The Not Quite Goeche-La Trek (part 2)

Another clear starry night, another cold frosty morning (-8ºC); the sun finally dawning on our campsite at 7am. We had a late start, but we only had a short climb up the gently sloping valley floor, across a rocky landscape of low alpine heath and the occasional babbling sidestream.

Early morning freeze at Thamsing

Kangchenjunga beckoning - view of the head of the valley
and lower slopes of the big mountain from Thamsing

Route up the glacial valley of the Prek Chu

Crossing a side stream traversing the valley

Soon we reached another area of sloping grassland, set beneath a large rocky wall of morain, alongside the fast-flowing greeny-yellow waters of the Prek Chu, only a few kilometres from its glacial source. We had reached our highest campsite (4130m) at Lamaney.

The upper reaches of the Prek Chu

Old yak-herder's hut at Lamaney

Tents at Lamaney dwarfed by 6690m Pandim

One of the glaciers above Lamaney


It was a magnificent setting, Pandim (6690m) towered 2500m above us and to its right the glaciers of Jopuno (5935m) glistened in the sunlight. Our tents transformed into tiny yellow dots, paling into insignificance in the the immensity of this landscape.

Once again the cold wind sprang up by late morning and we put on an extra layer of clothing as we climbed up the rocky morain and then descended into the bowl holding the dark turquoise waters of Samiti Lake (4300m) - the lake of small blessings.

Samiti hut in its bowl between two morain walls

Samiti Lake

Samiti - rainbow flags and turqoise waters

George and Pam helped the fair Nello to put out a set of prayer flags that she had carried up to the lake. As they flapped in the wind, we heard the honking sound of a pair of mountain ducks. This lake was their home and they were making certain that we knew it. We dropped back down to Lamaney for the night. There had been a trekking hut at Lake Samiti, but the Sikkimese government had banned camping in the area to prevent pollution of this beautiful lake. A few small extra steps for trekkers, one larger step for the Himalayan environment.

The magnificent setting of Lamaney campsite (4130m)

At high altitudes, you need to drink 5-6 litres of water a day to stop your brain cells from leaking under the reduced air pressure. Not even the strongest bladder can last the 10 hour night in a tent when doing this. Thus, I found myself in thermal underwear and sneakers in the middle of a frosty field at -8ºC and over 4000m altitude. At this moment I almost believed those friends who think us a bit crazy for undertaking such activities, but then I looked round at the majestic mountains in the pale light of a near full moon. The serenity of this landscape amplified by the stillness of the night put things in perspective. I realised that for these brief moments I was actually part of this; no, we're not crazy.

Not quite Goeche-La!

4 am - a knock on the tent with a cup of hot tea woke us in the bitter pre-dawn cold. It was time to get up to head once more up the valley to watch the sun rise over Kangchenjunga. Until a year ago this day would have taken us all the way up to the Goeche-La, a pass just below 5000m that faced the southern ramparts of Kangchenjunga. However, last season, three porters were killed on a steep and icy section of the track and the Sikkimese government no longer allows trekkers to go to the pass without a special permit. So, today's goal was a viewpoint at 4600m and a few kilometres further away from the 8586m peak; not as close, but still right in the heart of these great mountains.

Heading off, we soon reached Lake Samiti again. Pam, who was suffering a little from the altitude, chose to stay there with a thermos of hot tea and enjoy the beautiful reflections of the surrounding mountains in the still waters of the lake.

The perfect stillness of Samiti Lake

Only a few more steps to the viewpoint
at 4604m

One of the many glaciers clinging to the steep rock walls

Looking back to the north face of Jopunu

A curious view of Pandim - its north face split by
a glacier dropping over 1500m

The V-shaped notch of Goeche-La below Kangchenjunga

The rest of us pushed on with Sunder, slowly climbing the last 300m, lungs gasping in the thin air, to a point overlooking the enormous glacial bowl below Goeche-La.

Around us, glaciers lined the sides of the mighty peaks of Kabru Dome, Goeche Peak and mighty Kangchenjunga itself, glistening as the sun rose above the eastern wall of mountains. Behind us, another glacier seemed to split the conical north-west face of Pandim, as it plunged 2000m down the steep wall of the mountain. Below lay the debris covered ice of the Onglakthang glacier.

It was a breathtaking panorama as the sun lit up this enormous cirque of peaks. With regret we eventually turned our backs and headed back down, past the still mirror-like waters of Lake Samiti and down to our campsite at Lamaney.

Panorama across the Onglakthang Glacier - the various peaks of Kabru (7320m) on the left with Goeche Peak (6172m) partially blocking Kangchenjunga (8586m) at the valley head

Descending back toward Lake Samiti

Path down from the viewpoint reflected in
the turquoise waters of Samiti Lake

Not one, but two fair Nellos

Kalu and the cooking team

Our descent did not stop there. After an early lunch, 11.30am we set off from Lamaney into the face of a cold wind, as high cloud began rolling in from the west - the weather was beginning to look a bit ominous.

