Before I begin, you can open the accompanying photo album here. Its been quite a while that we returned from our Stok Kangri expedition, but I hardly found the time to write about it. Stok Kangri is a 6140 meter peak in Ladakh, situated close to Leh. I just managed to work my leaves around the schedule (as I always do) and embarked on a training program to get fit. Fit enough to cross 20000 feet this time. My friend Peter (whom I had met during the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal) and his friend from Holland Johan had already confirmed their participation too. The team had Shridhar ji (from Trek’di) Peter, Johan, Neha (deceptive mountaineer), Rohit, Dayanand, Onkar, Harshal, and me.
July 31: Everyone arrived in Leh separately and on the 31st we had our briefing, where we met up with our support team, including our climbing guides. Both the climbing guides were Nepali, and the main guy had summitted Kanchenjunga in the past! We felt quite secure. From the agency, we had a young kid named Mustafa (Musti for short, who was actually the agency owner’s brother) who was to accompany us, apart from the remaining support team consisting of porters and cooks. We spent the day exploring Leh and resting. I have been to Leh before so I wasn’t too keen on roaming around. Most of the others though were quite excited and in fact we were having a hard time keeping track of everyone. Everyone had dinner at different places and everyone disappeared into their respective rooms. Shridhar ji and I were in one room, and we had lots to talk about, as usual.
Aug 1: We woke up at a leisurely 8 am, had breakfast and then started interacting with others in the team. So far, most people did not know each other. In the afternoon, we were to go on out on an acclimatizing hike towards Khardung La. So, Rohit and Daya used the morning to hire a bike and they went up to Khardung La pass, which as many of you might know, is the world’s highest motorable road. Neha, Harshal, Onkar and I moved around the marketplace, where I met up with a few of my acquaintances in Leh. We also bought some stuff, including a beautiful climbing pant that I bought. Peter and Johan were busy on their own, and we occasionally crossed paths in the market. Post lunch our support team arrived and we departed on our acclimatizing hike. Since Leh is already at around 10000 feet, and one arrives via an airplane, it is very important to acclimatize for a couple of days before trying to go higher. The acclimatizing hike started from a point a few km north of Leh (towards Khardung La). The hike was moderate, but had a couple of steep sections, which left us struggling for breath. Shridharji and I were the slowest, with the assistant climbing guide (Mingmar Sherpa) with us. The main guide (Temba Sherpa) was ahead, with the others. The scenery was spectacular, with Leh city behind us and Stok Kangri making itself noticed on the right.
We finished the hike in about three hours, with our vehicles waiting to pick us up from the other end of the hike. We returned to the lodge and split, with different people going different ways. For dinner, Johan, Peter and I went to a nice restaurant in the main market and had Thai food. We were to leave for our expedition tomorrow morning.
Aug 2: After breakfast, we left for our first camp at Zingchan. Zingchan is approachable by a motorable path, so our support team had arranged for suitable vehicles to get us there. The journey was scenic, though spine-testing. Along the way, we crossed several other trekking groups, most of which were on their way to the Hemis Reserve, for which the route passed through Zingchan as well. In about an hour and a half, we reached our river side camp at Zingchan. The support team, in no time set up the camp, whereas most of us set out to explore the area. This was around 10 30 am. We returned to our camp by around noon time and found absolutely delightful lunch awaiting us. I was quite surprised at the quality and the variety of the lunch; they almost spoilt us. Post lunch the whole group decided to go on a slightly more strenuous hike, again to train our bodies for this altitude. A little into the hike (the route was suggested by Temba), there was some confusion about whether we could continue because we reached a spot from which the path appeared very steep for an acclimatizing hike. I knew an alternate route which was across the river; so Onkar and I decided to go back to the camp, crossed the river, and started on the other route. Soon we were climbing towards the north west, bang opposite the others who we could see across the river.
