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Trip Report Heylo Sandakphu- A Trek in the heart of Himalayas

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It had been 7 long years since I last trekked in the Himalayas... incidentally enough I have done 2 treks in the Himalayas from India- the first one in 1999 and the second one in 2006. It almost seemed like the 7 year itch which made me want to go again this year.....!! But much had happened in the last 7 years, physically I had undergone 3 abdominal surgeries that resulted in a prescribed fiber-free diet that I had to stick to. Needless to say this has resulted in several other health even thinking about a trek seemed like sheer madness!! In the early part of 2013 I did broach the subject with my husband only to quickly drop it when I saw the apprehension on his face. Just last year while at Sri Lanka I had another episode and had been hospitalized in the middle of a forest from the same ailment. So planning trips in the heart of wilderness surely seemed impossible for me. I had let go of opportunities to sight tigers in Tadoba for the very same reason, the closest hospital to the forest was 180 KMs away... it seemed like to big a risk to take and hence AJ (my husband) had gone on his own... :(
However on the work front this was a hectic year, I spent 3 weeks in Kolkatta in the early part of the year and met up with my sister's most amazing friend Sohini and she was describing how Darjeeling had some magnificent views of the that got me thinking about making at least a trip to Darjeeling in winter. Over the next few months I didn't even have the time to think about it again, work took over and I needed to make a trip to the US- for two months that too!! I had lived in the US in the past and I knew that my medical expenses would be quite prohibitive there.. none the less with ample support from my husband and family I decided to go. After all how long could I live in fear.. ? I spent July & August in USA at Charlotte and there with a group of friends I did some sporadic one day treks. So again, I was back to dreaming about a trek in the Himalayas. From the US as I chatted up with AJ he suggested a 4-5 day Mizoram trek that YHAI (the org I trekked with in the past to the Himalayas) that we could maybe attempt...seemed like a breezy 5 day walk. We spoke about this to our dear friends Hamsa and Shyam and they too decided to join with us, we were almost set to pay up for that trek when Hamsa spotted another trek that looked like a nirvana trek- National Himalayan Winter Expedition from Sandakphu to Gurdum!!!! Even as we discussed about my hopeless case, Shyam and Hamsa comforted us to say since they's also be with us between them and AJ they'd handle anything that came my way... my head was going tizzy at the fact that there was even a a possibility I'd be trekking in the Himalayas again. Some more due diligence revealed that the Sandakphu peak itself was only 54 KMs from Darjeeling...which also meant medical help would be handy! :D :D This certainly seemed meant to be!!! Needless to say within the next 48 hours we had all of us paid up for the trek (AJ's bro Arun and Hamsa's bro Niranjan also joined our plans). So the 6 of us next scouted for flights from Chennai to Bagdodra and booked that also!! 4 months to go and we had actually signed up for this trek!!! Gosh, I just couldn't stop smiling!! Of course I was also extremely apprehensive about my fitness and started working out while in US itself!. By the time I got back mid-September I was able to walk 4-5 KMs every day. Also the mere fact that I survived by myself in the US without a medical episode gave me some much needed confidence to make this trek. With 3 months to go I was determined to get my fitness in better shape. I stuck it out till December by when I was doing 10 KMs with ease, our trek required us to walk anywhere from 7 to 13 KMs every day depending on the incline. One last hitch though, in November I discovered I had a large polyp in my left nostril and the ENT threatened surgery...I beat a hasty retreat and didn't go in for the surgery. I did take the medications he prescribed on the trek and hoped for the best. But in essence this meant I was signing up for a winter Himalayan trek with only one nostril functioning...! :( Aaarggghhh...

