Words & Pictures Michelle Landry
Having spent a few months trekking on my own in Nepal already, I was looking for a group hiking experience. Using trekkingpartners.com I met a pair who expressed mutual interest in seeing the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area. We met in Kathmandu and a wonderful local agency arranged our guide and permits. Soon we were off, first taking a 50 min flight to Bhadrapur, then an 8 hour private jeep to Taplejung, where we started on the trail.
Our first couple of days were spent hiking up through a lush wide river valley in hot temperatures; the jungle buzzing with life around us. We passed through many small villages, full of smiling faces, with children running out to yell a friendly “namaste!”. We walked up and down many hills, spotting monkeys swinging through the branches of impressive forests of rhododendron trees, parted occasionally by giant swaths of wild bamboo or crops of rice or cardamom.
Fortunately, in recent years the locals living in the Kanchenjunga region have built enough lodges that the entire hike can be done as a teahouse trek. Throughout our time on trail we enjoyed amazing hospitality, and now that we were reaching higher elevations, this meant staying with welcoming families of Tibetan heritage. We had the opportunity to try local food delights like tsampa porridge, Sherpa stew, an alcoholic fermented millet and corn “beer” called Tongba, and more. In particular, I loved the cheery village of Ghunsa where locals sell beautiful handicrafts such as necklaces and woven scarves.
As we climbed higher toward Kanchenjunga Base Camp, temperatures dropped and the forests changed to stunning pine and larch. Since we were hiking during the autumn season the vibrant reds, oranges, yellows and browns of the trees took our breath away.
Soon, the trail changed to a rocky landscape at an elevation where only low brush and hardy grasses can survive. We stared to see bigger and bigger mountains, peaked with impressive glaciers.
On the morning we pushed for Kanchenjunga Base Camp. We had to get up at 4:30am and start walking with our head lamps in freezing cold temperatures. The Kanchenjunga massif itself is comprised of five summits making up the third tallest mountain in the world at 8586m. It was every bit as impressive as I was hoping it would be, from our vantage point at 5130m! Luckily almost everyone in our group felt OK at the high altitude, with only one person experiencing a fairly minor headache. We didn’t linger too long, knowing we needed to get him down before worse altitude sickness set in.
From the North Base Camp we re-traced our steps back into Ghunsa, and then made our way up to Selele Pass. It was cold up here, too, and I was glad I’d brought my warmest sleeping bag. The Selele Pass gave us spectacular views of Mt Jannu and Mt Makalu off in the distance.
After Selele we made our way down a steep descent, only to meet with another ascent. An early morning in cold, crisp air took us across vast grassy fields and glacier moraine to Okhordung. Also known as Kanchenjunga South Base Camp, this spot afforded us another fantastic view of the huge peak, this time from the south at an elevation of ~4700m.
Coming down from high elevations, we were able to come back out of the region using a different trail than the one we’d used to get in. We passed through gorgeous mossy old-growth forests alongside a furious crashing river.
As we lost more altitude, the forests changed again into warm jungle, and we began seeing more densely populated villages. Eventually, after crossing through substantial rice paddies and heavily flowered villages, we reached the village of Kamdime, from which we took a 15-hour bus back to Bhadrapur to catch our flight.