Day 9 : Slightly Closer
The early dawn has brought splendid sunshine with it. We are getting glimpses of what Thangsing can provide and what we missed yesterday – close and clear view of Mt Pandim. The massif of the mountain is thick smooth layer of snow. The side falling on the river side is sporadically showered with snow. The other side is fat skin of snow. The mountain is so close that one is tempted to start climbing to reach the peak. But the climb is more than 2500m and we are not trained for mountaineering. Joshua, one of our foreigner friends, says that the hill behind the Hut offers good view of the mountains. Our breakfast is almost ready but we are drawn into viewing the mountains first. We take the small uphill trail behind the Hut. The snow has accumulated on every inch of the space. The rhododendrons are standing like zombies dressed in white. I see footmarks. Someone else must have also gone by this trail. After a few steps, the trail reaches a dead end. The footsteps are now following a random path between the trees. I duck myself in many places to save my head from hitting the trees.
We rejoin the trail again once we negotiate the patch of rhododendrons. The narrow trail is steeper now. It’s quite cold than what it was at the camp. The vertical climb finally takes us to the highest point of the hill. Our eyes momentarily set on Pandim before stretching far beyond. Far far on the horizon, from among the clouds, a peak rises high above, out of reach for its neighboring peaks. That’s Kangchenjunga! We are looking at the southern side of India’s highest mountain. We can see only one side of the mountain from this point. The side is extending beyond our vision. The mountain is peeping out of its window to look at us. Nah, to have us its celebrated look. It’s calling for us. We are not very far now.
After breakfast we are ready to start for Lamuney, our next stop. Joshua and his family is returning back to Yuksom, so we bid them goodbye. The trek to Lamuney is very easy…the easiest we have till now. There is still snow on it. We are walking between the rift created by Pandim and Kabru mountains with river Prek Chu on one side. We cross the two bridges we visited yesterday. Small streams are aplenty on the way. They are ripe with wafer thin infant ice. They run their course before melting into Prek Chu. On our right, just behind Mt Pandim, we get first glance of Mt Japuno.Though it is slightly higher than Pandim, it’s view is obstructed by Pandim from most places because of it being very close to Pandim.
The gradient is small and the trail is wide with red and brown grass on both the sides. The ground is ideal for yak grazing. On our left, a brown plateau-like mountain has spread itself over long distance. It perplexes me that I have not seen any wild animals here. Jaggi has an explanation though. He thinks that even the animals are camouflaged here. He saw some animals during his trek last year and it was very difficult to differentiate them from the surroundings. A few red colored tents are visible now and that is Lamuney. The day is still bright and we intend to go to Samiti lake today itself to get magnificent reflection of Mt Pandim in the lake water.
A few foreigners are sipping tea sitting on rocks. We say them hi. 3 local people, presumably porters, are playing cricket! We Indians love cricket and can’t get enough of it, can we? They have made stumps and bat from wood. Clothes and plastic wrapped in a ball makes their last required accessory. We stand there, admiring their game at more than 4000m altitude. I click some pictures of them. My hands are inching inside the gloves to hold the ball. The small ice flakes have already started showering us. The sun is unsighted now. I don’t think we should go to Samiti lake in this weather. I look at Jaggi and we know that it’s the end of trekking for the day. Surprisingly I am not much bothered. I jump onto the cricket field and join the gang. Suman also follows me. India’s recent world cup victory is still fresh in my mind, as fresh as the water of Prek Chu running besides us. It’s time to break some stumps and swing the bat wild.
The game of cricket is refreshing but it has to end. The snowfall has increased. We sit inside someone else’s dining tent as our tent is not set up yet. We play cards, this may be the umpteenth time, watched over by our cricketer friends. Lunch is served and taken care of. Once it starts snowing, the day becomes monotonous and boring in the mountains. There is nothing to do. Your world reduces to your tent and sleeping bag and that’s not real world. That moment onwards, it’s more or less a long wait for the night, and eventually the next day of bright sun. The snow is relentless. No wonder the high-rising and ever-standing mountains are the only ones who can tackle the snow effectively. I remember one of my favorite songs - parvatoh pe barfaan barfaan, parvatoh pe thandi barfaan, barsan laagi re.
