2017 - Sikkim

Frey Peak climb


We were looking for a less traveled location to go on about a two week trek/climb with some 5 or 6 km peak as a culmination. Usually we prefer to be as self-sufficient as possible and stay away from all-inclusive packages. Sikkim caught our attention in Internet searches returning information that there are several peaks available as "trekking peaks" In general searches for Sikkim return plenty of trekking information but any climbing information is very scarce. Official Sikkim Travel site made references that for a reasonable price it was possible.

We narrowed our list to 3 peaks : Frey Peak 5830 m in Chaunrikiang valley, Tinchenkang 6010m in Thansing valley and Jopuno 5936m also in Thansing valley. Jopono got dropped because in Josh Smith report I read that upper part is very unstable shale. Tinchenkang got removed since it was the highest since initially we thought to do it all on own.

Frey Peak 5830m

Roger Payne report was the only picture of Frey Peak we had seen and it is hard to judge the scale of mountain in this angle.

We had no idea about Frey Peak other than it was rated about 5.6 US scale, mostly a rocky route which would fit our skill level. First attempts to contact trekking companies returned quotes at $5k per person for full service. That was too much for us so we looked for other contacts. Started exchanging emails with SMA (Sikkim Mountaineering Association) Kunzang Gyatso Bhutia who gave approximate prices for porters, guide and liaison officer in Indian rupees:
Porter @500/per day
Liaison Officer @15000/ per expedition.
Guide @1000/per day
Permit India 15000/
KNP fee @ 300 per seven days per person extra charge per day 50/
Environment fee 3000 per group
Tent fee 200 for seven days
Kunzang put me in contact with D.B. Chettri with whom he had previously climbed and who owns a trekking companyDesire Earth Trek and Expedition in Yuksam. After bargaining with DB we agreed to $80/per day per person for a full service package. It included climbing sherpa, guide/liaison officer, cook and porters. Also included was initial transfer from Bagdogra airport to Yuksom, hotels and meals in Yuksom and all gear for local team. We provided tent for our team, 4 long ropes, quick-draws, nuts and cams. The permitting process is convoluted but actual permits get processed only one month before the climb. The trekking company has to get permission from Interior, Tourism and Military ministries. One thing which was hard to grasp before arriving is that Yoksom although the old capital of Sikkim is really a small town at the edge of Internet There is no wired internet - only 3G mobile and not always stable. One more thing we did not think about before - satellite phones are outlawed. It is possible to bring a sat phone but only Defense ministry permit. Such permit has to be requested along with climbing permit. I am not sure if you get to come with your own phone or military would rent you one. As a result we did not have any contact with world past 2nd trekking camp. There is a radio relay from base camp but that is to be used only for emergencies.
Liasion officer is required to monitor that group climbs the correct peak at correct time and observes all religious restrictions.

Sunday Oct 15 2017. flights and airports

We fly into Delhi first. Bags are not lost and there are 2 spa/hotels which we use to sleep part of the night waiting for domestic flight to Bagdogra. They only allow passengers in Domestic terminal 6 hrs before flight. There are some guys with guns watching entrance doors but overall everything is looking clean and peaceful.

Delhi airport - in terminal next to flight to Bagdogra.

Delhi airport - in terminal next to flight to Bagdogra.

Bagdogra airport is in Bengal state next to Siliguri city. It is in plains and after meeting our driver we get in SUV and start our drive to Sikkim. Bengal looks stereotypically India. Cows, monkeys, trash and lots of people everywhere. We stop by mall and make some snack food purchases in the grocery store. Yuksom is a small town and there really are no large cities on the way. There were some small stores later on the way and we bought some local rum . There is something like border post to enter/exit Sikkim since everyone is required to have a permit to enter. We have to get some photos taken to attach to the forms. Cigarettes are semi-outlawed in Sikkim which makes Juris hide as school boy when going for a smoke. It is not strongly enforced but smoking in public is frowned upon more than in US.
Sikkim is clean and orderly

Sikkim is clean and orderly. There is significant contrast arriving from Bengal state.

The flight from Delhi to Bagdogra was 2 hrs. Then we spent 6 hrs in SUV going up a twisty road which often was crossed by recent landslides. They seem to nonchalantly just clean the landslide and drive on. Glad we are after monsoon period. It is dark when we arrive in Yuksom and have to walk some 200 m down a path to a hotel. It turns out to be significant building. Always amazed how they construct these without access roads. The hotel is called "Ejam" which amused us as in Latvian that means "Let's go"
Hotel Ejam

Hotel Ejam.

Sikkim state has special status in India since nineteen seventies when it chose to join. They were an independent country like Bhutan or Nepal but pressure from China and Tibet's destiny made rulers join India before being "liberated".

