The trekking adventures continue! I just returned from three wildly exciting weeks on trail, living among the giants. Kanchenjunga is the third highest mountain in the world topping out at 8586m. Its name means “The Five Treasures of the Great Snows”. This mountain can be accessed from both Nepal and India, as it’s right on Nepal’s eastern border with Sikkim. The collection of 5 peaks which make up Kanchenjunga is extremely remote, and it requires at least 14 days to trek into and out of from the nearest road on the Nepal side, not even including the travel days. In a typical year only about 400 trekkers visit the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area.
Since I was gone for so long this time, I have a lot to report on. Therefore, I’m splitting this post into two parts to respect the fact that you didn’t sign on for reading a novel when you clicked this link. SO, part 1….
After my experiences trekking solo, and solo with a guide, I decided it was time to try trekking with a group. I met Ben and Alba through TrekkingPartners.com. After much email correspondence we met in Kathmandu, dealt with final details, and set off with our guide, Raju, coordinated by our fabulous trekking agent, Kanchenjunga Trek. First we flew to Bhadrapur then paid for a private jeep to Taplejung, which is where our adventure really began.
Our first couple of days on trail were spent hiking up through the lush, wide Tamor Nadi river valley. We started at an elevation lower than 1000m, meaning we started off sweaty in hot, hot weather. We passed through many small villages, full of smiling faces, with children running out of their houses to shout “namaste!” at us. We walked through rice paddies and fields of cardamom, impressive swaths of bamboo, and forests of rhodendron trees. Happily, I got to see both red monkeys and Langurs (yay monkeys!). On our second night we stayed in Amjilosa, a picturesque village perched on top of a hillside. Here, I inserted myself in the kitchen and helped make vegetable momos with the friendly women who hosted us.
Our first two days were rather long, at 8 and 9 hours, since we were trying to gain an extra day. Fortunately for me I was already in good trekking shape having just spent the last two months on trail, but I know my new trekking buddies were suffering a bit at first. We all expressed shock and awe when we encountered some young porters carrying 50kg each. I’m told they can charge approx $1 per kg for the distance they were going, meaning they were each going to earn only about $50 total for a 5-day walk carrying these heavy loads.
On our third hiking day we reached the village of Gyabla, where we caught up with two other groups of people hiking with the same trekking company as us. This night I treated the hotel as my personal nightclub and got tipsy on Tongba which is a Nepali ‘beer’ homemade from fermented millet and corn mixed with hot water and served in characteristic wooden drums. It tastes a little like a cross between beer and sake. Our guides sang Nepali songs and we danced the night away…well I did, anyway. After Gyabla, Ben, Alba, Raju and I decided to join forces with one of the other trekking groups, so Mary, Thomas, NT and Kanchan were added to our crew to create one bigger group of 8. Coming from Nepal, Canada, Germany, Spain and the US we became a nice little multicultural family! Together we continued to wind up through some mud, some steep climbs, through many waterfalls, and beautiful forests, gaining more elevation and climbing away from the jungle. I especially enjoyed the uphill grinds because I was able to get into a great mental and physical zone, where my breath and willpower synched in harmony.
In the morning in Gyabla I tried Tibetan bread for breakfast, which is super tasty as its essentially just fresh dough fried in oil, and who doesn’t like fried foods? This day we hiked up into chillier temps, pine forests and through the Tibetan refugee village of Phale. Here we stopped to visit the colourful monastery and watch artisans weave and craft. From Phale we walked into the village of Ghunsa. The village is incredibly charming and nicely manicured by the resident Sherpa population, with all the buildings made of blackened wood and brightly painted doors and windowsills. Here we stayed in the Ghunsa Guest House owned by a lovely Sherpa family with big smiles and AMAZING cooking skills, particularly their Sherpa Stew. They also served up tasty Tibetan tea which is tea brewed with salty butter and milk – yum! Here I purchased a beautiful necklace made of Tibetan beads as well as a locally made hand-weaved yak-wool scarf since temperatures were starting to go below freezing.
At an elevation of 3400m we planned to have a “rest day” in Ghunsa, which meant spending two nights, but the “day off” was spent hiking up to 4150m then back down (‘hike high, sleep low’ is the typical practise when acclimatising). I was already acclimatized having just come off the Annapurna and Manaslu circuits but my compadre’s needed to be mindful of not gaining too much elevation too quickly. At 3000m there’s 68% the amount of oxygen you find at sea level, and at 5200m where we were headed, there’s only 53%. So for our “rest day” we hiked up a beautiful ridge nearby to sneak views of the majestic Mount Jannu towering above us, full of icy glaciers.
