Stok KangriIt is for a first time that I got a chance to climb higher than 20,000 feet. Fortunately, I could make it, but all I can say that it was a success only due to chance, and not by choice.
The summit was wonderful, but there were a lot of lessons learnt.
Stok Kangri is the highest mountain in the Leh region. There are many mountains higher than Stok Kangri, and this is usually called a “trekking peak”. It’s a different matter that it no longer carried that designation, due to the heavy snowfall this season. The trip from Sonamarg to Leh was an about 26 hours of travel on the Jammu and Kashmir Road Transport Corporation (JKRTC), and was by far one of the most interesting rides of my life. I call that long, tiring and eventful journey as the Pre-Expedition.
10th June, 2012 (End of long and tiring journey)We reached Leh at around 4:30 pm, after an arduous journey from Sonamarg, which started the day before at 2:30 pm. It was one of the most interesting journeys of my life, and whosoever is interested in reading about it, can go here.
We were sitting in front of Mr. Dorje, who heads the travel company “Discover Ladakh”, with its office on Changspa road in Leh. After the initial discussion on the equipment rental which Om needed, we got on with the main discussion – departing for Stok village,
11th June, 2012 (DMS Intensify)We got up, to see dark clouds in the Stok valley, just like the previous day, and our moods dampened. Om was of the opinion that we should not even go and stay at the Stok village. Sitting in front of Mr. Dorje, he suggested that we take it easy that day too, and head out of Leh the next day, as there was no chance according to him, that we could go further than the village. At that moment, I was surprised to hear Om spell out a plan – he asked Mr. Dorje about a “Plan B”. He asked Mr. Dorje, if the weather doesn’t clear even the next day, would there be a chance that we could maybe head out of Leh, and do a small trek in the region. I wouldn’t say that he was wrong. We were just spending money staying at the hotel, and eating out in the town. Considering that we had about 1 week, a trek somewhere would have at least made us do some “activity” instead of just roaming around like tourists, which we were not interested in doing, at all. As much as I agreed with his idea, for the last 5 months, my mind was just focused on one thing – Stok Kangri, and I could not even think of doing anything else but to go and climb that mountain, even if it meant sitting it out at the base camp, in rain, for a clear weather window to come up. Mr. Dorje suggested a 3-day trek, which he called a “baby trek”, and a 5-day trek, which was an intermediate trek. DMS 2 – Should we completely abandon the plan to climb Stok Kangri, and go instead for a trek in the Ladakhi Himalayan range? As the weather didn’t show any chance of opening up, Mr. Dorje suggested we go and take a walk around the city. So, we started walking towards Shanti Stupa, a Buddhist monument made by the Japanese. The road to the monument led from in front of our home stay. As we started going up on the road, I opened up my mind to Om by saying – “I think, we should not go for any trek. I and you have practiced for the last 5 months, and all I have been thinking about is to summit the mountain.” Om’s viewpoint was also not wrong, of doing “something” instead of “nothing”. It’s just that for me that “something” was “climbing Stok Kangri”, which was “everything”. There was no other plan that even cropped up in my mind. On the way to Shanti Stupa, I was able to convince Om of one thing – that we should at least to go the base camp, and wait it out for a clear weather window. I could see that reluctance in his agreement, and I hated to force it down his throat, but we had come all this way to do this, and for me, there was absolutely no other alternative. After the customary photos at the Shanti Stupa, we walked across small nearby villages, to go and climb a couple of hundred feet to the fort in Leh, after which we took the trail to the Leh Palace.
12th June, 2012 (Started from Leh, finally!)Mr. Dorje introduced me to Tashi Norbu,
13th June, 2012 (To go or not to go)Om got up saying that he didn’t have a good night’s sleep, and he was cold the entire night. He has a good Lafuma down sleeping bag, which was rated to -1 degree centigrade, but I guess, it didn’t make the cut. Also, he said, he had a very bad dream about his son, which made him a little nervous.
We broke camp, and started towards Mankarmo,
Within an hour and a half, we reached a campsite, and when we were going to unload our backpacks to set up camp, we saw Tashi walk in a different direction, pointing us to join him in that direction. This campsite was newly established, and both Om and I thought it to be Mankarmo.