After about an hour we had gained around 600 feet and were visibly higher than the others, who were still struggling to make headway on the other route. We were crossing a ridge and then the improbable happened. I dropped my lens cover, and it bounced and danced and dropped about 150 feet vertically in the valley. Onkar and I were looking at each other because we had the same cameras and same lens covers; before we realized whose cover it was! So…first it looked out of question as it was perched precariously and the ‘route’ to possibly get there was through very loose and steep gravel. Despite Onkar’s strong reservations, I decided to give it a try and recover the cover. The gravel that I mentioned was not actually mud, but stone sharpnels, which effortless pierce through one’s skin on the slightest of touches. Luckily for me, Onkar was carrying his gloves…which I borrowed and descended, slowly, retrieved the cover, and some how made it back safely. By this time Onkar was pretty keen on returning, but I pushed him further and added at least another 400 feet, crossed a very tricky section and reached a cliff that offered excellent views of the valley and our camp at a distance. After some photography, we made our way back to the camp and met up with the others. People were scattered and I spent some time with Shridharji. In the evening we had our tea and some more conversations.
There were some other groups at the camp as well, but most were headed to the Hemis national park. Though Stok Kangri is a popular peak, most people who attempt to summit it use another route to reach the base camp, which I will mention later. The night quickly set upon us, and we were treated to more great food, post which all of us retired to our tents. The sky was glittering with the glow of millions of celestial objects. Tomorrow we headed to the Stok La base camp, which was about 7 hours away from this camp.
Aug 3: After having breakfast, we left for Stok La base camp by around 8 30 am. The first two hours were irritating because we had to walk along the river bed, on stones. The scenery however was very fascinating. We crossed the river several times, sometimes easily and sometimes after some trouble as most makeshift bridges were broken. After walking for about 4 hours we reached a point from where the path split for Hemis reserve and Stok La. All the other groups of foreigners (incuding some from the Czech Republic whom I interacted with) headed northwards for Hemis. Half of our group decided to continue towards Stok La BC and have lunch at the camp. I decided otherwise and found the solitary tree in the desert, below which I sat to have my lunch. Soon I was joined by Rohit, Daya, Onkar and Musti. We also took a nap for about 1/2 hr and then got going towards Stok La BC, which we were told was an hour away. We trekked and walked and walked but there was no sign of the base camp. We crossed a village called Rumbak where the inhabitants told us the Stok La was at least another hour and a half. We were glad to have had our lunch earlier! The trek was never ending, and saw us walk through large glacial plains. We could see some colour (presumably our tents) on the horizon, but they refused to come any closer. After about another 1/2 hour I spotted some colour a little way ahead and on getting closer, we found it was Shridharji sitting in the middle of no where, exhausted and disillusioned about the distance to Stok La BC.
He was out of water (which is a very dangerous); we gave him some water and rested for a bit with him. It took us nearly an hour to get to the base camp, where the other (whom we shall now call the faster pack) had already reached. The last 10 mins of the walk was hilarious as Daya, Rohit, and me had gone bonkers, and were cracking some ridiculous jokes and laughing our lungs out (although we could do with an extra pair!). We retired to our tents, and in some time Onkar and I went to the stream to freshen up. We virtually had a bath in the ice cold water but felt very relaxed after that. The views were awesome and we had our evening teas in the kitchen tent amidst lots of laughter. I was out with my tripod capturing some good frames when suddenly a group of Czech trekkers appeared out of no where. They were quite lost and we offered them some tea. They showed me their maps, and were trying to find a route to some pass which on the map was close to Stok La. They couldn’t find it and I advised them against trying to either. They later decided to descend to Rumbak village and stay in a home-stay there. I continued my photography and the night was upon us soon. It was quite cold and windy. We had dinner post which we sang a lot of songs, most notably Onkar and I. We sang and sang and sang until the helpers asked us to vacate the kitchen tent because it was time for them to sleep! That didn’t stop us though and we continued singing outside, standing in the cold (I was in shorts!). We were in our sleeping bags by 10 pm. I didn’t get any sound sleep though.
