Green Lake Trek (part 2)
Yabuk to Sona Camp - what a day!

I opened the tent flaps at 5.30am; not a cloud was to be seen. The morning sun shone gloriously off the high peaks surrounding us and soon melted the snow around our tents. After breakfast on the outdoor deck, we readied ourselves for the next push on to so-called Rest Camp. Climbing steadily at first, we soon made a short steep descent to the level of the Zema Chu, reaching the enormous rocky U-shaped bed, left by the retreating glacier. The cairn-marked track led us slowly and steadily up the boulder-strewn valley and across the steep scree slope; above us, on the steep grassy slopes, a small flock of blue sheep were grazing nonchalantly, oblivious to our presence far below.

Porters heading up the barren rocky slope

View back over our track up to the glacier

How many blue sheep can you see?

Source of the Zema Chu at the glacier terminus

Steep boulder filled gully leading up to the Zemu Glacier

At the top of the climb - between mountain and morain

Reaching the top, we were greeted with the sloping face of the Zemu Glacier, covered in glacial sand and rubble, with only the odd patch of ice visible. An arching ice-cave at the base of the glacier terminus, complete with delicate icicles hanging from its roof, marked the source of the Zema Chu. Behind us lay the spectacle of the steep rocky chute, with its background of snowy peaks. Ahead lay the jagged ridges leading up to the triangular point of Siniolchu, claimed to be the most beautiful mountain in Sikkim.

Lower lateral morain of the Zemu Glacier -below a magnificently rugged range leading up to 6887m Siniolchu

The track became less steep for a while as it entered a narrow valley between the lateral morain and the mountain slopes, and soon we had our first glimpses of mighty Kanchenjunga. We followed a small stream up this valley, which broadened into a grassy flat with stone paths and circles left by long-gone yak-herders, then narrowed forcing us to criss-cross the stream as we climbed slowly, before finally broadening again to undulating rockbeds scattered with dwarf rhododendrons and juniper.

Rocky bed of a mountain stream

Looking back at the mountains above Yabuk

Wandering up the stream next to the morain

It's tough walking above 4000m

Crossing a jumble of boulders, we found ourselves looking over a large flat gravel bed, at the end of which lay the enormous bulk of Kanchenjunga, with the double top of Twin Peaks (7365m) to its right. To our left, Siniolchu and its razor-back ridges towered above the rugged lateral morain. In the full morning sunshine, it was a spectacular sight. Ian, who has done lots of trekking, said that it was the best alpine panorama that he had seen.

Panorama from Sona campsite - Sinolchu (6887m) behind the enormous lateral morain of the Zema Glacier with Kangchenjunga (8596m)
towering over Twin Peaks (7365m) and Nepal Peak (6910m) at the head of the valley

- third highest peak in the world

Siniolchu - considered to be the most beautiful
peak in Sikkim

Our porters were all sitting on the grassy verge soaking up the sun. Apparently, a check had revealed that there was no suitable water at Rest Camp and Wangchuk decided to set up camp here at Sona (4505m). In this setting there were few arguments! After a short break, Wangchuk led the three of us up the extra two kilometres up to Rest Camp and back again. By that time, the high altitude effort had hit home and we all retired to out tents to recover a little.

Nello, Wangchuk and myself near Rest Camp

The face of 6887m Siniolchu

The porters waved goodbye and headed back down to Yabuk and the shelter of the forestry hut, where they would spend the next two nights, while we amused ourselves on high. It was time to exxplore; I climbed the lateral morain to peek over its sheer eroding edge of unconsolidated rock and soil and down onto the mighty Zemu Glacier, a moving river of ice covered with fine gray sand, dotted with rocks and boulders. From here, I could look straight at the face of Siniolchu (6887m) and the ice at the top of the glacier flowing from its base into the Zemu. A sudden gust of the katabatic glacier wind blew the gritty sand up and over the edge, prompting a quick retreat to the campsite soaking in the late afternoon sun, 80m below.

View eastward along the massive lateral morain of the Zemu Glacier - the specks
in the lower left are porters

View to the west along the gravel covered Zemu Glacier in its incredible setting

It had been a perfect alpine day, but not all that starts well ends well. Both Ian and I had developed sore throats and a dry cough, Nello was suffering from a severe headache and none of us had much of an appetite, despite the great cuisine; the altitude was having its effect. Sometimes there is a price to pay for the privilege of witnessing such splendour!


