As I alight from the Air India flight in Bagdogra airport near Siliguri in Sikkim, I look up. What I see is not pleasing.
There are thick grey clouds hovering in the sky. On this October day when I was hoping that there would be no precipitation in the air, I realize that Cyclone Phailin has changed the rules of the game. The fate of our trek rested in the lap of nature’s whims and fancies.
The Goecha La trek is one of the most famous treks in the Indian Himalayas. The intimidating route starts from Yuksom in South Sikkim and goes up 48 kms north, along the valley of the Prek river, to the windy Goecha pass at an altitude of 16,200 feet. From here, one can almost touch Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world.
Day 1 – Yuksom to Sachen
Civilised us. I am the one wearing the navy sweatshirt in the second row.
Seven of us arrived at Yuksom the previous night in a jeep whose interiors cried for space. But after a good nights sleep, we are ready for the long haul. Lakhpat Singh, our guide readies our permits and we hit the trail. The sun has peeped out and I keep my eyes on the clouds. Mountain weather is unpredictable but when remnants of cyclones hit the Himalayas, the clouds are trapped for days. The weather thus becomes wet, gloomy and worse, there are no mountain views.
As we climb up, I look back to find that we have walked amidst wooden, tin and concrete like rustic chalets with lush green rolling hills in the background. The trail itself hugs the mountain as it goes up into the Kanchenjunga National Park. To the left of us is the steep valley of the Rathong river. The roaring sounds of water and white foam of the very active river will keep us entertained for the rest of the day.
The forest is a mixed forest with giant magnolias, pine, oak and other trees. But this trail is more famous for the rhododendron trees and in summer, the whole forest is lit with the primarily flaming red flowers of these trees. We soon cross a suspension bridge across one of Rathong’s tributaries where we meet a Japanese family trekking with their dog and cat. The trail goes up steeply from here. Mules and dzo’s(bred from yaks and cattle) are constantly going up and down the path carrying supplies and we give these respectable animals the right of way.
The first suspension bridge
After a series of ascents and descents along a rocky and uneven trail, we reach Sachen at 3 pm where we pitch tents. Sachen is famous for leeches during the wet season but we manage to keep a safe distance from these during our stay.
Day 2 – Sachen to Tsokha
It is still cloudy but there is no rain and after a quick breakfast, we start for our next destination, Tsokha which is eight kilometers away and 2,500 feet above. I discover that my left knee is a bit painful. I remember that I had mildly injured it while training for the trek.
We come across another suspension bridge, this time across the Prek river. There is a huge landslide besides the river, which a grisly reminder of a previous earthquake. As I am about to reach the end of the swaying suspension bridge two heavily loaded mules enter. There is no way they will turn back upon seeing puny me on that narrow wooden bridge. But my knee pain gets the better of me and I decide not to turn back and brave the mules. I push myself towards the guardrail of the bridge and hold onto one of the suspension cables. As the mules pass me, the sacks on the back of the mule push my backpack and me further against the cable as the bridge wildly sways. I stare at the bottom of the river, 50 feet below and hang onto dear life. I secretly vow to keep a safe distance from all mules from then on.
We soon reach Bakhim which is the first point in the trail where the views behind us open up. Even though it is fully overcast, we can see the valley along which we had trekked all the way to Yuksom. On clear nights, the lights of Darjeeling are visible. We have a lunch of noodles, eggs and some local chang, which is fermented beer made out of red millets. An egg here costs Rs 25. We are not sure what hits us more, the price of the eggs or the chang.
Chang – The local beer
The “restaurant’ at Bakhim
I feel the deterioration in my left knee and to protect it, start putting my body weight on the right one. The switchback trail and the steep ascent slow me down but at 4 pm, finally reach Tsokha, the last village of the Bhutias. From now on there are no more villages but just outposts for trekker. Tsokha is another clearing on the side of the mountain with great views down the valley. At this height, some of the clouds are level with us.
No match for that
Day 3 – Tsokha to Dzongri
Camping ground at Tsokha
It has rained in the night. The cold is now becoming uncomfortable. We have breakfast in the lunchroom of the adjacent trekkers hut and then hit the trail. Today would be a tough days trek with a distance of 12 kms and a height gain of 3,350 feet.
