Stok Kangri and Ladakh

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After many months of preparation, training, researching, attending our early summer training weekend, a few hundred emails and some extreme bag packing, the Trek & Mountain Stok Kangri 2015 Expedition team were ready to go. We had a committed team with broad ranging experience gained everywhere from the Alps to the Himalayas and South America to Africa – all were ready for the challenge of the highest mountain in Ladakh’s Stok mountain range.

Stok Kangri is a stunning mountain. At 6,150m, it comfortably breaks into the ranks of the 6,000ers and its interesting ascent line and beautiful walk-in make it a must do on every Himalayan aspirant’s tick list. This year’s early season on Stok had been dominated by very changeable weather and some heavy snow, so there was an air of uncertainty about our adventure. Uncertainty exacerbated by reports just before we left of some trekkers being airlifted from flood-hit valleys and villages. We had discussed the situation before leaving and sought information from many sources and there was no advice against travel to Ladakh – in the end the team decided we would, in the best traditions of mountaineering, go and ‘have a look’.

The team, arriving from various UK destinations, slowly assembled in a rain-soaked Delhi for our first evening meal, most members having met on the training weekend or on a flight. Our flight to Leh, the capital of Ladakh, was leaving in the very early hours of the following morning, so after dinner we headed off to bed to catch a few hours. Flying in to Leh is a brilliant experience. As the plane banks over the mountains and swoops onto the small runway you see, for the first time, the barren striated rock contrasted against the lush irrigated valley base. It’s a tranquil and beautiful place and every time I come I see people climb off the plane and stand on the small runway taking photos. This time was no exception. I eventually managed to drag the team away and we headed to the small guesthouse that would be our home for the next few days.

As Leh sits at 3,500m, it is essential for new arrivals to take time to allow their bodies to adjust to the altitude. Our first few days revolved around plenty of rest interspersed with daily acclimatisation walks in the surrounding area. Leh has some pleasant religious ‘stupas’ that sit conveniently on hilltops overlooking the centre and they make a great way to gain some height, gain a better insight into the culture that makes Ladakh so special, and get further great views of the mountains. Each day we also ran training sessions where we discussed emergency equipment, shared information on group kit and discussed vital skills like water purification and staying healthy in the mountains.

Soon enough it was time to leave on our journey towards Stok Kangri. Although you could head straight to Base Camp from Stok Village, the camp sits at 5,050m and so it is essential to take an approach that maximises acclimatisation time. Approaching the mountain over several days also meant we could take a circular route that would minimise time travelling the same ground and allow time to fully enjoy the range. For the trekking and ascent phase some of the team members kindly volunteered to share their experiences by writing daily sections…

Day 1 – Zingchen to Rumbak – Caroline
It had been a long time coming but finally our bags were packed, checked, repacked and given the seal of approval by Paul. We were ready to go mountaineering in the Stok range! We loaded the equipment into four-wheel drives and headed through some stunning and yet barren terrain to our starting point at Jingchen. I was expecting a village, but Jingchen is really just the site of a small camping ground and an end point on the dirt road. Several trucks were waiting for us, and as we prepared ourselves we could see the staff team unloading sacks of vegetables, kerosene stoves, chairs and (I was delighted to see) a few boxes of Snickers bars! Alongside the trucks were our mules. We had 16 animals that would be carrying the mountain of equipment along with our personal kit. At the side there was also a lone mule waiting. Paul had arranged that a spare mule would accompany our team and, whereas the equipment mules went along at their own pace, this mule would always be with us and carrying emergency equipment. The mule also had a saddle in case one of the team needed emergency transport. By coincidence this animal had a small red woolly bobble on the top of his head and the team soon nicknamed him ‘Ambumule’.

The trek followed a broad valley. It was a very hot day and we stopped frequently under shady trees for drinks. After such a long lead up to the expedition it felt great to be on our way. The Ladakh landscape is very beautiful, barren in some ways and yet the lush greenery next to the river and the striated rock formations add plenty of interest. This wasn’t a long day, although we gained 300m before turning a corner and seeing our small campsite waiting ahead. The campsites here are simple patches of fenced-off ground with a long-drop toilet and often next to a tumbling river. We set up the tents and busied ourselves during the afternoon with washing, familiarising ourselves with the extravagance that comes with having a dedicated cook team and mess tent but mostly with relaxing and enjoying the ambience of this tranquil corner of this mighty mountain range. I felt very, very content.

