NAYA KANGA (5,846m), NEPAL
The Endless Sine Curves of a Climb
(8 – 27 Dec 2008)
The 3-week adventure was to climb Naya Kanga (5,846m) in the Langtang region, Nepal, and
traverse the valley (instead of back-tracking the same route). During my last climb in Mustagh Ata
(7,546m/ 2007) in Xinjiang, China, I described the acclimatization process as painting the mountain
face - every brush swoosh going longer and higher than before. This time we turned mathematicians,
tracing sine curves along the way. On the map, our route resembled a giant quot;question markquot;. Imagine
drawing a quot;?quot; with a dancing sine wave, gently rolling over the throes of the Himalayan ranges and
valleys. There was no standalone mountain and to access any required days of trekking and
traversing the crests of the ranges.
The journey began with a public bus ride from Kathmandu to the
Langtang region. Our team comprised 5 climbers, 3 guides and a
kitchen-porter crew of 18. The 10h ride took us over winding rocky
mountain roads on dodgy tires that held up surprisingly well. Often, the
bus had to reverse and slowly maneuver its way up the slopes, with a
steep cliff drop-off to the side. A typical public bus in a developing
country, it was cramped, crowded, and over-loaded. People filled the
aisles and open upper deck. Occasionally, one would witness a shower
of food bits splattering on the windows, as passengers threw up from the deck above. The strategy to
surviving the journey was to keep one’s windows and eyes tightly shut, and sleep through the ride.
We started our 6-day trek-in to the base camp for our climb. It was a relatively comfortable trip
compared to my previous expeditions. We stayed in teahouse lodges for the first 6 days up to 3,900m,
and it was a luxury to shower and wash my hair daily. Outside temperatures ranged from 10degC in
the sun, to 2-4degC in the shade. Shower water was solar-heated and dependent on the amount of
sunshine each day. Sometimes it was chilly water, which meant a quick 5-min wash – hold your
breath, bravely expose body part by part (hair, arms, legs, torso), heart rate increases rapidly from
cold water but persevere! – before wriggling back into the same set of warm thermals.
Meals were either bought from teahouses or prepared by our competent kitchen
crew – Kumar the cook, an assistant cook and 2 kitchen helpers. There must be
a monopoly printer because all the teahouses had identical menus with different
prices. Teahouse operators even displayed tourism certificates that announced
their training in managing small lodges. While my friends loaded up on garlic
soup, fried rice and dhal baht, I often had egg noodle soup (aka instant mee)
and masala (spicy) tea or hot chocolate.
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At some teahouses, the owners
grew their own vegetables. As we
placed our orders, they would pluck
plump, fresh leaves from the plots.
One could taste the wholesome
sweetness of the organic vegetables
meal framed against picturesque valleys and mountains was such a
privilege. I savoured the fresh and unpolluted air as much as I could.
Fresh meat was lacking in the higher altitudes and there was limited
canned meat. We simply turned vegetarians for two weeks. For
breakfast, our cook would prepare rice porridge (Teochew porridge style),
fried or hard-boiled eggs and toast. My favourite was rice porridge with
Marmite and two sunny-side-ups, and I had that for breakfast and dinner
almost daily. Marmite was such comfort food, reminiscent of childhood
days. On inspired occasions, Kumar would whip up an apple pie, cakes,
cheese strudels, and pizzas. All that, over two portable kerosene stoves.
Kyanjin Gompa (3,900m) was our acclimatization point for 3 days. It was the last permanent
settlement in the Langtang valley and there was a cheese factory founded by the Swiss in 1955. Yak
cheese was produced there and sent to Kathmandu for sale. Fermented from yak milk, it tasted fresh
and cheesy with a slight hollowness and chewy texture. For acclimatization, we climbed two nearby
peaks from our lodge – Kyanjin-Ri (4,700m) and Tsergo-ri (4,984m), and rested a 3rd day. Then we
set off for base and high camps. The rest of the trip was a camping arrangement.
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They say that mountaineers are a special breed. One required the
finesse of a rock climber and trekker to skip around the scree and
rocks, the confidence of an ice-climber to kick the crampons into snow,
the lungs of an endurance athlete to last the duration, and the strength
of a gym-builder to carry loads at altitude, held together by mental
tenacity to go the distance. That was the ideal climber. I was far from
that. We usually carried backpacks of 7-10kg, comprising an extra
fleece or outer-shell jacket, drinking water, food, and headlamp. I was
typically 15min/ 800m behind my team-mates, and often without a
pack. It was quite demoralizing to see them far ahead on the next
mountain range or slope. My ever-helpful guide deemed me too slow to be burdened by a pack. He
solemnly proclaimed that I needed more fats to be stronger, and regularly took over my load. Our
porters were as impressive. They carried an average of 30-40kg each and sped ahead of us in their
mock-Croc sandals or sneakers. They could very well fit me in a basket and carried me!
