Stephen Alter on an expedition to the ‘great snow-covered mountain’ in search of a bird revered by the Lepcha people
Snow has fallen during the night and the roof of my tent bulges under its soft weight. Punching the synthetic membrane, I try to shake it off. The sharp cry of a fox awakened me a few minutes ago—a vulpine alarm. When I unzip the tent’s outer fly and peer into the darkness beyond, everything is white. A crystalline stillness envelops the valley. Squirming out of my sleeping bag and struggling to get dressed, I grapple with the frozen laces on my boots. Finally, when I emerge, the clouds have vanished and stars fill the sky, like hoar frost in the heavens.
My companions are still asleep but when I call his name, Bhrigu switches on a headlamp and his tent lights up like a glowing igloo. Justin, our guide, and the porters are sleeping in the cook tent, which has shrunk to half its width beneath a sagging layer of snow. I can hear them moving about and cursing under their breath but within fifteen minutes we are ready to go.
Crossing the Thangsing Valley our breath condenses in feathery plumes. We don’t need our headlamps for the starlight is bright enough, reflecting off the snow. The path is buried and rhododendrons block our route, weighed down with burdens of fresh snow. After Justin locates the trail, we start up the narrow ridge. Climbing steadily but losing our way several times, we make slow progress. After half an hour, I come upon the tracks of the fox crossing our path, a solitary line of dimpled footprints in the snow. Finally, at about 4,500 metres, we reach a cairn overlooking the valley, draped with frosted prayer flags.
The sky is already brighter and the silhouettes of Pandim (6,811 metres) and Narsing (5,825 metres) rise directly above us to the east while the broad white furrow of the valley stretches northward to the foot of Kanchenjunga, still cloaked with blue shadows. In the semi-darkness, we hear the shrill call of a snow partridge somewhere ahead of us. Scanning the slopes, I can just make out the indistinct shape of a bird working its way up a parallel ridge. A second partridge follows its mate, moving slowly over the blank surface of the mountain as if searching for something it has lost. The pied striations on its back and wings, as well as the ruddy breast and pink beak are not visible, only a dark, blurred shape. From this distance it could be almost any bird, except for its scratchy cries that squeak like an unoiled hinge.
Partridges are members of the Phasianidae family that includes pheasants, francolins and quail, as well as peacocks, jungle fowl and chickens. They are part of the larger order of Galliformes, bulky, terrestrial birds that usually stay on the ground unless forced to fly. A variety of these wild fowl occupy different elevations of the Himalaya and some of them, like the snow partridge, live at the uppermost limits of life along the snow line. Older than the Himalaya, Galliformes have been around since the Oligocene, 30 million years ago.
As I watch the partridges cross the ridge above us, the first rays of sunlight strike the eastern profile of Kanchenjunga. Unlike the famous panorama seen from Darjeeling, where a broad massif with five summits floats above the lower ranges, here on our southern approach the mountain has a distinctly different profile, tapering sharply to a single, rugged spike above a chaotic foreground of seracs and glaciers, knife-edged arêtes and saddles of ice. At 8,586 metres above sea level this is the third highest mountain in the world. Earlier, in the darkness, Kanchenjunga’s summit looked unimposing, overshadowed by nearer peaks, but now the rising sun heightens contrasts on the snow-plastered slopes that make the mountain stand out with greater prominence, as if it were elevated by light. Almost as soon as the first rays pick out its hidden features, we can see snow spume unfurling on the wind and the mountain is soon wreathed in frozen vapours.
Kangchendzönga is transliterated with a number of spellings, none of which accurately conveys the correct pronunciation of its name. In Tibetan, Kang means snow-covered mountain and Chen means ‘great’ or ‘lofty’ and dzong denotes ‘treasure house’ or a fort. Lepchas and Buddhists regard Kanchenjunga as a sacred mountain. Its name is often translated as ‘the five treasures of the great snow’, referring to the five summits, each of which is believed to house sacred elements such as gold, turquoise, salt and other precious minerals.
Lepcha and Bhotia folklore asserts that the mountain is guarded by demons who personify the dangers that await those who climb its slopes. When Douglas Freshfield reconnoitred the approaches to Kanchenjunga in 1899, he declared that the mountain was protected by the ‘demon of inaccessibility’. As Harish Kapadia relates in his Into the Untravelled Himalaya, the first expedition was launched in 1905, led by Aleister Crowley. It ended in disaster when three porters and one European climber, Alexis Pache, were buried under an avalanche. This naive and reckless foray was one of the most ill-advised and acrimonious climbs in history. Crowley was not a serious mountaineer. Though he was co-leader of an earlier attempt to climb K2, he had exhibited erratic behaviour including pulling a pistol on one of his teammates.