Day 2 – Rumbak to Upper Stok La Campsite – Martin
As became the pleasant routine, we were woken at 7am with a cup of ‘bed tea’. Paul had told us to expect this but nothing really prepared us for how welcome and decadent it was as a member of the kitchen staff greeted you at your tent door with a smile and a teapot of steaming tea. Even better, bed tea was followed shortly afterwards by a bowl of hot water for washing – also much appreciated. When we emerged for breakfast we were greeted by more of the glorious clear blue skies that we had become use to since arriving in Ladakh. After a breakfast of cornflakes, omelette and as much toast as we could manage, we dropped camp and set off on our morning walk. The route took us up a wide valley in the direction of the Stok La Pass, which we could just make out in the far distance at the top of the valley. This was to be our target for tomorrow.

As we rounded a corner we saw the village of Rumbak ahead. This is a small settlement nestled in the lee of the broad valley and it was to be the last village we would pass on the whole trek. Rumbak is another demonstration of the ingenuity of the Ladakhi people as they have managed, in this dry and hostile environment, to irrigate and cultivate sections with lush crops of wheat and grass. At the village we were given a short tour of the small monastery and we also took a look inside a typical homestay, open to any traveller passing through who wishes to stay a night. We continued up the valley, every now and then passing to the left (as per Buddhist tradition) of one of the numerous small Gompas that dot the valley. We passed through the 4,000m height mark and eventually reached our camp at around 4,200m. The camp site was on a little rocky plateau with just a stream and toilet. We pitched our tents quickly to get out of the afternoon sun before lunch in the mess tent. The afternoon was mostly spent relaxing in the tents and admiring the view through the tent door and back down the valley. Before dinner, we had a brief session on boots and crampons to check everyone was happy with the way the fitting system worked. The evening meal consisted of lamb shanks for the carnivores and vegetable cutlets for the vegetarians plus plenty of accompanying vegetables. After some games of cards and plenty of banter, we hit our tents in preparation for our early start climbing the Stok La Pass.

Day 3 – Upper Stok La Campsite to Mankermo – Paul
After two shorter days, the team were primed for this day being a tough challenge. We would start the day with 750m of ascent before a long section of traverse, a descent to the main Stok valley and then a walk up the valley base to Mankermo. We made a very early start and weaved a path up to the pass. The Stok La, at 4,850m, is about as high as the top of the Alps and everyone was aware it would test them. Slow and steady wins the race at altitude and yet, with a very steady pace and a few stops en route, we still made it to the top in a very good time of two and a half hours. From the top of the pass a whole new vista opens up and we spent some time taking photos and enjoying the views before starting the traverse across to the Stok valley. Ladakh’s striated rock creates beautiful and dramatic rock features and, although I’ve walked this way many times, I always love this section. A final steep descent brought us, via a lunch stop, to the Stok valley. This huge deep river bed is, at this time of year at least, a small tumbling watercourse but it’s clear from the debris and scale of the water channels that this becomes a raging torrent at other times in the year.

After about 2km of wandering up and across and around boulders, we were at our new temporary home. This valley is busier and, although we found a tucked away corner to set up camp, it felt strange to be surrounded by other people after the wilderness feel of the last few days. Everyone felt, quite rightly, very proud of their achievement today. The length of the day, the amount of ascent and descent and the tricky terrain had all added up to a significant challenge but, as we relaxed in camp, it was good to see everyone looking relaxed and well. Things looked good for our ascent to Base Camp the next day.

