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A tryst with Mt.Kanchendzonga

"I must be stark raving mad to do this. God, I don't want to die on my tracks in this desolate wasteland". I was slowly but surely plodding my way to frostbite and pneumonia in the drenching, sickly cold rain at 12,800 Ft. in a vast snowfield adorned by stark brooding boulders. The thermometer in my shaking gloves showed 2 C, but I knew that the wind chill factor would have brought it down to at least 15 C below zero. You can't blame me, a tropical plainsman, for feeling as I did.

Two days later, I was howling with sheer joy into the whipping wind, marveling at the sheer magnificence of the vista before me at 15,200 ft. above mean sea level. Yes ! I was more than half way up the third tallest peak in the world, Mt.Kanchendzonga (28,208 Ft), I knew it was worth all the effort as I looked around at my teammates who were looking awestruck.

In May 1992, a five man team from Calicut REC fought its way till the High Altitude Base Camp (15,200 ft) of Mt.Kanchendzonga, world's third tallest peak. Ramaprasad, one among the team, recounts the Himalayan Expedition. (in 1992)

There could be no better way of exploring the natural wonders of the Himalayas than in the most natural way - on foot. Through the ages, travelers, ascetics and sages have established a network of mountain trails connecting remote parts of the fascinating mountains to the rest of the world.

The essential thing a person intending to go for a trek should have is... a love for the outdoors and respect for nature.


Our team of five - Roby Paul, Pradeep Murthy, Sundeep Abraham, Ambika Prasad and I, set out from Cochin, Kerala, the southern most state of India, on 6th May, 1992. The Indian Railways took us across the baking subcontinent and we reached Siliguri, the gateway to Northeast, on 9th May. We boarded the small but powerful bus bound for Gangtok, capital of the Indian State of Sikkim, 5 hours away. Zipping along the landscape, which was growing more rugged, - the well maintained ghat road, practically overhangs the mighty Teesta river, thundering by a few hundred feet below.

Bypassing the massive British-constructed-bridge to Bhutan, we reached the Sikkimese border check post at Rangpo. An exquisite archway guards this legendary Kingdom among the clouds. The veneer of fast paced modernity peels off to reveal an idyllic world. In the scattered hamlets, the ancient monasteries and the traditional architecture are well kept, and the streets throng with youngsters clad in the latest fads straight from some western fashion capital. Above all, the hospitality of the people was touching.

We reached Gangtok in the middle of a light drizzle, with mercury showing 10 c. Wow ! A journey of few hours has taken us from 45c to an icy 10c. That's the kind of diversity one can find in this beautiful Indian sub-continent. Gangtok town is perched nearly 7000 ft. above sea level on the steep mountain side and the night view proved to be splendid. "Gangtok" in Sikkimese means "Flat Top". The next morning we were taken around the town by Rimp Dorjee, our college mate from Sikkim. On reaching the topmost point in the town, where the erstwhile King's palace is situated, one can get a panoramic view of the snowcapped peaks to the east. Those peaks, a mere 10 - 15Kms away, are in China !! The border is quite close, across the famous Natu-La pass.

Along with Dawa, a friend of Rimp Dorjee, who had come down from Yumtang, we set off to Geyzing, where we were to pick up our trekking gear. We cruised past video parlors showing the latest hot Madhuri Dixit starrer, past libraries packed with the latest Hollywood movies, through deep gorges, forever winding, twisting, turning over the serpentine roads. Being prime priority border, the Indian Army maintains the roads in earnest and the maintenance is world class.

Geyzing gave us a glimpse into rural life in Sikkim. The very serenity of the small town was overwhelming. The tall poles with prayer flags rustling out their white plumes over, the desolate hill shoulders, and the winds taking the prayers heavenward...., the ancient Pemayantse Buddhist Monastery ( which dates back to 9th Century ), with its chanting novitiates and gut-wrenching gongs - we were transported to ancient far east.

At Geyzing Tashi, a CREC alumni, joined the team. There we went about assembling the gear as well as the food. Two of Tashi's friends - Jigme & Tsering, also joined the team and we struck out for Yuksam. The jittering bone shaking journey over heavily laden, crunched rubble strewn paths, over rickety trellis bridges suspended over 300 foot chasms sapped everybody’s energy.

Yuksam is special - the Tibetan Buddhists crossed Himalayas to India and first set up a monastery here; every single Kanchendzonga expedition from India starts from here and Danny Dengzopa (Bollywood star) hails from here. We watched the moonlight bouncing off the snowcaps through the gathering mist.

12th May 1992 : Our team of eight plus the two local guide-cum-cook-porters set off from Yuksam, 5500 ft, at 9 o'clock. It was goodbye to the last vestiges of civilization, the last square meal, the last soft bed, the last wash, the last change of clothes for the week.

We loosened up and struck a striding rhythm along the roller-coaster track through dense verdant tropical forest. 13 Km away and nearly 4000 ft. higher lay Bakhim, our stop over for the night. The four suspension bridges took us over impassable ravines gauged by the melting snow line. There were occasional herds of Yaks, those high altitude brethren of our good old buffalo, immense but incredibly docile, though we didn’t go for a trial & error verification. On a narrow bit of track, I got between them and only the timely intervention by the herder saved my overwrought heart from imminent failure. The final, near vertical haul of one hour leadened our feet. The luggage felt like a yak on my back. The rucksack everyone had on their backs weighed nearly 14 Kgs. each. I noticed my breathing deepening in the thin air.