In the evening –there is no way to tell except with a watch- Jaggi and I go for a walk towards Samiti lake. Our yakman is tending his yaks. He is also going in the same direction. Prek Chu is slightly dangerous in the narrow and precipitous gorge. He crosses the river to the other side with the yaks. We try to cross but sensing our discomfort, he advises us not to go over to that side. We climb the nearby hill. The snow is severe after combining with heavy wind. Our blue-yellow tent is white now. The kitchen tent is also white. I can’t tell where is Pandim, where is Kangchenjunga. Where am I? I want to see my friends. I miss them. I miss my mother. I want to go back, but not before I see Kangchenjunga.
During the dinner inside our kitchen tent, our yakman is in mood for some obscene jokes. His style of telling a joke is more humorous than his actual joke. We enjoy it after a dull afternoon. We go to sleep early as we have to wake up really early tomorrow to go to Goechela, our destination. Besides the game of cricket, the only good thing the day brought was to take us closer to Goechela. And that’s not a small thing. Tomorrow we will be there with the mighty mountain…
The High and the Low
Jaggi gets up at around 00:30 to answer nature’s call. When he returns back to the tent, I ask him if the sky is clear outside. He says that it’s largely clear. Before I went to sleep, it was cloudy. No stars were visible. I was afraid that the weather might spoil our trek or view of Kangchenjunga. I am a bit relieved now. We wake up properly at 1:30 in the morning, if that can be called a morning. The sky is cloudy :( Given that good and bad weather change hands quite often in the mountains, we do not want to sit idly waiting for it to get cleared. As long as we do not have to face rain or snowfall on the way, we are good to go. Moreover, we will take that chance to have any possibility of seeing Kangchenjunga burning with red lava like sunlight.
Birjubhaiya makes us hot black tea and wish us good luck. You need them both, the tea and the luck. Along with Biren, Novel, our porter, also is accompanying us. He is going to Goechela View Point for the first time in his life, so am I. I feel more clothes on me than I have ever felt in whole my life – upon an inner thermal, there is a tee-shirt, a winter jacket and a raincoat. Two pairs of socks are trying to protect my feet while two caps are on the guard to save my little brains. It’s totally dark –no wonder- and the only source of light is my headlamp which illuminates my path ahead for about 3-4 meters. We are walking in single file with Biren at the front and Povel at the rear.
We cross the Prek Chu streams and climb up the hills before the Samiti lake. The sky is slowly opening up, revealing the soft glow of the moon and the twinkling little stars. Even in the darkness, we reach Samiti lake in no time. I realize how easier it would have been the previous day had we had supporting weather. There is a Trekkers’ Hut at Samiti Lake. In old days, camping and staying at Samiti Lake was permissible. Not any more. The hut is abandoned now. It is reminiscent of a haunted house – broken windows, screeching door, foliage on the ceiling and inside the hut.
We leave Samiti lake after a few moments. Hopefully when we return back, we will get to see a beautiful reflection of Mt Pandim in the lake. We are walking on the snow beside the water channel which is the source of Samiti lake. We do not know how far we are from the channel. The sound of the stream in the silence of the night is scary. I feel as if we are on the bank of a big river whose depth no living man can fathom. We try to stay close to each other so that none of us is lost.
On the way to Zemathang, the trail becomes very narrow and steep. My eyes are fixated on the trail. I see no left or right. But inside my heart I know that one wrong step can lead me to the frozen whiteness forever. My assessment of the risk may be exaggerated but that is what darkness can do. When you do not know or cannot see what you are up against, you always imagine that you are up against the worst monster. The sky is almost clear of clouds now. The stars are dancing to the tunes of the moon in a dazzling performance. The snow-covered trail is no less spectacular. The snow glistens brightly in the white background. It is as if I am looking at a reflection of the sky on the earth. There are twinkling stars in the dark black sky and twinkling snow on the white earth.
After crossing Zemathang, we reach Goechela View Point 1. It’s still dark and we hope to reach to the View Point 2 before sunrise. Biren asks us last time if we really want to go to VP2. He has his reasons. The VP1 is on a hill from where we need to descend into a plain of snow on the way to VP2. The descent is steep, almost 45 degree gradient. The climb to VP2 after that will be similar. We all nod our heads in affirmative. It’s hard to see the trail clearly in the dark. The snow compounds the danger of steep descent by making the trail slippery. I don’t trust my legs. In couple of places they slip against their own accord. I walk on four legs, with one of my hands holding the stick tightly and the other resting on the snow wall. Jaggi asks us to maintain some distance between us lest one person falling will result into a cascading effect. Suman is behind us and he trips down dangerously once. Luckily for him, and for us, Povel who is behind him catches his backpack just in time to prevent him from taking a short cut to the plain nothingness. All the while, with every step downward, I imagine about returning on the same path and having to climb up the very incline. That is nightmare!
