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India 1999

Cross Your Bridges As You Come To Them

An Account of the Sikkim Kanchenjunga Trek, May 9-16, l999

by Richard Stace-Smith

Richard is an Honorary Life member of Vancouver Natural History Society and lives in Vancouver, BC.

It was May 8, 1999. A group of 17 weary travelers were about to enter the village of Yuksum in Sikkim, the mountainous state in India squeezed between Nepal and Bhutan. We were on the last segment of what was billed as the Sikkim Rhododendron trip and we had to pass through one more checkpoint before we could enter Yuksum. As we stopped at the checkpoint, our trip leader took in all the documentation (name, address and passport numbers of all individuals, plus the permits that were required to enter this area). The official sitting behind a desk with a large sign "IN CHARGE" prominently displayed, examined the documentation and appeared to have difficulty comprehending the fact that 13 of the group were only planning to stay overnight at Yuksum and start next morning on the tortuous journey back to Vancouver, while the remaining 4 were setting off on an 8-day trek to Goecha La (La means Pass) at the foot of Kanchenjunga Mountain. He finally demanded that those four who were trekking come into his office with their passports so that he could verify that the passport picture matched the person. It was then explained to him again that we were the four who were going trekking; that the remaining 13 were returning home tomorrow. This simple concept still seemed to be beyond his comprehension as he continued to thumb through our passports. I finally came to the conclusion that he may have been searching for some crisp US$ bills folded in between the pages of the passport, which may have clarified his understanding of our plan. However, he eventually seemed to understand the concept and gave us authority to proceed.

I was one of the four who planned to go trekking. My trekking companions were Kelly, aged 50, from New Westminster, and Ron and Mary, a couple in their mid-sixties from Canmore, Alberta. I had just turned 75 a few days before the trek started, and felt at a distinct disadvantage being with three other experienced hikers a decade or more my junior. However, I was determined to do my best not to be a burden on them and only hoped that I could match their pace. Our trek leader, Subash, 29, was an extremely fit Nepalese man, now living in Darjeeling. He had brought the cook with him from Darjeeling and was busy lining up porters and yak-herders from Yuksum on the evening prior to departure. In addition to the cook, he hired four porters and three yak-herders to handle the five yaks. Although commonly called yaks, these pack animals are usually dzos, the offspring resulting by crossing a male yak and a female domestic cow. Pure yaks are cantankerous beasts, difficult to control; dzos inherit the more gentle qualities of the domestic cow and are the animal of choice for transporting supplies on mountain trails. We probably should have felt guilty about having a trek leader plus seven others to assist us up the mountain but, since tourism is an important source of income, we were adding our bit to the economy of Sikkim.

When we checked into the hotel at Yuksum, Ron met a group of Calgarians who had just returned from a 9-day trek covering the same trail that we planned to take. The story they told of the severity of the trek, the snow and rain and the sheer torture they had endured made us wonder whether we were taking on the impossible. One of them said it was a Holiday from Hell and he could not wait to get back to the office for a rest. When Ron mentioned to him that one of our group was 75 years old, his response was "Well, I hope you are taking in a wheelbarrow to haul him out because I can tell you that no 75-year old will get out of there on his own." Ron very wisely did not relay this conversation to me until we had successfully completed the trek.

When I met Subash his first words were that we had met previously and indeed we had. I was on a similar trek in the Kulu Valley near Punjab in 1996 and the trek leader was Subash’s brother Bikash. At one point along the way the two trekking groups connected so we had a short visit with Subash and his group. Subash impressed me then as a competent, dedicated leader and, after being in his care for the current trek, I am still high in my praise of his leadership. His second question to me was "Is it true, Dick, that you are 75?" I replied that it was true and, although he did not say it, I sensed that he had grave doubts about getting me to the top of Goecha La, our final objective and, at 16,200 feet, the highest point of the trek. He confided in me later that he had led about 30 treks to Goecha La over the past decade and most of his clients were in their fifties. He had had a few in their sixties but he could not recall ever having anyone in their 70s. So in fairness to him he had every right to be somewhat apprehensive. In fact, I was myself. I was reminded of one of the road signs on the rough and ready Sikkim roads "Cross your bridges as you come to them." I thought this would be a good maxim for me to follow over the eight days of the trek, hence the title of this article.

