Heaven, or Hell? Up close to the world’s third highest peak.

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Posted on October 28, 2013

We have a book at home called 365 Days, which pairs a thought-provoking Buddhist DSC_7380quote with a fantastic image from the Himalayan region by photographer Oliver Follmi. One double page for every day of the year, as the title suggests. A turned page is a daily ritual of ours.

One quote stands out in particular for me; it is attributed to Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron and says:

‘Whether we regard our situation as heaven or hell depends on our perception’.

That quote resonated with me just a week ago whilst camped in deep snow below the world’s third highest peak, Kanchenjunga. I was coming at the peak from the west, on the Nepali side. To the east lay the Sikkim region of India, to the north Tibet. It had been a tough few days, a typhoon over the Bay of Bengal had brought three days of heavy rain in the valley below and a lot of snow above the 4000 metre line. Old landslides were letting go of boulders the size of footballs and the trail became a lot more… intense.

DSC_7456The day I hiked up to Lonak was as difficult a mountain day as I have had in a good few years. An earlier group that had abandoned a climbing trip had already worked the path, although shuffling along a thigh-deep iced groove that was way too narrow was still hard going. The hot sun, made stronger by the reflective layer of pure white, seared my face and arms. My lips withered and even through strong sunglasses I had to squint. To put it bluntly it was a challenge.

Shortly before reaching the rough settlement of Lonak I watched in horror as one of our porters slipped off the side of a narrow, snow-clad bridge. Carrying a full load on his forehead-line he dropped like a stone the ten feet of so into the raging Ghunsa Khola. I approached the bridge not knowing what I would find. Luckily he had missed the boulders, and only hit the water. He was able to scramble to safety quickly and escaped with a just a bruised hand and knee, but was soaked through, and shaken. I lent him my down jacket and waterproof trousers for a few days, whilst he dried out his frozen gear.

What should have been a pleasant hike of four hours became a six-and-a-half hour ordeal. And it didn’t end when I led the small group into camp: it took a further two hours to clear away four circles of the three-foot deep snow in order to put our tents up, with just one shovel and a handful of pizza trays and metal plates for tools – necessity is the mother of all invention, as the saying goes. The sun set brilliantly behind the Sarphu massif and silently stole all of the day’s heat. The temperature plummeted below zero within minutes and the clear, cloudless air promised a very cold night.


The promise was kept, and for the first time in more than sixty treks my sodden Meindl boots froze into solid lumps of leather and rubber. Bugger, I thought, as I tried to massage warmth into them the next morning.

Luckily the sun came to my rescue shortly before 7 a.m. – this was the earliest the sun had hit any of our camp sites during the entire 21-day trek. Left to bask like newborn seals, the boots became pliable, usable again within 20 minutes.

Sat on my haunches in the pin-sharp air I began to appreciate exactly where I was. We were camped in the bottom of a huge snowed bowl formed from the sides of Wedge Peak, Drohma Peak, Dango, Tinjung and Nupchu. The white peaks looked beautiful against the purest of blues, the whole 360 degree panorama a sweeping scene of bright jagged edges, and me, still, in the centre. What had seemed like hell just a few hours before, gradually morphed into heaven. It’s amazing the effect that the sun can have on perception.

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