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Natasha’s Kangchenjunga Diary
Natasha joined the 42 day Kanchen Gola Wild trek 2005
Where did she spend her birthday? Sitting 8 hours in the snow!
Main photos and text Natasha Durham, 2005
Days 1- 5: Getting there
After several days of enjoying the sights and sounds of Kathmandu it was a welcome relief to leave the chaos behind and head out to east Nepal. Our direct flight was cancelled due to bad weather so we flew part of the way before catching a bus to the trail head. It was certainly an interesting journey - Nepal’s roads leave a lot to be desired! We had several delays due to fallen trees, ‘donating’ to Maoists and waiting for soldiers to finish their dinner and let us through check posts! But we arrived safe and sound and although I'm in no hurry to repeat the experience it was definitely an adventure and a fantastic way to see some of the Terai, the sweeping low lying plains and villages that make up so much of Nepal but is well off the usual tourist itinerary.
Days 6-10: The middle hills
Trekking at last! Our trail took us through the middle hills, steadily up the valley through forests of cardamom and bamboo. For me this section was most memorable for the well kept gardens, tiered hillsides and basking in the sun at lunchtimes. For the most part we were walking along the river, which inevitably meant lots of suspension bridges -great fun to run across with your hands in the air! After several days and several villages we arrived at a spectacular campsite at Gyabla, where we got our first glimpse of BIG snow capped mountains. Here an en mass Frisbee game ensued along with dancing with the local women’s group in the evening.
Days 11-18: Into the high country and Kanchenjunga Base Camp
From Gyabla we continued up the valley to the town of Ghunsa, with a rapid change of scenery and temperature. Into yak country now, through thick pine forests strewn with boulders. Ghunsa was a relatively large and friendly place, with a handful of lodges and shops where you can even send postcards (though the postman has a four day walk before mail is bussed to Kathmandu!) However, it was bitterly cold and didn’t get the sun until gone 10am -even the hardened locals move out in winter. So it was quite a shock to the system after the balmy middle hills.
After a rest day for acclimatization we continued to Khambachen, a village from where we could see Jannu and also the back of the peaks we were to attempt. Feeling the altitude now, what would have been a pleasant stroll lower down the valley now felt like a real slog. Near our camp we saw blue sheep (which were disappointingly brown) which are snow leopard fodder, yaks being milked and we ate in a lodge with a smoky, yak dung-fuelled fire. Again the temperature dropped like a stone when the sun disappeared but I joining in the crew’s volleyball game, with lots of running around ineptly trying to return the ball, and soon warmed me up!
Our next stop, Lhonak, was for me one of the highlights. A huge open expanse enclosed by BIG mountains. A truly amazing place, with a panorama to which photos can never really do justice. From here we climbed up to Pangpema, or Kanchenjunga base camp, where we finally realised our goal of good views of the world’s number three. After a beautiful sunset and cold night we trekked back down to Khambachen where we left the trekkers (and for various reasons most of the climbers!) and from which just myself and John (plus Jamie, Sherpa and a slimmed down crew) embarked on the extended trip.
Days 19-24: Establishing base camp and climbing!
The first hurdle of this section was crossing the river in order to set off towards base camp. Some of the group had already been on a day trip up there and had to cross a pretty ridiculous bridge, how no one fell off into glacial waters seemed a miracle judging by the photos. Amazingly though, our Sherpas took it upon themselves to brave the glacial waters and built us a sturdier version –no one can question the dedication (and balls!) of our crew!
So across the river and up we went to base camp, past a huge rock where Rai (an ethnic group of Nepal) worship Jannu, leaving offerings and prayer flags. Our base camp was nestled above a glacial valley in front of the formidable north face of Jannu. It never gets the sun and has only been climbed once (by a crazy Russian expedition which I think must have had had far too much vodka). From the camp we saw several quite large avalanches crashing down the north face and heard many more rumbling throughout the night. A few hundred metres higher we established a high camp, leaving the kitchen crew at base camp and thus savouring the delights of dehydrated food.
