|Wow, what an amazing trek.... something that takes your breath away - literally.
We're just back from 9 days of trekking, out from Yoksum, Sikkim, to the 5000m summit of Goeche La which sits under the shadow of Kangchenjunga - the world's 3rd highest mountain.
It sort of all started with the chance meeting of 2 Canadians, Dana and Jeff, who we met as we were leaving for the dawn spectical at Tiger Hill in Dargeeling. As we crept out of our room at 4 in the morning, 3 rooms down we spotted a couple quietly exiting their room, apparently with the same plan in mind. After introductions, we organised a jeep to Tiger Hill in which they asked if we knew of anyone interested in doing the Goeche La trek because a few more bodies would drop the price dramatically from US$55 TO $40 a day. Co-incidentally they were leaving on the exact day we planned to, so we were sold. Fast forward a couple of days and we were all together on the 6 hour jeep ride to Yoksum ready and rearing to go...
Yoksum, the first capital of Sikkim, seems to be stuck in the century when the first king was crowned there. No sealed roads, not much in the way of infrastructure, but it has a spirit that makes it such a warm place to be. We checked into one of the local hotels, The Wild Orchid, and were greeted by Doche, the world's youngest hotel manager. He looks about 8 years, but has the place running like clockwork. It must be a stressful little gig for him, looks like he's starting to go grey already - but he was the perfect host.
Yet another co-incidence that has kept our trip running like clockwork - we were at the local Yak Restaurant cowing down on some Sikkim cuisine when one of the local pipped up and asked if we were doing a trek the next day. We had only just been discussing where on earth we'd find a phone to ring our guide when our man Pentuk found us. A few hot chocolates later and we were all organised for departure in the morning.
How do I compress 9 days of trekking into a something a little shorter the book I'm reading, Shantaram? Impossible.... but here goes...
In a couple of words it was awesome and cold, very cold. The first couple of days got us up to Tsohka, at 3000m it is land that was given to Tibetan Refugees and also houses a trekkers hut which was home for the night. The night was spent teaching the Cannucks a spot of Shithead, but it seemed that Rob and Dana had the luck of the cards as Jeff and I got a lot of shuffling and dealing practice. I'm sure Dana was trying to make amends for Australia's win the night before in International Crib.
The next day we headed up to Dzongri, at 4000m it was almost too much of a leap, but a day of acclimatisation and a few Panadols seemed to work wonders. The first of our tests was an early morning trek up to Dzongri La, a 4400m peak which has spectacular sunrise views of Kangchenjunga (8586m), Pandim (6690m) and Tenzing, 3 mountains which were to be the backdrop for the rest of our journey. It was -8 (plus wind chill) as the sun began to rise, so cold that you had to keep moving to stop your toes from becoming little ice cubes. There were about a dozen of us perched on the peak, trying any way we could to shelter from the wind, but as the Himalayas began to be warmed in the morning sunlight, so did our bodies. We were very fortunate as only days earlier the area had been savaged by blizzards and covered in cloud. Groups we'd passed as we began our trek mentioned not being able to see much due to the weather, but lady luck, it seemed, was on our side. Also this is where we got the first taste of our guides' unbelievable service. Just as the masses began to disappear from Dzongri La, one of our porters appeared carrying a kettle wrapped in a towel and another parcel. He'd brought us hot tea and biscuits, something that blew us away and left other trekkers jealous and in awe. We were very impressed....
Over the next few days the weather seemed to get better and better. Although still very cold, the sun was out, icicles on trees and huts began to melt and the view cleared up. The next night after Dzongri was at Thamsing, another trekkers hut where at reading and sleeping seemed like the only options in the bitter cold. The following night was the one I was dreading; a night camped at Lamaney (4130m). As we ate in the ruins of an old shack, my watch was reading -5 and the sun hadn't yet set. I was just praying that my K-mart issue tent was up to the challenge 'cause it was only rated for -5 and there was a long night to go. Between the excitment, anticipation, and the sound of the wind and the river, not 2 meters away, I think I got about 30 minutes sleep the whole night. But by the time the 3:30am start came around, the wind had died and we were momentarily warmed by yet another welcome cup of tea and a few biscuits. We then set off for the 4 hour hike to Goeche La (4950m).
