Written by Sameer Kelkar
Day 1 : Our team was ready at Stok village. Starting from 3500m, we would climb steadily towards the summit at 6145m. Standing tall in the Stok range, the Stok Kangri is one of the highest trekking peaks in the Indian Himalaya. Ideal for Himalayan enthusiasts looking for their first peak climb. Achievable for amateurs having no climbing experience.
Our team was a mixture of ability, experience and fitness. Saurabh had done some not very high altitude Himachal treks, Prasanna had been with me in Ladakh before. Natasha, Minati and Kaushal (not Kaushal Chandak) had all been to Dzongri and Goencha La in Sikkim. Judging from the practice treks we had done in Solang, Keylong and Leh as part of our acclimatization, I expected Saurya, Pras and myself to summit comfortably. I was not so sure about Minati and Natasha. Kaushal didn’t look very likely to make it to the top.
We had an excellent team to guide us to the top. Ramesh was an experienced guide and had done the peak once before. Based in Rishikesh, he traveled in Ladakh in July-August, an off season back in Garhwal. Norbu had guided and cooked for us on our previous trek in Ladakh. He had also been on the mountain 5-6 times before. We had 10 horses to carry our gear and luggage. As Ramesh told us, the key to a successful climb lay in acclimatization and steady going.
A broad track started up the valley and into the mountains. Steadily gaining height, we passed the last village huts and were in the wild. We had entered the Hemis National Park. The greenery of the village gave way to the rugged look of the desert Himalaya. Shades of brown, orange, yellow, and magenta so typical of the Ladakh range colored the landscape. Halting at the tent hotel at Changma, we decided to continue on to Mankarmo. The main track led on to Stok La pass while we took a side route in the main valley. The Stok La and Stok Kangri valleys are so near yet so different. Stok La pass has very little snow. As a result its valley has little water (the stream was barely a tap), while the Stok Kangri valley benefits from the glaciers of the Stok range.
Climbing over a small pass, and subsequently descending to the river bed, the route climbed up the river steadily. Shepherds grazing cattle, yak in the side valleys were a common sight. They move higher in the mountains during summer, when pastures are plentiful and available. The winter brings very low temperatures and is time for a kind of hibernation. Soon we could see some tents and as expected that was the campsite at Mankarmo. However we decided to pitch camp 15 min before this main crowded campsite.
Resting in our tents for a while, we moved out for a hike in the evening. Climbing up a side valley, and then on to a ridge, we must have gained a thousand feet in slightly over an hour. The ridgeline gave excellent views of the Stok range. The double pass of Stok La was clearly visible. So was the pass leading to the Hemis valley. Descending to our camp in fading light, we had supper drinking in the views of the Himalayan sunset. Norbu is one gem of a cook. He laid a full 3 course meal on the table. Good for tired trekkers!
It had been quite sunny during the day. As evening came the temperatures began to fall. The sun in Ladakh tends to make one forget the altitude. Our campsite was at 4400m, and the cold at night reminded us the fact that we were indeed high up.
Day 2 : As no one from the team showed any signs of Altitude Sickness, we decided to move to Base Camp. This would be a steady 3 hour height gain to 5200m. Passing by the camp at Mankarmo, we moved up the valley. The track was well defined and our group split up. Norbu went on ahead to catch place at the Base Camp. Saurya, Pras and I moved faster than Natasha and Minati. Ramesh was coming along with Kaushal. The hike gave excellent views of Stok Kangri, Golep Kangri etc. The peak looked quite formidable from here. I was told that the route climbed the ridge not yet visible.
Lots of foreigners were coming down the valley, and we got to hear about the climb from them. Some of them had come without support, carrying everything on their back. A big group of 20 had summited the day before. We congratulated them and moved on.
