Nepal 1994: A close call



On Deorali Daara, we encountered this beautiful female herder, guarding her sheep. Her nose is adorned by a golden trinket. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




At one moment, we would find ourselves climbing rugged rock-faces, at another we would be forced to make our way between steep walls of detritus, knowing full well that we might at any moment be struck by falling stones.”


Ardito Desio (1897-2001), Italian explorer, geologist, and cartographer, in his book The Ascent of K2, Royal Geographical Socitey, London, 1955




One of the last days of April, my Danish friends Niels Peter Andreasen and Helle Hansen, and I, accompanied by our staff of guide, porters, cook, etc., have made camp at Kambachen in the Upper Ghunsa Valley, near the Nepalese border with Sikkim.


Excuse me, Sir! Bed tea!”
I have just awoken, when our kitchen boy scratches on the tent canvas, saying, ”Excuse me, Sir! Bed tea!”

Drinking a cup of hot tea on an ice-cold morning, lying in your sleeping bag with your head sticking out of the tent to admire the gorgeous surrounding landscape, is something to relish!

The ground is covered by a thin blanket of snow, and there is a thin sheet 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 herders who look after the yak. Every morning, they milk the ones with calf.

Soon the sun appears, and the thin layer of snow rapidly vanishes. The marvellous morning weather is so inviting that Niels decides to shave off his three-day old stubble.



Our entire staff, posing near Kambachen, Upper Ghunsa Valley. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Our guide, Dil Bahadur Pantha, with our three female porters – very sweet girls, who, unfortunately, were exploited by the male porters, when it came to carrying loads. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



The morning weather was so inviting that Niels decided to shave off his three-day old stubble. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Wildlife in the Upper Ghunsa Valley
Having enjoyed our breakfast, we continue our hike up the Ghunsa Valley, heading for Lhonak. The landscape in this area is harsh and forbidding – dark mountains, almost devoid of vegetation, with numerous landslides, through which local people and their yak have trodden a new trail. We must pass through this area with utmost caution, so as not to create new landslides.

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, or rocks, as a look-out post, including robin accentor (Prunella rubeculoides), rufous-breasted accentor (P. strophiata), blue-fronted redstart (Phoenicurus frontalis), and beautiful rosefinch (Carpodacus pulcherrimus), whereas 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 observe 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 m, and the air contains less than two thirds of the amount of oxygen 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.



Robin accentors (top) and rufous-breasted accentors were perched on rocks or in bushes along the Ghunsa River. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Brandt’s mountain-finches were feeding in a grassy area. This species can be identified by its very dark head. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



The Tibetan snowcock is quite common in high regions of Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Beneath Kangchendzonga
The following morning, dense clouds cover the landscape, bringing heavy snowfall, and we decide to stay in this area another day to await better weather. At the same time, Helle can acclimatize.

Around noon, the cloud cover lifts, revealing a very pretty, snow-clad landscape. Occasionally, sunbeams penetrate the clouds, which come and go. The evening light is fantastic, and throughout the night, we hear several avalanches, thundering down the slopes. The night is cold and clear, and in the morning, the grass is covered in rime.

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. These and other Hindu gods are described in depth on the page 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 battle 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 (Panthera 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 m.

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 Kangchendzonga (8586 m), the third-highest mountain in the world, we camp for the night.



Between Kambachen and Lhonak, we awoke to low clouds and heavy snowfall. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



During the day, the dense cloud cover lifted, revealing a very beautiful landscape, with wandering clouds, occasionally penetrated by sun rays. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Evening light on Merra Peak (6344 m). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



This rock formation near Lhonak is called Shiva’s Finger. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



The major part of the huge Kangchendzonga Glacier is covered in moraine. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Outside the rutting season, blue sheep rams, ewes, and young form mixed flocks. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




A close call
After enjoying the harsh landscape around Lhonak, we commence our return hike down the valley. I am lagging behind as usual, making a stop to photograph a flock of feeding Brandt’s mountain-finches. Our guide Dil and the camp attendant are waiting for me at the first landslide, and when I catch up with them, we begin our crossing.

