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Le Crock Monsieur: trekking round Mont Blanc on one leg


My recent trip to the Alps is best summed up by a quote from Woody Allen: "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans."

It began with what should have been a quick, painless trip to Chamonix, the base for our alpine adventure. Unfortunately for me, easyJet had other ideas. My flight was delayed by some Belgian fog. I missed my transfer at Geneva Airport and was bumped onto the last bus. The bus was delayed. I finally arrived at my destination at 1:30am, only to find my hotel room locked and no sign of the promised key. So the following morning I was not in the best frame of mind to start trekking round Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Western Europe. The rain hammering down in Les Houches, our starting point, wasn't helping either.

On the other hand, I was in the Alps again, after a regrettably long absence, and the Tour du Mont Blanc (the official grande randonnée around the mountain) had been on my bucket list for a while. The trip had come together at the last minute. I should have been surveying garment factories in Bangladesh, but an eleventh-hour cancellation left me at a loose end, so I hurriedly made fresh arrangements to join Jen in France.


We couldn't hang around in Les Houches either, as Jen had decided that it was not enough to merely complete the trek in the normal fashion. Carrying only a tiny pack and aiming to run the downhill sections, she had compressed the standard 12-day itinerary into eight and had warmed up for the challenge with a week of skyrunning in (or rather above) the Chamonix valley. This caused me some concern. Number one, I run for trains, not for pleasure, and number two, I was carrying three times as much gear. "Hang on", you're thinking. "Hasn't this guy heard of alpine-style climbing? Did he pack a hairdryer? Was he planning on a spot of extreme ironing?" The unfortunate truth is that I was a victim of timing. My last-minute phone calls and emails to the mountain refuges confirmed my fears. Some were fully booked, and I would need to carry a tent and a sleeping bag as there was no guarantee of a bed. My holiday was going to be more like a Royal Marines boot camp, except that I don't possess a firearm.


Things started promisingly. The rain died off and thanks to an indulgent breakfast, I was powered up the first climb to Col de Voza by four kinds of cheese. Our aim was to skirt round the southern tip of the massif via a high trail over the Col de Tricot (a variante to the standard TMB route), finishing at the Auberge du Truc. This we managed to do, arriving in beautiful late afternoon sunshine, but a painful left knee left me limping the last few kilometres like a peg-legged pirate. It was a recurrence of an old football injury, which has a habit of flaring up when I ask a few questions of the knee. (At the end of the day, I suppose it was my body's way of telling me I was never going to be a footballer, at the end of the day.) The fabulous setting and clement weather helped to take my mind off the problem, but I already knew my TMB was in jeopardy.


Leaving Truc the next morning, we had a long walk ahead of us. Our destination was Refuge des Mottets, the final accommodation before the Italian border, crossing no less than three passes en route. We built in two variantes; a climb to Tré la Tête at the beginning of the day and a crossing of the Col des Fours at the end. (The latter is the highest point on the TMB at 2,665m.) This was a day my knee will remember for years to come. That's just a figure of speech: my knee can't actually remember things.

Tré la Tête allowed us to bypass the descent to Les Contamines, and it proved to be a worthwhile detour. We were treated to fine weather, fine views and a photogenic cat.


It was followed by a steep but lovely descent through shady, spring-fresh pine forests. I had every opportunity to enjoy it because my progress was painfully slow, in every sense. Clouds were building as we climbed to the Col de Bonhomme, and a sudden storm at the top sent most other walkers scampering for the nearby refuge. It was by now late afternoon, but we had to carry on.


At the Col des Fours the sun reappeared, transforming the landscape from threatening to majestic in an instant. We lingered on the summit snowfield, enjoying the grand vista. But time waits for no man, and nor would the gardien at Refuge des Mottets. Jen took my heavy pack and bounded off ahead to make sure we got a bed and a meal at the refuge. I inched, winced and grimaced my way down cursing whoever was responsible for designing the human knee. It rained, it poured, dinner time came and went and I was still on the damned hill. As night fell, the refuge finally came into sight.


