|Day 1-4 Bazara-Goeche La Trek 2014, WW|
|Day 1-4 Bazara-Goeche La Trek 2014, WW|| |
Day 1-4 Bazara-Goeche La Trek 2014, WW
|Hiking||7.93 Miles|| 10 Hrs 30 Mns ||0.76 mph|
|8,262 ft AEG|
||no linked trail guides|
|When my friends in the Arizona Backpacking Club begged me to lead a trip back to the Indian Himalaya where I'd trekked in 2012, I told them they were nuts. It was way to much work to do on a volunteer basis, and besides - I'd been underemployed for too long to afford that kind of journey. When they said they'd pay my airfare in exchange for planning the trip I had to think about it for a minute...
Who am I kidding? You all know I jumped on that like a kitten on a laser dot!
At the urging of my guide, Binay (owner of Lamdik Eco-Ventures) and on the wishes of the group, we chose a more challenging trek than I did in 2012. The Yuksom-Goeche La trek is undoubtedly beautiful, but I was promised this was more rugged, incredibly remote and perfectly suited to us hearty backpackers. This trek would be a horse-shoe loop rather than an out-and-back, and we would finish the final few days on the Goeche La trek, and so we'd still get the up-close-and-personal view of Khanchendzonga (the 3rd highest peak in the world). We would be on trek for 14 days (as opposed to the 9 days I did before), and most of the time we were promised to be the only humans to be seen. Just what any good American backpacker dreams of, right? Abso-freaking-lutely!
If you want more tales of the journey prior to the actual trek, just check my blog where I'll be posting in dizzying detail...http://innerstitch.blogspot.com/. For the sake of brevity here we'll jump forward to day 4 of the trip, day 1 of the trek where we find...
Day 1: Bhangyang or Bust
Our group of 6 trekkers from Arizona (Rocky, Nancy, Ivanka, Debbie, Mitch and your's truly) joined by no fewer than 9 Sikkimese (including guides, porters, cooks and yak men) and 14 dzo (a cross between a cow and a yak) begin at the bottom of a hill near the town of Khecheopalri Lake. The bulk of our gear for 14 days is strapped onto the backs of the hairy yaks (I'll call them this for the purpose of story telling, 'cause no one knows what a dzo is), and the rest we have in day packs. We start up the hill, which is immediately quite steep. The first day, the trail is mostly an engineered route made of broken stones which leads first to the small village of Lamathang and then toward Bazara which is scheduled to be our fist camp.
We'd been hiking for about 3 hours (with many stops for photos and scenery) when we reached Bhangyang, about .5 miles above where the stone pavement ended. We'd already climbed from about 5200' to more than 8000', and some of us (me included) were really feeling the altitude. Considering that arriving in Khecheopalri was the culmination of almost 40 hours of travel and we'd had only one night to rest before hiking it wasn't surprising that we just didn't have the energy that we usually might have. (Of course, climbing almost 3000' in about 3 miles didn't help). The guide recommended that we spend the night at Bhangyang rather than pressing on to Bazara - which was another 2000' climb. We were reluctant to stop so soon, but his recommendation was taken seriously and we agreed to camp.
It was so nice to stop moving for a few hours! The views from the ridgeline camp were quickly erased by mist and fog (as would be the pattern every afternoon for the length of the trip), so we just sat around reading, sorting gear and napping. The ladies hiked around the corner to a stream where we all took the chance to bathe (there had been no facilities in Khecheopalri). This turned out to be a pretty big mistake for me at least, as the little biting gnats which were just an annoyance to the other ladies turned out to leave lasting, miserable welts all over my legs. (I still have marks on my legs and shoulders nearly 2 months later). However, it was refreshing to be clean and I thought in the moment that my bites would clear up in no time.
Day 2: Climb Every Steaming Hill
We started our next morning with a leisurely breakfast which was suddenly interrupted when a swarm of bees invaded camp. We heard the bees coming and thought little of it, but our guides pushed us up the hill and out of camp immediately, telling us that the bees were "angry" and were certain to sting us. They must've been onto something, for 2 of our yak men ended up with nasty stings. Given my reaction to everything that bit me in that country, I'm very thankful to have dodged the bees - I might have ended up in the hospital!
