Trek to Goecha-la through Singalila ridge

Nilanjan Patra

Photographs: Author, Avijit Sur, Raja Saha, Saikat Das
Category: Trekking, Hiking
Date of Publication: Feb 25 , 2014Vol-02 Issue-01


Trek to Goecha-la through Singhalila ridge - Part 1

Starting with a green trail

After starting late from Rimbi we were little apprehensive about the actual length of the trail to reach Sangekhola. Our destination was Chowri (5148ft.) for the day's camping but starting late, we could reach nearby Sangkhola which is half of the way to Chowri. The village trail leads to the famous Dhafevir pass (15,900ft.) in the Singalila Ridge which indeed was our main place of interest for the next four days. goecha la trekkingWe ventured with quite a healthy and balanced team (me, Avijit Sur, Raja Saha, Saikat Das and Supratim Mukherjee) taking with us one guide, one cook, one kitchen helper, two porters and four yaks as supporting staff. The trail path that leads to Singalila Ridge covers a considerably large area of denser rain forest that makes it quite challenging to trek in the month of May-June as monsoon descends in this area. The river Sangekhola flows with the mystic sound just beside the green trail which goes along some green grasslands and cardamom plantation. We arrived at the village gateway of Sangekhola around 2 pm. Feeling fit enough, we eventually decided to trek up to Chowri on the same day and finish the entire uphill trek in the next 3 hrs. The continuous steep uphill starts from the Sangekhola which is of course strenuous for the first day. It took an hour to get out of the dense forest as we ascended over 1000ft. Couple of army persons who were coming down the forest, informed us about the toughness of the trail near Yumbong side. goecha la trekkingAnyway we got the varieties of flora in the trail, which were too good to capture. We came to Chwori village just before the evening and our first day's camp ended as per schedule. The Chowri village (5,148 ft.) is the last village in the next six day's trail. The very next village would be at Dzongri which would come after five days trek. The camping ground is located at the centre of the village surrounded by dark forest and all the necessary arrangements like water supply, kitchen place etc. were available there. The river Sangekhola went far below the hill and did not appear to be seen from the campsite. As rain descended along with darkness we were forced to move into the tent with a bowl of hot noodles. The next day's trail was again through the deep forest which made us bit anxious as the rain continued to show its performance all throughout the night.

Rainforest

Raja, one of our teammate fell severely sick in the morning. This delayed our this day schedule too. The trail path led to the downhill forest and eventually ended on the bank of the river. goecha la trekkingThe forest grew darker with time and the muddy trail with dangerous mosquito bites and the presence of the wild leech added extra irritation and discomfort to our continuously uphill trek from the bank of the river. The situation got worse when Raja was unable to walk any further and became seriously ill by the middle of that day's trail. We lost our enthusiasm and were finding a way to finish the trail as early as possible. We headed towards north along the river till we reached the army base and was welcomed by a flat and beautiful meadow. Lucky for us as Raja got a little rest on the green grassland. The trail then turned east. A wide river flowed across the trail path which could be crossed by a single log bridge. After crossing the bridge very carefully it seemed like the path suddenly vanished from the river bank. The trail then led to the dangerous uphill climb continuously for the rest of the day. The peak of the mountain which we had to cross was literarily invisible from the base. This turned out to be a big challenge as we had to complete the trail before sunset. Without spending a single word everybody pulled their sack and lined up. The trail was slippery, muddy and steep as well. With all care and fear we continued to ascend. goecha la trekkingAfter one hour of climbing, we came out from the dense damp forest and some portion of the panorama was in sight. The texture of the landscape changed into the beautiful grasslands and the glimpse of the great Singalila Ridge which seemed like a black high barricade became visible. We headed towards the yak's grazing ground which is a flat meadow with some beautiful trees here and there. As our colourful tents were pitched it brought happiness to our faces indicating the trail was complete and it was just afternoon! As we had enough time to explore the valley, with a cool and fresh mood we lazed on the ground. The first ever rhododendron in our journey bloomed there at Nayapatal Valley (9930 ft). The green valley with a pine forest at the edge of the grazing ground and yellow-white rhododendron really amazed us. A beautiful shrill stream which was the only source of water flowed through the middle of the valley. Our kitchen tent was pitched just beside the stream. A peaceful evening covered the Nayapatal Valley with darkness.

