Drinking a cup of hot tea on an ice-cold morning, lying in your sleeping bag with your head sticking out of the tent, surrounded by a gorgeous landscape, is something to relish!
The ground is covered by a thin blanket of snow, and there is a thin layer of ice on the puddles. Small flocks of red-billed choughs (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) and snow pigeons (Columba leuconota) fly about over the grazing grounds, where numerous yak are grazing. Grey smoke is rising from two stone houses, situated where a small tributary joins the roaring Ghunsa River. This is the home of two men, who look after the yak, every morning milking the ones who have a calf.
Following the riverbank, we make our way through shrubs of juniper (Juniperus), rhododendron, willow (Salix), and sea-buckthorn (Hippophaë rhamnoides). Quite a few passerines use these bushes as a look-out post, such as robin accentor (Prunella rubeculoides), rufous-breasted accentor (P. strophiata), blue-fronted redstart (Phoenicurus frontalis), and beautiful rosefinch (Carpodacus pulcherrimus), while Brandt’s mountain-finches (Leucosticte brandti) are feeding in the grass among the bushes.
From the mountain slopes, we hear a penetrating call, gukka-gukka-guk-guk-guk-grrr. As it turns out, this is the morning call of the Tibetan snowcock (Tetraogallus tibetanus), a large, whitish gamebird, which is fairly common in alpine regions of Nepal. We also see many alpine choughs (Pyrrhocorax graculus), and a huge lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus) glides effortlessly down the valley, looking for carcasses. It will probably cover the distance, which has taken us three days to walk, in less than an hour.
On our way, Helle begins to suffer from AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), a condition caused by lack of oxygen in your body. We are walking at an altitude of 4,700 metres, and the air contains less than two thirds of the amount of oxygen, found at sea level. In severe cases of AMS, you must descend, but as Helle’s case is rather mild, we choose to camp here and wait for a day. We see to it that she consumes a lot of water with various types of salt and sugar, which quickly makes her feel much better.
During our hike towards Lhonak, the weather is indeed very pleasant. On our way, we pass a remarkable rock formation, called ‘Shiva’s Finger’. Shiva is among the three main gods in the Hindu pantheon, the other two being Brahma and Vishnu. (Read more about Hindu gods – and about Hinduism in general – on this website, see Religion: Hinduism.)
On a slope, we spot a flock of foraging Himalayan blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur), called bharal in Hindi. This species is unique, as it is neither sheep nor goat, but shows behaviourial traits from both groups. The adult ram is a splendid animal, with massive, sweeping horns and a bluish-grey fur (hence its English name), with black markings on chest, flanks, and legs. Ewes and young animals are more uniformly grey. In December, rams fight to gather a harem of ewes, but outside the rutting season, rams, ewes, and young form mixed flocks of varying size. Their main predators are snow leopard (Uncia uncia) and Asian black bear (Ursus thibetanus), and quite a few are killed by avalanches. This flock is rather confiding, and I manage to approach them to a distance of about 50 metres.
The trail now follows the northern slopes of the valley, alongside the huge Kangchendzonga Glacier, most of which is covered in brownish-black moraine. Here and there, the shining ice is revealed, adding a green tinge to the numerous meltwater pools on the glacier. As it turns out, Lhonak is a large grassy plain along the sandy banks of the Ghunsa River. Here, not far from the third-highest mountain in the world, Kangchendzonga (8,586 m), we camp for the night.
”Look out!” Dil suddenly shouts. High above us, large blocks of ice have broken off, now thundering down the slope towards us. Most of them break on their way down, but some still measure several cubic feet. We run towards a couple of large rocks to seek shelter behind them, bits of ice flying around us. Miraculously, none of us are hit. Rather shaken, we continue our walk across several more landslides, mercifully without further mishap.
Again, on the following day, we must cross several landslides below Kambachen. Niels, Helle, and I are on our way across one of these, when numerous pebbles come tumbling down the slope towards us, followed by several larger rocks. We jump across the sliding gravel on the trail, I at the rear, pebbles and rocks flying around us. Helle and Niels, who have taken shelter behind a huge rock, notice with horror that a larger rock is tumbling down the slope towards me, but luckily, at the very last moment, it hits a larger rock, changing its course. A close call, indeed!
We camp in a lovely oak forest, full of passerines, e.g. black-faced laughing-thrush (Garrulax affinis), bar-throated minla (Minla strigula), orange-gorgeted flycatcher (Ficedula strophiata), and golden-spectacled warbler (Seicercus burkii). We spend some time, watching a pair of green shrike-babblers (Pteruthius xanthochlorus), building a nest – a small pendent bag, hanging from a twig. The nest is made from lichens, mixed with thin roots, which the birds pick from an epiphyte, growing on a nearby rock.
In our camp, a black dog makes us company. As it looks very hungry, we feed it leftovers from our dinner. Obviously, this is very much appreciated by the dog, which, during the following days, follows us faithfully. However, when we cross the long suspension bridge, spanning the Ghunsa River at Sekathum, the dog has problems. It is too scared to follow us, instead trying to swim across. The swift current washes the dog downstream, but luckily it manages to cling to a rock, howling in fear. Niels runs back across the bridge and out onto the rock, where he manages to get hold of the scruff of the neck of the dog, heaving it ashore and carrying it across the bridge. For more than a week the dog keeps us company, until some villagers persuade us to let them have it.
Following the ridge eastwards, we pass through a wonderful virgin forest – a tangle of old and young trees, their trunks covered in mosses, lichens and other epiphytes, and entwined by lianas. The forest floor is a dense jumble of dwarf bamboo, ferns, and various other plants. As bird life in this forest is very rich indeed, we decide to camp here a few days. Unfortunately, the weather turns foul, and it is raining almost non-stop. We shuffle along muddy trails, much bothered by leeches. On its head, the leech has a sucking pad, and when it senses the carbon dioxide, emitted by your breathing, it quickly attaches itself to your skin. If it goes unnoticed, it cuts into your skin with its sharp mandibles to suck your blood. You don’t feel any pain, but the wound bleeds copiously.
During our lunch break, all of us seek shelter under a tarpaulin, with the exception of Niels and Helle, who are sitting under their umbrellas, Niels writing his diary. Finally, the rain subsides, but the heavy downpours have made the trail muddy and extremely slippery. We slide along, falling numerous times, eventually reaching a more pleasant trail, which follows a ridge. The view across the Kabeli Valley is gorgeous, with small patches of sunshine moving across the valley floor.