Thursday, February 28, 2013

Goecha La Trek : A journey from Yaksum to Dzongri and beyond

Journey of a hundred miles starts with a small step. That small step was taken by eleven brave trekkers at Yaksum in West Sikkim on a sun baked morning in late September, 2012. The target was to reach Goecha La via Dzongri involving a climb of over 10000 feet traversing nearly 100 kms of leech infested rain forests in the Himalayan foothills. Or rather, the journey started thousand miles away when I stepped out of home at Delhi.

It was 3:30 am when I left home. The cab zipped through the empty streets of Delhi. I hate getting up at those unearthly hours to catch a flight. But here we had very little choice as we were to report at New Jalpaiguri at 10am. The team of eleven colleagues would be travelling from across India to reach New Jalpaiguri or Siliguri. As the dawn broke, the flight took off to Guwahati en-route Bagdogra. A clear sky with lovely view of the Himalayas greeted us on the flight. Monsoon had started showing signs of withdrawal from North India, but it was still active in East. As we landed at Guwahati airport en-route, it was raining outside. This left us a bit worried. The apprehensions deepened as the flight took off from Guwahati, flying over a swollen Brahmaputra which appeared more like a sea than a river. As the flight headed north, a bluish hole appeared through dark clouds in the distant sky. The flight went through that hole to land on a sunny tarmac at Bagdogra. Sunshine was a good omen.

Cabs sent by our operator Kiran Gurung picked us at the NJP station. The six hour journey to Yaksum via Jorethang involved several breaks. By evening we had reached the town of Jorethang where Kiran bought supplies for the trip. Jorethang is the last major town on this side. An eventful last leg of journey in the darkness of night through landslide, slush and fog landed us at Yaksum around 8 in the night. Located at an altitude of 5500 feet, Yaksum is the last road head on this side of West Sikkim. This is the village of actor Danny Dengzongpa. It is about 170km from Siliguri via Sevok and Jorethang. Peeling, which is district HQ of West Sikkim is around 32 km from here. There are several places to stay put at Yaksum, mostly catering to trekkers. The Yaksum –Dzongri trek continues to allure trekkers across the world for the challenge it offers along with the promise of unmatched natural beauty. The hotel hired by Kiran for the team was named Dragon which is a basic trekker’s accommodation with one shared toilet. The owner charges around 150 per bed. Kiran briefed the team about the trekking plan. Local authorities require that all members were to provide photocopies of ID and a medical fitness certificate. Those who did not carry medical certificate were required to give an undertaking that he is fit and undertaking the trek on his own risk. The Yaksum – Dzongri – Goecha la is rated as moderate to tough graded trek. Out of the eleven in our team, only three including me had prior experience of tough grade trekking. We had a discussion on things to do and not to do, pre-caution required etc. Formalities done, we went early into bed to beat the cold outside.

Day 1:
A bright sunny day greeted us in the morning. After breakfast we were all set to go. Kiran had set Sachan as our target for the day. Experienced trekkers successfully make it to either Bakhim or even Tsoka on day 1. But Kiran advised us against this. He opined that many treks ends at Toskha on day1 itself as the climb from Sachan to Tsokha is very steep. Yaksum-Tsokha is too much ask on day 1 when your muscles are not loose enough. Trying to reach Tsokha on day 1 may either leave you drained or with cramped muscles, bringing an early end to your trek. One should have enough time in hand to enjoy the trek, breathe in lots of fresh air and savor the beauty nature unfolds every now and then.

The team was excited to embark on this tough journey. So much so that when I get out of my hotel, almost everyone was seen waiting outside with heavily loaded rucksack on their back. I was very clear about not carrying heavy rucksack on this trek. Instead I was carrying a daypack loaded with essentials - a jacket, water, raincoat, umbrella, dry fruit and cameras. I carried the Canon 60D body with 17-40 F/4L and the Canon SX40 mega zoom camera, each for different purpose. With my photo gear, the backpack was almost 4-5 kilos, decent enough for this type of trek. I was skeptical about those proudly swaggering around with their new rucksacks. Newbie’s to trekking are always inspired by photos of alpine style trekkers with rucksack on their back. Here we had the luxury of porters and yaks to carry luggage. So all one wanted was a daypack with essentials.