At Bakhim, 9000 ft., we took out our meager rations - noodles, sauce, sparse vegetables and strong sweet coffee. None of us had the energy to enjoy the commanding view of our tortuous route and all we could manage was to put down our backpacks, stretch out the sleeping bags and tuck ourselves into the cozy warmth against the biting chill.

Next camp, Dzongri - 13,200 ft. was 12 Km away, rucksacks weren't getting any lighter. The thick mist played around us, transforming the landscape into a pastel hued ghost land, unreal and forbidding. The oxygen was thinning out, and I could really hear the other guys laboring with their breath. I forced myself to breathe long, deep and regular. I evened out my pace, tiredness was creeping into my limbs. At this pace, the weather was going to beat us to the camp. I lunched on a heavy chocolate bar to save time. During high altitude treks, chocolates are preferred, since it provides a lot of calories. The others were far ahead. May be someone was behind me, but I didn't look back.

It grew gloomy and I turned a despairing face upwards, and received the first droplets. It started raining. I discovered that the thick warm jacket I had on was as water resistant as sponge. Snap down the rucksack - get the gloves off - take out the plastic sheets - take off the jacket - put on sweater - stash the jacket and gloves - struggle into the various rack sack straps; Good Timing - I told myself as I rolled up the sweater sleeves. The wind lashed against the flimsy cover and I was holding on with grim determination. I plodded on with my head down and became aware of the puttering only gradually. I stuck out my palm and caught a smattering of ice particles. It was hailing like mad. I popped them in my mouth and found a flat taste.

Acres of the stuff, thick, soft and brilliantly - impossibly white, even at dusk. I was wet, sick, miserable and cold. I knew that the cold was robbing me of precious body heat, that the drenching could be followed by hypothermia, pneumonia and what not. I broke down and wept when I finally caught sight of the camp. I was better off than Sundeep and Roby, who stumbled in an hour later, with all exposed parts ashen frozen. They were quickly stripped off the wet clothes and practically roasted at the fire. A couple of pegs of the firebrand and a nice cozy sleeping bag returned them to near normalcy.

Meanwhile, I was outside, watching a spectacular event - the snowfall in Himalayas. Initially the flakes descended in a curtain, blotting out the clear air, waffling to and fro. I went crazy with the camera...., only for a couple of shots. Disaster struck ! The cold got to the shutter mechanism and jammed it. I could barely resist a wild impulse to ram it to the ground. Then I got up and went around making a honest-to-goodness snowman sporting a carrot nose, potato eyes and a Texan cowboy hat. In the night, the mercury mercilessly dipped well below -10 c.

The next morning, everybody had altitude sickness - nausea, vomiting & headache. We had ascended too high, too soon, the safe limit being a day's acclimatization for every 1000 ft above 6000 ft. But, we were running on a shoestring budget, rations were running out - our bodies couldn't stand the beating too long. So we decided, "Get set, go !".

To Jemathang, @ 15,200 ft. Just 2000 ft. more to go, a mere 15 Km cool jaunt ! eh !

May be, but consider this - the air is half as thin as at sea level. One labored lung full gets you 5 slow strides and one Km on a level stretch takes more than half an hour ! Even in the cold, the exertion produces sweat. The sweat freezes on the skin. We moved at snails pace only - since we didn't want to take the risk of getting HAPO ( High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema ) the instant killer, which causes blood to ooze out of lungs and result in instant death. We had forsaken snow boots to save on rental. Our shoe soles were wearing down. When they say snow is soft, they're talking of fresh snow. Because when you step on fresh snow, it ceases to be fresh, it compresses, melts partially and forms an ice crust, all this in a fraction of second. In layman's language, you step on a surface with all the qualities of a well-oiled glass plate. The ice axes and the belay rope held us short when each guy took a tumble, which was often.

We reached Jemathang after nearly eight hours of trek. We decided that enough is enough. Ambika was cramping up. Sundeep was running a temperature, Jigme was gasping and hyperventilating. We pitched camp behind the protection of a looming boulder.

Suddenly the cloud lifted, and we found ourselves gaping at the Big Daddy himself, with the sickle and the crown of 5 peaks, another 13,000 ft up - the Mt.Kanchendzonga !!! My mind boggled at the sheer size. We were standing in a huge amphitheater, with thin air around us.

I stood on my lofty perch, braved the wind and viewed the stunning panorama. The cloud bank was far below me, stretching away till the horizon, glinting orange and yellow in the sun with a few peaks marring the evenness of the top surface.

We braved the weather that evening, sitting in the deep snow, which slowly grew higher around us, sipping the piping but fast cooling tea. My mind was empty, supremely calm. I looked around at my companions, fellow travelers in this rigorous adventure. It seemed as if they were feeling the same emotions that welled up inside me. An understanding dawned within, that, given another chance, I would gladly go through the same again. I smiled. And I saw the smile reflected on others. We kept sitting there, silent and calm.

... and I did return to the Himalayas, the very next year. In 1993, I led a team to Roopkund Lake (16,500 Ft) in the Garhwal ranges of the Himalayas. Still, lot more to be seen - Manasarovar, Mt.Kailas and maybe one day... the one & only Sagarmatha ! read on >>>

Send your thoughts to Ramaprasad

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