The early morning before school starts (10 am) is ideal for visiting the school building in Hongon. The doors are wide open – it would hardly make sense to lock them, because you can get into the classrooms through the wingless windows or huge holes in the building walls anyway. There is no heating, school caretaker or cleaning service – a circumstance that should cause motivation and lack of concentration, especially in winter with minus temperatures, storm and snow. After all, there are 6 hours a day to be completed over a period of 5 years until primary school is completed. What makes it even more difficult is that most children first have to climb up a valley or descend a mountain for 1-2 hours to get to school at all. Before that, however, they still work – from 5 o’clock in the morning they start at their home stove – regardless of their parents’ status, children from the age of 4 to 5 years are fully integrated into the daily routines with their own responsibility. Washing laundry, collecting wood, herding cattle, field work or looking after younger siblings – in any case, carrying, carrying, carrying… It is a matter of course here that a 5-year-old drags his/her younger siblings around on his/her back all day.
So it was all the more astonishing that from ½ 10 the schoolyard filled up and from 10 o’clock the classes were filled with pupils, whereas the majority of the teachers only arrived an hour later at ½ 11…
Even if you can’t believe it, this is not just any building after a bomb attack in any war zone, but the current school of Hongon.
Kerosene was sold out in Hongon – we hadn’t expected that and that put us in a somewhat uncomfortable situation. We only had half a liter left, which is normally enough for 4x cooking. But since we needed at least 6-7 days to get to Yangle, we had to change to an emergency solution – as far as possible we cooked with wood. In terms of sustainable tourism, this is not normally done – firewood is a scarce resource in the mountains and is reserved for the local population. Since we had no other choice, we had to ignore it.
The next day 1500m higher up to about 4000m at Molun Pokhari (a small mountain lake) again my favourite conditions: 2m soft snotty snow – ideal for sinking. There was no way to find one, as usual cross-country 4h hip-deep or climbing over some rocks – just as long as the daily white-out with snow and freezing rain determined the campground at 14:00. We were in a valley with 5 or 6 passages and had no idea which one to take the next day. One of them led north directly to Tibet (about 2h) – we were not allowed to catch him, because then we would have even bigger problems – China doesn’t understand the fun of illegal border crossings.
There was no drinking water available and the existing snow is so dirty (pollution from India and China – goes down here on the mountain slopes with rain and snow) that we could not use it for cooking. We had to wait about 2h for enough fresh snow so that we could at least prepare a tea and our obligatory Chinese noodle soup.
The next morning of course again wonderful weather conditions with an unclouded view of the surrounding mountains. We were spoilt for choice – no idea which pass was the right one, nevertheless we had to choose one. The choice is usually my job – the map material was bad, so the only thing left was the cardinal point and intuition – with 1 out of 4 it went really wrong. We climbed up to the wrong pass (approx. 4400 hm) and there we went down several hundred meters of altitude into the valley before we realized that it should have been the next one on the right.
Going back up in these snow conditions was an absolute “no go” for me – it would probably have taken us the whole day. So here it was again this point where the decision was to stop or to continue. Wang CChu already had some motivation problems – he wanted to descend into the valley and follow a river as far as possible. Somewhere we would get out.
For me this was also only a last resort. My alternative was an approx. 50m high rock band, which separated us from the real valley. If we climbed over it we should be on the right way. I could convince Wang CChu to at least try it – so we marched. To get there, we had to cross about 200 m of a 1000 m steeply sloping icy snow gully.
He had still pointed out to me that I should use my crampons – but in a rush and arrogance I had renounced it – could have ended unpleasantly. Before I had even realized what had happened, I had already slipped sideways. Although fully concentrated, I couldn’t keep my foot on the ice – and off I went. Within fractions of a second you realize what’s going to happen – no chance for a stop, slide down the gutter and then ouch – hit the rock. There is no fear in this situation, only disbelief, amazement and maybe a little helplessness.
But as the saying goes: drunk and stupid people have the necessary luck. After I had a guaranteed 0.0 per mille at this point, I probably belong to the elite of the second mentioned (because of the renouncement of the crampons). After about 20 – 25m I got stuck with my legs on an isolated protruding rock – there were not many of them. The ride was over before it had really started.
It had taken about 2 minutes until I could move again – had to collect myself first. When I had looked up to Wang CChu I could hardly recognize him, so pale he was in the face. He walked about 10 m behind me and could follow my slide live. We never talked about it and I don’t know what went through his head. But I think he would have had a lot of trouble explaining it and would have had massive difficulties if he had come back without me – after all he is a licensed Climbing Sherpa. Later he had only explained to me that he had been afraid. Nothing more.
