Sikhim and Bhutan/Chapter 08



From Gangtak over the Giucha-la to Ringen. Loss of a coolie. Camp amongst glaciers and moraines. A snow leopard. Alpine flowers. Avalanches and ice caves. Crossing a difficult gorge. Lepchas and wild bees. The Rungnu. Sakhyong.

In 1890 I made one of my first expeditions to the snows, crossing the Giucha-la Pass and from there making my way to Ringen, following a route the latter part of which had certainly never been traversed by a European, and I doubt by any one, except possibly a very occasional Lepcha. As I intended going to considerable elevations, I started in the middle of the rainy season, in July, in order to have less snow to negotiate and also less chance of snow-storms in the high altitudes. From Gangtak I crossed lower Sikhim, travelling viâ the Pemiongtchi and Dubdi Monasteries, and so far I had no difficulty, as I slept in either village houses or monasteries, but after that I had to take to my tents, which are certainly not comfortable in pouring rain. It came down steadily in sheets while I was at Dubdi, and when the morning for my departure came it was no better; but it is useless to wait for fine weather in Sikhim, so I started in spite of it. The path led up a narrow and very precipitous valley, with virgin forest on either side and dense undergrowth; smaller streams came down to join the main river at almost every hundred yards, and in crossing one of them, my first mishap occurred.

A torrent, swollen by the heavy rain, came rushing down a perpendicular rock with an almost deafening roar right across the path, which at that point was water-worn rock and very slippery, and then leapt into an abyss below, the bottom of which I could not see. A couple of saplings about four inches in diameter had been placed across, and I had gone over in safety and was resting on an incline on the other side, when one of my coolies came up. For some reason, as he was crossing the poles, he either slipped or lost his balance, I could not see which, but he fell on the upstream side, was immediately carried under the bridge and swept over the precipice before my eyes. It all happened in a moment, and such was the inaccessibility of the spot and so dense the jungle, it was quite impossible to do anything for the poor fellow. Some more coolies now came up, and we tried to cut a way down through the dense tangle of trees and undergrowth, but this proved quite impossible, though, after an hour’s work, one man managed to get down by a circuitous route, only to find that his unfortunate companion had been swept into the main torrent, and that nothing was to be seen of either him or his load. I am thankful to say that in all my wanderings in the Himalayas I have only lost one other coolie.

Nothing more could be done, so we moved on, but the delay caused us to be overtaken by nightfall while we were still in the gorge, with no room to pitch a tent. I was glad to find an overhanging rock under which to sleep, and thought myself lucky to find a comparatively dry spot out of the drip, but it was not a very restful night surrounded by my coolies who, like all natives, talked for hours, and with the air full of acrid smoke from the wood fires which made sleep difficult. It was still raining when I arrived at Jongri, my next halting place, 13,140 feet high, just above tree level, and where our camp was in open country.

The following day I reached the glaciers which come down from Kabru and Pundeem and had my tents pitched amongst them.

In the morning it was a little finer and I caught occasional glimpses of the snows, but towards afternoon it commenced raining again and became very bleak and cold, and in going round my camp I found one of my coolies, a Paharia or Nepalese, lying huddled up in a wet heap. He was feeling the elevation and the cold and refused to move, so I placed a stalwart Bhutea on either side of him and made them run him up and down until his blood began to circulate. In a little while he went off and cooked his dinner and was none the worse, but had he been left to himself, he would probably have died in the night. I stayed here for a few days exploring the glaciers. The camp was a wild one surrounded by enormous quantities of débris, and shut in on three sides by glaciers and snows. The wet, misty weather made it still more gloomy, but on the third day the morning was glorious. Not a sign of a cloud was to be seen, and the snows standing up all round against the pale blue of the sky made the scene a magnificent one.

