It was the third week of November and Kolkata was showing no signs of cooling down. Autumn was clearly gone but winter was still hesitating to enter our space. Being in the Gangetic delta, we understand this. Winter and the Bay of Bengal are eternally engaged in a ‘cold’ war. Just like us Bengalis, they do not agree with each other. But I could see and sense from experience that the weather pattern in the eastern part of the Himalaya was moving towards a clearer, stable state. News of new snow on the ridges of Singalila was bringing promises. I was getting restless. Long time, no mountain! And suddenly a plan was in the air.
As soon as the plan did surface, I met Aloke Das, my companion on Nanda Devi East in 20131. I knew, Aloke, a senior mountaineer of Bengal, belonged to a very different school and was new to this style I was about to propose. ‘Preposterous! Exploratory climbing is not blitzkrieg!’ Perhaps that would be his remark, I thought, but secretly hoped that he would be game. I told him we had eight days to crack this thing and come back. We would have to force our way through dense forest and rhododendron thickets right from the river bed, climb steep slopes covering nearly 1000 m a day while sleeping under overhanging rocks. There would be fewer leeches at this time of the year but plenty of deer ticks for the first two days. On the 3rd day we would go above the tree line and get near this 5000 m mountain. And finally, if we did get there and if the weather gods were kind, we would try and climb this thing. I paused and looked at him. My old pal was smiling and I knew what that meant. Reassured, I resumed my planning.
We would have only one day at our disposal to climb. No rest days, no bad weather allowances. Since we would start our hike from a low altitude of 700 m approximately we wouldn’t have to worry too much about acclimatization I thought. By the way, did I mention that I had no idea what this mountain looked like? To be a little more specific I did not even know if this was a peak or a pass! Aloke seemed lost now. Lost but not surprised. There was not a single report or image published in any journal as presumably no mountaineer or trekker had been here. But in Kekoo Naoroji’s book ‘Himalayan Vignette’ I saw a map2 that referred to it as De Nga (5060 m). ‘De Nga’ is definitely a Bhotia sounding name and must have had its influence from the inhabitants of Lachen valley lying to its immediate east rather than the Lepcha sanctuary of Dzongu that stretches to its south. In this map, it is shown on the watershed of Ringi chu in Upper Dzongu and Lachen chu. If you know where Lama Angden is then perhaps it will be a bit easier to imagine. It is on the ridge serpenting down south from Lama Angden (5868 m).
The map by Toyoshima shows this ridge in detail, but no peak named as ‘De Nga’ is marked here. What it shows instead in the same position are two passes with identical names - Thepa la. The northerly one is 4575 m and the other 5064 m3. Interestingly enough, this higher Thepa la is approximately in the same position and altitude as De Nga in Naoroji’s book. So, in short, the objective of this trip would be to locate De Nga and Thepa la and end this confusion of entity and title between peaks and passes. We packed our ice climbing gear nevertheless as we honestly did not know what to expect - a scramble or a climb.
The meeting was over. I realized both our smiles were turning into grins now. The glorious uncertainties of exploratory climbing in Sikkim have always been the ultimate lodestone for me. Now my old friend was about to get a taste of it. The spirit is contagious. If the medium is right it can pervade and permeate without much effort.
