Sunday, April 25, 2004

For a glimpse of the elusive Everest

Partha S. Banerjee gives an account of a trek to get a view of the mountain that continues to fire imaginations and challenge climbers

A view of the Everest (second from left) from Sandakphu
A view of the Everest (second from left) from Sandakphu. — Photo by the writer

VIEWING Himalayan peaks is no big deal for us Indians. There’s the majestic Kanchenjunga from Darjeeling, Dhaulagiri and Annapurna from Nepal’s Pokhara, the Nanda Devi from Nainital and Almora, the Pir Panjal range from Dalhousie and Manali.

But Mount Everest, the highest of them all, is hard to view, unless you visit Tibet. Towering over the Nepal-Tibet border, Everest is barely visible from the south, from Nepal or India that is, thanks to the high ridges that obscure it. Worse, there are no viewpoints, no hill stations close to it.

Unless you count Sandakphu. About 70 km north-west of Darjeeling, Sandakphu, perched on a high ridge, is some 160 km south-east of Everest as the crow flies. And it’s about the only place in India from where you can take a reasonably good peek at the world’s highest mountain. Everest (29,028 ft) doesn’t exactly tower in the background here, as Kanchenjunga (28,169 ft) does. It’s instead a distant summit far in the western horizon, one of several in a cluster of peaks and seemingly shorter than Makalu (27,765 ft, the world’s fifth highest peak) which appears to dominate the pack. But it is the best view of Everest that you can get unless you trek to Kala Pattar (18,000 ft) in Nepal’s Khumbu valley or drive down to Rongbuk in Tibet from Lhasa.

Situated over 11,920 ft above sea level, Sandakphu is accessible by a rough jeep track on which ply vintage Land Rovers. Dating back to World War II, these trusty four-wheel-drive vehicles negotiate the steep hairpin bends with amazing ease but the ride is predictably bumpy. The alternative is to trek.

Last winter, when we went looking for Everest, we decided on the alternative. Not that we had a choice, for the jeep track was covered in deep snow, making it impassable for even the sturdy Land Rovers. The snow, however, made the trek more exciting though a little perilous. There were slippery patches and it was bitterly cold and windy but the scenery was spectacular. We spent two days in Darjeeling (altitude 7000 ft) before embarking on the trek, soaking in the familiar ambience of the Queen of the Hills. There was the zoo with its snow leopards, Siberian tigers and red pandas to revisit, there was the evening walk to take on the Mall and while away an idle hour on those benches in the Chowrasta, watching life glide by. And we devoted an entire morning to visiting the Tibetan monasteries around town, from the Sonada gompas of the Kagyupa sect with their imposing chortens (stupas) to the old Ghoom temple and the vast new Dali monastery, world headquarters of the Druk-Kargyud sect, its huge prayer hall dominated by grand statues of the Buddha and other deities.

Truly, Darjeeling has more things to see than most other hill stations: take the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, for instance, with its repository of historic mountaineering equipment and the relief models of the Himalayas. And then, of course, there are the pretty old buildings with their exquisite architecture, besides the tea gardens and the toy train, now a UNESCO World Heritage facility.

But most of all, there is the Kanchenjunga. No hill station has a snowy mountain vista quite as impressive. The world’s third highest summit and its brood of lesser peaks, their white jagged edges set off against the clear blue sky, present a sight that the eye just cannot tire of. Check into a hotel in the Jalapahar area to best enjoy the sight; situated at a higher elevation, wooded Jalapahar commands an unsurpassed view of the Kanchenjunga massif with downtown Darjeeling in the foreground. There are low and medium range hotels in the area but if your budget permits, opt for Cedar Inn, Darjeeling’s only luxury hotel with views of the snowy range. Opened four years ago, Cedar Inn’s splendid neo-Gothic facade seeks to recreate Darjeeling’s once dominant architecture; there are Kanchenjunga vistas from each of its modern wood-panelled split-level rooms, especially the wonderfully designed observatory suite. There is even a telescope for peak close-ups, but Mt Everest is not in its sights.

For that, of course, we had to head for Sandakphu. A lovely jeep ride through deep pine woods took us to Maneybhanjan (altitude 7000 ft), 26 km from Darjeeling, early on the third morning; it was from here that our trek began. The trail, a steep initial stretch, was largely along the jeep track with a few shortcuts in between. It became misty as the day wore on and by evening we were in Meghma (altitude 9500 ft ), a tiny settlement straddling the Nepal border that, true to its name, was enveloped in clouds. We stayed overnight at the village’s only inn, run by a family that was responsible for building the jeep track to Sandakphu in the 1940s.

We broke off from the jeep track the next morning, taking a parallel path through Nepal to reach, in about two hours, the village of Tumling which had a host of trekkers’ lodges and great views of Kanchenjunga. The village was covered in snow, as indeed was the road from Meghma, and we decided to stay back here, setting off early next morning for Kalapokhri, some 19 km away. This was a long march, with a descent from Jaubari to Garibas and then again an ascent. By the time we reached Kalapokhri (10,170 ft), trudging through deep snow, it was almost dusk; we found lodgings at an inn run by a Sherpa family. The last day’s climb to Sandakphu was perhaps the toughest.

The imposing Kanchen-junga massif with Mt Pandim on the right and Janu on the left, the entire range painted in the orange glow of the rising sun, seemed to me the very picture of paradise. And out on the western horizon, more smears of orange: Everest, Makalu, Lhotse. It was unbelievable: here before my eyes were four of the five highest peaks in the world. Soon, as the sun rose, orange gave way to snowy white and the peaks seemed as though they were floating on the horizon, separated from the lower hills by a bluish-green haze. The sky was azure, and we stood mesmerised. The temperature was 6`B0 C below freezing and the wind was bone chilling. But we stood nevertheless, unable to tear away from the heavenly sight.