The Not Quite Goeche-La Trek (part 1)

After a lazy hazy rest day in Darjeeling, during which time we farewelled Chris and Hazel and met Pamela, our new fellow trekker, we were all ready for our next trek - up close and personal with Kanchenjunga and its neighbouring mountains.

It was the fair Nello who saw it - up at 5.45 am, she looked out the hotel window and saw the snow clad Kanchenjunga range rising above the ridge of Darjeeling. For the first time in the 10 days since our arrival, the haze had lifted sufficiently to see the mountain. It was a perfect way to say farewell to this fascinating city.

Finally the haze lifted to reveal the foothills of Darjeeling and the distant snow-capped Himalayas

Tea pickers on the steep Darjeeling Hills

Soon, our 4WD was all loaded up and George, Pamela, Nello and myself, together with our guides, Sunder and his son Pasang, found ourselves descending rapidly through the tea plantations lining the steep slopes to the north of Darjeeling. An hour later we crossed the Rangit River and entered mysterious Sikkim. Following the ever-narrowing and ever-steepening valley of the Rangit, we found ourselves deeper and deeper in Sikkim, before climbing steeply up the terraced hillsides to Yoksum, its ancient capital and starting point of our second trek.

Terraced hillsides of Sikkim

Yoksum, ancient capital of Sikkim

After settling in, George, myself and Pasang, one of our guides, climbed 200m up the the Dubdi Monastery, established in 1701, followed by a visit to the sacred lake, Kathok Pochari, and Coronation Hill where the first Chogyal of Sikkim was crowned. Returning to our hotel in time to sample "Hit", the 8% Sikkimese beer, and enjoy another great trek dinner, we retired full of anticipation for the predicted 4-5 days of fine weather to come.

Chorten in Yoksum

Part of the 300 year-old Dubdi Monastery

Yoksum to Bakhim - through the Sikkimese forest

We awoke to a clear warm morning and looked out of bedroom window to see the tips of Kabru and Kanchenjunga beckoning above the end of the valley beyond Yoksum. "Dzung dzung!" - Let's go! The tinkle of bells told us that the dzo (cattle X yak cross) were being loaded, and after our typical hearty breakfast our little expedition of 4 trekkers, 2 guides, 1 cook, 4 kitchen staff, 4 porters, 6 dzo and their yak-herder set off.

Nello and Pam head off on the start of the trek

Kabru and Kangchenjunga rising to over 8500m above Yoksum

We climbed up through Yoksum in bright sunshine and, with temperatures set for the low 20s, shorts and T-shirts were the order of the day. Was it less than a week ago that we were on the Singalila Ridge in 3ºC, fog and icy winds? The track followed the valley of the Rathang Chu, traversing its steep sides through the green wonderland of Sikkim's forests - greens of every shade and texture surrounded us as we undulated and meandered along the track, crossing the odd sidestreams flowing down rocky gullies, and slowly gaining altitude as we were accompanied by the distant sound of the Rathang Chu rushing down over its boulder-strewn bed.

Trek staging post at Yoksum

Nello crossing the suspension bridge over the Chusey

The steep forest-covered slopes of the Rathang Valley

Rest stop in the Sikkimese forest

We were also accompanied by several other trekking groups heading up or passing us on the way down, the tinkle of bells announcing the arrival of a convoy of dzo or mountain ponies, laden with trekking gear. Birds sang in the bush and a steady drone of cicadas in the trees above testified to the warmth of the day.

After a lazy lunch on a sunny grass clearing amongst trees covered with vines and epiphytes, we continued on our meandering way, until short steep drop brought us down to the Prek Chu, with its narrow suspension bridge seemingly held up by a myriad of fluttering prayer flags. The bridge also announced the start of a long zig-zagging climb 450m up a steep ridge into the cloud forest.

We climbed slowly up under a canopy of lichen- and moss-covered monkey-nut, chestnut and oak trees, often growing amongst a jumble of mossy boulders. Looking back, the dense green tapestry of forest fading into the distance marked our path up the deep valley from Yoksum.

Climbing up amongst the forest giants

The rocky bed of the Prek Chu

Flag draped suspension bridge across
Prek Chu

Trekking ponies making their way up the steep
path to Bakhim

View from Bakhim back down the Rathang Valley

Suddenly, the huts of Bakhim appeared - we had reached 2700m and, after climbing more than 1000m, were glad to see our campsite on a grassy flat (well almost flat!). The resident squirrels were less pleased with our arrival. Time for hot ginger tea and biscuits, an explore of our site perched high on the edge of the ridge amongst the mossy boulders, giant lichen covered trees and curious Himalayan ground flora.

Campsite at Bakhim

In the meanwhile, our team had set up the tents (sleeping, dining, kitchen and toilet) - it was a very cosy site and there was no better way to fall asleep than to the soporific sound of the tinkling bells of the dzo grazing outside.