The very next week after this meeting took place, a drive of around five hours (via Mangan) brought us to Passingdong, a tiny village in the lower reaches of Talung chu valley. Parties that trek to Kishong lake via Tholung gompa have to drive past this village and proceed a bit further to the west till the unpaved road ends at Be. From Be, they more or less have to hike up north following the Ringi chu keeping the Lama Angden - De Nga ridge to the east. Coming back to our trip, while driving up from Siliguri; we had a short stop at Mangan where we bought food and fuel for the trip from the local market. At this time of the year the roads of Sikkim had less traffic as the Durga Puja and Diwali vacations were over and the towns were quieter again till Christmas. Mingdup Lepcha was there to greet us at Passidong. He has been a close friend ever since we forced our way up the Talung gorge back in 2011.4 That evening we poured over copies of maps and their contours. I tried to explain to Mingdup the curious case of De Nga and Thepa la. It turned out that Mingdup had never heard of De Nga, but the name Thepa la rang a bell. Soon after close inspection of his description we understood that Mingdup had crossed the northerly Thepa la (4575 m) before. But never went up its higher namesake. Mingdup also mentioned that further down south on the ridge there are several lakes. Lepchas call them ‘Longdho Nye’, which means ‘pond upon a rock’. This reminded me that Lepchas call themselves ‘Mutanchi Rong Kup Rum Kup’, meaning ‘beloved children of Mother Nature and God’ and they belong to the original indigenous race of the region. Lepchas have a language, literature and script of their own. In fact, before the Tibetan rule in Sikkim and British rule in Darjeeling, Lepcha was the language of the whole region. Even during the early period of the British rule, all the administrative work of the acquired land was carried out in Lepcha.5 These days, there is another name for the lakes in Nepalese : ‘Panch Pokhri’. There is a faint trail up to Panch Pokhri. This was good news as this meant we did not have to hack our way up all the way from Passingdong.
At the end of the discussion, Mingdup remarked, ‘I knew you were up to something strange again’. It reminded me of Hercule Poirot’s statement in his last case, ‘Curtain’. ‘Where you see a vulture hovering there will be a carcass. If you see beaters walking up a moor, there will be a shoot. If you see a man stop suddenly, tear off his coat and plunge into the sea, it means that there, there will be a rescue from drowning...and finally if you smell a succulent smell and observe several people walking along a corridor in the same direction you may safely assume that a meal was about to be served.’ And soon we were all walking along the wooden stairs of Mingdup’s house down to the kitchen ourselves where a delicious meal was on the table.
Next morning, Mingdup bid us goodbye and wished us luck. He could not join us as a close relative’s wedding was on his calendar. We crossed Talung chu and started hiking up. After an hour we passed a deserted looking small village called Leekh. Another couple of hours of steady uphill hiking brought us to Sikkim’s dense forests. The foliage and flora strikingly resemble central African rain forests. We toiled up for another couple of hours and as soon as we found a little clearing and narrow stream nearby, we decided to camp. Across the valley we saw the village of Lingthem. Interestingly, this was the same village where Geoffrey Gorer had spent three months in 1937. Gorer’s observations and comments are an invaluable contribution to our knowledge of the Lepcha community even today.6 At night Mangan’s lights flickered in the distance below and across the Teesta. Next morning, we were up early and after a quick breakfast we were back on the forest trail. Not many trekkers hike up to Panch Pokhri, we thought. After a gruesome six-hour climb we reached the top of a ridge. Crossing the ridge we traversed up north for another hour and then next to a beautiful waterfall and below an overhanging rock we made our second night’s shelter. The water from the stream was as clear as it could be; and soon we had a fire going. A quick meal followed a few rounds of tea and soon we found our private sleeping spaces below the rock and prepared for the long night ahead.
