The Peak – Summit of Stok Kangri, India

Summit of Stok Kangri in the distance with Base Camp below

Now that we had made it to base camp at approximately 16,400 feet, the waiting began. The afternoon we arrived we were sent off on a very steep hike up the beginning of the summit trail. Our guide assured us this would actually be the most difficult part of the trek as we’d be doing it in the dark and the cold, so it was a good idea to know exactly what we were in for. It turned out to be a steep dirt trail with decent exposure, but quite doable – at least in the daylight. Plus, it appeared a flat stretch immediately followed, which would hopefully give some incentive to keep on going.

In the meantime, our ranks were dwindling. IB developed an upper respiratory infection and left to hike down to Stok Village the day after we arrived at base camp. M and M started to feel the altitude and after the delay in our summit schedule (more on that below) also decided to make the trek back rather than attempt the summit. This left J and me as the two most senior members of our band of would-be summiteers.

Base camp was bizarre. Lots of tents and any number of other groups, all with varying degrees of acclimatization. A lot of people attempt this mountain woefully unprepared.

There was a tea house selling beer and sundries – I never actually saw the inside; somehow I got it into my head that visiting it would undo everything I’d achieved in the past week and impede my chances of a summit. Such fears didn’t deter a few members of our group who came back with lots of stories about the characters they had met there – some of whom seemed to be suffering from the early stages of altitude sicknesses or else were just genuinely odd people.

Base camp was also home to a collection of toilet tents which kept getting moved to higher locations such that it was a hike even to reach them. Speaking of which, the ecosystem at the base camp is simply unsustainable. There is an entire area pockmarked with latrines  now filled in with dirt and rocks – you have the sense that at any moment your boots could go crashing through into who knew what nastiness below. Think toilet crevasses.

With that charming image in mind – what else happened at base camp? Well, the plan was to rest on day 2 (July 4) and take off about midnight that night. But the weather gods were having none of it. After our walk up the initial portion of the trek that first day there, the weather turned very on and off, with sporadic showers of what can only be described as snow pellets – small round almost gravel shaped things. I felt a long way from Florida.

The next day, July 4, did not greet us with any better weather. It was foggy all day, with intermittent snow and hail. We were supposed to be resting and there really wasn’t anything else to do anyway. We began to gauge visibility by how many horses you could see on the mountainside. In the morning we did some rope travel and crampon training but we basically didn’t move all day, and I was finally starting to feel I’d had a lot of sleep.

By mid afternoon the snow had started to accumulate on our tent and we heard that many groups had decided not to attempt the summit that night – by then you could hardly see your hand before your face. Apparently one group made a different decision and a 29 year old trekker died that night up on the mountain because they couldn’t get him down after he started to experience serious altitude sickness.

We carbo loaded that night with delicious Nepalese dumplings (momos) but with the knowledge that if weren’t awakened between 11 and 12:30 am we would not be going that night and would have to use our buffer day for the summit attempt. Camp was crowded and you could hear horse bells clanging and conversation all night but we slept anyway. At 12:20 am R came by to confirm. We weren’t going and breakfast would be at 8. It was a relief simply to know, one way or the other.

This put our departure on the night of July 5 and summit attempt on July 6, the Dalai Lama’s birthday, so we all hoped for an auspicious day. In fact, the day dawned beautifully and conditions looked great. However, we knew we were in for a long haul because we were going to have to hike out to Stok Village the same day as our summit attempt. More on this later.

That morning we hiked up to about 17,400 (1000 feet elevation gain) just to get ourselves moving. Quite steep but confidence building. Tents were nice and warm and after another huge dinner we settled in to sleep for a couple of hours before our 10:30 pm wake up, trying to ignore the sounds of the pick up cricket game nearby.

Eveyone was tense as we gathered for “breakfast.” J, S and I were in one group and the faster (and younger) climbers were in another. We’d packed and repacked our packs and slept in our base layers (for the second night) so we were ready to go. I ate one of the thick pancakes, little realizing that would be the last solid food I’d have for over 24 hours.

We trekked more or less as one group up to what used to be the high camp. If they still allowed camping there it would have made our day much easier! We then split into our two groups. We were trekking in the dark, so you couldn’t see the exposure and only felt the steepness.

After a couple of hours, we eventually reached the glacier – it truly was a relief to suddenly get to a nice flat area. But on the other side was a very steep snow and rock slope – we stopped at the rocky area, to put on crampons and harnesses and rope up. At first our guide wasn’t traversing but just forging straight up the side of the mountain – but I think he then realized we (or at least I) needed an easier S curve. Next came a series of upwardly sloping river beds (more of that pesky glacial moraine) and steep rock climbs up. There was really very little snow by that point. The air was thin, and getting into a steady rhythm of breath and step and climb and breath was critical.

The sun was rising as we approached the ridge, and there was a spot to drop our packs.  There’s a high level of trust at over 19,000 feet. For some reason I had thought the ridge would simply be an exposed path nicely meandering along the mountaintop to the summit. To the contrary, it was a series of jagged rock formations, each of which had to be climbed up or around. I could never figure out which the super steep wall was supposed to be because they all felt equally damn steep!

At a certain point S looked at his watch and we were already at 19,600 – 300 feet above our prior best on Cotopaxi in Ecuador. Somewhere along the ridge we passed the other group returning – all had summited, although they, like us, were all looking a little the worse for wear. It was now about 8 am and we’d been climbing for 8 hours. R said if we weren’t at the summit by 9 we’d have to turn around.

That gave all of us, including our two Sherpa guides, the impetus we needed.  They set up safety ropes into a series of what S called running (or free) belays, and with their good guiding skills we made our way up, by hook and by crook. We reached the summit with 30 minutes to spare. J, S, and me. About 8:30 am and all 20,187 feet of it.

Sitting on the summit

It was clear and blue and turning to cloudy. The prayer flags flapped their brilliant primary colors, sending mantras out on the winds for all to to receive. We had done it.

But, as we all know, what goes up must come down again. And what a descent it was. The adventure continued.

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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!

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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