Barberry flowers

The curious cobra plant

Wild strawberries and violets dotted the clearing

Bakhim to Phedang - up through the rhododendrons

Rhododendrons and the odd magnolia lined
the steep climb up to Tshoka

It was pleasant to wake up to the dawn chorus of Himalayan birds instead of the tootling carhorns of Darjeeling. Another sunny warm day - we were getting spoiled! Up at 6am, we watched the dzo having their breakfast of chestnut leaves - our Sikkimese yak-herder had shimmied 30 m up a tree to cut down the branches with his kukri. At last I know why so many trees here have decidely odd shapes. The only downside was that the the day's walk was virtually all up - another 1000m climb to Phedang. As Sunder, our guide, said - "bistari, bistari" slowly, slowly!

View of Jopunu (5950m) from Tshoka

The village of Tshoka settled by Tibetan refugee


With Sunder's son, Pasang, setting the pace and keeping us from bolting, we zig-zagged up through the open forest along a steep ridge line heading up to Tshoka, a small Tibetan village. The odd magnolia and rhododendron were now beginning to appear. Rounding a bend, a collective "wow" emergedfrom the group - across the deep valley was the snow-capped jagged line of mountains leading up to Jopunu (5950m) and Pandim (6690m).

A few more metres in height and we arrived at Tshoka, for a welcome cup of hot chai at a Tibetan teahouse - 300m down, 700 to go!

Tibetan lady with her grand-daughter

Looking back over Tsoka from the long climb
up to Phedang

Fir forest on the ridge line

Across the valley lay a 5000m snow-capped

Leaving the village we again climbed steeply for another 300m to reach a narrow ridge line. Here the track flattened out, following the ridge lined with a magnificent display of flowering rhododendrons, in every hue from cream to apricot to pink to deep red, set amongst the gnarly-rooted pines that rose majesticaly skyward. On either side, glimpses of snow-covered mountains told us that we really were getting into the heartland of the Himalayas.

One more upward assault on the ridge and we emerged at Phedang meadow (3700m) - a sloping barely grassed camping area scented with the earthy waft of dzo dung.

start of the last steep climb up to Phedang

A glimpse of the peaks through the dense forest

Unloading the dzo

The cooking team had beaten us up there and we were greeted with a welcome cup of hot orange and a steaming hot lunch, which we enjoyed while basking in the warm sunshine and taking in the panorama of the snowy outline of the Singalila Ridge to the west and Jopunu to the east.

Taking in the afternoon sun

The dzos arrived soon after and our tents were set up. No further climbing today - it was time for a bit of acclimatisation. We spent a lazy afternoon, basking in the warm sunshine, reading or wandering around the area.

The peaceful and panoramic setting of Phedang meadow

Campsite at Phedang


Afternoon light on Jopunu (5950m)


By late afternoon, the clouds rolled in and, after glowing briefly orange, hid the setting sun behind grey veil. The temperature began to drop sharply - it would be our first taste of camping out in the cold of the mountains.

Leaving the dining tent after another hearty 3 course dinner, we were greeted with a clear starry sky and the sight of a full moon rising behind the firs and illuminating the snow on the distant mountains. It was definitely going to be a cold night!

Sunset over Kang Peak (5571m)

Phedang to Dzongri - above the tree line


We were greeted by a still sunny morning and a good coat of -6ºC frost on the tents - the price to pay for such a perfect mountain night. Our breakfast table was moved outdoors to take advantage of the warm sunshine and replete once more we were ready to go. Unfortunately it was once again "ukalu, ukalu" - upward, upward!

Morning cloud streaming off distant Pandim (6690m)

Hot cuppa on a frosty morning

The hard life of a trekker - breakfast in the morning sunshine

Looking back over the climb and the pastel shades of
the Rathong Valley - our path up

Leaving the meadow at Phedang we climbed slowly up through the increasing stunted rhododendrons, the fir trees becoming smaller and scarcer until they vanished - we had reached the tree line.

Finally, at 3995m, we emerged onto a prayer-flag lined view point. A wide panorama of the mountains suddenly appeared as we topped the ridge; Janu, Rathong, Kabru, Kangchenjunga, Pandim, brilliantly white in the morning sunshine, with the sharp black tooth of sacred Kabur a sharp silhouette in front.

Pam, me, Nello, George, Pasang and Sunder (kneeling)
- but who took the photo?

The northern end of the Singalila Ridge (ranging from 4-5000m)

Up high the rhododendrons are cream

At last we were able to descend for a while, through the cream flowering rhododendrons and grassy clearings, a short climb to over 4000m and then another descent to the trekker's shelter at Dzongri, a vast exposed region carpeted with low brown juniper bushes and prostrate conifers.

An icy wind blew off the snowy peaks from the west and cut through our clothing, despite the sunshine.

The dark cone of sacred Kabur (4820m) stands starkly in front of the massive dome of Kabru (7315m)

Yak-herders' huts dotting the barren windswept landscape of the Dzongri basin


Descending through the rhododendron scrub to Dzongri

From here it was but a short climb (though at this altitude, short seems long!) to our next campsite - Sunder had found a nice protected flat meadow set amongst the junipers and shrubby conifers. We lazed in the sunshine, protected from the wind and watch the clouds swirling above us, as they rose up from the valleys and gathered over the Dzongri basin.

