it was cold at about minus five and the tent had a layer of frost on the inside. I thought it was Langjong Kharka but after we had descended through stunted rhododendron and entered the upper reaches of the taller junipers and the first of the firs we came across Langjong Kharka an hour into our descent. It was a fantastic place with a simple shelter and a good hectare of places to camp on yak dung covered pasture surrounded by mature forest. Had we known we could have descended last night but none of us had been here before.
From Langjong Kharka, at about 3700, we continued our descent into the forest. The smell of resin from the firs was strong, especially in the warm pockets of air. The small purple primroses were everywhere. It was a delight to be back in the forest again after four days of snowy mountain. There was a shortcut we could take to the Yangma Khola but when we reached the junction it looked like the main path was in fact closed as it was deliberately blocked by branches. So we took the shortcut. To my alarm it descended to the crystal clear stream in the valley crossed it and then entered a long snowy area on the north facing slopes sheltered from the sun by firs and rhododendrons. We were on the cusp of postholing through the snow but luckily it was still quite frozen.
The other went on ahead as I was feeling drained. They said they would go down and cook lunch. I lingered behind as I felt weak and tired. The forest was quite steep with large leafed Rhododendron and fir. It was full of birdsong. Suddenly there was a chirping beside me and i looked up to see a Himalayan Monal, also known in Nepal as a Daphane, the national bird of Nepal. It was a splendid and graceful bird which reminded me of a peacock. I was slow on the draw with my camera and it sneaked into the undergrowth before I had time to focus. Buoyed by my sighting I continued my descent down to the Yangma Khola passing some specimen Silver firs, often with a bole diameter of at least two metres. Down and down I plunged with the roar of the main river getting louder until I saw Ramesh far below already cooking on a fire by a large traditional log and stone cantilever bridge at a place I think was called Kugama. I was tired having descended the 1000 metres already today on a cup of tea and small bowl of porridge. A litre of a sugary drink and two bowls of spaghetti and I felt restored.
After crossing the bridge over the Yangma Khola to the west side the path now continued down a dangerous area with fresh landslides towering above us. This section lasted about 2km and I constantly had to keep my head turned to make no rocks were tumbling down. In the monsoon rains this would be a treacherous area. At last it finished and I could relax and the other overtook me. A bit later at a bridge we saw a disturbing sight, the tail of a red Panda. Obviously someone had been hunting and killed it and taken it to the side stream to clean it and had forgotten or discarded the tail. Bharat said that panda parts are desirable as traded items for Chinese medicine and there was and active trade of all items between the Sherpa of Olangchun Gola and the Chinese over passes up the valley. Some Chinese trader had created a market for red Panda parts and persuaded some locals to hunt hem illegally. It was disturbing this could happen in a National Park.
The path continued to contour along the hillside with the Yangma Khola falling away. The hillside was very steep in places and a slip off the track would have a fatal tumble. However the path was good and there were yak wandering freely on it going from pasture to pasture. One such pasture was Chyame where there were lots of stone shelters. I kept hoping for the ridge to be the last before I turned NW up the Tamor Nadi river but there was false hope – ridge after ridge with frequent ups and downs. At last I saw the bridge at Ramite and knew this would be the last ridge, and soon the path plunged through the bamboos to near the confluence of the Yangma and Tamor rivers. There was a small shortcut here which I took not knowing the others were waiting for me on the real route. They waited a good hour for me until they double backed and saw my footprints. As a consolation for them they saw a red panda beside the track and it was apparently a metre from Ramesh.
I plodded on up the Tamor Nadi river for a couple of km on a good track until I came to a waterfall where the river plunged some 20 metres. Just here was the start of a long climb up a series of switch backs on an old landslide area. The path perhaps climbed 200 metres in all. I passed some 20 porters with huge loads of bundles of plants. They were carrying these medicinal herbs up from Suketum. I later learnt that some of these loads were 70 kg. I overtook them and then made the final climb up to Olangchun Gola. It was not what I was expecting. It was much bigger and more tightly packed than Ghunsa and sat on the edge of a terrace over the river into which it might one day disappear. The houses were huge and rickety with many lopsided walls. Prayer flags and smoke hung over them and yak grazed on the small grassy parts in between. It was much busier than Ghunsa. I asked for the Hotel Lumba Sumba as this was run by Nima Chettin’s sister. I eventually found the hotel which was unsigned and simple.
