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Sikkim trekking journal #2: The going gets tough

Day 5 – The trek to Sikkimey Megu (3 November 2011)
Today dawns much the same as yesterday, except that it’s not snowing. The same persistent cloud is there to greet us as we fold back the frozen tent flaps. Fresh snow has fallen during the night, lending a Christmas card look to our surroundings. This lightens our mood, and for the first hour of the walk we behave like children who’ve just heard their school is closed for the day. We lark around with icicles and write soppy messages in the snow with our trekking poles. Even the sun puts in a brief appearance, long enough to burn a window in the cloud, which only reveals even bigger clouds further away. I walk at the back of the group, and at one point I spot a hole in the snow in some rhododendron bushes to the side of the path. On closer inspection it appears to be an animal burrow, about a foot deep. Opportunities like this don’t come along often so I grab my toilet roll and do what I have to do: bliss. By midday, we’re back in the clag, hooded, hatted and gloved up against the hail. Ghostly apparitions on the ridge turn out to be yaks, signaling our arrival at the yak herder’s hut at Sikkimey Megu. The porters already have a fire blazing, their golden wellies removed and their socks drying. One pair has virtually no material left on the soles, making the three inch wide holes in my own look less impressive. Outside the snow continues to fall as we dash from the fireside to our sleeping bags, then back again for dinner (soup, prawn crackers, pizza, fried pasta and another new vegetable called potola, a smaller relative of the courgette).

Day 6 – The trek to Gomathang (4 November 2011)
A fitful night’s sleep. Jen is kept awake coughing and sneezing, I have a headache, and both of us are struggling to stay warm. I fight my way out of the frozen tent for a nighttime foray to the toilet to discover a star-filled sky. That would explain the plummeting temperature. When we emerge to wash and eat breakfast, we can see a fair way into Nepal, but the cloud is rolling in fast. In view of the persistent bad weather, Pushpa is changing our itinerary to skip tonight’s planned camp at Laxmi Pokhari because it’s high and there’s no means of making fire. We have a long walk to Gomathang instead. The clouds are, by now, huge, but they keep their distance just long enough for me to fire off a few pictures – painterly, ethereal landscapes that appear to have all the colour drained out of them. We climb to a col and then begin a long traverse of a snow-covered hillside. It strikes me that this is really wild territory, and not a good time or place for a problem to occur. We haven’t seen anyone since we left Chewabhanjyang. I think Pushpa has his hands full with the porters, who are not as well equipped as we are for these extreme conditions. Despite the lack of sun, it’s bright enough for sunglasses, but few of the porters have them. Being poorly kitted out can be dangerous in these circumstances and I worry that we will have to abandon the trek before much longer. As conditions deteriorate again, we cross another col in a whiteout, where the snow is already a foot deep and still falling (I later find out that this is the high point of the Singalila Ridge trek at 4,500m). As we descend, Gomathang comes in to view a long way below us, but it’s a long trudge down on a steep, awkward path. The campsite, situated at the confluence of three valleys, is beautiful, and would be perfect were it not for the resident yaks and a dog.

Day 7 – The trek to Tikip Chu (5 November 2011)
The night was cold enough to freeze my walking boots, but Mingma kindly thaws them out over the kerosene stove while I eat my breakfast. It’s snowing outside (again), and it takes longer than usual to break camp. I think the weather’s starting to get everybody down now. We start walking and have to cross two rivers on wobbly, iced-over log bridges. Pushpa takes photos – he’s hoping to persuade the powers that be to spend money on improving the trail. The snow continues to fall all day, but as tiny crystals rather than big, fat flakes, so it doesn’t accumulate on the ground. The beads of snow carpet the ground in their millions and sprinkle the vegetation like icing sugar. It’s actually quite pleasant to walk in, providing you keep an eye on the snow-covered rocks underfoot. One false move and you’d be bum-sliding downhill or face-planting into the slope. We climb back above 4,000m and re-enter a white world. On a snowy plateau we’re showered with spindrift, and briefly bathed in sunshine as a patch of blue passes overhead. We have to take care not to get burnt in these conditions, even when the sun’s not shining. Ironically, our faces got burnt in yesterday’s blizzard, such is the power of the albedo effect here (my old geography teacher would be proud of that one), and now we’re both sporting the classic 'panda eyes' look. On the descent we enter a dense forest of pine and rhododendron. The boughs of the trees seem to bend and buckle under the weight of snow. It’s like we’ve entered Narnia through the wardrobe door. The rhodies have already shut down for winter, their leaves hanging and furled like the wings of roosting bats. Suddenly the path levels off and we emerge into a clearing. This is Tikip Chu, where we will camp tonight. The clouds obligingly lift just enough to give us a view of beautiful snowy forests, steep hillsides and a thundering waterfall at the head of the valley. What a stunning location this is: it feels as though we have arrived at the middle of nowhere.

Posted by Chris Parsons 05:19 Archived in India Tagged india trekking sikkim

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