A trip to Sandakphu
I have been to Sandakphu many many times. The last time was when my daughter and I went there during Christmas in 2007. Several times since between I have walked that familiar trail, once with my inseparable Himalayan comrades Swapanda and Subratada, once with a group of children from one of the mountaineering clubs of Calcutta.
The first time was however in 1982. We had just passed the MBBS exams and had started our internship at the Calcutta Medical College. Six of us decided to trek to Sandakphu. It was not a very common route then, it had just been popularized as a trek route and the Youth Hostels association of Darjeeling used to rent out rucksacks and sleeping bags to those who ventured there. There was a very active warden of the Hostel, whose name unfortunately completely escapes me now, who was a very encouraging figure and must have been instrumental in sending many young men and women to their first adventure.
The idea was Aruni’s. Aruni Sen was a livewire who was always doing something. He was extremely popular and rightly so, as he was always enthusiastic and ready for anything at any time. Fatty (Amit Bhattacharya) was the next member of our team. Fatty was always laid back, relaxed but always confident and ready to work hard, in the wards or at play. Kaushik had a problem with heights, under the circumstances, it was brave of him to come along and he walked the narrow trails with no obvious discomfort. Monojit was a more retiring type. He was not at all the type of person one would expect to be adventurous and daring, but he signed up with a flourish. Rajat, better known as Saha Babu, probably so anointed by Aruni, was always animated and used to burst into laughter at the slightest provocation. Probably he still does. I have not met him for ages.
We set off from Darjeeling with our hired equipment and stayed at Manebhanjan. It was then a small village, today it is much bigger but still retains the charm of a wayside Himalayan village. The first day’s walk took us, huffing and puffing to Gauribas via Tonglu. On a later occasion I have had the privilege of sitting in Darjeeling with a friend of mine who grows some of the best organic tea in the world at Tonglu. At that time, it was relatively a smaller place, now with increased tourist and other traffic it has grown a lot. On the way we shed Amitava, another classmate of ours, who had joined up for a lark . He started the trek at a very fast pace, out walking the locals in his enthusiasm. However this led to disaster as he suddenly felt ill and out of breath. Poor Aruni had to go back with him to put him in with a group that was travelling back to Manebhanjan..
We put up in Gauribas with a local family. There were only four beds, so Aruni and I placed our groundsheets on the floor and slept comfortably ensconced in our sleeping bags. In the course of the night we began to feel extremely cold, disproportionately so, but we put it down to the damp from the floor, after all it was January. However we were woken up very suddenly by Saha Babu who was desperately trying to open what seemed to be jammed door. Looking out of the window we realized that there had been snowfall during the night and the snow had blocked the door. For all of us, sons of the Bengal plains, it was the first encounter with snow. We had seen pictures, read about it, but here was the real thing! We were thrilled to bits and tramped all over the snow like schoolchildren.
However the snow also made it impossible for us to go on any further. We were all wearing ordinary canvas shoes and these were not waterproof. Our socks soon became wet and as we were not so far removed from our Surgery final exams, visions of trench foot and frostbite began to rise ominously in our imaginations. A conclave was called and it was decided to abandon the trek and go down to Rimbick. This walk was through a lovely forest, My daughter and I used the same route when we walked down in 2007. The snow fell for some time, later it turned to rain and soon stopped altogether. When we reached Rimbick we were pleasantly surprised to find that one of our seniors from the Medical College had recently been posted to Rimbick as a Medical Officer. He found us comfortable beds and the next day we were back to Darjeeling, a little woebegone, but still very happy that we had walked through snow, actual living snow! I have trekked through many icefields since, climbed up the Tentu Pass in deep snow , crossed any number of snow bridges and on one occasion been trapped by snow in the slopes of the Stok Kangri in Ladakh, but the memory of the snowfall in Gauribas has remained an endearing one.
I first actually got to Sandakphu only ten years later with a group of school students whom I was escorting, the Kanchanjunaga from its height is a sight that one must see at least once in one’s lifetime. I have since visited it twice more, the last as I said with my daughter. That too was a great trip, crisp, cold, marvelous views and a great walk down the thick forests to Rimbick.
I wonder when we will go again? Maybe all six of us can try to complete the trek that we failed to way bacjk in 1982, all of 27 years ago. Amit, who now lives in England, sent me some photographs of the trip. This started off this thread of memory which I am sharing. Hey Amit , Aruni, How about it? Can we set up a walk up to Sandakphu sometime? Middle aged perhaps a trifle thick waisted, but I am sure we can recover memories of our trip so many years ago.