The faint broken trail I was following for the past five days has come to an abrupt end. The only way ahead seemed to be a massive three and a half Kilometers high vertical granite wall covered in snow and ice. Yes, I have come face to face with the Goddess Mountain, the enormous Kangchenjunga massif. Without a will or a wish I stood at the sacred space with my eyes glued onto eternity while my heart ascended towards the tip of the peak in a swell of deep admiration!
Kangchenjunga range, view from Mangan, North Sikkim.
Mt Kangchenjunga (elevation 8586m, 28169ft) is the third highest mountain after Everest (8848m) and K2 (8611m) and is part of the Kangchenjunga Himal range. This huge mountain mass with many satellite peaks rising from its narrow icy ridges is the most easterly of the great 8000 meter peaks and is situated between the borders of India in the North Sikkim district and Nepal. The name Kangchenjunga translates to ‘Five treasures of eternal snow’ which stands for its five peaks. The treasures represent the five repositories of God, which are gold and silver, grain, salt, weapons and Holy Scriptures. Sewalungma is the name in the local Limbu language which translates as 'Mountain that we offer Greetings to'.
Until 1852, Kangchenjunga was assumed to be the highest mountain in the world but calculations made by the Great British Trigonometric Survey in 1849 came to the conclusion that Mount Everest (known as Peak XV at that time) was the highest and Kangchenjunga the third-highest. The first summit attempt was in 1905 by the infamous British occultist, Aleister Crowley. The peak was first climbed on May 25, 1955 by Joe Brown and George Band of a British expedition who stopped few feet short of the summit honoring the beliefs of the Sikkimese, who hold the summit sacred. The peak wasn’t climbed for another 22 years. Most successful summit parties since then have followed this tradition of not stepping on the summit on this highly difficult mountain which is encapsulated in religious awe.
Kangchenjunga, view from eastern part of North Sikkim
The five peaks of Kangchenjunga are (four of them above 8,450 meters) : main summit (8,586 m), West summit (Yalung Kang, 8,505 m), central summit (8,482 m), South summit (8,494 m) and Kangbachen (7,903 m) . The first explorer to probe the area towards Green Lake was the great botanist Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker in 1848, mainly to study and collect plants. He reached an altitude of 4760m where he was turned back by a furious blizzard. The first mountaineer to make an examination of Kangchenjunga, with a view to discover a feasible route was Douglas Freshfield in 1899. Freshfield along with the famous Italian mountain photographer Vittorio Sella became the first to circumnavigate an 8000m peak going around Kangchenjunga from Sikkim (Jongsong La) to Nepal and back to Sikkim (Kang La). It was Freshfield’s official adoption of the spelling Kangchenjunga that is accepted today which gives the best indication of the Tibetan pronunciation though there are a number of alternative spellings in use which include Kanchenjunga, Khangchendzonga, Kanchenjanga, Kachendzonga etc.
Close to Sandakphu, West Bengal
Mt Kangchenjunga is a very shy and elusive mountain which is often hidden from the view behind clouds. Being the easternmost of all 8000m peaks, it bears the brunt of the summer monsoon blowing up from the Bay of Bengal, so its name is inseparably linked with tearing blizzards and thunderous avalanches. Though I got fleeting glimpses of this magnificent peak from Gangtok and Darjeeling earlier, the best view was granted to me during Sandakphu – Phalut trek in the Singalila range. From then I wished to get as close to this mountain as possible and the desire to walk to Green Lake, the base camp from the Indian side had sprouted. Green lake trek is managed by a strict and complex permit system, hence this area still remains largely unexplored and has kept its pristine beauty untouched over the years. There are no villages or trekkers hut on this trail and one has to be self-sufficient in every way on this route.
