Call me Lishmael, dear Readers. So onto that classic blogilistic form, the Quest. For days, through ice and mud, across valley and dale, we have pursued a gigantic but elusive beast around the border with Nepal: the mighty KHANGCHENDZONGA.
Despite sounding like a B movie monster, Khangchendzonga is a serious hill. The world’s third-tallest mountain—and until 1852 thought to be the highest—it towers 8,598 metres (28,169 feet) above the Nepal-Sikkim border, five glowering peaks topped with ice,
not ordinary ice, sharp-edged and unbroken, but ice hacked and tortured by the winds… thin flakes of ice through which the sun gleams with a cold fire; pinnacles of fairy-like delicacy, elegant busts, daring minarets, extravagant mushrooms, a strange goblinesque procession, drunken and tottering, frozen in a downward march. —F.S. Smythe, The Kangchenjunga Adventure (1933)
Like military operations or supermodels, Khangchendzonga seems to inspire in chroniclers a weird mix of awe and sadomasochism. Smythe, the survivor of a 1930 expedition, described the baking sun scorching the moraines and crevasses: ‘we were like flies in the middle of a burning glass’, gasping for air as glaciers absorbed the already thin air. An incongruously ghoulish coffee-table book details with relish the first climbers’ use of inappropriate face cream for the severe UV rays, which ‘literally mummified their flesh and turned it black’, thereby inadvertently echoing Nivea’s latest Indian campaign. If it is to be believed, the mountain’s slopes are littered with frostbitten digits and the corpses of brave renegades who blundered into the snow raving about crumpets.
For the dweebier tourist, though, the mountain is more like its most famous mythical inhabitant, the yeti: sure, it’s probably murderous up close, but mostly you curse its inconsiderate unwillingness to show up for a photo. Mark Twain wrote gloomily:
I was told by a resident that the summit of Kinchinjunga [sic] is often hidden in the clouds, and that sometimes a tourist has waited twenty-two days and then been obliged to go away without a sight of it. And yet went not disappointed; for when he got his hotel bill he recognised that he was now seeing the highest thing in the Himalayas.
Or, as a Belgian we ran into put it, ‘The mountain only appears to those who really really believe in it.’ As overcoiffed retirees boasted that just yesterday they had taken Rahlly the most extraordinahry shots of the peaks aflame at sahnset honestly it made the Taj Mahal look like Boy George’s makeup box, we peered in vain into the Darjeeling cloud. Something big seemed to lurk there in the deeps, whale-like, spewing plumes of freezing rain and hail onto the grubby town every now and then—but it remained stubbornly underwater, if it was there at all.
We sailed on through the clouds in search of the great white leviathan, plunging into the little Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim. Here, Khangchendzonga is traditionally worshipped; when the peak was finally conquered by a couple of plucky Brits in 1955, they stopped a few feet short of the sacred summit in respect. It’s a shy, fickle deity, appropriately Hinduesque with its five heads. Each of these is taken to represent one of the repositories of holy power: gold and silver, gems, grain, holy books, and—I was disproportionately excited to discover, as I’m reading a wonderful book on it—salt.
Our first Sikkimese dawn, we finally caught a glimpse. Oh, it was mahvellous, darlings.
Was this a happy ending to our Quest? Well, I suppose we’re more like Bilbo Baggins than Viggo Mortensen: victory, followed by a long and far less fruitful journey back again. For the next couple of days, we waited. I courted sleep deprivation with increasingly overzealous alarm clocks and peered forlornly above K’s bulky black loins. Nothing, not even a flash of cream petticoat. Khangchendzonga still slumbered in the murky waters, dreaming of giant squid.
TO BE CONTINUED…