Monday Oct 16.

Breakfast at Ejam

Breakfast at Ejam.

We were put in a large room with 3 beds and slept well. We woke up with windows covered in condensation so that it looked like rain in outside garden. But opening window we saw that it will be a sunny day and these are just single pane glass windows which we remember from our childhood. Our breakfast is served in garden and consists of masala tea and pancakes. We finish everything and ask for seconds. After we are done DB Chettri shows up with another guy.

Bhutanese drink

Bhutanese drink.

We are presented with ceremonial Buddhist scarves and start checking out equipment. Tent is set up, hardware and ropes laid out. Soon conversation drifts into money since DB wants another $4200. There will be extra expense for insurance for porters and some kind of security deposit in case of rescue. $1450 we had wired to him earlier and later in his office we agree to pay $3400 more from which $500 will be deposit returned at end. We find out that there will be yaks, guides, cook, porter and each will need a $20 to $50 tip at the end.
Local religious park

Local religious park.

The rest of day is spent walking down the one street in town, eating local food, drinking and observing locals. Internet works at times and Vodafone is the more reliable carrier. There is some kind of elections and local party demonstrations proceed down the main street. Later we visit local religious park, where lake had been blessed by lamas back in 16th century when Yuksom was Sikkim capital. At night it gets chilly . We play with owners child who shows great interest in our gear. Most of our gear we give to porters so our trek will begin with half empty backpacks.

Tuesday, 17.oct.

Equipment check in Ejam hotel garden

Equipment check in Ejam hotel garden.

Today is the first trekking day. We need to finish breakfast by 8:00 am as it is agreed that porters will arrive afterwards. They show up on time but it turns out we still need to complete lots of formal paperwork. At DB's office we are surprised and excited by the huge banner which has been produced. It proudly announces international expedition to Mt. Frey with flags of three countries - India, Latvia, USA and of course proudly displays DB Chettri company name so that everyone knows who can pull off such international eterprise :) After that we take a ride in car to the other end of street which is the Kanchenjugnga park entrance. There we sign some more paperwork and finally around 10:00 AM we start trekking.

DB Chettri and international expedition

DB Chettri (on left), the international expedition and Guru Lakhpa (on the right).

After 3 or 4 of our regular 45min walk / 15 min relax cycles we arrive in Sachen camp. On the way we frequently had to sidestep to let pass horses or yaks. Shortly before camp we get intercepted by cook who has brought tea kettle with warm juice and cups. At the campsite we take one of the higher spots. They set up a separate red toilet tent as all rules here are taken seriously. We relax entire afternoon and get fed royally with 3-4 dishes per meal.
First camp Sachen

First camp Sachen with toilet tent.

A short walk back on trail leads to a point where there is cell coverage so we get texts from Guncha that he will join us tomorrow.

Wednesday 18. oct.

Guncha receives ceremonial scharf

Guncha receives ceremonial scarf.

Climb to Tshoka can be split in two parts : before the bridge and after. According to locals you only have to worry about poisonous snakes before the bridge. The trail does steep climb up the wooded slope after bridge till it finally reaches Tshoka camp. Total distance from the park entrance is about 15.5 km, elevation 2985 m. Guncha completes this in one day while Juris and I took 2 days.

Guncha cools swollen foot

Guncha cools his swollen foot in Tshoka camp.

Thursday, 19. oct.

Leaving Tshoka camp

Leaving Tshoka camp.

We had pitched tent in the main plaza and around 6:30 AM get served morning coffee. We slept good and not feeling any altitude sickness. Today we will do 7.5 km and reach the altitude of 4000 m which is 1100 m gain. The trail meanders through rhododendron and hemlock forest which reminds me of North Carolina. At some point this trail had a decently constructed wooden catwalk to go over muddy sections. In about 3.5 hrs we reach the next camp Dzongri with huts, toilets, yaks and horses. We pitch our tent and start feeling the effects of altitude and decide to nap them off . There is a little shop here where you can buy a beer and I end up buying a fleece jacket for 2200Rs or about 30$. Evening gets chilly and I previously lost my Patagonia fleece jacket at rest-stop.

Royal meals

Royal meals.

Friday, 20. oct.

First look at our mountain which is the toothy one on left side. The massive range filling right side Kanchenjugnga

First look at our mountain which is the toothy one on the left side. The massive range filling up right side is Kanchenjunga.

Today from Dzongri camp at 4000 m we need to reach an army base camp (BC) at 4500 m elevation. We leave around 9:00 am and after about 1 hr climb we leave the forested zone. Weather is perfect and we get to enjoy a panorama filled with snowy peaks. First we need to reach Dzongri-La pass at 4300 m then get down into river valley at 4000 m and cross a bridge.

