Twice more from Rungneet we saw the untrodden peak.Once in the fading light, indigo and dark red and again silvered by sunrise. It had lost nothing of its power, though the invitation was no longer individual. Now the mountain seemed to embody the spell of all the high snows and hidden valleys that are waiting.
Charles Evans — Kangchenjunga the Untrodden Peak
In a year when Eileen and I drove overland to India, we at one time left the caravanette in Delhi and took the train to Calcutta. From Calcutta we flew to Bagdogra, then travelled by bus to Darjeeling and stayed for seven days at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute as the guests of the Principal, Group Captain Amajeet Garewell and his wife Elsie.
This visit, though short, recalled many pleasing memories for us and a number of old friendships were renewed. The Mountaineering Institute is sited on a western spur of Birch Hill at 6000 ft and commands a grand panorama of the Kangchenjunga massif. In 1955 George Band and I as members of the team to make the first ascent of the mountain had given a talk there on the expedition equipment. Whilst we were on the mountain, Eileen (plus our son John aged three) had stayed in Kalimpong with her friend Renee Wiggin and on several occasions, they had been guests of the H.M.I. through Major Nandu Jayal who at the time was the first Principal.
That brief visit to Darjeeling was a small but brightly shining facet of our overland journey to India, even though we hadn't, as we at one time hoped been able to trek out to Kangchenjunga. Patience is invariably rewarded and years later, we led a party of friends through Sikkim to the base of the south ridge of the mountain and to the Guicha la.
Memories and an ethnic evening
At the rest house at Yoksum in Sikkim, the bare wooden floor shook with the stamping of many feet and the walls vibrated because of joyful singing and the rhythmic beating of a metal pudding dish which served as a makeshift drum. Those of the party not singing or dancing with the Lepcha or Nepalese porters sucked happily at bamboo straws immersed in jars of Tombu-fermented millet seed — and my mind took me back in time and distance to the Bhotia village of Walungchung in the Tamur valley of Nepal. At Walungchung, I had been introduced to Tombu at the house of the village headman, and my Sherpa companions too, had each been given a bamboo jar filled to the brim. I remembered too that as my Sherpa Ang Nima glanced coyly at Sherpani Karmi, I had solemnly contemplated the consequence of 'sipping cider through a straw'.
Back at the rest house at Yoksum, I glanced suspiciously at John Noble but he was clearly content with his cider. Richard our aural surgeon and Mike Pepper the optician concentrated on photographing the scene and Shelagh Northcott our nursing sister was safely conversing with my wife Eileen. That left Rani Puri our Indian lady member who along with Bill Curtin, the concrete engineer, gyrated vigorously to the rhythm of the pudding dish. I soon knew that Bill was all right as he sank to the floor to take a fix, the inevitable fag with which he regularly punctuated each day. Only Rani, thoroughly enjoying this ethnic evening with hill people of the north of India danced on and worked off the calories supplied by the Tombu. It was the penultimate evening of our trek through Sikkim to the Guicha la and in two days time, we would be back in Darjeeling. The music, the Tombu and the evening festivities had all been laid on by our porters.
Darjeeling — (Dorje Ling — The Place of Thunderbolts) to Pemayangtse (Pemionchi)
To start the trek, we flew from Delhi to Bagdogra, the nearest airport to Darjeeling and then by jeep, climbed steeply for four hours. The road frequently crosses the track of one of the great train rides of the world, the famous 'toy train' which by switch-backs and loops, winds its way slowly from the plains at Siliguri to Darjeeling at 8000 ft.
At Darjeeling, we stayed once again at the Windamere Hotel (not a spelling mistake) where we had been twice before. A charming Tibetan family — the Tenduf La's run the hotel, which is now over 100 years old and is a perfectly maintained relic of the days of the Raj — old fashioned maybe, but comfortable, splendid service and good food. The mountain panorama from the road by the hotel is particularly good and straightway we were rewarded with views of Kangchenjunga, Jannu, Rathong, Kabru, Pandim and the lower foothills and valleys through which we would trek to reach the Guicha la.
