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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.