Richard Creagh: There is a local legend about the Bon Manchi in these parts, a sort of Sikkim version of the yeti that might spring to mind when things like this are found
On 24th October 2016 the Irish Sikkim Expedition reached base camp. Two years previously another Irish expedition was the first to penetrate the Zumthul valley, establishing base camp in the same location, and exploring the area around the spectacular Siniolchu Needles. On this occasion Thendrup Sherpa and Martin Bonar reached a high col on the far side of the Needles, and with Anindya Mukherjee, explored a number of the previously unvisited valleys and glaciers in the area. Anindya (or Raja to us), an intrepid explorer and writer, was our internal coordinator for both trips, and lucky for us. His experience in organising expeditions to remote regions meant we had very little to worry about when it came to logistics. In a country as disorienting as India this was a burden we were glad to be relieved of. Two other members of the 2014 expedition, Alan Tees and Jack Bergin, had also returned.
The first time the eight of us were together was on day one of the trip in a hotel lobby in Kolkata. Two had come from New Zealand, one from London and the remaining five from various corners of Ireland. Though excursions to the greater ranges might seem all about the mountains I think most people who’ve taken a few climbing trips will tell you that the most important thing is not where you go or what you do but who you’re with. Thankfully, despite our long flights, cramped jeep journeys and combined jet lag, personality clashes were absent during that initial get-together in the hotel. There was about forty years between the youngest and eldest of us, and a similar range in experience. Some had a few Himalayan expeditions under their belt while at least one member had never placed an ice screw. Ultimately it seemed these differences would be more of an advantage than a weakness. Our varied skill set surely meant there was nothing we’d come across that somebody hadn’t already encountered. Or so we hoped.
By the time we reached base camp we’d had a week to get to know one another. Normally this would have been like any other gathering of like-minded people. But against the backdrop of a country as wildly whacky as India and the excitement about the upcoming adventure almost every hour was intensely memorable, and it wasn’t long before it felt like we’d known each other a long time.
The jeep journey to Sikkim was like nothing most of us had ever seen, with the world outside the windows a better documentary than anything available on a big screen. Getting to base camp took a further five days from our homestay in Sikkim and was more stimulating still. As the days marched on we were glad to get into the rhythm of the trip and start moving into the mountains for real. Initially we followed a decent track through the jungle but things soon became quite wild. Recent landslides had required a boat crossing over a new lake on our first day and had cleared huge areas of hillside further up the valley. Getting around these obstacles involved a mix of single log bridges over glacial rivers and some wild traversing through near-vertical jungle. Leeches, ticks, heat and humidity were constant companions.
The farther we walked the further we distanced ourselves from the outside world. Because of our proximity to China we weren’t allowed have satellite phones. For the first time in most of the team’s lives we would be out of immediate contact with everywhere else; no phones and no Internet signal. It sounds simple, almost trivial, but it’s a situation that’s nearly impossible to experience to the same degree in the Western World nowadays. Any illness or injury could become a serious incident very quickly. Any broken equipment or food shortage couldn’t be easily fixed. We’d be very much on our own, and this was half the appeal.
Thankfully we escaped a soaking on the walk to base camp but the weather turned on arrival and we had three days of mist, rain and snow at our new home. The clag darkened an already dark position, closed in by steep black walls on two sides. We had seen very little of the mountains we intended to attempt. Life slowed down, and those early days left little to do. We had a team of four cooks who doubled as high camp porters and their calls for hot meals and tea were highlights in most peoples’ days. The nights were long, dark and cold. Expedition mountaineering seems so sensational from the outside but in reality there’s a terrible amount of waiting for weather windows, enduring long cold nights (and days) and wondering why you’ve bothered. We all knew this going in, but knowing doesn’t really make it all that different when you’re there. Books and music were devoured, as was the chocolate we’d brought. It fast became obvious that we hadn’t brought enough.
The first clear morning kick-started a rush to establish advanced base camp. With frozen boots laced and heavy bags packed we headed north-west towards a higher valley. Over three days of toiling on the rough moraine (and through a chilly river) we had supplies for four nights at ABC. The mornings stayed clear but the weather closed in every day before noon, pushing cloud up from the thickly forested valley below. Without a forecast we had to play everything by ear. It was during this push to ABC that Piaras broke a baby finger at the river, sustaining a bad cut in the process. It was unfortunate but thankfully not serious. It was also during these days that we got our first proper look at the mountains surrounding us. Thoughts of launching an attempt on the Siniolchu Needles were put to bed soon after we caught sight of them. The view from ABC was a jagged skyline of tall, pointy peaks, heavily laden with snow and offering nothing docile looking. The Needles we’d seen pictures of were the high point of this long, broken jaw ridge, and nobody wanted to be anywhere on those north-facing cliffs if bad weather came in. Our focus shifted to exploration of more amenable looking mountains.
Over the next four days various members of the expedition climbed to two previously unvisited peaks (as well as to the top of a pillar of rock just shy of a true summit), reached a new pass and explored areas never before visited by humans. The two new peaks were quite different in character. The first, which we named Diwali Lho, bore a resemblance to Kerrigan from base camp and was climbed by two new routes on the same day, both involving mixed climbing up to Scottish III (Diwali is the Hindu festival of light and we made the first ascent on the first day of the celebrations – Lho is the local word for a small mountain). The other peak was quite different, with some easier scrambling leading to a narrow pillar that guarded the summit. A pitch of VS rock climbing on good cracks brought two team members to the top. At remote 5,000m it was quite a different experience to what the same cliff might have offered at Ailladie.
Further up the valley the team made a high camp to attempt a very impressive unclimbed mountain, but dangerous snow conditions sent them back down to ABC the following day. Meanwhile, Raja and Lakpa Sherpa pushed a camp towards a previously unvisited pass near the head of the valley and visited this and another col that last saw human footprints in the 1930s. Two German expeditions, in 1931 and 1937, were the only trips made to this area before the Irish expeditions in 2014 and 2016, and the combined efforts of these four excursions have barely scratched the surface of this incredible pocket of the Himalaya. While human footprints may be rare here it seems as though other footfall makes more regular impressions in the snow around the region. While descending from the col Raja and Lakpa came across a series of unusual footprints that weren’t present on the way up. There is a local legend about the Bon Manchi in these parts, a sort of Sikkim version of the yeti that might spring to mind when things like this are found. Sensationalists might be quick to jump to such dramatic conclusions, but in an area so rarely visited there’s obviously plenty of opportunity for discovery of a more scientific kind (which needn’t be any less exciting). Poor weather cancelled any attempts during our last few days in the mountains.
Ideas of Himalayan mountaineering bring to mind images of extreme altitude, drawn out sieges and high drama. Our trip had none of these, but was nonetheless an incredible adventure between good friends in the greatest mountains on the planet. We would like to thank Mountaineering Ireland, Rab, Edelrid, Alpine Sports and Expedition Foods for their support for the trip, and for Anindya Mukherjee for making it happen.
Words and Photos: Richard Creagh
About the author: Richard Creagh is an outdoor enthusiast living in Co. Kerry in the southwest of Ireland. He spends most of his time at the coast, but loves to venture into the mountains from time to time.