By 6:00am we reached the first viewpoint to see the sunrise hit Kangchenjunga. It was a tough slog, one that saw Rob physically sick, just missing vomiting on another guide by about a foot. It was -10 plus wind chill, but the surreal moonscape and massive mountains all around were what took our breath away. We were literally at the foot of the west face of Pandim which is a sheer 2000m rockface to the peak. It looked close enough to quickly climb up, but when there's only half as much oxygen in every breath climbing just a few meters becomes very difficult. After we'd taken in the sunrise we began the 90 minute climb to the second viewpoint. The sun was still beaming, there was barely a breath of wind, but the trudge to the top seemed to become colder and increasingly difficult. Every step was an effort and even Pemtuk, our trusty guide, looked to slow markedly. The trek to the top was amazing with ever changing landscapes, from climbing over the ploughed remains of ancient glaciers and deserts of an empty lake to a green oasis at 4750m and then climbing the snowy and sheer ridge round to the prayer flags that marked our target. First to the top was Pemtuk, then Rob - still feeling the effects of altitude but powering along, and then myself. My watch read 4930m, the guidebook 4950m, but I'm happy to round it up to 5000m. We were pretty much at the foot of Kangchenjunga there. It looked so close even though it was still 30 km away. After all it was still 3600m higher than where we stood. A few photos (including Rob's speedo shot) and a little time for contemplation later and we headed back down. The guides again went above and beyond when we found them at the 'green oasis' with a kettle on the boil and a small lunch organised for us. It was music to my ears to hear that popcorn of all things is great for altitude sickness as our porters (Smiley and Wonky Eye) produced the goods. After a bite and a power nap (and another hurl from Rob), we continued our trudge home. It soon began to snow as we walked, which was just another bonus for Rob who'd never seen snow fall before. It was just icing on the cake for us, we'd were so blessed with luck the whole way, we really couldn't have had a better experience.
We trekked back to Lamaney, took a coupleof Panadol to fight off the ever worsening headache (seemed just like a mega ice-cream headache), packed our stuff and headed to the Kokchurong trekkers hut (3750m). Getting down to that altitude was just like being given a new pair of wings. So much oxygen, even after 12 hours of walking, I was up until 10:30 that night. I think the celebratory Coke (which I'd carried for 7 days) might have helped a bit.
The next night was backto Tshoka where the boys, the Yak Man, The Bandana Guy, Smiley, Wonky Eye, Pemtuk's Bother, Natrik (the cook) and Pemtuk organised and song and dance night for us. They cooked an amazing cake (considering the lack of cooking facilities) and provided Sikkim's best 'grape wine' which we feasted on and then we limbo'd, chicken danced, breakdanced and sang the night away. We finished with national anthems and sank back to bed in the sub zero conditions.
The next morning we were up early, excited by the prospect of a warm bucket of water to shower ourselves and for me, the prospect of meat of some desciption. The '5 hour' trek back took myself and Rob about 3. I was to the point of running up hills to get them out of the way, the oxygen rich air like a natural high. We hung out at the 'bus stop' near the end of the trek listening to some tunes for a while waiting for the others to appear so we could all finish the adventure together, all streaming into Yuksom in single file, depositing our bags with Doche at the hotel, ordered a few buckets of hot water for later and then heading straight to the pub for some well deserved 'Hit' beers.
A big THANK YOU to Dana and Jeff for inviting is along and saving us both a bundle and sharing in the best hospitality that Sikkim has to offer in Pemtuk and the crew. We had a blast the whole trek and look forward to catching up sometime in the not too distant future.