Just after Thanksgiving last year, I left San Francisco on a business trip to India. For a northern Michigan boy, the weather in that part of the world is normally a bit too warm and humid but November and December are not bad at all. The business part of trip was taken care of in a day or so, and then came the second reason for the trip…
A casual conversation with one of my old friends from India a few years ago about high mountain travel got the spirit of adventure flowing and we decided on the spot that we should make a journey to the ancient land of Ladakh in the western Himalayan Mountains. Both of us had spent time in those mountains years ago and we thought that it was time to try again. As the planning progressed, our wives got wind of the idea and started to be concerned that the 16,000 foot passes on the way to Ladakh might slow us down and so they suggested that we first do a trial run to about 12,000 feet to see if we were really qualified for the main event.
So in early December we left Calcutta heading north though West Bengal in an locally made Toyota Fortuner SUV. The car was purchased with our journey in mind and seemed equal to the task. We left at dawn but hit heavy traffic on the 14 hour trip to Siliguri. Another early morning departure got us quickly into the mountains where we were greeted with rain and finally a driving hail storm as we wound upward over 6,000 feet, though rolling tea plantations to the hill station of Darjeeling. We spent a day in Darjeeling to acclimatize to the altitude change before the push upward to the 12,000 peak of Sandakphu.
The Road to Sandakphu…Part I
As we left Darjeeling my friend Vijay reviewed the plan: As we drove up the highway to Sandakphu we would stop occasionally to test the effect of the altitude. The symptoms of high altitude pulmonary edema include nose bleeds, headaches, dizziness, nausea, frothy sputum and ultimately respiratory failure. The plan was simple: if any of these symptoms should occur we would make a U-turn and drive back down the road.
The first leg of the trip from Darjeeling was a delightful sojourn through lush cedar forests to Meghma, the entrance to the Singalila National Park. Soon after passing through the gate of the National Park there was an immediate change in the quality of the road. The paved asphalt was replaced by a corduroy road constructed of half-exposed boulders the size of bowling balls. We began the climb into the clouds expecting the road to improve soon. It did not!
As we reached the level of the clouds we came upon a Sherpa hut and small canteen that offered tea and “all type of foods” so we pulled over to assess the situation, while enjoying a hard-boiled egg and a spot of tea. Our GPS using Google Map indicated that we were about 41 minutes from Sandakphu. Somehow, Google Map must have thought that we had commandeered a helicopter! We had not!