Day 4 – Mankermo to Stok Kangri Base Camp – Janneke
Our goal today was Stok Kangri Base Camp! After our daily ritual of morning tea, hot water for washing, and a proper breakfast, we resumed our slow but steady pace upwards. On the way, yaks willingly posed for pictures and there were the constant stunning views to occupy us. The weather gradually deteriorated and soon we had some light hailstones and rain to contend with. While still being careful to walk slowly enough in the increasing altitude, we quickened our pace slightly and arrived at Base Camp just as more persistent hail stones started falling. Arriving here felt like a significant milestone on our journey and Paul was waiting there to shake hands and offer celebratory hugs.

There were a lot of tents here and it was by far the busiest campsite we had visited so far. The camp sits in a flat bowl with steep slopes leading up on every side. Fortunately for us, there is also a small cafe here which has been constructed from ex-Indian Air Force parachutes and we disappeared inside to wait for the worst of the hailstorm to pass. Unbeknownst to us, while we were enjoying a hot cup of tea, our staff team were putting up our tents, cooking tent, and mess tent. When we emerged from the cafe tent, our tents were waiting and soon a hot lunch was ready. Stormy weather continued most of the afternoon and evening and Base Camp was soon covered with snow. I love the feeling of being safely cocooned in a tent during bad weather and the afternoon passed pleasantly with some napping and reading. At some point later I was awoken by another call – time to gather in the mess tent for another superb meal, hot chocolate and several games of cards.

Day 5 – Stok Kangri Base Camp – Steve
We were now to spend a full day at Base Camp but it wasn’t all going to be rest. Paul wanted to run some additional training on roping together and crampon and ice axe use, plus head a few hundred metres above the camp to aid acclimatisation. Even so, we had a slightly longer than normal lie-in and a leisurely breakfast before setting out. The path we followed out of camp was to be the one we would be heading along in the early hours of the next morning and I was surprised at how steep it was. We adopted the usual slow and steady approach and eventually arrived at a small col, with a big surprise – from here we would get the view of Stok Kangri we had all been waiting to see! Everyone was quite quiet. It looked like a mighty objective and I had that usual mix of anxiety mixed with excitement at facing a new challenge.
Stok Kangri is a ‘proper mountain’! That is, it has the distinctive mountain shape that entices you and draws you towards standing on its summit. We donned crampons and practised stomping around on the moraine field and learned about tying a group together on a rope. After all the training was completed it all felt more imminent. We descended to camp and after lunch we set about packing our summit equipment. Paul was very specific about the things he wanted us to bring and so it was a fairly painless job. I just about managed to get everything into the Lowe Alpine Peak Attack rucksack that had become my trusted friend on this adventure (thanks Lowe Alpine!) and, after gasping slightly at the weight of it all, settled down to try and get some rest.

We had an early dinner at 5.30pm and then headed off to our tents. The plan was to get up at 10.30pm and, after some porridge at 11pm, leave for our summit bid at around 11.30pm. There was an air of nervous tension in the camp and I found it very hard to sleep. It seemed like just after I’d drifted off, the alarm buzzed me back into a cold and dark reality. It was time to go.

Day 6 – Stok Kangri Ascent – Dom
It was warm in my sleeping bag and I didn’t want to get up. The air temperature was very cold and although normally I would refuse to shrug off the bonds of sleep on this occasion, nervousness, apprehension and excitement did their job and I rose quickly. My tent partner was also stirring and, with our equipment already prepared, it was a simple task of pulling on our various technical layers. Once ready we headed to the mess tent to meet the rest of the team. Everyone tried to eat and drink although, after only a few hours of sleep and with our minds full of nervous anticipation, it was difficult. We knew this would be the last substantial food we’d get for at least 12 hours. Expedition leader Paul soon called us to arms and we headed out into the cold. We had walked the first section out of camp as part of a final acclimatisation walk the previous day and so we knew it was a steep and unrelenting 200m climb. All we could do was follow a beam of torchlight and the slow methodical footsteps of the person in front. Even with the effort, I had a sense of happiness at this point. Until this moment, there had always been a sense that this was a challenge that seemed far away but now I was here, ready and fit, after days of preparation and acclimatisation.