From Darjeeling it is usual for trek groups to travel by bus or jeep to Pemayangtse going via Gangtok, over the Tista river and back to Gezing. This is a long way round but enables visitors to see the capital city, to appreciate its spectacular setting and the superb views of the mountains. On this occasion, we preferred a more direct approach to Pemayangtse and early on the first morning, the jeep took us on descent of many thousands of feet, passing through areas of tea gardens and rice fields to the Great Rangit river. Here we crossed the bridge, passed through the frontier post and into Sikkim. Still in transport, we wound our way through forests of cardamom, linked by lush green paddy fields, stopping occasionally in attractive Himalayan villages until at last, we reached Gezing to make a few final purchases. Another six kilometres took us to the luxurious Pemayangtse Tourist Lodge, which for me was a reminder that (however more slowly than Sir Douglas Freshfield suspected in 1905) the Himalayan tracks and resting places are changing. Not necessarily for the worse for the Himalayan peoples; but changing.
Half a mile or so from, the lodge, built on a small knoll of mica schist is the Buddhist gompa of Pemayangtse, second oldest in Sikkim. Established in the 8th century by Padma Sambhava of the Nyingmappa sect, it is senior to all others in the country. For centuries, its lamas and scholars have made religious pilgrimage to Dzongri, the Onglakthang valley and the Guicha la, for the areas to which we were going are of great sanctity to the Buddhists.
Late in the afternoon, strong winds began to break up the high clouds, prayer flags (torcho) flickered and rustled by the gompa steps, from an enclave came the chant of a lama at evening prayer and the last light of the sun, lit the snows of Jubonu and the ice ridge of Tinchingkang. A young Sikkimese girl, a Buddhist scholar invited us inside the monastery and with quiet charm and courtesy showed us through the three floors — the last one of which contained an impressive elaborate representation of the Buddhist heaven. We returned again next morning passing many children and teachers on their way to school. They smiled at us broadly and shyly whispered 'Good Morning' in English, then pressing their hands together added the Hindu greeting 'Namaste'. Beyond the prayer flags, the whole of the Kangchenjunga massif and the peaks above the Yalung valley were crystal clear, an omen for good weather during the next few days.
Yoksum and on to Bakhim
Yoksum now is but a sleepy sprawling village, though once it was the capital of Sikkim and is still renowned as the place where the kings of Sikkim were crowned long ago.
Up on the ridge above Yoksum and well worth a visit is the oldest monastery in the land Dubchi — but beware the leeches which on a warm wet day come out in thousands as we discovered on the return journey. To reach the village from Pemayangtse, we descended many thousands of feet, passing through small tidy homesteads, clustered by terraced fields of rice, maize and millet. Following crossing of the Rimbi chu and the Rathong chu, a final steep ascent had taken us to the holy ground of Yoksum. Here, at the forest rest house, we were informed that a party of Canadians, with Tenzing Norgay had departed earlier in the day.
Another group of American doctors on a physiological expedition were camping nearby. 'Are the hills really becoming congested with trekkers', I wondered, but then I thought, twenty-six trekkers in an area of 3,000 square miles of Sikkim, can't really be termed overcrowding. Even so, it was clear that the Forestry Department were actively increasing the number of resthouses to benefit financially from the increase in tourism and so it was no surprise that we found another such building on arrival at Bakhim. The trail from Yoksum winds through quite thick sub-tropical jungle, rich in flora and fauna. Though October is not the best time for flora, the party was interested to see a variety of flowering plants, a profusion of tropical trees, and were frequently amazed to final the familiar Swiss Cheese plants (Mousteria) growing like trees and often over 40 ft, high. An hospitable Tibetan family invited us into their house for tea on arrival at Bakhim and we knew that the next day, some twenty minutes further along the track, we would come to the last village on our journey to the Guicha la. This is the village of Tsoka — a small Cluster of dwellings built by Tibetan refugees, who over thirty years ago by permission of the King of Sikkim, were allowed to settle and become the keepers of the kings' herd of yak. The interiors of each house were set out in similar fashion to the homes of the Sherpas and whilst we drank butter tea and ate chapatties, Eileen and I were reminded of our days living with Sirdar Dawa Tenzing at Diboche in Khumbu.