Sona Camp to Green Lake - and then there were two

At 4500m, just getting into your sleeping bag can puff you out. Oxygen deprived sleep is difficult; you sleep in snatches, awakening to remnants of altitude-induced vivid dreams and pass through periods where you are acutely aware of your breathing patterns. Your mouth dries out, you drink, you get up to relieve yourself under the crisply clear night sky, you stir, you cough, you sleep a bit. So passes the night at these high altitudes. Yet, amazingly, when you crawl out of your tent in the cold (-8ºC) pre-dawn light to be greeted by the spectacle of Kangchenjunga bathed in a pale orange alpenglow as the first rays of sunlight illuminate its snow-covered mass, your spirit soars and you have already forgotten the last 9 hours.

Kangchenjunga and Twin Peaks bathed in the dawn alpenglow

First rays of the sun on Siniolchu

It was another glorious cloudless morning, the day of our "assault" on Green Lake. Nello, still feeling the effects of her altitude headache and nausea, decided not to go. Don't feel too sorry for her - she would spend her day in the warm sunshine, looking up at Siniolchu, considered by some to be the most beautiful peak in the world, and mighty Kangchenjunga, filling up the end of the valley, or contemplating life while looking down on Zemu, the largest glacier in the Himalayas, as handsome young sherpas fed her tea and biscuits! Rather feel sorry for Ian and myself, as we set out on a 19km hike above 4500m, with throats raw from the cold thin air, just to prove the point of making it to the end.

Well actually it was an incredibly rewarding walk, though the altitude did test me and almost found me wanting!

The route to Green Lake - the two tips of 7365m Twin Peak (Gimmigela Chuli) tucked
behind 6910m Nepal Peak are dwarfed by the massive 8586m Kangchenjunga

Our assault party of 7, Wangchuk, Pemba, Allu, the two Indian soldiers, Ian and myself, left at 7.15 am and headed back up the flat gravel bed and across the juniper-covered rock jumbles to Rest Camp - directly opposite Siniolchu and its pristine glacier flowing down into the mighty Zemu ice river. From here we continued a steady climb between morain and mountain, crossing a long stony flat, before starting a steeper, though still relatively gentle, ascent up through the brown-leafed juniper bushes. High to our right, a flock of blue sheep grazed nonchalantly, while the reddish brown rocks of the southern-facing mountains opened out to reveal a hanging glacier, sparkling in the sun. To our left, the needle of Siniolchu became more and more accentuated.

The south-facing slopes carry much less snow

Hanging glacier
Soon I found myself flagging behind the rest of the party as my legs felt heavier and each breath seemed to take in less and less oxygen, but .... as Sunder would say "bistari, bistari" (slowly, slowly) everyone to his own pace. With each step the immensity of this landscape became more tangible.

The northern face of Little Siniolchu

Siniolchu and its sweeping glacier

The western spur of Siniolchu

Time for a break

Under the bluest of skies, we took in the sweeping lines of the glaciers, the jagged ridges and fluted chutes of Siniolchu and Simvo. The pyramidal perfection of Nepal Peak and the pure white face of Tent Peak loomed nearer and nearer, while at the rear, the massive bulk of Kangchenjunga, a monster of a mountain, dominated this incredible panorama.

Kangchenjunga (8586m) meaning "Five Treasures Of The Snow"
which refers to its 5 peaks

The brilliant white profile of 7365m Tent Peak (or Kirat Chuli)

The tortured surface of the Zemu Glacier

Finally, we reached a point wher we could overlook the Zemu Glacier, a landscape in its own right. Eighty metres below the edge of its crumbling walls, lay a contortion of ice, gravel, boulders and even lakes. In the distance the glacier swept away to the south, leading the eyes up to the ramparts of Kangchenjunga.

Looking westward up the Zemu Glacier

Heading towards Nepal Peak and Tent Peak

Panorama from Green Lake campsite - across the glacial moraine toward Siniolchu (6887m) and Simvo (6811m)

Pushing on across a grassy alpine meadow, we soon found ourselves trudging through icy wet snow, reaching a trek highpoint of 4940m, before a slight descent took us to Green Lake campsite (4930m), nestled below Nepal Peak. In reality, Green Lake no longer exists; having been drained when the glacier opened up one side. Only a few small ponds remain in the depression, though this does not detract from the serenity and still beauty of the location. We lingered for half an hour to take in the majestic scenery - though emotionally high, physically I was stuffed and needed the time to recover lost energy.