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    Before we realized it December 20th was upon us and it was time to fly to Bagdodra, Arun had some last minute work and so he dropped out of the trek! Poor Niranjan was left with the 2 couples.... :D
    So we met at the Chennai airport and Shyam was uncharacteristically late...AJ and Shyam are very good friends and more often than not act like they are some kind of long lost brothers/twins. So when we disembarked from the cab at the airport he couldn't believe that Shyam/Hamsa/Niranjan were no where to be seen!! He kept muttering "Shyam must be here, lets search" He paced th length of the airport entrance only to finally call Shyam to check where he was, turns out Shyam was still on his way!!! =)) Soon I pulled him to the restaurant at the entrance and we had our piping hot breakfast. We got in and got in the line to scan our check in baggage by when SHyam, Hamsa and Niranjan arrived. Shyam quickly explained the reason for his delay and in no time we were all checked in with our boarding passes in hand- the trip had already begun!! :D :D

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    As we waited to board the flight AJ observed SPB (a very popular playback singer) sitting in the lounge, so promptly we all teed up to get some pics with him. He was also sweet enough to oblige and for Shyam and AJ this was a definitive beginning to the trip! Like in most things this is one singer they both adored equally!! :) Still discussing our chance luck, we got onto the spice jet flight. After the stopover at Kolkata we reached Bagdodra on time and took a cab to Siliguri where we had a one night halt. Here we shopped for some munchies and other items we needed for the trek. The evening was light and fun as we skimmed the tv channels and got ample entertainment. The next day we headed out early and took a local cab to Kurseong. We had a halt at Kurseong to soak in some untouched Himalayan beauty- Kurseong is everything that Darjeeling is not. It's a quaint small town on the way to Darjeeling with unending views of tea gardens and green Himalayan ranges all round. We stayed at a cute place called Cochrane Place, it was a British colonial bungalow that had been converted into a hotel. Made for a very comfortable stay. After lounging there all day we moved to Darjeeling the next day by taking the toy train ride from Kurseong to Darjeeling. This was rather disappointing and hardly afforded any memorable views. The train chugs along the streets of Darjeeling and I think can easily be given a skip. So finally we arrived at the Darjeeling station!

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    One thing I forgot to mention about Kurseong is how AJ and Shyam went all out to try some local cuisine (read chicken) and finally they zeroed in on something called 'Santosh Rai' chicken at Cochrane Place. Once it was served they couldn't stop singing praises of the chicken and they polished off the dish. From then onwards any chicken they saw on the Kurseong streets was a Santosh Rai chicken for them and Hamsa & I would joke that any of the good looking hens were 'Aishwarya Rai' chickens (she's a popular Bollywood actress) =)) fun times that!
    Anyways back at Darjeeling when you get off the railway station there really is no sight of any public transport, so we walked around a bit to understand where we could hail a cab from. Meanwhile one of the local drivers found us a van that could take us to the YHAI campus in Darjeeling- less than a KM away and he wanted a ridiculous Rs 200 for it. We agreed to it, too cold to argue.We got in and he drove 100 mtrs to get a fuel refill and once done he went another 100 mtrs pointed at a one way signal and said the route is longer than he thought so we should now pay him Rs 300. At that point the 5 of us got really irritated at his greed. We said no, so he he said then you may get off. We did and started walking towards YHA when he started following us threatening us to pay him Rs 100. We told him we would pay nothing, he called some locals, argued with a police officer who when he heard our story sided with us and eventually he gave up and ran off. However our dull morning wasn't over yet- we lugged all of our luggage up a steep path to find the YHAI office only to be told the base camp was actually at a hotel near the Mall market way below- almost where the station was! So rather disgruntled we walked to the base camp at Hotel Chanakya and finally reported at our base camp. So now the trek had officially begun and our acclimatization seemed well on way thanks to all the walking we'd done since morning!! Darjeeling was unbelievably cold! Nothing we'd brought with us seemed to be working there. So we quickly headed to the local market and bought a whole bunch of woolen clothing all of which proved to be very effective!! An old lady at the market gave us some good deals and soon she had packed half her shop away to the 5 of us :D Once we were all clothed for the place we headed out to find a restaurant where we could have our brunch. Hasty Tasty on mall road beckoned us- we got in and ordered some chilly momos and other stuff. It took us about an hour to finish up brunch and then we headed back to the base camp where we were allotted shared rooms and soon many others started trickling in. The rest of the day was spent in introductions and instructions!

