I have recently returned from the incredible experience of trekking Goecha La, a 5000m (16,500ft) pass in the North Eastern Himalaya in the Indian State of Sikkim. The state of Sikkim is a world of its own when compared with much of the rest of India. The least populous Indian state, squeezed in between China & Tibet to the North, Nepal to the West, Bhutan to the east and the Indian state of West Bengal to the south, may have more in common with Nepal or Tibet than with India. The state has a rich history of Buddhist influence largely stemming from Tibetan invasions as early as the 9th century. After invasions from the Tibetan, Bhutanese & Nepalese Kingdoms over the next few centuries, an initial popular vote in 1947 rejecting entrance into the Indian union, and finally another referendum 28 years later in 1975 to abolish the Sikkimese Monarchy and join the Indian nation, the modern day Indian state of Sikkim was formed. Still today the working language in Sikkim is Nepali with many other Himalayan languages such as Bhutia being commonly spoken as well (Many people, particularly migrants from the Indian plains would also speak Hindi, and many in the tourism industry will manage with a bit of English as well). Located at the union of two ecozones, Sikkim is also blessed with an extraordinary biodiversity rich in hundreds of varieties of flora and fauna and is home to 36 varieties of Rhododendron, more than 500 species of birds, and the endangered red panda.
The Goecha La (“La” is a Tibetan word translating loosely to “Pass”, as in a high mountain pass) trek starts from the lovely hill town of Yuksom, the first capital of the Sikkimese Monarchy established in the 1600s, with a modern day population of about 2000 people. The town is primarily reliant on income from tourism in order to supplement basic farming and tending to livestock. Yuksom is a smooth 7 hour jeep ride traveling 150km (90miles) from the nearest airport in the neighboring state of West Bengal with the ride following a large and heavily dammed river up winding, crumbling mountain roads bringing you from almost sea level in West Bengal up to about 6,000ft at Yuksom in the foothills of the Himalaya. Due to the numerous hydroelectric dams on the Rangeet & Teesta rivers in Sikkim more than 90% of the state has regular power supply, according to government figures (Compare this to the 25% of India, or more than 300 million people without regular access to electricity according to the World Bank), and the state is also able to export some of this power to the neighboring states of West Bengal, Orissa, Jharkhand & Bihar serving as an additional revenue source to be used ideally by the government for development projects, but also leaves the potential for corruption and filling the pockets of government officials. These dams don’t exist without concerns over negative impact on the environment and the local populations that depend on the livelihood the rivers provide and as such there have been a number of local protests against the expansion of hydroelectric dam projects. In a state where many high altitude mountains and almost all lakes are declared as holy sites, protected from development and banned from recreational use, it is interesting how this devotion has not necessarily been extended to the rivers, at least by the government. The conditions of the roads in Sikkim provide a stark contrast to the electricity situation, with landslides regularly washing out the rickety roads and traffic jams grinding transport in and out of the sleepy hill towns to a halt. Unless you are ready to spring for a private helicopter ride, the only way to travel to these towns is by regular shared jeep service; service to hill towns like Yuksom, leaves only once a day and expect Nepali music blasting throughout the ride. Another noticeable difference of Sikkim as compared with the rest of India is the overall abundance and ease of access to alcohol. It seems that in most little towns in Sikkim there is a restaurant with a bar on every street corner, with the bar opened as soon as breakfast is being served. The increased consumption of alcohol may partially exist out of the “necessity” of coping with the tough conditions of mountain life (Tongba is a popular noncommercial alcoholic beverage prepared by the rural Sikkimese people consisting of fermented rice millet in a bamboo mug. Hot water is added to the rice millet to make it drinkable. Multiple pours of hot water can be added as needed.) but I imagine is also a result of the large amount of commercial alcohol production in the state of Sikkim. Sikkim is home to a number of large Indian breweries & distilleries, not to mention the collection of revenues by the Excise Department, the government agency responsible for regulating the manufacture, possession, sale & transport of alcohol in Sikkim, from license fees, fines & various levies on sale of liquor are one of the state’s largest sources of income. Alas, according to a pair of Sikkimese doctors who joined us on the trek, alcohol related illnesses & injuries are one of the main reasons for hospitalizations and doctor’s visits in the state.
