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Megan’s Kangchenjunga Diary
Megan has a challenging adventure!
Megan and John joined the 27 day Kanchenjunga Double Magic trek 2005
Megan Spindler, 2005
Last we wrote we were in Delhi, India. We visited the Taj Mahal, shopped in the crazy bazaar, and flew into Kathmandu on November 23rd. The next day we met the 14 other people in our trekking group [split between two groups] and took a tour of Kathmandu. We saw the famous Monkey Temple at the top of the city, which was incredible. We were allowed to enter the monastery where we saw elderly monks with shaved heads, dressed in orange and red robes, chanting and playing instruments, while younger "monks-in-training" served tea and threw rice at each other. After the grand tour of Kathmandu, John and other trekkers went and got haircuts in preparation for the trek. It turned out to be an army-style buzz cut - hysterical! As you may know, John has been growing a beard for the last 4 months, and he looked a bit scary with a shaved head and HUGE beard. I think he scared himself too. He said he would be wearing a hat for the whole trek after that!
After the buzz cut we went shopping like crazy for gear for the trip. We wanted to make sure we stayed warm since we heard that our trek leader, Wanda, was stuck in the Annapurna region on another trek that ran over 4 days because their tents were buried in snow. So we had to switch leaders even before we left, which was a bit disconcerting! John had a blast shopping for gear. We bought everything under the sun you can imagine to stay warm: down booties, fleece everything, snow gaiters, monster sleeping bags, and much more... you name it, we bought it. I was not happy with the purchase of a pee bottle (gross!), but it proved to be quite handy later on in the trip. That night we stayed up till 1am packing our bags for the trek.
Starting the trek?
The next day we went to the airport at 7am and waited for our flight to Suketar. We were supposed to take a small prop plane into the tiny village with a runway strip on the edge of a mountain, then begin the trek from there. We waited at the domestic terminal in the Kathmandu airport for over 6 hours until they told us the flight was a no-go due to weather (apparently they could only fly the small plane if the weather was clear). So here I am thinking we are flying into blizzard country in the Himalayas, and we are about to spend the next 3 weeks hiking through it... we can't fly, our group leader is trapped in snow, good lord we are going to die. I was a mess!
Since we couldn't fly that day, we ended up going back to the hotel, and spent another night in Kathmandu. We had a chance to collect our thoughts, repack, and get more sleep. The next day we were in much better spirits, and we waited another 5 hours for a flight to Suketar. All of a sudden it was "go time" and we were whisked through security (men on one side, women on the other). Before we knew it, we were on a mid-sized prop plane (even had a flight attendant) on our way to Biratnagar. We saw some amazing views of the Himalayas from the plane, we even saw Mt. Everest towering above the rest through the clouds.
THE bus ride
Due to cloudy weather, we had to divert our flight to another airport, and take a 2-day bus into Taplejung, the village at the start of our trip. We rode in an ancient bus, the "TATA," and it was covered in dust, it had broken windows, and it we sat on metal seats with minimal padding. We drove in the mud, uphill through the jungle on a small cliff-side road that was a cross between a dirt road and a hiking trail. There were handlebars on the back of each seat, and I don't think I ever let go of mine!
We were on such crazy roads that the entire bus was BOUNCING the whole time. The roads were on the edge of the mountains, and many times we would look out the windows, and the edge would be looming before us, just INCHES away... it was so scary!
The driver was incredible, and at each stop we made for food, the "crew" would hop out of the bus to change tires, or climb under the engine and make repairs. I am amazed the bus made it through!
At one town we had to pass through a Nepalese army checkpoint, and we had to wait an hour in the bus while the officers were "at dinner." The bus driver even had to pay a fee to use the road to Maoists at one point. We drove from 1pm - 11pm, spent the night at a sketchy tea house in a small town, then woke up the next day at 3am and drove until 9pm that night. Our knees were getting banged up, and our window wouldn't close (it was freezing!), so we unpacked our camping mats and made a mini-fort around our seats for padding and protection. At one point, a tree had fallen from the side of the mountain, and the driver and crew hopped out to help another driver tear it apart and drag it to the side... there were ants crawling everywhere... quite a few of us got bit by them!
Phew, we can start trekking!
When we finally arrived in Taplejung, we were greeted by our entire trekking crew. We were thrilled to be off that bus!
The crew carried our things in the dark through the village to a small school where our campsite was already set up for us. I would estimate that there were approx 60 crew members who had taken a 3-day bus journey all the way from Kathmandu, and they had made sure all was ready to go before we arrived... they had been waiting for us for a few days!