The key to hiking is a slow and steady pace. Good hikers don‘t walk fast, they walk with fewer halts. To successfully complete a 6-7 hour climb it is imperative that one takes fewer breaks … may be one every hour, rather than move in bursts of 5-10minutes at a time. Every person has a different steady pace to walk. This is generally a pace when the heart rate goes up to around 150 beats per minute. The speed, the power may differ from person to person, but this heart rate is generally what one can sustain. I halted from time to time to coordinate the group movement, and we were all at Base Camp for lunch.
Ramesh and I discussed the situation and concluded that it was best to launch the summit attempt from this base camp, rather than establish a higher camp. We were already at 5200m, and setting a camp much higher up at 5500m would be difficult. So would stay at that altitude. We would instead spend that extra day hiking around the base camp and acclimatizing.
The base camp was in a wide part of the valley. A walk up the stream gave good views of the region. Saboo village near Leh could be seen in the distance. Golep Kangri was close by. Stok Kangri was hidden behind a ridge. The stream itself started from a glacier from Golep Kangri. The red pebbles and rocks made the stream water look reddish. Atleast 5 guided teams like ours were camped at the base. Another 2-3 backpacking groups meant a considerable population at 5200m. One of the reasons why this trek is so popular is its proximity to Leh. We had reached the base camp on the 2nd day due to acclimatization reasons. I had heard people do the entire trek in 3 days (Day 1 Base Camp, Day 2 Summit and back, Day 3 down to Leh). One of my friends had done it in 2 days (combining the 2nd and 3rd day). Of course all of these were very fit and more importantly acclimatized people. We preferred to take it slow to ensure we got it right.,/
Day 3 : We spent the morning trying out the Coflaks and crampons. I was comfortable with my hiking boots. They were also taking in the crampons quite well. Others cribbed about the heavy Coflaks. We went on a small hike up the ridge leading to Golep Kangri. This height gain did all of us good. Excellent views from the ridge were a reward. So was the comfort everyone felt after getting used to the heavy Coflaks. Hiking requires heavy shoes, which stay when put on loose mud and scree. Light, flexible shoes may do well on rocks, but nothing like the comfort of the heavy, stiff soled boot on scree.
Back in the base camp, preparation began for the next day’s attempt on the summit. We would start at 2 am from camp. This would give us ample time to make it to the summit and back around lunch. Ramesh and I again discussed the strategy. We would split up in 2 teams. Norbu would guide Saurya, Pras and me. Ramesh would accompany Natasha, Minati and Kaushal. This split was based on the considerable pace difference between us.
The weather began to go bad in the afternoon. Light rainfall, heavy winds lashed the camp rest of the evening. The sky was really overcast. The girls had been cribbing about it being very sunny and hot. I had maintained that the Himalayan sun is good. Now they could see the point. We had to keep tightening the pegs of our tents as they got unearthed. The kitchen tent fell and we helped Norbu and Karma (helper) to put it back up.
Going to bed early, we decided to take the call at 1am. It didn’t seem likely that we could move next day. The extra 6th day planned in the trek itinerary would be used!
Day 4 : I got out of the tent at 1am, looked at the sky, looked at Ramesh, and went back into my sleeping bag. It wasn’t looking good. There were rain showers all night and we had made a wise call not to start in such conditions.
It was drizzling in the morning when I woke up. We sat in the breakfast tent discussing various options. We could give it another shot next day, and I was tempted to stay on and spend another day if required. We had not traveled all the way from Maharashtra to miss out on this one. Ladakh generally offers the best and most predictable weather conditions. However, 5200m high up in the Himalayas one can’t expect a smooth sailing all the time. I had got excellent weather on my Kalindi pass trek in Garhwal. That was extraordinary good luck. Now the weather was not with us. Accept it and move on.
Since there wasn’t much to do during the day we decided to climb the 5700m unnamed peak close to the camp. The route first climbed the face of the valley. This was part of the route to Stok Kangri. The Stok route then crossed over into the other valley, while we followed the ridge to the summit. It took 2 hours from the Base to the top. The climb had been steep and everybody felt the effect of altitude. Saurya was exhausted as we reached the top. He had been trying to walk too fast.
