I can pretty much say, for sure, that Stok Kangri was never on my agenda. Definitely not as the next trek. Attempting to summit a 6153m mountain isn’t on the mind-space for most! But since July 2016, Stok Kangri became more familiar. Information was shared through web links, blog posts and every other mode possible. Of all of us friends, 4 have ever been close to 5000m. And 6153m was distant even for us! But soon, six of us were in.
Our trek officially began on the 14th July. The first two days were spent leisurely at the hotel, getting acclimatized. Leh, being at a high altitude (3300m), is extremely unforgiving to those who don’t give themselves time to acclimatize. The tourist OPD at the government hospital at Leh would confirm that! Some of us took a short walk to the Hall of Fame to gear up for the trek.
On the 16th, we set off for the trek. After a short drive, we reached Matho (3600m), the start point for our trek. Our lead guide, Govind, had informed us that the first day’s trek to our campsite at Gangpochey would be quite long. A distance of 11 km, with an overall altitude gain of 700m. As per GIO’s protocol, our oxygen levels were measured, to ascertain our physical fitness for the trek. This exercise was done every day to ensure the trekkers’ oxygen levels were above par.
Matho was a lush green region, with poplar trees populating the landscape. As we hiked uphill, the landscape quickly changed. Trees became sparse. Smaller shrubs, along the river bed, were more prominent. The hills became formidable, encircling us.
Initially we encountered rivulets with bridges, giving decent photo opportunities.
Sculptures made out of animal horns also proved attractive enough for photos!
But soon, we had to undertake river crossings on foot. Gushing rivers with slippery rocks had to be crossed. That too barefoot for some of us, who didn’t get floaters! River crossings were group activities, to take advantage of strength in numbers. And with the water close to 8-9 deg C, it wasn’t that much fun when you are waiting in the river for others to join in the group, or when others wanted to dispose off their malfunctioning footwear!!
The landscapes turned barren soon, as we began the final steep climb towards our campsite for the day.
And the long, tiresome walk was completely worth it, even before reaching the campsite. You can see the path that we took, on the right side of the pic. And the scenery looked quite similar to what we used to draw in our art class. Mountains with a river passing through it in a weaving manner.
After the 9 hour long arduous hike, the campsite was eagerly awaited. Hot tea was had in the company of this breathtaking view! The various hues on the mountains were accentuated by the sunlight filtering through the scattered clouds.
Our second day began on a happy note, with nature rewarding us early risers with some spectacular views.
Today, our target was to reach Mankarno (4200m) after crossing Mato Pass at around 5000m. This would give us more time to acclimatize to the high altitude. The trekking route via Gangpochey isn’t the usual trekking route to the Stok Basecamp. Most trekkers start from Stok Village and do a 10 km hike to reach Mankarno directly at the end of the first day. Our trek itinerary was better tailored for acclimatization. And our return route would be via Stok village so that we don’t miss out on the visuals there as well!
After a short downhill hike to cross a river, we began climbing steadily uphill towards Mato Pass.
We took short breaks in between to admire the landscapes (and to catch our breaths).
Some of us tried jumping, some of us tried to click the ones jumping, and some finally succeeded!
After around 4 hours of hiking, we reached Mato Pass where we were rewarded with a very clear view of Stok Kangri.
The majestic peak teased us with its presence. The windy pass gave lots of photo opportunities.
Soon our mules also caught up with us. Some selfies were taken. Mules weren’t amused by our antics.
After a longish break at the pass, we resumed our hike towards our campsite for the second day. We really appreciated the steady downhill hike after the uphill hike towards the pass! Lunch was had at a quick halt in the midst of a meadow overlooked by the Stok Kangri peak itself. And this was the last time we would see the peak until the summit day itself!
After a final river crossing, we arrived at our campsite for the evening. At 4200m, we hadn’t gained much altitude over our last campsite, but the 8 hour long hike was critical to keep us in good physical condition. And the landscapes at Mankarno was distinctly different from the one at Gangpochey. We were camping right next to the flowing Stok river.
