From Jungle to Ice – The Kanchenjunga Trek

After a failed attempt to reach Makalu base camp, I was afraid of what could happen on the way to Kanchenjunga south and north base camps. Situated at the east of Nepal and bordering with Sikkim, India, Kanchenjunga is the 3rd highest mountain in the world. This of course sounds attractive for someone in love with the mountains like me. However, it’s just next to Makalu and so far the weather kept on being nasty. What will I find there ? Will I also end up going back without seeing the mountain I would have struggled for ?

Dodgy bridge

The only way to know is to go and see by myself, so here I am on the Himalayan trails with my 20kg backpack again, smiling like a kid, happy to be on the road once more. But after never ending ups and downs, gone is the smile. I quickly grow tired of walking in the heat of the jungle day after day without gaining altitude. Hopefully an unexpected event helps me to keep going on.

Limbu man carrying grass for his cattle

Way to Kanchenjunga

Soon I find myself in the middle of the night in an overcrowded and overheated house where a shaman is practicing a ritual for the death of a member of the Rai community of the village. After hours of preparation, he starts singing under a suspended dead chicken while some villagers play the drums and other burn sandalwood. As he gets into trance, whistling and imitating birds, he suddenly runs towards the exit and gets caught by the villagers. This cultural practice is something I cannot grasp. There is absolutely nothing in common with our culture and nothing I know can get me close to understanding the smallest thing happening here. I can only sit as a simple observer. My guide is unfortunately in the same situation as this is the first time he also experiences such a ritual.

Shaman practicing ritual

The moral is now back on track after this extraordinary experience, and on the 5th day of the trek a ferocious 1400m climb puts an end to the ups-and-downs torment once and for all. Now we enter a more temperate forest ecosystem. Trees take the shape of sorceress fingers, fog settles in and rhododendrons, although not yet bearing any flower, are everywhere around us.

The landscape becomes surreal as a gigantic landslide destroyed a whole valley. Walking on the border of the remodeled mountain is an experience in itself and one cannot feel but really small when Nature shows such strength.

Gigantic landslidePrimary forest

Soon enough snow makes its first apparition as well as high mountains (Nepali people would still call them hills, but whatever…), playing hide and seek with clouds. I now feel in my element although fatigue starts to play tricks on me. A few glasses of tchang, one day of rest and a nice little party to celebrate Nepali new year with sherpas and climbers on their way to the summit of Kanchenjunga will give me enough energy to continue the trek towards the south base camp in good conditions.

On the way to south base camp

As we get closer to Kanchenjunga, we walk along its gigantic glacier, cracking every now and then as to warn us that we have nothing to do here. Unlike the sound of avalanches, I can feel no aggression here. I actually find it pleasant and the sight of ice-covered mountains adds to the drama and give me thrills in the back. This is what I came for and although I am freezing in the early morning cold and I can’t breath properly because of altitude, I am now fully enjoying the present moment, as if this long and strenuous walk was the meditation that had lead me to nirvana.

Towards south base camp at nightJannu - Kumbhakarna

After three passes and a few Sherpa villages and camps, we manage to rent a tent on the way to the north base camp in order to enjoy the sunrise as close as possible to Kanchenjunga. To fight the cold and humidity we build a gigantic yak dung fire that keeps us warm-ish for the rest of the day. The fog is so thick that we barely see in front of us and snow keeps falling down continuously. As I lose hope of ever seeing the long desired mountain tomorrow morning I remember a lesson I have learned through my treks in the Himalayas: morning are usually clear and afternoons cloudy. So I must keep faith. Tomorrow morning will be nice, I’m sure!

Kanchenjunga North Base Camp

The first night over 5000m is a challenge. I feel like I slept a dozen nights as I woke up at least as many times. When the 4:30AM alarm clock rings, I hurry to get out of my warm and cosy sleeping bag and get ready to photograph whatever there is to see. No luck, everything is bathing in a deep fog. BUT, I still keep faith as this time weather seems pretty unstable. Maybe with a little luck it will go away in a few minutes.

An hour later fog transforms into clouds caressing the gigantic snow-covered mountains in front of me. I can finally see the summit of Kanchenjunga shyly hiding behind a light veil, higher than anything else. It is so high that even at a 5200m altitude I need to raise my head high to see it. However the most impressive is not the summit in itself but all the mountains before it. In front of me stands an oversized landscape of snow, rocks, mountains and glaciers. I am speechless, mouth wide open. No photograph will ever be able to capture the dimension nor the feelings this place can inspire, but I soon get caught by acute photographer sickness and start to run all around without even thinking of the lack of air. Coughing and breathing like crazy I feel once again fully into the present moment. I want to find the way to stretch this piece of time so that it lasts forever.

Me and my guide, Santa

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