What it takes to climb a mountain.
25 March 2016 – Day 1
7:30 am: Woke up to a bright and cheery morning in Yuksom (Sikkim). Arbitrarily stretched some muscles that would never be used whilst trekking. Listened to JB (our guide) describe the events that had led to many trekking souls dining with Elvis. Unenthusiastically signed under a few scribbles stating that we were responsible for our own lives.
8:00 am: Met our team of cooks, porters and ponies. Quite a mad looking bunch; mighty impressed with their hats, and manes. And so, staffs in hands and cloaks thrown over shoulders, our fellowship started into Mt. Khangcehndzonga National Park.
10:15 am: Descending down into Rathong Valley, through impressively dense tropical forests, with the Rathong Chu River flowing down below in silent dignity, noticed that somebody had misunderstood the purpose of bamboo railings. They’re mostly built along the widest and least perilous parts of the trail.
10:20 am: Passing under some impressively gigantic boulders along the way (a display of the might of the late Tethys Ocean) it struck me what an excellent hideout this would make for super heroes. Filed it away for future consideration.
10:30 am: Crossed our first bridge. Known as Frog Bridge (Pa Khola) because frogs built it. Or maybe the elders who ate the frogs built it. Our sweeps’ (he who brings up the rear of the group; in our case Dipesh, JB’s second in command) stories were shrouded in vagueness. Most of them ended with nature meeting its demise at the hands of acid rain.
11:00 am: A strange tuneless whistling sounded up ahead. Tara and I executed a panic-stricken crab scuttle into a rock. A long line of ponies crested the slope, loaded with food supplies and bedding, their handlers jovially smacking them on their rumps and whistling warnings to ascending trekkers. More crew members followed behind, carrying less hardy items, like eggs. They looked as if they were on their way to market.
12:05 am: How the hell did Frodo and Sam reach Mount Doom without trekking boots! Clearly Tolkien had never trekked himself. Shakespeare on the other hand knew what he was talking about when he proclaimed “to climb steep hills, requires slow pace at first”.
1:30 pm: Reached Sachin, where a quick lunch was devoured. All paths led uphill from there on end. Our expeditionary force climbed on with food-lined bellies.
4:00 pm: Can hear the rhythmic pulsing of the mountains, their strange beats beckoning me closer to the peaks… No. Hang on. That’s my heart. Apparently trying to beat its escape through my ears.
4:30 pm: How the hell was Isheeta so energetic! It’s her lower center of gravity, like that of a mountain goat, or shrubbery.
5:00 pm: Reached Bakhim (2700 m). The first, and apparently one of the most treacherous passes of the trek. The sun was already heading bed-ways; blackness was descending on us. The magnolia trees took on dark menacing aspects. 3 torches, 6 people, thinning air, extreme exhaustion, unknown and steep terrain which was no longer visible! All ingredients for imminent Death. Could feel myself getting a bit dramatic, seemed like an appropriate time.
5:05 pm: Passed an eerie-looking house with no windowpanes. U. Guri was fairly certain it was the work of disgruntled ghosts, or perhaps a yeti. The area seemed devoid of any human settlement. Not a great time to have an imagination.
6:13 pm: Legs starting to feel like anchors. Night vision slowly fading. Coordination skills failing. Realized that mountain times and distances are not quite the same as for non-mountain folk. They say an hour, which translates to an average of 2 hours, 1 km to approximately 5 km. We’re nearly there means you will reach before tomorrow morning at the latest.
7:00 pm: Arrival in Tshoka (3400 m) after a bloody steep and long ascent. Possibly my longest day ever! Went to bed (or bag rather!) in a cloud of muscle relaxant.
11:00 pm: Woke up with a start to ponies loudly conversing right above our sleeping bags.
26 March 2016 – Day 2
6:30 am: Engaged in a healthy discussion on the mechanics of potty making in the wild, and bitter cold. With no other options in sight, adopted the sanitary habits of mountain goats. On the other hand, stellar views of the mountains and pastureland do ease the conducting of business.
7:30 am: A rocky start to the day! Unless you enjoy fields of boulders, stones and pebbles.
8:27 am: Continued upwards from beautiful magnolia to rhododendron forests along wood planked trails. Dipesh pointed out some important plants and listed their medicinal properties. I have no recollection of any wisdom he may have imparted, in part due to the vegetation prejudices I had developed from hours of field work, and in part because my attention was directed to surviving the land-slide prone slope we were climbing.
9:00 am: Tara led the troop with constant encouragement in the form of “ Guys, the situation looks grim” whenever she crested an incline, or rounded a corner. What an understatement!
12:30 pm: Stopped at Pethang (3760 m). Moved like water buffalo outside their natural habitat towards the tantalizing food-smells!
