This is the second of two trip reports about our trek to the Nepalese side of Kangchenjunga last month, covering our visit to the south base camp. For the first half, covering north base camp, see my trip report Kangchenjunga base camp trek: Pangpema and the north side.
There is some wonderful valley trekking in Nepal. There are paths hewn into rock that cling to precipitous cliff faces, paths that climb so high above the valley floor that you can no longer see or hear the river, trails through forest, and trails through wider valleys where the peaks are visible above. Valley treks also provide those long steel bridges miles above the river that swing as you cross them. Himalayan trekking wouldn’t be the same without those.
Valley walking in the Himalayas is enriching, at times it’s staggering. Perhaps I’ve had so much of it that I take it for granted, but I also find that valley walking can only give you so much. If you confine yourself only to valleys, then you miss out on some of the most challenging trekking, and you miss some of the best views.
There is also the art of boulder hopping across river beds, something that can get a bit tedious. We had plenty of that. The whole of our trek so far had been up a valley, from the lower reaches of 1,250m at Chiruwa, all the way up to 5,150m at Pangpema. That was a heck of a valley. We’d had some amazing views at the top end and even climbed a peak, but it was time for a change.
We chose to visit the north side of Kangchenjunga first because it made acclimatisation easier. There were plenty of villages along the way, and we could ascend gradually, neither exhausting ourselves with long days, nor making ourselves sick with sudden altitude gains. Had we visited the south side first, then we would have needed to make some big jumps in altitude very early on: not such a good idea when you’re not yet acclimatised.
Now we were going to visit the south side of Kangchenjunga, and the nature of the trekking was going to change. We had a number of passes to cross, and I was looking forward to them.
The second half of the trek gave us something else to look forward to. This was an easy trip for us. We were only trekking around an 8,000er, but when you’ve climbed an 8,000er (and Edita and I have climbed several between us) you can’t look at an 8,000m peak without studying the way up. The north side was unclimbable by normal people. That’s not to say it can’t be climbed. Several people have, but when they include Doug Scott, Pete Boardman and Joe Tasker, that’s a little clue for less able climbers to look elsewhere.
The standard route up Kangchenjunga is from the south side, the same way taken by Joe Brown and George Band on the first ascent in 1955, though without the E621 cliff Joe climbed just below the summit (that’s a climbing grade by the way, not an artificial food additive). Kangchenjunga is one of the harder 8,000ers, and is known to have a long summit day. I may never climb it myself, but it would be nice to pop over to the south side and have a look.
But first we had to descend the way we came. When I left you in my previous trip report a couple of weeks ago, we’d returned to Lhonak after our ascent of the trekking peak Drohmo Ri. We had to go back to Ghunsa at 3,400m to take the high passes over to the south side. Edita started the morning with a good deed by gifting the young couple at the teahouse her iPhone cable, which was not easily obtainable in Lhonak.
We left Lhonak at eight o’clock. Shortly after leaving we had a good view back up the glacier, and thought we could see our peak, Drohmo Ri. Clouds were drifting up from lower down the valley and within half an hour of leaving, we found ourselves walking among them. These were similar conditions to those we experienced on the way up. It had been beautiful sunshine higher up at Lhonak, but there seemed to be a band of cloud between 4,000 to 4,500m that kept this region in perpetual gloom.
The drabness wasn’t tempered by the terrain. Most of the grassy shelf beside the river from Kangbachen to Pangpema is gradually eroding away and falling into the glacier. The trail is often changing, and we occasionally lost it across boulder fields. We passed a landslide area where a high waterfall was ejecting ice avalanches.
We stopped at the Jannu Viewpoint Guesthouse in Kangbachen for a tasty lunch of dal bhat and fried chilli (a phrase I would never have used at the start of the trek, but I was acquiring a taste for rice and lentils).
The weather remained cloudy in the afternoon, with light rain. Edita was very quick and I often rounded a corner to find her waiting for me. The trail passed high above an eroding valley. Then we entered the enchanted rhododendron forest. This became pine forest; the trail occasionally touched the river and we found ourselves crossing a rocky river bed.
At Edita’s pace it didn’t take us long to reach yak pastures around Ghunsa. It was nice to return to the Kangchenjunga Guesthouse, where we indulged in hot showers and a delicious pizza cooked by Tarke the lodge owner’s wife.
Gombu invited us to a puja at the monastery, where he said there would be some interesting dancing. But monks aren’t generally known for their dancing ability, and we were far too relaxed sitting by the fire in the teahouse with a bottle of Tuborg. He returned later, a little red in the face and in a talkative mood. We understood by this that as well as the dancing, there had been a few mugs of tongba.