Aug 4: We were up early as everyone ventures out in the darkness to answer nature’s call. There was tea with some snacks, served with some sumptuous breakfast, which was almost making me feel guilty now. We packed and left for the long climb over Stok La, with the camp at Mankarmo being our destination for the day. We expected it to be an 8 hr trek. The group split almost within 15 mins of staring off, due to varying speeds. Shridharji and I were towards the tail end, as usual, and the altitude which was around 4400 meters now was making its presence felt. The scenery was breathtaking. After an hour and a half, we took a pit stop, from a point where Stok La was clearly visible. It was a daunting task, almost vertically above us.
Rohit, Onkar and Shridharji were finding it very difficult to maintain a steady pace, and though it wasn’t worrying at this stage, one did think about their fitness for the penultimate climb. Gradually we made our way to the half way point, we stopped for some photography. Musti had already rushed ahead and I could see him close to the pass by the time we reached the half way point. The second half was much tougher, and we were moving at a snail’s pace. After we were 70% there, our ponies caught up with us. The ponies were also finding it tough to climb with all the load on them, and I didn’t want them to go past me because then I must trail them till the top. So I significantly increased my pace and crossed everyone else on the way. The last 15 minutes were barely 100 feet but were terrible. I reached the top (4900 meters) and reveled in the magnificent views stretching from Rumbak to the Kangri range. The others took between 20-40 mins to make it. Even a pony toppled over due to the extremely tricky climb. Onkar was taking 3 steps per minute and was the last to reach in our group. We did a lot of photography and I made a short video showing you around.
The route going forward was stunning, and we could see the path traverse across three valleys standing where we were. We got moving and began descending rapidly and lost around 400 feet in 20 minutes. Descending is bad on the knees, and looking at the path you have descended is bad on your mind, because one feels so bad about losing all that hard earned altitude so quickly. After another hour we stopped and had our lunch. Shridhar ji had also caught up with us, and Daya (works for Uninor of course!) was busy making the most of the mobile signal that we were receiving at that spot. We continued and after another hour took a break, which Shridharji skipped and continued. Onkar, Rohit, Daya and me were continuously cracking jokes and were having a gala time. We also met another European climber (solo) who appeared out of no where and he sought directions to Mankarmo and Stok Kangri base camp. He disappeared in the mountains the way he appeared. He had probably joined the route from Stok village, and not from where we came.
The valleys kept coming with no sign of our camp. Visually I knew where we had to go, but it was still 2 hrs away. I was ahead of the pack when I decided to play a prank. I crossed a small hillock and asked encouraged everyone to hurry up as I could see the camp from there (I was higher so they didn’t know). I managed to fool everyone, who abused me to their heart’s content, the worst victim being Rohit, who was absolutely devastated after realizing that the camp was no where to be seen. The rest of the journey was long, and one event that stands out is that I convinced Rohit and Daya to take a ‘short cut’ through loose mud. It was like a mud slide for them, which of course was fun but they fell several times and had mud in their shoes and their clothes. Finally we reached the point where our path converged with the path coming from Stok village, headed for Mankarmo. The camp was another 45 mins away, and from the heavens, a couple of our porters appeared with juice and some biscuits. The others at the camp had sent them to us, anticipating our hunger and fatigue. We reached the camp not too later, and retired to our tents for a bit. The camp had many other teams, as all the others groups who had come here from another route also camped there. At night I engaged in some very rewarding night photography and slept by around 9 30 pm. Tomorrow were were headed to Stok Kangri base camp.
Aug 5: We left at 8 30 am for Stok Kangri BC, situated at an altitude of 5000 meters. There were lots of other trekking groups who also moved around the same time, including some Indians from Pune; and since they were from Pune, they had to know Shridhar ji! The first hour was pleasant and we were enjoying the gentle climb. We spotted some marmots and managed to get some great shots of the elusive mammals. The weather scared us as it began snowing lightly and everyone hurriedly put on their rain/snow wear. I did not because I did not expect the snow to continue for too long, and indeed it stopped in a few minutes. All the others had to now remove their jackets and ponchos because it gets extremely hot wearing them if it is not raining or snowing.