By the time we finished formalities at local police station, it was around 10am. A team from Air India, Mumbai had also started off together. They had targeted Bakhim for the day. The distance to Sachan was about 7 km with a gentle climb of 1500 feet. It turned out to be good warm up for the tough climb ahead. There were occasional scare of leeches. One has to keep looking for leeches while resting or taking photos, especially around bridges. Most of us made it in 4 hours. The porters had arrived well before us and was preparing for lunch when I reached. While we sipped tea at the small trekker’s hut, which was used by the porters for cooking, others started to arrive one by one. Then the bad news came. Weather started to change around 3pm and soon it started raining. Lack of fitness started to show on couple of members who had fallen way behind. A porter had to be sent looking for them. Both started with lot of enthusiasm, and of course with rucksacks, which they discarded somewhere on the way and handed over to porters. Now that it had started to rain they were left with nothing, not even raincoats to fend themselves. One should not trek without a daypack with essentials. Finally the porter brought them to the camp, almost two hours behind others.

Both the late comers were in sad state. Both had given up and declared that they will not go further. As their condition appeared more psychological than physical, they were counseled to continue. Carrying someone who is not in good physical state can become a liability and may hamper team’s progress. If they are to go back, then they were just 4-5 hours trekking away. But if they go further, then we may have to send back some ration, porter, etc. with them. Team had to take a call. Decision making was postponed to next morning.

The tent site was across the road, on the hill opposite the trekker’s hut. The wooden trekker’s hut is very small and can accommodate 5/6 people. It was used by our porters. A visit to the tent site was a hair rising experience. It was full of leeches of all sizes. The rain had made the situation worse. We got salt spread around the tents, but that was of very little use in rain. People were bitten by leeches when they went out at night to pee. Our only weapon to fight these scary creatures was a small torchlight and ensuring that the tent is sealed. Yet that night one leech got inside someone’s sleeping bag, one was bitten on leg, another on lips. I survived.

Day 2:
As usual mornings used to be bright and sunny. By now, Rawat, one of the late comers had recovered mentally and showed determination to go ahead. Hailing from hills of Uttarakahnd, his physical condition was good to let him continue. The other had to be sent back. These are hard decisions on trek the leadership has to take. It becomes harder if the member pleads to continue despite his physical condition.

Our target for the day was Tsokha. Starting at 7000 feet, we climbed about 300 feet when we met a deep descent of about 500 feet to the large hanging bridge over river Prek Chu. From the other side of the bridge it was a non stop 3500 feet climb to Tsokha, almost without any descent. En-route we had stopped at Bakhim (altitude 8500 feet) for tea and waited for the slow climbers to arrive. Sachan- Bakhim was achieved in about 3 hours. Another 1 1/2 hours of climb took us to Tsokha, our target for the day.

The camping site at Tsokha was the best campsite on the entire trek. Sitting at 9500 feet and looking down the valley gave a kind of roof of the world feel. The trekker’s hut at Tsokha is quite spacious with 3 rooms and two kitchens. The rooms have elevated bed with a mattress. Such facilities exist on the entire trek route. Even you do not have prior booking; you may get accommodation in such trekker’s hut @50 per person per night. But sometimes it may be too crowded, as we had seen on our return when we met at least five large groups going up. Staying in tents is more fun on treks than huts.

Tsokha was a village in the past of Tibetan settlers, with a small monastery. The habitants of this village were relocated after it got included in the Kanchendzonga National Park. The village is now deserted, except for one family. When we visited the monastery, it was also found to be locked. The area around Tsoka is good for birding and reclusive red panda. I was not on a wildlife trip here this time. So, someday later I will come back in search of the red panda.