Longdo Nye or Panch Pokhri with the backdrop of Kangchenjunga and Siniolchu peaks
The morning of Day 3 began to show a lot of cirrus cloud accumulation high up in the sky across to the west. Climbing through the scree of a dry stream we could see the NE flanks of Pandim (6691 m) and its ridge extending towards Tingchinkhang (6010 m), Jopuno (5936 m) and Narsing (5825 m) in the distance. At the end of the scree we reached the top of a sharp ridge. We figured, in Toyoshima’s map, this point marked as an unnamed pass of 3700 m. We realized then that we were now on the ridge itself. On the same ridge further up north lies the higher Thepa la. We tried to see if we could spot a pass or saddle like feature from where we were standing. But our view was guarded by three rocky peaks. Further consultation of the maps revealed that the three peaks were respectively 4334 m, 4593 m and 4292 m. They were obstructing the higher Thepa la (5064 m) from us. To our immediate east was the deep valley of Rahi chu. Looking alarmingly at the steady progression of the cirrus gathering we kept climbing north. Another three hours of steep climbing brought us higher up, and closer to Panch Pokhri. We decided to pitch our tents. We were now just above 4000 m. The evening transformed into a magical scene as the clouds decided to settle down in a low level stratus formation in the valley. A full moon appeared from somewhere over and above the mountain ranges of Tangkar la (4895 m) and Dopendikang (5359 m) to the east and southeast. We knew, just beyond that ridge was the Chumbi valley. To our west was the great Kangchenjunga with all its majestic, neighbouring peaks. All the peaks in the map appeared before us. The peaks of the Singalila ridge starting from Talung (7349 m) to the Kabrus (7338 m and 7317 m) lay to the furthest horizon. Proximal to that were the peaks from Pandim (6691 m) to Narsing (5825 m) and then the great east ridge of the Kangchenjunga. We could make out distinctly the Zemu peak (7730 m), the Simvu twins (6811 m and 6812 m), Siniolchu (6887 m) and its Rock Needles (5712 m). To add a sort of sense of completion to this map-reading delight, the twin summits of Lama Angden (5868 m) appeared further up north. We realized what a grand panoramic view-point this was.
The view from the ridge camp above Panch Pokhri
Next morning was an anticlimax. It seemed the valley clouds had an overnight change of mind and now they were determined to make life less rosy for us. It started snowing and within a couple of hours it was about eight cm deep. We knew we were pressed for time. We pushed further up north, along the ridge and as we got near peak 4334 m, we dropped down to the east from the ridge and moving a bit further up north we decided to camp. We understood we were probably located a bit south of peak 4593 m and hoped that this weather would change the next morning. If that happened, we would climb peak 4593 m and have a look at the higher Thepa la and the confusion of De Nga once and for all. The weather gods however, had other plans for us. It started snowing heavier that evening and continued all night. Morning brought no promises but 12 cm more of soft fresh powder. The intensity of the snowfall lessened, but we knew that we were out of time. We packed our bags and wet tents and with a shrug of our shoulders headed back down. The curious case of De Nga remained unsolved. Well, until next time.7
Looking north from 3700 m pass
Observation : Approaching the problem of De Nga or Thepa La would be much easier from Lachen as the slopes are of easier gradient and almost devoid of the dense forest cover that one encounters while approaching from Dzongu. We also learnt that the residents of Lachen do come to the vicinity of ‘Longdho Nye’ (Panch Pokhri) and the upper reaches of the Rahi chu valley to gather Yarsa Gomba8, not to mention the occasional poaching trips for musk deer and Himalayan tahrs. This proved our presumption on the ease of access to this ridge from Lachen but increased our concern for the wellbeing of nature and wildlife. We sincerely hope that the authorities of Kangchenjunga Biosphere Reserve will be stricter in their regulations in future as this area now falls under ‘Tholung-Kishong Conservation Zone’ as per a notification in the Sikkim Government Gazette Extraordinary dated 15 December 2006.
Postscript: Aloke seemed happy with what we achieved. I will never know that for sure of course. As maybe, deep down in his heart, he is still screaming, ‘didn’t I tell you so’? Exploration climbing is not blitzkrieg after all!
All photos : Aloke Kumar Das
Explorations in the watershed between Lachen chu and Ringi chu, North Sikkim and specifically an attempt to find a mountain or pass called De Nga.
Anindya Mukherjee is an active mountaineer with a penchant for exploration. He has led and organized more than 30 Himalayan expeditions and has quite a few first ascents to his credit. Apart from the Indian Himalaya he has climbed in Greenland, Iceland, Caucasus, Rwenzori, Kenya, Tanzania, Sierra Cascades, Yunnan, Swiss and French Alps. He is a life member of the HC.