The valleys kept coming and one after the other, and we almost walked on moraine for 2 hours. We were tiring faster and the air was notably thinner. We were flanked by the Kangri range on both sides, though Stok Kangri didn’t reveal itself. It was noon time and the sun was very intense, though it was quite cold. The last segment was killing and never ending. We knew where we had to reach but could only move at snail’s pace. I met a Spanish couple and they were struggling equally. There was a small hillock behind which was our destination, the base camp. After about 6 hours I reached a point from where I could see the tents, and not just one, many of them. It took me a good 30 mins to reach the camp though and after keeping my bag in the tent, headed to a good vantage point a little higher. I could see the others make their way gradually from the spot; Rohit was hilarious with a cane in his hand. The others reached in another half hour and joined me at the point. The scenery was surreal and let me not try and describe it by words…simply look at the pics. It was very windy though and soon we retired to the relative warmth of our tents. We had our lunch, which was again very good considering where we were and rested in our tents. Then all hell broke lose.
The weather deteriorated and there was a cloud burst in less than 30 mins. It started raining like crazy, accompanied by maddening lighting and thunders. Soon it transformed into a hail storm, with extremely cruel winds. Shridharji and I were literally holding on to the tent mounts, to keep them from flying off. There was some seepage inside the tent too which made matters worse. I did gather enough courage to open the tent and glance outside. It was a white out and visibility was down to a few meters. The storm settled after 2 hours, and the scenery had drastically changed, from brown and green to dark brown and white. The evening passed quickly with a few adventurous souls roaming around while most limiting themselves to their tents. I had the opportunity to meet a lovely Swiss couple (who were doctors) and spent some time talking with them before mustering enough courage to freshen myself in the ice cold stream nearby. I must tell you all that I always managed to freshen up, to the extent of take a partial bath during this expedition. I cannot rest unless I feel clean, no mater how cold the water or the ambiance might be. Tomorrow was a rest day (we did think of attempting the summit tomorrow but the weather killed any possibility).
Aug 6 and 7: I couldn’t sleep even for a minute and distinctly remember each passing moment. The fact that my inflatable pillow showed its worth made matters worse. Shridharji was deep asleep, and he needed rest. He is 52 year old but beats most of us with his determination and mental fitness. We woke up at 8 am (I mean out of our tents) to find partly clear skies. That did not surprise me though because the weather only deteriorates post noontime. We had tea followed by breakfast (consisting of eggs with liters of oil) which was very hard to eat at this altitude. I was carrying some meal replacement shakes and promptly used them. A little later we were pleasantly surprised by a herd of Bharals (Himalayan Blue Sheep) grazing near our camp. Bharals are quite shy and don’t generally come near any sort of human activity. Also, they are the primary prey for the elusive snow leopard. Most people at the camp went berserk photographing them and too our good luck the herd weren’t too camera shy either. In fact a few were happily posing for my lens, proof of which is in the photo below. I went for a stroll around the place and met some other people including a a group of high school students from England with their teachers. I had a word with the teacher, and he told me that they are part of a group of schools/body that encourages students to see things in the world. So yes, school students from England were at Stok Kangri BC! Thankfully very few were going to be attempting the summit.
We were to attempt the summit tonight. In the evening we had our final discussion, along with distribution of ice axes and crampons. The group was divided into two. One with the faster folks, comprising of Peter, Neha, Johan, and Mingmar Sherpa; and the other with the rest of us. We rested for some time and soon the night was upon us. We had our dinner and geared up. Musti and Daya were the lucky recipients of my spare warm wear, and I was feeling nice and warm in my new mountaineering trousers and the expedition jacket (which I hadn’t even removed from the bag till here). We had our dinners and spent the remaining time motivating each other. I was feeling fit enough to play football! Onkar and Harshal were looking susceptible from the outset, so were Rohit and Daya…but mountains are always a surprise package.