The monastery at Tsokha
The view from Tsokha where one can see Yuksom, Pelling and Darjeeling
Frisbee at Tsokha
We stop at Phedang for lunch and the weather is now distinctively cold, dreary and dull, with clouds enveloping us. The trail has changed from wet and slushy to that consisting of wooden logs. As my knees start hitting these hard planks, my knee pain increases. After a tiring journey, we reach Dzongri at 5 pm where visibility is fifty feet. Our mood is as bad as the weather, forlorn and depressive. We now decide to bunk in the trekker huts as some members of our group are not happy with the tents.
Trekkers hut at Phedang
Day 3 – Rest Day at Dzongri
Today is a day of acclimatization but we still get up at 4 am. There is a hill called Dzongri Top which has incredible views of the mountains, and we intend to climb the hill. But there is dense fog outside and Lakhpat dissuades us but Sonmon our cook, volunteers to take us.
The “road” to Dzongri Top
At the top, there is fog and clouds everywhere and the fluttering Buddhist prayer flags seem to want to console us. All of a sudden, the clouds just clear for a keyhole to appear on the right flank and we see snow on a distant mountain but the opening is rapidly closed by other competing clouds. The hide and seek continues with no success and we retreat at 10 am. Seeing the way things were going, all our hard work in reaching till here could just mean nothing. The rest of the day continues in an air of gloom and despondency.
Day 4 – Dzongri to Thansing
I am now heavily banking on the meteorology department’s prediction that the North West winds would begin today and drive away the clouds. Never did anyone pray so hard for the met department to be right.
We get up again at 4 am and set out for the hilltop, this time by a different route. It is a slow walk for me and the knee massages and painkillers are proving to be of no help. And worse, excessive use of my right knee has now made both my knees disaffected. At 6 am, as I slowly make my way to the top, Lakhpat comes running, “Saab, The sky has opened up”.
Ooh La la
First light on the Big Fella
Pandim, Tingchingkang, Japuno
Kabru peaks and Kanchenjunga
The camping ground at Dzongri
After another ten paces, I see what he means. It is a magnificent spectacle. The weather has miraculously cleared up in the past two hours and the entire horizon in front consists of snow peaks and mountains. It is an amphitheater view with the Kanchenjunga and Kabru range in front, Singalila ridge behind us and the Pandim ridge to the right. The waning moon right on top of the mountains adds to the beauty. By now other trekking groups have arrived at the top. The first sunrays hit Kanchenjunga. The sight could move poets but we a multitude of ordinary people of different nationalities on the hill moved by the spectacle in front of us, exchange mountaineering anecdotes.
Dzongri Top once more
One of the trekkers huts at Dzongri
We head back to our hut to discover our first casualty. Lokesh, the silent trekker of our group wants to go back to Yuksom because he cannot bear the cold and appears despondent. We decide to send him back along with a porter from Thansing, our next stop.
As we leave Dzongri, the clouds and fog envelope us again. On a sunny day, it is a beautiful walk across the meadows with snow peaks for company. But not today. The Dzongri meadows end and I stare at the descending trail which reaches Kokchurang at the bottom of the valley. The path looks like a deep gully carved by a surging river with its angular rocks and sheer drop. It is a monster descent of 1000-feet over a kilometre. I ask Sonmon how long it would take to reach the bottom. He says forty-five minutes and then looks at my knees and doubles the time. My knees pray silently.
Kokchurang shot through a phone cam as I am no mood to carry my SLR
I reach Kokchurang and have potatoes for lunch for the umpteenth time. We have forgotten that there are other vegetables in existence. The only vegetable we are eating are potatoes in various avatars. Kokchurang is right besides the Prek river and is one of most idyllic spots on the trek to pitch camp. On clearer days, it has a nice view of Mount Pandim but today it is grey all over. I now walk further up the river and by 5 pm reach Thansing. Thansing is a meadow in a valley with marvelous vistas with 18,000 feet high peaks lining up the valley and the South East ridge of the Kanchenjunga straight ahead. I thought, I saw the looming Mt Pandim wink at me.
Day 5 – Rest Day
The trekkers hut at Thansing
The weather gods are benevolent and it is a clear morning. We make the first strategic mistake on the trip. We are supposed to depart for Lamuney which is further up and camp in tents since Lamuney has no trekker huts. But some in the group are hesitant to stay in tents due to the Siberian Gulag like cold. So we decide to stay back and attempt Goecha La from Thansing itself.
We play frisbee in the cold and thin air. By 3 pm, clouds envelope Thansing and it soon rains and snows for some time. It is unbelievably cold and the wind chill makes it worse. The huts are made of granite and tin sheets and are retaining the cold instead of insulating it.
