My affection with Kanchenjunga started a year ago, when I was on the way to Sandakphu. I stayed on the trail for six days and the mountain was constant above me like the moon. I woke up early to see the mountain bask in the morning’s glory of the sun. As the day went ahead I saw clouds draping it, sometimes teasing its feet, sometimes covering its head. From the viewpoint of the Sandakphu I had the view of the stalwarts of the Himalayas, Everest, Lhotse, and Makalu. But this mountain, The Sleeping Buddha caught my attention. I wanted to go near it. They say ‘mountains call you back’, and it did. What do you do when you get a call from the person you revere the most? You leave everything aside and just go.
All set and done, I signed up for the Goechala trek with Indiahikes. Goechala is a high altitude pass at the altitude of 16000 feet in Sikkim between India and Nepal. This pass takes you closest to the Mountain without actually climbing it.
I had my first glimpse of Sleeping Buddha from the aeroplane before landing in Siliguri. From the altitude of aeroplane, I could see the peak without giving my neck any exercise. Straight from the window.For the hill region of Sikkim and Darjeeling Kanchenjunga is like the grand old patriarch, benign to its loyalists, sometimes punishing the defaulters. Tribals in this region say the slopes of Kanchenjunga is a home to a Yeti, which guards them against any natural calamities.
Our journey began in Siliguri. On the first day, there was no trekking involved. Reaching Yuksom in a cab was the only thing to do. Easy right? Eventually, it turned out to be the most difficult day. The road is along the Teesta river, crossing in to Sikkim when it enters the hills. In that region, making roads is like a constant battle with the forces of nature. The nature tries to undo any attempt for roads by a series of landslides, and human spirit makes every attempt to overcome the challenges. Tough day it was. 160 kilometres took close to 9 hours through the dusty roads and flimsy rocks.
The trek begins: One step closer to Kanchenjunga
The next day, we were all set to start our trek from Yuksom, into the Kanchenjunga National Park. We had to cross couple of streams on the suspended bridge. The trail was a walk in the forest. The forest was green and you would encounter a stream after walking for some time. Our destination was Sachen. Everybody in the group was enthusiastic. We reached the campsite early after having lunch in the midway. The campsite gives the feel of Jungle camping. It was covered in thick forest, which would only increase the cold. Hmm… Good day to acclimatize.
The next day, as we climbed up for Tshoka, we knew the trek was not going to be easy. After the final bridge on the river, the climb was hard till the end. Trail to Goechala is often described as Yak highway. Trekkers like us need to hire yaks for carrying our tents and bags. As we both walk on the narrow track, sometime it is tricky to make way for them. But the amount of load they take from us, you would only need to thank them. As Tshoka was approaching, the heavy cover of forest started to make way for bushes and smaller trees…The campsite, which was beside a lake, was very picturesque. At Tshoka we had our first glimpse of Mount Pandim and Mt Tenchenkaghen on the one side, and green hills cascading on the other.
Passing Tshoka for Dzongri marks the starting of Rhododendron forest. Every April- May, the hills in the Himalayas are awash with this flower.
‘Rhododendron Festival’ is one of Sikkim’s most celebrated tourism festivals. The pathway in this forest is laid out with beautiful, carefully placed wooden logs. As we climbed higher for Dzongri,the forest became more interesting with colourful bushes and trees with trunks of unusual shape around us. It was a hard day but all the efforts were worth it.
Sun sets fire to the mountains: Two steps closer to Kanchenjunga
The following day, we were to go to see the sun rise on Kanchenjunga. I had heard many stories about how magnificent the sunrise is. It turned out to be a far more brilliant experience than any. We got up early and raced to the hill called Dzongri Top for the sunrise. By the time I reached,the silhouettes of the mountain had been defined in the sky. Each second the colour of the mountain changed until the golden light of sun touched the peak of Kanchenjunga.
I felt like I was in the mehfil of classical music where the artist unfolded the raga. You wish to appreciate every brilliant cheez with hand gestures. The entire Kanchenjunga range was in front of me: Pandim to Rathong with The Kabru Peaks and The Kanchenjunga. It was majestic. I just couldn’t have enough of it.
We returned to camp with our spirits high and went ahead with the trek. Another spectacular change in the landscape was on the cards: Meadows of Dzongri. For the first time we could really feel that we were in the region of the mighty Kanchenjunga with the view of mount Pandim and others. Just as we thought the day couldn’t get any better, we started to hear roaring sound of a River. It was Prek-chu river which was coming from the glaciers of Kabru Peaks. River and the mountain, perfect setting.
We were to learn that similar landscapes would be with us for next two days. Over the time, I began to admire Mt. Pandim more. It appeared to me as perfectly shaped mountain. Pandim is most revered mountain of the Kanchenjunga massif after the big mountain itself. It is believed to serve as the feet of the Sleeping Buddha.
Over the next two days, we went up from Thansing to Lamuney. For the first time we experienced temperature to be thrashing below zero degrees when the sun disappeared from the horizon. I went through some new experiences in my life: like freezing of water inside the water bottle. Drinking hot soup and it turns cold before you finish it. At such time you really would need someone to look after you well, someone to make you feel home. I am glad Indiahikes just did that.
The path to mighty mountain: The final steps
It was past midnight in Lamuney when we were to head for the summit ascent for Goechala. We got up at 2 AM that night for the ascent. As the night still covering the sky, we started to walk for the first view point. We had to gain more than 1000 feet. Many little small streams were flowing and we had to carefully cross them in the dark. All the trekkers, clad in five-six layers of cotton and wool with their head torch glowing were walking with singlemindedness in their purpose. We reached the View Point 1 just as sun started to tap the peaks. Within few minutes, all peaks were glowing like fire.
There are moments in your life that you want to hold on to, but after a while you realise that they are gone just as any. Time does always take them away from us. It’s hard to let them slip from our hands but it’s harder to stay mad. And in the end, all you are left with is gratitude. It is the moments like these we take so many hardships for. It gives you joy. Once life can’t be measured by millions he makes but with the moments like these.
My day was far from over as we had to trek for another 3 hours. The beauty of this trek was that you just could not guess what you could see, at the next roundabout. We crossed moraine and giant boulders of size of house to View Point 2. The climb was extreme. I could hear my heartbeat in my ears. I felt like the low percentage of oxygen in the air was really taking toll on the body. We took the last turn on the hill. There we could see the great southern wall of Kanchenjunga, piercing the sky. And on the other side of the valley, the beautiful green Lake of Goechala. I decided not to go further to the next view point. There I got some time to look at the mountain. Reinhold Messner once said “As you climb higher and higher in the mountain, your head goes lower and lower in reverence.”
I was not on the summit of the Kanchenjunga, but I understood what he meant there. There is nothing like conquering a summit or maybe a pass, you just have to go to pay respect to the mountain. Not conquer it.
My journey ended here. With a heavy heart and a lot heavy feet, I said good bye to the mountain just with one promise of coming back again. I resumed my normal life. All the wandering in the Himalayas had changed me more than I thought. The thin air high in the Himalayas gives one’s life a new dimension. It’s an experience that can only be lived through. I had the time of my life.