The Calgary group also had plenty of advice about leeches, particularly during the first day of the trek, which passes through a lush, tropical rain forest, ideal leech habitat. Leeches are abundant on the trail and the smell of humans attracts them, where the loathsome creatures crawl up boots and readily penetrate socks before attaching themselves to your skin. After first injecting a mild anesthetic and an anticoagulant, they engorge on your blood. Even worse, legend has it that they prefer to climb up your leg to the warm private parts before settling down for their feed of blood, the mere thought of which conjures images of revulsion. Some of the recent travel accounts report that an effective way of thwarting the attachment of the leeches is to wear pantyhose. They are unable to penetrate through the fine knit fabric and, even if they are within reach your skin, they are unable to become attached. Savvy travelers, therefore, take the precaution of wearing pantyhose.

On our last evening together as a group, those that were starting their return journey to Vancouver kindly offered to loan their unneeded clothing to those of us who were continuing on. A waterproof rainhat? Yes. A folding umbrella? Yes. An adjustable aluminum ski pole? Yes. A pair of pantyhose? Well now, wait a minute, I’ll have to think about that. After contemplating the idea, I decided that the thought of wearing pantyhose, male chauvinist that I am, was worse than the revulsion of leeches helping themselves to my precious blood. Next morning, as we said our good-byes to the returning group, it was proposed that we undergo a leg inspection. Three of the four trekkers passed the inspection – I was the only holdout. However, I was encouraged in my decision not to wear pantyhose after Subash appeared in open-toed sandals and no socks. When I asked him about the danger of being mobbed by leeches, he did not appear too concerned. Besides, he said, leeches only extract the bad blood; leaving the good blood behind. This seemed to me like sound philosophy.

By the time we departed on the trek, the weather turned warm and, as we climbed, we were covered in perspiration. It was then that I really appreciated the absence of pantyhose – the other three trekkers complaining bitterly about the discomfort and perspiration accumulating under the pantyhose. I wisely kept quiet. As it turned out, we did not encounter any leeches on the trail that first day, presumably because they remained in the moist forest litter rather than venturing out on the hot, largely dry trail.

The following is the day-by-day account of the trek, based on extensive diary notes that I made as the trek proceeded.

Day 1: Yuksum to Tsokha.

This was to be a long day, and the trek notes indicated that it would be a strenuous day, with a gain of altitude of 4920 feet. We hoped for an early start but, by the time the yak train was assembled and all the porters were in place, it was 8:30am. I wrote a letter to my wife and gave it to one of the group returning to Vancouver (some wag asked me if it was my last will and testament), said our good-byes to our travel companions, and headed off, full of anticipation of what the next 8 days would bring. I have to confess that, after all of the horror stories we had heard, I experienced considerable apprehension as I set out on this trek. It had rained during the night so we anticipated trekking in the rain on our first day. However, I was awakened at 5:00am to the good news that the clouds had dissipated and the mountains were being bathed in glorious sunshine. This positive change in the weather was a promising beginning for our trek. We packed only what we felt was needed on the trek, leaving the remainder at the hotel to be picked up when we returned.

On the outskirts of Yuksum we encountered still another checkpoint, and again had to produce passports and authorized trekking permits. Since all was in order, this check only required about 20 minutes. We then placed our passports in a safe, waterproof package, thankful that they would probably not be required for the remainder of the trek. The trail runs up the narrow Rahtong Valley through dense, verdant, semi-tropical forest. I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the trail, at least for the first few miles. It was fully 6 feet wide, constructed not only to accommodate hikers but also packtrains. The trail base was variable – some sections were smooth, others had a cobblestone base and the wetter sections had corduroy base of logs. Most streams were readily crossed by boulder-hopping but the Prek Chu River was crossed once and the Rathong River twice by suspension bridges. Crossing suspension bridges seemed appropriate considering that we were all experiencing a degree of suspense at the time. We paused frequently to admire the scenery and try to identify the many birds that were singing in the forest trees –birds such as cuckoo, racket-tailed drongo, and the brain fever (so named because if you have a good imagination its call sounds like "brain fever").

