Stok Kangri

The day finally arrives for me to start for finale of the trip – Mountaineering in Himalayas. After trekking, river rafting, safari and camel ride, its time to climb some serious mountain. Its serious as its the highest in the range and as well taken human lifes in the past.  I have my things packed up for the four day climb to stok kangri and waiting for the guide and sherpa. The guide is Naresh Lama, 26 year old Nepalese. He is young, energetic, enthusiastic and sensible to traveler’s need. He has already done Stok kangri twice but on both occasion the peak was without much snow. He is told to be guide until basecamp two and stay there until I climb & descent with the sherpa. The sherpa is an experienced Himalayan climber and also from Nepal. He is scaling the Stok Kangri for first time and am told that’s Stok Kangri is an easy climb with less technicality to apply. All sounds very promising.

The first step is to travel to Stok village which is 24 km from Leh. The SUV is packed fully with all trekking items for 4 days. We reach a small cafe in Stok and Climbing permit is submitted to Indian authorities for approval. Meanwhile the things from SUV are unpacked and started loading into ponies which is hired for the entire trip. My big rucksack is also safely loaded into one of the big bags to be carried by pony. I have my small backpack with SLR, water bottle & medical kit. Once everything is settled, the Sherpa and myself  started to walk towards base camp one along the river stream.  Sherpa and the guide are very friendly and the walk started to change from easy to normal.

For the first half of the day, we followed a stream with shade & breeze. We walk pass a Stupa sized water tank, an abundant fort and we have to do a steep climb to reach a small stupa with colourful flags attached. Since i have already done a research on the walk, i am able to recollect the milestones of the path which is fascinating. We walk steep down into a small valley and then into rocky patches by the stream side. The views during the walk are all amazing. There are plenty of wild life around the area including blue sheep, wild ponies, marmot, pigeons.etc . They are well adapted to the extreme weather and altitude.

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After three hours of steep climb, we are able to spot a small tea hut where we are supposed to have the packed lunch from guest house. Sherpa accompanied the ponies and took a different path to reach the hut to make sure the ponies are able to climb without any trouble. They arrive after few minutes to join for rest and lunch.  The hut is situated at a cross road for two different trek routes. People coming from Stok-Spituk trek also rested in the tea hut. After filling our stomach and resting for a while, we aim to reach the base camp one non-stop. The walk is strenuous and have to walk through rocks and stones by the stream side.

Finally we arrive to the base camp one and i am totally knackered. I decide to rest in a tea tent while my tent is being prepared. Sherpa and the guide also started working on kitchen tent and unloading the kitchen items and groceries. Its evening when i felt the urge to wake up. The stream by my side of the tent is making beautiful water flowing sound and water is freezing cold. I lay down by a huge sloppy rock by the stream, with my sunglasses on. I slept for few minutes. I can feel the stream water flashing on me and it’s a blissful feeling. After few minutes when i open my eyes and start to watch whats new happening around me. I see additional tents in the camp which means there are either people coming from Stok village after us or people coming down from base camp two. I am told that the tents belong to five french girls who are trekking only to base camp two but not summiting Stok Kangri. I can also see people coming down from base camp two along with their ponies. What starts as a dot in the distant, over a period becomes a cavalier of humans and ponies when they are close to base camp one. Its fascinating to observe.

The air is thin. My appetite is reducing and I realise it when i had my super in the tent with Sherpa and guide. I had my iPhone charged up before I left guest house and have to use it prudently. I have around 700 songs downloaded in my iphone and I will use it if I need motivation to climb and also keep to my mind occupied. Its a pleasant end of the day and so far the expectation is fulfilled

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Its the second day. My day starts with watching the sun rise from my favorite rock by the stream side. It’s incredible and memories will be with me for long period. Its time to pack things again and walk towards base camp two after having morning tea and breakfast. Appetite is going down faster than i imagined. Its good in a way as the body is adapting owing to lack of oxygen. Its either shutting down organs or making the metabolism slower to make sure that only essentials are able to work for basic human survival.  Because its packed up with snow in Advanced base camp, the ponies cant reach it. Without ponies its difficult to survive the base camp. In such situation, they have an alternative base camp but its not very far from base camp one. This means the distance is going to be longer and tiring during the summit day.

