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[Full Map] [Sikkim] [Trek Route]
Sikkim had been on my mind since I had met Phursumba Sherpa climbing Mt. Rainier in 1994. Phursumba, who loaned me his climbing gear, which was about 10 sizes too big, when I had needed it, had wooed me with wild stories about climbing and trekking in Sikkim.
Phursumba himself had been on the first American ascent of Mt. Everest in 1963, and his brother-in-law, Nawang Gombu, was the first man to climb Everest twice. Phursumba, who at 15 went to 27,000 feet, and Gombu lived in the Sikkim region and were the lead instructors of the highly respected Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI), which began as a military training ground for high altitude mountaineering in the Indian army.
At 21, Phursumba moved to the United States and became one of Rainier Mountaineering's (RMI) premier guides. Gombu, a highly respected high altitude mountaineer, is also now employed by RMI. When I met them, they were in the first stages of organizing their first trek to Sikkim.
I longed to see another part of Asia I had already been to Everest especially an untrampeled one and with my relationship going south, it seemed like a good time to go someplace really remote. Sikkim, at the crossroads of Tibetan, Nepali and Indian cultures, was it. For me, the Tibetan monastic culture holds the most fascination because I know the monks have not been repressed and the monasteries remain fully functioning links to the past.
The rugged environment of the Sikkimese Himalayas is equally alluring: remote, forested, extremely beautiful and largely untouristed. Looking at unclimbed peaks was somehow comforting as it gave me a perspective that some things in life still remain sacred and untouched. For example, Kabor, a large granite pyramid visible from Darjeeling, could offer 3000 feet of spectacular rock climbing, but, like much of the region's peaks, is off limits. The government is extremely strict as to where travelers can go and Indian military personnel man the uplands of Sikkim to enforce these rules. It's not a place to be cavalier ending up in an Indian jail would be a big drag.
My journey began in Delhi, and I was as happy to leave as this teeming city would not be my first choice in places to hang. Bagdougra, a rural airport outpost and gateway to the Sikkim region, and just a two-hour flight from Delhi, is better. Despite its state of chaos and pollution, it is more interesting than Delhi because of its "out there" feel.
On the Jeep trip to the Sikkim's capital city of Gangtok, I quickly developed the defense mechanism commonly known as the art of detachment. Time and again I thought my life might be snuffed out on the winding one-laners full of recklessly speeding vehicles. Curiously, it's only 39 miles from Bagdougra to Gangtok, but it took nearly five hours of weaving and bouncing to get there.
Beyond Bakim, we entered a temperate forest that was similar in scenery of the Olympic Mountains of the US's Pacific Northwest, except that the forest was loaded with huge rhododendrons. The trail climbed steeply to 13,000 feet, where we emerged from the forest to our first views of Pandim, Kangchenjunga, Kabur, Kabru and the other 7000- and 8,000-meter peaks of this part of the Himalayas.
On arrival in the yak pasture of Dzongri later that day, we met out first travelers. As Phursumba had reserved the hut for us in advance, a fact which relegated other travelers to rougher accommodations, I can't say they were too happy to see us. Local connections, and bakshi (hard currency), always work wonders in Asia.
Mysteriously, our next stop in Bikbury was included on the government's maps, despite the fact that with a population of zero, it doesn't exist. Bikbury consists of a single run-down hut, a pasture, and a few boulders, but it can boast a remarkable view. The snow-covered mountains form a veritable string of peaks surrounding the Bikbury hamlet and the Ratong Valley. So, from here, the incredible mountains of Sikkim are truly "in your face."
We were now in a very remote area, and our isolation was quite obviously real when it started to snow, we hoped that it wasn't the beginning of a huge Himalayan snowstorm like those that have wiped out trekking groups. We were relieved when we awoke to a mere four inches of new snow capped by brilliant sunshine. We soon headed up valley a few miles to the HMI advance base camp training ground (15,000 feet). The setting was spectacular with Kabru, Ratong, Kotang, and Frey Peak towering above us.
In just three days we had climbed 10,000 feet. I have been to 18,500 feet before and had not experienced an altitude headache, but because I didn't drink enough water, climbed too quickly, and ran around taking photos and video, I got spanked. Around midnight, my head felt like it was going to split and I could hardly lift it from the pillow. I barely pulled myself together and started to pressure breathe while my buddy Lesley shoved a few aspirin down my throat. By early morning I felt a little better.
After the fascinating, albeit slightly disturbing, experience with the monk, we went directly back to Yoksom and had an enriching time with the locals. No doubt, mixing with the villagers is about as fun as travel gets. Sikkim remains an isolated mountain kingdom; there are no trinkets to buy, the food can be risky if not carefully prepared, the sanitation is Third World, the roads more so, but the people are wonderfully friendly. Because they have had little exposure to Western influence, they are not jaded by the material demands of tourists.
I often reflect on the lovely people I met, the pristine virgin forests and the untouched, sacred mountains. I hope to return and travel further into this enchanting area.
Jane Bromet, Mountain Zone Correspondent