That precipitous descent takes us to a cleft. Wherever I see, I only see the snow. We are walking on the gentle slopes instead of in the middle of the plain. With every step, we slide towards the center. It’s kind of snow-surfing without a surfboard. As we walk faster, and here we can, the sliding becomes more enjoyable. Biren and Jaggi climb to the ridge to find out the correct trail as we are not sure if we are on the right one. We continue walking on the rich snow. We increase our speed as the daylight is breaking slowly, but it will be soon bright. It’s a long walk, very long one. I look for hint of the tall mountains, but cannot find any. The ridges on both the sides are quite close and no other mountain is visible on the horizon. The altitude is more than 4600m now. VP2 is at around 5000m mark. We should not be very far, but the climb is very gradual. At last, after an hour’s walk which felt like not less than a day, I see Kabru peaks, after two days again! The joy of seeing the monks again quickly vanish in the thin air, as the peaks are already smiling in the after-glow of the first sunrays of the day. That means the golden light is gone and what we will see will be only silver white light donning the pinnacles.
I am almost running now, to get to the VP2 as fast as possible. I see Biren waiting at the base of the VP2. All the nearby mountains are visible from there – Kabru peaks and their neighbors – but one mountain is conspicuously missing. Without that one we will not consider the trip worthy of the effort we have put in. Kangchenjunga is tormenting us even now. At this point our collective life has only one meaning and motive – meeting the mountain. So the steep climb of more than 300m starts toward the peak of VP2, which will give us the clear view of object of our obsession.
We follow Biren on the narrow trail up. The temperature is surely below the freezing point. The peak which feels so near is actually quite far. One can realize that only when one tries to reach there. The energy is leaving us, but the determination fuel the legs to take one more step closer. Our foreigner friends have joined us. They started an hour after us from Lamuney. How good trekkers they are!
I drag myself up to the narrow ridge. Biren is ahead of me, but at a lesser altitude. I ask him for the trail. Suman is behind me. Biren says that we are on a wrong trail, we should go down a bit and take the correct trail. I don’t see any trace of the trail below. On the contrary I find a trail of not more than a foot wide on the ridge. Our foreigner friends get pass by us. I start following them. Biren warns me but I see no other path ahead. On my left I see a frozen water body. On the right is the steepest of the slants. I stop there and take a glance of the surroundings. A wrong step on the either side and I am next to nothing in a moment at the height of 16000 feet. A few steps further, the foreigners are celebrating. The prayer flags are fluttering. That is VP2. The Kangchenjunga is barely visible among the clouds. That sight gives me courage. We march on. Jaggi and Povel are coming from the other trail behind us.
Kangchenjunga literally means The Five Treasures of Snow, referring to the five peaks of the mountain. As we all gather at the VP2, the veil of clouds is lifted from the huge massif of the Mt Kangchenjunga, India’s highest and the world’s third highest peak, at 8586m. What is revealed is sheer beauty, pristine and pure. We can see only one peak. In front of it, the Pandim becomes just a gatekeeper at the door. The Kabrus are only the loyal servants. The emperor is in front of us, royal, majestic, proud and almost arrogant. No mountain is carved as perfectly and precisely as this one. The sides join at the pinnacle as if they are extensions of each other. Clad in the full white, the firm emperor is sitting on the throne that is sky, unmindful of who looks at it and if anyone looks at it at all. It’s so self-assured of its powers that it needs no eulogies and confirmation from others and none can effectively sum up the great strength it possesses. I am looking at the highest of the highs and feeling the same. My only regret is that we cannot see it dressed in red or golden robs of the morning sun. How extravagantly beautiful that scene would have been!
It’s very cold here and my hands and feet are numb now. We all dance our celebratory Kangchenjunga jig there at 4916m altitude. Everyone seems to be possessed. One of our foreigner friends is hurling abusive words at Kangchenjunga which you can only attribute to the extreme love. The other one is singing Om Namah Shivay at the highest pitch of his vocal chords. Jaggi, Suman and I do our huddle dance. All of us are so happy. Then a sudden lightening strikes me within which empties me from inside. I want to share this happiness with my loved ones who are not here with me. Happiness is only real when shared, those last words etched in Christopher McCandless’s book in the movie Into the Wild appears before my mind. Though I am sharing the happiness with whoever is present here, the flood of happiness inside wants to drown a few others. I slump down to low from the high I experienced a few moments back. I want to blow up wind in the direction of the ones I love and spread my happiness to them in the form of a cool breeze. I know they will enjoy that breeze in these hot summer days wherever they are. I am sure I will give up my world to see them here at this moment, but what is my world but them. Yet how I know that they are all with me in spirit!
