Anxious and nervous, my wife and I landed in Leh in mid June to attempt Stok Kangri summit. It was the sort of feeling that creeps in when a big exam date starts getting closer. Despite of all the preparations, the thoughts of everything crashing and burning spectacularly dominate more than anything else. Well, at least for me, that’s always been the case.
Of all the things that could ruin the trek for us, the worst would’ve been acute mountain sickness. Of course there were other possibilities but I’d rather not talk about them. There were banners everywhere from the airport, the hostel, restaurants and cafés highlighting the symptoms of AMS and potential remedies. One of them being, taking the first flight out. We did experience some of those symptoms in Leh but overall we were comfortable.
We met our guide the same day we landed to go over the trek details. Once he realized we didn’t need as many days to acclimatize (recommended is two full days after landing in Leh), we decided to start the trek a day earlier than planned.
This was to be a 5 day trek, with the summit attempt on day 3. If everything went well we’d be back to Leh by the end of day 5 to brag about our achievement else, well, we tried not to think about the ‘else’ part of it.
Day 1, the beginning
We split our luggage into two parts. One backpack with the things we’d need for the trek and another with everything else. We kept that one at the hostel reception since we were staying at the same place after the trek. We also had a small day-pack for things like trail mix, water bottles, sunscreen etc which would also be used on the day of summit.
We were picked up from the hostel at 8:30 AM and reached the trailhead, located in Stok village, in about 30 minutes. Out of curiosity, we asked our guide which of the peaks we could see out of the car window were we attempting. He said, with a rather impish smile: the highest one you can spot. After spending another half an hour doing the prep work and a cup of team, we started the trek. The company would consist of Gyatso(the guide), Rigzin(the cook), the two of us and a few, rather docile, mules.
Both the camps on this trek were located near a small stream, that runs down from one of the many glaciers that surround Leh. The stream is a part of the larger tributary feeding into the Indus river system. The trail almost always ran close to the stream, sort of tracing its path back to the originating glacier. Vegetation was sparse, mostly non existent. Steep mountains on both sides gave the valley quite an ominous feel. It reminded me of the old movies based in arid Afghan mountains with an ambush sequence where horsemen would pop out of nowhere and surround a valley from all directions. Nothing like that happened, but I did get to experience being in one of those valleys. Mountain faces were sharp, jagged and would jut out like sharp knives. The trail carefully meandered around these, all the while ensuring that the stream was in sight. This was unlike any other place we’d been to. Barrenness was absolute and yet, everything seemed refreshing.
About three hours in, we crossed the first patch of snow, not quite as clear as we’d expected at this altitude, but we were happy that we were getting close. We started donning our jackets and gloves because even mild drafts of wind were getting rather uncomfortable to bear.
In another hour or so, we reached the first camp, called Manokarma at 14272 ft (4350 m). Fluttering Tibetan prayer flags across the poles nd welcoming faces greeted us. We’d taken 2 breaks in this leg and didn’t have to exert too much. The last 20 minutes were unexpectedly tiring because of thin air. We were pretty satisfied with the time we covered the distance in and wanted to take a well deserved nap.
Gyatso promptly shot down our nap plans, and instead asked us to go on a short hike around the camp. This was to help us further acclimatize to the higher altitudes we were going to attempt in next few days. There were about 4 trails heading off in different directions and we picked one at random. The sun was up there in its full glory while the clouds constantly tried to cover it up. The resulting shadows on the mountain faces were bringing out different shades of brown, red, pink and colors I don’t have enough vocabulary to describe.
You can probably make out some contrast in these pictures, but trust me, it don’t come anywhere close to the real experience. It was the natures way of proving that there are no dull colors. There was not a speck of green on the distant mountain faces but they looked mesmerizing nevertheless. We let our minds digest the vivid display of colors and tried to acknowledge the environment we were part of.
An hour later we were back at the camp, still enjoying the views, watching the mules roll around in dirt, having hot tea, reading, taking down notes and talking to a few other folks heading up the base camp. Some of them were into mountaineering since a long time and had summited a lot peaks in Nepal and India. We exchanged contact details and got a good number of recommendations for our next trek.
After an early dinner, we snuggled up in our sleeping bags and dozed off. Turned out we had really good sleeping bags, so much so, that I woke up an hour later finding myself sweating profusely. Had to shed a lot of clothing to be comfortable again. I woke up a few time gasping for air and feeling disoriented. It took a while to realize where I was, then I slept again and repeated the cycle few times till it was morning. It was cloudless, star studded night. One of those moments where you really want to have a good camera and those nat-geo-worthy photography skills. I contended myself with capturing a mental picture.