One last nostalgic look at Kangchenjunga from Lamaney Campsite

Snow and ice glistening on the 5000m ridgeline as high cloud rolls in
We headed down across the alpine heath and babbling streams beneath the long snow and ice capped ridgeline, over the Thamsing meadow where tents were already popping up for the next wave of trekkers, down the steep morain and through the jumbled mossy boulders and stunted rhododendrons, and into the firs that line the lower Prek Chu. Crossing the river on a rickety wooden bridge, we reached Kokchurong trekkers' hut, a simple three-roomed shelter, just as the mists rose up and enveloped the valley.

A convivial night in the trekkers' hut

Kokchurong trekkers' hut in its forest setting

Given the anticipated cold night ahead, we planned to stay there. However, the one available room, big enough for 12, was taken up by an older German couple, who didn't seem to know the meaning of the word "share" or even "teilen". After a minor diplomatic incident, they did a large dummy-spit and moved out into a tent.

Three cheerful young French trekkers soon arrived and we ended up spending a much more convivial night than had originally seemed likely. At 3am, the fair Nello went outside, as one needs to. She came back and whispered in my ear "it's snowing!".

Kokchurong to Tshoka - a walk in Narnia

I got up at 5am and opened the door of the hut. In my dozy state, I think that I went through the wardrobe door instead, for when I looked out I was in the land of Narnia! A soft carpet of snow covered the ground and draped along the branches and leaves of rhododendron and fir tree alike.

Red tent in a monochrome landscape


Prek Chu Valley after the snowfall

Journey through the land of Narnia


It was a feerique landscape and for the first two hours of the day's trek we wandered throught it, half expecting a faun or the ice queen to appear at each corner. However, nothing disturbed the stillness apart from the occasional fall of snow from a branch.

On occasion, more snow fell gently, while snow-capped pink, red or cream rhododendron flowers or a purple patch of primulas lent the odd touch of colour to this beautiful monochrome forest.

Snow on the rhododendrons - almost good enough to eat!

The snow begins to turn to slush

Following the script, our world of Narnia began to melt away as the day gradually warmed up. Unfortunately, here the parallels ended - instead of changing into a sunlit world of colour, our Narnia gradually became a foggy world of mud and slush, with icy water dripping down and sudden showers of wet snow as the forest canopy shed its snowy mantle.

The end of Narnia- trekkers huddled in the shelter at Phedang

Hot soup on a bleak day

Emerging back at the campsite at Phedang, after a long traverse across the steep slope from Kokchurong, we were greeted by sleet, fog and a field of wet white slush. Was it only a few days ago that we were all lying in this field soaking up the afternoon sun? A group of trekkers heading up were huddled in the small wooden shelter - bon courage, Pembroke students! We were glad to be heading in the opposite direction - the world of Narnia had truly vanished. Beauty can be so ephemeral!

Our magnificent cooks conjured up a bowl of hot soup for all in the sleet and we started the long descent to Tshoka, 700m below. Soon we found that the track had turned into a muddy brown torrent of water - the erosion on parts of the track here is becoming quite a problem. Soon the sleet gave way to rain and we hurried on down toward the ridgeline of moss- and lichen-covered tree trunks. With the red, pink and apricot flowers of the rhododendrons lighting the way, you had to admit that, even in this bleak weather, we were passing through a superb section of Himalayan forest.

One day a path - the next a river

Bleak day amongst the giant firs

Even in the rain the forest is impressive

Last rainy descent to Tshoka

At last the rooves of Tshoka appeared below and with them, the relative warmth and dryth of the Mountain Lodge. As the rain continued to fall for the rest of the afternoon and night, it seemed a bleak end to a great day, but the price was worth it. Often the unexpected brings the greatest delight - such was the case with our walk through Narnia!

Tshoka to Yoksum - back home again

The well-dressed Himalayan trekker

Through the Sikkimese forest to Yoksum

On our final trek day, during which we would retrace the steps of our first day out, dawned to grey foggy skies and sleet. As we left Tshoka in full wet weather gear, the sleet turned to rain. We descended quickly, like automatons, and half way down the 750m descent to the Prek Chu the rain finally stopped. Only the water dripping from the canopy of the cloud forest disturbed our passage.

Cascades on the Pahu Khola

Pasang admiring a giant vine

Mist over the green Rathong Valley

At the Prek Chu suspension bridge, we took off our wet weather gear and continued on feeling a little more human. It was a curious sensation descending this track that we had climbed a week earlier. This time we were the seasoned returning trekkers passing the fresh-faced and clean-clothed groups heading upwards on the start of their adventure. Feeling my 8-day stubble and rain-plastered hair, I thought to myself, well this is what you will look like at the end of the trek as well - it was almost a badge of honour.

Sunder and Pasang -
father and son guide team

Eight days on - The Goeche-La
trekkers back in Yoksum

It seemed too quickly that we emerged from the green Sikkimese forest and wandered down the back streets of Yoksum, finishing as we had started, in T-shirts and sunglasses under a warm sun, and contemplating the capriciousness of the Himalayan weather. A shower, a shave and a celebratory beer, reflections on shared adventures, there is a camaraderie amongst trekkers that is difficult to define. Thanks Pam and George, we greatly appreciated your company and good spirits. Thank you also, Sunder, Pasang, Kaloo and the team - your friendliness and expertise ensured our enjoyment of this great trek.