I got a room and a huge flask of ginger tea and waited for the others whom I assumed had got lost. As I relaxed the porters with the medicinal plants arrived. It was called Chiraito in Nepali and was apparently made into mild painkillers like Paracetamol. All their loads were weighed. Some were 45kg and a couple were 70kg. I was astounded anyone could carry so much. The others arrived quite soon and got a great room. Ramesh in particular would enjoy not sleeping between Bhart and myself, two snorers, in the tent. I went through to the kitchen afterwards. It was a superb Sherpa kitchen with a stove in the middle and a pipe to remove the smoke. Some 15 people were sitting there including the medicinal plan porters, Bharat, Ramesh and Santos and a few others. The porters looked absolutely exhauster and sat zombiefied in front of their tombas of fermenting millet and hot water. They had no smiles at all and looked subservient and down trodden. Theirs was perhaps the misfortune to be born into a porter caste. Most were in their 20’s but hobbled as if they had sore hips. A porter in his late 30’s fainted on his bench and caused some concern. Their lot in life seem to be a miserable one. I wrote the blog in the kitchen before and after my meal.
April 04. Olangchun Gola to Mati Langmale Charka. 8 km. 4 hours. 750m up. 90m down. There was no great hurry this morning as we had to prepare for the next pass called Lumba Sumba which was higher at 5159m. We had to buy provisions, kerosene, service the stoves, get a temporary porter to the top of the pass and generally relax. We could only feasibly walk some 15km and gain 1200m in the next two days to set us up for crossing the pass on the third day. Ramesh bought provisions, including 7kg rice! Bharat had spoken to out host, Dalek, and had got a porter called Dale and Santos and myself did the stoves. Once all was done the five of us now had a large Dalbhat each before we set off around 1100. Bharat had to go to the police station to check in and while the three porters headed up the valley I took a detour to see the large old monastery atop the hill.
A squad of local villagers were building a concrete staircase up the hillside to the monastery which stood some 50 metres above the village. It was a great view from the top down onto the large rickety houses with their plank shingle roofs held down by stones. Their must have been 50 houses in Olangchun Gola in all. The monastery was nearly 500 years old and of a massive construction with huge thick walls. It was now covered in a tin roof which was probably a good thing as it looked unused and poorly maintained. I walked around it a couple of times taking photos. It seemed the village committee was making plans to conserve it. I left via the western path down the hill through a herd of yak calves who looked like they were kept indoors for the vulnerable night and let out to local pasture during the day.
To my surprise there was a road leading north from the village. It had been built south from the Chinese border some 25km to the north. Of course it was blocked with frequent landslides and would probably never see a vehicle except an excavator, but it did make a great path for the yak trains who would ply this route in the summer once the 5000m pass to China was open. We sped up here for a couple of hours on the north side of the now youthful Tamor Nadi river. I was alarmed to see how much snow was on the south side of the river on the north facing slopes hidden in the rhododendron and fir forest. Even at 3400m the cover was virtually continual. Still on the north side it was clear. After about 5km we came to a confluence of two rivers and left the track which headed north. We now headed west up a valley on the north side of a busy stream. There were frequent snow patches in the forest but luckily we did not pothole through that much. We followed the path up for about 2km until we got to a snow covered dirty, muddy pasture called Tallo (lower) Langmale Charka. It offered no nice camping so Dale suggested we go on half an hour to Mati (upper) Langmale Charka but said it would be full of snow. He must have been having the fly swig of cheap Chinese liqour as he was reeking of booze. I told Bharat to keep an eye on it as perhaps he just needed some Dutch courage being outside the main team.
As we approached Mati Langmale Charka which is incidentally different to the map which shows it much higher up, we saw day or two old bear prints. I looked like a large brown bear. The bear had been to Mati Langmale Charka and had found a families supply of yak herding stores and equipment under a tarpaulin tent. It had completely ransacked the place scattering sacks of corn and rice, scattering all the yak bells, ropes and saddles and a lot of personal belongings were ripped apart and left lying in the snow. The bear no doubt was just out of hibernation and very hungry but you can also understand the anger of the local family when they come up to graze their yak in a month or so.