Day 2, base camp
Woke up early next morning to find slight snow on the ground. It was a cloudy and cold day. We hoped for the clouds to drift off so we could get some good views on our way to base camp. Based on our performance on day 1, Gyatso expected us to reach the base camp in about 2 hours so he didn’t rush in the morning. We had a heavy breakfast, tea and started off towards basecamp at 9:00 AM. The shorter distance was to be covered with a relatively higher elevation gain, about 2,000 ft. There was a gradual but consistent elevation gain in this leg. We could see ourselves rising above the valley and the snow line nearing us. The snow patches became more frequent and larger in size. Oh, and we saw a group of marmots peeping out curiously from their burrows.
The last 20 minutes climb to basecamp was quite steep and strenuous. Each step was turning out be noticeably difficult and I could sense lightness in my head. You can’t really train for high altitudes, so the only way to get anywhere close it to be physically fit and hope for the best.
We reached the base camp at 16,322 ft (4975 m) in a couple of hours. Again, we wanted to take a nap (at 11:30 AM) but Gyatso was quite dictatorial about not letting us do that. Same instructions this time too. Walk around and do short hikes to get used to even less oxygen on the next leg. We met a group of people who were attempting the summit that very night, rather, early next morning (1:00 AM). Their only concern was the weather, that had not cleared up yet. It was still cloudy but it wasn’t raining or snowing.
We spent the day walking around, reading, eating and taking notes. One of the sherpa’s dog decided to accompany us in one of our hikes.
I finished The Three Musketeers that evening. By this time, there was a perceptible difference in the effort we were putting in to do even smallest of chores. We were talking less, drinking more fluids, getting anxious from time to time and just spending more time trying to understand what our bodies were telling us. Tasks like filling up water bottles or getting into the sleeping bag started needed more effort than usual. Put it other way, the effort was the same but since the body has less oxygen to do those tasks, the muscles got tired quickly.
After a quick dinner, we were finally allowed to sleep. I was having a disturbed sleep again and woke up at 3:00 AM to some noises outside the tent. The folks we’d met earlier were starting their summit attempt and it was raining pretty heavily. Amazingly, the sky right above was clear and I could see the milky way quite clearly. There was a lot of commotion going on since it was a large group, about 10 people. I went back to sleep shortly after the clouds engulfed the remaining sky.
Day 3, advance base camp
We woke up at 6:00 AM to find the entire campsite and all surrounding mountains covered in snow. There was dense cloud cover and it kept snowing for another hour. Here’s the same picture as before to give an idea.
By 8:00 AM all the snow had melted off but the clouds still loomed over. We were supposed to go till the advance base camp and return to the base camp. If all went well, we would start at 1:00 AM the next day for the summit. This practice run was for further acclimatization and for the guide to judge whether we’re really ready for the summit. Apparently, a lot of people (or their guides) realize that its the end of line for them while going till the advance camp and end up cutting out their summit attempt. The path to summit requires trekkers to take the same route till advance base camp and then continue further.
It took us about 2 hours to reach advance base camp and around an hour and half on the way back. The first 40 minutes were the most challenging as it was a narrow, steep, gravel track with sharp fall. We stopped a couple times to catch our breath but made it without any major issues. Got some words of encouragement from our guide that helped boost our confidence even further. It was embarrassing to watch how effortlessly he was walking.
We reached the base camp just in time for lunch and were pretty happy with our performance. We realized how much better we’re feeling compared to the prior day when we’d just reached the base camp because of all the walks and paying heed to Gyatso’s advice. The light-headedness was gone and we were feeling more comfortable.
Had early dinner and went to sleep at around 6:00 PM since we had to start for the summit at 1:00 AM. We recalled the stories we’d heard from the folks back in hostel and from Gyatso about so few people actually making it to the top. We couldn’t comprehend why it was such a big deal. Yes, you guessed it. We were grossly mistaken about what was in store for us and the mountain reminded us who’s the boss that very night.
Day 4, summit
We woke on time and realized it was snowing out there with quite strong winds. Gyatso assured us its nothing to worry about. On the contrary he said it was a good thing because snowfall and rains tend to keep the temperature in check. Clear skies tend to be the coldest. Its not like we had a choice anyway. We started exactly as planned, at 1:00 AM. The first stretch that took us around 40 minutes less than a day earlier, now took an hour and half. This was the first indication that things are not going to get any easier, but we were hopeful because hey, we’d been till the advance base camp, and how bad could it really be right? Like you wouldn’t even imagine.
The real misery started just after we crossed the advance base camp. For the next hour, we were navigating a non existent trail on top of a rocky plateau. It was like this place was the bed of a large stone quarry. There was no real elevation gain but it was the sort of walk where its imperative that you keep looking down for each and every step. Else you run the risk of tripping over and falling face down on loose, sharp, jagged rocks. It was still dark with constant snowing. This was the first time when the feeling of why-am-I-really-doing-this hit us. But since it was the first time it had happened, we quashed that tiny voice and moved on.
Once that patch was over, we spend another half and hour to cross the only glacier on the way. It has a few crevices but we were following Gyato’s footsteps pretty closely. The snow was soft enough for a good foot grip and we were on the other side of the glacier pretty quickly.
