Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Mountains Bite Back - Bazara-Goeche La Trek Day 4-5

Trek day 3: We had some miles to make (or kilometers I suppose).  Our goal for the day was camp at a high lake called Joktey Pokhari.  So far, over 2 days we'd traveled only about 6 km and climbed 1478 meters (5,000 feet).  Making Joktey Pokhari in one day would mean hiking another 7 km and climbing to 4,0000 meters (13,100 feet) - higher than the tallest point in Arizona.  We felt refreshed, ready to take on most anything, but we all knew it was a big day for low-landers.  And we didn't even know about the storm yet.

Dwarfed by the massive trees

The beginning was a piece of cake.  We started across the ridge line, walking through thick stands of blooming rhododendron.  At this point, we were heading mostly downhill, with just enough climbing to keep us interested.  The group was laughing and taking plenty of time to snap photos and make silly faces.  This area is incredibly beautiful and wild: trees in the area were heavy with moss, often hanging in curtains across the trail;  wildflowers were peaking out of the ground, surrounded by their own shiny, dark green leaves; views stretched out forever of green-sloped mountains and valleys lost in fog.  I wanted the names of every plant I saw, and while our guides knew many, even they couldn't possibly know every one.  The variety was incredible.  

Some sort of Rubiaceae?

Some sort of yellow bulb...lovely little bells!
Flower clusters as big as my head!

Our guide, Binay, loved photography as much as we did.  He often borrowed my dSLR to snap photos.

We loved that Nancy's outfit matched the flowers

Down hill felt SO good!
From the first day, our group had started to divide itself into 2 groups: the fast group and what I'd call the lag.  Mitch and Ivanka are speed demons, and Debbie was determined to keep up with them no matter what.  Nancy, Rocky and I, however, were taking a more leisurely pace  - it's a pattern I see often in larger hiking groups.  Luckily, we had 2 guides with us for this part of the trek, so it seemed logical to let everyone move at a pace most comfortable for them. 

The first small stream we crossed
One of our yak men, Tashi.  I loved his shirt and always wondered if he knew what it meant ("There's too much blood in my alcohol level"...)

The darkest of the dzo carried my bag (left side).  I felt a bit sorry for him.
When we finally stopped for lunch, we were all high on adventure.  The boys were playing betting games behind a huge rock and we were snapping photos of the waterfalls of Tholo Oral. Our guides told us that this little valley was about half way to camp - but they didn't tell us that it we still had 2,000' to climb.  (I'm not sure they actually knew that - to them it was just a couple hours walk.)

Tholo Oral
Tea at lunch.  Notice the clever sock action designed to thwart leeches.  

Binay sports Rocky's hat over his own knit cap

The boys doing our dishes as we get hiking.  They'd always catch up fast.

Climbing again out of Tholo Oral
So here's where it started to get more interesting (scary, dangerous?).  The usual afternoon fog began to flow up the hillsides - but we could see behind it larger clouds that were actually forming in the opposite direction.  They had a black center that made us think perhaps we might get a little more than a mist.  When the rain started, we stopped to put on rain gear.  The guides just smiled and waited patiently for the Americans to cover themselves in brightly-colored plastic.  I'm not sure they would have had anything else to put on, even if they knew that this would be more than the usual heavy mist.  

Even through the early part of the storm we were still enjoying the hiking.  The elevation was getting to us a bit, and we (at least the lag group) were slow.  I snapped a couple last pictures before I put my cameras safely in my backpack to protect them from the rain which was getting more serious (and freezing into hail).  

The yellow spot ahead of me is Nancy in her poncho.  It became my beacon.

Rain is turning to small hail as we hike along the ridge

Still cheery
When we paused, I told Binay I was getting cold and tired, and asked how much further we had to go.  He patted me on the back and smiled.  

"Only a hundred meters more."

I had no idea that this was the Sikkim version of "not much further", which I use to motivate struggling hikers on trips I'm leading.  You know, it's usually said with a big smile and typically means that there are miles yet to go...

Binay took the fast group on ahead, and the lags hiked on with Chung Wan.  He had only a pink striped umbrella against the weather - and as the temps started to drop, it was obvious that it wasn't enough.  The wind was really blowing by now - I was guessing it was gusting over 30mph - and the hail hurt if it hit your skin.  We came around a corner and potted the dzo stopped on an exposed ridge a good distance ahead of us.  I had a brief moment of relief thinking that we were almost to camp, but it disappeared quickly.  There was no chance we could camp on a ridge like that in this weather.  Camp would have to be further on.  