[As a clarification, any “mountain” without snow in the Himalaya (Himalaya is literally Sanskrit for “Abode of Snow”) is generally referred to as a hill. These hills could be up to 10,000ft and beyond. Furthermore most “mountain peaks” below 6000m are generally referred to as a pile of rocks. This begins to make sense when you consider that the Himalaya contain all 14 of the world’s 8000m (~26,500ft) peaks and literally hundreds of peaks higher than 6000m (~20,000ft)]
Once the trek begins from Yuksom, you quickly enter Kangchenjunga National Park, an 850 sq. km (330 sq. mile), covering 10% of the land area of the state of Sikkim, and home to the world’s third tallest mountain residing on the border of Nepal & Sikkim, Kangchenjunga (Meaning “The Five Treasures of Snow”) at 8586m (28,169ft). To date there have been fewer than 200 ascents of this snowy treasure with 40 registered fatalities (compare this to the more than 5000 ascents of Everest nearby in Nepal); every climber of Kangchenjunga has stopped a few meters short of the summit to pay respects to the local Sikkimese people who regard the mountain as sacred and a guardian deity of the state.
The first two days of the Goecha La trek are a steep & steady ascent from Yuksom, climbing about 2000m (~6600ft) crisscrossing a rumbling high mountain river, passing through dense forests of magnolias, red, pink & white rhododendron, and hemlock, firs and other conifers as the elevation increases. As you continue to climb you reach the shifting snow line and the more permanent tree line where the world changes from thick surrounding forest to wide open views of the surrounding snowy peaks with the flora characterized by the shorter rhododendrons and hardy juniper bushes, some of the few plants that are able to survive in this harsh environment and known locally for their healing abilities. There is even a local tradition where the guides burn a small patch of juniper bush and wave it around the room as good luck for the upcoming day (This ritual also exists in Nepal). Eventually we reached the trekking hut in Dzongri, within an hour’s walk of some of the grandest views of the eastern Himalaya and the Kangchenjunga Range, where we would rest the night and prepare for our early morning hike to catch our first glimpse of Kangchenjunga.
The day started at 4am slowly rolling out of our sleeping bags, braving the ice cold air and still damp boots from the previous days trudge through wet snowy conditions. It was a nearly full moon and the light & clarity of the night sky quickly inspired any physical discomforts to easily dissipate. Under the stars of the night sky and the shining moonlight we began our short 40 min hike to the Dzongri viewpoint where we would watch the sunrise over the Kangchenjunga Range. As we made our way around the curve of a hill blocking our forward view, the first morning glimpses of snowy peaks appeared to us with the snowy tops subtly reflecting the bright moonlight. After rounding the bend the massive Kabru peak & glacier appeared looming in the distance rising above Dzongri La starting to receive some of the earliest rays of sunlight. At this point I realized that this pass would be my morning destination. Rather than wait around at the hilltop viewpoint for the sun to rise I knew I had to press on towards the snowy pass in order to get a more up close and personal viewing with these majestic Himalayan peaks. With my destination clearly in view, I let summit fever take control and I hiked another 1.5 hours up the snowy trail to come face to face with these grandeurs of nature, Rathong Glacier, the source of the Rangeet river, & Kabru Peak, the southernmost 7000m peak in the world. By the time I reached the pass the sun had risen and was beaming off of the thick white snow pack atop these glacial peaks, but I was still protected in the shade by a lesser Himalayan ridge line. By around 6am the sun started to creep up over the ridge line and as the rays reflected off of the blanket of surrounding snow the whole ground cover began to glisten. A smooth hours walk back down to Dzongri gave me the chance to make it up to the Dzongri viewpoint by a little after 7am where I was still greeted with clear skies showing a full panoramic view of the Kangchenjunga range including the views I had so recently seen of Rathong Glacier & Kabru Peak, but also my first glimpse of Kangchenjunga, and views of the right hand ridge of Pandim, another holy Sikkimese peak, Tenzing Khang, where three climbers from Colorado were beginning their 15 day ascent, & Japuno, aptly named after a Japanese man who was the first to summit this peak. From this viewpoint you could also see the valley where we would continue our trek with Kangchenjunga on our left and the 3 peak ridge of Pandim, Tenzing Khang, & Japuno on our right. This mostly barren valley was dissected by a meandering river fueled by glacial melt and served as a wind tunnel funneling high powered winds in between the high mountain walls on each side. The night before our camp at Lamuney, the final campsite before the long night trek to Goecha La, another group of campers at Lamuney lost their tent to the high winds during an overnight snowstorm. The weather can change in an instant in the high Himalaya and the landscape could turn from clear blue skies to thick fog rolling up the valley and completely enveloping the campgrounds, reducing visibility to 10 feet in under an hour.