Inside, the dining room was full of well-fed trekkers. A girl was attempting to play the accordion, but every few bars she lost the tune and started playing random notes. It was a bit too avant-garde for the French guests, who drowned her out with sympathetic applause. Jen had ordered our food, but it took a long time to arrive. The staff ate their dinner, people started drifting off to bed and still we waited. Eventually, a family-size pot of stew landed on the table, and we attacked it like ravenous wolves. After four bowlfuls I was starting to feel pleasantly full. Then it was replaced by an equally large pot of boeuf bourgignon, accompanied by a platter of rice and vegetables. We had made a tactical blunder – it was a three course dinner and the stew was the starter!


The next day I soldiered on through the pain. I gritted my teeth, kept a stiff upper lip and did all the other things my British upbringing had taught me to do in adversity. But I knew deep down that my knee needed R&R, and the hardest day was still to come. I tried to think positive thoughts. “Don’t stop, never give up, hold your head high and reach the top.” Wise words, S Club 7, but you forgot about the bloody downhills. It was time for a plan B.

My mind was made up by the long-term weather forecast we picked up at the Casermetta information centre of the Italian side of the Col de la Seigne. Rain, rain and more rain. No thanks! I would walk as far as Courmayeur, then take a bus through the Mont Blanc Tunnel back to Chamonix and rest up for a couple of days. Continuing our descent down Val Veni, we stopped at the impressively-situated Rifugio Elisabetta and ate chocolate cake on the terrace. Moments later the sun withdrew, and that was the last time we saw it.


It was still raining in Courmayeur the next morning as I boarded the bus. Jen was bravely carrying on, climbing the Val Ferret to Rifugio Elena, then crossing the Grand Col Ferret into Switzerland on Day 5. Back in Chamonix, I set myself up in a hostel near the Brevent cable car station and planned some knee-friendly activities for the next two days. That afternoon I grockled in town, where gear shops outnumber cafés with free Wi-Fi by at least ten to one. In the time-honoured fashion of trekkers returning to civilization, I ate pizza and crêpes. That evening I went to the Chamonix Adventure Festival’s film night and marvelled at the likes of “Touch”, “Spice Girl” and others. On my second rest day, I swam in the local pool and tested the knee with a wet walk in the beautiful Gorge de la Diosaz.


Having declared myself fully fit, I decided it was time to get back on the trail. A short train ride and a two-hour hike brought me to the Col de Balme on the French-Swiss border where I had arranged to meet Jen. The pass was snowbound and there was no sign of her, so I retired to the nearby refuge for a hot chocolate and an omelette. Entertainment was provided by the gardienne, for whom the phrase “hell hath no fury...” might have been written. Woe betides any poor sod that breaks the house rules. It seems she has quite the reputation: the Chamonet website has this to say: “Known to locals as the "dragon lady refuge" due to the charming disposition of the proprietress, worth a visit just to see how much wrath you can incur.” It certainly was!


The usual descent from Col de Balme to Tre-le-Champ is direct and easy, so I decided to try the obvious variante over the Aiguillette des Posettes. Jen couldn’t be persuaded but let me off the leash to try it alone. Despite the wind and rain it was a lovely walk, glorified by a standoff with a brave marmot.


That night we slept at the rustic Auberge La Boerne, which somehow manages to be full of charm and a complete death trap. How we would have extricated ourselves from our cubby hole of a bedroom in the event of a fire, I don’t know.


The final stretch of the TMB involved a sustained climb (with a few ladders thrown in) to the Grand Balcon Sud, and then a high-level walk with stupendous views of rainclouds. Lac Blanc, picture-postcard perfect when Jen had run up here the previous week, was now framed by snow and rock and looked distinctly uninviting. On the Brevent, cable cars emerged from the mist, depositing another batch of disappointed tourists on the summit. That evening at Refuge de Bellachat, the clouds teasingly parted, but never quite lifted, as Mont Blanc stubbornly refused to reveal her full glory. So we were more than ready for the descent to Les Houches the next morning. We arrived at the train station only to find a replacement bus service was operating, which just about summed up our week.