Our hike on day 2 was as different from the first day as night and day. To avoid the bees, we were taken up a "short cut", which took us up over 1200' in about .6 miles on a steep, narrow track that the guides had to machete out of the bush. It was like a hot, wet stair master through thick bamboo grasses, tree roots, thorny bushes and biting bugs. Oh, and leeches. This is where we first found these blood-sucking lovelies on our ankles (and you guessed it - I'm allergic to those pumpkins as well). Needless to say, it was exhausting and seemed impossibly slow. When the trail "flattened out" again to a more reasonable 1000'/mile grade, we were pretty thrilled. We reached the ghost forest of Bazara by noon and made camp once again.
Binay told us that Bazara is on a ridgeline that was burned by a massive forest fire almost 30 years ago. The fire started in China and burned across the Himalayan foothills clear to Nepal. Here, the massive firs were killed off, leaving creepy forked trunks behind. Though the rhododendron forest has started to return, they're still just shrubs compared to the giant ghost trees. With the afternoon mists settling in, the place is positively eerie but also completely awesome. As promised earlier, there wasn't a single sign of humans. The hillsides were thick with wild strawberries and the wildflowers were untrampled (well, that is until our yaks got there). We sat in the thick mists listening to the soft ringing of our yak's bells and marveled at how absolutely, terrifyingly far from home we were. It was perfect.
Except my freaking feet which itched like pumpkin-lovers.
Day 3:The Storm of the Century
We really felt like we were getting the hang of this. Well, the other's did, anyway. I felt like a real pro, all crowing about like I knew everything about trekking in Sikkim and drinking my tea without sugar and all. Each morning they woke us with tea brought to our tent, cooked us a hot breakfast which usually consisted of porridge, some breads, eggs and jam. We packed our things while they cleaned up breakfast, and we stretched and yawned as they took down and packed the tents. Then we left the guys to load up the yaks while we started hiking. It's really a pretty rough way to live, unless of course you're the American tourist. I've never felt to lazy and so tired at the same time.
By now we were above 10,000' and the air was getting thin. Day 3 was supposed to be pretty easy compared to the steep climbs on days 1 and 2, but longer. We all looked forward to more time walking and less time hanging out in camp. In retrospect (and upon looking at the elevation profile on my GPS in camp later) it was a gnarly day of hiking under any conditions - and we had to contend with getting lost in a freak, late-season snow storm. But I get ahead of myself...
The hike started of on a high note: we had our first good views of the Himalayan peaks ahead. We were officially in the Singalila Range, the ridge that separates Sikkim and Nepal. The massive peaks over 6,000 meters (19,000') were in the Khanchendzonga range to our north. Seeing these massive peaks rising more than 10,000' above us when we were already so high was amazing. I also knew how far we had still to go, because I knew how much closer we would get to those amazing peaks.
We continued climbing at a reasonable slope for about a mile and a half amid the skeletal trees and blooming rhododendron bushes. When we started an easy descent, we practically cheered. We were playing with the flowers, taking a million photos and chatting like we were kids. It was such a relief to not be out of breath while walking! We dropped 400' to cross a small stream basin (Kustare), then abruptly started the climb back out. We gained what we'd lost plus another 200' as we climbed over the next ridge and then dropped again. Back down that 500' felt good, but not as good as the first - particularly because we all knew we'd just have to climb up again.
We had a hot lunch at the second stream crossing - a beautiful spot of waterfalls and dense trees called Tholo Oral. Binay assured us that it wasn't far to camp from there - the easy part of the day. We just had to climb out of the stream valley then over the ridge...no problem! The climb started steep and didn't let up. We climbed 2000' in a bout a mile and a half, to over 12,000'. That was when the mists turned mean. Droplets of water got bigger until we all decided to stop and put on rain gear. Then the bigger droplets turned into small hail. With Binay's continued reassurance that we were close to camp, we put our heads down and kept climbing, and then descending, and then climbing, and then descending...
At the top of the ridge, we hit the winds which whipped the frozen water at us in 40 mph gusts. Visibility dropped dramatically, and since we were hiking in two distinct groups (the very fast and the less fast), it was impossible for the guide to be right in front of all of us. We had an assistant guide, but he wasn't familiar with the short cut we'd taken, and he also did not have proper rain or cold weather gear for himself. Nancy, Rocky and I ended up alone far behind the rest of the group, struggling to cross a now-slick boulder slide in the snow with no idea that we'd be able to pick up the trail on the other side. We knew vaguely where we were supposed to go - we were headed for a pass at the end of the ridge - but we didn't know what was the easiest way to get there. The slopes were precipitous and the footing slippery. We inched our way along the hillside into the wind, hoping see some sign of where we were supposed to go beyond the pass ahead. The snow was still falling horizontally when then the sun hit the top of the horizon.