Day 6 – Thansing to Goecha La to Thansing
D-day arrives. Today we would not carry backpacks but our multiple layers of clothing make up for the weight. We start out at 2 am. It is an exceptionally clear night. The snow peaks are glittering in the moonlight and I wish I have a tripod to shoot pictures.
We cross multiple brooks over frozen wooden logs being careful not to slip over the ice on the logs. There is frost everywhere and the temperature is sub zero. Thankfully, wind chill is non-existent. We trudge carefully in the darkness, four kilometers to reach Lamuney. It is 5 am. We are behind schedule. After a break at Lamuney, we climb up the rocky moraine wall to get our first clear views of Mt Kanchenjunga and the Kabru peaks. It is 6 am and we should have reached the first viewpoint by now.
Kanchenjunga ablaze – From Samiti
There is a depression after the moraine wall which plays host to a snowmelt fed lake. This is Samiti and a thin layer of ice lies on the lake’s surface. We walked partly around the lake, which is around a kilometre and reach another moraine wall. We were now exactly at the foot of Mt Pandim which towers over us like a king at 22,300 feet.
Samiti Lake shot from the other sideSamiti Lake
By now the two feet deep snow everywhere. It snows usually from mid November onwards but this year it has started from mid-October. We climb the moraine, which is a scramble over snow and rocks over a steep ascent. Over the entire trip, we were lucky that none of us were affected by high altitude sickness. But now as the first rays of sunlight reached us, my pace decreases. At 14,500 feet I am hungry for oxygen. It is an effort to put my foot forward. The fitter members of the group overtake me while every few steps I rest my knees and take in oxygen.
Walking up the moraine
Mt Pandim is not a li’l fellow
After an hour of trekking on snow and rocks, I climb the ridge of the moraine wall. This is where the Kanchenjunga ridge again opens up for viewing. The Rathong and Zemathang glaciers are visible on the left of the ridge. It is exhilirating. After a few more minutes, I reach the first viewpoint, which already has a few members of my trekking group. It is nearing 9 am. We are now at around 15,600 feet. I can almost smell Kanchenjunga from here.
Kanchenjunga and View point 1. The path to the pass is straight ahead along the ridge.
I check out the path to the pass, which lies in front of me. It is a trail which goes down and climbs up another ridge and comes up to the right of Goecha peak which was in front of us. But there is snow all over and there are no visible footprints towards the pass. Obviously no one has attempted it over the past few days. Lakhpat goes down to check the route and comes back and declares that we cannot go. I grudgingly agree because walking in snow on the ridge further ahead could be tricky and we did not have time on our side.
The view from Goecha pass is of just not the Kanchenjunga and its South East ridge but of the Talung glacier below and the Zemu Gap, another pass which leads to the Green Lakes area of Sikkim. With a heavy heart, and after the customary photo shoot, we head back.
Samiti while returning has changed to turquoise
The Lamuney valley from the moraine before Samiti
Back at Samiti lake, we spot Himalayan Blue Sheep in the distance. I can hear the sharp crackling sound of avalanches somewhere on the Pandim ridge. By the time we reached Thansing, it is afternoon. We have walked 21 kms on an empty stomach.
Day 8 – Thansing to Tsokha
Trekking guides categorise days of trek as easy, medium and difficult. But this trek offers no easy day. Today we have to walk down 3,500 feet over 20 kms. We reach Kokchurang and then take a new route along the Prek river through a bog filled and supposedly haunted forest. Walking through the forest, I wonder if “Lord of the Rings” was shot in this forest.
Kokchurang and this time the weather is clear
By the time I am near Tsokha, the pain in my knees is debilitating. At 5.30 pm, in darkness, I reach Tsokha assisted by the torch of my trek mate Bapi who patiently lights the path for me.
Day 9 – Tsokha to Yuksom
Tsokha camping ground. This time we stayed in the hut behind.
From the hut
On a sunny day we have an early start and quickly reach Bakhim and then cross the bridge over the Prek river. Students of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute are trudging up with their heavy backpacks on their way to the HMI institute near Dzongri.
By the time, I reach Sachen, it is 1 pm and I have asked everyone in the group to pass me. I decide to do the rest of the trek without a time limit and at the pace my knee allows me to. The desolate trail and the lush forest make me think as to why people attempt these treks. Could it be an attempt to discover oneself while discovering the mountains?
I arrive to the end of the trail near Yuksom to the sound of native music streaming out from one of the quaint houses. It is 5.30 pm and our group poses for the mandatory end-of-trek photo. We have walked more than 100 kms and now look forward to the hedonistic pleasures of the civilised world.