After a short nights rest, the trek up to Goecha La began at 2:30am, again under the company of the shining light of the full moon. The sound of the strong winds whipping through the valley and the snowy reflections under the moonlight create an otherworldly kind of atmosphere. Add in the night trail ascending up through fragments of rock and boulders that have made their way down to “ground level” through the constant process of erosion facilitated by landslides and avalanches and the diminished levels of oxygen at this altitude and it feels as though we could have been walking on the moon. Except for at this altitude of about 4500m (~15000ft) and climbing it is impossible to forget about the effects of gravity making each step forward and up more of a challenge than the last. After passing by a frozen alpine lake we continue or ascent to the first Kangchenjunga viewpoint reaching by around 4:30am just in time for the sunrise to come beaming in from over the eastern mountain ridge lighting up the western ridge with a morning glow. As the atmosphere heats the sun’s rays seem to dissipate the cloud cover opening up grand views of the Kanchenjunga Massif and close up views of Pandim. After soaking in the views over sunrise, we begin the final approach to Goecha La. The 2 hour trek starts through a flat, dry riverbed that could potentially be the future home to one of the world’s highest seasonal cricket fields and continues up through the bizarre high altitude landscape full of red moss and small plant life that look like they could be features in an ocean coral reef. The final ascent to the pass is a steep climb winding through massive fallen boulders and up the rocky side of Pandim’s base. For the last 15 minutes of the climb Kangchenjunga’s peak peers out above the clouds guiding us home to our final destination, Goecha La. From here we enjoy the closest views of the southern face of Kangchenjunga that can be seen anywhere in the world and are only a day’s walk from the Sikkimese base of the sacred mountain. From this close range, the iconic pointed peak towers over us allowing you to easily see close up features and the dense icepack ledges hanging over the face and extended ridgeline of Kangchenjunga. Truly lying in the shadows of Kangchenjunga, the trail ends here at 5000m and we begin our steady multiday descent back to Yuksom with the vision of the Five Treasures of Snow forever ingrained in our memory.