There was no where really to camp here except on a large snowfield. We fashioned some tent pegs out of out staffs and sticks and set up the tent after stamping down the snow. We could carry rocks to attach other guys to and to put round the mantle of a storm flap. Despite the snow the tent got quite cosy until the mist drifted up the valley and chilled everything. We were camped at 3850m and tomorrow would make the short journey up to Pass Camp at 4460m in readiness for an early start over the pass on the third day. Once the tent was established everyone went off to find wood for a campfire on which to cook the evening dalbhat. Dale seemed to be fitting in with the guys well. In the evening all 5 squeezed into the tent.
April 05. Mati Langmale Kharka to Thandri Kharka. 13 km. 7 hours. 620m up. 90m down. We got up at 0530 to try and get the hard snow but the problem was there had not been a frost so the snow was wet, soft and unfrozen. It was going to make for difficult day. Dale led the way through juniper trees on the NE side of the river for a good couple of km until we got to a natural bridge to the SW side. The path now apparently went up this side of the river. But it was covered in Rhododendron and under a metre of soft wet snow. I immediately said it was a bad idea but Dale said the other side was just a yak path so I followed with growing concern. It seemed a hopeless task and I voiced my objections a few times. The poor porters were struggling as they constantly sunk in and got tangled in the submerged branches. I found myself in the lead a few times and I was just not making progress. In the end I crossed the river and was back on the NE bank on a small animal path but it was snow free. Everyone else followed.
The reason Dale followed the path, albeit the summer path, was because the NE side ran into a 2km stretch of huge boulders which had fallen down from the mountain above. Determined to show it was preferable to being waist deep in snow and tangled in rhododendron I took the lead and climbed up into the boulders. Most were car sized as opposed to house sized but it was possible to find a route through them and they were largely snow free. Where there was snow it was dangerous as it was possible to fall between them into a hidden chasm. The others were soon far behind making their own route through this jumble of stone, except Ramesh, whenever I looked round he was following. After a good hour of difficult hour of route finding I eventually broke out onto a steep hillside covered in juniper and thorn. It was solid though. I angled down to the river which was smaller now and could follow it up to a confluence of two streams in the valley at the bottom of a large snow free slope between them. At the bottom of this slope was a area where there had once been a fire and there was lots of dead dry juniper boughs. It was snow free and in the sun and I knew everyone would want a dalbhat here. I stopped and took of my soaked shoes and socks which were drenched by the snow getting in through the gaiters. Ramesh arrived first and set about building a fire to cook on. The others were some 20 minutes behind. The meal took an hour to cook so I had a snooze in the sun.
After lunch we set off up the snow free mound climbing up to about 4200 metres without encountering any more snow. However there it changed and the whole hillside was white. Luckily it was more frozen here and I managed to stay on top nine steps out of ten before I crashed through to my waist again. The other four were holding back hoping I would call it a day and camp or they were showing me they wanted to stop. I don’t think it was the porters! I ploughed on up the increasing white slope and then entered a completely snow covered small valley where the mist came and went. I looked round and some 300 meters away was Ramesh following in my footsteps. I decide to wait for him and explain I was now looking for a campsite. By the time he arrived the others were in sight also so we regrouped and I explained my plans. They seemed to like the idea.
I picked my way across deep snowdrifts towards a large rock and the others followed. When J got to the rock I saw I was at the east end of a large flat area, which must have originally been a lake and now filled in with alluvial deposits. The whole area was covered in deep snow with a stream running under the snow. Occasionally the stream had caused the snow above it to collapse into it and the icicle clad snow banks were a metre high. It was a cold and bleak place but there was no other option.
We put the tent up on the snow using only the end guys as I did not expect wind and did not want to dig frozen stakes out of the frozen ground. The tent went up easily. I am most impressed with the tent and the quality of manufacture. It sleeps the five of us easily. Ramesh cooked another meal on the primus and Santos kept the ensemble entertained with his good humour. These two guys had a very hard day yet here they were at the end of it still full energy and humour. I am full of admiration for them. They also cooked the breakfast ready for the early start tomorrow. We were all in out sleeping bags like piglets in a row by 1900.