The weather was again closing in, so we hurried down to the camp. First rainfall started, then small hailstones. It was nothing major, but we were all drenched by the time we reached our tents. Again we kept our fingers crossed for good weather that night.
Norbu was bit ill at night. He couldn’t possibly accompany us to the summit. However the weather seemed to be clearing and this was our last chance to go at the summit. We prepared for moving at 2.
Day 5 : Summit : Saurya woke me up at 1.15. The sky was overcast. I spoke to Ramesh. We decided to give it a shot. We could take the call at dawn if things were not going well. Head torches on, we were ready by 2.05. Rain! We sat in the dining tent sipping the tea as it poured outside. 2.20 Rain stops … Time to rock and roll!
Kaushal had decided to stay back at the base. So it was 6 of us heading up to the ridgeline from the camp. 5 mountaineers had started ahead of us at 1. The route was well defined, but we had decided to stick together in the dark. I led the route and Ramesh was the rear guard. The route slowly climbed up the valley on the other side of the ridge. It took us a couple of hours to reach the Higher camp (Advanced Base Camp) very close to the glacier. The site was not very attractive. Tents were pitched on stones. In fact there wasn’t enough space to pitch all the tents. A British team was camped up there. They would be having a tough time we thought.,/
Minati was tiring quickly and needed breaks every now and then. Natasha was moving slowly but steadily. Pras, Saurya and I were moving quite well. Ramesh took the lead in crossing over the glacier. The hard ice gave a good footing. However crossing over the rivulets and gullies took time. They were 2-3 feet in breadth and needed some jumping over. We were at the base of the Stok Kangri peak at 5.30.
Dawn brought different shades of sky, mountains and snow. Ramesh asked me to take the lead and move on ahead while he brought the girls. Climbing over a moraine patch, I proceeded up a long steep snow field. Our route would climb zig zag on the face of the mountain and then turn left to the ridge which led to the top. I looked back as my team made its way up the field.
Saurya came up first. He seemed quite ok, but apparently was not. Feeling a bit dizzy, he wanted to turn back. I personally felt he should keep going. He said he was breathless. I argued that nobody is perfectly happy with the air density at 5700m. Finally the call was his. The weather was quite good and so far the route wasn’t a problem. Minati was exhausted by the time she came up the field, and we decided that they should go back to Base.
The route again started climbing, this time however there was a proper zig zag path. Prasanna was slowly tiring and we made slow progress. We had to cross a couple of snow fields to get back on to the path. Ramesh had not anticipated so much of snow on the mountain. He remarked that the snow level was fairly high that season. The traverses on the snow were tricky because of the steepness of the slope and the exposure. Both Pras and Natasha felt comfortable only on wearing the crampons. I moved on ahead, mainly because I had to get through some important work. Crapping at 5900m, another record for me!
We met the teams which had left ahead of us. They were descending now after a successful climb. Their footsteps on the snow not only marked the route for us but also made the traverse easier. We were at the ridge at 8.30 am. Another 45 minutes to the summit!
The ridge line gives Godgiri views on all sides. The Stok Kangri summit straight on ahead, the Zanskar range to the left, and the Stok glacier and ice wall behind us. The weather was again not looking very good, and it was best that we summit quickly and turn back. “One can never conquer the Himalayas, only sneak to the top and hurry back” . Natasha and Pras weren’t looking too good, and I decided to push on to the summit. The route was well defined again. However the cold, the wind, and the altitude were getting to us. Part of the problem was the rocky ridge line. In a steady path one can choose to go slow and not get out of breath. In a rocky climb one has to move fast, and hence requires more breaks. Even Ramesh was halting to catch breath every 7-8 steps. We looked back and saw Pras and Natasha still sitting down. I took that they had given up and would wait there for us.
There is no feeling like being on the summit. 9.30 am, 6145 m and I felt I was at the top of the world. The effort had been worth it. There are only 2 kinds of treks. Ones that reach the summit and other which come back to give reasons why they couldn’t. I hated to be in the second category. Rookie, my cricket team captain in IIT Bombay, once said “Hum chutiye nahin hai jo field pe 6 ghante apni gaand maar rahe hai ! Match jeetni hai bhai logon” . It was applicable here too. And I felt that the match was won!
