Kanchenjunga trek vignettes
by Bruce Utsey
Bruce trekked on our Kanchenjunga fixed departure trek, 28 Oct-21 Nov 2018.
Ka...BOOM!… ka BOOM, BOOM …BOOM!
I woke with a start, “what the…” My heart seemed as if it was desperately trying to beat its way out of my chest. My fight or flight reaction was instantly ramped up to full speed, but I couldn’t quite yet process what was happening.
The deafening sound was what I imagined were full railroad boxcars being dropped from a 100-story building. In a few more moments, my reasoning caught up with my panicked brain and remembered “Oh yeah, I’m in Lhonak, Nepal, near Kanchenjunga. That must be rock fall beyond the moraine, across the glacier. Or is it coming from the peak directly above the little tea house we were sleeping in?” “Oh shit, what if?” By instinct, before I could fully reason things out, I was sitting up, rooting around for my headlamp, pulling on all of my down clothes, boots, knit wool hat and big gloves. I knew that it was cold, maybe -15 C, when I got up some hours earlier to pee. The ice fog was just beginning to form then, obscuring the stars. As I stepped over the sill and bumped my head yet again on the low doorway (you'd think that I would have learned by now, having been to Nepal three times, ducking through hundreds of doorways, that the doors are always low) I saw that the ice fog was even thicker, and had that familiar hard, lifeless, elemental smell. The visibility was even more limited as it was still well before sunrise. The fog had settled in more thickly than before. The pounding and explosive roar had not let up. In the darkness, with my heightened sense of hearing, trying to make up for not being able to see, it seemed like some event on a Biblical scale.
Up on the moraine, just a few minutes walk above the Lhonak; I could see just the faintest outline of the crest and people with headlamps. I walked up and joined the few Nepali guides and porters who were trying to peer through the darkness and fog across the mile wide glacier. After a few more minutes, the rock fall slowed and stopped, then started again. We stood there silently, taking it all in. A light snow was condensing out of the ice fog; I noticed individual flakes were collecting on the stitched seams of my down jacket. At least I could see that in my headlamp beam. It was cold enough that they would not melt and I could admire their various tiny forms at my leisure. Some time later, and as the first hint of dawn was coming, I could see what looked like just the faintest outlines of an immense dust cloud rising dimly down the glacier. It was sort of a black on black shape, but nothing more. As we would later learn, there had been sporadic rock fall for five days, but this was the biggest event yet. A Japanese group had been climbing that mountain during the previous month. The lodge owner felt that they must have done something pretty bad to anger the mountain so much. It seemed like a reasonable explanation, as there was no other rock fall anywhere else. I couldn’t imagine that it was to continue like that for the rest of the day. What would be left then but a low pile of rubble? One by one, or in pairs, we all walked back down the moraine to see if there might be a yak dung fire had been started in the stove in the teahouse. The unspoken conclusion was that there was “nothing to see here, better move along”. Maybe we could get some hot tea?
This morning was the start of a remarkable day. It was one of many on that trip, a trek to the basecamps of Jannu and both the north and south sides of Kanchenjunga.
Lhonak in the sun
Kanchenjunga is the third highest mountain in the world and sits on the far eastern border of Nepal. A little bit of India known as Sikkim reaches up to the border with Tibet. Kanchenjunga sits on that border. It is wonderfully remote.
It’s not an easy trek to this region. There are no tiny airstrips perched in high valleys. You can’t cherry pick the high country with only a few days of walking. There is no wifi, cell service or even much electricity except in one village that has its own hydropower and where people have solar panels sitting on thatched bamboo roofs. You must first fly to a small steamy city on the border with India. Then ride in a sweaty, tiny cramped jeep with no shocks for a day and a half over narrow and remarkably steep, narrow, exposed, winding and broken roads to the end. The local driving style is to play chicken with every oncoming vehicle, as everyone is vying for the same narrow strip of not quite so broken pavement in the middle of the road. Tuk-tuks, motorcycles, bicycles and huge trucks are “all in” when playing this game. It’s best not to watch, especially at night. But then, your driver may have a mix tape of Bollywood hits playing at full volume so it’s great fun when after a few hours; you relax your western comfort and safety standards. It’s sort of an exotic, uncomfortable, amusement park ride without the safety precautions… for 12 hours...
It’s much more enjoyable to walk the last 10 or 15 km as the roads are still under initial construction, and you can walk nearly as fast as someone would dare drive. There are delightful riverside trails next to small farms and hamlets along the way. A nice diversion mixed in with the road walking. We started off quite low by Nepali standards, at about 1000 m, with bamboo, tropical hardwood trees and wildflowers growing on the steeper slopes that were too steep to dig terraces on. One day there were monkeys on the far side of the raging torrent that we were walking next to. The small hamlets and farms grew rice, millet and cardamom and flowers. It seemed that every home had at least some marigolds. And of course, there are goats and chickens everywhere. The chickens are always under foot, or going in and out of doorways, looking for bits of food. I imagine them thinking; “a few grains of rice or maybe part of a noodle, perhaps”? The smart ones gather to clean up the dishes after a meal at the community water source, before the dishes are rinsed in cold water coming from a hose that comes from a creek up the hill. Not a calorie is ever wasted.
Western hygiene standards are unknown or ignored as well. A traveler with an “experienced” gut that has seen Asian bacteria before, and will be OK with that, eliminates some of the potentially explosive G.I. tract issues.
