High-altitude trek leader Dan Slater discovers when leading clients through the remote Eastern Himalayas, the logistical obstacles are often harder to conquer than the physical ones.
Everybody knows the name of the world’s highest mountain. Some even know Mt Everest by her traditional Nepalese or Tibetan names, Sagarmatha and Chomolungma respectively. Keen outdoors men and women will also be able to name Earth’s second summit, K2 (or Chogori in the local Baltistani language). It seems surprising the name of Kangchenjunga, at 8586m our third highest peak, should cause many a hiker and mountaineer to scratch their head. After all, third is just after second, and until the great trigonometric survey of 1852, ‘Kanj’ was assumed to be the first.
THE TRUTH ABOUT LEADING
Here’s a few misconceptions about high-altitude trek leaders: that they skip along at the head of blissful clients, local staff carrying and cooking and route finding, content to step in should anything go awry. Not quite. Trek leading is a heady amalgamation of pressure from all directions, 24 hours a day, from the clients, from the staff, from third-world bureaucracy, from the weather, and from indiscriminate medical emergencies, both real and imagined. Don’t get me wrong – if nothing untoward occurs then there’s no better form of employment, but in practice untoward occurrences always occur, and my gigs as leader on either side of Kangchenjunga have added up to a stress density equivalent to diving 100m under the sea. The most interesting route on the Sikkimese side is along the Singalila Ridge, the geographical border separating India and Nepal. Reached by a lengthy drive from the old British hill station of Darjeeling, this glorious walk follows the ridge for six days before dropping down and joining the shorter, more classical approach to the mountain at Dzongri. From there the route heads up the Prek Chu Valley to Lamuney and, for those hardy specimens who don’t mind an alpine start, the pre-dawn hike up to the Goeche La (4940m) and its magnificent views of Kangchenjunga’s eastern wall.
It was at Dzongri, within sight of Kabru, Rathong and Forked Peak, that we were joined by a hairy, four-footed friend. Now, stray dogs are unwelcome on my treks. They carry fleas, which they can pass onto sympathetic yet unwary trekkers, and once one person gets infested it isn’t long before all their gear is contaminated, then everyone’s gear. All they want is food, and if they don’t get any they’ll soon abandon an unfruitful group for greener pastures. I was quick to warn my wards of the inherent dangers and indicate that I strongly discouraged any contact. Unfortunately, some of the more compassionate members were mistakenly under the impression that if they didn’t feed this particular dog every night then it would die of starvation or exposure.
A kind-hearted soul among us fed the dog, thus encouraging him to follow us daily. She even let him sleep in her tent fly. On the opposite end of the spectrum, more sensible folk would push him away whenever he approached, with trekking poles or boots, which soon led to accusations of kicking. Such actions prompted the formation of two factions: pro and anti canine. Arguments flared despite my best attempts at reconciliation, and harsh words were spoken.
That trek however was a picnic compared to the string of disasters, incompetence and low pressure fronts that crippled my trek on the Nepalese side of the mountain two years later. We were scheduled to fly from Kathmandu via Biratnagar to the airstrip at the tiny hamlet of Taplejung, from where our route would take us north-east over several secondary ridges to the southern base camp of Ramze, then up over three high passes to an adjacent valley and the Tibetan refugee village of Ghunsa. From there we would follow the Ghunsa Khola up to its source, the frozen Kangchenjunga Glacier at the main base camp of Pang Pema. The planned itinerary was sabotaged before it even began by the magnitude 6.9 earthquake which hit the region mere weeks before our arrival. Striking in the very area of Sikkim I have described above, it killed over a hundred locals, including three as far away as Kathmandu, and destroyed thousands of structures from homes to schools to bridges. The shocks disabled the airstrip at Taplejung and necessitated an additional 12 hour drive through the highlands from Biratnagar. Having arrived safely at the end of the rutted track, we inhaled the clean air, enjoyed the view of the rolling green foothills and got ready to start walking. I always say to my clients, “I can relax once we actually start hiking, as there’s little that can go wrong from here,” and I’m usually right. But not this time. Trekking season, to the delight of most tourists, often coincides with Diwali – the Hindu festival of light.