Dzongri-La pass. Left side is Mt. Frey with the main glacier clinging to it on the left side.

Dzongri-La pass. Left side is Mt. Frey with the main glacier clinging to it on the left side.

On the other side of bridge we need to gain back 500m elevation. At around 3:30pm we arrive in BC where we are already expected with a served lunch table. BC surprises us with the sophistication: full with solar heaters e.i. hot water, solar panels e.i. electricity to charge our gadgets, antennas and military style barracks. There is even a heliport in somewhat uneven field strewn with rocks. This area is off limits for regular trekkers without Defense Ministry permit. Luckily for us there is nobody in this military camp and instead of pitching our tents we negotiate access to a female barrack . Unfortunately sans the females.. The barracks shoddy construction makes it drafty but we settle in on the second level and it beats getting our tent wet. Weather outside is deteriorating and clouds move in blanketing everything in a wet fog. Good thing tomorrow is our relaxation day.
Arriving in BC

Arriving in BC.

Saturday, 22 oct.

Royal breakfast

Royal breakfast.

A lazy relaxation day. Sanjay asks us to sort out our equipment. At around 2:00 pm we go to the nearest slope and practice belaying, cam placement and other basic climbing techniques.



Juris practicing with Nomics

Juris practicing with Nomics.

Sunday, 22. oct.

Trail to ABC

Trail to ABC.

Today we go to the advanced base camp (ABC). There is a vague trail following side moraine towards Mt. Frey which is clearly visible from BC. ABC location is also visible from BC if you know where to look. Climb is around 3 hrs and notably water is available only in one creek crossing at the beginning. There is a tiny trickle on the bluffs directly below ABC but water for cooking at ABC comes from a questionable puddle. The ABC is located on a glacially carved ledge . There is one rock hut/shelter and several tent spots.

ABC hut

ABC hut.

ABC was reached in good form but all of us after a while start getting altitude induced headache. We get down in about 2 hrs and headaches dissipate.
Trail to ABC is vague and follows moraine crest

Trail to the ABC is vague and follows a moraine crest. It is important to not miss the spot where moraine should be abandoned to climb a steep grassy slope.

Monday, 23. oct.

Sleeping in the female barracks

Sleeping in the female barracks.

Today is another relaxation day which we spend doing a climb up a neighboring 4800 m peak. It has a faint trail going to it as is often used for this purpose by other BC residents.

A practice peak

A practice peak.

Guncha has left us to run down to Tchoka camp to make a call home. Juris and I reach our practice peak in about 3 hrs. Route finding is at times challenging as PM clouds have moved in and at times there is total whiteout. This pattern seems to persist often. In mornings it is clear and sunny - we see clouds only far away in the valley. Around noon they start to snake up closer and in late afternoon we are in complete drizzling fog.
Traditional PM fog

Traditional PM fog.

Tuesday, 24. oct.

Puja to pray to all the gods

Puja to pray to all the gods.

Today we go to ABC with only the minimum necessary for our summit push. Our group is (list later used to calculate tips):
Sanjay – guide un Liasion officer representing the government. also DB Chettri's cousin, 27 yo, 50$;
Guru Lakhpa – climbing sherpa, recently summited Mt Everest, 38 yo, 50$;
"KGB guy" – in reality Mongol, he is Dzongri hut supervisor and also works for government. Climbing is his hobby and for us he is as “assistant sherpa”;
Cool - tiny man, who creates magic in pressure cooker, 50$;
Pem – one of porters, also cook's helper stolen by Guncha, 20$
Darjelings – kitchen boy, around 30 yo; 20$ (comes from Darjeling)
"The quiet one" – kitchen boy, youngest, 18 yp, often walks with mouth cover, also DB cousin and brother of Sanjay. 20$
P.s. 210 $ in tips +20$ 20$ more 2 yak drivers. Total 15 000 RS or 250 $ We reach the ABC and pitch our tent. It starts to snow and as the darkness falls our team setting up ropes returns (Sanjay, Guru and "KGB guy"). They are confident and we plan to get up at 4:00 AM tomorrow.

ABC tent

ABC tent.

Wednesday, 25. oct

Boulder field leading towards the main glacier

Boulder field leading towards the main glacier.