We were shown to our tents, and we settled in on solid ground, relieved that the 2 day bus ride from hell was over. The group of 14 trekkers was then divided into 2 groups - those that were in the 3-week trek (this was our group, there were 7 of us; and those that were doing an expedition that lasted 3 weeks longer than ours - also 7 people in that group). We were going to trek together for the first 2 weeks, after which our group would head back the way we came, and the expedition would go mountain climbing and exploring in the region. The expedition group was led by Jamie, one of the owners of Project Himalaya, and our group was supposed to be led by Wanda, who was stuck in the snow on another trek. After we were settled and called into the dining tent for dinner, we finally got to meet our replacement trek leader, Namgyal. Namgyal is from Nepal, and he has summitted Mt. Everest a few times with Jamie... very impressive! We felt like we were in good hands after meeting him. Once we relaxed in the dining tent, we then were introduced to the amazing hospitality of the trekking crew.
A typical day
They really treated us like royalty on this trek! Here is a rundown of a typical day:
6:30am: Wake up, bed tea is served (they brought us tea to our tents!), and a bowl of warm "washing water" is also brought to the tent
6:30-7:30am: We packed up all our gear, and after wards we left our huge duffel bags of gear out to be carried to next campsite, and the crew packed up our tents for us
7:30am: breakfast in the dining tent, served by Bakman, our Sherpa extraordinaire: coffee, oatmeal, cereal with hot milk, eggs, pancakes, potatoes, etc.
8:00-11:30am: Trek to lunch spot, while carrying only a backpack with water, camera, jacket, etc - the rest of our gear was carried by the porters - they would carry 2 duffel bags each and these bags were HEAVY!
11:30am: Once we arrived at lunch spot, we would be greeted with a cup of warm juice. We would sit down and take off our boots and relax in the sun while the cooking crew prepared lunch. Lunch was usually a mix of veggies, meat (lots of SPAM!), and rice or potatoes, and fruit afterwards.
12:30-3pm: trek to campsite, where the crew sets up the tents and our gear is waiting for us. We would relax, wash up, unpack, and wait for dinner. Tea and biscuits were served around 5:30pm just before dinner
6pm: Dinner in dining tent. Dinner was a whole range of dishes, always starting with soup and a salty snack, then a local favorite like "dal bhaat," a rice, vegetable and lentils meal, or "momo's" (our favorite, a type of pot-sticker - so yummy!). We even had apple pie and coconut cake for dessert sometimes... it was amazing what this kitchen crew could make on a few cans of kerosene! Needless to say, we were very well fed and taken care of on the trek.
Trekking in the low country
It is amazing how your body adapts to whatever situation it needs to. We walked anywhere from 4-7 hours a day, up and down some tough mountain passes, for 3 straight weeks, and we both got in great shape. But my goodness it was hard work!
The first 6 days we trekked through the "low country," where we passed through villages in the hills, and we camped at local village schools and at campsites on the outskirts of the villages. We trekked through shady cardamom farms, tiered rice fields that glowed green in the sun on the hillside, and slippery wet jungle trails. The trekking route followed a river through the valley and we had to cross many crazy bridges, including Indiana Jones-style rope bridges that looked like they were held together by termites. One day we saw a few Langur monkeys rustling around and we watched as they jumped from the branches in search of gogan fruit. We passed through several tiny villages where the Nepalese children would come running out to greet us with a friendly "Namaste!". Unfortunately villages in this area are overrun by Maoists, and we had to pay a Maoist fee in order to pass. We did not have any contact with them, however. Our trek leaders made the transaction and we were on our way. It was not much of a big deal at the time. Once you pay the fee they give you a receipt and you are covered for the rest of your trek. The fee is normally $80, but we got them down to $50 each because we lied and told them that no Americans or Brits were in the group... we were all from Canada and Australia.
The cold high country
As we ended our 6th day of trekking on November 1st, we arrived to the beginning of the "high country". We caught our first glimpse of a mighty snow-capped mountain, and entered the area of the mountains with a dryer climate. We saw a bunch of bamboo, and some beautiful fall colors. This was also the first day of the "Tihar Festival." Known as the festival of lights, it is the most dazzling Hindu festival in Nepal. The local men and women of the surrounding villages came out in their finest outfits and they danced for us. They put flowers in our hair and silk scarves around our necks, and we danced with them to a scratchy boom-box blaring happy Nepalese music. The idea of the festival was to raise money for the village, and we happily donated to the cause. The festival continued for 5 days.
As we continued our ascent, we passed through a Tibetan refugee village and visited a beautiful monastery where the local kids sang for us for the festival. We saw several yaks on the trails carrying cargo for the villagers. We arrived in Ghunsa at 14,000 feet, and that is when we started to feel the beginning effects of the altitude. I was a bit short of breath, and I had to pee - a LOT. Apparently these are common side effects in higher altitudes with lower oxygen levels. It was cold when we arrived in the village, but once the sun went down it was absolutely freezing. It was so cold I could barely move my fingers or feel my nose. That night when we went to bed I fell asleep with 3 layers of clothes and 2 sleeping bags, and I was still freezing! Since it was so cold, the last thing I wanted to do was get out of the tent and walk across camp to use the frozen and slippery outhouse, so I finally gave in and used the pee bottle just outside the tent. It was not pretty, but I was tired and freezing and it was the best option at the time. The next morning we woke up and saw that the bottle was FROZEN! THAT is how cold it was!