Walking in the rain

A clear dawn arrived with an exhibition of colours upon the meadow. Still we were not able to figure out how exactly Singalila Ridge looked like. Significant numbers of birds were playing and chirping all over the places at our campsite. It was nice to have some time for taking snaps using the soft morning light with green background. Anyway, we left the camp around 8 am with a plan to finish the trail up to upper Yambung. The distance from lower Yambung to upper Yambung (12,335 ft) is just four kilometres and also the upper Yumbung is highly preferable to cross the Dhafevir pass (15,900 ft) in time, the next day. goecha la trekkingThe trail path led us into a pine forest with a flat base. We got some beautiful orchids in that forest. Apart from the pine forest, the forest was covered with Himalayan bamboo trees in large quantities. We were informed about the trail with a typical characteristic of continuous uphill throughout the day. Well, we were slowly moving under the sunlight keeping in mind that we have to finish up to upper Yumbong. Suddenly within one hour of starting, the sunlight was shadowed by a thick dark cloud from the down valley. This sudden and drastic weather change caught us amidst a harsh cold wind and heavy rain. Naturally, we were not prepared for this and had to rethink of our decision to climb up to upper Yumbong. Considering the weather we decided it was better to halt at lower Yumbong until rain stopped. Unfortunately, we realized that the Yak harder and the tent men were already on their way to upper Yumbong which meant that even if we take a decision to stay in lower Yumbong tonight, it won't work. So with the sound of rain drops, five of us and the guide, Sanchman gradually ascended the slippery trail. The trail became dangerous in some places where rain water washed out all the marks of the previous trail and uneven boulders erased all the pug marks made by the yaks. In that weather, gaining about an altitude of 2,500 ft in a day was not at all an easy task to accomplish. Even in bright days, at this altitude (which is above 10,000 ft) gaining more than 2000 ft in a single day was a big thing as our body needs to acclimatize altitude change. The main disadvantage of walking in the rain is that the body starts sweating rapidly under the raincoat. Soon we were overtook be fatigue and thus took a break to take little and have our lunch. As it was pouring heavily, we took refuge under the canopy a large tree. goecha la trekkingDuring the afternoon session, the clouds became weak but we still continued to struggle with the muddy steep trail. In addition to this situation, continuous mosquito bites caused the highest level of irritation. It was only some colourful mosses and attractive wild mushrooms along the trail path that kept us motivated to move ahead. The rucksack felt heavier and the breathing speed became faster at we gained higher altitude. Slowly the daylight began thinning down to our dismay we had no idea about our actual position of the day's trail. By the evening heavy fog made everything almost invisible in front of us as we still continued to ascend the trail path. After a certain altitude, we were confronted by the Himalayan leeches making today's trail a saga of misery. At that point when we were continuously fighting with the leech bites, for the first time, gorgeous red Rhododendrons appeared in the trail. We were spellbound! All the exhaustion of the day suddenly got wiped away. The trail then went deep into the Rhododendron forest and the red beautiful Rhododendrons continued to appear beside the muddy track. We reached lower Yumbong (some says 'Yambu') around 5 o'clock. The place was covered with lush green grass and some pine, poplar, rhododendron and dhupi. A trekker's hut was under construction just beside the flat camp site. But the main point of attraction was the red rhododendrons blooming with its fullest strength. Yellow and white colours were also there but the reds were more luminous than any other in that faint evening light. We were happy and quite satisfied as well to see this exhibition of rhododendron in that scale for the first time in our lives. Our destination was four kilometres ahead with extra an elevation about 1000 ft or more. The single site of the rhododendrons was enough to push us into the uphill trail to upper Yumbong with a positive body language. Rhododendrons were everywhere now, in different colours and different shapes making this part of our journey pleasant and beautiful. The guide asked us to move forward to reach the destination before dark. goecha la trekkingWhen we reached upper Yumbong, it was almost dark. The campsite was looking like a helipad ground and our two tents were pitched in the middle of it. We were exhausted but at the same time satisfied to finish the mammoth like trail (15 km) within a day. The moment we went to the kitchen place one bad news received us along with a cup of tea. 'There is no water in the camp site area!' It is fully dry! Then cook Sanman came and told us about a little pond which was located one kilometre from the campsite, which may contain water as it was raining in the morning. We all came out with torches and vessel to find reservoir. The path was parallel to the camp site and had a large collection of the fresh white rhododendrons. One noticeable thing about it was that these Rhododendrons plants were of low height, reaching only up to the knee. Thank God! It was raining in the morning because that was not a pond at all. It was just a tiny reservoir with about 30 litters of water. We collected it with all care but it was dirty and required to be processed for several times before drinking. For those who are planning to trek up to Dhafevir pass, it is advisable to bring water from lower Yumbong to camp here. It again rained all through the night.