The real elevation gain started once we’d crossed the glacier. It was the first time we could see an endless, intimidating wall of snow towering in front of us. We were hopeful that there might be some “easy” way around it. Gyatso turned around and told us, pointing at the top of the wall and towards the mountain shoulder, that we had to reach there next. Since we were still below the cloud cover, all we could really see was dark clouds on top of us and our guide telling us to reach for them ! We were already about four hours in and were trying hard to follow one advice every single person had given us: Do not stop walking. For the next two hours, every step was into knee deep snow with at least a gradient of 70 to 80 degrees. We fell, slid, used our ice axes, cursed ourselves and each other, had existential thoughts and that tiny voice that we were able to silence easily was now a blaring noise in our heads, telling us to turn back. In all the treks I’ve done, this was, by far, the worst leg, ever. I’d never felt more frustrated. The snow was consistently hammering down, winds didn’t abate a bit and Gyatso kept screaming at us to move on whenever we stopped.
In less than an hour of starting this leg, we saw one of the groups who’d started before us on their way back. Their guide shared a few words with ours and they carried on their descent. Gyatso told us that they’d reached the shoulder and couldn’t go further. For the first time, we thought about cutting down on our goal and maybe doing the same. The shoulder became our final destination from then on. Slowly, random thoughts faded away, the entire focus was on the next step. Mind, body, soul. All aligned to achieve one common goal. Take. The. Next. Step. It helped, we calmed down and encouraged each other from time to time to keep going. The mountain decided to have some mercy on us and it cleared up the weather a bit. We made it to the shoulder and lay flat on one of the few rocks not covered in snow. This was the first time we could see the other side of the mountain. On one side was the glacier and the snow wall we’d just climbed and the other side, endless string of mountains fading away into the horizon without the slightest hint of snow. These belonged to the Zanskar range.
We had a few chocolate bars, drank a few packs of juice and Gyatso popped the question: What do you guys want to do?
He told us that the next leg is going to be the most dangerous one, we’ll practically be on the edge of the ridge for next 3 hours to get to the peak. Saying that there were steep falls on both sides would be an understatement. We literally had two different mountain ranges on either side of the ridge. We were exhausted and skeptical. But he said one thing that I’ll always remember: Your bodies gave up a long time back, it’s just a matter of willpower from now on.
We decided we’d go ahead and he tied the three of us with a common rope and started the final climb. We met the second group who were on their way down from successfully completing the summit. This was a good sign and provided a shot of encouragement. We spent almost equal time on both sides of the ridge. Whenever the slope got too risky on one side, we’d switch over. When it was equally bad, we tried not to focus on taking the step while blacking out the background.
Two and half hours later, we couldn’t believe actually made it to the top. Clouds cleared up and we could make out we were really at the highest point in any direction we looked. On one side, we could see the entire Zanskar Range, and on other, Stok Range. It was a fascinating sight. My attention span did reduce to that of a sparrow. My head kept rotating in all directions with millisecond breaks.
We’d reached the highest trekable summit in India at 20,082 ft (6121 m) and walked for 8 hours straight to cover an elevation gain of 3759 ft (1,146 m). It took some time to sink in. When we started trekking seriously just a few years back, even thinking of doing anything like this would’ve been a distant dream.
We spent about 5 minutes at the summit before starting back for the base camp. It was starting to get unbearably cold and we wanted to reach our tents ASAP so we can maximise the ensuing nap time. We had to be extra careful on the ridge while descending because it’d gotten more slippery.
Gyatso insisted that we keep the ropes when descending the snow wall because of its gradient. And yes, it was a good advice. We slipped a LOT and sometimes close to being in free fall mode. And that’s when a sharp yank would pull us to safety. Once we’d reached the edge of the glacier, we removed the ropes and could now walk back at our own pace. The skies had cleared up and snowing had stopped by this time.
We reached base camp at 2:00 PM, 13 hours after we’d started walking. By the end of it, we were like two walking zombies, hunched over, mumbling incoherently, dragging our ice axes and a deadpan look on our faces. Rigzin welcomed us with open arms and had some food ready for us. I don’t even remember what it was. We ate, washed up, slept, woke up for dinner, ate and slept again.
Day 5, back to civilization
Woke up next morning, completely refreshed and ready to get to a bathroom with hot shower. We didn’t have to stop at camp 1 while heading back and we took minimal stops to reach the trailhead. As with most return journeys, we wanted to get this one done and over with as soon as we could. So we brisk walked whenever we could and ate our snacks while on the move. Gyatso was confident that knew our way around so he left early and was relaxing by the time we reached.
After saying our goodbyes we headed back to Leh to our hostel.
Over the course of next week we got to narrate our experiences to everyone who was going to attempt the summit and staying at the same hostel. Every single time, I felt great about not giving up when we were really thinking about doing so. It still feels good whenever I think about it and will probably remain as one of my most cherished memories.