The Trek to Base Camp, Stok Kangri, Ladakh, India

The High Pass

When I last left my readers, we had camped at both Shang Sumdo and Shang Phu. Day 3 of our trek, which went over two passes to Matho Phu, was reputed to be the longest and most difficult, barring summit day itself. (Spoiler – summit day was immeasurably harder!)

We were forewarned, but that doesn’t mean forearmed! Three of our ten trekkers had been suffering mightily from an array of ailments, but that day one of them made an absolutely miraculous recovery that lasted him the rest of the trip. Some might credit the antibiotics he had, but I like to believe it was really the chewable Pepto Bismol tablets I was dispensing.

The food created on this trip was remarkable. Carbo loading occurred practically every meal. The night before our long day we were fortified with noodles, potato pancakes, spinach with cheese. The prior night was curry chicken and a tomato cilantro soup. Each dinner started with a thin soup – part of the anti-dehydration technique. Breakfasts all included porridge, followed by pancakes or eggs.

At Shang Phu, I actually slept fairly well for a night in a tent. Our guide R’s promise of the beauty of the hike over the passes was borne out. We gained a lot of altitude on gentle undulating paths, now leaving behind the brown serrated mountains and hiking between green meadow mountains. This is apparently where the horses go to graze when they aren’t escaping back to their villages (as they are apparently wont to do on occasion). At a certain point the trail changed to steep switchbacks going up to the Shang La pass at 16,300 feet. Many small wildflowers between the rocks – periwinkle blue, lavender, and a tiny pink and white one. The color yellow was everywhere. S, whose professional research involves the plant rodiola, even found its cousin here. Speaking of which, double doses of rodiola are apparently not a good idea at high altitude.

After lunch, in a grazing meadow following the big pass, we trekked to the second, lower pass. Frankly, I thought it was harder than the high one. After a climb up, we traversed along numerous, narrow dirt ledges with serious exposture. All I could look at was where my foot would go next – no up or down glances for me! Plant uphill pole, step, repeat.

To top it off, we then reached a fast flowing river crossing where R had to place stepping stones to help everyone across. From there, we were blessedly off the ledges, across a meadow (where a flock of sheep were in a pen), and finally up a last hill to our camp site (Matho Phu at 14,435 feet) and a welcome dinner of eggplant, egg curry, and rice.

We had one more night on the trail before we arrived at Stock Kangri Base Camp, at a campsite called Smankarmo, a little lower at 14,370 feet. The day was slightly easier – we started with a long traversing uphill to a pass (Matho La) as high as yesterday’s. The trek was gradual, so you didn’t realize how much altitude you’d gained. There’s nothing like the high – literal and figurative – you can get at 16,000 feet. It’s gotta be the dopamine.

Following a 2000 foot descent, we veered off the trail to a meadow worthy of the Hobbit. As we’d made our way back to the green stone mountains again, the grass was particularly refreshing. After a long lunch break, we finished the descent- this one was steeper and yet another stepping stone bridge had to be constructed. The campsite had a beautiful view, but for the very first time we had to share it with another group.

Dinner at Smankarmo was a version of a Scotch egg – but instead of sausage, the egg was wrapped with fried potatoes. It apparently reacted well with my sleep schedule – I managed to sleep from 9:45 to 5:15, a record so far.

The trek to Base Camp had quite a few steep sections but was much shorter than we’d expected. J and I reached a collection of prayer flags and just assumed we were at a pass with hours left to go – but no, we were there. About 16,400 feet high – we were at our home for the next three nights.

Next up – life at Base Camp – and the Summit!

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Days 1/2 – The Stok Kangri, Ladakh, India Expedition

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This series of blog posts starts in medias res – right in the middle.  Since it’s the trek itself that I’ve been training for – why not start there and circle around to the rest of the trip later? If that technique was good enough for Homer in the Odyssey, it’s good enough for me. I’m writing this during 2 hours of free Wi-Fi on Emirates somewhere over the North Atlantic, although it’s going to be uploaded later.

I could start with a rundown of current and various minor injuries from the trek, which range from multiple bruises to swollen numb feet – but instead I’ll start with June 29, a Friday and the first day of our trek. We were awakened about 4 am or so at the Hotel Mogol in Leh by a family that apparently felt everyone around them should also participate in their departure from Leh. I couldn’t help but think where they would fit in on the Wheel of Life we’d been studying at a monastery the day before.

