Journey Magazine

High on Kanchenjunga

Rest Day: An army of support staff. Photo: Persis Anklesaria  

A year ago I was invited to join a group of trekkers for the trip of a lifetime to Green Lakes, Kanchenjunga base camp. Kanchenjunga, meaning ‘Five Treasures of the Snow’, is the third highest mountain in the world and the highest in India. It is to Sikkim what Everest is to Nepal, worshipped in its festivals and dances and honoured in its traditions. Considered so sacred that successful expeditions have stopped short of the summit, it remains inviolate. This magnificent range spans the borders of Nepal, Tibet and Sikkim, its ridges forming a giant ‘X’, with peaks soaring 23,000 ft and above.

Much of the Sikkim Himalaya remains ignored. Few people are brave enough to battle the shocking infrastructure and the intransigence of the Indian Government. Sadly a total of 13 people have walked the most beautiful trails in India this year, and I am the only woman. What a privilege!

Sunrise over the Kanchenjunga. Photo: Persis Anklesaria

We left Gangtok after breakfast and drove past terraced farmlands, valleys of cardamom, pocket-sized settlements and landslide-ravaged slopes high above the Teesta to Lachen, sitting on a ridge tucked beneath The Lama Angden Peaks. The trek is a 10-day round-trip moving west along the Zemu to the northeast spur of Kanchenjunga.

Day 1 couldn’t have been worse. A landslide had brought the mountain down. Five hours of tottering over loose boulders with the slightest loss of balance leading to a precipitous tumble into the Zemu. Following me was Hemant, my spiffy guide, pointing out reliable boulders, adjusting logs across streams and grabbing me by the collar as I slipped and swayed.

The next two days were a walk in paradise. Giant trees arched skywards, strange gnome-like shrubs nibbled at our ankles, soft moss curled under our feet, log bridges, stairways and meandering streams crisscrossed our path. Nothing could have been more peaceful. But then the unthinkable happened. Ranjan, one of our group, went missing on what was presumed to be a single trail. Two porters rushed back looking for him.

I was silently apprehensive but Hemant nattered on about the three-days-lost-and-never-found-Australian trekker, who left a desperate trail of items every few metres; a water-bottle, a sock, another sock... and when he’d emptied out his knapsack he hung that up too. A sad, though highly coloured, story.

Ranjan finally joined us at dinner with a face like thunder. We offered him the warmest chair, the largest helpings, but it was as if an unexploded grenade was sitting at our table. The next morning he exploded. Our group leader was blasted for being disorganised. Sensibly he kept mum, scowling into his porridge bowl. We commiserated with much tongue clicking, but silently thought, ‘Thank god it wasn’t me!’

The Zenu Glacier, possibly the longest in Sikkim. Photo: Persis Anklesaria

The following days were unrivalled for mountain scenery. As we crossed the 12,000 ft barrier, the line tree receded; dense forests gave way to shrubs and bushes, as we crossed streams and dry riverbeds. The path followed the Zemu glacier over boulders, glacial moraines, and onto rhododendron slopes. As the valley opened up the great peaks came into view, Simvu, Kanchenjunga, and Nepal Peak sweeping high above the glacier, and then Siniolchu, ‘the most superb triumph of mountain architecture…in the world’.

At last on day seven, we staggered towards our destination, The Green Lakes Plain, at 16,500 ft. The name suggests a beautiful lake with the Kanchenjunga flank reflected in its emerald green waters. But what we got was a puddle. The lake had drained away into the Zemu glacier. The peaks were smothered in clouds and howling winds tugged relentlessly at our tents. It was mid-afternoon but it felt like midnight, so we ate early and crawled into our sleeping bags.

But the ferocious winds had blown the sky clean the next morning. The views were dazzling, as we caught the sun’s first rays striking India’s highest mountains and streaking across the valley. We clicked our cameras with frozen fingers. Within the hour, clouds began to gather, the peaks disappeared, and temperatures plummeted. We had to descend so jaldi jaldi that we reached the dreaded landslide in three days.

It was more treacherous than before, the boulders more unstable, and my arthritic knees hugely swollen. Even with Hemant’s help, it seemed impossible. Much Sikkimese jabber ensued and finally the porters decided: “Ma’am, he’ll carry you.” I was aghast, but everyone else loved the idea. A Gerard-Depardieu look-alike — longhaired, broad shouldered and unwashed — grinned broadly, swung me across his shoulders and sprang like a mountain goat over multiple boulders in single leaps. In 15 minutes (it would have taken me two agonising hours), we could see the mini-van at the trailhead surrounded by porters, drivers and loaders.

I begged him to put me down, so I could straighten my jacket, adjust my sticks and take my last steps with a semblance of dignity. Breathless with gratitude, I thanked him profusely, and wished he’d carried me up as well!

persis4@gmail.com

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Printable version | Oct 24, 2020 6:45:11 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/High-on-Kanchenjunga/article10785564.ece

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