KANCHENJUNGA CIRCUIT TREK 2015
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.
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 Kanchenjunga Trek. First we flew to Bhadrapur then paid for a private jeep to Taplejung, which is where our adventure really began.. 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,
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 synced 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.
From Ghunsa we began to travel back up a different valley. I thoroughly enjoyed leading another delicious grind up a steep hill in rhodendron forests. I snagged the blissful opportunity to get my heart pumping and felt like I could have flown up that climb, happily drenched in euphoria of effort, similar to the runners high. I reached Selele in the sunshine, feeling great. Soon after the others caught up and we “checked in” to the rudimentary teahouse constructed there. Thick fog blew in to obscure our views of the first of four passes we were meant to climb the next day. I felt apprehensive about the mists since the passes were rumored to be difficult to navigate in snow or cloud. The room which slept three of us was teeny tiny and consisted only of a single raised platform with three thin sleeping mats placed on top. I admit I felt fear and terror at the prospect of sleeping there, in the cold. Rightfully so, we retreated into our room after an icy dal bhat dinner to experience a chilly, uncomfortable sleep.
Fortunately, the morning was clear enough that we determined it should be safe to attempt the passes. We climbed the first pass at 4450m which afforded us stunning vistas of Mount Jannu nearby, and Mount Makalu in the distance. After traversing some moraines and the next three passes, including the final Sinion Pass at 4645m, the weather deteriorated for us somewhat. Luckily, it’s not as much of a problem on the descent. At the final pass before descending to Cheram, we crossed paths with two American guys who’d just experienced an extremely negative incident in which they had to fire their guide who’d been drunk for 36 hours straight. I urge all trekkers travelling to Nepal to research trekking agencies beforehand, ask to interview guides before hiring them, and AVOID all-inclusive pre-paid packages unless you trust the guide and company fully. These poor American guys had unwittingly entrusted this alcoholic stranger to carry all their cash for the trip, having purchased an “all-inclusive” package in which the guide would even be paying for their meals on trail. Upon firing him, they were not able to get back very much cash from the guy, and they were worried about whether they’d even have enough money to get them food and lodging on the way out from the trek. When doing teahouse treks it’s always best to be responsible for paying your own accommodation and food separately.
In Cheram we’d re-entered a forested area, and down at an elevation of 3870m. Night time was still chilly at this altitude so we were eager to get moving again the next morning, climbing once more up to a place called Ramche. The climb took us through large boulder fields and across flat plains which afforded excellent views of the magnificent Kabru mountain, towering over us at 7412m. We walked alongside glacier for most of the day until reaching Ramche at 4580m where we were able to enjoy a very tasty Tibetan Thupka soup. Similar to Lhonak or Selele, Ramche contained only two small structures made of piled up stones, providing only mild protection from outside winds. The beds were very simple thin mats. I was perfectly terrified to sleep here, knowing exactly how cold I could expect it to be overnight.
Miraculously, I did not actually freeze to death in my sleep and was able to awake the next morning for another (slightly later) alpine start, which saw us trekking by 5:30am. We didn’t have very high or far to go, and arrived at our destination, Okhordung, by 7am. I had a hard time estimating the temperature but our climb of only 150m had not been strenuous enough to warm me up, so I was still chilled from the cold night and had to enjoy the views fully clad in nearly all the clothing layers I’d brought with me. Under my thin trail runners I wore two pairs of warm socks, and on top of this I donned thermal pants covered by trekking pants and gaiters, two pairs of mitts, two thermal tops covered by a down jacket and a hard shell, a thick yak wool scarf and a toasty toque on my head. Our guides sang us Nepali songs which I danced to for warmth, while attempting to enjoy the impossibly fabulous views Mount Kanchenjunga from the south. Soon after I simply had to descend to avoid frostbitten fingers. The others followed soon after and chased me down to Cheram.
Upon arriving in Cheram at the early hour of 11:20am, my original trekking group of just Ben, Alba, Raju and I decided to part ways with Mary, Thomas, Kanchen and NT. Ben wanted to try to get back to Hong Kong earlier than planned so we opted to continue our descent from Cheram all the way to Tortong at 3100. Unfortunately along this twisting, winding downward descent through the forested river valley, I mis-stepped and twisted my ankle. It seared painfully but after a brief rest I felt ok to walk on it again. And yes, it was the same ankle I’d injured while trekking in the Far West. Since I hadn’t really given it a good opportunity to heal I think it was in a state in which I could injure it more easily. In Tortong I was able to nurse it a bit and Ben gave me some magical healing Chinese plaster which actually seemed to do wonders for the foot. Tortong was a good place to rest, nestled in a charming clearing in a mossy old-growth forest of beautiful tall trees. The only negative thing about Tortong is that fact that we had to pay a whopping $2.50 for one fried egg –.$$$.
From Tortong we climbed up and down through rhodendron forests, and across the biggest landslide I’ve ever seen in my life. Shortly after lunch we were hit with an incredible storm – some of the only rain we experienced during the whole trip. Luckily we were at low enough of an elevation now that this storm didn’t bring snow, but it did hail on us for a little while and encouraged the leeches to emerge. After an extremely long hiking day and 2100m of descent we arrived sopping wet in Yampudin. Here we tallied our leech bites (Alba – 3, Ben – 2, Michelle – 0, Raju – 0), rung out our socks, and got drunk. Ben, Alba and I decided to indulge in some local Tongba which made us act silly, and enjoy our food even more than we otherwise might have.
A slow moving morning finally saw us off to Khebang. Along the way we started passing more villages and large crops, including many yummy cardamom plants. In Khebang the warm temperatures allowed me the opportunity to wash my hair for only the third time in three weeks. It was bliss. From the balcony of the home we stayed in I charged my electronics and watched the children playing football. I was able to start processing all that had happened in the past three weeks and was overcome with a great feeling of peace and happiness. The next day was our 16th and final day of walking together, so we took it slowly and enjoyed the sights and sounds of the villages we walked through. Following this we bussed for 15 hours, then flew back to Kathmandu over two full days of torturous travel.
Travelers to Nepal should know that the far eastern regions of Nepal were unaffected by the recent earthquake, and completely safe to visit. This region had been impacted by a large earthquake back in 2011, but I saw no signs of remaining effects.
A huge thank-you is owed to our wonderful guides Raju, NT and Kanchen. We must have had the highest guide-to-trekker ratio of all time but we wouldn’t trade the dal bhat boys for the world. An additional large thanks goes out to our excellent trekking company, Kanchenjunga Trek, which I highly recommend to anyone thinking of traveling to this region.