The first attempt on Kanchenjunga was marked by Crowley’s cruel indifference to the porters, most of whom climbed barefoot on the snow. He showed almost equal disdain for his teammates, who ultimately mutinied and set off down the mountain without him. The accident occurred on their descent. After hearing that his companions had been buried under tonnes of snow, Crowley made no effort to rescue them, but instead brewed himself a cup of tea and wrote in his journal: ‘A mountain accident of this sort is one of the things for which I have no sympathy whatever…Tomorrow I hope to go down and find out how things stand… the doctor is old enough to rescue himself, and nobody would want to rescue de Righi.’ Alcesti C. Rigo de Righi, a hotel manager in Darjeeling, survived and unsuccessfully tried to dig the victims out from under the snow with his bare hands. Crowley has been widely vilified for his role in the disaster and gave up climbing after this. Better known as a scandalous libertine, he later founded his own occult sect under the pseudonym ‘Beast 666’. Some called him the wickedest man on earth because he indulged in satanic rituals and wrote sado-masochistic pornography. Kanchenjunga is said to have its own demons, including yetis that prowl its slopes, but none of these creatures could match the abominable behaviour of Aleister Crowley.
With gloved fingers, Justin points out Kabru North and Kabru South, as well as Kabru Dome. Each of these imposing mountains stands at least1,500 metres lower than Kanchenjunga. Talung and Goecha peaks, at the head of the valley, directly beneath the summit, are now dwarfed by the magnitude of the holiest mountain in Sikkim, what the Lepchas call Kingtshoomzaongboo—the bright auspicious forehead, the sacred guardian, where ancient deities reside and from whose pristine snow the first man and woman were formed.
Lepchas believe in a terrestrial paradise, similar to the Tibetan idea of a beyul, though they call their promised land Mayel Lyang—‘ma’ is the word for hidden, ‘yel’ means eternal and ‘lyang’ is land. This is where the mother goddess, Na-zong-nyo, makes her home, somewhere in the upper regions surrounding Kanchenjunga. When migratory birds pass through Sikkim, the Lepchas believe they go to Mayel Lyang where they build their nests and hatch their young. By some accounts, this hidden paradise is synonymous with Sikkim itself, suggesting the idea of a lost, ancestral homeland of fertility and peace.
In one of many stories about Mayel Lyang, recorded by Vanya and Ajeya Jha in their Ethno-Ornithology of the Lepchas of Sikkim, a fisherman travels upriver into the mountains and suddenly finds himself in an idyllic valley. Arriving at a house, he meets an elderly couple who welcome him, offering food and shelter. The next morning, when he wakes up, the fisherman discovers two children playing outside. Puzzled, he asks them where the elderly couple have gone. The children laugh and tell him that it is them; they are the same pair he met the night before. All the inhabitants of this valley pass through a lifetime every day; from infancy at daybreak and childhood until noon, they continue ageing until midnight. With each new day the cycle begins again and in this way they never die.
According to the Jhas, virtually every bird in the Eastern Himalaya has a Lepcha name. Some are onomatopoeic like kunnyong, the great barbet that wails incessantly from the tops of trees. Other birds are identified according to their distribution. If a name begins with ‘dang’, which means hot, this indicates a lowland species, such as dang rabchil pho, a silver-eared mesia, and dang sagvyet, the black-throated sunbird, both of which are found in subtropical forests below 1,500 metres. Birds whose names begin with ‘lho’, which means cold, are found at higher elevations such as lhopeu-rentiep, the snow pigeon, or lhotowa, the nutcracker. In other cases the names are derived from the colour of the bird’s plumage. Fat nokkyok is a large brown thrush, one of several possible species—‘fat’ being the word for earth and the colour brown. ‘Chap’ means green, as in chap-fong-pho, the green magpie. Some bird names have stories attached like the female white-capped redstart, which is known as cee-bee-pho. ‘Cee-bee’ means, ‘where are you?’ This bird is said to be hunting for its mate, who drowned in a flash flood.
Lepchas believe that birds can tell time like the hornbill that flies back and forth from its nest at dawn and dusk. The whistling thrush, chamongpho, is also known for its punctuality. The first bird to call before daybreak, it is seen as a harbinger of dawn. Believed to be divine, the whistling thrush was chosen by the goddess and sent from Mayel Lyang to clean her sacred lakes by carrying away the leaves and twigs that fall in the water from surrounding trees.
But the most auspicious bird of all is the blood pheasant, sumong pho, which lives in high alpine forests above 3,000 metres. It is the state bird of Sikkim and regarded as the saviour of the Lepcha people. Sumong pho’s story begins with a great flood, when the rivers Rangeet and Teesta quarrelled and their waters rose up in the valleys, inundating the forests, fields and villages. The goddess, Na-zong-nyo, sent the blood pheasant from Mayel Lyang to protect and guide her people to safety on Mount Tendong, the only peak that was not submerged by the flood. Sumong pho the drank up all the floodwaters and restored the mountains and valleys so the Lepchas could return to their homes. For this reason, the blood pheasant is never killed by tribal hunters and worshipped as a protected species. The high altitude forests where it lives along the treeline are preserved as sacred groves.