Natasha was gradually making her way up. Pras seemed to have given up somewhere on the ridge. Just as we were discussing how much we could wait for her, our eyes turned towards the valley. The weather was closing in. A dense set of rainy clouds was moving up the valley. We would be in a mess if caught in a storm at 6000m. Ramesh and I started descending. We would take Natasha down with us.
We met her around 15 min from the summit. She had come really close. When we told her that we ought to get going down she broke up in tears. I was wondering what to do. A Ladakhi guide came up with an oldish Australian lady to solve my difficulty. He had summited the mountain 10 times that year alone, and was super confidant that the storm would stay away from our peak. I took the risk. Ramesh would take Natasha to the summit. I would wait for them on the ridge with Pras. Mentally I was preparing to spend some really difficult hours.
I found Prasanna crawling across a snow field when I reached the end of the ridge. He had seen the storm clouds and decided to descend. I tried to tell him to stop and wait, but with the heavy wind and slight snow he acted on his own judgment. I saw him descending really fast towards the glacier. The British party was training on ice on the glacier, and I knew he was safe once down. I decided to cross the first snow field and wait for Natasha and Ramesh on a prominent rock.
The crossing was harder than I had expected. I could see why Pras had been so scared and crawled. The soft snow layer had melted away, leaving the hard and slippery ice. I lost footing and slipped 10-15 feet on one occasion, recovering hold with my sticks. Later on, the huge holes Pras had made by crawling gave good footing. I waited for a tense hour on the rock. Ramesh and Natasha were slowly descending, and the storm was approaching. I wondered if I should head down. Sense prevailed for once. We had a better chance of finding the route in case of a white out if we stuck together.
As Ramesh and Natasha reached the end of the ridge I warned them about the snow. Natasha wasn’t very confidant with footing while descending, and they came very slowly and carefully. The snow slopes were quite steep and risky. Near about the same patch where I had slipped, Natasha lost footing and went sliding down the slope. I was terrified as I saw her gaining speed -trying to stop with the ice axe. Luckily she stopped at some rocks. Ramesh slowly went down the slope to help her out, while I figured a way through rocks for them to descend. It would be good to stick to the scree and rocks with such snow conditions elsewhere! I was glad when I learned that she wasn’t really hurt. Only a small scratch here and there.
We descended down to the glacier slowly. It was 12.30. We had been out for over 10 hours. Apart from the little tit bits we hadn’t had any food. Our packed lunch was yet to be touched. However we had descended to safety now. The storm hadn’t entered our valley as predicted by the Ladakhi guide. His team was 30 minutes behind us. We celebrated the climb with a Cadbury.
Ramesh moved on ahead as Natasha and I walked leisurely towards the Advanced camp. Crossing over the glacier, we reached the tents of the higher camp at 1.30. We were welcomed here by a young Nepalese. First Saurabh and Minati had stopped there for tea, then Prasanna for tea and noodles. Now he was happy to serve us some chai. The British team had been out training in the ice. A French guide had fallen in a crevasse on the glacier. He was rescued after 7 hours in freezing water, and rushed down on horseback to Leh. It had been a happening day on the mountain.
Tired as we were, taking steps to the base camp felt easy. We were going back … the task had been accomplished! We found Norbu coming up to meet us. After congratulating us, he opened his back pack to find fruit juice, chocolates and hot food. Relishing the meal high up on the mountain, we rushed down to Base Camp. Our team was waiting for us
That night was Bada Khana. Norbu dished out item after item. The ice on the cake was the yak meat, specially cooked by our horsemen.
Day 6 : The descent took 3.5 hours. An easy going walk down the path … one last view of the Stok Kangri peak, one last climb up the small pass near Changma, one last river crossing and one last step of Himalayan trekking for some time For some time