The 16@Goechala Pass

Of all the geographical landscapes that we know of, the mountains, undoubtedly, have the reputation of offering one of the most diverse, challenging, harsh and, above all, complex environments. And because they offer such complex environments on a large scale, there is a curiosity within us to visit these places and explore them in detail. While some of us see them as places to be conquered and written off from the long list of things to do, some visit these mountains to find comfort in their company, and share some precious moments of their lives with them.It was precisely for that second reason that I along with my five other friends planned Goechala Trek – the third with INDIAHIKES, within a span of one year.

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Because we also love these mountains 

Day 1 – NJP to Yuksom (5770 ft)

Riding on the success of past two treks, yet not quite ignoring the preparations that were recommended for this trek, we arrived at New Jalpaiguri Railway station early on the 30th of October 2016, having taken an overnight train from Kolkata. After a quick breakfast, the six of us – Aditya, Rounak, Prashanth, Unni, Anurag, and, I, Pushpam, left for Yuksom. We were joined by Arka, another trek mate. Though the weather was perfectly clear and ideal for driving through the winding roads of the Himalayas, it took us about 6 hours to cover a distance of 150 km, but none of us complained about it because the greenery along the road and the green water of the rivers we passed on our way, provided us with a much needed break we all were looking forward to. And before we even realised we were in Lanam Guest House, Yuksom (5770 ft).

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@Lanam Guest House, Base Camp, Goechala Trek

Contrary to our expectations, the guest house was no less than a luxurious hotel with facilities like hot running water, electricity, and beds with huge quilts. Later that evening, the whole batch was briefed under the moonless sky bedecked with stars and the cold wind blowing from the east. The 16 of us were – Megha, Deepika, Chaitra, Arka, Sukhpreet, Rahul, Suresh, Anurag, Aditya, Rounak, Prashanth, Unni, Pushpam, Tanmay (trek lead), Dawa (guide), Namjang (co-guide). Our spirits were high and the energy in the team seemed to have filled the air with some sort of welcoming warmth, which we all enjoyed. After quick introductions, handshakes, smiles, greetings and delicious dinner, we were sent off to bed, so that we could make a fresh start tomorrow.

Day 2 – Yuksom to Sachen (7200 ft)

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From left, Prashanth, Unni, Dawa, myself and Rounak

The first day of our trek began at about 9 am, first up the hill, through the village, past the houses on both sides, and then slowly into the forest. With each step, we left the world of known behind us and embraced the new world of mountains – incredibly raw but extraordinarily beautiful. The trail was thin, full of mosses, wet leaves, rotten wood, trees, climbers, and a river gushing down in earnest, but mostly it was flat. And so quickly, we made it to our first campsite at Sachen, with just a few short breaks. At first, I wasn’t really impressed with Sachen; it looked cramped, as if crying for more space, with tall trees looking down at us like ghosts and a huge hill at our back. But slowly, I began to appreciate its beauty and when I did, I smiled at the choice our trek leader Tanmay had made. Tanmay that evening told us about his adventures in the mountains and narrated us a ghost story too.

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@Sachen camp site. Wonderfully placed isn’t it? 

As always is the case in the mountains, the sun went down early pushing us into a long dark cold night, which we were able to negotiate with our torch lights and some light moments. With most of the trek still ahead of us, we went to sleep early to give our bodies enough rest.

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Sachen at night

Day 3 – Sachen to Tshokha (9650 ft)

Once again the day started on a high note, with Aditya making sure that everyone is up early. He always gets chatty and energetic in the mountains, a really good characteristic to have, because it fills everyone with positive energy. After a quick breakfast, we continued on our journey through the heart of the forest – shady path with patches of yellow; green wood and sounds of hidden crickets and insects. Soon, we were at the foothill of the mountain. As we stood on the rope bridge, with river passing under our feet, it felt as if we were riding a wave and witnessing something remarkable in the company of that endless flow of water. Ahead of us was a steep climb to Tshokha, again through thick forest, and thus we had to move on.

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From left, Dawa, Deepika, Unni, Aditya, Rahul, Sukhpreet, Megha, Anurag, Rounak, Prashanth, Myself and on the bottom left is Tanmay – the masked man

With Dawa – our trek guide – walking in the front, followed by Aditya, myself, Rounak, Anurag, Unni and Prashanth, we were doing great as a team and truly enjoying the beauty of the place, and thanking each other for choosing this trek. Half way through, we stopped at Bhakim – literally meaning home of bamboos – to feed ourselves. To our surprise, we also found chocolates, omelettes and a special spicy green peas snack, which we later called ZIGDAL SPECIAL, after Zigdal – son of the shop owner. He was a good child and we shared some nice moments together.