Nancy wisely decided we should stop and eat a quick snack to help keep ourselves warm.  I resisted a bit, wanting to keep moving and make camp as soon as possible, but she was right.  With the distance still to go, we needed to keep our energy up.  While we snacked, Chung Wan moved on ahead.  His umbrella was shredded to ribbons by this time, and I'm sure he was freezing.    

That left the three of us alone on a hillside at about 12,000', in a growing blizzard, thousands of miles from any familiar rescue system.  The wind continued to get stronger.  Then the trail disappeared into a boulder field: an ice covered boulder field that fell away into a valley hundreds of feet below.  It was getting dark.

I won't lie.  I was freaked out.  

I've crossed boulder fields like this one many times in places like the Grand Canyon, with the treacherous slopes and loose footing.  I've even done it in some nasty weather.  However, something about doing it in the Himalaya just added a touch of intensity to the experience (just a touch, ha!).  Several times, I had to close my eyes and fight back panic so my confidence could surface enough to navigate.  Nancy and I got separated from Rocky in the boulders.  My hands were getting numb (I'd left my warm gloves in my bag on the dzo) and I was starting to recognize the early signs of hypothermia, including sluggish thinking and shaking.   

Yup.  If there is a time to freak out, this felt like a good one. 

We met Rocky again - he had stopped in the shelter of a large boulder to wait for us, and we called out until we found him.  Together we managed to get out of the boulder field and back onto a steep, but walkable slope.  Finally, after what felt like hours, we made it out onto the exposed ridge we'd seen from afar.  Instantly, we were slammed by real gusts - the kind of wind that only inhabits lonely mountain passes.  It was almost impossible to talk over the sound and walking against it took serious effort.  It's the sort of place that is so beautifully terrifying that in retrospect I wish I had at least one rain-blurred photo to illustrate.  All I have, though, is a memory framed by the hood of my raincoat.  

We stopped once more in the lee of a large stone to put on more layers.  It was something we should have done much earlier, but as often happens we kept convincing ourselves that it was smarter to keep moving.  For me, it was rain pants.  Somehow, I always wait too long to put those on, and they usually end up over soaking wet hiking pants.  Rocky didn't have much more to put on, so I gave him my wool buff for his head- he said later that the small piece of cloth made such a difference that he decided to never hike without one again.  Warmed slightly, we started moving again, but with very little light left and no idea where we needed to go beyond the pass, we were beginning to wonder if we didn't need to find a place to shelter for the night.

We just made the far end of the pass where a small trail lead clearly to the next ridge when Binay and the lead yak man, Galuk, found us.  He'd lead the rest of the group to the camp ahead, stopped long enough to borrow rain gear, warm clothes and head lamps from the faster hikers, then come back for us.   I think I might have cried with relief at seeing him - but my eyes were watering so badly from the stinging wind that it was impossible to tell.  I wanted to have a full on tantrum, but there was no time.  Binay lead us quickly along the rocky path over the next ridge (above 13,000') and down to the camp.  His mood was positive and reassuring, and in retrospect I have a great deal of respect of how well he handled some VERY grumpy campers.  

By the time we made camp, we were walking through a full-on snow storm, our feet breaking ice crusted puddles and our headlamps showing mostly just frozen lumps of ground.  It was completely dark.  Nancy had trouble with her night vision and Galuk was steering her, hand on her elbow, with enough strength to almost carry her over the potholes.  His English may have been very basic, but somehow they managed to get through the last half-mile with nods and pulls on her arm.  

Binay brought us right into the kitchen tent, which was crowded with bodies and thick with smoke.  The rest of our group was there, overcome with happiness that we were safe, and we got lots of hugs and hot tea as the boys pulled at our soaking wet clothes.  Even the boys seemed genuinely overjoyed to see us.  We would learn later that they'd been truly frightened that we were lost in the storm. 

If only I could say the adventure for the day ended there!  We knew we were safe, but we were far from warm.  I could barely hold my tea, I was shaking so badly.  The storm still raged outside, though in the sheltered valley of camp we were protected from the worst of it.  One of our 3 sleeping tents was knocked down in the storm, so we needed to pile 3 of us and all of our gear into a space that was usually pretty snug with 2.  Rocky, Nancy and I crawled into a tent, leaving our muddy shoes outside, and tried to get our wet things off without soaking our sleeping gear (or each other).   Modesty was not high on our priority list, but there were plenty of frantic giggles coming from both tents as we tried our best to get dry and warm. 

