January 15, 2018Samrat Chakraborty

Dzongri la | The best winter trek

Dzongri la

On the fringes of the vast plateau of Dzongri, away from the busy trail of Goecha la, isolated and neatly tucked within the shadows of Black Kabru, is the pass named Dzongri la (14500 ft).  An winter trek (Feb-March) to the pass involving substantial snow march, ought to be one of the most exhilarating experiences eastern Himalaya has to offer. The trek goes deep into the ecological hotspot and UNESCO world heritage site Kanchenzonga National park (KNP), offering a walk through varied terrain and diversified natural life. Lower mixed broadleaf forests, dry and brown in winter, give way to lively moist broadleaf (Oak , Rhododendron), at higher altitudes. With couple of feet of snow cloaking the ground and snow crystals of uncanny symmetry hanging down tree branches , the forest seems almost magical. Subsequently , thick and long stretch of sub-alpine conifers (Pine,Fir,Spruce) give way to alpine shrubs and grasses (albeit under a thick snow cover). Finally, the bleak, white meadows are left , and the narrow trail climbs the flanks of Black Kabru, where lies the pass. During the whole journey, you are continuously awed by glimpses of giant Himalayas peaks . From the lower jungles near Tsoka, Pandim(21952 ft) , Tinchenkhang(19700 ft), Jopuno(18475 ft) are visible. From the alpine pastures of Deorali , trekkers are struck by the scintillating view of Kanchenzonga South(27800 ft), Kabru north(24000 ft) , Dome , Frey(19500 ft) , Rathong(21900 ft), Pandim etc. Doreng meadows offer Pandim’s view up close. The final hike to Dzongri la offers detailed viewing of the black Kabru’s craggy rock fortress. To cap it all off, as the pass is crossed , clustered peaks of Frey , Kokthang (20160 ft), Rathong and Kabru sisters appear at the backdrop of the pristine Rathong valley. Evidently, there is no winter trek quite like this.

During the early winter months (Dec-Jan), the forest, meadows and the pass are often devoid of snow, but all start to change by late January. Heaps of snow, originated from the supply of humid sea air from south, cover the land. By early February the grassy meadows of Doreng are blanketed under thick layer of snow , transforming the green pastures and shrublands of summer into a ghostly white winter landscape, where nothing stirs. The approach to the pass which sees relatively less sunlight is steep, and is covered in patches by soft snow, hard snow , rock and ice. Dzongri la trek is completely safe for any new but reasonably fit trekker.

A twisted steep trail that goes all the way up to the flat col , to usher the glorious sight of a heavily glaciated upper reach of the valley, is studded with array of mountain peaks.

Trail to Dzongri la. Tips of the peaks of Frey, Rathong and Kabru north is visible well beyond the pass

Trail to Dzongri la. Tips of the peaks of Frey, Rathong and Kabru north is visible well beyond the pass

The high altitude col at 14500 feet elevation is the gateway to Rathong valley, a glacial valley which drains pristine melt waters of Rathong and a host of other glaciers. Rathong watercourse is one of main sources of river Rangit.

As you pass through Dzongri la by cutting across the ridge, the veil of mountain-wall is eliminated from view, that kept you and the great mountains apart. Across the pass, as sparkling view of the valley flanked by dazzling icy peaks of great proportions keep you gasping, a chilled northern wind (due to proximity of wide icy faces of great mountains) straight across the exposed valley hits you. It freshens you up , at the same time hints about the icy realm above the glaciers, which is dizzying high , deathly cold, brutal, unforgiving but awe-inspiring and irresistible.