Daphevir Pass: the first hurdle:

There was no improvement in the weather condition even in the morning. All of us were quite disappointed with the sequence of event that was following us and some regretted the decision of undertaking this trail in the wrong season. goecha la trekkingOur plan was to start early in the morning so that we could reach Lampokhri by 10 am and cross the pass by 12 pm and reach the Gomathang valley in time for the overnight camping. However, our supporting staff did not encourage us to continue in this weather as the Dhafevir Pass is as high as Goecha la. So there lay no point of taking risk at this height. Thus we decided halt at Upper Yambong for the day. However, all of a sudden, around 8 am, sunlight came as a ray of hope. Hastily we took a decision to start right then as there was still enough time to reach our destination by evening. We picked up our rucksacks quickly and merrily left for today's trek as scheduled.

Our cook Sanman joined with us as he was the only one to have experience of this route. The rest of the party ventured ahead of us so that they can cook our meal by the time we reach the first base camp of the day. The great Singalila Ridge was faintly in sight rendering the encouragement we required most. One interesting thing we observed was that the height of the rhododendron plants decreased substantially with the increase of altitude. The pink coloured rhododendrons which were illuminated with the sunlight and the recently fallen raindrops upon it charmed us on this route. We continued to climb up the mountain at a fast pace because all were restless to watch the majestic panoramic view of the Kanchenjunga and Everest in a single frame within the hand shaking distance from the Dhafevir Pass. goecha la trekkingBut that was only possible in clear weather. However, within one hour of climbing fatigue gripped us due to the low oxygen level. The trail was furnished with the magnificent Primula flowers that laid a lavish violet silk carpet on the grassland. After two hours of continuous walking, the land got barren until all grassland completely disappeared from our view. We now followed a rocky terrain of hard granite rock which was altogether a different beauty in itself. We had little difficulty in finding the right path to avoid from being slipped off. Also the wild blew quite coarsely over the open platform of the ridge. We came across some beautiful fresh water lakes in this region. Many of them were sources of some of the wide rivers flowing down the plains. Snow line began as we moved along the northern side of the ridge. We had to cross plenty of small streams across the trail. Today we also took frequent breaks after very hour to acclimatize our body with the height. Some of us were feeling sick for the scarcity of oxygen. Unfortunately, we still didn't get a proper view of the mountain ranges from the ridge due to thick cloud and the temperature already read below 0 degree Celsius. We came across a flat region but still had no idea of the pass base.

