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Kanchenjunga Wild trek and climbs
Joel Schone & Jamie McGuinness
How many people are going to book an ambitious 24 day trek or a 35 day climbing trip to an area barely heard of? Certainly Americans can't take that amount of time off? Right? Wrong!
Thirteen trekkers, ten of which are American set out in mid-October with an expedition permit for three peaks in the Kanchenjunga region. Three people were trekkers who also had the option of trying Tengkoma, a 6215m peak, while the other ten planned on some serious exploring and climbing.
The expedition was to be co-lead by Jamie McGuinness and William Davidson but almost immediately it was apparent that Bill was an unusual person, to say the least. His selfishness was comic; en route to the start of the trek he dashed into the hotel at Biratnagar, and urgently asked for the single room that he knew we must have if we were an odd number of people. Later, while we were sorting out the rooms and where to store to extra gear, he of course feigned innocence and in as pleasant a tone as he could muster, mentioned that he would be happy to share a room. He also desperately wanted respect and to be looked up to - but this has to be earned. He quickly realized that people had seen through him, and he took a drastic measure of leaving the trek, dragging Loren who was financially dependent on him, with him.
Joel continues: Speculate as you may, everyone knows there was a collective sigh of relief when we heard there were two less places at dinner - an expedition is as strong as the glue of its members, and for total strangers to rub along you've got to give, and a less charitable soul I have never met.
The early days in the lowlands tend to get obliterated by the high stuff, at least in memory, but we had some stunning days - the dancing at Kyabla, the climb up to take a peek at Jannu, hitting the alpine scenery of Jannu, Farok losing the seat of his pants. All good clean stuff. And of course we got to know of Dave's unending gear, and Dana's unending thirst, Gary's lust for pasta, and got treated to a film talk every night by Joel, for which most of us had to be handcuffed to their chairs, Dave's politics (screw the liberals) and his sexual preferences (I don't care who I screw as long as its soon) - soon those expedition bonds began to develop, Martin and Farok having a meeting of minds over the kero lamp, Sam choosing to bunk with Gary and Martin despite Martin's late night whistling and Gary's weird fascination with thin women and 80s music.
Sam, frustratedly trying to catch Joel out: " Ok, what film did John Wayne w...
Joel: " True Grit"
Sam: Shit, shit, shit
(Q was going to be "What film did John Wayne win an Oscar (or some such award) in)
By the time we reached our base camp at Lhonak we had read our extensive supply of literature, and got used to Didier's and Bob's snoring (which I thought was a baby yak outside the tent for the whole first week) and Farok's dinner desire for "Heavy on the dal, light on the rice." We also got to know and love our crew, Dawa, the cook, who needed no liquid stimulation to show us a mean Sherpa dance, and whose lunches and scrambled egg pepperoni would enter the Himalayan hall of fame. And of course the 2 Angs, brothers in law and work, irrepressible and churning out the food, Dorje, quietly bringing up the rear, and the two men of the heights, Sherpas Pasang and Tenzing, always ready to party, work or climb... And the man that kept the expedition together, sirdar Ram Kaji who was politer than an English butler as he steered us all higher.
Jamie's perfect weather took a worrying week to materialize, but after two days of torrential rains, finally everything cleared. In the high regions, just in front of us, this was of course a rather large dump of snow. It nearly killed Pasang and Gombu, who after climbing Cho Oyu with Jamie, had been picked up by the Koreans for Kanchenjunga (ie the 8000m peak climb) who were desperate for strong sherpas. The stories we heard when meeting them in Ghunsa required no exaggeration; it had been a close call. For us, the loss of a couple of days and the deep snow merely prevented the trekkers from trying Tengkoma Peak.
Us climbers had plenty of time so the energetic A team (Jamie, Pasang, Sam, Gary, Martin, and Didier) hacked out a base camp at a little over 5000 meters on Tengkoma. Loaded with climbing gear, we were delighted to find that it was all unnecessary. From the summit we were greeted with what has to the one of the greatest climbing panoramas there is, 360 degrees of mountains.
Meanwhile Joel, Dana, Dave, and Tenzing had headed up to Pangpema to acclimatize. Once there Dana had a couple of beers and decided he would marry a local, put down roots, and perhaps climb Tengkoma on the way home. With both Dave and Dana feeling rough, Joel decided he and Tenzing were probably going it alone, so it was a bit confusing when Dana stood outside Joel's tent the next morning at 6 am and asked him hadn't they be heading off. So just throwing an extra Wild Country in Tenzing's load for the hell of it, they were in high camp by two, where Tenzing's engineering skills soon had another platform made. In a few hours the first summit team slipped and slid down the couloir from Tengkoma, truly exhausted. The next morning Jamie, who had decided to go up again to take some pictures but then left his camera behind, led off at 6 am, with Dana, heavily encumbered by a large steel pot containing porridge for lunch... My account and Dana's probably are different now, but I should say:
1. I never burnt the porridge
2. I wasn't in the area and if I was, I never burnt the porridge
3. I've never heard of porridge and if I did, I never burnt it
4. There was a conspiracy: the tent was stormed by CIA, Mossad, FBI agents and the guys that took out Waco who pointed guns at me and forced me to burn the porridge
5. all of the above
6. what the fu*ck (:the joy of email, copyright uncle larry and de moose productions 1999)
7. And anyway, it was a nutritious mix of muesli and granola with no bloody porridge in it
The climb of Tengkoma was actually quite straightforward; especially now the trail was broken. I stayed at the back to record the ascent photographically, although I was itching to storm to the front... (Ed's note: yeah, right...) we rested at 5700m after plodding up a snow couloir, and ate the porridge Dana was carrying, then had a heated discussion about what to do with the bowl, and on reflecting, I ate it, gaining much needed calories and iron, much more tasty than that green shit (Joel is no Popeye).