In just a two-day walk, you are back two centuries. Back to the way our not too distant relatives lived. Certainly, it is third world subsistence living, with all of the difficulties that that entails. The poverty, disease and unnecessary suffering is clearly evident. Walk out through a village in the evening and you might see a woman in traditional clothing, carrying a load of food to her goats, with a huge goiter on her neck. But also, the warmest 1000 watt smile that you have ever seen. Many people, even adults, out on the trail still greet you with a sweetly shy and warm “Namatse”. Some may even want to talk for a while. “What is you land?” Or, in the higher regions, “Tashi Delek”, which is the Tibetan greeting. To me that is one of the best parts of travel, the little person to person interactions, if only for a few minutes, were some of the highlights of the trip.
At the end of a week, we were in the middle hills. At around 2500 to 3500m they are often much too steep to farm or even cut timber. So these are truly old growth forests, utterly untouched. The forests are pine and tamarak, also known as larch, which turn a beautiful golden color in the fall. The understory is the national flower rhododendron, 10 meter tall rhododendron. With such steep terrain, there are waterfalls at least every few km or so across the river or overhead. In the western world, many would be big destination tourist spots with hotels, wedding venues and shops full of kitch. In this area, they are just a noisy part of the scenery.
There is little in the way of tourist infrastructure in this region. Most of the little lodges are very simple, more like converted goat or storage sheds. They are sometimes described as being almost comically crude. There may be bed bugs in the lower elevations and there will be mice. But you have to admire the industriousness and creativity of the owners. I particularly enjoyed some of the “wallpaper” in the tiny rooms. It was often local or regional newspapers pasted up, or colorful inspirational posters done up with the most amusing and bizarre (to western tastes) photo shop images. Cherubic naked babies playing with them selves in lush green formal gardens? Whaa? The menu selections were often; well, to put it nicely, very limited. You must learn to enjoy dal bhaat, and be willing to enjoy it at least once a day. Our saying was: “Dal bhaat power, 24 hour.” After nearly a month, it sort of grows on you, but not enough to make some back at home.
In three weeks our small group saw only 50 or 60 other westerners. We saw only two large groups, marching in very tedious, slow lines. I felt sorry for them.
Would they be able to stop at a tiny trailside shed for some sweet tea flavored with nak (female Yak) milk, and chat with the owner? Or do some bouldering at the base of Janu? Doubtful. Many or most of the other couples or pairs we met have been to Nepal a dozen or more times. Like me, drawn again and again to that indescribable “something” that some find so compelling in Nepal. All of them were seeking a more authentic less commercialized trekking experience, in hopes of being in a place where there was a better opportunity to feel just a little bit more of that “something”. One certainly does get a glimpse into another way of life in villages where the average 10 year old has never seen a car but wants to chat and try out his English with a westerner, searching for first hand knowledge of the world outside the village. Or you learn that the teahouse owners’ wife just delivered her sons’ first child the week before. The son is 19 years old and his wife just 16.
And then there are the trails and bridges. They are not built or maintained for western trekkers, but are rough, broken down, eroded and often remarkably exposed. We estimated that 20% of the 150+ km that we walked would result in a fatality if one fell. Some of the valley bottom ones were particularly scary as we were on recently eroded, loose sand slopes just a few meters above raging class 5 whitewater. Some were just a series of little steps kicked into steep hard sand. If you were on a climb up high somewhere you would want a belay. Many of the bridges were just a pair of logs or boards tied together and often very bouncy. Fun if you have good balance, very unnerving if you don’t.
The trail from Lhonak up the north side of Kanchenjunga is mostly up a gentle grade with wide-open views. There was one ridiculously steep sand climb 500m up around an immense Himalayan sized landslide. As we walked up that morning after a breakfast of tea, tsampa porridge and an omelet the rock fall continued sporadically. The ice fog gradually dissipated and we saw a large herd of blue sheep. They were same species as THE blue sheep of Peter Matthiessen's book “The Snow Leopard”. THE book has inspired so many to travel to Nepal. As the ice fog slowly burned off, the light that morning had the most ethereal quality, of things hidden and slowly revealed. The color slowly returned to the sky, the mountains and our own forms. We blew puffs of steam into the cold air, working our way up a broad glacial valley.
And then, after nearly two weeks of walking we were there.
The striking pale pink granite mountain called Jannu/Khumbakarna/Phoktanglungma
The north side is truly an amazing place. There must be over 3,000 meters of vertical relief there, with two hanging glaciers, one above the other. It’s all so big that there is simply no sense of scale. Is that a 100m serac, or maybe 250? After another meal of dal bhaat, this time with chillies, a few of us walked up higher to see some more sheep up close and an even better view of the north face. Kanchenjunga is the star of the show, but Wedge, Nepal and Pyramid peaks were stunning as well. Soon the clouds were starting to build as they did each afternoon and it was time to head back.
Later, the clouds rolled in with a bitter headwind and some snow. By the time we got back to Lhonak, we were completely socked in again. Shortly thereafter, it was cold and dark. We all crammed ourselves into the tiny room that had the stove with four Ukrainians who looked like active duty Special Forces officers on a holiday, and three French that had the air of privileged Parisians in their designer eyeglasses and disdainful expressions. Perhaps there might be some noodle soup or potatoes on the menu that eve? Maybe we'd could get a break from dal bhaat? Outside, the rock fall continued, sporadically, unabated, as it had all day. The mountain was still angry.
Bruce at Pangpema with Kanchenjunga