The trail above Ghunsa went straight up into rhododendron forest. There was a nice meadow a few hundred metres up that would make a good campsite with running water. After that it was climb, climb, climb up through the forest. I was too slow for Edita; she passed me and went steaming on ahead.
I found her waiting for me above the treeline. We followed a high path that traversed across a hillside. It was a pleasant change to be up high, instead of down in the valley, but height has its drawbacks too – it was misty, and we couldn’t see much of a view.
We walked up into snow. There were a few tricky sections of ice as the trail rose to cross a couple of spurs. After nearly three hours of walking we stopped for a snack on a hillside. It was still misty, but it was a thin mist, and the sun provided some warmth. Not long after this, the trail rose into a basin with snow-dusted hills rising above. The vegetation was mostly grass now, and the hills were as bare as Scottish moorland. We saw a hut, and we reached Selele at 11.45.
It was a nice setting in a grassy bowl with a river running through it. But it was also clearly a yak pasture. Much of the grass was churned into mud, but there were a few flat, grassy spots on which to pitch our tent.
We spent the afternoon resting to the sound of snow pattering on the tent. At about two o’clock there were two short bursts of lightning close by, but the storm soon passed. I went outside to shake snow off the tent, but the old, worn fabric was pulled so tight that with no effort I put a big rip in the back porch. Edita fixed it with a plastic bag, and we kept our fingers crossed the tent would last the trek.
It was a busy teahouse that night. A German trekker had followed us up from Ghunsa, and four Indian trekkers arrived from across the pass. They told us it took them eight hours from Tseram and there was a lot of snow. One lady was only wearing approach shoes. She had very wet feet and had to warm them by the fire.
We woke to blue sky and a thin coating of snow which gave our secluded basin a winter feel. We knew there would be even more snow over the passes, so we took out our big mountaineering boots for the first time on our trek. We also took out our ice axes. One of the porters, Dawa, asked if he could carry one to give him more security on the snow. I offered the other to Sombadur, but he declined. I noticed later that he had a different carrying style. He held his head strap with both hands, where Dawa walked along with his arms swinging freely.
The trail was barely visible, buried under fresh snow, but Dawa did a great job trail finding with a little assistance from the Maps.me app, which I checked on my phone for the odd moments when we were unsure.
The walk up to the Mirgen La (4,480m) was one of the highlights of the trek. The sun was out as we climbed through this winter wonderland. Jannu rose high above the hillside, looking more and more like a severe version of Ama Dablam every time we looked at it. It was a warm climb as the sun reflected off the snow. There was a thick snow traverse to reach the pass.
After this, the day became less memorable. There were supposed to be two passes between Selele and Tseram – the Mirgen La and the higher Sinelapche Bhanjang (4,650m) – but whoever said this must have been using his balls to count instead of his fingers. I counted at least seven passes as rise after rise followed traverse after traverse.
It was some of the most tedious, boring and tiring trekking I had experienced for a long time. The visibility was down to a few metres. All around was white. The snow was thick and soft, and I kept putting my feet into a hole.
On the far side of the umpteenth pass I started to run out of energy. I dropped behind the others and stopped for a rest. I fell asleep long enough for Edita to come back and look for me. She found me reclining on a rock, and didn’t believe me when I told her I just needed a snooze. She thought I had altitude sickness, and when I started singing the words to Bohemian Rhapsody to prove how lucid I was, this only made her more convinced.
The sleep did me good; once off the snow and onto solid trail, we descended rapidly to the teahouses of Tseram far in the forest beneath us, dropping nearly 1,000m in little over an hour.
We could see many tents pitched in the garden of a pair of teahouses. We were in for a surprise when we got there. Tseram was a pleasant setting; a clearing in the forest with grassy terraces to camp, but it was less than welcoming. The place was crowded with expedition teams on their way to climb Kangchenjunga. The smaller teahouse was full and the staff wouldn’t let us inside at all. The larger one was more welcoming. Gombu found us a table and the staff gave us black tea and noodle soup.
Helicopters kept arriving and depositing more climbers. There were people we knew. I recognised Noel Hanna, an Irish climber I’d spent an evening in Sam’s Bar with after my Everest expedition in 2012. Edita had a chat with Don Bowie, a Canadian alpinist who did some work for her when she was project managing the World Food Programme’s (WFP) earthquake response in 2015. Gombu introduced us to Maya Sherpa, one of the trio of Nepali women who reached the summit of K2 in 2014.