Green Lake campsite in front of 6910m Nepal Peak

Margaret's prayer flags flutter in the Green Lake breeze

Made it!

We were glad that Wangchuk had decided to camp at Sona, rather than here in the wet icy snow - it is a beautiful spot, but no place to spend a night. Wangchuk and Pemba set up some prayer flags for Margaret and then it was time to leave. Kangchenjunga was already starting to generate a lot of cloud.

What a snow leopard does to a mountain goat

The descent to Sona was done in half the time. It is amazing how a few degrees difference in slope can affect performance at high altitudes, though I suspect that our lifted spirits helped us on the way. Halfway we met two of the cook boys heading up with a welcome hot lunch - the service at Chez Zemu is very good.

While we were eating, Wangchuk and Pemba arrived with the severed head of a mountain goat, not long dead, that they had found. The consensus of the sherpas was that it had been eaten by a snow leopard. We were in the domain of this rare and magnificent animal and I felt sure that, even though we couldn't see it, somewhere high up on the steep slopes above us, a snow leopard was watching. It was a good thought.

Soon a dark spot appeared against the whiteness of the gravel flats - the fair Nello had come out to meet us. We arrived back at Sona Camp just over 7 hours after setting out, tired but elated. Today had been a brilliant culmination of our Green Lake Trek.

Cloud envelopes the needle of Siniolchu (6886m)

Interestingly, I have just read that close to 500 people climbed Mt Everest this season. Our Sikkimese guides told us that we were the only party to go into Green Lake this spring; just seven of us in the heart of the Himalayas. That makes Green Lake a more pristine and more isolated location than the summit of Everest. Just something to think about as you look at these photos.

Sona Camp to Yabuk - on the way down again

This morning we were treated to a sleep-in; late cuppa, late breakfast in the crisp morning sunshine and improvised games of skill and strength with the sherpas (we lost). I couldn't resist one last climb up the steep lateral morain to contemplate this magnificent setting and bid farewell to Kangchenjunga, Zemu and Siniolchu.

Sherpa Olympics - Sona 2006 (the snow slides took place the previous day)

One last look over the kilometre wide Zemu glacier to farewell Siniolchu and Kangchenjunga

Last glimpse of the disappearing peaks

The Lachen boys on their way up to get our gear

Dark rocks of the terminal morain

It would be an easy day, retracing our steps down the valley between mountain and morain to the head of the glacier. Looking down from this point, we realised how high we had climbed on the way up and felt duly impressed. After the long descent, we had only one short steep climb to reach the sloping plateau of Yabuk.

Where the Zemu Glacier ends and
the Zema Chu starts

Cairn marking the path down the steep
glacial valley to Yabuk

Yabuk hut in the afternoon sun

Welcomed by the newly opened cream rhododendron blooms and a hot lemon drink, we found ourselves with one more superb sunny Himalayan afternoon - time to wash matted hair, dirty socks and other such things and relax in the slightly more humid air of the tree-line.

We set up a table and played cards outside until the sun finally dipped below the mountain tops - how quickly the temperature drops when it disappears! We retreated to the cook tent, warmed by the sputtering stove, as Pemba worked his magic on another superb meal. Sadly, with appetites knocked by altitude, we could not do it justice. The mind was elated, but the body still suffered.

With a clear and moonless sky, our last night above 4000m was something special. The stars were brilliant, a broad arch of sparkling lights between the mountain walls on either side of the camp, brooding black apart from the pale silver of the starlit snow high above. There is magic in these mountains.

Yabuk to Tallem - a double descent

Rhododendrons in the Himalayan sun

We awoke to another wonderful cloudless morning, wondering for how long our good fortune would last. It was time to do a double descent, skipping the campsite at Jakthang and heading straight on to Tallem, 700m lower down the valley. Going down is just so much easier. The cream rhododendrons glowed in the morning sun as we strode down the steep slopes of the Yabuk plateau. Soon a long line of porters passed us at at trot - the Lachen boys were obviously keen to get back and their loads were considerably lighter!