Pangpema - Kanchenjunga Base Camp
It got colder and colder over the next week. We hiked for 4 more days until we finally arrived in Pangpema on November 7th. This place was freezing, just a single lodge at the base of Kanchenjunga (the 3rd highest mountain in the world!). On the way we hiked over barren landslides and fields with grazing yaks, and we passed over frozen rivers and waterfalls. We rested a day in Khambachen at the base of Jannu, a spectacular mountain with a sheer face that is the equivalent of 3 "El Capitans." The days leading up to Pangpema and back were the most miserable for me. I was cold, I couldn't breathe properly, and I felt as though my entire body was heavy... the altitude makes it so hard to trek normally. A few of the days I fell significantly behind the group (at least an hour behind), and the Sherpas were so kind that they would meet us an hour's distance outside of camp with a big kettle full of warm juice. They would then make us sit down, rest, drink, and regroup, then they would walk us to camp and carry my backpack for me. The hospitality of the Sherpas was incredible. And the cold! EVERYTHING in the tent had frost on it... I wore a neck gaiter while I slept to cover my mouth and nose, and the condensation that accumulated on it would freeze over, so I would wake up with a nose full of frost and a frozen sleeping bag.
After all was said and done, we made it to the highest point of the trek! We hiked up to 17,000 feet and camped overnight. Two other trekkers didn't even make it to that point; they had trouble breathing and had to turn around at the 2nd to last campsite before Pangpema. I was so proud of myself, and it was a huge feeling of accomplishment, and bragging rights! John even did an optional hike up to 20,000 feet (!) and saw amazing views of Kanchenjunga. I had no desire or ambition for that, so I headed back without him and we met up at the next campsite. A few points on the way up I was a wreck... it was too much and I cried a couple times, complained a few more, and I even thought of ways I could injure myself just enough so that I would have to be helicoptered out of the region (broken ankle?)... but I stuck it out and finished. When I would get frustrated and threaten to turn around, John was very patient and always said, "Lets get to the campsite and figure out what we will do." He would then warm me up, give me a hot drink and rub my legs. After a hot meal and good night's sleep, I always carried on. But man, it was hard.
In the end, when half the group was supposed to split up, 4 of the 7 expedition team changed their minds about doing the 6 week expedition and came back on the trekkers team. Only 3 people stayed an extra 3 weeks to explore, and the rest of us went back the way we came. Hiking back down was much easier, and each day we were able to breathe a little easier with more and more oxygen in the air. It gradually became warmer, and we learned to appreciate the greenery and humidity after spending over a week in such a cold, dry, and barren landscape. On the way back down we saw the rice harvest, jumped in the freezing river to wash up, and took notice of tiny details of the trail that we missed on the way up.
On November 15th we arrived in Suketar, a tiny village with a short grass landing strip on the top of a mountain and incredible views of the valley. We walked into the village with big smiles and sighs of relief, realizing that the 3 week trek was over. We met up with the rest of the trekkers and promptly ordered a celebratory beer, savoring all the hard work that we did and the incredible sights that we saw over the previous 3 weeks. That night we celebrated with the entire staff of porters, Sherpas, cooks, and it was an amazing night. Since John and I were the slowest trekkers of the group (OK I was the slowest trekker of the group, but John stayed with me), we spent a lot of time in the back of the pack with the Sherpas who walked in the back to "sweep" and make sure we were OK. By the last day we had talked to them so much that they felt like friends, and it was a bittersweet evening when we said goodbye. We stayed up late drinking beer and participating in a traditional friendship ceremony. There were a few people on the staff that were truly great, memorable people, and it was a privilege to embark on such an adventure with them. You will never meet nicer, more accommodating people than the people of Nepal.
The scariest part of the trek? The flight from Suketar to Kathmandu! The tiny prop plane flew in and touched the runway just a few feet from a huge ledge on the side of a mountain, and we took off the same way. It was so scary my heart was in my throat and when we didn't fly into the mountains, but rather up in the air, I was so happy I almost cried. Back in Kathmandu we couldn't wait for that much-dreamed-about first hot shower and to drop off our nasty clothes to get them washed. Of course, when I went to take a shower the water was brown and cold in the hotel! Ah the price you pay for visiting a 3rd world country! We celebrated that night with pizza and wine, and it already seemed like the trek was weeks behind us.
All our love,
John and Megan
[From Jamie: thanks for joining us! I have to mention that John is an outdoorsy type, Megan is not, and didn't adapt as well to altitude as most people but that is the luck of the draw. Hopefully tough but good holidays are the most memorable!]