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    The next day YHAI had a planned itinerary for our acclimatization, we were woken up at 6 AM with piping hot tea and then made to head to the Mall road for some stretches and exercises. Our instructor also gave us information regarding the local flora and fauna we can expect to sight as we trekked this trail. Afterward we were taken on a 6 KM trek through some peripheral forests with ample incline and decline so he can orient us to what we can expect over the next week or so of our trek. He also cautioned us on plucking any berries or leaves from trees as we traversed a small area of the forest near Darjeeling as most of the trees had medicinal value. All in all it was a good way to spend half a day and the eagerness to start our trek was building up within each of us. Then we headed back for lunch at the base camp. Once done with lunch we had a couple of hours to ourselves, initially we had planned a trip to the zoo & other local sights, but the morning regime had us all a bit exhausted, so we decided to sleep the afternoon away. By the time we woke up it was already 4 PM..we quickly rushed to finish our packing for the trek and do any other peripheral shopping we needed for the trek- that was when Hamsa got her'Northface' jacket from Darjeeling. =)) Let me elaborate why that is hilarious- Niranjan, her bro had bought an authentic Northface Jacket in the US for nearly $200, but when he'd come back no one back in India had even recognized the brand!! So when we landed in Darjeeling and saw all these people wearing Northface he was finally glad his sis appreciated the brand! :D Little did he know that what everyone was indeed wearing was just spurious jackets with the Northface logo and he realized that only as we walked the market trying to get a jacket for Hamsa... all in all we had some good laughs over this throughout the trip! :D
    Anyways done with all our shopping we rushed back to base camp since they had asked us to report in at 5:30. This was when we had the formal round of introductions and a detailed orientation of the trail we'd trek in order to reach Sandakphu and head back to basecamp. Some of the introductions were hilarious, others were plain impressive. We had amidst us several veterans who were well versed in mountaineering and had made expeditions to Antartica even!! So it was a group of 43 of us from varied backgrounds with differing trekking experience- all in all, seemed like a good group to belong to :D

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    Finally the trek day arrived, we were all set and the appointed group leader mandated our 'fall in' outside the base camp. Once everything was set we walked to the jeep pick up point, we'd be dropped to Dhotrey from where our day's hike began. We started with a rather steep climb- all of needed a break within walking of a KM like that. 2 of the women in the group who were trekking for the first time ever just couldn't cope with the harsh weather so they started asking to return. Since we were in the middle of nowhere they couldn't return from there, so the guides counseled them to atleast complete this day's hike. they could call for help from the next camp. It was a grim beginning for the group, one that reminded us of what was in store over the next few days for us. I've always maintained a trek is as challenging mentally as it is physically, despite this start we saw several examples of people who pulled thru this trek from the sheer mental determination, I will elaborate as the time comes. So after all this, we started on the trek again, we'd lost about an hour's time thanks to this setback. However we made steady progress, the views of Kanchenjunga started about an hour after this and that really held the beacon of hope for all of us! Every time we felt tired and looked up there she was almost beckoning us toward her! Kanchenjunga almost gleamed under the sunlight, at some of the bends we saw unending mountain ranges almost trailing upto someplace enticing. This sight alone made us want to continue trekking and get to our summit at the earliest! :-) Soon we reached the grasslands that was our lunch point. We all unloaded our bags and YHAI had given us some packed lunch that we gorged into. I unfortunately couldn't eat what was packed in the lunch, had brought my own bread that I had. It was in this break that the 5 of us also got together with Neeta and her friends Adit, Pramit and Ketaki. Soon the conversations were flowing and we were all having a merry time. An hour later the guides indicated it was time to start trekking again. We had another 4 KMS to go, but the light fades fast on the Himalayas and we had to get to our camp before 4 PM. As we climbed higher the wind was getting chillier, at one point where we crossed into Nepal the winds were just unbearable!! Here we had a small shack that served some coffee and tea. We all rushed in there and huddled over some hot drinks. Our camp leader had trekked up to this shack and he instructed us to get going fast since the light had already started failing and we still had a KM to go. As we got out for the 'fall in' the winds were tearing into our bones and we just couldn't stand still!! There was some confusion over how much we'd paid to the coffee vendor etc, once it got sorted we started hurrying towards the camp. The wind was howling and the light was fading but just as we got near the camp a glorious sun set was painting itself on the sky- we had to stop and watch!! Once the sunset got done we made a mad rush to the camp, some folks had to stay in another camp since we were too many to accommodate in one camp. We settled our luggage in and oriented ourselves to the camp, already it was pitch dark and we had to use our torches to move around. Slowly the team started gathering for a camp fire- it wasn't really one- there was no way any of us could sit outside. The camp had a make shift kitchen and the room next to it (which is where the men had to sleep afterward) is where we huddled for the 'camp fire'. Some of my enthusiastic fellow trekkers managed to participate in the 'cultural' activities, one Ms Radhika was the find of the evening, she sang so beautifully well! :) There were several others also equally talented who sang and danced as we waited for dinner. Once dinner was announced we all quickly disbursed and had our food, I was meanwhile feeling very feverish so asked for some help from the camp leader. He was a very caring person and not only ensured I got my meds but he also ensured I had piping had food that was appropriate by my dietary needs! God bless him, such a caring soul indeed. Finally the day came to an end, I don't even remember my head hitting the pillow and I was fast asleep. Will write about my subsequent days in a bit...