13h Summit Attempt
High camp was situated in the snow at 4,900m. I shared a tent with
Joanne and the temperature inside was -4degC in the evening. Summit
day was a blessing with clear skies and
no wind. We set off before 5am for the
long trudge up the peak. It was a test of
balancing skills on crampons as we
crossed a mixed terrain of ice/ snow,
giant rocks and scree before hitting pure
snow line. It was good to be on compact
snow. Front-point, side-step, front-point, side-step, and up we go.
Daylight was breaking and our surroundings came alive.
Along the way, I munched on kit-kats and ClifBars. We clipped ourselves into the fixed rope and used
our jumars to ascend the steep slopes. We had to cross several slopes before reaching the Northeast
Ridge that led to the summit. The Ridge resembled the sharp end of an axe blade, and Joanne and I
were climbing on it without any ropes. The summit loomed ahead, alluring, teasing. 100-200m vertical
height from us and another 30min-1h climb. On either side of us, the ridge sloped steeply into the
Unfortunately, our guides underestimated the length of rope
required. It was a tedious process for them to repeatedly bring up
the ‘used’ ropes from behind, and rush ahead to anchor them. That
cost us unnecessary waiting times and also the summit. It was
1pm, we had overshot our turnaround time and there was not
enough time to haul up ropes for the last stretch. Joanne decided
to turn back and begin our descent. At that rate, we would likely
have to descend in the dark and cold. Nepali guides and porters
are known for their excellent strength and service. That afternoon,
some of our porters showed up at the base of the snow line,
Naya Kanga Expedition (PS 2008) 3
waiting with hot lime juice. We returned to High Camp at 6-7pm. Kumar had baked a cake, but our
mood was hardly celebratory after a 13h climb and a missed summit.
Ganja-la High Pass
On a normal expedition, the summit day was usually the climax. For us, it was the start of many
adventures and the expedition was just beginning. The next morning was a challenging trek over the
Ganja-La High Pass (5,120m). It was a terrain of rocks and snow, up steeply towards a narrow ridge
and pass, before descending over the other side. It took us 3h just to cross the Pass, and another 3h
to descend to our next campsite, a lovely field beside a flowing river. We moved out of High Camp
because it was warmer and better to rest at lowered altitudes. Our crew did not have enough warm
clothing it was a harsh environment camping in snow. More crucially, we were using up precious
kerosene because there was no running water and it took more energy to melt snow for water.
11h Trek in Search of Water
Sunshine and water are the source and sustenance of life. Electricity betters it. Basic needs that we
take for granted are magnified in the mountains. Our next campsite was a 6-7h trek away. We
crossed countless of mountain belts, descending a mere 50-100m every 2h before ascending again.
The hide-and-seek continued for 7h, as one’s emotions roller-coastered from frustration, anger, to
resignation and blank. And then the bombshell. The intended campsite had no water source nearby
and there was no way to set up camp. The kitchen crew had thus gone ahead to find alternative
grounds. We continued walking. The sun was setting and the prospects of trekking aimlessly in the
dark sank in. It was soon 7pm and I was desperately praying hard for a solution, for everyone’s safety
and hopefully no mutiny. In less established countries, porters were notorious for walking out on
clients or extorting money during a crisis.
From afar, we saw a beeping red beacon to signal the crew’s location. We headed towards it,
expectantly. Alas, it was not a campsite, but a landslide! We waited with the porters as some went
ahead to clear a path. Everyone was hungry, tired and thirsty. The crew had trekked since morning
with little food and no water. I had only two muesli bars and one kit-kat for the entire day. We shared
the remaining of our drinking water with some of the guides and porters. Silently we trekked in the
dark, mentally prepared to walk through the night if necessary. I had no idea where we were, except
that we passed various scents – juniper fragrance filled the air, followed by crisp pine. No water
source in sight. At one point, we passed a deep puddle of water amongst the roots. The crew thirstily
crouched around and drank from it.
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We reached a used campsite and rested. There was a makeshift shed, someone lit a fire and we
crowded around it. The kitchen crew had ran ahead to scout for water. Finally, news returned that
they found water an hour from the campsite. With great relief, we pitched a giant dining tent for 5 of us
to sleep in. As we settled down and prepared to sleep, our remarkable cook produced piping hot
thermos flasks of tea, popcorn, tomato soup and pasta. At 1am! We were speechless.
The rest of the expedition involved relatively easy but long 6-7h treks into villages as we made our
way out of the Langtang valley and finally back to Kathmandu. It was an eclectic city, the colourful
Thamel stretch overflowing with shops and touts catering to tourists’ whims. Power cuts had
increased from 2h to 8h each night compared to when we first arrived. The supply of hot showers was
questionable depending on where one stayed. Food options were plentiful, ranging from cheap local
meals to pricier international cuisines. Even so, I was starting to miss the comforts of home and
Singapore hawker food.
Every expedition, I would mentally bemoan the associated hardships and lack of creature comforts.
Yet after days of urban recovery, I would eagerly look forward to the next trip. Would I gripe? Sure.
Would I do it again? You bet. Bring on the climbs!
Online photo album:
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