Sunder Sherpa - 25 years a mountain guide

The dzos arrive with our camping gear

Hard day in the life of a trekker - but then it's over 4000m here

The climb up to Dzongri-La

After lunch, the fair Nello and Pam had a nap in their tents, while Pasang took George and myself up the rocky path through low alpine heath and the odd cushion plants to Dzongri-La, an 4380m pass. From here we could see Kabru in all its glory, plunging over 3000 m from its snow-covered cap to the glaciers and river valley far below us. It was well worth the effort, though it gave me my first real taste of altitude sickness - on return, I crashed in the tent with a bad headache, but fortunately an hours rest and all was OK.

At Dzongri-La (4380m)

Pandim through the mist

Later that afternoon, Sunder took Nello, Pam and I for a visit to the yak-herders' hut, where we all sat around a fire and warmed ourselves against the bitterly cold wind outside. The yak-herders seemed a merry lot, cracking jokes which Sunder refused to translate. I suspect that we weird westerners may have been the butt of them!

Yak-herder's hut at Dzongri

Campsite amongst the junipers at Dzongri

At home with the Yak-herders

Back at camp, another hot 3-course meal was enjoyed by all - just as well as Sunder was around to check on our appetites - he is very attentive to any potential symptoms of altitude sickness, which is reassuring. The cold however soon chased us to our tents for our first night above 4000m - thank goodness for the soft downy feathers of a goose's bottom!

Dzongri to Thamsing

Moonset over the Singalila Ridge

A heavy frost greeted us as we struggled out of our tents at 4.45 am. The full moon was just about to set over the Singalila Range as we sipped a hot cup of tea and headed off into the pre-dawn light.

This morning we were climbing up to Dablakhang, a hill 150m above our campsite, to see the sun rise over Kanchenjunga. As it crept above the mountains to the east, it illuminated the nearer peaks and Kanchenjunga, for the first time not hiding behind a cloudy veil. It was definitely worth the early start to the day.

The first rays of the sun light up Kangchenjunga (8586m)

Sunder, Pam and Nello setting up some prayer flags

Early morning panorama - Rathong (6678m) , Kabru (7320m), Kangchenjunga (8586m) and Pandim (6690m)

Early morning at the Dzongri campsite

Descending back to camp, we breakfasted in the morning sunshine, and then set off for a short climb across the kneehigh juniper and conifers of the Dzongri basin, climbing slowly at first and then descending past a herd of grazing yaks. As we walked, a low-pitched whistle from high above drew our attention to a group of eagles circling as they rode a thermal high above us.


A herd of local yaks over-summering at Dzongri

Climbing once again, Sunder led us on a short detour to Laxmi Pokhari, a small glacial lake in a bowl at the base of Kabur. To the north-west, the impressive form of Pandim framed the dark green waters of the lake. Pandim was calling, and we continued on, rejoining the main track and descending sharply 250m through the dwarf cream-flowering rhodendrons to where once again fir trees started to appear in the landscape.

Hilltop shrine - Dzongri

Start of the descent to the Prek Chu Valley

Laxmi Pokhari - a small glacial lake on the eastern slopes of Kabru

The porters heading off

As we descended, the watery roar of Prekchu, rushing down its boulder-filled bed from high above, became louder and louder. Finally we emerged at Kokchurong, where we ate an early lunch in the trekkers lodge. A cold wind was blowing up the river valley, as we followed the Prekchu upwards, before finally crossing it and continuing our climb along the rocky lateral morain of this perfectly formed glacial valley. All the time Pandim was growing larger at the valley's end.

Looking south down the Prek Chu Valley

Looking north up the Prek Chu Valley

Frozen waterfall or mini-glacier?

George heading up the morain

Sidestream cutting through the lateral morain

A curious symmetry
Finally we crested a rise in the morain to see below us the broad grassy meadow at Thamsing - our tents were just being erected and behind them, almost 3000m straight up, the rocky western ramparts of Pandim towered above. It was a good place to stop for the day and the slight drop in altitude was greatly appreciated.

Thamsing campsite in a clearing of the glacial valley dwarfed by 6690m Pandim

Alpine heath and rivulet at Thamsing

Juniper bushes in the glacial valley

Wandering around the grassy flat, though, it was sad to see the remnants of trekkers past; plastic and paper scattered about and areas pockmarked with the rectangular sinkholes of long-gone toilet tents. This is a problem with all the campsites on on this popular trek and has been the one downside to our Himalayan experience.

The cold wind drove us into the dining tent, where we settled down to a game of cards, warmed by the hot water bottles that the cooks had prepared - aah, the hardships of trekking! But, by the time we went to bed at 8pm, a frost was already forming on the tent.

The 2500m face of Pandim