The TMB may have disappointed us weather-wise but the mountains have a habit of drawing us back, whatever hand they may have dealt us in the past. So don’t be surprised if we’re back with another blog from Chamonix next year...


Posted by Chris Parsons 11:40 Archived in France Tagged mountains rain france trekking chamonix alps passes tmb Comments (0)

Things we lost in the mountains

View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

We managed to get through both our treks relatively unscathed but the same cannot be said for some of our gear. Here's a list of kit that we lost, broke, or managed to wear out!

  1. Chris's trekking pole - broken on the Tsum Valley trek, now only suitable for people four feet tall. Replaced in Pokhara.
  2. Chris's sunglasses - broken on the Annapurna Circuit. Also replaced in Pokhara. Combined cost of trekking pole and sunglasses? Ten quid.
  3. Chris's glasses - broken on the Manaslu Circuit. Just got them fixed in Hanoi - nothing serious, thank goodness!
  4. Jen's miniature Swiss army knife - lost in mysterious circumstances!
  5. Jen's inflatable pillow - deflated! Neither gaffa tape nor glue worked, so it was replaced in Kathmandu.
  6. Chris's inflatable sleeping mat - also deflated! Can you see the problem with inflatable gear? Still awaiting repair, hopefully a bicycle puncture repair kit will do the job.
  7. Chris's socks - more hole than sock. See photo below for evidence!


  1. Chris's handkerchief - lost in the Nar Phu Valley. Nan, can I place my order for Christmas please?
  2. Jen's handkerchief - charred by a campfire in Sikkim!
  3. Chris's MP3 player - fried by our solar charger in Nepal! Thank you to Amazon and my Mum for the replacement.
  4. Jen's shampoo bottle - the top disappeared down a waterfall.
  5. Chris's waistbelt for our camera case - fell off the roof of the Arughat bus.
  6. Chris's replacement trekking pole - left at the end of our Sikkim trek (deliberately).
  7. Jen's trekking pole - left at the end of our Sikkim trek (not deliberately!)

Posted by Chris Parsons 06:08 Archived in Nepal Tagged india trekking gear nepal Comments (0)

More magical mountain moments

View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

Here are some of our best photos from our trek in Sikkim, to go with the recently-uploaded blog entries.

A glacial lake in the upper Oklatang Valley

A glacial lake in the upper Oklatang Valley

A recession of ridges towards Darjeeling

A recession of ridges towards Darjeeling

A wintry campsite at Tikip Chu

A wintry campsite at Tikip Chu

Chris celebrates reaching the Goecha La

Chris celebrates reaching the Goecha La

Chris, Jen and Pushpa at Phedang

Chris, Jen and Pushpa at Phedang

Jen at Lamuney

Jen at Lamuney

Kangchenjunga ̣at dawn

Kangchenjunga ̣at dawn

Pushpa and Chris in front of Pandim

Pushpa and Chris in front of Pandim

The golden welly brigade trekking through the snow

The golden welly brigade trekking through the snow

The Singalila range on a frosty morning

The Singalila range on a frosty morning

Yak train descending the Oklatang Valley

Yak train descending the Oklatang Valley

Posted by Chris Parsons 06:04 Archived in India Tagged india trekking sikkim Comments (0)