Supplies for the trek including food, fuel, cooking supplies & camping equipment are carried up the steep slopes by a team of dzos, a local cross breed between a yak and a cow. Our trekking team also included a guide, 2 porters, a cook, and a “yakman” who tended to the dzos, including foraging for their food. Although the average local cost for this kind of trek equates to about $30 USD per day per person (advertised as high as $90 USD per day over the internet by agencies run out of larger cities, predominantly aimed at foreigners traveling long distances to reach the trekking area who are more likely to confirm and pay in advance and have different ideas of “affordability”), a guide will only earn an average daily salary of Rs 1000 ($20 USD), while porters & cooks generally earn closer to Rs 250 per day ($5 USD), which is a general rate for day laborers of all kinds throughout India. The “yakman” will generally earn about Rs 250 per animal (Our team had 4 dzos). Assuming a group of 5 trekkers (some groups are as large as 40) each paying Rs 1500 ($30 USD) per day for the 8 day trek, the agency takes in about Rs 60,000 for the group. The labor costs the agency Rs 2500 per day for the entire group totaling Rs 20,000 for the 8 day trek. Add in the cost of the trekking permits at Rs 1000 per person and the cost of simple vegetarian food for 8 days and the agency is still making around Rs 30,000 per trek compared with the Rs 20,000 earned by all 5 of the trekking staff combined. You can see how even at $30 USD per day the trekking agencies make a lot more money in this situation than the people doing the physical work, although the agencies are also responsible for maintaining quality gear. This is a classic example of abundance of labor impacting wages. The work performed by the guides, cooks & porters, although physically demanding, is easily learned by many of the young men in Sikkim and Darjeeling. The abundance of labor in this context is no different than the general abundance of unskilled labor throughout India keeping wages relatively quite low. However based on the costs of living in these remote mountain areas, the porters, guides and cooks are actually doing quite well for themselves, especially when it comes to living conditions, when compared to the urban and slum dwelling poor in India’s large cities. Considering that the 6 months per year of peak trekking season (Mar-May & Oct-Dec) provide almost solidly booked work for the trekking staff, just on wages alone porters can expect to make peak season monthly income of around Rs 7500, with guides earning closer to 30,000, not to mention tips which could easily add 50% to their income per trek. Generally, the trekking staff are part of a tight knit community helping to facilitate tourism throughout the surrounding local towns. Many of the staff therefore are able to secure temporary housing for the trekking seasons at around Rs 1000 per month, some even staying for free with extended family & friends. Add in 50kg of rice, going for around Rs 1000 and lasting for up to three months, some potatoes, lentils, and the occasional treat of some form of meat and their recurring monthly expenses aren’t much more than Rs 2000. Furthermore, some of the trekking guides & porters take advantage of the summer trekking season in Ladakh where they are able to earn income for the months of June-September during the rainy offseason for much of the Nepali & eastern Himalaya. It begins to make sense then how many of the trekking guides can be seen around town after treks wearing flashy new jewelry, watches, sunglasses & clothes, even if only for an afternoon before heading back up the mountain the next day. These men who make their livings trekking through the endless natural beauty of the Himalaya aspire to a level of materialism just like their western counterparts who arrive equipped with the latest trekking gear & technology and with whom they interact with so regularly on the mountain trails. Interestingly enough, many of the trekking agencies are headed by former guides who have aged beyond the time where it is desirable to haul goods up and down these steep mountain trails and are happier to use their accumulated resources, entrepreneurial spirit, and likely their good connections with the government officials approving trekking permits, to make a living closer to home.
It is really an interesting phenomenon taking place not just in Sikkim, but throughout Nepal, North India and most of the Himalayan trekking hotspots. Truly a colliding of two worlds, with western travelers and adventurers seeking an entrance to the wild, natural beauty of the high Himalaya and an escape from the materialism, hustle and bustle of modern day life. All the while their trekking & mountaineering guides, their eastern counterparts, are striving and aspiring to a better, possibly more western & consumption heavy, lifestyle where they are able to accumulate more resources to provide for their families in addition to showing off their status symbols around the community. This collision of worlds has the potential to fuel conflict, like the recent fight between European climbers and Nepali Sherpas at Camp 2 on Mt Everest at 21,000ft. Western adventurers who may not be so keen on the commercial aspect of Himalayan trekking & climbing may forget at times that they are in someone else’s home and workplace and that these people are just trying to make a decent living for themselves and their families, although there would rarely be reason for the violence seen in this case by the Sherpas on Everest. With each world, east and west, having an almost inevitable influence on the other we can only hope that people from both worlds will learn valuable lessons from each other through their ongoing interactions and are able to maintain and foster an atmosphere of understanding and mutual respect with a vision to jointly improve the fate of the entire Himalayan region, the heavenly abode of snow.