Fortunately, all we had to carry was a daypack. The cooking crew, who were used to hiking at this altitude, were loaded down with lunch supplies, pots and pans, and a 5-gallon canister of kerosene, the fuel of choice. They soon overtook us and, a few hours into the climb, awaited our arrival with hot tea and lunch. This fortified us for the final push to our first day’s objective, the small village of Tibetan refugees named Tsokha.

As we arrived at Tsokha, it dawned on me that I had actually survived the first day’s climb, gained nearly 5000 feet in altitude, and although tired, I felt that I could have continued on for another couple of hours if necessary. This gave me confidence that I would be able to complete the whole trek, something that I previously was not at all certain that I could do. In addition to a few houses, there was a Trekkers Cabin, erected by Tourism Sikkim, and available on a first come-first serve basis to trekking groups. It consisted of four unfurnished rooms, two at each end, and a dining room in the middle. Connected to the dining hall was a kitchen. Kelly and I shared one room, Ron and Mary another, and the crew laid out their sleeping bags on the dining room floor. A similar shelter was available at each of our subsequent overnight stops. It must have been off-season since we rarely had to share the trekking huts with others.

Day 2: Tsokha to Dzongri

It rained a few times during our first night, which Subash claims is a good omen. He maintains that rain dissipates the cloud and fog and opens the possibility of some morning sunshine. So at 5:00am the call went out that there was a good view of the mountains. Also, we could clearly see down the valley and the route that we had taken to get from Yuksum to Tsokha. In the distance the hill top town of Pelling was visible. We had an early breakfast and were packed and ready to depart by 7:30am. It was still clear when we started but the weather rapidly deteriorated. It did not take long for fog and cloud to move in, completely obstructing all views. For the 5 hours that it took us to climb to Dzongri, the fog moved in and out; rarely could we see further that a few hundred yards. The steep trail zigzaged through mixed temperate forests. There were spectacular stands of rhododendron along the route, and as we approached Dzongri, we observed some luxuriant Primula plants. Occasionally the clouds parted and the peak of nearby Pandim could be seen.

Again the cooking crew passed us en route and by the time we arrived at the Trekkers Hut at Dzongri, hot tea was ready. The yak train with our dunnage bags arrived in camp about an hour after we did and, since the temperature dropped dramatically as the fog moved in, we wasted no time in retrieving warmer clothing. We were now at 13,200 feet and the temperature had dropped to near freezing. After lunch, with the fog blanketing the area, it was not conducive to exploring the area around the hut so we crawled into our sleeping bags for the remainder of the afternoon, primarily to keep warm. I had been hiking in light clothing, which provided adequate warmth while moving. However, it is so cold when I stop hiking that I had to add a layer of thermal underwear and a down jacket to keep warm. Also, when I crawl into my sleeping bag, I wore two pairs of socks and gloves. Even with all the clothes, my feet were slow to warm up. To speed the process I filled my water bottle with boiling water and stuffed it into my sleeping bag. This works fine and nothing was wasted; the following day the sterilized water was consumed on the trail.

Day 3: Dzongri to Thangshing

We particularly hoped that it would be clear this morning because the itinerary called for rising at 4:30am and climbing up to a ridge that afforded a spectacular view of sunrise over Kanchenjunga. We would then return to camp for breakfast prior to heading of for today’s climb We all hoped for rain during the night, on the assumption that it would clear the atmosphere and result in a sunny morning.. We did not receive our wake up call at dawn I surmised that everything remained fogged in, which turned out to be the case. We scrapped the hike to the ridge and had our bed tea (i.e. tea delivered to your bed) at 6:00am and were on the trail by 7:30am, gaining about 1000 feet of altitude before reaching the ridge. Upon reaching the ridge, we followed the scenic ridge for about 3 miles before descending very steeply down a spur to a lunch spot on the banks of the glacial Prek Chu River. It rained a few times and, at this altitude, rain quickly turned to hail. After a short stretch of boulder-hopping, we crossed the river and began the gradual accent to the campsite at Thangshing. The Trekkers Hut was actually 600 feet lower in elevation than the one at Dzongri. Even though it was lower, it was no warmer and as the fog rolled in, it was decidedly chilly.