After a few minutes the emotional balance was restored, the crampons were strapped on (you learn to learn) and we went on, because we still had to cross this rock face to get to the other valley – which wasn’t that difficult.
I was 80% sure that we were right now – I was only certain when we came across this river crossing after we had descended into the valley.
Two hours later we were lucky for the second time that day. We came across two park rangers on patrol. Poaching is a big problem in this part of the country. Tibetans come illegally to Nepal and hunt without permission Blue Sheep (a rare type of mountain sheep) which are protected. Their job is to prevent this. After they realized that we were not poachers they were very happy and invited us for a delicious meal. An original prepared Tsampa.
But they were very helpful for us, because they guided us on this and the next day for about 8 hours through the forest on the right way to the entry point for the next 4 passes. Without exaggerating we would have needed at least 2 days longer to find this winding path through rhododendron forest and bamboo bushes.
1200 hm up the next snow gully until the daily bad weather had caught up with us again in the early afternoon – after only one emergency ration of kerosene was left there was no warm tea but a special menu of the special class – dry Chinese noodle soup nicely crumbled, refined with some rice flakes and a shot of cold water – so that the mush sticks well.
At 5 o’clock in the morning we left, at 15:00 the clouds were so thick again that we could not see the possible crossing of the 1st pass.
To start a fire in the snow you need a solid, dry base. We were able to organize a turf from a rock, which at least in the evening gave us something warm between our teeth.
The morning after we had to leave again at 5 o’clock – we had to cross 4 passes with an altitude of 4200m to 4600m that day. As usual we did not know the exact way, so it could be a long day. It was not only a long day as usual but also physically and mentally exhausting.
Already the 1st pass was a challenge in itself. I’m not sure if we had made the right transition, but about 100m below the actual pass we entered again laterally into an extremely steep, almost vertical icy snow gully which led 700 – 800m down. Again a place which one normally should not pass without crampons, ice axe and secured by a rope. But we had no chance, except for the crampons the appropriate equipment was not available – so either up or back.
As I have experienced several times in the past, I am usually extremely calm during critical situations, but after that, when everything is over, my nerves relax a little. Apparently my slip 2 days before had had a more lasting effect than expected, because this time I was already a little nervous shortly after entering the gully. Which increased the tension and didn’t necessarily make things easier for me. The trekking poles had to be used as ice axe substitutes, so I drove them deep and with full force into ice and snow with every step, so that they were actually for throwing away afterwards. Shortly before the finish, I had to climb over an overhanging snow cornice as a special test – which I could not imagine to carry my total weight before.
When I reached the top, the feeling was just awesome, 7:30 in the morning and already enough adrenalin in my blood for the next 2 weeks – that’s when you start yodeling. Wang CChu, despite his extensive climbing experience, had the same fate as me, he was very happy and totally overexcited when we stood at this pass mark afterwards.
It is a very pleasant state when security returns with that “almost-everything is possible” feeling. In our case, however, for a limited time only up to the pass after the next pass, up to the first deja-vú of the day – as already experienced shortly before, there was a steep slope again, but this time in the opposite direction – namely through snow and ice almost vertically down. Twice in one morning, in almost identical situations, the decision had to be made to do something that normally one should not do. So either go down without safety (eyes closed and through) or turn around.
Of course we went down, sweating a lot and were happy when everything went well the second time.
We had got into unsafe situations due to our ignorance of the route and had decided on the spot to take the risky route. Consciously one should not expose oneself to this. In retrospect, I think that in the spring season the path from Kanchenjunga to Makalu is hardly passable without climbing equipment in the snow. So if someone wants to hike the same route without much effort, the best time would certainly be in autumn – mid-September to the end of October – when the weather conditions are simply at their best.
After the 4th pass on this day the air was completely outside, 2000 hm uphill, 2500 hm downhill under these conditions combined with the experienced mental tension is enough for a normal hiking day.
The next day we could have our lunch in Yangle. After the days in the snow or rain all our clothes and sleeping bag were wet – sunshine and wind were ideal to get our clothes halfway dry again.
The climb up to Sherjong (near Makalu Base Camp) was easy and done in a few hours and after another night in the tent was once again day watch at 4am. The morning weather was ideal, so we could climb up to a lookout point about 600 hm above the base camp at 5.400m without snow.
This stage was certainly the most challenging so far – after we couldn’t cross the Sherpani Col towards the Everest area due to the lack of equipment, the decision had to be made how to continue. All the passes further south above 4000m above sea level were hopelessly snowed in at the moment – to get past Mera Peak to Lukla, 5 or 6 passes up to 5800m would have to be crossed – which was really worth considering in these conditions.