The country’s biggest holiday, celebrated for anywhere between five days and a month (in rural areas such as this), is often a logistical headache because hey, nobody wants to work on Christmas day! I was informed by our sirdar, the head of the Nepalese staff, that we could unfortunately not begin our trek as scheduled as none of the porters were willing to work. Still devoid of porters the next morning, the sirdar assured us that we should set off with the Sherpas and he would usher along the rest of the crew, with all our gear, and catch us up by lunchtime. Blissfully unaware, we put our best feet forward and pointed our noses to the high Himalayas. By lunchtime there was no sign of our crew, so I sent one Sherpa back to find them. By mid-afternoon there was still no gear, and no sign of my errant messenger. I called a halt in a small village and as it had started to rain we begged shelter in a large building, luckily the home of a wealthy old couple who happily welcomed us into their outhouse. The floors were beaten earth but at least there was adequate space for us, our single remaining Sherpa and our cook crew who had fortunately kept up.
THE WAITING GAME
As we waited, I worried as the skies grew purple and then pitch black. I’ve misplaced the occasional client before but never the sirdar, two Sherpas and all of the porters and gear. The group kept their spirits up with rousing renditions of ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’ and that popular classic ‘One finger, one thumb, keep moving’, while I used the satellite phone to call my company’s head office in the UK. I informed them of the situation but obviously there was nothing they could actually do. It was obvious that we were on our own for the night. I’d already determined my strategy – to hike back as far as necessary to find some trace of my team, hoping they hadn’t been eaten by snow leopards or yetis. Fortunately, after only two hours retracing my steps I found the sirdar, alone with a pile of kit bags. “Porters are coming,” he promised, with little in the way of explanation or apology, and this time they finally did. By the time I’d victoriously lead them back to my waiting clients and we’d hiked on a couple of hours that afternoon, we were only a day behind schedule.
THE SLOSHED SIRDAR
From then on things improved, marginally. The porters proved to be a terribly lazy bunch, and their previous record led us to fret daily whether or not our gear would arrive. Each evening would see us standing around in the fading light betting on whose duffel bag or tent would appear next out of the shadows. Of course, one was nought without the other, and the true winners were those who received both tent and bag before dinner was ready. The next two days encompassed the crossing of the Sinelapcha La (4700m), which were expected to produce the most spectacular views of the whole trek. In fact, further blizzards obscured everything outside a 20m radius and rendered the path treacherously slippery, slowing our pace to a crawl. Passage was only enabled by the indifferent yaks which broke the trail for us. Morale was ebbing daily, and the constant exposure to biting cold winds was lowering my charges’ natural immunities. I had real fears for one lady who hadn’t been able to eat anything for a couple of days, citing traveller’s diarrhoea and nausea as the causes. Insufficient calorie intake is a recipe for hypothermia and altitude sickness, and by the time we reached Ghunsa I was forced to deliver an ultimatum – recommence eating or be sent home!
OPTIMISM AT LAST!
With my sick client on her way to safety the clouds of precipitation lifted and with them the atmosphere of maudlin pessimism. The classical lines of Jannu (7710m) came into view to the gasps of all, her pristine, white, isosceles flanks shining in the sun of a new day. It was incredible to see the wonder on the faces of my group after so many days of crushing conditions. The audible clicks of fifteen camera shutters (or digitally rendered versions thereof) punctuated our sighs of contentment as optimism returned from the dead, although the loudest sigh, mine, was one of relief. Jannu signalled the end of the low pressure front, and with it most of my problems.
The group dynamic was restored, the sickness wilted away and even the yaks had a spring in their step. For the next two days we walked in sunshine surrounded by the most spectacular scenery in the world. Pang Pema base camp, at 5150m, was a peakaholic’s paradise: Nepal Peak, the Twins, and the beautiful fluted summit of Wedge Peak, all dwarfed by the immense face of Kangchenjunga – a tumbling wall of cliffs, hanging glaciers, ice shelves and subsidiary peaks. Her broad shoulders protectively nurtured the birth of a snaking river of crevassed ice – the Kanchenjunga glacier that flowed down to feed the Ghunsa Khola below us, which in turn feeds the Tamur River, which feeds the mighty Saptakoshi, which drains half of Nepal into the Ganges. We were in the bosom of the subcontinent, and it had been worth the journey.
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