Day 4: Thangshing to Samity Lake

I think the Gods are angry with us. When we had our bed tea, the fog was just as thick as when we went to bed. The first segment of today’s trek passed through dwarf azaleas and rhododendrons, taking us to the first of the terminal moraines of Oglathang Glacier. After climbing to the crest of a ridge, we found ourselves on the shores of the sacred Samity Lake, a beautiful spot for an overnight camp at an altitude of 13,760 feet. As we approached the lake, we say a flock of snow cocks (also called snow pigeons). The Trekkers Hut here is somewhat smaller than the other ones, having only two rooms. The weather improved somewhat as the trek progressed and, by the time we reached our destination, there was reasonable visibility, although the nearby mountain peaks were still blocked from view.

After lunch we decided to circumnavigate the lake, hiking along a trail on the left-hand side of the lake to the glacial stream at the far end of the lake and then returned along a path on the other side. We would be following this same path the following morning, when the itinerary called for a pre-dawn start in order to arrive at the pass by 8:00am. I made note of the fact that there was a section of large boulders on the left-hand side of the lake, and pondered the difficulty of crossing this section before daybreak the following day. The thought crossed my mind that it would be much easier to take the path down the right-hand side of the lake, thus avoiding the section of large boulders. When I mentioned this stretch of boulders to Subash, he was adamant that we would have to proceed down the left-hand side and maneuver through the large boulders, leaving the sacred Samity Lake on our right. I then realized that, of course, being a sacred lake, it had to be treated with respect by keeping it on our right. He told me of the experience he had leading a party of German trekkers who refused to show the proper respect and hiked down the right-hand side, leaving the lake on the left. Within a short distance beyond the lake, two of them became sick and had to drop out. Subash was convinced that their illness was directly linked to the fact that they failed to show due respect for the sacred Samity Lake.

Day 5: Samity Lake to Goecha La and return.

This is the big day, when we make the final climb up to the 16,200 foot Goecha La. We were awakened at 4:00am to have a light breakfast (tea, porridge, and popcorn) and be ready for a pre-dawn start at 4:30am to ensure that we reach the pass when the visibility should still be good. Our objective was to reach Goecha La by 8:00am. There was an ominous start to the day, as Kelly complained of not feeling well, presumably because of altitude sickness, possibly aggravated by electrolytic imbalance. Even though he agreed to come with us, he had to proceed slowly. He hiked with us for about 2 hours but it was obvious that he was in pain. With an estimated hour and one half still to go, he announced that he was having great difficulty placing one foot before the other. His concern was that if he went any farther he would not be able to get out on his own. In considering his predicament, we all agreed that it would be prudent for him to turn around and slowly make his way back to camp. Since a few inches of fresh snow had fallen overnight, he could safely follow our tracks back. So, with regret, he turned back and the rest of us proceeded slowly upward. I say slowly because we all found that, at this altitude, we were struggling to get sufficient oxygen. Subash was still wearing open-toed sandals and he expressed the hope that he could climb to the pass in them. However, as we gained altitude the depth of the snow increased. Finally, some few hundred yards from the pass, his feet were turning to ice and, to avoid severe frostbite, he conceded defeat and replaced his sandals with boots.

Shortly before reaching the pass, the sun broke through the clouds and we could catch glimpses of several mountain peaks. Subash actually reached the pass at the appointed hour of 8:00am, and the rest of us were only a few minutes behind him. As I took my final few steps to the pass, Subash said "Dick, you made it. I am proud of you. You have established a new record for me. Of the 200 or so people that I have led on this particular trek, only about a quarter of them actually complete it and, of those that have, you are the oldest by at least 5 years". I told Subash that I was pleased that I was able to extend the age record for him. I also acknowledged that I too was delighted to have made it all the way to our final objective. Now all that remained to do was to get to base camp without incident.

