Goecha La

Goecha La, India

After arriving in Sikkim, I spent the first week of December hiking with a party of six into the Indian Himalayas. Our goal was Goecha La, a mountain pass some 5,000 metres above sea level, which leads to the base of the third highest mountain on the planet, Kanchendzonga. Even though we were aided and abetted by a hard-working crew of guides and porters the experience was incredibly strenuous.

Hiking at altitude is no joke; as the atmosphere began to thin, we found ourselves suffering for even the slightest physical exertion. Above 4,000 metres the effects became very apparent and, even with an approach of slow acclimatization, few of the party were able to avoid its impact. That there are people capable of hiking Everest (8,800 metres) without an oxygen supply to assist them is an achievement that has new meaning.

The Himalayas are a place of absolute magic, often with conditions in weather and landscape changing before your very eyes. This was a dreamland for photographers and explorers alike and I garnered an immense respect both for the enormity of the earth we live on and for those mountaineers brave enough to go out and chart it.

Camping in Tshoka after the first days hike. Tshoka, at 3,400 metres, is one of the last villages we passed through on the way up to the Goecha La pass. The buildings in the background are multifunction; they serve as kitchens, dining halls and quarters for the porters and chefs that accompany the many trekking groups in the region
Camping in Tshoka after the first days hike. Tshoka, at 3,400 metres, is one of the last villages we passed through on the way up to the Goecha La pass. The buildings in the background are multifunction; they serve as kitchens, dining halls and quarters for the porters and chefs that accompany the many trekking groups in the region.
More scenery in Tshoka, the first campsite on the way up The trail up to Goecha La is shared by hikers, yaks and sometimes horses. For a party of six, as many as five or six yaks are employed to cart goods up and down the mountain. While on the road, they provide a valuable source of nutrition in the form of milk each morning. A cup of yaks-milk tea becomes a surprisingly coveted luxury after 7 days hiking
The trail up to Goecha La is shared by hikers, yaks and sometimes horses. For a party of six, as many as five or six yaks are employed to cart goods up and down the mountain and this makes the walk a minefield of manure — some of which you can see in the right photograph above. While on the road, they provide a valuable source of nutrition in the form of milk each morning. A cup of yaks-milk tea becomes a surprisingly coveted luxury after 7 days hiking.
When they aren't inhabited by hikers, the buildings that litter each campsite up to the Himalayan ranges are often left wide open. Here, an opportune pony makes use of the shelter Breakfast is served; The food prepared for us by our support crew was invariably cause for awe. Pancakes, pies and even pizza were unveiled as the days progressed leaving us to wonder how they were capable of producing such delicacies with the meager box of supplies they'd brought up for consumption
Leaving Tshoka: A view of the village from above as we ascended toward Dzongri on the morning of day two
Some of the rather chilly facilities on offer in Tshoka The handsome face of Mount Pandim, a Himalayan peak of 6,691 metres. This photograph was taken from a viewpoint just outside of the Dzongri campsite. As a rule, viewpoints in the region are littered with a generous helping of tibetan flags which can be seen in the foreground
On the right: the handsome face of Mount Pandim, a Himalayan peak of 6,691 metres. This photograph was taken from a viewpoint just outside of the Dzongri campsite. As a rule, viewpoints in the region are littered with a generous helping of tibetan flags seen here in the foreground.
The view from Dzongri after a second day of hiking. The campsite borders on a wide, cloud-filled valley and, as we watched the sun set, it was remarkable to see clouds behave just as waves might against a shore: Lapping gently at the surrounding hills before receding into the jungle below
The view from Dzongri after a second day of hiking. The campsite borders on a wide, cloud-filled valley and, as we watched the sun set, it was remarkable to see clouds behave just as waves might against a shore: Lapping gently at the surrounding hills before receding into the jungle below.
Clouds sweep through Thangsing, the second highest campsite just shy of 4,000 metres above sea level On our way back down from the Goecha La pass we hiked through a series of rolling clouds. From minute to minute it would transition from a hot, sunlit afternoon to this murky affair
Yaks and hikers share quarters at Thangsing campsite. Humble and well-natured animals, the yaks employed by the porters along the Goecha La track are left to roam freely in the evenings Moonrise in Thangsing
On the left: yaks and hikers share quarters at Thangsing campsite. Humble and well-natured animals, the yaks employed by the porters along the Goecha La track are left to roam freely in the evenings.
Clouds sweep through the jungle somewhere between Tshoka and Dzongri The valley of clouds nearby Dzongri campsite
The last gasp of sunlight sets Mount Pandim ablaze on the evening of the third day. Important as a means of acclimatizing to the altitude, afternoon hikes to watch the sunset were also a chance to enjoy the last warmth of the day. Nights in the Himalayas are a bitterly cold experience
The last gasp of sunlight sets Mount Pandim ablaze on the evening of the third day. Important as a means of acclimatizing to the altitude, afternoon hikes to watch the sunset were also a chance to enjoy the last warmth of the day. Nights in the Himalayas are a bitterly cold experience.
Posing infront of Mount Pandim on the morning of the second day Justin, our Sikkimese guide, poses for a photograph at the first viewpoint on the way up to Goecha La pass. His last hike of the year, he looks forward to returning to his family and farm for the winter
The world's highest cricket match: On the fourth night we camped at Lamunay, the highest campsite of the trek at 4,200 metres. At this height, any physical activity becomes incredibly strenuous as the body struggles to oxygenate in the thinner atmosphere. Evidence of a cold night: River water frozen in terraces near Goecha La pass on the morning of the fifth and penultimate day
On the left: The world's highest cricket match: On the fourth night we camped at Lamunay, the highest campsite of the trek at 4,200 metres. At this height, any physical activity becomes incredibly strenuous as the body struggles to oxygenate in the thinner atmosphere.
View from the top: Kanchendzonga, the world's third highest mountain at 8,586 metres. We hiked four hours from Lamunay to get to the final lookout at 5,000 metres, an elevation gain of some 800 metres. While suffering from altitude sickness seemed to be a matter of chance, on the way down most everyone began to feel a hangover from the lack of oxygen
View from the top: Kanchendzonga, the world's third highest mountain at 8,586 metres. We hiked four hours from Lamunay to get to the final lookout at 5,000 metres, an elevation gain of some 800 metres. While suffering from altitude sickness seemed to be a matter of chance, on the way down most everyone began to feel a hangover from the lack of oxygen.
The long road home. After five days making our way up, our goal had been reached and we now faced a lengthy descent
Here's me posing at the top lookout of the Goecha La pass - glad to have completed the last leg Cloud permeates the forest around us as we descend into Yuksum on the final day
We cleared the cloud line on the second day and this afforded us a real understanding of the scale of the himalayas. Despite climbing some 2,000 metres we still faced an endless procession of ever higher mountains. In this photograph I've captured the look back at where we had come from and where we would later return after our goal was reached. As we sat shivering in our tents we reminisced about the warm showers waiting for us in a guest house buried beneath the clouds
We cleared the cloud line on the second day and this afforded us a real understanding of the scale of the himalayas. Despite climbing some 2,000 metres we still faced an endless procession of ever higher mountains. In this photograph I've captured the look back at where we had come from and where we would later return. As we sat shivering in our tents we reminisced about the warm showers waiting for us in a guest house buried beneath the clouds.

After 4 long days of hiking, we finally arrived at our destination: The highest lookout of the Goecha La pass. At 5,000 metres, any physical exertion became a very real struggle. Our efforts were rewarded by an exceptionally clear day and panoramic views of the Himalayan mountain ranges. The biggest reward of all, of course, was in the knowledge that the only direction we had left to travel was downward.