Sikkim trekking journal #4: The snow leopard's realm

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Day 11 – The Goecha La and the trek to Kokrochung (9 November 2011)
At 4am porridge and tea is served at the tent door, fuel for our big walk. But there’s an immediate problem; Jen has come down with a bout of D&V in the night. She’s not well enough to walk, so it’s just me, Pushpa and Abi, our senior porter, who set of at 4:30am. The moon is so bright that we switch our headtorches of after about half an hour. Our first goal is a viewpoint at the top of the valley behind Sameti Pokhari. We reach it just after sunrise. A smattering of trekkers are already here, firing off shots of the golden mountains, but nothing like the numbers at Dzongri. The viewpoint is actually the top of a moraine ridge. There’s a second viewpoint an hour and a half further up the path, then the Goecha La itself beyond that. To get to them, we must descend a steep, ice-covered path into the ablation valley of the Oklatang Glacier. Three guys standing at the top of the steep section have serious expressions. “Problem!” one of them says to me, pointing at the ice, but Abi is already halfway down in his wellies. I set off, carefully following his every move, while the dithering trekkers eventually decide to turn back. We reach the second viewpoint just as the sun hits us, warming our frozen toes and faces. Now, we are standing on top of another moraine ridge, directly opposite Goecha Peak and its eponymous glacier. Below us lies a large, frozen glacial lake – it’s awe-inspiring scenery and seems as though we’re in touching distance of the Goecha La. All we have to do is cross a snowy bowl, but it takes a further hour to get there. No-one else has come this far today, and the snow is fresh and deep. There’s a lot of clambering and comedy falling over as legs disappear into deep pockets of snow between the hidden rocks. Pushpa, a few paces ahead of me, points his trekking pole at some tracks in the snow and announces "Snow leopard." This is an elusive prize indeed! The tracks must have been laid since the last snowfall, which means they are less than three days old. An actual sighting of a snow leopard is ridiculously unlikely (Pushpa has done this trek more than 50 times and has only had one fleeting glimpse of a leopard) but to find fresh tracks is still a rare privilege. We struggle on to the pass itself, the sun now beating down on us and reflecting an unbelievable amount of heat from the snow, causing us to perspire heavily. At the pass we celebrate with hugs and high-fives (it’s also Abi’s first time here), and take in our surroundings. Kangchenjunga’s east face is massive and lofty. The mountain is sacred (and it’s forbidden to climb it from the Indian side) and Pushpa and Abi say prayers and burn incense. We look back on our route, a wild, unspoilt valley leading all the way out of the Himalayas. I also look back to our arrival in Dzongri three days ago, depressed after a week of terrible weather and on the point of giving up and going down. How things have changed! It’s rotten luck that Jen is not here to see this, but she gave me instructions to take lots of photos – easy for me to obey! At the pass we pick up the snow leopard tracks again, and follow them on a different route back to the second viewpoint, because as Pushpa says "the leopard always knows the way." Here, we strip off excess layers of clothing and eat our lunch. We retrace our steps to camp, arriving at 12:30pm. After a second lunch, Pushpa is keen that we descend more. Jen still feels rotten, but is just about well enough to walk on at a slow pace. She knows that 4,100m is not a good place to be ill! We walk yesterday’s route in reverse to Kokrochung, a campsite surrounded by rivers. We both rest in the tent until dinner. Mingma has rustled up another pizza but Jen can only manage a small bowl of cornflakes. By seven o’clock we’re both in bed.

Day 12 – The trek to Sachen (10 November 2011)
It’s time to go down. Once the main goal of a trek has been achieved, it’s always something of an anti-climax on the walk out, and that’s how I feel as we set off this morning. Jen has made a rapid recovery and almost matches me in terms of porridge, eggs, chapati and pizza (reheated) consumption at breakfast. We’re now below the treeline and are walking in forests all day. But what beautiful forests – towering pines decked in mosses and ferns, rhododendron trees with leaf clusters the size of small umbrellas, golden birches and magnolias. No villages, no fields, just a wild forest. It’s a different experience to the treks we have done in Nepal. As you descend from the heights, you can almost feel the warmth returning to your blood. There’s a gradual re-connection with civilization: mobile phones spring into life, a distant road is spotted, and then the first settlement. In our case, it’s the small hamlet of Tshokha where we stop for lunch. We then continue to descend, passing another hamlet called Bakhim. Pushpa introduces us to his Aunty Gita, who has a small shop-cum-restaurant stall here. She also has some unusual produce in her vegetable garden:

Gita, Gita
Vegetable eater
How does your garden grow?
With cauliflowers, beans,
An assortment of greens
And marijuana plants in a row

Jen’s remarkable recovery is complete, and she’s now striding along with chef Mingma. I’ve always known that the way to Jen’s heart is via her stomach (which is why I made sure there was a large slab of chocolate cake in front of her when I first asked her out). Mingma is a demon in the kitchen, so perhaps I should keep a closer eye on him… At Sachen, the porters have pitched our tent on a small plateau above the trail surrounded by wild forest. It’s a beautiful location for our final night. We get a special dinner, featuring a salad that looks like a piece of modern art and a cake decorated with the words "Happy Trake" (sic). We both eat too much and there slope off to bed feeling the usual weariness. Some of our porters are sleeping under a hollowed-out tree nearby.

Day 13 – The trek to Yuksam (11 November 2011)
It’s a two-hour walk through the shady forest to our final destination, Pushpa’s home village of Yuksam. Before we leave we say some words of thanks and tip the staff. The walk is uneventful and our minds are already thinking about the coming days and weeks. We pass a group heading up who warn of monkeys throwing rocks down a landslide, but when we get there they have gone. I don’t know if I’m disappointed or relieved. We reach Yuksam, by far the prettiest village I have ever seen at a trailhead (most are complete dumps). Our transport is waiting – the usual pimped-up Mahindra jeep. With the trekking over, it’s time to reflect on what has been a tough but ultimately rewarding couple of weeks.

Sikkim has given us a taste of the wild Himalayan winter. The blizzards and fog persisted for seven days, making the trek physically punishing, mentally tiring and a challenge for Pushpa faced with keeping 16 people safe and in good spirits. Then the sun came out and transformed our experience entirely. Just as we had reached the point of despair, we had five days of the most incredible scenery. This trek has been like a metaphor for India: exasperation and exaltation in equal measure.

Posted by Chris Parsons 05:41 Archived in India Tagged india trekking sikkim Comments (0)

Sikkim trekking journal #3: The winter playground

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Day 8 – Trek to Dzongri (6 December 2011)
We begin with our customary tea served at the tent door, followed shortly by bowls of warm water for washing. Today is a hair wash day for me, but as I’m flicking the soap suds away my wedding ring shoots off my finger and buries itself in the snow. We paw around fruitlessly until our hands are numb, then summon Mingma, who brings a pan of boiling water. We melt the snow and eventually the missing ring is revealed. Phew! Dzongri is only a couple of hours away, and we start under the familiar snowfall from a grey sky. We have none of the swirling clouds and bursts of sunshine that made yesterday’s walk so enjoyable. The clouds do not thin or part, and the sky is glowering and impassive, like the grim expression worn by the Queen during a Royal Variety Show. It reminds me of a winter’s day we spent trudging over the Cairngorm plateau a few years ago, and the scenery here is not dissimilar. There’s a surprising amount of activity at Dzongri; some 15 tents are pitched, and porters, ponies and yaks mill around the camp. We’ve now joined the trail to the Goecha La, a viewpoint beneath Kangchenjunga, and most trekkers heading that way have a rest day here to acclimatize.

The snow falls more heavily after lunch – this is a cold place. The afternoon is an exercise in staying warm and dry, either in a sleeping bag and huddled round a wimpish fire. We also have hot drinks aplenty, including a Cadbury’s chocolate concoction called Bourn-Vita. This promises to "multiply the power of milk", giving the drinker shakti (a Hindi word for power). "This shakti", claims Cadbury’s, "helps prepare your child to be a winner". We’ve had so many cups of the stuff, I will advise any children we come into contact with to buy lottery tickets. By dinner the snow is falling more thickly. We now have to consider our options, and talk them over with Pushpa. We’re all agreed that if this continues, we shall go down in two days’ time (tomorrow is a planned rest day here). It would mean an early end to our trek, but both of us readily admit that we’re getting fed up with the weather. Also, there’s no point trekking up to a 5,000m viewpoint if there’s no view. It’s not in our nature to retreat, but after seven days of hardship, it’s probably the best thing for our sanity. It would also be the right decision for the porters, some of whom have clearly been suffering for the last few days. At bedtime, the snow continues to patter softly on the tent, and the staff beat the frozen canvas to dislodge it. It’s like being inside a giant timpani.