Weather at Mankarmo camp was not so good. At higher altitudes, we could see dark clouds hovering above the summit. As soon as we set up camp, we see a figure walking towards us, from the base camp. He was a French national, who had climbed in the Alps as well as Nepal Himalayas. He looked so exhausted that he first had to rest, take in deep breaths, and have a bottle of coke. It is only after these three things that he spoke – “It’s impossible. You have knee and sometimes waist deep snow, and it takes a lot of effort to break trail and climb. You really need to have strong legs, if you want to summit. This incident was followed by another team of two French, who looked pros, but could not summit.
I feel, Information can be both good and bad. This information was bad. Having seen the French guys, Om was in a double mind, whether to go up to the base camp or not. The conversations with them even worked on my psyche, and I told myself – “if it has snowed so heavily and if these two guys could not make it, then there is no way in this world that we would be able to go for it.” Here is where nature played a critical role in us deciding whether to go further or to turn back.
That day, there were three teams at Mankarmo. One was us. Second was a group of 4 Brits, one Spaniard and one Canadian. They had struck a good deal with one of the trekking agencies in Leh, and had climbed up straight from Stok village to Mankarmo, albeit with day packs on their backs. The third team was an Indian group, which had started from Rhumbak, climbed and descended StokLa and had walked up to Mankarmo.
14th June, 2012 – (Reverse Gear)We woke up in the morning to heavy snowfall. Our tents were all white, and it was white on the ground everywhere. We came out of the tent, and saw the weather up near the base camp go from bad to worse. And then, all of a sudden, the snowfall stopped.
Om and I decided to stick around at Mankarmo, and if and when the weather cleared, we would also go up to the base camp, take pretty pictures, and come back and stay at Mankarmo. The next day, we wind up everything, we head back down, pre-pone our tickets, and reach Pune before the 16th of June, which was my son’s birthday. With this decision, we let Tashi leave for Leh, with all the equipment that we had rented (Ice Ax, Gaiters, Crampons, Harness and climbing boots) for Om. As we sipped on tea, the weather cleared, and it became as bright as ever. The Indian team had left, and their cooks and porters were winding up stuff.
We headed up to the base camp. I carried the day pack with chocolates, Frooti, cheese and some dry fruits for our trek up and back.
With a sad feeling and a heavy heart, I started back for Mankarmo. As fate would have had it, a guide was going to the base camp, to help the Indian team in attempting the summit. He had met Om at Mankarmo, and knew about our situation. So, after a brief chat, he offered – “If you have the capacity to walk, I will surely take you to the summit.” It is impossible to state how much enthusiasm this statement infused inside me. I knew that I could walk; in fact I had trained so hard for this expedition that I was ready to give my best for the summit attempt.
My mind was in a state of confusion all the way down to Mankarmo. Time for DMS – 7 – Should I tell Om of meeting with this guide? Can I convince him to come up with me to the base camp the next day, and let me go for the summit? Would he agree or would he press for both of us to go down? With these thoughts racing through my mind, I met Om, and told him of this chance encounter. The decision to split ways was easy. I tried my level best to persuade him to come up to the base camp with me the next day, but he had pretty much made up his mind to go back to Leh. One of the reasons that Om got tired while going to the base camp was that we had not had breakfast. I was sure that the next day, with a good breakfast, he would easily make it. Whether or not I make the summit, its always great to see somebody you know at the campsite, when you return. I tried to tell Om that I would like him to be with me at the base camp. But, it was tough to change his mind. Mentally, he was already in Leh. The restaurant owner at Mankarmo – Jayo (who studied in Nagpur, a city in my state) was also a little excited that I would be at least attempting the summit. He didn’t like the idea of both of us returning back from Mankarmo, and not attempting the summit at all. He was busy painting and decorating his restaurant premises, and he wrote a quote on a stone slab, and told me – this is for you.
15th June, 2012 – (Going solo, physically and psychologically)Leaving one’s partner in the mountain is not the best thing to do, and one should not do it. DMS – 8 – Should I go to the base camp, and attempt the summit or should I go ahead with Om to Leh, as planned? The conflict in my mind was raging, and a conversation with Om helped me take a decision faster. He was very supportive of me going for the summit attempt, and told me that he didn’t think, he would be able to make it even to the base camp, lest the summit.
As Tashi had left, I was left with two options – to carry the gear, food and the tent or look for a horse who could take my stuff up. Luckily, I found one guy, who was ready to take my backpack, and my tent, as he had a spare horse. So, I was at the base camp at around 2:30 pm. The Indian team had aborted the summit bid, and was packing for their return journey. The Brits had gone up for the summit, and had not yet returned. The Canadian girl, Alex, had not gone with the 4 guys, as she felt sick and uneasy in the morning when they left.