While I was wandering some little way from camp I saw a snow leopard. He was on the other side of a glacial stream, so I could not get very close to him, and as besides I had only a shot gun with me, I contented myself with watching him, and a very pretty and most unusual sight it was. He was playing with a large raven, which kept swooping down just out of his reach, and to see him get on his hind legs like an enormous cat and jump at the bird was worth watching. Suddenly he saw me and went off up the hill at a pace that made me envious. He was a fine specimen, very large and with a beautiful coat, and I wish I had had the luck to bag him.

The weather now cleared up, and I had one of the glorious breaks which occur at intervals during the rains, and crossed the Giucha-la, 16,420 feet, in clear weather, with not a cloud in the sky. The view from the top is superb. Before one lies an amphitheatre of snow peaks, all over 21,000 feet, save in one gap, which is 19,300 feet. On the right hand Sim-vo-vonchin rises sharply over the 19,000-foot gap, then the splendid shoulder supporting the twin peaks of Kangchenjunga, which towers up to a height of over 28,000 feet, and with something like 11,000 feet of uninterrupted snow and ice falling in a sheer precipice on its south face to the great glacier at its foot, next the ridge connecting Kangchenjunga with Kabru, and on the immediate left a fine unnamed snow peak with hanging glaciers, but Kabru itself is invisible from this pass. On the south side of the Kangchen glacier were some ancient moraines covered with exquisite green turf and masses of Alpine flowers, whose simple beauty and vivid colouring stood out in sharp contrast to the grandeur of the surrounding snows, making a picture long to be remembered. I climbed down and had my tents pitched on this lovely green sward, though it seemed almost desecration to turn such a lovely spot into a noisy camp, with all its ugly and commonplace surroundings.

Sikhim and Bhutan - Kangchenjunga.jpg


Next morning I walked up the valley as far as I could go without crossing the glacier, and the scene, if possible, became still wilder and more magnificent. On the right was Kangchenjunga and to the left Kabru with its magnificent glacier, while joining the two mountains in front of me was a wall of snow and ice 21,000 feet high. By and by, as the sun shone on the face of Kangchen, I saw some magnificent snow avalanches. They came thundering down on all sides, making a peculiar hissing noise, and on reaching the glacier, burst into clouds of spray of dazzling whiteness, which here and there was transformed into rainbow colours by the rising sun. A little later, as I was photographing Kangchenjunga, a large piece of snow cracked off, crashed down about 8000 feet, and, reaching the bottom with a noise like thunder, which reverberated through the surrounding heights, filled the head of the valley with a mist of snow. Altogether, it was a day of most beautiful sights never to be forgotten, which amply rewarded me for any hardships or privations I had to undergo to achieve my object.

To show how fickle the climate can be in the proximity of these perpetual snows, I went to bed that night in perfect weather, to be awakened later by the collapse of my tent. A sudden snowstorm had come up, and soon, before any one had noticed it, the weight of the snow became so great every pole of my tent broke and I was buried underneath. Fortunately a little table by my bed saved me from the weight of the canvas and gave me some breathing space, so, as it was very cold, I remained where I was till the morning, when my men could come to clear up the débris. By that time the weather was again perfect, and such is the power of the sun at those altitudes, the new snow soon disappeared, but as it had made everything rather uncomfortable, we decided not to move camp that day.

We were now really entering unexplored country, as I wished to go down the Kangchen glacier to the source of the Rungnu-chhu, and thence to follow the stream to Ringen. None of my coolies had ever been over the ground, and as I found to my cost, there was not even a track. The first two marches were very easy, as we kept to the centre of the glacier, which we found quite smooth and very good going, quite unlike most of the other glaciers I have been over, either those on the south of the Giucha-la, which are completely cut up, have enormous holes in them, and over which it would be quite impossible to march; the Zemu glacier, which is much the same, or the glaciers in the extreme north of the Lonak Valley, which again appear more like a rough sea suddenly frozen into enormous hummocks of ice.