Day 9 – Dzongri (7 December 2011)
Dzongri means 'meeting place of man and mountain gods', and today the mountain gods finally decide to reveal their winter playground. We are both awake at 4:30am as the sound of footsteps approach our tent, but we aren’t expecting to hear the following words: "Good morning! Today good view!" I unzip the tent to see Pushpa bearing cups of tea, his silhouette framed by a starry sky. Could it really be? We put on extra clothes in the night as it was real brass monkey weather – I had five layers over my balls, so at least they didn’t suffer the same fate as the monkey’s. Now there are icicles inside the tent. After tea we set off up the hillside behind Dzongri to the viewpoint of Taplagang, 30 minutes away. It’s a perfect dawn, and the break in the weather has drawn out all the trekking groups, some of whom have been sitting it out for several days. At the summit, the lines of prayer flags have frozen solid and a small crowd has gathered. Now, all the peaks of Sikkim are finally on show, including Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest. We feel incredibly blessed – it’s been worth a week of suffering to see this view. To the south we can see the Darjeeling ridge, to the west our route along the Singalila ridge, and to the north and east, a line of Himalayan giants.

You have to work up a hunger
For a glimpse of shy Kangchenjunga
She chose to surprise
At a perfect sunrise
And it made me feel ten years younger

We descend for a hearty breakfast, then embark on a morning hike to a nearby col with Pushpa and two porters. (Four of the porters left this morning, so we’re now down to eight). As we climb, clouds racing up from the lowlands envelop us, but we no longer care. We now have a mental map of our surroundings and the memory of this morning’s astonishing mountain panorama. As we reach the col, the Sikkim Himalaya is up to its old tricks again. The clouds part coquettishly to reveal a rocky flank or an icy ridge, but there are no more grandstand views. This weather persists all afternoon, but we’re grateful for the lingering sunshine, which allows us to wash, dry things out and generally relax. We need this good weather to stick around tomorrow, otherwise we still have the prospect of an early descent.

Day 10 – Trek to Lamuney (8 November 2011)
After another restless, chilly night, the day dawns clear again. The decision is made for us – we will go up to our highest campsite at Lamuney (4,100m). I start the day with my usual routine, first sniffing inside my sleeping bag and then checking my underwear and socks for acceptability. I won’t admit to how many days the current set has been worn for fear to followers of our blog abandoning me in disgust. We set off at 8am, full of pancakes, eggs and porridge. After a short climb we traverse beneath yesterday’s viewpoint, then make a nosedive descent into the Oklatang Valley, heading directly for the gap between the shining beacons of Kangchenjunga and Pandim. There’s no sign of clouds building up from the south and the views in that direction are exceptional; a recession of hazy blue ridges leading the eye down to the Himalayan foothills of West Bengal. Down in the Oklatang, we turn northwards and follow a beautiful river up through the forest. Once above the treeline, the mountains to either side begin to make their presence felt, and it feels as though we are walking through a guard of honour on our approach to Kangchenjunga. We pass Thangsing, a lovely grassy campsite at 3,800m, and around six hours after leaving Dzongri, arrive at Lamuney. After lunch, we walk a further half-hour up the valley to the holy lake of Sameti Pokhari, where, appropriately, the holy mountains are perfectly reflected in its calm waters. Dinner is a simple Indian meal of rice, daal and curried cauliflower, but I’m not sure the dessert (red jelly) is a traditional dish. Tomorrow is our big day – the trek to the Goecha La – and we have a pre-dawn start to look forward to, so we head to bed straight after dinner.