Chung Wan brought by some dinner (through the storm, to our door - what SERVICE), but we were all unable to eat much other than some fried rice and soup.  I felt horrible that they'd cooked the usual complicated meal and we weren't able to eat it - but my stomach was a knot that wasn't likely to untie for a while.  The shaking was finally starting to abate, though.

With little choice of moving around, we all agreed to try to sleep.  Our wet gear piled near the door, we lay shoulder-to-shoulder at the back of the tent and turned off our lights.  My feet were propped up on the heap of my stuff to make more room.  I smelled like a wet cat, and I couldn't stop squirming.  .But at last I began to feel my extremities again.  

I caught my watch before we dozed off...it was only about 8:30pm.   

Trek Day 4:

When it was light enough to step out of the tent, we could hardly believe our eyes.  The storm was gone, we were at Joktey Pokhari, and it was magic.  

Morning view - Joktey Pokhari - 4,006m

It didn't take us long to recover our wits enough to take advantage of the views
Camp at Joktey Pokhari
We climbed out of the tents and started to spread our wet things out on the low shrubs of the alpine valley (called Ti plants by the guides).  It was clear that we weren't the only ones who'd been caught unprepared by the storm.  All of the boys were clearly worse for the wear, too, and their brightly colored clothes were spread out next to ours.  As we sat to enjoy breakfast, we hoped that we'd be able to take a day to recover, dry out and regroup.

Still snowy at breakfast, but we bundled up to enjoy the view with our meal

I love this guy (Binay).  He's just a great person.  He saved me from freezing on the side of a mountain.  Really, I love this guy!

Yup.  It's COLD.

We did end up spending the whole day recuperating at the sacred lake.  Our clothes dried quickly in the sunshine, which was good because it didn't last long.  The mists returned in the afternoon, but they were quiet and without menace.  We wandered the small, high valley we'd camped in and I walked to the shores of the lake.  It's a small glacial cirque, ringed with boulders and tough shrubs.  The dzo grazed out of site in a pasture more accommodating than our rocky valley, so it was almost eerily silent without their bells.  

We played some dice and card games, redistributed our things to the lost tent (which luckily dried out), and ate a lot.   We laughed with the boys and felt a new kind of camaraderie that comes with surviving something truly frightening.  We felt like a single expedition...actually, we were a single expedition.  

One of the most heart-felt Wendy's EVER!

Yardsale at 13,000'

 Enjoying the day, though you can see the mists approaching

When the cold mists settled in, I enjoyed it more from inside the tent (wrapped in my down sleeping bag)

Sacred lake at Joktey Pokhari

We were heading for Goeche La, with a visit to Dzongri along the way.  An epic adventure already, and look what more was to come!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Heading Off into the Jungle: Bazara-Goeche La Trek Day 1-3

Just a note of background before I jump back into the diary:  When I was in the planning stages of this trip, I'd contacted Lamdik Ecoventures about doing just the same Goeche La trek I'd done on my prior visit.  When he heard that we were a fit group and keenly interested in seeing rhododendrons, he recommended a longer, tougher trip - one that spent more time in the forests away from the heavily impacted hills around Dzongri.  It didn't take much convincing for me or for my group: an area less traveled, more pristine and more challenging?  Sign us up!  It meant fewer days available for sight-seeing in the cities, but we all knew what we'd really come to see and that was mountains and forests.  
This trek would start out in an area much less frequently visited by tourists and would end on the popular Goeche La route, so we could get the best of both worlds.  The trade off was that we really had almost no idea what we were in for: the length of the walking was described in hours rather than distance, and the difficulty was given from the point of view of a native who regularly walks steep trails for long distances at elevation.  It would be tough to gauge what we were in for from day-to-day...truly the definition of adventure! 

Trek Day 1:  In my little bed at the Family Guest House, I slept like a dead thing.  I woke, still feeling a little dizzy from the ride and groggy from the drugs.  Our guide had some last-minute preparations to do, so we had some time in the morning for a delicious breakfast and a leisurely walk to the holy Lake Khecheopalri.  This was a good thing...a little recovery window which (in retrospect) should have been a whole day.

Lake Khecheopalri is a lovely spot, sacred to both Buddhists and Hindu.  It is a "wishes fulfilling lake", and there are many small stupas, shrines and statues on the path to the lake, as well as seemingly hundreds of small stacks of wishing stones (which look to me like cairns).  Signs everywhere warn people to be respectful of the sacred nature of the lake and to not pollute it or the silence that surrounds it.  We certainly enjoyed the peace and quiet after the noise of Siliguri and the dust of the road.