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    The next day was another early rising, we were getting used to starting at 6AM and ending at 4PM now I guess. We had 14 KMS to go (groan!!), the prev day's trek had been just half the distance and we'd finished it just after today was a dreaded day indeed. We all made an extra effort to be on time, breakfast was served hot and piping. We finished it in no time and then the dreaded fall in was asked for...somehow some mebers still contd to turn up late while the rest of us stood in the chilly winds and waited. After some hustle and bustle all of us (minus the two who were dropping out) set off towards Kalipokhri. The route was very scenic and we were soon back in India, almost throught this day we were walking above the clouds. The large Himalayan mountains seemed to be holding the clouds within them and we were walking way above them. It was a heavenly feeling. For the first mile or so we had views of the Kanchenjunga, afterwards we went to the other side of the mountain and hence the view disappeared :( Other sights accorded us and this was a day when we sighted many Himalayan birds as well as we trekked thru the Singalaila forest area. AJ and Shyam would suddenly start stalking a bush and then we'd realize they have spotted some bird was funny to watch the two of them put such concerted effort into bird photography!! AJ really missed his birding lens which he didn't carry on the trek, however Shyam made up for it by sharing his lens with AJ from time to time. It was a long trek for the day no doubt but we had been warned that the winds get far worse after 3 PM. So we were asked to try and reach our next camp by then. This long trek afforded all of us with a chance to talk to many others from our group as and when we chanced upon them. in about 4 hours we reached a small hamlet- just 2-3 shacks serving coffee and maggi. We made ourselves comfortable there and opened the lunch we had got from Tumling. AJ & Shyam also ordered some additional omelettes etc. Byt he time we set out the bird watchers saw some yellow billed blue magpies just outside where we were. While they continued to try and capture them on camera Hamsa and I started our trek. The route was super scenic and we enjoyed catching up - after very long we had no access to mobile and laptops. The day just seemed so much longer and so much more fulfilling without those gadgets!! Hamsa and I go way behind too, so lots of memories rekindled and general information exchanged. By the time we walked a KM we were feelign exhausted, by then Niranjan had gone on ahead and Ahyam and AJ caught up with us. They kept constantly egging us on and we made slow and steady progress to the Kalipokhri camp. It was nearing 4 PM and we were getting a bit worried about the failing light and increasing winds! Luckily for us some border security force enroute told us we were just ten minutes away from our camp... yay!! That spurred us on and while we passed the Kalipokhri lake ( a small water body at this height that is revered by the locals) I couldn't even stop for a minute- the winds were gruesome. I left the photography to AJ and rushed to our makeshift lodge. Once in we were served some hot soup that seemed like the elixir of life and we were split into two accommodations. The guys would only join us for dinner. As we settled into the room a glorious sunset was happening outside, it was too cold to step out of the lodge, so we huddled in the room and watched the sunset from the window. The winds were howling like crazy at one point i was convinced this lodge itself would get blown off!!! =)) To combat the cold we all huddled in the larger area near the entrance and tried another quasi camp fire with people singing and making merry. For me it was just too cold to I sat all wrapped up near the little pile of coal we had for warmth. Soon dinner was served, I gulped the piping hot food down and almost immediately rushed to sleep. Another trying day had come to an end.