2:11 pm: Life is about survival of the fittest; fairly certain Sikkim is producing the master race. What in the world were the guides and porters made off, sprinting up and down the mountain like nobody’s business! Native mountain dweller’s wisdom suggests the answer lies in their comprehensive diet of dal, rice and cigarettes.
2:59 pm: Be the mountain. Be the mountain. Be the mountain. Or that bird. Be that bird. Fly away from the mountain.
3:14 pm: U. Guri off-handedly mentioned it was kind of someone to light incense along our path. (Hm. The smells were actually originating from a plant. Probably an adaptation to the piles of excrement that the ponies and yaks were liberally decorating the slopes with.)
3:16 pm: The landscape has started acting a little more sensibly. Passed a lovely meadow, followed by a beautiful wood. According to Dipesh, it wouldn’t be long before we reached the Dzongri campsite, just up 15 mins, and then down 4 mins, and then flat land, and then up 10 mins, and then a zig zag path. Assumed this meant at least another 3 hrs.
7:48 pm: Have developed a distinct smell; at least it will deter wildlife from eating us.
9:00 pm: Recalled JB mentioning a toilet tent. Wandered out of our cabin in Dzongri, into the nippy 1oc, toilet paper in hand. Spotted a blue tent with a light inside; Isheeta commended some unknown humanoids for providing luminosity. Suspiciously let out an “Is anybody inside?” and awoke some mildly irritated Germans. Left in considerable haste.
27 March 2016 – Day 3
3:57 am: U. Guri woke up shouting “Coca!” (a handy help in high altitude management borrowed from the Andean Indians, and redeveloped into tiny tablets). Wake-up call for the trek up to Dzongri Top followed shortly after. Sidebar: certain members of our troupe may be addicted to Coca.
4:17 am: Began to ascend in the light of a full moon. It was quite poetic; the entire valley was bathed in a soft white light. If not for the fact that it was – 4oc and we were rock-climbing 5oo inclines, might have enjoyed the sights a bit more.
4:49 am: For someone who breathes all the time, did an excellent job convincing the world it was the first time I was trying.
5:02 am: Soft white clouds enveloped us as we stood 4,171 m high on Dzongri Top, the pinnacle of our two-day journey. Mt. Khangcehndzonga towered before us, surrounded by Mt. Pandim and Mt. Kabri. Closer to the sun we might be, warmer it is not!
9:37 am: Downhill proved to be more difficult than holding a live fish. The frost started melting and a gentle rain trickled down. Springs erupted in every hollow. And once one boot has said goodbye in a mushy puddle, the other one is bound to follow out of fraternal solidarity.
11:00 am: Noticed my fingers were the size of Vienna sausages; Isheeta’s were the size of water balloons! Something to do with the rapid descent in altitude, nothing to do with morphing into the Hulk.
11:30 am: Took refuge in the fact that we were demonstrating considerably more competence at the business of descending a mountain than a duck would. I think.
2:00 pm: Collapsed on the floor of a cabin in Tshoka with the words Heart Attack running around my head like ticker tape. Issued some oddly phrased orders in Hindi “2 basin garam panni, pear ke leya” at a passing porter. Rolled up my pant legs in preparation for the impromptu foot spa and out fell some missing underwear. Refused to dwell on what had become of my state of affairs.
4:48 pm: The weather took quite a turn! Rain bucketed down with force. Thunder and lightening rolled across the sky! It started hailing. In the far distance it was apparent that it had started snowing in the upper reaches. Seemed like satanic forces were at work! We hunkered down in the comfort of our tents with some thoughtfully produced (by our lovely cooks), albeit slightly damp french fries!
7:15 pm: Our wonderful crew made us cake for dinner! On a tiny gas stove! Our combined intellects would never have stood a chance of ever making such a feast in such scarce conditions.
11:06 pm: Woke up in a ball at the bottom of the tent. Half crawled, half worm-danced my way back up to align my sleeping bag with Tara’s. Apparently gravity was stronger at this campsite.
28 March 2016 – Day 4
6:03 am: Hit by the realization that our tents were on a slope!
10:00 am: A yak mooed.
10:10 am: In a feat of remarkable vertical acceleration, Isheeta and I found ourselves precariously perched on the edge of a giant overhanging boulder. Seemed less likely to have an adverse impact on our life expectancy than the 10 extremely slow-moving bovines whose path we were in. Their herder bemusedly informed us we were nearing Yuksom.
10:08 am: Left knee started creaking. Resisted the temptation to shout, “send help!” to every trekker that passed by. Tried distracting myself with tomorrows newspaper headline: Brave Girl Descends Mountain on One Knee: Inspiration for Knee-less Young Girls Everywhere.
12:14 pm: Civilization was near. Everybody make your hair look presentable!
1:38 pm: We finally reached Yuksom! We should be knighted. Felt some sadness leak out of my lacrimal glands at parting with the team – kind of chaps you want to be in the fox hole with!