In another myth, the blood pheasant is also said to have guided the Rangeet River along its course as it flowed down from the southern face of Kanchenjunga. Following the pheasant, the Rangeet finally reached its confluence with the Teesta, which was guided by a snake from the northern slopes of the sacred mountain. According to Lepcha lore, the rivers Rangeet and Teesta are lovers, who unite in the confluence. Their offspring are the first Lepcha people.
After our early morning climb to view Kanchenjunga, we return to camp at Thangsing for breakfast and then set off for Goecha La. By now the valley is flooded with sunlight and the snow is melting quickly. After an hour’s walk we pass Lamunay, the last camp on this route and head on up to Sungmoteng Lake. Along the way are several cairns, one of which is topped by a rounded stone the size and shape of an ostrich egg. By now the clouds have swept in and Kanchenjunga is veiled in mist, though the sharp prow-like cliffs of Pandim keep appearing and disappearing above us. As we pass beneath its hidden seracs and hanging glaciers, we can hear avalanches crashing down, as the mountain shrugs off its fresh mantle of snow. There are no trees at this altitude and only a few low shrubs like junipers and Rhododendron anthopogon, which emits a cloying fragrance as the snow melts off its rust-coloured leaves. Flocks of snow pigeons circle above us, their white wings like scraps of white paper printed with prayers that monks cast into the wind.
A number of birds keep us company along this stretch of the trail, the brightest of which are grandalas, the size of a small thrush, their plumage the colour of blue ink. With short, nervous flights, they seem to lead us up the trail. Sungmoteng Lake is wedged between walls of moraine that form a rocky barrier separating the valley floor from the higher mountains above. The water of the lake is a chalky blue in contrast to the vivid indigo of the grandala that flits along its shore. A ruddy shelduck takes off and circles overhead, as we avoid the muddy edges of the lake and scramble over scree and talus to follow the grandalas.
By now the valley has narrowed and another half an hour brings us to the threshold of the pass. Somewhere above us stands Kanchenjunga, hidden from view. Surrounded by clouds and patches of snow, the terrain seems lifeless until I see what appears to be a boulder changing shape. Two bharal rams with heavy horns are standing above the trail. Through the mist, I watch them move slowly away from us. Their mottled coats of mineral colours match the moraine. The grandalas have dropped behind and we now follow a robin accentor, slightly larger than a sparrow, its ruddy feathers blending into the russet and grey stones. The bird is unafraid of us and comes within inches of our fingers as we offer it biscuit crumbs. Other than this solitary creature Goecha La is deserted, cold cross currents of wind wrapping us in clouds.
As we return down the valley past Sungmoteng Lake, I hear a loud cackle and see a large bird darting up the slope. For a moment, I think it might be a blood pheasant. But as I reach for my binoculars, I realize that these are Tibetan snowcocks, another species of Phasianidae with grey plumage and distinct black rings around the neck. Dark vertical stripes mark their breasts and their wings are trimmed with white. Like the snow partridges we saw earlier in the morning, they do not take flight, but scurry along the ground, stopping occasionally to lift their heads and look down their beaks at us. There are two species of snowcocks, Himalayan and Tibetan, the former being somewhat larger and with slight colour variations.
Further down the valley, we come upon more herds of bharal, mostly ewes and lambs, grazing on the meagre grasses of the valley. The presence of wildlife and birds at high altitudes relieves our sense of isolation. In this harsh environment, these creatures must adapt to the scarcity of food, freezing temperatures and limited shelter. The upper reaches of the valley lie above the range of blood pheasants, though every movement stirs in me an expectation of seeing the sacred sumong pho.
After a second night at Thangsing, Bhrigu and I pack up early to head down the valley. Leaving Justin and the others to load the tents and gear onto horses, the two of us descend into a birch and rhododendron forest, draped with bearded lichens the Lepchas compare to ‘old women’s hair’. No more than a hundred metres into the trees, we are startled by two bulky birds crossing our path. This time, there is no mistaking a male and female blood pheasant. Alarmed by our approach they dart up a mossy slope, stopping for only a second or two, before disappearing into the tangle of limbs and leaves beyond. My binoculars and camera are buried in my backpack, so I focus on the pheasant with my eyes alone and recognize the streaked silver plumage of the male, flecked with splashes of red. The hen is a grey-green colour and slightly smaller.
Elated, we carry on, and soon another covey of six blood pheasants appears ahead of us. They are less shy, loitering by the trail, amidst fallen birches and moss-covered moraine, as if intentionally posing to be photographed. For at least five minutes we watch the birds from a distance of 10 metres. Their eyes are upon us, alert and attentive, but without apparent fear. The pheasants have a natural elegance, each feather perfectly groomed and heads held high, seemingly aware of their sacred status. Like our view of Kanchenjunga this morning, these birds convey a memorable, mysterious beauty. Simply by their presence they seem to lead us towards an earthly paradise.
Excerpted with permission from Wild Himalaya: A Natural History of the Greatest Mountain Range on Earth, forthcoming from Aleph. Published in the July-September 2019 issue.