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    At Kalipokhri we spent a crazy night- the wind rattled the entire structure that we were taking refuge it had been a very disturbed night of sleep. Next day we were all a bit groggy, but none the less the routine had set in. So after the early morn tea, we quickly packed up and got together for breakfast- poori again. Once done we stood outside for the 'fall in' and headed off by around 8 AM. We had only 6 KMs to cover that day- but it was at an incline of 60 degreees! So the camp leader gave us sufficient advice on how important it was to finish this climb within the next 4 hours. He said the Kalipokhri winds were nothing compared to the ghastly winds of Sandakphu that was nearly 900 meters higher than where we were standing!! After 12PM apparently the climb becomes tougher as the winds push you down. So with grim determination I set out and just ensured I kept a slow and steady pace, this was one trek where I hardly stopped....just kept at walking. There was no way I was battling those winds while climbing an incline of 60 degrees. With my nasal polyp I just didnt think I could take it!! The first KM of so was ok, mild inclines and not so worrying. As we got a bit ahead the incline was sharp and steep, some of our group members took a steeper path that had a flight of stairs to go up. I stuck to the longer gradual incline route, soon AJ caught up with me and we'd both make steady progress to the top. Some 3 KMS of climbing done we took a minute's break. We could see the pack leads in front of us and I heaved a sigh of relief!! But still didnt want to rest for too long, so after munching on some chocolate we got off yet again and this last 2.5 KMs was cruel... we were literally climbing up sometimes on all fours for me. I switched on some music on my mobile and that helped me keep going.. in another hour we had scaled this climb to see some stunning 360 degree views of the mountains around us. Though a milestone said 'Sandakphu 0' we weren't at our camp yet. That last KM was the worst...every muscle in my body hurt with each step I took, but I grit my teeth and kept going as AJ came with me constantly mumbling encouraging words. We rounded a corner and saw the camp!! Yay!! Once we got in we got some hot soup and huddled in the dining area...we had successfully reached the summit at 11:45 AM! :D :D I cannot even describe what we felt- there was a sense of huge accomplishment and relief! This was it, this is what we had come all the way for!! It took us an hour for the rest of the group to finish their climb and soon we had our lunch after which the camp leader took some of us to the nearby source of drinking water and the SSB camp. While the rest of remained at the glass house look out just taking in the sight of Kanchenjunga. The winds outside were truly amazing.... we had been told the winds would be at 65KMPH to 100KMPH, it had sounded like an exaggeration! But when we got here we realized it was true...these were crazy mad winds. By evening the temperatures dropped quickly to reach -2C, when the rest of the gand decided to go see the sunset I decided to give it a skip. I just couldn't take the cold anymore, already both my nostrils were blocked and I was struggling to breath... I didnt want to push my luck. The rest of them set out and when they got back I heard stories of how one of us (Neeta) had almost been blown off the ledge by the wind!! I saw the pics of the sunset on all their mobiles and had no regrets about not stepping out. My nose had gotten a bit better by the time they got back and when the time came for our 'camp fire' we huddled in one area. But the winds were seeping thru the walls and in less than 30 mins we had all disbursed..waiting eagerly for dinner. We were served some piping hot rice and dal (khichdi) and it was amazing how we had all gulped it down in less than 5 mins!! -))) In another ten mins we had all settled in and slept off too! Gosh- what a day it had been, but even more importantly we were all eagerly waiting for tomorrow's sunrise when we got to see the sun shed its light on the peaks of Everest, Kanchenjunga and others!!! wowow, I just couldn't wait...!! :D :D

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