Sleeping Buddha, Kangchenjunga range of mountains, Sandakphu
Kangchenjunga Sunrise from Sandakphu
Great Green Lake Trek: Mt Kangchenjunga base camp from the Indian side, Alt 5050m
My journey to Green Lake started in the first of week of May’15. It all happened with one phone call from Delhi in the mid April asking if I had booked my tickets to the US. “Not yet, but in a day or two” was my answer. “Don’t get it now, we are going to Green Lake in May” replied my friend. Though it sounded as the cruellest of jokes ever considering how difficult it is to get permit and organizing the logistics for the expedition, I knew he was serious. So finally, Green Lake is about to happen in less than a month’s time completely unexpected and that too as a gift!
View of the highest Mountains Lhotse(4th), Everest(1st) and Makalu(5th) view from the aircraft
I had reserved a window seat at the left (A) on Air India flight on Delhi Bagdogra sector, but due to an aircraft change they assigned me an aisle seat on the other side. Once inside the aircraft, I really had to fight my way to get an ‘A’ seat. The Reason, halfway to Bagdogra, the aircraft flies almost parallel to the great Himalayan range and from the left side of the aircraft one could watch Everest(8848m), Lhotse(8516m), Makalu(8485m), Kangchenjunga(8586m) and many other peaks rising above clouds. Later, a lovely couple from Trinidad too managed their way to left side of the aircraft and occupied the seats next to me. The peaks treated us with beautiful glimpses before getting shrouded in thick clouds confirming the rains in Sikkim for the past few days. A vehicle was waiting for me at the airport sent by a great friend and the beautiful journey to Kalimpong started. As the wheels started spinning, my thoughts wandered wondering about the deteriorating weather, heavy snow fall of the year’s last winter and a failed attempt of Green Lake trek earlier…
Kangchenjunga range, view from the aircraft
From Kalimpong Cactus Garden
Spent couple of days at Kalimpong visiting the cactus garden, science centre (KSC) and playing a round of golf at the lush green meadows of the Golf Course which is perched on the undulating slopes of Durpin ridge over 4000ft elevation. And each time I hit the golf ball, wished secretly that the winds carry it to the base of Kangchenjunga along with the prayers from the fluttering Prayer Flags!! What a beautiful crazy dream that was to pick up the golf balls from Green Lake later that week…
Kalimpong Golf Course
Ready to Tee Off
Towards Lachen and visit to Gurudongmar Lake
View Close to Lachen
The other three members of the trekking team also reached Kalimpong by then. Our next stop was a little short of Lachen (meaning ‘big pass’, Alt. 2750m) and the following day visited Gurudongmar Lake (the second highest lake in India at a height of 5148m) just to get exposed to higher altitude before starting the hike towards Green Lake. We managed to climb on a dominating hill beside the lake and got an unimaginably beautiful view of frozen lakes. A rare sight, sometimes the impossible happens easily and unexpectedly...
Green Lake trek starts
Zema, starting point of the trek
The very next day we started off at 0530 hrs for Zema which is 6Kms from Lachen by vehicle. Zema is where Zemu Chu (Chu is a river) merges with Thangu Chu(Teesta). The support staff and the porters were already waiting for us. With all formalities done, we were ready to start the hike by 0700 hrs hoping and praying that we would be welcomed to the divine world of the mighty Mountain. And the journey of a life time had begun.
Day 1: Zema (2728m) to Tallem.(3240m) 8 kms , approx. 4 hours.
Slippery loose boulders and Snow Chute to cross
The trail started with a steep descend towards Zemu chu and then along the thundering waters of the river. The path is broken in many parts due to omnipresent landslides. Slippery boulders, gushing streams and waterfalls are constant companions on this stretch. During autumn one gets to see wild blueberries and in spring different types of primula and cobra lilies are in abundance.
Streams and Stones to Slog through
After negotiating the loose boulders and grey-speckled ice bridges and walking over fallen trees for few hours we reached a small clearing with a stream nearby. Our supporting team had already set up the camp and was waiting with hot tea. I took a small walk then through the blooming rhododendron forest, which lead me to the roaring waters of Lhonak Chu over boulder-strewn bed. Knowing that this river originates from the north and south Lhonak glacier in the trans-Himalayan grasslands of Lhonak valley (an area inaccessible due to its closeness to Tibet), I wondered if I could traverse along this river to its origin. Another crazy dream!!!!
