The Road to Sandakphu…Part IV

A casual conversation with one of my old friends from India got the spirit of adventure flowing. In the previous installments we had skirted the ledges cut by Nepalese villagers into the sheer cliffs of the eastern Himalaya, negotiated a series of dramatic switchbacks and finally reached the hut at the summit of Sandakphu…

Very soon after our arrival on the summit the sun set and it was beautiful. The setting of the sun was accompanied by a dramatic drop in temperature which soon dropped below zero Fahrenheit. Electricity in the hut was provided by a gas powered generator but it would be turned off at 9:00PM. Neither of these developments were an issue… we had warm clothing and flashlights. The extended Sherpa family who manned the station cooked a warm vegetarian meal and we ate ravenously. It tasted great!

The lights would going out at 9:00 so we decided to retire early. I went to sleep immediately and slept deeply for about two hours… When I woke up I started to review the situation. We had just reached the summit of Sandakphu, driving on one of the most treacherous sections of road on the planet. The only way to get down was… well you know what I mean!! The handbrake would not hold the vehicle at the inclines that we would encounter. This in turn would make it nearly impossible to get the Toyota Fortuner into reverse gear to negotiate the switchbacks. It soon became clear that going back down would be much more dangerous than the accent. I drifted off…

At about 1:00AM I woke up with a start… this time thinking about a trek high in the Andes on the Inca trail in Peru nearly 20 years ago. I was hiking up to Machu Picchu at that time and remembered seeing helicopters bringing tourists up there. (In some cases they were flying at a lower altitude than I was hiking.) “That’s it!” I thought. We’ll get a helicopter up here…at least we will live to tell the tale! But what about the Fortuner? We can’t just leave it up here! I was a desperate man thinking desperate thoughts…

At about 3:00AM, I was awake again. Thoughts of doom quickly returned but then came an idea…! Our Sherpa host seemed like a great guy. He knew the Himalaya… he knew Sandakphu and the track that we needed to traverse. This was his place. Maybe we could convince him to join us for the return trip! I went back to sleep immediately.

The sun was coming up and I jumped out of my sleeping bag and look out the window of the hut. The sunrise was fantastic! I could see four of the five highest mountains in the world: Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and dominating the view, the mighty Kangchenjunga … and down below was my pal Vijay, pacing the path beside the hut. He returned soon and as he burst through the door we both exclaimed in unison, “I have an idea!!!” Vijay insisted that I present my idea first, so I told him about bringing the Sherpa guy with us a guide. Vijay thought it was a great idea.

During the night, he also woke up frequently. His idea came like this: His thoughts drifted back to boyhood and he remembered traveling in a jeep high in the mountains with his father who was also a timber merchant. Perhaps the jeep did not have any parking brake at all. In any case at each switchback his father would stop the jeep and Vijay would jump out, grab a large stone and jam it under the wheel as a chock to prevent the jeep from moving while he shifted gears manually. In this case the handbrake was not even necessary. It sounded like a great idea to me!

At breakfast Vijay called the Sherpa over to our table and explained our situation and asked if he would join us for the return trip. The Sherpa shook his head from side-to-side. Damn! I thought, he won’t do it. But then I remembered that in India the side-to-side head shaking usually means agreement! Then Vijay told me, “Yes, the Sherpa will go with us!”

We left the summit to a chorus of cheers from the Sherpa’s family and soon we approached that first seemingly endless series of switchbacks. The Sherpa motioned Vijay to stop as he opened the door and jumped out. He ran to the switchback grabbed a large stone and directed us into the hairpin curve. When we could go no further he jammed the stone under the tire and Vijay was able to shift into reverse and back upwards until the sharp curve could be negotiated on the second pass. By his time the Sherpa was running to the next switch back and was waiting when the jeep got there. He knew exactly which corner would require the stone-trick and which ones would not. He knew every bump in the road, every corner, and every person who lived along the way. Soon Vijay and were waving at people to and a bit of over-confidence crept it. This was soon removed when we tore the cowling off the rear fender in a tight spot on that narrow ledge that had been carved out by Nepalese villagers.

This trip to Sandakphu was a trial run to test whether we would be capable of what was expected to be a more difficult journey in late 2016 to Leh Ladakh in the western part of the Himalaya. It was difficult to imagine that any road could be more formidable than the Road to Sandakphu!

Richard Keldsen

San Francisco
October 2016