Kangchenjunga, 8595m or 28,205 ft, is the culminating point of a proliferation of summits and ridges which form the borders of Nepal, Tibet and the once independent, and now Indian protected, state of Sikkim. It is a sacred mountain and its translated name 'The Five Great Treasures of the Mountain Snows', appropriately describes the summit and its satellites when seen from afar.
Kangchenjunga's eastern aspect was a familiar sight to visitors to Darjeeling and until 1849 it was thought to be the highest mountain in the world. Early attempts to climb Kangchenjunga were made from Sikkim to the east, but the most recent activity has been on the Nepalese side.
British climbers have played a significant role in the climbing history of the mountain; Joe Brown and George Band made the first ascent from the south via the Yalung Glacier in 1955 and then Doug Scott, Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker made the first oxygen free ascent from the Kangchenjunga Glacier to the north-west in 1979.
These two climbs were the inspiration for a small expedition I led last autumn whose objective was to explore and photograph the Yalung and Kangchenjunga Glacier systems. The absence of detailed and accurate maps made route planning difficult but the general aim of the trip was to approach the mountain from the south via Phidim, cross the 18,000 ft. Lapsang Pass to return along the Ghunsa valley and Milke Danda ridge to Basantpur.
As our packed local bus made its way out of Biratnagar on route to Phidim, I questioned the wisdom of my decision to avoid the potentially quicker but notoriously unreliable flights to Taplejung airstrip. For 20 hours it rattled, roared, squeaked and shook its way up and down the hills of the Mahabaret Lekh on a partly constructed dirt track road.
At one point the driver delicately negotiated the bus along an extremely narrow and crumbling section of the road cut across slopes which plunged several thousands of feet to the river below.
Beyond Phidim the first days on foot followed a peaceful trail which meandered its way through sub-tropical forest, tiny settlements and terraced paddy fields above the tributaries of the Tamur River. The local people, who were mainly Rais and Limbus always welcomed us into their villages; the children were fascinated by our cameras and other western paraphernalia and they occasionally asked us to read to them from their English language schoolbooks.
As we crested the first major ridge on route at the village of Ghopetar we obtained an unobstructed view of our objective. Fifty miles away, rising like a cluster of diamonds against a deep blue sky, was the whole Kangchenjunga massif; on its western flank the striking peak of Jannu captured much of our attention in favour of its loftier neighbours.
Yamphudin was the last permanent settlement on this approach and from here the trail crossed the remote Omje Khola valley; its dense and unspoilt forests of bamboo, rhododendron and pine were a poignant reminder of what much of rural Nepal was like before it suffered the ravages of man and beast. The trees provided welcome shade during the heat of the day, but were responsible for attracting billowing clouds in the afternoons.
As the clouds momentarily parted atop the enclosing ridge of the Omje Khola we caught sight of Jannu, 7700m; it was the first of several tantalising glimpses of the high peaks which were revealed to us during our descent into the adjacent Yalung Valley. At this point the valley was very narrow and the trail followed the bank of Simbua Khola river to its source at the snout of the Yalung Glacier. With increasing altitude the valley opened out and the forest was reduced to rhododendron thickets; the view ahead improved all the time and was dominated by the great ice wall of Kabru, 7353m.
Whilst travelling through cultivated areas we had been forced to use many makeshift campsites; however Tseram, 3700m., was the first of many idyllic grassy locations we came upon over the remainder of the trip. The trail between Tseram and our top camp at Rhamze, 4560m, was a sheer delight as the mountains ahead rose in stature with every step we took. Tiny stone monuments and glacial lakes provided foreground for photography of the surrounding peaks, the most stunning of which was Rathong, 6678m, whose form was so reminiscent of the Khumbu giant Pumori.
Throughout our ascent of the Yalung valley the main summit of Kangchenjunga had remained hidden behind enclosing ridges. To get a close view of the main peak it was necessary to walk beyond Rhamze, along the lateral moraine of the glacier to Oktong, the location known as Glacier Camp on the 1955 expedition. We decided not to subject our porters to a cold night further up the glacier and left them to enjoy the benefits of a smokey yak dung fire and mugfulls of rakshi in a stone hut at Rhamze.
Our day's excursion provided an unobstructed view of Kangchenjunga, its south face, and the satellites of Yalung Kang (Kangchenjunga West), 8505m, Kambachen, 7903m, and Kangchenjunga South, 8491m. On one flank of the glacier were giant ridges descending from Jannu, on the other, a wall of ice supporting the peaks of Talung, 7349m, Kabru, 7353m, and Kabru Dome, 6600m.
We stopped beside a small stone shrine on the lateral moraine. Following the example of our Sirdar Sonam Chotter and Sherpa Ang Nima who lit a small juniper fire, we gave thanks for the success of our trip and left small offerings of money and food. It was a moving ceremony but on our return to Rhamze our thoughts soon turned to the task ahead, the crossing of the Lapsang La pass.
The Yalung and Kangchenjunga valley systems are separated by a long ridge which runs south west from Jannu for some twenty miles. To link the two valleys without returning to their confluence at Hellok it is necessary to make one of two pass crossings, the Mirgin-Sinion La or the higher Lapsang La. We chose the more challenging Lapsang La, but did so with only limited information about its height and of the terrain we were likely to encounter.
