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First light hits Kangchendzonga South Face It's Saturday November 20th 2004, it's 4.05 pm, the nth cup of tea has just been brought (with sweet filled biscuits), and I'm rushing to write this before the sun goes in, everything goes black, and the temperature drops to well below zero (right now it's pleasantly warm). I'm at Dzongri, in the Sikkim Himalaya, at 4030 metres (our insurance ran out at 2000 metres). The day began at 4 am, with a song. We were in our tent, and I was just warm enough with three pairs of socks, long johns, trousers, overtrousers, T-shirt, shirt, two jerseys, jacket and waterproof, in my sleeping bag. The singer was Chumbe, one of our porters, with 'bed tea', earlier than usual, because we were going to watch the sun rise on Kangchendzonga. He doesn't speak to us, but he tapped his head, meaning were our altitude headaches better. We indicated yes, thanks to the garlic soup.

We dressed with a torch, and then went to the loo - a tricky business, even though this was the best mountain loo we had encountered (you don't want to know about the others). Then we set off after our guide, Milan, stumbling behind his easy, relaxed gait. We had two torches, but ours soon gave out, and it was trickier with just his. However the path wasn't too bad as we scrambled along up out of our valley towards a spur, and as we did so we began to realise that we were surrounded by mountains (yesterday we had been surrounded only by clouds).

J at the viewpoint As we approached the viewpoint I was fantasizing about having a 'peak' experience, but when we got there things didn't quite fit. True, there were Buddhist prayer-flags, but there was also a large group of French tourists, and we could see more torches coming up the hill. This was clearly a standard spot. Then I got my camera out and it didn't work (the temperature was too low for the batteries), so I put in some new ones which didn't seem to work either, and I was fiddling about for the 'Mountains' setting and it wasn't working and the whole experience was going down the pan.

Eventually I did get it to work. It wasn't a Peak Experience, but it was great watching the horizon lighten, then the sun hit first one face, then another. Kangchendzonga was there, and lots of other mountains, and we stayed as long as the cold would let us.

Walking away from the viewpoint
As we walked back the sun was on us and we felt - WARMTH! The walk back was easy, hills and mountains all around, and below our tent some of our team (six in total) were setting up two red plastic stools and a case-table for breakfast in the sun! As we waited, we watched a slab of ice in the stream growing crystals as the sun hit it. Then breakfast: milky coffee, ginger omelette, porridge, chapatis and honey. As usual, more than we could eat.

D writing at the breakfast table
We spent the morning lazing in the sun, reading books etc, and then came lunch. Beans and noodles, noodle soup, momos (a kind of small Tibetan pasty), fresh chilli tomato sauce, fruit and tea. Again, far too much, but we tried to stuff ourselves and stock up on energy.

The dog in this picture, by the way, had adopted us for this leg of the trip. We weren't consulted, but it's quite common. The deal is that at the end of the day it sleeps inside your outer tent and there's nothing you can do about it. Then next day it finds another host and goes back down the trail.

Milan and J As it turned out we needed that lunchtime energy, because the afternoon walk was to Dzongri La, a pass. Off we set in the sun, past the morning's observation hill, through some very pleasant upland pastures. There were a few huts around, but mostly not used, it being too late in the year. Though we did see one or two people deforesting the landscape (we are above the tree line here, but there are rhododendron bushes). We also saw some yaks, and kept clear of their horns. The load-bearing animals are Dzos, a cross between a yak and a cow, and they too can skewer you if you're not careful.

Di sweating up the hill. Rebalanced marker in foreground The walk went on, and it became clear that this was no gentle afternoon perambulation. We started to climb relentlessly. True, there were gorgeous, brightly lit, snowy mountains all around, but they didn't get us up the slope, and we resorted to all our usual techniques - counting steps, pausing for so many breaths, etc. Di commented that, even as she paused, panting for breath, she was conscious of a great sense of peace among the mountains. This was a Holy route to the pass, and at one point I leant on a marker stone for support, and dislodged it (it's in the foreground of the photo). Bad Karma! I managed to get it up balanced again, thinking about dry stone walling in the Peak District.

view from Dzongri La We were rather cursing Milan for putting us through all this, but when we got there it was worth it. More mountains of all shapes and sizes shining in the sun, vertical rock faces, snow fields, glaciers, moraines.

The walk back was another pleasure; the air was actually warm, we watched the few people around and Di and I had some good chats. I told Milan about Di's Himalayan metaphor, and I think he got it. (This is when she is asked about the validity of women's music that is not as good as Mozart, she replies that, even if they are not Everest or Annapurna, all Himalayan peaks have something to contribute.) However, I noticed that my energy level had only about half a horse power; as soon as the path went up at all, I was moving very slowly.

Anyway, we got back down and I started to write this. It's now 4.40 pm, I'm in the shade, and it's getting very cold.

A great day. Next we will put on all our clothes, have a huge supper, and endure the night.

© Jeremy Polmear 2004

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