The writer goes on the most famous trek in the Himalayas.
I look up as I alight from the airplane near Siliguri. The sky has thick grey clouds and the sight is not pleasant. On this October day, when I had hoped that there would be no precipitation in the air, I realise that Cyclone Phailin has thrown a spanner in our works. Our trek’s success is now intertwined with nature’s idiosyncrasies.
The Goecha La trek is perhaps the most famous trek in the Indian Himalayas. The trail starts from Yuksom in Sikkim and goes north along the Prek River, to the windy Goecha pass which is almost at the base of Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain.
Day 1 Yuksom - Sachen
Seven of us arrived at Yuksom, Sikkim’s ancient capital, the previous night, in a jeep whose interiors cried for space. But the morning is delightful and we watch school children with ruddy cheeks in navy blue uniforms go to school. It is still cloudy. Mountain weather can be unpredictable but when remnants of cyclones hit these parts, the clouds remain trapped for days.
We hit the trail, walking among wooden and concrete chalets that soon give way to giant magnolias, pine, oak and other trees. It’s the rhododendron trees though, that are famous on this trail as their red flowers light up the forest in summer. The sinuous trail hugs the mountain as it creeps into the Kanchenjunga National Park with the Rathong River roaring down in the valley. By afternoon we reach our destination, Sachen, which is a small clearing in the forest.
Day 2 Sachen - Tsokha
The sky is overcast but there is no rain. After a potato-laced breakfast, we leave for the next camp.
The trekking pack gets separated and I soon come across a wooden suspension bridge. Adjacent is a huge landslide; a reminder of a previous earthquake. As I languorously walk on the bridge, two loaded mules enter from the other side. On that narrow bridge, one of us has to turn back and I do not expect the mules to be the polite ones. But my knee pain ambushes reason and instead of walking back, I squeeze myself against the bridge’s guardrail and hold onto a suspension cable. The mules pass me and the sacks on the mules’ back shove my backpack and me violently against the cable and the bridge sways. I clutch the cable tighter, stare at the river 50 feet below and hang on for dear life. After an eternity, I discover that I am still alive.
We stop at Bakhim for lunch and drink chang, a beer made out of red millets to celebrate a trek mate’s birthday. After gobbling down some eggs, we realise that we have made quite some contribution to the local economy as eggs here cost Rs. 25 a piece.
The switchback ascent slows us down and by late afternoon, we reach Tsokha, the last Bhutia village, from where the lights of Darjeeling are visible on clear nights. We are now level with the clouds.
Day 3 Tsokha - Dzongri
It has rained the previous night and the weather has become distinctly cold with visibility at 50 feet. The slushy trail changes into one consisting of wooden logs. By the time we reach Dzongri in thick fog, the forests have disappeared and our mood is depressive and forlorn.
Day 4 Rest
On our rest day, we wake up at 4.00 a.m. as we intend to hike to a hilltop, Dzongri Top, to view the mountains. Lakhpat, our guide, dissuades us but Sonmon, our cook, volunteers to guide us. We climb the steep hill, only to find a thick veil of clouds beyond which we can see nothing. The fluttering Buddhist prayer flags console us.
Day 5 Dzongri - Thansing
The meteorology department has predicted the North-East winds to set in today. I fervently start praying for them to be accurate, as the winds may drive away the clouds. We set out again in fading darkness. Both my knees have by now given up and as I hobble my way to the top at dawn, Lakhpat comes running. “Saab, the sky has opened up.”
It is a magnificent spectacle. The weather has miraculously cleared and there is an amphitheatre view of snowy peaks. The Kanchenjunga and Kabru ranges are ahead, the Singalila ridge is behind us and the Pandim ridge is to the right. The waning moon seems to hang above the mountains on an unseen thread. The first rays of the sun light up the Kanchenjunga and more trekkers arrive on the hill. The sight could move poets, but we, a multitude of regular people of different nationalities, merely exchange mountaineering anecdotes.
We leave for Thansing which begins as a beautiful walk among golden meadows. The trail then descends into the valley to Kokchurang and I am surprised by the transformation. The path now, with its angular rocks and sheer drop, looks like a deep gully carved by a wild river. My knees pray silently. It turns out be a kilometre of a monster descent with a drop of over 1000-feet. After a quick lunch at Kokchurang, which is potatoes again in its various avatars, we walk up north along the river and reach Thansing — a meadow in the valley with marvellous vistas of 18,000-feet peaks along the sides. The South East ridge of the Kanchenjunga is straight ahead.
Day 6 Rest
After a discussion amongst ourselves, we decide to attempt Goecha La from Thansing itself as it would be too cold to pitch camp in Lamuney, the next halt. The Siberian cold has made us make our first mistake.
Day 7 Thansing - Goecha La - Thansing
The day has arrived. At 2.00 a.m., on an exceptionally clear night with snowy peaks glittering in the moonlight, we head out. The temperature is much below zero and our footsteps are visible in the frost as we gingerly cross frozen brooks. We reach Lamuney in the darkness and realise that we are behind schedule.
We climb the rocky moraine wall after Lamuney and a depression after the moraine wall reveals the snowmelt-fed Samiti Lake. We walk around the lake to reach another moraine wall to find ourselves at the foot of Mt. Pandim which towers over us. We are gaining altitude and there is two-feet-deep snow everywhere. The fitter members of the group overtake me as I climb the moraine, which is a scramble over snow and black rocks over a steep incline. But as the first rays of sunlight reach me, my pace decreases. None of us have been affected by high altitude sickness but at 14,500-feet, I am hungry for oxygen and it is an effort to go forward.
I climb the top of the moraine and the Kanchenjunga ridge again opens up. It is exhilarating and the Rathong and Zemathang glaciers are now visible to the left. Just before 9.00 a.m., I reach the first viewpoint and realise that I can almost smell Kanchenjunga from here. We are at 15,600-feet.
There is no visible path in the snow ahead to the actual pass. Lakhpat goes down to inspect and comes back and declares that we cannot go forward. I grudgingly agree because walking in snow on the ridge ahead could be tricky and we do not have time on our side.
The view from Goecha pass is not just of Kanchenjunga and its southeast ridge, but of the Talung glacier and Zemu pass, too. We reluctantly head back and on the way hear the crackling sound of avalanches on the Pandim ridge. We reach camp by afternoon to realise that we have walked 21 km on empty stomachs.
Days 8 and 9 Thansing - Tsokha - Yuksom
There is no easy day on this trek and over the next two days, we walk back 36 km. From Kokchurang, we take a new route along the Prek River through a bog-filled and supposedly haunted forest. Walking amongst those gigantic trees, I wonder if Lord of the Rings was shot here. At 5.30 p.m. with debilitating pain in my knees, I reach Tsokha assisted by the torch of my trek mate Bapi.
I decide to complete the remaining trek at my knee’s pace. The desolate trail and the lush forest make me think as to why people attempt these treks. Could it be an attempt to discover oneself while discovering the mountains?
Thankfully, I soon arrive at Yuksom to the sound of native music streaming from one of the quaint houses. Our group poses for the mandatory end-of-trek photo. We have walked more than 100 km and now look forward to the hedonistic pleasures of the civilised world.