The Kangchenjunga Trek, April-May, 1998

Kangchenjunga is the 3rd-highest peak in the world, a bit over 28,000 feet. It was first climbed, by the British, in 1955; forty years later 122 men (yes, males only) had reached the top. It is said to be the world’s second-largest mountain mass, after Mt. Logan in the Yukon. Its region, in the northeast corner of Nepal, was opened to trekkers only in 1988 and remains remote. You will not find hot showers, apple pies and trekking lodges as you do around Everest and Annapurna. And unless you hire a helicopter, the approach will take well over a week. We did not dream of a summit attempt: a visit to base camp would be challenge enough.

Many friends had expressed interest in the trek, but only Susan and I actually went--plus the 12 or so Sherpas and porters we needed to show us the way and carry our food, their food, kerosene for the stoves, pots and pans, etc. In Kathmandu we met Lakpa Sherpa, who was to be in charge. “He looks about 20 years old,” Susan said apprehensively. In fact he was 33, married with three children., spoke good English and in general knew what he was doing. His first task was to get us (and himself) on the night bus to Biratnagar, the country’s 2nd-largest city. Phurba, the trip organizer, promised the ride would be “a genuine Nepali experience.” So it was.

Emulating the well-known Indian custom, the bus started late, ventured a mile or two, then inexplicably halted at the edge of the city. People got off; other people boarded. Half an hour later the conductor pounded three times on the side of the vehicle, and off we went. Land travel in Nepal can be devious. We began our eastward trip heading due west. Soon after dark we arrived in Mughling for the standard Nepali dal baat (lentil over rice). We were the only Westerners and the only ones to bother with cutlery. Then off into the night for what I hoped would be a relaxing, uninterrupted ride. No. We stopped for passengers boarding or the reverse; for police checkpoints; for flat tires. We had only one of these, but it occurred after 11:00 p.m. and took nearly an hour to repair. The delay threatened to make us late for the flight from Biratnagar into the mountains. Lapka slept on, unconcerned. At 2:30 we thought we too might manage some sleep. That was when the driver turned on the radio full throttle. It was meant to keep him awake and had the same effect on us.

Some time after dawn we staggered off the bus and onto bicycle rickshaws for a brief but pricey ride to the airport. At that hour Biratnagar was quiet but, at 235 feet, already very hot. It was a relief to board the Twin Otter aircraft for the 25-minute flight north into the mountains. The Suketar airstrip, a grassy rectangle, was thronged by the local population. The world of roads and electricity would stay behind us for more than three weeks. The scene woke us up: a huge expanse of white mountains, indefinably distant. The five-summited mass of Kangchenjunga was unmistakable. We did not see it again for 10 days.

This was my third trek in Nepal. A familiar environment took over: heat, wood fires, the smell of Rara noodle soup. We each had a bowl.Then we shouldered our light packs: The trek had begun. The first day was almost all downhill, some 3000 feet. This was good because down is less exerting than up, especially after a sleepless night, but bad because altitude lost would have to be regained. We were heading for Kangch’s north base camp, at 16,000 feet. The route follows the Tamur and Ghunsa river valleys and climbs from 5000 feet to a major trail junction at 10,000. The usual trekking customs were asserted: breakfast tea at your tent at 6:00 a.m. Then wash water and breakfast (bread, with Prutina peanut butter, Calcutta’s finest), eggs, cereal (hot or cold), milk (always hot), tea or coffee. On the trail soon after 7:00. Susan, Lakpa, the cook and I carried day packs. The others bore wicker baskets topped by bags, pots, etc. Estimated weight: 65 pounds or more. No shoulder straps, just a tump line for the forehead. By 11:00 or even earlier we were ready for lunch. Preparation was elaborate, the results challenging. First came hot Tang, to which we became addicted. The bread (fried in something), boiled greens, sardines or fried luncheon meat, fried or boiled potatoes. Finally, tea. We rarely finished everything.

Noon times saw us on the trail once more. A fast party would have reached the next campsite within three hours, but we usually took an extra hour or two. Then we would collapse while “the staff” set up the tents, including the invaluable little latrine tent. Tea and crackers. Soon thereafter, supper: soup (the most reliably tasty dish of the day), lots of veg and carbohydrates. Canned fruit for dessert. Then it was after 7:30, dark, and time for the sleeping bags.