It was another tough day. Another grueling 3000 feet climb to Dzongri. As you gain heights, air becomes thinner making your every step harder. However, this part of the trek was enjoyable for its uniqueness. A large part of the trek has wooded pavement through Rhodenderon forest. The project of covering the trek with logs certainly had been a tough task. Rhodenderons were not in bloom in Sepetember. When they bloom around April, it must be quite an experience. We had a brief stop at Phethang (altitude 11500 feet) allowing slow movers to join. On that a day, a big group of 80 trainees of Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) was making their way up from Bakhim. HMI has a training camp just beyond Dzongri. Each of the trainees was carrying a rucksack weighing not less than 15-20 kg. It was bit too much for many of them, who were seen cursing. But the helpless fellows had no other alternative but to get up with the instructors whistle and keep moving. We let the boys pass by and continued trekking. There is a small trekker’s hut at Phethang, but no potable water sources nearby. Hence organized tours do not camp here. It is generally used to serve packed lunch or snacks. Some trekker’s makes the mistake of staying here. While the main trek continues to Dzongi, another side trek originates here to Kokchurung, which we used on return from Goecha La.

The paved trek between Tsokha and Dzongri with Rhodenderon canopy
After another climb, we had reached the Dorilla pass, an area with Rhodenderon forests and a small water body. Then there was a descent. At those heights, you would hate any sight of a descent, when you know that you will again have to gain the height lost. One serious thing to note is that on the entire Tsokha – Dzongri stretch there is no stream or any other source of drinking water. So make sure to carry enough water on this stretch. We made Tsoka-Dzongri in about 5 hours. The HMI guys had arrived well before us. It was a kind of mela that day at Dzongri. We met the Air India team, who had started together at Yaksum. After 3 days of trekking, we as well as the Air India team had made it to Dzongri. But we did it in a more enjoyable way by stopping at Sachan on day 1. The Air India team had stretched it to Bakhim on day 1 which certainly was harder.  It is all about good planning and spacing out our trek nicely so that you can enjoy it. Kiran, our agent, did a fantastic job in our trip planning. His entire support team was fantastic. Just imagine being served Pasta with boiled potato when we arrived at Dzongri. Or being served soup at Tsokha and Lamuney when we were shivering in sub-zero temperature. Or winding up the trip on return at Tsokha with a celebration and a cake! We will not forget Badal, Deepak and others. The guys were just fantastic. Kiran lived upto his reputation.

It took upto 7 hours for some guys to reach Dzongri that day. Two days of tough climb had taken toll on at least 4 members. A big question mark was hanging on their progress further. We had a spare day for rest and acclimatization at Dzongri. To my horror I found most of the guys were using Diamox, but were not aware of care required. People seem to read on the net about this drug and then use it without bothering to know how to use it. I had learned about side effects of Diamox on my last trip to Ladkah. I have successfully made to 17000 feet on that trip without Diamox. This time it was 2000 feet lower with more oxygen because of trees. I had kept Diamox in the kit as a pre-caution, but did not use it. If you use Diamox, then you need to drink a lot of water and pee a lot. Further, the drug starts to take effect after about 48 hrs only.

Day 4:
We were shaken out of slumber at 4:30 am by calling of Badal, our chief guide. We were to climb up along the ridge of the hill next to the camp in order to reach the view point before sunrise to catch a glimpse of the sunrise on Mt. Kangchendzonga and other nearby peaks. Dzongri provides a magnificent view of seven Himalayan peaks from very close range. The cold outside at that hour of night was severe. It can not be described, can only be felt. We got packed with almost everything we had carried, at least four layers. Even though we were well acclimatized, the 500 odd feet climb to the view point was brutal. The climb with torch and headlight at those hours with empty stomach was one of the toughest things I had ever done in my life. It took us about 45 min to reach the top. Despite the tough conditions, I carried my tripod. It is near impossible to capture mountains hand held as light is very poor. The effort paid off well as couple of photos taken that morning is up for display and sale at Nature’s Touch exhibition later. I love the orange mountains. In fact I am now infatuated with them. I never miss an opportunity to capture them. In higher altitudes, the sky generally remains clear in the morning offering you great opportunity to capture this moments when snow capped peaks changes colour every moment. Getting to capture the colours in the evening is tougher as weather often detoriate in the afternoon. On this trip, we did not get a single sun baked afternoon. In Ladakh, I found this change phenomenon around 2pm. Here in the east, it was happening after 12 in the noon.