After the initial steep section we followed a well-worn path etched into the mountain by the pilgrims that had gone before. Minutes seemed to drag on forever but it was deceptive and every time I looked at my watch another 30, 40 or 50 minutes had gone. It was in this way that our small group, almost surprised, reached the glacier. We strapped on crampons and, with axes primed, made our way across the snow towards our goal. The snow was firm and we made steady progress, although in my mind I jumped between confidence at summiting and nagging self-doubts.

I became aware that the angle of the slope had changed and we started to zigzag up steeper ground. It was still completely dark and it was easiest to lose myself in the step, step, step of putting one foot in front of the other. We stopped occasionally to force down a bit of chocolate and some liquid and, as we passed 5,500m, the first dull glow of sunrise started to show. Occasionally during those long hours I found myself smiling, the realisation of where I was and what had already been achieved adding fuel to the motivational fire. Although the climb seemed endless, the daylight at least brought our target into sight and we eventually arrived at a ridge. We were at our staging point for the summit. My altimeter read just short of 5,900m. We were close although I now noticed, more than ever, the fatigue starting to seep in. We roped up and although every action was a mental and physical effort, we were soon ready. All thoughts were now focused on one single goal, that one last push to the summit. We headed up. A mind-numbing 90 minutes later and the summit ridge was a stunning sight to behold and even better to stand on. The ground stretches away on both sides here, disappearing into barren valleys, and I realised that some of the insignificant peaks I could see in the distance were the size of the Alpine mountains that on any other day would seem to me to be a worthy goal. There is a sense of majesty in the Greater Ranges that I haven’t experienced anywhere else.
The summit dome loomed into sight and, with a last almighty effort, we inched our way toward it. Summit hugs, summit fatigue and summit smiles all merged into a powerful and unforgettable shared experience. Our small group had joined the expedition as individuals but now we stood together as a team.

Day 7 – Stok Kangri Base Camp to Leh – Penny
It was our final day in the mountains and there were many things we were going to miss – 7.30am and our last ‘wake up’ tea was the first, this time with the news that a herd of wild mountain goats was grazing on the edge of Base Camp. Over our last camp breakfast we discussed tipping our team of cooks and pony men; yesterday’s exertions had taken their toll and the relatively simple maths took a while. In the end, it got sorted and we presented the tips with much hand-shaking and posed for a celebratory group picture. And then we were off. ‘Walking out’ sounded rather dull after the previous day’s summit adventures but this trip managed to surprise us once more. Our path took us through exceptional scenery and proved a fitting end to our Ladakh trek. Our route descended the Stok valley and for a large part of the way, a giant river bed which had us imagining the torrent it would become in the spring. On both sides, soaring purple and rust coloured cliffs veered up with crazy upended strata of jagged rock. Lower down, lime green patches of vegetation dotted the flanks of the hills and by our path, wild flowers: edelweiss, lilac asters, and clumps of giant daisies, as well as less familiar pinky scented bushes and bright yellow flowers.

The valley seemed full of other life too. There was the traffic of ponies and donkeys taking supplies up and down the hill, the marmots, vultures and noisy Alpine choughs all putting in appearances, and a wandering mountain dog that decided to keep us company as we descended – and of course there was our own sporadic chatter! Some relived the literal ups and downs of summit day while other more random conversations included Volvos, parenthood or how good that first shower was going to be. We passed one of the frequent painted mottoes which summed it up for me: ‘You are travelling the path of friendship now’.

After a final rest at another stunning prayer flag-strewn viewpoint, we were on our last leg to Stok village. The lush green irrigated edges of the village appeared and as we walked down to our waiting taxi a part of me wished it wasn’t over. It’s always hard leaving the wildness of the mountains, however much hot water and WiFi appeal. A short ride home and we were back in a world of shops, cafes, comfy beds, and showers – and we were going to enjoy all of them in a way that’s only possible after a week in the mountains. Following our successful summit, spirits were, as you would expect, really high. Given the challenging conditions, the ascent felt extra special, although after seven days in the mountains, the first shower came a very close second! After a rest and some food, the team hit the bars of Leh and it was time to relax and relish the experience. A final day in Leh was followed by a journey back to Delhi and on to the Taj Mahal. The world’s most famous ‘monument to love’ is a must-see for visitors to India and it was a great finale to a very successful expedition.

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