What to expect:

The mean altitude gain involved is 9000 vertical feet, in this trek. You start at Yuksom (5500 feet), reach the topmost point at Dzongri La(14500 feet), through a moderately strenuous hike.  Your first camp site would be at Sachen (8000 feet), amongst rich vegetation by the river. Next day’s hike would be longer, while passing through the most promising stretch of the forest chiefly of blooming Rhododendrons. You can camp at the clearing of Fedong  (12000 feet) about where needle leaves (Pine , Fir ) thin out.  The stretch between Bakhim(9000 ft) and Fedong is expected to be under a thick cover of snow. View of Pandim and adjoining mountains is seen throughout, to the east. Beyong Fedong, trees disappear, grass and shrubs appear. From here one can feel the effect of rarefied air, causing hard breathing and quick fatigue. As the gruelling climb till Deurali (13,500 feet) brings you atop the plateau, the incredible view that you have been waiting for patiently, opens up. The high, open meadows which must be covered by a good couple of feet of snow by winter, are bleak places, at the base of the windy Dzongri pass(Dzongri La). Night time temperature beyond Fedong is expected to fall below freezing.

What to explore :

1) The East himalayan temperate forest of Bakhim (7000-9000 ft) and Coniferous forest beyond Tsoka (10000-12000 ft) are full of life, even in late winter , when the forest is laden with snow. With limited number of trekkers visiting the park (Kanchenzonga National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site) during winter , odds of encounter with wildlife is high. A paradise for nature enthusiasts, photographers, zoologists, wildlife biologists, students and interested trekkers. Most sought after place for birding, butterflying(professional/amateur) etc.  You could cross path with the curious mountain Wiesel or a confident Yellow throated Marten. Different species of pheasants (Impeyan, Blood , Kalij etc) , Satyr Tragopan , Partridges(Snow, Hill , Rufous-throated) can be seen foraging with chicks, on the insects/larvae, roots and nuts from the rich rotten dead logs and piles of leaves on the frozen ground. If you are lucky or stealthy enough you could see a red Panda, or a Mask deer. Both these are shy creatures, prioritizing privacy. I had been lucky once with Red panda, just below the village of Bakhim. Sighting of Bharal or Blueship is expected at the higher reaches especially because they descend down during winter. Elusive Snow leopards dwell the bleak high mountains, although sighting chances are understandably very low.

If you are doing the trek late winter , say during last week of Feb or first week of March, there could be a double reward waiting for you. As the mesmerising bloom of Rhododendrons take place in lower jungles , the upper snowy forest still wake up; a rare contrast to witness! Visitors move spellbound through the radiating hues of a vast array of Rhododendron species, reason why the forest is called magic forest or a garden of Eden.

2) The wind swept bleak plateau of Doreng is served as the base for Dzongri la. A camping experience here , on a sunny winter morning or during a glowing dusk , is supremely worthwhile and rewarding. The bewitching spectacle of sun’s dying rays illuminating the ice-cone of Pandim (21952 ft) at dusk, must not be missed.

3) Last but the most exclusive attraction is the view to the other side of the amphitheatre, which constitutes tens of mountain peaks of over 20000 ft elevation. Going down a little to the other side of the pass, you would see a panorama to the north-west where sits the peaks of mt. Frey, mt. BC roy, mt. Kokthang, mt. Rathong , mt. Kabru south, mt. Kabru dome, mt. Kabru north among others. Spending some time around the base of black Kabru and exploring the other side of col is advised, which would open up the view of lower Rathong valley at the bottom of the aforementioned great mountains.

A peek to the other side of Dzongri la. At the left bottom corner the terminal moraines of Rathong valley are visible

A peek to the other side of Dzongri la. At the left bottom corner the terminal moraines of Rathong valley are visible. In favourable snow conditions, a day or two of trekking to explore the valley would be supremely rewarding.

 

At Rockyfeet, we organise small batches for Dzongri la in winter. Leave a message to enquire and book your participation for 2018 February-March season.

Mountain views in Pangarchulla trek
Ichamati, a trans-boundary river

About the Author

Samrat Chakraborty
Samrat Chakraborty Naturalist, trekker, mountain climber, blogger. Been trekking and climbing in Indian Himalayas for the last 12 years. Special interests - Wildlife study, Geography; Believes in - Conservation of natural flora and faunna

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