A dangerous wind mixed of cloud and fog met us while we were still struggling on the hard snowy trail. This type of wind is common on the ridge. Our supporting staff reached the pass base just as we came to sight. As we had reached the base pass by 1 pm it shouldn't be difficult for us to cross the Dephavir Pass by noon. The pass area was looking quite dangerous from this point as a single steep ice slope crossed the trail vertically. After a short lunch break we headed north towards Lampokhri side located 700m-800m below the base pass. Going down proved to be quite a challenge as the rock surfaces were covered with the transparent snow or sometimes loose ice, which may cause a deadly slip. Every single step mattered. Thankfully, all of us successfully completed this hurdle. goecha la trekkingLampokhri invited us with one big fresh water lake. At this altitude seeing a giant natural reservoir for water was quite an experience. We were quite surprise to learn that this giant lake was also the source of River Rhimbi which commences from the south of the lake. With just a diameter of one metre, River Rimbi begins her journey from here. This lake is also considered to be the holiest lake of the East Sikkim. The other side of the lake was covered up with some glaciers which were not clearly visible because of heavy mist. We could have seen the reflections of the Kanchenjunga Range on its sacred water but only for clear weather. Another trekking route to come here is from the Chewbhanjan Pass of Sikkim. One can start the Singalila Ridge trek from Uttarey and then through Chewbhanjan Pass and Meghu can reach Lampokhri in four or five days. After spending some time here we headed towards Gomathang where our supporting staffs were probably waiting for us. We were slowly traversing the ice slope from the south-west side with utmost care just following the footprints made by other members of the team. At one point, one Dream Wanderlust member, Supratim lost his balance in the middle of the slope for a moment but quickly gained control, thanks to his stick. We crossed the ridge slowly and reached the pass by 2 PM. We were now standing at an altitude of 16,000 ft)! We came down taking the northeast side of the pass. That Gomathang Valley is located far below the pass was known to us but exactly how far, we didn't know. Following a continuous downhill path was risky enough but we had no other option. We had already managed to cross a large number of ice fields confidently. Some of the valleys we came across were green and beautiful! Others were like flat grass fields with the patch of snow. We encountered some small glaciers that blocked our path. goecha la trekkingIt was late in the afternoon and we were still struggling at the upper snow field. Soon, sun would set and we were nowhere near our target. Our guide asked us to increase our speed or else it would become impossible to reach Gomathang before dusk. Luckily, after covering a little distance the ice-line was replaced by greengrassland meaning that we were now nearing our destination. The scenic beauty of the landscape was nice but we had no time to enjoy that because twilight has already set. Then the guide informed us that Gomathang was still 12 km down from this point. This news gave us a setback as moon was already shining over the ridge and we were travelling under its faint silver light, carrying 20 kilo sacks each, god knows where! But if you are in an adventure tour then you should be prepared to combat any type of situation with a positive attitude. However, the story didn't end here. We were completely exhausted and after a little distance we found ourselves in front of a massive landslide which had eaten up the whole trail left by our supporting staff in the afternoon. It was semi-dark and we were lost! We didn't know how to move ahead and the grim look on each of our faces said they did not know the answer for this. Camping in the darkness without any utility is nothing but a suicidal idea in this region. So, slowly and carefully we started coming down making a path with small stones and boulders. Many of us lost balance several times and got injured but said nothing. Someone then passed a message that he saw the tents through his telephoto lens. This news was great! It meant that our supporting staff had reached safely at the campsite However, our happiness was short lived as when we reached the bottom of the landslide we found that the log bridge across the river which would take us to Gomathang has disappeared. Displaying quick wit, our cook Sanman and Avijit tried to construct a temporary bridge with boulders and stones. As we took little courage to cross this temporary bridge we saw our supporting staff coming to our rescue.

The Gomathang Valley is located on the river bed at the confluence of three different streams. The moment we had reached there we discovered ourselves in a gallery of rhododendron orchard arrayed white and pink flowers. goecha la trekkingThe valley is a flat meadow covered with green grasses and violet Primula. The peaks of the Singalila Ridge protected the valley from the sharp clod wind of Tibetian Plateau. Our tents were pitched in the middle of the meadow where two rivers were flowing with all their beauty on either side of the camp merging into one at a distance. As we unwrapped from the exhausting trek of the day the Gomathang Valley shimmered under the soft moonlight adored with spectacular rhododendrons. Just being a witness to such a glorious beauty was a moment of lifetime.

Two high passes and The Rhododendron Trail

After a tight sleep, we had a relaxed morning the next day. With the snow-capped Mt Kabur in sight the Gomathang Valley goecha la trekkinglooked beautiful and tranquil. A carpet of magnificent violet Primula flower covered the grass and beautifully juxtaposed the exuberant rhododendron that bloomed in full strength all around us.