After the rest day it was time to climb again, up to Khangbachen at 4115m. Leaving behind warmth meant we could also leave behind some summer gear in Ghunsa, taking slightly lightly packs with us – bonus! We’d be returning to Ghunsa in four days time. The hike this day brought me home, as this section of river valley looked and felt almost exactly like hiking in the Canadian Rockies in autumn. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself climbing through majestic larch forests turned golden with the changing season, highlighted by other fall shades of red and orange, set on black rocks, all lightly frosted. After not too long we were greeted by the village of Khangbachen, and the extremely hospitable owner of The White House hotel, Nupu Sherpa. Some of us went for a further hike up trying to gain a little more elevation. Plus, Ben and Mary were set on finding signs of Snow Leopards, since these animals are known to inhabit the area. Unfortunately, a storm started to blow in so we had to retreat back to the hotel. On the positive side, Nupu cooked an unbelievably delicious spaghetti bolognese made with yak meat and cheese – a welcome change after many days of dal bhat.
Fortunately, by morning the clouds had cleared and it looked like we’d have a nice day for hiking. The storm had left a few centimeters of snow on the ground, though, and the night had been very cold. I was so chilled that I didn’t even want to get out of my sleeping bag. Considering I’d only brought trail runners instead of waterproof footwear, I felt extra terrified to venture out of bed for the day. I layered up on clothes and socks, and wore gaiters to help my situation as best as possible. We estimated that the temperature couldn’t have been colder than -10C but here the air felt damp, and wet cold cuts you through to the bone. Nothing warms you up like movement, so we got walking as soon as possible and got the blood and improved moods flowing. The beautiful views on hike from Khangpachen to Lhonak made me feel substantially better, as well. We climbed only ~600m gradually over 8km, up to 4770m. Lhonak itself is a collection of 8 crudely constructed and rather drafty wood buildings. We arrived during brilliant sunlight, in which we basked for a few hours enjoying the spectacular views of the awe-inspiring snow covered peaks all around us. Alas, the sun did not last and again clouds shrouded the views and caused the temperature to drop substantially. We huddled around the fire for warmth, ate dinner quickly, and retreated prematurely into our sleeping bags to get to sleep in anticipation for the next day’s early rise time.
I have a love-hate relationship with “alpine starts”. There is something magical about the silent, crisp pre-dawn hours during which your thoughts and sights focus solely on placing one foot in front of the other within the beam of light supplied by your headlamp. Everyone is cold and trots quickly to warm up. No one speaks and not even a wisp of wind stirs the immobile air. Breath turns to frost. Stars sparkle above. It’s almost a communal meditative state in which we each understand what the others are thinking, without any communication required: “its way too fucking early and freezing to be out of bed right now; what am I even doing with my life”. But as soon as the first light reveals the outline of the massive peaks, you remember, “oh yeah. That’s why.” From Lhonak we started our walk at 4:30am in subzero temperatures, reaching the Kanchenjunga North Base Camp at 5128m by about 7:45. Apparently the weather there is usually dreadful, but we arrived in no clouds or wind, with a strong sun warming our skin. Mount Kanchenjunga was truly an inspiring sight to see, towering above us, enveloped in ice and snow. Unfortunately the porter Kanchen started feeling some symptoms of altitude sickness so he needed to retreat to lower elevations right away, and NT accompanied him. As for the rest of us, after spending some time enjoying the views we descended all the way back down to Khangpachen on the same day to meet back up with Kanchen and NT, and then down the Ghunsa on the day after that. Luckily, nobody else experienced any serious altitude sickness throughout the trip.
Typically I hiked rather quickly and at the head of the pack. Whether ascending or descending I tended to hike more briskly. In the mornings our guides would tease me and ask me who the guide would be today, and my answer would be “ma guide cha” (I am the guide). More often than not, it was usually the cold that spurred my pace. As a tiny person lacking much body fat, I feel I need to burn more energy faster just to keep warm. Before she got sick with a cold, Mary joined me for many of my forays into the frontline. It was extremely enjoyable trotting along with someone who was moving quickly with me!
After our return to Ghunsa we enjoyed a bit of relaxation along with the opportunity to shower and wash clothes. We sat around in the sun joking around like the little family we’d become. How we loved our guides who we’d nicknamed “the dal bhat boys” (dal bhat power, 24 hours!) When a large camping group came through and starting setting up their tents I attempted to lift one of the porter’s 45kg loads. It was physically impossible for me and everyone laughed, but no-one was surprised considering it was a weight pretty similar to my own body mass. My pitiful attempt incited an even greater awe at the porters who not only lift these loads, but carry them long distances strapped over their heads, wearing nothing but plastic sandals on their feet. Absolutely CRAZY.
There are people who swear by teahouse trekking and people who swear by camping. I say that if teahouses are available – jump on the opportunity! Its so nice being able to interact with locals, supporting their businesses and learning about their culture around the stove at night. Plus, you have to carry less gear if you’re staying in teahouses. The downside to guest houses is that beds are sometimes pretty uncomfortable, and occasionally your room ends up being close to the kitchen which can mean a smoky sleep. Sleeping in a the same tent for the whole trip allows for more consistency on that front, to be sure.
Click here to read part 2 of my Kanchenjunga update!