Log bridge over Lhonak Chu
There were few hanging wooden logs over the river, which were tied with few other logs from the other side balanced almost in the middle of the river on a huge rock . Not a very inviting ‘bridge’ when you are all alone and I turned back, especially considering my interest was to follow Lhonak Chu upstream not the other way!! Few meters down the valley, Lhonak Chu embraces Zemu Chu and together they dance their way down to Thangu Chu at Zema.
Cobra Lily (Arisaema Elephas)
Lunch was ready by the time I got back to camp, by then everyone had settled. Harpal, who was going to be my ‘buddy’ during the whole trek found a nice sitting place with a flat rock which served as the dining table.
Two intrepid mountaineers and retired Paratroopers, the Gill brothers had camped a little ahead after crossing Lohnak chu over the rickety bridge finding a small clearing in the rhododendron bushes. Two adventurous and most likeable gentlemen, we decided to meet again at 1600 hrs at their camp. I was served thick hot vegetable soup and the MEN were happy with their usual favourites!! I truly enjoyed listening to their mountaineering exploits including the ascent of Mt. Kamet. A great friendship was the gift of that evening.
Fallen Rhododendron twigs
Stalkless Primrose (Primula Sessilis)
All of us were concerned about crossing the temporary log bridge in the dark and we departed by 1730 hrs. It was a gloomy evening with not much visibility and slowly we made our way back to the camp. Soon had dinner and went to sleep dreaming of ‘tomorrow’.
Day 2 : Tallem to Jakthang ( 3430m) 8 kms. 3-4 hours
Early morning view from Tallem
We woke up early and tried to capture sunrise and do some bird watching. The day looked promising.
Rhododendron forest trail
We started around 0720 hrs after breakfast for the next camp, another 8 kms. Harpal and Kamaljeet assisted us while rest of the team were busy winding up the camp. We walked leisurely admiring each flower and trying to photograph the birds on the way. The Gills had left very early as they were carrying their own heavy backpack and travelling alpine style. Few of our team crossed us walking ahead and in few minutes we reached a beautiful meadow covered with wild spinach, cobra lilies and many alpine flowers.
Meadow close to Jakthang
Disaster strikes again!!
Suddenly we could hear a lot of yelling and screaming and wondered what that could be in that wilderness! Few minutes later the guys who had crossed us were rushing back and told us that a porter had fallen off the bridge into the river. I froze on the spot as the ground trembled beneath my feet. The images of the sharp boulders jutting out of the churning waters made me realize what to expect to a person falling into it with more than 20Kg on his back. It is believed that the deity of Kangchenjunga resents intrusion and spell harm to whomever tries to invade her solitude. And it seemed that the curse of Kangchenjunga demon had fallen on us for a second time!!!
We had attempted Green Lake trek earlier in the late second half of Nov’14. A well prepared team of 30 members along with 2 guides carrying almost 400Kg on their back started on a chilly morning treading through the mist. Just an hour’s walk and we came across a massive landslip where half of the hill crashed down plucking out huge boulders and spate of water all around. Some guys tried to cross the area and were getting into trouble. Two others climbed vertically on the hill to see if they could get around but encountered a non-negotiable depth at the other end. Now the only way left for us was negotiating the furious white foam tinged with jade tumbling and skidding over massive slippery boulders. The more experienced climbers from our team started with the backpacks to check the feasibility ahead under a brooding sky. After two hours of struggle in the fog which was thickening with each passing moment, the recce team returned and the most afflictive decision was made. And we turned back. I gave a last look at the direction of Kangchenjunga in that vast sea of grey, and I almost felt the reflections of the peak in the pool of tears that welled up in my eyes and I stepped back.
Landslide which marked the end of our trek
Later that day I enquired the team Leader about another attempt the next day. He informed from where we had stopped, at least two kilometres meant treading through or along Zemu chu as no trail could be made and with the heavy load we were carrying, one fall could prove fatal. Also in the event of a snowfall , retreat would be impossible as we were already at the onset of winter.