The path through the garden at the Family Guest House

Village at Lake Khecheopalri 

Jetty which takes you to the lake edge.  There were many groups praying during our visit.

See...it really was me 

Prayer wheels on the jetty

Panorama of the lake.  It sits in a glacial valley or névé

You can hear the quiet, right?

A small temple on the path to the lake

Prayer wheel in the temple

A small nunnery near the lake.
When we were through at the lake, we returned to the guest house and loaded up in the cars again for the short ride to our "trailhead".  Though we would be leaving the vehicles behind, the beginning of our hike was actually on the "road" to the next village - but it's a road for feet.  6 hikers, 9 guides and 16 draft animals started the steep climb into the mountains.  It was to be a pretty long day, with a lunch stop at a ridgetop above the small village of Lamathang

And it was spectacular from the word go.

Heading up the first hill.  There was no flat warm up for this hike!

A grass hut a small way off the road.  

Binay and Chung Wan lead Nancy through the jungle

Such an amazing landscape
Resting a moment at a street-side shelter

As we approached Lamatang, we walked through fields of cardamom plants...evidently a profitable crop for the area.  Cardamom is the world's third most expensive spice after vanilla and saffron.

A cistern that is a part of the town's gravity-fed water supply

We learned later that this family was related to one of our guides

Lamathang does not get as many tourist visitors as towns I visited on my first trek.  The novelty of Americans walking through the village is still exciting to the kids

Young and old came out to watch the show as we passed

 The lovely school at Lamathang.  It was hard to imagine that our trek to that point was just the walk to school for many kids in the area.

They loved getting their photos taken - and even better when you showed them the digital image after!
Binay and I cooled our heads in the overflowing cistern
Lamathang was magical.  Whereas other town's I've visited felt as though they were in the tourism business, this village felt distinctly un-touristy - a authentic place with a real sense of the life of the region.  I wished I could spend a month here, just getting to know the people and rituals instead of just walking quickly by.  It was a treat, though, to see the hand-woven houses and delicate bamboo fences, bountiful gardens and lush fields.  Everyone had flowers planted near their door and well kept homes.  Though I knew this idyllic appearance probably hid problems that exist in any agriculturally based community, it was refreshing to see a place where people live simply and still smile as strangers pass through.

I was suddenly thankful I'd like Binay talk us into this longer, more remote trek.  Getting away from the more heavily traveled tourist trail was already paying off.

Beyond Lamathang, the trail continued to be incredibly well developed for a couple of miles.  The local residents were evidently trying to encourage trekking in the area by creating a very engineered trail-bed, including paving the way (literally) with small stones.  I didn't appreciate yet what a task this must've been, but being a trail builder myself, I could certainly see that there'd be a tremendous effort taken to make the very steep way more comfortable.  (I hope, though, that in their quest for tourists, they really try to keep this place quiet and genuine.)

Then we came to the end of the developed trail and the way started to get steep for real.  I mean real, real steep.  We climbed behind the dzo up a forested slope, using roots and branches as steps.  I started to slow down...the elevation (already over 8000') was starting to slow my breath considerably, and the residual Dramamine in my system was making me slightly ill.  I was tremendously glad when we reached the ridge that Binay called Bhangyang and we stopped for lunch.  

"The Boys" (as we started to affectionately call the cook, porters and yak men) fired up their kerosene-powered rocket engines and cooked us a hearty lunch to be spread out on a blue tarp over the tall ferns and grasses on the hillside.  While there was evidence of use on this ridge, it wasn't beaten down and muddy like camps on the Goeche-la Trek.  While we ate lunch, Binay spoke with us about the option of staying in this spot overnight, rather than continuing on to Bazara - another 2000' of climbing and several hours to go.  We were slower than he'd anticipated (or at least I was), and I think he was worried that we'd be too tired to make the second camp in decent time.  

I knew I could, but I was actually glad we he decided that we shouldn't.  Camping here on the scenic ridge and having an afternoon to rest and regroup meant losing one of our rest days later in the trek, but none of us minded at that point.  We just wanted to stop moving long enough to let our biological clocks catch up with us.

The kitchen at lunch was al fresco...