At around 9:15 pm Temba, a porter, Musti, Shridharji, Rohit, Daya, Onkar, Harshal and I left…leaving behind Peter, Neha, Johan and Mingmar, who would leave about 2 hours later and meet us a advanced camp (somewhere around 18500 feet). We were soon climbing the really steep first section close to our camp, one which we had been looking at for the last 24 hours! The terrain was muddy and due to the darkness, we were progressing really slow. I was at the front of the pack with Temba and prompted him on when we needed to stop to enable the others to catch up and catch some breath. I was feeling quite fit to my own surprise. We climbed…stopped…climbed…topped at snail’s pace. We were about 45 mins away from advanced base camp and it began snowing lightly. The weather was extremely cold and was well below zero already. Only Shridharji and I had really good cold wear on and so we weren’t too bothered, but that was not true for the others. The gap between Temba and me, from the others was continuously increasing and at one such point I headed back a little to check on the others to realize that Harshal was our first casualty and couldn’t take the cold. So he had begun his descent with a porter accompanying him. A little later we crossed a couple of small glaciers where I actively helped the others cross (it was very slippery and very little margin for error).
At about midnight we reached the advance base camp, which was nothing more than a flat area with Stok Kangri towering above our heads…and the huge Kangri glacier ahead reminding us of our difficult task. The weather was below minus 15 degrees Celsius by now and everyone was in a bad state. It was mildly windy and we were trying to rest a little in vain. The idea was to wait for the others to reach here, which we expected should not take more than 15 minutes. Unfortunately we were there for more than 30 minutes with no sign of the others. We were almost convinced that the others had reached only to realize that it was another French group crossing us (all we could see was torch lights). I was starting to worry because it was not a good idea to ‘rest’ in minus 15 degrees, as we were constantly losing energy trying to keep our bodies warm. Finally, after almost an hour, the others arrived on the horizon.
Just a little before they reached us, we started moving towards the massive Stok glacier. It looked magnificent and scary in the darkness, with the torch lights of those who were trying to cross it looking like stars on a moonlit sky. It took us about half hour to reach the point from which the glacial crossing began. I was starting to feel drowsy and uneasy. Onkar was in a bad state too. All the others were a little behind us. Temba administered some oxygen to me, and for a little while I felt better…but the troubles returned. Mountaineering is very psychological and as soon as you ‘feel’ unwell you actually fall unwell irrespective of whether you were unwell in the first place. I was beginning to doubt whether I could summit. I could surely go further, but the question was whether I would reach the summit. The temperature had fallen to -20 degrees and the rising altitude wouldn’t have helped. There were almost 1500 feet or so left for the summit, which was quite a bit. I decided to stop. My headache was increasing and it was very unlikely that I would hit the summit…and for me health is more important than reaching the peak. There is no point doing it if you don’t enjoy it. Shridharji arrived and I told him that I will return. As soon as I announced, Onkar too jumped on the wagon. He was really unwell, but because he was inexperienced and relatively new, he didn’t want to say that I can’t take it any more.
Peter, Neha, and Johan arrived too, with Johan struggling as well. Everyone was struggling, including Rohit and Daya, but they only had the peak in their mind. It helps if you are going through this for the first time, because for them, the peak was the ultimate, at any cost. Onkar and I parted ways with the others and began descending. The terrain was terrible, full of stones, boulders and glacial moraine. Our knees were in a bad state, and with the AMS symptoms, things were getting worse. To add to our woes, Onkar gave his torch to Daya without realizing that we had a 4 hour grueling descent on hand, for which we needed a torch! The descent was a never ending story of pain and valley after valley. We were surprised at the amount we had climbed! It was far from sunrise, but there was hint of that on the horizon, a visual that I cannot describe. Unfortunately we have no photographs (it was pitch dark) and had no energy to try and click any either. After 3 long hours we reached our tents, half dead. What happened after that I don’t know. When I woke up it was around 11 am and the weather was cloudy. Johan had returned unsuccessfully has well.