Dzongri and the Onglakthong Valley
Bakhim to Dzongri is perhaps the hardest day for trekkers. The path winds steeply uphill into a more temperate zone of rhododendron and azaleas and eventually juniper and pine. At our luncheon stop, I was able to photograph the pale blue trumpet gentians and nearer to the Dzongri yak meadows found the Immortelle (Pearly Everlastings) looking snow white and crystal sharp. Dzongri at 13,200 ft provides an ideal campsite. Chortens, (prayer shrines) mani walls (inscribed religious stones) and prayer flags abound, evidence that whilst on pilgrimage, the wise old lamas stay here for many weeks to pray and meditate. From the holy meadows, the whole of the Singalila ridge is visible round to the Chumbab la and the Kang la. At the present time it is only possible to get a permit for a short distance along the Singalila but if and when, the Indians open up this ground, the trek by the ridge to the Kang la and then out via Dzongri and Pemayangtse (having been to the Guicha la) will be one of the finest in the Himalaya. I let my eyes follow the ridge to the Kang peaks then the ridge of Koktang, where on the Kangchenjunga expedition, Joe Brown, Norman Hardie and I in deteriorating weather had failed to reach the summit. Further north, Rathong and Kabru were draped in masses of hanging ice and at a line of chortens on the ridge above the Dzongri yak huts, Kangchenjunga, up to now obscured, finally revealed its five sacred summits.
Beyond the ridge, far below us and to the east, flowed the Parek chu in which we had to descend the next morning. Above the deep cut glaciated valley, now being overdeepened by the swift flowing torrent, the summits of Jubonu, Tingchingkang and Pandim were etched sharply against the intense blue of the sky. It is unfortunate that trekking groups rush away from Dzongri after one brief night, for it is an ideal place for exploratory walks and a suitable spot in which to gain additional acclimatisation prior to reaching the Guicha la at 16,500 ft.
Kangchenjunga and the Guicha la
It proved to be a steep descent to the Parek chu and we finally crossed the glacial torrent by a bridge of rough hewn logs to reach the open grazing flats at Thangsing. A clear night and severe frost covered our tents with a glittering skim of frozen crystals. Blue smoke from the many wood fires of our porters rose vertically into the air in the anticyclonic conditions and it was some time before the morning sun melted the frost and sufficiently dried the tents for packing. This valley, through which flows the Parek chu is more often called Onglakthang after the Onglakthang glacier which flows from Forked Peak and the Dome, and a few hours walk above Thangsing, you arrive at the Onglakthang campsite. It is usual for camps to be taken at Onglakthang which is a sheltered spot by the left lateral moraine of the glacier. Tents are pitched some fifty yards from a moraine lake and near to a stone yak hut minus its roof. I am quite sure that this campsite is used to please the porters and the trekking companies and not the trekkers. In my mind there is no doubt that if a party wishes to have the best of this mountain area and to enjoy the ascent to the Guicha la to the maximum, it is better to continue further up the valley to Chemathang (Chema — sand, thang — a plain). This is a flat and sandy floor of an old lake at 15,250 ft beneath the great west wall of Pandim.
Article 5 (J. A. Jackson)
1. View from Dzongri with Kangchenjunga and Pandim (right).
Article 5 (Eileen Jackson)
2. Pandim from Parek chu.
Article 5 (J. A. Jackson)
3. Rathong, Kabru Dome, Kabru, Talung and Kangchenjunga from Singalila ridge.
Article 5 (T. Nakamura)
4. Kongga north face, from Puyu valley.
On the way from Thansing to Onglakthang, we again passed by many mani walls and saw other evidence of the sanctity of the area. Yak laden with rucsacks and camping gear passed by us and went on down the valley and soon Eileen and I were delighted to meet our old friend Tenzing Norgay, with his party of Canadians. There was no mistaking his red shirt and white flat cap as he came towards us but the look of surprise on his face when he recognised us was really amusing. Though he had heard there was a British party in the valley, he had no idea we were with the group. For fifteen minutes or more, we chatted about the mountains of Snowdonia and of friends and before we parted, I reminded him that in May of the following year, we would have the Everest reunion at the Peny Gwryd and would look forward to seeing him there as well. We also talked of Kangchenjunga and he could see I was thrilled to be once more at the base of the mountain and able to talk about the climb to his Canadians. The site of Camp V at 25,500 ft. was visible and then further up the Gangway, I pointed out to him and the trekkers where we had Camp VI. The rest of the route to the summit was also mainly in view and memories flooded back.
