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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Magical Sikkim

View of Siniolchu and Simvo from the trail

Over the past 40 years I’ve trekked from the far west of Nepal to the far east of Bhutan, but until November 2010 had never trekked in Sikkim, the small Indian state that sits between the two former Himalayan kingdoms. This was due in part to the special permit required by Indian bureaucracy, which lapsed some years ago except for the far northern reaches of Sikkim, along the Tibetan border.

After reading Alone to Everest, Earl Denman’s account of his solo attempt on Everest in 1946 that began with a long trek across Sikkim, my interest was piqued. Denman’s guide was Tenzing (as in Norgay), so I thought what better person to show me Sikkim but Tenzing’s son and my friend, Jamling Tenzing.

I’ve long been enamored of Kangchenjunga, the world’s third tallest mountain that forms the border between eastern Nepal and Sikkim. Prior to 2010, I had seen it from the south (my wife Muna’s village), the west (on many treks in east Nepal), and the north (from the vantage point of the Lhasa-Kathmandu flight). Jamling suggested that I should certainly finish the job in fine fashion by seeing Kangchenjunga from the east. I accepted, and put together a small group to join me.

When I first saw the itinerary, two things struck me as potential negatives: the four days of trekking we would take to our high camp were all half days only, with a rest day after the third half day thrown in. I wondered why the pace was so slow. Secondly, there would not be a single village along the entire trek route, and being a culture vulture of the first degree, I thought I might find that disappointing. Wrong. On both counts.

The lack of villages served to accentuate the sense of walking in a truly pure wilderness area, an experience that becomes harder and harder to find as the world’s population grows to the point of saturation. The sounds of silence were broken only by the constant and lovely background music of the Zemu River, which flowed out of the Himalaya’s longest glacier, also called Zemu. While many parts of the Himalaya have had to deal with haze and smog imported from India’s megalopolis and dusty plains, the Zemu River Valley has some of the cleanest air I’ve ever experienced. Anywhere.

Despite the fact that our group of four were amongst the first fifty trekkers to ever trod this newly opened trekking route, we were joined, to our surprise and theirs, by a genial group of Austrian trekkers the first three days. We shared the trail and stories of past adventures. One of the Austrians had climbed Everest, and had met Jamling at past Everest summitteer gatherings, making for some interesting stories. After three half days of trekking, we took a rest and acclimatization day while the Austrians continued on to the fourth and final camp. We made good use of the rest day by hiking up to a viewpoint that afforded us what is probably the best view of Sikkim’s signature holy peak, Siniolchu, as well as views of Kangchenjunga and its neighbors.

The next day we proceeded to our high camp, where we were reunited with our newfound Austrian friends, two of whom had developed pulmonary edema, more commonly known as altitude illness. Jamling’s wisdom in designing the itinerary suddenly became clear.

The experience of standing in front of Kangchenjunga, with nothing between myself and the massive east wall that rises over 12,000’ from its base, was awe inspiring. I’ve loved seeing this magnificent peak from every angle, and in every season, but nothing quite compares with the unrestricted close-up view available on this trek. It made such an impression on me that I told Jamling before I left that I’d be back. Jamling and I will be leading the next edition of this trek in November 2012, and we’ve only got four spaces left. As Jamling is fond of saying, “You snooze, you lose.”

Steve Conlon
~Above the Clouds

East Face of Siniolchu (from Yabuk)
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Jamling Tenzing & Steve Conlon back dropped by Kangchenjunga

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