The road home

Following the sinuous path down through forest and clearings along the steep-sided valley, we remembered what a tiring track we had ascended 6 days earlier - rocky, lots of obstacles (logs/ branches/ fallen trees), short sharp descents and ascents to cross rocky ribs and tricky traverses across steep unstable slopes high above the river. It actually took almost as long to reach Jakthang as had the original climb in the reverse direction.

A steep traverse

Flat rock cascade

The rocky bed of the Zema Chu

In the gnarly rhododendron forest

Ian and the giant fir

We were glad to be able to shed cold-weather gear and walk in T-shirts in the warm mountain sun - even verging on hot when we stopped for lunch by the river at Jakthang. Another short steep climb, to remind us of earlier efforts, was followed by a long steady descent through fir and rhododendron forest. The sun was so fierce that we were glad for the shelter of the tall trees. On the way down, even the infamous Jakthang mud no longer worried us (there was not even enough left to make a New Zealander blink). The air was warm and humid, and filled with the twittering of small brown mountain birds.

A forest giant

Down in the rhododendron forest

Wangchuk and Pemba

One last bridge-crossing and we arrived at the willow flat of Tallem - the ground flora had grown noticably since we set up camp there on our first night and the willow catkins and buds were bursting out. All along the path we had noticed this; small innocuous plants were blooming, the spears of cobra plants were emerging from the soil and unfurling into their curious shapes, while ferns unravelled in spirals of green and black. The Himalayan forest was springing back into life.

As we relaxed around the campsite, high cloud began to roll in, followed by lower thicker greyer billows; our perfect weather pattern was about to break. The odd showers of rain on our tent that night felt almost comforting - we had been privileged to see this pristine and isolated part of the world in such fine weather, but I had the strange impression that, having allowed us this privilege, the mountains were now washing away the traces of our passing.


Tallem to Lachen - home again

The not quite yellow brick road

We were woken by the dawn chorus of Himalayan birds on the last day of our trek. The light overnight rain had cleared to a cloudy morning and soon we found ourselves on the paved track once again, descending through the beautiful old fir forest to the Zema Chu. We were enjoying this section more now than on the climb up - there was more time to look around and appreciate the river and vegetation of this deep valley.

Zema valley landscape

The road home along the Zema Valley


New growth was everywhere; the light green tips of the young firs sprouting, willow catkins swelling, wild berry canes reshooting, and deciduous trees leafing up. We were farewelled by the rhododendrons, splendid in their ornate red, pink, mauve, apricot and cream blooms and by the simple white blossoms of the wild roses. If this white stony path were the Sikkimese version of the yellow brick road, then we had been to the land of Oz and it was magnificent.

Waterfall at the picnic spot


Finally we reached the trackhead at Zema. The cooks had raced ahead to prepare a final picnic lunch for us on a grassy flat across from a delicate waterfall.

And then the trek was over - a rumbling from the road below signalled the arrival of a "goods carrier" (one of the monster ornately-decorated Tata trucks used for transport in India) to carry us back to Lachen. A quick pose for the standard end-of-trek photo and we all clambered on board - 25 porters and sherpas on the back with all the gear, 3 trekkers and an Indian army officer in the front with the driver. The slow 5km journey back to Lachen was the most adrenalin-pumping of the entire trek, as the slightly built Sikkimese driver propped his foot on the dashboard to wrench the steering wheel as he guided the heavily loaded behemoth around narrow hairpin bends above steep drop-offs. Still, we looked down to the distant river below with a surprising degree of detachment - after all, the driver has been doing this all his life.

All aboard for Lachen

Sikkimese Madonna and child

The obligatory end-of-trek photo

Safely back in Lachen, we had our first hot shower in 9 days - bliss! However, the curious trek postscripts did not stop there. Emerging from the hostel, Wangchuk informed that an Indian army truck was waiting to escort me to the military base - the commander wanted to see my photos of the trek! Fortunately, they only wanted copies of Green Lake landscapes for a "special project", so I returned to Lachen with digital memories intact, and curled up lips from a cup of very spicy curry soup. Thanks, Major, it was the thought that counted!

Early the next morning the three 4WDs were waiting to take us on the six-hour trip back down through the valleys and hills of North Sikkim to Gangtok. This time the trip went much more quickly; our minds were filled with the reminiscences of our marvellous Green Lake Trek, memories that will remain for a long time.