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With Zigdal after having his special green peas snack

The journey from Bhakim to Tshokha lasted for about 2 hours, but when we reached Tshoka, we were completely blown away by its sheer magnificence. For me, it was one of the most beautiful campsites I had seen till now. It overlooked a valley and from there we could see six different layers of mountains, all green and thickly populated. Behind us was Pandim – a tall mountain peak covered in snow.

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The campsite of Tshokha

Tshokha itself looked like a remote village with about ten houses, all wooden and followed an old architecture. It also had a monastery and a small lake. The monastery presented a panoramic view of the village, picture perfect, rich in colours, green grass, trees, shrubs, hills, cobbled pathway, brown wooden houses, white mountain peaks, tiny trails visible even from this far, reflection of white clouds hovering in the sky above, and horses drinking from the lake. All I had to do was close my eyes and absorb it all, which I did, but then it was difficult to take it all home.

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@Tshokha Lake. Small yet serene

Day 4 – Tshokha to Dzongri (12980 ft)

It was bright and sunny, when we started our day. The path led us into a forest section with a wooden trail and rhododendrons on both sides. We were told that this section was developed by British for the trekkers. Sadly, there weren’t any flowers, but yet we could imagine its glamour, had they been flowering. Not that it demeaned its exquisiteness in any way, the path still looked artistic with a surprising coolness to the air and the smell of dying leaves touched by dew.

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On the wooden trail, with rhododendrons on both sides. 

After a full four hour ascent, we reached Phedang (12050 ft) and had our lunch. It was here, we were told, that a trekker had died a few days ago in a wooden hut behind us because AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) had hit him. We were also told by Tanmay that when in mountains live by the rules of the mountains and seek their blessings. We didn’t really know what he meant by that, and we didn’t care asking him again, as we were immersed in our walks through the cradle of nature amongst white peaks, green forests and clean air.

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Mount Pandim from Phedang

The journey from Phedang to Dzongri took us about 2 hours and we felt exhausted by the time we were there. It was cold and windy, and so we were asked to take proper precaution of ourselves. We did as advised. Hot soup and snacks really helped us relax. That night was freezing cold with constant blow of wind hitting our tents; luckily we were well insulated.

Day 5 – To Dzongri top (13681 ft) and Thansing (12894 ft)

Some of the best moments come in our lives after we undertake some of the toughest journeys. When at 3 am that morning, in the midst of chilling wind and stone cold silence, we began our ascent to Dzongri Top – believed to be the meeting place of men and mountain gods – it felt as if we were like small children, filled with curiosity yet a strange fear, being led through a dark room to an unknown place where a surprise awaited us. Once at the top, we could hardly see anything except for the sky which was changing colours fast, from deep blue, violet, to red, orange, and yellow. Our spirits touched a new high, though we were freezing in cold, when the first light of the sun hit Kanchenjunga – the third highest peak in the world. We stood there in awe; we hadn’t seen anything as majestically beautiful as this. The golden appearance of Kanchenjunga looked as if beauty mixed with intelligence was shining on me.

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First light on Kanchenjunga, golden, reddish-brown

Slowly, the curtains were pulled down further, revealing the rest of the mountain. Though we were shivering by now, from the inside we were thankful to the mountains for having shown us this. And for the first time, I realised what Tanmay meant when he said by the rules of the mountains and their blessings. One by one, all the peaks lit up in some sort of reddish-orange shade. We could see the extent of snow clinging on to mountains like a baby to his mother.

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The group at Dzongri Top, with Aditya – the photographer on the left and Kanchenjunga behind us

Soon, the whole area was filled with warm, yellow light, casting long shadows, giving it a surreal feeling as if were a mystic oil painting. With these thoughts in mind, we came down, and after a quick bite of pancakes, we began our walk towards Thansing. Luckily we all were doing well, but then in mountains, it is hard to predict what’s brewing on the other side.