Our group of ten started with a drive to the very large Thiksey Monastery. It’s perched on a hill and consists of many white and orange buildings. Monks and nuns in their ancient red robes come and go; odd contrasts between their garb and the vehicles they are driving. The temples date back to the 1500s; the oldest contains a very serene Buddha that glowed in the dark setting. Another more recent temple houses a huge Buddha of the future surrounded by colorful Tanka paintings – many monks and nuns paying their respects.

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Back in the cars for a drive through the valley to our first camp. At first on paved roads; then a sharp right into an unpaved road through yet another valley. Rose/green stone mountain walls on either side reminded me of the striation in the Grand Canyon. Suddenly the road improved a bit and we turned into a meadow, separated into several areas by stones, with the brown/green/rose mountains surrounding us on all sides (Shang Sumdo, 12,467 feet). When the sun comes out, the mountains glisten, reflecting the tufts of green in the meadow and the high, pink flowering bushes that line the campsite.

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The pack horses arrived with their three “horsemen” and wandered around the campsite, bells jangling like a carillon.

What is the set up, crew and tents, you may ask. There are two toilet tents, basically canvas walls surrounding dug out latrines (one with a commode perches over the hole); a kitchen tent, dining tent, and sleeping tents. The kitchen staff consists of a Nepalese father and his three sons who are learning the trade (the food was fantastic), 3 Sherpas (2 Nepalese including one who has climbed Everest 3 times, and 1 from Darjeeling). We have an extra Sherpa due to the calamities that had befallen our group before we even set out – but more on that later. That’s part of starting in medias res! Ages of our fellow trekkers range from 27 to 61.

After we established ourselves in our tents,we took a “gentle” acclimatization hike. It turned out to be an extremely steep climb up loose dirt and rock to 13,467 feet. Then we did a little bit extra at the end without packs. Feeling very good with acclimatization.

Tea and biscuits follow at 4, with dinner at 7:30, which is apparently early for India.

First nights in a tent are always hard and it’s remarkable how things go missing in such a small space. The night included a horse bell clanging (one horse had to wear a bell all night although they were removed from the others), and a braying wild donkey that practically walked into our tent. The next morning it tried J’s coffee when he left his cup sitting outside.

Tea and coffee are brought to the tents at 6:30 am, warm water at 6:50 and breakfast is at 7:30. I managed to spill my tea in the tent immediately and was punished by having to travel with two wet towels for the next few days.

The trek on our first real day started on a road with a gradual rise. We passed an Army training camp where we saw a class being taught – it is very clear we are near disputed borders and there’s a strong military presence. We walked by the little village of Chang, a striking white monastery up on a hillside, fields of green barley and yellow mustard. Then we hit what I affectionately refer to as a river bed death march, although it’s technically glacial moraine where you have to pick your way over rocks of all varying shapes, sizes, and colors. Little did I know how well I would get to know glacial moraine on this trip!

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We eventually made our way to a lunch spot – an enclosed stone area with a shrine in the middle of it, ornamented with what looked like burned yak skulls. Our guide, R, immediately lit a butter lamp. We are completely alone on this trek. We’ve seen no one but locals (and very few of them).

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After a long lunch to wait for the horses to catch up and go on ahead of us, we were back on the trail, steeper, and you could start to feel more altitude. Suddenly we were at a meadow that was to be our next campsite, Shang Phu (14,380 feet). There was a shepherd’s hut where some small items were sold, but nothing else but  incredible views of layers of mountains, sun glinting off stone.

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20,000 Feet of Fear – Stok Kangri and Other People’s Blogs

IMG_0069We leave for India, more specifically Stok Kangri, in just under 4 weeks and it’s time to stop. Time to stop reading other people’s blogs and trip reviews.

You know you’ve read too many over the top accounts of bad weather, deep snow and almost vertical walls when you find yourself repeatedly googling whether the steepest gradient is really 40 degrees (according to the one and only detailed trekking guide I’ve found) or 75 degrees (according to anecdotal accounts by multiple trekkers at varying levels of inexperience). The next clue you’ve gone too far in internet research is when you start googling all the mountains you’ve previously climbed for comparison purposes to see where they rank in this doubtless highly imaginary world of guessing gradients to try to determine if that will give you a clue as to whether you can do this. And that is followed by a good dose of wondering just how good your training can actually be when you live in Florida and a feeing you better rapidly add even more stairs to the stair climb in the office, not to mention increase the distance of your runs.

I guess fear can be a great motivator – for a bit. But I think I’ve hit the point where reading more about this trek/climb is about to backfire. I need to spend these few last weeks getting my head ready to focus on the present moment and the here and now. That’s what it’s going to take get up that mountain. One foot in front of the other; one at a time.