As usual our trekking instinct soon drove us to exploring the neighbourhood forgetting all of yesterday's exhaustion. However, thick dark cloud suddenly veiled the north-eastern side of the valley obscuring the view of Mt.Kabur. Soon it was time for us to cross the bridge again. We found the log to cross the bridge that got washed away in yesterday's landslide. However, it was no more reliable strong. As the water was not too deep we took the risk of crossing the river with that log. goecha la trekkingLuckily, all of us landed safely on the side. Taking the last glimpse of the heavenly Gomathang Valley for one last time we headed towards North to the Punding Valley, 20 kms uphill from here. In this trail we came across some vegetation for the first time in days and to our awe also discovered the maximum number of rhododendron varieties that existed. This was the best of the trek we had so far. Our camping ground was the Punding meadow (13,700 ft.,) which was just below the famous Punding Pass (13,890 ft.). To reach there we crossed the Kockling Pass (13,500 ft.). It took us nearly one and half hour to reach the upper land of the mountain. We were delighted to discover a beautiful lush green meadow called Bokto Valley upon reaching the top. The thin Bokto Chu stream flowed beside the meadow. Trekkers can camp here and take a path that leads to the famous Hanspokhri and Laxmipokhri Lake. We then followed the trail towards the Yangshep Valley. Suddenly, we were all dumbstruck by a spectacular view never seen before. goecha la trekkingIn our numerous trekking expeditions we have seen nature in its many beautiful colours and shades, but never before in our life we have seen dazzling and colourful mountains. Our only concept of the great Himavant was that of lush green and snow clad mountains with beautiful pine and deodar forests. But here lay before our eyes a set of mountain ranges dazzling with different colours of rhododendrons. It was definitely a glorious moment to capture. We reached Yanshep Valley by noon. The rhododendron mountains has long faded from sight. We crossed the Yanshep River to reach the valley followed by a steep uphill trail to the east. While we were ascending the trail rain descended slowly. As it was not too heavy rain we effortlessly moved towards that pass area that led to Kockling. Some Tibetan prayer flags and stacks of stones was the only indication of the path of the pass. We were excited to cross the pass as schedule. We then ventured towards north getting downhill. A steep muddy trail led us downhill. We were supposed to come down and traverse the meadow (which has a width of 2-3 km) to get into the next mountain (which was still invisible to us) to climb to Punding Pass. goecha la trekkingPunding Pass was the second pass of that day and third pass of the trip. We could not gather much information about this route while planning this trek. It took about an hour to reach at the base of the steep ascent trail that leads to the Pass. Yet another challenge was thrown to us today as we came to know that the landslide has entirely devoured the path of the trail. The loosely positioned shooting stones which had come from the upper portion of the mountain made the surface vertical and steep. Heading east, we slowly started ascending horizontally to avoid the steep slopes. Fortunately, we crossed the pass just before the evening. It was really strenuous to cross two high passes with the altitude well above 13,000 ft in a single day and fatigue was all over us. Unfortunately, we once again missed the view of the Kabur range from the top of the pass because of thick cloud. We could then find a very narrow gully to come down the valley on the north side. This was a beautiful trail to cover. The wide green meadow with comfortable descend led to the campsite. We reached Punding Valley right before the evening.At that time, a small segment of the eastern side of the mountain range became visible with a faint silver glow.

Exploring The Kabur group

The first sunlight of the morning has not yet touched the mountain peaks. We came out from our tents to discover our actual position on the ridge. Surprisingly we found ourselves just below the majestic Mt. Kabur family. goecha la trekkingThe Singalila Ridge originates from the north side and stretched towards the south-west direction of the Sikkim keeping a little distance from the Mt. Kanchejunga - Kabur range. Undoubtedly, this was the most spectacular scene of the mountain range so far we had from a handshaking distance. We were overwhelmed and mesmerized by the stunning aurora of the morning in Punding Valley. From this point we saw the clouds far below in the highlands waiting for the first light. The moment Mt. Kabur turned into crimson, the sky instantly started sketching vibrant bright colours, as if, in frenzy. Soon it was time for us to say adieu to the beautiful valley. We deliberately started from the south side of the ridge traversing the green untouched meadow to reach Dzongri, our next destination. After reaching the end point of the meadow we found one steep descend that led down to the Rathang valley with an elevation around 2000 ft. Discovering no reliable trail path we were forced to descend through the steep trail. goecha la trekkingThat was the steepest descent we had ever faced in the trip which made the Singalila Ridge trek more strenuous and adventurous. After a long gap we gradually descended to the vegetation line where finally the trail got smooth. Our team member, Supratim slipped at this point but escaped just with a minor injury. The Rathang valley also was filled up with rhododendron flowers. Here the sizes of the plant decreased considerably because of high altitude. The beautiful Rathang Chu takes several ways to flow through the valley. With the rhododendron and Primula flowers at the ground level, the streams of fresh water makes different small deltas covered with green grassland. On the other side of the river, a base of mountain that led to the Dzongri meadow made a 'V' shaped mountain rack along with the Punding pass. Taking a short lunch we crossed all the streams with the help of some logs. It started pouring yet again in the afternoon. goecha la trekkingThat was our first ever experience of walking in the rain with plenty of rhododendron flowers blooming all around us. After taking multiple ascends we got a horizontal trail which looked like a wide one indicating that the Dzongri village was not so far. After six days of continuous strenuous trek on the Singalila Ridge we were about to join the common and conventional Yuksom - Dzongri - Goecha la trek route. It was after days that we saw some human faces in this trekking route. As we moved towards the meadow, the trail ended on a village path with some village huts. It was a successful story of the trek from many points of view. From the next day onwards, we shall follow the conventional route to Goecha La and covering that was now a piece of cake for us after trespassing some of the most strenuous mountain ridges of the world with a trail of more than 100km through three high altitude passes in the last six days.

Special thanks to: Mr. Ratanlal Biswas and Mr. B S Subba

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