The campsite also had a well-stocked store which served much of trekkers’ needs including beer and rum! This was definitely the first time I saw any such store in my short trekking history.
On day 3 of the trek, we would reach Stok Kangri Basecamp at 5000m. The hike was short, around 4 hours max) during which would gain around 800m in altitude. The hike was completely along the Stok river bed with a relatively steep climb at the end nearing the base camp.
During this hike, we met many trekkers who were returning from the summit or the summit-attempt. I mention attempt here as the high altitude and unpredictable weather makes the summit completion a very low probability event. Our guides had informed us earlier that less than 30% of the trekkers are able to summit the peak. All of us had our fingers crossed!
Upon reaching the basecamp, we found it to resemble more like a smallish town rather than just a campsite! It had trekkers who had returned from summit attempt a day earlier, trekkers who were going to attempt the summit on that night, trekkers who were waiting for weather to clear and trekkers like us, who had just joined the group. But the base camp location was such that looking around the camp was a pleasure.
Our trek attempt would begin on the night of Day 4.
We were supposed to have a practice hike in the evening of Day 3, to gain altitude and acclimatize better. But torrential rains from late afternoon to evening made this impossible. Additionally, we had to test out our rental snow shoes (Scarpa Shoes) and try to comfortable in. At this point, I had no inkling that these shoes would become such a big part of this story! We called it an early night and the shoes and technical training on “roping up” was put off for the next day morning.
After the usual breakfast and morning chores, the Scarpa shoes and crampons took prominence. A significant part of the summit climb would be in deep snow and the snow shoes with crampons around them would be our only way to continue the climb. As soon as we wore the shoes, we knew that we were in for a struggle. The hard plastic shoes had very less “give” forcing our movements to be stiff and also painful. Our guides instructed us on the “roping up” (a very common way of navigating difficult snowy and icy terrain to avoid accidents).
We were trained to use ice-axes to arrest our falls and others’ falls. Even though it seemed like a fun activity then (rolling around in the snow is damn fun!!), we definitely needed those skills on our summit day.
When roped up and in the snow shoes, we realized that our pace of walking was glacial and it would be a longer trek to the summit, if at all we were to succeed. The first part of the trek towards the summit would be on solid ground. It was decided that we would leave for the summit climb at 10 pm, so that we could reach the summit before the weather turned for worse. The summit attempt would be over a difficult terrain, with an altitude gain of over 1150m. The gradients were expected to be steep and treacherous in equal parts. We expected to reach the summit by around 6 or 7am. And be back at the basecamp by around 2 pm. Neither of those were going to happen.
We started at around 10:30pm, with our headlamps at full brightness, our daypacks filled with water, crampons and food. Our harnesses were in place, for roping up after the glacier hike was finished and we reached the ridge and shoulder portions of the summit. I dropped the idea of carrying the DSLR for the summit climb, hoping that shedding the extra weight would help me push further.
After many stops and starts over 3 hours (each restart renewed the pain on the feet, somehow continued walking alleviated the pain a bit), we finally reached the beginning of the glacier at 0130 hrs. The initial glacier climb was gradual and could be negotiated without using the crampons. But within an hour or so of the climb, the snow was loose and the crampons became essential. A bit of the last day’s training and a lot of the guides’ help (hooking the crampons in the freezing temperatures wasn’t an easy task), the crampons were secure and our climb continued.
Usually while negotiating steep glaciers, trekkers take a zigzag route to ease out the climbing gradient. But the trekkers before us, who created the route had created a straight and steep path towards the final ridge nearing the summit (the use of the word “near” is a misnomer!). So, we were climbing through a gradient of nearly 80-85 degrees in deep snow. We could feel the air thinning around us. My lungs were burning after counting just 20 long steps on the glacier. Heart rates were a lot higher and refused to normalize even after taking breaks. Our guides were constantly egging us on and pushing us. 20 steps soon became 40 steps, pushing us to cross our limits. The moraine at the top of the glacier climb was the carrot that we were pursuing relentlessly. Time flew, energy levels took a severe hit and the throbbing pain in the feet was soon forgotten. Only single minded focus on reaching the summit remained, irrespective of how sore our bodies would be at the end. At around 0630 hours (nearly 5 hours to negotiate the glacier), we reached the start of the final ridge.