Today is the summit day. We wake at 4:00AM and at 5:00AM should start towards Mt. Frey Peak. Summit team is Juris, Santis, Guru, Sandjay un "KGB guy". After breakfast there is ritual puja with offerings of rice and burning of tree branches . We start walking around 5. Intially we continue up the glacier carved shelf which is strewn with boulders. These fields at night we barely notice but they seem to last forever on the way back. Weather is cooperating, sky is clear but the valley below us is full of clouds. After boulder fields we reach snowy glacier end where we put on crampons and pull out our ice tools. Crossing glacier we reach the wall which leads to summit . It is roughly 400 m. Some of the sections in the boulder field were somewhat steep but it is nothing compared to the main wall. We leave our snow poles down here and climb up steep glacier to the spot where a grey shale band joins the glacier. Moving with Nomics. We traverse towards right along the grey band using fixed ropes which team installed yesterday. Wall is incredibly unstable and prone to rock falls. At least in this section any rocks we launch do not fall on top of teammates. I think we went about two rope lengths till the zag back to left. The attachment point was very questionable and seemed that rocks to which were tied were held together mostly by ice. This was an ongoing issue were ropes were mostly relied on for the emotional support. Guru and KGB guy go first. Then Santis, Sanjay and Juris

Look at the main wall from the glacier

Upon arrival to the main glacier Dots mark our traverse towards left along the dark band

Traversa galā iet atpakaļ pa kreisi uz augšu

At the end of traverse zag back left and soon arrive at a snowy culloir .

The culloir leads to the ridge on the right at which leads to the summit.

The culloir leads to a ridge/wall on the right which leads to the summit.

Reaching the end of the culloir puts us on the main wall which goes straight from summit to glacier. This is as far as they had put fixed ropes. From here Guru climbs first and we follow. We have 1 full rope and 1 pullout rope. Wind starts to pick up. Higher up we start using some other teams abandoned ropes. Some of them are visibly damaged. Getting close to summit. First there is a false summit but after that there is a more pronounced ridge which leads to the real one. We can not believe that we have made it! GPS shows 5825m. The real summit is a giant rock at least some 5 m high balancing on the ridge. Nobody wants to climb up that as there is one just like that visible down on the glacier... The markings for summit are all below this.
On the steep wall which goes all the way straight down to glacier

A steep wall going straight down to the glacier . Any rocks launched higher do not stop till bottom.

The summit

The summit.

We reach summit after about 6 hrs of climbing. Going down took about 5 hrs as our energy was spent and we had to move slowly to avoid lauching rocks. This was all down-climbing as rapelling on these ropes would have been insane. There were several rock falls launched on the wall which had potential to be deadly but luckily only hit was to the helmet and none of the ropes got cut. Guru and KGB guy were going last and taking off ropes. Santis, Juris then Sanjay made it back to glacier spot where we left ski poles. There we waited for Guru/ KGB to be in shouting distance on the glacier. It was getting cold and once in a while wall disappeared in whiteout. When contact was established we started to descent as it was getting dark. In darkness we struggle to find way in boulder fields and couple times walk into loose boulder rivers. Finally we reach the shelf and see a light coming to greet us. As a big surprise that is Guncha who has returned to us along with kitched boy bringing us drinks. Kitchen boy then proceeds to go towards Guru. We make it to our tent and collapse from exhaustion excited that we made it and survived the odds.

Thursday 26. oct.

Morning arrived with sunshine. Neither of us slept well at night due to excitement. We enjoy fancy breakfast and warm in the rising sun while drying our snow covered tent . We start to go down around 8:00 AM and make it to BC in 3 hrs.

On the way down from ABC.  Color marks spot where side morain should be left to climb up

On the way down from ABC. Color marks spot where side morain should be left to climb up.

Friday 27. oct.

Walking down from BC

Walking down from BC.

Today we leave BC and plan to reach Tchoka camp. This has been amazing stay in the BC which is military/climber training camp. Our entire stay we did not see another group in entire valley. Colors have turned and valley looks more like a fall as we are leaving. In about 2.5 hrs we reach Dzongri-La pass and start dreaming what we will do down in civilization. Once we get to Dzongri camp we get invited in the KBG guy's (Mongol's) house, fed and served tea.. Heat is provided by a wood burning stove and he shows of khukris which Juris appreaciates.. As we leave a large group of Lithuanian trekkers show up which we greet with "Namastē, Hello , Laba Diena"

Mongol's arsenal.

Mongol's arsenal.

In Tchoka air is noticeably more dense. Camp is full with Indian cadets from HMI ( Himalayan Mountain Institute) going to our BC. They are impressed with our success on Frey Peak. We polish 1.5 l rum as the night goes on. This is also the first place where we can send texts to families so they stop worrying.
Kiwifruit at Tshoka camp

Kiwifruit at Tshoka camp.

Saturday 28. oct.

In the morning we enjoy the last day of in bed breakfast service and 9:00 AM leave camp for Yoksom. We chat with Sanjay and Guru and find out that what we call yaks are really a mix of yak and cow. Real yaks do not like to get below 4000m. At around 3:00PM we are down in Yoksom – in civilization and warm heat.

Thank you Sikkim and our team for a great adventure !

Prayer wheels

Prayer wheels.

All images from trip can be seen here