The Brits returned pretty late, but made the summit. It was the first summit of the season. I thought, I could’ve been a part of their success story, had I camped the earlier night at the base camp. The guide that had agreed to come with me started acting pricey. He said, it snowed last night, so the fees for him to take me would be a little higher. He knew for a fact that it was after discussing with him that I had taken the big decision to not go to Leh, and attempt the summit. In the end, we decided on an average of his asking price and my paying price. He was acting as if he was my client. I agree that he was not in the helper / cook / porter category, but it was me who was cooking meals for him, making tea for him. I had my stove, and I didn’t have my own cook, so I could not tell him to just go cook for himself. The afternoon lunch was a pre-mixed rice preparation, which he didn’t like much. In the evening, I was going to cook Upma for him, which he declined. So, I offered him porridge. After a bowl of porridge, he said, its too sweet, and would like to have something non-sweet. To our surprise, the kitchen staff of the American couple who had come, agreed to serve him dal-rice, which excited him.
With all gear, summit attempt food and water split and sorted, I slid inside my sleeping bag at 6 pm, with an agreement that we would wake up at 10:30, I would prepare soup for both of us, have it, and then leave for the summit at 11.
16th June, 2012 – (Alone, on the summit)An extremely cold wave woke me up abruptly. As I saw my guide (Santosh) sleeping besides me, I was horrified to see the tent door open. Wide open! I never realized when Santosh came inside the tent, and I was even more surprised to see how one could just leave the door open, when it was 5 to 10 degrees below 0 outside? I looked at my watch – 11 pm. And, I woke him up stating that it was 11, and we should be heading out as soon as possible. He said, it was not a big deal, and I should start getting ready. While putting on my outer shell, I noticed that I had seen the time with blurry eyes, and it was not 11, but 12. 10 minutes had passed, and it was 10 past 12. We were an hour late already, and we needed to hurry.
The routine followed – getting out of the tent in biting cold, and putting on boots, gaiters, gloves harness, clipping on the carabiner, carrying the crampons, all in the headlamp’s light. We hit the trail at around 12:45 am, and were on the ridge at 1:25 am.
About an hour later, all of a sudden, Santosh made a remark – “If we can’t summit before 8 am, then it is not going to happen.” It must have been 6 am, and I was wondering as to why he would make such a comment. And, then came his toilet time. He told me to continue climbing, while he took a dump, after which he would join me. I continued, and about 100 feet up, I saw him all done, and sitting on his backpack. I called his name thrice, to which he just waved his hand. Unable to understand, DMS – 10 cropped up – Should I climb down 100 feet, and ask if he was OK? Should I continue, or should I wait for him to climb up and join me? I listened to my gut feeling, and continued breaking trail in the soft snow. It was extremely tiring, when I would step up 1 foot, and slide down 2 feet, just due to the softness of the snow. Also, whenever the snow-covered-rock section came up, my foot used to go thigh-deep.
I could see the ridge up there,
I climbed on, only to realize that the ridge I was anticipating wasn’t there. In fact, the last point I saw was not even half way. This is when I asked myself – DMS – 11 – Should I go for the summit? Should I return back? Should I just peep beyond the ridge, and see how far the summit was, from there? I felt good physically, I was not tired at all, no dizziness, no cramps, nothing. The weather was clear, and possibly, the summit could be just round the corner (i.e. beyond the ridge). I told myself to continue, but with some discipline. By discipline, I meant – spotting a nearer goal – a rock outcrop or a lumped-up-snow ball, and slowly get there – 10 steps, followed by 10 deep breaths. Once I reached the goal, I spotted another one 50-60 feet above – 10 steps / 10 breaths. And the loop seemed to continue indefinitely. By now, I was determined to go for the summit, and this was for a couple of reasons:
- I had trained really hard for this, for a long time, and that too, at sea-level. I wanted to see if training at sea-level could put me on the summit of a Himalayan peak.
- It was the 16th of June, and it was my son’s birthday.
- If I summit, I would be the first Indian to summit the mountain this year, which is kind of a rare distinction.
- I really wanted to break the 20K limit / ceiling, preparing myself for higher climbs in the future, and this was the best chance.