”Look out!” Dil suddenly shouts.

High above us, large blocks of ice have broken off, now thundering down the slope towards us. The majority are shattered 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!



Crossing this landslide below Kambachen, I was almost hit by a falling rock. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Forest wildlife
Once the landslides are over and done with, we face an easy walk down the valley, through a mixed forest of conifers, including Himalayan silver fir (Abies spectabilis) and Himalayan larch (Larix griffithii), and several species of rhododendron, notably the pink bell rhododendron (R. campanulatum) and the dark red R. cinnabarinum. Another striking rhododendron species, R. thomsonii, grows along the river beneath the village of Ghunsa. It is easily identified by its fleshy, red calyx and waxy flowers. In the grass, a lovely yellow primrose, Primula strumosa, is in full bloom.

We camp in a lovely oak forest, where passerines abound, including black-faced laughing-thrush (Trochalopteron affine), bar-throated minla (Minla strigula), orange-gorgeted flycatcher (Ficedula strophiata), and golden-spectacled warbler (Seicercus burkii).

We also encounter a pair of green shrike-babblers (Pteruthius xanthochlorus), who are busy building a nest – a small pendent bag, hanging from a twig. The nest is made from lichens, mixed with thin roots, picked from an epiphyte, growing on a nearby rock. Incidentally, genetic research has revealed that the shrike babblers are not babblers, but probably related to the New World vireos, family Vireonidae.



Little snot-nosed girl, riding on her mother’s back, Ghunsa Village. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



These trees near Ghunsa Village were killed by a forest fire. A dense growth of dwarf bamboo now covers the forest floor. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Rhododendron thomsonii is easily identified by its red calyx and waxy flowers. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Primula strumosa, observed in a grazing ground. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



A golden-spectacled warbler takes off from a branch. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



This gorgeous orchid, Dendrobium polyanthum, formerly named D. primulinum, grows as an epiphyte on trees in the oak forest. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Accompanied by a dog
Towards evening, a black dog makes us company in our camp. As it looks very hungry, we feed it leftovers from our dinner. Obviously, this is very much appreciated by the dog, which follows us faithfully during the following days.

However, when we cross the long suspension bridge, spanning the Ghunsa River at Sekathum, the dog runs into problems. Being scared of the bridge, it attempts to swim across the river, but is washed downstream by the swift current. 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 its neck, 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.



Niels and Helle, crossing the Ghunsa River on a primitive canti-lever bridge, accompanied by the black dog, which followed us for more than a week. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



The dog managed to cling to a rock and was rescued by Niels. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Yellow berries and lush forest
Near the village of Hellok, we encounter an abundance of thorny shrubs, especially Himalayan bramble (Rubus ellipticus), with a profusion of ripe yellow berries, which has a delicious sweet-and-sour taste.

From Hellok, a steep trail leads up the mountain slope towards a ridge, Deorali Daara. When we finally reach the ridge, we are quite exhausted, but are rewarded with a wonderful view down the Tamur Valley. Atop the ridge, we encounter a beautiful herdswoman, who is guarding a flock of sheep. Her nose is adorned by a large golden trinket.

Following the ridge eastwards, we pass through a magnificent virgin forest – a tangle of old and young trees, whose trunks are 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.



Dil, presenting two handfuls of delicious Himalayan bramble berries. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



From Deorali Daara, we had a wonderful view down the Tamur Valley. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



The magnificent virgin forest was a tangle of old and young trees, their trunks covered in mosses, lichens and other epiphytes, and entwined by lianas. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Muddy trails
Unfortunately, the weather turns foul, and it rains 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, we all 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 caused the trail, which leads down into the Kabeli Valley, to become muddy and extremely slippery. We slide along, falling numerous times, but eventually reach a more pleasant trail, which follows a ridge.

The view across the valley is gorgeous, with small patches of sunshine moving across the valley floor.



During a heavy rain shower, Niels and Helle seek shelter under their umbrellas, Niels writing his diary. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



The view across the Kabeli Valley was gorgeous, with small patches of sunshine moving across the valley floor. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




(Uploaded February 2016)


(Latest update February 2022)