I don’t know our daily mileage--doubtless rather low. But distance is not the story on trek. It’s the up and down. Nepalis think nothing of climbing hundreds of feet to avoid rock buttresses, streams or other obstacles. Then right back down the other side. (Is there such a thing as a fat Nepali? I have never seen one.) Even with switchbacks, the going can be mighty steep. At ambiguous junctions I inquired, oraalo ki ukaalo? Downhill or up? Why was it so often the latter? Nor was the footing congenial . Afternoon and evening rain had muddied it up. Soft mud was messy, heavy mud was treacherous. It was hot too, as we pushed up the narrowing valleys. We saw few Nepalis, and hardly any foreigners: an American climber, frustrated by injuries; a drunken Japanese lurching down the rail at 10 o’clock one morning.

On the seventh day, we rested at Ghunsa. At 11,300 feet, it was a virtual metropolis of perhaps 40 houses. It had a postal box and a radio connection (out of order) to Kathmandu. We met an Australian couple, who looked almost as old as we, and saw a white infant on the back of a porter. Three of our own porters departed here. We headed up the valley once again, spending a night with many yaks in Kambachen under the great rock shadow of the peak Jannu, and another at Lhonak. This was a small grassy plain adjoining muddy glacial runoff. The only residents were a Tibetan couple and young son. The boy was amusing himself by kicking a soccer ball composed of old socks. A hundred yards away we met Lindsay Griffin, a British climber who seemed more or less permanently installed in a tent and stone kitchen area, abundantly supplied. (Thanks to Lindsay, in British parlance “a griffin” is “the act of pinning and breaking one’s leg under a boulder.”) He had just been with the famous English mountaineer Doug Scott, who turned out to be the father of the mysterious child we had seen at Ghunsa. Lindsay was waiting patiently for the right snow conditions to try a new route on the west side of Jongsang Peak.

It was now Susan’s birthday, which she celebrated by feeling sick. So the next day, while she recuperated, I proceeded with a single porter, Ringdi, to the base camp at Pangpema. Ringdi had been chosen because his uncle was already at Pangpema; so eager was Ringdi for the reunion that he quickly vanished up the valley; I followed in energy-conservation mode.

Pangpema is a pleasant if chilly grassy shelf overlooking the Kangchenjunga Glacier. On the far said, visible at last, is the mountain itself, its sprawling five summits nearly 12,000 feet higher. A small city of tents had been established by an Irish group trying Jongsang Peak and two others, Japanese and Anglo-American, aiming for Kangch. The Irish and Japanese were on their peaks; the Brits and Americans had returned from an unsuccessful attempt and were resting up for another go. The Japanese succeeded, but incurred several fatalities on the descent. Several of the British-American party made the summit, including the first woman, Ginette Harrison. She was, sadly, killed in an avalanche on another 8000-meter peak the following year.

I stared longingly at Kangch’s complex north face. If only I were younger, stronger, more daring... On all sides rose peaks only slightly lower, many unclimbed and, to say the least, challenging. Some of the faces seemed nearly vertical, and encrusted with wind-whipped ice. I commend Wedge Peak to the more enterprising of my readers.

The next morning Ringdi and I set off on the double march back to Lhonak and Kambachen. Just as well that we moved rapidly, because the snow began to fall early afternoon. Kambachen and its yaks were covered in ice. Susan got her belated birthday cake. Unlike those produced on her first trek (1992) in Gorkha, it had real icing rather than mayonnaise.

Back in Ghunsa for another rest day, we attempted to teach the Sherpas card games. They responded avidly, borrowed one of our decks and returned it the next morning nearly destroyed by vigorous use. They also sculpted the snow before it melted. Another distraction was the recent arrival of a baby yak. Because it was female, it was properly a nak (or naklet). At a few hours of age, it was the size if not the temperament of a large dog. It was kept on a short tether, mostly ignored but occasionally nursed by its mother.

It was now nearly two weeks since we had left the Twin Otter and started walking. We had each gotten sick (a little), lost weight (a fair amount) and reached our highest goal. We had seen no motorized vehicles or electric outlets. We had heard only one fragmentary news broadcast in English: In Indonesia, Suharto was in trouble, and the U.S. was very displeased with India, for some reason. In less than a week we could have been back at the airport, but that was not The Plan. Instead we meant to cross the Mirgin La (pass) to visit the south side of Kangch and the route of the first ascent party. We angled up a ridge ablaze with the rhododendron trees that are prolific all around Ghunsa and made camp by a forlorn tarn above the tree line. Lakpa had crossed the Mirgin La three times before, but in the opposite direction--and, as we learned the next day, conditions were not so good this time. Though lower than Pangpema, the pass was covered in snow.We saw softened tracks, which we assumed had been made by the Australian party nearly a week before. An ice axe would have been handier than the rocks and walking sticks we had to use. The clouds settled in, obscuring the terrific view of Jannu. We plodded, increasingly aware that we had not one pass to cross but several--“The Mirgin La-la-la,” Susan said, with some resentment. I offered to carry her hat, which somehow made her angrier. (“Here I am about to die, and he offers to take my hat.”) This was her longest day, in all senses. It was mid-afternoon before we finished the passes and began to descend to the forested Simbua Khola Valley, three thousand steepish feet below.