I was worried for the others because it was quite evident that the weather had gone awry up there. By noon time Peter and Neha returned, after successfully reaching the summit. They had reasonable weather, but I didn’t bother them with too many questions as they were very tired as well. Harshal was bored of waiting for so long (he was the first to return) and he decided to head back to Leh on his own. There was another group that was headed to Leh and he hitched along with them. It was around 2 pm and the weather went awry again. There was no sign of Shridharji, Rohit, Daya, Musti and Temba. Finally at around 3 pm Shridharji arrived after falling short of the summit as well. Though for his age, he reached a tremendous altitude. Musti returned too, and he successfully made it to the top. Rohit and Daya arrived victorious as well but were not even in a position to speak and went straight into their tents. Later I learnt about the awful weather up top, which prevented them from even getting a decent view from the summit. They were quite irritated by the fact that they took all the trouble but weren’t really happy at what the net result was. Nevertheless, it was a great achievement to have reached the summit for them. Everyone constrained themselves to their tents and only at dinner time did all of us finally gather face to face. It was a great expedition, with 4 summiters out of 9. We retired to our tents where Shridharji and I had a long discussion about the climb and life in general. I was not able to sleep at all.
Aug 8: Today was going to be a long way because we would be descending all the way to Stok village and onwards to Leh in a day. Descending is much faster of course and the reducing altitude makes it easier on the lungs, not on the knees though. There is not much to mention…the scenery changed rapidly and we crossed Mankarmo camp. We then headed to Stok village which was another 4 hours away. The terrain was terrible due to the moraine and gravel. A couple of hours before Stok village, we reached a beautiful vantage point from where we could see the whole valley behind us and a small tea shop and a path on the other side. We halted at the tea shop, where some other friends of Shridharji were already having tea (they were from Pune too). We rested for a little while and continued our descent towards Stok village. People had split and eventually I was trekking with Rohit, Daya, and Onkar. Since the trek was over as such, we spent a lot of time taking pictures of the scenery and each other. Daya had done berserk with Onkar’s DSLR, the first time he was handling one. He was clicking pictures of anything and everything. Finally at around 4 30 pm, we reached Stok village where the others had already reached. Our logistical partners were already there and so were our vehicles. We relaxed for a while and a few of the others celebrated with some beer. I was busy exchanging contact details with our climbing guides and some others.
We left for Leh, with Stok Kangri standing tall behind us. It took us about 45 mins to reach our lodge, which was full…so we had to shift to a better lodge nearby. With great difficulty, we managed to arrange for some warm water…and yes we took a bath after 6 days. Don’t look at me; I took mini-baths all along! In the evening we went shopping and spent the night celebrating with beer and chicken. I left for the lodge before the others as I had a flight to catch early tomorrow morning.
Aug 9: Musti came to pick me up at 6 am, and dropped me at Leh airport for my flight. He was a nice kid, hardworking and extremely funny. Both of us had a wonderful time during the trip and I invited him to visit me in Pune. The flight was on schedule and I reached Delhi at about 9 am. I went straight to Connaught Place, where I met up for breakfast with my friend Ashima. By lunch time, I made my way back to the aiport via the swanky Airport metro. By evening I was home in Pune.
The trip was certainly the toughest that I have done till date. Though I couldn’t reach the summit, it was a great experience, my first real expedition to a 20000ft+ peak. I would love to go back one day and summit Stok Kangri, but who knows if I would, because the world is too big for places to be repeated. I will attempt Mera Peak or Island Peak in Nepal next I guess. Hope you enjoyed reading this travelogue. Please feel free to comment. Jai hind.