This is what the glacier looked like.
The summit could be seen clearly, but the path to it was going to be much harder than what we had done so far. After a short break at the top of the glacier, we all began our climb towards the summit over the ridge.
If walking with snow shoes and crampons on snow at high gradient was difficult, walking with them on unstable rocks was a nightmare! Soon we had to rope up to make sure that we didn’t encounter any mishaps on the way up. But this meant that everyone had to climb at the pace of the group. The freezing temperatures, tiredness and the chilly winds made it difficult to communicate with each other. After climbing for another 2 hours, we took another longish break.
After an hour of steady climbing, finally we could see prayer flags. And in the Ladakh range, the sign of prayer flags can only be of something positive!!
Soon we were there!! At Stok Kangri summit!! At 6153m!! Our highest ever climb!! By a long margin.
The emotions running through me about an event that I had been imagining for nearly a year cannot be explained in words. All of my past treks flashed by my eyes, trying to figure out whether I was emotional at any of those summits! Only Roopkund came close. All of us flopped down on the snow, for some rest and some well-earned snacks of nuts!
We spent an hour up there, trying to take in the scenes as much as we could. The Karakoram Range on one side of the summit was completely covered in clouds. Even the other ranges around the summit were barely visible. Lots of photos were clicked, to capture these memories for eternity.
Weather was going to turn for the worse soon and we had to make our way down the treacherous path towards the basecamp. The ridge, the glacier, the final downhill hike, all had to be negotiated. And soon.
After the high of completing the summit, the downhill trek seemed even more difficult. More than a couple of times, our skill training the previous day had to be put to use. The phones were securely kept inside the daypack. So obviously I lost track of time. We reached the top of the glacier after some time. Traversing the glacier while going downhill by walk was going to be slow and risky with the melting snow as well as dangerously low energy levels. So we decided to slide our way down. Sliding down around 10 feet of snow might seem like a lot of fun, but sliding down more than 300m or so is fraught with risks. And just for the information, snow makes everything wet!!
We slid down as much as we could and then began covering the rest by walking. Our feet sunk in till our knees at every step, making the walk downhill harder. By this point, I was delirious and at one point I could “see” cows grazing on the glacier. I could see the Advanced Base Camp around a km of walk from me, but had to make my own way through the vast glacier. And unfortunately, at one step, my left leg completely broke through the snow and got dipped in ice cold glacier water. My socks were completely soaked in icy water. Still I continued to push through to reach the advanced base camp and rest for a while before others caught up. Our guides had sent information ahead and to my surprise, I found hot tea and biscuits waiting for me at the Advanced Base Camp (and no, it wasn’t a delusion!!). The effect of the icy water dipped leg took over, and I was shivering uncontrollably while trying to have the tea. One of the guides helped me to take off my shoes and the socks and gave his normal trekking shoes for me to climb the rest of the way down. The downhill climb was quick and over in 30 mins. I remembered that we had taken over 3 hours to reach till this point from the base camp. Maybe it was the snow shoes, maybe it was the climb. Before I knew, I had finished my dinner and crashed in my tent.
The summit day was over.
The summit was conquered.
I could finally rest now.
Day 5 was our last trekking day and it was all downhill. A leisurely hike of around 14 kms, along the Stok River, to reach Stok village.
A triumphant group pic before we said our goodbyes to Stok Kangri Base Camp.
As the walk downhill was predominantly along the banks of the river, that too on a hot and humid day, the only challenge that we faced was being dehydrated rapidly. The views were still spectacular all along our walk.
Leisurely stroll gave us ample opportunities for selfies and random posing pics.
And some very creative ones!
We reached Chang Ma Pass, after a few hours of walking.
We took in the views for one last time before leaving the place.
And soon we were at Stok Village. And ready for some serious partying!!!