What happens when you try to scale the highest peak in West Bengal in the coldest week of the year? The answer is simple, you don’t, because it’s fairly impossible(and risky) to get the wheels of your car rolling in inch deep snow and you are not celestial enough to trek 30 kilometres in such extreme weather conditions. We realized this the hard way after we embarked on a 4 night trip to Sandakphu and Phalut, one of the most popular trekking routes of the Himalayas which offer an exhilarating and uninterrupted view of the mighty Kanchenjunga Range.
With temperatures dropping sharply from mid December and January being the coldest month in the mountains, with a thick blanket of snow on all sides, going to a height of 3636metre, even in snow jeeps, was an impossible task.Consequently, we had to stop midway and trek a few miles to reach the nearest village before nightfall. That turned out to be Meghma, a small village inside the Singalila National Park located at 2600m near the Indo-Nepal border and frequented mostly by the Indian army.
The following paragraphs narrate my experience of spending 2 nights in Meghma, cut off from the world outside and embraced by a sea of white, and how our initial disappointment at not trekking to Sandakphu was more than made up by a few life changing experiences in this small and unexplored village.
The night of snowfall and uncertainty
We reached the village of Meghma at around quarter to 5. With our hotel booking in Sandakphu already gone and having trekked for almost an hour in extreme weather conditions, the spirit of our group was pretty much low and we just wanted a place to stay for the night before making any further plans. First look at the village of Meghma gave us a clear indication that this wasn’t really a spot for tourists and hoping to find homestays or hotels there would be a tough ask. Our guide managed to make some arrangements with the locals and get us 2 small rooms in the back of what seemed like a stationery store. The rooms were undoubtedly small with a single window, 2 tiny beds, a table and a fire pot(yeah there was no electric heater there!).
The setting was obviously not what we had expected at the beginning of the journey, but there were not really many options there and hence, we reluctantly settled down and had some hot noodles in their small hut. It was freezing cold with temperatures hovering around zero and even with 6 layers of clothing, we were still feeling quite cold. We definitely missed a trick by not packing extreme cold weather thermals which would have served as the perfect winter innerwear to keep us warm and comfortable in those inclement weather conditions.
The good thing however, was the magnificent view of the sun setting into the snowclad mountain ranges from our windows. As the evening dragged on with our bodies trying to adjust to the cold, we heard the locals predict that there would be heavy snowfall at night, a prediction I desperately wished would come true as I had never experienced snowfall in my entire life. And thankfully, it did come 2 hours later, and even though our body was cold and numb, we couldn’t resist going out and experiencing those little flakes of snow landing softly on our head and shoulders -a sensation hard to pen down. To see the snow being dragged away by the wind and covering every remaining inch of the road and the roof, while sipping Brandy and local wines, was for me, the highlight of the trip, and definitely, an unforgettable experience.
With temperatures dipping steadily and no Instagram uploads possible in this far off place, we soon retired to our beds after a light dinner, trying to wrap as many blankets as possible to keep us warm.
The day of insane trekking
The best thing about waking up in the mountains, apart from the scintillating view, is to see the sun rising above the blanket of white, something that we never get to experience in our mundane city life. We had breakfast early and then went out fully prepared with our multiple layers of winter clothing, gumboots, hand gloves and of course, winter socks, made specifically for trekking purposes.
We wanted to conquer at least one summit of the numerous small peaks all around us, which looked so easy to climb from a distance. However, as we started walking towards them, we realized the difficulty involved due to the rough terrain and inch deep snow. With only our enthusiasm and determination egging us on, we continued trekking for hours,until we reached near the top, sometimes crawling and sliding on the snow, while at other times, stopping for pictures or a snowball fight. One of my friends also claimed to have spotted a snow leopard in the distance, which are incredibly difficult to see considering they camouflage easily with the snow. Finally, we reached the small village of Tumling which is situated at 2970m and is the 3rd highest point of West Bengal after Sandakphu and Phalut. We had steaming hot maggi at a small hut while warming our feet in the fire, which had already turned numb and sore by then. As we started our journey back to Meghma, we encountered heavy snowfall which made our progress slow but enjoyable as well. Trekking in the snow was another personal checkbox ticked for me and I still vividly remember every kilometre we covered in that magical place.
Bonfire Night in Snow!
Another memorable part of this journey was lighting a bonfire at -8°C and enjoying roasted food & drinks around it. This was arranged by our guide and the locals just after we returned from the long trek, and how they managed to get dry woods in such heavy snowfall is something I’ll never know. Nevertheless, we had a memorable fireside chat for some time until the cold became literally unbearable, and then retired to our small lodge to warm our hands and feet.
Post dinner, we went to sleep early as we were already tired from our adventures earlier in the day. Next morning, we woke up with a sore throat and learnt from the locals that the night before was the coldest night of the winter, with -17°C being the lowest temperature recorded. The sun was very warm during the day which led to the snow melting, making the trekking roads very slippery.
But we still had to trek a good few miles to reach the place where our car had left us, so that we could rent another vehicle to complete our descent to the plains of Siliguri. We started trekking gingerly on the melting ice, sliding a good many times before getting used to balancing our body weight, and finally after what seemed like hours at end, we reached our vehicle, fully drained. As we headed back to the plains admiring the beauty of these hills, the constant beep of the mobile phones was a stark reminder that our sojourn in the snowclad mountains was almost over and we would soon be back to our mundane city life.
The 2 magical nights in Meghma was a life changing experience and a huge learning curve for us, not only in terms of the hardships and survival strategies in extreme conditions, but also in terms of packing the right clothes for the winter season. While not wearing comfortable base layer thermals forced us to stuff one layer over the other to keep ourselves warm, we also lacked touch screen merino wool gloves which would have kept us warm and comfortable on the night the temperature dipped to -17°C, and we did not by any means pack the warmest socks for winter that could prevent our feet from getting numb. Additionally, we realized that we should always carry a pair of waterproof insulated winter gloves to prevent our hands from getting wet and numb in the ice, as these are specially made for men trekking in the snow.
So, the next time you plan an adventurous and ambitious trek in the snow, remember to choose both your dates and clothing carefully!
This travelogue was written by Aditya Das (his images too) of Team Kosha.
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