Kangchenjunga Sunset from Sandakphu
So during our first attempt, we were stopped after an hour’s walk on the very first day. And Now, on our second attempt, the second day of our trek we were stopped. This accident seems to convey that the fiery red demon of Kangchenjunga really bring harm to those trying to intrude into the virgin solitude of her sacred land.
Fiery Sunrise on Kangchenjunga
Furious Zemu Chu tunnelling beneath the snow chute
My trekking companion, SD who is a super speciality doctor rushed to the accident site. It was a beautiful bright morning and there I stood motionless on a meadow covered with fresh grass and blossoms. Only a moment earlier, I was feeling part of the alpine flowers dancing to the tunes of the soft breeze, to the singing of birds welcoming the spring and in the rhythmic flow of Zemu Chu in her joyous journey. A final look and I walked back slowly…
Black Sepal Primrose(Primula atrodentata ) blossoms
White-Collared Blackbird (Turdus albocinctus)
Wild Spinach and Cobra Lily
The whole trekking party were standing at both sides of the river. I was too scared to ask anything and looked at the first person I met with a huge question mark on my face. He said the porter had managed to get hold of a boulder and was hanging in there for some time while others tried to reach him but with such tremendous flow no one could. By the time he lost the grip and floated little further before he could cling to another boulder. His backpack by then had been washed away. Another porter scrambled down the thickly wooded bank and jumped in and somehow managed to pull him out of water. Other than some bruises he was fine and walked back by himself to Camp One. No one could believe our ‘good luck’ and I once again realized that ‘miracles do happen’. Later we found out that a tent which was used in a successful Everest climb on the Summit Camp was in that lost backpack but everyone was relieved that the boy was saved just few meters short of the confluence of two raging rivers.
SD got back from the camp at Tallem after checking the boy and confirmed there was no deep injury or fractures and the porter was fine. There were some arguments happening between the porters and organizing party but soon that was settled by agreeing to pay the injured porter for full 10 days wages and free medical treatment. Everyone seemed happy and we were back on the trail!
A rich concoction of Abies and Rhododendrons
It was a relatively easy day with just a bit of elevation gain though some steep ups and downs. We were passing through some impregnable forest cover of ‘large-leaved’ rhododendron and fir trees through which even the sunrays found difficulty penetrating in.
Thick Forest Cover of Fir and Rhododendrons
We were kept amused most of the time by the appearance of different birds of wonderful colours and occasional encounters with Himalayan Pika. One could barely ask for anything more scintillating to walk amidst. Soon there was a vast snow chute to cross which I tried to slide over. A steep descend at the end and a small clearing close to the river and we were welcomed with warm water and tea by the team. There was a small abandoned hut which they used for storing food and cooking. I discovered a small elevated plain and got my tent pitched over there. Sun was shining bright and my buddy found a secluded spot on the river covered from all sides by boulders and I had an icy dip in Zemu Chu in the bone chilling waters.
Himalayan pika(Ochotona Himalayana)
A vast Snow Chute covered in debris
Camp Site along the river at Jakthang
Zemu Chu at Jakthang
View from the Tent at Jakthang
After a hearty meal most of the team were relaxing in their tents, Gills had occupied the sandy area just enough for one tent next to the river.
Gill’s night stay on a sandy area next to the river and surrounded by Rhododendron flowers
Yellow Himalayan Fritillary (Fritillaria cirrhosa) – (Bhutia: Chichaor)
A dreamland full of colours, chattering of birds and the churning waters of Zemu Chu, I couldn’t resist and was ready to move with the wind. Even the trail along the river was covered with flowers mostly white primroses. Couple of hours of wandering alone in that wonderland and lazing around by the river, I got back to the tent. Enjoyed the evening bonfire and special ‘halwa’ sitting under star studded sky – a promise of a bright tomorrow!
Himalayan Strawberry (Fragaria Nubicola)
Continued in Part 2 : Touching the feet of the Goddess Mountain : Part 2