My guide already told me its going to be a difficult climb to base camp two as the steepness and harshness of the terrain will increase. While having the morning tea, i happen to chat with the guide of the French girls. He is approachable and an interesting guy. He is very pleased to know that i am attempting Stok Kangri. He himself has done it once and tried to take a wheel chair bound climber but failed due to bad weather. The girls are going to walk until glacier and return to base camp before they go back to Stok village. The walk to base camp two is strenuous but shorter than the previous day. The lack of oxygen is adding to tiredness and have to put more strength to pass the slopes. Since Sherpa and guide have larger lungs, they are able to do it quite normally. All along the walk, climbers from base camp two are passing by after they have either successfully or not climbed it. Everyone is saying that the snow/ice is quite deep than they expected. It clearly set an expectation for us (atleast mentally prepared for it). There is a guy who gave up climbing stok kangri due to ice and steep long climb. Interestingly I also bump into a friend of my guide, a young Nepali Sherpa who has done difficult climb in several 7000m+ Himalayan mountains. My guide is always impressed with his climbing abilities and dream to be like him in future. We witness a wild chase between a mule and black sheep herd. We don’t know what triggered it but it’s a heavy chase down slope with less time to react. After just three hours of climb, we arrive at the base camp two.

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The climb is short as this base camp two is close to base camp one. The view from base camp two is amazing. They have taken pain to establish the camp in a beautiful panoramic setting. We started setting up the tents to settle comfortably. The wind is howling and also can hear the sound of the stream. Most of the tents are empty as the climbers have gone to the summit. There are few descending down and everyone is saying its bad up in the summit. The ice depth is too deep than expected. Initial plan is that its only me and Sherpa to go up in the summit. The guide volunteered to come with me as he has not done a difficult climb of Stok Kangri when its covered in ice. Also its good to have one more hand in help since the condition in the summit is worse than we anticipated. The summit is further away than usual due to alternative advanced based camp which means we have to start early so that we can summit early morning. If not, the sun will melt the ice and it will be difficult to descent. The time is set around mid night to start the climb. The visibility is going to be poor and the condition is going to be treacherous. I am going to miss the beautiful views if I walk in the night but on the other hand i can catch up with the views during descent.

I rest in the tent and I have plenty of time before starting to summit. My thoughts span around my recent life adventure – the people I met, the places I went and the events that shaped/shaping my life. It’s extremely cold inside the tent and windy at 5700m. I can hear the howling sound of the wind. The night sky is clear and filled completely with stars. Its been many years since I witness the night skies in such a clear and undisturbed way. To experience it in one’s own eyes is a bliss. Even if I fail to reach the summit, the experience and views I had so far will stay with me for years. I am not able to sleep as many things are haunting my mind combined with oxygen deprivation. Possibly my nervous system is also slowing down and panicking. My pack to summit is light weight and include – a coat, two mid layers, balaclava, sun glass, water bottle, first aid kit, camera, gloves and spare shocks. Around 11 pm, I walk to the kitchen to get some hot drinks and a light meal. I can only have a toast and can feel my fat and muscles are being eaten by the mountain. Both the Sherpa and guide is up all night discussing and planning for the final summit push. We started sharing stories about London, Nepal, climbing history and weather.

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Around 12 mid night, we start to leave the base camp two and head towards the steep hill. Anyone who is visualing us from the top of the hill, will see three tiny equi-distance dots moving towards them. First one hour is a steep climb which consumed most of my stored energy and constantly grasp for oxygen in the air.  The terrain on the top of the hill is still dry. The sands are loose and have to cautiously walk/climb focusing my head torch in the path before me. I can’t see anything beyond the scope of my torch light and its pitch dark everywhere. Even the star lights is not helping us. We reach a flat surface and after walking few yards, we step into ice and from that point the climb is going to be in ice for next 13 hours.

I am cautious in using ice axe but its too early of the day to set up an avalanche. The path narrows down to a single file and can feel that its a ridge but i still dont have visibility on both sides. The ridge is slippery and made me wonder why we are not still wearing crampons. I can feel If I fall its going to be lethal but the thought is not bothering me for unknown reason. We are also not connected by ropes like alphine climbing (I don’t know why it didn’t strike me that time) but just keep moving at steady pace and avoid slippery patches. After few hours of walk, we came to steady slow climb on a vast area of snow. I realise it must be a glacier which is further confirmed by my guide. It means we have to watch out for glacier crevasse. The team is prepared with ropes, harness and fasteners in case if anything happens. The only question is the energy levels at that time. The climb is getting strenuous while my energy levels are going down. I am mentally strong to reach the summit at any cost unless the weather turns bad. I have a slight altitude sickness but its early sign and over a period started to fade out. Sherpa keep asking me whether I have vomiting sensation, head ache or giddiness. I am truly aware that If it happens, then the climb will be abandoned.

We rest at a snow patch and hydrate by having water. The temperature is many degrees below zero and the ice  is  compressed ice. We started to use the path followed by previous climbers as its hardened by their foot prints. Its around 5 am and my peak sleeping hour. My body is naturally shutting down and i can feel it. The only way i can keep myself awake is to climb without resting or thinking. If i get pass that hour, I will be fine for the next more hours. At approximately 5.00 am, the sun start to raise and we are able to see the summit. It  look close enough and my rough estimation is 20 minutes or at most an hour.