The day of our summit attempt started painfully early with a steep ascent on scree before getting onto to the glacier. Here we donned crampons and ice axes and began moving up, navigating around crevasses and moving up fixed ropes. We couldn’t have asked for better conditions, with bright sunshine and no wind it was far warmer than Ghunsa!
Unfortunately I didn’t make the summit, was feeling really, really weak (later diagnosed as Giardia, nasty water bug that makes you sick and tired) so I was left to my own devices for 8 hours at 6000m or so whilst the others went on. Was waiting a fair while but how many people can say they spend their birthday at over 20,000ft with 360º mountain views? We were also treated to an awesome vivid sunset on the descent. It was a very long and grueling day but definitely a highlight of my trip!
Days 28-36: Exploration –off the map and into wild country!
After a few days well earned rest and hot shower at Ghunsa, we set off for the final and most adventurous part of the trek. We took a slimmed down crew but with several new additions: two fine yaks called Tomba and Cho and their handler, Ongdi. We trekked up through really ancient, mossy forests and over a pass (same height as Mt Blanc!) to the town of Olanchung Gola. The final stretch was on a truly amazing path, with real exposure and stunning views. Despite being well built, I think my mother would have had a heart attack if she’d seen us on it!
Olanchung Gola felt like a real time warp, with dark wooden Tibetan style houses, women weaving carpets and shaping yak patties to burn as fuel. It’s not a town which sees many trekkers so for the most part we had an audience of fascinated children scrutinizing our every move. On our rest day here we walked up to the Gompa, a real treasure trove with rooms full of statues and scriptures. We were privileged to actually see one of the scriptures opened as Da'Yula (one of our sherpas) is a trained lama and asked the local lama to see some – judging by the dust they’re not opened very often!
We left Olanchung Gola for yet another pass, totally off the map this time! With 1000m of ascent along scree and snow it was a tough day. However breakfast outside with clear views of the mighty Makalu made the hard work worthwhile.
Makalu shining - but cold, check the frozen stream
Our next port of call was the village of Thudam - probably most remote village in east Nepal, closer to Tibet than any village in Nepal. Unsurprisingly it’s not a place frequented by trekkers and it wasn’t just the children that made up our audience!
Another highlight of this section was the village of Changdam. By complete luck we’d arrived on the date of their biannual village meeting, where we were treated as honoured guests. We were given garlands of flowers, tungba and boiled eggs and were treated to hours of dancing and singing!
Yep, that is where we are heading, pity there is a river in the way
We headed back down the Arun river valley, although down is not really that the right word. The Arun valley is famed for its steep gorges and unfortunately this meant that paths couldn’t do much in the way of contouring, or gently following the river down. So it was steeply up and steeply down. Bloody hard work but spectacular scenery!
Days 37-39: Back towards civilization
For me, the first sign we were back towards ‘civilisation’ (or perhaps modernity is a better word) was our arrival in Num, a large trading village on route to Khandbari (the district headquarters). John treated us all a round of Pepsi!
From here it was along well worn trade paths, (with traffic jams of cows and donkeys!) then onto a road, still under construction but a real contrast to anything else we’d walked on in the last month.
Through rolling hills, villages and rice paddies it was a long but fascinating walk down to Khandbari, fascinating as the hustle and bustle is pure Nepali, people going about their daily life not because of tourists. It was a long day as we were keen to get to Khandbari and confirm flights etc, perhaps we should have taken a leaf out of the porters' book, when we hit the road they piled into jeep and took the sensible way down! At Khandbari we were treated to a hotel and final meal of daal bhaat, another cake and beer – nice.
Day 40: Back to Kathmandu
On a plane this time thankfully! A ‘traditional’ airport shall we say, with a grass runway, tiny ‘cheking’ desk and a 18-seater plane with a worrying amount of gaffer tape! Still, it got us back, a short but spectacular flight with good views of Everest and the rest. Then it was back to the hotel for a much needed hot shower!
All in all a fantastic trip. Six weeks sounds like such a long time but it really flew by. The scenery never failed to impress and no two days were ever the same – no room for boredom on this trip! There were so many highlights and experiences that will stay with me for life, I already itching to come back to Nepal!