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On our way to Thansing from Dzongri

Day 6 – Thansing to Lamuney (13693 ft)

The strangest thing about history is you don’t really know when it is underway; it is only later, when you look back, that you realize that you actually were there, when the history was being written. That long cold night at Thansing changed everything for us, but like I said, we weren’t aware while it was happening. It was only in the morning we realized that the cough I had heard last night, wasn’t just simple cough, but signs of something bigger. After a few medicines, Prashanth was on his way. That day even Megha struggled a bit. Aditya too complained of stomach upset. We all walked slowly that day, taking care of our mates.

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View from Thansing Camp

Like always is the case, we thought we had things under control, but it was only when we reached Lamuney that we realised how wrong we were. While Aditya and Megha had recovered, Prashanth wasn’t doing that great. After a quick examination, he was given Dex ( a strong steroid medicine) and asked to rest. To add to our misery, his oxygen level started dropping rapidly. Within a span of 2 hours, it came down from 60 to 39. He was shivering badly and found it difficult to breathe. We were told by Tanmay that AMS had hit him. Now, it was up to Tanmay and us to take a decision. It wasn’t easy because barring the four of us, there still were 9 trekkers, who had go to Goechala Pass the next morning and return to Kockchurang. With Tanmay gone, it would be difficult to carry on like that, but like a brave leader he put his trust in the hands of Dawa and Baichung and decided to turn around from there.

And so, at 5 pm, six of us – Prashanth, Aditya, Rounak, Tanmay, Namjang, and I – left our group behind and began walking back. It was cold and dark. If Prashanth were to live, then we had to make it to Kockchurang at any cost, which was about 8 km from there. Our bodies were tired, but we had to push ourselves. Prashanth couldn’t walk more than a few steps. He struggled for breath. He had a slow pace. In that moment, we felt as if the mountains were turning their back on us. We thought we had lost their blessings, when we needed them the most. But in spite of all those thoughts, we continued to walk, taking small breaks and maintaining our slow rhythm.

At 12 midnight, we reached the wooden hut of Kockchurang, where Dawa’s cousin had arranged a place for us and cooked us dinner. Having reached Kockchurang wasn’t the end of our misery because in front of us was a long night of wait. Tanmay proposed that since it was necessary for all of us to rest as well, we should take turn to keep an eye on Prashanth. We agreed for it. It was a night of horror. Though Prashanth slept well, we could actually hear crackling noise from his lungs every time he breathed in. We continued to keep an eye on him, but it was only the next morning that we took a breathe of relief. He told us he was feeling better than yesterday. We thanked the mountains silently and prayed to keep us safe for the rest of our journey. Dex and Tanmay’s brave decision had worked for us, but there was still a long way to go.

Day 7 – Kockchurang to Tshokha (9650 ft)

Prashanth started the day on a high and maintained a good pace. Though it took us longer to get back to Tshoka than usual, we were still happy and kept thanking the mountains. We realised that, after all, they weren’t against us but had been helping us all the way along. While the walk to Phedang from Kockchurang is beautiful with rhododendrons on both sides, our focus was Prashanth. Yet we couldn’t help noticing some of the rare sights along the way of logs of wood pushed down the slope and some over hanging cliffs. It was mesmerizing. From Phedang, we really picked up speed and reached Tshokha in less than 2 hours. We spend the night there in the cottage and slept in peace. Prashanth was doing well.

Day 8 – Tshoka to Yuksom (5770 ft)

When on the last day, we finally made it back to the base camp safely; we congratulated each other, hugged and thanked Tanmay for his brave decision and for guiding us through with this. But most importantly, we thanked the mountains for their blessings. Later, Indiahikes took Prashanth to a nearby hospital, where the doctor declared him out of danger. We celebrated and waited for the rest of the group to arrive. When they finally got back the next day, we threw us at each other and talked for hours. Though, we couldn’t make it to View Point 1, we felt we saw it through the eyes of our teammates. Such was our bonding and understanding that were extremely pleased at their successful summit of View Point 1.

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Enjoying the beauty of Sikkim after our Trek

Now, when we sit and recall the events of that day Prashanth had only one thing to say, “I felt I was just an hour away from death.” It was truly horrifying, but now having lived through that, it taught us a lot. When asked if he would go back to the mountains again, Prashanth added these lines with a smile, “Without a doubt we are going back again.”

The mountains are diverse, challenging, harsh and complex, yet they teach us a lot, and if we don’t go back to them again and again, it is us who will eventually lose out, not them.

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Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion – Anatoli Boukreev

Thanks https://indiahikes.com/

Photos courtesy – Aditya Dogra

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