From here, it was a slog to the summit: a long scree climb followed by a bit of scrambling, with incredible views of Kanchenjunga opening up as we climbed. By noon, Dana was begging for more porridge but we were determined to lunch on the summit. After traversing around the snow dome we all took to be the summit, Jamie and Tenzing led us up a narrow ridge. As we ascended the world dropped away beneath us... (Ed: and Joel would have dropped back down the trail if there wasn't a sharp eye watching his upward progress) Everest, Makalu, Cho Oyu, Lhotse and of course, Kanchenjunga were all on view, just to name the biggest of the big. Lunch was crackers, cheese, washed down by tang. Thankfully we fully finished the porridge episode on the summit.
"After three quarters of an hour on that superb summit, into which was crowded many hours of glorious life, we dragged ourselves reluctantly away, taking with us a memory that can never fade, and leaving behind thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls"
Bill Tilman, The ascent of Nanda Devi, 1936.
Then time to go, and, in 4 hours, we stumbled down the snowy couloir to our camp, for myself, totally shagged out. The next day, once again, was a cloudless one, and we were up and out and down, heading for Pangpema and the rest of the guys. And looking for water. The first team had unselfishly left us a huge water bag, unselfish because it left them dehydrated on the way to Pangpema and this was typical of the true spirit in which our expedition was conducted.
The walk up to Pangpema is a beautiful one, a time to trek casually and work the camera shutter, to sit in the sun and shoot the shit with Dana, Dave and Jamie, still on a high as we 3 rookies to the high places were. A few hours later we were greeting our friends, warm congratulations all around (we were in fact only the third team to have ascended the peak), and sitting down to a true Dawa feast. That night we broached our rum supply and spent two hours wrestling it away from Dana leaving a lot of blood to complement the Korean pineapples scattered in the snow. Everybody who had been high was now in the throes of post peak depression, so we called a rest day.
Now fed and rested, we still had time in hand for more frolics in the snow. Dana decided to stay at Pangpema and make day trips to the teahouse for rum, and Dave and I needing to be alone, decided to explore the Chewbacca La (pass) into Tibet with a view to running Star Wars theme trips up there. The hard men were heading up towards Dromo to try and do another summit. The next day the teams split.
The A team, a bunch of hard to climbers if ever there was one, took a less than hard look at Dromo east and west and decided to investigate a mountain they assumed would be named Dromo North. All that was known was that it would have to be considerably easier than the east and west peaks. Despite a trail through the deep snow (thanks, Bruce!), conditions were tough, and not helped by forgetting the cooking pots at first.
So close and yet so far were we. Above us was a shapely peak. All we had to do was wind our way through some ice spires but in the savagely cold conditions our vital stove quit, properly dead, and the peak was beyond us. Our second stove had been ditched once the trail had ended and it became obvious that it would require an all out push. Winter had arrived early and was to haunt us to the end of the trip. Still it is an area worthy of climbing exploration.
Meanwhile Dave and I (Joel) headed back to Lhonak, where we began to discover how good a cooking team Ang Dami and Dorje were. That afternoon Tenzing took a short walk up our valley, broke trail and scouted a campsite. Then the next day Dave and I were off, climbing up onto glacial terrain, rubble and moraine within 2 hours. Here Tenzing climbed up a side valley to recce Broken Glacier, reporting that a huge lake dammed the valley and it would be pretty dangerous to get past.
By now we more or less realised that winter had arrived early, and so we were into our bags and tents by 6 pm and our sherpas passed in dinner. That night I introduced Dave to the wonders of my tape collection, to drop off to sleep to the fifties radio play of "Sherlock Holmes".
Next day we set off to follow the glacier as far as we could and after a four hour walk we reached the last possible site with water where we carved out 2 platforms for our tents in the snow and rubble. From the moraine above the camp, we could pick out a trail, but one that involved a drop onto the difficult terrain of the glacier itself. We decided to go up valley from the same camp and were rewarded by stunning views of several 6000m peaks, all of which Tenzing thought were climbable. We also came upon a log set snow leopard prints. Our time was now up, and that day we decided to get back to camp the night before our 7th of November rendezvous with the others (ed: or were the hungry leopard prints a factor I this?). A long days push back and we had the reward of stunning views all day. The next day Ang Dami helped shave my head and we discovered several packs of pepperoni left by the Koreans, and late that day we were treated to the sight of our A team wearily plodding down from Pangpema.
"To linger silently among the healthful woods, musing on such things as are worthy of a wise and good man." Horace, Roman poet.
The descent to our plane rendezvous at Suketar can only be described as pure delight. We had a few long days but many images will join my Himalayan memories; the first warm day, Sam and Martin splitting a beer in a sunny courtyard at lunch, playing with children in the villages, partying in Ghunsa, and the beautiful children putting on a performance for us; the long double day down to Sekatum, the forest down to Chirwa, and the many beers cracked; good to be warm, but also sad to know some of us would be leaving; and of course, the famous 77 (!) beers at Suketar, and Dana suddenly appearing in the other lodge, dancing with a bottle of Tuborg. Dave swore he would come back to marry the lovely woman in the lodge, and the porters danced and danced. Next day the plane demonstrated Royal Nepal's "controlled crash" landing system safely, and the Kanchenjunga section of our traverse was over.
"I'd get a bigger hit by hitting myself over the head with the jug."
Sam, on the non-effect of tungba, Ghunsa.
"To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free"
(And Dana did. Sorry Gary)