We moved camp to a grassy hollow at the foot of the steepening pass and spent the late afternoon watching the sunset. From our elevated position we looked over the glacier and marvelled at the mysterious interplay between great banks of cloud and sun drenched peaks. Dawn was equally impressive and our situation benefited from the early arrival of the sun's warming rays.
We left camp in confident mood, feeling fit, well acclimatised and in the belief that it would not take long to reach the pass. The reality turned out to be different as we struggled for nearly four hours to complete the one thousand metre climb. The going was never technically difficult, but the entire ascent was over glacial debris comprised of sand, scree and sharp angular blocks of varying size and stability.
The view from the summit of the pass, at about 5350m, was disappointing. The mountains to the east remained clear, but the clouds enveloping Everest and Makalu to the west heralded a change in the weather. We hurried off down, initially across easy angled snowfields which provided temporary relief, but then back onto the interminable moraine. Three hours later we reached camp, located on a soft grassy bank at Lumba Sumba Kharka; the sherpas and porters, bless them, had camp ready and greeted us with mugfulls of hot sweet tea.
The next morning it was snowing and the cloud which covered the surrounding peaks denied us our planned close and dramatic view of Jannu from the Yamatari Glacier. However, our consolation was a short and easy walk through pine and rhododendron forests to meet the main valley at Ghunsa. The inhabitants of Ghunsa are of Tibetan origin, and the cattle grazing in the open fields, the mani walls, chortens and the small monastery were once again reminiscent of the Khumbu.
With the exception of one section across a large landslip, the path upwards to Kambachen and Lhonak rose steadily and easily. The weather remained unsettled but there were many opportunities to see and photograph the peaks. The views of the Jannu Glacier, the Sharphu peaks and Kambachen Peak were impressive, as was our first view up the Kangchenjunga Glacier on the final approach to Lhonak (4780m.). The thinly grassed wastes at Lhonak were popular with Tibetan herders and throughout our time there the sound of yak bells continually punctuated the still and bitterly cold air.
Our final objective was to reach Pangpema, base camp for expeditions climbing Kangchenjunga from this side. We again chose not to subject our porters to a bitterly cold night so we set off to reach Pangpema and return in a day. We surprised our Sherpas by the pace we could achieve at these altitudes, but we had to concede to Ang Nima who ran up the enclosing hillside on all fours in pursuit of a herd of rare Himalayan Blue sheep.
Kangchenjunga's summit only revealed itself on the very last stage of the walk to Pangpema, much of the time it was hidden behind Wedge Peak, 6750m., a bold mountain whose summit ridge comprised of intricately carved ice flutings. Pangpema was little more than a grassy shelf above the glacier; a solitary boulder in full view of the summit was adorned with prayer flags and supported a plaque in memory of the American climber Chris Chandler who died on Kangchenjunga in 1985.
From the grey rubble of the glacier the north faces of Kangchenjunga and Yalung Kang rose up over 3500m. in a series of tiers. Each hanging glacier was separated from the next by ice cliffs in a pattern seemingly designed to deter climbers. Whilst Kangchenjunga attracted most of our attention, the supporting summits of Nepal Peak, Tent Peak, Pyramid Peak and The Twins added much to the magnificence of our surroundings.
We said farewell to the high mountains and within two days had retraced our steps to Ghunsa. Further ups and downs through the forests beside the Ghunsa River on a wonderfully engineered path which incorporated a remarkable near vertical descent at Amjilassa brought us to Hellok. Here the waters of the Ghunsa, Simbua and Yangma Kholas converge to form the infant Tamur River. A week after leaving the solitude of Pangpema we walked into the bustling hill town of Dobhan with its packed campsites, stalls, tea shops and electric lights.
We had planned to make the return journey to Basantpur as interesting as possible by walking along the Milke Danda, a great ridge separating the Arun and Tamur valley systems. We climbed the fifteen hundred metres to the ridge top at a fairly relaxed pace, frequently stopping at chautaras in the shade of a Banyan and Pipal trees to enjoy sweet, juicy and locally grown oranges. Rhododendron forest replaced paddy fields and the villages became more scattered as the altitude increased.
At the top of the Milke Danda the tiny village of Gupha Pokhari is blessed with a 180 degree panorama of the Himalaya. On the western side of the ridge it included Chamlang, Lhotse, Everest and Makalu, whilst to the east we could see the Kangchenjunga massif and peaks in Sikkim. The view was our constant companion for the last few days of our trek as we walked through grassy meadows along the wide and level ridge. At each sunrise and sunset we found a suitable vantage point to watch the world's highest mountains unfold their colourful spectacle.
On the morning of our departure from Basantpur we boarded the bus with mixed emotions; we were looking forward to the comforts of home yet we were sad to come to the end of a happy and successful adventure. There are so many highlights on this route to Kangchenjunga that it is difficult to single any one out. The majesty of the high peaks will fulfill all expectations, but for me the lasting memory will be of the diversity of the country through which we passed and the welcome which we received from its people.
This article was originally published in the magazine 'Climber' in 1990