The campsite was muddy, and very noisy. It felt more like the Glastonbury Festival than a remote trek, and I half expected Coldplay to appear and start serenading the yaks. Our misery was compounded by the hole in our tent, which had now become big enough for a salmon to leap through.
It was interesting to see the 8,000m peak circus from the other side of the fence. I couldn’t help feeling that ordinary trekkers get neglected in this environment.
I was looking forward to escaping the following morning, but there was more chaos at breakfast. The staff at the teahouse were so busy they couldn’t even provide boiled water for our bottles. We had to set off without. They asked us to pay the bill on our way back in a couple of days. The queue for the toilet would have shamed any post office.
But the worst was reserved for our porters. There were no rooms, and they had to sleep on the floor in a cold, cramped store room. They were tired and subdued in the morning, and couldn’t even get any breakfast. To give them lighter loads we packed everything we could do without in a big blue duffle bag and left it at the teahouse.
Paradise was resumed within minutes of leaving Tseram. Edita and I went ahead on a trail that climbed a short distance through rhododendron forest. Above the treeline, we were back in sun. The trekking was peaceful as the long tabletop of Kabru appeared ahead. The occasional helicopter buzzed overhead to break the silence, but otherwise we were back where we belonged.
We ascended into the alpine zone on a thin carpet of snow. Edita and I were the only people for miles around as we climbed up into a wide valley of moraine ridges. Twigs of juniper burst through the snow. We crossed a long plain beside a bank of moraine, and reached the single teahouse at Ramche at 10.30. It was in another wonderful grassy meadow, like at Lhonak, with peaks of the Indian border forming the skyline.
The teahouse man had put chairs and tables outside in the sun. We ordered black tea, but it was so nice gazing out over mountains that I decided to order an eleven o’clock beer. It was San Miguel, not my favourite, but up here it tasted like the best beer in the world. We waved at the helicopter as it passed backwards and forwards overhead.
We were still drinking beer when Gombu and the porters arrived. They were much happier than when we left Tseram, but this was no surprise. Ramche was paradise compared with busy Tseram. It was paradise, full stop. It was so warm that we had our dal bhat outside.
We spent a lazy afternoon resting with the sun on the tent. In the evening we all crowded into the kitchen for dinner, where Gombu entertained us by grating up a whole sprig of ginger to put in his water bottle in the hope that it would cure him of a cough.
He was still getting ready when Edita and I left at 6.15 the following morning. We wanted to get to the viewpoint at Oktang before the usual morning clouds obscured the view of Kangchenjunga. It would have been a shame to come all this way and not see the south face.
We walked briskly round the corner of moraine where the valley bent to the left and passed beneath Kabru. Within fifteen minutes of setting off, the three rightmost peaks of Kangchenjunga came into view. This early sighting had the effect of making us walk even more quickly. We could see clouds coming up from behind the mountain, and we wanted to reach Oktang before they came over and obscured our view.
The trail became an awkward boulder-studded pathway which we ascended to a grassy meadow. The first helicopter buzzed overhead at seven o’clock. We waved again. We climbed up the bank of moraine to reach Oktang at 7.30. There was a big debris-dashed glacier far below us, and a shrine decked in prayer flags on the crest. The moraine ridge continued beyond it, and we continued as far as we could go.
The tip of Jannu came into view. To its right the four main summits of Kangchenjunga rose in a line: Yalung Kang (8,505m), Kangchenjunga Main (8,586m), Kangchenjunga Central (8,482m) and Kangchenjunga South (8,476m). Nowhere in the Himalayas can four such high points be seen in such close proximity.
Despite this, Oktang felt like an unsatisfactory viewpoint. Much of Kangchenjunga’s south face was obscured by a northern shoulder of Kabru. We climbed on top of a large boulder and waited for the sun to cast its light across Kangchenjunga. A few minutes later Gombu arrived. Although he had never reached the summit, he had climbed most of the way up. He pointed out the route above Camp 3, but all of the lower part was hidden behind Kabru. We stayed till 8.15, but it became clear that the shadow wouldn’t disappear until the sun moved further to the west.
Even so, it was a nice way to start the morning. We had been spoiled by the north side. The view from Oktang wasn’t a patch on the one from Pangpema, but we’d achieved everything we’d set out to do: we’d climbed our peak, and experienced clear views of Kangchenjunga from both sides. We felt blessed, and had no complaints.
All that remained was to go down. We still had 1,700m to descend that day from Oktang (4,750m) to Torongdin. We didn’t hang about. We passed through Ramche at 9.30, enjoyed the views of Bokta, paid our bill and had a quick mug of black tea before continuing to Tseram.