We fit crampons on the climbing boots and connect each other with ropes through harness. We switch to Alphine climbing for the rest of the climbing. If one falls, the other two will hold and recover. It’s almost a vertical climb and even Sherpa is not anticipating that steepness and ice. Its one of the worst years for Stok Kangri climbers due to heavy ice. In a way I am loving it as I am doing it under extreme condition and will give me both encouragement and experience to climb other peaks. Its more than an hour and the summit still looks the same distance as i saw on the down of the slope. I stop estimating time and instead concentrated on my strength to push forward. My physical strength is almost zero but my mental strength is still strong. It’s more like conquering mind than summiting peak. Sherpa notice my weariness and  enquire whether I still want to go up. What looked like a 20 minute climb took 3 hours to reach the summit. I am gasping for oxygen, tired, sleep deprivation and also less food due to loss of appetite. My stored body fat is eaten away fast in body metabolism. Giving up never occur even once in my mind during that tenuous three hour climb in extreme icy condition. Everything is falling apart around me and my nervous system is in absolute wreck as brain is slowing down due to oxygen deprivation. My hand co-ordination is grumbling and I keep slipping now and then but manage to hold and climb up. At last we reach the summit. The summit has a rocky patch and a small amount of rocks piled up with Buddhist flags attached to it.

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The sun is out fully and the ice shinning on the mountain is beautiful. The view of the cloud flowing through the mountain peaks in the Ladakh range is breath taking and viewing it from the peak of the tallest mountain in the range is the most spectacular. It’s one of the most exciting moment in my life. On the summit, neither can i handle the camera nor I can talk. My lips have totally cracked even after using lip guards. I am aware that i don’t have lot of  time in the summit as the ice will start melting due to sun light and heat and the wind speed will increase. After settling down for few minutes, i start to take pictures of the summit and the surrounding peaks.

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After 20 minutes of stay in summit, we start to descent. The descent is not bad as the ice is still hard. We are able to see the panoramic view of the landscape and the glacier in which we walked during night. After an hour of descent, we decide to rest in a rock patch and recoup some energy. I close my eyes tight and slept deep for 15 minutes in hard ice. I did sleep comfortably with my sun glasses on. On further way down, I am able to see the ridge on which we walked last night. A slip or fall means certain death. Also the chance of avalanche is high. Placing ice axe strongly in wrong place may trigger an avalanche up in the slope which will land on us. Descent is faster though tiredness almost killed us. I stop counting how many time i fell during the descent. I even tore one of my pants when the crampons criss-crossed during one fall. We walk through the snow patch and finally enter the rocky terrain. Again the terrain I climbed using the night torch looked treacherous during day light. On the top of the final hill, we lay down our climbing tools and sleep facing the sun with sun glasses on. Then start to descent the hill and into the tent.

Its around mid day and the tent is hot. The sun is at his high. I can see many new tents in base camp and believe that there will be more climbers next week in the peak. That day its just me, Sherpa and guide in the summit. I have to wait for the sun to set to sleep properly but my tiredness force me to sleep inspite of so much intense heat inside the tent. I let the cool air pass through the tent by keeping it open. I am having terrible head ache after that short sleep. I took a paracetamol and started to walk by the stream side to get some fresh air. I waited for the cool air and sun to set. Jammu’s GODFATHER extra strong beer is divine drink in such a hot temperature and had a toast with Sherpa and guide as a form of accomplishment. I still can’t eat properly and able to have only one toast that night and retire to bed.

Its final day of the descent. After morning chores, I start to pack for long walk back to Stok. The estimated time to reach Stok village is 4 pm if we start at 9 am. That’s when I heard the news that a German has died in base camp one due to altitude sickness. He is young, 26 and came along with three other Germans. It looks like he misjudged altitude sickness and possibly made a quick ascent without getting the body used to altitude. Altitude sickness is nothing to do with the strength of the body and every one’s body behaves differently. Altitude impacts the performance of lungs and heart due to thin air. The lungs and heart needs time to adjust to the altitude. Unfortunately most people die when they are at sleep.

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We start to descend and reached base camp one quicker than expected. I am able to see the tent where the dead body is kept and it’s a poignant silent moment. On the way down from the base camp one to Stok Village, we walk pass a group of police officers heading towards base camp one to fetch the body to Leh. The walk is much better and the thin air is vanishing and able to breathe more generously now.

We reach Stok at 4 pm as planned and SUV is awaiting to take us back to guest house. After sharing a tea in the tea tent at Stok Village before all the rest of official formalities are completed, I return back to Leh from Stok.

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