This difference in the Kangchen glacier I am unable to account for, unless it may be that the ice, running as it does in a very narrow valley, is of a much greater depth, and also that the valley lying east and west gets less sun and escapes the full force of the south-west monsoon. It is a curious phenomenon and would be well worth investigation, but its solution will, I think, require the study of experts in such matters. This glacier ends at an elevation of 12,100 feet in an ice cliff, from a cavern in which the Rungnu takes its rise, and here my worst difficulties began.

The cliff was topped with débris and boulders of every size just on the balance, which at any moment might go down with a crash to the bottom, and it was no easy matter to climb down myself without bringing tons and tons on the top of me, and more difficult to get all my coolies and baggage down. Only one man could come at a time, a long process, but it was eventually carried through without mishap. At the foot of the ice cliff I pitched my camp in the midst of rhododendrons and pines.

Looking directly up the valley was the end of the glacier I had just descended, gloomy and forbidding, and on the right, to the north, was the limit of the glacier from the 19,000-foot gap, adding to the scene of desolate grandeur; for I think there can be no more wild and desolate scene than these moraines, in which the large glaciers end in utter confusion, giving the impression of a battlefield where giants and titan monsters have torn up huge masses of rock to hurl at one another, with the constant fall of stones as the ice melts, and the weird feeling that everything in addition is quietly though imperceptibly on the move.

On close examination, the ice is very beautiful, and the ice caves out of which the river rushes are magnificent. The colouring of the ice was lovely, varying in every shade of green and from pale turquoise blue to almost black in the depths of the caves, with opalescent tints where the sun’s rays struck its edges. Immediately surrounding me was a carpet of the Alpine vegetation, so lovely in these hills, and amongst the undergrowth I found oak and silver ferns, anemones, primulas, gentians of every shade of blue, buttercups, violas and innumerable other flowers, with here and there magnificent rhododendrons and silver pines, though the latter were still stunted at that elevation.

Beautiful as the vegetation is, it makes travelling both arduous and difficult. There was no track of any kind, the bottom of the valley was a mass of rocks strewn in every direction and densely covered with dwarf rhododendron, which necessitated cutting every foot of the way, and progress was in consequence extremely slow, sometimes not three miles in a day. To add to our discomfort the fine weather broke and a constant drizzle set in.

I knew my way out lay down the stream, but whether it was feasible was another matter. We struggled on for several days till we came to a gorge running down from the 17,000 feet gap which lies between the magnificent snow peaks Siniolchu and Simvoo, and which at this point had cut into a water-worn chasm 300 feet to 400 feet deep, and some 40 feet to 50 feet wide, with absolutely perpendicular sides as slippery as glass.

Here we were obliged to wait till we could find a way across. There was no camping ground, not even room to pitch a tent, only some narrow ledges of rock, but here perforce I had to stay, and with luck I managed to throw the outer fly of my tent over some boulders and get my bed inside, and fortunately the night was fine. The next day we spent searching for a means of crossing, and after some hours we came upon a natural bridge formed by two gigantic rocks which had jammed in the gorge and thus formed a somewhat hazardous bridge. We set to work, and with great difficulty succeeded in letting down the baggage with the aid of ropes and jungle creepers, and at last succeeded in getting everything across safely.

From the bridge I had a splendid view into the chasm some hundreds of feet below, where the raging torrent could be heard grinding the boulders together with a noise like thunder, and faintly seen in the dim light, but I was not sorry to have safely accomplished the crossing of my party, especially as, to add to our difficulties, in the centre of the bridge we had to crawl through a hole on hands and knees.