It’s the opposite of the planning and strategizing and analyzing I have to do in my day job lawyering. Sure, there are the logistics – the gear check, travel arrangements, picking out your GU selections – those are fine. But trying to psych out the mountain beyond a certain point – that’s no good. On a trek, typically the guides will not even tell you what the next day holds until the evening before. I’ve figured out the reason for that. You need to focus on where you are and what you’re doing – not where you’re going to be and whether you can make it.

Right now should be a yoga practice. I need to take the space created on the mat…and let that sense of the present be my guide for these last three weeks. And not read any more first hand versions of “how I survived Stok Kangri.” Namaste.

Thanksgiving Reflections on a Blog (and Summits)

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When I started this blog in April 2014, I regarded it as a quick and easy way to update friends, family, and colleagues about husband J’s and my plan to climb Russia’s  Mt. Elbrus (the highest mountain in Europe) that summer. I figured the blog would be, at most, a six month phenomenon. Little did I realize – that some three plus years later – I’d still be writing it.

It doesn’t really matter how many people read  it. But the fact any read with interest is more rewarding than if I just scrawled my entry into a spiral notebook and placed it under my bed in the hopes that  someone would possibly discover – or reject – it after I’m dead.

Because the truth is – I always wanted to be a writer. In the second grade I announced with great conviction to my teacher that I wanted to be a poet.  (I was definitely one of those weird, creepy kids.) Mrs. Bell, my second grade teacher, gave me a special lined note pad on which I could memorialize my 4-6 line rhyming poetry, much of which had to do with fish because so many words rhymed with it.

Somehow this all has related to the summit and mountain climbing theme that led to the tag, “steps, stairs and summits.” The reality is that my life isn’t interesting enough to have a steady stream of fascinating travel and climb blogs. I have to spend an inordinate number of hours at a tedious and stress filled occupation to be able to afford just a few weeks of all that each year. And believe me, that is nothing you want to read about on a regular basis.  But somewhere and somehow I’m trying to find that summit high and dopamine filled place each day, whether it be a yoga class, planting the garden, or climbing up and down the fire staircase in my office building.

The last few weeks have been particularly revealing. I have had up to three days a week where nary a bit of training takes place. And all I can think about is how the hell am I going to get up a 20,000 foot mountain at what will then be age 57. But in the midst of this I do get to experience some new world orders that are summits of their own.  Professionally, a career that’s become a 24/7 calling due to the wonders of technology, where social media casts its shadow of surmise over nearly everything.  Personally, the wonders and perils of modern medicine and relatives and friends who grow ever older.  And contrast that to the statement of one of my daughters who proclaimed I couldn’t possibly understand something she said simply because I wasn’t a millennial.

These things aren’t particular to me. A lot of us face these and graver issues this Tranksgiving Day.  There are summits somewhere in all of this; I just need to learn where to find them. And yes, that is a photo of Mt. Everest, taken from Kala Pattar, at the top of this post. There’s plenty to be grateful for.

The Man in the Mist – Mt. Jefferson

We’ve all been there. That one thing that keeps you powering on, even when your legs and your mind say this is a really dumb idea.

For both J and me (and maybe daughter A and her boyfriend N – although i haven’t asked them) the man in the mist on Mt. Jefferson in New Hampshire’s White Mountains did just that.

It had taken us forever to find the trailhead, which seemed to veer off of Google maps onto some narrow dirt road. And once there, the hike up the rocky, fog-laden trail was more uncomfortable than awe inspiring. The one overlook was a bleak landscape of grey fog, with none of the autumnal offerings we were hoping for.

We’d just encountered a miserable family of four – two parents, two kids – one of whom was scampering up the rocky cliffs like an energizer bunny while his older sister wept below and threatened mutiny if forced to go further.

We knew we were near the top, but we were still in the fog, The goal was starting to seem less and less significant. A was making serious queries about the rationale for further climbing.

But just at that point – looking for all the world like an older Jamie from Outlanders – a figure emerged through the mist. In a vaguely European accent he said it was no more than 20 minutes to the summit and he  had already come through the pass from the next mountain, which he summited already that morning. At that point, it was only the fact we’d all collectively seen him that reassured us we weren’t having individual delusions.

So we kept on climbing. It took us another 45, not 20, minutes but we got there. Sometimes it just takes a man in the mist. J claimed he was the spirit of adventure. Something most of us don’t get enough of in our lives.