The team of brave-hearts. Me on right corner. Photo courtesy: Himanshu Topno

We came down around 8am for breakfast. Only then we realized the climb we had undertaken in the darkness of night. Had it been in daylight, a couple of guys would have certainly refused to climb. On the hindsight, it turned out be a good thing, as guys who thought they had no more juice left, also made this tough climb. They day was free for acclimatization and rest. I spent the day doing some birding around the camp as long as the light stayed good.

Day 5:
The rest at Dzongri had done magic. All the guys were ready to move ahead. The target was Lamuney via Kokchurung and Thanseng. After a brief climb, the trek panned out through a valley dotted by regular up and down. It was a pleasant journey offering good view of the peaks, especially Mt Pandim, on the base of which we were supposed to camp. Then we came across a steep descent of about 1000 feet to Kokchurung (altitude 11500 feet). We were relieved to know that we will not have to climb up these 1000 feet on return. There is a trekker’s hut here which we had used on return. We crossed the river at Kokchurung and reached Thanseng (altitude 12500 feet) by noon. Our lunch was served here. There is a big trekker’s hut here. The old hut got gutted in a fire. A new hut were being constructed which was almost ready. The Air India team had decided to halt here for the night. However we moved ahead after lunch to Lamuney which was another couple of hours away. We came across several small streams on this stretch. I could not stop myself from getting my feet wet while crossing one of them as I slipped.

We reached Lamuney (altitude 13000 feet) at around 4pm. Burst of clouds kept sweeping the site from time to time bringing in blistering cold wind. Turquoise colored glacial water flowed in the river by the camp. Across the river we saw a herd of Bharal, or Blue Mountain Goat, making their way into the caves for the night. Their acrobatics were breathtaking. Light was too low to attempt any photography. I just enjoyed watching them jumping from rocks to rock balancing perilously from the hill face.

As night came down, cold became bitter. We were warned about the cold at Lamuney campsite as it is located in an open U shaped valley. As the tents were cold, we spent time playing cards in the wooden kitchen hut which was very warm. I will not forget playing Twenty -Nine at 13K feet under a headlamp to beat cold. The smell of cooking made my appetite grew. Post a brief dinner, we hurried back to the tents and got packed inside the sleeping bag. For the first time in the trip I used the liner as well. It was one the coldest night I had ever endured.

Day 6:
Those who were to attempt a climb upto Goecha La view point no.1 were to start latest by 5am. The very thought of getting out of sleeping bag was bone jarring. As my tent partner Manish was getting ready, I asked from inside my sleeping bag as to how the weather is. His reply was that it was foggy or cloudy with very poor visibility. That was a bad sign. Normally when you get up at such hours at those heights, you get a brilliant clear sky. From my experience, I understood that there will be no light that day, and hence no classic sunrise. Thus there was no point taking the pains of venturing out in that extreme cold. Five brave guys from the team decided set out for Goecha la. Five of us stayed back and decided to start a little later to the turquoise watered Samiti Lake, halfway to Goecha La.

My decision of not venturing out at 5am turned out to be a good one. The scene was mostly engulfed in cloud even at 6am when I came out of my tent. Our tent was right under Mt Pandim, but it was completely covered in dense cloud. Sad that I did not get any sunrise shot of Mt Pandim or Tenzing Thang, despite standing right under them. However I managed a couple of interesting shot of Mt. Kaburu which I had named as ‘In smoke’, as the passing cloud giving a feel of smoke rising out of the orange colured snow.