We keep on drinking the blissful beauty of Kangchenjunga for a long time. Ultimately the clouds again start gathering over the peaks and the cold gets hold of us. We start back, saying goodbye to the mountain unwillingly. On the way down to the base of the VP2, I slip twice but once my backpack saves me and the other time Povel holds me from behind. I keep on laughing though. I guess the joy of achieving the goal and the pain of not sharing it with my loved ones make me lose the focus. Once I hold Jaggi from falling and the next moment I myself fall flat on the snow.
I am feeling depressed now. A bit lost. The goal is achieved quite well and now I am empty inside. Everything is white, and inside it’s black. In front of me is a sea of blinding white, and I am unable to say if it’s real or if I am dreaming. I am walking on the trail in the direction of Lamuney, I think but I may be walking in the other direction also. Or I may not be walking at all. I am totally disoriented. I am in front of everyone else, walking at fast pace to run away from the white. I do not realize that there is a deer on the ridge of the distant mountain. Jaggi stops me and points at the deer. I think it’s a stone but when it moves I realize I have become a stone. No doubt the animal is camouflaged. It strikes me then that why there are no Ruskin Bond or Rudyard Kipling stories about the wild animals in Sikkim. If you cannot sight them, you cannot write about them.
I remark that I may become color-blind. Suman brings more miseries to my sorry state by telling that color blindness becomes effective after a day so person comes to know about it the next day. The climb back to VP1 is hardly troublesome now in the daylight. The darkness accentuated the sense of danger in the morning or maybe I am not feeling anything now. The snow becomes our unwanted companion there. Though VP1 also offers good view of Kangchenjunga, the clouds and the snow have robbed us of that delight. That would have helped me somewhat to rid of my somber mood. I want to go back soon so I hurriedly cross the VP1 and Zemathang. Nature comes to my help finally. From a distance, I see a green lake nestled between the mountains. That is Samiti lake. Looking at it I find myself cheerful again.
I reach to the Samiti lake before everyone else. I find my camera’s memory card full. I remove it and insert a new one. To my horror, the camera does not recognize it! The beautiful blue magpies with orange beaks have gathered around me to get themselves clicked and my camera flunks at the most inopportune time. I try umpteen times to get the memory card working, but to no avail. In the end I give up, raging with anger. I see the magnificent birds play the games in the water. A rhythmic and curvaceous water channel ends up in the lake coming from the direction of Zemathang, thus becoming its source of water. The reflections of the surrounding mountains is quite weak in the lake because of the clouds. Pandim is not at all visible. We stay at the lake for sometime, reflecting back on our journey so far. On our way back to Lamuney, we see a lot of birds, the most notably a black-and-orange bird. A wondrous group of white-winged birds take the flight like a squadron of air-force planes. I see our blue and yellow tent again. The yaks are grazing. I am back to relative sanity.
We take our lunch outside the Lamuney camp while the sun is shining for the brief period of time. The slow snowfall starts before we finish our lunch. We start walking towards the Thangsing immediately after the lunch, as we want to reach to Kakchurong today and spend the night there. For the full stretch I keep on thinking about Mt Kangchenjunga and more about calling my parents and the friends. By the time we reach Thangsing, the snow is coming in sheets. We want to wait at Thangsing but Birjubhaiya forces us to start for Kakchurong without any further delay. The boulder strewn steep descent is slippery because of the snowfall. On top of that, the fresh yak dung has made it treacherous. On the way we stop many times as we spot some birds in the forest. As we go down, the birds are getting bigger in the size. Some of them are rich in colors.
We reach Kakchurong late in the afternoon. There are only two long rooms in the Hut here. One is utilized by trekkers and the other by their support staff. There are 9 foreigners in our room along with we 3 Indians. It’s still snowing outside and the gloom sets in. Birjubhaiya treats us with jaalmudi. We play cards for some time. The dinner is served early, after which we go to sleep immediately at 6:30. The wooden flooring of the room means that whenever someone walks in it, the heavy thud wakes everyone up. I feel as if the room is also shivering in the cold. I reflect back on the day. It was the day which brought insurmountable high and unfathomable low in same measure. Such is life.