We passed many climbers coming up. There appeared to be two main operators on Kangchenjunga this season, Asian Trekking and Seven Summits Treks. While the Seven Summits climbers were being ferried up by helicopter, Asian Trekking’s clients were walking in and enjoying the trek. They were staying at Ramche that night, and we thanked our lucky stars we had the tiny teahouse to ourselves last night.
We reached Tseram at 11.30, in time for lunch. Most tents had now been removed but the teahouse was still very busy. A Sherpa in a yellow down jacket sat opposite our table drinking a bottle of San Miguel. He seemed keen to start a conversation, and he asked Edita if we’d come over the pass from Selele.
‘We’ve come from the summit of Kangchenjunga. It’s nice up there,’ she replied.
‘I don’t think he believes you,’ I said.
But Edita wasn’t finished.
‘You’re Seven Summits Treks aren’t you?’ she said.
‘Yes, we are Seven Summits Treks,’ he said with a proud smile.
‘I hear you’re climbing Kangchenjunga using helicopters.’
He nodded, and started to describe their sophisticated logistics, but stopped when he realised I was laughing.
‘That’s cheating isn’t it?’ said Edita. ‘Asian Trekking are walking.’
He laughed again, but he probably realised the conversation was heading in an unfamiliar direction. He didn’t ask Edita any more questions. It was only later that Gombu told Edita she had been teasing Mingma, the owner of Seven Summits. Luckily he didn’t seem offended, and bade us a friendly goodbye when we left Tseram.
We departed at 12.30 in thick mist. The helicopter was stranded on the helipad awaiting better weather. Although we couldn’t see very far, we had an enjoyable walk down a deep, forested gorge. Much of the route passed through primaeval forest. The rhododendrons were in full flower, with many red and pink splashes colouring the trail.
The weather was changeable. The mist lifted, but the sky couldn’t decide weather to rain or not. Our raincoats were on and off like Jack Nicholson’s trousers. By the time we reached Torongdin, a tiny community of three teahouses deep in forest, it had decided unequivocally to rain.
And did it ever rain. We checked into a dry timber room in the South Base Camp Guesthouse, which was being run by the wife of the teahouse man at Ramche. We sat out on the balcony as the rain became steadily heavier. Soon it was hammering down and we had to retreat to our room when the roof of the balcony started dripping. Luckily our the room had an extra layer of ceiling and it remained dry.
Later in the evening it was very noisy. There seemed to be a party going on in the teahouse next door. There were one or two trekkers staying there, but the noise seemed to be coming from Nepalis. Where they all came from we had no idea, but Sombadur and Dawa were among them. They returned to the room next to ours well after midnight. I don’t speak Nepali, but it seemed clear that a few tongbas had been sunk.
The next day, the penultimate one of our trek, was a long one, but very satisfying. Soon after leaving Torongdin, we crossed the river and had a long climb back up through forest to a high pass. This took longer than we expected. The trail was narrow, and we spent nearly an hour following a lone yak who couldn’t be induced to move off the path and let us past.
The pass was marked as 3,300m on the map, but we had to climb up to 3,500m to get above a huge landslide before dropping back down again. The landslide had taken away a mile-wide section of mountainside. It was so big that we wondered what caused it. No plants had yet taken root on the debris and our brand new map made no mention of the new terrain. It was almost as devastating in scale as the one we passed in Langtang the previous year, though luckily this one happened in a remoter area with no villages below. We learned later that, like at Langtang, this landslide had been caused by the 2015 earthquake.
We descended a little and reached a lonely teahouse in a flat clearing above the forest. We were now in thin cloud, but the teahouse was cosy, with a dry earth floor. We warmed ourselves by the fire and rested as the teahouse lady cooked us yak dal bhat, a rare opportunity to eat meat.
After lunch we had an enormous descent of over 1,200m to the village of Yamphudin at 2,000m (or Jam Pudding, as we decided to call it). This descent took 3½ hours and was almost entirely through forest. This long section with nowhere to stop en route, is the main reason why ascents in the other direction are difficult. It’s why we chose to trek in via the north side. Jumping from 2,000m to 3,500m while you’re still acclimatising is not recommended.
Yamphudin was a pleasant village of smart homes in large grassy terraces. Gombu told us the upper part of the village consisted of wealthy Sherpa homes, but the homes in the Rai part down by the river were a little poorer.