April 06. Thandri Kharka to East Pass Lumba Sumba. 6 km, 6 hours, 620m up, 30m down. It was a beautiful starlit night when the alarm went at 0300. True to form it was Ramesh who set the alarm and he sprang up to lit the primus to re heat the Sherpa stew he made the night before. It took a couple of hours for us to eat, wash up, pack up and set off all in about minus five. We set off as the first light was appearing and the stars were losing their sparkle. The first km was easy as it was just across the km long meadow which was covered in snow. I was alarmed at how sugary the snow was and despite the frost we were sinking in 10cm. At the far end of the meadow was a steep climb for 100m but we could pick our way up through scrub and stones covered in new snow and avoid the old sugar snow.
From the top of this climb there was a small descent into a wonderful valley where the snow was a hard as concrete and you could saunter up it without a care. I was well ahead and enjoyed the still in the blue morning light. There were a few tracks – possibly hare – who somehow inhabit this bleak inhospitable landscape, albeit spectacular. As I approached a ridge of lateral moraine I knew that the route had to climb to the west and I did not like what I saw especially as the sun was now on it. I let the others catch up and confirmed with Dale this was the route. I set up a 100 m high snow field with the first steps being firm. But I soon began to sink in first to my shins and then to my knees. I was determined to keep ahead and plough a path but after some 20 minutes I was exhausted and sinking at least up to my knees every step as I tried to zig-zag up the slope. I could not continue and asked Bharat to take over, with half the age and combined body plus rucksack weight he made easy work of it. I followed but it was still absolutely exhausting. Ramesh as always was managing fine, but Santos with his huge load and small shoe size was struggling. Eventually we all made the crest of the moraine ridge but I was spent.
We now followed the moraine ridge up for a good half km to where our route up to the pass veered off at right angles up a steep slope which I was dreading. There were many small red sparrows in the crest of the ridge which was bare earth in places. Looking at the fiendish slope, the incoming snow showers, my drenched feet due to cheap Chinese copy gaiters I was ready to call it a day and camp. Bharat said we should give it a go and Ramesh seconded that and my lazy thoughts were made to feel guilty. We all watched Bharat as he gallantly tried one bit of the slope. He was up to his chest in places and just moved sideways for 10 minutes. In the end he gave up and tried another aspect of the slope which was more east facing. To my surprise he breezed up only sinking in up to his ankles. We were obliged to follow and we did. I had great difficulties as I frequently sunk in up to my knees and each time I did it was a monster effort to heave myself out of the post hole. Santos was suffering the same fate but kept his cheery smile.
Eventually the slope eased and the snow became firmer and we made good progress following Bharat’s footsteps. However the snow was getting quite intense now and the mist cut visibility to some 100-200 metres. My watch told me we were around 5000m altitude. Our local porter from Olangchun Gola, Dale, was also looking tired and cold and my feet were freezing. Dale had been here a couple of times before, but it was in the summer and he was taking yaks over the pass to sell them. He was now understandably a little confused in the misty snow shower. We had all put in a good day and thought it best to camp at what we thought was the lower easternmost of the two Lumba Sumba passes and hope the wind did not get up.
We put the large tent up and within half an hour we had all piled in, changed our socks, spread out the mattresses and sleeping bags, zipped up the doors and hunkered down. Dale and myself had a snooze and when I woke Bharat, Ramesh and Santos were wrapped up in their sleeping bags playing cards and joking. The inside of the tent was a sea of orange synthetic sleeping bag, down jackets and foam mattresses. It was very cosy and looked like a Hindu temple stall selling marigolds, orange tikkas and powders outside Pashupati temple in Kathmandu. The snow and mist continued through the afternoon. Ramesh and Santos bravely went outside to set up a kitchen using two porter baskets and a sheet of plastic under which they operated the kerosene stove to make dalbhat for the rest of us who remained cosy in the tent.
Hopefully we would get over the pass tomorrow or the day after and Dale could return to Olangchun Gola and this would be the end of the first section. Section 01. Kanchenjunga. It had been quite a hard start to the trip. Mainly due to four unseasonably heavy snowfalls which probably made what should have been a two week section into a three week section. However it tested us as a team and we survived. It also tested most of our equipment and that seemed to hold up. The huge Helsport Spitsbergen Xtrem four man tent is superb, and the clothing and sleeping bags all seem great. The next section Section 02. Arun is much easier and seldom goes above 4000m so that should go according to plan before the crux section – Section 03. Makalu with its 6000m passes.
Section 01. Kanchenjunga. 277km 125hours 15790m up 13100m down