This bridge is called by the Lepchas Tak-nil-vong-do-zah, and is occasionally used by them when they go up the valley collecting wax. The combs of the wild bees are found on overhanging precipices, and the only means by which they can be reached is to descend from above on narrow cane ladders just wide enough for a man’s foot, and often 300 feet to 400 feet long. The Lepcha comes down the ladder with an earthen vessel containing fire on his head, and on reaching the combs puts some green leaves on it. This makes a dense smoke and drives the bees away, while he cuts off the combs, which are often 6 feet long and 4 feet thick; he then throws them down to his companions, but it is a hazardous business as, should the smoke not drive off the bees, the man hanging in mid-air has no chance if they attack him. The men waiting below catch the combs, squeeze out the honey and partly clarify the wax on the spot, by placing it in boiling water, skimming it off, and making it into cakes 8 or 9 inches in diameter and 3 or 4 inches thick. The honey is eaten locally, unless it has been made when the magnolia is in flower, in which case it is often poisonous.

A little later we had another equally difficult crossing when we reached the Rungnu. The heavy rain had swollen the river, and the only means of crossing was by placing a tree from the bank we were on, to rest on a small rock in the centre of the stream, from which a notched pole had been placed up the side of a perpendicular rock to a slippery landing on the top. Across this very unsteady and rickety pole I had to go, whether I liked it or not, as there was no other way. It was a very nasty place and I do not mind admitting I would have given a good deal to avoid it.

The river was rushing underneath to dash itself angrily over a precipice some 300 feet high with a deafening roar. A false step, and once in the water, that would be the end, with no possible chance of escape. I managed to cross the flat pole safely, but could not face the notched one. One of my Lepcha coolies offered to carry me up on his shoulders if I promised to make no movement, but this seemed even worse than climbing up by myself, as I finally did with the aid of a rope, and heartily glad I was to get to the top and on to the hillside. Unfortunately I had got ahead of my baggage coolies, always a fatal thing to do, and before they arrived, the river had risen to such an extent they could not cross, so I was left on one side with all my baggage on the other, and there was nothing for it but to make the best of a bad business. With me were Purboo, my Lepcha orderly, the coolie with my camera, and one other man, Jerung Denjung, in charge of the coolies.

Sikhim and Bhutan - Bamboo Roadway.jpg


It was pouring, we were all wet through, and we had only one piece of chocolate between us, and no wood to make a fire with, as everything was sopping. Eventually Purboo took off his Lepcha chudder or shawl and made a shelter by hanging it over some sticks, and under this we all got. They managed somehow to light a fire, but the smoke from the wet wood was perhaps more trying than anything else. Here we sat till morning, when some of the coolies turned up, and we were able to get something to eat and a change of clothes.

We were still not out of the wood, for it had taken me ten days longer than I had expected to come down, and our provisions were running short. Mine were quite finished, but some of the men’s rations still remained, and these they shared with me most cheerfully, and we all made the best of things with no sign of grumbling or discontent.

But soon after, the end of our troubles came in view with the sight of some Lepcha cultivation. The men went wild with delight, and I verily believe they had thought that they would never get back to their homes again; they threw down their loads, danced and sang, and then started off with renewed energy to find the owners of the fields in the outlying houses of the village of Sakhyong a few miles further down. Here I was royally entertained by the people, who gave me everything they had, eggs, buckwheat cakes and some other cakes of flour, made by grinding the root of a caladium which grows at high altitudes. These latter were to my taste most unpalatable, but I was only too thankful to get anything after the privations and hardships we had come through.

From Sakhyong everything was comparatively easy, there was a path of sorts, and we were again amongst cultivation and scattered houses, and in a few days more I arrived at Ringen, and from Ringen another five days brought me to my headquarters at Gangtak after a most enjoyable and successful expedition, during which I had thoroughly explored the hitherto unknown valley running down from the big Kangchen glacier.

My prolonged absence had caused some alarm, and even given rise to rumours that I had been captured by the Tibetans, and several parties had been sent out by the Phodong Lama and others to find out what had become of me, and I was greeted with a hearty welcome when I at last arrived.

I do not think this journey could be equalled throughout the world for its beauty and variety of scene, the magnificent gorges, with wonderful waterfalls tumbling down on all sides, the wild desolation of the higher snows, and the richness of colouring and dense vegetation lower down; every few miles bringing new beauties before one.