We were pleased to discover that our lodge, the South Base Camp Hotel was one of these smarter homes. It was being run by the younger brother of the teahouse man in Ramche, who appeared to have a cushier number than his wife based in Torongdin.
We checked into a clean timber room, then spent the next four hours in the dining room across the garden, drinking San Miguel and then tongba. We bought a whole chicken for 2,000 rupees to share with the crew. You’re probably thinking $20 is a lot for a chicken, but this one had to be chased across the lawn, caught, read the last rites, dispatched, plucked and dismantled before being cooked and eaten. It felt like money well spent, and was certainly appreciated by all, including the teahouse cat, which mewed pitifully at our feet for the entire meal before being granted the leftovers.
This impromptu evening of celebration had an end-of-trek feel to it. The teahouse was in a glorious setting on a high shelf overlooking the junction of three valleys. As we gazed out of the windows, we were treated to one of nature’s spectacles. There was a huge thunderstorm with heavy rain that lasted for two hours. I’ve never seen stair rods of rain like that continue for so long, but with the windows wide open it felt refreshing, and we were well protected.
We still had one more day to complete, and we were expecting it to be a long one in the heat of the lowlands. We started at 7.15 for a day filled with variety.
It began with a descent to the cardamom plantations in the valley floor. Then it was up and over two passes. The first of these was through the shade of the forest in humid conditions. It might have been pleasant enough had we not been following behind a train of mules that seemed to have an inexhaustible capacity for defecating. There was a strong smell of dung all the way up. Despite the proximity of the animals, Edita was determined to complete the whole ascent without stopping, and I followed behind her for 400m, sweating like a pig.
The second pass was not so pleasant either, but for a different reason. We ascended in hot sun. Halfway up we met the muleteers again, and they had a problem. The trail had been buried by a landslide of tiny pebbles which the mules couldn’t cross. The horsemen were building a new set of steps for the animals to ascend.
For us it was easier, but still hard work. We climbed through undergrowth, then across rocks to find ourselves on a newly-built road. So this was the cause of the landslide – not nature, but human interference. Higher up we had to divert around a digger that was widening and flattening the road.
‘They destroy everything,’ said Edita, in apparent dismay.
But like the fire we had seen on the north side, I was in two minds about it. We build roads in the West too. If we do it ourselves, how can we condemn the Nepalese? It wasn’t pretty, but for them it was progress.
Despite stopping to hand-build a trail, the horsemen overtook us with their mules on the other side of the pass. We descended a staircase of stone steps before reaching another road down to the village of Khebang.
We had a lunch of dal bhat in a teahouse. I was expecting to end the trek with an easy descent to Hapu Khola, from where we could catch a jeep. I thought it would be a boring hike now that we were back in civilisation, mainly along roads through grotty villages. But it ended up being quite an afternoon.
Fifteen minutes beyond Khebang we diverted off the road and found ourselves on an amazing clifftop trail, hewn into the rock, hundred metres above the river. It was as impressive as any trail in the Everest region, but we were down in the lowlands at 1,500m. It was a complete surprise and a real treat.
Then, just as we were descending to the river, the heavens opened. The stair rods of last night reappeared, only this time we were in the thick of it. We took shelter under a baby pine tree, but a short distance away from us women in the terraced fields kept working until they were well and truly drenched. They must have been used to these sudden rainstorms, and for them it was no reason to stop what they were doing.
We had been sheltering for twenty minutes when Dawa caught up with us. He had draped a raincoat over our bags, and clearly saw no reason to stop walking. We followed his and the women’s example, left our shelter and stepped out into the rain.
We descended carefully. The rocks and mud were slippery, and before long we were wetter than a haddock’s bathing costume, but we kept going. There were more thunderclaps. We briefly took shelter again under a large overhanging rock like a cave. Several people joined us as they walked by on the path, but one by one they left again as the rain showed no sign of stopping.
The rain continued on and off for the last hour of our trek. It was heavy at times, but we walked briskly on until we reached another bridge. A few metres beyond was the village of Hapu Khola, where the road began. It was grim, a marked contrast to the pleasant fields and forests of Yamphudin the night before. It wasn’t the sort of village where we could find nice gardens to camp in; it was just a line of dirty houses on a road under a cliff face.
‘I don’t have high expectations of a nice teahouse,’ I said to Edita.
My instincts were right. We checked into a wooden box room over a busy street. We had no choice but to stay there. It was the only place in town. But there was a shack across the road where we could get San Miguel and dal bhat, and reminisce about an enjoyable trek. Life was good; it always feels that way after a trek in Nepal.
See my Kangchenjunga Flickr album for all my photos of the trek.