One more destination remained: the southern aspect of Kangch. En route we encountered a Tibetan or Chinese party that had summitted a week before. They had carved a giant H into the grass to guide the helicopter that was to waft them back to Kathmandu. We hoped for a Chinese meal but had to settle for a cup of tea. We were, however, compensated with a gift of 10 small bottles of--well, the name was in Chinese, but the “effects” had been translated: “Adjusting organism and keeping in good health. Nourishing vitality, anti-lacking oxygen, anti-fatigue retarding old and feeble. It had a very good preve, therapeutic and nourishing effects to nourasthenia, neurosis hyperteusion, diabetes, myorcardial malnutrition, feeble of prolonged illness, diseases of the aged and workers in special living and working conditions.” Merely reading the label made us feel younger.

A morning’s walk on a lateral moraine brought us to the sight not only of Kangch but of Jannu once more--still looking virtually impregnable, even from the side of its first ascent in 1962.

Mission accomplished. Now all we had to do was walk out to the airstrip.

Everyone was in a hurry, but it still took more than a week. Soon we were back in hot and humid country. There are few level stretches in Nepal Himalaya. And though were descending, there was almost as much uphill as down. A typical day required side-hilling into and out of deep ravines, so that what looked like an hour’s march took three. The lower we got, the hotter it became. I soaked my bandana in every stream and threw it over my neck; within 15 minutes the cloth was completely dry. One morning we heard the distant rotor of the helicopter on its way to ferry out the Tibetan climbers. We did feel a passing twinge of envy.

We knew that it was time to leave after we spent a night in Lali Kharka, leech capital of eastern Nepal. Leeches are a feature of Nepalese forest trekking during or near the rainy season. The creatures hang in trees. Sensing an appetizing mammal beneath, they drop off and begin to drink. “Do they hurt?” Alas, no--you don’t even know that they are (or have been) at work on you until you notice the blood on your shirt or socks. They drop off when sated, but because they have injected an anti-coagulant, the bleeding may continue for some time.

Unlike most people (e. g. Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen), I have no strong aversion to leeches, but I really don’t like them inside the tent, which is where they were that night in Lali Kharka. Each one we killed was swiftly replaced by another, inch-worming its way down the tent wall. Susan grew agitated and said she would spend the night in the car. At least she had retained her sense of humor. Eventually we were able to stuff hiking socks into the apertures by the tent poles, where the bastards had been sneaking in.

That was our last night in a tent. The next day we were in a room by the airstrip, eagerly awaiting the morning flight back to Biratnagar. We came upon half a dozen Peace Corps volunteers, who looked alarmingly young. They had some disquieting news: Clouds had made the air strip virtually unusable. Of course tomorrow would be different. Already the mists were blowing off, and we had glimpses of the valley into which we had dropped three weeks before. So the next morning, attended by the usual audience of locals, we waited for the plane. We heard its welcome buzz, then saw it circling less than a mile away. With thanks to the appropriate deities, we shouldered our day packs for boarding. Then, like a malign presence, the clouds whipped back in.We could imagine no sadder sound than that of the retreating airplane.

Things were getting serious. We had a lot to do in Kathmandu before leaving for London a week later. Among my tasks was to lead a group of Nepali teachers in a discussion of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The alternative to the flight was more walking, followed by a two-day bus ride. For how many days could we gamble on a landing here in Suketar? We spent the rest of the day playing solitaire and trying to persuade ourselves that clear weather was on the way.

A plane did land the next morning. It wasn’t ours, but an encouraging sight nevertheless: a small sight-seeing craft with four Japanese tourists. And then, yes, the Biratnagar flight came in as well. A good thing, too: nothing was able to land for the next five days. In Biratanagar, a little judiciously placed baksheesh put us on an early flight to Kathmandu. We later learned that Lindsay had to walk out.

The last word: A Nepali woman, not young, made a comment early in the trek. The translation, kindly provided by Lakpa: “Why do such old people want to come to our country?”

--revised 2010

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