We set out for Samiti Lake at 7am when the weather had improved considerably. It was about a 1 ½ hour’s effort to the beautiful Samiti Lake. This lake revered by locals is not very big, but the mountains reflecting on crystal clear turquoise water provides a magnificent view. Sun was shining bright by now. There was a trekker’s hut here which has been demolished as the site was getting polluted. By 9am, the first team that went to Goecha La view point 1 had also come back to join us. A group photo together captured the successful completion of the trek. We returned to Lamuney by 10:30am and waited for our brunch. As we waited, the weather had suddenly turned bad again. By 11 it started drizzling which soon turned out to be an incessant rain. The Air India team had arrived there amidst rain. We felt pity for them. When the sun was shining, they lazed at Thanseng. Never waste your time on trek when the weather is good. You never know when it will turn bad. In fact the weather was to remain bad for next three days.

We waited for almost two hours for rains to subside. But there was no sign of relenting. The danger of numerous streams on the route to Thanseng overflowing also started to loom. Finally we started off braving the rain. By the time we had reached Thanseng, the rain grew strong. We spent another hour at Thanseng. Our plan that day was to make it to Kokchurung which was another hour away. As the rain weakened, we dashed off for Kokchurung. Walking as fast as we can, we made it in about 45min. We had expected the campsite to be wet. The porters also told about difficulty in setting up the tents in the rains. Thus we had decided to stay put at the trekker’s hut at Kokchurung for that night. Payment was made at Thanseng as the caretaker for that hut stays there. The hut is spacious with 4 rooms. It can easily accommodate 20 people. Constructed with two layers of wooden planks, these huts were quite warm. We had very comfortable sleep that night.

Day 7:
It had rained almost all through the night. The morning was gloomy. Passing clouds getting trapped in pine ridges above made beautiful blank and white landscapes. Post breakfast we started for Tsokha via Phatheng. Just outside the hut, the trek bifurcates – one goes up steeply to Dzongri, the one we had used on our first leg, and another narrow trek covered with bushes goes to Phethang. The horses and Yaks can not travel on this trek and hence they will take the long detour via Dzongri. This trek, generally following the course of Prekchu stream, is not steep, but is considered dangerous. Besides possibility of bear encounters, there were perilous stretches where trek is washed away. We were also surprised by leeches on some part. Leeches at that height and cold was an example of adaptability of this incredible pest. It took us about 4 hours effort to reach Phethang. It had started to drizzle by the time we had made to the small trekker’s hut. The team was served light lunch at the trekker’s hut. We met a group of Europeans making their way upto Dzongri. Despite the ominous looking weather, we wished them good luck. In these parts of India, when the weather turns bad, it remains bad for next 4-5 days. We were lucky to have brilliant weather while going up. As were heading down, rain was not a worry. On the way down we met a group of trekkers who had made the mistake of targeting Phethang for night stay.

Another 2 hours walking brought us to the Tsokha campsite. Rain had stopped, though not completely. Overall the weather remained bad. But Kiran’s team cheered us up by making a cake to celebrate successful completion of the trek. As some of the guys were not going down to Yaksum because a new group of Kiran’s trekkers were coming up, we had distributed the customary tips to all after the celebration.

Day 8:
Though we were to travel 15km and 4000 feet, the atmosphere in the camp was relaxed. We were all basking in glory of the successful completion of the trek thanking god profusely for the excellent weather we had, baring last two days. As usual, we had started around 8 in the morning. The weather hold good till Sachan, the campsite of first night. We stopped there for a quick brunch. Bided goodbye to guide Badal and his team, and started the last part of the trek to Yaksum. By noon, it had started to rain again. Though not very strong, the rain was consistent. After about an hour, the speed was severely impeded due to slush and slippery conditions. It was compounded by leeches which could be seen in abundance on the road waiting for every opportunity to stick to your shoe. Baring a couple of us, almost all the others suffered leech attack that day. Despite our rain protection, we were fairly wet because of walking in rain for almost 3 hours. My water resistant Quechua had also started to give in after walking in rains for last 3 days. 

At Yaksum, we were all greeted back by a smiling Kiran at the hotel. Celebrations continued that night at Gupta’s restaurant where we had to pre-order non-veg dinner. A memorable trek, an unforgettable journey into wilderness has come to an enjoyable end. Many of the moments got captured in our cameras. But some of them got captured in our heart forever to cherish. As I took the flight back to Delhi, memories started to flow in.  


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