We stopped once on the rock slide to eat a snack, which helped us stay alert. Then we stopped in the shelter of a large boulder on the pass to add another layer under our soaked rain gear to try to keep from getting more hypothermic. We were starting to make questionable decisions, moving very slowly and it was getting dark. These things happen on the trail, and I'm pretty good at controlling my anxiety and keeping a level head. However, I'm also used to being somewhere that I know someone would come looking for me and would likely find me within a day or so if things went really south. Here, in the middle of absolutely nowhere Himalaya, I did not feel so confident of rescue. In fact, I felt pretty sure that if we were lost we had only our 1 guide to count on - and it seemed pretty likely that he could be in as dire straits as we were.
Maybe I over dramatize now... Sitting in an air conditioned room typing on my laptop while sipping fresh coffee it seems like I may be making a little too much of the whole situation. After all - I'm here, right? I made it out alive, clearly, and I've got all my fingers and toes.
But let me tell you, huddling behind that boulder on a 12,400' mountain pass more than 8,000 miles from home it was pumpkin scary. I was dangerously cold, possibly lost and nearly all of my decent gear was strapped to a yak who could have been miles away. We had less than an hour of daylight left and I was out of energy. Not ashamed to say there were some girly tears shed at some point, but they fell on a face that was moving across the slopes of that mountain so I still count it as a victory.
We were just stopping to get out our headlamps when we spotted a light moving toward us from the next ridge above. It was Binay and his lead yak man, Galuk. They'd made camp, borrowed rain gear from other members of our group and headed back for us. Luckily, we'd actually managed to stay on something of a trail and he found us easily. He gave us huge hugs and said a few quick prayers in Nepali before leading us back to camp. Galuk grabbed Nancy's arm (her sight wasn't so good in the dark even with the lamps) and literally drove her back - pointing to where each step should go. We walked through half-frozen puddles above my ankles (wet feet, oh well) and snow drifts that had already covered up their tracks coming out. We got over the ridge and into the small valley of Joktey Pokhari 11 hours after we left our morning camp.
We'd traveled 5 miles and climbed an accumulated total of 4,200'. How all of that could have happened in under 6 miles mystifies me to this day.
Binay brought us into the cook tent, which was full of people and steam and heat from the burners. They took off our wet rain gear, but it was pretty pointless as the rest of our clothes under it were still soaked. One of the tents that we usually used had gotten wet, so all 3 of us were put in a single tent for the night, along with all of our wet and dry gear. We were so tired and cold that we could barely eat the dinner they brought to us. We stripped, got in our sleeping bags and fell asleep.
Day 4:Rest for the Wicked
We woke the next morning to sparkling blue skies and a soft, thin blanket of snow. What had seemed to be a massive storm had been more bark than bite, and left only about 3" of snow on the ground at our camp. The sun was warm and reassuring and we all breathed a huge sigh of relief.
We'd been scheduled for 2 days at Joktey Pokhari, but we'd used our extra day the first night at Bhangyang. It was obvious to everyone, though, that we all needed a day to recover from the storm. Even the sturdy yak men were wet and wrung out. The cloth tents were frozen stiff and everything from our underwear to our sleeping bags needed time to dry. We decided to sacrifice another rest day we'd scheduled for further on in the trek and stay the whole day in the sheltered valley. We spread out our things on the thankfully clingy alpine shrubs and enjoyed the crystal views of the Himalayan peaks. It certainly could have been much worse.
Binay had commitments back in Yuksom (India's historic election took place while we were on trek, and he was a commissioner), and he left to hike back down the mountain. He would rejoin us in a few days at Dzongri, and he left his nephew Chung Wang in charge. We each did what we needed to in order to recover our wits and strength - and we ate more wonderful food (we didn't learn until the trek was over that more than half of our vegetables were ruined by the storm).
Warm and dry, we went to sleep on day 4 hoping that the bad weather was over and it would be blue skies the rest of the way (well, at least just blue skies and mist). In this, at least, we would be fortunate...
**to be continued**
Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.- Barack Obama