That night at Onglakthang campsite, a few wisps of snow heralded the coming of winter and in the morning the sky was overcast. This was only our sixth day out from Darjeeling and it reflects credit on the group that on the next day all reached the Guicha la (16,500 ft). despite so little time for acclimatisation. It was a hard nine hour day for most and it is significant that we met up with three other trek groups of which no member reached the Guicha la. This trek would be much improved if two extra days are taken up in the mountains, where after all, everyone has travelled many thousands of miles to be. The two days can easily be taken out of the jungle walking on the return journey, where the days are easy and unnecessarily short. Extra time in the mountains would not only provide for greater enjoyment of the trek but also add considerably to the safety factor by giving people an increased opportunity to acclimatise to altitude.
Because of the overcast, visibility was not as good as on previous days and whilst walking from Onglakthang to Chemathang, we again passed by walls of mani stones and tumbled down shrines. Buddhist prayer flags attached to tilting sticks, rustled quietly in the light breeze. Mountain choughs "chak chakked" sharply as we trudged along the grassy ablation valley then for several miles we threaded our way through massive erratic boulders that littered the ridge of a huge and steep sided lateral moraine. It is rugged and remote environment, a very special area of high cirques and hanging glaciers of rearing precipices and stark and awesome mountains — a paradise for the trekker and geomorphologist and the mountaineer alike.
The Guicha la seemed a desolate little spot and above it large tilted slabs of schistose material slanted up towards Guicha Peak. I scrambled up them for some 500 ft or so to take photographs of the pass below and to obtain a better view of the peaks around — Pandim and Tinchingkang to the east, Forked Peak and Talung to the west and above me, beyond Guicha Peak, the massive ridge leading to the five summits of Kangchenjunga. Everyone felt it to have been a most rewarding journey to make and huge smiles spread across the faces of Eileen and Bill, for whom it had been a very special goal.
For me, it had been a special thrill on the ascent from Chemathang to look across to two 20,000 ft peaks climbed by Joe Brown, Norman Hardie, Phu Cheeta and me during the acclimatisation period of the Kangchenjunga expedition. The rock spire and the snow pyramid stood out clearly and once again, I could hear in my mind the excitement as during the climb, each of us pointed out possible lines of ascent on the massive south-west face of the 'Five Treasures'.
Two days after reaching the Guicha la, we were down below the alpine pastures of Dzongri and well on the way back to Darjeeling. The trek had been sound, the weather good, our companions could not have been better and it had proved to be a memorable return to Kangchenjunga.
Subsequent to this trek, we returned once more. Twelve years later, we again reached the Guicha la. At Yoksum, Bakhim and Dzongri, additional trek lodges had been built and a new roof placed on the yak hut at Onglakthang. We also placed a camp nearer to the Guicha la by stopping at a 'yak karka' just beyond Chemathang. A supply of water was a long way away and not easy to obtain but our friend Chewang Motup Goba soon sorted out the problem. We also lengthened the journey by two days which enabled us to visit the H.M.I. Base Camp and Silver Hut below Frey's Peak and mighty Rathong.
The camp on the way to H.M.I. Base Camp is at Bikbari. This was a first class addition to the trek and good for extra acclimatisation.
Because we had perfect weather on reaching the Guicha la, all the mountains were clearly visible. Simvo and Siniolchu stood out particularly clear against a cloudless deep blue sky and the Zemu Gap (Zemu la) felt to be but a stone's throw away / It was whilst ascending to the la in the 1930's, that John Hunt of Everest, came across footprints leading up the snow slope to the pass. Were they the footprints of a Yeti? Later he always felt they were. Finally the Windamere Hotel in Darjeeling is as quaint and charming as ever. Das still owns the best of the photographic shops and the mountaineering museum at the H.M.I. is not to be missed.
Recalling memories of visits to the Himalaya, while trekking to Guicha la.