Lunch at Bhangyang (compare to Sachen)
The hillsides were covered in ripe, sweet wild strawberries...which surprisingly the dzo did not seem to want to eat!
Hanging out at the tents, talking philosophy or yoga or something

A civilized up of tea

Now, being Americans (even Americans from the arid badlands) we're used to bathing pretty regularly, and we still had the dust from Siliguri in our ears.  So when the ladies discovered there was a stream near by that we could wash up in, we scampered down the hill quicker than kittens after a laser dot.  We stripped down and got as clean as we could (with the help of an ingenious spout installed by our porters).  Little did we know the little biting gnats (to be called bity bastards for the rest of the trip) would have picked off our flesh if we'd stayed out long enough.  We all ended up with little red welts for our efforts, and none of us took off that much clothing outside of the confines of our tents again (well, at least not until we were far above bity bastard range).  

Of course, being stupidly allergic to any sort of insect interaction, my little red welts stuck around for the rest of the trip to pester me endlessly.  I'm just glad the other ladies recovered fairly quickly from being feasted on...

Home-made kitchen spout

 The next morning, we were enjoying a leisurely breakfast when The Boys started to talk excitedly among themselves.  Without much explanation, we were told to grab our things and we were whisked out of camp and straight up a hill so much steeper than the one from the day before that I thought maybe we'd taken a wrong turn.

As we climbed, we learned that a swarm of bees had somehow attacked the camp.  Our guides told us they were "angry" bees, and indeed it seems that they stung a couple of the yak men (one badly on the face).  Keeping the soft white people safe, the had taken us on the herder's shortcut up the hill - sometimes hacking through jungle to make passage.  We were pulling ourselves up sometimes hand-over-foot, which was quite the way to wake us up.  When we intersected the trail once again, the going got easier but stayed very steep.  Although we hadn't seen the pack animals, they had evidently gotten ahead of us while we climbed (they took the trail).  

Starting up the hill 

Leaf litter made the trail slippery in places
Up into the clouds

Ringing Mountain Bells...

Wild roses

And leeches.  Fun (not).
We were out of the world of villages now, moving through dense jungle and the steep foothills of the Himalaya.  I decided to bring along my GPS unit to record our travels, since the guide didn't have an accurate map to share before we started (mapping in that area isn't the same as it is in the US for sure).  It was fun to track our progress, though depressing to see how slow we were going.  However, when I looked at the near-vertical elevation profile for the hike, it made sense.  We weren't so much heading across country as we were going into the clouds themselves!

Our next camp at Bazara
Our camp at Bazara was on another ridge - though the views when we arrived were significantly shortened by heavy mist and fog.  Just like my first visit to Sikkim, the mornings were relatively clear and by mid afternoon the mists came up from the valleys to sit among the trees.  At 3368 meters (10,700'), Bazara was above the jungle and into the hardwood forests - thick with rhododendron and magnolia as well as massive firs.  The whole area had been burned badly 30 years prior, though, and what remained was largely a ghost forest of bizarrely twisted trunks and crooked branches.  Eerie doesn't even begin to describe it.  Our tents were arranged along the sharp ridge in a rough line, but in the mists it was as if each was isolated from the other.  Stepping out, it felt as though we were on a strange new world, surrounded only by skeletons and the soft sound of ringing yak bells.

Pink rhododendron and a burned fir trunk

The dining tent in the ghost forest

Some sort of lily that was common on the ridge
Late in the afternoon, the fog lifted somewhat and we had a brief view of the mountains - a teaser of what would appear in the morning.  We all jumped out of the warm protection of our tents and took in the beauty - it was enough to drive away the weariness and fill us with excitement for the trek to come.

A peek of a peak

Mountain paparazzi 
 That night was Rocky's 55th birthday.  I'd let our guide know, and he said they were planning a surprise for the evening.  I figured there might be a special desert or perhaps a happy birthday song.  What we got was a whole evening of amazing food, song, dance and fun presented by the whole crew.  They even made gifts for the birthday boy: a garland of red rhododendrons, a matching bouquet and a flute carved by one of the yak men from a strand of bamboo.  We were all touched and delighted by their songs and dancing, and by how much genuine fun they seemed to have celebrating the birthday of someone who was almost a stranger.

Well - not so much a stranger any more I suppose.  And we would all get even closer in no time, through events it was hard to imagine on such a crystal clear morning...

Rocky with his garland and bouquet the morning after his surprise birthday party.

Mt. Kabru from Bazara in the morning...WHAT a view!

Yup...it's worth throwing a Wendy for sure
 We were all in great spirits that morning as we hit the trail once again.  Gone was the weary grogginess of the day before.  We could see the Himalaya and we wanted to get closer... The mountains were calling, and we answered eagerly with our feet.

Hitting the trail out of Bazara