The Lure of Kangchenjunga
The world’s third highest mountain dominates the horizon when seen from Darjeeling in West Bengal, from the Singalila Ridge which carries the western border of Sikkim, and from the rounded crest of hills that divides the Arun and Tamur valleys above Basantpur in northeast Nepal.
So huge is it, and so often seen floating on a raft of mist, that you have to raise your head to view its summit from a distance of forty-odd miles. It’s no wonder that Kangchenjunga implants its presence on the mind of all who gaze at it.
Long considered a sacred mountain, its Tibetan name roughly translates as ‘The Five Treasuries of the Great Snow’. It has five distinct summits and a number of shapely consorts. Glaciers plaster its walls, and snowfields sprawl across anything that’s not exactly precipitous to confuse among the clouds. It’s the mountaineer’s mountain, but for those of us who lack either the ability or ambition to climb it, Kangchenjunga makes an exquisite destination for the Himalayan trekker.
(The trail to Gupha Pokhari from Basantpur)
Probably the easiest of routes to Kangchenjunga travels along the Singalila Ridge between Darjeeling and the Sikkim border – five days or so on a mostly broad, well-graded track with views not only of Kanch, but of Makalu and an unbelievably insignificant-looking Everest to the northwest. The stain of sunset and sunrise on the Himalayan giants is truly spectacular from here.
Then there’s the short but demanding trek to the 16,207ft cleft of the Goecha La at the head of Sikkim’s Prek Chu valley. It passes at first among tropical jungle above Yuksom, then up through steep mist-wreathed rhododendron woods to the yak pasture of Dzongri, before struggling along the upper valley alongside the awesome Pandim to gain a breathless and breathtaking dawn view of Kangchenjunga rearing above the hitherto unseen Talung valley.
But the longer approaches to the mountain through Nepal – to either the North Base Camp at Pangpema or the Oktang viewpoint on the south side of Kanch – are journeys of sheer magic.
(The vast south-west face of Kangchenjunga, from Oktang)
To undertake these, most commercial treks fly in to the STOL airstrip of Taplejung, but a better start is the small foothill township of Basantpur, from where a wonderful introduction to the joys of trekking takes you along a broad crest of hills, among a string of villages and an amazing range of vegetation, with the arctic wall of the Himalaya shimmering above a fold of ridge spurs ahead. The route offers gentle walking, big views, birdsong in the morning and monkeys swinging through the trees before the trail swoops downhill through tangles of scarlet bougainvillea to the bazaar village of Dobhan on the banks of the Tamur river.
Joining the trail from Taplejung the trek now heads upstream beside the Tamur, dodging in and out of insect-seething forest before making a heart-pounding ascent to Amjilassa, the Tibetan refugee village of Phole, and Ghunsa at 11,614ft. Here you’re virtually at the limit of the comfort zone for living, for beyond Ghunsa you pass through an avenue of sky-scratching peaks, among glaciers, old moraines and sparse yak pastures. At the summer grazing settlement of Khambachen (13,698ft) there’s a sensational view of Jannu’s immense NW Face soaring above a deep glacial trench. And two days later, after wandering alongside the Kangchenjunga glacier in the very heart of the Himalaya, you arrive at Pangpema at 16,864ft – base camp for attempts on Kanch’s forbidding north flank.
As if this were not enough, it’s worth backtracking to Ghunsa, then crossing three linked passes to gain access to the Yalung valley on the south side of the mountain. With the Singalila Ridge to the east, Jannu to the west, and Ratong and Koktang directly ahead, the trek resumes heading north to the yak pasture of Ramze in an ablation valley a short stroll from a shallow lake. Turn the corner above Ramze in the frost-gripped pre-dawn and wait for the sun to explode on Kangchenjunga, and you will carry that vision with you for the rest of your days.
That is the lure and the promise of the sacred mountain.