Getting that plastic-wrapped-sticky-straw out, piercing the frooti and drinking it, with 2 layers of gloves on, can be one of the most frustrating experiences in this world. Also, peeling off two layers of a Cadbury, and breaking it to get the required energy is a similar one. I took a break, had some chocolate, 1 frooti, and headed on with the climb.
There was a rock patch at the end, beyond which I could not see anything. Did I see prayer flags? No. I slowly climbed up to the rock patch. I could see another rock patch on the far right. Did I see prayer flags? No. Looking at the mountain from Leh, I knew that there is a huge cornice that had formed on the summit, due to the heavy winds and recent snow. Om had told me that it won’t be possible to go to the real summit, but even if you see the prayer flags (which are about 5-10 feet from the summit), you should be OK. Also, the previous group of Brits had seen the prayer flags and had returned. Their guide also had warned me not to go on to the cornice. Hence, my desperation for the prayer flags. T my dismay, there were no flags even on the rocks on the far right. I walked past both these patches, and after a 5 minute walk on the same level – I was in front of the prayer flags, which denoted the summit of Stok Kangri.
By this time, I had never even looked around, as to how the view was. Now, the entire range lay bare, in front of my eyes. Awesome weather, clouds moving across gently, casting shadows on the snow-capped peaks, and then moving away, created a movie-like scenario. It looked like a scene right out of Discovery or National Geographic channel.
The Brits had slid down most of the slope. I am not very comfortable in sliding down a 50 degree slope, even though there are less chances of getting hurt (of course one should know how to arrest oneself, should a situation arise).
A very slow climb down, with heels digging in, actually drained me out. In small patches, I slid down the slope, and at certain places, I went thigh deep in snow, when I had to carefully extract myself. I didn’t expect Santosh to be there at the glacier at all, as by now, if he would’ve stayed, he would’ve gone blind.
I had to take a long break at the bottom of the slope, to rejuvenate myself. After the breaks, I again had to make short-term goals. If I would’ve thought of reaching base camp in one go, it would have been impossible. So it was – that turn, that climb, that slope, advance base camp, middle of the traverse, end of the traverse, ridge, and finally – the base camp. Slowly and steadily, I achieved the shorter goals, and reached the advance base camp. This was when I took another long break, munched on the left over cheese, chocolate and water. Santosh had given me a fistful of almonds, which still stayed on in my pocket. They helped a lot.
Santosh had gone back to the base camp, eaten a good lunch, had taken his goggles, and he met me in the middle of the traverse. He offered me some water.
The traverse ended, and I was at the base camp at around 4:30 pm in the evening. The cook from the American couple’s (Keith and Laura from Montana) team offered me a cup of hot tea and some biscuits. Next few memorable events:
- The cook invited me to have dinner with them, which saved me the effort of pumping my Whisperlite.
- The sleep after the summit, no need to say, was as sweet as ever.
- I got up at 7. Keith and Laura had left for the summit at midnight. They were back to the base camp at 9:30 am! That is when I realized that both of them have about 20 years of mountaineering experience, and I am sure Stok was a cakewalk for them.
- Walking down from base camp to Stok village the next day, with my pack and tent on a horse.
- Meeting Jayo at his home in the village, and thanking him to believe in me, which led me to believe in myself.
- A hearty dinner of mutton burger (closest that comes to a greasy-and-thick-hamburger), followed by mutton momos, while watching Greece vs. Russia at the EuroCup 2012.
- A hot-water bath after a week, and the sleep that followed.
Lessons for me, for the next expedition- Om had cycled the entire 475 km Manali – Leh route last year, which means he has strong legs. He was a great partner too, who was giving his best, in situations he had never been before. But, a partner who is equally passionate about climbing would have been much better. Om wanted to have a taste of snow, and he saw much more than he expected.
- Plan out the expedition with a guide, porters and mules – the works. It was funny to see Keith and Laura enjoying the services of a guided company, while we Indians were doing everything ourselves (I was trying to imitate the US-style climbing conditions; without any of the above mentioned support – I feel it is how an expedition should be planned, and done). But, sometimes, you do feel the difference. Especially, if I would have had to cook my tea, my dinner after a 15 hour climb.
- Don’t judge your own capability by comparing it with others. Others couldn’t do something, doesn’t mean, you can’t do it. Everybody is made different by god. And certainly wired differently in their minds.
- Respect nature, but don’t let it intimidate you. You better know your point of return, in case of an emergency.