Posted by Chris Parsons 05:23 Archived in India Tagged india trekking sikkim Comments (0)

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 Comments (0)

Sikkim trekking journal #1: A walk in the clouds

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Day 1 – The drive to Uttarey (30 October 2011)
We leave Darjeeling with our guide Pushpa and our driver in a flashy Mahindra 4x4 just after 8am. The dashboard LCD screen is showing the temperature outside is 12 °C. Three hours and countless hairpins later we’ve descended 1700m through tea plantations to the Rangeet River, the border between West Bengal and Sikkim (temperature reading 30 °C). A tourism pamphlet we pick up at the border checkpoint proclaims that Sikkim receives nearly four metres of rainfall annually. Judging by the riot of greenery lining the road, this may well be true. In Chasing the Monsoon, the book I've just finished reading, Alexander Frater describes the verdant hills of northeast India as "an abandoned overgrown garden" with "hills so unimaginably green they seemed radioactive. It wasn’t hard to imagine a seed planted at dawn blooming before dusk". The roads are often poor, slowing our progress to a crawl, but I’m kept entertained by the roadside signs. Indian bureaucrats love their signs and there are some especially fine examples here, announcing government initiatives such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) and the West Sikkim Rural Connectivity Programme (WSRCP). I wonder if they have been approved by the District Authority for Fonts and Typefaces (DAFT). We arrive at Uttarey in the twilight, and check into the Green Valley Hotel as the only paying guests tonight. Not long after, the director of our trekking company, Satish, arrives. I'm very impressed he's driven seven hours to come and greet us personally. He's also brought with him our cook, Mingma, our kitchen helpers, Mingma (again) and Gyalchen, and a gift of a weighty hardback book (which a poor porter will have to carry for the next two weeks). We're all tired after the long road journeys, and agree to reconvene in the morning to discuss the arrangements for the trek.

Day 2 – The trek to Chewabhanjyang (31 October 2011)
Breakfast is another feast. Outside, preparations are taking place: porters arrive, sacks of food are assembled and jerry cans of kerosene are decanted. Satish shows me photos of his parents' hotel in Gangtok which was damaged in the recent earthquake. It struck the Himalayas on 18 September as we were flying to Kathmandu and was the second biggest ever registered in the region. The Yak and Yeti Hotel, a seven-storey concrete structure, did not fare well. Several beams and columns on the lowest storey were seriously damaged. The building was evacuated and fortunately no-one was hurt, but two government engineers have pronounced it unsafe, and I tell Satish (who saw from my trekking permit forms that I am a structural engineer) that I'm inclined to agree with them. He runs the trekking company from the same building, but now it will have to be demolished, and I feel desperately sorry for him and his parents. There's no buildings insurance here and the government will not meet the cost of rebuilding. Satish and his son Ravi are pragmatic. In North Sikkim, the epicentre of the quake, many buildings collapsed and more than 100 lives were lost. After breakfast, we begin trekking under an ominously cloudy sky. We enter a birch and rhododendron forest where wild orchids flower on the tree trunks and cardamom plants form the understorey. Our information pamphlet tells us that the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary, which we enter an hour or so into the walk, is populated by leopards, bears, monkeys and red pandas, but they remain unseen by us. We climb for several hours to a campsite on a ridge at 3,000m. This is Chewabhanjyang on the Indo-Nepal border, and we will follow the frontier northwards for the next few days along the Singalila Ridge. There's a police checkpoint here, and we're kept entertained by the officers as we wait for our porters to arrive. One gives us a lesson in Nepalese, another shows us how to prepare a good curry, and a third, a statuesque assistant commander of 31 years' service, scolds us for not producing any children. "You are married three years and you should have one child already!" he barks. He has a fine bushy moustache, and turns green with envy when a Nepali arrives with an even finer handlebar moustache. He turns to me and says "In India we say man with no moustache, he is woman!" I'm suddenly conscious of my own pathetic stubbly growth, but fortunately the saying only applies to Indian men. Then we become aware of issues with the porters – it seems as though we are a few short, and Pushpa is running up and down the path all afternoon barking orders. Eventually our tent arrives and is pitched in the dark. Clouds swirl around the ridge, unleashing sharp hail showers which bounce off the tin roofs. There are no views to speak of.