As the sun beat down on us, as the mountain peaks floated in and out of the cloud cover, and as the prayer flags fluttered on this sacred mountain pass, it was hard to leave and start the downward journey. However, after remaining about an hour, we realized that we needed to make a start on the long journey back to Yuksum. Before leaving, Subash added two artificial roses to the string of prayer flags at the pass. We caught up to Kelly as he was about to enter camp. He was still totally lacking in energy but he at least had made it down under his own power. After a hearty brunch, we took stock of the deteriorating weather and decided that it would be wise to proceed downward even further; reversing the journey we took on Day 4 and stay overnight at Thangshing. This required us to hike most of the afternoon. Kelly was still suffering but he plowed on until he reached Thangshing.

Day 6: Thangshing to Tsokha

The itinerary called for four and one half days climbing up to the pass and three and one half days on the return trip to Yuksum. By travelling down to Thangshing yesterday, we gained the necessary one day on the return journey. However, when we woke up on day 6, it was snowing heavily and we decided that there was no point in remaining on the mountain any longer than we had to. The best course might be to gain a further day by taking the long hike from Thangshing to Tsokha in one day instead of the two days we took hiking in. So we got an early start for what promised to be a long, strenuous downward journey. As the day progressed the snow turned to rain and eventually it even ceased raining. Rather than take the upland route through Dzongri, we took a lower route that paralleled the river, thereby cutting a couple of hours of travel time off the route. The lower route was not capable of handling the pack train so the yaks had to return via the longer, upper route.

We arrived at Tsokha tired and hungry. Subash was a classmate of a lady that came from Tsokha and, since she happened to be home on vacation, we paid her a visit. Imagine the irony of this young lady, raised in the remote village of Tsokha and now attending a computer school in Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim. The positive aspect of our visit was that her parents are entrepreneurs, providing meals and drinks to passing trekkers. We quickly determined that they sold tomba, also known as chang, which is served in a giant bamboo segment. The bamboo tankard is filled with millet that has been allowed to ferment for several days, creating a strong alcoholic drink. A warm brew of hot water is added and percolated down through fermented millet. A few minutes after adding the hot water, the liquid is slowly sucked up through a tall straw that is also made of a bamboo shoot. By consuming this refreshing drink, our spirits and energy level were revived. When we finished our visit with this family, we were buoyed up and all ready to tackle the remaining leg of the journey the next morning.

Day 7: Tsokha to Yuksum

We got our usual wakeup call in the form of bed tea at 6:00am and after having breakfast, we were on the trail by 7:00am. This would be our last day on the mountain. Subash estimated that we could hike out in about 6 hours. Visions of a hot shower and a change into clean clothes were utmost in our minds. The trail down was difficult for all of us – long, rocky, tiring, constant pounding hard on our knee joints. Fortunately, the weather held most of the way – it was not until we approached the outskirts of Yuksum that a light rain began to fall. The cooking crew left later than we did but, true to their tradition, passed us on the way down and had a hot lunch prepared for us at noon, when we had passed the half way point on the way down. Ron and Mary took advantage of a calm pool at our lunch spot to have a cool, or more accurately cold, swim. We stumbled into our hotel at 3:00pm, exhausted but in good spirits.

We arranged to meet all of the crew in the hotel lobby to treat them to a drink and present them with their tip. When the four of us assembled in the lobby at 5:00pm, not one of the crew were there. Kelly asked us if we had ever heard of Indian Standard Time. His definition, one half hour after an agreed meeting time. Sure enough, by 5:30pm they began to arrive and they had all made it by 5:45. In keeping with another trekking tradition, those of us who had completed the trek and had any used clothing that we could dispense with donated it to the porters. We all managed to find some article of clothing that we could part with. Except for this trip, I had not used my down vest for the past year so I decided to add it to the donated pile. Following a drink, expressions of thanks for the good job well done, and a lottery to determine who had first choice of the donated clothing, we said our good-byes to the crew, all of whom we had got to know and respect over the previous week. This event marked the end of our trek. All we had to do now was to get started on the long journey back to Vancouver. The first couple of days were by jeep to Bagdogra, the military airport that services Sikkim. From there it was by airplane, first to Calcutta then on to Vancouver via Singapore and Seoul. All of us agreed that we had a most interesting and rewarding adventure.