Day 3 – Chewabhanjyang (1 November 2011)
Pushpa comes to our tent at 7am to announce that today it's "impossible to walk". It's snowing outside, but this isn't the reason. After several excuses are offered, we finally get to the truth – we're still one porter and several loads short. The weather plays foul all day, forcing us to cocoon ourselves in our down sleeping bags reading books, in between dashes to the kitchen tent for meals. We have a late-morning excursion south along the ridge. I bale out after an hour, feeling weak and lacking energy – I'm on antibiotics for a dodgy stomach (again) and I suspect this is the reason for my fragility. Jen continues a bit further to a yak herder's hut where she is offered local delicacies such as stringy yak cheese, Tibetan tea (made with salt and butter) and rice beer. Food is the high point of the day, especially the delicious local squash (which is like a savoury galia melon), fresh beef and a banana pie. If Mingma keeps this up there will be no complaints from us! We fall asleep in a cloud to the sound of pattering raindrops on canvas. Today is the first day of our trip that we haven’t taken a single photograph.

Day 4 – The trek to Dhor (2 November 2011)
Today's weather report: woke in a cloud, walked in a cloud, went to sleep in a cloud. At least we're able to walk now that all our porters have finally arrived. I count 11 of them after breakfast, resplendent in their gold wellington boots. We walk for 5½ hours today, through rain, sleet and snow, and to make matters worse Jen has come down with a heavy cold. Conditions underfoot vary from slushy mush to mushy slush, making us slither and skid our way along the ridge on drunken legs. Visibility is never more than a hundred feet. In the Scottish Highlands, this would be called dreich, a thick pall of cloud clinging to the ridge with nary a whisper of wind to shift it. The forest is silent, save for the occasional flutter of wing beats, the soft plop of leaves shedding their snow and the swishing of our nylon clothing. As we eat our peanut butter and jam sandwiches at lunch, the weather gods decide to tease us, revealing a pale, milky sun which glows with all the intensity of an energy-saving lightbulb. Then it's gone, and I spend the afternoon walk to Dhor composing the following rhyme in my head:

The chance of fine weather is slim
When trekking in western Sikkim
So take a good book
And a man who can cook
'Cos without them your life will be grim

When we arrive we huddle round a fire in a damp hut, trying to dry out our wet laundry. Jen succeeds in burning her handkerchief. The kitchen staff collects snow to melt for water as I count the porters in. Wait a minute – now there are 12! How did that happen? Mingma, our 'man who can cook', rescues the day once again with a magnificent dinner. We start with pumpkin soup, ladled directly from the pumpkin. Then comes beef curry with daal and okra, another new vegetable for me. We could only dream of fresh food like this in Nepal!

Posted by Chris Parsons 05:06 Archived in India Tagged india trekking sikkim Comments (0)

What a difference a day makes

View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

Monday 24th October 2011

Arrived in Jomsom after battling a gusty headwind in the Kali Gandaki valley, strong enough to knock you off course. The wind picked up huge plumes of dust from passing jeeps which caked our hands and faces.

Trekkers eating dust on the way to Jomsom

Trekkers eating dust on the way to Jomsom

Tuesday 25th October 2011

Arrived in Pokhara after a morning flight from Jomsom. Checked in to our hotel, enjoyed complimentary tea and coffee, a flushing toilet, a hot shower and a king-size bed.

Chris in seventh heaven

Chris in seventh heaven

Posted by Chris Parsons 16:07 Archived in Nepal Tagged trekking nepal pokhara jomsom Comments (0)

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